Legion of Super-Heroes Re-Read – “The Fatal Five!” (Adventure Comics #352, January, 1967)

This is Jim Shooter’s most famous Legion story—well, the first part of it anyway. It introduces the greatest threat the team ever faced, and also, arguably, a team of their most memorable villains. While I’m actually a big fan of the Legion of Super-Villains, let’s face it, they’re five copycats and a bunch of Legion rejects. Lightning Lord and Nemesis Kid are their only real contenders, and that’s because of their ties back to the Legion itself.

The Fatal Five, on the other hand, are their own creations; and while they’re a bit two-dimensional here, each carries in his (or her) origin story the makings of a fully realized character. Look at the first three: Validus, a creature who is not evil and does not want to hurt anyone, but is nonetheless sentenced to death because he cannot control his violent rages; Tharok, who hates all protectors of law because a police officer’s stray shot vaporized half his body and left him a disfigured cyborg; Mano, a mutant shunned by his peers because of his destructive hand, who turned that hand on his very home world and killed everyone on it.

Created 52 years ago, these three yet feel ripped from today’s headlines, introducing as they do topics of mental health, the cycle of violence between cops and criminals, and mass killings perpetrated by those who feel marginalized.

The final two members are a bit more archetypal. The Persuader is portrayed here as a heartless bruiser—no motive given, but history is full of his ilk, and most of us know someone who at least appears to be like this. As for the Emerald Empress, she just wants to rule the world. We might not all know a megalomaniac, but we do all know that person who just needs to be in charge of everything around her.

We learn of these five while the Legionnaires watch a video documentary sent to them by the Science Police. Not the most clever way of introducing five characters, but a technique readers of the time knew very well from watching TV’s Mission Impossible. Indeed, fans of my generation can probably hear voice actor Bob Johnson (“Good Morning, Mr. Phelps”) reading these narrations. And, familiarity aside, the storytelling device works because the stories are gripping and visually interesting.

And then there’s the menace. Believe it or not, evil as they are, the Five are not the villains of the piece. No, that honor goes to the entity so terrifying that those few in the United Planets who know it exists refer to it only as “It,” and every one of them knows that, if you say, “It is coming,” you’re not just guilty of vaguebooking.

“It” is the Sun-Eater, an enormous cloud entity discovered two centuries back by astronomers. It can drain the energy from a star, a group of stars or an entire galaxy just by passing over it, and It is now on a course for Earth. As the U.P. begins to build space arks, the Legion, with only five members available because the other 19(!) are on a mission in another dimension, tries to contact heroes from throughout the galaxy to help. They get no takers. Everyone is either too busy helping their own worlds, too far away, or just too damn scared. The Legionnaires sadly exit their clubhouse to see the stars winking out as the Sun-Eater feeds. (We’ll just gloss over the fact that the Sun-Eater would have had to have eaten those stars years, decades or centuries ago, for the Legion to see them wink out now, shall we? Yes, I think that’s best.)

Their only remaining hope? The Fatal Five. It could seem like too much of a coincidence that the Legion just learned of the Five’s existence, but, again, their efforts to find other help are shown. Perhaps the only implausible part of the story is the idea that so many members have actually left this plane of reality at once. After all, we’ve never even seen an other-dimensional mission before, unless you count Chameleon Boy and Proty’s one-panel trip to another universe way back when. And, after all, they do have a pretty good idea where these five characters are. So off the Legionnaires go to recruit the Fatal Five, armed with promises of pardons for them if they help and the Sun-Eater is defeated.

As it turns out, most of the five are about to die when their assigned Legionnaire shows up. That doesn’t include Tharok, who’s just hiding out in his evil lair, nor the Persuader, who’s kicking back on one of Jupiter’s moons. (We’re not given a name, but we’re told it’s the “Twelfth Moon of Jupiter.” By orbital period, that’s Lysithea. By order of discovery/naming, it’s Ananke. But who knows how they’re numbered in the Legion’s time?)

But Validus is scheduled to be executed by the Science Police, Mano is about to have his hand cut off, in space, which will kill him, and the Emerald Empress is being burned at the stake by primitives when Superboy rescues her. Varying levels of menace are displayed in these recruitment scenes. Tharok establishes dominance by shooting Cosmic Boy in the back with a ray gun, but the gesture just seems spiteful. Mano is too busy being happy that Ferro Lad stopped a guillotine blade with his iron body the make threats. The Persuader thinks he’s got the best of Princess Projectra before he gives in, but I tend to believe her when she says she’s capable of driving him mad with illusion. Validus has Sun Boy plenty scared, but calms down when Dirk blinds him. It’s the Emerald Empress who exudes the most menace for my money, using Green K to interrogate Superboy, letting him pass out at her feet who looking him over admiringly. The Last Son of Krypton doesn’t often seem vulnerable—especially sexually—but Sarya accomplishes it here.

Ferro Lad is as always devil-may-care, the first one with the quips. Perhaps it just goes with the territory of wearing a full-face mask, like Spider-Man’s?

With this strong start, the stage is set for tragedy in the next issue. And tragedy we shall have, in part two of what may be the crown jewel of Jim Shooter’s comics career.

Interestingly, Shooter related, via Roger Stern, that “The Fatal Five” was created under orders from Editor Weisinger to rip off the film, “The Dirty Dozen.” Like Evillo, Shooter didn’t seem to make it quite to a dozen, but he surpassed the order to do a simple comics knock-off of a movie. (Partially, Shooter admitted, because he couldn’t afford to go see the movie!)

Firsts: Fatal Five (Persuader, Tharok, Validus, Emerald Empress, Mano), Sun-Eater

Roll Call: Superboy, Ferro Lad, Princess Projectra, Cosmic Boy, Sun Boy

 

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