If we’re going to be discussing time travel and the Legion of Super-Heroes, there are some things we’re eventually going to have to confront. One of these is the character known as the Time Trapper. The Trapper is a mysterious figure in purple robes who has time-based superpowers and obscure motivations. Over the decades he has become, for reasons that we’ll get to someday, the Legion’s arch-enemy.
In his appearances in the Adventure Comics run of the 1960s, the Trapper was responsible for the Iron Curtain of Time, which prevented the Legionnaires from traveling any further into the future than their own time. (It’s possible that this was motivated by the Legion writers not wanting the time-travel shenanigans to get too out of control.) This was eventually dealt with, but the thing to remember is that one of the Time Trapper’s most consistent superpowers is controlling other people’s time travel. Also: the Trapper is definitely an enemy for the Legion at this point, and a powerful one, but he’s not their main enemy yet. That would take a while to develop.
When Jim Shooter wrote our story for this month, Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #223, it had been over a decade since the Time Trapper had last appeared in a Legion comic. Shooter throws us right into the action: on the first page, the Legion is springing into action to fight a disaster that we haven’t even heard about yet. You didn’t miss anything; it’s just a fast-paced story.
Except five of the Legionnaires are left behind! Superboy, Karate Kid, Sun Boy, Chameleon Boy, and Saturn Girl are trapped in some kind of force field and can’t join their comrades in closing the dangerous space rift. (Note: this is a recurring trope for the Legion. Having to close a dangerous rift in the fabric of space-time is something they have to do regularly. You’d think they’d be better at it by now.)
Anyway, Superboy has the bright idea of trying to time-travel out of the force field. This doesn’t work, and the five of them end up in the Trapper’s secret space lair, four days in the future. The Trapper reveals that he separated these five heroes out from the herd because he’s calculated that he can only rule the universe if they die… but if they live, then he will die. The Legionnaires don’t want to hear about this; they’re worried about the rift. With them not there to help seal it, it’ll destroy most of the galaxy and the other Legionnaires along with it. This is where a lot of the tension in the story comes from; our five Legionnaires need to get back to where they left and help with the rift and save everybody, and they can’t spend too long on the Trapper.
And then it’s time to fight. The Trapper teleports the Legionnaires to elsewhere in his lair, where he confronts them individually. And then we get five different fights, but they all seem to be somehow the same fight; the Trapper’s reactions don’t match the action, and his attacks on one Legionnaire will turn out to strike a different one. For instance, he goes to choke Saturn Girl and ends up with his hands around Karate Kid’s throat…
…or a struggle with Chameleon Boy becomes a sucker punch against Sun Boy.
The Trapper gets the upper hand on Superboy and is about to finish him off, when Saturn Girl figures out what’s going on and turns the tide. The Trapper is defeated, and seemingly killed, and the Legionnaires returned in time to close the rift with their teammates. This, too, is common: the Time Trapper gets killed a lot, but always comes back. More so than most comic-book characters.
It’s not an easy story for the uninitiated reader. The first page gives us two powerful dangers that aren’t identified for us in any way, the big fight against the Trapper keeps switching Legionnaires in and out with no explanation, and there are transitions to scenes featuring a villain named Stargrave that aren’t even indicated to us as being changes of scene.
The Stargrave scenes are worth a mention. Twice in the story we cut away to an archvillain named Stargrave who is evaluating the Trapper’s potential, perhaps with an eye to recruiting him. We aren’t going to get into what Stargrave’s deal was, but he was a menace of some plausibility who caused the Legion some trouble. This story portrays him and the Trapper as being basically on the same level of villainy, give or take. This would change: Stargrave is a footnote in Legion history while the Trapper is a fascinating figure who seems to get more powerful every time the Legion meets him.
When the Time Trapper’s identity is first established, not in this story, he is revealed to be a rogue Controller. (The Controllers are a hyper-advanced race of interfering jerks in the DC universe of the time. They’re not the most evil people around, but they’re always doing things that you have to stop them from doing, and when one of them goes independent it never ends well.) This is an appropriate explanation for the level of power he has displayed. He’s also associated with the end of time, and, by extension, with entropy. In fact, he often makes his home at the literal end of time.
This is an important point. See, the way time works in DC Comics is that it begins with a giant blue hand with a cluster of stars in it. Then all of history happens. Then entropy grows and runs the universe down, and then time ends, and all that remains is this guy, who will rule over everything.
That’s useful for us to keep in mind. For a group of characters like the Legion of Super-Heroes, who travel through time frequently, and whose basic premise depends heavily on time travel, it’s crucial to have an understanding of how time works and how it behaves. The Time Trapper’s role as one of the Legion’s major villains serves to remind us of what the rules are in these comics.
Of course, we’re still early in the Trapper’s career here. He has to depend on his computers to tell him how it’s all going to come out, and he seems very attached to the present day. But if he’s so powerful and has such mastery over time, why can’t he just go to the end of time and rule it? He doesn’t have to worry about the Legionnaires; entropy will take care of them. It’s a problem of motivation for the character that never quite gets solved; it gets worse as successive writers depict the Trapper as more and more cosmically powerful. As we’ll see, though, there are available explanations. Trust me: we are not done talking about the Time Trapper.
Still, how fitting is it for the futuristic superhero group to have, as their greatest enemy, the living avatar of the end of the future?