nelson e bridwell

As a kid, your purchasing power is severely limited, or at least that’s how it was for me at this point. I was still too young to be doing any sort of a job to bring in money, and yet at the same time, I was being expected to save my cash for whatever I might want. My grandparents would typically leave me a dollar each week when they visited, and there were birthdays and holidays that might score some cash. And occasionally a parent could be prevailed upon to make a purchase on my behalf. But that is why I passed up this issue of DC SUPER-STARS featuring the Legion of Super-Heroes multiple times at the secondary grocery store my Mother sometimes frequented before deciding to purchase it. My past encounters with the Legion hadn’t been all that wonderful.

But this comic was different. It reprinted one of the most celebrated and trailblazing Legion stories ever done, the two-part Adult Legion story. To whit: most other Legion stories involved Superboy journeying to the 30th Century where he’d become a member of a team of intergalactic super-youths like himself, all around his age. Either editor Mort Weisinger, writer Jim Shooter or perhaps even assistant editor E. Nelson Bridwell had the brilliant and obvious idea to have Superman make the same journey and team up with the grown-up versions of his old pals. But in the style of an imaginary story crossed with a high school reunion, this two-part adventure made its bones by showing how everybody’s relationships turned out–who died, who married who, and even who would join the Legion in the days and years to come. 

It is a truly staggering conceit, especially in that it was used as a blueprint for close to two decades to follow in terms of guiding the destinies of the assorted Legion characters. Even more amazing, Shooter introduces almost a half-dozen brand new characters here as Legionnaires (most of whom have sadly perished by the era in which this story is set) who will come to join the group in the months and years to come–some added well after he had stopped writing the series. 

The actual plot of the first story is pretty threadbare, as much of it is simply made up of a travelogue in which Superman, summoned from the past, is given a tour of the Legion’s updated headquarters and checks in with all of his old friends. He’s been called back up because a mysterious new menace threatens the Legion–and this menace turns out to be the twin brother of the deceased hero Ferro Lad. Now, it’s important to understand something: when this story was first written, Ferro Lad had only been killed off the previous month and was only introduced maybe six months prior to that. But his sacrifice and death are treated as so monumental here that they actually became accepted as being that monumental! And it turns out that brother Douglass isn’t a true villain, but rather has ben set against the Legion by their rivals, the Legion of Super-Villains.

Not to be stopped, Shooter and Weisinger introduce even more new heroes on the issue’s cover, all of whom would go on to play a role in the Legion’s history. At the point when I read this story, all but one had been introduced–Reflecto. This added a great sense of mystery and predestination to Reflecto–he was an object of fascination even though we really knew next-to-nothing about him. When a later creative team eventually got around to doing the Reflecto story, it was sadly a bit of a bungled mess.

With Ferro Lad II discovered and deprogrammed, there’s no great need for the Man of Steel to remain in the 30th Century, and so he heads for home. Seeing him go, the pissed off Legion of Super-Villains decide that this will be the perfect moment to launch an all-out assault on their good guy counterparts. They capture Brainiac 5 and cause the Legion to split up for a series of one-on-one showdowns very much inspired by the first AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL (Shooter even uses the same Electro set-up and visuals in the battle between Lightning Man and Lightning Lord.)

It’s a fun action-oriented outing for the series, more so than they typically got, and it was marred only by the climax. Through a deception, the Villains gain the upper hand, but before they can execute the good Legion, the heroes are saved by a pair of mysterious armored crusaders–who turn out to be the identical descendants of Lex Luthor and Mr. Mxyzptlk. This had to have been Weisenger’s idea, but as the story ends with the duo being inducted into the Legion’s ranks, all future Legion writers could see that they had a problem that they’d need to deal with once they brought the narrative to this point,  Ultimately, though, that eventuality never materialized, as decades later we saw the “mainstream DC Universe” Legion’s continuity veer away from the predictions made in this pair of issues. Still, it was an amazingly ballsy thing to do, very much the precursor to stories such as KINGDOM COME or even THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Who didn’t want to see how all of their favorite characters’ stories turned out in the end?

SUPERMAN: ESCAPE FROM BIZARRO WORLD TP
Written by Geoff Johns and Richard Donner, Otto Binder, E. Nelson Bridwell and John Byrne
Art by Eric Powell, Wayne Boring, Curt Swan, John Byrne and others
Cover by Eric Powell
The dynamic writing team of Geoff Johns and Richard Donner joins artist Eric Powell (The Goon) for “Escape from Bizarro World,” a 3-part story in which Bizarro returns to kidnap one of the most important people in Superman’s life. But what does the twisted, ersatz Man of Steel want? The only way to find out is to travel to the enemy’s home: Bizarro World! Also included in this volume are classic tales of Bizarro from SUPERMAN #140, DC COMICS PRESENTS #71 and MAN OF STEEL #5!
Advance-solicited; on sale May 6 • 160 pg, FC, $14.99 US

For whatever reason, after Len Wein did the Justice League/Justice Society crossover that brought back the Seven Soldiers of Victory, somebody–Julie Schwartz maybe–seemed to decide that it wasn’t enough to simply bring these two venerable teams together, there needed to be a third group. So this year, that group would be comprised of the heroes once published by Fawcett, Captain Marvel’s original home–described on this cover (though not inside) as Shazam’s Squadron of Justice. It must be said that fielding this many super heroes in one story made it difficult to give each player enough screen time, and also required menaces on a totally different scale.

For this story, Schwartz brought in E. Nelson Bridwell to plot the story, as Bridwell had probably the best working knowledge of the Fawcett heroes, whose adventures he had read as a fan. Julie hedged his bets, though, by having one of his mainstays, Marty Pasko, dialogue the story. In any event, it was always an exciting thing to see a whole bevy of new super heroes–possibly why Schwartz went this route in the first place–and one or two of them i even already knew from the reprint of WHIZ COMICS #2 that DC had issues a few years previously.

The villain of the piece is King Kull, the Beast-Man, an old enemy of the marvel Family. Here, he’s perfected a Torpor-Beam that freezes the gods and heroes of at the Rock of Eternity in time. The only one swift enough to escape is Mercury, and at the mental urging of SHAZAM, he journeys to Earth-1 and Earth-2 to assemble a team of heroes to thwart King Kull. Mercury only absconds with select heroes, though–he takes green Arrow but leaves Black Canary behind, for no adequately-explained reason. But hey, he’s a god, I’m sure he knows what he’s doing.

In addition to five Justice Leaguers and special guest Hawkgirl and six JSAers, including the Earth-2 Batman out of retirement for this caper, Mercury also brings together all of the other heroes of what is now labeled Earth-S (for SHAZAM, of course!) The JLA and JSA have no idea who these new guys are, so we get this nice splash image that recounts their stories and backgrounds–both for the readers and for the other heroes.

For reasons that are unclear, the assembled heroes split up into three groups and head out to three separate destinations–all except Johnny Thunder, to whom Mercury gives a special, secret mission. On Earth-2, Superman and the Earth-2 Wonder Woman journey to Atlantis, where they encounter Earth-2′s evil Queen Clea, who has teamed up for nebulous reasons with the Penguin and Blockbuster from Earth-1 and also IBAC from Earth-S to plunder Atlantis. Despite being outnumbered, Superman and Wonder Woman lay into Clea and Blockbuster while penguin and IBAC take off on their own assignment for King Kull.

IBAC and Penguin are assembling a device given to them by Clea that will supposedly allow her to enslave Atlantis. But just as they complete their work, they are set upon by to other heroes, Green Arrow and Spy Smasher from Earth-S. Green Arrow has no problem kicking the Penguin around, but Spy Smasher is seriously outmatched by IBAC until he’s able to get the villain to speak his own name, the magic word that transforms him back into harmless Stinky Printwhistle.

But the device the two villains constructed has billowed forth a great cloud which, when it passes over a landmass, affects its density, causing it to sink beneath the waves. This is a problem–though not much of one for Superman, who in the space of less than a page freezes the cloud with his super-breath and hurls it into a passing comet, thus saving Earth-2. Elsewhere, King Kull fumes, but indicates that he can still have his revenge on Earths 1 and S–and that’s where things leave off this installment. It’s a lot of fighting and explaining who characters are, but the plot mechanics don’t really make a whole lot of sense–why are Clea, penguin, Blockbuster and IBAC down with King Kull’s program and how did they all get brought together? Still, it was a fun issue.

The cartoon had been airing on Saturday mornings for about three years at this point, constantly rerunning the same 16 episodes again and again, but in 1976 DC finally got around to doing a comic book tie-in. And because of the characters it featured, I bought the first issue. I was a regular viewer of the cartoon, especially happy whenever the episode guest-starring The Flash would turn up in the rotation. But even at nine years old, I already viewed it a bit as “kiddie stuff”, especially as compared to the comic books it was based on. So it was with a little bit of embarrassment on my part that I sampled the comic book, Vinnie Colletta’s hasty inks on Ernie Chua/Chan’s cover not helping things in the slightest.

Things didn’t get much better art-wise on the interior. It’s obvious that the team was trying to mimic the open look of an animated cartoon, but as compared to the other titles starring Superman and company, this stuff just looked crude and coloring book-y to my young eyes. At different points, SUPER FRIENDS was a pretty good comic book, better than the contemporary JUSTICE LEAGUE title in many folks’ opinions. But I just could never get past this approach to embrace it whole-heartedly. I felt like I was slumming somehow simply by reading it–a phenomenon that continues to this day among fans and certain titles.

A lot of the reason for the success of the series has to go to writer E. Nelson Bridwell. Nelson was DC’s unofficial historian, with a love of DC’s past and an encyclopedian working knowledge of the stories of days ago. All of which he brought to bear on this new assignment. The issue opens in the Hall of Justice, where Robin is giving trapeze lessons to the junior Super Friends Wendy and Marvin. Elsewhere, we see that five super-villains have adopted their own young proteges and are training them in villainy so as to battle the Super Friends. Along with more familiar faces, Bridwell includes the more obscure Flying Fish among the bad guys.

The villains are after the components of Project SR, an attempt to create a super-powerful robot weapon. Splitting up in response to the Troubalert, the Super Friends race to combat their foes. Supeman and Robin join forces to take on Toyman and Poison Ivy at Robin’s college Hudson University, but their efforts are stymied by Toyboy and Honeysuckle and the villains get away empty handed.

Aquaman is similarly stymied by Sardine when he intercedes in the Flying Fish’s attempt to swipe the robot’s super-metal from a laboratory in Atlantis. And Wonder Woman and Batman journey to the Eagle’s Nest, a mountaintop laboratory where they battle Penguin and Cheetah and are countered by Kitten and Chick. But they’ve brought Wendy, Marvin and Wonder Dog along with them, and the kids tackle the villains’ proteges when they try to make a run for it. 

Good-hearted, Wendy and Marvin take the two junior Super-Villains back to the Hall of Justice hoping that seeing how the other half lives will get them to roll on their sinister role models. Bridwell uses this opportunity to specify that the Hall isn’t the headquarters of the JLA–that’s still the Satellite–but it’s rather a place where young crimefighters are to be trained. Unfortunately, that won’t include Chick and Kitten, who radio back to the Penguin that everything is going according to plan. Wonder sees Chick place the call, but being a dog, he can’t speak and warn the kids. And that’s where the issue leaves off.

Bridwell also writes the issue’s text page, where he speaks about the development of the series, both the cartoon and now this adaptation. He reminds readers that he wrote the short story in the SUPER FRIENDS treasury Edition a year or two earlier, and that makes me think that perhaps that Treasury sold well enough to encourage DC to do this book as a follow-up. Nelson also digs deep into DC history to create connections between Wendy and Marvin and the heroes who mentor them, notably Batman and Wonder Woman, and gives them what would become their canonical last names, Wendy Harris and Marvin White.

I had just begun third grade when I bought this SUPER-FRIENDS treasury edition. And it represented a bit of a leap on my part. As much as I watched it every Saturday morning, I felt that Super-Friends was more kiddie than the regular comics I’d been reading, and thus somehow beneath my level as a sophisticated child of 8. Buying JUSTICE LEAGUE was respectable, buying SUPER-FRIENDS marked one as juvenile. Hey, this strange disguised self-loathing is something that almost all comic book fans go through at some point.

The book opens with a new framing sequence written by DC’s keeper-of-history E. Nelson Bridwell and illustrated by Alex Toth, the genius cartoonist who was also doing storyboards on the animated series. Toth’s cartoony, stripped-down work wasn’t for everybody, particularly among the young–it looked too overtly simple. Seemingly agreeing, the Powers-That-Be at DC swapped in a Curt Swan head on Superman’s shoulders on the cover. This despite the fact that more people were being exposed to Toth’s version of Superman on Saturday mornings than would ever read this book. 

But the real reason I took the plunge and purchased this Special (or, actually, had it purchased for me) was that the guts of the book featured a pair of reprinted Justice League stories. In the first, when Green Arrow mysteriously quits the Justice League, his teammates all attempt to work out why by disguising themselves as the Masked Archer. One by one they battle their own foes in the guise of the expert marksman, and one by one they are defeated, and then are transformed into the likenesses of their foes and jailed.

It’s the work of the League’s old foe Doctor Destiny, but it’s foiled by the real Green Arrow. Along the way, the entire League takes on their assembled foes in a big double-spread that was particularly effective at Treasury edition size.

A second classic story follows more Super-Friends shenanigans, as the League comes together to inspire a group of disabled youngsters. They arrange a staged battle with Batman who has been transformed into a creature for the performance, but in succession each Leaguer is himself afflicted with a handicap that parallels one of the kids they’ve been showing off for.

It’s the work of the League’s nemesis Brain-Storm, who has also broken his brother Fred out of jail. Despite their new limitations, the afflicted League members defeat Brain-Storm and are restored. But the villain still has a card to play. He uses his stellar helmet to transform the Leaguers first into duplicates of himself, and then into duplicates of each other. Batman leads the rest of the team against these duplicate villains, doping out which one is the genuine Brain-Storm so that they can subdue him and rescue their colleagues.

And then events segue back to the Hall of Justice for a brief wrap-up with the Super-Friends and their young friends and ubiquitous dog. Bridwell packed the framing sequence with all sorts of lore about the JLA–he certainly didn’t see any difference between the “legitimate” comic book Justice League and its Super-Friends counterpart, as he’d prove later on when he wrote the SUPER-FRIENDS tie-in comic book series.

Finally, Toth himself closes out the Treasury with a ten-page text-heavy behind-the-scenes feature on how animated cartoons such as Super-Friends are made. This section is chock-a-block packed with essential information for would-be cartoonists and animators, but I found it difficult to digest and get through–partially a product of my age, and partially due to Toth’s sometimes difficult-to-parse prose.