Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.
Teen Titans #33
“Less Than Human?”
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: George Tuska
Inker: Nick Cardy
Letterer: Ben Oda
Editor: Murray Boltinoff
First up is a new Teen Titans adventure, and it’s a weird one, which is to be expected from Zaney Haney. The stranger thing is that it follows in the similarly weird footsteps of Steve Skeates from last month. The comic has a Nick Cardy cover, but it isn’t as fantastic as his usual work. The image is a solid ‘scary discovery’ type of composition, but Cardy can’t seem to make up his mind on whether the menacing figure is a zombie or a skeleton (look at those arm bones!), so it just looks a bit confused. Otherwise, it is pretty solid. Inside, this comic picks up directly from the last issue, in the poorly conceived and developed fantasy world that was created by the Butterfly Effect of Mal and Kid Flash’s journey into the past.
The young heroes face a test in the form of an archery competition, a-la Robin Hood, and somehow Kid Flash duplicates the forester’s famous shot. I expected this to be revealed to be a super speed trick, especially when the arrow begins to drill into the lock on its own, but it’s never actually explained. So, we could just assume that Wally is somehow an expert archer. It’s a bit clumsy, but Haney has no time for explanations or logic! Instead, a hulking skeleton, the animated remains of the caveman they killed, comes charging out of the door, and the Titans are terrified, so terrified, that Mal actually breaks and runs.
However, he doesn’t run too far, as he grabs the ‘Duke of Galaxy’s’ helmet and dons it before charging back towards the apparition. And a specter it proves to be, vanishing into thin air. ‘Jupiterius’ explains to the youths that ‘Cerebella’ (get it?), Lilith’s alternate future counterpart, used her mental powers to fill Mal with fear. Since they successfully passed their trial, he will show them how to travel back in time ‘to put right what once went wrong!‘
The wizard takes them to “The Well of Time,” where they take a piece of its crystallized water and find themselves back in the Stone Age, facing their anachronistic antagonist. This time Flash knocks the club away without sending the caveman crashing over the cliff, but the marauding Cro-Magnon (who looks much more like a neanderthal) manages to grab him…somehow. The crystals that hold them in the past fade during the fight, and the young friends find themselves back home…but they have picked up a chronological hitchhiker!
The caveman, grappling with Kid Flash at the moment of their return, went with them, and suddenly the entire team find themselves in a desperate struggle with the powerful savage. When they manage to incapacitate him, Mr. Jupiter oh-so-helpfully proclaims that he is not going to send their visitor back home because it turns out time travel is a tad dangerous. Gee, ya’ think? It’s a shame you didn’t figure that out before you lost two teenagers in time!
So, instead Jupiter instructs the team to tame the caveman, turn him into a modern man…which is problematic in multiple ways. Most importantly, this scene points to a major plot hole. Killing this caveman really messed up the timeline and caused a whole alternate future, right? But removing him from his era entirely doesn’t have any impact on the present? That’s just ridiculously sloppy writing, even for the Zaney one.
Nonetheless, in the present the caveman, who they dub “Gnarrk,” after his only vocalization, must stay. The Titans bring Robin in to help them with their new pupil, and after devising a curriculum, they start with the first and most important step…appearance! The first thing the team does is sedate their savage student and give him a shave and a hair cut, which doesn’t please the fellow too much when he awakens. He grabs Lilith through the bars, but fortunately she is able to communicate telepathically with him, and they make friends.
After a poor start with subliminal education while he sleeps, the Titans take the caveman out on the town pretty much immediately, which seems wildly irresponsible and unnecessary. Predictably, it goes poorly, and Gnarrk attacks a car, thinking it is some type of monstrous animal. Then he gets spooked by a train, and the team has to split up and search for their charge. When they recover the kooky Cro-Magnon, they discover that he has observed a local city councilman involved in a payoff, and they realize that Gnarrk has just become a damning witness against a major crime figure…but a witness who can’t testify!
This is actually a rather original and entertaining situation, all other concerns aside. You can say this for Haney, he certainly was creative! Well, the Titans immediately redouble their efforts. After two weeks of intensive training, they take their time-tossed guest to the D.A., for some reason in a major hurry, despite the fact that there seems to be no real external pressure. Nonetheless, Lilith, having grown close to Gnarrk, tries to shield him from the frantic efforts of the others, but when she takes him out for a walk, the pair are attacked by gangsters and narrowly avoid a bomb. Fearing for her new friend, the enigmatic lady slips away with him, planning to hide Gnarrk until after the hearing so he won’t be in danger.
Of course, this works about as well as you might imagine, and for some strange reason, the young caveman proves to be slightly less safe hiding out in a van in the woods than surrounded by superheroes. Gnarrk tries to confess his feelings for Lilith, who is apparently quite the ridiculous hippie, given her psychedelic surroundings, but she shoots him down.
This is followed quickly by being shot down herself in a more literal fashion as bullets riddle the van and the vaguely-powered vixen is hit. The Caveman goes crazy and tears into the attackers. The rest of the Titans arrive just in time to talk him down from killing his captives, but the Cro-Magnon chooses to do the right thing, sparing the would-be killer. The next day, Gnarrk appears in court and haltingly gives his testimony, bringing down the crime boss, and the comic ends with Lilith and her newfound friend walking off together, arm-in-arm.
Once again, Haney packs enough into a single issue of a comic to fill three normal books. He seems to pretty immediately lose interest in the time travel tale, instead settling on the weird and reasonably original angle of a caveman in the modern world. That story is fairly entertaining, and the character’s growing fondness for Lilith is actually rather touching. The scene where he tries to tell her how he feels, only to have her shut him down makes you feel for the guy. For her part, Lilith continues to be super vague and undeveloped, which annoys me, and her plot-fortunate powers seem rather convenient. That’s not terribly surprising with the Zaney one doing the writing, as character personalities and powers change at his whim.
This is a common problem with his work, but it is magnified here because even the questionable unity provided by Haney is lacking in this Titans book, with the authorial duties shifting every other issue. The inconsistency and uncertainty of direction is really clear with this issue, which clashes with the story started by Steve Skeates, whose plotlines are almost immediately abandoned. George Tuska’s art is lovely as always, and he does some really great work with Gnarrk’s face, which is particularly important considering how little dialog the character has. I think Nick Cardy inking Tuska also adds a bit of continuity to the visual side of the book, which is nice. The most intriguing part of this issue was the introduction of Gnarrk, who, despite being the focus of the story, receives relatively little development. Apparently he goes on to play a role in the Titans mythos in the future, but tellingly, none of the references I could find about him make any mention of this story. I’m curious to see what will become of him. (I wonder if he went on to become a lawyer). In the end, this is a comic with a lot of imagination that has some flaws but is still a fun read, so I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen, with its creativity raising it above the average.
World’s Finest #203
“Who’s Minding the Earth?”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella
Cover Artist: Neal Adams
I have been really looking forward to this one, especially after Aquaman’s own book met its unfortunate demise. I have been excited to see my favorite character team up with the Man of Steel, and written by submarine scribe supreme, Steve Skeates, no less! Fortunately, this issue doesn’t disappoint, though it doesn’t have the most gripping of covers. It’s not bad, but it is rather excessively yellow, and the scene is rather more suggestive than exciting. Nonetheless, the monstrous creatures walking away from our heroes hold a bit of menace and the figures are well drawn, which is no surprise from Neal Adams. Nonetheless, the story inside delivers something pretty enjoyable.
It starts with everyone’s favorite Sea King discovering a strange phenomenon, an underwater rainbow, and when he investigates, he hears a strange, high-pitched buzzing which leads him to a ruined research station on a seemingly abandoned island. In the wreckage, the Marine Marvel discovers a torn journal page with a cryptic message about ‘raising him’ and a warning that ‘they plan to drown the world.’ That doesn’t sound good!
As he continues to search the island, Aquaman encounters a quartet of strange looking creatures, seemingly humanoid dolphins, and he can’t help but laugh at their awkward, waddling walk. Real sensitive Arthur! The creatures take this none-too-kindly, and the Sea Sleuth suddenly is hit with a mental attack and passes out! I’m not crazy about this scene as Aquaman, of all people, should probably be both a bit more accepting of and a bit more used to strange aquatic beings, but I suppose we’re meant to take it as harmless mirth.
Meanwhile, a very snappily dressed Clark Kent encounters a frantic stranger on the streets of Metropolis who is desperately searching for Superman. Before the reporter can calm him down and enjoy the irony, the disguised figure mentions something about ‘the change’ coming over him and somehow renders everyone nearby blind, even affecting the Man of Steel’s superior eyesight! It seems to the Action Ace’s blurry vision as if the figure splits in two and then races off, but after his vision clears, he manages to pick up their trail on the coast.
The Man of Tomorrow follows these odd aquatic beings across the sea and discovers Aquaman’s still form, managing to return him to the water just as the Atlantean’s hour was running out. Quickly catching each other up, they return to the isle and encounter the creature that had been seeking Superman in the first place. This alien-looking being fills the two heroes in on the situation. Apparently he was born a mutant, but a mutant dolphin, which is sort of a fun twist.
He was a humanoid being, and his marine mother abandoned him. Fortunately, a team of scientists working on the island rescued and reared the young mutant, who grew rapidly and proved to be brilliant, quickly learning English. He also developed strange sonic (or perhaps psionic) abilities, which he often used to summon displays of light, creating submarine rainbows for his own amusement.
Still, he was lonely, as well as clumsy and awkward on the land, which earned him the laughter of his adoptive family, embittering the young creature. He longed for a companion, someone like him, and suddenly one day, in response to his desire, he split in two, reproducing asexually. His new brother possessed all of his knowledge, but none of his compassion. There’s something of a similarity here to the Sand Superman of O’Neil’s.
The strange sibling inherited only the original’s anger, and the process proved continual, with more twins born every few days. Soon they drove the scientists away and began plotting to destroy the human race which had mocked them. The original dolphin-being warns the heroes that his freakish family plans to drown the Earth by using their sonic powers to melt the ice caps!
Together, the trio take off for the North pole, where the dolphin-men have gathered. However, the malevolent mutants sense the heroes approaching and launch a sonic attack that affects Superman’s brain (and we get an educational little map of the human brain to illustrate the point, which is a nice touch). Suddenly the Man of Steel streaks into the sky, charging a massive creature seemingly composed of sonic energy, yet he can never seem to make contact with it. Strange!
Under the waves, the Marine Marvel presses the attack, and while he and his flippered friend hold their own, the weight of numbers soon threatens to swamp them, so the Sea King calls in an army of fish to cover his retreat. As the mutants search for him, they fail to notice a seemingly harmless whale as it gets close, but suddenly Aquaman bursts from the creature’s mouth and slams into his aquatic antagonists! It’s a great sequence, and Dillin does a really nice job with it, other than one slightly awkward pose.
As the Marine Marvel tears through his foes, he manages to disrupt their attack on Superman, who suddenly realizes that the monster was an illusion and dives back into the undersea brawl. The two heroes make short work of the creatures. Once they have been captured, Superman gives them a fiery speech, lambasting the mutants for their violent response to human ridicule, arguing that they should have worked to earn respect instead.
Oddly, this prompts Aquaman thinks to himself that his friend “has that unbearable establishment ‘twang’ in his voice!” That’s…a weird choice for the King of Atlantis, and it really just doesn’t fit the character, a grating sour note, way more suited to the current, obnoxious characterization of Green Arrow, made all the more surprising because it was written by Skeates, who has previously shown such a great grasp of the character. Maybe Aquaman has been spending too much time with Ollie!
Despite that, there is a certain interesting element to this scene, as there is some buried social commentary in an authority figure telling an abused minority that they just needed to prove themselves to the powers that be. Given the racial issues of the day, I wonder if this was a subtle jibe or just a coincidence. Whatever the case, after his speech, the Metropolis Marvel gathers the mutants up and flies them to an unpeopled inhabitable planet where they can create their own world, free from humanity and no threat to anyone. On Earth, Aquaman ponders the case, and the married mariner thinks that it makes a certain amount of sense that this species that developed without love was also one that lacked an opposite sex. Arthur, you romantic, you!
This is a great little adventure story, and for the first time in far too long, it’s one in which Aquaman actually gets to be useful. Yet, he isn’t just useful, he positively steals the show, which isn’t easy to do when sharing space with Superman! The Sea King puts on a great showing in this comic, which I expected from a story by Skeates. The threat that the heroes face is an interesting one, and the tale of the original dolphin-creature (who Skeates really should have given a name) is rather touching in its own way. His loneliness, being the only one of his kind, is fairly poignant, and I quite like the little scene of him hanging out underwater, ‘singing colors’ to himself.
The one real problem with the issue is that the motivation for the mutants’ hatred of mankind is a bit weak. I’d have liked to see a bit more development to that part of the tale, but Skeates is moving pretty quickly in the space he has to work with and packs a lot in here, including a great action sequence. It’s a shame the original dolphin-man got exiled to another world with the others, as he seemed like a decent sort and an interesting character. If there were still an Aquaman title, he’d have made a fun addition to the supporting cast.
In terms of the art, Dillin is in particularly rare form on this book. His work is great, and he creates some really striking panels, like the gathering of dolphin-men, Aquaman’s fish army, and the drowning city. The creatures themselves have a pretty good design, strange enough to be a little creepy but anthropomorphic enough to be sympathetic as well. This is just a lovely, imaginative, and well-realized issue. I thoroughly enjoyed this comic, and it was great to see Aquaman back in action (in a good light). While the story could have been expanded, it was great fun as is. I’ll give it 4.5 Minutemen.
The Head-Blow Headcount:
Another month without any new visitors to the Wall of Shame. I wonder if anyone will succumb to the siren song of the headblow in the comics to come!
June has proven to be quite a month! There were a lot of really enjoyable comics in the line-up this time, including some very pleasant surprises, like Flash tangling with an honest-to-goodness super-powered opponent, and in a good issue, to boot! We also had a lot of stories that illustrated the transitional nature of this era, comics with more ambition than accomplishment that nevertheless illustrated the growing maturity of the medium. This month’s JLA certainly fits that description!
In general, the trends we’ve been observing continue this month, with a definite presence of socially conscious stories and a push towards darker themes. Even in light-hearted series, like Superboy, we find a story about witches and warlocks. It’s a silly tale, but it still evinces a growing interest in the supernatural in comics. Considering we’re only a year away from the premiere of Kirby’s Demon series and soon to see the return of the Specter, I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising. These are only the first steps of the mystical revival of the Bronze Age, and there’s much more to come!
Interestingly, among the socially conscious comics on the stands this month, we find another dealing with the plight of the Native Americans. Considering that last month also featured such a tale, this is decent evidence that the topic was in the zeitgeist. Fortunately, one of my awesome readers mentioned that this was certainly the case, and pointed to the publication of books like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and the release of films like Little Big Man in 1970, both of which dealt with the subject and helped to begin transforming the public’s perception of Native Americans and the history of the West. I’ll be interested to see if this trend continues and if we find more stories from DC on the topic in the months and years to come.
Of course, Kirby’s Fourth World continues to develop in his various books, and we got two slam-bang issues to enjoy this month. The King keeps tossing out concepts and telling exciting stories, and even his action-heavy issues have unique elements like this month’s Mr. Miracle and the proto-fabber it contained. There’s not a ton of development of the larger mythos in these two books, though we do see the debut of Granny Goodness and get some more hints of just where Scott Free comes from. It’s really impressive that Kirby as able to keep so many titles moving forward and rolling out his nascent mythology across these different books. They really all do work together very well, creating a greater whole. Reading them in collection, I didn’t really appreciate what a complex dance he was doing.
Of course, Kirby’s titles are not the only books that are growing and evolving. Denny O’Neil is continuing his renovation of Superman, spinning a thoroughly enjoyable yarn this month, but more importantly and more memorably, he also delivered one of the greatest Batman villains of all time in a comic that was an instant classic. The deservedly beloved Batman #232 gives us R’as Al Ghul and brings the Dark Knight solidly into the Bronze Age with a mystery and adventure tale that highlights everything that makes the character who he is, from his detective skills, to his courage, to his brilliance and physical ability. This is the Batman I love, and it’s great to see him in action.
So, all in all, it was a really solid month, with a few clunkers but plenty of fun, readable comics. What’s more, it demonstrates the growing character of the age in some really interesting ways. I hope that y’all enjoyed this portion of our trip, because we now bid adieu to June 1971! Please join me again soon as we begin our trek into the next month and see what awaits us there! Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!
Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.
“Doomsday for a Super-Phantom!”
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Bob Brown
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Cover Artist: Neal Adams
I am growing to dread seeing Leo Dorfman’s name in the credits. His stories tend to be on the goofier, more poorly thought out side. This particular offering is a weird hybrid. There are elements of it that are quite goofy and others that show a surprising amount of thought. It has a decent cover, with the shriveled husk of Superboy a pretty striking image. The villain isn’t that imposing, however, just standing there, though he isn’t that impressive inside either. The story itself concerns a modern day warlock named oh-so-originally ‘Faustus,’ and his ‘coven,’ his extended family who are supposedly descended from “the race of witches and warlocks.” Now, putting aside for a moment that the idea of a “race” of witches makes no sense, this actually sounds a bit like the origin of Zatanna Zatara and her “Homo Magi” ancestry. Interestingly enough, this little tale actually predates that development of Zatanna’s mythos.
Anyway, these modern day magic users are mostly a sad lot, not having much mystical mojo after centuries of inbreeding with regular humans. Still, Faustus has gathered the family in the hopes of restoring their preternatural power by stealing it from the greatest source remaining in the modern world….Superboy! Now, I know what you’re thinking, ‘Superboy’s powers aren’t supernatural!’ And you’re right. To my surprise, that little detail is actually addressed in this comic.
While most of his family’s powers have withered, Faustus plans to supplement their abilities with technology, as he declares that he has become “the world’s greatest expert in cybernetics,” which, while possibly fitting into a technical definition of the term, really doesn’t quite seem to be a great fit. Nonetheless, he uses his machines and the most promising of his relatives, an orphan named Asmo, to reach out and steal Superboy’s soul in a decent looking two-page spread. When the spirit arrives in their lab, he explains that his powers are not magical (see), but scientific, the result of his Kryptonian biology. He also points out that everyone knows this, making Faustus quite the moron.
Meanwhile, Superboy’s body sort of continues functioning on autopilot, botching the repair job he was doing on a shattered bridge and flying home, his memory gone, but his instincts remaining…which doesn’t quite fit with what we see. In the warlock’s lab, the ‘Super Phantom’ seems useless, so most of his family abandons him, but Faustus plans to use Asmo to make use of their catch. By luring the Boy of Steel’s body to them with a fake distress call, they supercharge the ghost with its powers and leave the discarded form trussed up like a scarecrow.
Faustus tries to take control of his ‘Super Phantom,’ but Asmo was the source of the power, so he is his master, and when the boy orders the spirit to bring them home, they discover that his powers have manifested as psychokinesis, the one ability that a phantom could use…which actually makes some sense, insofar as a portrayal of magic can. When they arrive at Faustus’s mansion, the warlock tries to get the boy to use Superboy’s spirit for big, showy crimes and evil deeds, but the kid just uses him for childish desires, like sporting equipment from his heroes and an entire Olympic skating rink. There’s a sad little scene where Superghost, left on his own for a while, recovers his body and brings it home, only to scare his parents half to death because they can’t see the spirit and just see their son, seemingly dead. Nice job Clark!
Back at the mansion, Faustus grows impatient with the boy’s lack of vision, especially when Asmo decides that he has no right to us Superboy for his own benefit when so many people depend on him. The magician strikes the boy, but realizing that the kid could have Superspirit squish him, the warlock changes his tune and promises to reunite soul and body. Yet, he betrays Asmo and plans to transfer the power to himself when suddenly his computers seem to suddenly goes all Skynet on him and gains sentience. The mad machine tosses its former master about until he agrees to obey it, and after some frantic rewiring, the whole house begins to shake.
Suddenly, Superboy’s body crashes through the wall and spirit and flesh fuse back into a whole. Not to be beaten, Faustus rushes to press his lab’s self-destruct switch, only to be electrocuted because of the rewiring he had done. To end the adventure, Superboy explains that he used the telepathy that being a spirit granted him (sure) to read the warlock’s mind, learn how to work the computers and devices, then make them seem to turn on their master and convince him to create a machine that would undo his bodiless condition.
It’s all really pat and convenient, and it seems more than a little bit of a stretch. I know Superboy is supposed to be super smart, but this just seems to take things a tad far, as the kid does all of this presumably incredibly advanced science and magic on the fly, all after reading the antagonist’s mind, despite showing no ability to do that before that point. The rest of the story is surprisingly fun for a Dorfman tale. As a matter of fact, the basic concepts, descendants of magic users in the modern world and the fusion of mysticism and technology are pretty promising. They’ll be parlayed into better stories later on in this decade. Still, despite its goofy elements and rushed, silly ending, this is a fun enough read. I’ll give it 2.5 Minutemen, knocked off of the average by that ending.
P.S.: This comic also includes a weird little two page feature explaining why Ma and Pa Kent look younger these days. I’m really curious what the real-world explanation is, because the in-universe retcon is that an alien TV executive was secretly filming Superboy for a show, and when his bosses wanted younger actors for the Kents, he sent them a youth serum, and the Boy of Steel faked a mass incident with other old folks to hide the fact that his parents specifically were effected. So apparently in the DC Universe there are gonna’ be about half a dozen folks from Smallville that are going to have drastically increased lifespans! What a weird little attempt to address a continuity problem!
“Menace at 1000 Degrees!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Cover Artist: Carmine Infantino
“A Name Is Born”
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Gray Morrow
Inker: Gray Morrow
This is not the story I expected. That’s not to say that it isn’t a good story. In fact, it is, but this cover led me to expect something rather different. Despite that, it’s a really great image. I’ve been looking at this comic coming up in my reading order and I’ve been pretty excited about it. The two figures, beautifully rendered, perfectly convey a crisis of perspective, with Superman’s mirror image lacking the empathy that makes the Man of Steel a hero and thus unwilling to help his counterpart. The cover copy is hardly needed, the image is so effective. The trouble is, while this moment is actually in the comic, it is pretty much entirely ancillary to the actual plot.
That plot, instead, centers around the still weakened Man of Tomorrow’s efforts to save the world despite his lessened powers, which is a promising setup. Oddly, we don’t pick up where our last issue left off, with Superman confronting his dusty doppelganger. Instead, our hero has gone back to his normal life in Metropolis, and we join him as he springs into action when he hears reports of modern day pirates attacking a ship. (Hey! Quit horning in on Aquaman’s act!)
Still feeling the effects of his contact with his opposite number, the Metropolis Marvel is unable to fly, so he leaps over tall buildings in a single bound on the way to the sea. Once he arrives at the site of the attack, he just drops straight through one of the pirate ships, which is pretty funny and clever. The Man of Steel then stops a torpedo from the other craft, though it actually stuns him in his weakened condition. Fortunately, the Coast Guard arrives and mops up.
Unfortunately, they soon realize that this pirate attack was actually a ruse to draw the Coast Guard ship away from its station, guarding “Project Magma.” Essentially, this is an effort to tap the magma below the Earth’s crust in an effort to provide unlimited power, as the world has begun to realize that oil, coal, and the rest won’t last forever. The trouble is, the undertaking is incredibly dangerous, because of course it is. Once again, DC scientists just can’t help but create things that imperil the world, can they? Well, Superman leaps to the floating test site, only to be met with a “magma house” which is…pretty much exactly what you’d expect. In a nice sequence, the Action Ace is covered in molten rock, knocked out of the sky, and then trapped as the stone cools upon contact with the water.
Straining mightily, the Kryptonain manages to break free, but he realizes that the platform is too well defended for him to take by himself without the terrorists having a chance to cause incredible destruction, so he decides to call in the Justice Leag…err…no. In fact, Superman declares that “there’s just one creature in the universe I can call on,” and that’s his alluvial alternate, the Sand Superman. Really? With the entire League at your disposal, he’s the only one who can help? It’s not like you’re friends with the World’s Greatest Detective, who could develop a foolproof plan for storming the facility, or the Fastest Man Alive, who could disarm all of the terrorists before they even knew they were threatened, or the King of the Seven Seas, who could summon an army of sea creatures to swamp them and wash the place clean. It’s a tad silly. If O’Neil had just given us a single line of dialog saying, ‘It’s too bad the JLA are on another case’ or something, there wouldn’t be a problem, but this is an example of the narrative moving at the speed of plot.
Anyway, it’s at this point that our cover image gets its payoff, as Superman goes to meet his dusty double in the hopes of persuading him to help, but the Sand Superman won’t budge, pointing out that mankind means nothing to him because he isn’t human. There is a really intriguing element to this encounter, as the doppelganger has the original’s powers and knowledge, but he lacks the human upbringing and experiences that make Superman himself a humble man rather than a superior god. This doesn’t get developed, which is something of a shame, but neither does it get resolved, so I imagine we’ll see this thread get paid off in a later issue.
In the meantime, the terrorists, lead by a freelance spy named Quig, issue their demands. It seems that they’re a desperate lot how have run out of places to hide, so they have nothing to lose, and they threaten to unleash a bomb under the Earth’s crust unless their demands are met. They want a hydrogen bomb, $50 million in gold, and 50 hostages to ensure everyone plays nice. Interestingly, Lois volunteers to be one of the hostages so that she can be on hand to get the story, which is really brave…probably stupidly brave, but it mostly works. This brings us to another little flaw in the story, as the powers that be simply roll over and give the terrorists literally everything they want, which is pretty insane in context. There’s no stalling, no negotiation, just, ‘here’s your 50 hostages, gold, and nuke! Have a nice day!’
As Quig gloats over his success, he notices Lois and calls her over. The daring girl reporter puts him at his ease, then snatches his gun and tries to force the terrorist to give up. Unfortunately, he’s got nerves of steel, and she backs down before he does, which I wasn’t crazy about. It’s really a no-win situation for Lois, because if she kills him, she’s going to get gunned down by his men, but she mostly gives up because she doesn’t have the will to shoot him, which seems out of character. It’s not that Lois would want to take a life, but I think she’s a tough enough lady that, if she had to, she would do so and then feel bad about it afterward.
After she surrenders the gun, Quin plans to shoot her as an example, but then one of the hostages moves with blinding speed, grabs the girl reporter and takes her to safety. As he runs, he sheds his disguise to reveal the colorful costume of…Superman! In a funny bit of detail, he once again is rather annoyed at Lois getting herself into such a situation, telling her “Stay put, Lois! For once–just…keep out of trouble!” The Man of Steel then takes out Quig’s men and disables the Magma cannon, but he isn’t quick enough to stop the head terrorist himself from releasing his bomb down the shaft.
The Man of Tomorrow dives after the explosive, falling a great distance (though the art doesn’t really show that), catching the deadly device, and throwing it back out of the chute. When he emerges, Superman easily captures Quig, but he finds himself at something of a loss about how to answer Lois’s questions about why he waited so long for his rescue. What can he tell her without revealing his diminished powers?
This is a good, solid Superman story, with a lot going for it. The danger he faces is appropriately cataclysmic, and the magma-hose is a good, believable way to allow the regular human terrorists to pose a bit of a threat to the Kryptonian powerhouse. The device of his weakened powers is also a good one, forcing the hero to take a different approach than he is used to and ramping up the stakes in the story. This is not the planet-juggling Superman of the Silver Age, and the tale is more dramatic because the odds are a bit longer for him. Throughout, Curt Swan’s art is even better than usual. His depiction of the Sandy Superman, which I didn’t think entirely worked last issue, is really lovely in this one, as the creature’s dusty form drifts away in the arctic winds. My only real disappointment, other than minor quibbles about Lois’s portrayal, is that I had hoped for a bit more out of the Sand Superman plot, but that isn’t really a fault with this story. I’ll give it 4 Minutemen for a good, enjoyable Superman adventure that continues to develop O’Neil’s intriguing plot threads.
“A Name is Born”
Our backup feature is another edition of ‘The Fabulous World of Krypton,’ and this is really a great short story! It tells the tale of how Krypton was named. It begins with two Kryptonian school teachers talking about their classes, with the younger complaining that she can’t get her “level-one students” (presumably like first graders) to sit still for five minutes. I’m sure any parents or teachers among my readers are shocked by this.
Her older colleague offers her a story that he claims will keep the class enraptured, and we flash back to the early life of the planet Krypton. The world is surrounded by a cocoon of strange matter and has no human life upon its surface. An alien spacecraft makes a landing, but it is observed by a castaway, a different alien whose ship crash-landed on barren planet.
The two strangers approach one another, both hoping for a peaceful meeting but prepared for hostilities. The marooned spacer, a xenobiologist, presents the newcomer with a small flower, but unfortunately, it reacts with the strange atmosphere and erupts. The startled pilot reacts violently, thinking this was an attack. He draws his weapon and fires, but his ersatz foe, though not a warrior, has a defensive shield that absorbs ray-blasts, allowing the energy to be channeled off safely.
The fight becomes hand to hand and desperate, but as the newcomer tackles the castaway, his would-be victim spots a deadly peril approaching, as part of the matter surrounding the world rained down upon them. The biologist, realizing that escape was impossible, chooses to throw the warrior to safety, becoming mired in a clinging, suffocating slime. There’s a wonderful moment as each of these strangers wonders about the other’s motive, but the newcomer chooses to trust that this gesture was a selfless one, and shoots his former foe, charging the shield and allowing the power to be diverted into the clinging matter.
Finally, the two stand facing each other in peace, and when they remove their helmets, they discover that they are both humanoid, and that the biologist, is actually a woman! It’s a great reveal. They introduce themselves, Kryp, the newcomer, and Tonn, the castaway, and discover that the warrior’s ship has been damaged too, so they are stuck on this planet for a while. And that is how Krypton got its name, and its first inhabitants.
This is a really great little story, with some fun action, some nice sci-fi flavor, and a surprisingly effective message about giving folks the benefit of the doubt. It’s a very effective science fiction morality play, something the genre excels at. Gray Morrow’s art is just great, with a really unusual style full of details both thoughtful and decorative, like the collapsible stock on Kryp’s weapon, or the stylized creature on his helmet. I’ve heard of Morrow, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen his artwork before. I’ll be on the lookout from now on, though! This whole story feels like it might have made an appearance in the classic sci-fi collections of the Silver Age, like the Space Museum. In fact, this reminds me quite a bit of one of those stories, though I can’t quite place it. Either way, I really enjoyed this Space Age Adam and Eve tale, and I’ll give it 4.5 Minutemen.
Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #138
“The Big Boom!!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inkers: Vince Colletta and Murphy Anderson
Letterer: John Costanza
Editors: Jack Kirby and E. Nelson Bridwell
We round out this trio of books with another piece of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World, and this is a really good one. Sadly, it’s under another ugly photo-collage cover. It’s similar to the cover-copy-happy composition of Mr. Miracle #2, but this one doesn’t benefit from a gripping central image. Nevertheless, the comic inside makes up for it. It picks up right where the last issue left off. The DNA Project staff are scrambling to respond the Monster Factory’s attack in the form of the four-armed terror they unleashed. The creature is currently tearing its way towards the Project’s nuclear reactor, while Superman and the Newsboy Legion are trapped in a strange egg-like prison. The Project troops, along with the original Newsboy Legion and the Guardian clone, mount up and head towards the reactor in a surprisingly effective photo-collage double-page spread.
We also get a lovely full-page splash, one of many in this issue, of the whole gang charging to the rescue, as well as one of the imprisoned protagonists. Inside the egg, Superman discovers that the alien substance absorbs his strongest blows, but while the monster tunnels ever closer to its goal, the Man of Tomorrow tries to ‘hatch’ the egg by trying to recreate the energy the DNAlien used to create the egg in the first place by generating electricity by…rubbing his hands together at super speed. It’s a fairly dubious use of the Kryptonian’s powers, but nevertheless, he frees himself and flies after his foe.
We then cut to an odd little scene at the Daily Planet, where Perry White has called in a girl named Terry Dean, supposedly a friend of Jimmy’s, in his search for his young reporter. She tells the editor about Olsen leaving on a job for Morgan Edge, and this makes White worried. The scene feels a bit unnecessary, and as far as I can tell, we’ve never seen Terry Dean before, so her introduction is a bit odd as well.
Meanwhile, events continue to accelerate as the Project troops near the site of the action, the Monster Factory flunkies prepare reinforcements for their perfidious progeny, and the malevolent Morgan Edge is warned to escape Metropolis before the inevitable cataclysm. The soulless CEO casually walks out of the building with a smile, leaving his staff to a quick and certain death. It’s an effective demonstration of his cold and calculating character.
Back at the reactor, Superman narrowly manages to intercept the monster, but it is able to damage the machinery despite his efforts. Suddenly, more monsters pour from a portal, but the Project troops arrive just in time back up the Man of Steel. Unfortunately, the damaged reactor begins to meltdown, and with the control rods smashed in the fight, there is no way to stop it.
Superman rips the entire structure up and carries the massive device, spewing radiation, and leads the marauding monsters after him, knowing they are drawn towards the power. He dumps the raging reactor down a vast pit, a test tunnel bored deep into the Earth in preparation for tapping the core for power, a popular topic this month. The pursuing creatures tumble in after it, like so many multi-armed lemmings, and there is a tremendous explosion that, despite plot of the previous Superman story, doesn’t actually destroy the planet. That’s lucky!
The tale ends with Superman and the Guardian returning to Jimmy and the Legion, only to receive a cold shoulder because the kids were kept out of the desperate fight. Guardian finds their reaction a tad ungrateful, considering that the Action Ace did just save all of their lives, but the kids are having none of it.
This comic is just a blast, with a rapid-paced, pulse-pounding adventure with great stakes and some fantastic Kirby art. The King does a good job pacing his plot for the most part to achieve this frenetic rush, but the strange side-trip to the Planet does throw it off just a bit. In the same way, while the writing on this issue is strong in general, it does have a few minor weaknesses. Superman seems just a tad off, which has been the case for most of Kirby’s treatments of the character. In the same vein, the Man of Steel’s random electrical generation, while reasonable in the art, is a tad silly in the explanation. Unfortunately, the Legion are once again kept out of the plot, so they don’t get a chance to do anything useful or interesting. Still, we get an instructive character moment with Morgan Edge and some great action as Superman and the Project troops take on the monster horde.
While disposing of the reactor in an underground tunnel strains credulity a bit, seeing as it would probably cause massive earthquakes at the least, it makes comicbook-sense. Once again, the King seems to be reveling in the freedom to create his own stories without constraints from anyone else, and the proliferation of full-page splashes in this issue, like in New Gods #2, reveals an exuberance and energy that is really exciting, even if it does make the issue a bit breezy. As you can tell by the glut of images in this commentary, the art was so good I had a hard time making my choices for display! In the end, this is just a really enjoyable read, like a classic issue of the Fantastic Four, so I’ll give it 4.5 Minutemen.
And this set of Superman stories brings us up to the final stretch of June 1971. We’ve only got two comics left to cover! I hope that you’ve enjoyed this batch, and it did contain a number of really entertaining stories. I was particularly pleased to read the ‘World of Krypton’ feature, as I’d heard of that odd bit of history, but the actual event was much more engaging than I anticipated from an element of the mythos that I expected to be silly and Silver Age-ish. We also see a continued growing interest in the occult and the supernatural with the villainous warlock in this month’s Superboy, a trend I expect to see become more pronounced in the years to come. Before too long we’ll see what the future holds, and I hope you’ll join me for that adventure as we continue our journey Into the Bronze Age! Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!
Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.
Justice League of America #90
“Plague of the Pale People”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella
Cover Artist: Carmine Infantino
This comic is one of the clearer signs I’ve encountered of the intermediary stage we’re in at this moment of our journey, here in 1971. It’s a very mixed bag. It features attempts at world-building, more mature characterization, social relevance, and emotional impact, which are all commendable goals and will come to define the better works of the Bronze Age. However, each of those attempts is, at best, flawed, and Mike Friedrich makes a number of poor choices in order to accomplish his aims. The result is a very uneven book with a lot of potential that manages to fall frustratingly short on most every front. That really begins with the cover. It’s a reasonably solid image, though the composition feels rather unbalanced. It conveys its message, but there’s not a whole lot more I can say about it.
The story within begins, oddly, with a line from one of T.S. Eliot’s most famous poems, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” (More about this at the end of my commentary.) Here we meet a conveniently named girl with the moniker ‘Shally,’ who, we’re told, “sells seashells by the seashore,” or did, because now she lies dying. In a cool bit of world building, we see that she was attached to the “Atlantean Cultural Exchange,” whose existence makes perfect sense, though it gets exactly zero development. The girl herself is discovered by a young couple on the beach, soon joined by Batman himself, who notes that she seems to have been poisoned. He tries to contact Aquaman, but getting no response, he summons the rest of the JLA.
We flashback one month in the interim, as Clark Kent covers the disposal of a deadly chemical weapon by the military, who plan to scuttle the ship bearing the gas at sea, where it can’t harm anyone. Of course, this is the DC Universe, where every square inch of land, sea, and space is crawling with strange, undiscovered cultures, and the deadly substance happens to rain destruction upon the undersea city of Sareme, home of the Pale People, a somewhat simple submarine race that Atlantis had recently raised to a high technological level (originally appearing WAY back in Flash #109, another bit of world building). They worship an ancient “wonder plant,” the “Proof Rock” (get it?) which can detect dishonesty and perfidy, but the miraculous growth is smashed by the falling canisters, and in one fell swoop, the foundation for their culture is destroyed as well.
A charismatic leader, Prince Nebeur, arises among the Pale People and declares that he will be their new god and will lead them to conquest and glory. Then, without any preamble and completely off-panel…they defeat Atlantis. Just like that. The Saremites harness the chemical weapons that were dumped on their heads and turn them against their former benefactors. Apparently after a single skirmish, Aquaman, King of Atlantis, surrenders, saying that his people have no defense against the gas…though we will see in a few pages why this claim is ridiculous on the face of it.
There are a few major problems with this scene and what it represents for our story. First, in it Friedrich breaks one of the cardinal rules of writing, telling rather than showing, as the defining moment comes and goes without us seeing even a glimpse of it. Second, and much more significantly, Aquaman simply…gives up. Without a fight, without a desperate counterstrike, without so much as throwing a single punch. He just gives up. He doesn’t take the field like the warrior king he is. He surrenders, and in so doing, he submits all of Atlantis to the reign of a tyrant and an alien people.
This scene and much of what flows from it are wildly problematic because of the philosophy that drives it. It is forged from a foolish, unworkable personal pacifism that was common in the Vietnam era, the type that can only exist in a free country that gives its citizens the leisure and convenience of such scruples (this is not all pacifism, of course, just impractical, irrationally demanding strains). It becomes unworkable the moment there is a true struggle for survival in the offing, and it absolutely cannot function at the national level. Even neutral nations like Switzerland will defend themselves at need, and in our fallen and fractious world, all nations sometimes face outside forces that want what they have.
The doctrine of Just War is an old and respected one (I ascribe to a fairly Augustinian version myself), but the spirit that leads us to seek out such philosophies is borne from the knowledge that some things are worth fighting, and indeed, dying for. There is a long history of such thought, but I think John Stuart Mill may have said it best back in the era of the great struggles for liberty:
“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is worse. […] The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertion of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other.”
And make no mistake, that is precisely what is at stake for the Atlanteans: freedom. Yet, Aquaman, of all men, considers this too small of a stake for which to fight. Now, the text tells us that the Atlanteans don’t stand a chance, so unconditional surrender is the only option, but that is simply not supported in the book. Here is where Friedrich’s literary sin of ‘telling’ really hurts his tale, as the reader can’t help but say, “Really? All of Atlantis and Aquaman can’t do ANYTHING against these random guys who we’ve never heard of before?” It’s a drastically unsatisfying explanation, and it makes the Sea King look more than useless.
Back to our story, the power hungry Nebeur, unsurprisingly, isn’t satisfied with Atlantis, so he plans to conquer the surface world as well, with the help of the gas that the surfacemen themselves created. That’s really all they’ve got going for them. Nonetheless, the usurper king shames Aquaman and pushes him around as he takes control of Atlantis, but fortunately the apparently pathetic hero has allies that are more useful than he is in this story. Batman tells his fellow heroes of his suspicions about the missing gas and the absent Marine Marvel, and they split into teams to investigate. The Dark Knight goes in search of the missing Flash, while Hawkman and Superman go hunting for the chemical weapons and Green Lantern and the Atom try to contact Aquaman.
In a nice bit of detail, the Winged Wonder dons a pressure suit so he can travel into the deep, but the searching duo are attacked by the Pale People near their city. Superman saves a stunned Hawkman and returns to smash the Saremites’ weapons, with a little help from his airborne ally. Having solved part of the mystery, the pair head to Atlantis to meet up with their teammates.
Things are tense in the undersea city, with the Atlanteans feeling justifiably a trifle antsy about the whole ‘unconditional surrender’ thing. Green Lantern and Atom are attacked as they approach by the occupiers, but Hal’s power ring proves up to the challenge and silences the Atlantean artillery. When the heroes are attacked by gas shells (underwater, let’s remember), the Emerald Gladiator manages to bottle up the toxin while the Atom disables the launcher and captures the guard.
Just then the other pair arrive, and the Saremites, in desperation, turn the water pumps of Atlantis into a weapon, which is actually a really clever idea and a great extrapolation of the extant material. They expel all of the water from the domed city in a massive, crushing torrent, and the heroes are blown and battered by the flood, even Superman. Now, that’s a tad problematic, as anything that could take out the Man of Steel would probably kill the others, but I’ll give Friedrich a pass because balancing these power levels has got to be tough.
This is a cool sequence, and it includes a pretty clever idea, but it also reveals a huge problem for the whole ‘Atlantis is helpless against the gas’ angle. The whole city is under a water-tight dome! All the Atlanteans had to do was sit tight, and the Saremite’s weapons would have been completely useless. In a story where Friedrich is clearly thinking through a lot of his choices, this is a pretty glaring oversight. Nonetheless, the action doesn’t end there, as the Emerald Crusader uses his ring to shield the Man of Tomorrow, and the Kryptonian smashes his way into the Atlantean control center and knocks out the invaders manning it. With the pressure released, the heroes storm the city and take out the Saremite troops in a decent, if not spectacular, splash page.
The tyrant, Nebeur, tries to flee when he sees his troops defeated, but Aquaman finally does something useful and decks the would-be conqueror. Finally, the crisis is over, and the heroes begin to celebrate, but the Sea King berates them, noting that a death toll of 43 makes this anything but a bloodless victory, and blames the surfacemen for instigating the tragedy in the first place by being irresponsible with their weapons.
This is an interesting scene, as it tries to deal with the realistic costs of conflict, which are always too high. War is always a tragedy, even when it is a just necessity. While Aquaman is rather unfair to his teammates, the real trouble is that the moment is somewhat undercut by the weaknesses of the story. The tone is rather heavy handed as well, which is no surprise considering who our author is, but that is nothing compared to the overblown narration that follows.
The League return the Saremites, including their dead, to their city, and the desperate, directionless people gasp in wonder as the ‘Proof Rock’ comes back to life when the heroes approach it. They beg the Leaguers to rule them as their gods, but Hawkman steps forward and responds with an honestly intriguing speech. He declares that they have placed their faith in external sources, which have failed them, so they must turn within in their search for meaning, a very existentialist sermon (“existence precedes essence”). The comic ends with a distorted recreation of the Christian rite of the Eucharist, as the Thanagarian hero takes pieces of the ‘Proof Rock’ and administers them to the Pale People, saying “Take and eat of it, for this is the food of life.” Afterwards, back aboard the Satellite, the assembled League are discussing the case when suddenly Batman appears bearing a gravely wounded Flash! That’s quite a note to go out on!
The Hawkman sermon is…well, a slightly sacrilegious ending, but that doesn’t bother me too much since the symbolism is clear and clever (internalizing a once external source of meaning). It’s a really striking, provocative conclusion, and I am impressed that Friedrich is able to deliver it after the uneven story that precedes it. Essentially, Hawkman attempts to give the Saremites a new belief structure to replace that which they lost, which is a pretty huge move on his part. I suppose that the JLA doesn’t subscribe to the Prime Directive! Honestly, the gesture is quite fitting coming from the Winged Wonder, given the type of advanced, science-based culture that the Thanagarians evince, but I find myself a little troubled by it, purely on philosophical/theological grounds.
While I have a deep affection for existentialism, and I think it is a useful response to the weak, unexamined Epicureanism of the modern world, it is an ultimately flawed philosophy unless joined with Christianity, as in Kierkegaard ‘s work. When you remove external sources of objective morality, you’re eventually left with nothing more than enlightened self-interest as an ethics that can be rationally defended. That is a pretty poor ethical standard, and the moral relativism of the modern world reflects the reality of such a stance (even when it masquerades under the guise of adhering to an objective morality).
In terms of Friedrich’s references to Eliot’s “Prufrock,” I can’t decide if they are asinine or brilliant. You see, the poem, like much of Eliot’s work, is about the disillusionment, frustration, and indecision of modern life. The piece is one of the great standards of Modernism, capturing the ennui of the early 20th Century. Given the condition of American culture in 1971, with many people frustrated about the state of things but unable to decide how to get involved or how to create change, it is possible that this is a very insightful framing device…except for the fact that the story doesn’t really capitalize on it, and the supplied line seems to be chosen because of its aquatic theme rather than any interpretative power. The use of the “Proof Rock” in the alien city also confuses the issue.
It’s clearly a reference to ‘ol Prufrock, but its significance in the story seems to have little to do with poem, except insofar as the Pale People are lost and directionless with its destruction, as is ‘Prufrock’ himself. One way or another, this is certainly not the clear and effective literary allusion we saw in the Avengers story from a while back. It feels more like Friedrich showing off, but perhaps I’m being unfair. The unmoored, directionless narrator of Eliot’s poem certainly shares his uncertainty with the Saremites. Nonetheless, a much more effective allusion accompanies Hawkman’s sermon, as Friedrich includes a passage from William Carlos William’s “Spring and All.” The line and the poem at large deal with the perennial regrowth of nature, the power of spring to transform even the ugliest and harshest landscapes, symbolizing the power of life to recover from even the worst shocks. It’s a very fitting reference that adds to the scene. I’m not much for William’s poetry, but this works.
So, what do we make of this very unusual story? It is an ambitious comic, and Friedrich is really striving to create something significant and provocative. He falls short of most of his aims, but we have to give him credit for his aspirations. Yet, in order to get the message he wants across, he wrenches characters and concepts out of shape, turning Aquaman into an appeaser and a z-list alien race into a major threat without proper development. In the Vietnam era, where American forces were literally burning down and defoliating entire jungles in an attempt to pin down the Viet Cong, responsible use of weapons and accountability for them was a pretty pressing issue. (It just so happens that it remains so in a world of robotic drones bringing comfortably distant death from the skies.) Clearly, there is an attempt here to encourage the audience to grapple with this issue, and that is valuable. Despite its glaring problems of structure, characterization, and logic, Friedrich delivers a very memorable and (relatively) thoughtful comic here. Dick Dillin’s art is serviceable as usual. He renders the Pale People pretty well, but there are some awkward panels scattered about. There are a few places where the art doesn’t quite serve the story, but on the whole, he does a good job. In the end, I suppose this issue deserves 3.5 Minutemen, as its flawed efforts raise it slightly above the average, though I’m inclined to be merciless because of what Friedrich does to my favorite hero, Aquaman.
Mister Miracle #2
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta
Editor: Jack Kirby
After the heaviness of the previous comic, with its ambiguous literary allusions and downer elements, this next issue of Mr. Miracle’s rip-roaring adventures are a breath of fresh air. I’ve been looking forward to reading more of the super escape artist’s escapades, and the King did not disappoint with this one. I’ll save y’all the suspense: it’s a great comic, as are the bulk of this run. Yet, this has what is probably one of the weaker Mr. Miracle covers. Kirby has created a composition that hearkens back to his days at Marvel. Just look at all that cover copy! The central image, our hero facing the flying blades is great, and the peril is palpable, but there’s a lot of wasted space and cluttered text. Still, it is properly exciting, and the story inside lives up to its promise.
It begins the way this series often does, with Scott Free and his assistant Oberon working on a new escape for their show. At the moment, the pair are constructing an android, which the escape artist refers to as a “Follower,” that can mimic his movements. Interestingly, this entire scene is framed with the most Kirby panel dividers that have ever existed. Some unseen foe watches the proceedings and reports to a superior with sinister intent. The trick in the offing involves explosives, and Scott is using his duplicate to help him test it, but then their uninvited guest, a strange looking robot named Overlord, strikes, with devastating results.
Fortunately, the android takes the brunt of the blast, and Oberon comes to his friend’s rescue, fighting the resultant blaze. I’ve given Vinnie Colletta a lot of flak for his rushed and lazy inks on Kirby’s books, but I’ll give him due credit for this sequences, as he does a masterful job capturing the light and shadow of the flame and smoke. Amidst that obscuring smoke, Oberon discovers Scott, unharmed, thanks to the intervention of his Mother Box. The mysterious Mr. Miracle tells his friend that the box was hurt while protecting him, and he must help it heal by pouring “my love–my belief” into it. Okay? The machine remains an enigma.
Meanwhile, our scene changes to focus on a strange old woman surrounded by amazing machines and armored troops. When the soldiers question her about the mysterious machine, Overlord, she throws back her cloak to reveal battle armor and beats them viciously, declaring that the robot is precious to her. She adds that she wants to kill Scott Free and orders her troops to bring him to her. This is our first introduction to Granny Goodness, and it is fantastic. It’s really striking and funny to see this old woman just wail on all these vicious looking warriors, and Kirby draws her as a grotesque, frightening in her ugly rage.
Scott, for his part, is testing another act, recreating the cover image as he is strapped to a board facing a trio of razor-sharp spears, narrowly avoiding their strike. After his escape, Oberon begins to question him about his origins again, and I quite like his line: “Level with me, boy! You’re not from anyplace I ever heard of–are you–?” Their conversation gives us a nice touch of characterization for both of them, though it reveals little more about Scott, other than that he his on the run and arrived via ‘Boom Tube.’ Of course, folks reading the rest of Kirby’s books would recognize that term. After their talk, Granny’s soldiers arrive and, mistaking the android for Mr. Miracle, capture it and Oberon. Scott sees this and, recognizing the attackers, he takes off after them with flying devices called ‘Aero Disks.’ I’ve always loved this element of the character. When I’m walking a long way, I’ll occasionally daydream about having a pair of these myself!
Back at Granny’s base, her troops return with their catch, and you can imagine how well she takes it when she realizes they have been suckered. Just then, Mr. Miracle arrives in grand fashion and snags his assistant. Yet, their escape is short-lived, as Granny triggers a device, and the pair drop into something called….the X-Pit! The Pit involves a clear, glass-like cage bearing a number of buttons, which Mr. Miracle calls “a torment-circuit.” Sounds lovely! Kirby gives us a bit of awkward, fuzzy dialog here, but the heart of the trap is a series of tortures corresponding to each button, including flames, electricity, and choking mud. It’s a great sequence, and Kirby draws the heck out of it. The trap itself is pretty clever, as, each press of a button brings relief from one peril, only to replace it with another. That’s an insidious type of torture, giving you control over your own fate.
As Scott and Oberon face their desperate struggle for survival, Granny celebrates by having ‘Overlord’ brought out of her vault. We discover that the strange device is actually some type of “fabber,” or nano-fabricator, that can create nearly anything out of thin air. Think of the replicators from Star Trek. Of course, Kirby doesn’t describe it in those terms, as the idea was much less common and established in science fiction back in 1971. It does highlight the incredibly advanced technology of the New Gods. I mention all of this, because the King often likes to make such imaginative concepts central elements of his stories, even when they don’t have a major impact on the plot, and such is the case here.
Granny’s enjoyment of Overlord is rudely interrupted as Mr. Miracle makes another dramatic entrance, destroying the device. He explains that he kept trying different settings for the torment-circuit until he found a radiation attack, which he was able to channel into Mother Box to restore her power, and then he use her to send an energy spike into Overlord, who was hooked into everything in the X-Pit, frying him. Essentially thumbing his nose at the vicious old woman, the super-escape-artist takes off, admitting to Oberon that it was difficult for him to stand up to her…but we don’t yet entirely understand why!
This issue is just a blast. It establishes the pattern that most of the Mr. Miracle comics will follow, where we begin with our hero practicing an outlandish escape, have him be challenged by some of Darkseid’s minions and put into some type of fiendish trap, only to live up to his name and thwart their plans by escaping. It could get repetitive, but Kirby is endlessly creative and manages to throw so many strange and wondrous ideas at his readers that the formula doesn’t get boring, if memory serves. This particular story is just a lot of fun, with all kinds of outrageous threats facing our hero, some nice character work, and a really bizarre and memorable villain.
Granny Goodness really is a great addition to Kirby’s growing Fourth World. She’s a reversal of the archetypal motherly/grandmotherly figure, with her deceptive saccharine sweetness and her vicious cruelty. She fits perfectly into Darkseid’s world, and the fact that she is the model of how Apokolips interacts with the innocence and helplessness of childhood speaks volumes. The King’s art is, of course, great throughout, full of energy and bursting with imagination. Other than some clunky dialog and the fact that what exactly is going on with Overlord is left quite fuzzy, the issue has no real flaws, so I’m going to give it a boisterous and exciting 4.5 Minutemen.
P.S.: We have another text piece in this comic, this one about Mr. Miracle himself and Kirby’s prophetic imagination. It’s an interesting read!
The Phantom Stranger #13
“A Child of Death!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Joe Orlando
Cover Artist: Neal Adams
“The Devil’s Timepiece”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Tony DeZuniga
Inker: Tony DeZuniga
Editor: Joe Orlando
Brace yourselves, guys. This promising mystery tale takes a really bizarre left turn, with Kanigher pulling a crazy third act reveal. It actually starts out a really strong, promising Twilight Zone-esq tale, but that doesn’t last. Nonetheless, we’ve got a great cover for this one, creepy, mysterious, and intriguing. You’ve just got to pick this issue up and see what’s going on with this weird little kid!
The story inside starts well enough, with a scene straight off of the cover, wherein a scientist working in a remote facility is burning the midnight oil when he is startled by his grandson’s sudden arrival. The child points his toy pistol at the old man, says “Bang! Bang!” and suddenly the gramps crumples to the floor, dead! The narration is a bit heavy-handed, but the scene is pretty chilling, especially given the demonic cast Aparo brings to the boy’s cherubic features.
The next morning, the boy’s mother finds her stricken father dead, seemingly from heart failure, and we observe the fallout from his loss. He was the head of Project Thunderhead, some sort of nuclear weapons undertaking, and the team must choose a new director. There’s a bit of politicking, as an aged German scientist named Heinrich makes a play for the position buts get shot down, starting a plot thread that goes absolutely nowhere. At the slain scientist’s funeral, the Phantom Stranger appears, ruminating that there is a terrible secret in the grave. How mysterious!
A week later, the incident repeats itself, as the new head of the project, Dr. Kurasawa, meets the same fate when he visits the young boy, Freddy. Once more, Freddy points his toy gun and shouts “Bang! Bang!”, and once more, a man dies! The kid then continues to just carry on with his playing, violently, and his unconcern is really quite unnerving.
Meanwhile, Dr. Heinrich, who seems to be losing his mind, ranting about how he should be the director and clutching a pistol, has a dramatic confrontation with the Phantom Stranger that results in a fight. The struggle brings the rest of the crew running, and they think Heinrich is hallucinating because, of course, the Stranger is nowhere to be seen when they arrive. The aged German is sedated, and we get a strange scene where a female scientist named Dr. Clair has an encounter with Freddy but seems immune to his “shots.”
Three nights later, the boy creeps out of his bed once more, this time targeting his own father, the latest head of the project, but the Phantom Stranger intervenes, throwing his cloak over the child and pretending to be a newly arrived scientist. For some reason, the father doesn’t freak out because this strange man has his son wrapped up in his cloak…and also, wears a cloak. We learn that Freddy is adopted and unusually intelligent, and the Spectral Sleuth gives the scientist a clue about the strange deaths, noting that a set of computer banks shorted out when the other scientists were killed and that Freddy was in the room for each death.
Suddenly, the boy runs off into the night, and his father chases after him. Out in the stormy desert, Freddy turns on his adoptive father, and invisible energy flashes from his eyes. Only the Phantom Stranger’s intervening again saves the man’s life. And, this is where things just get weird. “Freddy” begins to explain his origins, claiming that his people were an Adamic race, living in an Edeninc world, free from strife or suffering, living in peace with all.
When the Ice Age came, they were driven underground, and after millennia in a subterranean world, their physiology changed, causing them to cease maturing around 4 years old. The creepy child is actually an adult, a mutant of this society, who developed the ability to kill with a glance. When subterranean nuclear tests began, this underground race was imperiled, and they dispatched their mutated members to infiltrate the various nuclear nations and sabotage their efforts in order to protect themselves. The story is absurd, but Aparo’s art is so lovely I almost want to see him draw a full comic about this craziness. Why didn’t anyone ever put him to work adapting some Edgar Rice Burroughs stories?
But let’s think about this plot for a moment. So…this guy somehow made his way to the surface, somehow ended up in an orphanage where the scientist and his wife just happened to come looking for a child, and somehow just happened to be adopted. It’s…a bit of stretch, even without getting into the gonzo antediluvian child-culture that Kanigher pulled out of left field. Regardless of how silly or strange the setup is, the story doesn’t end there. After his explanation, “Freddy” flees from the recovered Stranger, who meets Dr. Clair in his pursuit, only to have her revealed as Tala! She gives her usual ‘join me and we shall rule the galaxy together’ spiel, but he brushes her off. The Stranger chases his quarry back to the caverns from which he emerged, but the kid…err…guy, runs straight into a nuclear test! Despite the scientist’s protestations that “we don’t mean to kill,” our mysterious hero responds with a weird, heavy-handed ‘ye who are without sin, cast the first stone,’ bit about pollution and such that doesn’t entirely makes sense in context.
This is a weird one, and not in the usual and positive style of macabre mystery that suits the Phantom Stranger. There’s just too much going on here. The bizarre, fun-sized subterranean race is just an odd concept that doesn’t really work, at least without more space to breath, aside from how incongruous the whole thing is with the story actually being told. The slowly unfolding mystery of the kid’s powers is really fairly exciting. It’s just a shame it doesn’t have a better payoff. The whole story just feels messy, with the random, dropped plot thread of the jealous German and Tala’s equally random appearance. I’m also becoming fairly certain that the DC writers had never actually met a human child. The little boy in this story speaks in the same type of bizarre third person pidgin as ‘Superbaby’ from his ridiculous adventure in Action Comics #399, except that this is even worse, because this kid is supposed to be four years old! I don’t think any child has ever actually spoken this way, but by four, I would hope that a kid would be a bit more clear-spoken than this!
Of course, the adventure isn’t all bad, and it is notable for the fact that it contains a fairly decent, if oddly delivered, critique of nuclear proliferation. I was really surprised to see this type of social issue show up here, especially in 1971. I thought it would probably take a bit longer for the nuclear issue to really reach the zeitgeist the way it had when I was a boy. The whole M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction) concept was everywhere in the 80s, so it’s interesting to see it showing up this early, at least in some fashion. The message here is as messy as the yarn that carries it, but it does manage to make its central premise clear. ‘If we have enough bombs to destroy the world, why do we need more?’ Of course, it makes that point in a random aside with a minor character, so take that for what it’s worth. This is certainly an unusual subject for a comic, so that’s worth noting. Unfortunately, on its own merits, there isn’t much to recommend this confused jumble of a story, even with Aparo’s always-lovely art. I’ll give it 2 Minutemen.
“The Devil’s Time-Piece”
Dr. Thirteen continues to hold down the backup slot here, and he gets another solo adventure. I prefer these, on the whole, as using him too often in the Phantom Stranger’s stories just tends to make him annoying and repetitive. On his own, he gets a chance to actually win a few rounds instead of constantly losing to and being embarrassed by his otherworldly opposite number. Kanigher’s short adventures often prove better than his longer efforts in headline-tale, but this one isn’t as clear cut a winner as some. It begins with Dr. Thirteen attending a secret occult auction, apparently just to mock all of the superstitious fools gathered to bid. One of his friends, Bentley, buys an antique clock with a Satanic theme, and the auctioneer offers some cryptic warnings about the object. Oddly, he also says that the clock needs to be wound every hour. What kind of a clock needs winding every hour? That would be maddening!
Nonetheless, upon winding the clock for the first time at home, Thirteen’s friend sees a devilish figure leap out of the artifact and proceeds to plunge its trident into his chest! Later, the good Doctor arrives to find his friend dead. He investigates the scene, and in a nice piece of detective work, he reconstructs the setup, reasoning that Bentley wound the clock before he died. Doing so himself, Terry gets quite a surprise, as the same Satanic figure leaps out of the object and attacks him!
Disoriented, Dr. Thirteen realizes that the clock released some sort of gas, but he still manages to defend himself. Finally, his attacker falls upon his own weapon, dying, and the Doctor puts the pieces together. He realizes that this man was the auctioneer and that his father was sentenced to death on the strength of Bentley’s testimony, so he was out for revenge. The murderer hid in the clock (which seems rather small for that) and rigged it to release a gas when wound. Wearing nose filters, he sprang out and killed his victim…and then, apparently got back in the clock, rather than making his escape…for some reason.
It’s a bit of a stretch, this whole setup. Watching Dr. Thirteen solve the mystery is entertaining, and his fight with the demon-dressed villain is pretty good, but the murderer’s plot is a bit out there. Apparently he posses as an auctioneer when his victim just happens to go to this random occult auction, or he actually is an auctioneer and takes advantage of the very unlikely coincidence of this fellow coming to his secret auction. Either way, it’s a rather elaborate plan. Of course, to a certain extent, you can excuse that because this is a comic story, but Kanigher doesn’t quite manage the great backup pacing he often pulls off. This one is just too rushed, with the fight and the explanation literally happening simultaneously. It must be easy to solve crimes when the criminals scream their confessions at you as soon as they see you. “I DID IT WITH THE CANDLESTICK IN THE LIBRARY! ARREST MEEEEE!” I suppose this is a moderately entertaining read, despite its problems, and the gas-induced devil hallucinations are rather cool, so I’ll give it 3 Minutemen.
With Dr. Thirteen’s capture of the crimson cloaked killer, we reach the end of this post. I found this trio of comics a particularly fascinating read, and I hope that y’all enjoy my commentary! We’ve got rather a lot of awkward social consciousness on display here, though it isn’t as well done as that we saw earlier this month. I’m curious if the rest of the month will hold any more. Thank you for joining me, and please come back soon for another stop along our journey Into the Bronze Age! Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!
Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.
Detective Comics #412
“Legacy of Hate”
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Bob Brown
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: Ben Oda
Editor: Julius Schwartz
Cover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Don Heck
Inker: Don Heck
Letterer: Ben Oda
Editor: Julius Schwartz
Under this pretty excellent cover, beautifully drawn by Neal Adams, we have a very conventional yarn. The cover composition is exciting, with our hero facing mortal peril in a nicely rendered and atmospheric image that has the added benefit of actually occurring in the comic. The headline tale is, despite its medieval trappings, a rather hackneyed plot, and though I can’t put my finger on it, I think I have read another Batman story that was extremely similar.
It’s another murder mystery in a castle, and on that front, this story hearkens back to the first Dr. Darrk story, only six issues ago. Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable enough read. It begins with an old mystery device, as Bruce Wayne receives notice that a distant relative, Lord Elwood Wayne, is dying at the ancestral Wayne estate in England, though I’m fairly certain that we’ve never really had any mention of such family ties in Batman’s backstory. Nonetheless, it’s the standard setup, an ailing relation, the gathering of the distant family from the four corners of the world, related, but unknown to one another, and a spooky locale for setting. Bruce heads to England to answer the summons and meets Wilhemina Wayne, an orphan from South Africa, Rev. Emelyn Wayne “a missionary among the unenlightened Asian ‘heathen,'” and Jeremy Wayne, an Australian ranch hand.
To add to the atmosphere, they are picked up in a hearse (the weather being too bad for horse and carriage) and driven to an imposing old castle on a stormy night, there greeted by an equally imposing butler, Asquith, a descendant of the servant of the original inhabitant of the ancient pile. During the journey, the grim driver tells the gathered Waynes that the place is haunted by the murdered first lord of the estate, Lord Harold. Once arrived, they meet the aged Lord Wayne and his friend and physician, but the meeting is necessarily brief.
They are informed that the estate will be split between them, and any accidents will divide it among the survivors. A perfect setup for intrigue, of course. That night, Bruce is having a drink with ‘Mina,’ because of course he is, when suddenly she sees a figure in medieval armor on the battlements! The millionaire comforts the girl and pretends he saw nothing, but he gets into costume, once again endangering his secret identity beyond all bounds (I wonder if the guy from Gotham has anything to do with the hero from the same city showing up here in the middle of nowhere..), and begins an investigation.
The Dark Knight hears a scream as he prowls about and arrives in Mina’s room, only to find himself confronting the armored figure of a strange intruder! After a skirmish in which that very armor proves very handy against hand-attacks, his opponent escapes. The Caped Crusade continues his search, wondering which of the gathered family and friends could be masquerading as a phantom. He hears sounds of a struggle coming from the Aussie’s room and kicks the door in to discover the man, lightly wounded, but alive, having fended off another attack, and the hero sets off again in pursuit.
After stopping to stage his bed to make it seem like Bruce Wayne is sleeping….while everyone else in the castle is running around like crazy, because that will be foolproof, the Caped Crusader hears another cry from Mina. Her door was locked, but someone was trying to force it. Pursuing the culprit into the marsh outside, the Dark Knight suddenly finds himself in desperate straits, stuck in the muck and being charged by a spurious spectral knight with a lance. The strike seems to go home, and the warrior rides on, crying out that his vengeance can now begin.
Yet, Batman lives! He snatched up a tree branch and used it as a shield, though the impact almost knocked him out. He rushes to the castle armory, thinking that he knows the supposed spirit’s identity. There he confronts “Lord Harold,” and after a quick battle, the armored figure is unmasked as…Asquith?! The spooky butler speaks in a strange voice, claiming to be Harold and saying that he was wreaking just vengeance.
The batty-butler leads the Masked Manhunter to a hidden chamber where the real Harold’s brother had imprisoned him to usurp his title, and then, bizarrely, the sepulchral voice declares that Asquith has failed him, and the servant simply dies…yet the voice briefly continues, promising to continue its quest for revenge! The story ends with Batman making notes about the case, pointing out that Lord Wayne had died that same night and pondering if this were a case of haunting or madness.
This is a solid enough murder mystery, but it has too many characters and too little space to be entirely successful. Batman figures out the culprit on very thin evidence, noting that none of the relatives would have vengeance as a motive, despite the fact that, rationally, neither would Asquith. The art is nicely atmospheric, and there are several fittingly Gothic moments, especially the showdown in the swamp. Bob Brown does a good job throughout, rendering some nicely dramatic images and doing some good work on the various supporting characters, giving them personality, despite their lack of development. Perhaps most notably, he really works to create a well-realized setting, putting a lot of detail into panel backgrounds and giving the old castle a real sense of presence. In general, there’s more show than there is stay to this story, but it is still an enjoyable enough read. It is very familiar, but the confirmation of an actual haunting makes it a bit more original than most of this type, though I wish they had left the ending just a tad more ambiguous. I’ll give this one an average 3 Minutemen.
Our Batgirl backup certainly can’t be accused of being unoriginal this month! It has one of the more unique murder weapons I’ve encountered in comics. The tale begins with a woman awakening screaming, and the next morning the papers carry the headline that a wealthy socialite divorcee was mysteriously killed, her “head cracked like an egg!” The same morning, breakfast at Commissioner Gordon’s house sees he and his daughter sharing a meal. The head cop is baffled by the crime, but he reveals that the victim had a thing for wigs, which, according to Babs, is no clue at all because “What now-gal doesn’t dig wigs!” Yikes, that slang! Anyway, this gives Jim a clue, but for his daughter’s birthday, not the crime. He offers to let her pick out a wig, for which he’ll foot the bill.
That day, Babs visits “Vazly,” the most fashionable wig-maker in town, where she and another divorced socialite happen to come in for fittings at the same time. Ironically, they both pick out the same style, which causes the fiendish fashion-monger some concern. It seems that he and his assistant are using their wigs to blackmail wealthy young women, fitting the headgear with an ingenious mechanism that can cause it to constrict with devastating power. If they mix up the wigs and should accidentally target the police commissioner’s daughter, that could spell trouble, but they are careful to arrange them.
Unfortunately, “Fate steps in,” and a cleaning woman tries on a few of the wigs and mixes up the two in question, and the dangerous one goes to our red-haired heroine. Following the instructions that came with it, she sleeps in the wig, only to awaken in agony at the touch of a control by Vazly’s assistant. Babs calls the wig-maker, and he tells her he will happily take it off, if only she’ll cough up $100,000. In a pain-induced panic, the young librarian scrapes up the meager funds she can and heads to his shop, but when she arrives, the would-be blackmailers discover their mistake.
They play the whole event off, easily removing the wig and telling the confused Miss Gordon that she must have dreamt the whole thing, yet they plan to kill her once she is safely away from their headquarters. The fire-tressed female doesn’t play their game, however, having seen a cracked dummy head in the trash and put the pieces together. She arrives in costume to confront them moments later and lets them know the jig is up. She clocks Vazly, but his assistant plops a wig on her head and triggers the constriction. Dun dun DUN!
This is certainly a new angle, though it rather defies belief. I have to think that a mechanism that would make a wig constrict with bone-crushing force might just be detectable…but then again, it works in a comic book-y kind of way, so I’m willing to give it a pass. After all, this is the kind of ridiculous, over-the-top plot that makes comics great. Vazly looks suitably sinister, and the mix-up with our heroine is a quick way to get her into the mix. This story does suffer a bit from its lack of space, being only seven pages. Still, it’s an entertaining read, one that once again matches Batgirl up against a fashion-felon, which might be a bit much, with two tales in a row. I’ll give this one 3 Minutemen.
The Flash #207
“The Evil Sound of Music!”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Cover Artist: Neal Adams
“Phantom of the Cafeteria”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Dick Giordano
Well, what do you know? Kanigher leaves The Flash, and we finally get an issue that is really enjoyable. It even features a supervillain, after a fashion, and ahead of schedule! We actually get a foe worthy of the Flash earlier than I expected, just judging by the covers that awaited us, which makes this issue a pleasant surprise. Speaking of covers, this one does the story within no favors. It’s got a nicely creepy looking monster, but it suffers from the Flash’s weird pose and the fact that, even with the cover copy, the scene isn’t exactly clear. It’s just not a very effective image, not doing the tale it represents justice.
And that tale is actually a fun read. It begins with the World’s Fastest Man in a hurry, leaving monitor duty on the JLA Satellite to race home and pick his wife up for a rock concert. Yet, as the Allens prepare, we visit with a sinister looking figure in a darkened room, pouring over ancient books. This is Sargon the Sorcerer, former Golden Age mystic hero turned current villain…sort of. It’s a bit complicated. Apparently he appeared back in issue #186 in his not-so-triumphant return to the DCU, wherein he clashed with the Flash. It seems that he is out to regain his lost mystic gem, the Ruby of Life, which is the source of most of his powers. He also wants revenge on the Speedster, who thwarted his last efforts.
Back in the Allen household, we get a cute scene between Barry and Iris, as Mrs. Allen notes that her husband, usually a slowpoke out of costume, can’t stand still when music is playing. He teases her because, for once, she has made them late with her ruminations. Apparently the couple are bound for a rock concert, headlined by the oh-so-cleverly named “Washington Starship.” I wonder who that might reference…! The lead singers just happen to be named Paul and Grace. Anyway, Barry and Iris arrive just in time, thanks to a dose of super speed, and it is a super psychedelic show, accompanied by Friedrich’s narration, which is almost touching and insightful but manages to be just a little too pompous and overblown to be successful.
During the concert, Sargon strikes, using his magic to turn the music into a psychic attack, which panics the crowd and paralyzes the band. While the unflappable Iris stays behind to cover the unfolding story, the Scarlet Speedster springs into action, using his powers to pull the crazed crowd out of the venue and prevent anyone from being trampled. Given the then recent history of tragedies at concerts, this scene has a little extra significance, with the hero preventing events from going bad in the ways they had before, a type of cathartic, escapist fiction that is very much part of the purpose of comics.
Yet, after the concert-goers have escaped, Sargon steps in again, seizing control of the Speedster and sending him to retrieve the Ruby of Life from a special vault in the Flash Museum. The sinister Sorcerer looks positively evil as he places the jewel upon his brow and revels in his returned power. While he is distracted, his spell over Flash ends, and the hero and the guitarist, Paul, both find themselves watching helplessly as the malicious music-spawned monsters menace their lady loves. Each of them strains mightily and overcomes the siren song, but only Flash has the speed to save his girl.
But they are not the only ones observing this tragedy-in-the-making, and Sargon looks on in horror as his spell spins out of control. We discover that Grace is actually his niece, and while Flash saves Iris, the magician intercedes to rescue the songstress. The Sorcerer tries to apologize to the young woman, but she will hear none of it, and he departs in despair. The tale ends by checking in with each of our characters a little later, with Iris taking care of a slightly ruffled Barry, Paul happily reporting that Grace and their unborn baby have a clean bill of health, and Sargon himself contemplating how he has come to such a state, willing to use his own niece in his quest for power.
This is a surprisingly good story. I have grown to rather dread these Flash comics, but this one is a fun and interesting read. Mike Friedrich doesn’t get as sappy and melodramatic as he sometimes can, though the comic is rather overwritten in his customary style, with the narration during the concert being particularly purple. Speaking of his writing, this entire issue is a love letter to the music of the era, with the obvious reference to Jefferson Starship setting the tone, but Friedrich gives us a lot more than that. He also sprinkles song titles throughout the entire issue. I counted nine different songs, but it’s possible I missed some. They are:
- “White Rabbit”
- “Homeward Bound”
- “The Sound of Silence”
- “Come Together”
- “Penny Lane”
- “Let It Be”
- “My Sweet Lord”
- “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”
- “Down This Lonesome Road”
We’ve got some Jefferson Airplane, of course, as well as plenty of Beatles and even some Simon and Garfunkel. What an interesting collection! This is a fun little set of Easter eggs, but they come at a cost, as Friedrich can’t quite slip all of them in naturally. Thus, his desire to include these references sometimes results in some rather awkward and tortured sounding dialog. Still, I found the whole thing charming, and it is an unusually direct glimpse of the impact of the culture on the comics of the day.
In terms of the plot itself, it was nice to see the Flash actually face a foe that was something of a threat to him, and I found myself fairly fascinated by Sargon. I’m really curious to know what his story is and what he’s after. I quite liked that we got only hints about him and that he escaped, not unmarked by his experience, but uncaptured by our hero. His brief moments of characterization are intriguing, and I look forward to seeing what comes of them. I also enjoyed the little character moments between Barry and Iris, with her evincing a more classic taste in music and the like. I wouldn’t really expect ‘ol square Barry to be into the rock scene in 71, but it leads us to a fun tale, so I can buy it.
Irv Novick does a great job with Sargon and some of the more bizarre, otherworldly elements of the art here, especially the music monsters, but there are a few moments where his work doesn’t quite capture the drama of a scene, like in the climax of the story where the sequence of the two struggling paramours and Sargon’s intervention could probably have used a bit more space to breath. Still, on the whole, he turns in a nice looking comic with some real personality and emotion to it. I suppose I’ll give this enjoyable little rock ‘n romp 3.5 Minutemen.
“The Phantom of the Cafeteria”
It looks like we’re going to have Kid Flash and Elongated Man trade off for the backup slot in The Flash, which is fine by me. This month, we get an interesting little Kid Flash tale that has some familiar elements. It begins with our fleet young friend, Wally West, pondering the dilemma of hiding his super speed in the cafeteria line at school, where he finds himself last, which is worth a chuckle. Suddenly, food starts disappearing right off of kids’ plates, and there’s not a sign of the culprit! Someone starts screaming about ghosts, which, in the DCU, is not all that far-fetched, but Wally keeps his head. He calms down the students, even getting commended by the principal later on, but he continues to wonder about what happened. When a pretty young lady asks him about their date that night at the “peace rally,” he’s so distracted that he temporarily forgets about it.
Fortunately, he’s quick with an excuse as well as with his feet, and that night he’s at the rally when more food starts to go missing. Wondering if the thief might be someone else with super speed, the Fastest Boy Alive gets into costume and races about in search, spotting another speedster and giving chase! Despite being knocked aside by the blurred figure, Kid Flash isn’t to be discouraged and eventually finds a trail of food wrappers and other trash which lead him to a small, amphibious looking alien, passed out before a cliff-face.
Thinking quickly, Wally determines that this creature is some type of unknown lifeform with an incredibly fast metabolism that moves at super speed. It is emaciated and must have been starving, stealing food to survive. Noticing a recent rock-slide, Kid Flash drills through into a cave system, and just then, the creature comes to and speeds into the cavern. Theorizing that the being was a youth from a strange subterranean race that came out to explore, only to get trapped by the rock-slide, Wally seals the entrance and cleans up after the unusual but harmless visitor.
This seven page tale lacks the great pacing and jam-packed content of one of Kanigher’s Robin backups, but it tells a complete if somewhat underdeveloped story. The setup is a tad familiar as well. I know The Flash had encountered various super-speedster aliens from time to time in such mysteries, but this version does have the charm of involving Kid Flash and his youthful setting, starting in the school and the like. We’ve also got a nod towards realism, with the subterranean stranger’s appearance helping to explain its powers. I’m wondering if Skeates is thinking about trying to do some world-building in these backups the way Kanigher has managed in his Robin tales. It will be interesting to see if the red-headed Dana makes a return later on.
It’s also notable that our young hero is seen going to a peace rally in this book, positioning him fairly clearly with the youth anti-war movement. While his fellow Titan, the Teen Wonder, has been around the outskirts of such events, he’s maintained a certain neutrality. While such politics were certainly not the focus of this story, it’s fascinating that the rally is featured here incidentally but deliberately. Anyway, I suppose I’ll give this entertaining mini-mystery 3 Minutemen, as it doesn’t have quite enough substance to warrant more.
And with the super-speed sortie of Kid Flash behind us, we will write finis to this post. We had a solid set of books here, nothing groundbreaking or of enduring fame, like last post’s introduction of R’as Al Ghul, but we do have some interesting evidence of growing cultural influence and some efforts at building continuity and creating ongoing plotlines in The Flash. I hope that you enjoyed my commentaries and that you’ll join me again soon for another step on our journey Into the Bronze Age! Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!
- The Ed Sullivan Show aired its final episode, ending an era of entertainment
- Soyuz 11 takes 3 cosmonauts to Salyut 1 space station, but crew found dead on return
- Willie Mays hits 22nd and last extra inning home run
- North Vietnam demands U.S. end aid to the South
- US ends ban on China trade
- The New York Times begin publishing excerpts from the Pentagon Papers, classified documents on the long history of the U.S. in Vietnam
- An Orange Order march causes a riot in Londonderry in North Ireland
- Various groups boycott the opening of the North Ireland Parliament
- International Court of Justice asks South Africa to pull out of Namibia
- Supreme Court overturns draft evasion conviction for Muhammad Ali
- Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Keith Richards sentenced on drug charges
- Notable films: Le Mans and McCabe and Mrs. Miller
The ending of the Ed Sullivan Show seems to me to mark the ending of a certain element of innocence in American entertainment. Can you imagine a TV host today that had so little screen presence? Well, aside from Jimmy Fallon, but clearly that talentless personality black hole made a deal with the devil. It’s the only way to explain his career. At any rate, that event shares this month with a new tragedy in the Space Race, as several cosmonauts die during a mission. Of course, tragedies are in no short supply on Earth itself, and Ireland continues to bleed, while tensions continue to rise. It’s a shame that the turmoil on the planet was mirrored, in a fashion, in space. On a lighter note, the ‘sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll’ reputation of the genre is further cemented by the antics of the Stones. I imagine this isn’t the last time such a thing would happen. It’s an interesting month, all told.
The top song this month and into the next is Carole King’s “It’s Too Late,” which I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever heard. That’s unusual. It’s rather melancholy song about the end of a relationship, which seems somehow fitting for this month.
Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.
Action Comics #401
“Invaders Go Home”
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Editor: Murray Boltinoff
“The Boy Who Begged to Die!”
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Editor: Murray Boltinoff
It seems last month’s Lois Lane issue was not a fluke, but rather presaged something in the zeitgeist. We start off this month with another comic story depicting the plight of Native Americans, and penned by Leo Dorfman of all people. I have to say, I wasn’t expecting this. The comic has a provocative cover, showing the Man of Steel defeated and helpless before a band of tribesmen. Interestingly enough, this image is not a cheat, but of course, it doesn’t tell the whole tale.
The story begins with Clark Kent using his ‘mobile news room’ to cover the anniversary of of statehood for an unnamed region in the southwest where a train is carrying tourists to a celebration. Suddenly Indians appear, armed with bows and arrows, braves on motorbikes! Mr. Mild Mannered thinks its part of the show until they start firing arrows at the cars and he sees a fire on a bridge ahead.
Shifting into Superman, he carries the locomotive to safety, only to discover that the flames were just a harmless slogan, part of some type of public stunt on behalf of the local tribespeople. The motorized raiders take off, but the Man of Steel is able to trail them easily enough, smashing into the cliff in which they’re hiding and confronting them. Yet, he finds that their leader is a man named Don Hawks, now going by Red Hawk, who was a leading astrophysicist. The young man has come home to help his people, and he takes the Man of Tomorrow on a tour of their plight today, showing him the pitiful state of their tribe. The fiery leader explains that all of the surrounding region used to be theirs, but the white settlers had stolen it all from them.
In a scene evocative of Kanigher’s great racial story, we then visit an improvised Indian classroom where the children, and Superman, are given an education on proud heritage of the people to counteract the negative stereotypes to which they’ve been exposed. Interestingly, the beautiful teacher, Moon Flower (sounds more hippie than Hopi), teaches her students about the technological achievements of native populations like agriculture and the Mayan calendar, but she also mentions their own mythical superman, Montezuma. Now, I figured this was just Dorfman talking out of his hat, making up ‘Indian superstitions,’ but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there is a legend surrounding Montezuma II. He apparently became the focus for many southerly tribes’ legends about the ‘King in the Mountain’ archetype. Most cultures have such a legend, regarding a famous king who will return at an appointed hour to save or to avenge, like King Arthur for Britain or Frederick I in Germany. Apparently Dorfman actually did a bit of research for this story. Color me impressed.
Anyway, after his education and tour, the Man of Steel is, naturally, much more sympathetic to the native people’s troubles. Finally, Red Hawk takes the hero to “Montezuma’s Castle,” a massive plateau that is sacred to his people but has been taken over as a rocket testing site for a major company (oh-so-cleverly bearing the acronym G.R.A.B.). The Metropolis Marvel wants to help, but despite his efforts to mediate, the president of the company, Frank Haldane, refuses to budge, insisting that their weather studies have shown that this is the perfect location for their projects.
Just then, Red Hawk’s uncle, Old Snake, the medicine man of the tribe, appears and promises to drive the white men away with magic, using mystic sand paintings. The impatient young man will have none of his uncle’s superstitions, however, and when Superman flies away laughing, he is deeply shamed by what seems like contempt for his people’s ignorance. Yet, it seems Old Snake is as clever as subtle as his namesake, and his painting of lightning brings a massive storm. Only the Man of Steel’s timely arrival saves the base. The hero repairs the damage, earning the ire of Red Hawk, who resents this apparent betrayal, though Moon Flower is more sympathetic, seeing that his is only doing his duty.
Next, Old Snake apparently summons a tornado, but once again the Man of Tomorrow intervenes to prevent damage. It is then that we learn that he and the medicine man have been in cahoots, with the Kryptonian actually creating the disasters in order to drive the rocket company away. Of course, he also feels obligated to fix what he breaks, but he’s hoping that they will wear the stubborn Haldane down. Their last gambit, creating an earthquake, might have been successful, but Old Snake is, after all, quite an old snake, and he dies of a heart attack during the excitement. The GRAB folks are relieved, but Red Hawk unexpected declares that he has learned his uncle’s secrets and will carry on his work. He invites Superman to come to their camp that night in order to show him.
When the Action Ace arrives, he is confronted by another sand painting in the form of his shield and a strange red jewel. Red Hawk declares that he has used his magic to sap the hero’s powers and his men jump the astonished Kryptonian who suddenly finds himself unable to resist. They truss him up, and the story ends with the native leader declaring that they will trade Superman for their land!
There is a lot going on in this comic. On the one hand, Dorfman is engaging in the traditional, ‘all Indians are the same’ trope in some ways, as with the train attack, evoking as it does the classic cowboys and Indians stories that were about Plains tribes. Still, since some of those elements were meant to be part of a publicity stunt, it isn’t as bad as it might be. On the other hand, Dorfman is using a pastiche tribe, the Navarros, as opposed to a real people group, and thus he avoids misrepresenting a real tribe. He also includes traits that are indicative of southwestern tribes, like the sandpainting. But he blends those with mythology that has more to do with Mexican and Central American peoples, with the Montezuma legends. It’s a bit of a mess, but it is clear that his heart is in the right place, and the result is certainly less sloppy than Kanigher’s recent effort.
Dorfman gives us a positive overview of native peoples, stressing their development and the fact that they weren’t just ‘savages.’ He also sympathetically portrays their modern plight and their extremely legitimate grievances with the folks who stole their land. Notably, Superman is unable to simply resolve the conflict. His powers, which he willingly uses to aid the righteous underdog here, at the expense of the rich and powerful, are still not sufficient to solve the problem. This, as fantastical as his efforts are, results in a more mature, effective story.
It’s a solid tale on its own merits, featuring common and enjoyable Superman plot devices, but given the social agenda that it promotes and the attempt, however uneven, at accuracy and respect, it is more than the sum of its parts. Swan’s art is great, as usual, but he really does a great job with some of the unusual parts of the tale, like the poverty and despair evident in the Navarro village, and, to his great credit, he generally depicts the tribesmen wearing at least some modern clothing, which immediately sets this comic apart from the last Indian yarn. All told, I’ll give it 4 Minutemen, as it is a moderately provocative, at least slightly challenging story, especially for 1971. I’m quite surprised it came from ‘dopey Dorfman,’ who usually tells pretty silly stories.
“The Boy Who Begged to Die”
The backup tale for this issue is also quite provocative. It presents our hero with an intriguing ethical quandary, which is the type of story device that I always enjoy. It begins with the crash of a small meteorite in the center of a small town called Masonville. Superman, flying over, happens to see the commotion and comes to investigate. He waves the crowd back and does the natural thing for him, examining the hunk of space junk with his x-ray vision, but this turns out to be a fatal mistake! The radiation from his vision (which contradicts at least one explanation for how those powers work, I’m sure) triggers a reaction in the rock, turning it into a drastically unstable bomb. He can’t move without triggering a massive explosion, so he orders an evacuation of the town.
The people flee, trusting in the Man of Steel, and soon they are outside a mile perimeter, and not a moment too soon, because the hero realizes that the reaction is increasing, and thus the yield of the explosion will increase as well. Just then, a young man with a broken leg limps slowly up the Metropolis Marvel, wondering where everyone is. After a quick explanation, the boy, who was in the basement of the orphanage and was forgotten in the hurried evacuation, realizes that, hobbled as he is, he could never escape from the blast in time. What’s more, every moment Superman delays in detonating the meteorite–turned-bomb, the larger the radius will be and the more danger to the townsfolk.
Displaying incredible courage, the young man insists that Superman do what he must, choose the greater good over his single life, and detonate the bomb. The Action Ace is paralyzed by indecision. He can’t bring himself to willingly kill this boy, yet he knows that if he doesn’t, thousands more could die. This is a great moral puzzle for the Man of Steel, but his motivations are a bit off. Instead of focusing just on the boy’s life, he thinks about his vow to stop hero-ing if he takes a life and the consequences of that, which is a little immature reasoning.
Nonetheless, the situation is one of great tension, and the youth decides to take matters into his own hands, taking responsibility for his death upon himself as he tries to set the rock off by hitting it. Yet, his efforts are too little (which does rather make me think that Superman could perhaps have flown it away, but that’s neither here nor there). Finally, in an effort to force the Kryptonian’s hand, the young man takes his cape to create a noose. Just then, Superman drops the meteorite, creating a powerful explosion that just barely misses destroying the huddled townsfolk.
After the debris clears, we discover that, as he always does, Superman found a third way. Inspired by seeing the boy carrying his invulnerable cape, the Man of Tomorrow used his super breath to blow the cape around the youth, then detonated the bomb, trusting in the Kryptonian fabric to protect the young man. It works, and the boy survives, though he is badly injured. Superman rushes him to the hospital, and we get a happy ending.
This is a pretty great story for only seven pages. It puts Superman in a genuinely challenging situation, one which his powers cannot outright solve, which is always a good source of dramatic tension for the incredibly powerful character. I really enjoyed the fact that the Man of Steel was unwilling to sacrifice even one life, even to save thousands. That’s the core of the character right there. There are only really three flaws.
The kid is a bit too willing, even anxious to die. I can certainly see a virtuous and courageous young man coming to that decision, but it should have brought with it at least a little turmoil. This youth seemed positively chipper about annihilation. In the same vein, Superman’s anguished reaction misses the emotional core of the moment, focusing on his future career rather than the guilt of taking a life. Finally, the protective powers of the cape are really a bit ridiculous if they can survive the explosion we’re shown here. No matter how invulnerable the cape is, the kid inside would be jelly! Of course, Bates only had seven pages to work with, and he fit a lot in. So, we’ve got a tale with impressive aspirations and a great concept, though it is a bit immature in execution. It’s still a good read, so I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.
Adventure Comics #407
Writer: Mike Sekowsky
Penciler: Mike Sekowsky
Inker: Henry Scarpelli
Editor: Mike Sekowsky
While this month’s Superman stories present us with engaging and challenging moral dilemmas, this week’s Supergirl tale attempts to follow suit…with rather less success. This issue of Adventure is quite a convoluted journey. Unfortunately, it’s continuing the rather pointless plotline from the last issue, with ‘Nasty’ Luthor still trying to find concrete proof of Supergirl’s secret identity, as if she is a cop instead of a supervillain. Last I checked, due process just doesn’t mean that much to megalomaniacs bent on world domination. The issue does have a fairly nice cover, the standard dramatic confrontation angle, with a hidden (though obvious) figure challenging our heroine with knowledge of her secret. Though Linda’s figure is a tad awkward, it’s otherwise a nice looking cover, with the unusual angle of looking out from the closet.
The tale inside begins where the last left off, with Linda Danvers in the hospital following her undercover heroics in the burning building. With her super powers returning and her wounds healing, the girl knows she must escape before she is examined, and the arrival of a critically injured police officer provides her with the opportunity she needs. Notably, the officer is black, which is a little detail that you wouldn’t have seen that long ago. There’s also a funny little scene where Linda, clad only in a stolen sheet, hails a cab, and the unflappable cabbie doesn’t even bat an eye.
Back at the office, Linda is greeted as a hero, but Nasty’s suspicions continue. Yet, celebrations are short-lived, as there is a new story in the offing. A man named Renard has come to them with a mystery he wants their help to solve. He’s recently bought a reputedly haunted theater, and it has been plagued by strange occurrences, so he wants the news crew to bring their cameras down and find the culprit…which really seems less like a new crew’s job than a private detective’s job…or you know, the Ghostbusters! “Who you gonna’ call?” Random reporters, apparently.
Johnny, Nasty, and Linda head to the theater that night and set up different camera posts to cover the place with high-tech film gear in the hopes of snaring the would-be specter. As the night rolls on, the silence of the place is split by a scream, as Nasty observes Johnny being carted off by a grisly-looking phantom. Of course, the villainess is just waiting for such an opportunity to catch Supergirl in the act. Just like her cousin, the Maid of Might is facing a terrible choice, intervene and reveal her secret or do nothing and leave her friend to an unknown fate. So, she does what any hero worth their salt would do and finds a third way…ohh, wait…no she doesn’t. She just sits there and watches her friend get abducted, possibly sacrificing his life to protect her secret.
This is a huge problem. The character rationalizes her choice, thinking about how much she would lose if she were exposed, and slightly more appropriately, how it would endanger her family, but she’s still utterly failing in her responsibilities as a hero. These are realistic concerns, but there’s no emotional weight behind her struggle. If she had good reason to believe that Johnny wouldn’t be harmed, that would be one thing, but she has no such guarantee, and her inaction could easily end in tragedy. In fact, when the police arrive and search the place, they find nothing. And then…she still doesn’t intervene. Instead, she goes to Kandor for a fashion show. Picking up her new, indestructible costumes, the Girl of Steel leaves her friend to his fate while she plays dress-up. It’s not her finest moment.
While there she sees the Professor, who is at work on creating an antidote for his anti-superpowers pill. As she returns, she has the utterly silly thought that her new costume, which looks almost exactly like her OLD costume, will somehow give her an edge when she confronts her foes because it will confuse them. Because apparently they aren’t capable of extrapolating minor changes. She must think that getting a haircut really messes people up.
Back on Earth, her boss, Geoff, is fed up with the police’s lack of progress, so he decides to head a team going back to the theater…with more cameras. Because that worked so well last time. They do precisely the same thing, and, astonishingly, it works about as well the second time around. This time, it is Nasty who is snatched, so Supergirl actually gets into action, but she misses the phantom. In a particularly stupid detail, the police, seeing footage of the event, decide that the girl dressed almost exactly like Supergirl, who has a giant ‘S’ on her chest, must be a stranger in league with the monster.
Geoff, feeling somehow responsible for sending two people to an unknown fate, takes a gun and goes down to the theater, which, had he done earlier, probably would have solved the problem. Yet, Linda calls the police on him, defying his orders, and intervenes as Supergirl, another course of action that could have resolved this whole situation much earlier.
Using her conveniently working X-Ray vision, she locates a hidden passage and follows it down, just in time for her powers to very conveniently conk out again. In the tunnels under the theater, she finds the two captured reporters as prisoners of a surprisingly well-spoken phantom, who reveals his boss…Starfire!
The femme fatale seems not to have died in her plunge from the castle window after all…on which I’m definitely going to have to call shenanigans. We didn’t see a body in that sequence, which I attributed to the era, but we did see what seemed to be a lifeless hand sticking out of the water in the last panel, which seemed pretty darn clear. According to the villainess, she just swam under water and hid until the authorities left. Pretty shoddy job on the part of the police. ‘No body? Ehh, she’s probably dead. Let’s go get dinner!’
Covering the captives with a pistol, the spurious specter has Supergirl between a rock and a hard place, and the villains capture her, dropping her into a tank of acid. Fortunately, the Maid of Might is still wearing her invulnerable uniform, so she flips her cape over her head, feigns agony, and endures the immersion until her bonds burn through. Then she leaps out, breaking Starfire’s hand (!) to stop her drawing a gun, and capturing the villains with a flying tackle. The story ends with Supergirl taking her prisoners to the police station and unmasking the phantom as Mr. Renard. Finally, we see the gang joking about going to a show, while Nasty still plots to pin Supergirl down.
It’s all very Scooby Doo, isn’t it? That last scene especially is just a bit ridiculous and cartoonish. The story is entertaining enough, though the book continues to suffer from Sekowsy’s dramatically uneven artwork. There are some genuinely nice layouts, interesting angles, and nice panels…and then there are the usual bunch of downright ugly pages. The bigger problems are Supergirl’s complete failure as a hero and the fact that the center of the book just feels like so much running around, with three different trips to the theater and the unnecessary side-trip to Kandor. Starfire’s return and convoluted plot seem beneath her as well. This is quite a ridiculous setup.
She has her henchman pretend to haunt his theater in the hopes of attracting Supergirl’s attention? I can’t help but think there must have been a simpler way to accomplish that. The slippery master-villain also suffered a very ignominious defeat. She plagued the Girl of Steel for multiple issues at a time previously, proving a suitable nemesis for our heroine. And here, she gets taken down with fairly little fan-fare, just dumped in the local police station, and then forgotten about. It’s a waste of a character that had a certain amount of villainous credibility built up. In the end, I’ll give this silly story 2 Minutemen, though I’m inclined to give it less because of Supergirl’s unheroic performance. It is particularly egregious in light of the much better told Superman story dealing with the same kind of dilemma that it shares space with this month.
“Daughter of the Demon”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz
It’s finally here! The debut of R’as Al Ghul, one of the greatest Batman villains created after the Golden Age, and arguably the most significant to the character in recent years, following his revitalization in Batman Begins. I have been eagerly awaiting this issue, remembering it fondly from my previous read-through of the Bat-books, and, perhaps most significantly, from the wonderful adaptation from that best of Bat-worlds, Batman: The Animated Series. The episode “The Demon’s Quest,” is an extremely faithful translation of this story, so much so that I was really struck by that when I first read the comic, having started my Bat-experience with the cartoon. The episode in question is an excellent one, but that is no surprise considering the source. Timm and Co. had an affinity for elevating their material, capturing the potential in every story and character and presenting them in all of their archetypal and dramatic power (though the recent release of Batman and Harley Quinn indicates that this is sadly no longer the case). Yet, their task was an easy one in this case.
I loved R’as Al Ghul already from his appearances in B:TAS, and I was excited when I encountered him in this book and in his subsequent appearances. I have been particularly looking forward to returning to his first appearance here, both to see if it lived up to my memory and to experience it in its original context among the DCU. I’m very pleased to say that I was definitely not disappointed.
I supposed I’d better begin with the iconic cover, which is dramatic and nicely symbolic. There are a few problems with it, but the biggest is the fact that it gives away the twist of the entire issue! The thrust of the book’s mystery is the identity and agenda of the enigmatic Al Ghul…only that mystery is solved, in part, before you ever open it, as the villain is clearly orchestrating whatever is happening to Robin. The other issue is the slightly distracting cover copy and the odd coloring of the ghostly Al Ghul. I like his spectral image, but I think there is a little something missing from the execution.
Nonetheless, the tale within does not disappoint. It begins with the Teen Wonder stealthily returning to his room one night at Hudson University, only to be ambushed within by a pair of gunman who shoot him down! Now, having seen the cartoon episode first, I didn’t really appreciate how big a moment this, or that which comes later, really was. I was just watching the familiar patterns of a well-known plot, but in context, I now realize that this is a really shocking event, with shadowy figures awaiting, not Robin, but Dick Grayson, in his home! From the first page, the stakes are set as being extremely high, and we are given to understand that this is definitely not your normal adventure.
A short time later, Bruce Wayne receives a most distressing envelope bearing a picture of his unconscious ward and a simple note, “Dear Batman, we have Robin! Save him if you can!” Once again, I read right past this the first time, but here is a note, sent to Bruce, but addressed to Batman. The message is clear, and it is only made clearer by what will happen later. First, Bruce swings into action, heading to Wayne Manor in order to use his mothballed crime lab to examine the note. Now, this raises a bit of a question, as why would he not have the same type of facilities in his Penthouse headquarters, but it seems clear that O’Neil is taking a bit of a mini-tour of the Batman mythos in this book.
The truly shocking moment comes when, upon reaching the Batcave, the Dark Knight is surprised to find that he has visitors! An intense looking man in a cloak with a looming servant/bodyguard greet him, calling him by his real name! This is R’as Al Ghul, who explains that he discovered the Dark Detective’s identity by deduction, reasoning he would need to be wealthy and meet certain criteria. Bruce unmasks and accepts all of this with a truly surprising lack of reaction. It seems quite out of character, and the mysterious man’s explanations seem far too simplistic, but these issues, while not given entirely adequate explanation by O’Neil in this issue, can be reconciled by what we learn by its end.
The Caped Crusader does demand to know what the intruders want, though, and Al Ghul reveals that his daughter has been taken as well, and he wants Batman’s help in rescuing her. The hero recognizes Talia, the girl he recently rescued from Dr. Darrk and, realizing that they have a common cause, the great detective gets to work. A microscopic examination of the note reveals residue of an herb used by a far eastern cult of killers who have their headquarters in Calcutta, so the trio take off for the orient! As they leave, Ubu, Al Ghul’s servant, makes a big deal of allowing his master to go first, and the Dark Knight quietly takes the man’s measure.
On the flight, we see a Batman that has been developing in the last few years but has not, I think, been seen in such clarity before this point. He sits in stoic, brooding silence, replying to his companion’s questions about his composure that he must control his emotions because he has a job to do. The character’s portrayal throughout this issue is of the driven, collected, self-possessed Dark Knight Detective that came to define the best version of the concept, and this scene is a striking departure from the grinning, joking Batman that we’ve seen even recently in the rest of the DCU (Bob Haney doesn’t count, of course). During the trip, we peer into the Masked Manhunter’s reverie and see him remembering his origin, that terrible night when a boy’s innocence died along with his parents and something hard and pure was born in its place. We get a capsule version of the familiar origin story, complete with his adoption of Dick, with a focus on the self-sacrifice and dedication that his destiny demanded, further establishing this issue as a new beginning.
In Calcutta, an old beggar is accosted by some street toughs, only to reveal himself as Batman, terrifying the low-lifes and forcing information out of them about the “Brotherhood of the Demon.” Finding his way to their supposed headquarters, the Dark Knight enters first, only to be pounced upon by a leopard! In a great sequence, the hero uses his strength and agility to grapple with the great cat and break its neck. The danger passed, the detective notes that the animal was a trained guard, though the only thing in the room is a desk with a map of the Himalayan Mountains. He claims there is a faint scratch tracing a route, and R’as offers to finance a mountain expedition.
Later, on Mount Nanda Devi, the trio continue their search, following a clear trail, and Neal Adams includes what I have to think is Deadman’s face in the mountainside. I wonder if this is near Nanda Parbat! To continue their search, the travelers must scale the mountain, and Batman leads the way, though R’as takes a moment to admire the beauty of their surroundings, admitting to a love of desolate places that is positively Romantic, a nice character moment. Suddenly, a shot rings out, and the mystery man seems to be hit. Batman launches a desperate swing from the cliff-face to elude the gunman, and when the attacker follows, the hero springs from the snow in which he had secreted himself to take the assassin out.
Interestingly, the Caped Crusader’s knows something we don’t, and he approaches the hidden camp of his enemies brazenly, walking boldly through their armed sentries and telling them that he knows they won’t fire. As he strides into an inner chamber, he sees Robin and, ignoring the guards, secretly slips his partner a knife. Just then, a masked figure enters, but the Dark Knight has had enough and declares that he knows the whole score. From the very beginning, he knew that the entire quest was all a show, recognizing that R’as Al Ghul’s convenient appearance was all-too transparent, and his suspicions were confirmed when Ubu, always solicitous of his master’s honor, let the hero walk ahead of him when danger awaited. Batman also fooled them with the map, lying about the scratch, but they took him to this mountain nonetheless.
Having vamped long enough, the Masked Manhunter asks the Teen Wonder if he’s ready, and they clean house, taking out the gathered assassins in a nice sequence that only suffers from having no backgrounds. Then, the Dark Knight snatches the mask from the robbed figure to reveal Ubu, who decides to try his luck. But Batman isn’t impressed by the man’s size or strength, and he flattens the hulking bodyguard in another great sequence. Finally, R’as and Talia Al Ghul are revealed, and the Dark Detective confronts them, demanding an explanation for the dangerous game that the enigmatic man has been playing. Al Ghul responds simply that his daughter loves the hero and, being inclined to retire, he wanted to see if Batman were worthy of being his successor and….son in law!
What an ending! The look of complete surprise on Batman’s face in the final panel had to be mirrored in that of many a fan as they read this book. Of course, I knew it was coming, but trying to put myself in their shoes, I really felt the impact of this twist. Readers must have been on the edge of their seats waiting for the next issue! Reading this book in context really emphasizes how important and innovative it was. This issue is the culmination, or at least a culmination, of all of the reworking and renovating that O’Neil had been doing in his Batman stories, and this is, in many ways, a new beginning, a line drawn in the four-colored sand, declaring that ‘what comes next is to be something new, yet classic,’ something that returns to the core of the character and positions him in a world worthy of him.
This is the Batman I love. This is the Batman that was translated so wonderfully into the Animated Series. This is the Batman that realizes the character’s potential and takes advantage of the archetypal power of the concept. He is dark, driven, intimidating, hyper-capable but believable, marked by the sadness of his origin, yet capable of enjoying his adventures, especially when joined by his adoptive son. He is serious, but not joyless, and that’s an important distinction, often lost these days. It isn’t perfect, not yet. O’Neil is still a little clumsy with some of his dialog, but it is close, the character is close.
I am also very impressed with R’as Al Ghul in this first appearance. He is mostly just busy being mysterious, but there is a dignity and a certain Romantic air about him that is appealing. Already you can see the Byronic anti-heroic quality that will define the character (though he will usually lack the self-critical element of that archetype). Throughout there are hints that there is more to this enigmatic figure than meets the eye, like the ability of the older man to keep up with the powerful Caped Crusader during his quest and his calm self-assurance in every situation.
This issue is beloved for a reason. It is a great declaration of a new (and old) vision for the Dark Knight, and it presents an exciting, world-trotting adventure that both honors and challenges many of the important elements of the Batman mythos, reuniting the Dynamic Duo in the end and introducing an intriguing new villain with a very unusual agenda. Adams art is beautiful throughout, of course, but he too is coming into his own here. His Batman is powerful yet agile, dynamic yet mysterious, full of untapped depths yet in complete control. The art is alternately moody, intense, exotic, and exciting. O’Neil, for his part, turns in some of his best writing here, focusing on character and story and really creating something special. I’ll happily give this landmark issue 4.5 Minutemen. It isn’t perfect, but it is darn close.
P.S.: The letter’s page of this issue included a short note about the Futurians, the villainous secret society of several issues back, about which I had wondered. It turns out that the name was a reference to a group of science fiction fans from the 30s, many of whom would go on to be major influences in the genre. How neat!
And that’s it for this post, though I don’t know what else y’all could ask for! We’ve got a great selection of stories in this batch, even with the Supergirl clunker. This is definitely an exciting time in comics, and change is in the air! DC is growing, and there are exciting things on the horizon. On that note, I hope you’ll join me again soon for the next installment of Into the Bronze Age! Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!