Thursday, 25 December 2014

Showcase Presents DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups volume 1

For a special Christmas post it's time for another look at things over at the Distinguished Competition.

Although I had already encountered many US comic stories reprinted for the British market, about the first ever actual US comic I can remember seeing was an old issue of the Superman team-up series DC Comics Presents. It was issue #75 in which he teamed up with Arion, Lord of Atlantis in a tale spanning many thousands of years. Having looked at the first volume of Batman's team-ups last year it's natural to now turn to Superman's.

Showcase Presents DC Comics Presents Superman Team-Ups volume 1 does as it says on the tin and reprints the team-ups from the first twenty-six issues of the title, originally published between 1978 and 1980. Just as Showcase Presents The Brave and the Bold Batman Team-Ups volume 1 covers the era of Batman's popularity surge with the TV series, this volume covers the period in which the first Superman movie came out and reaches almost the release of the second.

There's quite a lot of creators on this volume with issues written by the likes of Martin Pasko, David Michelinie, Len Wein, Paul Levitz, Steve Englehart, Cary Bates, Denny O'Neil, Gerry Conway, Mike W. Barr, Marv Wolfman and Jim Starlin. The art is a mixture of Starlin, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Murphy Anderson, Curt Swan, Dick Dillin, Joe Staton and Rich Buckler. That's a pretty impressive set of names suggesting this wasn't considered a throwaway title even if the lack of a continuing creative team is a worrying sign. (And yes, there's a separate post for some of the labels.)

Looking back it's surprising how long it took for Superman to get a regular rotating team-up title. For a couple of years at the start of the 1970s World's Finest had switched from the regular Superman/Batman team-up to Superman and rotating guest-stars but even in that short run Batman and/or Robin showed up quite a bit anyway. Otherwise the late arrival of such a book is surprising when Batman and, over at Marvel, both Spider-Man and the Thing had all had team-up books for some years. The imminent arrival of the first Superman movie was clearly the driving force behind the book finally appearing and, presumably, surviving the DC Implosion of 1978 which hit the company just a couple of months after the series launched. But the movie itself doesn't seem to have influenced the content of the series which instead sticks to the standard comic portrayal of Superman. For that matter Wonder Woman is also clearly based on her comic portrayal rather than that of the TV series, which was then in its final year.

As is standard for a team-up title, here's the list of guest-stars:

1. Flash
2. Flash
3. Adam Strange
4. Metal Men
5. Aquaman
6. Green Lantern
7. Red Tornado
8. Swamp Thing
9. Wonder Woman
10. Sgt. Rock
11. Hawkman
12. Mister Miracle
13. Legion of Super-Heroes
14. Superboy
15. Atom
16. Black Lightning
17. Firestorm
18. Zatanna
19. Batgirl
20. Green Arrow
21. Elongated Man
22. Captain Comet
23. Doctor Fate
24. Deadman
25. Phantom Stranger
26. Green Lantern

With the exception of Doctor Fate all the characters are the Earth 1 versions. This selection of guests is drawn very much from the better known end of the DC Multiverse with most of the big name Justice League members represented. With Batman accommodated by the regular team-up in World's Finest the most obvious absentee on the list is the Martian Manhunter. Although time travel appears a lot in the volume the stories and guest stars are rooted in the present day apart from Sgt. Rock who only appears when Superman is thrown back in time to 1944. Also appearing in issue #11, though not billed on the cover, is Marc Teichman, the fictional winner of a Daily Planet prize to spend time with Superman and based on a reader who won a prize on the letters page to be depicted fictionally. There are some cameos by various Justice League members but otherwise the only notable guest-star who doesn't get headlined is Krypto the Superdog, making a rare appearance in Kal-El's adulthood.

There's little in the way of ongoing development in this volume, not least because no writer does more than three issues consecutively. At this stage Clark Kent was working for both the Daily Planet and the WGBS TV station, and we see most of his supporting cast including Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Lana Lang and Steve Lombard. However they are all primarily used as part of the general background rather than actually driving any of the stories. The first two issues form a single story and a few of the later issues are linked with Superman following up on foes in a second issue even though the first's guest star doesn't come with him. One of the few long term consequences comes in issue #17 when at the end of their adventure together Superman suggests Firestorm should join the Justice League; however this proposal is not followed up here and is presumably continued in the contemporary Justice League of America.

The foes themselves are a mixture of original one-off characters to serve an individual tale and longstanding foes, often key parts of the guest star's rogues' gallery. New foes used here include the Volkir and Zelkot, two alien races who evolved from the same common ancestor but who have now been at war for thousands of years, the Skrynians, an alien race from a dying planet seeking a new world with a suitably cold climate, Frank Rayles, a rich crook and brother of an astronomer, the Sabromians, a set of alien invaders, Hugh Bryant, a lonely alien who has been trapped on Earth for millions of years evolving into the planet's dominant life form at any given moment but now devolving backwards into those forms, Caligro the Great, a failed magician embittered by the success and fame of the heroes, Doctor Horus, an anthropologist whose mind has drawn in both his house and people visiting, Bo Force, a crooked oil magnate, the Masters, an alien race who use an infection to turn humans into their own kind, Starstriker, a mutant seeking to activate his own mental powers, El Muchacho, a mischievous imp, Mr. Genarian, a mobster seeking to prolong his life, and N'Gon, an alien seeking extra power to destroy its duplicate counterpart. Note just how many different alien races are used in this volume. Existing foes seen here include Kaskor, Adam Strange's longstanding enemy, Chemo, the Metal Men's old foe, I.Q., an old Hawkman foe but here appearing against the Metal Men, Ocean Master, half-brother of Aquaman, Star Sapphire, the alien warrior possessing Green Lantern's girlfriend Carol Ferris, the Weaponers of Qward, old foes of Green Lantern, Solomon Grundy, the lesser known Earth 1 version of the swamp monster, Killer Frost, Firestorm's recurrent foe, and Tala, the soul seeking demoness enemy of the Phantom Stranger. And there are the generic foes such as the German soldiers in the team-up with Sgt. Rock. Superman's recurring foes seen here are limited to Intergang, the Metropolis based criminal organisation. There's also a brief appearance by the Reverse-Flash, who in black and white looks almost identical to the Flash bar the background colour on their chest symbols.

The one recurring storyline involves Clark's old friend from his Smallville days, Pete Ross and his son Jon. Pete has known of Clark's identity for many years but concealed his knowledge. Now he turns to Superman for help when Jon is kidnapped by aliens and taken to an alien world. Superman promises to rescue Jon but the Legion of Super-Heroes intervene because Jon's kidnap and separation from his father is a crucial moment in history. This creates a terrible dilemma for Superman and his decision to leave Jon there is one that sits uneasily with him for some time. It also leads to a rupture in his friendship with Pete as the latter turns on him and seeks vengeance then succumbs to madness. Later on in the volume Tala seeks to possess Superman's soul, digging at this incident as it is his greatest failure; however Superman resolves to put things right by bringing Jon home whilst the Phantom Stranger battles Tala. Seeing his son again cures Pete's madness and anger, a little too instantly, and there's a reconciliation between the old friends. It's a pity that this storyline is wrapped up so quickly as Pete could have made for quite an interesting recurring adversary who knows Superman's identity and has a strong personal history of friendship with the Kryptonian that not even the Lex Luthor of this era had. And unlike Luthor his motivation would be a lot more sophisticated than an accident that made him bald.

One of the general rules in these stories (and indeed much of DC in this era) is that it is not possible to time travel to a moment in time when one is already present and so it's not possible to meet one's own self. In general this rule is followed even though it can cause problems but there are two times when Superman encounters Superboy. On the first occasion the space-time continuum is temporarily disrupted, suspending the natural law until the two Kal-Els make physical contact and restore the normal order. Later Pete Ross switches his mind with Superboy's and consequently both the mind and body of Superboy are able to co-exist in the present day with Superman, being able to interact and make physical contact. In general the rule can work to put a restraint upon time travel powers and also constrain the excesses of writers, but it's a little unsatisfactory when it can be circumvented so easily.

In general Superman and his guest stars work well together. Either the guest star has sufficiently comparable power that they contribute strongly to the action or else the situation requires other skills such as detection. The one guest star who feels underused is Black Lightning as his appearance involves dealing with Hugh, whose devolution makes him ever stronger and so by the end of the tale it seems as though Black Lightning is just a bystander as Superman resolves the menace. This may be a consequence of the team-up being seemingly written quickly to meet fan demand on the letters page. On several occasions Superman's powers are temporarily weakened or suspended by events, adding to the tension but also helping to level the playing field. With most of the heroes it's clear that Superman has a long history of working with them, though for the Metal Men this is their first meeting with him.

The page lengths of issues vary a bit, ranging from seventeen to twenty-five pages. It's most notable in the first few issues, clearly due to the title almost immediately getting caught up in DC's expansion plans to only for the DC Implosion to suddenly come along and cut them back. This also sees the series, and DC in general, go through exactly the same cycle as Marvel did earlier in the decade whereby the price and page count both rise for a brief period only to fall back but with the price for the shorter issues higher than before. One sign of overall coherence is that despite the rapid turnover of writers and artists, there are no major mistakes or announcements of forthcoming guest stars who either show up late or not at all.

A team-up book from this era is never going to be the best place to sample a company's overall story structure. However this volume does give a strong glimpse at both the characters and talent at DC at this time. It may have taken Superman a long time to get a team-up title but once established it presents a generally coherent set of adventures that don't lag or descend into excessive formula. All in all this is a good sampler of the DC universe in this period and an example of a title that managed to get things right pretty quickly.

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