Into the Bronze Age: March 1971 (Part 5)

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

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

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

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


Justice League of America #88


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yay!  They’re all dead!

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

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

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New Gods #1


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Superboy #172


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the Bronze Age: February 1971 (Part 4-Special Edition!)

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Welcome to another stop on my journey Into the Bronze Age!  In today’s post, I’ve got something special for you!   The next book in the Roll Call is JLA #87, which has a rather unique origin and merits a slightly different approach.  It’s actually an interesting footnote in comic book history, one half of an unofficial crossover between DC and Marvel’s two top teams, the JLA and the Avengers!  In honor of this unprecedented event, I’ve decided to do a special post.  I’m going to put off covering the next few DC comics for a little while and cover both halves of this ‘crossover,’ as well as provide a little background about the event and the characters it created.  That’s right, for the first time in my Bronze Age feature, I’m going to cover a Marvel comic!

So, how did we end up with a quasi-crossover several decades before the official JLA/Avengers crossover event?  Back in 1969, rascally Roy Thomas of Marvel fame and the dynamic Denny O’Neil were friends, and they were each writing their companies’ respective big super-teams.  They decided to do an unofficial crossover, creating pastiche characters in each of their magazines.  The product of Roy’s efforts were the Squadron Sinister (Avengers #70), which would later spawn the Squadron Supreme and go on to become an enduring part of the Marvel Universe.  O’Neil seems to have chickened out a bit (JLA #75), producing only evil doppelgangers of the League, but a few years later Thomas tried again with Mike Friedrich.  The results were this month’s JLA story and Avengers #85 and #86.  There’s a little feature on this ‘crossover’ here that provided some background for this post.

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #397
  • Adventure Comics #402
  • Aquaman #55
  • Batman #229
  • Detective Comics #408
  • The Flash #203
  • Justice League of America #87 (AND Avengers #85-6)
  • The Phantom Stranger #11
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #108
  • Superman #234
  • Teen Titans #31
  • World’s Finest #200

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


Justice League of America #87


JLA_v.1_87“Batman – King of the World”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

That’s a great cover by Neal Adams.  It’s in the hackneyed ‘hero acting out of character’ tradition, but it is still quite striking and beautifully rendered.  What lies inside is a red letter issue, featuring the creation of characters of very limited impact in the DC Universe but who are of significance in comic book history at large, the Champions of Angor!  I can already hear you asking, ‘who?’  That’s because these guys are pretty obscure.  In fact, they’re so obscure that I didn’t even include them in DCUG, which has almost every DC character you could imagine.  Nonetheless, the impetus for their creation as quixotic counterparts of Marvel’s premiere super-team, the Avengers, is actually really interesting.

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While both Avengers issues are classics and the characters introduced therein found a life of their own, this book is not quite so fortunate.  It’s a really fun read, but the Champions themselves are pretty forgettable and play only a minor role in the story.  It begins, not with the ersatz Avengers, but with Batman and Hawkman in battle with some unseen foe.  The Dark Knight is already down, but in a nice show of his fortitude and courage, the Winged Wonder, though badly battered, makes a final charge, only to be blasted by a beam of energy.  We then see a towering robotic figure, which has a pretty nice design, much better than the boxy robots from #84, looking a bit like one of Dr. Who’s Cybermen.  The mechanical man ponders Hawkman’s signal device and decides to trigger it in order to draw his fellow Leaguers…to their doom!

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Next we check in with Superman, who is apparently still mopey from his pity-party in the Flash’s book this month, and he thinks about how he’s alone on Earth.  To cheer himself up, he goes to seek out his fellow Leaguers, the only folks with which he can really identify.  I actually like that element of this scene, even if it is a bit overly emotional.  Heading to the satellite, he encounters Zatanna, who is given an oddly intense description by Friedrich and an awkward close-up by Dillin.  She’s called “The girl with the enigmatic smile and the dancing eyes,” and “the bearer of peace.”  It’s a bit…weird.  She apparently calms the Man of Steel with her mere presence and explains that today is the anniversary of the League’s rescue of her lost father, so she came to celebrate.  As it turns out, she arrived just in time to answer Hawkman’s distress call from South America.

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Apparently close-ups are not too flattering for the mistress of magic…

JusticeLeague087-05Superman, Zatanna, Flash, and the Atom arrive to discover Batman and Hawkman apparently just palling around with a giant, laser-spewing robot.  Nothing to see here!  Strangely, the Dark Knight acts like his fellow Leaguers are crazy, denying that they need any help.  In a funny bit, the Atom asks, with palpable snark, “What about the mysterious robot–doesn’t it strike you as a wee bit strange?”  That guy is six inches of sass!  The Masked Manhunter replies that, as Bruce Wayne, he was funding an archeological dig for Carter Hall’s museum when they unearthed the robot, and after it was awakened by the sun, it obeyed his orders.  This contains a fun idea, that Bruce would chip in to help his fellow Leaguers in their secret identities.  There’s some story and characterization potential there.

Well, needless to say, the team is a tad suspicious, and when Green Lantern’s arrival elicits an irrational outburst from Batman, they suddenly find themselves facing the menacing machine, apparently under his orders!  The metal monster targets Zatanna first, doing the classic robot bit of talking out all of its thought-processes and actions, revealing that it considers her the greatest threat.  The bot disables her with a power blast, and the Flash begins to blitz it while the Atom attempts to shrink inside its head.  Both heroes are repulsed by a force field and KOed.

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Superman and Green Lantern attack, but they can make no headway.  Analyzing the Emerald Crusader, the machine turns itself yellow, and apparently Hal lacks the creativity to, I don’t know, use his ring to throw rocks at it or something.  The android antagonist zaps Hal, leaving only a Man of Steel vs. a metal man, but even the mightiest Leaguer of all falls before the villainous machine.  This is actually an interesting moment, because Superman gets taken out, not by magic and not by kryptonite, but by more direct methods.  What makes this notable is that this is the first time we’ve seen such a portrayal in the post-kryptonite world.  It looks like O’Neil’s elimination of the emerald element is already starting to bear fruit, as you have to imagine that, if this story had been told a few months before, this android would surely have been armed with a kryptonite beam or the like.  O’Neil’s innovation is already leading to better storytelling.

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Back to the story, we discover that the robot was controlling Batman’s mind to throw the League off, and in order to keep him under control, it plays along with his growing power delusions, pretending to offer the defeated Leaguers to Batman as its ‘master,’ and thus recreating the cover.  This seems…overly elaborate and unnecessary, as the bot can’t possibly think the normal guy in the bat costume is much of a threat to it.  Nonetheless, we get a shock when the robot declares that the Justice League members are…dead!

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JusticeLeague087-17Of course, that can’t really be the case, and we see, one by one, that they are really alive.  It starts with GL and the Atom, as the Emerald Gladiator uses his ring to trace the robot’s transmissions home, wherever that is.  The Atom shrinks to subatomic size and catches a ride on the ring’s beam, following those transmissions to their origin in order to shut the machine down at its source.  That’s a pretty clever move, and it’s successful, as the android freezes just as it was about to destroy a native village in its search for minerals.

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The rest of the League look down on the battlefield, and we see that the Lantern created duplicates of them to trick the rampaging robot into thinking they were dead.  Weirdly, Friedrich describes these as androids, which doesn’t really seem to fit for the power ring, but it’s a minor point.  Superman heads off to get Batman and Hawkman to a hospital, and the remaining team members travel with the Emerald Knight to meet up with the Atom on the alien world from which their android antagonist originated.

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When they arrive, they discover nothing but ruins and a newly destroyed machine, courtesy of the Mighty Mite.  The planet seems to have been “shattered by nuclear warfare” ages ago, and just as the heroes are contemplating whether their enemies might still be around someplace, a quartet of strange looking super beings arrive.  These, at last, are the Champions of Angor, heroes from an alien world!  They include Jack B. Quick, a speedster who can fly for short periods, Blue Jay, a man with the power to shrink and gain wings, the Silver Sorceress, who has “hex powers” and a costume without even a hint of silver on it, and Wandjina, an Australian storm god armed with a powerful mystic weapon.  My, do these guys seem familiar or what?  Their parallels are pretty clear.  They’re obvious stand-ins for Quicksilver, Ant-Man/Yellow Jacket, the Scarlet Witch, and Thor.  Sadly, unlike their Squadron counterparts at Marvel, they aren’t terribly electrifying.

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Their designs are pretty awful, though a few of them (Blue Jay and Silver Sorceress) have some potential.  What the heck is going on with Wandjina’s weird little hairy epaulets?  Also, his name is pretty terrible.  There are literally hundreds of storm gods to choose from.  Why in the world did Friedrich pick one with such a goofy name?  Personally, I’d have gone with somebody like the Babylonian god Marduk.  He’s got a cool name, a good backstory, and provides some cool design possibilities.  Anyway, I think both their lackluster role in this story and their pretty weak designs help to explain why this foursome never amounted to much in the DCU.  It’s a shame, because I love the idea of the JLA having a surrogate set of Avengers to wail on from time to time.

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JusticeLeague087-20Back to our tale, the audience is let in on what neither group of heroes knows and is provided with the backstory of the planet.  Apparently it was run by competing mega-corporations, like some alien version of the Space Merchants, and they seeded the galaxy with robotic servants, each programed to harvest resources and send them home to their owners.  These interstellar companies eventually wiped each other out in an atomic war, but their mechanical servants remained.  Just as the League battled one on Earth, the Champions battled one on Angor, and they both tracked the robots’ signals back to this planet.  In classic ‘Marvel Misunderstanding‘ fashion, the two groups of heroes misinterpret each other’s motives and begin to fight pretty much immediately.  In a fun little touch, Friedrich includes a literal ‘literary license’ enabling him to translate the alien language.

The fight itself is really brief, effectively just one double-page spread, which is quite disappointing if you’ve heard about this issue and looked forward to reading it for the sake of this moment.  It is a cool spread, with each hero squaring off against their opposite number, though it is weakened by some heavy-handed narration about the madness of war.  We get it Mike, ‘war, what is it good for?’  I’m really rather sad that we, for some reason, get GL here instead of Superman because it would have been great to see the Man of Steel vs. the God of Thunder.  That’s really a missed opportunity.  I suppose it isn’t the only one in this issue.

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During the conflict, Jack B. Quick hurls some rocks at the Scarlet Speedster, who in turn, sends them flying back at his opponent, but one of them actually strikes Blue Jay, nearly killing him!  Zatanna immediately stops fighting and calls the Lantern over to help.  They heal the injured size-changer, and, in the usual fashion, this act of selfless heroism convinces the other side that they must have been mistaken about their opponents.  With the help of a ring translation, the gathered heroes share their stories and make friends, and the story ends with another really weird focus on Zatanna, as all the Leaguers give her a super-awkward looking group hug and the heavy-handed narration continues.

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This issue is just jam-packed full of plot.  There are at least two or three issues’ worth of story here, and I’m not even talking about the modern ‘decompressed’ methods of storytelling.  Once again, Friedrich’s narrative eyes are bigger than his stomach, as he just fills this comic with ideas that are all fighting to have enough space.  The result is a riotous and creative book that feels very rushed.  You’ve got the initial robot menace, the adventure to the alien world, the discovery of the backstory of the space merchants, and the fight with the Champions, any of which could easily have filled an issue.  Trying to pack it all in means only the first idea really got explored, and even that one ended very abruptly.  Of course, the biggest flaw of the book is , in some senses, the disappointing appearance of the Champions of Angor.  They’re barely in the story for six pages, and their big battle is over in two.  The concept of an Avengers analog is a promising one, but sadly, these guys don’t quite live up to their potential.

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Awkward moments courtesy of Mike “Touchy-Feely” Friedrich.

Despite its crowded plot and less than inspiring new characters, this is still a fun book to read.  There’s no question that this is better than last issue, even with its flaws.  While the ideas in this comic may be crammed together and largely unexplored, they are interesting.  We’ve once again got an impersonal, greedy corporate entity as our villains, which seems to be becoming a more common device and certainly feels fitting for the modern day.  You’ve also got a bit of an anti-war message here, but it’s so incongruous and so easily lost amongst the hustle-and-bustle of the more interesting elements of the story that it doesn’t amount to much.  It’s also more than a little strange that, despite her prominent role in this story, Zatanna didn’t join the League here.  That feels like another missed opportunity.  Dillin’s art is pretty strong, and that seemingly characteristic stiffness from his JLA work isn’t really in evidence here.  His design for the robot is quite good, but obviously his designs for the Champions aren’t so fortunate.  I suppose that, over all, I’ll give this fun but flawed issue 3.5 Minutemen, largely on the strength of the first episode and the intriguing ideas in evidence.

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Avengers #85


Avengers_Vol_1_85“The World Is Not for Burning!”
Writer: Roy Thomas
Penciler: John Buscema
Inker: Frank Giacoia
Letterer: Mike Stevens
Editor: Stan Lee

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

Some years back I read through The Avengers up through the early 80s, and I really loved the experience.  Perhaps if I live to be 150 I’ll have time one day to go back and read through all of Marvel like I’m doing with DC.  Either way, I love the Avengers as a team and a concept, and their comic is one of my all-time favorites.  Those early Avengers years in the Silver and Bronze Ages produced some truly great comics, and they are a blast to read.  As I’ve discussed before, while the characters who make up the JLA have a special place in my heart, I can’t deny that, on the whole, the classic stories of Marvel’s main team beat those of DC all hollow.  Here at the beginning of the Bronze Age, we’re in a great time for the Avengers, featuring some of my favorite stories from this series.

This particular issue begins with our star tossed heroes, Thor, Black Panther, Black Knight, Scarlet Witch, Vision, Quicksilver, and Goliath (the Clint Barton variety, a concept I never cared for), as they prepare to journey via Mjolnir.  They are returning home from the extra-dimensional tyrant Arkon’s world, where they just concluded the previous issue’s adventure.  Thor hurls his enchanted hammer about, ordering it to take them all back where they came from, but only three of their number arrive at their respective homes.  Goliath, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and the Vision don’t appear with the others, but Thor and the Panther don’t have time to investigate, as they are due to join Cap and Spidey at a Toys for Tots charity event, which is a nice little bit of detail.  It does seem like the matter of missing heroes might take precedence, but far be it for me to advocate disappointing disadvantaged kids!

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The missing Avengers find themselves only partially materializing, left in a wraith-like state on a world that is dying!  All about them, human beings burn horribly and the very streets melt under the fire of a raging sun.  Unable to do anything more than watch, they feel helpless.  Quicksilver, spying a paper, realizes that the date indicates that they’ve been gone for weeks rather than hours!  In an attempt to do something, Wanda uses her hex powers, and suddenly they find themselves solid and on a peaceful street corner on the right date.  Yet, there are subtle hints that all is not as it seems, as people don’t seem to recognize the team.

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When they arrive at Avengers’ Mansion, it too seems subtly different, and inside they accidentally trigger a trap before they are confronted by a strangely garbed figure who tells them that this is his team’s home!  This is Nighthawk, who the team had encountered months ago as part of the Squadron Sinister, yet he seems not to know them.  After an ill-fated attack on the diamond-hard Vision, Nighthawk employs the better part of valor and escapes through a secret door.  The Vision slips through and opens it, and the team pursues the mysterious masked man.

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Inside what should be their meeting room, they discover four new figures: Lady Lark, American Eagle, Tom Thumb, and…Hawkeye?  Well, neither pastiche team arrived fully formed, it seems.  This quartet are obvious parallels to Black Canary, Hawkman, the Atom, and Green Arrow, though, oddly, American Eagle seems more like a cross between Captain America and the Winged Wonder, as he’s an uber patriotic, flag-waver type, who immediately assumes the Avengers are commies!

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In classic Marvel fashion, the teams immediately come to blows when Goliath tries to get some answers out of Nighthawk in his usual hot-headed fashion, dangling the guy out a window.  Suddenly, a message comes over the view-screen, where Dr. Spectrum (Green Lantern) tells his team that the solar rocket ‘Brain-Child One’ is ready for launch, and he calls them the “Squadron Supreme.”  The Vision realizes that his team must have witnessed a glimpse of the future of this world and tries to explain, only for Tom Thumb to blind Goliath as the giant laughs at his diminutive stature (real sensitive there, Clint).  Interestingly, instead of having shrinking powers like the Atom, Tom Thumb is just a little person and inventor, making for a very unusual parallel.

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The teams leap into action, with Tom Thumb disabling Quicksilver with an adhesive that coats the speedster, Lady Lark disabling the Witch with a sonic cry, Hawkeye hitting the Vision with an explosive bolt, and American Eagle decking Goliath.  It seems like things are going badly for the Assemblers until Clint’s destroys Tom Thumb’s flying platform and the Vision recovers to take out Eagle and Nighthawk.

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Inside, Quicksilver shakes off his sticky prison and hits pseudo-Hawkeye like a cannonball, while the Witch turns the tables on Lady Lark, zapping her with a hex-sphere.  With the Squadron captured, the Avengers realize that they are going to need these strange heroes’ help if they are to save their world.  They take the reviving Nighthawk, commander a ship, and head to the launch site, explaining the problem in transit.  Fortunately, the nocturnal avenger (Freedom Force joke!) believes them, because without his help, they’d have to defeat the three strongest members of the Squadron!

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This comic is a blast to read.  It feels well-paced, and the plot has plenty of room to breathe, unlike it’s distinguished counterpart.  It is overwritten in the classic Marvel tradition, with dialog just everywhere.  Roy Thomas was always great at writing adventure stories, even if he followed in Stan’s footsteps by being very verbose, and this was no exception.  Notably, in contrast to the DC book, where the pastiche team received only a few pages, this entire issue revolves around the Squadron Supreme, first as mystery and then as antagonist.  They are given a great deal more space, and the fight between the two teams takes up roughly seven pages in this book, more than doubling the space devoted to the encounter in JLA.  Of course, they also feature in the next issue as well, where the other part of the Squadron gets as much room to shine as the Avengers themselves.  It’s no wonder that their appearance here proved much more memorable than the Champions’ over in DC.

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Of course, it’s hard to get much better than John Buscema art in the Bronze Age.  The man was a master, and there’s a reason that his run on this book is legendary.  As for the Squadron members themselves, their designs are, on the whole, stronger than those of their counterparts, but there are still some definite exceptions.  The new Hawkeye’s design is rather incoherent though his hood is neat, and American Eagle’s wings and helmet can end up looking rather goofy.  Lady Lark, Nighthawk, and Tom Thumb, however, benefit from solid, distinctive designs.  All of these characters would evolve in future appearances, but it’s notable how little those three changed.  From their very first appearance as villains ten issues ago, the original four members of the team had a pretty solid look and concept.  I’ll give this half of the adventure 4.5 Minutemen, an enjoyable adventure with some grand stakes and some interesting new characters.

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Avengers #86


Avengers_Vol_1_86“Brain-Child to the Dark Tower Came…!”
Writer: Roy Thomas and Len Wein
Penciler: Sal Buscema
Inker:Jim Mooney
Letterer: Shelly Leferman

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

The second half of this two-parter opens with the gathered heroes rushing to confront the remaining there Squadron members guarding the rocket as it prepares for lift-off.  For reasons of plot, Nighthawk must stay with the ship to shut it down, so the Avengers hurry to stop the launch, only to get into a brief fight with the Squadron members.  Fortunately, Wanda manages to hit the rocket with a hex sphere, which also has the power of plot, and stops the launch.  Just then, Nighthawk arrives and straightens everything out.  In a funny touch, Goliath notes that it’s nice to meet superheroes that they don’t end up fighting and observes that it is a rare occurrence for the team.  That’s a fun bit of self-awareness, and, just as the DC booked aimed at being a bit Marvel-ish, it seems that this one aims to be a bit DC-ish.

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Poor Pietro, perpetually in over his head…

After the Avengers tell their story, the Squadron members explain the rocket’s origins, and the mystery begins to unravel.  It seems that a decade ago a very unusual child was born, a son of two parents who had been exposed to great amounts of radiation who was born with an incredible intellect.  The child prodigy to put all others to shame, he was a brilliant scientist by the tender age of four!

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In an effort to increase his intelligence even further, young Arnold Sutton experimented on himself, giving him the most advanced mind on the planet, but making him a deformed freak.  His work was respected, but he was still ostracized and abused.  He became a top rocket scientist for the U.S., but eventually moved to a deserted island in order to be free of humanity.  It becomes clear that this brilliant mind is still the mind of a child, and it has decided to lash out at those who hurt it.  Thus, the rocket supposedly meant for exploration is actually a doomsday device.

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Back on the Avengers’ Earth, the remaining team-members try to bring their missing mates home, but without success.  Unaware of this, the lost heroes soldier on, teaming up with the present Squadron members to pay the young ‘Brain-Child’ a visit.  When they arrive on his island, they are met with powerful advanced defenses, confirming their suspicions.  In another DC touch, the heroes split up into teams and each try to break into the uncanny kid’s fortress from four different directions.  The speedsters take the first crack at him, naturally, but they get caught in a storm of flying rocks and must whip up their own super-speed cyclone to counter it.

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Meanwhile, Nighthawk and the Scarlet Witch encounter a massively muscled guardian who makes short work of the psuedo-caped crusader.  It also hypnotizes poor Wanda before she can hurl a hex sphere.  On the third front, Dr. Spectrum and the Vision encounter a weird, Lovecraftian creature that manages to counter both their powers and overwhelm them.

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The final team of Goliath and Hyperion (it seems like not teaming Hawkeye and Hawkeye is a bit of a missed opportunity!) attempt to sneak up on the genocidal grade-schooler, only for him to reveal that he has mental powers as well as great intelligence!  Brain-Child manages to take out the mighty Hyperion, who, in a fun touch, is called a ‘man of brawn.’  But, though stunned, Goliath is still fighting, and he employs his ex-identity’s expertise to turn Hyperion’s tough form into an improvised missile!

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The weakened Brain-Child collapses, and all of his traps, even his entire fortress, disappear as he loses consciousness.  The strain apparently snaps his mind back to its proper child-like state, and Dr. Spectrum uses his power prism to turn him into a normal boy.  The Squadron promises to take care of him and give him a normal life, and just then, the Avengers begin to fade out!  They arrive back home, their fellows finally having succeeded, and the story ends on a surprisingly sombre note, as the Vision ponders whether they can ever know if they are truly…home!

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I strongly suspect that this classic issue provided the inspiration for an excellent episode of the Justice League show featuring an ersatz JSA.  That episode featured a very similar antagonist.  The plot was admittedly quite different, but it did center around a post-apocalyptic world.  If true, that’s a fascinating line of descent, from JLA pastiche in the Avengers to JSA pastiche in a JLA show.  How neat!

As for the comic itself, it is another really entertaining story, and it is great fun to see the Avengers actually team up with their heroic counterparts from the ersatz-League.  It makes for a fitting end of the saga, and Brain-Child is a sympathetic and intriguing antagonist.  Thomas manages to tell his story with admiral brevity, yet still manages to make you feel for the little guy, creepy though he is.  There’s enough tragedy with this character to fit the high tone of the comic and make him compelling.  The ending is great, exactly what comics are all about, providing a hopeful resolution to the issue’s problem.  The little DC-esq touches to plot are also really fun for readers ‘in the know,’ as is the hint of self-awareness from Goliath.

In a fascinating and unusual display of erudition, this story references Robert Browning’s poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” with both its title and the comments of one of its characters.  This is a delightfully fitting reference, as Browning’s poem paints a scene of Gothic desolation as its knightly hero trudges slowly and painfully through a wasteland that the poet describes in detail.  Notably, it seems that at least some of the ugliness of his surroundings are a matter of the knight’s perspective, as he sees through jaundiced eyes and with the vision of despair.  Brain-Child experiences just such a vision of the world, but unlike Childe Roland, who perseveres to his ambiguous fate at the Dark Tower, the brilliant boy gives in to despair and decides to drown the whole world in fire, himself included.  The reference is a really neat addition to the story.

Once again, the art is superb, and Brain-Child is suitably disturbing.  I’ll give this issue 4.5 Minutemen as well.  It loses a little credit for the silly bit with Nighthawk in the beginning.

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Reading these stories in context is just fascinating.  They really highlight the different approaches to story-telling current at the two companies, as well as just being interesting as a piece of comic lore.  In comparison with the counterpart Avengers stories of this unofficial crossover, the weaknesses of the JLA tale are particularly telling.  The Avengers yarns are simply significantly better than the JLA version, and I once again find myself wondering just how the Justice League book survived with Marvel routinely kicking its backside every month in this era.

The Marvel books are just full of characterization and personality.  It’s on display in nearly every panel, overwrought, but present nonetheless.  In fact, even the brand new characters of the Squadron already begin to develop distinct personalities in the few pages allotted to them.  Compare that to the JLA issue, where only Superman really gets any characterization.  The scripting of the Avengers books is also a good deal more balanced, even if Thomas is more than a little purple in his prose.  The Marvel books are, as one might imagine, more character driven, while the DC title is much more idea driven.  In fact, one of the best traits of the JLA as a concept is on display in this issue, and that’s a tendency to engage big ideas.  Of course, those don’t get much attention, but they are present, nonetheless.  Interestingly, the DC book is really the more socially conscious, with its half-hearted anti-war message and its more memorable menacing corporate apocalypse.

The fates of these two groups of characters is quite interesting and illustrative.  It’s really impressive how quickly and completely the Squadron became fixtures of the Marvel Universe, even eventually starring in their own incredible and sophisticated maxi-series.  Meanwhile, it took around two decades for anyone at DC to do anything with the Champions of Angor, and even then their return is pretty obscure (Silver Sorceress and Blue Jay joined the JLI).  I can’t help but think that their respective fates reveal the quality of each group of characters, as well as the chance they had to make an impression on fans in their original appearances.  The DC team definitely seems like a matter of wasted potential, which makes one wonder, what might have been?

Until next time, I, like the Vision, will be pondering whether I’ve somehow ended up in an alternate reality ever-so-close to my own.  It would explain quite a bit.  Whatever universe we’re in, keep the heroic ideal alive, and be sure to join me again soon for another step on our journey, Into the Bronze Age!

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Into the Bronze Age: November 1970 (Part 4)

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Greetings internet travelers, and welcome to a particularly fascinating edition of Into the Bronze Age!  I’ve got something special for y’all today, something that surprised the dickens out of me!  I’ve got a story that was much less enjoyable than I expected and a story that was vastly more enjoyable as well.  I’m sure y’all will be as surprised as I was.  So, let’s get right into this post’s features!

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 #394
  • Adventure Comics #399
  • Batman #226 (the debut of the awe-inspiring Ten-Eyed Man!)
  • Brave and Bold #92
  • Detective Comics #405
  • The Flash #201
  • G.I. Combat #144
  • Justice League of America #84
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #106
  • Superman #231
  • World’s Finest #197 (reprints, won’t be covered)
  • World’s Finest #198

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


G.I. Combat #144


g-i-_combat_vol_1_144“Every Man a Fort”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Russ Heath
Inker: Russ Heath
Cover Artist: Joe Kubert

This is an unusual and fun issue of the Haunted Tank.  Unfortunately, the ghost of the titular haunting still doesn’t really contribute anything, but the book sticks out because the story it tells actually touches on the origin of the heroic tank crew who star in these tales.  This issue gives us the first meeting of the tank crew in tank training, and a memorable meeting it is.  We also get the first meeting of Jeb and J.E.B., which is much less interesting and something of a let-down.  For the third book in a row, Robert Kanigher turns in a perfectly serviceable story without any glaring flaws.  Maybe we were just in a lull for him.  I suppose time will tell which set of stories was the fluke, the terrible or the tolerable.

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This particular tale begins in media res, with the Haunted Tank taking on a German panther, smashing the other steel beast, but being rocked by their fire in return.  Jeb is blown out of the hatch and has his bell rung but good.  He begins murmuring about the crew’s first meeting, which leads us to a flashback and reveals something I didn’t know.  Jeb is a Yankee!  This also comes as a surprise to the other three members of the crew, Slim, Rick, and Arch, who are all Southerners.  They don’t display good Southern manners, however, instead telling Jeb that, since he’s a Northerner, he’s not fit to bear the name of the famous Confederate general.  What follows is an episode out of the Three Musketeers, as Jeb, with quiet courage, puts up a list, saying that anyone who wants to try to make him change his name is welcome to sign it.  Shortly, he’s got three different appointments for fights, which Russ Heath illustrates wonderfully.  Shades of d’Artagnan!

First Slim cleans his clock, but as soon as he has recovered, Jeb seeks out the next name on the list, introducing himself as Jeb Stuart.  So, next up, Rick rearranges his face.  Still undeterred, Jeb approaches Arch, and after a brutal fight, the three tankers accept him, telling their former foe that he’s earned the right to that name, in spades!  It’s a great sequence, and it establishes Jeb’s character in an endearing, hard-won fashion.  I do wish we had gotten a bit more development of the other three crew members, as they remain little more than names.

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gi-combat-144-09Later that night, Jeb is visited by his namesake, who tells him that he has the heart of a “Johnny Reb,” and that the ghost will be proud to be his guardian.  It’s a bit lackluster, to be honest.  I like that he recognizes the tank commander’s fighting spirit, but I would have preferred that their first meeting be a tad more dramatic.

Nonetheless, the flashback rolls on, and we join the Haunted Tank on its first mission, to reinforce a fort overlooking vital supply routes in North Africa.  We get a really nice scene where the crew stops to pray, only to be ambushed by a half-track.  I quite enjoy little moments of faith like that.  They manage to dispatch that threat, only to arrive at the fort too late.  It has already been bombed to smithereens by the Luftwaffe.  That brings us back to the present, and the crew carries on with Jeb still delirious.

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They spot a train carrying supplies for Rommel, and they realize it is up to their tank to stop it.  Yet, try as they might in a vicious running firefight, once again, nicely drawn by Heath, they can’t smash through its armor.  Now, that seems a bit silly, but they actually did have armored trains, so it’s not quite as goofy as it seems, especially given the small gun on a Stuart.  Anyway, Jeb comes to just in time, ordering Slim to ram the engine, a desperate gamble that pays off, sending the train and all of its ammo and fuel over a cliff and saving the day.  As usual, the General appears once the action is over to offer unhelpful commentary rather than supernatural aid.

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This is a solid story, and I really enjoy the camp episode about Jeb’s name.  His quiet, obstinate perseverance is great.  The whole thing looks good, as do most of these Haunted Tank tales, and the adventure with the train is a neat change of pace.  Interestingly, this origin actually contradicts an earlier one from issue #114.  Leave it to Kanigher to botch some continuity.  That earlier story tells the tale of how General Stuart himself came to be attached the the tank, and it is an interesting one.  I rather wish that supernatural side of the concept had been explored a bit more, but I imagine they had to walk lightly about such things in the Silver Age.  Perhaps we’ll see more done with it in future issues.  At any rate, I’ll give this fun and interesting issue 4 Minutemen, though it loses a bit for the continuity kerfuffle.

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Justice League of America #84


jla_v-1_84“The Devil In Paradise!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“Great Ant Circus!” (reprint)
Writer: Gardner Fox
Penciler: Murphy Anderson
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Letterer: Gaspar Saladino
Editors: Whitney Ellsworth and Julius Schwartz

This is an odd one.  Denny O’Neil’s groundbreaking run on the book is over, and we get one issue with a fill-in writer before the beginning of Mike Friedrich’s run.  It seems like Kanigher (yes, he strikes again) was going for a ‘Very Special Episode’ type of story with this comic, but the result is so uneven and random, with the melodrama turned up to 11, that the resulting read doesn’t ever really come together.  Unlike the last few mostly tolerable Kanigher offerings, this one is full of poorly thought-out events, abandoned plot points, and overall sloppy writing.  It isn’t the worst story of his we’ve covered, and it actually still manages to be somewhat enjoyable.  Nonetheless, it is weird.

Almost immediately after it begins, we get a flashback.  The JLA are receiving a special Nobel Prize, which is actually a cool idea and something that makes perfect sense for a group of people who regularly save the entire world.  This particular instance is actually rather small-potatoes, as the team receives the reward for saving a kidnapped scientist before he could be “sold behind the Iron Curtain.”  In a fun touch of continuity, the organization they’re tangling with is The 100, the same group that has begun to make its presence known in some of the Superman books also penned by Kanigher.

The 100 have a veritable army guarding the scientist, and we get a fun sequence where all the gathered members of the League get to chip in during the rescue, though the creators apply cartoon logic to Superman’s powers, as he melts an entire tank, somehow without deep-frying the guys inside.  They’re literally sitting in molten steel and only seem mildly perturbed in a ‘How dare you melt my tank’ kind of way.  You can’t see him, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Yosemite Sam was actually piloting that tank.

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Yep, it sure is a good thing that the melting temperature of flesh is so much higher than steel!

While the others keep the gang busy, Hawkman affects the professor’s rescue with an assist from the Flash, and that brings us back to the ceremony.  After the League’s time in the limelight, another recipient takes the stage, Dr. Viktor Willard, whose ‘Pax Serum’ has turned “the hawks of savage, primitive tribes of the Matto Grosso country into doves!”  Now, if that sentence didn’t disturb you, A) you haven’t read enough science fiction or B) you didn’t think about it enough.  This guy invented some kind of drug that made human beings docile.  That’s a dystopian dictatorship’s dream!  What’s more, he presumably gave it to an unwilling population, forcibly restraining their hostile tendencies.  That’s wildly ethically problematic!  Yet, the League and the Nobel crowd seem to think it’s the greatest thing in the world.  Yay!  Let’s just drug people to make them act the way we want!  Shades of Equilibrium!

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Anyway, that’s not even the weirdest thing to come out of this scene.  All of a sudden, with no explanation, Black Canary becomes telepathic, reading the thoughts of Willard’s fiance, Phyllis Temple.  Oddly, she calls her new ability “SP.”  ESP stands for extra-sensory perception, but I’m guessing ‘ol Kanigher just got confused.  To add to the inexplicable oddities, Superman’s x-ray vision suddenly goes haywire, and he sees half of Willard’s face as a skull.  That is never mentioned again, by the way.  It’s just a random little bit of madness.  On the way home from the event, Superman and Flash have a race, but it proves too destructive, so they call it off.

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Next, we get an incredibly, achingly melodramatic scene between Batman and Black Canary.  They cross paths in the Watchtower, changing shifts for monitor duty, and they share a kiss, instantly regretted by both, as the heroine is still mourning the loss of her husband.  It’s not that bad of a scene, but the captions are just too much!  I wonder what Ollie would think of this.  My wife would hate this scene, as she will hear of no other love interest for Batman but Catwoman.  I’m not quite as militant about it, but that pairing does have a place in this old softie’s heart.

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Anyway, the plot, such as it is, picks up two days later as the League responds to a distress call from the remote hinterlands of Australia where a native village has been destroyed by another tribe, which has seemingly gone mad.  Suddenly the team is attacked by Aborigines with weird weapons and mirrored shields.  The heroes have a brief fight, but then their opponents just vanish and we get some gobbledygook about the natives’ belief in the supernatural and the heroes’ belief in science.  What does this have to do with our main plot?  Your guess is as good as mine, since it is never explained.  Were these folks experimented upon by Dr. Willard?  Are they just random natives practicing black magic?  Who knows?  The League don’t bother to find out, just leaving with the whole matter uninvestigated.  Way to go, team!

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Cool panel, though.

On the way home, the Flash discovers the recent Laureate’s fiance floating on an overturned boat, delirious.  He rushes her to the hospital in Central City (which I suppose is really no further away for him than a coastal hospital).  While comforting her, his wife, Iris, arrives, steaming mad and ranting about how he missed her receiving a reward.  She declares “The JLA’s no place for a married man!  Let your superhero bachelors carry on!”  This is another completely random, completely out of character moment.  Shades of Bob Haney!  Iris has always been very supportive of Barry’s superhero career, so this comes out of nowhere and, I’m fairly certain, goes nowhere as well.

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The League brings in the suddenly-telepathic Black Canary, and the bird-lady sings about what she sees in Miss Temple’s mind.  Apparently, her fiance went from Nobel Peace Prize recipient to flat-out Bond villain, complete with secret volcano lair, all in the blink of an eye!  The mad scientist flew her to his private island base and explained his randomly evil plan to her.  He declares that, for no particularly good reason, instead of curing aggression in the world, he’s going to ramp it up to cause a holocaust, leaving the pair of them safe in their underground bunker.  He also introduces her to his incredibly vaguely defined servant, “Nether Man,” described as “Neither man, robot, nor android.”  Sure.  Why not.  Nether Man is smitten with the lovely Miss Temple, but when she escapes, he is sent to hunt her down nonetheless, sinking her speedboat in the process.

Having gotten the scoop, the League leaps into action, encountering a series of booby-traps and obstacles on the island, which give several different members a chance to shine.  It’s a nice sequence, as Superman detonates mines, the Atom picks a lock, and Hawkman dodges lasers.  Then, while they are fighting really uninspiringly designed robots, Flash has a line that irks the literary scholar in me, as he refers to ‘machines turning against men’ as “Orwell’s nightmare world of 1984.”  What?  1984 has nothing to do with machines turning against men!  Sheesh, Kanigher, read a book!

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While the League are occupied, Phyllis runs to confront her fiend of a fiance as he is preparing to launch his doomsday device.  He orders Nether Man to kill the meddlesome woman, only to have his creation turn on him, destroying itself in the process.  The final page of the issue attempts to deliver some kind of moralizing message, but it makes no sense with the story that’s just concluded, as Phyllis philosophizes that both Nether Man and Dr. Willard are “victims of the same hate that ravages the world!  Unwitting murderers!  But…who can cast the first stone at them?”  Wait, what?  What story were you reading, lady?  Those two were victims of the hate that your psycho boy-friend whipped up trying to annihilate humanity!  I’d call him a pretty ‘witting’ murderer, and, while I’m no saint, I feel fairly comfortable in my moral fitness to throw the first stone at attempted genocide.

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Clearly, we’re meant to find this ending super profound and meaningful, but the story just doesn’t earn anything of the sort.  The Frankenstein-esq turn with Nether Man is good, and surprisingly well handled in a very short span of time, but his master gets pretty much zero motivation for his genocidal tendencies.  The issue is chock full of material and has plenty of action, but it really feels like three or four separate, disjointed stories rather than one unified plot.  The Aristotelian Unities don’t really apply to comic stories, but some type of unity of action is important in any conventional yarn.  This issue certainly fails at that, and while there are some fun team moments and even some interesting ideas introduced, like the attraction between Batman and Black Canary, the strange, discordant notes of unexplained events, incongruous dialog and action, and general lack of development and, you guessed it, logical consistency, leave it something of a mess.  It’s not a bad read, but if you think about it for more than two seconds, you’ll find your head hurting.  I’ll give this off-beat issue 2 Minutemen.  It certainly seems like those last few solid Kanigher issues might have been the fluke after all, but just wait until you see what’s next!

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Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #106


lois_lane_106“I Am Curious (Black)!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Werner Roth
Inker: Vince Colletta
Letterer: Milton Snappin
Editor: E. Nelson Bridwell

“Rose and Thorn: ‘Where Do You Plant a Thorn?'”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Ross Andru
Inker: Mike Esposito
Editor: E. Nelson Bridwell

Wow.  Just….just wow.  This is an amazing comic.  I know that is hard to believe.  Just look at that title and that cover, not to mention the name in the credits!  Nonetheless, this is a heck of a comic book.  I expected this issue to be a terrible, ham-handed, melodramatic mess.  How could it be anything but, right?  Well, I was blown away by what was under that goofy cover.  Robert Kanigher, of all people, managed to tell a simple, subtle, touching, and authentic story about race, bigotry, and inequality that gently delivers a a message of human unity without beating the reader over the head with it.  This comic actually achieves the profundity that Denny O’Neil is trying so desperately to grasp in each new issue of Green Lantern/Green Arrow.

This unusual story starts off with Lois Lane, clearly entirely pleased with herself, as Lois often is, having just received an assignment to get “the inside story of Metropolis’ Little Africa,” an all Black neighborhood in the poorest part of the city.  In a somewhat creepy little panel, Clark thinks, for no particular reason, that he’s going to ‘keep an eye on her’ as Superman.  I’m sure that won’t be significant later.  The glamorous girl reporter gets a ride from her favorite taxi driver and heads to the slums.  Yet, when she arrives, she gets the cold shoulder from all of the area’s inhabitants.  They just refuse to talk to her, politely ignoring all of her efforts to break through.

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There’s a particularly striking scene where she passes a street meeting and a fiery young man points her out, noting that, though she is young and pretty, they must not forget that:

“she’s whitey!  She’ll let us shine her shoes and sweep her floors!  And baby-sit for her kids!  But she doesn’t want to let our kids into her lily-white schools!  It’s okay with her if we leave these rat-infested slums!  If we don’t move next to her!  That’s why she’s our enemy!”

It’s a really surprisingly honest moment, dealing fairly straight-forwardly with issues of school desegregation and white flight.  The young man’s earnest anger is shocking, as is the subject matter appearing in a superhero comic, much more in Lois Lane.  Kanigher shows admirable restraint in moments like this throughout the book, letting the scenes speak for themselves, and they speak eloquently.  Lois herself is struck by this speech.  She ponders how, though the young man’s words aren’t true for her, they are true for many of her race.

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Having determined that she won’t get any story out of this neighborhood while she’s looked at as an outsider, Lois conceives of a bold plan.  She convinces Superman to use a kryptonian device to temporarily turn her into a Black woman so she can see what the world looks like through such people’s eyes.  What follows is a short but telling collections of scenes where Lois, suddenly not the “right” color any longer, discovers how different life is for the other half.  Her favorite taxi driver blows right past her on a rainy street, refusing to pick her up.  On the bus, she’s the subject of suspicious looks, or at least feels that way.  That’s one of the most remarkable things about this story.  Kanigher captures, not only the obvious signs of racial inequality, but the general sense of ‘otherness’ that minorities have to deal with.  That’s impressive.

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Arriving in the slums, Lois heads in to one of the tenement buildings to talk to some of the inhabitants, only to find a fire starting in a trash pile.  The place is incredibly run-down, and one of the renters informs the disguised reporter that the slumlord who owns the place refuses to do any maintenance.  That renter invites Lois into her home and what follows is something akin to the Widow’sMite.  This woman, who has almost nothing, who has to chase rats out of her baby’s room, offers Lois coffee, shares her hospitality, and then asks this complete stranger if she needs any help.  It’s a touching little scene, and it helps to ground the humanity of the folks trapped in this area.

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Lois is moved, and she heads out to see what else there is to see.  In an alley, she spots an ‘improvised pre-kindergarten,’ where a man is teaching a group of children that ‘Black is beautiful.”  This may strike you as odd, especially if you aren’t familiar with American racial history, but it is actually a really interesting and subtle addition to the story.  You see, the famous Doll Test in the 40s indicated that segregation and racial inequality had a psychological effect on minority children.  They literally preferred white skin to theirs, tending to have subconsciously absorbed the narrative or racial inferiority.  It’s a pretty heartbreaking idea that kids might be uncomfortable and unhappy in the skin they’re born in, but that was (and may still be) the world that we had created.  Once again, Kanigher displays surprising sensitivity and insight.

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lois-lane-106-p_015Well, the crisis of the story arrives when Lois meets the fiery street speaker she had encountered earlier, but the young man, named Dave Stevens, of course, doesn’t recognize her.  He does recognize a gang of kids creeping into an alley to meet a pusher, however, and charges after them in order to protect his neighborhood.  The thugs meeting the kids don’t take kindly to the interruption and shoot the brave fellow.  Superman arrives just then and captures the criminals, then rushing the wounded man to the hospital.  It’s at this point that we get one of my favorite panels in the book.  Stevens needs o-negative blood for a transfusion, but the hospital is out.  Lois, with a wonderfully rendered expression of realization, simply states “I–I’m o-negative!  Just like him!”  There’s no heavy-handed captions, no undue focus.  The moment stands on its own, and it is a great moment.  Lois realizes that she, a White woman, shares the same blood that is coursing through the veins of this Black man.  That she is the same, inside, as he is.  It’s really lovely.

The transfusion is conducted, and it is a success!  While the young man recovers, Lois has an interesting conversation with the Man of Steel, asking him, point blank, if he would marry her if she was couldn’t change back.  His response is really fascinating, as he doesn’t ever really answer her.  He points out that he is the ultimate outsider, being an alien, but she retorts that his skin is “the right color.”  It’s intriguing to see other writers toying with the idea of Superman as a representative of the established order, a symbol of conservatism and resistance to change.  The man himself seems better than that, but there is a touch of that old fear, that superheroes are inherently fascistic or oppressive, defending the existing social order as they do.  I’ve always found that argument foolish, as heroes can and do inspire folks to be compassionate and courageous, but the possibility is certainly there.  Just last month we saw Jack Kirby putting Superman in a similar role by placing him at odds with Jimmy, as a representation of youth culture.  We’re certainly getting into pretty interesting stuff on this front, no doubt about it.

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The issue ends with Lois, having transformed back into her usual coloring, greeting the revived young man.  Once again, Kanigher makes an excellent choice of restraint.  The final pages is wordless, with nothing but the dawning realization and acceptance on Dave Stevens’ face to tell the story.  He recognizes the same truth that the reporter herself did, that inside, they are the same, whatever outward differences may appear.  It’s a good, hopeful ending.  It’s touching without being saccharine, and I really don’t think it could have stood any dialog or captions and still kept that balance.

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I think what may be most astonishing to me about this book is the fact that I’ve never heard of it.  I’ve read a decent amount about comics and their seminal moments.  I’ve read about Denny O’Neil’s Green Lantern run, the drug abuse issue, and more.  I’ve heard about a lot of the important stories, and yet…this issue has never had a mention so far as I can tell.  It has never garnered any notice, but it is a bold and sensitive (for a 14 page comic story) treatment of some very timely issues.  I can only imagine that no-one was paying any attention to Lois Lane.  I know I certainly didn’t expect to find an honestly poignant story in these pages!  Yet here it is, a forgotten gem.  This type of book is one of the reasons I started this project.  I am thrilled to have discovered it, not least because its message of seeing through the other fellow’s eyes is especially fitting these days, at least in my country.  That’s one of the great strengths of literature.  It builds our capacity for empathy and helps us to look at the world from different perspectives.  That’s one of the ways that literature makes us better as human beings, and this little story in an insignificant comic magazine has just such power.

The whole issue is beautifully illustrated by Werner Roth, who I’ve never heard of before.  I’ll be looking for his name from now on, though!  He really captures the emotions of the various characters and gives each extra an interesting and unique face.  Lois herself is given a lot of personality by both Kanigher and Roth, and I think her portrayal is one of my favorite parts of the issue.  She is represented as intelligent, capable, and level-headed, which is great given how often the Silver Age Lois was just a complete mess, a mad, manipulative, emotionally disturbed harpy.  This story gives us a more worthwhile Lois, and I quite enjoyed it.  Overall, I can’t think of any way this comic could be improved, so, this 14 page Lois Lane story written by Bob Kanigher of all people is the first Bronze Age book to earn 5 Minutemen out of 5!  Clearly, I’m going to have to reassess Kanigher as a writer.

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“Rose and Thorn: ‘Where Do You Plant a Thorn?'”


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Apparently Thorn is actually a man in drag…yeesh!

This is another interesting and engaging Rose and Thorn story, probably stronger than the first offering because it doesn’t have as big of a job to do since the origin has already been told.  It can focus on smaller tale and give it more development.  The concept continues to intrigue me, and I’m pleasantly surprised once again by Kanigher’s writing in this backup.

This particular yarn opens with the eponymous Thorn gazing at the window of a funeral home at a solid gold coffin on display there.  Apparently the 100 like grand gestures, as they’ve commissioned this flashy final resting place just for her.  As she considers the coffin, a pair of the 100’s gunmen come after her, but she makes short and vicious work of them.  In fact, it may only be the arrival of her father’s former partner, Danny Stone, that saves the life of one of the thugs.  That’s a little touch that I enjoy, as Thorn isn’t exactly a rational and restrained heroine.  It makes sense that a vengeance driven split personality might have some problems with excessive violence.  I’m curious to see if that will be developed.

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Anyway, the story continues the following day, when Rose is once again in control, and she is palling around town with her new boss, Vince Adams, owner of the funeral home and secretly a leader of the 100.  We get some good intrigue as Rose is left to browse the flowers in a florist shop owned by another 100 member as he and Adams meet to discuss the murder of her alter ego.  The florist is charged with killing Detective Stone, and when the officer just happens to waltz into his store seeking roses for Rose, he sees his chance.  One poisoned bouquet later, and the trap is set.  Fortunately for Rose and Danny, the girl’s dog chews on one of the flowers, dying in their stead!  I was really surprised by this.  Usually you never kill a pet in a comic like this, even if you kill human beings.  It is pretty dark, as an animal is completely innocent, and it’s the kind of thing that forever marks a villain.  Folks can forgive a likeable rogue for a little murder, but never animal cruelty.  Such are the vagaries of audience ethics!

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Well, Stone realizes that something is up, and instead of descending on that florist shop with a SWAT team, he just strolls in casually to ask the guy how his flowers ended up poisoned.  What’s more, he also blindly accepts the ridiculous story the guy tells him about having bought the flowers from some strange trucker and walks right into the trap the store owner sets up.  Detective Stone is apparently exceptionally bad at his job.  It’s a good thing he’s working in Metropolis.  Without Superman around, he’d probably already be dead.

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What is going on in that last panel?  Is the gun animate?

He gets lucky once more, however, as once he is sapped, Thorn comes to his rescue, making a dynamic entrance and leaving the two gunsels stuck to a giant cactus!  They look like they’ve been crucified, so it is a rather striking image.  Stone recovers and captures the two thugs, probably getting credit for a collar he doesn’t deserve.

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This is a solid little tale, told in just 8 pages.  It’s a good example of economical storytelling, and Kanigher fits in action and character development admirably.  The small cast helps that task, of course.  Ross Andru’s art is actually one of the biggest weaknesses of this story.  While it is usually serviceable, even rather good with some of the face-work, it is also occasionally stiff, awkward, and just downright ugly in some spots, especially the opening page with Thorn.  There’s a few places where the art fails the story as well.  Still, all-told, this is a good story in a remarkable issue.  Color me intrigued by Ross/Thorn’s saga.  I’ll give this one 4 Minutemen, though I’m inclined to take off some points for Stone’s ridiculous gullibility.

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Well, what a fascinating selection of issues we’ve covered in this post!  I just can’t figure Robert Kanigher out.  He can turn out the goofiest, laziest, scholckiest work you’ve ever seen in one book and yet turn out one of the best short comics I’ve ever read in another, all in the same month!  Whatever Kanigher’s story may be, we’re certainly getting into intriguing trends here at the end of 1970, and we have only one more post to go before we round out November.  So, until next time, keep the heroic ideal alive!

Into the Bronze Age: September 1970 (Part 5)

DC-Style-Guide-2.jpg
Welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  With all of the madness that is loose in our world these days, I imagine we can all use more joy and adventure.  I know I quite enjoy my visits to the Bronze Age.  It helps to take the mind off of the utter insanity of our own times.  We’ve got a book I dreaded and I book I eagerly awaited on the docket for this post.  Let’s jump right in, shall we?

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

  • Action Comics #392
  • Batman #225
  • Brave and the Bold #91
  • Detective Comics #403
  • The Flash #200
  • G.I. Combat #143
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #79
  • Justice League #83
  • Showcase #93
  • World’s Finest #196

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

Green Lantern/Green Arrow #79

green_lantern_vol_2_79“Ulysses Star is Still Alive!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Dan Adkins
Editor: Julius Schwartz

Well, we can’t avoid it any longer, I suppose.  It’s time for another return to the parade of self-righteousness and poor decision-making that is the Green Lantern/Green Arrow book.  Fortunately, this issue isn’t as bad as the some of the previous outings.  It’s central concern is a very legitimate one, and it even manages to feel timely for us today, given the contents of our headlines in recent months.  However, this wouldn’t be a Green Lantern/Green Arrow adventure without some infuriatingly obnoxious bloviating from Ollie and some irrational inflexibility from Hal, as well as a generally pervading, pointlessly aggressive stupidity and hotheadedness from both of these supposedly heroic men.  Still, these qualities are a bit less on display here than they have been.  Let’s take a look, shall we?

We join our hard traveling heroes camped on a quiet and peaceful night out in the wilderness, not far from where they had their last adventures with the pseud0-Manson Family.  I probably haven’t said quite enough in praise of Adams’ art on this book, given my general frustration with O’Neil’s plots and characterization, but he really does do fantastic work.  He packs his panels with personality and visual interest.  In the simple scene around the camp fire, each character is doing something that tells you a bit about them.  Hal is reading, Ollie is whittling, and the Guardian is floating in apparent meditation.  That’s a nice touch.  The quiet of this idyllic scene is shattered when these two veteran heroes detect some slight sign that something is amiss, and they leap into action to investigate.  That’s a good another nice touch.  It makes sense that these two have been at their dangerous work long enough that they’d have combat-honed senses.  It makes them seem competent and professional.  The adventure that follows doesn’t quite match that setup, though.

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The Green Guardians discover an unlikely pair of white men preparing to gun down a helpless Native American man.  They quickly disarm the would-be killers, with very different methods and wildly varying levels of effort.  Check out the page below.  Look at the skill and concentration evident in Green Arrow’s precision shot.  Look at the almost bored expression on Hal’s face as he plugs up the other gunman’s weapon.  It’s almost as if a man armed with the most powerful weapon in the universe outclasses an average hood with a handgun to the point of absolute absurdity.  Once again, we see how incongruous of a pair Hal and Ollie make, and not just because of their diametrically opposed viewpoints.

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Well, the gunmen having been disarmed, the heroes investigate, and they discover that the two antagonists are Theodore Pudd, who runs the lumberman’s union, and Pierre O’Rourke, who claims to own the lumber rights to the area.  This pair quite cheerfully display a truly appalling level of racism and general awfulness, calling the Indians “animals” and “filthy savages.”  O’Neil wants to make sure we don’t miss the subtle touches of his intricate characterization.  Be sure to read closely, or it might elude you.  The issue at the core of this encounter is that the local Indian tribe, who, if you remember, were the target of the crazed hippies of the previous story, have an old claim to the timber of this area, but the records have conveniently disappeared.  As a result, O’Rourke is trying to take it over and cut the tribe off from their only means of support.  Because Pudd and company are such racist slime, they won’t even let the tribesmen join the union and work as lumberjacks.

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These are bad guys.  Get it?  BAAAD GUUUUYS!!!

There was one other copy of this land deal, originally negotiated by the tribe’s famous chief, Ulysses star.  The copy was given to his son, Abe, who went off to the city years ago and hasn’t been heard from since.  The lack of a clear and unambiguous legal solution causes the usual conflict between our two headliners.  Hal immediately gives up, and Ollie immediately starts tongue-lashing him, demanding that they stay and fight, legally or illegally.  They part ways, and, to his credit, the Lantern actually reconsiders his defeatist attitude and decides to try and find a way to help, legally.  That’s good.  After all, one of the fundamental traits of a hero is the ability to find a Third Way.  The Emerald Knight spends some time philosophizing with the guardian, and then he heads off to try his gambit.

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The guardian actually makes a rather interesting point.  He observes that our culture’s national heroes are warriors.  The very mythology of our world is one driven and defined by violence, so it makes sense that violence would be in our nature.  He sees a power of spirit here that is worthy, even if its effects are often tragic.  There’s some truth to that.  The same qualities that allow us to overcome adversity are often those that can be turned to destructive ends.  I’m reminded of the classic Star Trek episode, “The Enemy Within,” where Kirk’s good and evil sides are split into two beings, and the ‘good’ captain discovers that he can’t lead effectively without his ‘evil’ counterpart.  This is a topic that has been on my mind lately, humanity’s dual nature.  We are a creation of both light and shadow.  We are noble and vile, both comic and tragic.  It’s what makes us so very paradoxical.  Here, the Guardian plays, with some success, the archetypal role of the outside observer.  This is one of the oldest uses of science fiction, and one of the most effective and valuable.

Back to our tale, Hal searches for the son of Ulysses Star, knowing his task is likely hopeless.  He reminds us that he was an insurance investigator (I think we’d all rather forget that), and he has the skills for such detective work.  Yet, all he can find is the fellow’s last known address.  Maybe that’s because he was only in that job for a few months because he was having a midlife crisis at the ripe old age of 30.  Either way, when he arrives at the run-down tenement, he discovers a raging fire, with one resident still trapped inside.  The Emerald Crusader makes forges very tortuous path inside, using his ring in an extremely limited fashion and nearly getting knocked out by a falling beam (a narrowly subverted head-blow!).

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He manages to get out by the skin of his teeth and rescue the civilian, despite the fact that his bell was rung so well he couldn’t concentrate to use his ring.  This is another instance of O’Neil handicapping the hero without clear reason.  Even with his power limited, it really seems like the Lantern could have simply wrapped himself in a bubble and flown into the building.  That makes the entire desperate scene seem like the result of Hal’s stupidity rather than any necessary peril.

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As you probably expect, the rescued man is none other than Abe Star, but unfortunately the old man tells the Emerald Gladiator that the deed was burned up in the apartment.  The hero is stymied once again, but he is actually beginning to act a bit like the man of iron will he’s supposed to be.  The Lantern refuses to give up, so he heads to Washington, going straight to the highest authority to get aid for the tribe.

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Meanwhile, Green Arrow meets Black Canary at the Indian reservation, where they take stock of the dispirited condition of its inhabitants.  The lovely lady notes that the tribe’s biggest problem is that they’re just beaten down by history and oppression.  They’ve “been under the white man’s heel for so long they’ve lost faith in themselves.”  Corny dialog aside, as I understand it, there is a real issue here, and one certainly worth focusing on, though it is honestly not given all that much attention here.  This is an adventure story, though.  Because the Emerald Archer has all the subtlety of a bulldozer, his solution is pretty ostentatious.  He dresses up like an Indian chief and covers himself with glow-in-the-dark paint, playing the role of the spirit of Ulysses Star in order to inspire the tribe.

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He makes a few appearances, threatening the lumbermen and putting on a ghostly routine, as well as making an impassioned speech (Ollie has to have at least one per issue, you know) to the Indians.  Despite the fact that they doubt his ghostly bona-fides (which is itself a small but important point, as the tribespeople are less superstitious and gullible than the white men, a reversal of an old, old trope), they agree to fight for their land.  It is, of course, unclear what this will accomplish.  Matters come to a head the next morning, as the men of the tribe block the path to the timberlands, and the situation descends into a melee.  Oddly, Black Canary philosophizes about how she despises violence.  Really?  Since when?  You’re a superhero.  Your job constantly involves violence.  It’s something you literally engage in daily.  I somehow doubt that you become a street-fighting superhero because you abhor violence.  But it’s so much more touchy-feely-appropriate if she does.  That’s just one more lovely little example of O’Neil’s tone-deaf mischaracterizations.

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Do you reckon he gets tired, lugging that soap-box around?

Anyway, Black Canary and Green Arrow help the Indians defend their land, and things devolve into a sprawling brawl until the fight is stopped rather definitively by Green Lantern.  Notably, his mere arrival is enough to completely end hostilities.  He just places a big green wall between the sides and that is that.  This is perhaps the most glaring example of his complete mismatch with this setting found in this issue.  After all, O’Neil had to send him offstage in order to create any actual dramatic tension in this confrontation.  If the Emerald Crusader had been there, the fight would have been over before it started.  Essentially, with his setup for this book, O’Neil has painted himself into the same type of corner which the Silver Age faced with Superman, where his power is so vast you have to find ways to handicap him to prevent his resolving the conflict of the plot in the first two pages.  The difference is, such a situation is unnecessary with the Lantern, only existing because of the story O’Neil insists on telling.

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Of course, this entire escapade is entirely unnecessary.  After all, the Native Americans have freaking superheroes on their side.  Green Arrow and Black Canary, who regularly fight threats a bit more serious than some unpleasant loggers armed with sticks, threats like legitimately super-powered beings, could easily have trounced these jerks themselves, for whatever good that was going to do.  This would probably have been a better option.  After all, we’ve already seen that the loggers are willing to kill the Indians in cold blood, and they have access to guns.  I’m not really clear on what Arrow’s plan was supposed to accomplish, other than putting some spirit back into the tribe, which wouldn’t matter too much if they were all dead.  The matter is made even worse by the fact that this is the second time Ollie has convinced a group of untrained and unqualified civilians to fight a superior force.  At least this time he joined them from the beginning, rather than wait until dozens of them were gunned down so that his entrance could be more dramatic.  That precious moral superiority of his is on awfully shaky ground.

The immediate danger having been neutralized, Hal announces that he’s brought a U.S. congressman there from Washington to personally investigate this matter, which is actually a pretty good solution, considering the situation and the lack of documentation.  So, naturally Ollie congratulates his friend on his quick thinking and they put their efforts into helping the tribe and organizing peaceful protests…err…no, no, that isn’t what happens.  That’s entirely too sensible and mature.  Instead, the two “friends” decide to have a fist fight in the middle of the stream…for reasons. Green Arrow, still dressed as a yellow ghost, rages against his partner’s solution, and their immediate response is to pummel each other.  It’s completely pointless, so much so that even the characters themselves seem to admit that this brouhaha is unnecessary.

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O’Neil gets pretty darn purple in his prose as he narrates the fight, which, of course, is beautifully illustrated by Adams, but the highlight of this pointless punch-fest is how it ends.  That’s right, this issue gives us, not one, but two, count ’em, two, new entries for the Head-Blow Headcount!  Logs being floated down river clock both of our “heroes” in the back of the head, and in classic comic book fashion, they go down like a pair of proverbial sacks of potatoes.

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After they’re fished from the river, they go back to the village, where the tribes-folk themselves are split about the plan.  Some of them have no faith in the government (I wonder why?), and some of them are determined to make a go of it.  In the end, this is really the only option; Green Arrow’s way would have, at best, resulted in all of the tribesmen getting arrested, or perhaps even killed.  Apparently he never heard of peaceful protest or civil disobedience.  Fortunately, the investigation of the fire at the tenement building revealed (despite Lantern’s ignoring its too-convenient occurrence) that the two trouble-making timbermen were involved in that arson attempt, so they get carted off to jail.  The issue ends with our heroes once more gathered around a campfire, admitting that their foolish fight accomplished precisely zilch, and the story closes with a quote from The Armies of the Night, a counter-cultural “nonfiction novel” by Norman Mailer published just two years earlier.

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You can definitely see some of the influences at work on O’Neil in his choice of this book.  To call it merely anti-war would be an oversimplification, but it dealt with the current cultural issues in the States, centered around opposition to the war in Vietnam.  That’s an interesting choice, and I wonder how much of O’Neil’s audience would have read the book, as well as how many would have picked it up after seeing the editor’s note.  The evidence of counter-cultural influence in O’Neil’s choice of end-tag is noteworthy given the goals of this project, as we can see quite clearly a line of influence, and a relatively recent one, having an impact on the comic world.  It will be interesting to see how that impact spreads in the DCU.

This issue has me a bit torn.  On the one hand, the mischaracterization isn’t quite as bad as some of the previous examples we’ve seen, and the story itself is readable enough.  On the other, the problems are all those we’ve seen before, and their continued presence makes them more grating and more frustrating with each new book.  I’m glad that Hal comes off a bit better here, eventually, but Ollie is still an irrational, self-righteous jerk who, despite his endless lecturing, is something of a hypocrite.  The completely pointless fistfight, as well as the uselessness of Arrow’s grand gesture take away from the impact of the story.

What gives me pause, though, is that the central issue, the abuse and neglect of America’s native peoples, is an extremely important one, and, unfortunately, timely today, just as it was in 1970.  Ironically, one of the most glaring problems with this issue is that, despite its achingly desperate attempt to be socially conscious, all of the characters in this book, including the Native Americans and supposedly enlightened heroes, talk like actors in a 50s Western.  There’s ‘redskins’ this and ‘pale-faces’ that everywhere you look.  It’s really rather silly and smacks of the same kind of condescending cliches as Tonto‘s famously broken English.  Nonetheless, the plight of the local tribe manages to be moving, perhaps in spite of O’Neil’s treatment.

It is, of course, granted more pathos by the current events of our day, like the protests at Standing Rock.  It’s a shame that, after all of these years, we still can’t seem to do right by the native peoples in this country.  I won’t get into the entire issue here, as this is hardly the venue for such matters, but I will say that, right or wrong, good, bad, or ugly, when it is the Federal Government versus native peoples, I sort of feel like we should probably give the native peoples the benefit of the doubt at this point.  It only seems fair, given our history.  Anyway, that made this issue a bit more interesting to me than it might have been otherwise, but in the end, it’s still a story with very flawed writing and characterization that features a situation not really suited for its characters.  I’ll give it 2.5 Minutemen.  It has enough strong points to keep it above a truly bad rating.

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Justice League of America #83

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“Where Valor Fails… Will Magic Triumph?”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella

This was yet another great issue of Justice League, which rather wiped the bad taste out of my mouth.  O’Neil’s run on the book continues to be consistently good, with fairly compelling stories, solid characterization, and interesting situations.  Yet, this particular issue shares a fault with most of his other outings, a somewhat weak and underdeveloped villain.  We are picking up with the second part of last issue’s plot, which saw Earth-1 and Earth-1 poised to be destroyed by Supreme Leader Snoke…er…I mean Creator², in his bid to design a new planet with the energy of their annihilation.  It’s a wonderfully off-beat idea, and a threat worthy of uniting the JLA and the JSA.  Interestingly, this story predates the similar setup in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by almost a decade.  I wonder if there’s any influence there.

Unfortunately, Creator² himself, and especially his minions, are just a tad boring.  They’re just blue-skinned aliens in robes.  There’s nothing distinctive or captivating about them.  Still, this run continues to be of high quality overall, and I have a feeling that I will eventually number it among some of my favorite Justice League runs of all time.  These stories are still products of their time, however.  Even as O’Neil is innovating and shaking things up with the World’s Greatest Super-Heroes, the book can still feel a bit hokey at times.  For the most part, though, we’re seeing the League in arguably the best form of the book’s history to this point.  Admittedly, that’s not really saying that much, given the goofy, Silver Age-y fare that tended to make up the League’s Adventures.

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We begin preciously where we ended, with Canary’s erroneous, but logical, conclusion that she is the cause for the growing convergence of the two Earths.  Throughout the book, her hopeless heroism, determined as she is to sacrifice herself for the greater good, is one of the strongest features of the tale.  It really works well.  She is not some robotic, heartless automaton, blithely giving up her life without a tear or a twinge like we might expect from a Silver Age story.  She is fully aware of what this gesture will cost her, and her quiet determination in the face of that knowledge is really rather moving.

Meanwhile, our bathrobe wearing villain is almost ready for the grand finale that will serve to launch his new planet with a bang, but he’s concerned about the JSA, seeing as they’ve already proven tough to handle.  He dispatches a set of his weird net devices to disable the team as a preemptive attack.  The Society itself is gathered to study their fallen members when the nets arrive, and once again the weapons prove formidable, capturing four members in several pages of nicely dynamic action.  As before, each net is capable of neutralizing the powers of its victim, so Staman finds his energy bolts reflected against him, Wonder Woman finds her bracelets bound, and Hourman finds himself accelerated through his hour of power in mere seconds.  It’s a good sequence.  The only problem is that the nets are fairly lackluster antagonists, being just devices, and not terribly visually interesting ones at that.

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Back in Earth-1, we listen in to a desperate conversation, as Canary insists that she must die, and Ollie, his usual cool and rational self, responds about as you’d imagine.  He won’t hear of anything happening to Dinah, but Green Lantern has a great third way, exercising that heroic creativity that is so much a part of the concept of American superheroes.  He posits that they don’t have to kill the Canary; they just have to move her to another dimension far enough away that the effect will cease.  He heads out to search for such a place, to Arrow’s enthusiastic support.

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Unfortunately, just as the Emerald Crusader discovers Red Tornado and the dimensional rift, his jade counterpart on Earth-2 is captured, freezing him in place in the depths of space.  At almost the same moment, we catch a quick glimpse of Hawkman, out on crowd control, when another strange cross-over occurs and the inhabitants of the two worlds briefly see one another face to face.  He saves an old woman, nearly run over in the resulting chaos, but before he can do more, his counterpart is captured as well and he is rendered helpless.

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Aboard the Satellite, the remaining heroes fear that Lantern’s absence must mean his failure, and Canary delivers a surprisingly haunting and touching meditation on her death, suggesting that she’ll board the transporter and simply scatter her atoms across space, becoming one with the stars.  It’s an impressive scene, made even better by Ollie’s frantic (and rather selfish when you think about it) attempts to talk her out of it.  The rational, scientific mind of Ray Palmer takes a more pragmatic view, and he suggests that they wait until the last minute before they make any choices.  The scene is really effective, and it’s as fine a piece of character work as you’re likely to see, even today.  If O’Neil can do this, one wonders why his characterization is so clumsy and heavy-handed in Green Lantern/Green Arrow.

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Dillin really captures Canary’s sorrowful determination.

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Meanwhile, on Earth-2, all of the Society members have fallen except for Dr. Fate and Johnny Thunder and his Thunderbolt.  Their magic seems to be more effective than the powers of their friends, but they are still fighting a losing battle until the mystic master teleports them to a graveyard, in search of more magical might.  Once there, he summons none other than the Spectre!  I’m pretty sure we haven’t seen this ghostly gent in this book since issue #47, and we’re quickly given to understand that his status quo has changed quite a bit.  Rather than discover him with his human host, Jim Corrigan, Fate finds him in a grave, and the spirit speaks of his sins and his imprisonment in the tomb.  It’s an interesting tease, and I’m quite curious what the situation is because I have no memory of any of this.  The editor assures us that this story will be told, so I am looking forward to that.

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Fortunately, the spectral hero has a plan.  His mystic senses have detected the machinations of Creator² and his cronies, and he sends his allies after the villain himself while he uses his very ecotplasmic being to serve as a bulwark between the colliding worlds.  The image of this effort is a pretty striking one, emphasizing both the character’s power and the skope of the problem.  His desperate ploy buys Dr. Fate and the Thunderbolt the time they need for their assault.

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There’s a nice sequence where the aliens detect their approach to their ship and open fire, only for Fate to teleport inside, causing Creator² to assume they’d been vaporized.  the effort exhausts the master of the mystic arts, leaving the Thunderbolt to take out the blue-faced minions, but he can’t handle Creator².  With one last, titanic exertion, Dr. Fate rips the ship itself apart in a pretty cool panel.  The process is halted, and though the release of energy causes some minor tremors, the worlds go back to their rightful places and the day is saved.  Yet, the victory comes at a cost.  The Spectre is literally torn apart by the dimensional shift.  That image, which is half tragic, half comic, isn’t nearly so successful.

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Of course, what is completely glossed over in the story is that Dr. Fate just totally killed dozens of beings.  He even admits that the aliens probably couldn’t live through that blast.  I realize they were preparing to commit dual planetary genocide, and while that’s about the worst crime imaginable, it’s still a bit crazy that Fate casually took several lives without so much as batting an eye.  That is definitely a big departure from the Silver Age, but not in a good way.  It wouldn’t have bothered me if O’Neil had dealt with that act, even a little bit, but no, it’s completely glossed over as we race to the conclusion of the issue.  It’s downplayed so much that I hardly noticed it on my first look, and death shouldn’t’ be treated that lightly in a superhero book, especially when a hero is the cause.  I would be more troubled if it were a traditional superhero who had done it, but a mystical character like Fate is always something of a liminal figure.  It makes sense that his work and his experience would lead to a somewhat different code than the heroes grounded in more mundane realities.

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On a more positive note, on Earth-1 (or more accurately, above it), the Atom detects the dimensional shift, and the heroes celebrate their narrow escape.  It’s a good ending, and Ollie’s joy at Canary’s reprieve is really quite charming.  He’s already entirely head-over-heels for her, and it definitely comes through.  Finally, the Lantern returns and fills them in on the score, leaving them to wonder if they’ll ever see the Spectre again.

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This is a good all-around issue.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, even if it was, once again, much more of a JSA story than a JLA one.  I’m pretty content either way, especially since the Society don’t have a book of their own yet.  (I’m looking forward to that one when it arrives, by the way.)  This issue managed to pack a lot of action in, as well as some really excellent character moments.  Dillin’s art was back up to snuff this month as well, so the book looked quite good.  That odd stiffness of last issue is gone, replaced with some truly attractive pages and an overall improvement in quality.  I enjoyed the handling of the magical heroes and their triumph.  It makes perfect sense that this super-scientific culture would be great at handling all types of threats, except those which defy science, like magic.  It’s also pleasant to see Dr. Fate take center stage, as I haven’t gotten to read that many stories that focus on him.

Once again, O’Neil manages to spread the spotlight out pretty well, with nearly everyone getting at least one interesting moment, either in action or in dramatic scenes.  The balance between the two types of focus is actually very well handled.  The pacing is also quite good, as is the economy of storytelling.  He told a complete tale in two issues that had time to breathe and still provided plenty of excitement with appropriately world-shattering stakes.  O’Neil continues to turn out good, solid adventure stories in this book, and I’m enjoying the ride.  They haven’t been stellar, but they have been consistently good, and that’s rare enough in an ongoing series to deserve praise.  Unfortunately, apparently this is the last issue of his tenure on the title.  I’ll miss his unique and creative concepts, though I hope we’ll get some more fully realized villains in coming issues.  If I recall correctly, there are some really excellent stories awaiting us.

It’s interesting to me that two of the books I look forward to most and the book I most dread are all penned by the same man.  It’s striking how very different these comics are from one another.  It seems that, perhaps, when forced into more traditional adventure fare, O’Neil really shines.  He wouldn’t be the first author who, when let completely off the leash, produced lower quality work because he was too concerned with his own agenda.  I’m reminded of the difference between Garth Ennis’s Dan Dare and…well, pretty much everything else he’s ever done.  Sometimes limitations can bring out the best in us.  This is actually a weakness in the concept of complete artistic freedom, an idea we tend to ascribe almost religious weight to in our culture.  I rather think that what’s necessary is a balance of structure and freedom, and that balance is difficult to achieve.

Ideally, the limitations for an artistic work should be internal, the moral and spiritual compass of the creator, but people being what they are, I’m far from convinced that channeling creativity into positive courses is always a bad thing, if done well.  That’s something that the tropes of the heroic ideal of the American superhero actually provides rather well.  Anyway, back to this particular story, I’ll give it 4.5 Minutemen out of 5.  The weak villain and the completely unacknowledged killing by Dr. Fate cut it down from a perfect score.  I would have enjoyed seeing Bruce Timm and company take a crack at this story.  I think they could have really made something of it.

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The Head-Blow Headcount:

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Another entry for the wall of shame, and this time, it’s a two-fer!  How exciting!  This month, both Green Arrow and Green Lantern join the ranks of the head-blow heroes.  Their moment of infamy is made all the more ludicrous by the fact that it was caused entirely by their own stupidity, resulting during their completely pointless fistfight.  It’s a particularly delightful addition to this august company.

Well, that’s it for this week.  We’ve had the best and the worst in this post, and we’re almost through September.  I’m looking forward to the next batch of commentaries, which will include the final chapter of Manhunter!  Please join me next time as we check out another set of stories and travel further Into the Bronze Age!

Into the Bronze Age: August 1970 (Part 4)

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Well, we’re moving right along through August!  I’m hoping to get at least caught up to the proper month before September ends…and I’m behind again.  We’ll see if I can manage, but so far, so good.  In this post we have two interesting stories, and I’ve been rather looking forward to this one.  Be warned, I’m going to indulge my professional interest a bit with some philosophical and literary reflections about the second issue!

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

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

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

Justice League #82

jla_v-1_82“Peril of the Paired Planets”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

I enjoyed this story much more than I expected to.  At first blush, I rather thought it was going to be on the goofy side, and it does have its moments.  Nonetheless, the final effect is fairly enjoyable.  O’Neil’s run, though not completely stellar, continues to be strong overall.  In this issue, as with the Jestmaster, we once again get a promising concept that doesn’t have quite the right execution.  The villains of the piece are a race of aliens lead by a fellow named Creator² who build planets for a living, destroying existing ones to create the energy for the construction.  Anyone else reminded of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?  That’s right, the bad guy is Slartibartfast.  The stakes, complete planetary annihilation of not one, but TWO Earths, are certainly worthy of the Justice League, and the idea of an alien race that creates new planets by destroying old ones is the kind of thing that could totally work in the DC Universe.  Unfortunately, the aliens are rather goofy looking, and the concept just doesn’t entirely come together.  Another pass might do wonders.

As is, our tale begins with a very strange occurrence as Superman plummets from the sky, seemingly immobile and unconscious.  The League brings him to the Satellite, but they can find no explanation for his sudden illness.  Then, Batman suddenly falls victim to a similar phantom ailment and passes out.  The Leaguers (Flash, Atom, and Hawkman) call their missing members (Green Arrow, Green Lantern, and Black Canary, sadly, no mention of Aquaman…), hoping against hope that one of them will be able to solve this mystery.  I’m going to have to go ahead and call shenanigans on O’Neil for this.  If you’ve got your favorite characters out on walkabout in GA/GL, then you can’t just pull them in for every JLA issue.  It sort of wrecks the whole, ‘on hiatus’ thing.  Why not give some other characters more of a chance to shine if you’re so dedicated to the oddball story you’re telling with them?

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Anyway, we then discover what is going on through a flashback that takes us to Earth 2!  That’s right, we’re seeing a JLA/JSA crossover starting in this issue, and that is pretty exciting.  I love the concept of these events, even if the execution wasn’t always fantastic (a common trait with the JLA, unfortunately).  While I prefer my JSA as the Earth-1, WWII predecessors of the League, there is something undeniably fun about having the two sets of heroes being able to hang out from time to time.  I even told a time travel story in my second JLA campaign in the DCUG, just so I could bring all of these heroes together, with the rosters cleaned up for continuity purposes, of course.  There’s no need to have multiples of the same character running around.  I always hated it when we got two Supermen or two Batmen, after all, as that just felt like a gyp.  I already get to read about those guys!

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I seem to have dragged myself off track.  Ahem.  Anyway…again…in the space between the two universes, Supreme Leader Snoke, err, I mean the Creator², captures poor, lonely, unloved Red Tornado, who is flying around empty, airless, as in no-freaking-wind, space…somehow.  This is one of the minor slips that hurt this issue.  It isn’t a huge deal, but come on.  Tornado’s whole thing is that he moves air around.  How the heck is he flying or doing much of anything where there is no air to move?

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The much bigger misstep is Reddy’s dialog and general characterization in this section.
The android is moping around space feeling sorry for himself, lamenting that he doesn’t fit in, even with the JSA.  When he sees the aliens’ ship approaching, the Tornado says, “Oh boy, this is my chance!  I’ll single-handedly stop the aliens…then everybody’ll have to like me!”  Ouch.  That feels like something that would show up in one of my worst comp. papers.  While it becomes a fixture that Reddy is a melancholy machine, this is just ham-handed and hokey.  Unfortunately, this type of one-dimensional, excessively melodramatic characterization is going to become indicative of the maudlin mechanical man.  He’s as emo as Kylo Ren!  This is part of the reason that poor Reddy has never achieved the popularity and gravitas of his Marvel counterpart, the Vision, despite having all of the same potential.  It’s a real shame, because he really is a great character.  I suppose that, given my love of underdogs, it is to be expected that I rather like this second-rate Leaguer who, at least for most of his history, never quite found his niche.  We’ll be seeing more from him in the future, of course, as he’ll soon be joining the team.

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Justice League of America v1 082-07.jpgReddy, of course, fails miserably in his efforts, because for some reason JLA writers decided to make him the team’s whipping boy.  Did Super Schlub grow up to be Red Tornado, or what?  The afflicted android is captured, and belonging to both Earths, he is able to be used as the focal point for the evil machinations of the planet-wreckers.  Power flows through the captive hero, and the two worlds begin to close in on one another, the barriers between them weakening.  Meanwhile, the aliens launch a preemptive strike on the JSA to prevent their interference.

Creator² arms his assistants with special nets that can counter the heroes’ abilities and dispatches them to capture the champions of Earth 2.  Now, I rather expected this to be goofy and cheesy after the awkwardness of the opening sequence, but the action is actually well-staged and believable in context.  Superman is easily captured because he doesn’t bother to dodge.  Why should he?  That’s a good touch, and it makes sense.  In the same way, it is actually Dr. Mid-Nite that causes the acolytes some trouble, as he’s more wary.  It’s also worth noting that the heroes, not knowing if these aliens are hostile or friendly, don’t just come out swinging.  That’s a good spot of characterization for the team.  Unfortunately, their beneficence leads to their defeat.

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It is these events that explain the strange ailments of the Earth-1 heroes.  As the JSA members were incapacitated, the weakened barriers allowed the effects to bleed over into the their closest counterparts among the Leaguers.  I’ll buy that.  It makes sense, in a comic kind of way.  I do have one bone to pick, though, and that’s the fact that Batman is identified as the closest counterpart to Mid-Nite, but we see the Earth-2 Batman just a few pages later!  Shenanigans I say!  Well, fuzzy logic aside, the Flash arrives on the scene, and he actually manages to do some good against the invaders, evading their nets with some clever maneuvering and decking one of them, but he is distracted by the sudden appearance of his Earth-1 counterpart!  The momentary interruption is all it takes for his foes to capture him as well.  This, of course, also causes Barry to be stricken as well.

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Suddenly, ghostly images of doppelgangers begin appearing around both worlds as the barriers break down even more.  The two teams meet up on their separate Earths and try and make plans, Starman playing the hothead among the JSA.  Fittingly, it is the Atom, a physicist, who figures out what is going on.  By crunching the numbers, he susses out that the two Earth’s are being pulled together and theorizes that the cause is some being with a connection to both planets.  Black Canary tearfully concludes that she must be culprit and insists that she must…die!  It’s not a bad moment, and it makes pretty perfect sense from their point of view.  It’s a good, tense note to end on, with the two worlds preparing to collide and no-one yet knowing what is behind it.

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I suppose it’s…good…that O’Neil is at least being consistent with his insufferable characterization of Green Arrow?  ‘No Ollie, there’s no emergency, I just thought it would be fun to interrupt your road trip’

This is a good issue, a fun enough adventure, though it is really a bit more of a JSA story than a Justice League one.  I’m entirely okay with that, as I love both groups.  As I said, the threat is certainly big enough to serve as a fitting challenge for these two massively powerful teams, though the aliens are really too goofy and boring looking to be entirely successful as antagonists.  The callous disregard their master, this Creator fellow, has for the life on these two worlds is a good trait for a cosmic villain, but I wouldn’t have minded learning a bit more about him.

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The fairly abominable writing of Red Tornado is a bit of a black mark on the issue, but it’s still a relatively minor part of the tale.  Unfortunately, Dick Dillin’s art isn’t quite up to snuff in this story.  He has some nice panels, but there’s also a lot of awkward, stiff figures (like the Superman sequence in the beginning) and art that just seems a bit ‘off.’  So, in the end, this is an enjoyable but flawed book.  It’s great fun to see the JSA and the JLA working on two sides of the same problem, but the weak points in the story and the weaker art keep the comic from being as good as it might.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.

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Interestingly, the letter pages are filled with praises for JLA #78 and 79, the pollution focused issues.  Clearly, the idea of tackling heavier topics was really popular with fans.  In fact, one epistler writes in to say that major newspapers were reporting on these comics.  Notably, the writer also opined that his own city had a major problem with pollution.  Apparently, not-yet-disgraced President Nixon had just given a State of the Union address that named pollution as one of the major problems facing the nation.  Neat!  Those stories were obviously much more timely than I realized.

Phantom Stranger #8

phantom_stranger_vol_2_8“Journey to the Tomb of the Ice Giants!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Colourist: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

Man, I’ve been looking forward to this one.  Just look at that cover!  I’ve seen that sucker waiting for me in my reading list, and I just couldn’t wait to see if the story inside is as awesome as that cover.  Don’t worry, you won’t have to suffer in suspense like I did.  This issue does, in fact, lives up to the awesomeness of the cover.  This is definitely my favorite Phantom Stranger issue so far, and it is here that I believe the series really finds its feet.  Even the editor seems to realize that they have hit on something special with this issue and this team.  He begins the letter column with a note that O’Neil and Aparo “have taken the Phantom Stranger to new heights” and remarks that he is particularly proud of the issue.  This unusual bit of editorial praise is, in my estimation, pretty spot on.  This tale really dives into the mystical and even mythical elements inherent in the character’s conceit, and it makes the DC Universe a more fantastic and interesting place in the process.  In my estimation, that’s one of the best contributions a book can make.  On the art front, Aparo seems to be on the book full time now, and I couldn’t be happier.  He’s at the height of his powers, so the comic is beautiful, dynamic, and full of interesting and individual looking characters.  Aparo creates no generic faces and no disposable characters.  Every figure he draws is unique and striking.  I’m afraid I’ve got rather a lot to say about this one, as it quite captured my imagination, resonating with many ideas that have been on my mind lately.

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This mysterious and mythic adventure begins in the arctic, with an ice breaker named the S.S. Night Wind suddenly finding itself faced with a vision from nightmare and legend, a massive giant of ice and snow!  It’s cold hands close about the ship, and suddenly the vessel is entirely trapped in ice.  We’re treated to a lovely two-page spread that shows us the scale of the little drama, and the Stranger briefly appears to the crew of the trapped ship to warn them of their danger.

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Our scene shifts to Alaska, where the ship’s financier, Mr. Muttson rages over the trouble with the Night Wind.  He steps into a steam room to try and warm up, but he suddenly freezes solid!  The local law is baffled, as you might imagine, and they call in everyone’s favorite wet blanket, Dr. Thirteen, who was conveniently near-by.  I’m willing to hand-wave his deus ex machina appearance because we are dealing with a story in a high dramatic tone and fate (or her Master!) may very well be playing a hand.

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The Stranger once again puts in an appearance to investigate the mystery himself, and we get yet another confrontation between the two characters.  Despite how many times we’ve seen its like, this scene is actually quite good.  There’s a certain intensity to the good Doctor’s reaction, a certain frustration and anger that rings true and rises above just rote repetition.  Thirteen is his usual charming self in this issue, and yet there is something more interesting and sympathetic about him that I can’t quite entirely put my finger on.  In this exchange, we even get a funny little note that made me chuckle.  The mysterious Stranger greets his opposite number as “Terry,” and this immediately gets under the skeptic’s skin, so much so that you have to think he intended it to do so.  Either way, Thirteen responds that “if he calls me Terry again, I’ll bust him–so help me-.”  It’s a good character moment, adding a bit more personality to the occult investigator than just stiff-necked skepticism.  After all, he’s got to be getting sick of having the Stranger show him up.

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The Phantom disappears, of course, and, also, of course, the Doc dismisses any possibility of the supernatural in that, or in this strange frozen death.  The case reminds him of another, as they all seem to, and he begins to relate the story, telling his listeners about the time a wealthy recluse was found frozen to death in the hothouse in which he kept his prize orchids.  While both the policeman investigating the death and the victim’s nephew suggest some type of mystical explanation, Thirteen is adamant that nothing of the sort is possible.  He finds a canister of freon, and, realizing that the orchids themselves are also frozen, he deduces that the recluse was flash-frozen by someone pumping the chemical in through the sprinkler system in the hothouse.  The skeptical sleuth accuses the nephew, and then he proves he is more than just a mind, as he disarms and captures the killer in a nice sequence.

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Dr. Thirteen, surprising badass

the phantom stranger (1969) 08 - 13 - Copy.jpgThat’s actually one of the best interpolated episodes we’ve seen so far, with a good mystery, a solid action beat, and Dr. Thirteen actually portrayed to good effect.  He’s much more likable here than we’ve seen previously.  Back in the main tale, the local chemist (given a ton of personality in his portrayal by Aparo, despite the fact he appears in a grand total of one panel), discovers that the ice entombing Muttson could only have come from the arctic.  Thirteen and his wife, sensing a link, prepare a helicopter to fly out and investigate the icebreaker.  Before they depart, the Stranger appears with a dire warning, and the Doc actually take a swing at him!

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In the vast, empty wastes of the frozen north, the Thirteens find the trapped ship and begin to search for some clues.  Suddenly, they spot a flash of reflected light, and they descend to discover a huge sword, fit for…a giant!  Just then, the occult investigator is smacked by a giant hand, and both he and his wife are seized by a towering figure that embodies the desolate icy wastes in which he moves.  The creature ominously declares that the humans have violated the sleep of his people, a sleep that began at the dawn of time!

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Fortunately for ‘Terry,’ the Stranger appears once more, and he demands the giant release the two humans.  I love his description of himself.  He announces that he “serve[s] a cause — a master — as ancient as” the giants themselves.  I quite like that, evocative yet mysterious, fitting easily any of the myriad identities we might assign the character (my favorite is still the Wandering Jew serving God).  That’s a difficult line to walk, but O’Neil manages it well here.

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The giants’ design isn’t quite right, what with the green trunks…

Well, as if the situation weren’t tense and chaotic enough, Tala chooses this moment to arrive.  She is her usual delightful self, and I really love her portrayal in this issue.  She is becoming a more fully realized character, while still remaining disconcertingly mysterious.  She makes her usual play for the Stranger, trying to persuade him to join her and abandon the mere mortals to their fate, but this time it is less about an archetypal contest between light and dark and more about the character herself.  O’Neil is really firing on all cylinders in this exchange.  Tala kisses her rival, and he pushes her away, proclaiming “death lies in your kiss!”  Her response is excellent, “Indeed, but such a death as can pale life.”  That’s almost poetic, and it fits the higher tone of the piece, what with its ancient civilizations and apocalyptic possibilities.

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Right after that we hit a rather weird note, as the Stranger stands forth to oppose the giant, employing his vast and enigmatic powers…no, wait, he punches the titan in the face.  Okay…it is extremely cool looking, and I have no problem with the supernatural sleuth getting his hands dirty once in awhile.  Still, we’ve seen him employ some pretty impressive powers in the previous issues, so it is rather jarring for him to suddenly act like all he’s got in his bag is a good right hook.  If O’Neil wanted to limit him, all he needed was a line of dialog, something like ‘I can’t use my abilities because it would awaken the magic of the giants,’ or SOMETHING.  Instead, the hero is smacked down, quite literally, and seems helpless against the jotunn-like creatures.

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You have to admit, though, it’s a heck of a page.

They announce their plans to emerge from their self-imposed exile and reclaim the Earth, but the Stranger, in a wonderful two-page spread, warns them that this globe is not what it used to be.  Humans have sort of wrecked the joint, as we are wont to do.  Here we see some more of O’Neil’s use of realistic and weighty themes, dealing with the social unrest and the pollution that we’ve seen influencing the books we’ve covered.  It’s a nice sequence, not too heavy-handed or preachy because of its context and the solid prose that he marshals for the effort.

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The giants are swayed, but their laws still demand a sacrifice before they can return to their centuries-long slumber.  Tala helpfully suggests they take Maria Thirteen, and in a flash of light, she seems to render her helpless.  Unopposed, the frozen fiends return to their glacial home, and here we reach the second odd moment in the book.  The story takes a fairly dark turn all of a sudden, as the Stranger silently watches the titans’ exodus, not lifting a finger to prevent their killing an innocent woman.  Then, he carries ‘Terry’ back to his helicopter and once again employs mundane methods in his fight, eschewing his powers.  He seals the entrance to the giants’ cavern with dynamite, leaving Maria to her fate.

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The Stranger coldly rationalizes his choice, reasoning that her sacrifice was necessary because any contact between giants and men would inevitably destroy both because of the wrack and ruin that a conflict between magic and technology would unleash.  This is another fascinating concept that just gets tossed out in this issue, one of many that create a wonderful atmosphere of history and mythology lying behind the plot itself.  Yet, the hero’s choice cannot help but seem both unnecessary (without further framing) and callous to us.

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Fortunately, after the cave is sealed, who should make her way back to the helicopter but Maria!  Tala returns and explains matters, telling her opponent that she, indulging in her chaotic nature, could not resist playing a trick on the giants, and thus took the girl’s place when she caused that blinding flash.  It’s a good and rather surprising moment, yet it fits the character well.  I like Tala as not just a being of pure evil, but an avatar of chaos, more like Loki than Satan, the Trickster figure brought to life.  I think that’s got potential, and it certainly has mythical echoes.

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The story ends with the Thirteens reunited and ‘Terry’ being ridiculously condescending to his wife.  To her credit, she doesn’t seem to be taking his nonsense entirely meekly.  Here again we have the good Doctor blatantly disregarding a reliable eyewitness to the supernatural because “we both know such things simply do not occur!”  Great job being scientific and impartial, Terry.  This ending really struck me, as I realized that Dr. Thirteen is willfully blind to the higher realities he continually comes in contact with.  He has now encountered several mysteries that he’s been entirely unable to solve, yet he persists in his stiff-necked adherence to his world-view.  This was particularly interesting to me because I just read C.S. Lewis’s Miracles, his philosophical case for the possibility of the miraculous.  One of his arguments touches on the fact that this is how most of us approach any such questions.  We know miracles cannot exist, therefore, every other explanation, no matter how ridiculous, must be more probable.  This cannot help but bias us in our investigation of such matters, as we have a priori decided that one explanation is impossible.  In this dogmatic dedication to disbelief, Dr. Thirteen reminds me very strongly of the dwarves from The Last Battle.  I can imagine Thirteen sitting there in the dark with them, seeing a dirty barn while surrounded by the eternal, refusing to acknowledge the reality that was staring him in the face.  It makes him something of a tragic figure as well as a comic one and probably has something to do with my growing appreciation for the character.

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This was a great story, and the complaints I have are minor.  The most significant of them is that I wish the concepts tossed out left and right in this book were given more development in the wider lore.  Apparently we do see the giants return in a later issue, so that is exciting!  It was of particular interest to me because I’ve just been studying the medieval tradition of giants, which the titanic creatures of this tale evokes.  I actually just wrote a paper on the giant/Jute debate in Beowulf¹.  I love the archetypal weight the figure of the giant carries, the ageless antipathy between man and monster.  In the medieval tradition, the giants were identified with an antediluvian (pre-Flood) culture, advanced and wicked, possessing great knowledge and power, but corrupting men with that power and forbidden learning.  They were identified with pride (which, if we recall, was the first and greatest sin) and greed.

These jotunn-esq beings with their ancient civilization remind me a bit of those stories.  Their implied history and the Stranger’s cryptic statements indicating the existence of a whole hidden lore helps to give this particular story its strongest feature, that most wonderful quality of literature, which Tolkien called “the impression of depth” (Monsters and Critics 27).  This is the effect that gives works like The Lord of the Rings such a vastness and feeling of reality.  It is the quality that leads a reader to believe that the story does not just exist in these limited pages but expands infinitely on every side of the book itself, with a rich past and undiscovered countries just beyond every hill.  This quality is, of course, limited in this instance, and the the comic has its weaknesses, the loose threads in the tapestry O’Neil is weaving.  Nonetheless, the final effect is exactly that sense of wonder and imaginative adventure that brings me to comics in the first place.  This is the type of story that I love to read, and I give this issue a very strong 4.5 Minutemen.

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Well my good readers, that is it for this post.  This is shaping up to be one heck of a month!   We’ve had some great, high-scoring and fascinating issues, and there are more promising stories on the horizon.  It definitely looks like we’re facing a much better crop of books this month.  I hope you’ll join me soon for the next few issues, which will include the next iteration of Manhunter 2070!

¹If you’re interested in literary studies, philology, or textual criticism, you might find this worth reading.  If these things don’t interest you, you can safely skip this section.  Several of the incidents in Beowulf feature the word eoten, which means “giant,” even being related (most likely) to the Old Norse word, “jotunn,” which describes the monstrous figures of scandinavian myth.  Yet, in several spots editors emend it to mean “Jute,” an ancient people that were often in conflict with the Danes.  Essentially, the argument is that a later scribe, having never seen “Eotan,” the word for Jutes, just substituted “eoten,” or “giant.” Coincidentally, this approach to the poem seems to me to be motivated by much the same resistance to the fantastic that drives the close-mindedness of people like Dr. Thirteen.  Scholars have desired a historical document from Beowulf, though that was never what it was intended to be.  They hope to find mythologized records of actual conflicts, real history behind all the fantasy ‘fluff,’ but you can no more do away with the giants than you can with the dragon. They both lie, not at the periphery, but at the core of the poem.  The debate continues (it’s giants), and though there are reasonable arguments for finding Jutes (really, it’s giants), they tend to create as many problems for interpretation (seriously, it’s giants) as they solve.  Meanwhile, rendering these mysterious figures as giants creates greater dramatic unity, (trust me, giants) emphasizing many of the primary themes of the main plot, especially the corrupting effects of power and wealth, both associated in medieval tradition with the figure of the giant (it’s totally giants).

Into the Bronze Age: June 1970 (Part 3)

DC-Style-Guide-1

Welcome to the third installment of my coverage of June 1970.  I hope you enjoy the visit to the Bronze Age!

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.

Justice League of America #81

JLA_v.1_81.jpgCover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella

Hmm, “Plague of the Galactic Jest Master”…I have to say, that title doesn’t sound particularly promising.  The story within, however, is something else entirely.  That cover is certainly striking, and for once, it’s actually fairly fitting, even if only metaphorically so.  What is particularly notable to me is the fact that, once again, I have absolutely no memory of this tale, despite the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed it on this reading!  Even more so, and just as surprising, this issue picks up on a bunch of elements that I thought completely abandoned by the previous story.  It turns out that some of my criticism of that story was actually unfair because O’Neil picks up some of the threads left dangling there.  Well, let’s look within, shall we?  Beware!  This way lies madness!

And what a madness it is.  In the beginning we meet an interesting looking fellow, our titular Jest-Master, fawned over and surrounded by a horde of henchmen.  These strange aliens are winging their way through space in an oddly misshapen craft, more like a potato than a spaceship, on their way to destroy Thanagar with a curse of madness!  The design of the Jest Master isn’t bad, but it isn’t particularly great either.  Really, he looks like an orange version of the Green Goblin, even with a similar hood and grin.  His name may not be all that impressive, but the story he spawns is a solid one.

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It is here that I find that I was wrong about the previous issue.  I expected that story, featuring the mad Thanagarian doomsday cultist and Jean’s madness to simply be immediately forgotten.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that the vague warnings that the Thanagarian renegade gave about a galactic threat approaching are actually fulfilled in the coming of the Jest-Master.  While he isn’t quite a big enough threat to really justify the setup, I’m just pleased that we do get to see the story followed through.  Not only that, Jean Loring’s madness also finishes its arc here.  I went back and read the crazy but fun final issue of the Atom/Hawkman book to remind myself how she got into this situation before reading this issue, and that was quite a tale.  It’s nice to see those floating threads brought to a pleasant completion here.

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What the heck is going on with the geometry of that first panel?  Is it a comic or a cubist painting?

Speaking of Jean, we see that the Atom and Hawkman have resumed their interrupted journey to Thanagar to have her cured by the science of the Winged Wonder’s people.  She continues to rave, and Ray feels guilty about her predicament, but he’s unfair to himself.  She was driven mad by something that had nothing to do with him.  Well, pulling himself together, the Mighty Mite checks on Norch Lor, our Thanagarian doomsday cultist, previously unnamed.  He repeat his warning of a coming apocalypse.

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Yet, their journey is destined once again to be interrupted.  As they approach Katar’s homeworld, they pass an outpost and suddenly they are taking fire!  Hawkman docks his ship and finds the guards of the space station have gone mad!  Shortly, both he and the Atom begin to feel the effects of this strange irrational force as well, and they are driven to fight one another.

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In the ship, our neglected prisoner, Norch Lor frees himself and, feeling the effects of creeping madness, he has sense enough to summon help!  We also see how he learned of the Jest-Master’s arrival, as he was studying a civilization that was destroyed by this bizarre wave of insanity.  He hoped to save Thanagar by “hiding” the souls of its people inside his Ghenna Box, which he tested on Earth.  It’s a slight step-down from the setup we saw last issue, but it isn’t a huge difference.  I’m just glad to see a bit more about ‘ol Norch.  I think he’s got the potential to be an interesting character.  Unfortunately, this is just about the last we’ll see of him.

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Meanwhile, his message is picked up by the Guardians and relayed to the League through their vacationing Green Lantern, who is busy “on a crazy-quilt quest across America, seeking the soul of a nation.”  Really O’Neil?  I enjoy some pretty purple prose, but that’s pushing it.

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We begin to see some of the first real signs of the romance between Canary and Arrow, as she notes that, as annoying as he is (and you haven’t seen anything yet, Dinah!), she finds herself missing him.  Anyway, the League suits up in nifty custom space suits, and Superman just carries them all to Thanagar.  Ha, how bizarre.  I would be more than a little nervous with nothing between me and a few zillion miles of empty, frozen black space but a thin layer of fabric.  Yikes!

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Our heroes arrive just in time to rescue the Tiny Titan from his best friend’s madness.  We get a really nice series of pages with Hawkman preparing to splat his small-sized partner, as well as a pretty funny moment where the Winged Wonder bashes himself uselessly against Superman.  Hawkman is awesome, but he’s drastically out of his league against the Man of Steel.

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However, once aboard the space station, the other Leaguers also begin to fall victim to the curse.  Strangely enough, Jean finds her senses suddenly restored!  She warns them of what’s coming, and the team sets out to put an end to the Jest-Master’s quest.

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The Flash volunteers to be the one to pierce the strange spaceship, arguing, rather reasonably, that they’re all in trouble if Superman goes nuts!  We get a rather nice page by Dillin, as the rather sinister-looking alien antagonist twists Flash’s mind inside out as he attempts to get inside his vessel.  Superman pulls the Crimson Comet back out, and the heroes find themselves stymied.

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JusticeLeague081-20.jpgSuddenly, they realize there is only one among them who can make this journey and be capable of rational thought on the other side…that’s right, Jean Loring is their only hope!  This is a nice little switch, and I loved this twist.  Since she had her faculties restored under the psychedelic effects of the Jest-Master’s insanity weapon, she should be able to pass unscathed through the madness field.  Ray won’t hear of it at first, but he quickly realizes that this is really the only choice.  So, the Leaguers set out, with a mad woman to lead them through the madness that awaits.

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We get an interesting double page spread, interestingly not on facing pages (I’m wondering if that was a mistake somehow), comparing what Jean sees, the simple reality, versus the crazy, reality straining visions that the heroes endure as they approach the ship.

Once inside, the Atom is the only one able to act…for some reason.  O’Neil doesn’t really address it, and, as we’ve already seen, he’s fallen victim to the insanity of the enemy before.  That’s a bit of a plot hole, an unfortunate inconsistency in an otherwise great story.  Well, the Mighty Mite turns the tables on the Jest-Master.  It seems our insanity inducing evil-doer is convinced that he is the only one with the strength of mind to judge reality.  He is the measure of sanity, and he will test the universe to see if anyone else is worthy of being considered truly sane as well.  Yet, the Atom causes him to doubt his sanity by shrinking and growing rapidly.

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This tactic successfully distracts the villain until Jean can free the other Leaguers, who make extremely short work of his henchmen who are inexplicably armed with…crossbows?  Yep, not even fancy space crossbows or anything, just regular, medieval style crossbows.  In a spaceship.  Sure.  Well, the action sequence is nicely drawn, but rather disappointing, though I do love Superman just gently tapping one of the minions, sending the poor fellow careening through the ship.

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Just look at how bored he looks!

Thus, not with a bang, but with a whimper, the Jest-Master is summarily defeated.  Yet, despite this uninspiring fight, there is a particularly bright silver lining, as Jean Loring suddenly comes completely to her senses, her madness driven away by the forces at play in the ship.  Oddly, we’re denied a reunion between Ray and Jean…though, I suppose he’d have to reveal his secret identity to her to really justify that.

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I love the grumpy expression on the villain’s face!

So, in the end, the Jest-Master, despite providing a very engaging concept and a very interesting challenge for our heroes, offers something of an anti-climax when everything comes together.  I definitely enjoyed the continuation of the previous story, the continuity attention, and the desire to tie up loose ends.  I think there is potential here for a good deal more, but the ideas don’t quite come together perfectly.  I like the idea of the Jest-Master, though a more dynamic design and a better name would give him more staying power.  Of course, despite the supposedly apocalyptic threat he poses, he’s also completely useless in an actual fight.  That’s a bit disappointing.  Making him more formidable would also help make the character worth bringing back, and the League really needs more good villains.  Somebody get Geoff Johns on the phone!

Still, this is a fun issue, and it has several nice moments.  The central problem is once again a nice threat for the League to face, and we get a few cool moments of characterization.  I particularly enjoyed that it was Jean who saved the day, despite the plot hole with her bite-sized beau.  In the end, I’ll give this promising but flawed story 4 Minutemen, like the previous issue.

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Phantom Stranger #7

Phantom_Stranger_Vol_2_7.jpgCover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo

This is another by the numbers Phantom Stranger adventure.  It’s got its moments, but the highlight is the arrival of Jim Aparo on the the title!  He becomes THE artist for the character, and even from this first issue, his work is great.  It is wonderfully dramatic and atmospheric.  Unfortunately, the plot isn’t quite as impressive as Aparo’s pencils.  It is another one of the three-part tales, a frame tale and a story narrated by both the Phantom Stranger and Dr. Thirteen.  It’s not a great story, having a few weaknesses, but it has some striking moments too.  The unnecessary teen gang makes another appearance, their most superfluous yet.  You could easily lift them right out of this story and not change the plot one iota.

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These four kids are headed to some place named “Vulcan’s Castle,” which apparently has all of the locals spooked.  These teens seem to just wander around the country with no jobs or fixed addresses, running into random people how invite them into their homes just in time for something creepy to happen.  I’d say they’re bad luck!  Anyway, this particular caper revolves around that mysterious chateau.  Once again, the kids have been invited to hang out by a random stranger, so they rush right out to do so.just that.  They finally get directions and find a boat to make the crossing, only things aren’t what they appear!

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The sail is actually Tala in disguise, and she flies away, leaving the youths stranded in the middle of a maelstrom!  Fortunately, the Phantom Stranger comes to their rescue, swimming through the water to right their boat…who does he think he is, Aquaman?  The sequence is beautifully drawn by Aparo, and I’m reminded why he makes such a great artist for the Sea King.  He’s got a way with water.  Anyway, the kids are picked up by Dr. Thirteen, or as Rob Kelley is fond of describing him, the professional wet blanket, and he immediately shifts into jerk mode.  All four kids tell the same story, and Thirteen just blows them off.  Clearly, you’re just imagining the life-threatening danger you faced, silly children!

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Once they arrive at the castle, it is revealed that Thirteen has been summoned to help save the wealthy owner’s daughter, Vanessa, from a curse.  Just after they set foot on shore, the poor, overwhelmed girl is coaxed into jumping from the ramparts by that guileful gal Tala.  Fortunately, the Stranger is on hand once again, and he snatches the girl out of the air.  Of course, the good Doctor is dubious.  Once everyone gets together, we get some backstory.  The tale of woe began with the previous owners of the castle, the Drugas, selling it, having fallen on hard times.  Yet, they did not sell it willingly.  The last Count Druga cursed the new family for profiting from his troubles

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As per usual, this claim about the supernatural prompts a story-telling competition between Thirteen and the Stranger.  Thirteen is first at bat with what is, admittedly, a neat story, though a bit on the far-fetched side.  The good Doctor relates how he was on his way to investigate the haunting of a mine in Kentucky.  On the way, he suddenly finds himself being throttled…by trees?!  Here’s one of the weird, inconsistent moments of this story, one of several.  The art clearly shows the trees strangling the Ghost Breaker and lifting him bodily out of his car, yet, when he hits the ground, he rationalizes that this was impossible, and he must have imagined it after falling asleep at the wheel.  We’re clearly supposed to be seeing things from his perspective, as this is his tale, but this whole little episode just doesn’t quite make sense.

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Either way, he catches sight of the strange apparition that is haunting the mine, a glowing skeleton, and gets the story of its origins.  Reportedly, it all started with the death of a miner in a tunnel collapse.  As he lay dying, he cursed the mine, saying that the owners’ greed had caused his death, keeping the shaft open when it was too dangerous.  Interestingly, that accusation of corruption is a thread that never pays off.

In the mine itself, Thirteen encounters the “ghost,” and is shocked unconscious by its touch.  He drags himself back to the surface, and I’ll say this for ‘ol Terry, he is a tough son of a gun.  He goes right back down, and this time he clocks the “spirit” right on its jawbone!  It turns out that the culprit was the brother of the dead miner, who created an electrical costume to ‘haunt’ the mine and force its closing.  The “ghost” also prepared the trap that caused the trees to “attack” Thirteen on the road…somehow…The Ghost breaker had sussed some of this out after his initial shock, so he came prepared with rubber gloves to lay the “ghost” out.  It’s a bit Scooby Doo, but the Doc comes off as a bit of a badass, so I’m willing to give it a pass.

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the phantom stranger (1969) 07 - 151.jpgNot to be outdone, the Stranger immediately retaliates with his own yarn about curses and spooky doings.  He tells the tale of Bill, a young fishing boat skipper whose ship was cursed.  He was the younger brother of the original captain, and a violent argument between them ended with the older brother falling overboard and being eaten by sharks!  Just before he was devoured, Bill’s brother cursed him and anyone foolhardy enough to crew his ship.  No one will sail with the young man after mysterious accidents decimated his crews, but the Phantom Stranger volunteers.  When the skipper is lured into the rocks by the ghostly voice of his brother, the Stranger saves him…with a karate chop!  That cracks me up.

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Of course, none of this actually solves the problem of the young lady’s curse.  She tells her own tale of woe, which begins with the unfortunate death of the gardener’s son, Nicholas, who grew up with Vanessa and fell in love with her.  She didn’t return his affection, though, and he apparently died of a broken heart, cursing her with his last breath (there’s a lot of that going on in this story).  He swears that any man who dares love her will meet the same fate he has.

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In the coming months, three different young men try for Vanessa’s affections, and one after another, they die in accidents connected with their hobbies, shooting, boating, and riding.  You know, you can understand the first two, but you’ve got to think that the third guy really should have seen it coming…

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A trio of unlikely “accidents”

Anyway, the Stranger thinks he knows what’s going on, so he gets everyone to get shovels and dig up Nicholas’s grave.  Inside, they find the supposedly deceased young man…sweating?  That’s right, it seems that Nicholas did not actually die, but was placed into a deep trance by his father, jealous of Vanessa’s own father, and using his son as a weapon against the family he hated.  The father would revive his son, and then the zombified young man would murder Vanessa’s sweethearts.  Here we have another of those weird moments, as you have to remember, that this fellow was in a grave, buried six feet under.  How exactly did he get out and get back to go on his killing sprees?  We’re later told that Tala was somehow involved, but it just doesn’t quite jive.

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I love the moody shot of the Stranger and the others digging up the grave!

The story wraps up as the The father revives his lovelorn and loony son, who produces a gun and tries to murder everyone present.  Once again, Dr. Thirteen proves he’s no wuss, as he charges the gunman, getting a bullet in the shoulder for his troubles.

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Fortunately, the Stranger isn’t so easy to stop, and he chases Nicholas to a cliff, where the madman plunges to his death.  We end with a sighting of Tala in the wind and the usual disappearance by the Stranger and griping about same from our curmudgeonly Ghost Breaker.

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This is a mediocre story with great art and a few neat moments.  The kids contribute absolutely nothing to the plot.  Even their role as our introduction to the story could easily have been accomplished just with Dr. Thirteen.  The individual tales have some holes in them, and the final resolution isn’t all that interesting.  It is, as I said, a by the numbers issue.  At least we’ve got Jim Aparo’s art to make it interesting.  His great sense of visual storytelling helps pull this issue up to a solid 3 Minutemen.

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Showcase #91

Showcase_Vol_1_91.jpgCover Artist: Mike Sekowsky
Writer: Mike Sekowsky
Penciler: Mike Sekowsky
Inker: Vince Colletta

Now here we go!  This is what Showcase is all about, and it is this kind of hidden gem that I look forward to on this project.  Manhunter 2070 is a great concept, and this first issue is wonderfully executed.  I would totally have bought this book like crazy-go-nuts back in the day.  Mike Sekowsky may have missed the boat with Jason Quest, but he’s got a real winner in this character.  Unfortunately, this three issue tryout is the last we’ll see of the character in the mainstream DCU.  Apparently he shows up in Twilight, and from what I’ve heard about that series, I can’t imagine I’d care to see what Howard Chaykin does to the poor guy.  That’s a real shame, as the setting this tale introduces definitely had legs.  In many ways, it’s a stock concept, but I imagine it was much less cliche back in 1970.  The idea is space as the Wild West, the Final Frontier as the original frontier: the Space Western.

This was, of course, done to perfection by Firefly, and it has been the subject of many a science fiction tale over the years, but I can’t say I’ve seen it in comics before this point.  In fact, although there were often western themes included in speculative fiction over the years, even in the original pitch for Star Trek (“Wagon Train to the Stars”), more straight-up adaptations were pretty rare.  The flavor of pulp and comic science fiction was much more Buck Rogers and much less Lone Ranger.  That makes this particular book all the more interesting.  Of course, we’re only seven years away from the film that would memorably combine science fiction and western elements and make the mix much more famous, Star Wars!  I suppose these themes were in the air in the 70s.

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This particular book follows the adventures of the space bounty hunter we encountered at the end of the previous issue, the enigmatic Starker.  We start with a page that sets the scene, standard Space Western trappings, vast distances, law and order threatened and stretched thin by the expansion of the frontier, and noble wanderers like our hero picking up the slack and bringing justice to the wild space lanes.  He is a bounty hunter, but he doesn’t take on his dangerous work for the money.  We don’t get a lot of his motivations in this tale.  We’re left to infer from what we observe, but he seems to be motivated to do the job for that old and excellent reason: it needs doing.  What we do get is delivered in wonderfully dramatic fashion.

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This job involves three escaped convicts who killed two guards during their getaway.  They’re nasty customers, as the Manhunter’s robot assistant, Arky, tells him, “killers many times over,” who callously murder anyone who gets in their way.  Arky provides the hunter with a lead on the likely hiding place of the fugitives, but warns him that this place, the planet Pheidos, is a “killer planet,” with a very hostile ecosystem.  Starker suits up in ‘space armor,’ which is pretty cool looking, and packs a lot of powerful hardware.  This is no ‘stun ray’ or that kind of lighter fare, and a good indication of the type of action we’ll find further in.  As he heads out, we get a nice moment as one of his friends asks him, “don’t you know knight’s in shining armor haven’t been in for centuries?”  His reply is pretty fitting for the laconic western hero archetype that he fits: “I guess I’m still an old fashioned boy.”

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Once he arrives on Pheidos, he finds that Arky wasn’t exaggerating, as the very first moment he steps off his ship and begins to ‘saddle up’ his hover bike, he is attacked by a host of fanged fauna and flora.  He desperately fights his way out, using every weapon he can lay his hands on, but his struggles draw the attention of his quarry, who have managed to arm and resupply themselves from secret caches hidden on the planet!

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Here we see one of the problems with this issue.  Sekowsky art is mostly excellent on this book.  He’s creative, dynamic, and evocative.  Yet, every once in awhile we’ll bet a panel like the one below.  Just what the heck is happening to Starker’s right leg?  Despite what the art shows, it isn’t actually ripped off of his body in the next scene.  That’s not the only time this happens.  There’s some funky anatomy in a few different panels, but still, those are by far the exceptions.  Sekowsky is, for the most part, firing on all cylinders here.

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Back to the story, our hero manages to escape the ravenous creatures because they themselves encounter even bigger predators.  His respite proves short-lived, though, as he finds himself battling with an oversized alligator with wings!  In a desperate fight he manages to dispatch it, and seeing that their nemesis won’t be so easily done-in by the planet itself, the fugitives open fire on him, pursuing him on their own ‘atmo-sleds.’

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Starker finds himself in a shootout with his adversaries…and with more of the frightful fauna.  He engages in a running gun-battle with both his enemies and the elements themselves, eventually luring one of the trio of treacherous space pirates into an ambush.  He knocks the fellow out of the sky, but the bounty hunter is stunned by a glancing hit, saved only by the fury of the world’s wildlife turning on his opponent in the form of cannibal ants and a ripped spacesuit.  Yikes!  Sounds like a nasty way to go.  Sekowsky’s art nicely sells the horror of the moment.

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‘Alas poor Yorick! I knew him, Arky…’

While engaged in a standoff with the other two criminals, Starker watches as a giant version of that winged creature he faced earlier attacks them!  The beast knocks them out of the sky, leaving our knight in shining space armor to slay this far-future dragon, with a sword no less!  It’s a nice moment, and it really might have deserved a splash page.  Well, from there, it’s really just mopping up,collecting his surviving and deceased prisoners, and getting the heck off this crazy rock, but that’s no small matter on Pheidos!  The Manhunter has to fight another giant monster to claim the last convict before he can burn rockets off-world.

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The tale ends with Starker’s friends asking the question, “why do you do it?”  We’re promised the answer in the next issue, and I’m looking forward to it!  This story was great, just wall-to-wall action, exciting, interesting, and visually creative.  The world, the equipment, and the aliens are all nicely designed.  They’re distinct enough to not just be generic comic sci-fi fare.

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Ahoy there, Space Ahab!

Starker himself is grim and capable, and I was suitably gobsmacked when he picked up a sword and charged the giant lizard to secure his prisoner.  That’s a great moment.  Despite all that action, we get a bit of characterization, but this is definitely about the adventure, more than anything else.  I’m pretty okay with that because the adventure itself is tons of fun.  The resourceful hero fighting both a hostile world and hostile men makes for a great story.  I’ll give it 4.5 Minutemen, a great sci-fi romp!

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This issue also had a very short (two pages!) backup in which our hero is captured and forced into a gladiatorial match, only to escape on a rocket powered steed and sic the law on his former captors.  Despite being so brief, this little tale features a fun and apt send-up of the media and consumer culture, as these matches are all about ratings.  Shades of Mojo!  It’s fun, but too brief to rate.

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We also get an exciting collage page advertising what is to come next issue, like we saw with the Jason Quest issues.  Space pirates and Starker’s origin?  I’m in!

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“Good night, Westley.  Good work.  Sleep well.  I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”

 

Well, that’s it for this post on June 1970!  Join me next week for the last few issues in this month.  This was a good batch.  Let’s see what those last two comics hold as we continue, Into the Bronze Age!

 

 

Into the Bronze Age: May 1970 (Part 3)

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Yikes!  This is a busy time in the semester for me, but I hope that y’all will find this issue worth the wait.  Time for another step in our Bronze Age journey!

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

  • Action Comics #388
  • Batman #221
  • Brave and the Bold #89
  • Challengers of the Unknown #73
  • Detective Comics #399
  • Flash #196 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Flash #197
  • G.I. Combat #141
  • Justice League of America #80
  • Showcase #90
  • Superman #226
  • World’s Finest #193

Bonus!: Star Hawkins (for real this time)

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

G.I. Combat #141

GI_Combat_Vol_1_141.jpgCover Artist: Joe Kubert
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Artist: Russ Heath

This is a heck of a comic, and it is an excellent specimen of all the best qualities of the Bronze Age.  It deals with important, socially relevant themes, and it has increased dramatic weight, while still remaining a story of adventure and heroism.  The war comics have always been more serious, but this issue is particularly impressive.  It’s not really a story that takes advantage of the Haunted Tank concept, but despite that, it manages to be effective, even powerful.  At its core, this is a tale about the heroism and humanity of fighting men, regardless of the color of their skin, a worthy subject, and one that had to be of particular power at this moment in history.  Take note, Dennis O’Neil, this is how you deliver a message with subtlety and class.

The tale opens with Jeb and the Haunted Tank loading up behind the lines in an ammo depot.  The soldiers doing the loading are black, and from the first moment we see some of the tension in the air with these fighting men who are not allowed to fight.  The art in this issue is particularly solid, conveying a great deal of the emotional weight of the story in panels like the one below with the aggravation and frustration evident in the sweating, tired soldier’s face.

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The Stuart tank joins Sgt. Rock (!) and the Combat Happy Joes of Easy Company in a desperate holding action that explodes in vicious, nearly hand-to-hand fighting.  Jeb and company use up all of their ammo knocking out panzers, and though he is willing to stay on the line with nothing more than their sidearms, Rock convinces him to head back to the depot ot fill up.  You know, it’s hilarious that these stories consistently feature a Stuart tank, a light tank with a 37 mm cannon, knocking out German panzers.  Even the main battle tank of the U.S., the Sherman, had trouble with Nazi armor in Europe, but here comes Jeb, riding around swatting Tigers like they’re flies.  It’s ridiculously unlikely, but then again, I suppose you can just hand-wave it and attribute their success to the fact that their tank is haunted.  Ohh well.  At least we get a glorious two-page spread out of it.

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gicombat141-07.jpgAnyway, Jeb gets a visit from…well, J.E.B., with another cryptic, totally unhelpful warning.  General, if you couldn’t be more specific than this, it’s a wonder you were able to be a successful commander.  They discover smoke coming from the depot, and they find it utterly destroyed, the black troops who had been consigned to quartermaster duty have been slaughtered to the last man by enemy tanks.  Or so it seems.  Like Lazarus rising from the grave, or perhaps more accurately like Farinata from his tomb in the Inferno, the private who we meet at the beginning of this tale emerges from the ashes.

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Again, our unnamed artist does masterful work with expression, and we can really feel the smothered pain and rage in this nameless soldier’s face as he tells his story.  The tale told, he helps the crew rearm, but Jeb is worried about leaving him behind, knowing that bringing him along could be even more dangerous.  Yet, this fellow is ready to get in the fight, one way or another, so he hitches a ride.  The crew don’t think too highly of his zeal, and they expect he’ll head for the hills when the going gets tough.

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The red eyes really add to the infernal echoes

Just then the tank is strafed by a Nazi fighter, and Jeb is hit.  They can’t elevate the main gun enough to hit the bird, leaving the nameless private to engage the craft with the top machinegun in a really impressive display of will and courage.

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However, despite their immediate success, Jeb is wounded and there is still a Nazi army knocking on Easy Company’s front door.  The tank commander needs someone to man that machinegun and act as his eyes, and despite the doubts of his men, Jeb chooses our private.  They arrive back at the front to see panzers breathing down Easy’s collective neck, with the G.I.s climbing all over them, desperately trying to stall their advance.

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The Haunted tank charges into action, our nameless soldier manning the gun until he is wounded by fire from the enemy.  Doubled over in pain, he sees that the tank is catching fire, and rather than save himself, he beats the fire out with his bare hands!  Now THAT is courage!  Jeb holds the dying man, lamenting his decision to bring the fellow along, but with his last breath, the heroic private says “I’d rather live–or die–like a…man.”  And what a man he was.  It’s a beautifully drawn sequence, powerful and dynamic.

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His comrades honor him, and though they didn’t even know his name, they are certain that, whatever else he was, he was a man.

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Wow.  This is an excellent story, and this nameless private instantly earns our sympathy and interest, thanks in large part to the excellent artwork that conveys, with wonderful subtlety , the frustrations of a man who has joined the army to fight for his country but who has been relegated to menial tasks because of the color of his skin.  Of course, within that narrative there is a larger story about race and racism at large, especially because of its ending.  If this man is, in fact, man enough to give his life for his comrades, why would he not be treated as a man, as a human being, on all counts?  This nameless private completely steals the show, and the resistance he gets from the tank crew, as well as his quiet insistence on doing his job, really add to the attractiveness of his character.

I have to say, as a Southerner, I really enjoy how it is Jeb, a fellow Southerner and the descendant of a freaking Confederate general, who gives this man a chance, who trusts him and treats him like a human being.  That’s just awesome.  So, this is a story that is definitely out of the ordinary, carrying much more dramatic weight than the average comic, and its message is wonderfully delivered, still resonating powerfully today.  It really demonstrates the unique storytelling potential of comics, with art and text working together brilliantly.  This is an excellent example of a Bronze Age tale.  I give it 5 Minutemen.  I’ve got absolutely nothing bad to say about it.  And hey, look at that.  This is my first perfect score!

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Justice League of America #80

JLA_v.1_80.jpgCover Artist: Murphy Anderson
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella

Apparently Highfather showed up on Earth a whole year before Jack Kirby created him.  Look at that guy!  He looks just like the New Gods character!  Well, coincidental resemblances aside, this is another strong JLA issue, as well as being another that I didn’t particularly remember.  Yet, despite having slipped right out of my head, I definitely enjoyed reading it again.

This issue opens with the Flash making quite the long distance phone call, all the way from the JLA Satellite down to his wife, Iris, in Central City.  The Scarlet Speedster is apologizing for having to be stuck on monitor duty when the deep space monitor starts going off.  He discovers Hawkgirl, floating unprotected and unconscious in space!  Yikes!  Well, racing as only he can, Barry plays one-man response team, summoning the League and getting the Thanagarian lady into their headquarters.  Fortunately, her hardened system has allowed her to survive, but she’s still in rough shape.

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The responding Leaguers wonder about what has happened, and a very worried Atom reveals that the Hawks had taken Jean Loring to Thanagar in search of psychiatric help unavailable on Earth.  I like the art on this page, as it really conveys Ray’s trepidation and concern for both his girl and his friend.

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In an unexpected and neat little touch of continuity, we see a reference to the Atom and Hawkman book’s final issue, in which Jean was driven mad by a subatomic alien race.  Interestingly, because that was the last issue of the series, that plot had never been resolved, despite having been written several months before.  There isn’t all that much made of the connection, but it’s good to see that dropped ball picked up here, however briefly.  On another note, it’s a crying shame that the joint Atom and Hawkman book was cancelled, as it was really a lot of fun.  In general, the Silver Age Hawkman book was pretty great, one of my all-time favorite DC Silver Age books, usually managing to be stronger and less silly than a lot of their fare.  I would have killed to see that book manage to evolve during the Bronze Age!  On the other hand, this story with Jean would have absolutely terrible and unconscionable repercussions in the distant future.  The less said about that, the better, as some things just don’t belong in superhero comics.  There’s a reason I’m traveling through the Bronze Age.

Anyway, back in our current tale, we discover that Hawkgirl is alive, but mentally ’empty,’ showing almost no brain activity.  The League leaps into action, dividing into teams as per their SOP, and again O’Neil demonstrates his ability to handle the wide range and variety of characters on this team, as he gives all of them important roles to play, to his credit, showcasing a different subset of characters this issue than he did in the last two.  Unfortunately, Dick Dillin’s art isn’t quite as strong as it was previously, but it’s still more than serviceable.

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The first team of the Atom and Flash respond to an alarm from the Grand Canyon, where a boy scout troop is mindlessly marching, rather lemming-like, towards the edge.  The Scarlet Speedster uses his peerless velocity to erect an earthen barricade to keep the kids corralled.  The Might Might laments that he feels useless, being little more than a observer.  Interestingly, Barry doesn’t display much sympathy for that self-pity.  Upon interrogating the scoutmaster, the pair discover that the trouble was caused by a strange looking fellow riding on a ‘broomstick!’  How bizarre!

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Meanwhile in Midway City, Batman and Green Arrow attempt to play detective by tracing the Hawk’s movements in their home town.  As they begin their investigations, they spot…well, nothing less than a spaceman on a rocket-powered broomstick!  The Emerald Archer fires off a snare-arrow, and the heroes bring the joy-rider down to earth.  We’ll leave aside the ridiculousness of the image of two non-powered people pulling a freaking rocket out of the sky with their bare hands!

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Once the fellow is grounded, Batman tries to tackle him, only to be zapped by a wand-like device.  Green Arrow doesn’t fare much better, as the mysterious visitor turns one of his own knockout gas arrows back on him!  As he flees, their enigmatic enemy complains that the heroes damaged something he calls his ‘Ghenna Box.’  Interestingly, the name evokes Gehenna, the traditional name for a Jewish conception of Hell.

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At the same time, Superman has flown through space, backtracking the route that the Hawks would have taken on their way back from Thanagar, when he discovers their ship being pulled into a neutron star!  With a mighty effort, the Man of Steel manages to save the craft from the overwhelming gravitational pull of the super-dense star, and we’re treated to a little bit of scientific education on the subject.  Yay!  Exhausted by his effort, Superman is taken by surprise when someone strikes him down with a familiar looking ray!  Who could render the Man of Tomorrow helpless and leave him floating in space?

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Back on the Satellite, Black Canary has been left to play nurse…because, of course she has.  She’s a woman, and that makes her naturally better at tending to the wounded…or something.  I’d be more bothered by it if this sexist assignment didn’t provide her with an opportunity for a strong showing against our villain.  Well, she is practicing with her powers, frustrated by her inability to control them, when our hard-luck heroes Batman and Green Arrow return.  They have a clue, a patch ripped from the mysterious assailant’s suit, and their computer reveals that it comes from…Thanagar!  Dun, dun, DUN!  It turns out that their scanners are set to ignore Thanagarian ships, so that they aren’t constantly going off because of Hawkman’s craft, and a quick adjustment reveals the rogue Thanagarian’s ship hanging out in orbit.

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Yet, before the heroes can act, the masked man blasts his way into the Satellite and disables the heroes by sucking their very souls into his Ghenna Box, leaving them helpless vegetables!  Yikes!  Meanwhile, again, Green Lantern has been summoned to Oa, where the Guardians send him to recover Superman.  It seems Tomar-Re didn’t realize who the Man of Steel was and took him out with his power ring, thinking he was attacking the ship.  Yep, you read that right.  Superman was taken out in a single panel by a Green Lantern ring.  I guess that settles the ‘who would win in a fight’ question.  Tomare-Re claims he just had his ring create kryptonite waves, having recognize him as a kryptonian.  Really?  You didn’t recognize Superman, the LAST SON OF KRYPTON, but you DID recognize that he was a kryptonian?  Sure Tomar.  I think you were just looking to show off.

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It’s really a bit silly that Superman can be taken out at the drop of a hat, even by a power ring, but it’s a fairly minor deus-ex-machina in what is otherwise a fairly solid story, so I suppose I can let it go.  Interestingly, though we have the continuity touch from the Atom’s story, we don’t get any sense of what is happening in Green Lantern’s book.  There’s no tension between the Emerald Gladiator and the Guardians, no comment about Green Arrow having had to cut short their road trip, nothing.  Of course, that is made all the curiouser by the fact that O’Neil wrote both of these stories!  Considering how much I dislike the ‘hard-traveling heroes’ bit, I’m pretty okay with that.

Justice League of America v1 080-16.jpgInside the ship, the Lanterns discover Hawkman and Jean Loring in comas just like Hawkgirl’s.  Hal accesses the ship’s log and discovers that they were attacked by a Thanagarian renegade that they stopped to assist when he sent out an S.O.S.  Apparently the fellow is some sort of doomsday cultist and thinks he is preserving their souls against the coming apocalypse.  This is actually a really interesting idea.  It’s a concept that Babylon 5 would toy with in a few episodes; what happens when someone who has access to incredible technology believes that the world (or universe) is doomed?  It’s a nice twist on the old idea of the apocalyptic cult.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t really go anywhere.  It’s an intriguing motivation for our villain, but he’s given zero development outside of that one panel, and the idea is completely dropped after this issue.  It would be really interesting if this had been followed up by the League investigating a related movement on Thangar or the like, or perhaps even a copycat movement on Earth.  There’s tons of potential here, but unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as if it was ever realized.

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Either way, when our villain left, Hawkgirl drifted out of the airlock as well, and the ship was pulled off course.  Having discovered this, the Emerald Crusader awakens Superman with his ring, and they head off towards Thanagar, thinking the deranged doom-sayer would make his way back home.  Yet, we know that they’re headed in the wrong direction, their quarry having made his way to Earth!  In the Satellite, the mad Thanagarian is toying with the artificial gravity, believing he has vanquished his foes, but Black Canary is somehow still conscious!  Apparently her sonic powers protected her…somehow.  Come on O’Neil.  All you needed was one lousy line of dialog saying something about the box working through ‘sonics’ or ‘vibrations’ or anything of that sort, and at least this would be comic book-plausible.  Silly or not, Dinah is awake and kicking, and she tackles her foe.  Yet her timing is quite poor, as she knocks him into the transporter tube just as the Flash and the Atom are returning!

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Now we get a really nice fight where the Atom gets his time to shine.  He blitzes the spaceman, using the lack of gravity and his tiny size to zip all around.  Eventually he takes the cultist out, but the Ghenna box also goes out, out the airlock!  The Satellite is depressurizing again, and while Canary saves their unwelcome guest, it is up to the Tiny Titan to recover the alien device…and the souls of the Leagures which it contains!

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Without a moment’s hesitation, he leaps out into the cold emptiness of space, trusting in the quickly dissipating atmosphere from their headquarters and his own speed to get the job done before he dies…horribly.  He very cleverly recovers the box and gets back to safety using his size and weight changing powers.  It’s actually a really excellent example of both his heroism and his intelligence, a good moment for the character.

Finally, the team manages to restore the disabled heroes and the other victims, and Superman destroys the Ghenna Box, believing it to be too dangerous to leave lying around.  The last panel gives us a funny moment as The Atom and Green Arrow spot another doom-sayer on Earth predicting the end of the world.  See, missed opportunity!

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Also, since when did Hugo Strange become a doomsday cultist?

This was a fun issue, with an interesting problem that wasn’t something the team could fight their way out of, nor something that was too small for the scope of the book.  There was a mystery to be solved, something for just about everyone to do, and we even got a little bit of universe building and continuity attention.  It was genuinely exciting, and the villain’s motivation was unique.  I also loved the Atom saving the day.  I’m a sucker for an underdog story (which you might have gathered from Aquaman being my favorite character).  Yet, it did have its flaws, the underdeveloped villain and the too-convenient moments with Superman and Canary.  These are minor complaints, though, so I’ll give the tale 4 Minutemen, a good story, but not a great one.

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Showcase #90

Showcase_Vol_1_90.jpgCover Artist: Mike Sekowsky
Writer: Mike Sekowsky
Penciler: Mike Sekowsky
Inker: Jack Abel

We’ve reached the final chapter of Jason’s Quest, and it is certainly…something.  It’s an exciting enough story, but Sekowsky’s desire to leave this naturally finite story open-ended in order to allow room for an ongoing series begins to wear thin as the tale drags on.  It is certainly an interesting, unusual adventure, and Sekowsky’s art is pretty strong throughout.  I imagine he was sorry to see this project fail to launch, as he clearly put a lot into it.

We pick up once again with Sydney Greenstreet…err, I mean Mr. Gutman…err…I mean Tuborg, our hefty heavy once more berating his hired help.  Soon, gunmen are fanning out across Paris looking for our youthful hero.  He, meanwhile, is blissfully unaware, and he gets a job at a local nightclub playing guitar.  In another of the awfully convenient coincidences of this series, his long-lost sister just happens to show up there and recognize him from their meeting on the ferry.

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Here begins a comedy of errors involving a jealous boyfriend and a passel of assassins, which keep interrupting Jason’s attempts to enlighten this girl, who thinks they are complete strangers, about their familial relationship.  The errant youth has to practically drag her along as they flee for their lives, as he claims there is no time to explain.  This is part of the frustration of this issue.  Every time Jason begins to tell his story, something interrupts them.  Really?  “I’m your brother.”  That’s three words, Jason.  I’m pretty sure you could find SOME time for that in the midst of all this running around.

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They run from the gunmen, GG, the sister, probably wishing she had never met this kid, and they are saved by…hippies!  I think I’d prefer the gunmen.  They run into a weird, artsy Paris slum and are saved by a hairy artist type who thinks they are being pursued by the police.  He brings them back to his studio, which is apparently serving as a staging zone for an upcoming protest against the imprisonment of someone named Pierre Dondon, who, as far as I can tell, is fictional.  They’re planning their own Bastille Day.  As usual, these folks just spontaneously decide to help Jason and his companion.

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The pair decide to join the protest so that they can escape the notice of the assassins, but the killers keep pace with them.  Desperate, Jason beans the chief of police with his sign, hoping to get arrested and thus into protection.  Yet, even in the paddy wagon, he can’t find time to explain the situation to his sister who must really be thinking this guy who has effectively kidnapped her is nuts!

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The hippies free them by trapping the police van, but apparently Tuborg’s agents have really upped their game.  Really, they are crazy competent all of a sudden, and nothing the protagonists try shakes their pursuers for more than a moment.  Another motorcycle chase ensues, and when the siblings stop at a cafe to hide in plain sight, they just so happen to run into the jealous boyfriend again, right as Jason was beginning to tell his tale.  Like I said, this is getting sort of annoying.

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Well, Jason our hog riding hero manages to lose the gunmen by riding into a building.  He knows it is only temporary, though, and he decides he has to protect his newly discovered sister.  He happens to be in a manikin warehouse, and he dresses one in her clothes and heads off to draw their pursuers away.  We end with the two parted once more, and, despite Jason having set a place for a rendezvous, his sister is, obviously, quite determined to never see him again.

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Sorry Mike, but I don’t think it’s gonna’ happen…

In the end, this is an okay story with lots of action.  It’s effectively one long chase, and it does have some clever moments.  Still, it becomes monotonous, and the Showcase run ends with nothing actually resolved.  Not only did Jason not even tell his sister their secret, but he didn’t recover the macguffin, I mean, the evidence either.  So…essentially, we’re right back where we started.  It’s not a very satisfying ending, nor is it a terribly great concept.  Sorry Sekowsky, but I think there’s a reason this one didn’t get picked up.  In the end, I’ll give it 2.5 Minutemen.  It’s not bad, per se, but it is very forgettable and a little frustrating.

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On the plus side, this issue also gave us a brief, three page preview for next month’s feature, Manhunter 2070!  This was a cool little snapshot introduction to the character, who is a futuristic bounty hunter with a heart.  The story is very brief, so I’ll just offer a quick summation and no rating.  Basically, it’s a space-as-wild-West-esq setting, and we see a prospector (SPACE-prospector!) gunned down during a card game.

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His grand daughter sees this, and can’t get anyone to take action until Starker, our titular manhunter, steps in.  It’s a nice little sequence, as he says he’ll help her if she pays his fee, and when he finds out that she has only small change, announces that this is precisely what he charges.  He then takes the murderer out without missing a beat.  Color me interested!

 

Well, that’s it for this batch of stories.  It was a pretty good set, and I certainly enjoyed reading them.  We’re almost done with this month, so join me, later this week if I can manage it, for the last installment of May 1970!

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