Ask Chris #300: The Undisputed High Point Of The Silver Age
Q: What is your high water mark for DC's Silver Age? Mine is the publication of Atom #1 in 1961. --- @batmite1
A: When you get right down to it, it's pretty difficult to separate the Silver Age from the Superman. Even when Batman was translating the era's pop-art aesthetics and biff-pow sound effects to a mass media audience on television, it was the Superman titles that were defining the era in comics, and providing some of the true high points of the era. Chances are pretty good that when you think of the Silver Age, the image you get in your head is going to be from a Superman title, whether it's the time he was walking around with a lion head, a far-future adventure with the Legion of Super-Heroes, or even the very existence of Jimmy Olsen.
But while Superman provided most of the memorable highlights of the era, there was a lot going on beneath the surface in books like Doom Patrol or Metal Men that were stone cold classics. And pound for pound, the best comic of the Silver Age wasn't Superman. It was Metamorpho.
I say "pound for pound," because if you go by sheer numbers, Superman has Metamorpho beat from pillar to post. But then, it should. If you mark the Silver Age like I do, from the first appearance of Barry Allen in September 1956 to Jack Kirby jumping ship to DC in October 1970, that's a time period that has 171 issues of Action Comics, 122 of Superman, and a combined 533 more of Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Adventure Comics, and Superboy. With that many stories, at a time when Superman stories were arguably the best that they've ever been in 78 years of publication, thanks to creators like Otto Binder, Jerry Siegel, Ed Hamilton, Curt Swan, Kurt Schaffenberger, Wayne Boring, and more, you're going to have lot of really great comics.
Metamorpho, on the other hand, is operating at a much smaller scale: 17 issues of a self-titled solo series between 1965 and 1968, with a few tryout appearances in Showcase and a couple of team-up stories in Brave and the Bold, all of which were written by Bob Haney, who co-created Metamorpho with the amazing Ramona Fradon. It's a much smaller footprint, but in that short time, they produced some of the greatest comics of the era, filled with truly bizarre premises, genuinely hilarious comedy, and a whole new take on superhero action, all built around the idea of a hero who could literally be anything.
So here are the basics: Rex Mason was a world-traveling adventurer when he found the Orb of Ra, a mystical artifact that turned him into the misshapen Metamorpho the Element Man, the Fab Freak of 1,001 changes --- which is a very catchphrasey way to say that he can change any part of his body into virtually any combination of elements in any shape, from copper springs to iron bowling balls to that one time he changed his hands to dry ice in order to chill a bottle of champagne.
It was, I assure you, a baller move.
Rounding out the cast, we have his girlfriend, the beautiful, rich, and occasionally imperiled Sapphire Stagg; her father Simon Stagg, who's Rexy-Baby's boss; a conniving unfrozen caveman named Java, who also works for Stagg's nebulously shady businesses and serves as Rex's chief rival for Sapphire's affections; and eventually, the similarly powered Urania Blackwell, the Element Girl. Together, they have world-traveling adventures and deal with a handful of forgotten supervillains with what you might call extremely vague plans for world domination.
So yeah: It's Indiana Jones, except in the '60s, and he's dating Veronica Lodge and he's constantly explaining how he can turn himself into a battering ram made out of calicum carbonate --- more commonly known as marble! It is the best.
With a setup like that, it probably goes without saying that Metamorpho gets pretty bizarre over the course of its run, and it's exactly that aspect of the book that marries it to the Silver Age. It's the same kind of storytelling, of problems and solutions designed to fit into a rigid structure of rules and plot devices that you'd see in any of DC's other comics, just taken to that next level.
What's really striking about Metamorpho isn't that it's weird --- although it is definitely weird, in with the kind of strangeness that only Bob Haney could bring to comics. He is, after all, the writer who would go on to pen the story about the time that Batman died and had to be resurrected by the Atom jumping on his brain until his crime-fighting muscle memory took over and sent him off to battle evil as a zombie until he came back to life a few hours later. If you're looking at it in the context of that career, then the stories where Metamorpho is framed for stealing the Eiffel Tower, or has to hit the gridiron against a team of chemo-robots who are trying to steal a nuclear bomb hidden inside a football, don't really seem that out of place.
No, what really makes Metamorpho memorable is how much it feels like it's ahead of its time.
As much as it's a product of its time, there's an awareness and genre-savviness in play in Metamorpho that reads like it's from ten, maybe even fifteen years after its time. For starters, Rex, with his misshapen form and the lumpy, pallid face that he's given after he becomes the Element Man, is constantly dealing with the idea that he's no longer quite human. There's a pathos to it, and it's something that the splash pages reinforce in virtually every issue when they do the roll call for the cast and represent Rex not as the noseless, quadrisected Metamorpho that you see on the page, but as handsome, square-jawed, sandy-haired Rex Mason. It's not something that Haney's scripts are particularly compelled to dwell on, but it's there.
More than that, though, it's smart. Haney, Fradon and Sal Trapiani --- who drew the bulk of the solo series --- were very clearly shooting for an audience that was familiar with the tropes and twists of superhero comics, and not just DC Comics. And that's where the book hit its high point, with the coming of the Thunderer.
You would be hard pressed to find a single DC story from the '60s that holds up quite as well as this one, for the simple reason that it's a note-perfect parody of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Galactus saga in Fantastic Four, which had run only a few months before Haney and Trapiani put pen to paper for Metamorpho #14, and which still serves as the prototypical blueprint for pretty much every world-shaking superhero saga. They even give him a herald with the typically goofball name of Neutrog the Forerunner.
The main difference, of course, is that rather than being a space giant, the Thunderer arrives on Earth as a two-foot-tall terror with the ability to shoot destructive beams out of his eye-stalks. And, of course, rather than being warded off by the vague threat of the Ultimate Nullifier, the Thunderer is only stopped when a local teen genius loans Metamorpho his laser guitar.
So, y'know. I'm not saying it's better than the Galactus trilogy, I'm just saying that only one of those stories has a guitar that shoots laser beams.
The thing is, Haney and Trapiani's parody of Fantastic Four isn't really competitive, and it's not really meanspirited, either --- there's even a joke in there about how Metamorpho is "The World's Second-Greatest Comics Magazine (But He Tries Harder!)" that makes it pretty clear that they knew exactly what they were doing. But the fact is, they're riffing on something from outside DC, breaking out of the stiffness and stilted dialogue that dominated that era and trying something new.
So is it the best comic of the Silver Age? Maybe not. It's such a different story from something like, say, "The Last Days of Superman," "Robin Dies At Dawn," or even "Superman's New Power" (you know, the one where he gets a tiny little man that he can shoot out of his hand and then gets so jealous of the attention his homunculus is getting that he subconsciously tries to murder it) that it's kind of difficult to compare them.
But it is the Silver Age showing you exactly what comics were going to be like in the future, and doing it with a style and panache that holds up today.