In 1994 the new writers of the Legion of Super-Heroes, tasked with rebuilding the group from its origin story, faced an unenviable dilemma. They could retell the old continuity or break from it entirely; either approach risked alienating the Legion's large and voluble fanbase, which had become resistant to change but wouldn't necessarily want to read the same stories over again. Mark Waid, Tom McCraw, and Tom Peyer understandably tried to split the difference, using the past continuity as a launching point for new stories told in a more modern style. But for every clever update or engaging new invention (and there were a few in the first couple of years), there was a story that found exactly the wrong balance.
The failures of this approach were most apparent in their handling of the legendary Sun-Eater. Jim Shooter's original story was one of the centerpieces of Legion lore--so central that even the Mordruverse issue included a quick retelling. Shooter established the Legion's greatest enemies in the Fatal Five and, in Ferro Lad's death, the possibility of real, irreversible sacrifice that would lend a sense of danger and consequence to the Legion's heroism.
Twice in 1996 the rebooted Legion comic tried to retell the Sun-Eater story without its two most important ingredients: the sacrifice, and the Sun-Eater. The most important tale in Legion history had been gutted for a cheap sense of novelty. The point was made--things could happen differently in the new Legion--but the more important, unintended point was that they would also be far less entertaining. Every Legion comic from that point on was left with a reminder of the writers' failed attempt to have it both ways: a Ferro Lad who, deprived of his immortalizing sacrifice, didn't have anything to do.
The series degenerated rapidly. Waid left and a poorly-executed story sent half the Legion back to the 20th century, where they made several unsuccessful attempts to go home and fought menaces largely of their own making. Veteran scribe Roger Stern arrived and contributed a strong storyline featuring the classic Legion villain Mordru, but he soon seemed to lose interest; Legionnaires, which had been more compelling than its time-lost sister book, soon devolved into a giggly mess that gave more attention to its supporting cast than its stars. The comics became consumed with the minutiae of the characters' personal lives, teenaged angst as only middle-aged adults can imagine it. Whole months passed by in which the Legionnaires did nothing.
By 1999 everything about the Legion seemed inconsequential, and my purchases had already slowed to a trickle when the solicitations began trumpeting the arrival of a new creative team. The solicitations promised a massive upheaval that would darken the Legion's universe with death and devastation, as if that needed doing. It seemed like the perfect jumping-off point. I'd had enough; I didn't like these comics anymore; I was gone.
As it turns out, I left just as the Legion began to pick up again. I've written before about what Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning did for the comic--how they swept out the juvenile characters and restored a sense of urgency to the Legion's actions. They also restored something of its old breadth, bringing new versions of Wildfire, Timber Wolf, and a very, very different kind of Dawnstar into the fold. This was an important step, since from Giffen and the Bierbaums forward every other writer had studiously ignored the Legion's more recent recruits. The message was loud and clear: if they postdated Adventure Comics--hell, if they postdated the Sun-Eater--they weren't the "real" Legion. (Batch SW6 was the most snidely literal expression of this bias, although ironically if Giffen had gotten his way I suppose only the post-Adventure Legionnaires would have been the real thing.) Abnett and Lanning reversed that, building a Legion with a more inclusive awareness of its past.
And they built it in the right way, not by retconning or rebooting the franchise but by adding the pieces they wanted and writing out the ones they didn't like. If they could be a little bloodthirsty in the latter regard, at least it was for a good cause. I'd already dropped the book when they began Legion Lost, and I could accept that Jan Arrah or Garth Ranzz were gone if the Legion as a whole finally read like the Legion once more.
For whatever reason--and I'm really in no position to speculate--the creative team changed yet again after just a few years. Abnett and Lanning had begun to stall, faltering as their predecessors had on an attempt to retell a Legion classic (in their case, the Great Darkness Saga--bad idea). But they ended on a high note, clearly still in possession of skills and story ideas that could have sustained a much longer run. After they departed DC rebooted the comic yet again, just ten years after the last one. And here some kind of crucial threshold was reached.
If the Legion had been disconnected from its rich tradition before, now it was doubly disconnected--and any fans it had gained in the interim would be just as irritated to see their own continuity erased. The newly rebooted Legion would also face the same dilemma with regard to its past, but writer Mark Waid--who had edited those brilliant early issues of the Five-Year Gap and written the better early years of the first reboot--was aware of the problems of the last reboot and was looking for a way around them. He announced that his Legion would restore all of the early membership, right down to the Boy/Kid/Lad/Lass codenames (once again, though, nobody post-Adventure) but would encounter new menaces and new stories.
Unfortunately, those stories would be limited by a heavy-handed and surprisingly outdated social commentary. Waid's vision of the 30th century was from start to finish a generation gap narrative, in which saucy Legionnaires led a youth rebellion against the crusty old officials of the United Planets nanny state. Nothing seemed to motivate this conflict--a draft was mentioned but never initiated--which made it all the more surprising when U.P. troops began gunning down children. The setting was so thinly conceived that there was no public outrage against this atrocity, largely because there was no public, just idealistic kids and incompetent or murderous authority figures.
the teenage revolution conceit feels surprisingly claustrophobic. The Legion I love is a giant soap opera set in a future where the canvas is huge and the story possibilities are wide open.
This isn't that Legion. It's a comic that spent thirteen issues on a single plot, set in a universe that's reduced to one simplistic hook. Even the characterization became monotonous as Waid scripted all his Legionnaires in the same snarky, backbiting voice.
The fourteen issues I gave the book consumed the last of my goodwill, the last of my nostalgia, even the last of my inertia. After twelve years of reboots the things I loved about the Legion were gone; even my fondness for Legions past had nothing to latch onto anymore. Neither the comic I grew up with nor a good comic in its own right, Waid's Legion of Super-Heroes was surprisingly easy to drop.
I still felt twinges of interest or guilt. The title was improving towards the end, and it sounds like Waid has since added some enjoyable elements from the old continuity: Supergirl, Bouncing Boy, the Dominators. But then if I heard plot synopses of his first year I might have thought that sounded interesting too, not having read it. I flip through issues on the stands from time to time, but I always end up putting them back on the shelf.
Before I moved back to Maryland I went through a fairly merciless purge. It was only supposed to get rid of those godawful 90s DC comics filling my longboxes, but once I got started I couldn't stop. If I felt slightly stupid getting rid of comics I'd bought less than a year earlier, well, it was less stupid than moving comics I never wanted to read again. By the end it was rather invigorating, saying goodbye to Powers and Astonishing X-Men and Y the Last Man.
And goodbye to the Legion. Ditching it is probably a good sign. Most of what I purged were filler comics, comics I bought because I wanted to buy a big stack of comics that week and I liked the characters in concept if not in execution and I could discreetly overlook the fact that these books weren't very good. The Legion been my very last filler comic, long after I knew that fondness for the characters doesn't matter when the characters aren't being written well. I'm done with that. If I need to immerse myself in the boundless worlds of the 30th century, the old comics are still around and far more entertaining than these pale imitations. I ordered the Archives collections of Jim Shooter's run last week.
The Legion is dead; Long Live the Legion.