Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Legionnaires: Chemical King

I suspect I’m going to disappoint a lot of people with this profile, so let me begin by establishing my credentials.

One time in high school, I was talking about James Bond movies with my friend and his brother. It was then and is now my opinion that the only good Bond movies were Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger. The rest were all too gimmicky, not faithful enough to the books, and had too much nuclear laser satellite stuff in them. My friend’s brother said he only liked the newer ones, because the ones I mentioned were “so old” that he couldn’t watch them.

My point is that I don’t hate books and movies and stuff for being old. Sometimes I like them better! I’ve got bookshelves full of books by writers who stopped writing long before I started reading. P.G. Wodehouse takes up a couple of shelves by himself.

Except this doesn’t extend to comic books. I have a hard time getting into comics from before, say, 1970. I am not a Silver Age guy. My Legion collection starts at around 1980 and I don’t really care if I never get anything from before that. I recognize the value of the Golden Age and Silver Age stuff, but I have no personal appreciation for it. The other day I took a showcase compilation of the first Justice League stories out of the library, and my reactions upon reading it were a) amusement at Snapper Carr and b) relief that I hadn’t actually paid for this.

Which brings me around to:

Chemical King, aka Condo Arlik of Phlon. Created by Jim Shooter.

I’ve only ever read a couple of comics in which he’s appeared, and most of those were quite a while ago. To me, he’s a short-lived Silver Age character and therefore I just don’t have a lot to say about him. And really I don’t see what the big deal is about this guy. Whatever appeal he held for the readers of his time is entirely unknown to me, so I didn’t expect to be writing one of these entries about him.

But I put an appeal in at Legion World for recommendations on which stories showed which Legionnaires in which kind of best light (and received a rousing response, which I started appreciating when it began, and I haven’t stopped yet). The lively Chemical King cult on those boards were unanimous in pointing me at the CK story in Secret Origins #47. Now, this isn’t an original Chemical King story; it’s a revisit of the character from years later. So does it capture what was so great about the character, or is it just a good story on its own? Sink me if I know, but people who should know have said it was, and that’s good enough for me. So let’s see what I can make out of it.

Chemical King was Condo Arlik of Phlon, a guy who had the power to control chemical reactions. This is a pretty subtle power, but one that can be turned to many uses. So anytime he uses his powers, it’s probably going to be for something pretty cool, but it means that the writer is going to have to actually, like, know stuff about science (always a problem in comic books). His character got killed off pretty quickly, and the assumption has been that the writers just couldn’t be bothered finding things for him to do. And I sympathize. After all, if you need a Legionnaire to mess around with chemistry and stuff, why not just use Element Lad? What do we need this guy in green with the funny collar for?

Condo Arlik made a brief appearance in the reboot as Invisible Kid’s boyfriend, without superpowers, but has yet to appear in the threeboot. If I had to guess I’d say that he’s not going to show up. (That’s two out of two Legionnaires I’ve profiled so far with ties to Lyle Norg, and both with only token appearances after Zero Hour. Coincidence, I promise.)

The neatest use of Chemical King’s powers I know of is from this old Legion story I read as a reprint when I was little. Some guy had stolen Invisible Kid’s invisibility serum and was using it to go on a crime spree. The problem in the story was that Lyle had to find a way of defeating his own powers, but if he did, then the Legion’s enemies would be able to do it to him. So what’s the solution? The solution was for Condo to negate the chemical process of the serum within the thief: satisfactory, because a) it meant that the trick of how to do it didn’t depend on technology that anyone could pick up, and b) Lyle and Condo were friends anyway, so no problem there. No idea which comic book that happened in.

But let’s focus on who the guy really was. As established in Secret Origins #47, he was basically raised in a bubble because of his scary powers, and was rescued by Invisible Kid, who became his best friend.

He then went to the Legion Academy, and eventually joined the Legion. When Lyle was killed, Chemical King took it hard, and kind of withdrew from the rest of the Legion, whom he didn’t seem to be that close with anyway. Soon after, he sacrificed his life to, I don’t know, save the world or something. As Legionnaires do.

What I get from this story is how little there was in Condo’s life. He grew to late adolescence in almost complete isolation from everything except doctors poking at him and teaching him science. He had basically one friend, and him only for a relatively short while. He seemed to be a bit of an outsider even in the large and benevolent group of the Legion, and then he died. When he gave his life in battle, he must have thought that he didn’t have much to lose. (Which sort of gets me to thinking… heroism or suicide? And he’s not the only superhero, or for that matter the only Legionnaire, I wonder this about.)

But that cuts both ways. The hidden point of the story seems to be that, if Condo was able to summon this heroism from within himself despite an upbringing that was certainly not conducive to him ever doing anything… he must have been made of the right stuff after all. He must have had, as the story tells us, unique properties.

(For profiles of other Legionnaires, see the All-Time Roster list at the bottom of the Legion Roster page.)

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