DCUG Developer’s Diary #7

Howdy folks, and welcome to another DCUG Developer’s Diary. I’m writing at a sad time, as today the Freedom Force community is mourning the loss of one of the very best of us, my good friend Daglob, who recently lost his long battle with cancer. I hope to be able to write him a fitting tribute sometime soon, but I’m not really up to it at the moment. Yet, he would want the show to go on, and I think he’d appreciate being celebrated with the creation of more FF content, as our community was very important to him. In any case, please know that this project, and all of my projects from now on, will be dedicated to our fallen friends, Cyber Burn and Daglob, Mike and Bill, two good, generous men who I was privileged to know and call friends. I know that’s a heavy note on which to start talking about a video game, but I hope you’ll forgive me being a bit personal and sentimental and will also join me in praying for their families and friends who are missing them today.

In terms of the mod, I’ve got some some cool things to share with y’all today, so let’s chat about some of our absent friends’ favorite subjects: heroes, daring deeds, and Freedom Force, the game that delivers the best of both.

It has been a productive few weeks, though not as productive as I’d have liked. I’ve finished the next two Aquaman missions, both of which gave me more than a little trouble. In fact, the second one gave me such fits and frustrated me so much that I took a few days off and played Crusader Kings II, so I could be frustrated by a different game! Still, I managed to solve the problems…eventually! I’ll tell y’all all about the process, as well as finally talking a bit about my Green Lantern re-work and possible campaign.

Part 1: Rigging for Trouble

This stage of the project began, as did my troubles, with me returning to my old nemesis…the oil rig map! If you’ve been following this feature, you may remember me talking about this blasted map a few posts ago. I had gotten a hold of an object that would serve as my oil platform, thanks to Daglob (who was always willing to help out), but I couldn’t figure out how to make the object work as terrain in the game. I added a set of these objects directly to the map .nif, and they showed up just fine….but characters would fall right through them to the “floor” of the map! I tried approximately a zillion different fixes, and I finally settled on adding super-sized versions of the pier object from the first game to the map, and hiding them right below the surface of the “rig.” This actually worked, though it created some slight pathing issues. So, problem solved, right?

Well, not so fast! When I started actually trying to decorate the map for the mission that I’d had planned for ages and ages, I made an unpleasant discovery: while the pier sections kept my characters from falling through the oil rig, they made the map an absolute pain to work on! You see, in the map editor, you select an object whenever you click on it, even if you can’t see it. So, every time I tried to move a prop or worse, arrange a marker, I’d have to be excruciatingly careful, lest I accidentally yank my ‘subfloor’ pieces out of position, and then I’d have to try to line them back up and sink them back below the surface of the rig, which is a difficult process to do accurately. To make matters worse, somewhere along the line, this “subfloor” system stopped working! I have no idea why this happened, but it might have had something to do with there being other objects on top of it and the combination “confusing” the game’s engine.

Finally, I got fed up and decided to try to find another solution. Once again, I tried a zillion different ideas before finally landing on something that is so obvious, I can’t believe it took me this long to come up with it! The map already has pieces that the game recognizes as “floors,” right? So, why not just copy those onto the rig’s surface? It’s a nice, simple, square shape, and the “floor” pieces of the map are squares as well, so that should work. And since we’re not trying to keep the space under the rig playable in this mission, the two-story problem isn’t really an issue. So, I started copying the actual pieces of the flat map terrain and pasting them into the scene root. Then I maneuvered them up onto the surface of the rig, and once I had the whole thing covered, I dropped them just below the top, rendering the rig itself as navigable terrain as far as the game was concerned! The concept was sound, and it worked like a charm…mostly.

As I was working on this, I re-discovered a quirk of Nifskope that I had previously encountered but forgotten. When you look at the interface, you can see multiple entries for a given mesh piece, usually a top level name and a sub category called “Editable Mesh.” You can manipulate the piece using both entries, but if you don’t use the “Editable Mesh” bit, the results can be weird. When using the top level, I’ve had edits work fine, but I’ve also had them not show up at all or display strangely. In this case, I forgot to use the “Editable Mesh” entry for my edits, and I built the whole map…only for the pieces to show up all out of position because of this eccentricity. So, when I went back and started over again, manipulating the pieces from the proper entry, everything worked fine, and voila, I had a workable map that wouldn’t drive me crazy in the editing!

Now I just had to decorate it, which is not my favorite part of the process because I’m just not that visually creative. And I’m still not 100% happy with the results. However, the community once again chipped in to help me out, and while I was struggling against a lack of proper art assets for what I wanted, RandomDays found me a nice oil derrick object and a helipad, which he imported for me. I think they add a lot to the random conglomeration of game objects I had been using as my decor. After the decoration was finished, I had a map, and all I needed was a script!

Drilling for Danger

The scripting of this mission had a few bumps, but it wasn’t too bad. I wasn’t trying anything too terribly fancy, as the story was fairly simple and straight-forward. This mission saw our finally finished oil rig besieged by fire trolls (with gorgeous new skins by AA and Deanjo2000), and our heroes having to fight them off while also looking for an explanation for their attack. I decided to go for simple and reliable in my mission design, just using basic encounter types, like Save Civilian and Examine, but I mixed this up a bit by simply having some of the encounters overlap. The heroes will be fighting a set of villains and saving civilians in one location, but there is also a clue for them to examine there, spawned by a different encounter. This allowed me to play around with the order of progression, so that defeating the enemies might trigger more bad guys spawning, but the story wouldn’t actually progress until you had found certain clues. My biggest obstacle turned out to be just space and blocking on the map. Even though I made the rig pretty big, taking up most of the space of the map itself, there still just wasn’t that much room to spread things out, but after working with the layout a bit, I think I managed to end up with a mission that didn’t feel too cramped or overwhelming (though I suppose that’s for the testers to say, when we get there!).

A minor obstacle I encountered was trouble with some of my props. I’m having the Aquatic Aces, who are weak to fire, fight a bunch of monsters who are all about fire, and since I’m not a sadist, I wanted to help my players out with this rather difficult situation. So, I added the ability for the players to turn on a “fire suppression system”, which consisted of cold-ray firing turrets that spawned around the map to help you out. That is all built on a simple encounter system that I’ve been using for years, but I ran into an unexpected problem: namely, the nice, tech-looking control panel object from the Freedom Fortress that I wanted to be the controls for the system didn’t spawn in the mission.

Instead, the medlab bed did, which looked quite odd! I had encountered another of those strange eccentricities of Freedom Force, where a single object template sometimes stands in for a whole host of objects. I assume this was done to simplify matters in game design, lumping a bunch of objects together that were different visually, but identical in terms of gameplay. The same is true of many of the building objects. They will have a single template entry, and then in their directory, a number of different meshes. This allows you to use whichever you want in map design, as you can pick the one you want when you go to its entry in the visual editor itself, but it also means that you can’t specify which one you want through scripting or in the editor menus. Fortunately, this is a simple issue to fix, as you can just copy the template entry and point it to the specific one you want. And with that issue solved, I had a completed mission that brought Aquaman back to the surface for a bit of derring-do and an encounter with some old foes from his very first issue! I’ve had the idea for this mission ever since I saw the JLU episode “Ultimatum,” where a similar scene plays out in the opening act. I always thought that would make a great set-piece for an Aquaman campaign, and although it hasn’t turned out exactly as I’d like, I’m reasonably happy with it.

Part 2: The Big Easy, DC Universe Edition

I had always planned for mission #6 to take place in New Venice, one of those classic DC Universe ersatz-urban centers, like Gotham or Metropolis, a fictional town that had shown up in Aquaman adventures over the years. In the comics, at least the early ones, this was a normal American coastal town that had been flooded, turning it into a New World version of the Italian tourist mecca (a change accepted by its populace with an ease and equanimity only possible in fiction). I had originally toyed with actually creating a whole new map, replacing the street texture of a city map with water and things like that.

However, I realized that, while that would probably look reasonably good, and I could even add boats and swimming civilians to complete the illusion, it would, ultimately, be just that, an illusion. While I could make such a map look okay, it wouldn’t really work properly in terms of gameplay. There was no way for me to have the streets be playable space in depth, as canals should be, and there was also no way for me to properly switch Aquaman from swimming to walking as he moved between different parts of the environment. It would have been a really cool setting if I could have made it work, but it just wasn’t meant to be. So, instead, I decided to use an existing map that had a coastal theme, the Liberty Bay map, which had a big sea-wall and dock.

But there was one problem. When I went to write the mission, I remembered that I had already used that map for Coast City in my JLA campaign! Oh no! So, back to the drawing board again. I started thinking about what type of city a “New Venice” might be. If Metropolis was like New York, what would kind of real-world city would make sense as a setting for Aquaman? I finally settled on using a location from my old stomping grounds, the Gulf Coast, and I decided to model New Venice on New Orleans. The name even works! What if the early settlers in Louisiana were Italian and not French?

Well, now I had a concept, but what I didn’t have was a map. So, looking to save myself time and effort, as I always am in mapping, I looked through Alex’s indispensable FF Atlas to try to find an existing map to use as a base. I settled on one of the Berlin maps, which had a nice multi-level elevation, which is admittedly, very unlike the pancake-flat Gulf Coast, but which gave me the idea to create a partially-flooded map, which I thought would look pretty cool. That gave me a base, and the European-style architecture could work okay for a New Orleans pastiche, if not perfectly, but the dark, grim map didn’t really capture the bright and colorful setting of the Big Easy, so I set to work on tweaking it.

First, I edited the actual terrain nif, changing the dark Berlin grass for the brighter, tropical-style grass from the Cuban maps, and making a few other changes. Then I removed all of the German signage and added some more Southern-style street decor. But that still didn’t do the trick. So, I sought out some help to create some New Orleans-inspired textures for the Berlin buildings. I didn’t want to try to gather up all the textures for the map in a custom directory, so I created new building objects and pointed them to copies of the buildings that I skoped to use new textures. Super Powered Yank came to my rescue again by creating those textures, but he also went above and beyond, volunteering to make some DC-centric signage to replace all of the German propaganda, and he came up with a whole set of general and character-specific signs and billboards that added a ton of atmosphere to this map and to the mod as a whole!

The new, colorful buildings and signs helped a lot, but I was looking through the game assets, trying to find something that I could use to supplement the Berlin buildings, something closer to the classic French-inspired architecture of New Orleans, and I came across some of the houses from the Cuban maps, which had these nice little balconies with iron railings. They were very distressed and looked super beat up, but with Tomato’s help, I got a more respectable looking version, used the “Hue and Saturation” tool in GIMP to create a few different colorful versions, and I finally had the makings of an interesting looking city that could work as my New Venice!

Uncooperative Urban Renewal

For my finishing touches, I added a big water object to the lowest level of the map, adding it directly to the terrain nif so that the cursor wouldn’t react to it in-game, and then I decorated and set the map up for use. Then I just had to write the mission and get it working. I had a pretty straightforward plan. I wanted my big monster, Chemo, to move through the city destroying buildings. That should be simple, right? Wrong. This mission drove me nuts! I thought I had it all figured out from the beginning when I realized that the brilliant creator of EZScript, M25, was even more brilliant than I had realized; he had designed the object-centered encounters to work with more than just one object. So, I just used a “Guard Object” encounter and specified a range of buildings that I set to spawn throughout the city. I made sure they were positioned where I wanted by actually placing them on the map, then converting the buildings to markers and naming them for the encounter, “no_object1, no_obect2,” etc. I thought I was good to go, but when I tested the mission, Chemo smashed the first set of buildings which were all next to where he started, but then he just stood around, drained of all motivation and direction. It turns out that he was too far away from his second objective, and a LOT of experimentation with different setups just couldn’t solve that problem.

So, I had what I thought was a clever idea. I’ll just break the encounter into sections. I’ll spawn placeholder buildings with a CS at the beginning of the mission, and then as each encounter ends, I’ll fade the camera, destroy the next building, and teleport Chemo. Then, as the next encounter starts, it will spawn the building into the right space, and its Alert CS will unfade the camera. That should have worked fine, right? Well, I thought so too, but boy I was wrong! It turns out that the “destroy” command just doesn’t work on buildings, no matter what you do. I’m guessing it’s because buildings are designed to collapse in stages, the only objects like that in the game. So, was I out of luck? Was I going to have to radically redesign the mission I’d already written, settle for something much smaller-scale? I wasn’t sure, and this is when I walked away for a few days.

But, a couple of days later, I had an idea that just might work. I thought, if it’s the fact that these are building objects that is giving me fits, why not simply copy them and make them into Generic object types for my placeholders? I tried it, and everything worked like a charm! Finally, Chemo could smash his way through the city to his heart’s content, moving the action nicely through the map and ensuring that he doesn’t just get stuck in one spot. I have to admit, I’m fairly pleased with myself for figuring this out. Poor Lady Grey had to listen to me talk through the plan as I was working it out, and I imagine she’s even happier than I am that I’m done with this mission!

Part 3: Let’s Ride!

So, in addition to my two new missions, I also had some base scenes to create, and while there wasn’t nearly as much backstory, world-building, and exposition to get through in this section, I wanted to do a little something to keep developing our Aquatic Aces and their environs. I just used one of CK’s excellent underwater maps for my setting, but I was able to do something a little special with it too. There’s a visual I’ve wanted in my Aquaman campaign for years, one associated with the classic version of the character, and I was pretty sure I was never going to be able to do it. Yet, thanks to RandomDays and Tomato, this little dream is coming true, which is just plain neat. Now, keep in mind, these images are still an alpha version, still needing skoping and only having placeholder skins.

You see, for decades, a common visual for Aquaman and the Aqua-Family was them riding through the seas on giant seahorses. It’s a charming and fun presentation of the character and his fantastical setting. The old 60s Aquaman cartoon, which is very much a product of its time, but which I love despite its silliness and poor animation, helped to cement this in the zeitgeist as a visual commonplace for the Sea King. Obviously, this presents all kinds of problems for FF, but RandomDays managed to import a really nice, fanatasy-themed seahorse mount, and Tomato is at work creating some great skins for the specific sea-steeds of the members of the Aqua-Family. This is a minor detail, something that won’t add to gameplay, as I don’t have access to proper animations to make these versions playable, but it’s a wonderful and atmospheric addition to the Aquaman campaign.

Part 4: In Brightest Day

One of my big goals for DCUG 2.0 is to expand the roster and add in a lot of characters that I didn’t get to before, but just as important is an updating and reworking of my existing cast. I was working on the latter when I started reworking my existing Green Lanterns to make them more unique and interesting, and that spilled over into me adding in a ton of new Lanterns, including a lot of the classic alien Lanterns, each customized and having unique builds in several key ways! While the Lanterns all had similar power sets, because they are all using the same equipment, I figured the way they used that equipment would be different, both in terms of tactics and in terms of imagery. So, while every Lantern had some basic powers, they also had at least one unique power, and even their similar powers often had unique visuals, as they would use different images for their constructs. This led me to dive down the rabbit hole of FX, and Cyber Burn came to my rescue several times throughout this process, my good right arm, as always.

One of the touches that I was most pleased with was giving each and every Lantern a distinct weapon they could summon with their ring, drawn from a weapon pack that Cyber had imported and ‘Lantern-ized’ for me. Hal, who strikes me as a baseball fan, summons a baseball bat, while Guy, who is more rough and tumble, gets a spiked club. Kilowog gets his trademark hammer, and so-on. It adds a bit more personality to characters that would otherwise be pretty similar in game.

I also gave every Lantern the ability to summon custom constructs as minions. Hal summons jets, John Stewart summons Marines, and Kyle Rayner summons giant robots, while my alien GLs each get their own thematic summons as well! This took me scouring the archives for suitable meshes and having Cyber, Daglob, and others whip me up some green versions of their skins, and I even made a few myself as I began to haltingly explore some of the tools in GIMP. Interestingly, the lessons I learned while working on this part of the project months and months ago would eventually help me in my mapping work for the Aquaman campaign.

Alright folks, that does it for today’s post. I hope that y’all found this intersting and useful. We’re heading out of town for a week and change on our usual summer trip to see family, but I’ll be back home and back to work on the DCUG soon. In my next post I’ll talk a bit more about how the Green Lantern campaign got started, as well as about the troubles that may spell its end! I’m also going to try to finish the final map and mission of the JLA/JSA crossover, so stay tuned!

DCUG Developer’s Diary #6

Howdy folks, and welcome to another DCUG Developer’s Diary! I promised more news before too long, and I am pleased to deliver. It has been an incredibly productive few weeks. I have gotten so much done, conducted so many experiments and tried so many different approaches to modding problems, that I’ll be hard pressed to remember and record a tithe of it, but I’ll try to hit the highlights for y’all! I’ve been hard at work on my Aquaman campaign, and most of the progress I’ve made has been on that part of the project. I’ve finished the next two missions, which were very work intensive and demanding, both in terms of modding and in terms of writing.

I’ve really been digging into FF modding, trying all sorts of things in order to bring this story about my favorite character to life in as high a quality as I can manage. I’ve done a lot of innovating, and I’ve tried to bring a high level of detail to everything about the campaign, from maps to characters, to effects, to plots. I’m quite happy with how it is all turning out, but I am also perpetually frustrated that I can’t quite bring what’s in my imagination to the screen as perfectly as I’d like. I’ll tell y’all a little about all of the different parts of the process I’ve gone through to bring this adventure to life.

Creating an Undersea World:

In my last DD, I walked y’all through some of the steps I went through to try to create an interesting and attractive underwater map for my second mission, and although I was pretty happy with the results of my labors, I wasn’t completely content. Considering how much of Aquaman’s story is going to be set beneath the waves, I had a good reason to keep trying to improve things. I had a number of different ideas about how I could enhance the look of my underwater maps, and I’ve been hard at work trying to figure out how to implement them. Tweaking map textures looks okay and is important, but I had bigger dreams.

I had always thought that it would be great to be able to put a ‘water’ filter over the ‘camera’ of FF. Unfortunately, there’s no way to do that, or at least none I could discover…but I couldn’t shake the idea. As I often do when I am trying to get inspiration for a mod, I spent some time going back and playing through FF1 and 2, and this reminded me of something that might provide me another way to accomplish a similar result and set me to digging into FF’s game files and documentation to figure out how to bring a bit more atmosphere to my undersea settings. This lead me on a journey that had me experimenting with Python scripting in new ways that were both exciting and more than a little scary, because I was very much out of my depth! But, that’s how you learn when you’re modding. In fact, constantly stretching to accomplish something that seems out of reach is the only reason I’m a modder in the first place!

The (mostly) finished product with several new features

Dream Wave Effect

As you may remember if you’re a veteran of FF2, the second game began with a rather unusual mission, which was actually a nightmare of one of the Freedom Force members. At the end of the mission, the player’s vision of the map was distorted by this blurry, wavy, dream-vision effect that covered the map. It occurred to me that, if I could figure out how to create this, and if it could be customized, such an effect might actually be a pretty perfect device for giving a submarine map an underwater “feel.” So, I opened up the script for the first mission and started digging. Now, I’ve been teaching myself about real Python scripting, but I am still beyond a neophyte, so I wasn’t entirely sure what I was looking for or what to make of it when I found it. Fortunately, Irrational helpfully labelled their scripts, and it was all clear enough for me to find the pertinent sections, even if I didn’t yet know how to interpret. them.

So, I started reading through the FFscripting document, hoping to find explanations of this code. The documentation did have a section on the Dream Wave effect, though it was a little hard for me to understand. Eventually, I copied the code that, to my best guess, was what I needed and just started experimenting with it. Unfortunately, my first efforts either simply didn’t work or even crashed the game! Finally, I hit on this combination. Here’s the code you can use to create an EZScripted mission that uses the Dream Wave.

Misminimod_storyfile = 'mission'

import m25minimod
from m25minimod import *

def OnPreRendererCreate():
	ff.RENDER_WARP = 1

#---------------------------------------------------------------------
#
# Important Callbacks
#
#---------------------------------------------------------------------	

def OnPostInit():
	m25minimod.OnPostInit(campaign=1)
	ff.RENDER_WARP = 1
	Mission_StartDreamWave(5,-1,0)
	Mission_FadeDreamSinParams(1, .01, .25, 1)

The first lines on each side are just the usual setup for EZScript missions. At first I was just using the two obvious lines, Mission_StartDreamWave and Mission_FadeDreamSinParams, but the effect wasn’t actually beginning. That’s when I noticed that the FF2 mission script actually had those PreRenderer and ff.RENDER commands, so I added those too, and I found myself with a nice, trippy warp effect! Then it was just a matter of tweaking it. The documentation explained that the first two commands I started with are what actually controls how the Wave appears.

The Start command has three points of customization (how long it fades in, how long it lasts, and how long it fades out). You’ll notice that the duration control is set to -1, meaning it will run forever, and thus I’ve got a 0 in the last slot, because it doesn’t need to fade away. You could tweak these settings to create short-lived effects and do other kinds of clever moves with it.

The Fade command sets the degree and strength of the effect, and it’s also got various customizations: (Frequency, or how often waves of the warping effect are created / Amplitude, or how big the waves are / Speed, or how quickly they move across the screen / and Fade Time, or how quickly they fade away) The default values in the mission were “(1, .03, .35, 1)”, so you can see that I didn’t change them drastically. I tried a few various permutations, but I eventually settled on the lowest amplitude and a slower speed. I think the final product looks pretty good, and you can check out a video of the effect in action on a mission here below. It looks pretty good in action, but it can be a little disconcerting, even on the lowest setting, so I’ll include a set of non-warped mission files for the campaign for those who are prone to motion-sickness or the like.

Sunlight Settings

So, the maps certainly looked a bit more striking and ‘watery’ with the Dream Wave effect turned on, but they were still missing something. Several folks on FR had suggested that if I could change the light color on the map to make it more sea-toned, that could help, so I had planned to mess with the lighting settings of the maps. However, before I could do that, I had to discover what actually controlled these settings! At first I thought this might be controlled through the map files, like the layout or extents texts, but after examining some of them, I realized that wasn’t the case. There were almost certainly nice, clear tutorials that covered this kind of thing once upon a time, but if they existed they’ve been lost to the ages, so I had to poke around in the forum archives for mentions of the subject. I eventually found some of our great former mappers discussing these settings, which it turns out were located in the python files of a map. Thus, I was once again delving into unfamiliar depths! With that post as a guide, I was able to find this section of the python document:

Mission_GetSunlight()

rotation: Sun rotation angle from north in degrees: +ve is east
tilt: Sun tilt from horizontal in degrees: +ve is down
brightness: Intensity of sunlight (0=none to 1=full)
ambient: Intensity of ambient light (0=none to 1=full)
Color: 3-tuple, red, green, blue values (all are 0 to 1)

Then I dug around in missions and custom maps and found those that seemed to have nice, bright, clear light, and used that as a starting point. I then played with the color values, changing out what colors were strongest, until I found a nice, ocean-y color palette which was, as you might imagine, heavily blue and green. Here’s the code I ended up using (just right below the code for the Wave effect).

	Mission_SetSunlight(-40,30,1,1.0,(0.4,0.8,1))
	Mission_SetShadows(-40,30,(0.2,0.3,0.3))
	Mission_SetProjShadowBackground((1,1,1))
	Mission_SetProjShadowColor((.8,.7,.7,1))

You’ll notice there are some other commands there too, each with their own settings. I just copied those from another mission, but you could add further customizaiton with those settings for shadows. However, we’re concenred with the sunlight settings. I’ve got brightness and ambient light both turned all the way up, and I’ve got the blue light at max and the green pretty close. The combination creates a nice, watery feel for the maps and everything on them, including my characters and props.

Creating a Sky Sphere

You may notice in my screenshots and videos that there’s another feature these maps have that help create their atmosphere, and that is a background that replaces the blank black void that is the default for FF maps. Here, as with most everything I’ve done, I’m just standing on the shoulders of FR community giants. What you see in these images is called a “sky sphere”, which is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a big spherical object that sits around your map and provides a lovely backdrop for your adventures. The way that our mapping masters had used these in the past was to make them character templates, but that can create problems in modding, both because of this creating ‘phantom characters’ that mess up the complex “branding” function of the FFX Control Center, and because campaign missions don’t seem to like such characters being on a map. Thus, I tried making these into regular generic objects, and that seems to have worked just fine. I tried adding them directly to the map nif, but when I did, the top of the sphere was registered as the ‘ground’ and all the characters were shunted to the outside!

So, how do you use a sky sphere? Well, it’s actually super easy. They’re included with the map pack, so you can find the actual object and their textures in that wonderful resource. You’ll find the spheres in the pack’s art/library/characters directory. Once you get them, you can copy the settings they have in the map pack, but just change their template type to “generic.” Now, because they’ll be objects and not characters, their textures need to be in with the rest of your map’s textures. Once you’ve done that, you can place them on your maps by placing a marker, then changing it to be the sphere. Once you’ve done that, you’re good to go! The spheres come with several really nice textures, but you can also just name your own textures in the same pattern and use them on your maps for a variety of different effects! Check out my ‘water sphere’ on my Atlantis map!

Atlantean Chic – Decorating My Aquatic World:

Speaking of Atlantis, my story called for a visit to the fabled lost city by the Aquatic Ace, and thanks to folks vastly more talented than me, I had great starting places for both the Atlantean Palace and the city itself. However, as always seems the case, I wanted a bit more. So, as I worked on the various maps, I started cobbling together new props to decorate them. I did this by the usual method of just using replacement textures in a map’s folder, but I also literally built props using Nifskope, which is a huge blessing for modders. Nifskope allows you to combine and manipulate meshes, so I was able to take parts or whole meshes, both character and object, and use them to create various new props. This is exceedingly easy to do these days. For example, I created a throne as a centerpiece for my Atlantean throne room by combining the chair object from the FF1 Robot Factory maps, the TNT crates from the warehouse maps, a dolphin RandomDays had imported for me, and a little shell from Tomato’s Aquagirl skope. The result looked like a lot more than the sum of its parts.

Adding a refl and a glow texture to the mesh pieces, as well as tweaking the color settings of the meshes themselves, allowed me to make the whole thing look shiny and impressive. I did the same type of thing to create some nice underwater foliage for my city map. I started with a thin tree object, the ger_tree_poplar, but I wanted to make it look like a piece of a kelp forest, so I copied over ger_weed, and then placed several copies of it all up and down the tree, rotating and enlarging them here and there so that the whole thing had a nice, ragged, wavy appearance. I created a number of items like these, and I rounded out my decorations by adding textures I found online to existing meshes to create artistic accents, making bronze statues, golden images, and paintings. The paintings used art from the Atlantis Chronicles, which a seemed fitting place to find images of Atlantean history.

Populating Atlantis:

While I’ve been hard at work designing maps and writing missions, other incredibly talented members of our community have been contributing some wonderful stuff to other facets of my project. Tomato has continued to help me out with a number of contributions, big and small. RandomDays has imported a ton of incredibly useful objects for me and has in general pitched in innumerable ways, and Deanjo2000 has been churning out some incredibly gorgeous skins and skopes! In fact, between RD and Dean, we’ve got an amazing vessel for Aquaman’s nemesis, Black Manta. Dean has contributed a lot of great DC characters to the mod since my last update, and he was kind enough to create the Aquaman supporting cast member Murk, from the modern books, who Jeff Parker did such excellent work with. This gave me a really useful character to play with in my development of my Aqua-adventure, and it’s also just fun beating the snot out of this thinly-veiled pastiche of the hook-handed Aqua-jerk of the 90s! In general, I’ve seen a fantastic amount of support from the community lately, which has been really encouraging and energizing. Look for even more great art assets coming soon!

Telling the Story:

Of course, all of the work described above has been in service of a story that I’ve been dying to tell for years and years. My Aquaman campaign is one that I mapped out in broad strokes back when I was first working on the DCUG, over a decade ago. The story has evolved and changed a good deal since then, and I have been more than a little influenced by the fantastic work done by Jeff Parker and Dan Abnet in the New 52 Aquaman series. Still, I’m quite excited to finally get the chance to tell it, especially because it is such an ambitious project, and one that I have often despaired of ever having the chance to do justice. With the support of the FF community, diminished but still full of talented, I have been able to make a good start on it. As I’ve made maps and props and a thousand and one little tweaks and enhancements, I’ve also been hard at work on the campaign.

I’ve finished missions #3 and #4, which included some of the most challenging writing of the entire narrative. I had to introduce Atlantis, supporting characters, and an absolute mountain of plot, all in a very small amount of narrative space, as I only had a few missions and base scenes in which to do it. I could probably have spread this over more missions, but considering how much time and effort it takes to successfully write, script, and create a mission, I’ve tried to be conservative with my campaign design, which is not a strength of mine, as my project catalog can attest! So, I’ve slaved over the writing of these missions and base scenes, and while I’m not 100% happy with it (I never am), I am content. The missions themselves I think are a neat mix of ideas, and I hope they’ll prove fun to play. The players will be hit with a lot of information and a lot of my original Aquaman mythos in these missions, but I’ve tried to make them exciting and entertaining, as well as (hopefully) full of intriguing glimpses of story and mystery. As an extra treat, each mission has a custom cover created by Unkoman for their loading screens. Some are snappy tweaks of classic Aquaman covers, and some are much more elaborate creations, but they are all awesome, and Unko has put a lot of time and effort into them, crafting these custom loading screens that really make the campaign feel polished and complete.

#3 “Torn Between Two Worlds”

I won’t give away too much of my plot in these features. Instead, I’ll tease a bit about the missions and talk about how I made them. This first one up presented some design problems, in multiple ways. First, I had to skope custom keys for various characters that I already had in the DCUG, but for whom I didn’t have underwater versions. Then I had to create new powers and builds for each of them. When writing the mission itself, I knew I wanted a showdown with some of Black Manta’s minions, but I wasn’t really sure what to do to make it interesting and provide some variety. I came up with a couple of different encounter types so that the mission wasn’t simply a straight fight, and I designed it so that Aquaman was accompanied by some Atlantean allies. My scripting challenges arose from two sources. First, I needed to get the allies into the mission immediately so that the opening cutscene could include them and set up what was going on. Second, I needed my villain to get defeated but still get away, and I wanted to make sure that he didn’t show up until the player had cleared out all of his henchmen.

To solve my first challenge, I made my starting encounter an Alliance encounter, which allows you to create long-term allies for the mission, and I simply had its starting cutscene be my intro CS. However, as is often the case, solving one problem created another one, and this one was quite the mystery to me for a while. I would play through the entire mission, and everything would work, only for all of the starting encounters to respawn as I was playing through the last encounter. It was maddening! Not only did it look super messy and confusing, the mission wouldn’t end because the event chain had restarted! I finally, just yesterday, figured out what the issue was, after seeing no clear reason why this would happen and trying dozens of different things to fix it. The problem all came down to the fact that I was using my Alliance encounter to start my mission, and it was also being used to launch those opening encounters. It’s super obvious in hindsight! You see, the CS would play, and the encounter would ‘end’, spawning the next ones…but it wasn’t ACTUALLY over until all of the allies died. Most of the would get taken out in the mission, but your main ally, Murk, was made of sterner stuff, and he’d usually stick around until the end, where he was knocked out by another encounter….which would then start the whole thing over again! Simply using a different encounter to spawn the others solved the problem very nicely.

The second problem proved much more easily solved, though it also gave me some trouble. EZScript has an option for Custom Encounters that allows you to set one up where a villain will stop fighting at certain health thresholds. This is meant to simulate a common mission element from the FF campaigns, and it would be a very useful mission component. The trouble is, it’s never worked quite right, and I have trouble with it every time I try to use it. I decided to give it another look, and sure enough, it gave me fits. Either Manta wouldn’t stop and would get knocked out, or he’d stop and just get stuck, so the rest of the mission didn’t play. Finally I gave up and just used a simple Interrogation, which worked like a charm. However, this left me with the difficulty of getting my villain away. I’ve gotten around this in the past by having the screen fade and just having dialog advance the plot and narrate what’s happening. Obviously, that’s not the most elegant of solutions, and I wanted a bit more out of this, especially because I didn’t plan on this actually being the end of the mission. The trouble is that, once in an interrogation state, a character is locked into their stun animation and can’t move. So, I decided to cheat a bit. I used some camera work and fades to extricate Manta, then gave him an animation command to bring him out of the stun state. He still couldn’t move, but he LOOKED normal, and that made the CS work reasonably well. In the, the mission proved to be more challenging to create than I anticipated, especially since it was originally conceived as just a fight, but the final product should prove interesting, I hope!

#4 “Caverns of Death”

Bizarrely, mission #4, although much more ambitious in terms of scripting, as I was trying something I’d never done before, proved much easier. In fact, the most complicated and fanciest bits worked right out of the gate, while the simple stuff, as is often the case, tripped me up. This one involved the newly recruited Aqualad joining Aquaman as they fought their way through a cave full of monsters, and made some interesting discoveries about the history of Atlantis along the way, as well as some hints of the overarching plot! I decided to get clever, because once again I was struggling to find a way to provide some variety to how my story idea made it into mission form. The monsters our Aquatic Aces faced were a fairly straight-forward threat, but I came up with the idea of having the heroes encounter eggs that could hatch at random intervals, spawning more of the monsters. If the heroes can destroy the eggs early, they won’t have to worry about reinforcements, but if they don’t, they might get overwhelmed! I did this by creating two sets of encounters. The first was just a custom Destroy Object encounter with a Countdown condition to provide a ticking clock. The second, which is only triggered if the object isn’t destroyed before the clock runs out, spawns a monster in a Hunt encounter. I added some FX to make it look a little smoother, and it all worked pretty well. Here’s the EZScript encounters in question:

Encounter: Brood1
Type: Custom
Actions: countdown, heroes destroy objects
Objects: trench_egg named bob
Time: 215
Marker: shell1
Next: If Timer Still Going: None
Next: If Timer Expired: Birth1

End Cutscene:
bob is destroyed

#--------------------------------------------------

Encounter: Birth1
Type: Hunt
Villains: trenchs
Marker: scrack1
Next: None

Alert Cutscene:
Play effect effect_ffx_transmute at scrack1

Interestingly, I’ve recently discovered that the brilliant M25, who created EZScript, was even more brilliant than I had given him credit for, and he included the ability to name objects (like ‘bob’ up there) as well as characters so that you manipulate them directly through your scripts.

Alright folks, well that should give y’all a nice peak behind the curtain at what I’ve been up to. Now that I’m past these challenging missions and maps, I’m hoping I can move a bit more quickly in the coming weeks, but we’ll see. I know that I promised some information about my GLC campaign in this diary, but I think it’s already long (probably overlong!) enough, so I’ll get to that next time. I hope that this has been interesting and useful. Please feel free to ask questions or post comments, especially if you’re interested in getting into modding yourself or are just looking to get involved in the fantastic FF community!

DCUG Developer’s Diary #5

Howdy folks, and welcome to the first developer’s diary after my long hiatus.  I am getting back to work on the mod, shaking off the rust, and working out the kinks.  I have been super busy the last few weeks, hitting my modding to-do list hard and getting a ton done!  With the semester done and things calming down a little bit here at Grey Manor, I have finally been able to catch my breath and get back to my great modding love, the DCUG!  I have really had a blast working on it, and I have learned a lot recently.  I’ll share the highlights with y’all, as well as a little sneak peek at my Aquaman campaign, which is my current focus. Fair warning, I’m going to talk a fair bit about mapping in the beginning of this post, and I’m going to try to create my long-deferred tutorial video on the subject in a few weeks. If that subject doesn’t interest you, skip on down to screenshots of the new campaigns! And make sure to stay tuned for another developer’s diary entry next week which will provide another peek at the Green Lantern Corps. campaign which I have also been working on!

Map Design Part 1: Creating the Elusive Second Story

To get started with my return, I foolishly tackled something that I knew was going to be difficult and frustrating, and guess what? It was both of those things!  When I had to put the mod on hold, I had started to develop custom maps for my Aquaman campaign.  I faced a number of hurdles, detailed in my last couple of entries, and there was one in particular I had not solved yet and which returned to haunt me when I came back to the mod.  You see, thanks to Daglob who modified the crane object from FF 1, I had a nice big oil rig to serve as a setting for the Sea King’s adventures.  Unfortunately, while it looked great, characters would fall right through it in the game, meaning it wasn’t much use as, you know, a map. 

The main issue is likely that FF just doesn’t do multiple floors, really, and whatever is tagged as the ‘ground,’ is going to be used that way by the game engine.  Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about the actual mechanics of the terrain meshes (nifs) and how they are set up to change what the game perceives as ground, and there really isn’t anyone left in the community who could tell me either.   So, what to do?  Well, the answer is obvious.  Cheat!

I tried a thousand different approaches to fix this, mostly centered around trying to create a ‘false floor’ through the use of other objects.  I settled on the pier object from FF 1, which gave me a nice, flat object to work with.  I tried blowing it up and adding it directly to the nif.  Characters still fell through.  I tried adding it in the editor.  Still fell through.  I tried a dozen different sizes and permutations, and no luck.  I tried just adding the original, small object, and just covering the rig’s surface with them.  That worked!  However…it also screwed up the character’s pathing. 

Finally, I realized that, when blowing the object up, I had used the scene root and tried to do the whole thing at once.  You see, objects in FF2 have to have two pieces to be interactable.  There is the object mesh itself, and then there is a bounding box, which tells the game where the mesh starts and ends, spatially.  Although Nifskope was telling me it had expanded the bounding box as well, it hadn’t.  So, when I did both pieces, both the object and the bounding box, individually, it worked perfectly!  Now, I’ve got an oil rig, and all I need to do is add the set dressing!

Map Design Part 2: Textures, UV Maps, and Madness, Oh My!

Of course, my luck being what it is, that was far from the end of my mapping woes. The next hurdle arose when I started remastering the first two missions of my Aquaman campaign, which were all that I had previously finished. I’ve been reworking my whole planned plot for the campaign, and I’m really happy and excited about how it’s coming together, but the changes required me to rework those first two missions. And that meant I needed a new map for mission 2, as the map I had planned on using, one of the incomparable CmdrKeonig’s crackerjack creations, but it was too small to fit in everything I needed. CK’s map was, at its core, a re-texturing or re-skinning of an existing terrain. The way most custom maps work is that, in addition to positioning objects in new and interesting ways, they provide a sub-directory in which an existing map’s terrain mesh can look for the textures it needs. But the mappers replace the vanilla textures with new ones that have the same name. Most of the custom FF maps that accomplish such amazing transformations use this fairly simple device to do it, though skilled mappers like CK also put in a lot of work ‘dressing up’ the map with re-textured and repurposed objects too.

So, what does all of that have to do with my own map troubles? Fortunately, CK’s map was based on one of the FF2’s Cuban missions, which all share the same texture set, and there was another of those missions which had the space and layout I needed. So, I just open the map up in FFEdit and point it’s texture directory to CK’s _textures_underwater folder, and it’s smooth-sailing, right? Well, nope; no such luck! The new map featured an airforce base with a big runway, and for some reason, when I gave the map the underwater textures, they displayed differently on the runway area than they did on the rest of the map! This distortion was pretty noticeable, and it really bothered me, so I tried to find a way to fix it. Whew! What a black hole this particular problem was!

Now, I know fairly little about textures (skins), and I know even less about meshes, so I had no idea what was going on here. I guessed that there was something about the terrain.nif, the actual 3d model of the map terrain itself, that was making those spots display the texture differently. So, I had to change it. I started by finding the level_layout.txt file for the map, which tells the game which terrain.nif to use. I copied and renamed it, pointed the map to this new file in the editor. Then I tracked down the terrain.nif, copied and renamed it, and pointed the layout file itself to its folder. The first entry in the layout is always the map’s mesh.

So, now I had a version of the mesh that I could play with and not mess anything up, and play I did. Or more accurately, I beat my head against this particular wall for days! I opened the map in Nifskope and clicked on the various pieces of the terrain, pouring over their entries and trying to figure out what settings controlled how they displayed textures. I compared their entries line by line, looking for whatever was different, and I tried a thousand different things, none of which had ANY positive effect! Finally, the community came to my rescue, and told me that how a texture is displayed is apparently all about something called a UV map. Who knew?!

I suppose that to be a good modder, it really does help to know about all of the different parts of game design. Anyway, I found a tutorial that explained how to edit the UV maps, which it turns out is a rather painstaking process in Nifskope. And that runway area was BIG! But, after a lot of rather maddening work, I finally had the map looking the way I wanted! Then it was just a matter of decorating it! So, I copied CK’s excellent design for his map, scattered a bunch of shrubs and weeds retextured to look like coral and seaweed all over the place, as well as some boulders and such for visual and gameplay interest. Then, because this mission is supposed to be one of the stages on the young Aquaman’s search for Atlantis, I asked superstar skinner Dean2000 to create some extra textures for me so I could add in the traces of a ruined city, using the map’s original textures and layout as a guide. I’m super happy with the finished product!

Map Design Part 3: Getting Clever

With the main map done, I set out to create a base scene to help me advance the plot and set up the mission that was going to take place on it. Now, my Aquaman plot is fairly ambitious. I’ve got a lot of story and a lot of development that I’m trying to cram in, and I struggled figuring out how to get through everything I needed in the base scene, while keeping the cutscenes it featured reasonably interesting to watch. I don’t just want to hit my players with a whole bunch of text with no visual interest! The story called for me to explore the origins of Black Manta and Aquaman, drawing on some of Geoff Johns’ better ideas from his N52 run. I had an excellent FF1 custom map featuring a lighthouse by the sea, but I wanted to portray some of what happened IN the water, and the map just has a flat, ‘painted’ surface for the water. How could I portray a story featuring both land AND sea in one map without looking silly? If I were Dr. Mike of The Strangers mod fame, I could just shift between maps INSIDE the base scene, but I don’t have a clue how he did that, and I probably couldn’t replicate it even if I did! So, once again, I decided to cheat.

I wrote the base scene CSes to focus the camera on a few different spots on the map, all out of sight of each other. Then I added a nice animated “water” object (one of our mappers, I forget who, created this years ago) above the surface of the “water” on the map in two of those spots. In the first spot I added a ship object “floating” in the top water layer, and my swimming Aquaman below it. In the other, I placed two ship objects, partially hidden in ‘floor’ of the map, to make it look like the ship had been sunk. Then, with a little camera work, the whole scene plays out relatively nicely, and the players only see what I want them to see. I’m inordinately pleased with how well it worked out.

Aquaman Campaign Update and Preview

While I was struggling with my various mapping mountains, I also tackled a ton of other, smaller jobs. I spent a lot of time tweaking the art assets for the Aquaman-related characters, especially the Aqua-Family, and that included new skins an skopes for Arthur’s sidekicks, Aqualad and Aquagirl. The tremendously talented Tomato very graciously agreed to make the Prince and Princess of the Sea for me, and they turned out fantastically! I also spent a lot of time skoping the keys of the various aqua-characters and updating their Herofiles to make them more interesting and unique in the game. I did a ton of work on the swimming keys, in particular, creating specially modified versions drawing on a wide range of different animation sets that gave me vastly more options in how I built the various characters. I discovered that the swimming keys were compatible with male_basic keys, and a hovering animation from another MB set would often look quite good as a swimming animation. That really expanded my options!

But the really excited work for me was remastering and reimagining my first two missions, laying in story hooks and plot threads that I can play with throughout the campaign. It’s great to finally be getting started on my Aquaman adventure in earnest, as this was one of the first ideas I conceived when I began working on my DCUG mythology. So, I rewrote the first mission, adding in some new elements to set up things to come, and I completely scrapped and recreated my second mission, starting with that whole new map. The first mission involved Arthur Curry beginning a quest to find Atlantis, and by finding it, to discover what happened to his mother, Atlanna, who was stolen away when he was a boy. During his search, he finds a mysterious island that is home to a research station, which has been besieged by the Marine Marauder!

My second mission saw the rookie Aquaman clash with the forces of Black Manta for the first time, as both men searched for Atlantis! This mission actually takes place underwater, so I have a separate mesh and key-set, essentially for my hero and all of his foes, an entirely separate set of characters, essentially. Everyone gets flight to simulate their ability to move in 3 dimensions, and eventually Aquaman will have the ability to summon his finny friends to aid him! As the mission progresses, Arthur makes a terrible discovery about his future nemesis, and he finds that the sea floor is covered with clues about Altantis! Finally, our hero frees an actual Atlantean warrior from Mantas men, but his welcome from his erstwhile people is not quite what he hoped it would be! Here’s a few glimpses of the mission, and you can see the base scene in action too!

Well, that should give y’all a sense of what I’ve been up to lately, though there are a thousand and one little jobs I’ve been doing as well. I hope that this has proven interesting and informative. Please feel free to ask questions and give feedback! There are some exciting developments on the horizons for the DCUG and for the Aquaman campaign in particular. I hope to have more to share with y’all soon! In the meantime, here’s a little peek at the Green Lantern Corps. campaign mission I finished a while back. Expect to see more about that, as well as about OrWolvie’s Green Arrow campaign, in my next developer’s diary! Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

Into the Bronze Age: December 1971 (Part 3)

Welcome back to our voyage into the Bronze Age! Once again life has intervened and rather spectacularly ruined my plans for a quicker turn around on this little feature. Things have been difficult here in the Greylands, though I suppose that they are indeed difficult in most places these days. For those of you that pray, I’d appreciate your prayers. We are physically and materially okay, but we are feeling rather worn-down by life at the moment, and there may be more difficult challenges on our horizon. Here’s hoping that 2021 may yet bring us all brighter days.

However, when life gets you down, there are few better escapes than the wonderful world of superhero comics, especially this particularly exuberant variety from the Bronze Age, so let us see what strange marvels the next bit of this month holds for us!

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #407
  • Adventure Comics #413
  • Batman #237
  • Detective Comics #418
  • The Flash #211
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #87
  • Justice League of America #95
  • Mr. Miracle #5
  • Phantom Strange #16
  • Superboy #180
  • Superman #246 (#245 was all reprints)
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #117
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #144
  • Teen Titans #36
  • World’s Finest #208

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


Justice League of America #95


Cover Artists: Neal Adams

“The Private War of Johnny Dune!”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella

Editor: Julius Schwartz

“How He Began”: Dr. Mid-Nite
Writer: Charles Reizenstein
Artist: Stan Aschmeier

“The Origin of…Doctor Fate”
Writer: Gardner Fox
Artist: Howard Sherman

We’ve got a very interesting story to kick off this set of comics, a tale that wholeheartedly steers into the relevance push of the early Bronze Age, combining a number of different contemporary issues in its plot. The result is a story that is rather fascinating as a representative of its era, even if the plot itself leaves something to be desired. The tale has a solid, if unexceptional cover. Adams’ rendering of our titular antagonist, Johnny Dune, is colorful and interesting, even if he is just wearing “normal” clothes. Well….normal is a relative term in the 70s. Let’s just say that he’s not wearing a costume. The piece captures the basic idea of the conflict, with Johnny having hypnotized the League. I do enjoy the miniature figure of the Tiny Titan trotting along at his feet. It’s not the most exciting of covers, but it does its job and sets the stage reasonably well.

And the show that plays upon that stage begins, not with our titular antagonist Johnny himself, but with Batman and Aquaman preparing to teleport up to the JLA Satellite, only to be scooped up by Superman, who dramatically declares that he is trying to prevent their deaths! In a two-page spread that gives us a nice cross-section of the Satellite, he transports the heroes to their headquarters, and we discover that Flash, Green Lantern, and Hawkman disappeared in some type of teleporter disaster. Fortunately, the world’s greatest detective is on the case!

Meanwhile, we are introduced to the young man from the cover, Johnny Dune, a Vietnam veteran returning home to a country that doesn’t want him. We learn that he fought in several battles of that terrible war, eventually getting wounded and facing certain death at the hands of advancing North Vietnamese troops. In a moment of agony and anger, he cried out for them to stop, and strangely enough, they did. Thus Johnny Dune discovered that he was a mutant with the power to control people with his voice. Despite his newfound power, the young man finds nothing but closed doors and rather unnecessarily discouraging “No Help Wanted!” signs when he returns home. Really, I don’t think it’s necessary to advertise that you don’t have any jobs available. It’s usually the other way around. It’s also interesting that the comic uses the word “mutant”, as you don’t tend to see that term show up as often at DC, given its association with Marvel. Of course, at this point, the original X-Men title had been cancelled, and we were still years away from the beginning of Chris Claremont’s legendary run.

That’s…really not all that impressive…

Next, we jump forward in time and join Green Arrow and the Atom as they perform an exhibition for a youth event. And it turns out that they are the opening act for…Johnny Dune, who has become a successful musician. That’s a sharp turn! We jump back and see that the rising star had approached one of the city’s political bosses, wanting to run for mayor (man, there must be something in the air; everyone’s getting into politics in the DCU!). Johnny is dedicated to addressing the somewhat vague social problems plaguing the city, including poverty, drugs, and violence. He warns that the kids are restless and angry but promises that he can calm things down, thanks to his star power. The rocker offers to play free concerts to help cool the situation off, only to be betrayed by the wheelers and dealers afterward.

In revenge, Johnny uses his power to hypnotize his current crowd into following him, as he leads them, Pied Piper style, out of the city. When the Emerald Archer and the Six-Inch Super-Sleuth try to stop him, the would-be musical messiah sics his audience on them. The heroes hold their own for a while, but get taken out by one random big dude, the first of many unimpressive showings by our heroes in this issue. You know, Ollie getting his lumps from an average guy is one thing, but the Atom getting casually taken out by a backhand is something else. I suppose that’s often how his stories go, though. No-one can touch the shrinking superhero…until the plot requires it.

I do quite enjoy Ollie’s misplaced confidence here.

Well, our pummeled protagonists manage to get off a distress call, just as Batman has solved the mystery of their teammates’ disappearances.. The Dark Knight theorizes that the trio intercepted a Zeta-Beam and got zapped to Rann, a theory proven a moment later, as Green Lantern manages to contact the team with a distress call of his own. The team splits up, with Superman headed to space to succor the heroes on Rann, while Batman and Black Canary take the Batjet to aid their other allies. In a cool moment, Aquaman is the one who takes charge and makes the plan. Its coolness is counteracted, however, by the fact that he decides to stay on the Satellite and coordinate things….for no particular reason. This is the last time he shows up in the story. So, why was he included in the first place?

The Gotham Guardian and the Bird Lady parachute into the fray, immediately beset by Dune’s disciples. Fortunately for them, they are so focused on their fighting, that they resist his voice, but then he sics his captive heroes on them, and the new comers just…let their teammates pummel them. We get a line about how they can’t bring themselves to fight, but this isn’t a life and death matter yet, so that just seems like another cop-out. With all the Leagures lassoed, our generic Jimi Hendrix heads down the highway, his brainwashed followers behind him.

Yet, along the way, Dune begins to lose control, and some of the kids start wrecking fences. When the musician can’t stop them, he sends Green Arrow to deal with the troublemakers. At first the Ace Archer can’t resist his commands, but in a moment when his captor is distracted by the chaos, the hero seizes his chance. Stopping up his ears, Odysseus-style, the Battling Bowman use a “suction cup arrow” to shut the singer’s trap, then clobbers him. This breaks the spell, and the kids run wild. So the heroes….bravely beat up a bunch of teenagers…? Yep, and even more oddly, Friedrich’s overblown narration plays it as a moment of great heroism.

But none of this is what Johnny Dune wanted, so seeing the destruction his former disciples are dishing-out, he frees himself and commands the crowd to turn their anger on him, instead. They beat him to within an inch of his life, somehow exorcising their rage in the process, and then just wandering off. Friedrich gives us a fake-out then, with Dune supposedly dying, only to be revealed to have survived on the next page. Ohh, the suspense? Apparently the battering he suffered somehow removed his powers, and the League and the law just kind of let him wander off to pursue his political career, despite having kidnapped hundreds of people with his hypnotic voice. Man, the authorities in Generictown sure are forgiving!

So, this is quite a comic. “Touch-feely Friedrich” is writing in his usual style, so the melodrama is cranked up, especially in his narration. Despite that, the tale is full of fascinating elements, as Friedrich stretches and strains for as much relevance as he can cram into the pages. In fact, it’s over-full, positively stuffed with different concepts, all fighting for space. We start with a returning Vietnam veteran, something rare enough in comics of this era, but even more so, Friedrich includes a nod to the difficulties such soldiers faced when coming home, the lack of opportunity and cultural hostility that greeted them. Larry Hama and other (better) writers would later deal with these themes more successfully in the 80s, when the events weren’t quite so present and time, perhaps, allowed for greater clarity and perspective.

Nonetheless, this is a really interesting moment, something that we have not seen very often in this era. In general, it seems DC books were largely ignoring the war and its consequences at this point. Yet, it isn’t just the plight of the veterans that fills the pages of this issue, as we also have other social problems providing background for the ill-defined unrest of the youth, the rage and disaffection which were still reverberating through the culture. Interestingly, there’s no mention of the anti-war movement, which would have been a natural fit for Johnny’s origins and a focus for the otherwise directionless anger of the kids in this story. Friedrich introduces the issue of returning veterans, and then he immediately moves on from it.

That is indicative of one of the major problems with this issue, as it’s a rather jumbled and discordant mix of different elements. As the plot develops, none of the interesting components of Johnny’s backstory actually have any impact on the direction of the story, other than his power and the fact that he was a musician. His military background, his inability to find a job (which is, itself, immediately undercut by the fact that we jump to him as a famous rock star), or his involvement in a neighborhood gang. None of these facets of his origin seem to actually color who he becomes or the choices he makes in the end. We’re given an intriguing hint that he was twisted by his experience in Vietnam, having become inured to violence, but though he displays a willingness to hurt the Leaguers, we don’t really see that come into play, not even in his moment of crisis and self-sacrifice. That’s disappointing because there is a ton of potential in this story’s setup. Speaking of his grand gesture, that also feels a little underwhelming, as it just feels unnecessary. Why does he have to turn their rage against himself? Why does that free them? Because plot? To make matters worse, our heroes are wholly unimpressive throughout. After all, they really don’t do much, other than occasionally beat up some kids, and or get their heads handed to them by random civilians.

Interestingly, the popular and influential, though troubled Johnny Dune, seems to be based on Jimi Hendrix to some degree, especially in the flashy style of clothes he wears throughout the adventure. Friedrich mentions Hendrix by name in his narration, and the real-life star himself had died recently, in 1970. Interestingly, Hendrix himself had been in the army, though he was discharged before seeing active service.

On the art front, this issue is solid, but not exceptional. There are definitely some of those stiff and awkward poses that characterize Dillin’s work on the book, he also does some great storytelling, bringing a lot of personality to Johnny, and giving us some nice moments throughout. All-in-all, this comic is more interesting in premise than in practice. It’s a fairly underwhelming story that can’t quite seem to decide what it’s doing. It’s still an engaging read, and it is fun to see an obvious Jimi Hendrix proxy captivating the DC Universe. I’ll give this one 3 Minutemen, as it more or less breaks even.

P.S.: Another fascinating feature of this issue is that its letter column contains correspondence from not one, but two future comics professionals! That’s right, we’ve got letters from both Mark Gruenwald and future DC Answer Man, Bob Rozakis, which is pretty cool! As you’ll see, they had rather different opinions about the work DC in general, and Friedrich in particular, were doing. I suppose that’s why Gruenwald ended up working for Marvel! However, I have to say, I think the young curmudgeon has some pretty good points in his letter, especially about the disappointing lack of supervillains in these pages. I’m curious if his math is right. It sounds pretty accurate, and we certainly have seen more than our share of alien menaces in this book since we’ve started this project, haven’t we?


Mr. Miracle #5


“Murder Machine!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Mike Royer
Editor: Jack Kirby

“Young Scott Free”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Mike Royer

Boy Commandos: “The Invasion of America”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler/Inker: Joe Simon

Well, if our Justice League story this month is a bit of a disappointment, the wonderful madness of Kirby’s Fourth World can make it up to us. In this issue, the King treats us to another delightful outing for the world’s only super-escape artist. It has a pretty good cover, continuing the pattern of our hapless hero being held helpless while being threatened by wonderfully exaggerated perils. The dangerous device isn’t as creative and outre as some of the previous entries, but I love the ridiculous variety of menaces it includes. There’s a missile labelled A-Bomb, as if you would need anything other than that, as well as a knife, an axe, and a flamethrower, which is helpfully labelled for our convenience. It’s entertainingly silly and excessive. As an added bonus, this cover is a pretty honest depiction of the devilish threat that awaits our hero within.

Our adventure begins with Big Barda, in her rather skimpy attire from the end of the last issue, performing her daily exercises to the delight of a group of workmen who have come to deliver a cannon for Scott Free’s act. In a fun and honestly funny scene, she puts all of the admiring apes to shame as she casually rips the massive cannon free from its lashings and tots it away on her shoulder. Kirby’s narration in this section, and really throughout the issue, is a bit weird and on the nose: “See Big Barda! See how she exercises! Big Barda is tough! Big Barda is incredibly strong! Big Barda comes from Apokolips!” Has he suddenly turned into Dr. Seuss? Despite that, the dialog for this opening scene is entertaining and natural….unfortunately, that doesn’t really last.

Yet, while Barda is making the menfolk feel inferior, we are introduced to Vermin Vundabar, the pint-sized Pinochet, who we learn has modeled his appearance and attitude after the rigorous military discipline and efficiency of the Prussian army of the 19th century. He’s been sent to Earth by Granny Goodness to kill Scott, and with the help of one of his henchmen, he’s testing a death trap. In a nicely effective scene, the trap backfires, injuring his minion, all while Vundabar coldly looks on. Then, he casually executes the fellow for having failed him! It’s a very effective introduction to the character, and Kirby puts a ton of personality into the little dictator in every panel.

Meanwhile, Scott and Oberon are trying out their newest act, which involves Mr. Miracle being strapped to a cannon as it fires! Man, ‘ol Scott doesn’t do things by half measures, doe she? But as they are occupied with their preparations, Barda is ambushed by some of Vundabar’s troops, and though she gives a good account of herself, she’s captured. Fortunately, Mr. Miracle is able to escape his bonds before he gets bisected by a cannonball, and he sets out to rescue the captured Female Fury.

Arriving at Vundabar’s headquarters, the heroic Houdini is greeted by a video of his antagonist before being trapped in a “titanium coffer” and locked into place on a conveyor belt of death! The coffer is then subjected to a host of horrible attacks, including battering, blasting, zapping, and finally…melting! Then, in a great moment, as Vundabar and his lackeys laugh and gloat about having caught and killed the world’s greatest escape artist, who should show up behind them but Mr. Miracle himself!

It’s a fun reveal, and he shares with them (and us) how he escaped by using his boot jets to cut through the floor and burrowed underground, which is a fairly satisfying explanation. Kirby specifically tells us that Vundabar’s cameras were focused on the front of the trap, so they didn’t pick up the hole in the conveyor belt. In another entertaining touch, while the gathered goons question him, Scott uses those same boot lasers to literally cut the floor out from under them. I’m not quite sure how that worked without them noticing, but it is a fun moment, so I’ll just roll with it. Our tale ends with Scott scooping up the weakened Barda and the pair flying off into the sunset.

This is an entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable issue. Kirby’s plotting is fun and action-packed, though his dialog and especially his narration is just plain odd in places. This is particularly noticeable in some of the unnecessarily vague and unclear descriptions of Apokolips. Despite that, there are moments of genuine humor and charm, and Kirby really seems to have a good sense of his characters. Vundabar is introduced well and given plenty of unique color and a strong personality. I love the way he doesn’t even bat an eye as his henchman literally explodes behind him. Of course, the premise is pretty wacky, but it works in the wild world of comics. Why would a New God from Apokolips model himself after Prussians from Earth? Because Earth is the center of the universe, apparently! I suppose since Darkseid is convinced that humans have the Anti-life Equation, it would make sense for his forces to turn their attention to our little orb.

Anyway, the central threat of the issue is visually interesting and exciting, and Scott’s escape is relatively satisfying. Kirby’s art is great and energetic throughout, but he also does an excellent job of capturing the emotion and personality of his characters, like Scott’s fear for Oberon while the hero himself is strapped to the cannon. I think we’re seeing the benefits of having a better inker. At any rate, I’ll give this enjoyable outing 4 Minutemen. As much fun as it is, it’s good, not great, with enough little flaws to keep it from a higher score.

P.S.: This issue had an odd little moment that confused and intrigued me, and I can’t quite decide how I feel about it. When Scott confronts Vundabar at the end, the villain accuses the hero of ‘cheating’ and using a technological trick to escape his trap. Mr. Miracle replies that “even in the ‘crunch’ I play it fair — and you know it!” So, this implies that Scott has access to technology and powers that he refuses to use out of some sense of fair play…when the forces of a personification of pure evil are trying to kill him… I find this simultaneously utterly stupid and tremendously entertaining. I love the idea of a hero who is having a good time with his adventures, perhaps who even pushes himself to excel by giving himself challenges within his adventure, like the cosmic race between Flash and Superman from World’s Finest. However, while I could absolutely see Mr. Miracle having such an attitude, I don’t know that it really makes sense for it to be applied to his conflict with Darkseid’s minions. After all, they represent a hellish reality for him, not merely a threat to life and limb. Either way, I’m intrigued by this element and curious if Kirby will develop it further.


The Phantom Stranger #16


“Image in Wax”
Writer: Len Wein
Penciler/Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Joe Orlando

Cover Artist: Neal Adams

Mark Merlin: “Threat of the Horrible Hex”
Writer: Arnold Drake
Penciler/Inker: Mort Meskin

Doctor 13: “And the Corpse Cried, ‘Murder!'”
Writer: Len Wein
Penciler/Inker: Tony DeZuniga

In this month’s Phantom Stranger yarn we find an interesting if overstuffed tale of mystery and magic. All of that lies beneath a cover which is a very mixed bag. The background of wax figures is really excellent and striking, with the Phantom Stranger unobtrusively included in their number, his signature shadow stretching menacingly above. Yet, the central image of the old man in the wheelchair is rendered a little comical by the girl’s apparent terror, despite the monstrous hands reaching from ‘off-screen.’ It’s only half successful, I’d say, as the crippled figure of the old codger doesn’t really fit in with the heavy atmosphere of the rest of the piece.

Within, the oppressive feel of the cover is replicated in a dark and misty night, as a pair of punks tries to break into, of all things, a wax museum. Unfortunately for them, they are interrupted in the act by an apparently frail and helpless old man, and one scream later, they have been transformed into wax statues! This sequence was actually a bit confusing. Before we see the reveal of their fate, the old man, Tallow, dispatches two other shadowy figures to “find the girl!” On my first read, I naturally assumed that those were the former felons.

The next day finds a crowd attending the grand opening of the museum, which has a focus on the occult. Viewing the “Hall of Wizards” with the rest of the patrons is a certain Stranger who senses evil in the old house. Intrigued? Well, if so, too bad, because it’s going to be a quite a while before we follow up on that! Instead, that night, two men attack a woman on a deserted street, only to be interrupted by the Phantom Stranger, whose dialog has suddenly been turned up to 11 on the dramatic scale. I can’t quite decide if lines like “the powers of truth are a beacon in the darkness, far stronger than the shadows they dispel!” are cool or corny. Either way, after saving the girl, our mystery man discovers that she has lost her memory. After she is brought to a place of refuge and left with a promise of protection, she dreams strange and vivid dreams!

Falling through a very Aparo dream-scape reminiscent of some of the last of his Aquaman issues, she finds herself in a fantastic and ancient setting, where she is greeted as “Queen Dalia.” As she watches, the chief priest of this outlandish place declares that the stars declare that they, the wizards of their people, must go into hiding or be destroyed. Their only hope is a spell called “The Deathless Sleep” which will render them “as statues–waxen soulless parodies of life.” Do you see the connection? Well, hang on; it gets stranger! The chief priest, Tallow (!), declares that he will watch over their sleeping fellows, keeping himself alive by absorbing life forces from those that slumber. Yet, Dalia refuses to join him, not wanting to give up her life, and then she is suddenly rescued by the Phantom Stranger, who pulls her through the psychedelic dream space and back to the land of the waking in a cool sequence.

Think you’ve got a handle on the story? Well, hold on to your hat, because despite the fact that we’ve already got a haunted wax museum, an amnesiac girl, and a mysterious ancient civilization, Wein isn’t done tossing in elements just yet! After the nightmare, the Spectral Sleuth and his lovely charge go for a walk to clear her head, only to encounter an ardent and anxious young man named Ernie Drapper, who claims to be her fiance. He goes from distressed to dangerous at the drop of a hat, attacking the Phantom Stranger when the mysterious man tries to explain the situation. While they struggle, they are struck by a burst of dark energy, and when they recover, they discover the girl has been taken! A very tolerant and forgiving Stranger shrugs off Drapper’s attempt to murder him and takes the unstable fellow in search of his forgetful fiance.

Their search takes them to the wax museum, of course, where they are captured by wax figures come to life and brought before Tallow, who is indeed the long-lived chief priest from Dalia’s dream. We discover that she had escaped from her people, having stolen life force from another (!), and they have been seeking to recapture her. At this explanation, Drapper once more displays his disturbingly short temper and penchant for violence, breaking free and trying to burn the whole place down while they’re all still inside it. They rescue Dalia from the flames, but her respite proves short lived, as she melts away like wax once outside, confessing that she was one of these mysterious wizards in hiding, but that she did truly love him. The Phantom Stranger offers the grieving Drapper the rather unhelpful thought that he still has his memories, and then wanders off into the night, leaving the unstable young man weeping over his love’s smoldering remains.

Ooookay…..so, did you follow all that? If you’ve got questions, you’re not alone! I am left a bit befuddled. She tells us that her amnesia was self-induced, but she also says that she lied to Ernie…so….how much was the lie? Did she actually not know what she was, or was she only lying at the end when she said Tallow’s tale wasn’t true? I’m guessing it’s the latter, but this is all a bit confusing. This story is, like many of Wein’s during this run, just plain overstuffed with ideas. There is just too much going on here, and while it isn’t as incongruous and messy as some of Kanigher’s efforts on the book, it does definitely feel hurried and incomplete. We’ve got a lost society hidden in plain sight, which is an interesting idea, but we learn almost nothing about them, their culture, their origins, their objectives, or their motivations, other than preserving their people. We have the girl with amnesia and the mystery of her identity, but although we learn that she was part of this group, we learn almost nothing else about her. What was she doing living as a human? How long had she been on the run? She stole life force to make her escape; did she kill someone to do that? There’s a ton that could be done with these ideas, but Wein just rushes right through them, not taking any time to explore or develop any of these interesting elements. This should have been at least two issues, I’d say, with one perhaps unraveling the enigma of the girl’s identity, ending with the discovery that there was more to the mystery than meets the eye and leading in to the whole ‘secret wizard colony’ thing. Even in comics, that needs a bit more air to breathe.

The art, of course, is fantastic and atmospheric. Aparo creates moody, menacing mystery, mind-bending visions, and even great quiet moments with gusto and aplomb. He also includes some fun Easter eggs in the wax museum. Among the famed figures gathered in that macabre manse, sharp-eyed readers might spot the creepy Cain of House of Mystery fame, as well as Sargon the Sorcerer and, perhaps, the Time Trapper (though his costume is so nondescript, it could just be a generic robbed figure). I wonder if the fellow in colonial garb is someone too, but if so, I can’t place him. His Stranger looks particularly great, always in motion and wreathed in shadow, a striking, dynamic figure in any scene. It’s always interesting to me when this clearly supernatural entity suddenly seems human, like when the stunned Stranger is sprawled on the sidewalk, his hat knocked off his head. It further muddies the waters with just who or what he is. At any rate, the lovely art helps to elevate the rather flawed story, and the end result is a fun, though somewhat confusing and overfull tale that leaves you wishing Wein had picked just one element on which to focus. Still, though the individual components of the story are underdeveloped, Wein does give us a complete tale with a full emotional arc, however rushed. I’ll give it an average 3 Minutemen.


“And the Corpse Cried ‘Murder'”


Our backup is once again a tale of Dr. Thirteen, the Ghost-Breaker (which is, to be fair, an awesome nom de guerre). It begins with a couple on a mountain road witnessing the fiery crash of a car in an apparent suicide. Yet, later on, the good doctor receives an unexpected an unusual visitor in his study, a ghostly apparition who claims to be the spirit of a murdered man named Paul Williams. The interloper, who proves to be actually incorporeal, begs Dr. Thirteen to find his killer, and the intrigued investigator agrees, though he plans to expose the poltergeist as a plot!

He pays a visit to the “ghost’s” widow, who suggests that a disgruntled former employee of her husband, Ross Curran, might have hated him enough to kill him. Heading to the suspect’s house, the skeptical sleuth arrives in time to see the electrical technician apparently commit suicide after admitting that he killed his former boss. Yet, when the doctor examines the body, he finds that it is as cold as ice, as if it had been dead for hours. He also finds a thin film of dust over everything in the room, theorizing that there is a similar residue in his office. Suspecting that he’s being set up as a sucker, the Ghost-Breaker sets out to live up to his nickname.

Calling Mrs. Williams, he implies that he’s uncovered new evidence, and a while later, the supposedly spectral Paul Williams shows up, very much corporeal, and armed to boot! He admits that he and his wife faked his death, sending a derelict to a fiery fate in his place, and framing Curran for his murder, with the electrical wizard’s unwitting aid. Just as the murderer prepares to add another death to his doll, Dr. Thirteen triggers an illusion of his own, the same holographic technology that had created William’s ghostly “manifestation” and Curran’s “suicide”, images projected onto reflective particles floating in the air. William’s fires ineffectively, and the Ghost-Breaker wades in, only to lose the initiative a moment later. Just as Williams is about to kill the doubting detective, his would-be widow stumbles in, having caught one of the stray bullets he fired, leaving Dr. Thirteen to close the case in a more peaceful, if somber, fashion.

This is a really solid Dr. Thirteen tale. It’s got a good central mystery, wrapped in the appearance of a false enigma. It’s a clever twist on a familiar plot, with a private detective brought in to play unwitting patsy for a nefarious plot, providing an unimpeachable witness for a false reality. The pay-off requires science fiction technology, but for a story taking place in the DC Universe, that is pretty believable. Of course there would be realistic holograms floating around in that world. Thirteen himself is clever and resourceful, not really being taken in by the plot. In only 8 pages, Wein manages to deliver a complete and satisfying mystery, complete with a nice emotional beat at the end. DeZuniga’s art is pretty solid throughout, achieving some really nice effects with some of the holographic sequences. I’ll give this fine backup 3.5 Minutemen. It’s a good and intriguing read, and unlike the title tale, in this one, Wein makes excellent use of his limited space.


And that will do it for this delayed dose of Bronze Age brilliance! We’ve got a solid set of stories, all of them making for at least decent reads, and with a very diverse set of styles. I hope that y’all found them as interesting as I did, and that you’ll join me again (hopefully soon!) for another ed

Into the Bronze Age: November 1971 (Part 4)

DC-Style-Guide-2.jpg
Hello Internet travelers, and welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  It’s time to explore some more classic, Bronze Age DC comics, and we’ve got a pretty interesting trio of titles to talk about this time.  We have a significant issue of The Haunted Tank’s harrowing adventures, a cool and unusual issue of JLA, and finally another frantic feature of the Fourth World!  Let’s dive right in, shall we?

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #406
  • Adventure Comics #412
  • Batman #236
  • Brave and the Bold #98
  • Detective Comics #417
  • The Flash #210
  • Forever People #5
  • G.I. Combat #150
  • Justice League of America #94
  • New Gods #5
  • Superboy #179
  • Superman #244
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #116
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #143
  • World’s Finest #207

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


G.I. Combat #150


g.i._combat_150

“The Death of the Haunted Tank”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Russ Heath
Inker: Russ Heath
Editor/Cover Artist: Joe Kubert

“The Two-Legged Mine”
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: Russ Heath
Inker: Russ Heath
Editor: Robert Kanigher

“Hip Shot”
Writer: Sam Glanzman
Penciler: Sam Glanzman
Inker: Sam Glanzman
Editor: Robert Kanigher

“Ice Cream Soldier”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Joe Kubert
Inker: Joe Kubert
Editor: Robert Kanigher

We’ve got a landmark issue of the Haunted Tank this month!  For once, the cover doesn’t lie, and when it promises the “Death of the Haunted Tank,” it is being quite literal!  After roughly 60 issues, the plucky little M-3 Stuart tank will meet its demise in this issue.  And that cover is a pretty good one, in addition to being honest.  It’s dramatic, catching a moment, not before disaster strikes, but just as it is striking, which creates a pretty dynamic effect.  Of course, Kubert’s stark work adds to the drama of the moment rather nicely.

gi combat 150-03

Inside, our tale begins in what has become normal fashion, with the spectral J.E.B. Stuart offering one of his habitual vague warnings that could really mean anything, as Kanigher continues to not really take advantage of his awesome premise.  In this case, the General’s super helpful warning that “things aren’t what they seem” applies to a seemingly crashed German bomber that is actually a trap for the tank.  Jeb and company knock it out in a nice two-page splash, but then their ghostly guardian informs them that this was the last time he could “help” them, and bids them farewell.

gi combat 150-04-05

As Jeb ruminates on this startling turn of events, his crew continue to contemplate his apparent insanity as he seems to speak to empty air.  They roll past a depot where other crews are cannibalizing knocked out tanks for parts.  There are two things of note in this scene.  First, the other crew actually asks how Jeb’s tiny little Stuart constantly knocks out tanks much heavier than it, joking that it must be because it is haunted.  Second, we get a shot of this crew, who include Joe, Russ, and Steve, who are given very detailed faces.  I feel like this has got to be a reference to particular folks.  I’m guessing, and this is just a guess, that the fellow in the middle is Joe Kubert and the one on the right is Russ Heath.  I would love to hear from any readers who actually know!

gi combat 150-07

Anyway, possible creator cameos aside, the ghostly guys next run into trouble when they encounter a Jeep full of wounded troops fleeing a fighter.  The crew manages to knock the perilous plane out of the sky (more unbelievable feats!), encouraging the team.  Yet, their continued faith in the old Stuart meets a much tougher test later on, when they are sent into a hot zone to aid Dog Company.

gi combat 150-08

The infantry is getting cut to pieces on the banks of a river by a tank and artillery in the woods on the other side.  Jeb charges the Stuart into the teeth of the enemy guns, and they get the enemy tank.  However, the AT gun tears their little tin box apart piece by piece, and in surprisingly short order, the Haunted Tank dies, though the crew manage to make a frantic escape.

gi combat 150-12

When Jeb and company realize that no more backup is forthcoming, they race to the depot and assemble a new, “Jigsaw Tank” out of cannibalized parts.  They take their new makeshift metal monster into combat, just in time to stop two new Nazi tanks charging across the river, and they even manage to clean up the AT gun that killed their previous ride.  The story ends with General Stuart returning, and explaining that the tank didn’t matter, only the dedication of the men inside, so the grateful crew christen their new vehicle The Haunted Tank once more.

gi combat 150-13

I actually expected rather more form this tale.  It’s a fine, fun story, however unrealistic it is for the guys to assemble a new tank so quickly and easily.  Still, I’ve been seeing this cover approaching for some time, and I just expected the death of the tank that had been through so much with the crew to be given a little more weight.  Instead, Jeb and co. basically joke about it for a minute, then immediately replace the faithful old girl.  Of course, there’s only so much you can do in a 14 page story, but I found myself a bit surprised that Kanigher didn’t make more of the moment.  The actual adventures here could have been condensed, with more focus on the central conflict at the river and the loss of the Stuart, which I think would have been more effective.

As is, the story is really rather forgettable.  Of course, Russ Heath’s art remains excellent, perfect for the title.  He’s a master of both the dynamic battle scenes and even the quiet, character-centric moments.  On a broader note, I continue to be disappointed by the lack of development of the premise.  General Stuart leaves the crew for most of the issue, but functionally, it doesn’t actually play out any differently than 90% of the stories we’ve read, as he plays no active part in most plots after his traditional enigmatic warning anyway.  Well, missed opportunities aside, I’ll give this solid armored adventure 3.5 Mintuemen.  At least Jeb and crew now have a tank that might stand a ghost of a chance against German armor in real life!

minute3.5


Justice League of America #94


jla_v.1_94

“Where Strikes Demonfang?”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Pencilers: Neal Adams and Dick Dillin
Inkers: Neal Adams and Joe Giella
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“The Tarantula Strikes”
Writer: Gardner Fox
Penciler: Bert Christman
Inker: Bert Christman
Editors: Vincent Sullivan and Julius Schwartz

“The Amazing Starman”
Writer: Jack Burnley
Penciler: Jack Burnley
Inkers: Jack Burnley and Ray Burnley
Colourist: Raymond Perry
Letterer: Betty Bentley
Editors: Whitney Ellsworth and Julius Schwartz

Alright!  Time for another issue of my favorite comic team’s book!  Despite the fact that this title has been so uneven since we’ve started, I still find myself excited about it each month, and this issue features my favorite character….sort of!  Sadly, we’ve got a pretty lackluster cover, really.  It’s got Deadman’s dramatic pronouncement, but the blank blue background and compressed, box-out cover-space don’t do it any favors, and all the pointless occult paraphernalia in the foreground can’t change that.  Of course, the actual art is lovely, as Neal Adams contributes the image, as well as several pages inside!  Yet, the biggest trouble with this cover is that it spoils a significant part of the story, which is a shame.

jla094-(avalon)-01

As for that story, it is actually a pretty darn good one.  We begin with a wonderfully detailed splash page of the League of Assassins’ leader, the enigmatic Sensei, who is plotting revenge against an unknown JLA member for a previous slight.  We join the trio of characters who disappeared from the last arc, Batman, Green Arrow, and the Sea King himself, Aquaman, as they prowl about the waterfront, hunting for an assassin who hunts them in turn.  The Bold Bowman spots a flash from the killer’s scope, and the heroes leap into action, quickly corralling the gunman.  Yet, the assassin refuses to talk, and the Leaguers are left in the dark about who is the target of the “Demon’s Fang,” the League of Assassins.  That’s right, it’s League vs. League!

Back at the Demon Fang’s headquarters, the Sensei is not pleased that his man has missed his mark, and he summons one of his best, Merlyn, the archer.  We get an interesting note of continuity and world-building here, as the League of Assassins are part of Ra’s Al Ghul’s set-up and have been introduced in the Batman books, so it is exciting and surprising to see them here.  What’s more, the Demon’s Head, Al Ghul himself, gets name-dropped, as Merlyn mentions that their master has a special interest in their target.  Nonetheless, the ancient Sensei is adamant, and the archer is sent on the attack.

jla094-(avalon)-05

Meanwhile, everyone’s favorite sleaze, Morgan Edge, makes another universe-building appearance, and sends Clark Kent out on assignment.  There are hints of Intergang’s involvement, and the under-cover Kryptonian brings along a little action figure-sized ace -in-the-hole, the Atom, as the assignment brings him near the last known location of the missing Leaguers.  Yet, before they can arrive, their news van is ambushed with arrows!  Superman attacks, only to be taken out of the fight by special gadgets prepared by the Demonfang techs, including a gravitational arrow which increases the pull of gravity on the Man of Steel exponentially.

jla094-(avalon)-09

The Atom, after delivering a great pint-sized punch, is also put out of commission by a sonic arrow.  Now, if you had told me that Merlyn was taking on a significant subset of the League on his own, I would have said that was silly, but Friedrich actually manages to write his way around the problem of a vastly under-powered villain with some reasonable gadgets.  It’s nice to see Superman treated as something other than completely unstoppable, and without recourse to Kryptonite or something completely silly.  Is it convenient that Merlyn has trick arrows that can take out these heroes?  Yes, but I’ll buy it for the purposes of this story.

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Unfortunately, our other heroes don’t have much better luck than their fellows, as our original trio finds their captive assassin killed almost as soon as they turn him over to the police.  On the arrow that killed him is a note, which declares that “The price of failure in the League of Assassins is death!”  It is signed by the mysterious Merlyn, and it is here that we discover that Green Arrow knows our enigmatic assassin.  Merlyn was a master archer, and he was Ollie’s first great rival, who embarrassed him in a competition before disappearing, only to emerge now, as a master of a decidedly more deadly discipline.

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The titanic trio set out on Merlyn’s trail, but we have an odd little moment where Batman asks Aquaman if he has enough time, and the apparently confused Sea King responds, ‘sure…uh…why not?”  I saw what was coming, and I was a bit annoyed by it, and sure enough, as soon as they reach their destination, a creepy old house that is definitely not a trap, the Marine Marvel passes out.  He’s been out of water too long (that darn 1 hour limit can’t go away soon enough!), and I just couldn’t believe Friedrich had put the character in the book just to have him act this stupidly.  But, when the Caped Crusader finds a fountain inside and submerges the submarine superhero, things take a much more interesting turn, as the Dark Knight puts Aquaman in a headlock and demands to know….who he is!  Just then, the trap springs, and Green Arrow is locked in a vacuum tube!

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While the hunted heroes investigate the house, the agonized Atom manages to smash the sonic arrow and free himself, and he comes up with a novel way to free the Metropolis Marvel too.  He can’t budge the gravity device, but he wraps his belt around it and enlarges the machine until it becomes unstable and explodes! That’s actually a really clever solution, and fitting for the brilliant Ray Palmer.  The haggard heroes aren’t yet back at a hundred percent, however, and they must hitchhike towards their allies!

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I love the hilarious banality of Superman having to listen to some schmo blather on as he hitches a ride! “Really, I have more important things on my mind, man!”

Back in the villain-haunted house, the Masked Manhunter can’t break his Emerald ally out of his glass prison, but Superman, recovering enough to take flight and escape their blabbermouth chauffeur, is able to spot the predicament with his super vision and hurl the Atom hard enough to free Ollie.  It’s really a nice sequence.  Yet, at the same time, Batman has become stuck on the fence that separated him from his fallen friend, a perfect target for Merlyn, who has emerged at last to kill his true target…the Dark Knight, of course!  He lets fly, but the stunned Green Arrow recovers rapidly enough to string and fire an arrow just in time to deflect Merlyn’s killing shot!  His nemesis salutes such a fine shot, and his carefully calculated chance gone, the magician uses a jetpack built into his quiver to escape.  Merlyn himself is now a hunted man, as he reminds the heroes that “the price of failure in the League of Assassins is death!”

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It is then that the “mystery” of Aquaman’s identity is solved in another pair of Adams-penned pages, as the Sea King and the Dark Detective discuss the case.  It turns out that Deadman took over the Marine Marvel’s body because the being he serves, Rama Kushna, warned him of an attempt to kill a Justice Leaguer which would upset the balance of the world.  He didn’t know who the target was, and the Sea Sleuth was just the first hero to hand, effectively.  That’s why he ran himself out of gas (or water, as the case may be), and made various other mistakes.  All of this was in revenge for Batman interfering with the Sensei’s attack on Nanda Parbat back in Brave and the Bold #86, apparently, which I must have read but have forgotten.

Of course, this would be a lot more impressive if we didn’t know Deadman was possessing Aquaman from the cover (even if I did get swept up in the story enough to forget!).  Yet, the tale doesn’t end there.  It ends with a return to the JLA Satellite, where something is wrong with the teleporter, something that we won’t discover until next issue!  Meanwhile, the Sensei has learned his lesson, and the next time he strikes, he shall isolate and destroy his enemy!

Well, the non-reveal aside, I really enjoyed this issue, despite some trademark overwriting and generally deplorable dialog from Friedrich.  It’s a lot of fun, and it is really great to see the universe-building happening in other books filter into the flagship title like this.  How interesting must it have been to be reading the Bat-books and JLA, and to see these characters and concepts jump from one title to another?  Of course, this makes perfect sense, but it isn’t the kind of thing that you see that much in DC from earlier eras.  I imagine it will become more common as we get further into the Bronze Age.

In addition, the story is pretty solidly plotted, with events having a decent logic to them, with characters acting with clear motivations.  As I was reading, several story beats seemed off to me, only to be revealed to work perfectly in Friedrich’s plot, which was a pleasant surprise.  On another note, the removal of Kryptonite seems to already be paying story dividends, as it has forced Friedrich to come up with a clever way of taking the Man of Tomorrow out of the fight, rather than relying on the formerly ubiquitous mineral.  One of the only real downsides to this tale is that Aquaman doesn’t actually get anything to do, which seems like a real waste when he features so prominently in the comic, especially since he isn’t actually Aquaman.

The art is solid throughout, though evincing the standard weaknesses I’ve come to associate with Dillin’s JLA work, though the interpolated Adams pages are beautiful.  They are also a bit distracting, as the clash of styles is very noticeable.  Nonetheless, this is a fun, interesting issue, with some fascinating world building happening that still manages to include a solid adventure.  I’ll give it 4 Minutemen.

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New Gods #5


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“Spawn!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Mike Royer
Letterer: Mike Royer
Editor: Jack Kirby

“Introducing Fastbak”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta

We finally return to the centerpiece of Kirby’s Fourth World epic, and it is a definite improvement over the somewhat understated and disappointing last issue, as the operatic action that suits this book best is back in spades.  Our dramatic tale lies beneath a solid, if flawed cover.  It’s got a nice, dynamic image in the central brawling characters, though their poses are a bit odd.  Yet, their size rather downplays the significance of the massive monster symbolically squeezed into the corner.  The orange background doesn’t really help either, especially with Orion’s red costume.  Kirby just isn’t producing his best covers for this run, which is a real shame, as the stories really beg for ‘kapow’ images.

This particular issue begins with Metron, who is traveling through dimensions once more.  This time his wanderings take him to one of the most memorable and dramatic settings from Kirby’s Fourth World, the Promethean Galaxy, the last barrier of the Source, where float for all eternity the Promethean Giants who give the place its name.  Kirby gives us an amazing, dramatic two-page splash, depicting the size and scope of this strange sight as only the King could.  It’s a really striking image.  We discover that these giants were beings who tried to force their way to the source, and in return for their hubris, they are bound forever in suspended animation, just short of their goal.  I love this concept, wonderfully archetypal, reflecting all of the myths of giants and titans, who have traditionally been associated with the sin of pride and destroyed by the deities they opposed.  What a wonderfully Kirby-cosmic treatment of the theme.

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Star-sized super-beings aside, once his contemplation is finished, Metron returns to New Genesis, but our story is much more concerned with a humbler sphere, the Earth, where a detective named Terrible Turpin is interrogating Dave Lincoln after the events of the last issue.  Turpin has discovered the war between gods that is brewing in his city, and he’s determined to put a stop to it, before the place is leveled in the process.  When Lincoln returns to Orion’s human allies, we check in with them, but the Useless Crew continues to contribute little to the plot, other than some exposition and general fretting.

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Fortunately, we don’t waste too much time with them, and we soon rejoin Orion, who was captured by the Deep Six last issue.  He’s pinned by a giant clam, where he is taunted by Slig, who also demonstrates the Six’s sinister powers, the ability to mutate living beings with just a touch from his right hand, and to kill instantly with his left!  Fortunately for the Dog of War, he is able to free himself with a hidden device after his captor has finished his gloating, though he discovers that the clam is more than meets the eye.

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What follows is a cool sequence as Orion battles his way through various mutated menaces, who all have wonderfully cool Kirby designs (the man just constantly produced awesome creations, even for these little creatures which we’ll never see again!).  Finally, the hunted hero discovers a massive, battleship sized cradle, which once held some gargantuan beast created by the Six, but now lies ominously empty.

Back in the city, Turpin continues his investigation and the Useless Crew continue their fretting, but they are all interrupted by the coming of….Kalibak!  Darkseid’s scion arrives with a smash, prepared to spread fear and devastation on Earth!  However, Orion is busy elsewhere, so the Cruel one will have to keep for the moment.  Back in the undersea caverns, Slig finally finds his quarry amid a pile of smashed guards.  Unfortunately for him, the warrior has also found something, his Astro-Harness, and he blasts his foe in the face before proceeding to pummel him pitilessly.

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It’s another great sequence, and Kirby shows us the savage joy Orion takes in the terrible thrashing he administers, as well as showing us Slig’s beaten face.  The King actually manages to make this malicious monster a little pitiful in that moment.  Interestingly, Orion’s brutal visage is revealed by the violence of his attack, and he is forced to have Mother Box replace his fallen features, another hint about his origins.  Finally, the Dog of War disposes of his fallen foe by tossing him into a pit and sets out in search of the monster the Six have unleashed.  We get a glimpse of the beast in a nice splash page, but lacking anything to establish its scale, it’s not as effective as it might be.

So this is a great, action-packed issue, setting up a lot of what’s to come with Terrible Turpin and Kalibak’s chaotic arrival, as well as the monster unleashed on the seas.  There is a lot going on here, and Kirby handles it quite well.  While the time spent with Orion’s supporting cast feels wasted, every moment with the warrior’s quest is exciting and dramatic, and the glimpses of the wider mythology with Metron are fascinating.  The whole thing feels operatic and earth-shaking in the best ways, like a particularly good issue of the classic Fantastic Four, but elevated by the cosmic overtones and archetypal underpinnings of the Fourth World.

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It’s also fun to see Detective Dan Turpin introduced, as he will later be recast as a tribute to Kirby himself in Superman: TAS, where his bulldog attitude and heroic perseverance make him a fitting match for his creator.  On the art front, this issue looks quite good, and it is immediately noticeable that Colletta is gone from the book.  Mike Royer’s inks aren’t perfect, but they seem to pick up more detail and generally drown out Kirby’s pencils less.  At least so it seems to my inexpert eye.  As I said, I love the creativity of the Deep Six’s monster minions.  Why no-one has brought the Six back as recurring Aquaman villains, complete with a Kirby-esq monstrous menagerie of mutants is quite beyond me.  Missed opportunities aside, I’ll give this exciting adventure 4.5 Minutemen.

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“Introducing Fastbak”


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We get another brief Young Gods backup strip in this issue, this one featuring Fastbak, a free-spirited New Genesis youth with a need for speed.  Once again, there are only four pages to the strip, so there isn’t really time for Kirby to do much with the character, but we see him lead the New Genesis equivalent of cops, the Monitors (no, not those Monitors) a merry chase as he flies around Supertown at reckless speed.

The aptly named Fastbak is joined by more restless young gods, and when he finally comes to ground, he is given a quick wardrobe change by his friends just in time to sing before Highfather.  It turns out that our rebellious friend has the voice of an angel when he’s not busy raising Cain. This was a fun little strip, full of exuberance, energy, and the boundless enthusiasm of youth.  With Fastbak and his fellows, Kirby immediately humanizes the New Gods by showing us a fitting parallel to our own youthful foolishness even in their hallowed halls, yet this youthfulness is presented in an inimitable Fourth World fashion.  Of course, the King also gives us more great designs both in characters and wild Kirby-tech.  I’ve decided I’m not going to rate these backups, as they are really too brief to be judged as full stories.


Well, I will close out this post with Fastbak’s flying feats and bid you all a fond farewell until next time!  I hope you enjoyed my coverage of these exciting adventures and that you will join me again soon, for another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

 

 

DCUG Developer’s Journal #3

Welcome back Freedom Fans!  Today’s journal covers some more testing, but it also has a teaser for something that is just starting to come together!

I have been working on testing the final expansion JLA mission (other than the JSA conclusion missions), #17.  This features the conclusion of the Injustice Gang storyline, with the League ambushing the Gang in their headquarters, much to their surprise!  I drew heavily on the excellent JL:TAS two-parter, “Injustice for All” for inspiration for this story.  Like the second episode of that arc, we begin with Batman captured and with the League rushing to his rescue.  However, Luthor has an ace up his sleeve, and the villains have backup in the form of the deadly dangerous Amazo!

I thought hard about putting Amazo into his own arc also based on JL, but I figured that I needed to concentrate my storytelling in this campaign in order to get the most bang for my buck because of how much time and effort it takes to create a single mission.  I can plot out endless stories, but there are only so many hours in the day to actually make them.  Thus, I have a less than optimal setup, but I think it makes for a nicely dramatic mission.

Anyway, because of my stacking the deck against my players, I decided to give them a way out in case they found Amazo too much to handle in addition to the other villains.  Using a setup I’ve used often before for turrets and other defenses, I gave Amazo a “kill switch” of sorts.  I created Amazo with a custom encounter, giving him a custom name so I can deal with him between encounters, but I also created a switch in that encounter, which, when flipped, triggers a CS that kills Amazo (bob).  To give the players a hint, I put in a time-delay CS to tip them off.  Check it out here:

#——————————————————————————-

Encounter: Meanbot1
Type: Custom
Actions: switches exist, villains fight heroes
Villains: amazo named bob
Secondary Objective: “Disable Luthor’s new weapon” for 2500 prestige
Switches: ff_science_equipment
Marker: warehouse2
Next: None

Start Cutscene:
Wait for 240 seconds
Hero says, “Look! If we can get to Luthor’s equipment, we might be able to disable the android!”
Red Arrow on warehouse2_object1

All Switches Turned Off Cutscene:
Camera on bob
Play effect effect_electricalburst at bob
bob says, “Nooo! I had only begun…to live…!”
bob is killed
Play music music_05_fort_ft

#——————————————————————————-

The mission itself was, once again, a bit of a mess at first, but fortunately, it was mostly an easy fix.  I had mixed my metaphors again in the main CS where the heroes confront the villains, using ‘real’ names (black_manta, cheetah, etc) instead of the substitution names I had given those characters so I could manipulate them between encounters (wet, cat, etc).  That kept the CS from playing.  You see, I had split the villains into two encounters, with Luthor in one and the rest of the Gang in another.  I did this because I had to get clever to work around Luthor’s Energy Shield interrogation bug, which I described in the first journal entry.  I had a devil of a time coming up with a workaround.

The simple thing would be to just use a Cutscene encounter with a new Lex after the defeat of the first, but this would mean you wouldn’t have to defeat the entire team to win.  I tried using that strategy, but starting the CS with a “Starts When” condition, triggered once the other encounters are finished, but those are always temperamental.  It didn’t work, so I tried a LOT of other things before settling on an unorthodox solution.

I made the final encounter a custom one, with conditions to turn off Lex’s AI and the “Allies Want to Chat” condition, meaning he’s interrogatable, without having to be defeated first.  This means that you won’t be able to talk to Lex until there are no enemies near by.  It’s not a perfect solution, but it gets us much closer.  Now, chances are, players will finish off everyone else before trying to talk to Lex.  Unfortunately, the Chat encounters have never really worked, but I got around this too.  I made the CS the End Cutscene for the encounter, so even though a Chat CS won’t work, as soon as the players click on Lex, the End CS plays, which has the same function.  And, viola, we’ve got a functional mission that even has some neat features.

With those intermediary missions finished, I’m on to the new JSA missions!

First, however, I haven’t just been working on testing.  No, I’ve been hard at work updating and tweaking other parts of the DCUG as well, and with the help of our riduclously talented and awesome community, I have a few new additions to show off.

There are a ton of really fantastic meshes, skins, and skopes out there for my favorite hero, Aquaman.  However, as you might imagine, I’m a tad picky about him, seeing as he is my favorite.  So, with the help of the community, and especially Detourne_me, I got an all-star team of mesh, skope, skin, and keys to create my ideal Aquaman for FF.  I also tweaked his powers and abilities, and he’s now more awesome than ever.  I even changed up his aquatic telepathy to use the ‘doot-doot-doot’ sound effect from the classic cartoon!



This awesome Aquaman deserved equally awesome villains, so asked Deanjo2000 to customize some new versions of Black Manta and Ocean Master.  The results are just plain stunning!  Dean really did an exceptional job on both, but his Orm is especially great because he was able to take my vague, unhelpful requests, and turn them into a really nice version of the New 52 look for the character that also incorporates some classic elements as well.



And finally, Detourne_me came through once more, providing me with something I expected to be quite tough, and doing it in record time as well!  Feast your eyes on a classic piece of DC war-comic history….the Haunted Tank!

These are only the beginning, too!  I’ve got several more skopes/skins from Dean and from others that I’m going to be using to update and expand the mod in the days to come.  I’ll post some teases for such updates in these journals from time to time!

Into the Bronze Age: June 1971 (Part 5)

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Welcome back for another edition of Into the Bronze Age, dear readers and Internet travelers!  Come right in and prepare for our final pair of pulse-pounding adventures!  They’re a mixed bag, as Zaney Haney takes Teen Titans back from our favorite Aquaman author, Steve Skeates, but never fear, stylin’ Steve is also back in this batch, and penning an old favorite, the Sea King himself, in an issue of World’s Finest!  I’ve been eagerly anticipating that particular book, seeing it in my reading list.  Time to find out how both of these comics stack up!

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

 


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #401
  • Adventure Comics #407
  • Batman #232
  • Detective Comics #412
  • The Flash #207
  • Justice League of America #90
  • Mr. Miracle #2
  • The Phantom Stranger #13
  • Superboy #174 (reprints)
  • Superboy #175
  • Superman #238
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #138
  • Teen Titans #33
  • World’s Finest #203

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


Teen Titans #33


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“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.

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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.

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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!‘ 

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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!

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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!

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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.

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The most amazing part of this comic isn’t the time travel or the magic but the fact that Lilith does something useful!

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!

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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.

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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.

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TeenTitans_v1_033-20-1-19 - CopyThis 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.

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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.

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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.

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World’s Finest #203


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“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.

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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!

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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.

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Dillin really knocks it out of the park on Aquaman in this issue.

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.

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Clark, rockin’ the paisley ascot.  I wonder why Lois won’t go out with him?

 

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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The Head-Blow Headcount:

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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!

 


Final Thoughts:


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!

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

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

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

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

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

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

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

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


Aquaman #56


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

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

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

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Man, Aparo could pack personality into a page!

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

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

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Too bad this is symbolic…

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

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

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

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Not again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Remember these images.

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

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

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

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The Savage Sub-Mariner #72


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This looks like a cover for a Double Dragon game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Head-Blow Headcount:

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


Final Thoughts:

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

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

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

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

Into the Bronze Age: March 1971 (Part 5)

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Hello folks, and welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  I’m back on my routine, at least for a little while, so I’ll hopefully finish this month up soon.  I’m very excited about today’s post, as we’ve got New Gods #1, the start of what is undoubtedly the most significant of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World books.  There’s also a delightful little surprise in this month’s Superboy, which added to my enjoyment of these comics.  In general, we’ve got a good set of books to discuss, so let’s get to it!

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #398
  • Adventure Comics #404
  • Batman #230
  • Brave and Bold #94
  • Detective Comics #409
  • The Flash #204
  • Forever People #1
  • G.I. Combat #146
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #82
  • Justice League of America #88
  • New Gods #1
  • Superboy #172
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #136
  • Superman #235
  • World’s Finest #201

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


Justice League of America #88


JLA_v.1_88“The Last Survivors of Earth!”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

This is an interesting cover for an unusual issue.  Notably, this comic has the distinction of being the only pre-crisis JLA book to feature Mera on the cover, and she does look good there with the rest of the League.  It’s a shame she didn’t get into action with them more often.  The cover itself is indicative of the era, showing the JLA having failed in some fashion, a common trope, but interestingly, there is some truth to this particular tableau.  The issue inside is a fun one, if a bit odd, as the heroes really don’t have much impact on the outcome.

The tale begins with a strange golden spaceship, which has a pretty cool design, speeding towards Earth as a robotic voice addresses its passengers.  The voice reminds its charges that they are the people of Mu, which, like Atlantis, is a legendary lost continent, and a very promising addition to the mythos of the DCU.  The mechanical voice continues, recounting how the citizens of Mu had used their superior technology to flee what they thought was a dying world, but their return, thousands of years later, has revealed a flourishing orb.

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The people of Mu, being kept alive by their machines, are now degenerated and decadent from their enforced isolation and inaction, and they can only respond with hatred to the modern inhabitants of Earth who they assume must be inferior to themselves.  Dillin achieves a pretty creepy, horrific effect with his portrayal of the Muians, vast rows of stiff, motionless figures, all screaming mindlessly for blood.  It’s like a much darker version of Wall-E, and as we’ll see, it serves a similar theme.

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Meanwhile, blissfully unaware of the threat approaching from space, a trio of Justice Leaguers pursue a “busman’s holiday,” working at an archeological dig in the South Seas Islands.  Carter and Shiera Hall have been joined by Hal Jordan of all people, and they are working to uncover clues to lost civilizations.  I love these types of glimpses into the ‘off-duty’ lives of the Leaguers, especially when they are hanging out together.  This is a really fun setup, and I would have enjoyed spending more time with these characters here, but Shiera quickly turns up a tablet inscribed with strange symbols that seem to point to the mysterious continent of Mu.  Just then, lightning strikes her out of a clear sky!  Green Lantern is able to blunt its force, but she’s still stunned, so the heroes suit up, with Hawkman taking his wife to a hospital while Hal contacts the League.

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In a touch that I quite enjoyed, Aquaman was on his way to join the trio to lend his services in interpreting whatever they found.  If you’re working on lost continents and civilizations, what better expert to call in than the king of just such a place?  It’s a really cool detail, and it proves wise, as he fills Hal in on what the Atlanteans know about Mu: it was an advanced civilization in the pacific that disappeared mysteriously.  The Sea King also brings news that strange disasters are occurring in the Gulf of Persia, the Mekong Delta, and the Coast of California, all of which point to Mu (though how they do so is quite unexplained).  The Emerald Crusader divides the League’s forces to deal with the different disasters and heads out himself, only to be struck by lightning as well, just managing to save himself at the last moment!

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In California, Batman, Green Arrow, and Black Canary arrive in the Batjet, but there is some tension in the air, as Batman remembers a kiss aboard the Satellite.  When they land, Black Canary pulls the Dark Knight aside, much to Arrow’s chagrin.  After telling Ollie that she’ll talk with whoever she care to, she tells Batman that she wants his advice on how to deal with the hot-headed archer, and she came to him because she thinks of him as a brother!  Ouch!  Bats is stuck in the one trap not even he can escape, the friend zone!  Nonetheless, he takes it like a man, and when the Emerald Archer starts flipping out and demands to take off, the Masked Manhunter even lets them use his plane.  (Real mature, Ollie.  It’s not like lives are at stake or anything.)  It’s a surprising but enjoyable little scene, with a bit of humor and just a touch of pathos, as Batman realizes that the attraction he feels is one-sided.

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Back on the other side of the world, Superman and the Atom approach the Persian Gulf, where refugees are fleeing a violent set of earthquakes.  The readers get a glimpse of the culprit, a golden medallion, an artifact of Mu, worn about the neck of a respected Iranian man, which serves as a transmitter for the destructive energies of the Mu spacecraft.  The heroes labor in ignorance, however, with Superman doing his best to help the evacuation and save lives while the Atom heads to a lab to try and sort out what is going on.  He stops a few looters and then gets to work, eventually determining the center of the disturbances, but not their cause.

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As the heroes head towards the epicenter of the quakes, the medallion’s owner smashes it, unwittingly ending the disaster.  Notably, the man, a devout Muslim, is portrayed as wise and selfless in a very positive and sympathetic treatment of Islam for a comic from 1971.  We even get an editor’s note providing a touch of background for the religion, which is surprising.

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At the same time, in Vietnam, the Flash has his hands full with an out of control monsoon.  Floods are destroying the country, and the Fastest Man Alive is run ragged trying to save lives.  While he labors, a young woman accustomed to tragedy prays to her household gods, another artifact of Mu.

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In another surprising touch, we’re told her husband was killed by the Viet Cong and her son by American napalm, an unexpected glimpse of the ongoing tragedy unfolding in Vietnam, and one that is handled with an unusually light touch.  Just as Green Arrow and Black Canary arrive and mark the center of the disturbance with a flare, the young woman smashes her idol in rage at its failure to protect her family, ending the storms.

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JusticeLeague88-23Finally, in California, Batman is left alone to confront the arriving Muian ship, and his valiant but foolhardy barehanded attack against the technological marvel, ends in defeat.  It’s a shame he didn’t have an advanced jet with all kinds of weapons on hand.  Once again, Green Arrow’s temper gets everyone in trouble.  The League just might be better off without him.

The people of Mu have their robotic caretaker snare a youth off of the street to interrogate, trying to discover how their attacks have been defeated.  The young man tells gives them a fiery response about how they are really jealous of the freedom and life that regular humans have, and then escapes the ship.  When it takes off, something suddenly goes wrong and it crashes into the sea, incidentally killing hundreds or thousands of Muians.

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When his friends ask him what happened, the young man informs them that he threw a wrench into the craft’s engines, thus saving the day….and also committing a touch of genocide!  The story ends with the Leaguers comparing notes and realizing that none of them ended the threats.  Finally, Aquaman recommends that they write this case up as “unexplained.”

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Yay!  They’re all dead!

This is a fun issue, though the final resolution is really rather too sudden and random, and I’m not quite sure what we’re supposed to make of all of this.  The final narration stresses the theme of the Muians’ plight, the dangers of overreliance on machines, but the message is a tad muddled in delivery.  There’s something here about the triumph of human nature over machines, but it doesn’t quite get developed.  This idea is apparently in the zeitgeist, as we’ve just seen an Aquaman issue on the dangers of over-mechanization.

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JusticeLeague88-10 - CopyDespite the slightly awkward ending, there are a lot of neat elements in this tale, interesting and thoughtful little touches, like having Aquaman be called in as an expert in lost civilizations, some decently graceful attempts at exposing readers to other cultures, and even a little romantic intrigue.  The lost continent of Mu itself is a really fascinating concept, and it’s a shame it didn’t get a bit more development here, though that’s often the case for comics of this era.  I’m curious if anyone else ever made anything of the seeds planted in this story.  The threat the heroes face is one well suited to the League, and it’s an interesting change of pace that the team doesn’t actually save the day.  Most everyone gets something to do, though Aquaman gets the short end of the stick, as usual.  Dillin’s art is uneven in this one, alternately very strong and rather awkward, but for the most part he turns out a very pretty book.  There are a few just strange looking panels, though, like Batman’s awkward run.  In any event, this is an enjoyable read without the weirdness of the some of our previous issues.  I’ll give this one a solid 3.5 Mintuemen.

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New Gods #1


New_Gods_v.1_1Orion Fights for Earth!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Jack Kirby

Now here we go!  Kirby’s New Gods book is, unsurprisingly, the core of his New Gods saga, and it is here where we really begin to learn what’s behind everything we’ve seen teased in the other books.  The cover copy declares that this is “an epic for our times,” and that is a fitting description for the adventure that lies inside.  After all, an epic is usually defined as a long narrative poem of high tone and style dealing with the deeds of a powerful hero, often across a backdrop of the fantastic, and, other than the lack of verse, Kirby’s book does match up to that definition fairly well.  It is certainly a story that is larger than life, mythic in scope and proportions, and that is obvious even here at the very beginning.  In his other Fourth World books, the King has been introducing interesting and exciting new concepts, innovating in smaller ways, but with this book, Kirby begins to do that which he had done in Marvel in the 60s, create something completely new.

The world he conjures is unlike anything seen before, at least in DC Comics.  There are similarities to his Asgardian adventures and the cosmic aspects of his Fantastic Four, but there is a scope here, an imaginative intensity, that is unprecedented.  These are truly new myths being created before our eyes, with just that type of archetypal power, and the end result, however flawed in the particulars as it can be on occasion, is still something incredible.  I love these stories, and it is really a breathtaking experience to go back and read them in the context of what was going on at the time.  Reading them cold in the 21st Century only allows you to experience them obliquely.  You don’t realize how incredibly groundbreaking they were, because what they accomplished has in the decades since become commonplace as swarms of imitators have flooded comics with similar work.  Yet, seeing Kirby’s Forth World burst onto the scene in this book in 1971 really puts into perspective just how revolutionary Kirby was, as he always was.

This first issue is no exception, and from the beginning, you can tell you’re in for something special.  I have to say, though, that the cover is not particularly impressive.  The figure of Orion is a striking one, but the weird coloring has never appealed to me.  I’ve always preferred the recolored versions I’ve seen.  Nonetheless, what’s within does not disappoint.  The tale starts with the fall of the old gods.  In an incredible Kirby splash page, he tells with remarkable narrative efficiency of the Twilight of the Gods, of Ragnarok.  These old gods, who look rather suspiciously like Kirby’s Asgardians, battle one another in an apocalyptic scene, and with a single page, the King wipes away what he had once created in order to begin afresh.  It’s beautifully fitting on many levels.

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The conflict ends in the destruction of the world of the gods, which is torn in two, and the two new orbs are left floating in space.  We aren’t told yet, but these will become New Genesis and Apokolips, the eternally opposed homeworlds of the New Gods.  Kirby’s narration throughout this section is, quite honestly, probably some of the best prose he’s ever written.  He really manages to capture the epic tenor he sets out for, and though sections of the book can get a bit clunky, the opening pages set an impressive tone.

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Across the vastness of space comes the dramatic figure of Orion, possessor of the “Astro Force,” whatever that means, a warrior who we meet as he returns home to New Genesis, and we’re treated to some incredibly striking visuals of its beautiful floating city and Cyclopean architecture.  He’s greeted by the lighthearted Lightray, a lightning quick young man who flies circles around the dour Orion and implores him to stay in the paradisaical city and “learn to laugh again.”

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Their conversation reveals our first hints at Orion’s dual nature, and we get a sense that he is a troubled soul and more than meets the eye.  The warrior has been summoned home to meet with his father, and the New Gods’ leader, Highfather.  The very patriarchal looking Highfather leads his son to “the chamber of the Source,” where they see a white stone wall, their “link with the Source.”  The idea of “the Source” provides a suitably vague and cosmic…well, source, for the powers of good, while still allowing for a surprising compatibility with the concept of the one God and thus folding in rather nicely with DC’s lightly drawn cosmology, even jiving peacefully with my own religious sensibilities.

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As the pair stands before the wall, they are joined by Metron, an eternal scholar, a being of intellect, whose outlook has something in common with the cold logic of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock.  It seems there is no love lost between Orion and this newcomer, and their verbal sparring is only interrupted when Highfather communes with this mysterious Source, and a in very biblical image, a fiery finger writes upon the wall and “having writ, Moves on.”  The message it leaves behind is “Orion to Apokolips–then to earth–then to WAR.”  It’s a portentous declaration, but Highfather reminds Orion that, though the Source advises, they still have the freedom to choose, and it is this freedom that separates those of New Genesis from Apokolips.  The young man’s choice leads him across the vast distances between worlds, to war!  As he takes his leave, Metron offers a cryptic statement that reveals he knows that Orion’s true origins lie on Apokolips, and Highfather angrily swears him to secrecy.  I quite like the celestial scholar’s line, “How wonderfully wise is the Source!  Who is more ready to fight the father– than the son!”  It illustrates the archetypal dimensions of the story Kirby is spinning.

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To Apokolips Orion flies, and our first glimpse of the grim, gray world is quite stunning, with its ashen surface and massive fire pits.  It looks every inch the archetypal Hell, and as he travels above it, Orion’s thoughts inform us that it is the opposite of New Genesis, a world dedicated to conquest and domination, to the extermination of freedom.  His reconnaissance is interrupted by a trio of Apokaliptian shock troopers, the parademons, which starts a running battle as Orion faces various waves of enemies, including heavy cavalry mounted on giant, vicious dogs!

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Most of the troops are visually interesting and imaginatively designed, and the action looks good in Kirby’s wonderfully dynamic style.  In the various skirmishes, we begin to get a sense of Orion’s lust for battle and the dangers of his temper.  Finally, the warrior makes his way to the palace, only to discover that Darkseid has already gone to Earth, but his visit does not go unremarked, as the titanic tyrant’s son, Kalibak the Cruel, is there to greet him.  Their battle is interrupted by the sudden arrival of Metron, who has come to hurry Orion on his way.

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ng01-29The scholar warns the warrior of Darkseid’s plans, telling him that the Apokaliptian monarch even now works on a device that will allow him to search all of the minds on Earth for the mysterious and sinister ‘Anti-Life Equation.’  Before vanishing as mysteriously as he appeared, he also reveals that Darkseid began his search there on Apokolips with a quartet of kidnapped humans.  The warrior frees the captives, and holding Kalibak off, opens a boom tube to Earth to help them escape.

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Then to Earth they travel, leaving a raving Kalibak behind them, swearing revenge.  Once there, Orion explains to the four he rescued that there is a conflict brewing of universal significance, something far beyond their understanding, and the book ends with him shouting a challenge to Darkseid, a challenge which Darkseid, from his hidden fastness, answers.

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ng01-20Then to War!  Wow!  Summarizing this book was a real challenge.  Since so much of this is new and since there are so many big ideas flying around, it is tough to be brief when talking about this story.  In fact, I left some interesting moments untouched, like the glimpse of New Genesis’s culture revealed in Highfather’s reverence for the innocence of youth, which itself is an effective shorthand for his world’s love of freedom and for the stakes for which this galactic game shall be played.  In general, this is a great story, though it will eventually be overshadowed by what comes after.  Kirby’s art is a little rough in some spots, and of course Colletta’s inking doesn’t do him many favors.  None the less, the visual imagination at play is wonderful, with both New Genesis and Apokolips fitting perfectly into their archetypal roles.  Kirby’s imagination is clearly unleashed in this book, and the fruits of his labors are wondrous.  There are Promethean structures everywhere, and many panels stress the scale of the world we’ve entered, as Orion is shrunk to insignificance before a starfield or an ominous edifice.

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ng01-16I’ve mentioned how archetypal this story is, and that is an important part of its success, as the King is essentially creating a new myth, working in the broad, bright colors of legend, evoking the eternal struggle of the Norse Gods, the Olympian war against the Titans, or similar cosmic conflicts.  This is a larger scale, a much larger scale, than anything we’ve seen in DC Comics, and clearly already more fully realized than any similar worldbuilding we’ve seen in the last year.  The only parallels can be found in Kirby’s own work in Marvel, but with the Fourth World the King seeks to surpass even those heights .  Think about how astonishing this book must have been when it hit the stands amongst the mundane everyday stories filling DC’s books.  Even this month’s Justice League tale, which has some measure of imaginative reach, feels positively cramped and halfhearted by comparison.  Despite that, he’s doing some pretty solid character work even from this first chapter, especially considering the era.  There are mysteries surrounding Orion, and a lot of personality at play in everyone we meet.  The impression of depth is downright palpable, and you just know that this conflict sprawls far beyond the pages of this book.  What’s more, we can see the lasting impact of this story in the fact that so many of its elements, even just from this first entry, have gone on to become central elements of the DC Universe.  It’s a great beginning, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series!  I’ll give this first chapter 4.5 Minutemen, as it loses just a little for the clunkier moments.

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Superboy #172


Superboy_Vol_1_172“The World of the Super-Ape!”
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Bob Brown
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Murray Boltinoff
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

“Brotherly Hate!”
Writer: E. Nelson Bridwell
Penciler: George Tuska
Inker: George Tuska
Letterer: Joe Letterese

Oh boy, we’ve got gorillas on the cover!  According to legend, DC’s indefatigable editor, Julie Schwartz, believed (and not without some reasonable circumstantial evidence) that a gorilla on the cover of a comic would boost sales.  Supposedly, the effects were so marked in the Silver Age that all of his editors wanted gorillas for their covers, and he had to institute a policy of no more than one gorilla cover a month!  Whatever the case may be, there sure are tons of gorilla covers from this era of comics!  This particular offering is a fairly striking one, and there’s a nice mystery, which gets a fairly good buildup in the story itself.  As for that very cover story, it has a really ludicrous premise, but the whole thing is handled surprisingly well.  While the concept is very Silver Age, the writing feels a tad more mature.

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The tale opens with a recapitulation of Superman’s origin, but this time, there are two rockets headed for Earth.  One crashes in Smallville, and the other, strangely enough, in the heart of Africa, where its inhabitant is adopted by the apes.  Then the scene shifts forward 15 years, where an ivory poacher vanishes after an encounter with a strange shadowy figure.  The preserve officers call in Superboy when they are stumped by the lack of tracks.  A second group of poachers, out to capture gorillas for a zoo, also go missing, once again accosted by a shadowy figure.

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There’s a nice effect to these mysterious attacks, and Robbins continues to delay the final reveal of the antagonist, granting the first half of this comic a cool, old-school monster movie feel.  Tension mounts from scene to scene as the mystery deepens.  The payoff isn’t quite as good as I had hoped, however.  Eventually, Superboy decides that there must be connection between the apes the poachers were hunting and the mysterious disappearances, so he dresses as a gorilla in order to have the primates lead him back to their tribe….which is pretty silly, but okay.  The apes oblige, and in their cave, the Boy of Steel sees strange statues, idols, and even a magnificent throne, all carved in the likeness of a massive gorilla, and carved by intelligent beings.  Brown does a good job rendering these scenes and granting them a mysterious atmosphere.
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Inside the cave, Superboy discovers the captured poachers making a break for it, one of them having secreted a gun when they were taken, and he reveals himself in order to help their escape.  The gorillas pose no threat to him until, all of a sudden, a SUPER ape appears, one speaking Kryptonese!  That’s right, he is confronted by a flying, invulnerable gorilla, complete with cape and tights, no less!  They fight but find themselves too evenly matched, even clashing with heat vision in a nice panel.
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The Boy of Steel decides to try to solve riddle of this obvious fugitive from his homeworld, so he heads back in time and observes a second renegade scientist, the anthropologist an-kal, sending a cybernetically enhanced ape to safety and cursing the Science Council for not approving of his work.  Oookay.  This guy is even crazier than ol’ Jor-El!  What is it with Kryptonian scientists?
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“They can be a great people […] They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son…err…simian.”

Back in the modern day, Superboy rounds up the escaping poachers and brings them right back to the super-ape, Yango, telling his simian simulacrum that they don’t need to fight.  The youth realizes that the gorilla has dedicated himself to protecting the animal world as he has the human world, and so he is delivering the criminals to his justice and trusting, for some reason, that the gorillas won’t just murder them.  They part as friends, Superboy to continue his work in man’s world, Yango, in that of the animals.
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What a goofy concept, and what a goofy visual!  Yango, a gorilla in a full costume, looks pretty silly.  Despite that, this is a fun issue, and the super-fight is pretty entertaining.  It’s also interesting to see Robbins take on the issue of poaching, however obliquely, way back in 1971.  We see in this another attempt on DC’s part for social relevance, and, interestingly, the message doesn’t overwhelm the adventure, unlike some Green Lantern yarns I could name.  In fact, it rather fades into the background amidst the energetic rush of the story.  The first half of the comic is really the best, as the mystery of what is taking the poachers unfolds, but the reveal of Yango himself is, I have to admit, not what I expected.  I’m curious if this oddball character ever appeared again, but I don’t think he did.  If any of you readers know differently, please let me know!  Despite the silliness of the super-simian, I have to say, I enjoyed this read.  The whole tale has something of an Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan feel to it, and that’s a good thing.  I’ll give it 3 Minutemen, as the yarn is entertaining despite its goofiness.
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“Brotherly Hate!”


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We’ve got a real treat in the back of this book this month!  After too long in limbo, the Legion of Superheroes returns to the pages of DC Comics!  This starts what will become a regular backup feature for quite some time.  Eventually, the Legion will actually muscle Superboy out of his own book!  This is good news to me, as I’ve really enjoyed the daring deeds of these futuristic do-gooders.  Our story this month is a solid one, with a touch of family drama flavoring the adventure.  It begins with a Legion rocket arriving at the “Interplanetary Bank,” where they discover that the “guardian beasts” have been disabled.  I’m already 100% onboard, as a setting in which there is something called an “Interplanetary Bank” and which is guarded by giant monsters seems pretty promising to me!  The Legion team, Lightning Lad, Timberwolf, and Light Lass discover that the perpetrator was none other than Lightning Lord, the brother of Lad and Lass!

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We get a brief reprise of how the trio got their powers, and then, to my delight, we get a nice origin for the Legion itself!  Young Lightning Lad, Garth Ranzz, travels to Earth looking for his brother, and on the ship, he meets the future Cosmic Boy and Saturn Girl, as well as the “richest man in the universe,” R.J. Brande.  When a gang of assassins try to kill Brande, the trio intervene, each using their powers to pitch in.  Brande is thankful, but he is also inspired, so he offers to set the three youths up as superheroes, citing Superboy and Supergirl as examples of teenage heroes.  They all agree, and the Legion is formed.  I’d read summaries of this event, but it is really fun to actually see it played out.

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With their flashback over, the team tracks Lightning Lord’s ship, confronting him on a barren and rocky world.  When they confront him, Lightning Lad tries to talk his brother down, but when he refuses, both of the Legionnaire siblings hesitate, causing Timberwolf to spring into action.  The high-voltage villain tries to zap him, but Lightning Lass throws herself in front of the beam to save the boy she loves.  This enrages Timberwolf, but Lightning Lad insists that he face his brother alone.

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They are evenly matched, and they throw electrical bolts back in forth to little effect.  Yet, Lightning Lad backs his brother against a metallic cliffside and ricochets a blast into his back, knocking him out, but turning his hair white in the process.  Their sinister sibling captured, the heroes find themselves hoping that he will reform, but something tells me that’s a tad unlikely.

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This is an all-too-brief adventure, but it is a fun one.  Bridwell manages to add just enough pathos to the confrontation to make it interesting, and the action is entertaining.  I have to say, though, I think my favorite part is a look at the Legion’s founding.  I suppose I share something of Bridwell’s love of continuity.  That sense of history, of more stories than exist on the page, is key for the “impression of depth” that is such an important part of a well-realized setting.  I’ll give this fun little Legion legend 3.5 Minutemen.

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What a set of stories!  We finally get the debut of New Gods, and we get the return of the Legion to boot!  I’ll call that a win.  This finishes off our penultimate batch of books, bringing us to the end of the month, a hearty dose (an overdose?) of Superman!  Please join me again soon for my commentary on those comics as I trudge further Into the Bronze Age!  Until then, keep the heroic ideal alive!

Into the Bronze Age: February 1971 (Part 2)

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Welcome to part 2 of February 1971!  We’ve got a good pair of books in this post, and I found plenty to talk about.  I’m afraid I grow a tad long-winded on this one, folks, so be warned!  Let’s see what awaits us as we travel Into the Bronze Age!

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #397
  • Adventure Comics #402
  • Aquaman #55
  • Batman #229
  • Detective Comics #408
  • The Flash #203
  • Justice League of America #87
  • The Phantom Stranger #11
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #108
  • Superman #234
  • Teen Titans #31
  • World’s Finest #200

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


Aquaman #55


Aquaman_Vol_1_55“Return of the Alien!”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Dick Giordano

“Computer Trap!”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Dick Giordano

Man, I am LOVING these Nick Cardy Aquaman covers.  They’re always exciting, dynamic, intriguing, and just beautifully rendered.  This is a particularly striking example.  The story within is definitely worthy of such a great cover, and it returns to a plot thread readers must have thought abandoned back in issue #52.  This tale takes us back to the strange microscopic world that exists within Mera’s ring and to the brave girl who helped Aquaman during his sojourn there.  I was really struck by the moral conundrum with which Skeates faced his character in that earlier story, as the Sea King had to choose between leaving his alien girl Friday in the clutches of slavers or risk her death at the hands of a hostile colony.  While I understood Aquaman’s choice to abandon her, it definitely seemed like an unresolved issue when he came back to the normal world.  In this story, the Marine Marvel finally sets out to right that wrong.  It’s great that Skeates brought this thread back from three issues ago, despite there not having been a single mention of it since.  That level of continuity was still rather rare in this era, and it’s the smallest example of such in this issue.

The story itself begins with Dr. Vulko, playing his role as Atlantis’s resident mad scientist, as he prepares a machine to transport the Sea King back to the microscopic madhouse.  Apparently, in a fun little touch of universe awareness, Aquaman got advice from the Atom about how to build this shrinking device.  Operating the machine, Vulko reminds Mera that she must concentrate, as she’s vital to the procedure.  As we discovered in that earlier story, the Queen can actually exert some form of telepathic control over the realm in her ring.  There’s actually room for a really interesting set of stories exploring that connection and the origins of this place, and I have to think that Skeates saw that possibility.  Unfortunately, he never got the chance to investigate those mysteries.

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Vulko throws the switch, and Aquaman shrinks back to the surreal, Dali-esq sub-reality.  He begins to explore, but he encounters another one of those horrible cyclopean blob creatures that attacked him on his first visit.  Realizing that there’s nothing to be gained by fighting the monster, the Sea Sleuth evades it and continues his quest.  There’s a nice bit of characterization in that encounter, as Arthur evinces sound judgement but also shows some awareness of his public role as king, noting his subjects might not understand his actions.  As it turns out, that’s a thought that proves somewhat prophetic given the other events in this story.

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With the telepathic guidance of his wife, Aquaman succeeds in locating the colony of the big-headed slavers of the previous story, and he just charges right in swinging.  It’s a pretty dynamic sequence, as the Sea King just smashes into their defenses.  Meanwhile, back in Atlantis, Mera can sense that her love is in combat, and Vulko stresses that she must not think about wanting him to return to her or she’ll bring him back prematurely.  At the same time, Aqualad is observing a fiery speech in an Atlantean park, where a local nutjob has managed to acquire quite a following.  The rabble-rouser, named Noxden, is stirring up resentment against the King by claiming that the destiny of Altanteans is to be air-breathers, and this is a destiny of which Aquaman robbed them!

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I would NOT want to be in that guy’s way!

All the way back in issue #35, the Atlanteans were converted into air-breathers, and their king restored them (in issue #43), because it’s pretty stupid to live on the bottom of the sea if you can’t breathe underwater.  Yet, despite the utter absurdity of the fellow’s claims, people are beginning to listen.  There was a time when that would have seemed more far-fetched than it does today, I suppose.

Yet, if there’s one thing that history teaches us, it’s that a looney who shouts loud enough and provides a convenient scapegoat for people’s problems will always be able to attract a following.  Aqualad is disgusted by the raving rhetoric, seething at the idea that Atlanteans would be so ungrateful to the king who had done so much for them, and he heads out to tell Aquaman.  Just at that moment, the Marine Marvel is getting overwhelmed by his alien antagonists and…oh no.  Not again…that’s right, the third head-blow in a row!  Arthur gets conked on the noggin and he’s down for the count!

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Before we learn what happens with the Sea King, though, we have another stop.  Subplots galore!  In this case, we’re touching base with Mupo, the fiery young man who led the rebellion against Aquaman’s regent-turned-tyrant way back in issue #47.  This book is just full of continuity!  Mupo has been swayed by Noxden’s speech, and he begins to spout some racist rhetoric, which Aquagirl calls him on.  The Marine Mistress shows her class by storming out on the moron.

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Meanwhile, Mera uses her connection with the ring-world to revive her husband, which si a nice touch and a way to give her more of a role.  Aquaman awakens as he’s being taken prisoner by the aliens and carefully times his escape, plowing through the guards that thought he was helpless.  As he’s swimming through the city, searching for a place to hide and make plans, who should he encounter but the object of his quest herself!  The girl signals him and hides the hero while they talk.  The Marine Marvel realizes that she’s communicating with him telepathically, despite the fact that this was against her beliefs when they last met.

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Aquaman55_14She explains that her captors have opened her mind and taught her to think for herself, strangely enough.  Yet, even more surprising, when he tells the young lady that he’s there to rescue her, she refuses, saying she’s happy in her role!  While she may be a captive, she is, in many ways, more free than she was in her oppressive home.  It’s an interesting wrinkle and an unexpected twist.  Yet, it is also a bit unsatisfying.  Our hero has gone through all of this to save her, and she doesn’t want to be saved!

Stunned, Aquaman leaves, realizing that he’s got twenty hours on the clock before he’s due to be recalled and hoping he can find somewhere to hide and wait for his rendezvous.  At the same time in Atlantis, our plot threads are converging, as Aquagirl encounters Aqualad, just as she’s thinking over things with Mupo.  When the young Aquatic Ace brushes her off in his hurry to see the King, she thinks that the more he ignores her, “the more attractive Mupo looks!”  Uh-oh Garth, better watch out!  You’ve got competition!

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Nobody draws action like Jim Aparo.

Back in the microscopic world, Aquaman encounters another group of the aliens, and as he’s tearing his way through them, he suddenly begins to grow, way ahead of schedule!  When he arrives back home, Mera apologizes, realizing that her anxiety must have inadvertently led to her recalling him, but her husband stops her, saying that she came through at the perfect time.   Just then Aqualad arrives and tells his tale, but Aquaman silences him as well, reminding his young charge that he respects free speech and isn’t about to start censoring folks he disagrees with, which is a nice character beat.  The story ends with a very striking image of Noxden, gesturing in a manner that is grimly familiar.

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This is a very good tale, and it is absolutely packed full to the gills (if you’ll forgive the expression) with plot.  In fact, it’s so stuffed with story that I had trouble summarizing it!  Skeates is layering in storylines that could stick with the book for a long time to come, doing some worldbuilding, and in general giving Aquaman a more fully realized setting to inhabit.  Of course, that makes the title’s impending cancellation all the more heartbreaking.  None of these plotlines will get resolved in the next and, as it happens final issue, leaving so much undone, so much potential wasted.  I suppose I’ll talk about that in more detail when I cover the final issue, but on this read-through, I’m really struck by how much this loss hurt the character.  At the very beginning of the Bronze Age, where the DC Universe is evolving and growing, and when he had a fantastic opportunity to do the same, the powers that be cut the legs out from under Aquaman.  That’s just a crying shame, and it explains a lot of the problems the character has had since then.

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Anyway, in terms of the story itself, it is a really enjoyable read.  The quick cuts between the different plots keep it moving at break-neck pace.  While the resolution of the plot of Aquaman’s girl Friday is a bit of a letdown, the adventure that reunites the pair is pretty exciting.  It does seem like the Sea King could have offered her a third option, or at least tried to do so.  He could have sent the Atom in to bring her up to Atlantis, where she could have had her mental and physical freedom.  Maybe that idea would have materialized in time, if Skeates had been given the opportunity.  We’ll never know now, I suppose.

I enjoy the mini-plots with Aquaman’s supporting cast.  At this time, the Marine Marvel is the only character that has his entire extended super family gathered around him, giving him unique story possibilities that other characters with similar supporting characters don’t have access to at the moment.  It’s great to see Skeates take advantage of that.  I also love seeing more of Tula in general.  The character she developed into under Skeates’ pen, capable, level-headed, independent, and still with a great sense of adventure, is one that I really love.  The plot of the trouble-making politician that the young Aquatic Aces are mixed up in is certainly not a new one for Aquaman, but this time it comes with a new twist.  Interestingly, part of Noxden’s platform is a call for free and democratic elections, which is actually quite sensible and seems only natural to an American audience.  After all, one of the central values of our culture is reverence for democracy.  There is a lot of potential for some fascinating stories in the interplay between tradition and progress in Atlantis.  Sadly, we won’t really get to see Skeates develop that potential.

In the end, though this isn’t a perfect story, it is a lot of fun and just full of intriguing beginnings.  The SAG team has done a lot of experimentation, but I rather feel like, with this issue, they were settling into what would have been a very promising routine.  I’ll give it 4.5 Minutemen.

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“Computer Trap”


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We’ve got a very pleasant surprise this month in the form of an extra Aquaman yarn as a backup in this issue.  This is a great little 7 1/2 page story that hits on some unexpected themes.  The backup begins with Skeates doing a bit more aquatic world building, as the Sea King, returning from a mission on the surface, swims through a submarine ghost town.  It’s a forlorn abandoned city that rather gives our hero the creeps, and while he’s pondering what happened to its inhabitants and how long it has lain empty, he suddenly detects a telepathic signal.  Strange!

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When he goes to investigate, he discovers an advanced computer, a self-aware machine that attacks his mind!  The AI attempts to enslave his will, but Aquaman is no mental weakling, and his incredible willpower and mental strength hold off the telepathic attack.  In the interim, we get treated to a flashback to this device’s origins, and it’s a pretty interesting story, the archetypal ‘machines turn on their masters‘ setup. An advanced aquatic society built this powerful computer to help run their civilization, but, in a classic twist, the machine found the humans far too unstable and imperfect, so it simply took over.

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In this case, the device actually dominates the minds of the citizens and turns them into efficient little worker-bees, creating more and more machines and more and more advancements, all in the name of ‘progress.’  That was the great ideal, progress for its own sake, and progress defined as technological growth, while all else in this culture decayed.  In a really neat take on the concept, the machine can only control the minds of the adult society members because their brains are fixed and rigid, leaving the youth to grow disaffected and eventually to abandon the colony in search of a place that valued more in life than the endless pursuit of ‘progress.’  In a cool example of truth in fiction, the minds of young people actually are more flexible and less fully developed, so this is surprisingly believable on that score.  Of course, there are also obvious social parallels as well.

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Eventually, the machine’s slaves grew old and died, leaving no-one to serve it.  The computer plans to use Aquaman to attract a new population to pursue ‘progress,’ but the King of the Seven Seas is nobody’s pawn.  He stops fighting the device long enough to summon help, and though the computer invades his mind, the timely arrival of an electric eel breaks its control!  To put an end to the menace of this mad machine, Aquaman summons a horde of his finny friends, and they collapse the cave it inhabits.  Yet, Skeates leaves a note of mystery in the ending of this tale, as the machine may yet survive!

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This is a quite a good story for as brief as it is.  It helps that it fits into the end of the previous yarn, building off of its momentum, allowing this one to feel a bit more expansive than it really is.  Skeates also deals with some really fascinating themes here, including the dangers of the rapid pace of technological advancement, one of the perennial subjects of science fiction.  As long as man has built machines, there has always been a fear that they might somehow cost him his humanity.  As it turns out, it’s a fear well founded.  We’ve begun to see that our hypertechnological society comes at a cost, with kids losing the ability to interact socially because of their addiction to social media and the like, not to mention the impact of information and sensation overload in the Internet Age.  These are just the newest manifestations of an ancient phenomenon.  Very little that we create comes without a cost, and it seems that those costs are growing more dear.

Perhaps the most interesting element of the story for me was Skeates’ implicit criticism of the concept of progress as its own goal.  C.S. Lewis described the origins of this tendency brilliantly in his essay “De Descriptione Temporum,” where he wrote of the modern idea of a progressive, which is to say ‘evolutionary,’ view of history:

“that what has imposed this climate of opinion so firmly on the human mind is a new archetypal image.  It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones.  For in the world of machines new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy.”

And he critiqued this view in his Mere Christianity, arguing that:

“Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”

There can be no progress without a concept of a destination, without an ideal and a goal, and you’re either moving closer to that end or you’re moving further away, so movement by itself is not necessarily progress.  It’s a useful lesson to remember, and, in its own small way, this little backup tale teaches it.  The departure of the colony’s youth makes the point rather well, as they are searching for the things that give a culture its soul, the things that make life worth living, like the sublime pleasures of art and literature.  Of course, Skeates’ story is so brief that it can do little more than gesture at its themes, but they are interesting enough on their own merits that they still add some flavor to the final product.  I’ll give this great little backup 4.5 Minutemen, as it gets extra credit for at least having the potential to be thought-provoking.

Of course, it hardly needs to be said at this point, but Aparo’s art in this issue is as beautiful as usual.  His depictions of the action scenes are particularly impressive, but I just plain love his illustration of the ring-world.  He gives that place such a wonderfully insane feeling that it really adds something to Aquaman’s adventures there.  His Tula is a tad off this issue (she’s probably the only Aqua-character for whom I really prefer Nick Cardy’s rendition), but Aparo, as usual, also injects a lot of personality into the supporting characters.  That last shot of the rabble-rousing politician is a bit chilling and instantly conveys the fellow’s nature and personality.


Batman #229


“Asylum of the Futurians!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Dick Giordano
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“Temperature Boiling… and Rising!”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Frank Giacoia
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz

Not the most amazing cover we’ve had here, though I suppose it does do its job of making the reader curious about what’s going on.  And what is going on is rather weird.  This isn’t the type of terrible, lazy story we’ve encountered from Kanigher in the past, but neither is it the stronger type of tale he’s been telling lately in our reading.

The yarn itself opens with a young woman running along a country road where she encounters the Batman, who has come searching for her and her husband.  Her name is Laura, and how the Dark Knight knows her isn’t explained.  When she asks about his fortuitous arrival in the middle of nowhere and the middle of the night, he just says he’ll tell her later.  Odd.  She proceeds to tell the Caped Crusader that her husband disappeared in the middle of the night, and when she found him, the scene she witnessed was almost enough to drive her mad!

Refusing to describe the source of her trepidation for fear he won’t believe her, Laura leads Batman to an eerie, gloomy old house in the woods.  Therein, they observe a scene out of an asylum, as musicians play on invisible instruments, waiters serve phantom food, and diners dressed in futuristic garb eat off empty plates.  They observe Larua’s husband, Stephen, a “famed photographer of psychic phenomena” looking on in befuddlement before he finally breaks out in anger, demanding to know the meaning of all of this.  In response, the creepy lady in charge yells out that they thought he was “the Seventh Futurian,” but since they were mistake, they must kill him!  His work made them think that he’d be able to “hear” their music, and “taste” their food, things only a Futurian can do.

Batman takes that as his cue, rushing in and overcoming the gathered gang and their futuristic weaponry.  It’s a nicely drawn sequence for the most part, and it ends with only the girl left standing.  She declares that the Futurians are “the wave of the future,” born psychic and destined to rule the world.  They have cells all over the planet, waiting for the arrival of the Seventh who will lead them.  She reasons that only one person could overcome five of her fellows, and thus the Dark Knight himself must be the Seventh for which they’ve been waiting.  They hand the Masked Manhunter a crown, and he decides to play along in order to take care of them peacefully.  But it’s a trap!  The crown tightens on his head, knocking him out, and the Futurians decide to put him to the test.

Taking a book out of Renaissance witch trials, they lock him in a coffin and toss it in the lake, thinking that only the special Seventh could escape from a watery grave.  Inside his sinking prison, the Dark Knight uses the now loosened crown to pick the coffin’s lock and swims for the surface.  For some reason, the Futurians seem sure that this guy they’ve just tried to kill, TWICE, who has dedicated his life to fighting crime, is going to help them take over the world.

Instead, for some strange reason Batman seems more inclined to punch them in their faces.  He takes them out, using the estate’s statuary, and captures their lovely leader.  Then, as he takes the rescued couple home, we discover that when Stephen was captured, he “screamed silently for help,” and somehow, that call reached the Caped Crusader.  The question of psychic powers is left ambiguous, but not in a particularly productive way.  It’s so vague and these characters so forgettable (I had to go back and look up their names), that it doesn’t have much impact.

This is a mediocre story.  It’s okay, and Novick renders the action nicely.  Yet, the Futurians are too big of a concept to be tossed out in 15 pages while also vying for space with two other supporting characters, one of whom is entirely superfluous to the plot.  Kanigher could have just had Batman show up at the house and saved two pages for better use.  The gang/cult themselves are just shy of being interesting.  With some more development, they could have made the jump, but as is, they just seem like generic would-be world-conquerors.

In general, the concept of this story just doesn’t quite manage to come together, and that concept, interestingly enough in light of the Aquaman backup tale above, seems to be tied into Futurism, an early 20th Century cultural movement originating in Italy that, coincidentally enough, advocated complete neglect of the past and an ethic of unbridled progress.  Even when I first read the “Futurist Manifesto” in college, I thought its principles were utterly foolish.  To once more quote Lewis, he argued that “[t]o study the past does indeed liberate us from the present, from the idols of our own market-place.  But I think it liberates us from the past too.  I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians” (12).  Far from enslaving us, a knowledge of the past frees us from the blindness that makes contemporary mores into commandments and fashion into fact, and it also puts bygone days in their proper context, removing the rosy tinge that nostalgia tends to apply to all such visions.

But what has this story to do with Futurism?  It’s only tangentially related, but I can’t help but think that it is this movement which Kanigher had in mind when he penned this tale.  The antagonists of the piece read like a more militaristic version of the Futurists, which is impressive considering just how militaristic the originals were.  There are some definite parallels, and the sad thing is that these guys could actually furnish some really interesting villains if they were given any chance to develop a personality other than ‘strangeness.’  The story just feels a bit unfinished, though it is entertaining enough.  I’ll give it 3 Minutemen.

P.S.: Well, it just might be that I was wrong!  The letter’s page of issue #232 included a short note about the Futurians.  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!  Yet, perhaps the political leanings of the group might indeed provide some overlap with the Futuristis.  I’m curious, but I can’t say.


“Temperature Boiling… and Rising!”


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It’s nice to get a bird’s eye view of Hudson University.

The second half of this Robin tale is pretty good, even better than its predecessor.  It picks up with the student volunteers for Prof. Buck Stuart’s senate campaign as they try to make sense out of the shocking newspaper headline from last issue and the picture showing their golden boy giving a payoff.  In an interesting scene, a hippy-looking kid blows his top and tells Dick Grayson that he’s through playing by the rules before storming out.  What makes the scene fascinating is the boy’s mention of the Kent State Massacre.  Bringing that real event into the story instantly makes it feel more serious and grounded, and it really puts the kid’s anger and impatience into perspective.  This election, and those like it in which young people were getting involved, mattered.  They mattered because they were a chance to show the youth of this country that the system worked…or risk driving them into the streets in anger and despair.  It’s a small moment, but it struck me nonetheless.

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The story continues, with the candidate himself arriving and telling the boys that the claims are phony.  With the help of Phil Real, the campaign photographer, Dick does some good detective work by realizing that the damning picture is doctored and sets out to prove it as Robin.  The Teen Wonder heads to the local paper where the editor tells him in no uncertain terms that their publisher is backing the incumbent and won’t allow a retraction without hard evidence, so Dick goes in search of just that when the fellow reveals that their source’s name was…Phil Real!

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When Robin arrives at his friend’s room, he finds Phil’s roommate, who is one of the kids behind the fire at the campaign office from last issue.  The firebug and his friend jump the young hero, and for the second issue in a row, Robin barely escapes a slot on the Head-Blow Headcount, as he gets his bell rung pretty good.

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Still, he keeps his feet and easily dispatches the two college-toughs. In the room he finds the evidence he needs of the photo tampering, enough to force the paper to print a retraction, which helps to swing the election in Stuart’s favor!  At the end of the tale, Dick Grayson leaves the victory party, saying there’s still much more work to be done, an ending that I rather liked.  There’s something in it that indicates our young hero is growing up.

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This is a good ending to this story, and it manages to pack a really impressive amount into these seven pages.  There’s enough of a misdirect to make the mystery feel somewhat satisfying, with the evidence of both this and last issue seeming to point to the photographer.  Robin gets to display some detective skills and gets in a touch of action as well, in general, being portrayed as the intelligent, capable, and resourceful young man he is, which hasn’t always been the case with these Robin tales.

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It’s nice to see the Teen Wonder come off well.  He is one of my favorite characters, after all.  This iteration doesn’t have as much focus on youth involvement in politics as the previous one, but together they make an interesting whole, commenting on the situation.  It’s fascinating to see the social unrest of the period work its  way so clearly into comics, and this tale is a particularly obvious example of the tendency.  I’ll give it a good score of 4 Minutemen.

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And that will do it for the second part of February 1971.  I hope y’all enjoyed the read and will join me again soon for the next edition of Into the Bronze Age, where we’ll have a little something from the Dark Knight and the Fastest Man Alive.  Until then, keep the heroic ideal alive!


The Head-Blow Headcount:

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Oh no!  Three in a row!  Poor Aquaman.  He just can’t catch a break, and the biggest blow of all is yet to fall.  Once again, Robin narrowly avoids inclusion on the Wall of Shame, and no-one else has really come close.  We’ll have to see if this month holds any more additions to the august company.