Thursday, May 7, 2015

Guest-starring Congorilla and Dr. Phosphorus

Showcase Presents Superman Volume 3: written by Jerry Siegel, Edmond Hamilton, Bill Finger, and others; illustrated by Curt Swan, Wayne Boring, Al Plastino, and others (1961-62; collected 2007): Superman's Silver Age adventures move forward into more absurdity, cosmic happenings, and classic tragedy. 

The last is thanks to an Imaginary Story written by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and illustrated by the great Curt Swan, who drew Superman adventures in five decades. It's The Death of Superman, and it puts all other stories about the Man of Steel's death on the back-burner. But it's Imaginary -- it didn't really happen, dear reader!

We also get non-Imaginary stories featuring the Man of Tomorrow battling the mischievous 5th-dimensional imp Mr. Mxyzptlk, arch-enemy Lex Luthor, and various forms of Kryptonite. Ah, Kryptonite. Invented for the radio show back in the 1940's and meant to give Superman a weakness, by the early 1960's it had metastasized into a Krypton-sized headache. There seems to be more Kryptonite on Earth than actual Earth elements, and every two-bit hood has at least one chunk stashed in his pocket. Honestly, it's amazing that every issue wasn't The Death of Superman.

As a bonus, Krypto the Super-dog teams up with Titano the giant, Kryptonite-eye-beam-wielding gorilla back in dinosaur days because Why Not? Lois Lane tries to learn Superman's secret identity on a number of occasions. Superman reveals Supergirl's existence to the world after several years as his 'secret weapon.' 

The citizens of the Bottle City of Kandor, a Kryptonian city shrunk by Superman villain Brainiac and now housed in Superman's Arctic Fortress of Solitude, help out Superman on numerous occasions. And in the final story of the volume, Superman believes he's dying for real in a tale that heavily influenced Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman and Alan Moore and Rick Veitch's Superman/Swamp Thing team-up, "The Jungle Line." Highly recommended.

Batman: Strange Apparitions: written by Steve Engelhart and Len Wein; illustrated by Marshall Rogers, Walt Simonson, Al Milgrom, Terry Austin, Dick Giordano, and others (1977-78; collected 1999): This Batman reprint volume spans the entire tenure of 1970's Batman greats Steve Engelhart and Marshall Rogers on Detective Comics. And it really is great. And unlike other previous and subsequent reprints from this run, it starts with Engelhart's arrival and ends with Rogers' departure, neither of which were synchronized. Thus, Walt Simonson does the penciling chores early and Len Wein writes the last two issues included.

Despite the shortness of both their tenures (the whole volume spans about a year's worth of issues), Engelhart and Rogers generally get ranked as one of the top-five Batman creative teams of all time. And I think I agree. Engelhart writes Batman as a sympathetic hero who's not completely bonkers and not an absurd control freak (as he would become in the 1980's). 

And he gives us fresh takes on Batman villains mainly old -- in some cases really old. Engelhart brought back Deadshot, unseen for nearly 30 years and redesigned by Rogers with a costume that's pretty much used verbatim now in stills from DC's upcoming Suicide Squad movie. He also resurrected Professor Hugo Strange, unseen also for decades and one of the early Batman's pulpiest mad-scientist foes.

We also get nifty takes on old foes that include the Penguin back before movies and TV and comics started portraying the Penguin as a character only slightly less insane than the Joker. And the Joker himself appears in a great two-parter about... copyright law? Rogers and Engelhart nod to various Batman tropes throughout, most notably the Giant Versions of Ordinary Household Objects beloved by the late writer (and uncredited Batman co-creator) Bill Finger.

The art of the late Marshall Rogers was almost never better than it was here. I prefer this more realistic (though eminently stylized) Rogers to his later, more cartoony stuff. Moreover, Rogers' attention to the details of Gotham City is second to none. And in a full-page panel that may have imprinted upon a young JJ Abrams, Rogers throws in... a lens flare. Oh, that Rogers! 

The work in which Engelhart and Rogers aren't paired isn't quite up to the same standard, but it's still solid stuff. Len Wein and Rogers' legacy villain Clayface (III) is one of the most horrific creations in Batman's Rogues Gallery, beautifully and occasionally grotesquely rendered by Rogers and inker Dick Giordano. Terry Austin inks the rest of Rogers' run, and he's a perfect, sharp-edged complement to Rogers' style. Highly recommended.

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