Into the Bronze Age: December 1970 (Part 2)

DC-Style-Guide-1

Hello readers, and welcome to another Into the Bronze Age feature!  Today we’re tackling an Aquaman and a Batman issue, two of my favorite characters and two of my favorite books, but this month doesn’t quite provide two of my favorite stories.  Nevertheless, I’ve got a fun and interesting set of reading for this post.  Check it out below!

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

Roll Call (You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #395
  • Adventure Comics #400
  • Aquaman #54
  • Batman #227
  • Detective Comics #406
  • The Flash #202
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #81
  • Justice League of America #84 (reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Justice League of America #85
  • The Phantom Stranger #10
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #134
  • Teen Titans #30
  • World’s Finest #199

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


Aquaman #54


aquaman_vol_1_54“Crime Wave!”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Dick Giordano

Well ladies and gents, this is a weird one.  It’s a self-professed experiment in storytelling, and not an entirely successful one.  Yet, neither is it a failure.  It’s a bold attempt to do something new and innovative with the format of comic book storytelling, and the SAG team definitely deserve some kudos for being willing to try new things, which they’ve been doing all along in their run on this book.  Yet, I feel like this script could probably have used one more pass in order to make it truly a hit.  Nonetheless, what we have is a creepy, disconcerting tale that is apt to stick in the mind, and all under a very striking cover by the inimitable Nick Cardy!

The comic is actually two stories, a framing narrative and an interpolated episode happening at the same time.  We start with two cops, John and Paul, and I feel like that might well be a reference of some sort which I can’t quite place, who have arrested a well-dressed man who had broken into a jewelry store (might it be a reference to the Apostles?).  The man is in a strange daze, unable to say anything other than “I’m dead!  Thanatos killed me!”  Apparently, the zombiefied thief is actually a prominent socialite, one of a string of respected citizens who have suddenly and inexplicably turned to crime.  They all evince the same bizarre behavior, and the police are stumped.  The detective, John, orders the passive prisoner taken to “the science boys,” in hopes they can figure out what is behind this.

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Meanwhile, Aquaman has been visiting with some surface friends and has forgotten about his one-hour limit, which is stupid in multiple ways.  I’ll give Skeates a pass on the use of the limit in general because he’s just working with what he’s got, that being the established canon at this point.  Interestingly, the team includes a very fitting poem in the opening of the tale that hints at what lies within.

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The King of the Sea is hurrying home to the water when he’s jumped by another suicidally overconfident gang of plain-vanilla street-punks, just like those that attacked the Flash last month.  Sheesh!  Is there something in the water in the DCU that gives generic gunsels delusions of grandeur, or what?  I suppose that something like that would explain why folks like the Ten-Eyed Man think they can cut it as supervillains.  Well, this gesture should have been incredibly foolish, but unfortunately the Marine Marvel doesn’t perform too marvelously.  He tears them up until…that’s right, the notorious head-blow strikes!  I’m really not crazy about random punks being able to take down the super strong, super tough Atlantean, as I’ve said before.  It really feeds into that inconsistent portrayal of his powers that plagues the character.  Generally speaking, that isn’t a major fault of the SAG run, but it does crop up from time to time.  I’ll give this instance a partial pass, though, as the hero would have been weakened by his time out of the water.

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Either way, what follows is very strange, and a reader is apt to feel like they’ve missed a page.  Suddenly, we’re presented with a black panel with a few enigmatic word balloons, then Aquaman is suddenly free, walking down a spooky lane and approaching the faded magnificence of a crumbling mansion.  He has a note from Mera asking him to meet her there, yet there is some malignant presence within the house.  When the Sea King approaches a mirror inside, his image distorts, grows, and becomes a grotesque exaggeration of his form before bursting from the glass and attacking him.  What is going on?!  It’s a brave narrative gambit, and it works fairly well to invite the readers into the hero’s own sense of confusion and bewilderment.aquaman54_07

Suddenly, Aquaman awakens in Atlantis, with Mera leaning over him.  She tells him that some kind surface -dwellers brought him back to the sea and he was rushed home, but she denies any knowledge of the mysterious note that drew him to that house in the first place.  Aquaman feels responsible for unleashing the monster that attacked him, whatever it might be, and he says that it is up to him to stop it.  That’s a good character moment.  It captures his sense of duty and morality, as he feels the necessity to take responsibility for this creature on himself, despite the fact that he was duped into releasing it.

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Yet, before he can act on his impulse, we get another mysterious black panel with frantic dialog about how “He’s coming out of it!  Turn that thing up!” and other such exclamations.  Suddenly, Aquaman finds himself battling the being, which calls itself Thanatos, on a strange, surreal landscape.  Here’s where we get one of the issue’s missteps, as our perspective suddenly changes and we follow Thanatos himself for a time.  I think the action panel is supposed to serve as something of a chapter heading, rather than part of the story, but it’s so unclear that it breaks the flow of the story.  What’s more, following Thanatos and seeing his point of view doesn’t make sense in context of the story’s resolution.

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aquaman54_13We watch as the rampaging monster attacks Atlantis, and when Aquaman responds, he can’t seem to make any headway against the beast.  He gets weaker as it gets stronger!  Despite his best efforts, Thanatos knocks him out, causing him to awaken in bed once again.  Mera tells her husband that Thanatos headed out to sea, and despite being weakened, the Marine Marvel heads out after him, fearing what will happen to life in the ocean if the monster has free reign.

We check back in with the cops, who obligingly provide us with some exposition.  Apparently, a local crime lord has been kidnapping prominent citizens and subjecting them to a strange type of brainwashing.  The subject is trapped in their own mind, fighting an amped-up version of their own death instinct, and when the psychic manifestation ‘kills’ them, they become “death-driven,” beginning to act as pliant criminals for the mastermind.  If you’ve had any psychology classes, this may sound a bit familiar.  If so, it’s because this is basically Freudian psycho-analysis, and as such, is more or less debunked these days.  Still, Freud serves as a useful touchstone for popular conceptions of psychology and for exaggerated comic book science.

aquaman54_17Well, we can probably figure out what’s happening to Aquaman now, which is why I think this reveal should probably have been postponed a bit.  We get another mysterious black panel, now a bit more understandable, and suddenly the King of the Sea arrives in…an underwater Wild West town!  It’s quite strange, but given that we know he’s in a dreamworld now, it sort of works.  I really wish that Skeates had toyed with this a bit more, told us, perhaps, why Aquaman would imagine a western town for his showdown.  I feel like there’s some fun character work that could have been done there.  Was a young Arthur Curry a fan of Wagon Train, Have Gun-Will Travel, or the Lone Ranger?  Personally, I see him as identifying with The Rebel (Johnny Yuma).

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Our hero plays the part of the unwelcome stranger, and the townsfolk give him a cold shoulder until Thanatos arrives for a reckoning, submarine six-shooter and all!  We get a bizarre but fun underwater Old West face-off, straight out of a classic western, but once again, the monster saps Aquaman’s strength, and he gets hit!  Of course, this causes him to awaken again in Atlantis, and he begins to put the pieces together.  The Sea Sleuth deduces that none of this is real, but just then, Thanatos breaks into the palace!

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The two aqua-foes square off as the two policemen raid the hideout of the crimeboss they think is behind the zombiefied citizens.  Inside, they discover the same slimeball who had kidnapped Mera back in issue #44, which started the classic ‘Search for Mera’ arc.  What follows is interleaved action, as the cops take down the villain’s gang and Aquaman takes down Thanatos in a really cool Aparo splash page.  While the other prisoners are zombiefied, the Sea King is able to resist, to hold out against his own worst instincts, until the policemen free him.  The story ends with our hero on his way home to Atlantis, ready to spend some time with his beloved, noting that they’ve been apart too much lately.

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aquaman54_20-copyAs I said, this is a weird issue.  The attempt to tell a dream story within another story is an interesting one, but Skeates breaks his own story logic by following Thanatos for a time, despite the fact that, in the scheme he sets up, this monster should be nothing more than a manifestation of Aquaman’s death-drive.  He shouldn’t really have his own motivations and desires, short of killing his alter-ego, especially because this is all happening in Arthur’s mind.  I think it would have been more effective to just have the beast show up every few pages and disappear inexplicably.  Skeates almost achieves that, with the constant reversions to the palace and the clever use of his black panels.  I do like that the villains have a hard time keeping Aquaman under control.  It’s another of those story beats that emphasize the power of his mind and spirit, which I always enjoy.

Aparo’s artwork is excellent as always, and the brutal, maniacal face he gives Thanatos really helps to establish the dangerous and fearsome presence of the character.  The story has a nice, moody color palette for many of the encounters with the monstrous manifestation and the scenes with the cops chasing their leads, giving the comic something of a noirish feel at times.  As usual for an Aparo book, I find myself having to restrain myself, because I tend to want to post every other page or panel because the comic is just chock-full of striking images.

The unexpected and unheralded return of Mera’s kidnapper is something of a letdown.  His roll could easily have been filled by any generic thug, as his backstory doesn’t impact the plot at all.  We don’t even get a ‘curse you Aquaman’ type moment.  It just feels like something of a waste.  The end result of this issue, uneven as it is, is still an enjoyable read.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen, giving credit for the innovation that Skeates attempts despite its mixed success.

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P.S.: This issue also has a very neat feature in the form of a letter from Steve Skeates about his writing process, talking specifically about the recent O.G.R.E. issue as well as this one and relating an intriguing story about how the writer actually worked for a group of industrial spies for a time!  It’s interesting to read about his perspective on these tales, but his account just drives home my feelings about the role of the spy organization in the last issue.  To bring OGRE back, only to tell us that they’ve been definitively shut down seems…something of a waste.  Nonetheless, check out the rare glimpse behind the curtain!

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Batman #227


batman_227“The Demon of Gothos Mansion!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: Ben Oda
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“Help Me … I Think I’m Dead!”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Mike Esposito
Letterer: John Costanza

This issue of Batman, while not perfect, definitely captures the mood and feel that I identify with the Dark Knight.  I feel like we’re getting closer to that definitive Bronze Age Batman.  The plot has a few weak points, but the cover story really manages to strike the right tone for the character.  We get one of those always slightly ill-fitting stories that pits the (relatively) grounded Batman against the supernatural, but this outing does so with a fairly light touch that works pretty well.

batman-227-004The story centers around Alfred’s niece, Daphne Pennyworth, who made an appearance not that long ago in Batman #216, a story I only vaguely remember.  She’s written her uncle a letter explaining that she’s gotten herself into more trouble.  She’s taken a job at a remote manor house which is the scene of mysterious happenings.  It might be nothing, but a rather Hal Jordan-looking Bruce Wayne offers to look into it for his friend, and just like that, we’re off!  Batman investigates the estate, prowling the grounds and discovering armed guards.  That’s suspicious, so he tests their intentions by just strolling into sight and letting them take a shot at him.  I rather like this whole sequence, as the menacing, torchlit shape of the Batman strikes an ominous figure.  He is so capable and so on top of things that when they attack him, he easily takes them out in a nicely done page.

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Having discovered that something untoward is definitely going on, the Dark Knight decides to spy on the other inhabitants of the estate, and he observes something quite unusual from his vantage point.  The owner of the mansion, Heathrow, and two followers pass by, discussing a dark ritual and the summoning of a demon named Ballk!  Something sinister is afoot!  The detective helpfully informs us Ballk is “one of the nastiest creatures of mythology,” but in this case, the name seems to just be made up rather than drawn from actual myth.

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batman-227-013Now with some idea of what the trouble is, the Masked Manhunter goes in search of Daphne, who he finds locked in a tower of the mansion.  She fills him in on her predicament, telling him she was hired to teach Heathrow’s two children, but she discovered that they were “a pair of hideous dwarves!”  Whoa, I’m thinking that’s not politically correct!  Apparently Heathrow forced her to don an elaborate old-fashioned dress, the same dress as worn by the woman in an old portrait in her room, a woman who could have been her twin.  The mystery nicely established, Batman breaks her out, only to fall prey to a trap and be taken prisoner by Heathrow’s two little henchmen.

The master of the manse happily conforms to generic standards and both leaves the hero unattended in a death trap AND provides him with some grade-A exposition as well.  It’s convenient, but as I’ve said before, it’s an established part of the genre, so we can accept it.  Apparently, Heathrow’s family have served the demon Ballk for hundreds of years, and he and his followers have been searching for just the right woman to sacrifice to the beast, a woman who is an exact match for the original victim that once freed the spirit.  Daphne is just such a woman, and they plan to sacrifice her at midnight!

The trap itself is a fairly clever affair.  Batman is placed on a stone pedestal that is attached to counterweights, slowly sinking and tightening a noose about his neck.  His escape is excellent, as he tightens his neck muscles and swings, by his neck, to grab a torch off the wall with his feet, burning the noose off.  It’s a wonderful display of acrobatic acumen and grim determination, and it makes for a heck of a page.  Once free, the Dark Knight meets a shadowy figure who he thinks is Daphne, but her strange speech and hypnotic effect on him reveal that she is actually the ghost of the demon’s first victim.  In the only real weakness of the issue, the Masked Manhunter suddenly falls in love with her in a subplot that doesn’t really have enough space to breathe.

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The phantom female leads our hero to a black chapel, where a horrible ceremony is taking place.  The Masked Manhunter intercedes just in time to rescue Miss Pennyworth and interrupt the ritual.  In another cool sequence, he scoops Heathrow up bodily and hurls him at his followers, scattering them like ten-pens.  The old man dies, either naturally or as a result of dark magic gone wrong, and the Dark Knight frees Daphne.  With matters settled, he rushes out into the night to track down the ghostly girl, but she fades away, leaving nothing but her portrait and a weeping hero behind.

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The romance subplot is a bit odd and doesn’t really work, but the rest of the issue is good fun.  O’Neil nicely establishes a Gothic horror feel for the tale, and the coloring and moody art really helps to bring that effect to life.  The central plot is a conventional one, but it works despite its familiarity because of the good presentation.  I particularly like Batman’s portrayal as capable, dynamic, and grimly resolved.  His escape from the death trap is one of the high points of the issue, as is his effortless defeat of the guards at the beginning.  We’re approaching that spot-on portrayal of the character that I’ve been looking forward to.  Novick does a great job on the art for this issue, really turning out a striking book.  In the end, this story succeeds in its creation of atmosphere, tension, and mystery, even when the plot goes astray, so I’ll give it 4 Minutemen.

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“Help me…I think I’m Dead!”


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This Robin backup is an interesting one.  It features the Boy Wonder getting involved in politics, a prospect I’m of two minds on.  On the one hand, I’d prefer politics stay out of my comics, except in the broadest ways, but on the other, it makes sense that folks who pursue justice and have strong moral compasses would probably get involved in trying to fix their world with more than just their fists.  In either case, we’ve got another campus-centric adventure here, but unlike some of the previous stories, this one works pretty well with its setting.

The story opens with Dick Grayson arriving for a shift at “Friend’s Phone,” a student-led phone counseling service of sorts.  Basically, its for kids who need someone to talk to, and it’s a nice thing to see the Teen Wonder involved with.  However, when he answers his first call, he recognizes a voice on the other end, a voice that is incoherent and panicked.  Rather than call the police, which, in such a situation, would be a pretty fair response, he changes into Robin with the help of a trick briefcase and goes to investigate.

The voice belonged to a boy named Phil Real, who works for the same local political campaign that Dick has joined, but when the hero races to his apartment, he sees the young man tottering on the edge of a cliff.  With an acrobatic rescue, the Teen Wonder prevents a tragedy, and Phil, the campaign’s photographer, tells him that he had accidentally poisoned himself with developing chemicals and went out of his head.  While pulling the pair out of the river, Robin notices how terribly polluted it is, and we discover that this is, in fact, the central issue for his candidate, Prof. ‘Buck’ Stuart.

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I have to think it wouldn’t be quite as bad if you were wearing pants, kid.

The next day we see a debate between the incumbent, Mr. Forte, and Buck, and it seems the town is on the Prof.’s side.  Yet, we see the wheels of corruption turn a little faster than the wheels of democracy, and the local corporation that is behind the pollution of the river passes orders down to stop Buck, one way or the other.  Those orders go into effect that night, as Robin is driving around town in his red micro bus and sees masked men running out of Stuart’s campaign office, which is ablaze!  In a scene that is clearly meant to be cool but just seems rather weak, the Teen Wonder flips a switch on his dash and changes the bus’s license plate.  That’s the only disguise the vehicle has.  I’m sure that no-one could possibly connect the guy who drives around in a red micro-bus to the masked crimefighter who ALSO drives around in the same type of vehicle.  Nope, that license plate is a stronger disguise than Clark Kent’s glasses!

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Robin leaps into action, taking out one of the saboteurs before narrowly avoiding another slot on the Head-Blow Headcount!  He takes a blow to the back of the head and gets stunned, but he doesn’t quite get knocked out.  So close!  Unfortunately, the punks get away, and the political supplies in the office are a total loss.  Nevertheless, the kid volunteers redouble their efforts and take to the street to get the word out.  This is an interesting angle, as Friedrich focuses on the growing political power of teenagers, which was a rising factor in this period.  It’s neat to see that referenced in comics, especially comics aimed at just such an age group.  This story has something of an implicit encouragement to get involved.

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Yet, the newfound vigor and momentum don’t last, as the local paper prints a picture that seems to show Prof. Stuart paying someone off to pollute the river and strengthen his case.  That’s where we are left, with many more questions than answers.

This is a solid story, especially considering the fact that it only has seven pages to do its work!  Friedrich sets up a good mystery, gives us two nice action beats, and even does a tiny bit of world building for Dick Grayson.  The one real problem with this setup is that the gadgets provided for the young hero have all been rather lame.  I think the poor kid is getting the short end of the stick.  While his mentor has Batmobiles, Batplanes, Batboats, and even WhirlyBats, poor Robin has…a micro-bus.

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Obviously there isn’t much to this backup tale, but it is a good start, and I look forward to seeing what develops next issue.  Interestingly, there is a political undertone to this story, since our hero is backing a politician aiming to curb pollution and balance economic and environmental concerns.  It’s quite routine for us today, but I imagine it was a bit more challenging in 1970.  All-in-all, I’ll give this story 3.5 Minutemen.

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P.S.: Fascinatingly, I just just discovered that this Robin story has a lot in common with an actual event from 1970!  Apparently, the river fire that sparked the events of the first JLA story I covered, JLA #78, had its origins in the headlines of 1969, when the polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio went up in flames.  This served as a rallying point for the beginning of the environmentalism movement, and in 1970, students at Cleveland State University got involved in local politics by staging a march to the river to protest pollution.  That hardly sounds like coincidence to me, and I have to think that this story of a polluted river and college students rallying to effect change must be related to those real events.  If so, we’ve got yet another touchstone for the impact of the growing social consciousness in comics.


The Head-Blow Headcount:

Aquamanhead.jpgBatmanhead.jpgshowcase-88-fnvf-jasons-quest0robin2 - Copy.jpgPhantom_Stranger_05.jpgrobin2 - Copy.jpgbatman-family-6-cover.jpgAquamanhead.jpg3072564469_1_3_hCmU7jwq.jpg

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Sadly, my favorite character moves into the lead on the Headcount, adding another appearance to the Wall of Shame.  Robin, despite a close call, will not join him again just yet.


That will do it for today, folks.  Thanks for joining me for a further jaunt into that great comic era, the Bronze Age!  Please join me again soon for a few more classic comics.  Until next time, keep the heroic ideal alive!

Into the Bronze Age: October 1970 (Part 2)

DC-Style-Guide-1

Welcome to the second edition of October 1970’s Into the Bronze Age!  Today we begin our coverage of Adventure Comics with Supergirl’s new look, and we have another of the Aquaman adventures by the SAG team.  Let’s see what fun awaits us!

Roll Call (You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #393
  • Adventure Comics #398
  • Aquaman #52
  • Detective Comics #404
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #80
  • Phantom Stranger #9
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #105
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #133 (Jack Kirby’s debut!)
  • Superman #230
  • Teen Titans #29

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


Adventure Comics #398


adventure_comics_vol_1_398“The Maid of Doom!”
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Jim Mooney
Inker: Jim Mooney
Editor: Mike Sekowsky

“Catcher in the Sky”
Writer: Mike Sekowsky
Penciler: Mike Sekowsky
Inker: Mike Peppe
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Mike Sekowsky

This issue of Supergirl contains a reprint, which is the headline tale oddly enough.  I’m guessing that they had a shortfall of some sort.  Either way, it also features the first of the ongoing adventures of the Maid of Might in her new costume.  DC apparently held a write-in contest allowing readers to design the new look.  That’s a pretty cool idea, and I imagine it was a good way to get interest and buy-in from female readers in 70s.  I do wonder, however, if traditionally “girlie” interests like fashion would have held as much fascination for young ladies that were already breaking with convention by having an interest in superheroes.  I suppose there are still a number of ‘female-friendly’ comics on the shelves at the time, comics marketed specifically at girls like the various romance books, but it seems like kids reading a flat-out superhero might be a bit different.  I suppose that my curiosity on that score isn’t likely to be satisfied any time soon, but there it is nonetheless.  If any of my readers happen to be ladies who were reading these books circa 1970, I’m sure we’d all be delighted to hear your take on the matter.

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Anyway, the results of the contest are Supergirl’s new costume, and I have to say, it’s one of my favorite looks for her.  Unfortunately it is also a rather short lived one, but I find it an overall strong design for the character.  It helps with one of the problems of her classic costume, the color balance.  While Superman has his red trunks (in every proper version, darn you New 52!) to break up the blue, Supergirl doesn’t have such a feature.  The boots and belt of this costume help to provide more visual interest, and I rather like the gloves as well.  It’s recognizably a super-inspired costume, but one that has much more of her personality on display.

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The story itself is a simple but fun little yarn, a variation on a gag that has been used many times before and since this issue hit the stands.  It begins with Supergirl, young Linda Danvers, lounging in her apartment watching TV.  Apparently, she enjoys watching the tube by contorting her body, given the way she has her chair aligned with the set.  Also, she seems not to have gotten the memo from Batman that one should do one’s TV watching in costume.  Nevertheless, she hears a broadcast about an aircraft carrier that has suddenly vanished in the Gulf.

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She leaps into action and goes to investigate, searching for hours above and below the waves but finding nothing.  When she surfaces again, she sees a trio of search planes disappear into the thin air and she follows hot on their tailfins, emerging in an alternate dimension!

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Come on Sekowsky!

When she arrives, she sees a massive alien, on something of a King Kong scale, examining the planes.  When she goes to speak with the creature, a larger being, apparently the smaller one’s father, enters, searching for something called a ‘dimension grappler.’  It seems that Jr. has been playing with Daddy’s tools.  The little one lies and says he hasn’t seen it, and in a funny little scene, Supergirl turns snitch, using super lungs to be heard and pointing out Jr.’s perfidiousness.  The mystery solved, the earthlings are sent home while Jr. gets his just deserts.

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This is a silly but fun little story, and the silliness is so matter-of-fact that one can’t really hold it against the comic.  As goofy as the concept is, it still seems perfectly at home in the DC Universe.  I wonder how many times that gag has been used over the years, the omnipotent child.  I know it’s shown up in everything from Star Trek to Transformers, and many a setting in between.  This particular story is very brief, but it still manages a funny beat with the punishment of Jr. and a little bit of characterization in the way that Supergirl handles the problem.  Her dialog, not wanting to be a snitch, is rather entertaining, and I rather like that her solution is nonviolent, just a direct conversation.  In the end, this is just too brief to earn more than an average rating, however cute it is.  I’ll give it 3 Minutemen.

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Aquaman #53


aquaman_vol_1_53“Is California Sinking?”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Dick Giordano

Well dear readers, you are looking at a rarity, the only clunker in the entire SAG run on Aquaman.  It’s a crying shame too, because this book is graced by one heck of a cover!  Just look at that wild image.  How could you have resisted pulling that off the shelf or the spinner rack?  Unfortunately, the promise of that cover is squandered inside, and the epic struggle against impossible odds never occurs on the pages within.  Instead, we get a really bizarre little story that seems much more fitting for Bob Haney than for Steve Skeates.  It is silly and off-beat, but it feels much more like a handful of independent ideas than a coherent story.  I’m thinking that maybe there is some type of inside joke here I’m not getting, but whatever the case, this story just didn’t come together for me.  Interestingly, the splash page includes the debut of the S.A.G. branding.  This is not the most auspicious premiere of the symbol.

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It begins promisingly enough, though with a quirkiness that proves par for the rest of the course.  A secretary is tap-tap-tapping away at her typewriter in an office building, oblivious to the fact that water is rushing in around her until she is entirely submerged.  The page is rather funny, and the girl’s surprised face once she’s underwater is comedic.  Aparo definitely stretches his comedy skills in this issue, for what that’s worth.

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Yet, the submarine secretary is not actually about to suffer a sea-drenched sendoff.  This is apparently just the sales pitch of a “scientist,” a suspicious looking character wearing sunglasses and a fedora.  He’s trying to convince chubby Race Bannon…er…that is, Eliot Harlanson, a Californian bigwig of some unspecified variety, that Atlantis is destined to rise and, as a result, California is destined to sink beneath the waves.  Fortunately for Mr. Shades, Harlanson (Chubby Race…Chace?) has more money than brains, so he buys the tall tale…though, I suppose in the DC Universe, this would be pretty plausible.

In a really odd touch, the millionaire is not all that worries about the millions that would die if California sank into the sea.  No, what he’s really concerned about is his house, as he continually describes it, his “beautiful, spacious home,” upon which he’s spent millions.  Well, what is a selfish millionaire to do in such a situation?  Mr. Shades has a plan.  He just needs to buy an atomic bomb (an ‘A-bomb’), ’cause you can just pick one of those up at the corner store, and nuke Atlantis.  Problem solved.

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So, you can see that the weirdness of this tale starts out already cranked to 11.  It gets more convoluted, though.  Mr. Shades turns out to be an agent of O.G.R.E.  Remember them?  They’re one of a passel of secret criminal organizations that sprouted up during the James Bond, Man from U.N.C.L.E. craze in the 60s.  There for a while, every hero had their very own evil organization as a nemesis.  Aquaman had his O.G.R.E. and Hawkman had C.A.W., and there were plenty others to boot.  These guys haven’t been heard from in nearly 30 issues at this point, and sadly this is not the most impressive of homecomings.

That really is a shame because I always felt like O.G.R.E. had a decent amount of potential, though it was never developed.  Blend in some of the 80s anti-corporate themes and make O.G.R.E. a consortium of massive, shady corporations looking to exploit the resources of the oceans and willing to go to any lengths to accomplish their ends; maybe you’d have something.  You could weave any number of plots into their machinations, and such a setup gives you a constant background source of threats and supervillains.  The last gasp of the ill-fated Sword of Atlantis take on Aquaman got into something rather similar, though it never got a good chance to develop the story hooks Tad Williams introduced.

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This is apropos of nothing; I just love Aparo’s undersea vistas…

Anyway, as I said, O.G.R.E. doesn’t come off too well here.  Apparently, they want to take out Aquaman, and they see nuking Atlantis as the simplest way to do this…I wonder if they’ve ever heard of overkill.  Yet, their organization is not up to the job, so they’re convincing some random millionaire moron to do their dirty work for them…somehow.  But their plan is YET MORE convoluted, as they’ve also employed Black Manta to act as (unwitting) bait to lure Aquaman to Atlantis so he’ll be in position for the ensuing nuclear holocaust.  Remember that Manta showed up a few issues back?  Well, this is why.  He’s serving as a catspaw for O.G.R.E., and he’s armed with a shiny new raygun for the job.

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We cut back to him ranting and raving outside of Atlantis, where he provokes the Sea King into sending his finny friends against him, only to have them scattered by a blast from the gun, which ‘scrambles brainwaves.’  For some reason, this single gun seems to convince everyone that Manta can suddenly conquer Atlantis with his half dozen men, so the Marine Marvel goes out to head him off.  In an  admittedly neat page, Aquaman bets on his mental powers to shield him from the ray’s effects and focuses with all his might on a single though, ‘get Manta!’  He powers through the blast and clocks his nemesis with a powerful blow.  I always enjoy displays of the Sea King’s mental fortitude and grit, so I like this bit.

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After capturing the devious devil-ray themed villain, Aquaman interrogates him, literally slapping the truth out of him in a fairly awesome sequence.  The Sea King realizes that something is up, and he gets Manta to admit that someone put him up to this attack.

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Slapping him THROUGH the metal helmet, Aquaman is a tough son of a gun.

Unfortunately, the villain doesn’t know what O.G.R.E. is planning, so the Marine Marvel can’t do anything but patrol around the undersea city.  Luckily, he spots the sub on its approach and summons a giant squid (!) to grab it.  This is an awesome panel, with the sea creature completely dwarfing the sub and emphasizing the power at Aquaman’s command.

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Just as it seems the day is saved, the stupidity and utter incompetence of our Californian millionaire, personally overseeing the mission, of course, comes into play.  He hits the release lever for the bomb, and it seems as if Atlantis is doomed!  Aquaman races desperately to catch it, but even the fastest being under the sea isn’t quite fast enough, and the bomb hits the seabed…and nothing happens.  It’s a dud.

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Meanwhile, G-Men have captured the O.G.R.E. agents, and when Aquaman and Aqualad compare notes with them, they learn that Harlanson’s girl friday was actually one of their operatives, and she arranged for the bomb to be a fake.  We also learn that pretty much everyone was just let go with a warning.  Despite trying to nuke Atlantis, Harlanson is just sent back home.  Apparently he didn’t know Atlantis was inhabited.  I’d call that unbelievable, but given the level of ignorance in the real world, it seems like the most plausible piece of this story.  More inexplicably, our hero just up and lets Black Manta go, saying that “knowing he had been used was enough punishment for him.”  Really?  Not, you know, prison?  They guy is, at the very least, a pirate and a murderer.  At worst, he’s a war criminal.  I know we want to keep our villains in circulation, but this is just plain ridiculous!  There has to be a better solution than, ‘oh well, don’t try to murder us anymore you naughty boy, you!’

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This issue is just too weird.  Harlanson doing all of this just to protect his fancy house is just plain silly.  All of the other elements seem incongruous as well: the O.G.R.E. agents who don’t actually do anything, the anticlimax of the bomb being a dud, the pointless battle with Manta that has zero impact on the story, and the uncharacteristic foolishness of Aquaman just letting his most deadly enemy go free after capturing him IN THE ACT of trying to CONQUER ATLANTIS.  It’s just too much.  There are several fun moments, and Aparo’s art is as awesome as always, but the final result just leaves me scratching my head.  It isn’t actively annoying, like the book of certain Green-clad heroes, but it certainly isn’t nearly as good as the bulk of the SAG productions.  I’ll give it 2 Minutemen.  There’s some fun to be had here, but it is mostly buried under the silliness.

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I’ll let Aqualad handle the parting thoughts today:

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Thanks…that’s…good to know?

Was this really in the zeitgeist in the 70s?  I thought all that ‘Atlantis rising’ hogwash was a result of the spiritualist movement in the 20s with Edgar Cayce and that bunch.  I’m curious if there’s something I’m missing.  As always, if you know something I don’t, please drop me a line in the comments!


Well, that does it for today’s features.  I hope you’ll join me soon for another pair of Bronze Age stories.  Until then, keep up the search for adventure!

Into the Bronze Age: August 1970 (Part 1)

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Well, last month was a bit of a letdown, but this month promises to be a bit more interesting, with more Aquaman and more of the fun Manhunter debut!  Join me as we forge a little further Into the Bronze Age!

This month in history:

  • 2nd San Diego Comic Con was held (of note probably only in this context)
  • Rubber bullets used for the first time during the Troubles in Ireland
  • France performs nuclear tests
  • 1st computer chess tournament held
  • Peruvian Airlines jet carrying 45 US exchange students explodes
  • Jim Morrison is tried in Miami on “lewd & lascivious behavior”
  • Venera 7 probe launched for Venus
  • Unrest continues at home and abroad, with bombs and riots in the US and Ireland

Well, both the Troubles in Ireland and the Space Race continue, and although it was a quieter month in the US, things were obviously still not peaceful.  I imagine it will be some time before we stop seeing these events in our monthly roundup.

This month’s chart topper was “(They Long to Be) Close to You” by the Carpenters, a sweet, sappy song that is something of a contrast to the rage in the air all over the world.  Even in a burning world, love endures, I suppose.

Roll Call (You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #391
  • Aquaman #52
  • Batman #224
  • Detective Comics #402
  • The Flash #199
  • Justice League #82
  • Phantom Stranger #8
  • Showcase #92
  • Superman #229
  • Teen Titans #28
  • World’s Finest #195

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


Action Comics #391


action_comics_391“The Punishment of Superman’s Son”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Ross Andru
Inker: Mike Esposito

“The Ordeal of Element Lad!”
Writer: E. Nelson Bridwell
Penciler: Win Mortimer
Inker: Jack Abel

Okay, I was astonished to find that the headline tale was NOT written by Bob Haney.  It features the Super Sons, after all, and it is full of all kinds of Haney quality Zaniness!  Of course,  that means this is an odd one, Haney or no Haney.  It is pretty hilarious in spots and just ohh so very goofy throughout.  The Super Sons stories are always pretty out there, and this one is no exception.  Interestingly enough, Wikipedia is all kinds of wrong about these oddball characters, maintaining that the first appearance of the Super Sons was in a Haney-penned story from 1973.  Apparently this 1970 feature wasn’t the first appearance either, though, as that was in 1965.  There you go kids; that’s why your teachers tell you not to trust Wikipedia!  Anyway, let’s jump right into the madness, shall we?

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Essentially, this is Goofus and Gallant, the super hero edition, with the oddly doppleganger-ish children of the World’s Finest duo standing in for the titular pair.  We join Superman and his son, the incredibly creatively named Superman Jr. (Really?  Not, you know, Superboy?) as they discontentedly watch Batman and HIS equally creatively named son, Batman Jr.  The young Dark Knight is getting the Metropolis Medal of Valor in recompense for his deeds of daring do in the great city.  The Man of Steel and his son look on unhappily, with Super-Dad really bucking for ‘Father of the Year’ as he berates his son for not being as good as Batman’s boy.  Later, they head home to the “secluded, adjoining homes of Superman and Batman in the country between Metropolis and Gotham.”  And, just for the record, it was at that moment that I began to suspect that this issue was written by a 10 year old.  Seriously, there are a lot of concepts here that seem like something my little nephew would come up with, the fevered dreams of playground storytelling.  I realize that these comics were pitched to younger readers, but there’s a bit of a difference between what a kid would think is cool and what a kid would come up with if left to his own devices.

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Anyway, at the door the super pair are met by “Mom,” who is conveniently wearing a wig and has her face in shadow.  This is actually a funny and clever little element of these Super Sons stories.  They always had the mothers’ faces in shadow and they tried to keep their identities fuzzy.  It’s hilarious that they’d go to that much trouble for these stories they’ve already labeled as ‘imaginary,’ and which don’t have many other concessions to logic or consistency.

Well, here we see a few more moments of the type of domestic farce that I love so very much, with the Super-Family sitting down to eat in full costume.  Fortunately, it’s not the focus of the issue.  It’s just a bizarre little side feature, as if Ross Andru just forgot that these characters have civilian identities after the first page.  Either way, Superman continues to play ‘disappointed Dad’ and is fairly ugly to his son as he takes off to retrieve a special singing alien plant.

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We get an admittedly cool sequence as The Man of Tomorrow recovers the plant from a creature of flame, intending to bring the vociferous vegetable home to display on Earth.  The idea of a singing plant is not a new one, and it’s a cool enough sci-fi concept.  Yet, this story goofies it up by having the sounds the bush creates be genre and instrument specific.  This alien life-form plays “rock, marimba, strings, piano, cello, [and] steel band.”  Sure.  Just think about that one for a moment.

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The Boy of Steel demonstrates his Goofus bona fides by burning the vocal vegetable to a crisp by flying too fast when he’s sent to deliver it.  This earns the poor schmuck a real tongue lashing from his father, combined with a healthy dose of parental guilt.  You really do feel for this poor kid (apparently only 14), as his various screw-ups throughout the issue are all accidents, and he’s really trying to do his best.  He reminds me a bit of Jerry Gergich from Parks and Rec.  To top things off, Batman and son just casually drop by to brag about how awesome they are.  I swear, the whole thing reads like parody.  If this were written today I’d think it was really clever satire!

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Super goofs are the worst!  Also, smug Batman better watch out or he might find himself thrown into the sun…

The Super Sons hang out, with the Boy Detective trying to cheer up his super pal, including offering to let him ride his “Bat Bike.”  Ha!  Well, all of his efforts are to no avail, and then the two of them each attempt to stop a group of robbers with a nifty subterranean tank that looks more than a little like the Transport Modules from the old Ninja Turtles ‘toon (maybe the crooks work for Krang!).  The Boy of Steel blows it again, being fooled by fake Kryptonite, while Batman Jr. cleverly outwits the thieves…at least, if you don’t think about it too hard.  He finds the tunneling tank in a lake, hiding out from the authorities, so he plugs up its air snorkel, which is currently UNDERWATER, with a handkerchief.  This, somehow, causes the gang to surface, despite the fact that the snorkel was already blocked by being, you know, UNDERWATER!  It’s just a ridiculous little oversight that adds to the silliness of this issue.  Did you guys even bother to READ this thing before you sent it to press?

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Afterwards, we get another dose of domestic farce as all of the heroes sit down to a family dinner, still in costume, to celebrate Superman Jr.’s birthday.  Yay.  For his gift, the elder Superman decides to take his son to the Fortress of Solitude for the first time in an attempt to heal the rift between them…the rift that he has totally caused for being a jerk to his well-meaning son.

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Unfortunately, Goofus, I mean Superman Jr., screws everything up when he’s left alone in the Fortress.  He accidentally trashes the place, which seems to be the final straw.  The issue ends with the Dad of Steel locking his son in a booth and dropping in a piece of gold kryptonite to permanently take away his powers.  There’s actually something of value there, as the Super Father faces the fact that his son is more or less a danger to everyone on Earth because he’s such a huge clutz, but he’s also only 14…and who wasn’t a screwup at that age?  In other words, it immediately sinks into bathos or “narm.”  I’m sure we’ll see some type of turnaround next issue, but that’s where this merry-go-round of craziness ends.

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So, what do we make of this non-Haney batch of zaniness?  Well, I’m not really sure.  It’s just so goofy and silly that I certainly can’t enjoy it the way I do your average adventure story, but it is also undeniably vivacious and full of energy in a way that last Superman story simply was lacking.  It is clear that Kanigher isn’t thinking too deeply…or at all…about this tale, but it is fun and you really can’t help but feel sorry for the Super-Loser.  It does seem like the basic concept suffers from a lack of creativity, with the Super Sons just being carbon copies of their fathers, but there are neat moments interwoven with the ludicrous ones, though the latter outnumber the former.  This is a very Silver-Agey tale, though somehow less obnoxious than some of the others we’ve waded through.  I suppose it is just so wacky that it comes back around again and is fun.  I’ll give it 2.5 Minutemen.  It’s final effect is silly, but entertainingly so.

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“The Ordeal of Element Lad!”


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In the backup position this month we have the continuation of the excellent Legion story from the previous issue, and just as in that comic, this story absolutely steals the show.  It suffers from its brevity to a degree, yet it still manages to deliver a great espionage adventure.  Bridwell really came through with this two-parter, giving us a fascinating setup, solid if limited character work, exciting twists and turns, and a level of sophistication that really stands in marked contrast to the childish fare that seems to populate the pages of the Superman books.

You can see Bridwell struggling with his limited space to a degree, but the way he’s structured the two separate episodes helps to mitigate these restrictions.  For example, our perspective shifts a bit with this issue, and characters who didn’t get too much focus in the previous story get to carry most of the action in this one.  Unfortunately, Timber Wolf and Karate Kid still get rather short shrift, falling between the cracks a bit, but I suppose that type of thing is bound to happen in a team book with a big cast, especially when page real-estate is at such a premium.  The real stars of the issue are Element Lad and Saturn Girl, and we join the latter at the beginning of the story right where we left her, deep in the belly of the beast, having infiltrated the science labs of the tyrannical President Peralla.  The previous issue’s mild cliffhanger ending is continued as the scientist’s assistant declares that she knows the young Legionnaire.  Fortunately, she doesn’t know her as a Legionnaire!  It seems that this girl, Marli Zhorg (gotta’ love these Legion names) was a schoolmate of Saturn Girl’s but hasn’t kept up with her fellow Saturnian’s exploits since the old days.  Thus, she thinks that Imra is just another scientist looking for a job, happily assuming that her college buddy has no more qualms about working for a dictator than she does.

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Yet, though her cover is intact, the psychic heroine faces another obstacle.  She can’t telepathically smuggle the secrets of the ‘Humanoid’ super soldiers out to her teammates in the presence of another mind-reader.  Thinking quickly, she sends a seemingly innocent message ‘in the clear’ to Brainiac 5 that nevertheless appraises him of the situation.  It’s a nice display of her resourcefulness.  Meanwhile, the rest of the team is meeting with Masrin, the rebel leader, under the guise of being fellow operatives from the Dark Circle.  As they try to figure out how to fight the seemingly unstoppable Humanoids, Brainy discovers a trace of their substance on Karate Kid’s hand and rushes to conduct an analysis.

Just then, the loyalist forces attack, and a desperate battle ensues, a battle that will be hopeless unless the young Coluan can solve the mystery.  In a fun and fitting little sequence, Brainy solves the puzzle in the time it takes Element Lad to complain about his tardiness.  It’s a nice little character moment, demonstrating Brainiac 5’s competence, coolness, and also indicating the touch of arrogance that comes from knowing you’re the smartest being in the room.

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With the secret in his possession, Element Lad begins a herculean labor, single-handedly dispatching the Humanoids by converting their bodies into various elements, all while making the rebels believe it is their new weapons carrying the day in order to maintain their cover.  The sequence is nicely illustrated by Mortimer, and the Legionnaire displays a creative use of his powers as he destroys the creatures.

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The effort leaves him so drained that Timberwolf has to carry him when the rebels advance, but even so, he keeps up his attack.  Soon they are storming the capitol itself, and Saturn Girl sends them inside information, handily dispatching her former friend when she realizes what the young heroine is up to.  Brainy uses his force field belt to penetrate the city’s defenses and smash their controls, allowing the rebels to sweep in and providing him with a nice action sequence in the bargain.

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Masrin is more concerned with securing the treasury than with the capture of Peralla, and he pulls a Scrooge McDuck (minus the charm and whimsy) as he examines the wealth of the planet.  Here we see the culmination of the solid character work that Bridwell manages to weave into this fast moving story, as the rebel leader’s vices are displayed in several subtle ways amidst the action.  We see it when he shouts cornball lines during the battle that make the heroes roll their eyes, as well as in his casual disregard for his men in the previous story.  His vices prove his undoing, in classic fashion, as his greed provides the opening the Legionnaire’s need to take care of him.  The team convinces Masrin to hold back most of the treasure and only offer a small portion to his troops.  When he does so, Element Lad uses the last of his energy to transmute the gold and jewels into simple lead and stone.  The rebels turn on their disgraced leader, and a better man takes his place.

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The team, their mission successfully completed, is extracted, and the tale ends with Element Lad waking up in the infirmary after his heroic efforts, being congratulated by the others.  His valiant, unyielding perseverance throughout the issue was really quite impressive, and it’s pleasant to see the fellow get his due, especially because he’s a character that I don’t know well.  I like seeing new (to me) characters come out strong, and I always enjoy seeing underdogs (and Element Lad rather seems like one to me) make good.  He really does carry the issue, though, and his endurance in the face of his increasing exhaustion is a great heroic note for the character, even if it’s all we have time to learn about him.

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So, there you have it, an excellent Legion adventure, full of fun, intrigue, and energy,  with personality and character packed into every rare spare moment.  I didn’t even mention the romance subplot where the rebel officer’s girlfriend was revealed to be in love with someone else.  That type of extraneous element could easily just feel tacked on and unnecessary, but it is indicative of Bridwell’s apparent desire to see that nothing is left hanging.  Instead of being a distraction, it is handled with a light enough touch to add just a little extra flavor to the tale, occupying no more than a single panel and fitting in organically.  Once again, we see the power of visual storytelling, as a single word balloon and a meaningful glance tell us everything we need to know about the way things stand.

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The story isn’t perfect.  It’s just too short to be entirely successful.  The setup for the yarn remains impressive, though it doesn’t get as much exploration as we might like.  The final resolution, disposing of both Perala and Masrin, as well as the general threats to the world, as quickly as it does is a tad unsatisfying.  Nonetheless, the dramatic irony of Masrin’s greed-triggered fall helps to ameliorate this feeling.  On the whole, if the only complaint you can level against a story is that you wish there were more of it, you’re doing pretty well.  I’ll give it a solid 4 Minutemen, like it’s previous iteration.  I am really enjoying these Legion tales, and I’m looking forward to the next one!  They really help make these Action Comics days more enjoyable.

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Aquaman #52


aquaman_vol_1_52“The Traders’ Trap”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Dick Giordano

“Never Underestimate a Deadman”
Writer: Neal Adams
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Neal Adams
Editor: Dick Giordano

Well, back to Aquaman’s aquatic adventures, and happy I am for the return!  I really love this run, as I’ve remarked before, and though this isn’t the best one of the bunch, it’s still pretty darn good.  This issue is graced with another beautiful Nick Cardy cover, one that embraces the visual daring and creativity of the art within.  Once again, the SAG team deliver an innovative story that is breaking away from the standard formulas, along with really lovely and unusual art.  Imaginations continue to run wild, and the flurry of creative concepts keeps flying as the team further fleshes out this strange world.  What’s more, this story provides a really surprising and rather challenging moral dilemma for its protagonist.  In short, this book continues to encapsulate the best things about the Bronze Age.

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Another beautiful, trippy Aparo splash page

Before we rejoin our hero and his silent girl friday, the SAG team tosses out another concept to populate this bizarre world, a new and interestingly designed race of aliens, quite ugly but also fairly unique.  They have an advanced ship that looks a bit like a fugitive from Star Trek, and they are apparently on the hunt for slaves!  They approach the blue colony sphere…thing…from the last issue and spot the Sea King and his companion fighting off a horde of the natives.  The giant-headed aliens are impressed with the scrappy pair’s prowess, so they decide to capture them.

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Trapped in a force field, the Marine Marvel and the girl are brought aboard the alien ship and imprisoned in glass tubes with the rest of the day’s ‘catch.’  Aquaman deduces that the strange beings are telepathic and have highly developed brains, what with their huge melon-heads and all.  It seems telepathy is a common feature in the life forms of this bizarre land, a nice little bit of internal consistency that doesn’t get remarked upon but which makes the setting feel more fleshed-out and believable.

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Then we get a moment that I really enjoyed, one of those ‘Aquaman-is-awesome’ scenes that this series does so well.  While the glass prisons are enough to hold most life forms, the Sea King is not so easily cowed.  Held in his cell by powerful mental force, Arthur proves once again how much raw willpower he can muster as, inch by agonizing inch, he forces his arm to move until he shatters the cylinder and escapes.  Then he proceeds to wipe the floor with the big-brained bozos, casually remarking that though they may be smart, they aren’t too much in a fight.  It’s a really great sequence, and demonstrates how well the SAG team handle the character.

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I LOVE this panel with Aquaman cleaning three of the aliens’ clocks at once!

The Marine Marvel smashes a door control to cut off reinforcements and makes his way to the bridge, still desperate to follow the telepathic ‘pull’ that had drawn him to that blue colony in the first place in the hopes that it would lead him to Mera.  Some experimentation allows him to discern the workings of the controls, and the inclusion of that scene helps to illustrate the attention being given to the telling of these tales.  It makes sense that an alien ship could not be instantly piloted by a stranger, so seeing Aquaman actually pressing the wrong buttons as he’s trying to figure it out is a nice nod to logical consistency and their efforts to create a believable universe.  As Aristotle said, impossibilities (like men breathing under water and traveling to other worlds) can be accepted, as long as the are believably possible impossibilities.

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Well, once he arrives back at the colony, we encounter the most interesting moment in the story.  Our hero realizes that the girl is still trapped, and he faces the choice of what to do with her.  He knows he is going to be charging into battle against overwhelming odds as he pursues his quest, and he also knows that the colonists are likely to kill the girl on sight because she was the one who fired on them.  Yet, if he leaves her behind, she is liable to become a slave…or worse!  It’s a compelling and puzzling moral dilemma with no easy answer, and Aquaman himself doesn’t instantly know what to do.  He wants to do what is best for the girl, yet what that might be isn’t easy to discern.  His decision is made quickly, but at least we are shown that he sweats over it.  He chooses to leave the girl behind as he continues to search for a way home.

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Now, I’m far from convinced that this was the right choice, and it is actually rather troubling to me that Aquaman abandons her.  While I rather think that Skeates intends it to be thus, it seems that, at the least, Arthur should have woken her up and asked her what SHE wanted.  Of course, given her beliefs, she might not have ‘spoken’ with him, even if he had done so.  It is truly a difficult situation, as he could not take her home, her life wouldn’t be worth a plug nickel in the new colony, and our hero knows nothing else about this weird world.  As he remarks, at least she is safe, for the moment.  Nonetheless, it is vexing, and the fact that this simple four-color adventure book had me puzzling over a moral conundrum is a testament to its quality and to its uniqueness in the current crop of comics.

Aquaman52_13.jpgWell, to turn back to our tale, the Sea King attempts to fight his way into the colony, but he is felled by a…*gasp* head blow!  Yep, poor Arthur gets a second spot on the Head-Blow Headcount wall.  I’m afraid it won’t be his last, either.  I will say this for the noggin knock, though, at least these alien inhabitants of this land might actually have the strength to knock our hero out with one shot, unlike the average humans who tend to do so.  Either way, his captors decide to carry him to the “Extermination Chamber”!  Dun dun, DUNNN!

What a great place for a scene shift.  We check in briefly with Mera and Vulko, who are monitoring Black Manta as he circles Atlantis.  Suddenly, the Manta-ship disgorges two divers, but what are they up to?  Well, we won’t find out this issue, as our scene shifts again, picking back up with our hero on his way to his dreadfully named destination.  He makes swift work of his three guards in a nice, dynamic sequence, and he realizes that he’s reached the source of the strange ‘pull’…but there is nothing there!

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Just then, Mera snaps and cries out that she needs her husband (calling him “Aquaman” instead of Arthur, which always bothers me as it seems quite unnatural), and in response, the startled Sea King suddenly finds himself growing…and growing…finally appearing in front of a very surprised Sea Queen!  What is going on?  Well, we’ll actually get our answers in the Deadman backup!

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It’s a surprising and intriguing ending, though I really dislike Mera’s panicked outcry.  The modern portrayal of Mera has its problems (for one, she’s now trained as a warrior and assassin and quite blood-thirsty…just like every other character Geoff Johns reimagines), but at least she’s a fiery, independent woman.  I like my Mera with more spirit, more moxy.  She should be no-one’s damsel in distress, especially with all the power she is packing.  Still, like I said with the last issue, I do enjoy the idea that both husband and wife are desperate to be reunited.  It’s sweet.  This outburst pushes things too far, though.

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The more interesting element is, of course, the controversial (to me, at least), choice that our hero makes this issue.  It is handled briefly, and the action moves right along, yet it is a really compelling moment that tells us about the character.  What do y’all think of his choice, readers?  What should Aquaman have done with the girl?  Feel free to weigh in through the comments.

Once again, the story suffers a bit from brevity, but it still manages to present us with a complete adventure, while also keeping us on the hook by raising as many questions as it answers.  Throughout Aquaman comes off as pretty awesome, powerful, capable, indomitable (other than that one head-blow…), and driven, yet still concerned about the girl who has fallen in with him, despite his own considerable problems.  I think the issue itself may not be quite as strong as the last one in all respects, but the episode with the choice provides enough interest and depth to push it up to the next level in my estimations.  Thus, I award it a very respectable 4.5 Minutemen.

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“Never Underestimate a Deadman”


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This Deadman backup provides a fun and interesting, if a bit uneven, conclusion to our main adventure, and it is followed by an Aquaman epilogue that I will cover in this section.  Neal Adams is in fine form, so the art is beautiful, but unfortunately, he is also handling the writing chores, and his prose tends to be a tad purple.  He also makes some rather odd choices with his captions, as when the boxes constantly urge the hero to hurry.  Still, it’s a fun yarn.

It opens with Deadman and the strange, dimension hopping Tatsinda arriving back on Earth after a stomach churning journey.  The Deceased Detective commits something of a faux pas by telling his now cat-shaped companion that he liked her better in the other world.  They encounter the Ocean Master moping about his betrayal of the man who he has come to realize is actually his brother, Aquaman.  In a really nice bit of characterization, there is an element of pride even in Orm’s remorse, a certain epic grandeur that reminds one of Milton’s Satan in a funny costume.  It is not just that he betrayed his brother, it is also that he failed to save him, and the failure itself, a failure to enact his will, is, perhaps, what galls him most.  It’s actually a wonderful character beat, and I think it captures something about Orm that is true about most great villains.  The central sin, the original sin, and the one that leads to worldly greatness both good and bad, is pride.  It must be the defining characteristic of any would-be world-conquering villain.  Magneto or Lex Luthor would be nothing, despite their individual causes, if they were not backed up by towering pride and will to back it.

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I’ll add, at the risk of sidetracking this commentary even further, that Ocean Master’s costume, though here it looks about as good as it ever does, is just a lost cause.  The light purple, almost pink cloak and pants, the whole color scheme…it just doesn’t have the dignity the character needs.  The later redesign that adopted a more serious color scheme looks world’s better.  The modern version is, like almost every single New 52 costume, overdesigned, but it has some good elements.  I like the scales that echo and reflect Aquaman’s armor, but the whole thing just doesn’t quite come together.  I think one more pass would get it right.  Unlike many folks, I actually quite like the helmet.  I think it is distinctive and interesting.  The new version refines it nicely, but I think it has always been a good trademark for the character, making the design pop.

Well, anyway, Deadman grows tired of listening to Orm’s monologuing as the fate of the world hangs in the balance, so telling Tatsinda to hang tight, he grabs the reins of the villain’s body, and uses him to infiltrate the aliens’ ship.  I bet you had forgotten all about these guys, huh?  Well, helpfully, we get a quick recap, and the invaders obliging explain their plan to “Orm,” since he is, after all, their ally.  They are going to flood the world with radiation from all of their emitters, and this will reduce the inhabitants’ intelligence, making them nice, tractable slaves.

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The ghostly hero decides to smash their devices, and by jumping from opponent to opponent, he makes some progress, but the aliens shut their brains down to thwart him (That has to be a VERY specific skill.  How often would it come in handy?  I mean, other than going to see a DC movie?).  Unable to use the aliens, Deadman begins to flit across the globe, controlling various animals to smash the devices, but he realizes that to get the central device he needs help, namely, Aquaman!  We discover what has happened to the Aquatic Ace.  Apparently the invaders don’t believe in taking life (an interesting touch), so to fulfill their bargain with Orm, they just shrunk the hero down, and he is now trapped in a microscopic realm on Mera’s ring.  Intense concentration can reverse the effects (sure, why not), so Deadman snags Vulko in order to prompt Mera into such an effort, and this triggers the Sea King’s return.

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Yet, is it all for naught?  The Dead Detective realizes that the time limit has expired!  Fortunately, it seems that his efforts were enough, even without destroying the central device…or were they?  Tatsinda tartly informs the smug spirit that it was, in fact, she, who saved the day.  She swam out to the ship and sabotaged the device so that it backfired, stupefying the aliens and forcing their withdrawal.  This is an unexpected and fun twist.  I enjoy Tatsinda’s self-satisfied recounting of her deed, and she also coolly informs our hero that no lady, no matter what her form, cares to be ignored.  It’s a fun little ending, even if it is a bit of an anti-climax.

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To add to the fun of this issue, the team also provides us with an accounting of the creation of these interlocked tales, which is, in and of itself, an enjoyable and interesting read.  I’ll reproduce it below so y’all can enjoy it as well.  Essentially, it was a collaborative idea that all the creators contributed towards, the story evolving as it was told.

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Anyway, the story itself was a good read, and Deadman’s frantic efforts made for good adventure fare.  In the end, these aliens just didn’t seem like that great of a threat, and that rather lowered the impact of the story.  I think that this is the weakest of the Deadman chapters, and the weakest chapter overall, especially considering the weight and enjoyability of the Aquaman section from this issue.  Still, those are pretty high marks to hit, and the tale deserves an above average 3.5 Minutemen.

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The epilogue reunites our two submarine superheroes, and the couple discusses the strangeness of the recent ordeal while also bringing the returned king up to date on Black Manta’s odd behavior.  Mera notes that she is, in a sense, the goddess of this bizarre microscopic world and speculates about other such places.  We know from the Atom that they abound, making the DCU Universe even more packed with life and wonder than is apparent.  It’s a neat concept, and it rather reminds me of the medieval idea that God would waste no space in creation, thus, every element and every area must have its life, its wonder, and its purpose.  It’s a lovely vision of the universe, and, though it raises endless questions, is great for a world of wonders such as this.  The issue ends with Aquaman calling out Manta and promising further adventures to come!

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Well, I am going to stop this post here, letting these two issues stand alone.  I’ve decided to start treating multi-feature books as multiple entries since their writing takes just as long as do multiple individual issues. That will also hopefully help me keep up a more rapid and consistent pace.  I’m trying to use this blog to discipline myself in writing, in part as training for my dissertation writing which is coming up soon, so hopefully this will aid that objective.  I’m also going to try to rein in my issue commentaries a bit, as they’ve grown more than I had intended, so you may look for more restrained summaries in the future.  As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments, and I hope you will join me next week as we tread further on our journey Into the Bronze Age!

 


The Head-Blow Headcount:


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Poor, poor Aquaman.  He becomes the second hero to make a return appearance on the wall of shame.  At least this time, it might make some sense.  I have to say, I expected we’d see even more entries, but I suppose we aren’t even a year in yet, are we?  Clearly, this trope is alive and well in the Bronze Age.

 

Into the Bronze Age: June 1970 (Part 1)

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Welcome to the next chapter in our Bronze Age journey!

This month in history:

  • Soyuz 9 launched into Earth orbit for 18 days
  • 1st artificial gene synthesized
  • Tonga (formerly Friendly Islands) declares independence from UK
  • The Falls Road curfew in North Ireland, imposed by the British Army while searching for IRA weapons, is lifted after a march by women breaches the British Army cordon
  • Race riots in Miami Florida
  • Edwin Land patents Polaroid camera
  • “Catch 22” opens in movie theaters
  • Two young girls die in a premature explosion in Derry after their father, a member of the Irish Republican Army, was making an incendiary device
  • Following the arrest of Bernadette Devlin, intense riots erupt in Derry and Belfast leading to a prolonged gun battle between Irish republicans and loyalists

It seems that the situation in Ireland continues to deteriorate this month, and the Space Race also continues apace.  Imagine that, the same decades that saw some of the very greatest of human endeavors, our challenging of the great void of space, also saw the worst of our collective character in the violence of brother against brother all across the world from which we were in the process of escaping.  I wonder if we’ll continue to see these tensions transferred in interesting ways to this month’s comics.

The number one song this month was the Beatles’ “Long and Winding Road.” (I can’t find a decent version of it)  I’ve always felt that the Beatles are a bit overrated, but this is a fairly pretty song.  Yes, yes, I know that a good quarter or more of my readers are now frothing with rage, and I appreciate that.  I respect their importance in musical history, their influence, and all of that, but they’ve just never been one of my favorite bands.  Give me Zeppelin any day of the week.

Roll Call (You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #389
  • Aquaman #51
  • Batman #222
  • Detective Comics #400
  • The Flash #198
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #77
  • Justice League #81
  • Phantom Stranger #7
  • Showcase #91
  • Teen Titans #27
  • World’s Finest #194

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

Action Comics #389

Action_Comics_389.jpgCover Artist: Curt Swan
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Roussos

“The Mystery Legionnaire!”
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Win Mortimer
Inker: Jack Abel

This is one of those stock Superman plots that provide the fodder for the Super-Dickery pages the internet so dearly loves.  We have The Man of Tomorrow acting uncharacteristically, seeming to disregard his duties and generally act like a jerk, only to be revealed at the end of the tale to have had a good motive for his actions.

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Our odd little adventure begins with the situation you see portrayed on the cover, and for once, the cover doesn’t lie!  Superman suddenly decides to start trying out some different sports, claiming that he’s considering a career change.  You’d think by this point in the DCU there would be some regulations against aliens, mutants, or other super-humans participating in professional sports!  The Batter of Steel performs various super feats on the diamond, but a young boy is brought in for the thrill of pitching to the hero, only to actually slip one by him!  The Metropolis Marvel reacts uncharacteristically to this little upset, hurling the ball into space and storming off.

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Next, he tries soccer, playing the entire field by himself and eventually launching the ball through the net and into orbit!  Are we starting to see a pattern here?  Perhaps!  Once again, Superman abandons the promise of a lucrative contract and flies off to try something new.  Next up on his sports-tour?  Boxing.  Really.

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The strongest being on earth climbs into the ring with a regular, squishable, mortal man.  His sparring partner wears full plate armor, but still!  What kind of nutjob would get into the ring with the Man of Freaking Steel?  Well, his opponent’s sanity aside, everyone else involved, including Jimmy Olsen, points out that this is a recipe for disaster in the form of lots of boxers dying from acute punch-death.  Superman gives a seemingly petty rant about being tired of the responsibilities that come from being a superhero, and he knocks the speedbag he’s working with into the stratosphere!  Yep, I think we’ve figured out the pattern by this point.

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In the end, the Sportsman of Tomorrow tries tennis, basketball, and football, each time sending a ball into orbit.  It’s worth noting that writer Leo Dorfman takes the time to establish that our mighty hero has to use special sporting equipment that can stand up to his strength.  I appreciate that little nod to logic.

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The situations of the earlier games are repeated, but after sending the pigskin into the great black yonder, Superman follows it up.  We discover that he’s been slowly decorating a strange-looking satellite with these various sports accoutrements, and our hero conveniently provides us with an explanation.

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Apparently, this is an alien probe designed to test Earth’s atmosphere to see if it is fitting for invasion.  It is also rigged to explode cataclysmically if anyone or anything living comes too close to it.  The Last Son of Krypton had fortunately been informed about these aliens, the Slurrans, and their tactics, so he was able to prepare a plan to deal with their machinations.  Fearing he was being monitored, Superman faked his sports career to surreptitiously clog all of the air intake ports on this device with balls filled with a special gas which will mutate the alien animals it is to be tested on.

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The aliens are horrified and mark Earth off as a no-go.  The tale ends with Superman relating the adventure into his journal in the Fortress of Solitude, noting that “Earth is entitled to know the truth behind that strange sports craze[…]I’ll record the facts[…]to be opened a century after my death.  While I think there’s no good reason for him not to tell the planet now, I do rather like the idea that Superman is not at all concerned with his image.  Who cares if people think he went sports crazy for a little while?  He saved the world!

This is a weird story that mostly serves as an excuse to show off Superman playing a bunch of sports, but unlike the King Kong riff from last month, at least this tale provided something of a justification for itself.  It’s not the best plot ever, but it isn’t bad, and Dorfman actually takes the time to cross some of the “t”s and dot some of the “i”s of this yarn, which I appreciate.  He addresses what would otherwise be niggling little plot holes or irrational moments.  He even explains how Superman knows about these aliens in the first place.  The sports imagery doesn’t do much for me, since I’m not much of a sports person, other than fencing, but it’s fun enough.  I think they provide a clever cover for our hero’s plan.  So, in the end, I’ll give it 3 Minutemen, as it is an enjoyable enough Superman story.

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“The Mystery Legionnaire”

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I think that the Legion story is once again going to be the star of the book.  It’s another of those mystery member yarns that seem to make up a good 90% of Silver and Bronze Age Legion stories, but the central conceit is an interesting one.  It involves a robotic criminal whose disembodied head is summoning its erstwhile body back to it across the space lanes.  It turns out this mechanical malevolent was defeated by a trio of Legionnaires, and what exactly happened during that earlier conflict forms the mystery of the issue.

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Apparently, somewhere in space is a prison for handicapped villains, ne’er do-wells who can now do nothing well because they’ve managed to cripple themselves in their ill-conceived pursuits of ill-gotten gains.  While unable to continue pulling crimes themselves, these ill-favored inmates take advantage of their light security to construct a robotic robber, named KLIM, to steal in their stead.

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On a wild alien world, he was confronted by the three teens, Cosmic Boy, Chemical King, and Shrinking Violet, who defeated, trapped, and beheaded the robotic renegade.  Fortunately for the synthetic villain, his head had its own propulsion and managed to elude his pursuers.  After recovering from his defeat, the bodiless bogey summons his body from across the cosmos.

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Fortunately for the forces of order, the Legionnaires manage to track the body, though they encounter a series of traps at the villain’s sanctuary.  They each use their powers to overcome the obstacles, Shrinking Violet slipping through a gate, Chemical King rusting the bars, and Cosmic Boy smashing a trap with magnetized rocks.

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Finally, they challenge the disembodied head, who is fixated on the single Legionnaire who defeated him, but it turns out that there was no solitary hero to blame.  Yet, the robot remains certain there was.  It seems that he conflated Cosmic Boy and Chemical King with his damaged optics.  Nonetheless, he determines to be revenged on all of the young heroes!  Yet, just as he prepares to strike them down with his powerful eye beams, his vocal device suddenly malfunctions, shattering his invulnerable prisma-glass shield!  How could this be?  Through the  machinations of Shrinking Violet, of course!  She shrunk down and played havoc with KLIM’s mechanisms, causing his boasting to burst his protective bubble.

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This is a fun story, and the focus on the mystery is not overpowering or ridiculous as they sometimes tend to be in Legion tales.  KLIM provides an interesting villain, and overall this is just a solid all-around adventure yarn.  I like that Shrinking Violet, the apparently weakest member of the team, is the one who saves the day.  Everyone gets something to do, and even if there isn’t much characterization, it is entertaining.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.

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Aquaman #51

Aquaman_Vol_1_51.jpgCover Artist: Nick Cardy
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Dick Giordano

“The World Cannot Wait for Deadman”
Writer: Neal Adams
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Neal Adams
Editor: Dick Giordano

The excellent SAG run continues, and Aquaman’s sojourn in the strange alien world continues as well!  This is a visually spectacular arc of issues, with Aparo at the peak of his powers.  Story-wise, this arc is intriguing and has that heady, wildly creative feel of the best Silver Age Stan and Jack Marvel books, where innovative and fascinating concepts and characters are tossed out rapid-fire with amazing regularity.  It’s one of the great tragedies of the comic book world that the Aquaman book and the SAG team would not last long enough to really capitalize on the myriad creations they added to the mythos of the character and his world.

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Of course, we’re first faced with that beautiful Nick Cardy cover.  That situation doesn’t really happen inside, but what an image!  We rejoin the Aquatic Ace right where we left him, meeting the leader of the strange, MC Escher-esq city on the edge of nowhere where he’s found himself marooned.  Unfortunately this Brother Warnn can tell Arthur no more than his winsome companion, despite the fellow’s awesome forked beard and robe.  The Sea King struggles with the seeming hopelessness of his situation, but Aquaman is not one to give in to despair.  He vows to once again brave the bizarre wastelands outside the borders of this strange city in search of other beings who might know the way…home!

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Yet, his newly acquired ‘Girl Friday’ is horrified by his declaration.  Apparently it is blasphemous to her people to even suggest that there are any other civilizations outside of The City.  Their telepathic “conversation” attracts the attention of the powers that be, and the lovely lady warns the Sea King that he will face attack if he leaves the shrine, but a little danger is no deterrent for the Marine Marvel.  He takes out the guard at the entrance, but quickly finds himself pursued by more of these grim guardians with their strange bubble-weapons.  We get a really love page of how our submarine sojourner escapes the bizarre bubbles, diving through a narrow opening in a building to scrape them away.

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Still, he finds his exit blocked, so he knocks out another sentry and uses the poor schmuck as a human (alien?) shield!  His strategy works, and he manages to escape his pursuers, hurling their hapless fellow back into them as a parting gift.

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Aquaman, King of the Sea and King of Fair Play

Yet, as he strikes out into the vast unknown of the wilderness beyond, the Sea King discovers that his plucky companion has followed him.  We get a nice little moment where he privately hopes that her interest isn’t romantic.  Yeah, I don’t think Mera would be okay with that!

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As they begin their journey in search of answers, they discover that the inhabitants of The City are rather sore losers.  They activate some sort of telepathic death-ray, and it nearly does both of the travelers in!

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The girl collapses in pain, but our hero is able to struggle onward.  I like that.  It works for me that Aquaman, who must have an incredibly powerful mind, is able to resist this weapon.  They finally escape the reach of this weird weapon, our hero once again struggles with despair, but he refuses to give in, thinking only of Mera and home!

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Speaking of the fetching fire-haired water witch, we check back in with her in Atlantis, where she is fighting a similar battle against despair, with Aqualad’s encouragement.  We get a brief recap of the events that have led us here, but then we discover that Black Manta is approaching Atlantis!  The Queen of the Sea orders out the army to go on alert, but secretly she laments the fact that she must face this challenge…alone!  We get probably a bit too much melodrama here.  It makes Mera seem rather weak, which I don’t care for.  Still, I like the idea of both man and wife pining for each other from more than a world apart.  I suppose I’m just a big old romantic softie, but that gets me.

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We rejoin our intrepid explorers in time for a strange and funny little scene where they pass two small figures working a mine.  These elfin characters are named Steev and Jimm, and they reference another named Dikk.  That’s right, Skeates and Aparo added the whole team to their story.  Fun!

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Well, Aquaman does indeed discover another city, but one much different from the first!  From a distance it seems to be a blue sphere, but when they get closer, they see it is actually honeycombed with caves and inhabited by a primitive looking people.  Unlike the inhabitants of The City, these folks “talk” in the open, a fact that proves too much for the Sea King’s companion.

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She draws her weapon, and she fires at these peaceful people!  Fortunately, Aquaman realizes what she’s doing and slaps the gun away, though the shot summons a hostile response!  Suddenly the Marine Marvel finds himself preparing to fight for his life, and all because of this girl’s unthinking prejudice!

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I love the look of frustrated determination on Aquaman’s face in that last panel.

This is a good story, as are all the issues from this run.  It captures that wonderfully weird, exotic sense of exploration and adventure that should absolutely characterize an Aquaman book.  I love for the Sea King to get up on land and mix it up, show that he’s a conventional superhero, but a good Aquaman series also has to take advantage of the unique and amazing setting the character has.  The undersea world of the DC Universe is a fantasy world, populated by all sorts of strange peoples and creatures, civilizations and wonders.

This era of the character did a great job capturing that sense of awe and scope in his undersea adventures.  What’s more, I think this tale has a subtle message about prejudice in the portrayal of the inhabitants of The City, and especially Aquaman’s “Girl Friday,” who, despite having MET someone whose very existence challenges her worldview, can’t escape the confines of her preconceptions long enough to see that wonder of the world around her.  Her willingness to murder the inhabitants of the cavern-city is particularly telling.  Once again, we’ve got a message delivered with subtlety.  Mr. O’Neil, are you taking notes?  I think we’ll see with the next week’s issues that you aren’t.  I’ll let you make your own inferences about how this applies to the current political climate in the U.S.

Unfortunately, this little yarn is just that, little.  It’s limited by its length, as the book is accommodating the Deadman backup, leaving only 15 1/3 pages for Aquaman’s adventures.  That means the tale feels abbreviated and a little rushed.  Still, all-in-all, it’s another fascinating chapter in this submarine saga!  I’ll give it 4 Minutemen.

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“The World Cannot Wait for Deadman”

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Speaking of that Deadman backup, it continues to be interesting and, of course, beautifully drawn.  It’s a fast-moving, engaging little yarn that also presents a wealth of potential that, sadly, doesn’t seem to have ever been exploited.  We rejoin our deceased daredevil in the grips of some otherworldly phenomenon caused by that bizarre cat-like creature from the previous issue.  He suddenly finds himself quite corporeal and whole in a strange new world, accompanied by a beautiful and mysterious young woman.

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Deadman somehow senses that she is, in fact, the reason he is there.  It seems that the cat-creature was her manifestation in his dimension, though she is a native of this new world.  She explains that the aliens actually trap her people and use them to dispose of spirits like him, as their only way home is to “ride” a spirit back to their own dimension.  The explanation having been delivered, Boston naturally demands to be taken home.  Earth is still in danger, after all, and he’s the only one who even knows about it!  The lovely lady refuses, stating that she would be trapped again if she were to return.  Right from the start, you can feel Adams stretching his creative muscles in the design of this alien dimension.  We get only the most fleeting glances of it in this short story, but it’s got the makings of a fun fantasy setting, with the people riding giant birds, dwelling in sprawling subterranean caverns, and facing extraordinary threats.

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It’s a real shame that, as far as I know, this is the only glimpse we ever get of this unique world, named Dano by its inhabitants.  Yet, though eerily beautiful, this place is dangerous, and Deadman, the girl, Tatsinda, and some of her people quickly find themselves facing a flash flood, so they flee into the caverns that their race calls home.  Once inside, the little party is ambushed by creepy, arachnid looking antagonists riding a giant…well, hypno-crab would be the best description, I’d say.  (All glory to the Hypnotoad!)  I really like the design for these arachn-anderthals (TM).  Once again, we see them only briefly, but they have lots of visual interest.

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The bizarre mount of the arachn-anderthals renders the little party helpless with its gigantic, hypnotic eyes, and the raiders grab Tatsinda.  The Dead Detective shakes off the mind-warping effects of that gaze and pursues the attackers into a perilous web stretching through the caverns.  He employs his acrobatic training to good effect and quickly gains on them.  Deadman’s aerialist attack lets him get in close, and he turns those dangerous eyes against their owners in rather wonderful fashion.

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Finally, he faces the last of the raiders in a desperate hand-to-hand battle, strength against strength, like Beowulf and Grendel.  Unlike the monstrous Mere-Stepper, though, this fellow doesn’t leave behind an arm as he plunges into the night.  Deadman effectively kills this guy, which is something that I’m usually, ahem dead-set against (I’m sorry!) in comics, but I’m willing to give him a pass this time.  After all, he’s not your average superhero, and this is a sword-and-sorcery-esq tale.  It feels right, even if it is a bit surprising.  There’s something ironic and interesting in Deadman using deadly force.  I don’t know the character particularly well, but I hope writers have taken advantage of that concept at some point in time.

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The story ends with Tatsinda giving her rescuer a kiss, and then, thinking that his world needs his heroic heart more than hers needs her, she once again rips open the dimensional barriers and sends Deadman home!

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It’s a good tale, far too brief to really stretch its proverbial legs and breathe the way we’d like it to, especially given the intriguing nature of the setting, but it is enjoyable nonetheless.  Adams manages to inject a lot in a small space, and one just wonders what he could have done with more pages.  Once again, it’s hard to rate stories this short (7 1/2 pages), but I’ll be generous and also give this 4 Minutemen.

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Batman #222

Batman_222.jpgCover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Dick Giordano

“Case of No Consequence!”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Dick Giordano

This is certainly a unique instance of “real life” influencing comics!  The famous urban myth that hounded the Beatles in 1969 about Paul’s death gets a silly, light-hearted treatment with this story.  In case you aren’t aware of this bizarre little conspiracy theory, apparently in 1969 a rumor began circulating around American college campuses, eventually gaining national attention, that claimed Paul McCartney of Beatles fame had died.  The crux of this whole weird myth was that his band-mates had covered up his death and hired a double to replace him…for reasons.  The proponents of this theory pointed to a number of “clues” to the musicians demise supposedly hidden in the Beatle’s music.  Supposedly, playing certain songs backward or in specific ways revealed messages about Paul’s death.

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It is with just such a musical experiment that our tale opens.  Dick Grayson and his college friends at Hudson University are listening to an album of “The Twists,” playing it backwards at a specific speed, and they hear a line by the leader singer, “Glennan,” that seems to indicate “Saul Cartwright” (get it?) is dead.  The Teen Wonder’s curiosity is piqued, and when he discovers that the band is coming to Gotham, he talks Bruce Wayne into offering to host the fab-four during their stay, giving him a chance to get to the bottom of this “mystery.”

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The band arrives, with Saul safe and sound, reassuring the cheering crowds that he is, in fact, still among the living.  Once they are settled in at Wayne Manor, specially re-opened for the occasion, even Batman’s curiosity is piqued.  The reunited Dynamic Duo decide to put the rumor to the test.  Dick gets a recording of “Saul’s” voice and compares it to an earlier sample from one of his records.  The two are markedly dissimilar when compared in the Batcave, but the Dark Knight points out that they would be, one being a speaking and the other a singing voice.

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Robin decides to try a more direct approach, so he dons his costume and steals the mini-recorder that Saul always carries about from his room.  Or rather, he tries to, but the trained crimefighter is jumped in the darkened hallway of his own home by one of the British musicians.  Think about that for a moment.

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We get a classic head-blow knockout, sending the young hero plummeting down the stairs!  Poor Dick is not coming off too well in this issue.  It’s also worth noting that our heroes start running around in full costume in Wayne Manor with guests staying there.  Good job protecting the secret identities, guys.

Bruce discovers his crumpled sidekick and brings him to the Batcave, where they start to work on new strategies.  After a few more failed efforts, they discover that the band is preparing to do a recording session at a studio in Gotham.  The Masked Manhunters head out to get there ahead of time, but there are a number of hired guns waiting for them!  Batman predicts their ambush with some really weak logic, and the heroes make short work of the gunsels.

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The Dynamic Duo finally simply confront the Twists in Wayne Manor!  Really guys?  “Saul” is sick of all these rumors, but he doesn’t know anything about these attacks.  “Glennan,” however, is not so innocent.  He pulls a gun, because no-one has ever tried that with the Dark Knight before.

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They slap the singer down without much trouble, and all is finally revealed.  Apparently, Saul is not an imposter, but the other three are!  It seems that the previous year, the rest of the band died in a plane crash while Saul was still home in London.  He wanted to keep the band alive, so he hired look-alikes and trained them for a year, starting rumors of his own death to throw people off the scent.  The truth comes out, and the remaining musicians, minus “Glennan,” form a new band called Phoenix.

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So, this was a silly story, but funny as a parody of the whole “Paul is dead” craze.  It is not really clear why Batman would be interested in all of this.  Slow night in Gotham?  Is everybody actually staying in Arkham for a time?  Anyway, the joke is pretty much all that this tale has going for it, and the reversal at the end is a nice twist on the idea.  It’s funny enough, but there isn’t much to it.  I’ll give it 3 Minutemen.

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“Case of No Consequence!”

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I really liked this backup tale.  We’ve heard a lot in recent years about how Superman cares about everybody, how that’s one of his defining characteristics which is completely absent in this new big screen portrayal.  That’s entirely true, but what the people who cringe at Superman taking a life and cheer at Batman doing the same forget is that this is a trait not unique to the Man of Steel.  It is, in fact, a definitive mark of both of DC’s founding fathers.  That’s what makes this little yarn so good; it captures the fact that Batman does what he does, not just out of a desire for revenge, not because he is so broken and damaged inside, and not because he is bat-guano insane.  No, he fights his never-ending battle because he, more than anyone else in the DCU, knows the value of life, the value of redemption.  And that’s a beautiful thing, often lost amongst the darkness and grimness of his world.

This particular tale begins with Batman, exhausted from a non-stop night fighting crime, so tired he can barely stand, encountering a simple mugging.  He discovers that the victim is a deaf man, a free-lance journalist whose camera was stolen.  The Dark Knight realizes that the camera is this man’s livelihood, and though he wonders if this is really a case that deserves his attention, he quickly realizes that he can’t abandon the poor soul in his need.

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The thief stepped in developing fluid, and the Dark Detective uses this to track him, tracing the fleeing felon to a seedy pool hall.  The camera-snatcher, a punk named Bleeker Bill, is reveling in his take and playing some pool, until the exhausted hero surprises him.  The Caped Crusader’s fatigue allows his prey to escape, but the hero’s physical abilities are much less important to his success than his brains, so he figures out where the rat will run.

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Bats surprises him by taking a shortcut through the sewers, and cows the coward purely through force of his presence.  The tale ends with the Dark Knight returning the camera, secretly repaired, and pausing for a snapshot for the shutterbug before tottering home, utterly out of energy.

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It’s a quick but complete story, and it captures that too-rarely seen quality of the character, his love for humanity at large.  Batman helps this man because he needs help, because it is the right thing to do, regardless of how he felt and how small the matter seemed.  To the victim, it was the biggest thing in the world, and the Dark Knight recognized that.  It’s simple, but good.  That being said, I’m not crazy about the thief getting away from our hero in the bar.  Tired or not, you’d think the Caped Crusader could toss a batarang or something!  Either way, I’l give this backup 4 Minutemen.

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Thanks for joining me for another set of stories from the Bronze Age!  Please come back next week when we trek a little further into this great era.

 

The Head-Blow Headcount:

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We’ve got a new addition to the Head-blow counter!  Poor Robin adds another appearance to the wall of shame.

 

 

Into the Bronze Age: April 1970 (Part 1)

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Further up and further in!

This month in history:

  • Riots continue in the Ballymurphy estate in Belfast between Catholic residents and the British Army
  • Midnight Cowboy won the Academy Award for best picture
    • Ironically, John Wayne won best actor for an actual cowboy picture, True Grit
  • The Beatles officially broke up
  • Apollo 13 announces, in one of history’s most amazing examples of understatement, “Houston, we’ve got a problem”
  • Muammar Gaddafi started the “Green Revolution” in Libya
  • 50,000 US & South Vietnamese troops invade Cambodia

We’re still in pretty troubled waters here and will be for the foreseeable future, though I think the Beatles breaking up is an interesting yardstick for our progress out of the 60s and into the 70s.  Of course, the first few years of every decade tend to be more like the previous one than the one they actually inhabit.  We’re seeing that trend write small in the development of superhero comics this year.

This month’s #1 song evenly split between the Beatles’ “Let it Be” and the Jackson 5’s
“ABC.”  Double points for the rhyme!  Man, how far there is to go for little Michael Jackson.  Poor little weirdo.  Say what you will about him, but he could sing.

Well, that sets the stage, but what about the main feature?  Well, we’ve got a rather short month, having lost a few titles.  I’m particularly sad that Strange Adventures stop printing new Adam Strange stories, as they were really hitting a nice stride.

Roll Call (You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #387
  • Aquaman #50
  • Detective Comics #398
  • Green Lantern #76 (First issue of Green Lantern/Green Arrow)
  • Superman #225
  • Teen Titans #26

Bonus!: The Space Museum

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

Action Comics #387

Action_Comics_387.jpgCover Artist: Curt Swan
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Roussos

“One Hero Too Many!”
Writer: E. Nelson Bridwell
Penciler: Win Mortimer
Inker: Jack Abel

Our journey into the distant future with the never more appropriately named Man of Tomorrow continues in this, the third installment of our story.  The cover, though nice and dramatic, represents only a fairly minor incident in this tale.  The story itself is that somewhat frustrating mixture of fascinating and frustrating.  We see some particularly good character work with Superman this issue, courtesy of Bates, but we also see one of the more ridiculous (and maybe just a tad sacrilegious?) super-feats I’ve encountered in my comic reading tenure.

This chapter of Superman’s enforced future exile begins with his discovering a number of astronauts floating in space in capsules of suspended animation.  The Man of Steel rescues them by flying them through a “rainbow sun,” because Carey Bates apparently doesn’t understand how light works, and, though clumsily expressed, we get a good moment that sets the tone for the rest of the episode, as Superman thinks to himself that “this would have thrilled me once, an eternity ago!  Now even the most spectacular feats don’t give me a charge!  I’m just tired of doing my thing!”  It seems a bit uncharacteristic for Clark to refer to saving lives as “doing his thing,” but the wistfulness, the ennui of a man forever banished from his home, and now aged and facing the prospect of an eternal, anchorless life, is what gives this issue its emotional weight.

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Once rescued, the astronauts naturally have some questions, being chronal refugees themselves, after a fashion, having been in suspended animation for 5,000 years.  Superman has no time for such light weights and, in a really lovely panel, with unusual detail and depth for Swan (‘m thinking Russos’ inking should get some credit here), the Man of Tomorrow blows them off and heads for space, not even bothering to flag down a passing spacecraft, just burning out a component with his heat-vision to force them to stop.  Now that’s an example of super-dickery if ever there was one, but I feel it is somewhat justified by the emotional turmoil that Superman is dealing with.

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We get a brief summary of the story so far, which ends with a nice panel of the Time Trapper secretly observing his hapless victim.  The Man of Might then pays a visit to the Earth of this distant future, and he finds a grim sight awaiting him.  The planet is completely dead.  We get a neat, subtle (for the period) note at this point, where Clark remarks that he should have guessed as much “after a million years of pollution, war, and untold abuses from man.”  Once again, we find the thread of environmentalism being weaved into these comics, which is even more surprising given the generally traditional tone of these Superman books.

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Well, Earth is dead and of no use to anyone, so the galactic cleanup crew arrives to dispose of it in the form of two massive, moon-sized robots.  Superman, being rather sentimental about his adopted world and not entirely in his right mind tries to drive them off, but finds the massive machines entirely unfazed by his efforts.  A frontal assault having proved useless, he heads inside their giant heads, crossing wires and generally mucking things up.  He turns them both into gigantic electromagnets of the same polarity, causing them to repel each other with great violence.  It’s a clever solution, and it is nice to see Superman not simply juggle these planetoid sized automatons…but then Bates blows it by having our hero juggle a planet instead.

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Or rather, bring one to life.  In a ridiculous series of pages, Superman carves the dead world in two by drilling through it again and again, splitting it in two…though how exactly that’s supposed to lead to a world reborn is a bit beyond me.  Next Superman uses his…*sigh* super lungs to collect fresh atmosphere, gathers new vegetation, and new animals, all from alien worlds.

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Finally, and this is really more than a little troublesome if you think about it for more than five seconds, the Man of Steel steals a freaking family of neanderthal-like creatures, cave and all, flies them through space, and deposits them, entirely alone, on a new and alien planet.  Just so that he can play God to a new Garden of Eden.  Of course, his version of a supreme being is definitely the watchmaker type, because he’s off again on his wanderings the next moment, leaving these poor, displaced primitive folks to almost certainly die on this new world without a tribe to help them survive.  Not to mention, it’s just a mother, father, and a son.  It’s not like this new race can go beyond the second generation.

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Good job, Superman.  I’m beginning to think that maybe Lex has been right about you all these years.  And speaking of the smartest man on Earth, we get a rather neat flashback to an aged Luthor visiting the Superman museum back in the past, where he reflects that he never believed his nemesis was dead, nor would he believe it without seeing a body.  He knows he is nearing the end of his days, but the inventor is unwilling to let his hatred die with him, so he creates a small spacecraft, empowered by his own final breath, to hunt Superman across the stars and through the centuries.  Its’ a really cool scene, and it totally works for Luthor.  I rather like the idea of Lex being unable to let go, knowing that HE did not kill Superman, no matter what might have happened to his foe.  It’s a great story beat.

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This weapon has been traveling the spaceways for the last million years, improving its technology and pursuing its neverending search.  I’m reminded of Amazo from JLU, where he just kept adapting until he because practically unstoppable.  Well, the device happens to come across the Metropolis Marvel in his meanderings and strikes him down.  Our hero is saved from the very brink of death by the robotic healer from the cover, and we get another nice character moment, as Superman derides the futuristic physician for saving his life, as he would have welcomed the release of death.  Now, once more, he finds himself in the same position, directionless, ageless, and deathless.  It’s a real curse of eternal life moment.

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Back in the land of the living, despite his wishes, Superman pursues Lex’s weapon and destroys it by luring it into a massive comet.  Then…well, then the story gets weird.  I know, I know, you’re thinking, ‘wasn’t it already weird, with that whole reviving a dead planet thing?’  That’s a reasonable question, but at least that made sense in a Silver-Agey way.  This ending, though?  Well, I’m thinking that maybe Bates wrote himself into a corner.  So, how does he wrap up this tale and bring Superman home?

He has him re-live his entire life.  That’s right.  Superman flies far enough into the future that he suddenly wakes up again as a baby, living through his ENTIRE LIFE a second time, unable to change anything or deviate in any way from what happened.  Think about the Hell that would be for a moment.  Every mistake you ever made, every stupid thing you ever said, every embarrassing moment you ever  experienced, you get a second chance at every single one of them, but you can’t change a single thing!  Wow, I’m going to go ahead and say, I think that may be worse than living forever.  Of course, it also makes no darn sense.  Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m fine with the whole ‘time is curved’ concept.  It’s the out I was expecting, but why would Superman just pop back into his original life as an observer?  It’s just a bizarre story choice.

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The story finally ends with him observing the empty platform that the malfunctioning time bubble had occupied and considering his adventure.  It’s really a weak, weird ending for a story that held a surprising amount of promise.  On the whole, this is another very uneven issue, containing some great moments and some off-putting ones, with some just plain odd ones sprinkled in for flavor.  The pathos of Luthor hounding his greatest enemy even beyond the end of his life is a great boost to the tale, and Superman’s despair over his fate is rather touching in a few moments.  The problems with the recreation of Earth and the tacked-on, madness-inducing resolution weigh the story down, as does the fact that the Time Trapper’s roll in all of this remains entirely undiscovered and unpunished.  That wouldn’t bother me if we had checked in with him one more time to let him “win,” having tortured his enemy, even if he hadn’t completely trapped him.  As it is, this just seems like Bates ran out of pages and interest.  Still, there are elements here of something grander.  I’ll give it 2.5 Minutemen out of 5.

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“One Hero Too Many”

Our Legion backup tale for this month is, for once, not markedly better than the headliner, being a by-the-numbers mystery where all the Legionnaires are working against each other to try to sacrifice themselves so their fellows don’t have to.  I’m beginning o lose track of how many Legion stories like this I’ve read.  This particular iteration has the distinction of involving politics and taxes, which is a new angle for me.  Basically, the Legion is meeting to test a teleportation device when the head of the future Earth’s equivalent of the IRS shows up, saying the team needs to pay taxes on this new gadget!

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This is quite a surprise, as the Legion is a tax-free outfit, but this fellow informs them that such organizations are limited to 25 members, while they have 26.  The rest of the story consists of the Legionnaires fighting to fall on the sword of resignation.  They each claim to be more useless than the last, though I’ve got to say I think Bouncing Boy probably wins that particular argument…

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As you might be able to tell, this story bored me a bit.  There’s really not a whole lot to it, the central conflict being about an unknown person sabotaging all of the Legion’s efforts to pick a member to drop.  They try to draw lots, only to have them burst into inextinguishable flames.  Next, Brainy has his super computer calculate who has done the least super feats in the last year, only to have it select him!

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Supergirl insists on taking his place as the odd woman out, but she is stopped by the story’s strangest moment, as the Legion of Super Pets show up and insist that if she goes, they go.  Wow.  Is there a more Silver-Agey concept than the Legion of Super pets?  I honestly can’t think of one.  I can’t decide what’s sillier, a superpowered horse or a superpowered monkey…or maybe it’s the idea that a cat with superpowers would be a hero rather than a villain.  (Hey!  Don’t throw things at me; I’m a cat person, but you have to admit that the latter is WAY more likely..)

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The issue ends with Superboy getting caught red-handed in an act of sabotage, revealing he was behind all of the others.  He hands in his resignation and refuses to tell his future teammates WHY.  Interestingly enough, he doesn’t tell the reader either.  The Teen of Steel bids a rather steamy goodbye to Duo Damsel, and then he heads back to his home time, leaving the Legion wondering why he resigned.

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This is a rather generic story, with nothing that interesting going on.  None of the Legionnaires evince all that much personality either, other than Duo Damsel at the very end.  Any story that the Super Pets show up in is going to suffer in my eyes.  Given the promising notes in the headline story, this one feels like even more of a relic of the Silver Age.  I think it will also merit 2.5 Minutemen.

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Aquaman #50

Aquaman_Vol_1_50.jpgCover Artist: Nick Cardy
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Dick Giordano

“Deadman Rides Again!”
Writer: Neal Adams
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Neal Adams
Editor: Dick Giordano

Now here we go!  While this issue isn’t perfect, it is definitely just flat-out beautiful!  We’ve got the ideal Aquaman artist and the definitive Bronze Age artist together in a single issue, Jim Aparo and Neal Adams, teaming up to tell an intertwined tale about Aquaman and Deadman.  Of course, I’m also simply always excited to cover an Aquaman story by the SAG team.  This issue was covered by that home to all Aqua-awesomeness, The Aquaman Shrine, and I’ll be drawing on some of Rob Kelly’s boundless expertise on this subject.

Let’s start with that dynamite cover!  I love that long-time Aqua-artist Nick Cardy, who always produced truly beautiful books during his tenure on the title is still around to create our covers here at this later date.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a Cardy cover that I didn’t like.  The man always seemed to bring something compelling and dynamic to his composition, and this particular offering is no exception.  We have this really intriguing image of Aquaman being attacked by this strange substance from an even stranger city, all against that stark white background.  It’s beautifully rendered and quite striking.  I’d certainly have plunked down my $0.15 (just 15 cents!  Even calculated for inflation, that’s barley a dollar today.  Why are we paying 4 bucks for a 15 page comic these days?) for this comic.  How could you not want to know what was going on inside?

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And speaking of that very topic, let’s dive (I’m sorry, I’m sorry!) right in!  This issue demonstrates, perhaps as well as any I’ve read, the power of Jim Aparo’s visual imagination.  Throughout it is designed in fascinating, psychedelic fashion, and the reader’s disorientation in strange and alien landscapes recreates that of our hero as he journeys into worlds unknown.  We start with a splash page that hints at what is to come, and then we are dumped straight into a bizarre world that defies explanation or description.  Instead of wasting my words, I’ll just add an image of the strange vista that greets the Sea King as he recovers his senses.

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He thinks back, trying to piece together how he ended up in this place, and we are treated to several panels of Aparo’s wonderfully fluid illustrations of the Undersea Aces in aquatic motion.  You really get a sense of their grace and power as they swim along.

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They quickly spy Ocean Master and Mera, still in parley as we left them in the last issue, and before Aquaman can finish his challenge to his villainous brother, Ocean Master interrupts, swearing that his intentions are honorable.  In fact, he is there to warn Monarch of the Oceans about “Them!”  Orm declares that, for the first time in years, his mind is clear, and he remembers that Aquaman is his brother; unfortunately, this realization came too late, and he made a deal with “Them” to kill his sibling turned enemy.  Before he can explain the threat, a strange craft arrives, disgorging even stranger looking creatures armed with sinister devices.  Aquaman moves to defend himself, but he’s too late!  In a really striking panel, the Sea King is consumed by an inky black ray that literally splashes the page with obscuring ink.

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We return to the “present,” where our Submarine hero is “swimming” through the air of the alien world in which he has awakened.  He comes upon a vast, amoebic lifeform with a single, cyclopean eye.  The creature pursues Arthur, and his strength and telepathy seem useless.  Suddenly, he finds that he is not alone in his fight, as a pretty young woman in odd garb opens fire on the beast.  Aquaman tries to contact her telepathically, but to no avail.  He takes the weapon from her and strikes the monster in its eye, only to have the girl shove him to cover as it explodes!

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After he regains his senses, Aquaman begins to hear a telepathica “echo,” a distant, garbled signal, which is actually a familiar name!  This begins a nice little game that Aparo plays throughout the issue, hiding references in the “noise” of this bizarre world.  Let me also take a moment here and point out how refreshing it is to have our hero go to a world where there would be no reason for the inhabitants to speak English, and to have that actually be followed up in the story.  It’s a minor point, but it’s nice to see Skeates is on top of that type of detail.

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As the Sea King pursues the “sound,” desperate to find a way home to Mera and his kingdom, he discovers that his lovely protector is following him, right to a wondrous and outlandish alien city that sees to stretch in all directions.  If this were a Lovecraft story, I’m pretty sure that the sight would tear Aquaman’s mind asunder, but our hero is made of stern stuff, and he takes the strangeness of this pace in stride.

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Again he finds the inhabitants of this world “deaf” to his telepathic pleas, so he continues to pursue the “sound” he heard before, which lead him to a large building, but it is guarded!  Aquaman, plans to rush the guard, awash in garbled telepathic signals that are actually a whole set of names, featuring the best and brightest at DC!  The SAG team is featured, as are many, many others.  See how many you can pick out!

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The guard responds by firing, seemingly blindly, and his gun discharges those very same bizarre green bubbles from the cover.  Aquaman laughs them off, until the coat him, sapping his strength and threatening to bring him down.  He shakes them off in a really lovely sequence, diving once more for the guard before he can fire another salvo, and lays a tremendous looking blow on him.

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Once Aquaman reaches the interior of the structure, he discovers that it is, in fact, a temple, the one place where the inhabitants of this mad city are willing to “converse” telepathically, since they believe that communication is sacred.

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Arthur learns that the people of this world have no conception of planets, stars, or anything beyond their own realm.  The girl tells the hero that their leader is the only one who might be able to aid him, and that is where the first half of our story ends!

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This is, as I said, not a perfect issue, but it is a darn good one.  It is very creative, with a mysterious delima, fascinating new setting, and subtle but consistent characterization for Aquaman.  This is an inventive tale, especially visually, and you can really see the SAG team starting to hit their stride.  They’re doing new and exciting things, and they are putting out stories that are definitely of the Bronze, rather than the Silver Age.  I’ll give it 4.5 Minutemen.

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“Deadman Rides Again!”

A particularly neat feature of this and the next two issues is that they include a set of backup Deadman stories drawn and plotted by none other than Neal Adams himself!  What is particularly cool about this arrangement is that editor Dick Giordano was not one to do things by half measures, so he wove the Deadman stories into the main Aquaman narrative.  The Aquaman Shrines’ Mr. Kelly writes that this decision was made in order to give Aparo a chance to get caught up on his deadlines, and I think it is fortunate for us that it did, as we get a really unique story.  It’s a rarity when a backup and a main feature overlap like this, and the pairing here is a particularly fun and unlikely.

This chapter of our tale opens in the mystical land of Nanda Parbat, where the restless Boston Brand prepares to resume his identity as Deadman in a quixotic attempt to fight evil and balance the cosmic scales.  He has a trippy, fascinatingly drawn conversation with the powerful…spirit…god…thing?  Rama Kushna.  This gives us one of my favorite panels in the book, a wonderful conflation of Deadman’s blank visage with the diving submarine of the Ocean Master.

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Aquaman50_26.jpgKushna informs Brand that he can begin his quest, but first he must address a danger that threatens the entire world, and she points him towards the aquatic villain without much more explanation.  Deadman pops in on Orm and plays fly on the wall long enough to observe him plant some sort of device and meet with a bizarre pair of aliens near a otherworldly craft.  I’m not crazy about the design of these aliens, as they are a bit too Silve Age-y for my tastes, but I’ll be darned if they don’t look quite striking in Adam’s stark pencils.

During this villainous tete-a-tete, Deadman learns that Orm has made a deal to have Aquaman killed, and he pursues Ocean Master to warn the Sea King.  In trying to take over Orm’s mind, Boston finds a small piece of it inaccessible, and in his efforts to break in, he inadvertently releases the blocked memories of the villain’s true family ties.  Thus, Orm recovers his memories and rushes off to warn his brother, bringing that portion of the plot back up to speed with the main tale.

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I know folks make fun of Orm’s stylized helmet, but I’ve always rather liked it.  The design is very unique, and when streamlined as it was in later years, it makes for a great look for the villain.

One crisis averted, Deadman heads back to the aliens’ base, but they seem to be aware of spirits like him.  Before they can act, he discovers their plan, which is to reduce the intelligence of the Earth’s population drastically in order to make them more tractable.  I’m not the first to say this, but the current political climate really makes me wonder if a similar plan succeeded in our world.  The aliens quickly realize what is going on when the intangible hero starts possessing them, and they have a defense on board for just such an occasion!  They release a bizarre looking creature that resembles a cross between a monkey and a cat, with huge, hypnotic eyes.  It tears Deadman free of his host, and casts him into…”Noplace!”  There our tale ends.

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This is an interesting story, though we don’t get a whole lot of plot.  Fortunately, it can ride the narrative coat-tails of the main feature, so it doesn’t suffer much in that department.  The art is, of course, superb, and we get several really captivating page and panel designs.  It is appropriately moody and psychedelic for a Deadman story, despite the slightly goofy alien designs.  I’ll give it a 4 out of 5, mostly for its role in the larger tale.

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Detective Comics #398

Detective_Comics_398.jpgExecutive Editor: Carmine Infantino
Cover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Bob Brown
Inker: Joe Giella
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“Moon Struck”
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Vince Colletta
Editor: Julius Schwartz

This issue of Detective comics is something of a rarity, being a better Bruce Wayne story than it is a Batman story.  It isn’t a bad Batman tale, but it just has a few character moments for Bruce out of the mask that I particularly enjoyed.  We start off with a lovely metaphoric Neal Adams cover, so lovely that I wonder if the Bob Brown artwork inside might have been a bit of a letdown to kids who paid their change without thumbing through it ahead of time.  Brown is a fine, solid artist, but his action is a bit stiff, and he’s certainly no match for Adams.

The story itself begins in an airplane winging its way west as a couple of stewardesses try approach Bruce Wayne’s seat, hungry for an autograph.  Bruce, traveling incognito in a pair of all-disguising sunglasses (taking disguise tips from Clark, are we?), thinks they’re after him, and there is a fun little subversion of that which gives him a slight touch of humility as they ask the lady beside him for her John Hancock.  It turns out she is the famous, or perhaps more accurately, INfamous author of a new smutty, tell-all scandal book about Hollywood’s best and brightest.  This prompts a rather surprising and interesting exchange between this woman, Maxine Melanie, and our Un-Caped Crusader.

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She offers to sign his copy, and Bruce responds rather stiffly, assuring the overconfident lady that he “wouldn’t be seen dead reading your book!”  She responds that he’s alone, as her work will soon be splashed all over the big screen thanks to the very studio our hero is on his way to visit.  Our scene shifts to said studio, and we get a continuation of that theme, which I find most intriguing.

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Wayne storms into the studio and demands that they kill this movie, declaring that no business of his will have anything to do with such trash.  The executives respond by asking him if he’s even read the book, a fair point, and one that Bruce concedes, offering to read the work in question.  The plot begins to pick up here, but honestly, this short scene is the portion of the issue that caught my attention.  I really enjoyed the fact that Bruce Wayne was concerned with, not only murder, mayhem, and such other obvious evils, but was also with morality on a smaller scale.  He intends that he and his businesses should be a force for good, moral good as well as practical good, in the world.

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That’s an excellent little touch.  That’s a hero, someone who isn’t just saving lives, but who is trying to live a morally exemplary life himself.  Not only that, but when he is challenged about the book, he immediately recognizes the point and agrees to read it.  That’s a reasonable, thoughtful response.  This is not the emotionally crippled sociopath that is the modern Batman.  I know this may seem prudish to a modern audience, but I really appreciate a character that is not simply a moral relativist.  How completely alien for heroes today who are, as often as not, devoid of all real virtue.  It’s sad that these days it’s not even possible to differentiate heroes from their villains by their being unwilling to kill.

Anyway, as for the plot itself, Bruce ends up having to go to a bookstore to get the book, as the studio’s advance copy is missing, and he finds the arrogant author there doing a signing.  Suddenly, she is murdered with a poisoned pen by a surprisingly spry granny who throws Wayne for a loop when he tries to stop her.  The murderer is clearly someone in disguise, and thus begins the real mystery.  We see some of the stiffness in Brown’s art in the action of this page.

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Well, this hated writer had a long list of enemies, but at the top of said list are the Hollywood luminaries skewered in her book, a husband and wife along with an aging leading man.  Batman finally makes his appearance and begins to investigate, discovering that the couple each try to take the fall for the other, the husband going so far as to attack the Dark Knight with a poker.  Yet our hero is unconvinced.

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On his way to interrogate the last fading star, he is attacked once again by the husband!  Or rather, it LOOKS like the husband, but it turns out to be our third suspect, who, as well as being a talented actor, is also a master of disguise!  This leads us to the other charming feature of this issue, which is the reveal that the star couple really do love one another, each having been willing to sacrifice their lives for their spouse.  That’s a good ending.

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So, thus ends a rather unusual Batman story, one that is not a particularly great BATMAN tale or a particularly excellent mystery, but which has some intriguing features that make it stand out as a character tale.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen, just for being interesting.

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“Moon Struck”

Here we have another rather disappointing Robin story, which is a shame, because I’ve been looking forward to these backups. The setup is certainly interesting.  A Russian scientist is lecturing at Hudson University, and he has been presented with a moon rock by NASA.  Of course, young Dick Grayson is in the audience for the lecture, but so is an antsy young man named Herb who is so paranoid he is wearing what looks like a homemade space suit in fear of radiation.

When the students approach the hunk of lunar geography it gives off a bizarre flash of green light, leaving the fretful teen a verdant shade of weird himself!  This causes a lockdown of the school and fears of radiation and who knows what else.

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Robin hits the scene and starts to check into this strange occurrence.  He checks out the showers, where Herb was right before he started looking like a Martian, discovering some strangely scented soap.  Just as he is starting to put things together, the lights go out and he is jumped by a mysterious figure!

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Here’s where things get disappointing.  Robin has a brief fight with this guy, and then he is taken down by one punch.  Big hero.  The issue ends with him recovering consciousness and with me once again saddened by the poor performance of a secondary member of the Bat family.

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I really want to call this a head-blow, but unfortunately, it doesn’t quite make the grade.

I think that the really fun bit of this story, at least for me, is the Cold War and Space Race subtext to the issue.  One of the students remarks that he’s surprised that the Russian scientist is working with NASA since his people lost the race to the Moon, and it struck me, here in 1970, the Moon landings were a very recent memory.  We are not yet even an entire year on since mankind first walked on the Moon. Science fiction has only recently become science fact. This very month a real-life space opera was playing out above the nation’s collective heads in the form of Apollo 13’s struggle for survival. I’m not quite sure what to make of this realization yet, but I am quite sure it is significant. There is no doubt that it puts this whole era into somewhat sharper focus for me.

It is one of the strengths of man that we organize reality in our thoughts, but it can also be a weakness as we impose boundaries and borders, cutting off possibilities and preventing ourselves from seeing connections. Thus, to my mind, the Space Race was a phenomenon of the Sixties, something quite alien to the atmosphere of the 70s, yet here we are, in 1970 with these events very clearly part of the zeitgeist.  This is a good lesson for me as a reader not to be too rigid in my thinking.

In the final analysis, the mystery of the moon fragment is an intriguing one, but Dick being dropped like a sack of potatoes doesn’t really seem worthy of the character.  The subtext of Cold War tension adds a little something, but it’s still a sub-standard tale  I’ll give it 2.5 Minutemen.

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That’s it for this month.  I hope you’ll join me again next week for the next league in our journey Into the Bronze Age!

 

 

Into the Bronze Age: February 1970 (Part 1)

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So, we’ve gotten through January, and now it is time to tackle February 1970!  Let’s see what this month has in store for us.

Roll Call (You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #385
  • Aquaman #49
  • Batman #218 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Batman #219
  • Detective Comics #396
  • Flash #194
  • Justice League of America #78
  • Phantom Stranger #5
  • Showcase #88
  • Strange Adventures #222
  • Superman #223
  • Superman #224
  • Teen Titans #25
  • World’s Finest 191

Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others in the next.

Action Comics #385

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Cover Artists: Curt Swan, Murphy Anderson
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Roussos
Editor: Mort Weisinger

Ohh, time travel in the Silver Age…

For some reason, every hero had to time travel, just as they all had to do everything in tandem.  Everyone made at least one movie (how amazing must superhero movies have been in the DCU?), everybody got a sidekick, everybody got a weakness, everyone adopted a pet, and so on and so on.  Another of those tropes that was endlessly repeated in the Silver Age was time travel.  I generally find the Silver Age synchronicity and the stock plots rather charming, but the time travel stories leave me cold.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against time travel stories per se, but there is a weird trend in Silver Age DC stories where most of the main characters not only occasionally time traveled, but also took regular trips to a particular era in order to adventure in that time, as if there wasn’t enough bizarre craziness to be found in a current-day universe that was packed with aliens, super-science, magic, and lost civilizations!

Green Lantern, Flash, and Superman all did this.  Green Lantern even had a future girl friend on the side, but Flash topped that with a wife who turned out to actually be from the future in one of the most bizarre and confusing retcons of Silver/Bronze Age history.  (We’ll get there.)  Superman, of course, had the Legion, and while I have come to like them, I don’t much care for Superman’s involvement.  He tends to overshadow the other characters, especially Ultra Boy and Mon-El with their similar power-sets.  Having Superman, at least the Silver Age Superman, in a team book is always a dicey prospect, as he’s just so powerful that he tends to make other great characters superfluous.  Good writers could deal with that challenge quite well, but that wasn’t always the case.

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Nonetheless, this particular adventure is not one of Superman’s Legion jaunts.  Instead, it’s a time-travel tale to a ‘new’ future, one involving the year 101,970!  Now that’s the far future!  This issue opens with Superman meeting with the President, who remains in shadow in classic comic form, preventing the real world from crashing in too much.  I’ve always liked the practice of keeping real-world parallels at arms length.  The DC or Marvel Universes should be LIKE our world, but not too close, for my money.  That’s one of the reasons I love the concept of the DCU’s fictional cities.

The President tells Superman that the army is mucking about with something called the “Vortex Experiment,” and that he needs the Man of Steel not to go messing with time travel for the next 24 hours or it might upset the experiment.  Personally, I’d be more than a little concerned about the government, especially the military, doing anything that interacts with the space-time continuum, but I suppose that’s just me.

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Supes promises that he’ll stick in the present, which is probably a bigger sacrifice than it sounds like to a sane person, and heads back to the Fortress of Solitude.  There, much to his surprise, he encounters a gigantic robotic hand writing on the golden door of the Fortress.  I can’t say for certain, but I’d be willing to bet that at least a good chunk of this book exists just to provide an excuse to create that image.  Shades of Daniel!  Yet, the finger writing on the wall is not that of God, nor is the message nearly so portentous.  Instead, “the moving finger writes” that his help is needed in the distant future.  One might stop to question how in the blue blazes people in the year 101,970 could POSSIBLY know about Superman, much less be able to contact him directly, but then one is really overthinking this very Silver-Agey plot.

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The Man of Tomorrow (a particularly fitting sobriquet in this tale) remembers his promise and uses a defective Legion Time-Bubble rather than time travel himself, so that he doesn’t upset the Army’s experiment that is almost certainly not going to unleash untold horrors upon the universe or destroy the space-time continuum….where was I?  Right, the story’s deus ex machina, which is fittingly enough an actual machina, takes Superman 100,000 years in the future, but there’s a problem!  Because of the defective Time-Bubble, Superman also AGES 100,000 years!  Yet, because of his super-ness, the Man of Steel doesn’t look a day over 65.  That takes ‘aging well’ to a new extreme!

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After all that set-up, I’m afraid the actual story is fairly mundane.  Why have the denizens of this dizzily distant future brought Superman all the way to their remote era?  Is it to fight some universe destroying menace (perhaps one released by the U.S. military in 1970)?  Is it to save them from some vast cosmic catastrophe?  Is it to battle some merciless alien race that is steam-rolling across the stars?  No.  They reached 100,000 years into the past to summon Superman in order to…catch a bank robber.

Yep, you read that right.  Apparently the space-future equivalent of Fort Knox is losing money, and these future folk can’t figure it out.  They lock the Last Son of Krypton in the vault, where he discovers that an energy creature has been hiding in the very defenses of the vault itself and munching on money every night when the room is sealed.  The conflict is actually a pretty nice one.  Superman can’t hurt the creature, as it is has no real physical form, but it can hurt him, so he just outruns it all night until the vault opens again.  Since he can’t defeat the crackling critter by throwing punches, the Action Ace uses his brain and comes up with a plan.  He noticed that the monster ate only warm colored space-money, so he used a paint gun to trick the creature into eating blue money, thus destroying it.

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I love how in the Silver Age, writers seem to regard color as an integral part of the make-up of matter, like mass or elemental composition.  If something was “blue” or “yellow,” it meant that it had inalienable qualities, rather than just absorbing and reflecting certain wavelengths of light.  They did this ALL THE TIME in Green Lantern, where he would find objects that were yellow in nature, despite having been painted another color or the like, and thus completely immune to his ring.  Think about that for a moment.  His ring wouldn’t work on an object that was, say, red, because it was actually secretly yellow the whole time!  It’s so utterly crazy, but it was a pervasive idea, I’ve noticed.

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Anyway, Superman saves the space-future, but finds that he cannot return home!  Unbeknownst to him, the old Legion foe, the Time-Trapper has sealed-off The Man of Steel’s home time.  Unable to escape, the Man of Tomorrow heads to the future Earth to see what’s what, where he encounters some difficulties because there is apparently a criminal gang who have stolen his act!

Long story short (too late by far!), Superman is gassed by some future heroes, passes out, and awakens to discover that his few weaknesses have all disappeared, and he is now truly invulnerable.  Yet, rather than be elated at this news, all Supes can think about is how everyone he’s ever known and loved is dead in the distant past.  Yep, that will put a damper on a party really quick.

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This scene really drives me bonkers, as it demonstrates another of those fundamental misunderstandings that have stuck with Superman over the years.  Somehow he has been made invulnerable to magic, as if this were just an extension of his normal invulnerability, but he doesn’t really have a WEAKNESS to magic.  Superman’s invulnerability is physical.  He’s really, really tough, but non-physical attacks, like mental and magical attacks, can harm him because they have nothing to do with that physical toughness.  He only seems “vulnerable” to magic in comparison, but he’s not more vulnerable to magic than I am to, say, a sword in the gut, which is to say, normally vulnerable.

Wow.  I’ve spent way more time on this little story than it really merited.  Anyway, I liked the actual conflict of the tale, and the involvement of the Time Trapper has promise, but the silliness of the time travel elements, the magic vulnerability nonsense, and the over-all Silver Age-ness of the story knocks it down a peg for me.  It’s not a bad story, but it’s also not a good story.  I give it 2.5 Minutemen out of 5.

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“The Fallen Starboy”

ac_385_20.jpgThat brings us to the backup feature of this comic, as well as the real star tale of this book, The Legion of Super-Heroes.  This story is really a nice inversion of the previous month’s offering.  In that by the numbers yarn, Dream Girl had a vision of a Legionnaire’s death, and the heroes struggled to prevent it.  This month’s back-up also involves the heroes trying to fight against fate, but this time it is the villains who have the visions!  Star Boy heads to his home planet with Saturn Girl and Colossal Boy to investigate a series of robberies by a gang that always seems to be one step ahead of the authorities.

The Legionnaires decide to escort the next shipment of valuable goods, hoping to ambush the thieves with the help of Saturn Girl’s telepathy, but they are ambushed in turn!  It seems the raiders were prepared for Saturn Girl with anti-telepathy helmets (I wonder if they stole those from Magneto…)!  It’s almost as if they knew she was going to be there!

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The Legionnaires put their heads together to try to figure out what happened, and Star Boy conveniently figures out that the raiders must be from Dream Girl’s home planet and be able to dream the future.  It’s a bit of a jump, but I suppose we can give it to them since they do know someone with those exact powers and it does fit as a rather neat explanation of the facts.

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Incidentally, it seems to me that such a race of people would be down-right unstoppable.  Though, it now occurs to me that just last issue the Legionnaires were facing the inevitability of Dream Girl’s visions, completely unable to change the future she had seen, yet these crooks seem to be able to see the future and make adjustments!  Whoops, that doesn’t quite line up, does it?

But to get back to our tale, we next check in with the villainous raiders and we discover that all of their robbing and pillaging was just bait to lure Star Boy home so that their leader, Yark Althu, could kill him in revenge for his brother!  We get a flashback to a deadly encounter wherein Althu’s brother murdered Star Boy’s friend and disabled his powers.  In desperation, the young Legionnaire grabbed a fallen gun and killed the fellow.  Wow.  They showed a Legionnaire use deadly force ON panel.  As far as I can tell, this isn’t from a previous issue, meaning that the writer, who I’m assuming is Bates, just tosses out the added twist that Star Boy is a killer in a three panel flashback in a BACKUP.  That’s quite a heavy revelation, and it is given absolutely no attention whatsoever!

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Well, the story ends with Star Boy being teleported into a trap by Althu, where the Master of Mass (patent pending) displays some really clever uses of his powers, despite the fact that the raiders have disabled the artificial gravity on their ship in order to render him helpless.  Star Boy keeps the gang off balance until the cavalry arrives, and the Legion win the day!

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All in all, this was a fun, solid Legion story.  It had a nice dilemma, clever solutions, and fit a lot in its few allotted pages.  The one real problem is the use of deadly force by Star Boy without so much as an eye-bat by ANYONE in the story.  I kept expecting it to be revealed that he hadn’t actually killed the guy, but nope, apparently Star Boy is perfectly willing to bust a space-cap in a villain whenever it seems necessary.  That sets a rather grim precedent for a 1970s comic book.  All-in-all, I give it 3 Minutemen out of 5.

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Aquaman #49

Aquaman_Vol_1_49

Cover Artists: Nick Cardy
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Dick Giordano

As most folks who know me know, my favorite comic character is Aquaman.  It wasn’t always thus.  When I was a kid, my unalloyed favorite was Batman, but I did always have a soft spot for the King of the Seven Seas. Part of that is due to the fact that he has always had a really neat and unique look.  What other hero is orange and green?  Another part of it is that he inhabits such an amazing and interesting world, though writers and artists haven’t always taken advantage of that fact.  You see, I’m a coastal boy, growing up in the islands and bayous of the Gulf Coast, sailing about in my little skiff since I was a kid, and living every minute I could on or in the water.  Folks used to say I was part fish, so naturally I was drawn to the guy who could talk to our “finny friends.”

I’ve always been fascinated by the sea, but I’ve also had her treat me badly enough often enough to have a very healthy fear of both the water and what is in it.  I’ve lived through half a dozen hurricanes, after all.  Thus, I’ve always loved the idea of this hero, this adventurer, that not only wasn’t afraid of the sea, but ruled it, completely and utterly.  Everything that lives and breaths underwater answers to him, and he is totally, completely at home under the waves, even more so than we are on land.  That is pretty darn cool.  If you can’t see the appeal of being able to breath and live underwater, then you’ve let the world beat too much of the wonder out of you.  Every kid who has ever sat on the bottom of a pool, holding their breath, and wishing they stay under forever knows that it is a universal dream, ancient and powerful.  Aquaman is the realization of that archetypal wish.

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Yet, that is only part of my love for the character.  Another significant reason is that I’ve always had a thing for underdogs.  Give me the character that is (unjustly) maligned.  Give me the hard-luck hero.  Give me the guy that just can’t catch a break.  I always see their potential, even when there isn’t all that much evidence around to engender faith in their underlying worthiness.  Aquaman is perhaps the best example of this tendency, though some of my other DC favorites like Hawkman and the Atom also fit the bill.

Aquaman has really had a hard time of it, though.  His book has been cancelled again and again, he’s become a cultural punch-line thanks to Super Friends, and his greatest enemy has become, not Ocean Master, not Black Manta, not even the Human Flying Fish, but DC Comics themselves.

You see, DC has, since the early 70s, apparently had it in for the Aquatic Ace.  Now, I’m not suggesting some actual mustache-twirling, monocle-wearing conspiracy, so you can put away the tinfoil hats, but it just seems like the company consistently makes the wrong choices about this character, often inexplicably.  They cancel his book when he’s selling well, they replace successful teams, they allow other media to mistreat and under-utilize the property, and weirdest of all, they publicly bad-mouth their own product.  It’s like they collectively have a spot of madness where Aquaman is concerned.  Of course, much of the blame for this attitude can be laid squarely at the feet of Super Friends.  For every Rob Kelly, of Aquamanshrine fame, out there, who grew to love the Marine Marvel in that show, there are a thousand more that learned to regard him as a joke or as useless.  Of course, he’s anything but, as any self-respecting DC fan can tell you.

HERE is a relatively brief Aquaman primer written by yours truly to educate those in the dark about this great character.

This particular comic is from right about the middle of what was, up until recently, arguably the best Aquaman run of all time.  It is lamentably short, and its cancellation is perhaps the best example of DC’s inexplicable strikes against their own character.  I’m talking, of course, of the legendary SAG run.  The SAG run is the set of issues by the team of Steve Skeates (writer par excellence), Jim Aparo (artist extraordinaire), and Dick Giordano (editor and guiding light).  They were a fantastic team, and under them Aquaman’s title, which had been slipping for years, started an impressive comeback.  They finally treated the Sea King with the respect he deserved, explored the wonders of his underwater realm, and took his villains and supporting cast in interesting and intriguing directions.  It wasn’t without its flaws, but these comics were Aquaman at the best he had ever been, for my money, and the best he would be for decades to come.  He was a heroic, likable character, an adventurer who did what was right regardless of the cost, traits very soon to be lost for some thirty years.  These stories are classic, Bronze Age comics at their finest.

Check out some of Aparo’s lovely splash pages from this run at Diversions of the Groovy Kind.

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This issue is not the best of the bunch, but even so, it’s a solid, fun read, bursting with potential like so many of the issues of this run.  It takes place shortly after the most famous story-line from the SAG run, “The Search for Mera,” wherein Aquaman tore through every kingdom under the sea in a hunt for his kidnapped wife.  It also saw unrest and revolution in Atlantis, defused only by the bravery of Aquagirl (a character that I sorely miss being part of the Aquaman mythos).  By the beginning of this story, however, things have begun to return to normal, and Aquaman and Aqualad are traveling in the frigid waters of Alaska to answer an emergency summons from an “old friend.”  It’s funny how our heroes have so many old friends that make one appearance and are never heard from again.  I guess superheroes are bad at keeping in touch…

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Well, the tale actually opens with a silent, moody sequence of a black-clad diver destroying a building, leading in to a beautiful title page.  Jim Aparo is one of my favorite artists of all time, and with the exception of the two astonishingly talented teams that have worked on Aquaman recently, Aparo’s work is hands-down the best version of Aquaman for my money.  Ivan Reis and Paul Pelletier have done amazing work in the new Aquaman series, creating some of the finest comic book art of all time, but nonetheless, Jim Aparo is a giant in his own right.  His work his this wonderful, flowing, liquid feel to it, and he is always doing something interesting with layout, position, and design.  I’m no artist, but even I can appreciate the sheer beauty of Aparo’s work.

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Back to the story!  Our heroes are ambushed by frenzied fish that won’t answer to Aquaman49_07.jpgAquaman’s telepathic commands, and they are soon fighting for their lives.  A strange figure in a diving suit shows up to help them, and it turns out to be Phil Darson, a somewhat enigmatic scientist and explorer who the Aquatic Ace had encountered some issues back.  It seems that the mysterious malady plaguing the fish is the reason Aquaman has been summoned to these cold climes.  The heroes meet up with Arthur’s “old friend,” Professor Davidson, and Aparo gives this briefly appearing, one-shot character a really distinct face.  One look at this guy and you get a sense of his personality.  He’s serious, grizzled, and worried, and we know this before he ever opens his mouth.  That’s the power of a good artist right there.

Anyway, Davidson fills the Aqua-team in about what has been going on.  Apparently factories in the area are poisoning the environment, and the fish with it, and a mysterious vigilante known as the Saboteur has been bombing the different businesses in retaliation.  It has been a violent but bloodless attack until recently, when a night watchmen was killed in a blast.  The exposition is nicely inter-cut with scenes of Saboteur striking again, and Aquaman rushes off to investigate.  The Marine Marvel catches up to the destructive diver before he can get away, and the shadowy figure fires a miniature torpedo at him!  Aquaman survives a near-direct hit (remember that for later), but the Saboteur gets away.

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The mystery continues to unravel, with the introduction of a fat-cat industrialist type who is having none of this ‘save the environment’ nonsense!  Not at the expense of HIS bottom line, you don’t!  He lays a trap for the Saboteur, planning to kill him quietly so that he can prevent an investigation that would reveal his nefarious doings.

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Cut back to Atlantis, and we get a brief, tense little scene between Mera and Ocean Master, who has apparently come in peace, complete with underwater white flag!  We get to see Mera being a capable, intelligent ruler here, as well as hints of something waiting in the wings.  Orm claims he needs to speak to Aquaman…but why?

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Back in Alaska, Aquaman and Aqualad have a discussion about whether or not Davidson might be the Saboteur, and it is handled rather nicely.  Instead of having this turn into a melodramatic, angsty teen-age drama, Arthur listens calmly to Garth’s thoughts, then he does the unthinkable.  He puts stock in what his partner says and agrees that they can’t afford to take anything for granted.  It’s a simple little exchange, but it shows the strength of the father-son bond between the two.  Leaving Aqualad behind to watch Davidson, the Aquatic Ace heads out to investigate the remaining factory and encounters the Saboteur!  This gives us a lovely little underwater scene that shows off Aparo’s skill.

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Note Deadman’s face in the rock, a fun little teaser of what is to come in book’s future

Aquaman49_26 - Copy.jpgHe follows the criminal, but it seems he breaks in on the factory owners planned ambush, and nobody is happy to see him!  In another close call, Aquaman takes shrapnel from a grenade that explodes practically on top of him.  That is two explosions he has survived, making him one tough son of a gun, right?  Well, then we see one of the weaknesses of this series, as he is taken out by a clot to the head, in true DC hero fashion.  I swear, if I had a penny for every time a DC hero is disabled by a blow the back of the head, I’d be living in my own underwater city….

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Anyway, this series mostly does a good job of showing how powerful, how tough, and how impressive Aquaman was, but every once in a while, they treat him just like a regular guy.  Still, we’re treated to a really nice panel of Aquaman waking, literally BATHED in flames, and non-the-worse for the fiery wear.  So, I suppose it isn’t all bad.  He comes to in time to see the factory owner and the Saboteur locked in combat at the edge of a cliff, and before he can reach them, over they go!  Aquaman makes his way down to the fallen Saboteur, and to no-one’s surprise, he discovers that it is the no longer quite so enigmatic Phil Darson under the mask.  He explains that he loved the ocean and couldn’t stand to see it destroyed, so he took action when the law wouldn’t.  He apologizes for attacking Aquaman, and the Marine Marvels are left in the falling snow, pondering the justness of his actions.

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So, I’m sure we all saw the reveal coming.  Phil Darson is the Chekhov’s gun of this particular story, the only piece that doesn’t fit without being found in the Saboteur’s flippers, but nonetheless, it’s a good story.  I think it’s a shame that Darson was killed off, as he was an interesting character, always showing up when least expected.  I would have liked to know more about what he had going on.  The tale is an unusual one for Aquaman, more moody mystery than undersea adventure, and it makes for a nice change of pace.  It is a little inconsistent with its treatment of Aquaman, and it really doesn’t give him or Aqualad all that much to do.  Still, it’s a neat story, and the art is excellent, as always.  This is only an average offering from the SAG team, but that still puts it a cut above average for most comics!  I’d give it 4 Minutemen out of 5.

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Batman #219

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Cover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Dick Giordano

Backup
Writer:Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Dick Giordano

This issue of Batman has two solid stories in it.  The first involves Bruce Wayne trying to get federal money to support his then current VIP (Victims Inc. Programs) undertaking.  That whole plotline loomed large in these middle years, but it doesnt’ seem to have amounted to much in the Bat-mythos.  Instead, as with so many comic characters, the elements that have stuck are those that were there in the beginning, or almost so, at least.  The skyscraper lair has been replaced by Wayne Manor and the Bat-Cave, and in general, those original concepts seem to have staying power.

But back to the story at hand.  Bruce is seeing a senator at his office who introduces him to a secretly visiting old warhorse of “our party.”  It’s hard to imagine Batman engaging  in partisan politics, so this was a minor little note that struck me as a more than a little off key.  It’s rather strange to see the Dark Knight engaged in politics to begin with, but that’s not the only offbeat bit of this story.

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Batman219-04.JPGThe Senator convinces Bruce to fly back to D.C. with him to help with a crime bill that’s supposed to really make waves, and on the way, the flight is hi-jacked by his political enemies!  In a nice little touch, the pilot seems, not scared as you’d imagine, but nonplussed and wearily resigned, if anything.  “Not another Havana Hijacker,” he says grumpily.  Apparently this period, from ’68-’79 is the “Golden Age of Skyjacking,” so I suppose this scene speaks volumes about the ubiquity, the almost hum-drum regularity of such events here in the Bronze Age.

What follows is a somewhat amusing comedy of errors with Batman switching between his Bruce Wayne and Caped Crusader identities.  First, in one of those other slightly sour notes I mentioned, Bruce takes on the skyjackers single-handedly, in full view of the public, unmasked.  Way to protect your secret identity there, Bats.

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He gets thumped on the head for his troubles (Another one!  I’m going to start a running tally) and thrown into the back of the plane.  He wakes up, uses a “Mae West,” which I did not realize is an inflatable life raft (who says comic books aren’t educational?) to fill his vacated civilian clothes, and sets out to take on the bad guys as Batman!  Then he…promptly gets knocked out…AGAIN!  The skyjackers toss Bats back with Bruce (!), fortunately not bothering to check on their other prisoner.  This does offer Batman a chance for a witty little rejoinder, though, so that’s something.

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Finally, Bats fools the villains with a few quick changes and has the Senator fake a heart-attack, hoping that these criminals don’t want him dead.  While flying to a nearby medic, the Batsuit rigged to that previously mentioned “Mae West” (Chekhov’s raft, apparently), springs out of a compartment and scares the skyjackers silly.  The Senator (and the other passengers, but who cares about them?) is saved, and we’re left with Bruce pondering an invitation to get into politics full time.

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This is a solid Bat-story, not particularly remarkable, but certainly not bad.  Bruce is a little too quick to take the bad guys on single-handed without his costume, especially considering the excellent job Bob Haney did (how often does someone say that about logical consistency?) just last month with a similar situation.  Still, this was fun, with a neat resolution.  I’ll give it an average 3 Minutemen.

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“The Silent Night of the Batman”

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The backup tale in this issue is the one I particularly enjoyed, which seems to be becoming a trend in these multi-part books.  It’s a simple but sweet little Christmas story.  It’s almost entirely silent, except for a strain of different Christmas carols moving through the pages.  There isn’t really all that much to the plot, and in this case, that’s not really a problem.  Commissioner Gordon tricks Batman into coming down to the precinct so he can force the Caped Crusader to take a night off.  He convinces the Dark Knight to stay and sing Christmas carols (!) until there is an emergency.  Batman, sure that something will momentarily go horribly wrong, begrudgingly agrees.  There’s an odd but funny little beat where the cops ask him to lend his “deep vocal chords” to their songs.

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We then travel around Gotham, seeing several moments where tragedy COULD strike, but doesn’t because of the Christmas spirit, along with a healthy dose of the spirit of Batman as well!  It’s a touching set of silent stories where people choose a better path, at least in part because they were inspired by Batman.  It’s a really a lovely expression of how the presence of heroes can improve the world, outside of their immediate actions.  Having truly virtuous, truly heroic figures to look up to can make us all better.  In the end, Batman wakes, having fallen asleep on a quiet, uneventful night.  It’s a good ending.  It is strange, even incongruous to see Batman singing Christmas carols, but it is charming and enjoyable nonetheless.

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I give this one 4.5 Minutemen out of 5.

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Detective Comics #396

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Executive Editor: Carmine Infantino
Cover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Bob Brown
Inker: Joe Giella
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“The Orchid-Crusher”
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Murphy Anderson, Gil Kane
Editor: Julius Schwartz

This is an odd little tale, full of 60s-ness, and more than a little reminiscent of a Zany Haney script, but it has its moments nonetheless.  The issue opens with Bruce Wayne in his office having an “eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the ‘youth revolution'” as he reads NOW! Magazine, which apparently has a plot convenient cover story.  This is where I had to double check the credits to be sure this wasn’t a Bob Haney yarn.  detective396-02.jpgThe whole plot turns on the idea that there is this young whiz kid named Rory Bell who is a stock genius, and makes all of his business decisions while riding a motorcycle and talking to his secretary/girlfriend via “radio-phone”!  To add to the oddness of this concept, apparently a gang of crooks who are feeling a bit out of date decide that the best way to turn things around is to kidnap this kid and have him make a fortune on the market for them.  We are on page 2.

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It’s amazing how many concepts a minute these creative teams threw out back in the day.

So, these enterprising gangsters kidnap the kid, who, in a scene chock full of migraine inducing 60s slang, convinces these geniuses he “can’t make market decisions ‘less I’ve got this throbbing heap under me…and the wind blowing my mind!”  I don’t know about you, but I think that’s the kind of thing I’d keep to myself.  Just saying.

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Well, it just so happens that this fellow’s girl Friday is Bruce’s stock broker as well, and the kid sends an S.O.S. by ordering a number of uncharacteristic sales and buys.  When the broker discusses this with Bruce (isn’t that insider trading?), he deduces the pattern and sets out as Batman in a decent display of detective work.

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He ambushes the gangsters when they stop at a gas station, and almost puts them down before one of them grabs the kid as a hostage.  Batman drops a smoke pellet, and in the highlight of story, he fakes the gang out by sending the Batmobile tearing away under remote control so he can get the drop on them.

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There’s not a whole lot to this one.  It’s a solid enough story, but not a particularly good one.  It’s enjoyable for what it is, and all of the characters are given just enough personality to make them more than just moving pieces of scenery.  Still, it is more than a bit forgettable.  I give it 3 Minutemen.

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“The Orchid Killer”

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This Batgirl backup is interesting, though you really feel that the Robbins was a bit constrained by the 9 page limit.  The story opens with our lovely red-headed crime fighter having a nightmare about a mysterious killer that’s been haunting Gotham lately.  He’s known as the titular “orchid killer” because he always leaves a crushed orchid at the scene of each crime.  At this point in her history, Babs is a librarian, a reasonable if unexciting secret identity for a superhero, I suppose.  Librarians have interesting jobs, but it doesn’t seem like quite the vocation that Barbara Gordon should have.

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Employment aside, she stumbles upon a clue to the crime in a copy of The Femme Mystique, a computer punch card (how quaint!).  It seems to be a computer dating service quiz (I didn’t even know they HAD computer dating services in 1960) belonging to the latest victim!  It appears the books previous possessor was studying up on how to manipulate women (creepy!), and a passage about orchids is underlined.  Babs does some detective work, tracking the library book back to a man named Darren Thompkins.  He’s apparently skipped out of his boarding house, so Batgirl pays a visit to the computer dating service and sets a trap using herself as bait!

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In order to do so, she has to remorsefully brush young Jason Bard off.  It’s a nice moment of background and characterization, especially in a story as tightly plotted as this one.  Jason is a long-time part of Batgirl’s supporting cast, as I understand it.  While I like the character, I don’t like him being Babs’ love interest.  I’m an old romantic, I suppose, but I’ve always loved the pairing of Robin and Batgirl.  It just made perfect sense, and they complement each other excellently.  I would have read the heck out of a backup strip that featured both of them.

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detective396-23.jpgBack to our mystery.  Barbara gets a nibble, and her date is a mousy little fellow who seems harmless…until he offers her an orchid and moves in for a kiss.  Babs rebuffs his advances rather…decisively, and he storms off.  She follows, not quite sure if this is just natural frustration or something more sinister, and she loses him, only to be grabbed, apparently by the orchid killer himself!

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detective396-26.jpgThis backup ticks right along, but it manages to tell a complete story, so far as it goes, in only 9 pages.  I’m not quite sure what I think of the opening dream sequence.  It does establish a good, creepy tone and a sense of threat about this killer, but I wonder if that page could have been put to more effective use.  Nonetheless, packing all of that story into 9 pages is pretty impressive, and Robins does it very efficiently.  You get some characterization, some supporting cast, some civilian identity, some superheroing, and some detective work.  Not bad.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.

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The Flash #194

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Cover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: John Broome
Penciler: Ross Andru
Inker: Mike Esposito

I really do love the Flash as a character, especially the Barry Allen version.  Yet, reading these Flash comics has routinely been one of the hardest slogs of my grand DC experiment.  It’s strange, I expected to love these comics.  After all, Flash has some of the best villains in the DC Universe, and I am a fan of Barry Allen himself.  I love that he is just a really decent, upright man, all other concerns aside.  He’s the only DC hero other than Hawkman that was a crime-fighter BEFORE he had super powers.  He was a police scientist, already having dedicated his life to protecting people.  It’s a great concept, and the Flash as a character is one as well.  Nonetheless, I routinely found this book to be pretty rough going.  I think it may be the most Silver Age-y book in the DC offerings other than the Superman and Batman titles.  There have been some good stories along the way, and this period has given us a whole Rogue’s Gallery of great villains (and some NOT so great ones *cough*TheTop*cough), but there has also been tons of Silver Age weirdness and general silliness.

Nonetheless, by this point Barry has settled into a pretty enjoyable status quo.  He and Iris are married, and Iris has gone from being occasionally downright insufferable to a genuinely likeable character.  That’s good, because DC love interests in the Silver Age had a hard time of it, often being portrayed as either bat-guano insane or downright mean.  You really had to wonder why the heroes were interested in such ill-tempered or unstable ladies.  It seems to me that a lot of readers hold those portrayals against those characters, but I try to avoid letting bad writing ruin a character for me when they have good potential, and Iris, as an independent career woman in the 60s certainly fits the bill.

This issue is, unfortunately, a weird story from the middle of a run of weird stories.  Remember all of those great villains the Flash has?  Well, don’t expect to see any of them anytime soon.  Instead, we get a dozen issues of random oddness.  This story is an incongruous tale of magic and mysticism that would be a much better fit for the Phantom Stranger than the Scarlet Speedster.  The cover is an interesting one, and you’re really left wondering what the heck is going to happen within this book.  Sadly, the story doesn’t quite live up to that mysterious beginning.  At the start, we find a seemingly confused young lady wandering the darkened streets of Central City, where she encounters the Flash fighting one of those delightful themed gangs that seemed to be all over the place in the Silver Age.  This is one little element of the period that I wished we still saw a bit more of.  This “Owl Gang” have some relatively neat costumes and some distinctive headgear that lets them blind the Wizard of Whiz, but he recovers too quickly for them and rounds them up without much trouble.

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Seriously, there are a bunch of these little themed gangs scattered through the pages of various DC books.  They don’t amount to much, and I am pretty sure 99% of them never make a return appearance, but I like the idea that even the fairly mundane criminals in a world of super-powered beings get in on the fun of costumes and gimmicks.  It makes the setting that much more fun and lively!  I wish that writers had kept these gangs around a bit more, replace some of the generic thugs that populate their pages with recurring appearances by the likes of the Owl Gang, or the Panther Gang from the Atom, etc.  I think that would have been interesting.
flash v1 194 0007.jpgAnyway, this young lady gets a bad fright during the fight and passes out, so the Flash naturally takes her to a hospital where professionals can take care of her and…wait…what?  No, no, no, don’t be silly.  Instead, at Iris’s insistence, he brings her to his home where he can more conveniently endanger his secret identity.  The girl awakes and calls the Scarlet Speedster “Daniel,” giving him a SUPER creepy look in the process.

Barry is naturally weirded out by this, and over the next day things continue to get stranger.  The girl awakes and insists that The Flash, who is still running around his actual house in costume, mind you, is her fiance, Daniel.  Even stranger, Barry begins to see visions of himself as this fellow, circa 100 years ago.  Iris digs up some history and an old photo that marks this Daniel guy as the spitting image of Barry himself.  The Allens begin to suspect that the girl is possessed by a restless spirit (naturally), and feel that their surmise is correct when they discover she has…*gasp* two shadows!flash v1 194 0016.jpg

Flash jumps to the only rational solution.  He has to fake marry the girl.  That’s right.  That’s the first thing he comes up with.  So, they go through with the ceremony, and instead of putting the spirit to rest, it somehow allows her to drag the Fastest Man Alive into some kind of bizarre Limbo along with her!

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This is where the story takes an even stronger term to the weird and where its use as a Flash yarn comes into serious question.  Flash finds himself trapped, besieged by demons, or spirits, or something, but luckily still possessing his super speed.  He attempts to race out of the strange dimension, but finds himself beset by threat after threat, including giant monsters and harpies.  If you’re thinking that it sounds like this mysterious spirit bride seems to drop out of the story, you’d be correct.  She literally just floats away  immediately after they find their way to Limbo…or wherever, making this tale feel even more disjointed.  Eventually Flash RUNS out of the afterlife.  I don’t mean that he vibrates himself to escape the dimension or anything.  I mean that he literally just runs to the edge of…wherever…and falls back into normal life.  Oookay.

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I like all of the crazy dimension-hopping antics of the Flash.  I love the idea that simple SPEED is such a versatile power.  I’m fine with such things, but this weird little episode is a bit much and, as I said, it just feels out of place as a Flash adventure.

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What’s more, this strange ‘afterlife’ he finds himself in is just really vague and boring. aristi Ross Andru does an okay with the weird creatures that inhabit it, but I just can’t help but find myself thinking about how interesting and exciting this same concept would have been if handled by somebody with the imagination of Jack Kirby.  The dimension would have been bursting with potential and personality, and as a reader you’d be left begging to see more of it, as likely as not.  Instead, his place is entirely forgettable, and I’m fairly certain we never see it again.

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This isn’t a BAD story, but it is definitely not a good one.  The action is moderately interesting, but the whole thing just makes such little sense and the limbo-realm is just so uninspired that I think I’ll give this one 2.5 Minutemen.

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Justice League #78

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Cover Artist: Gil Kane
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella

Now here’s one I’m excited about!  This is, by pure happy coincidence, the official beginning of the Satellite Era Justice League!  I didn’t realize that this issue would fall within my purview, but I’m glad it did.  After all, what better way to celebrate the Bronze Age than by chronicling the adventures of its most definitive team?  The Satellite Era Justice League is the group that most clearly encapsulates this period.  That incarnation begins here at the dawn of the the age, and it comes to its sad end just as the Bronze Age itself draws to a close in ’84.  It just so happens that the JLA are my all-time favorite comic team.  A child of the 80s, as any regular reader knows, I grew up watching re-runs of the Super Friends and playing Justice League with my friends.  We all had footie pajamas of our favorite heroes, and we’d put on those silly little Velcro capes and dash about, fighting the Legion of Doom or playing with those awesome Super Powers action figures.

These guys WERE the heroes of my child-hood.  I think I may have been vaguely aware of Spider-Man, Captain America, or the Hulk, but Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, those were the heroes that filled my imaginative hours, long summer days, and halcyon Saturday mornings.  I didn’t read many of the comics at the time, but I absorbed enough about these characters through other media to leave an indelible mark on my imagination.  They became the lens through which I understood the concept of the superhero.  That’s why, even though Super Friends is cringe-worthy for me these days, even though a lot of the classic comics are pretty painfully Silver-Agey at times, I will always have a soft spot for the DC Universe, but especially its heart and soul, the Justice League.

They are the Knights of the Round Table of superheroes, each powerful, noble, and impressive in their own right, but banded together in common cause, to make the world a better place, to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves, and to protect the Earth from threats too big for any one hero.  They are, collectively, what Batman and Superman are individually, the purest expressions of the archetypal nature of the superhero.  The League is like the old pantheons, powerful titans and godly figures of might, each presiding over their own demesne of skill and elemental purview.  Though an odd assortment, it has always seemed to me that they make a more coherent team than the Avengers.  I suppose that says something about the relatively uniform aesthetic of the core DC heroes.

Unfortunately, their stories have often not lived up to the quality of the concept.  I have regularly wondered how the Justice League book survived after Marvel started competing directly with their Avengers.  On average, the Avengers stories in the Silver Age were just so vastly better, you really have to wonder why folks stuck with the JLA.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the book endured, but it boggles the mind to think about.  And of course, just like Aquaman, this lack stellar storytelling in the critical Silver Age has been a weakness for the team going forward.  Whereas the Avengers ended up with a lot of great villains and concepts produced by that most fertile era, the League has always struggled for villains and challenges that really can serve as interesting threats for them.  The period that saw Kang the Conqueror fight the Avengers also saw the League facing off against the likes of Brain Storm and Kanjar Ro, not exactly winners.  Of course, I’m comparing hits with misses, but I think you get my point.  There were some great villains introduced in this era, but this has always been one of the weak points of the League, something Bruce Timm and company struggled with when creating their amazing Justice League Animated Series.

While I think it may continue to be the case that the concept of the League is stronger than the stories they produce in the Bronze Age, at least here the tide begins to turn, and we get some really excellent stories.  In general, the quality of stories does improve, and even more significantly, the team takes on the shape, themes, and challenges that will define it for the rest of its history.

This story brings us about midway into Denny O’Neil’s justly famous JLA run.  O’Neil took over after Gardner Fox’s decade-long and legendary time on the book, and with him came big changes.  He introduced new members, wrote out old ones, and gave the League their definitive Satellite headquarters.  O’Neil updated the team and did a lot of good work in these issues.  The Satellite and the introduction of Black Canary are both great additions to the mythos, but he also did some things that I’ll always regret.  He wrote out the Martian Manhunter, who at this point has headed to another world to help his people colonize it.  The League without its soul, J’onn J’onzz is like a church without a choir.  You can do it, but something’s missing.  It’s a particular shame that, just as the DC staple of heroes begin to get some good characterization, to realize the potential that they have, the Manhunter from Mars is removed from the game.

Anyway, this is the tale, as you can probably guess from the cover, that gives us the Justice League satellite, an excellent addition to the mythos that really fits the League perfectly.  Our story begins with the Emerald Archer patrolling around Star City when he hears gunshots and rushes to the aid of an embattled security guard who is involved in a shootout with some thugs.

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Rather, GA INTENDED to help the guard, but the fellow seems to need no help at all!  In a display of sharpshooting and daring do, he disarms the thugs without breaking a sweat.  It’s an impressive deed, and it hints at the mysterious man’s identity!  Green Arrow attempts to shed some light on the situation with a flare arrow, but in a shocking turn, the flare sets the river alight!  This leads us to a rather nice title page.

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Ollie calls in the League in a rare moment of self-awareness and wisdom, realizing that this blazing inferno is too much for him to handle.  Superman and Green Lantern respond and quickly have the fire under control.  The Leaguers head off to their fancy new satellite headquarters, and GA gets quite a surprise when they toss him in a teleport tube and flip the switch.  We get our first view of the satellite, orbiting “about 22,3000 miles above the United States.”  We also get a small but nifty diagram of the layout.  I enjoy things like this.  I used to spend hours pouring over base layouts and the like, imagining all of the cool gear and secrets that would fill, say, the Turtle Lair.

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The real star of the issue

JLA078-10 The Coming of The Doomsters.jpgWe join that security guard, who seems to be more than meets the eye.  No, he’s not a transformer, but the way he ducks the hoodlums who come gunning for him implies that he’s got some skills.  Apparently he’s being hunted, and he feels his only hope is the Justice League!  He reads about the League making a charity appearance, and he figures that is his chance.  This page also gives us a pick-up line delivered by Green Arrow with a creepy and altogether too intense look on his face.  Way to play it cool, Ollie.  At the event, just as the new Leaguer, Black Canary, is being introduced, this unusual guard forces his way through the crowd, assassins hot on his heels.  The League leaps into action in a rather nice display of their collective skills and teamwork, and the guard reveals his identity and his story.

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It seems that lowly security guard Greg Sanders is actually the costumed western hero, Vigilante!  Or rather, he used to be.  He confesses that he ‘got weary, decided to retire,” which is an extremely unsatisfying answer to how the famous Prairie Troubadour ended up working as a low-rent security guard in Star City!  However, there is just enough wistfulness mixed with determination in those two panels to sell the idea that there is a great deal more to the story that we simply aren’t privy to.

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The tale Sanders tells about his troubles is that he was working at a factory and became suspicious of its activities, eventually doing some snooping and discovering that the place seems to exist ONLY to manufacture pollution, nothing else, thus explaining the flammable river.  He stole some documents which he shares with the League, and they do what they do best…split into teams and investigate!

JLA078-19 The Coming of The Doomsters - Copy.jpgThe more street-level characters head out to investigate the factory, while Superman and GL head out to investigate the location on a star map discovered in the papers.  Green Arrow, being Green Arrow, tells everybody else that he’s got his own plans.  He marches into city hall and gives the assistant city manager an earfull.  In an agressive verbal boxing match, the two yell at each other, with Ollie saying things that may have been a bit shocking in 1970 but seem utterly mundane now, basically that we should probably not poison ourselves or our environment for a buck.  He deploys his usual diplomatic subtlety, insulting the official and screaming in his face.  The manager is having none of it and has the masked hero arrested!

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Meanwhile, the Vigilante rides again, and apparently catches Black Canary’s eye (see Ollie, this is what happens when you over play your hand!) while Superman and GL discover a dead world that was once teeming with life!  Team-Earth is jumped by some more of the trench-coated thugs and make short work of them until a shadowy figure disables them with booby trapped weapons!

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The issue ends with our heroes suspended above a “vat of bubbling, noxious…death!”

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This issue also contains a little four page backup about a scientist who destroys all of his equipment after seeing a future destroyed by…SCIENCE!  It’s a fine story for what it is, originally published in Mystery in Space #6.

I read this JLA issue some years ago, but I didn’t really remember it very clearly.  I went into this read thinking that the issue was nothing special, but I have to say that I have been very pleasantly surprised.  It’s a good, solid Justice League adventure, with some good action beats, a mystery, and a few spots of characterization.  All of the Leaguers get a little something to do, though the story really centers around GA and Vigilante, and splitting the team the way O’Neill did makes sure the stronger Leaguers don’t overshadow the weaker.  It’s really great to see Vigilante get in on the action.  I rather like the character, and I especially loved the friendship between him and Shinning Knight that was explored in the Justice League animated series.  Speaking of that, I enjoy that they adapted the broad strokes of Green Arrow’s introduction to the satellite from this issue for his induction into the League in the show.  That’s a nice little detail.  While it’s great to see Vigilante get back into costume, I have to say, it’s a little distracting to see the smiling, Silver Age-ish Batman standing next to him, especially considering the sleek, dramatic, and classic Batman we’ve been getting in the Bat-books this month and last.  That’s neither here nor there, though.

So, all-in-all, this is an above average Justice League adventure, well balanced, well-paced, and interesting.  I give it 4 Minutemen out of 5.  We’ll have to wait and see if the other half of this story lives up to the beginning!

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P.S.: I just discovered that the river fire in this book must have been a reference to a contemporary event!  In June of 1969, the terribly polluted Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire and blazed away, doing $100,000 of damage.  The incident was immortalized on the cover of Time Magazine, drawing national attention and helping to spark the beginning of the environmentalist movement.  This story was in the headlines when Denny O’Neil would have been writing JLA #78, and there is little doubt that it must have been the inspiration for this particular comic.  That’s a fascinating sign of the rising social consciousness in comics, and it puts the environmental overtones of this story in a very different light.

Closing Thoughts:

Well, I think that, in order for these posts not to stew for months at a time, I’ll post them in chunks.  I tend to write an entry a day or so, but there are a lot of entries to each month, and I end up sitting on a lot of content for weeks that way.  I think I’ll break it into two, maybe even three or four, posts that can get content out more frequently.  After all, this is a LOT of material, so breaking it up is probably not a bad idea.  The last post of each month’s collection will contain my general reflections and notes.  If readers have any preferences for how they’d like me to cover each month, I’d be more than happy to listen.

And, as promised, I’m starting a new, running feature that will be updated with each post.  Introducing-

The Head-Blow Headcount:

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Aquaman Primer

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This is a short introduction to Aquaman, a great but underrated character, complete with a few recommendations for some of his better stories and some tips about other fun things to check out.  Below you’ll find some general information, a summary of his powers and abilities, a list of the recommended comics (with some reading advice for comic newcomers), as well as a short publication history.

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Yes, that is Aquaman throwing a polar bear at some bad guys.  You’re welcome.

The Basics:

The concept behind Aquaman is an awesome one.  He embodies one of man’s oldest and most enduring fantasies, to be totally at home under water.  We can swim around in the ocean a little way, maybe cross it in a boat here and there, where we are totally at the mercy of the weather and utterly helpless against its fury, but we are, in the end, out of our element.  Here, on our own planet, we are pretty much locked out of 75% of what we call “our” world.  Yes, we can peak into it with a SCUBA tank, or go a little deeper wrapped up in a metal shell, but these endeavors are always dangerous.  Yet, Aquaman is free from all of these constraints. Not only can he breathe under water, which is, in and of itself pretty darn cool, but he is the ultimate master of his realm in a way that surpasses even our mastery of the surface world.  He can travel to any depth, explore every oceanic mystery, and tread in places man has never even dreamed of.  All of this, and he can also command everything that lives and breathes beneath the sea.  If you can’t imagine that being cool, then obviously you’ve let the world beat too much of the imagination out of you!

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Aquaman’s wonderfully mythic origin as told by the incomparable Alex Ross


The Powers:

One of the biggest “PR” problems Aquaman faces is the perception that he’s useless out of the water and has silly powers, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Of course Aquaman is particularly well suited to operating underwater, but he’s just as capable above the waves as he is below them.  He also sports an impressive slate of powers.  He’s much more than just a guy who “talks to fish”!  His powers include:


aquaman building.jpgSuper Strength:
Have you ever tried to throw a punch under water?  It’s nearly impossible to put any force behind it because the water resistance is so strong.  Now, imagine how strong you’d have to be to do something like punch a hole in a steel submarine hull, all while fighting that same resistance!  Believe it or not, Aquaman did just that in his very first appearance, and while his strength has been portrayed unevenly over the years, there’s little doubt that Aquaman is extremely strong, so strong that he could throw your car over your house!

 

 

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Super Speed: Aquaman is also incredibly fast, especially in the water.  He can swim 20,000 fps.  That’s FEET per second, just so we’re clear, here.  That’s around the speed of a jet fighter, and while he doesn’t normally zip around on land like the Flash, he is capable of moving very quickly, so fast that he can dodge machinegun fire and catch rockets out of the air.

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Toughness: The deepest, darkest depths of the ocean boasts a pressure of 15,000 psi, or over 1000 times that of the regular atmosphere.  That’s enough to crush the hull of any submarine and turn a man into jelly, but Aquaman is quite at home in such conditions, making him incredibly durable.  In fact, he’s almost bullet proof, and he is tough enough to trade punches with Superman.

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Marine Telepathy: Aquaman must have one of the most powerful minds in the DC Universe.  He can control everything that lives in the sea, and his thoughts can travel the length and breadth of oceans.  That’s an important distinction too, he doesn’t “talk” to fish, he commands them, completely and utterly.  From the largest whale to the tiniest microorganism, Aquaman rules them all.  While he is a bit more accommodating to the higher mammals, he’s still the boss.  In fact, most folks don’t know this, but Aquaman is also able to affect humans by targeting the parts of their brains inherited from their amphibious ancestors.

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The Problem:

aquamansuperfirends.jpgSo, the natural question becomes, where does all the Aqua-hate come from?  Why has this stuck so long? Two words: Super Friends. Super Friends was a cartoon show from the 1970s that featured much of the DC Universe, and many of us grew up watching it.  That’s how I got introduced to all of these characters, and as a kid, I loved it.  These days, on the other hand, watching it is akin to repeated cranial trauma.  This show crippled Aquaman. They didn’t know what to do with him because they didn’t understand the character, and DC never stepped in and said, “hey wait, this guy can do a lot more than talk to fish!” So, many episodes had our fair-haired hero standing around rather uselessly or getting captured to further the plot.  See, that’s Aquaman’s real problem, not a lack of power, or even a lack of talent on his book (for the most part), but bad management.

DC has spent the last 35 years pretty much trying to drive what was once one of their most successful properties into the ground. It isn’t clear exactly why it started, but it likely had to do with the focus on the Big Three (Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman) during the lean years of the 80’s.  Eventually though, the kids who grew up watching Aquaman’s awful portrayal on Super Friends found themselves running the company. Aquamansalute.gif
Instead of realizing that DC had made a mistake back then and damaged one of their characters in the process, they compounded the error. They have, until recently, regarded him as a lame duck, despite various successes achieved with Aquaman over this same time period.  Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning (I couldn’t help myself!).  The last few years have seen a much better team and a much better take on Aquaman’s book, as well as powerful and positive portrayals in other media.  The great popularity of Aquaman in Batman: The Brave and Bold is already creating a new generation of kids for whom the King of the Sea is awesome.

The Comics:

Aquaman_Vol_1_35.jpgIncluded with this document is a broad sampling of a few of Aquaman’s better stories from across the years.  I’ve incorporated stories from each of the major periods of comic history, and form most of the Sea King’s major interpretations, though there is certainly some personal bias present in the choices!  You can read the various selections in any order, though within each era there are story arcs that should be read together.  Beware that the various eras are not to everyone’s tastes, so don’t hold a story’s contexts against it.  These are just a few of the many wonderful stories written about this character, so if you enjoy them, seek out the rest and give them a chance!

aquacover05.jpgThe Silver Age: The Silver Age in comics was the second great period of superhero characters, stretching  from the late 1950s through the early-to-mid 70s, depending on who you ask.  This era was defined by its constraints, as the resurgence in popularity that the genre enjoyed came at a cost.  Increased censorship meant that the more mature stories of the golden age, popular among adults and kids alike, were replaced by more kid friendly elements, and grim avengers became cheerful champions of justice, duly deputized and friendly with the authorities.  The result was imaginative but shallow and often silly stories on the one hand, but on the other hand, this period also created a non-leathal heroic ethos that has continued to shape American ideals to the current day.  The character and concepts from this period, despite their often juvenile nature, are still often the most recognized and influential versions.

Recommended: Aquaman’s Silver Age origin and the introduction of his young sidekick in the long running backup strip in Adventure Comics and three fun, not-too-silly adventures from his solo title. (Adventure Comics 260 & 269; Aquaman vol. 1 20, 26, & 36)

aquab6.jpgThe Bronze Age: The Bronze Age of comics was the next stage in the evolution of the genre, running somewhere between 1970 and the mid-80s. It is helpful to think of this as the college years of comics.  They’re beginning to grow up, but they can still be a bit childish at times.  In this era, creators started telling more complex and mature stories.  There were attempts at social relevance and the handling (though often ham-handed) of real-world issues like drug use and poverty.  In general, this is my favorite era, producing the best stories for my money, and yet maintaining a certain purity of heroic ideal that is lost in later years.  At this point, heroes are still heroes, and they live moral lives, holding to high ideals.  This period saw a short but influential and wildly popular run of Aquaman comics featuring the creative team of Steve Skeates, writer, Jim Aparo, artist, and Dick Giordano, editor (SAG).

Recommended: The most famous arc from the SAG (see above) run on the Aquaman, a story that is uneven at points, but illustrates both the age and the character well. (Aquaman vol. 1 40-48)

Aquaman15.jpegThe Iron Age: The current era of comics, what I call the Iron Age in keeping with the metaphor, has no agreed upon name. This period, running from the mid-80s to today is marked by darker, more “mature” stories, where maturity is eventually replaced by sex and violence and the obsession with ‘grim and gritty’ stories largely succeeds in stamping out the joy and adventure that has characterized the genre over most of its history.  In Aquaman’s own stories, this is illustrated by the murder of his son by his greatest villain, losing his hand, his wife going insane, and many more laugh-a-minute tales.  These stories happened early on in this era, and they marked the character, crippling him because writers didn’t know what to do with a hero with a murdered son, et cetra.  Eventually, this lead to the modern version of the character becoming an angry, hot-headed jerk instead of the heroic adventurer who had come before.  Despite that, there have been some good stories come out of this era.  In fact, the biggest tragedy of this shift in creative values is that there are wonderful ideas still in play, but they are often dragged down by the oppressive weight of the period’s love of ‘grim and gritty.’

Recently Aquaman has gotten another reinvention that has taken him back to his classic roots in many ways. As part of the New 52, the company wide reboot of the DC Universe, very popular writer Geoff Johns relaunched the Sea King. Fortunately, Aquaman’s share in this experiment has been one of the high points. Johns’ run on the character, though not without its flaws, began what is almost certainly one of the best eras of my favorite aquatic adventurer.  These stories have presented Aquaman in an impressive, heroic light, and the art is also simply amazing in its own right.  While DC has recently struck yet again, replacing the immensely popular team on the book and taking Aquaman in ANOTHER ‘bold new direction’ that no-one wanted, it seems that the damage will be short lived, and this iteration of the Sea King is still likely to prove one of the best yet.

Recommended: There are a few stories from a very promising but uneven run from the 00s where San Diego was sunk beneath the oceans by a massive earthquake, and many of its inhabitants became water-breathers through mysterious means. One involves a nice overview of the character, while a few others are more straightforward adventures.  I’m also throwing in the beginning of Geoff Johns run, which is good, while the art is amazing.  These stories are only the beginning. (Aquaman vol. 4 14, 22, 32, &39; Aquaman vol. 5 1-5; 26 & 27; and 35-40)

 

Television:

JLUpromo.jpgJustice League (Unlimited): This is one of the greatest superhero shows of all time, and, as with the other shows by its creator, Bruce Timm, it took in the cannon of the comics and made something that is more than the sum of its parts. You should watch the entire thing just because it’s amazing.  In general, the show is routinely even better than its source material, but their version of Aquaman is an exception.  He is great in action, powerful, dynamic, and exciting, but his characterization is drawn from the worst version of Aquaman.  He’s a hot-headed, ill-tempered jerk.  Still, there are several episodes that are impressive, and they certainly show Aquaman as extraordinary and interesting.

“The Enemy Below”: Intrigue in Atlantis brings Aquaman into conflict with the League. The episode is good, but the best part is the hero’s dedication to his family, a staple of the character.

“The Terror Beyond”: This is an epic mystical story, a genre that fits Aquaman rather well. He is very impressive in this episode, taking on tanks, monsters, and everything in between.

“Ultimatum”: This is a great all around episode, especially if, like me, you grew up watching the terrible Super Friends There are a number of references to it throughout.

 

Final Thoughts:

I hope that this look at Aquaman has proven interesting.  Despite years of bad luck and a publisher that seems to hate him, the character endures.  In fact, these days he seems to be thriving, with a major movie deal and a very successful comic run.  You can’t keep a good character down, and there is something about the half-atlantian, half-human hero that resonates with readers.  There’s something archetypal about the hero torn between two worlds, and it seems that he’s not going anywhere.  Enjoy the recommended stories and try to see the King of the Seven Seas with new eyes!

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