Into the Bronze Age: November 1971 (Part 4)

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Hello Internet travelers, and welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  It’s time to explore some more classic, Bronze Age DC comics, and we’ve got a pretty interesting trio of titles to talk about this time.  We have a significant issue of The Haunted Tank’s harrowing adventures, a cool and unusual issue of JLA, and finally another frantic feature of the Fourth World!  Let’s dive right in, shall we?

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #406
  • Adventure Comics #412
  • Batman #236
  • Brave and the Bold #98
  • Detective Comics #417
  • The Flash #210
  • Forever People #5
  • G.I. Combat #150
  • Justice League of America #94
  • New Gods #5
  • Superboy #179
  • Superman #244
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #116
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #143
  • World’s Finest #207

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


G.I. Combat #150


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“The Death of the Haunted Tank”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Russ Heath
Inker: Russ Heath
Editor/Cover Artist: Joe Kubert

“The Two-Legged Mine”
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: Russ Heath
Inker: Russ Heath
Editor: Robert Kanigher

“Hip Shot”
Writer: Sam Glanzman
Penciler: Sam Glanzman
Inker: Sam Glanzman
Editor: Robert Kanigher

“Ice Cream Soldier”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Joe Kubert
Inker: Joe Kubert
Editor: Robert Kanigher

We’ve got a landmark issue of the Haunted Tank this month!  For once, the cover doesn’t lie, and when it promises the “Death of the Haunted Tank,” it is being quite literal!  After roughly 60 issues, the plucky little M-3 Stuart tank will meet its demise in this issue.  And that cover is a pretty good one, in addition to being honest.  It’s dramatic, catching a moment, not before disaster strikes, but just as it is striking, which creates a pretty dynamic effect.  Of course, Kubert’s stark work adds to the drama of the moment rather nicely.

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Inside, our tale begins in what has become normal fashion, with the spectral J.E.B. Stuart offering one of his habitual vague warnings that could really mean anything, as Kanigher continues to not really take advantage of his awesome premise.  In this case, the General’s super helpful warning that “things aren’t what they seem” applies to a seemingly crashed German bomb that is actually a trap for the tank.  Jeb and company knock it out in a nice two-page splash, but then their ghostly guardian informs them that this was the last time he could “help” them, and bids them farewell.

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As Jeb ruminates on this startling turn of events, his crew continue to contemplate his apparent insanity as he seems to speak to empty air.  They roll past a depot where other crews are cannibalizing knocked out tanks for parts.  There are two things of note in this scene.  First, the other crew actually asks who Jeb’s tiny little Stuart constantly knocks out tanks much heavier than it, joking that it must be because it is haunted.  Second, we get a shot of this crew, who include Joe, Russ, and Steve, who are given very detailed faces.  I feel like this has got to be a reference to particular folks.  I’m guessing, and this is just a guess, that the fellow in the middle is Joe Kubert and the one on the right is Russ Heath.  I would love to hear from any readers who actually know!

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Anyway, possible creator cameos aside, the ghostly guys next run into trouble when they encounter a Jeep full of wounded troops fleeing a fighter.  The crew manages to knock the perilous plane out of the sky (more unbelievable feats!), encouraging the team.  Yet, their continued faith in the old Stuart meets a much tougher test later on, when they are sent into a hot zone to aid Dog Company.

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The infantry is getting cut to pieces on the banks of a river by a tank and artillery in the woods on the other side.  Jeb charges the Stuart into the teeth of the enemy guns, and they get the enemy tank.  However, the AT gun tears their little tin box apart piece by piece, and in surprisingly short order, the Haunted Tank dies, though the crew manage to make a frantic escape.

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When Jeb and company realize that no more backup is forthcoming, they race to the depot and assemble a new, “Jigsaw Tank” out of cannibalized parts.  They take their new makeshift metal monster into combat, just in time to stop two new Nazi tanks charging across the river, and they even manage to clean up the AT gun that killed their previous ride.  The story ends with General Stuart returning, and explaining that the tank didn’t matter, only the dedication of the men inside, so the grateful crew christen their new vehicle The Haunted Tank once more.

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I actually expected rather more form this tale.  It’s a fine, fun story, however unrealistic it is for the guys to assemble a new tank so quickly and easily.  Still, I’ve been seeing this cover approaching for some time, and I just expected the death of the tank that had been through so much with the crew to be given a little more weight.  Instead, Jeb and co. basically joke about it for a minute, then immediately replace the faithful old girl.  Of course, there’s only so much you can do in a 14 page story, but I found myself a bit surprised that Kanigher didn’t make more of the moment.  The actual adventures here could have been condensed, with more focus on the central conflict at the river and the loss of the Stuart, which I think would have been more effective.

 

As is, the story is really rather forgettable.  Of course, Russ Heath’s art remains excellent, perfect for the title.  He’s a master of both the dynamic battle scenes and even the quiet, character moments.  On a broader note, I continue to be disappointed by the lack of development of the premise.  General Stuart leaves the crew for most of the issue, but functionally, it doesn’t actually play out any differently than 90% of the stories we’ve read, as he plays no active part in most plots after his traditional enigmatic warning anyway.  Well, missed opportunities aside, I’ll give this solid armored adventure 3.5 Mintuemen.  At least Jeb and crew now have a tank that might stand a ghost of a chance against German armor in real life!

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Justice League of America #94


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“Where Strikes Demonfang?”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Pencilers: Neal Adams and Dick Dillin
Inkers: Neal Adams and Joe Giella
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“The Tarantula Strikes”
Writer: Gardner Fox
Penciler: Bert Christman
Inker: Bert Christman
Editors: Vincent Sullivan and Julius Schwartz

“The Amazing Starman”
Writer: Jack Burnley
Penciler: Jack Burnley
Inkers: Jack Burnley and Ray Burnley
Colourist: Raymond Perry
Letterer: Betty Bentley
Editors: Whitney Ellsworth and Julius Schwartz

Alright!  Time for another issue of my favorite comic team’s book!  Despite the fact that this title has been so uneven since we’ve started, I still find myself excited about it each month, and this issue features my favorite character….sort of!  Sadly, we’ve got a pretty lackluster cover, really.  It’s got Deadman’s dramatic pronouncement, but the blank blue background and compressed, box-out cover-space don’t do it any favors, and all the pointless occult paraphernalia in the foreground can’t change that.  Of course, the actual art is lovely, as Neal Adams contributes the image, as well as several pages inside!  Yet, the biggest trouble with this cover is that it spoils a significant part of the story, which is a shame.

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As for that story, it is actually a pretty darn good one.  We begin with a wonderfully detailed splash page of the League of Assassins’ leader, the enigmatic Sensei, who is plotting revenge against an unknown JLA member for a previous slight.  We join the trio of characters who disappeared from the last arc, Batman, Green Arrow, and the Sea King himself, Aquaman, as they prowl about the waterfront, hunting for an assassin who hunts them in turn.  The Bold Bowman spots a flash from the killer’s scope, and the heroes leap into action, quickly corralling the gunman.  Yet, the assassin refuses to talk, and the Leaguers are left in the dark about who is the target of the “Demon’s Fang,” the League of Assassins.  That’s right, it’s League vs. League!

 

Back at the Demon Fang’s headquarters, the Sensei is not pleased that his man has missed his mark, and he summons one of his best, Merlyn, the archer.  We get an interesting note of continuity and world-building here, as the League of Assassins are part of Ra’s Al Ghul’s set-up and have been introduced in the Batman books, so it is exciting and surprising to see them here.  What’s more, the Demon’s Head, Al Ghul himself, gets name-dropped, as Merlyn mentions that their master has a special interest in their target.  Nonetheless, the ancient Sensei is adamant, and the archer is sent on the attack.

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Meanwhile, everyone’s favorite sleaze, Morgan Edge, makes another universe-building appearance, and sends Clark Kent out on assignment.  There are hints of Intergang’s involvement, and the under-cover Kryptonian brings along a little action figure-sized ace -in-the-hole, the Atom, as the assignment brings him near the last known location of the missing Leaguers.  Yet, before they can arrive, their news van is ambushed with arrows!  Superman attacks, only to be taken out of the fight by special gadgets prepared by the Demonfang techs, including a gravitational arrow which increases the pull of gravity on the Man of Steel exponentially.

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The Atom, after delivering a great pint-sized punch, is also put out of commission by a sonic arrow.  Now, if you had told me that Merlyn was taking on a significant subset of the League on his own, I would have said that was silly, but Friedrich actually manages to write his way around the problem of a vastly under-powered villain with some reasonable gadgets.  It’s nice to see Superman treated as something other than completely unstoppable, and without recourse to Kryptonite or something completely silly.  Is it convenient that Merlyn has trick arrows that can take out these heroes?  Yes, but I’ll buy it for the purposes of this story.

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Unfortunately, our other heroes don’t have much better luck than their fellows, as our original trio finds their captive assassin killed almost as soon as they turn him over to the police.  On the arrow that killed him is a note, which declares that “The price of failure in the League of Assassins is death!”  It is signed by the mysterious Merlyn, and it is here that we discover that Green Arrow knows our enigmatic assassin.  Merlyn was a master archer, and he was Ollie’s first great rival, who embarrassed him in a competition before disappearing, only to emerge now, as a master of a decidedly more deadly discipline.

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The titanic trio set out on Merlyn’s trail, but we have an odd little moment where Batman asks Aquaman if he has enough time, and the apparently confused Sea King responds, ‘sure…uh…why not?”  I saw what was coming, and I was a bit annoyed by it, and sure enough, as soon as they reach their destination, a creepy old house that is definitely not a trap, the Marine Marvel passes out.  He’s been out of water too long (that darn 1 hour limit can’t go away soon enough!), and I just couldn’t believe Friedrich had put the character in the book just to have him act this stupidly.  But, when the Caped Crusader finds a fountain inside and submerges the submarine superhero, things take a much more interesting turn, as the Dark Knight puts Aquaman in a headlock and demands to know….who he is!  Just then, the trap springs, and Green Arrow is locked in a vacuum tube!

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While the hunted heroes investigate the house, the agonized Atom manages to smash the sonic arrow and free himself, and he comes up with a novel way to free the Metropolis Marvel too.  He can’t budge the gravity device, but he wraps his belt around it and enlarges the machine until it becomes unstable and explodes! That’s actually a really clever solution, and fitting for the brilliant Ray Palmer.  The haggard heroes aren’t yet back at a hundred percent, however, and they must hitchhike towards their allies!

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I love the hilarious banality of Superman having to listen to some schmo blather on as he hitches a ride! “Really, I have more important things on my mind, man!”

Back in the villain-haunted house, the Masked Manhunter can’t break his Emerald ally out of his glass prison, but Superman, recovering enough to take flight and escape their blabbermouth chauffeur, is able to spot the predicament with his super vision and hurl the Atom hard enough to free Ollie.  It’s really a nice sequence.  Yet, at the same time, Batman has become stuck on the fence that separated him from his fallen friend, a perfect target for Merlyn, who has emerged at last to kill his true target…the Dark Knight, of course!  He lets fly, but the stunned Green Arrow recovers rapidly enough to string and fire an arrow just in time to deflect Merlyn’s killing shot!  His nemesis salutes such a fine shot, and his carefully calculated chance gone, the magician uses a jetpack built into his quiver to escape.  Merlyn himself is now a hunted man, as he reminds the heroes that “the price of failure in the League of Assassins is death!”

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It is then that the “mystery” of Aquaman’s identity is solved in another pair of Adams-penned pages, as the Sea King and the Dark Detective discuss the case.  It turns out that Deadman took over the Marine Marvel’s body because the being he serves, Rama Kushna, warned him of an attempt to kill a Justice Leaguer which would upset the balance of the world.  He didn’t know who the target was, and the Sea Sleuth was just the first hero to hand, effectively.  That’s why he ran himself out of gas (or water, as the case may be), and made various other mistakes.  All of this was in revenge for Batman interfering with the Sensei’s attack on Nanda Parbat back in Brave and the Bold #86, apparently, which I must have read but have forgotten.

Of course, this would be a lot more impressive if we didn’t know Deadman was possessing Aquaman from the cover (even if I did get swept up in the story enough to forget!).  Yet, the tale doesn’t end there.  It ends with a return to the JLA Satellite, where something is wrong with the teleporter, something that we won’t discover until next issue!  Meanwhile, the Sensei has learned his lesson, and the next time he strikes, he shall isolate and destroy his enemy!

Well, the non-reveal aside, I really enjoyed this issue, despite some trademark overwriting and generally deplorable dialog from Friedrich.  It’s a lot of fun, and it is really great to see the universe-building happening in other books filter into the flagship title like this.  How interesting must it have been to be reading the Bat-books and JLA, and to see these characters and concepts jump from one title to another?  Of course, this makes perfect sense, but it isn’t the kind of thing that you see that much in DC from earlier eras.  I imagine it will become more common as we get further into the Bronze Age.

In addition, the story is pretty solidly plotted, with events having a decent logic to them, with characters acting with clear motivations.  As I was reading, several story beats seemed off to me, only to be revealed to work perfectly in Friedrich’s plot, which was a pleasant surprise.  On another note, the removal of Kryptonite seems to already be paying story dividends, as it has forced Friedrich to come up with a clever way of taking the Man of Tomorrow out of the fight, rather than relying on the formerly ubiquitous mineral.  One of the only real downsides to this tale is that Aquaman doesn’t actually get anything to do, which seems like a real waste when he features so prominently in the comic, especially since he isn’t actually Aquaman.

The art is solid throughout, though evincing the standard weaknesses I’ve come to associate with Dillin’s JLA work, though the interpolated Adams pages are beautiful.  They are also a bit distracting, as the clash of styles is very noticeable.  Nonetheless, this is a fun, interesting issue, with some fascinating world building happening that still manages to include a solid adventure.  I’ll give it 4 Minutemen.

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New Gods #5


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“Spawn!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Mike Royer
Letterer: Mike Royer
Editor: Jack Kirby

“Introducing Fastbak”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta

We finally return to the centerpiece of Kirby’s Fourth World epic, and it is a definite improvement over the somewhat understated and disappointing last issue, as the operatic action that suits this book best is back in spades.  Our dramatic tale lies beneath a solid, if flawed cover.  It’s got a nice, dynamic image in the central brawling characters, though their poses are a bit odd.  Yet, their size rather downplays the significance of the massive monster symbolically squeezed into the corner.  The orange background doesn’t really help either, especially with Orion’s red costume.  Kirby just isn’t producing his best covers for this run, which is a real shame, as the stories really beg for ‘kapow’ images.

This particular issue begins with Metron, who is traveling through dimensions once more.  This time his wanderings take him to one of the most memorable and dramatic settings from Kirby’s Fourth World, the Promethean Galaxy, the last barrier of the Source, where float for all eternity the Promethean Giants who give the place its name.  Kirby gives us an amazing, dramatic two-page splash, depicting the size and scope of this strange sight as only the King could.  It’s a really striking image.  We discover that these giants were beings who tried to force their way to the source, and in return for their hubris, they are bound forever in suspended animation, just short of their goal.  I love this concept, wonderfully archetypal, reflecting all of the myths of giants and titans, who have traditionally been associated with the sin of pride and destroyed by the deities they opposed.  What a wonderfully Kirby-cosmic treatment of the theme.

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Star-sized super-beings aside, once his contemplation is finished, Metron returns to New Genesis, but our story is much more concerned with a humbler sphere, the Earth, where a detective named Terrible Turpin is interrogating Dave Lincoln after the events of the last issue.  Turpin has discovered the war between gods that is brewing in his city, and he’s determined to put a stop to it, before the place is leveled in the process.  When Lincoln returns to Orion’s human allies, we check in with them, but the Useless Crew continues to contribute little to the plot, other than some exposition and general fretting.

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Fortunately, we don’t waste too much time with them, and we soon rejoin Orion, who was captured by the Deep Six last issue.  He’s pinned by a giant clam, where he is taunted by Slig, who also demonstrates the Six’s sinister powers, the ability to mutate living beings with just a touch from his right hand, and to kill instantly with his left!  Fortunately for the Dog of War, he is able to free himself with a hidden device after his captor has finished his gloating, though he discovers that the clam is more than meets the eye.

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What follows is a cool sequence as Orion battles his way through various mutated menaces, who all have wonderfully cool Kirby designs (the man just constantly produced awesome creations, even for these little creatures which we’ll never see again!).  Finally, the hunted hero discovers a massive, battleship sized cradle, which once held some gargantuan beast created by the Six, but now lies ominously empty.

 

Back in the city, Turpin continues his investigation and the Useless Crew continue their fretting, but they are all interrupted by the coming of….Kalibak!  Darkseid’s scion arrives with a smash, prepared to spread fear and devastation on Earth!  However, Orion is busy elsewhere, so the Cruel one will have to keep for the moment.  Back in the undersea caverns, Slig finally finds his quarry amid a pile of smashed guards.  Unfortunately for him, the warrior has also found something, his Astro-Harness, and he blasts his foe in the face before proceeding to pummel him pitilessly.

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It’s another great sequence, and Kirby shows us the savage joy Orion takes in the terrible thrashing he administers, as well as showing us Slig’s beaten face.  The King actually manages to make this malicious monster a little pitiful in that moment.  Interestingly, Orion’s brutal visage is revealed by the violence of his attack, and he is forced to have Mother Box replace his fallen features, another hint about his origins.  Finally, the Dog of War disposes of his fallen foe by tossing him into a pit and sets out in search of the monster the Six have unleashed.  We get a glimpse of the beast in a nice splash page, but lacking anything to establish its scale, it’s not as effective as it might be.

 

So this is a great, action-packed issue, setting up a lot of what’s to come with Terrible Turpin and Kalibak’s chaotic arrival, as well as the monster unleashed on the seas.  There is a lot going on here, and Kirby handles it quite well.  While the time spent with Orion’s supporting cast feels wasted, every moment with the warrior’s quest is exciting and dramatic, and the glimpses of the wider mythology with Metron are fascinating.  The whole thing feels operatic and earth-shaking in the best ways, like a particularly good issue of the classic Fantastic Four, but elevated by the cosmic overtones and archetypal underpinnings of the Fourth World.

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It’s also fun to see Detective Dan Turpin introduced, as he will later be recast as a tribute to Kirby himself in Superman: TAS, where his bulldog attitude and heroic perseverance make him a fitting match for his creator.  On the art front, this issue looks quite good, and it is immediately noticeable that Colletta is gone from the book.  Mike Royer’s inks aren’t perfect, but they seem to pick up more detail and generally drown out Kirby’s pencils less.  At least so it seems to my inexpert eye.  As I said, I love the creativity of the Deep Six’s monster minions.  Why no-one has brought the Six back as recurring Aquaman villains, complete with a Kirby-esq monstrous menagerie of mutants is quite beyond me.  Missed opportunities aside, I’ll give this exciting adventure 4.5 Minutemen.

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“Introducing Fastbak”


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We get another brief Young Gods backup strip in this issue, this one featuring Fastbak, a free-spirited New Genesis youth with a need for speed.  Once again, there are only four pages to the strip, so there isn’t really time for Kirby to do much with the character, but we see him lead the New Genesis equivalent of cops, the Monitors (no, not those Monitors) a merry chase as he flies around Supertown at reckless speed.

The aptly named Fastbak is joined by more restless young gods, and when he finally comes to Earth, he is given a quick wardrobe change by his friends just in time to sing before Highfather.  It turns out that our rebellious friend has the voice of an angel when he’s not busy raising Cain. This was a fun little strip, full of exuberance, energy, and the boundless enthusiasm of youth.  With Fastbak and his fellows, Kirby immediately humanizes the New Gods by showing us a fitting parallel to our own youthful foolishness even in their hallowed halls, yet this youthfulness is presented in an inimitable Fourth World fashion.  Of course, the King also gives us more great designs both in characters and wild Kirby-tech.  I’ve decided I’m not going to rate these backups, as they are really too brief to be judged as full stories.


Well, I will close out this post with Fastbak’s flying feats and bid you all a fond farewell until next time!  I hope you enjoyed my coverage of these exciting adventures and that you will join me again soon, for another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

 

 

Into the Bronze Age: August 1970 (Part 1)

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Well, last month was a bit of a letdown, but this month promises to be a bit more interesting, with more Aquaman and more of the fun Manhunter debut!  Join me as we forge a little further Into the Bronze Age!

This month in history:

  • 2nd San Diego Comic Con was held (of note probably only in this context)
  • Rubber bullets used for the first time during the Troubles in Ireland
  • France performs nuclear tests
  • 1st computer chess tournament held
  • Peruvian Airlines jet carrying 45 US exchange students explodes
  • Jim Morrison is tried in Miami on “lewd & lascivious behavior”
  • Venera 7 probe launched for Venus
  • Unrest continues at home and abroad, with bombs and riots in the US and Ireland

Well, both the Troubles in Ireland and the Space Race continue, and although it was a quieter month in the US, things were obviously still not peaceful.  I imagine it will be some time before we stop seeing these events in our monthly roundup.

This month’s chart topper was “(They Long to Be) Close to You” by the Carpenters, a sweet, sappy song that is something of a contrast to the rage in the air all over the world.  Even in a burning world, love endures, I suppose.

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

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

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

Action Comics #391

action_comics_391“The Punishment of Superman’s Son”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Ross Andru
Inker: Mike Esposito

“The Ordeal of Element Lad!”
Writer: E. Nelson Bridwell
Penciler: Win Mortimer
Inker: Jack Abel

Okay, I was astonished to find that the headline tale was NOT written by Bob Haney.  It features the Super Sons, after all, and it is full of all kinds of Haney quality Zaniness!  Of course,  that means this is an odd one, Haney or no Haney.  It is pretty hilarious in spots and just ohh so very goofy throughout.  The Super Sons stories are always pretty out there, and this one is no exception.  Interestingly enough, Wikipedia is all kinds of wrong about these oddball characters, maintaining that the first appearance of the Super Sons was in a Haney-penned story from 1973.  Apparently this 1970 feature wasn’t the first appearance either, though, as that was in 1965.  There you go kids; that’s why your teachers tell you not to trust Wikipedia!  Anyway, let’s jump right into the madness, shall we?

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Essentially, this is Goofus and Gallant, the super hero edition, with the oddly doppleganger-ish children of the World’s Finest duo standing in for the titular pair.  We join Superman and his son, the incredibly creatively named Superman Jr. (Really?  Not, you know, Superboy?) as they discontentedly watch Batman and HIS equally creatively named son, Batman Jr.  The young Dark Knight is getting the Metropolis Medal of Valor in recompense for his deeds of daring do in the great city.  The Man of Steel and his son look on unhappily, with Super-Dad really bucking for ‘Father of the Year’ as he berates his son for not being as good as Batman’s boy.  Later, they head home to the “secluded, adjoining homes of Superman and Batman in the country between Metropolis and Gotham.”  And, just for the record, it was at that moment that I began to suspect that this issue was written by a 10 year old.  Seriously, there are a lot of concepts here that seem like something my little nephew would come up with, the fevered dreams of playground storytelling.  I realize that these comics were pitched to younger readers, but there’s a bit of a difference between what a kid would think is cool and what a kid would come up with if left to his own devices.

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Anyway, at the door the super pair are met by “Mom,” who is conveniently wearing a wig and has her face in shadow.  This is actually a funny and clever little element of these Super Sons stories.  They always had the mothers’ faces in shadow and they tried to keep their identities fuzzy.  It’s hilarious that they’d go to that much trouble for these stories they’ve already labeled as ‘imaginary,’ and which don’t have many other concessions to logic or consistency.

Well, here we see a few more moments of the type of domestic farce that I love so very much, with the Super-Family sitting down to eat in full costume.  Fortunately, it’s not the focus of the issue.  It’s just a bizarre little side feature, as if Ross Andru just forgot that these characters have civilian identities after the first page.  Either way, Superman continues to play ‘disappointed Dad’ and is fairly ugly to his son as he takes off to retrieve a special singing alien plant.

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We get an admittedly cool sequence as The Man of Tomorrow recovers the plant from a creature of flame, intending to bring the vociferous vegetable home to display on Earth.  The idea of a singing plant is not a new one, and it’s a cool enough sci-fi concept.  Yet, this story goofies it up by having the sounds the bush creates be genre and instrument specific.  This alien life-form plays “rock, marimba, strings, piano, cello, [and] steel band.”  Sure.  Just think about that one for a moment.

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The Boy of Steel demonstrates his Goofus bona fides by burning the vocal vegetable to a crisp by flying too fast when he’s sent to deliver it.  This earns the poor schmuck a real tongue lashing from his father, combined with a healthy dose of parental guilt.  You really do feel for this poor kid (apparently only 14), as his various screw-ups throughout the issue are all accidents, and he’s really trying to do his best.  He reminds me a bit of Jerry Gergich from Parks and Rec.  To top things off, Batman and son just casually drop by to brag about how awesome they are.  I swear, the whole thing reads like parody.  If this were written today I’d think it was really clever satire!

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Super goofs are the worst!  Also, smug Batman better watch out or he might find himself thrown into the sun…

The Super Sons hang out, with the Boy Detective trying to cheer up his super pal, including offering to let him ride his “Bat Bike.”  Ha!  Well, all of his efforts are to no avail, and then the two of them each attempt to stop a group of robbers with a nifty subterranean tank that looks more than a little like the Transport Modules from the old Ninja Turtles ‘toon (maybe the crooks work for Krang!).  The Boy of Steel blows it again, being fooled by fake Kryptonite, while Batman Jr. cleverly outwits the thieves…at least, if you don’t think about it too hard.  He finds the tunneling tank in a lake, hiding out from the authorities, so he plugs up its air snorkel, which is currently UNDERWATER, with a handkerchief.  This, somehow, causes the gang to surface, despite the fact that the snorkel was already blocked by being, you know, UNDERWATER!  It’s just a ridiculous little oversight that adds to the silliness of this issue.  Did you guys even bother to READ this thing before you sent it to press?

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Afterwards, we get another dose of domestic farce as all of the heroes sit down to a family dinner, still in costume, to celebrate Superman Jr.’s birthday.  Yay.  For his gift, the elder Superman decides to take his son to the Fortress of Solitude for the first time in an attempt to heal the rift between them…the rift that he has totally caused for being a jerk to his well-meaning son.

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Unfortunately, Goofus, I mean Superman Jr., screws everything up when he’s left alone in the Fortress.  He accidentally trashes the place, which seems to be the final straw.  The issue ends with the Dad of Steel locking his son in a booth and dropping in a piece of gold kryptonite to permanently take away his powers.  There’s actually something of value there, as the Super Father faces the fact that his son is more or less a danger to everyone on Earth because he’s such a huge clutz, but he’s also only 14…and who wasn’t a screwup at that age?  In other words, it immediately sinks into bathos or “narm.”  I’m sure we’ll see some type of turnaround next issue, but that’s where this merry-go-round of craziness ends.

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So, what do we make of this non-Haney batch of zaniness?  Well, I’m not really sure.  It’s just so goofy and silly that I certainly can’t enjoy it the way I do your average adventure story, but it is also undeniably vivacious and full of energy in a way that last Superman story simply was lacking.  It is clear that Kanigher isn’t thinking too deeply…or at all…about this tale, but it is fun and you really can’t help but feel sorry for the Super-Loser.  It does seem like the basic concept suffers from a lack of creativity, with the Super Sons just being carbon copies of their fathers, but there are neat moments interwoven with the ludicrous ones, though the latter outnumber the former.  This is a very Silver-Agey tale, though somehow less obnoxious than some of the others we’ve waded through.  I suppose it is just so wacky that it comes back around again and is fun.  I’ll give it 2.5 Minutemen.  It’s final effect is silly, but entertainingly so.

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“The Ordeal of Element Lad!”

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In the backup position this month we have the continuation of the excellent Legion story from the previous issue, and just as in that comic, this story absolutely steals the show.  It suffers from its brevity to a degree, yet it still manages to deliver a great espionage adventure.  Bridwell really came through with this two-parter, giving us a fascinating setup, solid if limited character work, exciting twists and turns, and a level of sophistication that really stands in marked contrast to the childish fare that seems to populate the pages of the Superman books.

You can see Bridwell struggling with his limited space to a degree, but the way he’s structured the two separate episodes helps to mitigate these restrictions.  For example, our perspective shifts a bit with this issue, and characters who didn’t get too much focus in the previous story get to carry most of the action in this one.  Unfortunately, Timber Wolf and Karate Kid still get rather short shrift, falling between the cracks a bit, but I suppose that type of thing is bound to happen in a team book with a big cast, especially when page real-estate is at such a premium.  The real stars of the issue are Element Lad and Saturn Girl, and we join the latter at the beginning of the story right where we left her, deep in the belly of the beast, having infiltrated the science labs of the tyrannical President Peralla.  The previous issue’s mild cliffhanger ending is continued as the scientist’s assistant declares that she knows the young Legionnaire.  Fortunately, she doesn’t know her as a Legionnaire!  It seems that this girl, Marli Zhorg (gotta’ love these Legion names) was a schoolmate of Saturn Girl’s but hasn’t kept up with her fellow Saturnian’s exploits since the old days.  Thus, she thinks that Imra is just another scientist looking for a job, happily assuming that her college buddy has no more qualms about working for a dictator than she does.

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Yet, though her cover is intact, the psychic heroine faces another obstacle.  She can’t telepathically smuggle the secrets of the ‘Humanoid’ super soldiers out to her teammates in the presence of another mind-reader.  Thinking quickly, she sends a seemingly innocent message ‘in the clear’ to Brainiac 5 that nevertheless appraises him of the situation.  It’s a nice display of her resourcefulness.  Meanwhile, the rest of the team is meeting with Masrin, the rebel leader, under the guise of being fellow operatives from the Dark Circle.  As they try to figure out how to fight the seemingly unstoppable Humanoids, Brainy discovers a trace of their substance on Karate Kid’s hand and rushes to conduct an analysis.

Just then, the loyalist forces attack, and a desperate battle ensues, a battle that will be hopeless unless the young Coluan can solve the mystery.  In a fun and fitting little sequence, Brainy solves the puzzle in the time it takes Element Lad to complain about his tardiness.  It’s a nice little character moment, demonstrating Brainiac 5’s competence, coolness, and also indicating the touch of arrogance that comes from knowing you’re the smartest being in the room.

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With the secret in his possession, Element Lad begins a herculean labor, single-handedly dispatching the Humanoids by converting their bodies into various elements, all while making the rebels believe it is their new weapons carrying the day in order to maintain their cover.  The sequence is nicely illustrated by Mortimer, and the Legionnaire displays a creative use of his powers as he destroys the creatures.

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The effort leaves him so drained that Timberwolf has to carry him when the rebels advance, but even so, he keeps up his attack.  Soon they are storming the capitol itself, and Saturn Girl sends them inside information, handily dispatching her former friend when she realizes what the young heroine is up to.  Brainy uses his force field belt to penetrate the city’s defenses and smash their controls, allowing the rebels to sweep in and providing him with a nice action sequence in the bargain.

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Masrin is more concerned with securing the treasury than with the capture of Peralla, and he pulls a Scrooge McDuck (minus the charm and whimsy) as he examines the wealth of the planet.  Here we see the culmination of the solid character work that Bridwell manages to weave into this fast moving story, as the rebel leader’s vices are displayed in several subtle ways amidst the action.  We see it when he shouts cornball lines during the battle that make the heroes roll their eyes, as well as in his casual disregard for his men in the previous story.  His vices prove his undoing, in classic fashion, as his greed provides the opening the Legionnaire’s need to take care of him.  The team convinces Masrin to hold back most of the treasure and only offer a small portion to his troops.  When he does so, Element Lad uses the last of his energy to transmute the gold and jewels into simple lead and stone.  The rebels turn on their disgraced leader, and a better man takes his place.

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The team, their mission successfully completed, is extracted, and the tale ends with Element Lad waking up in the infirmary after his heroic efforts, being congratulated by the others.  His valiant, unyielding perseverance throughout the issue was really quite impressive, and it’s pleasant to see the fellow get his due, especially because he’s a character that I don’t know well.  I like seeing new (to me) characters come out strong, and I always enjoy seeing underdogs (and Element Lad rather seems like one to me) make good.  He really does carry the issue, though, and his endurance in the face of his increasing exhaustion is a great heroic note for the character, even if it’s all we have time to learn about him.

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So, there you have it, an excellent Legion adventure, full of fun, intrigue, and energy,  with personality and character packed into every rare spare moment.  I didn’t even mention the romance subplot where the rebel officer’s girlfriend was revealed to be in love with someone else.  That type of extraneous element could easily just feel tacked on and unnecessary, but it is indicative of Bridwell’s apparent desire to see that nothing is left hanging.  Instead of being a distraction, it is handled with a light enough touch to add just a little extra flavor to the tale, occupying no more than a single panel and fitting in organically.  Once again, we see the power of visual storytelling, as a single word balloon and a meaningful glance tell us everything we need to know about the way things stand.

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The story isn’t perfect.  It’s just too short to be entirely successful.  The setup for the yarn remains impressive, though it doesn’t get as much exploration as we might like.  The final resolution, disposing of both Perala and Masrin, as well as the general threats to the world, as quickly as it does is a tad unsatisfying.  Nonetheless, the dramatic irony of Masrin’s greed-triggered fall helps to ameliorate this feeling.  On the whole, if the only complaint you can level against a story is that you wish there were more of it, you’re doing pretty well.  I’ll give it a solid 4 Minutemen, like it’s previous iteration.  I am really enjoying these Legion tales, and I’m looking forward to the next one!  They really help make these Action Comics days more enjoyable.

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Aquaman #52

aquaman_vol_1_52“The Traders’ Trap”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Dick Giordano

“Never Underestimate a Deadman”
Writer: Neal Adams
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Neal Adams
Editor: Dick Giordano

Well, back to Aquaman’s aquatic adventures, and happy I am for the return!  I really love this run, as I’ve remarked before, and though this isn’t the best one of the bunch, it’s still pretty darn good.  This issue is graced with another beautiful Nick Cardy cover, one that embraces the visual daring and creativity of the art within.  Once again, the SAG team deliver an innovative story that is breaking away from the standard formulas, along with really lovely and unusual art.  Imaginations continue to run wild, and the flurry of creative concepts keeps flying as the team further fleshes out this strange world.  What’s more, this story provides a really surprising and rather challenging moral dilemma for its protagonist.  In short, this book continues to encapsulate the best things about the Bronze Age.

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Another beautiful, trippy Aparo splash page

Before we rejoin our hero and his silent girl friday, the SAG team tosses out another concept to populate this bizarre world, a new and interestingly designed race of aliens, quite ugly but also fairly unique.  They have an advanced ship that looks a bit like a fugitive from Star Trek, and they are apparently on the hunt for slaves!  They approach the blue colony sphere…thing…from the last issue and spot the Sea King and his companion fighting off a horde of the natives.  The giant-headed aliens are impressed with the scrappy pair’s prowess, so they decide to capture them.

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Trapped in a force field, the Marine Marvel and the girl are brought aboard the alien ship and imprisoned in glass tubes with the rest of the day’s ‘catch.’  Aquaman deduces that the strange beings are telepathic and have highly developed brains, what with their huge melon-heads and all.  It seems telepathy is a common feature in the life forms of this bizarre land, a nice little bit of internal consistency that doesn’t get remarked upon but which makes the setting feel more fleshed-out and believable.

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Then we get a moment that I really enjoyed, one of those ‘Aquaman-is-awesome’ scenes that this series does so well.  While the glass prisons are enough to hold most life forms, the Sea King is not so easily cowed.  Held in his cell by powerful mental force, Arthur proves once again how much raw willpower he can muster as, inch by agonizing inch, he forces his arm to move until he shatters the cylinder and escapes.  Then he proceeds to wipe the floor with the big-brained bozos, casually remarking that though they may be smart, they aren’t too much in a fight.  It’s a really great sequence, and demonstrates how well the SAG team handle the character.

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I LOVE this panel with Aquaman cleaning three of the aliens’ clocks at once!

The Marine Marvel smashes a door control to cut off reinforcements and makes his way to the bridge, still desperate to follow the telepathic ‘pull’ that had drawn him to that blue colony in the first place in the hopes that it would lead him to Mera.  Some experimentation allows him to discern the workings of the controls, and the inclusion of that scene helps to illustrate the attention being given to the telling of these tales.  It makes sense that an alien ship could not be instantly piloted by a stranger, so seeing Aquaman actually pressing the wrong buttons as he’s trying to figure it out is a nice nod to logical consistency and their efforts to create a believable universe.  As Aristotle said, impossibilities (like men breathing under water and traveling to other worlds) can be accepted, as long as the are believably possible impossibilities.

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Well, once he arrives back at the colony, we encounter the most interesting moment in the story.  Our hero realizes that the girl is still trapped, and he faces the choice of what to do with her.  He knows he is going to be charging into battle against overwhelming odds as he pursues his quest, and he also knows that the colonists are likely to kill the girl on sight because she was the one who fired on them.  Yet, if he leaves her behind, she is liable to become a slave…or worse!  It’s a compelling and puzzling moral dilemma with no easy answer, and Aquaman himself doesn’t instantly know what to do.  He wants to do what is best for the girl, yet what that might be isn’t easy to discern.  His decision is made quickly, but at least we are shown that he sweats over it.  He chooses to leave the girl behind as he continues to search for a way home.

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Now, I’m far from convinced that this was the right choice, and it is actually rather troubling to me that Aquaman abandons her.  While I rather think that Skeates intends it to be thus, it seems that, at the least, Arthur should have woken her up and asked her what SHE wanted.  Of course, given her beliefs, she might not have ‘spoken’ with him, even if he had done so.  It is truly a difficult situation, as he could not take her home, her life wouldn’t be worth a plug nickel in the new colony, and our hero knows nothing else about this weird world.  As he remarks, at least she is safe, for the moment.  Nonetheless, it is vexing, and the fact that this simple four-color adventure book had me puzzling over a moral conundrum is a testament to its quality and to its uniqueness in the current crop of comics.

Aquaman52_13.jpgWell, to turn back to our tale, the Sea King attempts to fight his way into the colony, but he is felled by a…*gasp* head blow!  Yep, poor Arthur gets a second spot on the Head-Blow Headcount wall.  I’m afraid it won’t be his last, either.  I will say this for the noggin knock, though, at least these alien inhabitants of this land might actually have the strength to knock our hero out with one shot, unlike the average humans who tend to do so.  Either way, his captors decide to carry him to the “Extermination Chamber”!  Dun dun, DUNNN!

What a great place for a scene shift.  We check in briefly with Mera and Vulko, who are monitoring Black Manta as he circles Atlantis.  Suddenly, the Manta-ship disgorges two divers, but what are they up to?  Well, we won’t find out this issue, as our scene shifts again, picking back up with our hero on his way to his dreadfully named destination.  He makes swift work of his three guards in a nice, dynamic sequence, and he realizes that he’s reached the source of the strange ‘pull’…but there is nothing there!

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Just then, Mera snaps and cries out that she needs her husband (calling him “Aquaman” instead of Arthur, which always bothers me as it seems quite unnatural), and in response, the startled Sea King suddenly finds himself growing…and growing…finally appearing in front of a very surprised Sea Queen!  What is going on?  Well, we’ll actually get our answers in the Deadman backup!

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It’s a surprising and intriguing ending, though I really dislike Mera’s panicked outcry.  The modern portrayal of Mera has its problems (for one, she’s now trained as a warrior and assassin and quite blood-thirsty…just like every other character Geoff Johns reimagines), but at least she’s a fiery, independent woman.  I like my Mera with more spirit, more moxy.  She should be no-one’s damsel in distress, especially with all the power she is packing.  Still, like I said with the last issue, I do enjoy the idea that both husband and wife are desperate to be reunited.  It’s sweet.  This outburst pushes things too far, though.

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The more interesting element is, of course, the controversial (to me, at least), choice that our hero makes this issue.  It is handled briefly, and the action moves right along, yet it is a really compelling moment that tells us about the character.  What do y’all think of his choice, readers?  What should Aquaman have done with the girl?  Feel free to weigh in through the comments.

Once again, the story suffers a bit from brevity, but it still manages to present us with a complete adventure, while also keeping us on the hook by raising as many questions as it answers.  Throughout Aquaman comes off as pretty awesome, powerful, capable, indomitable (other than that one head-blow…), and driven, yet still concerned about the girl who has fallen in with him, despite his own considerable problems.  I think the issue itself may not be quite as strong as the last one in all respects, but the episode with the choice provides enough interest and depth to push it up to the next level in my estimations.  Thus, I award it a very respectable 4.5 Minutemen.

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“Never Underestimate a Deadman”

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This Deadman backup provides a fun and interesting, if a bit uneven, conclusion to our main adventure, and it is followed by an Aquaman epilogue that I will cover in this section.  Neal Adams is in fine form, so the art is beautiful, but unfortunately, he is also handling the writing chores, and his prose tends to be a tad purple.  He also makes some rather odd choices with his captions, as when the boxes constantly urge the hero to hurry.  Still, it’s a fun yarn.

It opens with Deadman and the strange, dimension hopping Tatsinda arriving back on Earth after a stomach churning journey.  The Deceased Detective commits something of a faux pas by telling his now cat-shaped companion that he liked her better in the other world.  They encounter the Ocean Master moping about his betrayal of the man who he has come to realize is actually his brother, Aquaman.  In a really nice bit of characterization, there is an element of pride even in Orm’s remorse, a certain epic grandeur that reminds one of Milton’s Satan in a funny costume.  It is not just that he betrayed his brother, it is also that he failed to save him, and the failure itself, a failure to enact his will, is, perhaps, what galls him most.  It’s actually a wonderful character beat, and I think it captures something about Orm that is true about most great villains.  The central sin, the original sin, and the one that leads to worldly greatness both good and bad, is pride.  It must be the defining characteristic of any would-be world-conquering villain.  Magneto or Lex Luthor would be nothing, despite their individual causes, if they were not backed up by towering pride and will to back it.

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I’ll add, at the risk of sidetracking this commentary even further, that Ocean Master’s costume, though here it looks about as good as it ever does, is just a lost cause.  The light purple, almost pink cloak and pants, the whole color scheme…it just doesn’t have the dignity the character needs.  The later redesign that adopted a more serious color scheme looks world’s better.  The modern version is, like almost every single New 52 costume, overdesigned, but it has some good elements.  I like the scales that echo and reflect Aquaman’s armor, but the whole thing just doesn’t quite come together.  I think one more pass would get it right.  Unlike many folks, I actually quite like the helmet.  I think it is distinctive and interesting.  The new version refines it nicely, but I think it has always been a good trademark for the character, making the design pop.

Well, anyway, Deadman grows tired of listening to Orm’s monologuing as the fate of the world hangs in the balance, so telling Tatsinda to hang tight, he grabs the reins of the villain’s body, and uses him to infiltrate the aliens’ ship.  I bet you had forgotten all about these guys, huh?  Well, helpfully, we get a quick recap, and the invaders obliging explain their plan to “Orm,” since he is, after all, their ally.  They are going to flood the world with radiation from all of their emitters, and this will reduce the inhabitants’ intelligence, making them nice, tractable slaves.

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The ghostly hero decides to smash their devices, and by jumping from opponent to opponent, he makes some progress, but the aliens shut their brains down to thwart him (That has to be a VERY specific skill.  How often would it come in handy?  I mean, other than going to see a DC movie?).  Unable to use the aliens, Deadman begins to flit across the globe, controlling various animals to smash the devices, but he realizes that to get the central device he needs help, namely, Aquaman!  We discover what has happened to the Aquatic Ace.  Apparently the invaders don’t believe in taking life (an interesting touch), so to fulfill their bargain with Orm, they just shrunk the hero down, and he is now trapped in a microscopic realm on Mera’s ring.  Intense concentration can reverse the effects (sure, why not), so Deadman snags Vulko in order to prompt Mera into such an effort, and this triggers the Sea King’s return.

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Yet, is it all for naught?  The Dead Detective realizes that the time limit has expired!  Fortunately, it seems that his efforts were enough, even without destroying the central device…or were they?  Tatsinda tartly informs the smug spirit that it was, in fact, she, who saved the day.  She swam out to the ship and sabotaged the device so that it backfired, stupefying the aliens and forcing their withdrawal.  This is an unexpected and fun twist.  I enjoy Tatsinda’s self-satisfied recounting of her deed, and she also coolly informs our hero that no lady, no matter what her form, cares to be ignored.  It’s a fun little ending, even if it is a bit of an anti-climax.

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To add to the fun of this issue, the team also provides us with an accounting of the creation of these interlocked tales, which is, in and of itself, an enjoyable and interesting read.  I’ll reproduce it below so y’all can enjoy it as well.  Essentially, it was a collaborative idea that all the creators contributed towards, the story evolving as it was told.

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Anyway, the story itself was a good read, and Deadman’s frantic efforts made for good adventure fare.  In the end, these aliens just didn’t seem like that great of a threat, and that rather lowered the impact of the story.  I think that this is the weakest of the Deadman chapters, and the weakest chapter overall, especially considering the weight and enjoyability of the Aquaman section from this issue.  Still, those are pretty high marks to hit, and the tale deserves an above average 3.5 Minutemen.

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The epilogue reunites our two submarine superheroes, and the couple discusses the strangeness of the recent ordeal while also bringing the returned king up to date on Black Manta’s odd behavior.  Mera notes that she is, in a sense, the goddess of this bizarre microscopic world and speculates about other such places.  We know from the Atom that they abound, making the DCU Universe even more packed with life and wonder than is apparent.  It’s a neat concept, and it rather reminds me of the medieval idea that God would waste no space in creation, thus, every element and every area must have its life, its wonder, and its purpose.  It’s a lovely vision of the universe, and, though it raises endless questions, is great for a world of wonders such as this.  The issue ends with Aquaman calling out Manta and promising further adventures to come!

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Well, I am going to stop this post here, letting these two issues stand alone.  I’ve decided to start treating multi-feature books as multiple entries since their writing takes just as long as do multiple individual issues. That will also hopefully help me keep up a more rapid and consistent pace.  I’m trying to use this blog to discipline myself in writing, in part as training for my dissertation writing which is coming up soon, so hopefully this will aid that objective.  I’m also going to try to rein in my issue commentaries a bit, as they’ve grown more than I had intended, so you may look for more restrained summaries in the future.  As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments, and I hope you will join me next week as we tread further on our journey Into the Bronze Age!

 

The Head-Blow Headcount:

Aquamanhead.jpgBatmanhead.jpgshowcase-88-fnvf-jasons-quest0robin2 - Copy.jpgPhantom_Stranger_05.jpgrobin2 - Copy.jpgbatman-family-6-cover.jpgAquamanhead.jpg

Poor, poor Aquaman.  He becomes the second hero to make a return appearance on the wall of shame.  At least this time, it might make some sense.  I have to say, I expected we’d see even more entries, but I suppose we aren’t even a year in yet, are we?  Clearly, this trope is alive and well in the Bronze Age.