Into the Bronze Age: August 1970 (Part 5)

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Here we are at our penultimate post for the month of August.  Thank you for joining me again in this mad little venture.  This post features another Superman tale…so, that’s a thing.  It also features the next iteration of Manhunter 2070, which I’ve quite been looking forward to.  So, without further ado, let’s dive right in.

Roll Call (You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #391
  • Aquaman #52
  • Batman #224
  • Teen Titans #28
  • Detective Comics #402
  • The Flash #199
  • Justice League #82
  • Phantom Stranger #8
  • Showcase #92
  • Superman #229
  • World’s Finest #195

Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.

Showcase #92

showcase_vol_1_92“D.O.A.”
Writer: Mike Sekowsky
Penciler: Mike Sekowsky
Inker: Frank Giacoia

We return again to the most promising feature to come to Showcase in quite some time, Manhunter 2070, and the question that we must ask is, does it live up to the four-colored glory that was the first issue?  Well, in terms of the story, it absolutely does.  This book presents us with the origin of the titular Manhunter, Starker, and it is an origin story that would be very well suited to a movie.  It’s a classic tale of loss and revenge, and it definitely brings our laconic hero of the first issue into better focus, deepening his character and providing good, solid motivation for his adventures.  The only weakness is the art.  Sekowsky’s unevenness is back with a vengeance.  While some of the same creative energy and striking design is in evidence, it is a bit more limited as the setting doesn’t admit to as much wonder, taking place mostly on a ship instead of on a wild alien world.  There are also some panels that are simply a bit awkward, even ugly.  Nevertheless, the story is strong enough to cover over a multitude of sins, and even when Sekowsky’s art isn’t particularly pretty, it’s usually interesting.

This is not your daddy’s silver age science fiction story.  As in the last issue, the stakes are high and the peril is real.  The villains are vicious, and the hero is willing to kill.  There is a maturity of tone here that is a bit surprising and quite enjoyable.

This bloody tale of vengeance starts with Starker taking his two lovely young guests from the previous issue back to their home.  They’re strolling through a nice sci-fi setting when a reward sheet for Starker himself from “The Brotherhood of Space” prompts the telling of his tale.  After renting a spaceship from Hertz (which is a strange and fun little detail), the bounty hunter begins his story.

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It all started when he was a boy, accompanying his asteroid miner father on an expedition.  His father had just struck it rich when a band of pirates arrived to steal the claim.  When his father resists, the five raiders blast him down, right in front of his son.  The captain orders the boy killed as well, as he never leaves witnesses, but the cook, Slops, asks for the boy to be taken on to help him in the kitchen.  This is no kindly act, however, as both we and Starker learn as soon as they are back aboard ship.  Slops belts the boy, just to show him his place, and he proceeds to work the youth like a slave.

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Starker watches in terror as time passes and the pirates loot ships and murder innocent spacers, but he also watches, waits, and remembers.  Rage burns within him, and he begins to plot his revenge as fear turns into a cold, sharp hatred.  He learns from his captors, and in quiet moments he steals away to the deserted portions of the ship and hones his skills, driven to be better, faster, and stronger than any of them.

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He makes his first step by beating Slops and claiming his job.  The pirates look on with approval, and he is granted greater freedom to develop his plans.  Finally, one day he makes his move, first disabling all the escape craft, and then ambushing a lone buccaneer and stealing his weapons.  I like the continuity of setting that Sekowsky provides by giving us the same kinds of weapons and devices.  He’s doing a good job of making his particular space-future more realized.

Now armed, Starker begins to hunt the men who murdered his father, and there are five names on his list.  What follows seems like the makings of a good Clint Eastwood movie.  He kicks open a door and interrupts a card game between three of the marauders, but only one of them is his man.  He tells the others that they can live if they don’t interfere, but they all draw on him.  In a nice page, he outdraws them and manages to drop all three.  It’s not a bad scene, and the tension and action is well handled.

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dc showcase 092-17.jpgWith this fiery exchange, the cat is out of the bag.  The pirate captain spots the young man on his surveillance cameras, and our neophyte warrior uses the opportunity to tell his prey he’s coming for him.  It’s a good moment.  The raiders start hunting for their nemesis, and Starker once again displays his resourcefulness and nerve.  He knocks out a light in a cargo hold and, when a party of buccaneers prowls through, he ambushes the last man, strangling him to death!  This second victim is another of one of the murderers Starker is hunting.  Afterwards, he gets the drop on the rest of the patrol, and, after tying them up, he moves to the next stage of his plan.

The crusading youth puts on a helmet and floods the ship’s life support system with paralytic gas.  This disables all of the crew except for the last three, conveniently, the last three of the murderers.  They spread out to hunt him down, and one by one, Starker takes them down in a dramatic series of showdowns.  Fittingly, he beats each of them with their signature weapon.

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His job done, and clearly more than drained by the experience, Starker flies the rest of the crew to a Space Patrol station and turns them in, becoming instantly wealthy from their bounties.  His face in the last panel is an excellent touch by Sekowsky.  You can see the strain and the disappointment.  It’s not touched on in the text at all, but there’s a certain melancholy in the end here that is fitting for a good revenge tale.  After all, no amount of vengeance can ever bring his father back.  Finally, his story told, Starker leaves the young ladies with their family and heads back out into space, destined for another adventure.

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This is an excellent story, just high-quality adventure fare.  It is a classic revenge story, well-told, and Starker is likable, sympathetic, and eventually impressive in his fortitude, courage, and capability.  There’s really not too much to say about it, other than I thoroughly enjoyed the read.  While the art is a little rough, it is still worth a good 4.5 Minutemen.

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Superman #229

superman_v-1_229“The Ex-Superman!”
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Roussos

“Clark Kent, Assassin!”
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Wayne Boring
Inker: Wayne Boring

Urg.  This is a bizarre and, frankly, just plain goofy pairing of tales.  They have ridiculously poor plots and characterization that makes no real sense.  Once again, I have a feeling that the entire cobbled together first story is just an excuse for what someone considered a neat image for a cover.  In short, Superman books remain a real slog.

This first tale is the continuation of last issue’s feature, and while not as boring as that one, it makes up for it by being bonkers.  Plus, Superman causes multiple deaths!  Yay!  ‘How’ you may ask?  After all, Superman doesn’t kill, right?  Well, pretty recently he’s talked about his code against killing, but apparently he’s totally fine with letting people die or even causing their deaths, just not doing it with his own hands.  This is, of course, wildly inconsistent with the character and his ethos and, because Dorfman clearly wasn’t really paying attention, it is given absolutely no focus or exploration, making the deviation pretty unforgivable.

We pick up where we left off, for whatever that is worth.  The Metropolis Marvel, now not so marvelous or in Metropolis, is hurtling through space towards the ‘Execution Planet.’  Sure.  We’re told his space enemies conspired to make this happen, but that is immediately dropped.  On the planet, we see an inventive execution that is not inventive enough, resulting in the execution of the executioner by just shooting him…I’m detecting something of a double standard here.

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Superman’s ship lands, and he is escorted past a slave camp.  Remember that exists.  At the execution palace, the Man of Steel is shown three different fates that he may choose from, each a terrible transformation, all used on living creatures, by the way, so fairly nasty for a book like this.  The Man of Tomorrow chooses a gas that will turn him into a plant, trapping him in a living death, but when these expert executioners start with the executing, they just…leave him in the middle of the room.  He’s not restrained, he’s not drugged, he’s not even hobbled.  Nothing at all, not so much as a stern glance.  Unsurprisingly, he dodges out of the way and turns the tables on his captors.  How have these guys managed to build an entire culture around execution if they’re so bad at it?

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Here’s the troubling bit.  Superman uses one of the other devices to reflect the gas back on his captors, totally killing an entire gang of them.  So, they were hoisted on their own petard, which is usually a way for writers to get around killing off villains without having the hero get his hands dirty, but it was caused, not by the overreach of the bad guys, but by Superman’s direct actions.  That is really not okay.  I can’t see any way in which he’s not culpable for those deaths.  But Dorfman isn’t about to slow down enough to consider the question.

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The de-powered Kryptonian flees to the river and escapes to the slave camp.  Remember them?  There, and stay with me now, because this is where the story starts zigging and zagging wildly, he runs into a champion who is dressed in a costume like his own.  Strange.  The man challenges the hero to a fight to assert his dominance, but Superman manages to defeat him.  The slave explains that the costume is worn by their mightiest man to honor a hero who saved his people long ago on a distant world.  Ooookay.  He awards it to Supes, since the former Man of Steel defeated him.  Part of the costume is a cape-like glider, and he uses this to take a ceremonial flight.

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Just then, a girl is taken from the encampment by the guards and hauled away to be sacrificed to their god of death.  Superman uses the glider cape that, for some reason, the captors let the slaves keep (once again, these executioner guys are REALLY bad at their jobs) to scale the wall.  He arrives at the admittedly cool-looking skull altar, but it seems he is too late.  The girl’s clothes are on the ground before the ‘god,’ and she has presumably been sacrificed.  What does Superman do?  Well…he…laughs…a lot.  It makes about as much sense as Batman’s attack of the giggles at the end of the Killing Joke, I suppose.  His mirthful madness is ended when the girl shows up out of nowhere, still in her clothes, somehow, and slaps him.

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She then reveals that she is Supergirl in disguise.  She came looking for her cousin and took the girl’s place to protect her.  She overpowered the Executioners, and then she watched passively and patiently as they committed suicide in their defeat by filing into the flaming altar.  Wow.  That’s…awful.  Maybe she didn’t kill them like her cousin, but she certainly didn’t lift a finger to save them…or even so much as voice dissent.  There is a lot of blood on Super-Hands in this issue.

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Well, by now you have likely completely forgotten how all of this started, and we aren’t even done yet!  Maid of Steel tells Man of Steel how she came to be there and offers a goofy, one panel explanation for how he lost his powers.  It’s hardly even worth summarizing, but I suppose I’ve set out to do a job here.  *sigh*  So, apparently Supes flew through ‘red space dust,’ which acts like red kryptonite but infected his suit, causing an allergic reaction that drained his powers.  I’m so glad that mystery was worth solving.

As the pair prepares to leave, Superman wonders about the odd coincidence of the slaves and their costume, and Supergirl helpfully fills him in with further exposition that is not at all tacked on and pointless.  Again, it’s hardly worth summarizing.  Basically, the man of Tomorrow reversed his sobriquet and went back into the distant past and saved an Atlantis-like civilization from a disaster…which really seems like it would screw with history like there was no tomorrow.  Then those people took their advanced city and went into space because the Earth was too dangerous.  They became the descendents of the current slaves.

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Confused?  Don’t see how all of this fits together?  That’s because it’s a weird, nonsensical morass of ideas.  This is not the charming, exuberant excess of creativity of a Stan and Jack book, or even the fun zaniness of better Bob Haney.  There are some neat ideas here, like the Executioners and their death-centric culture.  In fact, most of the individual elements of the story could have supported a tale of their own, and would have been vastly improved by having the room to breath that such an opportunity would afford them.  Instead, they’re discarded practically as quickly as they are introduced, and the cacophonous noise of their combination is just grating.  Combine that with the Super-Pair’s callous disregard for life and terrible characterization, and you’ve got a fairly lousy comic.  It has greater strengths than the previous issue, being much more creative, but it also has much greater weaknesses.  I’m giving it 1 Minuteman.  It’s a homemade super suit of badness.

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“Clark Kent, Assassin”

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How would you react if someone tried to kill you?  I’m guessing that you might be upset, angry, and you’d likely call the police.  Chances are you’d probably be pretty insistent that the would-be killer was punished, what with all of the attempted murder, right?  Wait a second, so you’re suggesting that a rational response to attempted murder might be slightly more intense than the mild  and passing annoyance you feel when someone bumps into you on the sidewalk?  Well apparently Leo Dorfman has a different idea.  The central complication of this issue is a repeated series of attempts on the Perry White’s life, as someone seems intent on uniting him with that ghost he keeps talking about.  The editor is very mildly peeved at this but seems entirely content to let it just keep happening, as if having the assassin arrested is entirely too much bother.  The portrayal is so unbelievably stupid and plot driven that it defies description, so let’s jump right in.

The tale opens at a dinner in honor of Perry White, hosted by none other than the Batman!  Wow.  This is probably the clearest example of the weird, halfway position of the Dark Knight at the moment.  In Detective Comics he’s haunting the shadows and grimly facing murderers and monsters.  Here, he’s standing in the middle of a crowded room and playing MC.  At the party, all of Perry’s friends sign a plaque with a diamond-edged stylus, and Clark does some stupid secret identity farce nonsense to change into Superman.  Sheesh, you’d think that Super-Brain of his would plan some of these things out in advance.  Anyway, the Man of Steel signs the plaque, and later, dressed as Clark again, examines a strange Kryptonian artifact he is investigating for the citizens of Kandor.  He taps the machine with his glasses, and then he immediately steals a knife and tries to make Perry-kabobs.  Striking the plaque instead, he flees and changes into Superman.

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In costume, he has no memory of what happened as Clark.  He flies back to the office, and Perry tells him that Clark is no longer so mild-mannered.  The hero, instead of being concerned that, you know, he’s blacked out and apparently tried to kill one of his best friends, pulls off one of the most ridiculous and unconvincing cover-ups ever.  He claims to spot Kent in a closet and goes inside to stage a conversation with…himself.  Okay, so far as that goes, it’s fine.  But when he emerges as Superman, he tells the Planet staff that he just let the attempted murderer go, and he’s sure he won’t do it again.  What?!

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He also helpfully makes Perry a bullet-proof vest out of printing plates instead of actually doing something sensible.  The editor is happy to wear it instead of, you know, insisting that the guy who just tried to kill him be arrested, or committed, or heck, even asked to explain himself.  What the heck must life at the Planet be like if they’re all so blase about this?  So what does Superman do next?  Does he go to the Fortress of Solitude and run some tests?  Does he go to Batman to get help solving the mystery?  Does he go to the League and surrender himself?  Of course not; he immediately changes back to Clark and tries again, this time with a gun.

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This time Perry actually asks for police protection, but he’s still not that worried about actually catching the man who has now TWICE tried to kill him.  The Man of Steel gives him a full suit of plate armor, and the no-nonsense editor accepts this as a perfectly reasonable alternative to Clark’s arrest.  Surely, this time the Man of Tomorrow will do something to figure out what is going on and…oh wait, no, he immediately changes back to Clark and tries to kill his boss with a grenade!

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Well, Superman finally begins to wonder what is going on, and he investigates the device he was researching.  He translates its inscription, and he realizes that it’s a hypnotic machine that can cause sleepwalking if not used properly.  He deduces that when his glasses touched it, they got charged with its energy, and every time he put them on he went into something like a trance.  He also figures out what he’s been trying to do while sleep-murdering.  He signed the plaque as both Superman and Clark, and he’s afraid someone will notice the similar signatures.  Once again, real smart there, Supes.  His subconscious mind was trying to destroy the plaque, and ‘rush in and smash it’ was about as good an idea as it could come up with.  I suppose that’s not bad for a subconscious.  So, he tries one more time, destroying the object completely with a ray gun and then pretending to come out of a trance.

Perry very helpfully suggests that he must have been under the control of a villain and seems to think absolutely no other vetting or followup is necessary.  Real good journalistic instincts there, White.  The best reporters always just blindly accept the first explanation that springs to mind.

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Like I said, “urg.”  The central conceit of this one is just so ridiculously stupid that I was astonished.  Characterization in comics is often broad and simple, and that’s fine.  It’s a product of the genre, especially earlier stories, but sometimes it is just bad, simply, objectively bad, as in these two stories, though for different reasons.  When characters don’t act consistently within the expectations you create in your setting, you’re failing, no matter what kind of story you’re telling.  This is definitely such a failure because of the conduct of both Perry White and Superman, who both come off like complete and total numb-skulls.  I’ll give this one a single Minuteman as well.

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That wraps it for this week, and a very mixed bag from these two issues.  We see the best and the worst of stories that.  These two books rather wonderfully illustrate the range of quality and approaches found in books of this era.  We’re seeing the advance of the medium and its dragging, dead-weight as well.  Join me soon for the final entry from this month!

 

Into the Bronze Age: August 1970 (Part 4)

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Well, we’re moving right along through August!  I’m hoping to get at least caught up to the proper month before September ends…and I’m behind again.  We’ll see if I can manage, but so far, so good.  In this post we have two interesting stories, and I’ve been rather looking forward to this one.  Be warned, I’m going to indulge my professional interest a bit with some philosophical and literary reflections about the second issue!

Roll Call (You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #391
  • Aquaman #52
  • Batman #224
  • Teen Titans #28
  • Detective Comics #402
  • The Flash #199
  • Justice League #82
  • Phantom Stranger #8
  • Showcase #92
  • Superman #229
  • World’s Finest #195

Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.

Justice League #82

jla_v-1_82“Peril of the Paired Planets”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

I enjoyed this story much more than I expected to.  At first blush, I rather thought it was going to be on the goofy side, and it does have its moments.  Nonetheless, the final effect is fairly enjoyable.  O’Neil’s run, though not completely stellar, continues to be strong overall.  In this issue, as with the Jestmaster, we once again get a promising concept that doesn’t have quite the right execution.  The villains of the piece are a race of aliens lead by a fellow named Creator² who build planets for a living, destroying existing ones to create the energy for the construction.  Anyone else reminded of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?  That’s right, the bad guy is Slartibartfast.  The stakes, complete planetary annihilation of not one, but TWO Earths, are certainly worthy of the Justice League, and the idea of an alien race that creates new planets by destroying old ones is the kind of thing that could totally work in the DC Universe.  Unfortunately, the aliens are rather goofy looking, and the concept just doesn’t entirely come together.  Another pass might do wonders.

As is, our tale begins with a very strange occurrence as Superman plummets from the sky, seemingly immobile and unconscious.  The League brings him to the Satellite, but they can find no explanation for his sudden illness.  Then, Batman suddenly falls victim to a similar phantom ailment and passes out.  The Leaguers (Flash, Atom, and Hawkman) call their missing members (Green Arrow, Green Lantern, and Black Canary, sadly, no mention of Aquaman…), hoping against hope that one of them will be able to solve this mystery.  I’m going to have to go ahead and call shenanigans on O’Neil for this.  If you’ve got your favorite characters out on walkabout in GA/GL, then you can’t just pull them in for every JLA issue.  It sort of wrecks the whole, ‘on hiatus’ thing.  Why not give some other characters more of a chance to shine if you’re so dedicated to the oddball story you’re telling with them?

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Anyway, we then discover what is going on through a flashback that takes us to Earth 2!  That’s right, we’re seeing a JLA/JSA crossover starting in this issue, and that is pretty exciting.  I love the concept of these events, even if the execution wasn’t always fantastic (a common trait with the JLA, unfortunately).  While I prefer my JSA as the Earth-1, WWII predecessors of the League, there is something undeniably fun about having the two sets of heroes being able to hang out from time to time.  I even told a time travel story in my second JLA campaign in the DCUG, just so I could bring all of these heroes together, with the rosters cleaned up for continuity purposes, of course.  There’s no need to have multiples of the same character running around.  I always hated it when we got two Supermen or two Batmen, after all, as that just felt like a gyp.  I already get to read about those guys!

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I seem to have dragged myself off track.  Ahem.  Anyway…again…in the space between the two universes, Supreme Leader Snoke, err, I mean the Creator², captures poor, lonely, unloved Red Tornado, who is flying around empty, airless, as in no-freaking-wind, space…somehow.  This is one of the minor slips that hurt this issue.  It isn’t a huge deal, but come on.  Tornado’s whole thing is that he moves air around.  How the heck is he flying or doing much of anything where there is no air to move?

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The much bigger misstep is Reddy’s dialog and general characterization in this section.
The android is moping around space feeling sorry for himself, lamenting that he doesn’t fit in, even with the JSA.  When he sees the aliens’ ship approaching, the Tornado says, “Oh boy, this is my chance!  I’ll single-handedly stop the aliens…then everybody’ll have to like me!”  Ouch.  That feels like something that would show up in one of my worst comp. papers.  While it becomes a fixture that Reddy is a melancholy machine, this is just ham-handed and hokey.  Unfortunately, this type of one-dimensional, excessively melodramatic characterization is going to become indicative of the maudlin mechanical man.  He’s as emo as Kylo Ren!  This is part of the reason that poor Reddy has never achieved the popularity and gravitas of his Marvel counterpart, the Vision, despite having all of the same potential.  It’s a real shame, because he really is a great character.  I suppose that, given my love of underdogs, it is to be expected that I rather like this second-rate Leaguer who, at least for most of his history, never quite found his niche.  We’ll be seeing more from him in the future, of course, as he’ll soon be joining the team.

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Justice League of America v1 082-07.jpgReddy, of course, fails miserably in his efforts, because for some reason JLA writers decided to make him the team’s whipping boy.  Did Super Schlub grow up to be Red Tornado, or what?  The afflicted android is captured, and belonging to both Earths, he is able to be used as the focal point for the evil machinations of the planet-wreckers.  Power flows through the captive hero, and the two worlds begin to close in on one another, the barriers between them weakening.  Meanwhile, the aliens launch a preemptive strike on the JSA to prevent their interference.

Creator² arms his assistants with special nets that can counter the heroes’ abilities and dispatches them to capture the champions of Earth 2.  Now, I rather expected this to be goofy and cheesy after the awkwardness of the opening sequence, but the action is actually well-staged and believable in context.  Superman is easily captured because he doesn’t bother to dodge.  Why should he?  That’s a good touch, and it makes sense.  In the same way, it is actually Dr. Mid-Nite that causes the acolytes some trouble, as he’s more wary.  It’s also worth noting that the heroes, not knowing if these aliens are hostile or friendly, don’t just come out swinging.  That’s a good spot of characterization for the team.  Unfortunately, their beneficence leads to their defeat.

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It is these events that explain the strange ailments of the Earth-1 heroes.  As the JSA members were incapacitated, the weakened barriers allowed the effects to bleed over into the their closest counterparts among the Leaguers.  I’ll buy that.  It makes sense, in a comic kind of way.  I do have one bone to pick, though, and that’s the fact that Batman is identified as the closest counterpart to Mid-Nite, but we see the Earth-2 Batman just a few pages later!  Shenanigans I say!  Well, fuzzy logic aside, the Flash arrives on the scene, and he actually manages to do some good against the invaders, evading their nets with some clever maneuvering and decking one of them, but he is distracted by the sudden appearance of his Earth-1 counterpart!  The momentary interruption is all it takes for his foes to capture him as well.  This, of course, also causes Barry to be stricken as well.

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Suddenly, ghostly images of doppelgangers begin appearing around both worlds as the barriers break down even more.  The two teams meet up on their separate Earths and try and make plans, Starman playing the hothead among the JSA.  Fittingly, it is the Atom, a physicist, who figures out what is going on.  By crunching the numbers, he susses out that the two Earth’s are being pulled together and theorizes that the cause is some being with a connection to both planets.  Black Canary tearfully concludes that she must be culprit and insists that she must…die!  It’s not a bad moment, and it makes pretty perfect sense from their point of view.  It’s a good, tense note to end on, with the two worlds preparing to collide and no-one yet knowing what is behind it.

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I suppose it’s…good…that O’Neil is at least being consistent with his insufferable characterization of Green Arrow?  ‘No Ollie, there’s no emergency, I just thought it would be fun to interrupt your road trip’

This is a good issue, a fun enough adventure, though it is really a bit more of a JSA story than a Justice League one.  I’m entirely okay with that, as I love both groups.  As I said, the threat is certainly big enough to serve as a fitting challenge for these two massively powerful teams, though the aliens are really too goofy and boring looking to be entirely successful as antagonists.  The callous disregard their master, this Creator fellow, has for the life on these two worlds is a good trait for a cosmic villain, but I wouldn’t have minded learning a bit more about him.

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The fairly abominable writing of Red Tornado is a bit of a black mark on the issue, but it’s still a relatively minor part of the tale.  Unfortunately, Dick Dillin’s art isn’t quite up to snuff in this story.  He has some nice panels, but there’s also a lot of awkward, stiff figures (like the Superman sequence in the beginning) and art that just seems a bit ‘off.’  So, in the end, this is an enjoyable but flawed book.  It’s great fun to see the JSA and the JLA working on two sides of the same problem, but the weak points in the story and the weaker art keep the comic from being as good as it might.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.

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Interestingly, the letter pages are filled with praises for JLA #78 and 79, the pollution focused issues.  Clearly, the idea of tackling heavier topics was really popular with fans.  In fact, one epistler writes in to say that major newspapers were reporting on these comics.  Notably, the writer also opined that his own city had a major problem with pollution.  Apparently, not-yet-disgraced President Nixon had just given a State of the Union address that named pollution as one of the major problems facing the nation.  Neat!  Those stories were obviously much more timely than I realized.

 

Phantom Stranger #8

phantom_stranger_vol_2_8“Journey to the Tomb of the Ice Giants!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Colourist: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

Man, I’ve been looking forward to this one.  Just look at that cover!  I’ve seen that sucker waiting for me in my reading list, and I just couldn’t wait to see if the story inside is as awesome as that cover.  Don’t worry, you won’t have to suffer in suspense like I did.  This issue does, in fact, lives up to the awesomeness of the cover.  This is definitely my favorite Phantom Stranger issue so far, and it is here that I believe the series really finds its feet.  Even the editor seems to realize that they have hit on something special with this issue and this team.  He begins the letter column with a note that O’Neil and Aparo “have taken the Phantom Stranger to new heights” and remarks that he is particularly proud of the issue.  This unusual bit of editorial praise is, in my estimation, pretty spot on.  This tale really dives into the mystical and even mythical elements inherent in the character’s conceit, and it makes the DC Universe a more fantastic and interesting place in the process.  In my estimation, that’s one of the best contributions a book can make.  On the art front, Aparo seems to be on the book full time now, and I couldn’t be happier.  He’s at the height of his powers, so the comic is beautiful, dynamic, and full of interesting and individual looking characters.  Aparo creates no generic faces and no disposable characters.  Every figure he draws is unique and striking.  I’m afraid I’ve got rather a lot to say about this one, as it quite captured my imagination, resonating with many ideas that have been on my mind lately.

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This mysterious and mythic adventure begins in the arctic, with an ice breaker named the S.S. Night Wind suddenly finding itself faced with a vision from nightmare and legend, a massive giant of ice and snow!  It’s cold hands close about the ship, and suddenly the vessel is entirely trapped in ice.  We’re treated to a lovely two-page spread that shows us the scale of the little drama, and the Stranger briefly appears to the crew of the trapped ship to warn them of their danger.

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Our scene shifts to Alaska, where the ship’s financier, Mr. Muttson rages over the trouble with the Night Wind.  He steps into a steam room to try and warm up, but he suddenly freezes solid!  The local law is baffled, as you might imagine, and they call in everyone’s favorite wet blanket, Dr. Thirteen, who was conveniently near-by.  I’m willing to hand-wave his deus ex machina appearance because we are dealing with a story in a high dramatic tone and fate (or her Master!) may very well be playing a hand.

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The Stranger once again puts in an appearance to investigate the mystery himself, and we get yet another confrontation between the two characters.  Despite how many times we’ve seen its like, this scene is actually quite good.  There’s a certain intensity to the good Doctor’s reaction, a certain frustration and anger that rings true and rises above just rote repetition.  Thirteen is his usual charming self in this issue, and yet there is something more interesting and sympathetic about him that I can’t quite entirely put my finger on.  In this exchange, we even get a funny little note that made me chuckle.  The mysterious Stranger greets his opposite number as “Terry,” and this immediately gets under the skeptic’s skin, so much so that you have to think he intended it to do so.  Either way, Thirteen responds that “if he calls me Terry again, I’ll bust him–so help me-.”  It’s a good character moment, adding a bit more personality to the occult investigator than just stiff-necked skepticism.  After all, he’s got to be getting sick of having the Stranger show him up.

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The Phantom disappears, of course, and, also, of course, the Doc dismisses any possibility of the supernatural in that, or in this strange frozen death.  The case reminds him of another, as they all seem to, and he begins to relate the story, telling his listeners about the time a wealthy recluse was found frozen to death in the hothouse in which he kept his prize orchids.  While both the policeman investigating the death and the victim’s nephew suggest some type of mystical explanation, Thirteen is adamant that nothing of the sort is possible.  He finds a canister of freon, and, realizing that the orchids themselves are also frozen, he deduces that the recluse was flash-frozen by someone pumping the chemical in through the sprinkler system in the hothouse.  The skeptical sleuth accuses the nephew, and then he proves he is more than just a mind, as he disarms and captures the killer in a nice sequence.

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Dr. Thirteen, surprising badass

the phantom stranger (1969) 08 - 13 - Copy.jpgThat’s actually one of the best interpolated episodes we’ve seen so far, with a good mystery, a solid action beat, and Dr. Thirteen actually portrayed to good effect.  He’s much more likable here than we’ve seen previously.  Back in the main tale, the local chemist (given a ton of personality in his portrayal by Aparo, despite the fact he appears in a grand total of one panel), discovers that the ice entombing Muttson could only have come from the arctic.  Thirteen and his wife, sensing a link, prepare a helicopter to fly out and investigate the icebreaker.  Before they depart, the Stranger appears with a dire warning, and the Doc actually take a swing at him!

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In the vast, empty wastes of the frozen north, the Thirteens find the trapped ship and begin to search for some clues.  Suddenly, they spot a flash of reflected light, and they descend to discover a huge sword, fit for…a giant!  Just then, the occult investigator is smacked by a giant hand, and both he and his wife are seized by a towering figure that embodies the desolate icy wastes in which he moves.  The creature ominously declares that the humans have violated the sleep of his people, a sleep that began at the dawn of time!

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Just then, the Stranger appears once more, and he demands the giant release the two humans.  I love his description of himself.  He announces that he “serve[s] a cause — a master — as ancient as” the giants themselves.  I quite like that, evocative yet mysterious, fitting easily any of the myriad identities we might assign the character (my favorite is still the Wandering Jew serving God).  That’s a difficult line to walk, but O’Neil manages it well here.

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The giants’ design isn’t quite right, what with the green trunks…

Well, as if the situation weren’t tense and chaotic enough, Tala chooses this moment to arrive.  She is her usual delightful self, and I really love her portrayal in this issue.  She is becoming a more fully realized character, while still remaining disconcertingly mysterious.  She makes her usual play for the Stranger, trying to persuade him to join her and abandon the mere mortals to their fate, but this time it is less about an archetypal contest between light and dark and more about the character herself.  O’Neil is really firing on all cylinders in this exchange.  Tala kisses her rival, and he pushes her away, proclaiming “death lies in your kiss!”  Her response is excellent, “Indeed, but such a death as can pale life.”  That’s almost poetic, and it fits the higher tone of the piece, what with its ancient civilizations and apocalyptic possibilities.

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Right after that we hit a rather weird note, as the Stranger stands forth to oppose the giant, employing his vast and enigmatic powers…no, wait, he punches the titan in the face.  Okay…it is extremely cool looking, and I have no problem with the supernatural sleuth getting his hands dirty once in awhile.  Still, we’ve seen him employ some pretty impressive powers in the previous issues, so it is rather jarring for him to suddenly act like all he’s got in his bag is a good right hook.  If O’Neil wanted to limit him, all he needed was a line of dialog, something like ‘I can’t use my abilities because it would awaken the magic of the giants,’ or SOMETHING.  Instead, the hero is smacked down, quite literally, and seems helpless against the jotunn-like creatures.

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You have to admit, though, it’s a heck of a page.

They announce their plans to emerge from their self-imposed exile and reclaim the Earth, but the Stranger, in a wonderful two-page spread, warns them that this globe is not what it used to be.  Humans have sort of wrecked the joint, as we are wont to do.  Here we see some more of O’Neil’s use of realistic and weighty themes, dealing with the social unrest and the pollution that we’ve seen influencing the books we’ve covered.  It’s a nice sequence, not too heavy-handed or preachy because of its context and the solid prose that he marshals for the effort.

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The giants are swayed, but their laws still demand a sacrifice before they can return to their centuries-long slumber.  Tala helpfully suggests they take Maria Thirteen, and in a flash of light, she seems to render her helpless.  Unopposed, the frozen fiends return to their glacial home, and here we reach the second odd moment in the book.  The story takes a fairly dark turn all of a sudden, as the Stranger silently watches the titans’ exodus, not lifting a finger to prevent their killing an innocent woman.  Then, he carries ‘Terry’ back to his helicopter and once again employs mundane methods in his fight, eschewing his powers.  He seals the entrance to the giants’ cavern with dynamite, leaving Maria to her fate.

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The Stranger coldly rationalizes his choice, reasoning that her sacrifice was necessary because any contact between giants and men would inevitably destroy both because of the wrack and ruin that a conflict between magic and technology would unleash.  This is another fascinating concept that just gets tossed out in this issue, one of many that create a wonderful atmosphere of history and mythology lying behind the plot itself.  Yet, the hero’s choice cannot help but seem both unnecessary (without further framing) and callous to us.

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Fortunately, after the cave is sealed, who should make her way back to the helicopter but Maria!  Tala returns and explains matters, telling her opponent that she, indulging in her chaotic nature, could not resist playing a trick on the giants, and thus took the girl’s place when she caused that blinding flash.  It’s a good and rather surprising moment, yet it fits the character well.  I like Tala as not just a being of pure evil, but an avatar of chaos, more like Loki than Satan, the Trickster figure brought to life.  I think that’s got potential, and it certainly has mythical echoes.

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The story ends with the Thirteens reunited and ‘Terry’ being ridiculously condescending to his wife.  To her credit, she doesn’t seem to be taking his nonsense entirely meekly.  Here again we have the good Doctor blatantly disregarding a reliable eyewitness to the supernatural because “we both know such things simply do not occur!”  Great job being scientific and impartial, Terry.  This ending really struck me, as I realized that Dr. Thirteen is willfully blind to the higher realities he continually comes in contact with.  He has now encountered several mysteries that he’s been entirely unable to solve, yet he persists in his stiff-necked adherence to his world-view.  This was particularly interesting to me because I just read C.S. Lewis’s Miracles, his philosophical case for the possibility of the miraculous.  One of his arguments touches on the fact that this is how most of us approach any such questions.  We know miracles cannot exist, therefore, every other explanation, no matter how ridiculous, must be more probable.  This cannot help but bias us in our investigation of such matters, as we have a priori decided that one explanation is impossible.  In this dogmatic dedication to disbelief, Dr. Thirteen reminds me very strongly of the dwarves from The Last Battle.  I can imagine Thirteen sitting there in the dark with them, seeing a dirty barn while surrounded by the eternal, refusing to acknowledge the reality that was staring him in the face.  It makes him something of a tragic figure as well as a comic one and probably has something to do with my growing appreciation for the character.

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This was a great story, and the complaints I have are minor.  The most significant of them is that I wish the concepts tossed out left and right in this book were given more development in the wider lore.  Apparently we do see the giants return in a later issue, so that is exciting!  It was of particular interest to me because I’ve just been studying the medieval tradition of giants, which the titanic creatures of this tale evokes.  I actually just wrote a paper on the giant/Jute debate in Beowulf¹.  I love the archetypal weight the figure of the giant carries, the ageless antipathy between man and monster.  In the medieval tradition, the giants were identified with an antediluvian (pre-Flood) culture, advanced and wicked, possessing great knowledge and power, but corrupting men with that power and forbidden learning.  They were identified with pride (which, if we recall, was the first and greatest sin) and greed.

These jotunn-esq beings with their ancient civilization remind me a bit of those stories.  Their implied history and the Stranger’s cryptic statements indicating the existence of a whole hidden lore helps to give this particular story its strongest feature, that most wonderful quality of literature, which Tolkien called “the impression of depth” (Monsters and Critics 27).  This is the effect that gives works like The Lord of the Rings such a vastness and feeling of reality.  It is the quality that leads a reader to believe that the story does not just exist in these limited pages but expands infinitely on every side of the book itself, with a rich past and undiscovered countries just beyond every hill.  This quality is, of course, limited in this instance, and the the comic has its weaknesses, the loose threads in the tapestry O’Neil is weaving.  Nonetheless, the final effect is exactly that sense of wonder and imaginative adventure that brings me to comics in the first place.  This is the type of story that I love to read, and I give this issue a very strong 4.5 Minutemen.

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Well my good readers, that is it for this post.  This is shaping up to be one heck of a month!   We’ve had some great, high-scoring and fascinating issues, and there are more promising stories on the horizon.  It definitely looks like we’re facing a much better crop of books this month.  I hope you’ll join me soon for the next few issues, which will include the next iteration of Manhunter 2070!

 

¹If you’re interested in literary studies, philology, or textual criticism, you might find this worth reading.  If these things don’t interest you, you can safely skip this section.  Several of the incidents in Beowulf feature the word eoten, which means “giant,” even being related (most likely) to the Old Norse word, “jotunn,” which describes the monstrous figures of scandinavian myth.  Yet, in several spots this word is emended to mean “Jute,” an ancient people that were often in conflict with the Danes.  Essentially, the argument is that a later scribe, having never seen “Eotan,” the word for Jutes, just substituted “eoten,” or “giant.” Coincidentally, this approach to the poem seems to me to be motivated by much the same resistance to the fantastic that drives Dr. Thirteen’s close-mindedness.  Scholars have desired a historical document from Beowulf, though that was never what it was intended to be.  They hope to find mythologized records of actual conflicts, real history behind all the fantasy ‘fluff,’ but you can no more do away with the giants than you can with the dragon. They both lie, not at the periphery, but at the core of the poem.  The debate continues (it’s giants), and though there are reasonable arguments for finding Jutes (really, it’s giants), they tend to create as many problems for interpretation (seriously, it’s giants) as they solve.  Meanwhile, rendering these mysterious figures as giants creates greater dramatic unity, (trust me, giants) emphasizing many of the primary themes of the main plot, especially the corrupting effects of power and wealth, both associated in medieval tradition with the figure of the giant (it’s totally giants).

 

Pulp Adventures Released!

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I have finally finished work on a project near and dear to my heart, my pulp heroes mod, Pulp Adventures!  It tells an original tale of danger and daring do, teaming many classic pulp heroes and several modern characters cut from the same cloth!  It features a huge cast of characters, including all of the two-fisted heroes gracing the awesome artwork above there, as well as a host of other crusaders for justice.  The story features several classic pulp villains and a twisting, turning plot that ties in to the settings and adventures of many of the starring characters.  So, what are you waiting for?  Come, ride with Britt Reid, laugh with the Shadow, swing the trees with Tarzan, and buckle your share of swashes with Zorro!

Featuring:

  • An epic, sprawling, world-spanning 17 mission campaign!
  • Over 25 playable characters!
  • Beautiful custom art by the super talented Naitvalis!
  • Custom music!
  • Nazi punching!
  • Dinosaur wrangling!
  • Two-fisted action galore!

Hero Roster:

  • Doc Savage
  • The Shadow
  • Indiana Jones
  • The Green Hornet
  • Kato
  • The Rocketeer
  • The Spider
  • The Spirit
  • The Lone Ranger
  • Tonto
  • Tarzan
  • Conan the Barbarian
  • The Phantom
  • Captain Midnight
  • Miss Fury
  • Dick Tracy
  • Jungle Jim
  • Kolu
  • “Monk” Mayfair
  • “Ham” Brooks
  • “Renny” Renwick
  • Flash Gordon*
  • Buck Rogers*
  • John Carter of Mars*

*These characters don’t feature in the campaign but are playable in the sandbox mode…for the moment!

Download the Pulp Adventures Mod Here!

Patch 1: This fixes a missing texture and a bug that kept mission 4 from playing properly.

Patch 2: This provides a missing file necessary for Mandrake the Magician.

Pulp Adventures

 

 

 

 

Into the Bronze Age: August 1970 (Part 3)

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Thank you for joining me for the third set of books from August, 1970, as we travel Into the Bronze Age!  This post we cover the second appearance of Man-Bat, which is an interesting landmark.  I hope you enjoy my musings on these two issues!

Roll Call (You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #391
  • Aquaman #52
  • Batman #224
  • Teen Titans #28
  • Detective Comics #402
  • The Flash #199
  • Justice League #82
  • Phantom Stranger #8
  • Showcase #92
  • Superman #229
  • World’s Finest #195

Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.

Detective Comics #402

detective_comics_402“Man or Bat?”
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“My Place in the Sun!”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Vince Colletta
Letterer: John Costanza

This issue features two solid tales, though the Man-Bat story is definitely the prize, as you might imagine.  It’s great fun to see this character coming back and to see what will be the recurring themes of his story taking shape, with the worried fiance, the quest to become human again, and the conflict between his animalistic and rational natures.  I never thought about it before, but in that sense, this character can serve as something of a metaphor for the basic struggles between body and soul in all of us.  I suppose that’s the source of the archetypal draw of these kinds of stories, the Jekyll and Hyde tales.  They reflect a primal part of the human experience, the feeling that we’re at war with a part of ourselves.  That’s no great revelation, I realize, but I was struck with it particularly on this reading.

This is only Man-Bat’s second appearance and, as before, it still very much feels like the kind of fresh concept that the Bronze Age is only starting to produce but which will soon become indicative of the period.  There are horror elements that distinguish this book from many of the others on the shelf at the time, as well as a generally more serious, melodramatic tone.  Of course, it hardly needs to be said that Neal Adams’ artwork is just plain gorgeous.

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Our tale begins with a gang of thieves preparing to rob a biochemical company.  Unbeknownst to them, they are being observed by a very nervous Man-Bat.  The unfortunate Dr. Langstrom needs something inside the safe, but his plans are interrupted when Batman bursts in through the window and starts kicking butt.  When it seems like one of the thieves has the drop on the Dark Knight, Man-Bat intercedes, and the two chiroptera-themed combatants quickly dispatch the rest.  The Caped Crusader is quite pleased to see his one-time ally again, even grinning in most un-grim avenger-ly fashion, but Langstrom is desperate to get what he needs.

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He tells the hero that he is no thief, being prepared to pay for what he needs, but Batman refuses to budge.  Here we see a weakness in the issue, a misstep in characterization.  Once the Dark Knight realizes that Man-Bat is wearing no costume, that he is the monster he appears to be, the hero still refuses to let him buy the chemicals, effectively just because it is after business hours.  Come on, Bruce!  Sure, ideally you’d seal the crime scene and wait for the police, but this is clearly not an ideal situation, what with the horrible mutation and all.  I like Batman being inflexible and relentless.  I think that’s a very fitting character trait, but this is more a matter of him being unreasonably obtuse.

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detective comics 402 007.jpgAccidentally disabling his idol, Man-Bat takes what he needs and flees into the night.  When the Masked Manhunter recovers, he lives up to that particular nom de guerre, and tracks the frightful fellow to the location of their first meeting, the museum.  There he encounters Langstrom’s frantic fiancee, who hasn’t heard from her husband-to-be in days.  They go to investigate this disappearance, Batman with grave suspicions, and they interrupt Man-Bat just as he prepares to take his antidote…and the interruption causes him to drop it!  It’s one of those tragic twists of fate that makes this little drama work.  Things could so easily have been otherwise, and it imbues the story with a certain amount of gravitas.

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Man-Bat flees once more, and the mystery partially solved, a remorseful Dark Knight sets out to synthesize a new batch of the antidote.  He heads to his lab in the Batcave, and we’re forced to wonder if he doesn’t have such a setup in Wayne Tower.  I suspect that the truth about this sudden return home is a matter of plot convenience combined with the fact that the Batcave is just objectively cooler than Wayne Tower.  At the same time in a convenient twist that actually makes a certain amount of sense, Man-Bat, now fully transformed and losing his mind fast, follows a regular bat home…to the Batcave!  I suppose that, if you’re a bat living on the outskirts of Gotham, you probably live in the Batcave.  I’ll buy that.  Our plot threads rush to a convergence as Batman arrives there as well, unaware of his uninvited guest.

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When the Caped Crusader opens the garage door to the Cave, Man-Bat realizes where he is and tries to escape.  During a desperate struggle, in which our hero takes a bad-looking fall, Batman manages to trap his opponent, who knocks himself out against the Batcave door.  He quickly checks to make sure that the man-monster is unhurt and sets out to try and reverse his mutation.  To be continued!

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This is a good issue.  Langstrom is sympathetic, and his slow descent into a more beastial nature is decently compelling.  The story moves quickly, but it fits a good deal in, plenty of action, good character moments, and plenty of tension.  Other than Batman’s intransigence about the antidote in the beginning, the characterization was effective.  The natural anger that Langstrom feels towards Batman after the Dark Knight ruins his chance at a cure is fitting and well handled.  It doesn’t turn instantly into hatred, but it does color the mutated scientist’s actions for the rest of the issue.  I particularly enjoy Batman’s deliberation at the end of the story about whether or not to try to create an antidote, knowing that Langstrom’s mind may be permanently corrupted by the transformation.  It’s a good, thought-provoking moment, and it is another fairly compelling moral question without an entirely clear-cut answer, like the one from this month’s Aquaman.  Is it more merciful to restore him to the semblance of humanity if he is to remain, at heart, a monster?  That’s an interesting question, and the fact that it gets asked is indicative of the higher tone and tenor of the storytelling Robbins is doing here.

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It is, of course, beautiful, and Adams does some great work with light and shadow.  His Man-Bat looks fantastic, human, yet monstrous, and he puts an incredible amount of emotion expressiveness in the creature’s face.  You can really feel the impact of his internal struggle in some of these panels.  It’s just a good, moody Batman tale, with a healthy dose of mystery and drama, certainly worth the read.  I’ll give it 4.5 Minutemen.

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“My Place in the Sun!”

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This Robin backup features a guest appearance (one could hardly call him a guest star) from Speedy, the Boy Bowman.  It’s a solid, though short of course, character piece.  I’m curious to see what, if anything it will lead to.  Interestingly, in my copy, at least, Speedy is mis-colored, with his scheme inverted.

Our little tale begins with a certain arrow slinging teenager (or teen-ager as the comics sometimes refer to them) arriving in the awesome Arrow-Plane.  I enjoy this little scene with the two friends meeting and discussing recent events.  As I hinted last post, this Robin yarn actually follows in the footsteps of the previous issue of Teen Titans, #28.  Apparently Aqualad’s impassioned speech has had an effect, and Robin is back with his team.  I quite like that type of mild continuity, reminding us that these characters are part of a larger universe.  It doesn’t require any specific knowledge to enjoy this story, but a reader in the know is rewarded just a bit.

Well, the Teen Wonder gives his visitor a tour of campus and his dorm, and Roy drools over the local ladies.  It’s a nice, quiet little character moment, and I enjoy watching these two guys just palling around.  Their friendly tour is interrupted in the cafeteria where visiting kids from a nearby juvenile detention farm break out into a fight.  One of the biggest guys belts one of the smaller ones.

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Robin shows surprisingly good sense when he realizes that Speedy suddenly showing up when Dick Grayson just happens to have a guest from out of town might endanger his secret identity.  He then immediately makes up for that moment of good sense by changing into his costume in “a corner of the kitchen.”  Meanwhile, poor Roy is a ‘casualty,’ catching a pie to the face.  He retaliates in kind in a funny beat.

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Robin leaps into action and lays into the bigger kid, but one of the guards tells him that he’s picked the wrong pigeon.  Apparently the little fellow started things.  As the day goes on, Roy and Dick hear people around campus badmouthing the Teen Wonder, spreading the story of his mistake and questioning his character and future.  The Boy Bowman shows surprisingly good sense when he reminds his friend that when they put on their costumes they become symbols, and that means that people judge them much differently and have less patience for mistakes.

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Speedy heads out to keep a date with Wonder Girl, and Robin is left to ponder his future.  In an interesting scene, he wonders just who he is and what his role is going to be as an adult.  After some reflection, Dick rededicates himself to his calling, swearing that he’s going to make a name for himself on his own.

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As you can see, there’s not too much to this tale.  It has some good character beats, and it is fun to see Dick and Roy just hanging out together.  The central conflict isn’t really the action scene, but the existential reflection that follows Robin’s mistake.  One does wonder why a superhero, even a teenage superhero, would really feel the need to intercede in a simple fistfight.  It seems something of a waste of talents, but I guess even Superman sometimes stops a purse snatcher.  If I remember correctly, Friedrich is setting something up, so perhaps it will end up being worthwhile in retrospect.

The idea of a teenage Dock Grayson dealing with some uncertainty about his place in the world is a good one.  Ideally, this would be the first step to the character making some changes in his identity, most especially in his costume!  Notably, at least one of the voices he overhears on campus makes fun of Robin’s costume, so clearly the folks behind the scenes realized how ridiculous that outfit was for a guy his age.  It’s really rather inexcusable that they have him wearing it while he’s in college.

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I’m not one who cares much for the whole Nightwing identity (I vastly prefer the Earth 2 angle, with him as an adult Robin or the Kingdom Come Red Robin identity), but, for Heaven’s sake, just giving the poor kid some pants would have done wonders.  Unfortunately, I’m quite sure we see no such change any time soon, but perhaps there will be some good stories that will come out of this direction nonetheless.  Either way, this particular issue doesn’t have quite enough going on to raise it above an average score, so I’ll give it 3 Minutemen.

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Flash #199

the_flash_vol_1_199“Flash?– Death Calling!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Vince Colletta

“The Explosive Heart of America”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Vince Colletta

Ohh man, this confusing, pointless mess of a story doesn’t have much to recommend it.  Surprisingly enough, the letter writers seem to be full of praises for Gil Kane’s turn on the book, but even if you like the art, and I’m pretty ambivalent about it, the writing in these last few issues has been pretty lackluster.  We’re also in the middle of a supervillain slump, with no Flash issue in the last several months and none for months to come featuring any of his foes.  I’m pretty sure that it has been an entire year, a full twelve months, since the last story featuring a supervillain in this book.  It’ll be OVER a year (judging by covers) until the next one!  That is a crying shame.  After all, the Flash has, objectively, the second best rogue’s gallery (after Batman, obviously) in all of DC Comics.  Why the heck would you waste time month after month with generic gangsters and thugs when Captain Cold is just sitting around waiting for a call?  Not every story needs to feature a supervillain, but come on, at least SOME should.  I really love the Flash, but I’m definitely not enjoying these comics.

This particular tale is one of the worst.  Kanigher seems to have no idea what he’s doing or why.  I have to say, I’m really beginning to dread seeing his name in a writing credit.  I don’t think I’ve given a single one of his stories higher than a 2.5, and this one isn’t going to get any better.  It wanders aimlessly from one plot driven coincidence to another.  We start with the cover image, a man who is apparently the Flash sleeping on a park bench, covered with a newspaper article proclaiming the death of the Scarlet Speedster.  This fellow is awoken by a beat cop who chases him off, and then he encounters a robber fleeing from a store.  His efforts to stop the fleet-footed fellon are for naught, and the guy cleans his clock.  Clearly this is not the fastest man alive.

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The crook is captured by a few little leaguers (seriously), and this faux-Flash continues wandering aimlessly, much like the plot.  He encounters Iris Allen, the hero’s wife, and she flashes back (no pun intended) to the events that led to his apparent demise. We briefly see Barry leaving the house for a JLA meeting and then the League burying the Fastest Man Alive, now not so quick (sorry!).  She snaps out of her reverie, and jerks the cowl off the Pseudo-Speedster’s head, revealing a random guy.  He is apparently a scientist named Dr. Hollister, who, stay with me now, was on a TV show with the Flash the day he “died.”  Hollister was being interviewed about his new cryogenic process, which lead him to being threatened by gangsters.  Still following?

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Anyone else wonder who the other pall-bearers were?

They try to force the doc to put them on ice, and Flash shows up to stop them…somehow.  He is accidentally exposed to Hollister’s formula, and though he chases off the would-be crook-cicles, he seems to die afterwards.  Next, we see Iris donating one of Barry’s uniforms to the Flash museum, which Hollister, feeling guilt over the hero’s demise, steals…for…reasons.  *sigh*

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He snaps out of…whatever was going on with his dressing in the costume, and steals the Scarlet Speedster’s body in order to run more experiments and try to revive him.  One step forward, two steps back there, Doc.  During the attempt, while nothing is working, the Generic Gang breaks in again, and lightning happens to strike one of their guns, reflecting onto the hero’s body and bringing him back to life.  There is one moderately clever moment, where the gangster seems to be struck by lightning, but it is revealed in an “instant replay” that it was actually the Flash reviving and smacking him at super speed.  We get a nice reunion with Iris that, like everything else that actually has some value in this story, is not given nearly enough space.

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This story is just confused, as you know from trying to keep up with that summary, and unnecessarily convoluted.  It is not terribly interesting.  The mystery of Flash’s apparent demise could have been decent fodder for a story, but this one just limps along awkwardly with no clear idea of what it wants to do or how it wants to do it.  The actually interesting elements, like Iris’s reaction to her husband’s sudden demise and return are glossed over.  Hollister’s guilt over the hero’s fate could also have been compelling fiction.  Instead, we see him dazedly wandering around in a Flash costume.  We get neither entertaining action, nor enjoyable drama.  It definitely doesn’t deserve more than 1.5 Minuteman.

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Someone please tell me why Gil Kane was so popular…

“The Explosive Heart of America”

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This…odd story is at least more coherent than the previous one, though that isn’t saying much.  It introduces a fairly big complication to Barry’s setting without any real justification, as it begins when a secret agent, who looks a bit like Doc Ock in disguise (maybe he’s moonlighting!), walks into Barry’s lab and announces that he knows the hero’s secret identity.  This mysterious operative, who introduces himself as “Colonel K,” hands the Flash a map and tells him that there is an experimental missile being prepped somewhere in a hostile country, and only the Fastest Man Alive can find it in time to disable it.

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How does this random guy know the Flash’s secret identity?  No clue; Kanigher doesn’t bother to tell us.  He just does, because plot, apparently.  Now, in terms of the plot itself, the basic concept is not a bad one, and it certainly fits the character.  At first, I thought, ‘hey, he’s giving the Flash a list of places to search, sure,’ but I was wrong.  In fact, the map is just a map of China with a search grid on it.  That’s right, the Flash has to search the entirety of China for a hidden missile base.  *sigh*  Hello Silver Age excess.

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Fortunately, the plot gods are kind, and the Scarlet Speedster just happens to stop to rest on the mountain that contains the base.  In a surprising and neat little scene, he meets a young Chinese boy who greets him enthusiastically.  The boy tells the hero that he and many of the younger generation like and respect the Western heroes, not believing everything the powers that be tell them.  It’s actually a surprisingly optimistic and realistic take on the citizenry of a hostile foreign power, treating them as thinking individuals who might not believe everything the guys in charge say, so credit where it is due.

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Well, Flash vibrates into the mountain and finds…a missile, I suppose.  It’s more like a pillar of energy, and his arrival triggers it.  So, not knowing what else to do, he climbs on top and rides it all the way to the U.S.  In another odd touch, it happens to be homing in on the exact geographical center of the country, which is marked by a giant metal x, so Flash hops OFF the missile and wrecks the x, assuming that there is a homing device in it.  This…somehow…fixes things.  The missile just evaporates, and all is well…except that some spooky government spy knows our hero’s secret identity.  I’m sure that could never turn out badly.

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This is a mediocre tale with a rushed resolution and nothing particularly great about it.  The conversation with the Chinese boy is really the highlight, and the random agent who magically knows Barry is the Flash is the low point.  We do see more evidence of the Cold War here, so that’s worth noting, especially since this one focuses on China rather than Russia.  The story isn’t terrible, but it displays what I’m coming to expect from Kanigher, sloppy writing and a lack of imagination, or at least the creative fortitude to fully realize ideas.  I’ll give it 2 Minutemen.  Apparently, as far as I can tell from a little research, Kanigher is responsible for a lot of fantastic work.  Perhaps this is just a slump in his career.

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Into the Bronze Age: August 1970 (Part 2)

DC-Style-Guide-1

Time for the second iteration of August 1970!  Join me as we examine the next few books on our list.  This time we have some Batman and some Teen Titans, as we actually have some internal continuity this month that I’m following.

Roll Call (You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #391
  • Aquaman #52
  • Batman #224
  • Teen Titans #28
  • Detective Comics #402
  • The Flash #199
  • Justice League #82
  • Phantom Stranger #8
  • Showcase #92
  • Superman #229
  • World’s Finest #195

Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.

Batman #224

Batman_224.jpg“Carnival of the Cursed”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz
Cover Artist: Neal Adams and Dick Giordano

This tale is a bit unusual in two ways.  First, it takes the Gotham Knight out of his usual haunts and sends him down towards my old stomping grounds on the Gulf Coast, specifically, New Orleans at the ever-popular setting of Mardi Gras.  Second, it depicts Batman as a big jazz fan, which struck me as a little odd.  It’s hard to imagine the Dark Knight as a music lover.  Nonetheless, it is actually his musical taste that provides the impetus for this little yarn which begins with the murder of a famous jazz trumpet player called “Blind Buddy” Holden.  His killers were searching for something, something they did not find.  The news reaches our hero reading the paper in costume, which also strikes me as trifle weird, and in a short, silent sequence that isn’t too shabby we see that it does not leave him unmoved.

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We travel down to New Orleans, a mysterious and lively city, one that is well suited to provide a distinctive and exciting locale for a comic story.  By this point, I imagine I’ve read quite a few Batman comics set in the Big Easy.  A rainy evening sports an “old-fashioned jazz funeral” for Holden, but the procession is interrupted by a gang of masked men.  Unfortunately for them, Batman is actually disguised among the mourners, and he lays into them, only to be felled by the acrobatic arrival of a freakish looking fellow that resembles Quasimodo’s tougher brother.  He calls himself Moloch and he proves to be a very tough physical opponent for the Caped Crusader, possessing a freakish strength and speed.

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Nonetheless, the Dark Knight manages to route him with the help of the crowd, but Moloch gets away with unbelievable leaps and bounds across the rooftops.  I suppose at this time, Batman doesn’t have the cool, powered grappling gun he later adds to his arsenal.  I wonder when that first made an appearance.  Anyway, this sequence is a neat one, with lots of local flavor.  Novick’s art is a little too lacking in background detail to really take advantage of the setting, but there are a few touches that show this is not just a generic city.  We’ll get one big set piece which takes full advantage of the setting at the climax of the tale, though.

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The funeral procession finishes its grim, though very stylishly handled task, and Holden’s horn is buried with him.  Batman224-09.JPGAfterwards, the Dark Detective overhears an argument between the musician’s friend and a wheelchair-bound man named Macob, whose aide the crime-fighter recognizes as a known hood.  Apparently the heavily muffled Macob wants to buy the dead horn man’s possessions, but his friends refuse, no matter the price.  Batman decides that there is something fishy about this fellow, so he plans to try and spook him.  Here’s another odd little moment.  Our hero, in full costume, goes into a bookstore and makes a purchase.  Sadly, we don’t get to see the clerk’s reaction to having the Caped Crusader walk into his shop.  One wonders if he has a utility belt compartment for his wallet.  Well, the book is sent to Macob, and when he opens it, out flies a bat, a warning from the Batman!

His aide is shaken, but Macob remains resolute.  He must have what he’s after, and he formulates a plan!  Later that night, Batman discovers that Holden’s friend has been kidnapped and is being held at an old riverboat moored at the dock.  Interestingly enough, these days there are several restored river boats that make regular cruises from NO, complete with live jazz music aboard some of them.  I wonder if any of those were operating back in ’70.  Back to our fictional Big Easy, our hero uses the cover of a Mardi Gras parade, which somehow just materializes on the empty docks (I’m guessing these guys have never actually been to Mardi Gras) to slip aboard unnoticed.

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Once on the ship, he takes out the goons, but the Dark Knight is brought up short by Macob himself, threatening the hostage with a gun.  Distracted, Batman is knocked out and awakens to find himself tied to the ship’s giant paddlewheel.  In classic death-trap fashion, the villain has set the ship in motion, which will slowly, revolution after revolution, drown the masked hero.  Convinced that escape is impossible, Macob indulges in the cliche to the hilt and leaves his victim to his fate.

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To his credit, it almost works.  The Caped Crusader has it pretty bad, and he’s completely unable to break the ropes or stop the spinning of the wheel.  Of course, Macob left the hero his utility belt, so it really should have been a simple matter.  Nevertheless, by catching a steel cable in his teeth and tossing it around the rotating wheel, Batman manages to break the mechanism and escape in suitably dramatic fashion.  The sequence is pretty solid and provides for an exciting episode.  There’s a nice little bit at the end as the hero, indomitable and undeterred, dives into the river to pursue his quarry.  However, he’s spotted by a seaman on a Coast Guard cutter, and the young man asks to be excused from duty because he’s seeing giant bats!

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The climax comes as Batman confronts Macob, who reveals himself to be the twisted Moloch, while the villain is digging up the musician’s grave in order to recover his horn.  It seems that the horn’s previous owner had discovered an oil deposit and scratched a crude map on the instrument, passing it on right before his death, though Holden never knew what he possessed.  Moloch is, as the name implies, after wealth, so he wants the map, but the Dark Knight is determined not to let him have it.  The greedy ghoul actually beats the Batman, only to be chased away by nearing police sirens.  Their battle then spills out of the graveyard (in which graves are IN the ground rather than on top of it, a mistake for the setting, which is below sea level), and into the street, choked with Mardi Gras revelers.

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The Caped Crusader finally gets a good shot in, knocking the self-styled god of wealth into the lap of the true master of wealth, Satan, a statue dominating a float.  It’s a rather striking image, and a nice ending to the fight.  There’s a bit of subtlety in the scene, as O’Neil lets the art speak for itself, not feeling the need (surprisingly) to beat us over the head with the symbolism and the message.  The issue ends on a bittersweet note as the crime-fighter discovers the horn, broken and trampled by the celebrating Mardi Gras crowds.

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This is a solid tale.  It isn’t fantastic, but it has some style and some good moments.  The villain gets a little development, mostly in his last big speech about how he’s dedicated himself to acquiring wealth, but there isn’t really much to him.  The whole jazz element of the story is fun, and I’m guessing that Denny O’Neil was a bit of a fan.  In the same vein, the New Orleans setting for the tale was enjoyable and distinctive, even if it wasn’t executed perfectly.  It added a certain flair to the story that helped to bring it up above the rank and file of such tales.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.

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Teen Titans #28

teen_titans_vol_1_28“Blindspot”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Nick Cardy
Inker: Nick Cardy
Letterer: Ben Oda
Editor: Dick Giordano

We’re going to do something a bit different today and change up the review order because the events of this Titans issue actually precede those of the Robin backup in Detective Comics.

As for this issue itself, all I can say is, ‘hooray!’  First off, check out those credits: we’ve got half the SAG team lending their considerable talents to this book, and who do we have instead of Jim Aparo?  Why, Nick Cardy, of course!  He continues to lend his considerable talents to the comic, but unlike previous issues, this one not only LOOKS good, it also IS good.  You can’t ask for much better than that, and this issue is just plain beautiful, even for Cardy, with some really neat layouts and pages.  This by itself is cause for celebration, as you just know we’re in for something great, but even more so, this month’s offering serves as the first step in reversing the bizarre and pointless direction of the last few issues.  Plus, just look at that awesome cover.  I love the Batman Family, but there is that (hopefully small) part of me that likes to see them taken down a peg, the part of all of us that grins when the strong man stumbles.  It’s mixed here with my enjoyment of seeing Aqualad make good, despite the disregard with which he’s been treated by this book and the general lack of respect the character tends to receive in the world at large.  Skeates clearly got the Prince of the Seas, though, and he handles him to good effect here.

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Our tale begins with a beautiful, moody, and visually creative sequence in which a girl walking through the park observes something she shouldn’t have and is pursued by armed hoods who attempt to silence her.  She escapes, but she loses her purse, and the gunmen lose no time in tracking her to her home.  Fortunately for the young lady, who is revealed to be Sharon Tracy, Donna (Wonder Girl) Troy’s roommate, a mysterious but remarkable visitor happens to drop by at that moment.  The figure, clad in classic trenchcoat and fedora combo has groped his way to her apartment from the docks, and when the would-be killers burst in to finish their job, the visitor is revealed to be the young Aquatic Ace, Aqualad, long absent from these pages!  I love seeing the sea-going heroes walking around on dry land in the classic hat and trenchcoat disguise.  It just looks cool.  Never let anyone say that the Aquatic Aces don’t have style in spades!  Plus, what other opportunities do these heroes, who have no secret identities, have to do the whole ‘rip off their disguise and leap into action’ bit.  It makes for some dynamic images and it’s just plain fun.

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Well, doing just that, the young Marine Marvel handily disarms and whips the two thugs without batting an eye, the first of several great action sequences he receives.  He really seems capable and cool-headed, young, but nonetheless skilled.  You are probably going to get sick of hearing me praise the art by the time you finish this commentary, but I’m afraid I can’t help myself.  Cardy just produces page after lovely page, draped in shadow and exuding style and drama.  It’s simply gorgeous, and I probably enjoyed the art of this book more than I have any of the others for several months.

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The malefactors put to route (rather forcefully, as Aqualad knocks them through a window!), the teen hero checks on the young lady.  He finds her stunned and frightened, but unharmed.  He comforts her, but it seems that the terror of the evening’s adventures have caused the lovely Miss Tracy to block out what, exactly, she saw that started all of this.  The teen Marine Marvel had come to the building looking for Wonder Girl, as he hasn’t been able to contact any of the Titans for weeks (because of their pointless undertaking with Mr. Jupiter), but he, being the gallant type, is unable to ignore a damsel in distress, so he takes her to Titan HQ where she can safely hide out while he tries to get a hold of the team.

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Cardy certainly draws lovely, soulful-eyed ladies

The only Titan whose location Garth knows for sure is Dick Grayson, so he heads upriver to the Teen Wonder’s college campus, but as the young Atlantean is trying to figure out how he can find Dick’s dorm, he encounters the man himself, right in the middle of an energetic donnybrook with several thugs.  Aqualad dives right in, taking out two of the antagonists in his first rush, and then the two friends dispatch their opponents, who turn out to be members of a car-jacking ring that Robin was tracking, in a lovely sequence that really lets both of them shine.

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The Titans have a pleasant conversation as they bust heads, which also helps to illustrate just how routine this whole bit is for them, a nice touch.  I love this scene, and Cardy illustrates the action with great energy and style.  I especially enjoy the last blows, as Robin and Aqualad play ping-pong with a thief’s face, leading to the Atlantean teen dispatching the fellow with just a flick of his fingers.  Cardy even manages to give each character a unique fighting style, with Aqualad clearly more of a bruiser and Robin delivering precise karate chops.  It’s great fun.

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Robin warns the visiting hero that the other Titans are in something of a weird place, and he advises his friend not to expect any help from them.  Garth is sure that, once they hear his story, they’ll be willing to pitch in.  However, when he joins his teammates and tells his tale, they are unyielding, insisting that they’ve taken a vow never to use their powers again.  Now here we find one of the only weaknesses of this issue, as Aqualad goes from cheerful to raging in nothing flat.  I know he’s a bit of a hot head, but this is really rather much.  He does have what I consider a perfectly reasonable reaction to the nonsensical excuses of the other Titans, though, as he calls them cowards, along with a few dozen synonyms!  As you’d imagine, Hawk doesn’t take that too kindly, and when Robin gets between the two, Aqualad belts the Teen Wonder right in the face!

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It’s a great image, but it doesn’t really make much sense.  After all, Robin is the one guy NOT acting like an idiot, but I suppose we’re supposed to understand that Garth is just too angry to think straight.  Or that someone really just wanted to see Aqualad deck Robin.  To Dick’s credit, he just takes the blow and still remains the cooler head.  The Titans tell their missing member their story, but he implores them to at least come listen to Sharon Tracy’s troubles.

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They agree, and we once again see the team back in costume!  Even more exciting and surprising, Lilith actually does something useful!  I know, I couldn’t believe it either!  Sharon still can’t remember what she saw, so Lilith uses her vaguely defined powers (now becoming a little less so), to tap into the memory, and we are rewarded with the most creative and striking page in the entire book, as Lilith travels through the girl’s mind to find the fateful event.  It’s a beautiful image, with Lilith’s face forming the center and her hair streaming out to form panel borders.  What a unique design.  My wife remarked that it looked like a Jimmy Hendrix poster, and it has a similarly psychedelic feel, yet it is nevertheless an effective piece of storytelling.

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We discover that Sharon came across three men in the park, three men apparently in the employ of…Ocean Master!  Now that’s a twist, and an interesting one.  What’s more, one of them shoots another with a strange ray that turns the unremarkable looking fellow into a bizarre, bug-eyed monster!  Lilith relays her findings, but the other Titans are still hung up on their foolish vow (shades of the Grail Quest…but without the pathos…or the interest…or the stakes…so…not that much like the Grail Quest, I suppose…).  Aqualad has had enough of their nonsense, so he heads off to tackle Ocean Master by himself!  You certainly can’t fault the kid’s courage.

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Handsome fellow, isn’t he?

Here we get a really neat sequence that almost subverts some of our expectations but is quite awesome nonetheless.  Aqualad goes to the scene of the crime to see if he can pick up some clues.  While there, he takes a classic head-blow, but don’t add him to the list too quickly!  Our young hero is tougher than he looks, and he comes up swinging (or kicking, as the case may be) when he realizes that he’s been jumped by Orm and his henchmen.  We even get a nice reminder that Atlanteans are hardier than surface folk, though Skeates apparently forgets this when convenient.

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I love this action montage, as the physically smaller Aqualad absolutely takes it to his larger opponents.  It’s a great image, and it really cranks up the scale of his accomplishment.  The Prince of the Seas does more than hold his own, laying into the whole gang and putting them all on the ropes before…darn it, a lucky blow from behind puts him out.  We were SO close.  Yep, Garth earns himself a spot on the wall of shame, as this definitely fits our Head-Blow Headcount.

teen titans 028-27.jpg

My favorite part has got to be the backhand in the middle

The tale ends with a nice villain moment as Orm, who we should remember just experienced an existential crisis when he discovered he had attempted to kill his brother, callously declares that Aqualad is no kin of his, and thus, he has no compunctions about murdering the youth.  He orders his men to tie their captive to a tree to let him die a slow death by dehydration.  It’s a solid moment of characterization and continuity.  It reminds us that, though Orm may have some lines he wouldn’t willingly cross, he is still a villain, much like that ambiguous speech of his in the Deadman backup.  Of course, we are assured, this is not The End!

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I just flat out loved this issue.  It is such a breath of fresh air after the maddeningly pointless and just plain stupid storylines of the previous comics in the series.  What’s more, it brings back one of my favorite characters, Aqualad, in great fashion.  The youthful Atlantean comes off very well in this issue, routinely handling entire groups of opponents, and even taking on one of his mentor’s greatest foes one-on-one, and winning (for a while)!  Though Skeates leans a bit too heavily on his hot-headed temper, you still couldn’t help but be impressed by the character’s skill and courage in this story.  We also finally have someone question what the heck the Titans are doing and call them out on being foolish and throwing away their gifts, which is very welcome.  The art is, as I’ve constantly remarked, just flat-out beautiful throughout.  Cardy brings a great, moody, dynamic feel to the story with his inking, and he draws some of the best looking action we’ve seen lately.  Even Lilith manages to be tolerable, even useful!  That’s saying something.  In the end, Aqualad’s moment of irrational anger is the only real flaw, but it’s enough to hold the issue from a perfect score.  I’ll give it 4.5 Minutemen, which is still darn good!

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P.S.: I cheated a bit and looked ahead, and it seems that we get to enjoy Skeates’ story-spinning for several more months, which is just fine by me!  I’m quite looking forward to next issue, which is something I’ve never yet said about this Titans book.  Interestingly, the letters page indicates that the readers were also quite dissatisfied from this sudden and ridiculous turn of the Titans’ direction, and Giordano hastens to assure them that we’ll see the team back in better action soon.  I wonder if either A) the reader response was so overwhelmingly negative that the editor change the direction, B) he himself realized that what Kanigher was doing was terrible, or C) some mixture of the two.  It does seem that we’re seeing a very sudden departure, and I’m curious as to what caused it.  If this was planned all along, it makes the whole Mr. Jupiter plot even more pointless.

 

Well dear readers, that is going to do it for this post.  I hope you enjoyed the read and will join me soon for the next edition as we travel further Into the Bronze Age!  Next time we will see the triumphant return of the Macabre Manbat, more Robin, plus the Fastest Man Alive!

The Head-Blow Headcount:

Aquamanhead.jpgBatmanhead.jpgshowcase-88-fnvf-jasons-quest0robin2 - Copy.jpgPhantom_Stranger_05.jpgrobin2 - Copy.jpgbatman-family-6-cover.jpgAquamanhead.jpg3072564469_1_3_hCmU7jwq.jpg

Well, Aqualad joins the not-so-august membership on the Wall of Shame, adding his noggin to the Head-Blow Headcount.  He could still take some solace from the fact that his mentor was there before him…twice…as was Robin!

Into the Bronze Age: August 1970 (Part 1)

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Well, last month was a bit of a letdown, but this month promises to be a bit more interesting, with more Aquaman and more of the fun Manhunter debut!  Join me as we forge a little further Into the Bronze Age!

This month in history:

  • 2nd San Diego Comic Con was held (of note probably only in this context)
  • Rubber bullets used for the first time during the Troubles in Ireland
  • France performs nuclear tests
  • 1st computer chess tournament held
  • Peruvian Airlines jet carrying 45 US exchange students explodes
  • Jim Morrison is tried in Miami on “lewd & lascivious behavior”
  • Venera 7 probe launched for Venus
  • Unrest continues at home and abroad, with bombs and riots in the US and Ireland

Well, both the Troubles in Ireland and the Space Race continue, and although it was a quieter month in the US, things were obviously still not peaceful.  I imagine it will be some time before we stop seeing these events in our monthly roundup.

This month’s chart topper was “(They Long to Be) Close to You” by the Carpenters, a sweet, sappy song that is something of a contrast to the rage in the air all over the world.  Even in a burning world, love endures, I suppose.

Roll Call (You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #391
  • Aquaman #52
  • Batman #224
  • Detective Comics #402
  • The Flash #199
  • Justice League #82
  • Phantom Stranger #8
  • Showcase #92
  • Superman #229
  • Teen Titans #28
  • World’s Finest #195

Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.

Action Comics #391

action_comics_391“The Punishment of Superman’s Son”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Ross Andru
Inker: Mike Esposito

“The Ordeal of Element Lad!”
Writer: E. Nelson Bridwell
Penciler: Win Mortimer
Inker: Jack Abel

Okay, I was astonished to find that the headline tale was NOT written by Bob Haney.  It features the Super Sons, after all, and it is full of all kinds of Haney quality Zaniness!  Of course,  that means this is an odd one, Haney or no Haney.  It is pretty hilarious in spots and just ohh so very goofy throughout.  The Super Sons stories are always pretty out there, and this one is no exception.  Interestingly enough, Wikipedia is all kinds of wrong about these oddball characters, maintaining that the first appearance of the Super Sons was in a Haney-penned story from 1973.  Apparently this 1970 feature wasn’t the first appearance either, though, as that was in 1965.  There you go kids; that’s why your teachers tell you not to trust Wikipedia!  Anyway, let’s jump right into the madness, shall we?

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Essentially, this is Goofus and Gallant, the super hero edition, with the oddly doppleganger-ish children of the World’s Finest duo standing in for the titular pair.  We join Superman and his son, the incredibly creatively named Superman Jr. (Really?  Not, you know, Superboy?) as they discontentedly watch Batman and HIS equally creatively named son, Batman Jr.  The young Dark Knight is getting the Metropolis Medal of Valor in recompense for his deeds of daring do in the great city.  The Man of Steel and his son look on unhappily, with Super-Dad really bucking for ‘Father of the Year’ as he berates his son for not being as good as Batman’s boy.  Later, they head home to the “secluded, adjoining homes of Superman and Batman in the country between Metropolis and Gotham.”  And, just for the record, it was at that moment that I began to suspect that this issue was written by a 10 year old.  Seriously, there are a lot of concepts here that seem like something my little nephew would come up with, the fevered dreams of playground storytelling.  I realize that these comics were pitched to younger readers, but there’s a bit of a difference between what a kid would think is cool and what a kid would come up with if left to his own devices.

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Anyway, at the door the super pair are met by “Mom,” who is conveniently wearing a wig and has her face in shadow.  This is actually a funny and clever little element of these Super Sons stories.  They always had the mothers’ faces in shadow and they tried to keep their identities fuzzy.  It’s hilarious that they’d go to that much trouble for these stories they’ve already labeled as ‘imaginary,’ and which don’t have many other concessions to logic or consistency.

Well, here we see a few more moments of the type of domestic farce that I love so very much, with the Super-Family sitting down to eat in full costume.  Fortunately, it’s not the focus of the issue.  It’s just a bizarre little side feature, as if Ross Andru just forgot that these characters have civilian identities after the first page.  Either way, Superman continues to play ‘disappointed Dad’ and is fairly ugly to his son as he takes off to retrieve a special singing alien plant.

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We get an admittedly cool sequence as The Man of Tomorrow recovers the plant from a creature of flame, intending to bring the vociferous vegetable home to display on Earth.  The idea of a singing plant is not a new one, and it’s a cool enough sci-fi concept.  Yet, this story goofies it up by having the sounds the bush creates be genre and instrument specific.  This alien life-form plays “rock, marimba, strings, piano, cello, [and] steel band.”  Sure.  Just think about that one for a moment.

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The Boy of Steel demonstrates his Goofus bona fides by burning the vocal vegetable to a crisp by flying too fast when he’s sent to deliver it.  This earns the poor schmuck a real tongue lashing from his father, combined with a healthy dose of parental guilt.  You really do feel for this poor kid (apparently only 14), as his various screw-ups throughout the issue are all accidents, and he’s really trying to do his best.  He reminds me a bit of Jerry Gergich from Parks and Rec.  To top things off, Batman and son just casually drop by to brag about how awesome they are.  I swear, the whole thing reads like parody.  If this were written today I’d think it was really clever satire!

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Super goofs are the worst!  Also, smug Batman better watch out or he might find himself thrown into the sun…

The Super Sons hang out, with the Boy Detective trying to cheer up his super pal, including offering to let him ride his “Bat Bike.”  Ha!  Well, all of his efforts are to no avail, and then the two of them each attempt to stop a group of robbers with a nifty subterranean tank that looks more than a little like the Transport Modules from the old Ninja Turtles ‘toon (maybe the crooks work for Krang!).  The Boy of Steel blows it again, being fooled by fake Kryptonite, while Batman Jr. cleverly outwits the thieves…at least, if you don’t think about it too hard.  He finds the tunneling tank in a lake, hiding out from the authorities, so he plugs up its air snorkel, which is currently UNDERWATER, with a handkerchief.  This, somehow, causes the gang to surface, despite the fact that the snorkel was already blocked by being, you know, UNDERWATER!  It’s just a ridiculous little oversight that adds to the silliness of this issue.  Did you guys even bother to READ this thing before you sent it to press?

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Afterwards, we get another dose of domestic farce as all of the heroes sit down to a family dinner, still in costume, to celebrate Superman Jr.’s birthday.  Yay.  For his gift, the elder Superman decides to take his son to the Fortress of Solitude for the first time in an attempt to heal the rift between them…the rift that he has totally caused for being a jerk to his well-meaning son.

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Unfortunately, Goofus, I mean Superman Jr., screws everything up when he’s left alone in the Fortress.  He accidentally trashes the place, which seems to be the final straw.  The issue ends with the Dad of Steel locking his son in a booth and dropping in a piece of gold kryptonite to permanently take away his powers.  There’s actually something of value there, as the Super Father faces the fact that his son is more or less a danger to everyone on Earth because he’s such a huge clutz, but he’s also only 14…and who wasn’t a screwup at that age?  In other words, it immediately sinks into bathos or “narm.”  I’m sure we’ll see some type of turnaround next issue, but that’s where this merry-go-round of craziness ends.

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So, what do we make of this non-Haney batch of zaniness?  Well, I’m not really sure.  It’s just so goofy and silly that I certainly can’t enjoy it the way I do your average adventure story, but it is also undeniably vivacious and full of energy in a way that last Superman story simply was lacking.  It is clear that Kanigher isn’t thinking too deeply…or at all…about this tale, but it is fun and you really can’t help but feel sorry for the Super-Loser.  It does seem like the basic concept suffers from a lack of creativity, with the Super Sons just being carbon copies of their fathers, but there are neat moments interwoven with the ludicrous ones, though the latter outnumber the former.  This is a very Silver-Agey tale, though somehow less obnoxious than some of the others we’ve waded through.  I suppose it is just so wacky that it comes back around again and is fun.  I’ll give it 2.5 Minutemen.  It’s final effect is silly, but entertainingly so.

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“The Ordeal of Element Lad!”

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In the backup position this month we have the continuation of the excellent Legion story from the previous issue, and just as in that comic, this story absolutely steals the show.  It suffers from its brevity to a degree, yet it still manages to deliver a great espionage adventure.  Bridwell really came through with this two-parter, giving us a fascinating setup, solid if limited character work, exciting twists and turns, and a level of sophistication that really stands in marked contrast to the childish fare that seems to populate the pages of the Superman books.

You can see Bridwell struggling with his limited space to a degree, but the way he’s structured the two separate episodes helps to mitigate these restrictions.  For example, our perspective shifts a bit with this issue, and characters who didn’t get too much focus in the previous story get to carry most of the action in this one.  Unfortunately, Timber Wolf and Karate Kid still get rather short shrift, falling between the cracks a bit, but I suppose that type of thing is bound to happen in a team book with a big cast, especially when page real-estate is at such a premium.  The real stars of the issue are Element Lad and Saturn Girl, and we join the latter at the beginning of the story right where we left her, deep in the belly of the beast, having infiltrated the science labs of the tyrannical President Peralla.  The previous issue’s mild cliffhanger ending is continued as the scientist’s assistant declares that she knows the young Legionnaire.  Fortunately, she doesn’t know her as a Legionnaire!  It seems that this girl, Marli Zhorg (gotta’ love these Legion names) was a schoolmate of Saturn Girl’s but hasn’t kept up with her fellow Saturnian’s exploits since the old days.  Thus, she thinks that Imra is just another scientist looking for a job, happily assuming that her college buddy has no more qualms about working for a dictator than she does.

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Yet, though her cover is intact, the psychic heroine faces another obstacle.  She can’t telepathically smuggle the secrets of the ‘Humanoid’ super soldiers out to her teammates in the presence of another mind-reader.  Thinking quickly, she sends a seemingly innocent message ‘in the clear’ to Brainiac 5 that nevertheless appraises him of the situation.  It’s a nice display of her resourcefulness.  Meanwhile, the rest of the team is meeting with Masrin, the rebel leader, under the guise of being fellow operatives from the Dark Circle.  As they try to figure out how to fight the seemingly unstoppable Humanoids, Brainy discovers a trace of their substance on Karate Kid’s hand and rushes to conduct an analysis.

Just then, the loyalist forces attack, and a desperate battle ensues, a battle that will be hopeless unless the young Coluan can solve the mystery.  In a fun and fitting little sequence, Brainy solves the puzzle in the time it takes Element Lad to complain about his tardiness.  It’s a nice little character moment, demonstrating Brainiac 5’s competence, coolness, and also indicating the touch of arrogance that comes from knowing you’re the smartest being in the room.

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With the secret in his possession, Element Lad begins a herculean labor, single-handedly dispatching the Humanoids by converting their bodies into various elements, all while making the rebels believe it is their new weapons carrying the day in order to maintain their cover.  The sequence is nicely illustrated by Mortimer, and the Legionnaire displays a creative use of his powers as he destroys the creatures.

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The effort leaves him so drained that Timberwolf has to carry him when the rebels advance, but even so, he keeps up his attack.  Soon they are storming the capitol itself, and Saturn Girl sends them inside information, handily dispatching her former friend when she realizes what the young heroine is up to.  Brainy uses his force field belt to penetrate the city’s defenses and smash their controls, allowing the rebels to sweep in and providing him with a nice action sequence in the bargain.

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Masrin is more concerned with securing the treasury than with the capture of Peralla, and he pulls a Scrooge McDuck (minus the charm and whimsy) as he examines the wealth of the planet.  Here we see the culmination of the solid character work that Bridwell manages to weave into this fast moving story, as the rebel leader’s vices are displayed in several subtle ways amidst the action.  We see it when he shouts cornball lines during the battle that make the heroes roll their eyes, as well as in his casual disregard for his men in the previous story.  His vices prove his undoing, in classic fashion, as his greed provides the opening the Legionnaire’s need to take care of him.  The team convinces Masrin to hold back most of the treasure and only offer a small portion to his troops.  When he does so, Element Lad uses the last of his energy to transmute the gold and jewels into simple lead and stone.  The rebels turn on their disgraced leader, and a better man takes his place.

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The team, their mission successfully completed, is extracted, and the tale ends with Element Lad waking up in the infirmary after his heroic efforts, being congratulated by the others.  His valiant, unyielding perseverance throughout the issue was really quite impressive, and it’s pleasant to see the fellow get his due, especially because he’s a character that I don’t know well.  I like seeing new (to me) characters come out strong, and I always enjoy seeing underdogs (and Element Lad rather seems like one to me) make good.  He really does carry the issue, though, and his endurance in the face of his increasing exhaustion is a great heroic note for the character, even if it’s all we have time to learn about him.

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So, there you have it, an excellent Legion adventure, full of fun, intrigue, and energy,  with personality and character packed into every rare spare moment.  I didn’t even mention the romance subplot where the rebel officer’s girlfriend was revealed to be in love with someone else.  That type of extraneous element could easily just feel tacked on and unnecessary, but it is indicative of Bridwell’s apparent desire to see that nothing is left hanging.  Instead of being a distraction, it is handled with a light enough touch to add just a little extra flavor to the tale, occupying no more than a single panel and fitting in organically.  Once again, we see the power of visual storytelling, as a single word balloon and a meaningful glance tell us everything we need to know about the way things stand.

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The story isn’t perfect.  It’s just too short to be entirely successful.  The setup for the yarn remains impressive, though it doesn’t get as much exploration as we might like.  The final resolution, disposing of both Perala and Masrin, as well as the general threats to the world, as quickly as it does is a tad unsatisfying.  Nonetheless, the dramatic irony of Masrin’s greed-triggered fall helps to ameliorate this feeling.  On the whole, if the only complaint you can level against a story is that you wish there were more of it, you’re doing pretty well.  I’ll give it a solid 4 Minutemen, like it’s previous iteration.  I am really enjoying these Legion tales, and I’m looking forward to the next one!  They really help make these Action Comics days more enjoyable.

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Aquaman #52

aquaman_vol_1_52“The Traders’ Trap”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Dick Giordano

“Never Underestimate a Deadman”
Writer: Neal Adams
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Neal Adams
Editor: Dick Giordano

Well, back to Aquaman’s aquatic adventures, and happy I am for the return!  I really love this run, as I’ve remarked before, and though this isn’t the best one of the bunch, it’s still pretty darn good.  This issue is graced with another beautiful Nick Cardy cover, one that embraces the visual daring and creativity of the art within.  Once again, the SAG team deliver an innovative story that is breaking away from the standard formulas, along with really lovely and unusual art.  Imaginations continue to run wild, and the flurry of creative concepts keeps flying as the team further fleshes out this strange world.  What’s more, this story provides a really surprising and rather challenging moral dilemma for its protagonist.  In short, this book continues to encapsulate the best things about the Bronze Age.

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Another beautiful, trippy Aparo splash page

Before we rejoin our hero and his silent girl friday, the SAG team tosses out another concept to populate this bizarre world, a new and interestingly designed race of aliens, quite ugly but also fairly unique.  They have an advanced ship that looks a bit like a fugitive from Star Trek, and they are apparently on the hunt for slaves!  They approach the blue colony sphere…thing…from the last issue and spot the Sea King and his companion fighting off a horde of the natives.  The giant-headed aliens are impressed with the scrappy pair’s prowess, so they decide to capture them.

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Trapped in a force field, the Marine Marvel and the girl are brought aboard the alien ship and imprisoned in glass tubes with the rest of the day’s ‘catch.’  Aquaman deduces that the strange beings are telepathic and have highly developed brains, what with their huge melon-heads and all.  It seems telepathy is a common feature in the life forms of this bizarre land, a nice little bit of internal consistency that doesn’t get remarked upon but which makes the setting feel more fleshed-out and believable.

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Then we get a moment that I really enjoyed, one of those ‘Aquaman-is-awesome’ scenes that this series does so well.  While the glass prisons are enough to hold most life forms, the Sea King is not so easily cowed.  Held in his cell by powerful mental force, Arthur proves once again how much raw willpower he can muster as, inch by agonizing inch, he forces his arm to move until he shatters the cylinder and escapes.  Then he proceeds to wipe the floor with the big-brained bozos, casually remarking that though they may be smart, they aren’t too much in a fight.  It’s a really great sequence, and demonstrates how well the SAG team handle the character.

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I LOVE this panel with Aquaman cleaning three of the aliens’ clocks at once!

The Marine Marvel smashes a door control to cut off reinforcements and makes his way to the bridge, still desperate to follow the telepathic ‘pull’ that had drawn him to that blue colony in the first place in the hopes that it would lead him to Mera.  Some experimentation allows him to discern the workings of the controls, and the inclusion of that scene helps to illustrate the attention being given to the telling of these tales.  It makes sense that an alien ship could not be instantly piloted by a stranger, so seeing Aquaman actually pressing the wrong buttons as he’s trying to figure it out is a nice nod to logical consistency and their efforts to create a believable universe.  As Aristotle said, impossibilities (like men breathing under water and traveling to other worlds) can be accepted, as long as the are believably possible impossibilities.

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Well, once he arrives back at the colony, we encounter the most interesting moment in the story.  Our hero realizes that the girl is still trapped, and he faces the choice of what to do with her.  He knows he is going to be charging into battle against overwhelming odds as he pursues his quest, and he also knows that the colonists are likely to kill the girl on sight because she was the one who fired on them.  Yet, if he leaves her behind, she is liable to become a slave…or worse!  It’s a compelling and puzzling moral dilemma with no easy answer, and Aquaman himself doesn’t instantly know what to do.  He wants to do what is best for the girl, yet what that might be isn’t easy to discern.  His decision is made quickly, but at least we are shown that he sweats over it.  He chooses to leave the girl behind as he continues to search for a way home.

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Now, I’m far from convinced that this was the right choice, and it is actually rather troubling to me that Aquaman abandons her.  While I rather think that Skeates intends it to be thus, it seems that, at the least, Arthur should have woken her up and asked her what SHE wanted.  Of course, given her beliefs, she might not have ‘spoken’ with him, even if he had done so.  It is truly a difficult situation, as he could not take her home, her life wouldn’t be worth a plug nickel in the new colony, and our hero knows nothing else about this weird world.  As he remarks, at least she is safe, for the moment.  Nonetheless, it is vexing, and the fact that this simple four-color adventure book had me puzzling over a moral conundrum is a testament to its quality and to its uniqueness in the current crop of comics.

Aquaman52_13.jpgWell, to turn back to our tale, the Sea King attempts to fight his way into the colony, but he is felled by a…*gasp* head blow!  Yep, poor Arthur gets a second spot on the Head-Blow Headcount wall.  I’m afraid it won’t be his last, either.  I will say this for the noggin knock, though, at least these alien inhabitants of this land might actually have the strength to knock our hero out with one shot, unlike the average humans who tend to do so.  Either way, his captors decide to carry him to the “Extermination Chamber”!  Dun dun, DUNNN!

What a great place for a scene shift.  We check in briefly with Mera and Vulko, who are monitoring Black Manta as he circles Atlantis.  Suddenly, the Manta-ship disgorges two divers, but what are they up to?  Well, we won’t find out this issue, as our scene shifts again, picking back up with our hero on his way to his dreadfully named destination.  He makes swift work of his three guards in a nice, dynamic sequence, and he realizes that he’s reached the source of the strange ‘pull’…but there is nothing there!

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Just then, Mera snaps and cries out that she needs her husband (calling him “Aquaman” instead of Arthur, which always bothers me as it seems quite unnatural), and in response, the startled Sea King suddenly finds himself growing…and growing…finally appearing in front of a very surprised Sea Queen!  What is going on?  Well, we’ll actually get our answers in the Deadman backup!

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It’s a surprising and intriguing ending, though I really dislike Mera’s panicked outcry.  The modern portrayal of Mera has its problems (for one, she’s now trained as a warrior and assassin and quite blood-thirsty…just like every other character Geoff Johns reimagines), but at least she’s a fiery, independent woman.  I like my Mera with more spirit, more moxy.  She should be no-one’s damsel in distress, especially with all the power she is packing.  Still, like I said with the last issue, I do enjoy the idea that both husband and wife are desperate to be reunited.  It’s sweet.  This outburst pushes things too far, though.

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The more interesting element is, of course, the controversial (to me, at least), choice that our hero makes this issue.  It is handled briefly, and the action moves right along, yet it is a really compelling moment that tells us about the character.  What do y’all think of his choice, readers?  What should Aquaman have done with the girl?  Feel free to weigh in through the comments.

Once again, the story suffers a bit from brevity, but it still manages to present us with a complete adventure, while also keeping us on the hook by raising as many questions as it answers.  Throughout Aquaman comes off as pretty awesome, powerful, capable, indomitable (other than that one head-blow…), and driven, yet still concerned about the girl who has fallen in with him, despite his own considerable problems.  I think the issue itself may not be quite as strong as the last one in all respects, but the episode with the choice provides enough interest and depth to push it up to the next level in my estimations.  Thus, I award it a very respectable 4.5 Minutemen.

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“Never Underestimate a Deadman”

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This Deadman backup provides a fun and interesting, if a bit uneven, conclusion to our main adventure, and it is followed by an Aquaman epilogue that I will cover in this section.  Neal Adams is in fine form, so the art is beautiful, but unfortunately, he is also handling the writing chores, and his prose tends to be a tad purple.  He also makes some rather odd choices with his captions, as when the boxes constantly urge the hero to hurry.  Still, it’s a fun yarn.

It opens with Deadman and the strange, dimension hopping Tatsinda arriving back on Earth after a stomach churning journey.  The Deceased Detective commits something of a faux pas by telling his now cat-shaped companion that he liked her better in the other world.  They encounter the Ocean Master moping about his betrayal of the man who he has come to realize is actually his brother, Aquaman.  In a really nice bit of characterization, there is an element of pride even in Orm’s remorse, a certain epic grandeur that reminds one of Milton’s Satan in a funny costume.  It is not just that he betrayed his brother, it is also that he failed to save him, and the failure itself, a failure to enact his will, is, perhaps, what galls him most.  It’s actually a wonderful character beat, and I think it captures something about Orm that is true about most great villains.  The central sin, the original sin, and the one that leads to worldly greatness both good and bad, is pride.  It must be the defining characteristic of any would-be world-conquering villain.  Magneto or Lex Luthor would be nothing, despite their individual causes, if they were not backed up by towering pride and will to back it.

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I’ll add, at the risk of sidetracking this commentary even further, that Ocean Master’s costume, though here it looks about as good as it ever does, is just a lost cause.  The light purple, almost pink cloak and pants, the whole color scheme…it just doesn’t have the dignity the character needs.  The later redesign that adopted a more serious color scheme looks world’s better.  The modern version is, like almost every single New 52 costume, overdesigned, but it has some good elements.  I like the scales that echo and reflect Aquaman’s armor, but the whole thing just doesn’t quite come together.  I think one more pass would get it right.  Unlike many folks, I actually quite like the helmet.  I think it is distinctive and interesting.  The new version refines it nicely, but I think it has always been a good trademark for the character, making the design pop.

Well, anyway, Deadman grows tired of listening to Orm’s monologuing as the fate of the world hangs in the balance, so telling Tatsinda to hang tight, he grabs the reins of the villain’s body, and uses him to infiltrate the aliens’ ship.  I bet you had forgotten all about these guys, huh?  Well, helpfully, we get a quick recap, and the invaders obliging explain their plan to “Orm,” since he is, after all, their ally.  They are going to flood the world with radiation from all of their emitters, and this will reduce the inhabitants’ intelligence, making them nice, tractable slaves.

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The ghostly hero decides to smash their devices, and by jumping from opponent to opponent, he makes some progress, but the aliens shut their brains down to thwart him (That has to be a VERY specific skill.  How often would it come in handy?  I mean, other than going to see a DC movie?).  Unable to use the aliens, Deadman begins to flit across the globe, controlling various animals to smash the devices, but he realizes that to get the central device he needs help, namely, Aquaman!  We discover what has happened to the Aquatic Ace.  Apparently the invaders don’t believe in taking life (an interesting touch), so to fulfill their bargain with Orm, they just shrunk the hero down, and he is now trapped in a microscopic realm on Mera’s ring.  Intense concentration can reverse the effects (sure, why not), so Deadman snags Vulko in order to prompt Mera into such an effort, and this triggers the Sea King’s return.

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Yet, is it all for naught?  The Dead Detective realizes that the time limit has expired!  Fortunately, it seems that his efforts were enough, even without destroying the central device…or were they?  Tatsinda tartly informs the smug spirit that it was, in fact, she, who saved the day.  She swam out to the ship and sabotaged the device so that it backfired, stupefying the aliens and forcing their withdrawal.  This is an unexpected and fun twist.  I enjoy Tatsinda’s self-satisfied recounting of her deed, and she also coolly informs our hero that no lady, no matter what her form, cares to be ignored.  It’s a fun little ending, even if it is a bit of an anti-climax.

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To add to the fun of this issue, the team also provides us with an accounting of the creation of these interlocked tales, which is, in and of itself, an enjoyable and interesting read.  I’ll reproduce it below so y’all can enjoy it as well.  Essentially, it was a collaborative idea that all the creators contributed towards, the story evolving as it was told.

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Anyway, the story itself was a good read, and Deadman’s frantic efforts made for good adventure fare.  In the end, these aliens just didn’t seem like that great of a threat, and that rather lowered the impact of the story.  I think that this is the weakest of the Deadman chapters, and the weakest chapter overall, especially considering the weight and enjoyability of the Aquaman section from this issue.  Still, those are pretty high marks to hit, and the tale deserves an above average 3.5 Minutemen.

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The epilogue reunites our two submarine superheroes, and the couple discusses the strangeness of the recent ordeal while also bringing the returned king up to date on Black Manta’s odd behavior.  Mera notes that she is, in a sense, the goddess of this bizarre microscopic world and speculates about other such places.  We know from the Atom that they abound, making the DCU Universe even more packed with life and wonder than is apparent.  It’s a neat concept, and it rather reminds me of the medieval idea that God would waste no space in creation, thus, every element and every area must have its life, its wonder, and its purpose.  It’s a lovely vision of the universe, and, though it raises endless questions, is great for a world of wonders such as this.  The issue ends with Aquaman calling out Manta and promising further adventures to come!

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Well, I am going to stop this post here, letting these two issues stand alone.  I’ve decided to start treating multi-feature books as multiple entries since their writing takes just as long as do multiple individual issues. That will also hopefully help me keep up a more rapid and consistent pace.  I’m trying to use this blog to discipline myself in writing, in part as training for my dissertation writing which is coming up soon, so hopefully this will aid that objective.  I’m also going to try to rein in my issue commentaries a bit, as they’ve grown more than I had intended, so you may look for more restrained summaries in the future.  As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments, and I hope you will join me next week as we tread further on our journey Into the Bronze Age!

 

The Head-Blow Headcount:

Aquamanhead.jpgBatmanhead.jpgshowcase-88-fnvf-jasons-quest0robin2 - Copy.jpgPhantom_Stranger_05.jpgrobin2 - Copy.jpgbatman-family-6-cover.jpgAquamanhead.jpg

Poor, poor Aquaman.  He becomes the second hero to make a return appearance on the wall of shame.  At least this time, it might make some sense.  I have to say, I expected we’d see even more entries, but I suppose we aren’t even a year in yet, are we?  Clearly, this trope is alive and well in the Bronze Age.

 

Into the Bronze Age: July 1970 (Part 3)

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Welcome, readers, to the final installment of my Into the Bronze Age feature for July 1970.  Because of the vagaries of release dates, we only have a single comic to cover today, but it will be followed by my observations on the month as a whole.

Roll Call (You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #390
  • Batman #223 (reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Brave and the Bold #90
  • Challengers of the Unknown #74 (Final issue!)
  • Detective Comics #401
  • G.I. Combat #142
  • Green Lantern #78
  • Superman #227 (Reprints)
  • Superman #228

Superman #228

superman_v-1_228“The Mystery Bombers!”
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Roussos

“Execution Planet!”
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Roussos

This issue contains two mediocre Superman tales that very much prove the rule about the enduring Silver Age-ness of the Man of Steel’s comics.  They are  by no means the worst examples of these tendencies (there’s no domestic farces or giant-headed-super-freak-children to be found in these pages, thankfully), but they do evince some of the excesses of Silver Age stories, while at the same time suffering from the paradoxical lack of imagination that sometimes afflicted such books.

The first story is the strongest, though that’s not saying much, featuring an actually clever solution to its central problem, even if it is presented in the context of a ludicrous setup.  The plot centers around Superman being sent upon multiple ‘scavenger hunts,’ seeking for clues to the locations of bombs hidden around the city.  Clark Kent receives a call at the Planet from an anonymous bomber who declares that he has hidden an explosive somewhere in the city and demands that our favorite mild-mannered reporter pass the tip on to his ‘friend’ Superman, along with the promise that he can discover the bomb’s location by studying “every archive and exhibit in Science City.”

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Apparently this ‘Science City’ is a science-themed amusement park of sorts crossed with a museum and a laboratory.  Sure.  Anyway, moving at super speed and with his ‘super brain’ (good grief), the Man of Tomorrow is able to go through all of the exhibits until he makes an extremely unlikely connection between one particular exhibit on constellations and a comment the bomber made about horses.  So, he does the logical thing and flies to Metropolis Museum and one particular exhibit that happens to feature a chariot.  Wait, that wasn’t what you thought of when you heard ‘horses’?  Yeah…this isn’t exactly a Philip Marlowe mystery.  We’re dealing with problems that are solved with the expediency of plot.

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Well, this pattern is repeated twice more, with the Metropolis Marvel absorbing vast amounts of information in each case, and doing so in only seconds.  Now, I have no problem with Superman being able to read at super speed.  Sure, that makes sense.  I have no problem with his mind being able to work super fast as well.  Still, the idea that he could absorb and understand the entire contents of the Library of Congress in instants and find the one, completely improbable and unconnected clue in all of that…it’s just lazy writing, not an astonishing feat.

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Anyway, each time he discovers a bomb, it explodes moments later.  So, for the last device, the Man of Steel substitutes a string of firecrackers, which he ignites himself.  Why such a strange ruse?  Well, this is the clever part of the story.  Superman realized that the unlikely timing of the explosions meant he was being watched and that the bombs were being detonated for his benefit.  It was never about the bombs, which meant it must have been about the bizarre labors he was put through.  Thus, he reasoned that the knowledge he was absorbing was the real goal of these bombers.

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The bombers are, of course, aliens, complete with a ridiculous and unnecessarily convoluted plot to steal all of Earth’s knowledge, because this is a Superman comic book.  I’m not even going to go into their plan, as it makes little enough sense reading it in the story to begin with.  They trap the Man of Tomorrow in an empty house in order to drain the knowledge out of him, but through *sigh* super will-power, the hero scrambles all of it, making it useless.  They leave, and the story ends with Superman explaining to Jimmy how he figured everything out.

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Aside from the believable and reasonable inference about the bombs, the story doesn’t’ have much to recommend it.  Superman running around reading everything in the different locations is mildly neat to see, but the plot is just forgettable and goofy.  The aliens were after all the information on Earth (they would have done better to steal Hawkman’s Absorbascon!), so they had Superman read everything in an overgrown science fair, the Library of Congress, and the…Monies of the World collection…really?  Way to shoot for the stars there, guys.  I’m sure that pretty much covers the total of human knowledge.  I give this weak tale 2 Minutemen.  The one clever moment is not enough to make it really enjoyable.

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“Execution Planet”

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The backup tale isn’t as ludicrous on its face as the previous story, but it does suffer from the obsession of Silver Age books to pit their heroes against generic, boring criminals.  The result, though not as goofy in some ways, is just less interesting overall.  In this story Superman inexplicably loses his powers own by one.  There’s some story mileage there, and we’ve seen it done to better effect elsewhere.  Not so much here.  There are a few interesting moments as the Man of Steel tries to figure out what’s going on, but there’s also a decent amount of silliness as he more or less shrugs and says, ‘ohh well, maybe it will get better.’  Apparently the invulnerable alien sun-god has the same attitude towards losing all of his earth-shattering power as I do to having a sore muscle.  It seems like you should probably be a bit more concerned about this, Superman, what with the fate of the world so often hanging on your shoulders and all.

Anyway, The story begins with the Metropolis Marvel waking up and experiencing the joy of a splitting headache.  He is on vacation with Jimmy and Lois (way to be a third wheel, Jimbo.), and his headache concerns the hero, as he shouldn’t be susceptible to anything of the sort.  So, what does he do?  Well, first he wanders around in the woods of their resort using his powers without his costume, wildly endangering his secret identity for no particularly good reason.  Everything seems to work other than his invulnerability, so he heads to the Fortress of Solitude to do some tests.

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He manages to blow up his computer, once again, for no good reason, and gets no answer for his trouble.  He chalks it off to random happenstance and decides to just go on with his day when he suddenly discovers he can’t fly.  He has to be taken back to Metropolis by one of his robots before he freezes to death in the arctic cold.

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In town he hears about a robbery by the “Jet-Set gang,” which sounded quite promising when I first read it.  I thought, ‘yay, another gang-with-a-gimmick!’  As I’ve mentioned before, I have quite a fondness for the idea that the common criminals in the DC Universe get into the fun of donning costumes and embracing various gimmicks, like the Owl Gang from Flash a while back.  This sounded like a perfect opportunity for something of the sort.  Unfortunately, it’s nothing that fun or creative.  It’s a gang of crooks with a rocket-powered truck, but they’re just generic, run-of-the-mill criminals.  Dorfman doesn’t even bother to name them.  Well, Superman has to catch a cab (!) to get to the scene of the crime, which gives us a moderately funny little scene, but once he’s there he has to figure out how to stop these careening crooks.  He rips up the guard rail from the road creating a giant corral, but doing so exhausts him to the point where he can’t even fight back once the bad guys dismount.

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They knock him out and take him to a movie set owned by a crooked movie producer.  (Also known as a movie producer.  Bad-a-bing!)  Ahem…sorry.  Anyway, the criminal world decides to auction off the Man of Steel’s costume and accouterments, but they plan to send the hero himself to ‘the Execution Planet,’ which, for some reason, regular, generic Earth gangsters happen to know about…and care about…and think a better option than…you know, taking their revenge themselves.  It’s…a weird choice, and the whole thing just smacks of wasted opportunity.  To crown the failure of imagination that is this little tale, the attendant criminals are entirely the same generic breed.  Where is Lex Luthor?  Where is the Toyman?  Where is Brainiac?  Where is Parasite?  Where is Metallo?  Heck, I’d settle for the Prankster!  What a waste.

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Is he..naked in there?

superman 228 0031.jpgThe issue ends with the Generic Gang trying on Superman’s costume and paying to step on his cape.  Here we learn that the Man of Steel’s costume is completely bulletproof…which rather begs the question of why the hero was worried when threatened with guns earlier in the story.  Anyway, I’m losing interest in this little yarn as I type.  The idea of the captured hero being auctioned off, the ‘Auction of Evil,’ has been done many times.  I seem to remember a few different versions from Batman, and there is a solid turn on the trope from the fun Justice League Adventures comic from a few years back.  This iteration just doesn’t do anything much with the premise, providing a disappointing outing.  I give this one 1.5 Minutemen, the story having lost points for missed opportunities and general lack of creativity.

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Final Thoughts:

Well readers, this brings us to the end of July 1970, and a fairly unimpressive month it was, with only a few yarns that rated better than mediocre.  The only real bright point was the Legion backup, and even safe bets like the Haunted Tank had an off day, it seems.  We saw not one but two classic comic tropes given a less than stellar treatment.  We did, however, see a fascinating glimpse into the zeitgeist with the echoes of the Manson Murders found in the GA/GL book.  Yet, the same month that gave us something so very timely (if also as ham-handed as usual) also gave us Superman stories that seemed positively like throwbacks.

We can really see the cost of Superman’s out of control power level in these issues, and, I would wager, in this entire trend.  Writers have no real idea what to do with him.  They can’t actually challenge him, so they invent some new way to handicap him every issue.  Either he turns huge, or he loses his powers, or he goes nuts, or something even stranger happens to him.  They don’t have any real stories to tell with the character.  I imagine that this is part of the reason that he has been so resistant to change.  Who had any good ideas before “Kryptonite No More”?  With the book controlled by the same folks and using the same formulas that they had been for the past twenty years, there isn’t a lot of room for innovation.  Nonetheless, Superman’s lack of evolution is becoming more and more noticeable as more progressive stories are popping up all over the place in the other books.

Sadly, this month we are forced to bid farewell to one of the books that was headed in a very positive direction, Challengers.  I know that this won’t be the last time we see a promising book or idea abandoned.  In fact, we face the all-too-quick demise of Jack Kirby’s incredibly innovative and creative Fourth World just around the corner, following rapidly on the heels of its very birth.  I suppose we must brace ourselves for such lamentable events as we travel further Into the Bronze Age!  Fortunately, we will also see some amazing new stories and concepts born.  In fact, though I do know it will be short-lived, I can’t help but get excited because I’m already starting to see ads for The King’s dramatic arrival in the DC Universe!  Let’s see what the next month holds!

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One wonders what readers in 1970 thought of this enigmatic advertisement.  Boom Tube?  What in the world could that be?  It must have been exciting!

 

The Head-Blow Headcount:

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The Headcount remains unchanged!  Will next month be as quiet?