By Gardner Fox, John Broome, Carmine Infantino, Murphy Anderson, Irv Novick, Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Mike Sekowsky, Sid Greene & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1042-2 (TPB)
Once upon a time, American comics editors believed readers would become jaded if characters were over-used or over-exposed and so to combat that potential danger – and for sundry other commercial and economic reasons – they developed back-up features in most of their titles. By the mid-1960s the policy was largely abandoned as resurgent superheroes sprang up everywhere and readers just couldn’t get enough…but there were still one or two memorable holdouts.
In late 1963 Julius Schwartz took editorial control of Batman and Detective Comics and finally found a place for a character who had been lying mostly fallow ever since his debut as a walk-on in the April/May 1960 Flash.
The Elongated Man was Ralph Dibny, a circus-performer who discovered an additive in soft drink Gingold which seemed to give certain people increased muscular flexibility. Intrigued, he refined the chemical until he had developed a serum which gave him the ability to stretch, bend and compress his body to an incredible degree. Then Ralph had to decide how to use his new powers…
A quirky chap with his own small but passionate band of devotes, in recent years the perennial B-lister has become a fixture of the latest Flash TV series, but his many exploits are still largely uncollected in either print or digital formats. The only archival asset is this charming, witty and very pretty compilation which gathers his debut and guest appearances from Flash issues #112, 115, 119, 124, 130, 134, and 138 (spanning April/May 1960 to August 1963) and the Stretchable Sleuth’s entire scintillating run from Detective Comics #327-371 (May 1964-January 1968).
Designed as a modern take on the classic and immensely popular Golden Age champion Plastic Man, Dibny debuted in Flash #112’s ‘The Mystery of the Elongated Man!’ as a mysterious, masked yet attention-seeking elastic do-gooder, of whom the Scarlet Speedster was nonetheless highly suspicious, in a cunningly crafted crime caper by John Broome, Carmine Infantino & Joe Giella.
Dibny returned in #115 (September 1960, inked by Murphy Anderson) when aliens attempted to conquer the Earth and the Vizier of Velocity needed ‘The Elongated Man’s Secret Weapon!’ as well as the guest-star himself to save the day.
In Flash #119 (March 1961), Flash rescued the vanished hero from ‘The Elongated Man’s Undersea Trap!’ which introduced the vivacious Sue Dibny (as a newlywed “Mrs Elongated Man”) in a stirring tale of sub-sea alien slavers by regular creative team Broome, Infantino & Giella.
The threat was again extraterrestrial with #124′s alien invasion thriller ‘Space-Boomerang Trap!’ (November 1961) which featured an uneasy alliance between the Scarlet Speedster, Elongated Man and sinister rogue Captain Boomerang who naturally couldn’t be trusted as far as you could throw him…
Ralph collaborated with Flash’s junior partner in #130 (August 1962) only just defeating the wily Weather Wizard when ‘Kid Flash Meets the Elongated Man!’ but then sprang back into action with – and against – the senior partner in Flash #134 (February 1963). Seemingly allied with Captain Cold in ‘The Man Who Mastered Absolute Zero!’ Dibny excelled in a flamboyant thriller that almost ended his budding heroic career…
Gardner Fox scripted ‘The Pied Piper’s Double Doom!’ in Flash #138 (August 1963), a mesmerising team-up which saw both Elongated Man and the Monarch of Motion enslaved by the sinister Sultan of Sound, before ingenuity and justice ultimately prevailed.
When the back-up spot opened in Detective Comics (a position held by the Martian Manhunter since 1955 and only vacated because J’onn J’onzz had been promoted to lead position in House of Mystery) Schwartz had Ralph Dibny slightly reconfigured as a flamboyant, fame-hungry, brilliantly canny globe-trotting private eye solving mysteries for the sheer fun of it.
Aided by his equally smart but thoroughly grounded wife, the short tales were patterned on classic Thin Man filmic adventures of Nick and Norah Charles, blending clever, impossible crimes with slick sleuthing, garnished with the outré heroic permutations and frantic physical antics first perfected in Jack Cole’s Plastic Man.
These complex yet uncomplicated sorties, drenched in fanciful charm and sly dry wit, began in Detective #327 (May 1964) with ‘Ten Miles to Nowhere!’ (by Fox & Infantino, who inked himself for all the early episodes). Here Ralph, who publicly unmasked to become a (regrettably minor) celebrity, discovered that someone had been stealing his car every night and bringing it back as if nothing had happened. Of course, it had to be a clever criminal plot of some sort…
A month later he solves the ‘Curious Case of the Barn-door Bandit!’ and debuts his direly distressing trademark of manically twitching his expanded nose whenever he detects “the scent of mystery in the air” after which he heads for cowboy country to unravel the ‘Puzzle of the Purple Pony!’ and play cupid for a young couple hunting a gold mine in #329.
Ralph and Sue were on an extended honeymoon tour, making him the only costumed hero without a city to protect. When they reach California, Ralph is embroiled in a ‘Desert Double-Cross!’ when hostage-taking thieves raid the home of a wealthy recluse, after which Detective #331 offered a rare full-length story in ‘Museum of Mixed-Up Men!’ (by Fox, Infantino & Joe Giella) as Batman, Robin and the Elongated Man unite against a super-scientific felon able to steal memories and reshape victims’ faces.
Returned to a solo support role in #332, the Ductile Detective discovers Sue has been replaced by an alien in ‘The Elongated Man’s Other-World Wife!’ (with Sid Greene joining as new permanent inker). Of course, nothing is as it seems…
‘The Robbery That Never Happened!’ occurred when a jewellery store customer suspiciously claims he had been given too much change, whilst ‘Battle of the Elongated Weapons!’ in #334 concentrates on a crook who adapts Ralph’s Gingold serum to affect objects, after which bombastic battle it was back to mystery-solving when EM is invited by Fairview City to round up a brazen bunch of uncatchable bandits in ‘Break Up of the Bottleneck Gang!’
While visiting Central City again, Ralph is lured to the Mirror Master’s old lair and only barely survives ‘The House of “Flashy” Traps!’ before risking certain death in the ‘Case of the 20 Grand Pay-off!’ by replacing Sue with a look-alike – for the best possible reasons – but without her knowledge or permission…
Narrowly surviving his wife’s wrath by turning the American tour into a World cruise, Ralph then tackles the ‘Case of the Curious Compass!’ in Amsterdam, foiling a gang of diamond smugglers, before returning to America and ferreting out funny-money pushers in ‘The Counterfeit Crime-Buster!’
Globe-trotting creator John Broome returned to script ‘Mystery of the Millionaire Cowboy!’ in Detective #340 (June 1965) as Ralph and Sue stumble onto a seemingly haunted theatre and find crooks at the heart of the matter, whilst ‘The Elongated Man’s Change-of-Face!’ (Fox, Infantino & Greene) sees a desperate newsman publish fake exploits to draw the fame-fuelled hero into investigating a town under siege, and ‘The Bandits and the Baroness!’ (Broome) has the perpetually vacationing couple check in at a resort where every other guest is a Ralph Dibny, in a classy insurance scam story heavy with intrigue and tension.
A second full-length team-up with Batman filled Detective Comics #343 (September 1965, by Broome, Infantino & Giella), in ‘The Secret War of the Phantom General!’; a tense action-thriller pitting the hard-pressed heroes against a hidden army of gangsters and Nazi war criminals, determined to take over Gotham City.
Having broken Ralph’s biggest case, the happy couple head for the Continent and encounter ‘Peril in Paris!’ (Broome, Infantino & Greene) when Sue goes shopping as an ignorant monolingual American and returns a few hours later a fluent French-speaker…
‘Robberies in Reverse!’ (Fox) boasts a baffling situation as shopkeepers begin paying customers, leading Ralph to a severely skewed scientist’s accidental discovery, whilst #346’s ‘Peephole to the Future!’ (Broome) finds Elongated Man inexplicably developing the power of clairvoyance. It sadly clears up long before he can use it to tackle ‘The Man Who Hated Money!’ (Fox); a bandit who destroys every penny he steals.
‘My Wife, the Witch!’ was Greene’s last ink job for a nearly a year: a Fox thriller wherein Sue apparently gains magical powers whilst ‘The 13 O’clock Robbery!’, with Infantino again inking his own work, sees Ralph walk into a bizarre mystery and deadly booby-trapped mansion, before Hal Jordan’s best friend seeks out the Stretchable Sleuth to solve the riddle of ‘Green Lantern’s Blackout!’ – an entrancing, action-packed team-up with a future Justice League colleague, after which ‘The Case of the Costume-made Crook!’ find Ralph ambushed by a felon using his old uniform as an implausible burglary tool.
Broome devised ‘The Counter of Monte Carlo!’ as the peripatetic Dibnys fall into a colossal espionage conspiracy at the casino and afterward become pawns of a fortune teller in ‘The Puzzling Prophecies of the Tea Leaves!’ (Fox), before Broome dazzles and delights one more time with ‘The Double-Dealing Jewel Thieves!’ wherein a museum owner finds that his imitation jewel exhibit is indeed filled with fakes…
As Fox assumed full scripting duties, Mystic Minx Zatanna guest-starred in #355’s ‘The Tantalising Troubles of the Tripod Thieves!’, as stolen magical artefacts lead Ralph into conflict with a band of violent thugs, whilst ‘Truth Behind the False Faces!’ sees Infantino bow out on a high note as Elongated Man helps a beat cop to his first big bust and solves the conundrum of a criminal wax museum.
Detective #357 (November 1966) featured ‘Tragedy of the Too-Lucky Thief!’ (by Fox, Murphy Anderson & Greene) as the Dibnys discover a gambler who hates to win but cannot lose, whilst Greene handled all the art on ‘The Faker-Takers of the Baker’s Dozen!’ wherein Sue’s latest artistic project leads to the theft of an ancient masterpiece.
Anderson soloed with Fox’s ‘Riddle of the Sleepytime Taxi!’, a compelling and glamorous tale of theft and espionage, and when Ralph and Sue hit Swinging England in Detective #360 (February 1967, Fox & Anderson) with ‘London Caper of the Rockers and Mods!’, they meet the reigning monarch and prevent warring kid-gangs from desecrating our most famous tourist traps, before heading home to ‘The Curious Clue of the Circus Crook!’ (Greene). Here Ralph visits his old Big-Top boss and stops a rash of robberies which had followed the show around the country.
Infantino found time in his increasingly busy schedule for a few more episodes, (both inked by Greene) beginning with ‘The Horse that Hunted Hoods’, a police steed with uncanny crime solving abilities, and continuing in a ‘Way-out Day in Wishbone City!’ wherein normally solid citizens – and even Sue – go temporarily insane and start a riot, after which unsung master Irv Novick stepped in to delineate the mystery of ‘The Ship That Sank Twice!’
‘The Crooks who Captured Themselves!’ (#365, by Greene) recounts how Ralph loses control of his powers before Broome & Infantino reunited one last time for ‘Robber Round-up in Kiddy City!’ as, for a change, Sue sniffs out a theme-park mystery for Ralph to solve.
Infantino finally bowed out with the superb ‘Enigma of the Elongated Evildoer!’ (written by Fox and inked by Greene) as the Debonair Detectives tackle a thief in a ski lodge who seems to possess all Ralph’s elastic abilities…
The Atom guest-starred in #368, helping battle clock-criminal Chronos in ‘The Treacherous Time-Trap!’ by Fox, Gil Kane, Greene, and iconoclastic newcomer Neal Adams illustrated the poignant puzzler ‘Legend of the Lover’s Lantern!’, after which Kane & Greene limned the intriguing all-action ‘Case of the Colorless Cash!’.
The end of the year signalled the end of an era as Fox, Mike Sekowsky & Greene finished off the Elongated Man’s expansive run with the delightfully dizzy lost-loot yarn ‘The Bellringer and the Baffling Bongs’ (#371, January 1968).
With the next issue Detective Comics became an all Bat-family title and Ralph and Sue Dibny temporarily faded from view until revived as bit players in Flash and finally recruited into the Justice League of America as semi-regulars. Their charismatic relationship and unique, genteel style have, sadly, not survived: casualties of changing comics tastes and the replacement of sophistication with angsty shouting and testosterone-fuelled sturm und drang…
Witty, bright, clever and genuinely exciting, these smart stories from a lost age are all beautiful to look at and a joy to read for any sharp kid and all joy-starved adults. This book is a shining tribute to the very best of DC’s Silver Age and a volume no fan of fun and adventure should be without. It should not, however, be the only place you can stretch out and enjoy such classic fare…
© 1960, 1961, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.