If you were a thirtieth-century teenager applying for membership in the Legion of Super-Heroes, you had no trouble getting to the front door. Ah, but getting your foot in the door was another matter entirely.
The Legion of Super-Heroes debuted in Adventure Comics # 247 (Apr., 1958), when the three charter members of the group---Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lad, and Saturn Girl---time-travelled back to the 1930’s to enlist Superboy into their ranks. At the time, nothing seemed significant about this tale. This was at the beginning of the Mort Weisinger era, and a good many of the Boy of Steel’s adventures involved encounters with super-powered lads from other worlds or dimensions. Nearly all of these super-teens were one-shot, never to be seen again. They were throwaway characters, concocted to provide Superboy fans with something more flamboyant than plots involving small-time racketeers or another secret-identity-protecting gambit.
But the Legion was different. It had legs. There was something about the notion of Superboy buddying around with other teenage heroes a thousand years in the future that struck a chord with the fans. They asked to see more of the Legion, and Weisinger had no problem complying. It was easier on the writers, anyway; now, they didn’t have to keep coming up with new teen heroes every time a Superboy story called for them. And since the Legionnaires could travel through time, when Supergirl debuted in 1959, they became handy super-pals for her series.
After a dozen appearances, the Legion developed a continuity. But it was a jerry-rigged one, cobbled together from various elements thrown in by different writers of different stories in which the Legionnaires appeared. The Legion details added by one writer would sometimes contradict those established by another. Originally, Lightning Lad was called “Lightning Boy” and he generated lightning bolts by clapping his hands. Cosmic Boy possessed super-magnetic vision, given to him by “special serums”. These early differences were erased by later modifications that became the standard because they worked better.
The matter of Legion membership was another one of those things that took time to settle. Those early Superboy stories that involved the group featured only Cosmic Boy and Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl. Yet, three teens scarcely constituted a Legion of Super-Heroes. Gradually, new members were added to the roster. Some of the inductees were central characters in a Superboy plotline and establishing them as new Legionnaires was as convenient an excuse as anything. Others had simply been minor background figures who were “promoted” to membership when a script called for more than three Legionnaires.
Because the Legion was still in a “plot device” status, few details were given on the actual application process to join the group, or the criteria. (Except in the cases of Superboy and Supergirl, of course; their enlistments in the Legion served as the plots of the stories.) All that the readers were told was that each member of the Legion possessed one “special” super-power (and usually that was to put Superboy’s many powers in contradistinction).
The first real effort to rarefy acceptance into the Legion was a stipulation that only two members, one male and one female, would be admitted onto the team per year. (Action Comics # 276 [May, 1961]) Later this requirement was further narrowed to only one new member annually. (Adventure Comics # 290 [Nov., 1961]) Legion mavens (and they are a hardcore bunch) have attempted to account, in the Legion’s fictional history, for this tightening of the standard. The truth of the matter is, though, that it was a discrepancy created because the later writer, Robert Bernstein, hadn’t known what the earlier writer, Jerry Siegel, had wrought.
These were the kinds of headaches that had to be remedied when the Legion graduated to its own on-going series, beginning in Adventure Comics # 300 (Sep., 1962). Now, Mort Weisinger set about to create a seamless Legion mythos, just as he had with Superman, and “Ye Olde Editor” hoped that the fans had forgotten about those early contradictions.
By then, the group membership had grown to a number worthy of the name “Legion”. The official roster included every youth who had been ever shown to be a Legionnaire up to that time---a total of sixteen super-heroes! Obviously this made for some crowded stories, which the writers got around by tending to feature the same six or seven Legionnaires, while having the others appear as extras, whenever the larger team needed to be seen. Some of these lesser heroes spent a considerable amount of time in the background---it wasn’t for a year and a half after her introduction that Shrinking Violet got her first line of dialogue. (For the record, it was “Me, too!”) And, for reasons that made him inconvenient to be around, Star Boy was simply omitted, not to reappear, except once as a headshot on the membership board, until three years later.
With such an unwieldy number of regular characters, the writers were probably begging Mort not to add any more Legionnaires. On the other hand, Legion fans, captivated by the notion of a super-team composed of nothing but teenagers, were besieging DC with their own ideas for youthful heroes. So many that, starting with Adventure Comics # 307 (Apr., 1963), Mort added a “Bits of Legionnaire Business” section to the Legion Outpost letter column, featuring readers’ suggestions for new members.
So what do you do when you have a series that already contains more characters than is manageable, but the readers want more? One solution lied in a then-recent Legion story. “The Secret Origin of Bouncing Boy”, from Adventure Comics # 301 (Oct., 1962), revealed how the roly-poly Chuck Taine had made the grade to become a Legionnaire. To set up that flashback, the tale began with the latest Legion membership drive. It didn’t take long to winnow down the number of eager applicants. Wealthy young Lester Spiffany tried to buy his way into the Legion and got told where he could shove his wallet. Another hopeful, calling himself Storm King, was caught using a hidden device to make it appear as if he could control the weather. A trio of Triplicate Girls gave him the bum’s rush.
It was this sequence that gave Weisinger the answer to the demand for more teen characters: don’t introduce them as new Legionnaires, but as applicants to be rejected by the Legion. That way, fresh characters could be seen, but they wouldn't be around for the long haul. Starting with Adventure Comics # 305 (Feb., 1963), stories would periodically include Legion try-outs, usually in the first couple of pages before the main plot kicked off.
Mort was able to use these cattle calls to boost reader interest in another way. Some of the suggestions for new members submitted by the readers showed up as characters seeking to join the Legion. It was a perfect use for them since, frankly, most of the proposed heroes were not that well thought out and the reasons to reject them were pretty obvious. But it didn’t matter---most of the fans were thrilled just to see their creations in four-colour print.
It was mainly through seeing these applicants shot down that the criteria for Legion membership began to emerge. Most notably, to be a Legionnaire, one had to possess a natural super-power, not one that relied upon gimmicks or technology. The story of the Legion’s first attempt to recruit Supergirl established an upper age limit for joining---eighteen years old. For another thing, the Legion was now holding try-outs so often that the old one/two-new-members-a-year restriction had apparently been abolished. (Actually, Mort and the regular series writers simply ignored that such a policy had ever existed.)
But it wasn’t until Adventure Comics # 324 (Sep., 1964) that the qualifications that made one eligible for Legion membership were codified. Many times the readers had been told that the supreme law of the Legion was its constitution and occasionally a Legionnaire would cite a snippet from it. But it wasn’t until Adventure Comics # 324-5 that the entire document was presented. The first section, right out of the gate, addressed the eligibility criteria:
To qualify for membership in the Legion of Super-Heroes, a candidate must be under the age of 18; must have at least one genuine super-power, which he or she can fully control; and must be courageous and of good character.
Next time out, we’ll look at how those three simple provisions made the Legion of Super-Heroes one of the toughest super-teams to join. That same pesky clause also meant that, once in the club, there was no guarantee that you’d stay a Legionnaire, either.
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