Darkness Visible

In today’s post, we’re going to examine the popularity of DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes and its most renowned storyline: The Great Darkness Saga, now over 30 years old.

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The LSH was a spin-off from the Superboy series: a teenage law enforcement organisation in a pulp fiction future- part high school fraternity, part militia. It had run through the 1960s in stiff stories illustrated by John Forte or Jim Mooney and written by the likes of pulp sci-fi prophets Otto Binder and Edmond Hamilton.

It was always a fan favourite thanks to gimmicks like the charming Bits of Legionnaire Business- a fan page to which kids all over the USA could submit their own creations. Some of these, like Polar Boy and Color Kid, would actually be woven into the Legion legend.

But the Legion really gained ground when teenage Jim Shooter and Superman’s Curt Swan delivered a series of classically-illustrated, doom-laden sagas in a Marvel-esque mode. Of course, in typical DC style, this golden goose was relelgated to oblivion in the very early 70s but soon flourished again, thanks to the way-out creatures and hippie-fied designs  of Dave Cockrum.

Cockrum, of course, would raid his sketchbook to produce the colourful and bizarre All-New X-Men , whose torrid sci-fi adventures ( pennned by verbose feminist and part-time actor Chris Claremont) would eventually make them perhaps the most influential super-heroes of the Bronze Age. It’s the Legion’s similarities to the X-Men or vice versa that helped to make one of DC’s most popular titles in the early 80s.

The LSH experienced  a mid-70s high with the return of an older Shooter to the title and the Disco-fied Legionnaire designs  of Mike Grell ( a favourite of mine despite a  questionable grasp of anatomy and big- images- in- few- panels). The 1981-84 period saw the book’s popularity return to those heights and far exceed them, in a cycle that mirrored the X-Men.

So what were the commonalities? First, an enormous cast: nearly 30 official members, living and dead, with numerous associates and allies, their civilian ids and home planets.  People sometimes complain about the lack of accessibility to LSH but learning The Lore of the Legion is one of its main attractions, in the same way that the maps and languages of Middle Earth hold perennial fascination for Tolkien fans. The very first outing of the X-Men boasted 13 members: a mere fraction of the Legion’s numbers.

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Secondly, human interest, specifically romance. The tensions between Scott, Jean and Logan and the maternal emotions of Ororo towards Kitty were an elaboration of the loving couples found among the Legion since their earliest days. The group had hosted two weddings in in its history- one less than the Avengers, of course, by 1982.

Thirdly, drama and sacrifice. The defining arc of the X-Men was of course the Dark Phoenix Saga, very closely followed by Days of Future Past, in which the whole team died. Marvel, in the Bronze Age, prided itself on killing off characters- albeit rarely- and having them stay dead. Thunderbird of the X-Men (created by Cockrum and Wein) being a case in point.

 The Legion had lost three members -Ferro Lad, Invisible Kid and Chemical King and one ally, Beast Boy- and three more deaths were foreshadowed by the cover of Adventure 354. Mapping the destiny of  the team? Only since 1967! Also, the Legion had witnessed the death and resurrection of Lightning Lad- more than two decades before Jean Grey.

Finally, a threatening environment. Growing paranoia and oppression within the Marvel Universe suggested the Sentinel future might be inevitable. Where the late 60s-early 70s LSH inhabited the united galaxy foretold by Star Trek, the 80s LSH now reflected the uneasy era of detente. It’s unsurprising that the militaristic Khunds are a major power in the book. The DC renaissance took place in the shadow of  the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan,  the Falklands conflict and later, Reagan’s SDI proposal.

Legion outpost

My enduring love for the LSH had reached a feverish peak by the very late 70s. One of my earliest memories of Primary School is reading “The Hapless Hero” in 1969’s Action 381 . I inherited the Computo stories from my cousin Jim and bought the first issue of their short-lived ’73 reprint series. One particular coup around 1981 was buying a mail order copy of The Legion Outpost fanzine and its article on Legion horoscopes.

The Levitz/Broderick issues of LSH are contemporaneous with the beginning of Claremont and Cockrum’s Brood/Starjammers epic (which owes a lot to  Alien, Wrath of Khan and Empire Strikes Back). In other words, comics fans were open to sci-fi at that moment.

Soul-Thief From The Stars introduces a grotesque, almost humorous, parastic monster, Organus. The creature is a McGuffin and is never explained. What’s more significant is the facial surgery for the acrobatic Timber Wolf. He no longer looks like Wolverine (possibly for legal reasons? Even though his look predated Logan’s?) but loses much of his memorable feral quality.

Levitz also writes out the comical Bouncing Boy -at least temporarily. This seems to be a tic in the scripter’s writing: removing the married Legionnaires ( perhaps to make the group seem younger?) Broderick invokes the spirit of the era with medieval designs for the holographic Dungeons and Dragons game . Presciently, gaming will feature in Levitz’s scripts up until 2013.

The influence of Gerge Lucas can be seen in the variety of aliens on the space hospital Medicus One. In partcular, we meet Dr. Gym’ll- a curmudgeonly goblin with three arms who will be a mainstay into the 21st century.

Another remarkable alien is featured in Night Never Falls at Nullport. This is the space shipyard boss H’Hranth, a talking horse with octopoid tentacles. The oriental Khunds are sabotaging the shipyard and we  see how ruthless they are when the commander disintegrates his own son for failure. The new LSH cruisers are very similar to  Battlestar Galactica’s Colonial Vipers circa 1978 and the design doesn’t catch on.

The back-up strip The Forgotten Future is novel for two reasons. First, it’s by Keith Giffen, blending Kirby and Ditko. Secondly, it’s a solo for Dream Girl who has only featured previously in duos and trios  in three back-ups to my recollection. The strip also prefigures how important Nura will become in the book, having been among the most obscure Legionnaires during Conway’s tenure.

The comic now looks very similar to its 1977-78 incarnation. This pleased me then and now.

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Old Friends, New Relatives and Other Corpses is the final issue where Broderick pencils the lead feature. The villain is the infamous Dr. Regulus; I don’t think that at this point I’d seen his debut in Adventure‘s “Target: 21 Legionnaires”- or any of his other three appearances. Disappointingly, he’s  something of a solar-powered Iron Man knock-off. However, Broderick successfully evokes the searing temperatures of his battle with Sun Boy.

The plot picks up on a silly subplot from the Secrets of the LSH miniseries where it was revealed that Chameleon Boy was the secret son of the Legion’s patron R.J. Brande.

A Crown for the Princess: a second back-up for Giffen. This time Princess Projectra and Karate Kid, two Shooter creations under-represented in the Conway Era, have an ornate sword-and-sorcery adventure on Jeckie’s planet. Ironically perhaps, in the era of Schwarzenegger, my interest in sword and sorcery had completely waned with  Andrew J. Offut’s Conan pastiches of the late 70s.

I was getting my US comics by mail order in those days and saw Broderick’s third issue first. However, I couldn’t have been any more enthused by the upswing in the Legion’s fortunes. I’m going to interrupt this analysis of the Great Darkness saga for a sideways step, however and another LSH publication from the early months of 1982.

Coming soon: the Legion Digest

All images presumed copyright of their respective owners

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2 comments on “Darkness Visible

  1. Kid Robson says:

    Y’know, Dougie, I bought the first couple of Legion Archive Editions when they first came out years ago. I must sit down and read them sometime. Was never a huge fan ‘though. I think Marvel handled team books better, in the main.

    • Dougie says:

      I think my fascination was so deeply rooted because it began so early- at the same time as the FF and just after the X-Men. I agree that Marvel teams were more vividly characterised than the LSH- perhaps because they weren’t so numerous.

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