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Adventure Comics 378
"Twelve Hours to Live!"

COVER IMAGE NOT FOUND March 1969; DC Comics; Mort Weisinger, editor, E. Nelson Bridwell, assistant editor; featuring the Legion of Super-Heroes in "Twelve Hours to Live!" Art by Win Mortimer and Jack Abel (two of the nicest guys Tony Isabella ever worked with, he mentioned recently); script by Jim Shooter (not one of the nicest guys Tony ever worked with, he's mentioned a time or two:-) The cover by Neal Adams depicts Superboy scratching the words "Last Will and Testament" into a big steel block as Brainiac 5 and Duo Damsel urge him on; "Hurry with our will, Superboy! Before the hourglass...and our lives...run out!" "Doing my best, Brainy! But I'm too weak...my finger can barely scratch this steel!" On the side of the steel block is scrawled the enticing invitation, "Watch the Legion Members Die!" The splash panel shows five Legionnaires, Superboy, Duo Damsel, Princess Projectra, Karate Kid, and Brainiac 5, toasting the latter's birthday as an unseen Grim Reaper figure taunts them, "That's it Legionnaires! Drink up! Too often you've tempted me...now DEATH CLAIMS YOU!"

With an intro like that you can tell this isn't going to be a tale of cheerfulness and hilarity...but initially it seems otherwise, as the same five Legionnaires indeed gather in their HQ to celebrate Brainiac 5's birthday. (Apparently all the other Legionnaires are off on faraway space missions.) The members swirl through the air in "anti-grav dancing" as Brainy plays his birthday gift, a "Lumina-Organ" ("I didn't know Brainiac 5 could play the Lumina-Organ!" "He couldn't before, but it only took his super-brain a few minutes to LEARN!") Next, in honor of the birthday customs of Brainy's homeworld Colu, the Legionnaires prepare a toast of Kono Juice served in genuine Colu Ivory Cups. Apparently in a paranoid mood even on his birthday, Brainy worries about poison in the drink, but Superboy assures him he has checked out the Kono Juice with his super-vision. But upon downing his drink, Brainiac 5 is disturbed by its bitter flavor and a white powder found inside the cup, and rushes off to investigate ("Don't tell me this is part of the tradition?" "Don't ask me! I never could keep up with that 12th-level mind of his!"-- Karate Kid) The other Legionnaires find Brainy sunk in despair in his lab, and when they demand explanations he reveals that all of them have been poisoned by a dose of Rakurga, "deadliest poison in the Universe-- no antidote!" -- smeared inside their cups. (Brainy points to a chemical diagram of Rakurga, which should be helpful to any scientifically minded reader who wants to whip up a batch to get even with his own enemies.) Even Superboy is affected, for his dose of Rakurga has a "Kryptonite base". The five show no immediate symptoms, but within 12 hours they will inevitably weaken and die. The five members scatter to come to terms with their fate and make their last arrrangements, but Brainiac 5 urges them to reunite before the end; "I'd like us to face death TOGETHER...as we have so many times in the past!"

Brainy himself has nowhere in particular to go, for he has "no family....no life at all beyond these walls!" Then he realizes that even more than the lives of five Legionnaires are endangered, for if Superboy dies as a youth, his future career as Superman will be wiped out of history, and "the space-time continuum may be torn apart!" Appalled and revitalized by this cosmic threat, B5 resolves to spend his last hours "where my 12th-level mind fights best...the lab!" looking for a cure.

Meanwhile, Superboy returns to 20th-century Smallville, but finds he cannot face his foster parents, Lana Lang, and the admiring people of Smallville, knowing he will soon be lost to them forever. He flees back to the 30th century again and tries to lose himself in a series of super-feats aimed at helping humanity; "the more I WORK the less time I have to THINK...besides if I'm going to leave this life I might as well leave 'em something to remember me by!"

Superboy is observed by long-distance scanner by Duo Damsel, who admires and envies his determination to do good in his last hours; she would like to do likewise, but "even TWO of me couldn't do anything approaching Superboy's feats! Sometimes I wonder why the Legion keeps me around! My power of splitting into TWO girls isn't so great! Oh, it's helped now and then...but I keep thinking I should quit...let someone who's better replace me! Still, in a few hours I'll be bowing out for good!" She decides to spend her last hours with her mother and father, but can't bear to tell them of her impending fate, fearing they will be hopelessly distraught and may even blame and hate the Legion. Instead she splits into two so that she can spend quality time with both unsuspecting parents at once.

Meanwhile, Karate Kid finds himself alone without family or friends, and decides to spend his final hours a different way; "I can't just mope around waiting for death! Let the others meet at HQ at the eleventh hour! I want to die in BATTLE!" Using the Science Police Crime-Computer to "compute the whereabouts of the Fatal Five", KK sets out on a suicide mission to confront the Legion's most formidable foes singlehanded. Following the computer prediction, Karate Kid takes his experimental warp-ship to what appears to be a barren, distant asteroid; but he dematerializes his ship and materializess again inside the asteroid, which, as he suspected, is hollow and hides the Fatal Five's secret lair. He finds the Five bickering over their current plans for conquest, and descends upon them; "Surprise is my only advantage! I may not whip these super-hoods, but I'll DIE TRYING!" Initially thinking KK is only the advance guard of an attack by the whole Legion, the Five are discombobulated, as KK dodges Mano's deadly hand and knocks him out with a double-handed karate strike. Suspecting a Legion trap, F5 leader Tharok orders the Persuader to take out KK while the rest search for hidden Legionnaires. But the Kid manages to evade the Persuader's atomic axe and put him out of action with a "faceful of structural steel" karate-chopped from a pillar. Next, KK defeats the Emerald Empress by locking her floating Emerald Eye in a sealed compartment long enough to break her control over it and knock her out with a judo spin. But meanwhile, Tharok realizes that Karate Kid is actually alone and the Five have been duped. Outraged, he orders the most powerful of the Five, Validus, to destroy the Kid. However, the dull-witted Validus does more damage with his smashing blows and mental lightning to the Five's headquarters than he does to the nimble Karate Kid.... and as one of Validus' lightning bolts penetrates the asteroid's outer wall, Tharok realizes the base's life-support is damaged and the Five must flee to survive. Upon their hurried departure the Five activate a self-destruct system, but the Kid makes his own escape in his warp ship and reflects ruefully, "Darn...I go looking for the Fatal Five, hoping for a chance to die honorably in battle...and I end up ruining their plans, driving them out and destroying their HQ... a guy just can't win!" This ironic last stand of Karate Kid seems to be the element of this story best remembered by Legion fans.

But meanwhile, the last of the doomed Legionnaires, Princess Projectra, is in her lush penthouse apartment, alone except for illusions of Karate Kid, whom she has a crush on, and her royal parents from the planet Orando. She seeks solace in a Metropolis "senso-theater", but finds no relief in the "mental sensations" emanating from the futuristic movie. She does find some comfort, however, in a chance meeting with a sympathetic bystander, Myron Marks, who urges her, "Think of what's been GOOD in your life! Don't bother regretting a moment! And squeeze your last hours dry!"

As the eleventh hour strikes, four of the dying Legionnaires meet as promised at headquarters; Karate Kid is absent, and Projectra suspects he has gone off to die in battle, but then he shows up as well. Brainiac 5 confesses he has failed in his attempt to find a cure. The last bit of business is the members' last will and testament, as Projectra wills her personal fortune to the Legion treasury; Brainiac 5 wills the patent rights to his inventions to the Legion as well, and his force-shield belt to Invisibile Kid; Karate Kid wills his weapons collection to the Legion Arsenal; Duo Damsel has only her personal tape diary of Legion activities to bequeath to the Legion archives; and Superboy's bequest to the Legion is his collection of super-tools, Superboy robots, and memorabilia of lost Krypton. Then Duo Damsel and Projectra start to feel the fatal effects of the Rakurga, soon followed by Karate Kid and even Superboy. Brainiac 5 is the last to stay on his feet, and at the last moment he has an inspiration for a possible cure-- the Miracle Machine, the omnipotent thought-powered device given to the Legion as a gift in a previous story (ADVENTURE #367). (I can only conclude that an early effect of Rakurga poisoning on 12th-level brains is severe absent-mindedness, since B5 didn't think of this in the previous 12 hours.) But Brainy despairs anew as he realizes that the Miracle Machine was sealed in impenetrable Inertron to prevent misuse; only Superboy could hope to get at it, and he is already unconscious. And so, as all five Legionnaires descend into the coma preceding death, Legion HQ's intruder alarm goes off and a shadowy figure stalks into the headquarters and revels over his victory; "Perfect! And to make it even sweeter, they never had the satisfaction of knowing WHO killed them, or WHY!" But then, as the 12th hour strikes, the killer is struck as motionless as his victims, "for time has been STOPPED here, by a force almost incomprehensible to the human mind! Who, or what, has done it? Too bad... just as the Legionnaires have run out of TIME, we have run out of SPACE...so the answers will have to wait till the next issue of ADVENTURE!"

It's probably no great surprise to anyone that the doomed Legionnaires did ultimately survive (I'll probably cover the details in a later review of the next issue) but the Legion was on borrowed time at this point in another sense. Just two issues later their run in ADVENTURE would end, as Supergirl took over that title and the Legion was shoehorned into the backup slot in ACTION for a time, before disappearing into limbo altogether for several years until their mid '70s revival in SUPERBOY.