Superman: The Adventures of Nightwing and FlamebirdWritten by: Cary Bates, Paul Kupperberg
Inks by: Allen Milgrom, Romeo Tanghal
I love the Silver Age of Comics. The period encompassing the mid-1950s through the late 1960s is one of my favorite eras of the entire genre. Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent had led to the crackdown of the Comics Code, which put EC Comics and their various horror, crime, and suspense publications out of business. In the wake of the Code, DC Comics underwent a second renaissance under the editorial leadership of Julie Schwartz, who reintroduced Golden Age heroes like the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Atom with a science fiction spin in keeping with the UFO/Sci-Fi (an ugly term, but apt for the period) craze sweeping the nation. The Marvel Age of Comics, with it's heroes burdened with their own personal drama in addition to the perils common to the superheroic community, was just around the corner. DC's big three; Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, had been going strong since the 1930s, although by the dawn of the Silver Age their adventures had been running continuously for about twenty-odd years apiece, and it could be a struggle to keep the concepts fresh.
It was in the Silver Age that so much of Superman's rich mythology really locked into place; Krypton as Utopian paradise, the Fortress of Solitude, the Phantom Zone, Supergirl. . .and the Bottled City of Kandor. Truly one of the more bizarre (not Bizarro, we'll cover him another time) creations of the time, the city was once a thriving community on Superman's home planet of Krypton that had been shrunk down and placed in a bottle by the android villain brainiac as an addition to his growing collection of alien cultures. This spared the people of Kandor when Krypton exploded and one day Brainiac's marauding took him to Earth where he ran afoul of Superman, who managed to liberate Kandor from Brainiac's clutches and return them to his Fortress of Solitude. Unfortunately, while Superman could devise temporary ways to shrink himself down and enlarge the populace contained within, he could never find a lasting solution to their predicament. That was the supreme irony of the concept; there was an entire city of millions of Kryptonians alive and well. . .and stuck at mere inches in height.
With Kandor, Superman could visit Krypton, or at the very least a piece of it, which led to some interesting stories (the creation of the Superman Emergency Squad being one of them; a band of Kandorian heroes who would journey beyond the bottle where--while tiny--they still gained the full suite of superpowers common to Kryptonians under a yellow sun, clad in little red and blue uniforms to aid Superman should he ever need them). . .and the sheer insanity which I'm about to share with you. Submitted for your approval: Nightwing and Flamebird, the Batman and Robin of Kandor!
During a visit to Kandor, Superman and his pal Jimmy Olsen soon discover they're public enemy #1 due to a villain's plot, claiming Superman has kept the people of Kandor as 'pets' when he had the means to enlarge the city all along. On the run from the lynch mob, they seek sanctuary with a friend of Superman's father Jor-El, who doesn't believe the outlandish claims of the villain and shelters Superman and Jimmy while they plan their next move. Realizing he'll be captured the instant he steps outside in his brightly-colored Superman attire, and powerless beneath Kandor's simulated red sun, Kal-El decides to crib from his pal Bruce Wayne's playbook and creates the secret identities of Nightwing and Flamebird, two very. . .familiar caped crusaders based on two avian creatures native to Krypton. With the aid of some Batman-esque gadgets and Kandorian super-science (not the least of which are a pair of sweet rocket belts), Nightwing and Flamebird save the day, with Kal and Jimmy cleared of the false charges while saving the city from potential destruction.
It was an insanely goofy one-off story. . .but apparently it must've clicked with the reading audience, because every once in a while Nightwing and Flambird would return. The costumed identities were eventually inherited by Kal-El's cousin Van-Zee(who was practically Kal's twin. . .it's comicbooks people) and ex-Phantom Zone convict Ak-Var, who became the second pair of heroes to don domino mask and rocket belt to roam the streets of Kandor in the Nightmobile (seriously), battling Kandorian criminals and mad scientists and ensuring their city is safe for the law-abiding and the just. Throw in a secret base known as the Nightcave(yep), and you get a recipe for something very familiar. . .but something a bit unique as well. The stories collected in the Adventures of Nightwing and Flamebird are backup tales to the Superman comics of the 1970s, so more than ten years later the adventures of Kandor's dynamic duo were still entertaining readers.
By no means is this collection a reinvention of the genre a la Watchmen or Kingdom Come, but it is quite entertaining. There's just something so wonderfully absurd about seeing the Batman archetypes played with in the Superman universe, especially in the city of Kandor, which we see as futuristic and solemn, a place of high science, portentous announcements, and Marlon Brando. The art ranges from '50s art deco (Schaffenberger) to 1970s Neal Adams/Gil Kane hybrid (Rogers), but Kandor's Utopian look remains largely intact. Van-Zee and Ak-Var aren't quite Bruce Wayne or Dick Grayson, but a pair of heroes with some interesting quirks. Van is a scientist, husband, and father trying to ensure Kandor's continued safety while Ak-Var is an ex-con who's gotten a second chance at a better life and is determined not to squander it. The villains here aren't the grotesque carnival of Batman's rogues gallery, but rather mad scientists, monsters, and other assorted menaces that might plague such a science fiction setting. Brainiac makes a return appearance, and gradually an overarching plot develops in the form of a criminal mastermind known only as the Crime Lord, an evil genius gathering various Kryptonian relics who turns out to be. . .but that'd be telling, wouldn't it?
In a marketplace where each month seems to bring another 'Event'--that you absolutely must read now because things will never be the same again--The Adventures of Nightwing and Flamebird is a relic of a bygone era. A time when a backup feature only had 10-12 pages to entertain, and the creative teams made damn sure you left with your money's worth. The concept was absurd, but it's made to work so well that the occasional cheesiness (Nightcave? Really?) can be forgiven for the sake of a cracking fun adventure story. If a nit has to be picked, it's in the fact that the debut story for the concept isn't included in this collection, but is instead found in the Superman: The Bottle City of Kandor trade. Which is understandable, (it is one of the better Kandor-based stories) but still a bit of a letdown for those wanting the total NW&FB stories in one location.
Nightwing and Flamebird appear to be undergoing a third renaissance in the pages of Action Comics, with yet another character pair in the title role. For a simple, done-in-one anthology of fun Batman-esque tales with a Superman twist that's enjoyable for readers ages eight to eighty, you'd do well to give The Adventures of Nightwing and Flamebird a read. Recommended.