Monday, August 06, 2007

The Legionnaires: Superboy

Superboy, aka Clark Kent of Earth, aka Kal-El of Krypton, Superman. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

I trust that nobody reading this blog really needs Superboy explained to him or her.

The Superboy we're talking about here is, of course, the original Superman in his youth. And when I say original, I mean, basically, the Golden Age Superman. After all, at the time of the first Superboy-and-the-Legion story (1958), nobody had thought up the idea of Earth-2 yet; there was only one Earth. Oh, we were deep enough into the '50s that you'd have to consider the Superman of the time to be the Earth-1 Superman, retroactively, but at the time nobody would have drawn a distinction. Superman was Superman, and Superboy was what he used to call himself.

Later on, after Crisis on Infinite Earths, Superboy was removed from DC's continuity, except for his Legion appearances; the Legion's Superboy was retconned into being an other-dimensional creation of the Time Trapper, and killed right after that. That retconned-and-dead Superboy was then also removed from continuity a few years later. The Legion has not been completely without a Superboy since then; Superboy II (Kon-El) has been a member, and an obviously-Superman-destined Clark Kent put in an appearance late in the reboot. And, since Infinite Crisis, we know that Superman may or may not have been Superboy in his youth, but he did hang out with the Legion quite a bit... but not the threeboot Legion. It was revealed in the 'Lightning Saga' crossover in Justice League and Justice Society that the post-Infinite Crisis Superman's 31st-century experience was with the 2x+unboot Legion, a group who bears a strong resemblance to the original Legion. The exact nature of Superman's ongoing relationship with any Legion version has not yet been defined, but there is one.

I said 'Superman' there, not 'Superboy'. Because DC can't use Superboy at the moment; they're having a legal dispute with the current owners of the Superboy copyright, the heirs of Jerry Siegel. This may get resolved and it may not. Either way, I don't expect to see Superboy in any DC comics anytime soon.

For several reasons I'm choosing Adventure #247 as Superboy's signature appearance as a Legionnaire. Not only does Superboy show up well there, but its status as the Legion's first-ever appearance lets us talk about some other things too.

The story itself goes like this. Three superheroes appear in Smallville and invite Superboy to visit the 30th century and join their superhero club.
The Legionnaires put him through an initiation test, which they secretly sabotage by creating emergencies for him to resolve while he's supposed to be passing their test, and then they tell him that he failed. He accepts this with good grace, and goes to leave, at which point they call him back and let him in on the joke. Then a real emergency happens, and Superboy handles it with ease, simulating the powers of the three Legionnaires while he's at it. Congratulations all around, and Superboy officially becomes a Legionnaire.


Lots of aspects of this story don't really stand up to much scrutiny, but never mind that; let's look at what goes right. First, we get our first-ever look at Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad. Am I alone in liking these costumes? Cosmic Boy's costume isn't too different from what he'd wind up in in the later stories, but I could get used to Lightning Boy in the red-and-yellow, or Saturn Girl in black-and-yellow. Obviously the names written on their chests have to go.

Second is something that didn't really come up much in this story, but surfaced in a few places later: the Legion's role as Superboy's friends. After all, Superboy is going through a lot, and there's nobody he can really hang with. He's got his parents, but parents are different. He's got Lana Lang and Pete Ross, but he can't really confide in them. But the Legionnaires are superheroes just like him! They're his age, they have interests in common... some of them are even attractive girls, although this side of things was never pursued (which isn't quite realistic. But the writers knew that there was Lana back in Smallville, and Lois in the future, so why start a romance that everybody knows isn't going to go anywhere?).

Third... I said before that this story was something less than perfect. And yet the Legion was a big hit. Fan response was strong enough to get DC to bring the characters back, again and again, until they were an established constellation in DC's firmament. Looking back on it, the reason why seems obvious: superhero teams are a great idea. It's fun to read about superheroes hanging out and teaming up! But, before the Legion came along, there were no superhero groups. No JLA, no Fantastic Four, no X-Men, no Avengers, no nobody.

Oh, there had been superhero groups. The Justice Society and Seven Soldiers of Victory (and the Marvel Family, if you want to count them) had proud comic-book histories... but there hadn't been a JSA comic in almost a decade, and comics readership had turned over a lot in that time. It's a difficult thing for us to think about, because we're surrounded by superteam comics of all stripes, but when the Legion appeared in Adventure #247, they were the first superhero group readers had seen in years. The first superhero group some readers had ever seen! Imagine! There were only three Legionnaires, but even that number must have seemed extravagant to the comic readers of the '50s. No wonder they wanted more!

But back to Superboy. Superboy's on his best behaviour here:

1. Superboy's a guy with an important secret to protect, and the Legionnaires first approach him in a way that obviously threatens that secret. He's friendly to them anyway, and goes along with their implausible-sounding invitation.

2. The idea of belonging to the Legion, a group of kids he could be friends with in a more relaxed way than he had ever experienced, must have been tremendously appealing to Superboy. So he's motivated to do well on their initiation tests. But, when danger threatens, he doesn't think twice: he saves the people who are in trouble even though it means he fails the tests. Because he's a superhero.
3. When the Legionnaires tell him he failed the test, he accepts it with good grace.
4. When it's revealed that this was all a mean and stupid joke* that the shiny 30th-century superkids were playing on the small-town 20th-century kid, Superboy doesn't have any hard feelings.

5. Given another opportunity to strut his stuff, Superboy resolves the emergency creatively, while also finding a subtle and not unkind way of letting the Legionnaires know how much he outclasses them.

6. In the end, he regards the whole thing as a positive experience and a grand adventure. In his place, I'm not sure I would be so charitable.

But that's Superboy. What can you say about a guy like that, Cosmic Boy?


*Side note. Are the Legionnaires being jerks here? Well, kind of, yeah, they are. But we can cut them a break. After all, they're teenagers, and they're about to meet the greatest and most powerful superhero of all time. It's natural that they'd feel a bit insecure, and it's not unexpected that they'd try to find some way to put themselves on an equal footing with him.

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11 Comments:

Blogger Michael said...

I can't believe you left out Anti-Lad's role in this story.

Yeah, it's hard to believe that the Legion was the very first super-group of the Silver Age. I think only the Challengers of the Unknown predated them, but they weren't super-powered.

Word verification: Igebglzg, Bgtzl's sister planet.

8:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The legion does this sort of thing a lot.

They're jerks like that.

Also, michael, this has been bugging me for a while:
Who's anti lad?

8:44 PM  
Anonymous Mark Dykeman said...

I just want to say that I love this blog! It's a great way to keep up with the LSH - any version!

8:49 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I forgot to mention the Challengers, but in my mind they aren't really a superhero team.

I think everybody was a jerk in the Silver Age. It's one reason why I'm not really a Silver Age guy.

Anti-Lad was a guy who time-travelled back from the far future to the Legion's time to pretend to try to join the Legion, but really to make sure that - as I remember - Superboy joined the Legion the way he was supposed to. This retcon only appeared in one Silver Age story.

Thanks, Mark. Exactly what I was going for.

8:41 AM  
Anonymous Mark Dykeman said...

Do you have an RSS feed for your blog?

3:25 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I imagine I'm giving away all my credibility as a blogger when I say this, but I don't even really know what an RSS feed is.

9:55 PM  
Anonymous Mark Dykeman said...

RSS is Really Simple Syndication. It's a means of putting your blog posts in a format that can be read by news reader applications. The applications, like the one noted below, allow you to pull everything together into one application. Therefore, instead of checking your favorite websites individually, you can use your news reader as a single point of entry to check for new content.

Firefox has a feature in its Bookmark menu which makes it very easy to put a site, including yours, into a news reader like Blog Lines.

http://www.bloglines.com

11:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Well. Since you ask, I'll check it out. Customer service is what we're all about here at the Legion Abstract.

9:47 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Okay, I looked around at this and that, and ended up at the feedburner site, where I typed in my URL. It told me that I already had RSS and Atom feeds for this blog, and they were at:

Atom: http://legionabstract.blogspot.com/feeds/posts/default

RSS: http://legionabstract.blogspot.com/feeds/posts/default?alt=rss

Is that what you want to know?

9:54 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

And the Feedburner feed is at http://feeds.feedburner.com/LegionAbstract

Helpful?

9:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fine overview.Of course,Superboy is no mere Legionnaire,but the group's inspiration,both fictionally and factually.No Superboy story needing to be written that month,no Legion.Then where would we be?
Always thought this tale gets short shrift.OK,not the greatest debut,but it has a winning charm that wears well these days.It doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is,and it doesn't try to justify itself to some ill-fitting notion of realism.It is what it is,and that's enough.
No matter where the Legion goes,the Kryptonian connection must be maintained.Never sever the roots.

2:25 AM  

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