DC Comics History: Metamorpho (1964 - 1967: The New Look)
By Deejay Dayton
March 29, 2020 - 06:06
Metamorpho, who made his debut during the period 1964 – 1967: the New Look, would have a very different feel to any of the other DC heroes at the time. For one thing, the character was intentionally hideous, and Rex Mason had no interest in remaining in his powered form, just wanting to return to being a normal man again. Rex was an adventurer and explorer, and even referred to as a "soldier of fortune," although in this story that does not seem to mean he was a mercenary. Bob Haney scripted the character’s offbeat adventures, and his distinctive visuals were created by Ramona Fradon and Charles Paris.
Metamorpho debuted in Brave and the Bold 57. He is in the employ of Simon Stagg, and dating the man's daughter, Sapphire. Simon is none too keen on Rex, and wants to get the man away from Sapphire. Stagg has a caveman whose brain he has improved, slightly, named Java in his employ. Stagg sends Java and Rex to retrieve the Orb of Ra from the pyramid tomb of Ank-Ton, while Java secretly has orders to trap Rex there. Once they find the orb, Java turns on Rex and knocks him out, leaving the pyramid. Rex takes an experimental drug to help him, but passes out next to a meteor from which the orb was created. When he wakes, he has transformed into Metamorpho. The story somewhat implies that the drug factored into this change, and possibly because of that, most later renderings of this origin skip the pill, and just deal with the meteor.
In his Metamorpho form, Rex is able to shape change, and become any mineral found in the human body. He returns to Stagg's place, ready to kill, and takes down Java. Stagg discovers that the Orb of Ra can weaken, and possibly kill, Metamorpho, so has a way of holding him off. Stagg makes the deal to try to find a way to cure Rex. Sapphire talks Metamorpho into using his new powers as a force for good, until her father can find a cure. One particularly effective element of the Metamorpho series is that, with Simon Stagg and Java around, there were built-in villains, who could be part of every story, even if they were not the driving antagonist.
Metamorpho completes his tryout run in Brave and the Bold 58. This second story is far more like how his series would become. Rex Mason desperately tries to resume his normal life, even putting on a fake skin to be able to pass. He enters a race, but winds up having to use his powers to prevent his car from crashing. Sapphire still loves him, no matter how he looks. Metamorpho gets kidnapped and brought to the junkyard workshop of madman Maxwell Tremaine. Maxwell wants Metamorpho to help repair a number of his weapons, but Metamorpho will have no part of it, so Maxwell starts using them to try to kill him. Simon Stagg, Sapphire and Java follow Rex, and get into the middle of the action, largely just needing to be rescued. The whole story is really just an excuse for page after page of astonishing visuals by Fradon and Paris, as Rex takes on all manner of forms to defeat and the destroy the bizarre weapons that Tremaine keeps trying to kill him with.
A couple of months after his introductory run in Brave and the Bold, Metamorpho moves into his own book, with a full length story by Bob Haney, Ramona Fradon and Charles Paris. Fradon gave such a unique look to the Metamorpho series. Rex Mason is trying to live a normal life, with an artificial skin that makes him look really creepy, and as this story begins goes out for what he hopes will be a normal dinner with Sapphire Stagg. But as they head home after, they come across a bank robbery. Metamorpho goes into action to stop it, and discovers that the thieves are using a special electrical cable as a power supply, which Metamorpho destroys. The cable was created by a scientist who used to work for Simon Stagg. He already wanted vengeance against Stagg, but Metamorpho screwing up his plans eggs him on even more. The villain learns that Stagg is working on a machine to turn Metamorpho back into a human.
He tries to destroy it, but just winds up turning himself into an energy creature. The irony is that Stagg has no intention of curing Metamorpho. His servant, Java, actually winds up working with the villain, and is partly responsible for the accident that transforms him. In most Metamorpho stories, Stagg and Java are as much villains as whoever Metamorpho is actually fighting. Fradon just goes wild with the shape changing elemental hero, as he tries to stop the crazed energy being. The villain turns Java into a fossil before Metamorpho and Stagg create a nuclear device to destroy him. Metamorpho becomes the fissionable material to power the device, and appears to die in the blast as well. As the story ends, Stagg gathers up what he can of Metamorpho, and carts off Java as well, intending to restore both of them. It's almost like the ending of a Metal Men story!
Metamorpho 2 picks up from the ending of the first issue. As Sapphire Stagg looks on, Simon Stagg plunges the fossilized Java into a tank to revive him, and puts the remains of Metamorpho into a more complex contraption that succeeds in restoring him. Just in time, too, as the government comes to ask for Metamorpho's aid in stopping some Eastern European criminals who have taken control of the new Telstar satellite, and are using it to pull off crimes. Since Metamorpho does not need oxygen, they get him to act as the nosecone for a rocket, and shoot him up to the satellite to take control of it. Java tags along, although he does little to change the situation when the bad guys see this, and pull the satellite and the two men back to Earth. The son of the major villain has fallen in love with Sapphire Stagg, even though he hasn't met her, which at least gets Sapphire into the plot. The son kidnaps Sapphire and runs off, while the father sets off a doomsday device to kill everyone. Quite the charming family. Metamorpho manages to rescue his fiancee, and destroy the doomsday device.
Simon Stagg's interest in a younger woman leads the gang into trouble in Metamorpho 3. The plot for this one is quite complicated. The villain, Turnbull, has an elaborate base in the Grand Canyon. He has discovered a new element, from outer space, which he has named Staggium, in honour, supposedly, of Simon Stagg. His real plan is to lure Stagg to his base, and is perfectly willing to dangle his evil daughter as bait, which draws the lustful old man, who brings along Metamorpho, Sapphire, and Java with him. While the daughter romances Stagg, and keeps him out of the way, Java's own interest in Sapphire prevents him from stopping Turnbull as he releases the Thunderbird, a robot made of Staggium. Staggium has the property of weakening Metamorpho, and enough of it could kill him, so Metamorpho has a hard time dealing with the Thunderbird.
With the hero out of the way, Turnbull moves to the main part of his plan, taking over the US by threatening it with a battery of missiles. The US army is so reliant on Metamorpho that they are prepared to just give in. Metamorpho leads the Thunderbird to where the army are, and they destroy it with their tanks. Then Metamorpho takes out the missile base. Turnbull then tries to hold the Staggs and Java hostage, but his native helper turns against him, after standing around looking displeased for much of the issue. This lets Sapphire and Simon himself take out the villainous father and daughter.
Ramona Fradon ends her run on Metamorpho with issue 4. The story begins with a lovers spat between Metamorpho and Sapphire Stagg. She wants to marry her long time fiancee, but Rex insists on waiting till her father cures him of being Metamorpho. Something Simon Stagg has no intention whatsoever of doing. Sapphire decides to break things off with Rex. Java is excited about this at first, thinking that Sapphire will finally return his affection, but instead she starts running around with other men, including a wealthy Mexican playboy, Cha-Cha Chavez. Everyone winds up joining Cha-Cha and Sapphire on a cruise down south, but Metamorpho discovers the ship is really transporting weapons. The story winds up going political, with Chavez supporting a dictator, El Lupo, while Metamorpho and Simon Stagg take the side of the rebels. Sapphire remains oblivious to these machinations until the end of the tale. Metamorpho winds up having to fight a bull with explosives on its horns, and triumphs, to the delight of the crowd. Sapphire finally clues in to Chavez's evil deeds, and re-unites with Metamorpho as the story ends.
Metamorpho 5 deals with a crackpot inventor, Edifice K. Bulwark, who gets Simon Stagg interested in constructing his chemical skyscrapers. Metamorpho would be needed to build them, but the hero refuses, as other scientists, and even the media, are sure the buildings would be deadly disasters. Stagg pulls out the Orb of Ra, which hasn't been seen since this series began. Credited with turning Rex Mason into Metamorpho, Stagg uses it to transform Bulkwark into a second element man. Even Sapphire Stagg cannot tell the two men apart, and Bulwark uses his powers to build his changeable chemical skyscraper. It begins to malfunction immediately, and though Bulwark is able to use his powers to save Stagg, Sapphire and Java from an elevator crash, the real Metamorpho winds up going into action when the skyscraper begins attacking other buildings. Bulwark wants to defend his structure, so it becomes a battle between the element men. Metamorpho defeats Bulwark, and then destroys the dangerous skyscraper. Stagg's process for transforming Bulwark turns out to be temporary, and he returns to human form at the end of the story.
As the cover of Metamorpho 6 promises, the story opens as Metamorpho melts down and steals the Eiffel Tower, and then goes into an extended flashback to show how this wound up coming about. Simon Stagg, his daughter Sapphire, Metamorpho and Java went off on a European vacation, and Stagg hit the casinos. He winds up wagering, and losing, Metamorpho in a bet with Achille LeHeel. Metamorpho is none too keen on being "lost" in a bet, and when LeHeel orders him to steal the Eiffel Tower, he refuses. LeHeel then takes Stagg hostage, forcing Metamorpho to steal not only the Tower, but also the Taj Mahal. Stagg escapes, with information on his body (literally) of LeHeel's criminal dealings, and then gets captured again, along with Sapphire. Metamorpho has to work with both Java and Stagg to bring down LeHeel. This is a bit more like a "normal" super hero story, I suppose, which might be why I enjoy it a bit more. Metamorpho stories do tend towards weirdness for the sake of weirdness.
Metamorpho and the Metal Men are brought together in Brave and the Bold 66, an interesting pairing that works very well. Metamorpho is losing patience with Simon Stagg, who never comes up with a cure for him. He decides to go see the Metal Men, to see if Will Magnus would have any more luck turning him back into a human. Sapphire Stagg is worried about what might happen, but Metamorpho has no time for her concerns. Magnus has some ideas, and sends the Metal Men out to gather various substances he needs for his experiment. While doing this, Lead gets attacked by Professor Borian, a scientist who had spent many years trapped on a deserted island. When he came back to civilization he proudly displayed his new invention, which happened to be lamer looking versions of the Metal Men. He had no idea that Magnus has been developing the same thing. Now he is consumed by the desire for vengeance, and implants in Lead a device that will allow him to control the rest of the team. Magnus is unaware of any of this, and succeeds in turning Metamorpho back into Rex Mason. But then Gold, Platinum, Iron, Mercury and Tin go on the attack. Borian also has plans to kill Simon Stagg. Worried that Sapphire might be in danger, Rex has Magnus turn him back into Metamorpho. The conclusion of the story is wold battle between the shape changing elemental creatures, and makes the most of both the Metal Men and Metamorpho. Of course Borian gets captured, and the story lives up to its potential.
Sal Trapani and Charles Paris take over the art on the Haney story from Metamorpho 7. Fradon's look for the series is still maintained, which is fairly impressive. Simon Stagg heads off for a convention of vulcanologists, but the entire group winds up getting kidnapped, so Metamorpho, Sapphire Stagg and Java head off to find and save him. The main reason I am writing about this story is for the unusual reference to Cave Carson. As Metamorpho and the other enter the volcano where the vulcanologists were meeting, they see some writing on the wall, graffiti of the spelunker hero. Aside from that, this story follows what has become the standard formula for the book, more or less. Metamorpho hunts for Stagg, and finds the one vulcanologist who has not been kidnapped. He is clearly the villain, and Metamorpho suspects that, but still aids him when requested, after a drilling accident opens a hole in the ocean floor. Metamorpho determines that the villain has placed a neutron dissolver at the Earth's core, to cause all manner of disasters on the surface in a kind of conquer/destroy the world plot. Metamorpho finds and destroys the device, and frees Stagg and the other scientists.
Brave and Bold 68 came out when the Batman tv show was at the peak of popularity. There is even an ad for the movie in this issue. The story is meant to capture the mood of the series. It fails. It's truly awful. The Joker, Penguin and Riddler are all working together against Batman, though they begin by each operating separately. They expose Batman to a gas that transforms him into a Bat-Hulk, though the gas does wear off from time to time. Much of the story is meant to evoke laughs by seeing Batman as this hulking, simple minded brute. It fails to do so singularly. In his rational, non Bat-Hulk periods, Batman is aware of his actions, and goes to find Metamorpho, thinking that hero might help him find a cure. Exactly why he thinks this, when Metamorpho is not able to find a cure for his own condition, is far from clear. It doesn't really matter. Metamorpho can't do anything to help him. Bat-Hulk winds up teaming up with the three villains, and Metamorpho now has to battle them all. The couple of pages where Metamorpho faces off against the Bat-Hulk do, at least, have some interesting art. Metamorpho is always reliable for strong visuals. A bolt of lightning winds up curing Batman, and with Metamorpho they round up Joker, Penguin and the Riddler.
Metamorpho finally agrees to marry Sapphire Stagg, despite not having been turned back into Rex Mason, in Metamorpho 10. Java is upset, but even Simon Stagg seems ok with this. Then Element Girl barges into the ceremony, insisting that Metamorpho is needed immediately in order to defeat the evil organization Cyclops, and its leader, the Stingaree. Considering that the first thing Metamorpho and Element Girl do is fly all the way across the Atlantic, it's far from clear why she couldn't wait five more minutes, until the ceremony was completed. But she couldn't. Rex agrees to go with her, which really angers Sapphire. I'd be furious, too. Element Girl, Urania Blackwell, is a secret agent and former lover of the Stingaree, who transformed herself into Element Girl by visiting the same pyramid he did. Since the Orb of Ra was no longer in it, it's not really clear how it managed to change her, though. But whatever, no time for questions as they arrive in a comical looking version of the Netherlands, called Windmill Country.
Metamorpho has more experience in using his powers, so he gets to take the lead as the pair penetrate Cyclops headquarters. Despite the past relationship between Element Girl and Stingaree, there is no sudden change of heart on her side, or betrayal, the way one might expect in this story. So it all plays out in a fairly straightforward way. Element Girl winds up getting killed by Stingaree, or so it seems. Metamorpho manages to prevent Cyclops from flooding Windmill Country, and insists on bringing Element Girl's body back with them. The Staggs have shown up for the conclusion, and Sapphire is even jealous of Element Girl's corpse. Turns out she has good reason to be, as Element Girl will be revived, and continue to be a supporting character for the remainder of the series.
Issue 11 opens in Windmill Country, with Metamorpho insisting on bringing the corpse of Element Girl back to the US with them. Sapphire Stagg is very upset about this, and we learn that Metamorpho did actually develop feelings for Element Girl during their brief time together. They put off the wedding, which pleases Java, while Simon Stagg promises to try to find a way to bring Element Girl back to life. Stagg has no success with that, though, and the rest of the issue deals with a phony alien and his UFO. The villain does manage to capture Metamorpho, and forces Simon Stagg ro reveal the location of a major weapons cache. Then Metamorpho gets free, adopts some crazy forms, and defeats the would-be world conqueror. The story ends with Metamorpho back at the corpse of Element Girl, thinking that there may be no way to bring her back.
Metamorpho 12 begins as Simon Stagg hosts a million dollar competition to find a cure for Metamorpho. We see that Stagg still has no real intention of healing Rex Mason, and is looking for a crackpot with a convincing plan, just to mollify Metamorpho, and keep him under his thumb. Sapphire Stagg and Java are in the issue, but neither does anything other than play their usual roles. We also briefly get to see Element Girl, still lying dead-ish in the lab. The man who Stagg allows to work on a "cure," Zorb, has no real intention of doing so. Instead, his goal is to use Stagg's lab and resources to build a set of element based robots, the Chemo-Robots, who function much like the Metal Men do.
Once the robots are working, Zorb uses them to destroy the Stagg mansion. Metamorpho has to go into action to rescue Stagg, Sapphire and Java. The action then shifts to a university, where Zorb plans to use the robots to steal a "nucleonic moleculizer projector" being developed there. The climax of the story has the robots dressed up as football players, with Metamorpho battling them on the field. The projector is hidden inside the football. It's all fairly silly. As the issue ends, Simon Stagg kicks the football away from Zorb, which causes the projector to be activated.
Metamorpho 13 picks up from the conclusion of the previous issue. Simon Stagg accidentally set off the nucleonic moleculizer projector, which causes Metanorpho's powers to go out of control. Zorb and his Chemo-Robots are able to get the device away from Metamorpho and Stagg, and gets away. Metamorpho and Stagg head back to the lab, in the ruins of the house. Stagg is hoping to revive Element Girl and have her work with them, but by the time they get there, she has come back to life on her own, and taken off. No real reason is given for Element Girl's return to life, aside from the fact that the readers wanted it. This is possibly what inspired Neil Gaiman to make her so unkillable when he brought her character back in Sandman. Anyway, Element Girl heads off to Zorb and offers to join him. She seems to be very aware of everything going on, despite having been dead and all.
She claims to want revenge on Metamorpho for rejecting her. But of course, Metamorpho didn't reject her, he called off the wedding to Sapphire Stagg! But that's ok, Element Girl was lying to Zorb, just to get near him, the robots and the deadly machine. When Metamorpho shows up he is surprised when Element Girl saves him from one of the robots, and then together they take down the robots and Zorb, and retrieve the machine. The story ends with Stagg happily proclaiming that Metamorpho and Element Girl are now a team. Sapphire and Java had only very small roles in this one, and Sapphire is not around when her father makes the proclamation at the end.
Metamorpho continues in the next period, 1967 – 1970: It’s a Happening!
Metamorpho: Brave and the Bold 57, 58, 66, 68 (Dec/Jan 64/65 – Feb/Mar 65, June/July 66, Oct/Nov 66)
Metamorpho 1 – 13 (July/Aug 65 – July/Aug 67)
Next up – Enemy Ace!
Last Updated: May 19, 2020 - 12:25
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