Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Legionnaires: Element Lad

Element Lad aka Jan Arrah of Trom, aka Alchemist, the Progenitor. Created by Edmond Hamilton and John Forte.

I became a regular Legion reader at around the same time Paul Levitz's second run started. Element Lad quickly became one of my favourites. He had an interesting, versatile superpower (the power to change any chemical element into any other chemical element, if you're new here), and he was a quiet, intelligent guy who seemed underappreciated by those around him. Anyway, that's why I liked him, so far as I can reproduce my thinking.

Legion writers have tended to follow Paul Levitz's lead and portray Jan as the spiritual Legionnaire. Only one problem with that: it doesn't work. Levitz (and, later, Giffen and the Bierbaums) made it work because the character had already been around for a while and had been established as being a thoughtful kind of guy, and it made sense to give him a dash of spirituality. Reboot and threeboot Jan, though, had SPIRITUAL stamped on their foreheads right from day one, and were therefore kind of caricatures.

My signature moment for Jan is in LSHv4 #34, the famous ProFem issue, but for a reason that's probably not obvious to most. But let me take the long way around.

LSHv4 #34 is the issue in which we learn that Element Lad's former girlfriend, Science Police officer Shvaughn Erin, is actually Sean Erin, who took a drug called ProFem to become the woman he thought Element Lad wanted. Element Lad responds by telling Sean that he hadn't had to do that; Jan would have felt the same way about him anyway. And there's a whole lot of stuff that lies behind that.

For quite a while, the Legion has had a lot of gay fans. Quite understandably, many of them (and many straight fans, too) have, over the years, mused about the possibility of this Legionnaire or that one being gay. And Element Lad was one guy who came in for a lot of speculation. Part of that (not all of it) comes from the Silver Age issue where the girl Legionnaires turn evil and Light Lass seduces Element Lad, and he says that he's "out of his element" when it comes to girls. Now, obviously, one can (now!) read that and wonder if Jan said that because he's into guys instead. But things weren't quite so simple back in the Silver Age.

You used to get characters who weren't interested in sex and love. Not so much anymore. Who's a famous one... Jughead Jones, in the Archie comics. Jug was interested in hamburgers first and second and girls were not on the board at all. (I understand they've changed that about him in recent years. But this is all in the news now anyway, because the Archie comics are introducing an actual gay guy and people are coming out of the woodwork saying, not entirely as a joke, that Jughead was gay long before this new guy.) Here's what I think happened, and I must first state that I'm coming up with all of this out of my own head and I've done no research at all; if I'm talking through my hat please let me know: I think that all these characters, these contented bachelors and spinsters, appeared in stories because there were real-life bachelors and spinsters who said that they were happier that way because secretly they were gay, but couldn't say so in the repressive society of the time.

But now we've had the sexual revolution, and gay people can get openly married in many places, and what have you, and people don't need to live like that anymore. Quite so much. And, accordingly, we don't need characters like that anymore. Except here's the thing: fiction is not real life, and just because a guy in real life says he's not interested in women because he's really interested in men, a guy in a book can still be not interested in women because he isn't. Jughead isn't necessarily gay, is what I'm saying. But his act doesn't play anymore. If you ran into someone, in a book or in real life, who claimed that he or she had no interest in having a love life of any kind, ever, would you believe him or her? Or would you suspect he or she was covering something up?

I miss those characters, a little bit. I think it's great that gay people can see themselves reflected in characters in popular culture, and I think DC has been dragging its feet for too long about having one or more openly gay Legionnaires. But isn't there also some room for fictional characters who don't get involved in romance because they're too weird to want that kind of human connection? Even if (or, in the case of the Legion, especially since) there are no people like that in real life?

Or are there?

We tend to assume that romantic love and sex are basic motivators for everyone. I don't know of a reason why there couldn't be a few people for whom that's not true, though. I don't mean people who've been traumatized in some way, or people who (like, say, Catholic priests) deliberately put that aspect of themselves aside in order to concentrate on something else. I mean people who just aren't interested in the whole deal, with anybody. Is that possible? I don't see why not. (And if there are people like that in real life, and if any of them read this, I don't think they're weird, despite what I wrote two paragraphs up, and they have my sympathy for having to put up with what must be considerable societal pressure to be something they're not.)

Anyway, Element Lad. Nobody is saying Element Lad is such a character; he's into it when Light Lass kisses him, and he gets involved with Shvaughn later on. All his "out of my element" statement really meant is that he was shy around girls. (None of which invalidates Jan's later statement that he would have loved Sean just as much, if not more, than Shvaughn. You could publish stuff in '90s comics you wouldn't even consider in the '60s.) This didn't used to be such a rare thing, but maybe it's becoming so, now.

LSHv4 #34 became quite notorious and ticked off a lot of people, including Element Lad fans who didn't want their favourite character to be gay, Shvaughn fans who liked him/her better as a woman, Legion fans who didn't like radical changes, socially conservative comic-book fans who didn't like the thought of anybody being gay, and gay and trans fans who thought that #34 was a weak and/or ham-fisted treatment of issues that were important to them. (Me? As with many other wild events to happen in the 5YL era, the revelation that Shvaughn was Sean elicited a reaction of, basically, "Oh no! This is great!" from me. You have to give the 5YL creators credit for one thing at least: they left everything on the field.)

Here's my favourite part of the issue. With all the turmoil on Earth, Shvaughn is cut off from her ProFem supply, and has asked Jan to go raid a pharmacy for some other drugs that'll do something nonspecifically helpful. Jan is thinking about the situation.

That's what I like to see. Expertise. "I could probably do that." Jan understands chemistry well enough that he can afford to be casual about his capabilities. Chemistry is cool*, and Jan's ability to manipulate it is even cooler. He can look at something printed on the side of a pill bottle that I can't pronounce, and say, "I could probably do that." Element Lad is great.

* No, it is. Haven't you ever spent about a half hour just checking out the periodic table, with all the different symbols and relationships and stuff? You should.

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