Into the Bronze Age: May 1971 (Part 1)

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Welcome to another installment of Into the Bronze Age!  We begin our journey through May of 1971, marching ever further into the last great age of comics!  Our books for this post aren’t the best we’ve ever had, but I can honestly say they aren’t the worst, either.  I’m looking at you, super baby.  Join me as we see what was going on many years ago!

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


This month in history:

  • Amtrack railroad begins operation
  • National Public Radio begins programming
  • Nixon administration arrests 13,000 anti-war protesters in 3 days
  • Race riots in Brownsville section of Brooklyn
  • Friends of Earth return 1500 non-returnable bottles to Schweppes
  • Multiple killings and bombings continue to occur in Ireland
  • USSR launches Mars 2, 1st spacecraft to crash land on Mars
  • USSR Mars 3 launched, 1st spacecraft to soft land on Mars
  • US Mariner 9 1st satellite to orbit Mars launched
  • 36 hospitalized during Grateful Dead concert; drunk LSD apple juice

Well, it wasn’t quite as crazy as some of the previous months have been, but there was certainly plenty going on.  I’m slightly surprised that NPR only started this late in the Century.  I had sort of imagined them being around much longer.  We can see the tensions continuing to escalate both in the U.S. and abroad, with arrests of protesters here and the Troubles continuing to grow in Ireland, taking a toll on both sides.  We also see the space race proceeding apace, with both superpowers rushing to examine the Red Planet.  It’s clearly a strange, worrisome, but also fascinating time.  I wonder how the contemporary comics reflect it.

It seems that Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” remained at the top of the charts through May, but at the tail end of the month, the Rolling Stones snuck into #1 with “Brown Sugar,” a fun, carefree song plenty at odds with the turbulent headlines of the time.


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #400
  • Adventure Comics #406
  • Batman #231
  • Brave and Bold #95
  • Detective Comics #411
  • The Flash #206
  • Forever People #2
  • G.I. Combat #147
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #83
  • Justice League of America #89
  • New Gods #2
  • Superman #237
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #110
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #136
  • World’s Finest #202

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


Action Comics #400


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“My Son… Is He Man or Beast?”
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Editor: Murray Boltinoff
Cover Artists: Neal Adams and Dick Giordano

“Duel of Doom!”
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Editor: Murray Boltinoff

It’s the landmark 400th issue of Action Comics…unfortunately, there’s not really anything particularly noteworthy to mark the occasion.  But hey, look at that, another monkey on a cover!  That’s right, this month Superman gets the ape allotment at DC, and it is certainly an unusual image.  In fact, it represents a very unusual story as well.  The cover probably primes you to expect another Saga of the Super Sons, but no, Dorfman has even weirder plans.  And when you’ve got weirder plans than Bob Haney, watch out!

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So our strange story begins with Superman attending the funeral of yet another old friend who we’ve never heard of, in this case, a scientist named Jan Nagy.  The Man of Steel attempts to comfort the late scientist’s son, who Swan draws to look like he’s an adult but is presumably still a teenager.  Unfortunately for the hero’s efforts, the kid reacts with hatred, saying he wants nothing to do with the Metropolis Marvel.  Oddly, the scientist’s will appoints Superman as the boy’s guardian, which is just really strange in multiple ways, if you think about it.  The bereaved boy, Gregor, storms off, saying he wishes he could kill the Kryptonian, and his family lawyer comments that he’d have to be some kind of “super gorilla” to do that.  What an unimaginably odd thing to say.  It can’t possibly be foreshadowing.

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Well, Supes chases after the angry young man but sees him phase right through a door!  Inside, the Action Ace spots Gregor transforming into…you guessed it, a gorilla.  Superman confronts the irate ape, only to have the creature tell him that the hero himself is to blame for the transformation.  Gregor turns back to normal and reminds the Man of Tomorrow of a yesterday not that long ago when he saved the boy’s father from an experiment gone wrong.  The scientist had created a new element, metamorphon, in an atomic furnace, but it threatened to explode and mutate everyone nearby (and here’s another threat to civilization thanks to a DC scientist).  The hero disposed of the furnace in a swimming pool to drown the reaction, but the nearby Gregor was affected by the fumes, despite his efforts.

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The boy soon found himself transforming uncontrollably at his slightest whim, becoming intangible or taking on the shapes of animals.  Instead of being thrilled to have developed some honest-to-goodness superpowers, donning a costume and taking to the streets to fight crime, which seems to be the dominate way of dealing with such trauma in the DCU, the boy just becomes bitter and blames his new guardian.  He even spurns the woman he loves because he feels like a freak.  Superman encourages the youth to learn to control his powers and use them for good, and the boy agrees, but demands that the Man of Steel teach him, still full of venom.

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Helping the Man of Tomorrow open locked and booby-trapped doors and scaring poachers, Gregor begins to control his powers, but he also uses them to spy on Superman, discovering his secret identity.  In an attempt to reach the little punk, Clark takes him to the Fortress of Solitude, where the boy carelessly damages a satellite by pushing random buttons, causing the Action Ace to run off to try and save it.

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Meanwhile, a distress call comes in about a sub trapped in the Sea of Japan, and Gregor, finally displaying some character, realizes that he’s been acting like a jerk and sets out to help them by taking Superman’s place.  He recreates the Kryptonian’s powers temporarily, but his own abilities don’t last long enough to finish the job.  He is injured by the pressure before the real Man of Steel arrives to save him, and the two have a supposedly touching farewell reconciling as Gregor dies, his metamorphic form turning to dust at the end.

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As I said, this is a weird one.  There’s a slightly clever reference in the boy’s name.  A character who metamophosizes and is named Gregor.  Hmm!  We get the standard device of a close friend we’ve never heard of, and Superman suddenly finds himself a parent to a surly and sullen teenager, with super powers to boot, as if regular teenagers aren’t hard enough to manage!  The story, at only 14 pages, is way too rushed for any real emotional attachment to Gregor, especially as he comes off more like a jerk than a victim.  His powers don’t really seem like that much of a burden.  If he wants to complain about metamorphic powers, he should probably compare notes with Metamorpho first.  I can’t help feeling like Rex got the worse deal, there!  The story feels fairly Silver Age-ish, with the melodrama cranked up to 11 without any real justification in the story itself.  It’s an okay tale for what it is, but it is certainly nothing special for the 400th issue.  It feels like a bit of a let-down in that context.  I’ll give it 2 Minutemen because it just fails to achieve the pathos for which it’s clearly aiming.

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“Duel of Doom”


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As often seems to be the case with these books, the backup tale is significantly more fun than the headliner.  It offers an enjoyable jaunt into the miniaturized world of Kandor, where two young students idolize Superman and Supergirl.  They argue about which hero is the best, like all good comic fans.  Arvor, an electronics student thinks the Man of Steel is the best, while the archeology student, Yllura, supports the Maid of Might.  There’s a charming ‘battle of the sexes’ element to their interactions, which results in their deciding to compete with one another in their final exams, where each student has to achieve something impressive.

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Gota’ say, I think I agree with Arvor here.  Is there really that much future for an archeologist in a bottle city?

Yllura heads to the outskirts of the city to explore ruins located in some caverns and discovers a hidden temple.  Meanwhile, Arvor tests an experimental visor of his own design that simulates Superman’s X-ray vision.  His belt jets short out during his flight and send him plunging into a lake, accidentally finding his way into an underground river.

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While he wanders through the cavern after his embarrassment, the lady scholar triggers an ancient defense mechanism, producing a grotesque floating head.  Her frightened scream leads the electrical whiz to her, and he smashes the source of the projection with a rock.

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Unfortunately, this shorts out the power in the tomb, plunging the pair into darkness.  Yllura realizes that Arvor’s visor could lead them out, and with his invention lighting the way, they escape from the caverns.  The couple realizes that, no matter who is the best, they are still better as a team.  The plucky pair both ace their exam and are awarded a joint trophy by Superman and Supergirl who arrive to officiate their graduation.

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This is a simple but fun little science fiction story.  The two Kandorians have a charming dynamic, with some good back and forth in the small amount of ‘screen time’ they have.  I like the proxy battle of the sexes they play out, which is a neat reflection of the growing concern over gender equality at the time.  I enjoy how both of the kids make mistakes but both also have moments of triumph.  It’s a very brief little story, but it’s an enjoyable one with a decent amount of personality.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.

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Adventure Comics #406


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“Suspicion”
Writer: Mike Sekowsky
Penciler: Mike Sekowsky
Inker: Jack Abel
Editor: Mike Sekowsky
Cover Artists: Mike Sekowsky and Dick Giordano

This is an issue that is a bit hard to pin down.  One moment it is hilarious and surprisingly witty, the next it is so goofy and poorly thought-out it almost seems surreal.  The overall effect leaves me wondering if maybe I’m missing some clever parodic elements, but I’m fairly certain it’s just Sekowsky being inconsistent and employing lazy writing shortcuts.  The crux of the issue is the discovery of Supergirl’s most closely guarded secret by her nemesis, but the manner in which this happens is dramatically unworthy of the event.  Sekowsky also seems to have forgotten what happened in the previous issue, as this comic opens with a recap of the recently concluded ongoing Starfire saga, but whereas the last issue ended with the Maid of Might capturing the villainous professor and assured that a cure for her stop-and-go superpowers would be forthcoming, her powers are still unreliable in this one with no explanation.

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The story proper opens with Linda Danvers preparing to go to her college graduation, at which she has, for some reason, agreed to speak as her own alter-ego, Supergirl.  That couldn’t possibly go wrong.  Oddly, the graduation is disrupted by a crowd of pushy protesters, and the demonstration quickly turns into a riot when the football team takes on the demonstrators.  Supergirl just up and leaves, heading back to her room to change, and here is where Nasthalia “Nasty” Luthor enters the picture and enacts her brilliant master plan to discover the superheroine’s secret identity.  What, you may ask, is this staggering work of genius that manages to outwit the wily Kryptonian?

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adventure406-04 - CopyWell, Nasty follows her and watches whose room she enters.  That’s it.  That’s the discovery.  It’s so blazingly stupid that I had to read the sequence twice to be sure I hadn’t missed something.  This is an example of plot induced stupidity if ever there was one, as the being with about a zillion different super senses doesn’t notice that she’s being followed and walks through her front door instead of using the roof entrance that we’ve seen her use before.  Wow.

Back out among the mob as plain old Linda Danvers, our protagonist meets up with her adoptive parents amid the protest, which has descended from carrying standard slogans to parody signs that make fun of the mindlessness of such crowds, which is pretty funny.  Linda and her parents are weirdly unaffected by all of the chaos surrounding them, and Linda herself seems entirely unruffled that her graduation, a rather major milestone, has been completely ruined by these protesting morons.  The page has several little jokes, making it one of the funniest pieces of the book.

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Note the irony of the image and caption in the last panel.

Having graduated, despite the lack of a ceremony, the young Kryptonian says goodbye to her family (about whom I know absolutely nothing for this version) and heads to Metropolis in search of a job.  However, she finds that no-one is hiring, though there is a surprisingly mature reference (for the time) to sexual harrasment as one guy tries to use the prospect of a job to get her to go out with him.  I was surprised to see that kind of thing get a mention in a comic like this.

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Check out the fourth panel.  That image looks familiar, but I can’t quite place it.

Finally endangers Superman’s secret identity as well, calling him while he’s at work in the guise of Clark, with Nasty secretly stalking her.  Cousin Clark comes through, arranging a job for her in San Francisco.  Hooray for nepotism!  I’m actually slightly bothered by the use of Frisco rather than, say, Coast City.  I dislike it when DC mixes real cities in with their imaginary geography.  It ruins the effect of the alternate world with its own internal consistency.  That’s the reason I’ve never cared for things like Firestorm being based in New York instead of his own fictional town or sharing space with another hero.

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At any rate, Linda flies cross-country to take the job at a TV station, K-SFTV, where she meets two groovy guys dressed in the height of early 70s fashion, drawn by Sekowsky to look like they’re in their 30s, which makes their immediate flirtation with the disguised Supergirl even more inappropriate than it would be normally.  Linda also discovers that her old college cohort, Nasty, has taken a job at the station as well.  These two girls are made camerawomen, with apparently no training or experience, and for some reason, they travel in a trio, since apparently one camera isn’t enough.

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Multiple camera angels don’t do a whole lot of good when they are all right next to each other…

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After covering a bunch of stories where Nasty has stuck to Linda like glue, making it impossible for her to do any hero-ing, they respond to reports of a fire, where they find people trapped inside a building.  Supergirl slips away in the crowd, changes into her costume, and flies into the building to rescue a woman and her child.  Then, instead of, ohh, I don’t know, using those same powers to fly OUT of the building with the pair, she slowly walks through the inferno, risking their lives.  Almost at the exit, the rescued woman comes to and tells her savior that there is another victim trapped within, a baby she had been watching.

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Finally employing her x-ray vision (why exactly didn’t she do that before?), the Maid of Might rescues the baby, while Nasty notices her absence and tries to get footage of her, only to be foiled when the heroine switches back to Linda to emerge with the infant before collapsing, her powers having faded and left her vulnerable.  She awakens in an ambulance, wondering how she’ll escape before the doctors notice that her wounds have miraculously healed.

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This story is so silly in places, yet the moments with the protesters are genuinely funny and clever.  It’s really a surprisingly inconsistency.  Whatsmore, Sekowsky is doing really interesting and unusual things with his character.  In the scope of one issue, he dramatically transformed the status quo for Supergirl.  He not only has her graduate college but get a job and start a new life in a new city.  That is a pretty huge change for an era that is still largely about stability.  The renovation of characters is clearly having an impact, even in unexpected quarters.  Of course, Supergirl herself remains pretty flat and unchanged, despite the shift in her setting.

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The whole bit with Nasty discovering the Girl of Steel’s secret identity was just so stupid I hardly have words to describe it, and her inaction throughout the story is inexplicable.  She’s got excellent reasons to believe that Linda Danvers is Supergirl, so why in the world doesn’t she act on that information.  Instead, she’s following her around waiting for proof.  Nasty, baby, proof is for the cops.  You’re a Luthor.  You don’t need proof to do something violent and unpleasant.

In the end, this is just a clunky story with lazy writing and everything serving the plot.  That’s a shame, because there are elements of it that are really promising and interesting, as well as quite funny.  It doesn’t help that the issue continues to feature Sekowsky’s wildly inconsistent art.  It’s quite good in some panels and just plain hideous in others.  This one doesn’t have as many standout mistakes as some previous outings, but it just might be uglier overall than most of the previous run.  I’ll give the issue as a whole 2 Minutemen, rating that high because it made me chuckle despite its foolishness.

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Well, that will do it for the opening act of May 1971.  It isn’t exactly an impressive first showing, but I am sure that the rest of the month will give us some better books, though, perhaps I shouldn’t get my hopes up for the next batch.  Or perhaps I should.  After all, the next issue of Batman features the return of the the most dramatic, the most dynamic, the most dynamite villain ever to grace the pages of one of the Dark Knight’s books.  Who could this wondrous one be?  Well, you’ll just have to wait and see.  Please join me again soon for a story staring an incredibly charismatic character as we travel further Into the Bronze Age!  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

Into the Bronze Age: April 1971 (Part 6)

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Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap long-boxes in a single bound, it’s Into the Bronze Age!  I’ve certainly got an interesting pair of books in this post as we finish out the end of the April, 1971.  All of these stories are unusual in one way or another, so it shouldn’t be a boring batch, if nothing else.

I want to thank all of my readers for your patience as I’ve been moving slowly on this feature lately.  I’m rushing to finish a great deal of my professional work here at the end of the summer, which sadly leaves me little time for this pleasant diversion.  Anyway, thanks for sticking with me, and I promise to keep limping along steadily, if not rapidly.  Well, without further ado, let’s see what awaits us at the end of the month!

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 #399
  • Adventure Comics #405
  • Aquaman #56 / (Sub-Mariner #72)
  • Detective Comics #410
  • The Flash #205 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Mr Miracle #1
  • The Phantom Stranger #12
  • Superboy #173
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #109
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #137
  • Superman #236
  • Teen Titans #32

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


Superman #236


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“Planet of the Angels”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson

“The Doomsayer!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Dick Giordano
Inker: Dick Giordano

Say what you will about Denny O’Neil, he was unquestionably an innovator, always trying something different, though it didn’t always succeed.  Today’s cover story is just such an experiment.  It’s interesting and unusual, but not entirely effective.  The cover is certainly striking, picturing the Man of Steel facing off against demons at the very gates of Hell, a very unlikely image for a Superman comic.  O’Neil has been trying to shake up the status quo, to bring new life and energy to the rather staid hero, and he’s been succeeding so far.  This comic isn’t quite as successful as some of his previous efforts, though.

It begins with a fun little scene where the World’s Finest team of Superman and Batman bust some safe-crackers.  O’Neil and Swan manage to make them both seem useful, despite the fact that the invulnerable, super-fast sun god could easily have handled these two ordinary crooks before Batman so much as put on his cowl.  Swan really does a great job with this team.  The effect is enjoyable, despite their incongruity.  Superman offers to buy his partner a cup of coffee, and I’m deeply disappointed that we don’t get to see a HISHE style scene with the two heroes sipping java in a cafe.

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Missed opportunities aside, after the Dark Knight begs off because he’s bushed, the Man of Tomorrow heads to his Fortress of Solitude where he tries out a ‘brainwave project’ that he’s been working on, a device that will compare his brainwaves to those of a normal human.  Envying humans and their need for sleep and dreams, he tries out the gadget and suddenly finds himself on a strange world!  What’s going on?

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He’s on a fiery plane where he is suddenly attacked by a gang of demons straight out of pop-cultural portrayals, right down to the goat-feet and pitchforks.  Their polearms glance off him harmlessly, and the Kryptonian easily repulses their attack.

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Just then, he is greeted by a trio of angelic looking figures who introduce themselves as Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael, Christian archangels who tell the Man of Steel that he’s in the afterlife.  They stand amid beautiful green hills, and below them burns a sulfurous pit.  They display the popular misunderstanding of theology that Hell is for “those who follow not the paths of virtue,” and tell Superman that he has died and must prove himself worthy of Heaven by slaying the demons below.  Something about this seems off to him, but the Action Ace heads into the flames nonetheless.

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In the pit he discovers a massive gate and is haunted by twisted images of his friends appearing in the flames.  Realizing that something is off, Superman decides to use his head, and he tunnels underneath the gate, easily disarming the ‘demonic’ guards on the other side, where he tries to get some straight answers out of one of their number.

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The ‘fiend’ tells the Metropolis Marvel that what he sees is an illusion caused by the ‘angel’s’ hypnotic powers.  With concentration, the Man of Steel sees, not a demon, but a uniformed alien, who tells the hero that he and his fellows are law officers who were chasing criminals, those same ‘angels,’ who lured them to this planet and trapped them.  The criminals telepathically summoned Superman to destroy their enemies for them.

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Confronting the false heavenly host, the Man of Steel sees through their illusions, including phantoms of his friends being threatened, and charges through their weapon blasts to knock two of them out.  The third escapes, however, carrying a powerful bomb (through deep space!), with which to destroy the Earth!  The Man of Tomorrow catches up just in the nick of time and stops the antagonistic archangel, returning him and his fellows to the lawmen (err…law-aliens?), and repairing their ship.  The tale ends with Superman back in the Fortress of Solitude, where he reflects that he had a living dream, even though he didn’t sleep.

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This is a weird issue.  I like how Superman picks up on the incongruous elements of the ‘angel’s’ stories and setting, and I like his willingness to question figures of even the ultimate authority.  It shows a greater maturity for his character than we’ve seen in the past, and these are obviously elements that O’Neil has been trying to develop.  Yet, precisely what is happening in the story is rather unclear.  Does Superman’s device cause him to dream?  Is this a real and random encounter that has nothing to do with the device?  It’s really ambiguous, and unintentionally so, I think.

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Neither possibility lines up perfectly with the story as told, and there doesn’t seem to be any overriding point to either possibility either.  Add to that the fact that Superman just absolutely breezes through all of his challenges in this story, despite the fact that O’Neil has been trying to present him as less all-powerful and the presence of alien weapons that could reasonably have presented a threat to him, and you’ve got an uneven tale that feels a bit sloppy.  I’m also a little disappointed that the ersatz angel’s appearances weren’t illusions, as it seems incongruous for aliens to be flying through space in robes and without any protective gear.  I understand what O’Neil was going for with his little ‘evil can be beautiful’ touch at the end, but it still doesn’t quite work.  In the end, I’ll give this off-beat issue 2 Minutemen, with the dip below average primarily because of its unnecessary ambiguity.  It’s strange but ultimately forgettable.

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“The Doomsayer!”


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While the first story was something new, this backup is something old.  This is another ‘Fabulous World of Krypton’ backup feature, though, honestly it feels like a bit of a gyp.  The frame-tale guest stars Green Arrow and Black Canary, so take a wild guess what the theme is.  If you guessed ‘yet another preachy environmental yarn,’ you win the cigar!  This story just doesn’t fit the tone of Kryptonian tales, and it’s a good example of what happens when you shoe-horn in a message, prioritizing that over story.  It all begins with Superman, Green Arrow, and Black Canary having a picnic, which is a fun idea, but a rather odd set of characters.  Predictably, Ollie starts bellyaching about a nearby factory that’s spewing out pollution.  At this point, why does anyone even hang out with this annoying archer?  Well, this reminds Kal-El of a story from the glory days of Krypton, the story of a city called Surrus.  In this city there grew special flowers, the Surrus blossoms, that sang a beautiful, calming song that had an almost soporific effect on the populace.  Shades of the “Lotus Eaters!”

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This city was also home to a scientist named Mo-De, who discovered the fate of Krypton twenty whole years ahead of Jor-El!  After he made his discovery, he rushed out into the city streets and started playing Jeremiah, telling the citizens that there was still time to act.  The people didn’t want anything to do with him, just wanting to be left alone to listen to their flowers.  In desperation, Mo-De rushed into the fields and cut down the blossoms, but the enraged citizens, finally shaken out of their lethargy, beat him mercilessly and locked him in a greenhouse with more of the singing sprouts.

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Eventually, the sounds break his will, and he emerges another zombie-fied lotus eater, err…flower listener.  He passed the remaining years in peace, but died with the rest of Krypton.  After Supes finishes his story, Canary is horrified, and she rushes off to have a word with the factory’s owner, having been shaken out of her lethargy.  “Message for you, sir!”  It’s a shame it was so subtle.  I almost missed it.

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This isn’t a bad story, really.  It just doesn’t really belong here, and the entire thing feels forced, from the odd picnic with these characters that don’t really seem to have much in common (all in costume, no less), to the rather Twilight Zone-esq plot, which just really doesn’t seem to fit the utopian, highly organized Krypton that we’ve seen before.  O’Neil does a good job of economical storytelling, packing his preachy message into seven short pages pretty efficiently.  The message itself, though feeling a bit repetitive because of its environmental theme, is actually a slightly unusual one and not half bad.  Focusing, not on the pollution itself, but on the populace’s apathy, their greater interest in their entertainments, their distractions, than on their future, is a good angle.  The execution of the plot itself isn’t half bad, with the crowd’s reactions and the scientist’s fate all fairly creepy and menacing.  The fact that O’Neil did use Krypton allowed him a certain amount of shorthand with the fate of the planet, which helps his efficiency in storytelling.  There is also significance in the continued push towards social relevance, even in such an unlikely place as the Krypton backups.  Taken all together, this little yarn is worth 3 Minutemen, with the incongruous elements limiting it to an average score.

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P.S.: There’s also a somewhat clever joke in the name of the town, as “SUSsurrus” is a word meaning a soft murmuring or whispering, something of an indistinct, gentle noise.


Teen Titans #32


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“A Mystical Realm – A World Gone Mad”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Nick Cardy
Inker: Nick Cardy
Letterer: Joe Letterese
Editor: Murray Boltinoff

Steve Skeates’ tenure on the Titans book continues this month, and we get a rather weird story under a fairly awesome cover.  The peril of the two Titans in the image is pretty dramatic, and the dragon is quite impressive looking.  The whole composition has a dream-like (or perhaps, nightmare-like) quality that smacks of the twisted fairy tale we find within. The story it represents begins with a scene that takes in media res too far, with Kid Flash and Mal traveling through time and referencing events that the reader hasn’t seen.  It seriously made me go back and check the last issue to see if I had forgotten something.  It’s a clever scene given the use of time travel, as it begins ‘in the present,’ but it’s probably too clever for its own good.

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They think they are back in 1971, but instead of finding familiar surroundings, they discover medieval-looking peasants and, of all things, a dragon!  Kid Flash’s speed manages to get them to safety, and only then do we get the flashback we’ve been needing.  It seems that Mr. Jupiter, the vague and largely pointless patron of the Titans team, is apparently a scientist as well as a millionaire.

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One day he was experimenting with a time-travel device, just casually running incredibly dangerous and unstable tests in his building with a bunch of teenagers around.  Something went catastrophically wrong (shocking, I know), and Mal was flung back in time.  Cardy’s rendering of the page is really cool, but the scene is rather dumb.  It’s pretty clear that we’re moving at the speed of plot, here.  Also, here is yet another experiment that could conceivably destroy the world as we know it.  I’m thinking that the safest course of action in the DCU would be to ban science in general.

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Mal finds himself back in the Stone Age, facing a tribe of cavemen who begin to worship him because they saw him appear out of thin air.  Apparently the young man listened to the Ghostbuster’s good advice, as he plays along.  Meanwhile, back in the present, Jupiter feels bad for about half a second for how his irresponsibility and complete lack of safety standards hurled an innocent kid through time.  The other Titans encourage him for some reason, and Kid Flash makes plans to take a jaunt through time to try and find his friend.

Back in the past, Mal finds trouble by stealing a caveman’s cavegirl and finds himself in a club duel.  Cardy renders the fight beautifully, and Skeates doesn’t spoil it with dialog.  Mal holds his own, but a misstep leaves him hanging onto a cliff, just as Kid Flash arrives.  As the caveman prepares for a death-blow, the Fastest Boy alive knocks the club out of his hand, but he manages to bean himself in the process and earns a spot on the Head-Blow Headcount, as well as sending the neanderthal plummeting to his death.  With the hero knocked out, there’s no way to save the savage, which doesn’t seem to bother the boys much.  They take manslaughter awfully casually.

In the altered present, Kid Flash realizes that they’ve unintentionally changed history with the death of that caveman.  The young speedster knows they must go back and save the neanderthal, but he needs a cosmic treadmill to do it and doesn’t know where to find one in this medieval world.  The peasants from earlier mentioned sorcerers, so they set out to try to find someone with the power or knowledge to help them.  Discovering a castle, the pair are greeted by illusory monsters in the moat, but they manage to get past them by pole-vaulting onto the battlements, despite a mysterious hooded figure’s interference.

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It’s a nice sequence, but it gives us one of the stranger dialog exchanges I’ve seen in a while.  Mal says to Wally, “Love your white soul, brother Titan!” and his partner responds “Love your black one, Mal–and if I’ve got any soul–you taught me how!”  It’s a pretty goofy exchange by today’s standards.  I understand what Skeates was aiming for, and it makes more sense in the context of the racial tensions of the day.  In addition, there’s some decent character development in this passage and the story as a whole, as Kid Flash was the most antagonistic to Mal in their earlier encounters.  This emphasis on racial unity, however silly the setting and clumsy the effort, is an interesting and thoughtful move on Skeates’ part.  Nonetheless, I can’t help laughing when I read it.

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When the pair reach the castle’s walls, they discover that the wizard is none other than Mr. Jupiter, who here is known as Jupiterius, and he has a quartet of super-powered knights who are ersatz counterparts to the Justice League, including Batman, Superman, the Flash, and Green Arrow, which is a fun little touch for this alternate reality.  The boys ask the sorcerer for help, but he and his champions insist they pass a test to prove their worth first.

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Their first challenge is a test of bowmanship.  Weirdly, they are confronted with Lilith and Speedy, who look like their modern counterparts with no good explanation.  It’s supposed to be some type of trick, but I don’t really see the point of it.  Nonetheless, things seem pretty hopeless.  How can Kid Flash compete with Speedy in his element?  Well, despite the boy bowman making a perfect shot at a keyhole, Kid Flash manages to pull a Robin Hood and split his arrow.  Even more, his shaft manages to slice through the other and unlock the door.  The tale ends with the time-tossed Titans facing whatever mysterious menace awaits on the other side!

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This is certainly an entertaining and unusual story, but it feels very uneven.  What Skeates is trying here is creative and promising, (I always like an imaginative alternate reality) but his execution is just rather off.  It’s fun to see the medieval Justice League, a concept that will be revisited a few times over the years, but they don’t really do anything, and the addition of Mr. Jupiter feels a bit shoe-horned.  Sure, he’s important to the Titans, but his presence with the League implies a more important role in the DCU than really seems warranted.  Of course, I may just be letting my dislike for the pointless character color my reading.  As for the death of the caveman, I think I would be much more bothered by that if it wasn’t pretty clear that the heroes will reverse it.  Nonetheless, I would have liked to see Wally deal with that at least a little bit, rather than immediately shrugging it off.  Honestly, after reading this story, I had to double check to make sure it wasn’t ‘ol Zany Haney.  I was certain that this was one of his half-baked yarns, as the wild world the characters visit just feels more random than thought–out.  Needless to say, the art is gorgeous, and Cardy does a great job with all of the medieval and fantasy elements.  His soft, sketchy work really sells the illusions and mystery of the book.  In the end, it’s a fun if flawed and strange story, so I’ll give it 3 Minutemen.

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The Head-Blow Headcount:

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We’ve got a bunch of new additions to the Wall of Shame this month.  Poor Aquaman makes yet another return, but he is in good company as Batgirl, Mr. Miracle, and Kid Flash all join him.  This puts Batgirl back ahead of Robin, sadly for her.  The Headcount certainly drives home just how much of a trope this is, with so many of our stars showing up on it.  I wonder if we’ll ever see the Last Son of Krypton gracing this feature.


Final Thoughts:


And that finishes up April 1971!  This is a month of endings and beginnings, a month of specters and spooks, and a month of innovation as well as repetition.  The books of this month reflect the paradoxical nature of this era in DC Comics, with the extremely conventional sharing space with the experimental.  At the same time Leo Dorfman is turning out standard Silver Age fare, Denny O’Neil is working to revamp Superman, all while Jack Kirby is busy pushing the boundaries of the medium.  Notably, while O’Neil fails to challenge the Man of Steel, Kirby finds great success with both physical and dramatic obstacles worthy of Last Son of Krypton.

Comics also seem to be edging further into the long forbidden realms of horror and the supernatural, with two different tales this month featuring hauntings and wandering spirits.  This is to be expected in the Phantom Stranger, though his story once again proves mature and impressive, but the theme is surprising in the Rose and Thorn backup.  I am also surprised by my continuing enjoyment of the Lois Lane book as a whole.  It remains an interesting and off-beat change of pace in my monthly readings.

This month saw the end of Aquaman and the birth of Mr. Miracle, the death of something special and the advent of something unique.  One group of creators was denied the chance to finish what they started, while the King is finally given the chance to give form to the gathered inspirations of his unsatisfying final years at Marvel.

Social relevance continues to be a force, with even the last Aquaman title dealing with themes of pollution and human environmental impact in an oblique fashion.  Denny O’Neil, of course, continues to hit environmental themes, but even his prime Superman story this month has a touch of social commentary in its subtle encouragement about questioning appearances.

We’ve also got superheroes accidentally killing people left and right this month, with both Supergirl and Kid Flash unintentionally taking a life.  We’re still in an immature enough era that these deaths are mostly unremarked and their moral dimensions almost completely ignored.  Hopefully we’ll see a more intentional approach to the moral responsibility of these characters grow up in the succeeding months and years.

In terms of form, we’re seeing more and more continued stories, with Supergirl wrapping up a several month long arc that actually did affect the character during its progression.  Rose and Thorn continues its episodic format, and Jimmy Olsen and the Titans books are doing the same.  This is providing the opportunity for more expansive plots and greater development.  I wonder if we’ll see that become the dominant form for most of DC’s titles.

Well, it was certainly an eventful month in comics, and there is still plenty more to come!  I hope y’all enjoyed this month’s books and commentary, and I also hope you’ll return soon as we begin another month of reading.  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

 

Into the Bronze Age: April 1971 (Part 5)

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Look!  Up in the sky!  It’s a bird!  It’s a plane!  No!  It’s….Into the Bronze Age!  And I’ve got quite a suite of stories for y’all today, mostly starring Superman!  We’ve got everything from emotional epics to spooky specters to menacing monsters, and with Jack Kirby thrown in to make it extra special!  The features below vary in quality, but they were all at least interesting reads, so see what awaits you as we travel further Into the Bronze Age!

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 #399
  • Adventure Comics #405
  • Aquaman #56 / (Sub-Mariner #72)
  • Detective Comics #410
  • The Flash #205 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Mr Miracle #1
  • The Phantom Stranger #12
  • Superboy #173
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #109
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #137
  • Superman #236
  • Teen Titans #32

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


Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #109


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“I’ll Never Fall in Love Again!”
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Werner Roth
Inker: Vince Colletta
Cover Artist: Dick Giordano
Editor: E. Nelson Bridwell

“The Mask of Death!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Ross Andru
Inker: Mike Esposito

Look at this cover.  Dick Giordano gets to ply his pencil and does a fine job (especially on Supes’ stunned expression), though the whole is a bit on the boring side.  The real significance of the design, however, is how it just screams drama.  I was all set for a silly, soap opera-ish story, but what I found was surprising in quality and content.  It’s over the top at moments, but not nearly to the extent I expected.

The tale begins with Lois receiving a note at the Daily Planet that is straight out of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  It invites those with painful memories to come to the ‘Denison Clinic,’ where a ‘laser surgery’ will allow them to leave with “a trouble-free mind.”  Having someone cut into your brain with a laser?  What could go wrong!

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Now, I expected for Lois to uncritically to just go right on in and volunteer for this insane-sounding procedure, but Bates impressed me by having the girl reporter just go to investigate this place, hoping for a story.  Once there, the elderly Dr. Denison suddenly traps her inquisitive guest in a chair with a “magnetic force” (is Stan Lee writing this?), and begins to harangue her.

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ll109_05 - CopyApparently this woman was once a professor at Hudson University, where she became a mentor to Lana Lang.  Learning of her love for Superman and her heartbreak when the Man of Steel started chasing Lois, Denison decided that she must do something to protect her young protegee.

Interestingly, she herself has a similar story, as the man she loved became an actor and eventually married a starlet, a woman whom Denison has already “punished.”  Clearly, this lady’s got issues!

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She subjects Lois to a procedure that she claims will give her an “emotional lobotomy,” and destroy her capacity for love.  The girl reporter passes out, only to awaken to see Superman and the police have come to her rescue.  The cops were looking for Denison because she stole her equipment, which, incidentally, has been fitted with a self-destruct device to keep anyone from learning how to undo her handiwork.

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Roth does great work with Lois’s ‘hazy’ vision.

Lois is shaken to realize that she can feel nothing for the Man of Steel, even when he carries her home and is forced to perform some dazzling heroics by destroying rogue meteors (radioactive meteors, of course).  When he brings her back to her apartment, the nervous newshawk snaps, screaming at the Metropolis Marvel to get out and that she doesn’t want “a costumed freak” meddling in her life.  The Action Ace takes this with remarkable patience, leaving graciously and reasoning that she’s just still reeling from her close call.

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The next day, Lois researches Denison’s previous victim and discovers that the actress had been institutionalized!  At work, Clark keeps an eye on her and begins to notice that something is off with his lady love.  Meanwhile, Lana Lang has heard about what has happened and has gone to Dr. Denison in jail to plead with her to reverse her procedure, telling her former teacher that she has moved on.

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That night, Lois and Superman go out on the town, which is a little weird, really, especially when they go to a disco!  Yet, after a passionless kiss ends the night, the Man of Steel realizes decides to check up on the reporter, realizing something is still off.  He spies on her diary entry, which isn’t as creepy as it would normally be in this instance.  Lois confesses to her journal that she is just continuing to date Superman because she enjoys the attention, despite the fact that she feels nothing for him.  In a surprising moment, the Man of Tomorrow smashes the spire of a building in anger over this discovery, though he still has the good manners to fix it immediately afterwards.  It’s a believable moment of weakness, though it’s a pretty huge lapse, when you think about just how powerful he is.  That’s why Superman will later have nightmares about just such a lose of control.

Finally, Lana convinces Dr. Denison to tell them how to restore Lois, but it seems that this can only happen when Lois decides she wants to be able to love once more.  In the following days, Lois stays relentless, cold, and unfeeling, which honestly just might make her a better reporter.  Nonetheless, when she sees a child fall into the path of an oncoming car, she instinctively leaps to her rescue, and with a little unseen assist from Clark, she saves the girl.  The deed triggers, just for a moment, a flicker of emotion, and loveless lovely decides she wants to remember what it feels like to be human.

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Superman flies her out into the country where they meet a minstrel with a magical harp that supposedly can cure her.  Lois is skeptical but listens, and is eventually lulled to sleep.  After she drifts off, the minstrel is revealed to be Roland Kirk, the actor and former lover of the bitter Dr. Denison, who played a part to hypnotize Lois in the guise of a believable fiction.  It turns out that the original procedure was really a form of hypnosis itself, and the cure required a counter-spell of sorts strong enough to break the mental block.  When Lois awakens, she is back to normal, and the two sweethearts are reunited.  Lana, for her part, decides to seek her fortunes elsewhere, heading to a job in Europe.

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This was a curious and unusual little story.  The concept is over the top in standard comic fashion, yet, it works reasonably well.  The emotional core of this tale is surprisingly sincere and effective.  Essentially, what Dr. Denison takes from Lois is not love, per se, or at least, not specifically romantic love, or eros, but what we used to call ‘charity.’  What she robs her of is empathy and the capacity for selfless love that comes with it, the capacity that links us with God.  It is through the ability to love, not acquisitively, but selflessly, ‘charitably,’ that we access the best of human life, the joy that echoes of heaven, and the coldness and emptiness of life without the ability to experience that emotion is really quite a chilling prospect.

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Bates doesn’t realize the full potential of his setup, but neither does he do too bad of a job.  He clearly does understand the significance of charity, and it is to his credit that he doesn’t just limit Lois’s loss to romantic love.  Dr. Denison’s bitter reasoning for targeting Lois is believable (in comic terms), and Lois’s moment of revelation is fairly striking.  Throughout, Werner Roth continues to turn out beautiful art, and his wonderfully detailed faces help to deliver the emotional impact of the story.  Throughout the comic, what could be silly and simplistic is actually treated with some level of thoughtfulness.  The last scene with the random minstrel set up is a bit odd, but I suppose that, in the DC Universe, a dude with a magic instrument is really one of the more believable possibilities for such a situation, especially if you travel in the same kinds of crazy circles as Lois Lane.  So, all told, I think I’ll surprise myself by giving this odd little emotional drama 4 Minutemen.

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“The Mask of Death”


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We continue the ongoing adventures of Rose and Thorn in this backup feature, and today’s adventure is certainly different!  Instead of cops and robbers, this issue plays ghouls and ghosts!  It begins in the normal way, with our favorite vicious vixen trashing some 100 goons.  She jumps a truckfull of hijackers and tears through them, crashing the vehicle.  Once more, Danny Stone is left to pick up the pieces, but this time we are joining the Nymph of Night at the end of her sojourn.

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When she returns to her home base, she discovers a weeping specter in a mask in the secret hallway!  What vision is this?  The figure transforms into a beautiful young woman who says she is the ghost of Selena Mason, an aspiring actress from years ago, and she proceeds to tell her story.

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In some senses, it’s a familiar tale.  A beautiful young woman who would be a star falls in with a controlling man that helps her career, at a cost.  In this case, the controlling fellow is not a director or the like, but a costumer, which is odd.  In fact, he owns the very costume shop that lies adjacent to Rose’s home, forming her base.  Still, he’s every inch the sleeze, and Selena sees him consorting with gangsters, using the Thorn’s secret passage to smuggle them in and out of his shop.

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The tailor, Albert Talbot, thinks he possesses Selena, and when the young starlet falls in love with her co-star, the maddened man throws acid in her face in a classic ‘if I can’t have you, no one will’ move.  It’s a brutal act, and the acid-splashed actress grabs a mask to cover her marred visage, running into the secret passage, where she died from her wounds.  Dark!  The ghost begs the Vixen of Vengeance to live up to her sobriquet so that her restless spirit can find peace, but before the Baleful Beauty can respond, she realizes that the sun is coming up, so she rushes to turn back into Rose and falls asleep.

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This is an interesting change of pace.  There’s no reason why pretty much any character in the DCU couldn’t encounter the supernatural, as ghosts and ghoulies are pretty well established as part of this setting, but it does rather come out of nowhere here.  It is neat to see an explanation for the super convenient abandoned costume shop and secret passage, though.  The spirit’s story is suitably tragic, and it is certainly something that is right up Thorn’s alley, a woman wronged.  Once again, Kanigher manages to split his story effectively, delivering enough to intrigue and entertain, but not so much that it really hurts for space.  I think, in many ways, the compressed backups in Lois Lane are pulling out some of his better work.  On the whole, it’s a good read, so I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.  I’m curious to see where it will go next issue.

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P.S.: The letter column for this issue, dealing with the surprising (and surprisingly touching) issue #106, is really noteworthy.  It’s full of praise for that story, including several letters from readers who are themselves part of a minority.  There’s one particularly arresting letter from a 15 year old black boy.  What must it have been like to be a minority comic reader in this era and suddenly see a story filled with black faces and focused on the subject of race amidst a medium that was almost 100% white?  This is pretty cool, and though stories focusing on race seem to be popping out of the woodwork in 1971 (Captain America and the Falcon shared a story arc focused on the theme the same year), the issue is still a special one.  The editor also helpfully informed us that the comic in question was inspired by the movie, Black Like Me, which sounds like a pretty powerful look at race relations in the Civil Rights era South.

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Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #137


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“The Four-Armed Terror!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta

For our second comic of the day, we’ve got more Jack Kirby goodness!  We return to Jimmy Olsen’s antics, and the King continues to deliver on the imaginative and wildly creative work he’s been doing on this book.  In fact, it seems that, with much of his setup work done over the last few issues, there is more time for him to play with what he’s created, and pretty much every facet of the strange Wild Area gets a check-in with this tale.  We begin by discovering what was in the enigmatic egg in the previous issue.  It’s a nicely hideous monster that looks a bit like Etrigan the Demon’s uglier cousin.  Etrigan is still a year away from his debut, but I have to imagine that Kirby liked this design, the yellow skin and the red eyes, and decided to do more with it.  Either way, this strange four-armed creature smashes through the forest of the Wild Area, driven by a mysterious hunger.

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It’s headlong hurry brings it into contact with the remnants of the Outsiders biker gang, who futilely try to fight it.  The monster shrugs off their weapons and wrecks their bikes.  Meanwhile, back in the Mountain of Judgement Jimmy Olsen is seated behind the controls of one of the most Kirby of Kirbytech devices I’ve ever seen.  It turns out to be a fancy instrument that converts “radio-signals from the stars and convert[s] them into mental musical images.”

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It’s the kind of far-out concept that can almost be grasped but stretches the imagination in the attempt, which is pretty cool.  This is an invention of the ‘Hairies,’ who are gathered with the Newsboy Legion for a performance.  The scene is only marred by Flippa-Dippa’s existence and incessant narcissism: “It’s like a movie musical-and everybody’s in it!  Includin’ me, Flippa-Dippa!”  Urg…it’s bad enough to shoe-horn yourself into every conversation, but it’s even worse when you do so in third person!

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What in the world is wrong with Superman’s hand?!

What follows, sadly, is not Flippa-Dippa’s grisly demise, but another beautiful set of Kirby-collages.  I’ve had very mixed feelings about this device in the past, but I have to say, I think it works very well in this instance, successfully capturing something abstract and unimaginable, and in this instance, because the images are not supposed to be phsyically real, the contrast between the character art and background isn’t problematic.  It’s a psychedelic scene, and another example of Kirby’s continued innovation.

 

Anyway, the sonic sojourn is interrupted by a sudden jarring tremor, and the crew learn that the base is under attack from an unknown source!  Superman rushes off to investigate, but he orders the Legion to stay behind, which they don’t take too well.  There’s a fun full-page scene where the Newsboys elect Jimmy their leader and decide to follow the Man of Steel in the hopes of adventure and a good story.  It’s just their heads gathered together in a huddle, and it’s a fun image, full of personality.  Meanwhile, our four-armed friend from the beginning is tearing his way through the earth in search of sustenance.  We discover that he’s after nuclear energy, which he seeks in the main power plant of the Wild Area.  Kirby’s narration is actually rather evocative and helps to crank up the tension.  I would say his writing is getting better, but I seem to recall some rough patches in the future.  We’ll see, I suppose.

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His efforts release a wave of atomic energy that rocks the entire wild world, wrecking the Habitat from a few issues back.  In a curious little touch, Kirby gives us a glimpse of the brutish Yango, one of the bikers, who surprisingly steps up selflessly during the crisis and directs the evacuation.  I wonder if we’ll see him again at some point in time and if we’re supposed to take his change of heart as inspired by our heroes.

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Either way, we quickly move back to Superman as the kids try to follow him in the Whiz Wagon, but the Action Ace has raced the Flash, and the Legion just can’t keep up with him!  The Metropolis Marvel finds the wreckage marking the monster’s passage, and soon confronts the creature.   Yet, even the Man of Tomorrow finds himself challenged by his atomic antagonist’s nuclear strength!  Superman takes a beating, though he manages to throw the beast off of him in time for the Legion to arrive.  Their efforts prove useless, despite a weapon the Hairies gave Jimmy, and the four-armed fiend uses his newly absorbed energy to trap the team in a cocoon of strange energy.

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The immediate threat dealt with, he continues to make his way towards the central atomic pile, while sinister eyes look on.  The guardians of the Evil Factory, Mokkari and Simyan who have unleashed this mutant D.N.Alien on our heroes admire their handiwork.  Their plan is for the monster to destroy the reactor, causing a nuclear explosion that will destroy everything in the area.  The last image of the book is of our two Apokaliptian antagonists looking on as a horde of other monstrous minions hatch from their eggs!

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jimmyolsen137-28Interestingly, we get a map of the whole place, and it doesn’t quite make sense.  We see the layout of everything, but we learn that the Project, Zoomway, Wild Area and the rest are all in a massive cavern under Metropolis…which doesn’t work at all with the first issue where the Legion traveled a long way overland to reach the place.  Kirby was constantly changing things as new ideas struck him, and this certainly seems like an example of that tendency.

This was certainly a fun issue, and the bizarre, imaginative musical journey at its start was a notable feature.  I admire Kirby’s attempt to give the adventure story more purpose than just fighting.  He’s bringing the same sense of exploration, of wide-eyed wonder at what might be, to this book that he brought to the classic Fantastic Four.  That’s important.  Such efforts are not to be discounted because adventure is about more than just punching bad guys; it’s about meeting marvels and seeing things you’ve never seen before.  There is value in wonder for wonder’s sake.  I think that’s something that Kirby understood. 

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That’s a heck of a cliffhanger…

The central conflict of the tale, the monster’s rampage, is suitably gripping, and the stakes are plenty high as an atomic explosion would destroy, not just the Wild Area, but Metropolis as well!  There are also some (perhaps unintentional) interesting thematic elements in the concept of a man-made monster powered by atomic energy threatening to destroy humanity.  There’s some good irony inherent in that setup.  In general, other than Flippa-Dippa’s grating presence, this is a great comic.  Of course Kirby’s art is great, and that three-page musical journey is particularly cool.  It’s a fun read, and the feature creature posses a believable threat to Superman.  That being said, the Man of Steel’s presence in the book really leaves the Legion starved for space.  It’s a shame that the King wasn’t allowed to tell the story he really wanted with them, but he certainly made the best of it!  I’ll give this inventive comic 4.5 Minutemen.

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And with that dramatic conclusion, I also end this post.  It’s really astonishing how much variety DC had back then, with earth-shattering, otherworldly plots in one book and emotion-driven drama (of a sort) in another.  It’s a testament to the versatility of the medium that such disparate stories can be told i it.  Well, I’m racing to get actual work done this summer, but I’m still trying to carve time out for this feature.  Even if it takes me a little while, I hope you will all join me again for another step in our journey into The Bronze Age!  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

Into the Bronze Age: April 1971 (Part 4)

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Welcome Internet travelers, to my examination of the highs, the lows, the greats, the not so greats, and everything in between of DC Comics in the Bronze Age!  Today we’ve got a widely diverse pair of books with a quartet of quirky stories to quicken your pulses!  Check them out below!

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 #399
  • Adventure Comics #405
  • Aquaman #56 / (Sub-Mariner #72)
  • Detective Comics #410
  • The Flash #205 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Mr Miracle #1
  • The Phantom Stranger #12
  • Superboy #173
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #109
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #137
  • Superman #236
  • Teen Titans #32

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


The Phantom Stranger #12


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“Marry Me – Marry Death!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Joe Orlando
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

“A Time to Die”
Writer: Jack Oleck
Penciler: Tony DeZuniga
Inker: Tony DeZuniga
Editor: Joe Orlando

We’ve got another beautiful, dramatic, and striking cover courtesy of Neal Adams this month.  It’s a nice, spooky image, and it’s well suited to the headline tale within.  Indeed, this month our Phantom Stranger story is rather different than what we’ve encountered of late.  Instead of focusing on the mystical heroics of the Stranger himself, this comic flips the script, and we see the story from quite a different perspective.

In many ways, this is a classic horror story, and it begins shortly after the wedding of Jason Phillips to his new bride, Wanda.  He brings the blushing beauty to his mansion, where he suddenly spots a mysterious figure, the Phantom Stranger, but the next moment there is no-one there.  Strange indeed!  Recovering, he introduces his new wife and their guests to his old wife, or rather, her coffin!

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Well, this seems perfectly normal and healthy…

He explains to the shocked well-wishers that he met and romanced the older and very wealthy Irina when he was a ski instructor.  He discovered that she took nitro pills for a weak heart, and despite the fact that she felt she was too old and weak for him, he insisted on marrying her.  A few years later, she passed away, but not before making him swear to keep her with him, always.

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There’s a very strange bit where she collected ancient Egyptian artifacts and learned about their embalming practices, insisting that they be used on her, but that doesn’t really feature in the story (something of an unfired Chekhov’s Gun…or at least an un-awakened Kanigher’s Mummy.)  Irina also left a clause in her will that all of her money would go to charity unless Jason kept her body with him always, which is pretty darn weird.  Throughout the tale, Jason paints himself as the perfect grieving husband, but there is something strange about the whole story.  This ominous note is strengthened when Jason once again sees the Stranger and begins to scream at him, only to have the figure vanish once more.

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That night, the re-married millionaire awakens in the night to hear a creaking sound and investigates to see the cloaked shape of the Stranger standing by the the coffin as it is slowly opening.  A voice tells him that he knows why they are here, but yet again, things are not as they seem, and when Wanda comes to investigate her husband’s shouts, the coffin is still locked.

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Suddenly, Jason sees Irina outside in a flash of lightning, along with the Supernatural Sleuth, who repeats his message.  The maddened millionaire strikes him, sending the cloaked form flying off of the balcony, but once again, Wanda sees nothing.  The next day as they are boating on a lake, the Stranger emerges from the waters.  Still, Wanda sees nothing.  She pleads with her husband to get rid of the coffin, but he refuses, citing his vow, yet even during their intimate moment of conversation, he sees Irina.

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Finally, pushed to the breaking point, he confronts the Phantom Stranger over his first wife’s coffin and attacks him with an axe, but the mysterious one forces him to think back over what really happened to his wife.  We learn that Phillips tried to kill her, putting her in situations where her heart would give out, and when it finally did, he destroyed her pills and callously sat by and watched her die.

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Jason thinks that the Stranger is just a blackmailer and attacks, but as his wild swings carry him outside, he runs towards a pair of advancing lights, only to be struck by a car and killed.  Fittingly, the car had come to get his wife’s coffin, though strangely, the name on the work order is Irina, not Wanda.

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This is a great little horror yarn, and though that isn’t really my favorite genre, Kanigher turned out a very entertaining tale here, continuing his inconsistency.  It’s either feast of famine with this guy!  He handled the building tension and mounting clues quite well.  There are just a few incongruous elements, like the Egyptian bit and the detail at the end with the conflated names.  I’m not really sure what the purpose of that was.  Still, the total effect is quite strong.  Needless to say, Aparo does a masterful job with this book.  His work is wonderfully moody and atmospheric.  Every panel is draped in shadow or lit with the bright light of romance, and all of the characters are beautifully rendered.  As much as I love his Aquaman work, let’s face it, he was even more perfect for the Phantom Stranger than for the Sea King.  All together, I’ll give this chilling chronicle 4.5 Minutemen.

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“A Time to Die”


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We have a solo Dr. Thirteen backup this month, and it’s a rather nice change of pace.  I like the interplay between the good Doctor and the Phantom Stranger, but a little goes a long way.  It is good to give each of them room to grow.  This particular outing is a respectable Dr. Thirteen mystery set in England, on the misty moors.  The Doc and his wife arrive just in time to see a man drop dead at the stroke of midnight.  ‘Ol Terry is his usual charming self, talking down to his wife and immediately making friends with the natives.  When the townspeople start talking about “the ghost of the Black Friar,” the Dr. responds by saying “You men are acting like frightened fools.”  Astonishingly, this does not endear him to them, and they tell this rude American to butt out in no uncertain terms as they carry the body to the town doctor.

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Incidentally, that is who summoned Dr. Thirteen in the first place.  When they visit this fellow, Dr. Hall, he tells them that he’s a man of science, yet he has spent much time investigating the ruins of the old abbey and believes that there is something evil there.  He tells them the tale of one of the abbey’s former inhabitants who turned to the black arts until he was convicted of witchcraft and burned in the 16th century.  Before he died, he swore a curse on the town.  Dr. Hall reveals that, since he is an old man, he’ll shortly be replaced by a new young doctor, but before he retired, he wanted to see that the town was protected.

That night, Dr. Thirteen investigates, only to see the figure of the Black Friar but be unable to catch him when he vanished.  Summoning the townspeople, they scoff, telling him that another man just died on the other side of town and the Friar couldn’t be in two places at once…if he weren’t a ghost!  With Dr. Hall’s help, the Ghost Breaker manages to convince the townspeople to help his investigation, but the next night, when they approach the abbey, a disembodied voice declares that, unless they run the strangers out of town, the ghost will take a terrible vengeance no them.  The townsfolk tell Thirteen to hit the road, Jack, and don’t come back no more!

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Yet, Dr. Thirteen is nothing if not persistent, so he sneaks back into town after sending his wife to safety, and searches a house and the abbey ruins.  Soon, he confronts the townspeople just at midnight and entreats them to follow him.  Heading to the graveyard where he first encountered the Friar, they once more hear the voice, but the Ghost Breaker leaps forward and searches a tombstone for a hidden switch, revealing a secret passage and a robbed figure!  The figure is unmasked to reveal….Doctor Hall!?

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That’s right, apparently Hall was just a tad bitter about being forced into retirement, so he used his scientific knowledge to construct a sonic weapon (fancy!), which he hooked up to the bell tower.  Every night at midnight it would send out a sonic pulse, and if anyone was close enough and susceptible enough, it would kill them.  Thirteen was suspicious of the old fellow, and when he searched his house, he found enough evidence to let him trap the doctor the the help of a micro transmitter that he used to track the fake fiend to his hiding place.  That wraps things up rather neatly, if making it a tad Scooby Doo.

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This is a decent little backup strip for Dr. Thirteen, if not one of his best.  Hall’s scheme is a bit too outlandish and the resolution is rushed, packed into one page, but that’s to be expected when you’ve only got seven to work with in the first place.  Both of the creators are new to me, but they turned in a perfectly serviceable story.  We’ll see if they show up in future DC Comics.  Either way, this yarn earns 3 Minutemen, a solid if unremarkable story.

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This issue also had a really excellent missive in the letter column, a thoughtful and insightful take on what makes Dr. Thirteen tick which is worth a read.

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Superboy #173


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“The Super-Clark of Smallville!”
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Bob Brown
Inker: Dick Giordano

“Trust Me or Kill Me!”
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: George Tuska
Inker: George Tuska

Well, would you look at that!  It’s the totally original ‘hero acting out of character’ cover type!  The cover is probably enough to make you want to know what’s going on, and it’s decently illustrated, but it’s not all that interesting, really.  One does wonder what exactly Clark is doing in that dorky outfit, though.  Unsurprisingly with Leo Dorfman calling the tune, our headline tale is rather Silver Age-ish and goofy, as you’d expect from this cover.

The gimmicky tale begins in Professor Lang’s lab, where the good doctor has what he claims is a jar of ambrosia, the food of the gods, from ancient Greece.  He also happens to claim that ambrosia was what gave the gods their powers, which makes me wonder if this guy got his degree out of a Cracker Jack’s box, as any school kid with an interest in mythology would know better.  They got their powers by being, you know, gods.  In some versions of the myths, ambrosia did have a role in their immortality, but that’s really not the same thing at all.  Yes, it’s a comic book, but it’s a comic book in a setting where the Greek gods actually do exist, so details like this matter a bit.

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Well, one way or the other, Dr. Cracker Jack decides to test some of the powered residue within the jar, but when he tries to, it explodes!  I hope they haven’t given this guy tenure!  The explosion wrecks the lab, but, of course, Clark is uninjured.  He rushes to help Professor Lang, but Lana spots him hefting a bookshelf off the quack.  At first she thinks this confirms her suspicions about him being Superboy, but seeing that he is holding the test tube and has traces of ambrosia on his face, she assumes that he ate the ambrosia, and thus gained the powers of the gods!  With no real choice, supposedly, the Boy of Steel fakes the discovery of new powers, like Hermes’ flight, as if he were a novice.

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In a purely rational and not at all wacky and bizarre response to this discovery, Lana’s first instinct is that Clark must show off to all of the bullies at school by going out for the track team.  She even makes a costume for him, for some reason.  This bit really makes no sense at all, in context.  I guess because he’s ‘super’ he needs a costume?  But he isn’t becoming a hero, just going out for sports.  Oookay, Lana.  Whatever you say.

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You’ll be the coolest kid in school…and you’ll wear a dorky costume while you do it!  It’s foolproof!

Well, “Super-Clark” (sigh) goes to the track field and shows off his strength and agility.  There is actually a great opportunity for some characterization here, for Clark to revel in the ability to use his powers in public and to enjoy Lana’s attentions.  Yet, Dorfman almost completely ignores that angle to focus on gimmicky situations for Clark’s ‘new’ powers.  My favorite is definitely when Clark rescues a bathysphere that got in trouble….in Smallville…Kansas.  Sure!  Doesn’t your small farming town have bathyspheres on every street corner?

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superboy 173 0008Needless to say, Pa Kent is rather shocked when an excited crowd shows up yelling about how his son has superpowers, but the new Smallville Spectacle explains things, pointing out that he’s happy he can help his father with his store.  Apparently at this point, Pa Kent isn’t a farmer, instead owning a general store, which seems far less fitting, iconic, or archetypal for the character.  After another series of super feats, Clark starts to get tired of the constant requests for aid and begins to realize the benefits of a secret identity.

Later on, a young, super-bald Lex Luthor comes back to town to get his revenge on the people who spurned him.  He is thrilled when he sees the townspeople tearing down their Superboy statue, but he becomes less excited when he sees them replace it with a statue of (sigh) Super Clark.  Man, Smallville residents are more fickle than Atlanteans!  Lex is more constant, at least in his hatred, and using a new invention, a “power nullifer” which does just what the name implies, he shoots Superboy out of the sky once the young hero is back in costume.

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The Boy of Steel crashes in a swamp and finds his powers gone.  He rushes to the nearby ruined lab of Professor Lang, hoping to find some ambrosia on the off chance it will really give him powers.  He finds the a note that was in the jar with the ambrosia and, conveniently, can read ancient Greek, which, you know, anybody can just pick up.  He eats the note, hoping it absorbed some of the food of the gods and finds himself actually possessing the powers of the gods.

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Using the Zeus’s shape-shifting power and thunderbolts, the ‘Phantom Vision” of Hades, and flight of Hermes, he manages to defeat Luthor’s various gadgets and drive off his former-friend-turned-foe.  The story ends with the godly powers fading and Superboy’s own powers returning.  When he tells Lana that his career as ‘Super Clark’ is over, she doesn’t exactly take the news gracefully.

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superboy 173 0022Well, this story wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t exactly fantastic either.  Dorfman wastes the chance to do some actual character work with Clark, botches his mythology, and throws in plenty of goofiness as well.  The yarn is entertaining enough, and the section where Superboy gains the godly powers is an interesting change of pace.  Yet, that is over in two pages, so we don’t really get a lot of opportunity to see the difference between those and his usual abilities.  This story has some potential to be neat, but it ends up being fairly forgettable.  I’ll give it 2.5 Minutemen, with the inexplicable ‘Super Clark’ costume costing it some points.

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“Trust Me or Kill Me!”


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Our Legion backup this month is once again the highlight of the book.  It’s a fairly conventional identity mystery, the likes of which the Legion writers seem to love, but there are some neat details to it.  The tale begins with the stalwart Cosmic Boy left alone in the Legion headquarters, as the rest of the team has gone off to get vaccinated against a new virus sweeping the planet, a vaccine he himself had received years ago.  That’s a reasonably decent excuse to get the rest of the team out of the way for this story, and in light of the recent vaccination madness here in the U.S., I can’t help but smile.

Well, Cosmic Boy’s sojourn is interrupted when, all of a sudden, his double in a mirror smashes through the glass and attacks him!  Each claims to be the original, and they find themselves evenly matched in combat, knowing each other’s moves.  We also learn that Cosmic Boy knows a martial art named Ku-Jui, which he learned on his homeworld, a fun little detail and bit of world-building.  They decide to call in help in order to figure out which of them is real, and they settle on Superboy, who they summon from the past.  The Boy of Steel speeds through the Time Barrier (such a wonderfully comic book-ish concept), and joins the duplicated duo in the future.

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Tuska really knocks the face-work on this story out of the park.

Once he arrives, he is confronted by a massive image of the Legion’s most deadly foe, Mordru!  The evil wizard informs the young Action Ace that this is all part of one of his schemes.  Mordru has created a duplicate of Cosmic Boy, and if the hero cannot discover him, the double will secretly destroy the Legionnaires one by one.  I know very little about this character, but I have to say, I like this little glimpse of him. George  Tuska does a great job of making Mordru’s image seem intimidating and ominous, while also giving him some good old fashioned villainous glee.  His plan is really quite devious.  It has the longshot possibility of destroying the Legion, but even if it fails, it promises to subject the team to terrible emotional strain as they face the possibility of destroying one of their friends in order to save themselves

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Superboy tries to solve the mystery by quizzing the two Cosmic Boys, but each of them is able to answer his questions about their history.  Realizing that the Legionnaires are on their way back , the Boy of Steel tries one last, desperate gambit.  He flies off and returns with two massive iron boulders, hurtling them at both claimants to the Cosmic Boy title, saying that the real master of magnetism will be able to stop his rock.

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Yet, when one of them fails to halt the hurtling stone, Superboy rushes to his rescue.  The stunned youth wonders why, since he failed, but Clark explains that the rocks were actually plastic, and he counted on the fake Legionnaire using magic to simulate Cosmic Boys powers, rather than duplicating the powers themselves.  Thus, they mystery is solved, and the story ends with Mordru swearing that the traditional vow of ‘this isn’t over’ and Superboy headed back to his own time.

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This little tale has a clever resolution in Superboy’s plan.  It’s a good way to solve the mystery, and it does make a certain amount of sense.  There isn’t a whole lot to it beyond that, but we get some nice background on Cosmic Boy, and he gets a standard ‘you have to kill us both, Spock’ moment, though it is immediately countered by Superboy.  Mordru’s very brief appearance is fun, and I look forward to seeing a full story with him as the villain.  George Tuska’s art is bright and cheerful, and he really succeeds in making the protagonists look youthful, something not all comic artists can really pull off.  His clean, expressive art is a nice fit for these characters.  I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing him stay on this feature.  I’ll give this little backup 3.5 Minutemen, as it makes for a fun read and has no real flaws other than its brevity.

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And once again, we find ourselves at the end of a post.  These stories present a widely varied whole, and they certainly illustrate how diverse an era we’re working with.  In just this pair of books, we go from the creepy horror story of a haunted killer to the goofy antics of a gimmick driven Superboy farce.  As silly as the latter story was, it’s an interesting and positive thing that both types of comic are being published by DC, a variety of tone and theme not seen after this era until very recently.

The Phantom Stranger tale is particularly notable for the overt use of horror elements and for the cold-blooded murder that actually happens on panel.  It represents a darker type of story, one that had mostly passed out of mainstream comics with the dawning of the Silver Age and the rise of the Comics Code.  The return of such storytelling marks the continuing shift across the genre to more mature and varied comics.  Well, I hope that y’all enjoyed this read, and that y’all will join me again soon for the next stop on our journey, Into the Bronze Age!  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

 

 

 

Into the Bronze Age: April 1971 (Part 3)

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Welcome back to Into the Bronze Age!  After the rather sad event commemorated by my last post chronicling the lamentable cancellation of Aquaman, we’ve got a much more cheerful feature today!  We’ve got a memorable Batman tale, an unusual Batgirl backup, and the premiere of the superhero escape artist, Mr. Miracle!  The result is an enjoyable pair of books.  Check them out below!

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 #399
  • Adventure Comics #405
  • Aquaman #56 / (Sub-Mariner #72)
  • Detective Comics #410
  • The Flash #205 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Mr Miracle #1
  • The Phantom Stranger #12
  • Superboy #173
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #109
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #137
  • Superman #236
  • Teen Titans #32

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


Detective Comics #410


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“A Vow From the Grave!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“Battle of the Three M’s”
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Don Heck
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz

Here’s a bit of trivia for you readers: this issue would later go on to form the basis for the Batman: TAS episode, “Sideshow.”  Strangely, while that episode has always left a bad taste in my mouth, I find this book rather inoffensive.  Both stories revolve around an escaped criminal meeting up with a band of former carnival sideshow performers, but the cartoon replaces the comic’s generic thug with the appropriately freakish Killer Croc.  In the show, I always found Croc’s betrayal of this lonely group of misfits quite heartrending, and I also found myself too repulsed by those same misfits.  I’m afraid I have a fairly low tolerance for the grotesque, and things like this creep me right out (Lady Grey, on the other hand, loves this kind of material).  Both of those elements are much less central in this issue, though, notably, that marks the difference between moderate and exceptional stories.  Despite my personal distaste for the Timmverse version, it is, objectively, a very good story.

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The original version at hand lies inside of a suitably dramatic if not terribly lovely cover.  The image effectively portrays the peril of the situation, but within the tale opens with an even more arresting splash page.  It’s a beautiful, moody image of the Dark Knight’s dogged pursuit of his quarry across a rope bridge and through a stormy night.  His prey, escaped killer Kano Wiggins, reaches solid ground first and cuts down the bridge, leaving the Dark Knight to make a desperate leap to safety.  Despite his opponent holding the high ground, the Grim Avenger still manages to get the upper hand until a massive fist slams into him out of nowhere!

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A titanic figure looms out of the rain, and despite the Caped Crusader’s attempts to reason with him, the giant seems intent on attacking.  In a really nice sequence, Batman uses his agility to reach his opponent’s shoulders and put him in a sleeper hold.  When the fellow finally collapses, a strange, mismatched trio arrives and explanations are made.  It seems that this quartet are former sideshow stars whose show folded, leaving them stranded there in the middle of nowhere.  They include a strongman, if not a bright one, man named Goliath, a very thin fellow named Charley Bones, a fat woman named Maud, and a deformed little boy with seal-like appendages, named ‘Flippy.’

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Detective410-10The Dark Knight goes to track Wiggins, but his search eventually brings him back to the sideshow gang in the abandoned town where they have set up camp.  When he arrives, he discovers that poor Charlie Bones has been murdered, hung from the bell-cord in the empty town hall.  Interviewing the other carnies, Batman finds that no-one seems to have seen anything, but Flippy, who is mute, draws a design in the dust, two circles linked by a line.  Note the almost parallel images of Batman below.  That’s some excellent visual storytelling.  You’ll see why soon.

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Before the Masked Manhunter can investigate further, he hears a car starting up and rushes off to capture Wiggins, which he does by punching the convict through the window of the van he tried to steal.  Clearly, we’re moving away from campy Batman at full speed!

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Returning to the sideshow stars, the Darknight Detective has solved the murder, but he announces to Maud that Kano didn’t do it.  Just then, Goliath tries to kill the hero by hurling a chunk of wood from the rafters of the building, and the Caped Crusader sets off to rescue the last member of the trio, poor Flippy, who tried to warn him that the culprit was the strongman with his drawing of a barbell.  As he confronts the giant, Batman explains that he knew Wiggins wasn’t the killer because the rope was cut too high up, and only Goliath could have reached it.  Now we can appreciate the cleverness of Adams’ illustrations on that page above.

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The strongman declares that he loved Maud and killed Charlie so that she would turn to him, and when the hero approaches, the killer threatens to throw Flippy from the bell tower unless the Dark Knight throws himself off!  The Dark Avenger subtly loops his rope over a beam on the outside of the tower and then seems to comply, swearing that he will get Goliath, even from the grave.

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Despite not really wanting to kill the boy, the strongman still drops him so he can’t reveal the murderer’s guilt, but Batman snatches the kid from midair in a great looking page.  Finally, he confronts the hulking giant, who almost kills him before Maud intervenes.  The story ends with the Caped Crusader noting that “courage–and love–come in strange shapes,” which is not a bad moral for this little yarn.

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This is a solid, if brief, little murder mystery with a memorable cast of characters.  O’Neil provides some interesting twists and turns that make it stand out from the standard fare.  Obviously he created a story that sticks with you, as its return years later in the classic Batman cartoon demonstrates.  Neal Adams, for his part is in fine form this issue.  His action is dramatic and full of explosive excitement, but even more impressively, he captures the perfect Gothic tone for the setting and characters he’s dealing with.  Everything is dark and dreary, and a nearly palpable feeling of dread hangs over the little drama of this story as tragedy strikes these lonely souls.  That atmosphere is only broken with the rising dawn at the comic’s end, with all the figures in silhouette, which adds a touch of hope to the tale as well.  The Batman of this book is well on his way to becoming the grim avenger of the night, the driven crimefighter who still has a deep love for humanity.  It’s a good little Batman comic, and I’ll give it 4 Minutemen.  O’Neil and Adams are well on their way to their legendary run on this character.

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“Battle of the Three M’s”


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The Batgirl backup this month is a fun, if a tad sexist, adventure involving the nefarious doings surrounding the fashion industry!  You can almost hear the conversation that spawned this tale: ‘Batgirl is a girl, so her readers are probably girls.  What do girls like?  Fashion!’  I’ve written before about the linking of female superheroes with fashion themes, as with the focus on costumes and the like in Supergirl’s stories, and, in general, I imagine it was an creative way to inject something uniquely feminine into these comics, something quite absent in the male dominated books.  However, there is, of course, a rather silly assumption that all girls are interested in fashion inherent in this treatment, but as long as the comics are still fun, I suppose no harm is done.

This particular instance of this phenomenon centers around the age-old dilemma, mini, midi, or maxi?  I am, of course, talking about skirt-lengths, as if my fashion forward readers didn’t know!  Seriously, I suppose this whole thing started in the 60s with the advent of the mini-skirt, and I rather wonder if it is still a going concern these days.  This subject is a bit out of my areas of expertise!  You only seem to see stories concerning the phenomenon from this era and earlier.  In this version, a major fashion icon breaks her leg skiing and so is out of circulation for a time.  Meanwhile, industry big-wigs go mad trying to figure out which length of skirt she’ll wear when she is healed, and a particularly unsavory group of designers in Gotham decide to do more than wait.

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Detective410-25As Barbara Gordon heads to work in the library, a newsman asks her what her opinion on the mystery is, and she reveals that she’s playing it safe by wearing a pants-suit, which is a mildly clever bit.  Things start happening once she’s inside, however, as one of the designers tries to bribe her to get access to another patron’s research books.  She refuses, but out of curiosity, she looks herself, to see that the patron in question is Jules Thayer, the fashion icon’s personal couturier, or designer.  Deciding that the crooked costumers might not give up so easily, Babs dons her on fashionable threads and heads to Thayer’s home to check on matters.  Now, this is a pretty thin excuse to get her involved, all things considered.  There’s no real reason to think that these clothiers would go as far as they do, at least not from that one interaction, but Robbins only has a few pages to work with, so it’s understandable.

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Arriving at the apartment, the girl detective discovers the same fashion flunky snapping pictures, but when she confronts him, he smacks her with the camera, sending her reeling off the roof.  She manages to catcher herself at the last minute, providing a bit of a common element with our headline tale.  When she recovers, Babs trails the skulking spy, and when he meets up with his partner and examines the photos, they realize that Thayer has decided on maxi-skirts, leaving them dead in the water.

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It’s nice of DC to give Howard Stark a chance at a second career after Marvel killed him off.

However, their investor, a gangster named Serpy (interesting name) arrives and is not willing to lose his investment.  He decides to kill the problematic fashionista, but at that point, Batgirl intervenes.  She makes a good showing until, oh no!  She joins Aquaman in this month’s additions to the Head-Blow Headcount, getting conked on the bean by the gangster.  The issue ends with Batgirl about to have a blouse carved out of her lovely hide!

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That’s a very stylish cliffhanger!

This is a fun if somewhat off-beat little backup.  It’s a bit hard to take the bespectacled  fashion designer seriously as a villain, so it’s nice that we get the addition of the gangster to the rogue’s gallery.  Still, it makes one wonder what kind of a hardened criminal lends money to lady’s clothing designers.  I suppose anybody can get desperate and go to the mob for a loan.  Either way, it’s an unusual and entertaining setup, though poor Batgirl doesn’t turn in her best performance, getting taken out twice in just a few pages!  Don Heck, however, puts together a nice looking feature, with each of the characters having a lot of personality.  I’ll give it 3 Minutemen.

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Mr. Miracle #1


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“Murder Missile Trap!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta
Colourist: Jack Kirby
Editor: Jack Kirby

The last of the new Fourth World books premiered this month, introducing one of my favorite DC characters, the inimitably marvelous Mr. Miracle!  He’s a hero I only encountered when I got back into comics in college, never really having known him as a kid, but his concept and especially his design really grabbed me.  When I read through his first two volumes, I really fell in love with the character and the hopeful view of the power of the human spirit that he represents.

Interestingly, the inspiration for the spectacular Scott Free actually came from one of Kirby’s former colleagues at Marvel, the master illustrator of the classic Nick Fury strip, Jim Steranko.  Earlier in his life, Steranko had been a magician and escape artist, and Kirby based Mr. Miracle on this fascinating Renaissance man.

Whatever its origins, this first issue of Mr. Miracle’s adventures certainly comes on like Gangbusters, with a great cover only partially marred by distracting dialog.  The original Mr. Miracle run is blessed by a profusion of excellent covers, each one featuring a pulse-pounding peril from which the  peerless super-escape-artist must liberate himself.  This first cover is downright iconic, and it sets the tenor for the series that follows.  The issue within opens with a Mr. Miracle, though, not our Mr. Miracle, preparing for a death-defying deed with the help of his little person assistant, Oberon, whose name always makes me smile.  Oberon is the name of the king of the faeries in medieval literature, you see.

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Anyway, a young man watches as these two prepare an act, Oberon chaining his boss up and locking him in a shed.  When the little assistant sets the shack on fire (!), the observer rushes forward and tries to intervene, despite the dwarf’s objections.  Suddenly, the costumed figure bursts out of the flames, and the amazed onlooker is introduced to Thaddeus Brown, known as Mr. Miracle, the escape artist!  The young man’s name is Scott Free, which, to my delight, is pointed out as a funny coincidence within the book itself, with Brown laughing merrily. We learn that Scott is a foundling who was given that name in the orphanage, but he remains mysterious.

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Just then, a carful of hoods arrives, apparently working for Intergang!  They threaten Brown, and when Scott objects, they turn their attentions to him.  Not the type to take such things lightly, the young stranger jumps the armed antagonists, making short work of the whole gang and demonstrating an admirable spirit of fair play.  Mr. Terrific would have liked this kid!

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With the gangsters defeated, we get a partial explanation, as we learn that there is some type of trouble between the aged Mr. Miracle and an Intergang division chief aptly named Steel Hand, probably because he has a powerful steel hand.  Sometimes criminals aren’t too creative.  In a good example of comic book science, this metal appendage has somehow been strengthened by “radiation treatments,” which the garrulous gangster demonstrates by shattering a “great bar of solid titanium.”  Sure.  I’m willing to give this a pass because it works in the kind of world that DC has established.  It’s a more fantastic place, after all, and radiation is magic.  Anyway, the alloy-armed criminal is not happy that his gunsels failed, so he decides to take care of the escape artist himself!

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Meet the Mole Man…err…I mean Steel Hand!

Meanwhile, Scott Free has been invited to stay with that very marked man, who tells his guest a bit about his history.  It seems that he’s alone now, with his wife and son dead, but he is planning to come out of retirement by performing a big escape.  Scott is very interested in Brown’s methods, and Oberon convinces the showman to give the young man a test.  After being locked up in an impressive set of chains, the stranger shatters them, seemingly without a twitch.  He claims that he just used a gadget to do it, and he’s rather cagey about where it, and he, came from.

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mr miracle 01-13 murder missle trapThe next day, Thaddeus dons his costume again to try another escape, but after Oberon sets a great boulder in motion, Steel Hand has a sniper shoot the old man, which happens on panel, something of a rarity.  Scott leaps into action and somehow manages to deflect the massive missile with an energy bolt from his hand, revealing Kirby-tech winding up his arm.  He removes what sharp-eyed readers of The Forever People will recognize as a ‘Mother Box,’ and uses it to comfort the mortally wounded Mr. Miracle, who passes away peacefully moments later.  Honestly, it’s a fairly moving scene.  Kirby has successfully made us care about this old man, at least a bit, and his death has an impact despite his brief screen time.

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With his friend dead, Oberon fills Scott in on the rest of the setup.  It seemed that Brown and Steel Hand had met in the hospital years before, and they passed the time in talking, eventually making a bet that the gangster could design a trap that not even Mr. Miracle could escape.  Desperate to fund his return, Brown had approached the now successful crime boss, who, for his part, was unwilling to risk losing the bet.  We then check in with that extremely poor sport, who is testing his metal mitt against an expensive android designed by one of his flunkies for just that purpose, which is one of the most Jack Kirby sentences ever written.

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mr miracle 01-18 murder missle trapAfter Steel Hand smashes the bot, Mr. Miracle suddenly leaps through the window and challenges the villain to complete his bargain.  Unfortunately, the gangster’s goons arrive, and Mr. Miracle falls prey to an old enemy of the superhero set, the classic headblow!  That’s right, in his first appearance, poor Mr. Miracle joins the Headblow Head-Count.  When he awakens, Steel Hand’s minions have chained him to a rocket at a secret Intergang missile site (!), where the gangster has prepared his escape-proof trap.

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We see the hero begin to work his escape, but then the rocket blasts off and explodes!  Yet, when Steel Hand returns to his office, he finds Mr. Miracle, alive and well, sitting at his desk.  Infuriated, the alloy-armed goon attacks, smashing through desk, chair, and more.  Mr. Miracle evades his attacks and calmly explains his incredible escape, using the very gimmicks he used on the rocket to disable his opponent, including sonic projectors, jets, and more!  Just as he wraps up the rat, Oberon arrives with the police, who happily haul him away.

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This is a great first issue, a delightful debut for a dramatic and intriguing new character, and Mr. Miracle really is just that.  He’s a unique concept, something never before really seen in comics, the superhero escape artist.  Once again, we can see just how groundbreaking and original Jack Kirby is, introducing an entirely new wrinkle into the superhero setting, something that was already, in 1971, pretty rare.  The issue itself could actually serve as a good example of proper comic writing.  It’s a self-contained issue, with a complete plot found within its covers, a real rarity these days.  Yet, it also contains all the setup and threads necessary to provide the grounding for ongoing adventures.  Notably, with this more realistic (as far as Kirby goes) gangster type of story, the odd note to the King’s dialog is absent, and his writing is fairly strong throughout.

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Kirby manages to introduce several characters and even get us invested in poor Thaddeus Brown before his tragic death, no mean feat in a single issue, as the late, unlamented Crusader demonstrated.   Taken just as a story, this comic is quite good, with some mystery, plenty of action and peril, and a lot of personality.  The only real weakness is the lack of explanation for HOW Scott is able to step into the gloriously colorful shoes of his mentor so easily.  That’s part of the mystery Kirby is setting up, but it still could have used just a bit more establishment to make the changeover smoother.  Still, this is a great beginning for Mr. Miracle’s adventures.  While it lacks the visual wonder of some of the King’s other Fourth World comics, it still looks pretty good.  In fact, the whole comic feels a bit more grounded than the other Fourth World books so far, and it contains some of Kirby’s better writing.  I’ll give it 4 Minutemen, a strong start.

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And that does it for this post.  I hope you enjoyed my commentary as much as I enjoyed providing it!  Thank you for reading, and please come back soon for more comic goodness as we trek further Into the Bronze Age!  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal Alive!


The Head-Blow Headcount:

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Two more heroes join Aquaman this month, and the Headcount continues to grow!  This is shaping up to be a busy month!  Now Batgirl is ahead of the rest of the Bat Family.  I bet Dick would never let her live that down.  We also have the first Jack Kirby creation to grace the Wall of Shame, making this a red-letter day!


 

Into the Bronze Age: April 1971 (Part 2-Special Edition!)

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This is a bittersweet post, and that touch of melancholy is part of what has made me slow to put figurative pen to equally figurative paper for this set of books.  On the one hand, we are starting a new month, full of the promise of adventure, but on the other, this month also holds the final issue of Aquaman’s solo series, the last solo Aquaman book that would be seen for six years until its brief revival, after which Aquaman would be absent from solo books until the beginning of the very divisive Pozner/Hamilton mini-series in the mid 80s, which, for whatever positive qualities it may have, is still guilty of starting the ‘let’s fix Aquaman’ approach to the character that endured for decades.  It’s a crying shame, especially given the very high quality of this book and the incredible inventiveness of its creative team, SAG.  Nonetheless, life, and comics, go on.

As I’ve mentioned before, the cancellation of this book was made all the more shocking and lamentable because it had much less to do with sales than with internal politics.  It seems that then editor-in-chief Carmine Infantino didn’t much care for Dick Giordano’s style, so, when Giordano desired to leave editing and start inking full time, the head honcho took that as an opportunity to rid himself of the man.  Now, Giordano was very fond of what he had created with Skeates and Aparo, so he offered to continue editing Aquaman freelance, but rather than agree to that or even replace him, Infantino just cancelled the book, despite the fact that it had maintained solid sales!  The Aquaman Shrine has a great interview with Steve Skeates that reveals a bit of the behind the scenes drama.

However unjust the cancellation, it was presented as a fait accompli, and it was a shock to all involved and a major blow for the character.  In fact, I would argue that it is this incident which crippled the character for years to come.  It attached a stigma that his book couldn’t sell, despite the fact that sales had very little to do with the book’s fate.  What’s worse, it robbed the hero of the chance for development and growth during a very important time in comics history, as I’ve mentioned before.  While Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and many others were being revamped and redefined in extremely influential ways, Aquaman is left by the wayside, with only the SAG team’s incomplete efforts to support him.  This is a situation that the character is only very recently starting to overcome, some forty years later.

Yet, not all is doom and gloom.  As promised, I have a special treat for y’all today.  You see, when the book was unceremoniously cancelled, Steve Skeates was left with a half-finished story.  Yet, he was not one to be daunted by such a small matter as a cancellation, and he would eventually finish that story, but do so on the other side of the aisle.  That’s right, in a 1974 issue of Marvel’s Submariner, Steve Skeates would pick up the dropped thread of this Aquaman adventure and finish the tale for Marvel’s own sea king.  I’ll be covering that comic today, in addition to our usual fare.  So, let’s see what this month has in store for us!

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 #399
  • Adventure Comics #405
  • Aquaman #56 / (Sub-Mariner #72)
  • Detective Comics #410
  • The Flash #205 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Mr Miracle #1
  • The Phantom Stranger #12
  • Superboy #173
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #109
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #137
  • Superman #236
  • Teen Titans #32

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


Aquaman #56


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“The Creature That Devoured Detroit!”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Dick Giordano

“The Cave of Death!”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: Jim Aparo

Here we have one of the all-time great Aquaman covers.  It’s exciting, titanic in scope and promise, and other than the rather muddy colors, is pretty much a perfect composition.  It’s got an old-school monster flick feel, right down to the title, like a 50s sci-fi film…but unfortunately it also bears little in common with the story inside.  Just imagine what could have been, a massive struggle between the King of the Sea and a colossal monster from the watery depths!  Instead, we get an offbeat, if unquestionably interesting, tale.  I imagine I might have been a more than a tad disappointed if that cover had persuaded me to pick the book up off the newsstand, only to find no massive monstrosity within.

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Man, Aparo could pack personality into a page!

Instead, the final issue of Aquaman begins in rather simple fashion.  A husband and wife bicker over the minutia that can grow into its own sort of monster in a marriage, but the debate is postponed by the tuning in of a television to the “Warren Savin Show” (interestingly, that’s actually a pen-name that Skeates has used from time to time).  The show promises to feature, of all people, the King of the Seven Seas as their special guest, but it is interrupted by a special report about a massive algae growth on Lake Erie threatening to consume the city of Detroit.

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This bumper bloom seems to be caused by a mysterious satellite which is reflecting light onto the city and its surroundings at night, keeping the area in a perpetual daylight that has sparked this overgrowth.  When the cameras cut back to the show, the Sea Sleuth is missing!  The Aquatic Ace has rushed out of the studio to see what he can do about this threat, answering the call to action.

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Too bad this is symbolic…

Aquaman56_06Arriving in Detroit, Aquaman finds the green gunk everywhere and decides to look up an old friend of his, a former police scientist named Don Powers, to try to get a handle on the situation.  Meanwhile, we cut to a strange figure in a garish costume, and we’re informed that this bargain-basement Batman is ‘The Crusader,’ a superhero who is ignoring the growing plight of the city to chase a car theft ring.  We get a nice action sequence as the Crusader jumps the gang he’s been tracking and barely manages to subdue them.

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After we see the orange and black clad figure finishes his fight, we switch over to follow Aquaman as he goes to consult his old friend, now a successful businessman and scientist, and the Sea King finds him at his corporate lab, where the fellow is completely unconcerned with the growing green tide swallowing the city, instead bragging about the reduction in crime thanks to the perpetual daylight and revealing that the mysterious satellite is, in fact, his.

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During their debate, Powers brings up the Crusader, and Arthur reveals that the League had refused him membership because he was considered unstable and too violent (He’d fit right in today, no doubt!), which is a fun little detail.  When the Marine Marvel tries to take matters into his own hands, Powers and his flunkies jump him, and sadly, you guessed it, Aquaman earns another slot on the Head-Blow Headcount!  Skeates really loved this device a bit too much.

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Not again

With the real hero disabled, we watch as Powers slips into his private office and dons the costume of…the Crusader!  In internal monologue, he reveals that he had an ulterior motive for launching the satellite.  His low-light vision is fading, and he’s willing to let the whole city suffer just so he can continue playing costumed crimefighter.  He justifies his selfishness by arguing that the case he’s working on is too big to abandon, and once he solves it he plans to destroy the satellite.  Powers also thinks that this case will be his ticket into the big time, that it will help him prove himself.  Now, just for some perspective, let’s remember that the case he’s trying to crack is no doomsday plot, no terrorist’s master plan, no city shaking scheme, just a car-theft ring.  Priorities man, priorities!

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While the Crusader continues his…well…crusade, Aquaman awakens on a park bench, having been dumped there by Powers’ goons, and before he can get back to the lab, he sees a young girl threatened by the growing green goo and rushes into the morass to save her.  He does so without a second thought, putting her life ahead of his own, though the peril of the situation doesn’t entirely come through as well as I imagine Skeates intended.

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A bit of a disappointing confrontation, really, and the dramatic title doesn’t help.

On his way back, he discovers a crowd surrounding a still figure on the pavement.  The Crusader lies dead, not felled by an enemy’s bullet or having met his death in the line of duty.  He just tripped over a wire and fell to his fate on the street below, his eyes finally having failed him.  He is the very soul of anti-climax.  When his mask is removed, the Sea King recognizes his friend and things begin to become clear to him.  Rushing back to Powers’ building, the Marine Marvel smashes his way inside, taking no chances, and locks himself inside the control room until he can find the proper switch.  The issue ends with the button pressed, the satellite destroyed, and the menace ended.

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The title here, on the other hand, is pitch-perfect.

So, not exactly what one would expect from that cover, is it?  This is a strange issue, but certainly an inventive and intriguing one.  Skeates is doing what he has done all along, trying new things and experimenting with the medium.  The story at the heart of this comic, the contrasting of two different concepts of heroism in the person of two very different heroes, is actually a great one.  It’s still quite pertinent today.  It’s the examination of the perennial conflict, between selflessness and selfishness.  Aquaman’s selfless conduct throughout, abandoning the TV show to help Detroit, putting his life in danger to save the little girl, and even risking who knows what kinds of consequences to destroy the satellite, stands in relatively effective contrast to the purely selfish motives of the Crusader.  That myopic manhunter, for his part, ignores all other concerns in search for his own fulfillment and fame, endangering the entire city, a city that he supposedly protects, in order to continue his callous crusade.  The concept is a fascinating one, yet Skeates’ treatment thereof isn’t entirely successful.

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Remember these images.

The story is far too rushed.  We meet the Crusader and see his futile death in just a few pages.  He’s not given the time to really develop the comparison appropriately, and compressing the setup and payoff into one book renders Aquaman’s contributions fairly slight.  Part of the trouble is that the threat to the city doesn’t ever quite seem tremendous enough to justify everyone’s concern.  We see the sludge surge up and endanger one little girl playing too close to the water, but that’s about it.  Skeates commits one of the prime storytelling sins.  He tells us about the threat rather than showing it convincingly.  Now, part of the reason for that simply has to be lack of storytelling space.  Nonetheless, this tale is certainly noteworthy for its innovation, and the central concept is worthwhile, despite its flaws.  This was a remarkable plot for its time.  Characters getting killed off was rare enough, but having a “hero” die, especially in the story in which he was introduced, was almost unheard of.

Of course, it almost goes without saying that the book is beautiful, with Aparo creating yet another cast of distinctive, interesting faces, lovely action, and rich settings.  Perhaps the greatest calamity in the cancellation of the book is the fact that Aparo stops working on the character that he captured better than anyone else.  Unfortunately, there is no shortage of four-color woe to be found in this comic’s cancellation, so that loss has plenty of competition.  Nonetheless, this is a fun and entertaining read.  It may be an offbeat ending to the series, but at least it’s an intriguing one.  All things considered, I’ll give this final Aquaman story 3.5 Minutemen.

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This issue also contains a super brief backup with Aquagirl, where she rescues a little boy foolishly playing too close to an ominously named threat called ‘The Cave of Death.’  Something of a theme this month, apparently.  It’s only two pages, so really too brief to rate as a story by itself, but it’s always nice to see Aquagirl in action.    It seems clear that Skeates was setting something else up, and this is just one more way in which the sudden cancellation of the book is a shame.

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The Savage Sub-Mariner #72


Sub-Mariner_Vol_1_72

“From the Void It Came…”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Dan Adkins
Inker: Vince Colletta
Colourist: Linda Lessmann
Letterer: Artie Simek
Editor: Roy Thomas

 You can see what else Marvel put out this month HERE.

For our special feature, we once again pass across the aisle to Marvel comics, but this time it isn’t ersatz counterparts we see but an actual story-line continued.  It’s a shame that the rest of the SAG team wasn’t able to join Skeates for this revival of his Aquaman work, but he’s creating with a new team.  The results are surprisingly fitting for a Marvel comic considering the origins of this yarn over at DC.

While DC’s Sea King is my favorite comic character, I’ve also always had a soft spot for Marvel’s ocean monarch, Namor, the Sub-Mariner.  He’s not one of my favorite Marvel characters, but I’ve always liked him, and when I read through the classic Fantastic Four stories where Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought him back, I really started to appreciate comics first anti-hero.  Incidentally, Kirby’s work on the history of Namor’s Atlantis is one of the coolest things ever.  While Namor’s temper can wear thin after a while, I’ve always appreciated the unfailing regalness of his character.  He’s one of the few times where comics have captured the ideal of royalty.  I’m just now starting to read his Silver Age solo series, and I’m only up to the 40s at the time of this posting, but I’m quite enjoying those adventures.  For this outing, I’m skipping ahead a few years, so I’m reading this tale without much context.

It begins with the Sub-Mariner himself swimming through the terribly polluted waters offshore of a major city and commenting, in usual fashion, on how terrible us surface dwellers are.  Notably, at this point Marvel’s Sea King is wearing his more substantial costume that replaced his green trunks.  It’s certainly a more dignified look, and it’s grown on me, though, being something of a purist, I tend to be biased in favor of original looks.  Sartorial concerns aside, the Sub-Mariner takes to the sky, still meditating on the evils of the surface world.

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Our narrative lens shifts, and we move into space two years previously where a strange green blob, some bizarre alien lifeform, drifts through the cosmos and lands upon a certain satellite, just before a (blue) gloved hand destroys its temporary lodging.  Take a look at that image.  Does it look familiar?  That’s right, Skeates intentionally evokes the last panels from Aquaman #56 in order to tie these two stories together in a subtle crossover.

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The creature rides the wreckage down and splashes into the ocean nearby where Namor will come ashore.  The being observes the sealife that passes by and decides to emulate those ocean dwellers by creating a body out of the slime on the seabed and the wreckage from the satellite.  The process takes the intervening years, and we get a really nice series of panels as the alien heads to the surface to explore.

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Meanwhile, the Sub-Mariner has encountered trouble in the form of a strange pair of humans.  There’s something just a bit odd about these guys, and you might not be able to put your finger on it.  I wasn’t, at first.  Don’t worry, we’ll come back to that.  These two toughs decide, with suicidal bravado, to pick a fight with Namor because he’s different.  It’s a case of prejudice, and bizarrely, the attack is accompanied by a quote from Hitler which talks about the effectiveness of visuals in delivering messages.  Oookay.

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This looks like a cover for a Double Dragon game.

The Prince of the Blood, who, let’s’ remember, has traded punches with the Hulk, belts his  normal human antagonist and somehow doesn’t turn his head into a fine red mist, instead sending him flying into the drink.  The thug’s friend jumps Namor in reprisal, voicing a rather strange response to the attack, “You’ve probably ruined him for life!”  How odd.  As the two tussle, the curious alien being reaches the dock, and they smash into him, leading all three to tumble into the water.  Interestingly, the narration notes that Namor has become somewhat unstable because of his constant battles, so that he meets the strange, monstrous newcomer with open hostility, just assuming that it’s a foe, and thereby leaving his original human antagonist to his watery fate.

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While the fellow’s companion drags him to the surface, the Sub-Mariner and the star-spawned creature trade blows.  Namor pours all of his rage, all of his frustration, into this fight, attacking blindly, but the creature literally blinds the Atlantean in response.  Even that doesn’t stop the Sub-Mariner, who grapples with his slimy foe.

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Finally, having had enough of this whole ‘body’ business, the being launches itself skyward once more, though, having meant no harm, as it passes into space it uses its powers to restore life to the drowned man and even, surprisingly enough, restore Namor’s sight.  Skeates plays with superhero conventions here to some pretty good effect, raising some questions about the violent ways such characters tend to respond to the unknown.

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For his part, before his eyes are healed, the Prince of the Blood realizes that his metaphorical blindness may have trapped him in literal blindness.  His anger and rage kept him from trying to communicate with the creature and may have doomed him to perpetual blackness.  It’s an interesting and relatively effective message about understanding and tolerance of the “Other.”  And with that, Namor heads for sepulchral Atlantis (previously destroyed, it seems) while the two humans head home as well, with one of them saying, seemingly apropos of nothing, that he just got a new professional wrestling magazine.  With these scenes, our story ends.

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So, what was the discordant note that the two wharf rats kept striking?  Well, these two toughs, Skeates later confirmed, were meant to be a gay couple.  Hence the rather flamboyant dress of the first thug, who was, by the way, named Bruce, a moniker with some associations with the gay community at the time, as I understand.  Now, you may wonder what in the world their sexuality has to do with anything in this oddball story, but it really does add a little depth to Skeates’ treatment of the theme of intolerance and metaphoric blindness.  You’ve got these two characters acting as bigots who have themselves suffered from intolerance, abuse, and bigotry, which is ironic.  While it could just be seen as anti-gay, it could also be read as an indication of the depth to which distrust of the “Other” is built into human nature, how deeply the disease goes.  Even those of us with reason to sympathize with societal outcasts can find it easier to lash out than attempt to act with understanding.

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Nonetheless, that was certainly an unusual wrinkle for comics in 1974, when you could not present any openly gay characters.  Once again, Skeates is experimenting with the genre.  The story itself is solid enough.  It’s more effective in its delivery of its message than in telling a particularly compelling and enjoyable adventure yarn, though.  Yet, I do enjoy the focus on Namor’s reaction to the mysterious creature.  It makes rather perfect sense given the Sub-Mariner’s characterization over the course of his series and the endless series of conflicts and reverses he’s faced.  There’s a very human element in his blind rage.  Still, the story feels a bit disjointed, with the conflict with the two morons on the dock coming out of absolutely nowhere.  I know people are plenty stupid, but who says to themselves, ‘I think I want to pick a fight with that guy that can punch through steel!’  In the end, I suppose I’ll give this story a 3.5 as well.  It’s an interesting one, if not stellar.

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P.S.: Oddly, this story, picking up from the final issue of Aquaman, falls on the final issue of the Sub-Mariner, who has outlived his distinguished counterpart by three years at this point but falls prey to a similar fate, and, ironically, with the same hand at the helm!  Steve Skeates had to wonder if he was jinxed when it came to aquatic characters!


The Head-Blow Headcount:

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Poor Aquaman adds yet another appearance on the Wall of Shame.  This really illustrates just how much Skeates relied on the head-blow plot device.  Whenever he needed to remove the Sea King from the story for a few pages, it seems a sock on the noggin was the first club out of the bag.  The results are self-evident, with Aquaman more than tripling the next most common resident on the wall in total head-blows.  At least one benefit from the lamentable cancellation of his book is he won’t be adding many more entries in this feature any time soon!


Final Thoughts:

These two comics make for an intriguing pair, a unique case (at the time) with a story translating across both companies and years (Of course, the Marvel character Mantis will see a similar transition later in the decade).  Even more unusually, the stories are very reflective of their universes, DC and Marvel, with each comic fitting surprisingly well into the style of their respective companies.  The DC story is full of bigger ideas, while the Marvel tale is much more melodramatic and emotionally focused.  The contrast illustrates Skeates’ skill as a writer, as one of the great tests of an author’s mettle is the ability to write well in different styles.

I’m really curious what shape the second story would have taken if it had graced the pages of Aquaman as intended.  One wonders if the muck creature from the cover of #56 might actually have put in an appearance after all, perhaps on a much grander scale than Namor’s unwitting sparring partner.  If we assume that the alien creature and its curious attempt to explore our little globe was always the core of the concept, then perhaps it would make sense for all of that algae coating Detroit to be incorporated into the being’s new body.  We might have gotten a version of that massive monstrosity after all.  Sadly, we’ll never know what might have been.

That is, truly, the greatest misfortune to be found in the sudden and unlooked-for cancellation of the Aquaman book, the loss of what might have been.  The SAG team had been paving the way for a whole era of stories, layering in hooks for coming arcs and continuing plot threads, setting up some really intriguing story possibilities, and creating a fascinating setting for the Sea King.  There are too many lost opportunities and abandoned elements in this run to count, like the rabble-rousing politician and his bid for power, the rocky relationship between Tula and Garth, the myriad underwater civilizations we’ve encountered in the preceding pages of the book, the microscopic world in Mera’s ring, Ocean Master’s recovered memories, and so much more that could have been.  I’ll always wonder what plans the SAG team had, what heights the book might have reached in the years to come.  How might the undersea setting have grown?  How might the Aqua-Family have evolved?  The possibilities really dazzle the imagination, don’t they?  Instead, we get this rather off=beat finale.  The book ends, not with a whimper, but neither does it close with a roar worthy of what has come before.  Instead, it slips away without fanfare or acknowledgement, without the slightest hint that this is the final issue.

It’s one of the great comic calamities, and so it is with a heavy heart, that I bid adieu to one of the best Aquaman runs and one of my favorite creative teams.  And it is also time that I say goodbye to this post.  I hope you’ll join me again soon as I resume our regularly scheduled Bronze Age browsing.  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

Into the Bronze Age: April 1971 (Part 1)

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Welcome back to my feature delving into DC Comics in the Bronze Age!  ‘The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray,’ as the saying goes, and a long and exhausting but wonderfully adventure-filled trip to Yosemite, King’s Canyon, and Sequoia national parks put my plans for regular updates on hold for a time.  Lady Grey and I took Faber’s advice, of Fahrenheit 451 fame, to heart and “stuffed [our] eyes with wonder.”   We’re home now, and I’m back once more on my Bronze Age quest!

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


This month in history:

  • US/Canada ISIS 2 launched to study atmosphere
  • Classic sci-fi/fantasy soap opera Dark Shadows concludes its run
  • Fran Phipps is 1st woman to reach North Pole
  • Mt. Etna erupts in Sicily
  • US Lt William Calley sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering 22 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai Massacre
  • In Sri Lanka, insurrection launched against the United Front government of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
  • US President Richard Nixon orders Lt. Calley freed
  • The Republican commemorations is held in Belfast of the Easter Rising (in 1916 in Dublin), revealing conflicts between the two wings of the Irish Republican Army
  • President Nixon ends blockade against People’s Republic of China
  • Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Follies” premieres in NYC
  • Supreme Court upheld busing as means of achieving racial desegregation
  • People’s Republic of Bangladesh forms, under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
  • Charles Manson sentenced to life (Sharon Tate murder)
  • Soyuz 10 launched; cosmonauts become 1st in Salyut 1 space station
  • Columbia University operations virtually ended by student strike
  • About 200,000 anti-Vietnam War protesters march on Washington, D.C.
  • USSR performs nuclear test at Eastern Kazakh/Semipalitinsk USSR
  • Turkey state of siege proclaimed
  • US performs nuclear test at Nevada Test Site
  • Significant Films: Billy Jack, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and Big Jake

I quite liked the show Dark Shadows when I was a kid, and as with many of the pop-culture artifacts with which I was closely attached, that attraction probably has as much to do with the dearth of options as with the inherent quality of the program.  There simply was nothing else like that around, so even though it is pretty hokey by today’s standards, I ate it up as a kid because it was a source of the fantastic which was quite rare in live action in those days.

On more serious fronts, we can see tensions surrounding Vietnam continuing to escalate, and the rival marches that once illustrated the division in the culture have been replaced by one large anti-war march.  There are still plenty of divisions, but I’d say that is an interesting insight into how things have changed in just a year, as are the politics and media circus surrounding Lt. Calley.  The world of 1971 is a pretty grim one in many ways, and we can certainly sympathize with that here in 2017, so let’s try to find some color and some joy!

Fittingly, the top of the charts this month was occupied by Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World,” a great rock song and one that is just plain fun, nonsensical lyrics and all.


Roll Call


(You can see everything cover-dated this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #399
  • Adventure Comics #405
  • Aquaman #56
  • Detective Comics #410
  • The Flash #205 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Mr Miracle #1
  • The Phantom Stranger #12
  • Superboy #173
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #109
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #137
  • Superman #236
  • Teen Titans #32

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


Action Comics #399


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“Superman, You’re Dead… Dead… Dead”
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Editor: Murray Boltinoff

“Superbaby’s Lost World”
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Editor: Murray Boltinoff

Well, we’ve got two Dorfman-penned tales in this month’s book, and they’re about what I’ve come to expect from him, ranging from mediocre to goofy.  The first is actually mostly inoffensive, but the second is just too silly for me.  Whatever the contents, we’ve got another nice looking Neal Adams cover, and it sets up the central mystery, such as it is, for the headline tale.  It’s a bizarre enough image to capture a reader’s interest.  One does want to know what is going on.

Within, the story in question centers around a disaster in the making, as Superman is summoned from his ‘rolling news room’ which we saw introduced a few issues ago, to stop a run-away experimental generator before “the chain reaction ignites the atmosphere and turns Earth into a ball of flame.”  No pressure.  Did you know, that was actually one of the outcomes scientists thought possible when they tested the first atomic bomb?  And they still tested it.  Maybe comics aren’t all that far-fetched after all.

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You know, I wonder, do scientists in the DC Universe ever work on projects that don’t have the potential to destroy life as we know it?  Oversight committees must reject any new study that doesn’t endanger the entire planet as a matter of course.  This particular disaster-waiting-to-happen is a new experimental solar generator that is going critical.  Just as the Metropolis Marvel attempts to stop it by…flying directly into it for some reason, he feels himself pulled…somewhere!

The Man of Steel finds himself in a strange cage with three other familiar figures.  They announce that they are George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Lt. General George Custer.  (One of these things is not like the others.)  Escaping from the cell, the Man of Tomorrow discovers that each of these ‘heroes’ has been pulled from the past by an experimental time machine for, of all things, a history class!

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Now, sure, unquestionably, George Washington deserves to be on that list.  The only reason the U.S. is a democracy (at least for a while longer) is that he was a good enough man to refuse to be made a king, and few men would set aside power once taken up.  Lincoln, for all of his culpability in the beginning of the Civil War, deserves the spot for freeing the slaves, even if it was largely a symbolic gesture when first made.  That’s still an incredibly important moment in our national development.  But Custer?  Really?  Not, I don’t know, F.D.R., or Teddy Roosevelt, or just about anyone else?  George, ‘I-led-my-men-to-their-deaths-while-attempting-genocide’ Custer?  Well, I suppose perception of him hadn’t quite gotten past the simplicities of the ‘cowboys and Indians’ portrays of the previous half century.

Anyway, on with the story.  The scientist running the experiment explains to the Action Ace that he is “the last might Superman of [his] era,” which makes no sense.  Demanding answers, the Man of Steel is shown a memory tape that displays his history, including memories supposedly wiped out by the process of being brought through time.  According to the tape, Superman was killed by an alien being, but human scientists cloned him (though they don’t call it that), because the world can’t get along without a Superman.

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The new Man of Tomorrow didn’t remember his death, and he also died some time later of an alien disease.  The scientists recreated him again, knowing it would be for the last time.  To further prove their story, the future scholar takes the shocked hero to a crypt and shows him the remains of the previous two iterations of ‘Superman’ and gives him a medal posthumously awarded to his past self.

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Stunned, Superman asks how he will die, and he’s told that he’s killed trying to shut down an experimental energy source.  That certainly sounds familiar, right?  Well, during the explanation, the shell-shocked Kryptonian hears a broadcast about an archeological expedition trapped by a cave-in in Greenland and, without a thought, rushes off to help.  He rescues them, but when that feat is finished, the head scientist tells his time-tossed guest that he must return to the past.  At first Superman refuses, asking why he should return just to die, but when the panicked egg-head tells his wayward visitor that, unless history plays out the way it should, time itself will unravel and destroy the universe (see, everything they make can destroy reality!), the true Man of Tomorrow valiantly heads back to meet his fate.

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Yet, back in the past, he successfully flies the haywire generator out into space and survives the experience.  Confused, he ponders his medallion, only to discover that it contains an element not present on Earth.  Superman deduces that he was accidentally pulled into an alternate dimension’s future, and remembers clues in the scientist’s descriptions of the other historical figures, who were all described differently than in real life.

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This is a solid enough story.  It’s got an interesting and curious twist, and it’s good to see the selflessness of the Man of Steel, which is also nicely tempered by a reasonable desire to stay alive if he doesn’t have to die.  Yet, when faced with the necessity, he willingly sets out to make the ultimate sacrifice.  It’s curious to note that the idea of cloning a replacement for Superman was presented way back here in 1971.  The idea would, of course, famously return in future stories.  There’s nothing particularly exciting here, but it’s an entertaining enough read.  I’ll give it 3 Minutemen.

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“Superbaby’s Lost World”


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The second story, however, is not quite so easy to enjoy, despite having some honestly funny moments.  Unfortunately, it’s a ‘Superbaby’ tale, which is from the start a concept not terribly likely to win my undying affection, and this particular outing is pretty painful in some ways.  I haven’t read enough of these to know if such features are established conventions of the conceit, but if so, heaven spare me from more Superbaby stories!  The yarn involves the Kents taking their otherworldly infant to an amusement park, and from the very beginning this tale rubs me the wrong way.  Apparently, despite being fairly desperate for their son to keep a low profile and not reveal his powers, the Kents just let little Clark run around with a bright red and blue outfit, complete with a freaking cape!  Okay, I can deal with the adventures of Super-tot, but could we get just a trace of logical consistency for the concept?  No?  That’s too much to ask?  *sigh*

The actual plot has the potential to be rather charming, but the trappings surrounding it are just plain maddening.  You’ve got the Kents trying to keep Clark under wraps while the little super-psychopath destroys attractions left and right in the park with his super strength and poor impulse control.  When the nosy child discovers a pair of jewel thieves hiding their ill-gotten gains in a garbage can, the kid rips the receptacle open to return their basket to them, thinking they’ve lost it.  The image of the two-foot tall super-tot, cape flapping in the breeze, is just too goofy for me.

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This begins a series of mis-adventures, as the kid lost sight of his parents in the interim and the jewel thieves decide to bring him along as cover and to prevent him making a scene.  There is a fun idea here, but the ridiculous visual, combined with Dorfman’s device of having kiddie-Clark speak in a weird 3rd person pidgin that I’m fairly certain no child has ever used in the history of the world, make the result rather grating.  The plot, such as it is, continues with the crooks taking the kid on a boat ride, where he reveals his powers, ripping an animatronic animal out of the ground, and then flying the couple out of the river when their boat swamps.

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Then follows a comedy of errors as the Super-simpleton tries to fix each of his mistakes, which leads to more mistakes.  He tries to dry the couple’s clothes out on a fake volcano, only for them to be chocked by smoke, which he blows away, knocking them off of a cliff!  When they are discovered by the cops, the glibly named ‘Connie and Hyde’ (get it?) practically throw themselves into the arms of the boys in blue, begging them to save them from the psychotic super-tot.  Of course, the police don’t believe their stories, and the Kents finally find Clark, destroying yet more of the park’s exhibits.  One has to imagine the little wrecking-machine put the poor place out of business with the untold amount of damage he inflicted on it.

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The idea of Superbaby unwittingly foiling the crooks is actually a rather promising one, but while the story has its moments, kiddie-Clark’s ‘me do such and such’ routine, combined with the ridiculous little cape just prove too much for me and drag this book down to the absurd.  I’ll give it 2 Minutemen.  At least this one wasn’t as bad as the last super-baby we encountered!

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Adventure Comics #405


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“Starfire’s Revenge!”
Writer: Mike Sekowsky
Penciler: Mike Sekowsky
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Mike Sekowsky

Here we have the conclusion of the Starfire saga begun several issues back.  Starfire has proven an interesting antagonist for the girl from Krypton, and Sekowsky’s continuing story has been entertaining for the most part, though it stands out more for its creativity and willingness to depart from the status quo than for its quality.  With this issue, it ends strong, and Sekowsky delivers an exciting adventure full of intrigue and peril.  The cover is effective if not particularly dynamic, and it hints at the central complication of the yarn.  It certainly does the job of intriguing prospective readers, which is half the battle.

adventure 405-02 - CopyThe tale picks up where the previous outing of the story left off, with Supergirl desperate to track down Starfire and her scientific flunky in order to find a cure for her fluctuating powers.  She is on the verge of despair until her powers return, allowing her to use her super senses to detect her quarry…by just looking around from her apartment.  Okay, that’s a bit silly, even for a super character in this era.  She just uses telescopic and x-ray vision to scan, presumably miles and miles around her, all without moving from home.  That makes things a bit too simple, but Sekowsky is apparently in a hurry to get into his plot.

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The Maid of Might discovers the villains aboard a plane bound for Paris, but before she can pursue them, her powers fade out once more.  Starfire, for her part, is busy with plans of her own, and she directs the professor to create a stronger dose of their anti-power drug.  She also contacts a man with a familiar face.  The lethal Lothario from the first issue, Derek, apparently has a twin brother named Rodney, and she spins him a twisted version of his brother’s death to turn him against Supergirl.  Claiming that the Girl of Steel killed his twin, Starfire recruits Rodney for help with her plan, which will involve him dosing the heroine with the new drug when her powers are at ebb.

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We get a fun scene as the Maid of Might has to find a way across the Atlantic despite her unreliable powers, eventually hitching a ride on a passing jetliner and feeling rather embarrassed about it.  Awaiting her in the City of Lights, Starfire has other plans in motion.  She informs her gang about their next job, which involves the murder of a major designer, the theft of his fall line, and the destruction of his salon.

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adventure 405-13In a very convenient turn of events, Supergirl just happens to hear a broadcast of the designer’s fashion show which is interrupted by the thieves, despite the fact that she’s just hanging out in the woods waiting for her powers to return.  There had to be an easier and less ridiculous way to bring those plots together!  Nonetheless, the Maid of Might rushes to the salon, and her powers return just in time to let her tackle the gang.  Yet, Rodney’s sudden attack and his resemblance to the deceased Derek distract her long enough for her nemesis to escape.  The Maid of Might becomes a mediocre maiden once more, and she plays a dangerous game with the berserk brother as the building burns, finally getting close enough to knock him out.

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She takes her captive to safety, then strives to convince him that she didn’t kill his brother, no easy task.  Finally, she hits upon a plan to capture Starfire and prove her innocence at the same time.  After realizing that Supergirl is willing to risk her life in this gambit, Rodney relents, and that night, he shows up at the villain’s headquarters, carrying the heroine’s apparently helpless form.  Starfire is pleased, but while preparing to dispose of her Kryptonian prisoner, she decides to tie up loose ends with Rodney as well and reveals the truth.  The pair find themselves menaced by a gorilla of all things (how did he not end up on the cover?), but fortunately Supergirl is up to the challenge and puts the beast to sleep.

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Pictured: A glimpse of why comics are awesome.

The escaped Maid of Might crashes a fashion show of the stolen styles and chases Starfire down.  Her powers fail her once more, allowing the villainess to lock herself behind a heavy door, but when Supergirl smashes through using her exo-skeleton (no longer confusingly called a “cyborg”), the door strikes the cyclopean psycho and sends her crashing through a window to her death below.  That’s right, Supergirl just committed a touch of manslaugher.  It is clearly an accident, but what an accident!  The tale ends with the gang captured, the antidote secured, and the villain quite dead.  I guess that explains why she never returned!

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You just took a human life…oh well!

This is a surprisingly good issue.  The last two chapters have been fairly mediocre, despite their promising premises and the still rare departures from the status quo and ongoing elements.  This comic, however, had an exciting, engaging plot, and Sekwosky made good use of his fluctuating power deus ex machina to deliver some reasonably exciting action sequences.  Perhaps most importantly, the art in this issue is significantly better than the last two portions of the tale.  Sekowsky simply turned out a better looking comic this month.  There’s a certain creativity in his layouts and design work that makes the book visually interesting, and while some of his figures are still awkward, there are no glaring problems this time.  There are a few downright lovely panels scattered throughout these pages, and on the whole, Sekowsky seems to be putting more polish into his work, or perhaps the diligent Dick Giordano made the difference.  The biggest flaw in this issue is the fact that Supergirl takes a life, however unwittingly, and the consequences of this act are given a grand total of one panel of development.  If you’re not going to give a moment like that the treatment it deserves, you shouldn’t employ it in the first place.  So, all told, this is a fun but flawed issue, and I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.

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And that wraps up the first post of April 1971.  Next up we have a very bittersweet subject, as we’ll be covering the very last issue of the original Aquaman comic.  I’ll also have something of a surprise for y’all, a special feature.  So, be sure not to miss it!  Until then, keep the heroic ideal alive!