Legion of Super-Heroes Re-Read – “Mordru the Merciless” Part One (Adventure Comics #369, June, 1968)

And here is Jim Shooter and Curt Swan’s Legion masterpiece. It’s so great, in fact, that I need to split the review of just the first half into two parts. If you don’t believe me, believe the DC Limited Collector’s Edition series of tabloid-sized comics, which chose this story to be its first representation of the Legion back in 1976.

The original issue begins with a Neal Adams cover, depicting the hands of Mordru the Merciless, heretofore unheard of in Legion lore, tearing through the solid metal walls of his prison vault, as Mon-El laments that they’re “Dead! His magic is greater than our combined super-powers!”

On the inside, Swan’s pencils have never looked better than when polished to a high gloss by the inks of Legion newcomer Jack Abel. It’s a crisp, dark look for our heroes, and it serves this crisp, dark story of suspense and terror well. Seriously, from the cover onwards, the feeling of dread, or persistent doom, never stops. It’s like Don Siegel’s cold-war era film gem, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with the heroes in hiding from a relentless evil that has hold of everyone around them, and is waiting to suck out their souls. I’ve had nightmares like this—haven’t we all?—where you’re constantly on the run and can trust no one. Cameron’s first Terminator film casts a similar, frightening spell.

And laced throughout is character development and human drama as only teenage superheroes can bring you.

First, we meet Mordru, and we meet him just right—by not seeing him. There can be no more accurate portrait of Mordru than our first glimse of Mon-El, carrying a fallen Superboy as he runs and begs Duo Damsel to shut the door before he gets in. One of the four strongest beings in the universe is scared, and one of the others is over his shoulder, how badly hurt we don’t know.

Meet Mordru. That’s the effect he has on people. Super people. The rest of us don’t stand a chance. Then, in flashback, we learn that this horror was locked away in a vault of the new Legion headquarters, and that new member Shadow Lass accidentally freed him as she explored. Mon-El has by now told her the tale of the magical tyrant of the planet Zerox (accept no copies!) who, like Hitler before him, was ignored by the rest of the world as he expanded his domain ruthlessly. Only when he decided he wanted us did we wake up.

Sometime between the stories chronicled in Adventure 305 and 337, he struck Earth. The Legion barely defeated him, and only because Superboy and Mon-El were able to encase him in an airless, metal coffin. Lack of oxygen is the only thing that can stop him, and he can’t be killed. So now he sleeps in a coma.

Or until now he slept in a coma. Dammit, Shadow Lass!

When he awakens and tries his “Long-unused power,” Mordru damn near kills Superboy and Mon-El with magical heat that Superboy describes as being worse than the core of the Sun. It’s noteworthy that Mordru knows his power is long-unused. It suggests that, though he was in a coma, he was well aware of the passage of time. The four Legionnaires who were apparently alone at HQ flee via the time cube and wind up in Smallville in Superboy’s time. Superboy is certain that this is the first place Mordru will come to look. At first, you’re tempted to ask, “What about the other Legionnaires?” It makes sense though, once you get to know Mordru, that he would want to track down Superboy and his big brother first. They were the ones who imprisoned him, after all, and probably the only ones who ever defeated him.  “As long as he’s after us,” observes Mon-El, “he won’t be running riot in the 30th Century.”

Superboy decides they might get away with hiding from Mordru in his hometown—if they have disguises. He takes his three friends home and explain to Ma and Pa Kent that Shady and Luornu will need secret identities, just like he and Mon-El have. (Mon-El had established the alter ego of “Bob Cobb, brush salesman,” back during his first appearance.)

Regular readers of Legion who had not kept up with Superboy’s own series must have been surprised to see Ma and Pa Kent—now called “Mom and Dad Kent,” and looking not-yet middle-aged, as if they were the ages of parents other 15-year-olds might have had in 1968. This change had come in Superboy #145, cover-dated March, 1968. The Kents had been de-aged because, well, most teens in 1968 did not have a silver-haired granny and grandpa for parents. We learn Shadow Lass’s real name after four issues—Tasmia Mallor. She reveals it when Mom Kent asks if her name is either Sally or Nancy. (Why those names? Who would expect a blue chick from 1,000 years in the future to be named Sally or Nancy? Mom Kent from Smallville, I guess.)

Part Two Coming Tomorrow!

Legion of Super-Heroes Re-Read – “No Escape from the Circle of Death” (Adventure Comics #367, April, 1968)

This is a visually gripping cover, with the Legionnaires at center, being menaced by borderless, purple shadow images. With the vivid yellow, lime green and magenta around them, the artwork easily qualifies as “psychedelic.” This is part of a trend that began with Adventure 365, with more action-oriented poses (Superboy being punched toward the reader by Validus) and use of shadow and light to make the characters look more three-dimensional (as in the Legionnaires standing in the glare of the Fatal Five’s prison.) From here on, the covers wouldn’t feel as flat, and would depict more action, in keeping with the more realistic, often more somber tone of comics post-1968.

The Legion’s new headquarters is going up, and we’re told its construction is being funded by the United Planets, out of gratitude for all that the Legion has done for their worlds. It’s described as “a fortress,” with Inertron-based insulation in the walls, which even Superboy could not punch through. (Small dialogue error in this scene, as Brainiac 5 calls Sun Boy “Brainiac 5,” as part of a line of dialogue which it seems unlikely was meant for Sun Boy.

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Legion of Super-Heroes Re-Read -“The Battle for the Championship of the Universe” (Adventure Comics #366, March, 1968)

This issue picks up right where the last one left off, with the Talokian military bent on destroying the Legionnaires and Shadow Lass. Superboy observes that there are thousands of them, and he seemed nervous. Perhaps Shooter had decided that, at 15 or so, Kal-El was still depowered to 1938 levels. That might explain why, in this story-arc, he has Superboy schlepping through the desert like Lawrence of Arabia. At the very least, his super-speed must not have been up to Barry Allen levels yet, or he would have been able to quickly dispatch all those soldiers.

Of course, he is able to make it through the time barrier into the 30th Century with no troubles…

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Legion of Super-Heroes Re-Read – “Escape of the Fatal Five” (Adventure Comics #365, February, 1968)

At long last, the Jim Shooter / Curt Swan team is back! It’s been four long issues since they brought us “The Legion Chain Gang.” The title of their triumphant return, though, betrays the mystery they so carefully develop in the story itself. It must have been an editorial edict that the cover and splash reveal that the Five were waiting on Page 19 of the story. The author and artist were otherwise too careful to keep it a secret.

Talok VIII is a peaceful, advanced planet that has suddenly undergone a dramatic change in its behavior towards other worlds. The cities have become armed camps, deadly anti-matter weapons are being tested in space, and any ship that comes near is blown out of the sky. (Actually, we’re told, it’s any ship that comes within “a million miles.” That’s awfully damn close, in planetary terms—less than four times as far away as the Moon is from Earth.)

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Legion of Super-Heroes Re-Read – “Revolt of the Super-pets” (Adventure Comics #364, January, 1968)

Welcome to 1968! It’s a year of big changes in comics. Wonder Woman is going to lose her powers and her costume. Aquaman will begin a months-long quest for Mera, with art by Jim Aparo, and And while Silver Age greats like the The Challengers of the Unknown would soon fade away, the Doom Patrol would die, and Rip Hunter had already been canceled, over at Marvel, Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk and The Sub-Mariner all premiered in their own titles. Within a year, Green Arrow would his fortune and become a hard traveling hero. Dick Grayson would go off to college. Neal Adams would take over the X-Men, too late to save their title. It was a time of change. Indeed, a house ad from DC, appearing in December, 1967’s Adventure Comics #363, heralded “New Things Are Coming from DC!”

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Legion of Super-Heroes Re-Read – “The Chemoids Are Coming!” (Adventure Comics #362, November, 1967)

The villain of this month’s piece looks mighty familiar, and for good reason. Dr. Mantis Morlo was co-created by Jim Shooter and Pete Costanza. As mentioned yesterday, Costanza was a longtime senior member of the Marvel Family creative team. He surely drew the Big Red Cheese’s (that’s the original Captain Marvel’s) arch-nemesis many times over. No doubt, when he was told that this issue called for an evil mad scientist, he thought of Dr. Sivana, consciously or non. If it was consciously, well, it had been a dozen or so years since Sivana legally appeared in comics. In comics time (at the time, and from the perspective of the publishers) that’s a couple of generations.

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Legion of Super-Heroes Re-Read – “The Lone Wolf Legionnaire Reporter!” (Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #106, October, 1967)

An Unknown writer brings us this Legion tie-in story from the pages of Jimmy’s late, lamented comic. Regular Olsen artist Pete Costanza drew it, and would draw the next couple of outings of the Legion in Adventure Comics as well. Costanza was 54 when this story was released, and has been a regular penciller of Captain Marvel and The Marvel Family, and Marvel-creator C.C. Beck’s chief assistant, from the time Billy Batson and company were created, until they folded under the weight of the DC lawsuit in the 1950s. Fawcett alumnus Otto Binder brought Costanza on board to draw Jimmy Olsen.

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Legion of Super-Heroes Re-Read – “The Unkillables!” (Adventure Comics #361, September, 1967)

This one’s a little offbeat. As the story opens, we’re informed that the war with the Dominion has been going on for 20 years.

As I’ve been saying all too often lately, “Wait… what?”

You mean to tell us, Master Shooter, that Earth and the United Planets (because, as far as we can see, Earth is the United Planets) have been at war the entire time we’ve been reading these Legion adventures, and we never knew it? So Lyle, Gim, Dirk, Chuck, and the late, lamented Andrew were all born on a planet at war? It sure doesn’t feel like it!

But that may be part of the point. Jim Shooter was born in 1951, in the midst of the Korean War. That ended in July, 1953. But just over two years later, on November 1st, 1955, the United States went to war again. Jim Shooter was not yet two when peace broke out, and had just turned four when it ended again. His nation would be at war in Viet Nam until he was 23. (If you’re American and you want to get really depressed, here’s a Washington Post piece on how much of your life has been spent in war time.) (Yes, I’m being political, but I don’t believe I’m being in any way partisan.)

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Legion of Super-Heroes Re-Read – “The Legion Chain Gang!” (Adventure Comics #360, September, 1967)

Ironically, the group for whom this story is named barely appears within its pages. Superboy, Ultra Boy, Mon-El, Element Lad and Matter-Eater Lad, sentenced to ten years on the prison world of Takron-Galtos, appear only on the splash page and one other page before the story’s conclusion, when they return to Earth. One wonders if perhaps someone’s intention was to set an adventure on the prison planet, and the cover was drawn to illustrate that idea, but then the creative team realized that the Legion had all-too-recently done a prison story, the memorable “Super-Stalag of Space.”

After the obligatory recap of the previous issue, which tells readers why eight Legionnaires are hiding out in the thousand-year-old sewers of Metropolis, our heroes find one of Lex Luthor’s underground lairs, as immortalized in Richard Donner’s film, Superman. Being Luthor’s lair, it’s high-tech even by 30th Century standards, with food and clothing synthesizers included. The fugitives are soon fed, rested and clad once again in their Legion uniforms.

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Legion of Super-Heroes Re-Read – “The Outlawed Legionnaires” (Adventure Comics #359, August, 1967)

This is part one of one of the most memorable two-parters of a memorable run. The entire Legion is featured—even the oft-forgotten Supergirl!—we get more glimpses of the Legionnaires private lives, some Legionnaires go on the run and others wind up in prison on the hellish world of Takron-Galtos.

While all the Legionnaires are off Earth (with one team performing the impressive feat of slowing down the supernova death of a sun by pumping chemical compounds into its core), the President of Earth is killed in a freak accident, and his V.P., Kandro Boltax, steps up. His first act is to force through a worldwide water purification plant. (I don’t want to sound like a McCarthy-ite, but any time a new leader wants access to the water supply, ya gotta ask if he’s on the up-and-up.)

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