Into the Bronze Age: July 1970 (Part 1)

DC-Style-Guide-2.jpgHoly Hannah!  I began writing this post all the way back at the beginning of summer, and here we are at its end.  My how the time has flown by!  I’ve been hard at work on my mods, finishing two of them during these months, Marvel Adventures Vol. 2 and Pulp Adventures, both of which will be released soon.  Know my time has been well spent!  Well, if this post won’t kick off the summer, at least it can be the beginning of a fond farewell, with another journey Into the Bronze Age!  Join me as we begin to explore the comics of July 1970.  *Sigh*  I was almost ahead there for a while!

This month in history:

  • Unrest continues in Ireland, with riots and clashes aplenty
  • The first 747 takes to the skies
  • America’s Top 40 debuts on the radio with Casey Kasem (of course best known to this particular commentator as the voice of Robin and Shaggy)
  •  Libya orders confiscation of all Jewish property
  • USSR performs nuclear tests
  • Race riots in Asbury Park and Hartford

The top song this month was Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me (Not to Come),” which is great fun!

As you can see, it was a pretty ugly month, with unrest and conflict everywhere you look, along with a healthy does of Cold War saber rattling.  Let’s see if the comics reflect that harsh climate or offer us an escape!

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

  • Action Comics #390
  • Batman #223 (reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Brave and the Bold #90
  • Challengers of the Unknown #74 (Final issue!)
  • Detective Comics #401
  • G.I. Combat #142
  • Green Lantern #78
  • Superman #227 (Reprints)
  • Superman #228

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

Action Comics #390

Action_Comics_390.jpg“The Self-Destruct Superman”
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Roussos

“The Tyrant and the Traitor”
Writer: E. Nelson Bridwell
Penciler: Win Mortimer
Inker: Jack Abel

The headline tale in this issue was a Silver Age-y miss, but as seems to be the rule for these Action Comics books, the Legion backup saved the day.  The Superman story isn’t bad per se, but it does engage in several of the common Silver Age Superman tropes that I rather heartily dislike.

The Man of Steel’s adventure starts with a slight tremor dislodging something buried deep beneath the White House.  Suddenly, a strange device is accidentally activated, and the President, in classic comic shadows, calls the Man of Tomorrow to warn him that “it” is coming for him.  It seems that Superman gave the President a secret weapon to use against him if he should go rogue.  I wonder what Batman would give to have one of these tucked away for a rainy day.  Of course, if the President had this thing, one wonders why it wasn’t used on any of the zillion occasions where the Last Son of Krypton went nuts because of Red Kryptonite, brainwashing, or just because it was Tuesday.

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Nonetheless, the mysterious mechanism hunts Superman all across the Earth and even into the past!  He can’t seem to shake it, no matter what he does.  He tries flying through the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, and he even leads the device into the path of the gigantic meteor that struck Arizona in the distant past.  That last one manages to bury the weapon for a time, though, if it is capable of time travel, it seems like it could just make that time up by going back a little earlier…time travel!

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Well, nothing the Man of Steel does manages to do so much as scratches this thing, and the reason why, such as it is, gets revealed when Kal-El is contacted by a Kandorian scientist.  Apparently the device comes from Krypton, so “it’s super like me,” as our hero declares…and that brings us to my biggest problem with this issue.  This is a common trope from the worst part of the Silver Age Superman mythos.  Writers apparently forget their own setup for the character, that he is super powered because of the interaction of his biology and the conditions on Earth, like the yellow sun.  Simply being from Krypton doesn’t make an inanimate object super.  This is the kind of breakdown in story logic that bugs me.

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Well, back to our story.  Before the scientist can tell the Last Son of Krypton (except for all of those other kryptonians in Kandor), the weapon arrives, sending the hero running for cover.  For some reason, he is filled with paralyzing fear whenever it approaches.  Superman used ‘self-hypnosis’ to remove knowledge of the device from his mind to protect its efficacy, but the Kandorian managed to give him one last tip before he had to flee.  The machine is tracking the Metropolis Marvel through his brainwaves.  Taking a desperate gamble, Superman puts on a “relaxer hood,” a trophy from his space adventures that blanks out a person’s mind.  Unable to track non-existent brainwaves, the device self-destructs!

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When the hood shuts off, Superman visits Kandor and gets the whole story from his friend.  It seems this machine was actually created by Jor-El, his father, who apparently left this incredibly dangerous weapon just lying around his back yard, where a young Kal stumbled across it.  Way to go, Jor, real father of the year move there.  After accidentally activating the kill-bot, the boy was fortunately saved by his father, who deactivated its weapons permanently.  The even left an indelible mark on Kal-El’s psyche, causing him to be terrified of the gadget even years later.

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This isn’t a bad story, despite it’s glaring logical flaw.  That does hurt it, but the basic premise of Superman facing a threat that he can’t outdo physically is a solid one, done many times over the years, of course.  His solution is reasonably clever, but the whole thing doesn’t really come together in any particularly impressive way.  I’ll give it 2 Minutemen, knocking it down a bit because of the stupidity of the ‘ohh, it’s from Krypton, this inanimate object must be super in the same way as a living organism!’ bit.

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“The Tyrant and the Traitor”

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Now this Legion tale is much more promising, displaying a sophistication and a potential that is decidedly more impressive than the headline story.  The basic setup is very interesting, with a pleasantly surprising complexity and a sociological realism.  The premise is that there is an uprising in progress on the planet Lahum, a world ruled by the tyrannical “President Peralla,” who has his sights set on galactic conquest.  Unfortunately, the rebels are not any better, being led by a vicious fellow named Diol Masrin who, even worse, is just a pawn for some sinister sounding organization called the Dark Circle.  At the moment, the conflict is merely planetary, thus the United Planets cannot intervene, but the Legion, being a private organization can.  What a set-up!  Minus the sci-fi trappings, this could easily be the plot for a solid G.I. JOE story from the awesome Larry Hama comic run.  Those stories often featured morally ambiguous situations that the heroes had to navigate, choosing between two evils or the like.

Apparently, this operation is to be undertaken by the Legion’s “Espionage Squad,” which I didn’t even know existed.  How neat!  Chameleon Boy is the head, and we get a rather nice Mission Impossible-esq scene with him picking his team.  The undercover operatives will be Brainiac 5, Timber Wolf, Element Lad, Saturn Girl, and Karate Kid.  The Legionnaires have to infiltrate the rebels by hijacking a shipment of contraband weapons from a crew of smugglers, and then posing as gun-runners to make contact.

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Once on Lahum, the Legionnaires jump the rebel officer who comes to inspect the guns, with the help of Proty, Cham’s shape-shifting pet, disguised as one of the weapons.  Chameleon Boy himself takes the officer’s place, with the help of Saturn Girl’s telepathy, and the The other Legionnaires pose as volunteers for the rebel force.

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Their infiltration is running quite smoothly until their column is hit by the “Humanoids,” artificial troops of the planetary tyrant who are rumored to be unstoppable.  The Legion pitch in during the battle to maintain their cover, blazing away with the newly acquired blasters, but the strange foot-soldiers reform as soon as they are blown apart!  The situation looks hopeless until Element Lad disables the Humanoids by turning the ground under their feet to mercury, sinking them into the very earth…err…Lahum.

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Once in the rebel camp, the team makes contact with Masrin, pretending to be fellow operatives of the Dark Circle.  They are welcomed with open arms, but a little later Cham discovers that the officer he’s impersonating has a sweetheart in camp, and he has to do some smooching to keep his cover.  It’s a fun little detail, and Chameleon Boy’s “the things I go through for the Legion” line made me chuckle.

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Meanwhile, Saturn Girl has split off to infiltrate the other side of this conflict, and she poses as a science student in order to get a position as a research assistant with the tyrants chief scientist.  There’s a nice little moment when she reaches the capitol, as she is disgusted by the “primitive” conditions that Peralla’s rule imposes on his subjects.  There are no moving sidewalks or flying cars, how dreadful!  It’s a good touch to the setting, the idea that technological development and infrastructure would be different on a world like this, under the heel of a dictator.

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The tale ends with the chief scientist conferring with a young assistant of his about whether or not to hire the undercover Legionnaire, and we are greeted with a cliffhanger as the girl answers that she knows the heroine’s identity!  Dun, dun, DUNNN!

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This is a great tale, with some solid action, but the best part of it is the maturity of the set-up.  You’ve got some moral complexity as well as some science fiction trappings.  The heroes are up against a challenge that is not only going to be very difficult to overcome, removing BOTH the rebel leader AND the powerful Peralla, but also quite interesting.  Bridwell squeezes a great deal in only a few (12) pages.  He does a fantastic job of being economical with his storytelling, yet still providing everyone with something to do and developing the principal characters, like Chameleon Boy and Masrin, very effectively in the limited space.  This story doesn’t have the space to be flat-out amazing, and it is still just a solid adventure tale.  Nonetheless, I’m very impressed.  It was by far the most interesting yarn I read in this batch.  I’ll give this one 4 Minutemen.  The strength of the setup really takes it a long way in my book.

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Brave and Bold #90

Brave_and_the_bold_90.jpg“You Only Die Twice!”
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: Ross Andru
Inker: Mike Esposito
Editor: Murray Boltinoff

This is a weird one, definitely fairly Zaney Haney.  While I like Adam Strange and would be happy to see him guest star in Brave and Bold, he really doesn’t do so here.  The Hero of Rann is essentially just a plot device, having almost no part in the actual story other than to instigate some of the events.  This is one of those left-field stories that put Bayman through the type of arc that would be a “bold new direction” these days, lasting months or years and drastically altering the character’s status-quo.  For Haney, though, this is a Tuesday.  The ridiculous events of this tale are precisely the type of thing that gave rise to the phrase, Earth-Haney, as such things really don’t fit in with the main DCU, no matter how Silver Age-y it is at a given moment.

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Get ready.  This is going to be a weird, wild ride.  This zaney yarn begins with Batman interrupting a mob hit in a barbershop, saving the life of a notorious criminal named Jarrett, but apparently losing his own in the process!  That’s right, Batman catches a burst from a Thompson submachine gun, and he goes down for the count.  The EMTs load him into an ambulance, and just as they are preparing to leave, a reporter wonders aloud what Batman’s place in history will be and what his obituary will look like.

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Strangely enough (or naturally enough in a Haney story), this snaps the Dark Knight back from the brink, and he awakens, surprising the heck out of the medics.  After his narrow scrape with death, Bruce Wayne broods about how he will be remembered when he dies.  One might pause to wonder how the recovering, wheelchair-bound Wayne managed to escape from the doctors and EMTs with his secret identity intact, seeing as he almost died, but then one would be expecting too much logic out of a Bob Haney story.

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Later, we get our plot device appearance from Adam Strange, who just shows up while Batman is patrolling the streets.  The Hero of Two Worlds tells the Caped Crusader a strange story, relating how his usual Zeta Beam transit between Rann and Earth was interrupted by solar flares, which somehow shunted him into the future.  During his brief stay, he saw  Batman’s obituary!  He managed to snag part of the article before he was pulled back through time, but unfortunately the date didn’t make the trip.  What’s more, the obituary contains some strange and ominous information.  It declares that Batman died in disgrace, having betrayed those close to him and pushed everyone away (so, like modern Batman then?).  There’s a funny, though rather ill-fitting scene where Batman wanders distractedly through the middle of the Gotham street, completely absorbed by the article.

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brave and the bold 090 010.jpgHe narrowly avoids all kinds of troubles, finally bumping into a businessman named Mike Morrison, who tells the Dark Knight that he’s being hunted by the same thugs who were after Jarrett at the beginning of the story.  Apparently he was desperate and took a kickback, which the mob used to blackmail him.  When he refused to pay, they sent trigger men after him.  Bat’s saves Morrison from a gunman, then goes to have a word with the syndicate behind them.  Here we get one of those bizarre Haney moments, as Batman cuts a deal with the criminals to protect Morrison because he has no proof of their wrong-doing.  Instead of, you know, beating a confession out of these thugs or dangling them off of a rooftop or anything, the Caped Crusader agrees to just let them do whatever they want for two weeks.  Imagine that.  Doesn’t that seem entirely anathema to Batman?  Well, not in the Haneyverse.

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Of course, this is all a setup, and Batman is smeared for making a deal with them.  Publicly humiliated, he loses his temper and belts the mob’s lawyer in front of city hall, opening the city to a lawsuit.  Sheesh, I’m running out of energy!  Well, to skim over this tangled web of Haney madness, Commissioner Gordon resigns in protest for…reasons, and the Dark Knight gets bitter and hangs up his cowl.  He drives Alfred away, brooding over his coming death and the seeming inevitability of his fate.

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I have to admit, Batman at a hearing in front of a committee is a pretty funny image…

So, he does the natural thing…runs off to Rann.  Yep, he catches a Zeta beam with Adam Strange and hides out on another planet, figuring he can’t die on Earth if he’s not actually on Earth.  That’s actually pretty solid reasoning, if one has the resources to flee the solar system when necessary.  Here we get a nice little montage of Batman doing touristy things on Rann, which is actually rather fun.  Nothing manages to cheer him up.

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brave and the bold 090 025.jpgYet, his fate does seem inescapable.  Watching an invention of Sardath, the Masked Manhunter observes a scene on Earth, witnessing Alfred having lost his life savings to the mob and being threatened by the thugs.  They want him to badmouth Batman in order to expiate his debt, but the loyal old retainer refuses, knowing that death will be his reward.  Millions of miles away, the Dark Knight realizes he has no choice.  He must return and face his own death in order to save his oldest friend.  We get an admittedly cool panel of his interplanetary transit via Zeta beam, and then a moodily inked but awkwardly drawn sequence where Batman infiltrates an Ellis Island stand-in known as Immigrant Island, where the gang is holding Alfred.

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Apparently the great Detective has lost a step during his retirement, because a gunman gets the drop on him.  It looks like this will be all she wrote for Batman, until a gloved hand knocks the gunsel’s weapon aside.  Adam Strange to the rescue!  Yep, deus-ex Adam decided he couldn’t let his friend face his destiny alone, so he came along, and this is the first and last useful thing he does in this issue.

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The two heroes rescue Alfred…or rather, Batman rescues Alfred, and Adam Strange strikes a pose.  Seriously, Alfred does more in this scene than the ‘Hero of Two Worlds.’  Batman should have brought John Carter along.  The original dual-planetary hero would have been more help.  In fact, I’d read the HECK out of that story…anyway, I suppose I can’t put off this summary any longer.  Bruce and Alfred bury the hatchet, and the Dark Knight realizes that he jumped to a conclusion about that newspaper fragment.

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We end with what Rob Kelly likes to call the ‘Friendly Farewell,’ and a note about the inscrutability of fate.  All’s well that ends well…except for the damage done to Batman’s reputation, Bruce Wayne’s life, and Gordon’s career!  Ohh yeah, those things are just completely ignored, as one would expect from a Zaney Haney story.  It reminds me a bit of the totally complete solution to global warming from Futurama.  The problem is solved once and for all.  ONCE AND FOR ALL!

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As you can probably tell, this story didn’t exactly grab me.  Writing this summary was something of a tortuous undertaking, trying to keep all of the random Haney touches straight and make it make sense on the page wasn’t easy.  I can only assume that Haney just sat down at a typewriter, banged out a script, and never looked back to see if it made any sense.  Sometimes he came up aces, and sometimes he didn’t.  This isn’t the worst example of Zaney Haney-ness, but it isn’t a particularly good one either.  There could be a good story here, with a character’s struggle against fate and all that, but it doesn’t really reach that point.  In the end, I’d give this one 2 Minutemen.  It’s not great, but it isn’t terrible either.

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Challengers of the Unknown #74

Challengers_of_the_Unknown_Vol_1_74.jpg“To Call a Deadman”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: George Tuska and Neal Adams
Inker: George Tuska and Neal Adams
Editor: Murray Boltinoff

This is and isn’t the final issue of the Challengers.  This is the final issue of new material, sadly.  After this story, the book becomes a reprint title.  This is a shame because, as we’ve seen, this team is just starting to hit it’s stride.  George Tuska definitely turns in a fabulous job on pencils, and O’Neil delivers an interesting and entertainingly eerie supernatural yarn with the plot.  Once again, we see the Challengers dealing with something that really should be a bit out of their line, but we have a pleasant surprise that makes this tale work better than some of the others, a guest star known as Deadman!  Neal Adams lends his considerable talents to the Deadman portions of the story, so this is one fine looking issue.

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The book in question opens in suitably atmospheric fashion, with Deadman inviting us to enter his world of mystery and spirit, and we meet a frantic man pounding upon the doors of a crumbling stone prison.  The door is opened by a twisted little man, and the visitor, an older fellow named Dr. McJames, declares that he has what was promised, a huge ruby.  Just as the old timer is preparing to hand over the jewel, a voice rings out in the night, and who should appear but Johnny Double!  He’s DC’s answer to the hard-boiled detective, and I was surprised to discover that he had only been around a short time at this point, having debuted in 1968.  I rather expected that he was a character from the 50s, but apparently he’s late Silver Age.

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This is a nice little cameo, and he serves as our entrance into the story, catching us up on the plot and helping to bring the Challengers into the action.  He was apparently hired by the museum for which Dr. McJames works to determine if the scholar was stealing, and Johnny just caught him red handed.  It seems the ruby which was to be the currency of this late night assignation belonged to the museum’s collection.  Yet, the gumshoe knows that there is more to this than meets the eye, and he contacts to our heroes to see what that might be.

We catch up the Chals in a great panel with Red practicing his acrobatics and Rocky taking up painting, as he says, trying to improve his mind, “glom up some of that culture…refinement.”  His expression in that panel is just priceless, instantly establishing the character.  I don’t know if he’s ever more reminded me of the infinitely likable Ben Grimm.  I definitely am enjoying the characterization work O’Neil is doing with these guys.

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Interestingly, it has just occurred to me that we’re seeing a rather unusual cycle of influence here.  The Challengers of the Unknown inspired the creation of the Fantastic Four, and now the Fantastic Four is being drawn on in order to flesh out the personalities of the Challengers themselves.  In fact, even the tumultuous relationship between two members of the team has been adapted for this book.  Just as the The Thing and the Human Torch are always fighting with one another, so Rocky and Red are always in conflict here.  It’s notable that the ersatz Thing’s antagonist is the ‘fiery’ member of the team, Red.  I suppose it isn’t terribly original, but then again, what in comics, or any other literature, is?  Twenty-three hundred years ago Solomon said “there’s nothing new under the sun,” and I suppose it’s even more true now than it was then.

Well, their customary brawling is interrupted by the arrival of the rest of the crew, along with Johnny Double.  He fills them in on what he knows, which isn’t a whole lot, and points them in the direction of the mystery.  The fabulous foursome (actually a quintet at the moment, with Prof. tagging along), attempt to interview the the troubled scholar, but he refuses to talk!  Not one to be so easily stymied, Corinna uses her amazing powers of deus ex machina…err…I mean hypnosis.  Right, hypnosis.  She’s apparently a skilled hypnotist, as well an expert on mystical lore, a magician, and whatever else the plot requires her to be.  It’s a bit weak, but at least it is vaguely in the same vein as some of the skills we’ve already seen her demonstrate, and we’re far enough along in her tenure on the team that it isn’t quite as jarring as other inexplicable skills she’s evinced.  And, to be fair, it’s a lovely page.

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Of course, there’s a bit of an ethical dilemma here, what with hypnotizing someone against their will, and while it isn’t solved, I’m pleased to see O’Neil at least acknowledge it.  Red, of course it’s Red, raises an objection, but Corinna pleads necessity as she sensed “that he’s in deep trouble.”  Under the influence of her mesmerism, Dr. McJames relates his story, and an odd one it certainly is.  Apparently, his daughter fell ill, and medical science was helpless.  Suddenly, a spectral figure in 18th Century dress appears and sucks his child’s very spirit into a small, coffin shaped box!  The ‘ghost’ claims that he has taken her soul as revenge because one of the good doctor’s ancestors sentenced him to hang.  Yet, the spirit offers a bargain, the museum’s ruby in exchange for the soul of his only daughter!

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The Challengers decide to take the case and try to free the girl’s spirit, but Ace asks Prof. to stay behind because he is still recovering, a request to which the Prof. concedes…but with silent, though bitter, frustration.  Of course, this also serves as another chance for Red to be a jerk to Corinna.  O’Neil is really playing up the jerk angle with his character.

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The team heads to the ominous tower in search of the spirit box, which Corinna suspects is the key to the mystery.  When they arrive, they are greeted by the specter who threatened McJames, seemingly hanging from a gallows, offering cryptic and threatening warnings.  Trying to comfort a shaken Corinna, poor Rocky gets rebuffed once more, but while woe-is-me-ing, the hulking hero is toppled headlong by an unexpected attack.  That strange little man from the beginning of the tale hurtles out of the night, scattering the Challengers like ten-pins.  Before they can recover, he hi-tails it into the tower and bars the door, which only momentarily delays the mighty Rocky.

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Once inside, the quartet play a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the weird little fellow, eventually culminating in an acrobatic altercation in the rafters, as Red and Ace corner him.  The Igor-esq little fellow, named Nodo, apparently serves the ghostly villain of the piece, and he’s determined to protect the casket.  Yet, the vital McGuffin is smashed in the fight.  Much to everyone’s horror, they see the girl’s spirit drift away in the night, apparently in the grasp of the villainous ghost!  Here ends one half of the tale, and here begins another.

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This is one of the neat aspects of this story.  The first half is told from the perspective of the Challengers, but the latter half follows our spectral hero, Deadman, as he relates the end of the adventure for us.  He found his way into these events by visiting his old friend at his former circus, Vashnu, a seer and mystic.  Yet, Boston Brand finds his friend locked in his thoughts, so we get a frame within a frame, as he recalls how an apprentice of his, Seth Gross, betrayed his trust and stole both his secrets and the spirit casket from him.  I think we can probably see where this is going.  Gross learned the secrets of astral projection, and used this stolen knowledge along with the casket to pose as a ghost and extort the poor professor.

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Deadman sets out to track Gross down, and he arrives just as the “ghost” is putting on his hangman act.  The spurious specter heads back to his body, but Deadman beats him to it, and uses it as leverage to force the truth out of the weasel.  Deadman is steaming mad at Gross’s misdeeds, especially because he is running a big risk that time will run out before the girl’s spirit is rejoined to her body and it could be lost forever.

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deadman 074 027Realizing that he needs an astral body in order to save her, Deadman pulls a new stun.  He batters Gross’s spirit into submission, then actually possesses the spirit itself!  The pain and strain are incredible, but he manages to reach the tower just in time to save the girl and return spirit from whence it came.

Fortunately, the girl is restored, but when Deadman frees Gross’s spirit, he’s been driven insane by the ordeal.  Whoa, that’s pretty brutal, though seeing as he was going to do more or less the same to the girl, it’s hard to feel too bad for him.  Of course, Deadman does tell us that the bogus bogey, Gross, is now doomed to wander the earth forever.  So, we end with a fairly dichotomous moment, split between the happy reunion of father and daughter and their fond farewell with the Challengers one the one hand, and the shattered psyche and spiritual doom of Seth Gross on the other.  It’s an interesting end to the tale.

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That’s not the type of thing you expect to find in Silver Age story, that’s for sure!  There’s definitely a more mature tone to this tale.  For all of its faults, it’s goofier moments, it’s stretched set-up, poorly developed villain, and the clumsy exposition that drives too much of the plot, there is definitely something here that is markedly different from that which came before.  O’Neil is, as he has in several of the previous issues, pushing for more complex and compelling storytelling.  The effort may be flawed, but it’s still noteworthy.  The final result is an uneven but undeniably interesting read.  The art is really lovely and full of personality, suitably moody and atmospheric.  The characterization doesn’t advance too much, spinning its wheels with several already-old beats, but we do get a few nice moments. All-in-all, this is a fine story, and it seems like the creative team was just was really starting to cook.  That makes it all the more lamentable that this is the last new issue.  I would have enjoyed reading more of this cast of characters’ adventures.  So, this last issue of the Challengers earns a solid 3 Minutemen out of 5.

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Well my friends, that just about does it for this greatly belated edition of Into the Bronze Age!  With any luck I’ll be able to get back on track after this, most of the work on my mods being done at this point.  The semester is beginning, but here’s hoping it will still leave me some time for this little project.  Join me next time as we travel further Into the Bronze Age!

 

 

 

Into the Bronze Age: May 1970 (Part 2)

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Howdy folks!  Welcome back to the Bronze Age.  Join me for the next stage of our trip!

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.

Challengers of the Unknown #73

Challengers_of_the_Unknown_Vol_1_73.jpgCover Artist: Nick Cardy
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: George Tuska
Inker: George Tuska
Editor: Murray Boltinoff

Now this is more like it.  While it’s got its weak points, this is a Challengers issue, hitting the notes that a good story of theirs should.  Interestingly, the editor includes a short missive in the letter column about the rotating cast of artists that the book has featured over the last few months, promising that they have finally settled on someone that they think is right for the Chals.  I have to say, George Tuska does a fine job with this story.  The art is good, but the layouts and general design is particularly impressive.  This is, of course, all the more bittersweet, since the book ends with the next issue.

This Challengers adventure begins with an out of control space capsule careening earthward and splashing down in the ocean.  It is immediately picked up by waiting support crews and landed on an aircraft carrier, which is depicted only in silhouette as dawn breaks over the horizon in a rather nice panel.

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The naval crew find the pilot dead, not killed by the force of reentry or anything of that sort, but strangled while trapped alone in a sealed craft 10,000 miles from earth!  Dun dun DUN!  Now that’s a pretty good problem for the Challengers, something bizarre and inexplicable.  Again, Tuska’s art conveys the message in an interesting way.  Just the image of that arm sticking out of the capsule and the startled faces of the officers tells you just about everything you need to know.

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We pick up with the Challengers who are camped out in Ace’s New York apartment, and we also pick back up with the old argument.  Red is an insufferable jerk to Corinna, again.  At this point, his boorishness is getting old, but the highlight of this scene is the return of the Prof!  He’s walking with a cane, but he is walking, and he’s back to his old self!  That’s a very pleasant surprise, as I rather imagined he’d been written out of the series permanently.

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Of course, this prompts Red to begin picking on Corinna, wanting to throw her off the team.  Also predictably, Rocky steps in to defend her, since the lady Challenger apparently can’t stand up for herself.  This leads the two to come to actual blows, where both show off their expertise, the strongman throwing Red around the place, and the acrobat flipping and rolling to stay in the fight.  It’s a nice sequence, even if this whole love/hate subplot is getting old.

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Ace arrives to break up the fight and inform the team about their mission.  Arriving at an air force base, the Chals meet a fellow named Major Cheever, an astronaut who will be their liaison during their visit.  Here is where things take a turn for the strange and we run into one of the only real problems with this issue.  Corinna suddenly receives “weird vibrations” and informs us that she is totally a medium, and she has absolutely been one all along.  This is definitely not a sign that O’Neil is making her character up as he goes along.  This is the problem with Corinna.  She’s really vaguely defined, and there is just no unifying concept behind her.

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Well, she runs off to find privacy to employ the ability that she’s absolutely always had, and she brilliantly decides that the base vacuum chamber is the best place.  I’m sure you can see what’s coming.  Of course, someone slams the door on her and turns on the mechanism, sucking the air out of the chamber.  I’m sorry Corinna, but it’s things like this that make it seem like Red, as much of a jerk as he is, might just have a point.  I’m not convinced you’re really Challengers material.

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She’s rescued by Rocky, who shatters the shatter-proof glass in desperation.  Corinna recovers, but the two guards who had been watching the facility have been shot!  Ace does some quick thinking and realizes that the guards have been staged to make it look like a murder/suicide, but apparently the killer is a moron, as the supposed suicide was shot in the back.  That’s not really all that much of a deduction there, Ace.  I guess you’re not exactly Sherlock Holmes, eh?

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Later, the Chals hold a seance to contact whatever is involved in this mystery, an idea that, unsurprisingly, Red opposes.  Ace overrules him, and they actually manage to make contact with…something, an otherworldly spirit, but just as it is about to spill the beans, someone throws a grenade in the window!

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The team scatters, but Rocky manages to smother the blast with a mattress, adding a nice line that it “takes more than a lousy hand grenade to do in a lunk like me.”  It’s a good moment.

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Challengers_73_15.jpgThe Chals head to the base and Ace, Red, and Corinna prepare to head up towards the Moon so they can challenge (sorry!) whatever is causing these problems.  They join Major Cheever, after Ace gives a nice little speech about how much still remains unknown about the cosmos to a dubious officer.

However, in space, the team is attacked by…Major Cheever!  Just then, a strange energy creature materializes in the capsule.  I really like the design for this being, amorphous and vaguely defined, fitting for an energy lifeform.  Having touched Corinna’s mind, the creature, named Machu, feels a connection towards her.  It resists Cheever’s orders, and it tells its story.  Apparently its race long ago came to the Moon looking for a new world to call their own.  This being was the guardian of his people, but because he failed in his duties, they were destroyed.  With his dying (what? breath? do energy beings breath?)…something, their leader cursed Machu, saying that he must stay in the cold emptiness of space until he destroyed two evil creatures as recompense for his failure.

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It seemed that the “wild black” drove Cheever insane, and his meeting with Machu convinced him that space was too dangerous to humanity.  He has become certain that the alien life that man will inevitably encounter, like this energy being, will corrupt humanity and eventually destroy them.  Thus, he has manipulated Machu’s grief to sabotage the space program.  It was this creature that strangled the astronaut, and now Cheever sics him on the Challengers.  Yet, Machu has learned from his contact with our heroes, and he realizes that his understanding of man has been flawed.  He attacks the Major instead, in a really nicely drawn sequence, which ends with the astronaut’s death.

 

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To atone for his mistakes, having killed an innocent man, Machu decides to end his own life to complete his mission.  Shocked, the Challengers begin their descent, coming back down to Earth and the end of their adventure.

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So, this is a good story, just the right kind of tale for the Challengers, where they encounter something new and unknown and solve their problems with more than just brute force.  It is really only weakened by two things.  The first, as already noted is the fact that O’Neil just can’t decide who he wants Corinna to be.  Yeah, the whole mystical element of the last issue does lay some groundwork for this sudden turn at being a medium, but it is just too much of a stretch.  If she hadn’t been shoe-horned into the team in the first place, she might have been able to develop more organically.  The second issue with the issue (sorry again!) is that our villain, Major Cheever, just shows up out of nowhere.  A bit more setup would have done wonders for the effect of the story.  As is, I like the mystery at the core here, I like most of the character work, and I really enjoyed the art.  The Challengers are probing the unknown, and that’s the way it should be.  The story just needs a little more room to breathe.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.minute3.5

Detective Comics #399

Detective_Comics_399.jpgCover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Bob Brown
Inker: Joe Giella
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“Panic By Moonglow”
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Vince Colletta
Editor: Julius Schwartz

This is a solid, enjoyable Batman tale, though definitely still a product of this intermediate era, like the other story of this month.  It gives you a look at Batman’s brilliance as a detective, as well as his mastery of martial arts.  It’s nice to have this balanced portrayal, though Bob Brown’s art doesn’t quite manage to match the action.  It’s always obvious when you have someone who doesn’t really know how to fight drawing a fight scene.  For super powered demigods slugging each other, that isn’t necessarily that big of a deal, but when you’re supposed to be seeing a martial artist in action, the results can look comical and awkward.

Nonetheless, the issue is fun, and it follows a pretty exciting cover.  I like its layered effect, Gordon’s arm, Batman crouched and ready, and the murderous Master Kahn (“Khhhhhhhhaaaaaaannnnn!”) behind him.  The story opens with Batman and a local martial arts master putting on a demonstration of close combat techniques for the police.  Now, clearly this is a bit of a holdover from the “policeman’s friend” Batman, but it isn’t too jarring.

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The pair begin to spar, and the Masked Manhunter embarrasses the hot tempered Master Khan, and in response, the fighter pulls out a knuckle-duster and tries to put the hero down.  Batman flat out cold-cocks him, knocking the fellow unconscious.

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This prompts a fit of whining from a fellow named Arthur Reeves, who is the “mayor’s new public works coordinator,” and something of a red herring in this story.  He doesn’t serve much of a purpose other than to add some texture and lightness to the tale, but I suppose he is rather entertaining, being something of a bureaucratic antagonist for Batman.  Most notably, he gives us a funny scene where, after complaining that the Dark Knight shouldn’t be trusted because he wears a mask, and no-one who “pretends to serve the public has any reason to stay hidden.”  In response, Bats simply lifts off the fellow’s toupee.  It’s a legitimately funny moment., and if not entirely fitting for Batman, it doesn’t seem entirely out of character either.  Even the grim avenger of the night might happily puncture the inflated ego of such a stooge.  It’s also nice to see a sign that not everyone in power approves of the Dark Knight’s crusade.

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Batman gets back to his crime-fighting efforts, and a month later, he answers the Bat-signal to discover that Khan’s dojo has burned down, and he seems to have died in the blaze.  “Seems to,” being the operative phrase, and I’m sure we can all see what’s coming.  Later, Batman and Gordon are called to a seance (a lot of that going around this month!) with the claim that vital information will be revealed to them.  On the way, a gunman tries to ventilate them with a Thompson, but the Caped Crusader manages to take him out by playing possum.

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Heading for the seance once again, and now knowing that it is somehow involved in this setup, Batman and the Commissioner meet a former hood named “Big Dough” Joe, who claims to have reformed.  It ends up being another red-herring, but it helps this story to feel a bit more fleshed out, and there is a good touch of humanity in this fellow’s brief appearance.  He’s trying to turn his life around, even thanks Gordon for putting him away, and yet we can’t help but be suspicious of him.

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Well, during the seance, a “medium” named “the Great Dilbert” (really dude?  That’s going to be your stage name?) puts on a show that features the “spirit” of Khan swearing vengeance on Batman from beyond the grave.  Interestingly, his plan is not to kill the Masked Manhunter, but to embarrass him as the martial artist himself was, by killing Gordon!  In response, the pencil-necked geek, Reeves, insists (how does he have any say in all of this?) that the Commissioner be locked in a vault and carefully protected where no-one can get to him.  In a solid display of the Dark Knight’s skills, the hero sneaks in disguised as a cop (somehow with his entire costume hidden under the uniform, cowl and all!), and then deduces that the Gordon they are protecting is a fake!

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The imposter is revealed to be “Dilbert,” but just as he is preparing to confess, he dies mysteriously!  It seems his partner poisoned the mask he was wearing to ensure his silence.  His dying “words” are ‘D..do..j..jo…” which, of course makes everyone suspect our formerly felonious friend.  The Caped Crusader has other ideas though, realizing that what the fellow actually said was “dojo.”

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He arrives at the ruined martial arts studio and discovers (gasp!) a very much alive Khan.  We get a nice, dramatic reveal as Batman confronts his adversary and they begin a duel, torch vs. katana, and then hand to hand.  It is an admittedly short fight.  Batman just straight-up outclasses this clown, and he drops him in relatively short order.

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This issue is a good, solid Batman adventure, with a reasonable mystery, some action, and plenty of personality.  It’s a pleasant read, if a bit underdeveloped.  After all, it’s only 14 1/2 pages.  I think just another page of background or attention for Khan could have added a good deal to the whole thing, but nonetheless, it’s a fun story.  I really do love that panel of Batman silently de-toupee-ing the weasel Reeves.  I’ll give it four Minutemen!

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“Panic By Moonglow”

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Let’s see if Robin performs any better in this adventure than in the first part.  As we remember, he was knocked out with a head-blow (Holy Hannah!  How did I miss that!  I’m going to retroactively add it to the list!), and we join him this issue as he comes to, looking up into the face of Zukov, the Russian scientist who was lecturing at the university.  The quarantine is still in effect, so the good doctor offers his quarters for Robin’s recuperation, but the Teen Wonder has more on his mind than rest.

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He is suspicious of Zukov, and he eavesdrops on his host.  It’s a good thing too, because the husky huckster is in cahoots with communist spies!  He lets them out of a trap door, and orders them to take out the “sleeping” sidekick.  Robin is way ahead of them, though, and he takes off to prevent the rest of their plan from coming together.  Apparently, they poisoned the student from the last issue with the aid of the soap the Teen Wonder discovered, but that was just to set the stage for their next move.  Once the boy dies, the Russians will use this to bury NASA under a storm of bad publicity for releasing a cosmic plague on the planet!

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Robin takes off to retrieve the Moon rock as evidence, and an over-eager National Guard sentry takes a shot at him!  This is a really interesting bit of synchronicity, given the violent events at Kent State this month, especially considering that this issue would have been written well before that happened.  Clearly, there was tension in the air during this year.

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Well, despite the sentry’s shot, our hero manages to reach the building’s roof, and the Russian agents attempt to intercept him.  Here Robin gets a better showing than the last issue, taking out two of his opponents in appropriately acrobatic fashion as he dangles from a rope.

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Inside, he confronts Zukov, who has a tiny, hand-held laser, and it actually functions somewhat like an actual laser, rather than the variety most commonly found in comics.  Unfortunately, Robin has another unimpressive moment, as, startled by a shot, he crashes through the skylight and snags his cape on the edge, leaving him a sitting duck for the spy.  Obligingly, Zukov begins to monologue, graciously explaining his plan, and Robin uses the time to free himself, and, in an admittedly nicely drawn sequence, catch his rope and slide down into the darkened interior of the building.

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A brief game of cat and mouse follows, and Zukov kills causes his own demise by slicing through one of the supports of the lunar lander module on display there, causing the vehicle to collapse and crush him.  Fortunately, the good guys find the antidote and rescue the poisoned dweeb, and all’s well that ends well.

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All-in-all, this is a fair back-up story, and it is definitely an improvement over the first half.  We get to see Robin do some pretty cool stuff, using his brains and his training, and even his goof in this issue leads us to a good sequence that shows off his skills.  The Russian plot is actually fairly clever and subtle, by comic book standards, and the Cold War tensions, as well as the surprisingly apt presage of campus-bound violence makes this issue rather interesting in retrospect.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.

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The Flash #197

Flash_v.1_197.jpgCover Artist: Gil Kane
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Vince Colletta

“To the Nth Degree”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Vince Colletta

This is a fun all around issue of the Flash, especially considering how rough most of the issues I’ve read have been.  This set of tales takes advantage of the character, the supporting cast, and the powers.  Sadly, no ‘Lightning the Speedy Hound.’

We start with Barry Allen working in his police lab with his long-time partner (who we’ve never seen before, of course), who is working on cracking a case.  The pair have worked together so long that they’ve developed their own non-verbal shorthand.  With a series of gestures they hold an entire conversation, with Barry rubbing his nose to indicate approval.

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Just then a call comes in that “Ice” King is in the middle of another robbery.  This is not a new supervillain, but a criminal of unlikely and fairly preposterous cleverness.  Apparently, Central City has been hit by heavy snowfall, and this creative crook has been making his getaways on skis to avoid the police on treacherous roads.

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It’s silly, but it is quite fun, and Flash tries several inventive tactics to catch this chilly criminal.  Of course our hero could simply super speed punch this fellow into the next timezone, but it fits the character that he’s challenging himself to find creative, relatively non-violent solutions.  He finally chops the fellow’s skis into matchsticks with super speed, but the thief has a heart attack as he tumbles into the snow!  Or at least, that is how it seems.

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Conveniently, there is an ambulance on hand, and they load him up and rush off.  Shortly Flash realizes that this was another clever plan by the “Ice” man (one wonders how long this run-of-the-mill crook could have operated in Central City before Captain Cold decided to show him who the real ice king is…).  Yet, this revelation comes from Flash’s crime lab partner, Charlie Conwell, and without thinking, Flash responds with the same gesture used by Barry Allen!

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The Scarlet Speedster tries to cover the gesture by faking a sneeze, but a seed of doubt is planted!  Nonetheless, the thief made good his getaway.  We’re next treated to a charming little scene between Barry and Iris.  This little glimpse of their domestic life is just plain lovely.  This the texture and joy that’s lost because DC has apparently become terrified of marriage, not to mention the moral aspect of that loss.  Anyway, Mrs. Flash is filling in for the Picture News’s drama critic, and she encourages her heroic husband to take up amateur acting.  He agrees and auditions for a production of Hamlet being put on by the police department.  It’s a nice bonus that the minor supporting character Dexter Myles, former shakespearean actor, is directing the play.  Barry snags the part of Horatio, and already we’re seeing lots of Flash’s life outside of the mask, which makes for a fun expansion of his world and character.

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Unfortunately, the cast all comes down with the flu right before opening night, but the Fastest Man Alive believes that “the show must go on,” so he decides to play all of the parts himself at super speed!  We get another of Kane’s odd collage panels, but this one actually works quite well, perhaps because all of the different elements work together to tell a single story.  After finishing his performance, the Crimson Comet is suddenly struck by that virus that hit everyone else, just as “Ice” King and his cronies show up, dressed as policemen, to raid the box office.  They decide to snuff the Flash because he seems helpless, but our hero super accelerates his metabolism so that the illness runs its course in moments.  It makes sense, in a comic book-y kind of way, and he’s able to roll with his assailants’ punches long enough to get back on his feet.

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He takes out the gang in a nice panel, and then he heads home to the ministrations of his caring wife.   Yet, he’s interrupted in his recuperation by his old friend Charlie!  Knowing him to be suspicious, the Scarlet Speedster uses his speed to appear as the Flash and as a bed-ridden Barry.  This convinces the other scientist that he must have been wrong about the hero’s secret identity, and he leaves Barry to recover.

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This was a fun, light-hearted story, which fits the Barry Allen Flash quite well.  After all, he’s not driven to be a hero by loss like Batman (despite later retcons); he does it because it is the right thing to do and, to a degree, for the fun!  He, like Aquaman, is an adventurer, but unlike the Sea King, his world is, for all of its color and charm, relatively normal.  Thus, it is fitting that we see a community of characters growing up around the Flash.

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For all of their silliness, that is something that the Silver Age adventures of the Scarlet Speedster accomplished quite well.  Central City is an interesting setting, and Barry Allen is much more a part of it than other characters, like Bruce Wayne/Batman, are traditionally part of theirs.  Gotham may be central to who Batman is, but Bruce Wayne is a man apart, while Barry Allen is working with the police department, taking up hobbies, and living a domestic life.  It makes him a character that I’ve always really loved, even when his adventures were too silly for my tastes.  This one manages to maintain the charm without too many of the more Silver Age-y trappings.  So, I’ll give it a hearty 4 Minutemen out of 5.  What do you say, Mrs. Allen?

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“To the Nth Degree”

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You might think from the title that this story might have something to do with Nth Metal, but nothing of the sort.  Instead, this is another misadventure courtesy of Flash’s father in law, the absent minded Professor Ira West.  These are usually pretty goofy stories, and I’m not that fond of them in general.  This one, on the other hand, is actually quite fun.  It starts with the forgetful academic having perfected a new type of telescope, one which can “pierce hyper-space–see stars thousands of light-years away” because, sure, that’s how light works.  It’s a really goofy idea, not even workable with comic book science, and it’s one of two in this tale.  Still, I suppose they can be overlooked, as nonsensical as they are.

Prof. West mixes up his addresses, and sends this experimental telescope (really?) to Barry, sending the amateur telescope that was to be a gift for his son-in-law to the Astronomical Society by mistake.  How is this guy allowed to run his own life?  Anyway, Flash gets his gift, but when he looks through it he sees, not the Moon, but a distant world in the midst of a violent volcanic firestorm!  Barry is not one to let suffering go unanswered, and he feels like he must do something to help the inhabitants of this  strange planet.  Yet, he’s not Superman, so how is he to get there?  Well…he…flies…through space…on the light from the telescope.  Because, once again, that’s how light works.  This is that other silly idea, but the payoff is pretty cool.
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He finds a planet populated by flame beings, and it’s a cool (sorry!) design.  Their world is breaking up, preparing to explode because of an overheated core.  The Scarlet Speedster leaps into action and begins to smother the overwhelming fires.  He even cools the core down with super-speed air blasts.

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He makes his way back to the light beam by stepping on grains of sand!  He gets back to Earth, and our tale ends with the absent minded professor absentmindedly destroying the experimental telescope.  Sadly, he also lost the formula, so the technology is lost to the world.

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This is a fun story with Flash doing some pretty cool super speed tricks to save the alien world, even if the deus ex-machinas that get him there are utterly ridiculous.  Prof. West is a lot more tolerable this issue, even rather likable in his brief appearance.  Silly in parts, but enjoyable overall, I’ll give this issue 3 Minutemen.

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Well, that’s it for this batch of issues.  I hope you enjoyed this leg of the journey, and please join me next week for another chapter!

 

Happy Easter!

Also, it just so happens that this post falls on an important day, perhaps the most important day in history, so allow me to wish you a happy Easter!  Today the True Hero returned, the fellow who all true heroes emulate in that defining trait of heroism, selflessness.

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Into the Bronze Age: March 1970 (Part 2)

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And back to the Bronze Age, March 1970!

  • Action Comics #386
  • Batman #220
  • Brave and the Bold #88
  • Challengers of the Unknown #72
  • Detective Comics #397
  • Flash #195
  • G.I. Combat #140
  • Green Lantern #75
  • Justice League of America #79
  • Phantom Stranger #5
  • Showcase #89
  • World’s Finest #192

Bonus!: Star Hawkins

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

Challengers of the Unknown #72

Challengers_of_the_Unknown_Vol_1_72.jpgCover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Frank Giacoia
Editor: Murray Boltinoff

This is an alright story that has the weakness of relying on an extremely convenient and ill-fitting deus ex machina.  O’Neil is clearly trying to shake the Challengers up and find a new grove for this book, just as he is doing for many other DC books during this period, but he has just as clearly not hit on the right beam yet.  This particular outing sees the Challengers move away from their science fiction roots and their comfortable, mad-science stomping grounds and into the mystical.  Now, there’s some precedent for the Challengers dealing with the occult, but it works best when the threat is something fantastic in origin but ultimately physical in its effects, something that the Challengers are really suited for meeting on their terms.  That’s not the case here, and the result is a bit odd, requiring a rather contrived set of occurrences for its resolution.

How so?  Well, follow along and find out!  We begin with the owner of a chemical firm named Murlin (get it?) ushering his employees out and then beginning to conduct dark and strange experiments.  The narrator helpfully informs us that much lore has been lost from the Dark Ages, and it seems this character, who apparently is doing some sort of chicken dance as he takes off his lab coat, is trying to rediscover the secrets of the alchemists.

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His efforts fail, but his cat drinks the imperfect brew and proceeds to spread a strange sickness to anyone who he touches.  This plague seems to be quite amorphous and unpredictable.  It spreads through touch, and those affected react either by becoming almost catatonic or by becoming violent and erratic.  As it spreads, we rejoin the Challengers where we last left them (can you remember that long ago?  All these books make it tough to keep up with plot threads at times!).  Prof. is still in critical condition, being kept safely apart from any chance of taking part in the story.  We see Red emerge with better news, however, as his operations were a success and he has two good eyes again!

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cotu 72 p09.jpgThe Borrowed Time Brigade begins to celebrate, but their revelry is cut short by the entrance of one of the plague victims who proceeds to attack poor, defenseless Prof.  ‘Ol Brainy just can’t catch a break!  After the team stops the patient, the hospital briefs them on the situation.  As the Challengers start to make plans, we see a return to the subplot of the love triangle, as Red mouth’s off in terms that make him sound like quite the sexist jerk, prompting Rocky to yank him off his feet.  It’s a good character moment, though Red is really coming off badly in these exchanges.  The Lady Challenger confesses to Ace that the whole situation is really awkward for her because she’s “quite fond of” Red, and, while she cares about Rocky, “we could never be more than…friends!”  You’ve got lousy taste, lady.

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Rocky, for his part, is developing a real endearing, Ben Grim-esq pitiable character beat, though without the Thing’s rocky orange countenance to blame for his bad luck and self deprecation.

And this brings us to one of the weird moments in this story that keep it from firing on all cylinders.  Corinna, from seeing the plague victims, is reminded of something she read in an old alchemy text.  She, apparently, just happened to spend her evenings doing some light reading of ancient and presumably incredibly rare tomes of Medieval alchemical instruction manuals, you know, like any sensible girl does on a Saturday night.

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Oh yeah, you read that in high school, right?

I know she was locked away in a creepy castle her entire life, but O’Neil seems to be forgetting what particular flavor of generic creepy castle he introduced way back in issue #69.  That was a traditional mad scientist setup, where a biologist was trying to create immortality through purely scientific means.  Despite an atmosphere that could suit Dracula just fine, there wasn’t a hint of magic or mysticism in that place.  But suddenly, Corinna is apparently a part-time alchemy expert.  It’s extremely convenient and more than a bit incongruous, both for the Challengers as a team, and for the character as established.

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Well, the team splits up, Red and Rocky scouting around town to see what they can see, and Ace and Corinna, who has totally always been into the occult, totally, go in search of an antidote in her personal library of alchemy texts.  We see our other would-be alchemist roaming the streets in his awesome green robe, where he tests his potion and discovers its unexpected effects.  I will say this, the art for this book is pretty strong, and Dillin turns in a solidly drawn story in that lovely, realistic 70s DC house style.  The highlight of the issue is probably the interesting, unique, and expressive face they give this one-shot, throw away villain.

cotu 72 p12.jpgWell, Murlin (not Merlin!) decides that, if he can’t be immortal, he may as well zombify the whole city…for reasons.  And here we get another one of the coincidences of the story as Red and Rocky just happen to be exploring this very same block, and Rocky just happens to see Murlin, and then just happens to think he’s suspicious and give chase.  Okay, maybe chasing the guy in the big green robe isn’t such a stretch after all, but the others totally are.

 

Rocky loses Murlin, who very cleverly outwits the Challenger’s muscle man by…going into a door.  Yep, that’s the extent of his evasive tactics.  He goes into his building, and Rocky apparently just looks around for a second, doesn’t see the guy in the open, and doesn’t bother to check the door.  When the heroes find the place at the climax, they tell Rocky that anyone could have missed this big, obvious door, but they’re clearly lying to spare his feelings.  Okay Rocky, I take it back.  Corinna doesn’t have lousy taste, as you’re clearly too stupid for date material.

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Anyway, the Challengers discover the cure and manage to stop Murlin right before he injects the plague into the water supply.  The wannabe manages to infect Rocky and Red in the process, and Murlin manages to stun Ace.  Just as he prepares to deliver the killing blow, Corinna saves the day by whacking him over the head.

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The other two are quickly brought around with the antidote, and they distribute it to the rest of the city.  With that, the day is saved, and Challengers welcome Corinna as their newest member, though Red insists that Prof could have done the same thing.

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It’s a fair concept, I suppose, but the sloppy writing (a crime O’Neil is occasionally guilty of), weakens it.  The central trouble of the plague is interesting, especially with the standard zombie/infection themes and threats, where even your allies may turn against you if they get infected.  I think playing that side of the drama up more could have made for a stronger tale, and the extreme convenience of having Corinna just happen to be an expert on alchemy was a bit much to swallow.  I’d rather have her prove her worth more directly than simply act as a plot device.  So, I’ll give this tale a below average 2.5 Minutemen.

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Detective Comics #397

Detective_Comics_397.jpgExecutive Editor: Carmine Infantino
Cover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Dick Giordano
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“The Hollow Man”
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Editor: Julius Schwartz

Alright!  Now here we go!  We have another Neal Adams illustrated Batman story, the second in Detective Comics.  The first, was of course, #395, which I covered HERE.  We are at the very beginning of Adams’ legendary tenure as THE definitive artist for Batman in the Bronze Age, and, arguably, for any age.  It is Adams’s amazing artwork that brings the dark and brooding tone back to the Caped Crusader, freeing him from the TV look of the Adam West show, and he’s already firing on all cylinders with this beautiful book, though we’ll see his style continue to improve over the next few years.  The story here is also superior to the odd offering of the previous Detective Comics issue, and though it isn’t one of the best this era will produce, it is certainly an enjoyable read.

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Let’s get started!  This tale opens with a lovely sequence where a set of frogmen clamber up out of Gotham harbor to raid a sea-side charity art exhibit (sure, those things happen all the time, no doubt), clubbing a watchman in the process.  Batman arrives in fine style, taking out half the gang before they even have time to react.  Yet the Dark Knight makes a fatal mistake by not freeing the watchman first, as the thus threaten to kill the downed man if the Caped Crusader doesn’t freeze.

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The crooks fire a pair of spear guns, seemingly skewering Batman, who is propelled off of the dock and into the murky waters of the bay.  I particularly like the image of Batman taking the hits and falling into the water, as well as that of the frogmen diving in after him.  Of course, the Dark Knight is not so easily dispatched!  He shifted his body within the shroud of his cape, and dodged the spears.  Mostly.  One of them hit his right arm, deadening a nerve.

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Unable to pursue the divers, Bruce heads home, and we get a nice moment illustrating his mastery of a wide range of disciplines, as he treats the wound and practices some yoga breathing to aid healing.

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detective comics 397 015.jpgWhile recovering, he hears the story of a Charles Foster Kane-esq character named Orson Payne, a clever elision of Orson Welles’ name with that of his most famous character.  The fellow even looks like ‘ol Orson when we meet him in a few pages.  This millionaire seems to have become a recluse after the woman he was obsessed with disappeared.  Bruce ignores all of this as he focuses on his recovery.  His cleaning lady arrives, and Wayne notices her seeming disgust with the TV, despite the fact that she always seems to leave it on when she leaves.  This little, seemingly minor detail will take on greater importance at the end of our tale.

detective comics 397 008.jpgAfter she leaves, Batman decides to continue pursuing the case, and he remembers a detail about the divers’ escape that leads him, via cool undersea sled, straight to stately Xanadu, err, I mean the Payne estate.  What follows is another excellent sequence wherein the Masked Manhunter infiltrates the estate through stealth and acrobatic expertise.

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He arrives to see Payne ranting like a madman to the painting that the divers stole so many pages ago.  It seems the millionaire is collecting, by hook or crook, every image of his beloved missing paramour.  Batman demands the return of the painting, and the aged magnate tries to kill him!  They play a game of cat and mouse in the mansion, and Adams manages to keep the action rather wonderfully realistic, with the Caped Crusader surviving a dead drop through martial arts training, and escaping through aid of his batrope and a handy chandelier.

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The action ends when the madman pursues a specter out into open air, forcing Batman to save his life.  Bruce returns home, and when his cleaning lady returns, once again displaying disgust for TV coverage of Payne, he realizes that she is, in fact, the missing woman.  Apparently she abandoned everything and chose a simple life rather than be controlled by the obsessive Payne.  Given how everything turned out, I’d say she made the right choice!

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While the story isn’t amazing, it is interesting, logically consistent, and the art is beautiful and wonderfully effective.  Adams’s style on a Batman book is a perfect marriage, as he does an amazing job with moody lighting and staging and realistic action.  The final effect for me is a good, solid 4.5 Minutemen.

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“The Hollow Man”

This is the conclusion to the Batgirl backup from our previous issue, and it is a fair ending, though the villain’s motivation is a bit of a stretch.  We pick up right where we left off, with Batgirl grabbed by the Orchid Killer.  She flips him over her head, no fainting violet she, and discovers that it is not her date, Max, but a stranger who knocks her out with…a backhanded slap…forget what I said.  Batgirl goes down like a chump.

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She awakens to find Max, apparently having saved her.  He claims that her attacker ran off as he came back to check on the ruckus.  Batgirl decides to try to bait her trap again, and after a date with another goofy looking fellow turns violent, it seems like she might have her man!  Then Jason Bard steps back into the story, coming to her defence.  The detective gets in a good shot, but then he is betrayed by his bad knee, and the attacker gets away.

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Babs checks out his address from the computer dating card, and she finds someone still packing up.  She “finds” him by smashing straight through a window she THINKS MIGHT belong to the killer, and hitting him with the full force of her dive.  She bases this on this being the only light on in the vicinity about where the apartment might be.  It’s a good thing she didn’t crash in on some poor, unsuspecting Gotham citizen, maybe snapping his spine in the process!

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Well, this guy turns out to be her mysterious assailant, and he has a set of masks, including one of “Max!”  Now here is where this begins to fall apart.  So, Max was actually the killer the whole time?  Then why didn’t he kill Batgirl when she was out cold?  That makes zero sense.

The killer, despite constantly posing as homely guys, actually has movie star good looks, and this apparently is the source of his grudge against women.  They never cared about who he was, just his handsome face, so he searched for a woman that would accept him despite the plain masks he wore, and he killed him when they didn’t…ooookay, I guess that works.  It is an interesting inversion of the usual man/woman dynamic, with men tending to judge women by their looks, but I suspect that the reveal is hampered by having to be squeezed into 2/3rds of a page.

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I love how she just sits down casually on his bed to discuss all his murders.  It’s not like this guy is a threat because he completely kicked your caped backside a few pages ago or anything, Babs.

It’s not a bad story, but the easy defeat of Batgirl and the inexplicable sparing of her life by a serial killer really hurt it.  I’ll give it 2.5 Minutemen.

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Flash #195

Flash_v.1_195.jpgCover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Murphy Anderson

“I Open My Mouth…But I Can’t Scream!”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Vince Colletta

This is another of those offbeat issues of the Flash that I warned y’all was coming, but this one really isn’t too bad.  It’s a slightly odd but somewhat charming story, and it has a few nice little moments in it.  The main problem with this tale is the fact that its resolution was pretty rushed, wrapping things up too quickly.  The plot is a fairly simple one, and it features a belated addition to the Flash mythos, that staple of Silver Age heroes, the super pet.  Except, sadly, this pet has neither superpowers nor a cool dog-sized mask.  In this issue, the Flash will get a dog!  That dog will then be promptly ignored by future issues!  Wait, that last one wasn’t quite as exciting…though, I suppose neither was the previous idea, because it didn’t seem to make much of a splash in the book.  That’s a shame, because, despite the goofiness, I do enjoy these types of Silver Age synchronicity.  A super-fast dog could have been entertaining.  I’m rather surprised that they didn’t arrange ANOTHER lightning+chemicals accident to give this dog speed powers.  After all, they’d already done that for Kid Flash.

And it gets lonely on those long runs.

The issue opens with Flash, having appeared in a charity telethon, signing autographs, and Kanigher throws in a fun set of inside inside jokes.  The names of the kids getting Flash’s John Hancock are those of comic book luminaries and letter writers!  Mark Evanier, Peter Sanderson, and Irene Vartanoff all get a nod.  That’s cool all by itself, but I also like scenes like this.  Flash’s very public and very beloved profile in Central City is part of what makes him unique.  The only other hero with a similar open setting is Superman, but Flash has an accessible, grounded persona that is even more ‘home-town-hero’ than Superman.  That’s something that they totally captured, albeit with Wally, in JLU’s “Flash and Substance” episode.

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Well, after Flash has finished making his fans’ day, he heads home through the park, where a young, aspiring actress asks him to take some publicity photos with her to boost her career.  Because he is so easy going and good natured (why I love Barry as a character), the Fastest Man Alive agrees, only to be ambushed!  The “photographer” blinds him with a light of “volcanic intensity,” and gunmen try to rub our hero out!  I’ll just point out that the Owl Gang (I’m already missing those guys and their gimmicky costumes) tried this exact trick last issue, and it was completely ineffective.  Here, it almost works, and Flash just about knocks himself silly trying to dodge his assailant’s attacks.  Way to keep things consistent, guys.

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Flash seems doomed to take a bullet when a dog rams the gunman…because dogs always attack by body-blocking, not by biting or the like.  It’s a very awkwardly drawn panel, too.  Anyway, our canine champion scatters the remaining thugs, standing guard over the Scarlet Speedster until he recovers.  Before he can discover the dog’s name origins, the powerful pup takes off, and the Fastest freaking Man alive, can’t catch up to him or find him.

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The next morning, Barry discovers that the heroic pooch from the previous night is going to be destroyed for killing its master.  Unable to believe the dog, Lightning, is capable of this, he rushes to the pound to plead his case, and then he sets out to investigate.  This gives us one of those weird collage images that Gil Kane seems to have become so fond of.

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Unable to find anything useful, he breaks his furry new friend out.  Flash pulls a weird stunt where he propels Lightning at super speed (that’s ALMOST like he’s got powers!).  While racing through the city, they discover a blind man drowning.  Apparently he fell off his houseboat.  One wonders if perhaps a houseboat might not be the safest residence for the sightless, especially if you can’t swim, which seems to be the case with this fellow.

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Lightning jumps in to save the gentleman, and this convinces Flash that he is no killer.  Looking for anything to help him prove the pooch’s innocence, the Sultan of Speed returns to the scene of the crime, and conveniently discovers the victim’s brother in a standoff with the same thugs who ambushed the hero the previous night.  With Lightning’s help, the Flash dispatches these killers, and in an extremely quick resolution, a glove with dog’s teeth embedded in the fingers happens to fall out of the ring-leader’s pocket.  Barry realizes that the victim’s brother hired the thugs for the hit, and they framed the helpful hound.  One would think that a coroner could tell the difference between a dog bite and a fake, but maybe Central City needs a new M.E.!  Where’s Quincy when you need him?

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The story ends with Barry adopting Lightning, who would have made a fun addition to the Flash family, but he doesn’t seem to make any return appearances for quite a while, if at all.  That makes this story a bit of a waste.  In the end, this tale is a bit silly and overly contrived.  The rapid resolution is its biggest weakness, but the idea of the Flash taking the time to save the life of an abandoned dog is just a rather charming one, though the end result doesn’t quite take enough advantage of the good will the concept generates.  The final result balances out into an average 3 Minutemen.

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This issue also includes a weird little seven page backup story, so you might imagine that the main feature ran short.  This is a story about Barry overcoming his fear of rollercoasters to save the day when, Iris having dragged him onto one, he sees a broken track ahead and fixes it before disaster can strike.  There’s not much to it, but it does have a nice little moment that displays Barry’s deep love for his wife as he agrees to the ride because he can’t say “no” when “the love of [his] life” is against him.  I’m a sucker for things like that.  I suppose this backup, what there is of it, is fine, but it doesn’t even really seem worth rating.

Alright, that’s the second set of books in March 1970!  Join me next week for part 3, and a bonus to boot, a new design for the site!

 

 

Into the Bronze Age

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Hello readers and internet travelers!  As folks familiar with my work and site likely know, I’m hip-deep (neck-deep?) in a doctoral program, and I find myself with very little time these days for Freedom Force projects.  I have no intention of abandoning the greatest superhero game of all time, but I thought that I might use my site for something a little different until I have more FF content ready for it.  I recently started a little personal project in my rare free moments.  To take a break from medieval texts and teaching, I’ve been reading through a broad range of DC comics from the Silver and Bronze Ages.  As my DC Universe According to Grey mod amply demonstrates, I have a deep and abiding love of the DC Universe, especially as it existed during the Bronze Age, which, despite having plenty of flaws, is for my money, the best, purest, most heroic, and most joyful incarnation of those characters and settings.

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I’ve read through a lot of the Silver Age stories of most of DC’s major characters, and I’ve read through a few of the major books of the Bronze Age like JLA, but until now I’ve never read the bulk of DC’s books over this period.

As I’ve been reading these stories, I’ve been attempting to cast a wide net and get a sense for the development of the DC Universe as a whole and the evolution of the Bronze Age itself.  I’ve been noticing some pretty fascinating trends, and it occurred to me that other folks might find my little project interesting as well.  To that end, I’m going to start a new, semi-regular feature on the Greylands.  Every few weeks (maybe once a month or so), I’ll post a round-up of my thoughts concerning a wide selection of DC books from a particular month and year in the Bronze Age (for my purposes, roughly considered to be between 1970 and 1985).  I won’t be reading everything DC published every month, but I’ll be reading a lot of it.

If you think this sounds interesting, I invite you to join me in my quest for the elusive character of the Bronze Age.

First, a word about what I’ll be covering and what I WON’T be covering.  I’ll be reading most of the straight-up superhero books published by DC during this time, with a few notable exceptions.  I won’t be reading through Wonder Woman, as her solo adventures have never interested me much, though I am fond of her as part of the League.  Also on the cutting room floor are Superman’s supporting books like Jimmy Olsen (until Kirby takes over) and Lois Lane.  I’ll be reading the occasional alternative, non-superhero book as the mood grabs me.  I won’t be reading most of the western, war,  or romance books, but I’m going to try to get through everything that piques my interest and is part of the DC Universe proper.  If it showed up in Who’s Who, I’ll at least consider reading it (I’ve been inspired to do this partially by the Fire and Water Podcast’s Who’s Who feature).  I’m navigating by interest, so there will be things I’ll be skipping, but I’ll also be aiming for comprehensiveness.

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I’m also going to do a semi-regular extra feature, spotlighting something neat I’ve uncovered on my march through DC that lies outside the borders of my little project here, so every issue or so I’ll include a discussion about a series or character from before or after the period I’m covering.

To start this week, I’ll begin with January 1970:

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

  • Action Comics #384
  • Brave and the Bold #87
  • Challengers of the Unknown #71
  • Detective Comics #395
  • G.I. Combat #139
  • Green Lantern #74
  • Superman #222

For the sake of my sanity, I’m skipping Adventure Comics until Supergirl gets a bit less Silver-Age-y.  I’m also skipping Metal Men #41, as it is the last original issue of the series, which seems like a poor place to start.

Now, without further ado, let’s begin our maiden voyage into the Bronze Age!

Action Comics #384

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

I’m not a huge Superman fan.  I suppose I should confess that straight away.  Whenever he and Batman fought in the comics, I was always cheering for the Dark Knight.  I certainly identified more with the tortured, conflicted, and complicated Caped Crusader than I did with the bright, cheerful, and seemingly perfect Man of Steel when I was an angsty teenager with nothing to be terribly angsty about.  But, with luck, we all grow up.  I have a lot more appreciation for Superman these days, and even though he’ll never be the character I most enjoy reading about, I love his role in the DC Universe and the positive, heroic ideals he represents.  The core of his character, the concept that a man can choose to do right and live selflessly, even when it would be the easiest thing in the world to do otherwise, is a great message, one far too often forgotten in our relativistic, cynical world.  It’s as relevant today as it was in the Depression, if not more so.  Those hard times brought people together, whereas these hard times seem to drive us further and further apart.  These truths are precisely what Man of Steel and (as far as can be determined) the upcoming Batman V. Superman movie don’t seem to comprehend.

But that’s a rant for another day; we’re here to talk about comics!  So, as I said, I’m not the biggest Superman fan, and the stories I do like generally are Post Crisis (a rare exception for me).  I enjoyed the Man of Steel Byrne reboot, and I’ve read several Superman TPBs that I’ve really enjoyed.  I have an exceptionally low tolerance for Silver Age Superman stories, though.  In my opinion they tend to be the most Silver Age-y of all Silver Age comics.  They are goofy, childish, and bizarre in the extreme, with the rainbow kryptonite and the far too literal take on the concept of invulnerability generally making me want to dig my eyes out with salad forks.  I’m not much of a fan, is what I’m saying.

I have heard that Bronze Age Superman gets something of a soft reboot that leads to some good stories with the ‘Kryptonite No More’ storyline, but we aren’t there yet, and this particular tale is definitely full of Silver Age goodness.  It isn’t half bad as such things go, though it is a standard comic of the era where things happen at the speed of plot.

Two strange uniforms, glowing with eerie energy, show up at Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, begging to be put on by the Man of Tomorrow.  That would be pretty odd in most tales, but I have to imagine it’s just a Thursday in the context of the crazy stuff that the Silver Age Superman gets up to.  Anyway, it seems these two uniforms belong to two aliens, one a prisoner, the other a policeman, who died on-board a spaceship while locked in combat.  Their uniforms were doused with energy and preserved their minds…or something.  I think I’m already putting more thought into this concept than writer Carey Bates did.  To be brief, which is surprisingly difficult when giving a synopsis of a Silver Age story like this, which has tons packed into it, the evil prisoner’s uniform forces Superman to don it by…basically just asking in front of Perry White.  Perry, who apparently isn’t all that concerned with his employees’ wellbeing, orders Clark Kent to put on the strange, glowing alien costume.  Great Ceaser’s ghost!  I’m pretty sure that’s an OSHA violation!

action-384-07-06Predictably, the uniform controls Superman and tries to make him do evil, but the Man of Steel is more than a match for any mere suit of clothes, and outwits the outfit by seeming to go along with the evil plans, all while setting up the acts so they can be countered by his allies.  That really is a nice little piece of planning on Clark’s part, and it reminds the reader that Superman has brains as well as brawn.  Yet, all that (seeming) evil-doing lands Superman in Dutch with the authorities, and just when things look bad for him, he’s rescued by a flying Perry White in the other costume!  ‘Thanks Perry, but I’m still reporting you…’action-384-14-11

Supes eventually puts on the other uniform on top of the evil one and is able to free himself enough to fly into the sun, burning both into ashes.  We’re treated to the two…what are they, ghosts?  Mental impressions?  Really persistent and aggressive stains?  Well, whatever they are, the two uniforms burn away, and we come back to find Perry White in his skivvies.  Yikes!

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This was a fair Silver Age-ish story, nothing particularly memorable or interesting, but not nearly as weird or goofy as you might find in such settings.  I enjoyed it pretty well, and I’d give it an average score of 3 Minutemen.

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At this time, Action Comics is also running a Legion of Superheroes backup feature, and this was the standout for me.  It was an entirely conventional Legion story, with one Legionnaire being prophesied to die in the opening pages and what could kindly be called a ‘twist,’ but more accurately dubbed a ‘cheat,’ revealed to have survived at the very end.  Replace ‘prophesied to die’ with ‘accused of being a traitor,’ and it is just like a number of Legion stories I’ve read.  In general, I like the Legion, but it never grabbed me the way it has some folks.  Once again, this is a concept that has grown on me as I have gotten older, as I enjoy what it says about the grand sweep of the DC Universe, the hopeful optimism about science and human nature.  It’s an optimism I think completely unjustified, but it’s charming nonetheless!

action-384-20-02Despite this particular story being entirely by the numbers, it has a few nice little moments that made it stick in my mind.  The doomed Legionnaire in this particular tale is Mon-El, who Dream Girl, well, dreams about.  She sees his death, vaguely but certainly.  Unfortunately, it seems that Dream Girl’s visions always come true, and there is no way to prevent this tragedy.  We get a couple of nice pages of Mon-El coming to terms with his fate, including my favorite panel of the book.  In it, we see Mon contemplate one of his last sunrises.  action-384-22-04It’s a nice, quiet little moment that really adds to Mon’s characterization, illuminating his heroism, as he faces his death, but also a human side to him.  It’s small, but significant for a Silver Age-ish book like this.  After all, it isn’t all that often that a superhero at this time seriously considered his or her mortality, especially in DC, so it is nice to see how doing so makes Mon all the more aware of the little things in his life, all while bravely soldiering on and continuing to do his duty.

His home planet of Daxam offers to hide him away and guard him with their entire army (!), which is quite an offer, but Mon is not one to hide and refuses.  This leads us to the cheat that leaves both Dream Girl correct and Mon-El alive at the end of the issue.  Another Daxamite knocks Mon out and switches places with him, dying in his place, but not really, because his incompetence almost kills Mon anyway, and he gives his life to save his idol rather than by facing the danger they feared (an alien invasion defeated in a single panel).

It’s a good, quick story, even with the stock plot and deus ex machina.  There’s just enough heart and charm here to raise it above common quality.  I give it three Minutemen.

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Brave and the Bold #87

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Cover Artists: Mike Sekowsky, Dick Giordano
Writer: Mike Sekowsky
Penciler: Mike Sekowsky
Inker: Dick Giordano
Editor: Murray Boltinoff

Man, The Brave and the Bold…what a series.  This comic was almost exclusively written by Bob Haney, or as he is popularly known, Zany Haney!  Bob Haney seems to either be beloved or hated.  He wrote incredibly imaginative and, let’s face it, zany, stories that cheerfully ignored any and all previously established continuity and characterization.  It was entirely common to find characters acting in an entirely uncharacteristic fashion, meeting old friends never before or after mentioned, or suddenly finding themselves having relatives that have totally always been there, shut-up!  His stories represent the best and worst things about the Silver Age.  They are often silly and irrational, but they are also creative in the extreme, often tossing out concepts with the same speed and frequency as even the mighty team of Stan and Jack.  However, unlike Lee and Kirby, Haney’s great weakness, other than his seeming allergy to logical consistency and causality, is his lack of interest in recalling potentially successful concepts.  Everything is a one-shot in his books, for the most part.  Even good ideas almost never have a return engagement.  That’s a particular problem in Aquaman and part of the reason that the Silver Age, which produced the majority of the best villains, left that particular hero with a shallow rogue’s gallery, despite having lots of one-shot villains with potential.

I don’t have the unabashed love for Zany Haney that folks like Rob Kelly and the Irredeemable Shag of the Fire and Water Podcast evince, but I do often enjoy his stories now that I’ve acquired a bit more patience for Silver Age flavored tales, and ALL of his work is Silver Age-ish, even well into the Bronze Age.

This particular yarn is no exception, and it represents the strengths of Haney’s style.  It is packed to the gills with action, but it is actually positively restrained in terms of the number of concepts it throws at the reader.  The story opens with Diana Prince and her companion I Ching (of course) in Europe taking in the sights of a combination fashion show and auto race…because such things happen all the time, no doubt.

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This is the late 60s, Kung-Fu, white jumpsuit Wonder Woman, an incarnation of the character that I really don’t care for.  The idea of stripping away all of her powers and mythic trappings makes her much less interesting and turns her into a second string Black Canary.  I think I prefer the character with deep roots in myth and magic.  Nonetheless, I have to say that Haney does a good job with her, giving Diana Prince just enough fresh-faced naivete for someone who is adjusting to a new way of life, all while moving through the plot at break-neck speed.  Still, all things considered, Black Canary would have been a much better fit for this particular plot.

The story itself is about a race in which Bruce Wayne is competing against a sinister German fellow who goes by the name of ‘Widowmaker’!  How very ominous!

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Widowmaker, A.K.A. Willi Van Dornt doesn’t like the competition from Wayne, so he tries to sabotage his racer, which leads to a nice scene where Bruce Wayne discovers them and starts to crack some heads, only to be discovered by Wonder Woman.  This means Bruce has to take a dive, which he does, all while using his training and skill to avoid taking any real punishment.

It’s a nice little detail, that Batman is so good that he can fake a loss and stay in control.  Of course, if Wonder Woman is the warrior she should be, or even the martial artist she’s supposed to be here, she should be able to see through such a ruse.  Nonetheless, it makes for a fun few pages.  Bruce gets a bit banged up, and the real meat of the story begins as he pretends that he’s convinced Batman to race for him as a cover.  There’s some added backstory of this murderous racer being the son of a villain Batman had faced in the past, but that doesn’t amount to much.

brave and the bold 087 023Wonder Woman runs interference against Willi’s minions who try to ambush Batman’s car along the track, while Bruce pits his skill against Widowmaker’s dirty tricks.  It’s a really nice, exciting, quick-moving tale, shifting back and forth between the different perils the heroes face with much the same energy as an actual race.  The pacing is very good, and the series of challenges the heroes face is interesting.  I’m particularly fond of the ending, which involves Willi being hoisted on his own petard as his henchman springs one of his own traps on his boss.  Seconds later, Batman’s beaten, battered racer limps across the finish line.  It’s a little bit of poetic justice, and it is a good payoff for the tension of the race.

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One other little point, this comic also included a text piece about the previous heroes of the Brave and the Bold book, including the likes of the Golden Gladiator, Robin Hood, the Viking Prince, Cave Carson, and the Silent Knight.  It includes short blurbs about some of their biggest adventures and poses the question about who is the greatest hero.  For my money, it is definitely the Viking Prince, but it is neat to see these guys mentioned again, and it makes me a little sad that their features have all faded into obscurity by this point.

Well, I give this not-all-that-zany tale 4 Minutemen out of 5.  It really is a fun story, and pretty well told, even if there isn’t a whole lot to it.

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Challengers of the Unknown #71

Challengers_of_the_Unknown_Vol_1_71.jpgCover Artist: Nick Cardy
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Jack Sparling
Inker: Frank Giacoia
Editor: Murray Boltinoff

This Challenger’s story  is the fourth in a set of connected tales, so I went back and read the previous entries in this arc before I got to it.  It seems clear that, here at the end of the run, the writer, Denny O’Neil seems to have been trying to shake things up.  The first story in this arc saw the brainy quarter of the Challengers get ‘possessed’ by an evil computer (don’t ask), and the second saw him seemingly mortally wounded.  They lost no time replacing poor Prof. with a random lady, in fact, the daughter of the evil genius who tried to kill him.  All of this coincides with a change in costume.  It seems clear that this series was on its last legs, which is a shame, because they were really onto something good with these changes.  In fact, this series would only last three more issues before the book was relegated to a reprint feature.

This story picks up where the last issue left off.  In the previous issue, the Challengers, fleeing from your average remote castle stronghold of your average madCountMcFacialHair.jpg scientist (in this instance with a super awesome old-timey mustache and chops, plus a sweet cape) stumble upon a plot by spore aliens (because of course) who want to conquer the earth.  They defeated the chief alien and his hillbilly cultists (nope, not kidding), and thisChallengers_70_18 issue opens with them stumbling into a small town, which the escaping spore alien has taken over (with the aid of a witch!).  The townspeople are forced to serve spore-y, and the Challengers, battered by their previous day’s adventures and on their last legs, are Challengers_70_17defeated and captured, only to be freed by Red’s little brother (and apparently a singing sensation?), Tino.  Apparently a bit has changed between the original issues I read and this point in the series.

Whew!  I didn’t intend for my recap to be that long!  O’Neil really packs a ton into this issue (and the previous ones as well), and you really feel the Challengers’ exhaustion and desperation during their final stand.  I do feel like poor Prof. got the short end of the stick here, but this issue ends with him making it to the hospital and getting medical help, soChallengers_71_03.jpgthe door was open to bring him back.  The new addition, Corinna seems fine, though she doesn’t have much personality.  She’s also disturbingly okay with the murder of her father.  ‘He’s evil, oh well’ seems to be about the extent of her mourning.  I’d keep an eye on her, Challengers.  Chances are, she’s a sociopath.

Yet, whatever she lacks in emotional depth, Corinna (what kind of a name is that?) makes up for by adding a nice little wrinkle to the Challengers’ dynamic.  She sets up an interesting conflict between Red and Rocky, with the acrobat constantly putting her down and generally being a jerk to her while Rocky moons like a love-struck schoolboy.  Interestingly enough, Corinna seems to only have eyes for Red, which says some rather disturbing things about her views on relationships.  Then again, her father was an abusive megalomaniac.  Sorry Rock, nice guys finish last and chicks dig jerks, apparently.

This shift in story tactics by O’Neil is an interesting one.  It adds some good characterization to the Challengers who, for most of their history, have been pretty one note.  It’s good to see these guys get some development, especially Rocky, who is more than just the generic strong man as he silently fumes over Red’s treatment of Corinna and laments his own lack of luck.  This was a wild but solid story, providing you don’t think too deeply about rapid change in plots.  There’s little denying it is fun, and the art is wonderfully atmospheric, beautifully creepy and well-suited for the tale.  The artist, Jack Sparling, does a great job of giving each of the Chals a unique face, which really adds to their individuality and characterization.

In general, this was a good example of a solid, exciting Bronze Age story.  It isn’t high art, but it’s the type of action-packed, not too ridiculous (for a comic) yarn that marks this era of evolving storytelling.  I’d give it 3 Minutemen out of 5.

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Detective Comics #395

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Cover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Dick Giordano
Editor: Julius Schwartz

For my money, I’d say Batman is probably the easiest comics hero to write, as he has a very strong setting, a great supporting cast, and the best villains in comics history.  He’s had, arguably, the most consistently high-quality runs of any mainstream character.  He and Superman are two of the purest, most archetypal, and most influential characters in comics history.  There’s a reason, or rather many, that Batman has had such enduring popularity, and one of the main ones is that Batman embodies the mythic elements that are inherent in the concept of the superhero. I suppose, then, that there is no suprise that Batman has always been one of my favorite characters, all the way back to the campy Adam West show and its cartoon counterpart.  As a kid, I loved those corny, goofy shows, and now my young nieces and nephews love them as well.  It’s clear that those shows and that tone (recaptured to a certain degree in the Batman: Brave and Bold show) are perfect for kids, however much they may gall adults.

batman-1When I got a bit older, I discovered the best of all Bat-worlds, Batman: The Animated Series, the greatest superhero show of all time.  That is, for my money, the best version of Batman, and Bruce Timm and co. made very intentional efforts to create a show that was the distillation of all that was best in Bat-history.  Many of the themes and concepts that were combined into TAS have their origins in the original incarnation of Batman in the Golden Age, but it is here, in the Bronze Age, where they make their return and the ‘real’ Batman that most of us think of actually comes into his own.

We’re not at the absolute beginning of this trend, but we’re not all that far off.  This period would see several definitive runs that reshaped Batman for the coming decades.  It is at this point that the campy Batman of the 60s fades and the shadowy Dark Knight Detective takes center stage thanks to the efforts of comics luminaries like Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams.

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detective comics 395 007That’s the team behind this tale, which is indicative of the good quality of the story and its spooky, mysterious tone.  This yarn begins with a nice, moody establishing shot of Batman brooding over two empty graves.  He’s in central Mexico, attending an extravagant party of a wealthy and mysterious couple who have a macabre fixation on death, even hosting this party in their own family graveyard.  The plot centers around the couple trying to covertly kill an agent of the Mexican government who is investigating them, all while Batman works to save him.

detective comics 395 015That’s where the tale takes a turn for the strange, as there is a final confrontation in a ruined building where Batman discovers a secret field of flowers, which are apparently madness inducing…and also endow people with immortality.  That’s a twist worthy of ‘ol Zany Haney.  Still, despite the rapid-fire delivery of the exposition and the strangeness of the concept, it sort of works.  The couple, supposedly over a hundred years old, wither and die in moments, falling fittingly into their own, empty graves.  Their passing leaves behind a number of unanswered questions, but given the horror flavor of the story, it isn’t as big of a problem as it might seem.  This tale evokes the mystical, mysterious feel of the old horror books, where certain questions are left unanswered as part of there overall effect.

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This is a good story, not the best of the Batman tales we’ll be encountering, but of the above-average quality that is, in fact, average for Batman books in the Bronze Age, especially in Detective Comics.  I give this one a solid 4 out 5 Minutemen.

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Detective Comics had a backup feature for most of its history, and at this point it is trading off between Robin and Batgirl.  I’m a big fan of the Bat-Family, so I’m excited about reading these backups.  This one is the second half of a Robin adventure, with a nice framing device of being relayed through letters Dick sends home from college.  I love Robin, specifically, the only real Robin (where I’m concerned), Dick Grayson.  He’s one of my favorite characters.  The concept that created him, that kids would identify with and want to be him totally worked on me as a kid.  I was aware I couldn’t be Batman, but maybe, just maybe, I could be Robin.  I love him as a solo act, as well as with Bats, but at this point, going off to college and being almost a grown man, it is certainly way past time to give the guy pants.  I don’t understand how this went on so long.  He’s been older than is appropriate for his green trunks for years and years at this point.  The particularly bizarre thing is that they’ve had multiple stories that have provided perfectly viable costumes for an adult Robin, none of which they’ve bothered to adapt.  Aqualad has the same problem, but at leas the wasn’t as high profile as poor Dick.  So, that ridiculously outdated costume always takes a little something away from these Robin stories.detective comics 395 027

detective comics 395 023This particular tale involves Robin attempting to break up a communist plot (!) involving creating student unrest with fake accounts of police brutality in order to shutdown Hudson University (!).  It’s a very 60s style story, and not a terribly interesting one.  You have to think that the vague, unspecified commies would have better things to do with their time and money.  Nonetheless, Dick manages to break the case open, despite taking a beating and being captured for the second time in two issues.  He does manage a fairly nice escape, taking out two guards, all while handcuffed.  Still, it isn’t his most impressive showing.  I like the idea of having stories with him away in college, but I don’t think all the stories necessarily have to be set ON campus or deal with university matters.  It just limits the character way too much.

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It isn’t a particularly impressive story, despite the cool escape, so I’ll give it 2 1/2 Minutemen.

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G.I. Combat #139

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Writer: Robert Kanigher
Artist: Russ Heath

I’m a big fan of the idea of the Haunted Tank, and by this point, Jeb and his boys have become the undisputed stars of this book.  Still, though I love the idea, what I’ve read from the Silver Age hasn’t electrified me.  I’m now skipping ahead about five years to this issue, and I definitely think things are improving.  The older stories were fine, but I just felt like they didn’t really take much advantage of the concept.  Lift out scenes with the General’s cryptic warnings, which had exactly zero impact on most of the plots, and your average Haunted Tank story could just as easily have appeared in any other WWII book.  There were exceptions, but that was my general impression.  What fun is that?  If you’ve got a Haunted Tank, you should really play that up or you’re burying the lead!

This story doesn’t break that pattern as much as I might like (J.E.B. appears a grand total of one time), but it’s just an enjoyable tale on its own merits.  The basic overview is that Jeb and crew are dropped into North Africa to stop a Nazi advance through a pass and attempt to rally the local Bedouins to the Allied cause.  On the way, the crew discover that their contact, Prince Akmed, has died, perhaps killed by “The Mufti,” a generically evil adviser sort who favors the Germans. g.i._combat_139_08.jpgIn a scene ripped from the pages of Around the World in 80 Days, the ever culturally sensitive comic delivers us a tribe of Bedouins who are preparing to burn Akmed’s wife, Princes Azeela, on his pyre in the archaic Indian practice of Sati.

Jeb, being the gallant Southerner that he is, is having none of this and, extinguishing the pyre, rescues the girl.  He agrees to marry the girl in order to protect her from her people, and she rides with him to battle.  In a particularly nicely illustrated sequence, the Tank goes up against heavier German armor, manages to plug the pass with the first Panther, and then fights a despearate holding action until rescued by Azeela’s people, who have been inspired by her bravery.

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Sadly, the Mufti kills her in revenge, and in a surprisingly touching series of panels, beautifully drawn and inked, Jeb returns his princess to her people…forever.

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The Princess doesn’t really get much to do other than die to unite her people (this story is not exactly a beacon of feminism), but Plot, er, I mean Princess Azeela, does serve as a nice little subtle moral quandary for Jeb.  g.i._combat_139_11He saves her from the pyre, but then what is a good man to do?  He agrees to marry her to save her from further retribution at the hands of her people, and we’re given a tender little scene with Jeb comforting Azeela whose husband, let’s remember JUST DIED.  The concern on his face, the tenderness of that embrace, is pretty effective at conveying a good deal more than the dialog.  Taken all together, that little panel aptly demonstrates the strength of comics as a medium of storytelling.  There’s a great efficiency of narrative in that one little combination of image and word.

This was a good story, though it still didn’t really take advantage of the whole Haunted Tank concept.  I’ll give it 3 and 1/2 Minutemen.

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Green Lantern #74

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Cover Artist: Gil Kane
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Editor: Julius Schwartz

Green Lantern…ohh Greeen Lantern…this series has given me fits.  I’ve read the whole run to this point, and I am somewhat amazed the book survived this long.  I love Hal as a character, and I love the concept of the Green Lantern Corps.  In fact, I love pretty much everything about the original setup of the Silver Age Lantern: Hal’s test pilot civilian identity, his relationship with Carol (who was a powerful, capable, career-minded woman in an age where that was exceedingly rare in fiction), and the setting being split between Coast City and space.  He had a reasonably strong rogue’s gallery, and he was all set to have an excellent hero career.  And then one day the creative team just decided to toss all of that.  They upended Hal’s life, had Carol suddenly agree to marry someone else off panel, and then Hal became a wanderer, a set of circumstances that would stick with him for years to come.  This is not to say that the early Silver Age GL comics were particularly good.  They’re about average for Silver Age books, which makes them pretty hard to read these days, but at least the concept was a promising one, and this shift…?  Not so much.

It’s an inexplicable decision to me, as they clearly had no real goal in mind other than to shake up the book and ditch Carol.  The unforgivable result of this path is that it made Hal Jordan, one of the coolest DC heroes in his civilian identity, lame and boring.  He went from being a hot-shot, devil-may-care jet-jockey to, wonder of wonders, an insurance salesman.  How does that make any kind of sense?  Over the next twenty issues Hal continues to drift from job to job and place to place, and the instability makes the character seem flaky and more than a little worthless.  This also removes the ability of the book to provide Hal with any kind of supporting cast other than his fellow Corpsmen, who are more or less dropped from the book as well during this period.

Of course, after those twenty issues the comic turns into the famed Green Lantern/Green Arrow combined title, and Hal goes from being someone who can’t hold down a job to an actual, jobless bum.  This run is widely praised and quite famous, standing as a seminal moment in the development of comics and the Bronze Age in particular.  Despite acknowledging its cultural importance, I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the ‘hard traveling heroes’ run, but I suppose I’ll talk about that when I get there in a few issues.

As for the issue in question, it is the second part of a two part story wherein Hal heads back to Coast City and meets up once more with Carol Ferris, mysteriously still unmarried.  Their first encounter in the previous issue is really rather nicely done, but I imagine that this return home gave a good many readers false hope.  Sadly, it was not to last.  When Green Lantern goes to talk with Carol, she inexplicably transforms into Star Sapphire, despite not having access to the troublesome gem.  She somehow transports Hal into deep space, also conveniently stripping him of his memories of being Green Lantern.  This issue picks up where that one left off, with a rather pretty trap for Hal to escape.greenlantern074-02

Stranded in space without any of the knowledge he needs to save himself, this is an interesting premise.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t really last very long and Hal is quite blase about the the whole thing.  ‘Ohh, I seem to be lost in the infinite void…ho-hum.’  It is a good chance for Hal’s natural fearlessness to shine, but it doesn’t quite come off that way, and the problem is a bit too easily solved.  This image also demonstrates a weird trait of the art in these issues, where Gil Kane stacks images upon one another to diverse and often not entirely successful, but always innovative, effect.

greenlantern074-26Once Hal gets back to Earth, he discovers the true cause of his current problems, Sinestro!  At this point, it has been a very long time since we have had any real supervillains in the book, especially any of Sinestro’s quality, so he’s a breath of fresh air.  For most of the last dozen issues or so, Hal has been suffering from boring stories featuring random, regular hoods.  Yep, they make a great challenge for the man with the most powerful weapon in the universe.  Sinestro, on the other hand, especially backed up by Star Sapphire, makes for an excellent antagonist, and this story has the renegade Lantern in particularly good form.  He’s ruthless, cunning, and completely self-assured.  He moves effortlessly from battling to manipulating Star Sapphire.  Together, they (a little too easily) take Hal out, and the Lantern is saved by Pieface (the most offensively named supporting character in comics history?).  It’s nice to see ‘ol Tom Kalmaku again too, and both of these characters make me miss Hal’s old status quo.  The story ends with Hal defeating Sinestro…or does it?  He looks so wonderfully smug in that last panel.
Don’t you just want to pop him right in that red face of his?  That is a villain worthy of Hal.  Of course, Sinestro has a backup plan, and with the customary warning that “there is always a next time”, he vanishes!  This leaves Hal to try and explain the whole ‘Star Sapphire’ thing to Carrol…and, well, she doesn’t take it too well, running out of his life for a second time.greenlantern074-28

So, in the end, Hal is left more or less where he was to begin with.  He’s got no supporting cast, no stability, and we’re about to enter another long stretch without any villains to speak of.  This is a fine story, so far as it goes.  Isolated from the drudgery that is the rest of this run, it is pretty good.  Sinestro is fun in it, and his little character moments make some progress in identifying him as someone who is more than just an evil Green Lantern who is evil because he likes being evil…evily.  It isn’t a lot of progress, but it is progress, and you get a sense of his arrogance and pride.  The art is fairly weak, and the power ring battle, which should have been really visually interesting and exciting, is inexcusably flat and boring.  Kane is a very Silver Age-y artist, skilled and consistent, but Green Lantern could really benefit from someone with a more creative and energetic style.  Imagine what Jack Kirby could have done with a GL book!  In the end, I give this story 3 and 1/2 Minutemen out of 5, if only because it is such an improvement over what came before.

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Superman #222

Superman_v.1_222.jpgWriters: Edmond Hamilton and various
Pencilers: Al Plastino and various

This seems to be a collection of Silver Age Superman tales, and as such, exactly what I don’t much want to read.  I just skimmed these reprints and didn’t find much to catch my interest, though several of these could make excellent examples of the internet sensation that is Super-Dickery. Stories involve an ersatz lost brother for Superman, some hypothetical children for him and Lois, and various other familial and social complications.  The only one that stuck out to me was a tale set in Kandor, part of a story featuring two sons of Superman, one super, the other, not so much.  It cracks me up to see Superman running around, doing familial stuff in his costume.  I think I won’t cover reprints in any kind of detail.

And there you have it, folks.  Wow!  That missive proved much more massive than I intended.  Future iterations should prove to be much smaller as they won’t need all the framing and general discussion that this one sported.

This has been, more or less, January 1970 in DC Comics.  It was a pretty solid month, all told, but I’m looking forward to getting further into the Bronze Age, where more of the 60s Silver Age-ish tendencies will be shaken off.  Join me again, approximately whenever I get around to it, for the next month of books (probably next month).