- Action Comics #395
- Adventure Comics #400
- Aquaman #54
- Batman #227
- Detective Comics #406
- The Flash #202
- Green Lantern/Green Arrow #81
- Justice League of America #84 (reprints, won’t be covered)
- Justice League of America #85
- The Phantom Stranger #10
- Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #134
- Teen Titans #30
- World’s Finest #199
Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Dick Giordano
Well ladies and gents, this is a weird one. It’s a self-professed experiment in storytelling, and not an entirely successful one. Yet, neither is it a failure. It’s a bold attempt to do something new and innovative with the format of comic book storytelling, and the SAG team definitely deserve some kudos for being willing to try new things, which they’ve been doing all along in their run on this book. Yet, I feel like this script could probably have used one more pass in order to make it truly a hit. Nonetheless, what we have is a creepy, disconcerting tale that is apt to stick in the mind, and all under a very striking cover by the inimitable Nick Cardy!
The comic is actually two stories, a framing narrative and an interpolated episode happening at the same time. We start with two cops, John and Paul, and I feel like that might well be a reference of some sort which I can’t quite place, who have arrested a well-dressed man who had broken into a jewelry store (might it be a reference to the Apostles?). The man is in a strange daze, unable to say anything other than “I’m dead! Thanatos killed me!” Apparently, the zombiefied thief is actually a prominent socialite, one of a string of respected citizens who have suddenly and inexplicably turned to crime. They all evince the same bizarre behavior, and the police are stumped. The detective, John, orders the passive prisoner taken to “the science boys,” in hopes they can figure out what is behind this.
Meanwhile, Aquaman has been visiting with some surface friends and has forgotten about his one-hour limit, which is stupid in multiple ways. I’ll give Skeates a pass on the use of the limit in general because he’s just working with what he’s got, that being the established canon at this point. Interestingly, the team includes a very fitting poem in the opening of the tale that hints at what lies within.
The King of the Sea is hurrying home to the water when he’s jumped by another suicidally overconfident gang of plain-vanilla street-punks, just like those that attacked the Flash last month. Sheesh! Is there something in the water in the DCU that gives generic gunsels delusions of grandeur, or what? I suppose that something like that would explain why folks like the Ten-Eyed Man think they can cut it as supervillains. Well, this gesture should have been incredibly foolish, but unfortunately the Marine Marvel doesn’t perform too marvelously. He tears them up until…that’s right, the notorious head-blow strikes! I’m really not crazy about random punks being able to take down the super strong, super tough Atlantean, as I’ve said before. It really feeds into that inconsistent portrayal of his powers that plagues the character. Generally speaking, that isn’t a major fault of the SAG run, but it does crop up from time to time. I’ll give this instance a partial pass, though, as the hero would have been weakened by his time out of the water.
Either way, what follows is very strange, and a reader is apt to feel like they’ve missed a page. Suddenly, we’re presented with a black panel with a few enigmatic word balloons, then Aquaman is suddenly free, walking down a spooky lane and approaching the faded magnificence of a crumbling mansion. He has a note from Mera asking him to meet her there, yet there is some malignant presence within the house. When the Sea King approaches a mirror inside, his image distorts, grows, and becomes a grotesque exaggeration of his form before bursting from the glass and attacking him. What is going on?! It’s a brave narrative gambit, and it works fairly well to invite the readers into the hero’s own sense of confusion and bewilderment.
Suddenly, Aquaman awakens in Atlantis, with Mera leaning over him. She tells him that some kind surface -dwellers brought him back to the sea and he was rushed home, but she denies any knowledge of the mysterious note that drew him to that house in the first place. Aquaman feels responsible for unleashing the monster that attacked him, whatever it might be, and he says that it is up to him to stop it. That’s a good character moment. It captures his sense of duty and morality, as he feels the necessity to take responsibility for this creature on himself, despite the fact that he was duped into releasing it.
Yet, before he can act on his impulse, we get another mysterious black panel with frantic dialog about how “He’s coming out of it! Turn that thing up!” and other such exclamations. Suddenly, Aquaman finds himself battling the being, which calls itself Thanatos, on a strange, surreal landscape. Here’s where we get one of the issue’s missteps, as our perspective suddenly changes and we follow Thanatos himself for a time. I think the action panel is supposed to serve as something of a chapter heading, rather than part of the story, but it’s so unclear that it breaks the flow of the story. What’s more, following Thanatos and seeing his point of view doesn’t make sense in context of the story’s resolution.
We watch as the rampaging monster attacks Atlantis, and when Aquaman responds, he can’t seem to make any headway against the beast. He gets weaker as it gets stronger! Despite his best efforts, Thanatos knocks him out, causing him to awaken in bed once again. Mera tells her husband that Thanatos headed out to sea, and despite being weakened, the Marine Marvel heads out after him, fearing what will happen to life in the ocean if the monster has free reign.
We check back in with the cops, who obligingly provide us with some exposition. Apparently, a local crime lord has been kidnapping prominent citizens and subjecting them to a strange type of brainwashing. The subject is trapped in their own mind, fighting an amped-up version of their own death instinct, and when the psychic manifestation ‘kills’ them, they become “death-driven,” beginning to act as pliant criminals for the mastermind. If you’ve had any psychology classes, this may sound a bit familiar. If so, it’s because this is basically Freudian psycho-analysis, and as such, is more or less debunked these days. Still, Freud serves as a useful touchstone for popular conceptions of psychology and for exaggerated comic book science.
Well, we can probably figure out what’s happening to Aquaman now, which is why I think this reveal should probably have been postponed a bit. We get another mysterious black panel, now a bit more understandable, and suddenly the King of the Sea arrives in…an underwater Wild West town! It’s quite strange, but given that we know he’s in a dreamworld now, it sort of works. I really wish that Skeates had toyed with this a bit more, told us, perhaps, why Aquaman would imagine a western town for his showdown. I feel like there’s some fun character work that could have been done there. Was a young Arthur Curry a fan of Wagon Train, Have Gun-Will Travel, or the Lone Ranger? Personally, I see him as identifying with The Rebel (Johnny Yuma).
Our hero plays the part of the unwelcome stranger, and the townsfolk give him a cold shoulder until Thanatos arrives for a reckoning, submarine six-shooter and all! We get a bizarre but fun underwater Old West face-off, straight out of a classic western, but once again, the monster saps Aquaman’s strength, and he gets hit! Of course, this causes him to awaken again in Atlantis, and he begins to put the pieces together. The Sea Sleuth deduces that none of this is real, but just then, Thanatos breaks into the palace!
The two aqua-foes square off as the two policemen raid the hideout of the crimeboss they think is behind the zombiefied citizens. Inside, they discover the same slimeball who had kidnapped Mera back in issue #44, which started the classic ‘Search for Mera’ arc. What follows is interleaved action, as the cops take down the villain’s gang and Aquaman takes down Thanatos in a really cool Aparo splash page. While the other prisoners are zombiefied, the Sea King is able to resist, to hold out against his own worst instincts, until the policemen free him. The story ends with our hero on his way home to Atlantis, ready to spend some time with his beloved, noting that they’ve been apart too much lately.
As I said, this is a weird issue. The attempt to tell a dream story within another story is an interesting one, but Skeates breaks his own story logic by following Thanatos for a time, despite the fact that, in the scheme he sets up, this monster should be nothing more than a manifestation of Aquaman’s death-drive. He shouldn’t really have his own motivations and desires, short of killing his alter-ego, especially because this is all happening in Arthur’s mind. I think it would have been more effective to just have the beast show up every few pages and disappear inexplicably. Skeates almost achieves that, with the constant reversions to the palace and the clever use of his black panels. I do like that the villains have a hard time keeping Aquaman under control. It’s another of those story beats that emphasize the power of his mind and spirit, which I always enjoy.
Aparo’s artwork is excellent as always, and the brutal, maniacal face he gives Thanatos really helps to establish the dangerous and fearsome presence of the character. The story has a nice, moody color palette for many of the encounters with the monstrous manifestation and the scenes with the cops chasing their leads, giving the comic something of a noirish feel at times. As usual for an Aparo book, I find myself having to restrain myself, because I tend to want to post every other page or panel because the comic is just chock-full of striking images.
The unexpected and unheralded return of Mera’s kidnapper is something of a letdown. His roll could easily have been filled by any generic thug, as his backstory doesn’t impact the plot at all. We don’t even get a ‘curse you Aquaman’ type moment. It just feels like something of a waste. The end result of this issue, uneven as it is, is still an enjoyable read. I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen, giving credit for the innovation that Skeates attempts despite its mixed success.
P.S.: This issue also has a very neat feature in the form of a letter from Steve Skeates about his writing process, talking specifically about the recent O.G.R.E. issue as well as this one and relating an intriguing story about how the writer actually worked for a group of industrial spies for a time! It’s interesting to read about his perspective on these tales, but his account just drives home my feelings about the role of the spy organization in the last issue. To bring OGRE back, only to tell us that they’ve been definitively shut down seems…something of a waste. Nonetheless, check out the rare glimpse behind the curtain!
“The Demon of Gothos Mansion!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: Ben Oda
Editor: Julius Schwartz
“Help Me … I Think I’m Dead!”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Mike Esposito
Letterer: John Costanza
This issue of Batman, while not perfect, definitely captures the mood and feel that I identify with the Dark Knight. I feel like we’re getting closer to that definitive Bronze Age Batman. The plot has a few weak points, but the cover story really manages to strike the right tone for the character. We get one of those always slightly ill-fitting stories that pits the (relatively) grounded Batman against the supernatural, but this outing does so with a fairly light touch that works pretty well.
The story centers around Alfred’s niece, Daphne Pennyworth, who made an appearance not that long ago in Batman #216, a story I only vaguely remember. She’s written her uncle a letter explaining that she’s gotten herself into more trouble. She’s taken a job at a remote manor house which is the scene of mysterious happenings. It might be nothing, but a rather Hal Jordan-looking Bruce Wayne offers to look into it for his friend, and just like that, we’re off! Batman investigates the estate, prowling the grounds and discovering armed guards. That’s suspicious, so he tests their intentions by just strolling into sight and letting them take a shot at him. I rather like this whole sequence, as the menacing, torchlit shape of the Batman strikes an ominous figure. He is so capable and so on top of things that when they attack him, he easily takes them out in a nicely done page.
Having discovered that something untoward is definitely going on, the Dark Knight decides to spy on the other inhabitants of the estate, and he observes something quite unusual from his vantage point. The owner of the mansion, Heathrow, and two followers pass by, discussing a dark ritual and the summoning of a demon named Ballk! Something sinister is afoot! The detective helpfully informs us Ballk is “one of the nastiest creatures of mythology,” but in this case, the name seems to just be made up rather than drawn from actual myth.
Now with some idea of what the trouble is, the Masked Manhunter goes in search of Daphne, who he finds locked in a tower of the mansion. She fills him in on her predicament, telling him she was hired to teach Heathrow’s two children, but she discovered that they were “a pair of hideous dwarves!” Whoa, I’m thinking that’s not politically correct! Apparently Heathrow forced her to don an elaborate old-fashioned dress, the same dress as worn by the woman in an old portrait in her room, a woman who could have been her twin. The mystery nicely established, Batman breaks her out, only to fall prey to a trap and be taken prisoner by Heathrow’s two little henchmen.
The master of the manse happily conforms to generic standards and both leaves the hero unattended in a death trap AND provides him with some grade-A exposition as well. It’s convenient, but as I’ve said before, it’s an established part of the genre, so we can accept it. Apparently, Heathrow’s family have served the demon Ballk for hundreds of years, and he and his followers have been searching for just the right woman to sacrifice to the beast, a woman who is an exact match for the original victim that once freed the spirit. Daphne is just such a woman, and they plan to sacrifice her at midnight!
The trap itself is a fairly clever affair. Batman is placed on a stone pedestal that is attached to counterweights, slowly sinking and tightening a noose about his neck. His escape is excellent, as he tightens his neck muscles and swings, by his neck, to grab a torch off the wall with his feet, burning the noose off. It’s a wonderful display of acrobatic acumen and grim determination, and it makes for a heck of a page. Once free, the Dark Knight meets a shadowy figure who he thinks is Daphne, but her strange speech and hypnotic effect on him reveal that she is actually the ghost of the demon’s first victim. In the only real weakness of the issue, the Masked Manhunter suddenly falls in love with her in a subplot that doesn’t really have enough space to breathe.
The phantom female leads our hero to a black chapel, where a horrible ceremony is taking place. The Masked Manhunter intercedes just in time to rescue Miss Pennyworth and interrupt the ritual. In another cool sequence, he scoops Heathrow up bodily and hurls him at his followers, scattering them like ten-pens. The old man dies, either naturally or as a result of dark magic gone wrong, and the Dark Knight frees Daphne. With matters settled, he rushes out into the night to track down the ghostly girl, but she fades away, leaving nothing but her portrait and a weeping hero behind.
The romance subplot is a bit odd and doesn’t really work, but the rest of the issue is good fun. O’Neil nicely establishes a Gothic horror feel for the tale, and the coloring and moody art really helps to bring that effect to life. The central plot is a conventional one, but it works despite its familiarity because of the good presentation. I particularly like Batman’s portrayal as capable, dynamic, and grimly resolved. His escape from the death trap is one of the high points of the issue, as is his effortless defeat of the guards at the beginning. We’re approaching that spot-on portrayal of the character that I’ve been looking forward to. Novick does a great job on the art for this issue, really turning out a striking book. In the end, this story succeeds in its creation of atmosphere, tension, and mystery, even when the plot goes astray, so I’ll give it 4 Minutemen.
“Help me…I think I’m Dead!”
This Robin backup is an interesting one. It features the Boy Wonder getting involved in politics, a prospect I’m of two minds on. On the one hand, I’d prefer politics stay out of my comics, except in the broadest ways, but on the other, it makes sense that folks who pursue justice and have strong moral compasses would probably get involved in trying to fix their world with more than just their fists. In either case, we’ve got another campus-centric adventure here, but unlike some of the previous stories, this one works pretty well with its setting.
The story opens with Dick Grayson arriving for a shift at “Friend’s Phone,” a student-led phone counseling service of sorts. Basically, its for kids who need someone to talk to, and it’s a nice thing to see the Teen Wonder involved with. However, when he answers his first call, he recognizes a voice on the other end, a voice that is incoherent and panicked. Rather than call the police, which, in such a situation, would be a pretty fair response, he changes into Robin with the help of a trick briefcase and goes to investigate.
The voice belonged to a boy named Phil Real, who works for the same local political campaign that Dick has joined, but when the hero races to his apartment, he sees the young man tottering on the edge of a cliff. With an acrobatic rescue, the Teen Wonder prevents a tragedy, and Phil, the campaign’s photographer, tells him that he had accidentally poisoned himself with developing chemicals and went out of his head. While pulling the pair out of the river, Robin notices how terribly polluted it is, and we discover that this is, in fact, the central issue for his candidate, Prof. ‘Buck’ Stuart.
The next day we see a debate between the incumbent, Mr. Forte, and Buck, and it seems the town is on the Prof.’s side. Yet, we see the wheels of corruption turn a little faster than the wheels of democracy, and the local corporation that is behind the pollution of the river passes orders down to stop Buck, one way or the other. Those orders go into effect that night, as Robin is driving around town in his red micro bus and sees masked men running out of Stuart’s campaign office, which is ablaze! In a scene that is clearly meant to be cool but just seems rather weak, the Teen Wonder flips a switch on his dash and changes the bus’s license plate. That’s the only disguise the vehicle has. I’m sure that no-one could possibly connect the guy who drives around in a red micro-bus to the masked crimefighter who ALSO drives around in the same type of vehicle. Nope, that license plate is a stronger disguise than Clark Kent’s glasses!
Robin leaps into action, taking out one of the saboteurs before narrowly avoiding another slot on the Head-Blow Headcount! He takes a blow to the back of the head and gets stunned, but he doesn’t quite get knocked out. So close! Unfortunately, the punks get away, and the political supplies in the office are a total loss. Nevertheless, the kid volunteers redouble their efforts and take to the street to get the word out. This is an interesting angle, as Friedrich focuses on the growing political power of teenagers, which was a rising factor in this period. It’s neat to see that referenced in comics, especially comics aimed at just such an age group. This story has something of an implicit encouragement to get involved.
Yet, the newfound vigor and momentum don’t last, as the local paper prints a picture that seems to show Prof. Stuart paying someone off to pollute the river and strengthen his case. That’s where we are left, with many more questions than answers.
This is a solid story, especially considering the fact that it only has seven pages to do its work! Friedrich sets up a good mystery, gives us two nice action beats, and even does a tiny bit of world building for Dick Grayson. The one real problem with this setup is that the gadgets provided for the young hero have all been rather lame. I think the poor kid is getting the short end of the stick. While his mentor has Batmobiles, Batplanes, Batboats, and even WhirlyBats, poor Robin has…a micro-bus.
Obviously there isn’t much to this backup tale, but it is a good start, and I look forward to seeing what develops next issue. Interestingly, there is a political undertone to this story, since our hero is backing a politician aiming to curb pollution and balance economic and environmental concerns. It’s quite routine for us today, but I imagine it was a bit more challenging in 1970. All-in-all, I’ll give this story 3.5 Minutemen.
P.S.: Fascinatingly, I just just discovered that this Robin story has a lot in common with an actual event from 1970! Apparently, the river fire that sparked the events of the first JLA story I covered, JLA #78, had its origins in the headlines of 1969, when the polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio went up in flames. This served as a rallying point for the beginning of the environmentalism movement, and in 1970, students at Cleveland State University got involved in local politics by staging a march to the river to protest pollution. That hardly sounds like coincidence to me, and I have to think that this story of a polluted river and college students rallying to effect change must be related to those real events. If so, we’ve got yet another touchstone for the impact of the growing social consciousness in comics.
The Head-Blow Headcount:
Sadly, my favorite character moves into the lead on the Headcount, adding another appearance to the Wall of Shame. Robin, despite a close call, will not join him again just yet.
That will do it for today, folks. Thanks for joining me for a further jaunt into that great comic era, the Bronze Age! Please join me again soon for a few more classic comics. Until next time, keep the heroic ideal alive!