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HERO WORSHIP

 

The League of Expendable Gentlemen

Robert M. Price

 

Closet Full of Costumes

One of the weird little features I love the most about the wacky Silver Age of comics at DC was their propensity to overrun their production of superheroes, as if, understandably, their creators just couldn't scratch the itch sufficiently. Maybe Swann or Schaffenburger would be doodling, decided they liked this or that costume too well not to use it. If it was a bad guy, that was no problem. Hell, you needed bad guys by the bushel anyway. But what if it were a variation on Superman or Batman? How could you work those in? The ranks of superheroes was seemingly growing way too big as it was. Later, as you know, they took care of this problem by creating the phenomenon of supernumerary superheroes drifting around like jobless academics, resident in the DC universe with no title of their own, popping up in this or that mini-series or as an occasional guest star, like Elongated Man. But the favorite gimmick back then was to create what appeared to be a rival to one of the heroes who would soon be exposed or disqualified.

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Jealous Triangle

In the pages of World's Finest Comics, the team-up vehicle for Batman, Robin, and Superman, there were at least three rivals for poor Batman, who threatened to put him out to pasture. One was the mysterious Powerman (World's Finest # 94), a hooded ally of Superman, who told Batman not to bother showing up anymore. Why? Powerman was revealed as a robot that Superman substituted for Batman because of the great danger he would have exposed his friend to had he shared the case with him. Knowing Batman would have yielded to no threat of danger, Superman temporarily alienated him instead. In another issue (WF # 119), using a similar gimmick, Superman now seemed to take orders from the bungling Tigerman, who ordered the terrific trio into rash and risky situations. This all turned out to be a hoax to capture some crooks, who would never have fallen for any attempt by either Batman or Superman to feign clumsy planning. Tigerman turned out to be Superman himself (sometimes accompanied by a Superman robot when everybody had to be on stage at once). In yet another issue (#155) Batman seems placed in the shadows by a similar newcomer, Nightman, with an owlish costume reminiscent, retroactively, of the costume of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Nite-Owl. This turned out to be a prank on Batman in honor of Superman and Batman's 100th case together: Superman hypnotized Batman into becoming Nightman, moonlighting as an unsuspected alternate personality while Bruce Wayne slept! No wonder that Nightman was such a skilled fighter and detective! And for their 100th case, it was Batman's challenge to figure out the identity of his rival. He did. Pretty clever.

ááááááááááá Over in one of his own books (Batman #137), Batman had the same thing happen when a new superhero, the hooded Mr. Marvel, possessing all manner of super-weapons against crime, drove a wedge between the Dynamic Duo, recruiting Robin as his new sidekick! This one was finally revealed as a space alien, who promptly exited earth.

ááááááááááá In Superboy # 109 they even pulled this trick on Krypto the Superdog! Superboy seemed to have replaced him with a caped, super-powered Greyhound called Swifty!

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Rivals of Superman

Another category was romantic rivals of Superman, again, almost always fakes, cruel tricks played upon Lois Lane. One was Mental Man (Action # 272), ostensibly a superhero of Lois Lane's creation. It seemed suddenly that she could draw just like Curt Swann, so she became a cartoonist for The Daily Planet. Well, wouldn't you know it, one day, Mental Man himself appeared in a puff of ectoplasm beside Lois's easel. It appeared that the ardent loyalty of the strip's fans, who dearly wished there was a real Mental Man (I guess Superman wasn't enough for them!), conjured him into existence. As his powers were psycho-kinetic in nature, this seemed to make sense in a way, if you didn't look to close, anyway. But it turned out to be Aquaman in a skullcap and different leotards.

ááááááááááá Another time(Lois Lane # 56), Superman hit upon an "exchange savior" deal with another planet. He went there to solve crimes for a while, and they sent their own champion, Ideal Man, to replace Superman. He professed to fall for Lois Lane at first sight, who then eventually accepted his advances, abandoning her mooning over the unobtainable Superman. Only then it turned out there was no Ideal Man! it was just Superman in disguise, toying with her affections in a manner unthinkable even for a mortal. Shows you how seriously they were taking Lois in those days!

ááááááááááá Imagine Superman's super-surprise when he discovered, like King Saul witnessing the crowd's acclamation for his young protege David, that Metropolis had taken a new superhero, Wonderman (Superman # 163), to heart! Wonderman was ungracious about it, but Superman was a good sport. But it eventuated that Wonderman was really a Superman robot, named Ajax, given flesh and blood by space aliens. He finally showed his true colors by sacrificing himself to save Superman and confessed on his deathbed. It was apparently this character's appearance that made Stan Lee over at Marvel decided to kill of his own Wonderman (in Avengers # 9) in a similar denouement. Only I wonder if Stan's memory is clear on the point, since DC's Wonderman was practically DOA at his first appearance. Why worry? It was ironic in any event, since the second Superman knock-off (after Captain Marvel) was Will Eisner's Wonderman, whom DC sued off the stands after a single issue.

ááááááááááá Again, Lois Lane had been propositioned by Titan Man (Lois Lane # 79), the hero of another world. She agreed to become his wife, despairing of Superman's affections. But at the wedding, she backed out, having been hitherto unaware that Titan Man was a polygamist! She would have been no more than a member of his harem!

ááááááááááá And then there were friendly rivalries, or rather, rivals for Superman's friendship. Jimmy Olsen bristled with jealousy when some local kid, Tom Baker, invented a machine that exploded, giving him super-powers (Jimmy Olsen # 45). This guy Superman took under his wing as Power Lad, a new hero so popular in Metropolis, that three different designers contributed super-costumes, which he wore in tandem. As far as I know this is about the only case of a superhero with a rotating wardrobe! For poor Jimmy, put into the shade by this super-powered newcomer, it was time to give up the title of "Superman's Pal." Or so he feared until Power Lad was a vacationer from the bottle city of Kandor, thus super-powered in our world. But back he went, and Jimmy breathed a sigh of relief!

ááááááááááá But Superman, or Superboy, can become lonely, too, needing someone on his level. Thus twice, in stories with identical plots, witnessed Superboy visiting other words and teaming up with Mighty Boy one time (Superboy # 85), Power Boy another (rpt, Giant Superboy # 1). But close proximity to him somehow drained away or distorted their powers, and he had to wave good bye and head back to earth. Years later, as Superman, he got the urge to go acourtin' (Action # 289). After rejecting the option of marrying his cousin Supergirl since some states did not look favorably on kissin' cousins, he went to the "future" to romance Saturn Woman, only to discover that in the intervening years, Lightning Lad had married her at last. At length, Supergirl found him the superheroine of a distant planet, Superwoman, who even had an LL name: Luma Lynai! But she lost her powers on earth, and he wasn't willing to move, so that was that! In an earlier story of the same type (Superman # 123), Jimmy Olsen got ahold of a wishing talisman and conjured up a red-haired, green-and-tan costumed Supergirl for Superman "to be a helpmeet fit for him," but this failed, too. This was eight months before the familiar Supergirl entered the picture.

ááááááááááá In the early eighties, yet another throw-away Superwoman appeared (DC Comics Presents Annual # 2), a future descendant of Jimmy Olsen, who comes back to time in order to demonstrate to her students that, with the technology of their own advanced period, anyone could have been a so-called superhero in the twentieth-century. She made a few appearances before the Crisis wiped her.á

 

Nuclear Family

Finally, there was a series of stories, every couple of years, based on the premise: What would it be like if someone else in the "Superman Family" gained Superpowers? Well, the Man of Steel would just have to get used to sharing the spotlight (or, if he lost his powers to them, how it felt being them)! Jimmy Olsen gained at least two different super-identities to which he sporadically returned to assist Superman. He frequently downed a serum and became Elastic Lad (starting in Jimmy Olsen # 37). But then he also played Robin to Superman's Batman when (in Jimmy Olsen # 69) the two descended into Kandor via controlled use of Brainiac's shrink-ray. There, they decided to flatter Batman and Robin by imitation, so Superman became Nightwing (the closest Kryptonian thing to a bat), and Jimmy became Flamebird. These were great tales, and eventually Superman's Kandorian cousin (and double! But then didn't they all look pretty much like him?) Von-zee took over the crime-fighting identity, assisted by a reformed Phantom Zone denizen with red hair.

ááááááááááá But once (Jimmy Olsen # 50) Jimmy also became Super Jimmy, a rival Superman, when Superman's powers were transferred to him. He seemed brusque with Superman, complaining about having to respond to his emergency signal watch calls (!), till we learned Super Jimmy was under a deadline to discover a serum that would restore Superman's powers.

ááááááááááá Lois Lane had at least as many super-identities, though most of these were figments of her imagination. Just like her contemporary Lucy Ricardo, who coveted Ricky's fame on stage at the Copa, Lois desperately wanted to be a Superwoman. A drink of enchanted water out of an American Indian pond gave her powers, and she sewed a spiffy-looking green and yellow costume and became Superwoman (Action # 274), later Super Lois. Subsequently (Lois Lane #s 17, 21), she and her rival Lana Lang gained powers from a blood transfusion from Superman, vying for Superman's affections as Super Lois (again) and Super Lana (with a spiffy yellow, purple, and red outfit). You will remember that great scene in Alan Moore's "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" when Super Lana, Elastic Lad, and Krypto sacrificed their own lives saving Superman from Brainiac and the Kryptonite Man. Wow!

ááááááááááá In an imaginary story (Superman á# 159), Lois was the sole survivor of an exploded earth, rocketing to Krypton, where she grew up to become the crimson-costumed Supermaid. Another time (Lois Lane # 47) she had a dream in which it had been she, and not Superman, who had descended to earth from Krypton. Here she called her super-identity Krypton Girl. In yet another (Superman # 125), my favorite, she had a fever dream in which Superman had given her a blood transfusion and, with it, a share in his super-abilities. Donning costume and wig, she became Power Girl (the name used many years later for the Earth 2 Supergirl). When she had to give Clark Kent a transfusion, he, too, received Superman's powers, but he, as Powerman, Power Girl's partner, was clumsy and hesitant in using his powers, so Lois was always chewing him out! Of course, in her dream she had no idea that Kent was actually Superman.

ááááááááááá Even Perry White got super-powers one day after heedlessly munching a piece of fruit that had gown overnight on an extraterrestrial tree that appeared in his yard (Action # 278). Curt Swann's Perry had never been particularly fat, or you couldn't tell with his double-breasted suits, so with his costume he looked no more barrel-chested than the Wayne Boring Superman. At first a hero, Master Man, as he came more and more under the influence of the alien substance inside him, invaded Superman's Fortress of Solitude and nearly killed Superman with a Green Kryptonite spear and a Red Kryptonite spear.

ááááááááááá Lex Luthor at least twice received super-powers and costumes to match. One was in Action # 298. The other time (Superman # 168), he became The Defender, the Superman-like defender of another planet, where Superman, known to be his enemy, was Public Enemy Number 1.

ááááááááááá I miss these mostly one-shot superheroes. I've made custom action figures of most of them. I wish they had been able to make more use of each one of these characters. In some strange way they embody the fun and exotic craziness of the Silver Age perhaps more than anything else. And I'm glad to see I'm apparently not the only one who thinks so. I was delighted to see Alex Ross bring back Powerman, "robot minion of Superman" in the League in Kingdom Come. But not only that: the old idea of some "new kid in town" superhero who threatens to eclipse Superman in the esteem of Metropolis is, if you hadn't noticed, absolutely central to Kingdom Come. That's who and what Magog was. Ross employed the old gimmick in a profound new way. Even the theme of "rival for Lois Lane" was included, only this time it was a question of which one would avenge her death, and the affection of Metropolis was in the balance, with tragic results. 

 

Copyrightę2004 by Robert M Price
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