Legions of Super-Heroes: a Primer

Here at The Fifth World, we've declared next week to be Legion Week!  That's not the mega-powerful mutant with reality-altering powers (and hit television series), it's the Legion of Super-Heroes, the oft-rebooted and re-envisioned team of future metas that will be celebrating their 60th anniversary with (we all hope) a return to prominence.

During Legion Week, you'll be hearing a lot of terms thrown about that might be unfamiliar or ill-defined for you.  Names and acronyms like V4, FYL, or threeboot.  We've seen some online come up with their own (erroneous) definitions for these at times, so we've decided to give you a quick rundown of their meanings (and as a result, a quick history of the Legion's publication) to help settle any doubts or questions.

The Beginnings

The original trend setter.
The Legion made their fist appearance as guest stars in a Superboy story in Adventure Comics #247, cover dated April, 1958.  The story, titled simply, "The Legion of Super-Heroes", was written by Otto Binder and drawn by Al Plastino, making them officially the Legion's creators.  I should note, however, that the very first sighting of the Legion was actually by art team of Curt Swan and Stan Kaye, whose iconic cover to the issue has been homaged countless times.  The Legion were a trio of teenagers from 1000 years in the future who came back to 1958 to meet the source of their inspiration in forming the their super-hero club, the boy who would one day be Superman.  Superboy joined them in the future and "tried out" for the team, becoming a member of the club by the end of the story.

The characters proved popular enough that they returned for further guest star appearances in Superboy stories in both Adventure Comics as well as Superboy's own eponymous title.  In addition, they began to hang out with Supergirl in her Action Comics backup stories as well (see my overview of their second Supergirl guest appearance in Action Comics #276 from my Tales from the Calendar series).  This would eventually lead to the Legion getting their own feature (with Superboy and Supergirl often along for the ride) in Adventure Comics, where they replaced "Tales of the Bizarro World" as Superboy's backup starting with Adventure #300.  They would soon be promoted to be the lead feature of the title, and it wouldn't be the last time they'd push Superboy out of starring in a book.

It's so tough being evicted.
The Legion's Adventure run would last 81 issues before they'd be removed and replaced by Supergirl, who'd move over from her backup slot in Action Comics.  The Legion would take over that backup spot in Action and last 16 issues.  They then moved to appearing periodically in Superboy until they became co-leads with #197 of that series, which was renamed to Superboy Starring the Legion of Super-Heroes and then soon after Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes.  This co-starring role would last 62 issues until the Legion would kick Superboy out of his very own book (a new Superboy title, restarting numbering with issue 1, would soon appear), and the very first Legion of Super-Heroes ongoing title was born, with its numbering starting at #259 (continuing where Superboy left off).

The Volumes

That Legion of Super-Heroes title, however, is not volume 1 (V1 in fan parlance).  You see, there had been a four issue limited reprint series published in 1973 that was titled Legion of Super-Heroes, and that gets the distinction of being Volume 1.  The new ongoing title was therefore Volume 2, or V2.

Amazingly, all of these characters would survive
Keith Giffen's homicidal tendencies.
Thanks to the efforts of writer Paul Levitz and a sequence of great artists, most notably Keith Giffen, whose run on the Legion made him a bit of a superstar, V2 became a big hit for DC.  As a result, they were chosen in 1984 to become one of the features to get their own new "Baxter-format" series, which was published on nicer paper that showed off colors more dramatically than the classic newsprint and was only offered through comic book specialty shops and subscription (versus the newsstand offerings that allowed kids like me to pick up V2 at the grocery store, which was the common practice at the time).  The new series was titled Legion of Super-Heroes (V3), with V2 being renamed to Tales of the Legion of Super-Heroes.  The former V2 (or ToLSH or TotLSH, as it's sometimes shortened to) ran 12 months of new stories before beginning to reprint the stories from V3.  TotLSH would last for 29 reprint issues before being canceled, with V3 living on.

V3 continued for 63 issues and 4 annuals before being canceled itself to support a new approach to the Legion spearheaded by Giffen.  This new era, also called 5 Years later (or 5YL -- more on this later) started a new Legion of Super-Heroes series numbering at #1 and is Volume 4 (V4) of the title. It would spawn off a sister title, Legionnaires, to feature an alternate version of the Legion (more on that later).  Both titles would eventually be rebooted (more on that later) but continue the current series' numberings, so the reboot doesn't actually get its own V number.  That rebooted version would eventually be cancelled in 2000 to be replaced by a couple of different series, most notably The Legion.

Many of the characters were as smug
and smarmy as the art indicates.
DC wasn't done with the Legion, though.  They would be rebooted yet again in 2005 (need I say more on that later?) with a new number 1, making it Volume 5 (V5).  The title would briefly be renamed Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes before returning to Legion of Super-Heroes prior to be canceled with issue 50 in 2009.

DC superstar Geoff Johns would bring the Legion back to its roots with appearances in Superman, Justice League, and stories in a resurrected Adventure Comics before handing things over to legendary Legion writer Paul Levitz, who started a brand new Legion of Super-Heroes series, which became Volume 6 (V6).  This volume, starring what's known as the retroboot Legion (you guessed it -- more on that later) lasted 16 whole issues before DC decided to reboot its continuity.  Again.

This latest reboot set up DC's New 52 line concept, and Legion of Super-Heroes was restarted with yet another new first issue, making this series Voume 7 (V7).  It was eventually killed after 23 issues due to poor sales.  The Legion overall disappeared, except for hints coming from yet another line-wide shakeup.

The Versions

I'm not crying, you're crying!
For not quite half of its existence (as of 2018), the Legion was allowed to evolve relatively unmolested.  That changed in 1986 when DC published its Crisis on Infinite Earths event series and made multiple massive changes to its comics continuity, retroactively altering massive swaths of its history.  The Legion was not the only title affected, but its history did receive a big blow when DC's rebooted Superman was no longer ever Superboy, invalidating much of the team's history.  Levitz and company decided to keep publishing the Legion as is, eventually coming up with an explanation that the Superboy the team had been hanging out with had come from a pocket universe set up by one of their old adversaries, the Time Trapper.  When the Legion went back in time and met the post-Crisis Superman, who had never heard of them before, they collectively went to investigate and thwarted the Time Trapper's plans, but at the cost of Superboy's life.  That resulted in the departure of Superman from the Legion mythos.  Supergirl was somewhat quietly allowed to disappear as well.  As a result, the Legion's original continuity and this new retroactive continuity are sometimes referred to as pre-Crisis and post-Crisis Legion.

Lots and lots of pouches and pockets.
When the Legion's book was restarted to establish Volume 4 (see above), the title built on the previous titles' continuity, but jumped five years into the future.  This 5 Years Later (or 5YL) era was established by Keith Giffen, who brought the title into the 90s.  Storylines were grittier.  Characters died or were maimed or disfigured with more frequency.  Some characters changed identities, like Cosmic Boy, who became an exotic dancer, donned an ugly new costume, and changed his name to Polestar (only most of that sentence is true).  And everyone's costumes had jackets and pouches and pockets. 

The 5YL Legion had a few subsets.  Due to the Time Trapper being taken out by Legionnaire Mon-El, an alternate timeline was created in which the Legion had never been formed and the evil sorcerer Mordru ruled all.  This universe is often called the Mordruverse.  It lasted exactly one issue, but had a major impact.  It was quickly replaced when Mordru's assistant/bride Glorith usurped his power and recreated the universe as an alternate version of the original timeline.  This Glorithverse included a Legion inspired by Mon-El in his new guise of Valor and replaced Supergirl with a Daxamite named Andromeda and would last most of the run of the pre-reboot Legion.

Prior to leaving the Legion, Giffen created an alternate version of the Legion that were actually temporal duplicates pulled by the Time Trapper from the Legion's past.  This alternate Legion, called Batch SW6 in the books and just SW6 by fans, eventually received their own series (called Legionnaires, see above) so that this Legion could have more classic adventures than the adult 5YL Legion could realistically support by that point in time.

Look how happy they seem.
Soon afterward, DC had its Zero Hour event, which did a partial reboot of some DC history.  By far its biggest impact was providing an excuse for DC to fully reboot the Legion, doing away with the now horribly convoluted continuity that the team had fallen into, including the SW6 team.  This rebooted Legion took over both the V4 and Legionnaires titles, continuing their numbering.  The reboot Legion was by and large a happier team and largely took its cues from the SW6 Legion stories, but some of the changes made drove some older fans nuts.  For example, the former Princess Projectra (also known as Sensor Girl) was rebooted from a silver haired human to a snake creature with robotic hands that for some reason talked like a grandmother despite being a teenager.  Everyone in the reboot Legion seemed overly obsessed with who was dating or crushing on whom, and this took up a surprising amount of page space.  New characters were introduced, some of whom were nearly universal hits (like Flash descendant XS), some of whom were less well liked (like Monstress, a teenage Hulk-like alien who, for some reason, talked like a grandmother).  Some original Legionnaires saw changes, such as Triplicate Girl's (now called Triad) three selves having distinct personalities or Bouncing Boy never getting his powers, and several received new characterizations, such as Lightning Lad becoming a bit of a hothead.  Many of the Legionnaires received new code names, like Lightning Lad becoming Live Wire and his sister Lightning Lass becoming Spark.  The reboot Legion often trod over familiar storylines, but with updated twists.

The rebooted Legion eventually had a storyline (and 12 issue series) in which a portion of the team was flung to the far corners of the universe.  This storyline and team is often referred to as Legion Lost (after the series title), though it would not be the last time that name would appear.

So eloquent.
As mentioned earlier, the Legion would be rebooted once again, creating what is typically referred to as the threeboot Legion.  This Legion was introduced by Mark Waid and had a decidedly different, more cynical perspective on the team.  This Legion was formed in response to oppressive policies that the adults of this version of the future placed on its young.  Its first slogan was "Eat it, Grandpa!"  As much a movement as a team, this Legion attracted a mammoth following of teen aged supporters from around the galaxy who camped outside the Legion's headquarters most of the time.  Internally, it featured much more in-fighting and politics than any version prior.  Waid also introduced significant changes to the concepts behind many of the individual members, such as the former Triplicate Girl (called Duplicate Girl in this version) having re-populated her entire dead planet with versions of herself, Phantom Girl existing in both the physical and phantom worlds simultaneously, Colossal Boy actually being a giant whose power was to shrunk, along with more minor changes, like making Star Boy an African American.

After the threeboot Legion was canceled, a return to something like the original Legion was kicked off by Geoff Johns.  This continuity returned Superman to the Legion mythos by establishing that young Clark Kent, despite not being publicly active as Superboy, was still recruited by the Legion and had many adventures in the future as a young man.  This retroboot Legion appeared to follow on to the end the Levitz V3 run and ignored everything from 5 Years Later and afterward.  The retroboot team became the primary Legion, but did share an adventure with both the reboot and threeboot Legions, where it was revealed that they were all versions from different parallel earths (rather than replacements for each other).  This story, the Legion of 3 Worlds event, ended with the retroboot Legion taking in former reboot Legion members XS and Gates.

When DC rebooted their continuity to form their New 52, the Legion was mostly left alone, with stories seemingly continuing the continuity from retroboot Legion.  Small discrepancies would creep in, and some consider this a separate Legion version, often called New 52 or Nu52.  This version of the Legion also had a lost team, this time lost in time, and featured another series called Legion Lost.  However, to most fans, references to a Legion Lost will usually make them think of the version from the reboot continuity.

There was no crying.  Just anger.
Along the way, the Nu52 Legion was hit with multiple, often senseless, deaths, to the point where many fans considered the title's cancellation a mercy killing.  When the Nu52 Legion's book was canceled, Levitz inserted a reference that would tie the series to the New 52's alternate Earth, Earth 2, allowing for "our Legion" to make a reappearance clean of any of the changes made during the later parts of this last series.  This reference has since been softened in reprints of the final issue.

DC eventually did a soft reboot of their continuity to "get back to basics".  This Rebirth extended event has been bringing back classic bits of continuity such as Superman's marriage to Lois Lane and added other things to the mix.  Some Legionnaires have made brief cameos and appearances in Rebirth books.  There is hope that the Legion will return in all its glory after the current events exploring the source of DC's most recent continuity manipulations have been completed.  What form, exactly, this hypothetical Rebirth Legion will take is unknown, but will be the topic of a multi-part Fifth World Panel next week.

The Eras

Different periods of Legion history are sometimes referred to through the name of their primary writer.  We'll quickly run through the major ones.

One of the Legion's first ongoing writers was Edmond Hamilton, who was a prolific science fiction and comics writer best known for helping to create the space opera sub-genre.  Hamilton exercised his sci-fi chops by introducing many of the fantastic elements of the Legion's mythos, including the Time Trapper.  His Legion was the first to provide inklings of the Legionnaires disparate personalities, something that would be followed up in a big way by the next major Legion writer.

The level of drama took a step
forward under Shooter.
Jim Shooter is a comics legend, and he began his storied career at the precious age of 14 taking over regular writing chores on the Legion.  His Legion featured much more dynamic action and more consistent characterization.  Shooter's Legion featured the team's first epic storylines.  Shooter would return to the Legion decades later to help end the threeboot Legion's series, but "Shooter Legion" will always refer to his classic Silver Age run.

Paul Levitz had several major runs with the Legion, and its his second sustained run that everyone typically remembers, which is when the Legion took on a much more flowing story structure with multiple simultaneous ongoing character threads.  The Legion became much more adult under Levitz, and characters were allowed to have more flawed personalities.  Phantom Girl and Shadow Lass became the "mean girls" of the team, while Shrinking Violet developed PTSD from an abduction she suffered.  Violet and Lightning Lass developed a close friendship that eventually became a lesbian love affair that was at first hinted at and then eventually openly portrayed in the retroboot.  When left unclarified, "Levitz Legion" normally refers to his second stint with the team, which stretches from the high points of V2 Legion through the entirety of the V3 title.

The Giffen era refers specifically to Giffen's time as co-writer and artist on the V4 Legion title, which coincides with 5YL, which is the concept he created.  It is by far the grittiest version of the Legion in the team's history.

Guaranteed to get the blood pressure
of 50% of Legion fans soaring.
The Giffen Legion overlapped somewhat with the Bierbaum Legion, and when it did, it's often called the TMK Legion.  Tom and Mary Bierbaum were longtime Legion fans who were given the chance to write the Legion first with Keith Giffen and then on their own.  Their tenure with the team is probably the most controversial of any era, with some loving it and some absolutely detesting it.  They used their platform to introduce or make canon various fan theories that had existed over the years.  For example, they revealed that the character named Lightning Lad was not actually the original hero returned to life by Edmond Hamilton but was actually Chameleon Boy's former pet Proty, who had assumed Lightning Lad's identity.  Fans had at one point in time thought Element Lad was gay, so the Bierbaums wrote a story in which Element Lad's girlfriend Shvaugn is revealed to be a man who took a gender-altering treatment to be with him, with the story resulting in the newly re-regendered Sean continuing to be Element Lad's boyfriend.

I'd note that despite writing the Legion in two different versions, starting both the reboot and threeboot Legions, Mark Waid is usually not tied to a particular era.  You rarely if ever hear "the Waid Legion", and if you did, it's hard telling if it's referring to the reboot or threeboot Legion.

Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning would take over the reboot Legion, and their version is often called the DnA Legion.  They made sweeping changes to the energy of the title and introduced new versions of many of the more recently added classic Legion characters during their tenure.

There are sometimes references to the Johns Legion, and this can be thought of as synonymous to the retroboot Legion.

That's it for breaking down all the myriad versions of the Legion.  It can be very complicated to follow the twists and turns of Legion continuity, and unfortunately every attempt to simplify things usually ends in further complications.  What the future has in store for the team is still to be determined.  As Legion fans, we almost always approach these things with optimistic trepidation, a contradiction as pure as the Legion's history.

JL Franke is a fan of both hard science fiction and hard fantasy.  He has been collecting comics for over 40 years and has been an on-and-off active member of online fandom for 25.  Those interested can find other writings at his personal blog, NerdlyManor.com.  When not geeking out, you may find him at a baseball park or cheering on his favorite college and pro football teams.  In his spare time, he is chief scientist for a research and development laboratory somewhere in the Washington, DC greater metropolitan area.

Legions of Super-Heroes: a Primer Legions of Super-Heroes: a Primer Reviewed by JL Franke on Friday, March 09, 2018 Rating: 5
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