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.