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.
13 thoughts on “The First Hulk Parody”
I loved the I5 as a kid. Still do, though the dumb blonde and fat jokes haven’t aged well. On the other hand, they know look like a prescient takedown of legacy heroes before the term was even coined.
I heartily agree!!!
The Inferior Five parody of the X-Men in Showcase #65 is brilliant (well, that might be a bit too strong, but I always laugh at asking the Angel how he puts his shirt on), and it’s interesting to see that E. Nelson Bridwell at least considered them well-known enough to feature like that. People tend to say the silver age X-Men disappeared without trace under all the more popular Marvel comics…
Dr. Gruesome wondering in their first appearance how Luthor can possibly afford all those high-tech gadgets makes me laugh the same way — I was about eight so having comics raise questions like that was quite novel to me.
The first run X-men ended up drawn by a guy named…ROTH, I think. He was bland, cartoony, not even a match for the much-maligned Trimpe (who WAS a good illustrator when not forced to ape Marvel Kirby-esque house style). Neal Adams asked to be put on their worst-selling title (to see if he could turn it around, I guess) with brilliant results–largely due to the fortuitous choice of the obscure Giordano protege, Tom Palmer. Palmer had been following the dynamic Adkins on Dr. Strange. He was a weaker penciller than inker–but he was/is a magnificent inker!!!
Adams says his reason for going with the bottom of the barrel was the freedom of nobody watching over his shoulder in case he hurt the property (https://twomorrows.com/comicbookartist/articles/03adams.html). I’m surprised it’s true he said that — the same thing has been said about Jack Kirby moving to DC and it’s not exactly correct (https://www.cbr.com/jack-kirby-jimmy-olsen-worst-selling-title-dc/)
Werner Roth’s 50s stuff was gorgeous, particularly his romance and jungle-girl work. He wasn’t terrible suited to superheroes, but his work had a charm to it I always enjoyed, and warm, expressive characters. Given the right inker (as in his final story in X-MEN, which was inked by Sam Grainger) he could really shine.
But Stan had removed him from the book several times, only to bring him back because he couldn’t find someone to do it regularly — by the time Adams took over the book, Don Heck was doing storytelling layouts for Roth to do finished pencils on, something both artists found frustrating. Especially since Heck was doing finished pencils over John Romita’s layout on SPIDER-MAN around then. Heck felt that if he was good enough to do layouts _and_ finished pencils, why not let him do them on the same book, and have Roth finish up Romita’s layouts on SPIDER-MAN? Which probably would have worked fine.
Roth wound up going over to DC and mostly doing romance comics, and Heck did some of that, too. But I think they both did their best work when they could do the complete art job, something Heck would get to do again on his FLASH run, but I think Roth never did get to ink his work again, or if so not often.
As I recall, Jim Steranko made a similar request, for similar reasons, and ended up on the S.H.I.E.L.D strip.
I’m always a little bit skeptical of such stories. I would guess that Stan or whomever asked, “What do you want to do?” and gestured to a wall of covers. But if Adams or Steranko had said Fantastic Four or Amazing Spider-Man, Lee would have put them off. They may have chosen more low-selling features defensively for the reasons they say, but that doesn’t mean that Lee would have given them the high-selling features (and kicked Kirby or Romita to the curb) just because that was their answer.
Hmm, on Angel’s shirt … depending on how much flexibility he has with the wings, and if the wing-holes in his shirt have some sort of elastic gap, it might actually be feasible. Basically, the shirt has two sleeves and two elastic wing-holes. He uses his hands to first push the wings through the wing-holes and pulls the shirt up the wings, so the shirt is hanging on the wing-back connection with the sleeves dangling. Then he puts his arms through those dangling sleeves. Or maybe it has zippers in the back or sides, sort of like an evening gown.
Note, shouldn’t being bombarded with Phi Beta Kappa radiation make the target super-intelligent rather than hulked, err, bulked-out?
The Inferior Five were much funnier as a vehicle for send-ups of other teams than humor in themselves (the “jokes” of weak, stupid, clumsy, fat, coward are rather mean).
The Phi Beta Kappa grenade was the Key to the I5’s defeat, so it was a Phi Beta Kappa key.
I’m fine with most of the shots at the team’s own weaknesses. It’s hard not to laugh when White Feather panics at the sight of a cockroach.
Neal Adams says in that TwoMorrows interview that he doubts Stan really meant he could have any title.