Some comic-book characters have an immediate impact on the larger pop-culture landscape: Captain America was the perfect hero for World War II in America, as was Spider-Man for the free-swinging 1960s. Not so for Legion. The Marvel character may be the namesake and central character of the new FX show launching tonight, but it took nearly three decades for the world to finally be ready for the most powerful—and most interesting—member of the extended X-Men family.
Legion, AKA David Charles Haller, first debuted in 1985 in the pages of New Mutants #25. Unusually, his first appearance came not in the story itself, but in the form of a one-page pin-up by artist Bill Sienkiewicz; an actual in-story appearance wouldn’t happen until the following issue. Nonetheless, the expository notes on that pin-up—ostensibly written by Professor Xavier’s friend and confidant, Moira McTaggart—told readers all they needed to know about the character: Haller is the son Professor X never knew he had.
The young man has “immensely strong psi-powers,” but remains in a catatonically withdrawn state; Moira describes him as “the strongest telepath on the planet.” Across the next three issues of New Mutants, readers learned that Haller was the only survivor of a terrorist attack in Israel, which had both activated his mutant powers while also pushing him into catatonia. Moreover, the incident had triggered Haller’s dissociative identity disorder, which combined with his mutant powers to allow him absorb other people’s personalities into his own mind.
As you might imagine, David Haller—or Daniel, Cyndi, Jack Wayne, Jemail Karami, or any other of his alternate selves—was, to put it mildly, a troubled kid. So troubled, in fact, that some of his personalities actively tried to murder others (and even Professor Xavier). While that psychological coup was eventually quelled, leaving Haller in better control of his multiple selves, worse was in store for him. In 1989, he was possessed by a dead psychic called the Shadow King, who attempted to use Haller’s powers to take over the rest of the world. By the time the story concluded in 1991, Haller was once again left in a catatonic state, this time one so severe that even Charles Xavier couldn’t reach him with his own telepathic abilities.
Throughout these original appearances, what made Haller such a fascinating character was the way in which he embodied so many X-Men traditions—outlandish power, hidden connection to a central character, susceptibility to mind-control for plot-furthering purposes—while remaining completely alien to the reader. In many ways, David Haller typified the approach that writer Chris Claremont (who co-created the character with Sienkiewicz) brought to the X-Men comics of the era: a desire to use superhero tropes as a metaphor for more human concerns, while bringing in real-life subjects rarely touched on in comic books. Indeed, it was Haller’s shifting identities, each one as “real” as the one before, that made him more off-putting to some fans than characters who’d come from different planets altogether.
Haller might not have been the first superhero character to have multiple personalities, but he was by far the most authentic. Claremont approached the topic with an empathy absent in previous storylines, most of which features heroes gaining alternate personalities after hitting their head or inhaling chemical fumes. (Hank Pym from the Avengers, I’m looking at you.) Haller, in fact, predates Grant Morrison’s fan-favorite Crazy Jane—often cited as the first realistic example of dissociative identity disorder in superhero comics—by four years; she wouldn’t show up until 1989’s Doom Patrol #19, although she would receive more sustained attention from readers and creators alike, while Haller was stuck in a coma.
Haller was eventually revived for 1994’s Legion Quest storyline, in which he emerged from his coma with a new mission: changing history to make his father’s life better. While he indeed managed to go back in time, he ended up accidentally killing Charles Xavier instead of Magneto, leading to the fan-favorite alternate universe “Age of Apocalypse”—an arc that remains, to this day, one of the most beloved storylines in all of X-Men mythology. The timeline was eventually reset, but at what appeared to be a high cost: Haller seemingly died as a result.
This being comics, that obviously wasn’t the case, but he did remain out of commission for more than a decade, at which point it was revealed that he’d simply been moved into an alternate dimension called “the No-Time,” before quietly returning to Earth and murdering a kid. (Why? Because comics!) That turned out to be part of a literal war for control inside of his Haller’s mind, which eventually ended with the death of his most evil personalities and Haller being reunited with his dad.
That could have been a happy ending, except…well, comics: In 2012, Professor Xavier died during Marvel’s linewide Avengers vs. X-Men comic book “event.” Thankfully, that led to the series X-Men: Legacy series that is, in multiple senses, the ultimate David Haller story. Not only does the series explore Haller’s powers and psychology more deeply than any before it, but also closes out by—spoiler!—erasing the character from reality forever more. Kind of. Almost. Maybe. (It is comics, after all, and I’m not going to give away the full ending of the story here. Go read it yourself.)
Given the chance to treat Haller as a lead protagonist at last, Legacy makes the most of the opportunity. Alongside the expected superhero drama, writer Simon Spurrier and a number of artists explored the way in which Haller was a perfect metaphor for the way we feel today: fragmented, forced to fit into a number of often contradictory roles, and yet still trying maintain control of sense of “self” in the process. The series thew away subtext and tackled mental illness head-on, in a manner that simply wouldn’t have been possible when the character was first created. In doing so, it humanized him in a way that would have been unimaginable back then. A character who in 1985 had seemed so freakish, so unpredictable, so unknown, had become us—or we him. And then he was gone.
Of course, that wasn’t really the final appearance of David Haller. As before, he’s just slipped into another dimension—it’s just that, this time, the dimension happens to be TV instead of comic books. Will he fare any better in a reality more divorced from the traditional superheroics of the rest of the X-Men? That remains to be seen, but at least he can take comfort from the fact that, finally, he’s found a time (and, hopefully, an audience) that more fully understands what he’s going through.