The Legion of Super-Heroes is one of the oldest super-teams in all of comics, and one of its most original ideas. Which is kind of funny, because it was dealt with very off-handedly at first in your typical “Superboy” adventure.
Superboy at the time was basically “The Adventures of Superman when he was a boy!”, and the Legionnaires introduced were just the original three: Saturn Girl (a telepath), Cosmic Boy (a magnetic-powered hero) & Lightning Lad (guess?). Together, they played some pranks on Superboy (ie. Superdickery), but then invited him to join their special club- a future-based group for teenage super-heroes. This was 1958, and the team soon became a popular recurring feature- eventually getting their own book (the main feature of “Adventure Comics” as of 1962), only four years after their debut!
The goofy Silver Age antics of the team soon began being written by a young (13 years old!) Jim Shooter, who added all sorts of new cast members (as in, A LOT), Silver Age touches, and even a character death (among the first in the industry for a recurring characters, especially a hero)!
Soon, a Legion of Substitute Heroes (people with powers lamer than Eating Stuff) formed, and a new era came about in the 1970s. Dave Cockrum added his costume designs to the book (he would later co-create most of the All-New X-Men, and riff on his Legionnaire stuff with The Shi’ar Imperial Guard), and Mike Grell would turn them all into strippers (women AND men!).
Dozens of new members were created, some becoming extremely important to the series: Brainiac-5 (a descendent of Brainiac, but a good guy. And a dick), Colossal Boy & Shrinking Violet (size-changers), Star Boy (gravity), Shadow Lass (nudity), Phantom Girl (intangibility), Karate Kid (super martial arts- and yes he predates the movies by a ways), Timber Wolf (proto-Wolverine), and more. Supergirl was soon added to the adventures, as were “Superboy” characters like Mon-El & Ultra-Boy, both of whom shared powers with the Boy of Steel.
Throughout their history, the team was extremely inventive, doing some of what would become Standard Comic Book Tropes first: Killed Off For Real (ie. permanently killing a main character instead of just doing a “last minute resurrection”), Fantastic Racism (ie. “Star Trek” style racism allegories that would comment on modern-day actual racism), and the Soap Opera-type stuff that would soon become industry standard.
Be the 1980s, the Paul Levitz/Keith Giffen-run Legion would become one of the most popular books in the industry, sharing top honors with The New Teen Titans and The X-Men. Their run had a huge big event, “The Great Darkness Saga”, one of the enduring classics of the series.
The Crisis on Infinite Earths/Reboot:
Only in comics could the one event designed to fix all the weird continuity stuff end up creating DOZENS of times the problems. It was frankly just a huge amount of poor planning, and many characters and concepts suffered.
See, John Byrne, the new “Superman” head guy, decided that Superman should have debuted as an adult instead of having adventures as a kid, because he didn’t like the concept of Superboy (because in each story, there was the little fact that he was invulnerable to harm since we all knew he grew up to be Superman). This led to a little problem, in that the Legion was FORMED because of Superboy, and included him on COUNTLESS adventures over time.
In Byrne’s defense, he claims to have TOLD the DC editors that he was going to do this, and suggested they either nix his idea or think of a way to fix it. They apparently OK’d it, THEN panicked months later when they realized the problem. It’s still Byrne, though, so take it with a grain of salt.
So DC soon had a problem, and they solved it with the most insane, weird story ideas possible: a time-travelling enemy trapped them in a Pocket Dimension that JUST HAPPENED TO HAVE a Superboy to inspire them, setting the whole thing off (adding both uber-complexity to a fairly-simple story, and ANOTHER ALTERNATE UNIVERSE to a world that just got finished wiping thousands of them out).
They did a “Five Years Later” thing where Earth is ruled by aliens, and it’s considered a very good run, but every time I look at it, I see Keith Giffen’s weird rubbery-looking people and a super-gritty world, neither of which I’m a fan of. Granted, this pre-dates before ALL comics turned out all gritty, but still, it’s not my thing.
Things would get even MORE complicated as things went on. There were awful Retcons (the worst involving Lightning Lad, which was even worse than the Clone Saga reveal- think about THAT), and a younger Legion would soon come out of some cloning jars to try and renew some of the old energy of the young, teen Legion.
Sales dwindled, and in 1995, DC rebooted the entire Legion with “Zero Hour”, an event that I couldn’t even begin to explain to you (it was before I’d ever read much DC, and the story had stopped meaning anything even BEFORE I started reading Morrison’s “JLA” run, which started me on DC).
The new, “Reboot” Era Legion were a group of young teens run by a Federation-style future world government, and mostly ignored the Superboy thing since it was an all-new continuity. They tried to copy a lot of the old Silver Age stories, kind of like Ultimate Marvel would do later, but like Ultimate Marvel, it was very hit-or-miss, and often tried to jump the gun and do things too quickly.
Often jokingly called “The Archie Legion” due to how young and big-eyed the cast looked, it did… okay, but was never a particularly relevant or big book. It was rebooted itself in 2004 during the build-up to “Infinite Crisis”.
The Threeboot era is what really killed The Legion for a lot of people.
Not even that it was particularly BAD, but just the fact that fifty years of stories meant NOTHING, yet AGAIN Legion fans had suffered through this once before, and more if you count all the Retcons and fixes.
To go through it AGAIN was too much. Most people swore off of reading new Legion books, since nobody wanted to read a book where everything would potentially disappear.
In Threeboot by Mark Waid (who started off the Reboot), the kids were throwing off the shackles of a parent/old person ruled universal government, instead acting like freedom fighters. Jim Shooter returned to the book once Waid left, but ultimately, the book didn’t have a whole lot of fans, despite being very “high concept” (then again, “High Concept” usually means “Doom Patrol Fandom“, ie. Nobody Reads This Crap).
Soon, it was cancelled and Geoff Johns and company decided to bring the OLD-SCHOOL Legion back, returning the old Superman/boy backstory. Johns even wrote “The Legion of Three Worlds”, featuring ALL THREE TEAMS combining together to fight Superboy-Prime, and they resurrected some Titans characters who’d died like Kon-El/Superboy and Bart Allen/Kid Flash. It’s a pretty big story, though seeing the Legion teaming up with DC heroes other than the Super-types is always weird.
There was also a cartoon running from 2006-08, which mainly took the most iconic versions of each characters, but had little to do with continuity. And they added Superboy X, who is actually more ’90s than any ’90s character I can think of. And that includes the hero with the reversed baseball cap and blood powers, and all the guys with pockets & giant guns.
In all, you’ll hardly ever find a roster larger than this, especially all in one team at the same time. It’s pretty much a constant that the Legion will include lots And LOTS of characters. As a result, every fan has their own favorites, but you’ll rarely see all of them get the limelight.
In fact, you can go entire TRADES without seeing some characters say more than a single line of dialogue. Each writer has their favorites that they’ll push, only exacerbating this.
The main characters are usually Superboy, Mon-El, Brainiac-5, Supergirl, Ultra Boy, the lead trio (Saturn Girl, Lightning Lad & Cosmic Boy), and usually an alternating character or two that’s getting focused on.
Hope this gives you a taste of this historic super hero franchise, and you’ll pick up a couple issues the next time you are at your local comic book store!