This month’s story, The Great Darkness Saga, is the consensus choice for the greatest Legion of Super-Heroes story ever. It appeared in Legion of Super-Heroes volume 2 #290-294. Paul Levitz wrote it, early in his majestic second run on the title that would cover basically all of the 1980s. Levitz was joined by artist Keith Giffen, whom we’re going to be seeing a lot more of; Giffen’s multiple tenures on the Legion have been marked by great creativity and a respect for what has gone before always blended with a reckless tendency to experiment.
The first thing we can note about this story is that it’s five issues long. A five-issue story is nothing today, but in the early 1980s it was almost unheard of. This continues the tendency of DC using the Legion as its vehicle for experimenting with long-form storytelling, as they did with the death and rebirth of Lightning Lad in the Silver Age, and with Levitz’s five-issue Earthwar story in the 1970s, and the Secrets of the Legion of Super-Heroes mini-series in 1980.
Levitz and Giffen started laying groundwork for the story in issue #287, when Mon-El and Shadow Lass investigated a mysterious planet full of hostile technology, and, unknown to them, awakened some kind of ancient evil. This evil being created servants to scout out the 30th century for him and report back, as seen in Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #1, which immediately preceded #290.
When the story proper began, the Legion is investigating some thefts of mystical artifacts. The thieves are powerful beings of darkness who seem able to outfight the Legionnaires and teleport away whenever they want by calling up some kind of warp tunnels. We learn that the artifacts are to feed the power of the ancient being who commands these servants, because he’s been dormant for so long he’s not at full strength.
That works, but only up to a point, and eventually the being decides to switch to draining the power of mystically significant people, including Legion villains Mordru and the Time Trapper, and also the wizards of the Sorcerer’s World.
Meanwhile, the Legionnaires are making progress. Every time they fight one or more of the servants, they’re more effective than the time before. They manage to follow the servants’ warp tunnels a couple of times and catch a glimpse of their master. They rescue, and ally with, Dream Girl’s sister the White Witch when the servants show up to drain her power.
They even capture one of the servants and find out it’s a clone of 20th-century hero Lydea Mallor, Shadow Lass’s ancestor, and that two of the other five servants are similarly based on Superman and one of the Guardians of the Universe (as portrayed in Green Lantern comics).
On the Sorcerer’s World, as the Legion fights off the servants, the wizards perform a ritual looking for some kind of aid against the servants’ master, and a baby materializes, which Dream Girl suspects is some kind of secret weapon for them.
The Legionnaires start hunting the servants’ master, including sending one team to the planet Mon-El and Shadow Lass found, where they are defeated by some servants. Meanwhile, the master has travelled to Mon-El’s planet of Daxam, and uses his new power to switch its location with his original planet (which now contains some unconscious Legionnaires).
Now that Daxam is in a new location in space, it has a yellow sun instead of its normal red sun, and its population gains superpowers just like Superboy or Mon-El has. The master uses his powers to dominate them mentally, all three billion of them, and sends them out to ravage the galaxy.
As he does so, he reveals his identity: Darkseid, the tiger-force at the heart of creation. And on Apokolips, Darkseid’s planet, now in Daxam’s orbit, the Legionnaires complete a battle with the servants, destroying three and making the last one retreat.
A huge battle follows, with the Legionnaires and all of their allies that we’ve seen since their creation against the rampaging Daxamites. The remaining servants and some Daxamites raid the Legion, taking the magical baby they picked up on the Sorcerer’s World (and who’s growing up fast).
But the Legion strikes back, raiding Daxam to rescue the baby. The White Witch casts a spell to switch the people back between Daxam and Apokolips. Darkseid strikes back, defeating the Legionnaires through their individual weaknesses… but when he tries to finish off the baby, it reveals itself as a manifestation of Highfather, Darkseid’s great enemy.
Highfather isn’t really back for good, though; he can only do a couple of things before disappearing: he restores the Legionnaires, giving Superboy and Supergirl a bit of extra power, and he takes Darkseid’s last servant and turns him into the being he was cloned from: Orion, the son of Darkseid who was destined to destroy him.
Orion and Darkseid fight, and Orion loses, because, well, he was never the real Orion anyway. But then Superboy and Supergirl charge in and lay a beatdown on Darkseid. Darkseid quickly banishes Superboy back to the 20th century, though, and is about to kill Supergirl when the rest of the Legionnaires arrive.
They attack, and it’s not clear if they’re going to be able to do anything to him, but Darkseid realizes that he was exerting himself so much to fight the Legion and Orion and Highfather that he couldn’t maintain his domination over all the Daxamites, and they, with the Legion’s friends, were on their way to join the fight against him.
Darkseid responds by admitting defeat, and he and his planet retreat out of reality, leaving the Legionnaires with a final curse.
It’s a very good story. Giffen’s art is as good as it ever was, Levitz does his trademark excellent job of handling a huge cast of characters, it escalates from low-stakes robberies to a battle for the entire galaxy, and it’s truly a contest between two opposing views of the world.
We can note a couple of things about the Great Darkness Saga related to time-travel. First, note that Darkseid and the characters he based his servants on were all from the 20th century, contemporary with the comic books of the time. (Well, Lydea Mallor was invented for the story.)
There’s no in-story reason why that has to be so; it’s just because those are the characters DC Comics has and those are the characters that DC readers wants to read about. (Or, rather, that’s how it was at the time. More recently, DC has introduced the premise that the time in which Superman exists is inherently the most important time in the timeline and has a cosmic significance. We will probably eventually address that.
The key to the Legion’s defeat of Darkseid in this story is that Darkseid doesn’t know what he’s doing. Normally, he’s DC’s most powerful and dangerous supervillain, the ultimate god of evil. But in this story, he’s no longer in his prime. He’s still very powerful, but he doesn’t understand this 30th century into which he’s awakened.
He doesn’t really know who the Legion is. He has to read Mon-El’s mind to learn about the planet Daxam and its potential. And he doesn’t realize how much weaker his own power is now. See, Darkseid’s a time traveler. He journeyed all the way from the 20th to the 30th century, and he took the long way. That’s how far in the future the Legion lives: they’re past Darkseid’s best-before date.
More than that, Darkseid has lived so long that he can’t make people afraid of him anymore. He spends a great deal of this story trying to frighten the Legion, and it simply doesn’t work on any more than a superficial level.
Sure, Darkseid’s evil and powerful… but so were Evillo and Mordru and the Time Trapper and the Infinite Man, and… and the Legion doesn’t cower from them. They don’t understand, deep down, what Darkseid used to be. They weren’t there. It was a long time ago.