Saturday, 3 November 2012

The Legion Of Substitute Heroes Are Our Darlings: Too Dangerous For A Girl's Martin Gray On The Comic That Turned A Reader Into A Fan

What follows is a guest post from Martin Gray, whose TooDangerousForAGirl review blog is - without a trace of crawling - my first port of call when I'm looking for someone else's opinion of a comic that I've read, or that I'm thinking of reading. A professional journalist as well as an unashamed comics fan who once edited DC's British reprint titles, Martin's reviews are always fair-minded and well-informed. His approach is typically a far more enthusiastic and balanced one than mine, and I often turn to his blog when I fear that I might be about to go too far with my own criticisms. There may be folks who only seek out critics that they're likely to agree with, but it's the very fact that both the style and content of his blog are so different to mine that makes it such an enjoyable and useful destination for me. Martin enjoys the modern-era superbook far more than I do, though he's not adverse to pointing out its weaknesses either. Though we often do agree, and never so much as on the virtues of John Forte's Legion Of Superheroes, I can always be sure that a comic which he doesn't like will be one that I'll actively loathe. If Martin can't find the good in a book, then you can be pretty certain that there's something very wrong there. Put simply, he's a welcome example of a clearly sane, unpretentious and insightful voice in the often disturbingly clamorous blogosphere.

More than that, if you'll forgive the sentimentality of it all, Martin was the second person to leave a comment here on TooBusyThinking. The first was an anonymous poster who went out of his way to express contempt for my failure to know the name of a minor supporting character in Judge Dredd. By contrast, Martin was affable, knowledgeable and encouraging, which helped a somewhat shocked and naive blogger retain his faith that TooBusyThinking might actually be worth persevering with. In the post below, he's written about the story which turned him from a comics reader into a comics fan. My thanks to him for generously doing so, along with my apologies for failing to be able to display his words without a rather ugly white background accompanying them. Martin's the bloke who knows his tech, you see. I'm sadly the one who's still amazed when I can get water boiling on a gas-ring.
There's no substitute for that first unforgettable comic

Colin wondered what comic turned me from a reader into a fan. A simple question, but not one with an obvious answer. As an eight-year-old in early Seventies England, 'inheriting' early Sixties DC titles by the hundred from a neighbour, I quickly became obsessed with the colourful comics from another time and another land. There was Superman, travelling through time and space, more often winning the day with wits rather than power; the Justice League of America, teaching us that no matter how tough you are, if you can't work together, you're looking to lose; Wonder Woman, showing errant gods what's what through the latest set of Steve Trevor-induced tears; and Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, demonstrating that even ordinary people could have the most amazing adventures.

I loved them all. 

I do, though, remember one particular story that just blew me away. It fed my imagination for weeks, and I still adore it. By the time it fell into my hands I probably owned a dozen issues of Adventure Comics circa 1962-63, featuring the Legion of Super-Heroes. The 30th-century heroes dazzled me with their space operas, fighting the likes of Mask Man and Jungle King, falling in love, falling out with one another ... even dying. I imagined that one day the LSH would show up in a time bubble for me, as they had approached Superboy,

To the best of my knowledge, they never did turn up, but what did come along was Adventure Comics #306, 'The Legion of Substitute Heroes'. For the first time, the Legion wasn't the focus of the story. Instead, the tale begins with the arrival on Earth of a new young hero, Polar Boy, for one of the annual open trials which would allow one teenager onto the team. While his cold-casting power is formidable, the Legion rejects Polar Boy because 'your power is unusual but it might freeze and disable us at a critical moment'. This from Sun Boy, who has a similar temperature-based ability, yet functions just fine. It seems his real power is super-hypocrisy. 

So, Polar Boy is sent packing with wounded pride and a flight belt 'consolation prize'. Hours later, he's still devastated when he meets another reject, the super-strong (but only in bright light) Night Girl. Polar Boy has an idea - they should band together with other unsuccessful applicants to form their own group, a Legion of Substitute Heroes, to give the regular team back-up when needed.

In short order we're introduced to Chlorophyll Kid, Fire Lad and Stone Boy, and soon a team is formed, complete with secret headquarters, spaceship and 'warning wall' announcing emergencies. Twice, the new team strikes out, showing up at crises to help out but finding that the LSH neither needs, nor even notices, them. But third time's the charm, as the Subs defeat a planned invasion of Earth by plant people, with every member proving vital. The LSH, meanwhile, is fighting a diversion set up by the would-be planetary marauders.

After that, you might expect the Subs to go running to the LSH, pointing out that they've saved the day and proven themselves worthy of membership. But they don't. The humble crew lets the first team assume they've saved the world, even turning out for a celebratory parade in honour of the LSH.

Talk about heart. The other stories I'd read connected with me on an intellectual level, with their stress on strategy and puzzle solving. This instalment, though, resonated emotionally - these kids are written off by the LSH, told they aren't good enough, but still they try. And not to prove their detractors wrong, but to prove to themselves that they have what it takes, while upholding the legend of the Legion.

Edmond Hamilton's script sticks to the still-new strip's habit of having Earth threatened by motive-less aliens, but filtering things through these new players' eyes makes events feel fresh. Polar Boy, Night Girl and co don't have the LSH members' cockiness, the belief that they can whup any space varmint who so much as looks at their clubhouse the wrong way. The Subs half-expect to fail, but they get out there anyway, doing the best they can with what they've been given. 

I like all five members, but Polar Boy was my immediate favourite: stoic, plucky and determined to give his new friends the chance to feel like winners for once. He's drawn by John Forte as a short guy and looks even tinier when standing alongside Night Girl with her towering beehive, but somehow this makes him stand taller in my eyes. He's Charlie Brown, the boy who'll keep trying to kick that American football no matter how many times Lucy pulls it away, because one day he might, just might, be the hero rather than the goat.

Forte's penchant for earnest expressions also serves the Subs well - it's heartbreaking to see how much these hopefuls want to help. And eschewing his usual goofy monsters for the really rather scary plantmen makes the Subs look all the braver. 

That the Sub who fears himself utterly useless - Stone Boy, who can become an immobile statue - is the one who buys the team time to come up with a fiendishly clever way to defeat their opponents underlines the message that you should never allow yourself to be written off ... or worse still, write yourself off,

And at the end, having proven that they have what it takes, the Subs remain humble. The story is a wonderful lesson in what being a hero means - doing the best you can with what you have, not for glory but for the greater good. It made me a lifelong fan of the Subs, whether it's the original have-a-go heroes, the more comic team of the Eighties, or the freedom fighters of the Five Years Later series. And not only were members of the Subs eventually recognised as peers by the Legion of Super-Heroes, but Polar Boy joined - and was elected leader. 

'The Legion of Substitute Heroes' made me want to know more about the world of the Legion of Super-Heroes, and how they fitted into the greater DC universe.

'The Legion of Substitute Heroes' made me a fan.

(My thanks again to Martin, whose TooDangerousForAGirl can be found here. As for me, Polar Boy was always my favourite sub. There surely must be a personality test which can correlate such choices with key psychological variables, and if there isn't, there soon should be ...)


  1. I still remember the Legion of Substitute Heroes one-shot from the mid-80's (apparently, it shipped on April Fool's Day 1985). I always found the Legion concept as a whole intriguing, and the father of one of my friends had a massive Silver Age collection. However, by the time I started buying comics for myself, their history had become so convoluted that I couldn't follow it. ("Valor" was cancelled a few months after I started collecting it.) I did appreciate that there was a Legionnaire named Blok, which is, at least phonetically, equivalent to my last name.

    1. Hello Rabbi Joe:- I can well understand why you might find the Legion's complex backstory to be off-putting. One way to overcome that, should you still be curious, would be to go for the Showcase Presents LSH volume 1 collection, which is a considerable bargain and contains the story which Martin writes about in the above :)

      I will admit, Martin's not the only fan of the early LSH.

  2. The Subs are simply glorious...I adore thier never-say-die attitude.
    I could never quite understand why the LSH had to reject them, entirely; wiht their slight handicaps regarding their powers they couldve wiht some work being accepted into the team. Still, Im glad they didnt; their smaller group-set had that The Little Team That Could [and Would] help out the larger team.
    Just love them, and having them integrated into the team finally in the Five Years Later era was fitting.
    I always go to Martin's 'Too Dangerous' blog first, and then use that to cross over to other blogs, like this one in particular[!]. My others are Slay, Monstrabot then Siskoid's Blog then Its a Dans World.

    1. Hello Karl:- It doesn't reflect well upon the Legion that they keep rejecting the Subs, does it? But then, the Legion - and especially the Legion of the first half of the Sixties - is a terribly snobbish institution. I would rather be a Sub, myself, though quite frankly I not want to aspire to be at the Legion's table at all. I'm always caught between my childhood love of the strip and the horror of the elitism which a few more year's living brings. Of course, that's all part of what makes the early Legion so fascinating.

      And despite all of the above, I too loved the way in way in which the Giffen project involved them. I even enjoyed the way in which Johns showed them respect in the Superman/Legion six-parter somewhere around 2009, despite other problems I had with his partial re-boot.

      It's the Subs. The Subs are cool.

  3. I love the Subs, too. My first experience with them was their valiant but doomed stand during the Earthwar, in my first year of reading comics. But in every iteration, my heart goes out to them. And I loved their recasting as an effective guerrilla squad after the 5 year gap!

    1. Hello Rob:- I've not thought of the Earthwar in a long, long time. Yet it was one of the Legion's real highlights, and I do have a vague memory of exactly the heartwarming scene you describe. I wish there was a collection of those issues.

      I have a fear, as I've mentioned to Martin, that the Subs will be brought back in a grim'n'gritty New 52 form. So far, they've proven remarkably able to weather each post-Crisis change in the DCU. Perhaps if the New 52 could express their modesty, gentleness, bravery and absurdity, I might feel convinced that this relatively new DC was going to develop into something more to my taste ...

  4. Gah! I loathe those snotty teenagers from the future! What kind of club would reject someone as fabulous as Arms-fall-off Boy anyway?

    But the poor Substitutes have far more gumption and actual heroism than that bunch of elites in their little clique anyway. So pooh.

    1. Hello Sally:- I know that you're REALLY not a fan of the Legion, but it is good to hear that you agree with Martin that the Subs are a splendid gaggle of chapesses and chaps. Given how the Legion has proven such a hard sale over the years, perhaps DC ought to be pushing a Subs book instead? Today's culture is, after all, often far more interested in the also-rans than the inside-dealers.

  5. I'm thrilled to hear there's some Subs love out there. I'd love DC to out out a Best of the Subs trade paperback ... I can dream!

    1. Hello Martin:- A Showcase Presents: The Subs would do me. Throw in the few guest appearances like the one in DC Presents to add to the LSubH's appearances in the 30th century and it'd be an enticing prospect ... for a particularly well-informed niche of readers, at least.

      I should have discussed the Subs long ago. Luckily, you've been generous to do that. My hat remains off to you, good sir, in respect.

  6. LSH is my first comic book. I started in the Grell era and never stopped. I love that their history is rich and stretches back so far.
    Their f1rst appearance predates the JLA by 2 years. I believe they are the 2nd superhero group ever created...and yet most comic book readers never pick up their mag.
    The back up characters have that long history and I believe it makes them more interesting than most C or D listers.
    The Subs fought in Earthwar, Darkseid's Daxamite invasion, resisted the Dominators on Earth, Earthman and his crew most recently. All formidable opponents and the Subs met them on the battlefield with bravery. They lack the equipment, training and backing of the LSH members and still get the job done. You have to love the pluck!
    LsubH have been around since 1963. Not bad for a bunch of "reject" characters.
    Sorry if I gush too much about the LSH universe. It has always been my favorite. I love that it was a setting, not just a destination.
    This Fangirl has a LSH flight ring. is that bad.

    1. Hello Earth66:- You're not the only one to have a Legion flight-ring. Given that - if memory serves - they were packed with some of the Legion action figures, I suspect that I've quite a few more too.

      And yes, I tried to pull one onto my lil'pinkie. I didn't go so far as to check out whether it'd cause me to fly or not, but the thought can't have been too far behind.

      Never mind that flight ring. I'll not be entirely sated on the merchandising front until there's a complete set of Subs figures, from Polar Boy to Infectious Lass, with specially irritating guest star Ambush Bug as an extra bonus character.

      This is certainly the right place to sing the Legion's praises. I think you'll find that Martin, who of course wrote the above, could duet with you on that for as long as you can hold the tune :)

  7. I have a gold Legion flight Ring - cost me an absolute fortune in phone calls to many people over in the US years ago to get one [this was long before the Internet and suchlike] posted over to me. Also have several plastic versions one got with the action figures a few years later.
    Regarding the Subs - as much as I adore the LSH, they did have rather a snobby attitude towards who they let into thier group, like it was a select little clique.You can almost imagine them sniggering behind their clubhouse door after the likes of Color Kid et al were rejected.
    [and I love the LSH].

    1. Hello Karl:- I fear all my Legion flight rings are cheap and plastic. It would be nice to have something more substantial, but having got into the Legion through tattered third-hand comics in the Sixties, there's something appropriate about a couple of downmarket flight rings.

      I really think that there might be mileage for a Legion book which accepts how snotty those little brats could originally be. They're often fascinating in those early stories just because they're so arrogant and unpleasant. The 1% of super-heroes? Sometimes I think so.

      (And I love the LSH too :))