Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Some comic-book covers and the related stories, most of them good

No theme here, just random stories (mostly from mid-1968 but not all) I wanted to talk about.First off, Neal Adams’ cover for Adventure #368, containing the Jim Shooter/Curt Swan story “Mordru the Merciless.” We open on Superboy, Mon-El, Duo Damsel and Shadow Lass fleeing Legion HQ in terror; Mordru, sorcerer supreme, has woken from the suspended animation the Legion trapped him and the only option is to run. We get the backstory on Mordru, then follow the quartet through their experiences in Smallville before they finally decide to return home. By then, however, Mordru’s tracked them down and appears in Smallville on the final page. Stay tuned for Part Two!

It’s a remarkable story given that omnipotent foes are hard to write — Marv Wolfman’s Psimon has never been anything but dull, for instance. Mordru ain’t dull. Of course, he’s off-stage for most of the issue but the conclusion sticks the landing.

I’m not a big fan of Leo Dorfman’s writing but he does better than I’d expect in the Virus X arc from Action #362-366 (the Neal Adams cover is from 364. Regrettably Ross Andru on interior art is no Neal Adams). Virus X is a deadly Kryptonian disease introduced in Superman #156. It was wiped out then but Luthor reverse-engineered a new batch to infect Superman. The Man of Steel realizes death is inevitable and it shakes him.

In 364 Luthor demonstrates he can cure the disease and offers to treat Superman for a cool million. Once the money is safely tucked away, he reveals his cure was a scam. While he claims his motive was purely the cash, I’ve no doubt feeding Superman false hope was the cherry on top. In a nice touch, Superman momentarily considers infecting Lex in payback (and also to eliminate what he could do to the world once Superman’s gone) before deciding no, not gonna happen.

Amusingly, someone wrote in to Adventure Comics complaining that Duo Damsel in the Mordru story references Superman marrying some day — dang it, now we know he’s going to survive Virus X! Why’d you give that away? The editorial response simply pointed out that the chance of DC killing off their flagship character was zero. I think it’s a credit to Dorfman that he could make readers believe otherwise.
The next two stories are here for contrast. X-Men #199 and 200 (John Romita Jr.) are darn good. They deal with Magneto’s Holocaust backstory a different way, having him attend a survivors reunion and reconnect with people he knew in the camps. It’s remarkably effective to see him with people who know him as Magnus, not Magneto. Then the government sends the Freedom Force (Mystique’s rebranded Brotherhood of Evil Mutants) to arrest Magnus; he fights back at first, but ultimately surrenders rather than put his fellow survivors in danger from collateral damage. Which says a lot because how often does Magneto care about homo sapiens? Claremont doesn’t make a big thing of it but it’s a sign Magneto really is more than an evil fiend.

#200 is the trial and it surprised me too. The following years got so heavily grim and gritty it’s startling to see an X-Men story that assumes human courts might deal fairly with a mutant, and shows pro-mutant protesters outside rather than just mutie-haters. It’s not perfect — the Strucker twins are two boring adversaries — but it’s good.By contrast the annual from five years later (Arthur Adams cover) reminds me why I gave away everything after #200 (I’ve no idea how the annual survived the purge). It’s unrelentingly bleak — the dystopian future in which mutants are hunted to extinction is fixed and nothing can change it — and it shows how much further Claremont has slid down the tunnel of his particular obsessions (mind-control; mind control while people wear bondage gear; and mind control while enduring physical body horror). I don’t miss that era at all.

These two covers (John Romita, then Gene Colan) indicate someone in July, 1968 thought Medusa could be a break-out star. That makes it surprising the two stories aren’t better tied together. In Marvel Super-Heroes (by Colan and Archie Goodwin) Medusa leaves the Great Refuge seeking a cure for Black Bolt’s unstable vocal powers; in the Spider-Man story (Romita and Stan Lee) she’s in New York trying to decide if the Inhumans can dwell peacefully alongside ordinary people. The former was a stronger hook and I wish they’d carried it over to the Spidey story (though that would still have been yet another Hero vs. Hero yarn). While Medusa didn’t get her own book out of this, they do show her as a formidable opponent (I’m automatically skeptical about super-powered hair).

This final cover by J. Winslow Mortimer is from Detective Comics #220 for a story that introduced “The Second ‘Batman and Robin’ Team” in a story by Bill Finger and Dick Sprang.  Normally the time travel stories of the decade (powered by Professor Carter Nichols’ hypnotic techinques) are some of my least favorite, lacking the imagination of either a good Batman or a good time travel story. This one was an exception.

British natural philosopher Roger Bacon tells his assistants Marcus and Guy that studying images from history he’s discovered that a man dressed as a bat has appeared in multiple historical eras from Babylon to ancient Rome (this references past time trips, of course). The only way this is possible is if this man has traveled back from the future; having worked out a duplicate of Nichols’ method (wow, he’s smart!) Bacon sends the guys into the future to investigate. As dressing like a bat is obviously normal in the 20th century, one of the men dons a bat-costume so he’ll fit in; the other, of course dresses like Robin. When they arrive in present-day Gotham City, Commissioner Gordon immediately sets them to work, though he does think it’s odd the Dynamic Duo are carrying crossbows. Hilarity ensues.



    1. Fenris are the supervillain equivalent of “self-made person’s kids grow up rich and spoiled.” They come off like bored Eurotrash where Strucker, much as I’ve ripped into Sgt. Fury in the past, has genuine screen presence.

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