Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Today in Comics History, January 11, and 365 Days of Defiance, Day 11: Here Comes the Sun-Eater

Today! It's the very birthday of the Legionnaire you can open up with a can opener, Ferro Lad! That's "Andrew Nolan" to you and me who surely have all the ciiviian names or the Legion memorized. Reep Daggle? Imra Adreen? Jenni Ognuts? Yeah, you know 'em all, and how! (Jo Nah? See, that one was easy!)

Anyway, Andrew Nolan, sealed forever inside an iron suit moresuitable for storing pork and beans. Mmm, delicious, delicious pork and bears. But it's just him inside! I know, yu're disappointed too. Luckily the Iron Suit also gives him the power to iron to the core (and I think we all know how inconvenient that can be, especially when he's your water polo partner at the far end of the pool. "Marco!" you shout, gearing the pony to rear up in the pool, but all that happened at the other end is a series of slow bubbles from the bottom. I'm getting ahead of myself because for his birthday (and hey, one day beyond it!) we're going to look at how Andrew Nolan, Ferro Lad, showed his mettle metal by taking on the deadly and dangerous Sun-Eater! ("No man can escape the Sun-Eater," is its guaranteed slogan to you, the buyer!)

Remember that chilling, dramatic opening of Star Trek: The Motion Picture? Sure you do! You hadn't fallen asleep by then yet.

But, if you're at all familiar with the history of the Legion of Super-Heroes, you can stand up in your seat back there in 1979 and proudly shout to the annoyed masses: "Comics did it first!" And while they're bodily kicking you out of the movie theater, you can be proud that you were right.

from The Legion of Super-Heroes stories in Adventure Comics #352-353 (DC, January-February 1967), script and layouts by Jim Shooter, pencils by Curt Swan, inks by George Klein, letters by Milton Snapinn

Now play Jerry Goldsmith's spaceariffic Star Trek movie theme while we do our opening (comics) credits and introduce our amazing cast from one thousand years in the future! (uture uture uture uture) But grife, what are the Fatal Five doing there getting star credits alongside the Legion of Super-Heroes? Inconceivable! I keep using that word and I think it means what it is! Why, that would be like, as the narration tells us, not dating the story at all, U.N.C.L.E. making a pact with T.H.R.U.S.H.! Or CONTROL teaming up with KAOS! Or S.H.I.E.L.D.* being controlled by, well, maybe not that last one.

ONE OF THESE PEOPLE WILL DIE! (flashing arrow pointing directly to ) This is a good example of early Legion stories making great use of the Mission: Impossible concept: a specific but small group of Legionnaires pitted against a villain rather than all six hundred and eight of 'em. In this case, however, the villain is about as big as they get: a cosmic entity searching for sustenance throughout the galaies, but instead of jus' stopping by Hardee's in the Alpha Centauri Spacemall like you or I would do, it eats stars. What's more, it operates purely on instinct and is completely mindless. So, it's sort of like Galactus after a huge fraternity kegger party.

The Sun-Eater is (gasp! choke!) heading directly towards Earth's sun, apparently bypassing some other, meatier, tenderer stars on its way from the edge of the Milky Way Galaxy. It's like when you want White Castle and nothing else will do. Superboy runs a PowerPoint he's prepared earlier to show the Legionnaires what they'll be up against: victory is a totally utter, impossibility. For the Legion of Super-Heroes, this is Tuesday.

WHY ARE THERE ONLY FIVE LEGIONNAIRES AT HQ oh wait Superboy (and Jim Shooter) casually explain that the other Legionnaires are away in Dimension QK-51 (home of the Superman Meets the Quik Bunny crossover). That must be some doozy of a mission that makes them keep only five members in reserve (granted, one's Superboy; on the other hand, Projectra and Ferro) on Earth. I mean, they coulda left behind Matter-Eater Lad, the greatest Legionnaire, who would have handily ate the Sun-Eater. Burp!

Surely, you say, there must be other heroes in the galaxy considering there are entire planets whose biospheres support magnetic control or intangibility or extreme! computing! power! Well, sure there is, and stop calling me Shirley. But nobody, not the Heroes of Lallor, not the Wanderers, not even the Tiny, Tiny Avengers of Imsk (they're so cuuuute!) can come to the Legion's aide. And then there's these buncha jerks! They think they can get out of helping to save Earth just because they are only disembodied floating heads!

Incidentally, note the first caption in the panels above. A rare sliparoo from Shooter on which century LSH takes place in! (the Thirtieth). WHOOPS.

With a Legion consisting only of Superboy (almost infinitely powerful), Cosmic Boy (pretty darn powerful), Sun Boy (a dangerous thing to be around a Sun-Eater), Princess Projectra (ummmmm...) and Ferro Lad (.........), the Legion of Super-Heroes is in dire need of allies to battle the Sun-Eater. So they find and deputize the Fatal Five: Tharok (unstoppable cyborg), the Persuader (he'll beg the Sun-Eater to leave), the Emerald Empress (she'll keep an eye out for you), Mano (The Hand of Fate), and Validus (who, when he's not freaking out, has a tragic and yet-to-be-told Legion origin story!) This quintet of quirky quacksalvers are promised amnesty from their crimes if they help stop the Sun-Eater. That doubles the defense force and allows Jim Shooter to nod his very tall hat at a plot device from The Dirty Dozen Time for a soundtrack cue!

First up on our Star Search stage: Sun Boy! He's hot and fiery and full of cosmic gas! All the powers of a raging star and the ability to stand on a giant compact disc! But no savior of the universe he! So, they all give up and go home.

Now, Tharok and Validus try chopping at it and throwing lightning at it! But what works in Kitchen Stadium is ineffective in space, and they can't truly stop the unstoppable thing which cannot be stopped! Are ya sorry ya didn't go to Dimension QK-51 yet, Legionnaires?

Well, here comes the galaxy's most powerful hero (in handy compact boy form): Superboy! I dunno, Clark, use your Krypto-vision to shoot small dogs at it, or maybe super-ventriloqism to convince it our sun is out of business and not worth heading for. Because only Superboy can stand up to the power of a billion suns projecting yellow, orange, green, blue rays...D'OH! RED SUN RAYS! WHO COULD HAVE EXPECTED THAT?

Cosmic Boy / Cosmic Boy / He has got a cosmic ploy / Is he magnetic? / Listen, Jim / He'll attract any metal / Except aluminum / Alas / Sun-Eater's not made of metal / No joy

Emerald Empress and her Eye stare at it! Aside from the Sun-Eater feeling momentarily self-conscious about its weight, it does no damage.

Eh, what the heck, let's let the Princess take a crack sending illusions at it. It surely couldn't get worse. (beat) AIEEE! It got worse!

Mano! The man with the hand that destroys everything it touches! How he goes to the bathroom we'll never know. Ah, Mano, thank you for making us laugh at "Ehahh!" again.

Well, that's everybody from both teams, so Earth's gonna die, uh huh. I would kiss your loved ones and maybe eat that ice cream in the fridge before it goes to waste...oh yeah, Ferro Lad! Forgot about him! As is often the case in the Legion, a member you don't think is gonna pull off a mission is absolutely successful! Yay Ferro! I-RON-na give you a big hug!

Now that they know the thing has a brain that looks like a mascot from the 1964 World's Fair Let's Get Charged for Electrons pavilion, they can destroy it! Tharok quickly whips up a bomb out of ordinary household items you probably have lying around your place, but who will carry it into the heart of the storm? Aw, c'mon...if you didn't know the ending of this story, turn in your Comics Predicting Badge. Even Brainiac Minus-5 saw that coming, and he's the Dumbest Guy in the Galaxy three years running from 2964-2967.

I've poked gentle (well, except for Projectra) fun at this story throughout, but in terms of emotion and defiance, the sacrifice of Ferro Lad ranks very high on my list. This tale — and this first panel showing Ferro Lad flying into the heart of the Sun-Eater to ignite the bomb himself — is justifiably iconic in comics history, and the first "real" death of the Legion (altho' Lightning Lad had died before, he came back or Proty had babies with Saturn Girl, however you wanna think about that). I admit I cried...just a little...when I first read this story, lowering the value of my copy of Adventure #353 from VG to G: waterstained.

We salute you, Ferro Lad! We will miss your honor, your bravery, your ingenuity, and your ability to hold our grocery lists using fridge magnets.

Ferro Lad, we will not see your type again. Because Shooter killed you off on purpose because you couldn't have been black.
When Jim Shooter first created the character, he intended Ferro Lad to be black, but editor Mort Weisinger vetoed the idea, saying "we'll lose our distribution in the South."

This was in fact why Shooter chose Ferro Lad to be the one to die in the Sun Eater story. "Ferro Lad, I killed because my plan was that he was a black guy, and Mort said no. Then I said, "Well, let's see. I've got this idea for a story, and someone needs to die...Ah-ha! Him!" So basically, I killed him off because it annoyed me that I couldn't do with him what I wanted." — Wikipedia

Say, remember that whoops! caption above that said "Time: The twentieth century?" Well, in a way Jim Shooter could have never predicted, it eventually wound up being true when the story was retold in Post-Zero Hour 1996. Tune in tomorrow to find out how, why, and when! (Oh, 1996. Ignore that last one.)

Cover of Legion of Super-Heroes (1989 series) #86 (DC, November 1996), pencils by Alan Davis, inks by Mark Farmer, colors by Patrick Martin

*Sun-Eater Heading Into Enormous Lightyear District

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