Editor: Mort Weisinger Writer: Edmond Hamilton Art: Curt Swan (pencils); Sheldon Moldoff, George Klein (inks)
“Talking head” stories, as a rule, don’t go over too well in comics. One of the strengths of the comic-book medium lies in its ability to depict super-hero-type action in fantastic environments, and when a story doesn’t deliver that, many fans feel cheated. This was especially true back in the Silver Age, when the readership tended to be younger. We didn’t want psycho-drama; we wanted to see Green Lantern kick Sinestro halfway to Alpha Centauri.
That’s why a story like “The Legionnaire Who Killed” proved to be so remarkable. It was a tale almost completely bereft of action and posed no physical threat to Our Heroes. Yet, this masterful drama by Edmond Hamilton gripped the reader from page one and didn’t let go until the last panel.
I need to speak for a moment about Edmond Hamilton and the Legion of Super-Heroes. Largely, it is Jim Shooter whom the fans credit for more sophisticated stories, stronger characterisation, heavy emotional drama, and overall, elevating the Legion series from a juvenile level. To be sure, Shooter took the Legion to its highest point, but most of the things he gets credit for bringing to the series actually started in the Adventure scripts that came out of Hamilton’s typewriter.
Such Hamilton stories as “The Lone Wolf Legionnaire”, “The War Between Krypton and Earth”, “The Super-Moby Dick of Space”, and “Hunters of the Super-Beasts” introduced the first believable nuances of romance, obsession, and, what the young readers probably most identified with, feelings of alienation in the teen-age heroes. Hamilton also wrote the first true Legion saga with his two-part Starfinger tale.
Yet, none of those other tales displays Hamilton’s literary skill as much as “The Legionnaire Who Killed”. It is no accident that this tale consistently makes most Silver-Age fans’ list of favourite Legion stories.
One look at the cover of Adventure Comics # 342 shows that this will not be a run-of-the-mill Legion story. The focus is on seldom-seen Legionnaire Star Boy, holding the body of the outlaw he has killed. On the dead man’s chest is a large smear of blood. This was a real eye-opener in those days. Any trace of blood was virtually taboo then. Whether hero, villain, or fringe character, all wounds, no matter how grievous, were almost always depicted with nary a drop of the red stuff.
The story proper opens with a scene of the Legionnaires not on currently on missions enjoying a rare moment of relaxation. Except for Star Boy, who wanders among his pals too busy mooning over Dream Girl to join in the fun. Though Star Boy had been established as a Legionnaire since his first appearance in a Superboy story back in 1961, it wasn’t until Adventure Comics # 317 (Feb., 1964) that he had any real participation in a Legion story. This was the same issue that saw Dream Girl’s debut as a character and a Legionnaire. At the end of that tale, Dream Girl resigned her membership, and the fans were left with vague hints that Star Boy had taken more than a professional interest in her.
Adventure Comics # 342 confirmed it. The boy from Xanthu was carrying an Olympic-sized torch for the girl from Naltor. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only one.
Travelling to the jungle planet of Karak to meet his parents, Star Boy is told by explorer Jan Barth that he has just missed their departure. And that’s the good news. The bad news is Kenz Nuhor, from the planet Naltor, has just landed with blood in his eye. He’s stuck on Dream Girl in a big way, but since falling in love with Star Boy, she doesn’t even know Nuhor is alive.
Overcome with jealousy, Nuhor aims a ray gun at Star Boy. Jan Barth draws his own pistol, but Nuhor blasts him, fatally. When Star Boy attempts to use his mass-induction power, it is reflected back by a special shield Nuhor is carrying. The weight of his own legs increased tremendously, Star Boy crumples to the ground.
Nuhor takes a few seconds to gloat; then he’s distracted by Dream Girl’s arrival in a space cruiser. This gives Star Boy time to grab Barth’s ray gun and fire it at Nuhor, killing him. (One wonders why Nuhor, being from Naltor himself, didn’t see this coming.)
That is the only bit of standard comic-book action in this story, and it’s over by page five.
It’s a clear case of self-defence, and Dream Girl’s eyewitness testimony gets Star Boy off the hook with the Science Police. But that’s the least of his problems. When he gets back to the Legion clubhouse, he is informed by a group of grim-faced Legionnaires that he will stand court-martial for breaking the Legion code against killing.
As the current Legion leader, Brainiac 5 will prosecute, while Superboy volunteers to act as Star Boy’s defence counsel. The Boy of Steel disagrees with the absolute rigidity of the Legion Code. He’s invulnerable, but most of his fellow members are not, and he feels that the Code should be amended to permit Legionnaires the use of lethal force if necessary to protect their own lives.
Brainiac 5 appoints Saturn Girl to head a presiding board composed of herself, Chameleon Boy, Ultra Boy, Element Lad, and Duo Damsel. And Star Boy is hauled off to a detention cell.
The next day, the trial begins in earnest. There is no dispute of Dream Girl’s testimony, but when Star Boy himself takes the stand, Brainiac 5 goes right for the jugular. He points out several instances in the past where other Legionnaires’ lives were in jeopardy and they were able to use their super-powers to save themselves without killing. Brainiac 5 demands to know why Star Boy didn’t do the same thing.
I did, protests Star Boy, but Nuhor’s shield reflected my super-power back on me. There was nothing else I could do, he insists.
Then Brainiac 5 produces an exhibit of the scene on Karak, with figures of Star Boy, Nuhor, and the surrounding landscape.
“I ask that you direct your super-power,” says Brainiac 5, “at the model tree’s foliage, just over the model Kenz Nuhor’s head!”
Star Boy does so, and before the eyes of all present, the limb of the model tree breaks from the super-heaviness and falls on the model of Kenz Nuhor.
“If you had directed your super-power at the real foliage,” Brainiac 5 points out, “it would have pinned down Kenz Nuhor without need to kill him!”
It is the most masterful moment of the trial---not only for the characters in the story; it’s an eye-opener for the readers, too. Leafing back to the actual scene at the beginning, it’s all there: Star Boy, Nuhor, the near-by tree, the foliage overhead. The opportunity to use the tactic suggested by Brainiac 5 was right there, before Star Boy’s---and our---eyes.
The prosecution rests.
As the defence counsel, Superboy knows he’s up against it. He spends the night reviewing thousands of video-tapes of the Legionnaires in action, looking for something that will give him a chance to overcome the damning evidence presented at trial. Finally, just before the court-martial reconvenes, he thinks he’s found it.
Appearing in court, Superboy challenges the validity of the charges. There is a precedent, he states. Another Legionnaire has killed in self-defence---and that Legionnaire is the prosecutor himself, Brainiac 5! Superboy runs a video-tape of Brainiac 5 gunning down a man to save his own life.
The Legion’s leader is unfazed. For Superboy has made an error worthy of one of Jack McCoy's assistants on Law & Order. He failed to watch the end of the tape, which shows clearly that the “man” Brainiac 5 shot was a robot, a fact known to the Legionnaire when he pulled the trigger.
“Your ‘precedent’ is of no value, Superboy,” rules Saturn Girl.
The defence rests.
The Boy of Steel does some out-of-the-box thinking. During the final summations, he tries a final desperate deception intended to prove his point that the non-invulnerable Legionnaires should be permitted to take lives to save their own.
And Brainiac 5 sees right through it. However, it provokes him into making a startling statement during his closing argument.
Star Boy leaps up and shakes his defence counsel’s hand. “I’m cleared!” But, to paraphrase the old punch line---“Not so fast, Kallor!”
Brainiac 5, showing that he has the soul of Hamilton Burger, continues, “No change that may be made in the future alters the fact that Star Boy broke the Code as we have it now! You’ve seen the evidence! I demand the extreme penalty . . . expulsion from the Legion!”
Then Superboy addresses the board.
“Will you expel Star Boy, shatter his career, just because he defended himself from a ruthless murderer? Think . . . you may be in that position yourselves some day! I ask you to acquit him!”
Now, Star Boy’s fate is in the hands of the Legion membership, all of whom have seen and heard all the evidence, either in the courtroom or via distant monitors.
Between Adventure Comics # 247, the debut of the Super-Hero Club, and Adventure Comics # 300, when it became a regular series, the Legion was little more than a plot device. Continuity was minimal, largely because there was little need for it---the Legionnaires existed merely to move things along. And whenever a super-youth was needed for a Superboy story, it was a convenient excuse to make him a member of the Legion. This hap-hazard fashion of membership created particular difficulties later, when the Legion got its own series and the characters had to be dealt with on a regular basis.
One of the more prominent problems was the presence of too many members with Superboy-level powers. Besides the Boy of Steel himself, there was Mon-El, Supergirl, and Ultra Boy. That was a headache for story plotting, since it was virtually impossible to come up every month with a menace that any one of those four couldn’t whip by the end of page two, while the rest of the Legionnaires sat around, playing Spaceopoly ®. Since Superboy’s appearance was mandated, that meant that Mon-El and the others were almost always tied up on “missions at the other end of the galaxy.”
As if that wasn’t bad enough, then there was Star Boy, another hold-over member from the “Hey, let’s make him a Legionnaire; we’ll never use him again, anyway” days. When introduced in Adventure Comics # 282 (Mar., 1961), he too had Superboy-style powers. Unlike the others in that group, Star Boy had never been more than a one-shot character, and no doubt, Weisinger would have preferred just to forget he ever appeared.
He certainly tried to. Nothing was seen of the boy from Xanthu for over three years. But then the #%$@#$!! fans starting asking about him. So, in the letter column in Adventure Comics # 308 (May, 1963), Mort explained that Star Boy was away on a “detached service” mission for the Legion. His face began to appear on Legion monitor boards, and finally, with a radical change in his super-powers, he joined the regular cast.
I suspect that it was his lack of a true Legion history that marked him for disaster. Even after being added to the Adventure Comics cast, Star Boy rarely appeared. He didn’t have even the modest fan base that the other, longer-running Legionnaires did.
Or so Mort thought.
The voting sequence takes only two pages, and it is about as static a scene as one will ever see in a comic-book adventure. But it is as much of a cliffhanger moment as the Fatal Five showing up in Metropolis. At first, it looks good for Star Boy. The other members who are invulnerable agree with Superboy’s views on self-defence and vote “not guilty”; and the female Legionnaires---except for Saturn Girl, who was always something of an ice queen---are on Star Boy’s side because of his romance with Dream Girl.
His advantage erodes, as more Legionnaires weigh in. It stands 9 to 8 for acquittal, when the last two Legion votes are tallied. For the record, they are Matter-Eater Lad’s and Invisible Kid’s.
By a vote of 10-to-9, Star Boy is found guilty of breaking the Legion Code and is expelled from the Legion.
If Mort Weisinger believed he was getting rid of a “nothing”character in dumping Star Boy from the Legion, he very shortly found himself woefully mistaken. So much mail flowed in about “The Legionnaire Who Killed,” it filled two monthly letter columns. Nearly all of the fans applauded the overall story, but they were similarly overwhelming in angrily taking DC to task for expelling Star Boy.
As Mort himself stated, in “The Legion Outpost” of Adventure Comics # 346 (Jul., 1966): “We seem to have stirred up a real hornets’ nest with ‘The Legionnaire Who Killed.’ And most of the letters are against conviction for Star Boy.”
Either Weisinger had underestimated the popularity of the character, or Edmond Hamilton had invested Star Boy with such a genuine pathos and humanity that the fans readily sympathised with him. It was probably a bit of both.
In any event, Hamilton produced an impressive story. The last place a Silver-Age DC fan expected to see a courtroom drama was in a Legion story. One of the most powerful aspects to the tale was the fact that Hamilton did not fall back on the usual comic-book contrivances of having the accused hero’s crime turn out to be a hoax, or the result of a frame-up by an enemy. No, Star Boy actually committed the killing for which he stood court-martial. The question was---was Star Boy’s act justified or not?
This engaged each reader on an ethical level, according to his own opinion on the subject of a hero’s use of deadly force in self-defence.
A “code against killing” had been de rigueur for DC’s super-heroes since 1940, when Jack Liebowitz and Whitney Ellsworth sought to shield the company from the “morality police” of Fiorello LaGuardia’s reform movement. Superman and his fellow DC cape-and-tights brethren would no longer kill, a prohibition which continued on to the Silver Age. The ban frequently resulted in some contrived situations, bending the scripts over backwards to avoid having a DC hero kill a foe, no matter how deadly a threat the villain posed, even to the very world.
To many readers, a code against killing represented one of the ideals of the Silver Age and they accepted the plot contortions. To others, such a thing seemed impractical. Not that they wanted wholesale bloodshed, but certainly, it was permissible for a hero to use deadly force to save his own life, or those of innocents, if there was no other way.
But what happens when the ideal conflicts with necessity? That was the crux of Edmond Hamilton’s story.
It’s been over forty years since Adventure Comics # 342 hit the stands, and the topic is still being debated by comics fans. “Thought-provoking” was not an adjective that one applied often to Silver-Age DC stories, but “The Legionnaire Who Killed” offered it in spades.