- 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
“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.
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!
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.
Apparently close-ups are not too flattering for the mistress of magic…
Superman, 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.
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.
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!
Of 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.
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.
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.
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.
Back 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
“Brain-Child to the Dark Tower Came…!”
Writer: Roy Thomas and Len Wein
Penciler: Sal Buscema
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 three 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!