I started reading DC Comics as the Bronze Age was coming to an end. Barry Allen stood trial for the murder of Reverse Flash. Guy Gardner was officially inducted into the Green Lantern Corps. R’as al Ghul emptied Arkham Asylum and Gotham State Penitentiary in an effort to force Batman to join his crusade to save the world from itself and Superman starred in a series of weird high concept imaginary stories.
Just as I started to develop an affinity for these characters and their delightfully messy universe, their stories ended.
Crisis on Infinite Earths was a celebration of DC’s 50th anniversary and an effort to create a jumping on point for new readers. Marv Wolfman and George Perez used Crisis as a vehicle to impose order and tonal consistency on a shared universe that had grown unwieldy and create an environment in which the publisher’s properties could be modernized. When I first read it at as a child (most of it between the ages of eight and ten), it just seemed like a deeply depressing book about death and loss.
Crisis was probably the first time I read a comic that featured the deaths of large numbers of people. It was a dark counterpoint to other books I read as a child that addressed death. While books like Charlotte’s Web taught me that death is a natural part of the cycle of life, the deaths in Crisis felt unnatural and unresolved, particularly since the event was mostly erased from the memories of the characters involved after it ended.
I think that’s one of the reasons why I’ve always enjoyed the few DC books that explicitly deal with the pain and loss caused by the event, especially those that draw parallels between the experience of the characters in the story and that of the readers. One of them – the 50th issue of Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen’s Legion of Superheroes series – told a tale about vengeance that gripped my imagination. The fall from grace and redemption that followed over the next dozen issues and the opening arcs of the subsequent volume of Legion helped me appreciate the constant process of change in Marvel and DC’s superhero comics.
There’s a common misconception that superhero comics, particularly those published by Marvel and DC, are resistant to change. Readers and commentators talk a lot about DC and Marvel’s commitment to sustaining an illusion of change in terms of continuity and aging, but focusing on story details can be a distraction from the near-constant change in the ways that these stories are told. The shifts in tone and storytelling structure that frequently accompany creative/editorial turnover or changing publisher priorities impact the reading experience as much as any continuity disruption or character death. Ultimately, the changes to Superman’s history wrought by Wolfman and John Byrne after Crisis had less of a long term impact than the shift from self contained stories about a relatively static protagonist to a Marvel-style ongoing narrative about a dynamic, evolving character. Even after creators began to reintroduce elements from earlier eras, the only modern Superman stories that truly captured the feeling of the Bronze Age were procedurals like DC’s weekly Adventures of Superman digital series. Although the Superman depicted in Adventures of Superman appears to be the one featured in DC comics from 1987-2012, the self-contained story arcs that focus on his adventures and ignore his inner life evoke memories of an earlier era.
Crisis on Infinite Earths embodied both kinds of change – it marked the end of an era within the fictional world of the characters and the end of an approach to storytelling prevalent in DC Comics throughout the fifties, sixties and seventies. Almost all of the books that focused on the fallout from Crisis used the event as an opportunity to explore change in superhero comics. In Animal Man, Grant Morrison and Chas Truog reminded readers of the sense of wonder and possibility that was lost after the end of Crisis while examining the relationship between continuity and memory, and the anxieties of the Crisis survivors, at least those who still remembered (what if the apocalypse happened and everyone forgot?).
In the Last Days of the Justice Society, Roy Thomas, Dann Thomas and Mike Gustovich tied up loose ends while drawing a parallel between traditional superhero conflicts, Ragnarok and the European theater of the Second World War to remind readers that the “never ending battle” archetype will survive any ‘crisis’.
Levitz and Giffen’s approach to dealing with the Crisis in the Legion of Superheroes series was the one that had the most powerful impact on me as a kid. They turned a story designed to reconcile the Legion’s history with the changed DC Universe into an extended eulogy for two DC characters erased by the Crisis who played a central role in Legion lore: Superboy and Supergirl. Superboy played no role in Crisis, but vanished after the event’s conclusion. Supergirl died in one of Crisis’ most iconic moments. Levitz and Giffen use the Legion’s efforts to cope with their loss as a vehicle for examining the emotional impact of change in a superhero universe.
The Legion of Superheroes owed their existence in the Silver/Bronze Age DC Universe (and as an ongoing title) to Superman, who was both a core member and the primary inspiration for the team as Superboy. The team of teen superheroes from the future was introduced in a 1958 issue of Adventure Comics in which they recruited him onto the team.
The Legion were supporting players in Superboy stories for the next four years until receiving their own feature in Adventure Comics, and their own title (sharing billing with Superboy) in 1973. As the only DC title set in the 30th century,the Legion were allowed to age and grow in a way that wasn’t permitted in other titles, which was particularly fascinating when juxtaposed against the unchanging world of Superboy. In the Legion narrative, Superboy was the unaging hero that all the other characters looked up to, even as they aged and married and died.
Supergirl joined the team in 1961 and was occasionally featured in Legion stories throughout the Silver and Bronze Age. She was the unrequited love of Brainiac 5, the team’s resident genius scientist. During the 1960’s and ’70’s, his infatuation was portrayed as the kind of weird crush that was typical of DC Silver Age comics. At one point, he even built a Supergirl robot programmed to love him in his sleep.
By the early 1980’s, Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen hinted at the possibility of a more interesting (and reciprocal) relationship between the two by positioning Supergirl as the more openly flirtatious of the two.
After Supergirl’s death, it was revealed that Brainiac 5’s reluctance to push their relationship forward was rooted in his knowledge of her impending demise. In the comics, the space/time gap between the two (Supergirl lived a thousand years in Brainiac 5’s past) was insurmountable. In reality, she was just more valuable to DC as a single character in the present than she would have been as a semi-permanent Legion member with a love interest on the team. At least she was until Marv Wolfman and John Byrne decided to simplify the Superman corner of the DCU by making Superman the last survivor of Krypton. Wolfman gave her a heroic death in Crisis and Brainiac 5 mourned her in the Legion series until she was written out of the DCU and those memories were lost.
Supergirl’s death was the defining moment of Crisis, even more than the demise of the Silver/Bronze Age Flash. Flash was a more iconic character – his introduction in 1956 heralded the start of DC’s Silver Age – but his death was more typical of hero deaths in superhero comics. He was replaced by his young protege, who spent the next decade struggling to live up to his legacy. He was mourned and fondly remembered by characters in DC Comics for years after the Crisis on Infinite Earths. Supergirl, who was arguably DC’s second most beloved female character after Wonder Woman, was not remembered within the books or replaced. Her death was a reminder that the narrative that readers had become familiar with over the decades had come to a definitive end.
In a universe without Superboy or Supergirl, the Legion needed a reason to exist. Levitz’ solution wasn’t to replace Superboy with another teen hero, but to posit that the age of heroes that inspired the Legion was rooted in a series of deceptions orchestrated by the Time Trapper, an evil entity that embodied the concept of entropy. The Superboy who was the best friend and inspiration for almost every Legionnaire was from a pocket universe created by the Trapper to ensure that the Legion existed to prevent other powerful forces (Darkseid, Mordru, the Dark Circle, the Dominators, the Khund) from dominating the 31st Century. After finding out that almost everything they knew was a lie and enduring the death of their ‘Superboy’, a group of Legionnaires joined forces to confront the Trapper at the end of time in Legion of Superheroes #50. It was the issue that would change the Legion forever, and the one that turned me from an occasional reader of Legion books into a full fledged fan (at least for a while). The story’s very cool for a number of reasons – Giffen tells a great ‘mighty heroes against force of nature’ story – but what always stuck with me was Brainiac 5’s brief expression of anguish.
In that moment, Levitz and Giffen set the stakes of the story and illustrated why the Legion were some of the more interesting characters in DC – the heroes had complicated, conflicting motivations, some of which were even a mystery to themselves. Brainiac’s lament was that of a man who lost his friend and inspiration, an ambitious scientist frustrated by the limitations on his work imposed by the Trapper (who was responsible for an ‘iron curtain’ preventing most time travel). He may not have remembered Supergirl, but his words sounded like those of a thwarted lover denied happiness. There was also more than a hint of rage – not only at their untimely death, but because the truth behind their existence perverted their legacy and his memories of them. He’s angry because he was inspired by and fell in love with illusions.
Brainiac 5’s pain (and that of his fellow conspirators) is a heightened, funhouse reflection of the frustration felt by readers who mourned the end of the Bronze Age at DC Comics after the Crisis on Infinite Earths, particularly those who were fans of the Superman family of titles. The near-omnipotent Superman, the idealized authority figure from the books read by young Boomers in the fifties, sixties and seventies, was replaced by a Superman who was downright ordinary, a kind hearted farm boy wearing a suit made by his mother.
In the new DC Universe, Superman played high school football as a teenager instead of moonlighting as Superboy. There were no other survivors of Krypton. No Kandor, no Krypto, and no young cousin named Kara. This was an entry point for new fans, but an exit point for many older readers, who weren’t interested in reading stories about characters that only bore a superficial resemblance to the ones that they fondly remembered from childhood.
I know, it’s weird to think about reboots – which are always accompanied by character deaths and the end of long-running stories – through the lens of loss and mourning. It feels silly, almost perverse. They’re just stories, after all. Moreover, it’s not like the older stories lose meaning just because a comics publisher stops referencing them. The publishers own the intellectual property, the creators have their moral rights (even if unrecognized by the law), but we get to decide which stories matter. Readers who feel some sense of nostalgia for a particular era can always read the books from that time. The comics featuring Superman from the Bronze Age didn’t vanish with the character after the end of Crisis.
Those of us who’ve read superhero comics for a long time also know that resurrections are inevitable and old versions of characters will always resurface as those who are nostalgic for a bygone era replace creators who were originally weary of the status quo. In 1986, DC creators reimagined Lex Luthor as a corporate villain for a materialistic era. The bald guy in the odd green armor was replaced by a heavyset man in an impeccable suit.
Oldtimers like us also know that resurrections are inevitable and old versions of characters will always resurface as those who are nostalgic for a bygone era replace creators who were originally weary of the status quo. In 1986, DC creators reimagined Lex Luthor as a corporate villain for a materialistic era. The bald guy in the odd green armor was replaced by a heavyset man in an impeccable suit. Fifteen years later, a new set of creators who thought that the armor was a crucial element to the character brought it back.
Barry Allen and Supergirl were killed in the Crisis mini series and were resurrected in the late ’90’s/early aughts. But it doesn’t always feel the same for fans who haven’t just built an attachment to the characters, but to a traditional style of storytelling. The characters that we see now may share a fictional history with the ones we remembered, but their stories are different, as writing and artistic standards have evolved in response to shifting expectations in the marketplace. Barry Allen’s struggle to balance his sense of duty with a desire for a stable romantic/family life was replaced with a desire to find his place in an unfamiliar world. Ethan van Sciver’s idiosyncratic sense of design and meticulously rendered pages are interesting, but his work would never be confused with the simple clarity of Carmine Infantino’s classic stories.
The impact of tone and structural choices on the reading experience is even more noticeable on titles that haven’t aged their characters or (significantly) altered their histories. Compare the current run of Marvel’s Avengers books (written by Jonathan Hickman with art by Jerome Opena, Dustin Weaver, Adam Kubert, Steve Epting and Mike Deodato) to the previous run helmed by Brian Michael Bendis (who worked with John Romita jr. and a rogue’s gallery of some of the best artists in the business). Even though Avengers stories have taken place in an unaltered in-story continuity for almost half a century, the aesthetic continuity of the precisely constructed sci-fi influenced epics created by Jonathan Hickman and his collaborators is a radical departure from his predecessor’s shaggy dog stories illustrated by a wide range of artists with diverse approaches to storytelling.
Fans of Bendis’ run who happened to pick up a recent issue of the Avengers or New Avengers would be in for a fundamentally different reading experience. They’d be almost as disoriented as readers of pre-Crisis DC Superman books who picked up John Byrne’s Man of Steel.
Even when the creators that readers associate with a classic run on a superhero book return, it’s not quite the same. When Chris Claremont returned to the X-titles in the early aughts, he was unable to recreate the perfect blend of melodrama, action, allegory and adolescent psycho-sexual weirdness that (along with John Byrne, Paul Smith, Marc Silvestri, and many more) made his X-books a highlight of mid seventies – early nineties superhero comics. You can’t recapture the past.In that light, Legion of Superheroes #50 (and it’s toxic after-effects over the issues that follow) can be viewed as a cautionary tale from Levitz and Giffen – a reminder of what happens when one refuses to resolve grief and accept change. The first half of the issue is dedicated to watching Brainiac 5’s allies within the Legion (Mon-El, Saturn Girl and Duo Damsel, all Legionnaires with a special connection to Superboy) finish preparing their complex, ethically problematic plan to defeat the Time Trapper. In the second half, we watch them struggle to survive the encounter. Giffen and Levitz’ Trapper is a literal force of nature. The Legionnaires can’t even touch him. It’s like watching people fight a snowstorm.
Brainiac 5’s plan to defeat a conceptual being whose existence is dependent on the theory that time is linear with another conceptual being that embodies the notion of eternal recurrence is pretty clever, but serves as a reminder that trying to kill an idea is a fool’s errand.
The Legionnaires think that they’ve won, but Giffen’s wonderfully rendered epilogue shows us the truth. All things come to an end.
The Legionnaires who return from the end of time are left physically and emotionally broken. The conspiracy is revealed and erodes trust within the group. Some elements of the utopian vision of the future that we associate with the Legion – the technological marvels and Levitz’ trademark infodump “Encyclopedia Galactica” captions were still present, but the tone has shifted. A world that was simple had become complicated. Giffen’s figures started look old and exhausted. They have more wrinkles in their clothing and their world has more shadows and signs of wear. Giffen’s faces became fleshier and less idealized.
Conflicts with super villains become messier and more morally ambiguous. In the last arc of this volume of the series, the team manages to defeat an entity that was seeking to end the ‘age of science’ at a crippling cost to the Legion and their world. After Brainiac 5 and his co-conspirators defeat the Time Trapper, it’s easy to mistake them for heroes, especially if you’re a reader who feels some regret at the passing of the Bronze Age. The truth becomes clear when you imagine the counterfactual – what if the conspirators sought the approval of their teammates? The Legion would’ve faced the Trapper as a team and may have avoided the physical and emotional injuries sustained during the battle. They would have avoided the confusion and uncertainty that hobbled their efforts during the final arc of the series – an epic struggle between the forces of magic and science (the “Magic Wars”). They could have been a symbol of hope that helped hold the Earth together between the end of the second volume and the beginning of the third. Instead, there is nothing. The consequences of their inability to accept loss and change were catastrophic.
The darker tone of the closing arc of the third volume (combined with the focus on loss/change within the story) helped prepare readers for the more radical structural and tonal changes to come in the fourth volume – in which a shattered team struggles to navigate a dystopian universe five years after the end of the Magic Wars.
Giffen combines a simple nine panel grid layout with storytelling techniques that make the reader feel enveloped (almost overwhelmed) in his story. Levitz’ Legion was always a book about a large team with a huge supporting cast filled with random tidbits of information about their corner of the DC Universe. Giffen doubles down on that idea by incorporating fragments of correspondence, interviews and other ephemera in the back of each issue to deliver more information and create opportunities for the reader to imagine a fully realized world.
Although Giffen’s layouts were not as visually innovative or challenging as Gibbons in Watchmen, Mazzucchelli in City of Glass or Campbell in From Hell, he used the simple format to help create an illusion of naturalism that further enveloped readers in his world. The tall skinny panels are filled with ‘realistic’ cinematic angles, ambient dialogue and in res media storytelling that give the reader the sense that they are in the rooms with the characters.
The most radical departure was Giffen’s decision to mostly abandon the superhero genre. Giffen’s Legion is more about family, friendship, loss and resistance than superheroes battling supervillains. The colorful costumes, code names and larger than life villains were replaced by ordinary uniforms, real names and monsters with recognizably mundane dimensions. He transformed Mordru from a proto-Voldemort supernatural menace into a Hoover-like wily sadist constantly monitoring the activities of his enemies. The conflicts between the remnants of the Legion and Mordru, Roxxas and the Dominion owe more to espionage/diplomacy, serial killer and resistance/revolution narratives than a traditional superhero one.
If the last dozen issues of the third volume were about unresolved loss, the first dozen of the fourth are about forgiveness and redemption. Giffen chiefly explores this theme through the arc following Rokk Krinn and Salu Digby (the former Cosmic Boy and Shrinking Violet). Both are traumatized veterans of a brutal war between their worlds. Krinn’s side lost the war and he lost his powers.
Digby was consumed by guilt from her involvement in the incident that resulted in Krinn’s loss of powers. When the story begins, Krinn is quarantined on his world and Digby is pondering her options after being discharged from her world’s military. Although neither hold a grudge, the logic of superhero narratives dictates conflict, so the tension builds as their paths get closer.
It’s heartbreaking when they finally meet and have the opportunity to admit their mistakes and forgive one another. It’s an expression of forgiveness, a moment of grace that’s a perfect counterpoint to Brainiac 5’s misguided crusade.
Legion of Superheroes #50 marked the beginning of a near-constant process of dramatic changes to the status quo and storytelling. It led to Giffen, who was later replaced by the Bierbaums (who took a more straight-forward, fan-friendly approach to storytelling in Giffen’s absence) and then by Tom McCraw. The title was later rebooted as a more accessible property by McCraw, Mark Waid and Sturart Immonen and taken in a more sci-fi influenced direction by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning and Olivier Copiel.
Mark Waid came back again to reboot the series with Barry Kitson as a commentary on youth culture and social reform.
Geoff Johns introduced another version of the team directly inspired by the pre-Crisis adventures of the group, and once DC rebooted its history again after the Flashpoint miniseries, Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen reintroduced another new version of the Legion. That book was recently cancelled, and will likely be replaced by yet another new take on the characters and their world from an entirely different (or even the same) creative team.
The creative turnovers and reboots have been criticized in many quarters (or presented as evidence of fundamental flaws in the “Legion” concept), but in my eyes, it’s always seemed like a dramatic version of what we see in superhero comics all the time, as creators depart and titles/universes are rebooted. There’s something appealing about that sense of impermanence, that the ground is always shifting under our feet and readers should never feel too comfortable with the status quo.