- Action Comics #397
- Adventure Comics #402
- Aquaman #55
- Batman #229
- Detective Comics #408
- The Flash #203
- Justice League of America #87
- The Phantom Stranger #11
- Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #108
- Superman #234
- Teen Titans #31
- World’s Finest #200
Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.
“Return of the Alien!”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Dick Giordano
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Dick Giordano
Man, I am LOVING these Nick Cardy Aquaman covers. They’re always exciting, dynamic, intriguing, and just beautifully rendered. This is a particularly striking example. The story within is definitely worthy of such a great cover, and it returns to a plot thread readers must have thought abandoned back in issue #52. This tale takes us back to the strange microscopic world that exists within Mera’s ring and to the brave girl who helped Aquaman during his sojourn there. I was really struck by the moral conundrum with which Skeates faced his character in that earlier story, as the Sea King had to choose between leaving his alien girl Friday in the clutches of slavers or risk her death at the hands of a hostile colony. While I understood Aquaman’s choice to abandon her, it definitely seemed like an unresolved issue when he came back to the normal world. In this story, the Marine Marvel finally sets out to right that wrong. It’s great that Skeates brought this thread back from three issues ago, despite there not having been a single mention of it since. That level of continuity was still rather rare in this era, and it’s the smallest example of such in this issue.
The story itself begins with Dr. Vulko, playing his role as Atlantis’s resident mad scientist, as he prepares a machine to transport the Sea King back to the microscopic madhouse. Apparently, in a fun little touch of universe awareness, Aquaman got advice from the Atom about how to build this shrinking device. Operating the machine, Vulko reminds Mera that she must concentrate, as she’s vital to the procedure. As we discovered in that earlier story, the Queen can actually exert some form of telepathic control over the realm in her ring. There’s actually room for a really interesting set of stories exploring that connection and the origins of this place, and I have to think that Skeates saw that possibility. Unfortunately, he never got the chance to investigate those mysteries.
Vulko throws the switch, and Aquaman shrinks back to the surreal, Dali-esq sub-reality. He begins to explore, but he encounters another one of those horrible cyclopean blob creatures that attacked him on his first visit. Realizing that there’s nothing to be gained by fighting the monster, the Sea Sleuth evades it and continues his quest. There’s a nice bit of characterization in that encounter, as Arthur evinces sound judgement but also shows some awareness of his public role as king, noting his subjects might not understand his actions. As it turns out, that’s a thought that proves somewhat prophetic given the other events in this story.
With the telepathic guidance of his wife, Aquaman succeeds in locating the colony of the big-headed slavers of the previous story, and he just charges right in swinging. It’s a pretty dynamic sequence, as the Sea King just smashes into their defenses. Meanwhile, back in Atlantis, Mera can sense that her love is in combat, and Vulko stresses that she must not think about wanting him to return to her or she’ll bring him back prematurely. At the same time, Aqualad is observing a fiery speech in an Atlantean park, where a local nutjob has managed to acquire quite a following. The rabble-rouser, named Noxden, is stirring up resentment against the King by claiming that the destiny of Altanteans is to be air-breathers, and this is a destiny of which Aquaman robbed them!
All the way back in issue #35, the Atlanteans were converted into air-breathers, and their king restored them (in issue #43), because it’s pretty stupid to live on the bottom of the sea if you can’t breathe underwater. Yet, despite the utter absurdity of the fellow’s claims, people are beginning to listen. There was a time when that would have seemed more far-fetched than it does today, I suppose.
Yet, if there’s one thing that history teaches us, it’s that a looney who shouts loud enough and provides a convenient scapegoat for people’s problems will always be able to attract a following. Aqualad is disgusted by the raving rhetoric, seething at the idea that Atlanteans would be so ungrateful to the king who had done so much for them, and he heads out to tell Aquaman. Just at that moment, the Marine Marvel is getting overwhelmed by his alien antagonists and…oh no. Not again…that’s right, the third head-blow in a row! Arthur gets conked on the noggin and he’s down for the count!
Before we learn what happens with the Sea King, though, we have another stop. Subplots galore! In this case, we’re touching base with Mupo, the fiery young man who led the rebellion against Aquaman’s regent-turned-tyrant way back in issue #47. This book is just full of continuity! Mupo has been swayed by Noxden’s speech, and he begins to spout some racist rhetoric, which Aquagirl calls him on. The Marine Mistress shows her class by storming out on the moron.
Meanwhile, Mera uses her connection with the ring-world to revive her husband, which si a nice touch and a way to give her more of a role. Aquaman awakens as he’s being taken prisoner by the aliens and carefully times his escape, plowing through the guards that thought he was helpless. As he’s swimming through the city, searching for a place to hide and make plans, who should he encounter but the object of his quest herself! The girl signals him and hides the hero while they talk. The Marine Marvel realizes that she’s communicating with him telepathically, despite the fact that this was against her beliefs when they last met.
She explains that her captors have opened her mind and taught her to think for herself, strangely enough. Yet, even more surprising, when he tells the young lady that he’s there to rescue her, she refuses, saying she’s happy in her role! While she may be a captive, she is, in many ways, more free than she was in her oppressive home. It’s an interesting wrinkle and an unexpected twist. Yet, it is also a bit unsatisfying. Our hero has gone through all of this to save her, and she doesn’t want to be saved!
Stunned, Aquaman leaves, realizing that he’s got twenty hours on the clock before he’s due to be recalled and hoping he can find somewhere to hide and wait for his rendezvous. At the same time in Atlantis, our plot threads are converging, as Aquagirl encounters Aqualad, just as she’s thinking over things with Mupo. When the young Aquatic Ace brushes her off in his hurry to see the King, she thinks that the more he ignores her, “the more attractive Mupo looks!” Uh-oh Garth, better watch out! You’ve got competition!
Back in the microscopic world, Aquaman encounters another group of the aliens, and as he’s tearing his way through them, he suddenly begins to grow, way ahead of schedule! When he arrives back home, Mera apologizes, realizing that her anxiety must have inadvertently led to her recalling him, but her husband stops her, saying that she came through at the perfect time. Just then Aqualad arrives and tells his tale, but Aquaman silences him as well, reminding his young charge that he respects free speech and isn’t about to start censoring folks he disagrees with, which is a nice character beat. The story ends with a very striking image of Noxden, gesturing in a manner that is grimly familiar.
This is a very good tale, and it is absolutely packed full to the gills (if you’ll forgive the expression) with plot. In fact, it’s so stuffed with story that I had trouble summarizing it! Skeates is layering in storylines that could stick with the book for a long time to come, doing some worldbuilding, and in general giving Aquaman a more fully realized setting to inhabit. Of course, that makes the title’s impending cancellation all the more heartbreaking. None of these plotlines will get resolved in the next and, as it happens final issue, leaving so much undone, so much potential wasted. I suppose I’ll talk about that in more detail when I cover the final issue, but on this read-through, I’m really struck by how much this loss hurt the character. At the very beginning of the Bronze Age, where the DC Universe is evolving and growing, and when he had a fantastic opportunity to do the same, the powers that be cut the legs out from under Aquaman. That’s just a crying shame, and it explains a lot of the problems the character has had since then.
Anyway, in terms of the story itself, it is a really enjoyable read. The quick cuts between the different plots keep it moving at break-neck pace. While the resolution of the plot of Aquaman’s girl Friday is a bit of a letdown, the adventure that reunites the pair is pretty exciting. It does seem like the Sea King could have offered her a third option, or at least tried to do so. He could have sent the Atom in to bring her up to Atlantis, where she could have had her mental and physical freedom. Maybe that idea would have materialized in time, if Skeates had been given the opportunity. We’ll never know now, I suppose.
I enjoy the mini-plots with Aquaman’s supporting cast. At this time, the Marine Marvel is the only character that has his entire extended super family gathered around him, giving him unique story possibilities that other characters with similar supporting characters don’t have access to at the moment. It’s great to see Skeates take advantage of that. I also love seeing more of Tula in general. The character she developed into under Skeates’ pen, capable, level-headed, independent, and still with a great sense of adventure, is one that I really love. The plot of the trouble-making politician that the young Aquatic Aces are mixed up in is certainly not a new one for Aquaman, but this time it comes with a new twist. Interestingly, part of Noxden’s platform is a call for free and democratic elections, which is actually quite sensible and seems only natural to an American audience. After all, one of the central values of our culture is reverence for democracy. There is a lot of potential for some fascinating stories in the interplay between tradition and progress in Atlantis. Sadly, we won’t really get to see Skeates develop that potential.
In the end, though this isn’t a perfect story, it is a lot of fun and just full of intriguing beginnings. The SAG team has done a lot of experimentation, but I rather feel like, with this issue, they were settling into what would have been a very promising routine. I’ll give it 4.5 Minutemen.
We’ve got a very pleasant surprise this month in the form of an extra Aquaman yarn as a backup in this issue. This is a great little 7 1/2 page story that hits on some unexpected themes. The backup begins with Skeates doing a bit more aquatic world building, as the Sea King, returning from a mission on the surface, swims through a submarine ghost town. It’s a forlorn abandoned city that rather gives our hero the creeps, and while he’s pondering what happened to its inhabitants and how long it has lain empty, he suddenly detects a telepathic signal. Strange!
When he goes to investigate, he discovers an advanced computer, a self-aware machine that attacks his mind! The AI attempts to enslave his will, but Aquaman is no mental weakling, and his incredible willpower and mental strength hold off the telepathic attack. In the interim, we get treated to a flashback to this device’s origins, and it’s a pretty interesting story, the archetypal ‘machines turn on their masters‘ setup. An advanced aquatic society built this powerful computer to help run their civilization, but, in a classic twist, the machine found the humans far too unstable and imperfect, so it simply took over.
In this case, the device actually dominates the minds of the citizens and turns them into efficient little worker-bees, creating more and more machines and more and more advancements, all in the name of ‘progress.’ That was the great ideal, progress for its own sake, and progress defined as technological growth, while all else in this culture decayed. In a really neat take on the concept, the machine can only control the minds of the adult society members because their brains are fixed and rigid, leaving the youth to grow disaffected and eventually to abandon the colony in search of a place that valued more in life than the endless pursuit of ‘progress.’ In a cool example of truth in fiction, the minds of young people actually are more flexible and less fully developed, so this is surprisingly believable on that score. Of course, there are also obvious social parallels as well.
Eventually, the machine’s slaves grew old and died, leaving no-one to serve it. The computer plans to use Aquaman to attract a new population to pursue ‘progress,’ but the King of the Seven Seas is nobody’s pawn. He stops fighting the device long enough to summon help, and though the computer invades his mind, the timely arrival of an electric eel breaks its control! To put an end to the menace of this mad machine, Aquaman summons a horde of his finny friends, and they collapse the cave it inhabits. Yet, Skeates leaves a note of mystery in the ending of this tale, as the machine may yet survive!
This is a quite a good story for as brief as it is. It helps that it fits into the end of the previous yarn, building off of its momentum, allowing this one to feel a bit more expansive than it really is. Skeates also deals with some really fascinating themes here, including the dangers of the rapid pace of technological advancement, one of the perennial subjects of science fiction. As long as man has built machines, there has always been a fear that they might somehow cost him his humanity. As it turns out, it’s a fear well founded. We’ve begun to see that our hypertechnological society comes at a cost, with kids losing the ability to interact socially because of their addiction to social media and the like, not to mention the impact of information and sensation overload in the Internet Age. These are just the newest manifestations of an ancient phenomenon. Very little that we create comes without a cost, and it seems that those costs are growing more dear.
Perhaps the most interesting element of the story for me was Skeates’ implicit criticism of the concept of progress as its own goal. C.S. Lewis described the origins of this tendency brilliantly in his essay “De Descriptione Temporum,” where he wrote of the modern idea of a progressive, which is to say ‘evolutionary,’ view of history:
“that what has imposed this climate of opinion so firmly on the human mind is a new archetypal image. It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy.”
And he critiqued this view in his Mere Christianity, arguing that:
“Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”
There can be no progress without a concept of a destination, without an ideal and a goal, and you’re either moving closer to that end or you’re moving further away, so movement by itself is not necessarily progress. It’s a useful lesson to remember, and, in its own small way, this little backup tale teaches it. The departure of the colony’s youth makes the point rather well, as they are searching for the things that give a culture its soul, the things that make life worth living, like the sublime pleasures of art and literature. Of course, Skeates’ story is so brief that it can do little more than gesture at its themes, but they are interesting enough on their own merits that they still add some flavor to the final product. I’ll give this great little backup 4.5 Minutemen, as it gets extra credit for at least having the potential to be thought-provoking.
Of course, it hardly needs to be said at this point, but Aparo’s art in this issue is as beautiful as usual. His depictions of the action scenes are particularly impressive, but I just plain love his illustration of the ring-world. He gives that place such a wonderfully insane feeling that it really adds something to Aquaman’s adventures there. His Tula is a tad off this issue (she’s probably the only Aqua-character for whom I really prefer Nick Cardy’s rendition), but Aparo, as usual, also injects a lot of personality into the supporting characters. That last shot of the rabble-rousing politician is a bit chilling and instantly conveys the fellow’s nature and personality.
“Temperature Boiling… and Rising!”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Frank Giacoia
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz
Not the most amazing cover we’ve had here, though I suppose it does do its job of making the reader curious about what’s going on. And what is going on is rather weird. This isn’t the type of terrible, lazy story we’ve encountered from Kanigher in the past, but neither is it the stronger type of tale he’s been telling lately in our reading.
The yarn itself opens with a young woman running along a country road where she encounters the Batman, who has come searching for her and her husband. Her name is Laura, and how the Dark Knight knows her isn’t explained. When she asks about his fortuitous arrival in the middle of nowhere and the middle of the night, he just says he’ll tell her later. Odd. She proceeds to tell the Caped Crusader that her husband disappeared in the middle of the night, and when she found him, the scene she witnessed was almost enough to drive her mad!
Refusing to describe the source of her trepidation for fear he won’t believe her, Laura leads Batman to an eerie, gloomy old house in the woods. Therein, they observe a scene out of an asylum, as musicians play on invisible instruments, waiters serve phantom food, and diners dressed in futuristic garb eat off empty plates. They observe Larua’s husband, Stephen, a “famed photographer of psychic phenomena” looking on in befuddlement before he finally breaks out in anger, demanding to know the meaning of all of this. In response, the creepy lady in charge yells out that they thought he was “the Seventh Futurian,” but since they were mistake, they must kill him! His work made them think that he’d be able to “hear” their music, and “taste” their food, things only a Futurian can do.
Batman takes that as his cue, rushing in and overcoming the gathered gang and their futuristic weaponry. It’s a nicely drawn sequence for the most part, and it ends with only the girl left standing. She declares that the Futurians are “the wave of the future,” born psychic and destined to rule the world. They have cells all over the planet, waiting for the arrival of the Seventh who will lead them. She reasons that only one person could overcome five of her fellows, and thus the Dark Knight himself must be the Seventh for which they’ve been waiting. They hand the Masked Manhunter a crown, and he decides to play along in order to take care of them peacefully. But it’s a trap! The crown tightens on his head, knocking him out, and the Futurians decide to put him to the test.
Taking a book out of Renaissance witch trials, they lock him in a coffin and toss it in the lake, thinking that only the special Seventh could escape from a watery grave. Inside his sinking prison, the Dark Knight uses the now loosened crown to pick the coffin’s lock and swims for the surface. For some reason, the Futurians seem sure that this guy they’ve just tried to kill, TWICE, who has dedicated his life to fighting crime, is going to help them take over the world.
Instead, for some strange reason Batman seems more inclined to punch them in their faces. He takes them out, using the estate’s statuary, and captures their lovely leader. Then, as he takes the rescued couple home, we discover that when Stephen was captured, he “screamed silently for help,” and somehow, that call reached the Caped Crusader. The question of psychic powers is left ambiguous, but not in a particularly productive way. It’s so vague and these characters so forgettable (I had to go back and look up their names), that it doesn’t have much impact.
This is a mediocre story. It’s okay, and Novick renders the action nicely. Yet, the Futurians are too big of a concept to be tossed out in 15 pages while also vying for space with two other supporting characters, one of whom is entirely superfluous to the plot. Kanigher could have just had Batman show up at the house and saved two pages for better use. The gang/cult themselves are just shy of being interesting. With some more development, they could have made the jump, but as is, they just seem like generic would-be world-conquerors.
In general, the concept of this story just doesn’t quite manage to come together, and that concept, interestingly enough in light of the Aquaman backup tale above, seems to be tied into Futurism, an early 20th Century cultural movement originating in Italy that, coincidentally enough, advocated complete neglect of the past and an ethic of unbridled progress. Even when I first read the “Futurist Manifesto” in college, I thought its principles were utterly foolish. To once more quote Lewis, he argued that “[t]o study the past does indeed liberate us from the present, from the idols of our own market-place. But I think it liberates us from the past too. I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians” (12). Far from enslaving us, a knowledge of the past frees us from the blindness that makes contemporary mores into commandments and fashion into fact, and it also puts bygone days in their proper context, removing the rosy tinge that nostalgia tends to apply to all such visions.
But what has this story to do with Futurism? It’s only tangentially related, but I can’t help but think that it is this movement which Kanigher had in mind when he penned this tale. The antagonists of the piece read like a more militaristic version of the Futurists, which is impressive considering just how militaristic the originals were. There are some definite parallels, and the sad thing is that these guys could actually furnish some really interesting villains if they were given any chance to develop a personality other than ‘strangeness.’ The story just feels a bit unfinished, though it is entertaining enough. I’ll give it 3 Minutemen.
P.S.: Well, it just might be that I was wrong! The letter’s page of issue #232 included a short note about the Futurians. It turns out that the name was a reference to a group of science fiction fans from the 30s, many of whom would go on to be major influences in the genre. How neat! Yet, perhaps the political leanings of the group might indeed provide some overlap with the Futuristis. I’m curious, but I can’t say.
“Temperature Boiling… and Rising!”
The second half of this Robin tale is pretty good, even better than its predecessor. It picks up with the student volunteers for Prof. Buck Stuart’s senate campaign as they try to make sense out of the shocking newspaper headline from last issue and the picture showing their golden boy giving a payoff. In an interesting scene, a hippy-looking kid blows his top and tells Dick Grayson that he’s through playing by the rules before storming out. What makes the scene fascinating is the boy’s mention of the Kent State Massacre. Bringing that real event into the story instantly makes it feel more serious and grounded, and it really puts the kid’s anger and impatience into perspective. This election, and those like it in which young people were getting involved, mattered. They mattered because they were a chance to show the youth of this country that the system worked…or risk driving them into the streets in anger and despair. It’s a small moment, but it struck me nonetheless.
The story continues, with the candidate himself arriving and telling the boys that the claims are phony. With the help of Phil Real, the campaign photographer, Dick does some good detective work by realizing that the damning picture is doctored and sets out to prove it as Robin. The Teen Wonder heads to the local paper where the editor tells him in no uncertain terms that their publisher is backing the incumbent and won’t allow a retraction without hard evidence, so Dick goes in search of just that when the fellow reveals that their source’s name was…Phil Real!
When Robin arrives at his friend’s room, he finds Phil’s roommate, who is one of the kids behind the fire at the campaign office from last issue. The firebug and his friend jump the young hero, and for the second issue in a row, Robin barely escapes a slot on the Head-Blow Headcount, as he gets his bell rung pretty good.
Still, he keeps his feet and easily dispatches the two college-toughs. In the room he finds the evidence he needs of the photo tampering, enough to force the paper to print a retraction, which helps to swing the election in Stuart’s favor! At the end of the tale, Dick Grayson leaves the victory party, saying there’s still much more work to be done, an ending that I rather liked. There’s something in it that indicates our young hero is growing up.
This is a good ending to this story, and it manages to pack a really impressive amount into these seven pages. There’s enough of a misdirect to make the mystery feel somewhat satisfying, with the evidence of both this and last issue seeming to point to the photographer. Robin gets to display some detective skills and gets in a touch of action as well, in general, being portrayed as the intelligent, capable, and resourceful young man he is, which hasn’t always been the case with these Robin tales.
It’s nice to see the Teen Wonder come off well. He is one of my favorite characters, after all. This iteration doesn’t have as much focus on youth involvement in politics as the previous one, but together they make an interesting whole, commenting on the situation. It’s fascinating to see the social unrest of the period work its way so clearly into comics, and this tale is a particularly obvious example of the tendency. I’ll give it a good score of 4 Minutemen.
And that will do it for the second part of February 1971. I hope y’all enjoyed the read and will join me again soon for the next edition of Into the Bronze Age, where we’ll have a little something from the Dark Knight and the Fastest Man Alive. Until then, keep the heroic ideal alive!
The Head-Blow Headcount:
Oh no! Three in a row! Poor Aquaman. He just can’t catch a break, and the biggest blow of all is yet to fall. Once again, Robin narrowly avoids inclusion on the Wall of Shame, and no-one else has really come close. We’ll have to see if this month holds any more additions to the august company.