by KC Carlson
Last Thursday was Thanksgiving, so I did what millions of other Americans did – watched the Packers lose another heartbreaking game. (My forehead has almost healed from all the self-imposed head-slapping.) But I don’t want to talk about that. The other thing that I was doing that day was eating too much turkey! And whenever I think about turkey, I think about…
Tenzil Kem (Matter-Eater Lad)! Yes, the Legion of Super-Heroes character. If you couldn’t already tell by his name, he’s one of the silliest superheroes ever created. And he knows it.
Created by Jerry Seigel (yes, the Superman guy — nobody’s perfect) and artist John Forte, he first appeared in Adventure Comics #303 in 1962. (Just four issues into the first LSH series, yet he was the team’s 15th member to be inducted. Long story.) His only super-power was that he could eat anything — except the real food from his home planet of Bismol. (With its capital city of Pepto.) (And — full disclosure — when I say “we”, I mean, yes, I was this character’s caretaker during much of the 1990s as the editor of The Legion of Super-Heroes and related titles). It wasn’t much of a power, because everybody on Bismol had it, mostly for survival when their food supply became toxic and Bismollians learned to eat literally anything to survive. If Tenzil (or Tenz, since almost nobody called him M-E Lad) had a defining moment, it was when he ate the previously indestructible (and literal deus ex machina ) Miracle Machine — and promptly went insane (or had severe indigestion) for a number of years.
Tenzil was pretty much a “joke” character, at least to fans. Although he was usually portrayed as a “normal” character in early adventures, lots of LSH writers kept trying to write him out of the series –- over and over again, as if they were embarrassed by him, or something. This went on until 1989. In LSH V4 (aka “Five Years Later”), Keith Giffen and Tom & Mary Bierbaum (who were both huge fans of the character, reportedly having TENZIL vanity license plates at the time) literally turned him into a joke character — an odd free spirit who rebels while a senator of Bismol and uses the planet’s tax money to become a media celebrity instead, making him incredibly popular (and perpetually in office because of it). His usual catchprase is “Trust me, I’m a senator.” After being sent for a time to a Hades-like dimension, he’s finally voted out of office for being technically “dead”. He eventually rejoined the Legion, where his political connections became very important since the LSH was no longer affiliated with the United Planets.
HEY! LOOK OVER THERE…
It was about this time that the incoming editor waved his hands all around for a while during the Zero Hour event. When all the sand in the hourglass settled, the “Five Years Later” LSH was gone (forever — a little-known condition of his employment, since he, I mean I, was hired in part to restart the Legion). All the Legionnaires were sixteen years old again, and they were all now wearing their old boots (mentally insert bad pun here). There was one last memorable Tenzil story before the Bierbaums left (and before Zero Hour), where we turned teen Tenzil into a girl. It had a cover by Adam Hughes! (I still wish he had been available for the interiors.) I seem to remember having a discussion about maybe keeping him that way for a while. That might have been fun.
Restarting the LSH continuity around this time was a very tricky thing, and it was felt that some of the “sillier” characters might have run their course as actual team members. But we were reluctant to give them up completely, so some were “reassigned” with other duties (like Tenzil being the official LSH chef) to keep them around in some capacity.
In subsequent versions of the Legion (after I left the books in 1998), Tenzil frequently appeared, often in important (or occasionally mysterious) roles, and I was proud to see him included in the mind- (and continuity-) blowing Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds. He must have made an impression outside of comics as well, as indy band Guided by Voices recorded a song based on him called “Matter-Eater Lad”. It appeared on their Clown Prince of the Menthol Trailer EP in 1994. Tenzil also appears in a handful of episodes of the 2006-2008 WB Legion of Super-Heroes cartoon series and in the Legion of Super-Heroes in the 31st Century spin-off comic book, which was set in the DC Animated Universe instead of the traditional comic book DC Universe.
He may be in publishing limbo now, but true fans will not soon forget the legend and legacy of Tenzil Kem, Matter-Eater Lad. (Cue inspiring, swelling symphonic music.) Watch for his big budget movie when hell freezes over.
“Mmmmm, hot popsicle!” says Tenz.
KC CARLSON SEZ: See, Pepto makes sense as the name of the capital for the planet Bismol because… Oh, never mind. Oh, and that other thing you probably didn’t get… They were “re-booted”.
WESTFIELD COMICS is not responsible for the stupid things that KC says. Especially that thing that really irritated you.