Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Reflections on Legion Continuity

Legion continuity has always been a double-edged sword. The complexity of the Legion's vast cast of characters and detailed history is often cited as a barrier to new readers. Who wants to pick up a Legion comic, knowing that just to understand what's going on, you'll have to learn dozens of characters and huge amounts of backstory?

On the other hand, a vast cast and detailed history is the very essense of the LSH. It is, after all, the LEGION of Super-Heroes, not the Handful or Brigade (or Society or League) of Super-Heroes. There's no way around having more than two dozen active Legionnaires...and with that many characters, after a few dozen issues the history unavoidably gets large.

Continuity has been a problem throughout the almost fifty-year history of the LSH.

In the beginning, confusion reigned. Did the Legion operate in the current day, the 21st century, or the 30th century? Were they adults or teens? Did Supergirl meet the original Legionnaires, or their children? What powers, exactly, did Star Boy have? How could Supergirl and Superboy both be Legionnaires, even though Superboy didn't know that Supergirl existed or would exist?

After the Legion started regular appearances in Adventure Comics, continuity became tighter, with story elements continuing across many issues (Mon-El's Phantom Zone imprisonment, Lightning Lad's death, the Time Trapper's Iron Curtain of Time, etc.) By early 1963, most mainstream Legion stories were set against a well-defined background, with events of previous tales accepted as canon.

Through the Silver Age, this continuity continued. It was common for footnotes to be included when characters referred to past events, so that (for example) if Duo Damsel made reference to "When my third body was killed," a helpful note would say "(Way back in Adventure 340)" or something similar.)

Long-time readers delighted in the ever-continuing soap-opera nature of the Legion, and revelled in the awareness of history. There was genuine character development, romances flourished, and to many of us the Legionnaires became more than comic book heroes...they became friends.

The late 1970s saw enormous changes in the Legion, as the characters finally matured and started on the path to adulthood. (One story, considered all but non-canonical by later fans, even attempted to explain why characters in their 20s and 30s were still referred to as "Boy," "Girl," "Lad," etc.) In this period, too, the creative teams deliberately began to use elements of the Legion's 20-year history in stories, delighting long-time fans and sending newcomers scurrying to the back-issue bins at comic shops. Continuity became more important, as the Legion's background became even more complex and more believable.

This version of the Legion had its finest days at the end of the Silver Age, in the period of 1984-1989. Writer Paul Levitz and his creative team were at the height of their abilities; the characters were mature and depth-filled, the finely-detailed background became deeper and more complex with every issue. In this period, DC celebrated the Legion's 30th anniversary, and for a brief moment the team became the stillpoint around which the DC Universe rotated.

But the Silver Age Legion's finest days were also its last gasp. In the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths, the DC Universe went through big changes, and these changes caused huge problems with Legion history. By far the biggest changes came from John Byrne's re-invention of Superman (who never had a career as Superboy) and DC's insistence that Supergirl had never existed.

Yet if Superboy and Supergirl never existed, then the Legion we knew might just as well not exist. Levitz and his crew went through many contortions trying to preserve the Legion's history, going so far as to invent a parallel "pocket universe" to which Superboy (and presumably Supergirl) belonged, killing off Superboy in the process.

In the end, it all came to naught. A new creative team (Keith Giffen and the Bierbaums, known collectively as the Giffbaums) took over the Legion and rebooted the universe. This new version of the LSH (the "Giffbaum" or "Glorithverse" Legion) tried to straddle official DC continuity and a version of Legion continuity, and rewriting the history of existing characters (so that Supergirl, for example, was replaced by a Daxamite named Laurel Gand, and Mon-El became Valor to fill the role of Superboy).

It would have been one thing if the Giffbaums had made only minor changes to the Legion's history, and then had explained precisely what those changes were. However, having discovered that they had the power to alter history, the Giffbaums used it to enshrine all their pet theories from their fanzine stories into Legion continuity, retroactively inventing new early characters like Kid Quantum and decreeing that Lightning Lad's body had been reanimated with the consciousness of Proty I, for example.

Giffen's art was murky and obscure, the Bierbaums' storytelling techniques were confusing...and to make matters worse, they had chosen to set their new series five years after the conclusion of the old one. Many important and catastrophic events had taken place during this famous "five year gap," but most of those events were not adequately explained to the readers. The result was enormous confusion, and gave a bad name to the whole idea of "Legion continuity."

It got worse. The Giffbaums introduced an entire duplicate Legion, teenage versions of the current team. One set, it seemed, were clones...but was it the current Legionnaires, or the newcomers? The creative team themselves, it seemed, didn't even know...or they had changed their minds so often, that the result was the same.

In 1994 (LSH #53), a new creative team cleared up all the confusion that the Giffbaum years had left, and showed the way back to the Legion we had known and loved all these years. But now, when the Legion seemed ready to rise from the ashes of its last destruction, DC decided to kill it in its prime. Comics had become a new world, and creators got enormous cred from re-imagining old characters and concepts. Prior continuity was a Bad Thing. It was the age of the Relaunch, and the Legion was no exception.

Zero Hour came and went, leaving in its wake a brand-new DC Universe. First there was Earth-Two, then Earth-One, and now Earth-Zero. And for the first time, there was a brand-new version of the Legion, one that started over from the very beginning. In this new Earth-Zero Legion, continuity was a blank slate. And while it was kinda fun seeing how elements of the past re-emerged in this new world, many longtime readers found it hard to care about these new characters.

Longtime readers knew a Lightning Lad who had gone back in time to recruit Superboy, died and been reanimated, lost an arm and worn a robot prosthesis for years, found his brother and lost his parents, served as Legion Leader, went mad and recovered, wooed and married Saturn Girl, retired, become a father, then returned to Legion service as a sort of elder statesman -- not some wet-behind-the-ears brat called Live Wire.

Still, the Earth-Zero Legion had its own charms, and some of us old-timers warmed to the characters. Readers had a whole new continuity to experience, and for a time it seemed that the Legion continued in spirit.

To be sure, there were complications. The need to reinvent was always present. The Legion was Blighted, then Lost, then reinvented again as returnees from another universe. And finally, Reboot Fever could no longer be denied.

So the Earth-Zero Legion vanished, and everything started over again with yet another new continuity: the (current) Teenage Revolution Legion. Again, the Legion was a blank slate. Mark Waid and his team rang changes on elements from previous versions of the Legion, tweaking powers, personalities, histories. There was obvious respect for what had gone before, but at the same time there was the feeling that everything was fresh and new. Once again, Legion fans sat down to learn a new continuity.

Now (late 2007) Legion continuity is again under stress. In addition to the Teenage Revolution Legion, we are seeing another version, the Lightning Saga Legion. This new LSH bears some resemblence to the Silver Age Legion, but it's clear that there are differences in continuity.

Further, there are hints that yet another reboot is coming to the DC Universe. For the Legion's 50th anniversary in 2008, we may see yet another new LSH.

For fifty years, then, continuity has been important to the Legion. We've been through three (major) distinct continuities, with some variations...but there has always BEEN continuity. Readers have always been able to follow characters as they develop, grow, quarrel, fall in love, even die.

The disturbing thing, this time around, is that the bigwigs at DC seem to be unaware of the importance of continuity. We hear them giving hints about the new Legion, saying things like "We're asking ourselves, what are the things everyone remembers?" So we get Karate Kid and Sensor Girl together -- even though we know that grief at Karate Kid's death was the major impetus that turned Princess Projectra into Sensor Girl.

I am afraid that we will soon have a Legion thrown together piecemeal, instead of one that develops organically and continuously. A Legion with no backstory, no history. A Legion whose past will be malleable, changing at the whims of what a particular creative team remembers best from previous versions.

Instead, I say preserve multiple Legion continuities. Give each of the 52 Earths a different Legion, and tell stories of each continuity as the creative teams desire. I've always wanted to see a Legion Quarterly that would tell stories of different Legions -- why not now?

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