Armagideon Time

30th Century deja vu

May 23rd, 2016

The Mighty Mike Sterling recently fielded a reader question about the Legion of Super-Heroes’ decline from a fan favorite franchise to its current state of sad irrelevance. Mike did a great job breaking down the Legion’s tragic cycle of reboots and diminishing returns, which has been on my mind since I revisited those funnybooks recently.

There is something that does tend to get overlooked in these discussions, as most tend to point the finger at the post-Zero Hour reset when it comes to figuring out where things went off the rails. It’s not untrue, but that do-over — and the rot that afflicted the franchise — was a direct consequence of the “Five Years Later” relaunch that preceded it.

I loved the “Five Years Later” run. It was an interesting new direction for the Legion at a time where “grim ‘n’ gritty” superhero fare still held a degree of novel edginess. This was especially true for the Legion, where the teen heroes of a (mostly) utopian future were recast as outlaw freedom fighters in a strife-ridden galaxy. The series kicked my childhood affection for the super-team into the realm of dedicated fandom, especially as the stories contained numerous continuity references and Easter eggs that led me to seek out the original source material.

That said, the run suffered from numerous problems that are especially apparent when read en masse during the present day. The big plot thread — “will the Legionnaires reunite and free earth from the sinister Dominators” — was laid out from the get-go, but the requirements of sustaining an ongoing series meant there long stretches of filler between the vaguely implied progress on the main front.

On top on that herky-jerky tedium, Giffen and the Bierbaums had few qualms about hacking a bloody swathe through three decades of Legion continuity. The tally of death, mutilation, and destruction would have enough to make even Geoff Johns pause. First they blew up the moon, causing billions of fatalities, and then the followed that up with destroying Earth as well. Unlike previous Legion catastrophes, there was was no plausible route for returning to the old status quo, and perhaps that was the writers’ plan all along.

If the direction of the series felt erratic within the confines of its original metaplot, it became entirely rudderless once that story concluded. Big developments would be done, then undone over the course of a couple of issues while the creators struggled to find some compelling reason for things to continue. This was even further complicated by the decision, spurred by fans who longed for the old “teenagers in outer space” days, to spin off a companion monthly featuring the teenage not-clones of the Legion’s Silver Age incarnation. It was a move intended to please everybody, but satisfied no one.

In that light, a hard reboot of the franchise was the only workable outcome. It was a chance to start fresh, while weaving the contradictory and piecemeal elements of the Legion’s early years into something a bit more cohesive, contemporary, and inclusive. It managed to sustain its momentum for a good while, too, spanning two titles that effectively amounted to a bi-weekly series. When it began to falter, however, the decision was made to grim things up again before yet another reboot. Hell, even the most recent attempt to re-establish the pre-5YL continuity went into extremely bleak territory before DC gave up on the Legion altogether.

As Mike said, the problem isn’t reboots in and off themselves. Used strategically and sparingly, they can breath new life and spur interest in ailing franchises. Yet the “easy out” the offer presents a slippery slope. Why bother with course corrections when you can crash the fucker into the ground and start over without any entanglements? Eventually, though, you’ll end up where both Hawkman and the Legion now find themselves — saddled with so much baggage that a clean start is nigh impossible.

It’s a shame, but I think the blame the post-Zero Hour Legion gets for mucking things up should be more accurately directed by the softer reboot which preceded it and served as the franchise’s real point of no return.

8 Responses to “30th Century deja vu”

  1. Cole Moore Odell

    As you point out, Five Years Later was really exciting at first for the very reason that it was unsustainable, that it got its juice from burning down the house built over decades. (It didn’t help that they were forced to scramble and entirely erase even the Time Trapper’s fake Superboy early on, derailing their plotting and rewriting their universe at issue #5.) It helped that it hit me at just the right time–I had been a Superboy/LSH fan since I was 3 years old in 1975, and Five Years Later came out just as I was headed off to college and looking for narratively more complex comics that made me work harder to understand what was going on. But yeah, the comics we got foreclosed on the possiblility of more down the road.

    (In retrospect, the grim end of the post-Zero Hour LSH was a warm-up for Abnett and Lanning’s much more successful work for Marvel, where the apocalyptic tone was a much better fit.)

    All of those decisions about the Legion made sense at the time. Little did we know we were all being manipulated by the cynical Dr. Manhattan.

  2. Chris Wuchte

    It strikes me as crazy that such a strong yet simple concept, teenage superheroes in the future, can’t seem to get off the ground these days.

    The last time I was able to even follow it with little difficulty was Mark Waid’s relaunch which I guess would be about ten years ago.

    Tried to follow it again with New 52, but both Legion books were so confusing that I asked friends if the #1 issues were actually continuations of where the previous series stories, because I literally felt like I’d stepped into the middle of a multi-part story without having read the beginning. Possible the most non-new reader friendly comic I’ve read in recent memory. And this was as part of a relaunch to bring in new readers.

  3. Cole Moore Odell

    I think 5YL is the pivot point because after Watchmen and DKR, it got harder to find readers–and importantly, writers–interested in telling stories set in a “(mostly) utopian” future which is the basic setting for LSH despite all the melodrama on top of it. Once the popular imagination turned dystopic, a mode in which we’ve been culturally stuck for decades now, LSH became more or less impossible. In that context the book either betrayed its core by going dark (5YL or Legion Lost), or tried to swim against the tide (the last semi-successful example of which being the sunny first few years of the post-Zero Hour reboot by Waid, Peyer, Sprouse, the Moys, et al.) I think all of the failed reboots are just symptoms of the greater conceptual problem; that LSH, the model U.N. of space, requires some level of acceptance of/faith in a gee whiz, space age future not many people believe in anymore. Star Trek has struggled with the same challenge over the same basic time frame, and I’ll be interested to see how the new TV series approaches the problem.

  4. DavidG

    The 5YL run is certainly flawed and often immensely frustrating – there were so many stray plot threads in that series (like, who was Kent Shakespeare, and what were his actual super powers), and the post Giffen issues were not great, at least not until Waid took over. But for all the damage it it, most of it was fixable, except maybe the SW6 stuff. The bones were still there, and the continuity was not majorly broken. Turning them into teenagers again broke everything, even if there were short term gains.

  5. Kid Kyoto

    Funny I’m halfway through rereading the 1989 Legion and I’m in a mood to argue the Terra Mosaic is one of the best stories evah in American comics. And what’s important to note especially given the cover up top, is the run started grim and gritty but moved towards the light. The grimness was there for a reason.

    And the 1994 Waid reboot was just terribad. Compare the Legionnaires book before he took over and after. Before you had teens who got horny, who made mistakes, who acted like teens. After they were just Archie style teens, a middle-aged man’s idea of what adolescence should have been like.

    And the 2004 reboot was even worse.

    And I don’t even know what the 2009 reboot was about.

    I got into the Legion just before the Great Darkness Saga (so 1982 or so) so I don’t think complexity was ever the problem. A good writer can make readers want to know more about this random dude with a furry hat who walked on for a panel.

    A poor writer can blow up the galaxy and still make us bored.

    Can it be saved or resurrected at this point? Sure. I’d kill for someone like Adam Warren to take it over, and inflect both teens who act like teens and real bleeding edge sci concepts.

  6. Cole Moore Odell

    A middle-aged guys idea of what teens are like describes almost every permutation of the Legion except for actual teenager Jim Shooter’s first run. I always found that part of the charm, a little like Haney’s Teen Titans.

  7. Kid Kyoto

    Yeah it’s pretty much almost every era,except for the 80s and 5yg legions which were clearly adults.

    The 5YG Legion came along at the perfect time for me, just as I was going to college and through to graduation. The reoccurring theme in it was growing up and realizing that no one cares about the time you almost state finals, had an awesome house party or fought Darkseid and saved the universe.

    Yeah great story bro but them sales reports ain’t gon.a write themselves.

  8. Chris G

    Abnett & Lanning mostly walked back the grim’n’gritty within a few issues of their lost Legionnaires returning to Earth. To this day, I think the 5YL era could have done something similar after Terra Mosaic. Even blowing up the world didn’t have to be permanent; just have RJ Brande build a new one, resettle, and move on.

    The reboots are so damaging to the Legion because so much of its fandom was always about the history of the book, and arguing over who the Legionnaires seen in the shadows at the end of Adventure Comics #247 are and what order the members joined in, etc. A planned reboot is never going to have the haphazard, making it up as we go along spirit of the earliest years of the Legion.

    The cartoon was nice, especially the first season.

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