RETRO REVIEW: DC Comics Presents #59 (July 1983)

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Or – “IT’S AMBUSH BUG II, Y’ALL!”

There are many characters out there whose appeal is obvious.  The popularity of a Batman or a Spider-Man cannot be denied, but occasionally a character hits the public consciousness in ways that even the creators can’t quite figure out.  Thus it was in the early 80s with Ambush Bug.  One of the first characters to repeatedly break the fourth wall, the Bug’s madness was contagious, and his early appearances are still sought after by collectors today.  (Not much else makes back issues of DC Comics Presents actually pop in price, to be honest.)  But I’d wager those who are meeting him for the first time in the ‘Channel 52′ promos don’t realize that he was once kind of a big deal, and even met the Legion!  Well, A Legion, anyway.  Your Major Spoilers (retro) review awaits!

DCP59CoverDC COMICS PRESENTS #59
Writer: Keith Giffen (story); Paul Levitz (additional dialogue)
Penciler: Keith Giffen (breakdowns); Kurt Schaffenberger (finished art)
Inker: Kurt Schaffenberger
Colorist: Carl Gafford
Letterer: Ben Oda
Editor: Julius Schwartz
Cover Price: 60 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $4.00

Previously, in DC Comics Presents: Superman!  Strange visitor from another world, rocketed from his dying planet to our world, where he gains superhuman abilities from Earth’s sun and/or gravity.  In recent months (at least from his perspective at the point of this tale) he has recently clashed with a teleporting villain known as the Ambush Bug, a lunatic who teleports back and forth through the use of advanced technology, allowing him to “POP” through space to the location of any of his insectoid drones.  As this story opens, the Bug has returned to menace Superman at precisely the wrong moment, as the Man of Steel is accelerating to travel through time.  “It’s a bird,” cries the Bug, “it’s a plane…”
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Superman quickly pulls off the save, though, bringing their flight to a halt in the familiar confines of the 30th Century, home of the Legion of Super-Heroes.  Since he’s on his way further into the future, Superman realizes that he has to find a place to stash the Bug, but discovers that the Legion of Super-Heroes is out of the office.  Unable to leave a message at the proverbial beep, he reluctantly calls on Polar Boy, leader of the Legion of Substitute Heroes!  With the villain safely in the Subs hands, Superman sets off into the future, hoping he hasn’t made a huge mistake…

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…which, due to rule of funny, he absolutely has.  (As an aside, I think the awkward flirting between Porcupine Pete and Infectious Lass here is utterly charming and adorable.)  With a bad guy on the loose, the Subs leap into action to capture him.  Unfortunately, Superman arrives back from the further future at the same time, leading to, essentially, a cartoon chase sequence through 30th Century Metropolis.  DCP594

Turns out that the Subs’ didn’t have a working security cell, and Polar Boy was too embarrassed to mention that fact, stashing the Bug in a spare aquarium instead.  As a boy, reading this issue, I found myself taken with the retro take on Superman, hearkening back to the 40s rendition of the character, making him even more successful as straight-man against the Bugs Bunny antics of the Ambush Bug and the Bowery Boys bumbling of the Subs.  Sadly, his attack on the Bug only allows the villain to steal away his iconic red cape, leading to a moment that still makes me laugh every time I think about it…

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The poor citizen (or whatever he is) is saved by the second-most competent member of the Substitute Heroes, Color Kid.  (The most competent one remains embedded head-first in the hyper-concrete of Weisinger Plaza, which should tell you all you need to know there.)  Ambush Bug finds his way to the single worst place he could possibly end up, The Superman Museum, while the hero tracks down Ambush Bug’s drones…

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Superman’s ruminations about the origins of the technology are pretty funny, given that it is revealed that the Ambush Bug costume was rocketed from a dead planet and attacked by a radioactive space spider…  or something.  The story changed pretty much each time it was told, anyway.  The Substitute Heroes confront the villain, but only succeed in getting in Superman’s way, while the villain’s own wackjobbery keeps him from realizing what the museum pieces mean.  (He actually falls across a statue commemorating Superman’s secret identity of Clark Kent, but still thinks he’s at Epcot Center.)

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Heh.  “I’m sure you do, dearie.”  Leaping away through the halls of the Superman Museum, A.B. is suddenly confronted by a sign (in ENGLISH, mind you) that reads “Do Not Enter.”

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For those who don’t remember the Silver Age (Hi, Zach!), that device is a Phantom Zone projector, a perfect way to sideline crazy villains temporarily while the Science Police whip up a device to keep Ambush Bug under wraps.  The Man Of Steel even learns to appreciate (in a manner of speaking) the Substitute Heroes methods…

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Heh.  Poor Stone Boy…  I first read this book in an anthology digest celebrating the greatest stories of the year, and I wholeheartedly support its inclusion there.  It’s very hard to do comedy well, especially in a superhero setting, but Giffen, Levitz and Schaffenberger hit a perfect balance of goofy to serious, with Superman serving as the perfect straight man for the whole thing.  This is the first story that actually addressed the silliness of the Substitute Heroes in-universe, and although later stories would seriously devalue the characters by going back to the wackiness well a few times too often (actually, the same thing happened with Ambush Bug, come to think of it), this issue balances it quite well, and is pretty spectacular visually as well.  DC Comics Presents #59 flies high and changes the destiny of half a dozen heroes in the process of telling a fun and entertaining story, well and truly earning its 5 out of 5 stars.

Rating: ★★★★★

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