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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2 comments on “Into the Bronze Age: February 1970 (Part 2)

  1. […] heading to the planet Zodan, which Arky warns him is home to a very strange culture.  Remember the crime-city on Krypton-that-was?  Those folks would feel right at home on Zodan, where theft is the planetary pastime.  […]

  2. […] folks had a lot of goofy ideas about what atomic war would be like, but for Heaven’s sake, the Atomic Knights tales were more accurate, and those stories were published over a decade before this […]

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