Retro review – Adventure Comics #306, the debut of the Legion of Substitute-Heroes

Polar Boy. Night Girl. Chlorophyll Kid. Stone Boy. Fire Lad. They debuted in ‘The Legion of Substitute Heroes’ in 1963’s Adventure Comics’ #306. If you’ve not read it, the tale sees an assortment of new heroes who fail to gain entry to the Legion – mostly because the members were a bunch of illogical snots back then – decide to form their own team, to secretly back up their idols. They wind up stopping the invasion of Earth by a bunch of evil plant-people, but never let on that they saved the day. This origin has been reprinted many times – in Archives, Showcases and Giants – and it’s also on Comixology, and cheaply too. If you’ve any kind of love for the Legion, the Silver Age or just heartwarming comics, you’ll likely enjoy it.

To say I have affection for this story is something of an understatement. It’s one of the first tales of the Legion I ever came across, and one of the most charming. It’s impossible not to root for these hard-luck wannabe heroes, especially when contrasted with the up-themselves Legionnaires. I love that the great message that even if you don’t make the first team, you can still be a hero, isn’t rammed down our throats. 

A few random thoughts. 

Interesting that one hero’s name is wrong, another gets a definitive article that makes him sound like a cowboy, while a third isn’t mentioned. And look at that cover, a wonderfully inviting image for one of my favourite Superboy/Mxyzptlk battles of wits ever. It’s a goofy classic, with Lana Lang having a terrible time in Fifth Dimensional high school. 

The Legion story begins with Polar Boy – Brek Bannin – having travelled to Earth to attend the annual Legion tryouts. Question is, if Brek’s trained so much, how come it all goes so badly wrong at the audition? Does the tyrannical Saturn Girl mess with his mind because she’s jealous of his winning ways?

Hmm, with his power to slow down his body to deal with his world’s six-month nights, you’d think Stone Boy would’ve been waiting for weeks! Anyway, here’s our first look at Night Girl, and immediately Lydda makes a big impression, with a super-sophisticated up-to-the-Sixties minute hairdo. To her, a 30th-century girl, of course, it was retro … Maybe she fixed it that way to impress her crush, history buff Cosmic Boy?

Could there be a more inappropriate member to tell Brek his power is too dangerous for the Legion? Sun Boy, a teen with the exact same ability, but in reverse. Surely writer Edmond Hamilton was having a laugh.

And how’s this for a seminal scene? No one does disconsolate like artist John Forte, and no scene exemplified that ability more than this one. The unusual, for him, use of shadowing on the Cosmic Boy statue is wonderful for conveying mood. 

Ah yes, the Greatest Earrings in Comics History. And a mystery – where are the other rejects hanging out? We never find out … but thinking on, is it a stretch to suggest that Lydda and the other lads had already had the Subs idea, so she sought out Brek, then was good enough to let him think he’d come up with the notion, to cheer him up?

Just adorable. Forte has put Chlorophyll Kid, who fell into a pot of Baby Bio, into a babygro. And I just love the more illustrative chest symbols of the boys, and the colouring, and that cute owl! Just seeing these guys, with their hearts on their sleeves and their abilities on their chests, makes me grin. 

Bouncing Boy can bounce off the surface of water – I guess he really does become as light as a beach ball. I suppose that’s nicer for the people he lands on. 

Forte’s art has a reputation for lack of animation, stiffness, but this sequence puts the lie to that – he doesn’t fall back on stock poses, like many a more popular artist. No, he gives his characters appropriate body language, you can gauge the emotion of Chlorophyll Kid without having to look at his face – brave, but sheepish. And the creepiness of the just-born plant man in panel two is immediately defused by the humour of his comeuppance under Night Girl. It’s wonderful work, sorely under-appreciated. 

‘I’ll last longer that way…’ Stone Boy doesn’t assume for a minute that he’ll survive this, but does he care? Nope, he stands proudly, waiting to be smashed to rubble, happy that he’s going out saving the world. 

Has any other super-team ever stopped the invasion of Earth with a population explosion? These kids have something, and National Periodical Publications should’ve spun them off into their own series immediately. Already there was a wackiness attached to them. Perhaps Robert Loren Fleming and Keith Giffen thought so too, and that’s how we got to the still-divisive Subs Special of the Eighties. The important thing is, they weren’t the butt of a joke here. 

And so ends the debut story of the humblest heroes in comics, leaving just one question. Who the heck got into the team this auditions go round?

Many years, since I first read this story, I still love it. The invention, the heart, the uniqueness of the concept, the sweetness of the characters … it’s not just one of the finest Legion stories ever, it’s one of DC’s best, full stop. 

9 thoughts on “Retro review – Adventure Comics #306, the debut of the Legion of Substitute-Heroes

  1. Didn't have this issue of Adventure Comics, Mart, but I bought several issues numbered around it. All from a local shop in Keighley, Yorkshire in the 60's that sold them for 2d – in old money!
    A gentler time and gentler stories. Makes you wonder why all the recent attempts, both pre and post – Flashpoint have failed to update the Legion with any lasting success. Maybe the original creators had something going there?
    Long Live the Legion!


  2. Aren't the early Legion stories brilliant? So much universe-building going on. We don't get much chance to see strips build up from the ground up these days, what with things getting cancelled so quickly


  3. Hi Martin – thanks for this fond review. Usually you discuss comics that I haven't read, which makes it difficult to add a comment. But I may well have read the Subs first appearance, oh, a few dozen times over the years. Your post brings out something that I'd never been properly conscious of before, namely, that the Subs were in many ways the opposite to the Legion in terms of their shared values and behaviour. Put simply, the Legion could be quite horrible, both to each other and to those who applied to join them. But there's little if anything of that to be seen amongst the Subs in the tales I can remember. I've often wondered whether Hamilton was aware of how offensive he often made the Legionnaires, and in his Subs, there's a suggestion he did. After all, the Subs are very different from the superheroes they idealise. Hamilton clearly wanted us to sympathise with them. Since he often didn't do the same for the LSH, it's interesting to wonder why? Did he think haughtiness was a mark of authority? Or was he, as I'd like to think and yet sadly doubt, sometimes poking fun at teen superheroes, and realworld teen associations, in his Legion stories?

    I think the great weakness of much of Giffen's superhero comedies in the 80s and 90s was that he and his colleagues often ended up redefining the characters they laughed at. In such a way did they make them toxic elsewhere; it was hard to take many of the JLI seriously, for example, after they'd been relentlessly undermined. To use characters in a comedy is one thing; the earliest post-Crisis Justice League did that exceptionally well. But to consistently make the characters themselves the butt of the joke quickly becomes counter-productive. As such, and for all I enjoyed the Subs' later appearances as comedy relief, I much prefer their nobility in their Hamilton/Forte tales.

    After all, I was never going to stumble into a super-power that'd get me into the Legion, but the Subs might have been a possibility. Nicer people too.


  4. Isn't it great to inherit such treasures? I came across the Legions in those early Adventure Comics when a lady I babysat for passed on her brother's old comics. I thought they were ancient texts – they weren't ten years old!


  5. I was benefited by getting the DC Digests of the 1980's and learned and loved the LSH because of them. As a child I sometimes picked up that they could be written as cruel and haughty, although overall I didn't really until now (more or less). While I sometimes feel there's a stiffness in how they're written, I love these stories and as a child these stories made the LSH my favourite team – of course, Supergirl was only on this one, so that helped too. Still, there were so many many characters, and such a diverse amount of super powers. The Subs I may have loved even more, as I liked the different powers and that they were trying their best despite what others may have thought of them. I loathed the Special as a child and still do, and how they have essentially been a joke ever since. I think even as a child I didn't know why they were rejected, Night Girl and Stone Boy maybe, and Color Kid originally, but the others just needed to be trained better. Really, though, just pair Shadow Lass with Night Girl and you have a winning combination. 😛

    One thing about the Legion that has bugged/ bugs me is why they insisted on a rule of only one hero on their team with the same powers – Shadow Kid and Laurel Kent were constantly rejected because there was already someone with their power(s) on the team. The LSH fights crime across galaxies, so having an even bigger team only makes sense.

    Oh yeah, they had kind of touched on how mean the LSH could be in “Legionnaires” when they had Dirk and Garth treat an applicant so terribly her pain and anger allowed her to become the new Emerald Empress. I'd say it was commentary on how they were written back “here” but then those days I think they were trying to make teenage heroes “believable.”

    The Legion has been one of the few instances where characters were allowed to grow up and progress, and those who grew up with the original version of the Legion could appreciate that i think. The reboot was a success because they were teens again and not written so grimdark, but I never liked how they were portrayed as less noble and strong (in my eyes, anyway) than they were originally. However when Conner Kent was Superboy on the team, I really enjoyed it at that point. I think that Waid's Legion was a great reboot also. However, I think the Legion may not be the success it once was because the book just doesn't resonate with teenagers like it did when the LSH first came out.

    The concept of a teen-ager was still fresh and the Legion stories were written far more mature than what was often in other DC comics at the time. The stories didn't talk down to its audience, and there were issues that weren't explored in as much depth as the Legion. Lightning Lad suffered depression after losing a limb, something that would never happen to Superman or Batman. It didn't magically grow back and he didn't get over it by the next issue. Beast Boy being viciously attacked to save a little girl and dying from it was somehow more poignant than deaths in other titles. Star Boy took a life and he was kicked out because of the rules, even if it was in self-defense. There were consequences in these stories that had a lasting effect. Teenagers back then obviously liked this and that there was so much interaction and growth between the fans and the characters were something I don't think even happens today, even with all the technology of blogging and twitter and so on. The Legion Outpost is a testament to that.

    I think if there is failure in LSH titles now is because there's not that same level of interaction and growth, partly due to DC's inability to know what they're doing, but it is difficult to write to an audience that's new and keep the original fans happy. However, with multiple Batman and Justice League titles with heftier price tags, I think sales are low too just because there's not the money (or the marketing) for the LSH anymore.


  6. Thanks for the brilliant thoughts and reminiscences. We Legion fans, we do miss the team, whichever version. I like to pretend that a creative team is secreted in the DC vaults, or maybe a shiny conference room, coming up with a version of the team that will have som staying power. It seems to be rocket (HQ) science.


  7. That would be super nice. In that case, maybe under that vault or in a hidden spot in the shiny conference room there's a group of creators that are planning on a take over and bringing back some heroism and dignity to the DCU as a whole. I also wonder why Paul Levitz hasn't activated those robot doubles of past Legion creative forces waiting in trees in secret spots? Maybe all the pollution?


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