Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

One alien leaves, another one moves in

Recently I was thinking about the idea the New X-Men in 1975 represent the start of the Bronze Age (as discussed here) and whether that perception is a generational thing. Or to put it another way, a matter of timing.

I’m now up to 1968 in my Silver Age reread. Just as I remembered, the changes cane thick and fast that year. New series that depart from the usual, such as DC’s Secret Six and Enemy Ace (finally going to series after several tryout issues). Marvel breaking free of its DC distribution agreement, allowing it to expand its line. Down the road in ’68 books will be canceled, writers will leave, Wonder Woman gets stripped of her powers. More change followed in subsequent years, setting the distinctive features of the Bronze Age in place. By the time the New X-Men debuted, the Silver Age was clearly in the rearview mirror.

But that’s the perspective of someone old enough to be reading comics in that era. For someone who got into comics in the late 1970s or the 1980s, how much of that really seems significant? The Secret Six were a forgotten flop. Wonder Woman’s de-powered era was a footnote, as were the departures of Arnold Drake and Gardner Fox from DC. Claremont’s X-Men, but contrast, remained a titan, a huge, honking big deal. It wouldn’t be surprising if X-fans looked back and identified his work as the point where comics broke away from Ye Olden Days of the Silver age.

Case in point, House of Mystery #173, the final issue for both Robby Reed and J’Onn J’Onzz. As a Robby Reed fan — and a Manhunter from Mars fan to a lesser extent —  it was a seismic shock for me to pick up the next issue and discover they weren’t in it. As the change wasn’t discussed in either 173 or 174, I spent quite a bit of time flipping through 174 and wondering why the book was suddenly so different. What the heck was going on?

What was going on, of course, was that Joe Orlando took over as editor and correctly divined that an old-school horror anthology with a creepy host would sell better than the superheroes did. The new House of Mystery did so well it touched off a boom in horror anthologies at DC, and in horror hosts: Destiny in Weird Mystery Tales, the three witches of The Witching Hour, Abel in House of Secrets and the Mad Mod Witch in Tales of the Unexpected (they can’t all be stars, you know).

I may not have known what was coming but I wonder if Dial H scribe Dave Wood did. The last three stories were half-hearted work, as if he’d given up; in the second of the trio Wood doesn’t even name two of the superheroes. And both that story and the one in #173 depend on a glitch in the Dial’s operation for their plot, an easy premise. Jim Mooney had been replaced by worse artists and the page count had dropped from 15 pages to sharing 50/50 with the Martian Manhunter —that can’t have boded well, whether or not it was related to the eventual change.

J’Onn J’Onzz did get to wrap up his long-running battle with the Vulture crime cartel, but he didn’t wrap it up well. In Jack Miller’s final story, “So You’re Faceless” (with Joe Certa on the art) the leader of Vulture — Mr. V, AKA Faceless —

— assigns playboy and occasional Vulture agent Marco Xavier to steal an experimental disintegrator ray from a friend’s house. Little does Faceless know that Xavier is the Martian Manhunter, having stepped into Marco’s shoes after the real Marco burned to death in a car crash. As Xavier’s buddy keeps the ray-gun lying around for anyone to pick up, it’s simple for J’Onn to steal it. Due to bad luck, his initial plan to track the courier taking it to Faceless goes awry. When he finally does locate Vulture HQ, Mr. V pulls off his mask to show who he really is — Marco Xavier, alive and well!

All along Faceless knew “Marco’s” true identity and he’s also learned his weakness to fire: paralyzing J’Onn with a blow-torch, he makes him the first target of the disintegrator — farewell, Martian fool! J’Onn gasps out that the ray-gun is unstable but Xavier doesn’t listen — and as a result Vulture HQ goes boom. J’Onn’s war against the crime syndicate is done.

As a kid of 10 this baffled me. J’Onn said very clearly in the first Vulture story that Marco Xavier was dead — no way he could have survived! Surely the Martian Manhunter couldn’t be wrong? Ah, youth; as an adult, I realize how naive I was about the ease of cheating death in comic books.

It’s other things that bedevil me now, primarily the insanity of Marco stringing J’Onn along. He talks about wanting the perfect trap for J’Onn but Manhunter’s year-long battle with Vulture smashed so many schemes, that doesn’t make sense. Why not put a bullet in the Martian’s brain while he’s in vulnerable human form?  My guess is that faced with the end of the series, Miller whipped up an ending fast and couldn’t think of anything better.

Losing their steady gigs didn’t work out well for either Robby or J’Onn. Robby Reed vanished into oblivion except for a handful of appearances, most notably in the early 2000 series H-E-R-O (for my money the best of the efforts to revive the H-Dial concept with a different lead). After Denny O’Neil wrote J’Onn out of the Justice League in 1969 he made nothing but occasional guest appearances in various books for the run of the Bronze Age. Gerry Conway, however, brought him back in ’84 to become part of the Detroit League and he’s been around ever since, more successfully than he ever was in the Silver Age.

Like I said, all of that was a game-changer to me as a kid but I imagine it’s ancient history and bar trivia to anyone who wasn’t there. And (probably most people who were — if there’d been more Robby Reed fans, he’d have stuck around.

While we’re on the subject of aliens, I’ll mention that the Kree captain Mar-Vell, AKA Marvel’s first Captain Marvel, debuted late in 1967. As has been well-documented, Martin Goodman wasn’t aspiring to anything beyond securing the trademark to the Captain Marvel name. Depending on which acccount I’ve read, it could be a reaction to M.F. Enterprises’ superhero of that name—— or to rumors DC wanted to revive the original Big Red Cheese, as happened several years later. Either way, the story by Stan Lee and Gene Colan reads exactly like what it was, something churned out on orders. Very talky, setting up the characters, their relationships and Mar-Vell’s mission for the Kree ——and dialog stiffer than anything Lee would have allowed himself in Spider-Man or Fantastic Four. It’s lucky for us that Mar-Vell spying on the military ——triggers a brief fight because that’s the only action we get. Things pick up the following issue with Roy Thomas taking over the scripting, and the debut of Cape Kennedy security head Carol Danvers. Still, if not for Goodman’s lust for the name, I can’t believe this would have gone to series.

Again, though, does any of this matter looking back? From what little I’ve seen of the series (courtesy of the Marvel app, I’ll be seeing a lot more for this reread), the strip was forgettable until Jim Starlin came on board. Mar-Vell himself died in 1982 (and stayed dead) which is more than forty years ago. Further in the past than Action #1 was when Mar-Vell first appeared. Do new readers today care about him and his genesis when Carol owns the mantle?

#SFWApro. Art (top to bottom) by Gil Kane, Frank Springer, Sal Trapani, Joe Orlando, Joe Certa, Gene Colan, unknown, and Colan x2


  1. DarkKnight

    From what I’ve read about when the Bronze Age started, it’s considered to start in 1970 with Marvel publishing Conan the Barbarian 1 and DC publishing the first issue of the Denny O’Neil/Neil Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow run.

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