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By Thomas Wheeler

Although the future of Mattel's cool JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED action figures is in some jeopardy as I write this, a special four-pack of figures has been released exclusively on MattyCollector.Com, based on the very popular LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES!

Mattel has not been afraid to include characters in the JLU line that technically never appeared in the series. And although one episode of the excellent JLU animated series did feature some members of the Legion, the only one prominently featured in that episode that's also in this four-pack is Brainiac 5. The remaining three -- Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, and Cosmic Boy, were the Legion's founders, but they were not in that JLU episode to any extent.

Granted, all four characters were in the Legion of Super-Heroes animated series, which unfortunately didn't have an action figure line of its own (a handful of McDonald's Happy Meal toys notwithstanding), but that series was stylistically very different from the Justice League, and does not have any direct connection to it storywise.

So, for those wondering -- who or what is the Legion of Super-Heroes? Hoo-boy. This could take a while:

The Legion of Super-Heroes is a fictional superhero team in the 30th and 31st centuries of the DC Comics Universe. The team first appears in Adventure Comics #247 (April 1958), and was created by Otto Binder and Al Plastino.

Initially, the team was closely associated with the original Superboy, and was first portrayed as a group of time travelers who frequently visited him. In later years, the Legion's origin and back story were fleshed out, and the group replaced Superboy as the focus of their stories; eventually Superboy was removed altogether, except as a very occasional guest star.

The team has undergone several major reboots during its publication. The original version was replaced with a new rebooted version following the events of Zero Hour and another rebooted team was introduced in 2004.

Superboy was the featured series in Adventure Comics in the late 1950s. In Adventure Comics #247 (April 1958), he was met by three teenagers from the 30th century: Lightning Boy, Saturn Girl, and Cosmic Boy, who were members of a "super-hero club" called the Legion of Super-Heroes. Their club had been formed with Superboy as an inspiration, and they had time travelled to recruit Superboy as a member. After a series of tests, Superboy was awarded membership and returned to his own time.

Although intended as a one-off story focusing on Superboy, the Legion proved so popular that it returned for an encore in Adventure Comics #267 (December 1959). Lightning Boy had been renamed Lightning Lad, and their costumes were very close to those they wore throughout the Silver Age of Comic Books. The Legion's popularity grew, and they appeared in further stories in Adventure Comics and Action Comics over the next few years. The ranks of the Legion, only hinted at in those first two stories, were filled with new heroes, such as Chameleon Boy, Invisible Kid, Colossal Boy, Star Boy, Brainiac 5, Triplicate Girl, Shrinking Violet, Sun Boy, Bouncing Boy, Phantom Girl, and Ultra Boy. Even Supergirl was recruited as a member.

In Adventure Comics #300 (September 1962), the Legion received their own regular feature, cover-billed "Superboy in 'Tales of the Legion of Super-Heroes'". While they would share space with Superboy solo stories for a couple of years, they eventually displaced Superboy entirely as their popularity grew.

The Legion's last appearance in Adventure Comics was #380 (May 1969), when they were displaced by Supergirl. The early 1970s saw the Legion relegated to the status of back-up feature. First, the team's stories were moved to Action Comics for issues #377–392 (June 1969–September 1970). Following that, the Legion began appearing occasionally as a backup in Superboy, starting with #172 (March 1971), with writer and artists E. Nelson Bridwell, Cary Bates, and George Tuska. Dave Cockrum began drawing the series, beginning with Superboy #188 (July 1972), again increasing the team's popularity.

The Legion returned to cover billing on a book when Superboy became Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes with #197 (August 1973). Crafted by Bates and Cockrum, the feature proved popular and saw such events as the wedding of Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel and the death of Invisible Kid. Cockrum was later replaced on art by Mike Grell. With #231 (September 1977), the book's title officially changed to Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, and the book became a "giant-size" title.

While researching Wikipedia, it doesn't make mention of is that both Cockrum and Grell, both astounding artists (Grell especially impressed me with his amazing precision), worked to redesign many of the Legionnaires costumes during this time. Most of them were improvements.

The Legion hit a bit of a snag following the Crisis on Infinite Earths, after John Byrne rebooted Superman's continuity and eliminated the fact that Superman had operated as Superboy in his younger days, since Superboy had been the inspiration for the Legion. This was explained reasonably well in a story taking place in both the Superman and Legion titles.

However, also around this time, various writers and artists, I've always believed figuring that since the Legion existed a thousand years in the future, essentially apart from the rest of the DC Universe, started messing around with the storylines and continuity more than ever. In a "Five Years Later" storyline, the United Planets is a darker place and the Legion a distant memory. However, a group of former Legionnaires worked to re-form the Legion in this harsh new universe, in which Earth was ruled by the alien Dominators.

One major storyline during this period was the discovery of "Batch SW6," a group of time-paradox duplicates of the early Legion, circa their Adventure Comics days. There were now two Legions, and a parallel title, Legionnaires, was launched, starring the "SW6" Legion, whose origins were not resolved until the Zero Hour crossover by a different writing team. The series was lighter in tone than the main Legion book, and was written by the Bierbaums and drawn by Chris Sprouse. I actually enjoyed this title immensely at the time.

In 1994, following Zero Hour, a new Legion continuity was created, beginning with a retelling of the origin story starting in a whole new Legion of Super-Heroes title.

Following a crossover with the Teen Titans in Teen Titans #16 and the Teen Titans/Legion Special, a new series was launched; written by Mark Waid.

This new series — the fifth series entitled Legion of Super-Heroes — recreated the team from the ground up. The continuity is sometimes referred to as the "Threeboot" continuity by fans as it is the third incarnation of the Legion that has been published since 1958.

Initial issues of the current title reintroduced the characters and provided new and divergent origins for them. The future universe of this Legion is an emotionally and mentally repressive society which involves human contact being kept at arms' length as well as Orwellian surveillance of minors. The Legion's main goal is social reform as well as protecting people and inspiring them with the legends of superheroes of old, even though the team isn't appreciated by various government authorities.

Personally, I've found this most recent incarnation of the Legion to be pretty pathetic. Way too much socio-political commentary, way too much teen angst. That's not why I read comics, and I generally expect better than this from DC.

Beginning with issue #16, The Legion of Super-Heroes was retitled Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes with Supergirl traveling to the future and joining the Legion. With issue #31, Tony Bedard replaced Waid as writer. The title reverted to The Legion of Super-Heroes with issue #37, and ended with issue #50. As of this writing, the Legion is appearing in a Final Crisis spin-off entitled "Legion of 3 Worlds", involving just about every incarnation of the Legion, and I have no idea how it's going to play out, but it's interesting reading.

The basic origin story of the Legion is this: three young people, who would become Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, and Cosmic Boy, are on the same passenger starcruiser as wealthy industrialist R.J. Brande. After saving Brande from an attack, either by using their natural born abilities, in the case of Saturn Girl and Cosmic Boy, or powers gained by accident, in the case of Lightning Lad, Brande, inspired by the legends of super-heroes in the 20th century (notably Superboy/Superman), sets up and funds the Legion of Super-Heroes, which goes on a recruitment drive throughout the United Planets to find members. The Legion tends to maintain a membership somewhere in the general vicinity of 25.

Whatever they've been through, the Legion has been a mainstay of the DC Universe for decades, and they are WAAAAAAYYYY overdue for action figures, so I was especially delighted to see this set appear. There were some Legion of Super-Heroes action figures a number of years ago, from DC Direct, based on their earliest appearances, but to be honest, apart from being overpriced, I just wasn't that impressed with the line at the time.

Interestingly enough, when this JLU/LSH arrived, I was surprised to see that each figure was individually carded! All four were packed inside an outer cardboard shell, of white cardboard with the DC Universe and JLU logos on it, but each figure had his or her own card, with individual art and character profile on the back. Nice touch.

Let's consider the individual characters available in this special four-pack.

LIGHTNING LAD - Garth Ranzz of Winath, a planet where most people are born as twins. Garth's twin sister Ayla is also a member of the Legion. They also have an older brother, named Mekt, a rare "solo" on Winath, and a member of the Legion of Super-Villains. Arguably the most reliable origin story for all three of them is as follows:

Garth's history started when the twins went with Mekt on a trip in their parents' new space cruiser and became stranded on the barren planet Korbal after the cruiser's power cells drained. Ayla suggested that they use the "Lightning Beasts" (the only living things on the planet) in an attempt to recharge their cruiser. The only result of this, however, was that all three were found in comas the following day as a result of massive electrocution.

Months later, Garth and Ayla awoke simultaneously to find that Mekt had awoken around a week earlier, displayed electrical powers like the Beasts, threatened the staff, and vanished. After hearing this, they kept the fact that they had developed similar powers from their parents before Garth, thinking that the lightning had corrupted Mekt somehow and would soon corrupt them and refusing to believe that Mekt had developed into a sociopath just because he had been a "solo" on a world of twins, ran away from home to find Mekt (telling his parents he was going to visit his Aunt Ryth), despite Ayla's attempts to dissuade him.

Hearing that Mekt might be on Earth, he got on a shuttle bound for Earth via Titan, and met Rokk Krinn (the future Cosmic Boy) there. The two hit it off immediately, but although he developed a crush on her at first sight, Imra Ardeen (the future Saturn Girl) gave him a frosty reception. Nonetheless, when she shouted that four "maintenance men" were actually assassins after R.J. Brande, the three worked together to stop them. This gave Brande the idea which led to the formation of the Legion.

As to the figure: As one would expect, standard Justice League body molds have been used for these figures, but they all have distinctive headsculpts and, of course, costumes.

Lightning Lad's costume is based on what is probably his best known costume, which made its debut in the 1970's and carried on into the 1980's. It is predominantly dark blue, with white gloves, and the insides of the legs are also white. The design has been given black boots, and the costume's most distinctive feature is the two gold lightning bolts that run from the shoulders down to meet in the front and back.

Lightning Lad's headsculpt is a good animated-style rendering of the character. The face is slightly narrow, but still youthful-looking, with a determined expression on the face, and moderate-length light brown hair. He appears somewhat serious, which may go against how the character was portrayed in the Legion animated series, and sometimes in the comics, but I prefer the more serious side, anyway.

I am of the opinion that Mattel went a little extra insofar as attention to detail and quality on these figures. The painted detailing on the face and costume are very precise, and he really looks great. They all do. Now let's consider the lone female in the series:

SATURN GIRL: Imra Ardeen from Titan, one of the moons of Saturn. The most talented telepath among a race of powerful mentalists, Imra left her homeworld of Titan to join the Science Police - the primary law-enforcement and peacekeeping operation of the United Planets -- as a teenager. However, during her flight to Earth, an assassination attempt was made on the life of fellow passenger and billionaire R.J. Brande.

Using her powers of telepathy, Imra discovered the plot, and, with the help of two other teenagers on board, Lightning Lad and Cosmic Boy, caught the assassin and saved Brande's life. At Brande's urging, she adopted the persona of Saturn Girl, and joined Lightning Lad and Cosmic Boy in founding the Legion of Super-Heroes.

As to the figure, she has a costume that looks very much like the best-known interpretations of her. In the 1970's, she received a costume that was little more than a magenta bikini with gloves and boots. I don't think that would quite fly in animation or an animated style figure. Might be an interesting variant, sometime.

However, Saturn Girl has most traditionally worn a costume that is red, with white trim and a simplified "Saturn" symbol on it somewhere, and that's what this costume is, a red bodysuit with white trim down the front, belt, and sleeve cuffs. The Saturn logo is on the white.

She has an excellent headsculpt, although the eyes might be a little large, and the eyebrows a little too arched. It's still very decent, though. Honestly, I find it hard to gripe about any female headsculpt in the JLU line that looks better than that glorified light-bulb they gave to Vixen a few years ago, and any other headsculpt IS better than that.

Saturn Girl has very long, blonde hair, and the head appears to have been made in two parts -- head and hair. Fortunately, this is a practice that generally works very well, and it does here.

Saturn Girl uses the same body molds as a lot of the female figures in the JLU line, which means that unfortunately, she has a little trouble standing up on her own due to rather narrow, small feet. This is not the fault of the figure, or Mattel, but merely a consequence of the character design of the show. Fortunately, for those so inclined, Saturn Girl comes with a display base.

COSMIC BOY - Rokk Krinn of the planet Braal. He was the original leader in all incarnations of the Legion. His character has been fairly consistent in past versions, with a serious attitude and a strong sense of duty.

All of the people of Braal have the ability to manipulate magnetic fields, but Rokk was especially talented at this. In one continuity, Rokk Krinn came from a poor family but became a superstar in the Braallian sport of Magnoball, earning the nickname "Cosmic Boy" after winning the Magnoball Cosmic Games. He sent most of his earnings to his family, unaware that his manager, Alex Cuspin, was embezzling them instead. After being approached by R.J. Brande to form the Legion, Saturn Girl discovered and revealed the truth about Cuspin. Rokk promptly dismissed his manager and had him arrested. The founding members voted him leader.

As to the figure -- Well, here, we really need to discuss color schemes. Originally, Cosmic Boy was about the only super-hero around whose costume was predominantly pink. It's a wonder he got away with it for as long as he did. In the 1970's, the costume was redesigned by Mike Grell, who seemed to be going with a "less is more" approach to a number of Legionnaires, and gave Cosmic Boy a costume that was black, but consisted of trunks, gloves, boots, and two black panels running up his sides. This was sort of an "cut" version of the black trim of his original costume, without the pink. Credit to DC, they came up with an interesting explanation as to what kept the two side panels in place, stating that Cosmic Boy's costume was made of a magnetically-responsive fabric and his own powers held it in place.

By the mid-1980's, Cosmic Boy had returned to the pink costume, although it had more black on it than before. Finally, somewhere along in here, he traded the pink for purple. Not the most macho color around, but still an improvement over pink, and given the significant amount of black on the costume, the purple was almost a trim color.

This Cosmic Boy is thankfully reflective of more recent costume designs. The sleeves, legs, and sides are black, as is the collar, while most of the front and back of the costume, as well as the boots, are purple. There are white bands around the shoulders, cuffs, and boots, and four white circles across the chest, which are a carryover from earlier Cosmic Boy costumes.

Cosmic Boy has a superb headsculpt. It's more angular than Lightning Lad's, and Cosmic Boy looks to have a more grim, or at least serious, demeanor. Frankly, he looks a little ticked off, like he just discovered some Legionnaires doing something non-heroic or frivolous, like checking old "Jetsons" reruns for inaccuracies or some such.

Excellent figure, though.

BRAINIAC 5 - The only figure in the set that was not a founding member, but certainly a prominent member of the Legion. His real name is Querl Dox from the planet Colu.

Brainiac 5 made his first appearance in Action Comics #276 in 1961. Brainiac 5 is a green-skinned, blond-haired teenager, dressed in a purple jumpsuit, who claimed to be descended from the original Brainiac, a Superman villain. He wished to join the Legion as atonement for his great-great-grandfather's misdeeds. When Brainiac 1 was revealed to be an android created by the Computer Tyrants, Brainiac 5 "discovered" he was actually descended from Brainiac 2, the leader of the rebellion against the tyrants, whom Brainiac had briefly "adopted". Brainiac 5's ingenuity, in modern times described as a "Twelfth-level intellect", led to the invention of, amongst other things, the Legion flight ring.

Brainiac 5's intellect has had detrimental effects on the character over the years, in various continuities. In the original Legion, he grew progressively unstable, and due to a series of events concerning his personal history, was ultimately driven insane. He eventually recovered his sanity and rejoined the team.

Subsequent versions of Brainiac 5 in the various comics reboots have tended to portray the character as arrogant and anti-social. Following the Zero Hour event and the rebooting of the Legion, the "new" Brainiac 5 was extremely antisocial and disrespectful of his colleagues. He barely interacted with the other Legionnaires. It was later revealed that, even amongst Coluans, Querl Dox had been something of a loner, due to his even higher intelligence, interest in practical experiments rather than "pure" thought, and lack of concern about the consequences of his experiments. It was also revealed that his mother, Brainiac 4, had abandoned him at birth, having no emotional attachment whatsoever to her newborn child. As a child, he was cared for by robots and given almost no contact with other living people, developing no social skills.

Following a series of events where members the team was stranded for a time in the 20th century, upon his return, he was part of a team that investigated a mysterious space anomaly. The anomaly "upgraded" him: he was now more considerate of others, and had vastly improved people skills. He also internalized his force shield apparatus, another of his best inventions. His friend Gates dubbed the improved Querl Dox "Brainiac 5.1", a name he adopted.

The most "recent" version of the character, from the so-called "Threeboot", is much like his most recent predecessor, arrogant and unthinking of others, with a nasty habit of putting plans into motion without consulting Legion leadership.

As to the figure, Brainiac 5 has always had two main attributes -- green skin and a tendency towards purple jumpsuits. The green skin is certainly there, although pretty much in keeping with his sole animated appearance, it's more of a "mint green" in color than a standard light green. It's still green, though. His forehead has the "Brainiac" symbol on it, three circles in a triangle shape with lines between them, this being a relatively recent affectation.

Brainiac 5 has never worried much about fashion, generally dressing in a plain, reddish-purple jumpsuit. Later versions have tended to add black trim here and there. One costume design gave him short sleeves, which I didn't think worked at all. The most recent Brainiac 5 actually wore a costume of purple and green, which I really didn't think worked.

This Brainiac 5 figure wears a reddish-purple costume, with a wide black collar, sleeve cuffs, and boots. He has a silver belt around his waist that looks very high tech. On the whole, it works. It's in keeping with the traditional design of the character, whole incorporating just enough modern elements to give him a little more "cool" without going too overboard.

Brainiac 5 has rather short-cropped blonde hair, and a Spock-like expression on his face that I would personally describe as "serious and stoic".

These are all four truly excellent figures. Admittedly, Justice League figures are not known for a high degree of articulation, but then they never have been. You don't collect Justice League action figures expecting action figures that can double as contortionists. You collect Justice League action figures because the DC Animated Universe is a really cool place and it's great to have action figure representations of it that look like they stepped right out of an animated episode, which these figures certainly do. And they're still nicely poseable at the head, arms, and legs. And while Saturn Girl may need a little help standing up, the other three stand on their own just fine. Even some male figures in this like have had a little trouble from time to time, but not these guys.

One other note -- all four of them have little yellow circles on their right middle finger. This represents the Legion Flight Ring, a hallmark of the concept. That -- is what I call attention to detail. Thanks for remembering, Mattel!

So, what does the future hold for the Legion? Okay, setting aside the phenomenal irony of that statement being applied to a team native to the 31st century, I really don't know. Their last adventure was the "Legion of 3 Worlds" storyline, which saw casualties on all three teams. Another storyline, which largely played out in the Justice League and Justice Society comics, called "The Lightning Saga", seemed to restore to some continuity a Legion similar to the pre-Crisis version. As to where this team might exist in the Multiverse, your guess is as good as mine, but I wouldn't mind seeing more of them.

There is, at the moment, no regular Legion comic book. It's my opinion that with all the reboots over the past twenty years, the Legion's backstory and continuity has become almost hopelessly muddled. I think the Legion needs a fresh start, one less socio-political than the last one by far, and perhaps more reminiscent of their pre-Crisis incarnation.

But, if DC Comics has any specific plans, I am not aware of them.

So what's my final word? Regardless of what might be happening -- or not happening -- in the comic books these days, and the fact that both the Justice League and Legion animated series are well off the air (but available on DVD and highly recommended!), I was very excited when I learned of this special set of Justice League Unlimited figures, and just as excited when they arrived and I discovered how cool they were.

Mattel has done a really excellent job in creating these animated-style likenesses of these four prominent members of the Legion of Super-Heroes, and it's long overdue.

The JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES Four-Pack most definitely has my highest enthusiastic recommendation!