Teenagers From The Future

Fri, November 21st, 2008 at 4:08pm PST | Updated: November 22nd, 2008 at 8:04pm

Comic Books
Andy Khouri, Editor

"Teenagers from the Future"

There’s no doubt about it, the Legion of Super-Heroes are back.

Though the most recent incarnation of the eponymous DC Comics title has been cancelled, fan interest in the storied team of multi-racial super-powered and occasionally teenaged heroes in the 31st century remains piqued, more so than it’s been in more than a decade. Geoff Johns and George Perez’s “Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds” miniseries has with just two issues emerged as the fan-favorite title in DC’s torrent of Final Crisis books, and the story follows a similarly popular 2007 Justice League/Justice Society storyline called “The Lightning Saga,” which saw the unexpected return of the original Legion of Super-Heroes, as well as an acclaimed guest-starring storyline with Superman in “Action Comics.” Additionally, DC has confirmed the forthcoming re-launch of “Adventure Comics,” the classic title that introduced the team back in 1958.

Most superhero fans are at least vaguely aware of the Legion, possibly because of the concept’s famously numerous reboots and revamps; possibly because of its reputation for tackling real-life issues; possibly because the team has been associated with DC publisher Paul Levitz and one time Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, as well as other comics luminaries including Keith Giffen Mark Waid, Curt Swan, Jerry Siegel, Dave Cockrum, Neal Adams, Gerry Conway, Jim Starlin, Chris Sprouse, Stuart Immonen and Barry Kitson, just to name a few; and possibly because the Legion enjoys one of the most fiercely loyal (and perhaps even evangelical) fanbases in genre fiction.

But what many don’t know and are now asking is why the Legion has endured for decades, survived three complete reboots, and earned itself generations of fans.

Sequart Research & Literacy Organization attempts to answer those questions and more in the forthcoming “Teenagers from the Future,” a collection of scholarly essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes edited by Timothy Callahan, a literary teacher, scholar, CBR reviewer and columnist, and author of the essential text, “Grant Morrison: The Early Years.” The book comes with a forward by comics writer Matt Fraction and includes essays by authors, journalists and bloggers including James Kakalios, Jae Bryson, Lanny Rose, Chris Sims and Sara K. Ellis.

CBR News spoke with editor Timothy Callahan about “Teenagers from the Future” to learn more about its analytical look at the Legion of Super-Heroes.

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CBR: Many superhero fans are aware of the Legion just by virtue of the fact that the title, “The Legion of Super-Heroes” has been re-launched a number of times, and the concept has been rebooted twice: once after DC’s universe-wide Zero Hour event, and again in 2005 (referred to as the Threeboot, being the third version of the concept). What does “Teenagers From the Future” have to say about The Legion’s constant reinvention?

Timothy Callahan: I think The Legion has shown that there's something great at the core of the concept that can survive multiple reboots. The fact that it allows for so many permutations and revisions would seem to give it a kind of intertextual integrity, even if it annoys long time readers.

The Legion of Super-Heroes first appeared in "Adventure Comics" in the late 1950s

And, trust me, even though I was never a hardcore Legion fan, I'm annoyed by the reboots.

But what the reboots do is allow for some interesting avenues of critical study. We can look at the iterations of the teams, and how the new cultural context affects each version. The same thing is true for most comics, of course, at least to some extent. The Spider-Man of the late 1960s says something different about society (and the comic book medium) than the Spider-Man of the late 1990s. But with The Legion, the team has started over from scratch several times, except that the reboots have always existed in a kind of conflict with the version that has come before.

For example, the post-Zero Hour reboot was an attempt to simplify and lighten up a Legion series that had grown incredibly dark and labyrinthine. While the "Threeboot" was an attempt to revitalize the concept of youth vs. authority in response to the previous Legion team that had become, quickly, intergalactic authority figures.

So I think those revamps strengthen the Legion concept in terms of the way it’s viewed from a critical or scholarly perspective. What the Legion loses with all the revamps is a sense of long-term continuity. And the loss of that has really hurt the Legion from the point of view of the regular reader. The Legion was basically the first DC book to even have ongoing continuity that mattered, where characters died and may or may not ever return. It was a long-form soap opera with incredibly high stakes, operating in its own little corner of the DCU, and that allowed it to develop such a devoted following.

Would I, as a reader, prefer that it had never been rebooted? Absolutely. But that doesn't mean that the reboots aren't interesting to study.

The history of the Legion is easily broken into eras: the Original Legion, the Giffen Five Years Later Legion, the Zero Hour Reboot Legion, and the Threeboot Legion. What does your book argue or conclude about each of these?

The Legion appeared in "Superby and the Legion of Super-Heroes" for many years before getting their own title

The book isn't designed to pit different eras together or argue that one is superior to another. Though the emphasis on the Silver Age Legion in the first half of the book might seem to indicate a preference for that Era, it's more of a sign that those formative years were so important and must be examined from multiple perspectives. We tried our best to give each Era a fair look.

But though some essays consider the entire history of the team, across the various eras (like Martin A. Perez's look at how Legion fashion intersected with real-life fashion trends), most study one small subsection of a single era. The book might have benefited from another chapter or two on the Post-Zero Hour Reboot era, just to balance things out a bit more fairly, but the proportional lack of coverage of some parts of that era isn't an editorial judgment about the quality of those comics. This is an analytical book, looking at certain runs or storylines, certain cultural trends, certain narrative styles, and developing a theory of meaning from that.

What's the significance of Jim Shooter's Marvel-based approach to superhero melodrama on the DCU? What real-life science could be used to explain the super-science of force fields or flight rings? How does Mark Waid's "Threeboot" Legion intersect with generational theory? The book answers questions like these. And oh so many more!

The Legion of Super-Heroes are known for addressing socially relevant topics like sexism, race and homosexuality through the prism of a fantastic, future reality. What does “Teenagers From the Future” have to say about this aspect of the Legion?

Several of the chapters explicitly address those topics, because they are essential to any study of comic book aesthetic history. So John G. Hemry looks at the pioneering feminists in the Silver Age Legion -- Shadow Lass was a groundbreaking female character in many ways, while Alan Williams looks at the importance of homosexuality in the team's dynamics. Matthew Elmslie looks at the diversity of the Legion and puts it in historical perspective, while Jae Bryson rages against the treatment of Tyroc.

The Legion continuity ran uninterrupted until the Zero Hour reboot in 1994

Though the Legion has been particularly bad at directly addressing culturally relevant social issues head-on, it's been subversively addressing them in other ways, and some of the authors take a close look at those concerns. "Legion of Super-Heroes" comics make for intriguing cultural artifacts, and what they show about the future indicates plenty about the cultural context in which they were created.

The original Legion had been missing-in-action since the mid 1990s, when the concept was rebooted in the wake of Zero Hour. What was it like for Legion fans to see the original versions of the characters return in the “Justice Society of America”/”Justice League of America” storyline “The Lightning Saga” in 2007?

"The Lighting Saga" was bittersweet for me -- I don't know about the rest of Legion fandom. It was thrilling to see the return of the Levitz-era team (sort of, because it wasn't exactly the same composition of team members as we saw at the end of the Levitz run), but that particular JLA/JSA crossover was pretty terrible reading. It was all tease and no payoff. In fact, Geoff Klock, author of "How to Read Superhero Comics and Why," was planning to write an analysis of "The Lightning Saga" for inclusion in my book, but after the final issue came out, I thought, "uh oh, this was an utter disappointment, I wonder what Geoff can possibly write about here." And, sure enough, Geoff e-mailed me shortly after and admitted that he had nothing to say about "The Lighting Saga," because there was just no story there. It was a void within which characters popped up and then disappeared.

But the promise that the Levitz-era Legion might somehow be written back into DCU continuity. The promise that the Legion I grew up with might somehow matter again. That was exciting.

The Legion continuity reset again in 2005, in what is known as the Threeoot

And [“The Lightning Saga” co-writer] Geoff Johns has lived up to that promise with what he's done with the Legion in the "Action Comics" arc [called “Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes”] and in "Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds." I don't know about anyone else, but I'm more that glad to see the first, and longest-running version of the team back in action, even if it means that the Keith Giffen Five Years Later Legion never truly existed. I'll give up those stories to have all the other ones count again.

I have a sense that a lot of Legion fans feel the same way.

There seems to be a new era manifesting for the Legion, with all three different versions diverging under the care of A-list creators like Geoff Johns and George Perez. What would you like to see going forward?

Oh, I think it's safe to say that we're entering a new "include-and-transcend" era for the Legion. I don't know how "Legion of 3 Worlds" will end, but now that the three main iterations of the team have been firmly established as alternate-reality versions, and now that the teams have met, I'd like to see an all-inclusive version of the team from now on. That doesn't mean I want 95 characters to all be on the same team and show up in every issue, but I want that possibility to exist, and I want all of the stories that have been told so far -- or as many of them as possible -- to count toward the overall narrative.

Most of the fun of superhero comics is in the complex history of recursion and repetition, but the best stuff is the stuff that adds to the overall fictional history. And it would be great to see all of these classic Legion tales, from every era, add to the overall meaning of the team.

With all of that said, I think if Johns (or a surrogate) ends up launching a new Legion book after Final Crisis, it might make the most sense to go with the core Levitz-era team, and bring in the other reboot versions when needed. Just like the old JLA/JSA team-ups, which is something that Johns referenced in the first issue of "Legion of 3 Worlds."

The original Legionnaires returned to continuity in "Justice League of America: The Lightning Saga" and in "Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes"

No matter what happens, I think we can be sure that some kind of new Legion comic will be hitting the shelves a year or so from now. Until then we can feast on what Johns and Perez are doing right now. The perfect appetizer for that meal, by the way? "Teenagers from the Future," now available in the November Diamond Previews, order code: NOV084474. Tell your friends!

Tell us about some of the contributors to this book.

Well, there's me, of course, and I hope most CBR readers are familiar with my work already between my WHEN WORDS COLLIDE column and my weekly reviews. For "Teenagers from the Future," I write the introduction and the chapter on Paul Levitz (which explores how his Legion comics synthesize Roy Thomas and Robert Altman).

James Kakalios, author of "The Physics of Superheroes," writes the chapter on the Legion's super-science. Prominent African-American journalist and publisher Jae Bryson tackles the Tyroc question, while fantasy novelist Lanny Rose examines the connection between DC's Amethyst and the 30th century. Chris Sims, of the Invincible Super-Blog, takes the Silver Age Legion to task for their ridiculous rulebook, and architect Sara K. Ellis discusses the relationship between architecture and the futuristic utopia.

I could go on all day listing the chewy goodness inside this book. It's jam-packed with contributions from all types of critics and scholars.

All three versions of the Legion -- the Originals, the Reboot and the Threeboot meet in "Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds"

How did “Invincible Iron Man” and “Casanova” writer Matt Fraction come to write the forward to “Teenagers From the Future?” He’s not associated with the Legion.

I wanted someone who wasn't necessarily associated with the Legion. And I wanted someone who could bring an aura of "coolness" to what could be seen as one of the dorkiest books ever published: a book of critical essays on, of all things, the Legion of Super-Heroes? I mean, come on! Even in comic book circles, Legion fandom is seen as more than a bit nerdy.

Grant Morrison would have been another good choice to do the foreword, but I didn't want to be just "the Morrison guy," and for my money, Matt Fraction is right up there with Morrison as far as really cool and interesting comic book work in the past few years. Fraction's "Casanova" is a masterpiece, as I'm not afraid to say in various reviews and columns I've published at CBR.

The bottom line is: Matt Fraction could write an introduction to a book of peanut butter and jelly sandwich recipes, and that would make me interested in the book. I hoped that other potential readers might feel the same way. Of course, Fraction's slightly irreverent attitude toward the Legion, and Legion fandom, might end up rubbing people the wrong way. But if that happens, I'm prepared: I have an apology form letter already written in Interlac for just such an occasion.

Why are Legion fans so devoted? What sets the Legion apart from other icons of the science fiction and superhero genres?

Legion fans are great because they care so much, and they aren't afraid to show it. We're certainly well beyond the height of Legion fandom, but the internet has brought fans from around the world together, so there's no discounting the Legion faithful, even today.

I think the overwhelming devotion comes in for a few reasons:

Numerous Legion of Super-Heroes archive editions are available from DC Comics

One, the Legion is a sci-fi team, and so it appeals to the part of us that might become obsessed with something like "Star Trek" for example. That science-nerdy type that tends to become really passionate about the things they latch on to. Obviously, this is just me perpetrating a stereotype, but I say all of this in the most loving way possible.

Two, the prolonged continuity, pre-Reboot, allowed for some really emotional storytelling of the level that most corporate superhero comics couldn't pull off. "Legion of Super-Heroes," whether it was in their own comic, or in "Adventure Comics," was a single strand of continuity, not a franchise written by a bunch of random freelancers. For long periods of time, most notably the Levitz era, the Legion was guided by a single hand, and that allowed some rather sophisticated long-term storytelling that couldn't happen in "Avengers" or "Justice League of America."

Third, the Legion, even when it was selling really well, was never one of the "hot" comics. It wasn't "cool" to read the Legion. The Legion was never in the Wolverine/Punisher stratosphere. So there's something endearing about a kind of dorky concept that had developed into a complex relationship-based super-drama over the years. And if Legion fans were mocked, that just made them all the stronger.

Well, Legion fans are easily baited.

You don't want to mess with Legion fans. They are hardcore. And sometimes they do crazy things like bring important creators back to comics (like Jim Shooter), become the president of DC Comics (like Paul Levitz), or help me put together critical studies of comic books. Without Legion fandom, this book would certainly not exist.

TAGS:  legion of super-heroes, teenagers from the future, keith giffen, timothy callahan, paul levitz

 
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