I didn’t purchase this Treasury Edition at one of my regular comic book haunts, but rather at a department store, likely the now-long-gone Two Guys store my family regularly frequented. And almost certainly, I got it because it was about the only comic book they had in the place, as I wasn’t a huge fan of SUPERBOY AND THE LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES at this point. As I’ve mentioned before, as edited by Murray Boltinoff, S&LSH felt “wrong” to me, in the same way that Murray’s other titles did. They didn’t operate by the same unspoken rules as the super hero books I preferred (mainly the Julie Schwartz stable.) But as with the Adult Legion story I had read earlier, this Treasury’s reprints of Legion stories of the past was more to my liking.
What a great opening splash page by Curt Swan and the not-always-beloved Jack Abel. This Treasury reprinted one of the most seminal Legion stories of all–the two-parter that introduced Mordru, one of the Legion’s most recurring enemies. The still-young Jim Shooter wrote this tale, but at this point he’d been doing the Legion series for a while, and his skill and confidence had grown during that period. It’s a pretty great mash-up of Marvel-style soap opera dramatics with the colorfulness and semi-silliness of the Silver Age DC line. And if I’m not mistaken, it’s the story Mark Waid points to as his own personal lodestone as a writer.
The story wastes no time in getting going, opening with four legionnaires–Superboy, Mon-El, Duo Damsel and Shadow Lass–on the run, hastening to make their escape in the Time Cube to Superboy’s native 20th century. In flashback, we learn about Mordru, how he was the most powerful and unstoppable foe the Legion ever tackled and how Superboy and Mon-El eventually trapped him inside an airless vault. But Shadow Lass winds up leaking some air into the vault which is now stored deep within Legion HQ, and Mordru bursts free and trashes the team and the headquarters both. So overmatched are the four remaining Legionnaires that their only hope is to flee into the past where they can hide and plan their next move.
The Legionnaires are forced to adopt Clark Kent-style secret identities among the citizens of Smallville. But Mordru follows them through time, and is magics seek them out–turning all of the people of Smallville into sentries, on guard for any sign of the Legion. Shooter takes time out amongst all this drama for moments of characterization, such as Duo Damsel’s jealousy of Shadow Lass here. This is maybe the first time that the intrinsic strangeness of heroes from the 30th Century teaming up with Superboy is at all played with. As Duo Damsel reflects, it’s already history to her who Superboy will eventually marry (and, for that matter, how he will eventually die–a creepy thought that doesn’t get looked at as much.)
Anyway, the cat-and-mouse game continues as the Legion attempts to maintain its charade of being simple 20th Century folks and not give themselves away to Mordru. But with Superboy in hiding, it’s open season on Smallville among the underworld, and soon gangster “King” Carter moves in on the town. The Legion can’t take him on directly without revealing themselves, so instead they’re forced to fight a guerrilla war against Carter’s goons, eventually organizing and rallying the citizenry of Smallville to rise up and overthrow their oppressor.
In the aftermath, the Legionnaires realize that the lesson they taught to Smallville–that the people can’t run from their troubles, but must turn and confront them–applies to them as well. And so they make preparations to return to the 30th Century to face Mordru. But they’re too late! Lana Lang has already seen them in their Legion guises, and as she’s been enchanted as one of Mordru’s sentries, it’s only minutes before the massive sorcerer appears, ready to wipe out the Legion. And that’s the end of Part One.
After a few features, we dive right into Chapter Two. Battered by Mordru’s magic and demoralized by his statements that he’s already wiped out the rest of the Legion, the heroic foursome makes a desperate escape by tunneling through the Earth. They race back to the Kent home and Superboy’s hidden lab, where they go for one further longshot gambit–they hypnotize themselves into forgetting their true identities, hoping this will confuse Mordru and allow them to elude him once again.
Mordru is indeed mystified by the Legion’s deception, but he won’t give up so easily. First, he summons his armies from the future, then he seals Smallville off from the rest of the world, ripping it from the Earth and causing it to soar high into the sky. His shock troops conduct frightening door-to-door searches for the Legionnaires, terrorizing the people of Smallville but turning up nothing. The situation grows more dire by the second, and these sequences recall the occupation of France by the invading Nazi army. But the Legion can’t fight back even if it wanted to, as they have no memory of their true identities.
But one person who does know is Pete Ross, Superboy’s friend who discovered his secret and kept it safe ever since, unbeknownst to Clark. But now, the situation is too grave. He recruits Lana Lang and has her don the ring that gives her the powers of Insect Queen. Then, the two Legion reservists abduct Clark Kent and illustrate to him that he is really Superboy by attempting to cut his hair. With his memory restored and reinforcements in the way of Lana and Pete, Superboy returns his friends’ memories to them and prepares for a final push against Mordru.
But it’s a vain effort, as Mordru defeats the team handily. For his own amusement he puts them on trial before a jury of the deadliest criminals of the 30th Century. Pete Ross does his best as their defense attorney, but to no one’s surprise the Legion is found guilty of crimes against Mordru. The evil Wraithor proposes trapping them in a similar vault to the one that imprisoned Mordru for all those years and burying them alive–a plan the big guy goes for. But Wraithor is disgruntled–Mordru defeated him and stole his power previously, so he’s secretly looking to aid the heroes, and builds their jail to be easy for them to escape.
Learning of Wraithor’s treachery, Mordru incinerates him, and then with a gesture removes the Legion’s powers–they will be next. But Mordru becomes a little too excited, uses too much power, and succeeds in bringing the whole subterranean base down on him, entombing him once more and saving the Legion. In the wrap-up, Superboy removes Lana’s knowledge of his true identity, but Mon-El prevents him from doing the same to Pete Ross, instead making Superboy forget that Pete knows who he is, as history says that one day Pete will save Superman’s life because of that knowledge. And returning to the future, the team finds their comrades and their headquarters intact, its destruction at the hands of Mordru a clever ruse combining the powers of the White Witch and Princess Projectra. (Nobody asks what the other Legionnaires have been doing all these weeks while Mordru has been stalking them cross time and space. But I’m sure it was important!) This was a pretty intense tale, especially for the DC books of this era, as the Legion is on the ropes from the very start, and don’t really succeed in doing anything to even slow Mordru down through the course of the adventure, triumphing at the end due to the villain’s own hubris. But it’s this very sense of desperation and urgency that makes this such a potent story. And the Legion members have ample opportunity to show off their bravery in small ways, even if they are completely overmatched right up to the final page. All in all, a great two-part tale.