Into the Bronze Age: December 1970 (Part 3)

DC-Style-Guide-1

Welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  Today we’ve got Detective Comics and The Flash, two books, four stories.  There are some fascinating real-world connections to these comics, methinks.  Check them out below and see if they ring any bells for you!

If you’re new to this little journey, you can check out the first post to learn what it’s all about.

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

  • Action Comics #395
  • Adventure Comics #400
  • Aquaman #54
  • Batman #227
  • Detective Comics #406
  • The Flash #202
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #81
  • Justice League of America #84 (reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Justice League of America #85
  • The Phantom Stranger #10
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #134
  • Teen Titans #30
  • World’s Finest #199

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


Detective Comics #406


detective_comics_406“Your Servant of Death — Dr. Darrk!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Bob Brown
Inker: Frank Giacoia
Letterer: Ben Oda
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“The Explosive Circle!”
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Vince Colletta
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz

In our headline tale we have the next iteration of the growing saga of the League of Assassins!  From auspicious beginnings last issue, the promising setup receives further development in this story, and O’Neil teases an epic adventure that will unfold in these pages in months to come.  This particular part of that whole, like its introduction, doesn’t quite have the grandeur of that which would eventually develop, but it’s a fair adventure tale with the added attraction of successfully creating an “impression of depth.”

The story starts off with a bang, literally, as a bomb goes off as shipping magnate Count Orsoni christens the newest ship in his fleet.  The traditional wine bottle is rigged to blow, and the resulting explosion nearly kills the wealthy industrialist.  If we recall, last issue we discovered the League of Assassins was out to get shipping magnates.  Batman remembers this as well, so he travels to Europe in his secret identity.  Conveniently, Bruce Wayne is an old friend of the Count, so he arranges to visit his ailing pal at his estate, where he is being treated privately.  Apparently the Count survived, but he was paralyzed by the blast.

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detective406-04Upon arrival, Wayne is greeted by Mara Thursday, the Count’s cousin, who takes him to the manse.  It is there that he meets a fellow who will figure into the future of the League plot, Dr. Ebenezer Darrk!  With a name like that, he’s got to be a good guy, right?  Well, once again showing blatant disregard for his secret identity, Bruce changes into his ‘work clothes,’ and Batman prowls the night, keeping watch on the Count’s room in the belief that his would-be killers will try again.  As he settles in for his vigil, he hears Mara scream and rushes to her room.  She tells him some story about an attacker that is full of holes, clearly lying to distract him from the Count (I guess we’d call those “alternative facts” today.).  It’s actually a neat sequence, as O’Neil leaves the reader to ponder on how Batman saw through her lies, only explaining the matter later on.

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Can you figure it out?

Anyway, the Dark Knight isn’t fooled, and he races to protect the Count, only to be ambushed by another League Assassin!  This guy is a sling master, firing spiked bullets at the hero, and it takes a clever ruse for Batman to take him out.  The Caped Crusader de-cloaks, rigging his cape and cowl as a decoy to draw the slinger’s fire and allowing him to get the drop on the killer.  It’s a nice display of the character’s resourcefulness.

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One danger surmounted, our hero continues his quest, only to discover Orsoni is missing!  He tracks the nabbed nobleman to a secret passage into ancient catacombs below the estate and discovers his friend in the middle of a stone chamber.  When he approaches, a cloaked figure gets the drop on him, threatening to shoot the Count if Batman doesn’t follow orders.  I wonder who could possibly be under that cloak?  The Law of Conservation of Detail means there’s really only one possibility at this point.  Well, whoever he is, he happily explains to the Masked Manhunter that these Christian catacombs actually have an older origin, once having served as a Roman dungeon, and, somehow, the various torture device of those lousy Latins are still there and in working order.  The super mysterious figure forces Batman into a deathtrap, chaining him to a table and giving him a cord that holds a giant axe above his own head, making the hero his own executioner!

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Of course, the Dark Detective has figured out the same thing we have, and he calls his captor Dr. Darrk, who, in turn, reveals that he is actually the head of the League of Assassins.  Pulling the classic villain move of leaving the hero unattended (what is that, the third time already this month?), Darrk takes off, leaving Batman alone with only a paralyzed man to help him.  Yet, astonishingly, Orsoni claws his way to his hands and knees and crawls, not to the trapped crime fighter, but to a statue of his favorite saint, St. Diona (a fictional saint, for some reason).  With a desperate prayer, the injured man topples the statue, which lands in precisely the right position to protect the Caped Crusader from the blade and yet not crush him with its own stony weight.  It’s a good moment, and the hero is stunned, recognizing the possibility of a miracle in the unlikely series of events (even Batman is more open-minded than Dr. Thirteen!).

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His escape arranged, perhaps with divine intervention, the Dark Knight sets out after the dark-Darrk, snatching up a shield to protect him from the sling-armed slayer.  This proves fortunate, as his foe has recovered, but after a quick shield toss that would make Captain America proud, the Masked Manhunter continues on his way.  He finds a cloaked figure creeping out a window, only to discover that it is Mara, dressed in the Doctor’s robes.  Darrk has already made good his escape!  The Count’s captured cousin, Mara, agrees to spill her guts, and the story ends with Batman taking her and the assassin to the authorities and assuring the Orsoni that he’ll chase Darrk down.

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This is a good story, with some nice mystery and plenty of action.  I often enjoy it when an author invites their readers to solve a mystery themselves.  I’m usually pretty good at that type of exercise, but I have to admit, I didn’t entirely put together the pieces of Mara’s deception.  She claimed that an attacker came in through her window and struck her, but she didn’t see his face.  She was sitting in front of a mirror at the time with a lamp next to her, so she would certainly have seen the man, which Batman realized.  That’s a fun piece of detective work.  The second exotic assassin to do the bidding of the League was another fun element of the story, and I quite enjoyed the possibly miraculous saintly intervention, especially the hero’s cautiously credible reaction to it.  There’s both a nice nod to faith and a solid piece of characterization there.  The real weakness of the issue is the lack of mystery surrounding Darrk and the complete lack of development for him as well.  He’s just sort of generically evil, and he gets so little ‘screen time’ both as a cypher and as a villain that his reveal is pretty much without impact.  Fortunately, O’Neil sets this plot up to get further development, and we know that we’ll see this fellow again.  This is a good second outing for the League of Assassins, and I think I’ll give it 4 Minutemen.

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“The Explosive Circle!”


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Our Batgirl backup for today is an intriguing one because of its connections to social unrest and youth culture.  Interestingly, we’ve got youth involvement and student organization showing up in the Robin story this month at the same time this particular tale makes its appearance with a very different perspective on the phenomenon.  This version touches on questions that are back in the news today, whether peaceful protests are effective and whether or not violence can be justified as a form of protest.  The answers to these questions seem pretty clear to me, and writer Frank Robbins takes more or less the approach that you’d expect.

It all starts with a bomb, just as the headliner does, as a Gotham building explodes, leaving behind a charred clue, a burnt library book that Commissioner Gordon asks his librarian daughter to help him identify.  One would imagine that the police could probably manage that on their own, but sure.  She recognizes the text as “the current rage of the ‘tear down the establishment’ crowd,” a description that is delightful on its own merits, and for the contempt it displays for its subject.  Naturally, Babs decides to pursue this clue on her own, as Batgirl, having remembered the girl who checked this book out, thanks to her photographic memory.  I imagine that particular character trait was mentioned before this issue, but this is the first time I’ve taken notice of it.

Batgirl heads to the girl’s apartment, where the hippies are hanging about in bunches.  The girl, Shelley Simms, blithely informs the fire-tressed crime-fighter that she and her hippy group were planning on protesting her, if they could ever figure out where she lived.  The profound stupidity of that statement is just the beginning and is, of course, indicative of the general mindset of the hippy movement.  That statement really struck me, because, of course hippies would have picketed superheroes if they actually existed in the 60s.  In fact, I imagine superheroes would almost certainly be protested today as well.

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detective406-25Anyway, when Batgirl confronts the silly Miss Simms with the fact that her book was found at the site of the bombing, she suddenly freaks out and declares, in wonderfully silly 60s slang, “I don’t need your fuzz-fink help–lay off!”  Real smart cookie, this one.  Babs, on the other hand, is actually quite intelligent, so she stakes out the girl’s apartment and tails her when she leaves.  Well, she’s fairly intelligent, as she follows her on the street, rather than swinging across rooftops and the like, so she gets spotted.

Shelley leads her costumed companion to a fiery young man at a theater which is hosting a ridiculous, edgy play, complete with faux protesters and jack-booted thugs to put them down.  Apparently Shelley lent her book to this real winner of a guy.  The young fireplug, Mal, uses the distraction of the performance to have his boys quickly grab the girl detective.  Babs narrowly avoids a trip to the Head-Blow Headcount wall of shame, but she’s eventually brought down anyway.  When she awakens, Batgirl finds herself trapped in a mined basement, and Shelley, the brain-surgeon, is completely surprised that her radical terrorist boyfriend is a bomber and a killer, a revelation that one has to imagine had been presaged before now.

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Well, Gil Kane is back, and with him come the nostrils…so many nostrils.  The art in this backup is generally good, but he does pick some odd angles.  The story itself manages to be engaging and intriguing in its brief seven pages.  Of particular interest is the similarity of the plot to then current events in the form of the Weathermen’s bombing campaign.  The Weathermen were a radical domestic terrorist organization that had its roots in political movements originating on college campuses.  They were involved in bombings of public buildings and monuments from the late 60s through the late 70s.  In fact, they had been behind a bombing this very year, in October. Their brilliant, infallible plan was to blow things up until they magically created a communist utopia.  Incredibly, this didn’t work out too well.

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So, radicalized youth movements were in the news in 1970, and the experience of the stupid Miss Simms was likely one that many young people shared, as they watched political movements they were involved in splinter, change, and darken.  This particular comic story doesn’t capture all of that nuance, of course, but in these seven pages Robbins manages to evoke the destructive side of the counter-cultural movement and set up an engaging plot.  My only real complaint is how incredibly annoying Shelley is.  I wish that Batgirl had just dangled her off of a building instead of bothering to tail her.  The girl’s venomous response to Babs’ attempt to help her and the increasing stupidity that followed rankled me.  I suppose I should have more patience with the character; after all, I was 18 once, and as stupid yet convinced of my own intelligence as ever a teenager was.  Nonetheless, I don’t have much patience for that kind of nonsense these days.  Shelley’s foolishness aside, I’ll give this story 3.5 Minutemen.

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The Flash #202


the_flash_vol_1_202“The Satan Circle”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“The Accusation”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Editor: Julius Schwartz

We’ve got another Kanigher story, and one more clue to figure out what kind of writer he is.  This particular yarn won’t put the debate to rest, however, as it is neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally bad.  Notably, it features another story seemingly based on the Manson Family murders of a few years back.  Folks who have been following this feature for a while may remember that we encountered a Green Lantern/Green Arrow story earlier in 1970 that dealt with the same events in interesting ways.  This particular comic takes a decidedly less serious slant on events, but there are some creepy parallels that I imagine are not accidental.

Despite that, the headline tale begins sweetly enough, with a nice domestic scene between Barry and Iris Allen.  Iris is headed out of town to cove a spate of disappearances in Hollywood dance clubs that seem to be related to a movie about a “black magic cult.”  I was a bit surprised at the reference to evil Satanic cults hiding right under the surface of everyday America way back here in 1970.  It’s at least a decade too early for the ‘Satanic Panic’ of the 80s, when Americans would see Satan worshipers under every rock.  The 80s was a weird time, guys.  Anyway, the couple share a charming farewell, with Barry, of course, late for work, but still stopping long enough to pick a rose for Iris to wear in her hair.  As I’ve said before, I always enjoy these little scenes, and Kanigher does a good job of making use of this one, both for exposition and for setting up a Chekhov’s Gun for later in the issue.

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That evening, Barry receives a frantic phone call that freezes the blood in his veins, as he hears Iris desperately cry for help before the call is cut off.  In the blink of an eye, he’s speeding across the country as the Flash.  He arrives at the home of a Hollywood director, where Iris was to begin her investigation, only to find it ablaze, with a burning satanic effigy in the yard.  The Scarlet Speedster also finds a body in the pool, and he has a bad moment where he thinks it might be Iris.  Inside the mansion, he discovers half a dozen more victims, each wearing a devil mask, but with no sign of his wife among them.  A panicked search of the place finally presents a clue, when he finds her rose next to a phone upstairs, revealing that she has been kidnapped!

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The Crimson Comet sets out to search for a lead, visiting the suspiciously Satanic ‘discotheques’ where the missing kids had last been seen.  It’s quite odd to see the Flash dance with various club girls, as if he’s trying to blend in.  I think the bright red superhero costume and super speed might give you away there, Barry.

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In between some of his visits, the speedster is ambushed by a motorcycle gang who are definitely not the Hell’s Angels.  No, they’re the totally unrelated Hell’s Imps.  You might think that a biker gang would be a poor match for an honest-to-goodness superhero, but they have a strange gas in their exhaust that affects Barry, slowing him down.  He still manages to escape, arriving at ‘Pluto’s Palace,’ which looks just like the first place, only to meet a sultry cage dancer who promises to lead him to the Satan Circle!

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A rapid midnight race leads him to a seemingly deserted house occupied by robed cultists.  It is, of course, a trap, and his guide answers to the leader of the group, who claims to be an incarnation of Lucifer himself.  He looks a bit more like Vincent Price to me.  The cultists reveal that Iris is their prisoner and they plan to sacrifice her for a dark ritual.  Well, the Flash should be able to take a bunch of bathrobe wearing weirdos, right?  Wrong.  The gas he inhaled earlier had a delayed effect and begins to weaken him even further.  He tries to carry Iris away, only to collapse under he weight.

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Desperate, the Scarlet Speedster devises a very clever escape.  He drums his fingers on the old wooden floor at super speed, so fast that the motion is invisible, until the rotten boards collapse under the Allens, sending them tumbling into the (relatively) clean air of the basement.  Able to clear his head, the Flash is ready for round 2.

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Kanigher tries to create a bit more tension by trapping his hero between cultists armed with explosive bullets and the arriving motorcycle gang, but he doesn’t really have enough space left to pull it off.  Out of necessity, the Sultan of Speed wraps up the villains in a half page.  The story ends with a nice little exchange between the Allens back at home, where Iris points out that the Satan Circle was no match for the stronger circles, the wedding bands that binds the two of them together.  Aww.

flash-v1-202p18

This is a solid story, but it lacks a certain something to make it really ‘good.’  The villainous Satan Circle receive practically no development at all.  We don’t even know if they actually had any mystic powers or not.  For all we know, they’re about as magical as your average modern day “witch.”  Nonetheless, the Circle racks up a pretty terrible body count, and I’m not entirely sure that is earned by the story.  Despite that weakness, the Flash’s search for Iris and his fear and uncertainty about her fate was handled pretty well, other than the incongruous moments with the frantic hero stopping to dance in various clubs.  Probably the most interesting element of the story is the cultural currency it carries.  While the Satan Circle as we meet them has little in common with the Manson Family, the scene of a Hollywood big-shot’s home turned into a charnel house, with graffiti and strange signs left behind, certainly evokes the Family’s murder of the Tate family.  Add to that the constant undercurrent of fear about ‘devil music’ and its influence on young people, and you’ve got a story that is clearly drawing from the zeitgeist.  Whatever its connections, the comic itself is entertaining, if not terribly impressive, so I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.

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P.S.: Legendary skinner, Freedom Reborn member, and all around awesome guy, Daglob, just clued me in to an event that almost has to have been a major influence on the creation of this story.  Apparently, in 1969, Anton LaVey began to popularize the ‘Satanism’ movement, starting with the publication of The Satanic Bible that very year.  What’s more, 1970 saw the premiere of a documentary on the phenomenon, and apparently Satanists and the occult suddenly flooded the zeitgeist, often becoming, to quote my friend, “likely suspects in movies and TV shows.”  Now, Satanism, especially LaVey’s signature brand, is nothing more than jumped up Epicureanism with a bunch of nonsensical occult bells and whistles.  Nonetheless, it certainly had the potential to seem terribly frightening to mainstream America at the time.

It descends from the Romantic Period’s misreading of Milton’s Satan from Paradise Lost and similar lionizing of the “Satanic Hero,” a character who rebels against social norms and cultural constraints, pursuing their own desires.  The poetWilliam Blake famously claimed that Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it” (“Marriage of Heaven and Hell”).  For a fairly clear refutation of that reading, check out C.S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost.  It’s a short work and a wonderful read on its own merits, especially if you’re interested in literature and in epic in particular.

Anyway, I seem to have wandered somewhat astray from my point.  This revelation puts the Flash tale in a rather different light, doesn’t it?  Now we can see it reflecting a general anxiety about the encroachment of strange and seemingly sinister beliefs, as well as the clear and frightening evidence of social decay and upheaval represented by such madness as the Manson Murders.  That’s a fascinating new perspective!  Thanks Daglob!


“The Accusation”


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I was delighted to discover another Steve Skeates penned story in this month’s offerings, and this off-beat little backup didn’t disappoint.  It’s odd, but it’s an interesting read.  From the very beginning, this story establishes itself as a bit unusual, as in the opening pages, we join, not our protagonist, but a man named Carson, who dreams of a ghostly Kid Flash tormenting him for a hidden crime.  flash-v1-202p22The spectral speedster, in a nicely drawn sequence, accuses Carson of murdering a young man, but the dreamer insists upon his innocence.  When he awakes, he’s disturbed by the dream and can’t get it out of his head.  He remembers that a kid was killed by a hit and run driver the night before, but he’s certain that he stayed home last night…or is he?

Meanwhile, we check in with Wally West in school, where apparently he’s being taught by Clark Kent.  As a teacher, the brief little scene, where a daydreaming Wally is asked a question and frankly admits he wasn’t’ paying attention made me smile.  What unusual and refreshing honesty!  Having survived the soul-crushing weight of high school for another day (sheesh, as bad as it is for a normal kid, think what torment it must be if you have superpowers and routinely save the world!), Wally switches to his costume and spends the night tracking down a car-stripping gang.

Meanwhile, our mysterious Mr. Carson’s sleep is troubled, as he has another dream along the same theme, where the ghostly Kid Flash calls him a murderer and mentions stolen jewels!  Once more awakening in panic, he goes for a drive to try and calm his nerves, and the two halves of our plot rush towards a collision.

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Kid Flash, in the meantime, has managed to find his pigeons, and he smashes into them at super speed, carefully using only a light blow, for fear of killing them by striking them at full velocity, which is a nice touch.  We cut back and forth between our plots, with the dream-convicted Carson slowly remembering what he had repressed from the previous night.  He had acquired some stolen jewels, and driving home in a hurry, had run over an innocent kid rather than risk crashing and being caught with the goods, a cold-blooded act of murder!  He struggles against the returned memories as Wally struggles against the thieves, and he too almost joins the Headcount as he gets distracted and takes a head-blow.  Fortunately for him, he recovers and ties up the criminals for the police.

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Yet, as he’s walking home, a little shaky from the blow, Carson, driving erratically in his mounting dread, spots the boy and recognizes him as the spectral figure from his dreams.  The dream-tormented may-be-murderer panics and, frozen by the sight, smashes his car into a pole, dying in the impact.  Like Lancelot in Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” Kid Flash, unaware and with grim curiosity, discovers the person who died from sight of him.

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I’m glad to see Kid Flash return as a backup for the Flash.  I like the character, and I am excited to see more of his adventures.  This particular yarn is an interesting start to the feature.  Taken as a story bound by the more restrictive limitations of fiction as verisimilitude that we’re used to in the modern day, which tries to get as close to the real, rational world (outside of obvious difference, like the existence of superheroes) as possible, this tale wouldn’t work.  We’re left asking, ‘why does Carson see Kid Flash, if the boy knows nothing about his crime?’  Yet, a normal, logical plot is not what Skeates is going for here.  He leaves just enough mystery and mysticism in the story to make the strange coincidences functional, to make them serve as clues to something uncanny under the surface.  In this instance, the questions we’re left with are, in fact, part of the story’s purpose.  It’s short, but it gives us just enough, just barely enough, to work as a story, and a reader, in remarkably few pages, travels from sympathizing with the unknown Mr. Carson to marveling at the coldness and viciousness of his crime.  It would have been nice to learn more about him, but the story works, even so.  Dillin’s art is fantastically moody, and he really captures the anguish of Carson’s brief journey from ignorance to desperation.  I’ll give the backup 4 Minutemen, as it was intriguing and enjoyable.

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That will do it for this post, and I hope y’all enjoyed the read!  We’ve got a pretty solid pair of books here, with both youth culture and satanism in the mix!  The contrast between this month’s Robin and Batgirl’s stories really makes for a fascinating snapshot of the time, representing both the hope and the fear of the growing power of youth culture.  Once again, current events make their presence known in DC Comics, leaving their mark on this fantasy world.  I hope you’ll join me soon for another day’s journey, Into the Bronze Age!  Until then, keep the heroic ideal alive!

4 comments on “Into the Bronze Age: December 1970 (Part 3)

  1. B Smith says:

    I was going to suggest that the Flash story might have been slightly influenced by the hit film “Rosemary’s Baby” (in which Anton LaVey managed to score a position as “consultant”!), but it seems Daglob’s notes are more likely.

    And I’d say you were right on with the Weathermen link to the Batgirl story – Frank Robbins seemed more than most to tie his scripts to current events than other DC scribes.

    • Benton Grey says:

      Ahh, very interesting! Yes, that may well have had an influence, but if nothing else, it illustrates the growing presence of the Satanic in the zeitgeist.

      Yes, Robbins does seem to be more sensitive to current events, doesn’t he?

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. […] Batgirl backup for today picks up right where we left off last issue.  The hippy terrorist, Mal, as well as the hapless and stupid Shelley Simms, have trapped the […]

  3. […] another murder mystery in a castle, and on that front, this story hearkens back to the first Dr. Darrk story, only six issues ago.  Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable enough read.  It begins with an old […]

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