Superman and the Legion of Superheroes
By Geoff Johns, Gary Frank and John Sibal
The last survivor of a dying planet, hurtled to Earth in a hastily constructed rocket, raised by a simple country couple to respect truth, justice and the beliefs that America stood for, Superman is famous all over the planet as the most recognizable character. Begun as a simple comic strip by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman found a home at National Comics and became the most famous of the long underwear types who soon became closely associated with comic books.
A dream fulfilled, Superman was capable of impossible feats and stood for the common man, fighting the forces of oppression no matter where they lurked. It should come as some surprise therefore, that the Man of Steel had lost some of his luster over the years as a modern creative team struggled to connect with its readership. Should Superman be edgy or dark or retro? It wasn’t clear. A new direction was needed, and several were attempted.
This is one of them.
After his explosive run on the Flash, Hawkman, JSA and Green Lantern, it seemed that there was no limit to the successes of the young and vibrant writer known as Geoff Johns. A protege of director Richard Donner, he had a long-standing relationship with the most important superhero in print, Superman.
Geoff Johns had been writing Superman for a year or so before the Legion of Superheroes story line came along, but for me this was where his run really started to take shape. His first story ‘Last Son’ along with former guru Superman the movie director Richard Donner brought some much needed attention to the man of steel. Produced in eye-catching style complete with 3-D graphics, the adventure was a solid classic, if slightly marred by several delays. The quirky follow-up ‘Escape from Bizarro World’ was more an excuse to work with the talented Eric Powell of The Goon fame. With several fill-ins and not much momentum, it seemed that there was nothing Johns could not accomplish. His somewhat mixed start on Superman was therefore a bit of a letdown.
He made it all up, however, with his third story line, The Legion of Superheroes. An adventure years in the making, the seeds of this one go back to Infinite Crisis and the Lightning Saga in which the Legion had attempted… something that never really gelled on the page. In 6 issues of Action Comics (858-863), Johns managed to not only tie up all of those loose ends but also navigate the muddy waters of DC continuity and bring some real power to Superman that had been lacking.
The Legion of Superheroes is one of the oldest comic book superteams in print and responsible for much of the participation of fandom as well as some risk-taking stories. A club of super-powered teens from the future, the Legion traveled back in time to pay homage to their inspiration, Superman, back when he was an awkward teen like themselves. Started as a back-up take in Adventure Comics, they soon took over and gained a cult following that keeps the concept alive today.
Because they exist in the future and rely on the existence of Superboy, the Legion has endured several lurching changes in continuity of the DC Universe. The team has undergone numerous reboots and cancellations with varied results. At the time of this story, their future was uncertain. Due to several revisions and reboots, it was also unclear what Superman’s relationship to the future teen club even was.
This story firmly re-established Superman’s connection with the Legion and also brought the teens forward into young adulthood all at once. It started with Superman answering a plea from his teenage pals from the far future, only to find that the Utopian future that he had come accustomed to had darkened. The streets were vacant of the multicultural population and were instead filled with scared citizens and armored policemen. The Legionaries, a group of positive and bubbly youths, had also changed into a ragged band of twenty-somethings. Incessant warnings to return home fell on deaf ears, even after Superman attempted to deflect a bullet and was shocked to witness it easily puncture his palm and pass through the other side.
The sun, it appeared, had gone from yellow to red, robbing Superman of his extrahuman abilities. The Legionnaires feared for his safety and the stability of the fragile cosmic continuity, but Superman had a job to do. Without missing a beat, he soldiered on and fought the good fight with his bared very vulnerable hands.
A hero rejected by the Legion, Earth Man, has created a lie that Superman was not an alien after all and was actually a human being who fought for human rights against alien invaders. According to Earth Man, the United Federation of Planets twisted history to make the greatest human being who ever lived into a spokesperson for their mission to dilute the human race with their cultures. The message of hatred taints the populace and the future teeters on the edge of intergalactic war. Against impossible odds and with no super abilities, Superman joins forces with the few remaining Legionnaires to fight the lies and bring justice back to the future.
When Marvel Comics got started, their big notion was an answer to the iconic square-jawed creations of DC Comics. ‘Heroes with problems’ populated the pages of Hulk, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and more. Across the street, the legendary Flash, Green Lantern, Batman and Superman seemed to exist in a fantasy world. There has been a movement to modernize DC superheroes lately by making them just as flawed as Marvel’s stable of characters. In my opinion it’s a mistake and misses the core idea of DC’s heroes as modern myths.
Superman and the Legion of Superheroes cuts the difference by placing Superman in a flawed world where the formerly idyllic future is populated by xenophobic hillbillies gunning down alien infants when they land in the back yard. Through it all, Superman retains his core dignity and refuses to be tainted by the ugliness around him (and there’s plenty).
Artist Gary Frank plays a vital role in painting this dichotomy of harsh and noble as his Superman is one of the most solid and timeless since the days of Curt Swan. The artwork is very modern and often quite violent but never veers into the realm of excessive bloody destruction as one would expect. This is a story of Superman showing that it is not his powers that make him a hero but his conviction and beliefs in solidarity and freedom. It’s such a hokey notion that you need an artist as dynamic as Frank to pull it off without seeming simple and wholesome.
I am very eager to see what Johns and Frank can do with Batman in the much delayed Earth One series of graphic novels. Based on his work on Supreme Power, Frank excels at grittiness but tempered by the traditional hand of Geoff Johns there could be a very new take on the caped crusader without delving into the all too easy ‘dark and moody’ tones that Superman Earth One stooped toward.
I know that DC just revived their entire line with new takes on classic characters, but if you are looking for a modern version of Superman that pays homage to his past, I highly recommend this book and its follow-up, Brainiac.
Like the ‘Man of Steel’ image? There are more Superhero posters here