It probably starts with the 1966 Batman TV show. For a small window of time, campy super-heroes are in and spoofing super-heroes is in. We just looked at the Bestest League of America in Charlton’s Go-Go #6 (April 1967) and we’ve reviewed a half-dozen issues of Marvel’s Not Brand Echh series. But there’s also Archie’s Pureheart the Powerful and Lightning’s Fatman the Human Flying Saucer, Dell (and TV’s) The Mighty Heroes, ACG’s Fat Fury, and M.F. Enterprises’ Captain Marvel, not to mention the live-action TV shows Mr. Terrific and Captain Nice. As for DC, they tried out a parody super-hero team in three issues of Showcase (#s 62, 63, and 65) before giving the group their own series. The name of that group was the Inferior Five.
In American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1960s (1965-1969), John Wells notes that “Debuting two months after the Batman TV show, the Inferior Five played superheroes for laughs, but did so in a way far smarter than camp’s so-bad-it’s-good. The first major creation of [Mort] Weisinger assistant E. Nelson Bridwell (and edited by Jack Miller), the I5 also tapped the generation gap as a team of misfits who had to live up to the impossibly-high standards of their parents, a Justice Society-type team called the Freedom Brigade…It was Bridwell’s first opportunity at DC to demonstrate the wit that enabled him to sell material to Mad in the 1950s and he ran with it.” Wells goes on to say that “Jack Miller had actually conceived the series as a much more overt mockery of Marvel’s flagship Fantastic Four, asking Bridwell to develop a group called the Inferior Four…By the time he was done, the writer had exceeded Miller’s membership parameters by one and none of them bore any resemblance to the FF. The Inferior Five was better for it.”
That first appearance in Showcase #62, May-June 1966 uses cover blurbs to tell you all you need to know about the I5. “The Blimp – He can fly- if the wind’s with him.” “Awkwardman – What might! What power! What – oops!” “Merryman – Our leader! He used to be a 97-pound weakling before he lost weight!” “Dumb Bunny – Stronger than an ox – and almost as smart!” “White Feather – Fearless – except when he’s scared – which is all of the time!”
As with most of the campy spoofy reactions to the Batman TV show, the I5 had a run of about a year or so before fading away. Here we are catching them as they ebb, so much so that this issue’s logo starts calling them “The New Inferior Five.” I don’t see anything new about them unless this means that the story is not a reprint.
The cover seems to be a random gag but is actually an important part of the story. A little old lady attacks the members of the I5 with her umbrella as they protest that they wanted to help her across the street. The “helping across the street” part is the random gag as, in the story, the I5 spot a little old lady getting mugged and rush in to help her. She beats them up as she does on the cover before they all pursue the mugger. Awkwardman stumbles into an open manhole and the five realize the mugger fled into the sewers. They climb down and encounter sewer worker Ed Norton
the Art Carney character from the 1950s sitcom The Honeymooners. This is not the first time Ed Norton has appeared in a DC comic. There was a Jackie Gleason and the Honeymooners series that ran for 12 issues from 1956-1958.
Continuing pursuit of the mugger through the sewers, the I5 encounter Thor, whom they met back in Inferior Five #4, September-October 1967. In these issues, Thor is red-haired with a big red beard. He tells the I5 “T’ings is goin’ terrible since ay signed a contract vit’ a comic editor named Stanley! He vants ay should qvit my secret identity as a ball player…he vants me to be a doctor! He efen vants ay should shafe off my beard und bleach my hair!” Just then, Ed Norton drives up with a barber chair and barber pole. “Barber and beauty shop equipment for rent cheap! As my buddy boy, Ralphie, says, always be prepared for anythin’!”
Merryman shaves Thor while Dumb Bunny bleaches his hair blonde. The I5 then continue their search for the mugger. They run into a dead end. Behind them, a wall slides into place, trapping them. Water pours in, along with two sharks, an alligator and a very homely mermaid who announces “I want a man!” and decides she wants Awkwardman. Dumb Bunny pulls her away while the alligator tries to take a bite out of Merryman. Suddenly, the Sub-Moron shows up. “Despair thou not!” he says, “Prince Nabob is here…and I have pulled the stopper! List to my motto…Tyrannosaurus Rex! Hmm…that doesn’t sound right! Oedipus Rex? Rex Harrison?” With the stopper pulled, the mermaid, sharks, and alligator go down the drain. Prince Nabob follows, saying, “Well, I am busy! Stanley wanteth me to find Thor! He wanteth me to give him diction lessons!”
The wall opens up and the I5 continue their search. They come upon Allergy Queen, who is a parody of Ellery Queen. (Pardon me if I’m explaining the obvious but I have a feeling that Ellery Queen is not as well known as he used to be. His books are out-of-print and it’s been over 40 years since his last TV Series.) “Private Eye and public nose! I’m allergic to costumed super-heroes,” he explains after sneezing, adding that he is in the sewer “tracking down a criminal mastermind” called Dr. Diabolical. Allergy shows the I5 a man chained to a wall, a prisoner of the mastermind. When he tries to tell the I5 who the mastermind is, a gun pops out of the wall and disintegrates him to dust. Since he’s also allergic to dust, Allergy flees the scene.
Meanwhile, on the surface, five police officers chase criminal “Crusher” Bones who descends into the sewer, brushes by Ed Norton, and walks right into some power lines, giving him super-powers. He takes a costume off Ed’s rack (at his souvenir stand) and decides to call himself The Blast.
The Inferior Five continue their search, eventually getting trapped by metal rods coming out of the walls. Iron Pants steps in to rescue them. “Have you seen Thor?” he asks them, “Stanley wants him! And if I don’t find him Stanley’ll be Thor at me!” They tell him that Thor is under the hair dryer and Iron Pants goes to look for him.
The I5 enter a maze of tunnels. There they see, in rapid succession, Mickey Mouse, the two spies from Mad’s Spy vs. Spy, Groucho Marx as Dr. Hackenbush from A Day at the Races, Stanley and his Monster (from the DC series… “that can’t be the guy who hired Thor, can it?” asks Merryman), Dr. Van Pyre (a Dracula take-off from The Adventures of Bob Hope #101, November 1966, the Fox and the Crow (from their DC comics series), Groucho Marx on an elephant as Captain Spaulding from Animal Crackers, and, at last, the reason why we’re here in the first place, Spider-Man…or the Cobweb Kid, as he is known here. “It never ceases to amaze me how he can stand on the ceiling like that!” says Merryman. “Ceiling?” asks the Cobweb Kid and he sure looks like he’s standing on the ceiling on page 13 panel 9 and page 14 panel 1 with the I5 looking up. (“I’m not standing on the ceiling!” says the Kid. “You’re…not…standing…on…the…ceiling?” repeats Awkwardman. “No, I’m on the floor!” says the Kid.) But panel 2 tilts to show both of them sideways (“Oooh! I feel like the whole panel’s spinning!” says Merryman. “Cobweb Kid, Cobweb Kid…Does whatever a spider did,” sings the Kid.) and by panel 3, the Kid is on the floor and the I5 are falling from the ceiling. (“Happy landings, folks,” says the Kid. “Him and his big mouth,” says Awkwardman.) In panel #4, the Kid says, “Well, I’ll spin a few webs and be off! Stanley wants me to find Thor!”
As soon as the Kid leaves, the Blast, in his new costume that looks like a rooster, arrives. “I’m the Blast, former dumb thug turned super-villain! I’m lookin’ for the Cobweb Kid, former dumb cluck turned super-hero! Ya seen him?” “He went thataway,” directs Awkwardman. “Thanks, joiks!” says the Blast, “Okay, Cobby, here I come, ready or not! I’ll give him my battle cry, so he’ll know I ain’t chicken!” He gives out with a “Cock a doodle doo!”
As soon as the Blast leaves, an octopus menaces the Five. The wall on which they are leaning rotates and drops them into a banquet hall where everyone is dead and have been for years…all but the banquet speaker who is still droning on. Merryman touches one of the corpses and it turns to dust, which causes Allergy Queen, arriving on the scene, to sneeze again. A messenger boy rides up with a telegram for Allergy. It is the coroner’s report on the bodies. “Just as I suspected,” says Allergy, “they’re dead!” Allergy announces that he knows who the killer is and invites everyone to join him in the library. “Darn! And me without a library card!” says White Feather. They all pass through a door that leads to the library of a mansion. Thor, Prince Nabob, the Blast, the mermaid, the alligator, Ed Norton, the little old lady, and the mugger are already there. Allergy tells them that he knows who the murderer is but a gun pops out from behind some books and zaps him. “He’s been reduced to dust! What a shame!” says someone off-panel. “Yeah, he’s allergic to it!” says someone else.
Merryman leaps in and points at the little old lady. “She did it! I saw her press a button on her purse!” he declares. The little old lady unzips herself from her hat to her toes and Dr. Diabolical pops out. The Blast has joined up with the evil Doc and tries to use his electrical powers against Thor. It doesn’t work out so well. (“You should never fool around vit’ electricity vhen you’re up against de Thunder God,” says Thor.)
But meanwhile, the I5 are captured. Dr. Diabolical places them in five giant bell jars. He places his assistant Muggsy (the mugger, get it?) in a chair and places a headpiece on him. He reveals that he set up the little old lady mugging to entice the Five into the sewer to subject them to a machine that is supposed to transfer the I5’s powers to Muggsy. “Merryman’s intellect…Blimp’s flying power…Awkwardman’s and Bunny’s strength…White Feather’s archery skills.” But, instead, Muggsy gets all of their weaknesses. “He has White Feather’s courage, Blimp’s speed, Bunny’s mind, Awkwardman’s agility, and Merryman’s strength.” Without their weaknesses, the I5 are a formidable super-team and they quickly wrap up the doctor’s gang. Unfortunately, Merryman wrecks the doc’s machine in the process, returning their weaknesses to them. Dr. Diabolical escapes in his jet chair, flying out of the sewer and up up and away.
Norton returns with three cops. “I agreed to lead ‘em here…for a share of the reward,” he says. Then he takes the I5 out of the sewer “for 50 cents per head.” Back on the street, the Five see a little old lady being mugged. Figuring it is Dr. Diabolical in disguise, they grab the little old lady only to discover that she is not only a real little old lady but the Cobweb Kid’s Aunt Meg. The Kid shows up and chases the Five away. “Now I really have something to run from,” says White Feather.
Although Dr. Diabolical makes his escape, he never appears again anywhere in the greater DC universe, as far as I can tell. But the Cobweb Kid is not finished. He returns in Inferior Five #10.
I have to admit that the Inferior Five is one of my secret pleasures. I love the look of the group: Merryman in his purple jester’s outfit, Dumb Bunny with her bunny ears and “DB” imprinted on her belt, the Blimp held down by a rope, Awkwardman in his Batman-like costume but with oversize feet, White Feather with his constant expressions of fear. And the story is a zany complement to the group. While there’s nothing laugh out loud funny, there is a lot of cleverness going on here. I like the shaving and hair bleaching of Thor, the meta way Merryman comments on the whole panel spinning when the Five encounter the Cobweb Kid, the Kid’s theme song, the reveal that the villain is disguised as the little old lady, the Blast making the mistake of attacking Thor with his electricity powers (“a blast from the Blast!”), the way Dr. Diabolical’s machine transfers the I5’s weaknesses instead of their strengths, and the ending with Cobweb’s Aunt Meg.
On the other hand, the story is packed with characters and bits that lead nowhere. All of these Marvel-like characters search for Thor on behalf of Stanley but that never wraps up. Why do we get this whole origin and character of the Blast if he is only going to be quickly defeated by Thor? (And why is the Blast looking for the Cobweb Kid? And why is that forgotten as the Blast joins Dr. Diabolical?) Why are Allergy Queen and the chained-up prisoner even here except to be disintegrated? For that matter, what’s up with the mermaid, the alligator, and the dead people in the banquet hall? Ed Norton has a shtick in which he tries to sell anything and everything to anyone who comes down into the sewers. If this is a spin-off of Ed’s character in the Honeymooners, I don’t remember it. If not…why is it here? And to top all of this off, as I said, Dr. Diabolical escapes and never re-appears. The whole issue has this uncomfortable unfinished feel to it as if all the plot elements were pulled from a hat and not considered in any way beyond their possible humor. I may be willing to let that all go…if there had actually been a little more humor.
As it is, I’m going straight down the middle with this one and giving it two and a half webs.
Next: The good news is we’re back to Marvel. The bad news is that it’s a reprint book. Marvel Tales #13 is next.