1st Issue Special #3 (June, 1975)
“The Freak and the Billion-Dollar Phantom”
Story – Bob Haney
Art – Ramona Fradon
Cover Price: $0.25
Howsabout s’more 1st Chrissue Special? We’re very nearly done covering the series here… just three to go after this… two of which *grumble grumble* I still need to track down.
Anyhoo, today we’re gonna tell the story of the El-e-ment Ma-a-an, ya know… the one that started out in old Egy-pt La-a-and.
We open with Rex Mason and his main squeeze Sapphire Stagg taking in the sights in Washington D.C., when while standing before the Lincoln Memorial, they hear a strange misquoting of Honest Abe’s line from with a decidedly French accent. They look to their left to find an apparition with a sword-cane turning a guard’s gun to “hot jello” (no hyphen, no foul). Before Rex can leap into action, the phantom vanishes.
Rex and Sapph head down to check in with Sapphire’s dad Simon and his caffeinated Cro-Magnon manservant Java. They explain the situation, and Rex suggests they stay put so he can follow up. As Rex and Sapph head over to a hippie protest, Simon insists Java keep an eye on them both. At the protest, the Earth splits open and flames fire out from the hole. Rex decides to Meta-morph-up.
He rescues the protesters by filling the hole with… well, himself, in the form of fire foam. He then scoops the flower children up in a metamorphed magnesium net. It’s pretty weird, the art shows the hippies actually in the flaming hole… that hadta hurt. Before Rex can pat himself on the back for a job well done, he notices that the Washington Monument is teetering on the brink!
Sapphire can see that this is all a result of that Phantom they met at the Lincoln Memorial… duh. Rex shifts into a bulldozer, and keeps the obelisk upright. While Rex and Sapphire celebrate by… making out, the just arrived Simon notices something weird going on at the Capitol Building. That dome’s a’rockin’!
Metamorpho arrives and once again faces off with the Phantom. It’s here we learn that his real name is Dr. Achille Destinee… so, Dr. Destiny then… but not that one, ya dig? He nails Rex with a bolt of lightning… and claims that he learned that trick from his old mentor, Benjamin Franklin! Whaaaa…?
As we enter Part Two Secret of the Capitol, Rex recalls reading in his Tourist Guide-Book (c’mon, nobody reads those) that the dome is made of cast iron, and so he wallops it with a kick to stop it from dancing. Amid the kung-fu commotion, Doc D flies the coop… in the form of a black bird. Rex returns to the Stagg Syndicate to check in… and we all get to learn a bit more about the Phantom of Washington from a television news report. Apparently, the Phantom has appeared to a few Presidents during times of War (this issue hit the stands just as the Vietnam War was “ending”, but I’d wager was probably written during the thick of it). We see Dr. D. meeting with Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson during the first World War and Franklin Delano Roosevelt during World War II. The reporter than states that the Phantom is no more than mere myth. B-b-b-but, they’ve got footage of him on television! Hell, televised footage of Abraham Lincoln to boot! This is one helluva news network!
Simon Stagg rubs his chin, plotting the way jerk-asses do. He suggests to Rex that together, they might be able to overcome the Phantom and use his powers for their own. Rex says “no dice” and heads off with Sapphire to do some digging (in the form of a tricycle!). Simon, naturally, sends his Ape-Like Attendant to tail the trike.
We catch up with Rex while he peruses some ancient government files… and Sapphire reapplies her makeup. Gotta say, I only know the Staggs from the Batman and the Outsiders series, I really wasn’t expecting them to be so cartoony. Anyhoo, Rex comes across some information about the Doc. The first President he approached was James Madison during the War of 1812 (August of 1814 to be exact-ish). He suggested that he could save Washington from the invading British, because he found an odd artifact while serving in Egypt under Emperor Napoleon. Madison politely asks him to leave, while muttering that he’s a “crackpot” under his breath. Rex is enthralled… and a bored Sapphire combs out her hair.
As they leave the records hall, the pair find themselves by a bustling crowd… it’s a Presidential Motorcade! Rex sez it’s gotta be the Prez… but, and I don’t think he’s talkin’ Rickard… maybe Richard though. Either way, Destinee strikes. Rex metamorphs into a “Cobalt Cobra” to block the Phantom’s blast. Then it’s Doc D who transforms into a snake… which flees. Rex gives chases, following him back to his laboratory.
In the lab, Rex finds a framed picture of the Capitol… with the dome circled. Wait, weren’t we just there? Anyways, Metamorpho concludes that Doc D must have stashed the Egyptian device in the dome… which, again… weren’t we just there? I don’t get it. Suffice it to say, Rex and Sapph are Capitol bound (… again). As they speed off, we find Java hiding in a sewer… he dutifully reports his findings to Stagg. Ol’ Simon’s pleased… but will he be too late to reap the reward?
This brings us to Part 3: The Lake of Gold, which opens with Rex being approached by a military vehicle. Someone has called in a Phantom sighting, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier! Rex doesn’t take threats like this lightly… so, he checks into it. Turns out to be a false alarm (hmm…). Later on at the Capitol, he… and Destinee, find that they’ve arrived too late to nab the device.
Sapphire mentions that up to this point, she’s noticed Java following them around… which probably isn’t something you wanna keep to yourself when your father seems evil and appears to want your boyfriend dead. Rex puts two-and-two together, and concludes that Simon’s got the device… duh. In a cute scene, Rex metamorphs his right index finger into a dime so he can make a phone call. He learns that Simon Stagg’s private jet has already taken off… headed west.
It doesn’t take long for Rex to realize that Stagg’s destination is very likely… Fort Knox! It seems random to me… but whattaya gonna do? Turns out his hunch was on the money (pun!) as we join Stagg and Java stood before a whole lotta gold. Java, being a klutz, drops the device… which somehow causes the gold to liquify! Rex arrives just in the nick of time to rescue them from the gilded tidal wave.
The gold fills up a nearby depression, making a… lake of gold. Hey, that’s what they’re calling this part! The Phantom arrives in search of his device… which now resides at the bottom of this golden pond. Rex puts, er… two-and-two together again, and suggests that the Phantom has been after the device all along. What?! Isn’t that the entire point of this story?! Of course he is, Rex… you yourself said so like six pages ago! Oh well, from here Doc D shares a bit more of his secret origin. After Madison sent him away, he returned to D.C. with the device. Before he could put it into use, he was killed… impaled on a British soldier’s bayonet. Before he died, however, he stashed the Egyptian artifact in the Capitol Dome… and vowed to haunt all those ungrateful to him.
After story time concludes, the Phantom dives into the molten gold… and Rex follows right after. Sapphire is terrified that her lover is a goner, and Java is licking his chops… knowing that with Rex out of the picture, Sapphire will be all his. I mean, from what little we know about Sapphire, we can probably conclude that looks aren’t all that important to her.
The story ends with Rex bursting from the golden lake… and reporting that the Phantom and the device have been destroyed. Welp, that was easy. Later in Washington, D.C. Metamorpho does his best Abe Lincoln impression before asking us… yeah, us… to write in to DC Comics to get him his own ongoing series!
This is a strange one… I get the impression that this wasn’t originally intended to be a 1st Issue Special. We’re pretty much just thrown into the story here… without any exposition, or origin chatter. Rex is just the Element Man… and is in a relationship with Sapphire Stagg, whose father is a jerk. Fair enough, but if you have no context for any of these characters, I’d think you’d find yourself a bit lost… or at the very least, disengaged.
So far, in all the other FIS installments, we’ve gotten origin stories… or actual origins. Even in the Return of the New Gods bit, we got some backstory. So strange that this didn’t have one… it was just another Metamorpho adventure.
And what an adventure it was! Speaking of strange… this issue felt like it folded in on itself a few times throughout the duration. I’m not sure why we went to the Capitol Dome twice… actually, what I’m really not sure about is why the Phantom spent the early part of the issue drawing attention making the Dome “dance” rather than just taking the Egyptian WMD device? Maybe I missed something, I suppose I can be quite dense at times.
Also, we see Rex learn about that same Egyptian device… he actually races the Phantom (back) to the Capitol to procure it… and still doesn’t realize that the device might be what the Phantom is after all along? I mean, Rex’s revelation at the Lake o’ Gold was ridiculous… it couldn’t have been that late in the story that he finally realized what the Phantom wanted… right? Maybe this issue was a dadaist statement in the vein of William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique… where dialogue balloons were all cut out and rearranged before going to press. Or maybe I’m thinking too hard… that’s usually the correct answer.
Speaking of dialogue balloons… I’m never not going to dig Haney-speak, no matter how “far out”… well, actually the more “far out” the better, I suppose. Though I will say, having Sapphire be a spoiled, vapid privileged type was kinda strange. Lacking her more mature qualities she would have during the 1980’s, I gotta wonder why Rex would want to be with her, besides her looks. Ramona Fradon’s art here was a wonderful treat. I really enjoyed the mix of cartoony and realistic we get here. Metamorpho might be a toughie to make work in mundane environments, surrounded by mundane folks. It works great here though.
Overall, despite my minor quibbles about the storytelling, I’m never going to not recommend an issue of 1st Issue. Definitely worth picking up if you find it on the cheap. This is to my knowledge not a part of the SHOWCASE Presents: Metamorpho the Element Man collection, so single issue (not floppy!) is your only bet.
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