Monday, June 04, 2007

The Legion

Because the Legion of SuperHeroes (LSH) is one of the topics on this week's Big Monkey Comics Podcast (which we are recording Wednesday evening at the DC store, if anyone wants to watch), I've been thinking about them. I'm probably the biggest Legion-fan on the panel, so I expect to do a lot of "defending" (particularly against certain people)!

As the story goes, the Legion was inspired by Superman/Superboy and the other current-day superheroes (i.e., the JLA). But, you know what? I think it's the other way around.

Writers and readers often refer to the JSA in the Golden Age as a model for the creation of the JLA in the Silver Age. But, regardless of what was intended, it isn't. In fact, the JLA is in some ways the very opposite of the JSA.

The Justice Society of America (JSA) wasn't a collocation of DC's "big guns" like the JLA is (except for, you know, Geo-Force); quite the contrary. By definition, the JSA was composed of characters who couldn't hold their own titles. It was a testing ground for potential characters; the ones who seemed to be most popular might get a shot at their own series. And, when they did, they left the JSA (as Jay Garrick did). That's why "honorary" members (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman) almost never appeared and when they did took no part in the action; they would overshadow the real members of the JSA.

If you've actually read Golden Age JSA stories, you know that, unlike the JLA,the JSA almost never acted as a team, per se. They were, well, a society. Almost invariably, they were presented with a common problem at one of their meetings, then they split up, each member dealing with a different aspect of the problem. They coordinated their activities with one another, but, unlike the JLA, they weren't really a unified fighting force. Usually, they just got together at the end of their separate adventures to compare notes and laugh at what an idiot Johnny Thunder was.

You know what bridged the gap between the JSA and the JLA?

Yup. The Legion.

First Appearances
JSA: 1940
Legion: 1958
JLA: 1960
X-Men: 1963
I added that last one in there for those few benighted folk who think, "the Legion is kind of like the X-Men." No; it isn't. The X-Men are kind of like the Legion. Marvel didn't invent groups of snotty mono-powered teenagers with complex relationships being nasty to one another; DC did. And, if you subtract the superpowers, Archie Comics did.
Like the JSA, the LSH was/is composed of heroes who don't stand on their own (as in, have their own titles or solo adventures apart from their membership in the organization). Like the JSA, most of the members are pretty much "one-trick ponies", as opposed to the JLAers, who each have a variety of abilities or ways of applying their abilities (except for, you know, Geo-Force). Like the JSA, they basically got together because it seemed like it would be fun or interesting to work together; they are, at heart, a "club", just as the JSA was a "society". So, in those senses, the Legion is more like the JSA than the JLA is.

But then there are aspects of the LSH that presaged the way JLA works. Like JLAers, Legionnaires sometimes work on solo missions, but more commonly work in small groups with other members. Like the JLA, when occasions warrant, they fight en masse, and are experienced in teamwork, coordinating their attacks, using the powers in tandem, and covering one another's back. The Legion, like the League, is paramilitary.

In the Golden Age, the JSAers all had pretty much the same personality, just different powers. Yes, even the Spectre. The Legionnaires, over time, developed personalities (in the broadest sense) of their own: Brainy was impatient, Saturn Girl was a bit frosty, Lightning Lad was a jerk, Colossal Boy was none too bright, Bouncing Boy was upbeat, etc. While the JLAers started out like the JSA, stamped with the same personality, they followed the Legion's pattern of evolving the members as individuals.

Even more, the Legion pioneered the idea of particular relationships between individual members, i.e., some members got along with each other better than others. This is a pattern that JLA would also follow (e.g., Hawkman and the Atom were pals; Hawkman and Green Arrow were not). The JSA was never like that; they never disagreed about anything. Their toughest decisions were about who would go tackle dissatisfaction among the chewing gum workers at the Cleveland factory ("That Cleveland job's my baby!") and who would deal with fifth columnists infiltrating the paper clip consortium in Kansas ("It's Kansas for me, boy!").

So, although the Legion says they take inspiration from the JLA, from my perspective, it's the other way around! It was the Legion that paved the conceptual path for the JLA to be so different from the JSA, and, as the guardian of that transition, it has elements common to both groups.


P.S. Another note on JSA and the Legion.

How many times have I heard:

"Oh, Legion is so confusing and has too many characters!"

Okay, you got me there. If you have trouble remembering who Bouncing Boy, Lightning Lad, Shrinking Violet, Chameleon, Invisible Kid, Element Lad, Colossal Boy, Shadow Lass, Triplicate Girl, and Brainiac 5 are and what they can do, then, yes, you probably lack the attention span required to read a 22 page comic book. For Mort's sake, people! For most of the Legionnaires you just need to hear the names; you don't even need to see them to get the essence of what you need to know.

If you'll check Wikipedia, you'll see 37 Legionnaires, past and present (well, it's all future, but you know what I mean). If you do the same thing for the JSA, guess how many members you'll find: 37.

And the JSA doesn't have codenames that are nearly as mnemonic (Boxing Man! Cat Person and Bird Woman! Lightning-Fast Oldster! Medicine Man! Exploding Kid! Dream Man! Know-It-All 2!)

The Legion gets a "bad rep" because it's one comic into which an entire universe gets stuffed. Imagine that the entire present day DCU had to be represented in one comic book; it would seem pretty complicated!


totaltoyz said...

Once again, a very observant and well-thought article. As a big fan of the JSA (I own all volumes of All-Star Comics Archives, something I can't say about any other Archive with more than four volumes), I have to say you're right about the characterization. The closest thing the JSA ever came to disagreeing about something was when they all joined the Army after Pearl Harbor...except Johnny Thunder, who joined the Navy.

tadwilliams said...

The Legion would be cool if for no other reason than the fact that they have a Loser's Legion. I mean, come on, the Substitutes! The coolest. The guys and gals who hang around hoping that Cosmic Boy takes a plastic bullet, or that Duo Damsel accidentally steps into a laser beam and becomes Mono Maid -- I LOVE that.

Plus the cattle-call try-outs. Who wouldn't pay lots and lots of money to go to the future and watch Wood Boy and Ooze Lass and people like that try to get into the Legion? And there's ALWAYS at least one major hero (or villain) trying out in secret.

"In my special lead-lined Cypher Lad disguise, they'll never guess who I actually am! -chortle-!"

How could anyone not love the Legion?

Christopher said...

I think its especially hilarious that people who complain about the number of LSH characters are fine with the X-Men..who at last count had nearly 75 different affiliated characters !!!

Bill S. said...

I got hooked on the Legion because there were so many characters. They seemed virtually inexhaustible, all colorful as all get-out, with easily-remembered, gender-indicating names. I got something of a thrill of discovery as I memorized who everyone was, what they did, who they loved. Maybe that's why I find all the rebooted Legion titles so disappointing: the writers try to pare down the Legion in an effort to make it more appealing to new readers, and it just doesn't seem as magnificent.

BIG MIKE said...


Just so you know, I absolutely can't put down the Legion Showcase I won at the quiz bowl. I wrote about it over at my blog. I think the Legion feels inaccessible to a lot of folks because there have been several reboots in the last few years, and because, as Jonah Hex told Wonder Woman, time travel is complicated. But the Legion is fun, and its influence is absolutely undeniable.

Gyuss Baaltar said...

I hope it stays fun with Mark Waid leaving the title. The man rights good teenagers exploring.

(and c'mon, the influence goes both ways. Tell me that Cosmic Boy's current incarnation isn't heavily Chris Claremon't Cyclops influenced)

jon said...

So, tell us how you REALLY feel about Geo-Force.

Great article. I started reading the Legion with the start of the current title, and have bought several back issues of the various series. It was very easy to get into, and I think part of that is the huge cast of characters. If there's someone you hate, don't worry, there's probably about a half dozen characters you do.

Luke said...

Big Mike covers my thoughts on the LOSH, Scip. The concept of the team is not confusing, nor is the Silver Age version of them. It's just with seeming reboot after reboot after reboot, it's hard to get into the more recent stuff. I remember a time in the mid to late 90s when the Legion not only had 2 books, but were getting write-ups in "Wizard" as "the best books you're not reading!"

We'll see just what the Legion looks like after "The Lightning Saga" and how that reconciles with "Supergirl and the LOSH."

Bill Meisel said...

I think part of the success of the silver age legion was the fact that a "kid" (i.e., Jim Shooter) was writing many of the stories. I haven't read any interviews where Shooter went into any depth about HOW he wrote the Legion, but I think he wrote stories that would appeal to himself, and that's why they worked for the rest of us (like having Duo Damsel have a crush on Superboy -- boy I love bringing that up! It's a sickness!).

Bill Meisel said...

Oh, and I agree with luke that the number of reboots is part of the problem. I sort-of dread each new reboot (even though I buy them) -- if any of them would have enough issues to make it to a "Levitz era", they would probably be really good too.

Siskoid said...

Your thesis is even true in continuity. If Superboy was a member, the concept of working with a team would have stayed with him and when he became the adult Superman, he helped found the JLA.

Matthew E said...

37 members?!

No way, man. Over the years, 77, by my count.

Looking forward to the podcast; the last one was good and this one sounds like it'll be more in my wheelhouse.

Matt said...

Good post. I recently picked up the LOSH Showcase and I've been loving it.

One disagreement though:

Even more, the Legion pioneered the idea of particular relationships between individual members, i.e., some members got along with each other better than others. This is a pattern that JLA would also follow.

While this was eventually true of the JLA, it wasn't right away. The early adventures in Showcase and earlier issues of JLA depict a super-team almost completely like the Society - they never disagree, never argue, and they're never wrong.

I guess that doesn't really change anything about your argument. Allow me to just say that I'm a nitpicky bastard.


Arynne said...

I have to say that "Exploding Kid" sounds like a great super-hero name to me.

MaGnUs said...

The Legion is one of my favorite groups of all times. I totally agree with your comments Scipio.

BTW, Timothy Callahan ( is editing a book of Legion essays for Sequart, mayhaps you'd be interested, drop him a line.

MaGnUs said...

Oh, right.... EXPLODING KID!!!!

And Matt, I am the nitpicking bastard. :P

Scipio said...

"While the JLAers started out like the JSA, stamped with the same personality"

I think I covered that, Matt.

Scipio said...


You guys do realize the Legion has only really been rebooted twice?

The Giffen League wasn't a reboot; it was a continuation ("Five Years Later" that changed nothing about the Legion's past.

The post Zero Hero "Archie" Legion came next (which got screwed up by Legion Lost), then the current Cosplay Legion.

Siskoid said...

The Giffen Legion DID change some things from the past, but I guess as a belated result of the first Crisis. Laurel Gand standing in for Supergirl, etc.

But no more a reboot than, say, whatever changes Batman suffered after the Crisis.

Rob S. said...

I think the Laurel Gand reboot gets conflated with the 5-year gap simply because they happened so close together (in issue 5 or 6, I believe). And I'd argue that it was larger than the changes to Batman, simply because one character was taken out of continuity and replaced with another (rather than some things, like Alfred becoming the Outsider, just never being referred to again). I like the pre-Zero Hour Laurel Gand quite a bit, actually.

So while the Legion's only had two hard reboots, the LG soft reboot was harder than most, at least as experienced by the fans at the time. (It also preceded the other two, so we didn't know how gentle we had it!)

Great essay, Scipio. I think you're right on target with this.

totaltoyz said...

(rather than some things, like Alfred becoming the Outsider, just never being referred to again).

As good a segue as any to bring up a continuity glitch from 20-odd years ago. In a late 1970s Batman Family story, the Outsider persona was "separated" from Alfred, presumably forever. And yet, in an early 1980s DC Comics Presents story, Alfred bumped his head and whoops, there's the Outsider again.

Mike Loughlin said...

Re: a million Legionairres vs. a million X-Men, from the perspective of someone who grew up in the late '80s & early '90s:

The Legion isn't cool. X-Men may have 20 billion characters, but one of those characters is Wolverine (cool slashy guy), there's a ninja babe with purple hair, a dude in a trenchcoat, a big blue monster genius, that metal guy, a few dudes with really big guns, etc.

Legion's coolest character is... none of them! They're not edgy, not hip, not "dark" & angsty, etc.
Plus, they were never drawn by Jim Lee, Jim Lee wannabes, or those pseudomanga guys.

If I discovered the Legion at age 8 or 10, those 37 or more characters would be cool. I'd want to get to know them. I wasn't aware of the Legion until my early teens, when X-Men was the standard. Now, I can see the appeal, and I enjoy the current series.

Dina said...

tadwilliams has got me thinking...

Scipio, have you ever done one of your patented riffs on Legion Tryouts? They were always a bizarre world unto themselves (especially the REALLY weird Silver Age tale about the kid who ends up becoming the Legion Clubhouse--Container Boy or something).

It would be too, too funny. May I humbly request it?

Phillip said...

I always thought that Triplicate Girl becoming Duo Damsel was very sad, but the idea of Duo Damsel becoming Mono Maid almost made me fall out of my chair laughing.

rafi-el said...

I'll be nit-picky and pedantic and point out that the JLA's first appearance was in "The Brave & The Bold", not "Showcase" ;-)

Seriously, I think the Legion works best when their world is utopian rather than dystopian -- a (30th) 31st century that we look forward to rather than fear. I think Scipio has talked about the difference between DC and Marvel being essentially that in the Marvel universe, pessimism is the order of the day because ultimately, as humans, any power we acquire will be our downfall; at DC optimism is the order of the day and any power acquired will ultimately lead to the betterment of all.

I don't think one is better than the other, but there is a difference...

Word verification: loylvf -- what Tyroc yells to improve the condition of his comics ;-)

Jonathan Miller said...


Thank you. This Legion fan thanks you.

I haven't read the latest Lightning Saga yet (was out of town so I could get to my FLCS), but I have great hopes.

Blockade Boy said...

Re: the Legion's personalities, I've found that "jerk" is a good corollary descriptor. Brainy was impatient and a jerk, Saturn Girl was a bit frosty and a jerk, Lightning Lad was a jerk and because it bears repeating just an unbelievable asswipe of a goddamn mega-jerk, etc.

Not that I harbor any kind of personal grudge against the Legion. I'm just sayin', is all. Yeah, that's the ticket...

MaGnUs said...

And Blockade Boy is horny and a jerk?

And Mike Loughly, just to refute one of your claims, the Legion had Timber Wolf, who was Wolverine waaaay before (ten years earlier)Wolverine.

Blockade Boy said...

To answer your question: yes, and yes.

MaGnUs said...

Hahahaha... dude, I know that, I do read (and post, like, a lot) on your blog, don't I?

Mike Loughlin said...

Magnus- I know Timberwolf debuted first, but Wolverine had, like, 5 million stabbings, impalements, and guttings under his belt circa 1989, making him wicked cool. Timberwolf just wasn't violent and dark enough, thus, not cool.

Again, this is all from a pre-teen perspective, why those of us who liked X-Men didn't get into Legion, and why it wasn't the number of characters but the type of characters.

MaGnUs said...

I must disagree, because before the X-Men were even cool, many people liked the Legion, and as a 12 year old, I liked the X-Men as much as the Legion... so I really think the type of characters have anything to do with anything.

It's everybody's specific tastes that matter.

bram said...

Surely one of the most distinctive things about the Legion is their emphasis on social relationships? It seems in the early stories they're most concerned that candidates demonstrate they're good sports- you may have great powers and a self-sacrificing committment to justice, but screw you if you can't take a joke. I'd really love to read a contemporary Legion that really ran with this...

R Greene said...

Can we PLEASE rename Jay "Lightening-Fast Oldster"?!! I almost fell off my chair. Thanks, Scip!

-mikesensei said...

Love the essay, and I speak as one who learned to read with Legion stories in Adventure in the mid-1960s.

Re the development of more unique personalities over time in both the Legion and in JLA: in the exchanges above the elephant in the room was the almost-immediate influence of Mighty Marvel on the writers of both books, once Marvel teams started getting market share.

Just saying.

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