Continuing on from my previous post about the Legion of Super-Heroes, this is a closer look at the first half or so of Legion of Super-Heroes Archives Volume I.
The stories in this volume are a bit of a strange animal. There are 19 tales (plus some extras), the first dozen or so of which come from the various guest appearances the Legion made in stories starring Superboy, Supergirl, and Superman, prior to them getting their own series in Adventure Comics in 1962. So a big part of this volume are more of a survey of the silver age zaniness of the Superman titles under editor Mort Weisinger than anything else. In fact, the Legion feel surprisingly ineffective in many of these stories, and it took a while before we actually saw any of them effectively fight crime or save people. Often, instead they seemed to be playing reckless or goofy pranks. More and more in the last third of the book, it begins to tell tales of the Legion itself, and we get more of an idea of why the people of the 30th Century really consider these guys to be heroes. And yet through it all there are lots of key elements of Legion mythology that are introduced.
Most of the stories in Volume I are written by Jerry Siegel, with others by Otto Binder, Robert Bernstein, with art by Al Plastino, Curt Swan, George Papp, Jim Mooney, and John Forte taking over for the series regular run.
Some more detailed thoughts on specific stories:
“The Legion of Super-Heroes” (Adventure Comics #247)
(aka “The First Appearance”)
The Legion debut story, by the great Otto Binder and Al Plastino. Legion founders Cosmic Boy (who has magnetic eyes), Lightning Boy (who claps his oppositely charged hands together to produce lightning) and Saturn Girl (whom the-expert-in-telepathy scientists of Saturn taught her what they know) visit Superboy in the 20th Century and pull some pranks on him. Then they invite to tryout for their club in the 30th Century where the pull some more pranks on him (What jerks!) and cause a bunch of damage. But at least they help retrieve an old statue from the bottom of the sea and help prevent a spaceliner from being stranded. And at the end they make up for it all by giving Superboy a special badge and thanking him for being a good sport. There are other Legionnaires present who are not identified, and the three founders appear wearing costumes that have their names written on them that are never seen again. Cosmic Boy also wears a helmet on the cover and carries it for one panel inside that we never see again. Maybe they’re some sort of “dress uniforms” for this special occasion, although you don’t really get the impression that these characters were actually inspired by Superboy, based on how they treat him.
“Prisoner of the Super-Heroes” (Adventure Comics #267)
(aka “The one where they lock Superboy in a kryptonite cage for no good reason”)
This has got to be the story I have the hardest time reconciling with the Legion that I know, even with the continuity-nightmare inducing Adult Legion stories that are approaching. Basically, the Legion – a group from the future – come to the 20th century and then monitor Superboy with a machine that shows the future (because they lost their historical records of that time in a fire) But it’s wired wrong, so it’s showing scenes of the present, and because they misunderstand what they see, they believe that Superboy is destined to become a destructive super outlaw. So Saturn Girl mind controls everyone in town to start mocking Superboy – including Krypto and his own parents. (Is Saturn Girl comic’s first crazy-powerful, morally ambiguous telepath?) The goal is to humiliate Superboy enough to get him to want him to leave earth, where they can then capture him and lock him in a Kryptonite cage, for the rest of his life! And that’s just what they do! It’s just plain luck that the Legion (and a whole bunch of other heroes from all over the galaxy) get in a danger only Superboy can save them from, thus reproving to them all his good character. These guys are superheroes? They seem more like crazy, totalitarian lunatics! And kind of dopes as well. There’s a lot of referencing past continuity throughout Legion history, but I’m pretty sure there’s never been a story where the Legion is sitting around drinking coffee and saying to Superboy, “Hey, remember that time we made all your friends and family hate you and were planning on imprisoning you forever because our own dopiness made us think you were turning into a villain? Boy, that was embarrassing.”
The costumes for Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad are now the classic Silver Age ones we come to know, but Cosmic Boy’s is different. Lightning Lad is now called Lightning Lad rather than Lightning Boy, but only by Superboy himself.
“The Three Super-Heroes” (Action Comics #267)
(aka “The First Supergirl Legion story”)
“The Three Superheroes” is a bit of a rehash of the Legion’s debut story (which is fair enough as the concept was still quite new), except this time starring Supergirl. Again, the three founding members of the Legion travel back in time, pull a bunch of potentially dangerous initiation pranks on Supergirl (which involve, among other things, purposely allowing a lion to escape at a fair), and then invite her to join their superhero club in the future. To be fair, they do legitimately help save Supergirl’s secret identity at least once by replacing the tree her Linda Lee robot was hiding in with a regular tree before it was knocked over by a bulldozer. Anyway, they introduce themselves, but for some baffling reason, they claim not to be the original Legionnaires at all, but their children! Obviously, this was an idea to prevent the apparent paradox of having both Supergirl and Superboy on the same team, even though they are from different time frames, but it was never mentioned again. (I’ve got my own pet theories to explain this that involve language translation issues and awareness of the 20th Century L.E.G.I.O.N. team, but whatever). And unlike with Superboy (which was long ago retconned to occur after this story, from a 30th Century standpoint), they give her a fair test, without purposely sabotaging her. On the other hand, they do reject for a bit of a strange reason – her exposure to Red Kryptonite ages her so that she is biologically over 18. Legion rules state (for the first time) that to be a member, you must be under 18 and possess a super-power, and the physical aging seems to violate this rule even though of course she hasn’t gotten any older. I guess the strange part is that neither Supergirl nor the Legion seem to be aware that Red Kryptonite’s effects only last 48 hours. Perhaps it wasn’t part of the Superman mythos at the time. Anyway, as silly as these points are, I find this story to be more fun than its predecessor largely because I enjoy early, sweet, naive Supergirl more than her know-it-all cousin, and especially because of the presence of more Legionnaires. We see Chameleon Boy, Colossal Boy, and Invisible Kid (later retconned into being applicants, I believe), though they don’t do much. But it’s a fun introduction to some more significant Legion lore.
Cosmic Boy finally wears his standard costume, and Lightning Lad is called “Lightning Lad” by Supergirl (as that’s how she knows him from Superman) but “Lightning Boy” by Cosmic Boy. Also, as far as I am concerned, this story does leave us with one great, unexplored Legion mystery: how on earth did Lightning Boy, Cosmic Boy, and Saturn Girl manage to switch the position of two trees near the Midvale Orphanage without anyone noticing?
“The Army of the Living Kryptonite Men” (Superboy #86)
(aka “The First Lex Luthor Legion story”)
OK, turns out I am partially wrong. In spite of what I wrote for my comments on “Prisoner of the Super-Heroes”, Superboy does reminisce (fondly, it seems) about that tale when he shares with Pa Kent that it was after that adventure that the Legion gave him the often-seen figurines of themselves as a present. He doesn’t mention that that was the time where Pa Kent told him he wished he could return him to the orphanage! Anyway, this isn’t really a Legion story. It’s basically a tale of the latest wacky scheme that teen-aged Lex Luthor has to destroy Superboy, when he develops a technology that allows him to mentally move inanimate objects (which of course is destroyed at the end), including Kryptonite. Luthor’s plan is pretty effective, as Krypto is caught in the same trap as Superboy, and there is a pathetic and sad panel of the two heroes saying goodbye to each other as they lay dying. Lana Lang shows up for a page to sneak around but otherwise do nothing at all, and in the end it’s Lightning Lad (who is finally identified as such in the future, by his name card) who comes back from the 30th Century to save him. Strangely, Superboy later realizes he would have been saved by a chance accident even without Lightning Lad’s help – explaining thus that Lightning Lad didn’t change fate. Of course, the Legion don’t seem to be fazed by such concerns. Probably the real reason this story makes it into this volume is that at the end, Luthor theorizes that in the future there must exist a Legion of Super-Villains as well – and the captions promise that we will see them soon, making this perhaps the first “arc” in LSH history (unless one counts the story of Supergirl’s attempts to join the team.) Aside from this little teaser, and in spite of the high stakes, the story is nothing remarkable, and a bit of a drag.
“Lana Lang and the Legion of Super-Heroes” (Adventure Comics #282)
(aka “Star Boy’s First Appearance”)
Another new member of the Legion turns up here, this time in a featured role, and that’s Star Boy. Star Boy is the first Legionnaire (aside from Superboy and Supergirl, of course) for whom we learn his real name, his origin, and his home planet. He is also part of the first Legion romance. A fun distinction for a character who actually won’t appear again for quite a while, and when he does, his power set will be completely different (something that wasn’t explained for a loooong time, as far as I understand) and his girlfriend will be nowhere to be seen. The story itself is not that enjoyable mostly because Lana Lang is so annoying, and it doesn’t really feel like a Legion story because the characters we’ve met so far are only seen in one flashback panel. In that flashback, Star Boy is shown joining the Legion, with Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, Lightning Boy (again identified as such) and Chameleon Boy present. There are two other characters only seen from behind – a blond girl and a red-headed boy (if the archive coloring can be believed). Knowledge of Legion history would suggest that these two have to be Supergirl and Sun Boy (who hasn’t been introduced to the series yet).
Star Boy comes to the 20th century to enlist Superboy’s help in finding a criminal. He is protective of his secret identity. When Lana overhears this (without actually knowing what his secret identity is) she blackmails Star Boy into pretending that he is in love with her to make Superboy jealous. But Superboy overhears this so he works against her, even getting Star Boy’s girlfriend Zynthia to pretend she likes him. When Lana finally breaks down and tells the truth, Superboy congratulates her for being honest rather than telling her to stop being a psycho and leave him alone. Zynthia seems to take this all in stride as well, rather than slapping Lana and never talk to her boyfriend again.
For the first time, the Legion is shown to be actually trying to stop criminals – although Star Boy doesn’t actually do this on panel at all, it’s nice to hear that it does go on. And while there’s a refreshing absence of Legion shenanigans seen in many of the stories so far, Star Boy does get Superboy’s attention by throwing giant mud horseshoes so they land on Clark Kent! Thanks a heap for honoring the secret identity, genius!
“Supergirl’s Three Super Girl-Friends” (Action Comics #276)
(aka “The One Where Supergirl joins the Legion and meets Brainiac 5”)
Here is the follow-up story to the one where Supergirl gets rejected from the Legion, so I guess this story-arc narrowly beats Lex Luthor’s Legion animosity as the first recurring plot thread. This story is a bit of a tour of the fun (though your mileage may vary) and loopiness of early Supergirl: references to being Superman’s secret weapon? Check. Supergirl stuck in an orphanage? Check. Linda Lee Robot coming out of a tree? Check. Krypto and Lori Lemaris appearances? Check. Jerro the Merboy pining away for Supergirl? Check. Supergirl stressing about her romantic life? Check (and this was before they introduced Comet, who went back and forth between Supergirl’s boyfriend and her horse!) Nothing really bad happening to anyone? Check.
One oddity here is that we actually get what appears to be a flash-forward (from Supergirl’s point of view) of what looks like the last battle between Superman and Brainiac – one in which it appears that Superman deliberately destroys his enemy.
As a Legion story, the main benefit here is the expansion to the Legion mythology. We meet Triplicate Girl and Phantom Girl, as well as joining member Brainiac 5. We also see Legion applicants Sun Boy, Shrinking Violet, and Bouncing Boy (whose power is identified as “Super-Bouncing”). Of course all three of these guys eventually join the team. There must have been a point where the Legion said, “Hang this ‘only one or two members a year’ thing! We need as many members as we can get!” (Actually, that’d make an interesting “lost” story.) It’s really around here that you’d begin to feel, as a new reader, that Hey, how many of these heroes are there? There might not be any end to them! And that’s exciting.
“Superboy’s Big Brother” / “The Secret of Mon-El” (Superboy #89)
(aka “The One that Introduces Mon-El”)
Technically, this isn’t a Legion story. There’s no reference to the Legion, the 30th Century, or any of the other heroes we’ve gotten to know. But this story, the longest one so far (19 pages) is included because it introduces Mon-El, a character who will become a significant part of the Legion. The story is one of the most memorable and referenced ones from this era, telling the tale of the mysterious stranger who crash lands on earth, with all the evidence apparently pointing to him being Superboy’s older brother, suffering from amnesia. Superboy’s joy at finding a lost piece of his past is quite heartfelt, and for a time he and Mon-El (so named for landing on a Monday) enjoy doing super-deeds together. But soon, Superboy begins to realize that this stranger is not who he has assumed him to be, and even suspects him of being in cahoots with some criminals. He intends to expose by pretending they are trapped by Kryptonite, but ends up accidentally permanently poisoning Mon-El with lead, which people from his home planet Daxam are vulnerable to. The only way to save him is to send him to the phantom zone until a cure can be found. Strangely, Superboy vows to save him when he grows up to be Superman, obviously meant as a tease for a future story, but coming across like he’s saying he’s not going to worry about his trapped friend until then!
It’s a pretty good story that gives some fairly good characterization for the period, and has a fairly compelling plot. Mon-El’s plight is not the first “arc” that’s seeded in Legion history but it is perhaps the most rewarding of these early plots when it pays off in some later stories in this same volume. It’s nice to see Superboy and Mon-El doing what they can to help people, and Superboy’s mistake (in exposing Mon-El to lead) feels like a tragic but realistic one to make.
There are some negatives and oddities, though. In part two, there’s over two full pages devoted to a completely unrelated sequence where Clark, inspired by a question on a test, sneaks out of class, goes back in time to ancient Egypt to discover the origin of the Cinderella story, and then forgets himself so much that he puts that information on his test, and is startled to find he has no way of explaining this knowledge. Maybe it was all to show how distracted he’d become by the situation with Mon-El. There are some criminals who rob a bank in Smallville by catapulting lead balls from out of town through its walls. And there’s also a loopy moment where on a planetoid where Superboy and Mon-El are playing baseball, they encounter, and I quote, “a jack-in-the-box monster…probably left behind in a space wreck by a weird race of space people who make crazy toys.” Hmm, probably.
“The Legion of Super-Villains” (Superman #147)
(aka “The First Adult Legion Story”)
This is the first appearance of Superman in a Legion story, and thus the first appearance of the grown up Legion of Super-Heroes. Most of the plot is actually about Lex Luthor, though, following on from the teen Luthor’s appearance in “The Army of Living Kryptonite Men” a few stories back. Luthor tricks the prison warden into giving him access to radio parts, which he uses to summon for help from the postulated future Legion of Super-Villains. Turns out that he’s correct, and the villains Lightning Lord, Cosmic King , and Saturn Queen return from the future (wrongly called the 21st Century – the first but not last time that mistake will be made) to free him from prison and get his help defeating Superman, with the ultimate goal being to humiliate the LSH. So they harass Superman and eventually lure him into a trap. The adult LSH shows up – Lightning Man, Cosmic Man, and Saturn Woman – who try to rescue Superman, but fail. The villains agree – for no particular reason – to allow Superman to go if a Legionnaire agrees to die in his place, and Saturn Woman volunteers (foreshadowing a key moment from her past that is still yet to be seen). Then the villains agree to allow Superman to pay a tribute to Saturn Woman based on the fact that he gives his word not to try to save her. But of course, Superman is able to stop them, while at the same time, not breaking his word.
It was exciting to see the Legion (even in their odd, adult stage) fight some actual super-powered bad guys for once, even if it was just for a couple of panels – but the drama of it is undercut by the fact that the villains act so stupidly. But it makes you hungry for some real superhero action in this series.
Notably, this story features the origin of Lightning Lord, and thus of Lightning Lad as well (no sign of Ayla yet), including reference to the planet Korbal. Cosmic King, though having nothing to do with Cosmic Boy at all aside from the name, wears a costume quite similar to Cosmic Boy’s, including a helmet like that seen on Cosmic Boy on the front cover of the first Legion appearance, in Adventure #247.
In what seems like a bit of an oversight, Superman references Saturn Queen telling him her origin, but Superman wasn’t present when she told Luthor her story (though maybe she repeated it later?)
“The Secret of the Seventh Super-Hero” (Adventure #290)
(aka “The Imposter Sun Boy Story”)
We keep getting teased that we’re in for some full-on Legion action, where a lot of these new 30th Century characters are going to do some real super-heroing, and we keep not getting it. This story features, by complete coincidence, a duplicate for Sun Boy and a double for Clark Kent. It also features the loopy plan of the Legionnaires where they decide to hide a dangerous weapon in six pieces throughout the 20th Century, forgetting it seems that the 20th Century eventually becomes the 30th Century, and that there actions will mean that for a period of time there will now actually be two of these weapons lying around, because of what they did. Of course, the weapon does get assembled, but Superboy just destroys it with his heat vision – which seems a lot simpler to begin with. We are also introduced to one of the more forgettable parts of Legion lore – the secret Legion handshake. In spite of introducing Sun Boy to the Legion, the story feels too inconsequential to really matter except to whet our appetite for more of this group of teens.
“The Legion of Super-Traitors” (Adventure #293)
(aka “The Legion of Super-Pets shows up”)
This is a crazy story! We get our first really truly threatening enemy – the Brain Globes of Rambat! These dangerous menaces have the ability to so affect Superboy’s mind that they make him casually disregard life, as well as his precious dog, in a couple of instances. Then they make the Legion (founders only) try to kill Superboy a couple of times, first by releasing Phantom Zone prisoners, then by blasting him with Kryptonite rings (mysteriously not colored green). Superboy’s in danger, and the Legion (freed from mind control) must save him. They develop a plan, and that’s to seek the aid of…the Legion of Super-Pets!
Yes, it’s true. Though it is the LSH who come up with the idea, it’s the newly christened Legion of Super-Pets that end up defeating the Brain Globes, as their abilities are useless against animals. So Krypto the super dog, Streaky the super cat, Beppo the super monkey, and Comet the super-horse (appearing for the first time, but in an interesting use of time travel, well known to the futuristic Legionnaires). They make short work of the Brain Globes and the day is saved.
So it’s great that the sorts of threats the Legion is facing is amping up, it’s nice to see Cosmic Boy use his powers offensively (against a bunch of Superboy robots while he is still under the Brain Globe’s control) and it’s nice to see Mon-El is a brief cameo, but too bad that the heroes of the story are the super-pets, one of the goofier concepts of this era.
Other bits to note in this story are that the Legion makes sure to do the whole Super-Pets thing while Superboy is unconscious, refusing to tell him what happened so that he won’t find out about Supergirl and her horse – as at that point Superboy and Supergirl hadn’t met and apparently Saturn Girl hadn’t thought of the whole “post-hypnotic suggestion” thing yet. Also, at the end, Superboy undoes the Brain Globes plan of pulling earth out of its orbit by blowing really hard on South America to put the earth back where it belongs. His big concern at the time seems to be that otherwise the earths clocks and calendars will be messed up.
OK, that’s it for now – more to come later.
The Legion of Super-Heroes • Archive Vol. 1, Part 2