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 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.

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.

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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!

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“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.