Hero History: Matter-Eater Lad

by

Or – “With A Name Like Matter-Eater Lad, You KNOW He’s Got To Be Good…”

Gail Simone, one of the best comic writers of our time, recently said something incredibly wise about the creators who claim to only want to work on the the top-of-the-line characters.  Gail’s response to this was something akin to “if they’re not first-rate characters, MAKE THEM first-rate characters.”  Her advice goes double for today’s review subject, one of the most denigrated characters of all time.  Matter-Eater Lad has never gotten any respect, sometimes not even from his fellow Legionnaires, and he’s often trotted out as an excuse for internet wags to wax poetic about how “lame” old comic-book heroes are, and how “all the good names really ARE taken, huh?”  They then go on to talk about airline food, Oprah, and how marriage means you don’t get sex anymore, am I right, guys?  In this, the Age of Irony, I feel it’s much more constructive (and more difficult) to make a case FOR a particular concept than it is to shoot it down.  Since Legionnaire Tenzil Kem is already dodging his particular slings and arrows, it behooves me to take arms on his behalf, and by opposing, end the snottiness.  Grab some popcorn and your favorite frosty beverage, while I take a few moments to explain why Matter-Eater Lad exemplifies heroism rather than emblemizing it’s failures.  This, then, is your Major Spoilers Hero History on Tenzil Kem of Bismoll…  Matter-Eater Lad!

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Matter-Eater Lad is actually one of the earliest members of the LSH, joining as #15 on their impressive roster (after the three founders [Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lad, & Saturn Girl] Triplicate Girl, Phantom Girl, Superboy, Chameleon Boy, Colossal Boy, Invisible Kid, Star Boy, Brainiac 5, Supergirl, Sun Boy, Ultra Boy, Shrinking Violet, Mon-El, and Bouncing Boy) and even upon his induction, Tenzil seemed to have a slight inferiority complex.  Given that the team consisted of four guys who crush planets and then some other kids (including the girl whose power is being men’s three-way fantasy), I don’t think he should have worried…

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These early Legion stories are pretty awesome, and charming enough that you don’t really question the embarrassing bits.� And honestly, the fact that Triplicate Girl, Matter-Eater Lad and Bouncing Boy are treated as equals to the planet-crackers does a lot more to convey the bright, shiny future where everyone is equal than Kirk’s pet Vulcan did, if you ask me.� This was the early 60’s, mind you, so there wasn’t a lot of character depth to be found in these comics, but the kids of the Legion weren’t entirely interchangable stereotypes.� M-E Lad was known even at this point for his sense of humor, but all the Legionnaires shared heroic intentions…

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Matter-Eater Lad also has one of the most striking Legion costumes around (especially compared to Ultra-Boy’s orange and green busman’s outfit or Saturn Girl’s red pantsuit.)� Tenzil’s green, gold, and black suit is one of the neatest costumes of the time period, and is one of the few Legion suits to never get revamped or reconstructed.� He even continued wearing it after the five-year gap when most of his fellows had abandoned their costumes.� Even when Keith Giffen was in his bizarre Jose Munoz-induced art-style, Tenzil looked suave…

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The Legion was also known for plots that were a little more intense than your average DC comic of the time (where Batman was busy figuring out riddles and umbrella crimes and Superman was busy cataloguing the six pieces of Krypton that DIDN’T survive intact and land in Kansas) including The Super-Stalag of Space storyline, in which all the Legionnaires were captured (including Superboy) by a villain intent on capturing all law officers in the galaxy.� The prison that managed to hold the Last Son of Krypton, caged Sun Boy’s melting rays, confounded the transmutation abilities of Element Lad, even stopped Cosmic Boy’s magnetic powers cold couldn’t stand against one Legionnaire…�

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…the mighty masticating mandibles of MATTER-EATER LAD!� Think about what I just said: Tenzil Kem just ate his way out of a prison that a KRYPTONIAN couldn’t punch his way out of.� That, my friends, is mighty impressive, even if they did miscolor his arms in that whole sequence.� Curt Swan, by the way, was a freakin genius.� Blockade Boy and Matter-Eater Lad manage to raise the alarm, and B.B. gets killed, while Tenzil faces a firing squad, and at the end of the issue he has been transformed, becoming grossly fat because of the huge amount of dirt and rock he ate.� Admittedly hard to write for, Matter-Eater Lad disappeared from the Legion for a while, only popping up occasionally before being drafted into congress back on his home planet Bismoll.� (The capitol is Pepto, and if you don’t get that joke, I can’t help you.)� What is arguably Matter-Eater Lad’s greatest moment comes a few years later in Superboy #251.� Brainiac 5 had gone right off the tracks (in later years this was revealed to be due to manipulation by the villain Glorith), and was completely insane.� Using The Miracle Machine (which you may remember from my review of That Damn Tabloid) Craziac created Omega, the embodiment of ultimate hate, and only agreed to help stop him if he was made the leader of the universe…

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Okay, I know what you’re thinking:� he IS nuts.� But we’re talking crazy like a fox, folks, because even though he’s gone El Bonzo Seco, Brainy still knows how to destroy the ultimate evil.� He creates a second Omega, this one good, to fight the first.� When the original kills the second one, Brainiac explains that this was just the diversion.� Omega feels his power wane, and Brainiac giggles maniacally that he just destroyed the big O’s source of power, The Miracle Machine.� But wait, NOTHING can destroy the Miracle Machine!� It’s indestructible, right?

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Matter-Eater Lad saves the universe AGAIN!� That, folks, is two times that Tenzil’s quick wits and strong jaw have saved the day.� For several years, Tenzil was only referenced as one of the Legion’s many tragedies, but there came a day where he awoke, and returned to his political career.� The Legionnaires continued, but the Dominators slowly infiltrated Earthgov and shut down the Legion.� During the events known as the Five Year Gap, the team broke apart, and most if not all of the Legionnaires found themselves at loose ends.� Matter-Eater Lad, however, gained minor celebrity on Bismoll for taking over the staid and boring government and instating things like judicial mud wrestling and The Planetary Chance Machine (which spins around at high speed, then shoots out a planet, electing the person that is hit to whatever office is being chosen.)� Though the government (run by the opposition party)�wants him out, Tenz becomes so popular that he is allowed to create and star in his own holovideo television shows, in the (mistaken) hopes that it will keep him from devoting his entire energies to the senate (and not coincidentally, undermining their personal power…)

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During this period, Tenzil is probably the most successful of the former Legionnaires, save maybe Sun Boy, who ends up working for the Dominators as a not-entirely-unwilling collaborator, with Tenzil even inadvertantly (and cluelessly)�finding the greatest archeological site of the heroic age…

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I wonder what happened to the T-Rex and Jason’s old costume?� In any case, as his former comrades began slowly reconnecting and discovering that there’s still Legion work to be done, Tenzil found himself investigating Evillo, former head of the Devil’s Dozen (although mostly because of his attraction to Evillo’s twelfth wife, Eve Aries, the former Saturn Queen.)�

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“When trouble strikes… we put on costumes!”� Nice.� Having crossed the king of the planet, former leader of the Devil’s Dozen, Matter-Eater Lad is sent to Aitch Ee Double-Hockey-Sticks, where he finds some old friends, including former Legion antagonist Sugyn.� Discovering that the entirety of Tartarus’ underworld is powered by a single mystical flame, Tenzil�manipulates�Sugyn (who has the power to inhale and blow out huge amounts of air or liquid) into coming with him and sets out to free himself…

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“Trust me.� I’m a senator.”� That will become Tenzil’s catch-phrase throughout this run of Legion, as he rejoins his old friends.� Still not the most powerful physically, his years in the senate gave him political contacts and pull throughout the galaxy.� Lacking the support of a�government, the reformulated Legion fell back more than once on favors owed to the former Senator Kem.� Why former, you ask?� The opposition party, long intent on tossing him out, had him declared dead when he was sent to Hades by Evillo, and he didn’t stop them.� He really wanted to hear what people said about him in his eulogies…� and, ever since he heard through the grapevine that the Legion was active again, Matter-Eater Lad was chomping (you should excuse the expression) at the bit to get back in heroic harness.� Once the team reforms, Tenzil sets out to save former member Brek Bannin (Polar Boy) from prison, where he had been being held for over two years without representation or a trial for holding a Legion pep rally in a pizza joint.� With little courtroom experience, he instead fell back on his theatrical skills from his years in the Bismollian senate…

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With no other witnesses, all seems lost… until M-E Lad asks why Brek was held without trial for so long.� The judge starts to explain that they had to ascertain his fitness for trial when he suddenly trails off…� Since any attempt to question his fitness for trial would be ruled a fraud, the entire case must be dropped, Bannin is freed, and the Dominator controlled-Earthgov publically humiliated.� Soon after, in one of the more controversial moves of his (or indeed nearly any) Legion tenure, writer Keith Giffen introduced the “SW6″ Legionnaires, who were at first believed to be clones of the originals, but were later discovered to themselves be the actual Legionnaires, put in stasis for over a decade.� A younger Matter-Eater Lad was part of the SW6 batch, but a younger version of awesome…

…is still awesome.

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That axe once cut Superboy, folks…� Once again, Tenzil does what a Kryptonian could not.� As with his elder incarnation, this Matter-Eater Lad is known for his sense of humor and love of life, but also became the unofficial morale officer and a central figure in the return of “Legion tryouts,” the moments where wanna-be heroes come to Legion Plaza to audition for the team…

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The big tooth chest symbol is priceless…� Matter-Eater Lad becomes an integral part of the short-lived Legionnaires title, trying to bring long-time crush Shrinking Violet out of her shell, making sure that spirits stayed high, and�forging friendships with Inferno (the new name for Sun Boy) Livewire�(the new name for Lightning Lad) and Ferro (the SW6 version of once ill-fated�Ferro Lad.)

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While young Tenzil acts like a rock star, grown-up Tenzil *IS* one, at least as far as the universe is concerned.� Even though his show has ended, he’s still a figure of some reknown, especially after routing Evillo’s plans.� When Big E starts building a mysterious giant robot skeleton, the United Planets ask Matter-Eater Lad to investigate…

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Hey, hero worship only goes so far.� Evillo is the kind of man to hold�a grudge (after all, he’s not named “Forgivo” or “Thoughtfullo”) and captures M-E Lad, to use his massive superhuman abilities to power a doomsday device.� What mighty superhuman powers does MATTER-EATER LAD have, you ask?� Well, the answer is hidden somewhere in the first wave of Senator Tenzil Kem trading cards…

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Note card #4 there…� There had, at this time, long been a theory among Legion fans and fanfic writers that eating the Miracle Machine gave Tenzil the ability to manipulate probability and the universe, and Evillo reads fanfic (also Kirk/Spock slash fiction, strangely…)

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But, as with all Internet conspiracy theories, there’s a tiny grain of truth at the tootsie roll center of the Tootsie Pop, and Evillo uses his hypnotic evil powers to force Tenz to animate the skeletal monster.� The results remind me of nothing so much as Ray’s response to Zuul at the end of Ghostbusters…� “My god, what IS it?”� Tenzil replies, “It’s a really bad date I once had…”

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Is that Big Van Vader in the foreground?� Weird…� Anyway, Tenzil the elder has now officially saved the universe for the FOURTH time, single-handedly, something that Frank Castle has NEVER done.� In your FACE, Punisher!� As for Tenzil the younger, he also had a few adventures of note…

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This image, sadly, is the best part of the story where Tenzil is transformed to a girl and infiltrates the all-female pirates of Sklar for… some reason.� This comes mere moments before the Zero Hour conflict resets the DC Universe, and if I remember correctly, as the changes swept across the Pre-Crisis Legion, Tenzil was wiped out of continuity, replaced by Star Boy or Dream Girl, one of the two.��Zero Hour�also had the unfortunate effect of ‘rebooting’ Legion of Super-Heroes continuity from day one, and in the early 1990’s a concept as whimsical as Matter-Eater Lad didn’t rate.� You had to have fangs, claws, armor, or shoulderpads as big as a Buick to make it in those heady times, but that doesn’t mean that Legion writers were going to forget the Bismollian.��Matter-Eater Lad�(as well as fellow Adventure Comics era Legionnaire Bouncing Boy) reappeared as a non-costumed member of the Legion’s support staff.� In Tenzil’s case, he became (appropriately) the Legion’s chef…

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Appearing occasionally as comic relief, Tenzil has only one moment of heroic action during this period of Legion history, at a time when Durlan revolutionaries have infiltrated Legion headquarters.� With all the heroes out and about, Tenzil, Chuck (Bouncing Boy) Taine, Legion financier RJ Brande and the rest of the support staff are the only ones present to repel them.

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Yes, he is fighting himself… The Durlans were trying to infiltrate the Legion by replacing their ground crew.� Tenzil never becomes Matter-Eater Lad in this incarnation, which was rebooted a couple of years ago when the new version of the Legion by Waid and Kitson reappeared.� But let’s analyze for just a second what his powers REALLY are.� The acid-spit makes sense, in order to break down matter for digestion.� He has bitten clean through steel, rock, even nearly unbreakable inertron alloy, so he must have superhumanly strong jaw muscles and unbreakable teeth.� He can digest huge amounts of matter, never actually getting full no matter how many tons of material he eats.� Most importantly, Matter-Eater Lad manages to keep the other Legionnaires on even keel, his humor balancing out the pathos and drama that comes with the life of a Legionnaire.� Though many writers can’t figure out what to do with him, when used correctly, Tenzil is among the most interesting Legionnaires.� Of course, I may be biased as I share much of his mindset, according to the “Which Legionnaire Are You?” quiz…

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The whole point of the Legion of Super-Heroes, as I’ve stated over and over again, is that EVERYONE has something to contribute.� You don’t have to be able to juggle planets, or fire lasers from your eyes to be a hero.� Matter-Eater Lad has a power that could be called laughable, but he still manages to pull out the victory.� Let’s face it, folks…� Even if Abin Sur, Kal-El, and Empress Lilandra show up at Major Spoilers and start doling out super-powers like eggrolls, most of us ain’t going to be Superboy.� We wish we were the smartest, the most powerful, the most clever, but the simple, unpleasant truth is, most of us will end up being Arm-Fall-Off Boy or Squirrel Girl.� By all rights, Tenzil shouldn’t have even made it into the Legion of SUBSTITUTE Heroes, but by sheer force of will and personality, he not only MADE it to the big leagues, he made it so that his own name is synonymous with the Legion, for good or ill.� Maxim may make fun of his�heroic alias,�but it doesn’t matter what they say, Tenzil never lets the bastards wear him down…� You can say whatever you want about Matter-Eater Lad, but he’s a great man to have at your side no matter what sort of pickle you find yourself in.�

Because pickles, you see,�give him an appetite…� and you DON’T want to give Matter-Eater Lad an appetite…

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