Continuing on with comments on my favorite comic series – the Legion of Super-Heroes in their early, unashamedly goofy appearances.
“Supergirl’s Greatest Challenge” (Action Comics #287)
(aka “The one where a chameleon race sends Supergirl into the Phantom Zone)
Now this is a story full of menaces and plot twists worthy of a Legion epic! Not only is there a rampaging energy creature – the Positive Man – the result of science gone wrong, who casually and intentionally destroys entire populated planets, but also there’s a group of shape-shifting aliens who infiltrate the Legion! Supergirl gets tricked into helping these aliens fake at being the Legion for a while before she gets thrown into the Phantom Zone and must escape with the help of the telepathic, 30th Century descendant of her pet super-cat, Streaky. Add to that appearances by Lois Lane and Supergirl adopted parents, the Danvers, as well as some other super-powered shenanigans, some Tree Men from Planet Arbro, and the image of a fake Saturn Girl trying and failing to mentally command a toad to jump, and you’ve got enough plot elements to fill a multi-part epic in the Levitz era, and all in 14 pages!
Unfortunately, the Legion themselves are once again, pretty much completely useless in this story. They run into the Positive Man, realize there’s no way they can win, call Supergirl for help, appear on TV, and then get captured. And that’s pretty much it. Of course, it turns out Supergirl defeates the Positive Man in a way that anybody with a space ship would have been able to (she lures an opposite “Negative Creature” into it so it destroys itself). So it’s fine and wacky Supergirl in the future story, but not much of a Legion one. One a positive note, it features the one and only (as far as I know) appearance by Whizzy the super-cat.
“Superman’s Super-Courtship” (Action Comics #289)
(aka “The creepy one where Superman admits he’d marry Supergirl if it was socially acceptable”)
Now, I like me some goofy Silver Age Supergirl, but this story pushes it beyond what I really feel like I can take. Again, it’s not really a Legion story, but features two very significant developments for Legion mythology. Unfortunately, it also features a dopey plot about Supergirl deciding she wants her super-cousin to get married. So she takes him to the past where she tries to manipulate things so Superman will get together with Helen of Troy, and then to the future to try to get him together with Saturn Woman (a grown up Saturn Girl). Needless to say, it all goes wrong. Then, when Superman admits that he doesn’t want to get married, but that if he did, it would be to someone like Supergirl – and even implies that if it wasn’t illegal on Krypton to marry your cousin, he might marry her – Supergirl finds an exact duplicate of herself in space and tries a third time to set up Superman. This girl’s name is Luma Lyna, and she’s got super-powers too, and in fact it all looks good for them to get hitched until they find out that a yellow sun is deadly to her! Darn it, so close!
But on to the Legion developments. First of all, Superman and Supergirl visit the Adult Legion at their Christmas party, where they give the Legion a gift: anti-gravity belts! Or the makings of them, anyway. Up until this point, the Legion always flew thanks to jet packs, now they won’t have to anymore. Of course, the next time we see the teen Legion, they’re using anti-gravity belts as well (or at least, they are not using jet packs), so it doesn’t really make sense. But obviously, the important thing is not so much the introduction of the anti-gravity belt to the Legion’s chronological story, but more the change to the Legion mythology. These anti-gravity belts would continue to be the Legion’s main method for personal travel for quite a while to come.
The second big introduction is that this story is the first time it’s revealed that Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl will marry, or indeed be part of a romantic relationship of any sort. This relationship has been a bit of mainstay of Legion storytelling pretty much ever since.
“The Boy with the Ultra-Powers” (Superboy #98)
(aka “The one that introduces Ultra Boy, and where Pete Ross becomes a Legion reservist”)
This story is “spoiled” by being in this volume, actually. It’s a fun little Superboy mystery about a mysterious boy who comes to Smallville on the secret mission to discover Superboy’s secret identity. He speaks to off-screen figures on some sort of science fictiony sunlamp, and is monitored by a mysterious older man in his mission. All their dialogue is purposely ambiguous and is full of misleading statements made to sound like this strange boy is up to no good.
Of course, it turns out that it’s Ultra Boy, the latest Legion applicant who is on his initiation test, who got his powers from being swallowed by a giant energy beast, and is apparently from some backwater planet where Superboy’s secret identity isn’t common knowledge (as it seemed to be to the Legion founders in their initial appearance).
Ultra Boy’s powers here are described as “penetra-vision” – basically Superboy’s x-ray vision and heat vision combined, but with the extra bonus of being able to see through and to melt lead! A big deal is made of this – it almost makes Superboy feel a bit insecure that he has this little limitation. No mention is made of the other powers that would eventually become part of Ultra-Boy’s continuity, but maybe part of his test was to discover the truth with nothing but his vision powers.
At the end, of course, Ultra-Boy saves the day, or at least saves Pete Ross when he gets locked in the local safe at the bank (where the bank manager apparently has heart attacks semi-regularly), and Superboy makes a new friend. Also Ultra-Boy nosily sneaks a peak at Pete Ross’ secrets, and is responsible for Pete ultimately becoming an honorary member of the Legion.
The last caption of the story promises that Superboy will meet Ultra Boy again in very startling circumstances. I wonder what they will turn out to be?
“The Face Behind the Lead Mask” (Adventure Comics #300)
(aka “The one where Mon-El joins the Legion”)
This is the first story in the Legion’s own feature in Adventure Comics. In the story, the Legion’s powers suddenly start going haywire, so they pull their emergency cord and summon Superboy for help. Turns out the problem is being caused by a mysterious figure – Urthlo – who wears a lead mask (the first of several times they’ll bump into such a figure in the Adventure-era), and who can also stop Superboy with Kryptonite vision. The Legion retreats and Urthlo randomly gives them a 15 minute head start. That turns out to be a bad move for the villain as it gives the Legion just enough time to dig up a Phantom Zone projector they had buried (!!) and release Mon-El from the Phantom Zone, giving him a drug that temporarily cures him of his lead poisoning. Mon-El makes short work of Urthlo, who turns out to be a robot that a teen-aged Lex Luthor had made in the form of his (presumed) adult self and sent into the future to force the Legion to leave earth! Mon-El has to return to the Phantom Zone at the end of the story, but he is made a member of the Legion anyway.
Plot-wise, this story is pretty similar to a lot of the pre-regular series in Adventure Comics that we’ve already had in this volume. The main story is tied directly into a 20th Century Kryptonian (Superboy in this case) and the Legion themselves don’t do much. Their powers go haywire, they call Superboy for help, they retreat, and then they call Mon-El for help. So our 30th Century heroes are still looking pretty feeble (aside from enabling Mon-El to actually help them, of course).
The difference is in the perspective of the story, which is largely told from the Legion’s point of view. So there is a feeling that we are in a Legion series now, albeit a new one where Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, Cosmic Boy and Sun Boy each have to take an opportunity to thought-bubble their origins to the audience. Probably the coolest thing about the story is seeing Mon-El go into action, fists flying. Too bad that Superboy doesn’t seem to catch on to the fact that Mon-El being in the Phantom Zone in the 30th Century pretty much guarantees he won’t be finding a cure for him “when I grow up to be Superman.” I wonder if there was ever a silver-age story that dealt with that?
Another interesting bit here is that, similar to the “Legion of Super-Traitors”, that it’s Saturn Girl of all the 30th Century Legionnaires who takes charge of the situation and comes up with all the ideas. She’s even the one who develops the (temporary) antidote to Mon-El’s poisoning. It’s cool to see the beginnings of such strong characterization.
On the other hand, there is a whole lot of wacky in this story, including several references to “lead radiations”, and to the “hate tapes” inside the Luthor robot that read, subtly, “Hate Superboy”, “Hate Legion of Super-Heroes”, and “Hate Hate Hate”. Chief amongst these, though, is just how crazy smart Luthor is. In this story, he makes a robot capable with Kryptonite vision, transports him with a time-ray projector, and equips him a super-powers nullifying device! Man, what a genius!
By the way, I think that this is the story that introduces the statues of the Legionnaires that get kept in the clubhouse, which became a bit of a mainstay to the series.
“The Secret Origin of Bouncing Boy” (Adventure Comics #301)
(aka, err, “The Secret Origin of Bouncing Boy”)
And the Legion of Super-Heroes are finally here! Even though the last story was the first one in their ongoing series, this tale is the first one that really feels like a story that stars the Legion. Indeed, it is the first story to not have Superboy, Supergirl or Superman in it at all. It’s the first story to take place entirely in the future (even if it mis-represented as the 21st Century!) And finally we get actual visual evidence that the Legion does something to earn their reputation! Colossal Boy fights a giant on the planet Grykk! Phantom Girl breaks into a bad guy’s hideout on Lumbak! Ultra Boy melts a lead monster on Ferno! And Lightning Lad zaps the ship of some escaping crooks! Of course, all these events happen in just one panel each, but it does finally give the sense and scope of Legion’s daily activities.
The story itself takes place at a Legion try-out – something we’ve seen before with Superboy and Supergirl. But here we start what will become a new Legion tradition – the amusing rejected members. First up is Lester Spiffany, whose super-power is…uh, that he’s rich. He gets one of the all-time great lines when he gets rejected – “You’re stupid, all of you! Stupid!! Stupid!!” – which is made even better when you realize it seems to be being said from a loud speaker. (Too bad Lester wasn’t around in the Threeboot, when being rich was apparently enough to get Princess Projectra onto the team.) Next up is Storm Boy, who doesn’t really have powers either, but uses a machine to fake them.
On a break from this rigorous procedure, Cosmic Boy uses the selector machine (which randomly chooses a Legionnaire by pulling his or her action figure from its spinning insides) to pick a hero to entertain the remaining applicants with his origin story. Guess which character gets the nod?
Now, I’ve heard a lot of disparaging comments about Bouncing Boy and his origin, and I guess they are hard to argue with. The guy does get his powers because he slacked off work and then absent-mindedly drank a super-plastic fluid instead of his soda-pop. And he does, indeed, bounce. But in spite of all this silliness, (including the fact that Saturn Girl, with her super-thought casting power, allows herself to be stopped by some crook’s glove’s electric glove while he gives her a basic physics lesson), I think this tale represents a big step forward for the Legion, the beginning of what this series is really about. And the fact that this guys are heroes, and whether they are individually powerful or not, they make a pretty unstoppable team.
Incidentally, it’s not mentioned who, if anyone, got into the team on this occasion. The next person to join was Matter-Eater Lad (two stories later), so maybe he’s the guy on the right in the last panel.
“Sun Boy’s Lost Power” (Adventure Comics #302)
(aka…ok, adding this subtitle made sense at first, but now all I’ve got is “The one where Sun Boy lost his powers, and then regained them again”)
This is a pretty decent little plot with some cool super-powered action in it that ends with one of the gosh-darn what-on-earth?!-silliest resolutions I have ever seen.
The story has Sun Boy mysteriously losing his heat and light powers. He makes several attempts to regain his powers including duplicating the accident that gave him the abilities in the first place, but they all fail. He even has Superboy and Ultra Boy blast him with heat and flash vision respectively, but that doesn’t work either. So reluctantly, he’s expelled from the Legion. But one of his old enemies, a thuggish guy called Kranyak decides that this is the perfect opportunity to get revenge. He attacks Sun Boy (or “Dirk Morgna…that’s your real name, for you no longer are Sun-Boy…” as Cosmic Boy so gently puts it!) but lets him go with threats against the Legion. Sun Boy warns the Legion and then decides the way to get his power is to go and find a Kryptonian Flame-Beast that is living on the Planet Lurna and trick it into breathing fire onto him! That, amazingly gives him his powers back. So a recharged Sun-Boy confronts Kranyak and his gang, who have set out to destroy the Legion by freezing rain above their clubhouse into a big ice mountain and causing it to fall on them! Of course, Sun-Boy makes short work of that with his powers in an exciting little sequence! Everyone is amazed, but how did he do it?
Well, Sun-Boy deduced that the only way to get his powers back was to be blaseted by heat-energy from a living being. How did he figure this out? Because he briefly started glowing when he was standing by some fireflies earlier! And if that’s not goofy enough, why didn’t it work when Ultra Boy and Superboy tried to blast him with their vision powers? After all, they’re living beings, aren’t they? Well, turns out their not! They’re actually robots that the real heroes sent to the future to “fill in for them” while they were throwing Pete Ross a birthday party, whose “tapes” got damaged by a mysterious hurricane-like force in the time stream!
OK, it’s an absurd ending, but along the way we do get to see the some exciting and imaginative sequences with a fair bit of action. Also, Sun-Boy’s power loss appears to be a natural phenomenon, and not caused by an enemy’s interference, which is a taste of the freedom that the Legion creators had to change the status quo in this series (even if in this case, that status quo wasn’t changed). So I enjoyed that all that.
Incidentally, this is the first story where it seems to be implied that Ultra-Boy has more abilities than his vision powers, as he seems to be flying through the time-stream unaided, but this is never drawn attention to. It is the first time his “heat vision” is referred to as “flash vision”.
Also, no explanation is given for the mysterious force the robots run into in the time stream, but it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine this has to do with the Time Trapper, the Legion’s first recurring villain who shows up later.
“The Fantastic Spy” (Adventure Comics #303)
(aka “The one where Cosmic Boy and Chameleon Boy pretend to be a married couple”)
The Fantastic Spy is chock full of crazy ideas, including a super-hero who can eat anything, and not only that, can apparently do it at super-speed. Like Bouncing Boy two stories earlier, Matter-Eater Lad is a character who has gotten a lot of mocking over the years (even he acknowledges this in this story), but I have to say if you could really eat anything, including some bars so quickly that the entire Legion couldn’t grab you before you did so, that would actually be a pretty useful power. Actually, bouncing would be too (at least when it’s written well).
Anyway, the plot of the story is that the Legion become suspicious that one of them is a traitor when their plans keep being revealed to some pirates. As a result of this, they fail at some pretty serious tasks – all of which, coincidentally, involve transporting something valuable or dangerous: the world’s most valuable mineral (“energite”), a doomsday bomb, and Meglaro, a crazy criminal with an enlarged brain living inside an invulnerable bubble who can cause things to disintegrate! The villains seem to be ahead of them every step of the way, in spite of clever security measures including scanning for microphones, conducting their strategy meetings in the dark (so no one can secretly observe them and read their lips), and Chameleon Boy pretending to be a honeymooning bride. There are a number of suspects – Matter-Eater Lad because he’s new, Brainiac 5 because of his unfortunate ancestry – but the actual answer is clever and reasonably unexpected, and yet not completely out of the blue.
The best thing about this story is the way that it utilizes a wide variety of Legionnaires. In the end, Brainiac 5 emerges as the “focus” character – getting to solve the puzzle by being clever rather than intelligent – but over the whole tale, Sun Boy, Lightning Lad, Bouncing Boy, Chameleon Boy, Cosmic Boy, Matter-Eater Lad, Saturn Girl and even Superboy all get to participate. It’s beginning to feel like this really a series about a Legion of super-heroes!
“The Stolen Super Powers” (Adventure Comics #304)
(aka “The one where Lightning Lad dies”)
When I first got this volume, this was the story I was most looking forward to reading. I had read the 12 or so stories that follow this one (most of which are in Volume 2 of the Legion of Super-Heroes archives), but I had never read the legendary story where Lightning Lad sacrifices his life. So I started on this one very eagerly. And I tried to like it, I really did. But in the end, I just couldn’t.
The story is a fairly typical “What the heck is going on here?” style of plot that Jerry Siegel seemed to particularly enjoy. Saturn Girl forces the other Legionnaires to vote for her to be the new leader, and then uses her authority to start grounding her teammates while using her crazy knowledge of super-science (really, so far she’s second in this series to only Lex Luthor in the brains department, and definitely ahead of anything Brainiac 5 has done) to duplicate all their powers (temporarily). Why is she doing it? Could it be that…gasp…she has accepted a bribe from space criminal Zaryan the Conqueror to keep the Legion from opposing him?
A little subtrope of the Legion makes its debut here – where one character (often some sort of infiltrator) twists the Legion rules in order to either disqualify or disgrace their fellow Legionnaires, either for nefarious or secretly noble purposes. In this case, it’s the latter variety, as it turns out that Saturn Girl has received a prediction from another race (retconned by now I’m sure to be the Naltorians, a la Dream Girl, who amusingly is the next person to pull this little trick) that one of the Legionnaires will die using their powers, so she manipulates events so that she’ll be the only candidate. That’s potentially interesting, but the resolution is disappointingly quick.
The first 6 pages or so of this 11 page story are used to set up this mystery. Then the main action – where Lightning Lad disobeys her orders, comes to her aid against Zaryan, and dies stopping him – happens over the next two pages or so. There’s no time to get Lightning Lad any medical help, but there is time for him to take nearly two pages to give a long explanatory speech of how he knew about it (Saturn Girl forgot about Mon-El, who watched the whole thing) including a little footnote about why Lightning Lad can’t be sent to the Phantom Zone to save him. The last two pages are taken up with various funeral scenes, which both Supergirl and Superboy attend at the same time (the first time the two characters have appeared in the same Legion story). Anyway, it’s all a pretty monumental event, of course, but I can’t help but to wish for less mystery and more story.
Interestingly, Saturn Girl’s election to Legion leader apparently sticks after this story, even though she used her powers to force everyone to vote for her. Colossal Boy at one point mentions that her voting for herself violates Legion tradition, which is funny just because later expansions of Legion history revealed that this election is actually the first one the team ever had (since Cosmic Boy was apparently selected by a computer). Every Legionnaire that we’ve ever seen turns up in this story except for Star Boy, the first time this has happened.
“The Secret of the Mystery Legionnaire!” (Adventure Comics #305)
(aka “The one when Mon-El leaves the Phantom Zone permanently”)
This is probably one of my favorite stories in this volume, although I’m not really sure why. It’s another “mystery plot” where the reader is challenged to come up with a solution for what is going on. This time, the framework is another tryout session, where after working through a couple of “joke” members, we get to Marvel Lad, also known (presumptuously, but hintingly) as Legionnaire Lemon, who comes across as jovial and good-natured, but incredibly confident, and almost arrogant. But he is also incredibly powerful – super strength, speed, invulnerability, the whole lot – but without the weakness to Kryptonite (like Superboy) or lead (like Mon-El).
The Legion puts him through the most incredibly challenging series of initiation tests that any member has been subjected to. He has to retrieve a rare substance at super-speed, stop a horrifying sun-destroying space creature, clear a planet full of monsters, and invent a new element! I guess they were character tests – I could imagine the Legion between panels saying, “Well, yeah, he’s crazy powerful, but gosh, he’s so annoying. Let’s just test him one more time, and see if really what he’s like or not.” T
Part of the reason I enjoy this story is the scope of imagination on offer (as already mentioned above. This means that there is a fair bit of super-powered action, in spite of the fact that there isn’t a lot of actual plot going on. But the thing I really like here is the character work. Marvel Lad, though a bit full of himself, is actually likable. And when you find out the truth – that he’s actually Mon-El, finally cured of his lead poisoning by Brainiac 5, his joy and hope, yet nervousness about whether it’s actually going to work makes perfect sense. And the coda, where Mon-El returns to the Phantom Zone to have the final word with the criminals who are imprisoned there, brings the depth that the story needs (as well as summing up Mon-El’s origin for anyone who missed it).
Another exciting thing about this story is that it does actually change the status quo for Mon-El and the Legion. Along with the previous story with Lightning Lad’s death (which is strongly referenced twice in this story), part of the excitement in this series is that often the stories really do matter, and that the lives and circumstances of our characters’ lives really can change and evolve. This has always been a positive feature of the Legion, in part because the universe of the series was fairly self-contained compared to other mainstream superhero comics.
One nitpick and one oddity to wrap up this post: After helping to disqualify a couple of inappropriate Legion applicants, Saturn Girl gets an abrupt telepathic distress call and has to rush off – all in one panel. That’s the nitpick. The oddity is the appearance of a creature called a “Sun Eater”, which is a name familiar to Legion fans. This creature is nothing like the one Jim Shooter used to great effect a few years later, and is dealt with much more easily. I don’t know if this one influenced the other or not.