Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.
“Doomsday for a Super-Phantom!”
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Bob Brown
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Cover Artist: Neal Adams
I am growing to dread seeing Leo Dorfman’s name in the credits. His stories tend to be on the goofier, more poorly thought out side. This particular offering is a weird hybrid. There are elements of it that are quite goofy and others that show a surprising amount of thought. It has a decent cover, with the shriveled husk of Superboy a pretty striking image. The villain isn’t that imposing, however, just standing there, though he isn’t that impressive inside either. The story itself concerns a modern day warlock named oh-so-originally ‘Faustus,’ and his ‘coven,’ his extended family who are supposedly descended from “the race of witches and warlocks.” Now, putting aside for a moment that the idea of a “race” of witches makes no sense, this actually sounds a bit like the origin of Zatanna Zatara and her “Homo Magi” ancestry. Interestingly enough, this little tale actually predates that development of Zatanna’s mythos.
Anyway, these modern day magic users are mostly a sad lot, not having much mystical mojo after centuries of inbreeding with regular humans. Still, Faustus has gathered the family in the hopes of restoring their preternatural power by stealing it from the greatest source remaining in the modern world….Superboy! Now, I know what you’re thinking, ‘Superboy’s powers aren’t supernatural!’ And you’re right. To my surprise, that little detail is actually addressed in this comic.
While most of his family’s powers have withered, Faustus plans to supplement their abilities with technology, as he declares that he has become “the world’s greatest expert in cybernetics,” which, while possibly fitting into a technical definition of the term, really doesn’t quite seem to be a great fit. Nonetheless, he uses his machines and the most promising of his relatives, an orphan named Asmo, to reach out and steal Superboy’s soul in a decent looking two-page spread. When the spirit arrives in their lab, he explains that his powers are not magical (see), but scientific, the result of his Kryptonian biology. He also points out that everyone knows this, making Faustus quite the moron.
Meanwhile, Superboy’s body sort of continues functioning on autopilot, botching the repair job he was doing on a shattered bridge and flying home, his memory gone, but his instincts remaining…which doesn’t quite fit with what we see. In the warlock’s lab, the ‘Super Phantom’ seems useless, so most of his family abandons him, but Faustus plans to use Asmo to make use of their catch. By luring the Boy of Steel’s body to them with a fake distress call, they supercharge the ghost with its powers and leave the discarded form trussed up like a scarecrow.
Faustus tries to take control of his ‘Super Phantom,’ but Asmo was the source of the power, so he is his master, and when the boy orders the spirit to bring them home, they discover that his powers have manifested as psychokinesis, the one ability that a phantom could use…which actually makes some sense, insofar as a portrayal of magic can. When they arrive at Faustus’s mansion, the warlock tries to get the boy to use Superboy’s spirit for big, showy crimes and evil deeds, but the kid just uses him for childish desires, like sporting equipment from his heroes and an entire Olympic skating rink. There’s a sad little scene where Superghost, left on his own for a while, recovers his body and brings it home, only to scare his parents half to death because they can’t see the spirit and just see their son, seemingly dead. Nice job Clark!
Back at the mansion, Faustus grows impatient with the boy’s lack of vision, especially when Asmo decides that he has no right to us Superboy for his own benefit when so many people depend on him. The magician strikes the boy, but realizing that the kid could have Superspirit squish him, the warlock changes his tune and promises to reunite soul and body. Yet, he betrays Asmo and plans to transfer the power to himself when suddenly his computers seem to suddenly goes all Skynet on him and gains sentience. The mad machine tosses its former master about until he agrees to obey it, and after some frantic rewiring, the whole house begins to shake.
Suddenly, Superboy’s body crashes through the wall and spirit and flesh fuse back into a whole. Not to be beaten, Faustus rushes to press his lab’s self-destruct switch, only to be electrocuted because of the rewiring he had done. To end the adventure, Superboy explains that he used the telepathy that being a spirit granted him (sure) to read the warlock’s mind, learn how to work the computers and devices, then make them seem to turn on their master and convince him to create a machine that would undo his bodiless condition.
It’s all really pat and convenient, and it seems more than a little bit of a stretch. I know Superboy is supposed to be super smart, but this just seems to take things a tad far, as the kid does all of this presumably incredibly advanced science and magic on the fly, all after reading the antagonist’s mind, despite showing no ability to do that before that point. The rest of the story is surprisingly fun for a Dorfman tale. As a matter of fact, the basic concepts, descendants of magic users in the modern world and the fusion of mysticism and technology are pretty promising. They’ll be parlayed into better stories later on in this decade. Still, despite its goofy elements and rushed, silly ending, this is a fun enough read. I’ll give it 2.5 Minutemen, knocked off of the average by that ending.
P.S.: This comic also includes a weird little two page feature explaining why Ma and Pa Kent look younger these days. I’m really curious what the real-world explanation is, because the in-universe retcon is that an alien TV executive was secretly filming Superboy for a show, and when his bosses wanted younger actors for the Kents, he sent them a youth serum, and the Boy of Steel faked a mass incident with other old folks to hide the fact that his parents specifically were effected. So apparently in the DC Universe there are gonna’ be about half a dozen folks from Smallville that are going to have drastically increased lifespans! What a weird little attempt to address a continuity problem!
“Menace at 1000 Degrees!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Cover Artist: Carmine Infantino
“A Name Is Born”
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Gray Morrow
Inker: Gray Morrow
This is not the story I expected. That’s not to say that it isn’t a good story. In fact, it is, but this cover led me to expect something rather different. Despite that, it’s a really great image. I’ve been looking at this comic coming up in my reading order and I’ve been pretty excited about it. The two figures, beautifully rendered, perfectly convey a crisis of perspective, with Superman’s mirror image lacking the empathy that makes the Man of Steel a hero and thus unwilling to help his counterpart. The cover copy is hardly needed, the image is so effective. The trouble is, while this moment is actually in the comic, it is pretty much entirely ancillary to the actual plot.
That plot, instead, centers around the still weakened Man of Tomorrow’s efforts to save the world despite his lessened powers, which is a promising setup. Oddly, we don’t pick up where our last issue left off, with Superman confronting his dusty doppelganger. Instead, our hero has gone back to his normal life in Metropolis, and we join him as he springs into action when he hears reports of modern day pirates attacking a ship. (Hey! Quit horning in on Aquaman’s act!)
Still feeling the effects of his contact with his opposite number, the Metropolis Marvel is unable to fly, so he leaps over tall buildings in a single bound on the way to the sea. Once he arrives at the site of the attack, he just drops straight through one of the pirate ships, which is pretty funny and clever. The Man of Steel then stops a torpedo from the other craft, though it actually stuns him in his weakened condition. Fortunately, the Coast Guard arrives and mops up.
Unfortunately, they soon realize that this pirate attack was actually a ruse to draw the Coast Guard ship away from its station, guarding “Project Magma.” Essentially, this is an effort to tap the magma below the Earth’s crust in an effort to provide unlimited power, as the world has begun to realize that oil, coal, and the rest won’t last forever. The trouble is, the undertaking is incredibly dangerous, because of course it is. Once again, DC scientists just can’t help but create things that imperil the world, can they? Well, Superman leaps to the floating test site, only to be met with a “magma house” which is…pretty much exactly what you’d expect. In a nice sequence, the Action Ace is covered in molten rock, knocked out of the sky, and then trapped as the stone cools upon contact with the water.
Straining mightily, the Kryptonain manages to break free, but he realizes that the platform is too well defended for him to take by himself without the terrorists having a chance to cause incredible destruction, so he decides to call in the Justice Leag…err…no. In fact, Superman declares that “there’s just one creature in the universe I can call on,” and that’s his alluvial alternate, the Sand Superman. Really? With the entire League at your disposal, he’s the only one who can help? It’s not like you’re friends with the World’s Greatest Detective, who could develop a foolproof plan for storming the facility, or the Fastest Man Alive, who could disarm all of the terrorists before they even knew they were threatened, or the King of the Seven Seas, who could summon an army of sea creatures to swamp them and wash the place clean. It’s a tad silly. If O’Neil had just given us a single line of dialog saying, ‘It’s too bad the JLA are on another case’ or something, there wouldn’t be a problem, but this is an example of the narrative moving at the speed of plot.
Anyway, it’s at this point that our cover image gets its payoff, as Superman goes to meet his dusty double in the hopes of persuading him to help, but the Sand Superman won’t budge, pointing out that mankind means nothing to him because he isn’t human. There is a really intriguing element to this encounter, as the doppelganger has the original’s powers and knowledge, but he lacks the human upbringing and experiences that make Superman himself a humble man rather than a superior god. This doesn’t get developed, which is something of a shame, but neither does it get resolved, so I imagine we’ll see this thread get paid off in a later issue.
In the meantime, the terrorists, lead by a freelance spy named Quig, issue their demands. It seems that they’re a desperate lot how have run out of places to hide, so they have nothing to lose, and they threaten to unleash a bomb under the Earth’s crust unless their demands are met. They want a hydrogen bomb, $50 million in gold, and 50 hostages to ensure everyone plays nice. Interestingly, Lois volunteers to be one of the hostages so that she can be on hand to get the story, which is really brave…probably stupidly brave, but it mostly works. This brings us to another little flaw in the story, as the powers that be simply roll over and give the terrorists literally everything they want, which is pretty insane in context. There’s no stalling, no negotiation, just, ‘here’s your 50 hostages, gold, and nuke! Have a nice day!’
As Quig gloats over his success, he notices Lois and calls her over. The daring girl reporter puts him at his ease, then snatches his gun and tries to force the terrorist to give up. Unfortunately, he’s got nerves of steel, and she backs down before he does, which I wasn’t crazy about. It’s really a no-win situation for Lois, because if she kills him, she’s going to get gunned down by his men, but she mostly gives up because she doesn’t have the will to shoot him, which seems out of character. It’s not that Lois would want to take a life, but I think she’s a tough enough lady that, if she had to, she would do so and then feel bad about it afterward.
After she surrenders the gun, Quin plans to shoot her as an example, but then one of the hostages moves with blinding speed, grabs the girl reporter and takes her to safety. As he runs, he sheds his disguise to reveal the colorful costume of…Superman! In a funny bit of detail, he once again is rather annoyed at Lois getting herself into such a situation, telling her “Stay put, Lois! For once–just…keep out of trouble!” The Man of Steel then takes out Quig’s men and disables the Magma cannon, but he isn’t quick enough to stop the head terrorist himself from releasing his bomb down the shaft.
The Man of Tomorrow dives after the explosive, falling a great distance (though the art doesn’t really show that), catching the deadly device, and throwing it back out of the chute. When he emerges, Superman easily captures Quig, but he finds himself at something of a loss about how to answer Lois’s questions about why he waited so long for his rescue. What can he tell her without revealing his diminished powers?
This is a good, solid Superman story, with a lot going for it. The danger he faces is appropriately cataclysmic, and the magma-hose is a good, believable way to allow the regular human terrorists to pose a bit of a threat to the Kryptonian powerhouse. The device of his weakened powers is also a good one, forcing the hero to take a different approach than he is used to and ramping up the stakes in the story. This is not the planet-juggling Superman of the Silver Age, and the tale is more dramatic because the odds are a bit longer for him. Throughout, Curt Swan’s art is even better than usual. His depiction of the Sandy Superman, which I didn’t think entirely worked last issue, is really lovely in this one, as the creature’s dusty form drifts away in the arctic winds. My only real disappointment, other than minor quibbles about Lois’s portrayal, is that I had hoped for a bit more out of the Sand Superman plot, but that isn’t really a fault with this story. I’ll give it 4 Minutemen for a good, enjoyable Superman adventure that continues to develop O’Neil’s intriguing plot threads.
“A Name is Born”
Our backup feature is another edition of ‘The Fabulous World of Krypton,’ and this is really a great short story! It tells the tale of how Krypton was named. It begins with two Kryptonian school teachers talking about their classes, with the younger complaining that she can’t get her “level-one students” (presumably like first graders) to sit still for five minutes. I’m sure any parents or teachers among my readers are shocked by this.
Her older colleague offers her a story that he claims will keep the class enraptured, and we flash back to the early life of the planet Krypton. The world is surrounded by a cocoon of strange matter and has no human life upon its surface. An alien spacecraft makes a landing, but it is observed by a castaway, a different alien whose ship crash-landed on barren planet.
The two strangers approach one another, both hoping for a peaceful meeting but prepared for hostilities. The marooned spacer, a xenobiologist, presents the newcomer with a small flower, but unfortunately, it reacts with the strange atmosphere and erupts. The startled pilot reacts violently, thinking this was an attack. He draws his weapon and fires, but his ersatz foe, though not a warrior, has a defensive shield that absorbs ray-blasts, allowing the energy to be channeled off safely.
The fight becomes hand to hand and desperate, but as the newcomer tackles the castaway, his would-be victim spots a deadly peril approaching, as part of the matter surrounding the world rained down upon them. The biologist, realizing that escape was impossible, chooses to throw the warrior to safety, becoming mired in a clinging, suffocating slime. There’s a wonderful moment as each of these strangers wonders about the other’s motive, but the newcomer chooses to trust that this gesture was a selfless one, and shoots his former foe, charging the shield and allowing the power to be diverted into the clinging matter.
Finally, the two stand facing each other in peace, and when they remove their helmets, they discover that they are both humanoid, and that the biologist, is actually a woman! It’s a great reveal. They introduce themselves, Kryp, the newcomer, and Tonn, the castaway, and discover that the warrior’s ship has been damaged too, so they are stuck on this planet for a while. And that is how Krypton got its name, and its first inhabitants.
This is a really great little story, with some fun action, some nice sci-fi flavor, and a surprisingly effective message about giving folks the benefit of the doubt. It’s a very effective science fiction morality play, something the genre excels at. Gray Morrow’s art is just great, with a really unusual style full of details both thoughtful and decorative, like the collapsible stock on Kryp’s weapon, or the stylized creature on his helmet. I’ve heard of Morrow, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen his artwork before. I’ll be on the lookout from now on, though! This whole story feels like it might have made an appearance in the classic sci-fi collections of the Silver Age, like the Space Museum. In fact, this reminds me quite a bit of one of those stories, though I can’t quite place it. Either way, I really enjoyed this Space Age Adam and Eve tale, and I’ll give it 4.5 Minutemen.
Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #138
“The Big Boom!!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inkers: Vince Colletta and Murphy Anderson
Letterer: John Costanza
Editors: Jack Kirby and E. Nelson Bridwell
We round out this trio of books with another piece of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World, and this is a really good one. Sadly, it’s under another ugly photo-collage cover. It’s similar to the cover-copy-happy composition of Mr. Miracle #2, but this one doesn’t benefit from a gripping central image. Nevertheless, the comic inside makes up for it. It picks up right where the last issue left off. The DNA Project staff are scrambling to respond the Monster Factory’s attack in the form of the four-armed terror they unleashed. The creature is currently tearing its way towards the Project’s nuclear reactor, while Superman and the Newsboy Legion are trapped in a strange egg-like prison. The Project troops, along with the original Newsboy Legion and the Guardian clone, mount up and head towards the reactor in a surprisingly effective photo-collage double-page spread.
We also get a lovely full-page splash, one of many in this issue, of the whole gang charging to the rescue, as well as one of the imprisoned protagonists. Inside the egg, Superman discovers that the alien substance absorbs his strongest blows, but while the monster tunnels ever closer to its goal, the Man of Tomorrow tries to ‘hatch’ the egg by trying to recreate the energy the DNAlien used to create the egg in the first place by generating electricity by…rubbing his hands together at super speed. It’s a fairly dubious use of the Kryptonian’s powers, but nevertheless, he frees himself and flies after his foe.
We then cut to an odd little scene at the Daily Planet, where Perry White has called in a girl named Terry Dean, supposedly a friend of Jimmy’s, in his search for his young reporter. She tells the editor about Olsen leaving on a job for Morgan Edge, and this makes White worried. The scene feels a bit unnecessary, and as far as I can tell, we’ve never seen Terry Dean before, so her introduction is a bit odd as well.
Meanwhile, events continue to accelerate as the Project troops near the site of the action, the Monster Factory flunkies prepare reinforcements for their perfidious progeny, and the malevolent Morgan Edge is warned to escape Metropolis before the inevitable cataclysm. The soulless CEO casually walks out of the building with a smile, leaving his staff to a quick and certain death. It’s an effective demonstration of his cold and calculating character.
Back at the reactor, Superman narrowly manages to intercept the monster, but it is able to damage the machinery despite his efforts. Suddenly, more monsters pour from a portal, but the Project troops arrive just in time back up the Man of Steel. Unfortunately, the damaged reactor begins to meltdown, and with the control rods smashed in the fight, there is no way to stop it.
Superman rips the entire structure up and carries the massive device, spewing radiation, and leads the marauding monsters after him, knowing they are drawn towards the power. He dumps the raging reactor down a vast pit, a test tunnel bored deep into the Earth in preparation for tapping the core for power, a popular topic this month. The pursuing creatures tumble in after it, like so many multi-armed lemmings, and there is a tremendous explosion that, despite plot of the previous Superman story, doesn’t actually destroy the planet. That’s lucky!
The tale ends with Superman and the Guardian returning to Jimmy and the Legion, only to receive a cold shoulder because the kids were kept out of the desperate fight. Guardian finds their reaction a tad ungrateful, considering that the Action Ace did just save all of their lives, but the kids are having none of it.
This comic is just a blast, with a rapid-paced, pulse-pounding adventure with great stakes and some fantastic Kirby art. The King does a good job pacing his plot for the most part to achieve this frenetic rush, but the strange side-trip to the Planet does throw it off just a bit. In the same way, while the writing on this issue is strong in general, it does have a few minor weaknesses. Superman seems just a tad off, which has been the case for most of Kirby’s treatments of the character. In the same vein, the Man of Steel’s random electrical generation, while reasonable in the art, is a tad silly in the explanation. Unfortunately, the Legion are once again kept out of the plot, so they don’t get a chance to do anything useful or interesting. Still, we get an instructive character moment with Morgan Edge and some great action as Superman and the Project troops take on the monster horde.
While disposing of the reactor in an underground tunnel strains credulity a bit, seeing as it would probably cause massive earthquakes at the least, it makes comicbook-sense. Once again, the King seems to be reveling in the freedom to create his own stories without constraints from anyone else, and the proliferation of full-page splashes in this issue, like in New Gods #2, reveals an exuberance and energy that is really exciting, even if it does make the issue a bit breezy. As you can tell by the glut of images in this commentary, the art was so good I had a hard time making my choices for display! In the end, this is just a really enjoyable read, like a classic issue of the Fantastic Four, so I’ll give it 4.5 Minutemen.
And this set of Superman stories brings us up to the final stretch of June 1971. We’ve only got two comics left to cover! I hope that you’ve enjoyed this batch, and it did contain a number of really entertaining stories. I was particularly pleased to read the ‘World of Krypton’ feature, as I’d heard of that odd bit of history, but the actual event was much more engaging than I anticipated from an element of the mythos that I expected to be silly and Silver Age-ish. We also see a continued growing interest in the occult and the supernatural with the villainous warlock in this month’s Superboy, a trend I expect to see become more pronounced in the years to come. Before too long we’ll see what the future holds, and I hope you’ll join me for that adventure as we continue our journey Into the Bronze Age! Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!