The Death of Ferro Lad in the Corner Drugstore
When we first moved to Burbank in February 1965, I was thrilled to discover a drug store just down the street on the corner of Lincoln and Victory. I think it was a Rexall, and even before formally moving into the house Mom and I went in for ice cream. I knew then the place would be a favorite haunt of mine.
It wasn't a large drug store, but it had the things a nine year old needed: soda, candy, gum, ice cream bars, model cars and planes and, for me especially, comic books. I'd park my Sting-Ray by the back door (for a fast getaway, if need be) and make the first right into the store, where the comics were kept in a rotating stand decorated with images of Superman, Archie and Sugar and Spice. Many was the hour I would spend reading their stock and ignoring the growing numbness in my feet. Nobody in the store made any requirements that I actually buy anything I read - at least, not that I can remember - and it was a delight to spend time on a hot day in this air conditioned Boy's Lounge, escaping from my problems and indulging my super hero-borne fantasies in what is today called "sequential graphic art." (Back then comics weren't the overblown, pricey works of art they're claimed to be today. They were merely things for kids to read, with nary a swear word or over-emphasized social message to be found.)
I particularly remember one epic in the pages of two consecutive 1967 issues of Adventure Comics. While the pharmacist occasionally stared my way the 30th Century super hero team of teenagers known collectively as "the Legion of Super Heroes" faced the threat of a ghastly menace evocatively called the Sun-Eater, which was on its way to our solar system destroying, er, eating, everything in its path. Apparently nothing (including Superboy and Supergirl) could stop it, and, desperate enough to enlist their arch enemies The Fatal Five to assist, the Legionnaires attempted one mighty last effort. What drama!
The cover said it all: "Readers! One of these Legionnaires will die fighting the Sun-Eater! Who will it be?" It was the hapless Ferro Lad, a teenage hero who could transform his body into solid iron. Ferro Lad's character was never fully developed and represented something of an expendable also-ran compared to Lightning Lad and his sister Lightning Lass, Saturn Girl and Cosmic Boy - not to mention the high and mighty Superboy, whom I considered to be something of a glory hog. I should mention, however, that there was a minor element of mystery to Ferro Lad. Disfigured from birth, he wore a face-concealing helmet that practically guaranteed a dateless tour in the normally love-struck Legion. (Lightning Lad dated Saturn Girl, female attention changed Lone Wolf into Timber Wolf, Shrinking Violet eventually got her boy, etc.) Anyway, I don't recall the details of the story, but it involved Ferro Lad planting a type of bomb into the heart of the Sun-Eater, which destroyed it as well as himself.
Anyway, I was stunned. ("Choke!" as Ferro Lad's fellow Legionnaires said as they realized that Ferro Lad had died saving the world, "We'll never forget him!") I had never encountered a comic book death before (they've since become common), and this one was almost like losing a friend. Henceforth, in retrospect, the gallant Ferro Lad became my favorite Legionnaire. (The public did this with Jim Croce after he died, and Mom became something of an Elvis fan after his death in 1977, crying whenever she heard "Are You Lonesome Tonight?") I was hooked when the inevitable "Ghost of Ferro Lad" story came out (the cover was great: a greenish apparition pointing an accusing finger at Legionnaires who were running for their lives), and I always liked the scenes of somebody walking down the Legionnaire's "Hall of Heroes," where Ferro Lad's statue looked on in silent dignity.
When I got to college years later and took my required Greek Classics class, I chose to write my term paper on the matter of heroism as displayed by Odysseus, Perseus and Ferro Lad. No doubt in my mind who placed first. (The prof liked my quirky viewpoint so much that he gave me an A.) The comic book industry has since recreated the Legion of Super Heroes anew, and recently the revamped Ferro Lad, now called simply "Ferro" since titular indications of youth are so passe, survives his bout with the Sun-Eater. Feh. I disapprove and so would my classics professor.
Besides fulfilling my literary needs the corner drug store also sold a Monogram car model I badly wanted, Darryl Starbird's custom and futuristic Predicta, "...the Personal Car with a Hint of Tomorrow!" It had a bubble dome that I was wild for; I didn't concern myself with the fact that passengers probably had to wear hats and a heavy coat of Coppertone while in the car. It also had a futuristic dash board and was steered by a joystick, much like a fighter pilot might use. I went into that toy aisle for weeks, looking at the box and confirming that nobody had purchased it out from under me. When I had finally saved the dollar-fifty for it and opened the box to build the model, it was a total letdown. Just another car model, made worse by the fact that I smeared some plastic glue on the bubble dome and made a shambles of the dashboard gauges with my ham-fisted enameling technique. In fact, I can't remember displaying the finished model at all! Such are the roller-coaster emotions of the average kid.
Nevertheless, I loved that corner drug store. My one and only moment of discomfort (other than trying on a Chinese finger trap there for the first time) was on an errand for Mom, when I dropped a couple of dollar bills on the counter and loudly called for glycerin suppositories. The laughter from the people working behind the counter had me profoundly confused, and when I finally learned exactly what glycerin suppositories were I was doubly embarrassed: first for having indiscreetly asked for such a thing, and second, that a member of my family would require them.
I shall close my reverie of the corner drug store by noting that it went out of business about two years after we moved into the neighborhood. They had a great closing sale, but I felt cheated. Henceforth I had to buy my candy and soda at the unsavory Erv's Liquor Store, a mysterious haunt of adult males where boys really weren't welcome, or Spector's, a large grocery store that put the rotating comic book stand next to the uncomfortably hot barbeque chicken rotisserie display. (One 1967 issue of Detective Comics featured Batman being broiled alive in a trap, and I sympathized, reading it at Spector's.) The big Ralph's chain store was also an option, but I was thrown out when the employees found me sitting in the magazine stand reading the comics, my rear end bending and tearing the covers off of the other magazines. I never again experienced the tolerance and comfort of the corner drug store, and lamented its passing almost as much as I lamented the passing of poor Ferro Lad.
Ferro Lad's death was exploited on the cover of the very next issue of Adventure Comics! Click here.
Some background on the death of Ferro Lad as explained by Jim Shooter, the character's creator, in a wikipedia article: "When Jim Shooter first created the character, he intended Ferro Lad to be black, but editor Mort Weisinger vetoed the idea, saying 'we'll lose our distribution in the South.' This was in fact why Shooter chose Ferro Lad to be the one to die in the Sun Eater story. 'Ferro Lad, I killed because my plan was that he was a black guy, and Mort said no. Then I said, 'Well, let's see. I've got this idea for a story, and someone needs to die...Ah-ha! Him!' So basically, I killed him off because it annoyed me that I couldn't do with him what I wanted.'"
Another relevant wikipedia link.