Long Live the Dream

An oral history of the "Five Years Later" run of the Legion of Super-Heroes.

I had never read a Legion of Super-Heroes comic before stumbling upon its Five Years Later run, which imagines the book’s core cast of idealistic young superheroes from across the universe each on their own and struggling with the issues of a much darker galaxy. It was Keith Giffen’s spooky cover art that grabbed me: a man in a trench coat standing amidst ruins, his face hidden in shadow, a golden ring in the dirt. I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t know that a comic book could look like that. 

I had to know more.

In many ways, that cover captured the magic of Five Years Later. As helmed by Giffen and co-plotted by himself, inker Al Gordon and dialogue writers Tom and Mary Bierbaum from 1989 to 1992, Five Years Later constantly defied conventions and readers’ immediate understanding, in search of what might be found further, later, deeper. It was a book that at times refused to introduce its characters; a superhero comic that eschewed costumes or code names; a series that did the hard yards developing its ideas only to sometimes suddenly (and literally) blow them up; a tale filled with horrors that nevertheless was always a story about hope.

Five Years Later was loved by some and vilified by others, and remains so to this day. And while its influence can be seen in so many contemporary titles, its own characters and universe have been entirely erased from DC continuity.

This is the story of a generous, restless genius; a fast talking but tender-hearted rascal; an earnest husband and wife who thrived on puzzles; and the team of talented, tough and funny people with whom they gathered to chase a dream, one of hope in a complex and often dark universe. It’s also the story of a comic book about much the same. 

And it begins, as comic book stories often do, with an artist who had had enough.

Keith Giffen (creator and penciller): I did that fucking Legion poster. I’d drawn the Legion lots of times. 1 And (in 1983) DC asked me to do a poster. I decided, I’m going to put every single character that’s ever appeared in the Legion of Super-Heroes. It was hundreds of figures. You’d open it up, and it was just massive, an elongated picture with all these figures. (When it was done) I said, “I can’t do this anymore. I have to get off this book.”

I think that poster had a lot to do with why I had to do to the Legion the way I did it. If I would’ve have had to go back to, “Oh there’s Rokk, and he’s got magnetic powers, and his girlfriend is Night Girl,” I think I’d have gone insane.

Giffen would leave Legion and go on to co-create the 1987 smash hit Justice League reboot that turned every bit of conventional wisdom about superhero team comics on its head. But a few years later, he returned to Legion as penciller and co-plotter. Then Levitz announced he was leaving the title to become publisher of the company.

Giffen: I had come back onto the Legion to work with Paul again. And I said “Jeez, I could just take over.” I was coming off of Justice League and looking for something different.

Al Gordon (co-plotter/inker): At this point Keith was like the Godfather at DC. He turned the Justice League from the worst selling book at DC to its bestselling book.

Mark Waid (Five Years Later’s initial editor): Keith, Mark DeMatteis 2 and Kevin Maguire’s Justice League launch was a huge bombastic thing for DC. So when Paul left Legion and Keith said “I want to do it solo,” everyone thought it would be a great idea.

Giffen: I said I’m going to jump the book five years. This way Paul’s run on the book will remain Paul’s run on the book. I went into the book determined to keep his run, which was so incredible, inviolate.

With Giffen on board as writer and penciller, a creative team began to form.

Waid: I was a huge fan of the Legion. I’d edited the “Who’s Who in the Legion of Super-Heroes” and also written three-quarters of it. (When) Paul was getting ready to step down, (then editor) Karen Berger thought this would be a good time for her to get out too, but I was the only person on the staff who loved the Legion enough to want to edit the book. So I kind of inherited it by dint of the fact that I was the only guy who was interested.

Giffen: Al Gordon and I had worked together before and I liked the way Al worked with my pencils. Tom and Mary Bierbaum I knew from Interlac. 3 Tom was a professional writer, but also they both knew the Legion inside out. And they had a really deep affection for the characters.

Tom Bierbaum (co-plotter/dialogue): Mary was a general comics fan who was within Legion fandom. I got involved in Legion fandom in the ’70s as it was really organizing. I got recruited by somebody at college who saw me reference Tenzil Kem (Matter-Eater Lad) in my school’s newspaper.

In the early 1980s Mary and I started pursuing writing and submitting to comic companies and so forth independent of our Legion interests. When Keith noticed we were trying to break in, he showed an interest in working with us. We were the luckiest people on the planet, obviously.

Giffen would recruit the Bierbaums to co-write the short-lived Deluxe Comics series Wally Wood’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents with him. He then asked them to join him on Legion.

T. Bierbaum: I was covering some event for Variety, and somebody forwarded me a message to call my wife. I thought something terrible had happened. And she asked, “Would we be interested in working with Keith on the Legion?” I couldn’t believe it. It had never crossed our minds that we would get the chance to do this.

Giffen: I thought “Okay, these are people I know, these are people I can work with. Also, their reactions to things will be a sort of red flag for me if I’m going too far.”

Waid: Keith brought up the idea of hiring Tom and Mary, who I knew from Legion fandom as really good people. If anyone knew as much about the Legion as I did, it was them. It was a harder sell at DC. They were unknowns to the people at DC and they had not done much comics writing. But Keith backed them 100%, and Tom and Mary were aboard.

Tom McCraw (colorist): I was just starting to work at DC Comics at the time. I was offered the coloring assignment because they were looking for someone new. I was a Legion fan before even getting the assignment, so I was a major fan of the work. 

Waid: Todd Klein came on the team as letterer because he’s the best. I don’t know who asked for him, whether it was me or Keith, but it didn’t matter, one of us would have wanted him.

From issue #23, art by Giffen, Gordon and McCraw

From the beginning Keith proposed a dramatic re-envisioning of the Legion in everything from cast to style of art.

Giffen: I wanted to radically alter the way you viewed the Legion, while not invalidating anything that has gone before.

T. Bierbaum: I think the first thing Keith said was we’re not going to use code names. It was like, “Whoa.” It’s one thing to remember that Clark is Superman. It’s another to remember that Rokk is Cosmic Boy or Garth is Lightning Lad.

Giffen: There were certain things that just didn’t translate. The whole idea of a clubhouse does not translate to today’s audience. They’d stand around and salute the flag, for God’s sake. We had flight rings. Flight rings. They used to drive me crazy.

Gordon: Keith asked, “How many aliens from other planets dress up like American Indians?” How does that come about? (Dawnstar’s) like a cross between Olivia Newton-John and a Navajo.

Giffen: For me, the Legion has always been a book about hope. The Legion was the positive future book. Aside from the threats that came along, it was basically a happy future.

My original idea was I’ll disband the Legion, and then I’ll tell the story of how they pull together. I’m going to carve the bottom out of the Legion, show each Legionnaire at their nadir. Their main reason for being is gone. Where did they go? What did they do? A lot can happen in five years.

T. Bierbaum: From probably the very first sentence out of Keith’s mouth we knew that this was going to be ambitious and challenging.

Giffen: I wanted to take a dystopian future and transform it into the Legion’s positive future.

For its core cast, Giffen chose Reep Daggle (Chameleon Boy); a war-wounded Rokk Krinn (Cosmic Boy); and Jo Nah (Ultra Boy), now a Robin Hood-type smuggler with a crew of his own. Meanwhile, their charismatic former teammate Dirk Morgna (Sun Boy) has become the spokesperson for an Earth government secretly controlled by the alien Dominators.

Giffen: I chose Reep because he was really into the Legion. He had a sense of history; he knew it was a good thing.

Cosmic Boy was my favorite Legionnaire. He wasn’t the typical comic book character. He wasn’t yearning after the girl he was afraid to talk to, he didn’t play into that morbid edge that most superheroes have. He liked the Legion, he stood up for the Legion, he was a happy guy. (But) I wanted a trauma in there, I wanted something that had occurred in his life that would have blown most of us off our pins.

Rokk and Reep from issue #1, art by Giffen, Gordon and Tom McCraw

As we meet Rokk, he’s lost his powers and an arm and is trying to get his pregnant wife Lydda (Night Girl) to leave their now decimated and occupied planet.

Giffen: (I loved) removing his powers and showing that Rokk Krinn would still be a hero. Most of the Legionnaires, their powers were the least interesting thing to me. Rokk had no powers, one arm and he was making a difference.

T. Bierbaum: Al Gordon was on the team ahead of us by quite a bit, and he and Keith did a lot of brainstorming. I believe when Keith was wondering what they should do with Jo, Al literally said he should be like Han Solo.

Gordon: I think Jo is cooler than Han Solo. If he’s Han Solo, he’s Han Solo in Star Wars and not the other movies. In my mind Jo’s the guy that doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s actually the most moral son of a bitch around. To me he is the center, the heart and soul of the Legion.

Giffen: I don’t think the fans have ever forgiven me for what I did to Sun Boy. But look at his path, look at his history with the Legion. To me, it was the next logical step. We are the sum total of every decision we have made in our lives. I tried to play it like that. 4

Gordon: The cool thing about Keith is he wanted everyone involved. We used to call him the Father Confessor, because if you had an idea you called Keith and just talked it through with him.

Giffen: At one point I turned to Tom and Mary and Al and the other creatives on the book and said, “Tell you what, everyone create two characters and I’ll bring them into the Legion.” So Al came up with Kent Shakespeare and Celeste Rockfish, Tom and Mary came up with Kono (and Devlin O’Ryan). 5

T. Bierbaum: He said it like an assignment. “This is all fun, but something you need to do is you need to create a character.” Oh no, Keith, not that!

Giffen: Let’s face it, the Legion has always been a bitch to hold artists on, because you can’t just get a photograph of the Empire State Building and work off of that. You have to make it all up from scratch.

So I figured, give people working on the book a reason to want to be on the book. And DC was using a royalty system again, so you could create some characters and if they take off somewhere you can make some extra money.

T. Bierbaum: Keith worked so hard to give important roles to the characters that we added into the mix. Meanwhile the characters that he was adding, he was happy to let stay in the background.

Gordon: I especially loved Kono, who Mary created…I always read her scenes slower.

Mary Bierbaum (co-plotter/dialogue): I wanted to do a female character who was feisty and kind of aggressive and rough-edged. 6

T. Bierbaum: Mary injected a female assertiveness to the mix to a degree that you didn’t see a lot of earlier in the Legion’s run. We got close to a 50/50 mix of male and female characters, and Mary’s presence on the creative team was a part of that. We were also at that point trying to start a family. The fact that Laurel had a baby, that Garth and Imra were having another set of twins, that was the stage of life we were at. And (those ideas) were initiated by Mary.

From issue #2, art by Giffen, Gordon and McCraw

One of the most distinctive elements of the run would be its commitment to a nine-panel grid.

Giffen: I didn’t go in knowing I was going to do nine panel grids, it happened when I started drawing the book. I was just fascinated by the way Watchmen was laid out. I thought, “I want to play in that playground.”

T. Bierbaum: We really liked it because you could tell a lot of story. If you only have three panels per page, it’s hard to do much back and forth. It really facilitated more inventive dialogue.

I also think it communicated a claustrophobic feel that was integral to the universe Keith was depicting and to the way this Legion universe was different than the other ones. We’re in an era that is darker.

Waid: Keith had drawn his line in the sand there. That’s what he wanted to do. I thought it was crazy. (laughing)

Giffen: It was a way of doing pure storytelling. I thought, if I have a standard grid, it forces me to really focus on the storytelling. I won’t have the opportunity to say, “This is going in a weird direction, so I’ll do a two-thirds shot and a big spectacular piece of art, and everyone will go ‘Ooh,’” and I’ll be able to sneak onto something else.

Waid: The editorial challenge was this: Tom and Mary are very good writers, but they were brand new. And the cardinal sin of all brand new comics writers, including myself when I started out, was that you have no idea how much fits on a page, so you’re constantly writing scripts where there’s way too many panels on a page and way too much happening in every panel.

So I’m dealing with that and then we have to do it in nine panels on every page? A lot of it as I remember was getting through a script and going, “Okay, this is a fine script, but I have no idea how this could possibly fit.”

John Workman (letterer): Luckily, the writing was such that the lettering didn’t overpower the artwork. So I didn’t have to worry too much about covering things. I didn’t always know who the characters were; there were so many of them I kind of got lost. But they always provided a Xerox of the penciled artwork with indications of where the balloons go so I knew who was talking. That worked out well. 7

McCraw: The nine-panel grid could be time consuming, but I also liked the difference in style for the book. Keith got clever at times, changing things up, such as linking panels.

Gordon: There were a couple scenes where I convinced Keith to do a shot that really goes through three panels. It’s like if you set your camera down and opened the aperture in the dark and put a strobe light on…(There’s) this great shot of a character–he’s in the third panel and the other panels are part of the same background, which gives the impression that he is being thrown through all three panels.

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  1. As penciller on the storied Paul Levitz run that preceded Five Years Later

  2. AKA J.M. DeMatteis.

  3. Interlac is a Legion fan organization that has been around for 45 years. It publishes a bimonthly mailing of Legion discussion and personal writings by the membership.

  4. In Issue 28 the Bierbaums would lay out the pattern of parental abuse, rejection and insecurity of earlier Legion runs that had brought Dirk to his low point, while in the present he attempts to right his course too late.

  5. Shakespeare was a combat medic with a distant connection to Clark Kent; Rockfish, a detective with a mysterious connection to the Green Lanterns; Kono a teenage pirate; and Devlin O’Ryan a Jimmy Olson-style reporter. Penciller Jason Pearson would later add the teleporting assassin Sade.

  6. Mary was kind enough to offer a couple comments for this piece, but otherwise felt Tom could speak for both of them about their time on the run.

  7. After lettering the book for the first thirteen issues (plus the first annual and issue 17), Todd Klein moved on and John Workman took over, with a few issues lettered by Albert DeGuzman and Janice Chang.