Friday, March 30, 2012


Why We Love Detective Comics
THE SILVER AGE STARTS HEREWell, maybe the Silver Age starts here, and maybe it doesn't. I tend to the view that, yes, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the Silver Age does indeed begin with Detective Comics #225, with a cover date of November 1955. However, for a number of reasons, I can work up a great deal of sympathy for all those comics fans who would much rather minimize the first appearance of J'onn J'onzz, the Manhunter from Mars, and shower all the Silver Age glory on the first appearance of The Flash in Showcase #4 just under a year later.

It's only been a few weeks since I was ridiculing Batman for his late entry in the Silver Age sweepstakes with the "New Look" Batman starting in Detective Comics #327 in 1964, so maybe I should explain this seeming 180-degree turn in which I now put forward the claim that the Silver Age actually started in the exact same comic book almost nine years earlier. The answer lies in one of the backup features in Detective #225.

You see, in those days, Batman had to share Detective Comics with several other features. The Caped Crusader did indeeed have his own series - cleverly titled "Batman" - all to himself. Well, yes, he shared it with Robin and Alfred, but he was the star, eight times a year by 1955, and every issue had three stories devoted to the adventures of Batman and his pals. (He also appeared bi-monthly in World's Finest at this point, teaming up with Superman every issue. Also appearing in World's Finest in 1955: Green Arrow and Tomahawk.)

But Batman was only the headliner in Detective Comics. He was followed by Roy Raymond, TV Detective, and, in Detective #225, a new feature was added. I guess the guys who made the decisions had noticed that science fiction was all the rage in the mid-1950s, so they came up with a sci-fi feature for Detective Comics to replace Captain Compass.

Because the new feature was in Detective Comics, they had to work that angle into the new sci-fi feature, and that's how J'onn J'onzz, the Manhunter from Mars, came together as a concept.

You see, they called him the Manhunter from Mars, or the Martian Manhunter, because he was so super-smart, like all Martians, that he could become a policeman on Earth just by walking into a police station and saying, "I'd like to be a policeman." So, yeah, even though it was, ostensibly, a sci-fi series, it was also a detective series! J'onn J'onzz was accidentally transported to Earth by Dr. Erdel, whose experiments had something to do with a robot brain that, I guess, randomly transported alien scientists to Earth. (Don't worry about it. It's not important past the third page where Dr. Erdel conveniently dies and is thus unable to make any sense of anything he said on the previous two pages. And also, too, Dr. Erdel's death means J'onn J'onzz can't go back to Mars.)

You can tell, in that fourth panel, J'onn J'onzz is thinking the Martian equivalent of "What a douche!"

Anyway, J'onn J'onzz quickly realizes that he will have to stay on Earth for a time, so he uses his formidable Martian powers to make himself appear as a regular Earthman named John Jones and he quickly gets a job as a policeman somehow. And that's pretty much the end of a six-page story that introduces J'onn J'onzz to the world and, some say, started the Silver Age.

J'onn J'onzz, despite some long absences here and there, has been a part of the DC Universe ever since. He was in Detective Comics for more than a hundred issues when, with the coming of the "New Look" Batman, he was kicked out of Detective (his berth was taken by The Elongated Man) and given a spot in House of Mystery. Along the way he picked up a modest cast of supporting characters, including a boss (Captain Harding), a blonde policewoman (Diane Meade) and an alien sidekick (Zook). (And, yes, you do want to click that "Zook" link. It will lead you to a site that mercilessly ridicules the Manhunter from Mars. With much affection, it is true, but no quarter is given.)

(For the record, there are two other stories in this issue. The first is a Batman tale titled "If I Were Batman." Fifteen years ago, when I first read "If I Were Batman" (in a reprint), I thought it was dreadful. Nowadays, I have a much greater appreciation for Batman in the 1950s, and I love Batwoman, Bat-Mite, Catman and Clayface, and all that other crazy stuff. "If I Were Batman" tells the story of several private citizens who, through the amount of money they gathered for charity, win the right to be Batman for a day. The timid man becomes a tiger; the shallow, publicity-hunting movie star becomes a helpful and concerned public servant; such is the power of the Batman guise! Corny, sure, but a lot of fun, and a nice change of pace from The Joker, The Penguin and the rest of the rogues gallery. The third story features Roy Raymond, TV Detective, and I'm not too sure what to say about him because I've only read one Roy Raymond adventure. The one in this very issue, to be precise. He seems to be a detective who solves crimes while cameras follow him around on crime scenes. So, yeah, maybe we can look at Roy Raymond and begin to see why the Manhunter from Mars was such a big deal that he started a new age!)

So, does the introduction of the Manhunter from Mars really signal the beginning of the Silver Age? Well, after a long period when DC didn't produce any new super-heroes, the Manhunter from Mars was the first of a series of new heroes - the Flash, Green Lantern, the Atom, Hawkman - that culminated in a new comic-book universe, the Justice League, the re-introduction of their Golden-Age counterparts and an explosion of super-hero comic books after a long period where super-heroes were stagnant. And the Justice League inspired the guys at the company that would soon be Marvel to make their own team book, The Fantastic Four, and we all know what followed soon after that - The Hulk, Spider-Man, The Mighty Thor, The Avengers, The X-Men and others.

Don't forget, the Manhunter from Mars was one of the charter members of the Justice League of America. That works in J'onn Jon'zz's favor when assessing his Silver Age status.

There's also this: After the Flash appeared in Showcase #4 late in 1956, he didn't get his own series right away; he made sporadic appearance in Showcase - in #8, #13 and #14 - and he didn't get his own series until Flash #105 appeared, with a February/March 1959 cover date. (The original Flash Comics had been canceled in the late 1940s with #104 and the new Flash series picked up from the old numbering.) So that's about two and a half years where the Flash only appeared four times!

So who's carrying the banner for the Silver Age during all those months when the Flash is only appearing once or twice a year? J'onn J'onzz, that's who!

To me, that's pretty compelling. I may not be that big a J'onn J'onzz fan, but I can appreciate his mighty efforts to fight evil on a planet that's not even his own world. I mean, what's the Flash doing, zipping into the DC Universe once or twice a year in the late 1950s while J'onn J'onzz is doing his duty every single month? It may have been a thankless job, considering how little of the credit he's ever received, but I think this one goes to J'onn J'onzz, by decision.

I hope The Flash and Green Lantern, at some point, said something like: Hello, Manhunter from Mars. Nice Silver Age you got here. Thanks for keeping it warm for us while we were getting our act together.


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