Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Comics Page #2: Showcase Presents The Elongated Man, Vol. 1

DC's Showcase series, like Marvel's Essentials, has been good for re-presenting the classic stories featuring the company's "A-list" characters, but PERFECT for giving the obscure stuff the spotlight. Metamorpho, the Haunted Tank, and now the adventures of Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man. He's never had his own regular book, instead solving crimes in the back of Flash and Detective Comics back when 10 pages was enough to tell a story. Arguably the best actual detective in DC's continuity (or at least the one who spends the most time on being a detective), Ralph Dibny, accompanied by his loving wife Sue ('scuse me, I've got something in my eye...), spent the Sixties travelling cross-country to various fictional simulacra of real cities, his rubbery nose twitching whenever he smelled a mystery, and using his wits and his stretchy body to set things right.

The backstory is simple. As a kid, Ralph Dibny saw an India Rubber Man at a circus and wanted to know what his secret was. Growing up, he tried speaking to various rubber men at various circuses (okay, that sounds kinda dirty- welcome to Silver Age comics), and though they were all mum, he observed that they all drank a soft drink called Gingold. Isolating the main ingredient of the drink- a rare tropical fruit of the same name- he created a potion and drank it down, and found himself with elastic powers. In the first story, he's mistaken for a criminal by the Flash, but the two learn to work together. Within issues of his first appearance, Ralph (who, despite wearing a mask at first, never really bothered to keep his identity a secret- making him unique among DC's heroes at the time) marries socialite Sue Dearborn, and the independently wealthy couple take to rattling around the US, Ralph encountering a new case to solve in every city.

Back in the Sixties, DC still hadn't adopted Marvel's approach of writing heroes with inner and interpersonal conflicts, instead keeping focused on a pulpier "weird dilemma of the month" format. The stories in this volume are, to be sure, formulaic; Ralph and Sue enter a new town, they see something mildly incongruous, Ralph smells a mystery (hence the aforementioned
twitching nose), gives Sue some money to go off shopping and proceeds to unravel the case and fight crooks by hitting them with his knuckles from across the room.

Fortunately, the material and tone are well suited for each other. The more "epic" tales of Superman and the Justice League that I've read from this era sometimes suffered from seemingly arbitrary complications and unnecessarily elaborate ruses that existed only to be explained in the final pages. However, as written by veterans Gardner Fox and John Broome, with crisp art by Carmine Infantino and others (including one by Neal Adams!), the adventures in this volume are clever, sharp, and never too long for their own good. Better yet, they get increasingly surreal as the decade wears on, with goofy hep-cat lingo and some downright freaky uses of the bendy man's powers (the highlight being an ocean sequence where Ralph spies on a boat by swimming near it and periscoping his eyeballs up over the water. God I wish I had a scanner.) There's also a team-up with Batman and Robin, as well as guest shots by Green Lantern and the Atom.

Ralph and Sue have often been likened to Nick and Nora Charles, and though in the unenlightened Silver Age, Sue was mostly sent off shopping while her man did the work, there's enough banter and chemistry between them to make the comparison appropriate. Theirs was a unique relationship in its day, and Sue's spunky personality makes her a notable presence even when she's not doing that much.

With Sue's untimely (and, ultimately, arbitrary) death in the 2004 miniseries IDENTITY CRISIS, fans of the couple have come out of the woodwork (though the happy couple had also previously graced the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire miniseries FORMERLY KNOWN AS THE JUSTICE LEAGUE and I CAN'T BELIEVE IT'S NOT THE JUSTICE LEAGUE, helping to raise their profile). A solicit for an upcoming issue of DC's weekly series 52 hints at a resurrection, but I'm still convinced that may be a bait-and-switch. (Adding insult to injury, Ralph isn't even the Elongated Man anymore, having hung up the tights and thrown out the Gingold in the pit of his depression.) Still, superhero comics are nothing if not cyclical. I have a feeling they'll be reunited eventually. In the meantime, this Showcase volume is a nice intro to a classy, low-key, swinging, and neglected corner of the DC Universe, and at 559 pages it should keep you occupied for a while. Buy it for the sweetness, the nostalgia, and the floating eyeballs.

Grade: B+

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