Tuesday, September 11, 2018

TOS: Adventure Comics #356

Adventure Comics #356 (May 1967)
title: "The Five Legion Orphans!"
writer: uncredited
penciller: Curt Swan
inker: George Klein
letterer: Ira Schnappp
editor: Mort Weisinger
cover: Curt Swan & George Klein
reviewer: Jason "Anachronistic Kid" Knol

Mission Monitor Board:  
Brainiac 5, Dream Girl, Element Lad, Mon-El, Superboy

The childless people of Baskh

I know what you're thinking: another Silver Age story where characters are turned into kids. Why was turning people into kids or monkeys the fallback idea from that era? Not sure, but stick with me because this installment of Tales of the Legion of Super-Heroes packs a fantastically heartbreaking punch.

The cute opening splash page shows humanoid adults fawning over Dream Tot, little Mon-El, Baby Brainiac, Superbaby and Element Infant. The de-aged Legionnaires all seem happy to bask in this attention as the reader is encouraged to read on and find out "the shocking scheme of their new foster parents."

Then we fall back to a parade to celebrate Parents' Day, the extraordinarily convenient 30th-century combination of Mother's Day and Father's Day. Many of the Legionnaires ride floats along with their proud parents, but in the clubhouse there's a pity party of Legion orphans on monitor duty.

In all fairness it probably didn't feel too great when the rest of the Legion voted for all the orphans to take watch duty together. But suddenly a message comes through the monitor-- the power crystals which provide light and heat to planet Zinth have been stolen! Time for the parentless Legionnaires to spring into action!

Upon arrival on Zinth our heroes learn that the raiders who stole the crystals then dropped them in a deep pond, to be picked up later. Space piracy at its finest. The three weakest Legionnaires on site decide to scuba-dive to recover the crystals, lest the raiders return to claim their booty. Time for the Scuba Science segment.

Alas, they are too weak, and they seem to be getting weaker! And smaller! Mon-El and Superboy return to find Dream Girl, Brainiac 5 and Element Lad are now half their previous ages! Element Lad blames it on a "freak effect of the water," but Mon-El and Superboy recklessly dive in since they're invulnerable. Although Mon-El and Superboy are able to retrieve the crystal they, too, turn into children. And like stray dogs the group of toddler Legionnaires is picked up by a local patrol and dropped at the interstellar orphanage.

The intellects of all except Brainiac 5 have been reduced to their corresponding ages, so our little Querl gives the names and home planets of the other children. With curious timing a group of couples arrive at the orphanage. The lil' Legionnaires each show off their skills and find foster families, but Brainiac 5 is using his time to work out formulas. Back at the Clubhouse Invisible Boy checks the Monitor Board and sees that the team went to Zinth, but "they can't be in any trouble" because Mon-El and Superboy are with them.

As Brainiac 5 lands on the planet Baskh with his new parents, including a father who's a chemist, he discovers that the Legionnaires were adopted by families living in the same neighborhood. I definitely jumped the gun at this point and thought it was just lazy writing, but it's not. Brainiac 5 gets to work in his father's lab while the other kids play. Suddenly he notices Mon-El suddenly overcome by his weakness to lead. Brainy analyzes a water sample and finds that it's from the youth pool in Kandor, which explains how the water affected Superboy and Mon-El as well. He quickly gets to work on antidote pills, as well as another fix for Mon-El's lead weakness.

In my favorite panel of the story Brainy uses brilliant psychology to trick the kids into thinking the antidote pills are candy so they'll eat 'em. The expressions on each little face here is absolutely perfect, especially Mon-El's dopey examination of the "candy" in his hand. And just like that the little rascals are back to their regular age. Now it's time for the motive! Hope you like having your heart ripped out.

Two years ago Baksh's moon collided with a radioactive asteroid and their planet was covered in dust from the fallout.

Yeah. This really messed me up. A planet full of dead children. Empty schools. Vacant playgrounds. The above scene played out across every family with one or more kids around the entire world. A population of adults bonded together by the fact that they collectively buried their young. How does a world like that even go on?

Well, Daq the scientist found that children from other planets would be immune to the fallout, but there were no children they could adopt at the orphanage. Then they were browsing the morning paper and noticed that five Legionnaires are actually orphans. Pair 'em up and everyone wins! So they stole the youth water and the crystal to lure the Legionnaires and turn them into adoptable little tykes.

Lucky for these adults the Legion decides not to press charges. But the best part here comes from Brainiac 5, ever the delicate wordsmith: "I have a pleasant surprise... the child-death plague is over!" Great Rao! Show some compassion here, Brainy! Never before or since, in the history of existence in this universe, have the words pleasant surprise and child-death plague been used in the same sentence. So congrats to Brainy on that one, I guess. His predecessors would've been more tactful with that news.

Anyhoo, Brainiac 5 discovered that the fallout had since turned to harmless (to anyone but Mon-El) lead. Dream Girl confirms that "a year from now, you'll all have fine, healthy babies of your own!" So in the end everyone celebrated Parents Day in their own weird way.

This story was absolutely not what I expected when I first started reading it. I had very basic expectations of some goofy Silver Age plot where a random group of Legionnaires were turned into babies, throw in some cutesy stuff and a few laughs, yadda yadda yadda they're adults again. Instead what I got was one of the most cruel gut-punches I've ever read in a Silver Age comic.

It's very weird that the writer of this issue remains unknown and thus uncredited, but perhaps that's due to the nature of this story. Curt Swan's art is perfectly on-point, as always, and his command of body language and emotive faces really sell this story. "The Five Legion Orphans" is a great reminder that you can't judge Silver Age tropes by their covers.

Science Police Notes: 

  • Although uncredited in the actual story, in his introduction to the Archive reprint edition Roger Stern assigns this story to E. Nelson Bridwell. 

This issue has been reprinted in The Legion of Super-Heroes Archives Vol. 6 and Showcase Presents: The Legion Vol. 3. 


  1. There's a moment in this story that has always irked me. When the five Legion orphans are having sandwiches ands moping, Dream Girl tries to help by mentioning that they still have relatives. But then, she says "but Element Lad is the last member of his race, Mon-El."

    Now think about that for a moment. Dreamy just casually blurts out that Element Lad's entire race was wiped out, AND HE'S SITTING RIGHT THERE !! How insensitive can you get?!? And look at Jan's face as she's talking - the perfect mixture of stifled anger and pain. (Kudos to Swan for portraying that.) Plus, why is she saying this to Mon-El? He already knows all about it.

    Okay, I understand that this was simply to explain why Element Lad was part of this group, but I still believe it could've been presented better than that. Personally, I think this beats out Brainy's "pleasant surprise/child-death plague" remark for tactlessness.

  2. There is, literally, a fatal flaw with the Baskhian's plan. Consider: their planet's environment has become toxic to all offspring. Even having other babies is impossible due to the poisoned atmosphere. That means that the Baskh population will eventually die out and become extinct (since, as far as they know, the planetary condition is permanent). Yet they far less concerned about that as they are mourning the loss of their children. And what if they continued with gathering orphans from other worlds, youthening them, and repopulating their world in that manner? The original Baskh people would still be extinct, with a mixed-race multi-generational population replacing them. Didn't really think this through, did they?

    (I'm guessing planetary relocation was unfeasible, due to a large adult population in the billions, or an unwillingness to relocate.)

  3. This marks the third time that Legionnaires have been infantilized. Dream Girl did it back in Adventure 317 to Lightning Lad, Bouncing Boy, Shrinking Violet, and Ultra Boy. In Adventure 338, it was Glorith doing the babification trick to Element Lad, Chameleon Boy, Light Lass, Matter-Eater Lad, Invisible Kid, Saturn Girl, and Ultra Boy (again). This time it's Element Lad (again), Superboy, Mon-El, Brainiac 5, and Dream Girl (getting a little payback).

    One thing to come out of this story is Brainiac 5's revelation that the bottle city of Kandor would eventually be restored to full size.

  4. I had read on the defunct Studio Sanning website that the author was E. Nelson Bridwell. I don't know their source of information.

  5. I find it weird that Brainiac 5 says he's from the planet "Yod." Was "Colu" not identified as such yet? The other planets are all accurate.