Into the Bronze Age: July 1971 (Special Edition)

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Happy Halloween dear readers and assorted Internet travelers!  As promised, I have a treat for you, hopefully avoiding any tricks you might be tempted to play on me!  I’ve got a special post prepared in honor of the spooky spectacle of Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, the night before All Hallow’s (All Saints) Day, when Christian tradition calls for believers to remember and honor the departed saints (believers).  On the evening before that day, the traditions that led to modern Halloween called on believers to remember those poor souls in Hell and Purgatory.  You can see how some of the holiday’s modern trappings are a natural outgrowth from such practices.

And make no mistake, this was a Christian festival in its beginnings.  As a medievalist, this is one of the things that bugs me, one of my pet peeves, especially when folks get up in arms about the evils of Halloween’s ‘pagan past.’  We might as well get angry that we named the days of the week after Germanic gods!  The claims of a pagan origin for Halloween are true in the same sense as those for a pagan origin of Christmas, insofar as medieval Christians co-opted some of the symbols or dates of pagan celebrations, noting similar themes and ideas.  Ancient and medieval Christians recognized the synchronicity between such practices and their own celebrations, seeing in the pagan festivals the attempts of humanity to reach toward the divine, blindly and falteringly, but chasing after truth nonetheless.

Archetypally speaking, the symbolism, the mythic weight of these celebrations, was striving to deliver similar messages to their own.  Thus, rather than seeing the pagan tradition simply as evil and demonic, many of the Church Fathers saw it as a flawed precursor to Christian Truth.  This was, of course, never a monolithic and settled proposition, but it was general practice.  This was a natural position for medieval theology, which was built on the concept of types and antitypes.  They simply viewed much of mythology as the prototype that prefigured the eventual Christian revelation, a view shared by Christian archetypalists like G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis.

In honor of these traditions, today I bring you a story that fits both the ancient and modern themes of Halloween.  We are fortunate that the first appearance of Swamp Thing happens to fall in this month, and he is a character uniquely fitted to the celebration.  He is both dead and alive, a soul trapped in his own type of Purgatory, while at the same time fitting the modern taste for monsters.  He is a tragic figure, both horrific and heroic.

The origin of this tale is itself an interesting story.  There have been several muck-men in comics, but the first was the Golden Age character, The Heap.  As my friend Daglob likes to say, he was the original ‘muck encrusted mockery of a man.’  The original mobile pile of muck was WWI pilot Baron Eric Von Emmelman, who crashed into a Polish swamp, but was kept alive by the nature goddess Ceres, though the character was reinvented a few times over the years.  Those of you with a fairly deep knowledge of comics can probably already see the similarities to the characters that would follow this fellow.

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Next up, just barely edging out DC’s own resident vegetable based hero, was Marvel’s Man-Thing, who was created by Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, and Gray Morrow.  This monstrous anti-hero was once a bio-chemist named Ted Sallis who, while working on an experimental serum, was attacked in the swamp by AIM agents.  Injecting himself with his unfinished formula, he crashes his car during his escape, and in the fetid waters of the Everglades, he transforms into the macabre Man-Thing!

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Sound familiar?  Apparently nearly everyone involved with his creation realized that the Man-Thing sounded an awful lot like the Heap, but no-one really wanted to mention it, which makes what happens next even funnier.  You see, Marvel had only published one story of the Man-Thing’s strange adventures when DC came out with their own swamp monster, so he was still brand new and not well established.  Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson created a Swamp-Thing in House of Secrets #92, but he isn’t quite the Swamp-Thing of later fame.  Interestingly, Wein was Gerry Conway’s roommate at the time, and the Marvel writer, thinking that the origins of their respective muck men were too similar, tried to convince the DC staffer to change his, but Wein refused.  Decide for yourself how similar they are as we travel into the House of Secrets in our search for some Bronze Age Halloween thrills and chills!

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 #402
  • Adventure Comics #408
  • Brave and the Bold #96
  • Detective Comics #413
  • Forever People #3
  • G.I. Combat #148
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #84
  • New Gods #3
  • Superboy #176
  • Superman #239 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Superman #240
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #111
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #139
  • World’s Finest #202
  • House of Secrets #92 (Special!)

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


House of Secrets #92


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“Snipe Hunt”
Penciler: Bernie Wrightson
Inker: Bernie Wrightson

Editor: Joe Orlando

“Swamp Thing”
Writer: Len Wein
Penciler: Bernie Wrightson
Inker: Bernie Wrightson
Letterer: Ben Oda

“After I Die!”
Writers: Jack Kirby and Mark Evanier
Penciler: Bill Draut
Inker: Bill Draut

“It’s Better to Give”             “Trick or Treat”
Writer: Virgil North            Penciler: Dick Dillin
Penciler: Alan Weiss           Inker: Dick Dillin
Inker: Tony DeZuniga    

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Our spine-tingling Swamp Thing tale begins with our titular muck monster making his slow, shambling way out of his marshy home and towards an old mansion, which looms out of the fog.  We follow the freakish form’s thoughts as he travels, but the perspective shifts several times throughout the tale.  Inside the house, we meet Linda Ridge and her husband Damian (with a name like that, he’s definitely not the bad guy!), who are recently married, but we learn that he is not her first husband.  In fact, the love of her life, for whom she still pines, was Alex Olsen.  Apparently Alex was a scientist (check) who died in an explosion in his lab (mostly check).

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There’s clear tension between Damian and Linda, with her thinking of her lost love and him pressing her for affection and wondering what is going on behind her eyes.  Outside in the cold rain lurks a miserable monster, watching the tableau within.  Then our perspective shifts again, and we learn from Damian’s ruminations that he had always loved Linda and arranged Alex’s “accident.”  In a nice piece of visual storytelling, we literally see an earlier panel from a different perspective, which puts a different light on the moment, revealing the false friend’s fatal fury.

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After the blast, Damian hauled his burned but still living partner into the swamp, burying him there, where, presumably, the chemicals from the lab mutated him, though this is never explicitly stated here.  The reminiscing finished, Linda retires to her room, but her heinous husband is afraid that she is beginning to suspect him, so he plans to murder her.  As he approaches his would-be victim, the vengeful vegetative monster lurking without sees and bursts in.  The Swamp Thing kills his former friend, but unable to speak, he cannot communicate to his lost love, who is horrified, as one might imagine, by the sight.  Sadly, he turns away and walks forlornly back into the swamp.

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This is a good, though short, horror story, well told by Wrightson and Wein.  The shifting narration is a little awkward, but it does provide some nice opportunities to develop the characters in a small space.  It’s interesting to me how much is not said in this first story.  The nature of the monster is left entirely up to the audience’s imagination, with his identity strongly implied but his origin never explained.  This adds to the air of mystery and heavy Gothic atmosphere that surrounds it.  I’ll give this one 4 Minutemen, with the wonderfully tragic ending helping to raise the score.

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Of course, Alex Olsen is not the Swamp Thing that fans will come to know and love.  His appearance is still over a year away.  Nonetheless, this brief little tale obviously made quite a splash, with its swamp-creature star proving popular enough to encourage the powers that be at DC to task his creators with reworking their concept into a more heroic character to star in his own strip.  Thus, this Swamp Thing proves a true prototype for the ‘real’ one, and if we consider that later creation, we can see the similarities already.  There was not far to go.  Ironically, the revamping of the concept would bring him even closer to Marvel’s own muck-man.  In the new character’s origin, he was Alec Holland, also a biochemist, also working on a secret formula, and also killed by evil forces intent on stealing his work.
house of secrets 092 011We can already see the basic design of Swamp Thing in evidence here, most notably, the distinctive sloping, jowly structure of his nose and cheeks.  Mute here like his predecessors, the character would gain the ability to speak in his second incarnation, though speech would remain difficult for a long while.  Significantly, already present and something that sets him apart from the previous swamp monster characters is Swamp Thing’s internal eloquence.  He may be unable to articulate his thoughts to those that fear and hunt him, but this just amplifies his tragedy, as the reader, let in on his internal monologue, knows the intelligent, sensitive soul within the shambling bulk.

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This is an important distinction, and it separates the character from the standard misunderstood monsters like the Heap, Man-Thing, or the Hulk (some versions), with their almost animalistic intelligence.  The fact that this characteristic is present from the very beginning helps to establish the originality and uniqueness of the concept, despite the obvious similarities he has to the other muck-men.  It is arguably this quality which makes the character the enduring favorite that he becomes, elevating him into something more highly tragic, one of the ultimate romantic outsiders, the great soul isolated from the rest of humanity.  I think this helps to explain his enduring popularity.

Of course, Alan Moore would later revamp the creature once more for what is considered the definitive run on the character, changing him from Alec Holland to an avatar of nature itself and expanding his adventures in amazing ways.  I’ve never read this run (if only there were world enough and time), it having fallen in the gaps of my comic reading, but I’ll get to it one of these days.

For my part, I first discovered Swamp Thing in the same way as I imagine many from my generation did, through the early 90s cartoon. and later the live action films (the first of which I remember being quite good).  I loved that show, with its rocking opening, a take off of “Wild Thing,” and its standard 80s/90s cartoon format, with plenty of merchandisable allies, villains, and vehicles.  I fell for Hasbro’s pitch hook, line, and sinker, but there was something about the show and the character that I really responded to.  There is a roughness, a horror flavor, to the designs and the strange, creepy swamp setting, even with everything toned down to PG standards.

To this day, that show is still the first thing I think about when I think of Swamp Thing.  It actually made reading through his original run of comics a little challenging at times, because they were so different from the show.  Obviously, the comics have a lot more going for them, but it was still an adjustment.  More importantly, the show, the movie, even a few video games go to show you how far Swamp Thing penetrated the zeitgeist.  After all, this strange muck-man got a movie long before most of the rest of DC’s top characters!  Discounting the serials, he even beat Batman to the big screen by several years!

And that wraps up our overview of Swamp Things secret origin!  Thank you for joining me tonight.  I hope you enjoyed our journey through the House of Secrets.  Have a happy Halloween and stay safe.  Until next time, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

Into the Bronze Age: July 1971 (Part 3)

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Welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  In this post we’ve got old soldiers and new gods, plastic paradises and cosmic chaos.  It’s an interesting set of stories we have on tap today.  Join me as I work my way through them!

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 #402
  • Adventure Comics #408
  • Brave and the Bold #96
  • Detective Comics #413
  • Forever People #3
  • G.I. Combat #148
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #84
  • New Gods #3
  • Superboy #176
  • Superman #239 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Superman #240
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #111
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #139
  • World’s Finest #202

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


G.I. Combat #148


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“The Gold-Plated General”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Russ Heath
Inker: Russ Heath
Editor: Joe Kubert

“Blind Bomber”
Writer: Hank Chapman
Penciler: Mort Drucker
Inker: Mort Drucker

“Cry Wolf Mission”
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: Russ Heath
Inker: Russ Heath

“Soften ‘Em Up”
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Irv Novick

“Battle Window”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Joe Kubert
Inker: Joe Kubert

This month’s Haunted Tank adventure is a fun one, featuring an unusual guest star, of sorts.  That figure standing astride the tank’s turret on the cover, six-guns gripped grimly in his hands, is probably a familiar one to history buffs.  The cover image itself is a pretty good one, though a bit crowded by copy.  It’s a nice, dramatic image, and beautifully rendered by Joe Kubert in his stark style.

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The crazily courageous general isn’t introduced right away inside.  Instead, we begin with our favorite Confederate ghost, who actually does something useful!  He spies Jeb and crew sleeping as danger approaches, and the general causes a chill wind to awaken them.  The tankers rush to the Stuart, only to have a German tank light up the night with explosive shells.  They’re almost wiped out, and burning debris falls onto the tank.  Crawling low, they manage to reach their vehicle, and they proceed to play possum in a burning coffin, waiting for the Panzer to get close enough to kill.  It’s a pretty great sequence.

 

They hold their nerves long enough and manage to scrag the enemy, but the next day, covered in soot and grime, they meet their new CEO, General Norton.  The tall, resplendent figure, with a gold helmet and gold-plated six-guns, is not impressed, and after calling the unit together, he tells them that they are facing professionals who fight, act, and look like soldiers.  Yet, he claims that the tankers look like amateurs, and he insists on spit and polish, saying they’ll fight better if they look better.  They’ll have more confidence and pride.  Jeb isn’t too sure, but his ghostly namesake agrees.  Of course, this General Norton is an ersatz version of George S. Patton, perhaps the most hard-charging American general in World War II.  He’s a fictionalized version of the great leader, but he has the twin six-guns and the hard-nosed demeanor.

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The affectionate note of the parody/tribute becomes clear as, just then, a flight of dive-bombers attack, sending all of the tankers scrambling for cover.  That is, they all seek cover except the general, who stands tall, firing his pistols defiantly.  Afterwards, still holding his smoking guns, he declares, “From now on we fight on our feet!  We don’t take it!  We dish it out!”  It’s a great moment.  The next day, shaved and cleaned up, the force moves out on a German position, taking heavy fire.  Suddenly, the barrage lightens up, and Jeb sees that General Norton has moved into the lead, drawing the fire of the defenders and leading from the front.

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His tank smashes through a building to flank the German anti-tank guns, and his men follow him in, routing the Nazi troops, another great sequence.  The position secured, one of the crew pipes up to ask if they can drop the spit and polish act now that the General himself is covered in the grime of battle.  Norton’s response is great: “No Corporal!  You see…I’m the general!”

 

This is a good, solid war yarn, with more of a sense of whimsy and fun than most of these.  The inclusion of a Patton parallel is a fun touch, and the character is fittingly larger than life, as was the man himself.  It’s also nice to see the ghostly general Stuart actually do something useful, though his contribution is very brief and very limited.  I’m still hoping we’ll see some stories that will take better advantage of the device he represents.  We are only a few issues away from a big change in the title, so we’ll see! Russ Heath continues to turn out really fantastic work on this book.  The sequence with the crew waiting it out in the burning tank is really fantastic.  If we can’t have Joe Kubert, then Russ Heath is definitely the next best thing.  I suppose this good all-around war yarn deserves 4 Minutemen.

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P.S.: Notably, with this issue, Joe Kubert started adding the famous “Make War no More” slogan on his war titles.  It’s possible it predates their appearance here, but this is the first time it showed up in this particular book.  This was Kubert’s and Kanigher’s effort to tell war stories without glorifying war, and it’s an interesting gesture.  The slogan is appended to every story within.  Obviously this change reflects the growing anti-war sentiments of the DC creators, which in turn reflects that of the nation itself., and we’re approaching the end of the Vietnam War, which was brought about in large part due to the loss of public support.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this move.  After all, you could see it as a bit disingenuous to keep telling the same stories but just slap a slogan on them and claim that squares things.  Many of the war tales DC published do, in fact, deal with the horrors of war rather than attempt to glorify it.  Yet, there are those that are a bit more ‘ra-ra,’ especially with the number of reprints in these books.  I suppose that the slogan was the team’s way of making the best of a difficult situation.  Their job was to tell war stories, but they themselves had become increasingly anti-war.  Either way, this new event rather nicely illustrates the cultural pressures coming to bear on the medium.

 


Green.Lantern/Green Arrow #84


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“Peril In Plastic”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Bernie Wrightson
Colourist: Cory Adams
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz

We’ve got another issue of O’Neil’s Green Lantern, to which I was certainly not looking forward.  Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised by it!  It’s a very strange issue in a lot of ways, and yet, it manages to be much more enjoyable than most of his run.  The cover is not particularly great, however.  The use of the real image in the background rather clashes with Adams’ colorful art.  The plight of our heroes does look pretty dire, but the effect is not entirely successful.  Interestingly enough, the photograph is actually of DC legend Carmine Infantino.  I’m not quite sure what that says.

The story in question begins where the last issue left off, where Hal carried a still crippled Carol Ferris into the (non) sunset, having revealed his identity to her.  The two spend the following weeks reconnecting and rekindling their love.  Adams gives us a half page that has a really neat design to tell the tale of their romance.  Yet, when Carol decides to go visit another specialist in the hopes an experimental procedure will restore her legs, she tells Hal that she must do this alone….for plot reasons.

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At loose ends and a bachelor again, Hal saunters on over to Ollie’s new apartment, which is a far cry from his former rich digs.  As the two friends chat about love and music in a charming scene, they hear a radio broadcast about explosions at a dam protecting Piper’s Dell that threaten to flood the town.  Suddenly, Hal realizes that this was Carol’s destination, and he zooms off to stem the tide!

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Hard to envision Hal as a fan of Dixieland…

At first, the Emerald Gladiator tries to use his ring simply to smother individual explosions, but he realizes that he’s only playing damage control, so he creates a magnet and sucks the bombs directly out of the structure.  Finally, he patches the crumbling edifice with mud, creating an emergency fix.

 

Exhausted by the effort, the Emerald Knight is none too pleased when the town’s mayor approaches him and insists on honoring the hero.  Showing Hal the town, the Mayor, Wilbur Palm, presents cookie-cutter houses and a pollution-spewing factory.  When I read this, my first thought was, ‘oh no, not another environmental sermon!’  But O’Neil actually has a more subtle and humorous game to play here, to his credit.

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The Mayor tells his guest that the factory makes strange little pins called Kalutas, which, every few minutes, tickle their wearers and puff out a whiff of perfume.  Hal’s face as he’s given one of these things is priceless.  Suddenly, the entire town shakes and an odd sound fills the air, but the Mayor simply says it’s the machinery in the factory.

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In a funny sequence, Palm drags Hal up onto a plastic stage, which breaks as soon as the Lantern puts his foot on it, and presents him with a plastic key to the city, which also breaks immediately, all while the ceremony is taped, lacking a live audience.  Finally sick of this strange place, the Green Gladiator tries to take off, only to find that he can’t focus.  Suddenly an army of suits, the Mayor’s ‘Executive Board,’ descend on the shaken hero, beating him mercilessly.  Just before he passes out, Hal summons the last of his will power and sends his ring to Green Arrow.

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Unfortunately, just as the most powerful weapon in the universe arrives, so does Black Canary, and who is going to notice a world-shattering wishing-ring when she’s in the room?  Sadly for Hal, Dinah has gotten her head back together, and she’s come back to town to visit Ollie.  The two head out for dinner, the ring still lying undiscovered in the apartment.  It’s a fun piece of irony.

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Meanwhile, the Lantern awakens to meet an old foe.  It seems that he’s fallen into the hands of…Black Hand?!?  That’s right, O’Neil gives us an honest-to-goodness supervillain for only the second time in his run, and it’s an interesting choice.  Apparently, Hand was masquerading as the mayor, all part of a plan by his corporate masters, who sprang him from prison to run their program.  Essentially, Piper’s Dell is a test case, an experiment.  It’s the company town taken to it’s logical extreme, with the populace not merely beholden to their corporate overlords but literally controlled by them.

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The townspeople are rendered pliable and suggestible by the constant irritations and distractions of the Kalutas, the poisons in the air, and the mind-numbing sounds of the factory.  The villain demonstrates by showing his captive footage of a townswoman being convinced that the hero had tried to destroy the dam rather than save it.  This was, of course, all part of the plan, and Carol was lured to town in order to trap the Lantern himself.  The lovers are reunited, only to be turned loose into a town that has been programed to hate them.

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While one couple fights for their lives, another fights each other.  Dinah and Ollie are having a spat because the bow-slinger fought with a drunk who was hitting on the Canary.  After the lovely Ms. Lance takes her leave, the Arrow finally discovers the ring and quickly sets out to rescue its owner, stopping on the way to charge it.  Now, I’m not 100% positive, but am I wrong, or couldn’t Ollie just slip the ring on and use it?  Either way, we get another funny scene as the newly poverty stricken hero uses his last $20 to rent a dinghy, unable to afford a speedboat, and begins to row.

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Hal and Carol have their own problems, however, as they are being pelted with plastic bricks (!) and chased by crazed townsfolk.  Pinned against the edge of the dam, the Lantern prepares for his last stand when, suddenly, a familiar voice tells him to freeze.  Green Arrow has arrived in the nick of time, and he makes an incredible shot, threading the needle to send the power ring back to its owners, his arrow passing through Hal’s fingers!

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The newly empowered Emerald Crusader makes short work of the mob and smashes into Black Hand’s headquarters.  Despite the villain’s resistance, the Lantern easily disposes of him by melting the plastic roof and entombing his foe in artificial materials.  The tale ends with the gathered friends walking through town and wondering what could possess people to trade their freedom and independence for the type of life that those in Piper’s Dell embraced, only for Ollie to wryly gesture to the Christmas shoppers eagerly snapping up plastic Christmas trees at a nearby store.

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This is a surprisingly good issue.  It’s off-beat, unusual, and more than a little silly, but it is clever and rather whimsical as well, which makes up for a lot.  The lighter tone rather lowers the stakes for the comic, meaning it doesn’t have to work as hard to earn its keep and achieve its aims.  Importantly, the characters are all a lot more likeable than they have been throughout the run so far, with both Hal and Ollie coming off as heroic, intelligent, and capable, which has certainly not always been the case.  The character moments really make this story shine.  The romantic interlude with Hal and Carol is touching and sweet, while the interactions between Ollie and Dinah are pretty darn funny.

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It was also nice to see an actual supervillain show up, and I have always had a bit of a soft spot for Black Hand, despite the fact that he was (in the classic setting) a bit of a goofball.  Sadly, he doesn’t give that great of a showing here, easily defeated as he is and lacking his signature weapon, much like Sinestro in his previous story.  That’s a shame, and it feels like a waste, especially because, despite appearances, Hand is actually a really good choice for this scheme.  He was a grifter and a shill, a smarmy punk with intelligence and zero empathy.  He’s a great choice to head this corporate brainwashing program.  The scheme itself, despite being a bit silly, is at least of respectable dimensions.  The unnamed corporate overlords plan to effectively conquer the world with this technique.  That’s a threat that is worthy of Green Lantern, at least in theory.

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O’Neil’s message here is an interesting one, and it is delivered with a fair amount of wit and charm.  Essentially, this is a critique of the growing disposable, artificial nature of American lives, filled as they are with so much plastic stuff.  It’s interesting to see this concept show up here because it is a common sentiment for old timers today, and I know I’ve heard my father lament “cheap Chinese junk” more than a few times.  In addition, there’s the related theme of people allowing themselves to be distracted by all of these things to the point that they blithely trade away their freedoms and their identities.  This is similar to one of O’Neil’s earlier stories, interestingly enough, in a Superman backup.  Of course, Adams’ art is fantastic throughout, and he does a particularly good job with the satirical elements of the story, portraying Hal’s befuddlement in the town.  His quiet character moments really shine.  I suppose I’ll give this unusual issue 4 Minutemen, despite its silliness.  The character moments lift it up to a higher level, and the fact that is is more satiric than preachy renders its foibles engaging rather than off-putting.

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Green.Lantern/Green Arrow #84


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“Death is the Black Racer!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Jack Kirby

More glorious Fourth World madness awaits us in this next issue!  It is a pretty interesting one, introducing another of the zillion and one concepts that Kirby packed into his new mythos, but unfortunately it is one that never quite worked, the Black Racer.  This character seems to be an obvious attempt by Kirby to recapture the magic that conjured the Silver Surfer into existence, but in circumstances that he could control, and who could blame him?  The concept of the Silver Surfer is a pretty silly one, but somehow, it works, probably because of the beautiful simplicity of Kirby’s design.  The Black Racer is not quite so fortunate.  His design is fairly awful, with the garish red, blue, and yellow, the incongruous armor, the skies, and the ski-poles.  Personally, I think it’s the poles that put it over the top, but you could really take your pick, as none of those elements work all that well.

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The cover, for its part, is better than many of those we’ve seen from this set of books.  The photo-background isn’t as distracting as most of the others, and the color of the sky makes it less flat and boring.  The central figure of the racer, however goofy his look, is nicely rendered, and there is some drama to the composition.  Unfortunately, the ski-riding figure doesn’t have the dramatic visual impact of, say, Orion or Mr. Miracle.

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The story itself begins in grand fashion, with a high-stakes race through the cosmos, as Lightray flees from a mysterious figure on skis, the Black Racer.  The young New God tries everything he can think of to shake his implacable pursuer, but nothing works.  He filters his light powers through a giant, crystalline meteor to generate a beam of incredible heat, but his antagonist easily dodges it, matching the youth’s every move.

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ng03-10Meanwhile, on Earth Orion and his rescued human friends make plans to combat Darkseid’s terrestrial forces.  The various mortals each get a little characterization, and Kirby does a good job of developing them in a small space, but they remain largely unused.  As the Dog of War steps aside to put on some native clothes, he ponders his handsome visage, and we learn that Mother Box has reshaped his features to help him blend in on New Genesis and that his actual face is far more brutal and ugly than the one he shows to the world.  Orion, like his readers, wonders what this means about his origins.  It’s an intriguing scene.  His disguises, both guise and garments, in place, he rejoins his friends.

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Lightray, for his part, continues his desperate race, igniting a nascent star in his wake, but his pursuer still hangs grimly to his trail.  Finally, exhausted and distracted, the fiery youth smashes into a meteor and is trapped…until the mysterious Metron suddenly arrives, just in the nick of time, teleporting the Black Racer far away…to Earth!

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On that benighted globe, the Racer is quick to pick up new quarry, and he flies to the ghetto of Metropolis where he finds two gangsters involved in a shoot-out.  After one of the low-lives, Sugar-Man, kills his opponent, he notices that there was a witness to his crime.  An ex soldier, Sgt. Willie Walker, wounded in action in Vietnam and now paralyzed and speechless, lies helplessly in his bed while the thug prepares to kill him, just for good measure.  Suddenly, a gauntleted hand reaches out and blocks the gun, which explodes in Sugar-Man’s face.

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What follows is really striking, as the Racer steps casually through the wall, noting that he’s heard the wounded man’s silent pleas.  The strange figure offers Walker freedom and power, if he’ll just take his hand.  Unbelievably, the paralytic suddenly stands and speaks, and he finds his mysterious visitor’s armor empty on the floor.  When he dons it, he becomes the Black Racer and soars into the sky in search of new quarry.

 

Across town, Lincoln and Orion smash their way into an Intergang hideout, where the gangsters are preparing to plant a bomb for their Apokoliptian masters.  Sugar-Man is one of their hired killers, and the wounded criminal is dispatched with the device while his fellows try to hold off the heroes with their alien weaponry.  Yet, while Orion may be temporarily stymied, nothing stops the Black Racer, who follows the fleeing felon, triggering the bomb and sent it towards space (though a page later we’re told this was Orion with his Mother Box, which is a bit confusing; perhaps we’re meant to understand that the Racer just carries out what is already happening?).  Sugar-Man meets a rather noisy end in low orbit as the bomb goes off.

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The tale ends with Orion and his ally calling the police to take care of their captured gangsters while the Black Racer returns to Willie Walker’s room, becoming the paralyzed soldier once more just before his caretakers, his sister and her husband, come back.  They lament that they left the helpless man alone while a killer was on the loose, not knowing that he himself has become an embodiment of death.

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This is really a fascinating issue, despite the fact that it doesn’t entirely work, and some of its faults are pretty glaring.  Nonetheless, there is something special here.  The idea of introducing a cosmic personification of Death is certainly a fitting one for this setting, and in his way, the Racer fits well into the story Kirby is telling.  After all, the old pantheons always had their death gods, Anubis, Hades, Hela, and the rest.  It makes sense for the New Gods to be the same.  Still, in execution, the Black Racer is flawed as well as promising.  On the one hand, Kirby is adding some diversity to his new mythology, which, inspired by the Norse pantheon as it is, can certainly use it.  On the other hand, just like with Vykin, we’ve got yet another black character with ‘black’ in their name, as if we’d miss the subtle distinction otherwise.  We’re really past the point where creators should know better.  It is noteworthy that Kirby begins to introduce ghetto-based black characters at this point, right as the ‘blaxploitation‘ genre is taking off.’  Remember, it was this very month that saw the release of Shaft, which defined the genre.  Clearly, not only were racial issues in the zeitgeist, but so were stories of minority protagonists in their own settings.

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Silly sobriquets aside, Kirby is doing more than just introducing another celestial champion here, and it is the Racer’s other half that really resonates in this story.  The plight of Willie Walker brings a truly engaging human element to this cosmic drama.  His story is heartbreaking, yet like Daredevil before him, his disability is revealed not to be a bar to his freedom, but in this case the price is a strange and perilous one.  The setup is rich for development and story possibilities, though, if I recall correctly, that potential goes unrealized in the short life of this book.  Time will tell on that score.

On the art front, Kirby’s not at his best in this issue.  His work is often rough and uneven, and some of the big moments are a actually rather unattractive.  This is also true of his designs.  While the gangster character have some of that classic Kirby panache, the Racer is just a mess.  It is fun to see Orion playing Phillip Marlowe, complete with fedora and dark suit, though.  This is just a flawed treatment of a flawed concept, but both the issue and character it introduces have a certain amount of charm despite their failings.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen, as despite rough art and a poor design, there is something worthwhile in the Black Racer and his debut issue.

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Interestingly, according to the Kirby Museum’s great article on New Gods #3, apparently DC was eager for characters that could be spun out of the King’s Fourth World should it prove a hit, so part of the insane productivity and fertility of these books is probably in response to pressure from the powers that be, as well as Kirby’s own desire to populate his own comic book universe.  He certainly had enough different concepts introduced in these books to furnish an entire comic line, from the Black Racer to Lonar the Wanderer (who we’ll meet eventually).  That certainly sheds a new light on some of the unusual narrative choices Kirby made in his Fourth World titles.

Well, whatever the case, we have run out of post!  Three more issues down, and entertaining reads all!  I hope that y’all enjoyed my commentary and will join me again soon for the next batch of books.  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive, and try to stay ahead of the Black Racer!