End of Summer

The Dibny Mystery Casebook

by Michael Hutchison
Art by Melissa Wilson and Bob Riley

Despite the title on Batman's book, he doesn't play "detective" all that often (for more on that, see the previous article). In fact, for an entire decade (1965-1975), a stretchable bon vivant named Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man, tackled many bizarre cases as a back-up feature in Detective Comics.

During the Silver Age, Batman's adventures did sometimes involve mysteries. But more often, he'd devote his imposing brainpower to getting out of complex deathtraps, fighting unfrozen cavemen, avoiding rampaging elephants, surviving the Outsider, putting up with Batgirl fretting about a run in her tights (It happened! "Batgirl's Costume Cutups" in Detective #371) and trying to figure out why Robin is betraying him again (that happened about every three months during the '60s).

While Batman was trying to figure out why the Batmobile had come to life and was attacking him, Elongated Man was solving such mysteries as:

  • a purple pony
  • a farmer whose barn door is stolen
  • a reverse pickpocket who puts money in Ralph's pocket
  • a gypsy who foresees crimes
  • a jewelry shop owner who's given a $100 dollar bill but first sees it as a ten-spot
  • his wife, Sue, suddenly speaking fluent French
  • a dead man wearing scuba gear in the middle of the Mohave Desert
  • a puppy on a leash which becomes invisible
  • Sue casting magical spells which actually work from a book she finds in a hotel
  • a man carrying a horse
  • a blonde, female stranger who kisses him and calls him "cousin Jim"
  • a model ship with a working compass which malfunctions at the same time every day.
…and many more. Elongated Man appeared as an irregular back-up feature in Detective Comics starting with issue #327 and running to #436. After that, he appeared in only a few more stories ending with the mystery of an undiscovered manuscript by Edgar Allen Poe in issue #500.

Ralph and Sue

The formula of these mysteries is a fun one. Ralph Dibny and his debutante wife, Sue, travel America and the world. No matter which town he's in, Ralph manages to stumble upon some bizarre scenario which gets his mystery-sniffing nose twitching and he runs off to solve it. Usually, Sue is not too happy about it, as she has her heart set on shopping or touring the new town. Now, given that there always IS a crime for him to solve, it's odd that she whines about it every time. Fortunately, Sue is no slouch in the brains department either. She soon learns to cope and sometimes even encourage Ralph in his mystery solving. A few times she even tackles a case herself, such as when Ralph boards a plane with a woman who looks just like her.

Life for the Dibnys is an endless vacation. They are comfortably wealthy, as she's an heiress and he made a fortune on media appearances. (I should point out that, thanks to the Zero Hour ten-year timeline, Elongated Man appeared, made his fortune, revealed his identity, got married and retired from show biz within the space of about six weeks!) By "comfortably wealthy" I mean that they have enough money for a sporty convertible, hotel rooms, shopping trips, boat rentals, the occasional chinchilla coat (#338) and even, when necessary, purchasing telescopic arms and expandable stilts so that Sue can masquerade as Elongated Woman (#456-457).

It would be bliss…if not for the pesky strange events that always seem to find their way into his life. Of course, as Ralph's fame as Elongated Man and as a detective spread, the mysteries begin to invite their way into his life. People begin to recognize him and start arousing his curiosity intentionally, such as the medium that tips Ralph off to a crime as a way for paying him back for the way her father once gypped Ralph out of a sum of money.

The stories are often very well written. And why not? The authors include John Broome (Elongated Man's creator), Gardner Fox, Bob Rozakis and other luminaries of the comics field.

As for the art chores, all of the early stories were done by the illustrious Carmine Infantino (during the peak of his form, in my opinion). Carmine will always be known for his method of illustrating the Flash's high-speed adventures, but the Elongated Man's fight scenes are equally awe-inspiring. Whereas many later illustrators get lazy with Elongated Man and merely have him tackle people by balling them up in a pile of arms and legs, Carmine shows Ralph to be a very efficient hand-to-hand combatant. In one story (Detective #335), he has several fantastic fight scenes. First, he tackles three gunmen with one rotating punch. Later, he takes on the same men in a small cabin without ever actually entering the room!
The Dibnys by Melissa Wilson

Ralph and Sue truly are a cute couple, all the more so because they're not 'perfect' like other heroes in the comics at that time. He's a bit of a ham, signing autographs and enjoying his celebrity (although he's not universally known; in issue #456, a young boy calls out "Thank you, Mr. Stretch-Man!" and he considers getting a press agent). And while he loves Sue, he can be a bit of a thoughtless lunk when he's distracted by a mystery.

Sue is impish and attractive, although her character takes a while to develop. (She is modeled, by the way, on Shirley Maclaine; I should mention that Shirley was prettier, younger and much less wacky at the time.) At first, she is rather shallow and prone to tantrums, but eventually she becomes more than just a charicature. Sue is still materialistic and a tad spoiled, though not fatally so. In fact, it often seems like she's merely playing a part, in the same way that Ralph is a serious detective adopting a light-hearted tone to his crime fighting.

I made a surprising discovery when I decided to track down all of the "Dibny Mysteries." Several years ago, I began writing some fan fiction that required Elongated Man knowing Batman's identity. Due to Denny O'Neill's decree that very few people know who Batman is (despite published stories to the contrary), I had to come up with a reason for Ralph to know Batman's identity. I came up with a pretty believable reason: given his insatiable curiosity, maybe Ralph just likes to figure out superhero secret identities in his spare time! (You'll notice that I have used that concept in this month's "Air Force Two" as well.) You can imagine my shock when I bought Detective #350 and it turns out he really does do that! "Pieface" Kalmaku reveals Green Lantern's name to Elongated Man so that the two can find out why he's behaving strangely. Once they solve the mystery, Elongated Man asks Green Lantern to wipe out his memory so that he can discover GL's secret on his own. I guess great minds really DO think alike!

If you'd like to learn more about Elongated Man, the Library of Fanzing recommends stopping by Dibny Dirt. It's the only Elongated Man site on the Web and it contains a growing list of his appearances. Once ye olde editor puts this issue to bed, I plan to add several dozen more stories from the Detective run.

I hope this helps you to understand just why Ralph Dibny holds a special place in my heart, as well as perhaps opening up a new realm of back issues for you to collect.

One final bit, which is a little off the subject of this column: Elongated Man is really getting the short end of the stick lately.

Writer James Robinson has referred to him in Starman as Ralph Digby not once but twice (amazingly, this mistake has gotten by two different editors as well); I'm beginning to wonder if some newspaper in Opal City got his name wrong and everyone in Opal is under the misconception. Considering Ralph is a rare coin collector, maybe it's about time he visited a certain junk store in Opal City and set the record straight.

In DC One Million #1, Plastic Man disses Elongated Man for not having a personality and suggests that the JLA wasted their time having EM for a member.

In The JLA Gallery, Elongated Man is the only JLoA member who never appears!

During Hal Jordan's funeral, Green Lantern's friend Elongated Man got seated WAY in the back with Black Lightning while the Legion of Superheroes (who never have met Hal in current continuity) gets to sit in the front.

In JLA: Year One, Elongated Man never appears. Mark Waid e-mailed me to say that neither Ralph nor Kid Flash were around at the time, but they both appeared around the same time as the Starro case (which the JLA handled off-panel around issue #5 if I recall correctly) so they would have been around by issue #12. I can forgive this one, given Waid's appreciation for Ralph and Wally; he probably would have had them in if he'd taken another look at the DC Timeline.

(I won't make much of the fact that Elongated Man is wearing the wrong costume on the cover of the new collected Crisis On Infinite Earths. With a few hundred characters, it's understandable that Perez or Ross could make a costuming mistake with one or two of them. I'd just like to say that I was the first one to spot it! I winder if I get a prize? Say, a free copy of the hardcover edition?)

HOWEVER, I'm happy to say that Ralph is alive and well and can be seen in the current JLA-Titans book (albeit in his costume from the early 80s). Devin Grayson, I could kiss you if that wasn't considered sexual harassment nowadays! This almost makes up for killing off Nemesis.

is Editor-In-Chief of Fanzing.com. He is the world's biggest Elongated Man fan and runs the only EM fan site. He lives in Rochester, MN.
AIM: Fanzinger
ICQ: 70101007

Bob Riley (1970-2001) was a fan artist with a flair for Timm-style animated art. He worked with several industry pros and helped design numerous graphics for Fanzing. See Bob Riley's tribute here.

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All characters are ™ DC Comics
This column is © 1998 by Michael Hutchison.
All artwork is © 1998 by Bob Riley and Melissa Wilson.
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Updated 3/7/2007