Picking up where the Archives series left off, Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes Volume One captures a moment in the franchise with a couple of key developments.
After rare space radiation fuses four members into a Composite Legionnaire that bedevils the team, the young heroes deal with the need to perpetually keep the time-traveling Superboy ignorant about key future information before he returns to his own century. While Cosmic Boy’s visit home is disturbed by an odd alien creating natural disasters on his world, Mon-El tangles with Khundian raiders on the edge of space and Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad decide that, though it means they’ll have to leave the Legion, the time is right for them to get married. The whole team turns out for the wedding, which is marred by a time-altering plot set in motion by one of the team’s biggest foes. The Legion defends its benefactor, R.J. Brande, against a violent interloper with an ax to grind. Ultra Boy finds himself at odds with his teammates when a mysterious figure sets him up for a murder. And finally, Grimbor the Chainsman returns with a plot to take revenge on the Legion.
By the mid-70s, Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes had become one of DC’s higher profile titles. This phase was primarily written by legendary Legion scribe Paul Levitz, with contributions from Gerry Conway and Jack C. Harris, among others. Levitz did his best to balance the large cast, with more than twenty full-time members and a large trove of supporting characters, with varying degrees of success. Some characters fared better; Superboy, Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, Cosmic Boy, Wildfire and Braniac 5 all managed prominent placement in stories that offered some genuine character development. A few characters shone in single-issue spotlights that gave them a chance to spread their wings. Others struggled for any page time at all. Future fan favorite Dream Girl had a few “blink and you missed it” appearances, while poor Tyroc, already saddled with a problematic character concept, somehow managed to be the only member left behind when everyone else went off for a major confrontation. That’s the nature of a beast like Legion and if Levitz would excel at the tricky balancing act more successfully in future years, his batting average for this run was still pretty good.
One of the big takeaways from the collection was how successfully what had once been among the more “square” books in the comics world had successfully embraced ’70s modern. The era’s fashions could be detected in the book’s aesthetic and the youth culture vibe permeated the pages. Levitz, Mike Grell and company succeeded in transforming Superboy and the Legion into a compelling mix of science fiction fantasy and young adult soap opera.
This was Grell’s swan song as the book’s regular artist. Grell had solidified his reputation with a lengthy stint on the demanding book and departed just as he was about to launch into superstar status. Sadly, his epic finale was marred by the sludgy inks of the legendarily ham-fisted Vince Coletta. James Sherman, Grell’s official replacement, contributed to several issues and at his best, did some first rate fantasy/action work, though like Grell, inker selection was key to the success of Sherman’s output. Numerous well-known creators, including Jim Starlin, Walt Simonson, Howard Chaykin, Bob McLeod, Josef Rubinstein, George Tuska and Mike Nasser, also chipped in contributions, demonstrating the juice of the franchise at the time that it attracted top talent, including several future industry legends.
This isn’t an ideal jumping on point for newcomers. Existing fans, however, will be happy to have these stories in a convenient volume and hopefully DC will release the other late ’70s issues of the franchise, most not having previously appeared in a collected edition, in the near future.