Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
Anybody here seen my old friend Rex? Can you tell me where he’s gone?

Anybody here seen my old friend Rex? Can you tell me where he’s gone?

(Title should be sung to the tune of Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John” of course).

I’m now into 1968 in my Silver Age reread, though I still have some comics from ’67 to discuss in future posts. As I’ve previously written, 1968 was a year of change at both Marvel and DC (and Charlton too, as Steve Ditko’s line of superheroes got axed). Marvel ended its distribution deal with DC which freed it to expand the line. DC lost the cash cow that was the Batman TV show but also introduced several new series and rebooted others. Unsurprisingly, other DC series ran their course, such as Metamorpho.

The Element Man debuted at the end of 1964, going to series about five months later. Eighteen months after that they tried shaking up the series by introducing Urania Blackwell, the Element Girl, as a rival for Sapphire Stagg.Just a few months later, with Metamorpho #16, Bob Haney tried another shakeup (Sal Trapani provided the art). In the opening we learn that in the time since the previous issue, Sapphire Stagg has gone from Rex Mason’s sweetheart to marrying rich handsome Wally Bannister, a character we’ve never even met before. Even as a kid that was startling (and not in a good way) and Haney offers us zero explanation. Sapphire’s father Simon sneers that a hired hand like Metamorpho wasn’t worthy of his daughter but he’s not an objective witness.

We do see Sapphire crying that Rex didn’t care enough to say goodbye before she and Wally leave on their honeymoon. As a kid (and still) I wondered if that meant her heart was still invested in the “fab freak of a thousand changes” and that her father had pushed her into the marriage. Then again, maybe Haney was trying to show her as a spoiled, self-centered rich kid who didn’t deserve Rex’s love. It doesn’t feel that way but given how the next issue played out — well, keep reading.

Rex is at a loose end when he’s contacted by Mr. Shadow (no relation to Lamont Cranston, Shadow Thief or Marvel’s Warlord Kaa, in case you were wondering).His offer gives Rex something to do but it turns out there are hidden agendas at play (anyone shocked? I didn’t think so). Ma-Phoor may be lost but it’s still occupied. The ruler is the immortal Queen Jezeba, a Sapphire lookalike who believes Rex is her long lost lover, a previous element man named Algol. This is, of course, a freaky basis for a relationship but it’s a way for Rex to finally get the girl … sort of … so what the heck?

The heck turns out to be that Ma-Phoor has an arsenal of futuristic weaponry and Jezeba now expects her husband to lead her army in the conquest of the world. Rex plays along until he can destroy the army only to have Jezeba stop him with a duplicate of Simon Stagg’s Orb of Ra (fashioned from the same mineral that created Metamorpho, it’s his kryptonite). Fortunately once she’s away from Ma-Phoor her immortality fades and she drops dead (Haney doesn’t explain this but even as a kid I kind of understood it). Rex drops the army into a chasm but then Mr. Shadow appears with the Orb — now Rex must dance to his tune!

Only at the start of the next issue Mr. Shadow disappears with the orb while an army of cops shows up to arrest Rex for murder. Sapphire saw him throw Wally off their cruise ship to drown in the ocean; with Rex’s obvious motive and eyewitness testimony he ends up sentenced to perpetual suspended animation. It would have made more sense to execute him with Stagg’s Orb but this issue’s supposed to reboot the series, not finish it. Urania thaws him out only to face the Prosecutor, a villain-for-hire who specializes in eliminating his clients’ enemies by framing them. Someone wanted Rex to face a murder charge, bingo, the Prosecutor delivered! Presumably the Prosecutor arranged for all those cops to conveniently find Rex outside a lost city in the middle of the desert because that was otherwise some mind-blowing police work.

In the course of tracking the Prosecutor, Rex and Urania meet Algol, still alive after two millennia. With his elemental powers long-faded, Algol grew jealous of Rex having the fame he thought should be his; he agreed to murder Wally in return for the Prosecutor helping him regain his powers. Instead he winds up dying in a volcano, telling the surviving Element Couple not to lose their moral compass like he did. Rex, realizing Sapphire must have known it wasn’t him who killed Wally, gives up on her and on his quest to regain his humanity: he and Element Girl swear by Algol to use their powers for good.

Of course Rex is still wanted for murder so forcing the truth from the Prosecutor is a must. They catch up with him just as his unseen client, aware Metamorpho is running free, has negated the Prosecutor’s protective force-field to finish the man off. Can our heroes save him and clear Rex’s name?

I presume so, but we’ll never know. DC axed the book with this issue, leaving the plotlines hanging. When we meet Metamorpho again it’s 1972’s Brave and the Bold #101 and Haney’s reverted his creation to the status quo, dating Sapphire and feuding with her father. Element Girl wouldn’t appear again until Death offs her in an issue of Sandman. I’m guessing Haney wasn’t fond of the reboot and went back to the series’ original set-up, but that’s only a guess.

I’m none too fond of it either. As a kid I thought Sapphire’s sudden marriage to a character I’d never seen was abrupt, but the final issue goes in such completely different directions it made the marriage feel like the result of a year’s foreshadowing. From the easy way Rex gives up Sapphire (even given Trapani draws Sapphire in her last appearances as if she were one of Innsmouth’s amphibian people) to the sudden disappearance of Mr. Shadow it’s like Haney was trying to reboot his reboot. Perhaps it would all have made sense with Part Three but we’ll never know, will we?

#SFWApro. Art by Ramona Fradon (top), Jack Sparling (bottom) and Trapani in-between.


  1. Le Messor

    I think I got the title song right, but I conflated it a bit with Where Have All The Flowers Gone?. Also, my copy of Abraham, Martin And John is by Marvin Gaye, but I assume it’s a cover?

    Looking at Mr. Shadow, I suspect he is related to Lamont Cranston at least by inspiration.
    Just as Ma-Phoor seems to owe more than a little to H. Rider Haggard.
    (So, the queen looks exactly like Stagg and has an Orb exactly like his? Are they connected? Is her immortal man’s first name Ray? Ray Algol?)

    “Rex, realizing Sapphire must have known it wasn’t him who killed Wally

    How did he figure it out?

    1. Gaye was a cover, yes.
      2)Yes, Ma-Phoor is very much in the Haggard Lost Race tradition, just as Jezeba seems to owe something to “She” (although it could be Lost Horizon, where anyone who leaves Shangri-La reaches their true physical age).
      3)I think he figured it out by authorial fiat. Possibly Haney meant “She should have trusted me” but seriously, she saw an Element Man murder her husband — why would she think “Wait, it must be some other element man!” But clearly Haney and/or his editor wanted her out the way, so …

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