How does the Legion do it? How can it hold onto fans decade after decade, even as the history many of those fans cherish has been wiped out and replaced two, maybe three times?
The Mordruverse is instructive. That issue worked for the same reasons the Legion as a whole works (when it does work), because it created an immersive universe with an almost endless capacity to absorb and provoke the reader's imagination. In the Mordruverse the immersion came from contemplating the myriad changes to history, whereas in the regular Legion continuity it can also focus on the expansive setting. It's no accident that Paul Levitz, during one of the Legion's creative peaks, would often begin scenes with a little caption from the Encyclopedia Galactica to help readers navigate the endless reaches of the 30th century. The Legion's strength lies in its sheer breadth, confronting readers with a small army of superheroes and a dizzying array of allies and enemies and planets and weird powers ranging from the ability to accelerate or halt chemical reactions to the ability to make your own arms fall off. Everybody's imagination can find something to latch onto.
The same is true for the Legion's characters. They may have started off as cookie-cutter replicas stamped from the same bland mold--Jaycees In Space--but they were among DC's first heroes to grow and change in ongoing character development. Not in any dramatically plausible way: they first grew into histrionic adolescents like those published across town at Marvel. But "adolescent" isn't always a pejorative; the Legion was brilliantly adolescent, especially when written by Jim Shooter. A teenager himself when he began his first run, Shooter filled his stories with unrequited crushes, blossoming relationships, and sexually risque menaces in a way that must have been alternately familiar and thrilling to adolescent readers (especially in the 70s, when Mike Grell was dressing every character like futuristic porn stars). The number of personality types offered the possibility for reader identification on a scale even Marvel couldn't equal; the myriad combinations did the same for soap opera, especially as the Legionnaires matured into stable, well-rounded, adult personalities. Once again, breadth was the Legion's greatest asset.
But it was closely matched by the depth of the Legion's history. Beginning in 1958 and continuing, with a few tweaks and interruptions, until 1994, that history slowly accumulated into a rich, diverse body of lore. In fact, the Legion was one of the first DC features to build a Marvel-style continuity in which past stories mattered and real change was a possibility. It didn't matter if you came late to the party and had to imagine all those past events--in fact, sometimes it worked better that way. What story could possibly equal the heights of nobility or depths of betrayal you invented to fill in the gaps?
Giffen and the Bierbaums understood this. Their early issues replicated the experience of being a new Legion reader even if you had been following the Legion for years--because they created new gaps in our reading. We were all immersed into this rich and strange universe for the first time. The Five-Year Gap was one of the best features of those issues, activating and absorbing our imagination and defying us to puzzle out how the United Planets got from there to here. The Legion universe had never been more participatory.
Unfortunately, Giffen and the Bierbaums prolonged their stories beyond the point of endurance only to reach a belated and depressing resolution by destroying Earth. The Bierbaums also used their position as writers to render canonical theories from their days as fans; in short, the series faltered when they started filling in the gaps they'd so ably created. But there was enough blame to go around for everyone in the cancellation of the Five-Year Gap Legion and the destruction of its thirty-five-year continuity. Plenty of longtime Legion readers evidently didn't like being made new readers again, didn't like the changes to the history and setting. Ironically they would get a steady diet of arbitrary change for the next decade, to the point where the alterations of the Five-Year Gap era now seem mild by comparison.
DC Comics had been steadily eroding the Legion's connections to the present-day Superman family of characters. The Legion had weathered the removal of Superboy and Supergirl through a "Pocket Universe" patch, and then finessed the removal of the Pocket Universe through the Mordruverse maneuver. But the links to Superman had proven commercially and creatively vital; without them the Legion became an isolated backwater. Some writers might have turned that editorial liberation into a license to tell brilliant stories, but the neglect only empowered Giffen and the Bierbaums to wreak havoc on their own setting. By 1994, with a destroyed Earth, a seemingly intractable continuity, and two sets of ineffective Legionnaires running around, starting the whole thing over again might have seemed like an attractive option.
Instead it turned the Legion's history from an asset to a burden. Whereas before the Legion offered the possibility of bottomless immersion in a thirty-five-year story, now it had to build the story anew--worse yet, with the obligation, in the minds of many fans, to recreate the most important pieces from the old continuity or supply something better. The breadth of characters and setting were similarly reduced, but the writers could quickly boost them somewhere close to their old levels; yet even with two titles a month, there was simply no way to build thirty-five or twenty-five or even ten years of story overnight.
The immersion was gone. The Legion had jettisoned not only its tradition--the most developed in DC Comics--but one of the primary sources of its unique appeal. From then on it would rise or fall solely on the new stories its creators told to fill in the void.
You know how that worked out.
Tomorrow: how that worked out.