In Defense of Matter-Eater Lad

Comic books fans will soon be treated to the return of the Legion of Super-Heroes, for good or for ill, and in the lead up to this there has been various pieces of preliminary artwork by Ryan Sook being released to the public.  This has included a new and redesigned Matter-Eater Lad.

Who?

Matter-Eater Lad!

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Or…as he was known in the 1960’s…

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Matter-Eater Lad, a stalwart member of the Legion of Super-Heroes from the 1960’s, who boasts the power of…super-eating!

Well, they never actually call it that.  But that’s basically what he did.  Matter-Eater Lad, aka. Tenzil Kem from Planet Bismoll (yes that’s right, “Bismoll”–as in “Pepto-Bismol”) earned his spot in the galaxy’s premier team of futuristic, super-powered teen-aged champions with his special ability to eat and digest anything.  With this great power, he fights evil alongside fellow heroes such as Lightning Lad (shoots lightning), Colossal Boy (grows to monstrous size) and Mon-El (who has the powers of Superboy),

Now…this may sound silly to you, but consider the character’s heritage for a moment.  His first credited appearance was in Adventure Comics #303, which was written by none other than Jerry Siegel. That name might seem familiar to you, and it should, because he’s the co-creator of Superman.

Superman

That’s right…Jerry Siegel, creator of Superman and Matter-Eater Lad!  I bet that makes you think twice about scoffing at Matter-Eater Lad! No?

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Anyway, the thing is I actually quite like Matter-Eater Lad, and even though his power is silly and his name is sillier, I feel like it’s worth pointing out that in real life, it’d be quite effective, if used wisely.  Matter-Eater Lad can digest anything, which means he has super-powerful stomach acid and super-powerful bowels…or something.  And not only can he digest anything, Matter-Eater Lad can actually chew anything, which means that he must have super-powerful teeth and jaws.  And not only that, he eats things super-fast,which means that on some level, he’s a speedster.

Matter-Eater Lad wasn’t used as much as some of his contemporaries back in the day, but he still had a number of good appearances and certainly did his bit to fight bad guys and help his fellow heroes, and on at least one occasion, save the universe!

Here’s a quick review…

Brains in Jars - Meglaro b

As mentioned, Matter-Eater Lad’s first official appearance is in Adventure Comics #303 (December 1962) where he is introduced as a new team member in a story written by Siegel and drawn by John Forte.  He demonstrates his power by eating a metal gun, which astounds Lightning Lad.  Later, he takes part is a ruse developed by Brainiac 5 to fool some enemies, which involves being accused of being a traitor and fleeing his fellow Legionnaires by eating some metal bars so fast that they cannot stop him from escaping.

But I also wonder if this isn’t really Matter-Eater Lad’s first appearance.  See, just two issues earlier, the same creative team did a story where there’s a bunch of hopefuls seen attending a tryout to join the Legion, where they listen to the story of how Bouncing Boy (another oft-mocked Legionnaire whose powers are also quite useful) joined the team.

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We never see the result of this tryout, which doesn’t mean anything officially, but it makes me wonder if one of these guys is actually Matter-Eater Lad!  They guy on the far right certainly could be.  Obviously he wasn’t intended to be, but there’s no in-universe reason why it couldn’t be him if you want.

Anyway, after joining the team, Matter-Eater Lad doesn’t appear in a story for a while.  He is seen on a mission monitor board in Adventure Comics #309, and in #310 it’s implied that he would have been killed (temporarily) along with Triplicate Girl, Element Lad and Phantom Girl (he’s one of the “others”, I guess, along with Star Boy) on a rocket ship by Doll-Man.

Matter-Eater Lad finally makes full reappearance in Adventure Comics #317, by Ed Hamilton and John Forte, released February 1964 (interestingly, in the same issue that Star Boy, another Legionnaire missing since his debut, finally shows up again.)

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In this story, he joins all the other boys to lobby for Dream Girl to be given a shot to join the Legion on the basis of her power of being super-good looking, and ultimately votes for her inclusion.

Later, he begins to recognize that she is manipulating the team but falls victim to it himself and is suspended when he’s tricked into violating the Legion rules.  He doesn’t actually demonstrate his matter-eating ability in this story.

The next issue, Adventure Comics #318, features his first cover appearance, as far as I know.  In this story, by Hamilton and Forte again, he’s part of a team who are attempting to help the inhabitants of the doomed planet Xenn reach safety, but unfortunately, the team leader, Sun Boy, goes a little crazy and endangers everyone.

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Matter-Eater Lad notices that the ship is using fuel at too quick a rate, but just gets yelled out for his efforts.  He then uses his power to free Cosmic Boy from the ship’s brig, and later uses his abilities to help his teammates find food when they are stranded on a jungle planet.

In Adventure Comics #319, he hollows out an asteroid so a squad of Legionnaires can make a covert approach to a planet–an act which must have happened quite quickly.  Unfortunately, he falls victim to a freeze ray along with the rest of his team.

In Adventure Comics #321, Matter-Eater Lad appears in a flashback, part of a series where Saturn Girl is recalling great deeds done by her teammates.  In this one he’s seen eating Andal trees, the food that a Giant Mouth Creature likes to eat, so that it will stop bothering a settlement of aliens.

Brains in Jars - Khann c

Later, in Adventure Comics #325, by Siegel and Forte, Matter-Eater Lad helps capture the leader of the Brain Lords of Khann, Atro.  But he doesn’t use his powers in this situation.  He has a few more cameos until we get to the “Starfinger” story, in Adventure Comics #335-336.  In the first part, he eats his way into a ship where people are trapped in order to set them free, and  in the second part, he eats enough steam from the Reversed Falls to reveal Starfinger, helping to capture him!

Later, in Adventure Comics #338, Siegel and Forte had Matter-Eater Lad as one of several Legionnaires who are turned into babies by the Time Trapper.  He eats the Time Trapper’s spaceship when Element Lad turns it into candy.  Obviously, he could have eaten it anyway, but it does seem that he’s able to eat the candy faster than anyone else.

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He’s around during the Computo saga in Adventure Comics #340 & 341, but he doesn’t do anything significant there.  In #342, there’s a flashback showing him eating a ray gun which someone wanted to kill him with.  He later votes for Star Boy’s expulsion for unnecessarily taking someone’s life.

In Adventure Comics #344 & #345–“The Super-Stalag from Space” and “The Execution of Matter-Eater Lad”, the hero has perhaps his most notable “Silver Age” moments, brought to us by Ed Hamilton and Curt Swan.  First, he uses his powers to dig an escape tunnel, and it’s explicitly stated that he does this at super-speed.

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In the second part, he’s nearly executed, but saved at the last minute, only to have the side effect of the near-miss turn him super fat!

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Then he’s not seen again until Adventure Comics #350–“The Outcast Super-Heroes”–though he doesn’t do much.  In the second part of the story in Adventure Comics #351, he eats through a robotic cage that the Legion is put in, and is then restored to normal.

In the flash-forward seen in the Adult Legion in Adventure Comics #354, by Jim Shooter and Curt Swan, we learn that Tenzil left the Legion to serve his planet in politics, and that he is now the president of Bismoll.

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He has a few brief appearances after that until he uses his powers in Adventure Comics #359, when he eats a flagpole to avoid it hitting a super-light mono-car.  He ends up jailed for his troubles, but he escapes in Adventure Comics #360, when he eats through his iron chains.  He says they are like chocolate cake to him.

That’s not the last time he compares the strange things he eats to sweets:  in Adventure Comics #363, by Jim Shooter and Pete Costanza (December 1967) he eats his way through polymeric fibers that had trapped the other Legionnaires, saying they tasted like taffy

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The last time Matter-Eater Lad uses his powers in the Legion’s Adventure Comics run is in #374, where he eats a bad guy’s ray gun before he can use it (again, that’s a pretty powerful defense, actually), and also helps Ultra Boy impersonate the Black Mace.  He helps coach Ultra Boy to disguise himself as one of the villains in Adventure Comics #375, before he gets maybe his biggest character bit in Action Comics #381, after the Legion had been bumped out of their lead spot in Adventure and into a backup slot next door.

In that story, “The Hapless Hero!”, by Jim Shooter and Win Mortimer (October 1969) we actually see that Tenzil has a terrible home life, with a family who struggle for money and a father who is abusive and resents his own son’s success.  Tenzil takes refuge from all this by going on a date with Shrinking Violet, who herself is dealing with her neglectful boyfriend Duplicate Boy.

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They have a wonderful evening out and even share a pretty passionate looking kiss, causing Duplicate Boy to show up and almost kill him!  Turns out they were just kissing as friends (??!) and all is resolved.  Even Tenzil’s family seems to pull themselves together.

Matter-Eater Lad makes a brief appearance in Action Comics #392 before he again has family problems in Superboy #184, by Cary Bates and Dave Cockrum.  This time, the trouble is his younger brother Renkil, who had never been seen before.  Jealous of Tenzil, he frames him in the eyes of the Legionnaires into thinking he is going to betray the team.  Tenzil is imprisoned by Ultra Boy behind what he’s told is a magnozite cage–magnozite being the one substance poisonous to Bismollians.  However, Tenzil figures out that it’s not actually magnozite and escapes.  Confronting Renkil, he manages to swallow a stun beam that his brother shoots, and clear his name.

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He brother later redeems himself and Tenzil forgives him, even recommending that he could replace him on the Legion while he recovers from his injuries.  The Legion, wisely, never appear to take him up on this idea.

Tenzil then has a whole bunch of other brief appearances, with writers evidently not having any idea what to really do with him.  These include Superboy #197, #200 (at Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel’s wedding) and #202.  Superboy #202 also includes a “Lore of the Legion” feature, which includes Matter-Eater Lad, who is seen eating a big submarine sandwich of chains, a wrench, and a golf club!

Finally, in Superboy #212 (October 1975), “Last Fight for a Legionnaire” by Jim Shooter and Mike Grell, Matter-Eater Lad leaves the Legion, having been drafted by his world to serve in government office (setting up what was suggested in the Adult Legion story).

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Before this, he and others fight a group of would-be heroes from the same homeworlds as some of the Legion, who decide the best way to join the team is to beat up the current team members.  In the course of this, he eats the bottom a flagpole and drops it on his rival, Calorie Queen, and also threatens to bite Chameleon Kid when he’s disguised as a tree.

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Once he is leaving, he again shows his gracious (though undiscerning) side by recommending that Calorie Queen replace him on the team.  The rest of the Legion, again wisely, appear to ignore this idea.

That was the end of Tenzil Kem’s life as a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes, at least until some serious continuity-altering hi-jinx began to occur, but it’s not the end of his heroism.  Indeed, his greatest heroic deed occurred later, in Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #251 by Jim Starlin (calling himself Steve Apollo) and Paul Levitz, released May 1979) when he was summoned by an insane Brainiac 5 to destroy the apocalyptic monster Omega by eating the tool used to create him, the otherwise indestructible Miracle Machine.

That’s right, Matter-Eater Lad was so powerful that he could destroy the Miracle Machine, a device that was so durable it could withstand some direct punching from Superboy and Ultra Boy (Shooter & Grell)…

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…and energy blasting from a whole host of Legionnaires.

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It drove him insane–a condition that lasted several  years of real-world time…such was the sacrifice that was necessary (sort of) to save the universe, which he appears to have done without hesitation.

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Tenzil did come back in various future incarnations of the Legion–as a superhero, as a  senator and TV show star, as a chef and as a government investigator.  But this was basically the end of his original continuity story.  After his insanity was cured in Legion of Super-Heroes #297, his only other present day Legion appearance before major reboots took place was in the Legion of Substitute Heroes special in 1985, where Tenzil was sort of the straight man to the Subs improbably fighting Pulsar Stargrave.

But even if we limit ourselves to just the original, pre-Crisis Matter-Eater Lad, we see a hero who helped saved people’s lives, stopped villains, forgave people, escaped from inescapable traps at super-speed, and saved the whole universe by destroying a machine too strong for Superboy.  This guy is awesome!

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Come on, let’s give it up for Tenzil Kam, and hope that in this latest Legion reboot that’s arriving in full any minute now, that he gets his due.

 

 

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