Into the Bronze Age: August 1970 (Part 3)

DC-Style-Guide-1

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

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

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

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

Detective Comics #402

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

minute4.5

“My Place in the Sun!”

detective comics 402 023.jpg

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

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

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

detective comics 402 024.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

detective comics 402 031.jpg

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

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Flash #199

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

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

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

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

flash 199-03.jpg

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

flash 199-07.jpg

Anyone else wonder who the other pall-bearers were?

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

flash 199-15.jpg

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

flash 199-16.jpg

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

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flash 199-10.jpg

Someone please tell me why Gil Kane was so popular…

“The Explosive Heart of America”

flash 199-22.jpg

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

flash 199-23.jpg

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

flash 199-25.jpg

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

flash 199-26.jpg

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

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

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5 comments on “Into the Bronze Age: August 1970 (Part 3)

  1. B Smith says:

    “Someone please tell me why Gil Kane was so popular…”

    He certainly got up a lot of people’s noses.

  2. about Robert Kanigher: I can easily imagine that ‘management’ started kicking in during this period, and demands like ‘we need to make it more relevent’ were coming down indiscriminately on the creators, not all of whom were ready to respond to it, it being a quite radical change of direction from the Silver Age. The Silver Age was an exercise in trope-swapping, which could produce some neat and entertaining episodes on one level. But the sudden move to ‘more realism’ etc. would exercise most of the creators from the Silver Age who would approach social and moral realism with … trope-swapping. Even Denny O’Neil was awkward, at the beginning.

    But why was there a shift to more social/moral/political realism, which, presumably, came from ‘management’ (the printing houses with the money commitment)? I think, Benton, you are trying to buld up a connection with events ‘in the real world’ which the comics were trying to reference, if not, yet, actually try to respond to. But why, if that’s what they were doing, were they starting to do that now [then]? Comics beforehand were quite happy playing the colourful-variables they’d become after they’d transitioned from the dark pulps. Now [then] they were consciously tapping into a more sophisticated readership that, from the looks of it, took the creative industry a little time to get used to it. At least at DC. Marvel had certainly already been exploring soap opera, shared universe, social and moral questions, for a good eight or nine years already – and they’d built up this more sophisticated story-telling organically, naturally; the stories and characters were allowed to play themselves through and to allow for experimentation by the time the 70s were well underway. DC had seemed to hang on to their Silver Age all through the 60s (even Batman’s yellow spotlight around the bat didn’t really come to much … I suppose DC were still riding their success in having re-ignited super heroes in 1956 hadn’t quite fully run its course yet – why change the formula if it was riding high? Marvel took a good 5 years to get with their super heroes, and by that time they already had the galvanising element of character-development-and-context built in to their creations …)

    btw; I liked Gil Kane’s work: it was anatomically more lithe and realistic, he did great hands that were starting to express as much information as the pose of the whole body, his ‘collages’ levered the ‘action scene’ to reflect on what exactly was going on here, there’s always more to a fight than just the slam! Character in poise; and he did great boggle eyes as well!

    • Benton Grey says:

      What a great and thought-provoking comment, Lewis (mind if I call you Lewis?)! Thank you for taking the time to contribute such a thoughtful reflection to my little project here.

      Very interesting theory, but, and my knowledge of the period is far from exhaustive, I think that the early move towards relevance at DC was mostly creator driven, rather than “management” driven. I think you’re probably entirely right, nonetheless, in terms of effects. I imagine that as socially relevant stories were met with success and enthusiasm, there had to be an editorial response, as well as other creators who simply tried to ape such things on their own initiatives. Considering how ham-fisted the first big move, O’Neil’s GL/GA book, was, it’s not hard to imagine that those following in his footsteps would be just as bad, if not worse.

      You ask “why now (then)?” That’s an excellent question, and one I have certainly been pondering. I think that, after a fashion, you answer it yourself in your reference to what Marvel has been doing to such success for much of the past decade. It seems to me that this has to be, at least in part, a response to that success. Marvel had really shaken things up and challenged the ideas of comics being for kids, and DC, though late to the game, was trying to do the same type of thing. I imagine, though, that the biggest influence is just the progress of time. The old guard were starting to fade away and new talent was coming on board. Thus, people like Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, who were part of or sympathetic to the new generation took the reins. They told stories that addressed the concerns of their times, at least to a degree, and they shook up the business-as-usual model of DC. Of course, none of that could have happened without the editors getting behind such changes, even when they didn’t lead the way.

      On Gil Kane: That’s very interesting! I am not a very artistic fellow, and I really never noticed these qualities you mention. It’s great to hear a different perspective about such things.

  3. […] the macabre Man-Bat arrives finally arrives!  It’s been a while since we last saw Man-Bat, way back in issue #402, which, interestingly enough, ended on a cliffhanger of sorts, as Batman prepared an antidote for […]

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