A look back at the classic story from the 1980s!
This is the infamous ‘Superboy/Superman/Legion of Superheroes’ cross-over from 1987 that explained how Superboy could have inspired the Legion if he never existed (see: Crisis on Infinite Earths).
To make a long story short: In 1986, DC rebooted Superman (for at least the 3rd time) and said that Superman never had a career as Superboy. The only problem was, The Legion of Superheroes was a huge seller for DC (at the time) and the entire 30th Century concept was inspired by the legendary exploits of a teenage Superman. So, if Superman was never Superboy, how could the Legion exist? Thus, this cross-over. Let’s begin…
The opening chapter in Legion Of Superheroes #37 (Vol. 3, Baxter series) is the best of the bunch. Paul Levitz‘ script reads like a Twilight Zone episode set in the Silver Age fairy tale world of the 60s (similar to Alan Moore’s run on Supreme). The characters are real, the dialogue is sharp and the excellent art from Greg LaRoque & Mike DeCarlo is a perfect match for the mash-up of ‘modern day’ heroes (read: 1980s) trapped in the world of vintage Superboy comics.
In one scene, Pete Ross ushers the Legion into the Kent’s old General Store, where Ma Kent says: “Land sakes–Pa–look! It’s Mon-El…and some of the Legionarres!”
The plain-clothes Legion members stroll in and catch up with their old friends, the Kents, and we are share in the joy and nostalgia of another age.
Later Clark/ Superboy meets up with them at the Kent farm and we’re treated to more fun. Levitz knows these characters inside and out and his affection for them is obvious.
The story takes a shocking turn (which I won’t give away here) that show’s off just how good Levitz can sometimes be. Unfortunately, the quality doesn’t hold up…
Next up is Superman #8 (volume 2) and Action #591 by John Byrne. While I officially outgrew John Byrne about 10-15 years ago, I am still astonished both by how poor his writing and art are and how popular he ever was. His two middle chapters to this story bring this cross-over grinding to a halt.
The dialogue is expository, the characters are paper-thin and the plot is forced and convenient.
The cliff-hanger of Superman #8 is a typical Byrne *false shock/explain later* twist that lies to the reader by way of Superboy’s body language: he seems to be enjoying what he’s doing (no *spoilers*) but the next issues tells us otherwise. Byrne cheats and it doesn’t work.
In Action #591 (one of my first ever Superman comics), we are treated to a full-issues of a Marvel style ‘misunderstanding’ that’s an excuse for Superman and Superboy to fight (In Superman #8, the Legion were the victim of another misunderstanding that ended up in a fight), plus we are treated to the Time Trapper explaining (to no one) exactly what the secret reason is that Superboy could still possibly exist (the explanation is handled better in the next issue of Legion; then it is slightly tweaked in the Supergirl/Matrix saga a year or so down the road).
I must give careful consideration to this comic, because it helped initiate both my early love for Superman and for John Bryrne. Well, I can safely say that–other than the nostalgia of the 60s Superboy stories exploited throughout–this issue is more of Byrne’s poorly executed trash.
The Time Trapper’s motivation makes no sense, the character’s express in thought balloons ideas that don’t help the story, other than to wink at the audience (when fighting Krypto the Superdog, Superman thinks “Funny, he seem surprised by the fact that my cape isn’t indestructible”; this is from the man who once reasoned that “writing is easy”. Well, John…I guess it depends on your standards).
Superman deduces that Superboy is throwing the fight and so the chapter ends. (how exactly? Because his ‘heart isn’t in it’. To see other examples of these page-wasting fight scenes, read Byrne’s 1980s Hulk run where the Hulk fights hallucinations of various supervillains…for 22 pages. Doc Samson somehow figures out exactly WHY the Hulk is punching wildly at thin air then uses this as proof that Bruce Banner is still somehow buried in the Hulk’s subconscious 🙁 This was the guy DC paid millions of dollars for to steal him away from Marvel).
Thankfully, Levitz takes over for the final chapter in Legion #38. Once again the characters come to life, the dialogue sparkles and there is finally some real conflict (eg: Cosmic Boy shouting at Brainiac 5 to stop theorizing and save everyone). Other than some distracting sub-plots featuring the other Legionnaires, the Levitz chapters are flawless.
To *SPOIL* the end of the story, the Silver Age Superboy (Superman as a teen) dies at the end of the issue (pointless, since, like Supergirl he was written out continuity anyway) and we are treated to a tragic death scene and funeral. Greg LaRogue pulls out all the stops on the final page. Though it does feel rushed, the ending is a fitting tribute to (as Cosmic Boy calls him) “The Greatest Hero of Them All”
(After reading this story, I am reminded how angry many people are over the ‘New 52’ version of Superman. While I was ecstatic to see Jerry Siegel’s original ‘Champion of the Oppressed’ return in Grant Morrison‘s Action, it is frustrating for Modern Age fans to know that “their” Superman stories never happened. Well, now you all know how Silver Age fans felt!)
Overall, a decent cross-over that actually had a purpose. Worth picking up, if you don’t mind skimming through the Byrne chapters.
Legion of Superheroes #37 & 38 ****
Superman #8 & Action #591 **
Mike-EL is a Co-Producer and Founder of the Comic Book Syndicate TV series. He is an independent filmmaker, professional videographer and holds a PhD in Superhero Fun.