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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The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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33 Comments

  1. May 20, 2007 at 10:48 pm — Reply

    If it was me, I’d bring him back as the DC Hannibal Lecter.

    But that’s just me…

  2. baal
    May 21, 2007 at 1:30 am — Reply

    Thank you. No lie, there are tears in my eyes. You have earned a place in heaven based on this post alone.

  3. Everan
    May 21, 2007 at 7:17 am — Reply

    Those Monday Hero Histories really always make my day. About our current hero – well, first time I’ve seen him on some kind of “10 most ridiculous superpowered characters ever”, and – according to it’s writer point of view – he really seemed quite fitting there. But now, after I’ve seen that from another perspective, that guy is not interesting, but also likable. Yet another example of “less powered = more complex” ;)

  4. May 21, 2007 at 8:02 am — Reply

    If it was me, I’d bring him back as the DC Hannibal Lecter.

    But that’s just me…

    And it probably always will be. :) For my money, Christopher Bird’s idea for Matter-Eater Lad (he manages to get his hands on a flight ring and assembles his own Legion [consisting of the former Substitute heroes members] operating on the fringes of the galaxy) during his sublime month of campaigning to be Legion writer would be awesome… Heroism isn’t about WHAT you do, heroism is about HOW you do it.

  5. Brent F.
    May 21, 2007 at 9:18 am — Reply

    I took the quiz and got Brainiac 5.

    Oh, and DC’s Hannibal is Everyman.

  6. baal
    May 21, 2007 at 11:12 am — Reply

    Quiz? A quiz gets you a Brainiac 5? Sounds like a cool quiz…

  7. Mark I.
    May 21, 2007 at 11:12 am — Reply

    Ah, yes…Matter-Eater Lad. Comics aren’t really meant to be “bad-ass” at their core and critics of slightly goofy characters seem to forget this. Those with emotional hang-ups abut being called a “geek” will poo-poo anything that isn’t Batman-esqe, Wolverine-ish, or packed with blood ‘n boobies because they only want to be the guy who reads “cool” comics, like there’s some sort of magical line drawn in the sand between the guys who only buy Frank Miller and Alan Moore trades and the guys who have stacks reserved for them every week at the comic shop. B.S., one doesn’t exist without the other (no matter how batsh*t insane–pun only half intended–Miller’s books seem to be now.) Either comics are all cool, or none of them are.

    Matter-Eater Lad is awesome, as is any Legionnaire (including Subtitutes) with a seemingly useless or silly power. To me, those kind of weirdos are what make the Legion a timeless concept instead of just a bunch of future powerhouses kicking butt. We’ve got X-Men, Avengers, and Titans already, and putting them in the future isn’t enough. Writers who succeed at making the Legion WORK do so because they understand this.

  8. baal
    May 21, 2007 at 11:19 am — Reply

    Okay, I found the link and apparently I’m Ultra Boy. Hopefully threeboot Ultra Boy ’cause he’s the most fun of the Jo Nahs. It’s ironic considering I doodle Ultra Boy’s odd chest insignia somewhere a few times a week. Just wish I knew what it was supposed to be…

  9. May 21, 2007 at 11:33 am — Reply

    Legion lore has it that it’s either representative of a green dragon, as at one point he ran with a street gang called the Dragons on Rimbor, or meant to represent the “space whale” that swallowed him and imbued him with his ultra-energy powers…

    God, I love this job. Where else to you get to write “space whale that ate him and imbued him with his ultra-energy powers?” In any case, I always thought it looked like a thunderbird…

  10. May 21, 2007 at 11:48 am — Reply

    Matter-Eater Lad is awesome, as is any Legionnaire (including Subtitutes) with a seemingly useless or silly power. To me, those kind of weirdos are what make the Legion a timeless concept instead of just a bunch of future powerhouses kicking butt. We’ve got X-Men, Avengers, and Titans already, and putting them in the future isn’t enough. Writers who succeed at making the Legion WORK do so because they understand this.

    Agreed. You look at ANY comic from 1957 and tell me if the concepts hold up… Superman has changed rather drastically, Batman is radically different, even Wonder Woman’s basic underpinnings are different. But the basics of the Legion are the same… a group of young people who have taken their gifts and use them for the betterment of all.

    If you ever wonder why the Legion appeals to so many people, remember that MATTER-EATER LAD has saved the entire universe. Anybody can be amazing in the world of the Legion, and THAT’S why we Legion fans prosyletize on how awesome it is, and that’s why we kick so damn hard when somebody gets it wrong…

  11. Mark I.
    May 21, 2007 at 11:52 am — Reply

    Apparently, I’m Inferno. Hmph. Ah well.

  12. Joshua
    May 21, 2007 at 12:20 pm — Reply

    I’d really like to see all of the denizens of Tenzil’s home planet as zombies.

  13. May 21, 2007 at 12:40 pm — Reply

    Apparently, I’m Inferno. Hmph. Ah well.

    It’ll be cooler if you think of yourself as Sun Boy…

  14. Brent F.
    May 21, 2007 at 1:26 pm — Reply

    Now that Matter Eater Lad is done, start writing Timber Wolf dagnabit!

  15. May 21, 2007 at 2:17 pm — Reply

    Now that Matter Eater Lad is done, start writing Timber Wolf dagnabit!

    Okay, Spoilerfans… TIMBER WOLF or BOUNCING BOY??

  16. Mark I.
    May 21, 2007 at 2:45 pm — Reply

    Polar Boy!

  17. Maximus Rift
    May 21, 2007 at 4:09 pm — Reply

    I’m of the 2% that got Karate Kid.

  18. Maximus Rift
    May 21, 2007 at 4:11 pm — Reply

    And put me down for Bouncing Boy, Ferro Lad and Dawnstar.

  19. baal
    May 22, 2007 at 1:34 pm — Reply

    I say Bouncing Boy should be next. Did anyone catch the hint that Tenzil Kem will be joining the threeboot train wreck in August? I’m not hopeful at all…

  20. May 22, 2007 at 2:10 pm — Reply

    Mmm… I’m not as negative about the Threeboot continuity (at least partially because it’s a return to a lot of the concepts previously rebooted) but I also don’t hold great hope for Tenzil…

    Not because I don’t want to see him, but because Tony Bedard and I have great differences in conceptualization between what makes and doesn’t make a good character. Also important: it hoses our chances of seeing Christopher Bird do his cool take (even though Chris has reported that Rich Johnston’s column is NOT correct, and that DC has NOT made any official overtones to him about spec scripting the Legion.)

  21. Josh
    July 2, 2007 at 5:39 pm — Reply

    I got invisible kid.

  22. Happenstance
    September 6, 2007 at 9:02 am — Reply

    “Spooge” brand toothpaste? Oh my, that’s not nice.

  23. Sibella
    October 3, 2007 at 9:58 pm — Reply

    based on this post, I am downloading a BT of the entire LSH series.

  24. Rob "Lad Boy"
    October 4, 2007 at 6:20 am — Reply

    I’m Element Lad.

  25. Pyro_ike
    October 10, 2007 at 1:45 pm — Reply

    Wow, he’s like Zaphod Beeblebrox, but with better abilities. I really want to read some of the old stuff with him now. :D

    As far as returning in the threeboot.. I might have to check that outand see how they portray him.

  26. Cecil Young
    April 20, 2008 at 9:02 pm — Reply

    Strange but fun quiz – I’m 4% of those who took the quiz/test and came out Star Boy – I’m partial to the inital superboy ripoff that had electric vision myself.

  27. September 2, 2008 at 4:54 pm — Reply

    Did you guys notice that these appear to have become part of the external links on Wikipedia? I was just checking out the Matter Eater Lad Wiki page and there at the bottom was a link to here! Is there a word for the level of fame this is?

  28. Dale Sams
    July 28, 2010 at 4:54 pm — Reply

    When Superboy-Prime was running amuck and fandom sat around scratching their heads exclaiming “How can this guy be stopped!!”, I pointed out there are two LSHers who can stop SB-Prime without breaking a sweat (though one would break his diet, nyck nyck) Element Lad (just turn him into air) and ME-Lad.

  29. November 18, 2010 at 4:33 pm — Reply

    I remember “Eater-Boy” as I used to call him from my dim dark youth when comics cost 12 – 25 cents. It’s been forever since I’ve seen anything on him. I agree with you that he’s undersung, slightly goofy, and all hero!

    One of my all-time favourites!

    Scott

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