From the Archives: DC Comics Classics Library
The Legion of Super-Heroes: The Life and Death of Ferro Lad
Jim Shooter (script)
Curt Swan (art)
Superman: Kryptonite Nevermore
Denny O’Neil (script)
Curt Swan (art)
DC Comics, 2009
The most common misconception about comic books is that they’re an entirely static medium – the same heroes keep fighting the same villains, Batman foils the Joker time after time, and nothing fundamentally changes.
Like most misconceptions, this is almost completely true – but the ‘almost’ contains a world of possibilities! In the seventy years they’ve been around, American superhero comics have attracted a small army of intensely creative people, and many of them have butted their heads against the conformity (fans would say mythology) of the industry. And there’ve been victories, some more lasting than others: the vast backstory that grew up over forty years around the character of Superman, for instance, although drastically simplified in the 1980s, has managed to regrow, whereas the 1970s transformation of Batman from a happy-go-lucky crime-buster to the grim avenger of his original conception is now permanently enshrined.
The point is: writers, artists, enthusiasts achieved those changes and many more like them, and the artistic urge they felt to do so is every bit as legitimate as the one felt by Picasso or Bergman. Well-known comic characters like Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man are owned by comic companies, so the question is never ‘can a writer effect a permanent change?’ but rather ‘how creatively does the writer explore the temporary change he creates?’
DC Comics recently began a series of hardcover reprints under the collective name of DC Comics Classics Library, to honor the best of these temporary creative runs. It’s an excellent and long-overdue concept, and it’s gratifying that DC has decided to make the books’ physical quality match the high caliber of the issues they reprint. These are slim, sturdy hardcovers with excellent bindings and a much less excitable paper-stock than, for instance, that used in DC’s Archives editions (the pages no longer blindingly reflect any light shone upon them, for instance – always a helpful feature in a book).
In The Legion of Super-Heroes: The Life and Death of Ferro Lad, which collects Adventure Comics #346, 347, 352-355, and 357 (from 1966 and 1967), we are treated once again to the story cooked up by a 13-year-old Jim Shooter, of a masked young hero, Ferro Lad, who joins the 31st Century super-team of the title, shares a few adventures with them, and then sacrifices his life to save the galaxy from a threat even the Legion couldn’t defeat. In the death-and-more-death aftermath of the Marvel Comics ‘80s, this may seem like a slight distinction – but in the ‘60s it had never been done before. Fans were stunned, and the entire comics genre was given a new benchmark of realism.
Superman: Kryptonite Nevermore collects issues 233-238 and 240-242 of that character’s title, written in 1971 by Denny O’Neil, who was openly impatient with Superman’s near-omnipotence and the dramatic limitations placed on any character who could, as O’Neil put it, “destroy a galaxy by listening hard.” He set out to lessen the Man of Steel’s power – ironically, by first eliminating one of the character’s only weaknesses: a rogue chemical reaction de-toxifies every piece of kryptonite on Earth (in a classic sequence draw by stalwart Curt Swan, Superman demonstrates his new invulnerability in a merrily direct way).
These Classics Library editions are something different from DC Coimics’ ongoing Archives project: they jump around in the titles and issue numbers they reprint, in order to highlight currents of outstanding creativity in what is, after all, a deadline-driven business. It’s a great new series, and future volumes are anticipated with glee.