Super Blog Team-Up 5: The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong

Hello, everyone, and welcome to Super Blog Team-Up 5!  The theme this quarter is “Parallel Worlds and Alternate Realities.”  My fellow bloggers and I will be looking at stories that make use of the concept of the “Multiverse.”  You will find links to the other contributors at the end of this piece.

Before proceeding any further, I want to offer a big “thank you” to Karen Williams of Between the Pages.  Karen has been doing all the crucial heavy lifting involved in organizing this installment of Super Blog Team-Up.

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One of my favorite comic book tales of parallel universes is The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong, published in 2003 by America’s Best Comics / Wildstorm, and starring characters created by Alan Moore & Chris Sprouse in the Tom Strong ongoing series.  Published between June 1999 and May 2006, Tom Strong featured really great work by Moore, Sprouse and various other talented creators.

I cannot help thinking that the ABC line was crafted by Moore in response to the runaway success of Watchmen, which he co-created with Dave Gibbons.  Yes, Watchmen was brilliant and thought-provoking and groundbreaking.  But it unfortunately inspired an avalanche of imitators, series that embraced the “grim & gritty” trappings and that tried to replicate the “superheroes in the real world” premise.  The majority of these were ultra-violent, humorless retreads which contained little of the genuine creative spark that was abundant in Moore & Gibbons’ work.

Moore’s writing on the ABC titles a decade later seemed to be a concerted effort by him to demonstrate that comic books could be intelligent and sophisticated without sacrificing fun.  Certainly that was the case with Tom Strong.  Moore very deftly blended the archetypes of pulp adventures magazines, Silver Age whimsy, and high concept scientific theories.  The characters of Tom, his wife Dhalua, their daughter Tesla, and their extended supporting cast were expertly crafted, and their adventures were exciting & thought-provoking.

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The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong grew out of the events of Tom Strong #10 (November 2000) by Moore, Sprouse & Al Gordon.  Tom invented the “Searchboard,” a surfboard-like device which would enable its user to travel into parallel worlds.  On his first journey Tom ended up in a “funny animal” alternate Earth.  There he met a counterpart, “the bunny of bravery” known as Warren Strong, who protected the woodland folk from “science predator” Basil Saveen, a fox analogue to Tom’s arch-foe Paul Saveen.

After Tom returned to his home Earth, Tesla snuck into her father’s lab and decided to give the Searchboard a go.  This resulted in numerous other-dimensional versions of herself materializing.  The various Teslas were soon at each other’s throats, until their accompanying alternate reality fathers showed up to haul them home.  Accordingly, “our” Tom grounded his daughter for her role in the cross-continuum shenanigans.

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That brings us to The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong, written by Peter Hogan, with a plot assist by Moore.  Sprouse and inker Karl Story illustrated the prologue and epilogue, with an all-star line-up of artists contributing to the different chapters.

The story opens as Tesla, the talking intelligent ape King Solomon and the steam-powered robot Pneuman are cleaning up the Stronghold.  Solomon impulsively leaps onto the Searchboard and pretends he is surfing.  Unfortunately he accidentally activates the Board and vanishes into another dimension.

A moment later the Board returns without Solomon.  Its destination log has been wiped clean.  Tesla realizes that she must go searching for the super simian, who is like a brother to her.  Activating the board, Tesla glides out into the Multiverse.

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The first alternate Earth that Tesla arrives at is a post-apocalyptic radioactive nightmare where nearly all of humanity has been wiped out in World War III.  She is met by the gun-toting potty-mouthed Tekla Strong, a counterpart she previously encountered in Tom Strong #10.  Fighting off a horde of giant bugs, Tesla and Tekla duck into an immense underground shelter where most of humanity’s survivors have sought refuge.  Tesla tells her other self of her quest, and Tekla informs her that she has also lost her gorilla-friend, Archimedes the Atomic Ape, who likewise vanished into another dimension.  Tesla departs, continuing her search.

This segment is illustrated by Michael Golden, a talented artist who does extremely detailed work.  Golden is not super-fast, and so he mostly works illustrating covers.  But occasionally an anthology book such as this will come along and he will have the opportunity to contribute a few interior pages.  His style is definitely very well-suited to rendering Tekla’s hi-tech, bombed-out world.

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The next alternate Earth that Tesla arrives on is one where global warming occurred decades earlier, the polar ice caps melted, and most of the surface world was submerged.  Tesla encounters a mermaid version of herself named Tori, who explains that her father was able to transform humanity into mer-people via gene splicing, enabling them to survive the catastrophe.  Tesla is introduced to Tori’s father, a merman Tom Strong.  He hasn’t seen Solomon, but his own gorilla, Poseidon the Sea Monkey, vanished an hour earlier.  Tesla begins to see a pattern.  “I wonder if Solomon disappearing set off some kind of quantum monkey wave.”  Tesla hops on the Searchboard again and continues her journey.

Penciling this chapter is Adam Hughes, with inks by Story.  Hughes is another one of those incredibly talented but not especially fast artists who mostly works on covers.  This special gives him a chance to pencil some interior art, and to show off his storytelling abilities.

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As Tesla’s trans-dimensional journey proceeds, the story briefly checks in on Solomon.  He awakens to find himself imprisoned with numerous other-dimensional analogues.  Of the gathering Solomon astutely observes, “There’s more than a barrelful of us.”

Arthur Adams illustrated this two page interlude.  He is definitely the go-to guy in the comic book biz when it comes to illustrating monkey-related mayhem.  Adams’ hyper-detailed rendering of Solomon and his numerous alternate selves is an amazing, imaginative, and humorous grouping.

Tesla continues her tour of the Multiverse, encountering different variations of herself and her family along the way, all of them very odd indeed.  And on each alternate Earth, the story is the same: that world’s version of Solomon has also gone missing.

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I was definitely thrilled that one of the segments was illustrated by legendary DC artist Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.  I’ve mentioned on a few occasions in the past that I am a huge fan of his work.  He depicts Tesla’s reunion with her super-powered counterpart Tesla Terrific.  Garcia-Lopez is definitely the ideal choice to depict such an “old school” vignette.  He possesses a style that is both traditional and extremely dynamic.  His layouts on this seven page chapter are very effective, and he puts a great deal of detail into his finished art.  Really, I am in awe of Garcia-Lopez’s work.  It’s just so fun and brilliant.

The Searchboard eventually brings Tesla to one of the 2,057 alternate Earths that comprise the pan-dimensional “Aztech Empire” introduced in Tom Strong #3.  On this particular Earth, everything is scaled to giant-sized, and Tesla meets towering duplicates of herself and her father.  She is brought before the Empire’s ruler, the computer program / deity Quetzalcoatl-9, a literal deus ex machina.  The serpent god recognizes Tesla to be the daughter of Tom Strong, who previously assisted him.  Tesla explains what has been going on.  Examining the Searchboard, Quetzalcoatl-9 is able to restore its destination log, allowing Tesla to finally learn which reality Solomon ended up in.  Thanking god, so to speak, Tesla heads out to find her gorilla friend.

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In an extended chapter illustrated by Jason Pearson, Tesla arrives on “Earth-B.”  She is immediately knocked out in a gas attack by her malevolent counterpart Twyla Strong, Twyla’s equally diabolical father Tiberius Strong, and their cigarette-smoking gorilla Nero.  Taken prisoner by the sadistic Twyla, Tesla is informed that after learning of his numerous counterparts back in Tom Strong #10, Tiberius plotted to murder them all by sending bombs to their various realities.  Unfortunately the plan has backfired, and instead they ended up capturing Solomon and several dozen of his equivalents.

Incidentally, despite the fact that he is an evil other-dimensional counterpart, Tiberius Strong does not have a beard or an eye patch.  However he does dress in black.

Left chained in Twyla’s dungeon, with the imminent threat of torture hanging over her, Tesla is close to despair.  Then surprisingly, who should sneak in to rescue her but “gentleman adventurer and occasional science hero” Peter Saveen, a heroic counterpart to Tom Strong’s arch-nemesis Paul Saveen.  As if that isn’t weird enough, Peter Saveen takes Tesla to meet his ally Ilsa Weiss, an alternate version of another of Tom’s old foes, the psycho Nazi dominatrix Ingrid Weiss…

Saveen: May I introduce my associate, Fraulein…

Tesla: Ingrid Weis?! But she’s a Nazi.

Ilsa Weiss: Ilsa Weiss, actually. And I do not know how things transpired on your world, but here National Socialism saved the lives of millions. It is a tragedy we were defeated.

Yes, that is how completely upside-down this version of Earth is; the Nazis were actually the good guys!

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Saveen and Weiss reveal that Solomon and the other gorillas have been imprisoned in an abandoned typewriter factory, obviously a nod by Hogan to the idea of an infinite number of monkeys being given an infinite number of typewriters.  And, appropriately enough, the sign of the factory reads “Sprang Typewriters,” an affectionate homage to Golden Age Batman artist Dick Sprang, who often populated his stories with all matter of oversized props, including giant typewriters.

Tesla finds the Searchboards used by Solomon’s counterparts to bring them to Earth-B.  She takes one, and Saveen uses a stolen time machine to transport them back several hours, to before Tiberius dispatched a bomb through the dimensional gate.  Hiding behind a stack of crates, Tesla sees her past unconscious self being hauled off by Tiberius, Twyla and Nero.  This leads to a humorous exchange between her and Saveen…

Tesla: That’s impossible, isn’t it? For two of me to be in the same place at the same time?

Saveen: Well, you’re not, are you? She’s way over there.

Tesla hops on the Searchboard and arrives back home to find Tom and Dhalua constructing a replacement two-seater Board to go in search of their daughter.  Before Tom can give his daughter one of his patented stern lectures, she alerts him to the incoming bomb.  He is able to divert it to the skies above the already-radioactive world of Tekla who witnessing the explosion lets off her usual stream of expletives.

Tesla and her parents quickly return to Earth-B, where Saveen and Weiss have freed all of the imprisoned gorillas.  Tiberius, Twyla and Nero are in a free-for-all with the escaped prisoners, and Tom takes the opportunity to engage his counterpart.  Asking his evil duplicate why he wants him dead, Tiberius snarls “Because I am a genius… I deserve to be unique. And because… because…”  At which point the villain’s rant is abruptly interrupted by a titanic paw slamming down on him.  As Tesla comments, “You know, I was kind of wondering if a giant Aztec gorilla was going to show up.”

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I don’t know how the rest of you feel, but I’ve got to say that any comic book featuring a giant Aztec gorilla is pretty darn cool!

In the epilogue we see Quetzalcoatl-9, at Tesla’s request, has located an empty, radiation-free Earth in his empire to which Tekla and her people can relocate.  In exchange, they are given custody of the defeated Tiberius and Twyla.  Despite the fact that Tiberius is psychotic, Tom promises to see he is treated humanely and to try to rehabilitate him.  Tiberius and Twyla both scoff at this, vowing revenge, to which Tesla resignedly states “I guess some people, you just can’t help.”

Tesla and Tom are due back on their own Earth for a read-through of Solomon’s new play, “The State of Denmark.”  Obviously those gorillas made use of those typewriters, after all!  Tom, however, suggests that he and Tesla “go for a spin around the Multiverse instead,” something to which she readily agrees.

Hogan’s scripting on this epilogue was nice.  One of the ongoing themes of the Tom Strong series was that, due to the cold, analytical manner in which Tom was raised by his father, he occasionally has difficulty expressing emotions or socializing in a normal manner.  However, we see through scenes such as this that underneath it all Tom is a much warmer, caring figure than his father.  He has a genuine relationship with his daughter.  He also wants to try to provide his adversaries with an opportunity to reform.

Tesla herself is a wonderfully fun character.  She was fantastic in the regular Tom Strong series and I very much enjoyed seeing her get the spotlight in this special.

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Some comic book editors and writers have argued that readers cannot relate to characters that are married and have children.  I definitely do not agree with this.  Neither apparently does Alan Moore.  He crafted an interesting, engaging family unit between Tom, Dhalua, Tesla, Solomon and Pheuman, gifting the characters with real chemistry, writing interesting stories about them.  Peter Hogan, both in The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong and in later issues of the regular Tom Strong series, effectively continued with this.

I really wish that there were more comics such as The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong.  It is a enjoyable book, full of appealing characters, an exciting plot, and imaginative ideas.

If you have not read any of the Tom Strong stories, I encourage you to pick up the trade paperback collections.  The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong itself is collected in the volume titled Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics.

Super Blog Team-Up 5 banner

I hope that everyone enjoyed this one.  Here are links to the other great entries in Super Blog Team-Up 5:

  1. Between The Pages:  A Tale Of Two Cities On The Edge Of Forever
  2. Bronze Age Babies:  Things Are a Little Different Around Here…
  3. Firestorm Fan:  Firestorm in Countdown Arena
  4. Flodo’s Page:  The Ballad of Two Green Lanterns
  5. The Idol-Head of Diabolu Podcast:  Martian Manhunter Multiversity
  6. The Legion of Super-Bloggers:  Star Trek/Legion of Super-Heroes
  7. Longbox Graveyard:  X-Men #141 & 142: Days of Future Past
  8. The Marvel Super Heroes Podcast (part of Rolled Spine Podcast):  Epic Comics’ Doctor Zero
  9. Mystery Vlog:  Marvel & DC’s Secret Crossover: Avengers #85–86 (1st Squadron Supreme)
  10. Superior Spider-Talk:  Spider-Man: Reign and Chasing Amazing:  The Case Against Spider-Man: Reign
  11. Superhero Satellite:  Marvel Comics’ Star Comics Line: “Licensed Reality and Parallel Properties”
  12. Ultraverse Network:  Parallel Worlds: The Ultraverse Before and After Black September
  13. The Unspoken Decade:  5 Batmen, 1 Superman, Zero Hour and The Ghost in the Machine: Robocop Versus Terminator
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How I learned to love the Legion

Back Issue #68, the most recent edition of the excellent magazine edited by Michael Eury and published by TwoMorrows, took an in-depth look at the history of the Legion of Super-Heroes in the 1970s and 80s, topped with vintage 1973 art by the late, great Dave Cockrum.  I really enjoyed it, and was inspired to write about how I myself became a fan of these champions of justice from a thousand years in the future.  In comparison to some readers who have been fans of the Legion for many decades, I’m a relative newcomer.  And it was a rather long, convoluted road that led me to becoming a devotee.

The Legion of Super-Heroes, as illustrated by Dave Cockrum in 1973.

The Legion of Super-Heroes, as illustrated by Dave Cockrum in 1973.

When I first began reading comic books in the 1980s, I was almost exclusively into Marvel.  I’d pick up an issue published by DC here or there but, really, Marvel was my thing.  Then, in 1989, the Tim Burton Batman movie came out and, with the massive accompanying hype, I began picking up a few of the actual comics.  I enjoyed those Batman stories, and quickly moved on to the Superman books, buying the then-current issues by such talents as Dan Jurgens and Jerry Ordway, as well as catching up on the recent John Byrne stories via back issues.  Those, in turn, led me to several other DC books including Legion of Super-Heroes.

Let me be honest: 1990 was probably not an ideal time for a virtual newcomer to the DCU to pick up the Legion cold.  The title was still experiencing the aftershocks of Crisis of Infinite Earths (you can see my blog post “Should Superman Kill?” for a rundown on the entire Pocket Universe retcon of Superboy and the Legion’s history).  In addition, a new Legion ongoing had recently started.  Helmed by Tom & Mary Bierbaum, Keith Giffen and Al Gordon, this book had leaped forward half a decade into the future from the end of the previous volume.  During that gap the Legion had disbanded & scattered across the galaxy, the United Planets had been plunged into a massive economic depression, and EarthGov had been covertly taken over by the alien Dominators.  So even though I did rather enjoy the handful of Legion issues that I picked up around that time, I had a lot of difficulty figuring out who was who and what was what.

As I would find out years later, it also did not help that there were behind-the-scenes creative conflicts, with the editors of Superman laying down edicts that Superboy could not be referred to any longer, and neither could Supergirl, and a bunch of other stuff.  Editors Mark Waid & Michael Eury (yep, him again), Giffen, Gordon and the Bierbaums did their best to come up with ways to work around all this, such as substituting Mon-El for Superboy and creating the character of Laurel Gand to take Supergirl’s place in the Legion’s history (for a detailed rundown on all of this, check out the excellent article “Too Much Time On My Hands: The History of the Time Trapper” by Jim Ford in Back Issue #68).

Legion of Super-Heroes vol 4 #9, featuring Laurel Gand, who bears absolutely no resemblance to Supergirl, we swear to Grodd!

Legion of Super-Heroes vol 4 #9, featuring Laurel Gand, who bears absolutely no resemblance to Supergirl, we swear to Grodd!

One source of information that assisted me immensely was the latest edition of Who’s Who in the DC Universe which was edited by a certain Mr. Eury.  There were a large number of entries for Legion characters in that 16 issue incarnation of Who’s Who, and it really helped me figure out up from down.

Anyway, all the various tortured retcons eventually caused the entire Legion history to be totally rebooted from scratch.  And then several years later it got rebooted again.  None of this did anything to motivate me to follow the series regularly.

So what finally did make me a fan of Legion of Super-Heroes?  It was two gentlemen by the names of Dave Cockrum and Jack Kirby.

Dave Cockrum is nowadays best known for co-creating the “All-New All-Different X-Men” with Len Wein in 1975, and then going on to pencil two runs on the series, paired with writer Chris Claremont.  Back in the 1990s, Dave and his wife Paty lived in upstate New York, and so I often would see them at local conventions & store signings.  I became a huge fan of Cockrum’s work and, in the process, I learned that right before he came over to Marvel to revamp X-Men, he had had a short but extremely influential stint on Superboy, a title which in the early 1970s was the home of the Legion as a back-up feature.

In 2000, DC published Legion of Super-Heroes Archives Volume 10, which reprinted the majority of Cockrum’s work on the series.  I picked it up, and I instantly fell in love.  It was immediately apparent that Cockrum had really played a crucial role in reviving the Legion.  If you look at the first few stories in that Archives volume, the ones written by E. Nelson Bridwell & Cary Bates and drawn by George Tuska, they’re decent and entertaining, but nothing especially memorable.

Then Cockrum comes along, paired with Bates, and over the next few stories you can see a real shift.  Cockrum started to draw the Legion members as slightly older, so that they were in their late teens, and he designed new uniforms for them, ones that were more fashionable & risqué.  You could almost say he sexed up the Legion, although by today’s standards what he did is quite mild & innocent.  (My favorite was Cockrum’s costume design for Phantom Girl, and I’m happy I had the opportunity to get a nice sketch of Tinya by him.)  Cockrum revamped the technology, the look of the future, drawing a lot of inspiration from Star Trek.  Cockrum’s art also contained this energy and dynamic quality.  He really knew how to tell a compelling story, to draw exciting layouts and detailed sequences featuring multiple characters.

Superboy #200, featuring the wedding of Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel, beautifully illustrated by Dave Cockrum.

Superboy #200, featuring the wedding of Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel, beautifully illustrated by Dave Cockrum. (Click to enlarge!)

Cockrum may have got me to pick up that hardcover collection, but it was Bates’ writing that really hooked me.  He did an amazing job scripting the numerous members of the Legion, making them seem like real people who were teammates and friends and occasionally romantic partners.  I really got invested in this group of super-powered pals.

Cockrum’s stay wasn’t very long, lasting from 1972 to 1974, but by the time he left, the team had taken over the covers of Superboy, and the book was unofficially titled “Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes.”  Cockrum’s replacement was newcomer Mike Grell.  I enjoyed Volume 10 of the Archives so much, I picked up the next one, which has the beginning of Grell’s run, paired with both Bates and Jim Shooter on writing duties.  Obviously Grell has grown by immense leaps & bounds since the mid-1970s, but even back then you could see a great deal of talent & potential in his wonderful Legion art.

I also mentioned Jack Kirby.  As far as I know, the King of Comics never drew the Legion.  However, one of his most significant creations would play a major role in the annals of the team’s lore, courtesy of Paul Levitz & Keith Giffen.

“The Great Darkness Saga” originally ran in Legion of Super-Heroes #290-294, published in 1982.  A mysterious, shadowy “Master” and his “Servants” are ravaging the United Planets, stealing various objects & sources of mystical power, in the process even taking down longtime Legion foes Mordru and the Time Trapper.  After four issues in which the Legion has been beaten back by these mysterious beings, the identity of the “Master” is finally revealed: Darkseid, lord of Apokolips.  Using the immense magical energies he has stolen, Darkseid teleports the planet Daxam to a yellow star and seizes mental control of its now-superhuman occupants, giving him an army of a billion beings with the strength & abilities of Superman.  What follows is a titanic battle across the whole of the galaxy, as the Legion calls in practically every single one of their reserve members & allies to try and halt Darkseid & his enslaved pawns.

Darkseid’s identity was well-hidden back when “The Great Darkness Saga” was first published.  In hindsight, you can see that Levitz & Giffen sprinkled in several clues for those who were really paying attention.  Of course nowadays Darkseid’s role is very well known.  So, as a huge fan of Kirby’s New Gods, I was absolutely interested in reading this now-classic story in which Darkseid was the villain.  “The Great Darkness Saga” was definitely an epic adventure.  At the same time, Levitz invested his script with a number of personal, quiet moments and pieces of characterization.  Once again, I really got interested in these people, in finding out more about them.

Legion of Super-Heroes #294: Darkseid revealed!

Legion of Super-Heroes #294: Darkseid revealed!

“The Great Darkness Saga” had not one, but two, epilogues, which appeared in Legion Annual #3 (1984) and Annual #2 (1986)… the series restarted with a new #1 in-between these two, which explains that odd numbering!  Having failed in his quest for universal domination, Darkseid sought to achieve a more personal, hurtful victory.  And what he did was genuinely horrifying.  But more on that (hopefully) in a future installment!

In any case, between the work of Cockrum, Grell & Bates in the 1970s and “The Great Darkness Saga” by Levitz & Giffen in the early 1980s, I really became interested in Legion.  I picked up several of the previous Archive editions, which contained the work of Edmond Hamilton, John Forte, Curt Swan, and a very young Jim Shooter.  I also searched out many of the Legion issues that Levitz wrote in the 1980s working with artists Steve Lightle and Greg LaRocque.  It was all really good stuff.  And when the pre-Crisis continuity of the Legion was more or less restored several years back, I picked up the new stories by Levitz and Geoff Johns.  But, again, I’ll talk about that another time.

Silver Age artist Nick Cardy, who recently passed away, had a brief connection to the Legion.  In addition to his runs illustrating Aquaman, Bat Lash, and Teen Titans, Cardy created stunning, dramatic covers for numerous DC titles throughout the 1960s and 70s, including Superboy.  This meant that once the Legion took over as the regular cover feature in 1973, Cardy had the opportunity to draw the heroes of the 30th Century.  And he did so beautifully, composing a number of striking images for the title, until Grell took over the cover chores two years later.  Probably my favorite Legion cover by Cardy is Superboy #203.  He does a superb job, depicting the menacing Validus looming over the unsuspecting Legionnaires.

Superboy #203 cover art by Nick Cardy.

Superboy #203 cover art by Nick Cardy.

Within that comic, behind Cardy’s fantastic cover, was “Massacre by Remote Control.”  This featured the tragic death of Invisible Kid, who sacrificed himself to save his teammates from the near-mindless monstrosity Validus.  It’s a very moving, emotional story by Bates & Grell.

And that, in turn, goes back to why I’ve come to be such a fan of the Legion.  Writers such as Bates and Shooter and Levitz really had the ability to get readers to care for the characters in the series.  Over the decades, those characters have grown and developed, been in and out of relationships, seen great triumphs and terrible failures.  And sometimes, sadly, members of the Legion would fall in battle, such as what happened to Invisible Kid, or when Shooter & Swan showed us Ferro Lad bravely giving his life to stop the apocalyptic menace of the Sun-Eater.  When incidents like this happened, it really did affect the reader.  It’s no wonder that the Legion has such an amazingly dedicated fanbase.