The Mystery Men of May

Welcome back to the continuing  series on super-heroes who made their début in each consecutive month.  As usual, I post images of the stories where I first discovered them or of  issues that are significant to me.

Sandman: I first encountered Simon and Kirby’s  gaudy dynamic duo as 40s reprints in Forever People, where they inhabited their own universe with Manhunter and the Boy Commandos. I’ve enjoyed most of the stories I’ve read: they have a more melodramatic, more Marvel flavour than Batman and Robin stories of the period. One of Roy Thomas’ most idiosyncratic and needless stories explained how Wes Dodds had the same costume as the web-slinger Tarantula!

The gas-masked version of Sandman made a few appearances in the Silver and Bronze Ages – I’ll talk about them more when we review the next JLA 100-pager. He’s probably best known for Sandman Mystery Theatre, a brutal Mature Readers noir for which I was too squeamish.

Doctor Fate:  Aside from Wildcat and the Spectre, Fate was the break-out star of the Justice Society. With his Lovecraftian trappings, the Wonder Wizard eventually became a fan favourite in the Bronze Age, dominating the revival of All-Star Comics and starring in a back-up in Flash. Again, like Wildcat (or The Huntress) Fate was one of the few E-2 characters who would have benefited from, and deserved, membership in the JLA.

As ever, I bought the one-shot above from Baird’s pet store in Strathaven . It  features the heady cartooning of Walt Simonson  and sets up Fate’s 70s status quo.  Kent Nelson protects the world from weird supernatural menaces while ageless wife Inza agonizes over Nelson’s dual identity. Joe Kubert’s Silver Age style cover replaced Simonson’s original:

Not only is the helmet too similar to the one worn by Hawkman, it robs Fate of his implacable otherwordly grandeur.  Dr. Fate of course was a fascinating guest star in Smallville; that’s one spin-off show I would welcome.

The Elongated Man: In this image, I think Ralph Dibny looks a lot like actor and retro-rockabilly crooner Chris Isaak. I first “met” Ralph in Double Double comics, when he and socialite Sue were the back-up stars in Detective. The Silver Age answer to The Thin Man, EM used his goofy elasticity powers to solve mysteries.

I didn’t really pay any attention to Ralph until he became a JLA-er. His fanciful nature was juxtaposed with the more serious demeanour of Batman and Green Arrow but Ralph was a League mainstay for two decades.  He was then  needlessly usurped by Plastic Man ( both could easily be League members simultaneously) and then destroyed by Meltzer’s ugly Identity Crisis, where the author should us how serious and “matoor” superheroes could be. Ahem.

I can deal with the Ghost Detectives idea- shifting from Nick and Nora to the “Topper”  series- but I would much prefer to have the Dibnys back, restored to their soignee, eccentric glory.

Swamp Thing:   I was aware of  ST from ads in the early Bronze Age but I never read any of his original stories. Instead I encountered him as a guest star in Challengers of the Unknown or Super Friends. My schoolfriend Graham Sim introduced me to many of the new and groundbreaking titles from DC during the early 80s. I don’t know where he is now  ( we lost touch over 20 years ago!)  but I’d like to thank him for sharing that time.

Alan Moore used Wein and Wrightson’s re-imagining of The Heap  and other “weird mystery” characters from DC’s stable to explore themes of horror, abuse and sexuality in serious and mature ways that Meltzer should re-read. Moore also co-created John Constantine in Swamp Thing  and wrote some of the most unsettling comics DC ever produced.

Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter:  DC’s kung-fu books- this and Karate Kid–  appeared a couple of years after the fad had passed and never matched the artistry and atmosphere of Shang-Chi or the melodramatic super-heroics of Iron Fist at Marvel. Dragon has returned several times as the mentor of various DC characters, including The Question.  But his supporting cast, Bronze Tiger and Lady Shiva, actually had more staying power than the eponymous martial artist. I bought this one issue in early ’77,  I think.  Dave (Foom)  Kraft  attempts to ape Steranko’s SHIELD and chucks in a Bowie reference so it all feels cheesy and dated, even in Jubilee year!

Secret Society of Super-Villains: An idea that has resurfaced a few time since the Bronze Age, most successfully as Villains United/Secret Six. Early storylines of the SSOV revolved round a war between Darkseid and Simonson’s Manhunter. The comic then attempted some timely headshop corporate satire as Golden Age villain The Wizard joined forces with Kirby’s savage parody of Stan Lee, Funky Flashman. Meanwhile Grodd assembled another band of villains to battle the JLA.

Revived 1950s property Captain Comet, a psionic mutant hero rehashing Captain America’s anachronisms from the 60s, was on hand to foil the villains’ schemes, with a variety of guest-stars including The Creeper.

It was an uneven but fun series, showcasing a considerable number of characters, with a core group of egotists: the aforementioned Wizard, Grodd, Star Sapphire , Sinestro and The Floronic Man. SSOV succumbed to the DC Implosion just after a storyline began where the Wizard’s group  launches a sneak attack on the JSA, while a second branch gear up to take out the Freedom Fighters. Surprisingly, Gerry Conway didn’t fold Captain Comet into the JLA, which would have been the logical place for him.

Amethyst:I don’t know if it was intended to be one of a line of “girl’s comics” like  the sweet but rather outdated Daring Adventures of Supergirl. I do recall a DC title called Pandora Pann being mooted in the 80s. In any case, Amethyst was a charming fantasy with elements that predate Harry Potter. A teenage girl discovers she is the heir to magical powers in a Tolkienesque world of enchanted gemstones, monsters and royalty. Again, this was one that Graham Sim introduced me to, after a preview insert in an issue of LSH.  I was particularly impressed by Ernie Colon’s art, which had touches of Gil Kane.

Later storylines tied in the Gemworld with Zerox, the Photcopier- sorry, Sorceror’s World from LSH and with the Moorcockian struggle between Order and Chaos that crossed over to books as diverse as Doom Patrol and Hawk & Dove in the 80s. These ideas really ruined the charm and uniqueness of Amethyst. However, DC has many properties that would captivate  the young female audience that likes Hunger Games,  Gallagher Girls and Manga:  Wonder Woman, Lois Lane, Supergirl and Amethyst. They just need to reach out to them.

Next time: The Mystery Men of  May Part Two!

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners and are reproduced here for the purposes of nostalgia and comment.

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