Into the Bronze Age: June 1970 (Part 3)

DC-Style-Guide-1

Welcome to the third installment of my coverage of June 1970.  I hope you enjoy the visit to the Bronze Age!

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

  • Action Comics #389
  • Aquaman #51
  • Batman #222
  • Detective Comics #400
  • The Flash #198
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #77
  • Justice League #81
  • Phantom Stranger #7
  • Showcase #91
  • Teen Titans #27
  • World’s Finest #194

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

Justice League of America #81

JLA_v.1_81.jpgCover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella

Hmm, “Plague of the Galactic Jest Master”…I have to say, that title doesn’t sound particularly promising.  The story within, however, is something else entirely.  That cover is certainly striking, and for once, it’s actually fairly fitting, even if only metaphorically so.  What is particularly notable to me is the fact that, once again, I have absolutely no memory of this tale, despite the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed it on this reading!  Even more so, and just as surprising, this issue picks up on a bunch of elements that I thought completely abandoned by the previous story.  It turns out that some of my criticism of that story was actually unfair because O’Neil picks up some of the threads left dangling there.  Well, let’s look within, shall we?  Beware!  This way lies madness!

And what a madness it is.  In the beginning we meet an interesting looking fellow, our titular Jest-Master, fawned over and surrounded by a horde of henchmen.  These strange aliens are winging their way through space in an oddly misshapen craft, more like a potato than a spaceship, on their way to destroy Thanagar with a curse of madness!  The design of the Jest Master isn’t bad, but it isn’t particularly great either.  Really, he looks like an orange version of the Green Goblin, even with a similar hood and grin.  His name may not be all that impressive, but the story he spawns is a solid one.

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It is here that I find that I was wrong about the previous issue.  I expected that story, featuring the mad Thanagarian doomsday cultist and Jean’s madness to simply be immediately forgotten.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that the vague warnings that the Thanagarian renegade gave about a galactic threat approaching are actually fulfilled in the coming of the Jest-Master.  While he isn’t quite a big enough threat to really justify the setup, I’m just pleased that we do get to see the story followed through.  Not only that, Jean Loring’s madness also finishes its arc here.  I went back and read the crazy but fun final issue of the Atom/Hawkman book to remind myself how she got into this situation before reading this issue, and that was quite a tale.  It’s nice to see those floating threads brought to a pleasant completion here.

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What the heck is going on with the geometry of that first panel?  Is it a comic or a cubist painting?

Speaking of Jean, we see that the Atom and Hawkman have resumed their interrupted journey to Thanagar to have her cured by the science of the Winged Wonder’s people.  She continues to rave, and Ray feels guilty about her predicament, but he’s unfair to himself.  She was driven mad by something that had nothing to do with him.  Well, pulling himself together, the Mighty Mite checks on Norch Lor, our Thanagarian doomsday cultist, previously unnamed.  He repeat his warning of a coming apocalypse.

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Yet, their journey is destined once again to be interrupted.  As they approach Katar’s homeworld, they pass an outpost and suddenly they are taking fire!  Hawkman docks his ship and finds the guards of the space station have gone mad!  Shortly, both he and the Atom begin to feel the effects of this strange irrational force as well, and they are driven to fight one another.

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In the ship, our neglected prisoner, Norch Lor frees himself and, feeling the effects of creeping madness, he has sense enough to summon help!  We also see how he learned of the Jest-Master’s arrival, as he was studying a civilization that was destroyed by this bizarre wave of insanity.  He hoped to save Thanagar by “hiding” the souls of its people inside his Ghenna Box, which he tested on Earth.  It’s a slight step-down from the setup we saw last issue, but it isn’t a huge difference.  I’m just glad to see a bit more about ‘ol Norch.  I think he’s got the potential to be an interesting character.  Unfortunately, this is just about the last we’ll see of him.

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Meanwhile, his message is picked up by the Guardians and relayed to the League through their vacationing Green Lantern, who is busy “on a crazy-quilt quest across America, seeking the soul of a nation.”  Really O’Neil?  I enjoy some pretty purple prose, but that’s pushing it.

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We begin to see some of the first real signs of the romance between Canary and Arrow, as she notes that, as annoying as he is (and you haven’t seen anything yet, Dinah!), she finds herself missing him.  Anyway, the League suits up in nifty custom space suits, and Superman just carries them all to Thanagar.  Ha, how bizarre.  I would be more than a little nervous with nothing between me and a few zillion miles of empty, frozen black space but a thin layer of fabric.  Yikes!

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Our heroes arrive just in time to rescue the Tiny Titan from his best friend’s madness.  We get a really nice series of pages with Hawkman preparing to splat his small-sized partner, as well as a pretty funny moment where the Winged Wonder bashes himself uselessly against Superman.  Hawkman is awesome, but he’s drastically out of his league against the Man of Steel.

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However, once aboard the space station, the other Leaguers also begin to fall victim to the curse.  Strangely enough, Jean finds her senses suddenly restored!  She warns them of what’s coming, and the team sets out to put an end to the Jest-Master’s quest.

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The Flash volunteers to be the one to pierce the strange spaceship, arguing, rather reasonably, that they’re all in trouble if Superman goes nuts!  We get a rather nice page by Dillin, as the rather sinister-looking alien antagonist twists Flash’s mind inside out as he attempts to get inside his vessel.  Superman pulls the Crimson Comet back out, and the heroes find themselves stymied.

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JusticeLeague081-20.jpgSuddenly, they realize there is only one among them who can make this journey and be capable of rational thought on the other side…that’s right, Jean Loring is their only hope!  This is a nice little switch, and I loved this twist.  Since she had her faculties restored under the psychedelic effects of the Jest-Master’s insanity weapon, she should be able to pass unscathed through the madness field.  Ray won’t hear of it at first, but he quickly realizes that this is really the only choice.  So, the Leaguers set out, with a mad woman to lead them through the madness that awaits.

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We get an interesting double page spread, interestingly not on facing pages (I’m wondering if that was a mistake somehow), comparing what Jean sees, the simple reality, versus the crazy, reality straining visions that the heroes endure as they approach the ship.

Once inside, the Atom is the only one able to act…for some reason.  O’Neil doesn’t really address it, and, as we’ve already seen, he’s fallen victim to the insanity of the enemy before.  That’s a bit of a plot hole, an unfortunate inconsistency in an otherwise great story.  Well, the Mighty Mite turns the tables on the Jest-Master.  It seems our insanity inducing evil-doer is convinced that he is the only one with the strength of mind to judge reality.  He is the measure of sanity, and he will test the universe to see if anyone else is worthy of being considered truly sane as well.  Yet, the Atom causes him to doubt his sanity by shrinking and growing rapidly.

JusticeLeague081-26.jpg

This tactic successfully distracts the villain until Jean can free the other Leaguers, who make extremely short work of his henchmen who are inexplicably armed with…crossbows?  Yep, not even fancy space crossbows or anything, just regular, medieval style crossbows.  In a spaceship.  Sure.  Well, the action sequence is nicely drawn, but rather disappointing, though I do love Superman just gently tapping one of the minions, sending the poor fellow careening through the ship.

JusticeLeague081-29.jpg

Just look at how bored he looks!

Thus, not with a bang, but with a whimper, the Jest-Master is summarily defeated.  Yet, despite this uninspiring fight, there is a particularly bright silver lining, as Jean Loring suddenly comes completely to her senses, her madness driven away by the forces at play in the ship.  Oddly, we’re denied a reunion between Ray and Jean…though, I suppose he’d have to reveal his secret identity to her to really justify that.

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I love the grumpy expression on the villain’s face!

So, in the end, the Jest-Master, despite providing a very engaging concept and a very interesting challenge for our heroes, offers something of an anti-climax when everything comes together.  I definitely enjoyed the continuation of the previous story, the continuity attention, and the desire to tie up loose ends.  I think there is potential here for a good deal more, but the ideas don’t quite come together perfectly.  I like the idea of the Jest-Master, though a more dynamic design and a better name would give him more staying power.  Of course, despite the supposedly apocalyptic threat he poses, he’s also completely useless in an actual fight.  That’s a bit disappointing.  Making him more formidable would also help make the character worth bringing back, and the League really needs more good villains.  Somebody get Geoff Johns on the phone!

Still, this is a fun issue, and it has several nice moments.  The central problem is once again a nice threat for the League to face, and we get a few cool moments of characterization.  I particularly enjoyed that it was Jean who saved the day, despite the plot hole with her bite-sized beau.  In the end, I’ll give this promising but flawed story 4 Minutemen, like the previous issue.

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Phantom Stranger #7

Phantom_Stranger_Vol_2_7.jpgCover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo

This is another by the numbers Phantom Stranger adventure.  It’s got its moments, but the highlight is the arrival of Jim Aparo on the the title!  He becomes THE artist for the character, and even from this first issue, his work is great.  It is wonderfully dramatic and atmospheric.  Unfortunately, the plot isn’t quite as impressive as Aparo’s pencils.  It is another one of the three-part tales, a frame tale and a story narrated by both the Phantom Stranger and Dr. Thirteen.  It’s not a great story, having a few weaknesses, but it has some striking moments too.  The unnecessary teen gang makes another appearance, their most superfluous yet.  You could easily lift them right out of this story and not change the plot one iota.

the phantom stranger (1969) 07 - 01.jpg

These four kids are headed to some place named “Vulcan’s Castle,” which apparently has all of the locals spooked.  These teens seem to just wander around the country with no jobs or fixed addresses, running into random people how invite them into their homes just in time for something creepy to happen.  I’d say they’re bad luck!  Anyway, this particular caper revolves around that mysterious chateau.  Once again, the kids have been invited to hang out by a random stranger, so they rush right out to do so.just that.  They finally get directions and find a boat to make the crossing, only things aren’t what they appear!

the phantom stranger (1969) 07 - 02.jpg

The sail is actually Tala in disguise, and she flies away, leaving the youths stranded in the middle of a maelstrom!  Fortunately, the Phantom Stranger comes to their rescue, swimming through the water to right their boat…who does he think he is, Aquaman?  The sequence is beautifully drawn by Aparo, and I’m reminded why he makes such a great artist for the Sea King.  He’s got a way with water.  Anyway, the kids are picked up by Dr. Thirteen, or as Rob Kelley is fond of describing him, the professional wet blanket, and he immediately shifts into jerk mode.  All four kids tell the same story, and Thirteen just blows them off.  Clearly, you’re just imagining the life-threatening danger you faced, silly children!

the phantom stranger (1969) 07 - 03.jpg

Once they arrive at the castle, it is revealed that Thirteen has been summoned to help save the wealthy owner’s daughter, Vanessa, from a curse.  Just after they set foot on shore, the poor, overwhelmed girl is coaxed into jumping from the ramparts by that guileful gal Tala.  Fortunately, the Stranger is on hand once again, and he snatches the girl out of the air.  Of course, the good Doctor is dubious.  Once everyone gets together, we get some backstory.  The tale of woe began with the previous owners of the castle, the Drugas, selling it, having fallen on hard times.  Yet, they did not sell it willingly.  The last Count Druga cursed the new family for profiting from his troubles

the phantom stranger (1969) 07 - 06.jpg

As per usual, this claim about the supernatural prompts a story-telling competition between Thirteen and the Stranger.  Thirteen is first at bat with what is, admittedly, a neat story, though a bit on the far-fetched side.  The good Doctor relates how he was on his way to investigate the haunting of a mine in Kentucky.  On the way, he suddenly finds himself being throttled…by trees?!  Here’s one of the weird, inconsistent moments of this story, one of several.  The art clearly shows the trees strangling the Ghost Breaker and lifting him bodily out of his car, yet, when he hits the ground, he rationalizes that this was impossible, and he must have imagined it after falling asleep at the wheel.  We’re clearly supposed to be seeing things from his perspective, as this is his tale, but this whole little episode just doesn’t quite make sense.

the phantom stranger (1969) 07 - 08.jpg

Either way, he catches sight of the strange apparition that is haunting the mine, a glowing skeleton, and gets the story of its origins.  Reportedly, it all started with the death of a miner in a tunnel collapse.  As he lay dying, he cursed the mine, saying that the owners’ greed had caused his death, keeping the shaft open when it was too dangerous.  Interestingly, that accusation of corruption is a thread that never pays off.

In the mine itself, Thirteen encounters the “ghost,” and is shocked unconscious by its touch.  He drags himself back to the surface, and I’ll say this for ‘ol Terry, he is a tough son of a gun.  He goes right back down, and this time he clocks the “spirit” right on its jawbone!  It turns out that the culprit was the brother of the dead miner, who created an electrical costume to ‘haunt’ the mine and force its closing.  The “ghost” also prepared the trap that caused the trees to “attack” Thirteen on the road…somehow…The Ghost breaker had sussed some of this out after his initial shock, so he came prepared with rubber gloves to lay the “ghost” out.  It’s a bit Scooby Doo, but the Doc comes off as a bit of a badass, so I’m willing to give it a pass.

the phantom stranger (1969) 07 - 12.jpg

the phantom stranger (1969) 07 - 151.jpgNot to be outdone, the Stranger immediately retaliates with his own yarn about curses and spooky doings.  He tells the tale of Bill, a young fishing boat skipper whose ship was cursed.  He was the younger brother of the original captain, and a violent argument between them ended with the older brother falling overboard and being eaten by sharks!  Just before he was devoured, Bill’s brother cursed him and anyone foolhardy enough to crew his ship.  No one will sail with the young man after mysterious accidents decimated his crews, but the Phantom Stranger volunteers.  When the skipper is lured into the rocks by the ghostly voice of his brother, the Stranger saves him…with a karate chop!  That cracks me up.

the phantom stranger (1969) 07 - 15.jpg

Of course, none of this actually solves the problem of the young lady’s curse.  She tells her own tale of woe, which begins with the unfortunate death of the gardener’s son, Nicholas, who grew up with Vanessa and fell in love with her.  She didn’t return his affection, though, and he apparently died of a broken heart, cursing her with his last breath (there’s a lot of that going on in this story).  He swears that any man who dares love her will meet the same fate he has.

the phantom stranger (1969) 07 - 18.jpg

In the coming months, three different young men try for Vanessa’s affections, and one after another, they die in accidents connected with their hobbies, shooting, boating, and riding.  You know, you can understand the first two, but you’ve got to think that the third guy really should have seen it coming…

the phantom stranger (1969) 07 - 19.jpg

A trio of unlikely “accidents”

Anyway, the Stranger thinks he knows what’s going on, so he gets everyone to get shovels and dig up Nicholas’s grave.  Inside, they find the supposedly deceased young man…sweating?  That’s right, it seems that Nicholas did not actually die, but was placed into a deep trance by his father, jealous of Vanessa’s own father, and using his son as a weapon against the family he hated.  The father would revive his son, and then the zombified young man would murder Vanessa’s sweethearts.  Here we have another of those weird moments, as you have to remember, that this fellow was in a grave, buried six feet under.  How exactly did he get out and get back to go on his killing sprees?  We’re later told that Tala was somehow involved, but it just doesn’t quite jive.

the phantom stranger (1969) 07 - 24.jpg

I love the moody shot of the Stranger and the others digging up the grave!

The story wraps up as the The father revives his lovelorn and loony son, who produces a gun and tries to murder everyone present.  Once again, Dr. Thirteen proves he’s no wuss, as he charges the gunman, getting a bullet in the shoulder for his troubles.

the phantom stranger (1969) 07 - 25.jpg

Fortunately, the Stranger isn’t so easy to stop, and he chases Nicholas to a cliff, where the madman plunges to his death.  We end with a sighting of Tala in the wind and the usual disappearance by the Stranger and griping about same from our curmudgeonly Ghost Breaker.

the phantom stranger (1969) 07 - 27.jpg

This is a mediocre story with great art and a few neat moments.  The kids contribute absolutely nothing to the plot.  Even their role as our introduction to the story could easily have been accomplished just with Dr. Thirteen.  The individual tales have some holes in them, and the final resolution isn’t all that interesting.  It is, as I said, a by the numbers issue.  At least we’ve got Jim Aparo’s art to make it interesting.  His great sense of visual storytelling helps pull this issue up to a solid 3 Minutemen.

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Showcase #91

Showcase_Vol_1_91.jpgCover Artist: Mike Sekowsky
Writer: Mike Sekowsky
Penciler: Mike Sekowsky
Inker: Vince Colletta

Now here we go!  This is what Showcase is all about, and it is this kind of hidden gem that I look forward to on this project.  Manhunter 2070 is a great concept, and this first issue is wonderfully executed.  I would totally have bought this book like crazy-go-nuts back in the day.  Mike Sekowsky may have missed the boat with Jason Quest, but he’s got a real winner in this character.  Unfortunately, this three issue tryout is the last we’ll see of the character in the mainstream DCU.  Apparently he shows up in Twilight, and from what I’ve heard about that series, I can’t imagine I’d care to see what Howard Chaykin does to the poor guy.  That’s a real shame, as the setting this tale introduces definitely had legs.  In many ways, it’s a stock concept, but I imagine it was much less cliche back in 1970.  The idea is space as the Wild West, the Final Frontier as the original frontier: the Space Western.

This was, of course, done to perfection by Firefly, and it has been the subject of many a science fiction tale over the years, but I can’t say I’ve seen it in comics before this point.  In fact, although there were often western themes included in speculative fiction over the years, even in the original pitch for Star Trek (“Wagon Train to the Stars”), more straight-up adaptations were pretty rare.  The flavor of pulp and comic science fiction was much more Buck Rogers and much less Lone Ranger.  That makes this particular book all the more interesting.  Of course, we’re only seven years away from the film that would memorably combine science fiction and western elements and make the mix much more famous, Star Wars!  I suppose these themes were in the air in the 70s.

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This particular book follows the adventures of the space bounty hunter we encountered at the end of the previous issue, the enigmatic Starker.  We start with a page that sets the scene, standard Space Western trappings, vast distances, law and order threatened and stretched thin by the expansion of the frontier, and noble wanderers like our hero picking up the slack and bringing justice to the wild space lanes.  He is a bounty hunter, but he doesn’t take on his dangerous work for the money.  We don’t get a lot of his motivations in this tale.  We’re left to infer from what we observe, but he seems to be motivated to do the job for that old and excellent reason: it needs doing.  What we do get is delivered in wonderfully dramatic fashion.

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This job involves three escaped convicts who killed two guards during their getaway.  They’re nasty customers, as the Manhunter’s robot assistant, Arky, tells him, “killers many times over,” who callously murder anyone who gets in their way.  Arky provides the hunter with a lead on the likely hiding place of the fugitives, but warns him that this place, the planet Pheidos, is a “killer planet,” with a very hostile ecosystem.  Starker suits up in ‘space armor,’ which is pretty cool looking, and packs a lot of powerful hardware.  This is no ‘stun ray’ or that kind of lighter fare, and a good indication of the type of action we’ll find further in.  As he heads out, we get a nice moment as one of his friends asks him, “don’t you know knight’s in shining armor haven’t been in for centuries?”  His reply is pretty fitting for the laconic western hero archetype that he fits: “I guess I’m still an old fashioned boy.”

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Once he arrives on Pheidos, he finds that Arky wasn’t exaggerating, as the very first moment he steps off his ship and begins to ‘saddle up’ his hover bike, he is attacked by a host of fanged fauna and flora.  He desperately fights his way out, using every weapon he can lay his hands on, but his struggles draw the attention of his quarry, who have managed to arm and resupply themselves from secret caches hidden on the planet!

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Here we see one of the problems with this issue.  Sekowsky art is mostly excellent on this book.  He’s creative, dynamic, and evocative.  Yet, every once in awhile we’ll bet a panel like the one below.  Just what the heck is happening to Starker’s right leg?  Despite what the art shows, it isn’t actually ripped off of his body in the next scene.  That’s not the only time this happens.  There’s some funky anatomy in a few different panels, but still, those are by far the exceptions.  Sekowsky is, for the most part, firing on all cylinders here.

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Back to the story, our hero manages to escape the ravenous creatures because they themselves encounter even bigger predators.  His respite proves short-lived, though, as he finds himself battling with an oversized alligator with wings!  In a desperate fight he manages to dispatch it, and seeing that their nemesis won’t be so easily done-in by the planet itself, the fugitives open fire on him, pursuing him on their own ‘atmo-sleds.’

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Starker finds himself in a shootout with his adversaries…and with more of the frightful fauna.  He engages in a running gun-battle with both his enemies and the elements themselves, eventually luring one of the trio of treacherous space pirates into an ambush.  He knocks the fellow out of the sky, but the bounty hunter is stunned by a glancing hit, saved only by the fury of the world’s wildlife turning on his opponent in the form of cannibal ants and a ripped spacesuit.  Yikes!  Sounds like a nasty way to go.  Sekowsky’s art nicely sells the horror of the moment.

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‘Alas poor Yorick! I knew him, Arky…’

While engaged in a standoff with the other two criminals, Starker watches as a giant version of that winged creature he faced earlier attacks them!  The beast knocks them out of the sky, leaving our knight in shining space armor to slay this far-future dragon, with a sword no less!  It’s a nice moment, and it really might have deserved a splash page.  Well, from there, it’s really just mopping up,collecting his surviving and deceased prisoners, and getting the heck off this crazy rock, but that’s no small matter on Pheidos!  The Manhunter has to fight another giant monster to claim the last convict before he can burn rockets off-world.

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The tale ends with Starker’s friends asking the question, “why do you do it?”  We’re promised the answer in the next issue, and I’m looking forward to it!  This story was great, just wall-to-wall action, exciting, interesting, and visually creative.  The world, the equipment, and the aliens are all nicely designed.  They’re distinct enough to not just be generic comic sci-fi fare.

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Ahoy there, Space Ahab!

Starker himself is grim and capable, and I was suitably gobsmacked when he picked up a sword and charged the giant lizard to secure his prisoner.  That’s a great moment.  Despite all that action, we get a bit of characterization, but this is definitely about the adventure, more than anything else.  I’m pretty okay with that because the adventure itself is tons of fun.  The resourceful hero fighting both a hostile world and hostile men makes for a great story.  I’ll give it 4.5 Minutemen, a great sci-fi romp!

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This issue also had a very short (two pages!) backup in which our hero is captured and forced into a gladiatorial match, only to escape on a rocket powered steed and sic the law on his former captors.  Despite being so brief, this little tale features a fun and apt send-up of the media and consumer culture, as these matches are all about ratings.  Shades of Mojo!  It’s fun, but too brief to rate.

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We also get an exciting collage page advertising what is to come next issue, like we saw with the Jason Quest issues.  Space pirates and Starker’s origin?  I’m in!

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“Good night, Westley.  Good work.  Sleep well.  I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”

 

Well, that’s it for this post on June 1970!  Join me next week for the last few issues in this month.  This was a good batch.  Let’s see what those last two comics hold as we continue, Into the Bronze Age!

 

 

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