Making the Grade: Who’s Who Update ’88, Vol. 1

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Annnnnnnd we’re back! Time once again to hop in our Wayback Machine and zip back to the 1980s, or at least the 1988 portion of it. The Calgary Winter Games! Dukakis-mania! The Wonder Years! Murphy Brown! “Don’t Worry Be Happy”! And, of course, Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe: Update ’88. Truly, it was a magical time to be alive. 

The first issue (Amazing-Man to Harlequin) was cover-dated August 1988, eight months after the final issue of Who’s Who: Update ’87 came out. And you better believe that was more than enough time for a whole lot of changes at DC, including new characters coming out and old ones getting up to all kinds of zany adventures.

Speaking of change, Who’s Who: Update ’88 was definitely a more light-hearted affair than its predecessors, thanks to new editor Mark Waid, a fellow who would later go on to dazzle fans with his work on Flash, Captain America, Fantastic Four, Kingdom Come and many other titles. Also making things more fun this time out was cover art by Ty Templeton, an artist I was pleased to learn was inducted into the Canadian Comic Book Hall of Fame last year. Yeah, we’ve got one, too. 

Onward! 

Amazing-Man (Revised)
Not much new to say here, except for the added bit about how his powers changed from “the ability to absorb the properties of any substance” to “the ability to attract and repel stuff.” Meaning he basically went from being another Absorbing Man to being another Yankee Poodle. Where I come from, that’s known as “trading down.” C-

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Atom II (Revised)
I remember a DC house ad promoting the Atom’s 1988 series; it went something like, “First we fixed Superman, then we made Wonder Woman more awesome, now it’s the Atom’s turn!” Ehhhh… not quite. No longer a barbarian warrior living with a tribe of six-inch aliens (don’t ask), the Atom returned to standard superheroics in Power of the Atom, a series that was… passably adequate? Reasonably pleasant? At any rate, let’s talk about what you really want to know: how the Atom puts his clothes on! According to his bio, he “controls the costume mentally through an encephalotronic grid in the costume’s headpiece geared to his unique brainwaves,” which allows him to shift his costume’s molecules to and from another dimension when needed. That seems like a lot of effort to avoid changing in phone booths, but given the small number of those on city sidewalks these days… yeah, good call, Ray. B-

Axis Amerika (Revised)
Hey, look! It’s the ninth or tenth super-villain group you think of when you hear the phrase “evil Justice League”! So, let’s see what they’ve been up to since last year. Well, Fledermaus died, no surprise there — nobody liked that little shit anyway. Oh, and Japan sent in Kamikaze, the Rocket-Powered Dildo, to join the team. White supremacists and Asian nationalists working together? That seems… awkward. I wonder how the actual Germans and Japanese felt about their own alliance during the war. C

Blackhawk (Revised)
The biggest change in Blackhawk’s updated entry is his nationality — no longer a Polish-American who joins the fight after Germany invaded his ancestral homeland, he’s a full-on Polish-Polishman with a very real stake in the war. There’s also a bit of explanation for how a farm boy/fighter pilot can afford running his own paramilitary unit, with the short version being the Allied nations gave him money. We also learn Blackhawk “attained the rank of major” during the war — which sounds impressive until you realize that, not being aligned with any nation’s military, he essentially promoted himself. B

Blackhawks (Revised)
Just like Blackhawk’s own entry, the Blackhawk team’s entry offers a few biographical details about each team member that were revealed in a then-recent series about them. Fun fact: a full two-sixths of the original team are described as “former circus acrobats.” I wouldn’t think of that as a profession that naturally leads to a life of airborne freedom-fighting, but there you go. C+

Black Thorn
“The background of the woman known as Black Thorn is a mystery, but she first turned up on the streets of Manhattan, where she exercised a very precise form of vigilantism.” Okay, seriously, what does that “very precise” part even mean? She only targeted criminals with fallen arches? Only meted out justice on alternate Tuesdays and statutory holidays? Where does the precision come into play? Then there’s the part about the head of a covert spy agency offering her a job despite knowing nothing about her real name or motives for blowing poison darts at criminals. Yeah, sure, because that’s what spy bosses look for in their employees: mystique. C-

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Blue Trinity
They’re a trio of Soviet-sponsored super-speedsters who tussled with Wally West soon after he became the new Flash, but that’s not important. Look at the dude in the middle with the arms that look like they reach down to the floor. And is he supposed to be hunched over here or did he lose half his torso in some tragic accident involving farm implements? I can’t tell if this is bad drawing or if we’re supposed to think the guy’s DNA was spliced with that of a super-fast orangutan. Hey, it’s no less silly than a city full of mind-reading gorillas. C-

Brainiac (Revised)
DC’s post-Crisis deck reshuffling was hit-or-miss as far as character revamps were concerned. Lex Luthor came out of it looking even more like a magnificent bastard while Brainiac went from robot enslaver of the cosmos to… a pudgy carnival mentalist with a migraine? I guess the writers were looking for a way to explain the “Brainiac” name — which admittedly would be an odd moniker for an alien conqueror to give itself — and this entry had the awkward job of reintroducing the character when the Superman writers were in the middle of introducing his new origin story. But still. It’s Superman, people. Have Brainiac’s skull-ship arrive in Metropolis and blow shit up already. If you want to explain the dopey Silver Age name, just have Jimmy Olsen call him that in a Daily Planet headline or something. See? Simple. D+

Checkmate
Now, this was an interesting concept. Secret government agencies are a dime a dozen in comics, but this outfit took the logical next step of adapting the superhero tech that existed in the DC universe and giving it to masked field agents who, if spotted by the public or foreign agents, would be taken for a non-government-affiliated superhero. The “knights” were supported by “pawns” who handled transport and field logistics, and the directors and supervisors were referred to by chess pieces that denoted their rank in the hierarchy. Amanda Waller, the “queen,” was the head of the outfit, and rightfully so — but I often wondered what would have happened if she had been replaced by a man while second-in-command Harry Stein was still there in his role as “king.” Oh, who are we kidding, that woman is going to outlast Mount Rushmore. B+

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Chunk

A former adversary/ally of the Flash, Chester P. Runk is a portly scientist whose accidental ingestion of a matter transporter gave him the ability to absorb and spew large amounts of matter; there’s background art on this page that shows him demonstrating his power by, er, vomiting small projectiles at the Flash. That and his name reminds me of a gal I knew in school who once confessed that hearing the word “chunk” always made her feel like vomiting. So of course — being the caring and compassionate classmates we were — we found ways to work that word into every sentence we could. “Hey, pass me a chunk of that cake.” “Can I borrow your notes? I missed a big chunk of that lecture.” “Wow, this crazy wind is blowing chunks of leaves all over the place. Get it? Blowing chunks?” What can I say, I ran with a classy crew back in the day. C

Crimson Avenger (Revised)
Hey, it’s everyone’s favorite Green Hornet ripoff! So what’s new since his original Who’s Who entry came out? Not much, actually. We get a little more of his backstory, thanks to his 1988 mini-series that no one was clamouring for; he was childhood friends with the original Sandman, and he fought the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Good for him. D

Danny Chase
Uch. Okay, it’s like this. Everyone has their favorite Teen Titan; most might pick Raven or Cyborg or one of the higher-profile members, but you’ll get the occasional non-conformist who will admit to having a special place in their heart for Aqualad, or Mal, or even Pantha. But I’m willing to bet no one — and I mean no one — regards this doofus with anything stronger than mild disdain. He looked and sounded like the end result of a contest that readers could enter for the chance to have a new Teen Titan drawn in their likeness, and the best the unimaginative winner could blurt out when asked for a superhero name was his own birth name. Plus, we’re told he was born with his telekinetic powers because his super-spy grandfather was exposed to radiation during the Second World War. How the hell does that even begin to make sense? D-

Doctor Fate (Revised)
This entry really drives home the difference between Doctor Strange and Doctor Fate, and why Strange is the superior character. Strange’s story is one of humility and redemption, an arrogant man who earns a second chance by realizing the inherent nobility in self-sacrifice and service to others. Fate’s story can be boiled down to “asshole mystical entity fucks with human hosts who don’t get a choice in the matter, including a goddamn child who’s forcibly aged to adulthood to serve as his unwilling mortal vessel.” Try getting Cumberbatch to sign up for that. D

Doctor Mist 
Not one of the better-known properties in DC’s stable, and for good reason. He started out in a comic based on the Super Friends TV show, as the resident magic-user in an international team of heroes. Then, just before this update came out, his secret origin was revealed: he was actually an immortal wizard-king from an ancient African kingdom whose millennia-long plans — which included the creation of an entire subset of humanity with magical abilities — were motivated solely by his desire to breed a woman (Zatanna, to be precise) who would be powerful enough to serve as his worthy mate. O…kay, then. Funny how Zatanna’s Wikipedia page doesn’t say anything about him. One word, Misty: “Craigslist.” Also? Perv. D

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Doctor Occult (Revised)
A Siegel and Shuster creation who actually predates Superman, Occult started out as a guy in a trenchcoat who tangled with mystic forces and assorted weirdos. In this entry, we learn that he and his PI partner started out as infants rescued from a sinister cult intent on sacrificing them to Satan; raised by a rival cult to cultivate their mystic potential, the two were named Doc and Rose. And right away I have to ask: “Doc”…? Doc is a name given to affable professors, country physicians and dwarves in positions of authority over their fellow dwarves, not infants too young to pronounce “Ph.D.” Also, if Rose grows up to become Doc’s “silent partner and undercover investigator,” how came she doesn’t merit her own Who’s Who entry? Shut up, that’s why. C+

Doom Patrol (Revised)
Ah, the Doom Patrol in those awkward years between the original team getting blown up and Grant Morrison being let loose on them. What is there to say about them? No, I mean it — what can I literally say about them? Before Mr. Morrison introduced a soupçon of surrealism that confirmed their status as the world’s strangest super-heroes, the 1980s Doom Patrol title was as by-the-book as super-heroics could get: non-secret headquarters, matching uniforms, glossed-over explanations about funding, no real purpose for getting the band back together, and a parade of old DP super-villains back for more villainy mixed in with other superheroes’ sloppy seconds. At least we got to see a young Erik Larsen practice his art before moving on to much better things. C-

Duchess
There’s a good chance this one-time member of the Suicide Squad isn’t going to be in the movie they just announced, and that’s a shame. An agent of Darkseid who gets left behind on Earth thanks to a traitorous teammate, Lashina shows up one day at the prison headquarters for the squad, trading in her Apokolips-issued weapons for camouflage fatigues and the kind of firepower that John Rambo would consider excessive (her name is a nickname given to her by others because of her imperious attitude). It’s too bad the writers eventually sent the team to Apokolips and changed her back into her old self; I don’t think you can ever have enough gun-toting Amazons in combat boots. B

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Dumas

Um, ew. He’s an assassin with a putty-like face he can mould into any likeness. How? “Mutant!” Nice to see Marvel didn’t have a monopoly on that particular catch-all. Honestly, what’s the point? Aren’t there enough freelance assassins in the comics? Hell, I could rattle off three killers right now with their own malleable mugs. Then there’s this part: “Once he accepts an assignment, nothing can make him back off from it.” Well, that’s just dumb. What if his client changes their mind? What if his client dies or gets arrested before the hit happens and he can’t collect payment? What if Dumas goes to prison before he completes the assignment; does that mean he’ll track down and kill the target when he gets out? I mean, there’s being dedicated to your craft, and there’s being a loon. C-

Felix Faust (Revised)
Sigh. Really? Can’t I just reuse whatever I wrote for this doofus the first time around? Would anyone care if I did? He’s a boring sorcerer in a stupid hat who only scores appearances on Justice League Unlimited because of a severely misplaced sense of Silver Age reverence. Next! C-

Firestorm (Revised)
I’m on record being a huge fan of Firestorm, let me say that up front. So I’m not so much interested in his powers or the artwork on this page as I am in the fact his history seems to skip over a lot of then-recent events. In a nutshell: Firestorm started out as the nuclear fusion of a high school jock and a physics professor, but about halfway through the first series the professor developed an inoperable brain tumor, which resulted in a series of events in which Firestorm unilaterally decides to destroy the world’s nuclear stockpile. That went over about as well as you’d expect, with the Soviet Union aiming its own nuclear-powered superhero and a nuclear missile at his head (funny how they didn’t do that to Superman when he went Quest for Peace on their asses). But then something screwy happened when the nuclear bomb went off, and both heroes were fused into a new, composite Firestorm who then goes off and does things like try to solve world hunger. Really, you should check it out; it’s a fascinating run. A-

Forever People (Revised)
Sorry, DC. You can try to appeal to my love of Ty Templeton all you want, it’s not going to make me change my mind about this group of cosmic flower children. But maybe I’ve been too harsh on them; let’s see what’s happening in their 1988 mini-series. “However, Serifan fell under the influence of the evil entities known as the Dark, which somehow turned back time–” whoa, back the truck up there. “The Dark”…? That’s the best name you could come up with? What, was “the Oogy-Boogy Men” already copyrighted? Moving on. C-

Gangbuster
He’s a former boxing champ and high school teacher who really, really, really cares, people. How much does he care? He cares so much he puts on riot gear and nunchucks to go kick crime’s ass as Gangbuster, Buster of Gangs! The best part is his chest symbol, a clenched fist with a line across it — because nothing says “preaching the peace” like busting heads with the pacifying power of nunchucks. The entry ends with him crippled in battle (spoiler: he got better), and it really was only a matter of time. C-

Garguax (Revised)
So like I said earlier, before Grant Morrison took over their title the Doom Patrol just went through the super-team motions, even going up against the same baddies the original team fought with. That included this amoral alien, who — same as before — came to Earth to conquer it. Is there anything new here that warrants a whole new Who’s Who entry? Well, he  ballooned up to resemble Jabba the Hutt’s seasick second cousin. That’s… something. C

Ghost (Revised)
Wait, I’m confused. This guy is a physicist working for a defence contractor who joins a nutty-cuckoo cult and convinces himself he needs a prototype “stealth ray” to fulfil his destiny as a god, so he tries to steal the device from his former employer. Captain Atom stops him by destroying the prototype before he can get away with it, but the Ghost still manages to escape because the “advanced technology” in his suit allowed him to teleport from one location to another. But I thought the whole reason he wanted that other device was because it was a “means of transporting massive quantities of matter.” So if he already had the means to teleport himself, why did he need to steal a device that could do that? MAKE MORE SENSE, STORIES WITH FLYING NUCLEAR MEN! D+

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Gnort
Another reason to love the ’80s? People weren’t so damn serious all the time. Maybe it was how we coped with the whole “mutually assured destruction” thing, maybe it was because Facebook wasn’t around to depress us constantly, I don’t know — all I know is our comics had room for humor that wasn’t based solely on self-referencing fanwank. Gnort, who first appeared in the Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League book (the one of “BWAH HA HA” fame), was a dim-witted Green Lantern who resembled an upright dog and was assigned a space sector devoid of life just to keep him out of the way. Was it silly, juvenile, almost Pythonesque in its absurdity? Yes! And that, dear readers, was the point. C+

Godiva II
So when I say “Godiva,” what’s the first thing that pops in your head? Naked chick on a horse? Cheeky acts of rebellion against the state? The opening lines to the theme song for Maude? Sorry, mate, none of that here — just another implausible super-villain/master spy with magical persuasion powers, a base in the Swiss Alps, and a habit of killing her henchmen over trivial offences, like smoking in her presence. And what kind of evil spy hires a cameraman to follow her around all day? Utterly deranged, and not in the fun way. D

Green Arrow (Revised)
“My name is Oliver Queen. After five years in hell, I have come home with only one goal: to save my city.” Nope, not quite that guy. But the back-to-the-streets Green Arrow of the late ’80s was definitely closer in spirit to the CW’s photogenic archer than the guy who drove an Arrow-Car and hung out in an Arrow-Cave while carrying boxing-glove arrows in his quiver. No Starling City or will-they-or-won’t-they banter with adorkable hackers here, though; this Oliver Queen hooked up with Black Canary and patrolled the streets of Seattle. I feel like there’s a Starbucks/grunge/flannel joke begging to be made here. A

Green Flame
This Brazilian fashion model’s super-power isn’t too impressive (she can breathe a six-inch green flame from her mouth), and to the entry’s credit it acknowledges that. It then suggests it was her “raw fighting prowess and courage” that convinced the members of Justice League International to let her join the team. Right. Her “courage.” Let’s go with that. C+

Green Lantern II/Green Lantern Corps (Revised)
All that’s really new for both these entries are some details from then-current issues of Green Lantern. For reasons too contrived to get into here, Jordan’s efforts to save the Guardians’ power battery from total destruction left only four working rings in the entire universe: Jordan’s, Guy Gardner’s,  Ch’p’s and Gnort’s. I’m not going to lie; it was a dumb storyline that painted Green Lantern into a ridiculous corner, not to mention showed huge disrespect for everything the character was about. No surprise, they reversed that editorial decision long before Geoff Johns showed up to play. B+

Harlequin (Revised)
She was a villain who fought Infinity, Inc. She made her big appearance during DC’s Millennium crossover event. She stole her name and powers from another super-villain. She used a mandolin as a weapon. She ended up getting killed by a rampaging Solomon Grundy. Guess which one of those statements made her remotely interesting as a character. D+

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