The Legion’s Lightning Rod: The Growth and Evolution of Lightning Lad

The Legion of Super-Heroes are one of the oldest teams in the history of DC Comics. What began as three time travelling teens who made an appearance in Adventure Comics #247 evolved into a group with such history and depth, by the 1980s they received their own Who’s Who series just to keep track of everyone. Up to the mid-80s, the Legion was one of DC’s most popular teams.

That all changed when DC erased the characters of Superboy and Supergirl from the DCU following Crisis on Infinite Earths. Ever since, there’ve been multiple attempts to rectify how the Legionnaires were an afterthought to the removal of Superman’s career as Superboy and Kara Zor-El. They’ve tried to retcon Superboy’s role, replace him as the Legion’s inspiration, restart the Legion from scratch, and at one point tried to restore ALL of them by saying they all happened and all mattered. And then THAT changed when DC rebooted everything again with the New 52 in 2011. It never ends.

It’s not easy being a Legion fan, but I still say it’s worth it after everything supporting the Legion’s given me. Yes, it’s hard, and frustrating, and sometimes I want to rip my hair out because it never seems like it will get better. If I’ve learned anything from supporting the Legion of Super-Heroes, it’s that you must keep trying.

I’ve written extensively on Comicosity about my love for the likes of Roy and Lian Harper. Truthfully since at least 2010 the Harper Family and the Legionnaires are the ones who’ve been the closest in my heart as a DC fan. Being a Legion fan introduced me to so many wonderful friends whom I can’t imagine life without at this point. It’s been my dream to write about the Legion as much as it is to write about Roy and Lian professionally. Specifically, there’s one Legionnaire who means the most to me.

Garth Ranzz, a.k.a. Lightning Lad, is historically one of the original three Legionnaires. In every adaption of the Legion, he’s consistently featured as a founding member alongside Rokk Krinn (Cosmic Boy) and Imra Ardeen (Saturn Girl). Lightning Lad’s backstory largely remained the same; one of three siblings who gained electrical powers after being attacked by lightning beasts on the planetoid Korbal.

Garth’s personality has been semi-consistent among the various published Legions, sometimes following the “fiery redhead” trope or being a subversion. He’s the “wild card” of the Legion’s founders compared to the reserved and straightlaced Cosmic Boy and Saturn Girl. When written properly, Garth tends to be the emotional and rational founder juxtaposed to Rokk as the overachieving martyr and Imra’s no-nonsense hardass. One reoccurring trait’s his relationship with Imra. Another has been his infamous string of “bad luck.”

To wit, part of what I enjoy about Garth Ranzz are the similarities he shares with my other favorite DC redhead, Roy Harper. They’re emotional redheaded men who are also loving, devoted fathers, often get dismissed as the “weak link” of their respective friends (the Legion Founders, the Fab Five Titans), and suffered through multiple traumatic incidents but kept moving forward.

Due to the fractured nature of time and space in the DCU, it means there’ve been multiple, distinct versions of the Legion. Thus, there’re multiple versions of Lightning Lad. The Garth Ranzz I’m talking about, and the one I’m most fond of, is the original or “Retroboot” version of the character who eventually married his version of Saturn Girl and started a family.
Most versions of Garth Ranzz have suffered through trauma in at least some form.

In 1989’s “Five Years Later”/”Glorithverse” Legion, the retired Lightning Lad was physically disabled from a disease which afflicted his right arm and leg. Infamously, FYL Lightning Lad was thought to have never actually been brought back from the dead. It was believed his body was being used by Saturn Girl’s pet Proty, who seemingly died to revive Lightning Lad.

(Art by Brandon Peterson)

The younger Live Wire of the SW6 Legionnaires was ostensibly the nastiest of every version of Garth Ranzz. He was mean, unpleasant, and sometimes violent, and our brief look at a childhood incident when he accidentally killed his pet unfortunately didn’t do much to make him sympathetic or tolerable.

(Art by Jeff Moy)

The Reboot Legion’s Live Wire spent years convinced the power he shared with his brother and sister was going to turn them evil. Live Wire believed this was the reason his older brother Mekt became a criminal, up until Mekt destroyed Live Wire’s right arm.

(Art by Jeff Moy)

Years later, Live Wire seemingly died to stop the rampage of the Progenitor (formerly the docile Element Lad warped by millions of years of isolation). Live Wire’s essence somehow survived in Element Lad’s crystalline body, meaning he had to live in the body of his killer which caused alienation from his teammates and friends.


(Art by Oliver Coipel)

The Threeboot’s Lightning Lad struggled as the Legion’s newly elected leader thanks to a bad deal he was stuck in with the United Planets, among other things. His relationship with Saturn Girl took a nasty turn when she briefly cheated on him with Ultra Boy due to feeling neglected. This Lightning Lad skirted the possibility of a rather disturbing rebound relationship with the much older president of Earth.

(Art by Francis Manapul)

Most recently, the Lightning Lad of Brian Michael Bendis and Ryan Sook’s Legion has suffered greatly due to multiple examples of racist subtext in the character’s design. At the last second before the debut of the Bendisboot Legionnaires, it was decided to make the new versions of Lightning Lad and Light(ning) Lass Black. As more of Bendis’s Legion was revealed, it became clear this wasn’t thought out ahead of time. To wit, the Ranzz Twins are now adhering to the stereotype of giving Black comic characters electrical powers. They’re at one point even asked if they know or are related to Black Lightning. There’s also the fact the Bendisboot Winath is not a beautiful, agricultural farm world but is now a dark and dirty cityscape. Bendis! Garth and Ayla come from a huge family that was stuck living in a cramped, dirty apartment, and the two regularly protested police brutality on their homeworld before the Legion was created – as a publicity stunt by President R.J. Brande. This Garth is also genuinely oblivious to the fact his family hated living in their awful apartment until he gets them a new home on New Earth, at which point they announce how thrilled they are to be off Winath.

(Art by Mikel Janin)

It’s galling those arguments about supporting Bendis’s Legion have pertained to it “being for new readers,” when new readers are given the narrative of Black people STILL dealing with inadequate housing in ghettos alongside police brutality. A thousand years in the future. On an entirely different planet. Past Legion volumes have had their share of problems – just look at the creation of Tyroc – but for it to be this bad from the very start is disconcerting.

Still, the original version of Garth Ranzz moving into the “Retroboot Legion,” as in the original Legion moving forward from a different point than the Five Years Later Legion did, is the one with the greatest history of surviving physical, mental, and emotional trauma. Not just surviving, but living, with a history of enduring abuse from as early as childhood before becoming a superhero.

Even before the creation of the Legion, Garth’s suffered abuse in his childhood at the hands of his older brother. On their home planet Winath, twin births are considered the norm. While Garth was born with his twin sister Ayla, their older brother Mekt was a “Solo.” As a result, Mekt was somewhat ostracized from Winathian society, and several stories implied he took his frustrations out on his siblings. Mekt was specifically shown to be physically abusive towards Garth while harboring an unhealthy obsession with Ayla.

(Art by Joe Orlando)

Years after the Ranzz siblings gained their lightning abilities, Garth and Ayla became superheroes while Mekt became the villainous Lightning Lord. He even helped found the Legion of Super-Villains. In Mekt’s eyes, he saw Garth as an obstacle keeping him from having Ayla as his “twin” and in later years frequently tried to murder Garth. Though Mekt’s tried to kill Ayla when she disobeys him, it’s telling Mekt never considered using Garth as his surrogate twin instead after all the times Ayla rejected his demands. Though Mekt at one point pleaded with Garth to find a supposed “lost twin” he was separated from at birth, it’s still clear he doesn’t view Garth as being a worthy twin.

Garth and Ayla represent how lopsided an abusive familial relationship can be. Mekt was hostile towards both, but in his eyes, Mekt viewed Ayla as more valuable than Garth. You could argue about who had it worse, or how Mekt’s abuse from Winathian society led to him abusing his siblings, but at the end of the day Mekt saw Ayla as a prize and Garth as a hindrance. Ayla is the one Mekt wanted in his life while Garth’s the one he wanted to get rid of. Ayla wants absolutely nothing to do with Mekt, while Garth finds himself on some level caring about his brother even though Mekt can’t or won’t return those feelings in earnest. That’s not to say Garth won’t fight Mekt; Mekt’s prejudiced views on Saturn Girl are a surefire way to make Garth go ballistic on his brother. This sibling hatred made Lightning Lord one of the Legion’s most versatile enemies due to how much his sibling obsession defined his behavior.

(Art by Keith Giffen)

Garth’s history with the Legion is a longstanding one of trauma and survival, and, also living. Legionnaires and fans alike dubbed him “The Unluckiest Legionnaire,” and not without a proper reason. He was the first of the Legionnaires to die, and it stuck for several issues until his teammates managed to revive him. Garth’s right arm was destroyed while battling a creature dubbed “The Super-Moby Dick of Space.” He required amputation and a robotic prosthetic until his flesh-and-blood arm was also restored more than a dozen issues later. Criminal mastermind Lars Hanscome once brainwashed Garth into becoming the villain Starfinger, and Prince Evillo of Tartarus also tried (and failed) to corrupt Garth to serve in his “Devil’s Dozen.”

(Art by John Forte)

And this all happened just in the Silver Age.

During the Bronze Age, Garth’s write-in election as Legion leader was marred by several catastrophes that had nothing to do with his actions or inactions. The stress of this calamity string took a toll on Garth’s physical and emotional wellbeing until he resigned as leader. He was briefly hospitalized due to the anxiety influencing his lightning generating abilities. It didn’t help that during his time as leader, the Ranzz parents were killed in an asteroid collision while travelling through space. Though this was also the period where his relationship with Saturn Girl was cemented by marriage, being the second Legionnaires to wed following Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel.

When Saturn Girl’s pregnancy came to term, both parents were unaware the villain Darkseid kidnapped one of their newborn sons without either knowing he existed. As a form of twisted revenge against the Legionnaires for stopping “The Great Darkness,” Darkseid mutated the baby into the monster Validus of the Fatal Five. Darkseid sent Validus back in time to fight his unsuspecting parents when they were younger, figuring Garth and Imra might unknowingly kill their child, or the child might kill his parents. Thankfully, the parents were able to figure out Validus’s identity when the creature attacked them and his brother Graym. Darkseid undid the transformation after Imra stood her ground against the God of Evil.

(Art by Curt Swan)

The height of Garth’s emotional struggles occurred when the Time Trapper, the Legion’s greatest enemy, decided to strike against the three Legion Founders. Orchestrating the abduction of Graym Ranzz, the Time Trapper lured the founders to his fortress at the end of the time. After the Time Trapper separated the Legionnaires, Rokk and Imra located Graym and were shocked to discover he was perfectly safe and well taken care of. It dawned on them that Garth was the true target of this game.

The Time Trapper believed Garth Ranzz was the weak link of the founders, viewing him as “a child pretending to be a man” and rife for a potential psychotic breakdown. Hoping to break Garth and mold him into a double agent to get the Legion’s secrets, the Time Trapper pulled Garth inside-out in a torturous barrage of illusions and gaslighting. Scenario after scenario of Garth being told he was a failure as a husband, father, provider, brother, son, and Legionnaire. This included revisits of his traumatic encounter with the Super-Moby Dick of Space, getting a front row seat to the deaths of his parents, and the Time Trapper threatening to erase Graym from existence.

(Art by Ernie Colon)

Despite literally everything, Garth refused to break for the Time Trapper’s pleasure. No matter the threats, intimidation, or abuse, Garth wouldn’t betray his team or his loved ones. This perseverance forced the Time Trapper to end the “game,” conceding to the Legionnaires and admitting Lightning Lad was a worthy opponent.

Another set of villains, the Luck Lords, also had their eyes on Garth Ranzz. From their perspective, Garth was a chosen individual whose life might tip the balance between science and luck. To the Luck Lords, Garth was exceedingly lucky thanks to how he overcame every obstacle thrown at him – either on his own or thanks to his friends. The Luck Lords conspired to get rid of Garth multiple times to herald the death of science, and order’s, hold on the universe, and each attempt failed.

It wasn’t until Geoff Johns set up the return of the original Legion of Super-Heroes (or as close as one can get at this point) that Lightning Lad was visibly affected by traumatic events. As a result of several Earth-born Legion rejects banding together to spread misinformation about Superman’s origins, the Legionnaires were branded as supposed terrorists making Earth ready for an alien invasion. The Legion was forced underground while this “Justice League of Earth” spearheaded a campaign of hate infecting Earth’s government and police system. Alien citizens were rounded up in detention camps and human children were taught that Superman was “Mother Earth’s champion.”

Due to these inhuman laws and conditions, many of the Legionnaires grew exhausted and ragged as the JLE rounded them up one by one. While the remaining Legionnaires were able to expose the JLE’s lies with Superman’s help, the damage wasn’t fixed overnight.

The Legion Founders suffered the most, especially Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad. Imra lost her assertiveness for the sake of acting as an ineffectual peacekeeper, while Garth grew angrier by the day. It didn’t help that the two needed to send their children to live with the extended Ranzz Family on Winath lest the JLE get their hands on Graym and Garridan. Garth also became separated from his sister Ayla when the Legion was spread thin working underground.

Nevertheless, Lightning Lad’s anger reached a point where he was nasty to everyone – justified or not – in almost every comic he appeared in. He more than once screamed at both Saturn Girl and Cosmic Boy like a child. While his rage was framed as his frustrations in dealing with Earth’s openly xenophobic government and how everything he’d been working towards since he was young torn down overnight, it was still disheartening to witness this behavior. Especially when it was aimed at people he normally loves very dearly.

(Art by George Perez)

It must be acknowledged Geoff Johns tried to establish Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl were ALWAYS like this. He framed in interviews and other comics that Saturn Girl was a patient woman who saw the good in everyone and Lightning Lad was a rowdy hothead (comparing him to Clint Barton and Hal Jordan). The fact that their behavior in this period can be explained by extensive trauma and separation from their sons was only a happy coincidence Johns most definitely did not plan from the start.

As much as I hate to admit it, I can relate to Garth’s anger problems during this period. I endured something similar in middle school following my sexual assault. My behavior was erratic and borderline unacceptable, and there were days I was truly nasty and horrible towards everyone around me – even people who didn’t deserve it. The three years I spent in that school were some of the most miserable years of my life, and I’m as ashamed of them in general as I am by the way I acted. So Garth’s temper and raging is something I get on a deeper level, and while I’m not fond of that writing at all because of how Johns forced this onto the character, I do understand it.

It wasn’t until Paul Levitz returned as writer for the Legionnaires in 2010 that a conscious attempt was made to restore Lightning Lad’s true personality without ignoring what Johns did to the Legionnaires. Levitz put into perspective that Garth and Imra’s recent behavior was the result of exhaustion from what the JLE did to them in a way that Johns failed to do so.

At the start of the 2010 Legion of Super-Heroes ongoing series, Saturn Girl’s homeworld Titan was destroyed and Graym and Garridan were mysteriously kidnapped. At the time, Garth was on Winath investigating the circumstances of his older brother’s birth to confirm if Lightning Lord really did have a twin (a leftover plotline from Johns’ last Legion stories). Levitz also showed Imra returning to her true personality as she privately expressed anger at her husband’s behavior.

Upon being told of Titan’s demise and the disappearance of his wife and children, the (pardon the pun) shock and guilt of almost losing his family seemed to spur Garth out the mindset being on the run put him in. In the process of finding both Imra and their children, Garth strove to overcome his new anger issues for his own sake and the sake of his loved ones. Both Legionnaires went off active duty to focus on their sons and their relationship.

(Art by Yildiray Cinar)

To me, Garth Ranzz is a unique character study in how a person grows not defined by trauma but how they move forward. To outsiders he’s viewed as volatile and unstable, leading people to wonder how and why a person like him managed to help create the Legion of Super-Heroes. The truth is Garth’s perseverance and capacity for love and companionship make him the heart of the Legion’s Founders. His death was the only one that shook the Legionnaires so badly that many of them were willing to sacrifice their own lives to revive him. His own sister even went as far as to pretend to BE him after he died. If that doesn’t signify his importance to his loved ones, I don’t know what does.

Garth’s first and greatest act of self-sacrifice was propelled by a desire to help Imra Ardeen. After discovering Imra’s plan to die fighting Zaryan the Conqueror so none of the other Legionnaires would have to, Garth didn’t hesitate to stop her and died in her place while defeating Zaryan in the process. Imra was willing to die for the Legion, Garth was willing to die for Saturn Girl. Afterwards, Imra spent several issues determined to bring Garth back to life and was going to die to accomplish such a feat. This may very well have been the moment the seed of their future romance was planted, and the two went on to be one of the Legion’s most famous couples for a reason. It’s not just their devotion towards each other, but their respect and love and ability to be comfortable around the other.

Following the birth of their son Graym, and later their recovery of Garridan, it was Garth who chose to stay home to look after the children while Imra went back on active duty as a Legionnaire. This happened during the late 1980s and might’ve seemed progressive to readers at the time. In a way it still is. Nothing about the situation was played for laughs at Garth’s expense. Save for a joke about a food preparation machine, Garth was content to be a house husband while his wife was a Legionnaire. This admittedly didn’t receive as much focus during the Legion issues of the late 80s, but it still stands out as Garth and Imra were the only Legionnaires with children.

(Art by Keith Giffen)

Even during Garth’s emotionally volatile period following the end of the JLE’s reign, there were glimmers of that man driven by a love for the people in his life. Action Comics #864, which may very well be the issue I truly fell in love with this character (thank you, Joe Prado, for your artwork), featured Garth escorting Superman back to the present day DCU. Batman stumbled upon the two in the Fortress of Solitude, relaxing and reminiscing on childhood foibles. The issue from there was a bit shaky; Batman and Garth mutually disliked one another. Batman distrusted Garth as a time traveler, while Garth was unmoved and unimpressed by Batman’s entire persona.

Batman arrived at the Fortress to inform Superman that two dead Legionnaires were found in Gotham City. The bodies belonged to Karate Kid and one of Triplicate Girl’s divergent selves; the two died in Countdown to Final Crisis, which had just ended around the same time Action #864 was released. Garth followed Batman and Superman and was enraged to discover two of his teammates and friends were dead. He was also angry to be in the presence of human cops after all the damage the Science Police of his era created by colluding with the JLE.

By the end of the issue, Garth returned to the 31st Century with two dead bodies. He apologized to Batman for his behavior without any prompting and tried to give a subtle warning about Batman’s immediate future (as in Grant Morrison’s Batman R.I.P. arc where he would seemingly die). Before departing, Garth earnestly thanked Superman for being able to sit down and talk with him after everything Garth went through recently. More importantly, Garth showed deep appreciation for their childhood friendship and admitted Superman was more of an actual brother to him than Mekt Ranzz ever was.

(Art by Joe Prado)

Even when Geoff Johns was writing Lightning Lad with characters such as Hawkeye and Hal Jordan in mind, and even when the character’s still reeling from months of dehumanization and exhaustion, there’s still the spark of the true character underneath the rage and ableism. It’s easy, and especially tempting, to lose oneself after suffering through trauma again and again. There’s a difference between simply surviving and living, and I think about how Garth’s character represents that.

We have a man who, from one perspective, was incredibly unlucky in life and went through multiple misfortunes. From another perspective, we have this man who kept moving forward no matter what setbacks he encountered and came out of them better than before.

Let me clarify I’m not saying a person should just brush off traumatic incidents as if they were nothing. What I’m saying is that Garth Ranzz is a character defined not by his trauma, but how he moves forward after them. He’s a man motivated by the people in his life whom he openly loves and cares about.

“Reality can be a fragile thing, but… I guess… if love is real… it makes our world stronger…”

Other writers have tried to define Garth based on stereotypes of redheads and electricity wielders in fiction, but the ones who succeed are the ones who recognize the character’s capacity for love and determination. Comics are a medium that, unfortunately, are steeped in toxic masculinity and you can see a lot of that in the way Geoff Johns handled the character in his other Legion stories. Nevertheless, what draws me to this specific version of Lightning Lad is his history of refusing to let trauma interfere with his life and his ability to love. What kept the Time Trapper from breaking Garth was his faith in Imra, Ayla, and the Legionnaires. What broke Garth out of his raging mindset was the horror of potentially losing Imra and their children, because of what they mean to him.

We need more stories about men like Garth Ranzz in comics, but for what he brings regarding views on masculinity, love, and trauma. And as angry as I’m going to be for a very long time over how Brian Michael Bendis’s Lightning Lad lacks that depth while existing as one big racist stereotype, the supposedly infinite nature of the DCU means that hopefully the Garth Ranzz that represents such loving determination to be a better man for himself and his family is still out there and whose story may continue.

If I had to be a man, I’d rather be a man defined by love instead of anger.


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