Deck Log Entry # 163 Death in the Silver Age: Ferro Lad, R.I.P.

If veteran comics pro Jim Shooter had been run over by a bus on his eighteenth birthday, he still would have been a significant figure in the industry, at least to most comic-book readers of the Silver Age.  Particularly, to the fans of DC’s Superman family of magazines, and most especially, to the fans of the Legion of Super-Heroes series in Adventure Comics.

 

If you were around fourteen years old during the Silver Age and a comics fan, you spent a great deal of your time dreaming up your own stories featuring your favourite super-heroes.  If you were really into it, you probably filled up a couple of dozen pages of notebook paper with poorly scrawled adventures of stick-man heroes and villains.

 

But when Jim Shooter was fourteen, he was actually writing stories for DC comics.

 

The details of how Jim Shooter was able to break through in such an insular industry is stuff for another column.  Or if you’re really interested, you can read it on his blog at www.jimshooter.com.  For purposes of this column, though, what’s important is that Shooter’s first published story was a Legion of Super-Heroes tale appearing in Adventure Comics # 346 (Jul., 1966).

 

The first three scripts that the young Shooter had submitted to DC were Legion stories.   “I picked the Legion,” Shooter relates on his website, “because I judged it to be the worst comic book National [National Periodical Publications, DC’s corporate name in those days] published, and therefore, it seemed, the one where they needed me the most.”

 

It was also the title in which Shooter found the most resonance with his readership.  While he would contribute to most of the titles under Superman editor Mort Weisinger’s auspice, Adventure Comics became his permanent writing assignment.

 

His first published story in Adventure Comics # 346---“One of Us is a Traitor”---was notable for introducing four new regular characters to the Legion mythos.  One of them was created to be the turncoat of the piece, as intimated in the title.  Two of them would go on to become long-running Legionnaires, one of whom proving to be so popular that he had a brief run in his own title.

 

And the fourth would meet his end, much sooner than Legion fans expected.

 

 

 

The foursome created by the fourteen-year-old youngster was dynamic.  Not as much in terms of appearance as in their individual super-abilities.  “I thought the Legion of Super-Heroes had far too many people who would just point their fingers and things [would] happen,” related Shooter in a 2003 interview with Glen Cadigan for his book, The Legion Companion (TwoMorrows Publishing, 2003).  “I thought we needed somebody who did some more active things for the sake of the visuals.”

 

None of the four new Legionnaires simply had to strike a pose and point a finger to demonstrate his super-power.  Three of them had physically distinctive abilities, and the distaff member, Princess Projectra, while, true, her illusion-power was mental, it had the visuals that Shooter desired.  As a group, they were enough to generate excitement among the readers, and there was a certain amount of mystery to each of them, as individuals.  (Especially with the title’s implied promise that one of them would betray the team.)  Shooter didn’t waste much space with origins or background, either.  Not even a flashback panel.  Each new hero blurted out the source of his powers in a quick dialogue bubble upon his introduction.

 

Of all of them, the most intriguing, the one with the strongest whiff of mystery, was Ferro Lad.

 

It was the mask.

 

Unlike his three fellow applicants, or any other Legionnaire, Ferro Lad wore a mask.  It was more of a helmet that covered his entire face, except for his eyes, shielded behind a pair of glassine lenses.  That initial story did not provide the reason why Ferro Lad wore a mask.  Nor was any explanation forthcoming.

 

 

 

The four newbies debut in the same manner as so many other freshmen Legionnaires were introduced---applying for membership.  Their odds of making the grade are a little better than usual.  With the recent depletion in its ranks---Bouncing Boy and Star Boy both scratched off the alpha roster, and Triplicate Girl down a body---the Legion is holding a rush week.

 

When it’s time for Ferro Lad to demonstrate his power, he states simply, “I’m Ferro Lad, of Earth!  I’m a mutant, with the power to turn my body to iron!”  Then it’s showtime.  Once transformed, he bends a solid steel bar with his iron muscles, then shrugs off a barrage of deadly ray-gun blasts.

 

It’s a no-brainer.  The Legionnaires vote him into the club.

 

(Incidentally, here’s another example that gives lie to the common misconception that the Silver-Age Legion had a “no duplication of powers” rule.  Ferro Lad cannot do anything that Superboy or Mon-El cannot.)

 

“One of Us is a Traitor” is the first half of a two-parter that sees the Legion defending the Earth from an alien invasion by the warmongering Khunds.  With most of the Legionnaires off-planet, the team is short-handed, even with the four inductees.  The only real heavy-hitter in the bunch is Superboy.  Additionally, the Legionnaires are hindered by the growing evidence that one of them has sold out to the invaders.

 

The warp and weave of suspicion puts Ferro Lad in the background during most of the subsequent action in # 346.  (Even though the plot doesn’t point any fingers at Ferro Lad, the fact that he wore a mask probably had some readers looking at him sideways.)  But in the second half’s big finish, as the Legionnaires take the fight directly to the Khunds, the young mutant gets a chance to show his stuff.  He comes through with flying colours.

 

And I probably don’t need to post a spoiler warning before revealing that Ferro Lad was not the Legion traitor.

 

 

 

Despite making a reasonably decent splash, Ferro Lad is absent from the next two Legion tales, in Adventure Comics # 348 and 349 (Sep. and Oct., 1966), even though they were also written by Jim Shooter.

 

The iron Legionnaire returns in the subsequent two-parter “The Outcast Super-Heroes”/”The Forgotten Legion”, from issues # 350-1 (Nov. and Dec., 1966), which isn’t surprising since this one was of those epic “everybody into the pool” tales which involved the entire membership.  Mort Weisinger liked to run one of these about once a year or so.

 

This one was a dandy.  The key quandary of the plot is established when a green-kryptonite cloud envelops thirtieth-century Earth’s stratosphere, forcing Superboy and Supergirl to abandon their Legion memberships.  Before submitting to voluntary brainwashing to remove their knowledge of the future, the super-cousins get permission from Legion leader Invisible Kid to name their replacements.  The newcomers turn out to be a couple of armour-wearing, identity-concealing characters calling themselves “Sir Prize” and “Miss Terious”.

 

The result is a tortuous effort in which the Legion has to defend itself against the convoluted “master plan” of main villain, Evillo, and his motley band of underlings, the under-represented “Devil’s Dozen”.  At the same time, the Legionnaires wrestle with the mystery surrounding the their two new teammates.

 

Not surprisingly, since it was written by E. Nelson Bridwell, the ultimate detail man when it came to the Superman mythos, the story included all twenty Legionnaires, some former members, the Legion of Substitute Heroes, and the Legion of Super-Pets.  With such a huge cast, Ferro Lad doesn’t get a great deal of face-time.  (However, he does make out better than his fellow “Class of ‘66” alumni, Karate Kid and Princess Projectra.)  He’s barely on stage in the first half, but he gets a fair share of the action in Part Two.

 

 

 

 

Bridwell’s two-parter concludes on a high note.  Not only with Evillo and his minions behind bars, but with the joyful return of Superboy and Supergirl to Legion status.  Furthermore, Bridwell’s script undoes some of the recent tragedies that had beset the Super-Hero Club.  So, the curtain closes on lots of happy, smiling Legionnaires.

 

Meanwhile, Jim Shooter was waiting in the wings with a double-issue blockbuster of his own.  One that took an opposite tack in terms of Legionnaire participation.  Only five of the teen-age super-heroes participated in this saga---the shortest Legion roll call since the series began in the title some four years previous---and this one would definitely not end with smiles all around.

 

“The Fatal Five”, from Adventure Comics # 352 (Jan., 1967), gets right down to business, with no detours for sub-plots or nostalgia.  Such side-trips were unnecessary, as Shooter had crafted a genuine white-knuckler of a menace.

 

“It” is coming!  “It” is the dreaded Sun-Eater, a huge, cloud-like mass that roams through the universe devouring suns.  Nothing has been known to stop it.  And now it’s making a beeline directly for our solar system.

 

With the rest of the Legion away on a mission in Dimension QK-51 and out of touch, only Cosmic Boy, Sun Boy, Princess Projectra, Ferro Lad, and (of course) Superboy are on hand to deal with the terrible threat.  In the week before the Sun-Eater arrives, the Legionnaires attempt to enlist the help of the heroes of other worlds, and pretty much get the same results Gary Cooper got from the townspeople in High Noon---“Hey, it’s not my job.”

 

In desperation, the teen-age heroes turn to five of the worst super-villains the galaxy has to offer.  After all, their lives are endangered, too.  The United Planets will award full pardons to any of the villains who agree to help and survive the experience.  Each of the five Legionnaires is assigned one of this “Fatal Five” to approach and recruit.

 

The situation provides Ferro Lad’s best showcase to date.  The teen-age ironclad locates his target, Mano, in the custody of the Science Police and just as the assassin’s court-ordered sentence---amputation of his world-shattering hand---is being carried out.

 

Ferro Lad shatters the rocket-guillotine blade an instant before it can sever Mano’s hand.  Then he has to struggle with the S.P.’s, who believe he is one of the villain’s henchmen, until he can prove to them that he is a Legionnaire.  The super-hero lays out the crisis and the U.P’s conditional pardon to Mano.

 

“Sure,” the killer replies.  “I’ll jump at any chance to escape that meat-slicer!”

 

The two-page sequence concludes the issue, leaving the readers biting their nails for the next thirty days.

 

 

Adventure Comics # 353 (Feb., 1967) takes up on a large star cruiser hurtling through space on an intercept course with the Sun-Eater.  On board, the Legionnaires and the Fatal Five make feverish preparations.  As would be expected, working relations between the two groups are uneasy.  Each of the villains has his own agenda and they squabble amongst themselves nearly as much as they do with the super-heroes.  Treachery and suspicion and manipulation run rampant, and it’s all Superboy and the other Legionnaires can do to hold the alliance together.

 

A plan of attack is formulated.  In order to give them even a thin chance of battling the Sun-Eater, the robot brain of the evil genius Tharok devises a method of temporarily boosting their super-powers by a factor of ten.  The other nine heroes and villains then station themselves on gravity platforms across the Sun-Eater’s path.

 

With his intensified solar powers, Sun Boy is able to lure “It” away from our sun, where the thuggish Persuader, with his energy-slicing axe, then divides the massive creature into eight sections.  The idea is, hopefully, the smaller segments of the monster can be overcome by the enhanced powers of Earth’s defenders.  Instead, while they do manage to weaken “It” somewhat, they all get their heads handed to them.

 

The chapter, at least, provides sequences of individual action, and Ferro Lad’s turn at bat comes last.  Even though his power is pretty much unsuited for fighting an amorphous energy creature (this is one time that one of those pose-and-point Legionnaires would have come in handy), it turns out that he gets the best shot at killing it.

 

The iron-bodied youngster plunges directly into the heart of his portion of the Sun-Eater and discovers the core containing the monster’s life-force.  It’s solid enough to be smooshed, but before Ferro Lad can get close enough to smoosh it, the core blasts him away.

 

While the Sun-Eater’s constituent parts reform, the defeated heroes and outlaws regroup on the star cruiser, where Tharok has good news and bad news.

 

The good news is their efforts weakened “It” enough for the absorbatron bomb that Tharok has just cobbled together to destroy it, if placed at the thing’s core.

 

The bad news is that Tharok didn't have time to cobble together a propulsion system or a timing device to go along with it.  One of them will have to carry the bomb into the heart of “It” and set it off by hand.

 

Superboy makes the decision that none of them wants to make.  “I’ll go,” he says.  “I’m invulnerable . . . I’ll have the best chance to survive!”  He reaches for the device.

 

Instead . . .

And then . . .

 

 

When the smoke clears, all that remains of the Sun-Eater---and Ferro Lad---are a few drifting atoms.

 

 

 

It’s a powerful, jaw-dropping scene.  For forty-two pages, Shooter had slowly ratcheted the tension of the situation, progressively dangling hope in front of the Legionnaires, and the readers, then snatching it away.  Just at the point when the pressure becomes almost unbearable, the climax releases it, but at the same time, knocks the reader over with a tragic punch.

 

So deftly crafted is the moment of Ferro Lad’s sacrifice that it actually overcomes the one flaw in an otherwise pitch-perfect piece---that the cover of the issue telegraphs Ferro Lad’s fate.  Granted, though, one had to be a veteran Legion fan to know it.

 

The blurb on the cover of Adventure Comics # 353 reads:  “One of the Legionnaires on this cover will die!”  Of the five Legion members depicted, we knew, of course, that it wouldn’t be Superboy.  Various issues of Superman and Action Comics had established that Cosmic Boy and Sun Boy would survive to adulthood.  And a letter-column response by Mort Weisinger in Adventure Comics # 352 virtually promised an upcoming romance for Princess Projectra.

 

By process of elimination, that left Ferro Lad holding the ace of spades.

 

But even if you figured it out, the manner of his death was jolting.  Legionnaires had been killed off before, but Triplicate Girl only lost one of her bodies and Lightning Lad got better.  Literally vapourised, Ferro Lad was as dead as dead could get, beyond even the imagination of a comics writer to resurrect.

 

“Not even my computer brain can find a way to gather the scattered particles that were Ferro Lad from millions of miles of space,” admits Brainiac 5 on the last page of the story. 

 

 

 

The sudden, shocking death of Ferro Lad seemed to leave one matter unresolved---the mystery behind his mask.

 

None of the stories in which he had appeared had done much to address that question.  In fact, it was pretty much ignored.  Except for an occasional tantalising remark.  The first one of these, curiously, appeared in issue # 350’s “The Outcast Legion”, written by Bridwell.

 

As the story describes, there’s suspicion in the ranks over the fact that the two newcomers, Sir Prize and Miss Terious, wear masks.  One panel discloses that suspicion doesn’t extend to Ferro Lad, though, because as he states, he hasn’t concealed his true identity from his fellow members.  It’s a casual comment, easy to miss with the focus being on the two armoured strangers.

 

For the readers who did catch that exchange, it had to start some wheels turning.  If it wasn’t to keep his identity secret, why did Ferro Lad conceal his features? 

 

Later, in issue # 352, a line of dialogue contains an even more indirect reference.  At the end of a long duty day, Ferro Lad remarks, “Well, it’s time we were headed home for a rest!  It’ll be nice to get this mask off!”  The implication---for those who were paying attention---is that he can’t, or won’t, remove his mask in front of his Legion buddies.  So why not?

 

If any of the fans were asking those questions, though, they didn’t make it into any of the Legion Outpost letter columns.  I checked.  Not a single comment about the mask appeared in print.  Either the fans were curiously incurious, or Mort Weisinger and Jim Shooter were playing things very close to their vests.

 

With Ferro Lad killed off so abruptly, the Big Reveal came in an almost by-the-way fashion.  The last panel of issue # 353 depicts the Legionnaires standing reverently at attention, as Ferro Lad’s memorial rocket blasts off for Shanghalla.  The enscription on the side of the rocket tells all.

 

We had no reason not to accept that explanation, then.  But, now, we know better, and why it came across as being shoehorned in at the last minute.

 

Jim Shooter had intended for Ferro Lad to be a black youth!

 

 

 

This is one comics legend that happens to be true.  Shooter himself has confirmed it on a number of venues, including the Silver Bullet Comics site (since renamed Comics Bulletin), where he stated:

 

Ferro Lad---who was masked, remember---was supposed to be black. My plan was that when this was revealed, no one would bat an eye---it would be a total non-issue as one might expect in the enlightened future.

 

So then, why wasn’t Ferro Lad black?  (The tiny glimpses around his eyes and his exposed hands clearly show Caucasian skin.)  Shooter explained that editor Mort Weisinger shot down the idea, insisting that the wholesale distributors in the South would refuse to carry DC comics.  Thus, the hastily concocted explanation that Ferro Lad wore a mask to conceal a horribly disfigured face, a result of the mutation which gave him his super-power.

 

A commonly believed corollary to this is that Shooter, in a fit of pique, then decided to kill off the character.  This one is more difficult to confirm, even though, again, we have information straight from the horse’s mouth.

 

In his interview with Glen Cadigan for The Legion Companion, Shooter said:

 

Ferro Lad I killed because my plan was that he was a black guy, and Mort said no . . . .  So basically I killed him off because it annoyed me that I couldn’t do with him what I wanted.

 

That was in 2003.  However, five years later, in an interview with Bryan D. Stroud that appears on his site The Silver Age Sage, when Stroud asks if it had been his plan to kill Ferro Lad all along, Shooter replies:

 

Basically, yeah, I wanted to kill a hero.  Remember I said I wanted to make everything fit in the pattern and I didn’t see a lot of heroes dying.  Well, Lightning Lad died temporarily and they brought him back.  So I thought probably that wouldn’t fly if I wanted to kill one of the other characters, so I thought, “Well, if I make up one of my own, maybe they’ll let me kill him.”  So [Ferro Lad] was brought in as a victim right off the bat.

 

 

 

Whichever version one chooses to go with, the fact of the matter is that Ferro Lad’s brief stint as a Legionnaire, followed by his tragic sacrifice, made him more memorable and beloved by the fans than if he had gone on to a lengthy super-hero career.

 

Like Bucky Barnes over at Marvel Comics (when it was still the official stance was that Bucky was really, most sincerely dead), Ferro Lad was never truly resurrected.  But his memory would loom over the Legionnaires and serve as the springboard to subsequent stories.  Starting with the very next issue.

 

Adventure Comics # 354 (Mar., 1967) carries the first of the two notorious “Adult Legion” tales.   Herein, an emergency summons Superman to a time in the thirtieth century after the teen Legionnaires have grown to adulthood.  While the plot is principally an excuse to run several “Where are they, now?” vignettes, the underlying situation involves a mystery intruder wreaking havoc on the Super-Hero Club.  Their unknown assailant is even able to pierce their headquarters and destroy valuable equipment, injuring some of the Legionnaires in the process.

 

Ferro Lad features prominently in Superman’s reminisces and, ultimately, provides the vital clue to the identity of the mysterious attacker.

 

A mere three issues later, the spectre of the fallen hero is raised again, literally, in the eponymously titled “The Ghost of Ferro Lad”, from Adventure Comics # 357 (Jun., 1967).  The four surviving Legionnaires from the Sun-Eater crisis become obsessed with guilt over the death of their comrade. The ghost of Ferro Lad materialises and haunts the foursome to the very edge of madness.

 

Ultimately, the ghost of Ferro Lad is exposed as the machination of a renegade member of the Controllers, a virtually omnipotent race.  The revelation brings the stricken Legionnaires to their senses, and they go toe-to-toe with the evil Controller.  The story has a very One Step Beyond-ish ending, leaving the teen heroes, and the readers, pondering the existence of life after death.

 

 

 

For twenty years, Ferro Lad was DC’s equivalent of “Bucky-dead” (back when “Bucky-dead” was still a valid term).  But DC has a habit of reinventing its universe every couple of decades, and later revisions of the Legion would see new versions of Ferro Lad appear.  The writers would exploit the fate of the original incarnation to toy with the readers’ expectations.

 

While such treatments occasionally resulted in interesting tales, none of them have ever been able to match the staggering impact of the doomed Legionnaire under the hands of fourteen-year-old Jim Shooter back in 1967.

 

 

Ferro Lad, Requiescat in Pace.

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As a lad, when I discovered the Legion in the early 1970's, and also from reading older reprints, the idea of Ferro Lad always appealed to me.  Why not have a Stone Boy, excpet one that could move and was super strong and...well, I liked Ferro Lad.

I also thought his death was handled well, in a manner that wouldn't easily be undone and that really, no one would want to undo. His death saved the universe, no question he died a hero--why would you want to resurrect that character.

I was disappointed that nothing was done with his brother.  That would have been a good way to bring a Ferro Lad back without undoing a valiant end for Andrew.

I'd never heard the story before that Ferro Lad was supposed to be black.  One wonders if Weisinger's objections were based on sales or on something else, especially given the prominence of black characters in Marvel Comics at the time (Robbie Robertson, Bill Foster, the Black Panther, the debut of the Falcon).

I think there's a story in The Steranko History of Comics about how Mac Raboy put a black kid into a birthday party scene in a Captain Marvel, Jr. story despite the objections of an editor, who thought it would harm circulation down south, so apparently that thinking was current in the 40s or early 50s. Given the Civil Rights conflicts of the 60s it may be Weisinger didn't want to court controversy.

 

Ferro Lad's introduction came out in May 1966, the same month as the Black Panther's second appearance. That's arguably the first issue in which the Panther appeared as a hero: in the previous issue he's the FF's antagonist. Robbie Robertson apparently debuted a year later, in Amazing Spider-Man #51. The Falcon came along in Jun. 1969. On the other hand, Gabe Jones had been appearing in Sgt. Fury since 1963.

 

Dell tried black cowboy character called Lobo in his own title in 1965. According to Toonopedia most of the copies of the first issue didn't make it onto the stands. I don't know to what extent that happened to other titles in the period.

Hmm...I guess I was mistaken on the time lines involved. 

Luke Blanchard said:

Ferro Lad's introduction came out in May 1966, the same month as the Black Panther's second appearance. That's arguably the first issue in which the Panther appeared as a hero: in the previous issue he's the FF's antagonist. Robbie Robertson apparently debuted a year later, in Amazing Spider-Man #51. The Falcon came along in Jun. 1969.

I often get surprises when I look into things like this. The month Shooter's debut Legion story appeared in Adventure Comics was also the month John Romita took over the art on Amazing Spider-Man, the Red Skull got the Cosmic Cube, Thor fought the forces of Hades to save Hercules and A-Man started his career as a superhero (although he'd appeared twice previously as "the Man with Animal Powers"). Shooter's first Supergirl story (in Action Comics #339) came out the same day as his first Legion one and his story introducing the Parasite a month later.

If I might change the subject: what does the base of Quantum Queen's statue on the cover of Adventure Comics #354 say, and when was she otherwise introduced? Also, does anyone know how Reflecto was explained in the 80s? I think I know who he turned out to be, but I don't know why or how the reference to his death was handled.

Incidentally, Ferro Lad could indeed do something Superboy or Mon-El could not. He could use his body to disrupt the proper functioning of magnetic compasses. Also, rust.

Luke Blanchard said:

Incidentally, Ferro Lad could indeed do something Superboy or Mon-El could not. He could use his body to disrupt the proper functioning of magnetic compasses. Also, rust.

Oh, I'm sure something in the array of powers possessed by Superboy and Mon-El would allow them to disrupt the proper functioning of a magnetic compass. 

 

And the ability to rust is severely limited in its application or benefits.   In other words, it's a very slim thing upon which to hang the claim of a unique ability.

 

 

 

 

Hmm...could Element Lad have turned Ferro Lad into Inertron and had Superboy/Mon-El use his body as a javelin?

When I began reading the Legion, I heard about Ferro Lad and was thrilled to have Superboy #205 (D'74) which reprinted Adventure #350-351. The next issue, #206 (F'75), however REALLY FEATURED the Metallic Marvel!

His statue was seen several times in #201, #203 and #212 as examples and outside Legion headquarters was dubbed Nolan Plaza.

As for Reflecto, IIRC and I'm doing this by memory, Ultra Boy was caught in an explosion which triggered his ultra-energy to render him immaterial and sent him back through time where he possessed Superboy but that action robbed him of his memories. However, Jo's subconscious was "reflected" through the Boy of Steel who disguised himself to help the Legion and romance Phantom Girl. Of course, the two got separated.

Afterwards, the Legion put up a statue of Reflecto to commemorate the event.

No but Cosmic Boy could magnetically launch him at opponents!

I would rank Ferro Lad, strength wise, under Ultra Boy but over Timber Wolf.
 
Randy Jackson said:

Hmm...could Element Lad have turned Ferro Lad into Inertron and had Superboy/Mon-El use his body as a javelin?

Thanks, Philip. But wasn't it in bad taste to put the statue in the hall of dead heroes given that neither died? And what did the Legionnaires initially think his powers were?

To answer your other question, Luke, the pedastal with the enscription for Quantum Queen does not appear in the story proper; however, enough of it is unobscured on the cover to make it out:

 

QUANTUM QUEEN

Perished preventing

an escape from

Cosmos Prison

 

Hope this helps.

 

 

Thanks, Commander.

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