Into the Bronze Age: May 1970 (Part 1)

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Time to head back to the Bronze Age!

This month in history:

  • The National Guard, responding to rioting, kills 4 at Kent State in Ohio, prompting the creation of the song, “Ohio”
  • Construction workers break up an anti-war rally in NYC’s Wall Street
  • 100,000 demonstrate against Vietnam War
  • 100,000 march in NY supporting US policies in Vietnam
  • Race riots in Augusta Georgia, multiple deaths
  • Peter Green quits Fleetwood Mac to join a cult
  • Multiple nuclear tests by East and West

Man, things are heating up this month, and it is clear that both Cold War and racial tensions are rising.  The occurrence of the infamous Kent State killings is particularly noteworthy for American history, though I am struck by the fact that there were marches both for and against American involvement in Vietnam.  I think our national consciousness tends to downplay the fact that there was actually a lot of support for the war throughout the conflict, despite the fact that we think of it ending almost purely because of the force of popular opinion.  Eventually the weight of public opinion did shift, but I don’t think it was ever as monolithic a force as we tend to imagine.

In what strikes me as a strangely fitting bit of synchronicity, the top song for this month is The Guess Who’s “American Woman.”  Make of that what you will.

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.

Action Comics #388

Action_Comics_388.jpgCover Artist: Curt Swan
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Roussos

Well, as you might guess from that cover, this is a wacky one, but as it pretends to be nothing but just that, it’s actually more than a little fun.  The whole issue is like one of those activity books for kids full of different types of puzzles.  It’s basically one long ‘spot what’s wrong in this picture’ game, and there is plenty to spot.  It’s a rather charming, goofy, and purely Silver Age-ish bit of fluff, but it is fun nonetheless.  In fact, this book is so completely and utterly bananas, that I’m going to have a devil of a time summarizing it.  Have fun spotting all the errors in the pages I include; it will take some doing to note them all!

The story opens with a weird, wacky splash page that sets the tone for what’s to follow, featuring a mixed up mish-mash of the Justice League greeting a bewildered Superman.  Each Leaguer has something out of place, many bearing the wrong symbols or even the wrong faces under their masks!  Notably, Aquaman has the face of Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman.  This is fitting enough, as this entire issue reads just like a tale from that venerable humor magazine.  As much oddness as there is on this page, Swan was apparently afraid to mess with the Amazing Amazon; the only thing wrong with her is that she is wearing her old costume.

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The plot, what there is of it, centers around the Earth suddenly being replaced by an odd-ball world that bears more than a passing resemblance to Bizarro World.  We find a version of Mr. Mxyzptlk that seems like a neanderthal version of a leprechaun.  This odd edition of the 5th dimensional felon meets up with a surprisingly eloquent and erudite Bizarro, and they begin to make plans.

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Meanwhile…gosh, this is even harder than I thought.  Just…just try to keep up with the madness, okay?  Meanwhile, Superman is all set to marry a particularly scatterbrained and easy going Lois Lane, prompting check-ins with lots of characters acting out of, well, character, including Lois’s old flame, Sgt. Rock, who receives a Dear-John letter from the girl reporter.  Wow, the postal service on this alternate Earth is great, delivering to the past, specifically World War II!  He…apparently has Wonder Woman’s robot plane, so he heads to Metropolis to take out his rival.  Back in town, our usual Superman somehow arrives in this topsy-turvy world, and he doesn’t know what to make of all this craziness.

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Next, it looks like trouble is stirring as Lex Luthor, with a glorious head of hair, and Brainiac in Mxyzptlk’s threads stop by.  But what’s this?  They’re only there to deliver their wedding present, a bizarre monster to serve as a pet.  While trying to sort out what is happening, Superman finds himself attacked…with syrup?  How about brussel sprouts?  How strange!

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Bizarro and Mxyzptlk show up to add their presents to the wackiness, but things take an even stranger turn when Sgt. Rock launches his final assault with, very specifically, five-day-old garbage, his syrup and vegetables having failed.

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Finding none of these “weapons” successful, Rock gives up and leaves Lois to the better man.  It turns out that this world’s Superman is actually vulnerable to all of these random substances.

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Finally, a scientist shows up and explains, as if any explanation could possibly really work here, that his experiment has accidentally switched Earth with an alternate dimension’s version of the planet while Superman was off-world.  They do some comic book science to switch it back, but the important thing is that on the alternate Earth, the wacky wedding takes place without a hitch…I guess.

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Well, this is certainly an entertaining little descent into madness, though there isn’t really anything to it other than Bates deciding to have some fun turning Superman’s world on its ear.  It manages to work by being entirely honest about what it’s after, and it has some genuinely funny moments. I have to say, I love the image of Sgt. Rock, hardened veteran soldier, pelting Superman with garbage.  Excuse me, five-day-old garbage.  It’s really a bit hard to rate a humorous issue like this, but I suppose I’ll give it a fun but silly 3.5 Minutemen out of 5.

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It seems that the Legion tale this month is, “Sun Boy’s Lost Power,” is a reprint, so I won’t be covering it.  Interestingly enough, the editor claims that this type of tale has been heavily requested by fans.  I wonder if there is any truth to that or if they are merely covering the lack of a new story.  It really could be either.  After all, this is the age before comic book stores, so it’s not like it was easy to find back issues.

Batman #221

Batman_221.jpgCover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Dick Giordano

“Hot Time in Gotham Town Tonight!”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Dick Giordano

This is a solid Batman story of the common type that seems to be emerging from this middle era between the wackiness of the Silver Age and the pathos of the Bronze Age.  It has an excellent cover, which, now that I think about it, actually looks a lot like a scene out of the Arkham series.  Though this cover is only very loosely related to the story within, it is certainly a nice image, one that might have convinced me to pick it up in those long lost days.

The basic story is a fairly simple one, though with that touch of the fantastic that seems to characterize this intermediate era.  It seems that normally docile animals all over the German countryside are suddenly turning vicious.  One fisherman was devoured by…trout!  A farmer was also attacked by a pair of formerly passive oxen that suddenly turned murderous!  The source of these disturbances seems to be some sort of pollutant that has seeped downstream from a chemical firm on the Rhine.  In a rather convenient turn of events, it seems Bruce Wayne is in the country visiting a possible business partner, (a lot of that going around these days) Baron Willi Von Ritter, and it just so happens, that the local authorities suspect that his factory is the culprit.

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Bruce agrees to check him out during his visit, and arriving at Biochem-Fabrik, LTD, he discovers it to be located in a massive, imposing medieval fortress that was expanded and updated by the Nazis in World War II.  It seems the good Baron was actually dragooned into working for the Third Reich, but he was cleared of any wrongdoing during the Nuremberg trials.  This, of course, leads us, as well as our hero, to wonder if perhaps the powers that be were a little too quick to give Ritter a clean bill of moral health.  While there, Bruce meets the Baron, his pretty young wife, and Otto, his assistant.

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We learn a bit about the Baron at this point, and I have to say, I rather like this fellow.  We really only get part of a page to develop his character, but Robbins and Novick do a lot with that little space, and you get a nice sense of who he is with that economy of image and word that only comics can manage.  Von Ritter leads his guest through his castle, past hunting trophies and, most interestingly, a padded jacket, goggles, and sabers which Wayne recognizes as a “Heidelberg dueling outfit.”  This is apparently a real thing, and I am more than a little happy that this comic led me to learn about this practice.  Apparently, students in Europe have a practice of joining dueling societies, and ever since the 18th Century, they’ve been engaging in duels of honor where the objective is to mark your opponent’s face while bearing any and all wounds you yourself receive with discipline and courage.  This was seen as a measure of character and training for manly virtue….and I have to admit, I’m more than a little sorry that my own academic exploits haven’t been accompanied by a few duels.  I mean, I’ve enjoyed being a fencer, but this is something of an altogether different sort!

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Well, the effect of this little moment and the Baron’s pride at his own dueling scar, which he refers to as his “badge of manhood,” is to tell us that he is a disciplined, serious man with deep sympathies towards old traditions.  Of course, we’re meant to see this as indicative of Nazi leanings, but it is just possible that they point to an older, more honorable heritage.  The whole effect reminds me of Babylon 5‘s Londo Mollari, who was part of a similar dueling society that shows up in a great episode.  It’s a minor detail, purely atmospheric, but I found the real practice behind it, as well as what it tells us about the good Baron, to be quite fascinating.  Extra points for Robbins for the historical tidbit, which he explains only with context, leaving readers to search out the reference on their own.

Anyway, you’re probably wondering what all of that has to do with this story, and the answer is ‘pretty much nothing.’  Sorry, it just caught my interest, and it lead me on a merry chase for the history behind the concept.  Who says comics aren’t educational?  The tale really takes off when our favorite billionaire-playboy-with-a-secret retires for the night and the Batman begins to prowl through this ancient edifice!  Good job keeping your identity safe there, Bruce.  I’m sure no-one will connect the American hero with the lone American staying at the castle.  Well, silly risks aside, he finds a hidden lab packed with animals, and within, a shocking sight: a lamb savagely attacking a cowering lion!  The two animals fight in a pit as a hooded figure with a whip watches with too-intense interest from above.

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Batman realizes he has discovered the root of the strange occurrences, but this mysterious character will not go down without a fight.  He employs his whip in a manner worthy of Indiana Jones, or perhaps Zorro, managing to entangle the Masked Manhunter long enough to fit him for a very ironic fate.  The fiend unleashes a horde of common bats that have all been injected with his “killer” serum, which brings out the, well, you guessed it, killer instinct in any creature it is administered to.  This is all part of a plan to create a new master race for another shot at that whole ‘thousand year Reich’ thing, which didn’t work out so well last time.

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The bats attack the Bat, and though he shields himself with his cape, he knows that it is only a matter of time until they tear him apart in a death of a thousand cuts.  Yet, the Dark Knight is cool headed, even in the worst of extremities, and, while reflecting on the bats’ ability to hunt by using their natural sonar, he spots the means of his salvation, a seemingly useless bit of tinfoil!  This is a fun, ironic scene and all that, but I have to think, no matter how aggressive, bats just wouldn’t be all that dangerous to a man.  But then again, we’re dealing with a world of super science and all sorts of craziness, so I suppose I can let it slide.

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Meanwhile, our masked villain has escaped, and we follow him to a rendezvous with the young Baroness, Ilga, where he is revealed to be none other than Otto, the Baron’s assistant.  The two make plans for a new Nazi resurgence, preparing to make the aged butler their first human test subject, when a battered but still very much alive Batman interrupts their efforts.

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Not one to give up lightly, Ilga injects Otto with the serum, turning him into a killing machine, but also removing all his inhibitions.  Unsurprisingly, he turns on her, and strikes a killing blow…with…a backhand?  That is one heck of a slap!  It’s a bit silly that she dies from what looks like a vicious but still pretty light blow.  Sure, if the guy had enough super strength to juggle cars, that would make sense, but that isn’t really what this drug does.  It’s a minor quibble, but I did notice the disconnect, as I was surprised when Ilga died from that attack.  It pulled me out of the story for a moment.

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As usual, Novick’s art is solid and serviceable, but I think the greatest strength may be his face work.  I love the expression of surprise on Otto’s face when his partner sticks the knife…err…needle in his back.  The Dark Knight tries to stop Otto, but most of his blows seem to have little effect.  He tries some judo instead, and in the type of ironic ending that comics just love, he flips the rampaging chemist directly into the pit with the still ravening lamb.  Yep, Otto is apparently killed by a lamb…despite the fact that he is ALSO pumped full of this serum, so he should probably be able to take even a particularly aggressive sheep.  That’s two, Robbins.  It is funny, but it does rather take away from the dramatic tension of these last pages.  Death by lamb!  Shades of How I Met Your Mother.

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The issue ends with Batman explaining his clever escape to the dying Ilga, because he’s got to have someone to show off to.  He remembered the Allies using tinfoil to confuse German radar, and he threw the bats off with the same trick.  “I know now–we never could have–beaten you!” the dying girl declares, to which Batman answers, “For the same reasons the ‘beasts’ have never beaten us–our strength is in our humanity for our fellow men!”  That’s a nice sentiment to end on for this issue, but there’s just one problem: it doesn’t actually fit the story at all.  Batman’s victory had nothing to do with compassion, just cleverness.  I suppose Robbins felt one moral was as good as another.

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In the end, this is, as I said, a solid tale, and I find myself inordinately fond of this fairly generic German baron.  I really wish we had gotten a check in with him at the end of the story.  I’d have liked to see his reaction to the betrayal of his wife and assistant.  I think not doing that is a bit of a missed opportunity, but perhaps I’m still just tickled by the idea of college students dueling with sabers.  Either way, this story, flaws and all, gets a fun 3.5 Minutemen.  I like the mystery and the misdirection, and I think Batman’s solution to dealing with the bats was particularly clever.

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“Hot Time in Gotham Town Tonight”

The backup this month sadly features neither Batgirl nor Robin, but it’s a fairly decent story, more about Gotham than about Batman himself.  It centers around a pair of firefighters who are running around town because of false alarms being turned in by a pair of punk kids.  The kids learn a lesson when a child is almost killed in a building fire, the fire engine having been delayed by their “joke.”

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Luckily, Batman is there in a nice splash.  I think there is a subtle message of racial unity in this tale, as the events take place in a black neighborhood, and the fire-fighting pair are black and white.  The duo has a little tension about how to handle the kids, but they manage to work it out.  More importantly, their combined efforts help to put out the blaze.  We’re also given a nice moment as a family welcomes their rescued child, after Batman gave the boy mouth-to-mouth to bring him around.

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This is where things take a turn for the weird, adding a wrinkle that this short story simply couldn’t support, as the fire inspector leads the firemen to the source of the blaze, one of their apartments!  Inside, the fireman’s kid brother, Joey, just returned from a tour in Vietnam, tells them that the whole thing was caused by the strange green statue he brought back with him, a statue that was reputed to have mystic powers!

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They scoff, of course, but just then the relic begins to shoot out strange rays.  Okay, sure, evil, fire starting Buddha, why not?  But that’s not the crazy part.  Out of nowhere, Batman shows up, struggling mightily against the rays and finally managing to shuck the statue out the window, where it smashes on the pavement below.  How did Batman know about this?  Where did this evil artifact come from?  Don’t ask such nosy questions, we’ve only got 8 pages!

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It’s not a bad story, but it certainly does leave some questions unanswered.  Now, we can no-prize this, say that the statue was part of some case Bats was working, and we’re just tuning in at the end, having joined the story in media res.  Such an explanation would work, but it would have been nice for the tale to provide one line of dialog to make the connection.  The final tag line also seems a bit off, declaring, “For the natural violence of life there is always the fireman!  For the supernatural violence of life there is always…the Batman!”  Well…that’s all well and good, but the supernatural really isn’t Batman’s bailiwick.  That’s much more in the vein of someone like the Phantom Stranger.  Speaking of that particular mysterious devil, he’ll show up in our next book!  Meanwhile, I’ll give this slightly puzzling yarn 2.5 Minutemen.

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Brave and Bold #89

Brave_and_the_bold_89.jpgExecutive Editor: Murray Boltinoff
Cover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: Ross Andru
Inker: Mike Esposito
Editor: Murray Boltinoff

Well, this is definitely a Bob Haney issue.  My goodness is it a Bob Haney issue!  He’s in full Haney-verse mode here, inventing new elements of the Batman mythos out of whole cloth, creating nonsensical plots, and making Batman talk like one of his slang-slinging Teen Titans.  The Phantom Stranger is our guest-star of the month, and it is interesting that the Stranger is still in the middle of his evolution in his own title.  The character still hasn’t been entirely nailed down, which is fortunate, because Haney would likely have blithely ignored anything that had been established.  As it is, the Stranger is a bit off in this issue.

The tale begins with an unusual and not terribly attractive splash page.  We’re still a ways away from the wonderful run of Jim Aparo on the Brave and Bold art chores.  Apparently, a weirdo Amish-ish cult…err…sect is strolling into Gotham, complete with covered wagons and livestock.  They are led by a neck-bearded mystic with a shepherd’s crook who goes by the name of Josiah Heller.  Apparently, these are the “Hellerites,” who have come back to reclaim what was theirs in the early days of the city.  The police aren’t happy with this bizarre parade, but apparently the Hellerites aren’t breaking any laws.  It’s funny that Batman has to remind the freaking police commissioner about what the law says.

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We get a flashback to what happened to the Hellerites in the 19th Century, a history that has totally always been part of Gotham’s past.  Apparently, because the Hellerites looked and acted differently, people didn’t like them.  They were treated as outsiders, and when a child was found mysteriously dead, the Hellerites were blamed.  A riot ensued, and their settlement, at the center of modern day Gotham downtown, burned to the ground, their leader, the original Josiah Heller, with it.

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The modern day Hellerites have come back to demand reparations for their land that was stolen by the Gothamites’ ancestors.  The cult camps out in Gotham park, where apparently there is no law to prevent it because “no one ever tried it before.”  I find that hard to believe, that no bum had ever tried to camp out in the park rent free.  Anyway, the new Heller begins to preach fire and brimstone, threatening Gotham with various mystical judgements if they its citizens don’t grant his demands.

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I think it’s funny that the hippie looking folks are sympathetic.

Gotham is split, and because we’re still in 60s mode (I imagine that Haney will be perpetually in 60s mode always and forever), this causes riots and protests.  The City Council is also split, as the land the Hellerites have demanded is the most expensive real estate in Gotham City.  Surprisingly, Bruce Wayne argues in favor of these demands, citing it as their responsibility to make up for their ancestors’ sins.  This struck me as really weird, but then again, the whole setup is so bizarre that it’s hardly worth picking on this particular nit.

The story takes off when The Phantom Stranger shows up and has a enigmatic tete-a-tete with the demanding Mr. Heller.  The Stranger tells the neck-bearded one that he’s tampering with dangerous forces, and then vanishes when Heller tries to “smite” him, knocking himself unconscious.  Batman has overheard all of this and searches the unconscious cult leader, discovering some clues that indicate this fellow is not what he appears to, including cigarettes, even though the Hellerites don’t smoke.

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After this encounter, strange things start happening around Gotham, as spectral Hellerites begin to wander the streets, demanding land that they once owned.  No one can tell the difference between the ghosts and the flesh and blood types because they apparently still dress the same a century later, 1700s chic!  Things get wackier from here, as the Stranger shows up again to warn Batman about the danger to the city.  Batman, despite the fact that he was just dealing with the supernatural in his own magazine, is completely unwilling to accept that such things are possible.  How very Haney.  It’s at this point that professional wet blanket (as Rob Kelly calls him), Dr. Thirteen shows up.

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He does his usual bit, calling the Stranger a charlatan, but then Haney gives us something that is, admittedly, as awesome as it is crazy.  We get to see the good doctor karate chopping the Phantom Stranger, dropping him like a ton of bricks!  Ha, I can’t imagine the Stranger being taken out like that in his own book, but I have to say, it’s fairly entertaining, and a nice panel to boot.  Thirteen even uses a drug to ensure that the mysterious man with the disco medallion stays unconscious for a good long while.

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This isn’t quite a head-blow, but I’m going to count it!

Yet, a close encounter with a ghostly Josiah Heller makes a believer out of the Dark Knight, and a check in with the police department computer (what, the Batcomputer is on the fritz?) helps our hero to begin piecing together the plan, such as it is, of the specters.  It seems that the Hellergeist is after the town’s first born sons, including, apparently, Dick Grayson, who is magically transformed into a warlock by the curse of the Hellerites because, of course he is.  He zaps his partner, pins Alred to a wall, and then levitates the modern day Heller, spouting something about how only this new Heller can end this waking of the spirits.

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Realizing that he’s out of his depth, the Masked Manhunter goes to pull the Stranger out of police lockup.  Despite Thirteen’s drugs (a bit creepy that he just has those on him, isn’t it?), our enigmatic hero awakens in time to aid the Dark Knight in a showdown against the ghostly Heller.  The Stranger’s ill-defined powers seem to be overtaxed with fairly minor deeds, leaving Batman to pick up the slack, taking out his ward-turned-warlock.  He also determines that the modern Heller is actually an imposter, which is what caused all these problems in the first place.  He is actually a fugitive named Karl Loftus who lost his memory and, thanks to a resemblance to the original Heller, was taken for a long lost descendant.  Apparently the Hellerites are rather easily led.  The convenient arrival of a sheriff helps to snap the fellow out of his delusion, in turn banishing the restless spirits…somehow.

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The story ends with Thirteen still skeptical, despite the fact that he’s seen things in this issue that are pretty darn hard to account for.  Ohh, and the Stranger vanishes once again.  I wonder if Batman appreciated how annoying that is when someone does it to you.  Their leader gone, the Hellerites trek out of Gotham, their departure as pointless as their arrival.

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This is a fairly average Haney story, I suppose, wacky and weird, though not so stupid as to be particularly troublesome.  As you can tell, I didn’t put too much effort into understanding this plot, though I’m not sure if it would have helped if I had.  The characterization is typically off, but the scene of Thirteen karate chopping the Stranger is worth something.  As usual, the story is jam-packed, but the final effect is not one of Haney’s strongest.  I’ll give it 2.5 Minutemen.

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Well, that’s it for this week’s selections.  I hope you’ll join me next week for another league further in our journey Into the Bronze Age!