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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  1. I think I have that first appearance in The B&B, it looks very familiar. My first encounter with Metamorpho was in the '70s, when it was (I think) a back-up strip in one of the regular DC mags. (Action Comics maybe? World's Finest? Can't recall.) As with the name Richmal Crompton, I always thought that Ramona Fradon was a guy's name (despite the song Ramona, which should've been a clue), and it wasn't until many years later that I learned 'he' was a she. Great artist. I can't remember whether the stories I read were new or reprints, but I'm sure it was Ramona who drew them, 'cos that's where I first saw her name.

    1. My first Metamorpho encounter was in Justice League of America #100, though I'd seen ads for his comic in earlier DC books.

  2. I always liked Metamorpho as a character although I used to think calling him Element Man would have been a better, or perhaps a more commercial name. I never bought an issue of his original run but I have read a few of them reprinted in other DC books, and as you say they are fun. I used to enjoy the Metamorpho back up strips in (I think) World's Finest in the 1970s. I'm probably in the minority here but I would have loved to have seen a Metamorpho comic by Hilary Barta's ( like his Plastic Man) or Kyle Bakers Plaz. The cover to the original Metamorpho issue 5 is a cracker

    1. With Plastic Man part of the DCU, Metamorpho as a humor strip seems a tad redundant perhaps, or least editorial might've thought so. But Hilary Barta would've done a dandy Metamorpho.