Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Legionnaires: Chemical King

I suspect I’m going to disappoint a lot of people with this profile, so let me begin by establishing my credentials.

One time in high school, I was talking about James Bond movies with my friend and his brother. It was then and is now my opinion that the only good Bond movies were Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger. The rest were all too gimmicky, not faithful enough to the books, and had too much nuclear laser satellite stuff in them. My friend’s brother said he only liked the newer ones, because the ones I mentioned were “so old” that he couldn’t watch them.

My point is that I don’t hate books and movies and stuff for being old. Sometimes I like them better! I’ve got bookshelves full of books by writers who stopped writing long before I started reading. P.G. Wodehouse takes up a couple of shelves by himself.

Except this doesn’t extend to comic books. I have a hard time getting into comics from before, say, 1970. I am not a Silver Age guy. My Legion collection starts at around 1980 and I don’t really care if I never get anything from before that. I recognize the value of the Golden Age and Silver Age stuff, but I have no personal appreciation for it. The other day I took a showcase compilation of the first Justice League stories out of the library, and my reactions upon reading it were a) amusement at Snapper Carr and b) relief that I hadn’t actually paid for this.

Which brings me around to:

Chemical King, aka Condo Arlik of Phlon. Created by Jim Shooter.

I’ve only ever read a couple of comics in which he’s appeared, and most of those were quite a while ago. To me, he’s a short-lived Silver Age character and therefore I just don’t have a lot to say about him. And really I don’t see what the big deal is about this guy. Whatever appeal he held for the readers of his time is entirely unknown to me, so I didn’t expect to be writing one of these entries about him.

But I put an appeal in at Legion World for recommendations on which stories showed which Legionnaires in which kind of best light (and received a rousing response, which I started appreciating when it began, and I haven’t stopped yet). The lively Chemical King cult on those boards were unanimous in pointing me at the CK story in Secret Origins #47. Now, this isn’t an original Chemical King story; it’s a revisit of the character from years later. So does it capture what was so great about the character, or is it just a good story on its own? Sink me if I know, but people who should know have said it was, and that’s good enough for me. So let’s see what I can make out of it.

Chemical King was Condo Arlik of Phlon, a guy who had the power to control chemical reactions. This is a pretty subtle power, but one that can be turned to many uses. So anytime he uses his powers, it’s probably going to be for something pretty cool, but it means that the writer is going to have to actually, like, know stuff about science (always a problem in comic books). His character got killed off pretty quickly, and the assumption has been that the writers just couldn’t be bothered finding things for him to do. And I sympathize. After all, if you need a Legionnaire to mess around with chemistry and stuff, why not just use Element Lad? What do we need this guy in green with the funny collar for?

Condo Arlik made a brief appearance in the reboot as Invisible Kid’s boyfriend, without superpowers, but has yet to appear in the threeboot. If I had to guess I’d say that he’s not going to show up. (That’s two out of two Legionnaires I’ve profiled so far with ties to Lyle Norg, and both with only token appearances after Zero Hour. Coincidence, I promise.)

The neatest use of Chemical King’s powers I know of is from this old Legion story I read as a reprint when I was little. Some guy had stolen Invisible Kid’s invisibility serum and was using it to go on a crime spree. The problem in the story was that Lyle had to find a way of defeating his own powers, but if he did, then the Legion’s enemies would be able to do it to him. So what’s the solution? The solution was for Condo to negate the chemical process of the serum within the thief: satisfactory, because a) it meant that the trick of how to do it didn’t depend on technology that anyone could pick up, and b) Lyle and Condo were friends anyway, so no problem there. No idea which comic book that happened in.

But let’s focus on who the guy really was. As established in Secret Origins #47, he was basically raised in a bubble because of his scary powers, and was rescued by Invisible Kid, who became his best friend.

He then went to the Legion Academy, and eventually joined the Legion. When Lyle was killed, Chemical King took it hard, and kind of withdrew from the rest of the Legion, whom he didn’t seem to be that close with anyway. Soon after, he sacrificed his life to, I don’t know, save the world or something. As Legionnaires do.

What I get from this story is how little there was in Condo’s life. He grew to late adolescence in almost complete isolation from everything except doctors poking at him and teaching him science. He had basically one friend, and him only for a relatively short while. He seemed to be a bit of an outsider even in the large and benevolent group of the Legion, and then he died. When he gave his life in battle, he must have thought that he didn’t have much to lose. (Which sort of gets me to thinking… heroism or suicide? And he’s not the only superhero, or for that matter the only Legionnaire, I wonder this about.)

But that cuts both ways. The hidden point of the story seems to be that, if Condo was able to summon this heroism from within himself despite an upbringing that was certainly not conducive to him ever doing anything… he must have been made of the right stuff after all. He must have had, as the story tells us, unique properties.

(For profiles of other Legionnaires, see the All-Time Roster list at the bottom of the Legion Roster page.)

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Blogger Michael said...

Objection, using as fact items not admitted into evidence...

Here's where you have to take a stand on "author's intent". Do you accept the writer of that Secret Origins story at his word when he says he did not mean for there to be anything other than a friendship between Condo and Lyle? Or do you read subtext into it and infer that the two were romantically close? Because your choice here will color everything else that you read on them.

Was Lyle gay? Some would say that because he never had a steady girlfriend and fell in love with a ghost, the subtext is there that obviously he's gay (I don't see it, but whatever). If you think he was gay, then you read the Secret Origins story and see close friendship between two men = homosexual love between two men. If not, then you don't see it.

When I, a heterosexual male, first read the story, I thought "here's a story about two guys who got to be friends, too bad we never got to see that." I've read every single Legion story ever published (several times over) and I don't see any evidence in the entire run up to Superboy 203 that Invisible Kid was gay, but then from my standpoint the "default" preference for all Legionnaires is hetero unless shown otherwise. Nor did I infer anything about Condo up until his death either.

Something else the Cult of Condo insists as fact... that he was Lyle's boyfriend in the post-reboot Legion. Actually, Lyle was never given a sexual orientation in that book, he just had a secret admirer who left him a note signed "C." The authors at the time did intend for that to be the case (based on the Secret Origins story) but it was never resolved in print.

So now you're back to author's intent on this one too, but it's different because that author's story never saw print, and the Secret Origins author's story did.

It's like when Element Lad was outed. I thought that was handled horrendously and was done to satisfy some fan-fic theories. If you want to take an existing character and make him gay (e.g., Obsidian) then OK, show that but make it good, don't retrofit it into an existing character and tell us that Everything You Know About Him Was Wrong, that he was like that all along but we just didn't see it.

12:21 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Well, just a second. I did say that Chemical King was Invisible Kid's boyfriend in the reboot, and I said that on the basis of references like this:

But I didn't say, or even imply, that such a relationship existed in the original version of the characters. I said they were friends, which they were. I don't think the text supports any other interpretation.

9:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis but there are some additional, and I believe, important points you missed (because you haven't read the Silver Age Adventure stuff :D )

Condo's very first appearance was as a memorial statue inside Legion HQ in the infamous "Adult Legion" 2 parter during the Adventure run. If I'm not mistaken, he was actually a reader submission in "Bits of Legionnaire Business" in an early Adventure issue letter column. When the Adult Legion story was written, the writers threw in some of those reader submissions (all as dead Legionnaires' memorial statues) to please fans, including Condo, Shadow Lass (portrayed as a caucasian Shadow Woman), Quantum Queen, and Reflecto.

Although this happens to be one of my all time favorite Legion stories, it was a nightmare for Legion writers to follow. In essence this story told us how everything turned out with some of the Legion members (i.e. who got married, what their kids were like, who died and how they died etc.) Legion fans now knew that Condo would die while saving the Earth from a world war.

When CK made his first "live" appearance (in the Origin of the LSV 2 parter), fans began speculating as to how long he would survive (not "if" he would survive) We knew his time with us would be limited and many objected to the writers' apparent inability to portray him doing anything useful with his powers.

Condo was the Legion's proverbial underdog: slated to die before he was born, and hampered by a lack of understanding on the part of the writers of just how powerful he truly could be. It was this underdog status, IMHO, that caused many of us to flock to his cause and to begin demanding that he be portrayed better and more often. After all, he wasn't long for this world and we knew it, so we wanted him to have his moments of glory while he had the chance.

Originally, Condo and Lyle were not particularly friendly. That relationship was gratfted on to the two much later on. Nor was there any reason to believe that he was gay. He simply didn't appear often enough for anything to be established about him.

As you know, when you leave a void like that in the Legion-verse, the fans take it as a challenge to fill in the gaps :D Much of what later became part of the story of Chemical King was orginally proposed by fans, simply trying to flesh him out in letters and fanzines.

Eventually, the writers decided he was too difficult to portray and saw the Earth Wars storyline as the perfect opportunity to get rid of him. There was, after all, a 25 member limit at that time and he was taking one of the slots!

Alas, poor Condo finally fulfilled the prophesy in the Adult Legion story and gave his life stopping a nuclear explosion that would have decimated the earth and started a world war. It was also during that story arc, I believe, that it was first mentioned that Condo had been devastated by the loss of his "best friend, Lyle Norg". I don't recall any earlier mentions or portrayals of a close friendship between the two.

Much later on, this was expanded upon, as in the Secret Origins issue and in other references to Lyle & Condo.

Of the four dead Legionnaires first identified in the Adult Legion story, Condo is the only one who lived out his life as foretold. Shadow "Woman" eventual was introduced as the blue skinned Talokian, Shadow Lass and she didn't die as predicted. Reflecto's story was a sham perpetrated by the writers. And Quantum Queen eventually appeared as one of the Wanderers, never becoming a Legionnaire.

Condo's story is unique in that the details of his life were given to us before and after he lived, not during his life. I know of no other hero (not just Legionnaire) for which that can be said.

9:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

just guesting here...

i believe it was really jim shooter's intent to kill the mutant condo way before he ever wrote about condo's backstory. i have to re-read my Legion companion, but i seem to recall jim sayin that condo was really a poster boy for the consequence of being a super-hero...

12:10 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

I presume Jim Shooter introduced Chemical King into the Legion.

The problem wasn't just that his powers were "subtle." It's that they were variable and potentially devastating. He could do everything from rust a nail to age a villain until he turned into dust.

Handling such a character consistently was way too difficult. Even if he wasn't fated to die, the writers would've had to write him out of the series some way. So everything worked out for the best.

But I like the way you've made a virtue of necessity with your analysis. CK was a loner who couldn't fit in and withdrew when his best friend died. In some sense he was similar to Ferro Lad. Not every hero has to be a big, flashy star (a Superboy or Wildfire) to make a mark.

6:06 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I think that must be right about Shooter; I'll go change it.

Another point to bring up: it sort of seems like Chemical King has been retroactively removed from Legion continuity by Geoff Johns in his JLA/JSA and Action Comics work. There's nothing definitive, but he hasn't appeared in any flashback group shots or anything.

Here's my question:


10:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chemical King was referenced in Adventure #526,so now he's back in continuity.
Now you see him,now you don't.

12:56 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I'd rather say it in either one of two other ways. One, he was never out of original/retroboot continuity; it's just that Johns didn't happen to mention him, even when you'd think he ought to. Or two, the Johns retroboot is not exactly the same continuity as the Levitz ghostboot, and so it's not so much as he's back in continuity as it is we've got a continuity now that still includes him.

Doesn't really matter, of course!

1:23 PM  

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