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.
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.
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!”
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!
“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.”
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.