A team of youngsters from the far future, fighting for the ideals of our generation. God help 'em.
Paraphrasing the dearly departed Don LaFontaine, "Imagine a world..."
Imagine a world of the future, where rocketships are a daily method of transportation. Atomic power plants the size of cities, called fusion powerspheres, run energy to entire continents. Human civilization has spread throughout the stars, and colonized hundreds of new worlds. A democratic government called the United Planets administrates over these worlds, enforced by the Science Police. And the face of this bright future are a handful of pimply teenagers in spandex.
First formed as a super-hero team when they teamed up to save an eccentric billionaire from death, the Legion of Superheroes is actually a bit of a misnomer. In fact, many of them do not possess what could actually be called super-powers. Phantom Girl, for example, can turn intangible and phase through walls, but so can anyone from her homeworld of Bgtzl. Anyone from Carggg is able to spontaneously manifest two identical clone bodies. The people of Zerox are all born spellcasters. The Durlans are an entire race of shape-shifters. How does the Legion address this issue? They institute a rule preventing members with duplicate abilities from joining, creating not only one, but two teams of future arch-nemeses. And while this rule kept the Legion from stockpiling guys with the power to eat a space Chevy, it also prevented them from having more than one of a guy who could take on an alien armada using only his penis.
I am not making up any of these names.
That's right, one of the first acts of the nascent Legion was to travel back in time (Time travel being strictly regulated and available only to underaged crime fighters) to bring a young Superman back to their present. Even in the future, everybody loves Superman, and the Legionnaires consider him an inspiration. But they didn't intend to beg him to join, no sir. After a number of rigged assignments, they told Superboy that he wasn't fit to join their club, just to see the look on his face. Okay, in fairness to the story they were trying to see if Superman was as humble as their history claimed him to be, but that was still a dick move, one of many committed by the Legion in the silver age.
Their resident telepath, Saturn Girl, was notorious for such acts, on one occasion stealing the powers of her teammates, forcing them to commit degrading tasks and and then confining them to house arrest when they failed, just so that she could face alone an enemy that had been foreseen to kill one of the Legionnaires. Her plan to get herself killed doesn't work, and fellow Legionnaire and boyfriend Lightning Lad ends up taking the fatal bullet. Showing her tenacity if not her good sense, Saturn Girl tries to off herself again so that Lightning Lad may live, only to again have her place taken by somebody else. It took almost ten years for a Legionnaire to get killed for real - and in the end the unlucky pick was a kid named Ferro Lad, who was killed completing a mission that would have otherwise killed Superboy. Saturn Girl must have been somewhere else that day.
Like any other work of futuristic fiction, the Legion was very much a product of its time. The spaceships of the thirtieth century were still in the "silver bullet" style of the Mercury and Apollo craft, for example, and a criminals were still largely motivated by shiny objects. However, in other elements, the Legion was quite progressive for a sixties comic book - for one, almost half of its membership was female. This doesn't seem impressive until you note that the X-men had only one girl among its six fighters, and of the dozen or so members of the Justice League of America, only three lacked a Y chromosome.
The Legion's women weren't just present, they were involved in the group's battles. Saturn Girl was the team's second leader. Princess Projectra was one of their dirtiest fighters. And Nemesis Kid, a villain who single-handedly beat down Superman, was utterly owned by Duo Damsel. The Legion's roster was pretty diverse overall, with a couple of visibly alien members like the green-skinned Brainiac Five, blue-skinned Shadow Lass, or the orange, pointy-eared Chameleon Boy. What were lacking were any visible human minorities, and this was addressed in the late seventies by every comic writer's friend in diversity: Tokenism!
Rumor has it that Mike Grell, the book's penciller, was so offended by the blatant pandering behind the character Tyroc (An angry black man whose power was that he was so angry he could shout holes in the space-time continuum), that he designed him with a massive 'fro, a shirt with an open collar and wide lapels, and pixie slippers, just so that the idea would be dropped as ridiculous. Instead, Tyroc joined the team, but between his anachronistic victim complex and his odd powers, he was widely ignored until he disappeared without a trace in 1981. His spot on the team was taken by Dawnstar, a stuck-up, nature-worshipping American aboriginal who dressed in a buckskin leotard.
Those of you who have only started reading comics in the last two decades - or whose knowledge of the Superman mythos is founded entirely on episodes of Smallville - may notice an incongruity in the Legion's origin: Specifically, there is no Superboy. He never existed.
To set the scene, in 1985, DC Comics, who owns both Superman and the Legion of Superheroes, decided that they were having trouble attracting new readership due to the sheer amount of backstory that had piled up after forty-some-odd years of stories and small, inexplicable crossovers between titles. So as a way of cleaning house, they embarked upon a HUGE inexplicable crossover called Crisis on Infinite Earths, which wreaked a number of changes on established continuity, one of which was that Superman didn't put on his famous red-and-blue suit until he was an adult.
While a minor detail to the Superman books (And a convenient excuse to forget hundreds of embarrassing Silver Age Superboy stories), this was a real problem for the Legion, who had counted this now non-existent Superboy not only as a member, but as part of the very genesis of their group. The writers attempted to explain this by re-introducing the Legion's Superboy as a pawn of a notorious supervillain called the Time Trapper. Eventually they stopped mentioning Superboy altogether, in much the same way that diehard Twilight fans conveniently forget about Anne Rice.
Then the nineties hit. The Legion grew up and exchanged their Spandex for shoulder pads, with an accompanying shift in tone toward the dark and gritty. To bring back the youthful optimism for which the series had been known, the aging Legion was joined by a younger set of Legionnaires, allegedly cloned from the originals and given a more "edgy" (nineties) teenage attitude and "cooler" (nineties) code names like "Live Wire", "Inferno", "Triad" and "Alchemist". The differences between the two Legions turned out to be too much to balance, and the Time Trapper wrote them both out of continuity in their next inexplicable crossover, Zero Hour. The Nineties Legion would reappear in their own series shortly afterward, with a considerably revised origin story. In this continuity, the Legion was a PR gimmick from a tenuous United Planets, who needed a symbol of youth and unity to maintain support for its overstretched government. This Legion lasted until the early 2000s, just in time for Infinite Crisis.
A new series was launched with consideration to that crossover, with again an entirely new backstory. A combination of technophelia and xenophobia has resulted in a future where many people never have reason to leave their houses. The Legion models itself after the costumed crusaders of yesteryear, and exist for the eternal of teenagers the world over: To piss off their parents. And occasionally save the universe. Until the Time Trapper returned...
Kicking ass and taking names until the end of time.
Seriously, the Time Trapper is probably the best example of how retcons have affected the Legion. When he was first introduced, he was a mad tyrant who lived beyond the end of civilization and occasionally ventured beyond his "Iron Curtain of Time" to steal stuff that had no value in his era, and lose fistfights to minors. As his plots grew more nefarious and less retarded, he was revealed to be an emissary of a powerful and secretive alien race that the Legion had battled before. This character turned out to be a minion of the real Time Trapper, who was the physical embodiment of entropy, at least before the Legion decided that he was too dangerous an enemy to continue to fight, and simply killed his ass. He reappeared during Zero Hour, this time as a future version of one of the Legion's founders, but was killed off again, and when he came back for Final Crisis, he was an evil, alternate-universe version of Superman. Basically, his identity changes every time the universe does, and that seems to happen with alarming regularity.
Despite already being one of the largest crime-fighting groups in (fictional) history, the Legion also had a number of offshoots and subgroups, including the Reservists (Who had specialized knowledge rather than combat skills, or unstable powers, or were Jimmy Olsen), the Legion of Super-Pets (Don't ask) and more embarrassing of all: The Legion of Substitute Heroes.
The Subs, as they were known, consisted of kids rejected for Legion membership. Let me run that by you again, the first requirement to join the subs was to be told by a guy like Matter-Eater Lad or Bouncing Boy that your powers were too lame to let you into their club. To be fair, the Subs were stocked by some of the most useless talents in creation, from Night Girl (Who was really strong, but only when the lights were off) to Chlorophyll Kid (Who could grow plants) to Porcupine Pete (Who had weaponized dandruff) to Stone Boy (An invulnerable narcoleptic) to Infectious Lass (The biggest skank in the universe). I remind you in closing that I have not made up a single one of these names.