We’ve been preparing for this story for a while now. It’s longer than most of the ones we deal with in this space, because it appeared in a very special issue: Legion of Super-Heroes v2 #300. It’s a very important Legion comic!
I’ve been considering it for a while, trying to figure out how best to explain what happens in this story. Because it’s complicated. Let me try it this way. In this comic book, there are three storylines going on simultaneously:
1. The Legion is holding a big get-together at LSH HQ for their rededication ceremony.
2. Brainiac 5 is at the Time Institute, helping Circadia Senius and Rond Vidar treat a mysterious patient with their chronal equipment.
3. Mon-El and Shadow Lass are fighting invading aliens at the Science Asteroid.
Doesn’t sound like much, maybe, but there’s more to it. First, the second and third storylines are secretly linked: it’s not obvious, but what happens to Mon and Shady depends directly on the discovery that Brainy makes at the Time Institute. (Ever see the movie Best Defense? Dudley Moore and Eddie Murphy? Slightly time-travel-related! Not a great movie, but it has two storylines separated by space and time, and Eddie Murphy’s tank battle in the later present depends on whether Dudley Moore solved the gyroscope navigation problem in the earlier present. Similar.) Second, the patient Brainy is treating is having visions of alternate timelines in which the Legion’s history develops in drastically different ways, and this issue is largely a framing device for the stories that are these visions.
Part of the story of this issue is in our discovery of who the patient is who’s having these visions. Brainy and Rond and Circadia Senius know who he is, but they take their time telling us because they’re more concerned with his suffering and his visions. Brainy only finishes revealing the details to us as he figures out what the deal is with the man’s mysterious ailment and how it brought him to the Time Institute in the first place. So that’s another slow burn that carries us through the comic book.
One key point is a feature of the Time Institute that we haven’t seen before: the Time Beacon. Here’s our first glimpse of it:
But here’s a nicer shot:
The Time Beacon makes time travel feasible. Oh, you could travel through time without it, but the Beacon marks your proper timeline so you can find your way back and forth without the possibility of getting lost in alternate futures and things like that. Brainy states that he invented it before there was a Legion of Super-Heroes, and it’s what enabled them to recruit Superboy and Supergirl. It’s a guide for traveling through time, and that’s why I named these articles after it. There will be more discussion of the importance of the Beacon later in this issue.
So let’s work our way through the comic book, keeping all this in mind. When Brainy and Rond and the Chronarch head into the lab where they’re treating the patient, we learn that a) he’s been there for years, b) he showed up screaming in psychic agony and begging the Time Institute for help, c) that his madness was related to his awareness of parallel worlds with different timelines, d) that he doesn’t belong in this current reality, and e) that his pain started when “we” (by which Brainy might mean he and Rond and Circadia Senius, or he might mean the Legion) gave him some bad news.
The patient’s first vision is a story in which the Legion visits Superboy in 20th-century Smallville and defeats Lex Luthor, after which Superboy resigns from the Legion in order to dedicate himself strictly to Earth in his own time (something which never occurred). This story evokes the earliest Legion stories, in which the focus was on Superboy and not yet on the Legion’s 30th century, and as such was drawn by Curt Swan, who had drawn some of those stories.
The second vision was an alternate telling of the Legion’s defeat of Computo, the powerful supercomputer created by Brainiac 5 who had gone rogue and killed one of Triplicate Girl’s bodies, turning her into Duo Damsel. In this vision, Computo is much more lethal, killing many Legionnaires before some of the survivors give their lives to destroy it. This vision (reminiscent of the Silver Age Legion, drawn by Howard Bender) disturbs the patient too, establishing clearly that whoever he is, he’s not an enemy; his sympathies are with the Legionnaires.
We then shift to Mon and Shady on the Science Asteroid. Shadow Lass has had a makeover: she’s shortened her hair, put on Caucasian skin-makeup to cover her usual blue skin, and renamed herself Shadow Woman. Mon-El finds this amusing, but is distracted when Queeg, the proprietor of the Science Asteroid, asks if he’ll help with some Khundish ships approaching. (We haven’t met the Khunds before in this column. They’re kind of like the Klingons of the Legion’s future: tough, martial, aggressive humanoids who start off as implacable enemies, but as the years go by the writers can’t help but make them more interesting than that. Queeg, on the other hand, is one of the nonhuman creatures Levitz introduced throughout his second run. He’s a good guy but he doesn’t look like one:
Back to the Time Institute, where the patient is experiencing a vision very similar to the first one he ever had, and it’s one that features the Adult Legion. This story shows the Legion fighting the Fatal Five, drawn (again!) by Curt Swan, this time with Dan Adkins, after which Sun Boy and Karate Kid muse over the various Legionnaires who have died over the years.
The time we’re spending with the Adult Legion is not wasted, by the way; there’s a point to it, including Sun Boy and Karate Kid’s conversation. This is a thoughtful issue of the Legion, in which Levitz wants us, as well as his characters, to stop and consider some things, and reconsider others, that we may the better rededicate ourselves to the tasks still in front of us.
We learn, afterwards, that this vision does slightly comfort the patient. Brainy points out that they, like the whole universe, owes the patient a great debt both for his own and his brother’s sake, and mentions that the patient has a twisted and mutated body. I imagine that many Legion fans had figured out by this point who the patient was, but I (on first reading) hadn’t; I wasn’t familiar enough with all the Silver Age material.
The next vision is another future vision, drawn by Dave Cockrum, and reminding the reader of the early 1970s version of the Legion he drew, even though it’s set in the future of that Legion. A different flavour of Adult Legion. In this story, the United Planets drafts the Legion into war with the Khunds, and turns them (the ones that don’t resign in protest) into soldiers and killers.
Meanwhile, on the Science Asteroid, Mon-El has his hands full with invading Khunds, and sends Shady to shut down a damaged generator before it blows up. She plunges into the fiery wreckage, ready to do so.
The next vision is a retelling of the end of Paul Levitz’s giant Earthwar story, in which Mordru menaces the Earth, drawn by Jim Sherman. This is the symbolic resolution of a longstanding issue in Legion history: Sherman drew the start of the original Earthwar, but had a dispute with DC and resigned halfway through the story. But, now, he finally gets to finish it off. This Earthwar, again, is more deadly than the original: many Legionnaires have already died, Earth is in ruins, and the Legionnaires have to defend some of the magically powerful Legion characters as they perform a ritual on the Sorcerer’s World to drain Mordru of his power. This is successful but even more Legionnaires die in the process, and the vision ends as the survivors vow to rebuild.
Here’s where we get Brainy and Rond discussing the nature of the Time Beacon and parallel worlds, and the way Brainy describes them is very interesting. He describes all these parallel worlds as alternate futures, implying that they’re futures that could have come to pass but didn’t, presumably (at least, based on the stories in this comic) because of the decisions people have made. This is a perfectly sensible and uncontroversial interpretation of how parallel worlds work, but it’s not the one that DC Comics has traditionally used. When Gardner Fox created the DC multiverse with his “Flash of Two Worlds” story, his explanation was that Earth-One and Earth-Two coexisted in the same place, but vibrated at different frequencies, and so you could travel from one to the other if you had the right kind of superspeed powers. But that’s not what Brainy is saying! Could there be two kinds of parallel worlds? Or could both things be somehow true? The answers are important, but they’ll never be pinned down for long…
The last vision is of the late-1970s Legion, drawn by Joe Staton, and it shows us, simply, a meeting in LSH HQ that ends in strife, after which Blok reveals himself to us as a secret traitor working for the Dark Man, who sets off a bomb that destroys Legion HQ, presumably killing many Legionnaires. This scene provides Brainy with the last insight he needed to realize how to cure the patient.
See, the patient is Douglas Nolan, brother of Andrew Nolan, aka Ferro Lad, as seen in the original Adult Legion story, and as referred to in the Adult Legion sequence in this issue. When Ferro Lad died saving the universe from the Sun-Eater, Douglas couldn’t take it. He couldn’t stand to live in this world without his brother. Now, Douglas had the same condition that Ferro Lad had: same disfigurement, and same mentally-derived abilities to reshape his body into iron. According to Brainy, Douglas has been using that mental strength to search for a parallel world he could stand to live in, and that’s why he came to the Time Institute in the first place. So Brainy’s idea is to give Douglas more power, so that he could range farther through the alternate timelines and actually transport himself to one of them.
This is the second symbolic resolution of a longstanding issue in Legion history. Paul Levitz is using this issue to address the Adult Legion problem. The trouble with Jim Shooter’s original Adult Legion story is that it set up a future for the Legion that other Legion writers felt obliged to follow. Levitz, in this issue, established that that story had been a parallel-world vision in the mind of a mourning Douglas Nolan, and that it wasn’t binding on the Legion of the canonical timeline. And not a moment too soon!
Remember how Shadow Lass was originally introduced, in the Adult Legion story, as a statue of a dead Caucasian Legionnaire named Shadow Woman? With a plaque that said she had died defending the Science Asteroid? Longtime Legion fans, reading this comic (and the ones leading up to it) had been convinced that Shady was about to die, in much the same way that Chemical King had when his prophecied fate approached. And, sure enough, the generator Shady was trying to shut down exploded, frying her good. And on the next page, Mon-El and Queeg mourned all the destruction…
…but they weren’t mourning Shady, because she was fine. Why wouldn’t she be fine? That death stuff, that was from some other timeline, and it doesn’t have to happen that way in this one. Brainiac Five just proved it.
And the Legionnaires all head back to headquarters in time for their rededication ceremony.