Monthly Archives: November 2010

And we’re off…

"Bitch said what?"

Adventure Comics #247 (April, 1958)
“The Legion of Super-Heroes”
Writer: Otto Binder
Penciler/Inker: Al Plastino
Cover Artists: Curt Swan, Stan Kaye
Grand Poobah: Mort Weisinger

Over fifty years later, and the stain is still there. If throwing shit against the wall to see what sticks is the modus operandi in the monkey cages of the comic book industry, than Mort Weisinger was an 800-pound gorilla after six Red Bulls: nobody chucked more heartily, with more frequency, and less abandon. In the late fifties, without a doubt the most viscuous of Weisinger’s projectiles was any book featuring a particular someone wearing a big red S, or close friends of same. By April of 1958, Superman was headlining both Action Comics and his own title. Superboy (“the adventures of Superman as a boy!”) held top-billing in Adventure Comics as well as *his* own title. Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen was on his 28th issue and Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane debuted in her own comic book that very month. Superman also co-starred in World’s Finest Comics alongside Batman and Robin, who had the good fortune not to be referred to as Superman’s Creepy Crime-Fighting Buddy And His Little Friend.

But getting back to the Legion: while nobody remembers who actually came up with the idea, it’s not hard to see where it came from. The ’50s was all about science fiction. The Russians had sent a bleeping, two-foot, aluminium ball into orbit the previous year that threatened freedom everywhere. Sci-fi literature exploded in the 1950s, with seminal work from Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, Philip Jose Farmer, James Blish and Hal Clement. People flocked to see movies like The Day The Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, Them!, Invasion of the Body-Snatchers and Forbidden Planet. The future was a vision of men in shiny silver suits holding ray guns, big clunky robots, and Anne Francis in a mini-skirt. In other words, the future looked Awesome.

The Future!

Mort Weisinger’s roots were in science fiction writing, being active in some of the earliest sci-fi fan clubs, publishing what’s believed to be the first fanzine devoted solely to science fiction, and starting the first literary agency devoted to science fiction, horror and fantasy writers. Otto Binder had written for a magzine Weisinger edited and was one of his literary clients. The Superman stories of the time were mostly remedial science fiction stories with a heaping helping of aliens, monsters, time-travelers and evil scientists. Additionally, Superboy was contractually obligated to meet other super-powered or otherwise strange youths every other issue or so. The Legion of Super-Heroes was a natural combination of these two conceits: a “club” of super-powered teenagers from the future who Superboy could hang out with, and an excuse for him to venture to the 30th Century and have adventures in a futuristic setting. But even the elegant and simple brilliance of the idea as a springboard for future Superboy stories wasn’t apparent to the creators initially. The Legion wouldn’t make their second appearance for another 20 months.

The Story

After the obligatory splash-page teaser, we find Clark Kent, pimped out in a snazzy orange pullover, doing the Smallville strut. But something is amiss…

Thankfully, before he’s gotten too far into carrying out the bloody work of Plan Omega–Protect Secret Identity At All Costs, the three strangers fess up:

And in spite of some truly hideous costumes, a legend is born. Where do you suppose Cosmic Boy was hiding that helmet? Probably best not to ask. He illuminates Superboy on the reason for the visit:

“We want to make you a member of our special club! Whose members perform super-feats in the future! You would be the greatest hero of us all,” he posits, helpfully pointing to the garish badge on his sleeve that says “SUPER HERO CLUB.” They invite him aboard their time bubble (which would remain a Legion staple, although it’s as big as a condominium here–it would shrink in future appearances), reassuring him that the whole process will “only take a few hours.” Given that they can apparently travel to any point in time that they want, and thus theoretically drop him back off seconds after he left, I don’t see what difference it makes how long it will take–maybe they’re just worried Superboy will get bored.

(Actually, there’s numerous points throughout the Legion’s run where it’s suggested that spending any amount of time in a different era means missing the same amount of time in your “home” era, which is kind of interesting. This being a blog about the Legion, we’ll return to the subject of time travel frequently, but in the meantime, this is as comprehensive a look at the subject as you’re going to find on the internet.)

So they “crash the time barrier” to the 30th Century Smallville, which is all robots and rocket ships. The Legionnaires show Superboy around, take him for ice cream (no really) and even show him the old Kent homestead, which, awwww, has been lovingly preserved as a shrine (*choke!*)

…rather ominously in the shadow of a manufacturing facility of soulless automatons. Moving on, “what’s taught in history class” is Superboy 101, via a robot that mimics his powers. The robot breaks down so the real Superboy steps in and gives the kids a thrill by melting steel with his x-ray vision (which hadn’t been differentiated from his heat vision yet). You can imagine how amazing it would be to have the real George Washington standing in front of your class chopping down cherry trees and whatnot, at least until he looks out at the audience and remarks how wonderful it is that the slave children are receiving an education. The Legionnaires decide that’s enough shenanigans for one day, and it’s off to the clubhouse:

The clubhouse, which, you may notice, is an upside-down rocket ship, which is deliriously impractical and awesome at the same time. The Legion would eventually move on to larger, more conventional digs, but no super-team every had an HQ as ginchy as this. Within the confines of said Coolness, Superboy discovers what “proving you’re a superhero” means:

Superboy is a cocky little mofo, isn’t he? Get used to the placards, we’ll be seeing more of them down the road. The first test is retrieving a statue of The Unknown Spaceman, a “priceless museum piece” which sank to the bottom of the ocean “last week,” which is a scenario so bizarre, it almost demands it’s own issue to explain. Superboy is pitted against Saturn Girl, so named because “the scientists of Saturn” taught her how to read minds and cast mental commands, and not because she has rings around her boobs. They race off, Superboy thinking he’s got this in the bag, but fate has other plans. The surrogate Superboy teaching aid has run amok!

Superboy commits the historic first act of Legion-related tunneling (yes, this will be a theme in subsequent issues) bursting up through the floor of a science class, whose students presumably set a school record for collective pants-shitting and synchronized heart attacks. The professor stops the robot with a nuclear ray that he happens to have handy, which, imagining how violent schools will be one thousand years from now, is completely understandable. Meanwhile, Saturn Girl is getting down to the bidness of Winning:

That’s just an adorable looking sea monster isn’t it? Superboy shows up and she delightfully rubs it in, telling him “you can be a gentleman and carry it for me! Ha ha!” Then it’s back to the clubhouse where Cosmic Boy emphasizes that he lost… TO A GIRL and asks what his excuse is. Superboy bites his tongue, refusing to make excuses and possibly contemplates bringing the goddamned upside-down rocketship down around their ears, but there’s no time as the second contest is about to start. It’s basically putting out a forest fire and he’s pitted against Cosmic Boy, whose magnetic powers aren’t conducive to putting out forest fires. Once more, Superboy wonders, “how can I lose?” Well…

Yes, Project Vanguard was actually a thing. Superboy deposits the satellite into a volcano crater and rushes off to help Cosmic Boy. But…

The “special serums” and “magnetic eyes” bits would both soon be forgotten. The “wearing pink,” curiously, would stick around for a long time. It’s on to the third contest, with things looking very bad for Kal-El. “The Nova Express left for Mars with a leaking fuel tank,” Lightning Boy tells him. “It’ll be stalled in mid-space if they don’t turn back!” Must warn them, blah blah blah. Will Superboy be allowed to complete his task without interruption? Of  course not. An “invisible eagle” breaks out of its’ zoo habitat, and Superboy has to find it before it makes a very visible mess inside an unsuspecting jet turbine. What to do? Sure, you have telescopic x-ray vision, but that’s for pussies. If you’re Superboy, you realize this is why fucking icebergs were invented.

His gambit works because frost forms on the eagle, “just as frost forms on a transparent window pane.” Wait, that’s not how frost works? Okay, then. While Superboy returns the invisible eagle to the zoo where millions of children can flock to not see it, Lightning Boy… you guessed it.

The flashes, as you see above, appear in the form letters that “don’t fade for ten seconds” to form a sign that is “visible for a million miles in space” and let’s just move on before my head starts hurting again. Back at the clubhouse, the Legionnaires realize they’ve been a bit too hard on the Boy of Steel, offer him condolences on the outcome of the contests, praise him for his effort, and apologize for their behavior.

Nah, I’m just kidding. They reject him from the Legion and act like total dicks:

Superboy, to his credit, takes it like a man, when, honestly, you would excuse him for being tempted to ensure they were scraping Legion bits off the inside of that rocket ship well into the 40th Century. Nevertheless, he puts on a brave face, at least until he gets outside, where his heart breaks like an atomic motor and tears stream down his face like frost forming on an invisible eagle. Before he can contemplate eating a Kryptonite bullet, Saturn Girl calls out…

…and explains how they all goddamned cheated. She sent the Superman robot a telepathic command to run like it stole something, Cosmic Boy pulled the satellite basketball down from outer space with his magnetic eyes, and Lightning Boy released the invisible bird by zapping its’ habitat dome with the letters F and U and the number 2. Cosmic Boy finishes by saying, “it was only your initiation, and it proved you’re a super-good sport, taking it with a smile” which is the same thing the TSA tells you after you make it through airport security. Everyone cheers, yelling “hooray for Superboy, our newest member!”

But hold on, we’re not done! South Pole City is in trouble!

The joke, being, of course, that he used magnetism, lightning and “mind reading” to show them he’s the goddamned Superboy and they collectively can’t hold his jock. Suitably impressed, they bestow on him their highest award, which, unfortunately, is not named “Saturn Girl,” but rather a medal that honestly looks like something you made in fifth-grade arts class using card stock, scissors and glue. The last panel of the story has him showing it to Pa Kent, who couldn’t appear more disinterested, and who clearly would like to get back to his drinkin’.

The Verdict

Honestly, it’s pretty terrific. The artwork is merely functional, the “initiation contest” idea is rather dopey, and it’s off-putting to see the Legionnaires treat Superboy so callously even if it was all in “fun,” but the Legion concept was solid right from the get-go and Binder, Plastino & Co. manage to cram a lot of story into a mere eleven pages. Superboy himself comes off remarkably well, humbled to be remembered and honored so far into the future, endearingly and naively cocky at times, surprisingly mature in defeat, handling his bad fortune with equanimity (which would be a great lesson for kids if the rest of the super-heroes weren’t acting like douchebags), and showing an uncharacteristic vulnerability, tearing up when he thought he failed.

Unwittingly, the creators established a central theme of the Legion of Super-Heroes, by focusing on their resourcefulness, using their powers in unconventional ways to accomplish tasks they were not ideally suited to undertake. Even as the Legion developed into practically an *army* of superheroes, it was usually their wits, not their numbers, that allowed them to accomplish their goals.

Rating

Three and a half out of five Protys. The best was unquestionably still to come, but the Legion got off to a fine start.