Friday, November 19, 2004

The Legion of Stupid Heroes

As I was reaaranging my comic art portfolio today, I paused today to admire my Mike Dooney Saturn Girl portrait. In so doing, I was reminded of what some of us as kids used to call the group of which Saturn Girl was a founding member:

The Legion of Stupid Heroes.

I'll explain.

When I was a young comics reader, I was a True Believer. A Keeper of the Flame. In short, I was a Marvel Snob. I looked down my nose at the product of the so-called Distinguished Competition. (I still looked, mind you — I read practically every DC comic that came out. But I always did so furtively, lest any of my fellow Marvel Snobs should spy me red-handed with that weak, goody-two-shoes DC stuff.)

We Marvel Snobs loved to mock DC comics for their poorly conceived heroes, who were mostly too powerful to be compelling. Superman was indestructible, and so strong he could throw planets around. The Flash could outrun time, for pity's sake. The Spectre was all-powerful, besides which, he was dead, so the bad guys didn't even stand a chance of killing him. Green Lantern's power ring could accomplish anything, as the Saturday morning cartoon song went...except when confronted with something yellow, on which GL's verdant magic beams had no effect.

Oh, yes...that was the other thing Marvel Snobs mocked about DC heroes: Because they were practically unbeatable, the writers had to saddle them with silly weaknesses just so the stories didn't end by page three. For example, Superman had kryptonite — and not just kryptonite, but a rainbow of different colors of kryptonite, each shade of which affected the Man of Steel in a different pathetically lame way. Green Lantern had the whole yellow thing. Aquaman couldn't remain out of water for more than a short period. And so on.

Among the characters in the DC pantheon most ridiculed by Marvel Snobs were the Legion of Stupid...I mean, the Legion of Super-Heroes (yes, DC used to hyphenate it just like that). We called this super team by the latter epithet because DC seemed to use this feature as a dumping ground for all of the dopey character concepts that never should have made it past an editor's wastebasket. The Legion fairly teemed with heroes with ridiculous abilities.

Take Bouncing Boy, for example. (Not only were the Legionnaires' superpowers stupid, their names often were too.) Bouncing Boy's superpower enabled him to blow himself up like a beach ball at Dodger Stadium and bounce around, like...well...a beach ball at Dodger Stadium. What kind of superpower is that? Plastic Man and his elastic imitators, Mister Fantastic and the Elongated Man, occasionally pulled the same trick, but they could perform all manner of other stretching feats as well. Bouncing Boy bounced. Period. Eventually, even the scripters at DC realized what a boneheaded concept this character represented, and they wrote him out of the storyline.

Then there was Matter-Eater Lad. (You now see what I meant by the "stupid names" comment above.) This guy's superpower involved the ability to eat absolutely anything. If that's a superpower, then I shared a college dormitory with a few superheroes. My problem with Matter-Eater Lad (I can't even type that without chuckling): How in the world did he first discover he had this singular ability? Did he stumble upon an steel girder one day and think to himself, "I'll bet I could eat that"? What would possess him to try in the first place? And it baffled me that DC never addressed the issue of what became of all the odd salvage Matter-Eater Lad ingested, after his digestive system metabolized it? I won't describe that any more graphically but you see where I'm going.

Even the Legionnaires that had cool superpowers sometimes had them ruined. Triplicate Girl (who sounded more like a clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles than like a superheroine) could divide herself into three identical people. Then one of her "selves" was killed in the line of duty, relegating the survivors to carry on as Duo Damsel, a name even sillier than Triplicate Girl. Lightning Lass, sister of (guess) Lightning Lad, lost her electric-bolt-throwing power and instead was stuck with the far less imposing power to make things weightless. She took on the name Light Lass (despite the fact that her power had nothing to do with light at all, but rather molecular density — she made things light, get it?), whereupon she changed the emblem on her uniform to a feather — a symbol guaranteed to strike terror into the hearts of evildoers.

I won't even get into Element Lad and Cosmic Boy, both of whom wore superhero togs that were predominantly pink in color. Even in fourth grade in a far more innocent age, we knew what it suggested when two guys wore pink duds. Today, E-Lad and C-Boy would be as out as Northstar in Alpha Flight, or the Rawhide Kid. Back in the day, however, they were still Legionnaires on the down low.

None of this suggests that Marvel didn't have characters with dorky powers and names too. It's just that over at Marvel, such names and powers were usually conveyed on minor, one-shot villains, not recurring heroes in a continuing series. (Stupidest Marvel villain ever: Paste-Pot Pete, a ne'er-do-well armed with a Super Glue pistol who used to duke it out with the Fantastic Four. Seriously. The character later changed his nom de guerre to Trapster, which itself is only slightly less dubious than Paste-Pot Pete.)

The all-time series winner for inflicting the greatest number of stupid heroes on an incredulous public was a DC feature that ran for several years in the back pages of House of Mystery comics, called Dial H For Hero. A kid named Robby Reed discovered a magic telephone dial (?) that turned him into a superhero whenever he dialed the word "HERO" (!). Robby never knew what hero he would become, but more often than not, it was something incredibly ludicrous like Yankee Doodle Kid (a Captain America knockoff), King Kandy (imagine Willy Wonka as a superhero), or Mighty Moppet (imagine one of the Rugrats as a superhero). After a while, DC even started letting their juvenile readers invent characters for the hapless Robby to transform into -- a certain sign that the creators had run out of ideas. (I understand that DC resurrected Dial H for Hero a few years ago. Some dead series deserve to stay buried.)

I still like Saturn Girl, though.

1 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Blogger Joel offered these pearls of wisdom...

Yikes! From being a Marvel snob to one's feelings about the Legion of, you opened up a whole lot of similar memories. Besides being a Marvelphile, I was an X-men-phile, collecting practically anything with an "X" on it. (Comic books, that is. For the "other" stuff, well, I looked older than my age ;-)

For Legion, their names and powers were so goofy. I liked it when DC "aged" the characters and gave them "real" super-hero names or just used their real name (e.g., I believed Saturn Girl was just called Imra.) Unfortunately, long-time fans found it too dark and too serious and DC reverted them back to their original conception.

10:03 AM  

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