Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tomorrow Never Knows: The Adult Legion

Adventure 354 Curt Swan
Adventure #354 (1967) 
Adventure Comics # 354 (March 1967)
“The Adult Legion!"
Jim Shooter, Curt Swan/George Klein

Doug: This week it’s back to the Silver Age! It’s been a few months since we’ve discussed the 1960’s, and actually quite a long time since we’ve done anything DC. We’ll rectify both of those situations with this installment’s look at a fun chapter in the annals of the Legion of Super-Heroes – the Adult Legion! Unless otherwise stated, we are all using the trade paperback, Legion of Super-Heroes: 1,050 Years of the Future.

Sharon: While I own the great trade paperback Doug mentions, I also have a copy of the comic itself in my hot little hands, purchased a couple of years ago—the comic, that is, not my hands. I’ll be looking at both the reprint in the book and the comic.

Doug: The first thing I noticed on the splash page of Adventure 354 was that the Legionnaires were all still wearing the same costumes they’d worn as teenagers. Lord have mercy, but if I was still wearing all of those floral polyester shirts… I also noticed that Cosmic Boy had a receding hairline, a condition that would afflict other teammates as well. Isn’t it funny that while writers and artists let their imaginations run wild with rocket ships, futuristic buildings, etc., they couldn’t seem to grasp medical advancements?

Sharon: May I ask why, in the Legion’s headquarters, there is an exhibit commemorating the marriages in the Legion? Other than functioning as exposition, of course.

Karen: The depictions of the ‘adult’ Legionnaires are pretty funny. The men all look significantly older than Superman – or how most of the DC heroes were portrayed. I know they wanted to alter their appearances enough so that the (presumably) young reader would understand that these were grown-ups, but they look like they are closing in on retirement! Especially surprising was the former Colossal Boy, who sports a full beard! I don’t think I’ve seen many bearded characters in comics from that time (the Chief from the Doom Patrol is the only one I can think of off-hand).

Sharon: The visual depiction of the adult male Legionnaires was hilarious: they are all follicularly challenged and most sport at least a hint of jowls/double chin, whereas Supes is his usual handsome self. Are we to assume that having Kryptonian genes-- and not exercise and healthy eating-- is the key to aging gracefully?

Karen: It’s also very indicative of the times, that the male Legionnaires who have left the Legion are shown as having careers – Matter Eater Lad is president of his homeworld, Mon-El is a space explorer, Ultra Boy is director of the Science Police – but the female ex-Legionnaires all seem to be wives and mothers!

Sharon: Except for the ever-independent Saturn Girl—I mean, Saturn Woman. Sure, she’s married here, but she’s not about to relinquish her Legion duties! The fact that the rest of the women are all stay-at-home moms is unimaginative and disappointing for a series that is based in the far-off future. Scripter Jim Shooter was 15 or so at the time, and he's mentioned in interviews that he was instructed by E. Nelson Bridwell (who was in his mid-thirties) regarding how the adult Legionnaires should be written and who was married to  whom; I wish both had demonstrated more imagination regarding the female Legionnaires. 

Doug: The art in this story is just vintage Curt Swan. I know Sharon will want to comment on the able inks of George Klein. Swan’s Superman is thick and barrel-chested with that classic Superman chin and spit curl. While DC’s Silver Age artists often lacked the realism of Marvel’s John Buscema and John Romita, they did offer up a look as distinctive to their characters as Jack Kirby’s style was for Marvel’s stable. I often find that Swan’s et al.’s more “cartoony” style seemed to fit with the stories DC’s writers were telling – generally one-and-done tales with a mystery or moral twist.

Karen: Even though I haven't read many Superman titles, I think the Curt Swan look is probably the one that pops into my head when I first think of Superman. It’s iconic, very simple yet strong.

Sharon: Swan-Klein will always represent the classic Silver Age DC look for me even if it’s static (especially when compared to the dynamic style at Marvel during this time)…but the static look kind of suits the classic aura of Superman and the Superman family. George Klein’s embellishments perfectly, subtly enhanced Swan’s clean lines; there was no distortion. Later on, when Jack Abel inked Swan’s Superman and Legion, the artwork had a completely different, and less pleasing, look.

Doug: As far as the story goes, Superman is summoned to the future, but a few years later than when he usually visited. I thought this created a great deal of questions – for instance, whenever the teen Legion needed a bit more power, why didn’t they contact Superman rather than Superboy? Interesting…

Sharon: Right. Talk about opening a can of worms. The idea that Superboy only visits the teen Legion and Superman visits the adult Legion is silly; but it probably had to be reduced to this simple a level because of the readership at the time, and also because of the young author writing it.

Doug: Anyway, the technology is again interesting. In an era when time travel and teleportation seem commonplace, why the need for the monorail trains?

Sharon: Also how ridiculous is it that Superman immediately lapsed into calling the heroes by their “adult” names: Night Woman, Cosmic Man, etc.

Doug: Did Brainiac 5 strike anyone as doing a Ward Cleaver impression? That he showed up smoking a pipe was just priceless! It really mimicked the entertainment of the ‘60’s, when smoking on television and in film was quite en vogue.
Karen: Another sign of the times. Of course, anyone as smart as Brainy should’ve known better than to be smoking! But I am sure in the 30th century, they all smoke vitamins or some other wonderful substance!

Sharon: Again, hilarious. And let’s not forget that Shooter was laying out these Legion stories for veteran penciler Swan; so the pipe came from Shooter’s rough pencils. I guess to a young teen back then, a pipe was an appropriate prop for a thinking man such as Brainy.

Doug: Anyway, the Legion is being attacked from someone who knows all of their secrets, despite the fact that there have been many recent changes to their headquarters, etc. Thus begins a typical DC Silver Age mystery story. I must admit, I had this one figured out right from the start – most authors didn’t include enough clues (or I’m just dense) that the reader could figure out the ending too easily. Jim Shooter tipped his hand early in this one, revealing the identity of the miscreant on page 15 of the story.

Karen: Yup, the mystery villain of this story is fairly obvious. The real pleasure in the tale is seeing the Legion’s future. Besides Superman’s view screen chats with former Legionnaires, we see the statues in the Legion’s HQ which give us clues to the fate of many characters – and I believe foreshadowed the arrival of some, such as Shadow Lass.

Sharon: Right, although the fact that Shady’s memorial statue’s skin was flesh-colored (Caucasian) here caused a flurry of letters later on, after she was introduced as a blue-skinned beauty. I believe Weisinger explained the statue’s hue was a simple coloring mistake, though later on someone theorized that her memorial statue was Earth flesh-colored because that’s how she appeared when Mon-El first fell in love with her (when she was masquerading as an Earth girl in Adventure #369-370).

Sharon: Speaking of the memorial statues of fallen Legionnaires, besides Shady we see Ferro Lad’s statue. Ferro Lad had just been killed off in the previous issue (#353), so Shooter’s future Legion tale was a bit of a respite from the tragedy that that just occurred, as well as a way to underscore that Ferro Lad would indeed stay dead (a rarity in comics).

Sharon: But at least one young reader was more intrigued by two statues that weren’t as prominent as Ferro Lad or Shady’s. So enchanted was this reader by the Chemical King and Quantum Queen statues that appeared on the cover--by their complementary “royal” names, by their coloring (Chem: green costume with black hair, Q. Queen: pink costume with white hair), by their inescapable, tragic fates--that a few years later, when Chemical King officially joined the Legion, she wrote a letter to the editor proposing these two doomed heroes get married, thus making their fates even more tragic. The letter was published, though a romance never materialized. But such was the appeal of the Legion; its young fans really got involved with the characters/stories/possibilities. (And forty years later I still think Chem and Queeny should have hooked up!)

Doug: I enjoyed “visiting” all of the grown-up Legionnaires. I especially liked seeing Mon-el in action. Mon has always been my favorite Legionnaire – he has all of the powers of Superboy without the baggage of the Silver Age Superman and all of his silly villains and stories. I also think he has one of the truly classic superhero suits in all of comicdom. Another fine touch was the presence of Polar Boy as an active member of the team. I loved the tales when the Substitute Heroes would attempt to save the day. I really enjoyed the mid-80’s Cosmic Boy mini-series that detailed his relationship with Night Girl. Good stuff.

Sharon: The problem with this story is that Shooter painted himself into a corner. We knew from years-earlier Supergirl story that Lighting Lad and Saturn Girl would eventually wed, but now we knew about the rest of the Legion regarding who would marry whom; and also who would remain alive until at least adulthood. True, we had just seen Ferro Lad die in action; and in the adult story newer members Karate Kid and Princess Projectra weren’t shown, and neither were veterans Chameleon Boy, Sun Boy or Invisible Kid (which was convenient later on as the Kid was killed in action some years later), but based on this story--which was taken as canon at the time-- we knew almost everyone else would make it past puberty unscathed, none the worse for the wear except for some extra pounds and less hair.

Doug: I love the signs hanging everywhere that identify the doors, buildings, etc. Can you see the influence of the Batman television series in Shooter’s writing?

Karen: Hilarious – big signs everywhere! I especially like the building with the sign “Arsenal” over it. Sure, just let everyone know where all the weapons are!
Sharon: Appropriate that you should mention the Batman TV show, Doug. According to many Shooter interviews, Weisinger instructed Shooter to watch Batman. Then Weisinger would call Shooter (at the Shooter family home in Pittsburgh) and quiz him on the episode, to see what the kid had picked up from the show. (And it’s well-known he also encouraged Shooter—and his other writers—to look to classic novels, short stories and movies for inspiration.)

Doug: The story plays out with a battle royale between the perpetrator and the team, and the big reveal was rewarding for me, as I said earlier I’d sleuthed the ending (very uncommon for me – DC was truly writing for my childlike mind!). But the biggest pay-off comes in the last three panels, when it is unveiled that the true masterminds of this heinous plot are none other than the Legion of Super-Villains!! Stay tuned!


Booksteve said...

Shooter became my idol at age 7. If he could write comics so could I! Well...hasn't happened yet but surprisingly I'm STILL working on it at age 50! I think Shooter was like a talented child actor, though. As they grow up, they seem to forget whatever natural intincts they have and believe too much of their own press. Shirley Temple as a child was legitimately good! Shirley as a teen and an adult was grating to watch as an actress! I think of Shooter the same way. His unbound passion for storytelling came out as a kid but as an adult he tried too hard and usually failed!

Sharon said...

Or even like the young Elizabeth Taylor, eh? Once upon a time she seemed like such a natural,in fare like Jane Eyre and National Velvet...but I digress; welcome aboard and thanks for your comments, Booksteve.

Disclosure: I am an unabashed fan of Shooter the writer and have been ever since--well, actually 42 years ago this very month! In April 1967 I picked up Adventure #357 and read my very first Legion story, "The Ghost of Ferro Lad!" Now I was probably unaware of the author's name back then, but I remember being mesmerized by this story and the contrast between the five guilt-ridden Legionnaires and the cool, cerebral calmness of Saturn Girl and Brainiac 5. Then as now, Shooter's grasp of character nuance has always appealed to me.

BTW, you sure have some great blogs, Booksteve. And your awe-inspring spinner rack? Why, I'm pea green with envy!

Karen said...

Hey Booksteve, thanks for stopping by! I do think Shooter has had an interesting career trajectory. As you say, it is difficult for a 'wunderkind' to continue to be successful as an adult. He did manage to become the EIC at Marvel, but now it appears that he made more enemies than friends in that position. His recent work at DC also seems to have ended badly. It's unfortunate, because I do believe he's a talented writer. I thought his work on Avengers in the 70s was very solid.

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