Welcome back. DC First Issue Special wasn't just a place where new concepts could debut and fail. It was also a place where older characters could be dusted off and fail. I present: Metamorpho, the Element Man.
Metamorpho, like the Doom Patrol and Ultra the Multi-Alien, was a response by some DC staffers to the surging popularity of Marvel's freak/monster heroes--The Thing, the Hulk, the X-Men, etc.
Most of the top brass at DC were a bit mystified by Marvel's early success. One editor--Mort Weisinger I believe--was heard to remark "I guess kids like ugly art these days."
But some forward-thinking guys at DC (Bob Haney, Bob Kanigher, Arnold Drake, and others) saw the appeal of the tragic, outsider heroes Marvel was coming up with, and attempted to work the same magic at DC.
You could say Rex Mason was the "Ben Grimm" of Silver Age DC. Running afoul of an artifact called the Orb of Ra, he was transformed into a misshapen freak with the power to change into any element. He has a troubled romantic interest in Sapphire Stagg, because (a) he's a freak; (b) Sapphire's dad, Simon Stagg, is a megalomaniac who hates Rex; and (c) Sapphire's dad's manservant is an unfrozen caveman who wants to kill Rex and take Sapphire for himself. OK, those might be the sort of tragic elements you might find in a Marvel comic. But we're putting a square peg into a round hole here, and I'll demonstrate why Metamorpho was never an A-lister among DC readers. His comics haven't been big sellers historically, and this issue--despite reuniting Metamorpho's original creative team of Bob (Teen Titans, Brave & the Bold) Haney and Ramona (Aquaman, Brenda Starr) Fradon--was no exception.
You know, originally, his power was to change into any element found in the human body, but it's a rule at DC that if you hang around long enough your power will probably increase exponentially. It's how Superman went from leaping tall buildings to pushing planets out of orbit and breaking the time barrier. It's how Wally West became the personification of velocity, Wonder Woman became Goddess of Truth, Billy Batson turned into a super-wizard, and Booster Gold became guardian of the timelines. It's what DC does.
OK, see that? Right there, Metamorpho is a pansy by the standards of Marvel heroes. He can just put a mask on! Can Ben Grimm just put a mask on? No, because he weighs like a ton and he's as wide as an SUV. Nightcrawler had a holographic image inducer, but he used it once in a blue moon. Nightcrawler ain't got nothing to hide. Put a mask on Rex Mason and bam, he blends into society. When trouble strikes, he pulls it off and assumes his secret identity of The Element Man. You know, just like damn near every other DC hero.
Side note: Are you thinking Sapphire tends to say, "Rex, honey, let's do it with the mask on."
OK, what the hell's this plot? Some ghostly Frenchman is wrecking historical landmarks in Washington DC. He's Dr. Destinee, but no relation to the JLA villain Dr. Destiny, who predates this story. During the War of 1812 he approached President James Madison with a mysterious "chemical warfare" device he found back when Napoleon invaded Egypt. Um, yeah.
When the Brits burned Washington DC, Destinee was killed, but his ghost haunts the city still. He's attacking national monuments in order to distract the authorities so he can retrieve the device from its hiding place. The authorities have been pretty much powerless to stop him, so concocting an intricate plan to distract them suggests a penchant for plot-padding worthy of a Scooby-Doo villain.
Anyhoo, in a mad chase for clues that will probably be ripped off for the plot of National Treasure 3, Rex and Destinee intercept each other at the secret hiding place only to find that Simon Stagg has beaten them to the device and is going to use it to...steal the gold out of Fort Knox?
I just want to point out that Metamorpho NEVER bothers to arrest Simon Stagg and take him to jail, EVEN when he does something like, oh I don't know, melting all the gold in Fort Knox.
Dude. This isn't like the post-Crisis dynamic between Superman and Lex Luthor. Simon Stagg doesn't even bother hiding the fact that he does dangerously illegal things on a monthly basis. I mean, this seems to suggest that wealthy people are above the law or something, and we all know that's not true.
Anyways, Destinee and the device are apparently destroyed in the pool of boiling gold, and Metamorpho explodes his way out by turning into flammable gas. The end.
So where is he now?: Since this story, Metamorpho joined Batman & the Outsiders, died, came back, joined the Justice League, had a kid, died, came back, accidentally duplicated himself, and joined Batman & the Outsiders again. That may seem like a large number of deaths, but I'm told that in an upcoming issue of JLA Red Tornado will die in every third panel.