The Legion of Superheroes are finally coming to the DC TV superhero universe on the CW. While the Legion don’t have the massive pop culture profile of the Justice League or the Avengers, they absolutely should, and the Legion comics from the ’70s through the ’90s were some of the best things DC Comics were publishing. It’s a sprawling, sci-fi superhero ensemble book with endlessly inventive concepts.
Supergirl has teased Legion concepts more than once in its first two seasons. There’s a prominently displayed Legion flight ring in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, for starters. You can spot Interlac graffiti in the alien bar where everyone hangs out (Interlac is the official language of the future), and several Legion-centric alien races have shown up, including the villains of last year’s crossover event. We’ve spotted other Legion technology, like the Time Bubble on both The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow, too.
But it has been far too long since the Legion of Superheroes has graced our TV screens. The Legion made exactly one live action appearance (on a far better than expected episode of Smallville), and had themselves two seasons of an underrated animated series in 2006-2007.
But the history of the Legion of Super-Heroes is nearly as old as Supergirl herself. First appearing in Adventure Comics #247 way the hell back in 1958. The Legion were originally intended to be a one-off, novelty story, about three teenagers from the future who come to our era to meet their hero, Superboy, and “test” him for membership in their “club.” The story proved so popular that they soon returned…and then returned again…and again, eventually becoming the lead feature in Adventure Comics.
Within a few years, they moved from Adventure Comics to backup features in the ongoing Superboy title, where they proved so popular that the book was forced to change its name to Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes. This golden era of Legion stories saw the team’s ranks swell to almost unheard of numbers for a team book, and its semi-serialized, soap opera nature and large cast paralleled the rise of the revamped X-Men over at Marvel during the mid-70s.
Because DC Comics continuity can be a little headachey, Legion history is a little difficult to try and boil down into a single article, so really, I’m not even gonna try. But here are the basics. 1,000 years in the future, the galaxy mostly falls under the banner of the United Planets (think of them like the Federation from Star Trek). The Legion of Superheroes is made up of a diverse group of superpowered teenagers from dozens of the UP’s member worlds. Their costumes and code names are all inspired by the superheroes of our era, and they took particular inspiration from Superman, hence their trips to the past and his subsequent membership in the team as Superboy.
Just as it did with Mon-El, Legion history got a little more difficult to follow after the events of 1986’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. One of the consequences of that was that Superman never had a history as Superboy or a future with the Legion. This made things so difficult that a full reboot of the team was undertaken in 1994. That team was then rebooted again in 2004. And then again in 2007 (I’m telling you, Legion history is migraine-inducing). And it’s probably going to happen yet again by the time they get a proper introduction in DC’s post-Rebirth era. But the generally accepted fix these days is that Superman’s ONLY superheroic costumed career as Superboy came during his time in the future with the Legion, who helped him hone his powers and gain the experience to become Earth’s greatest hero. Sharp-eyed Supergirl fans have probably noticed that there’s a Legion flight ring displayed in a place of honor in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, too.
So rather than try and give you a chronological history of the Legion, I’m going to lay out a handful of stories from different eras that I think are friendly enough for new readers who might just be coming to the Legion after learning about them on Supergirl (or perhaps those of you who have been curious about them since Smallville or that animated series). I’m not dumbing this down, mind you, every single entry here is up there with my favorite Legion stories ever told, but this is far from a comprehensive list of best Legion stories or even of all my favorites.
These aren’t in any kind of order, and most of them aren’t even in continuity with each other so, ummm…don’t think too hard about any of it. Just enjoy some killer Legion stories.
This 1994 reboot is your Legion 101. Written by Mark Waid and Tom Peyer with a team of artists (including some standout work by Stuart Immonen), Legionnaires starts at the very beginning with the formation of the team, and introduces every Legion concept in fresh and exciting ways. Costumes were redesigned and a few names were changed (Lightning Lad became LiveWire, etc) to appeal to modern audiences, but there are few Legion stories that are this sharp, define all of its members so clearly, and are so genuinely funny at the right moments.
The only catch? This is during the period when DC felt that Superboy was a forbidden concept, so the whole element of young Superman training with the Legion is nowhere to be found. Not even purists like me miss it, though, when you get such a perfect mix of space opera and superheroics. Legionnaires is great comics, full stop, and some of the best stuff DC was publishing during this era. DC has just started collecting these in nice thick volumes, and they’ve got another decade of great stuff to get to (just wait until you get to Legion Lost…holy moley).
Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes
After 20 years of DC Comics not allowing Superman to have a career as Superboy, and not allowing him within a thousand years of the Legion, this was their fix. And holy moley, it’s worth it.
Here it was revealed that yes, Virginia, there was a Superboy. But only when Clark Kent was hanging out in the 31st Century with his pals in the Legion. Meeting the superpowered teens from the future helped Clark not only learn to use his powers, but gave him actual friends he could relate to, and an environment where he didn’t have to hide his true self.
After years of no contact from his friends, they finally return for him, and Superman finds that a thousand years in the future his name, symbol, and legacy have been corrupted by a racist group of superpowered jerks with an “Earth First” philosophy. This story was released in 2007, and it ummmm…it sure feels timely right about now.
Written by Geoff Johns with wonderful art by Gary Frank, Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes feels like it comes from an alternate universe where Superman movies kept getting better instead of worse after the release of 1978’s Superman starring Christopher Reeve. This is the Superman IV we deserved (for the record, Johns and Frank’s Brainiac story is the Superman III we deserved, but that’s an article or another time).
An absolutely essential read for any Superman fan, and it’s as welcoming to Legion newcomers as it is to scholars.
Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes was the centerpiece of a larger attempt to return the team to its proper place in the DCU. A few other notable things worth seeking out from this period include: Justice League: The Lightning Saga, which almost reads like a prelude to this story and introduces Legion concepts in a modern day setting; Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes: The Early Years, which is an easy, modern take on some classic Legion tales involving the young Man of Steel, and Legion: Secret Origin, which, as you might have guessed, is about the formation of the team in the pre-Superboy days.
Those are fun reads, but if you’re gonna dig deeper, you really should go with…
The Great Darkness Saga
This is the Dark Side of the Moon or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Nevermind of Legion stories. It’s the inescapable juggernaut against which all other Legion tales are judged. And with good reason. It’s really, really frakkin’ great.
While there have been plenty of great Legion creative teams (and so many great artists, notably the late Dave Cockrum), with apologies to all of them, it’s kinda tough to top Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen. And when it comes to DC villains, it’s kinda tough to top Darkseid. So what happens when Darkseid returns to the DC Universe 1,000 years in the future? Well, nothing good for millions of sentient lifeforms, but lots of good things for readers.
This one is a little more wrapped up in DC Comics continuity and Legion history than the other stories on this list, but you’re all smart, savvy fans and you can figure it out. Every page is gorgeous, and this was one of those stories in the early ’80s that started to point the way towards what comics could be. You can trace a direct line from Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s New Teen Titans in 1980 to Great Darkness Saga in 1982 to books like Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, and Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985-86.
And speaking of Levitz and Giffen you may as well also check out…
An Eye for An Eye
In 1984, DC was starting to experiment with new formats (remember what I said about Great Darkness Saga pointing the way towards things like Watchmen? I wasn’t kidding), and they spun Legion off with a new #1 and a slightly more mature format. The Legion had traditionally been depicted as teenagers, but they started to age up a little bit as time went on, and An Eye For an Eye was the next evolution.
Stacked once again with the best work of Keith Giffen’s career, the world of the Legion became a little darker. If the Legion had been the comics equivalent of Star Trek with superheroes, now it was something more akin to Blade Runner or Alien, a little more grimy, a little more lived-in than it was before. Or if the last few years were Star Trek: The Next Generation, this was its Deep Space Nine era.
Again, it’s a little more mired in Legion lore than some of the more introductory stories I’ve outlined here, but you owe it to yourself to give these peak Legion stories a shot, and it’s still Levitz and Giffen at the height of their creative powers.
Legion of Super-Heroes (2004)
Yes, this is a different reboot than the one we started the article with. Mark Waid once again got behind the keyboard in 2004, starting over completely from scratch (again), and once again without the Superboy element. But this time around, there was a twist.
This version of the Legion isn’t a government-sanctioned group of intergalactic heroes, it’s a movement, with a cultlike following of teenagers. In a galactic society where everything is regulated, polite, and boring, the Legion see 21st Century style superheroics as an act of rock n’ roll rebellion. Anyone underage who believes in the Legion credo can call themselves a Legionnaire. This is a far less likeable team than readers were used to, and it strays pretty far from the idealistic space opera that fans usually associate with the concept. I still find this tremendously enjoyable, and it features some killer art from Barry Kitson.
Later volumes in the series bring in Supergirl, which is a plus, but start getting mired in some of the continuity porn DC was involved with in the Infinite Crisis era.
And this all only scratches the surface. Like I said, this is in no way intended as a comprehensive accounting of the best Legion stories, nor does it even include all my favorites! But if you need some futuristic superheroics in your life, these are all fine starting points. What are your favorites?
Long live the Legion!