The “Golden Age of Comicbooks” ended with National Periodical Publishing (a.k.a. “DC Comics”) having a virtual lock on the superhero comics market. It was a victory by default, unhealthy made possible by the marketability of a handful of popular high-profile characters whose appeal (and licensing revenue) remained even as the readers’ appetites for such material waned.
The apathy (and fear of litigation) of its publishing rivals allowed DC to retain and expand upon its dominance of the genre, physician which saw the both introduction of new superheroic IPs and Space Age revisions of fallow Golden Age ones. It wasn’t until Martin Goodman’s publishing group decided to launch a “will-they-or-won’t-they-sue-us” trial balloon in 1961 — a modest little offering titled Fantastic Four — that DC faced its first serious superheroic rival in the better part of a decade. While DC retained overall market dominance, Marvel’s humanistic-melodramatic approach to the genre proved to be a paradigm-shifting hit with readers and gained fans outside the genre’s traditional kid-oriented demographic.
Marvel’s success in the superheroic realm encouraged several other publishers to follow suit, a process which kicked into overdrive after the 1966 debut of the Batman TV series unleashed a popular (if short-lived) mania for capes, cowls, and improbable sound effects. Despite a few rare flashes of inspiration and quality (Wally Wood’s THUNDER Agents stuff, some of Steve Ditko’s efforts for Charlton), these efforts crashed and burned as such efforts to ride the trend bubble invariably do.
The mercenary aspect to most of these efforts to cash in on the superhero craze didn’t help things, either. For a genre which has long been held as the immature sibling of the funnybook family, superhero material — good superhero material — is tricky to do, and this was especially true after folks like Stan Lee and Roy Thomas raised the bar in terms of audience expectations.
In their quest to part the tykes of America from their pennies and dimes, these bandwagon-jumpers never stopped to ponder the reasons behind DC’s or Marvel’s success (or, in the case of the Mighty Comics, drew all the wrong conclusions), and the results tended to be as unreadable as they were utterly, blandly generic…
…and few were as generic — in title or execution — as Dell’s short-lived Superheroes series from 1967. Written by Dell editor Don Arneson and illustrated by comics industry vet Sal Trapiani, the series featured the exploits of the Fab 4.
These “AMAZING NEW HEROES OF SCIENCE” (the cover’s words, not mine) were a group of plucky teenagers –
Tom, Dan, token girl Polly, and token peckerwood caricature Reb –
– who were visiting Dell’s “Hall of Heroes” museum when a mad scientist-created “incident” at the nuclear reactor next door transferred the kids’ minds into the super-powered android bodies of the publisher’s latest creations. (I’m not a some fancy-pants funnybook biz bigwig, but it seems that Dell would have been better served if it had scaled back its cybernetic superweapon budget and sunk those funds into hiring better artists and writers.)
El! He has laser powers! Hy! The junior apprentice of sound! Crispy! He makes shit cold! (Yes, I know.) Polymer Polly! She’s…uh…well…frictionless and burn resistant.
After mastering the art of human-android body transferrence, the team set out to battle the forces of evil — mostly consisting of awkwardly constructed robots, disgruntled clowns (a redundant turn of phrase, I know), Nepto the Shark-Man, and the sinister Mr. Nutt…
…a malevolent Frank Gerhy (a redundant turn of phrase, I know) wannabe who issued commands to his Dali-esque army of robots through a giant talking eyeball. This valiant crusade took them through four issues of oddly-blocked action scenes and even odder dialogue which make Grant Morrison’s The Filth seem like Hi and Lois in comparison.
Following the final issue of Superheroes‘ short run, the members of the Fab 4 began to drift apart, largely due to El’s dismissal of Hy’s sonic work as being “granny shit.” The differences would eventually lead to the group’s dissolution just prior to the release of their penultimate album, Abbey Road.
Hold on. I may have mixed up my research notes there.
Even without the presence of Billy Preston on keys, the fact remains that Dell’s Superheroes is a shoddily assembled artifact intended to take financial advantage of a shortlived mania, but was destined right off of the presses to wind up as this week’s Nobody’s Favorite.