Into the Bronze Age: July 1971 (Part 5)

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Greetings dear readers!  Welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  We’ve got a very unusual and memorable pair of books to cover in this batch, for better or worse.  We have the JLA guest starring in Lois Lane (sort of) and the beginning of the infamous Don Rickles appearance in Jimmy Olsen.  The Superman family books are rather bonkers this month, it seems.  Join me and see what you can make of the madness that follows!

If you’re new to this little journey, you can check out the first post to learn what it’s all about.


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • 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

Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.


Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #111


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“The Dark Side of the Justice League!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Werner Roth
Inkers: Vince Colletta and Murphy Anderson
Letterer: Ray Holloway
Editor: E. Nelson Bridwell
Cover Artists: Dick Giordano and Gaspar Saldino

“Law of the 100!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Gray Morrow
Inker: Gray Morrow
Letterer: Ray Holloway

This comic is just a delightful mess, from the cover onward.  I admit, I’ve been excitedly eyeing this image in my reading list.  It is just such a fun design, with (almost) the entire League in action and the unusual sight of Lois playing Gulliver to superheroic Lilliputians.  It’s the type of concept we’ve seen before, but not that often.  Unsurprisingly, Dick Giordano creates a lovely, energetic piece, and the cover gets bonus points for being an accurate representation of the tale within.  It’s an effective image, and I know I’d have been curious to know what was going on in this book!

What a tale that is!  Fascinatingly, Kanigher uses this issue to tie his work on the supporting Superman titles into the emergent Fourth World mythos that Kirby is currently creating, weaving in elements from the King’s Jimmy Olsen run.  It’s interesting to see creators embracing the New Gods this quickly.  It all starts innocently enough, with Lois arriving at the beach for a relaxing day off, only to be secretly observed by…the JLA!?  Well, not exactly.  As she dozes on the sand, tiny doppelgängers of the League rush out and, using their unique powers, bind her down and put a strange liquid on her lips.  As she begins to stir, they rush into hiding, leaving her none-the-wiser.  The sequence is great fun and really nicely done.

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The next day, Lois is out covering a story when she notices a passing armored truck and somehow realizes that it is stuffed with gangsters.  She calls out a warning to Superman, allowing him to bag the crooks, and the Man of Steel finds himself wondering if his lady love has developed some type of 6th sense that might protect her from danger.  If so, he muses, he would be able to marry her, but he brushes the thought aside and flies off.  In a charming little touch, the women Lois had been interviewing encourage her not to give up hope.

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Later on, the girl reporter is on location at Metropolis park, covering the arrival of a mysterious statue.  Once again, she has a flash of insight and realizes that the art is fake, really a set of dangerous robotic weapons, and she is able to warn the Metropolis Marvel once more.  Smashing the rampaging robots, Superman thinks that Lois must have developed a new ability, so he gives in and kisses her.  As soon as their lips meet, he goes insane, beginning his own destructive rampage!

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Lois rushes to her car and uses a carphone (!) to contact, of all people, the head of the D.N.A. Project!  That’s right, she appeals for help to the secret government DNA research base in the Wild Area, introduced in Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen.  Apparently Superman brought her there to give a genetic sample…for some reason.  The sober scientist quickly forms a plan and tells the rattled reporter to go to the Daily Planet and await instructions.

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Well, that’s not the reaction you want after a kiss!

Unfortunately, later that night, after dozing at her desk, the journalist awakens to a strange sight: the littlest Leaguers, who kindly explain their plot.  Apparently, they were created from stolen DNA by the Project’s evil opposite number, the Monster Factory, and are under orders from their Apokoliptian masters.  They were to plant a special poison on Lois’s lips and, by faking her new ability, convince Superman to kiss her, thus dooming himself.

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When the ravishing reporter tries to flee, they attack and mock her, but a package left by the Project opens in the struggle, revealing an octet of tiny Loises, each inexplicably armed with a device to counter the abilities of the heinous pint-sized heroes.  One has a chip of gold Kryptonite to rob the Miniature Man of Might of his powers (where in the world would they have gotten that?), while another has a yellow glove to get past the little Lantern’s ring.  Some of them are a bit less direct, like a laser pistol that cuts the straps of Hawkman’s wings as opposed to…you know…just shooting him.

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It’s an exceedingly silly scene, but it is capped when the fun-sized Flash kicks up a cloud of dust while trying to escape, causing Lois to sneeze him into defeat.  With the miniature minions beaten, the reporter finds another gift from the Project, an antidote lipstick, which she dons before running out to kiss Superman a second time, restoring his mind.  The tale ends with the two strolling away, the Man of Steel not remembering a thing.

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This is an insane issue, but it is also a lot of fun.  There’s some really neat elements, as Kanigher tries to bring the mythos Kirby is creating out into the wider DCU.  Of course, being Kanigher, he does it in a fairly goofy way.  On the other hand, it does actually mesh surprisingly well with what we saw in Kirby’s own book.  The tiny clones, the stolen DNA, the mysterious machinations of the malevolent Monster Factory: it all works, after a fashion.  Yet, the writing is more than a little sloppy, with a lot of the details coming completely out of left field and the whole thing lacking internal consistency.  Why in the world does the Project have tiny-anti JLA weapons on hand.  How do they know they’re facing an evil army of mini-mes in the first place?  Whose idea was the ridiculously elaborate plan to get Superman to kiss Lois?  If they can clone tiny Leaguers, why not just make full sized ones to take out the originals?  Kanigher doesn’t bother to answer any of those questions.

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Look at the individuality and personality on the faces of these background characters.

Once again, Roth’s art is simply lovely, and while he had previously seemed to struggle a bit with the superheroic elements of these comics, despite his success with the romantic and dramatic moments, he turns in a really nice looking Justice League, even if they are tiny.  Particularly impressive, as usual, is his face-work, like in the image above.  The art definitely helps this tale, even as goofy as the story is.  Taken all together, this is a very entertaining, if bonkers, story, but it goes to show that nobody can really stack up to Kirby except Kirby.  He actually made something mostly coherent out of the madness of the Project.  Kanigher?  Not so much.  Despite his efforts, this feels more like a new gimmick and less like a facet of a new mythology.  I’ll give this entertaining fit of silliness 2.5 Minutemen.  It’s fun, but it’s flawed.

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“Law of the 100”


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The real highlight of this issue is its Rose and Thorn backup, which is just plain excellent for the limited space it has to work with.  It features the art of Gray Morrow, which is a big departure from Ross Andru’s and a real treat.  The story itself really shows off its star.  It starts with a classic cheat image, as we see the tenacious Thorn shot down by a new figure.  Of course, this is revealed to simply be a test of the 100’s newest killer using a mannequin (although, that mannequin seems to be moving a whole lot for an inanimate object.  The fresh-faced fink in question is apparently Leo Lester, the son of one of the organization’s best gunmen.  They tell the boy that his father was betrayed to the cops but that he’s destined to take his place, and then they send him after the Thorn with his father’s gun.

On the street, the kid attempts to ambush the Nymph of Night, but she’s too good.  She manages to toss a smoke thorn (Batman’s going to sue!), and she easily takes him out.  The sequence is just beautiful, with Morrow delivering a wonderfully realistic sense of movement and presence to his figures.  Look at the motion in the Thorn’s body on this page.  Well, artwork aside, the vigilante is stunned to discover that her attacker is a youth, and she tries to reason with him.  This is actually one of the weaknesses of Morrow’s art, as the gunman doesn’t actually look that young.

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Unfortunately, just then another 100 hit squad opens up on the both of them, the kid having failed his job.  Strangely, the gunsles are hidden on a mobile merry-go-round.  It’s essentially a tiny carousel mounted on a truck.  Crazy!  I guess they really had these things, but I’d never seen one.  It’s an interesting and rather whimsical choice for a ruthless gang of murderers.  Criminals in the DCU have class!  Of course, no matter how charming their costuming, they are still trying to shoot the Vixen of Vengeance, and she doesn’t take that too kindly, so she tosses an explosive thorn, blowing the car/carousel away.

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Somehow this doesn’t kill the thugs, but it does attract the cops.  Not wanting to hand her young assassin over because she hopes she can reach him, the Thorn hauls him to a secluded spot on the waterfront.  As part of this scene, we get a really interesting moment where the Baleful Beauty’s two personalities are in conflict, with her Rose persona wanting to help the boy and the Thorn identity being much less sympathetic.  It’s a neat touch.

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After her internal debate, the Nymph of Night tries to persuade the captive kid that the 100 know no loyalty, but he refuses to believe her until he’s ambushed by another team of hitters from the gang.  Once again, the Thorn acts to save the punk’s life, tossing out a set of flash grenade-thorns and taking out the gunmen in a nice panel, this time aided by Leo.  As they run from gangster reinforcements, the boy promises to tell his savior why he really agreed to hunt her.

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This little backup is really quite good.  It’s a breezy but effective story, with a healthy dose of action.  The Thorn comes off really well throughout, seeming competent and dangerous and generally living up to her hype.  It’s great to see her using her gadgets, taking out her foes like Batman.  It makes for some exciting reading.  Meanwhile, the heart of the plot with the kid turned killer is fairly interesting.  I’m curious what else is going on with him.

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Yet, a big part of what makes this particular backup so great is Gray Morrow’s exceptional art.  He’s got got a very unusual style for DC at this time, and the realistic detail that he puts into things like the Thorn’s hair as she fights and runs, or the shift in fabric is really cool.  In general, this tale just looks lovely.  There’s not a whole lot here, but nonetheless, it is a really enjoyable read.  I’ll give it 4 Minutemen, about the highest score a backup can get.  Kanigher is continuing to do really solid work in these backups, however bonkers his feature scripts may be.

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Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #139


Jimmy_Olsen_139

“The Guardian Fights Again!!!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inkers: Vince Colletta and Murphy Anderson
Letterer: John Costanza
Editors: Jack KirbyE. and Nelson Bridwell

When you think of cosmic adventure and mind-bending epics, what’s the first name that comes to mind?  Why, Don Rickles, of course!  What, it isn’t?  Well, join the club.  This issue and the next might just be the wackiest point in the Fourth World saga…and also perhaps the lowest, or at least the most nonsensical.  For some inexplicable reason, the King essentially takes a break from his myth-making, his larger than life story about the clash between superhuman forces of good and evil, to do a two issue arc featuring Don Rickles and his equally inexplicable doppelgänger.  Even the cover is a mess.  If you thought some of the previous covers were crowded with copy, you hadn’t seen anything yet!  Yikes!  There are more words in that image than in the entirety of any two modern comics.  The art itself is okay but it’s barely got any room to work with.

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Inside, it gets even stranger.  It begins with the Guardian being tested by Tommy’s father at the Project, run through a thorough examination before being allowed to go into action.  Though the tests show nothing wrong with the cloned hero, the doctor is still a bit hesitant to give him a clean bill of health because this copy of Jim Harper shares a mysterious abnormality in his brain with the rest of the clones produced at the Project.  Once again, I find something rather sinister in this scene that I doubt Kirby intended, but there is definitely something a little unsettling about the setup.  It seems to beg for development, but I don’t think it was ever really touched on again.  Despite this, the Guardian is given a chance to head back to Metropolis with Superman, and the Legion is super excited about teaming up with their fathers’ idol.

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jimmyolsen139-11Unfortunately, only Superman, Jimmy, and the Guardian make the trip in the Whiz Wagon, while the kids remain behind, quarantined and due to be tested because Gabby picked up a cold.  Isn’t that sort of closing the barn door after the cows have gotten out, especially if you let the others go?  Nonetheless, the scene is pretty funny, as Gabby’s fellows pelt him with newspapers for landing them in stir.  Note Flippa Dippa who, for reasons known only to himself and Kirby’s fevered imagination, is wearing his wetsuit under his hospital gown.  Their salvation comes in a strange but entertaining form, as Scrappy finds one of the tiny mini-Scrapper paratroopers has hitched a ride in his hair and agrees to help them break out.

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The Whiz Wagon wings its way back to Metropolis, and when they get back, Superman zooms off to resume his secret identity so that Clark can be ready to receive these visitors.  He and Jimmy realize that Morgan Edge is behind a lot of their troubles and plan to have it out with their new boss.  Yet, the evil Edge has more gimmicky problems at the moment, as, and stay with me here, he is trying to work out a contract with Don Rickles, but he somehow has to deal with ‘Goody’ Rickles, who is on his research staff and is inexplicably the entertainer’s spitting image.  Despite having the same last name, there’s no indication that these two are related either.

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For some reason, Goody barges in at that moment, unaccountably dressed in a cape and tights.  Apparently, some of the guys in his office told him to wear it in order to shoot a TV pilot.  I…I don’t even know where to begin.  His dialog is just nonsensical.  Sometimes almost funny, but mostly indistinct and unclear.  The malicious mogul instantly hates the wacko, and for once I can’t blame him, and sends him out on a fake assignment that is actually a trap.

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jimmyolsen139-20Shortly thereafter, Clark and Jimmy arrive, demanding to see Edge, but they get sent out on the same assignment, arriving at the park in short order.  There they find a strange craft, and when Clark investigates, Goody moronically starts pressing buttons, suddenly causing the device to vanish!  The remaining protagonists are then attacked by Intergang thugs, and the Guardian goes into action while Goody says things that are ostensibly supposed to be funny.  The cloned champion gives a good showing, tearing through his assailants, and even Jimmy gives a good account of himself.  Kirby has him keep his foes busy through athleticism and cleverness rather than simply outbrawling them, which is fitting.  Goody does a comedy routine as he accidentally thwarts the bad guys.  Unfortunately, all their efforts are for naught, as one of Intergang’s bigwigs, the aptly named “Ugly” Mannheim, grabs Jimmy and holds him hostage until the others surrender.

Meanwhile, Clark is stuck in the strange craft, which has shifted into another dimension, nicely rendered by Kirby, who had a gift for alien vistas.  Back in Morgan Edge’s office, he orders Mannheim to dispose of his captives.  Instead, he feeds them.  Goody makes with more ‘humor,’ but the scene is salvaged by a pretty dramatic turn.  Ugly casually lights the entire table aflame with but a touch of his cigar, and then announces that the food was laced with a powerful accelerant, which is now in his captives’ systems.  He releases them, warning the three that in 24 hours they’ll all go up like Roman candles.

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That’s a wonderful villain image.

jimmyolsen139-28Goody’s indignation, not at the murder attempt, but at being dropped off out of his way is genuinely funny, but it’s one of the few moments in this comic that can actually be described that way.  He’s more grating and bizarre than humorous, with some of his dialog reminding you of a joke in the way that a badly hummed tune can remind you of a song.  There are elements in common, but the effect is rather different.  The story itself has a lot of good qualities.  However silly the setup, the Newsboy Legion making their escape is pretty fun, as is their banter.  Ugly Mannheim is instantly memorable, and the sequence with his unusual methods of dealing with his prisoners is actually quite good.  It’s nice to see the Guardian in action again as well, but all of this is overshadowed for some reason by the utterly incongruous presence of Goody, who makes no real sense and just doesn’t fit in this story.  Kirby’s art is quite good in this issue, unlike the last New Gods, and he turns in a lot of lovely and energetic moments, as well as some great character work with the Legion.  In the end, it’s rather hard to rate this issue, as it is just so very strange and feels more like two separate stories mashed together than a coherent whole.  I suppose I’ll give this mad mess 2.5 Minutemen, as the good elements are strong enough to partially offset the perplexing presence of ‘Goody’ Rickles.  It’s still a fun read, and interesting in context, but boy is it strange.

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P.S.: So, how did this flight of insanity come into being?  Check out the article here for some nice background, but here’s the short version.  Apparently Mark Evanier and Steve Sherman, Kirby’s assistants, were huge fans of then popular insult-comedian Don Rickles, and they thought it would be fun to have him appear in a comic for a few panels and insult Superman.  They wrote up some dialog and showed it to Jack, who loved the idea.  He, in turn, took it to Carmine Infantino, who never met a gimmick he didn’t like.  The editor got permission from Rickles and decided that this needed to be promoted and made into a two-issue feature.  Then, out of the unfathomable, beautiful madness of Kirby’s mind came what followed.  Apparently, Rickles himself was none-too-pleased with the final result, and I can’t say I really blame him.

 


The Head-Blow Headcount:

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Color me surprised, but this is the second month in a row without a single new head-blow to add to the tally.  I’m thinking August has got to break the streak.

 


Final Thoughts:


July was an unusual month, filled with books that were not necessarily good, but were certainly memorable and, at least in some ways, important.  There were some genuinely enjoyable yarns along the way as well, of course, but this month gave us several significant comics that, though they were flawed as stories, were important to the DCU or interesting reflections of concerns in the zeitgeist of their time.  Even some of the sillier stories like this issue of Lois Lane are worth noting because of how they are evidence of the growth of the setting or the genre.  In Lois’s case, her bizarre adventure introduces the King’s Fourth World to the DC Universe at large, for however awkward that meeting might be.

Kirby’s Fourth World itself continues to develop in intriguing ways.  This month we get to see Darkseid emerge a bit more into the foreground, and we see a little of his personality and the nature of his rule in the machinations of his servants in this Forever People.  We also see the notable creation of another black character, still very much a rare occurrence at this point, though it is a moment of dubious honor, considering that he is the Black Racer.  On the plus side, his creation does point to an awareness of DC’s lack of diversity and some of the early, if halting, steps to try and make the DC Universe a bit more reflective of the nation that spawned it.

Most strikingly for me, this month gives us the story of Glorious Godfrey and a fascinating tale about the dangers of surrendering your will and moral judgement to the strong man and the demagogue.  This lesson was well learned in the mid-20th Century with the rise of fascism and World War II, but the allure of having someone do your thinking for you is a strong and pervasive one.  Human beings don’t like to think, as Socrates knew to his sorrow, and they always look for ways to escape that onerous onus.  I see this constantly in my students, but unfortunately, this trend is very much in evidence in the modern world, far beyond the classroom.  The ever increasing tribalism of our politics in the U.S. is the clearest example of this tendency I can imagine.

Notably, the viciously divided culture of 1971 seems to have produced similar anxieties about such mindless adherence to those that promise easy answers, as last month’s JLA issue demonstrated.  The connection between these books point to more than just Jack Kirby’s memories of the War years as being the source for this story.  In the era of George Wallace and numerous other strong men on all sides of the political spectrum, I suppose this should be no surprise.

Fascinatingly, this month’s Green Lantern deals, in a way, with a similar theme, though it is not really the focus of the story.  O’Neil finally turned in an issue that I really enjoyed, however goofy it might be.  It helps that the book takes the tack of satire rather than direct (and, let’s face it, shrill and self-righteous) critique.  Most notably, with this issue the author moves away from racism, pollution, and the other crippling social issues of the time, and focuses instead on the growing disposable, artificial nature of modern life, with its pillorying of the plastic peril of the Black Hand.  This is another topic that certainly resonates in the modern day, though in a less dire fashion.

Also in the zeitgeist of the day, the plight of Native Americans remains in our comics for this month with the conclusion to Dorfman’s Superman tale in Action Comics #402.  This is another prime example of a bit of a disconnect between the significance and quality of some of this month’s books, as the story itself is more than a little messy and goofy, lacking the dignity and seriousness of the first chapter.  Nonetheless, Dorfman’s heart is in the right place, and his work points to a growing concern in the culture at large, a desire to see native peoples given justice and a fair break, something we certainly still haven’t mastered.

This comic illustrates one of the difficulties in tackling social issues in the superhero genre.  As Superman easily wraps up all of the problems in a few pages, captures the villain, and provides a safe, stable, and successful future for the downtrodden tribesmen, we can’t help but feel that the reality of the struggle of such peoples is given rather short shrift.  This was one of my complaints with the previous attempt at such a story by Robert Kanigher.  It is a difficult and tenuous thing to treat a real tragedy in a setting where sun gods can juggle planets, stop bullets, and reverse time.  How do you honor the suffering of such a situation with a character than can resolve any problem with the snap of his fingers?  It can be done, as Kanigher’s racial story proves, but it is a difficult proposition.

DC’s flagship character was not just involved in attempts at social relevance this month.  Denny O’Neil’s continuing efforts to revitalize Superman are also on display, giving us attempts to humanize the archetypally superhuman Man of Steel.  While the resultant story is uneven, it’s an interesting continuation of the author’s efforts over the last several months, as his weakened hero has had to struggle with newfound limitations and doubts.  While the changes seem fairly mild to a modern audience, saturated with ‘bold new directions’ to the point where every radical shift just blends into the background, I have to imagine that O’Neil’s efforts were pretty groundbreaking for the venerable and traditionally very stable Superman.  Judging from the letters pages in these issues, that seems to be borne out.  Contemporary readers were reacting, and quite strongly, to the stories O’Neil is slinging.

Finally, as one of my radical readers pointed out, the appearance this month of a General Patton analogue in G.I. Combat is very likely a result of the relatively recent release of the film, Patton, the previous year.  Glancing over the plot summary of the movie, I’m certain he was right, as there are some really striking similarities between it and the story in question.  So here we have another quite clear example of the culture influencing the comics directly.

All of these stories make for a memorable if uneven month.  There are some great yarns to be found here, though a surprising number of those I enjoyed most were the backups.  There was still plenty here worth reading, one way or another.  I hope that y’all enjoyed this stage of our journey and will join me again soon for the next chapter of our voyage Into the Bronze Age!  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive, and exercise your God-given mind and moral sense!

 

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