On Adventure Comics #332, by Edmond Hamilton and John Forte (1965)

The received wisdom has it that the future world of the Legion Of Super-Heroes was originally an inspiringly optimistic, comfortingly cosy, super-scientific utopia. And there are amateur pundits given to insisting that the Legion will never again be commercially successful until those wholly inspiring qualities are returned to the strip. Yet whether by chance or design, the tales of the Legion from the first half of the Sixties were sometimes anything other than entirely buoyant and reassuring, while there was often far more of the cautionary fairy tale than the technocratic space epic to be found in the pages of Adventure Comics.

The Earth of the DC Universe’s far future was once undoubtedly a space operatic wonderland, in which the most gifted and powerful of tomorrow’s youth could cloak themselves in skin-tight costumes, gather themselves into super-hero clubs, and somehow be granted the authority of state-sponsored, universe-policing paramilitaries. No parents or teachers, no curfews or homework; the Legionnaires travelled the depths of space righting whatever wrongs they choose to deal with and often did so according to nobody’s authority except, it seemed, their own. And yet, the Camelot-era comforts of a perfectly white-picket-fenced America transplanted into a pulp-future setting also carried with them Camelot-era terrors. Like the wide-eyed children of folk tales leaving the safety of castle or wood-cutter’s cabin and striding off into the darker realm of the forest, the Legion were perpetually flying into situations which expressed either subtly unsettling or even explicitly disturbing ideas. Beyond Utopia, it often seemed, lay anything but. Cities created by extinct races whose perfectly preserved buildings are perpetually lit by “radium lights”. The ground-zero ruins of recognisably mid-20th century metropolises devastated by atomic weapons. The records of forgotten Kryptonian settlements on Earth destroyed by too few colonists and the savagery of “great tame lizards” turned wild. The dead worlds peppered by the “weird monuments” of long-forgotten cultures. Writer Edmond Hamilton in particular seemed to revel in placing the symbols of a supposedly perfect tomorrow into situations which suggested that this morning’s reassuring status quo could very well become this afternoon’s devastated civilisation. At their most obvious, these tales brought the Legion face-to-face with cataclysms not from some distant galactic past, but from the teen’s own present day. The genocide of the Trommites by the “space pirate” Roxxas on his quest to create “doomsday bombs” was only the most explicit of these tales.

Matched to these shadows of Cold War terrors came a sense of a fear of social exclusion matched to a longing to be on the winning side of the social divide between them and us. On its surface, the Legion was the story of an inclusive society of tolerant and welcoming teens. Yet its members were forever driven to the most extreme acts of sacrifice, as if they felt that they had to justify their presence on the team by ever-more extravagant gestures. Indeed, there often seems to be no rational reason at all for why the Legionnaires would throw themselves into such life-threatening predicaments. This is particularly obvious during the attempts by the Legion to resurrect their fallen comrade Lightning Lad. With the only way to raise Garth Ranzz from the dead demanding the fatal sacrifice of one of his colleagues, the various members of the Legion jostle for the honour of dying without any discussion of why Lightning Lad’s life should be more important than any of theirs. The reader watches perplexed as characters as powerful and beneficent as Superboy and Mon-El take their place in the ranks of the super-people hoping that their life might be exchanged for Ranzz’s. What was it that drove these children of the future to regard such martyrdom as a taken-for-granted responsibility? There was clearly something about the culture of the future which the readers weren’t being told.

And if the Legionnaires themselves seemed obsessed with points of honour and even procedure, with their constitution being constantly appealed to in order to justify a host of dubious acts, then those beyond their number repeatedly appeared fixated upon gaining entry to the team’s ranks. In a way that seems disturbing prescient where our cultural infatuation with talent-shows and fame is concerned, the Legion’s elite standing was forever being bolstered by their rejection of hordes of would-be members in the full glare of some very public trials. In the deference and desperation to appeal which the Substitute Legion displayed to the very teens who’d rejected them, we can also see a thoroughly disturbing longing on the part of the social also-rans to belong in the company of the cool kids at the top table. But then, there’s obvious advantages in terms of wealth and resources as well as status to becoming a member of the Legion, and the 30th century isn’t, it seems, a place where everyone is equally valued and rewarded. Whereas the Substitute Heroes had to carve a sorry HQ out of a deserted cliff-face, the Legion own their own “clubhouse” with their own “emergency hospital” in it, in addition to what seems to be their own space-fleet. The future had its own class of insiders as well as its outlanders and interlopers, its glamorous centres as well as its drab and dreary peripheries.

Being a member of the elite does appear to grant an exceptionally disproportionate slice of the cake, and that’s especially so when the likes of Matter-Eater Lad stands on the inside rather than the outside of the charmed circle. There’s a suspicion that the Legionnaires had to be promoting the most likeable prospective members rather than those who might be most useful in the field, and in their overly polite, and even haughty, manner, there’s more than just a slight air of the privileged Fraternity reproducing its own power and influence. Were there no worthwhile candidates from the various communities of the Galaxy which weren’t white, middle-class and handsome beyond Brainiac 5 – a white guy with green skin – and the token comedy-relief fat lad, Bouncing Boy?  In so many ways, the Legion weren’t just the future’s premier super-team, but the poster boys and girls for the 20th century’s ruling class too. Where the likes of the X-Men’s ranks were composed of outsiders who’d never sought the status of publicly-adored super-heroes, the Legion’s numbers were set and policed by a cadre of self-proclaimed insiders. No wonder then, that as America’s public discourse shifted from that of a society of imposed cultural consensus to one of fractious debate, the Legion’s star would begin to decline.

Yet what’s often goes uncredited today is just how grim and intense the text as well as the sub-text of these Legion tales could on occasion be. In many ways, the Marvel comics of the High Sixties had little to offer that could match the dread of a great many of the Legion’s more epic adventures. In fact, many of Edmond Hamilton’s more deliberately melodramatic stories can be seen as the direct ancestors of today’s plot-heavy, hero-mutilating’n’killing Event stories. With their flat and yet hammy characterisation matched to their one-damn-thing-after-another angstiness, stories such as “The Super-Sacrifice of the Legionnaires” and “The Stolen Super-Powers” are every bit as much obsessed with the rituals of sacrifice and suffering, loss and resurrection as any modern-era comic is. Nowhere is this as obvious as in “The Super-Moby Dick of Space,” from Adventure Comics #322, where the endlessly ill-starred Lightning Lad’s right arm is “agonizingly” poisoned by a “colossal space-beast” and by necessity amputated. Now bearing a great clunking metal robotic limb, Lightning Lad’s personality transforms due to “some subtle concussion or brain-shock”, leaving him swearing to kill the Super-Moby Dick in exactly the way that any vengeance-fixated Ahab should;

“And I vow by this metal arm that I’ll kill that monster, not just trap it! This duel between me and the Super-Moby Dick will be to the death!”

All the subtle as well as the laid-on-with-a-trowel tropes of Hamilton’s Legion tales are here. There’s the World Of The Dead Robots, where “huge mechanical giants … drove away their creators”, and the well-meaning scientific experiment which creates the Super-Moby Dick itself; the very technological virtues which were being used to define the national character of post-Sputnik America were here disturbingly turned on their head. There’s the suicidal solo attempt by Ultra Boy to take down Super-Moby Dick without telling his colleagues that’s he’s going to do so, and without any good reason for leaving them out of the equation, while there’s yet another debate about obscure constitutional provisions which lead to various Legionnaires falling out one with the other. If this future is a Utopia, then it’s one that very much reflects a distinctly early-Sixties WASP American vision of an ideal tomorrow, as well as something of the same tendency’s fears.

Yet “The Super-Moby Dick of Space” is a far superior tale to the majority of today’s revenge-driven, body-shock super-hero shockers. The likes of Bucky Barnes may share Lightning Lad’s robot arm as well as his unfortunate tendency to need resurrecting, but there’s far more going on in the pages of Adventure Comics #332 than in the entire run of Fear Itself. Hamilton’s scripts are dense with incident and consistently inventive, with one reversal following fast upon another until the apparent arc of the tale’s been entirely turned on its head. What appears to be an entirely predictable revenge tragedy becomes instead a tale of forgiveness and redemption, which leaves the narrative feeling notably less prurient than all-too-many of today’s torture-happy, kill’em’all comic-books. Here the fervour of the storytelling is designed to lead to a reaffirmation of the Legion’s code against killing, and the presence of the monster serves not to justify monstrous acts in retaliation, but to inspire understanding and an entirely peaceful resolution. How things have changed. The conclusions of Hamilton’s stories were undoubtedly conventional in the morality they expressed, and yet the reader who takes that to mean that there’s nothing challenging or disconcerting in them is missing out on a great deal that still makes his work so interesting. Even his playful references to Melville make the story well worth the price of entry, with Saturn Girl’s declaration that she “can’t help feeling that this is a voyage of doom …” simultaneously ratcheting up the tension while generating a knowing smile too. On the one hand, Hamilton was keen to ensure that his readers felt fiercely compelled to read onwards, and yet he was never averse to letting them know, if they cared to pay attention, that none of this was to be taken too seriously.

Perhaps if “The Super-Moby Dick of Space” had been drawn by a Kirby or even a Kane, its dramatic as well as its absurd virtues might be more commonly recognised. Yet neither artist’s strengths would have likely been able to match the charm and still strangeness of John Forte’s deliberately naïve art. A creator who apparently lacked the slightest interest in excessively thrilling, let alone upsetting, his youthful readers, Forte’s flat and child’s-eye approach often creates an unequalled sense of melancholy, as if a deeply imaginative child was attempting to describe the most intensely-felt of experiences. Here lent a flavour of Curt Swan’s Rockwellian virtues by George Klein’s inking, Forte’s art concentrates on transmitting a sense of comforting clarity and wide-eyed, guileless wonder. His Super-Moby Dick is an utterly ridiculous and entirely unconvincing concoction. But it’s also joyously silly and reveals a refusal to pander to the adolescent-minded conviction that only the exaggerations of comic-book realism matched with an illiberal dose of hyper-violence can bring a super-book to life. In refusing to allow the slightest trace of the explicitly challenging into his work, Forte encourages the reader to focus on the consequences of the monster’s actions rather than dwell upon the details of the horrors it’s committed. For an audience of young children, it’s a laudably paternalistic approach. In a time when plot has often been reduced to a sequence of supposedly reader-shocking moments, Forte’s dignified restraint seems both strangely radical and entirely beguiling. His was hardly a style to make the more uneasy aspects of Hamilton’s work more obvious, and yet in scenes such as those set on the World Of The Dead Robots, Forte’s frames carry a quietly effective sense of loss and regret, a whisper of “Look upon my works ye mighty and despair”.

“The Super-Moby Dick of Space” does of course end with the status quo reassuringly restored. The monster is revealed to be nothing but a mutated alien newt whose gargantuan size is eventually reversed, while for Lightning Lad, there’s the promise that “newly invented medical techniques” may one day make him whole again. The stiff smiles of the Legionnaires and their hospital’s doctor dominate the final frame of the tale, but then, that’s another aspect of those early LSH stories which suggested an unease simmering just beneath the Mum’s apple-pie surface of things. For those flat smiles of Forte’s were rarely particularly convincing, and they tended to intimate that not everything was as it might at first seem in that inspiringly optimistic, comfortingly cosy, super-scientific 30th century utopia.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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Also by Colin Smith:

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  1. Martin Gray says:

    Wonderful think piece, Colin. I read those stories as a ten-year-old and loved the invention, and the array of members and powers, but could never understand why anyone would put themselves out to join the Legion, given the mercurial moods of the membership. As for the trials, they seemed to exist only for the superheroes to humiliate the wannabes – a rare example of a retcon I like is the recent revelation that Saturn Girl was generally checking headspace for undesirable quirks, and therefore guiding some of the more surprising refusals.

    As for ‘The Super Moby-Dick of Space’, I found it terribly/wonderfully dramatic. Sure, the SMD looked like a weather balloon, but Garth was so very serious, and he lost an arm – and didn’t get it back at the end! Blimey O’Reilly.

    • Colin Smith says:

      Hello Martin:- Thank you. I wasn’t bright enough as a pre-teen to notice that the Legion were often behaving in ways which didn’t seem very …. shall we say “pleasant”? Or indeed “sane”. I’ve not come across the retcon you mention, which sounds very logical to me. Yet I think I prefer the idea of a Legion made up of social climbers, over-active also-rans and – quite frankly – profoundly disordered individuals. Not a concept that would fly, I suspect. But I do find it a compelling idea.

      I find the Super-Moby Of Space “terribly.wonderfully dramatic” now, I really do. And I love it all the more because the beast is a big scaly weather balloon with painted-on fangs and glued-on bat-wings. It’s intense and it’s silly all at the same time. Blimey O’Reilly indeed!

      • Don Sutton says:

        I enjoyed the analysis of Ed’s works. I am fascinated that he created the Legion Of Substitute Superheroes and those heroes are still being used today.
        I was Ed’s next door next door neighbor in Kinsman, OH and I am working on his biography with the blessing of his family. I would appreciate any mention of him or his wife Leigh Brackett. Don mktsqkinsman@gmail.com

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