Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Composite Superman and Me

Dan Hunter The Composite Superman had a profound effect on me, and my love of comic books and classic DC heroes. Not familiar with him? Neither was I until one fateful Bicentennial Day in the '70s. The character had first appeared in World’s Finest #142 (June 1964) and was brought back for World's Finest #168 (August 1967).

I was into superheroes when I was a child but my knowledge and interest in them was stirred mostly by the Mego action figure line--and the shows I watched on television.

By the time I was seven, the Shazam!/Isis Hour was in full swing on Saturday mornings. I loved the Super Friends cartoon. And I was watching repeats of the Adam West Batman and The Adventures of Superman every day after school. In addition, Lynda Carter had just started donning her legendary Wonder Woman costume. Although my brother collected Marvel comics, I had never paid much attention to them.

I grew up in the Bronx, New York. To get away from the stress of urban life, my family would take our old ’66 station wagon with the wood paneling on the sides and drive upstate to a town with the unfortunate name of Plattekill.

The ride was fun but I was always susceptible to boredom. This was the "country" after all and I wasn’t used to it. Dirt roads, rural houses, wooded areas, and Daddy Long Legs that looked straight out of the Hardesty family home in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

We stopped at a small convenience store on the way during one trip in the summer of 1976. I walked in and after picking out some candy, I was struck by a huge rack full of comic books. Since he was my favorite, my eyes naturally focused on anything with Superman.

There was an anthology title called Super-Team Family #6. It was one of several that were bought for me that morning. But I quickly became entranced with a villain in the first tale. He was the Composite Superman and his look was literally a blending of both Supes and Batman. Very cool. The story was called The Return of the Composite Superman and it was a reprint of World's Finest #168.

It concerned Joe Meach, a Joe Shmoe loser whose life had been saved by Superman and was then given a job at the Superman Museum as a caretaker. Bitter about his station in life, Joe's future would change drastically when he was struck by lightening and endowed with the powers of all the Legion of Super Heroes.

Although he had lost his abilities in the original adventure (World's Finest #142), Joe regained them with the help of the evil and vengeful alien Xan, who created an artificial lightening bolt in order to transform Meach once again into the Composite Superman. As in the earlier story, these powers were obtained through miniature statues of the Legion that had been donated to the museum.

Seems there was a glitch in their design. The duplicator machine used to create them…also duplicated their characteristics and strengths. The electrical charge caused by the lightening would transfer those abilities to one person. Oops.

I loved the setting of the Superman Museum, with the colorful statuettes of the Legionnaires. I adored the green skin coloring of this villain, taken from Brainiac 5. And best of all, I got a kick out of the extraordinary cunning and strength of the Composite Superman.

After all, he had the ability to inflate into a large ball (Bouncing Boy), change shape (Chameleon Boy), turn into a giant (Colossal Boy), stretch (Elastic lad), and even divide into three (Triplicate Girl). He seemed indestructible and unstoppable. He might even beat Superman, Batman and Robin this time around. Especially since he was also as strong as Supergirl.

"I'm greater than Superman and Batman put together! Soon, I’ll destroy them, just as I’m destroying their statues!" So boasted the Composite Superman as he demolished the museum’s monuments to the super duo. It was an unnecessary act of malevolence that always bothered me for some reason.

And yet even at a young age, I recognized the poignancy of this character. There was something sympathetic about him that made me sad about his demise at the end. In fact, he died a hero while saving his sworn enemies from an energy blast fired by Xan’s Magna-gun. Super-Team Family #6 included the original 1967 cover, an intriguingly deceptive illustration of Batman, Superman and Robin decking their alter egos with the tagline, "Will the real super-heroes stand up? Or are they through?"

Most kids at the time didn't think to save most of their comics and I was no exception. However, I held on to that issue of Super-Team Family for years. I'd read the story over and over. I was obsessed with it. (Incidentally, the issue's other story was a reprint of a fine mystery starring the Marvel clan.) Sadly, Super-Team Family was not particularly successful and lasted only fifteen issues.

The tale of the Composite Superman helped solidify my idolatry of the Man of Steel. How far did I take it? When I was nine, my mother (my very own Ma Kent!) made me a Superman costume, complete with long red cape and secret pouch. One day, I wore the damn thing to school UNDER my clothing. I was proud that nobody knew my secret or exposed me…even when I went to the bathroom so I could unbutton my shirt a little and take a peek at the ‘S.’ Kids do the darndest things.

My comic collection long gone (sold to buy records when I was thirteen), I started re-buying everything I could find in my early thirties. In the course of this resurgence, I attended a convention with some friends. We went out to eat and the conversation turned into onto of those ├╝ber-geek discussions: who is your favorite, who can beat whom, etc. When it got to the subject of villains, the usual suspects came up: Lex, Bizarro, Joker. It was my turn.

"The Composite Superman, hands down!"

I was met with stony silence. No one really knew who he was. It was then that I realized the villain who had entranced me for three decades was merely a bit player in the Superman universe. It dawned on me. I had gotten into comics because of an obscure villain in a reprint of an eight-year old story…that was a sequel to a book published four years before that. Oh well.

But I also felt a sense of pride and ownership. Perhaps myself and only a few others have ever cared for the Composite Superman. Fine with me. I've always marched to the beat of my own drummer anyway.

Over the years, I've collected everything I could find on this most awesome bad guy. And that's not hard. There wasn’t much to get other than a few comics (including a mini digest reprint) and two figures from DC Direct. I also managed to get a decent custom Mego, somewhat crudely done but worth every penny. 

sg I was pleasantly surprised to discover that CS had been revitalized for a two-part story, once again in World’s Finest (#283/284, September/October 1982). This time, Xan himself took on the identity of the Composite Superman after escaping from prison. Apparently, CS even made a cameo on Justice League Unlimited at one point. So there is some kind of fan base out there.

Every now and then, I whip out my Composite Superman stories and thrill once again to the exploits of the almighty villain who came close to destroying Superman, Batman and Robin.

Here's to you, Joe Meach!


Richard said...

Well said! This was excellent.

The Justice League Unlimited cameo isn't exactly an appearance by the Composite Superman as such, and the character has, shall we say, something extra the original did not. No spoilers here! The episode in question is "The Greatest Story Never Told" and it's my favorite JLU episode, in part thanks to the CS reference.

Russell said...

I'm with you, Dan, I always liked the Composite Superman. I came across him in a reprint in a mid-70s WORLD'S FINEST (100 Pages For 60c)and have loved him ever since.

Joseph Brian Scott said...

Another kindred spirit, here! I've always been drawn to the weirder comic book characters, and that's the Composite Superman in a nutshell. An unusual character concept, strange looking, and notable for being a villain the WF team couldn't really beat; in his first appearance, they don't "win" against him, they just manage to survive until his powers fortunately (and conveniently) fade away and he forgets about killing them. Interesting departure from the standard script.

David Morefield said...

Add me to the list of Compy fans. I "met" him in that World's Finest Super-Spectacular reprint and was blown away. Funny how the first reaction of modern kids to this odd-looking character would probably be giggles, but for me he raised goosebumps. He was just so...weird. And that unsettling feeling I got at first glimpse of him proved prescient, because he proved more than Superman and Batman could handle; only a miracle saved them. That alone set these stories apart. It made for a rare (for the time) look at what makes a hero; the courage it takes to fight on when defeat is assured. For Superman especially, this was an unusual spot to be in.

In fact, looking back the only other "character" to make such a profound impact on my young psyche was "the Moby Dick of Space" in the Legion of Super-Heroes, another "so goofy it's terrifying" visual in a story with disturbing ramifications for the hero. If you think you get blank stares when you name-check Compy, try bringing up a space whale with little bat wings.

Another great thing about the Composite Superman mythos, when you lump in the sequel, is how it fits into the over-arching theme of Silver Age Superman that even the most evil characters can have a shred of decency deep down, and that despite some folks straying from the straight and narrow, the basic nature of the Universe leans towards good, not evil.

That Swan-inspired action figure was pretty much my Holy Grail for toys. Only had to wait 30 years for that sucker.

Thanks for the fun read!

r duncan said...

Really enjoyed your story, Dan.

Captain Blog said...

I also bought that issue of STF from the local Lowes Foods in the small town I grew up in and it had a parallel effect on me. I loved Meachum as a character and really wanted to see more of him. That costumed really kicked rump, though I remember thinking he should be called the Composite SuperBatman!
I liked the story of your hidden costume. We had a friend who carried a Clark Kent press pass in his wallet and he was around 14 at the time! Drew glasses and a hat on a pic of himself.
He also put a Krypto cape on his dog and it got loose in the neighborhood and we had to chase it around until we caught him. A lot of people got a good laugh at our expense that day, I'm sure.