Tuesday, August 21, 2018

TOS: Adventure Comics #353

Adventure Comics #353 (February 1967)
title: "The Doomed Legionnaire!"
writer & layouts: Jim Shooter
penciller: Curt Swan
inkerGeorge Klein
letterer: Milton Snapinn
editor: Mort Weisinger
cover: Curt Swan & George Klein
reviewer: Russell "Bilingual Boy" Burbage, Mike "Nostalgic Kid" Lane, and Jason "Anachronistic Kid" Knol

Mission Monitor Board:  
Cosmic Boy, Ferro Lad, Princess Projectra, Sun Boy, Superboy; cameos by Invisible Kid, Brainiac 5, Saturn Girl, Colossal Boy, Chameleon Boy

The Sun Eater, The Fatal Five (Emerald Empress, Mano, Persuader, Tharok, Validus)
After a quick review of the menace of the Sun-Eater on a direct course for the sun, Tharok addresses the group of five Legionnaires and four villains. He wants a demonstration of the bad guys' abilities. Mano, full of pride in his status as a mass murderer, steps forward and demonstrates the power of the destructive disc on his right hand. 
The Persuader cannot stand his boasting, and the two begin fighting. The Emerald Empress imprisons both of them via her Emerald Eye of Ekron. Then Validus gets angry, too, and Superboy has to use his cape to stop anyone from getting hit by mental lightning. 
Russell: So the story starts up with a bang: Tharok (and we readers) want to see what the Fatal Five can do! As I mentioned last week, Mano is portrayed as pretty damn powerful here. Too bad that didn't last. And the Persuader's axe is pretty damn impressive, too!
Mike: A perfect opening. A wonderful splash page showing both the Legion and Fatal Five members. A great reminder of the evil nature, and power, of the Fatal Five. Does not waste anytime getting us caught up on the story. And some nice action scenes by Swan.
J: I agree with the amazing cover action, it sets up high expectations that they actually follow through on. Great how Tharok instantly assumes control due to his half-human, half-robot brain being superior to everyone else there. I really like how they clarify Mano's insane planet-destroying power so simply, that he can "control the intensity by will alone". But then they show him stopping hyper-missiles with his hand-- where did that fantastic speed power come from? Great, fast-paced action in this opening.

Tharok goes off to plan their attack against the Sun-Eater, and the Legionnaires patrol the ship. Mano goes to the Emerald Empress, requesting that they break away from the others to take over the galaxy, but she is not interested. Superboy happens by and she tries again to seduce him. Failing that, she tries to weaken him via her Green Kryptonite. Luckily for the Boy of Steel, Tharok is ready to call a meeting. 
Russell: I don't know if this is because old perverted Russell is reading this story, but doesn't it seem like the Emerald Empress is trying to take advantage of Superboy here, as in like a sexual harassment way? Superboy #MeToo? Presenting the Emerald Empress, comic's first full-fledged Cougar.
Mike: She is totally trying to take advantage of Superboy here and it really works because Swan draws her beautifully with a slightly seductive and sinister edge to her expression. Swan has always drawn beautiful women and it serves the story well here.
J: Again with the cape-pocket. It was a little weird how Mano came in and was overly-aggressive, laying a (safe) hand on the Empress's shoulder, trying to get her to join him and revolt. For a panel she's made to be potentially victimized, then she blasts him through the door and pulls the same sleazy crap on Superboy. What would Lana think? Also I'd just like to mention the panel not pictured here when Mano enters and the Empress is lying in bed, gazing at a photo of Superboy held in one hand while the other hand is, uh, not shown.

Tharok explains that his plan to defeat the Sun-Eater is for Sun Boy to blaze brightly enough to distract the Sun-Eater from the actual sun. Then the Persuader will use his atomic axe to cleave the Sun-Eater into eight smaller parts. The remaining Legionnaires and villains will have to destroy these parts individually. 
Russell: This is actually pretty clever.
Mike: Well, he is an evil mastermind after all. I have been anxious for this scene because I was trying to remember how the various powers of the Fatal Five would translate into defeating the Sun-Eater.
J: Part of me wonders why Mano couldn't just adjust his hand to the highest intensity and ka-boom the thing, but alright. Let's have the Persuader cleave it so everyone gets a piece.

Tharok gives all of them power enhancements via an anti-energy machine. While doing this Tharok  takes the opportunity to sap Validus' will and make him his slave. Later that night, the five villains get together secretly. Tharok suggests that if they survive the confrontation with the Sun-Eater that they stay together to rule the galaxy, starting with the murder of the Legionnaires. Although Persuader is not keen on the idea at first, Validus controlled by Tharok is able to convince him---! 
Russell: Ladies and Gentlemen, presenting for your horror the very first meeting of the Fatal Five. (shudder) Speaking of creepiness, I never got over how Tharok's human eye was always colored as being totally blacked out. (shudder again!)
Mike: I felt a real sense of sadness at Tharok getting Validus to follow his suggestions here. But it's probably colored by what we learn of Validus' origin later on.
J: Tharok's creepy black eye-- yes! What the hell, man? As far as this plot point, I totally understand the Legion agreeing to follow Tharok's plan of attack, but permitting themselves to be so vulnerable by stepping into these chambers... granted, he really did increase their power, but he potentially could've done anything to them here. And yes, the coloring in that last panel was corrected in the Archives reprints (Emerald Empress's green-gloved arm, Mano's hand yellow).

The next morning Sun Boy shines brighter than he ever has before, succeeding in luring the Sun-Eater off the direct path to Earth's sun. 
Russell: I wondered as I re-read this story: did the first-time readers who did not know how the story would end believe the cover blurb that said one of the Legionnaires would die? Or did they think it was so much hyperbole? If they thought about it, did each encounter make them nervous? Like, after this page and Sun Boy didn't reappear, did anyone think that he might have actually expired?
Mike: My first inclination is to say that readers would really have cause for worry given recent Legion history. But readership turned over so quickly back then, and distribution was so sporadic and uneven, I am not sure.
J: Phase one complete! This scene definitely left Sun Boy's status very unclear, but I think readers would expect a more eventful death from a Legionnaire.

The Persuader and his atomic axe is also successful in slicing the Sun-Eater into eight smaller sections. 

However, Validus is unable to destroy his bit of the Sun-Eater. Even at 1/8 its original size, it is too much for him. 
Russell: I really like the idea that the so-called "most powerful" character in the story fails.
Mike: Yeah, that does emphasize the threat level here, and it suggests to the reader that the Fatal Five remain sincere in defeating the Sun-Eater despite whatever plans they may have, at least at this point.
J: But what hope does anyone have now that Validus has been defeated? We're doomed!

Superboy fares only a little better against his section of the Sun-Eater. As he is trying to whirl it apart via his super-speed it somehow realizes that red sun energy would weaken Superboy, and blasts him with that energy. 
Russell: Now the story gets potentially more difficult....is Superboy suggesting that the Sun-Eater is a living creature? If that is the case, and the Legion destroys it, doesn't that break their own code? This point isn't brought up again here but it is interesting to think about.
J: I appreciate Superboy recognizing that he'd have to use brains over brawn here, but clearly that didn't work either.

Cosmic Boy tries valiantly to split his section up magnetically, but its cohesion is stronger than his mastery of magnetism. 
Mike: So far we have seen both Validus and Superboy fall before the Sun-Eater, and Cosmic Boy is in trouble. That does not bode well, although we get a nice explanation from Tharok that their defeat has come at considerable expense to the Sun-Eater.
J: At what point should Tharok have said "Hey Persuader, how about cutting the Sun-Eater up into smaller, more manageable pieces?" Maybe even have Superboy wield the axe and use super-speed to dice the thing.

The Emerald Empress is not able to harm her section of the creature at all. 
Russell: I like this sequence, because it shows that although the Eye of Ekron is powerful, it isn't infinitely powerful. Good to know.
Also, I just LOVE the Emerald Empress' uniform. Great costume design, by either Curt Swan or Jim Shooter or somebody...
Mike: One of my favorite things about these stories in the Shooter era is how much he shows the heroes (and villains in this case) really struggling. We routinely see them failing or struggling, and its great both at building suspense and humanizing them.
J: I find it hard to believe that the Sun-Eater suddenly turned away simply because it sensed the Emerald Empress could no longer harm it. Let's be real, Princess Projectra doesn't really pose a physical threat, either, right?

Princess Projectra's initial attempt to scare the Sun-Eater by projecting illusions of energy eating kalosaurs fails miserably. She then projects an illusion of a blinding light. The Sun-Eater begins to spread itself too thin in order to "eat" all of the light, but this process is too slow; Projectra is about to be consumed by the Sun-Eater when Validus arrives out of nowhere and fights the Sun-Eater off to save Projectra's life.  
Russell: I really like this page for two reasons. First, it shows that Princess Projectra has "the right stuff." If anybody was concerned about whether she was Legionnaire material or not, I think staring down the throat (or whatever) of the Sun-Eater here shows that she is destined to be a pretty great Legionnaire.
Secondly, I love the "Beauty and the Beast" characterization here. At this point we know nothing of Validus' origin, so it is so cool to try to come up with potential reasons why Validus would feel some type of relationship with Projectra. At a different time, I could imagine him coming to Cosmic Boy's defense, as he is his "Uncle Rokk."
Mike: This is another scene I could not help but read while thinking of later revelations on Validus and it made the "Beauty and the Beast" characterization much more touching and sad. I think it would read great to someone who did not know, but it's really moving for someone who does.
J: Maybe Princess Projectra could've made an illusion of another distant sun to keep the Sun-Eater far away in the first place? Validus shows his strength yet again as he comes to her rescue.

Mano is confident in his ability to destroy his section via his destructive right hand, but it divides itself into several pieces. Before Mano can touch all of the sub-sections, they blast him unconscious. 
Russell: If Mano could destroy the entire planet of Angtu, he should have been able to destroy the Sun-Eater. I'll come back to this topic.
J: Really curious how the Sun-Eater consistently senses weaknesses...

Lastly, Ferro Lad is able to get inside the Sun-Eater and see it's energy core, but before he can do anything to harm it he is blasted out. 
Russell: Depending on my mood, this sequence can choke me up. Poor, young, brave Ferro Lad.
Mike: Loved this scene. The fact that he failed just makes it all the more touching.
J: You can already tell here that he has the heart of a hero.

The two teams reconvene back at the space ship. Tharok has analyzed their efforts and how the Sun-Eater fought them off. He has come up with a new plan which he is sure will succeed: he has created an Absorbatron Bomb. It will destroy the core of the Sun-Eater, but unfortunately there is no fuse and no timer. Someone must deliver it to the core of the Sun-Eater by hand. Ferro Lad grabs the bomb from Superboy and before anyone can stop him, he flies out of the air-lock.  
Russell: And now we get to the most dramatic pages in the story. It all happened so fast....!
Mike: So well done. And I'll never tire of seeing Ferro Lad clock Clark in that one panel.
J: One punch!!

Ferro Lad throws himself into the heart of the Sun-Eater, then sets off the bomb. The Sun-Eater, and the Legionnaire, cease to exist. 
Deeply affected by their team-mate's sacrifice, the Legionnaires are not ready for the treachery of the villains, now happily calling themselves The Fatal Five. 
Russell: Depending on my emotional state, these two pages can really choke me up. Has there ever been any better example of true heroism in comics than this sequence?
And that panel at the bottom where the four remaining Legionnaires look out and see the good that Ferro Lad has done.....it gets me right in the feels.
Mike: I cannot really add much to what you have said. A very powerful moment.
J: What really gets me is that this wasn't a big, "noble" but over-the-top and self-aggrandizing sacrifice like so many heroes make across various forms of media. Go back and see how upset Ferro Lad was at himself when he came so close to destroying the Sun-Eater but couldn't finish the job. He knew what he was capable of and it killed him that he failed.
His sacrifice was as much about proving his worth to himself as it was about doing the right thing and saving the universe. No flowery speeches, no sentimental goodbyes-- just sheer determination and the need to put things right.

The Emerald Empress captures them, and Tharok orders Validus to destroy them. Before Validus can blast them with mental lightning, however, Princess Projectra begs Validus to fight off whatever control Tharok is exerting on him. She reminds him that he saved her from the Sun-Eater, and that he doesn't have to do what Tharok orders him to. 
Russell: I just love that Tharok slaps Cosmic Boy around again. Touched by their friend's sacrifice, the Legionnaires forget the Evil that they still need to deal with...!
Mike: Okay, we know by now how evil the Fatal Five is but pulling this right after the Ferro Lad's death? They could have just said "yes we'll reform" and gone about the criminal enterprises after being released. But immediately attacking the Legion...that's cold.
J: That's villainy done right.

Validus turns against the other members of the Fatal Five, and when his mental lightning strikes the Persuader's atomic axe, all five of them disappear. 
Russell: With all the other things that have happened in this story, it kinda makes sense to shuffle the Fatal Five off the stage to be dealt with later. I approve. They are no longer the most important part of this story.
Mike: Showing Validus struggle between Tharok's orders and Projectra's pleading was a very nice touch.
J: Doesn't it feel like the Legion would've been destroyed had it not been for the power of Validus and the Persuader colliding and causing some crazy transportation rift? I really like that. A Legionnaire just died to barely save the universe, and the Legion essentially lucked out of being crushed by their new enemies, the Fatal Five. In some ways this ending could feel like a cop-out, but it really just shows that they're a very real threat that will surely return.

On Earth, the Legion creates a monument to Ferro Lad to be placed on Shanghalla.

Russell: So it appears that this is not an Imaginary Story. There isn't some Ferro Lad clone who is going to step out of the shadows. Ferro Lad is really, truly dead.
What a great story!!
On a related note, immediately after the funeral service Invisible Kid calls together the Legion Constitution Committee and they write up a by-law that says that under no circumstances is the overwhelming majority of the Legion ever to leave the universe unprotected again.
J: Adding insult to injury, the missile-monument to Ferro Lad reads: A mutant whose non-human face was kept hidden behind a mask. He gave his life to save this galaxy. Who the hell wrote that!? Was the first draft "This freakish mutant, who was so disgustingly hideous that he wore a mask all his life, died to save this galaxy"? If that was seriously the best they could come up with then the Legion needs some new PR people. Or sensitivity training.

Russell: So what did you guys think? Clearly, this is one of the greatest Legion stories of all time.
Mike: I think its a classic. I completely agree that it is one of the greatest Legion tales. Not only is there a ton of stuff introduced here that would be a part of Legion lore forever, but one of the most tragic deaths of a Legionnaire. We have already spoken to the great characterization of the Fatal Five but I want to give it one final nod before we close. Although I expressed some issues with Thorak's design, for the most part, they all looked amazing, especially Validus and Emerald Empress, and I still think Thorak is a great character. Just wonderful overall.
J: The first Silver Age Legion stories I ever read were in The Life and Death of Ferro Lad collection, so that title was kind of a spoiler going into it. But the assembly of the Fatal Five and a hero's sacrifice to save the galaxy make this story truly special. Think about how modern comics will usually take six issues or more to tell a compelling story arc, then consider how much Shooter and Swan packed into two issues here. This is fun, exciting, compelling and heartbreaking storytelling at its best.

Russell: One last thing I wanted to mention....the narration panel on page one references The Man from UNCLE and their enemy agents, THRUSH. I wonder how many people reading this story some 50 years later will recognize the pop culture reference?

Science Police Notes:  
  • The Man from UNCLE fought against the agents of THRUSH on NBC-TV from 1964-1968. 
  • Shanghalla is mis-spelled as "Shanghalia" in this story. 
This issue has been reprinted in The Legion of Super-Heroes Archives Vol 6, Showcase Presents: The Legion Vol. 3, and The Life and Death of Ferro Lad.

This issue features the death of Ferro Lad, the first "true" death of a Legionnaire. According to writer Jim Shooter, when his original plan to make Ferro Lad the first African-American Legionnaire was rejected, he decided to kill him off instead.


  1. All the "Fatal Five" except Persuader have a pretty high "creep factor". Validus with the exposed brain. Tharok being half machine. Mano with his helmet. Even the Empress, cute though she may be, has that big eye following her around.

    And speaking of the Empress. I thought her Superboy fixation was kind of cute and even though I didn't get the same vibe from the panel of her mooning over Superboy's picture that you did I knew, even at the tender age I was when I first read this story, that she was offering more than just co-rulership of a planet.

  2. There is only one Silver Age heroic death that, IMHO, matches or exceeds this issue: The death of Menthor in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #8. His sacrifice was only to save his friends, not the world or the galaxy, but the dramatic violence of the act, as drawn by the incomparable Wally wood, and the aftermath, in which his fellow agents mow down the perpetrators without hesitation or mercy -- no oath against killing in that series, they were at war -- were unheard of at the time. Frankly, I'm still amazed it got past the comics code. If you're unfamiliar with the Tower Comics/T.H.U.N.D.E.R. line, do look it up. It's worth the effort.