- Action Comics #399
- Adventure Comics #405
- Aquaman #56 / (Sub-Mariner #72)
- Detective Comics #410
- The Flash #205 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
- Mr Miracle #1
- The Phantom Stranger #12
- Superboy #173
- Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #109
- Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #137
- Superman #236
- Teen Titans #32
Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.
“Planet of the Angels”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Dick Giordano
Inker: Dick Giordano
Say what you will about Denny O’Neil, he was unquestionably an innovator, always trying something different, though it didn’t always succeed. Today’s cover story is just such an experiment. It’s interesting and unusual, but not entirely effective. The cover is certainly striking, picturing the Man of Steel facing off against demons at the very gates of Hell, a very unlikely image for a Superman comic. O’Neil has been trying to shake up the status quo, to bring new life and energy to the rather staid hero, and he’s been succeeding so far. This comic isn’t quite as successful as some of his previous efforts, though.
It begins with a fun little scene where the World’s Finest team of Superman and Batman bust some safe-crackers. O’Neil and Swan manage to make them both seem useful, despite the fact that the invulnerable, super-fast sun god could easily have handled these two ordinary crooks before Batman so much as put on his cowl. Swan really does a great job with this team. The effect is enjoyable, despite their incongruity. Superman offers to buy his partner a cup of coffee, and I’m deeply disappointed that we don’t get to see a HISHE style scene with the two heroes sipping java in a cafe.
Missed opportunities aside, after the Dark Knight begs off because he’s bushed, the Man of Tomorrow heads to his Fortress of Solitude where he tries out a ‘brainwave project’ that he’s been working on, a device that will compare his brainwaves to those of a normal human. Envying humans and their need for sleep and dreams, he tries out the gadget and suddenly finds himself on a strange world! What’s going on?
He’s on a fiery plane where he is suddenly attacked by a gang of demons straight out of pop-cultural portrayals, right down to the goat-feet and pitchforks. Their polearms glance off him harmlessly, and the Kryptonian easily repulses their attack.
Just then, he is greeted by a trio of angelic looking figures who introduce themselves as Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael, Christian archangels who tell the Man of Steel that he’s in the afterlife. They stand amid beautiful green hills, and below them burns a sulfurous pit. They display the popular misunderstanding of theology that Hell is for “those who follow not the paths of virtue,” and tell Superman that he has died and must prove himself worthy of Heaven by slaying the demons below. Something about this seems off to him, but the Action Ace heads into the flames nonetheless.
In the pit he discovers a massive gate and is haunted by twisted images of his friends appearing in the flames. Realizing that something is off, Superman decides to use his head, and he tunnels underneath the gate, easily disarming the ‘demonic’ guards on the other side, where he tries to get some straight answers out of one of their number.
The ‘fiend’ tells the Metropolis Marvel that what he sees is an illusion caused by the ‘angel’s’ hypnotic powers. With concentration, the Man of Steel sees, not a demon, but a uniformed alien, who tells the hero that he and his fellows are law officers who were chasing criminals, those same ‘angels,’ who lured them to this planet and trapped them. The criminals telepathically summoned Superman to destroy their enemies for them.
Confronting the false heavenly host, the Man of Steel sees through their illusions, including phantoms of his friends being threatened, and charges through their weapon blasts to knock two of them out. The third escapes, however, carrying a powerful bomb (through deep space!), with which to destroy the Earth! The Man of Tomorrow catches up just in the nick of time and stops the antagonistic archangel, returning him and his fellows to the lawmen (err…law-aliens?), and repairing their ship. The tale ends with Superman back in the Fortress of Solitude, where he reflects that he had a living dream, even though he didn’t sleep.
This is a weird issue. I like how Superman picks up on the incongruous elements of the ‘angel’s’ stories and setting, and I like his willingness to question figures of even the ultimate authority. It shows a greater maturity for his character than we’ve seen in the past, and these are obviously elements that O’Neil has been trying to develop. Yet, precisely what is happening in the story is rather unclear. Does Superman’s device cause him to dream? Is this a real and random encounter that has nothing to do with the device? It’s really ambiguous, and unintentionally so, I think.
Neither possibility lines up perfectly with the story as told, and there doesn’t seem to be any overriding point to either possibility either. Add to that the fact that Superman just absolutely breezes through all of his challenges in this story, despite the fact that O’Neil has been trying to present him as less all-powerful and the presence of alien weapons that could reasonably have presented a threat to him, and you’ve got an uneven tale that feels a bit sloppy. I’m also a little disappointed that the ersatz angel’s appearances weren’t illusions, as it seems incongruous for aliens to be flying through space in robes and without any protective gear. I understand what O’Neil was going for with his little ‘evil can be beautiful’ touch at the end, but it still doesn’t quite work. In the end, I’ll give this off-beat issue 2 Minutemen, with the dip below average primarily because of its unnecessary ambiguity. It’s strange but ultimately forgettable.
While the first story was something new, this backup is something old. This is another ‘Fabulous World of Krypton’ backup feature, though, honestly it feels like a bit of a gyp. The frame-tale guest stars Green Arrow and Black Canary, so take a wild guess what the theme is. If you guessed ‘yet another preachy environmental yarn,’ you win the cigar! This story just doesn’t fit the tone of Kryptonian tales, and it’s a good example of what happens when you shoe-horn in a message, prioritizing that over story. It all begins with Superman, Green Arrow, and Black Canary having a picnic, which is a fun idea, but a rather odd set of characters. Predictably, Ollie starts bellyaching about a nearby factory that’s spewing out pollution. At this point, why does anyone even hang out with this annoying archer? Well, this reminds Kal-El of a story from the glory days of Krypton, the story of a city called Surrus. In this city there grew special flowers, the Surrus blossoms, that sang a beautiful, calming song that had an almost soporific effect on the populace. Shades of the “Lotus Eaters!”
This city was also home to a scientist named Mo-De, who discovered the fate of Krypton twenty whole years ahead of Jor-El! After he made his discovery, he rushed out into the city streets and started playing Jeremiah, telling the citizens that there was still time to act. The people didn’t want anything to do with him, just wanting to be left alone to listen to their flowers. In desperation, Mo-De rushed into the fields and cut down the blossoms, but the enraged citizens, finally shaken out of their lethargy, beat him mercilessly and locked him in a greenhouse with more of the singing sprouts.
Eventually, the sounds break his will, and he emerges another zombie-fied lotus eater, err…flower listener. He passed the remaining years in peace, but died with the rest of Krypton. After Supes finishes his story, Canary is horrified, and she rushes off to have a word with the factory’s owner, having been shaken out of her lethargy. “Message for you, sir!” It’s a shame it was so subtle. I almost missed it.
This isn’t a bad story, really. It just doesn’t really belong here, and the entire thing feels forced, from the odd picnic with these characters that don’t really seem to have much in common (all in costume, no less), to the rather Twilight Zone-esq plot, which just really doesn’t seem to fit the utopian, highly organized Krypton that we’ve seen before. O’Neil does a good job of economical storytelling, packing his preachy message into seven short pages pretty efficiently. The message itself, though feeling a bit repetitive because of its environmental theme, is actually a slightly unusual one and not half bad. Focusing, not on the pollution itself, but on the populace’s apathy, their greater interest in their entertainments, their distractions, than on their future, is a good angle. The execution of the plot itself isn’t half bad, with the crowd’s reactions and the scientist’s fate all fairly creepy and menacing. The fact that O’Neil did use Krypton allowed him a certain amount of shorthand with the fate of the planet, which helps his efficiency in storytelling. There is also significance in the continued push towards social relevance, even in such an unlikely place as the Krypton backups. Taken all together, this little yarn is worth 3 Minutemen, with the incongruous elements limiting it to an average score.
P.S.: There’s also a somewhat clever joke in the name of the town, as “SUSsurrus” is a word meaning a soft murmuring or whispering, something of an indistinct, gentle noise.
Teen Titans #32
“A Mystical Realm – A World Gone Mad”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Nick Cardy
Inker: Nick Cardy
Letterer: Joe Letterese
Editor: Murray Boltinoff
Steve Skeates’ tenure on the Titans book continues this month, and we get a rather weird story under a fairly awesome cover. The peril of the two Titans in the image is pretty dramatic, and the dragon is quite impressive looking. The whole composition has a dream-like (or perhaps, nightmare-like) quality that smacks of the twisted fairy tale we find within. The story it represents begins with a scene that takes in media res too far, with Kid Flash and Mal traveling through time and referencing events that the reader hasn’t seen. It seriously made me go back and check the last issue to see if I had forgotten something. It’s a clever scene given the use of time travel, as it begins ‘in the present,’ but it’s probably too clever for its own good.
They think they are back in 1971, but instead of finding familiar surroundings, they discover medieval-looking peasants and, of all things, a dragon! Kid Flash’s speed manages to get them to safety, and only then do we get the flashback we’ve been needing. It seems that Mr. Jupiter, the vague and largely pointless patron of the Titans team, is apparently a scientist as well as a millionaire.
One day he was experimenting with a time-travel device, just casually running incredibly dangerous and unstable tests in his building with a bunch of teenagers around. Something went catastrophically wrong (shocking, I know), and Mal was flung back in time. Cardy’s rendering of the page is really cool, but the scene is rather dumb. It’s pretty clear that we’re moving at the speed of plot, here. Also, here is yet another experiment that could conceivably destroy the world as we know it. I’m thinking that the safest course of action in the DCU would be to ban science in general.
Mal finds himself back in the Stone Age, facing a tribe of cavemen who begin to worship him because they saw him appear out of thin air. Apparently the young man listened to the Ghostbuster’s good advice, as he plays along. Meanwhile, back in the present, Jupiter feels bad for about half a second for how his irresponsibility and complete lack of safety standards hurled an innocent kid through time. The other Titans encourage him for some reason, and Kid Flash makes plans to take a jaunt through time to try and find his friend.
Back in the past, Mal finds trouble by stealing a caveman’s cavegirl and finds himself in a club duel. Cardy renders the fight beautifully, and Skeates doesn’t spoil it with dialog. Mal holds his own, but a misstep leaves him hanging onto a cliff, just as Kid Flash arrives. As the caveman prepares for a death-blow, the Fastest Boy alive knocks the club out of his hand, but he manages to bean himself in the process and earns a spot on the Head-Blow Headcount, as well as sending the neanderthal plummeting to his death. With the hero knocked out, there’s no way to save the savage, which doesn’t seem to bother the boys much. They take manslaughter awfully casually.
In the altered present, Kid Flash realizes that they’ve unintentionally changed history with the death of that caveman. The young speedster knows they must go back and save the neanderthal, but he needs a cosmic treadmill to do it and doesn’t know where to find one in this medieval world. The peasants from earlier mentioned sorcerers, so they set out to try to find someone with the power or knowledge to help them. Discovering a castle, the pair are greeted by illusory monsters in the moat, but they manage to get past them by pole-vaulting onto the battlements, despite a mysterious hooded figure’s interference.
It’s a nice sequence, but it gives us one of the stranger dialog exchanges I’ve seen in a while. Mal says to Wally, “Love your white soul, brother Titan!” and his partner responds “Love your black one, Mal–and if I’ve got any soul–you taught me how!” It’s a pretty goofy exchange by today’s standards. I understand what Skeates was aiming for, and it makes more sense in the context of the racial tensions of the day. In addition, there’s some decent character development in this passage and the story as a whole, as Kid Flash was the most antagonistic to Mal in their earlier encounters. This emphasis on racial unity, however silly the setting and clumsy the effort, is an interesting and thoughtful move on Skeates’ part. Nonetheless, I can’t help laughing when I read it.
When the pair reach the castle’s walls, they discover that the wizard is none other than Mr. Jupiter, who here is known as Jupiterius, and he has a quartet of super-powered knights who are ersatz counterparts to the Justice League, including Batman, Superman, the Flash, and Green Arrow, which is a fun little touch for this alternate reality. The boys ask the sorcerer for help, but he and his champions insist they pass a test to prove their worth first.
Their first challenge is a test of bowmanship. Weirdly, they are confronted with Lilith and Speedy, who look like their modern counterparts with no good explanation. It’s supposed to be some type of trick, but I don’t really see the point of it. Nonetheless, things seem pretty hopeless. How can Kid Flash compete with Speedy in his element? Well, despite the boy bowman making a perfect shot at a keyhole, Kid Flash manages to pull a Robin Hood and split his arrow. Even more, his shaft manages to slice through the other and unlock the door. The tale ends with the time-tossed Titans facing whatever mysterious menace awaits on the other side!
This is certainly an entertaining and unusual story, but it feels very uneven. What Skeates is trying here is creative and promising, (I always like an imaginative alternate reality) but his execution is just rather off. It’s fun to see the medieval Justice League, a concept that will be revisited a few times over the years, but they don’t really do anything, and the addition of Mr. Jupiter feels a bit shoe-horned. Sure, he’s important to the Titans, but his presence with the League implies a more important role in the DCU than really seems warranted. Of course, I may just be letting my dislike for the pointless character color my reading. As for the death of the caveman, I think I would be much more bothered by that if it wasn’t pretty clear that the heroes will reverse it. Nonetheless, I would have liked to see Wally deal with that at least a little bit, rather than immediately shrugging it off. Honestly, after reading this story, I had to double check to make sure it wasn’t ‘ol Zany Haney. I was certain that this was one of his half-baked yarns, as the wild world the characters visit just feels more random than thought–out. Needless to say, the art is gorgeous, and Cardy does a great job with all of the medieval and fantasy elements. His soft, sketchy work really sells the illusions and mystery of the book. In the end, it’s a fun if flawed and strange story, so I’ll give it 3 Minutemen.
The Head-Blow Headcount:
We’ve got a bunch of new additions to the Wall of Shame this month. Poor Aquaman makes yet another return, but he is in good company as Batgirl, Mr. Miracle, and Kid Flash all join him. This puts Batgirl back ahead of Robin, sadly for her. The Headcount certainly drives home just how much of a trope this is, with so many of our stars showing up on it. I wonder if we’ll ever see the Last Son of Krypton gracing this feature.
And that finishes up April 1971! This is a month of endings and beginnings, a month of specters and spooks, and a month of innovation as well as repetition. The books of this month reflect the paradoxical nature of this era in DC Comics, with the extremely conventional sharing space with the experimental. At the same time Leo Dorfman is turning out standard Silver Age fare, Denny O’Neil is working to revamp Superman, all while Jack Kirby is busy pushing the boundaries of the medium. Notably, while O’Neil fails to challenge the Man of Steel, Kirby finds great success with both physical and dramatic obstacles worthy of Last Son of Krypton.
Comics also seem to be edging further into the long forbidden realms of horror and the supernatural, with two different tales this month featuring hauntings and wandering spirits. This is to be expected in the Phantom Stranger, though his story once again proves mature and impressive, but the theme is surprising in the Rose and Thorn backup. I am also surprised by my continuing enjoyment of the Lois Lane book as a whole. It remains an interesting and off-beat change of pace in my monthly readings.
This month saw the end of Aquaman and the birth of Mr. Miracle, the death of something special and the advent of something unique. One group of creators was denied the chance to finish what they started, while the King is finally given the chance to give form to the gathered inspirations of his unsatisfying final years at Marvel.
Social relevance continues to be a force, with even the last Aquaman title dealing with themes of pollution and human environmental impact in an oblique fashion. Denny O’Neil, of course, continues to hit environmental themes, but even his prime Superman story this month has a touch of social commentary in its subtle encouragement about questioning appearances.
We’ve also got superheroes accidentally killing people left and right this month, with both Supergirl and Kid Flash unintentionally taking a life. We’re still in an immature enough era that these deaths are mostly unremarked and their moral dimensions almost completely ignored. Hopefully we’ll see a more intentional approach to the moral responsibility of these characters grow up in the succeeding months and years.
In terms of form, we’re seeing more and more continued stories, with Supergirl wrapping up a several month long arc that actually did affect the character during its progression. Rose and Thorn continues its episodic format, and Jimmy Olsen and the Titans books are doing the same. This is providing the opportunity for more expansive plots and greater development. I wonder if we’ll see that become the dominant form for most of DC’s titles.
Well, it was certainly an eventful month in comics, and there is still plenty more to come! I hope y’all enjoyed this month’s books and commentary, and I also hope you’ll return soon as we begin another month of reading. Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!