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Reviews and commentary by Tony Isabella
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TONY'S ONLINE TIPS
From COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1439 (06/15/01)

"The Elemental Man is now a man of iron--and he's changed me into soft calcium so he can crush me!"

Batman, DETECTIVE COMICS #294 (August, 1961)

I was going to write about Marvel's new "mature" line and its dropping of the Comics Code and its fixation for things Hollywood, but Projects Editor Brent Frankenhoff thought I needed a vacation from such weighty matters. After all, he reminded me, this was our "On Vacation With the Funnies" issue and, surely, I must have some comics-related, warm-and-fuzzy vacation stories to share with CBG's readers. Yes, he does actually say things like "On Vacation With the Funnies." And he thinks *I* need a vacation.

I resisted committing to this "Vacation" theme for many weeks because I've already told my best comics-related vacation stories in these pages and because it's hard for me to remember those that I haven't already committed to paper. My memory, which was never that good to begin with, has gotten worse over the years, starting back in 1975 or so when I used my head to keep a pair of burglars from hurting their fists on anything harder.

In recent years, though, thanks to writing a bazillion columns for this publication and various websites, and also thanks to Jon "The Interrogator" Knutson asking me TWO bazillion questions for an interview so long it makes WAR AND PEACE seem like a fortune from a fortune cookie, memories long thought lost have started to come back to me. I may never again be able to rattle off what villains were in FANTASTIC FOUR #1-100, but, if properly motivated, the doors to my past can be opened.

The trigger this time out was the news that one of my favorite comics websites, THE PERIODIC TABLE OF COMIC BOOKS, had just been named one of the best scientific websites in Scientific American's Sci/Tech Awards for 2001.

Here's what Scientific American had to say about the site

    Krypton isn't the only element to show up in the pages of comic books. As you will learn at this site, super-heroes of all shapes and sizes--and cape colors--know their periodic chart. Reading the comics might just help you master the secrets of metals and noble gases as well. The site covers an astonishing number of elements--from oxygen to the Metal Men (Gold, Tin, Mercury, Lead, and Platinum) to molybdenum. A nice search engine lets you quickly mine the periodic table of comics, and if you are so inclined, you can join the ChemComics discussion group.


Created by John P. Selegue and F. James Holler, a couple of honest-to-gadolinium chemistry professors from the University of Kentucky, The Periodic Table covers all the elements from actinium to zirconium. Click on the symbol for any element, like the afore-mentioned actinium, and you're taken to a page listing every comic-book appearances of said element that Selegue and Holler have been able to track down. Needless to say, METAL MEN and METAMORPHO are well-represented at this website.

Returning to our "On Vacation with the Funnies" theme before Frankenhoff starts getting twitchy, the well-deserved recognition of The Periodic Table reminded me of my boyhood summer when I was borderline obsessed with the elements, those fundamental substances which constitute all matter. Like so much in my life, my interest in all things elemental was spurred by a comic book.

Detective 294 DETECTIVE COMICS #294 cover-featured Batman and Robin battling "The Villain of 100 Elements." Though the issue is dated August, 1961, I may well have read it in the summer of 1962. I didn't buy my original copy at the drug store; I traded for it with either a neighborhood kid or with the barber one neighborhood north. It was worth the extra walk to patronize a businessman who knew enough to have good comics--and lots of them--in his shop.

In the summer of 1962, I would have been 10 years old, half a year shy of my December birthday. That meant I was old enough to go to the barber, the drug store, and the library by myself, though I'm fairly sure I wasn't allowed to ride my bike to the library at that age. I'll explain why in a bit.

Bill Finger wrote "The Villain of 100 Elements" and, according to the GRAND COMIC BOOK DATABASE, the story was penciled by Sheldon Moldoff and inked by either Moldoff or Joe Giella. Even if I had not already known Finger was the writer, I would have been able to identify his authorship from two things

First, Finger delighted in building tales around historical, scientific, and sociological facts. Those 100 elements had to have been irresistible story-fodder for him.

Second, Finger brought true dimension to his characters. By the end of the story, Dolan, the professor's assistant accidentally transformed into the criminal Elemental Man, emerges as more than a victim and more than a villain.

"The Villain of 100 Elements" hits the ground running. By the second page of the story, we've learned than Professor Higgins, an old pal of Batman and Robin, has been experimenting with a machine which can alter the molecular structure of elements. There's been a leak in the device's power source and Dolan has been subjected to the machine's energies for weeks.

One page later, with impeccable timing, the scientists learn how those strange energies have affected Dolan. He changes into first aluminum and then gold, until the Professor cannibalizes the element-converter to make a belt which allows Dolan to control his changes. Unfortunately, the energies have affected another change, a psychological change, on Dolan

"It works! It can control the altering of elements! Why, with this belt, I'm invincible! With my power, I can seize wealth-and no one can ever stop me!"

Holy Arkham, Batman! Dolan has become the criminally insane Elemental Man!

Of course, we didn't say things like "Holy Arkham" in 1961 or 1962. That would come along a few years later. But we kids knew action-packed when we saw it and, by page four of this story, Dolan has recruited a couple of henchmen and embarked upon his career of crime. Batman and Robin weren't far behind him.

The first round goes to Dolan whose literally iron fists make short work of Batman. For the second round, Batman lures him to a science exhibit where Professor Higgins is waiting with a hastily-rebuilt element-converter. The plan is to draw off Dolan's powers and cure him. It doesn't work.

Dolan's power has grown too strong. The new machine explodes and Batman is bathed in the same weird energies that had changed Dolan. Fearing the Elemental Batman would soon become a criminal as well, Commissioner Gordon feels he has to jail his cowled friend to protect the public.

Alone in his cell, Batman bides his time until he changes into mercury and flows to safety. Later, as a man of iron, he seemingly tries to rob a museum. Dolan shows up, changes Batman into calcium as per this week's opening quote, and threatens to crush him if he doesn't hand over the loot. Instead, Batman suggests he and Dolan join forces.

Robin shows up and tries to stop them. As a test of Batman's criminal resolve, Dolan changes his potential partner back to iron so Bats can clobber the Boy Wonder. Batman knocks Robin out, but it's all a plan to lure Dolan into another trap where yet another element-converter can draw the power out of Dolan, into Batman, and then out of Bats. Freed of both his power and madness, Dolan helps Batman capture his now-unemployed henchmen.

Dolan: Maybe I can't change to iron any more-but my fist can still hit as hard.

Batman: Speaking of changes, let's change these crooks to convicts.

In just under 13 pages, the bottom third of the final page is a Tootsie Roll ad, Finger and Moldoff had inspired my imagination. Armed with the knowledge that there were 100 elements, only a few of which were used in this story, I decided to learn everything I could about all of them. A man who could master the elements could become the greatest super-hero of all!

For a disproportionate part of that summer, in between playing baseball and Challengers of the Unknown, I made weekly trips to the nearest public library to check out every book I could find on the elements. That library was about a mile from my house and across Lorain Avenue, an extremely busy boulevard in those "I-71 and I-90 haven't been built yet" years. That's why I wasn't allowed to ride my bike to the library; my mom didn't want me crossing Lorain on a bike. I think she was afraid I'd be thinking of my books instead of the traffic. Not a bad call on her part.

I read every book on the elements in the children's section. Then I sweet-talked the librarians into letting me take out books from the adult section. Though I didn't retain every esoteric fact I learned that summer, I remained fascinated with the elements for many years thereafter.

I bought the first FLASH ANNUAL because it had a story about Mr. Element, who remains one of my favorite felons of the Scarlet Speedster's legendary Rogues Gallery. With his first appearance in ADVENTURE COMICS #307, Element Lad became my favorite member of the Legion of Super-Heroes. I thought the Metal Men were kind of goofy when I first read one of their SHOWCASE issues, but I don't think I ever passed on a chance to buy one of their comics when I saw a new one at the drug store. I especially liked the element-themed fact pages drawn by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, the same artists who drew the Metal Men stories.
Metal Men Facts and FanciesMetal Men Facts and Fancies
And, when BRAVE AND THE BOLD #57 introduced me to Metamorpho, the Element Man, it was a boyhood dream come true. Even with all the misdirection he's received from later editors and writers who didn't understand how cool he is just as he was conceived, good old Rex Mason makes my baker's dozen list of my favorite DC characters, hanging with Batman, Black Lightning, the original Challengers of the Unknown, the 1960s Hawkman and Hawkwoman, Jimmy Olsen, Robin, Superman, and Zatanna.

Brave and the Bold 58 Various members of the DC History group on Yahoo turned out to be very helpful when it came to jogging my memory about some other elemental heroes and villains. Doctor Solar, the Man of the Atom, did a few transmutation tricks in his Gold Key title. An Element Girl made an appearance in METAMORPHO and later met her death in an even-more-exceptional-than-usual tale of Neil Gaiman's THE SANDMAN. The Doom Patrol fought the Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man, who could turn into pure elements, and Mr. 103, who could command three more elements than "The Villain of 100 Elements" and was upgraded to Mr. 104 in John Ostrander's SUICIDE SQUAD. If that last guy ever comes back, he'll have to call himself "Mr. 118." Science has marched on in the past decade.

When Mon-el was released from the Phantom Zone and joined the Legion of Super-Heroes in the 30th Century, he took bricks of three different elements and, rubbing them together real fast, combined them into a brand-new element with anti-gravity properties. Then he fashioned the element into "flight rings" for his new comrades. Even as a callow youth, I didn't believe that one.

Near the end of Metamorpho's solo title, he battled a strange alien being called the Thunderer, whose agent Neutrog could command the 83 elements to which Metamorpho could not convert. Back then, our boy Rex could only change into the 20 elements found naturally in the human body. He made do.
Metamorpho 14Metamorpho 15
I don't have a great ending for this story because summers, tragically, don't have great endings. One day, they are just over and it's time to go back to school. One day, there IS no school to go back to and summer starts losing something in the translation. And then, if you're lucky, you have children and you get to share a little of their summer magic, to regain a bit of the summers you knew as a child.

On second thought, this column deserves a great ending. It's a Saturday and there's this one store that gets the new comic books in three whole days before my regular drug store. I've got three quarters in my hand. I buy some comic books-BLACKHAWK, I think; TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED with the Bob Brown-drawn Space Ranger; and, from Archie Comics, ADVENTURES OF THE JAGUAR--and a Coca-Cola in one of those thick little bottles of yore. These are titles I only buy occasionally, but, even though I can't recall exactly what was in them, they took on some special quality that day.

It was hot that day. I wasn't with any friends and I didn't have anyplace to be. I pushed my bike to the alley just behind the store, leaned it against the brick wall, and sat there in the cool shade. Reading comic books. Sipping my Coke. Picture of youthful serenity. Summer.

******

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This also appeared in CBG #1439

Several members of Yahoo's DC HISTORY group, including group founder Mike Standish, offered helpful information for this column. I want to thank Graeme Fitzgerald, Jess Nevins, John Selegue, John Trumbell, and others whose name I may have inadvertently omitted. For information on this group, visit

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DCHistory


The GRAND COMIC BOOK DATABASE remains one of comicdom's most worthwhile efforts. It has indexed over 60,000 comics from over a thousand publishers and lists over one million credits of the men and women who created those comics. Its URL is

http://www.comics.org


Finally, my appreciation to THE PERIODIC TABLE OF COMIC BOOKS for the educational fun it provides at

http://www.uky.edu/projects/chemcomics


******

ADDENDUM

I really did try to weasel my way out of writing about comics and summer vacation...and did manage to lose the vacation part of the theme when I wrote the above column. In fact, at one point, I told Brent that I was going to make up summer vacation stories for the column, but he talked me out of it. Imagine my surprise when my fellow columnist Peter David did just that.

******

TONY'S MAILBOX

Shortly after I wrote the column, I received this note from my pal RICHARD HOWELL, whose amazing skills as an artist, editor, and writer can be seen on those fine Claypool Comics titles DEADBEATS, ELVIRA, and SOULSEARCHERS AND COMPANY

    I'm enjoying your columns, although they're not spared my gimlet eye. In the latest, you write

    "The Doom Patrol fought the Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man, who could turn into pure elements, and Mr. 103, who could command three more elements than "The Villain of 100 Elements" and was upgraded to Mr. 104 in John Ostrander's Suicide Squad."

    To be absolutely correct (my favorite type of correct), the Mister in question was numerically upgraded during the course of the run of the original DOOM PATROL series. In one of the last issues, there was a list of villains who could be behind some plot or another, and one of the candidates was "Mr. 104." Nobody made a big deal out of the name change, but there it was.

    Actually, one of the many, many charming aspects of the old DOOM PATROL strip was that the powers-that-wuz behind making the creative decisions (more than likely editor Murray Boltinoff and writer Arnold Drake) correctly assessed that artist Bruno Premiani was unmatched at drawing accurate, near-photo-realistic animals, objects, and substances, and (unlike some other, more egocentric, less cooperative, and/or less adaptable decision-makers on other strips, at other times) created three different characters specifically to make use of their artist's particular skills: Mr. 103/4/etc., the Animal/Vegetable/Mineral Man, and Beast Boy.


The absolutely correct Howell and the rest of the clamorous Claypool crew will celebrate the publication of the 100th issue of ELVIRA, MISTRESS OF THE DARK in August of this year, followed the next two months by the 50th issues of DEADBEATS and SOULSEARCHERS. That's quite a feat for a small publisher in today's comics market and we salute them for achieving it.

I'll be back next week with more stuff.

Tony Isabella

<< 06/08/2001 | 06/15/2001 | 06/22/2001 >>

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THE "TONY" SCALE

Zero Tonys
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.

Tony
ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.

TonyTony
TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?

TonyTonyTony
THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.

TonyTonyTonyTony
FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?

TonyTonyTonyTonyTony
FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.



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