Into the Bronze Age: March 1970 (Part 1)

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Our trek into the Bronze Age continues!

And so does the evolution of this feature.  I’m going to add a little historical information to set the scene and provide some context for the comics I’m covering.  Each month’s first post will feature a couple of notable events and, stealing shamelessly from the ever entertaining and delightfully British Fantasticast, will also include that month’s longest reigning #1 single.

This month in history:

  • Rhodesia becomes independent
  • The Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty goes into effect
  • The “Weathermen” domestic terrorist group bomb 18 West 11th St in NYC
  • US lowers voting age from 21 to 18
  • The film Airport is released
  • Explorer 1 re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere after 12 years in orbit
  • Riots erupt in Belfast, Ireland

As you can see, these are turbulent times we’re touring.

And quite fittingly, this month’s #1 song was “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” As an aside, Garfunkel is a weird looking dude.  Just saying.  Now, to the comics!

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

  • Action Comics #386
  • Batman #220
  • Brave and the Bold #88
  • Challengers of the Unknown #72
  • Detective Comics #397
  • Flash #195
  • G.I. Combat #140
  • Green Lantern #75
  • Justice League of America #79
  • Phantom Stranger #5
  • Showcase #89
  • World’s Finest #192

Bonus!: Star Hawkins

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

Action Comics #386

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Cover Artist: Curt Swan
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Roussos

“Zap Goes the Legion!”
Writer: E. Nelson Bridwell
Penciler: Win Mortimer
Inker: Jack Abe

Wow, what a switch from the last issue and the first half of this story!  Don’t let that gimmicky cover fool you.  Even though this issue may have been born out of someone proposing the asinine question, ‘hey, wonder if there would be a retirement home for old superheroes?’ this story rises above such silly beginnings.  It looks like this tale is going to be exactly like its predecessor, rife with Silver Age silliness, but while there is certainly some of that to be found here, the whole actually hangs together remarkably well.  That’s the key difference between this story and its first half.  This one is surprisingly logically consistent.

We join our hero, the time-lost Man of Steel, still banished from his home time and seeking solace in the far future.  He leaps forward in time once more, this journey taking him to the year 121,970, where he finds a devastated world, poisoned by nuclear war.  Right from the beginning we see that this is a more interesting, thoughtful story than the previous offering from Action Comics.  Superman is wrestling with the unexpected loss of the life he knew, and in a fit of rage he destroys a cliffside that’s been fused into glass.  It’s a nice little moment.  He sees his aged reflection and is confronted with the reality of his loss, lashing out in anger.  That’s more emotion from the Man of Might than we saw in the entirety of the previous issue.  The Time Trapper observes this outburst with glee and reflects on the events of that past story.

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Finding nothing to assuage his sorrow, Superman once more lives up to his more esoteric nickname, the Man of Tomorrow, by traveling further into the future.  There he finds an interesting world.  On the one hand, it’s taken right from the Jetsons, complete with skyscraper buildings that house humanity above a sea of poisonous atmosphere that blankets the planet.  On the other hand, the way the world got to this point is really quite intriguing and unusually thought-provoking for a story from this era.

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Superman finds himself surrounded by strange floating robotic sentries that arrest him for using superpowers (!), hauling him before the leaders of the world.  They recognize him, but at least this time it is played as something of an unusual occurrence instead of having this 100 centuries old superhero instantly known by everyone in the future.  It is from the powers-that-be that Superman learns the sad history of this era, and an interesting story it is.  It seems that thousands of years ago a trio of super beings, much like Superman himself, came to Earth.  They were benevolent, protecting and caring for the people of the planet, and in turn the citizens showered them with love.  Yet, love was their undoing.  The three beings were two men and one woman, and the men fought over their female companion.  Theirs was a war that lasted only two days but which was so incredibly destructive, especially from the damage of their “proto-vision,” that it left the entire Earth poisoned in its wake.  The beings, the Naurons, fled, leaving the world a wasteland.  In response, the survivors banned the use of all superpowers, which seems like a fairly sensible precaution after such an experience.

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This is quite the interesting little throw-away detail, or so it seems at the time.  It is a rare moment of perspective from a comic, especially a DC comic, of this era.  The presence of beings as powerful as Superman would be an incredible threat to the worlds they call home, and if they were any less careful and dedicated than he is, a tragedy would be inevitable.  This has been explored quite well in later years, of course, but the tale of the Naurons is certainly noteworthy in context.  It adds a different, though also somewhat sombre note to the story of Superman’s exile.

Well, Superman decides to explore this time a bit more, being careful not to employ any of his powers, and he happens upon the future incarnation of the Daily Planet, complete with nifty floating sign.  Inside he first discovers that it is no longer a newspaper; as the Man of Steel puts it, “the printed page must be ancient history in this era.”  This is another surprisingly thoughtful detail in this story.  While comic writers could easily imagine the future with flying cars and push-button houses, they often had some of the most interesting blind spots for other elements of life in such an era.

Next Superman happens upon the archives of the video-paper and learns what had happened to his friends after he disappeared from his native time.  We discover that Lois apparently never got over her thing for Superman, as she married the actor who portrayed him in the movies.  I think I’d call that unhealthy and more than a little creepy.  ‘Hey, you look like my vanished love, so I guess you’ll do.  Would you mind wearing his clothes too?’  Jimmy Olsen fared better, writing a best-seller about his adventures with the Man of Steel and finally finding enough dignity to call himself James…but not enough to stop wearing bow-ties.  Before he can learn anymore (one wonders what happened to Batman and the League without their heaviest hitter), Superman gets kicked out and goes back to wandering the streets.

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He sees an accident about to occur, and unwilling to let any law prevent him from saving a life, leaps into action, only to be arrested again!  This time they have no mercy and banish him to another world!  Here is where we get to what on the cover seems like a goofy concept, but what, in context, actually makes sense.  It seems that this is a retirement center of sorts for aging heroes, men who could not fit into civilian life or who violated the law in their attempts to help.  In a sense, it’s a cushy prison for metahumans, a logical necessity if you’ve outlawed powers.

This places inmates are embittered, holding on to their past glories, but they immediately take to Superman, having long revered his legacy.  It makes sense that there would be somewhere to put heroes who broke the power laws, and it also serves to underscore Superman’s own sense of emptiness and uselessness, so this hero retirement home actually works in this story, strange as it may seem.

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The Man of Tomorrow finds himself on this world only a short time before a dignitary from Earth arrives, begging for the help of the banished heroes.  They basically tell the guy where he can go, but Superman sways them with an impassioned speech…or rather, he basically says, ‘hey, come on guys…come on!’ and the heroes, apparently senile and easily influenced, immediately get on board.

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They all fly to Earth where they discover that a storage silo for an incredibly powerful fuel that is inexplicably stored smack-dab in the middle of downtown future-Metropolis has become unstable and is going to explode!  One wonders why you might not want to store your super explosive materials somewhere else, but apparently safety concerns just aren’t that big of a deal in the future.  I wonder what future-OCSEA would say…

Anyway, heroes, weakened by age and sorrow, don’t think they can save the city, but Superman once again displays his quick wits, as well as his natural leadership abilities.  He leaps into action, deploying his super-powered squad all around the solar system in pursuit of various materials, which he uses to create blast shield that will focus the force of the explosion downward.  When the tower goes up, Superman uses his own impervious form, spinning at super speed, to further contain the explosion and turn the building into a rocket, sending it harmlessly into space.  It’s a clever solution, and it’s a nice sequence of pages, with the elderly champions chipping in to save the day.

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Finally, the story ends with Superman journeying on further into the future, not even bothering to say goodbye.  As he flies, he ruminates on lost opportunities.  “Why didn’t I marry Lois?” he wonders as he is secretly observed by the sinister Time Trapper!  It’s a nice note to end on, keeping the melancholy undercurrent of the story alive, despite the seemingly happy conclusion of this adventure.

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This is a really fun, surprisingly thoughtful and interesting story.  Now, I’m being generous here, as there are certainly silly elements and moments throughout it, but the whole thing holds together remarkably well considering its origins.  Pretty much every element that is introduced makes sense, and there are really thought-provoking pieces to this story, including the war of the super-beings and Superman’s own sadness at being banished from everything and everyone he knows.  While I’d hardly call this story soulful or truly melancholy, it certainly has elements that a generous imagination can magnify into more than the sum of their parts.  I also wonder if the concern with devastated, dead, or poisoned worlds might reflect the growing environmental consciousness being displayed in JLA this and last month.  I can’t say for sure, but it does seem like a curious bit of synchronicity.  All-in-all, I’ll give this tale 4 Minutemen out of 5.

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“Zap Goes the Legion!”

That brings us to this month’s Legion backup.  For once, the backup doesn’t overshadow the feature, which seemed to be the trend for the last two months.  Still, this is a fine Legion tale, and it too features a neat, unusual element.  The adventure begins on the prison planetoid of Takron-Galtos, a Legion fixture I’ve encountered once or twice before.  I like recurring elements like this.  They make the universe of these stories seem more complete, more filled out and lived-in.  Anyway, we meet two prisoners who are due for release.  In a scene out of a Clockwork Orange (though, interestingly this comic predates that movie by a year!), both inmates are given “prism therapy,” which apparently brainwashes them into doing good.  Shades of Doc Savage!  The two prisoners claim to be transformed and to feel remorse for their actions.  The woman, Uli Algor, an old foe of the Legion’s, has actually faked her reformation and immediately sets out to destroy the heroes of the future!

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The method by which she defeats the “prism therapy” is rather hokey, as she effectively just says, ‘hey, I used light to fight the Legion, so I made myself immune to all forms of light!’  Wow, I wish I knew it was that easy!  I’ve shot guns, so I should have just made myself immune to all metal!  Silly me!  Anyway, several of the Legionnaires are out on the town, viewing *sigh* a “time-scope,” showing a 20th Century prize fight and noting that the ‘barbaric’ sport of boxing has been outlawed for hundreds of years.  Remember that, as it will become strangely important later on.  Our uninterestingly named villainess challenges the heroes, Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, Cosmic Boy, and even substitute hero Night Girl, to a fight.  She quickly dispatches each of the heroes by turning their powers against them with her advanced equipment.  Lightning Lad is short-circuited, Cosmic Boy is thrown into a wall with bone-breaking force, Saturn Girl is given wide-awake nightmares, and Night Girl is blinded!  All things considered, I think Night Girl got off rather easily by comparison.

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I like that panel of Saturn Girl’s nightmares.  It’s pretty neat, and the menace is palpable.  No, here’s where we get something a bit unusual.  The heroes don’t just pick themselves up and dust themselves off.  No, they are well and truly defeated, and the next scene is Brainiac 5 and Karate Kid visiting them in the hospital where they are all entirely incapacitated.  It’s a surprising scene, showing the consequences of a loss for our heroes, and while they will all be okay, it is clear that they were hurt pretty badly.  I particularly like the image of the heroes in the pitch-black room, only their goggles standing out.  The whole scene has the effect of reminding us that our heroes are actually playing for high stakes and implies that their victory is far from certain.

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The remaining heroes, Brainiac 5, Ultra-Boy, Phantom Girl, and Karate Kid, receive a a second challenge from Algor (not to be confused with another future-dwelling Al Gore), and they choose a junkyard asteroid as their battleground.  Despite Brainiac 5 preparing the ground and rigging the junked spaceships littering its surface to trap her, Algor manages to escape, inadvertently bringing Phantom Girl back to her hidden base.  The villainess is ready for the young heroine’s intangibility, however, and takes her out.  This enrages her boyfriend, Ultra-Boy, and he sets out to bring Algor down.  She plans how to counter each of his many superpowers, but is so wrapped up in what she’ll do in this, that, or the other circumstance, that she allows the fighting-mad Legionnaire to walk right up to her and belt her on the jaw.

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She was prepared for any of his powers, but not for old-fashioned boxing, it seems!  Now, the story assures us Ultra-Boy isn’t using super strength, and it lampshades the fact that he is hitting a girl; yet, it is still a bit off-putting that he just straight-up socks this woman in the jaw!  It’s rather surprising in a 1970 comic book, and I have to admit that my old-school Southern gentlemanly upbringing quails a bit at that image.

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The resolution is a bit silly, as even if boxing isn’t allowed as a sport, the Legionnaires clearly have some hand-to-hand training, so a punch to the face wouldn’t be quite as innovative as Ultra-Boy seems to think it is in this story, especially for someone like him, who often engages in fisticuffs.  Algor’s very convenient powers are another weakness of this story, as she seems to have the power of ‘plot.’  I imagine that is why she didn’t really become a major Legion foe.  That, and she doesn’t really have much personality, but there is only so much you can pack into an 11 page story, and master of continuity, E. Nelson Bridwell has already got this one stuffed to the gills.

Despite those few weaknesses, this is definitely a fun story, and the injuries sustained by the first tea of Legionnaires really helped to raise it above the herd a bit, giving the whole tale a more serious feeling.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.

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Batman #220

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Cover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Dick Giordano

This is a fine Batman tale, a good, classic style murder mystery, though the ending is a bit of a cheat.  We are back to the dark, brooding detective Batman once again, and that’s always a good thing in my book, though it emphasizes the unevenness of the character’s portrayal across the line at this time.  Our story opens with Batman rushing to a payphone where he hears the taped confession of a murderer, though the man says the Caped Crusader will never live to use it, as the entire phone booth explodes!  It’s a literal ka-pow moment and a nice beginning for our tale.

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Cut to the previously discussed Victims Inc. office of Bruce Wayne, where he is visited by a strangely silver-haired Marla Manning, a young woman (and it rather bothers me that no-one comments on the fact that this 20-something woman has white/silver hair!) whose columns inspired Bruce to start his organization.  She is there because she was investigating a car bomb that claimed the life of a city clerk and she has received a warning to “lay off!”  Bruce goes to check his files, and discovers that this particular file has been stolen!

He tells her that this is now a case for Batman, which seems a bit cavalier with the whole secret identity thing, but not the worst offense we’ve seen recently. *cough*Superman*cough*  Then, properly attired in cape and cowl, the Dark Knight detective goes to interview the victim’s sister…by knocking on her door.  It’s a rather incongruous image, seeing Batman in 70s grim avenger-style art knocking politely at a door while standing in a well-lit hallway.

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The sister isn’t talking, and Bats deduces that she’s being threatened, so he bursts in and disarms the gunman in a rather nicely drawn scene.  Irv Novick may not be in the same league as Neal Adams, who will shortly become THE artist associated with Batman in this era, but he’s no slouch either, and he draws a dynamic, powerful, and resourceful Caped Crusader.

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Unfortunately, the killer gets away, leaving the Dark Knight without a lead to follow, so he reexamines the case and decides to investigate a construction company that won a bid the murdered clerk had been involved in.  While snooping through the company’s records (and unlike a true Silver Age story, we don’t get any tortuous justification for Batman clearly breaking the law to do so), our stalwart hero discovers that Zachary Nova, the head of the Nova Demolitions company has just the skill-set needed to handle the car-bomb, having been a demolitions expert in Vietnam.  Nova catches him spying, and gets the drop on the detective, but Batman is able to turn the tables on him, leading to a tense stand off involving some really rather casually stored explosives.  If Batman can’t pin a murder on the guy, at least he can totally get him for unsafe working conditions!

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Nova, clearly more than a little crazy, threatens Batman with a bundle of TNT, and the Dark Knight leaves without finding any proof.  Next, the Cape Crusader rather blithely decides to put Marla Manning’s life in danger.  He has her print a story claiming she has some proof about the killer and making herself bait.  The reporter gets a call from Nova, who says he knows she doesn’t have any proof, but he’s willing to sell her some if she’ll meet him.  Batman insists on making the exchange, which brings us back to that deadly phonebooth!

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After the Dark Detective’s seeming demise, Nova emerges and threatens Marla, but he is suddenly assaulted by his disembodied voice!  Nova panics and empties his gun, then Batman tackles him from the shadows.  That brings us to the rather cheap explanation of Batman’s survival.  Apparently he had a life-sized dummy UNDER HIS CAPE!  He threw it in the phonebooth and dove for cover.

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Other than that somewhat silly explanation, this is a solid issue.  It isn’t great, but there is a fair enough mystery and Nova makes for an entertaining enough villain, even if there isn’t all that much to him.  The mystery would be a bit more substantive if there were more than one suspect, but it effectively wraps everything up in one issue.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.

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The Brave and the Bold #88

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Executive Editor: Murray Boltinoff
Cover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Mike Esposito
Editor: Murray Boltinoff

We return again to the Brave and the Bold, the private comic fife of Bob Haney!  For all of his quirks, something Haney could do quite well was a character-focused story.  He was surprisingly good at turning in a tale bursting with genuine character development, where a hero or heroine went through a personal arc between the covers, but there was a catch.  The character being developed often bore little actual resemblance to the mainstream DC hero he or she was supposed to be.  What’s more, all of that character work was usually promptly forgotten by everyone, including Haney himself, about five minutes after the issue ended.  This trend gives rise to the old joke that Zaney Haney stories take place, not on Earth 1 or Earth 2, but on Earth H, for Haney.

Yet, despite the, well, zaniness of such stories, they are still noteworthy for providing real character growth and change (however short-lived) in an era where DC Comics very rarely engaged in any such storytelling.  Where Haney really shined is with characters that were, at the time, largely forgotten.  There was no real established continuity for him to flaunt, and thus no other writers to ignore what he had done.  Over the course of the next few years, Haney will produce several fairly interesting, though fittingly insane, stories about mostly forgotten characters from the Golden Age.  This is one such tale.

Our guest-star this issue, Wildcat, seems to have been one of Haney’s favorites, and he certainly makes a number of return appearances, most of them fairly good.  In this tale, which bears much more in common with that rather striking cover than you’d think likely, as we first find the former costumed hero down on his luck in a flophouse.  Bruce Wayne has come seeking the undefeated former heavyweight champion of the world, and he has found Ted Grant a shell of the man he once was.  Bruce asks the older man what happened, and Grant, in terse, bitter sentences replies that he had opened a gym to help underprivileged kids, but got drawn into the problems of the inner city.  He went into debt trying to help, and suddenly found himself quite alone when the money ran out.

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Wayne offers to pay his debts, saying he has come to get Grant’s help.  It seems there is a youth Olympic-style set of games in the offing, and the U.S. of A. needs someone to coach the boxers.  Who better than the Champ?  Interestingly enough, Bruce himself is coaching the fencing team.  It makes sense that Bruce Wayne, wealthy socialite that he is, would be a fencer, but does it follow that he’d be good enough (publicly) to justify such a position?  Well, it’s a Haney tale, so we shouldn’t peer too closely behind the curtain.

Convinced that he has nothing to offer anyone, grant turns the job down, but when he hears Bruce getting jumped right outside his window, he leaps into action without a second thought, laying out the two thugs who were robbing the millionaire.  This gives him a dose of confidence, and he agrees to join the team.  As they leave, Bruce tosses a roll of bills to the two “thugs,” who he had hired for just that purpose.

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Cut to Vienna, where the games are being held, and we find a very Rocky-esq twist in the plot when Grant is challenged and insulted by an Russian ex-boxer named Koslov, who claims the Champ was too chicken to fight him back in the day.  Interestingly enough, this comic predates the famous boxing film by six years!  Well, Ted brushes off the insults, and his young team begin to wonder if the Ruskie’s claims are true!

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Just when I bet you’re beginning to wonder if any actual superheroes will make an appearance in this book, Batman slips over to meet with military intelligence in downtown Vienna.  They brief him on the mission they’ve asked him to perform, intercepting the plans for an armed satellite from a turncoat agent who is planning to sell them to the Russians.  To my mind, this gives us the real reason that Bruce got involved with these games, as it gave him an excuse to travel around in his civilian guise without being connected to Batman.  In costume, he starts his investigation, and back in the non-Olympic village, the Russian coach is stirring up trouble and continues to badger the Champ.  Afterwards, the veteran boxer confesses to Bruce that he may very well be afraid of Koslov.  After all, the fellow is younger and in better condition than he is, and his nom de guerre is “The Hammer!”  If you share a nickname with Charles Martel, you’ve got to be tough!  It seems that Grant’s confidence was shaken even worse than it seemed by his setbacks in life!

Finally, Koslov jumps into the ring with the retired hero and shoves him, at which point Grant slugs him.  This gives Koslov the excuse to challenge him to a fight, and in a funny exchange, Bruce tells Ted that he HAS to fight or he could single-handedly lose the Cold War!  I’m exaggerating a bit, but from the way the millionaire talks about this challenge, you’d think that the fate of the Free World hung in the balance.  “You’ve got to accept the challenge AND win it!” Bruce declares, “You’ve become part of the Cold War–like it or not!”  Way to lay it on thick, there, Bats.

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Grant stalks off, saying he needs time to think, and Bruce slips away to continue his investigation.  He finds the spy, but the slippery fink catches sight of him and begins to run.  Fortunately, Ted Grant has donned his old costume and taken a motorcycle out for a spin to clear his head, perhaps secretly hoping for some trouble so that he can prove himself once more.  He finds it, helping Batman pursue the fleeing spy.  Yet, this fellow is one tough customer, and he manages to lose both of his pursuers, further dampening Wildcat’s spirits.

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The trail gone cold for the moment, Batman decides to check in on his friend, and he finds him climbing onto a famous ferris wheel.  Knowing that Grant is waffling and in need of confidence, Batman decides to employ some tough love.  He scales the wheel and enters the Champ’s carriage where he declares that Grant MUST fight Koslov, but the fighter is still unwilling, so Batman does the only rational thing left.  He punches the boxer square in the face!  The Dark Knight swears that “only one of us is going to walk out of this car!” and an epic brawl begins as the wheel slowly turns.  When it finally stops, Grant staggers out, victorious!  Batman, looking quite the worse for wear, thinks that he “laid down a bit so Ted could win,” but considers that the aging pugilist is still quite a combatant.

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So, Grant agrees to fight the big Russian (really?  Stallone must have been a DC fan, because this sounds quite a bit like Rocky IV!), and the two start training, but Batman, worried that Koslov might just beat his friend, decides to take out some “insurance.”  I love this.  Batman decides that there is too much at stake to just trust to Grant, so he rigs the lights and prepares to cheat so that the U.S. could come out on top!  It is both perfectly in and perfectly OUT of character for the Dark Knight Detective.  On the one hand, Batman is perfectly willing to cheat to win, providing the ends justify the means, but on the other hand, it’s sort of strange to look back and see this extremely political, patriotic Batman.  Could you imagine the modern Caped Crusader doing something this patriotic, if slightly unethical?

Anyway, after setting up his insurance policy, Batman heads back out on his investigation, but he is gassed and captured by enemy agents!  Meanwhile, the match begins, and the Champ comes out swinging.  For four rounds he “pounds the hulking “Hammer,” but after he has worn himself out, the Russian begins to clobber him!  As they tie up in a grapple, Koslov whispers in his opponent’s ear that his people have Batman, and if Grant doesn’t want to see him die, he’d better throw the match.  Just as things look grim, the lights go out, and Grant lands a knockout punch!

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Now, here is the only really weak point in the story.  It is just so silly, so ridiculous, so very much Zaney Haney, that it threatens to undermine the rest of the tale.  Grant, having knocked Koslov out, quickly carries him out of the crowded stadium, throws him in a motorcycle, and proceeds to drive like mad until the Ruskie tells him where Batman is being held.  It seems that Batman is on a barge headed down the Danube.

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brave and the bold 088 024.jpgThen, not even slowing down, Grant ramps the bike off a convenient bridge, runs over a crowd of enemy agents, and frees the Dark Knight.  One wonders how the devil he unties those ropes while still wearing boxing gloves, but that’s far from the craziest thing in this story.  The two fight their way out, side by side.  And, if that weren’t enough, they, with “The Hammer” in tow, race back to the arena, arriving JUST as the lights come back up!  Grant has, naturally, carried the unconscious Russian back into the ring just before, and they proceed to continue their fight.  All of that happens in THREE pages.

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Batman locates the spy, who is there to make his exchange, and he sets out to capture the turncoat, but spares a moment and a hastily scrawled message on a batarang to give Grant the final push he needs.  When Ted sees “HAS BEEN” written on the batarang that lands in the ring, it lights a fire in him.  He struggles back to this feet, and he launches a last, desperate attack that puts Koslov down, fair and square.  Batman catches the spy, and the last scene is the two successful coaches watching their teams while Grant remarks that “the future looks bright for me!”

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This is a great, though chock-full issue.  The ridiculous mad dash at the climax is goofy in the extreme, but the story moves so quickly that Haney gives you no time to consider it.  The rest of the tale is good enough that I’m willing to forgive that excess, especially considering the novelty of a flawed, broken hero who has a real arc of growth throughout.  Haney would go on to retell this story several times with several different characters, but I think this is the first.  It’s a really unusual story for this era, and it is fairly well told. Grant’s presence as Wildcat is negligible, but that’s because this is first and foremost a character piece, as I promised.  He is believable as a man broken by life, though that isn’t given as much space as it might have benefited from.  It’s a story we’ve heard before, but seeing it in this context is new and interesting.  It’s also just a good story, and it brings Wildcat back to the main DCU, rescuing him from obscurity, which is always great to see for a good character.  I’ll give this fast-paced story of redemption, this Rocky-in-a-cape drama, a 4.5 Minutemen out of 5.

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“Further Up and Further In!”

-As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Last Battle, and that’s where we’ll be heading next week with the next installment of Into the Bronze Age, March 1970 Part 2!  I’m going to be doing 3 or so issues a post, as I think that’s a good reading length.  This should also allow me to keep up a schedule of one or two posts a week.  I hope you’ll join me for the exciting next issue!

 

Into the Bronze Age: February 1970 (Part 2)

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We’ve covered the first half of February, now for the second.

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

  • Action Comics #385
  • Aquaman #49
  • Batman #218 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Batman #219
  • Detective Comics #396
  • Flash #194
  • Justice League of America #78
  • Phantom Stranger #5
  • Showcase #88
  • Strange Adventures #222
  • Superman #223
  • Superman #224
  • Teen Titans #25
  • World’s Finest #191

Bonus!: Atomic Knights

Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others you’ll find in the previous post.

Phantom Stranger #5

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Executive Editor: Joe Orlando
Cover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Mike Sekowsky
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Editor: Joe Orlando

“The Devil’s Footprints”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Nick Cardy
Editor: Joe Orlando

The Phantom Stranger is a wonderfully mysterious character, and one that I really love the concept of, though I haven’t had the chance to read many of his books.  His is actually one of the series I set out to read in the little reading project that spun out of control into “Into the Bronze Age. ”  He’s a favorite of AquamanShrine.net head-honcho, Rob Kelly, and I actually first started learning about him through Rob’s blog, linked above.  I am looking forward to learning more about this enigmatic hero, and I am glad to be starting here at the beginning of what are supposed to be some of his best stories.

One of the things I most like about the concept of the Phantom Stranger is that he remains almost entirely mysterious, and yet is able to be an interesting and compelling character.  That is an extremely difficult balancing act to pull off, much less maintain.  Theories about who and what he is have abounded, and I will steadfastly ignore any attempts that DC has made to answer such questions too definitively.  For my money, I’ve always liked the idea that he is the Wandering Jew, condemned to eternal life for mocking Christ.  That’s got mileage, and it could totally work for the character.

This is the second solo title for the Stranger, and this one is very much a product of the 70s.  It represents the increased variety of stories and genres that comics began to employ in this decade, especially the resurgence of the horror and mystery books of earlier years.  While this comics, like many of the DC books at this point, is as much 60s as 70s, my guess is that we’ll see this book pull ahead of some of its cohorts in terms of sophistication and maturity.  I’ll have to wait and see, but that’s what I’m expecting.

This issue sees the Stranger having recently taken on his iconic, most long lasting “mod” look.  It’s a wonderful character design, simple, yet evocative and mysterious.  That effect of having his eyes always in shadow is one of my favorite parts of the look.  The plot of the book is indicative of what I’ve come to expect from the Phantom Stranger from the first few issues of his book, a sinister or strange occult mystery threatens innocents, and our enigmatic hero intervenes.

In this case, we join a set of four teenagers, return players from the previous issue who seem positioned to become a supporting cast for the Stranger, as they stroll along the beach at night.  I’m not crazy about these kids, as they’ve got way too much of that “desperate appeal to youth culture” vibe about them.  Nonetheless, they see an eerie figure emerges from the waves, screaming “Wait!”  He collapses in their arms, and the kids realize he’s dead!  The body disappears when a watchman appears, leaving the kids to ponder what they saw.  We get a few quick scenes with the other players in our little drama, Dr. Thirteen (endearing sourpuss that he is, swearing to expose the Stranger as a huckster), the Phantom Stranger, and the “monumental mistress of the macabre, Tala!”

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Tala is an interesting character.  I first encountered her in the Justice League ‘toon, like most folks, I imagine.  There she got a fairly major makeover, and is really an entirely different character.  That one is a great character, a good addition to the series, and a nice mystical adversary for the League.  This one is also a good character, and she serves as a very effective counterpart to the Phantom, taking these stories to a whole new level.  Previous tales have focused on the Stranger and Dr. Thirteen exposing various hoaxes and fakes, but now we have a creature of incredible power, dark and dangerous, a fitting foe for the Stranger.  Plus, she’s got the femme fatale thing going for her in spades, seeing as she seems to be a living avatar of chaos and evil.  That is always a good feature for a female villain.

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We get a very weird and wild scene in a dance club, and though it is a bit bizarre, I will say that the last panel of Tala in that image is pretty effective.  She seems untamed, uncontrollable, and dangerous, almost mad.  It reminds me of seeing a witch-doctor dance, which makes sense given her voodoo-origins last issue.

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Following that scene, we start to get an impression of what is actually going on.  Apparently rich playboy Earl Winthrop has been quite the cad all of his life, using and abusing women, never actually loving anyone other than himself.  He died when his private plane went down in the ocean, and it was his returning spirit that the kids saw on the beach.  Now that his ghost has returned, it seems that his fate will be determined by whether or not this selfish soul can find one person to shed a tear for him before the night is over.

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phst5_28.jpgAll of that is revealed piecemeal through a twisting and turning story wherein Tala and the Stranger pit their powers against one another for lives and souls.  We see the Stranger putting  out a fire Tala causes in a club, rescuing a drowning girl, and finally stopping a tidal wave from sweeping a house full of innocent party-goers.  It’s a busy night for both beings.  Winthrop is saved by the stupidly named girl of the teenage foursome, Wild Rose, weeping for him, and Tala is repulsed, though she swears ominously that “Darkness always returns to Earth!  And so do I!”

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This issue contains a weird little backup that is a two-page folkloric account of an encounter with a demon in 19th Century England.  It’s a neat little dose of real-world mystery to add to the main adventure.

So, what do I make of this Phantom Stranger Story?  It isn’t as good as the previous issue, which sadly falls outside of the purview of this project, but it is an enjoyable enough tale.  I think that the team haven’t quite hit their stride yet.  They seem to still be figuring out just what this book is going to be, but it has some nice moments, with lots of brooding atmosphere throughout.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen out of 5.

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Showcase #88

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Cover Artist: Mike Sekowsky
Writer: Mike Sekowsky
Penciler: Mike Sekowsky
Inker: Dick Giordano
Editor: Mike Sekowsky

I’ve been really enjoying the wide variety of genres, characters, and themes that have been parading through Showcase as I’ve been reading, and I have recently traced this one since the beginning.  As I imagine most folks familiar with DC comics know, Showcase was, well, just what it says, a tryout book for DC.  They would give various characters or concept a try here and, depending on sales and letters, they might spin them off into their own book, or at least give them a shot as a backup.  Over the last 87 issues, I’ve been able to follow along as a lot of the Silver Age heroes got their start here.  I’ve also seen a number of concepts that made it…and a number that didn’t.  Sadly, we aren’t starting with the neatest offering that I’ve encountered so far.  The previous three issues (JUST missed it!) featured the tryout of Nightmaster, a sword and sorcery book that didn’t quite make it.  Still, it was a neat change of pace, and an intriguing, though bizarre and derivative read.  Perhaps I’ll cover it in one of my spotlights later on.

If Nightmaster was a change of pace, so was Jason’s Quest, and that represents one of the really cool things about this era of Showcase issues.  It offered a pretty wide range of content.  You got straight fantasy one month, espionage the next, then western adventure, and science fiction the month after.  The variety is nice in this flood of superhero books I’m reading.

Jason’s Quest, however, is not one of the standouts from these years, though it is certainly unique.  It’s a story about a young man trying to find a sister he didn’t know he had and bring down the man who killed his father.  In a convoluted first issue we meet young Jason Quest (Johnny should sue!) in a hospital room, anxiously awaiting news of his father…or rather, the man he THINKS is his father!  Dun dun DUN!  On his deathbed, Jason’s “Dad” confesses that he was a commando in “the war,” (at this point, I think we can assume…WWII?  Korea?  I’m not quite sure.) where Jason’s father, ‘Mr. Grant,’ saved his life.

When the war ended, he became a servant for Grant, who was a wealthy inventor.  Grant was threatened by a…mob boss?  Spy?  Really aggressive meter-maid? named Tuborg, who wants one of his inventions.  Tuborg killed Grant, who had the foresight to prepare the servant, Davis, to take Jason and his sister (his TWIN sister, shades of Star Wars!) and flee.

Long story short, they’ve been on the run from this Tuborg guy all these years, during which Davis has taught Jason everything from his own commando training.  After this confession, Davis dies, with his last breath adding that the heretofore unknown sister somehow has evidence that could bring down Tuborg.  One wonders why the father, Grant, didn’t use that evidence to begin with,  but I suppose that’s neither here nor there at this point.  Sheesh, we’re only on page 7!  Sekowsky is really packing it in here.

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Cut to the portly Tuborg, who is getting a really creepy back rub from one of his men.  The way everyone else in the room is looking at him just makes it all the weirder.

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Anyway, Tuborg has a cop on his payroll who taped the confession, so he sics his goons on Jason and his missing sister.  Jason, meanwhile, heads to London to track down that very sister, but his search meets a seemingly dead-end in a burned out building.  A helpful font of walking exposition happens by and lets him know that his sister survived and is on her way to the Continent that very day!  He even very conveniently provides the young man with a picture.

dc showcase 088-15.jpgJason sets out on a motorcycle, but is bushwhacked by some thugs who sap him and steal that photo.  Once again, conveniently, the thugs think the blow to the head killed him.  Hey, wait, there’s another one to add to our Head-Blow Headcount!  Jason isn’t a super hero, but I suppose I’d better count him nonetheless.

Cut to the ferry, where the two grooviest thugs in the history of crime are planning on killing Jason’s sister.  By-the-by, apparently the price for a hit in 1970s England is an extremely reasonable 100 quid (bucks, for those of us across the Pond), and even that is split between two hired guns!  Wow, how very affordable murder used to be!

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So, these two brain surgeons try to jump the girl, but she fights back, attracting the attention of her missing brother.  He takes them out in a rather poorly drawn sequence, and is saved from being shot in the face by a gun jamming.  Man, Jason should give up this whole quest thing and go to Vegas.  This guy’s luck just won’t stop!

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Well, the two assailants die in the attack in the classic ‘hoisted by their own petard’ style, where the hero isn’t directly responsible, but Jason still feels bad about it…for a few seconds.  Then we get another of these strange little beats, where his sister (who he doesn’t recognize thanks to a wig), effectively says, “ohh, yeah, we totally shouldn’t report their deaths or anything because the authorities might not find them and then they’d think we were making things up.”  Wait, what?  One of these guys just fell overboard, and it isn’t exactly like the Atlantic is full of piranha or anything.  He might still be alive.  Nope, nope, he’s totally dead, don’t bother with him.  It reminds me of the “Bring Out Your Dead” bit from Monty Python.

“I’m not dead yet!”
“You’ll be stone dead in a moment!”

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The issue ends with Jason and his sister unwittingly going their separate ways.  There’s a rather nice full-page add for the next issue that is reminiscent of a Bond movie or the like.  It also includes a short three page backup about a ghost rider (not to be confused with Ghost Rider) who drives the biker gang that killed him to their deaths.  There’s not too much to it, but it’s alright for what it is.

So, what to make of Jason’s Quest?  It’s interesting, and this is really not that bad of a beginning.  It’s got that classic 60s spy movie feel to it in a lot of ways, but there is also an effort to blend in a little youth culture on the part of Mr. Sekowsky.  The end result is a bit uneven, in both the art and writing.  There are some cool bits, but the entire plot relies on lots and lots of coincidence, and Jason doesn’t really have much personality.  For all that he looks like Luke Skywalker from those old Marvel Star Wars comics, he’s not nearly as interesting.  Sekowsky is so busy packing plot into this issue that he doesn’t really leave us any room for anything else, and as you can tell by the credits, this is definitely Sekowsky’s baby.  It’s a noble effort, trying to mix up the field of comics a bit, but the quality just isn’t really enough to make it last.  I’ll give it 3 Minutemen out of 5, as it was an enjoyable enough read, if entirely forgettable.

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Strange Adventures #222

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Cover Artist: Murphy Anderson
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Murphy Anderson

Now this is a good one, but before I get to the issue itself, let me offer some thoughts on the character and the book.  I like Adam Strange, I have since I first discovered him.  He’s got this wonderful pulp-hero feel to him, and he could have been at home zipping around with Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers.  After all, I suppose he is something of a Buck Rogers rip-off, the rough and tumble Earth man who gets brought far from home to show some milquetoast folks how to fight and proceeds to protect them from many crazy dangers.  He even meets a brave-hearted woman in this distant world, just like his pulp predecessors.  Still, as Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun, and I don’t mind a concept that renews old archetypes, provided it does so in style.  That is what comics are all about, really.  The concept of Adam Strange works well.

Rann is an interesting, wild place, much like Flash Gordon’s Mongo, and Adam himself is a great, heroic adventurer with a sound supporting cast in Alanna and Sardath.  I also really love the depth he adds to the DC Universe.  You really get a better sense of scope with him out there having his own interstellar adventures, occasionally overlapping with the League or the Corps.  It’s a nice way to make the DCU feel more fleshed-out.  Yet, despite the fact that the character is perfectly positioned to be one I liked, I have often had a hard time getting into his stories.

His Silver Age tales were often EXTREMELY…well…Silver Age-ish, with really ridiculous and silly threats, rather than cool sci-fi challenges.  That changed over the years, but unfortunately, Adam’s series Mystery in Space, gets cancelled, and he never really found his feet again.  I haven’t gotten to read all of those old tales yet, but I plan on it eventually.  At this point, Adam has taken over Strange Adventures, which has been oh-so-cleverly renamed (Adam) Strange Adventures.  It’s a good fit, especially since just about all of the cool stuff in this book has already been dropped by this point.  Sadly, his tenure here doesn’t last long, and the new tales are quickly replaced by reprints.  This is a real shame, because the few new stories that saw the light of day in this book are really of a good quality.  I have to think that if he had been given more of a chance, Adam Strange could really have seen a resurgence in the sci-fi happy years of the late 70s.

But, let’s not mourn our hero before he’s gone.  After all, we have a pretty cool story before us.  Our tale begins with our interstellar adventurer riding in a parade of all things.  It seems that the Zeta Beam is going to strike right in the middle of Carnival in Rio De Janeiro!  Fortunately, Adam blends in rather well in his space duds.  Apparently he’s concerned about his secret identity (which I didn’t even realize he actually had), and has rigged a magnesium flare into his costume to blind folks before he disappears.  Don’t worry little Jimmy, I know your retinas are scarred, but at least Adam Strange’s non-existent secret identity is still safe!

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Our stalwart stellar traveler finds himself back on Rann a moment later, right in the midst of a bizarre battle!  It seems cool, mecanized barbarians are fighting with Rannian soldiers.  Alanna, there to greet Adam, is scooped up and carried off by one of the barbarians.  Adam tries to stop them, but their robotic steeds (!) are too fast, as are the men themselves.  He finally manages to land a punch, and then he really lays into the marauders.  Unfortunately, the Champion of Rann is knocked unconscious, and the barbarians escape!

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He awakens in the care of the brilliant Sardath, who fills him in.  Apparently, these barbariansk, the Reekans, are from a remote and war-like city-state to the north.  They raided Ranagar to seize hostages, and now they are holding them for ransom, threatening to kill one every hour until Alanna’s people hand over their stock of weapons and vehicles.  Adam is not one to take such things lying down, and he volunteers to lead the charge to rescue their people.  Yet, the Reekans’ city is an impregnable fortress.  Something about the situation brings a certain epic poem to Adam’s mind, however, and he thinks he may have found an answer in the “story about a place called Troy and a wooden horse”!

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Then we get a nice twist, as the Ranagarians offer the barbarians a spaceship, presumably packed full of troops.  There are lights moving inside the craft, and the Reekans grow suspicious, destroying the craft.  This is just what our cosmic crusader had counted on, however, and the burning craft emits a pungent, disabling smoke, knocking the Reekans out and giving Adam and the Ranagarians cover to scale the fortress in jetpacks.  The action is covered in a nice series of pages, brief but effective.

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Unfortunately, the Reekan Lord is not so easily taken, and he recovers quickly enough to rush to the dungeon, murder on his mind!  As quick as he is, however, he’s no match for a fighting-mad Adam Strange protecting the woman he loves!  Alanna is rescued, and the two have just enough time for an embrace before the earthman is once again whisked between the stars.

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This is a brisk ten-page tale, with the rest of the book being taken up with reprints from the earlier years of this title, complete with awesome 50s sci-fi art!  It features two sci-fi tales, including the far too short-lived Atomic Knights, who I’ll be discussing at the end of this post.

The Adam strange story may be short, but O’Neil turns in a really great, quick-moving adventure in the space he has.  Not a moment is wasted, and yet a complete story is told.  I’d happily read this if it were expanded into a book-length tale, but I think it is just about perfect for what it is.  The only real problem with this issue’s outing for our far-flung friend, Adam Strange, is that his lady love is given too little to do.  She’s purely a damsel in distress, and Alanna really deserves better than that.  She’s Adam’s partner in peril, and she has always been one of the bravest souls on her world, so seeing her only fulfilling that tired old role is a bit demeaning for the character.  Yet, O’Neil only had ten pages to work with, and I’ll be darned if I know how he could have accomplished any more with that space, so this is a criticism that I’m mostly willing to forgive.

This super-efficient little yarn really highlights how bloated modern-media storytelling is.  In ten pages we get a complete story, an interesting concept introduced (the robotic horse riding barbarians, who fit perfectly into the wild world of Rann), we get a clear threat, and we get a clever solution, backed up by good action.  While I’m sad we won’t get to see (as far as I know) these Reekans return, as I love the concept, you can’t fault the results.  A modern book would probably drag the story out for five issues at the least, yet O’Neil manages not to leave a single plot-thread dangling!  This is an example modern movies could well benefit from!  So, in honor of this master class in storytelling efficiency, I’m giving this classic adventure 4.5 Minutemen out of 5.  I’m subtracting .5 for the short-shrift given Alanna.

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Superman #223

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Cover Artist: Curt Swan
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Roussos

My guess is that Superman is going to be the title that holds on to the Silver Age tropes and the general feel of that era the longest.  At the moment, it certainly shows absolutely none of the forward momentum of many of the other books, especially in comparison to some of the more progressive books on our list.  We’re already starting to see Batman morph from the grinning Caped Crusader of Adam West TV fame into the grim Dark Knight Detective, yet Superman is still getting stories like this.  I’ll keep track as we move along, and try to note when different books begin to evolve, but I’d be willing to bet that the Superman book is going to be tail-end Charlie on that particular parade.  It makes sense, as DC’s flagship character, Superman would be naturally conservative and resistant to change.  If you’d had steady success for around three decades, why rock the boat?

This particular offering certainly doesn’t.  It is a perfect example of contrived, convoluted Silver Age Superman.  It begins with Clark Kent going about his day, but at three different instances, in a cafe, in a crowd, and in a theater, he is addressed as Superman by three different women!  What is Clark’s brilliant response to these mysterious ladies’ portentous greetings?  He…ignores them.  Yep, he may as well stick his fingers in his ears and hum.  The last one he tries to chase down, but she vanishes.  Next thing he knows, he’s whisked up into an orbiting spaceship and greeted by three super-powered ladies in costumes that look like something out of I Dream of Jeanie.  Apparently that show was still on the air in 1970, so my guess is that the resemblance is no accident.

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Anyway, these three space babes claim to be superheroes from another world, and they had scanned Superman’s mind, learning his secret identity.  They popped down to Earth just to screw with him before “inviting” him up to their ship.  They have come to offer him an invitation to join their team, the “Galactons.”  Yet, first, he has to pass a test.  Superman is suspicious, but decides to play along to see what they have in store.

They head to another world, where he is supposed to defeat an alien creature.  The beast proves too much for the Man of Steel, knocking him out with poisoned breath.  He awakens, hooked up to a strange device, and the “Galactons” tell him that he’s been handicapped and can never leave his solar system again or he’ll die…for reasons.

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Superman is pretty upset by this, as his being so limited could lead to terrible tragedies that he might otherwise have prevented.  There’s a nice moment of characterization here, and I really wish more had been done with it.  Instead, the plot immediately moves along because this is only page nine and we have a whole bunch more crazy nonsense to get out of the way here.  This is a Superman story, after all!

The seemingly completely recovered Man of Tomorrow returns to his secret identity, but is soon interrupted by a Super Robot, that pretends to be a shoe-shine man in order to pass a message to Clark, who is accompanied by Perry White.  There’s a funny little bit where the robot, an inexperienced model (because apparently Superman built learning machines!), botches its undercover efforts and sets Perry’s shoe on fire with friction from super speed shinning.  Great Caesar’s Ghost!

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But the message is delivered, and Superman discovers a gigantic hypodermic needle full of alien minerals.  Before he can stop it, the needle “injects” the Earth, and a cancer-like growth of crystals begins to grow in its core. In time, it will grow so large it will crack the Earth apart from the inside!

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Superman decides to shrink it with X-Rays, just like doctors do with real cancer cells, and he calls on the Galactons to help.  They succeed, and…good heavens, we’re only on page 15!  Anyway, they are revealed to actually be Supergirl and two Kandorians who have put this ridiculously circuitous and contrived plot in place so that Superman would solve a similar problem that is threatening the Bottle City of Kandor.  There’s some nonsense about how they didn’t want to just tell him about the problem because they knew he’d refuse to leave, but it makes about as much sense as anything else in this issue.

I like the concept of Kandor, though I’ve read very few stories about it, but this one doesn’t do it any favors.  It’s a nice way to keep a little piece of Krypton alive after its destruction.  I’ll say this, though, I didn’t know Superman had the ability to enlarge Kandorians.  Doesn’t that make this whole dilemma of the city completely unnecessary?  Couldn’t he just enlarge them a few at a time and, you know, FREE them all?  He’s kind of a colossal jerk for keeping them in his own Kryptonian ant farm when he apparently totally has the ability to free them.

Anyway, back to the story, such as it is.  Superman gets help from a criminal scientist in the Phantom Zone, who is due to be released, despite the fact that he begs to stay so that he isn’t killed when Kandor explodes.  That’s sort of another jerk move, there, Supes, bit of a letter of the law / spirit of the law thing, ehh?  The scientist, Gor-Nu agrees to help, but only if Superman will agree to switch bodies with him, using a device he just happened to have already invented and secreted away when he was arrested.  Natch.  They win, and Supes pulls a clever though predictable double cross where he goes along with the switch, but reveals that he poisoned himself after it is done.  Of course, Gor-Nu switches back, and all is well, with the traitorous scientist returned to the Phantom Zone.  If the poor jerk had just saved the city, he could have been free AND hailed as a hero.

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Urg.  That one was a bit painful to summarize.  It is probably even more ridiculous and incoherent than it seemed in my synopsis, and despite one or two relatively nice or clever moments, it is a pretty annoying example of the excesses of Silver Age stories.  Still, there is more fun and adventure in this story than the next.  I’ll give it 2 Minuteman.

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Superman #224

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Cover Artist: Curt Swan
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Roussos

So, we’ve got a weird scheduling thing going on this month that leaves us with two issues of Superman to examine.

Ohh man, if the cover is anything to judge by, this one is going to be rough.  We’re looking at a family-farce for the Man of Steel, it seems.  Why did Silver Age creators think this kind of stuff was storytelling gold?  That’s a question that is beyond me, but I’m sure you’re just dying to know if the story inside is as bat-guano insane as that cover.  I won’t keep you in suspense, this is definitely the worst issue of the month, hands down.  It is actually less incoherent than the previous issue, but the plot is just so bizarre and ridiculous that it makes that nonsense about fake superhero teams and exploding planets look positively sober and well-considered.

I’m going to keep this synopsis brief in a futile attempt to preserve my sanity.  This is one of those “imaginary tales” that show a possible future for Superman and his supporting cast.  In this case, he and Lois have gotten married, and a car accident reveals that the intrepid girl reporter has become invulnerable thanks to a serum Superman brought back from planet plot-device, err, I mean “Star Gamma-X.”  They go to a whole lot of effort to explain how that was the only way Supes would agree to marry her.  It seems like the whole secret identity thing would have been a simpler solution, but maybe that’s just me.

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After all, keeping his identity secret would have robbed us of the opportunity to see Superman just…hanging out, living in the suburbs like any normal schlub.  After all, what could possibly go wrong with letting the whole world know exactly where you live?  Anyway, there are some generic mad scientist types, so generic I don’t even recall their names moments after having read the book.  They focus a ray of some sort on the home of the Supermans….the Supers…the…uhh…Kents?

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Superman and Lois (NOT Clark and Lois) have a kid, and it is a creepy, deformed little bundle of nightmares.  Their little abomination is a super genius, able to speak and think in complex ways and move on his own at only a week old.  The minuscule monster demonstrates ridiculous levels of brilliance, and immediately takes to mad-style science, denigrating his Super-dad for being a moron, something that Batman won’t start doing for sometime around fifteen more years.

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The fresh-faced freak of nature is entirely insufferable and pretty much immediately decides to take over the world, and Superman beats him with super plot-device powers.  The demon in diapers is turned back into a normal baby, and we’re expected to accept that as a happy ending.  Yay?  Whether smart or not, I bet that kid is just plain bad.

Wow, I didn’t know how good I had it with that previous issue of the book.  This one is definitely the worst book I’ve read in a while.  It’s just so stupid, so colossally uninteresting, that it was a real chore to read.  Part of that is just my proclivities, I suppose.  As I’ve said before, the Silver Age obsession with putting Superman, the Man of freaking Tomorrow in all these strained domestic situations just leaves me absolutely cold.  Add to that this plot, the super child that goes bad, that’s been recycled so many times, and I just checked out from the beginning.  I give this one an abysmal 1 Minuteman out of 5, though I’ve debated whether 0 might be more appropriate.

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Teen Titans #25

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Executive Editor: Carmine Infantino
Cover Artist: Nick Cardy
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Nick Cardy
Inker: Nick Cardy
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Dick Giordano

The Teen Titans are a great feature of the DC Universe, and one that is pretty unique to it.  It was a stroke of brilliance on the part of Bob Haney (yes, old Zaney Haney) to do for the sidekicks what Gardner Fox had done for the headliners, and this junior Justice League has really endured and thrived over the years.  Their membership has changed and their members have evolved, much like the League itself, but the central concept, the Titans being made up of the next generation of heroes, has endured and worked in a number of incarnations.  We are joining this, the first volume of the Titans, right at the moment of a big shift in direction.  Here again we see the accuracy of placing the beginning of the Bronze Age in 1970.  This book is certainly not fully Bronze Age in tone and style right from the beginning, but major changes are underway that will make it much more like that era than the previous one.

Bob Haney created the Titans in Brave and the Bold, and then spun them into their own book where they were definitively his creations.  That means they had that bizarre marriage of swinging 60s youth culture pandering and over the top (even by Silver Age standards) stories.  This made the Titans an unintentionally hilarious, but also rather tiring, read from my latter day perspective.  I’m pretty certain that there has never been a more ludicrous or goofy sounding era of slang than the 60s, and Haney LOVED to employ “authentic” teenage talk.

Fortunately, we’re coming on board after Haney has mostly handed over the reins, and the Titans are being taken in a new, more serious, though also quite bizarre, direction.  This issue is one based in an intriguing premise, one that is definitely a sign of the growing maturity of this era.  It is an idea that has been explored many times over the years, but this is one of the earlier treatments I’ve read, at least from DC.  The story centers around our young heroes making a mistake, a terribly costly mistake.  They fail to stop a gunman, and a great man dies as a result.  The issue, and those that follow, are really about the Titans trying to deal with that reality.  It sounds pretty promising, right?  Well, it certainly has miles of potential.  Unfortunately, what Kanigher makes of it is just plain weird in places and more than a little nonsensical.

There is a good story in this book, but it’s a bit buried under disjointed, incongruous, and just plain odd elements.  We begin with the Titans gathered around a hospital bed, anxiously watching the last moments of an older man who tells them not to blame themselves.  Here we see one of the undeniable strengths of this issue, Nick Cardy’s BEAUTIFUL art.  It’s got that softer, 60s feel to it, but it is really quite excellent throughout.  I would say that his work is really responsible for most of the emotional impact and gravitas that the story actually manages to achieve, as when we see the desperation and loss in Wonder Girl’s tear-filled eyes as the man, Dr. Arthur Swenson, slips away.

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It’s a fairly powerful scene for a book like this.  It is followed by the Titans wandering around, mostly numb and shell-shocked, for a few pages, blaming themselves for his death.  Then we get a flashback that finds our young adventurers in their civilian identities at the “Canary Cottage Discotheque,” complete with a ravishing red-headed cage dancer.  The Titans are having a good time, and the male members are drooling over the fire-tressed female when she surprises them all by coming over to their table and calling them by their superhero names, saying she wants to be a Teen Titan!  Here we get one of the first strange, somewhat discordant notes of the issue.  This is Lilith, who is apparently…psychic…or…something?  Her answers are cryptic in the extreme, and things don’t get much clearer over the course of the story.

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I was only very vaguely aware of this character, and I know almost nothing about her.  I have to say, after having read a few issues with her, I’m not exactly a fan.  Even if you don’t know much about your powers, you could be a little more forthcoming.  Come on!  Well, much like Cassandra, Lilith seems cursed to have her predictions ignored, and her warning to the Titans that they will “Open the door for death” tonight is promptly forgotten as they decide to go to a “peace rally” and hear our dear, doomed Dr. Swenson from the opening pages.

Apparently this place is packed with both hawks and doves, inducing both Hawk and Dove.  The hot-heads in the audience start causing problems, call Swenson a traitor, and a riot threatens to break out.  The Titans, accompanied by the two other young heroes, race into action.  The combined might of the Titans and Hawk and Dove make short work of most of the troublemakers, but then one of them draws a gun, and in a really excellent set of panels, it goes off and strikes Dr. Swenson in the head.  There’s some heavy-handed talk about peace and violence throughout, which is undercut by the fact that the violence the Titans employ is the only thing that prevents this whole situation from turning out much, much worse.  Shades of Altamont!

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The Titans race the good doctor to the hospital, but they are too late, and he dies in recovery.  Afterwards, the young heroes are confronted by their mentors, the Justice League!  The League give them a rather serious tongue-lashing, and tell their pupils that they must become their own judges and decide on a fitting punishment for their failure.  I bet Aquaman is thinking to himself how thankful he is that Aqualad wasn’t hanging out with these losers tonight.

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Our young heroes wander down to the docks as it starts to rain, and there they are greeted by Lilith once again.  She cryptically says more cryptic things and then leaves, cryptically, after introducing them to a man named Mr. Jupiter, the richest man in the world.  He claims he has an urgent government mission for them that will change them forever.  Jupiter wants to create a secret program to train the youth of today to face the challenges of tomorrow, “the unknown in man himself […] the mystery of riots, prejudice, greed.”  Apparently, this involves a secret headquarters and missions, which sounds less like training kids to “cope with the world they will inherit” and more like a black ops team.  You might think I’m leaving something out that might make this make a bit more sense, but I promise you, I’m not.

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Well, the Titans hop on board this vague train, all except Robin, who says he’s committed to getting his education and can’t do…whatever it is they’re going to do.  The Titans accept, but insist on doing…the thing…without their powers, claiming that this will help them figure out who they are.  They are joined by Lilith, cryptically, and guided by a robot servant into a strangely lit tunnel, sealed by a massive door.

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And there ends the first chapter of the new Titans direction.  I have to say, it is quite uneven.  It is half of a really interesting book, but the second half, full of vague and confusing new elements falls flat.  It is never really established why the Titans are going to be any better off working for Jupiter than on their own, and Lilith is annoying with her mysterious act.  Still, it’s nice to look at and has a thought-provoking premise, so I’ll give it 3 Minutemen.

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World’s Finest #191

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Cover Artist: Curt Swan
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Ross Andru
Inker: Mike Esposito

I love the friendship between Batman and Superman, especially when it gets more developed and we get the whole odd-couple vibe to their relationship.  It’s a great idea, these two incongruous figures somehow making an unbeatable team.  It seems like Batman should be superfluous, but good stories really show how they can benefit each other.  I also love this archetypal element of heroic friendship.  It’s like Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the civilized and savage halves of the soul of man, the light and the dark.  It seems like they shouldn’t be friends, which makes it all the more perfect that they are.  That is a significant part of the reason I have zero interest for the upcoming Batman V Superman movie.  I just don’t really want to see these characters try to out ‘grim’ each other for two hours.  I’d rather read stories with more joy and heroism, after all, THIS is one of my favorite comic covers from recent years.  And despite how unlikely it may seem, there really is something truly good in the World’s Finest partnership, the idea that even the greatest among us are better when we work together and even the most independent of us need someone.

We, all of us, need friendship and support, and superhero books can explore that theme as well as, if not better than, many other genres.  Unfortunately, at this point, the gravitas and interest of the Superman/Batman friendship hasn’t really developed, and we’re going to be getting some very Silver Age-ish tales for a while.  So, all that stuff I just said?  Forget it about it for the nonce.

This issue begins with both Batman and Superman being summoned urgently to speak with a U.S. general, but on their way, they see a fleeting image of Jor-El and Lara, Superman’s Kryptonian parents!  Jor-El says something about training criminals, then they fade into mist before the eyes of our startled heroes.  Ohh, and as an aside, apparently Batman speaks “Kryptonese” because Superman taught him.  I can’t imagine that’s the most useful language to have picked up, though with all the threats that end up coming from that supposedly destroyed planet in the Silver Age, maybe I’m wrong…

Continuing to their rendezvous, they discover the general was in an accident and has slipped into a comma from which he won’t awaken for days.  Superman decides he has to solve the mystery of his parent’s appearance, and decides to do the only logical thing, just jaunt back in time and check out the situation on Krypton.  Batman volunteers to come with him, since ‘the Man of Might’ will just be ‘the Man’ under Krypton’s red sun.

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The World’s Finest duo arrives in a very 60s style version of Krypton, complete with angry college students marching in protest.  Batman and Superman immediately side with The Man and set about trying to break up the crowd.  The Caped Crusader does some acrobatic tricks to distract them (apparently they aren’t all that focused on their whole protest thing), while Superman scales a weather control station and turns on the rain, washing out the march.  “Have you ever seen the rain,” punks?

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This attracts the attention of Jor-El, and our heroes claim to be hunters visiting from another world.  The famous Kryptonian scientist invites them to stay with him and then takes them on a nice little tour of the wonders of Krypton.  We see an alien zoo, cinema, and ‘feast trees’ that can always feed the hungry.  Pre-Crisis Krypton is charming, but I have to say, while there are a lot of changes after the Crisis that I’m not crazy about, I think the updates to Superman are almost 100% improvements, and that includes the austere, crystalline version of his home planet.  It just makes for a wonderful contrast with Earth.

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Superman and Batman spy upon their hosts and discover them entering a secret cavern behind a “fire fall,” which is exactly what it sounds like.  Here we see more of the glories of this doomed world.  Ross Andru really did a good job designing Krypton and its inhabitants.  I think the art is probably the best part of this issue.  At any rate, our heroes manage to find a way into the cavern, and find Jor-El and Lara running a crime school!  The Dark Knight and the Man of Tomorrow are captured and put through a series of tests, outwitting a false death trap and earning the trust of their hosts-turned captors.

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Jor-El explains what’s going on, telling the powerful pair that an ancient progenitor of Kryptonian civilization has just been discovered in the distant city of Bokos.  They want to retrieve him because they are convinced he is only in suspended animation, not fossilized, but the Bokosians are having none of it.  They were training operatives to think like criminals because, and here’s the most Silver Age bit of the story, in Bokos, crime is the law!  Of course, Batman and Superman get dragooned into retrieving the Kryptonian Prometheus (no, not THAT Prometheus!), and they make their way to Bokos, committing crimes to blend in.

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WorldsFinest191-21.jpgThey concot a rather clever scheme to smuggle this fellow, Calox, out of the city.  Apparently, offenders guilty of being honest, are banished from Bokos by jetpack, so with Batman once again playing the part of the distraction, Superman gets himself banished and snags the disguised Calox along the way.  They return him to Jor-El and Lara just in time to be pulled back through time to 1970.  Apparently this time vortex was what the general wanted to see them about.  I wonder if this is the same experiment from Action Comics that totally wasn’t going to destroy the universe…totally.  If so, it’s actually an interesting little piece of continuity across the line.  If not, it speaks volumes about the bonkers state of Silver Age superhero comics that there were two stories about government run time-travel machines in one month!

Either way, apparently this device is what pulled Jor-El and Lara into the present day, but it has a flaw that returns all subjects to their original times twenty minutes later.  One of the assembled generals panics and destroys the device, rather than risk losing Batman and Superman by having them stranded in the past on Krypton…despite the fact that Superman can clearly time travel all by himself…and that was how he got there in the first place.

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“There goes 22 million dollars up in smoke!” proclaims one of the officials.  They’re really rather blase about this guy destroying years of work.  Also, 22 million dollars?  Your super-secret government projects, just like your murders-for-hire, were apparently much cheaper in the 70s.  “It was the only way” claims the panicky general, despite clear logical evidence that it wasn’t.  I hope you enjoy being stationed in Alaska for the rest of your life, general nincompoop.

Our tale ends with Jor-El and Lara wondering what happened to our heroes, never knowing that they have gotten to meet their own future son!  Despite the goofy bits, this is a really fun story, and the Kryptonian sections are quite creative and interesting. I wonder if any of these elements ever returned in future trips to Krypton.  If so, I suppose I’ll find out!

I’ll give this time traveling adventure (see, I don’t hate ALL time travel), 3.5 Minutemen out of 5!

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Bonus Feature: Atomic Knights

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Writer: John Broome
Artist: Murphy Anderson

Every once in a while, at most once a comic-month, I’m going to include a little bonus featurette on a book, character, team, or run from outside of the purview of my project.  You see, I’ve been reading through a wide range of Silver, Bronze, and even Iron Age DC comics over the last few years, and I’ve encountered a lot of really neat hidden treasures, largely forgotten, that deserve to be shared.  These guys, the Atomic Knights, are one such team.  The Atomic Knights were one of a set of rotating features in the early Silver Age Strange Adventures comic, starting in #117 and returning in every third issue.  There were a number of other features they shared the book with, and many of them were actually quite good.  I’ll be covering some of the others eventually, but today we’re going to start with my favorite!

The Atomic Knights lived in a world that had just been utterly devastated by an all-out nuclear war.  Interestingly enough, this war destroyed absolutely all plant life and almsot all animal life.  Humans who had been in deep shelters or were just plain lucky survived.  A rag-tag group of survivors found suits of armor in a ruined museum that were, thanks to a quirk of the radiation to which they had been exposed, amazingly altered.  They were now radiation and laser proof, and thus incredibly useful defenses in a wild and savage new world.

These survivors formed the Atomic Knights, lead by a former soldier named Gardner Grayle and patterning themselves after the Knights of the Round Table, they set out to right wrongs and restore and protect the fragile remnants of civilization left in the atomic wasteland.  Their adventures saw them facing mutant creatures, changed by the apocalypse, as well as other survivors, tyrants trying to carve out their own little kingdoms or just desperate folks trying to stay alive.  It was a remarkably interesting premise, and much more original then, in 1960, than it seems today.  This has got to be one of the first post-apocalyptic comic stories, and especially one of the first with such thought and detail put into the world of the aftermath.

While most stories in Strange Adventures during this era (and the bulk of its run) were standard, run-of-the-mill sci-fi yarns, for a while, each issue would carry a recurring feature.  I found most of the general purpose stories to be really weak, silly, goofy, or just plain uninteresting, though the art was often quite lovely.  I suppose it isn’t surprising that the features that were allowed room to develop quickly became the most interesting stories to be found in this book.  Judging from the letter columns, this was recognized by the fans of the time as well, which really makes you wonder why none of these recurring features, Atomic Knights, Star Hawkins, or the Space Museum ever got spun off into their own book, or at least given more real-estate in this one.  Nevertheless, they didn’t, and they were all relatively short lived.

This is a particular shame in the case of the Atomic Knights, which was a rather ambitious undertaking for that period.  The series began to employed direct continuity, an unusual device for an age where every adventure was one-and-done.  The stories weren’t directly linked, but they built on one-another, and they caused real growth and change in the Knights and their world.

When the Knights rescued a group of survivors or founded a new colony, they would feature in future stories.  When they restored a piece of technology or established some new bastion of civilization, it would demonstrably change the setting.  This is no superhero tale with the perpetual status-quo, instead, every issue brought the Knights closer or sent them further from their goal of restoring civilization.

The writing was still a product of its time, and the ridiculous levels of sexism that met the female Knight, Marene Herald, despite proving herself many times, is really rather galling.  So, read these stories for what they are: a really interesting concept that was just starting to grow into something truly great when it was unceremoniously cancelled without so much as a by-your-leave.  I heartily recommend these cool, old-school science fiction books.  Apparently the Knights were resurrected a few times, but only once in their original incarnation, in the post-apocalyptic Hercules series from the mid 70s, which I’m looking forward to covering.

 

Final Reflections:

Well, we’ve reached the end of February 1970, and it was a mixed bag.  It featured a number of issues I really enjoyed, but it also had those two Superman books which were downright tortuous to cover.  Still, I think we’re starting to see some of the more interesting elements of Bronze Age storytelling starting to emerge.  We get a very weighty concept dealt with in TT, even if the execution leaves plenty to be desired, and we see the beginnings of social consciousness starting to take shape in Justice League.  Even though Ollie’s protests are not particularly radical, it was still rare to see such real-world matters addressed in comics.  The influence of the Silver Age is still very strong, but I think that the tide is already beginning to turn, which is encouraging.  So, we’re off to a good start.  Let’s see where the future (or rather, the past) takes us next!  I hope you’ll join me again when I cover the first part of March, 1970!

 

The Head-Blow Headcount:

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Into the Bronze Age: February 1970 (Part 1)

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So, we’ve gotten through January, and now it is time to tackle February 1970!  Let’s see what this month has in store for us.

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

  • Action Comics #385
  • Aquaman #49
  • Batman #218 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Batman #219
  • Detective Comics #396
  • Flash #194
  • Justice League of America #78
  • Phantom Stranger #5
  • Showcase #88
  • Strange Adventures #222
  • Superman #223
  • Superman #224
  • Teen Titans #25
  • World’s Finest 191

Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others in the next.

Action Comics #385

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Cover Artists: Curt Swan, Murphy Anderson
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Roussos
Editor: Mort Weisinger

Ohh, time travel in the Silver Age…

For some reason, every hero had to time travel, just as they all had to do everything in tandem.  Everyone made at least one movie (how amazing must superhero movies have been in the DCU?), everybody got a sidekick, everybody got a weakness, everyone adopted a pet, and so on and so on.  Another of those tropes that was endlessly repeated in the Silver Age was time travel.  I generally find the Silver Age synchronicity and the stock plots rather charming, but the time travel stories leave me cold.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against time travel stories per se, but there is a weird trend in Silver Age DC stories where most of the main characters not only occasionally time traveled, but also took regular trips to a particular era in order to adventure in that time, as if there wasn’t enough bizarre craziness to be found in a current-day universe that was packed with aliens, super-science, magic, and lost civilizations!

Green Lantern, Flash, and Superman all did this.  Green Lantern even had a future girl friend on the side, but Flash topped that with a wife who turned out to actually be from the future in one of the most bizarre and confusing retcons of Silver/Bronze Age history.  (We’ll get there.)  Superman, of course, had the Legion, and while I have come to like them, I don’t much care for Superman’s involvement.  He tends to overshadow the other characters, especially Ultra Boy and Mon-El with their similar power-sets.  Having Superman, at least the Silver Age Superman, in a team book is always a dicey prospect, as he’s just so powerful that he tends to make other great characters superfluous.  Good writers could deal with that challenge quite well, but that wasn’t always the case.

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Nonetheless, this particular adventure is not one of Superman’s Legion jaunts.  Instead, it’s a time-travel tale to a ‘new’ future, one involving the year 101,970!  Now that’s the far future!  This issue opens with Superman meeting with the President, who remains in shadow in classic comic form, preventing the real world from crashing in too much.  I’ve always liked the practice of keeping real-world parallels at arms length.  The DC or Marvel Universes should be LIKE our world, but not too close, for my money.  That’s one of the reasons I love the concept of the DCU’s fictional cities.

The President tells Superman that the army is mucking about with something called the “Vortex Experiment,” and that he needs the Man of Steel not to go messing with time travel for the next 24 hours or it might upset the experiment.  Personally, I’d be more than a little concerned about the government, especially the military, doing anything that interacts with the space-time continuum, but I suppose that’s just me.

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Supes promises that he’ll stick in the present, which is probably a bigger sacrifice than it sounds like to a sane person, and heads back to the Fortress of Solitude.  There, much to his surprise, he encounters a gigantic robotic hand writing on the golden door of the Fortress.  I can’t say for certain, but I’d be willing to bet that at least a good chunk of this book exists just to provide an excuse to create that image.  Shades of Daniel!  Yet, the finger writing on the wall is not that of God, nor is the message nearly so portentous.  Instead, “the moving finger writes” that his help is needed in the distant future.  One might stop to question how in the blue blazes people in the year 101,970 could POSSIBLY know about Superman, much less be able to contact him directly, but then one is really overthinking this very Silver-Agey plot.

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The Man of Tomorrow (a particularly fitting sobriquet in this tale) remembers his promise and uses a defective Legion Time-Bubble rather than time travel himself, so that he doesn’t upset the Army’s experiment that is almost certainly not going to unleash untold horrors upon the universe or destroy the space-time continuum….where was I?  Right, the story’s deus ex machina, which is fittingly enough an actual machina, takes Superman 100,000 years in the future, but there’s a problem!  Because of the defective Time-Bubble, Superman also AGES 100,000 years!  Yet, because of his super-ness, the Man of Steel doesn’t look a day over 65.  That takes ‘aging well’ to a new extreme!

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After all that set-up, I’m afraid the actual story is fairly mundane.  Why have the denizens of this dizzily distant future brought Superman all the way to their remote era?  Is it to fight some universe destroying menace (perhaps one released by the U.S. military in 1970)?  Is it to save them from some vast cosmic catastrophe?  Is it to battle some merciless alien race that is steam-rolling across the stars?  No.  They reached 100,000 years into the past to summon Superman in order to…catch a bank robber.

Yep, you read that right.  Apparently the space-future equivalent of Fort Knox is losing money, and these future folk can’t figure it out.  They lock the Last Son of Krypton in the vault, where he discovers that an energy creature has been hiding in the very defenses of the vault itself and munching on money every night when the room is sealed.  The conflict is actually a pretty nice one.  Superman can’t hurt the creature, as it is has no real physical form, but it can hurt him, so he just outruns it all night until the vault opens again.  Since he can’t defeat the crackling critter by throwing punches, the Action Ace uses his brain and comes up with a plan.  He noticed that the monster ate only warm colored space-money, so he used a paint gun to trick the creature into eating blue money, thus destroying it.

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I love how in the Silver Age, writers seem to regard color as an integral part of the make-up of matter, like mass or elemental composition.  If something was “blue” or “yellow,” it meant that it had inalienable qualities, rather than just absorbing and reflecting certain wavelengths of light.  They did this ALL THE TIME in Green Lantern, where he would find objects that were yellow in nature, despite having been painted another color or the like, and thus completely immune to his ring.  Think about that for a moment.  His ring wouldn’t work on an object that was, say, red, because it was actually secretly yellow the whole time!  It’s so utterly crazy, but it was a pervasive idea, I’ve noticed.

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Anyway, Superman saves the space-future, but finds that he cannot return home!  Unbeknownst to him, the old Legion foe, the Time-Trapper has sealed-off The Man of Steel’s home time.  Unable to escape, the Man of Tomorrow heads to the future Earth to see what’s what, where he encounters some difficulties because there is apparently a criminal gang who have stolen his act!

Long story short (too late by far!), Superman is gassed by some future heroes, passes out, and awakens to discover that his few weaknesses have all disappeared, and he is now truly invulnerable.  Yet, rather than be elated at this news, all Supes can think about is how everyone he’s ever known and loved is dead in the distant past.  Yep, that will put a damper on a party really quick.

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This scene really drives me bonkers, as it demonstrates another of those fundamental misunderstandings that have stuck with Superman over the years.  Somehow he has been made invulnerable to magic, as if this were just an extension of his normal invulnerability, but he doesn’t really have a WEAKNESS to magic.  Superman’s invulnerability is physical.  He’s really, really tough, but non-physical attacks, like mental and magical attacks, can harm him because they have nothing to do with that physical toughness.  He only seems “vulnerable” to magic in comparison, but he’s not more vulnerable to magic than I am to, say, a sword in the gut, which is to say, normally vulnerable.

Wow.  I’ve spent way more time on this little story than it really merited.  Anyway, I liked the actual conflict of the tale, and the involvement of the Time Trapper has promise, but the silliness of the time travel elements, the magic vulnerability nonsense, and the over-all Silver Age-ness of the story knocks it down a peg for me.  It’s not a bad story, but it’s also not a good story.  I give it 2.5 Minutemen out of 5.

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“The Fallen Starboy”

ac_385_20.jpgThat brings us to the backup feature of this comic, as well as the real star tale of this book, The Legion of Super-Heroes.  This story is really a nice inversion of the previous month’s offering.  In that by the numbers yarn, Dream Girl had a vision of a Legionnaire’s death, and the heroes struggled to prevent it.  This month’s back-up also involves the heroes trying to fight against fate, but this time it is the villains who have the visions!  Star Boy heads to his home planet with Saturn Girl and Colossal Boy to investigate a series of robberies by a gang that always seems to be one step ahead of the authorities.

The Legionnaires decide to escort the next shipment of valuable goods, hoping to ambush the thieves with the help of Saturn Girl’s telepathy, but they are ambushed in turn!  It seems the raiders were prepared for Saturn Girl with anti-telepathy helmets (I wonder if they stole those from Magneto…)!  It’s almost as if they knew she was going to be there!

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The Legionnaires put their heads together to try to figure out what happened, and Star Boy conveniently figures out that the raiders must be from Dream Girl’s home planet and be able to dream the future.  It’s a bit of a jump, but I suppose we can give it to them since they do know someone with those exact powers and it does fit as a rather neat explanation of the facts.

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Incidentally, it seems to me that such a race of people would be down-right unstoppable.  Though, it now occurs to me that just last issue the Legionnaires were facing the inevitability of Dream Girl’s visions, completely unable to change the future she had seen, yet these crooks seem to be able to see the future and make adjustments!  Whoops, that doesn’t quite line up, does it?

But to get back to our tale, we next check in with the villainous raiders and we discover that all of their robbing and pillaging was just bait to lure Star Boy home so that their leader, Yark Althu, could kill him in revenge for his brother!  We get a flashback to a deadly encounter wherein Althu’s brother murdered Star Boy’s friend and disabled his powers.  In desperation, the young Legionnaire grabbed a fallen gun and killed the fellow.  Wow.  They showed a Legionnaire use deadly force ON panel.  As far as I can tell, this isn’t from a previous issue, meaning that the writer, who I’m assuming is Bates, just tosses out the added twist that Star Boy is a killer in a three panel flashback in a BACKUP.  That’s quite a heavy revelation, and it is given absolutely no attention whatsoever!

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Well, the story ends with Star Boy being teleported into a trap by Althu, where the Master of Mass (patent pending) displays some really clever uses of his powers, despite the fact that the raiders have disabled the artificial gravity on their ship in order to render him helpless.  Star Boy keeps the gang off balance until the cavalry arrives, and the Legion win the day!

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All in all, this was a fun, solid Legion story.  It had a nice dilemma, clever solutions, and fit a lot in its few allotted pages.  The one real problem is the use of deadly force by Star Boy without so much as an eye-bat by ANYONE in the story.  I kept expecting it to be revealed that he hadn’t actually killed the guy, but nope, apparently Star Boy is perfectly willing to bust a space-cap in a villain whenever it seems necessary.  That sets a rather grim precedent for a 1970s comic book.  All-in-all, I give it 3 Minutemen out of 5.

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Aquaman #49

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Cover Artists: Nick Cardy
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Dick Giordano

As most folks who know me know, my favorite comic character is Aquaman.  It wasn’t always thus.  When I was a kid, my unalloyed favorite was Batman, but I did always have a soft spot for the King of the Seven Seas. Part of that is due to the fact that he has always had a really neat and unique look.  What other hero is orange and green?  Another part of it is that he inhabits such an amazing and interesting world, though writers and artists haven’t always taken advantage of that fact.  You see, I’m a coastal boy, growing up in the islands and bayous of the Gulf Coast, sailing about in my little skiff since I was a kid, and living every minute I could on or in the water.  Folks used to say I was part fish, so naturally I was drawn to the guy who could talk to our “finny friends.”

I’ve always been fascinated by the sea, but I’ve also had her treat me badly enough often enough to have a very healthy fear of both the water and what is in it.  I’ve lived through half a dozen hurricanes, after all.  Thus, I’ve always loved the idea of this hero, this adventurer, that not only wasn’t afraid of the sea, but ruled it, completely and utterly.  Everything that lives and breaths underwater answers to him, and he is totally, completely at home under the waves, even more so than we are on land.  That is pretty darn cool.  If you can’t see the appeal of being able to breath and live underwater, then you’ve let the world beat too much of the wonder out of you.  Every kid who has ever sat on the bottom of a pool, holding their breath, and wishing they stay under forever knows that it is a universal dream, ancient and powerful.  Aquaman is the realization of that archetypal wish.

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Yet, that is only part of my love for the character.  Another significant reason is that I’ve always had a thing for underdogs.  Give me the character that is (unjustly) maligned.  Give me the hard-luck hero.  Give me the guy that just can’t catch a break.  I always see their potential, even when there isn’t all that much evidence around to engender faith in their underlying worthiness.  Aquaman is perhaps the best example of this tendency, though some of my other DC favorites like Hawkman and the Atom also fit the bill.

Aquaman has really had a hard time of it, though.  His book has been cancelled again and again, he’s become a cultural punch-line thanks to Super Friends, and his greatest enemy has become, not Ocean Master, not Black Manta, not even the Human Flying Fish, but DC Comics themselves.

You see, DC has, since the early 70s, apparently had it in for the Aquatic Ace.  Now, I’m not suggesting some actual mustache-twirling, monocle-wearing conspiracy, so you can put away the tinfoil hats, but it just seems like the company consistently makes the wrong choices about this character, often inexplicably.  They cancel his book when he’s selling well, they replace successful teams, they allow other media to mistreat and under-utilize the property, and weirdest of all, they publicly bad-mouth their own product.  It’s like they collectively have a spot of madness where Aquaman is concerned.  Of course, much of the blame for this attitude can be laid squarely at the feet of Super Friends.  For every Rob Kelly, of Aquamanshrine fame, out there, who grew to love the Marine Marvel in that show, there are a thousand more that learned to regard him as a joke or as useless.  Of course, he’s anything but, as any self-respecting DC fan can tell you.

HERE is a relatively brief Aquaman primer written by yours truly to educate those in the dark about this great character.

This particular comic is from right about the middle of what was, up until recently, arguably the best Aquaman run of all time.  It is lamentably short, and its cancellation is perhaps the best example of DC’s inexplicable strikes against their own character.  I’m talking, of course, of the legendary SAG run.  The SAG run is the set of issues by the team of Steve Skeates (writer par excellence), Jim Aparo (artist extraordinaire), and Dick Giordano (editor and guiding light).  They were a fantastic team, and under them Aquaman’s title, which had been slipping for years, started an impressive comeback.  They finally treated the Sea King with the respect he deserved, explored the wonders of his underwater realm, and took his villains and supporting cast in interesting and intriguing directions.  It wasn’t without its flaws, but these comics were Aquaman at the best he had ever been, for my money, and the best he would be for decades to come.  He was a heroic, likable character, an adventurer who did what was right regardless of the cost, traits very soon to be lost for some thirty years.  These stories are classic, Bronze Age comics at their finest.

Check out some of Aparo’s lovely splash pages from this run at Diversions of the Groovy Kind.

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This issue is not the best of the bunch, but even so, it’s a solid, fun read, bursting with potential like so many of the issues of this run.  It takes place shortly after the most famous story-line from the SAG run, “The Search for Mera,” wherein Aquaman tore through every kingdom under the sea in a hunt for his kidnapped wife.  It also saw unrest and revolution in Atlantis, defused only by the bravery of Aquagirl (a character that I sorely miss being part of the Aquaman mythos).  By the beginning of this story, however, things have begun to return to normal, and Aquaman and Aqualad are traveling in the frigid waters of Alaska to answer an emergency summons from an “old friend.”  It’s funny how our heroes have so many old friends that make one appearance and are never heard from again.  I guess superheroes are bad at keeping in touch…

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Well, the tale actually opens with a silent, moody sequence of a black-clad diver destroying a building, leading in to a beautiful title page.  Jim Aparo is one of my favorite artists of all time, and with the exception of the two astonishingly talented teams that have worked on Aquaman recently, Aparo’s work is hands-down the best version of Aquaman for my money.  Ivan Reis and Paul Pelletier have done amazing work in the new Aquaman series, creating some of the finest comic book art of all time, but nonetheless, Jim Aparo is a giant in his own right.  His work his this wonderful, flowing, liquid feel to it, and he is always doing something interesting with layout, position, and design.  I’m no artist, but even I can appreciate the sheer beauty of Aparo’s work.

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Back to the story!  Our heroes are ambushed by frenzied fish that won’t answer to Aquaman49_07.jpgAquaman’s telepathic commands, and they are soon fighting for their lives.  A strange figure in a diving suit shows up to help them, and it turns out to be Phil Darson, a somewhat enigmatic scientist and explorer who the Aquatic Ace had encountered some issues back.  It seems that the mysterious malady plaguing the fish is the reason Aquaman has been summoned to these cold climes.  The heroes meet up with Arthur’s “old friend,” Professor Davidson, and Aparo gives this briefly appearing, one-shot character a really distinct face.  One look at this guy and you get a sense of his personality.  He’s serious, grizzled, and worried, and we know this before he ever opens his mouth.  That’s the power of a good artist right there.

Anyway, Davidson fills the Aqua-team in about what has been going on.  Apparently factories in the area are poisoning the environment, and the fish with it, and a mysterious vigilante known as the Saboteur has been bombing the different businesses in retaliation.  It has been a violent but bloodless attack until recently, when a night watchmen was killed in a blast.  The exposition is nicely inter-cut with scenes of Saboteur striking again, and Aquaman rushes off to investigate.  The Marine Marvel catches up to the destructive diver before he can get away, and the shadowy figure fires a miniature torpedo at him!  Aquaman survives a near-direct hit (remember that for later), but the Saboteur gets away.

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The mystery continues to unravel, with the introduction of a fat-cat industrialist type who is having none of this ‘save the environment’ nonsense!  Not at the expense of HIS bottom line, you don’t!  He lays a trap for the Saboteur, planning to kill him quietly so that he can prevent an investigation that would reveal his nefarious doings.

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Cut back to Atlantis, and we get a brief, tense little scene between Mera and Ocean Master, who has apparently come in peace, complete with underwater white flag!  We get to see Mera being a capable, intelligent ruler here, as well as hints of something waiting in the wings.  Orm claims he needs to speak to Aquaman…but why?

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Back in Alaska, Aquaman and Aqualad have a discussion about whether or not Davidson might be the Saboteur, and it is handled rather nicely.  Instead of having this turn into a melodramatic, angsty teen-age drama, Arthur listens calmly to Garth’s thoughts, then he does the unthinkable.  He puts stock in what his partner says and agrees that they can’t afford to take anything for granted.  It’s a simple little exchange, but it shows the strength of the father-son bond between the two.  Leaving Aqualad behind to watch Davidson, the Aquatic Ace heads out to investigate the remaining factory and encounters the Saboteur!  This gives us a lovely little underwater scene that shows off Aparo’s skill.

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Note Deadman’s face in the rock, a fun little teaser of what is to come in book’s future

Aquaman49_26 - Copy.jpgHe follows the criminal, but it seems he breaks in on the factory owners planned ambush, and nobody is happy to see him!  In another close call, Aquaman takes shrapnel from a grenade that explodes practically on top of him.  That is two explosions he has survived, making him one tough son of a gun, right?  Well, then we see one of the weaknesses of this series, as he is taken out by a clot to the head, in true DC hero fashion.  I swear, if I had a penny for every time a DC hero is disabled by a blow the back of the head, I’d be living in my own underwater city….

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Anyway, this series mostly does a good job of showing how powerful, how tough, and how impressive Aquaman was, but every once in a while, they treat him just like a regular guy.  Still, we’re treated to a really nice panel of Aquaman waking, literally BATHED in flames, and non-the-worse for the fiery wear.  So, I suppose it isn’t all bad.  He comes to in time to see the factory owner and the Saboteur locked in combat at the edge of a cliff, and before he can reach them, over they go!  Aquaman makes his way down to the fallen Saboteur, and to no-one’s surprise, he discovers that it is the no longer quite so enigmatic Phil Darson under the mask.  He explains that he loved the ocean and couldn’t stand to see it destroyed, so he took action when the law wouldn’t.  He apologizes for attacking Aquaman, and the Marine Marvels are left in the falling snow, pondering the justness of his actions.

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So, I’m sure we all saw the reveal coming.  Phil Darson is the Chekhov’s gun of this particular story, the only piece that doesn’t fit without being found in the Saboteur’s flippers, but nonetheless, it’s a good story.  I think it’s a shame that Darson was killed off, as he was an interesting character, always showing up when least expected.  I would have liked to know more about what he had going on.  The tale is an unusual one for Aquaman, more moody mystery than undersea adventure, and it makes for a nice change of pace.  It is a little inconsistent with its treatment of Aquaman, and it really doesn’t give him or Aqualad all that much to do.  Still, it’s a neat story, and the art is excellent, as always.  This is only an average offering from the SAG team, but that still puts it a cut above average for most comics!  I’d give it 4 Minutemen out of 5.

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Batman #219

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Cover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Dick Giordano

Backup
Writer:Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Dick Giordano

This issue of Batman has two solid stories in it.  The first involves Bruce Wayne trying to get federal money to support his then current VIP (Victims Inc. Programs) undertaking.  That whole plotline loomed large in these middle years, but it doesnt’ seem to have amounted to much in the Bat-mythos.  Instead, as with so many comic characters, the elements that have stuck are those that were there in the beginning, or almost so, at least.  The skyscraper lair has been replaced by Wayne Manor and the Bat-Cave, and in general, those original concepts seem to have staying power.

But back to the story at hand.  Bruce is seeing a senator at his office who introduces him to a secretly visiting old warhorse of “our party.”  It’s hard to imagine Batman engaging  in partisan politics, so this was a minor little note that struck me as a more than a little off key.  It’s rather strange to see the Dark Knight engaged in politics to begin with, but that’s not the only offbeat bit of this story.

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Batman219-04.JPGThe Senator convinces Bruce to fly back to D.C. with him to help with a crime bill that’s supposed to really make waves, and on the way, the flight is hi-jacked by his political enemies!  In a nice little touch, the pilot seems, not scared as you’d imagine, but nonplussed and wearily resigned, if anything.  “Not another Havana Hijacker,” he says grumpily.  Apparently this period, from ’68-’79 is the “Golden Age of Skyjacking,” so I suppose this scene speaks volumes about the ubiquity, the almost hum-drum regularity of such events here in the Bronze Age.

What follows is a somewhat amusing comedy of errors with Batman switching between his Bruce Wayne and Caped Crusader identities.  First, in one of those other slightly sour notes I mentioned, Bruce takes on the skyjackers single-handedly, in full view of the public, unmasked.  Way to protect your secret identity there, Bats.

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He gets thumped on the head for his troubles (Another one!  I’m going to start a running tally) and thrown into the back of the plane.  He wakes up, uses a “Mae West,” which I did not realize is an inflatable life raft (who says comic books aren’t educational?) to fill his vacated civilian clothes, and sets out to take on the bad guys as Batman!  Then he…promptly gets knocked out…AGAIN!  The skyjackers toss Bats back with Bruce (!), fortunately not bothering to check on their other prisoner.  This does offer Batman a chance for a witty little rejoinder, though, so that’s something.

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Finally, Bats fools the villains with a few quick changes and has the Senator fake a heart-attack, hoping that these criminals don’t want him dead.  While flying to a nearby medic, the Batsuit rigged to that previously mentioned “Mae West” (Chekhov’s raft, apparently), springs out of a compartment and scares the skyjackers silly.  The Senator (and the other passengers, but who cares about them?) is saved, and we’re left with Bruce pondering an invitation to get into politics full time.

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This is a solid Bat-story, not particularly remarkable, but certainly not bad.  Bruce is a little too quick to take the bad guys on single-handed without his costume, especially considering the excellent job Bob Haney did (how often does someone say that about logical consistency?) just last month with a similar situation.  Still, this was fun, with a neat resolution.  I’ll give it an average 3 Minutemen.

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“The Silent Night of the Batman”

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The backup tale in this issue is the one I particularly enjoyed, which seems to be becoming a trend in these multi-part books.  It’s a simple but sweet little Christmas story.  It’s almost entirely silent, except for a strain of different Christmas carols moving through the pages.  There isn’t really all that much to the plot, and in this case, that’s not really a problem.  Commissioner Gordon tricks Batman into coming down to the precinct so he can force the Caped Crusader to take a night off.  He convinces the Dark Knight to stay and sing Christmas carols (!) until there is an emergency.  Batman, sure that something will momentarily go horribly wrong, begrudgingly agrees.  There’s an odd but funny little beat where the cops ask him to lend his “deep vocal chords” to their songs.

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We then travel around Gotham, seeing several moments where tragedy COULD strike, but doesn’t because of the Christmas spirit, along with a healthy dose of the spirit of Batman as well!  It’s a touching set of silent stories where people choose a better path, at least in part because they were inspired by Batman.  It’s a really a lovely expression of how the presence of heroes can improve the world, outside of their immediate actions.  Having truly virtuous, truly heroic figures to look up to can make us all better.  In the end, Batman wakes, having fallen asleep on a quiet, uneventful night.  It’s a good ending.  It is strange, even incongruous to see Batman singing Christmas carols, but it is charming and enjoyable nonetheless.

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I give this one 4.5 Minutemen out of 5.

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Detective Comics #396

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Executive Editor: Carmine Infantino
Cover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Bob Brown
Inker: Joe Giella
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“The Orchid-Crusher”
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Murphy Anderson, Gil Kane
Editor: Julius Schwartz

This is an odd little tale, full of 60s-ness, and more than a little reminiscent of a Zany Haney script, but it has its moments nonetheless.  The issue opens with Bruce Wayne in his office having an “eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the ‘youth revolution'” as he reads NOW! Magazine, which apparently has a plot convenient cover story.  This is where I had to double check the credits to be sure this wasn’t a Bob Haney yarn.  detective396-02.jpgThe whole plot turns on the idea that there is this young whiz kid named Rory Bell who is a stock genius, and makes all of his business decisions while riding a motorcycle and talking to his secretary/girlfriend via “radio-phone”!  To add to the oddness of this concept, apparently a gang of crooks who are feeling a bit out of date decide that the best way to turn things around is to kidnap this kid and have him make a fortune on the market for them.  We are on page 2.

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It’s amazing how many concepts a minute these creative teams threw out back in the day.

So, these enterprising gangsters kidnap the kid, who, in a scene chock full of migraine inducing 60s slang, convinces these geniuses he “can’t make market decisions ‘less I’ve got this throbbing heap under me…and the wind blowing my mind!”  I don’t know about you, but I think that’s the kind of thing I’d keep to myself.  Just saying.

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Well, it just so happens that this fellow’s girl Friday is Bruce’s stock broker as well, and the kid sends an S.O.S. by ordering a number of uncharacteristic sales and buys.  When the broker discusses this with Bruce (isn’t that insider trading?), he deduces the pattern and sets out as Batman in a decent display of detective work.

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He ambushes the gangsters when they stop at a gas station, and almost puts them down before one of them grabs the kid as a hostage.  Batman drops a smoke pellet, and in the highlight of story, he fakes the gang out by sending the Batmobile tearing away under remote control so he can get the drop on them.

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There’s not a whole lot to this one.  It’s a solid enough story, but not a particularly good one.  It’s enjoyable for what it is, and all of the characters are given just enough personality to make them more than just moving pieces of scenery.  Still, it is more than a bit forgettable.  I give it 3 Minutemen.

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“The Orchid Killer”

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This Batgirl backup is interesting, though you really feel that the Robbins was a bit constrained by the 9 page limit.  The story opens with our lovely red-headed crime fighter having a nightmare about a mysterious killer that’s been haunting Gotham lately.  He’s known as the titular “orchid killer” because he always leaves a crushed orchid at the scene of each crime.  At this point in her history, Babs is a librarian, a reasonable if unexciting secret identity for a superhero, I suppose.  Librarians have interesting jobs, but it doesn’t seem like quite the vocation that Barbara Gordon should have.

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Employment aside, she stumbles upon a clue to the crime in a copy of The Femme Mystique, a computer punch card (how quaint!).  It seems to be a computer dating service quiz (I didn’t even know they HAD computer dating services in 1960) belonging to the latest victim!  It appears the books previous possessor was studying up on how to manipulate women (creepy!), and a passage about orchids is underlined.  Babs does some detective work, tracking the library book back to a man named Darren Thompkins.  He’s apparently skipped out of his boarding house, so Batgirl pays a visit to the computer dating service and sets a trap using herself as bait!

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In order to do so, she has to remorsefully brush young Jason Bard off.  It’s a nice moment of background and characterization, especially in a story as tightly plotted as this one.  Jason is a long-time part of Batgirl’s supporting cast, as I understand it.  While I like the character, I don’t like him being Babs’ love interest.  I’m an old romantic, I suppose, but I’ve always loved the pairing of Robin and Batgirl.  It just made perfect sense, and they complement each other excellently.  I would have read the heck out of a backup strip that featured both of them.

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detective396-23.jpgBack to our mystery.  Barbara gets a nibble, and her date is a mousy little fellow who seems harmless…until he offers her an orchid and moves in for a kiss.  Babs rebuffs his advances rather…decisively, and he storms off.  She follows, not quite sure if this is just natural frustration or something more sinister, and she loses him, only to be grabbed, apparently by the orchid killer himself!

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detective396-26.jpgThis backup ticks right along, but it manages to tell a complete story, so far as it goes, in only 9 pages.  I’m not quite sure what I think of the opening dream sequence.  It does establish a good, creepy tone and a sense of threat about this killer, but I wonder if that page could have been put to more effective use.  Nonetheless, packing all of that story into 9 pages is pretty impressive, and Robins does it very efficiently.  You get some characterization, some supporting cast, some civilian identity, some superheroing, and some detective work.  Not bad.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.

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The Flash #194

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Cover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: John Broome
Penciler: Ross Andru
Inker: Mike Esposito

I really do love the Flash as a character, especially the Barry Allen version.  Yet, reading these Flash comics has routinely been one of the hardest slogs of my grand DC experiment.  It’s strange, I expected to love these comics.  After all, Flash has some of the best villains in the DC Universe, and I am a fan of Barry Allen himself.  I love that he is just a really decent, upright man, all other concerns aside.  He’s the only DC hero other than Hawkman that was a crime-fighter BEFORE he had super powers.  He was a police scientist, already having dedicated his life to protecting people.  It’s a great concept, and the Flash as a character is one as well.  Nonetheless, I routinely found this book to be pretty rough going.  I think it may be the most Silver Age-y book in the DC offerings other than the Superman and Batman titles.  There have been some good stories along the way, and this period has given us a whole Rogue’s Gallery of great villains (and some NOT so great ones *cough*TheTop*cough), but there has also been tons of Silver Age weirdness and general silliness.

Nonetheless, by this point Barry has settled into a pretty enjoyable status quo.  He and Iris are married, and Iris has gone from being occasionally downright insufferable to a genuinely likeable character.  That’s good, because DC love interests in the Silver Age had a hard time of it, often being portrayed as either bat-guano insane or downright mean.  You really had to wonder why the heroes were interested in such ill-tempered or unstable ladies.  It seems to me that a lot of readers hold those portrayals against those characters, but I try to avoid letting bad writing ruin a character for me when they have good potential, and Iris, as an independent career woman in the 60s certainly fits the bill.

This issue is, unfortunately, a weird story from the middle of a run of weird stories.  Remember all of those great villains the Flash has?  Well, don’t expect to see any of them anytime soon.  Instead, we get a dozen issues of random oddness.  This story is an incongruous tale of magic and mysticism that would be a much better fit for the Phantom Stranger than the Scarlet Speedster.  The cover is an interesting one, and you’re really left wondering what the heck is going to happen within this book.  Sadly, the story doesn’t quite live up to that mysterious beginning.  At the start, we find a seemingly confused young lady wandering the darkened streets of Central City, where she encounters the Flash fighting one of those delightful themed gangs that seemed to be all over the place in the Silver Age.  This is one little element of the period that I wished we still saw a bit more of.  This “Owl Gang” have some relatively neat costumes and some distinctive headgear that lets them blind the Wizard of Whiz, but he recovers too quickly for them and rounds them up without much trouble.

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Seriously, there are a bunch of these little themed gangs scattered through the pages of various DC books.  They don’t amount to much, and I am pretty sure 99% of them never make a return appearance, but I like the idea that even the fairly mundane criminals in a world of super-powered beings get in on the fun of costumes and gimmicks.  It makes the setting that much more fun and lively!  I wish that writers had kept these gangs around a bit more, replace some of the generic thugs that populate their pages with recurring appearances by the likes of the Owl Gang, or the Panther Gang from the Atom, etc.  I think that would have been interesting.
flash v1 194 0007.jpgAnyway, this young lady gets a bad fright during the fight and passes out, so the Flash naturally takes her to a hospital where professionals can take care of her and…wait…what?  No, no, no, don’t be silly.  Instead, at Iris’s insistence, he brings her to his home where he can more conveniently endanger his secret identity.  The girl awakes and calls the Scarlet Speedster “Daniel,” giving him a SUPER creepy look in the process.

Barry is naturally weirded out by this, and over the next day things continue to get stranger.  The girl awakes and insists that The Flash, who is still running around his actual house in costume, mind you, is her fiance, Daniel.  Even stranger, Barry begins to see visions of himself as this fellow, circa 100 years ago.  Iris digs up some history and an old photo that marks this Daniel guy as the spitting image of Barry himself.  The Allens begin to suspect that the girl is possessed by a restless spirit (naturally), and feel that their surmise is correct when they discover she has…*gasp* two shadows!flash v1 194 0016.jpg

Flash jumps to the only rational solution.  He has to fake marry the girl.  That’s right.  That’s the first thing he comes up with.  So, they go through with the ceremony, and instead of putting the spirit to rest, it somehow allows her to drag the Fastest Man Alive into some kind of bizarre Limbo along with her!

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This is where the story takes an even stronger term to the weird and where its use as a Flash yarn comes into serious question.  Flash finds himself trapped, besieged by demons, or spirits, or something, but luckily still possessing his super speed.  He attempts to race out of the strange dimension, but finds himself beset by threat after threat, including giant monsters and harpies.  If you’re thinking that it sounds like this mysterious spirit bride seems to drop out of the story, you’d be correct.  She literally just floats away  immediately after they find their way to Limbo…or wherever, making this tale feel even more disjointed.  Eventually Flash RUNS out of the afterlife.  I don’t mean that he vibrates himself to escape the dimension or anything.  I mean that he literally just runs to the edge of…wherever…and falls back into normal life.  Oookay.

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I like all of the crazy dimension-hopping antics of the Flash.  I love the idea that simple SPEED is such a versatile power.  I’m fine with such things, but this weird little episode is a bit much and, as I said, it just feels out of place as a Flash adventure.

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What’s more, this strange ‘afterlife’ he finds himself in is just really vague and boring. aristi Ross Andru does an okay with the weird creatures that inhabit it, but I just can’t help but find myself thinking about how interesting and exciting this same concept would have been if handled by somebody with the imagination of Jack Kirby.  The dimension would have been bursting with potential and personality, and as a reader you’d be left begging to see more of it, as likely as not.  Instead, his place is entirely forgettable, and I’m fairly certain we never see it again.

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This isn’t a BAD story, but it is definitely not a good one.  The action is moderately interesting, but the whole thing just makes such little sense and the limbo-realm is just so uninspired that I think I’ll give this one 2.5 Minutemen.

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Justice League #78

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Cover Artist: Gil Kane
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella

Now here’s one I’m excited about!  This is, by pure happy coincidence, the official beginning of the Satellite Era Justice League!  I didn’t realize that this issue would fall within my purview, but I’m glad it did.  After all, what better way to celebrate the Bronze Age than by chronicling the adventures of its most definitive team?  The Satellite Era Justice League is the group that most clearly encapsulates this period.  That incarnation begins here at the dawn of the the age, and it comes to its sad end just as the Bronze Age itself draws to a close in ’84.  It just so happens that the JLA are my all-time favorite comic team.  A child of the 80s, as any regular reader knows, I grew up watching re-runs of the Super Friends and playing Justice League with my friends.  We all had footie pajamas of our favorite heroes, and we’d put on those silly little Velcro capes and dash about, fighting the Legion of Doom or playing with those awesome Super Powers action figures.

These guys WERE the heroes of my child-hood.  I think I may have been vaguely aware of Spider-Man, Captain America, or the Hulk, but Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, those were the heroes that filled my imaginative hours, long summer days, and halcyon Saturday mornings.  I didn’t read many of the comics at the time, but I absorbed enough about these characters through other media to leave an indelible mark on my imagination.  They became the lens through which I understood the concept of the superhero.  That’s why, even though Super Friends is cringe-worthy for me these days, even though a lot of the classic comics are pretty painfully Silver-Agey at times, I will always have a soft spot for the DC Universe, but especially its heart and soul, the Justice League.

They are the Knights of the Round Table of superheroes, each powerful, noble, and impressive in their own right, but banded together in common cause, to make the world a better place, to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves, and to protect the Earth from threats too big for any one hero.  They are, collectively, what Batman and Superman are individually, the purest expressions of the archetypal nature of the superhero.  The League is like the old pantheons, powerful titans and godly figures of might, each presiding over their own demesne of skill and elemental purview.  Though an odd assortment, it has always seemed to me that they make a more coherent team than the Avengers.  I suppose that says something about the relatively uniform aesthetic of the core DC heroes.

Unfortunately, their stories have often not lived up to the quality of the concept.  I have regularly wondered how the Justice League book survived after Marvel started competing directly with their Avengers.  On average, the Avengers stories in the Silver Age were just so vastly better, you really have to wonder why folks stuck with the JLA.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the book endured, but it boggles the mind to think about.  And of course, just like Aquaman, this lack stellar storytelling in the critical Silver Age has been a weakness for the team going forward.  Whereas the Avengers ended up with a lot of great villains and concepts produced by that most fertile era, the League has always struggled for villains and challenges that really can serve as interesting threats for them.  The period that saw Kang the Conqueror fight the Avengers also saw the League facing off against the likes of Brain Storm and Kanjar Ro, not exactly winners.  Of course, I’m comparing hits with misses, but I think you get my point.  There were some great villains introduced in this era, but this has always been one of the weak points of the League, something Bruce Timm and company struggled with when creating their amazing Justice League Animated Series.

While I think it may continue to be the case that the concept of the League is stronger than the stories they produce in the Bronze Age, at least here the tide begins to turn, and we get some really excellent stories.  In general, the quality of stories does improve, and even more significantly, the team takes on the shape, themes, and challenges that will define it for the rest of its history.

This story brings us about midway into Denny O’Neil’s justly famous JLA run.  O’Neil took over after Gardner Fox’s decade-long and legendary time on the book, and with him came big changes.  He introduced new members, wrote out old ones, and gave the League their definitive Satellite headquarters.  O’Neil updated the team and did a lot of good work in these issues.  The Satellite and the introduction of Black Canary are both great additions to the mythos, but he also did some things that I’ll always regret.  He wrote out the Martian Manhunter, who at this point has headed to another world to help his people colonize it.  The League without its soul, J’onn J’onzz is like a church without a choir.  You can do it, but something’s missing.  It’s a particular shame that, just as the DC staple of heroes begin to get some good characterization, to realize the potential that they have, the Manhunter from Mars is removed from the game.

Anyway, this is the tale, as you can probably guess from the cover, that gives us the Justice League satellite, an excellent addition to the mythos that really fits the League perfectly.  Our story begins with the Emerald Archer patrolling around Star City when he hears gunshots and rushes to the aid of an embattled security guard who is involved in a shootout with some thugs.

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Rather, GA INTENDED to help the guard, but the fellow seems to need no help at all!  In a display of sharpshooting and daring do, he disarms the thugs without breaking a sweat.  It’s an impressive deed, and it hints at the mysterious man’s identity!  Green Arrow attempts to shed some light on the situation with a flare arrow, but in a shocking turn, the flare sets the river alight!  This leads us to a rather nice title page.

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Ollie calls in the League in a rare moment of self-awareness and wisdom, realizing that this blazing inferno is too much for him to handle.  Superman and Green Lantern respond and quickly have the fire under control.  The Leaguers head off to their fancy new satellite headquarters, and GA gets quite a surprise when they toss him in a teleport tube and flip the switch.  We get our first view of the satellite, orbiting “about 22,3000 miles above the United States.”  We also get a small but nifty diagram of the layout.  I enjoy things like this.  I used to spend hours pouring over base layouts and the like, imagining all of the cool gear and secrets that would fill, say, the Turtle Lair.

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The real star of the issue

JLA078-10 The Coming of The Doomsters.jpgWe join that security guard, who seems to be more than meets the eye.  No, he’s not a transformer, but the way he ducks the hoodlums who come gunning for him implies that he’s got some skills.  Apparently he’s being hunted, and he feels his only hope is the Justice League!  He reads about the League making a charity appearance, and he figures that is his chance.  This page also gives us a pick-up line delivered by Green Arrow with a creepy and altogether too intense look on his face.  Way to play it cool, Ollie.  At the event, just as the new Leaguer, Black Canary, is being introduced, this unusual guard forces his way through the crowd, assassins hot on his heels.  The League leaps into action in a rather nice display of their collective skills and teamwork, and the guard reveals his identity and his story.

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It seems that lowly security guard Greg Sanders is actually the costumed western hero, Vigilante!  Or rather, he used to be.  He confesses that he ‘got weary, decided to retire,” which is an extremely unsatisfying answer to how the famous Prairie Troubadour ended up working as a low-rent security guard in Star City!  However, there is just enough wistfulness mixed with determination in those two panels to sell the idea that there is a great deal more to the story that we simply aren’t privy to.

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The tale Sanders tells about his troubles is that he was working at a factory and became suspicious of its activities, eventually doing some snooping and discovering that the place seems to exist ONLY to manufacture pollution, nothing else, thus explaining the flammable river.  He stole some documents which he shares with the League, and they do what they do best…split into teams and investigate!

JLA078-19 The Coming of The Doomsters - Copy.jpgThe more street-level characters head out to investigate the factory, while Superman and GL head out to investigate the location on a star map discovered in the papers.  Green Arrow, being Green Arrow, tells everybody else that he’s got his own plans.  He marches into city hall and gives the assistant city manager an earfull.  In an agressive verbal boxing match, the two yell at each other, with Ollie saying things that may have been a bit shocking in 1970 but seem utterly mundane now, basically that we should probably not poison ourselves or our environment for a buck.  He deploys his usual diplomatic subtlety, insulting the official and screaming in his face.  The manager is having none of it and has the masked hero arrested!

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Meanwhile, the Vigilante rides again, and apparently catches Black Canary’s eye (see Ollie, this is what happens when you over play your hand!) while Superman and GL discover a dead world that was once teeming with life!  Team-Earth is jumped by some more of the trench-coated thugs and make short work of them until a shadowy figure disables them with booby trapped weapons!

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The issue ends with our heroes suspended above a “vat of bubbling, noxious…death!”

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This issue also contains a little four page backup about a scientist who destroys all of his equipment after seeing a future destroyed by…SCIENCE!  It’s a fine story for what it is, originally published in Mystery in Space #6.

I read this JLA issue some years ago, but I didn’t really remember it very clearly.  I went into this read thinking that the issue was nothing special, but I have to say that I have been very pleasantly surprised.  It’s a good, solid Justice League adventure, with some good action beats, a mystery, and a few spots of characterization.  All of the Leaguers get a little something to do, though the story really centers around GA and Vigilante, and splitting the team the way O’Neill did makes sure the stronger Leaguers don’t overshadow the weaker.  It’s really great to see Vigilante get in on the action.  I rather like the character, and I especially loved the friendship between him and Shinning Knight that was explored in the Justice League animated series.  Speaking of that, I enjoy that they adapted the broad strokes of Green Arrow’s introduction to the satellite from this issue for his induction into the League in the show.  That’s a nice little detail.  While it’s great to see Vigilante get back into costume, I have to say, it’s a little distracting to see the smiling, Silver Age-ish Batman standing next to him, especially considering the sleek, dramatic, and classic Batman we’ve been getting in the Bat-books this month and last.  That’s neither here nor there, though.

So, all-in-all, this is an above average Justice League adventure, well balanced, well-paced, and interesting.  I give it 4 Minutemen out of 5.  We’ll have to wait and see if the other half of this story lives up to the beginning!

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P.S.: I just discovered that the river fire in this book must have been a reference to a contemporary event!  In June of 1969, the terribly polluted Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire and blazed away, doing $100,000 of damage.  The incident was immortalized on the cover of Time Magazine, drawing national attention and helping to spark the beginning of the environmentalist movement.  This story was in the headlines when Denny O’Neil would have been writing JLA #78, and there is little doubt that it must have been the inspiration for this particular comic.  That’s a fascinating sign of the rising social consciousness in comics, and it puts the environmental overtones of this story in a very different light.

Closing Thoughts:

Well, I think that, in order for these posts not to stew for months at a time, I’ll post them in chunks.  I tend to write an entry a day or so, but there are a lot of entries to each month, and I end up sitting on a lot of content for weeks that way.  I think I’ll break it into two, maybe even three or four, posts that can get content out more frequently.  After all, this is a LOT of material, so breaking it up is probably not a bad idea.  The last post of each month’s collection will contain my general reflections and notes.  If readers have any preferences for how they’d like me to cover each month, I’d be more than happy to listen.

And, as promised, I’m starting a new, running feature that will be updated with each post.  Introducing-

The Head-Blow Headcount:

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Aquaman Primer

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This is a short introduction to Aquaman, a great but underrated character, complete with a few recommendations for some of his better stories and some tips about other fun things to check out.  Below you’ll find some general information, a summary of his powers and abilities, a list of the recommended comics (with some reading advice for comic newcomers), as well as a short publication history.

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Yes, that is Aquaman throwing a polar bear at some bad guys.  You’re welcome.

The Basics:

The concept behind Aquaman is an awesome one.  He embodies one of man’s oldest and most enduring fantasies, to be totally at home under water.  We can swim around in the ocean a little way, maybe cross it in a boat here and there, where we are totally at the mercy of the weather and utterly helpless against its fury, but we are, in the end, out of our element.  Here, on our own planet, we are pretty much locked out of 75% of what we call “our” world.  Yes, we can peak into it with a SCUBA tank, or go a little deeper wrapped up in a metal shell, but these endeavors are always dangerous.  Yet, Aquaman is free from all of these constraints. Not only can he breathe under water, which is, in and of itself pretty darn cool, but he is the ultimate master of his realm in a way that surpasses even our mastery of the surface world.  He can travel to any depth, explore every oceanic mystery, and tread in places man has never even dreamed of.  All of this, and he can also command everything that lives and breathes beneath the sea.  If you can’t imagine that being cool, then obviously you’ve let the world beat too much of the imagination out of you!

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Aquaman’s wonderfully mythic origin as told by the incomparable Alex Ross


The Powers:

One of the biggest “PR” problems Aquaman faces is the perception that he’s useless out of the water and has silly powers, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Of course Aquaman is particularly well suited to operating underwater, but he’s just as capable above the waves as he is below them.  He also sports an impressive slate of powers.  He’s much more than just a guy who “talks to fish”!  His powers include:


aquaman building.jpgSuper Strength:
Have you ever tried to throw a punch under water?  It’s nearly impossible to put any force behind it because the water resistance is so strong.  Now, imagine how strong you’d have to be to do something like punch a hole in a steel submarine hull, all while fighting that same resistance!  Believe it or not, Aquaman did just that in his very first appearance, and while his strength has been portrayed unevenly over the years, there’s little doubt that Aquaman is extremely strong, so strong that he could throw your car over your house!

 

 

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Super Speed: Aquaman is also incredibly fast, especially in the water.  He can swim 20,000 fps.  That’s FEET per second, just so we’re clear, here.  That’s around the speed of a jet fighter, and while he doesn’t normally zip around on land like the Flash, he is capable of moving very quickly, so fast that he can dodge machinegun fire and catch rockets out of the air.

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Toughness: The deepest, darkest depths of the ocean boasts a pressure of 15,000 psi, or over 1000 times that of the regular atmosphere.  That’s enough to crush the hull of any submarine and turn a man into jelly, but Aquaman is quite at home in such conditions, making him incredibly durable.  In fact, he’s almost bullet proof, and he is tough enough to trade punches with Superman.

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Marine Telepathy: Aquaman must have one of the most powerful minds in the DC Universe.  He can control everything that lives in the sea, and his thoughts can travel the length and breadth of oceans.  That’s an important distinction too, he doesn’t “talk” to fish, he commands them, completely and utterly.  From the largest whale to the tiniest microorganism, Aquaman rules them all.  While he is a bit more accommodating to the higher mammals, he’s still the boss.  In fact, most folks don’t know this, but Aquaman is also able to affect humans by targeting the parts of their brains inherited from their amphibious ancestors.

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The Problem:

aquamansuperfirends.jpgSo, the natural question becomes, where does all the Aqua-hate come from?  Why has this stuck so long? Two words: Super Friends. Super Friends was a cartoon show from the 1970s that featured much of the DC Universe, and many of us grew up watching it.  That’s how I got introduced to all of these characters, and as a kid, I loved it.  These days, on the other hand, watching it is akin to repeated cranial trauma.  This show crippled Aquaman. They didn’t know what to do with him because they didn’t understand the character, and DC never stepped in and said, “hey wait, this guy can do a lot more than talk to fish!” So, many episodes had our fair-haired hero standing around rather uselessly or getting captured to further the plot.  See, that’s Aquaman’s real problem, not a lack of power, or even a lack of talent on his book (for the most part), but bad management.

DC has spent the last 35 years pretty much trying to drive what was once one of their most successful properties into the ground. It isn’t clear exactly why it started, but it likely had to do with the focus on the Big Three (Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman) during the lean years of the 80’s.  Eventually though, the kids who grew up watching Aquaman’s awful portrayal on Super Friends found themselves running the company. Aquamansalute.gif
Instead of realizing that DC had made a mistake back then and damaged one of their characters in the process, they compounded the error. They have, until recently, regarded him as a lame duck, despite various successes achieved with Aquaman over this same time period.  Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning (I couldn’t help myself!).  The last few years have seen a much better team and a much better take on Aquaman’s book, as well as powerful and positive portrayals in other media.  The great popularity of Aquaman in Batman: The Brave and Bold is already creating a new generation of kids for whom the King of the Sea is awesome.

The Comics:

Aquaman_Vol_1_35.jpgIncluded with this document is a broad sampling of a few of Aquaman’s better stories from across the years.  I’ve incorporated stories from each of the major periods of comic history, and form most of the Sea King’s major interpretations, though there is certainly some personal bias present in the choices!  You can read the various selections in any order, though within each era there are story arcs that should be read together.  Beware that the various eras are not to everyone’s tastes, so don’t hold a story’s contexts against it.  These are just a few of the many wonderful stories written about this character, so if you enjoy them, seek out the rest and give them a chance!

aquacover05.jpgThe Silver Age: The Silver Age in comics was the second great period of superhero characters, stretching  from the late 1950s through the early-to-mid 70s, depending on who you ask.  This era was defined by its constraints, as the resurgence in popularity that the genre enjoyed came at a cost.  Increased censorship meant that the more mature stories of the golden age, popular among adults and kids alike, were replaced by more kid friendly elements, and grim avengers became cheerful champions of justice, duly deputized and friendly with the authorities.  The result was imaginative but shallow and often silly stories on the one hand, but on the other hand, this period also created a non-leathal heroic ethos that has continued to shape American ideals to the current day.  The character and concepts from this period, despite their often juvenile nature, are still often the most recognized and influential versions.

Recommended: Aquaman’s Silver Age origin and the introduction of his young sidekick in the long running backup strip in Adventure Comics and three fun, not-too-silly adventures from his solo title. (Adventure Comics 260 & 269; Aquaman vol. 1 20, 26, & 36)

aquab6.jpgThe Bronze Age: The Bronze Age of comics was the next stage in the evolution of the genre, running somewhere between 1970 and the mid-80s. It is helpful to think of this as the college years of comics.  They’re beginning to grow up, but they can still be a bit childish at times.  In this era, creators started telling more complex and mature stories.  There were attempts at social relevance and the handling (though often ham-handed) of real-world issues like drug use and poverty.  In general, this is my favorite era, producing the best stories for my money, and yet maintaining a certain purity of heroic ideal that is lost in later years.  At this point, heroes are still heroes, and they live moral lives, holding to high ideals.  This period saw a short but influential and wildly popular run of Aquaman comics featuring the creative team of Steve Skeates, writer, Jim Aparo, artist, and Dick Giordano, editor (SAG).

Recommended: The most famous arc from the SAG (see above) run on the Aquaman, a story that is uneven at points, but illustrates both the age and the character well. (Aquaman vol. 1 40-48)

Aquaman15.jpegThe Iron Age: The current era of comics, what I call the Iron Age in keeping with the metaphor, has no agreed upon name. This period, running from the mid-80s to today is marked by darker, more “mature” stories, where maturity is eventually replaced by sex and violence and the obsession with ‘grim and gritty’ stories largely succeeds in stamping out the joy and adventure that has characterized the genre over most of its history.  In Aquaman’s own stories, this is illustrated by the murder of his son by his greatest villain, losing his hand, his wife going insane, and many more laugh-a-minute tales.  These stories happened early on in this era, and they marked the character, crippling him because writers didn’t know what to do with a hero with a murdered son, et cetra.  Eventually, this lead to the modern version of the character becoming an angry, hot-headed jerk instead of the heroic adventurer who had come before.  Despite that, there have been some good stories come out of this era.  In fact, the biggest tragedy of this shift in creative values is that there are wonderful ideas still in play, but they are often dragged down by the oppressive weight of the period’s love of ‘grim and gritty.’

Recently Aquaman has gotten another reinvention that has taken him back to his classic roots in many ways. As part of the New 52, the company wide reboot of the DC Universe, very popular writer Geoff Johns relaunched the Sea King. Fortunately, Aquaman’s share in this experiment has been one of the high points. Johns’ run on the character, though not without its flaws, began what is almost certainly one of the best eras of my favorite aquatic adventurer.  These stories have presented Aquaman in an impressive, heroic light, and the art is also simply amazing in its own right.  While DC has recently struck yet again, replacing the immensely popular team on the book and taking Aquaman in ANOTHER ‘bold new direction’ that no-one wanted, it seems that the damage will be short lived, and this iteration of the Sea King is still likely to prove one of the best yet.

Recommended: There are a few stories from a very promising but uneven run from the 00s where San Diego was sunk beneath the oceans by a massive earthquake, and many of its inhabitants became water-breathers through mysterious means. One involves a nice overview of the character, while a few others are more straightforward adventures.  I’m also throwing in the beginning of Geoff Johns run, which is good, while the art is amazing.  These stories are only the beginning. (Aquaman vol. 4 14, 22, 32, &39; Aquaman vol. 5 1-5; 26 & 27; and 35-40)

 

Television:

JLUpromo.jpgJustice League (Unlimited): This is one of the greatest superhero shows of all time, and, as with the other shows by its creator, Bruce Timm, it took in the cannon of the comics and made something that is more than the sum of its parts. You should watch the entire thing just because it’s amazing.  In general, the show is routinely even better than its source material, but their version of Aquaman is an exception.  He is great in action, powerful, dynamic, and exciting, but his characterization is drawn from the worst version of Aquaman.  He’s a hot-headed, ill-tempered jerk.  Still, there are several episodes that are impressive, and they certainly show Aquaman as extraordinary and interesting.

“The Enemy Below”: Intrigue in Atlantis brings Aquaman into conflict with the League. The episode is good, but the best part is the hero’s dedication to his family, a staple of the character.

“The Terror Beyond”: This is an epic mystical story, a genre that fits Aquaman rather well. He is very impressive in this episode, taking on tanks, monsters, and everything in between.

“Ultimatum”: This is a great all around episode, especially if, like me, you grew up watching the terrible Super Friends There are a number of references to it throughout.

 

Final Thoughts:

I hope that this look at Aquaman has proven interesting.  Despite years of bad luck and a publisher that seems to hate him, the character endures.  In fact, these days he seems to be thriving, with a major movie deal and a very successful comic run.  You can’t keep a good character down, and there is something about the half-atlantian, half-human hero that resonates with readers.  There’s something archetypal about the hero torn between two worlds, and it seems that he’s not going anywhere.  Enjoy the recommended stories and try to see the King of the Seven Seas with new eyes!

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Into the Bronze Age

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Hello readers and internet travelers!  As folks familiar with my work and site likely know, I’m hip-deep (neck-deep?) in a doctoral program, and I find myself with very little time these days for Freedom Force projects.  I have no intention of abandoning the greatest superhero game of all time, but I thought that I might use my site for something a little different until I have more FF content ready for it.  I recently started a little personal project in my rare free moments.  To take a break from medieval texts and teaching, I’ve been reading through a broad range of DC comics from the Silver and Bronze Ages.  As my DC Universe According to Grey mod amply demonstrates, I have a deep and abiding love of the DC Universe, especially as it existed during the Bronze Age, which, despite having plenty of flaws, is for my money, the best, purest, most heroic, and most joyful incarnation of those characters and settings.

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I’ve read through a lot of the Silver Age stories of most of DC’s major characters, and I’ve read through a few of the major books of the Bronze Age like JLA, but until now I’ve never read the bulk of DC’s books over this period.

As I’ve been reading these stories, I’ve been attempting to cast a wide net and get a sense for the development of the DC Universe as a whole and the evolution of the Bronze Age itself.  I’ve been noticing some pretty fascinating trends, and it occurred to me that other folks might find my little project interesting as well.  To that end, I’m going to start a new, semi-regular feature on the Greylands.  Every few weeks (maybe once a month or so), I’ll post a round-up of my thoughts concerning a wide selection of DC books from a particular month and year in the Bronze Age (for my purposes, roughly considered to be between 1970 and 1985).  I won’t be reading everything DC published every month, but I’ll be reading a lot of it.

If you think this sounds interesting, I invite you to join me in my quest for the elusive character of the Bronze Age.

First, a word about what I’ll be covering and what I WON’T be covering.  I’ll be reading most of the straight-up superhero books published by DC during this time, with a few notable exceptions.  I won’t be reading through Wonder Woman, as her solo adventures have never interested me much, though I am fond of her as part of the League.  Also on the cutting room floor are Superman’s supporting books like Jimmy Olsen (until Kirby takes over) and Lois Lane.  I’ll be reading the occasional alternative, non-superhero book as the mood grabs me.  I won’t be reading most of the western, war,  or romance books, but I’m going to try to get through everything that piques my interest and is part of the DC Universe proper.  If it showed up in Who’s Who, I’ll at least consider reading it (I’ve been inspired to do this partially by the Fire and Water Podcast’s Who’s Who feature).  I’m navigating by interest, so there will be things I’ll be skipping, but I’ll also be aiming for comprehensiveness.

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I’m also going to do a semi-regular extra feature, spotlighting something neat I’ve uncovered on my march through DC that lies outside the borders of my little project here, so every issue or so I’ll include a discussion about a series or character from before or after the period I’m covering.

To start this week, I’ll begin with January 1970:

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

  • Action Comics #384
  • Brave and the Bold #87
  • Challengers of the Unknown #71
  • Detective Comics #395
  • G.I. Combat #139
  • Green Lantern #74
  • Superman #222

For the sake of my sanity, I’m skipping Adventure Comics until Supergirl gets a bit less Silver-Age-y.  I’m also skipping Metal Men #41, as it is the last original issue of the series, which seems like a poor place to start.

Now, without further ado, let’s begin our maiden voyage into the Bronze Age!

Action Comics #384

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Cover Artists: Curt Swan, Murphy Anderson
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Roussos
Editor: Mort Weisinger

I’m not a huge Superman fan.  I suppose I should confess that straight away.  Whenever he and Batman fought in the comics, I was always cheering for the Dark Knight.  I certainly identified more with the tortured, conflicted, and complicated Caped Crusader than I did with the bright, cheerful, and seemingly perfect Man of Steel when I was an angsty teenager with nothing to be terribly angsty about.  But, with luck, we all grow up.  I have a lot more appreciation for Superman these days, and even though he’ll never be the character I most enjoy reading about, I love his role in the DC Universe and the positive, heroic ideals he represents.  The core of his character, the concept that a man can choose to do right and live selflessly, even when it would be the easiest thing in the world to do otherwise, is a great message, one far too often forgotten in our relativistic, cynical world.  It’s as relevant today as it was in the Depression, if not more so.  Those hard times brought people together, whereas these hard times seem to drive us further and further apart.  These truths are precisely what Man of Steel and (as far as can be determined) the upcoming Batman V. Superman movie don’t seem to comprehend.

But that’s a rant for another day; we’re here to talk about comics!  So, as I said, I’m not the biggest Superman fan, and the stories I do like generally are Post Crisis (a rare exception for me).  I enjoyed the Man of Steel Byrne reboot, and I’ve read several Superman TPBs that I’ve really enjoyed.  I have an exceptionally low tolerance for Silver Age Superman stories, though.  In my opinion they tend to be the most Silver Age-y of all Silver Age comics.  They are goofy, childish, and bizarre in the extreme, with the rainbow kryptonite and the far too literal take on the concept of invulnerability generally making me want to dig my eyes out with salad forks.  I’m not much of a fan, is what I’m saying.

I have heard that Bronze Age Superman gets something of a soft reboot that leads to some good stories with the ‘Kryptonite No More’ storyline, but we aren’t there yet, and this particular tale is definitely full of Silver Age goodness.  It isn’t half bad as such things go, though it is a standard comic of the era where things happen at the speed of plot.

Two strange uniforms, glowing with eerie energy, show up at Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, begging to be put on by the Man of Tomorrow.  That would be pretty odd in most tales, but I have to imagine it’s just a Thursday in the context of the crazy stuff that the Silver Age Superman gets up to.  Anyway, it seems these two uniforms belong to two aliens, one a prisoner, the other a policeman, who died on-board a spaceship while locked in combat.  Their uniforms were doused with energy and preserved their minds…or something.  I think I’m already putting more thought into this concept than writer Carey Bates did.  To be brief, which is surprisingly difficult when giving a synopsis of a Silver Age story like this, which has tons packed into it, the evil prisoner’s uniform forces Superman to don it by…basically just asking in front of Perry White.  Perry, who apparently isn’t all that concerned with his employees’ wellbeing, orders Clark Kent to put on the strange, glowing alien costume.  Great Ceaser’s ghost!  I’m pretty sure that’s an OSHA violation!

action-384-07-06Predictably, the uniform controls Superman and tries to make him do evil, but the Man of Steel is more than a match for any mere suit of clothes, and outwits the outfit by seeming to go along with the evil plans, all while setting up the acts so they can be countered by his allies.  That really is a nice little piece of planning on Clark’s part, and it reminds the reader that Superman has brains as well as brawn.  Yet, all that (seeming) evil-doing lands Superman in Dutch with the authorities, and just when things look bad for him, he’s rescued by a flying Perry White in the other costume!  ‘Thanks Perry, but I’m still reporting you…’action-384-14-11

Supes eventually puts on the other uniform on top of the evil one and is able to free himself enough to fly into the sun, burning both into ashes.  We’re treated to the two…what are they, ghosts?  Mental impressions?  Really persistent and aggressive stains?  Well, whatever they are, the two uniforms burn away, and we come back to find Perry White in his skivvies.  Yikes!

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This was a fair Silver Age-ish story, nothing particularly memorable or interesting, but not nearly as weird or goofy as you might find in such settings.  I enjoyed it pretty well, and I’d give it an average score of 3 Minutemen.

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At this time, Action Comics is also running a Legion of Superheroes backup feature, and this was the standout for me.  It was an entirely conventional Legion story, with one Legionnaire being prophesied to die in the opening pages and what could kindly be called a ‘twist,’ but more accurately dubbed a ‘cheat,’ revealed to have survived at the very end.  Replace ‘prophesied to die’ with ‘accused of being a traitor,’ and it is just like a number of Legion stories I’ve read.  In general, I like the Legion, but it never grabbed me the way it has some folks.  Once again, this is a concept that has grown on me as I have gotten older, as I enjoy what it says about the grand sweep of the DC Universe, the hopeful optimism about science and human nature.  It’s an optimism I think completely unjustified, but it’s charming nonetheless!

action-384-20-02Despite this particular story being entirely by the numbers, it has a few nice little moments that made it stick in my mind.  The doomed Legionnaire in this particular tale is Mon-El, who Dream Girl, well, dreams about.  She sees his death, vaguely but certainly.  Unfortunately, it seems that Dream Girl’s visions always come true, and there is no way to prevent this tragedy.  We get a couple of nice pages of Mon-El coming to terms with his fate, including my favorite panel of the book.  In it, we see Mon contemplate one of his last sunrises.  action-384-22-04It’s a nice, quiet little moment that really adds to Mon’s characterization, illuminating his heroism, as he faces his death, but also a human side to him.  It’s small, but significant for a Silver Age-ish book like this.  After all, it isn’t all that often that a superhero at this time seriously considered his or her mortality, especially in DC, so it is nice to see how doing so makes Mon all the more aware of the little things in his life, all while bravely soldiering on and continuing to do his duty.

His home planet of Daxam offers to hide him away and guard him with their entire army (!), which is quite an offer, but Mon is not one to hide and refuses.  This leads us to the cheat that leaves both Dream Girl correct and Mon-El alive at the end of the issue.  Another Daxamite knocks Mon out and switches places with him, dying in his place, but not really, because his incompetence almost kills Mon anyway, and he gives his life to save his idol rather than by facing the danger they feared (an alien invasion defeated in a single panel).

It’s a good, quick story, even with the stock plot and deus ex machina.  There’s just enough heart and charm here to raise it above common quality.  I give it three Minutemen.

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Brave and the Bold #87

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Cover Artists: Mike Sekowsky, Dick Giordano
Writer: Mike Sekowsky
Penciler: Mike Sekowsky
Inker: Dick Giordano
Editor: Murray Boltinoff

Man, The Brave and the Bold…what a series.  This comic was almost exclusively written by Bob Haney, or as he is popularly known, Zany Haney!  Bob Haney seems to either be beloved or hated.  He wrote incredibly imaginative and, let’s face it, zany, stories that cheerfully ignored any and all previously established continuity and characterization.  It was entirely common to find characters acting in an entirely uncharacteristic fashion, meeting old friends never before or after mentioned, or suddenly finding themselves having relatives that have totally always been there, shut-up!  His stories represent the best and worst things about the Silver Age.  They are often silly and irrational, but they are also creative in the extreme, often tossing out concepts with the same speed and frequency as even the mighty team of Stan and Jack.  However, unlike Lee and Kirby, Haney’s great weakness, other than his seeming allergy to logical consistency and causality, is his lack of interest in recalling potentially successful concepts.  Everything is a one-shot in his books, for the most part.  Even good ideas almost never have a return engagement.  That’s a particular problem in Aquaman and part of the reason that the Silver Age, which produced the majority of the best villains, left that particular hero with a shallow rogue’s gallery, despite having lots of one-shot villains with potential.

I don’t have the unabashed love for Zany Haney that folks like Rob Kelly and the Irredeemable Shag of the Fire and Water Podcast evince, but I do often enjoy his stories now that I’ve acquired a bit more patience for Silver Age flavored tales, and ALL of his work is Silver Age-ish, even well into the Bronze Age.

This particular yarn is no exception, and it represents the strengths of Haney’s style.  It is packed to the gills with action, but it is actually positively restrained in terms of the number of concepts it throws at the reader.  The story opens with Diana Prince and her companion I Ching (of course) in Europe taking in the sights of a combination fashion show and auto race…because such things happen all the time, no doubt.

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This is the late 60s, Kung-Fu, white jumpsuit Wonder Woman, an incarnation of the character that I really don’t care for.  The idea of stripping away all of her powers and mythic trappings makes her much less interesting and turns her into a second string Black Canary.  I think I prefer the character with deep roots in myth and magic.  Nonetheless, I have to say that Haney does a good job with her, giving Diana Prince just enough fresh-faced naivete for someone who is adjusting to a new way of life, all while moving through the plot at break-neck speed.  Still, all things considered, Black Canary would have been a much better fit for this particular plot.

The story itself is about a race in which Bruce Wayne is competing against a sinister German fellow who goes by the name of ‘Widowmaker’!  How very ominous!

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Widowmaker, A.K.A. Willi Van Dornt doesn’t like the competition from Wayne, so he tries to sabotage his racer, which leads to a nice scene where Bruce Wayne discovers them and starts to crack some heads, only to be discovered by Wonder Woman.  This means Bruce has to take a dive, which he does, all while using his training and skill to avoid taking any real punishment.

It’s a nice little detail, that Batman is so good that he can fake a loss and stay in control.  Of course, if Wonder Woman is the warrior she should be, or even the martial artist she’s supposed to be here, she should be able to see through such a ruse.  Nonetheless, it makes for a fun few pages.  Bruce gets a bit banged up, and the real meat of the story begins as he pretends that he’s convinced Batman to race for him as a cover.  There’s some added backstory of this murderous racer being the son of a villain Batman had faced in the past, but that doesn’t amount to much.

brave and the bold 087 023Wonder Woman runs interference against Willi’s minions who try to ambush Batman’s car along the track, while Bruce pits his skill against Widowmaker’s dirty tricks.  It’s a really nice, exciting, quick-moving tale, shifting back and forth between the different perils the heroes face with much the same energy as an actual race.  The pacing is very good, and the series of challenges the heroes face is interesting.  I’m particularly fond of the ending, which involves Willi being hoisted on his own petard as his henchman springs one of his own traps on his boss.  Seconds later, Batman’s beaten, battered racer limps across the finish line.  It’s a little bit of poetic justice, and it is a good payoff for the tension of the race.

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One other little point, this comic also included a text piece about the previous heroes of the Brave and the Bold book, including the likes of the Golden Gladiator, Robin Hood, the Viking Prince, Cave Carson, and the Silent Knight.  It includes short blurbs about some of their biggest adventures and poses the question about who is the greatest hero.  For my money, it is definitely the Viking Prince, but it is neat to see these guys mentioned again, and it makes me a little sad that their features have all faded into obscurity by this point.

Well, I give this not-all-that-zany tale 4 Minutemen out of 5.  It really is a fun story, and pretty well told, even if there isn’t a whole lot to it.

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Challengers of the Unknown #71

Challengers_of_the_Unknown_Vol_1_71.jpgCover Artist: Nick Cardy
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Jack Sparling
Inker: Frank Giacoia
Editor: Murray Boltinoff

This Challenger’s story  is the fourth in a set of connected tales, so I went back and read the previous entries in this arc before I got to it.  It seems clear that, here at the end of the run, the writer, Denny O’Neil seems to have been trying to shake things up.  The first story in this arc saw the brainy quarter of the Challengers get ‘possessed’ by an evil computer (don’t ask), and the second saw him seemingly mortally wounded.  They lost no time replacing poor Prof. with a random lady, in fact, the daughter of the evil genius who tried to kill him.  All of this coincides with a change in costume.  It seems clear that this series was on its last legs, which is a shame, because they were really onto something good with these changes.  In fact, this series would only last three more issues before the book was relegated to a reprint feature.

This story picks up where the last issue left off.  In the previous issue, the Challengers, fleeing from your average remote castle stronghold of your average madCountMcFacialHair.jpg scientist (in this instance with a super awesome old-timey mustache and chops, plus a sweet cape) stumble upon a plot by spore aliens (because of course) who want to conquer the earth.  They defeated the chief alien and his hillbilly cultists (nope, not kidding), and thisChallengers_70_18 issue opens with them stumbling into a small town, which the escaping spore alien has taken over (with the aid of a witch!).  The townspeople are forced to serve spore-y, and the Challengers, battered by their previous day’s adventures and on their last legs, are Challengers_70_17defeated and captured, only to be freed by Red’s little brother (and apparently a singing sensation?), Tino.  Apparently a bit has changed between the original issues I read and this point in the series.

Whew!  I didn’t intend for my recap to be that long!  O’Neil really packs a ton into this issue (and the previous ones as well), and you really feel the Challengers’ exhaustion and desperation during their final stand.  I do feel like poor Prof. got the short end of the stick here, but this issue ends with him making it to the hospital and getting medical help, soChallengers_71_03.jpgthe door was open to bring him back.  The new addition, Corinna seems fine, though she doesn’t have much personality.  She’s also disturbingly okay with the murder of her father.  ‘He’s evil, oh well’ seems to be about the extent of her mourning.  I’d keep an eye on her, Challengers.  Chances are, she’s a sociopath.

Yet, whatever she lacks in emotional depth, Corinna (what kind of a name is that?) makes up for by adding a nice little wrinkle to the Challengers’ dynamic.  She sets up an interesting conflict between Red and Rocky, with the acrobat constantly putting her down and generally being a jerk to her while Rocky moons like a love-struck schoolboy.  Interestingly enough, Corinna seems to only have eyes for Red, which says some rather disturbing things about her views on relationships.  Then again, her father was an abusive megalomaniac.  Sorry Rock, nice guys finish last and chicks dig jerks, apparently.

This shift in story tactics by O’Neil is an interesting one.  It adds some good characterization to the Challengers who, for most of their history, have been pretty one note.  It’s good to see these guys get some development, especially Rocky, who is more than just the generic strong man as he silently fumes over Red’s treatment of Corinna and laments his own lack of luck.  This was a wild but solid story, providing you don’t think too deeply about rapid change in plots.  There’s little denying it is fun, and the art is wonderfully atmospheric, beautifully creepy and well-suited for the tale.  The artist, Jack Sparling, does a great job of giving each of the Chals a unique face, which really adds to their individuality and characterization.

In general, this was a good example of a solid, exciting Bronze Age story.  It isn’t high art, but it’s the type of action-packed, not too ridiculous (for a comic) yarn that marks this era of evolving storytelling.  I’d give it 3 Minutemen out of 5.

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Detective Comics #395

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Cover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Dick Giordano
Editor: Julius Schwartz

For my money, I’d say Batman is probably the easiest comics hero to write, as he has a very strong setting, a great supporting cast, and the best villains in comics history.  He’s had, arguably, the most consistently high-quality runs of any mainstream character.  He and Superman are two of the purest, most archetypal, and most influential characters in comics history.  There’s a reason, or rather many, that Batman has had such enduring popularity, and one of the main ones is that Batman embodies the mythic elements that are inherent in the concept of the superhero. I suppose, then, that there is no suprise that Batman has always been one of my favorite characters, all the way back to the campy Adam West show and its cartoon counterpart.  As a kid, I loved those corny, goofy shows, and now my young nieces and nephews love them as well.  It’s clear that those shows and that tone (recaptured to a certain degree in the Batman: Brave and Bold show) are perfect for kids, however much they may gall adults.

batman-1When I got a bit older, I discovered the best of all Bat-worlds, Batman: The Animated Series, the greatest superhero show of all time.  That is, for my money, the best version of Batman, and Bruce Timm and co. made very intentional efforts to create a show that was the distillation of all that was best in Bat-history.  Many of the themes and concepts that were combined into TAS have their origins in the original incarnation of Batman in the Golden Age, but it is here, in the Bronze Age, where they make their return and the ‘real’ Batman that most of us think of actually comes into his own.

We’re not at the absolute beginning of this trend, but we’re not all that far off.  This period would see several definitive runs that reshaped Batman for the coming decades.  It is at this point that the campy Batman of the 60s fades and the shadowy Dark Knight Detective takes center stage thanks to the efforts of comics luminaries like Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams.

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detective comics 395 007That’s the team behind this tale, which is indicative of the good quality of the story and its spooky, mysterious tone.  This yarn begins with a nice, moody establishing shot of Batman brooding over two empty graves.  He’s in central Mexico, attending an extravagant party of a wealthy and mysterious couple who have a macabre fixation on death, even hosting this party in their own family graveyard.  The plot centers around the couple trying to covertly kill an agent of the Mexican government who is investigating them, all while Batman works to save him.

detective comics 395 015That’s where the tale takes a turn for the strange, as there is a final confrontation in a ruined building where Batman discovers a secret field of flowers, which are apparently madness inducing…and also endow people with immortality.  That’s a twist worthy of ‘ol Zany Haney.  Still, despite the rapid-fire delivery of the exposition and the strangeness of the concept, it sort of works.  The couple, supposedly over a hundred years old, wither and die in moments, falling fittingly into their own, empty graves.  Their passing leaves behind a number of unanswered questions, but given the horror flavor of the story, it isn’t as big of a problem as it might seem.  This tale evokes the mystical, mysterious feel of the old horror books, where certain questions are left unanswered as part of there overall effect.

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This is a good story, not the best of the Batman tales we’ll be encountering, but of the above-average quality that is, in fact, average for Batman books in the Bronze Age, especially in Detective Comics.  I give this one a solid 4 out 5 Minutemen.

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Detective Comics had a backup feature for most of its history, and at this point it is trading off between Robin and Batgirl.  I’m a big fan of the Bat-Family, so I’m excited about reading these backups.  This one is the second half of a Robin adventure, with a nice framing device of being relayed through letters Dick sends home from college.  I love Robin, specifically, the only real Robin (where I’m concerned), Dick Grayson.  He’s one of my favorite characters.  The concept that created him, that kids would identify with and want to be him totally worked on me as a kid.  I was aware I couldn’t be Batman, but maybe, just maybe, I could be Robin.  I love him as a solo act, as well as with Bats, but at this point, going off to college and being almost a grown man, it is certainly way past time to give the guy pants.  I don’t understand how this went on so long.  He’s been older than is appropriate for his green trunks for years and years at this point.  The particularly bizarre thing is that they’ve had multiple stories that have provided perfectly viable costumes for an adult Robin, none of which they’ve bothered to adapt.  Aqualad has the same problem, but at leas the wasn’t as high profile as poor Dick.  So, that ridiculously outdated costume always takes a little something away from these Robin stories.detective comics 395 027

detective comics 395 023This particular tale involves Robin attempting to break up a communist plot (!) involving creating student unrest with fake accounts of police brutality in order to shutdown Hudson University (!).  It’s a very 60s style story, and not a terribly interesting one.  You have to think that the vague, unspecified commies would have better things to do with their time and money.  Nonetheless, Dick manages to break the case open, despite taking a beating and being captured for the second time in two issues.  He does manage a fairly nice escape, taking out two guards, all while handcuffed.  Still, it isn’t his most impressive showing.  I like the idea of having stories with him away in college, but I don’t think all the stories necessarily have to be set ON campus or deal with university matters.  It just limits the character way too much.

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It isn’t a particularly impressive story, despite the cool escape, so I’ll give it 2 1/2 Minutemen.

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G.I. Combat #139

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Writer: Robert Kanigher
Artist: Russ Heath

I’m a big fan of the idea of the Haunted Tank, and by this point, Jeb and his boys have become the undisputed stars of this book.  Still, though I love the idea, what I’ve read from the Silver Age hasn’t electrified me.  I’m now skipping ahead about five years to this issue, and I definitely think things are improving.  The older stories were fine, but I just felt like they didn’t really take much advantage of the concept.  Lift out scenes with the General’s cryptic warnings, which had exactly zero impact on most of the plots, and your average Haunted Tank story could just as easily have appeared in any other WWII book.  There were exceptions, but that was my general impression.  What fun is that?  If you’ve got a Haunted Tank, you should really play that up or you’re burying the lead!

This story doesn’t break that pattern as much as I might like (J.E.B. appears a grand total of one time), but it’s just an enjoyable tale on its own merits.  The basic overview is that Jeb and crew are dropped into North Africa to stop a Nazi advance through a pass and attempt to rally the local Bedouins to the Allied cause.  On the way, the crew discover that their contact, Prince Akmed, has died, perhaps killed by “The Mufti,” a generically evil adviser sort who favors the Germans. g.i._combat_139_08.jpgIn a scene ripped from the pages of Around the World in 80 Days, the ever culturally sensitive comic delivers us a tribe of Bedouins who are preparing to burn Akmed’s wife, Princes Azeela, on his pyre in the archaic Indian practice of Sati.

Jeb, being the gallant Southerner that he is, is having none of this and, extinguishing the pyre, rescues the girl.  He agrees to marry the girl in order to protect her from her people, and she rides with him to battle.  In a particularly nicely illustrated sequence, the Tank goes up against heavier German armor, manages to plug the pass with the first Panther, and then fights a despearate holding action until rescued by Azeela’s people, who have been inspired by her bravery.

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Sadly, the Mufti kills her in revenge, and in a surprisingly touching series of panels, beautifully drawn and inked, Jeb returns his princess to her people…forever.

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The Princess doesn’t really get much to do other than die to unite her people (this story is not exactly a beacon of feminism), but Plot, er, I mean Princess Azeela, does serve as a nice little subtle moral quandary for Jeb.  g.i._combat_139_11He saves her from the pyre, but then what is a good man to do?  He agrees to marry her to save her from further retribution at the hands of her people, and we’re given a tender little scene with Jeb comforting Azeela whose husband, let’s remember JUST DIED.  The concern on his face, the tenderness of that embrace, is pretty effective at conveying a good deal more than the dialog.  Taken all together, that little panel aptly demonstrates the strength of comics as a medium of storytelling.  There’s a great efficiency of narrative in that one little combination of image and word.

This was a good story, though it still didn’t really take advantage of the whole Haunted Tank concept.  I’ll give it 3 and 1/2 Minutemen.

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Green Lantern #74

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Cover Artist: Gil Kane
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Editor: Julius Schwartz

Green Lantern…ohh Greeen Lantern…this series has given me fits.  I’ve read the whole run to this point, and I am somewhat amazed the book survived this long.  I love Hal as a character, and I love the concept of the Green Lantern Corps.  In fact, I love pretty much everything about the original setup of the Silver Age Lantern: Hal’s test pilot civilian identity, his relationship with Carol (who was a powerful, capable, career-minded woman in an age where that was exceedingly rare in fiction), and the setting being split between Coast City and space.  He had a reasonably strong rogue’s gallery, and he was all set to have an excellent hero career.  And then one day the creative team just decided to toss all of that.  They upended Hal’s life, had Carol suddenly agree to marry someone else off panel, and then Hal became a wanderer, a set of circumstances that would stick with him for years to come.  This is not to say that the early Silver Age GL comics were particularly good.  They’re about average for Silver Age books, which makes them pretty hard to read these days, but at least the concept was a promising one, and this shift…?  Not so much.

It’s an inexplicable decision to me, as they clearly had no real goal in mind other than to shake up the book and ditch Carol.  The unforgivable result of this path is that it made Hal Jordan, one of the coolest DC heroes in his civilian identity, lame and boring.  He went from being a hot-shot, devil-may-care jet-jockey to, wonder of wonders, an insurance salesman.  How does that make any kind of sense?  Over the next twenty issues Hal continues to drift from job to job and place to place, and the instability makes the character seem flaky and more than a little worthless.  This also removes the ability of the book to provide Hal with any kind of supporting cast other than his fellow Corpsmen, who are more or less dropped from the book as well during this period.

Of course, after those twenty issues the comic turns into the famed Green Lantern/Green Arrow combined title, and Hal goes from being someone who can’t hold down a job to an actual, jobless bum.  This run is widely praised and quite famous, standing as a seminal moment in the development of comics and the Bronze Age in particular.  Despite acknowledging its cultural importance, I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the ‘hard traveling heroes’ run, but I suppose I’ll talk about that when I get there in a few issues.

As for the issue in question, it is the second part of a two part story wherein Hal heads back to Coast City and meets up once more with Carol Ferris, mysteriously still unmarried.  Their first encounter in the previous issue is really rather nicely done, but I imagine that this return home gave a good many readers false hope.  Sadly, it was not to last.  When Green Lantern goes to talk with Carol, she inexplicably transforms into Star Sapphire, despite not having access to the troublesome gem.  She somehow transports Hal into deep space, also conveniently stripping him of his memories of being Green Lantern.  This issue picks up where that one left off, with a rather pretty trap for Hal to escape.greenlantern074-02

Stranded in space without any of the knowledge he needs to save himself, this is an interesting premise.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t really last very long and Hal is quite blase about the the whole thing.  ‘Ohh, I seem to be lost in the infinite void…ho-hum.’  It is a good chance for Hal’s natural fearlessness to shine, but it doesn’t quite come off that way, and the problem is a bit too easily solved.  This image also demonstrates a weird trait of the art in these issues, where Gil Kane stacks images upon one another to diverse and often not entirely successful, but always innovative, effect.

greenlantern074-26Once Hal gets back to Earth, he discovers the true cause of his current problems, Sinestro!  At this point, it has been a very long time since we have had any real supervillains in the book, especially any of Sinestro’s quality, so he’s a breath of fresh air.  For most of the last dozen issues or so, Hal has been suffering from boring stories featuring random, regular hoods.  Yep, they make a great challenge for the man with the most powerful weapon in the universe.  Sinestro, on the other hand, especially backed up by Star Sapphire, makes for an excellent antagonist, and this story has the renegade Lantern in particularly good form.  He’s ruthless, cunning, and completely self-assured.  He moves effortlessly from battling to manipulating Star Sapphire.  Together, they (a little too easily) take Hal out, and the Lantern is saved by Pieface (the most offensively named supporting character in comics history?).  It’s nice to see ‘ol Tom Kalmaku again too, and both of these characters make me miss Hal’s old status quo.  The story ends with Hal defeating Sinestro…or does it?  He looks so wonderfully smug in that last panel.
Don’t you just want to pop him right in that red face of his?  That is a villain worthy of Hal.  Of course, Sinestro has a backup plan, and with the customary warning that “there is always a next time”, he vanishes!  This leaves Hal to try and explain the whole ‘Star Sapphire’ thing to Carrol…and, well, she doesn’t take it too well, running out of his life for a second time.greenlantern074-28

So, in the end, Hal is left more or less where he was to begin with.  He’s got no supporting cast, no stability, and we’re about to enter another long stretch without any villains to speak of.  This is a fine story, so far as it goes.  Isolated from the drudgery that is the rest of this run, it is pretty good.  Sinestro is fun in it, and his little character moments make some progress in identifying him as someone who is more than just an evil Green Lantern who is evil because he likes being evil…evily.  It isn’t a lot of progress, but it is progress, and you get a sense of his arrogance and pride.  The art is fairly weak, and the power ring battle, which should have been really visually interesting and exciting, is inexcusably flat and boring.  Kane is a very Silver Age-y artist, skilled and consistent, but Green Lantern could really benefit from someone with a more creative and energetic style.  Imagine what Jack Kirby could have done with a GL book!  In the end, I give this story 3 and 1/2 Minutemen out of 5, if only because it is such an improvement over what came before.

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Superman #222

Superman_v.1_222.jpgWriters: Edmond Hamilton and various
Pencilers: Al Plastino and various

This seems to be a collection of Silver Age Superman tales, and as such, exactly what I don’t much want to read.  I just skimmed these reprints and didn’t find much to catch my interest, though several of these could make excellent examples of the internet sensation that is Super-Dickery. Stories involve an ersatz lost brother for Superman, some hypothetical children for him and Lois, and various other familial and social complications.  The only one that stuck out to me was a tale set in Kandor, part of a story featuring two sons of Superman, one super, the other, not so much.  It cracks me up to see Superman running around, doing familial stuff in his costume.  I think I won’t cover reprints in any kind of detail.

And there you have it, folks.  Wow!  That missive proved much more massive than I intended.  Future iterations should prove to be much smaller as they won’t need all the framing and general discussion that this one sported.

This has been, more or less, January 1970 in DC Comics.  It was a pretty solid month, all told, but I’m looking forward to getting further into the Bronze Age, where more of the 60s Silver Age-ish tendencies will be shaken off.  Join me again, approximately whenever I get around to it, for the next month of books (probably next month).