Among the myriad characters to have appeared in the adventures of the Legion of Super-Heroes over the decades, there exists a quartet that seem tied together by tragedy, almost as if fate itself meant for them to meet with terrible destinies. I speak of Karate Kid, Princess Projecta, Ferro Lad, and Nemesis Kid, who were conceived by Jim Shooter, making their first appearances in Adventure Comics #346 (July 1966), published by DC Comics.
Jim Shooter was all of 13 years old when he became the Legion’s new writer. He came from an impoverished background, and entered the field to help supplement his family’s meager income. One of the strengths that Shooter brought with him, in addition to his fertile imagination, was that he knew how real teenagers think and act. He helped bring a certain authenticity to the super-powered teens of the 30th Century. His first published story, for which he also supplied the rough pencil layouts, was in fact the two-part tale that ran in Adventure Comics #s 346-347, which saw the four young heroes he created inducted into the Legion. The finished artwork was courtesy of Sheldon Moldoff, Curt Swan & George Klein.
Karate Kid, although he had no actual superhuman abilities, was a highly trained martial artist who had mastered a form of “super karate” which enabled him to go toe-to-toe with much more powerful opponents. Princess Projecta had the ability to create incredibly realistic illusions. Ferro Lad was a mutant who could turn his body into a form of living steel, gaining super strength & invulnerability. Nemesis Kid possessed the talent to instantly develop the ability to combat any foe or danger.
Just as Karate Kid, Princess Projecta, Ferro Lad, and Nemesis Kid had finished being admitted into the Legion, the militaristic alien Khunds (also a Shooter creation) made clear their intention to invade Earth. The team, including the four newcomers, was dispatched across the globe to guard the planet’s defenses. However, one by one the “electro-towers” protecting Earth were destroyed by sabotage. It quickly became apparent that one of the new Legionnaires was in fact a traitor working with the Khunds… but which one? At first the evidence seemed to point to Karate Kid. But as Superboy stepped forward to accurse Karate Kid, the true double agent was revealed to be Nemesis Kid.
The Khund invasion was thwarted, but Nemesis Kid used his adaptability power to teleport away, evading capture. He would go on to become a long-time foe of the team, both as a solo menace and a member of the Legion of Super-Villains. And out of that first encounter would grow a long-running enmity between Karate Kid and Nemesis Kid.
Soon after, tragedy once again struck the Legion. Editor Mort Weisinger had directed Shooter to more or less rip off the then-current movie The Dirty Dozen. To his credit, Shooter conceived a two part story that was quite original & dramatic. In the pages of Adventure #s 352-353, the cosmic entity known as the Sun Eater was detected approaching the United Planets. Capable of consuming entire galaxies, the Sun Eater was too formidable a menace for even the Legion to defeat. They were forced to enlist the aid of five of the galaxy’s most dangerous criminals, offering them amnesty in exchange for their services.
Superboy, Cosmic Boy, Princess Projecta, Sun Boy and Ferro Lad set out to confront the Sun Eater, accompanied by the newly-formed Fatal Five. One member of that quintet of criminals, the cyborg Tharok, conceived a strategy to combat the inhuman menace. Although this battle plan failed, the attack by the Legion and the Fatal Five managed to weaken the Sun Eater, as well as provide Tharok with the data needed to construct an Absorbatron Bomb. If detonated at the core of the Sun Eater it would destroy the entity. Unfortunately whoever delivered the bomb would almost certainly die in the act. Superboy was ready to sacrifice himself, but Ferro Lad punched the Boy of Steel, grabbed the bomb, and flew into the heart of the Sun Eater. The bomb did indeed succeed in destroying it, but at the cost of Ferro Lad’s life.
In real life, Shooter hadn’t initially planned to kill off his creation. In fact, he wanted to reveal Ferro Lad to be the first black Legionnaire. However the conservative Weisinger forbid him doing this, supposedly fearing it would affect their sales in the South. As a result, when conceiving the Sun-Eater two-parter, Shooter realized the ending necessitated someone dying, and so he chose Ferro Lad. In any case, despite a very brief tenure on the team, Ferro Lad became something of a fan favorite due to his brave, heroic sacrifice.
Time passed, and Shooter left the Legion. During the intervening years, under other writers, Karate Kid and Princess Projecta went on to become well-established members of the team. The two characters also fell in love. Then, nearly a decade later, in 1975, Shooter made a brief return to the series. It was at this point that he was able to delve into the background of his futuristic master of the martial arts.
In the pages of Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #210, Shooter, paired with artist Mike Grell, revealed the origin of Karate Kid, aka Val Armorr. In “The Lair of the Black Dragon” Karate Kid learned he was the son of the infamous Japanese criminal Kiraku Nezumi, aka the Black Dragon, and an American woman named Valenina Armorr, who died shortly after giving birth to him. Karate Kid’s mentor, known only as the Sensei, had in his youth himself been a super-hero. He and the Black Dragon were arch-enemies. After many years, the Sensei finally killed the Black Dragon in combat, only to learn of the existence of his foe’s infant child. The Sensei raised Karate Kid as his own son. Now a teenager, Karate Kid was approached by the Black Dragon’s followers, hoping the truth of his parentage would turn him against the Sensei. Instead, Val fought to protect the Sensei. He explained “The Black Dragon gave me life… but you gave me more: ideals and moral values!” As far as Val was concerned, the Sensei was his true father.
More time passed. Paul Levitz became the writer on Legion of Super-Heroes, embarking on a multi-year run during which he penned a number of now-classic stories. One of his long-running subplots was the complicated relationship between Karate Kid and Princess Projecta. After a tumultuous courtship, Val and Jeckie at last married. Unfortunately, their happiness would be short-lived.
During Levitz’s partnership with penciler & co-plotter Keith Giffen, Legion became an especially popular title. It received a brand new series in 1984. To start it off, in the first five issues Levitz and Giffen brought back the Legion of Super-Villains, expanded in ranks and headed by Nemesis Kid. The one-time traitorous LSH member embarked on a dual quest to lead his fellow criminals in the invasion of Princess Projecta’s home planet of Orando and to kill as many Legionnaires as possible.
The Super-Villains attacked Orando, shunting the entire planet into another dimension, in the process capturing several members of the LSH. This included the newly-married Karate Kid and Princess Projecta. In Legion #4, Val managed to free himself and his teammates, but then told them “Hold it – you guys go on ahead – I have a personal score to settle.” With that he headed off to face his long-time rival Nemesis Kid.
In a brutal fight, Nemesis Kid used his adaptability to match Val’s martial arts, delivering a bloody beating. But the hero refused to give up, continually getting up again and again to face his foe. Despite his willpower, Val ended up sustaining severe injuries. Realizing he was dying, Karate Kid grabbed his flight ring, bid farewell to Jeckie, and flew up into the sky, using the last minutes of his life to damage the orbiting technology that had snatched Orando into limbo.
Giffen, who was absolutely not a fan of Karate Kid, was the one who had originally suggested killing Val. Levitz, in contrast, really liked Karate Kid, but he decided that dramatically it was a good idea because the character was popular and so his death would be unexpected as well as possess an emotional punch.
In the letters page of issue #4, Levitz addressed Val’s death: “A long-time favorite character of this writer (who even scripted Karate Kid #1 as his first LSH-related assignment over eight years ago), we’d like to think his death in battle against Nemesis Kid was foreshadowed from the day they both joined the Legion in Adventure Comics #346.”
By this time Giffen had actually gotten burned out drawing Legion. Up-and-coming artist Steve Lightle took over as penciler with issue #3, working from Giffen’s thumbnail pencil breakdowns on his first couple of issues before taking full creative control of the storytelling. Unlike Giffen, Lightle was a big fan of Karate Kid, and he was hardly thrilled that in only his second issue on the book he would have to draw the character’s demise. Nevertheless, given how much he cared for Val, Lightle set out to make his death as dramatic as possible. He certainly did amazing work penciling Karate Kid’s last stand.
The final confrontation between the Legion and their evil counterparts took place in issue #5, as Princess Projecta sought to avenge Karate Kid’s death. At first Jeckie hurled all manner of horrific hallucinations at her husband’s killer, but Nemesis Kid immediately adapted immunity to her illusions. Unfortunately for him, while he was busy doing that, he could not adopt to fight a normal human woman physically. A vengeful, driven Projecta reached out and in a moment of cold fury broke Nemesis Kid’s neck, slaying him.
Once again, Lightle does amazing work penciling this sequence. The panels where he zooms in on Projecta’s icy eye, and then cuts to Nemesis Kid’s horrified expression, really drive home that this is a woman who will not be stopped. On the next page, as Projecta grabs Nemesis Kid by the neck, the “camera” pans down to Karate Kid’s fallen form, leaving the execution to occur off-panel. Sometimes what takes place out of sight has much more of an impact. (Click on the scan below for a close-up look at these two pages.)
With her husband avenged and the LSV defeated, the widowed, mournful Projecta resigns from the Legion, and assumes her place as Orando’s ruler. In a later interview, Levitz stated that he eventually would have brought her back somewhere down the road. But it was clear that, at the time, this would have been the last we saw of Jeckie, at least for the immediate future.
Of course, to quote poet Robert Burns, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.” A year later, in Legion #14 (September 1985), Levitz & Lightle introduced the mysterious Sensor Girl. Levitz originally intended Sensor Girl to be a post-Crisis incarnation of Supergirl, placing her incognito to work around the editorial mandate that she was dead / retconned out of existence. However, the powers-that-be at DC soon told Levitz that his idea was a no-go. Forced to change course mid-stream, Levitz eventually revealed Sensor Girl to be Princess Projecta. But that’s a story for another time.
Getting back to where we started, the four “doomed” Legionnaires introduced way back in Adventure Comics #346 exemplify what makes the Legion so great. From that one story, Shooter, Levitz and other writers took those characters on engaging, moving, epic story arcs that resonated with readers. As I’ve written before, the amazing thing about the Legion is that you become so invested in these characters, their lives, their loves, and their tragedies.
(I have to offer an acknowledgement to the excellent book The Legion Companion, written by Glen Cadigan and published by TwoMorrows in 2003, as the source for much of the background info contained in this blog post. It is currently out of print, but if you can find a copy it is well worth picking up.)