Saturday, August 30, 2008

1st Appearance: The Legion of Super-Heroes (Adventure Comics # 247, April 1958)

Adventure Comics 247 Legion
Adventure #247 (1958) Three strikes and you're out, Superboy!

Doug: As the Legion of Super-Heroes celebrates 50 years in print (albeit in many different versions), I’d like to reflect briefly on my relationship to the team over the past four decades. The first issue I can recall owning was Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #210, circa 1973. That means the team was only 15 years old when I stumbled upon them. As a youngster I was very much drawn to the “kid” characters; sure I liked the “adult” comics like the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Batman, etc. But I had a fascination with the Teen Titans, the Legion, Marvel’s Nova, and Kid Flash flying “solo” in the Secret Society of Super-Villains. These were just school aged kids like me. Despite the tremendous feats that they could perform, I somehow found it easier to relate to them and looked forward to each and every adventure I could grab at the local newsstand.

But for some reason I just could never get into Superman comics. I guess he was too powerful for my tastes. Having begun to experience Marvel and all of their heroes’ Achilles heels and personality flaws, Superman was to me too perfect, and the different colors of Kryptonite were too silly. But Superboy… Superboy was different. He was a kid like me, and boy – were his friends cool! And, how about those costumes?? Even as an 8-year old there was a sexiness to the Legion. I didn’t know of Dave Cockrum at the time, as Mike Grell was “my” Legion artist. But I think those of us who grew up in the 1970’s are forever in Cockrum’s debt for those far-out and groovy costumes he designed! Who can forget Phantom Girl’s pigtails and bellbottoms? How about Saturn Girl’s swimsuit, or Cosmic Boy’s gravity-defying “cover-up”? Great (although certainly dated!!) stuff…

I recall the first time I saw the Legion in their classic outfits. At a flea market I had come across the reprint series “Legion of Super-Heroes”, which re-presented several classic tales in four issues. I thought – “Ugh… how primitive. These costumes are nothing like what we have today!” But I was intrigued, now fully aware that there was quite a backstory to the team. I began to search for older issues of Superboy and Adventure Comics. The large Limited Collector’s Edition #C-49 (reprinting Adventure Comics #’s 369-370) was and still is a treasure to me. Incidentally, the cover to that LCE doubles as the cover art to the recently-released Legion of Super-Heroes: 1,050 Years of the Future trade paperback. The Legion was taking on a new life due to my discovery of its rich history.

Karen: I started reading Legion around the same time as Doug; the first issue I can recall was Superboy 195, with Wildfire (or ERG-1, as he was originally called). To me the Legion was appealing for a few reasons. One was the teenager angle; another was the outer space adventure; and finally, it was ‘forbidden fruit’, as my family was staunch Marvel fans. So I actually kept my Legion books a secret for a little while!

But Legion was the title that introduced me to the DC Universe, and made me realize that DC wasn’t so bad; in fact, they had a lot of good books! It opened up yet another comic universe for me. Despite all the iterations (mostly needless, in my opinion) the Legion has gone through, I still have a special fondness for the team.

Sharon: I have always loved the Legion. After I discovered Marvel and its far superior comics, I basically stopped reading DC comics—except for the Legion in Adventure (and later, Action). And if you’ll permit me to boast a bit, I even had a couple of letters published in Adventure.

Karen: Wow, Sharon, that’s very cool! Do you recall the issue numbers? My Adventure collection is limited, but I’d love to see those letters.

Doug: Let’s discuss the very beginning of the Legion, in Adventure Comics #247. I really don’t recall when I first read this story; I’m sure it was in the pages of one of DC’s reprint giants during the latter 1970’s. For this discussion, I’ve used both the aforementioned Legion of Super-Heroes: 1,050 Years of the Future tpb and the Legion Archives, Volume I. I did the cross-reference primarily for coloring comparisons – I’ll make reference to this later.

To begin, I much prefer the cover depiction of the Legionnaires to the interior. I am speaking specifically of the names on the front of the youths’ costumes. That seems really silly to me, for someone to run around with their name stitched on the front of their clothing. In addition, while Al Plastino’s interiors are fine and certainly indicative of the pencils of the day, for my money you just can’t beat Curt Swan!! I just felt there was a truly youthful air about the faces on the cover. The Legion kids really did look like they were in that 12-13 year-old age range. Maybe that’s too young, but the cover gives that impression. Also of note at the beginning of this tale is DC’s Silver Age policy of a splash page that isn’t really a story page, but serves almost as a “second cover” – another grab for the potential buyer. However, while it might be true that not every cover actually contained elements of the story within, these splash pages always did.

Karen: Ugh, yes the names on the costumes are just so dorky. I think it’s another sign that the books definitely were aimed at a much younger audience. I agree about Curt Swan’s art: it looks very simple and unadorned now, but it has a classic feel to it (and I love how his Superman looks big!)

Sharon: Surprisingly, the original costumes do have the classic “chevrons”- -but having the names displayed on their chests is too much, as both of you have stated. Not to mention the placards describing their powers (“super thought-casting”). Well, as you mentioned, since the target audience was kids, I guess everything had to be spelled out—literally.

The costumes’ coloring is jarring. Okay, Cos has his familiar pale pink (at least for his shirt), but Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad—excuse me, Lightning Boy—just look so strange. With the red and yellow costume, Garth looks like Sun Boy!

As for the art, Curt was the man. He gave a very classic look to the Legion, especially when inked by George Klein. When I think of the Legion, I think of them as depicted by the Swan-Klein team. Klein was also the definitive John Buscema inker, IMO.

Doug: As to the story itself: it’s so dated now, so stuck in the 1950’s… but I just love it! It’s cute, quaint, and dare I say – wholesome? So unlike what is on the stands today. But, while I would not presume to say that this story would sell were it issued now, I would say that its elements of feel-good, happy ending, and a little mystery easily solved would be a welcome respite from today’s anti-heroes and blurred morality. But I digress…

Specifically in regard to the 1950’s elements: the Legion’s time bubble is interesting in comparison to other means of time travel in the comics, notably Marvel’s Dr. Doom time platform. Both are means to an end, but an interesting visual contrast nonetheless. I also liked the scene at the soda fountain, the lecture hall (didn’t they have any sense that one day students would learn from podcasts?? Ha!), and the tongue-in-cheek reference to Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Minutes” – things that original buyers of this comic could certainly relate to.

Sharon: Without a doubt the story (like much of DC at the time) is geared toward a very young audience (and one that would “recycle” after five years as kids outgrew comics). The notion of belonging to a “club” is very appealing to kids. And the dialogue is ultra-expository, to ensure the story is clear enough for young readers (“when I clap my hands, I produce lightning!”)

Karen: I really have to remind myself of the year (1958) and the audience that this book was aimed at, because it’s a pretty simplistic, even nonsensical story. For the benefit of folks who have never read it, let me recap: Saturn Girl, Cosmic Boy, and Lightning Boy (not Lad yet) come to Smallville and invite Superboy to try out for their super-hero club. They compete in tests against him and all three beat the boy of steel. The poor kid is nearly in tears (!) when they reveal it was all a test to see how he’d handle defeat – I guess, they really just say it was an initiation test! I’m not sure what message they were trying to get across to kids – treat your friends like crap and then later tell them it was all a test? It’s not the most likeable presentation of these new characters.

Sharon: Superboy sure is super-sensitive. His whining, his shame (“How will I ever tell them in Smallville I flunked the Super-Hero club?”), his tears—give me a break!

Karen: well, that’s no surprise; it seems like over the last few years I see Superman crying on almost every cover!

Doug: The main body of the first Legion story is somewhat typical DC formulaic storytelling. If anyone has had the opportunity to read the Legion’s second appearance from Adventure Comics #267, it has a similar plot device. Superboy (and other DC characters of this era) is just used and abused. I guess it was the only way the authors could figure to have their heroes seem as less than gods – to just be mean to them!

I mentioned above that I referred to a second version of this story, in order to compare the coloring. On page 11 of the story, after Superboy has been accepted to the ranks of the “Super-Hero Club” – nowhere within the story are they referred to as the Legion, something I found very odd – there are other kids present in the room. The young green fellow (and yes, he’s green in any version I can get hold of) can be no one other than Brainiac-5, and it certainly looks as though Mon-el is standing behind him. While it would be some time before these characters would be introduced as we know them, this was a nice bit of historical continuity for me to discover. I only wonder if later creators were aware of this.

Sharon: The kid certainly looks like Brainy: blond hair, pale green skin, and even the purple utilitarian costume! (I am basing this on the version that appears in the Legion of Super-Heroes: 1,050 Years of the Future trade paperback Doug mentioned.)

Karen: Since Mon-El didn’t appear until 1961, I think that may just be a case of coincidence, or maybe the colorists on the reprints were having fun. I’d assume the same with the Brainiac 5 (it’s taxing my memory, but wasn’t he the tenth recruit or so?).

Sharon: As far as I know, Brainy joined the Legion in a Supergirl story that is just as simplistic as this one. Check out Action Comics #276, cover date May 1961, “Supergirl’s Three Super Girl-Friends.” For the record, the gal pals are Saturn Girl, Phantom Girl, and Triplicate Girl. Supergirl is bemoaning her lack of friends (male and female) until the Legion trio shows up. They invite her to reapply for membership (she’d been rejected before—don’t ask why—but if you’re really curious, see Action #267, August 1960). Anyway, she meets Brainiac 5 and thinks he looks an awful lot like—gasp!—Brainiac (why, just because of the green skin??). Brainiac 5 proves he’s nothing like the evil 20th century villain and he wins her heart. Brainy and Supergirl are both inducted into the Legion and he asks her to stay in the 30th century and “be my girl.”

But there’s more! She returns to the 20th century and runs into Jerro the mer-boy. So at the story’s end, Supergirl is now super-happy because not only does she have three new girlfriends, she also has not one but two boyfriends—though of course as Linda Lee, the poor girl can’t tell anyone! (Incidentally, this “classic” was written by Jerry Siegel.)

Boy, in these stories there seems to be awful lot of emphasis placed on being popular…

Doug: I read a discussion on a message board not too long ago concerning whether or not first appearances should be required to be origin stories. While the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide lists this book as both the first appearance and origin, it certainly isn’t the origin we know. Where’s RJ Brande? Nowhere in these pages. Really, all Cosmic Boy says is that they are a club with members who each have a different power. So, for the purposes of introducing these characters (which I understand were considered throwaways), I guess that mission was accomplished. How they got together would be a story for many days… in the future!

Karen: Yes, it’s interesting just how much of a non-origin story this first appearance is. Since it revolves around Superboy, they probably didn’t feel the need to explain the hows or whys of the kids getting together. It doesn’t seem like they planned to ever bring them back; I believe it was all due to positive reader response. Sharon, do you have any info on that?

Sharon: You’re right, Karen, the Legion proved to be popular with readers (kids) so the team made repeat appearances (Superboy, the Superboy feature in Adventure, the Supergirl feature in Action) until it was given its own series. Editor Mort Weisinger did try to create a “Superman Universe” and mythos…he liked having a stable of core characters and concepts throughout his books (Superman, Superboy, Adventure, Action, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, etc.). So when a character or concept sparked some interest (spikes in sales, or letter feedback), he would run with it.

The Legion didn’t get a proper origin story until ten years after their 1958 debut, in Superboy #147 (which was an 80-page Giant, devoted to the Legion, cover date June 1968). In addition to reprint material, this issue contained new material, a story about how the founders—Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lad, and Saturn Girl—met R.J. Brande and how the Legion was formed. The talented (and IMO, underrated) E. Nelson Bridwell wrote the story.

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