I’ve never been much of a fan of DC’s Legion of Superheroes. I couldn’t begin to tell you why. I do enjoy DC’s black-and-white reprints of various older books. The Showcase Presents series gives the reader usually around 500 pages or so of old stories for a low price, and are a good way for the fan of Silver Age silliness to find the old stuff without breaking the bank. This was how I was able to write columns in this series on both Captain Carrot and the Unknown Soldier. But I have limits, and one of them is old Superman stories where Superman often saves the day using deception. The reader will think Superman is in a bind of some kind (never a physical one), only to discover he was aware of the problem the whole time and had already beaten it and was just waiting for the end of the story to tell everyone. My one attempt at a Legion Showcase was done by Superman’s writers and artists and the stories were about the same level of jumping out at the reader and shouting, “Psyche!” But the Legion lasted a good long time, and has been rebooted tons of times since then. One of the legendary runs was by writer Paul Levitz, who wrote the book for 15 years and during that time he managed to include every member of the Legion at some point, even the dead ones using flashbacks.
The one exception was Tyroc.
To fully understand why Tyroc didn’t get a call back, I think it’s worth discussing the concept of characters who maybe at the time seemed like a step in the right general direction but in reality were horribly misguided, especially to a modern audience. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to find one, but it’s usually something a (hopefully) well-meaning person does to make a story seem more racially inclusive. Then the character is in so many, many ways wrong. One way this happens is to, say, add a black man to the story, but instead of giving him motivations, just give him some nifty magical powers and hope Spike Lee doesn’t notice (he usually does).
Superhero stories are no exception to this. Consider how many of the first black superheroes had to have the word “black” in their name. Many of those characters did improve over time, but this is about how such characters start out, not how they finish. And many of these characters were probably created by well-meaning but ultimately clueless white people trying to be racially inclusive. And some today are just plain embarrassing. There was an attempt to create, basically, a live-action, kid friendly, humorous version of Superfriends back in 1979. Entitled “Legends of the Superheroes,” the show would bring Adam West, Burt Ward, and Frank Goshin back at their respective Batman characters, cast a bunch of somewhat recognizable comedians as the various villains, and a bunch of bland, forgettable actors as the rest of the Justice League, save Superman and Wonder Woman whose rights were keeping them from being used (lucky for them). The second of these two was a mock roast hosted by Ed McMahon (because kids love roasts), and at some point, they bring out the minority superhero Ghetto Man.
Someone thought that was a good idea. A lot of someones since that aired on prime time on NBC. Look at that today, and most people would probably think my god, that is pretty racist!
This all brings us back to the Legion. The Legion was, for the longest time, a fairly caucasian organization.
Now, as I said, I was never a Legion fan, so how the heck did I find out about Tyroc? Cracked listed him on one of their articles on unintentionally offensive comics characters, and stated the Legion editor of the time of his creation, Murray Boltinoff, may have been racist. Cracked mentions a story where Boltinoff ordered some colorists to change the skin tone of a single black man in a background group shot for no discernible reason. Since they didn’t provide any evidence of this incident, I’m going to give Boltinoff the benefit of the doubt and suggest it might not be true. But holy cow, then we get to Tyroc.
See, it wasn’t enough for Tyroc to simply be a superhero who happened to be black. And it wasn’t enough to simply assume that the reason there were no black people in the Legion up to that point was the same reason black people didn’t appear in a lot of comics at that time by chalking it up to dumb coincidence. No, there had to be a story for Tyroc and why there were no black people in the future.
They self-segregated to a semi-magical island that only occasionally came into phase with the rest of the planet.
Hokey smokes, Bullwinkle.
So, here’s Tyroc. Their superhero. He has screaming powers. His name supposedly translates into “Scream of the Devil” in the language of his island. That sounds like something that should have a theme song by Isaac Hayes’ cheap Mexican nonunion equivalent playing in the background.
Co-creator Mike Grell had been trying for ages to get a black man into the Legion. All he wanted was a hero who just happened to be black. He was denied until he’s handed Tyroc, something he considered a “segregationist’s dream” with the stupid power of a reality-altering scream, and couldn’t believe it. So, he designed the character to look as stupid as possible, something he described as a cross between Elvis’ Vegas outfits and something a street pimp might wear.
To recap, his own co-creator thought the character was racist, and made him as stupid as possible to get him gone as quickly as possible.
That plan actually worked. Tyroc eventually returned to his now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t island and disappeared for a good, long time. As mentioned above, Paul Levitz didn’t use him at all over a fifteen year period. Levitz claimed it was because screaming powers don’t work in comics.
Tyroc would eventually return, but as a political leader, becoming vice president of Earth under another black member of the Legion, the second Invisible Kid, and later President of New Earth after the Earth was destroyed save a few floating cities and his former boss went back to the Legion.
Since then, he’s appeared here and there as a background character. I’m not sure how well he could work out today in any other fashion. A total rework would probably be a good start.