Few things are more painful to hear than to be told “We don’t want you!” Yet, for the vast majority of eager young hopefuls seeking membership in the Legion of Super-Heroes, “rejected” was the response.
These discards found their dreams dashed against the rocks. And it didn’t help matters that, even towards the candidates who applied in good faith, the Legionnaires were about as sympathetic as Simon Cowell with an ear infection. The elitist super-teens did everything but hang a sign that said “LOSER!” around the neck of every rejectee booted out the door.
The majority of these unfortunates enjoyed only a moment on the four-colour stage, leaving nearly as soon as they had entered. Some appeared for only one panel, just long enough for the Legionnaires to give them the hook. They were never seen again, no doubt returning to their home planets and taking up careers handing out Venusian slurpees at the local Kangobronc Express.
For a handful of rejectees, though, failure was a motivator. They weren’t done with the Legion, yet.
Not by a long shot.
In Adventure Comics # 306 (Mar., 1963), pint-sized Brek Bannin, of the distant planet Tharr, spends the entire night in front of the Legion Clubhouse in order to be first in line for membership try-outs. When called upon to show what he’s got, the lad, calling himself Polar Boy, demonstrates his super-power. Like the rest of the inhabitants of his world, he can radiate intense cold. We’re talking sub-zero.
It certainly impresses the Legionnaires. Too much. In seconds, their teeth are chattering and icicles are dangling from their noses. The meeting room looks like the inside of an ice cave. Then, just like that, Polar Boy shuts it off, and the temperature returns to normal.
Polar Boy has every reason to feel optimistic. He read the membership brochure. Under the age of eighteen---check. Courageous and of good character---check. A genuine super-power, which he can fully control---check and check! That’s why it comes as such a crushing blow when the Legionnaires reject him.
“Your power is unusual,” Sun Boy explains. “But it might freeze and disable us at a critical moment!”
That’s the Legion for you; everything is about them. Any reader over the age of six must have seen the lack of logic in refusing Polar Boy membership in the Legion. His power was the elemental opposite of Sun Boy’s and certainly would be useful against arch-villains. (Stan Lee certainly had that figured out when he introduced The X-Men later that same year, and included a teen-age hero with the same kind of powers.)
The matter of Polar Boy’s rejection suggests something. While the official qualifications for Legion membership were explicitly laid out in the first clause of the group’s constitution, it’s handy to assume that unofficial considerations were taken into account, too.
For one thing, it would explain why the Legion didn’t have four or five members from planets where all of the population possessed the same super-power. There didn’t have to be a codified prohibition against admitting other members with the same powers (and, as I have pointed out before, there wasn’t one), because that kind of thing sorted itself out during the Legionnaires’ closed-session deliberations.
“I’m not sure we need another shape-changer in the club.”
“I agree. Besides, Durlans are kind of creepy.”
“Tell me about it. Every time I take a sonic shower, I always get the feeling that Chameleon Boy is watching me, disguised as a soap dish or something. Ugh!”
“Then we’re all decided---rejected, right?”
It would also account for how some of the heroes with less-useful abilities made it into the group:
“Look, guys, all this Luornu Durgo can do is split herself into three girls---three normal girls without super-powers.”
“Yeah, but she’s a babe!”
“Let’s just put it to a vote.”
COSMIC BOY: “Aye.” LIGHTNING LAD: “Aye.” SATURN GIRL: “No!”
“The ayes have it! The babe . . . er . . . Triplicate Girl is now a Legionnaire!”
After leaving the Legion Clubhouse, the despondent Polar Boy encounters four other teens also rejected by the Legion on the same day.
There was Night Girl, whom I mentioned last time. Her scientist-father had endowed her with super-strength, but it faded in sunshine or bright light. Fire Lad gained the ability to breathe fire like a dragon, after accidentally inhaling the vapours of a fiery meteor. The Legion rejected him, saying that his power was too unstable.
As a toddler, Chlorophyll Kid fell into a tank of powerful plant-growing solution. It left him with the ability to instantly accelerate the growth of any plant. The Legion’s response: he had great potential as a farmer, but no place with them.
And then there was Stone Boy, of the planet Zwen. Like Polar Boy, his super-power was shared by all of the natives of his world. On Zwen, nights are half an Earth-year long, so the inhabitants evolved the power to turn to solid stone, as a form of suspended animation. The hitch was, while in his petrified form, Stone Boy was completely inanimate. The Legion, not unreasonably, told him his power “was too static and would accomplish nothing.”
The Legion might not have been impressed with their super-powers, but Polar Boy certainly was. Inspired, he suggests that, maybe O.K., we can’t be Legionnaires, but we can still help people. He proposes that they form their own group---the Legion of Substitute Heroes---to pitch in and help anyway they can. Eager to regain their self-respect, the other four rejectees agree.
Flush with enthusiasm, the newly-christened Substitute Heroes construct a base within a rocky pinnacle outside Metropolis and outfit it with an early-warning monitor system. They build a rocket ship for super-swift transportation. Then, they sit and wait.
And wait. And wait.
There is no shortage of emergencies, but there is no shortage of Legionnaires to tackle them, either. Time after time, the Subs are beaten to the punch by the real Legion. Dejected, the Subs accept the painful truth that they are useless after all and decide to disband.
But before they can pull the plug on the big warning wall monitor, a crisis lands in their backyard---literally. Spotting dozens of strange-looking seeds littering the ground outside their base, a curious Chlorophyll Kid uses his super-power on one of them---and it sprouts into a hostile plant-man! The sun has set, so Night Girl is able to pulp the plant being with her super-strength, while Fire Lad incinerates the rest of the alien seeds with his flame-breath.
They realise that the seeds were the advance force for an invasion of Earth. For once, the entire Legion is off-planet dealing with another emergency, so it’s up to the Subs to pinch-hit for their heroes. It’s also a case of being careful what you wish for, since none of them is overjoyed at the notion of trying to halt a belligerent invasion force with their minor-league powers.
Nevertheless, they courageously track down the plant-men’s home planet, and through teamwork---tighter teamwork than the regular Legionnaires usually demonstrated, actually---they thwart the attack and destroy the plant race’s ability to wage warfare. But there won’t be any tickertape parades for the Subs when they get back to Earth. They decide to keep the existence of their group secret, to avoid stealing any glory away from the actual Legion.
Thus launched a significant element of the Legion mythos. The Substitute Heroes became a permanent, if infrequent, presence in Legion tales (which must have thrilled Buddy LaVigne, of Northbrook, Illinois, to no end---since he first suggested the character of Polar Boy in the letter column of Adventure Comics # 304 [Jan., 1963]). Over the course of their Silver-Age history, the Subs continued to display the traits shown in their introduction: self-effacing modesty, admiration for the Legion, willingness to help, and teamwork to compensate for the flaws in their super-powers. On the rare occasions when they took centre stage, they acquitted themselves admirably.
One of those occasions developed in their next appearance, in Adventure Comics # 311 (Aug., 1963). In fact, despite the title---“The War Between the Substitute Heroes and the Legionnaires”---the regular Legion makes only a minor appearance, spending most of the story trapped in a space warp. They are imprisoned there by serpent-like beings from the planet Zyzan, who disguise themselves as the real teen heroes in order to steal valuable ores from the Earth. It’s left to the Subs to solve the mystery of the “Legion’s” peculiar behavior and prevent the Earth from being reduced to a hollow shell.
Though Night Girl offers her services to the female Legionnaires stricken by Satan Girl in Adventure Comics # 313 (Oct., 1963), it isn’t until issue # 315 (Dec., 1963) that the Super-Hero Club discovers the existence of their self-appointed back-up team. Instead of forcing the Subs to disband, as they fear, the Legion is touched by their devotion and proposes a super-competition between the Subs, the winner of which will be admitted to the Legion.
Tasks are assigned, each designed to force the individual Sub to overcome the singular weakness of his super-power. The measure of their success or failure will be calculated by a “score computer”. Somewhat surprisingly, the winner of the super-contest is Stone Boy, who actually fails at his task, but earns the highest score, when he willingly concedes in order to save innocent lives. Though offered a permanent place in the Legion, Stone Boy turns it down in order to remain with his Substitute-Hero buddies.
The Subs finally get their day in the sun in “The Legion’s Suicide Squad”, from Adventure Comics # 319 (Apr., 1964). When beams projected from an impregnable citadel on the jungle planetoid Throon disable all rocket ships within a thirty-million-mile radius, the Legion is called in to restore the space lanes. Incredibly, each Legion team sent to Throon is resoundly clobbered by the mysterious beings within the citadel.
When they finally run out of Legionnaires, the Substitute Heroes take a crack at it, launching a suicide attack on the citadel. Through sheer guts and teamwork, the Subs fend off a barrage of attacks long enough for Night Girl to infiltrate the citadel and defeat their foes from within. A somewhat humbled Legion is happy to stand aside as the Subs return to a hero’s welcome on Earth.
It’s a boost for the Substitute Legion, both individually and as a group. They work hard to refine their individual skills and make them more useful. Stone Boy, in particular, overcomes the static limitation of his power. Early on, he learns how to talk while in his petrous state, and later stories indicate that he has developed the ability to localise his power, turning only parts of his body, such as his fist or his face, to stone.
Thanks to their hard-earned respect, the Subs are invited to participate on a Legion mission in Adventure Comics # 322 (Jul., 1964), after which they fade from the scene for a bit, to return in issue # 331 (Apr., 1965). Here, the Subs tackle the Legion of Super-Villains, and come off looking pretty much like rank amateurs. As a final humiliation, they are castigated for their actions when they are told that the three super-villains have reformed and are now members of the Super-Hero Legion. (Actually, the villains are still villains; it’s all part of a totally ludicrous script.)
The embarrassment causes the Subs to slink off-stage and remain out of sight until Adventure Comics # 342 (Mar., 1966). Here, the team picks up its first new members, cast-offs from the regular Legion. “The Legionnaire Who Killed” is the landmark story in which Star Boy is put on trial by his Legion buddies for violating the club’s code against killing. He is joined for moral support by his girlfriend, Dream Girl, herself a former Legionnaire who joined and quit the team back in Adventure Comics # 317 (Feb., 1964).
When his case is put to a vote, Star Boy finds himself expelled from the Legion and left adrift, until Polar Boy offers him a place on the Substitute Legion. Dream Girl, too. They both accept, but their time in the minors is a brief one---they manage to regain their Legion memberships in Adventure Comics # 351 (Dec., 1966).
The Subs picked up a third member from Adventure Comics # 342, as well. Early in the tale, before Star Boy’s troubles begin, the Legion holds another try-out session and rejects Color Kid of the planet Lupra. As might be guessed, Color Kid has the power to change the hue of any person or object.
“That’s an unusual power, but not great enough for the Legion,” says Brainiac 5. “I suggest you try the Legion of Substitute Heroes. They’re Legion rejects who’ve banded together and are doing fine work!”
Color Kid---another fan creation, submitted by Jeff Greenberg, of Los Angeles, California---was a natural for the Subs, but his official membership wasn’t shown until Adventure Comics # 351, the same issue in which Star Boy and Dream Girl left the group.
As it would develop, Adventure Comics # 351 would also prove to be the Subs’ last Silver-Age hurrah. It’s the second half of a two-part epic in which writer E. Nelson Bridwell tossed in every part of the Legion mythos he could think of. The Substitute Heroes play a crucial rôle when they are sent to the year 1966 to obtain a needed ingredient to counteract the effects of an enemy’s magic on a Legion team.
Due to plot permutations, this results in a battle between the Subs and the Legion of Super-Pets. As always, through resourcefulness and teamwork, the Subs hold their own against the overwhelmingly super-powered animals. Instrumental to the Subs’ survival is the fact that the Super-Pets are unfamiliar with newcomer Color Kid. Not only do the heroes avoid becoming Purina pet chow, but they manage to get what they came for in the process.
And something which must have pleased Jeff Greenberg of Los Angeles, California to no end---Color Kid becomes the hero of the piece when his super-power resolves the situation which formed the central problem of the saga, just in time for the final fade-out.
All in all, not a bad showing for a bunch of rejects who refused to take “Get lost” for an answer. The Subs proved that, even in the thirtieth century, wits and courage counted a lot more than super-powers when it came to being heroes.
There was another group of Legion wanna-bes who didn’t take rejection lightly, either. But being heroes was the last thing on their minds. Next time we get together, we’ll look at how that worked out for them.