Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Legionnaires: The Substitute Commandos

Chlorophyll Kid, aka Ral Benem of Mardru, aka Plant Lad. Created by Edmond Hamilton and John Forte.
Color Kid, aka Ulu Vakk of Lupra, aka Color Queen. Created by Edmond Hamilton, Curt Swan, and Jeff Greenberg.
Fire Lad, aka Staq Mavlen of Shwar. Created by Edmond Hamilton and John Forte.

Keith Giffen has admitted that he's put the Substitute Heroes through some ups and downs. Up until the (second) Levitz era, they were straightforward second-stringers, nothing more. Then the famous issue of DC Comics Presents that featured Superman and the Subs versus Ambush Bug turned the Subs into a joke team: enthusiastic but underpowered and not quite competent. This image of them persisted and largely remains today (see also the portrayal of the Subs in the animated series and the upcoming take on them in the pages of Straczynski's The Brave and the Bold. Geoff Johns's use of them in his Legion arc in Action Comics is not the same thing; Johns found a handle on the Subs that was both respectful and amusing, and I hope Paul Levitz picks up on it), despite Giffen's subsequent rehabilitation of the characters.

In the Five Years Later era, Earth has been secretly taken over by the Dominion, and a resistance movement has formed to fight them. The core of this movement is the Legion of Substitute Heroes. As the stakes rise in this struggle, a commando team raids one of the Dominion's underground facilities, and three longtime Substitute Heroes get to show us what they're made of.

(These three heroes, like most of the other Subs, were Legionnaires during the Five Year Gap, and their tenure with the Legion has been essentially unrecorded. In the retroboot Legion, Fire Lad and Chlorophyll Kid are still hanging in there with the Subs, but Color Kid was blinded by Earth-Man's "Justice League".)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just goes to show there are no bad characters,just badly handled ones.

12:45 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

There's actually an interesting argument to be made about that. I'm comfortable saying that, at the level of creativity and professionalism that you get with DC and Marvel, there are no bad characters... but I don't know if it follows that proper handling and writing skill can make a good character out of any character. I don't have any example in mind, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was possible to come up with some kind of character so bad that there was nothing that could be done about it.

9:07 AM  
Blogger Ben Rawluk said...

You know, I don't think treating the Subs as goofy during a certain period (ie, Levitz/Giffen years Mk 1) is badly handling them. Not every character needs to be a self-sufficient super-badass, and the comedy-routine Subs were and are *charming*, a reminder of the Silver Age fun and silliness. I never had a problem with that characterization because they were always treated as having (1) pluck and (2) courage in spite of it all, and more than occasionally they won the day regardless.

The Subs, you know, don't have the same resources the Legion does. They hang out in the old clubhouse and many of them didn't get into the Legion because of awkwardness, ultimately.

Generally, they've never been portrayed as being idiots, just awkward and a bit goofy. Other than trying to keep Ambush Bug in an aquarium. They developed a lot during the 5 Years Later time, which is great, but like a lot of the 5YL Legion stuff, part of the reason it works is because you remember the old goofy stuff.

12:04 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

I don't think treating the Subs as goofy during a certain period (ie, Levitz/Giffen years Mk 1) is badly handling them.

No, me neither, but I'm sure a lot of people didn't like it. I could have gone either way; Giffen's sense of humour is hit-and-miss with me.

The Subs, you know, don't have the same resources the Legion does.

This is quite true. The difference in power level is obvious, but there are also differences like:
- size of team (the Legion has three times as many members as the Subs)
- cash on hand (the Legion is bankrolled by R.J. Brande; the Subs don't seem to have any money at all)
- no Brainiac 5 to build them helpful technology
- no Saturn Girl to let them operate on the mental level in any way
- no Dream Girl (for most of their existence) to let them know what's going to happen

It adds up.

Generally, they've never been portrayed as being idiots, just awkward and a bit goofy.

Right. I think Geoff Johns found exactly the right line to walk with them, portraying the goofiness as a way to use recklessness to compensate for their lack of other helpful resources.

12:25 PM  
Blogger Murray said...

I don't remember Geoff Johns making much use of the Subs at all (except in so far as he killed or blinded one or two of them which is kinda par for the course for him). I'm guessing that they appeared in the Action Comics run, but again... it's been a while since I've read it. I remember Rainbow Girl getting quite a prominent role for an issue (but then, she was never really a Sub, either), and I expect that's where the rest of the Subs showed up. Time to dive into the short box and do some rereading.

8:15 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

That's the one. As for Rainbow Girl, well... she's a Sub now.

8:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The 5YL era is a very mixed bag for me,but the Sub Special-Ops was a definite highlight.Yet the comic relief version is also a favorite.
So the moral here is that there's more than one way to handle a character,or group of characters;also,more than one way to enjoy same.

2:51 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

True. By the way, if nobody noticed, in the panels I included here, Color Kid is basically duplicating the power of a Legionnaire who hadn't been on the team when he applied to them. (You can figure out who, right?) So why wasn't he accepted?

2:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Life ain't fair.

3:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't help but think that if the Legion Academy had been established earlier that most of the Subs could have honed their abilities there. Not only could Color Kid (for instance) figured out how to use his powers as effectively as Shadow Lass or Projectra, but learned fighting, discipline, and confidence. Alas, all this at the expense of goofiness, leaving only Tenz to tickle our collective funny bone. As shown above, Color Kid specifically showed his potential effectiveness, without relying on the unlikely power to change the properties of Kryptonite to be relevant. One example could be duplicating red sun energy.
At any rate, I agree that, like Chemical King, the limitations of the Subs are merely a reflection of the limitations of the creative team.


2:20 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

It's a good idea, but the point of the Subs is that they didn't care about honing their abilities; they cared about helping people. It's actually pretty great if you think about it.

9:43 PM  

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