If we’re discussing time travel and the Legion of Super-Heroes, we’re eventually going to have to talk about the Infinite Man, one of the more interesting of the Legion’s villains.
The Infinite Man hasn’t appeared in too many stories, and of the ones he did appear in, the only one where we really got a look at him was this story, his debut, Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #233. But he is important.
This issue was brought to us by writer Paul Levitz and artist James Sherman. It’s our first encounter with either of these men. Sherman was an excellent artist whose time with the Legion was regrettably short. Levitz was, like Cary Bates and Jim Shooter, a very young man when he came to write the Legion, and he stuck with it longer than anybody. This is part of Levitz’s first stint with the Legion: a scattering of quite good stories throughout the 1970s. His second stint, which covered basically all of the 1980s, would be the consensus high-water mark for Legion comics, and his third stint presided over an attempt to revive the magic of the 1980s team in the early 2010s (it didn’t work).
We’re dealing with an expanded cast of characters this time, compared to most of the stories we’ve dealt with so far: Superboy, Star Boy, Lightning Lad, and Brainiac 5 are in the opening scene, and they’re joined shortly thereafter by Dream Girl, Wildfire, Colossal Boy, and Phantom Girl, plus the scientists working with Brainiac Five.
The comic begins with a fight between the Legion and some Sklarian raiders. The Sklarian raiders aren’t really important to the story, but they show up in Legion comics from time to time.
They’re primarily female space pirates who are always trying to score advanced technology. In this case, they’re after the hyper-time drive that some Legionnaires are trying to deliver to Brainiac 5 and Rond Vidar, who need it for their current experiment. (Remember Rond Vidar? The Legion’s friend? Knows a thing or two about time travel?)
Eventually, the Sklarians would be portrayed with yellow-colored skin and blue hair, but here they look like regular Caucasian humans. We’ll run into a Sklarian Legionnaire one of these days, codenamed Kono.
But the Sklarian attack isn’t really an important part of this issue. It’s primarily there to be an action scene and secondarily to focus our attention on the hyper-time drive. The Legionnaires nab them without much trouble, and deliver the hyper-time drive safely to Legion headquarters.
The real story starts when Brainy and Rond and their colleague Dr. Jaxon Rugarth kick off their experiment.
Like most experiments in comic books, it doesn’t go as planned…
…and the Legion has a new menace on their hands.
Jaxon Rugarth, now the Infinite Man, specifically has a grudge against Rond Vidar for getting him into this state in the first place. He can summon enemies from anywhen in time to keep the Legionnaires busy, and does so, but they’re better at this than he is, and they manage to keep him away from Rond. In retaliation he freezes Star Boy in time and banishes Superboy to some faraway dimension. Again, though, Superboy has dealt with this kind of thing before, and returns quickly. The Infinite Man concludes that he needs to come at this problem another way, and vanishes.
The Legionnaires know how to make preparations too, and among theirs are to send Phantom Girl, Dream Girl, and Brainiac 5 out to some carefully selected corners of the galaxy to see if they can recruit any kind of expert help against this new and unusual enemy. Brainy, for instance, tries the highest authorities on his home planet of Colu, and his experience there is worthy of note:
Anyway, the Infinite Man returns to Legion HQ ready for a fight, and blindsides the Legionnaires there who are protecting Rond. They recover, though, and give as good as they get for a while, but the Infinite Man’s superior power wears them down.
Rond is defenseless, but before the Infinite Man can complete his revenge, Brainiac 5 shows up in the nick of time to save him, and he gives the Legion the key to defeating Rugarth just as he himself is struck down: overloading his powers. (A classic of superhero comics, right up there with “reversing the polarity”.)
The Legionnaires figure this must have something to do with the hyper-time drive, so they start tinkering with it so they can use it against the Infinite Man. He responds by summoning a lot of cavemen and dinosaurs for them to fight, but Rond Vidar flips the switch at the right moment. The hyper-time drive blasts Rugarth back into the timestream and sends him on his endless cycles through eternity again.
It’s a pretty good story. Legion fan that I am, I wouldn’t say that about all the stories we’ve covered. But there’s some nuance here, some world-building, and some good moments showing off the various characters’ strengths. Paul Levitz is famous for being able to handle a large cast of characters, which he does here, and is also famous for not being that great at creating compelling villains, but in this story he comes up with a good one.
The Infinite Man, as a villain, is visually striking, has a distinct identity and power set, and an understandable motivation: he’s traumatized by his ordeal of time-travelling across all eternity an uncountable number of times, and is lashing out at the person he thinks caused it. Rugarth himself was a perfectly decent guy; he’s a scientist and a genial fellow. Didn’t want to hurt anybody. He just had some bad luck, and was turned into a deranged monster. It’s not the last time the Legion would encounter a villain with this kind of time-travel damage, either; Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s Progenitor, twenty-some years later, would have a similar origin story.
The Infinite Man is important for a couple of different reasons. First, he’s a powerful villain who was brought back by Paul Levitz on a couple of prominent occasions, both of which we’re going to look at. But, second, he gives us a look at the nature of time in the DC universe. See, the way time works, according to this story, is that time exists within a context of timeless chaos, but within that context, there’s an infinitely long loop of time, that goes from beginning to end and beginning again. (This timeless chaos area seems like it ought to be the timestream as portrayed in other DC comics, but it doesn’t resemble it.)
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 Infinite Man’s role as one of the Legion’s most powerful villains serves to remind us of what the rules are in these comics.
Still, how fitting is it for the futuristic superhero group to have, as an enemy, the living avatar of the cyclicality of time?