Or The Effects Of Comics On A Proto Gay Boy Who As An Adult With A Rambling Mind Couldn’t Think Of A Better Title
Every geek has their “first ever” comic (or trade, etc) that creates a magical portal between them and the words and illustrations on the pages. Maybe the character(s) become your life long favorite, maybe not. You’ll always remember it though! My first comic was an old issue of Adventure with the Legion in it. You’d expect the Legion since the name is in the title, right? Also, yes, this makes me old. It was Adventure #356 to be exact with some Legion members turning into toddlers. Don’t ask me why but “superheroes transformed into babies” was a recurring theme for DC though it’s less known and loved than the giant ape phenomenon that DC loved and gave us Congorilla, Titano, and an entire city of scientifically advanced apes with Solivar and Grodd at the top.
Truth be told, this wasn’t the first comic that caught my eye. A few years before I saw another boy hiding an issue of Adventure behind a school book That cover with Superboy, Saturn Girl, Star Boy, and Mon-El jailing Lightning Lad in a tiny cell on an alien world made me curious to know more but as a shy and self concious kid thanks to speech and stuttering problems I found approaching the other boy a painful impossibility. Instead I filed away the memory and became content with Superman starring George Reeves, Noelle Neil, and Jack Larson followed by Batman and Robin and then Green Hornet and Kato. Everything changed one day on a trip with my mom to the grocery store where I spied a copy of another issue of Adventure and I begged her to buy it for me. “Just this one, Mom! I’ve been good! Haven’t I been good?” are probably the words that came out of my mouth that day. She had to know I wouldn’t be satisfied with only one.
Yes, I was a young comics addict who begged, cajoled, saved birthday money, collected soda bottles for the return deposit (yes, that’s something people did once upon a time) and scoured sidewalks and pay phones for change just to get comics and especially the Legion wherever they appeared as one of my must haves.
What about the Legion so fascinated me? The colorful costumes for one, which sounds a bit silly until you consider that most Americans TV shows were filmed in B & W still and color TV sets were expensive. A lot of magazines were printed in mostly B & W too. Comics were just a volcanic eruption of color in comparison! The Legion’s futuristic setting was another appealing factor. Flight rings, flying cars, space travel, life on other planets, and more! Something else that I picked up on is the Legion members were all teens living together and for the most part were free from adults in their daily lives. They were responsible. They acted with dignity and empathy. They were were heroic. They were a chosen family and that is what struck me most despite not having the words to articulate the idea. This was a powerful idea that would stay with me and help get me through the following years of emotional and psychological chaos created by an alcoholic parent who subsequently turned to Jesus and mandated his family fall in line.
The Legion and other comics gave me an escape from the tension of family life while also sparking my imagination and a love for reading and mythology. Comics and borrowed library books became friends when friends were difficult to come by thanks to constant moves and always being labeled a sissy by other boys. My interest in mythology had to become secretive after my father finally realized it and he explicitly forbid it for being satanic. The pantheons in Wonder Woman, Thor, and the occasional mention in Conan escaping his attention made me breathe a sigh of relief. His attempt to stop me from reading comics a couple years later failed in two short weeks but I digress.
Dysfunctional family – check!
Lots of moving from house to house and town to town check!
Speech problems – check!
Extreme shyness with optional introversion – check!
Sissy boy in the making having mixed results with both hiding and figuring it out – check!
You can see how important the idea of a chosen family who supported and liked one another was to me. Reading Legion’s stories over and over again allowed me to mine subtext and create head canon and insert myself to become friends with Element Lad, Ultra Boy, and Mon-El. Sure in hind sight I was really crushing on them but what did I know? I thought I wanted to be friends. Is that a little sad? Maybe, but I don’t care. Later when puberty was coming on heavy and Dave Cockrum and Mike Grell had their turns drawing the Legion my ignorance on that front was ripped away.
Conceived in 1958 by writer Otto Binder and artist Al Plastino, the Legion reflected their times vis a vis media representation. Individual members whether from Earth or far flung worlds and different dimensions were white people. Shape changing Chameleon Boy was arguably the permament cast’s most diverse hero for a long period. Even with antennas, pointed ears, and orange skin his features were white. Decades later we found out just how different Durlans really are. Originally Shadow Lass was intended to be black but DC worried the character would be too controversial and backed out of following through. Tyroc appeared in 1976. Being from Marzal, an island whose people were descendants of Africans who escaped the slave trade, made for a problematic back story. Dawnstar was another step in the right direction but she too wasn’t without issues.
By the time the Legion cast began to diversify in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity during the Five Years Later period (1989 – 1994), I had been out to family for 10 years, moved to a large city, had several relationships, and was openly gay at work. A little over twenty years had passed since that first comic and finally Legion was beginning to appear a little more like my reality. Readers learned that Science Police Officer Shvaughn Erin, in a relationship with Element Lad, had been living as a trans women. Shrinking Violet and Light Lass were in a relationship and her brother Mekt (AKA Lightning Lord) was gay. Invisible Kid (Lyle Norg), Chemical King, and Brainiac 5 have each had non hetero versions. Paul Levitz created Power Boy and Gravity Kid and paired them as boyfriends. Vi and Ayla were still a couple as were Gravity Kid and Power Boy in the Legion’s last run during DC’s Nu52 period.
We’re unfortunately witnessing now how progressiveness isn’t always a straight line into the future. When and not if the Legion returns (I’m looking at you, Geoff Johns and Doomsday Clock) I hope the idealism that underpinned the characters for so many years will be unabashedly on full display!