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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, March 3, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: "THE ORIGIN OF METAMORPHO" (BRAVE AND BOLD #57, 1965)



“This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”-- Prospero, THE TEMPEST.

If the Drake-Premiani DOOM PATROL could be deemed DC Comics' to the success of Marvel's FANTASTIC FOUR, then METAMORPHO might be the company's response to the Hulk, who regained a regular berth at Marvel comic a few months before "the Element Man" got his first tryout in THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD. The concept of the Hulk followed the general outline of Stevenson's "Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde," but writer Bob Haney may have borrowed from an even loftier literary source.

The origin-story introduces the four central dramatis personae of the series, who remain largely unchanged for Metamorpho's short Silver Age run. They are: daredevil soldier-of-fortune Rex Mason; his sometime employer, megalomaniacal plutocrat Simon Stagg; Stagg's daughter Sapphire, who loves and is loved by Mason; Java, a prehistoric "Java Man" restored to life and educated by Stagg. Winsomely illustrated by Ramona Fradon, the origin-tale establishes that Mason, despite working for Stagg, constantly defies the older man's authority and aspires to marry his daughter. Stagg seems to have no objection to Mason as a suitor, but he doesn't countenance any sort of defiance. Java, however, comically pines after the beauteous Sapphire and hopes to unseat his handsome rival.

Stagg sends Mason and Java on a mission to a hidden Egyptian pyramid, to retrieve a legendary artifact, "the Orb of Ra." Stagg secretly instructs Java to "maroon" Mason, though given the paucity of food and water in an ancient pyramid, this sounds pretty much like a death-sentence. When Mason and Java approach the pyramid in a small private aircraft, the pyramid emanates a crimson radiance, leading Mason to comment that "it must be a rose stone." The radiance creates thermal updrafts so that pilot Mason has to make a forced landing, after which said radiation simply vanishes. The two explorers examine hieroglyphs inside the pyramid, and Mason claims that the glyphs tell the story of how a meteor fell in Egypt and was used for the wand known as the Orb of Ra. Moments later, they find the Orb itself, at which point Java severs their working relationship, knocking out Mason and leaving him in the pyramid. Java escapes with the Orb, picked up by another plan piloted by Stagg's men.

Inside the pyramid, ancient Egyptian mechanisms convey the unconscious Mason into another room, where he's exposed to the rays of the original meteor. Mason tries to save himself by swallowing a pill designed by Stagg to preserve his life, and the result of the two influences is to mutate Mason into a quadripartite being: Metamorpho, the Element Man.



Revulsed by his freakish new form, Metamorpho learns that he can transform himself into any element, be it solid metal or evanescent gas. He uses this talent to fix his plane and to journey back to Stagg's estate. He wreaks vengeance on Java by clobbering him, and then threatens Stagg. To the billionaire's good fortune, he happens to have on his person the Orb of Ra, made of the same meteor that empowered the Element Man. Metamorpho grows weak in the presence of this Egyptian kryptonite, and so he makes his peace with Stagg, on the condition that Stagg finds some way to reverse the transformation. Metamorpho tries to keep his big change secret from Sapphire, but she finds out when Java, furious at his rival's return, tries to burn the house down. Metamorpho promptly rescues his jet-set lover from the fire. Though she's initially put off by his unappetizing looks, she affirms her continuing love for him and suggests that he start using his talents as a "walking chemistry set" to help others.

Bob Haney's "loftier literary source" for this unusual scenario is in my opinion Shakespeare's TEMPEST. The borrowing was very probably unintentional. Obviously there are assorted differences between the central dramatis personae of the play and those of the comic book story. Simon Stagg is primarily concerned with his authority, while the sorcerous "heavy father" Prospero, exiled to a small island, resents any man who approaches his beautiful daughter Miranda. Sapphire Stagg is no sequestered innocent like Prospero's daughter, though Java bears a strong relationship to brutish Caliban, even to the point that both brutes have been given modern-day education by their elderly perceptors, and both lust after the daughters of their figurative "fathers." In the play, Prospero encounters Caliban on the island, while in the comic book, Rex Mason is responsible for bringing the caveman's bog-preserved body to Simon Stagg-- so that ironically Mason participates in the "birth" of his future rival. Rex Mason, whose name might be interpreted as "King of the Stoneworkers" or even just "King of Stone," seems a hybrid of two Shakespeare characters: Ferdinand, the shipwreck-survivor whose good looks bedazzle Miranda, and Prospero's fairy-like servant Ariel, whose "metamorphic" contrasts with the earthbound nature of Prospero's other servant Caliban. Haney even recasts some of the emnity between Ariel and Caliban-- which is, to be sure, not romantic in nature-- into the rivalry of Java and the Element Man.

Some changes were necessitated by the serial nature of the comic-book feature. Some critics, and at least one 1950s SF-film, have argued that Prospero's hostility to both Caliban and Ferdinand indicates his subconscious lust for his daughter, It wouldn't have been impossible for a Silver Age comic to suggest similar psychological content, however obliquely, but if the matter even crossed Haney's mind, this may the reason Stagg apparently doesn't care about anything but punishing a servant's rebelliousness. At no time during the remainder of the series does Stagg change this orientation-- though it may be of interest that in Metamorpho's very next outing, the villain is an older man who once coveted Sapphire's mother, and who kidnaps Sapphire with the express intention of making love to the daughter of the woman who spurned him.



Further, THE TEMPEST's story revolves around a "heavy father" becoming reconciled to his daughter loving another man-- thus leading to the final scene in which Prospero abjures magic and "drowns his book." In addition, the magician also releases his aerial servant Ariel from bondage. But though METAMORPHO is the Element Man's story, it also puts Simon Stagg in the catbird seat: able to control the new incarnation of Rex Mason though a sort of "magic wand," as well as with the promise of restoring Mason's humanity. For his short run Metamorpho was permanently stuck having to live not only with his beloved, but also with two scheming "relatives," a "father-in-law" and his "thing of darkness." To be sure, the remainder of the series played down the Freudian intensity in favor of loony tongue-in-cheek adventure. But the Element Man's origin-story remains one of the more remarkable products of the period.

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