SHOWCASE was a bit of an institution in the latter half of the 1950s and the 1960s. It was a series that birthed a great number of characters and series that would go on to star in their own titles. It was the experimental laboratory in which DC tested out new ideas for comic books, giving them a short tryout in an attempt to capture enough of an audience without committing to regular publication. And it worked terrifically, especially across its first fifty issues or so. SHOWCASE was also set up as a round-robin title among the editors at DC–each would, in turn, have issues of SHOWCASE to fill with whatever they could come up with. As the story goes, another editor had dropped the ball on an issue of SHOWCASE, and so Robert Kanigher stepped in, writing the first METAL MEN story overnight and having the artwork by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito completed in about ten days so the story could go to print. There’s something a bit facile about that story–for one thing, though he did kill off all of the Metal Men characters in that first story, Kanigher immediately produced three more issues with the concept, something that he must have known was going to happen relatively early in the process.
But before we get into the story itself, here’s another wonderful inside cover house ad crafted by Ira Schnapp. While it uses pick-up art for all of the vignettes, the typography for all of the copy is wonderfully executed. You also get a sense of the scope of the DC line here–and this piece doesn’t even include any of the war characters or romance books. It seems to me that this was done to help assure parents that the DC titles were clean and age-appropriate for young ones, hence the emphasis on the still-relatively-new Comics Code stamp as part of the appeal of the DC-National line. Sugar ‘n Spike sure seem excited by it.
When conceived, METAL MEN was a really strong strip, featuring some of the best characterization of the era in a DC title–something the firm wasn’t really known for. While (as happened to a bunch of DC books) the series veered too strongly into camp and comedy by the mid-1960s, early on it was a pretty great, imaginative science fiction series. yes, there were absurdities along the way, but there was a genuine sense of jeopardy. Thematically, it was very much centered on the notion that science can save the world, but it can also doom it–it’s a double-edged sword that must be used with intelligence and caution. The Metal Men themselves, each one based on a particular metal from the periodic table, all had personalities reflective of the substance of which they were composed. As opposed to, say, the Justice League, there was never much of a question as to which Metal Man was speaking even when the character wasn’t visible on panel .
This particular SHOWCASE issue featured the third appearance of the Metal Men, what was intended to be the end of its tryout period in SHOWCASE (as we shall see at the end of the issue.) But the series wound up running another installment the following month, perhaps a signifier that some other editor wasn’t ready to take up the SHOWCASE baton quite yet. By this point, Kanigher had refined the formula of the series pretty well: the Metal Men were all robots, creations of the renowned scientist Dr. Will Magnus and imbued with Responsometers that gave them sentience and personality. The female robot, Tina, was hopelessly in love with her creator, Doc, a situation chalked up to her Responsometer being faulty. In prior stories, the Metal Men had been called upon to battle strange super-scientific menaces and had been destroyed in each case, though they won the day in doing so. Doc would scrape up the pieces and reconstitute them again after each such happenstance–his attempts to create further Metal Men had failed, indicating to him that there must have been something unique about the Responsometers installed in this particular batch. So it wasn’t as simple as mass-producing a bevy of Golds or Irons, only this iteration of each robot would function in this manner, for whatever reason.
A quick break here as we admire another advertisement, this one for a pair of DC’s reprint Annuals, which must have been a bit of a cash cow, given that the company wasn’t paying the creators any reprint money for running the stories a second time. It’s interesting to see that LOIS LANE could already carry an Annual, as her own debut in SHOWCASE wasn’t all that far in the past. But Superman was a juggernaut of sales in the early 1960s and that extended to the Man of Steel’s spin-off titles, all of which were at the very pinnacle of the sales charts. And the Batman Annuals of this period were all a bit more exciting than the character’s new adventures, drawing heavily on earlier exploits before the Caped Crusader had gone all-in on science fiction-based exploits. That’s a banner crop of foes depicted on the cover above.
This particular issue of SHOWCASE wasted no time in getting to its cover scene, and actually played fair in terms of paying off on it, which wasn’t always the case in DC stories. It opened with Dr. Magnus and his robots responding to the disappearance of Professor Ramsey Norton, a famed chemist. But before the team can begin to investigate, a colossal hand bursts through the top of teh building on which their craft has alighted and grabs up Tina and Magnus. The Metal Men combine their attributes in an attempt to wrest the pair from the gigantic hand, but poor old Tin isn’t up to the strain and his metal body buckles, permitting the hand to draw back into the building with Magnus and Platinum in tow.
The hand, it turns out, belongs to Norton himself, whose body has expanded prodigiously. He’s happy to see his colleague Magnus, and he tells the scientist about how he inadvertently created a menace to all mankind. This is the origin of one of the Metal Men’s most recurring foes, Chemo. Initially, Chemo was simply a gigantic humanoid shell into which Norton would pour his chemical experiments that didn’t pan out. But somehow, the combination of chemicals brought the creature to life, and it showered Norton with a chemical spray that caused the chemist to expand to his current size. Norton’s body is now too large to support itself, but before he expires, he begs Magnus to use his Metal Men to put an end to the threat of Chemo. The creature had burned his way out of teh lab before teh Metal Men arrived, so he could be anywhere. (Though you’d think the Metal Men would have seen a skyscraper-sized monster from afar as they were approaching in their sky-ship.)
Next up came a letters page put together by Kanigher (as the anonymous “editor”) featuring some initial reactions to the Metal Men. because SHOWCASE was only on sale bimonthly, enough time had gone by to allow readers who’d read the team’s first appearance to have their knocks and boosts printed in this third release. Kanigher answers one reader question by revealing that he’d made the choice to color Mercury red rather than the silver hue the metal actually is because a silver character would become “practically invisible”–tell that to Lee and Kirby in a few years! Kanigher figured, quite correctly, that making Mercury red would evoke images of thermometers in readers. This page was followed by a pair of pages putting forth some interesting facts about assorted metals, the kind of quasi-informational content that DC had been running semi-regularly, again to make their efforts more palatable to parents.
Back at the story, Chemo immediately pops up to take the Metal Men by surprise, and his initial attack destroys both Platinum and Lead. The chemical monstrosity eludes our heroes as they move to rescue the remains of their two fellows, so that Dr. Magnus can reconstitute them again. Thereafter, the remainder of the team heads out to give battle, with Mercury wanting to play a lone hand due to his combustible temperament. But Chemos tears through each Metal Men team with surprising ease. Honestly, it’s the self-sacrifice of the robots that gives the series its punch, and the destruction of each Metal Men is relatively gruesome, despite the fact that, being entirely composed of a single metal, there isn’t any gore to show. But this was about as savage as comic books got in 1962, and it could still be heart-wrenching to see the characters all fight and go to their deaths. Kanigher had honed these melodramatic skills on years of similarly-sentimented war comics.
In the end, only Doc Magnus and a reconstituted Platinum are left to face Chemo. They succeed in luring their enemy into a series of underground caverns, where he’s bombarded by natural gas jets which succeed in immobilizing him forever (or so it appeared–Chemo would return again and again. For a thing without any particular personality, he was very popular as an enemy.) In the end, Doc and Tina once again scrape up the remains of the fallen Metal Men and put them back together–only for the team to break the fourth wall and address the readers about this being their final adventure unless they bombard DC with cards and letters asking for more. Of course, this happened, and METAL MEN became a part of the DC line shortly thereafter, graduating to its own magazine.
Finally, the issue closes out with an advertisement for another Annual, this one devoted to Superman. The term “Annual” was a misnomer in the case of the more popular features, as two SUPERMAN Annuals were published every year–again, given their higher cover prices and almost no cost to produce from an A & E standpoint, these books must have been huge revenue generators for DC. Below it was another of the long-running entreaties from Superman to his readers for them to be his guest at the Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey.