Friday, March 14, 2008

The Legionnaires: Polar Boy

Polar Boy, aka Brek Bannin of Tharr. Created by Edmond Hamilton and John Forte.

Polar Boy had to take the long way around, and it left its mark on him. He's most famous for being a founder and longtime leader of the Legion of Substitute Heroes, but that was always his second choice. He applied for Legion membership and was rejected for a pretty weak reason:



(Ew. That scan didn’t work very well, did it? Sorry.) See, there are two kinds of people in the Substitute Heroes. There are those whose powers are fairly plausible but didn't make it into the Legion for some other reason (Night Girl, Fire Lad), and there are those whose powers were just never going to be good enough anyway (Color Kid, Porcupine Pete). (Which is not to say that nobody in the second group ever became a worthwhile superhero, because they did.) Polar Boy was in the first group.

Consider his history: he comes from a planet which is so hot that its inhabitants couldn't have survived without their abilities to radiate cold. (Which is why he wears furs. Because Earth is so cold compared to Tharr!) Obviously, since he took the step of leaving to apply for Legion membership, his personal proficiency with this ability was probably pretty good, or better than pretty good. Or he wouldn't have gone, would he? If he wasn't one of the best cold-projectors on Tharr?

And then he gets to Earth, and the Legion, which included Bouncing Boy and Matter-Eater Lad, tells him that he can't control his powers well enough to join their club.

To his credit, he didn't become bitter: he tried something else instead. He founded the Subs. And led this lesser team of heroes for years and years, helping people and building up his credentials at the same time. Then, finally, during the Levitz era, he disbanded the Subs* and reapplied for Legion membership. This time he was accepted, of course; it would have been ridiculous for the Legion to turn him down. He had proven himself to be trustworthy, brave, skilled, and a team player dozens of times over. But once he became a Legionnaire...

...it probably didn't turn out exactly the way he wanted it. For one thing, there had always been a bit of subconscious condescension from the Legion to the Subs, and this attitude proved hard to shake. When Polar Boy was elected leader (he had the support of a younger clique of Legionnaires), the old guard kind of rolled their eyes in response. He kept thinking that he had to prove himself some more, to be more of a Legionnaire than everyone else. He was kind of the Legion's version of Frank Grimes, really. Which is why we got so many scenes like these, his signature moments:




See what he's doing there? He's demonstrating his great control over his powers. Again and again and again. He'll show them who’s got control over what. And those are only two examples—-I could have included more.

Intrepid correspondent RAB pointed out in the comments of the Stone Boy article that Polar Boy was more convincing as a Sub when his powers were the creation of cold in a wide area, and that when he later started doing precision ice-stunts it was more unrealistic that the Legion wouldn’t have taken him. Which fits perfectly! Imagine all the practicing he must have done over the years, to improve that much…

Polar Boy didn't make a great Legion leader. He just didn't have the respect of all the other Legionnaires, and knew it. Four veteran Legionnaires conspired to kill the Time Trapper on his watch, and it reflected badly on him. Still, he was a real Legionnaire, which is what he wanted all along, and he was still keeping the faith into the Five Year Gap, when, as acting leader, he built Legion membership up from just four members to around a dozen. It wasn't the best Legion, but he kept it together for as long as he could, until political pressure forced him to disband the team. (I never realized that before: Polar Boy has disbanded both the Legion of Super-Heroes and the Legion of Substitute Heroes. That’s not something you want on your resume, is it?)

He didn't rejoin the Legion Five Years Later; he found himself on Evillo's planet, tutoring his daughters and eventually doing what he always did best: forging unpromising material into a vaguely plausible superhero team. (He and Night Girl appeared briefly in the reboot. Polar Boy has also appeared in the threeboot as, of all things, a villain. Sic transit. Oh, and Geoff Johns has come up with a take on Polar Boy in his Legion arc in Action Comics that’s a little different from Levitz’s, but not incompatible with it. Johns did keep one thing the same, though—being a Legionnaire means more to Polar Boy than just about anything.)

Consider Brek Bannin. He’s short. He looks kind of silly in his puffy purple costumes. He’s got no sense of humour. He’s insecure. But nobody ever worked harder to earn that flight ring…

* which is something I never understood. Why disband them? Why not just resign? I can't think of a reason.

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6 Comments:

Anonymous Allan Lappin said...

* which is something I never understood. Why disband them? Why not just resign? I can't think of a reason.
If they remained intact, he would have felt duty-bound to continue to lead his team. Neither can I imagine anyone else willing to lead the team.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

That may have been the reason, but if so, I don't consider it a good one. I mean, the whole point of the Stone Boy story is that the Subs aren't just a make-work project to be abandoned when one of its members can get into the Legion. I say the Subs were bigger than just Polar Boy and should have continued without him, and what right does Polar Boy have to tell the rest of them to go home, it's over?

10:55 AM  
Blogger Jim Drew said...

I agree with Allan: the only reason to disband the Subs is if they could not continue without Brek. Either no one was suitabel to replace him, or the rest of the team didn't want to stay together without him.

Taking that a step further, did he disband the Subs because he was going to join the Legion, or did he join the Legion because the Subs were disbanding? The latter seems plausible: at someone point, being the butt of Giffen jokes must get wearing, and maybe it was time to move on for the others.

8:45 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Well, when he showed up at the audition for membership in LSH v3 #14, it sure sounded like he had disbanded the Subs in order to seek Legion membership. But you're right; we can't exclude the other possibility.

11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It may be the Legion's greatest mystery--why Polar Boy was rejected for membership while someone like Matter-Eater Lad was accepted. Meanwhile, the X-Men had Iceman as a founding member.A walking, talking popsicle!Honestly..
I tend to think the old guard's condescension to Brek's leadership was a form of guilt over their initial rejection.Weird psychology,but who knows what human nature will be like in the future?
Since the retroboot,Brek seems to have swept away the condescension of his teammates,and he's done it without being bitter or losing faith in the Legion.The guy gets my vote for Noblest Legionnaire Of Them All.

2:28 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Well, the real reason why the Legion didn't accept Polar Boy is that that's the way the writers wanted it. Obviously that's only good as an external reason, so if we want an internal one we're forced to take the Legion at their word: he lacked sufficient mastery over his powers.

Noblest? Maybe; I can't think of one who obviously beats him in that respect. Other than Superman.

2:38 PM  

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