Making the Grade: Who’s Who Update ’87, Vol. 5

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Time once again to take our weekly look at Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe: Update ’87. This week: Vol. 5, from the Reaper to Zymyr. 

And guess what, gang? This is the end of my Who’s Who recaps for now. Christmas is coming, the days are getting busier, and I need to take a break from the weekly grind of these reviews for a while. I’ll get back into the swing of things with some reviews of the Who’s Who: Update ’88 mini-series in the new year — maybe even start pounding out some reviews of the 1980s Marvel Handbook if anyone begs for them — but for now, a big thanks to everyone who checked in to see what nonsense I had to say about comic characters and storylines from 30 years ago. 

Cover for this issue is by Pablo Marcos, a Peruvian-born penciler/inker who’s best known to American readers for his work on Batman, Conan the Barbarian and Marvel’s Zombie in the 1970s. He did a fine job of it, though that image of Titano’s face (chimps have pointed ears now?) is going to haunt my nightmares someday, I just know it. 

Onward!

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Reaper

“Fear… the Reaper!” In the beginning, there was Batman: Year One, and it was good. Then they followed it up with Batman: Year Two, and it was… not terrible. The story set early in Batman’s career introduced us to the Reaper, a homicidal vigilante that stalked Gotham’s streets in the ’50s and returned to remind a just-starting-out Bruce Wayne why Killing Is Bad. Dressed in red studded leather and a death’s-head mask, he’s actually Judson Caspian, a wealthy businessman who strikes out at all criminals when his wife is murdered by a burglar. And sure, yeah, I’d be pissed, too, if that happened to me… but is masked vigilantism the only option for grieving Gotham socialites? Is therapy considered déclassé among the city’s upper crust? C-

Rip Hunter (Revised)
Stripping away the more fanciful trappings of his Silver Age exploits, DC reintroduced the post-Crisis Rip Hunter as a friend of a friend of Booster Gold who invents the world’s first time machine and uses it to get Booster back to the future — only to be disappointed by his “apparent failure to explore time” when the method he invented only worked once and they had to figure out another way to get back to 1987. Um, Rip… you’re the first human being to travel through time. That’s sort of a big deal. It’s not like the Wright brothers are considered failures because their first plane didn’t have in-flight service. Nice guy, but way too hard on himself. C+

Robin (Revised)
Oh, Jason. We were all so innocent back then. “Todd has accepted his new role in life with great joy and has been readily accepted by those surrounding Batman.” The fans, on the other hand… C-

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Rocket Red Brigade 

They started out as faceless peons of the Soviet state, a way for the Commies to catch up in the superhero arms race by creating their own Captain-America-Meets-Iron-Man squadron of super-soldiers. And they didn’t make the best first impression, taking orders from an evil Mikhail Gorbachev and almost causing a nuclear attack when the Green Lantern Corps showed up in Russia. But then Rocket Red 7 joined the new Justice League, Russia decided the whole communism thing wasn’t working for them… and pretty soon every adventure set in Russia featured one or a dozen Rocket Reds flying around to fight against/alongside the heroes. And dammit, it just worked. They’ve been good guys and bad guys, and even when they’re the bad guys they do it in such a wonderfully Russian way you can’t help but root for them. B

Royal Flush Gang (Revised)
Basically a repeat of their first Who’s who entry, with an extra paragraph detailing their then-recent appearance in the Justice League book. Like I said before, versatility is the key to this team’s success; “not only are they visually striking villains who can work against any combination of heroes, but their membership, powers and M.O. have also varied over time, depending on the story’s needs. And it’s all good, as long as readers see what they came to see: Ace, King, Queen, Jack, Ten. Not among the A-list of super-villains, true, but sometimes all you really need is a reliable antagonist to kick-start the festivities… and this gang can accomplish that royally, and then some.” B

Salakk
There’s not much you can say about Salakk, the four-armed Green Lantern Corps member who ably fills the “stoic alien” role we’ve only seen in every sci-fi franchise ever made. So let’s talk about the part where he’s zapped into the 58th century and given false memories. Apparently, this was a common thing back in the early days of Green Lantern comics, and when Hal Jordan was unavailable for a mission, the governing Solar Council of that century brought Salakk forward in time to solve a crisis, reasoning that one GL is as good as the other. Not only that, but they re-adjusted the memories of a 58th-century woman to accept Salakk as her lover, just as they had several times before when they brought Jordan to the future. Here’s something I bet no one on this Solar Council ever said: “Hey guys, they’re Green Lanterns. I’m sure they’ll help us if we just, you know, ask. Is the mind rape really necessary? And don’t get me started on why we have to Total Recall that chick down in Accounting every time we do this. ‘Total Recall’…? Oh, It’s a reference to an ancient Earth saga by the great playwright Arnold Shakespeare. ‘Remember, Sully, when I promised to kill you last? I lied.’ You can’t beat the classics.” C

Shockwave
“Shockwave appears to have no powers other than brute strength.” So why does the background art show the armored goofball stomping his foot and throwing Booster Gold off his feet with the force of the shockwave? For that matter, why even bother calling him Shockwave? Make more sense, comics! (By the way, am I the only one who hankers for a showdown between this guy and Shockwave from the Transformers? I am? Okay, moving on.) D

Sivana (Revised) 
No longer the ruler of Venus or inventor of a thousand ways to bedevil the Big Red Cheese, post-Crisis Sivana was re-cast as Billy Batson’s evil step-uncle; he killed his step-sister and brother-in-law in a car crash and gained custody of young Billy so he could get his hands on the lad’s inheritance. Certainly not the worst way to go if someone wanted to ground Sivana and the rest of the Captain Marvel cast in a slightly more realistic universe, though I can’t imagine why anyone would want that. To each their own, I suppose. C

Spectre (Revised) 
The Spectre has seen his power levels rise and fall over the years as writers try to find that sweet spot between “ghost in a cape” and “essentially God in pixie boots.” For my money, John Ostrander’s Spectre series in the 1990s came the closest; this Who’s Who entry came out just before that, around the time an earlier, shorter-lived Spectre title hit the stands. Perhaps sensing the Spectre’s role in the just-finished Crisis on Infinite Earths made him too powerful to be an interesting character, DC went the other way by relocating Jim Corrigan, the Spectre’s host body, to New York City, where Corrigan opened a private eye business and the two of them solved mysteries with the help of a psychic and a cute Girl Friday. It wasn’t quite Funky Phantom territory, but it was pretty darn close, and no one was surprised when the Spectre later returned to his omniscient antics. C+

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Starfinger (Revised)

I really can’t take this Legion arch-nemesis seriously. For one thing, he’s dressed like a Patrick the Starfish cosplayer at a Spongebob Squarepants convention. His bio also makes a big deal about how he’s a super-secret criminal mastermind who operated for years without the Legion or Science Police ever knowing he was around… but he also has a habit of searing star-shaped burns into people’s flesh “as a reminder of his power.” This reminds me of how stupid the Wet Bandits in Home Alone were for leaving their calling card at every house they robbed, and anything that reminds me of that low point in Joe Pesci’s career by definition can’t score higher than D.

Strike Force Kobra
During his run on The Outsiders, Mike Barr pumped out a lot of forgettable bad-guy teams. As did many other comic writers on deadlines, true, but he had a particular knack for coming up with themed teams that were kinda silly. Force of July, the People’s Heroes, the New Olympians, the Masters of Disaster, the Nuclear Family… he just kept pumping them out. I guess someone pointed this out one day, so he decided his latest bad-guy team would go in the completely opposite direction, throwing together the most random collection of villains you can imagine, their only connection being “some douche named Kobra hired them to do bad guy stuff.” In retrospect, maybe he should have stuck with the themes:

Clayface. The fourth Clayface to be exact, she’s a woman given the power to transform her appearance similar to the second Clayface. Nothing new here except for the lady parts, but if you’re going to copy a Batman villain, you could do worse. C+

Elemental Woman. She can “convert her person into any existing element,” just like Metamorpho, except she can’t manipulate her shape like he can. So she can turn into a woman-shaped pile of, say, tungsten or selenium whenever she wants. That’s… useful? D

Planet Master. He’s a scientist with costumes that simulate the conditions on each of the nine planets (hot for Mercury, cold for Uranus, etc.) in our solar system (or is it eight? Have they let Pluto back in the club?). But here’s the thing: each planet-power is contained within a separate costume, making him the only super-villain in history who needs to bring a valet and portable changing screen to every battle. He was once asked why he didn’t combine all the planet powers into one costume; his response was, I believe, “….” D-

Spectrumonster. “Mr. Spectrumonster? I have a lawyer for a Mr. Zzzax on Line Two.” Gotta love the B-movie moniker, though. C

Zebra-Man. Bitten by a radioactive zebra, a young wildlife photographer returns to America to… nah, I’m just messing with you. Truth is, there’s no real reason for him to go with “Zebra-Man.” Sure, he’s got a white body and black stripes (or is that a black body with white stripes?), but his super-power is shooting rays that can attract or repel objects. This is not, as far as I know, among a zebra’s known abilities. “Weird sexual fetish ” it is, then. D

Suicide Squad (Revised)
YES YES YES YES OH MY STARS AND GARTERS A QUADRILLION TIMES YES. The concept behind this series was so beautifully perfect that it makes you wonder why it took them so long to come up with it. Maybe someone did pitch a “bad guys coerced into covert missions for the government” strip back in the ’60s, but it got spiked because the Comics Code wouldn’t allow it. I mean, villains with compelling motives and back stories? Who might even be sympathetic or compelling characters? What would the neighbors think? Anyway, it doesn’t matter — they’re here, they sneer, get used to it. Also? Amanda Waller: the single greatest non-powered character ever to appear in the funnies. No debate. No discussion. And no, this establishment does not recognize any skinny-assed New 52 version of her, either. A+

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Superboy (Revised, Except Not Really Since He Didn’t Get an Entry in the First Who’s Who Series, So… Yeah, Strange)
The only question I have here is, “Why???” He was given a fine send-off at the end of Crisis on Infinite Earths, and the new post-Crisis universe made it clear Superman didn’t start his costumed career until adulthood. Plus, the Legion’s history could have been easily rewritten to accommodate the new reality; just have them use another 20th-century teen hero, or even Superman himself, as their inspiration for starting the team. But no, because someone couldn’t leave well enough alone, we got a pocket universe created by the Time Trapper solely to mess with the Legion, a place where a copy of the original Superboy still existed until he sacrificed his life to save the 30th century. And I’m sure the Superman/Legion crossover guest-starring the Teen of Steel was meant to pay homage to the character, but it just came off as mawkish and unnecessary. Still a million times better than Superboy-Prime, though. D+

Titano (Revised)
Speaking of sentimental faves once thought banished to comic-book limbo. Skipping on the kryptonite eye-beams and power-bestowing space flights, this updated Titano was a chimp in a research lab who was subjected to cruel experiments until an accident causes him to grow many times in size; after he lashes out at his tormentors, it’s up to Superman to stop him from wrecking the city. Then he dies. If you can finish the one and only issue he appeared in without getting a lump in your throat, then you have a heart of cold, hard stone. Sniff. B

Twister
No, not a Saw-like villain who forces victims to play the board game in a deadly body-contorting match — though you can be sure if someone at Hasbro Studios is reading this, they’ve already greenlit that shit-acular idea. No, this is a now-mostly-forgotten villain who tangled with the Teen Titans only because she was the messed-up — physically and psychologically — errand girl for other, more powerful super-villains. She came, she induced horrifying hallucinations, she left. The end. Side note: according to the background art on this page, one of Cyborg’s worst fears is finding a spatula or corkscrew at the end of his robotic arm. I’m surprised this would be terrifying for him; I can’t tell you how many times I wished I had a handy way to keep a corkscrew within reach. C

Vanguard
Now, this one confuses me. This team of alien do-gooders appeared exactly once, in a 1984 New Teen Titans annual. The story was your standard “new team fights/teams up with established team to get some exposure” affair, complete with an appeal to readers at the end asking them to write DC if they want to see more of the new team. Clearly, not enough did (see also: “appeared exactly once”), and that was that. What’s confusing is this team appeared just the once… in a story with no greater significance than “Hey, check out these new guys!”… in a pre-Crisis comic co-starring pre-Crisis versions of Superman and Brainiac — meaning the Vanguard were already “officially never happened” by the time this issue of Who’s Who appeared. Perhaps this was a last-ditch attempt to stoke interest in the band? If so, then I would have suggested coming up with better names than “Solaar” and “Anti-Matter Man.” D

Vibe
Hey, a list within a list! Here are eight reasons why Vibe’s entry makes me smile:

1. His real name is Paco Ramone, which always make think of Weird Al’s “Taco Grande” song.

2. His “base of operations” is listed as New York City even though the text says he was a leader of a Detroit street gang and joined the Justice League when the team moved to Detroit. Which, note, is not New York City.

3. He “had his mutant sonic powers from birth,” which must have made for one hell of an interesting story down at the maternity ward.

4. “He and his gang kept his powers a secret from the world” — because if there’s one thing you can count on, it’s a teenage street gang member keeping quiet about something like his gang leader’s superhuman powers.

5. His brashness and arguments with other JLA members were the result of “feelings of inadequacy alongside more powerful and experienced heroes.” Or, you know, he was just being an asshole.

6. “His agility was above average (and he was a superb breakdancer).” And suddenly my life’s dream is to see a story where the android Amazo absorbs Vibe’s powers and the two of them break out the cardboard mats for a breakdancing competition.

7. His outfit includes fingerless gloves, an oversized belt and red boots with yellow stripes. You know, gang leader threads.

8. It’s so obvious the Who’s Who editors included him here under duress, what with how he was the only new member from the Justice League Detroit era who didn’t make it into the original Who’s Who series… almost as if some editors didn’t want to admit this guy existed. “But guuuuuys,” their nerdier co-worker likely said. “We’ve got to put him in the update. This isn’t ‘The Definitive Directory of All the Characters We Aren’t Ashamed to Admit Are in the DC Universe,’ after all.”

You know what? I’m feeling generous today. Let’s grade him based on his amusement value and give him a solid… B-

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Watchmen
“Note: The Watchmen series is not part of DC Universe continuity.” Goddamn right it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I loves me my gaudily clad super-villains and giant monkeys and whatnot, but putting the Watchmen next to the likes of Vibe and Vanguard is like putting the Mona Lisa in a museum next to a Bazooka Joe gum wrapper. Also, Who’s Who writers? I’m pretty sure even back in 1987 there was this thing called “spoiler alert.” NOT APPLICABLE 

Wild Dog
Right, so back in the ’80s there was this “urban vigilante” craze happening, with highly publicized street crimes (see also “Bernie Goetz” of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” fame) spurring demand for stories starring Dirty Harry types cleaning up the streets. No surprise, this was the Punisher’s time to shine; Wild Dog, who appeared around the time Marvel greenlit the Punisher’s first ongoing series, was another attempt to cash in on the trend. Mechanic Jack Wheeler (no, really) is an ex-Marine whose girlfriend was shot and killed right in front of him — he later learns she was the daughter of a mob boss targeted by his rivals. Not sure how she danced around that little detail about her family history, but never mind. Funded by money he inherited after his girlfriend’s death (because nothing says loaded like “mob princess on the run”), he uses guns and homemade commando tools to strike out at mobsters and domestic terrorists. His big arch-foes were The Committee for Social Change, which sounds more like a bunch of hippie students demanding free tuition than people willing to blow up school kids to advance their agenda. Come on, people! It’s all about the branding! HYDRA figured this shit out a long time ago. C

Windfall
Her name is Wendy, and she generates wind. By day, she’s your average California high school student; by night, she’s a hero with a costume that either uses a lot of flesh-toned fabric in its design or shows off way more skin than any under-18 heroine should bare. Or over-18 heroine, come to think. Either way, she’s a late addition to the ’80s-era Outsiders, giving her the musty whiff of a character that’s Cousin Olivered into a sitcom that no one really cared about in the first place. C

Y’smalla
So, how does that name go? YIZ- mahl-la? IZ-mal-la? Yez-MAHL-a? I have a feeling we better get this right; I don’t imagine assassins in bikini bottoms take kindly to people mispronouncing the names of their slayers. She’s a gal with a bone to pick with Travis “Warlord” Morgan over his defeat of the New Atlanteans, with whom Y’smalla’s order of assassins was temporarily aligned. Oh, and he also killed her lover/possible husband during the battle, so… yeah, that, too. And sure, I’d be pissed in her situation, too, but — well, doesn’t it always seem like female bad guys also seem to have a romance-related reason for committing their villainous acts? Why can’t it just be enough that she’s a bad-ass assassin who’s sworn an oath to take him down? Why does she need the extra motive of avenging some dude who, hello, given their line of work wasn’t likely going to live long, anyway? Trust me, ladies: we’re not with it. C+

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Zymyr
Okay, I’m not the only one looking at this page and thinking “turd in a punch bowl,” right? This Legion baddie was an alien who delighted in performing experiments on sentient beings whom he considered inferior to his own species. So he’s basically a racist piece of shit living inside a bubble who enjoys witnessing the suffering of “lesser” beings for his own entertainment. Sometimes the “Fox News audience” jokes just write themselves, don’t they? C-

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