It's Jack Kirby's fault really. Or maybe the blame belongs to Don Rickles. I was no DC virgin but I had been swayed by Stan Lee's ingratiating banter and considered myself a Marvelite mostly when the King decided to pull up stakes and head over to the Distinguished Competition. I followed and found there a revived Jimmy Olsen comics loaded with wacked but compelling concepts. During that run we meet an employee of the Daily Planet named Goody Rickels who is the cousin of the comedian Don Rickles who guest-starred in the comic (weird enough for you yet?). In between the two parts of the Don Rickles-Jimmy Olsen crossover DC offered up one of their giant-sized reprint issues featuring some vintage Jimmy from before the Kirby takeover.
It was in these pages that I first encountered Nightwing and Flamebird, two heroes of the shrunken bottled city of Kandor of Krypton. Nightwing and Flamebird were in reality Superman and Jimmy Olsen who without superpowers in Kandor adopted the style of frequent partners Batman and Robin to battle crime. I loved the idea immediately and this became of my favorite all-time comics. The sheer wackiness of it appealed to me and the sleek handsome Curt Swan-George Klein artwork, the epitome of the Silver Age spoke to my inner fanboy. This "Dynamic Duo" was the brainchild of veteran science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton, but I have to confess it's the elegant design of the heroes which spoke to me most vividly. Rarely have two superheroes looked so good.
Now to properly establish the back story, it's crucial to mention that Kandor was once the capitol city of Krypton and was shrunk, stolen and bottled by Brainiac many years before Krypton itself met a grisly end. Spared that destruction, the people of Kandor lived out their microscopic lives aboard Brainiac's spaceship until that propitious day when Brainiac came to Earth and promptly stole Paris, Rome and eventually Metropolis itself. Superman of course fights back against this menace and in the process enters Kandor for the first time. There he learns that he is far from alone in the universe, that a whole city of his kind are alive if not exactly well. Of course Brainiac is defeated and the bottled city of Kandor finds a new home in the Fortress of Solitude where it will be kept safely until such time as Superman can find a way to enlarge it again. This pivotal story was told in Action Comics #242.
That day is still far away in Superman #158 when on Earth a wave of crimes is seemingly committed by a gang of "Supermen". Superman realized they are from Kandor and along with Jimmy Olsen enters the city to find out what is amiss. Since he has no superpowers in Kandor, Superman and Jimmy adopt the techniques of their allies Batman and Robin to unlock the mystery.
Patterning their identities on two birds of Krypton, the Nightwing and the Flamebird, they become Kandor's very own Dynamic Duo. They are helped by the scientiest Nor-Kann, an old admirer of Kal-El's parents and a man of means who offers up a hidden underground lab for a hideout and helps them get nifty utility belts which come with neat rockets to let them fly. The two battle the gang of "Supermen" who are led by a scientist who says he has a way to enlarge Kandor safely, but Superman doubts his methods. Superman proves to be correct and saves Kandor at the last minute despite how the people of Kandor had seemed to turn against him.
In Jimmy Olsen #69 the Dynamic Duo of Kandor return for a thrilling adventure which puts Superman pretty much on his ass. They go to Kandor to help stop a villain called "Super Thief" who looks just like Superman but with a cameo mask. He's stealing various treasure from across Kandor. But soon after they hook up again with Nor-Kann Superman contracts Scarlet Jungle Fever and is incapacitated for much of the story. Jimmy / Flamebird confronts the super menace alone and even converts a telepathic hound sent to uncover his secret location into an ally he dubs Nighthound. After several wild misadventures which evoke all sorts of Kryptonian history Flamebird and Nightwing (returned from his illness) eventually uncover the menace who turns out to be closer to home than they ever imagined.
The Dynamic Duos join forces in World's Finest #143. Batman suffers a fit of depression and feels inconsequential in the face of the great powers of his longtime comrade Superman. To lift his spirits Superman concocts one of his typically overwrought plans to take Batman and Robin into Kandor where he and Jimmy will resurrect their Nightwing and Flamebird identities and so allow the heroes to work on a more even level. He even dreams up a hoax menace which turns out to be an actual threat when villains take advantage. "Metalloids" are metal creatures who are possessed Kryptonians who have been transformed into nearly indestructible metal beings. Superman's plan becomes known and Batman is angry, so much so that he wants to duel his former friend. But things happen to make the heroes once again bond and they of course defeat the menace.
There's something insanely charming about these stories. As contrived as they are, the very notion that Superman and Jimmy Olsen could think it makes sense to operate like Batman and Robin is delicious. That they look so good doing it is amazing and speaks to the craftsmanship of Curt Swan. Nightwing and Flamebird are among the sleekest heroes of the era and exceedingly modern looking in their time. The stories themselves are helpless examples of the vintage Silver Age Superman, filled with coincidences and filled with plot holes the size of asteroids, but they are nonetheless compelling in their own special way, a perfect example of how the whole is often much more than the sum of the parts.
More Nightwing and Flamebird tomorrow.