Say what you will about Mort Weisinger, he knew how to build a mythos.
Throughout most of the 1950’s, Whitney Ellsworth was the editor of record for the Superman family of magazines. But his attention was largely focused on managing “DC properties in Hollywood,” while Weisinger did the grunt work in putting out Superman and Action Comics. Without the inspiration of a dedicated editor, the adventures of the Man of Steel were running on impulse power. The edginess of the early ‘40’s Superman was long gone, and the stories had slipped into comfortable conformity. The Man of Tomorrow had become a paternal figure, sort of a super-powered Jim Anderson, spending more time dealing with minor headaches created by characters who were more misguided than truly evil and putting them on the path to good citizenship. Only occasionally did he have to really flex his super-muscles against a criminal threat such as Luthor.
The format was cemented into place. Lois Lane was Clark Kent’s sometimes co-worker/sometimes rival and Superman’s foil. Perry White and Jimmy Olsen were reliable third bananas mostly there to remind the reader that The Daily Planet had a staff of more than two reporters.
When Weisinger was promoted to official editor of the Superman titles, without Ellsworth to hold him back, he set about to jolt the Man of Steel out of the doldrums. Drawing on his background in science-fiction pulps, Mort saw to the introduction of one startling concept after another. The Fortress of Solitude. Supergirl. The Phantom Zone. Bizarros. The Legion of Super-Heroes. Multi-coloured varieties of kryptonite. The bottled city of Kandor.
The youthful readers were fascinated with these developments and, with Mort’s insistence on continuity, they created a rich, unified background from which fresh stories could be mined. Most telling, they had legs. They became such identifiable elements of the Superman mythos, that you couldn’t kill them with a stick. Julius Schwartz, when he became the Superman editor in 1970, ignored them, figuring the new generation of fans were too sophisticated for them. He soon realised he figured wrong and brought them back. When DC rebooted Superman in 1986, most of Mort’s innovations were jettisoned, or radically revised. It took a little longer that time, but still they came back.
Now, it’s one thing to sit here and type about how striking and memorable these aspects of the Silver-Age Superman were. But, it’s better to show it. And there is no better example of the long-lasting impression made by Weisinger’s innovations than another concept that has been recently revived: Nightwing and Flamebird---the Dynamic Duo of Kandor.
Kandor, the last surviving city of Krypton, was introduced in Action Comics # 242 (Jul., 1958). The readers learnt that, shortly before the planet Krypton exploded, Kandor had been stolen whole and miniaturised into a bottle by the space villain Brainiac. Superman rescued the city from Brainiac’s clutches, but was unable to remedy its tiny stature. He placed the bottled city in his Fortress for safekeeping, and as a result, it became a permanent source of new story elements.
Kandor enabled the writers to explore the culture of Superman’s lost home without the awkward necessity of fabricating a time-travel excuse. Through various devices at hand, Superman could shrink himself and visit the city. He did this regularly. The fact that Kandor dwelt in the same environment as that of old Krypton meant that, there, Superman was a normal man without super-powers. That created even more story possibilities.
One of those possibilities would establish yet another long-lasting element in the Superman mythos.
The people of Kandor had always been shown to regard the Man of Steel as a revered hero. They monitored his adventures on Earth, providing timely warnings to the subterfuge of his enemies or outright assistance from the Superman Emergency Squad. On Superman’s sporadic visits, the Kandorians fell all over themselves to make him feel welcome. And, to be honest, Superman kind of got used to the hero worship.
That’s why the events of “Superman in Kandor”, a “three-part novel” from Superman # 158 (Jan., 1963), came as a shock to him. While the Man of Steel is away on a space mission, the Earth is assaulted by super-powered raiders who steal various rare materials and electronic equipment. The Action Ace returns in time to receive the super-sonic alarm from Jimmy Olsen’s signal watch and discovers the super-thieves on yet another raid.
Outnumbered, Superman is unable to prevent their escape. Troubling him more is the fact that the raiders spoke Kryptonese and wore Kryptonian clothing. Nurturing an almost unbelievable conclusion, Superman, with Jimmy Olsen in tow, streaks to his Arctic Fortress, to find its vault-like door ripped off its hinges. This confirms the Man of Steel’s suspicions.
He confides to Jimmy that he believes that the raiders came from Kandor. On Earth, they would gain super-powers, just as Superman himself does. The unfathomable mystery is how they were able to enlarge themselves to normal size. It had long been a sub-plot of the series that Superman had repeatedly failed to find a way to restore Kandor, or a sizeable number of its residents, to normal.
Nor is there an apparent answer to the raids of Earth materials. With only one way to find out, the Man of Steel decides to enter Kandor. Jimmy insists on going along with his super-pal. Using a version of Brainiac’s shrinking ray, they reduce to Kandorian size and parachute into the bottled city. Landing in the forest outskirts, they encounter Nor-Kann, a scientist and old friend of Superman’s parents, Jor-El and Lara. Nor-Kann warns Superman not to enter the city.
The pair ignore the warning. Upon reaching the centre of Kandor, Superman and Jimmy find themselves assaulted by the citizens, filled with bitter rage for the Man of Steel. As the angry crowd surges toward Superman, Olsen appropriates a Kandorian automobile and pulls him free of the bloodthirsty mob . (Throughout this tale, we see a responsible and resourceful Jimmy, rather than his usual dunder-headed self.)
They take refuge at Nor-Kann’s home, where the elderly scientist explains. A Kandorian named Than-Ol has found a way to restore Kandor to normal size. With the limited materials available to him in the bottle, he was able to enlarge several men. They were the super-powered raiders who robbed the Earth of vital materials needed to make Than-Ol’s process work on the entire city.
“But why should all of this turn Kandor against me?” asks Superman. Because, Nor-Kann tells them, Than-Ol insisted that Superman, with his great scientific knowledge, already knew of the enlarging process, but jealously withheld it from the Kandorians, to prevent having any rival supermen on Earth. Weary of their tiny stature, most of the people eagerly believed Than-Ol’s charge.
Disheartened at how readily his people believed the worst of him, Superman has yet a greater concern. You see, he does know the process that Than-Ol has discovered. It works by causing the atoms of shrunken objects to move farther apart. But it has a terrible flaw. Anything enlarged by that process for three hours disintegrates when the atoms lose their cohesion. Buildings. Plants. Animals. People.
The Man of Steel is determined to warn the Kandorians of the deadly danger, but he cannot enter the city outright. When Nor-Kann offers to hide them in his secret underground lab, it reminds Superman of the Bat-cave. That triggers an inspiration. If he and Jimmy cannot enter Kandor openly, they can do so in disguises---disguises modeled after Batman and Robin.
Krypton had no bats or robins, but it did have the nightwing and the flamebird. Superman and young Olsen fashion costumes using those birds as models, adding utility belts with unique Kryptonian implements, including compact jets for flight. They even convert Nor-Kann’s car into a “Nightmobile”.
Waiting for “evening” (when the lamps which provide the city with artificial lighting are dimmed to create a regular sleep period), Nightwing and Flamebird fly into action for the first time. They encounter Than-Ol’s raiders as they are leaving the bottle to raid Earth yet again and manage to capture one of the devices they use to grow to normal size. Back in the newly dubbed Nightcave, Superman examines the apparatus and confirms it uses the process with the fatal flaw.
Over the next few days, Nightwing and Flamebird search for Than-Ol’s hidden workshop, employing Batman and Robin’s own methods. They locate it, but it is too heavily guarded to penetrate in a direct action. By posing as Van-Zee---Superman’s cousin and his lookalike---the Man of Steel infiltrates the hideaway. He is nearly able to destroy the large version of the enlarging device before an oversight betrays him and he is captured.
With the help of the real Van-Zee, Jimmy Olsen devises a cunning plan to rescue his partner. By the time they are safely away, Than-Ol has moved the battleground to Earth, where he is ready to activate the full-sized enlarger on all of Kandor. Superman and Jimmy abandon their new costumed identities and leave the bottle.
Before Superman can act, Than-Ol restores Kandor to its proper size, in a remote area of Earth. This leads to an epic battle between Superman and the now-normal-sized Kryptonians. As the Man of Steel predicted, three hours later, the city begins to disintegrate. Despite being lynched and nearly tossed into a kryptonite pit, Superman manages to save the city and his people by using the shrinking ray from his Fortress.
“Superman in Kandor” was a daring plot, by DC standards of the day. The idea that most of Superman’s own people would turn against him flew in the face of the buddy-buddy standards of the Silver Age. Yet, it was logical and perceptive understanding of how frustrated the Kandorians would have to be, after all those years of living in a bottle. Edmond Hamilton’s script put the Man of Steel through a realistic gauntlet of emotions. Dismay, at how his own people had turned against him. Guilt, over his own failure to restore Kandor to normal size. Frustration, at being bereft of his super-powers while in the bottle.
And there were the bittersweet memories of the occasions he had time-travelled back to Krypton itself, of meeting his father, and Lyra Lerrol. Hamilton tossed those in for good measure.
And for the few pages in which Kandor was restored on Earth, the reader wasn’t quite sure that, somehow, some way, it would turn out to be permanent, after all.
Yet, for all of this, the portion of the story which generated the most fan response was the creation of the Dynamic Duo of Kandor (even though the Nightwing and Flamebird scenes occupied only the middle portion of the three-part tale). The notion of Superman operating as a different, non-powered hero had its appeal. Tales of the Man of Steel without his super-powers always got a good reception. They highlighted the “man” more than the “Super”. And I suspect that many fans enjoyed seeing the more competent Jimmy Olsen. It helped explain why Superman bothered to answer the signal-watch’s alarm every time the cub reporter was being vainglorious and foolish over in his own title.
A firm believer in hot-iron-striking, Mort Weisinger had Hamilton crank out another Nightwing and Flamebird story, titled---to no great surprise---“The Dynamic Duo of Kandor”. It appeared in Jimmy Olsen # 69 (Jun., 1963).
The plot gets right to the point from page one. Superman brings Olsen to the Fortress. The Man of Steel has received an alert from Kandor: a super-powered outlaw was looting the city’s precious relics of Krypton. He intends to investigate the matter with Jimmy---as Nightwing and Flamebird.
They shrink and parachute into the bottle. Reaching Nor-Kann’s home, they ponder the two mysteries before them---one, for what purpose is the super-outlaw stealing the mementos of their lost world, since no honorable Kandorian would buy them? And two, how is it that the thief has super-powers when even the Man of Steel himself is powerless in Kandor’s environment?
As soon as “night” falls on the bottled city, Superman and Jimmy change to their secret identities, and the Dynamic Duo of Kandor patrol the streets. In a nice understanding of human nature, Hamilton’s script devotes quite a few lines to showing the emotional effects on Superman to being “home” again.
“It’s as though I’d never left Krypton . . . ,” he reflects. “Strange, how my whole life on Earth seems like a dream now!”
Reaching Kandor Plaza and the monument to the destruction of the Machine-King, a sentient computer which nearly enslaved the people of Argo City, the pair are astounded at the arrival of the Super-Outlaw. Not only is he super-powered, but he is an exact double for Superman, down to his famous costume, with the addition of a domino mask. As the Super-Outlaw lifts the Machine-King relic from its pedestal, Nightwing exposes the thief to green kryptonite, taken from the Fortress of Solitude. The green K affects the super-powered criminal, but he successfully escapes with his prize, by using his heat vision to cause the Nightmobile to wreck before the kryptonite radiation takes full effect.
Now there was a reason why this adventure appeared in an issue of Jimmy Olsen. Nightwing suddenly falls ill, and when Flamebird rushes him back to the Nightcave, Nor-Kann diagnoses the problem. Superman has contracted Scarlet Jungle fever. This puts him out of the action for a great deal of the story, while Jimmy tackles the mystery of the Super-Outlaw solo.
Writer Edmond Hamilton uses the puzzle of the stolen relics of Krypton to great interest. The readers are treated to quite a few snatches of the lost planet’s history---some which had been shown before, and some that hadn’t. Skal-Var’s sacrifice to save Krypton from a destructive comet. A glimpse of the Jewel Mountains. The mineral people of Fire Valley. The legend of the Winged Ones.
Weisinger liked for his writers to include flashbacks to Krypton whenever possible. It humanised the planet, gave it people with faces and names. It was one thing to simply tell readers that billions died when Krypton exploded. But when you knew some of the history, some of the lives, that were snuffed out in the destruction, Superman’s feelings of loss struck a little more home to your own heart.
As Flamebird, Jimmy does an admirable job of thwarting the Super-Outlaw’s next few attempts at larceny. So good of a job, in fact, that the thief decides he needs to put the two heroes out of the way for good in order to keep stealing. Since Nor-Kann and Van-Zee are the only Kandorians aware of Nightwing and Flamebird’s true identities, it becomes a battle of wits between Jimmy and the Super-Outlaw to keep their secrets safe. Here, again, the Jimster proves worthy of being Superman’s pal.
Meanwhile, under Nor-Kann’s medical care, Superman’s Scarlet Jungle fever has passed. As a bonus, the Action Ace has detected certain clues leading him to discovering the identity of the Super-Outlaw and the source of his super-powers. ( I won’t give everything away here, but while Hamilton wrote an exciting action adventure, it came up ‘way too short as a mystery. The man behind the thief’s mask can be only one character, and the source of his super-powers has been right in front of the reader all along. The only real secret lies in the agency behind the Super-Outlaw, and even that, a savvy fan with enough Superman and Superboy stories under his belt could dope out. Do the words “Return home and be punished for our failure” ring any bells, fellow Silver-Age Superman mavens?)
As Nightwing, Superman rejoins his partner, and knowing what he knows now, is able to capture the super-criminal by duplicating a famous feat from Krypton’s history. That, and a fistful of green kryptonite.
It was obvious that sooner or later, the fans would want to see Nightwing and Flamebird team up with the original Dynamic Duo---Batman and Robin. In 1964, World’s Finest Comics was added to Weisinger's stable of titles. It was a natural forum for teaming the two Dynamic Duos, and Mort made it happen in the third World’s Finest issue he edited.
Once again, Edmond Hamilton produced the script, nicely nuanced with feeling. (Curt Swan and George Klein handled the art chores for all three Nightwing and Flamebird tales, as well; the beauty of their work speaks for itself.) “The Feud Between Batman and Superman”, from World’s Finest Comics # 143 (Aug., 1964), opened by addressing an issue often raised by DC fans.
On a Gotham City rooftop, Superman, Batman, and Robin are closing in on a gang of espionage agents. The Man of Steel easily mops up the spies. However, a slug from one of their guns ricochets off his invulnerable body and hits the Masked Manhunter. Under the cover story of a hunting accident, Bruce Wayne is rushed to the hospital and into emergency surgery. The operation is successful, and following a few days of convalescence, Wayne will recover.
After those few days, Clark Kent visits Bruce in the hospital, where the millionaire playboy drops a bombshell.
“I’m resigning from the Batman-Superman team . . . and Robin with me!”
Clark protests, but Wayne is adamant.
“I’m not in your league, Clark,” he insists. “You’re super---and I’m not! I’ll always be a handcap to you because I’m just an ordinary human!”
Superman, however, genuinely disagrees, and later, consults with Jimmy Olsen about the problem of the Batman’s newfound inferiority complex. They realise that the Caped Crusader might get over it if he joined the Man of Steel on an adventure where they were relative equals. And there is only one place on Earth where Superman does not have super-powers---the city of Kandor!
Superman contacts an old friend in the bottled city, Than-Ar,and arranges with him to stage a phoney menace---the scourge of the Metalloids. The Metalloids were evildoers whom, after donning special bracelets which converted their flesh and blood to living metal, wreaked destruction on ancient Krypton. The bracelets were secured in the Fortress, but the Man of Steel arranges for them to be turned over to Than-Ar.
Under a pretext, Superman then arranges for Batman and Robin to join him and Olsen at the Fortress. There, they receive the “alert” from Than-Ar about the return of the Metalloids. Pointing out that he won’t have super-powers in the Krypton-like environment, Superman persuades a reluctant Batman to help deal with the “threat”.
There is the usual shrink-and-parachute scene. But as soon as they land, the foursome find themselves attacked by a Metalloid. Instantly, the old Batman is back. In swift action, he rescues Superman and Jimmy from a Metalloid-swung tree trunk. Privately, the Man of Steel is concerned that Than-Ar made the assault too realistic. It almost looked real.
Anyone who has taken TV Clichés 101 knows what’s really going on, but as far as Superman is concerned, Than-Ar is simply overdoing it.
Eluding their metal attacker, they make their way to Nor-Kann’s house, where Superman and Jimmy show off their set-up as Nightwing and Flamebird, clearly patterned after the original Dynamic Duo. Changing to their Kandorian identities, Superman and Olsen head for town, while Nor-Kann brings Batman and Robin up to speed on Kryptonian society.
In Kandor Plaza, Nightwing and Flamebird discover that a Metalloid has committed a robbery. Leaving Jimmy to calm the public, Superman speeds to Than-Ar’s home to confront his friend. Instead, he is ambushed by a Metalloid. The metal man comes within a hair’s breadth of killing him before Batman and Robin, alerted in the Night-cave, swoop in on Kandorian belt-jets. With a heavy pole, they drive the Metalloid off. Unfortunately, Jimmy, tending to Superman, inadvertently spills the beans about the hoax.
Insulted and humiliated, Batman tells Superman where to get off, despite the Action Ace’s insistence that the menace is, in fact, real.
Do I really have to go on? You saw it already on the TV Land channel. Setting aside the basic sitcom plot, the story is a trifle disappointing in other ways. For one, it’s not quite a Nightwing and Flamebird/Batman and Robin team-up. While Jimmy stays in his Flamebird identity, Nightwing appears in only three panels before changing back to Superman. And for the rest of the tale, the two teams work at odds with each other, until the last two pages.
While I give Edmond Hamilton points for being willing to tackle the point of how useful the Batman really is to Superman in their partnership, he really didn’t provide a tangible answer---on Earth, Superman is still super, and Batman is not. However, one aspect that I did like was, whether reasonable or not, he depicted the Man of Steel as truly believing that the Batman made a real contribution to their partnership. His belief reasserts the strong sense of friendship between the two heroes.
And I have to admit to getting a chuckle out of one panel. After Batman and Robin have finally become convinced that the Metalloids are a genuine threat, they follow the monsters’ swath of destruction through the city. A Kandorian bystander turns to another and says: “If only Nightwing and Flamebird were here, instead of these two strangers!”
There are no more stories to discuss. While text or dialogue would occasionally mention Nightwing and Flamebird, those were the only three stories in the Silver Age to actually depict Superman and Olsen operating in those identities. Some of you might find that surprising, but it goes to my point that Mort Weisinger introduced concepts so striking that a little bit went a long way.
Despite occurring in only a trio of Silver-Age tales, the concept of Nightwing and Flamebird became a permanent fixture of the Superman mythos. Jimmy’s identity as Flamebird was part of the reason the Olsen-Robin Team named its headquarters “the Eyrie”. And, in 1984, Dick Grayson referred to Superman’s adventures as Nightwing as part of the inspiration for taking that name as his adult costumed identity.
It was an idea that would not die. In the pages of Superman Family, starting with issue # 183 (May-Jun., 1977), DC launched a new Dynamic Duo of Kandor series, with Van-Zee taking over the rôle of Nightwing, while Ak-Var, a reformed prisoner of the Phantom Zone, became Flamebird. It lasted for a run of thirteen issues.
And post-Crisis, the concept was revived under several incarnations. In the latest of which, Nightwing and Flamebird are two masked heroes from New Krypton, a planet created in Earth’s solar system to accommodate the restoration of Kandor to its normal size.
That’s quite a heritage for such a brief burst of imagination.