by The Masked Bookwyrm
Legion of Super-Heroes: The Life and Death of Ferro Lad
2009 (HC) __ pages
(DC Comics Classics Library)
by Jim Shooter. Pencils by Curt Swan, with Sheldon Moltoff. Inks by George
Reprinting: Adventure Comics #346, 347, 352-355, 357 (1966-1967)
Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Number of readings: 2
Some ads for this collection list #324-325 (the classic "adult legion" story) as being included, other ads, though, don't -- and as I'm reviewing this based on the original comics, I can't be sure which is the true contents.
With the proliferation of collections these days, it's often a question as to why certain comics have been collected in certain formats. Particularly with DC now starting a whole new series of hardcover compilations -- the grandiously named "DC Classics Library". In this case, the second volume in the "classics library" series focuses on the Legion of Super-Heroes, and by selecting issues around a long ago, fairly obscure Legion character it might lead one to assume this is some classic saga of rich emotion and poignant, nuanced character development.
When Ferro Lad is introduced to the team, he joins with a bunch of other new members, including far more significant Karate Kid and Princess Projectra. And though Ferro Lad is certainly a pleasant enough lad...he hardly stands out as a personality (Karate Kid gets more page time). And, when a few issues later he is killed off...it seems perfunctory and could've been any one of the team. Though I suspect it was a relatively novel idea to kill off a regular character (even if the fact that he's killed off a few issues after his introduction leads one to suspect he was introduced...simply in order to kill off a "regular"). And of course, these issues are also available in DC's Legion "Archive" collections (vol. 5 and 6), and in the economical, black & white "Showcase presents the Legion of Super-Heroes" (vol. 3).
One suspects the real impetus for this collection was to throw together a book of Jim Shooter-Curt Swan issues, a duo that has come to be viewed as the first truly "classic" Legion creative team, and discovering these issues also included some particularly seminal additions to the Legion mythos, the editors decided to wrap the collection around the theme of Ferro Lad. In fact, I believe #346 was Shooter's first Legion script (written when he was still a teenager!) and, as mentioned, not only does this collection include the introduction of Karate Kid and Princess Projectra, but we also get the first references to the Khund (an adversarial alien race that continue to pop up in DC comics to this day), the Controllers, the introduction of the villainous Fatal Five, and the galaxy destroying menace of the Sun-Eater -- all within these few issues!
So the opening two-parter has a quartet of new members joining the team (including Ferro Lad) just as the alien Khund make threats to invade earth. While attempting to protect earth's defense system, sabotage results, leading the team to suspect they have a traitor among them. The first issue is drawn by Sheldon Moltoff serviceably enough for the era, but it's Swan on the second half (and all the subsequent issues) that's the real treat, with his clean, realist art, he set an artistic bench mark for the series. The writing is, of course, corny, full of goofy exclamations and paper-thin motivation (the comics back then unapologetically written for kids) -- yet Shooter does manage to generate a fair amount a suspense and excitement, of the Legion genuinely having to struggle for victory as sabotage erodes earth's defences and the invasion fleet approaches. There's a nice bit of suspicion among the team (even if it's not hard too guess the traitor if you know your Legion membership), and even a bit of surprisingly modern wit as Karate Kid leaps toward a space craft, facing a kilometres high death plunge if he misses, and thinking wryly to himself: "If I miss, I promise not to try this again!" It's an enjoyable adventure.
The next two parter is crammed full of ideas, from the apocalyptic Sun Eater, a menace that consumes whole suns, to the introduction of the Fatal Five -- a colourful group -- and the off beat idea that the heroes and villains must ally themselves against the greater threat. But despite all this, it didn't strike me as quite as effective as the earlier traitor story. Despite the machinations and scheming of the villains, the plot itself can get a bit repetitive. And Ferro Lad's noble sacrifice just seems thrown in at the last minute and over with in a few panels.
In fact, the Ferro Lad stuff only really lives up to the potential after he's dead! Because the final tale here, "The Ghost of Ferro Lad", is really a stand out story, perhaps showing young Shooter evolving as a storyteller. It more effectively plays out the emotional repercussions of Ferro Lad's sacrifice for the team, their sense of guilt, as well as being a decent spooker as the Legion members find themselves being haunted by his angry ghost -- a fact made more effective by the fact that Legionnaires not involved in his death aren't being haunted and so disbelieve the members who are.
In between is the fondly remembered "adult legion" two-part story, which may have been a last minute inclusion -- assuming it is in this book: some ads for this collection don't list these issues...but DC's official website does. Re-reading it, I realize it does make references to Ferro Lad's death, making it a legitimate part of the eponymous "theme". It's been reprinted a number of times over the years -- most recently in the 2007 TPB collection, The Legion of Super-Heroes: 1, 050 Years of the Future. In it the adult Superman decides to see what his old Legion colleagues are up to as adults, and finds the team being plagued by a mysterious foe who seems to know their H.Q.s secrets...which then segues into the peripherally connected tale of them battling the Legion of (Adult) Super-Villains. For the time it was a neat idea, showing the possible future of the team and characters (and, instead of being ignored, some of the projections were incorporated into later stories). Admittedly, it doesn't maybe offer much emotional drama the way such "future" stories can -- there's very little in the plot that couldn't have been a regular Legion story. But it's enjoyable (particularly the first part) and, again, is a reflection of just how creative the Shooter-Swan period was, how influential it was on the series, and why fans regard it as a seminal era.
I question whether these issues really warrant such a hardcover, prestigious -- expensive -- collection. After all, if one wants that format, DC already has its prestigious, expensive Archive editions. Obviously, these issues reflect their time -- the dialogue can be corny, the emotion/characterization thin, the plotting a bit silly. But there is a fast paced, entertainment value. Swan's art is clean and attractive, beautifully realizing this Gernsbackian future of intergalactic travel and tidy cities. And Shooter's stories are full of imaginative ideas. As dramas, the first story arc, involving the possible traitor in their ranks, and especially the superb Ghost of Ferro Lad story, are the best.
So as a sample of this "classic" era, given a unifying theme by the presence of Ferro Lad, it hits the spot.
This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in the monthly comics.
Cover price: __
The Legion of Super-Heroes: Teenage Revolution 2005 (TPB) 180 pgs.
by Mark Waid (co-plotter Barry Kitson). Pencils by Barry Kitson, with Leonard
Kirk and Dave Gibbons, Scott Iwahashi. Inks by Art Thibert, Barry Kitson,
Mick Gray, Drew Geraci.
Colours: Chris Blythe, with Dave McCaig, Paul Mounts. Letters: Phil Balsman, with Jared K. Fletcher, Pat Brosseau. Editors: Stephen Wacker, Harvey Richards.
Reprinting: The Legion of Super-Heroes #1-6 (2005- series)
Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Number of readings: 2
As I've begun many-a review, I'll just point out that back in the mid-1980s, DC's editorial regime became convinced their "universe" had become too confusing. So they restarted the DC Universe into a cleaner, simpler narrative for the fans to follow. And we've been paying for it ever since. You see, once one editorial regime says, "Hmmm, I don't like what was done by a previous regime, I think I'll simply wipe it out of existence and start from scratch", it means the next editorial regime, and the next, and the next, can do the same. And the result is it's really hard to know what is, and isn't, continuity any more.
Which brings us to the latest incarnation of the venerable Legion of Super-Heroes. The concept was first introduced in Superboy stories in the 1960s (back when Superboy was Superman as a youth), and the LSH was a club of teenage super heroes from the 31st Century. They became increasingly popular (eventually taking over Superboy's own comic). But the LSH has undergone quite of a number of overhauls, reboots, and reimaginings.
Mark Waid and Barry Kitson once more start from scratch, reviving the characters...while seeming ignoring previous series. So the familiar characters are here, but altered; some cosmetically (Star Boy is now black), some in their nature (Triplicate Girl is given a different origin), some in personality (Brainiac 5 was often a little arrogant...here, he's insufferably -- and comedically -- arrogant). The downside to all this revamping and revising is it makes it hard to know how much we're supposed to bring to the table in our understanding of the characters. But, in theory, it should make it easier for a novice reader to jump into the story.
The 31st Century is still a hi-tech reality with a federation of planets, but whereas originally the Legion was a semi-official branch of law enforcement, here, the creators borrow the idea of the 1960s hippy-era by having it be that the Legion is actually a social movement of rebellious teenagers, with an entire commune of teens camped outside their HQ like a future day Woodstock. As such, there is friction between the LSH and the authorities...friction that occasionally spills over into conflict.
Although one might quibble a bit (surely the fun of the LSH was the idea of a pleasant, optimistic, Star Trek-like future), it serves to play up an angle that previous versions hadn't -- a generation gap. As well, the LSH had the largest active membership of any super hero team in the history of comics. So Waid and Kitson extrapolate that to the point where the Legionnaires number in the thousands...symbolically. The actual "team" is limited in number, but any teen can wear the emblem and call himself a legionnaire.
On the strong side, the comic is full of amusing quips and witty lines, as well as some heartfelt characterization. Waid and Kitson are clearly having a lot of fun taking traditional ideas of the Legion and seeing what they can come up with that would be a little different and playing around with the personalities -- the fractious relationship between Brainiac 5 and team leader Cosmic Boy seems modelled on the Avon-Blake rivalry of the old British sci-fi series, Blake's 7. The new take on the Invisible Kid is perhaps the most interesting -- the youngest of the team, his power seems a reflection of a shy personality, yet with a genius level intelligence even Brainiac 5 respects.
The first few issues mix relatively stand alone tales -- more focused on character than action-aadventure -- while also threading hints of a looming galactic threat (that becomes front and centre in the last two issues...but doesn't resolve, as it carries us into the next TPB collection). But if Waid's focus on the characters and the milieu sometimes seems like a man losing interest in the action-adventure of a traditional comic, he nonetheless can step up to the plate there as well. The fifth issue is a pretty effective, darkly tense tale where members of the team have their first direct encounter with the coming evil.
Waid hints at machinations both within, and without, the team, as we realize that, as with any "movement", different members envision different goals and agendas -- though Waid's depiction of the "adults" tends to be one note and simplistic..
If I were to have a criticism of Waid, it might be that he tries too hard -- that he can be almost too transparently clever. Sometime after Waid, comics veteran Jim Shooter began a run on the new series, and though both mix comedy and drama, Shooter let the characters be people...whereas with Waid there can almost be a little too much of a sense of the writer looming over the actions, tugging the strings, admiring his own cleverness.
Kitson is a well regarded artist, with his straightforward, realist faces and figures. His art brings a definite sureness and confidence to the story -- though I would argue he doesn't maybe make the characters look like teens as oppossed to adults. And as much as I like Kitson, there can be a bit of a stiffness to his figures, a sameness to his faces. Leonard Kirk pinch hits an issue...and in some ways it was more dynamically illustrated.
Anyway, Waid and Kitson have worked together before, and are seen as a hit combo.
But ironically, it's in their past work that some of the problems here are echoed. The two worked on JLA: Year One, a mini-series meant to re-tell the early days of the Justice League for the post-Crisis reality...and where Waid indulged in a kind of short hand storytelling, skipping over scenes, referring to them having occurred, but not depicting them (unlike a conventional, monthly comic where you kind of expect all relevant scenes to be depicted). Not only does Waid apply some of that style here, with references hinting at scenes -- whole adventures -- unchronicledd...but it's even applied to the characterization and overall premise.
As mentioned, I believe this is meant to be starting from scratch. Yet the first issue begins with the Legion already established as if we've jumped into an on going series. At one point a character remarks on how Sun Boy is thinking of leaving the team...yet nowhere in the previous scenes with Sun Boy did we get any hint of that (or how that character would infer it anyway). Or one issue has Ultra Boy hitting on Triplicate Girl...an issue or two later it's implied he and Shadow Lass are an item. It reminds me a bit of series like Robert Kirkman's Invincible and Kurt Busiek's Astro City. Some modern comics writers seem less interested in building their realities, nuance by nuance, than in just leaping into a pre-fabricated reality where they don't have to worry about building a foundation.
It can feel a bit like you're missing a few issues! When Timber Wolf shows up part way through, clearly with a history with the team, it seems natural to old time readers...unless you think about the fact that he hadn't even been referenced previously in this series!
It does feel a bit half developed at times.
In a way, the whole exercise seems almost more like one of DC's Elseworlds projects -- meant to be a "new" take, but where resonance occurs only because we are expected to be familiar with the original version.
And the basic concept of the Legion as a social movement, though intriguing, is also a bit awkward. Though meant to have hippy-era resonance, there's not too much of a hippy vibe in their Hawkish philosophy. The series begins waxing nostalgic about the days when "history was made on the battlefield" and Waid tends to characterize a lot of the team as basically the same A-type, relishing-a-brawl sort of personality. There's a feeling Waid wants to borrow the iconography of the hippy movement...but utilizing it in service of a more neo-conservative agenda.
And for a series about rebelling against conformity, there's a certain conformity to it all, as Waid and Kitson reshape the Legion to suit the cliches of our time...such as by giving Cosmic Boy a dark-hue uniform instead of his traditional pink one (I mean, come on: how more radical can you get than an action hero dressed in pink?) And outfitting a number of characters in "cool" long coats and speaking in decidedly modern colloquialisms ("Dude!")
Overall, I enjoyed this. The art is solid and attractive, the writing witty and trying to be thoughtful. And as the sub-plot of the coming danger builds, it does succeed in generating effective tension and suspense. At the same time, that can be a downside to this collection, reviewed just as a collection in and of itself, as it leaves the greater story unfinished (until the collection Death of a Dream). And Waid's deliberately choppy storytelling (skipping scenes) hurts the flow of the narrative and our ability to become involved with the characters.
And maybe that's the biggest problem -- despite the wit and cleverness, there's an aspect that keeps the reader at arms length.
This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in the monthly comics.
Cover price: __
Superboy #147 - Replica Edition 2003 (SC GN) 80 pages
by Jerry Siegel, and Robert Bernstein, E. Nelson Bridwell. Pencils by Curt
Swan, Pete Constanza, Jim Mooney, George Papp. Inks by various.
Colours: unbilled. Letters: Milt Snappin.
Reprinting: the complete original version of Superboy #147 (1st series) -- which included an original tale, The Origin of the Legion, plus selected stories from Superboy #98 -- The Boy With the Ultra Powers -- Adventure Comics #293, 290 -- Thhe Legion of Super-Traitors, The Secret of the Seventh Super-Hero -- Action Comics #276 - Supergirl's Three Super-Girl Friends - Superman #197 - The Legion of Super-Villains -- 1961, 1962, 1968 (most of those comics also featured other, back up stories)
Additional notes: afterward detailing some of the Legion's (pre-Crisis) history.
Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Number of readings: 1
Over the last few years, DC comics has printed occasional one-shots -- somewhere inbetween trade paperbacks and regular comics, format-wise -- reprinting collections of older storiess. Often they're labelled as "lost" annuals, harkening back to the days when DC's annuals tended to be collections of reprints. Other times they're literally just reprints of older comics that were such collections -- a reprint of reprints. Falling into the latter category is this replica reprint of Superboy #147, 1968, which featured stories from the early 1960s involving Superboy and the far future Legion of Super-Heroes. Although, I'm not sure if "replica" is entirely the correct word -- the story contents are reproduced directly from the original Superboy 80-page giant, it's true, but the ads are new.
Of course for modern readers, this harkening back to Silver Age lore -- and pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths continuity -- might be a tad perplexing, as the characters and situations don't quite match DC's current reality. This Superboy, after all, is Superman as a teenager, and Supergirl is his biological cousin.
The result is highly enjoyable. Since these stories, I'm assuming, stem from a period before the Legion had their own series, and were perennial guest stars, the focus is more on Superboy (and Supergirl, in one story), often in their regular, small town earth milieus. Although there isn't as much far future space action as one might like -- save one story, written especially for this collection (in 1968, that is), that focuses entirely on the Legion in their future world -- it's compensated for by allowing a modern reader a glimpse into long ago Superboy continuity, with appearances by the supporting cast of his parents, buddy Pete Ross, and perpetually suspicious Lana Lang. Best of all, three of the six stories are drawn by the peerless Curt Swan. The low-key realism of Swan's work, the simple humanity of his faces, the clear story-telling, is all very much a plus. The other artists -- Pete Constanza, George Papp, and Jim Mooney -- do perfectly respectable work, but it's Swan who really makes it sing (particularly when inked by the tight, sympathetic lines of George Klein, as he is on two of the stories). Swan is one of those artists who I probably didn't give much thought to as a kid, but I find I've become a real fan of as an adult. Curiously, though, Swan's young Clark Kent, when out-fitted in his trademark red sweater, puts me in mind of Rupert Bear!
The stories are, of course, a mix of elements. Some modern readers will see them as corny, as childish, as silly -- which they are. Sometimes quite intentionally. But there's also an eye to plotting that, frankly, is sorely missed in modern comics. In one story a juvenile delinquent stumbles upon Smallville -- a delinquent who looks exactly like Clark Kent! Meanwhile, Legionnaire Sun-Boy has arrived in the 20th Century to recruit Superboy's help in a mysterious scheme...and with decidedly nefarious motives. The plot threads (plus a few others) don't tie together as satisfying as one might hope, but it's still an interesting read, played out in fourteen pages. Cynic that I am, I can't help thinking a similar story today would be a twelve issue crossover epic, written by a half-dozen different writers...and it wouldn't actually be any better, or more sophisticated.
Sure, there's a goofiness at work, with cape-wearing super animals (that think!)...but there's also a charm to stories played out against a more gentle, four colour world that barely knows what serial killers or international terrorists are, let alone as something teenage superheroes have to deal with. These stories can get an entire tale out of a mysterious arrival trying to ferret out Superboy's secret identity -- with nary a blood stain or body blow inn sight -- and still be interesting (of course, there are plenty of action-fight stories too!) There's a kind of innocence, yet Rockwellian plausibility, to the portrayal of Superboy and his friends. Ironically, Superboy is better portrayed -- better realized as a person -- than is Superman, who appears in the final story. And for all the goofiness, there's an inherent inner logic that makes thinking animals, time travel and the like almost reasonable...at least within this reality. Modern writers have tried to tackle the notion of superhero "reality", either through gritty revisionism, or by gently mocking old conventions, but, in a sense, these early writers had already created their own, self-consistent reality -- a reality where super heroes form clubs, rather than teams, and where a (Super)man's word is never broken once given, even when given to a villain. And there's nary a shred of irony in sight.
For pre-Crisis continuity buffs, the stories collected here feature a number of first appearances, of everyone from Brainiac 5 to Comet, the super horse, who in a bit of brain twisting continuity, appears in a story before he had actually been introduced into Supergirl stories! (an editor's note advises the reader he will soon be appearing later). And Ultra-Boy's abilities, here, seem limited only to his vision. There are other, interesting ideas, like that Superboy's heat vision was, at the time, treated as an extension of his x-ray vision...and he couldn't use it on lead. There are also technical gaffs, like in one story referring to the Legion's future reality as being the 21st Century...rather than the 30th!
Why DC has remained rooted in the 1960s (and earlier) with these reprints is a matter for debate. Is it just because they are so genuinely trying to evoke the annuals and 80-page giants of long ago? Or, more cynically, are they being released as promos for DC's much, much more pricey hardcover Archive Editions which reprint 1960s material (ads for which occupy most of the free space in this comic). Or, as I've often suspected, is there an editorial regime at DC that is hostile to promoting Bronze Age stories? Whatever the reason, some collections from later, like the 1970s, might be nice.
Maybe you have to be really young (taking everything at face value) or much older (to appreciate the low-key charm) than the average comic reader, but this collection is quite an enjoyable read, featuring a better-than-average selection of stories. Though if DC keeps doing straight facsimile reprints, they might alienate a few comic shop owners -- after all, having this version on the shelf will probably diminish the collectible value of the real Superboy #147.
Cover price: $11.50 CDN./ $6.95 USA.
Published in 1977 by Tempo Books - Black & White
Reprinting: Superboy (1st series) #158, and one story each from Adventure Comics #355, Action Comics #392, and ???
Written by Frank Robbins, Cary Bates, and others.
Art by Bob Brown, Curt Swan, Dave Cockrum, and one other. Inks by Wally
Wood, George Klein, Murphy Anderson, and other.
Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Reprinting stories from a time when Superboy was a young Superman, and would sometimes travel to the 30th Century to team up with a group of teenage superheroes, this black and white collection reprints one feature-length story, and three (slightly) shorter pieces.
The first story, "Superboy's Darkest Secret" (Superboy #158 - 1969), is the strongest by far. It's also the longest, and a story not involving the Legion (though it does have plenty of space action). Superboy receives an interstellar transmission...from Jor-El and Lara, his Kryptonian parents. They're apparently still alive in a space capsule, but in suspended animation. And the capsule has become irradiated by Kryptonite, making it impossible for Superboy to approach. Things get complicated by the arrival of a couple of other survivors of Krypton, each with his own agenda. The story, by Frank Robbins (probably better known as an artist), is nicely told with twists and turns, but more significantly, it's emotionally charged in spots. Some later revamps of Superman had, at best, no more than an academic interest in Krypton and his biological parents. Not so this version of the character, which makes the dilemmas he faces all the more demanding on him emotionally. The story seems also to be tackling a socio-political issue that makes it a little bit risky, as well. The art by Bob Brown and Wally Wood is strikingly effective and beautiful to look at.
The other stories, while not bad, are comparatively inconsequential.
"The Six-Legged Legionnaire" (Adventure Comics #355 - 1966) has Superboy flying Lana Lang to the 30th Century where she tries to join the Legion in her alter ego of the shape-changing Insect Queen (yup, even Lana had an occasional costumed I.D. back then). She's rejected, but ends up working with Superboy and the team against a megalomaniac threatening an Antarctic city. It's fun, in its way, though the main selling point is the beautiful Curt Swan art (inked, I'd guess, by George Klein). It's anyone's guess who the script is by, but I'll suggest Edmond Hamilton.
The final two stories are: "The Curse of the Blood Crystals" (by Bates/Cockrum/Anderson, originally published in 1972 -- I don't know where) in which Chameleon Boy becomes affected by cursed crystals created by villain Mordru to induce hatred of Superboy, and travels to 20th Century Smallville to try and kill Superboy; and "The Legionnaires Who Never Were" (from Action Comics #392, 1970, with inks by, it's safe to guess, Jack Abel, but the pencil work I'm a bit more unsure of...maybe John Rosenberger?) which has no Superboy, but features Saturn Girl and Princess Projectra returning from a botched assignment, only to find no one recognizes them in a Legion featuring members Saturn Boy and Prince Projectra. Both stories are O.K. and nicely drawn, but nothing more.
Other than the first story, it's not entirely clear why the other stories were chosen above all other tales, but this collection is nonetheless a reasonably enjoyable read, particularly recommended for "Superboy's Darkest Secret".
Superman and the Legion
is reviewed here in my Superman section.
BACK (to Legion reviews page one)
Back to complete list of all GNs/TPB reviews