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Diversity in the Legion of Super-Heroes

By David J. LoTempio

Social clubs have long been signifiers of status in society. They generate organically from the community itself and act as arbitrators of social acceptance. They also provide access to people of influence and power. The group mirrors the fashion, trends and attitudes of the society. Membership within a social club represents a barometer of the society, and within the recent past, America has seen disenfranchised groups fight for acceptance in clubs, traditionally comprised of white men.

Super heroes are not excused from this situation. They have often fallen short of the ideals that they supposedly represent. An examination of super teams would be hard-pressed to find a group not predominately Caucasian male before 1980. The books reflected the demographics of the comic-buying public: Caucasian male boys.

This is not to say that socially integrated teams did not exist before 1980. One notable exception was the Legion of Super-Heroes, one of the most ethnically and racially diverse comics published by any major publisher. We will take a look at some of the different elements representing this diversity.

Burning Anti-Gravity Bras

Women in the Legion held a real sense of empowerment; often having important, long-term roles in the team before other groups accepted it. Saturn Girl was an early Legion Leader, and both she and Dream Girl are fondly remembered as having distinguished terms. Indeed, these women were accomplished scientists as well; talents that proved critical in several Legion missions.

Unlike other groups, Legion women were rarely the minority. Quite the opposite was true, the women often out-numbered the men. The female membership (circa 70s) consisted of Saturn Girl, Dream Girl, Triplicate Girl (Duo Damsel), Lightning Lass (Light Lass), Dawnstar, Shadow Lass, Phantom Girl, White Witch, Princess Projectra, Shrinking Violet and Supergirl; with 11 female members - 12 or 13 depending on how you count Triplicate Girl - the Legion had Equal Opportunity beat. So the Legion really had a pro-feminist approach among its women. Although it should be noted that few of these women had demonstrative abilities — super strength, anti-matter blasts, etc — but they more than made up for it by being smarted and more intuitive.

The Great Protean Rights Movement of 2982

In the early 60s, the Legion acquired a cast member named Proty - a being of shape-changing protoplasm. While not a true member, Proty was a supporting character that fulfilled the narrative role of "team mascot." The intent was to have a character that provided comic relief and that could empathize with readers. But Proty was exploited instead, transformed against his will into a fawning hero worshipper. The team mascot has never been a popular role, and often would indulge in the worst imaginable stereotypical characterization. The offensive "big tooth" version of Chop Chop from Blackhawks or the too-hip hipster Snapper Carr from the Justice League of America are excellent examples contemporary mascots that indulged in bad characterization.

By 1980, Paul Levitz, Legion Scribe, decided that the Proteans deserved equal rights. Until this point, they were treated as pets, and their status was more akin to slavery. Proteans communicated subtly through their shape-changing abilities, which didn't easily convey their sentience. Proty and his fellows fought for and won their independence.

Blue Skins, Orange Skins and Other Races

The first non-human looking member of the team was Chameleon Boy. He was the future of the team and, in many ways, embodied what was great about the Legion. Until the 1980s, Chameleon Boy was the only legionnaire to appear distinctly non-human. Sure, there was Brainaic Five and Shadow Lass, whose skin-color separated them from their fellows, but they were essentially human. They didn’t have any strange antenna coming out of their heads or enlarged ears.

In Legion #263, the Legion ushered in a new era for its diversity with the membership of Blok, a silicon-based humanoid. A former Legion villain, Blok repented his crimes and became a steadfast member. He was not a popular amongst his other Legionnaires though. Legion scribe made it quite clear that other Legionnaires considered Blok a little slow-witted and naïve. Blok’s friends were characters like the White Witch and Timber Wolf who were also considered outside the Legion norm. Still, Blok set a theme that Levitz and later writers would expound upon.

I think that the Legion first begins to live up to its promise of inclusion and universal representation in Legion v.3 #14. In that issue, Levitz introduced two new, non-human Legionnaires: Tellus, an amphibian from a methane ocean world; and Quislet, an entity from a sub-microscopic dimension. By this time, Legion artists had populated the 30th century with increasingly obtuse aliens; my favorite being the Gil-Dishpanns, Variations on the human shape had become abnormal; therefore, it became necessary for the Legion to reflect its diverse environment. Later, non-human members included Gates, the first insectoid member, and Sensor, a reptilian princess (based upon the former Princess Projectra character).

Diversity is more than skin color, though. It is social, cultural, and genetic, but much of this diversity is not explored during the Legion’s early years. Most of the Legion was treated like average white teens. This is expected since the average reader in the 60s-70s was a white teen ignorant of other cultures. Over time, the background of the characters and their worlds was expanded; Shadow Lass and Brainiac 5 both benefited from this evolution. Later stories would reveal that Brainiac 5 came from a world dedicated to scientific research, a society ruled by logic and precision. Chameleon Boy enjoyed the best benefit from this cultural expansion. In Legion v.2 #301, we find out that the Durlans are xenophobic. Also, they have a heavily ritualized and religious community. Talokan society, Shadow Lass’s race, was later revealed to have a strict caste system, much like Earth’s Middle Eastern cultures.

One of the first superheroes with a Native American heritage was Dawnstar; whose pride separated her more from her fellows than her out-sized wings. Levitz spoke volumes about her upbringing by having Dawnstar as a taciturn character. She spoke rarely, but when she did, it was to profound affect. It often seemed like the other Legionnaires did not know what to make of her, and they rarely fraternized with her. Even though her forebears were born on Earth, she was treated like an alien even among fellow humans.

The Invisible People

"I been readin’ about you… How you work for the Blue Skins… And how on a planet someplace you helped out the Orange Skins… And you done considerable for the Purple Skins! Only there’s skins you never bothered with…! The Black Skins! I want to know…How Come?!"

Green Lantern #76.

Good question. Races with blue skin, green skin and orange skin were very prominent throughout the Legion’s run during the 60s, but notably there were few, if any, Black or Africans in the strip. Unless someone told you otherwise, a reader might think that all people of African descent had grabbed a space shuttle and left for Mars; or Takron-Galtos, if you wanted to be cynical.

The Legion would be 16 years old by the time it addressed this question. Tyroc was the first character of African descent to join the Legion. His story — The Hero Who Hated The Legion - directly deals with the issue of integration within the Legion. In a nutshell, Tyroc and his people live on the isolated island of Marzal and perceived a quiet segregation from the Legion, whom never aided the Marzalians. Superboy points out to Tyroc that the Legion does not discriminate based on skin color. There’s a big group hug scene where Superboy cries about coming from a broken home, and then Tyroc is inducted into the Legion. Well, not quite but that would have made this otherwise dull story interesting.

Unfortunately, while Tyroc and the Legion succeed in bridging their cultural divide, his character was so poorly received (and conceived) that few writers bothered to use him. Quicker than you can say "Caffé Au Lait", he became a member in absentee, appearing in a meager four subsequent issues. His conspicuous disappearance may have been instigated more by the vague limits of his super scream — like the Spectre, no one knew what his limits were - and less to do with skin color. Tom and Mary Bierbaum used his character somewhat better in the Five Years Later storyline, in which he becomes the President of Earth. Still, he never rose to much prominence.

The Legion didn’t field a successful black character until 1981, when Invisible Kid 2 is drafted. Invisible Kid 2 had his fair share of criticism though. Many critics noticed that the only African on the team spent much of his time invisible. Fortunately, he was very popular with fans and Levitz, and the character received substantial attention through out the 1980s and 90s. Again, Tom and Mary Bierbaum used his character quite prominently in the v.4 Legion series. Invisible Kid 2 also becomes the President of Earth, for a short time, and is portrayed as an intelligent and stalwart leader.

 
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