Wednesday, April 4, 2012

You say Metalo; I say Metallo

In a few weeks, we’re going to begin a periodic look at some of the Superman and Superboy stories of the mid to late 1950s, a time when Mort Weisinger was the editor of the books and—to keep the character fresh—ordered the writers to introduce a new element to Superman’s mythology every six months or so.

One of the issues we’ll eventually be looking at is Action Comics #252 (May 1959), which is most important for the introduction of Supergirl, but also contained the origin of a second-tier Superman villain: Metallo, the cyborg with a Kryponite heart.

But, before we dive into the Weisinger era, I wanted to examine one of those minor and largely meaningless coincidences that I tend to enjoy so much. Seventeen years before he fought Metallo, Superman fought Metalo.

It happened in World’s Finest Comics #6 (Summer 1942). Eventually World’s Finest would become the venue for a monthly Superman/Batman team-up, but at the time it still featured the two heroes in separate stories.

In the Superman tale, someone steals a train. He doesn’t rob a train, he steals it—picking up the huge vehicle and flying away with it.

At first, everyone (except Lois and Clark) suspect Superman has gone bad. After all, who else could possibly have the power to perform such a feat?

But soon, the perpetrator turns up again, this time stealing an ocean liner that’s carrying a gold shipment. It turns out to apparently be a robot, who calls himselt Metalo. The two Men of Steel fight, but Metalo gets away. He later demands a ransom paid by the businessmen of Metropolis to keep him from destroying the city.

This leads—to the surprise of absolutely no one—to Lois Lane getting kidnapped. But Superman tracks down Metalo and his gang—first to a circus headquarters, then to a mountain hideout. The “robot” turns out to be an evil scientist in an indestructible suit. After another fight, Metalo falls into a pit of lava. Superman thinks he’s destroyed, but he actually fell on a ledge and vows revenge.

Reading this story makes me wonder if—seventeen years later—either Mort Weisinger or writer Robert Bernstein remembered this minor villain and re-used the name to create a new sort-of-a-robot villain in Metallo. Perhaps Jerry Siegel, who I believe was back writing for DC by this time, mentioned Metalo in a story conference.

But I think it likely Metalo had simply been forgotten by 1959. The name (regardless of whether you use one L or two) has a real comic book rhythm to it, so it’s not surprising that separate variations of it might arise for different robotic villains.

Whatever the case, Metalo has faded into obscurity (though he did make a return appearance in 1982 in Superman Family 217), while Metallo is still a part of the Superman mythos even after several recent and annoyingly frequent reboots. That’s not surprising—the concept of Metallo having a Kryptonite heart is pretty gosh-darn cool. Whereas a guy in a metal suit—while perfectly adequate as a one-shot villain—doesn’t have the same nifty vibe.

By the way, it’s possible that the 1942 Metalo story was a partial inspiration for a 1946 story arc in “The Adventures of Superman” radio show. In that story, a circus strongman manages to fake super powers while wearing a Superman suit and committing robberies. The “It must have been Superman” plot device and the use of a circus provide us with some circumstantial evidence.

Anyway, we’ll be looking forward every so often to the era in which Metallo (the two-L version) was created. Rather than cover these issues chronologically, we’ll look at them thematically. I’m going to divide the stories we examine into the following categories:

  1. Kryptonians and Krypton (Supergirl, Kandor, Phantom Zone villains, etc)

  1. Superpets (Not all of them were Kryptonian, you know.)

  1. The Daily Planet (a few key stories involving Lois or Jimmy)

  1. The Fortress of Solitude

  1. Villains (Lex, Braniac, Metallo, etc.)

  1. The Legion of Superheroes.

I think that will cover the important stuff. If any thinks of any elements of the Man of Steel’s mythology that I’ve left out, please leave a comment.

We will be continuing the chronological look at the best of 1960s/early 1970s Marvel comics. But, in addition to interspersing discussions of random classic comic stories that simply catch my eye, we’ll also be examining these Superman stories from time to time.

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