By 1966, there was no way for industry leader DC/National Comics to be unaware of the growing appeal of upstart publisher Marvel–especially given that both companies’ output was distributed by an outfit owned by National’s owners. Marvel’s growth was often scoffed at and decried as a passing fad, but as the firm started making inroads month after month, year after year, more and more players at DC started to pay more and more attention to them. One person who certainly did was E. Nelson Bridwell, an assistant editor who had been a fan not that long before and who possessed an encyclopedic memory for comic book stories among other subjects. Bridwell saw what was going on over at Marvel, and he took it upon himself to address it through a DC lens, albeit a cracked one.
As a new feature for SHOWCASE, DC’s tryout comic book in which new ideas would be given a couple of issue to see if they could attract an audience, Bridwell approached editor Jack Miller with a concept called the Inferior Five. Well, actually, when Bridwell first brought it to Miller, it was to have been called the Inferior Four, a specific jab at the Fantastic Four. As the pair defined the series, it was decided that having four characters would be too direct and distracting a connection to the competition, so the roster was bulked up to five. The concept behind the Inferior Five was that it was aa parody of super hero comics, doing for costumed crimefighters what Maxwell Smart was doing for the secret agent genre on television’s GET SMART. The titular quartet were the offspring of a hodgepodge of mashed-up DC characters, all of whom had been gently coerced into going into the family business despite their lack of ability or aptitude for the work.
INFERIOR FIVE was a genuinely fun strip under Bridwell’s pen, adeptly aided by the illustrations of Joe Orlando. Orlando had worked for MAD Magazine (and over at EC Comics before that) so he was seen as having the right touch for a humorous feature. Apparently, on this second Inferior Five story, Joe got some uncredited help on the penciling from Jerry Grandinetti, another veteran in the field. Having used the first I5 story to introduce the quintet of lead characters and to set up the spirit of the series, Bridwell then began turning his bullseye on the competition’s characters one by one. His first target: the Hulk and the Avengers.
ADDITION: Mark Evanier tells me that it’s likely that Jerry Grandinetti did the lion’s share of the penciling on this story, ghosting for Orlando, and on the first Inferior Five story as well
This was still during the period in which DC largely didn’t make any mention of Marvel whatsoever, apart from one or to oblique references on some letters pages. On the other hand, Stan Lee had taken to grouping all of his competition as “Brand Echh” on his letters pages, and this clearly included everybody else as well as DC. It would be another several months before NOT BRAND ECHH would be launched as a series, at which point Marvel would fire some more direct shots at the DC heroes. So apart from the one issue of JERRY LEWIS we talked about previously, this SHOWCASE issue represents the first time anyone at DC did a full-on Marvel parody.
In this second outing, the Inferior Five are confronted by their parents’ old enemies, who have been miraculously rejuvenated. With the Freedom Brigade in retirement, these villains have united as Vendetta in an attempt to lure them back into action by pulverizing their kids. As should be relatively obvious, the assorted members of the Vendetta (whose battle-cry is amusingly, “Vendetta, Get Togedder!” rather than “Avengers Assemble”) include the Masked Swastika (an ersatz Captain America crossed with his foe the Red Skull), Speed Demon (Quicksilver), the Silver Sorceress (the Scarlet Witch) and Sparrow (Hawkeye).
During the course of the first skirmish between the two teams, a grenade hurled by the Masked Swastika winds up exploding beneath would-be boxer “Brute” Brainard, and bombarding him with Phi Beta Kappa radiation (rather than Gamma radiation, get it?) In an instant, the pugnacious Brainard is transformed into the spitting image of the Hulk (so much so that consumers finding SHOWCASE #63 on the stands may have been legitimately confused by the cover image) called Man-Mountain.
Man-Mountain bursts through the wall, interrupting the battle. The Masked Swastika, recognizing that it was his grenade that was the cause of Brainard’s transformation, swiftly recruits the emerald monster to his side. man-Mountain clobbers the Inferior Five handily, and the evildoers go off to embark on a crime spree–with Hitler now dead and gone, the masked Swastika has decided he’s better off being just a run-of-the-mill crook.
The one member of the Inferior Five that neither Man-Mountain nor the Masked Swastika bothers with is the team’s powerless leader, Merryman. The 97-lbs weakling rousts his teammates and they make a game try at halting Man-Mountain’s crime spree. But they get as tangled up amongst one another as usual and the chartreuse titan bats them away effortlessly. Once again, Merryman is the last member of the Five left standing–and he feels that he has no choice but to take on Man-Mountain one-on-one to redeem the honor of the Inferior Five, despite the fact that he has no chance of winning.
But triumph he does! After several minutes of Merryman ineffectually throwing punch after punch Man-Mountain’s way, none of which make any impact on the mighty goliath, Merryman scores a lucky uppercut to Man-Mountain’s chin. When he was a regular fighter, Brainard had a glass jaw, and that condition persists even with his transformation into Man-Mountain. Down goes the unstoppable brute, and Merryman is hailed as the hero of the day!
With the Vendetta’s big gun down for the count, the other Inferior Five members have better luck in their rematch with their remaining foes. Dumb Bunny accidentally knocks out the Silver Sorceress before she can cast her Evil Eye, the Blimp trips up Speed Demon with some chewing gum he discarded, Sparrow gets entangled in his own Boomerang Arrow line when White Feather faints away from his attack, and the Masked Swastika shatters his iron mask against Awkwardman, revealing himself to be the spitting image of Napoleon. And that’s the wrap-up. The parodies are relatively toothless but also clear enough that they would have been obvious to the fan audience. This was still relatively early days for the Marvel titles, with the concurrent issues of AVENGERS and TALES TO ASTONISH (featuring the Hulk) shown below.