The Legion of Super-Heroes Archive Volume 2 • Part 1

The LSH Archives Volume 2 has quite a different feel than Volume 1, starting with the cover!  The image here is a Curt Swan illustration of 16 of the Legionnaires, with only Superboy, Supergirl, Mon-El, and Matter-Eater Lad missing.  Where Volume 1 had only the three founders and Superboy on it, this one really reflects that in the stories of this period, the series was really being treated as a big team book, with lots of characters taking part in most adventures.

The stories began to more deliberately expand and develop the world of the LSH, and adding a stronger sense of internal continuity with a the first truly recurring storylines coming up.  It’s an exciting era for the book, as you can finally see what makes the series great, even if does come along with a healthy side dish of goofiness.

As it took me quite a while to get through all of Volume 1, even with dividing it into two parts, I will post these comments in smaller chunks.

“The Legion of Substitute-Heroes” (Adventure Comics #306)

(aka “The Subs first appearance”)

This story introduces two great pieces of Legion history:  one of them of course is the Substitute-Heroes, who are the stars of this story.  The other, even more important, is writer Ed Hamilton, who joins Jerry Siegel as the other key architect of the early Adventures-era of the Legion.  Hamilton was a pulp writer who brought a strong science fiction sensibility and scope to the Legion.

I love the Legion, but I can understand how sometimes they have a hard time being taken seriously, with it’s contingent of lower-powered or goofier characters (Triplicate Girl, Matter-Eater Lad, etc.) fighting alongside heroes like Superboy and Mon-El.  So considering that, it’s no surprise that the characters here, the Substitute heroes, who couldn’t make the grade to join the “A” team but decide to band together anyway to help out whenever they can, often get very little respect.  In the more self-aware days of the 80’s and onward, the Subs were often (though not always) treated as comic relief or objects of mockery.  Even this story was retold in an issue of Secret Origins where the tone was changed to turn the Subs into complete nitwits who are completely unaware of the damage they are causing.

So in light of all that, it’s interesting to read this story and see that it takes the concept completely seriously.  These characters show just want to help, and denied the opportunity to do so in the LSH, they find another way.  We really see them all find ways to be useful and to contribute – bringing out in perhaps the strongest way we’ve seen so far what I think is one of the main themes of the entire Legion series.  Polar Boy is developed very strongly as a character, and we get as much or more insight into his character than we have most of the main Legionnaires (I’d say really only Saturn Girl, Brainiac 5, and maybe Bouncing Boy go beyond what we see here).

So it’s a pretty good read, even though the main LSH are really just guest stars here.  The Subs will continue to make appearances in this era, including two more stories that form a loose trilogy of sorts.

The Secret Power of the Mystery Super-Hero” (Action Comics #307)

(aka “The first appearance of Element Lad”)

When you try to review or comment on stories like this, you often hear or read the notion that these stories are written for kids, the gaps in logic aren’t worth complaining about.  In this case, I think it’s true.  When I was a kid, I read this story and it made perfect sense to me.  Now as an adult, I can’t help noticing the kooky things that are going on.  But if I except just a couple of ludicrous premises, than the story actually holds up pretty well.

The first premise is that the tiny little ships flown by the space raiders in this story are actually faster than the Legion cruisers.  I can understand where the idea comes from.  These baddies are basically flying around in space-motorcycles, and real motorcycles can be possibly faster than say, a tank.  But in my imagination, I don’t think that parallel really holds true with most science fiction space craft.  You generally assume that it takes engines of a certain size to effectively say, fly from planet to planet at light speed, and that little dinky ships can’t keep up with the big ones.  But oh well.

The other premise is of course even more central to the story, and that’s that for some reason, Jan Arrah feels compelled to keep his power a secret, and that the Legion is willing to let him join under those circumstances, even with Saturn Girl’s recommendation.  In the past, the Legion made Superboy, Supergirl, and Mon-El go through some pretty crazy tests to join, but here “Mystery Lad” is allowed to join just because one of their members (even if it was the current leader) says that he has a pretty good power.  But maybe that’s because he was drafted in wartime, so to speak – as they felt they didn’t have enough members to take on the raiders.  Or maybe Saturn Girl is controlling all their minds again.

That brings up another strange point, now that I think of it.  The Legion may be shorthanded here, but they do have a pretty good-sized team including Saturn Girl, Cosmic Boy, Sun Boy, Brainiac 5, Colossal Boy, Bouncing Boy, and Invisible Kid, which is as many members as they have involved in most adventures.  So it’s funny that they take the time in the midst of this crisis to have some tryouts.  You can’t help but to imagine that after it was all over, some of them were thinking something like, “Well, great, that was a huge waste of time.  All we got out of it was one guy whose powers we don’t even know.”

Of course, the reason that Mystery Lad’s reticence is particularly strange is that there never any reason given in the story as to why he feels he has to keep his powers and planet a secret.  It’s actually a potentially very interesting plot twist when it turns out that he himself is the treasure that the raiders are seeking.  His connection to the raiders could have been kept a secret without although the subterfuge, and would have probably made for a better story.  But then of course we wouldn’t have had the fun guess-my-powers game that the Legionnaires play while on their adventure.

On the plus side, the actual quest to defeat the bad guys is pretty good and features some decent set pieces.  It is also cool to see a pretty wide variety of Legionnaires involved, and some under-used characters such as Colossal Boy and Invisible Kid get a decent share of the action.

At the end, there is one final coda of goofiness, as Cosmic Boy welcome Jan Arrah into the Legion now as Element Lad, but says they’ll keep his powers a secret to everyone outside of the Legion.  You’ve got to imagine that right after that, someone said something like, “Err…Cos?  Thanks for the great idea, but don’t you think that’s pointless, impossible (if we’re going to call him “Element Lad”) and just silly?”  And then Cosmic Boy would reply, “Uh, yeah, I guess you’re right.  Forget that.”

“The Return of Lightning Lad” (Adventure Comics #308)

(aka “The one where Lightning Lad…err, doesn’t return, but instead Lightning Lass shows up”)

This story follows on a similar pattern as the previous one – the Legion have a mission that takes them around to some interesting, crazy science-fiction places, but in the midst of it they have to deal with a member who has got some secrets surrounding him (or her).  And again, the story requires that we accept some pretty extreme leaps of logic.

Why in the world would Ayla Ranzz think the best way to honor her dead brother is to disguise herself as him and join the Legion?  And even crazier, why would Sun Boy actually support her in this endeavor, particularly if he believes she is unpowered?  Why would he even go so far as let her accompany the Legion on a mission to infiltrate a planet full of criminals?

Oh well, if you put all this aside, it’s a pretty fun story – full of all sorts of Ed Hamilton sci-fi craziness, including paintings made of living liquid, trees with precious metals as leaves, and a telepathic ball of lightning as the big baddie behind it all.  There is a fairly inventive climax that, unlike the last story, ties into the main character drama (as the telepathic ball of lightning thinks that Ayla is powerless because the rest of the team thinks so, and thus underestimates her).

There are some odd flubs in this story.  Superboy shows up for one panel near the beginning, but doesn’t appear anywhere else (aside from flashback).  And Mon-El is shown explicitly to be off on a mission with Saturn Girl, but turns up in one panel in the middle of the story with the other characters.  Lighting Lad is also shown to be in in-costume when he gets his powers, and thinking about using those powers to join the Legion, which is later confirmed not to exist at the time.  On the other hand, the origin is a flashback told by characters who weren’t there, so what do they know?

I almost forgot that this is the story that introduces “Proty” – Chameleon Boy’s shape changing pet that will play a very important role in a couple of stories hence.

In the end, I find I have a hard time getting past the plain loopiness of Ayla disguising herself as her dead brother.  Maybe in a word where twins are common and extremely close (an idea not present here but added later) this sort of behavior is more normal.  And when you look at how she’s drawn when she’s revealed as a girl, especially her hips – you don’t really know how she would have been able to fool anybody.

“The Legion of Super-Monsters” (Adventure Comics #309)

(aka “The one with the Monster Master aka the Jungle King”)

It’s a testament to the creativity of this era of Legion-history to note that this is the first story in this volume of the Archive that didn’t introduce a new Legionnaire or major concept to the series’ mythology.  It’s basically one of the first typical adventures of the Legion of Super-Heroes, featuring a good collection of our protagonists fighting against a powerful enemy and a bunch of crazy monsters.  It’s also the longest Legion story we’ve had up to this point – a whopping 17 pages!

This story does have the first example of something that we’ll see again, which is a rejected Legion applicant turning evil and becoming a villain.  I guess the lure of fame and glory with the Legion does draw out all types.  The idea is dealt with well, here, as the Legion supposes that the treatments that Jungle King has received that have given him his powers have also made him unstable.  So it’s clear from the get-go that this guy has got some issues that could cause some problems.

There are a number of settings and concepts that are pretty typical for this era, including a Sky City (similar to Empire Strikes Back’s Cloud City), a Space Bank where you can exchange the liquid money of Althar for Barakian “Living Money” – which I’m pretty sure made a cameo again in the Levitz era), and a world of giant (and valuable) flowers.  The monsters on display are formidable and give the Legion some real challenges.  There’s a cool plot with Chameleon Boy trying to infiltrate the enemy’s camp by disguising himself as one of the creatures – with a pretty clear statement that he takes on the appearance but not the abilities of that which he imitates.

There’s also an interesting slice-of-life element at the start of the story as we see Legionnaires from all over the galaxy pausing in their activities to continue to go to school, all listening to the same lecturer remotely from different locations (in a way that would have been unheard of at the time this story was written but is now becoming more of a way things can be done).  We also see the first instance of some sort of “Mission Monitor Board” which keeps track of what all the Legionnaires are up to, although it isn’t called such at this time.

At the same time, this being the Adventures-era Legion, there are some out and out silly elements.  There is Bouncing Boy, for instance, who blatantly violates orders because he’s frustrated at being kept out of the action, and as a result jeopardizes the mission and Chameleon Boy’s safety – and yet does not seem to endure any consequences for this.  There’s Sun Boy, who proposes that rather then attacking the Monster Master together, they instead pick one member randomly to attack him alone.  What sort of strategy is that?   And there’s Brainiac 5, who declares that Saturn Girl be excluded from this random selection because the mission is too dangerous for a girl (a girl who happens to be the Legion leader at the time).

When Bouncing Boy is picked by random lots to face off with the Monster Master, it highlights a sort of teenaged logic that at work here, both internally and externally.  The Legionnaires don’t want to send Bouncing Boy on this mission, but they seem bound by the rules they’ve just set up – as if Bouncing Boy could accuse them of cheating if they refused to let him go.  And of course, Bouncing Boy gets to redeem himself, defeating the most dangerous of the monsters, and also gets to identify the irony of it all at the end – the Jungle King was defeated in the end by a creature that was angry in the same that he was for being rejected.  Simplistic, sure, but a nice touch in a story like this.

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 Doom of the Super-Heroes” (Adventure Comics  #310)

(aka, “The one where nearly everybody dies!”)

This is a crazy story.  It’s got its goofy moments, but it’s crazy-status is due not to that but by the utter brutality that we see Legionnaire after Legionnaire die at the hands of the seemingly unstoppable Mask Man.  The Legion struggles valiantly, doing everything they can to stave off disaster, but at each turn they are thwarted.  It’s only at the very end of the tale that Superboy, the last surviving member of the team, discovers a way to undue the slaughter.

I think I’ve read somewhere that this was later Legion-scribe Paul Levitz’s first Legion story as a young reader.  You can just imagine the confusion a young fan must have felt.  Of course, eventually you know that there has to be some sort of reset button coming, but there are very few clues given to the identity of Mask Man before Superboy finally works it out.

And in spite of Superboy being the ultimate hero of the tale, there are lots of Legionnaires who get good moments.  Colossal Boy comes to mind especially, who dies to save Lightning Lass when the Legion citadel is being rained down upon by giant asteroids.  Her tears over his dead body help capture the drama and brutality of it all.

And brutal it is – Ultra Boy is frozen to death, Lightning Lass petrified, Chameleon Boy choked on poisonous gas, Brainiac 5 and Saturn Girl killed by exploding chemicals, and on and on the list goes.  And yet through it all, they keep trying.  In a lot of ways, this is the first of many Legion stories where the team really faces a threat well beyond its considerable abilities, and yet manage to barely snatch a victory from the  jaws of defeat.  In that way, it predicts Earthwar, Legion of the Damned, the Great Darkness Saga, and lots of other classic tales.

Of course, when you have a story where the main villain turns out to be a Mxyzptlk, there is no way you’re going to end it without it being a little bit goofy.  But I like the way Superboy uses a device that had already been introduced into the story (something Brainiac 5 was working on to defeat Mask Man before he died) rather than just having him whip something new at super-speed.  It’s a little touch that gives the story a level of cohesion that it might have otherwise been missing.

By the way, it is implied that every Legionnaire, except for Supergirl, are taking part in this adventure.  Star Boy appears for the first time since his debut, but that appearance is limited to the symbolic splash page.  Element Lad and Triplicate Girl are also only seen on that splash page, and Matter-Eater Lad and Phantom Girl don’t even appear there (neither does Mon-El, but he takes a major part in the story itself).  But later, Mask Man destroys one of the two Legion cruisers, and it’s mentioned that Triplicate Girl, Element Lad, Phantom Girl, “and the others” are killed, so the “others” must have been Matter-Eater Lad and Star Boy.  Meanwhile, Sun Boy and Bouncing Boy are shown to have survived until after the asteroid attack on their citadel, but their deaths are never seen or referred to.

Archives vol. 1, Part 2The Legion of Super-HeroesArchives vol. 2, Part 2 

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