Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

DC does comics the Marvel way … maybe

Fathoming the why of creative decisions is tricky, particularly in the comic-book industry. We have the writer, the editor, the artist, higher-ups at the company; sometimes they’re on the same page, sometimes they’re pushing against each other, sometimes they have a vision, sometimes they’re doing what they’re told, sometimes they’re just filling the next issue. So while the DC comics I’m blogging about today seem like a reaction to Marvel’s increasing success, maybe not.

By late 1966, it had to be obvious Marvel was a stronger competitor for kids’ loose change than anyone else in the market. On the other hand, as Tom Brevoort has mentioned in several posts (I don’t have specific links), Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen sold more books than Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four. Perhaps DC didn’t care and the stories I’m looking at had other inspirations. Undoubtedly different individuals reacted differently. Jim Shooter has been open about mimicking Marvel in his work and Mort Weisinger was clearly okay with that; the rest of the Superman team kept doing things the way they’d always done.

All that said, let’s look at Green Lantern #49 by John Broome and Gil Kane.The superhero side of “The Spectacular Robberies of TV’s Master Villain” is solid stuff. The Dazzler is the supervillain star of a “camp” TV show (yep, more of TV’s Batman influencing the comics), but now he’s robbing for real. However the actor, Ken Baldwin, was shooting live when the robberies went down so clearly it’s not him in the scene below.After nosing around, Hal discovers Peters, the show’s F/X man, is an alien who became stage-struck upon learning about Earth theater. He fled his world to break into showbiz but had to settle for backstage work. Baldwin learned about his powers and talked Peters into becoming Ancient One to Baldwin’s Baron Mordo. Peters is now Baldwin’s puppet; the actor’s powers include creating a duplicate to perform in the show while he pulls off the robberies.

It’s the character stuff, however, that makes the issue stand out. After returning from a space mission, Hal learns Barry Allen just got married (Flash #165) which inspires him to propose to Carol. Before he can get the words out, Carol tells him she just met a man named Jason Belmore, fell in love, and accepted his proposal. She’s conflicted about it but Hal’s been gone so often lately (due to his Green Lantern duties of course) he’s no longer in the running.

Hal does not take it well.It’s only his buddy who keeps him from going full “Spider-Man … No More!” And half a year before Spidey tried giving up, no less.Hal’s efforts to win Carol for himself rather than as Green Lantern have previously had a rom-com quality to them. Here it feels much more like the anguish Peter Parker went through losing Betty Brant, or that Matt Murdock feels about Karen Page. Except that Broome has Hal walk out at the end of the issue, quitting his job and driving out of Coast City … forever! So much for drama. As Commander Benson says, Marvel would have mined Hal’s emotional pain for months, at least. They’d also have taken more time to set up the Hal/Carol confrontation — introduce Jason, have Hal miss dates because he’s off in space, leading step by step to the break-up. Romantic suspense, rather than a sudden romantic shock.

Hal becoming a restless drifter didn’t generate that kind of drama. The following issue shows Hal’s still in torment, still conflicted about being Green Lantern: damn it, he’s going to do all he can to stop bad guys without using the power ring! He’ll prove he’s a man, not just a costumed crimefighter!(Those cute names in the credit box also seem like a strong Marvel influence).

Gil Kane has said he wanted to do more mano-a-mano action on the book rather than power-ring stunts and by this point he’s been doing that for a while: Green Lantern and his adversary cancel each other’s powers out so they switch to brute force. With this issue it became an aspect of Hal’s character … that like his going walkabout lasted for that issue, no more. #51 has Hal in the 58th century again; #52 is a flashback. In #53 he’s settled in as an insurance adjuster, no longer a drifter, no longer worried about Hal Jordan’s worth as a man. A few issues later he gets a girlfriend who isn’t torn between him and his alter ego. All that sturm and angst and we end up with a duller version of the status quo and less of a supporting cast. I don’t know if they changed their mind mid-stream or what but the book definitely suffered.

Arnold Drake on Doom Patrol, by contrast, nailed the Marvel style better than anyone. While there’s a long-standing argument that Doom Patrol ripped off X-Men (outcast freaks form a super-team!) or vice versa there’s no question DP was the better series. They also connected with me more than the Marvel books did. In hindsight that may be because the found-family aspect — four lonely people bonding together — meant more to me than I realized at the time (I got a similar vibe from Cap’s Kookie Quartet, my favorite Marvel book at the time).

“Kid Disaster” in #`108 (by Drake and Bruno Preminai) isn’t any more Marvel-influenced  than usual for the series. However, it’s an issue that shook me as a kid (hence wanting to blog about it), and was better plotted than I realized. It’s part two of three and #107, which I hadn’t read, had a lot of set-up

When Garfield “Beast Boy” Logan showed up he made the standard teen complaints about his guardian, Galtry: he doesn’t understand me, he’s so mean, he’s looting my inheritance (okay, that one’s not so standard). The team brushed this off but Rita discovered Gar wasn’t bullshitting. Her gazillionaire hubby Steve Dayton sets his people to work figuring out Galtry’s finances with an eye to hitting him where it hurts.

In #107 we learn it’s not happening. A mysterious Swiss banker is pouring money behind Galtry’s allies, keeping them strong when Dayton applies the pressure. How mysterious? Well, take a look at this outfit, which is not exactly business casual.

Meanwhile the DP is dealing with a renegade mecha, Ultimax, on a rampage against humanity. Ultimax kicks Robotman’s butt, shrugs off the Chief’s efforts to shut it down and shrinks Rita into the microverse. She struggles with the hostile natives until the Chief shrinks Mento down with the tools to bring her back.

In “Kid Disaster” it turns out this is all connected. When Negative Man and Robotman go up against Ultimax, the robot turns out to be house the Brain, leader of the Brotherhood of Evil. Garguax, the Brain’s alien ally, traps Negative Man.The banker is Monsieur M’Allah, who takes down Dayton; Madame Rouge captures Elasti-Girl when she tries to help her husband. It’s all a big trap and had I read it from the previous issue, I still wouldn’t have seen it coming. The Brotherhood brings the team together and — well, look and tremble.Gar arrives a few minutes too late to help.This had a huge impact on me as a kid. I think I knew they couldn’t really die while the book was still coming out but still, I couldn’t see any way out for them. None. How could they have survived? As it turns out next issue — which maddeningly, I didn’t find until years later — Madame Rouge has fallen for the Chief and she set the phasers on stun. Her redemption and the couple’s romance would become a major part of the book before it bit the dust and the team died again.

My final comic is Metamorpho #10 which like the Green Lantern above injects some romantic drama into the Element Man’s life. Adding Urania Blackwell, Element Woman, to the cast could have been a Marvel imitation but it feels more Clark/Lois/Lana or Archie/Betty/Veronica.

“The Sinister Snares of Stingaree” (Bob Haney, Sal Trapani) doesn’t lack for drama: in the middle of Rex and Sapphire’s wedding, Blackwell, a former US intelligence agent, challenges Rex to work with her against Stingaree, leader of the international crime cartel Cyclops (much like Stan Lee and the Secret Empire, Haney had another Bondian group, O.G.R.E. but for some reason used an interchangeable evil organization here). She’s so determined to destroy Cyclops’ overlord Stingaree that she exposed herself to the meteor that created Metamorpho, becoming Element Woman. Shaken by her sacrifice, Rex tells Sapphire the wedding would have to wait (now that I’m a married man I think postponing the wedding like that is absolutely shitty behavior).

The two freaks defeat Cyclops but not before Stingaree poisons Element Woman with the deadly chemical cocktail of his sting (chemical attacks are one of the few things she and Rex can’t withstand). She spends two issues in a coma, then becomes a romantic rival to Sapphire; in the last couple of issues Sapphire marries someone else and Rex and Urania become crimefighting (at least) partners, a Hail Mary that didn’t avert cancellation.

As romantic rivals go, Urania ain’t much. Sapphire and Rex were clearly passionate about each other; Element Woman presumably wants him because she’s a freak, he’s a freak … and that’s about it. I may not be alone in this: Sapphire plays a role in every Metamorpho revival or reboot, Element Woman’s only noteworthy appearance post-Silver Age was her death in Sandman.

Rereading her debut I realize Urania, like Marvel’s Major Talbot, is much less ethical than the story admits. She met Stingaree when she was still an agent, fell in love with him and apparently chose love over duty. It was only after he dumped her that she decided to take him down. That’s not heroic at all, but Haney never acknowledges that.

#SFWApro. GL art by Gil Kane, DP by Bruno Premiani (cover by Bob Brown), Metamorpho by Sal Trapani


    1. The purple is a mask he wore back then so Galtry wouldn’t recognize him — green skin would have made it easy — but he dropped it sometime between the DP’s death and him using his powers openly on TV’s “Space Trek 2099” in the early 1970s.

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