Reading SHOWCASE PRESENTS: METAMORPHO VOLUME ONE [DC; $16.99] on the recent Isabella Family vacation reminded me of trips taken with my parents and siblings over forty years ago. Way back then, I didn't have to do the driving, and reading comics - or anything else - while riding in a car didn't give me headaches.
The summer of 1963 was when I came into my own as a comics fan, courtesy of FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #1. My initial enthusiasm for the Marvel super-heroes created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and others quickly eclipsed my regard for all but a handful of my old DC favorites. It took writers Arnold Drake and Bob Haney to get me excited by DC again, Drake with his Doom Patrol and Haney with his merely magnificent Element Man.
METAMORPHO reprints all 17 issues of the hero's Silver Age series, the issues of BRAVE AND BOLD that introduced him to comics fans in 1965, and his team-ups with the Justice League of America, Metal Men, and Batman. With the exception of the JLA guest shot, all these stories were written by Haney.
In METAMORPHO, Haney and penciller Ramona Fradon captured something of the Marvel Comics magic. Here was Rex Mason, handsome soldier of fortune, with his gorgeous girlfriend Sapphire and his flippant attitude towards her rich father Simon Stagg, who was also his boss. The fourth cast member was Java, a complicated caveman who'd been restored to life by the brilliant Stagg. None of them were one-note characters.
When Mason was transformed into the freakish Metamorpho, he became a tragic super-hero in the style of Marvel stars like the Thing and Iron Man. Though protesting he wasn't a hero by choice, he still acted heroically and unselfishly. For example, cured by Doc Magnus in his team-up with the Metal Men, he willingly returned to his "freak" state to save the world.
Sapphire might've been a flighty heiress, but she still loved Rex despite his weird transformation. It was Sapphire who urged Rex to use his powers for good while her father searched, albeit half-heartedly, for a cure. When Element Girl came on the scene and vied with Sapphire for Rex's attention, her hurt feelings and subsequent actions were very believable.
Stagg and Java weren't nearly as consistent, but they remained interesting cast members. Stagg was a conniving businessman and master manipulator, but also quite capable of acting courageously when the need arose. Unfortunately, as the series progressed, he became increasingly defined by his flaws.
Java was downright treacherous in the earliest issues of the title, betraying both Rex and Stagg on more than one occasion and constantly plotting to win Sapphire's love. However, beyond those early issues, he devolved into little more than comic relief. He made a good foil for Metamorpho, but had a lot more going for him when he was first introduced.
Haney was the driving force behind the series, but I wouldn't want to minimize the roles of penciller Ramona Fradon and inker Charles Paris. Their Metamorpho is the classic Element Man, their versions of Rex and the gang the ones that immediately come to mind when I recall the series. Other artists did creditable work on the title, but, even when they were inked by Paris, the art wasn't as good as it was in the Fradon/Paris issues.
One thing I didn't do as a kid reading comics on vacation was jot down notes on what I was reading. Since anyone who's read my previous reviews of DC's ARCHIVE EDITIONS and SHOWCASE books knows where this review is going to end up, rating-wise, why don't I share some of my SHOWCASE PRESENTS METAMORPHO notes with you? What this TOT lacks in suspense, it will make up for with hopefully entertaining observations...
The villain of "Attack of the Atomic Avenger" [Metamorpho #1] turns into a giant sentient atom with the power to reduce things to elemental components. In retrospect, this reads like the finale of a three-issue tryout, ending as it does with Rex blown to seeming nothingness and Java returned to his fossil state. Stagg restores both of them at the beginning of the next issue.
In "Who Stole the USA?" [Metamorpho #3], a Native American supporting character is named "Ominoreg" (or "Geronimo" spelled backwards). The robot chasing Metamorpho looks dumb, but actually poses a creditable threat to him. I loved the way the Army takes out the robot for Rex.
Trivia note: this story introduces "staggium," the Metamorpho equivalent of kryptonite. It never appears again, though the Orb of Ra does have a similar effect on the Element Man.
Rex destroys the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal in the truly awful "Never Bet Against an Element Man" [Metamorpho #6]. Haney's penchant for stereotypical speech patterns grated on me in this one. It was a common...err...element of his writing that I could usually overlook, but not this time.
"Terror From Fahrenheit 5,000!" [Metamorpho #7] includes a nod to Cave Carson, one of DC's forgotten heroes.
"Element Man, Public Enemy!" [Metamorpho #8] has the stomach-churning Element Man dance song:
Make like a metal--
Get hot like an acid--
Shake like a test tube--
Man, be solid and life's just a gas!
Doin' the Element Man!
Doin' the Element Man--
Urania Blackwell, aka Element Girl, appears in "The Sinister Snares of Stingaree" [Metamorpho #10]. She is a great deal darker than I remembered. She identifies herself as a secret agent, which isn't something I think a secret agent would do. Her appearance creates a rift between Rex and Sapphire, which continues throughout the remaining issues of the original series.
Another annoying Haney quirk got to me in "Trap of the Test-Tube Terrors!" [Metamorpho #12]. The very first time Sapphire said "devoon" for "divine" it hurt my brain. By the third or fourth time, it gave me a migraine. This issue is notable for featuring portraits of Simon Stagg's ancestors, all of whom, male and female, resemble him to a frightening degree. Man, did Sapphire even win the lottery in the genetic sweepstakes!
In "Hour of Armageddon" [Metamorpho #15], Rex calls Sapphire "Sappho" in one panel. Was this an unexplored angle in the title's ongoing romantic triangle?
Sapphire marries someone other than Rex in "Jezeba, Queen of Fury" [Metamorpho #16]. Rex quits Stagg and goes to work for "Mr. Shadow," who takes him to the "Lost City of Ma-Phoor." Metamorpho marries Jezeba, a Sapphire look-a-like and an ancient queen who was the lover of an earlier Element Man, but foils his bride's plan to take over the world and then watches her die from rapid aging. At the issue's end, Shadow, holding a second Orb of Ra, tells Rex that he must obey Shadow or die.
"Last Mile For an Element Man" [Metamorpho #17] is the final issue and it's drawn by Jack Sparling. Metamorpho is convicted of the murder of Sapphire's husband, executed, and revived by Element Girl. The real killer was the first Man of the Elements, who dies in this issue. The body count for the last two issues of the title may well be greater than in all the previous issues combined. The cliffhanger ending has the Prosecutor, a villain-for-hire who made certain Rex would be convicted, facing death from his mysterious client. DC never resolved this storyline.
That brings us to Metamorpho's guest appearances.
THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD #66 [June-July, 1966] teamed Metamorpho up and the Metal Men. Written by Haney with art by Mike Sekowsky and Mike Esposito, this was the second of three Metamorpho guest shots published that year. It's unfortunate DC didn't put these in chronological order in this collection because it would have made it clear that either DC was promoting the heck out of their first new titled super-hero in years or that the character was initially so popular that they wanted to spread him around.
The villain of this issue is pretty cool: a scientist stranded on an island builds robots of iron, lead, mercury, tin, and gold, only to return to civilization and find his great accomplishments have been rendered insignificant by Doc Magnus' far more developed Metal Men. Magnus restores Rex to human form, but Mason chooses to become the Element Man when the villain takes control of the Metal Men. Magnus is unable to duplicate this fluke cure, but vows to continue trying to find a cure for Metamorpho.
BRAVE AND THE BOLD #68 [October-November, 1966] kinda teams up Batman and Metamorpho. "Alias the Bat-Hulk" reads as if it were written overnight to take advantage of the Caped Crusader's sudden TV stardom. Haney wrote the story, which also features the Joker, the Riddler, and the Penguin. DC credits the art to Mike Sekowsky and Murphy Anderson, but the cover is signed "Sekowsky + Giella" and the inking on both the cover and the story itself sure looks like Joe Giella to me.
"Metamorpho Says No!" - the last story in the volume - is from JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #42 [February, 1966], but is actually the first of Metamorpho's three 1966 guest appearances. It's a clever, fun story by Gardner Fox, Sekowsky, and Giella. Rex turns down JLA membership because he doesn't want to stay a super-hero, but agrees to be a standby member. He doesn't appear in JLA again until Len Wein writes the title in the early 1970s.
The Unimaginable, the "villain" of the issue, is one of the oddest villains of the Silver Age. He wants to join the JLA, but, when turned down for membership, he attacks the members. If he has a form, it's not discernable to human or even superhuman eyes; the art shows him as a abstract glowing outline.
Not every story in SHOWCASE PRESENTS: METAMORPHO is a winner, but all of them are entertaining on some level. What's definitely a winner is DC's SHOWCASE PRESENTS format, over 500 pages of cool comics at a extremely reasonable price. Combine one of my favorite super-heroes with this format and there's no way I'm not giving the book the full five out of five Tonys.
Keep watching this column for more SHOWCASE PRESENTS reviews and reminiscences.
Before this year's EISNER AWARDS winners were honored at San Diego's Comic-Con International, we asked you to vote on which of the nominees you would have chosen. We've covered a little over a dozen of the award categories so far and you're currently "batting" 10-for-13. Let's see if that holds up.
The winner of the Eisner in this category was NAT TURNER by Kyle Baker. You're now at 14-for-20 with somewhere around a dozen categories still to come.
Four new TONY POLLS questions were posted yesterday. We are asking if you see comics making the transition to movies, TV, and direct-to-DVD as a positive trend and also asking you to rate three recent examples of this:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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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