Saturday, March 14, 2009

DC Comics Presents #29 (January, 1981)

"Superman and The Spectre-- Together in a confrontation that will redefine mortality!"

The Man of Steel reflected on recent events, including the "malevolent alien despot called Mongul," how he "reluctantly" defeated "my ex-Justice League comrade" J'Onn J'Onzz, his enlisting the aid of Supergirl to blow through Warworld, and how he'd reprogrammed the artificial planet to destroy itself. "The concussion from Warworld's death-throes blew me halfway across this stellar system-- but Supergirl should have rejoined me by now... unless, for some reason, she can't! Of course! That's the only explanation! Kara's collision with Warworld must have knocked her unconscious-- and she just kept flying through sheer momentum!" Fearing she might keep soaring through the void forever, Superman performed super-math to determine her trajectory and give chase.

Superman flew faster than he ever had before, breaking one barrier after another, bursting the bonds of infinity and reality. Just as he was finally about to reach Kara Zor-El, the Last Son of Krypton bounced painfully off the materialized chest of the Spectre. "I have merely done my duty, Superman-- nothing more! You were traveling too fast-- too far-- toward realms no mortal eye may be permitted to behold... and thus, I was dispatched to put an end to your flight!" As for Supergirl, she was "quite unconscious, and thus blissfully unaware of that which she might otherwise see!"

Superjerk wasn't "interested in whatever it is you're trying to protect," annoyed at the Spectre's warnings. "Just who made you boss around here, anyway?" The Dolt of Steel failed to realize the Almighty was trying to turn him away, and that even his arms were too short to box with God. The Man of Whine tried repeatedly and impotently to punch the Spectre, until the embodiment of God's Wrath swallowed him whole. Things got especially surreal at this point, as Superman tried for the 1,734th time to save Krypton, as well as flailing at the Grim Reaper as it again cut down his adoptive father, Jonathan Kent. Finally, Kal-El fought the embodiment of his dark side. Only when Superman realized he'd lost control of his id monster, fueled by his overwhelming arrogance and emotionality of late, did it vanish.

The Almighty's voice then boomed, "And admitting your foolishness is the first step on the path to true wisdom, my son!" The Spectre elaborated, "I know you only meant to save your cousin-- and yet, by pursuing her, you risked the ultimate destruction of civilizations beyond numbering," by piercing the final barrier, "that golden veil beyond which no living man may pass." Besides, the Spectre was able to materialize Supergirl in his ghostly arms at will. "That was all you ever truly needed to do, my friend-- simply ask!" Having learned his lesson, Superman took the Maid of Might to cradle, while the Spectre vanished as though he were a dream.

I've both enjoyed and been frustrated by this story arc since I was first exposed to it in the late '90s. I cut my comic reading teeth on team-up books, and especially love when two heroes can relate to one another in a meaningful way-- a necessary element that's eluded the writers of revivals since the mid-'80s. However, even for a Superman hater like myself, his overblown ego in this story was a bit off. I'd really like to know why J'Onn J'Onzz was rushed off the stage after the first issue, with the added torment of only seeing him beaten up in flashback sequences from then on. I was also wounded by being teased with the prospect of Jim Starlin in his prime drawing Martian Manhunter, as evidenced by the cover of the first chapter, only to have a slapdash round robin inking job make the interiors look like amateurish crap. While I'm no fan of Romeo Tanghal's overwhelming embellishment in general, compared to the awful work of "Quickdraw," his efforts on the latter issues was a relief.

On the other hand, Mongul was an outstanding introduction to Superman's ever weak sauce rogues gallery. He was that rare foe that could both out-think and out-muscle the Man of Steel, offering him a real challenge and stakes. Len Wein hinted at a back story for the villain, and I regret it was never elaborated on after he left the character behind for later DC Comics Presents writers. Paul Levitz at least kept Mongul's m.o., but it seems the writers who reworked the villain from the ground up Post-Crisis only ever bothered to skim the one Alan Moore story for reference. I wish the jaundiced giant had made it to this third chapter, but it was clear early on that the story was about Superman's ego more than anything. Finally, Supergirl came off very well in this arc, reminding me once again of her yet untapped potential as a solo star.

"Where No Superman Has Gone Before" was by Len Wein, Jim Starlin & Romeo Tanghal. Follow the link to read about this issue's back-up feature, "Whatever Happened To Dr. Mid-Nite?"


Bookgal said...

You know I was thinking about this over the last couple of days (Slow week at work) and I have one question.

How the hell did Stuporman (he really was a moron in this arc) manage to defeat J'onn? I mean, the guys are fairly evenly matched on the whole strength and toughness thing...supes may even have a little on J'onn....but between telepathy to tell you where your foes next blow will be, and a nice psychic knock out...he wouldn't really stand much of a chance! It makes no sense!

Diabolu Frank said...

Much as it pains me, I can answer this.

1) Nobody but Supergirl was ever close to Superman's strength and toughness in the Silver and Bronze Ages. Maybe Captain Marvel, Mon-El, and some Phantom Zone criminals, but people forget just how far removed Superman was in terms of power from other DC heroes. The Manhunter from Mars wouldn't even rate a mention at that time, and the comparisons didn't really begin until the '70s anyway. Basically, the more J'Onn fought Superman, the stronger he got, while still getting owned.

2) Pre-Crisis Martian Manhunter was pretty tough, but fire was so common and routinely employed against him, virtually anyone aware of the vulnerability could take him out. J'Onn totally collapsed in its presence. That's why the Post-Crisis retcon was so important to making him a viable hero after years in Wussville.

3) The Martian Manhunter had telepathy of a sort in his earliest appearances, but it vanished within his first year of publishing. For about thirty years, Manhunter effectively lost this power, until Gerry Conway remembered it mid-way through his run with the Detroit League.

4) J'Onn had no super powers on Mars, and greatly diminished ones on New Mars, where he likely came from prior to fighting Superman. Also, by 1980, Manhunter's power set had been reduced to flight, strength, and nigh-invulnerability. He didn't even use vision or shapeshifting powers anymore.

...And now you know why nobody cared about Martian Manhunter in the 1970s. He was treated as an utterly generic alien "hero," and typically a weak supporting player to boot.

rob! said...

That is one big chin Superman is rocking there!

Diabolu Frank said...

Ah, but Rob, the cleft was the true source of his Kryptonian might!

Bookgal said...

Ah! I get it now!

As you can see I'm a late 90's to 2000's fan of J'onn. I was introduced late into his game.

Diabolu Frank said...

I got started in the very late '70s, but the '80s & '90s were my wonder years. We've all got our reading sweet spots. I reach back some, but not being big on DC Pre-Crisis, a lot of my knowledge is Justice League-centric.

As a fellow J'Onn J'Onzz fan of one of my favorite periods, I'd recommend to you his appearances in Justice League International, Justice League Task Force (especially under Christopher Priest,) and the Martian Manhunter: American Secrets mini-series. Those are some of the best outings for your preferred incarnation, in my estimation. If you're not one for back issues, I've covered American Secrets, and I'll get back to JLI shortly, but JLTF will be slight until 2010.