(Homo) Superior vs. Inferior (Five)
By 1966, industry leader National Comics (now better known as DC) was all too aware that the recently re-energized Marvel Comics was rapidly gaining on them in popularity. Upstart that it was, and keen to cultivate a hip image, Marvel was well-known for ribbing its competition, and the staid, conservative National proved an easy target. However, the editors at National were not above striking back, and the vehicle for one of their most elaborate spoofs of Marvel was their own lampoon of the superhero genre, the Inferior Five.
In their third try-out appearance in the anthology title Showcase (#65), written by E. Nelson Bridwell with art by Mike Sekowsky & Mike Esposito, the hapless team of superhero wannabees encounter this familiar-looking quintet of super-powered students:
The X-Men may have seemed ripe for parody at this time, as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had already passed the book on to other creators (Roy Thomas & Werner Roth), who could not generate the same chaotic dynamism found in the title’s early issues. Although, as it was hardly one of Marvel’s top books, we can say it may have been too easy a target, and one may wonder why National singled this property out for special ridicule.
The tale opens at Dean Egghead’s Academy for Super-Heroes, as the entire staff walks out and leaves the Dean to fend for himself with his rambunctious students. Dean Egghead is a straightforward caricature of Professor X, and even shares his telepathic powers.
When no superheroes will answer the Dean’s call for help, he turns to the Inferior Five, recruiting them as his new faculty. As they enter his Academy for the first time, he introduces them to his five uncanny students. Rather than “mutants” like the X-Men, these students are described as being “atavistic,” i.e. throwbacks to earlier epochs. Therefore, instead of seeing the next stage in human evolution, we are presented with evolution working backwards, suggesting these characters are even more “inferior” than the Inferior Five.
The star pupil (who also gets the most “screen time”) is Harry McElhinney / The Ape, a bookish monkey-man who sends up Henry McCoy / The Beast.
Next we meet Irish Autumns / Basilisk, a clever parody of the similarly mythology-themed Scott Summers / Cyclops. Rather than red force beams, his eyes emit a white ray that turns people to stone. Despite the mis-aligned word balloon pointer, it is the Dean who is speaking.
We are then introduced to the brown-winged Melvin Murgatroyd XIV / Icarus, a tow-headed and uncouth youngster who is the opposite of the glamorous Warren Worthington III / The Angel.
Next up is Billy Gander / Winter Wonderlad, a goof on Bobby Drake / Iceman. Rather than turning into either a snowman or a human ice-sculpture, Billy becomes a walking iceberg by encasing himself in the stuff.
Lastly, we meet Penelope Pink / Levitation Lass, a dark-haired version of Jean Grey / Marvel Girl. With the help of the Inferior Five’s resident airhead, Dumb Bunny, Penelope immediately ditches her saggy-baggy school uniform for the more revealing version seen above.
Like the X-Men, the heroes-in-training at Dean Egghead’s Academy also have villainous counterparts, a rival team that is diametrically opposed to their do-gooding philosophy. Instead of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, we are presented with the Fraternity of Atavistic No-Goodniks.
Frog Man is an obvious analogue to the Toad, and Pterano Don Juan bears a passing resemblance to Mastermind. The Amoeba may be a take-off on the Blob, and I can only assume that Angel Fish must stand in for the Scarlet Witch. I guess there’s a sort of logic to replacing a witch with a mermaid, both being creatures of folklore. Their leader, Dr. Dinosaur, really has nothing in common with Magneto, but he is the only truly funny concept in the book, as his special power is that he has two brains – one in his head and one in his ass. Hence the two-pronged attack needed to bring him down:
Curiously, during the heroes’ field-trip to the big city, Bridwell throws in a random dig at the long-running rivalry between the Fantastic Four’s Thing and the Yancy Street Gang, which, while making for a decent gag, seems a bit out of place.
Marvel Comics would get a little of their own back about a year later with the publication of their own lampoon comic Not Brand Ecch, which would send up DC’s characters in a similar fashion.
Stan Lee has since said in interviews that he intentionally played up the idea of an intercompany rivalry “to make it fun” for the readers, and no doubt in order to inspire brand loyalty among the fans. He claims to have enjoyed a jovial camaraderie with the personnel over at National Comics, and the good-natured spoof of one of Marvel’s franchises seen in this issue of Showcase seems to support his view.