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.

Showcasing Showcase – Part 2


We’re at Showcase 52, almost exactly halfway through the series’ run (counting its revived version of the late Seventies). The comic has had its glory days of invention after invention, a long streak of successful try-outs leading to series, but that has come to an abrupt halt. Over the second half, very little will progress to series of their own, and of these, only a couple of titles will run more than forty issues.
What we’re going to see is amply evidenced by issue 52, yet another, and thankfully final attempt to launch Cave Carson, given just a single issue. That made seven all told, and not enough takers.
Next up was two issues of G.I. Joe, the soldier toy figure, written and edited by Bob Kanigher as short war stories using heroic soldiers from different branches of the service. Not only was this feature licensed, thus reducing any profit to be made, but it wasn’t even the first attempt at bringing the toy soldier to comics. Two issues was all the connection lasted, with only some excellent Joe Kubert art to show for it.
Julius Schwartz had been absent from Showcase since issue 36, three years previously. After The Atom, he’d stated that he would not be updating any further characters from the Golden Age. Instead, the Justice Society of America came back in their own right, first the Jay Garrick Flash, then the full team. Now, Schwartz was looking at a full-scale revival, with the next two issues of Showcase devoted to the team-up of Doctor Fate and Hourman, with the smooth, polished art of Murphy Anderson.

Showcase 57

The Super-Team Supreme, as they were billed on the cover, were an odd mixture, magic and science (though the text page on the good Doctor sought to minimise that aspect, pegging it to the great discovery of how to convert energy into matter). They had little in common except their founding membership of the JSA, and for a villain they had to borrow the original Green Lantern’s Swampland foe, Solomon Grundy, thus dragging in Alan Scott as a downgraded third wheel. It’s full of holes, and Gardner Fox really was no longer suited to any kind of story portraying magic, but I can’t be too critical, because I loved it nonetheless. I’d discovered the Justice Society a year before and everything about them fascinated me.
The second story, introducing the new Psycho-Pirate, and giving him a super power to control emotions via a very dry pseudo-scientific means, was more to the point. But for once, Schwartz’s ability to sense what the readers wanted was off. The wave of enthusiasm for the Golden Age heroes was receding. Or maybe it was that the kids enjoyed reading new versions and having them team-up with the oldies, as demonstrated by the success of the annual JLA/JSA team-ups, but didn’t want the Golden Agers by themselves, because they were old.
The Super-Team Supreme’s two issues were gems in the eyes of some of us, but not enough, any more than were the two part comeback teaming Starman with Black Canary in Brave & Bold.
Showcase‘s strike-out run continued with two issues of Enemy Ace, by Kanigher and Kubert. This is a legendary series that I have never read before and now I have I found its intensity astonishing. Rittmeister Hans von Hammer had been introduced in Star-Spangled War Comics in February 1965. He was a fighter pilot in World War 1, for the Germans, a killing machine, cold of intent, but an honourable foe. The response to him was tremendous and he became a regular in that series, a virtual co-star to Sgt. Rock. His appearance in Showcase for, again, two issues, was, I presume, a trial to see if he could carry a title on its own and as he continued to appear in Star-Spangled War Comics after this, one that was failed. But von Hammer was one of those special characters, one that you might almost say was too good for the audience, not enough of whom, at DC, were ready to support an anti-hero.
Then the winless streak was broken, with one issue, issue 59, devoted to the Teen Titans. They’d had two one-offs in Brave & Bold, the second only four months previously, so how much credit their appearance in Showcase could take for the decision to give them their own title is dubious. But they were the first to get a go since the Metal Men. But the only thing worse than Bob Haney’s ‘super-hip’ dialogue and narration was the ludicrous and idiotic plot. Yeesh.
It was back to Julius Schwartz, Gardner Fox, Murphy Anderson and the Golden Age for the next two-issue run. Originally, it was intended to be another JSA team-up, this time between Doctor Mid-Nite and The Spectre, though if the treatment eventually decided upon for The Spectre flying solo was already set, it’s impossible to see how the Doc fit in.
Once again, these are two issues that I love tremendously. They were the first issues of Showcase that I ever bought, bought on Saturday afternoons in Droylsden, walking on my own to and from the newsagents at Fiveways, the memory so clear. The first of these stories, in issue 60, holds a place in comic book history as being the first superhero retcon. The Spectre, an all-powerful ghost, had disappeared twenty years previously: Fox and Schwartz set about explaining how and why a being of his powers could have been removed for so long a period.
There was a letters column in the second of these, headed with Schwartz’s announcement that they were going to take a breather on reintroducing the Golden Age characters, but it was clear that he had hopes of succeeding with the Spectre. For one thing, despite his usual tendencies, Fox played it straight on magic and a ghost’s powers, and for another this was a new take on the Spectre, a force of unlimited good without the aspect of the judge of crime who frightened people to death.
But the sales didn’t live up to Schwartz’s expectations. Not yet.

Showcase 60

Instead, the unlikely subject to break the streak was the heroes of issues 62-63, E. Nelson Bridwell and Joe Orlando’s The Inferior Five. Now spoof superheroes were nothing new, they’d started with Sheldon Mayer’s The Red Tornado nearly thirty years earlier, and the text page in issue 62 laid it on a bit heavy, but the comic was fun. It preceded Marvel’s similar spoof, Not-Brand Echh by over a year.
The second issue took the gentle piss out of the Incredible Hulk, and included a couple of genuine, laugh-out-loud lines. However, the third issue was pushed back to issue 65 to allow Julius Schwartz and co. one last try at selling The Spectre. Before that, Schwartz had given the Ghostly Guardian a prime role in the 1966 team-up, and now oversaw a story that scaled The Spectre down from Universe-threatening levels to a rather less rarefied level.
This one did the trick, despite what we would now see as an extremely dodgy notion. It comes when the Spectre, cut off from Jim Corrigan’s body by an evil squatter spirit, wraps himself in the energies of Good to enable him to force his way in. Church services, hospitals, even a Peace Corps worker spreading education, yes, but an American soldier on patrol in Vietnam?
The third Inferior Five appearance, in issue 65, swapped in Mike Sekowsky for Joe Orlando, which was a perfect pairing given Sekowsky’s awkward anatomy. If I say that in this issue the Inferiors met the Eggs-Men, would you guess who I was talking about?
So that was two for two, though both series only lasted ten issues each. The next notion was reputedly scheduled for a three issue try-out but ended up only lasting two. Why? If I tell you it was B’Wana Beast, would you understand?
Even at DC in 1967, B’Wana Beast was regarded as racist. The use of the Swahili word for master, applied to a white ‘saviour’ in Africa poisoned the whole concept from the outset, the provision of a recurring villain as an African who was drawn like a monkey and the ‘White God’ saving the ignorant blacks was so horrendous that artist Mike Sekowsky refused to draw a third part. Who then was responsible for this abortion of a concept? Editor George Kashdan and writer Bob Haney. I don’t want to call either of them a racist but when you read shit like this it’s very hard to imagine a line between. Though I can imagine the bluff Haney, with his contempt for the ideas and wishes of fans, simply being defiant in the face of condemnation. Good for Sekowsky.
Unfortunately, what followed was, in a totally contrasting way, almost as awful. The Maniaks were a four piece rock group, three boys, one girl. That’s it, you don’t need any more. Sekowsky could be forgiven yet again, but there were no excuses for editor Jack Miller or writer Nelson Bridwell. Bridwell may well have been a walking encyclopaedia when it came to anything superheroic but when it came to music, his imagination was about as wide as a sewing needle and nowhere near as in depth. This was the year of the Monkees, but they were Led Zeppelin in comparison to this crappy bunch. That made four awful, awful issues in a row.
Issue 70 was filled with a revival of Leave it to Binky, a teen comedy series that had originally run for 60 issues between 1948 and 1958, since when Binky Briggs and his pals had only been seen in DC’s Public Information Shorts, one page stories promoting understanding, tolerance and liberal values. Henry Scarpelli provided the art for four shorts based around the single theme of Binky and his rich rival Sherwood van Loon competing for dates with the beautiful blonde Peggy. It doesn’t sound much, especially not in 1967, but it bought the series a revival from the old numbering until issue 81.
The Maniaks returned for a third and final appearance in issue 71, paired up with a Woody Allen who barely looked like and certainly didn’t talk like the real one. This story was awful. It was sneeringly nasty about Twiggy, threw in a brief Groucho Marx impersonation and then spent what felt like 50 pages on a supposed Civil War musical that allowed Nelson Bridwell to re-write show-tune lyrics, half of which I didn’t recognise despite growing up with parents who loved musicals: the kids of 1967 would sure have identified with these, who needed Jefferson Airplane? Ghastly stuff.
Next up was an issue under the title, Top Gun. This was a Western comic, once again bringing back old ideas. Up front was a new story featuring the Trigger Twins, in back was a reprint of an Alex Toth story featuring the other Johnny Thunder, the one with a stallion instead of a Thunderbolt. Anything would look good compared to the Maniaks but this was good, solid comics, though it was worrying that the reprint was better than the new story. Was Showcase really still in the business of finding new characters?

Showcase 62

The answer to that came in the next five issues, all single try-outs, each of which getting their own series, but not for long. Firstly, in issue 73, was a real classic, Steve Ditko with dialogue by Don Segall introducing Beware the Creeper. The story shot along like a rocket, Ditko’s art was dynamic and fluid, this one was an instant winner. The issue also contained a plug for another Ditko creation coming soon, The Hawk and the Dove.
First, though, was Anthro, the cro magnon cave boy, created by Howie Post, and giving Carmine Infantino an editorial role. Post’s art, maintaining a clever balance between realism and caricature, using multiple soft lines to define instead of the customary hard edges, created a superb atmosphere. The story intended to show that the humans of the caveman era were as human as us, and it was also very funny at the same time.
And with this issue, Showcase went from bi-monthly to eight times a year, a frequency supposedly reserved for popular titles dependent upon a single artist. In this instance it could only signal that, however unlikely, Showcase had transcended its point and was being bought by enough readers for it’s own sake.
We weren’t asked to wait long for The Hawk and the Dove as they arrived in issue 75. Compared to The Creeper, this was tame stuff artistically, though as the issue was the gulf between the separate and naïve political stances of the protagonists, that’s not really surprising. The issues in America that inspired Hawk and Dave’s creation, the pro- and anti-stances towards the Vietnam War in an Election year, are no longer the same imperatives they were, which slightly diminishes the story. But DC awarded the boys a series.
As they did from the next character’s debut, Bat Lash. With gorgeous, loose art from Nick Cardy, using a more impressionistic line than on the Teen Titans, this was another gem of a story, about a smooth-talking, peace-loving, flowery-waist-coated western drifter turned reluctant trouble-shooter, and it was also funny as all get out. This really was a strong run, and it was rapidly restoring Showcase‘s reputation for bringing through new characters.
And that continued with the introduction of Angel and the Ape in issue 77, a gloriously goofy private eye comedy about Investigators Angel O’Day and her partner, Sam Simeon. Angel’s a doll of a platinum blonde who looks dumb but who’s clever and highly skilled whilst Sam’s a gorilla. What’s more, he’s a cartoonist working for an editor called Stan Bragg. Do you detect the writing of Nelson Bridwell? You do, with art by Bob Oksner. Bridwell was as laugh-out-loud good on this as he was stupefyingly rotten on the Maniaks.
So that was five new ideas in five issues, each one jumping into their own series without further issues. Was this recognition of a a string of strong ideas? Was it a recognition that, with Marvel growing ever more dominant, DC had to change. Or was it panic at Marvel’s rise and the grand old tradition of throwing things at the wall to see what stuck?
I don’t know. Like I said, all five got series of their own. Those five series lasted, respectively, 6 issues, 6 issues, 6 issues, 7 issues and 7 issues. It’s not a great track record, is it?
The run came to an abrupt halt with issue 78, devoted to another, more serious private eye, Jonny Double. Despite a fine, impressionistic cover, the reason for the streak ending was obvious inside. Double was an ex-cop turned loser PI, permanently broke, can’t catch a break, gets beat up a lot. The plot, by a fan turned intern, name of Marv Wolfman, attempted to be downbeat and realistic but was confusing instead, Joe Gill’s dialogue was tired and unimaginative and Jack Sparling drew the story with angular lay-outs like crazy paving and equally as legible. No thanks.
An intriguing but decidedly minor character, Dolphin, made a single appearance in issue 79. The creation of Jay Scott Pike, Dolphin was an undersea woman, a beautiful platinum blonde (any relation to Angel O’Day?) dressed in a light blue blouse with the sleeves torn off, and slightly darker blue and decidedly brief shorts.
The story centred on Naval frogmen, specifically CPO Chris Landau, trying to recover intelligence documents from an American ship sunk during the War. Pike borrowed the trick Milton Caniff used to introduce Steve Canyon in his strip, focussing on everybody’s reactions to someone/something seen underwater and not putting the girl onstage until page 6. Dolphin’s a complete enigma: she can live on land for up to five or six hours but lives underseas, breathing water and immune to the Bends, it seems. She has gills and prehensile webbing, but is also highly intelligent, quickly learns to speak English but, after helping get the documents back, overhears someone stupidly comparing her to a fish and returns to the seas, breaking Landau’s heart but not necessarily her own.
Weird stuff. Dolphin was eventually equipped with an origin over twenty years later and became a supporting character in Aquaman. What Pike intended for her was never revealed as far as I know.

Showcase 69

Issue 80 brings us to the Phantom Stranger. Once again, DC were reviving an old, and failed character rather than come up with a new idea. The Stranger had been created by John Broome and Carmine Infantino in 1952 for a six issue run where he was a bit of a debunker of supernatural phenomena, which made sense in that for his reappearance, he was being paired with Dr Thirteen, the sceptics’ sceptic, except that for the purposes of this issue the Stranger was pro magic.
But the real reason for the revival was that it was a cheap comic to produce. Only eight new pages were drawn, as a framing story with a ludicrous ending, surrounding one reprint for each character. Not the Phantom Stranger we’re familiar with now, but cheap enough to foster another new series, this time lasting 41 issues.
The Way Out World of Windy and Willy in issue 81 was a bust of major proportions. Not only was it out-of-date and stupid, the very obvious different lettering showed it for what it was, a reprint of something that had appeared under a different name. I suspected, and Google confirmed, that it was a retouching of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, a decade old series based on the TV show of the same name. Unbelievably, it got a series though thankfully only for four issues.
Windy and Willy were the twentieth and last feature to be spun off out of Showcase into their own series. Enemy Ace does not count, not just being pre-existing but current.
Next up was Nightmaster, given an old-style three issue run. The creation of Denny O’Neill and Jerry Grandenetti, the series was an attempt to introduce Sword and Sorcery fiction to comics. Nightmaster has enjoyed a degree of respectable life over the last quarter century but made no progress in 1969, for the plain fact that the comics were crap, not least from the insistence on clogging the fantasy stuff down with good old American feet of clay in the form of a rock musician – playing to teeny-boppers (!) – with a sarcastic tone of speech dragging everything down.
Astonishingly, a new artist then drew the final two issues, and astonishingly it was Berni Wrightson and unastonishingly he was good. Indeed, he was very good, which only served to emphasise just how lousy O’Neill’s Jim Rook was as a character, not to mention O’Neill’s overall failure to capture anything of the substance of S&S. At least the third part offered some kind of a conclusion, leaving everything set up for an ongoing series that, deservedly, didn’t materialise.
Firehair, a Joe Kubert creation, took over issues 85-87. Though set in Western times, Kubert announced that the theme of the book was to be modern issues. Firehair was a white boy, red-headed, the sole survivor of a defensive massacre by Indians against the Cavalry. Brought up a Chief’s son, Firehair faced prejudice from both worlds, Indian and White, neither of them accepting him as one of them.
Once again though, the story was far outweighed by the art, the earnestness and undisguised intent to make it about social issues making the whole thing leaden. It was the times, the era of Relevance. But the series got stronger as it went on, as Kubert rowed away from its declared premise, and the final issue was all-round excellent. Firehair would get a sporadic back-up in the final ten issues of Tomahawk, but that would be all.
Issues 88-90 were dedicated to Jason’s Quest, a short-lived concept from Mike Sekowsky, currently riding high on his revamp of Wonder Woman. The titular character was a young man who, on his seeming father’s deathbed, learned that he was actually adopted, that his real father was murdered for some mysterious secret being sought by a villain named Tuborg (a once popular Danish lager) and that he had an unsuspected twin sister. Jason set off in pursuit of, first, his sister Geraldine, and then revenge.
I was immediately prejudiced against the first issue, which took the questing young man into Britain, or rather one of the worst and most ignorant representations of my home country. I’ve only one, very short experience of Paris but I think the French got it just as bad. Anyway, Jason found his sister and dragged her round Paris from flashpoint to flashpoint, never finding the time to explain to her exactly why he was dragging her around like a postbag so that, when he was forced to leave her to draw Tuborg’s men away, she was determined not to rendezvous with him or see him ever again. A neat idea executed poorly, and never followed up on.
Showcase’s final feature was previewed in issue 90 before getting the regular three issues. Manhunter 2070 was another Sekowsky creation, and a dumb one. Sekowsky went straight for the early, inglorious days of SF by setting up a ‘space western’, Starker, a bounty hunter. To show what level this was on, Sekowsky provided Starker with two hot, short-skirted girlfriends, with no rivalry so clearly some people were into threesomes. He just didn’t give either of them a name.
Starker’s brief existence came to an end in issue 93, marked by the innumerate stupidity of claiming that a 30% of 2,000,000 credits came to 25,000. Says it all, really. Peculiarly, the story ended on a cliffhanger, a primitive tribesman about to cave in Starker’s head with a club. But there was no outcome. And no more Showcase.

Showcase 73

Not, at any rate, for seven years. In 1977 the title was revived, at the DC of Janette Kahn’s re-modelling, albeit only for another eleven issues (plus two unpublished). Though I wouldn’t normally include these, I did buy at least seven of this late run so let’s see how the revival compared with the rest of the run.
Before that, I have to mention that the concept, if not the title, had been partially restored earlier in the decade in a thirteen issue run as First Issue Special. This was a slightly farcical series, built on Publisher Carmine Infantino’s theory that no. 1 issues always sold well so why not have a series consisting of nothing but no. 1s?
Issues 94-96 were devoted to the New Doom Patrol, by Paul Kupperberg and Joe Staton. It was a typical Seventies superhero comic, everyone snapping in each other’s faces all the time and despite having Robotman (in a re-designed metal body courtesy of a little-concealed Dr Will Magnus) and General Immortus, it lacked any of the original DP’s quirkiness.
Staton stayed on, this time with Paul Levitz, for the first solo stories of Power Girl, Gerry Conway’s creation from the revived All-Star Comics, the Earth-2 Supergirl. What we got was Power Girl’s origin and the establishment of a secret identity for her, bound up in a battle with the Brain Wave in which Levitz has the ugly little runt decide on Power Girl as his number one enemy because she’s been responsible for more defeats than anyone else, which is true only if you count at least two encounters that don’t exist.
At least PG wasn’t continually spouting her crude feminism, though it was noticeable that she left the Earth-2 Flash and Green Lantern imprisoned to tackle the villain herself. Why was Seventies superherodom at DC so all-fired dumb?
And Staton made it seven issues in a row with the celebratory issue 100. Written by Kupperberg and Levitz, it was in its way the antithesis of everything Showcase ever stood for, an extended story, and a convoluted one at that, featuring as many people from the series history as could be crammed in and never mind coherence. The cover boasted sixty stars, but if you think I’m going to count… Actually, Levitz did that in the editorial pages and the numbering was correct, even to the only other appearance of Fireman Farrell. Off the top of my head I can’t remember anyone who got left out.
It was back to normal business from issue 101-103 with a three part Hawkman story, co-starring Hawkgirl and Adam Strange and introducing the idea of war between Rann and Thanagar. This came from Jack C Harris and Al Milgrom. Harris’s intent was space opera mixing the old Hawkman with the modern style, so he and Adam argue all the way through three issues. Meanwhile, the Equalizer plague (Justice League of America 117) that was keeping the Hawks on Earth as opposed to Thanagar was vanished in the background and replaced by a Thanagarian Queen who banished Katar and Shayera for not supporting her war against Rann. Plus ça change…
But once again Showcase hit the cancellation buffers, with issue 104 as the last. This time it was not necessarily the series’ own sales, though these obviously weren’t great, but rather the infamous DC Implosion that wiped out half the line in a day and almost did for DC completely. The honours went to O.S.S, Spies at War, like Enemy Ace an existing feature in one of the war books, put up as a possible spin-off at exactly the wrong time.
The cancellation, like all the rest, was abrupt. Issue 104 had Deadman billed for its follow up issue, and The Creeper would have starred in issue 106. Neither was published, at least not then. The Deadman story appeared in one of the Cancelled Comics Cavalcade mimeographed collections put out privately for the writers and artists whilst The Creeper saw print 32 years later, as part of a Graphic Novel reprinting Steve Ditko’s work on the character. They’re both on the DVD I have.
The Deadman story was quite promising, despite having to undergo two writers, Len Wein having only managed to produce half the story before being felled by a medical issue, requiring Gerry Conway to complete it without any idea of what Wein had planned. Jim Aparo held the whole thing together wonderfully.
And the Creeper was once again good fun.
The Deadman issue was copied from an actual comic book, including a letters page. It talks about future features. Somewhere on Earth-2, where there was no such Implosion, DC Comics published Gerry Conway’s new Western character, The Deserter, in issues 107-9, The World of Krypton and a three issue solo for The Huntress. There was also reference to an unnamed hero team from Len Wein. But we all know these stories never happened.
And that was the story of Showcase, in all its glory and ignominy. It’s almost an encapsulation of the Silver Age in itself but without it, would we still have DC Comics today? The answer to that may well be on Earth-3, but we don’t go there, not even in fun.

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Old Houses aren’t safe: House of Mystery – Part 2


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Back to see if the middle hundred of DC’s long-running House of Mystery show any signs of improvement or if I’m just in for more hours of inveterately dull reading.
At first sight, no. It’s practically all aliens, aliens, aliens and aliens, intermingled with the occasional monsters who look like aliens but who aren’t aliens. Aliens. Have you got it yet? Not once in these issues was there anything to write home about. Not until issue 143 (June, 1964) would the formula change and not until then would there be anything to write about but, repeat after me, aliens, aliens, aliens and aliens.
Alien invaders. Alien monsters. Aliens from different planets, aliens from different dimensions. Alien criminals. Alien policemen chasing alien criminals. Issue after issue after issue.
Things in suspended animation in caves, preserved for centuries by mysterious gases that vanish the moment the cave is breached, without causing any ill-effects.
From issue 126, Messrs Schiff and Boltinoff dropped out of the picture and George Kashdan was promoted to Editor. Again there was no discernible difference, but then was it wanted on a monthly title enjoying an average circulation of 224,000? But if that circulation dropped to an average of 175,000, as it had according to issue 131, might that indicate a need for a shake-up?
Whilst we wait for it, I was afforded a moment of amusement by issue 134, when the name of the villain in the opening story turned out to be that of one of my oldest mates.
The first sign of a shake-up came very quickly, with effect from issue 136, with the series reduced to eight-times-a-year frequency, on a two months on, one month off basis.

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Finally, and it only took until issue 143, House of Mystery achieved a serial character, in the form of J’Onn J’Onzz, the Martian Manhunter, arriving alongside new series editor Jack Schiff, taking a much more hands-on interest than before.
The story is complex, both on and off the page. The Manhunter had been the back-up feature in Detective since his debut in 1955 in issue 225. The series had changed in minor details down the years, the most significant being J’Onzz’s abandonment of his secret existence as a result of his involvement as the Superman-substitute in the early Justice League adventures.
Jack Schiff was the editor on Batman at this time. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, the Batman titles were encouraged to follow the example of the Superman stable, as managed by Mort Weisinger. The deeply unpleasant Weisinger was responsible for bringing Schiff to DC and had a hold over him. Weisinger was well in with Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, a power in the company. Schiff was a liberal, politically, which made him, in Weisinger-speak, a Pinko, the House Red. Weisinger liked having people under his thumb.
So we had the alien era of Batman, the silly, stupid, SF stories that were so unsuited to the characteristics of Batman. Schiff was doing as he was told, giving management what it wanted. Was he cynically showing them he could toe the line,or had he given up, blindly following orders? Either way, it might be what the management wanted, what the Superman fans wanted, but it wasn’t what the Batman fans wanted. Sales were falling away. Impossible as it is to imagine today, when every second comic DC publishes seems to be about him, in 1964, Batman was facing cancellation.
Julius Schwartz was good with superheroes, as his revivals had already demonstrated. Batman was given over into his care, with the results we are aware of today. Jack Schiff was given House of Mystery. Schwartz’s ideas for Batman did not include the Martian Manhunter so Schiff took the character with him.
There had very recently been a dramatic change in the series. Detective John Jones, the Manhunter’s assumed Earth-identity, had been ‘killed’ by the Idol-Head of Diabolu, a supernatural entity that generates monsters every full moon. Since tackling the Idol-Head is going to take up all of his time, J’Onzz decides not to establish a secret identity but set himself, and his alien pal Zook in a secret cave headquarters and try to locate the Idol-Head but in the meantime save everyone from the monthly monsters.
There are times when, just from the names alone, you can tell that something is a crappy idea. The best you can say for this set-up is that at least it’s thematically consistent with the rest of House of Mystery (the Martian Manhunter gets the cover and the prestigious back of the book story but the rest of the title is business-as-boringly-usual).
Apart from those early Justice League appearances, I am almost completely ignorant of J’Onn J’Onzz’s history or adventures. Zook was an unwelcome concept that I had known of but forgotten for a very long time. He’s that perennially bad idea, the cute-seeming alien sidekick and comic relief, unable to master anything but the most basic English. His cartoon face, for some reason, reminded me of nothing so much as Marlon, as drawn by Dennis Collins, in The Perishers. He’s small, orange furred, bare-bum naked, has powers that didn’t get used in this first story and I’m sure I’m going to be sick to the back teeth of him by the end of the next story.
As for the Idol-Head, it’s an obvious cheap idea – someone was following a subconscious prompting when they set it up in a junkyard – to start a procedural: when you create a Monster of the month you really don’t have to start thinking about your stories.
But look at that: I’ve written more about this one eight page story than the entire 42 preceding issues put together. At least I have something to write about now, even if I suspect it’s all going to be negative. Let’s move on.
Within two issues, the Manhunter’s role had doubled in length, a two-part story, upfront, with just one one-shot to back it up, or be ignored completely according to the reader’s preference. This, however, was an experiment Schiff was not immediately eager to repeat with the Manhunter back in the back, only to be found after digging through the two schtumers. The double-length story was repeated in issue 148. The Idol-Head was already boring me.
But the transplant was clearly in difficulties because the next issue chose to give its cover to one of the traditional stories, only flagging J’Onn above the title. He still stayed upfront, with the cover story going to the back – I can only conclude that this positioning was to et the kids to read all the way through to the end to find the story that has got them to buy the comic in the first place – and sandwiched between was a story with art by Alex Toth, a fine bonus.
On the other hand, the only thing significant about issue 150 was a story in which, for the first time in years, not just one but two women had speaking roles. Banal speaking roles, to be sure, but it was one hell of a shock nevertheless.
A two-parter in 151, a one-parter in 152: the latter didn’t feature Zook, which was some relief but also omitted the blasted Idol-Head, leaving it to be assumed to be the source of the monster that turned up. Add a new and slightly more simplistic artist and the only conclusion to be drawn is that this is one of the worst Silver Age superhero series ever.
Perhaps this was registering? Neither Zook nor Diabolu turned up next issue, just one of the Manhunter’s old enemies, evil scientist Professor Hugo. And in issue 154 Diabolu wasn’t even mentioned. Oh come now, they’re not just going to leave this one dangling, are they? Stop featuring Zook, let the Idol-Head just vanish, presumably spewing out its monster-of-the-month and nobody gives a toss?
Maybe so for Zook but not Diabolu, back next issue. It’s still the most tedious evil object in existence. It just drifts around, meaningless and motionless until, at full moon, the top of its head opens like a toilet seat and debouches a new evil monster, just as motiveless as all the others. Why? What does it get out of it? Is it just bored?

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But the Martian Manhunter was once again due to become a back-up character, with Diabolu and the return of Zook. Issue 156 introduced a brand new idea, out of the blue, unforeshadowed, unwarned. In the final part of my series on Adventure Comics I dealt with the Marv Wolfman/Carmine Infantino revival of ‘Dial ‘H’ for Hero’, and now it was time for the original.
Robby Reed is an ordinary, brainy, All-American kid in one of those sleepy, out of the way, slowpoke Mid-Western communities, this one called Littleville (because Smallville was already taken, we presume) that nevertheless hosts scientific plants just ripe for raiding by a super-scientific independent spy group called the Thunderbolt Syndicate, led by the red-hooded Mr Thunder.
But Robby, who has a habit of saying or thinking ‘Sockamagee!’ every second or third panel, falls through a cave roof and discovers an alien artefact that just happens to be shaped like a telephone dial without a telephone around it. All Robby has to do is dial the alien equivalent letters to H-E-R-O (aww! You guessed) and he is transformed into a super-powered hero. The catch, or the hook, is that it’s a different one every time. How long will imagination last?
It’s another of those mid-Sixties series I never actually picked up when I had the chance in the Sixties, like The Doom Patrol and the Challengers of the Unknown, or The Sea Devils for that matter. They were about. I saw such things in the spinner rack at the newsagents at Fiveways, or the flat racks near school, but my chances for purchases were limited, and I was not supposed to buy them full price (so I found a sneaky way round that prohibition), but if choice were limited, choice went with more favoured series, or any Justice Society character I saw.
The DC ‘Go-Go’ checks era started with issue 157. Robby Reed transformed into another trio of heroes, making his strip seem full and busy with the Martian Manhunter demonstrated the limited nature of his series by going back to Professor Hugo when Diabolu wasn’t around.
It only took three issues to get to the obvious story of a crook dialling V for VILLAIN, with an added touch of a suggestion that Robby’s gramps knew very well why he was continually late for meals. And in the back up, J’Onn J’Onzz finally caught up with the Idol-Head and smashed it for good… unless the readers wanted it back. Yes, they openly said that they’d bring it back if enough readers wrote in asking for it. Yeesh!
A letter column appeared for the first time in issue 159, full of praise from Robby Reed as the most original character ever in comics, whilst the Manhunter had another nondescript adventure, with aliens, before embarking upon a new direction. This involved pursuing the mysterious criminal organisation, Vulture, headed by a faceless man who J’Onn immediately dubbed Faceless. To do so, the Manhunter adopted the identity of the recently deceased playboy Marco Xavier (so recently his body hadn’t stopped burning).
Meanwhile Robby Reed paved the way for the short-lived return of a comic book legend by turning into Plastic Man in his story. He also turned into King Kandy, a hero whose powers were based in candy and sweets. It’s 1966. If I wanted to be charitable, I would describe this as goofy. On the other hand, if I really wanted to be charitable, I would not even have mentioned King Kandy.
But this ridiculous excuse for a superhero is just the beginning, and I should have known. 1966, the go-go checks, the Batman TV era, Marvel’s increasing and misunderstood popularity. It’s the Camp era and ‘The most original character in comics history’ is another exponent. The heroes Robby Reed inexplicably turns into are silly, the inventions of a writer who has lost all confidence in what he is doing, encouraged by an editor who gave up caring years ago, and who can sanction villains like Baron Bug and weapons like extra-strength flypaper. Goofy is not in it. It’s silly at best.
With this is mind, the Martian Manhunter’s back-up series, being played a little more straight, should be much better than it it but somehow it’s dull and predictable, in the same way that the Idol-Head business was. Vulture and Faceless are just an excuse for thinking, producing the same story every issue. Though just as I said that, issue 165 varied the formula in the only way they seem to know how, by bringing back Professor Hugo.
And this issue’s heroes were Whoozis, Whatzis and Howzis, which is beyond comment, save that the kids like this stuff: the current Statement of Circulation read 325,000 average, and this for a title still only pushing eight issues a year.
A stupid letter in issue 166 praised Dial H before saying that what it needed to be more ‘realistic’ was for Robby to get a girlfriend and have secret identity problems. In short, the series would be more fresh and different if it was identical to every other one. Comics audiences are like that: I remember sighing disgustedly at similar letters in Blue Devil and Wonder Woman in the late Eighties. What is wrong with them? They even want Zook back in Martian Manhunter, and sure enough he appeared the same issue.
That Suzy was going to Dial H for H-E-R-O-I-N-E in issue 169, becoming another Gem Girl after one had turned up in the 1967 JLA/JSA team-up, should have placed me on dickishness alert, because we sure got it. First, our likeable young lady sees Robby use his dial to become the Hoopster then, when he demonstrates to her how to use it, she becomes a superheroine. But instead of just enjoying it for thirty seconds like Robby plans she gets involved in battling the Toymaster. He doesn’t want her doing that so what happens? Two blows to the head, amnesia for the last hour or so and swearing to make sure it damned well never happens again. What is it with these creeps? Can’t blame Schiff for this one as the editorial reins were returned to George Kashdan as of this issue.
All this complaining, however, belies a new reality coming to transform the series into the one we fans who remember the business in the Seventies will always think of as House of Mystery. It was 1968. Joe Orlando, one of EC’s excellent stable of horror artists was free. New DC Editorial Director Carmine Infantino was interested in promoting more artists into editorships. And both DC and Marvel, after over a decade of strict restrictions, were chafing at the Comics Code Authority, pushing for relaxations, relaxations that would allow the companies to be both more realistic and more fantastic than before.
There was no sign of the forthcoming changes in issue 171, though the Robby Reed story should have been seen as a siren cry for cancellation. Sure, Robby and the H-Dial are popular, so much so that he and his logo dominate the masthead, with House of Mystery decidedly diminished, but the story involved one serious superhero and two disasters who weren’t even given a name. And the first one was near enough a rip-off of The Phantom Viking (maybe Jerry Siegel, writing the Spider and Gadgetman for Lion wasn’t so cut off from his former colleagues as he seems to have been, and clued Dave Wood in about Valiant).
But when one of Robby’s identities turned out to have the superpowers of a Go Go dancer, it’s time for a change.
And the circumstances were ripe. With issue 173, the series dropped to bi-monthly publication and, despite Robby’s presence above the title, it was the Martian Manhunter who led up the issue, whilst in the back a ton of ugly, ill-proportioned art was wasted on a dull story that demonstrated that, once the idea of three new superheroes per issue started scraping the bottom of the barrel, there really weren’t any ideas behind Dial H for Hero. And Suzy had become a non-speaking cypher.
The train hit the buffers in issue 173, the only issue of Robby’s run to have a cover I remembered, Robby half-angel, half-devil as his characters are temporarily influenced towards their own robberies. That’s how it ended, in mid-air. At least the Martian Manhunter got an ending as Faceless was revealed to be the most obvious and least logical person, the not-dead-after-all real Marco Xavier, who promptly destroys himself with a not-fully-tested Ultimate weapon. At least it was a conclusion, of sorts.

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The train hit the buffers in issue 173, the only issue of Robby’s run to have a cover I remembered, Robby half-angel, half-devil as his characters are temporarily influenced towards their own robberies. That’s how it ended, in mid-air. At least the Martian Manhunter got an ending as Faceless was revealed to be the most obvious and least logical person, the not-dead-after-all real Marco Xavier, who promptly destroys himself with a not-fully-tested Ultimate weapon. At least it was a conclusion, of sorts.
The change must have come as a shock, right from the cover and the new masthead: Do You Dare Enter The House of Mystery, with Mystery drawn in that jagged style reserved for horror. Inside were four short stories, all reprints though not from House of Mystery itself, and one was a Mark Merlin story, drawn in an Alex Toth style. Merlin was a regular in House of Secrets so I’ll be able to tell when I get to that title but this story may have been touched up because Merlin’s girl companion Elsa was wearing a skirt significantly shorter than any ever seen in this title to date: my god, the girl’s showing her knees!
Though the next issue started with a genuine HoM reprint, after a one page introduction to our new Host and story-teller, Cain, the Caretaker, it was dominated by a new story, drawn in a contemporary, quasi-comic style, about a little town, a little kid, two stone gargoyles and a sculptor under a curse. House of Mystery may well have reverted to its original format but with one crucial difference: this story was fresh. It was alive, it was undercut by a splendidly dark humour, in short it was fun. It didn’t slide out of the mind like water the moment you scrolled down to the next page. In short, this was something different.
And having Sergio Aragones draw Page 13 for you (it had been page 17 last issue) was a veritable giggle.
The comic looked better than it had ever done, with Neal Adams hauled in to do appropriately spooky covers. The formula of one reprint and one longer, new story was repeated in issue 176 and looked to be here to stay, though next issue’s was retouched to insert Cain at top and bottom. That also contained the first new letters page and judging by some of the comments, crayons all over America were being worn down.
Adams wasn’t just employed in drawing covers, he was drawing stories inside, at least one with Orlando inks. And whilst vampires, werewolves and ghouls were still not part of the fare, except on Aragones’ gag pages, the tales were now fully in the swing of ghost stories and curses, and even I, so not a horror fan, was being impressed by some of these.
Issue 180 was notorious for printing the infamous Mike Friedrich story, “His Name is Kane”, seven pages of nonstop mocking, sneering and ridicule of artist Gil Kane. The whole thing is vicious from start to finish, but it’s also pencilled by Kane himself. How much of a spoof it is has been debated down the years, but it is accurate to Kane’s known ambitions interests and opinions. Even if he was in on the gag, there’s something about the story that makes me look at it decidedly askance. Kane later confirmed that he was on the outs with Infantino at the time and realised, when he got the assignment, what it was intended to do. What can you say? Was the comic book industry ever free from pettiness, childishness and spite?
Even the first appearance in HoM of a story drawn by the great Berni Wrightson isn’t enough to dispel that.
On the other hand, a gorgeous piece of work from Wrightson illuminated issue 181, justifying all by itself the increase in cover price to 15c. I am not, and never have been, a horror buff, but Wrightson, even in this early phase, was an artist of genius and atmosphere and everything I’ve undergone getting to this point has ben worth it to feast my eyes on his work. It was Alex Toth’s turn next issue with a plug for House of Secrets being revived to set up opposite HoM, but without any Sergio Aragones, not even Page 13.
That was only one issue however. Wrightson again decorated issue 183 but the best story was a goofy little spook story with a twist I should have foreseen, which has been used since. This was drawn in splendidly OTT fashion by Jerry Grandenetti, whose work contains strong elements of cartoonish exaggeration. I thought it was great.
So why is House of Mystery so great now at the kind of story I was practically sleep-reading through in Part 1? The answer is obvious and simple, the difference between the staid and tied-down Fifties and the late Sixties. There’s no rigidity to HoM now. It’s not being held back by fear of fear. It’s being drawn by artists with differing styles, and written with imagination and flair, only lightly-inhibited (there’s still a CCA certificate on every cover, for a reason). But it’s being produced by people who like that they are doing, not merely doing a job.
There’s also the question of space. Two stories per issue allow room to breathe, do not rely on formulas. Toth and Gil Kane. Al Williamson. More Wrightson. A superb Neal Adams job to go with the covers he’s supplying every issue.
There was a mis-step, Orlando’s first, in issue 189, featuring a reprint I recognised immediately. Given the 48 page period is not too far ahead, I suspect I’m just going to have to live with these things.
There was only a fun-twist three pager from Wrightson in issue 191, but what was significant was the writer he was working with for the first time: Len Wein. Another name that would be associated with Wein made his HoM debut next issue, Jim Aparo, already drawing for Orlando on The Phantom Stranger.
The 25c 48 page era began with issue 194 and an elevation to monthly status for the first time. Two new stories, one drawn by Toth, the other a debut for Filipino artist Nestor Redondo, and two old, though I have my doubts about the provenance of one, which looked nothing like an Orlando-era art job but nevertheless featured an attractive black-haired woman in very abbreviated shorts.
More and more figures kept emerging. Mike Kaluta drew a two-page twist-ending tale for issue 195, which also featured Berni Wrightson drawing Moss Men: you know, sort of swamp things. Toth was one of the reprints next time out whilst Gerry Conway was the latest new contributor grossly overwriting and overwraughting a story to make Len Wein’s purplest vein look like a Janet and John Reader.
Suddenly though, the well seemed to run dry. Adams, Wrightson, Toth, this trio were replaced by blander artists, and the stories lost that manic sparkle. House of Mystery reached issue 200 cover-dated March 1972, with nothing special about its stories. Hopefully, this was just a phase. But it’s also the point where we end part 2. The answer will be available next time.

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Old Houses aren’t safe: House of Mystery – Part 1


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Once more unto a DC anthology series, a long-running series that stretches over three decades of existence, 321 issues in unbroken order, but a series that went through many and varying themes in its lifetime. It’s a series that straddled the entire Silver Age, indeed first appearing in that early Fifties period I’ve chosen to call the In-between Age. It’s a title that belies DC’s history of failure in that period, by being a title created between the end of the Golden Age and the first appearance of Showcase, and being a success. I speak, of course, of House of Mystery. Let’s go back to the very beginning.
The first issue, cover-dated November-December 1951, edited by Whitney Ellsworth, positioned itself as a horror anthology, with stories about marrying a witch, a female werewolf, and a frankensteinian murderous monster. Horror was big, especially from market leaders EC Comics, and House of Mystery was clearly an attempt to cash in on the market. But whereas EC were whole-hearted blood and gore producers, whose deep understanding of horror and their refusal to compromise would lead, in the near future, to their destruction, DC were mainstream. They were clean and wholesome. The witch wasn’t a witch, it was all coincidence that every boyfriend she kissed died. The female werewolf was also human, being drugged as part of an attempt to steal her fortune.
As for the monster, that was down to a chemical formula unleashing inhibitions, whilst the guy in the fourth story was scared of something he saw in the haunted house but died from carbon monoxide poisoning after forgetting to switch his car engine off.
Was this going to be the pattern? Spookiness undercut by rational explanations without any genuine supernatural elements? Very much so. A rational explanation was to be provided, though usually accompanied by enough maybe-maybe to suggest that something more was indeed going on.
It makes for weak stories that have no conviction in them, but horror was big and House of Mystery was an instant success, going from bi-monthly to monthly in just six issues. None of the one-off tales displayed any distinction, until the final story of issue 8, which was not out of the ordinary in any way except one: it was narrated by Mr Thirteen. Yes, Terry Thirteen, accompanied by his secretary Marie Leroux. Dr 13 had run in the last nine issues of Star-Spangled Comics and transferred here after that series was cancelled.
Though apparently it was only to use up one outstanding story, as his next appearance was in 1968, alongside The Phantom Stranger in Showcase.

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Already, by issue 10, the trappings of horror were falling by the wayside. EC were provoking controversy, DC wanted nothing to do with it. Mysteries were mysteries, and nothing but elaborate hoaxes. History would prove them right, aesthetics would turn its back on them.
Having said all that, issue 11 partially refuted me in the story ‘The Bewitched Clock’, which I’d read before as a reprint back-up in, I think, The Phantom Stranger, with a genuinely supernatural theme, a clock that allowed its owner to manipulate time only to trap him in a Groundhog Day 24 hour loop, only in total, unchangeable isolation.
It was the same in issue 12, three stories with over-complicated explanations for the supposedly supernatural circumstances, one without any rational explanation. That appeared to be just a one-off, or rather a two-off.
As an aside, in common with the other series of this era, this Inbetween Age, that I’ve read, there are half-pages devoted to DC’s Editorial Approval Board, that little panel of experts in children and their psychology that, in those pre-Comics Code Authority days, were the guarantee to the parents that their cute little monsters wouldn’t develop any psychoses as a result of reading a DC comic.It all sounds so quaint now. But each little reassurance was coupled with a complete list of all DC’s comics. I find these fascinating, as a picture of an era that’s scorned because it isn’t dominated by superheroes. Western, War, Funny Animals. Funny Teenagers. Mystery titles. Radio/TV show adaptations. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Even Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Just once I would love to read this panoply, all the issues for one month, to get an impression of the range. What DC were in, say, November 1953, two years before I was born. Just to gain an insight into what was thought entertainment for Americas children. How much might that explain?

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Back on point. Issue 20 included a story, ‘Mr Mortem’ that rips off Somerset Maugham’s famous epigraph, ‘Appointment in Samarra’ but was otherwise undistinguished.
Twenty issues is enough to pass a judgement on this early phase, and it’s not a positive one. There are four stories per issue, each setting up supernatural situations, some of which are led genuinely unexplained, but must of which end up being elaborate hoaxes, usually by the Police, to get murderers to confess, or with concrete explanations that try to leave open that sliver of doubt, that what-if-it-wasn’t-coincidence nod. Several of these hoaxes are impossibly complicated but the endless repetition of such outcomes makes the series dull: no sooner does a story start than you’re looking for the trick ending.
The one superstition theme the series hasn’t dealt with yet is vampires, but that’s hardly surprising: no vorvulka would have been seen dead around stories so bloodless.
Nor is the art anything special yet. It’s dull and drab and even the ghosts and demons are lacking in inspiration. Of the artists, I recognised one story drawn by a young Gil Kane, but the only artist signing their work was Ruben Moreira. What surprised me most was that, in a comic aimed at children, the overwhelming majority of the male characters were middle-aged or older, and looking like it. The women, of course, were young and fair.
Issue 26 made me think. It was cover-dated May 1954, the year of publication of Dr Frederic Wertham’s infamous Seduction of the Innocent and the convening of Senator Kefauver’s Committee examining juvenile Delinquency, which combined to put the blame on comics and shift it off everyone else’s shoulders. I don’t know when in the year the book actually appeared, or what was known about it in advance, but the first iteration of the Comics Code Authority would censor anything out of the horror tradition out of existence, crashing EC (whose owner, William Gaines, had proposed the self-regulation of the CCA in the first place) almost completely.
And House of Mystery, which padded its pages with short features on ‘real-life’ ghosts and mysterious goings on, suddenly ran a one-page cartoon featuring Professor Eureka. A scientist, with no irrationality involved (except among those who thought it was funny). Hmm.
Though if Eureka’s arrival was foreshadowing anything, it wasn’t soon in coming as the series continued unchanged. It wasn’t until the end of 1955, early 1956, issues 46-48, that a couple of SF stories started to get slipped in, amongst the fake mystical and the was it reallys to draw away from the horror style. And issue 49 had no mystical stories whatsoever, just pure science from start to finish.

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But after fifty issues, at four stories an issue, House of Mystery had failed to produce even one story that was memorable. So far, this is not turning out to be worth my time. And as I read on, it seemed like the stories without even a suggestion of the supernatural were even blander than before. There isn’t even any kind of quantifiable categories to which stories can be assigned, which could at least be said of the non-series stories in Mystery in Space.
However, issue 61 bucked the trend by reverting to the mystical, with not a single rational explanation in sight, though the most (only) interesting thing about it was that the last story was drawn by Jack Kirby.
Kirby was back in issue 63 and again in 65, lending an air of distinction to the magazine. It’s not prime Kirby, and the stories are too restrained and plain to be his writing, but it’s Kirby and that’s enough. He was next seen in issue 70.
It took until issue 82 to get a change of pace, when the series switched from four six-page stories per issue to three eight-pagers. There was no immediate difference to the content from a thirty-three percent increase in length. We’re definitely a Science Fiction anthology now, with very little pretence otherwise and though Whitney Ellsworth is still credited as editor, I suspect the hand of an assistant with the initials JS. Incidentally, I was amused to see that the star of the first story was Detective Martin Crane, though there was no suggestion that he spoke with a Droylsden accent.
However, my assumption looks to have been terribly wrong for, with effect from issue 83, editorship passed to Jack Schiff, with Murray Boltinoff and George Kashdan listed as Associate Editors.
Kirby was back with the cover story for issue 84, about a ‘Negative Man’, an energy being, emerging from a scientist’s body in a manner that suggested a possible source of inspiration for the Doom Patrol. And he had the same spot next issue with a story about ancient stone sentinels that foreshadowed his forthcoming departure to Martin Goodman’s unnamed company to work on Stanley Leiberman’s monster tales.
And the change in editorial control made no discernible difference to the content or quality of the stories.

HoM91

House of Mystery‘s 100th had a cover date of July 1960. Nearly one-third of the full run is an appropriate point to end Part 1 and consider what we’ve had to date. Which, in my eyes, is not much at all. The stories featured a giant Aztec warrior who was really an American using ‘old’ science to steal Aztec gold, the rationalist Mayor of a superstitious Mexico town exposing its legends of a curse by hiring an illusionist to create and explode them and a monstrous beast from an alien planet temporarily running ravage on Earth.
Is this really only me? There’s not a worthwhile idea in any of those three tales, and the hundredth issue is no better or worse than the ninety-nine that came before it. After one hundred issues, the only thing I’ve found of significance is less than half a dozen stories drawn by Jack Kirby. Yet this is a very successful title, appearing monthly. Nor am I unfamiliar with the Fifties and with its entertainment. So why has nothing been remotely satisfying?
Is it really as simple as there being no serial characters? No returning figures about whom further stories can be told? Every single story has no consequence beyond its final page, it’s sixth, eighth, ninth. In such limited spaces, with a gimmick or twist ending to be set up, executed and rationally explained, there is no room for the least personality trait. What cannot think or feel cannot inspire the empathy that lies behind every successful story.
What I’ve seen so far is an anthology title that tried to piggy-back off the horror boom initiated by EC Comics, but crippled both by DC’s self-sought image as the most mainstream of mainstream comics, the company whose titles guaranteed you could leave Little Johnny alone with them without reading them first, and by the company’s inbuilt instinct for science-oriented rationalism that refused to allow anything stronger than a well-maybe ending.
Then, in mid-decade, with EC destroyed for wanting to be serious, with the Comics Code Authority hamstringing the business, the title slid into being a cheap, unimaginative SF series paying the lippest of lip service to any supernatural explanations, with pot-boiler shorts that live or more usually die by their ‘twist’ endings. The series was merely primus inter pares with stable-mates such as Strange Adventures, My Greatest Adventure, Tales of the Unexpected, and its own shadow, House of Secrets.
There are two more parts of this to follow, and House of Secrets after that. Aren’t you glad I’m doing this, not you?

To be Brave and Bold: the Team-ups Phase


The cover date was October/November 1963, the editors were Murray Boltinoff and George Kashdan and the theme of The Brave and the Bold was now team-ups: the features you asked for. I take that with a pinch of salt, for I cannot see the comic book readers of late 1963, the remaining days of President John Kennedy’s life, wanting above all to see a team-up between The Green Arrow and The Martian Manhunter.
But these are honourable men, and who are we to doubt them?
From here and for a very long time, the series will be written by Bob Haney, a good, solid, professional writer but not one who, how shall we put it, paid undue attention to continuity. DC may not have had continuity as we know it in 1963, but Haney still cared less about what they had. For instance, the Martian Manhunter was accidentally trapped on Earth after being teleported by Dr Erdel’s Robot Brain, which then shorted out, stranding him here. However, Haney has him using the Robot Brain to teleport to Mars for advice and assistance about the Martian villains he and Green Arrow are facing.
It would be like this all along. Mind you, this was almost a highlight of a stupid, cliched and just plain rotten story that was no sort of introduction to the new(er) Brave & Bold.

Your obvious first choice

Aquaman and Hawkman was another non-natural pairing in issue 51, with the story clunking to try to make the air-sea combination work, but issue 52 was a glorious piece of work. Instead of the advertised Flash/Atom team-up, Robert Kanigher dropped in to edit and write a 3 Battle Stars story, with magnificent Joe Kubert art bringing together four of DC’s War comic stars, Johnny Cloud, the Haunted Tank, Sergeant Rock and, a surprise guest, Mlle. Marie. It put the two previous issues to shame, and easily. Kanigher was always on his best form with the War stories.
The Atom/Flash team-up duly arrived next issue and, apart from splendid Alex Toth art, was the usual sloppy mess. Part of Haney’s problem is his refusal to provide adequate explanations: things happen to complicate the heroes’ battle and then are dispensed with in a throwaway line. For instance, Flash loses his speed at one point and is captured, but regains it when he’s freed by the Atom, ‘because the planet has given it him back’.
The title had only spawned one successful series in its formal ‘try-out’ phase, so issue 54’s team-up of ‘junior’ heroes was ironic. This brought together Kid Flash, Aqualad and Robin in a story that started the Teen Titans, though as yet nameless. It would take the addition of Wonder Girl and a couple more appearances to seal the deal.
Not that the story was much good, especially from the point of view of the dialogue, especially the teens’ hip slang, the beginning of a long road of embarrassingly awful writing.

Not yet the Teen Titans

Kashdan did a solo job in issue 56, bringing together another bizarre pairing in the Metal Men and The Atom, before devoting the next two issues to try-outs again, in the form of Metamorpho, created by Haney and artist Ramona Fraden, whose bright, cartoony style is perfect for the oddball Element Man. This would extend the series’ success rate when Metamorpho got his own, albeit short-lived series. Everything’s there from the very beginning: the Metamorpho of the current The Terrifics is the Metamorpho of B&B 57-58.
Issue 59 provided a foretaste of the future in teaming up two of DC’s biggest heroes for the first time, Batman and Green Lantern. I was delighted to read this effort, having remembered it’s excellent title – ‘The Tick-Tock Traps of the Time-Commander’ – from the Sixties: I love the chance to find what lies behind some of these covers that impressed me in the house ads of the time.

A great title

The Teen Titans – named and a foursome – returned in issue 60 for a teen-supporting adventure in which the colourist got Kid Flash’s uniform badly wrong (hint, it’s not all yellow), but issue 61 is the one that’s most special to me, the first Brave & Bold I bought on one of those Saturday afternoons in Droylsden, working industriously through the newsagent’s spinner rack, anxious to make the best choice with the shilling I’d been given.
After The Atom, Julius Schwartz had announced that he would not be doing any more new versions of Justice Society members. Instead, he turned to actual revivals, starting with a two-issue run in Showcase for Doctor Fate and Hourman. Now he took over B&B for two issues teaming up Starman and Black Canary, all with scripts by Gardner Fox and art from Murphy Anderson. I loved this first one, and still have it (autographed by Schwartz) over fifty years later.
It was billed as the first team-up between the two characters (who had never been contemporaries in the JSA), which it is only if you discount their joint appearance in the 1964 JLA/JSA team-up. Starman’s Gravity Rod has now been upgraded to a Cosmic Rod, Dinah Drake has married Larry Lance, Starman’s arch-enemy The Mist, who didn’t feature in any of the stories on the Adventure Comics DVD, is back with an ingenious plan: it was pure heaven for me back in 1966, and I still love it now.

A lifelong favourite

The second story doesn’t hold anything like the meaning for me as I didn’t read it until much later (though I did see it in that same spinner rack, when I obviously found something else more compelling). The heroes turned out against two now-married villains, Green Lantern’s Sportsmaster and Wildcat’s Huntress, with the Big Cat making his first post-Golden Age appearance in a fun cameo.
Sadly, nothing came of either pair’s revival in terms of series: though JSA team-ups would carry on for nearly two more decades, the Golden Age revival was already showing signs of running out of steam.
Kashdan and Haney were back in issue 63, teaming Supergirl and Wonder Woman in a story so chauvinistic, condescending, demeaning and flat-out vile that I’m not even going to admit it exists: permanent karmic burden for both of them and the artist.
After that, anything would have been an improvement. What we got was hero vs villain, Batman and Eclipso in a confusing and in parts ridiculous story based on Batman falling for a red-headed heiress, first romantically then as a con, made much worse by the sudden arrival of corny dialogue that could have come straight out of the forthcoming TV series. It was horrendous.
On the other hand, the Flash’s team-up with the Doom Patrol – really as a fill-in for Negative Man – was well done and contained some intelligent points about the team’s dynamics, though a bit fewer uses of the word ‘freaks’ would have been welcome.
Another bizarre but oddly appealing team-up was Metamorpho and the Metal Men in issue 66, followed by another ‘big-guys’ story, with Batman (for the third time) and The Flash. This was, in many ways, an archetypal Haney B&B story, with a life-shattering menace being raised and disposed of in a lazy manner. Batman requires Flash’s help to combat a gang of speedsters in Gotham, but Flash’s speed is killing him, burning his body out from within. The ‘threat’ is negated by the fact this isn’t taking place in Flash’s series, where we might take it seriously. And it’s resolved by a miraculous and implausible ‘cure’ from the villains’ own power source (irony that’s what it is, irony). No way is anything remotely serious going to happen in Brave & Bold.
And it was a sign of the forthcoming times that Batman was back again one issue later, this time alongside Metamorpho, in another piece of nonsense that sees the Caped Crusader converted into Bat-Hulk (don’t ask). The TV series was big, the movie was just coming out, Batman who, two years earlier, was facing cancellation, was on a roll. People wanted to read him.
All told, there were going to be five consecutive issues of Batman teaming up with someone else, such as Green Lantern again, against another, less memorable Time Commander plot, Hawkman in a ridiculous tale about a Collector trying to collect their secret identities, and The Green Arrow in a story about Indian tribes that just about managed to avoid being patronising.
The waters having been tested, and found to be pleasurably warm, The Brave and The Bold reverted to its role in providing random team-ups for two final issues. The first connected the Earth-1 Flash to The Spectre on Earth-2 (Barry’s just visiting, but not his fellow-Flash but rather his ‘old buddy’ – one JSA team-up – the Spectre: besides, everyone on Earth-2 recognises Barry-Flash). The last brought Aquaman and The Atom together in a non-team-up in which each hero got half the story.
And with issue 73, the third phase of B&B came to an end. It’s fourth phase has already been heavily foreshadowed, and this phase would last until the comic’s end, in the distance in issue 200. I’ll cover that loooong phase in the last part of this series.