Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes Volume Two collects a run from the late ’70s that starts with one of the franchise’s best known sagas, before moving into what would be a long transitional phase.
The multi-part “Earth War” found the Legion enmeshed in an attack on Earth carried out by the Khunds and Dark Circle, but whose real architect was one of the team’s deadliest foes. After the Legion rescinded the rule against married members, founders Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl returned, with the former becoming the last of the founding trio to be elected team leader. Old foes The Fatal Five returned in a rather unexpected way, while the team fought any number of one-off menaces, monsters and crooks. Team benefactor R.J. Brande found himself the target of a conspiracy to bankrupt him, as Brainiac 5’s erratic behavior led to a breakdown. The secret adversary behind recent attacks on the team came to light and unleashed Omega, a hate-fueled creature that battered the team and destroyed their clubhouse. The League of Super-Assassins debuted, six survivors who blamed the Legion for the destruction of their world, empowered by the mysterious Dark Man and bent on killing six Legionnaires in return. A couple of time travel tales had the Legion interacting with both an adult Superman and his father, Jor-El. Finally, the psychological attack of a new foe left Superboy with an inkling as to how his adoptive parents had died; to spare him pain, the team sent him back to his own time, with muddled memories and a post-hypnotic suggestion not to return to the future.
Written by noted Legion scribe Paul Levitz, Earth War would be the high water mark for the series for some time to come. It was a classic big Legion story, with universe-spanning conflict, battles with some of their best known enemies and dramatic stakes whose after-effects were felt for some time to come. A couple of well-known industry writers pitched in over the next few issues, as the series seemed to struggle for direction post-Earth War. After a two-part collaboration with Jim Starlin (using the pseudonym “Steve Apollo”), Levitz wrapped his first stint on the book.
Veteran Gerry Conway came aboard thereafter with likewise mixed results. The Super-Assassins story was mostly well-handled, introducing a recurring threat for the heroes (as well as a future LSH member in Blok, who’d switch sides in the Assassins’ next appearance), as well as the “Dark Man” mystery. The Brainiac 5 breakdown and plot against R.J. Brande both were interesting ideas that generated drama but whose resolutions fell short. Ultimately, this stretch was filled with stories featuring threats that weren’t especially memorable and had little lasting impact on the book. Superboy’s exit also felt like it should have had more impact.
Still, there was some decent characterization, with a handful of characters like Brainiac 5, Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, Wildfire and Chameleon Boy especially benefitting from the spotlight. But with a large regular cast, and a plethora of supporting characters, many members could go months without a significant appearance or major part in the plot, as both Levitz and Conway struggled with the complicated juggling act of giving each character time in the spotlight (an art that Levitz would nail much more successfully when he returned to the book a couple of years later).
A significant historical note: with issue #259, Superboy was removed from the title of the series, making the Legion the sole headliner of an ongoing book for the first time.
The art side started with the enigmatic James Sherman for two issues. His quirky, idiosyncratic take on the future was an apt follow-up to the departed Mike Grell, but the book couldn’t hold onto him, with the far more conventional Joe Staton taking over as regular penciler in the middle of Earth War. After forward-thinking artists like Sherman, Grell and Dave Cockrum, DC mainstay Staton couldn’t help but feel like a step backward in some ways. His work was mostly clean and straightforward, practically retro, but without the design flourishes that often made his predecessors’ work so absorbing. The success of Staton’s pages was also heavily dependent on who was inking him, as a rotating line-up of embellishers wound up giving the book a very different feel from issue to issue, before Dave Hunt settled in as his regular collaborator for a solid but unspectacular run. Starlin’s two issues were a reminder of how innovative Legion could be when given the chance.
Other than Earth War, this stretch will mostly be of interests to serious Legion fans, with the steep cover price not making this collection a logical entry point for newcomers.