One of the basic ideas behind DC Comics’ Legion of Superheroes is that not only is it the premier superhero team of the 30th and 31st centuries, but just about every teenager of the future wants to join it despite the fact they seem to be the only thing that stands between the universe’s deadliest threats and everyone else.
But not every teen makes it and there’s no reason a kid who doesn’t make it can’t be a good hero in his or her own right, and that led to the Legion of Substitute Heroes.
Who were the Subs? Well, one of the running bits in Silver Age Legion stories was the occasional try-outs. That would feature eager teenagers, some of whom went through crazy experiments, all to gain the prestige of Legion membership. Many of these candidates would be ultimately rejected, and the Legion had some standards, most notably how all potential candidates had to have natural powers and no aids from technology. Oh, the powers also had to be useful.
However, being a hero actually meant something to a lot of these characters, no matter how seemingly useless their powers were. Granted, this was the Silver Age, where silly powers maybe weren’t seen as silly as they are today. As it is, one reject calling himself “Polar Boy” formed a group in secret called the Legion of Substitute Heroes, and their mission was exactly as it sounded. They would act in instances when the main Legion was unable to act for one reason or another and some substitute heroes were needed.
Now, at first glance, the substitute heroes weren’t really that useless. Polar Boy made things cold. Many heroes have that power today, and they aren’t seen as useless. Another named Night Girl possessed superhuman strength, but only in the dark. One member turned to stone and was completely immobile, one could change the color of things, another had power over plants, and one guy just had two heads. Obviously, some of these heroes were more useful than others, but they were all rejected from the Legion for one reason or another.
That said, the funny thing was the Subs were often treated as competent heroes in their own right. No matter how much the series might have suggested they had useless or silly powers, the stories themselves showed they were quite capable at fighting evil…most of the time. They were treated as jokes during a period when creator Keith Giffen was working on the Legion, and other times they’ve been Reservists, a “subterfuge” group, or even someone the main Legion called up for help when things were really bad out there.
There’s something to be said for treating characters that could easily be jokes as serious heroes. It’s a nice change of pace, really, especially since having a humorous side group could make for a nice change of tone. That wasn’t really what the Subs were all about, though, and they were better characters for it.