Thursday, November 5, 2009

Graphically Speaking: Showcase Presents Eclipso

Words: Christopher Irving

Solar eclipses aren’t everyday occurrences. Reading the Showcase Presents volume of ‘60s Eclipso stories makes me wonder why Bob Haney ever thought inventing a Jekyll and Hyde-type hero/villain whose change is brought on by this rare happening was a good premise for a recurring feature. Yet, that’s what he does, and he bends and rewrites the rules along the way in the typical manner of Silver Age silliness.

Which is all the more reason to love Eclipso.

First created by Haney and the Caniff-inspired Lee Elias in 1963’s House of Secrets #61, Eclipso is the evil spirit that possesses philanthropic scientist Bruce Gordon. Scratched by an evil witch doctor’s black diamond, Gordon finds himself infected, becoming the evil Eclipso during a solar eclipse. It just so happens that he transforms on the same day he opens up his solar-powered city (called, unsurprisingly, Solar City), and the city is laid waste by Eclipso. Dressed in a black and purple outfit, with a headpiece, and a crescent-shaped mark on his face, Eclipso looks too goofy to feel threatening—at least until Alex Toth takes over the art chores.

Alex Toth Eclipso Not to denigrate Elias’ amazing artwork, which has a powerful ink line and spectacular design. His work, however, is too realistic for a superhero strip, especially a character as silly-looking as Eclipso. But when Toth takes on the feature with the third story, staying on for five stories; sure, the stories may feature the usual Haney craziness (an Eclipso robot, a giant bird, and an enormous alien worm), but they’re damn beautiful to look at. Under Toth’s hand, Eclipso took on a more devilish appearance, with his ears stretching out to points and a malevolence that made him a threat. Toth was the master of “less is more” in comic book design, drawing the eye around the panels and page with heavy black shapes, his characters possessing a life-like quality that didn’t rely on constipated and overly-detailed “photorealistic” techniques.

The stories are not Haney’s best, as he rewrites the premise of the “hero and villain in one man”, even redefining what constitutes an eclipse (in Eclipso’s world, passing a solid disk over a spotlight causes Gordon to Eclipso out). He cleverly fixed it so that Eclipso merely splits from Gordon, making the book more about Gordon vs. his evil alter ego, freeing him up to further write Eclipso. Haney is one of the more under-rated Silver Age DC writers, especially for his dense and packed Brave and the Bold stories

Showcase Eclipso
After Toth’s departure, Jack Sparling takes over art chores, and the book takes a nosedive in quality. Where Toth had dynamic panel design, Sparling settles for a pedestrian and static approach to panel layout, with characters all at eye level and often facing forward. The final issues cross over with Prince Ra-Man, one of the lamest DC heroes this side of a talking ape, leaving the end of the book harder to get through.

But, still, considering Showcase Presents Eclipso only costs $10, it’s well worth picking up for the Elias and Toth work alone.