Their golden flight rings held high since the late 1950s, DC's Legion of Superheroes is one of comics' most endearingly dense sagas. Taking place one thousand years in the Justice League's future, the Legion has never been as popular as Superman and his bench of icons. Nor has the Legion, made up in most of their iterations by teenagers, ever seen the limelight shined on the Teen Titans (comprised mainly of sidekicks).
These interplanetary heroes, whether you read them as The Legion (2001), The Legionnaires (1993), or as Superboy's pals in Adventure Comics (1958), have retained a fiercely loyal following rivaled perhaps only by the X-Men. This probably has to do with there being thirty plus members, each hailing from a different world in the galactic governing body called the United Planets. Some have blue skin, while some are giant methane-breathing fish. All have incredible powers that make life in the 30th Century more interesting.
The story-by-story mechanics of dedicated Legion reading may be byzantine, but the rationale isn't. The harder a comic is for the casual reader to enjoy (and the average writer to write), the more a true nerd will love it. The post must go on, however, so my first snapshot of this phenomenon is Legion of Superheroes 50 (1988), written by Paul Levitz, drawn by Keith Giffen and inked by Mike De Carlo.
Aside from my first post, this is the oldest comic I've yet to discuss. It's from an era when creators delivered a full meal of art and text that wasn't just a slim chapter in some foregone conclusion of a graphic novel. "Life and Death and the End of Time" is the issue's title, and brings our heroes- Brainiac 5, Saturn Girl, Mon El and Duo Damsel- up against the Time Trapper, a being embodying entropy.
"All things have ended here," says a rare narration box, describing the Trapper's surroundings, "even those that never began. Dreams have crumbled to dust, and lives have faded out of memory. In all the Universe, it seems there only remains energy enough to swirl the fragments of the past-" This mature, philosophical stuff is not immediately followed by punching. Levitz, the Legion's most lucid guide since 1977, always puts the characters first. Their personalities drive the story, no matter what natural disaster or villain smears the horizon. With the Trapper having recently killed Superboy, the aforementioned members have decided to hunt and obliterate the creature.
Brainiac 5, green-skinned and super intelligent, is the leader of this mission. Saturn Girl, a founding member, is telepathic. Duo Damsel can split into identical twins (and become one person again later). Mon El, like Superboy, is basically invincible, as well as super speedy and strong. What they have in common is a belief that the idea of the Legion must never be undercut by existential threats. They haven't told the rest of the team about hunting the Trapper. Both the act and the secret go against the team's constitution. If successful, however, they might not return.
Artist Giffen, away from his penciling chores since this run's first three issues, is back. When his career began in the mid-to-late 70s, creators like John Byrne and Jim Starlin had ushered in an era of marvelous technical detail and sweeping emotion. This time around, Giffen and inker De Carlo mime the the lantern-jawed ruggedness of legend Jack Kirby. The lines are bold, the tech is labyrinthine, and characters snarl readily. The battle against the Trapper, with a backdrop of cosmic desolation, features force-lines indicative of action too fast to be seen.
In the end, Brainiac 5 unleashes the power of the Infinite Man, a heroic entity locked in the comatose body of a man named Jaxon Rugarth. Embodying a Universe that operates in endless cycles, the Infinite Man is the Time Trapper's polar opposite. Their epic struggle eliminates the villain's theoretical (and literal) advantage over the Legion in a blaze of blue coruscation. When Brainiac 5 and company return home, badly injured but smiling, they know they owe the rest of the Legion an explanation. Ten years on as a fan myself, Brainiac 5's defense rings truer to me with every read. Next week, in "The Hottest Mess" part II, we'll find out why.