Thursday, January 06, 2011

Brave & Bold #57: DC's First Ambivalent Superhero

Up till this point, DC's superheroes had all pretty much relished their superpowers. And why not? Who wouldn't want to be able to zoom at super speed, or have a ring that obeys your every command, or shrink down to the size of an atom... provided, of course, that you could also be normal whenever desired.

Ben Grimm, aka the Thing from the Fantastic Four, changed all that. While he had extraordinary strength, his powers came with a curse: he looked like a pile of orange rocks 24-7. Granted, it's been done to death since, but in the early 1960s this was pretty revolutionary stuff. When the Thing was followed up by characters like the Hulk, Spiderman and the X-Men, it was clear that Marvel was onto something. Comics fans liked heroes with permanent problems, not just the temporary annoyance of a Mr Mxyzptlk or a brush with Red Kryptonite.

DC obviously took note and responded with Metamorpho. Rex Mason was a world-famous adventurer who traveled the globe. His employer was Simon Stagg, a wealthy, but unscrupulous tyrant, who also had a gorgeous daughter named Sapphire. Rex and Sapphire were engaged, much to the dismay of Stagg's brutish assistant, Java, an unfrozen caveman who was smitten with the young woman himself.

As the story begins, Rex is returning from a visit to the jungles of South America, where he was in search of the formula used by witch doctors to create their shrunken heads. He makes quite an entrance:

That turns out to be a gag he's pulled on Stagg and the mayor, who had planned a ceremony and speech to greet the famed traveler. Actually Mason had parachuted from the plane earlier and landed in Sapphire's convertible. When Stagg's goons order the pair back to the millionaire's mansion, they make the most of their time:

Cute bit, probably inspired by the James Bond flicks of the time. Stagg has a new assignment for Mason, one that will pay him enough for him to marry Sapphire:

However, when they locate the hidden pyramid, problems arise. At first, the pyramid glows red hot. Then later, after finding the Orb of Ra, Java turns on Rex:

When he recovers, Rex finds himself trapped:

After passing out from the heat, Rex is surprised to discover he's still alive, but dramatically changed:

He's still sealed inside the pyramid, but "a strange thought occurs to his confused brain" and he turns gaseous, seeping through the cracks to the outside.

Java has escaped in a backup plane. Rex quickly realizes that with his new powers he can fix his damaged machine:

In the next chapter, Mason appears to have been boning up on those chemical lessons, as he seeks his revenge on Java and Stagg:

When Stagg tries to shoot him, Rex learns he's invulnerable to bullets in his new form. But not invulnerable to something else:

He and Stagg reach an uneasy truce. Stagg will try to help him get back to his normal state, and Rex will not destroy his castle. There follows a couple pages where Stagg experiments on Metamorpho, which functions mostly to define his powers. He's virtually invulnerable (except for that Orb of Ra) and he can change into almost any element found in the human body.

But Stagg is unable to reverse the incredible change. Java goes nuts and tries to burn down the castle, but Rex saves Sapphire, whose feelings have not changed:

She suggests that he use his powers for good until he can be changed back. Meanwhile, Daddy has hidden the orb in a shark tank he conveniently keeps in another part of the castle.

Comments: Entertaining origin issue, enlivened quite a bit by Ramona Fradon's artwork (embellished by longtime Batman inker Charles Paris). The story was written by Bob Haney. Oddly enough, when DC came up with their next conflicted superhero, he had a very similar quadrifurcated appearance:

There was at least one significant difference between Metamorpho and the Thing. While both were appalled at their freaky-freak McAlien freak appearance, Ben was capable of being irascible even about other things, while Rex remained pretty much happy-go-lucky except about his appearance.


BastaComix said...

Gotta love Ramona Fradon's fun, lively artwork! Huge fan of hers!
Thanks tons for the post and the reminder.

Martin O'Hearn said...

Notice that logical limitation on his powers -- he can turn into only the elements found in the human body (about one-third of the periodic table, as we were reminded). Later writers dropped that limitation when they needed to plot themselves out of a hole -- without explanation, Metamorpho could turn into any element up to and including Kryptonite.

Mike Frank said...

At a time when "comic" books were not very funny Metamorpho was unabashedly silly. I was nine years old when it first appeared and looked forward to getting each new issue. Like many kids of the time I had to travel far and wide to find all the comics I wanted to buy every month, so I didn't realize it had been canceled until I both couldn't find a copy and it no longer showed up on any of the subscription coupons in any of DC's comic books.

frasersherman said...

Later issues of Metamorpho really were daft, even by Silver Age standards--I remember one where he and a rival for Sapphire take turns defacing Mt. Rushmore to impress her (and without the usual "of course it was fixed later.").
In addition to being tormented, one thing about Rex is that even pre-Metamorpho, he was kind of superheroic--globetrotting Indiana Jones type adventurer with a greedy, power-mad boss with his own private army, and a resurrected ape man for a sidekick. Hal Jordan's life as a darevil testpilot was mundane by comparison.

Anonymous said...

Cliff Steele and Larry Trainor are D.C.'s first & second ambivalent superheroes.

The Doom Patrol [My Greatest Adventure #80 (June 1963] predates Metamorpho [The cover date of Brave & Bold #57 is 1965].

Otherwise really cool blog entry.


Anonymous said...

Metamorpho and Doom Patrol were Marvel comics published by DC, and Captain America was a DC character published by Marvel.