Hello, loyal Legion learners!
Welcome back to the bi-weekly column where we attempt to figure out what this whole Legion of Super-Heroes business is about and why you, a Twenty-First Century comics connoisseur, should give them your attention.
I had forgotten how many characters are introduced, and how quickly, early on in the Legion’s publication history. Things will speed up a bit once the Legion settles in with a relatively stable cast.This edition covers five issues, Adventure Comics #267, Action Comics #267, Superboy #86, Adventure Comics #282, and Action Comics #276.
For now, I’m going to focus on the two issues of Action Comics, because they give me an opportunity to discuss one of my favorite topics, Silver Age Supergirl.
But first, let’s get the non-Supergirl issues out of the way. Adventure Comics #267 is a fairly typical example of a “characters know a secret and, rather than put their cards on the table, they enact a ridiculously circuitous plan that involves acting out of character and being giant jerks” plot that was so popular in Superman comics of the Fifties and Sixties. It’s not even a particularly well-written or amusing example of the genre, at that, so I wouldn’t even recommend it as a curiosity.
Superboy #86 barely even involves the Legion; it’s a decent enough Superboy story that concludes with Superboy calling in Lightning Lad from the future to pinch hit for him against some Kryptonite robots.
Finally, Adventure Comics #282 is a Lana Lang story in which Lana tries to spark Superboy’s interest by manipulating Star Boy (about whom more later) into being her boyfriend. It’s another fairly unremarkable story, but presents an example of something we’re about to get into with the two Supergirl stories: Selective Continuity.
Now, let’s talk about Action Comics #267 and 276, both written by Jerry Siegel (co-creator of Superman) with art by Jim Mooney. To really get these comics, you have to understand Supergirl’s setup in her early comics. The premise was that she was Superman’s cousin, was still a teenager, and had arrived on Earth when he was an adult. From there, she was just loaded down with hardship in a way that Superman really wasn’t. Whereas Kal got adopted by the Kents and lived a stable life in Smallville, Kansas, Kara was dumped by her cousin in an orphanage in Midvale, where she lived as Linda Lee, wearing both a wig and a constant look of anguish on her face.
While young Clark Kent could have public adventures as Superboy and become Smallville’s hometown hero, Linda Lee had to do all of her superhero work in secret in order to preserve her usefulness to Superman as a secret weapon in case he ever needed one.
So, throughout the early Silver Age, Supergirl had a weird double-secret identity thing going on: She couldn’t let anyone know that she had superpowers in her secret identity as Linda Lee, but she also couldn’t let anyone know that Supergirl even existed. All of her heroism had to be covert, behind the scenes, under cover of darkness, or otherwise engaged in through ridiculously circuitous nonsense to keep anyone from seeing her saving the day.
Look, most superhero stuff requires a healthy suspension of disbelief. It’s all held up by pretty thin reeds. The early Supergirl stuff, though, is incredibly difficult to countenance. Why does Supergirl bother to change out of her Linda Lee look? Wouldn’t it be much easier to do the superhero stuff on the sly if you look like a normal teenage girl and aren’t wearing a bright blue costume? Why does Superman need a “secret weapon” anyway? And how much better of a superhero is Supergirl than Superman, given that, as a teen, she’s capable of doing the same jobs he is, but also without anyone seeing her or knowing she’s doing it?
Backwards and in heels, am I right?
It’s often remarked that superheroes are adolescent power fantasies, and I’m fairly skeptical of that view in general, but to the extent it’s accurate, it’s most accurate of DC’s Silver Age comics. The animating question of DC comics in the Silver Age is “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?”
Wouldn’t it be cool if you could fly? Wouldn’t it be cool if you could vibrate your molecules so fast that you could run through walls? Wouldn’t it be cool if you had friends from the future who could take you on trips to the Thirty-First Century, where you could ride on rocket ships and eat space ice cream? So much of the joy and creativity in these comics comes from the creative application of superpowers to accomplish amazing feats (even if that process involves ignoring certain rules of physics or established continuity).
Which is what makes these early Supergirl comics so striking: They’re not so much power fantasies as they are frustration fantasies, fantasies of oppression, fantasies of being just as good, if not better, than your male peers, but having to hide your light under a bushel and let them take all the credit for your work.
One could, if one were looking, find an interesting commentary on the unfairness of how women, especially exceptional women, are expected to behave in society. I wouldn’t necessarily argue that this is an intentionally subversive message on the part of the creators. I suspect it’s a melding of superhero plotting with tropes from romance comics of the time, which focused heavily on heartache and pining.
My guess would be that the men involved (and it was all men involved, at this stage) set out to make a superhero comic, but for girls, and looked at what girls seemed to like in romance comics, and adapted from there.
That said, just because the creators of early Supergirl comics didn’t necessarily intend to comment on the state of women in society doesn’t mean the comics they produced can’t be a tellling, meaningful, even occasionally insightful window into the plight of women. What a comic means is what you take out of it, which isn’t necessarily what was put into it. This won’t be the last time in this column that the meaning to be found in a comic will be at variance with what the creators probably intended.
With all that out of the way, let’s talk about these issues!
Action Comics #267 introduces Supergirl to the Legion of Super-Heroes. The plot is actually remarkably similar to that of Adventure Comics #247; It opens with Linda Lee having an ordinary day (which, for her, means changing into Supergirl to secretly pull a tanker deeper into a river so that a draw bridge won’t have to be raised and the bus filled with her classmates will arrive at the Superman Fair in time to see Superman. Silver age comics!).
At the fair, Linda encounters a series of kids who’ll be familiar-looking to readers of Adventure Comics, all of whom protect her from exposing her superpowers while addressing her openly as Supergirl, much to her distress.
As you’ve guessed, the helpful/distressing teens are all Legionnaires (indeed, the same Legionnaires who recruited Superboy in Adventure Comics #247).
Alright, so here comes another major conversation topic: Selective continuity. This issue is super important in terms of establishing a lot of the rules of the Legion of Super-Heroes. A bunch of random stuff that gets said in this issue becomes law for at least the majority of the Silver Age.
On the other hand…
All of this you can safely, 100% ignore. This business about the Legionnaires who recruit Supergirl being the children of the Legionnaires from Adventure Comics #247, with identical appearances and code names and power sets, is dropped as soon as this issue is over. I am sure that somewhere out there, somebody has figured out a No-Prize explanation for how these two panels are compatible with *waves hand* everything else that’s about to come in Legion, but the simple explanation is that they put this in the issue, and then they either forgot about it or else immediately regretted it.
I suspect that what happened here is that this was the first, furtive attempt to deal with the whole in-universe time gap between Superboy and Supergirl’s comics. Time travel is always confusing, wherever it might show up, and it’s doubly so in Legion of Super-Heroes comics.
Pre-Crisis Legion comics not only involve characters traveling from the present to the future, they also involve characters traveling from the past to the future. That’s because Supergirl’s comics were contemporary, while Superboy’s comics followed Superman when he was a boy, which was a hazy, “about 10-15 years ago” time frame. My guess is that the thinking was that Supergirl could hang out with the one-thousand-years-in-the-future Legion, while Superboy could hang out with the one-thousand-years-in-the-future-minus-a-hazy-ten-to-fifteen-years Legion. Assuming that was the idea, it was very quickly lofted out the window when it was realized how complicated it would be to have two separate Legions, particularly with the Legion making more and more frequent appearances.
At the same time, this issue has a lot of stuff that would be canon going forward. A gaggle of Legionnaires make their first appearance in this issue. This issue is also the origin of many of the Legion’s membership rules, as well as the process for joining the Legion.
Heck, this panel alone introduces elements that are both canon and non-canon:
In one dialogue balloon we’re introduced to Chameleon Boy, Colossal Boy, and Invisible Kid… and also the soon-to-be non-operative statement that they’re all aliens with innate superpowers (Colossal Boy got his powers in a radioactive meteor storm; Invisible Kid got his invisibility from a serum he invented. Both are human.).
Again, I’m certain it’s possible to invent a twisted explanation for how every line and panel of this comic “works,” for how all of this is actually canonical, from a certain point of view. But I think the easier explanation is the one that’s most helpful: It just doesn’t fit, and that’s okay. You can ignore it. People pick and choose what’s canon to them based on what makes sense, based on what fits, based on what tells the best stories going forward.
Comics are not a faithful reporting of real events; they’re stories. They’re crazy make-em-ups. It can be an amusing parlor game to try to unravel these things in a way that makes sense, but the truth is that what looks like a single garment is actually a patchwork sewn together from thousands of stories made by hundreds of hands over the course of decades. We each make our own head canons out of what makes sense to us, out of the stories that mean something to us.
And creators do the same thing, picking those pieces of canon that they find interesting to explore and discarding or ignoring the parts that bore them. When creators decide that the canon they’re going to expound upon is some piece that we’ve personally discarded, we either find a way to find enjoyment in that exploration, or we reject it, in whatever way suits our temperament. Perhaps we yell about it online. Perhaps we write fan fiction to correct what we see as an error in judgment or taste, or to explore an alternative shard of the universe without the despised bit of canon.
The point of all of this is: You can send yourself mad, and more importantly ruin your enjoyment of comics, trying to make every little thing work in canon. Continuity can be one of the great, true joys of superhero comics, when decades of reading are paid off by a particularly astute creative team. We’re going to see all of that as we move through these comics, as new creators build on what came before to tell stories that no longer fit in the confines of a 32-page issue.
But continuity can also be a curse, when it inhibits your ability to enjoy a comic because the part of your brain that wants everything to be neat and tidy can’t handle that they keep telling stories without dealing with that one loose end that was left untied thirty-five issues ago.
There’s no simple answer, and my only advice is: Find a way to make your comics reading experience as enjoyable and meaningful to you, personally, as you can make it, and if a comic isn’t working for you, drop it and find other creative outlets to satisfy what it used to give you.
Let’s return to the comic. Things proceed for Supergirl much as they did for Superboy, with her being brought to the future, enjoying the sights, then being introduced to the Legion. We meet some new members (see above), and then Supergirl is invited to apply.
In keeping with the aforementioned theme that Supergirl can never experience triumph, though, there’s a twist: Where Superboy faced a rigged contest, which he lost, then got to join anyway, Supergirl faces a real test, which she wins, and then is denied admission on a technicality.
First, ground rules are established:
Supergirl sets about building a massive public works project in a matter of minutes:
But then… Some nonsense happens:
The explanation, as usual, is Red Kryptonite:
I can’t resist just a little snark, here: It’s striking that, of all the weird inconsistencies and goofball logic going on here, the one plot hole that the creators, or possibly the editor, decided to fill is “Why didn’t Supergirl burst out of her costume when she grew into a full woman?” Also, “If you become a teen-ager again…” is simultaneously such a weird, kinda jerky thing to say and also highly prescient.
And there’s nothing wrong with your eyes: The differences between teenage Supergirl and full-grown Superwoman are VERY subtle:
Anyhow, as Saturn Girl sort-of predicted, the whole thing’s resolved an hour after Supergirl gets home:
The whole affair ends, as so many Supergirl comics did in this era, with Linda Lee lying on her bed in Midvale Orphanage, looking forlorn:
The parallels between this comic and Superboy’s first encounter with the Legion in Adventure Comics #247 are so striking: It’s practically the same plot, with both characters getting an opportunity to hang out in the future with superpowered friends their age. And, arguably, from a character perspective, Supergirl has more to gain from Legion membership.
Certainly, Superboy has standard secret identity issues to deal with in Smallville, but he at least has adoptive parents who support him, friends he can share his secret with like Peter Ross, and a girlfriend in Lana Lang. Supergirl has none of those things, which would make membership in the Legion all the more of a dream for her, a time and a place and friends with whom she can finally be her superpowered self.
And at the end of their respective stories, Superboy has a team of super-friends that he can hang out with in the future, or call upon in times of need, while Supergirl… Still has nothing.
Evidently, the creators either realized what a bummer of an ending this was, or else were made to realize it as fans responded to this issue. About a year later, in Action Comics #276, Supergirl was finally allowed to join the Legion of Super-Heroes:
This one’s a fun read, and really digs into Supergirl’s loneliness as a theme, and the Legion as a salve for that loneliness. It’s worth seeking out, but the details of this one are somewhat less important than #267; it follows the now-familiar formula, but this time Supergirl wins admission to the team. Also significant: This issue introduces so many new Legionnaires.
It also further refines the Legion’s admission rules: Now they accept two members per year, one boy and one girl (bracketing, of course, the idea that real life conceptions of gender have advanced much further in sixty years than the those in the DC Universe did in a thousand).
We’re also introduced to Brainiac 5, the descendant of the Brainiac who fights Superman, and one of the more important Legionnaires, both for Supergirl and for the Legion.
Both Supergirl and Brainiac 5 are admitted to the Legion (And, spoiler, all those applicants sitting at the table will eventually join, too). The story kind of runs out of gas too quickly and ends with three-pages spent on a fairly pointless plot cul-de-sac about whether Supergirl will keep a force field belt Brainy gives her (It winds up breaking). And, for once, we end on a smiling Linda Lee:
That wraps it up for this extended examination of these early Legion appearances. In the space of five issues, we’ve gone from four Legionnaires to fifteen.
Next time: Mon-El! Ultra Boy!
Gim Allon. Introduced in Action Comics #267. The real name stays the same, but his origin, personality, background, and even his code name changes basically every time there’s a reboot. In this version, he’s an Earthling who got his super-growth powers from a radioactive meteor. Paul Levitz would do a lot to expand Gim’s background and give him some interesting plots; for example, he’s Jewish, and his mom eventually becomes President of the United Planets.
Lyle Norg. Introduced in Action Comics #267. Also from Earth. He’s a super genius inventor who created a formula that allows him to turn invisible. There’s… not a ton to say about him right now that won’t spoil some drama later.
Reep Daggle. Introduced in Action Comics #267. A Durlan, and like all Durlans he’s a shape-shifter. While we’re discussing Legionnaires with important parents, we’ll eventually learn that Reep’s dad is R.J. Brande, the patron who finances the Legion. Reep’s another character who, along with the Durlan race at large, got a lot of development under Levitz’s pen.
Thom Kallor. Introduced in Adventure Comics #282. From the planet Xanthu. Received his powers from a passing comet while on a space cruise (though that gets altered later). Here’s another example of selective continuity: In his introduction, he has a variety of powers, like super-strength and electrical vision. Eventually, though, the creators would settle on his having mass-altering powers.
Tinya Wazzo. Introduced in Action Comics #276. From Bgtzl. Has the ability to phase through solid matter. Think, if you must, of Kitty Pryde. Thanks to the ambiguity of her code name, she sometimes has powers related to the Phantom Zone, like the ability to travel into and out of it with a thought. That’s not very consistent, though.
Luornu Durgo. Introduced in Action Comics #276. From the planet Cargg, where everyone can split into three bodies. I have so many thoughts on Triplicate Girl. For now, I’ll confine myself to the elephant in the room: Her power is probably the greatest example of something that would be incredibly helpful in real life (Imagine how productive you could be if you could go to work, pursue creative activities, and take a day off all at once!) but is, unfortunately, not very useful, on the whole, in superhero-type situations. The reason is fairly well explained in this Non-Adventures of Wonderella strip: http://nonadventures.com/2010/05/22/third-times-the-harm/ . Writers would struggle with how to make use of Triplicate Girl, and she actually winds up getting some pretty great plots as a result, even if a lot of them result in her being, at least partially, fridged.
Salu Digby. Introduced in Action Comics #276, joins off-panel sometime between issues. From the planet Imsk. Has the power to shrink. Slowly, eventually, is revealed to be a lesbian; her sexuality started as a fan theory, then become heavily-hinted-at-subtext, then finally became text in the Retroboot.
Dirk Morgna. First appearance in Action Comics #276, joined in Adventure Comics #290. Human. Worked for his dad in a nuclear reactor, in the process making an enemy of Doctor Regulus, a sun-obsessed villain. Regulus threw Dirk into a nuclear reactor, which, naturally, gave Dirk the power of the sun. A cheerful guy, had a few fun stories over the years. The Bierbaums… were not fans. If you like Sun Boy, Five Years Later is not a fun read.
Chuck Taine. First appearance in Action Comics #276, joined off-panel, but his origin is told in Adventure Comics #301. Human. A cheerful, rotund fellow who can inflate himself into a ball and bounce around. There has literally never been a bad story about Bouncing Boy. Got his powers when, while working as a delivery boy for a scientist, he got thirsty and drank a secret formula, thinking it was soda pop.
Querl Dox. Joined in Action Comics #276. Coluan. Has Twelfth-Level Hyperintelligence. A frequent romantic pairing with Superboy, and a favorite of most of Legion’s creators, over the years. He gets pretty frequent use, so he winds up with a lot of good stories. The descendant of Brainiac from our time, though that’s sometimes a lineal, genetic descendant, sometimes more of a spiritual descendant.