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!

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