One of my all-time favorite stories was a four-issue run of DC Comics Presents #27 through 29 & 36. When I started this blog, this was the first storyline I thought of reviewing. In this story we get the very first appearance of Mongul (pre-Crisis), and the first time I’d read a Bronze-age story featuring J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter. Plus, it was one of the few multi-issue stories I can remember reading from that time. Most comics were “done in one” or at most a two parter. I’m sure there are plenty of exceptions, but I had little money then and could only buy three or four comics a month. Anyway, I probably picked this comic up because of the previous issue, which was the team up between Superman and Green Lantern (it was also the one with the special preview of the upcoming New Teen Titans monthly). I must have liked it well enough that I looked for the next month’s issue on the newsstand (go look it up kiddies), and I ended up buying the next two issues (plus an sequel of sorts). To start off, let’s examine issue #27.
DC Comics Presents #27 featured Superman (duh) and the Manhunter from Mars in a story titled “The Key that Unlocked Chaos!”. Poor J’onn. He goes by three names in this story. The titular Manhunter from Mars from the cover (Aside: did DC really use that moniker for the character in his appearances? It seems rather cumbersome, not to mention it would not be used in continuity, so why bother with it? Perhaps it’s like the whole Shazam! business, minus the copyright infringement.), and Superman calls him “J’onn J’onzz–the Martian Manhunter”. (Aside #2: I’ve always hated when characters speak “editorial”. You know, when characters say something so that we, the audience, know it, but would sound totally ridiculous if those characters actually said those things? In this case, why wouldn’t Superman simply say, “J’onn?!”) Also, after thirty years (at that time), DC couldn’t come up with a better superhero name for J’onn? But I digress.
This issue was written by Len Wein (whom I would come to know as the editor of The New Teen Titans book very shortly), and penciled by Jim Starlin (who I would come to know from his work on the Adam Warlock stories and later Dreadstar) and “Quickdraw”. When I sat down to reread this comic to prepare for this post, that “name” struck me, as in, I don’t think I ever noticed it before. Funny the things that jump out at you when revisiting them. Anyway, “Quickdraw”, according to the Grand Comics Database, was Dick Giordano, Frank McLaughlin, and associates (whoever they are). This explains a lot because I’ve always thought the art was different throughout the issue. If you look at page one, that Superman looks a little different than the Superman on page three, for example.
But let’s look at the cover first. You have Superman standing over J’onn, who looks like he’s in excruciating pain. Superman’s fist is over J’onn’s head, and Superman’s body is twisted in an awkward position, almost as if he’s just defeated J’onn in battle and is turning to face Mongul. Speaking of the bad guy, Mongul is great. Here’s this hulking body with a head that looks glued on the front (he has no neck!), with arms pushed forward and hanging in front of his body and down to his knees. I think this was the first time I’d seen a character drawn like that as well, but I would find is a staple in Starlin’s repertoire. Also, there’s the dialog that pretty much sums up the issue’s plot for us. I looked at the cover gallery for this series and the use of dialog on the cover was pretty prominent, but then, it was a lot more prevalent back when I started reading comics. Finally, I’ve always loved the juxtaposed colors on this cover. You have the blue and red of Superman’s costume immediately behind the big swatch of green that is J’onn. For whatever reason, that combination of colors on this cover has always appealed to me.
The story opens with in medias res with Mongul intruding into Clark Kent’s apartment right at the moment that Superman has changed into his working clothes. Mongul, it seems, requires Superman’s assistance, to which Superman replies, “I’m Superman–not some errand boy!” This conceit comes into play later, and is one of the reasons I like this story (more later). But Mongul’s thought of this reaction and compels Superman to act because Mongul has abducted Lois, Jimmy, and Steve Lombard. Ok, I understand Lois and Jimmy, sure, but Steve Lombard?! If I remember correctly, Steve at that time was basically like how they are portraying him now in Superman: Secret Origin: loud and obnoxious, especially to Clark. During this exchange, Starlin shows Mongul from the side, only this time, his massive arms are thrown back behind the alien and his head sits more atop Mongul’s body, all of which runs contrary to the cover image. Granted, I’m no artist, but that seems like a very silly oversight that should have been corrected. So, Superman reluctantly agrees and heads to New Mars to pick up the crystal key that Mongul wants. As Superman heads out of the solar system, he thinks,
There’s that conceit again.
Superman arrives on a planet in the New Mars system and immediately is confronted by a belligerent J’onn. J’onn mentions the long-standing friendship between them, but he still doesn’t want Superman there. When Superman asks, J’onn gives him (and us) a two-page history lesson that introduces Warworld, a huge planet that is a weapon. Warworld now sits unoccupied but defended by the very weapons on the planet, and only the key Mongul wants will allow him to access Warworld. J’onn ends the history lesson with the proclamation that he is sworn to protect the key. And again Superman gets on his high horse: “I understand your position, J’onn and I sympathize. But don’t forget whom you’re talking to here! I’m Superman, remember?” Of course, this leads to a four-page fight scene between the two that ends with J’onn being defeated by a punch so powerful that drives J’onn into the ground (he is Superman after all ;-).
Superman gets the key, and Mongul arrives to retrieve it. At first, Superman balks (then why did he go through with this in the first place?), but then Mongul starts to kill his abductees. Despite this, all three of them agree that Superman should let them die “to save the universe!” How very noble of them. Superman resigns himself to letting his friends die for the greater good when Mongul’s chest controls shatter and Lois, Jimmy, and Steve are released. Mongul then blasts Superman with some powerful eye beams and then picks up the key. J’onn becomes visible and let’s Mongul know it was he that freed Mongul’s captives. J’onn then attacks Mongul intending to defeat him once again, but Mongul teleports away with the key.
J’onn is understandably upset and berates Superman: “you were just too overconfident–too egotistical–to listen!” Superman replies, “I–I thought I could deal with it!”
The issue ends with Superman declaring that he would recover the key “or die trying!”
As I mentioned, I liked, and still do, the overconfident and prideful depiction of Superman in this story. It was so different from the humble but confident Man of Steel I’d read in other titles at that time. This attitude of Superman’s made/makes sense to me. If I had those powers I’d feel like I could do just about anything. And I’m surprised that editor Julie Schwartz allowed this, though I have no information one way or the other regarding that. It just seems odd that DC editorial would allow a somewhat negative depiction of their flagship character. Regardless, I’m glad I could read that take on the character.
Looking back on this issue now, though, I see some flaws. J’onn mentions how he defeated Mongul before, which caused Mongul to “recruit” Superman, yet Mongul is able to blast Superman to the ground and hurt him, so why did Mongul need Superman again? If Mongul can take out Superman in that way, couldn’t he do it to J’onn? Plus, it seemed very easy for Mongul to ascertain Superman’s secret identity and capture Superman’s friends, so are we really to believe that Mongul couldn’t get something on J’onn? Not to mention the open secret that is J’onn’s weakness: fire. Really? Just how did J’onn defeat Mongul in the first place (especially since Mongul punches J’onn away and then teleports to safety)? Finally, if J’onn was sworn to protect the key, why doesn’t he accompany Superman in the retrieval mission (well, besides the obvious: the next issue features a Supergirl team-up)? I know, I’m thinking too logically about it. :)
Next on Retro Review: DC Comics Presents #28, part two of the story where Superman gets some super help from his cousin.