Continuing on with Volume 2 of the Legion of Super-Heroes Archives, this next section features one of the most famous stories from this era.
“The War between the Substitute Heroes and the Legionnaires” (Adventure Comics #311)
(aka “The Subs second appearance”)
I have to say I really like this story, in spite of the fact that I’m not a particular fan of the Substitute Heroes, either as a group or as individual characters. But this tale is a pretty solid read, giving each of the subs some screen time, and showing again at how these relatively low-powered heroes can still accomplish some good stuff. It’s not immediately clear that the reason the Legion is acting so unpleasantly toward the Subs is due to anything other than a genuine negativity to the discovery of this group, so that adds some genuine tension. This story is also the first one refer to Night Girls “celebrity crush” on Cosmic Boy, which will eventually lead to her becoming his girlfriend, and later wife. As such it’s the first definite signs of one of the famous Legion romances on display in the teenaged Legion stories (previously it was shown that Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl will marry in the future, but that’s only been hinted at by Lightning Lad’s sacrifice in the “current continuity” stories).
Some odd elements of this tale that are all taken from the final panel of Part 1 of the story. First, Polar Boy makes a bit of a leap from assuming the “Legionnaires are out to destroy them” all the way to “the Legionnaires are out to take over the world.” I didn’t notice any particular reason for him to draw that conclusion, even though it’s true of course.
Second, the panel seems to be taken from the cover of the book. The main story is drawn by John Forte, the regular Legion artist of the time, but the cover is by Curt Swan, and so I guess the internal panel is as well.
A finally, the Legionnaires pictured in that panel must have been taken from the same list that was used to draw the splash page of the previous story (the one with Mask Man and the spinning wheel that he’s using to decide which Super-Hero to kill next) as it includes the exact same 15 characters. This has inclusions such as Star Boy, who still hasn’t actually appeared in a story since his debut years earlier, and excludes Phantom Girl, Matter-Eater Lad, and most oddly, Mon-El, who appeared a lot at the time.
But this pieces of trivia aside, the story holds up very well, and I really enjoyed reading it again, and I think can probably be considered the best possible story that you could hope for from 196? and that features characters called Fire Lad and Chlorophyll Kid.
“The Super-Sacrifice of the Legionnaires” (Action Comics #312)
(aka “Lightning Lad comes back to life…finally!”)
Well, this is the big one, sort of. For these very years of the Legion, this is the most famous story after the debut one, and the image on the cover showing the Legionnaires gathered around Lightning Lad’s body, holding lightning rods in the air, ready to give their life to return their friend from the grave, is one of the most enduring images the series has ever produced. There’s just something raw and identifiable about the idea of all these characters standing around in a thunder storm, arms raised, ready to sacrifice everything.
The story itself is…okay. I can’t call it brilliant, though it miles ahead of its predecessor, in which Lightning Lad dies. There’s not much action, but there is a far-reaching exploration of the galaxy as the Legionnaires leave no stone unturned in an attempt to bring Lightning Lad back to life. This is of course a level effort one never saw in the Legion again, but of course it may have been harder to have faith that somehow Ferro Lad could be revived when his body was scattered across space in little teeny bits. Or it may have to do with the gobbledy-gook Superboy suddenly says about some member’s private theory that Lightning Lad isn’t dead, but in a death-like coma. No explanation is given for why they should think such a thing. But maybe they were anticipating the question from readers about why every dead person can’t be revived this way? One reader mentioned that sacrificing yourself to bring your teammate back is a slippery slope – what’s to stop someone else from sacrificing themself for the one who just did the previous sacrifice, and so on and so on.
The tension in the story comes from Mon-El’s secrecy and Saturn Girl’s attempts to find out what he is hiding. That works mostly well, although the habit of the characters feeding the readers with the worst interpretations of events (“Could it be that Mon-El is jealous of Lightning Lad’s glory?”) don’t serve much purpose. Saturn Girl’s intentions to manipulate events are true to what we’ve seen before and continue to inform her character development today (although one wonders why she didn’t just use her “make everyone do what she wants” trick to get her own way.) Sadly, the conclusion is telegraphed a bit too much when Saturn Girl wanders into the cave after Proty, specifically hoping that she doesn’t get lost and end up late for the important ceremony.
The ending, with Proty taking Saturn Girl’s place, is a bit convenient, but really what else would we have wanted? I enjoyed seeing the ongoing nature of the death of Lightning Lad story, but I didn’t want to see that followed up right away with lots of shots of everyone standing around Saturn Girl or Sun Boy’s statue, hoping that someday they could be restored to life.
A couple of other points: Sun Boy quickly mentions that he is Lightning Lad’s best friend. This is a friendship that has almost never really been seen, but could go a way to helping to explain Sun Boy’s willingness to protect Ayla’s scret when she takes her brothers place. The next time I recall seeing these two be somewhat close was in their “chrono-temporal duplicate forms in the early days of the “Legionnaires” series in the 90’s.
This is this Archives volumes 2nd story to feature a techno-babble explanation for why Mon-El can be hurt – the first one showing up in the Doom of the Super-Heroes with the element from another dimension that kills him (temporarily).
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that this story is the subject of one of the biggest and most controverial retcons to show up sometime in the “Five Years Later” run of the Legion, also known as Legion of Super-Heroes volume IV. There, it was revealed that Lightning Lad did not return to life here, but rather became re-animated with the mind of Proty, who went on to lead the rest of Garth Ranzz’s years as a Legionnaire. It was sort of the equivalent of learning that Paul McCartney really did die in the 1960’s and the guy we’ve been seeing ever since is just an immensely talented look-alike. It was a bit of a fan-theory, I guess, which was given in-story as an explanation why Lightning Lad turned from a young action-seeking hot-head to a stay-at-home-Dad and family man later on. Of course, that didn’t really matter as the young hot-head version of Garth was also a ret-con. Basically, it case you can’t tell, I hated this idea (though I did like a lot of their other crazy ideas), and knew that the only rationale for it is that it was only true in the alternate universe that that Legion took place in (that’s not a slam or anything, that version of the story did take place in an alternate universe, even if that universe was the “main one” at the time.
“The World of Doomed Olsens” (Jimmy Olsen #72)
(aka “The one where Jimmy Olsen joins the Legion reserves”)
And then in the middle of this strong run of Legion stories in Adventure comics, we get this oddball little tale starring Jimmy Olsen. It’s another puzzle story whose solution is “spoiled” by being here, as the big reveal is that the Legion is up to their old shenanigans and pranking their good friends before inviting him to join their team. I guess it was a pretty slow day as far as old galactic trouble is concerned. I can just imagine the team sitting around, figuring out the details of this elaborate charade (“…and then I’ll zip away at super-speed and put pretend tree trunks on everyone…”, “we’ll call the world Gion-El – that’ll be hilarious!” and so on.) Pretty poor showing for Mon-El, flinching because a lead microphone gets thrown at him. Maybe it makes more sense if you’re a Daxamite, but for me I think I’m pretty oblivious to what is lead and what is any other metal.
This is the first time that Jimmy Olsen has shown up in the Archives volume, which used to strike me as odd because the Legion state they are inviting Jimmy into their ranks because he has helped them so much in the past. However, it turns out there are a bunch of minor Legion appearances with Jimmy in them that didn’t make the Archive cut. I don’t know if he helped anybody out that greatly, but at least it provides some context for us to assume that maybe stuff has happened “off panel.”
This is the first appearance of Proty II. However, there is evidence that this story takes place, for the Legion, chronologically later than it appears here. That evidence is the presence of the Substitute Heroes at Jimmy’s induction. They are all standing together in the front row, so it seems likely that they are attending as a team. If so, this story must take place after Adventure Comics #315 when the Subs existence is revealed to the Legion.
“The Condemned Legionnaires” (Adventure Comics #313)
(aka “The one with Satan Girl”)
Supergirl returns after quite a long absence from the Legion series, in a fairly decent story which gives the female members a fair amount of panel time, but unfortunately has them sitting around in wheel chairs awkwardly colored red most of the time. The villain of the piece is the mysterious “Satan Girl” (“So, uh…I guess you’re a bad guy, right?”) who is so powerful that only Supergirl has a hope to stop her. However, the story still does a good job with the rest of the Legion doing their best and staying involved, particularly Lightning Lad, who just having come back to life in the last issue is right back into things. I particularly like the touch of offering a good explanation for why Mon-El and Superboy aren’t around – stopping planets from crashing together is sort of emergency that they couldn’t really put off. Consequently, this is the first Legion story where both Superboy and Supergirl take part in the action, although they never interact with each other (but Supergirl was on her way there, so if not for the planetary crisis, they would have!)
The tension of the plot is high as it seems that even Supergirl can’t stop Satan Girl, and that no strategy is beyond her ability to anticipate. The reveal of Satan Girl’s identity comes as reasonable surprise, but then again, how could it not when that answer is “Supergirl’s red kryptonite-created evil double who happens to be vulnerable to attacks from animals and was wearing a lead costume painted to look like her face earlier”? Satan Girl’s ultimate plight – an attempt to survive past 48 hours by siphoning off red kryptonite energy from her body – is an interesting one, and makes the final explanation a bit more compelling than it might have been otherwise. However, it also begs the question of why she bothered with the scheme of only infecting the female Legionnaires. If her whole goal was just to drain out as much Red-K energy as possible as fast as she could, you’d think she could just infect everyone on earth (not just the super-heroes) with her super-speed. Oh well.
A couple of extra comments – this story features one of the most far-out science fiction concepts ever – a planet inhabited by giant string puppets – playthings of giant children who live in another dimension! I think this same world was reused by Keith Giffen and the Bierbaums many years later as the world where Roxxas catches up with and kills Blok – only this time the puppets are abandoned and lifeless.
Also, of course the Legion of Super-Pets reappears in this story, gathered by Lightning Lad (who was there the first time they did this) from their different periods of time.
This story also features the debut of penciller Curt Swan in the regular Adventure Comics Legion series. It will become his regular gig a couple of Archive volumes down the road.
Archives vol. 2, Part 1 • The Legion of Super-Heroes • Archives vol. 2, Part 3