Recurring themes of the Legion of Super-Heroes part 3: Yeah, that’s gonna be a “No” from me, dawg!

This is the third installment of my look at recurring plots, imagery and character-types in the Legion of Super-Heroes stories published by DC Comics during the Silver Age… and beyond.

This time we are looking at homages to one of the most iconic Legion images, the cover to the team’s first appearance in Adventure Comics #247.

Initially these homages were quite infrequent. By the 1990s, though, fandom had, for better or for worse, become a decades-spawning passion with a significant awareness of the medium’s past. This has resulted in the proliferation of homages to and parodies of Golden and Silver Age imagery, among these the cover to Adventure Comics #247.

The first Legion of Super-Heroes story in Adventure Comics #247 (April 1958) was written by Otto Binder, drawn by Al Plastino and edited by Mort Weisinger. The now-legendary cover was drawn by penciler Curt Swan & inker Stan Kaye, who regularly contributed the cover artwork to the Superman family of comics in the late 1950s.

“The Legion of Super-Heroes” saw a group of super-powered teens from 1000 years in the future offer Superboy the chance to join their club. Originally intended as a one-off tale, within a few years it would become a beloved, long-running series. Likewise, the cover image to Adventure Comics #247, with a shocked Superboy being rejected for membership in the team, would go on to be  a recurring motif over the series’ history, as well as inspiring numerous parodies throughout the medium.

The earliest homage to the Adventure Comics #247 cover that I’ve located is Superman #147 (August 1961) also drawn by Curt Swan & Stan Kaye. Here we see the now-adult Man of Steel being threatened not with rejection but with death by the Legion of Super-Villains.

It’s interesting to note that this issue was published just a little over three years later, in an era when overt nods to past were rare in the comic book biz. Audience turnover was fairly rapid in the 1950s and 60s, and it would normally not be expected that current readers would be familiar with material published several years earlier. The fact that Swan & Kaye drew this cover, presumably at the direction of editor Weisinger, appears to confirm awareness by DC that the Legion was already developing an avid, long-term readership.

The cover to Adventure Comics #322 (July 1964) is again penciled by Curt Swan, now paired with inker George Klein. Although not a straight-up homage of #247, it nevertheless evokes the former’s audition format, but with the Legion of Super-Pets taking the place of Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lad & Saturn Girl, and the shape-changing Proty II standing in for Superboy.

L.E.G.I.O.N. was a semi-prequel to Legion of Super-Heroes. It featured an interplanetary law-enforcement team organized by the original Brainiac’s son, the Machiavellian genius Vril Dox, in the present day. The tone of L.E.G.I.O.N. was often bleakly humorous (as any series co-starring the ultra-violent Lobo would inevitably be) but the comedic tone reached ridiculous proportions in L.E.G.I.O.N. ’94 Annual #5 (September 1994). This “Elseworlds” tie-in had the team appearing in various pop culture parodies, including this segment lampooning the Silver Age Legion.

One can only guess what Curt Swan was thinking when he was asked to draw this bizarre send-up of his earlier work! He is paired here with inker Josef Rubinstein. The script is by Tom Peyer, with letters by John Costanza and colors by Gene D’Angelo.

The cover to Legion of Super-Heroes #88 (January 1997) has Impulse, the super-fast grandson of the Flash / Barry Allen and Iris West Allen auditioning to join the Legion. Of course the hyperactive, mischievous Impulse tries to rig things in his favor! Cover pencils are by Alan Davis, inks by Mark Farmer, letters by Todd Klein and colors by Patrick Martin.

Acclaimed painter Alex Ross has done numerous reimaginings of classic comic book covers. Here is his take on Adventure Comics #247. This painting was used for one of the two covers for the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, 29th Edition (May 1999) from Gemstone Publishing. This is actually a scan of the original artwork, courtesy of Heritage Auctions. The painting was unfortunately too dark & blurry when published.

Legion of Super Heroes was an animated series that ran on WB for two seasons from September 2006 to April 2008. DC published a comic book that tied in with the animated series’ continuity. Legion of Super-Heroes in the 31st Century lasted for 20 issues. The cover to issue #16 (September 2008) has infamous Legion reject Arm-Fall-Off-Boy attempting to join the animated incarnation of the team, with equally unsuccessful results. Cover artwork is by Alexander Serra.

When DC briefly revived Adventure Comics starring the Legion of Super-Heroes in 2009, they published a zero issue that reprinted the team’s first story. The brand new cover to issue #0 (April 2009) is drawn by Aaron Lopresti and colored by Brian Miller.

Looks like somebody took one heck of a wrong turn at Albuquerque! The very much tongue-in-cheek Legion of Super-Heroes / Bugs Bunny Special (August 2017) was part of a series of crossovers between DC Comics and Looney Tunes. “The Imposter Superboy” sees Bugs accidentally transported to the 31st Century, where he finds himself in the cross hairs (or should that be cross hares?) of the very angst-ridden Legion. Cover pencils are by Tom Grimmett, inks by Karl Kesel, and colors by Steve Buccellato.

The cover of Adventure Comics #247 is such an iconic part of Legion lore that comic con cosplayers have even taken to recreating it! I have no idea when or where this was taken, or who this clever quartet are in real life, but they definitely deserve a round of applause.

Recurring themes of the Legion of Super-Heroes part 2: Super-Babies and Mystery Legionnaires

This is the second installment of my look at recurring plots, imagery and character-types in the Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes stories published by DC Comics during the Silver Age.

As I explained in the first part, Mort Weisinger, the editor of the Superman family of titles throughout the 1950s and 60s, often encouraged his writers & artists to reuse old elements.  This was due to the fairly regular turnover in the young readership during those two decades. Looking back at these stories it’s interesting to see these patterns.

This time around we are looking at super-babies and mystery Legionnaires!

As acclaimed comic book writer Roger Stern observed in his introduction to Legion of Super-Heroes Archives Volume 6:

“stories in which heroes are turned into infants were one of [editor Mort] Weisinger’s strange fascinations.”

These three issues of Adventure Comics are only just the “heroes transformed to babies” stories featuring the Legion. Quite a few others appeared periodically throughout the other Superman-related series during Weisinger’s editorial tenure.

Each of these covers was penciled by Curt Swan, inked by George Klein & lettered by Ira Schnapp.

Adventure Comics #317 (February 1964) written by Edmund Hamilton and drawn by John Forte. This is the introduction of the prophetic Dream Girl, who is seemingly plotting to destroy the Legion from within, although of course there’s a twist ending revealing her true motive. Among Dream Girl’s methods of sabotaging the Legion, she transforms several of the team into infants.

Adventure Comics #338 (November 1965) written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by John Forte. The villainous Time Trapper attempt to de-age the Legion members into nothingness. When they instead get stuck as infants, the Trapper tricks them into committing various crimes.

Adventure Comics #356 (May 1967) written by E. Nelson Bridwell and drawn by Curt Swan & George Klein. The five members of the Legion who are orphans regressed to toddlers. It’s all part of a screwy scheme by the inhabitants of a planet whose own children were wiped out by a plague.

Another plot device that editor Mort Weisinger directed his writers to utilize on several occasions was having mysterious or disguised individuals joining the Legion under suspicious circumstances.

Adventure Comics #307 (April 1963) cover by Curt Swan & George Klein, written by Edmund Hamilton and drawn by John Forte. Mystery Lad is soon revealed to be Element Lad, who goes on to become a longtime member of the team.

Adventure Comics #330 (March 1965) written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Jim Mooney. The Mystery Legionnaire, aka Dynamo Boy, is actually Vorn, a member of a gang of space pirates who infiltrates the team in order to destroy it; unlike Dream Girl from a year earlier, Dynamo Boy really intends to go through with this dastardly plan.

Adventure Comics #334 (July 1965) cover by Curt Swan & George Klein, written by Edmund Hamilton and drawn by John Forte & Sheldon Moldoff. Who is the Unknown Legionnaire? Who? WHO??? Okay, okay, I’ll tell you… it’s Supergirl, who after exposure to Red Kryptonite loses her memory and assumes a new masked identity.

Adventure Comics #350 (Nov 1966) written by E. Nelson Bridwell and drawn by Curt Swan & George Klein. When a cloud of Green Kryptonite encircles the Earth in the 30th Century, both Superboy and Supergirl are forced to resign from the Legion and return to the present day. But before leaving they chose their own replacements: the masked, armored Sir Prize and Miss Terious! The next issue reveals them to be former members Star Boy and Dream Girl, who rejoin the team.

Adventure Comics #355 (April 1967) written by Jim Shooter and drawn by Curt Swan & George Klein. When the adult members of the Legion face off against their opposite numbers in the Legion of Super-Villains, two masked, armored figures leap into the fray. But whose side are they on? It turns out they’re the 30th Century descendants of Lex Luthor and Mr. Mxyzptlk, who have become heroes to atone for the crimes of their ancestors.

There are also at least a couple of other Legion stories utilizing the Mysterious Unknown Masked Legionnaire trope in the Bronze Age. It seems to be a popular idea to return to again and again.

Next time I’ll be looking at one of the most iconic images in the history of the Legion, and some of the numerous homages, swipes & parodies of it that have appeared throughout the decades. I really hope you’ll vote “Yes” to checking out our next installment!

Recurring themes of the Legion of Super-Heroes part one: Welcome to the 30th Century

In the last couple months I’ve been reading the Legion of Super-Heroes stories of the Silver Age from the very beginning, via the reprints in the hardcover Legion of Super-Heroes Archives from DC Comics. I recently hit a speed bump, namely Legion Archives Volume 8, which is out of print and typically goes for $150 and up on Ebay! Hopefully I’ll find an affordable copy soon.

In any case, while reading all of the Legion stories from the first decade of the team’s existence, I noticed quite a few recurring images, plots and types of characters. Mort Weisinger, the original editor of the feature in Adventure Comics and the other Superman titles of the Silver Age, often encouraged his writers & artists to reuse old elements.  This was due to the fairly regular turnover in the young readership during the 1950s and 60s. (Fans continuously reading superhero comic books for decades into adulthood is something that was not yet a phenomenon.) Looking at these stories in the present day it’s interesting to see these patterns. I thought it would be both fun and informative to examine some of these.

First up: the Legion of Super-Heroes sitting around the table in their clubhouse with signs identifying their names & powers while Cosmic Boy is running the meeting. Several artists utilized this same layout throughout the late 1950s and early 60s. It is a useful way to introduce your various characters without having to work all of that information into the dialogue…

The first time this was drawn was by Al Plastino in the Superboy story in Adventure Comics #247 (April 1958) which was the first appearance of the Legion of Super-Heroes.

This same layout was then used by Jim Mooney in the Supergirl story in Action Comics #267 (August 1960) which has the Maid of Might attempting to join the Legion.

George Papp then utilizes this layout in Adventure Comics #282 (March 1961) when Star Boy joins the Legion.

Jim Mooney again utilizes this set-up in Action Comics #276 (May 1961) as Supergirl auditions a second time to join the Legion.

Finally, John Forte, the first artist to draw the Legion of Super-Heroes regularly, uses this setup in Adventure Comics #300 (September 1962) when the team became an ongoing feature in that series.

There are a number of other parallels to be found in Adventure Comics #247 (April 1958) written by Otto Binder & drawn by Al Plastino and Action Comics #267 (August 1960) written by Jerry Siegel & drawn by Jim Mooney.

Adventure Comics #247 shows the Legion founders Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad bringing Superboy 1000 years into the future where he is shown a sprawling super-advanced hi-tech version of Smallville.

Action Comics #267 shows the Legion founders bringing Supergirl 1000 years into the future, with a very similar shot being used to represent a sprawling super-advanced hi-tech version of Metropolis.

Also, in both stories Superboy and Supergirl respectively go with the Legion members to futuristic ice cream parlors and have some Martian Ice Cream, with nearly-identical narration & dialogue. The only difference in the later one is that instead of a human behind the counter serving ice cream there’s a robot. (Darn dirty robots are stealing our jobs!)

I initially posted these on Facebook. Occasionally this would engender comments that reusing the same layouts over and over again was “unimaginative.”

It should be observed that in the 1950s and 60s comic books were not regarded as a prestigious field in which to work. The majority of writers and artists toiled in anonymity, working under tight deadlines for low pay. Comic books were seen as disposable entertainment. Between that and the aforementioned frequent turnover of readers, it made sense to reuse plots and artwork from time to time as a way of saving time. No one involved in the creation of these comic books could possibly conceive that decades later their work would be reprinted and enjoyed by succeeding generations. It was genuinely a different industry.

I will soon be taking a look at some other popular recurring stories, artwork and themes from the Legion’s early years.

Remembering comic book artist George Klein

Recently I was reminded, thanks to the excellent blog Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books by Alan Stewart, of the very underrated work of comic book artist George Klein.

National Sportsman Dec 1939 cover smallOne of the main reasons why Klein is not much better known among comic book fandom is that he tragically passed away at a young age.  He died 50 years ago this month, on May 10, 1969.

Klein was born in 1915, although there is a bit of uncertainty over the exact date, as well as the location of his birth.  Klein’s earliest published work appears to be a painted cover for the December 1939 edition of National Sportsman.

Between 1941 and 1943 Klein was employed by Timely Comics, the precursor to Marvel.  Creator credits in the Golden Age were often missing or inaccurate, but it is generally believed he worked on such titles as All-Winners Comics, Captain America Comics, USA Comics and Young Allies Comics at Timely.

In 1943 Klein was drafted to serve in World War II, and served as a private in the Army Infantry.  Honorably discharged in 1946, Klein returned to his career as an artist, working in both comic books and as a magazine illustrator.Detective illustration George Klein

Several of the periodicals that Klein worked for, both before and after the war, were pulp magazines published by Timely’s owner Martin Goodman, specifically Best Love, Complete Sports, Complete War and Detective Short Stories.  Klein was also a regular contributor to Wyoming Wildlife, the award-winning magazine published by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.  His work in Wyoming Wildlife and other publications apparently gained Klein some renown as a landscape and wildlife artist.

Klein once again did work for Timely, or Atlas Comics as it came to be known in the 1950s.  Among the various titles Klein worked on at Timely / Atlas in the late 40s and early 50s were the romance series Girl Comics and the well-regarded fantasy / romance series Venus, although (again due to the lack of credits) the exact details of his involvement are a matter of deduction and guesswork.

 

Venus 2 pg 1

During this time Klein also branched out to work for other publishers such as ACG, Ace Comics and Prize Publications.  By the early 1950s much of Klein’s work was for National Periodical Publications, aka DC Comics.

Beginning in 1955 Klein, working as an inker, was regularly paired up with penciler Curt Swan on DC’s various Superman titles.  Looking at the Grand Comic Database, the first story drawn by the Swan & Klein team seems to be the Superboy story “The Wizard City” written by the legendary Bill Finger in Adventure Comics #216, cover-dated September 1955.Adventure Comics 332 cover small

Swan and Klein continued to work together for the next 12 years, with their art appearing in various issues of Action Comics, Adventure Comics, Superman, Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane, and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen.

Truthfully, Swan is a penciler who at times leaves me a bit cold.  He’s one of those artists who I recognize as technically proficient, someone who is a good, solid storyteller.  However often his work just does not connect with me personally.  That said, there is something about the teaming of Swan and Klein that really appeals to me.

Having been born in 1976, obviously I did not read the stories they drew when they first came out. About 20 years ago I really got into the Legion of Super-Heroes and began picking up the various Legion Archives.  I was immediately taken with the work that Swan & Klein on those Superboy and the Legion stories from Adventure Comics in the 1960s.  I regard Klein as one of the best inkers Swan ever got during his lengthy career.

As per writer & editor Mark Waid’s bio of George Klein written for the Legion Archives:

“Klein set new standards for his craft with his razor-crisp brushline, which brought new dimensions to the art of Curt Swan, the penciler with whom Klein was most frequently paired. Together, Swan and Klein defined for years to come the look of Superman and his cast of characters; to this day , most Legion of Super-Heroes aficionados consider Swan and Klein to be the all-time finest Legion art team.”

Adventure Comics 352 pg 5

Klein’s work over Swan’s pencils is an excellent demonstration of just how significant a role the inker can have on the look of the finished artwork in comic books.

Adventure Comics 352 cover smallProbably the stand-out stories of this era were written by the then-teenage Jim Shooter, who introduced Karate Kid, Princess Projecta and Ferro Lad to the Legion, as well as the villainous Fatal Five.  Swan & Klein did a superb job illustrating these now-classic stories.

One cannot discuss Klein’s work in the Silver Age without mentioning Fantastic Four.  Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961, that title was the birth of what came to be known as the Marvel Universe.  For many decades the specific details concerning the creation of the early FF stories have been shrouded in mystery.

One of the most frequently-pondered questions was who exactly inked Kirby’s pencils on the first two issues.  After much debate & analysis, the conclusion reached by Dr. Michael  J. Vassallo, one of the foremost authorities on Timely / Atlas / early Marvel artwork, is that it was George Klein.  It is known that Klein worked on several stories for Atlas in the late 1950s and early 60s, which would put him in exactly the right place when the first two issues of FF were being created in 1961.

As to why Klein in particular was chosen to ink these two issues, longtime Marvel editor Tom Brevoort offers up this theory:

“I would also conjecture that perhaps the choice of George Klein to ink these early issues–if indeed he was the inker as is generally believed today–was to try to give them more of a super hero feel than Kirby’s monster or romance or western work. Klein at the time was inking Curt Swan on Superman, and you really can’t get a more classic super hero finish than that.”

Fantastic Four 1 pg 14

Absent the original artwork for those first two FF issues resurfacing, or some previous-unknown documentation being discovered, we will probably never be 100% certain; nevertheless, the general consensus is that Klein very likely inked those two issues, placing him right at the birth of the Marvel Age of Comics.

Klein’s work for DC on the Superman family of titles took place during the regime of editor Mort Weisinger.  The late 1960s saw an editorial shake-up at DC. Although Weisinger remained in control of the Superman books until 1970, this behind-the-scenes instability is reportedly what led to Klein departing the company.  He quickly found work at Marvel Comics which, eight years after the introduction of the Fantastic Four, was achieving both commercial success and critical acclaim.Avengers 57 cover small

Klein’s first assignment at Marvel was inking John Buscema’s pencils on Avengers.  After inking a couple of covers, Klein became the regular inker with issue #55, cover-dated August 1968.  Klein remained on Avengers for nearly a year.

The late 1960s is now considered one of the series’ most important and influential periods. Writer Roy Thomas, working with John Buscema, introduced the Avengers’ arch-nemesis Ultron, new member the Vision, and Hank Pym’s new costumed identity Yellowjacket, among other key developments.  Klein did a superb job inking Buscema on many of these key stories.  In 2001 Thomas spoke with Buscema about their work on Avengers, a conversation that saw print in Alter Ego #13.  In it they briefly touched upon Klein:

Roy Thomas: So how did you feel about George Klein’s inking compared to some of the others?

John Buscema: From what I’ve seen, a very credible job, not bad.

Considering that Buscema was notoriously critical of most of the artists who inked his work, I suppose by his exacting standards this was high praise indeed!

Avengers 55 pg 16

Klein also inked Gene Colan on Avengers #63-64, Sub-Mariner #11, and on several issues of Daredevil.  Klein was probably one of the best embellishers to ever work over Colan, who could often be a bit challenging to ink.

Daredevil 53 cover smallAdditionally, in early 1969 Klein inked two very early jobs by a very young Barry Windsor-Smith, in Daredevil #51 and Avengers #67.  Klein’s finishes gave some much-needed support to BWS who, although he was already showing quite a bit of promise, was still honing his craft.

Last, but certainly not least, Klein inked Jack Kirby on Thor #168-169, which were cover-dated Sept and Oct 1969.  It has been opined that Vince Colletta’s inking of Kirby was a good match on Thor, as the feathery line work provided a specific tone that was well-suited to the mythological characters & settings.  It was much less appropriate to Kirby’s sci-fi concepts, which is why Colletta was a poor fit on Fantastic Four.

Similarly, when Kirby took Thor in a more cosmic direction in the late 1960s, Colletta’s inking felt out of place.  So it was definitely nice to have Klein’s more polished inking on these two issues, which saw the god of thunder learning the origin of one of Kirby’s most cosmic creations, Galactus.  These Thor issues were very likely the last work that Klein did before his untimely death.
Thor 169 pg 2

According to the Field Guide To Wild American Pulp Artists, Klein was hospitalized for cirrhosis of the liver in May 1969, less than a month before he died.

I’m going to add a few words from Alan Stewart here summing up this unfortunate situation:

“It’s tragic that Klein passed away as young as he did — and the fact that he’d gotten married just a few months before makes it even more so. Unfortunately, his work over Curt Swan on the Superman books all those years was uncredited, and his subsequent stint at Marvel was too short for him to have made the impact of a Joe Sinnott or Tom Palmer. I agree he’s underrated.”

Action Comics 300 cover small

I really believe that Klein would probably be much better remembered as an artist if he had not died so young.  He did very well-regarded work on comic books in a career that lasted nearly three decades.

The reissuing of so much of DC and Marvel’s material from the Silver Age does mean that younger fans such as myself have now been able to rediscover Klein’s work.  Additionally, all these decades later Klein, as well as everyone else who worked on those early DC stories, are at long last receiving proper credit for their work in those reprint volumes.

There are so many creators from the Golden Age and early Silver Age who helped to make the comic book industry what it is today, creators who in the past were unfortunately uncredited and overlooked.  I hope this short profile on one of those creators, George Klein, will inspire readers to seek out some of these classic stories, and to develop more of an appreciation for the people who crafted those imaginative tales.

Thank you to all of the websites from which I gleamed information about and artwork by George Klein.  I believe I’ve included links to all of them, but if I did miss anyone please let me know!

Legion of Super-Heroes: The Doomed Legionnaires

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.

Adventure Comics 346 cover

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.

Adventure Comics 347 pg 13

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.

Advenure Comics 353 pg 20

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.

Superboy Legion 210 pg 18

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 mortally wounded, 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.

Legion v3 4 pg 22

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 adapt 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.)

Legion v3 5 pg 14 & 15

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.)

Legion of Super-Heroes: The Curse of Validus

Paul Levitz is an evil genius.

Having read many of Levitz’s amazing Legion of Super-Heroes stories, this appears to be an inescapable conclusion.  He is a genius because he comes up with these absolutely amazing stories, and he also invests the members of the team with real personalities, making them three-dimensional individuals that you genuinely care about.  And he is evil because, having done such amazing work developing his cast, he then proceeds to put them through the wringer, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Legion annual 2 1986 signed

Of course, it is through this that Levitz has so successfully made the members of the team so beloved.  As I wrote in yesterday’s post, we readers, having seen our heroes struggle through myriad trials & tribulations, very often emerging not-quite-unscathed, occasionally much for the worse, grew even more attached to them.  Levitz, as with other, earlier writers, showed that the teenagers of the Legion may have had fantastic powers, but they still had to struggle with hardships & setbacks, and that made them relatable & realistic.  That’s the winning formula that Stan Lee utilized at Marvel in the 1960s, and the various Legion scribes often managed to channel that same appeal.

(It’s probably no accident that some of my favorite DC Comics characters from the Silver and Bronze Ages are the more offbeat, flawed ones, such as the Legion, the Doom Patrol, Metamorpho, and the Unknown Soldier.)

One of my favorite of Levitz’s storylines from Legion of Super-Heroes is one that had a rather slow burn.  It involved the mysterious being known as Validus.  Introduced in Adventure Comics #352 (January 1967) by Jim Shooter & Curt Swan, Validus was a towering monster, a semi-intelligent child-like menace who projected mental lightning from his exposed brain.  He was one of the five villains the Legion reluctantly recruited to help them battle the Sun-Eater, a cosmic entity that threatened to destroy the entire galaxy.  In the end, they were successful, although Ferro Lad sacrificed his life, and the quintet of criminals banded together as the Fatal Five, becoming deadly enemies of the Legion.

Adventure Comics 252 pg 6

Fast-forward fifteen years.  Levitz and Keith Giffen have just finished their five-part epic “The Great Darkness Saga” which pitted the Legion against Darkseid.  After finally being defeated in Legion of Super-Heroes #294 (December 1982), the lord of Apokolips offered a parting taunt:

“I leave you my curse, Legionnaires… the curse of darkness growing within you, destroying you from within… and that which is purest of you shall be the first to go!”

About a decade and a half ago, when I picked up the back issues comprising “The Great Darkness Saga,” I had no idea what Darkseid’s curse as supposed to be or if Levitz (or any other writer) had ever followed up on it.  But then a few years later DC reissued the trade paperback collection, which also included Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #3 (1984), which was titled “The Curse.”

Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl are preparing for the birth of their child.  Meanwhile, on Sorcerers World, a group of Legionnaires are attempting to prevent followers of the evil sorcerer Mordru from reviving their master.  During the ritual, a shroud of darkness spreads all across the United Planets, including Medicus One, where Saturn Girl is going into labor.  Back on Sorcerers World, the Legion defeats Mordru’s servants, and the darkness dissipates.

Saturn Girl gives birth to a healthy baby boy.  However, she is a bit puzzled.  She was expecting two children, because on Lightning Lad’s home world of Winath, something like 99.999% of pregnancies result in twins.  And although Saturn Girl comments that twins are very rare on Titan, where she comes from, she then adds:

“It’s funny, though, when he was still inside me, I felt sure my telepathy was picking up baby thoughts sometimes, and I could have sworn I felt two separate babies’ thought patterns.”

And then we get to the final two pages of the Annual.  We discover that Saturn Girl did give birth to twins but, during the fall of darkness, Darkseid secretly transported away one of the newborns.

“They’ll never know that I have taken you… and if they had, they could not dream of what I shall do to you. You shall change, oh, change so much that they shall never recognize you. You will be mighty… but always in the cause of the darkness in which you were born. I consign you to the past, back through the years so that you shall meet them full grown before you have even been born. They shall never know you, child, or you them. And who knows, my little Validus, perhaps some day your own parents may even kill you? Thus is my curse fulfilled!”

Legion annual 2 pg 3

Yes, that’s right: Darkseid stole away one of the twin sons of Lightning Lad & Saturn Girl at the moment of his birth, so that they had no idea he existed.  The dark god then transported him back in time, in the process also mutating him into the tortured monstrosity Validus, who would become one of the Legion’s greatest enemies.  And he did so hoping that one day Validus would be slain in battle by his own parents, without their ever knowing who they had actually killed.

As I said, Paul Levitz is an evil genius.

I later found out that, in the years before all of this had been written, amongst early Legion fandom, there had been some speculation about just who or what Validus really was.  His unusual power of mental lightning had given at least one reader the idea that somehow perhaps it could be the son of Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl, who had been a couple in the series for a long time, and who a lot of readers hoped would eventually marry & have children.  Levitz decided to run with this theory, giving it the horrifying twist of all being caused by Darkseid.

After I read “The Curse” I was in shock.  Once again, I had no damn clue if this was ever resolved anywhere.  It wasn’t until a few years ago that I came across a copy of Legion of Super-Heroes Vol. 3 Annual #2 (1986).  The dynamic cover by Steve Lightle featured Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, and Validus, with the dramatic blurb “Darkseid’s Curse Fulfilled?”  This had to be it!

legion-annual-2-pg-4

“Child of Darkness, Child of Light” is written by Levitz, with artwork by veteran Legion artist Curt Swan (who drew Validus’ debut two decades earlier), as well as a prologue & epilogue penciled by Keith Giffen.  The issue opens with a flashback to Validus’ shocking origin, his transformation at the hands of Darkseid.  It then leaps forward two years.  Validus has inexplicably reappeared.  He is seemingly attacking planets at random, moving freely through space via Boom Tubes generated by the mad Daxamite teenager Ol-Vir, who worships Darkseid.

It turns out that Validus is following the telepathic trail of his twin brother Graym, without consciously realizing who he is searching for.  This eventually leads Validus and Ol-Vir to Winath, where Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad are vacationing with Graym.  The titanic Validus seizes the tiny infant.  Lightning Lad believes his son is about to be killed by this terrifying being, and is ready to use lethal force to prevent this.  For a moment, it really does look like Darkseid’s hope of manipulating Lightning Lad into unwitting infanticide is really going to succeed.  However, Saturn Girl, who had tried to use her telepathy to make contact with Validus and calm him down, finally realizes that he is her lost son.

With the shadow of Darkseid towering over the landscape, Saturn Girl demands, and then pleads, with the lord of Apokolips to restore her son to normal.  And Darkseid, who is a god and wishes to be worshiped, actually agrees, and shows mercy.  Validus is transformed back into a healthy, human baby boy.  As Levitz’s narration explains:

“One jest has failed, yet another may serve. Let the children live, if the mother is wise enough to acknowledge the power of the darkness.”

Legion annual 2 pg 37

I have to admit, Swan draws the hell out of this sequence.  I’ve never been a huge fan of his style, although I definitely recognize that he was a very solid artist who did good, dependable work  at DC for decades.  But his storytelling here is just amazing.  The sight of Saturn Girl, at first defiantly standing up to Darkseid, and then giving in to her grief and falling to her knees, with his shadow looming over her, is extremely well “directed,” driving home the dramatic impact of Levitz’s scripting.

Legion Annual #2 is, I think, among the high points of Levitz’s mammoth eight year run on the series in the 1980s.  As with so much of his other great writing, it contains both awesome spectacles and moments of genuine, moving characterization & emotion.  It also demonstrates what sets Levitz apart from many of his peers.  After running Saturn Girl, Lightning Lad, and their children through an emotional gauntlet, he shows that there can be a happy ending.  Yes, there is great darkness (no pun intended) but there is also light and life.  It is a quality to his writing on Legion of Super-Heroes that has been consistent throughout the many incarnations of the team he has chronicled, that has made his work so poignant and enjoyable.