Jumping ahead a few years this month, to 1976, and Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes #216, “The Hero Who Hated the Legion”. The Legion had gone through some changes since the last time we looked in on them. DC had removed them from their starring role in Adventure Comics, because reasons, and didn’t really have any big plans for what to do with them after that. It took a fan campaign to bring them back in a starring role, and that happened in the pages of Superboy’s own comic book. (The Legion eventually stole the comic book right out from under Superboy. The title of the book went from Superboy to Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes to Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes to Legion of Super-Heroes in less than a decade.)
When they did begin appearing regularly in the pages of Superboy, they had a new look. Their relatively conservative depictions of the 1960s under artists like John Forte and Curt Swan were updated by new artist Dave Cockrum (and, succeeding him, Mike Grell), who showed us a much more 1970s-looking future, with much more provocatively dressed superheroes (like Cosmic Boy, below). (The writers were new, also: Legion stories in the 1970s were notably written by youngsters Cary Bates and Paul Levitz, and for a while Jim Shooter again.)
I’ve been setting up this article about this story for a while. I don’t have the space here to give the subject of the treatment of race in Legion comics the treatment it deserves, and, anyway, others have written about it extensively elsewhere. But there are things for us to touch on here.
DC and Marvel had, since the late 1960s, been wrestling with how to depict Black people in their comic books. Marvel took the lead in this area, with characters like T’Challa and Bill Foster, while DC dragged their feet. In Legion comics, Jim Shooter had wanted to make Ferro Lad Black, and there was some thought about making Shadow Lass Black when she was first conceived, but the DC editors were simply not brave enough to do it. They delayed the first Black Legionnaire for about a decade.
“The Hero Who Hated the Legion” is not a long story, or a complicated one. A team of Legionnaires, including Superboy, Brainiac 5, Karate Kid, and Shadow Lass, wants to retrieve a fallen satellite full of stolen gems, but there are complications: first, a gang called the Betas is also after the gems, and second, the satellite fell in Marzal, an area of Earth populated by hostile isolationist Black people.
The Legionnaires and Betas arrive in Marzal at about the same time. The Legion is about to take on the Betas when Tyroc, the hero of Marzal, intervenes, and defeats them all by himself, with some mysterious sonic superpowers. The Legionnaires discover that they aren’t welcome in Marzal. The Betas regroup and find the satellite, but, twist! The gems have become radioactive after all that time in space, and are deadly to the Betas. Tyroc, who had infiltrated them, is also succumbing to the radiation, but manages to call the Legion for help. The four Legionnaires come save Tyroc and dispose of the gems safely, and invite Tyroc to join the Legion, which he accepts.
Now, there’s a lot going on here. We have a lot of points to acknowledge before we get to what I want to highlight in this article.
It’s very problematic for Cary Bates to answer the question of, “why haven’t we seen any Black people in Legion comics?” with, “because in the future, the Black people all went off to live on an island by themselves.”
It’s even worse for the Legionnaires to treat the Marzals’ grievances as unknowable and unreasonable, and for the writer to have Tyroc be the one to apologize to the Legionnaires.
And it’s not ideal that Tyroc’s costume is, even by the standards of 1970s Legion comics, ridiculous. (Artist Mike Grell thought that the premise of the story and of the character were laughable and figured he might as well make Tyroc’s wardrobe equally laughable.)
For that matter, it’s suboptimal that Legion comics would bring in only one Black character, who would then have to represent all Black people in the comic by himself, a circumstance that makes nuance difficult at best.
(There’s one thing I like to point out when I discuss this story, or the other few stories that Tyroc appeared in in the 1970s. Tyroc’s backstory may be racially cringeworthy. His superpowers may be headscratchingly weird. His costume may be completely out of the question. His name itself may cater to stereotype. But Tyroc himself always comes across as an appealing, interesting character. Bates and Levitz and later writers may not have known what to do with him, but it’s a rare Tyroc appearance that doesn’t leave the reader wanting more of the character, and that extends to his later interpretations in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. Spoiler alert: he gets to be President of Earth for a while in the ’90s.)
But here’s the thing. By the mid-1970s, DC was, fitfully and incompetently, finally making more of an effort to include Black characters in their comics. And it was particularly important that they do so in Legion of Super-Heroes comics. Because…
…well, because if you don’t show Black people in stories set in the present day, then it’s understood that you simply don’t want any Black people in your stories. That’s one thing, and it’s bad enough. But if you don’t include Black people in stories set in the future, then you’re saying something else. You’re saying that there’s no future for Black people. And that’s an extreme thing to say after the racial turmoil and perceptible racial progress of the 1960s and early 1970s. No wonder Shooter and Cockrum and Grell and the others wanted to introduce Black characters so much; how benevolent could the Legion’s future be without them?
This is a problem with any ongoing time-travel series: while the series develops, the real world may change in such a way as to make ideas of the future different. Look at the difference between the Legion’s quaint Jetsons future as depicted in 1958 and their disco future of 1976. Look at how real-life 1976 was more sensual and exotic than 2058 was shown to be. We may understand why Otto Binder, in 1958, might not anticipate the societal changes of the next couple of decades when he’s imagining a millennium in the future, but that doesn’t let Jim Shooter and Cary Bates off the hook for carrying on the story in a responsible and imaginative way.
Any time-travel story carries within it an implicit comparison of the time-period it depicts with our own. And any Legion story that features Superboy is such a story. So you can’t get away from some contemplation about what the nature of our own time-period is.
This is the kind of thing they mean when they say that science fiction isn’t about the future, it’s about the present; or when we write about aliens we’re really writing about ourselves. The futures depicted in Legion comics are obviously strongly influenced by the present-day they were written in. And it’s possible to tell perfectly entertaining stories without confronting that fact. But when the present day changes drastically, which does happen more often than we like to think about, the thoughtful time-travel writer must respond.
The Legion have long had the reputations of being the future champions of diversity and pluralism, and their actual on-page membership has never, until (perhaps) this past year, sufficiently reflected that. It’s one of those awkward situations caused by the fact that the characters may be traveling through time, but the readers and writers are too.