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 ...)