(You can see everything published this month HERE)
- Action Comics #396
- Adventure Comics #401
- Batman #228 (reprints, won’t be covered)
- Brave and Bold #93
- Detective Comics #407
- G.I. Combat #145
- Superboy #171
- Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #107
- Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #135
- Superman #232 (reprints, won’t be covered)
- Superman #233
Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.
Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #135
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta
Cover Artist: Neal Adams
This one is a bit odd, folks, so odd I really had a hard time figuring out what to say about it. The plot itself is actually fairly straightforward, at least as far as superhero comics go, but the implications thereof are something else entirely. In this issue Kirby continues laying the groundwork for his Fourth World saga, introducing and explaining new concepts which will echo through the pages of DC Comics for decades to come. They don’t quite reach their potential on their first outing though, as the King, for all of his creative brilliance, sometimes lets his imagination run away with him. He was unparalleled at creating new ideas, new characters and situations, but he wasn’t always the best at seeing what complications those new creations entailed. That was probably one of the great strengths of the ‘Stan and Jack’ team. Two heads are, after all, better than one.
Our issue opens with a shot of a horde of tiny, toy-sized replicas of our protagonists, Superman, Jimmy Olsen, and the Newsboy Legion, all swarming up the arm of a strangely garbed scientist like a colony of colorful ants. It’s a really striking image, though it doesn’t actually have anything to do with the story inside, much like the lovely Neal Adams cover for this issue. After playing with the fun-sized Legionaries, two masked miscreants, named Simyan and Mokkari (who is pretty cool looking) discuss their plans to destroy a mysteriously and rather ambiguously named “Project.” Apparently they are using advanced science to clone human beings and modifying their DNA to achieve certain monstrous effects. They are even growing a specially designed giant to kill Superman himself!
This all seems pretty tame in 2017, very standard sci-fi stuff, but in 1971, this was much more cutting edge. While the idea of cloning had been fodder for science fiction authors for decades, really coming to prominence in the 50s, a lot of the definitive books were still to be written in 71. This is one of the advantages of my little project. I’m able to see stories like this much more clearly in their context, rather than reading them purely from the perspective of the 21st Century.
Meanwhile, back at the ‘Mountain of Judgement,’ Superman and the Legion bid farewell to their Hairy hosts and receive dire warnings about troubles at…the Project! How vague! They take to the Zoomway again and soon arrive at the secret base called with that incredibly descriptive moniker, where they are greeted with great suspicion and many armed guards.
Once past security, the Legionnaires make a very surprising discovery. Among the base personal are…their fathers, the original Newsboy Legion! There’s a charming panel where the boys greet their dads, and it’s cool that Kirby got to bring his original characters back in some fashion. The King does a great job in creating adult versions of his lovable urchins, and they all have wonderfully distinct faces.
While the kids reconnect with their fathers and get caught up on events, Superman takes Jimmy aside to explain the situation to the young man. The Man of Steel tells his young friend that “the genetic code has been broken,” and the Project is dedicated to genetic research. Specifically, it’s all about cloning. In an effort to break things to the reporter gently, the Man of Tomorrow kindly presents him with a sight sure to trigger an existential crisis, introducing Jimmy to a clone of himself! Apparently, the government, for some reason, decided to use the Daily Planet as a pool from which to collect the samples for their work, so they secretly collected DNA from the employees during routine medical examinations. Notably, they did this without bothering to inform the staff. Why clone Jimmy Olsen of all people? Well, Kirby never bothers to explain that.
How would you react to finding out you had been cloned without your knowledge or consent, that there were dozens, maybe hundreds of clones of you running around and serving a shady government organization? Shock? Horror? Anger? Well, not Jimmy. He evinces mild surprise. This is my biggest problem with this issue in particular and this arc in general. The idea of the organization that would come to be known as Project Cadmus is a great one, just full of storytelling potential. It’s use on JLU led to some of the best episodes of that series. In fact, for my money they’re some of the best superhero stories around. It was also used to good effect in Young Justice. Part of what made those stories so great was their willingness to explore the themes inherent in such an undertaking, themes about the morality of cloning, the humanity and independence of artificial lifeforms, and the rights that a man-made being would merit.
Now, the first time I read these books, I spent several issues in a row waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the colossal ethical problems with cloning to be addressed, at least in some fashion. I thought for sure the shady, top secret government program that was cloning people without their consent, screwing with the DNA of their subjects, and creating human beings to serve their will, i.e., doing tons of super villain-esq stuff, would be revealed to have some type of nefarious agenda. But that never happened. The natural questions that cloning, especially cloning in secret and under conditions like these, raises, in fiction and in real life, are never so much as hinted at. It’s a colossal oversight, and something that really weakens the story Kirby is telling. There’s nothing even slightly troublesome in his DNA Project, no questions of morality, just bright and shining potential.
If you’re familiar with the sci-fi tradition involving cloning, it’s obvious that this is not just a question of a concept that lacked the sophistication of later day treatments back in 1971. No, the themes that are inherent within the idea were present in the fiction as early as the 60s, maybe even the 50s, so this is just a matter of Jack Kirby moving too fast for his own good, which happened from time to time. He spun out new creations so quickly that he barely had time to think them through before he was on to the next thing. That had to be especially true now, as he was dreaming up an entire new universe of characters and concepts. But, it doesn’t make this story any less flawed.
Back to our tale, as Jimmy presumably struggles with his existential angst at discovering that he’s been copied a zillion times, our two evil scientists contact their mysterious master, the malevolent Darkseid! We get a bit more of a look at him, and he is quite the imposing figure, even from this early date. Just then, their Superman slayer breaks free and starts trashing the joint, and in desperation, they teleport him directly into the rival Project, there to serve his destructive purpose.
When the monster arrives, he lays into Superman, and having received a coating of kryptonite, the creature is quite effective. The Man of Steel takes a beating, and the crazed clone continues its rampage. In response, the grownup-Legionnaires decide to release a special project, a clone of their old friend and mentor, the Guardian! Ethical qualms about cloning your dead buddy? Nah! The caged subject’s repeated cries of “Let me out!” combined with his shadowed portrayal give him a sinister sense that is quickly dispelled when the new Guardian leaps into action to save the base.
It’s great that Kirby gets a chance to revisit so many of his old creations, and you can feel his pride as he reintroduces them back into the DC Universe. The Guardian would go on to have a very respectable second career at DC, surviving as a concept long after Kirby’s time there ended. Of course, the other concepts the King introduced in this story also went on to significant roles in the DC Universe, as I mentioned above. It’s a shame that some of their later significance wasn’t present here in their introduction. The story is really fine, in so far as it goes, and Kirby is in fine form for the art, filling both competing genetics projects with wondrous gadgetry.
The introduction of the cloned Guardian is exciting, and it’s fun to meet the original Legion. Notably, we also learn what each of them went on to do, and this mostly explains their presence at the DNA Project, mostly but not entirely. Apparently Scrapper Sr. is a social worker. I can see how a teacher, a geneticist, and a doctor are going to be important in a cloning facility, but I’m not quite sure what vital role a social worker fills. Anyway, I’ll give this imaginative but flawed story 3 Minutemen. It’s readable, but it’s really missing something.
P.S.: As with the last episode, Kirby also included a text piece expanding on the ideas presented in the magazine. It’s even crazier than last month’s, by a significant margin. I hardly know where to begin with this thing. The bonkers, almost stream-of-consciousness style of the essay is matched by the bizarre content. It’s a pseudo-defense of the idea behind the Hairies, an idea that is still way too vague by the end of the piece’s attempts to explain it. I’m guess Jack himself wasn’t entirely sure what they were. It may also be a defense of the hippy movement’s incredibly short-sighted and impractical ideals. I really can’t do this thing justice, so I’m just going to let y’all read it. All I’ve got to say is that this piece provides the same lack of comprehensive thought as the issue itself.
“Superman Breaks Loose”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Letterer: Ben Oda
“Jor-El’s Golden Folly”
Writer: E. Nelson Bridwell
Penciler: Murphy Anderson
Inker: Murphy Anderson
With this wonderfully iconic cover we we reach the landmark “Kryptonite Nevermore” storyline at last. Amidst the universe wide wave of renovations, the head honchos at DC decided that their flagship character, the Man of Steel himself, needed to join the growing ranks of the revamped heroes that were populating their books. So, who better to rework the father of superheroes than the man who had already done the same thing with so many other characters, Denny O’Neil? I’ve read a bit about this set of comics, and I’m very curious to read them. The choices that he made in reworking Superman are fascinating. There’s a tendency to wonder why he didn’t make certain choices that seem obvious these days, though I suspect that owes a great deal to hindsight. After all, what hero had more continuity, more inertia, and more baggage than the Man of Tomorrow? Think about what a daunting task it must have been to approach the job of updating Superman. There’s also a question of exactly how much freedom the author had. After all, as DC was forcing the re-drawing of the character in Jack Kirby’s books, it isn’t terribly likely that they would give Denny O’Neil carte blanche in his approach.
The first change O’Neil makes is an interesting one, and I suppose it addresses perhaps the biggest problem the character faced at this point. At the very beginning of the comic, an experiment with a new ‘kryptonite-engine,’ which promises to produce cheap energy for the entire world, goes wrong. Superman attempts to smother the resultant explosion with a lead shield, despite the fact that it could literally kill him. Yet, his efforts fail, and he’s caught in the blast. By all rights, he should be dead, yet he wakes up with no ill-effects! Strangely, the explosion seems to have turned the kryptonite samples the team was using into common iron ore.
Meanwhile, back at the offices of the Daily Planet, we learn that effect wasn’t just local. Apparently the device’s malfunction destroyed all of the kryptonite on Earth! And just like that, with the stroke of a pen, Denny O’Neil does away with the biggest crutch that Superman scribes have ever had. Somewhere hack writers were crying out in despair. We also meet the Planet’s new owner, the creepy Morgan Edge, head of Galaxy Broadcasting which has bought the paper. In a scene silly enough to be right out of Batman V. Superman, Edge casually and randomly assigns the newspaper reporter Clark Kent to be his new on-air newsman. He sends the mild mannered fellow out to cover the launch of a new ‘mail rocket,’ the kind of concept that was always showing up in comics but didn’t survive past the 50s in the real world. Interestingly, Morgan Edge voices a completely reasonable concern, wondering if the complete and total removal of the only thing that could stop Superman is actually all that great of an event. That’s a theme that’s much more common today, but it’s good to see it here.
Obviously, this provides a new complication for the Man of Steel, as he’s now got to find a way to do his hero-ing while live on camera in front of millions of viewers! This is one of the changes that seems somewhat ill-conceived. While it adds some more chances for complications and challenges to the character, it seems like an unnecessary hurdle for the character’s status quo.
Anyway, the Metropolis Marvel faces his first test almost immediately, as he spots a man with a radio spying on the launch and has to deal with him during a commercial break! Superman encounters some random thug, part of the Generic Gang, no doubt, whose group plans to hijack the rocket and sell it overseas. He thinks he’s ready ready for the last Son of Krypton, as he’s managed to acquire a sample of the most abundant element on Earth, kryptonite! Of course, if this neanderthal could read, he’d know that his space-rock isn’t going to do him much good. To educate the fellow, the Man of Tomorrow happily takes the rock from him and eats it! It’s a great scene, a very clear and forceful message about the completeness of the anti-kryptonite change.
Having dealt with the man on the ground, Big Blue takes to the wild blue in search of the other part of the Generic Gang, who have arrived in fighter jets! Superman’s heat vision suddenly weakens, and he’s forced to down the two jets by more direct methods. He challenges himself to find different ways to stop the two threats, and in one entertaining bit, he uses his x-ray vision to spot the pilots of one of the jets and then knocks them out by punching directly through the hull. I like the idea that Superman tries to shake things up just to have fun with his adventures. That seems like a nice bit of characterization.
On his way home, the Man of Steel suddenly finds himself weakened for a moment as he passes over the spot of the kryptonite explosion, and we get a closeup of the impression he left in the sand when he crashed. Dun-dun-DUN! In the epilogue, we see a strange sight, as a sinister creature of sand in the shape of Superman arises out of that impression and stalks off towards civilization. There’s something in O’Neils narration of this scene that reminds me a bit of the end of Yeats’ “Second Coming.” There is certainly something portentous about the scene, and it is fittingly intriguing, setting up the saga to come.
This is a solid story and a good beginning for something new. Superman’s life and setting are being shaken up, and the removal of kryptonite is certainly a good first step towards forcing a more grounded and creative approach to the character. This comic is perhaps most notable for what it doesn’t do. Most of the Man of Tomorrow’s trappings remain unchanged, and now, despite the unexplained dimming of some of his powers, he certainly seems more powerful than ever.
There isn’t a whole lot else here, and the threats the hero faces in this issue are fairly run-of-the-mill. That works well enough because O’Neil is showing us the impact of the opening scene on the character’s life, but they don’t have a great amount of interest in-and-of themselves. Still, it’s a good, readable story with some interesting action and an intriguing ending. I know a bit about this arc, but I still find myself looking forward to seeing how O’Neil builds on the seeds he’s planted here. Of course, Swan’s art is beautiful, and he really shines, both in the action and the detailed face work he does in several scenes. His Bronze Age art is some of the very best there is. As for this issue, I’ll give it 4 Minutemen.
“The Second Coming”Turning and turning in the widening gyreThe falcon cannot hear the falconer;Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhereThe ceremony of innocence is drowned;The best lack all conviction, while the worstAre full of passionate intensity.Surely some revelation is at hand;Surely the Second Coming is at hand.The Second Coming! Hardly are those words outWhen a vast image out of Spiritus MundiTroubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desertA shape with lion body and the head of a man,A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,Is moving its slow thighs, while all about itReel shadows of the indignant desert birds.The darkness drops again; but now I knowThat twenty centuries of stony sleepWere vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
“Jor-El’s Golden Folly”
This was a great little backup tale. I thoroughly enjoyed the read, which I did not expect. It’s a fun examination of life of Krypton-that-was without some of the more ridiculous elements that generally accompany such yarns. It follows the early career of the great scientist himself, Jor-El, before he had acquired the fame that followed him later in life. It’s a neat glimpse into the life and character of both of Superman’s parents, and the story actually has some surprising elements for a comic from this period, especially in its treatment of Lara Lor-Van.
The story begins with Jor-El’s assignment to his first project at the Kryptonopolis Space-Complex, where he meets Professor Ken-Dal and General Dru-Zod(!), who will be his bosses. Jor will be working on the space program, which is in dire trouble, as its budget has been slashed just as it was nearing completion. Notably, the facility also houses the training facility for future space-pilots, and in a remarkably forward-thinking move, Bridwell makes them all women. Jor-El even wonders why women make better astronauts than men. That’s a pretty surprising development from a period where we’ve still seen plenty of sexism alive and well, and it’s a cool insight into Kryptonian culture.
Well, Jor-El gets right to work, and he decides that if they can’t afford to build powerful rockets, they must find another way to get their ships off of the ground. So, he develops the principles of anti-gravity in a fun little sequence, where he straps a device to a dog and levitates it. One wonders if this confused looking pooch is Krypto! Either way, his project gets approval, but because of budget cuts, the scientist is forced to build his ship out of the most common element on the planet, gold. That’s a fun little detail.
Everyone mocks Jor-El’s ship, calling it his “golden folly,” in a situation somewhat analogous to Howard Hughe’s “Spruce Goose.” Just like Hughes himself, however, the Kryptonian scientist is vindicated when his ship successfully takes off. However, Lara, who displays an admirable adventurous streak, wanted to be in the cockpit for the maiden voyage, so she stowed aboard. Her flight is successful until the ship hit space, and then the controls go dead! Between Jor-El’s remote tinkering and Lara’s piloting skill, they managed to put the ship down on a moon.
There’s a slim chance that Lara could have survived, so when the next rocket heads for that moon several days later, Jor-El uses his antigravity belt to stow away aboard and not add any weight, which is actually quite clever. On the harsh, barren moon, the young scientist searches desperately for the brave pilot who captured his heart, and at long last, he manages to find her. There reunion is charming, and it tells the tale of how the pair got together.
This is just a fun story, and I thoroughly enjoyed the glimpses of Krypton’s former glories that it provided. Jor-El and Lara are both interesting characters under Bridwell’s pen, and I was particularly impressed with his treatment of Lara. Together, these two make worthy parents for the Man of Steel. Once again, I’m impressed by the ability of the this era’s creators to tell complete stories in such limited space. These seven pages give us an adventure, several character moments for both protagonists, and a bit of world building. That’s impressive! I’ll give this enjoyable slice of Kryptonian life 4 Minutemen.
This was a pretty good month, over all, and it brought me several delightfully unexpected gems. The stand outs for me were the books I was most prepared to dislike, Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane and Superboy. Neither of these comics was exactly amazing, but I was very pleasantly surprised both by how much fun they were and by the lack of the sort of gimmicky silliness that I expected in those titles. Here’s hoping that they continue to be of such solid quality. In particular, Robert Kanigher continues to impress me. Even his less stellar offerings, like this month’s Haunted Tank are generally respectable efforts these days. I’m curious to see if his improvement will last.
We also saw the return of several themes that have become definitive of the early Bronze Age, like environmentalism and youth culture in this month’s Superboy and Batgirl stories. I was impressed with how both of those books handled these themes and the more mature moral sense that they displayed. At the same time, we had some disappointments this month, notably Jack Kirby’s unexamined and unproblematized treatment of cloning in Jimmy Olsen. Still, all things considered, this was a fine beginning to our new year. I can’t wait to see what else 1971 has in store for us! As always, thanks for reading, and, until next time, keep the heroic ideal alive!
The Head-Blow Headcount:
No new changes on the Headcount, so poor Aquaman still has the last two slots. I’m sure we’ll see more additions soon. I only hope they aren’t more from the Sea King!