Our Legion of Super-Heroes story this month is the two parter, “Mordru the Merciless” / “The Devil’s Jury,” from Adventure Comics #369/370, published in 1968. This one was also written by Jim Shooter, with art by Curt Swan and Jack Abel, and its great significance is that it introduces the character of Mordru, one of the Legion’s greatest villains.
Mordru is a very powerful wizard, so powerful that DC Comics tends to ignore the part about how he’s a 30th/31st century villain if they need him to be a puissant magical threat in present-day stories. There are a few Legion villains that have huge amounts of cosmic power, and he’s one of them; this will be a significant point later. Interestingly, Shooter introduces him as someone whom the Legion has already fought and defeated, although there’s no such comic book in which that had happened. It’s a cheap trick on Shooter’s part, and as such is entirely admirable.
The premise of the story is that Mordru has been accidentally released from captivity, and now is going to take his revenge on the Legion, so the four Legionnaires who are around have to run away. Because Mordru is so powerful and scary, is the idea. Shooter and Swan do a good job of selling us on this threat; it’s believable that Superboy, for example, would run away from this guy rather than standing and fighting.
In addition to Superboy, Shadow Lass is one of our main characters this time around. She joined the Legion a few issues previously; she’s the champion of a barbarian-warrior type of planet and has darkness-casting superpowers. Shady and her blue skin are another detail that I am noting in order to pick it up in a future month.
The other two Legionnaires filling out the quartet of heroes in this issue are Duo Damsel and Mon-El. I’ve been avoiding talking about Mon-El because it’s difficult to do so briefly, but: he’s called Mon-El because he once thought he was Superboy’s big brother (Superboy’s Kryptonian name being Kal-El), and he has basically the same powers as Superboy. There’s more to it than this, and maybe we’ll get into it in a future month, but this will hold us for now.
Anyway, the four Legionnaires decide to use time-travel to run away, so that they can maybe go somewhere that Mordru won’t think to look for them. To do this, they use the time cube. This is an invention of the Legion’s friend Rond Vidar. It doesn’t travel through time itself; it sends whatever’s put in it through time and in some circumstances can bring it back. I guess the Legion uses it instead of the time bubble in this case because it’s harder to trace? From a narrative point of view, it’s obvious why Shooter chooses it: he wants the Legionnaires trapped where they are and not able to jump around all of time and space.
The four heroes arrive in 20th-century Smallville, which is not ideal, because that’s certainly where Mordru would go to look for Superboy, but they were in a rush. They don’t have another time machine handy to go somewhen else, but they figure if they lay low Mordru might not notice that they’re there. Despite Mordru’s best efforts, this works, for a while. (Note: Mon-El has an existing 20th-century disguise to step into: brush salesman Bob Cobb. The modern reader may wonder about that, but being a “Fuller Brush salesman” was definitely a thing in the mid-20th century and, to a lesser extent, since.)
The problems start when a mob of criminals barges into Smallville and announces that they’re taking over. Normally Superboy would stop such things from happening, but, because of Mordru, Superboy is sticking to his Clark Kent identity all the time now, so the gang is successful. The Legionnaires don’t care for this, so they rally the townspeople against the crooks, lending a surreptitious hand where they can. The gang is defeated, and the Legionnaires consider: if the ordinary people of Smallville can stand up to mobsters with guns, then surely four superheroes can be no less brave when faced with Mordru. They resolve to confront him, but as they do so, they trip one of Mordru’s magical precautions and reveal themselves to him, and he appears there in Smallville.
They get away by the skin of their teeth, and retreat to Superboy’s basement lab, where they use some of his random Silver Age super-technology to give themselves amnesia, so Mordru won’t be able to search for them by their memories. This works well enough that Mordru can’t put the arm on them immediately, but he does magically rip Smallville out of the earth and up into space, and unleash his army of minions to look for the Legionnaires.
This brings Superboy’s friends Lana Lang and Pete Ross into the fight. Lana and Pete have both had adventures with the Legion before, and Lana actually has a superheroic identity of her own, as Insect Queen. They restore Superboy’s memories, and soon he’s made a plan for how the six of them can defeat Mordru. It doesn’t work perfectly–there’s a lot of rigmarole about a jury of criminals Mordru assembles to condemn the Legion–but they defeat and imprison him in the end.
There are a lot of noteworthy touches in this story: a thug named Slob, the remarkably trusting nature of Chief Parker’s wife, Curt Swan’s art, Mon-El’s casual sexism… The most striking thing, though, is the basic idea of a group of superheroes running away from something they don’t think they can handle. It’s not what you usually get in superhero comics, and I have to believe that it’s one reason this story became so well beloved.
Let’s talk about why we find time-travel fiction compelling. One reason is that it shows us characters whose perspectives we can identify with interacting with characters whose perspectives we find alien. (Time-travel isn’t the only kind of fiction that does this, of course.) Characters from the future will have assumptions that we haven’t learned yet, and characters from the past will have assumptions that we recognize as having been discarded.
Many early Legion comics fit this pattern. They begin with Superboy encountering some Legionnaires. He recognizes them as being similar to himself, but he doesn’t understand everything that they’re doing, and the resolution of this gap of understanding is the resolution of the story. And that gap is created by the difference between their thirtieth-century perspectives and Superboy’s contemporary perspective.
In these stories, the Legionnaires aren’t enemies, but they are in a sense antagonists. We’re encountering the story from Superboy’s point of view, and it’s Superboy with whom we’re identifying the whole way. We’re not identifying with the Legionnaires.
These kinds of stories had to be deemphasized as the Legion grew in prominence. They were popular enough characters that readers wanted stories in which they could identify with the Legionnaires. And, once the Legion became the lead feature in Adventure Comics, that’s what we mostly got: stories in which the Legionnaires were the main characters, told from their point of view. Even though they come from the 30th century, we’ve come to know them well enough that we’re comfortable taking on their stories through their eyes.
And this story brings that all the way home. Where Adventure #247 gave us Superboy as a fish out of water in the Legion’s 30th century, (this story) gives us Duo Damsel and Shadow Lass as fish out of water in Superboy’s 20th century. We’re even sympathizing with Duo Damsel’s unrequited love for Superboy to the point where her lonely crawl through Superboy’s secret tunnel is perhaps the iconic image of the character.
The Legionnaires becoming sympathetic viewpoint characters was of key importance to the popularity of the series and its enduring nature. If they had remained unknowable alien chrononauts, they would still have been intriguing or even interesting, but we wouldn’t care enough about them at this point for these articles to be worth reading or writing. It’s good to look into the future, but for best results the future must also look into you.