I have read a lot of funnybooks over the past forty-three years, enough to lodge a substantial number of stories, panels, and characters into the hazy periphery of my memory. There’s nothing remarkable about that in and of itself, but I am baffled by what my subconscious has selected to retain. I’m not talking about significant moments from from works such as Watchmen, Crisis on Infinite Earths, and the like, but weird random stuff that bubbles up unbidden while I’m performing some mundane task — stuff like DC Comics Presents #21 (May 1980):
DC Comics Presents — along with the similarly themed Brave and the Bold and Marvel Team-Up — was heavily represented in the polybagged three-packs which formed the nucleus of my early comics fandom. Their “flagship hero plus rotating cast of guest stars” served as a brilliant introduction into the larger realm of shared superhero universes and the characters which inhabited them. (Fun fact: My enduring love for Jack of Hearts can be traced back to his appearance alongside the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing in an old issue of Marvel Two-In-One.)
Ralph Dibney the Elongated Man, who filled this issue’s supporting slot, had been previously known to me as the faux Plastic Man who served as a less than prominent backbencher in the Justice League. This was the story that brought me up to speed about the character’s pertinent details while spooking the living shit out of my impressionable tweener self.
“The Alien Epidemic” began with a harried Clark Kent prepping his typewriter to beat a tight deadline, only to find a feverishly delusional Elongated Man tangled up inside the reporter’s Smith-Corona. Unsure what to make of the Stretchable Sleuth’s weird facial blotches and bizarre rambling, Kent switched into his Super-duds and whisked his afflicted fellow Leaguer off to the Fortress of Solitude for proper medical care.
Once there, Ralph experiences the fever-induced spaz attack featured on the issue’s cover, knocking over the statues of Superman’s dead parents and a flagon of super-toxic “molecular acid” that requires some super-quick thinking by the Man of Steel to contain before it causes further catastrophe.
With the dramatic distraction settled, Superman turns his attention to Ralph’s strange affliction, which he treats with a whopping dose of “Kryptonian antibiotics” and eight panels of static, caption-propelled melodrama.
Once Ralph has recovered enough to slam a short-stack of griddle cakes in the Fortress’s compact kitchenette, he embarks on a seven-page flashback aimed at serving both Superman and readers a ripe slice of backstory.
During a road trip through New England with his devoted (and extremely patient) wife Sue, Ralph stopped over at a sleepy Connecticut town where the residents are all rocking unusual skin blotches and exhibiting extremely weird behavior. Ralph — who had apparently never read anything written by Stephen King — chugged a double-dose of his stretch power-granting Gingold soft drink and decided to investigate further, parting with his wife under the shroud of darkness and some Heavy Duty Foreshadowing.
It didn’t take long for Ralph to discover the source of the oddness — a cabal of aliens who use a tailored virus to assimilate other species and conquer their planets. Their first subject was the town’s general practitioner, transformed by the organism into a puffy purple approximation of his unearthly overlords.
He did retain his signature pince nez and sweater vest, because I don’t know how you city folk gene-twisted into an alien vanguard go about things, but we have standards here in Turner Falls.
Ralph tried to put the rubber to the foes, but was promptly smacked down, shot up with a syringe full of the virus, and left lying on the waiting room floor next to a scattered pile of American Bass Fisherman and Highlights issues. The first flush of the fever upon him, he returned to his wife…
…who’d received her own puffy purple makeover, thanks to a plot twist that had been brazenly telegraphed three pages previous. From there, he somehow staggered to Metropolis, where he curled up in Clark Kent’s typewriter and — hey, look at that, the story has fully lapped itself!
Superman and the fully-recovered Ralph sensibly agree that something probably ought to be done about the alien infestation. A quick scan of the Fortress’s comm feeds reveals that the epidemic has gone global, the JLA Satellite has gone dark, and the only things standing in the way of humanity’s extinction are Earth’s Adopted Champion and the Dude With a Silly Putty Body. (Ever carry an underleveled scrub through an endgame raid in a MMO? That’s Superman’s life, 24/7.)
The pair of heroes track the alien leaders to their landing site for a final confrontation. When Superman gets seemingly incapacitated by a swarm of giant “Kryptonite-laced” spores (which resemble nothing as much as a cluster of moldy cheese curls), the Elongated Man steps up and handily trounces the invaders.
The victory appears Pyrrhic at first, as heroes cannot find a cure for the transformation virus among the aliens’ effects.
Then Superman remembers that he managed to cure Ralph.
Then he uses his super-vision to check in and discover Jimmy Olsen — who used Gingold to become Elastic Lad — has also shaken off the illness.
Then Ralph points out that many people are allergic to Gingold.
Then Superman points out that the cure is in the part of the formula that doesn’t cause the allergy.
Then they agree to whip a huge batch and spread it around the globe where it will “hopefully” return things to normal in a week — a week where puffy purple alien mutates are running around burning stuff and have control of the world’s nuclear stockpiles.
High five, freeze frame, roll credits.
The above sequence took place across three text-jammed panels, for the record, with enough room to plug the following issue’s team up with Captain Comet.
Even back then, I knew this story was riddled with more holes than a spaghetti strainer, but it still dug its hooks into me. The core concept is solid enough, and the type of thing you’d associate with Warren Ellis’s or Grant Morrison’s sci-fi stuff. Here, though, it suffered from DC’s unsteady and prolonged transition from Silver to Bronze Age narrative tropes. You can feel the writer’s ambition straining against the boundaries, but institutional traditions can be a hard habit to break.
I first read it at a time when I was suffering through recurring bouts of the flu. It’s tough enough to go through as a adult. As a kid, it felt like an unending nightmare of high fevers, chest congestion, the shakes, and a whole lot of sitting on the couch bundled up in a blanket. My mom, being a mom, brought me things to read while I was laid up — a three pack of comics including the above tale and a Ray Bradbury anthology with a story about a boy getting devoured by a sentient virus.
I’m not saying it permanently traumatized me. Checking for purple blotches whenever I feel a cold coming on is simply good health sense, after all.
(DC Comics Presents #21, May 1980; by Gerry Conway, Joe Staton and F. Chiaramonte)