An Element of Fun: Metamorpho

Metamorpho 1

I’m back in the Silver Age again, with another of those mid-Sixties comics series that I would see in those newsagents I would frequent, on Ashton Old Road, or at Fiveways, one of those I would look at but never buy, because it didn’t conform to my already well-established personal definition of what constituted an American comic: good, plain, serious superheroics. That’s exactly what you did not get in Metamorpho.
Even on the strength of the first few issues I found myself bracketing the Element Man’s series with things like Challengers of the Unknown and The Doom Patrol. It’s the same sense of irreverence, the underlying sense that these series are being written by people who, underneath it all, can’t bring themselves to take superheroes seriously. These are not comics being edited by Julius Schwartz. Not that I ever took notice of the editor’s name nor, then or ever, allowed that to influence my choice of series, but it’s significant that the overwhelming majority of the series I did collect back then came from Schwartz’s stable.
Not so Metamorpho.The Challs were edited by Jack Schiff, the Doom Patrol by Murray Boltinoff and the Element Man was George Kashdan’s pigeon. It was written by Bob Haney and drawn by Ramona Fradon, the character’s co-creators, picking up from Metamorpho’s two issue debut in Showcase.
Basically: adventurer Rex Mason, in love with the beautiful Sapphire Stagg (the feeling’s mutual), much to the displeasure of her billionaire father Simon Stagg, a genius of incalculable self-interest, not to mention the despair of Sapphire’s absolutely love-sick would-be suitor, Java, an apeman ‘thawed out’ from a fossil, who is Stagg’s devoted servant. See, already you’re getting an inkling of what makes Metamorpho, alongside the DP and the Challs, so very different from the rest of DC in those more innocent days. Even though the fact that Rex has been converted into a human-shaped freaks who can turn his body or any part of it into any element or combination of elements at will requires Haney to be as scientifically inventive as any Gardner Fox or John Broome, these people have personalities. They have a mix of relationships. They aren’t all working together in harmony, like The Flash and Green Lantern, or Hawkman and The Atom. To paraphrase one memorable line about the company’s characteristics, these are DC characters that you would stop and talk to at a cocktail party.

Metamorpho 3

Let us not ignore Ramona Fradon. One of the few lady artists in the business, she brought the perfect style to the early Metamorpho’s, marrying up a fast-paced, kinetic style with just the right degree of cartoonish plasticity, bouncing around the page in a manner that showed just how much fun the artist was having drawing this stuff.
There was even an early borrowing from Marvel, as each issue began with a vertical list of headshots down the left hand side of the splash page, featuring our four stars and the villain(s) each accompanied by stylish and witty captions that aped Stan Lee without being as frantic. Add to that Metamorpho’s flip, snappy dialogue that sounded hip in exactly the opposite way to Haney’s Teen Titans and Java’s constant, overwrought, lovesick mooning over Sapphire and whilst my pre-teen self would probably have rejected the comic as much out of bafflement as distaste, I love it now.
Issue 4 was a perfect example. It began with an argument: Sapphire wants to get married as soon as possible but Rex doesn’t want her to be married to a freak. Stagg is supposed to be working on a cure, to restore Rex’s humanity, except that he finds having Metamorpho’s elemental powers to hand is too useful. So Sapphire breaks things off, only to put into Operation Jealous Lover, i.e., dating handsome, successful, rich playboys in order to make Rex jealous (that it makes Java jealous too is an irrelevancy, though it’s always fun to see these two enemies sympathising with each other about ‘our girl’).
Sapphire’s big choice is South American playboy and Matador, Cha-Cha Chavez, who’s almost sad rich as Stagg (the main reason he sanctions the engagement) and is seriously OTT in demonstrating his feelings, adding Sapphire’s head to Mount Rushmore, until Metamorpho chisels it off with his element transformation.
But Cha-Cha’s a baddy, a supporter of dictator El Lupo, and smuggler in of arms to suppress the revolution that everyone gets dragged into… You can see where this is going, can’t you? And half the fun is that Haney and Fradon cover so much ground in 23 pages that would need a three-parter with ultra-serious cliffhangers to manage nowadays. It was ever thus.
One of the best things, for me, is that Haney has understood the secret off maintaining such a goofball series as this, the secret that eluded Andy Helfer and his writers during the Justice League International days. It’s very simple: Haney doesn’t try to top himself. That is, having started out as way-out, he doesn’t try to get more way-out with every passing issue. That won’t necessarily completely avoid the operation of the almighty Law of Diminishing Returns, but by setting himself to maintain, not exceed the humour, Haney was plotting a longer life for the Element Man.
What he was doing was to furnish each issue with a relatively straight comic book plot, burnished with exaggeration ad implausibility. Within the story, Metamorpho and Co. acted with perfect logic and a bewildering number of chemical changes, to restore the status quo ante, whilst bringing in their personal characteristics. It had the potential to quickly become repetitive, but Haney maintained an air of freshness to each story.

Metamorpho 4

Having said all that, the first flaw appeared in issue 8, when Rex finds himself up against, of all things, a costumed supervillain. And to trap this new and rather trite menace, who had none of the gloriously OTT style of previous foes, the Element Man has to disguise himself as another costumed supervillain.
Knowing that the series ran for only 17 issues, it doesn’t take much experience at reading the comic books of the Sixties to work out that this is that first moment of desperation. The comic that’s so wonderfully different from the DC mainstream is facing circulation problems, so the first move to try and boost sales figures towards increased profitability, or at least survival, is protective colouring. Make it look more like the bog standard stuff the kids love. Be a bit more serious. It’s like watching gangrene spread.
Issue 9 went back to Metamorpho doing what he does best, battling alien invaders converted into machines, under the thumb of a deposed South American dictator, but the next issue saw the introduction of Urania Blackwell, aka Element Girl, interrupting Rex and Sapphire’s wedding to attack the criminal organisation known as Cyclops, and headed by another costumed super-bandido, Stingaree, also known as Rainie’s ex-boyfriend.
The only story featuring Element Girl that I had read prior to this was her meeting with Death in Sandman, at the hands of Neil Gaiman, so this was an eye-opener. I only hope her melodramatic and hammy way of speaking doesn’t hold over. Anyway, in somewhat conventional form for the time, Element Girl ‘died’ at the end so that she could a) remain inert until reader response determined if she would be brought back and b) bugger up Rex’s relationship with Sapphire, who was, also in conventional form inordinately jealous of Urainia, who had only come here to get her claws into Rexie, the scheming hussy.
And that was exactly what she came out as being as soon as she was revived (the readers liked her) in issue 13, the back half of a two-parter that featured a team of Metal Men knock-offs based on obscure elements from the lower corners of the Periodic Table. This really was throwing a cobalt spanner into the works of Rex and Sapphy, with the former, despite his enthusiastic love for the blonde rich girl, was now torn between who fascinated him the most, a la Lois Lane/Lana Lang.
Did I mention the idea of conventionalising a series to prop up its sales?

Metamorpho 13

This was also the issue in which credits first appeared, revealing that it was now Sal Trapani pencilling the series, and having done so for some time, doing his manful best to ape Ramona Fradon’s lines but without her knack for stylistic exaggeration.
Another two-parter, featuring protracted battles against a midget alien would-be world tyrant, ended with a twist straight out of a million House of Mystery short stories when other aliens from his home planet land and cart off the criminal: sigh. The fun’s rapidly draining away here.
The next and final step is the belated total change of direction. Throw out Sapphire, suddenly marrying a previously unmentioned playboy called Wally (much beloved cry at rock gigs throughout the Seventies, oh yes, I have ‘Wallied’ in my time), leave out Stagg, Java and Urainia because Metamorpho no longer has to hope for resurrection as Rex, introduce a mysterious stranger with another Orb of Ra who wants our Element Man as Rex Mason but is conning him…
But the end was abrupt. There was another change of artist for issue 17, a more serious, albeit scratchy style. Metamorpho is accused, tried and convicted of killing Wally the Wally and sentenced to death by freezing at absolute zero. Element Girl rescues him. They fight Algon the original Element Man, a Rex-equivalent from 2,000 years previously, Wally’s real killer, but he boils away in a lava pit. Metamorpho’s still wanted but he has Urania by his side, the pair dedicated to crime-fighting. Meanwhile we learn that a client contracted to have Metamorpho put out of the way, only not who…
Never the End said the last caption, but it was, a swift and sudden killing. The threads being established here were left dangling and, like the execrable last two issues of the original Swamp Thing series, when Rex was brought back in The Brave and the Bold, these events were forgotten utterly, and rightly so.
So farewell Metamorpho first time. The series began as goofy and buoyant fun, but it wasn’t serious enough for DC’s audience and it met the fate of all such attempts to provide something new and different; creping but insufficient homogenisation and cancellation. Worse things lasted longer. They always do.

4 thoughts on “An Element of Fun: Metamorpho

  1. Re the artist on later issues, while Sal Trapani was employed to draw them, there’s considerable debate over who really drew them. Trapani would often subcontract his work to others, which explains various comics in the sixties where he inked Ditko, so nobody’s entirely sure who did the art. What is clear is that nobody drew Metamorpho better than Ramona Fradon, who seems to have left the comic to become a full time mother.

    1. Agreed as to Fradon. If that was her reason, it’s appropriate given she was persuaded out of maternity leave to draw Metamorpho in the first place.

  2. One of my favorites in its earlier issues, along with Doom Patrol (I may actually break down and watch the TV series) & Challengers. I liked DC’s serious superheroes more than I liked Marvel’s wisecracking superheroes because Marvel’s humor always struck me as very self-congratulatory, but I liked DC’s humorous characters more than their serious characters because the humor was more Dada. Also liked the original Plastic Man when he was acquired by DC.

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