- Action Comics #402
- Adventure Comics #408
- Brave and the Bold #96
- Detective Comics #413
- Forever People #3
- G.I. Combat #148
- Green Lantern/Green Arrow #84
- New Gods #3
- Superboy #176
- Superman #239 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
- Superman #240
- Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #111
- Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #139
- World’s Finest #202
Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.
Brave and the Bold #96
“The Striped Pants War!”
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: Nick Cardy
Inker: Nick Cardy
Letterer: Ben Oda
Editor: Murray Boltinoff
Alright, what the heck is up with this title? Is this a reference to something? If so, I don’t get it. All I can think of is Homestar Runner and “his ridiculous stripe-ed pants.” Either way, there seem to be no striped pants actually in this comic. Leave it to Bob Haney to confuse his audience from word one! Head-scratching headlines aside, this is actually a pretty good issue. There are a few things that ‘ol Zaney Haney always did very well, and one of those is the tale of the aging hero, the world-weary veteran whose best days are behind him. It’s a story that he told many times, and always with verve. This particular comic is no exception, though it doesn’t have the most impressive of covers. It has a solid, if unexceptional, composition that sets up the central conflict of the comic, Sgt. Rock’s questionable loyalties.
The story within opens on a dark night in a South American city as a van crashes into a car, the attacking vehicle’s occupants then jumping the stunned passengers. The car’s driver fights back, only to get shot for his trouble, and his passenger is carted away. Back in the U.S., Bruce Wayne is called to Washington D.C. where he is ushered into a secret meeting with the Secretary of State and the P.O.T.O.U.S. himself (that used to be an honor). Nick Cardy does the usual dance, not showing the president’s face, which I enjoy. It turns out the victim from our first scene was Ambassador Adams, who is a friend of Bruce’s, and who was on an important assignment in South America.
He was kidnapped by the “Companeros de La Muerte,” the Companions of Death, and they are holding him for ransom. The President asks Wayne to fill in as a temporary ambassador to complete a delicate treaty, and he introduces Batman, who will travel along as protection. How can this be? Well, it’s Alfred covering for his master in a padded costume, of course, and before long the pair are headed south! This is an interesting setup, and it works surprisingly well considering the stories in the Bat-books relatively recently where Bruce got involved in politics. It’s unusually consistent for Haney…though I’m inclined to wonder if that’s just a coincidence!
When Bruce arrives at the U.S. embassy, he encounters another old friend, Sgt. Rock, who is head of security. It was he who was driving the ambassador when he was kidnapped, and the embassy staffer left in charge, Carlyle, makes some snide remarks about his failure. When left alone, the two old comrades catch up, but Rock is surprisingly bitter and angry about the service, raging that they won’t let him reenlist. He strips off his shirt and shows the scars he earned in service to his country, but he laments that that country doesn’t want his service anymore.
Bruce is struck by the old soldier’s rancor, but he gets on with his job, investigating the scene of the kidnapping as Batman. In search of witnesses, he enters a bull fighting arena and gets a description of the van from a plucky young bullfighter who, in Haney’s trademark flare for minor characters, is full of personality. Strangely, the Dark Knight notices Rock tailing him, just as he is attacked by an assassin! One of the Companeros tries to kill him with a bullfighter’s prop, but the hero’s reflexes prove superior, and the would-be-killer is hoisted by his own petard.
On his way back to the embassy, the Caped Crusader is attacked by another pair of killers, but he fights them off with difficulty, turning their weapons against them in a great sequence drawn by Cardy and moodily colored. When he returns, the Masked Manhunter discovers a warning note from the terrorists that declares they will kill their prisoner at noon if he is not ransomed. That’s not the only discovery, however, as Alfred finds a listening device in Wayne’s room, a device whose source is found to be Rock’s quarters! Things look bad for the old soldier, especially when he is placed under arrest only to knock out a sentry and slip away.
Nonetheless, Batman continues his investigation, finding the killers’ van and trailing it right back to the embassy itself! They are hiding the ambassador in a secret basement, and this seems to confirm Rock’s complicity. The Dark Knight jumps the gathered thugs, getting the ambassador to cover but getting dog-piled by his foes in recompense. Suddenly, Sgt. Rock comes charging into the room, firing a Thompson, coming to the Caped Crusader’s rescue! He had escaped just to have a chance to clear his name, which he now does in spades!
It was all a frame, of course, and the heroes manage to hold off the terrorists, but the desperadoes trigger an old trap from the building’s colonial days, turning heroes’ cover into a cruel cage. At the top-sergeant’s insistence, Batman reluctantly escapes with the ambassador, only to be confronted by the real traitor, Carlyle. Fortunately, while Bruce Wayne may hate guns, his faithful butler isn’t so squeamish, and Alfred flat-out shoots the rat!
Meanwhile, Rock is making his last stand, but in desperation he attaches a grenade to the swinging spikes above him, and when they move back towards his enemies, they explode! Batman finds his old friend still alive in the rubble! Later on, they bid a friendly farewell, as Bruce Wayne takes his leave and Rock tells his pal that the army took him back for another hitch.
This is a really solid story. It’s fun, exciting, and it has a pretty decent central conflict with the question of Rock’s loyalty. Of course, we all know that the top kick is as loyal and dependable as…well…as a rock, but Haney does a good job of making his defection seem plausible. He is making surprising use of continuity here, however, it is largely his own. I suppose that’s to be expected from the ruler of the ridiculous. In his stories Batman somehow fought in World War II and is still active in the modern day. What the rest of the DC Universe needed multiple Earths to accommodate, Haney just shoves into one story and calls it good. That’s the Zaney one for you!
Despite that bit of silliness, he does a great job with Rock’s frustration at his treatment, and even his explanation ‘hey, I may grumble, but I’m still loyal,’ rings true. While the old soldier doesn’t get as much characterization as Wildcat tended to, we still get a good sense of who the veteran is and what struggles he faces. Cardy’s artwork is lovely throughout, fitting this spy thriller tale quite well. I’ll give this fun adventure an enjoyable 4 Minutemen.
Detective Comics #413
“Freakout at Phantom Hollow!”
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Bob Brown
Inkers: Dick Giordano and Steve Englehart
Letterer: Ben Oda
Editor: Julius Schwartz
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Don Heck
Inker: Don Heck
Letterer: Ben Oda
Another issue of Detective Comics this month, but the Batman tale within isn’t the amazing and groundbreaking tale of last month’s Batman. Still Robbins turns in his usual brand of solid mystery yarn. It’s got a serviceable but not fantastic cover. The witch’s twisted visage is suitably creepy, but the rest of the image just isn’t all that interesting. It also isn’t quite indicative of what is going on in the tale, even symbolically. It’s rather an odd choice in that regard.
The story itself begins with Batman returning from a case out of town, only to be flagged down by the constable of a small village, Phantom Hollow, who is also a former Gotham cop. The lawman begs the Dark Knight to come investigate a mystery in his town. We then cut to the quaint hamlet itself, which is clearly modeled on Salem, complete with its own witch trial. Supposedly the town is haunted by “Ol’ Nell,” who cursed the bell of the old church, declaring that it would never sound again until it tolled Phantom Hollow’s death-knell.
Yet, the place’s troubles are start with something rather more mundane, as a trio of local kids ambush a pair of long-haired hippie-types, giving them a compulsory haircut…and, let’s face it…if that’s the worst thing that happens to these two goofy looking losers, they are probably lucky! It seems like they’re supposed to be around 12-14, and they just look utterly ridiculous. I imagine that the kids at my school would have probably been crueler in my day!
The two hippies, Shecky and Jamie, are recovering their wits when suddenly the massive form of the town simpleton, ‘Big Lanny,’ looms into view. The boys take off and decide to get even with the town by playing some pranks. It starts with the church bell suddenly ringing ominously for the first time in a few hundred years, but it takes a turn for worse when their attempt to set off cherry bombs near the town jail somehow blows a wall in!
Batman arrives to investigate the matter and hears some conflicting claims by the local folks, some claiming it was the two weirdo kids, others claiming it was Nell’s ghost. The local teacher sticks up for the young punks. The Dark Knight has plenty of suspects, but few clews, so he searches the bell tower, finding that the bell is rusted solid, but a strong pair of hands tip him over the rail and send him plummeting to his death!
Fortunately, the Masked Manhunter is always prepared, and he tied a bat-rope to his foot when he climbed to the dizzy height of the steeple, which is a nice, reasonable precaution for the hero to have taken. Outside, he finds the teacher, who was attacked by someone moving fast. She still insists on the innocence of her students, but when the Caped Crusader finds a speaker that provided the eerie bell-toll and traces its cord to a nearby cave, it is indeed the two would be counterculture rebels that he uncovers.
While he is confronting the kids, the bell rings again, but their tape recorder is shut off! Racing back to the church, Batman finds that the bell has been broken free of its rust, a feat that he himself had failed to accomplish. Suddenly, another explosion rocks the town. Interrogating his two captives, who remain defiant, the Dark Knight realizes that someone has been using them as patsies, and by pretending to leave them in the care of the teacher in the cave, he lures out the real culprit…Big Lanny?!
That’s right, the huge handyman was actually a direct descendant of Ol’ Nell, and he faked his stupidity in order take revenge upon the town. Unfortunately, the massive man, once revealed, remains a frightful foe. He toss the Caped Crusader about like a rag doll, and only the desperate attack by the two hippie kids saves the hero, toppling the giant and allowing the Masked Manhunter to punch him out. The tale ends with the teacher pointing out that the two exceedingly poorly dressed boys are modern day victims of the same type of ignorance and superstition (ignorance yes, but how does she get superstition?) as Ol’ Nell was in her day.
This is a decent mystery yarn, and it is interesting to see Frank Robbins dealing with youth culture and the growing strains on American life, with the nonconformists of this little town playing both sympathetic victims and antagonistic troublemakers. There isn’t a lot made of the setup, but it is notable that the teacher continues to defend the two kids and that they prove instrumental in capturing the villain. There’s definitely a message of tolerance delivered through their plot. Brown’s art is as solid and attractive as usual, and he gives us a few particularly nice images, like Batman observing the explosion from the bell tower. His Batman isn’t quite as lovely as Neal Adams’, but he always looks good, powerful and dynamic. I don’t think Bob Brown gets a lot of credit, but he was a very reliably good artist, especially on these Bat-books. As for this issue, it’s an enjoyable if unexceptional read, so I’ll give it 3 Minutemen.
The wig saga continues! For some reason! The Batgirl backup from the last issue is concluded here, despite the fact that it really seemed to be just about finished already. This one starts right where the previous tale left off, with Batgirl locked in awkward combat with the malicious wig-makers, who have managed to get one of their skull-cracking hairdos onto her head. Vazly hits the switch, and the fighting female seems to writhe in agony, only to reveal that it is just an act. She had already deactivated the heinous headgear.
She manages to capture Vazly, but his assistant gets away. In an admittedly cool sequence, Babs uses her photographic memory to deduce that something is missing from the scene, working out that it is a wig-stand. She recalls the code that had been on the missing item and works out that it is an address for a would-be victim. Rushing to the scene of the next crime, Batgirl interrupts Wanda as she attempts to put the squeeze on another rich divorcee.
Jumping the weird wig-maker as she attempts to make her getaway, the heroine engages in another desperate fight, with the wig again being used as a weapon, this time as a really clumsy garrote. Fortunately, Batgirl uses her head (as a bludgeon) and captures the remaining villain. The story ends with her receiving her birthday gift, a wig, from her father. Both Gordon and his friend Bruce Wayne think she looks better as a redhead, which she does, so Babs decides to stick with the hair God gave her.
This isn’t a bad story, but it isn’t a particularly good one, either. Batgirl’s peril feels a bit weak at times, and, as I said, this second half doesn’t feel entirely necessary. If Robbins hadn’t wrapped so much up in the first half, there would have been more to this story. As is, it feels largely perfunctory, though Babs’ feat of deduction is pretty cool, taking advantage of a character trait that isn’t always acknowledged, her eidetic memory. Don Heck’s art is serviceable, but it isn’t very pretty. He’s just not my favorite superhero artist. His figures tend to be stiff in action, and the whole thing lacks the smoothness of Bob Brown’s work on the headline tale. This is a mediocre offering, but there isn’t really anything in particular to fault it for, so I’ll give it 3 Minutemen.
Forever People #3
“Life vs. Anti-Life!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Jack Kirby
The King’s Fourth World wonders continue to unfurl, and it is certain a fascinating journey! Here with issue 3 of the the Forever People, the concept still hasn’t entirely gelled, yet Kirby is nonetheless constantly adding memorably to his mythos. This particular issue is a very uneven affair, but it is also really striking. We begin with another very lackluster cover. Other than the Mr. Miracle books, the Fourth World titles just don’t really benefit from good covers. I wonder if that contributed to their eventual failure. Either way, with this one we get a rather unbalanced image, against another dim and ugly photo-collage background. This one is so fuzzy that it’s little more than light and shadow. The image of the Justifier’s helmet in the background isn’t really all that intimidating, and while the cosmic kids are well drawn, the effect is just not very captivating. It isn’t helped by that glut of cover copy either declaring but never explaining Kirby’s wild concepts.
Inside, however, it’s another matter. From the first page the King gives us a clue as to what he’s about, starting with a quote from Adolph Hitler (!) about how his followers not only dressed alike but even began to mimic one another in facial expressions. Below is a sea of faces, faces that are eerily similar in their blank, dead-eyed expression, despite the riot of variety among them (though, notably, they are all white). This is a ‘revelation’, something of an evil version of a revival, headed by Darkseid’s newest flunky, Glorious Godfrey.
With a fittingly glorious double page splash, Kirby introduces the evil evangelist, who is hawking a heinous set of wares called ‘Anti-Life!’ The trappings and the language are all twisted versions of what you’d see at an old time tent revival, but rather than calling people to a knowledge of their sins and a God who will forgive them and save them from it, Godfrey promises freedom from such self-knowledge, freedom from doubt and uncertainty, the freedom of surrendering your will to Darkseid! There’s something really fascinating and powerful in all of this.
Godfrey converts his crowd into ‘Justifiers,’ whose adherence to the external reality of Darkseid’s will allows them to ‘justify’ any actions, enabling these miserable souls to indulge in violence, hatred, and more, all while feeling a sense of belonging in the foul fold. One of these helmeted hooligans arrives at the abandoned apartment acting as home for the Forever People and threatens their young friend, Donnie in order to find the quintet. Fortunately for the kid, the team has just walked in, hidden by Mother Box. Beautiful Dreamer casts an illusion to confuse their antagonist, while Vykin rescues Donnie. Then, all six youths beat a hasty retreat because the fanatical follower of Darkseid is a walking bomb! He detonates himself, but the Forever People are able to get out of range.
Realizing that Godfrey is on Earth by recognizing his handiwork, the team leaves a protective barrier around Donnie’s home and takes their leave, bidding the kid adieu. This is a bit surprising after the efforts Kirby went to in establishing the kid and the neighborhood as part of what seemed an ongoing setting in the last issue. Nonetheless, the Forever People load up in the Super Cycle and use Mother Box to home in on the Glorious one.
Meanwhile, in a scene that is an honestly haunting sci-fi version of Nazi Germany’s Kristallnacht (The Night of the Broken Glass), the Justifiers spread out through the city in flying transports, smash open doors, haul away ‘undesirables,’ burn libraries, and break windows. The parallels to real history are pretty unmistakable, and Kirby’s depiction of these events is really striking and efficient, only taking two pages to do its work. Monitoring his minions’ malicious work, Godfrey is primping, preparing for his next show. He gets a report about the approach of the Forever People and prepares a warm welcome.
The kids, for their part, see the guards around the tent and decide to summon the Infinity Man. He then bends and breaks the laws of physics as he wades through the solid earth to avoid the gods and warps the paths of bullets when he confronts Godfrey. He also abuses the rules of good writing, over-explaining everything he’s doing in odd, stilted prose. No rules can stand against the Infinity Man! Not even the laws of composition! The enigmatic hero destroys the mind-controlling organ Godfrey is using to control his converts, but he is stopped in his tracks by being brought face to face with…Darkseid! Once again, Kirby’s depiction of the villain hasn’t quite solidified yet, and he varies quite a bit from panel to panel.
Still, what the evil one lacks in visual continuity he makes up for in power, as he uses his eye-beams to split the Infinity Man back into the Forever people, who are easily captured by Desaad. The unconscious kids are herded into a transport and sent off to a new facility of the cruel scientist’s design. After their departure, Godfrey and Desaad spar, each seeking to cement his position with Darkseid, and we learn a little bit more about the Anti-Life equation, though it doesn’t make matters much clearer. Apparently Godfrey believes it doesn’t exist, and that Anti-Life can only be created through his type of direct mental manipulation. Apparently the Equation would allow its possessor to control the wills of all beings in the universe with a word, essentially destroying free will, the great gift.
This is a fascinating issue, but it isn’t necessarily a good one. It is a dramatically uneven book. When it is bad, it is really bad, but when it is good, it is really good. It’s strange, because it’s not even always good or bad in the same ways. Sometimes Kirby’s dialog is extremely overwritten and awkward, and other times its almost poetic. Darkseid’s declaration at the end that “when you cry out in your dreams-it is Darkseid that you see!” is darn good dialog, but almost everything the Infinity Man and the Forever People say is awkward and unnecessary. It’s clear that Kirby learned his comic scripting from the school of Stan. Stan Lee’s style of unnecessary expository dialog is very much in evidence here, but often times without the charm for characterization and cleverness that marked even Lee’s more egregious examples.
The Forever People themselves are once again largley useless in this issue. Pretty much the only thing they do is to run away from the first assassin, but they contribute basically nothing to the plot. If my vague memories of my first read-through are correct, we might see them get more of a chance to shine in the next issue, but we shall see. Despite these flaws, what Kirby is doing with Godfrey and the Justifies is really intriguing. The fact that the villains are evil insofar as they surrender their will and judgement for belonging and comfort is very striking, especially in light of the Jewish author and the not-too-distant cultural memories of the Holocaust. The parallels to the Nazi’s horrific campaign, as I said, are inescapable, but this story still resonates today.
It is, sadly, not an isolated incident that sees men surrender their moral judgement and their will to unworthy causes. It is frighteningly common. It is a difficult and wearying thing to think, to judge, and to strive for a consistently just moral life and philosophy, and people are always anxious to escape the burden of responsibility that we bear by being human. It is happening in our world today, as people blindly support causes and leaders that blatantly contradict their own stated values, having given up their moral judgement to that of the party, so the only decision they have to make is whether ‘they’ are ‘with us or against us.’ In this way, Kirby’s story works wonderfully well on an archetypal level, for whatever flaws it has as an adventure tale. In the end, this flawed but provocative comic is still a really interesting read, so I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen, despite its uneven quality.
P.S.: This issue sees the first appearance of the letter column, and the response is quite positive. Notably, sci-fi luminary and the subject of a JLA story I recently covered, Harlan Ellison wrote a glowing missive for the Master.
And with the Forever People, we round out our comics for this post. Thank you for joining me for this stop on our journey Into the Bronze Age! I hope that you enjoyed my commentary and will join me again soon for the next stage of my investigations. Please come back soon, and until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!