As I’ve said many a time before, I’m a big fan of the Bob Haney/Jim Aparo Brave and Bold. I’ve long been interested in reading Haney’s Metamorpho — it seemed like, if Haney was brilliant with other people’s characters, what would he do with his own? The hints I had seemed good; multi-colored shape shifting hero; bizarrely coiffed quasi-evil-scientist father-in-law; lovesick prehistoric frenemy; bombshell love interest. What’s not to like?
And there are certainly lots of enjoyable moments in the Showcase Metamorpho volume. Haney’s vertiginous blend of garbled patois, not-quite-hip references, and aphasiac plotting is as enjoyable as ever. I love this Beatles tribute for example, complete with crazed fans and artist Ramona Fraden supplying what I want to think, at least, is a subtle Ringo caricature:
There’s also opportunities for Haney to unleash his mangled Spanglish (Hombre Elemento!) And best of all there’s the Thunderer, the world’s greatest midget one-eyed Galactus parody:
All of which is much appreciated.
And yet…I have to say, while it’s still recognizably Haney in many lovable ways, as a whole it’s not great. I don’t know that I can say that most of it even rises to “good”. Certainly reading the entire thing was more a chore than a pleasure. Even the Thunderer issue wasn’t as much fun as I was hoping.
So what’s the problem? Well, basically, the series is too formulaic — and the formula isn’t that interesting to begin with. In every issue, Metamorpho fights an evil scientist. Occasionally, for variation, he fights an alien threat. Along the way, Metamorpho whines about how he can’t return to human, Java (the prehistoric frenemy mentioned above) whines about how Sapphire Stagg loves Metamorpho instead of him, Sapphire and Metamorpho smooch, and Simon Stagg (the quasi-evil-scientist figure) boasts about how smart he is. During battles, Metamorpho gives a brief lesson in the properties of various elements, presumably to trick parents into thinking something vaguely educational is going on. Then the same thing happens in the next issue. And the next. And…
I don’t want to give the impression that Haney has no ideas. He’s still got bunches of ideas. In one bizarre sequence, Metamorpho plays football against a bunch of element robots; in another, he battles a renegade shape-shifting-building constructed by the gloriously named Edifice K. Bulwark.
The problem, though, is that all the ideas are contained within the same basic narrative structure. The Haney Brave and the Bold issues were great in large part because of genre slippage; Batman kept finding himself unexpectedly in the middle of a noir with Black Canary playing the femme fatale; or horror with Bats himself playing the possessed psychotic antagonist; or politicized sci-fi with the Metal Men in the middle of a robot uprising; or of a boxing story or a war story or whatever. Batman himself veered erratically from friendly crossing guard to murderous vigilante to incompetent doofus to monomaniacal whacko, sometimes in the course of a couple of pages. The strain of writing stories for such a various series of different characters made Haney chuck even minimal vestiges of consistency. He needed to get Batman and one other DC character together in the same story; in the interest of that, he could do anything.
But Metamorpho’s a bit different. The character himself shifts through various polymorphous physical permutations, but his personality is always the same; altuistic, courageous, mildly whiny do-gooder. And the plots, too, stay within definite bounds — superhero adventure narratives. Which are fairly entertaining, but never attain the revelatory insanity of Haney’s best work.
So part of what’s going on is that Haney himself just seems more inspired in his Brave and the Bold scripts. This is an intuition confirmed by the fact that the Brave and Bold’s included in the Showcase volume — a team up with the Metal Men and a team up with Batman — are more focused, and more successful, than almost anything else in the book.
Another reason that the Metamorpho material seems weak, though, is the art. Ramona Fradon, who drew most of the early issues, isn’t horrible or anything — in fact, her Saturday-morning cartoon approach is charming and fits neatly with Metamorpho’s goofy powers.
Despite its virtues, though, the art doesn’t have a whole lot of narrative drive from panel to panel. Instead, you tend to jump from image to image, with Haney’s text gushing along. For example, the tension of the chase in the sequence above is mostly squandered by the wild swings in perspective and camera position. You’re looking down so you can barely see our hero, then you’re right beside him…and then all of a sudden you pull out and swing around and the missiles going through him. It’s energetic and charming, but not particularly suspenseful…and over a whole comic, it ends up seeming like one damn thing after another, rather than like a story with any direction.
On the other hand, here’s a scene from the Haney/Aparo Brave and the Bold #101, guest starring Metamorpho (included in B&B Showcase #2).
Aparo stays at basically the same perspective for both panels, heightening the spinning impact of that fist as Metamorpho slugs Java.
Or in this scene:
The perspective shift here is more like that in the Fradon image, but the deft use of speedlines, the positioning of the sound effect scream, and the real suggestion of terror on Sapphire’s face makes the sequence compelling and kinetic in a way Fradon rarely manages. As a result of the stronger narrative line Aparo puts down, Haney’s nutty ideas (a calcium crash couch? what?) seem like genuinely incongruous flights of insanity, rather than simply woozy meanderings. Similarly, Sal Tripiani adds immeasurably to Haney’s script with this hysterical Kirby pastiche from Metamorpho #16 (the one about the Thunderer).
And in the last story in the Metamorpho volume, Mike Sekowsky’s rubbery Bat-Hulk gives the action a squickily solid plasticity, which gives solid form to the utter wrongness of Haney’s writing.
Yes, I said “Bat-Hulk.” I do love Haney.
Last week, Marguerite Van Cook had a post about the problem of assigning credit in the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby team. In comments, Alan Moore was discussed too. For me, I tend to feel like Alan Moore’s work is defined in the greater part by his writing; the story in an Alan Moore comic is not likely to be ruined by bad art — in part because Moore is good at choosing collaborators, and in part because his scripts control pacing and narrative to a very high degree. On the other hand, while I like Lee’s writing okay, it seems clear that he’s extremely reliant on his artists for plotting, pacing, ideas, and tone.
Haney it seems like is somewhere in the middle. His writing is instantly recognizable; nobody else is going to write, “Rex Mason — the Real McCoy; Simon Stagg — the Real McGenius; Sapphire Stagg — the Real McGirl; Java — the Real McApehead”. But at the same time, he doesn’t control transitions and space on the page the way Moore does, and as a result his scripts feel quite different depending on the artist he works with. In particular, it seems like he needs someone to provide a narrative backbone that he can riff off of. Nick Cardy and Jim Aparo gave him that on Brave and Bold, and perhaps that in turn inspired him to some of his best writing. The artwork on Metamorpho fits less well, and so the stories suffer too.