The Lore (and Lure) of the Legion of Super-Heroes...

One of the more memorable superhero comics in our household when I was a kid was a copy of Superboy #202, dated June 1974 (which means we probably bought it around March or April). This was before I actively started collecting The Avengers and Star Wars comics in 1977, an act which triggered the building of my personal comic book collection.

Before then, comic books were an occasional treat for us, and one largely dominated by Richie Rich, Archie, Casper, Hot Stuff, Bugs Bunny, and Uncle Scrooge. Every now and then, we would end up getting the stray Batman (I was a lifelong fan), Superman, or Justice League of America comic, and even more rarely, a Marvel comic like Spider-Man, Captain America and the Falcon, The Avengers, The Defenders or the Fantastic Four. But without regular reading of any of these titles, it was hard to really get acquainted with the characters like you could in the mostly self-contained “kids” titles. At some point, however, we ended up with Superboy #202, and as it turned out, that comic alone was one that not only influenced me heavily, but my brothers as well.

The Superboy series was by that point actually called Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes, where young Supes teamed up with a futuristic squad of mightily powered teenagers who lived in the 30th century. Superboy didn’t always take part in their adventures, though when he did he had to time travel to do so. And by this issue, the Legion, in their newer modern design, were popular enough to have taken over the comic almost totally from its title character. Superboy #202 was my first true taste of the Legion, and I found them hard to drop once I did. It was probably the first superhero comic where I found myself actively wrapped up in every detail on the pages, which I now realize was in line with my growing up, since I was then reading ever more gradually adult material in books as well. Around this time, I was just about to get my first taste of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and John Carter novels, though I actually read about both characters in DC comics first. (My mother used to leave her paperback books in the bathroom, and I usually spent any of my own time in there looking for the dirty words. But I also read all of Peter Benchley's Jaws this way when I was in the sixth grade.)  But, as I started reading more and more superhero comics, it was clear I was putting Harvey and Gold Key comics behind me (for the most part; I still love them and have all of my old issues in my collection to this day) and moving into the really good stuff. It was like when I jumped from listening to mere Top 40 pop music and really discovering rock 'n' roll as a teenager. I still loved the stuff I heard when I was a kid, but I would find it was only the beginning (cue the Chicago song...)

So what was it about Superboy #202 that caught my imagination? First, I was entranced at the time by DC’s ongoing line of self-proclaimed "Super-Spectacular" 100-page comics (for only 60 cents!) Every few issues during the year, some of their titles would have issues with a full 100 pages, and in addition to new material, there would be reprints of much older material, where the characters often looked very different from their current incarnations. In Superboy #202, there were five stories crammed into it: two new ones, and a trio of older Legion pieces, and an old Superboy solo adventure at the back of the book. I wasn’t really interested in Superboy (I much preferred his grown-up adventures) half as much as the Legion, who were totally new to my eyes and caught me from the start.

The new stories had some cool, marvelously detailed artwork by Dave Cockrum, who was soon to jump ship from DC to go work for Marvel, and help reinvent the Uncanny X-Men and introduce their most legendary phase (when Wolverine was brought into the mutant fold). Despite Cockrum's excellence, it was the old Legion stories, though, that really thrilled me. I got to see into the Legion’s past, the workings of their rocket-shaped clubhouse, the monitor boards that told what each member was up to wherever they were in the galaxy, and even their courtroom (with “Guilty” and “Non-Guilty” buttons that flashed on a video screen) where they found Star Boy guilting of killing in the line of duty and demoted him to the Legion of Substitute Heroes. (His girlfriend Dream Girl willingly left with him; yeah, it was all pretty silly, but I loved it.)

There was a two-part battle -- Super-Stalag of Space and The Execution of Matter-Eater Lad -- against some three-eyed aliens that locked the entire Legion (along with some other super-powered kids from around the galaxy) in a concentration camp. I remember this piece being especially brutal, because several of the non-Legion heroes (Plant Lad, Blockade Boy, and Weight Wizard) die in the story. My favorite story overall in the comic, though, was a more modern piece, Wrath of the Devil-Fish, which played right into my unstoppable pro-monster agenda, giving us a half-man, half-fish creature who turns out to be far more hero than mere monster. It was here that I was totally captivated by Cockrum’s art, and his design of the creature fascinated me.

But Cockrum won me completely over in one other place as well: The Lore of the Legion. This was a special section in the comic, and it gave the novice reader a chance to really get to know who several of the Legion were, with individual portraits and a box featuring the names, powers, and facts about each hero. I spent an undue amount of time trying to draw each character exactly like Cockrum did, though only with limited success. Most importantly, as a youthful lad of a not quite yet burgeoning interest in the opposite sex, I found his costumes and poses for Phantom Girl and Shrinking Violet especially intriguing. Hmmm... I wonder why?

Our copy of Superboy #202 was well-loved, having passed through not just my hands, but also both of my brothers. Eventually, the cover was eroded away to mere tatters, the back cover went missing, corners on every page started doing that fold-over that overturned pages get, and while the thing held together magically (it helped that as a 100-pager, it had a surprisingly sturdy spine), it turned into a shadow of its former self. I still kept the comic in my collection, but its heyday had long passed. We also didn't own (at the time) Superboy #205 in which the second part of the Lore of the Legion was published. That section had nine more of the modern Legion members in it, including Princess Projectra, her beau Karate Kid (but in his most drab outfit, not the cool high-collared one), Shadow Lass, and the exceedingly yummy Dream Girl). It also had a final page featured deceased Legion members like Ferro Lad and some of the "Super-Team Family" members like Jimmy Olsen as Elastic Lad.

A few years ago, I received a package in the mail one afternoon from my youngest brother Chris, who had moved to Seattle. He, too, recalled with great fondness Superboy #202, which had also profoundly influenced his own love for comics. His attached note spoke of having to look around for a good while before he located a decent copy to send my way. I was overcome with joy at discovering he really had sent me a copy of Superboy #202 -- with a cover and unbroken spine and everything! -- and it remains on proud display in my office to this day. Here's to you, my brother! Long live the Legion!



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