Into the Bronze Age: August 1970 (Part 5)

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

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

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

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

Showcase #92

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Superman #229

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Clark Kent, Assassin”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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