Tuesday, August 22, 2017

TOS: Adventure Comics #307

Adventure Comics #307 (April 1963)
"The Secret Power of the Mystery Super-Hero"
written by Edmond Hamilton
drawn by John Forte
lettered by Joe Letterese
cover by Curt Swan & George Klein
 review by Glenn 'Continuity Kid' Walker 

Mission Monitor Board: Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, Invisible Kid, Sun Boy, Bouncing Boy, Brainiac 5, Colossal Boy, and introducing Mystery Lad/Element Lad

Opponents: Roxxas and his space pirates. 

Guest-stars and cameos: Superboy, Bizarro, 'Green Guy,' and 'Camera Eye Kid.'

"The Secret Power of the Mystery Super-Hero" is the first appearance of Element Lad and features the story in which he joins the Legion of Super-Heroes. Element Lad, who started his career as the now somewhat forgotten Mystery Lad, was always a favorite of mine. I always thought that he was seriously underused and had a frequently misunderstood superpower (though not as much as Chemical King). I never cared for the pink costume, but when Dave Cockrum gave him the drastically different and very dynamic green costume, I liked him even more. We'll get to my review in a moment, but first there's that pesky Superboy...


Even though officially cover featured, since Adventure Comics #300, the Legion continues to occupy the second feature position in the comic, with Superboy first. Of course, the Legion would soon take over the entire title, just as they did Superboy's own title years later. The first tale is a fairly simple one and typical of the time. Through the Super-Dickery that would become a trademark of the Superman/Lois Lane relationship of the Silver Age, Superboy goes to completely overboard tactics to convince Lana Lang that Superboy and Clark Kent are not the same person. She is utterly convinced it isn't true at the end of the story, but just wait, she'll be back at it next issue. The Casey the Cop one-pager at the end of the comic was better than the Superboy lead in my opinion.
It has always amazed me how Superman and Superboy and Supergirl stories of this time can be so excruciatingly mind-numbing, and yet in the same family of titles, the Legion of Super-Heroes shines. A quick peek at the lettercol, Smallville Mailsack, reveals why Legion pushed Superboy out of the comic. It's not only all Legion mail, it's mostly fans trying to create new heroes to be featured in the comic. If Legion fandom could ever be accused of anything, number one on the list would be passion, followed quickly by loyalty.
The first thing I noticed about the splash page of this thirteen-pager is the contrast between Cosmic Boy's and Mystery Lad's costumes, notably the two heroes in the group (and were there any others in comics at the time?) in pink. Even though, and especially since, it was 1963, we have two male characters wearing pink. Gender equality and sexual identity have never been a problem for the Legion, as a matter of fact, it's where I learned about such issues initially, as I felt the 30th century, like Star Trek's future, had representation of all genders and cultures and lifestyles. I think this is a major thing, and may have something to do with the huge gay and female followings of the feature.

Of course, this is all hindsight on my part. But it's true; I know more gay and female Legion fans than I know straight white male fans of the same. It's important. I also remember a playground discussion somewhere around second grade where we were talking about comics we liked and being told that Cosmic Boy and Element Lad were 'sissies' because they wore pink. I remember being stunned, even though I got the pink/fem connection, in these two heroes I really dug - I had never noticed. Legion teaches, and I love that.

The other thing I noticed is that this is an early Legion story, as Edmund Hamilton and the other writers and editors involved had not yet definitively decided that the Legion was happening in the 30th Century. In the splash page captions, it indicates that the action takes place in the 21st Century. They'll get the hang of it shortly. This one happens in the 30th Century, I assure you. Back to the pink, no matter how you spin it, there's no excuse for those pointy shoes Cos seems to be wearing.
We open on the space pirate Roxxas and his gang, and weirdly referred to as sinister astronauts. Amazing how actually landing on the moon a mere six years later changed the whole vocabulary of our world. Still, this is a thing of its time, and awkward sounding, and ultimately forgivable. I do dig their space bike sleds traveling through the void unencumbered, perhaps inspired by bikers of the time. And if the Legion plans to take these space raiders on man-to-man on these rocket sleds, well, that just makes it all the cooler.

My first experience with the villain Roxxas might very well have been his last, as shown in Superboy #211. Roxxas had been driven insane by the ghosts of Trom, but would reemerge much later as a major player in the Five Years Later era. I was surprised when first reading this tale how close the interpretations were. Here, his fellow raiders are many, and a terrifying force.
The Legion is too late to stop Roxxas' initial raid on the planet Oranz, and since many of the Legionnaires are on missions on distant planets, they hold auditions. This might be the first such occasion or at least the second for this Legion tradition, but among those we meet are an applicant that turns everything nearby green, and one with a camera eye that could record any event he has witnessed and play it back.

Both are rejected, but that last one demonstrated his ability by showing a battle he saw between Superboy and Bizarro. Hmmm… 21st Century or not, how did he see that?? Green Guy is rejected because, despite it being great for camouflage, not all planets have green vegetation like Earth, some have red or yellow. These Legion guys are sooo picky. Camera Eye Kid was rejected because courts don't allow such photos as evidence, an interesting statement on 30th Century metahuman law. Next!
And then there's Mystery Lad, as he's dubbed. Introduced as Jan Arrah, he makes demands rather than demonstrating his power.

 Let's talk a bit about what Jan is wearing before we go into the details of his unorthodox induction. This is close, but not quite his standard, original, Silver Age costume. Pink, as noted above with white highlights, but even they are unorthodox. White boots, armbands, a square collar-like thing, and weird underpants that went above the beltline, a big black stylized question mark on his chest and a pretty cool and modern, almost Kirby-ish looking belt. I dig the belt; I wish it had stayed. He definitely was doing a lot of work on his hair, even then, which Curt Swan would normalize, and Dave Cockrum would return. Oh, and yes, it does make him look fat, just sayin'.

Jan demands that he only demonstrate his super power in secret, and to one person who must swear to never reveal what they saw. Weirdness, that's why I love the Silver Age. Saturn Girl goes off alone with him, and when she comes back, she is all for Jan being a member. Make of that what you will, ahem. When the Legionnaires go into battle against the pirates, there is more than a little mistrust of the new member, but interestingly enough Colossal Boy notes that Mystery Lad is good with his fists, something I wish a future or current writer would make a point of more.

Something also needs to be said about the Legion leadership and strategy planning, especially in the light of this being only a thirteen-page story. I'm guessing Cosmic Boy is leader at this point, but Saturn Girl and Invisible Kid are equally in on the process as well. This is a machine of cooperation, demonstrating the Legion as a working team. I also noted that Brainiac 5 in a more subservient follow-orders mode, and ironically, more useful. I also liked how the Legion stayed behind to make repairs to the damage caused by the raiders. Ahead of their time, always.

Roxxas and his pirates are looking for something, or someone, specific, but taking what they can get on the planets they hit in their search. The Legion finally catches up to them on the landless water world Vuruna. Notably the pirates are afraid to engage the Legionnaires because of their powers; Roxxas is fearless and tells his men that the Legionnaires are only human. He is truly a worthy foe. During the battle there is some speculation as to what Mystery Lad's power is, and when Bouncing Boy guesses invulnerability, Saturn Girl eliminates that as a possibility.

Next the Legion tracks the villains to a dead world where Roxxas has left an ambush, knowing Saturn Girl is tracking them telepathically. This villain is dangerous and desperate, with no care for other people or property, and is several steps ahead of our heroes.

On the dead planet, Mystery Lad pushes a large statue away, keeping it from crushing Saturn Girl, but even after that, she insists his secret power is not super-strength. But then again she's got other things on her mind. First keeping on Roxxas' mental trail, and secondly the fact that the pirates recognized Mystery Lad.
After saving the Legion with his secret power during their third confrontation with the pirates' villainy, Mystery Lad bails on them, leaving the message that he is who they are after. If he turns himself over to them, they will stop raiding peaceful planets and harming innocents. Yeah, that's Element Lad all right. And he hopes that's what they will do…

When Mystery Lad surrenders to Roxxas, we get a quick origin story for the hero. Jan Arrah's sparsely populated world had a weird radiation that gave its inhabitants the ability to transform one element into another - transmutation. When Roxxas and his raiders attacked the planet with thoughts of endless gold, the people fought back and the pirates killed them all, except Jan, who escaped. They have hunted him ever since. Now that they have him, the sociopathic Roxxas has a grander scheme - the creation of uranium to manufacture doomsday bombs.
Jan's not having that and turns their ship into gas, causing the criminals to flee. As Jan floats in the void of space suffocating, the Legion stop the raiders. Invisible Kid saves Mystery Lad at the last minute, but not before both Cosmic Boy and Saturn Girl take the opportunity to beat that dead horse of Lightning Lad dying in action and hopefully finding a way to bring him back someday. It's coming, just be patient.
I did find it curious that with people after him for his big secret, the power to transmute elements, the Legion chooses to give him a name that indicates what his power is. I mean, really, doesn't 'Element Lad' just give it away? Also I found Invisible Kid's grey-blue hair a bit distracting, although I'm unsure if they hadn't decided on brown hair for him yet, or if it was a coloring error. It was cool to see the old rocket belts again, gotta love the old days. I also liked the writer's opportunity to let readers guess Mystery Lad's secret power as the story goes on. It's a game even fun for readers who know he's Element Lad as they assemble the clues. I also noticed that Element Lad's power is vision centered, not emitted from his hands at first, very close to the similarly powered Cosmic King. Also interesting is that Jan's home planet Trom is never mentioned by name, and yet it's curious that the three worlds attacked by Roxxas are.

I really enjoyed this story, the second time I've read it since maybe the Archives reprinted it. It holds up amazingly well and is solidly better than a lot of comics out in 1963, especially from DC. Perhaps this feature was taking more cues from Marvel at the time, or just simply, as the Legion has always been, just ahead of its time. Long live the Legion!

Status: 
This story has been reprinted in The Legion of Super-Heroes Archives Vol. 2 and Showcase Presents: The Legion Vol 1.

Milestone: 
This issue features the debut and induction of Element Lad.  

5 comments:

  1. This is a good review, and I agree with you that the story holds up well even after 54 years.

    In defense of Element Lad: over the years, colorists rarely did his outfit in actual pink. Even in the panels here, his costume was usually more reddish, closer to fuscia or "hot pink". It is Cosmic Boy who wears, and has always worn, the TRUE pink. Nothing wrong with that; I never noticed it myself until it was pointed out to me, well into my adulthood. (It was the Mike Grell minimalist "fangirl-eye-candy" 70's costume that unsettled me.) Element Lad was rarely that pink.

    (FTR, yes, I am a hetero male. Just not color blind.)

    I always used to think those space scooters of Roxxas and his crew were simply Silver Age silliness. I never thought to see them as a biker gang. They race around on space bikes, pillaging, vandalizing and killing, just as many biker gangs do in too many bad movies. Yeah, it works. One does have to wonder, though, if Jan ever encountered any of the other members, the ones who actually slaughtered the Tommites. Future story, anyone?

    Levitz and Giffen later established Jan and his people as being deeply spiritual, as befits a people who wouldn't/didn't exploit such a great power. This was set up here in this story, when the mother tells her toddler gold is a "useless" metal for pragmatic reasons, without any mention of its use as wealth. Wonderful.

    "Beat that dead horse of Lightning Lad dying in action"? Seriously? >lol<

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  2. Jan is a favorite of mine, if not my all-time favorite, and it's good to see how much of this story holds, including Roxxas and the groundwork it lays for future stories, such as Sensor Girl.
    A few years from here, in a backup in Action, I guess, there is one of the few silver age Jan spotlights were the "transmutation ray" seems to emit from his forehead. Always liked that more than eyes or hands. That story made me a fan (it also establishes the limitation that the toll of using his power non-stop brings to him).
    Of course Cockrum's redesign, Levitz/Giffen leadership and fandon/Bierbamums sexuality sealed the deal forever.

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  3. Huh, that's interesting. They actually mention that all applicants must have a unique power in this issue. (Though as far as I know, they still wouldn't outright reject a member for such until Wildfire.) (Though contrary to popular belief, it's *not* cited in the Dream Girl issue when she makes Ayla into Light Lass, it apparently was there before, just not apparently really heeded.)

    Also, the Legion really could be dicks when it came to admitting members. "Sorry, Polar Boy, but you MIGHT make things too cold and affect other members, even though you seem to have total control over your powers, so we're going to reject you. Oh, this dude won't even tell us what his powers are? Sure, sign him up!" (Yeah, Saturn Girl vouches for his powers, but... she also used her powers to force everyone to elect her leader, like, three issues ago, so...) (And, that, of course, led to Lightning Lad dying. Did you know that Lightning Lad died in action? I know it doesn't come up very often. I wonder if they could find a way to bring Lightning Lad back to life?)

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    1. In case you missed it, he's being SARCASTIC !!

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  4. I never actually saw the duplicated powers issue being a problem with the Lightning Twins. Sure you can't ADMIT someone with a duplicate power, but Garth was dead when Ayla was admitted. You shouldn't be booted out just because your power-matching sibling is returned to life.

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