In the Smallville Mailsack page of Adventure Comics 304 (Jan. 1963), reader Buddy LaVigne of Northbrook, IL, wrote, “I suggest a new character, Polar Boy, who has the power of freezing to ice anything in his area.”
From that suggestion came not just a new character but a new team based on a fresh and contradictory concept: superheroes who were inferior.
Winners who were “losers.”
Created by writer Edmond Hamilton and artist John Forte in Adventure Comics 306 (March 1963), the plight of the Substitute Heroes touched me at once.
Like every high school wannabe who ever mooned over a quarterback or a cheerleader, the Substitutes obsessed about the idols who rejected them. I immediately found their adventures more interesting than those of the super-club they were so desperate to get into because they added an extra element to the drama: poignancy.
After all, movies and young adult novels don’t get written about in-crowds, but about the people who are trying to get into them. In-crowds are, frankly, kind of boring.
“The Legion of Substitute Heroes was founded by Polar Boy, Night Girl, Stone Boy, Fire Lad and Chlorophyll Kid, five young heroes whose powers were not sufficient to earn them membership in the Legion of Super-Heroes — Night Girl for example could only use her powers in the dark,” Wikipedia notes.
“After receiving a Legion flight belt as a consolation prize, the five disconsolate teenagers decided to form a group that could pinch hit for the Legion. After several failures as a team, the Subs managed to save the Earth from an invasion by Plant Men while the Legion was off planet fighting a decoy armada of robot spaceships.
“At first operating in secrecy, the Legion of Substitute Heroes was gradually recognized by the real Legion as a valuable asset, most notably after the assault on the Citadel of Throon when the regular Legionnaires were all defeated and it was left to Polar Boy and Night Girl to lead an effective attack and end the siege. The Substitute Heroes saved the Legionnaires from such threats as the Taurus Gang and the lethal League of Super-Assassins.”
Keith Giffen later treated the team as a joke, missing the point of their outsider appeal, I think. This-series-within-a-series originally offered a useful moral: that being rejected by the people you want to like you doesn’t mean you can’t make a mark in your own way, and still be happy.
Oddly enough, the “underdog superhero” theme would also be explored in a comic book character who got his own title the same month the Subs debuted.
His name? Spider-Man.