Welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age! Come on in and enjoy some 4-colored adventures in a brighter, better world than ours. I don’t know about you, but I can certainly use such a pleasant diversion. We’ve got a very interesting pair of books to cover in this post, including the end of Denny O’Neil’s unusual but intriguing tenure on Superman. Let’s get started!
Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.
“The Ultimate Battle!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Editor: Julius Schwartz
Cover Artist: Neal Adams
“The Girl Who Didn’t Believe in Superman!”
Writer: Bill Finger
Penciler: Wayne Boring
Inker: Stan Kaye
“The World’s Mightiest Weakling!”
Writer: Otto Binder
Penciler: Carmine Infantino
Inker: Bernard Sachs
And here we are at last, the conclusion of Denny O’Neil’s attempt to update Superman. This is the grand finale of the saga of the Sand Superman, and I have been looking forward to the read. We start with a solid but not quite earth-shattering cover, which is a bit ironic given what it depicts. It’s a dramatic piece, but the two fighting figures, carefully matched in their combat, look a bit awkward. It looks more like they’re standing in mid-air than engaged in a frenetic flying fist-fight. The blazing city below them is a nice touch, but the flat coloring renders it less powerful than it could have been.
The story within is a similarly mixed bag. It opens where the last issue left off, with the defeated Man of Steel grasped in the grip of the ghoulish “war demon,” which has been animated by another Quarrmite spirit. The fight is taking place in a junkyard, and a pair of bums cheer the monster on, even going so far as to vent their frustrations on the formerly invulnerable hero. Seeing the Metropolis Marvel bleed, they realize that he is now a mere mortal and proceed to beat him savagely. With Superman defeated, the two hobos, “Stewpot” and “Gemmi,” then take charge of the clueless creature, who is new to their world and has a childish innocence. The vicious vagrants decide to use the demon to satisfy their own desires for chaos and destruction.
Conveniently, Jimmy Olsen happens to be at the junkyard on an assignment (one wonders what he did to tick Perry off), and the young reporter finds his fallen friend. The injured hero is rushed to the hospital, where they discover his brain injury from last issue and begin a delicate operation while I-Ching, Diana Prince, and Jimmy Olsen waited with baited breath.
Meanwhile, the demon, sporting his bum brain-trust on his shoulders, smashes through a museum and confronts the police. Just then, the Sand Superman arrives, and he crashes into the monster with massive force! After a quick battle, the creature proves too much for him, and the dusty duplicate flees, wondering what prompted him to intercede, despite his protestations that he cares nothing for humanity. This is an intriguing moment, but it sadly doesn’t get much development.
The demon’s rampage continues, with him smashing through a police barricade, but as he becomes accustomed to his power and begins to enjoy the chaos he’s causing, he also grows tired of the bums who are bossing him around. Finally, he decides to employ his lessons in destruction on his masters themselves, and he kills them, on panel! Their deaths (in shadow, but visible nonetheless, which is quite unusual), are accompanied by a quote from Ecclesiastes, interestingly enough. And with that, the villainous vagabonds leave the story, making their inclusion feel rather pointless.
With his masters mashed, the monster heads after his original foe, smashing his way into Superman’s hospital and easily brushing aside Diana Prince’s puny efforts to oppose him. This is not Wonder Woman’s best performance, as Jimmy puts up just about as much of a fight as she does. When the creature reaches the Fallen Man of Steel, it finds him fully recovered, but the two are evenly matched, at least until the sudden and unexpected arrival of…the Sand Superman! The Man of Grit smashes through the ceiling, and in a nice touch the Action Ace wonders for a moment whose side his double is on. His question is answered a moment later, as his alluvial alternate crashes into the demon, and the pair of powerhouses push their foe towards the park, where the portal to Quarrm still rests.
The spirit is sucked back into its formless realm, and the crisis seems to have passed…until the duplicitous dusty duplicate declares that he is determined to be Superman, and therefore the original must die! The real Metropolis Marvel protests that they can coexist, but the Alluvial Ace declares that the hero is too proud of his own uniqueness to share his world with another, which is an interesting angle. The two are squaring off for a final showdown, where their oppositely charged atoms will trigger an explosion that will destroy one of them when I-Ching suddenly shows up and offers to cancel their charges out and let them fight normally.
After his mystic gesture is finished, the two super-foes begin a titanic combat that takes them through the very core of the Earth. In a nice sequence, Superman lures his doppelganger into a trap and clocks him into orbit, but after he pursues his enemy into space, the pair look down to see the world consumed by a cataclysm triggered by their Earth-shattering brawl! They gaze upon a world scoured of life, and Superman breaks down, only to be brought back to reality by I-Ching.
The vision was just a mystical trick, to dissuade the two titans from beginning their cataclysmic combat. The Sandy Superman is so moved that returns to Quarrm willingly, observing that there can only be one Man of Steel. The mystic offers to transfer the double’s powers back to the original Superman, but he refuses, saying that he has power enough, and after seeing what it could do, he wants no more, which is an interesting character moment.
And on that somewhat bittersweet note, Denny O’Neil’s Sand Superman saga comes to a close. As with the run as a whole, this final story is very uneven. There is a lot here that is really excellent, but there are a number of incongruous elements as well, along with a general sense of missed opportunities. Really, that’s the biggest problem with this issue and O’Neil’s tenure on the book at large. The mythology of this story feels ad-hoc and unfinished, a random grab-bag of elements that don’t have a unifying theme and lack the power of, say, the world-building going on in Kirby’s Fourth World books.
What’s here isn’t bad, but it just feels like it should be more than it is. The war demon is the best example from this last arc, with its odd appearance and random nature. His two hobo masters, who contribute almost nothing to the story during their brief tenure, are also signs of this trend. They corrupt the simple spirit with their thirst for violence, though we had already seen the creature being plenty violent during the previous issue. These two bums are given no development, no motivation for their evil attitudes, and thus their deaths have no power other than shock value. This is even more of a shame because there’s plenty of potential for something worthwhile here, perhaps in the style of Frankenstein, with an innocent ruined by the evil of those around it. Or, through these two bums, O’Neil could have explored how the morally weak react to the man of virtue, which is implicit in their hatred of the Metropolis Marvel but gets zero development.
Then there’s the incongruous presence of the enigmatic and ill-defined I-Ching, who always felt out of place to me. I can’t help feeling like the time spent with Diana Prince and I-Ching in these issues is wasted, and it’s time that could have been more profitably spent with Superman or his doppelganger. As is, the Sandy Superman’s sudden sea-change is not entirely earned, though that is the element that has kept me hooked throughout this arc, the most intriguing piece of O’Neil’s plot. That is probably the biggest disappointment. The somewhat promising premise of Quarrm is also left unexplored and unexplained, fading out of the book with the finale of this story.
Still, there are some really excellent elements to this story. The vision of a super-powered brawl destroying the Earth is really striking, and it reminds me of an Action Comics issue from a while back which evinced a similar realization of what such powers could do if not restrained. This is an intriguing and thought-provoking premise, and one not seen that often in this era. The fact that this dream then prompts Superman to willingly limit his power is a really fascinating twist. I’m very curious if we’ll see that actually play out in the DCU at large or if it will be forgotten once O’Neil leaves. I hope it will be the former! The evidence of the Sand Superman’s internal conflict is also really interesting, though we don’t get to see much of it. I’m not entirely sure what to make of O’Neil’s character work with the Man of Steel himself in this issue. The idea that the hero so enjoys being The Last Son of Krypton that he’d be unwilling to share the limelight is an interesting one. I don’t think that’s a good read of the character, but it could have led us to the Action Ace doing a little soul searching, which might have been promising if given a bit more space. I think the fact that he doesn’t actually get the chance to reject that claim is a big weakness of the comic.
The classic “Swanderson” art is quite good throughout this issue. Even though the war demon’s design is on the goofy side, they still make it look dynamic and frightening in action part of the time. The depiction of the central super-fight is also nicely effective, as is their work on its cataclysmic consequences. There are a number of great, dramatic moments beautifully depicted throughout the issue, especially the timely arrival of the Sand Superman. The art is so good, in fact, that I wish the art team had been given a bit more powerful of a story to illustrate. In the end, this is a flawed comic full of interesting ideas, an effective microcosm of the equally flawed but fascinating run that spawned it. It’s an enjoyable read, but it really should be more than that, seeing as it serves as the end of a 10 issue plot. I’ll give it 3 Minutemen, as its strengths and weaknesses effectively break even, bringing Denny O’Neil’s landmark run on Superman to a less than earth-shattering conclusion.
Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #114
“The Foe of 100 Faces”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Werner Roth
Inker: Vince Colletta
Cover Artist: Dick Giordano
The two feminine features of Lois Lane share a single story in this issue, and it is another surprisingly moving tale about race and equality. Unfortunately, a solid comic is saddled with a pretty weak cover. While Giordano’s Lois looks great, his Thorn is a bit misshapen, and the composition itself is not terribly captivating, full of yellow sky and not much else. Notably, the ‘girl’ comic’s cover focuses on a non-existent love triangle instead of the much more interesting grist of the actual plot.
The tale within starts in the office of Perry White, where he shows the lovely Lois Lane a copy of The Black Beacon, published in the city’s ‘Little Africa’ neighborhood, which was written by an anonymous columnist. The pair admire the unknown author’s work, especially his stance against the nefarious 100, and Perry sends the girl reporter out to recruit the mystery man for the Planet (which really seems a bit outside of her job description: what kind of paper is Perry running?). Interestingly, Morgan Edge shows up and backs White’s decision, thinking to himself that the 100 are competition to his own outfit, Intergang. That’s a nice little bit of continuity, with Kanigher touching on what’s happening in other DC books.
Meanwhile, the Thorn’s alter-ego, Rose subconsciously eavesdrops on her boss, Vince Adams, as he meets with two 100 torpedoes and assigns them to get rid of the protestors blocking the construction of a new high-rise that the gang wants to use as a front. While the innocent young Rose is unaware of these schemes, her vigilante identity takes note, perhaps implying a growth in the strength of that personality.
That evening, Lois approaches the small office of The Black Beacon, and inside she finds a familiar face. That’s right, Dave Stevens, from the book’s excellent and groundbreaking first issue on race, is the anonymous author, and he’s obviously been changed by his encounter with the girl reporter. While his assistant, Tina, is very cold and dismissive of Lois, Dave responds by saying that Lois is a “blood relation” of his, after a fashion, since her blood saved his life. He tells the story of the journalist’s journey as a black woman, but Tina remains unconvinced.
Yet, when Dave starts to bring Lois to the embattled Metropolis State building site to show her how he works, the 100 killers try to run them down, only to be stopped in dramatic fashion by the Thorn, who hits them like a whirlwind in a nice sequence. Interestingly, Dave is a bit angry that a woman has fought his battle for him, but Lois points out that, just like minorities want to be treated equally, so do women, and he acknowledges her point with a smile.
Once they reach the site of the protest, the young activist explains that the community is objecting to the building of the skyscraper because the city is pursuing it instead of addressing the needs of its people. They demand affordable housing, schools, and infrastructure instead of another office building. This fairly complex issue is massively simplified, but that’s to be expected in a comic like this, and the presentation is still effective. Once again, a black woman objects to Lois’s presence, and once again, the reporter, herself changed by her previous experience, responds with patience and a plea for unity, which is well met. It’s a bit cheesy, but it’s still heartwarming to see the characters bridging their gaps and the message is good.
Yet, while the protestors are learning to look past surface differences, the idle construction workers are roused by 100 flunkies into attacking the marchers. This is done with a surprisingly light touch. The workers are a pretty diverse group themselves, including American Indians, and they don’t believe the rabble rouser’s speech at first, instead being willing to respond to the non-violence of the protest in kind. It’s only after more 100 plants among the marchers start shooting and attacking the workers, backed by plants among the construction men as well, that a riot starts. Kanigher avoids demonizing either group and, though not through realistic means, still manages to show how otherwise decent people can get swept up in violence and bigotry.
Lois gets knocked out (should I count supporting characters on the Headcount?), and Dave Stevens fights like a lion to protect her. Tina tries to come to his aid, but they are both struck down as well. Suddenly, the Thorn strikes, and she throws out explosive smoke bombs among the troublemakers. The Baleful Beauty wades into them in another nice sequence, but she takes a hit as well, and it is only Superman’s timely arrival that saves the quartet. The Man of Steel manages to use his super breath to disperses the crowd without hurting them. The hero tries to talk with the Thorn, offering to sponsor her for League membership (!), but the Nymph of Night slips away, replying that she is a loner.
Lois begs the Metropolis Marvel to help the protesters, and he comes up with a solution. He redesigns the building to use vertical space as well as horizontal and helps construct a new tower, which will serve both groups. This makes everyone but the 100 happy. Lois herself gets wistful, wishing she could have the type of relationship with Superman that Dave and Tina share. Speaking of the two lovebirds, in the next few days, Lois visits them as they teach neighborhood children about black history, and the readers are treated to a cool double paged spread about the subject, and even I learned a bit (I had no idea that Dumas had African ancestry)!
Unfortunately, the peace does not last, and the 100 stages muggings and other disturbances at the new housing development to discredit the black citizens who moved in. Lois goes to investigate, only to witness an explosion and see the fire department greeted by gunfire and thrown trash. Dave helps her search for the culprits, but they vanish. This scene has some fascinating racial overtones, with Perry White pointing out that the organization that has arisen to oppose the new housing development “America Awake,” is using the incidents as proof that “blacks create their own slums wherever they go,” an idea that I’ve unfortunately heard expressed much more recently than 1971.
That evening, as the black community celebrates their new home, someone throws a firebomb at a table full of children (would that this were more unrealistic), and Lois risks her life, scooping up the explosive and throwing it into the street, suffering severe burns in the process. At the same time, she sees the Thorn sneaking around and follows her into the newly finished skyscraper. There, the gallant girl reporter is captured as the Vixen of Vengeance attacks the 100 crew operating as the mysterious “America Awake.” Dave Stevens comes charging to the rescue again, and with the aid of a smokescreen created by the Thorn’s thrown boot (seriously), she and the adventurous author clean up the crooks in yet another nice action sequence. After the fight, while Lois’s burned hands are bandaged at a nearby hospital, Tina embraces the girl she had previously rejected, impressed by her willingness to sacrifice her own life for children of color. Finally, the issue ends with Dave Stevens taking the job at the Planet so that his voice can reach a national audience.
This is another good, surprisingly sensitive and thoughtful story on race by Robert Kanigher. He continues to amaze me with the varied quality of his work. While this one is not as subtle and moving as his first try at the topic, that is, after all, a high mark to hit for a comic from the early 70s. Nonetheless, there is a good story here about breaking through the walls that our perceptions of race build between us. There is a focus on the plight of the urban poor that carries some weight and a good adventure story to boot, which is impressive because, as we’ve seen, writers can have a hard time balancing their plots and their messages. *cough*O’Neil*cough*
Kanigher packs a ton into this issue, perhaps a bit too much, actually. The story races from the initial protest to the attempts to discredit the black community to the capture of the barely introduced “America Awake” front. I think we could have had a more compelling and intriguing story, plot-wise, if Kanigher had broken this into two issues and built a bit more tension and suspense with the second half of the plot. The idea of the 100 playing on people’s biases by staging embarrassing incidents and what that says about our culture has some fascinating potential, and building up an actual mystery around what was happening could have been really rewarding.
Nevertheless, what Kanigher does give us works pretty well, even if it does move at such a quick pace that the “America Awake” organization feels like an afterthought. Of course, this comic provides a massively simplified take on the problems of the inner city, with the citizens being entirely innocent and the only negative influence coming from outside. Obviously, that issue is a great deal more complicated, and attempts to address urban poverty have been fraught with many challenges. Yet, Kanigher’s story, simplistic though it may be, serves a worthwhile purpose by challenging the popular perception of the urban poor, especially those in black communities, and does the same kind of narrative work as his stories about Native Americans, showing members of these groups as individuals, normal human beings with the same fears, problems, emotions, and desires as anyone else.
This is, as I’ve mentioned before, a very worthy undertaking and part of the power of literature, which can build in us the capacity for compassion, the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes. The racial tensions of the 1970s certainly made stories like this necessary, but the events of the last few years have shown how much such stories are still needed. In this era of polarization and tribalism, we could all use a reminder that the fellow on the other side of the isle is human, even if we disagree with him. This is even more important when that fellow happens not to look like us, as it is far too easy to demonize the Other. When even people who want the same things are constantly dividing themselves into different camps, it’s nice to read a comic where a daring dame like Lois breaks through such barriers. It’s also really great to see the friendship that exists between her and Dave, which I imagine was a little shocking in 1971. I love that there is nothing romantic between them, that they’re just two friends and equals. That’s a dynamic you don’t see that much in comics of this era. Honestly, their interactions are some of my favorite parts of the issue.
On the art front, Werner Roth turns in some more beautiful work, filling his faces with personality and emotion but also managing to create some really dynamic fight scenes. Yet, there are a few places where we end up with some awkward and ugly panels, where his figure work breaks down a bit, like the apparently drunk flying Superman to the left, here. Still, on the whole, Roth continues to do a wonderful job on this book, really serving to capture the emotions of his cast. I think that I’ll give this fun and thought-provoking comic a strong 4.5 Minutemen. It’s a little rough in spots, with some heavy-handedness and its subject is radically simplified, but it is still an unusually good read and has a sweetness and earnestness that make such excesses a bit more forgivable than others we’ve seen. I never expected to enjoy Lois Lane nearly this much!
Well! What a pair of issues! This is a really significant set of stories, and they definitely illustrate how comics are evolving in this era. We should have some fascinating trends to examine in the Final Thoughts for this month! I hope you will join me again soon when we shall do just that! Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!