Here it begins. The first-ever appearance of the Legion of Super-Heroes, from back in 1958. I wasn’t even born then, but this team became one of my favorites in comics. As far as my allowance would stretch as a kid, I would collect their Silver Age appearances. When the Archive Editions were released, beginning in the 1990s, I sought them out and read every story, both alone and out loud with my then-elementary school-aged son, Ethan. (He’s 25 now, and you can find the fruits of my labors to make him a full-blown geek on his own blog, The Figure in Question.)
Having had so much fun in recent days, recounting the first Legion stories I ever read as part of my Back in the Day-themed posts, I decided that I would start re-reading from the beginning, and share my thoughts here.
Short Version: Superboy is surprised to be recognized as Clark Kent, and Clark Kent is surprised to be recognized as Superboy, by two new boys and a new girl in town. The trio reveal themselves as members of a super-hero club from the 30th Century, and ask him if he’d like to join. They take him to the future and put him through three tests… all of which he fails. In the end, though, he learns that the circumstances of his “failure” prove that he’s the greatest hero of them all, and Superboy becomes a Legionnaire.
This first adventure, penned by SF writer Otto Binder and drawn by Al Plastino, presents a legion which looks very different from the one fans would later come to know. There are only three Legionnaires in the story, although we see at least four more in shadow or cameo.
Lightning Lad was called Lightning Boy, and his costume was red, yellow and green. His lightning was produced, not simply as blasts of energy radiated from his body, but by his clapping together his hands, which act like the positive and negative poles of a battery. If you’ve ever seen a commercial for The Clapper, you can’t help but chuckle.
Strawberry-Blonde Saturn Girl wears green, yellow and black, and, while she has the same powers, she uses them in a much-expanded way, mimicking Aquaman’s ability to control sea life.
Cosmic boy has his traditional pink shirt, but his pants are lavender. (Wow.) He’s shown on the cover, inexplicably, wearing a glass bubble helmet while the others’ heads are bare. It appears nowhere in the story. And his magnetic powers come from his eyes. He explains (to no one) that a “special serum” gave him his ability to project magnetic energy. Later, he would be known to have been born with it, like all natives of the planet Braal. CB doesn’t come off particularly well to modern eyes here. When Superboy is shown up in a competition by Saturn Girl, he chides the hero from the past, “You lost! And to a girl!” Ouch.
In this introductory story, and for a while, the Legionnaires used jetpacks to fly. (They would later call these “flight belts.”)
At the end of the story, when Superboy is inducted after the traditional hazing. It’s so bad that he has tears in his eyes. The Legionnaires come off a little dickish, but, remembering teens of the time, it probably wasn’t considered out of the ordinary.
We see Brainiac 5 (he is not named as such) and another male Legionnaire with a red costume and black hair. Mon-El hadn’t even been thought of yet, so I assume this is either Bouncing Boy or Matter-Eater Lad.
In another nod to the mid-Century science fiction acceptance of the idea of weather control, one of Superboy’s trials involves saving a colony in Antarctica because the Giant Cosmic Lamp which keeps them alive is failing.
Otto Binder was a writer from the pulp era, who, before coming to DC, had written the highly popular Captain Marvel and Marvel Family titles for Fawcett Comics. Ironically, it was Superman who indirectly caused the Marvel Family to be sued out of existence… until DC bought them years later. Binder’s experience writing a super-family showed in his activity as a Superman Family writer, in which he created or co-created Supergirl, Krypto the Super Dog, Beppo the Super Monkey, Lucy Lane, the Phantom Zone, Jimmy Olsen’s signal watch, and the “imaginary story.”
Al Plastino was a veteran Superman artist, immediately recognizable by the elongated-but-strong-jawed face he gave Superman, and the expressiveness of his characters’ faces. Plastino helped Binder create Supergirl, Brainiac and the Bottle City of Kandor, and was the first artist to draw Kryptonite.
Together, these two touched off a legend, probably thinking it was a one-off story. It would, indeed, be 20 months before the Legion would appear again, and that would be, well, a come-down. More to follow.