Saturday, July 31, 2021

Showcase Corner - Metamorpho The Element Man!

Bob Haney's Metamorpho is an extremely fun superhero concept. Birthed at a time in comic history when fun was paramount in comics, on the cusp of DC's infamous "Go-Go Checks" era, Metamorpho is a mild satire of superheroes presenting a goofy hero, a former chiseled-chin A-personality and famed explorer named Rex Mason who due to a bizarre meteor and ancient pseudo-science becomes the "freak" Metamorpho, able to used the elements of his body to fashion all manner of things. He is a transformational wonder, able to become gas, liquid and all kinds of sturdier constructions limited only to the elements in the human body. And he's loved by the gorgeous Sapphire Stagg, the playgirl daughter of self-absorbed billionaire and scientist Simon Stagg who is Rex's employer. Add in a jealous revived caveman Java and you have the mix of main characters in a typical Metamorpho story. These are tales in which the villains have funny names and absurd motivations, but who pose a threat to the Staggs or the world or both. 

Metamorpho debuted in the pages of The Brave and the Bold, at a time when DC typically tried out new concepts in either that comic or Showcase. After a few issues by Haney and Ramona Fradon in which "The Element Man" is birthed and his basis scenario established he quickly is awarded his own magazine. One filled with a humor often absent from other more established DC offerings. 

I was struck reading Metamorpho this time how much this "E-Man" reminded me of another E-Man, one created for Charlton Comics by Nick Cuti and Joe Staton. Cuti always said that Plastic Man was the inspiration for E-Man and I have no reason to doubt him, but I wonder if Plas was not also the inspiration for Metamorpho - a zany shape-changing character in an even zanier world. 

One of the mild surprises reading this tome was how few issues of the original run Ramona Fradon actually drew. She certainly defined the character with his debut and earliest showings, but with the fifth issue of the run Joe Orlando stepped in to do the penciling honors. 

Orlando was gone by the seventh issue to be replaced on pencils by Sal Trapani. I'd not really heard of Trapani's connection to the character, but it turns out he penciled more issues of Metamorpho than did Fradon. The art though is amazingly consistent throughout most of the run and that's likely why I never tumbled to the fact Fradon was not on board for the whole trip. 

The reason for that artistic consistency is the inker Charles Paris. He inked Fradon, Orlando and he inked all but one of the Trapani issues for a total of seventeen Metamorpho adventures counting the two Brave and Bold appearances. Paris had been a longtime artist for DC working on Batman and other early projects like Crimson Avenger. He retired after his turn on Metamorpho, but his work on that series was definitive. 

The stories by Haney for Metamorpho were bizarre with wild villains, but the status quo takes a tumble when The Element Girl is introduced. Here appearance here is try-out and the editors seemingly leave it up to the fans to determine if she shall return. 

The Element Girl does indeed return and stays a part of the series right to the end. With her addition the romance between Rex Mason and Sapphire Stagg becomes a true triangle. Poor Java always imagines that Sapphire will fall for him, but he's obviously deluded. 

The Thunderer gives the Element Man all he can handle in a wild two-part tale as the series gets even more amped with a more frenetic style showing up. This is also the last issue that Paris inks. 

The status quo of the Metamorpho series takes a hit when Sapphire suddenly marries a rich playboy and the Element Man is recruited for his skills as explorer Rex Mason. We learn that there has been another Element Man in ages past and Metamorpho falls into the clutches of an ageless and ruthless queen who looks just like Sapphire. 

The seventeenth issue of Metamorpho is the final one and thanks to the art of Jack Sparling it looks nothing like the previous installments. Unfortunately the series ends abruptly with a mysterious figure having taken great pains to see to it that Metamorpho suffers by framing him for murder. The Element Man and the the Element Girl vow to be a team unto themselves, but alas we will never see what became of this alliance. 

The Showcase volume closes out with three guest-star appearances by Metamorpho. Alas these stories all occur early in the continuity of the series but are presented as extras at the end. I should have taken greater care and read them in continuity, but still they are fun outings. The two appearances in The Brave and the Bold bring Metamorpho in contact with the Metal Men (a similar concept) and Batman (the Bat-Hulk is a crazy idea). Both of these stories are written by Bob Haney. Haney didn't write the Justice League of America story, that fell to Gardner Fox. All three of these extra issues were drawn by Mike Sekowsky. This Metamorpho volume was one of the earliest in the Showcase Presents series and one of the most entertaining. 

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Friday, July 30, 2021

The Great White Northern Superhero!

Some comics just strike a nerve. Perhaps it's the specific content, but more likely it's the time and place in which you encounter it. I can remember where and when I first read Charlton's E-Man and likewise I remember where and when I first tumbled to the independent comic book Captain Canuck. My late wife and I were visiting her parents. They lived in what is rated as the poorest county in Kentucky, which is far from being the richest state in the United States. It's mostly an area limited in development because of protected forests and the remnants of company towns still mark that before that the people were preyed upon by leaders of commerce. In a little out-of-the-way stop and shop store I found a comic book I'd never heard of. It was the ninth issue of Captain Canuck written by his creator Richard Comely and drawn by George Freeman. It was Freeman's artwork that lassoed me first  but the story itself was an action-filled second half of a two-part yarn that had taken Captain Canuck into space and back down again. I was hooked. I got every subsequent issue I could find and scouted up the back issues, buying them from Comely's small operation. I joined the Captain Canuck club even. The series never let me down, save when it just up and stopped. 

Richard Comely is the co-creator of Captain Canuck and he is primarily responsible for both the story and artwork in the first three issues. These are tales of super-scientific espionage set in the then moderately distant time of the 1990's. Canada is asserting itself as a world power and Canuck along with his fellow C.I.S.O. (Canadian International Security Organization) agents Redcoat and Kebec fight for the protection of the land to the North and the greater planet as well. The artwork by Comely is marginal, with some flourish, but like so many independent efforts more amateurish than professional. The stories though are brisk and to my surprise each time I read them Canuck himself is pushed to the sidelines early and often. 

The fourth issue introduces the artwork of George Freeman (Freeman had assisted on the inks for the third issue) and with his coming the series begins to get some real heft. Freeman's art makes Comely's scripts look much slicker. 

For several issues we follow Captain Canuck as he chases his enemy the drug runner Mr. Gold who has his super-secret lair in a lost Incan city. Canuck rescues a lovely nurse and saves the world, but that's to be expected. 

My first issue was nine and it finds Canuck in the middle of a saga which took him into outer space. It had been revealed early on that Canuck got his powers (increased physical strength, speed and agility) from an encounter with denizens of a UFO. The series seems to be finally getting Canuck into the sphere in which he will thrive. 

But that doesn't mean intrigue doesn't offer good chances for entertainment. The tenth issue in which Canuck fights off Halloween disguised thugs is a real standout in the series. 

It's around this time that Captain Canuck gets a second title, albeit a one-shot "Summer Special". This one features three new Canuck tales, some featuring new artists and experimental page layouts. The sight of this book convinced me that Captain Canuck had found some footing in the marketplace and was going to be around a while. Alas I wasn't correct. 

The Captain Canuck story gets a major jolt from the trilogy of tales that run from issue eleven through thirteen in which Canuck leads the forces of C.I.S.O. and the rest of the world against a full on alien invasion. These invaders are in fact the ones who are responsible for Canuck's powers. Comely and Freeman throw some real storytelling curves into these issues with Canuck at one point being transported several centuries back in time to fight among the natives fending off Viking incursions along the Canadian coast. (This is tribute to the work of Hal Foster of Prince Valiant no less.) 

The team takes advantage of the time travel gag to shift the Captain Canuck story from the future to the then current day of the early 1980's. Apparently they felt it might give the character a firmer grounding, but frankly I loved the sci-fi setting myself. Canuck adjusts to his time shift knowing there's little he can do about it. There's also little he can do about the fact that fourteen was the last issue. The series was canceled much to my disappointment. 

There was one more classic Captain Canuck story produced, but it would be years before it saw print and I am pleased to have finally have gotten a copy of it in the collection from IDW. 

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Thursday, July 29, 2021

American Flagg - The Definitive Collection Volume Two!

Howard Chaykin's  1980's dystopic comic book saga American Flagg is a robust yarn about a possible bleak future for the world, one in which the governments of the world have largely collapsed or escaped to the planet Mars and leave behind on Earth sprawling commercial-governmental complexes which prey on the people as much as serve their needs. In this environment Reuben Flagg becomes a "Plexus Ranger" and attempts in his own way to make a better world for himself and those around him. 

The storylines in American Flagg are trios of closely related stories, each with its own overarching title. "State of the Union" is the first trilogy in this collection and it tells how the world outside the somewhat more protected city-states called "Plexemalls" have been overwhelmed by an enormous blizzard. Thought to be the work of nature, it turns out this destructive storm was the result of technology, specifically a satellite long forgotten spinning about the Earth with the capacity to affect weather. Flagg with his new robotic deputy Luther Ironheart are attempting to keep order as waves of displaced people try to find shelter against the relentless weather. Fighting to keep "undesirables" out of the city is a group called the "American Survivalist Labor Committee" or ASLC for short. Also in the wings is the "Gotterdemmocrats", a revived version of the National Socialist Party better known as Nazis. Flagg must battle furiously to try and keep these forces from coming to power. 

In the final trilogy in this collection titled "Solidarity for Now", the last issues completely done by Howard Chaykin we see the results of the efforts of the ASLC and the Nazis to get power in Chicago and we follow Flagg and his few allies as they attempt to not just stay alive but return to power and bring some measure of safety to the countless thousands deemed unfit for the new society, not mention saving the life of the last King of England no less. Many familiar faces from Flagg's previous adventures surface as the enemy tries to maintain power. Flagg enlists the help of many disparate forces, even former enemies to bring the Nazis to heel. Eventually he wins out, but it is a hard fought victory with significant costs. 

This collection closes out with two issues of American Flagg not drawn by Chaykin, though he does write them. The first drawn by James Sherman and Rich Burchett tells the long and convoluted story of one of our characters who has been suffering from amnesia. The second drawn by Pat Broderick and Burchett showcases how Flagg is able to win some measure of protection and support form the governments beyond Earth who are more interested in selling Chicago than governing it. The final story in this collection is a new one produced by Chaykin as a coda of sorts to these early seminal stories about Reuben Flagg. Truth told, I prefer the younger less evolved style Chaykin used to his more modern renderings. 

American Flagg is an exciting read about characters who are adult in many ways including partaking in sex. I've not said much about the sex in these stories, but it plays an enormous role, as much in many as the issues of race and ethnicity. The sex presented by Chaykin is a bit kinky with nearly all the women in the series ending up in bed with Reuben Flagg at some point and when they do they all have a decided penchant for wearing garters and stockings. Chaykin is unafraid of presenting sex in his stories and in some later work the sex becomes the focus, but for American Flagg it's one important element among many others. 

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