Making the Grade: Who’s Who, Vol. I

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So I was humming a jaunty tune one day when I realized it’s been almost 30 years since DC published Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe. Thirty years, people! The time, how it does fly. 

And I had two thoughts when that realization hit me: (1) So this is what it feels like when you’re getting old and (2) I wonder how well the first title I actively collected during my young comic nerd days has held up over the years. And so here we are.

Will I be grading the writing, the artwork, the overall composition of each book, or how much I like the characters themselves? Yes! And there a lot of them, so let’s get to it. First up: Volume Eye, from Abel to Auron.

Onward!

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Abel

Before joining his brother and a smattering of other pre-established DC properties over in Neil Gaiman’s sandbox, Abel was known as the Crypt Keeper-lite host of House of Mystery, one of DC’s old-school horror titles. The poor guy didn’t get any respect: his weight is listed here as 396 1/4 lbs. because God forbid we not note every ounce the fat boy from Kentucky can’t shed; he’s noted as a “devout coward” under the Powers & Weapons column; and the house he lives in gets more ink in his History section than he does. At least he snagged the legendary Joe Orlando for his portrait. Out of pity, B

Abnegazar, Rath & Ghast
A trio of demons who pestered the Justice League in their early days. Picture Gollum with crazy eyes, Gollum with a Mohawk and Gollum with a skin condition, with all three  wearing purple shorts and booties. Not one of the Silver Age’s more inspired ideas, in other words. “They are susceptible to other forms of magic.” Aren’t we all. D+

Abra Kadabra
“Occupation: Former stage magician, now professional criminal.” How much more entertaining the news would be if more real-life stage magicians followed that career arc; I can see Penn & Teller committing a multi-state crime spree any day now. This Flash foe went back in time from the utopian 64th century, using his era’s science to launch a career as a stage magician in the 20th century. He turned to robbery and first-degree turning-superheroes-into-living-puppets when he didn’t get the adulation he craved from today’s jaded audiences. And I’d be pissed, too, if I went through the trouble of bending time and space to achieve my dreams of stardom and found myself upstaged by reality-show heiresses and YouTube cat videos. Maybe it’s the pointy elf shoes. Nobody looks good in pointy elf shoes. C-

Adam Strange
The dude with the fin-helmet and the jet-pack flying across the top of the Who’s Who cover, Adam Strange was an Earth archaeologist who chances across a “Zeta beam” that transports him to the distant planet Rann. There, evolution has apparently turned everyone into wimps and they can only be saved from monsters and alien invaders by the derring-do of an Earthling humanities major. Never a high-profile character in the DC stable, and no wonder — he’s pretty much Sci-Fi Nerd Wish Fulfilment 101 all the way, his only unique quirk being the fact the Zeta beam effects are never permanent, and he’s often blipped back to Earth at the worst possible time (i.e., right before he gets a kiss for saving the day). Really, this character was 1950s-style blandness until Alan Moore got his twisted hands on him in the pages of Swamp Thing. And even then… meh. C

Aegeus
A forgettable Wonder Woman villain from that forgettable time in Wonder Woman’s history (also known as “pretty much everything before 1987, Lynda Carter excepted”). His occupation is listed as “terrorist,” which frankly seems more like a hobby to me. It’s not made clear in his entry what particular cause he’s fighting for, but he’s referred to as a “Greek national,” so… maybe he’s the guy who bankrolled all those Nia Vardalos rom-coms? That would certainly qualify as terrorism by some standards. Had a hand-me-down Pegasus and thunderbolts, in case anyone cares. C-

Air Wave I/Air Wave II
That’s right, gang! It’s our first foray into Golden Age/Not Golden Age team-ups of characters sharing the same name — and also, in this example, sharing the same DNA. Air Wave I is a crusading district attorney who built a special helmet to help him get around pesky annoyances like “due process” and “presumption of innocence” while Air Wave II is the son who inherited his father’s helmet and costume when Dad was shot by vengeful criminals. Apparently not learning the life lesson inherent in the whole “superhero father shot by vengeful criminals” thing, young Harold Jordan dons his dad’s duds and rides the airwaves as a superhero. Among Air Wave I’s cutting-edge crime-fighting innovations: collapsible roller skates that allowed him to whiz along telephone wires “at the speed of electricity.” Yeah, we’re done here. C-

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Ally-Kat-Abra
Hey, remember the Zoo Crew with Captain Carrot and his team fighting for justice in a funny-animal version of the DC universe? Remember how the team’s resident magic user had a name that was an awkward double pun on alley cats and magical catchphrases? Remember how she was based in “Mew Orleans,” called her wand “Magic Wanda” and was also a black belt in Kat Fu? Remember how she had this really enormous rack for no discernible reason? What’s that? You don’t remember any of that? God, how I envy you. D

All-Star Squadron
The first double-page team spread in the whole series and goddamn if it isn’t an impressive bit of work. The Team With the Unfortunate Abbreviation debuted in 1981, when writer and comic history nut Roy Thomas placed a bunch of DC Golden Age heroes in his sandbox and came up with all-new stories set during the Second World War. Never one of DC’s splashier titles, it was a solid piece of entertainment, as exemplified by never-splashy-but-always-solid Jerry Ordway’s artwork shown here. Best line: “This group included the entire membership of the Justice Society of America, rechristened the Justice Battalion for the duration [of the war].” I want to be in the Justice Battalion! B+

All-Star Squadron Headquarters
And what’s the point of joining a superhero team if you don’t get some fancy digs out of it? Nice cutaway diagram of the Perisphere and Trylon — in real life they were symbols of the 1939 World’s Fair (motto: “The World of Tomorrow”) held in New York City; in the DC universe they were re-purposed to serve as headquarters for America’s WWII-era mystery men. Quote the Wikipedia: “Both buildings were subsequently razed and scrapped after the closing of the fair, their materials to be used in World War II armaments.” So much for the world of tomorrow. B

Amazing-Man
Speaking of the All-Star Squadron, here’s a fellow who made his debut in issue #23 of their book. Will Everett stood next to Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, proving Hitler’s assertions of Aryan superiority wrong by winning gold medals galore. Alas, even that kind of international acclaim couldn’t help a black man get a decent job in those racist times, and he wound up sweeping floors in a laboratory until he was “kidnapped by gun-wielding minions of the Ultra-Humanite and taken to a hidden lair, where he was subjected to the power of an electro-generator” that gave him amazing property-absorption powers. Trust me, this kind of thing happened all the time in the comics. He agreed to work for the Ultra-Humanite (who was probably just as surprised as anyone else about the whole “amazing powers” thing) only if the villain spared Detroit in his world-conquering schemes. Yeah, about that “saving Detroit” thing… Will, I’m afraid the future has some bad news for you. B

Amazo
Dumbest. Name. Ever. And don’t even get me started on the stripey vest, Spock ears, red skullcap and capital “A” belt buckle. His shtick is he’s an android built with the power to copy the abilities of any superhero he comes in contact with, plus he’s the only super-villain whose motivation is nap time. No, for real. Because he prefers the “sleep of oblivion” to being alive, he really hates it when he’s brought back to consciousness as part of some doofus’s plan for revenge — but if destroying the Justice League is what it takes to complete his programming and shut down again, then so be it. You want to see Amazo done right? Justice League, “Tabula Rasa,” ’nuff said. C+

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Ambush Bug

Another reason why I suspect comic creators had a lot more fun back in the day? They were allowed to come up with — and actually distribute to impressionable young minds — completely ludicrous concepts like Ambush Bug. A meta-commentary on comics before “meta” was a thing, Ambush Bug was a guy in a bug suit who broke the fourth wall, teleported wherever he wanted to go, and generally poked fun at absurdities in the DC universe in a way that only a true lover of comics can appreciate. His Who’s Who page plays it fairly straight with the copy and the artwork, but that’s okay; we’ll always have his appearance in that issue of DC Comics Presents with the Legion of Substitute Heroes, only the greatest comic story in the history of ever. A-

Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld
No, you shut up. Amethyst rocked! Between the mystical gemstones, magical kingdoms, flying unicorns, dashing suitors and young-princess-spirited-away-to-live-with-a-normal-family origin tale, she was every young girl’s fantasy in one reasonably proportioned protagonist. Plus, who doesn’t want an excuse to see more Ernie Colón artwork? No one I want to know, that’s for goddamn sure. Why DC hasn’t marketed the crap out of this character I’ll never know, especially since her similarities to a certain lucrative boy wizard are many and obvious. Plus she came out long before his first book, so take that, J.K.’s solicitors! A

Angle Man
Another of Wonder Woman’s arch-villains who highlights just how poorly served our favorite Amazon was in the arch-villain apartment, Angle Man was a professional criminal named Angelo Bend. He took a cue from his name to find the right “angle” for committing crimes and came up with the Angler, a triangular device that opens spatial portals. And then he teamed up with the Perfidious Protractor, Ruler-Man and Baron von Compass to form… the Geometry Set of Doom! No, not really. D

Animal Man
Who’s Who came out a few years before Animal Man got a new lease on life in his Grant Morrison-penned revival; at this point in time, he was best known for being part of a forgotten team aptly called the Forgotten Heroes. Standard-issue Silver Age fare here, from the alliterative civilian name (Buddy Baker) to the “aliens did it” explanation for his animal-aping powers, which he uses in his work as a movie stuntman when he’s not out doing the superhero thing. Decent Gil Kane art, but a horrific animal-print logo for his name — let’s be grateful Morrison and friends came up with something much better for A-Man’s book. A-

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Anthro

An-thro!/He’s our An-thro!/He’s a modern Stone Age pretty boyyyy….” Never let it be said DC didn’t try damn near every genre to hook readers in the Silver Age. Unfortunately, they probably lost a few budding scientists with this text in the entry: “Into this world was born Anthro, the first Cro-Magnon boy whose Neanderthal father still firmly clutched the roots of the past.” Um… I’m no anthropologist, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t work that way. At any rate: how many stories can you get out of a guy with a club running away from mammoths and saber-toothed tigers? My guess: not many. C-

Apokolips
You say you came here expecting me to talk smack about Kirby’s creations? Then you’ve come to the wrong place, chico. Can you imagine the tourism brochures for this place? “Come visit Granny Goodness’ Happiness Home, where every child learns the meaning of happiness… or else! Enjoy a tour of Darkseid’s Tower of Rage and marvel at its splendor… or else! Gasp in amazement at the awesome power of the fiery energy pits… or else!”  Worst vacation spot ever, but it’s hard to imagine a better place for the galaxy’s greatest despot to put up his feet. B+

Aquagirl & Aqualad
These two share an entry, which seems fitting since they’re equally pointless. Sorry if that upsets the tens of Aqualad fans out there, but it’s the truth. The Afro-sporting Aqualad was the infant son of a king and queen cast out of his kingdom because of his purple eyes; he somehow survived and hooked up with Aquaman for fun and excitement. Aquagirl (real name Tula) was dreamed up to give Aqualad someone to play Find the Moray Eel with. She died, he went through hell and back, no one much cared. Decent Pérez art, though. C-

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Aquaman
How’s that for a tough break? Aquaman’s sidekicks get George Pérez for their art, while the Monarch of the Seven Seas has to make do with Chuck Patton and Dick Giordano. Which isn’t to say these two gentlemen weren’t capable of adequately rendering Aquaman; they just weren’t who you might expect for someone considered by many to be one of DC’s A-list heroes. Note I said “by many,” by which I mean not me — while I’ve nothing against Aquaman in principle, he was pretty bland stuff in the mid-1980s, and they never really made it clear how an undersea monarch with the entire ocean as his realm could balance his kingly demands with a second career as a surface-dwelling superhero. Nope, the Justice League series got it right: give him a beard, give him some attitude, and give him only the occasional guest-star spot to remind us how bad-ass he can be in the right hands. B

Arak, Son of Thunder
Two doses of sumptuous Ernie Colón art in one issue? The gods, they be kind. Mostly forgotten these days, Arak was a Native American running around eighth-century Europe battling your standard fantasy bad guys. Things were pretty straightforward for him until he died and was resurrected by his spirit-being father, after which things got really confusing in the title. Honestly, has anything good ever come out of a charismatic leader’s death and resurrection? Okay, fine, that one musical episode in the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, sure. But anything else? B-

Arcane
An evil scientist who spent his whole life seeking the secret of immortality, only to discover it when his body was too old to make use of it. Irony! No problem — when life gives you lemons, you commit unspeakable crimes against nature on them and grow yourself a new body. Hence we have his Un-Men, his loyal and horribly misshapen beasts. I guess you’d pretty much have to be loyal if you were an Un-Man, wouldn’t you? It’s not like there would be a lot of other career options open to misshapen, slavering minions of an evil mastermind. Well, besides “Fox News commentator,” obviously. C+

Arion, Lord of Atlantis
Another sword-and-sorcery title launched when that sort of thing was popular, Arion, Lord of Atlantis starred a young sorcerer who served as the court mage in pre-cataclysm Atlantis 45,000 years ago. It wasn’t a terrible title, just a bit on the pedestrian side, with all the “wizard did it” liabilities that come with magic stories, as well as a clichéd “brothers locked in mortal combat” with just a soupçon of “I send you my only son to show you the light” on the side. C-

Arkham Asylum
I know all the jokes about the revolving door at Arkham have been done to death, but come on, citizens of Gotham. Bulldoze that shit and build a new asylum in the middle of Hudson Bay, already. “A long and checkered history” is a… very polite way to describe Arkham’s status as short-stay hostel and mailbox service for Gotham’s loopier citizens. Best part of the entry: the section that describes how founder Amadeus Arkham took custody of his first patient, the mad killer who was committed for murdering Arkham’s wife and infant daughter. “It is to Dr. Arkham’s everlasting credit that he treated Hawkins with great concern and compassion, right up to Hawkins’ accidental electrocution two months after his incarceration.” Right. “Accidental.” A

Atari Force
Urgh. Where to begin? The fact a promotional tie-in to a set of mini-comics that came inside Atari video games is given two whole pages? The fact the characters follow every central casting cliché in the book? The fact they couldn’t even bother to come up with a decent name for their Darth Vader stand-in and went with Dark Destroyer instead? The fact that, according to their bio, they came up with “Atari Force” by creating an acronym from the name “Atari Technology and Research Institute”…?  D-

Atlantis
Not the best outing for the lost continent. The art is your typical “cities under domes with Little Mermaid decor,” while the text is a disjointed effort to cram every appearance of Atlantis in DC Comics into one coherent history. It… doesn’t work. Plus the whole “people developed sea-creature-communicating telepathic powers over the course of just a couple thousand years” is a bit hard to take, even in text trying to explain how the mermaid Atlanteans and the two-legged Atlanteans are totally one big happy society. C

Atom I
You’ve got to love Golden Age comics. All it took for anyone to be a hero back then was some time at the gym and a willingness to wear a mask while violating civil liberties, and bam you’re off to beat up Nazis and mobsters. Wee Al Pratt was a literal 98-lb. weakling who studied boxing and lifted weights to become the superhero known as the Atom because… uh, you know, that’s a darn good question. His Who’s Who entry kind of leaves out that slightly important part of his origin story. No worries; we also learn he gained “atomic strength” in 1948 thanks to his exposure to radiation. Just one more reason to stand too close to your microwave. B-

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Atom II

Otherwise known as the “real” Atom, the superhero who shrank and grew and was definitely your first call when you drop an earring on a shag carpet. Let’s skip over the nonsensical “white dwarf star did it” explanation for his size-changing powers and get right to the part where he chose to stay shrunk and be the great white warlord for a tribe of marooned six-inch-tall yellow alien barbarians living in the Amazon. To wit: what the hell, DC? C-

Atomic Knight
Wow, this is just messed up. So the U.S. Army takes an average soldier, sticks him in a sensory deprivation tank and hooks his mind up to a computer as a means of studying his reaction to living in a post-nuclear holocaust world. His subconscious takes over and creates the persona of the Atomic Knight, a heroic dude who wears a medieval suit of armor and rides a giant Dalmatian(!) while helping the helpless in a ravaged world. Then, just when things are going well in his virtual reality, he’s yanked out of it because somehow the project is messing with actual reality. Forced to cope with living in the real world again after spending what he thought were years in his own virtual reality, his newly acquired precognitive abilities (did we forget to mention that?) are often dismissed by people who think his time in the tank messed with his head. Gee, ya think? “Nope, no horrible examples of extreme psychological torture over here, folks! Just the kind of fun, old-fashioned family entertainment you expect from DC Comics, Inc.” D+

Atomic Skull
First off, how can you not love an old-school super-villain name like that? Second, he founded a terrorist outfit called SKULL, which shows he knows the value of branding. Third, listen to this origin story: “Stricken with a rare nervous disorder which short-circuited the electrical impulses in his brain, Michaels stole his own inventions from S.T.A.R. and turned them over to SKULL, where he quickly became leader. In exchange, SKULL attempted to cure Michaels by implanting a neural pacemaker made of radium in his brain. Unfortunately, the implant malfunctioned, mutating Michaels’ brain waves into a new form of energy.” Harsh, but given the choice between that and dealing with an HMO… B+

Auron
Apparently, There was a time when DC believed that readers who picked up copies of The New Teen Titans couldn’t get enough of every minor character the Titans ever met in their travels, including this faux-Christ figure from a religion practiced by the cultures in Starfire’s home system of Vega trillions of miles from Earth. Speaking as one of those readers… yeah, actually, we could get enough of those. Warning: contains the phrases “Psions,” “brutal Branx warriors,” “warlords of Okaara,” “special energy dampener” and “Gordanian fleet of citadel slavers.” D

 

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One response to “Making the Grade: Who’s Who, Vol. I

  1. Oh, how wonderful! DC’s “Who’s Who” (along with the OHOTMU) was also the first title I actively collected, as well. Us “non-fiction” comic nerds are a rare breed, indeed. I’m going to go out on a limb and wager that you are (like myself) in the vicinity of 42 y.o. It certainly doesn’t seem like 30 years could have passed since it began, but, as you stated above, “here we are.” Really looking forward to digging through these posts! Didn’t want you to think you were just shouting into the void.

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