Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Remembering the Legionnaires

I don’t think I get too many comic book readers here (though you never know!) and I’m not even one myself anymore. However, as a kid, raised primarily as an only child, I was obsessed with them. From about 1976 to 1985-ish, I was a devoted reader of many DC and Marvel titles, almost exclusively team books such as Fantastic Four, The Avengers, Justice League of America, The New Teen Titans and especially DC’s Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes.

It all started when a man who’d been dating my mother gave me a large crate of his old comic books, thinking I would enjoy them. Some of them bored me, some of them scared me, but one of them in particular enthralled me. It was this one, a 100-page edition (above right) chock full of stories about Superboy and his trips to the future (the 30th century!) where he would interact with and work alongside The Legion of Superheroes.

The Legionnaires first appeared in an issue of Adventure Comics in 1958 and consisted of Lightning Boy (later Lad), Saturn Girl and Cosmic Boy in costumes that would soon be changed, especially with regard to color. They came back again later and eventually their number kept growing and growing until it was a small army, though most stories only concerned a select grouping of them. (One of my obsessions is the use of teams and the drawing from a large number of people to create a smaller team. It’s one of the things I loved about Mission: Impossible, though they almost always had the same people chosen every week… Similarly, Battle of the Network Stars had large teams from which the captains would select certain players to take part in certain events. The landing parties of Star Trek fall into this same vein. Five or six people go to the planet’s surface out of the roughly-400 crewmembers on board the Enterprise. Why do I have this “thing?” Why do any of us have bizarre fascinations with particular ideas and objects…?)

Right about the time that this issue in question was published, the Legion was in a state of change. For many years, the members had been drawn in a rather stiff and staid manner and their costumes were all very understated and somewhat heavy looking in most cases. They also tended to be drawn with exceedingly similar facial structure and expression with only things like their costumes and hair color to truly differentiate them from one another.

However, at this time (and it was a far simpler time!), DC was accepting ideas from its readership for new costumes for each of the Legionnaires. Most of the submissions didn’t make the cut, though several of them were published, at least. One that did get chosen was the one for Saturn Girl. Previously covered from thorax to toe in red and white fabric, boots and gloves, her new fuchsia two-piece number, joined together by a replica of her home planet, was a very eye-opening change!
Later, she would be drawn in an even more abbreviated version that she seemed in danger of falling out of. Must have “Farrah hair” eventually came her way even though she was supposed to be existing hundreds of years in the far-flung future!

Looking back, it’s easy to see what appealed to me about these costume changes. They were like mini-makeovers and the artwork and scripting that described the costumes couldn’t possibly be more gay! Most of the 70s Legion costumes were introduced by artist Dave Cockrum who would soon move to Marvel and draw the newly revived X-Men as well. In time, his work on X-Men would be succeeded by (and many say overshadowed by) artist John Byrne. Similarly, he was succeeded on Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes by artist Mike Grell and Grell drew the characters during most of this rebirth period.

Grell had a very distinctive manner of drawing people (and used a super snazzy signature on his covers) that included a very long leg line and a sleek torso. He put the female Legionnaires in some very revealing and skimpy duds, though they were based on the recently revamped costumes by Cockrum. Cosmic Boy, who had never gotten an update from the original pink suit with black accents got a major (and majorly controversial) overhaul when Grell put him in what amounted to a black corset, allegedly adhered to his body through his magnetic powers! Though many readers loathed this look on the character, I distinctly remember loving it, for obvious reasons!
I loved the Legion because the men were all hunky and the girls were beautiful. There’s no way I can fully describe the comfort that the logo gave me, and gives me even now when I see it, with its wordy title displayed in those skinny letters, pressed together. I knew that I was going to love whatever story and artwork were contained within the issue. My favorite heroes were Ultra Boy, Phantom Girl, Element Lad and Dream Girl, because she appeared so infrequently and was usually very beautiful.

There would sometimes be meetings and each person had his or her own seat with a nameplate and this appealed to my sense of organization. I remember at least one issue that showed statuettes of them all lined up with their name below each one. Again, for some reason that collection of everyone in order and standing tall appealed to me. (Do you remember those publicity photos that used to herald the new season of a TV show or the introduction of a whole new show – they would often appear in TV Guide’s Season Preview issue? The cast would all stand in a posed formation for the camera, gently suggesting their characters. I absolutely adored those!)

Covers like this one appealed to my murder mystery/process of elimination quirk, too. It asked “Which One of These Heroes Will DIE?” I recall my disapproving Grandma spying the cover and snorting, “No one should be dying in a comic book. A comic book is supposed to be ‘comic.’ That’s why it’s called a comic book!” She used to get all bent out of shape at the (scantily clad and buxom) depiction of the female form, too.

In order to be a Legionnaire, one had to possess at least one unique power that wasn’t also shared by an existing member. Each member was issued a flight ring, which helped everyone to get around swiftly. It was also against the bylaws for a Legionnaire to take another life, which made defeating the enemies a little tricky at times! Also, as this was, at least at first, a teen organization, members could not be married. Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel couldn’t help themselves and were married in 1973, forcing them to resign, and eventually Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl followed suit, but later the bylaws were changed, as the group continued to mature, and they were permitted to return if they wished.

All things change, resistant as I am to most of it, and eventually the Legion proved popular enough to have their own title without Superboy in 1980 (it had actually been his own title first, with the Legion added in thanks to popular demand.) He exited the title and the issues continued on without his presence.

After a few more years, the “new” 70s costumes began to wear thin for the artists and the group got another overhaul, this time by Keith Giffen. Giffen was a much-lauded artist (and his issues are worth a lot according to pricing guides), but to me it was actually a return to the sort of stiff, inexpressive era punched up with innovative panel design. I really didn’t like the way most of the characters I’d known and loved looked.

Keith Giffen clearly loved the Legion, though, and drew (and drew!) more and more creative and extensive renditions of them. This gargantuan foldout cover featured practically every major hero, villain and friend imaginable.

Soon, I was out of high school and ready to move on anyway and it wasn’t long before I gave up buying comics (and started spending my free time with classic movies!) Since this, the Legion of Superheroes has undergone countless changes. DC decided in the mid-80s to “reboot” their entire universe of characters. They consolidated everything into one time and place and, thus, Superboy, as he had previously existed, was temporarily eliminated. There is no possible way for me to go into all the endless, endless changes, moderations and further reboots that have gone on since then. (One reboot had all the Legionnaires as teenage versions of their former selves while the original heroes died!) It’s been utterly ridiculous and I don’t know how readers can even stand to have the stories and characters that they have supported suddenly be rendered as if the events never happened and be forced to accept a new reality. Old coot that I am when it comes to anything like this, I do not accept or approve of it.

As a kid, I used to draw incessantly. (My school notebooks scarcely had any writing in them. Just pictures.) I used to make my own comics or draw scenes on white paper. For a while, I thought I might actually like to pursue art and become a comic book artist myself, but that notion diminished pretty quickly when, in 1985, I realized I had the talent to be the best comic book artist of, say, 1971. Ha! Anyway, the entire industry changed dramatically and the simpler artwork of the previous decades gave way to far more stylized and elaborate product.

I had a set of 3 x 5 reference cards that contained a color drawing of a Legionnaire on each one in a costume that either matched what the character had been wearing or was tweaked by me somewhat or, in some cases, was overhauled totally. Loving the process of elimination, as I mentioned earlier, I used to shuffle them and play a sort of game to see whose card could last the longest without being discarded. Again, I don’t know why this was/is a fetish of mine!

Anyway, I’d occasionally decide I didn’t like the rendering of a certain card and I’d redo it, always making the subject a little more attractive or what not. It’s hilarious now to look back on the way I drew these people and how I chose to represent them. The men look like they moonlight as catalog models when they aren’t saving the planet and the women look like they would be more at home on a 30th Century episode of Dynasty!

These are not all of them. As I said, the Legion grew to be quite enormous, but I’ve picked out a nice selection of ones I think are the most amusing. Over time, a lot of the names of the heroes morphed into adult renditions. For example, instead of Colossal Boy, it was Colossal Man. Princess Projectra inherited her planet’s kingdom and, thus, was Queen Projectra. I like to think I at least showed some creativity in design and color in some cases.

Popular as they were to comic readers, the world at large really didn’t know much of anything about The Legion. There has been, in recent years, a major movement in bringing comic characters to the big and small screen in a variety of ways. In time, they got around to The Legion, but they were presented in a downsized animated version aimed at kids and with distinct and different appearances that bear little resemblance to the heroes I knew as a kid. The Teen Titans were handled in a similar way. Times are just different.

The original trio of Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl and Cosmic Boy also made a live-action appearance on the Tom Welling TV series Smallville, much in line with the way Superboy first encountered them, though they were now portrayed in trendy jackets with only color or a symbol to represent their former costumes.

Recent reimaginings of the team actually revert somewhat back to the Cockrum/Grell glory days, though with the requisite modern graphic approach. At least the heroes look human again (in the cases in which that is appropriate!) and resemble realistic, appealing people who resemble the ones I once read about and loved. (No one seems ever to have come up with a considerable improvement or augmentation to Brainiac 5’s purple suit after more than fifty years!)

Reflecting on the Legion of Superheroes now, I think what appealed to me the greatest was that sense of bonding together for a common good. It was a lesson that everyone could learn something from, though we rarely follow it in our adult lives (occasionally the world surprises me, though!) The fact that the lesson was wrapped in a provocative (to my preteen eyes) package made it all the more enjoyable.


Dene said...

I am a BIG Legion fan - and comic book reader. I love these. the drawings you did are FANTASTIC-!!!!
Thanks for sharing-!!!!

Topaz said...

My favorites were Karate Kid and Princess Projectra. As I recall, they were in a relationship.

My comic book years were roughly 1966-71 and the Legionnaires were among my favorites. (I was strictly DC, never Marvel.) Back then comics were 10 or 12 cents and came from a blue machine in the grocery store. It used to bug the Hell out of me because all the comics were randomly placed in slots in the machine, so you could never be sure if the one you really, really wanted wasn't lurking behind some other title you didn't care about. It would be like going to a candy machine wanting a Snickers bar and seeing only other candy bars. Well, maybe Snickers was hiding behind the Mounds bar.

It's funny. Once I reached a certain age, I stopped reading comic books cold, but I still remember how frustrated I was wanting to get every issue of my favorites and not being able to because of the darn machines!

Poseidon3 said...

Thanks to you both for your remarks!

Dene, you are too kind.....

Topaz, that is FASCINATING about the comic machines. I have never heard of that before and I thought I was a well-versed person when it came to silver age comics! One thing it prevented was reading them in the stores, I'm sure! When I began collecting, they were most often in those rotating wire racks, the kind that put MANY a set of marks on the covers and bindings from people squashing them down to see what was behind. I learned to arrive at my local convenience store on comic shipment day in order to get them fresh off the truck!

The Legionnaires were indeed paired off into couples for the most part and KK and PP were one. They eventually married, if I'm not mistaken, maybe around the mid to late 80s? It was after she was made Queen, I think. For me, Ultra Boy and Phantom Girl were the favorite couple, but I liked your choice, too.

I saw not too long ago that Elemental Lad was involved in a story that had bisexual implications. Something about the woman he'd been dating was an alien who took that form and was actually a male, and it didn't matter! I knew there was something about EL I liked. lol

Topaz said...

P3, Your story about the Legionnaires was really fascinating and certainly worth a trip down memory lane. I wish I remembered the names of the individual members better. I recall reading in one issue about one of the male heroes who came from a poor family on Earth who relied on his Legionnaire salary for support. He felt apart from the other Legionnaires who all seemed to come from wealthy, powerful backgrounds. It was really an interesting slice of life to read about, especially back in the time.

I've really enjoyed reading all your entries. I discovered you not long ago and the first time I visited, I spent hours catching up. Keep up the good work!

Poseidon3 said...

Oh my gosh! I sort of remember that story, too! I liked how the LSH would incorporate certain social issues, often involving belonging or peer pressure or acceptance of others who are different, long before that became fasionable. Maybe that's another reason why I was drawn to them. Thanks for coming here and for your nice words as well!

Ken said...

I personally found the Legion obnoxious and overbearring to the point that I was rooting for the villains!

I remember Cosmic Boy's rather "unusual" costume and it was years later that I wonder if I imagined it. LOL, turn out it WAS true.

Anyway, again, I would draw super heroes and other stuff on index cards, but I would do the whole figure...and the super heroes I drew was my own creations (thanks to Villains and Vigilantes).

NotFelixUnger said...

A lot of memories come floating back with this post. I loved the Cockrum/Grell costumes. I never knew much else. Not too long ago I looked them up online and found recent encarnations that depict them like Pokemon/Japanese style characters. Eek! Big eyes, tiny mouths in large heads with little bodies which do NOT appear to be anatomically correct.

Some of my other favorites from the series were Dream Girl (almost Marilyn Monroe like) and the big guy, Collosal Boy. With CB I could not stop imagining all the possibilies related to his size abilities.

Oh! From my time with LSH I remember three deaths. I either lived through them or they were referenced: Chemical Kid, Invisible Kid and, later on, Ultra Boy. (I think I got throse right.) The reason why they are relevant is that many, many story arcs related in some fashion or another to these deaths.

Funny. I can remember that but I can't remember who was dating who.

Poseidon3 said...

Yes, I have a photo of those awful, deformed gnomes in the post above! Needless to say, I skipped watching that show. "Progress..."