Against the Sun-Eater

Legion of Super-heroes: The Life and Death of Ferro Lad: written by Jim Shooter; illustrated by Curt Swan and George Klein (1966-67; collected 2010): Once upon a time in the 1950’s, a group of 30th-century, super-powered teenagers invited the 20th century’s Superboy to join their super-team, the Legion of Super-heroes. The rest was history. Future history.

The Legion quickly acquired a relatively vast number of heroes, especially for superhero comics of the time, reaching more than a dozen members by the early 1960’s when new-born teams like the Avengers or the Justice League were puttering around with six or seven. Due to their roster size and the future milieu they inhabited, the Legion heroes soon also acquired a rogue’s gallery that might have given any other team, teen-aged or adult, pause.

And then…well, and then, a 13-year-old kid decided in the mid-1960’s that he could write comic books. So he sent off some stories to the editor of the Legion at DC Comics. And lo and behold, at the age of 14, Jim Shooter became the regular writer of the Legion in 1966. Marvel’s surge in popularity among teenagers at the time probably contributed to the hiring decision — certainly, Shooter’s Legion was far and away DC’s most Marvel-like book, except actually written by a teenager. Most refreshingly, it offered a surprisingly vulnerable Superboy. The enemies the Legion faced were so powerful that even the Boy of Steel needed help.

This volume collects most of the Legion stories that featured one of the characters Shooter created when he first took over the book, Ferro Lad. Like the later Colossus of the X-Men, Ferro Lad could turn into metal when the need arose — in his case, solid iron that nonetheless remained mobile and super-strong. Perpetually masked because of a facial disfigurement that came along with his mutation (yes, Ferro Lad was a mutant — one of DC’s first so-named, as far as I remember), Ferro Lad fought the good fight for a year before the apocalyptic events that introduced both the members of the Fatal Five (the worst super-criminals of the 30th century) and the Sun-Eater (exactly what it sounds like) to the DC universe.

The depleted Legion’s desperate battle against the Sun-Eater is just one of the pleasures of this volume. We also see Earth under siege by the villainous Khund empire, a glimpse into the Legion’s future as adults, and a threat to the Legion from what seems to be the ghost of one of its fallen members. Shooter’s writing is fun and pulpy and melodramatically epic.

Curt Swan’s art is terrific, managing the difficult feat of portraying both the ridiculously over-scaled (the Sun-Eater can engulf entire suns, after all) and the intimate and human. His Legion actually look like teenagers, while the design of the members of the Fatal Five was instantly iconic and endured for decades. Swan was Superman’s quintessential artist for decades, but he was also the defining artist for the Legion. No one was ever better than he was in the 1960’s on this book. Highly recommended.

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