In issue 296 of Adventure Comics, editor Mort Weisinger tore a strip of a reader who’d demanded the Tales of the Bizarro World back-up be dropped. According to Weisinger, the Bizarro’s had lifted Adventure‘s circulation higher than it had been before, and spawned 5,000 postcards per month of Bizarro ideas.
Four months later, he dropped Tales of the Bizarro World and replaced it with the Legion of Super-heroes. It was the Silver Age: what else can I say?
So the Legion era of Adventure had begun, with new Legionnaires appearing every month, characters, costumes, powers but not necessarily personalities we would become immensely familiar with as the Sixties began to take form. And, to my tremendous surprise, there was a death as early as issue 304.
This was the famous death of Lightning Lad that I learned about in the Sixties when I first tried the Legion. It was the culmination of an odd tale that had Saturn Girl use her power to secure her election as Legion leader and immediately turn into a tyrant who grounded every Legionnaire in the process of stealing their powers. Yet this turned out to be an act of sacrifice: made aware that a Legionnaire would die battling a villain, Saturn Girl sought to protect her team-mates by becoming the only active Legionnaire. But Lightning Lad discovered her plot and beat her to the punch, sacrificing himself for her.
It was the beginning of a long romance, for when I learned of his death, he had already been resurrected. But that it had come so early in the series stuns me – unless Weisinger was thinking that with over a dozen of them already, who’d miss the odd one here or there?
The Legion of Substitute-Heroes, second only to the Legion of Super-Pets when it comes to dumb Legions, made its debut in issue 306. Back when Robert Loren Fleming and Keith Giffen were perpetrating Ambush Bug on us all, they combined for a gloriously funny Substitute-Heroes Special I used to own: to my glee, I now learned just how closely they based their goof-up on the original! I wish I still had it.
There was no forgetting Lightning Lad’s brave sacrifice at any turn, not least in issue 308, where ‘he’ returned to life, only to be exposed – not that literally – as his own very much alive twin-sister and replacement, Lightning Lass, whose hairdo was an atrocity: Thirtieth Century? You gotta be kidding me.
By issue 309, the Legion were so popular, they had taken the lead-spot in the comic, though Superboy continued to get the cover, which was a bit ludicrous in issue 310 when Superboy’s story was about him exchanging minds with Krypto and the Legion’s about they’re all being killed…
I shall pass over the Superbaby story in issue 311, which hit depths of silliness to make the Marianas Trench look like a puddle to get onto the following story, which was the supposedly always-planned story of how Lightning Lad was restored to life (at least that’s how Weisinger promoted it in the lettercol, just like he described Bizarro as a fixture four months before dropping it).
I’d heard about this story almost as soon as I discovered the Legion but this was the first chance I had to read it. The Legion are searching the Universe for ways to bring Lightning Lad back to life but all methods fail. Except that Mon-El knows a surefire method whose only drawback is that it will kill whoever does it. Saturn Girl, the telepath, can tell he’s holding something back, though Mon-El’s only keeping schtum because he intends to sneak off and sacrifice himself. Once the truth comes out, the legionnaires vie to be the noble one. Except that Saturn Girl intends to cheat by ensuring she gets struck by the lightning that will do it. And she does, and she dies… except that it’s Chameleon Boy’s protoplasmic, telepathic pet, Proty, who has decoyed her away and substituted himself in her place.
I knew all of this long ago, but reading the story at last, even with John Forte’s stiff, unemotional art, was actually surprisingly moving, which it had to be to overcome the Lana Lang spoiled brat humiliated by Superboy for-her-own-good story that backed it up. Pairing these two stories in one issue was plain bad editting.
Though Adventure was still a Superboy title, the Legion’s series was now taking first place every month. This didn’t matter to the Boy of Steel, who had had his own solo comic since 1949, and it was quickly becoming apparent that his future-colleagues would be taking over Adventure for themselves. Indeed, their story in issue 313 disposed with Superboy early on in order to feature Supergirl, who actually appeared twice in that she was revealed as being Satan Girl, who unleashed a lethal plague upon the girl Legionnaires.
With so many Legionnaires, there was barely time to show everyone off, so a three page guide as to who, what power and what origin was included in issue 316, which extended the roster to 23, by including Jimmy Olsen’s occasional Elastic Boy persona and, lumped together as one, the Legion of Super-Pets (look, I won’t talk about the Super-Pets unless I’m actually forced to, ok?)
Finally, in issue 317, exactly seventy issues after their one-off debut, it became official: ‘Adventure Comics featuring Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes’ became the logo. The story introduced Dream Girl, temporarily, as a beautiful new member causing all the boys to fancy her, the girls to get green-eyed, and seven Legionnaires deactivated, all to needlessly divert one of her premonitions of their forthcoming death which was actually of android versions of them. Confused? Dreamy also fixed it that Lightning Lass lost her now-unneeded powers only to be re-gifted with the power to make things light (Star Boy, who makes them heavy, apparently hasn’t got a reverse gear).
The issue also reduced a ‘Hall of Fame Classic’ feature, otherwise known as reprints, which did no more than demonstrate that Superboy stories hadn’t change in over a decade, and to cap it off, the lettercol featured a letter from a Dora Knight, asking why Saturn Girl can be Legion leader when the boys are so much stronger than her? I’d give a lot to know if Miss Knight became a feminist and worked out the answer.
Right from his first appearance, Bouncing Boy had been a bit of a joke Legionnaire, rarely used, and that was clearly the general opinion at DC because in issue 321, he was abruptly, and undramatically, de-powered and demoted to permanent reservist. Of course, I know that won’t last forever.
I knew that at some point I’d catch up with my own first Legion story, though I didn’t expect it to be as early as issue 323, when Proty II sets a clever puzzle to determine the Legion’s new leaders – who turns out to be their old one, that smart blonde cookie, Saturn Girl. I even recognised the Hall of Fame Classic back up featuring Krypto. Every panel locked into place out of my memory.
But for every decent, and sometimes clever, story there were still a couple of dumb ones, usually based on some or all of the Legionnaires being dickheads, though that’s not possibly the ideal word for the story in issue 326 when the six girl Legionnaires get a mad on against the boy Legionnaires and set out to trap and kill them. There could have been a worse explanation for this too but I’m in no hurry to find one.
Interestingly, each girl Legionnaire got in a smooch with their chosen target first (and Triplicate Girl managed three, the little hussy), except for Saturn Girl, who couldn’t get Superboy to sample (wot an idiot!).
One of the problems with trying to read American comics in the Sixties was the erratic distribution. No two consecutive issues could be guaranteed. Then again, my budget for comics was strictly limited. Which one of these was responsible for my only reading the second half of the Legion’s first two-parter, in issues 330-331, I don’t know, though I remember the story as clear as a bell, as well as the Hall of Fame back-up which featured Lana being genuinely concerned for Clark without trying to penetrate his secret identity. Yes, they could write them.
Although I remembered a couple of stories earlier in the run, it was not until issue 340 that I fully caught up with my early enthusiasm for the Legion. This was the first half of the two-parter that introduced Computo, Brainiac 5’s evil super-computer, which changed Triplicate Girl into Duo Damsel by killing one of her three bodies (without any apparent trauma either) and which warped the Legion into the Batman ’66 Camp Era by introducing wise-cracking. Ah, the memories!
Indeed, there’s something special about this era of the run for me. The stories are (probably) no better nor worse than those before and those to come, but these are the stories from my time, full of back bedrooms at Brigham Street and Burnage Lane, re-reading runs on quiet summer holiday afternoons and evenings, each panel engraved on the eyeballs of memory. Star Boy’s expulsion. The Super-Stalag of Space. Jim Shooter’s unadvertised debut as a 13 year old writer by introducing four new members simultaneously, which was also the point that full-scale Legion stories supplanted the Superboy reprints.
One more thing to add about the Legion at this time is that it had something DC wasn’t supposed to have: continuity. Not necessarily in the form of subplots that became stories, but in situations that actually changed the status quo, like Lightning Lad losing an arm, Bouncing Boy his powers or Star Boy his membership. All these themes were brought together and restored in one go in issue 351.
And suddenly it all stopped. The Sun-Eater, the Fatal Five, Ferro-Lad’s sacrifice. The Adult Legion. I remember the cover to the first part of that but I read none of them. And none that followed, nor even saw the covers. This puzzles me now. This was only 1967 and I did not start losing interest in comics for another year. The only significant change was our move from East to South Manchester: was distribution really that random that by moving half a dozen miles away you could lose sight of an actual title? Or did I suddenly lose interest in the Legion?
Or did my childhood interest in comics, the Justice Society aside, start to fade earlier than I recall? I always thought it was 1968 because that was when I started on the football magazines, and besides, my parents had barred me from buying American comics at the full price of 1/-, a bar I got around, which a trickiness that well-befitted my future career as a Solicitor, by buying a preferred title in the newsagents coming out of school, selling it for 3d to a willing accomplice and then buying it back from him for 3d, so that I could truthfully say I’d bought it cheap off someone at school.
That was Burnage Grammar School, or High School from my Second Year on. I only went up into the Second Year in 1967: could I, who was naïve and immature for my age, have been that sneaky that early?
But the Legion stories that follow, two-parters all of them, are complete mysteries to me. Shooter, still only a teenager, was writing them, skilfully enough despite Weisinger, with some variable art, not all of it coming from the reliable Curt Swan. But the Legion’s days were numbered.
I have little to say about these late adventures. This was a strange, transitional period for DC, whose older writers, backbones of the company, were losing the plot, sometimes literally. Marvel was a threat kept in check only by DC owning their distributors and limiting them to no more than eight titles. The writers were demanding benefits as employees whilst being treated as freelancers for DC’s benefit. Things were slipping.
Some of the Legion’s stories were mildly memorable. The introduction of Shadow Lass, who’d already been seen dead in the Adult Legion’s hall of fallen heroes, as Shadow Queen, joining the Legion because she fancies Brainiac 5 (she’s not seen Mon-El yet), and that being the crucial point in issue 368, when a female governor of a world amplifies the girl Legionnaires’ powers and has them throw the boys out preparatory to installing a matriarchal government on earth, only for Supergirl to break her conditioning out of jealousy over ‘her’ Brainiac 5. Sheesh.
And the story in issues 369-370 not only introduced the Dark Lord Mordru but smashed Superboy’s Smallville continuity, with Jonathan and Martha Kent losing twenty years each and drawn unrecognisably whilst Lana Lang and the two girl Legionnaires who come to Smallville in Superboy’s ‘time’ all wear 1968 mini-skirts. Though apparently the Kents had taken a youth serum in Superboy and nobody noticed…
Issue 373 introduced Don and Dawn Allen, the Tornado Twins, ‘direct descendants’ of The Flash, though not as direct as they’d end up being years later.
And then, after issue 380, and a story whose only memorable moment was that it saw Chuck (Bouncing Boy) Taine showing his first feelings for Luornu (Duo Damsel) Durgo, the Legion were gone, without warning or explanation. They’d had an 81 issue run and whilst their replacement would have a stable run, for a while, emiwould have have so stable a lead feature again.
So the Silver Age was over, at least so far as this series was concerned, cover date May 1969, actual publication probably March. Join me for the Bronze Age, next.