Well, she was just seventeen, you know what I mean… Welcome back to our weekly look at Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe. This week: Volume Ecks-Vee-Eye-Eye, from Nightshade to Persuader.
The cover is yet another George Pérez original, though it’s not one of my favorites — the night-themed characters means way too many blues and blacks, and the lack of any big names other than Nightwing (né Robin) and Penguin lead to the lack of a certain panache. Though I gotta say, I love the image of Patchwork Man putting the moves on Nocturna while Nightslayer looks on, obviously unhappy with someone moving in on his quasi-incestual love interest.
Inside, the letters are also a run-of-the-mill affair, though I have to give props to Thomas D. Elvins for picking up on something the editors (and I) missed in the Mister Freeze entry. “I suppose it is possible to need a special environment for surviving in temperatures greater than 32 degrees centigrade (which is 89.6 degrees Fahrenheit),” he writes, “but wouldn’t it be easier to move to Los Angeles.” Quite so.
At the time Who’s Who came out, Nightshade was — like Blue Beetle, Captain Atom and a few others — a Charlton Comics character DC had only just recently acquired, so all they could do here was detail her origin, but man it’s a doozy. Here’s the very first sentence of her history: “When Eve was a child, her mother revealed to Eve and her brother Larry that she was really a princess from the Land of the Nightshades, and had come to Earth while escaping from the evil Incubus.” Now, if my mother had said that to me, I’d be telling her doctor to up her dosage, or sign me up for whatever she’s huffing. But Mama makes good on her claim by transporting them all back to that magical place… where they’re promptly attacked, the mother is fatally stabbed and Larry is kidnapped by flying warriors. Whoops. Fast forward to today, where Eve — codenamed Nightshade — uses her martial-arts training, CIA credentials and inherited shadow powers to smash spies and plan her brother’s rescue, all while keeping up her cover as a party girl. In fact, that’s what’s listed as her occupation: “Socialite and spy-smasher.” Nice work if you can get it. C
Also known as “The Slayer of Night,” for those of you who are fans of slight variations. Anton Knight (“anti-knight,” get it?) was a young man who, like Bruce Wayne, traveled abroad to master the martial arts before returning to Gotham to embark on a career as a masked denizen of the night. Unlike Wayne, he was the spoiled son of a mobster who used his training to become a master thief, then fell in love with his albino adopted sister and went a little cuckoo when she chose Batman over him. This led to a stab-tacular murder spree through downtown Gotham while he worked through his feelings. I’m kind of annoyed with this guy because he’s really nothing more than a coked-up Charles Manson type with a knife and bonus kung fu grip, and yet Batman needed the help of both Robin and Catwoman to take him down. What the hell, Bats? D+
A.K.A. the artist formerly known as Robin. We all know the origin, so there’s no need to rehash it here, though you’ve got to wonder how much money is in the traveling circus business that a Gotham mobster thought he could shake down the one that employed Dick’s acrobat family. (Also, it’s a traveling circus, genius — better to lean on businesses that can’t fold up their tents and move away under cover of darkness, no?) And yes, we can all look at the background art showing Batman standing right behind Dick’s younger self (heh heh, “Dick”) and have a laugh about what was really going on in the Batcave — because no one has ever made jokes about that sort of thing before — but I want to focus on what’s truly scandalous here: Nightwing’s ridiculous, not-even-cool-in-the-80s costume. Bad enough he went with that collar and coloring, but what’s with the plunging neckline, Dick? Did your tailor throw in a coupon for a free chest wax if you went with that outfit? B-
Nightwing & Flamebird
Oh, Lord. Okay, so you know all about Kandor the bottled city, but what you probably didn’t know is that once upon a time a few residents escaped to steal stuff. Determined to investigate, Superman shrank himself and Jimmy Olsen (don’t ask how or why, just go with it) and entered Kandor. But a friendly resident warned him that some Kandorians were calling bullshit on his repeated failures to restore them to normal size, so Superman and Jimmy disguised themselves while they snooped around. And what better way to move around stealthily in a contained environment than as Kryptonian ripoffs of Batman and Robin? Soon after, their exploits inspired two Kandor residents, Van-Zee and Ak-Var, to take on their identities. Neither team had super-powers (Superman lost his while inside the bottle), and they made use of the same types of gadgets the Dynamic Duo deploy during their patrols: “Generally, however, they prefer to use their own fists to subdue criminals.” Don’t we all. I’m actually a little offended by the idea that Superman could just become Batman whenever he wanted, as if a Superman without his super-powers is automatically equal in strength and abilities to a guy who has trained for years to become the world’s greatest detective. Sorry, not buying it. Hence, D+
The Omega Men was a curious title; launched in the early ’80s as one of DC’s first direct-market-only books, it starred a team of interstellar rebels all hailing from different planets — some straight from Central Casting, others less so. Nimbus was definitely one of the latter; he started out as a “soul-partner,” a wraith-like being who existed in a symbiotic relationship with a Branx warrior until the two were torn apart by alien scientists. No longer tethered to any physical form, Nimbus found a place in the Vegan star system as an ambassador and later as an adviser to the growing rebellion against the evil Citadel empire that spawned the Omega Men. Definitely a character worth bringing back, if someone hasn’t already. B
“Natalia was an orphan, a child of the streets, until gangster Charles Knight took her in and exposed her to all the luxuries that money could buy.” I have a bad feeling that wasn’t all he exposed her to. An accident involving laser radiation drained all color from her skin and left her sensitive to daylight, which suited her fine since she preferred the nighttime (because the night time/is the right time/to be with the one you love). She figured out Batman and Bruce Wayne were the same guy and schemed to get her hands on his fortune by adopting Jason Todd and coercing Wayne into marrying her. She also had weapons disguised as jewelry and wore a special perfume that made men susceptible to her charms, so yeah, she’s basically Naomi Wolf’s next book writ large. But my favorite part of her entry? “Nocturna generally traveled in her own personal hot air balloon.” Yessir, none of those dirty, public-transit hot-air balloons for her — when Charlie’s girl wants to slowly drift away from a crime scene, she does it in style. C-
Things that make me smile while reading Northwind’s entry:
1. He hails from a city of bird-people hidden in northern Greenland. Because when I think birds and their natural habitats, I think, “Of course! The High Arctic!”
2. The city’s name is Feithera, because of course.
3. He’s the product of a union between a human anthropologist and one of the bird-people, suggesting his daddy could challenge Margaret Mead for the title of world’s kinkiest anthropologist.
4. Northwind felt unwanted in his homeland because of his mixed-race status, and so he left Feithera to explore the rest of the world and ended up in Los Angeles — because if there’s one place a flying black guy with feathers instead of hair can feel accepted, it’s anywhere in the good ol’ USA (USA! USA!).
5. He once returned to Feithera to — swear to God — save them from a “fast-approaching glacier that threatened to destroy their city.” “I don’t know happened, officer, I was just minding my own business when WHAM! This glacier just came out of nowhere! I never saw it coming!” C-
“Some maintain Shanner was mentally unhinged by the deaths of his family.” Well, now, let’s not jump to conclusions here. Just because this nuclear physicist lost his family and his health to radiation sickness… and then vowed to make the world understand the dangers of nuclear weapons… and did so by building five robots that looked exactly like his younger self and his dead family… and endowed them with super-powers equivalent to the stages of an atomic blast… and then sent them out to destroy Los Angeles… why, that’s no reason to throw around baseless accusations about the man’s sanity. Now, if he had done all that while wearing a chicken suit… D
How exciting is this guy? His bio takes up three paragraphs, but two of them are about his grandfather, his mother, and the people who took in his mother when she was an infant. I guess when your origin story boils down to “yep, mutant,” a bit of padding is needed. Albert Rothstein won the genetic lottery by being the grandson of an atomic research scientist who mucked around with radiation and passed his irradiated genes down to his grandson, who scored superhuman strength, speed and height as a result. As one might expect whenever gene-altering radiation does its thing to human gonads. Yes, that’s why I read the comics, for the scientific verisimilitude. C-
Nuklon’s Infinity Inc. teammate is a guy with the power to turn into a living shadow and cause “emotional agony” in a victim by covering someone with his shadow form. Just the guy to liven up a party, in other words. In retrospect, it makes sense Obsidian would go evil later on down the road — can’t let anyone think a guy with shadow powers and abandonment issues might have the strength to overcome his personal issues, I suppose — but at the time this entry was written he was another card-carrying member of a group of heroes who inherited their powers from their progenitors in the original Justice Society. Except… well, where did Todd and his sister get their powers from? Their father, the original Green Lantern, was just an ordinary guy who came across a magic ring; it’s hard to see how that got passed down to his kids. And the odds of an ordinary guy becoming Green Lantern and birthing kids with vastly different powers seems a tad far-fetched. Maybe this is why I never cared much for Obsidian. Or maybe it’s because his name is “Todd” and I think all guys named Todd are jerks. What can I say, I’m shallow. D+
“Base of Operations: The Seven Seas.” Well, that narrows it down. Orm Curry was Aquaman’s half-brother, and this entry explains how he turned to marine-based villainy out of resentment and bitterness towards his famous sibling. And you know what? I say he had a damn good reason to be a pain in the ass. His parents couldn’t stand each other, his father preferred Arthur over him, and his goody-two-shoes brother wouldn’t even let him commit some light illegal whaling without giving him grief about it. Plus: “Orm?” Who the hell names one of their kids Arthur and the other one Orm? B
Not much to say here; we get the Bulfinch version of the big names in the Greco-Roman pantheon, with some tidbits here and there about their connections to heroes like Wonder Woman and the Marvel Family. My fave part: where the entry takes care to explain that Dionysus, god of vineyards and wine, is not the fat old man he’s sometimes depicted as in various sources; that’s actually his tutor, Silenus the satyr. And it’s important we make that clear, because the last thing we want to do is to associate the god of rampant alcohol consumption and revelry with excessive girth or ill health. B
Another Kirby creation, so you know what that means: full frontal nudity! No, not really. The One Man Army Corps started life as Buddy Blank, an “ordinary non-partisan stock boy” (“non-partisan”…?) in a future timeline. When well-meaning aliens come to Earth to save it, they create a global peacekeeping agency and build Brother Eye, a computer housed in an orbiting satellite that performs a “computer hormone operation” on Blank and transforms him, when needed, into the mighty OMAC. No, you don’t make sense, mister! With Brother Eye keeping an “eye” on him from above, OMAC can get anything he needs beamed directly to him, from information to defensive weaponry to additional bursts of strength. All that computing power, and he still has to be a cable subscriber to order HBO Go. But seriously, go find the original series to see how demented vintage Kirby could get. Hint: very. B
I have a theory that a lot of titles and storylines from the late ’70s and early ’80s never would have seen the light of day if Star Wars had never been made. Okay, so it’s not an original theory, but hear me out. Before Luke and company came along, space comics were either trumped-up superhero stories with interstellar backdrops (like Kirby’s New Gods books) or the same kind of bug-eyed alien/UFO stuff that had been kicking around since the 1940s. Star Wars found gold in dressing up old Westerns and war stories with blasters and hyperdrives, and a lot of comics and movies quickly followed suit. Take The Omega Men: oppressed planets, a ragtag group of rebels, an evil empire bent on conquest, humanoid beings existing side by side with artificial beings and cute critters — it’s all there. And theirs wasn’t a bad title, per se, just a bit predictable in hitting all the tropes. It wasn’t until later in the series that the writers realized, hey, these are actual aliens we’re writing about, and they supplemented the action with short stories about the many odd and wondrous races in the Vegan system. Too little too late, though, as those quirky stories weren’t enough to keep the book afloat after the Star Wars craze abated in the mid-’80s. Pity. B
Onyx’s past is “shrouded in mystery,” so don’t expect anything here about how she came to be a woman on the run who ends up at the front door of a monastery, a place that’s conveniently located just outside Green Arrow’s Star City. She gets the standard martial arts training and the standard quest for justice after the death of her teacher, which gets her involved in all kinds of archer-related tomfoolery. Has she shown up on that Arrow show yet? Because she totally should. Oddest part of her entry: “She has been sighted living behind the record store named Sounds Okay in midtown Star City.” Just okay? Sounds like someone needs a bit more confidence in the quality of their merchandise. B-
I bet you’re expecting some dumb jokes here about Darkseid’s least favorite son, aren’t you? Guess again, Spunky. Orion rocked. That is all. A
The Office of Strategic Services was an actual U.S. intelligence agency created during WWII; after the war, it was succeeded by the CIA. The highly fictionalized version that appeared in G.I. Combat was an excuse for DC to take a break from the usual brakka-brakka war stories and focus on the espionage side of armed conflict. The art shows the pipe-smoking agent code-named Control acting as a literal puppet-master to everyone else on the page, from the rugged master of disguise to the geeky master of gadgetry. A spy comic set in DC’s Golden Age universe sounds pretty interesting; you could get a lot of mileage out of stories about the O.S.S. recruiting little-seen mystery-men types to, say, sabotage Germany’s nascent Nazi super-gorilla program, or help defecting Japanese scientists escape to America with the schematics for what would eventually become G.I. Robot. Please tell me someone is working on this. B+
“Alter ego: Alfred Pennyworth.” Um… what? I’m looking at a picture of what looks like the Thing’s angry albino cousin wearing purple trunks and you’re telling me it’s Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler? Apparently so. As the story goes, Alfred was critically injured after saving Batman and Robin from yet another death-trap; he was later “discovered, in a death-like trance, by a scientist.” This scientist then exposed him to a machine that turned him into a mutated freak with awesome mental powers who guns for Batman and Robin because he’s a freak in Gotham and what else is he going to do? Welcome to comic-book land, gang: a place where accident victims lying horribly injured on the road can always rely on getting picked up by mad scientists looking for human lab rats on which to conduct their unholy experiments. Beats dealing with HMOs, I guess. D
My first question is outside of what, exactly? Outside the law? I suppose we could say that, but every masked vigilante is an “outsider” by that definition, and in any case it’s hard to see the team as a bunch of cah-razy rebels against The Man when they include the sovereign of a European nation among their ranks. I’ve dealt with each team member in their own individual entries, and there really isn’t much to say about how they got together as a team; trouble starts a-brewin’ in a fictional European country that brings Batman to the scene, and he runs into a bunch of other mystery-men (and women) who just happen to be there. When the crisis is over, they decide to stay together as a team. Why? Who knows? But it worked for those Teen Titan punks, so what the hell? If vanilla and beige had an invisible love-child, it still wouldn’t turn out as bland as this team. D+
Oh, look! A drawing of an offshore research facility with arrows pointing to the rooms and things inside that we can’t see! “The station is fully automated, uses no human personnel, and is entirely self-sufficient.” Because when you have a multi-million-dollar facility in a highly corrosive and volatile environment like the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the last thing you want are people who might get in the way by, say, performing basic maintenance that keeps the structure from rusting away. “Yes, I know it’s cheaper to go with some Third World laborers for the deck-swabbing and barnacle-scraping, but I really like the idea of building robots that can do all that stuff. Maybe we can program them to sing a sea shanty while they work. I’ll get right on that.” D
Still boycotting Atari Force, people. Besides, he’s a humanoid rat who’s a thief with “hidden caches of booty strewn around the galaxy.” Hence, he’s a pack rat — or “pakrat” if you prefer. Geddit? I agree, let’s move on. D
A good dose of actual mythology here, with the entry giving a fair recounting of what the Greek myths had to say about the Amazons. We’re told they were ordered by Aphrodite to build a new home in the Bermuda Triangle, on an island protected by “magical mists” from the Peeping Toms of Man’s World. And in a fine display of practicality, they named outlying islands after their functions: Science Island was where the scientists worked, Reform Island was where the naughty, naughty ladies were sent, and so on. Certainly a place that lives up to its name, assuming you can get past the “You Must Have This Many X-Chromosomes to Enter” sign out front. My only question: an airstrip? You’ve spent thousands of years hiding your presence from the rest of the world on an island that looks fairly short on usable space, and you build an airstrip? I mean, yeah, sure, there’s that invisible plane that one of you occasionally flies in on, but that brings up a whole bunch of other questions… B+
Superman is short on memorable super-villains compared to his Gotham-based buddy, which isn’t really his fault; it’s hard coming up with memorable opponents for a guy who can bend the course of mighty rivers, etc. Personally, I’ve always found Parasite to be one of the better rogues in Superman’s gallery. He’s a regular guy who’s turned into an power-sucking, well, parasite who needs to absorb energy from others in order to survive, and so he naturally goes after the biggest source of energy around. Makes perfect sense. Two odd things about his story: (1) he was a janitor who was mutated by “radioactive elements from another galaxy” that Superman brought to Earth to conduct experiments with, so nice job cleaning up after yourself, Super-Jerk and (2) Parasite’s first outing ended with him disintegrating into a cloud of purple atoms, which then floated into space and got picked up by a passing alien geographer, who then placed it in his ship’s “revival chamber” to bring Parasite back to life. How fortuitous! Nice to know we can always count on passing alien ships to have just the right revival chamber for any occasion. B
Uch. If you never read that Crisis on Infinite Earths mini-series published back in — ye gods, has it really been almost 30 years? I’m so old — then you have zero reason to know or care about this guy. But here goes: scientist from parallel universe tries to witness the beginning of everything, sets off chain reaction that destroys his universe, and — for no reason whatsoever — he gains immortality and the “power,” if you can call it that, to show up wherever “impending evil” is about to strike. Not because he can do jack shit about it, mind, just so he can moan and wail about how he must stand by helplessly while billions perish, why was he chosen to bear witness, blah blah blah. You know those novelty eyelashes that some people like to put on their car headlights? Those things are more useful than this guy. D-
All things considered, it’s probably a good thing Mary Shelley isn’t alive and feeling litigious. Kudos to Steve Bissette, though, for making this faux-Frankenstein monster look the part, right down to the flesh clinging precariously to the bones underneath. He tussled with Swamp Thing, in case anyone’s keeping score. C-
When DC bought up Charlton’s characters, they did all right with the deal: the Question, Blue Beetle, and Captain Atom have all become integral parts of the DC universe, and even lesser names like Judomaster and Nightshade have found an audience. Annnnnnd then there’s Peacemaker. His premise is stupid. His costume is stupid. His tag line — “the man who loves peace so much, he’s willing to fight for it” — is stupid. His set-up — military dad and scientist mom somehow leave him enough money to live in the Swiss Alps and spend all his time building specialized weapons and fighting in wars because he loves peace so much — is stupid. He’s basically the Punisher without the Punisher’s emotional baggage, and a Punisher without emotional baggage is a big jack-hole with guns. How hopeless is this schmuck? We’re told his special helmet, the one that’s made of heat- and pressure-proof plastic, is “laced with explosives.” How is this even remotely a good idea??? D
Oh, Internet, why can’t you just make up your mind? Some people say he’s one of the worst Batman villains; some say he’s one of the best. Well, I’m just going to settle this once and for all: the Penguin deserves his spot among Batman’s A-list villains. Yes, he waddles and squawks. Yes, he’s obsessed with birds and umbrellas. Yes, he’s been played as a sewer mutant, a bumbling fool, a status-grasping socialite, and other not-nice things. But handled correctly, he is a perfect foil for Batman: a man from humble beginnings, twisted by rejection from others for being a little bit odd, relying only on his wits and amoral attitude to climb to the top of the heap, willing to do whatever it takes to stay on top. Batman gets more than his share of crazy villains, the kind who are in it to satisfy their sick desires or (as Alfred put it) “just want to watch the world burn,” but Penguin is an entirely different bird: he’s not just sane, he’s a schemer with a finger in just about every pie that’s out there. Plus, he’s on nobody’s team but his own, making him the best kind of villain: the one whose motives and goals are never totally clear when he shows up in a story. Maybe I’m wrong (which I doubt), but Batman needs at least one villain like this in his gallery, don’t you think? Just lose the mayoral ambition is all I ask. A
Fun fact: “Per Degaton” means “by Degaton” in German. You’re welcome. This was a guy who stole someone else’s time machine and kept going back and forth in time to rewrite history so he can end up ruler of the world without having to do any of the boring stuff that world conquest entails: raising armies, devising battle plans, putting out RFPs for weapons and detention camps, coming up with catchy salutes, stuff like that. Think of a less-insane Hitler with a time machine, and you’ve pretty much got the concept. In fact, Degaton and Hitler had a lot in common: they both started out doing menial jobs, they both wanted to conquer the world, they were both short with funny haircuts, they both committed suicide when the fit hit the shan, and they both paraded around in jodhpurs and tunics with their giant-sized initials on them (at least I assume Hitler did). The difference, of course, is that the Degster gave DC’s writers an excuse to write alternate-history stories in a way that Hitler never could, and God bless him for that. (Stupid Hitler, couldn’t even bend the fabric of space and time…) B
If you knew nothing about this guy but his name, what would you think his claim to fame would be? Maybe he’s a mutant with a voice that makes other people obey his every command? Or a government agent who’s well-versed in interrogation techniques and has a knack for upsetting heroes with his by-any-means-necessary approach to life? Not even close. He’s a cueball with a special axe that somehow makes him a major-league badass in the 30th century. Yes, it’s an “atomic axe” that can slice through anything, even gravity, but still: it’s a flippin’ axe. Lightning Lad at fifty paces shouldn’t even break a sweat putting this mook down for the count, and yet somehow he gets to be one of the Fatal Five. That… makes no sense. D