Legion

Showcase Presents Legion of Superheroes Volume 4, written by Jim Shooter, E. Nelson Bridwell and Cary Bates; illustrated by Curt Swan, Win Mortimer, Dave Cockrum, George Tuska, Jack Abel and others (1967-1972; collected 2010): The fourth Legion of Superheroes (LSH) Showcase volume takes us through a period of transition for DC’s group of super-powered teenagers in the 30th century (and Superboy and Supergirl).

Artistic great Curt Swan leaves for full-time pencilling duties on the Superman books, and World’s Youngest Comic-book Writer Jim Shooter follows a year or so thereafter. Legion stories shift from Adventure Comics to Action Comics to Superboy, losing pages every time. But Superboy would become Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes soon after the stories collected here. Dave Cockrum, one of the best artists the Legion ever had (and a pivotal co-creator of Marvel’s new X-Men a few years down the road) pencils his first few stories here.

The best story here is the opening two-parter by Shooter, Swan and inker Abel, in which a handful of Legionnaires flee to 20th-century Smallville with the forces of Mordru the Mystic close behind them. Mordru’s powerful enough to defeat the entire Legion by himself (Superboy is as vulnerable to magic as anyone else), and the two-parter is a mini-masterpiece of suspense.

One of the things the Legion did for Superboy was regularly place him in situations of real peril that didn’t always have to involve Kryptonite. While the Superman books of the 1960’s seemed perpetually stuck with a nearly omnipotent Man of Steel, the Legion books gave us a Superboy who could be hurt and even killed by the villains he faced. It made for a lot more drama.

After Shooter left, things got a lot less interesting, though the end of the volume brings young writer Cary Bates and the aforementioned Cockrum onto the stage, hinting at better days to come. One of the icons of early comic-book fandom, the Legion also looked forward to the dizzying array of superheroes that would come to characterize Marvel’s 1980’s super-hit X-Men: Legion members included such bizarrely gifted heroes as Matter-Eater Lad (who could eat anything), Bouncing Boy (who could bounce really well), and Chemical King (who could speed up chemical reactions).

Unlike later X-heroes and X-villains, the Legion members had helpfully descriptive names: one could actually tell what their powers were just by knowing their names, a far cry from characters with names like Holocaust, Marrow and Apocalypse. So it goes. Long-time artist Win Mortimer’s art on the Legion here is better than I expected, partially because Jack Abel’s inking gives the whole thing that peculiar weight and darkness that was Abel’s trademark. Long live the Legion! Recommended.

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