Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Superboy shattered! Batman becomes Robin! Captain America mourns Bucky! Wonder Woman forgets her mother’s birthday! And more!

Time for another random selection of stories. Most of them are from late 1968 as part of my Silver Age reread but the three at the end are earlier, taken from various omnibuses I’m reading.

As a kid I enjoyed “School for Super-Villains” (Jim Shooter, Curt Swan) in Adventure Comics #372. I did not, however, have enough Legion history to realize what a continuity fest it is, the kind I associate more with the 1980s than the late Silver Age. Discoveries like that, of course, are part of the fun of this reread.

In #371, criminals turn Gim (Colossal Boy) Allon’s parents to glass. He’s given two options: give the crooks intel on how the Legion Academy trains new recruits or his parents will get up close and personal with a sledgehammer.  Gim screws up his next couple of missions badly enough he’s sent to the academy for retraining. He’s soon exposed as a traitor and kicked out of both the Legion and the Academy.

In this issue, the bad guys force him to use what he’s learned to help them set up an evil version of the Academy. The Legion discovers what’s behind Colossal Boy’s betrayal, infiltrates the school and takes it down. It’s a good story despite mastermind Tarik the Mute being a disability cliche (cops accidentally destroyed his voice! He will make the world pay!). It introduced the Legion Academy, which became a big part of the series during the Paul Levitz/Keith Giffen run; up until this two-parter, applicants who passed their initial tryout became Legionnaires instantly, or so it seemed. Then there’s the continuity stuff.

First, this is the secret origin of the Legion of Supervillains. The LSV first appeared in Superman #147, traveling back through time to help Luthor destroy Superman. All the team’s subsequent appearances involved the adult villains; even when they faced the teenage Legion in Adventure #331 it was the adults time-traveling into the past. Introducing them as teens the same age as the “contemporary” Legion was a big deal, bigger than I appreciated at the time. I did appreciate the introduction of young Lightning Lord as one of the members because Superboy #147, which I had read a few months earlier, established Garth Ranzz came to Earth hoping to track down his vanished brother. Finally, he’s succeeded

On top of that we have the return of Legion traitor Nemesis Kid; rejected Legion applicants Paper Boy, Radiation Roy and Spider-Girl turn up as criminals; Lone Wolf, now known as Timber Wolf, becoming a member; and the debut of Chemical King, who’d appeared in memoriam, a dead hero of the past, in the Adult Legion story in #354.

Avengers #56 by Roy Thomas and John Buscemea tackles another continuity question: why did Captain America turn up in Avengers #4 wearing his costume under his Army uniform? I’m not sure this was anything that needed answering but the story of Cap and the Avengers going back in time (courtesy of Dr. Doom’s time machine) to watch the minutes before he went into suspended animation works well; Cap seeing Bucky die again is gut-wrenching. I suspect another reason for writing it was to show the fans asking for Bucky to come back (a decade later fans were still demanding it) that he couldn’t possibly have survived. Yes, I know.

This led into Avengers Annual #2 (Thomas and Don Heck), in which the Avengers return to the present and discovers the timeline has changed. The mysterious Scarlet Centurion has convinced the original Avengers to lock up all other super-beings, bringing about utopia by righting some sort of cosmic balance. The current team, suspecting a scam, take on their predecessors; the classic team has more muscle and power, the current team has knowledge. Alt.Iron Man, for instance, never fought Hawkeye so he assumes a punk with a bow and arrow can’t possibly threaten him. Oops.

It turns out the Scarlet Centurion is Kang, plotting to alter history so he can rule the world. Need I say he fails? It’s a fun, action-packed story — even the Wasp gets to do more than scream helplessly, which was Thomas’ default setting for her — and I like that the Avengers are freaked out by what’s happening. A couple of decades later everyone, writers and characters, would be too jaded by such reality warping to care much.

A footnote offers a no-prize to anyone who can explain why the alt.Avengers aren’t shown taking down Captain Marvel along with all the other heroes. Aside from the obvious (Don Heck didn’t draw him in) I’m guessing that with the Fantastic Four defeated, the Kree Sentry they battled didn’t encounter anyone on Earth worth the Empire’s attention. Ergo no visit from Ronan the Accuser, no need to send Mar-Vell. I’m sure someone wrote in with that answer at the time but I don’t have the letter columns available to check.

Speaking of Mar-Vell, Arnold Drake takes over Marvel’s Space-Born Super-Hero Captain Marvel with #5. While I was disappointed in Drake’s first issue of X-Men (he’s improving steadily though), here Drake does way better than previous scribes Thomas and Stan Lee. His plot involves the Metazoid, a Soviet scientist who mutated himself into an indestructible entity for space exploration. Instead, his Red superiors send him as a supervillain to capture Walter Lawson, the American scientist Mar-Vell poses as. Much like Soviet spy Col. Brevlov, the Russian is shown to be a decent sort, albeit willing to do his duty when push comes to shove.Drake’s the first writer who feels like he’s putting some effort into the series, and I like that Captain Marvel never does figure out what his opponent really is.

(In a minor note, the following issue of Marvel’s space-born superhero has Quasimodo showing up in the final panel. Drake’s second issue of X-Men threw in Quasimodo as the villain on the last page, which felt completely pointless; now it seems he was thinking long-term. It’s the sort of thing I spot by reading all the Silver Age books simultaneously).

“Spotlight on the Lamplighter,” a Gardner Fox/Gil Kane story from Green Lantern #60, gives us an action-packed battle between GL and the transmutating Lamplighter, another disability cliche (a lab accident blinded him! The world ust pay!) enhanced by the villain’s transmutation tricks. There’s also a neat B-plot showing how the clash between GL and his foe affects three bystanders (reminiscent of some 1940s Batman stories I’ve written about). On the page below, two of the three get a happy ending.On the final page, miser Jabez Morley discovers the feathers he threw out of a window while searching for his stockpile of cash (a stray blast from the Lamplighter transformed the bills temporarily) have turned back into money, people are scooping it off the street below and none of them want to give it back. As a kid that seemed like justice; as an adult I find it tragic. Morley’s greedy but he’s not shown to be a slumlord or a userer. He’s simply a sad, miserable man who’s now lost the one thing that gave his life meaning.

Now the Omnibus stuff. First “When Batman Was Robin” (Edmond Hamilton, Dick Sprang) in Detective Comics #226 is a story I’ve seen recapped and referenced for years (most recently in Batman and Scooby Doo Mysteries #6). As Batman explains to Robin, years earlier he apprenticed himself to legendary detective Harvey Harris, disguising himself in a prototype Robin costume so Harris couldn’t call the Waynes and say “Your son is putting himself in danger. Come get him.” The story involves the battle of wits between Harris, trying to identify the teenager behind that mask and Bruce, trying to thwart him. It turns out Harris saw through Bruce’s tricks and figured it out but decided not to shatter Bruce’s confidence by exposing him.

What none of the recaps mentioned is how discontinuous this is. Bruce is a teenager here but as in Hamilton’s “The Super-Mystery of Metropolis,” his parents are alive and he already wants to become a detective. Later writers retconned “Super-Mystery” — it was Bruce’s foster-parents, no contradiction — but “When Batman Was Robin” is unambiguous that the Waynes are alive and kicking. As I like the story, dropping part of it from continuity and keeping the rest was probably a good call.

The Otto Binder/Curt Swan “Super-Merman of the Sea” in Action #244 is a minor story in which Superman abruptly goes underwater and refuses to resurface. Lois discovers it’s because he met an alien merman and his daughter visiting Earth and fell in love with the latter. In reality, they’re here for conquest; Superman’s romance buys time for an elaborate ruse that convinces the aliens Earth’s oceans are too salty for their people to survive.

This came out about eight months before the debut of Lori Lemaris; like a couple of other pre-Lori stories, it refers to Atlantis as a ruined city (which I don’t think poses continuity problems — Poseidonis and Tritonis may have survived but it’s quite possible other Atlantean cities drowned). Talking about it with my friend Ross, I began wondering if, given Mort Weisinger’s enthusiasm for reusing successful ideas, “The Super-Merman of the Sea” sold well enough to make him think a real mermaid romance would be a hit.

Last of the Omnibus stories is “Wonder Queen’s Surprise Birthday Gift” (Robert Kanigher, Ross Andru) from Wonder Woman #131. Diana’s too busy helping people to find a gift for Hippolyta’s birthday; when she finds time to try, fate continues to thwart her. Finally she smashes a meteor heading toward Paradise Island, discovers it has a diamond core and gives the giant gem to her Mom. Hippolyta lets us know she knows it was an improvised gift, but she’s not going to embarrass her little girl by saying so.

It’s a light, fluffy story of no significance, yet I found it oddly charming. Seriously, how often to do we get to see a superhero story where the big worry is finding time to go present-shopping for Mom? I could see it happening in Spider-Man but Peter would be drenched with way more guilt for way more pages (“Aunt May’s always taken care of me — now I’ve failed her! What kind of man lets down the person he loves most on her birthday?”). Perhaps that family dynamic is what made the Wonder Family so popular for several years.

#SFWApro. Covers by Neal Adams (top), Curt Swan x2, John Buscema x2, Don Heck x2, Gil Kane x2, J. Winslow Mortimer, Swan again, Ross Andru


  1. Edo Bosnar

    RE: “I’m not sure this was anything that needed answering (…)”
    Man, I say this with the greatest affection for Mr. Thomas, but so much of his career was built on doing just that.

    On the topic of Col. Brevlov, who was supposed to something of a Soviet equivalent to Nick Fury, I still can’t believe he has such a commonplace and, as far as I know, actually existing Russian surname. You’d expect something like Angersky or Teedoff from Silver Age Marvel…

    1. Brevlov is such a counterpart that in the following issue they’re reminiscing about how they beat up Nazis together.
      I didn’t realize that about the name but Drake clearly wanted to get away from the Cold War Russian stereotypes. While we’re not at the 1970s detente point, it’s around the same time movies such as “Bamboo Saucer” and “You Only Live Twice” were suggesting we could make nice with the Russkies and China (now in the group of the Cultural Revolution) was the really scary threat. It may not be coincidence that Mao masterminds a plot against Captain America a month later.

  2. In the G.L. issue, miser Jabez Morley = reference to miser Ebenezer Scrooge’s friend Jacob Marley from A Christmas Carol, surely.
    Also I love how Gil Kane did that exaggerated over the top reaction from Cindy in the epilogue panel four: so cartoony it could’ve been drawn by Wood or company in Mad. P.S.: Cindy-rella? Oh dear, corn factor 10.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.