Tuesday, February 18, 2014

On History: Bob Haney Was Nuts

The earliest comics I read were mostly 1970s DC books. Books created by the likes of Julie Schwartz, Denny O'Neil, Neal Adams, Jim Aparo, Curt Swan, Carmine Infantino, Cary Bates... There was a lot of classic stuff in there, although I obviously didn't recognize them as classics at the time. Not all of the stories I read were gems, naturally. Even if I couldn't articulate why one story was better than another, there were obvious differences in quality among the books.

At the time, I focused primarily on comics which contained characters I was familiar with. Superman, Batman, Aquaman... Basically the Justice League that I saw on Super Friends every Saturday morning. But there were these weird characters that occasionally popped up as guest stars or had backup stories in the books. Hawk and Dove, Manhunter, the Elongated Man, Metamorpho... I still read them, and they were written well enough that I could follow along even if I didn't have a full backstory or if they were just a single chapter of a larger tale.

Cut to several decades later, and I know a bit more about these more obscure characters now. They were never favorites, but you pick up bits and pieces over the years. One of those tidbits I picked up was that Ramona Fradon co-created Metamorpho and drew many of his original stories. So in the interest of studying her art more closely, I recently picked up the Metamorpho Showcase from a few years ago. As it happens, most of the stories were written by DC-stalwart Bob Haney, who I'm familiar with as coming up with some of the wackier stories from the 1950s.

But his Metamorpho stuff? This dude was bat-shit crazy!

So Rex Mason is dating Sapphire Stagg and is frequently employed on a freelance basis by her father to do a variety of jet-setting leg-work. Except father Stagg doesn't like that Rex is seeing his daughter, so he has his assistant (a caveman who was brought back to life and given the intelligence of a normal adult in the mid-20th century) trap him inside an Egyptian pyramid. There's a weird accident and Mason becomes the Element Man, who can change his body into chemicals. Mason then heads back to confront Stagg, who throws all of his guards and security devices at him to no avail. The only reason Mason doesn't beat Stagg is because the weird Egyptian artifact the caveman brought back renders Mason powerless.

Now, so far, we're about 20 pages in and it's not the best comic script ever written, but it's not terribly unusual for the time. Here's where it starts going off the rails, though. Mason, instead of running away to try to find a way to defeat Stagg later or bowing to defeat, asks Stagg to find a cure for him. The man who just tried to have him killed so he would stop seeing his daughter.

Wait, it gets better. Stagg agrees! They suddenly now have this relationship that's more amiable than the one Fred Flintstone had with his mother-in-law.

Then, setting aside the whole superpowers-based-on-an-eight-year-olds-understanding-of-chemistry shtick, the plots make increasingly less and less sense. In issue four of the original series, Sapphire wants to make Rex jealous because she wants to show him that she loves him for who he is regardless of his appearance. The next day she shows up with a new lover, Reggie, and the day after that, she's paired herself with Cha-Cha Chavez, the "Playboy of the Pampas", whom father Stagg immediately welcomes as his future son-in-law. Chavez then tries to show off by having planes fly overhead, dropping so many flowers on the grounds that they all decide to climb to the roof for safety after being buried literally up to their waists. Chavez then flies them all down to Mt. Rushmore to show that he's had Sapphire's likeness carved under Jefferson's. To which Metamorpho responds by carving "METAMORPHO SI! CH-CHA NO!" in its place. Then, once they arrive in Mexico (They were going to Mexico? Via South Dakota? By boat?) "Daddykins" and the caveman are captured by revolutionaries and are about to be executed before Metamorpho intervenes. He then learns Chavez is a gun runner for the dictator, El Lupo. Then there's a bull fight where the bull has one of his horns fitted with an explosive big enough to blow up the coliseum they're in. "They" includes Sapphire, Chavez and El Lupo himself. Metamorpho saves the day, gets his girl back, and the caveman randomly gets gouged by the now-one-horned bull.

I've read through that story several times now and can't make a lick of sense out of it. There are so many plot holes and inconsistencies, I am dumb-founded how any editor would've okayed this. I mean, granted that it was a comparitively low-selling book that no one cared about in the mid-1960s, but how about at least some semblence of a cohesive story?

What's weird is that no of this comes off as bad writing. It's clearly not good writing, but even with the stitled dialogue and mind-bendingly bizarre plot contrivances, it doesn't seem really bad. Just confused. Like Haney was a really good writer, but just happened to be on an LSD trip when he wrote this. Seriously, the stuff in here makes Plastic Man's most bizarre adventures seem logical and straight-forward. And I haven't even gotten to his Bat-Hulk story yet!

You want weird-ass comics? You dig up some Bob Haney written pieces!

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1 comment:

Matt K said...

Awesome.

You do wonder about stuff like this when you discover it. I remember a couple of years ago now, I finally tracked down an early, early issue of Marvel Team-Up… it was part of a multi-issue story with Kang that for years had intrigued me more and more just because it was so elusive. Two or three different "life of Kang" recaps referenced the story, and nearly every other story in these summaries has been reprinted at least once.

Whereas this might be in a MTU Essential, I suppose, but its exclusion from the big "Time and Time Again" grab-bag as well as every other Kang TPB puzzled me.

So finally, I found a relatively good deal for one part of the story in adequate condition, and bought it. And learned why no one had ever bothered reprinting it, other than maybe as part of a black-and-white bulk volume.

It… doesn't really make much sense. I would say this might shade more into the "so random it's pretty much just bad" than what you've described with Metamorpho. But something of the same head-scratching quality is there. Who approved this? Who came up with it in the first place? Presumably not everyone involved was on hallucinogenics, but it seems tough to think of a better explanation for the original script at least. Even if you're totally phoning it in, would the results really involve so much completely random stuff? Wouldn't you just steal some other, relatively straightforward, plot?

Honestly, I can understand when movies turn out like this. So many people involved, so many moving parts, so much potential editing of something rather more difficult to quickly take in as a whole picture. But a 22-page comic book written by one person?

You really do wonder…