Legion of Super-Heroes #281 (November, 1981)
“Madness is the Molecule Master”
Plotter – Roy Thomas
Script – Paul Levitz
Penciller – Steve Ditko
Inker – Bruce Patterson
Colorist – Gene D’Angelo
Letterer – Ben Oda
Editor – Mike W. Barr
Cover Price: $0.60
Still being a complete Legion neophyte, it’s not terribly often that I get inspired to chat up a book simply from its cover. In seeing the issue in particular, I couldn’t help but to be curious… I mean, it’s the Legion… in the present… or, ya know… Smallville in the late 60’s/early 70’s.
Having a bit of trouble truly “connecting” with stories occurring in the far-flung future (outside of character pieces, anyway), this kinda story might be more my speed.
Cracking it open to find Steve Ditko art is… curious. I’m sure we’ll discuss that more below.
We open with a… confused Superboy flying over a field in Smallville. Ya see, he’s not entirely convinced that he’s actually Superboy. Due to what the Legion called a “memory overlay”, he believes himself to be Ultra Boy! He flashes back to showing up in the future under the guise of the hero Reflecto to save the Legion… Jo Nah’s main squeeze Phantom Girl in particular. This was likely Superboy’s first trip back to the future since his “conditioning” during Legion of Super-Heroes #259 (January, 1980)… buuuuut, I could be/probably am completely wrong about that. He continues his flashback… recalling traveling back to the present with the Legion via a Time Bubble… only to get badda-binged by the Time Trapper, which left them stranded in the 20th Century. Oh, and also… the gang materialized in the middle of an atomic bomb test, so the military is after them as well!
Superboy flies over to a mountain (in Kansas?) and cuts it to pieces. You might be thinking “that seems pretty pointless and random”, and, for the most part you’d be right! However, he’s doing so to illustrate that he can use several superpowers at once (and he’s not even wearing a Legion Flight Ring)… meaning, he couldn’t possibly be Ultra Boy, who can only use one superpower at a time.
After reassembling (!) the mountain, he thinks to himself that while the Legionnaires might be stranded in the present… relying on his “Ultra Boy memories”, he knows he has the power to break the time barrier. And so, he attempts to return to the future where he can be of aid to the rest of the Legion. But, not so fast kemo sabe… the Time Trapper’s already put the kibosh on all that nonsense.
We shift scenes to the Kent
farm house, where the time-lost Legionnaires are holed out. Luckily Ma and Pa are on vacation… though, hopefully not in the Caribbean. The gang includes Blok, Lightning Lad, Dawnstar, Karate Kid, Phantom Girl and (in a costume I don’t recognize in the slightest) Saturn Girl. They’re all bored, and hungry… and want to hit the town to grab some eats. Unfortunately, they’re all dressed like people from the future… or are covered in rock… or have wings protruding from their back.
There’s a sudden knock at the door. Lightning Lad fears this to be the Time Trapper… but, I dunno… I don’t think he’s the type’a dude to knock before entering a room. Saturn Girl scans… and er, looks out the window. We learn that this is the Kent’s nosy neighbor… looking to sell Girl Scout Cookies? Really? Okay. Anyhoo, they answer the door… and the nosy woman sticks her head in… accusing the kids of being up to no good. They lie and tell her they’re in costume to rehearse for a school play… but she’s not buying it.
Luckily Clark enters the room, and lambastes her for not acting “neighborly”… unluckily, he forgot to put his glasses on before doing so, which proved to only set her off more that something wonky was amiss. After she leaves, Clark blames his inattention to detail on his Ultra Boy memories. Once the “dust” settles, the gang… minus Dawnstar and Blok, head into town to do a little grocery shopping. I should probably mention that the boys are all wearing Clark’s clothes… while the girls are still in their skimpy uniforms. They’re quite the sight.
Heading down Main Street… or whatever it’s called, they come to Kent’s General Store. Before them, they see the military has set up camp on the street to try and find Superboy… remember, they “interfered” with that nuclear test upon arrival. While they plan their next move, the Legionnaires hear a (presumably shrill) voice… it’s Lana Lang, and dammit she’s got questions! Having been to the future, she recognized the Legion of Super-Heroes… but isn’t sure why they’d be hanging around with Clark Kent. That is… unless he’s, oh you don’t think… do you? They more or less tell her to beat it… and she storms off in a huff.
Back at the Kent house, Dawnstar is… for some reason… enjoying a shower. While bathing, she hears an explosion. She and Blok head out to see what’s what… and do so right in plain view of the nosy neighbor.
We learn that the ka-boom originated from the Molecule Master, irritating android from the future. He’s making a real nuisance of himself… and cuts quite the gaudy figure to boot. Clark attempts to use his penetra-vision, er… x-ray vision to take a look into the baddie’s head, finding much of it to be encased in (un-see-through-able) lead. There’s another point for him actually being Superboy and not Ultra Boy!
Saturn Girl recalls that the Molecule Master had originally been sent by the Time Trapper to procure a whatzit called the Miracle Machine… and suggests he might be behind this attack as well. Molecule Master is all “no duh”… and a fight is on!
Things look pretty dire right out of the gate… the Molecule Master appears to have the Legion’s number. Clark decides it’s time to “supe up”… and begins doing so right in the middle of the street! Whoops. Thankfully, he remembers that Superboy’s civilian identity is actually a secret, and so he ducks into an alley to change clothes. He emerges in perhaps the most Ditko-y panel I’ve seen in awhile!
After the Molecule Master proved to be able to hold off the heroes one at a time, it’s decided (or duh-cided, because really now… this is a no-brainer) that the super kids all attack at once!
And they do! Causing the baddroid to implode… which sends the Legionnaires flying, right to the feet of the waiting military… who begin snatching them up with the quickness.
We shift down the road a way to Phantom Girl recovering. She is with a downed Dawnstar and Superboy… and the soldiers are headed their way. She is unsuccessful in her attempts to rouse her teammates… and worse yet, unable to access her phasing powers to facilitate an escape. And so, she refocuses… and attempts to transport the trio to her home world of Bgtztl (gesundheit!). Whattaya know, it works!
We wrap up with Blok, Karate Kid, Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl being loaded into the back of a truck by the military. The General Ross looking fella sees a bunch of gears and machine bits (likely the remains of the Molecule Master) scattered, and doesn’t think much of them. We conclude with the Time Trapper celebrating his pending victory.
Well, that was certainly fun… and weird!
Not sure why, but I wasn’t expecting this to be as “involved” as it was. I mean, the Superboy/Ultra Boy memory mix-up is pretty interesting, but also kind of obtuse if you’re not following along with the series. Still makes for a fun story though, so that isn’t a complaint.
I certainly appreciate how Superboy is acting protective of Ultra Boy’s squeeze Phantom Girl… that’s a cool and (relatively) subtle way of playing up his Ultra Boy-ness. Actually… ya know what? Thinking about it… I really like the way they did this. Having Superboy test his powers to see how many he can handle at once… using his x-ray vision and noting that he cannot see through lead… all that on top of being there for Phantom Girl… really well done!
Seeing the Legionnaires in the present is often a treat, and not entirely for the fish out of water aspect of it all. Like I mentioned in the preamble, I have trouble connecting with stories in the future… I feel like there are no (or lesser) stakes… and it feels like it’s too easy for things to be “undone” without much in the way of consequence. Having the Legion in the (nebulous) “present” grounds them for me in a way where I can actually “invest”.
We get a bit of “comedy” here… with the classic sitcom nosy neighbor poking about the Kent House. She came across as annoying as I believe she was intended… though, I’m not sure why she would think Clark not wearing his glasses were a sign that things were wonky. I mean, as a dude who wears glasses from the moment he wakes up to the moment he goes to bed… if someone were to see me without them, they’d probably assume “contacts” or “must’ve left them on the nightstand” and not “you must be up to something”… but, whattayagonnado? She served her purpose… assuming she had one.
Now, the art. It’s Steve Ditko… and perhaps the most Ditko-y Ditko I’ve seen in quite some time. While it’s a lot of fun seeing him draw characters like Superboy (who I never realized he drew), it just didn’t feel “right”. Not sure why… perhaps I’m projecting. I never saw Ditko as drawing the mainstream characters at DC… always the odd fringe folks. Maybe that’s how people felt when Jack Kirby came over too… I dunno. It’s not bad by any means (though, that panel where Superboy emerges from the alley is a bit “iffy”), but for whatever reason I can’t make it “fit” in my own head. Call it artistic dissonance… call it me being a goofball. Dunno.
Overall… I had a lot of fun with this issue… more than I’d ever expected. It’s weird, every time I finish with an issue of Legion it’s like I can’t wait to dive into another… and then I don’t for several weeks/months! I’d definitely recommend checking this out… it’s a fun story, and for the novelty of seeing Ditko draw Superboy I’d say it’s worthwhile. This has been collected as part of The Steve Ditko Omnibus, Volume 2 (2011) and is available digitally.
Letters Page (featuring Barbara Randall?):