There have been at least five versions of the Legion of the Unliving, but I’m going to be talking about the most purposeful, the most devious, and my favorite – those creatures pulled from time itself by Kang the Conqueror to not just destroy the Avengers but to help him rule the universe. Meet me after the jump and watch out for the original Legion of the Unliving!
Lost in Limbo
The truth of the matter back at the beginning of epic Celestial Madonna story by Steve Englehart in late 1974 is that the Avengers had already been defeated. Kang had shattered the Avengers. He’d beaten, kidnapped, enslaved, and pitted them against each other. And he had murdered one of their own, the Swordsman. Kang had won, but as the Avengers wandered lost through the catacombs beneath Castle Kang in Limbo, the mad time traveling villain wanted more.
And more was very specific. He wanted the Avenger known as Mantis. She had been pronounced as the Celestial Madonna, who would someday give birth to the Celestial Messiah, who would someday be the savior of the universe. Yeah, the seventies were cosmic for the Avengers, but the fact remained – whoever controlled the Celestial Madonna, controlled the fate of all existence. This was a prize Kang wanted more than anything.
The problem was capturing Mantis. Alone, she was already a dangerous opponent with her martial arts skills, but her fellow Avengers would protect her of course, especially after the loss of the Swordsman, their comrade, and her beloved. And taking into account the wonderful soap opera tapestry that was the 1970s Avengers, there was affection between Mantis and the Vision. Kang surmised correctly that the android Avenger would battle for her fiercely.
With his future selves Rama-Tut and Immortus imprisoned, this was an endgame for Kang, he used the latter’s Limbo machinery to summon a force from the mists of time who would be perfectly chosen to accomplish the taking of Mantis. He would target her, and especially the Vision, as well as remaining Avengers Iron Man, Hawkeye, and Thor. The moniker Legion of the Unliving came from the fact that all of these characters were dead at the time, because comics. Kang was very specific in his choices.
The Frankenstein Monster
From 1898, Kang pulled the Frankenstein Monster, hoping the creature’s superhuman size, strength, and endurance would be a match for Avengers heavyweights Thor, Vision, and Iron Man. Marvel had only just recently begun a horror line of comics, and this was writer Steve Englehart’s way of making the Marvel Universe more cohesive by showing the Avengers and Frankenstein’s monster co-existing in the same continuity. The creature had actually first appeared in this form back in the Atlas Comics days, revived in Stan Lee’s Silver Surfer series, then spun into his own title.
The mute fur-vested monster proved more than a match for Thor in the ensuing battles, but would later befriend the thunder god. While Kang had planted subconscious commands for his Unliving Legionnaires to destroy the Avengers and bring Mantis to him, they were still capable of independent thought. When the Frankenstein Monster found the dying Vision, he sensed a kindred spirit – a fellow artificial man – and sought Thor’s aid in helping the android Avenger.
From 1964, Kang next pulled Wonder Man, seeing this altered human who had betrayed the team before redeeming himself with his dying breath as a power factor, both physical and psychological, against Thor and Iron Man. And of course on the psychological level, it did not hurt that the Vision himself had been programmed with the brain patterns of Wonder Man. They shared the same mind in more ways than one, and the Vision knew it. I also loved that Englehart gifted this version of Wonder Man with 1960s lingo, ya dig? Groovy.
Most folks nowadays automatically think of Wonder Man as an Avenger, but at this time, he had been dead for over a decade in the legendary classic Avengers #9. He was frequently referenced, and his body had been carted around in cold storage for years, either as a pawn in the plans of his mad brother, the Grim Reaper, or as the Vision’s brain patterns. He had never left our thoughts and was always in the background. Wonder Man’s appearance in this storyline may have been a test run to decide if he should return for real a couple years later.
The Golden Age Human Torch
Again targeting the Vision, from 1954, Kang pulled the original Human Torch. In Kang’s own words, the Torch was “a being who can threaten his android body as Wonder Man can threaten his artificial mind!” Not only does the Golden Age Human Torch literally kill Iron Man in battle (he gets better), he also is the one who while looking at the wounded and unconscious Vision realizes that his body and the android’s are the same. Ironically, between the Torch and Frankenstein’s monster, they realize they might not be on the right side in this fight.
A future Avenger, the original Human Torch has many continuity issues in his history. While it is debatable in the current continuity if he and the Vision actually do share the same body, some things are for sure. The Torch was created in Marvel Comics #1 in 1939, has served as a member of the Invaders, the All-Winners Squad, and the Avengers, he served as the name inspiration for the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch, had a kid partner named Toro, and a human secret identity as James Hammond. He is, along with the Sub-Mariner, one of Marvel’s first superheroes, and was seen briefly in the opening of Captain America: The First Avenger.
The Man Called Midnight
In another bid to bring the existing Marvel Universe of 1975 together, Steve Englehart has Kang choose someone from 1973 who could match Mantis’ martial arts skills and deliver her to him unscathed – Midnight. The man called Midnight has gone by many names, and over the years has returned several times. Whether he’s going by M’Nai, Midnight Man, Midnight Sun, or just simply Midnight, this agent of the legendary and monstrous Fu Manchu grew up with future Avenger Shang-Chi, to whom he tragically lost his life.
Englehart would bring the martial artist back again himself over a decade later when writing his take on the Silver Surfer. Midnight was also, like the inclusion of the Frankenstein Monster, an attempt to close ranks on the Marvel Universe. Previously Shang-Chi’s war with Fu Manchu in The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu was for the most part separate from the rest of the four-color superhero world.
Baron Zemo and The Ghost
With the Vision’s mind and body taken care of by Wonder Man and the Human Torch, Kang picked his next member with the android’s powers in mind. From 1969 he chose the Ghost, completing the weird Silver Surfer connection to this grouping, as this ‘real’ ghost of Joost Van Straaten, the Captain of the Flying Dutchman faced off against the herald years before. This mute creature could go immaterial and reach inside foes with the same disruptive effect as the Vision.
The last of the Unliving Legionnaires chosen was the original Baron Zemo from 1965, where he was killed by an avalanche in Avengers #15. Heinrich Zemo, while he might strike fear in Captain America more than any other Avenger, seems an odd choice. Cap was on hiatus from the team and not even Captain America at that time, but Nomad. It could be a forgotten or missed opportunity. Perhaps Englehart was going to bring Nomad into the fold, but what I wanted to see was Wonder Man confront Zemo, the man who betrayed him. That moment didn’t manifest.
The Unliving End
As Kang leads his Legion of the Unliving into the catacombs of Castle Kang in Limbo, the battle that ensues is not on the Avengers’ side. Thor takes as good as he gives with both Frankenstein’s monster and Wonder Man. The original Human Torch straight up kills Iron Man. And the Ghost does nearly the same to the Vision. While it would not be the last time the Vision and Wonder Man clash, it’s notable that the Vision takes him down with no phasing powers and one arm hanging useless as his side.
In the end, it seems that the Human Torch and Frankenstein Monster, not being strictly human, are able to throw off Kang’s programming and even the odds. Kang is temporarily vanquished, the Vision and Scarlet Witch not only make up, they get married. The Legionnaires are returned to their correct times, except for the Torch, who along with the Vision stay around to learn their full origins. All this comes with the fabulous pencils of Dave Cockrum and Sal Buscema. The only bad thing to come of the storyline is that the Avengers begin at this point to view Immortus as an ally, which was never the case, as I’ve said before, Immortus is just Kang grown up…