Into the Bronze Age: April 1971 (Part 4)

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Welcome Internet travelers, to my examination of the highs, the lows, the greats, the not so greats, and everything in between of DC Comics in the Bronze Age!  Today we’ve got a widely diverse pair of books with a quartet of quirky stories to quicken your pulses!  Check them out below!

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 #399
  • Adventure Comics #405
  • Aquaman #56 / (Sub-Mariner #72)
  • Detective Comics #410
  • The Flash #205 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Mr Miracle #1
  • The Phantom Stranger #12
  • Superboy #173
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #109
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #137
  • Superman #236
  • Teen Titans #32

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


The Phantom Stranger #12


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“Marry Me – Marry Death!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Joe Orlando
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

“A Time to Die”
Writer: Jack Oleck
Penciler: Tony DeZuniga
Inker: Tony DeZuniga
Editor: Joe Orlando

We’ve got another beautiful, dramatic, and striking cover courtesy of Neal Adams this month.  It’s a nice, spooky image, and it’s well suited to the headline tale within.  Indeed, this month our Phantom Stranger story is rather different than what we’ve encountered of late.  Instead of focusing on the mystical heroics of the Stranger himself, this comic flips the script, and we see the story from quite a different perspective.

In many ways, this is a classic horror story, and it begins shortly after the wedding of Jason Phillips to his new bride, Wanda.  He brings the blushing beauty to his mansion, where he suddenly spots a mysterious figure, the Phantom Stranger, but the next moment there is no-one there.  Strange indeed!  Recovering, he introduces his new wife and their guests to his old wife, or rather, her coffin!

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Well, this seems perfectly normal and healthy…

He explains to the shocked well-wishers that he met and romanced the older and very wealthy Irina when he was a ski instructor.  He discovered that she took nitro pills for a weak heart, and despite the fact that she felt she was too old and weak for him, he insisted on marrying her.  A few years later, she passed away, but not before making him swear to keep her with him, always.

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There’s a very strange bit where she collected ancient Egyptian artifacts and learned about their embalming practices, insisting that they be used on her, but that doesn’t really feature in the story (something of an unfired Chekhov’s Gun…or at least an un-awakened Kanigher’s Mummy.)  Irina also left a clause in her will that all of her money would go to charity unless Jason kept her body with him always, which is pretty darn weird.  Throughout the tale, Jason paints himself as the perfect grieving husband, but there is something strange about the whole story.  This ominous note is strengthened when Jason once again sees the Stranger and begins to scream at him, only to have the figure vanish once more.

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That night, the re-married millionaire awakens in the night to hear a creaking sound and investigates to see the cloaked shape of the Stranger standing by the the coffin as it is slowly opening.  A voice tells him that he knows why they are here, but yet again, things are not as they seem, and when Wanda comes to investigate her husband’s shouts, the coffin is still locked.

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Suddenly, Jason sees Irina outside in a flash of lightning, along with the Supernatural Sleuth, who repeats his message.  The maddened millionaire strikes him, sending the cloaked form flying off of the balcony, but once again, Wanda sees nothing.  The next day as they are boating on a lake, the Stranger emerges from the waters.  Still, Wanda sees nothing.  She pleads with her husband to get rid of the coffin, but he refuses, citing his vow, yet even during their intimate moment of conversation, he sees Irina.

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Finally, pushed to the breaking point, he confronts the Phantom Stranger over his first wife’s coffin and attacks him with an axe, but the mysterious one forces him to think back over what really happened to his wife.  We learn that Phillips tried to kill her, putting her in situations where her heart would give out, and when it finally did, he destroyed her pills and callously sat by and watched her die.

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Jason thinks that the Stranger is just a blackmailer and attacks, but as his wild swings carry him outside, he runs towards a pair of advancing lights, only to be struck by a car and killed.  Fittingly, the car had come to get his wife’s coffin, though strangely, the name on the work order is Irina, not Wanda.

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This is a great little horror yarn, and though that isn’t really my favorite genre, Kanigher turned out a very entertaining tale here, continuing his inconsistency.  It’s either feast of famine with this guy!  He handled the building tension and mounting clues quite well.  There are just a few incongruous elements, like the Egyptian bit and the detail at the end with the conflated names.  I’m not really sure what the purpose of that was.  Still, the total effect is quite strong.  Needless to say, Aparo does a masterful job with this book.  His work is wonderfully moody and atmospheric.  Every panel is draped in shadow or lit with the bright light of romance, and all of the characters are beautifully rendered.  As much as I love his Aquaman work, let’s face it, he was even more perfect for the Phantom Stranger than for the Sea King.  All together, I’ll give this chilling chronicle 4.5 Minutemen.

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“A Time to Die”


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We have a solo Dr. Thirteen backup this month, and it’s a rather nice change of pace.  I like the interplay between the good Doctor and the Phantom Stranger, but a little goes a long way.  It is good to give each of them room to grow.  This particular outing is a respectable Dr. Thirteen mystery set in England, on the misty moors.  The Doc and his wife arrive just in time to see a man drop dead at the stroke of midnight.  ‘Ol Terry is his usual charming self, talking down to his wife and immediately making friends with the natives.  When the townspeople start talking about “the ghost of the Black Friar,” the Dr. responds by saying “You men are acting like frightened fools.”  Astonishingly, this does not endear him to them, and they tell this rude American to butt out in no uncertain terms as they carry the body to the town doctor.

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Incidentally, that is who summoned Dr. Thirteen in the first place.  When they visit this fellow, Dr. Hall, he tells them that he’s a man of science, yet he has spent much time investigating the ruins of the old abbey and believes that there is something evil there.  He tells them the tale of one of the abbey’s former inhabitants who turned to the black arts until he was convicted of witchcraft and burned in the 16th century.  Before he died, he swore a curse on the town.  Dr. Hall reveals that, since he is an old man, he’ll shortly be replaced by a new young doctor, but before he retired, he wanted to see that the town was protected.

That night, Dr. Thirteen investigates, only to see the figure of the Black Friar but be unable to catch him when he vanished.  Summoning the townspeople, they scoff, telling him that another man just died on the other side of town and the Friar couldn’t be in two places at once…if he weren’t a ghost!  With Dr. Hall’s help, the Ghost Breaker manages to convince the townspeople to help his investigation, but the next night, when they approach the abbey, a disembodied voice declares that, unless they run the strangers out of town, the ghost will take a terrible vengeance no them.  The townsfolk tell Thirteen to hit the road, Jack, and don’t come back no more!

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Yet, Dr. Thirteen is nothing if not persistent, so he sneaks back into town after sending his wife to safety, and searches a house and the abbey ruins.  Soon, he confronts the townspeople just at midnight and entreats them to follow him.  Heading to the graveyard where he first encountered the Friar, they once more hear the voice, but the Ghost Breaker leaps forward and searches a tombstone for a hidden switch, revealing a secret passage and a robbed figure!  The figure is unmasked to reveal….Doctor Hall!?

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That’s right, apparently Hall was just a tad bitter about being forced into retirement, so he used his scientific knowledge to construct a sonic weapon (fancy!), which he hooked up to the bell tower.  Every night at midnight it would send out a sonic pulse, and if anyone was close enough and susceptible enough, it would kill them.  Thirteen was suspicious of the old fellow, and when he searched his house, he found enough evidence to let him trap the doctor the the help of a micro transmitter that he used to track the fake fiend to his hiding place.  That wraps things up rather neatly, if making it a tad Scooby Doo.

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This is a decent little backup strip for Dr. Thirteen, if not one of his best.  Hall’s scheme is a bit too outlandish and the resolution is rushed, packed into one page, but that’s to be expected when you’ve only got seven to work with in the first place.  Both of the creators are new to me, but they turned in a perfectly serviceable story.  We’ll see if they show up in future DC Comics.  Either way, this yarn earns 3 Minutemen, a solid if unremarkable story.

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This issue also had a really excellent missive in the letter column, a thoughtful and insightful take on what makes Dr. Thirteen tick which is worth a read.

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Superboy #173


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“The Super-Clark of Smallville!”
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Bob Brown
Inker: Dick Giordano

“Trust Me or Kill Me!”
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: George Tuska
Inker: George Tuska

Well, would you look at that!  It’s the totally original ‘hero acting out of character’ cover type!  The cover is probably enough to make you want to know what’s going on, and it’s decently illustrated, but it’s not all that interesting, really.  One does wonder what exactly Clark is doing in that dorky outfit, though.  Unsurprisingly with Leo Dorfman calling the tune, our headline tale is rather Silver Age-ish and goofy, as you’d expect from this cover.

The gimmicky tale begins in Professor Lang’s lab, where the good doctor has what he claims is a jar of ambrosia, the food of the gods, from ancient Greece.  He also happens to claim that ambrosia was what gave the gods their powers, which makes me wonder if this guy got his degree out of a Cracker Jack’s box, as any school kid with an interest in mythology would know better.  They got their powers by being, you know, gods.  In some versions of the myths, ambrosia did have a role in their immortality, but that’s really not the same thing at all.  Yes, it’s a comic book, but it’s a comic book in a setting where the Greek gods actually do exist, so details like this matter a bit.

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Well, one way or the other, Dr. Cracker Jack decides to test some of the powered residue within the jar, but when he tries to, it explodes!  I hope they haven’t given this guy tenure!  The explosion wrecks the lab, but, of course, Clark is uninjured.  He rushes to help Professor Lang, but Lana spots him hefting a bookshelf off the quack.  At first she thinks this confirms her suspicions about him being Superboy, but seeing that he is holding the test tube and has traces of ambrosia on his face, she assumes that he ate the ambrosia, and thus gained the powers of the gods!  With no real choice, supposedly, the Boy of Steel fakes the discovery of new powers, like Hermes’ flight, as if he were a novice.

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In a purely rational and not at all wacky and bizarre response to this discovery, Lana’s first instinct is that Clark must show off to all of the bullies at school by going out for the track team.  She even makes a costume for him, for some reason.  This bit really makes no sense at all, in context.  I guess because he’s ‘super’ he needs a costume?  But he isn’t becoming a hero, just going out for sports.  Oookay, Lana.  Whatever you say.

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You’ll be the coolest kid in school…and you’ll wear a dorky costume while you do it!  It’s foolproof!

Well, “Super-Clark” (sigh) goes to the track field and shows off his strength and agility.  There is actually a great opportunity for some characterization here, for Clark to revel in the ability to use his powers in public and to enjoy Lana’s attentions.  Yet, Dorfman almost completely ignores that angle to focus on gimmicky situations for Clark’s ‘new’ powers.  My favorite is definitely when Clark rescues a bathysphere that got in trouble….in Smallville…Kansas.  Sure!  Doesn’t your small farming town have bathyspheres on every street corner?

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superboy 173 0008Needless to say, Pa Kent is rather shocked when an excited crowd shows up yelling about how his son has superpowers, but the new Smallville Spectacle explains things, pointing out that he’s happy he can help his father with his store.  Apparently at this point, Pa Kent isn’t a farmer, instead owning a general store, which seems far less fitting, iconic, or archetypal for the character.  After another series of super feats, Clark starts to get tired of the constant requests for aid and begins to realize the benefits of a secret identity.

Later on, a young, super-bald Lex Luthor comes back to town to get his revenge on the people who spurned him.  He is thrilled when he sees the townspeople tearing down their Superboy statue, but he becomes less excited when he sees them replace it with a statue of (sigh) Super Clark.  Man, Smallville residents are more fickle than Atlanteans!  Lex is more constant, at least in his hatred, and using a new invention, a “power nullifer” which does just what the name implies, he shoots Superboy out of the sky once the young hero is back in costume.

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The Boy of Steel crashes in a swamp and finds his powers gone.  He rushes to the nearby ruined lab of Professor Lang, hoping to find some ambrosia on the off chance it will really give him powers.  He finds the a note that was in the jar with the ambrosia and, conveniently, can read ancient Greek, which, you know, anybody can just pick up.  He eats the note, hoping it absorbed some of the food of the gods and finds himself actually possessing the powers of the gods.

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Using the Zeus’s shape-shifting power and thunderbolts, the ‘Phantom Vision” of Hades, and flight of Hermes, he manages to defeat Luthor’s various gadgets and drive off his former-friend-turned-foe.  The story ends with the godly powers fading and Superboy’s own powers returning.  When he tells Lana that his career as ‘Super Clark’ is over, she doesn’t exactly take the news gracefully.

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superboy 173 0022Well, this story wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t exactly fantastic either.  Dorfman wastes the chance to do some actual character work with Clark, botches his mythology, and throws in plenty of goofiness as well.  The yarn is entertaining enough, and the section where Superboy gains the godly powers is an interesting change of pace.  Yet, that is over in two pages, so we don’t really get a lot of opportunity to see the difference between those and his usual abilities.  This story has some potential to be neat, but it ends up being fairly forgettable.  I’ll give it 2.5 Minutemen, with the inexplicable ‘Super Clark’ costume costing it some points.

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“Trust Me or Kill Me!”


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Our Legion backup this month is once again the highlight of the book.  It’s a fairly conventional identity mystery, the likes of which the Legion writers seem to love, but there are some neat details to it.  The tale begins with the stalwart Cosmic Boy left alone in the Legion headquarters, as the rest of the team has gone off to get vaccinated against a new virus sweeping the planet, a vaccine he himself had received years ago.  That’s a reasonably decent excuse to get the rest of the team out of the way for this story, and in light of the recent vaccination madness here in the U.S., I can’t help but smile.

Well, Cosmic Boy’s sojourn is interrupted when, all of a sudden, his double in a mirror smashes through the glass and attacks him!  Each claims to be the original, and they find themselves evenly matched in combat, knowing each other’s moves.  We also learn that Cosmic Boy knows a martial art named Ku-Jui, which he learned on his homeworld, a fun little detail and bit of world-building.  They decide to call in help in order to figure out which of them is real, and they settle on Superboy, who they summon from the past.  The Boy of Steel speeds through the Time Barrier (such a wonderfully comic book-ish concept), and joins the duplicated duo in the future.

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Tuska really knocks the face-work on this story out of the park.

Once he arrives, he is confronted by a massive image of the Legion’s most deadly foe, Mordru!  The evil wizard informs the young Action Ace that this is all part of one of his schemes.  Mordru has created a duplicate of Cosmic Boy, and if the hero cannot discover him, the double will secretly destroy the Legionnaires one by one.  I know very little about this character, but I have to say, I like this little glimpse of him. George  Tuska does a great job of making Mordru’s image seem intimidating and ominous, while also giving him some good old fashioned villainous glee.  His plan is really quite devious.  It has the longshot possibility of destroying the Legion, but even if it fails, it promises to subject the team to terrible emotional strain as they face the possibility of destroying one of their friends in order to save themselves

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Superboy tries to solve the mystery by quizzing the two Cosmic Boys, but each of them is able to answer his questions about their history.  Realizing that the Legionnaires are on their way back , the Boy of Steel tries one last, desperate gambit.  He flies off and returns with two massive iron boulders, hurtling them at both claimants to the Cosmic Boy title, saying that the real master of magnetism will be able to stop his rock.

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Yet, when one of them fails to halt the hurtling stone, Superboy rushes to his rescue.  The stunned youth wonders why, since he failed, but Clark explains that the rocks were actually plastic, and he counted on the fake Legionnaire using magic to simulate Cosmic Boys powers, rather than duplicating the powers themselves.  Thus, they mystery is solved, and the story ends with Mordru swearing that the traditional vow of ‘this isn’t over’ and Superboy headed back to his own time.

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This little tale has a clever resolution in Superboy’s plan.  It’s a good way to solve the mystery, and it does make a certain amount of sense.  There isn’t a whole lot to it beyond that, but we get some nice background on Cosmic Boy, and he gets a standard ‘you have to kill us both, Spock’ moment, though it is immediately countered by Superboy.  Mordru’s very brief appearance is fun, and I look forward to seeing a full story with him as the villain.  George Tuska’s art is bright and cheerful, and he really succeeds in making the protagonists look youthful, something not all comic artists can really pull off.  His clean, expressive art is a nice fit for these characters.  I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing him stay on this feature.  I’ll give this little backup 3.5 Minutemen, as it makes for a fun read and has no real flaws other than its brevity.

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And once again, we find ourselves at the end of a post.  These stories present a widely varied whole, and they certainly illustrate how diverse an era we’re working with.  In just this pair of books, we go from the creepy horror story of a haunted killer to the goofy antics of a gimmick driven Superboy farce.  As silly as the latter story was, it’s an interesting and positive thing that both types of comic are being published by DC, a variety of tone and theme not seen after this era until very recently.

The Phantom Stranger tale is particularly notable for the overt use of horror elements and for the cold-blooded murder that actually happens on panel.  It represents a darker type of story, one that had mostly passed out of mainstream comics with the dawning of the Silver Age and the rise of the Comics Code.  The return of such storytelling marks the continuing shift across the genre to more mature and varied comics.  Well, I hope that y’all enjoyed this read, and that y’all will join me again soon for the next stop on our journey, Into the Bronze Age!  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

 

 

 

Into the Bronze Age: March 1971 (Part 5)

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Hello folks, and welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  I’m back on my routine, at least for a little while, so I’ll hopefully finish this month up soon.  I’m very excited about today’s post, as we’ve got New Gods #1, the start of what is undoubtedly the most significant of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World books.  There’s also a delightful little surprise in this month’s Superboy, which added to my enjoyment of these comics.  In general, we’ve got a good set of books to discuss, so let’s get to it!

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 #398
  • Adventure Comics #404
  • Batman #230
  • Brave and Bold #94
  • Detective Comics #409
  • The Flash #204
  • Forever People #1
  • G.I. Combat #146
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #82
  • Justice League of America #88
  • New Gods #1
  • Superboy #172
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #136
  • Superman #235
  • World’s Finest #201

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


Justice League of America #88


JLA_v.1_88“The Last Survivors of Earth!”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

This is an interesting cover for an unusual issue.  Notably, this comic has the distinction of being the only pre-crisis JLA book to feature Mera on the cover, and she does look good there with the rest of the League.  It’s a shame she didn’t get into action with them more often.  The cover itself is indicative of the era, showing the JLA having failed in some fashion, a common trope, but interestingly, there is some truth to this particular tableau.  The issue inside is a fun one, if a bit odd, as the heroes really don’t have much impact on the outcome.

The tale begins with a strange golden spaceship, which has a pretty cool design, speeding towards Earth as a robotic voice addresses its passengers.  The voice reminds its charges that they are the people of Mu, which, like Atlantis, is a legendary lost continent, and a very promising addition to the mythos of the DCU.  The mechanical voice continues, recounting how the citizens of Mu had used their superior technology to flee what they thought was a dying world, but their return, thousands of years later, has revealed a flourishing orb.

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The people of Mu, being kept alive by their machines, are now degenerated and decadent from their enforced isolation and inaction, and they can only respond with hatred to the modern inhabitants of Earth who they assume must be inferior to themselves.  Dillin achieves a pretty creepy, horrific effect with his portrayal of the Muians, vast rows of stiff, motionless figures, all screaming mindlessly for blood.  It’s like a much darker version of Wall-E, and as we’ll see, it serves a similar theme.

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Meanwhile, blissfully unaware of the threat approaching from space, a trio of Justice Leaguers pursue a “busman’s holiday,” working at an archeological dig in the South Seas Islands.  Carter and Shiera Hall have been joined by Hal Jordan of all people, and they are working to uncover clues to lost civilizations.  I love these types of glimpses into the ‘off-duty’ lives of the Leaguers, especially when they are hanging out together.  This is a really fun setup, and I would have enjoyed spending more time with these characters here, but Shiera quickly turns up a tablet inscribed with strange symbols that seem to point to the mysterious continent of Mu.  Just then, lightning strikes her out of a clear sky!  Green Lantern is able to blunt its force, but she’s still stunned, so the heroes suit up, with Hawkman taking his wife to a hospital while Hal contacts the League.

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In a touch that I quite enjoyed, Aquaman was on his way to join the trio to lend his services in interpreting whatever they found.  If you’re working on lost continents and civilizations, what better expert to call in than the king of just such a place?  It’s a really cool detail, and it proves wise, as he fills Hal in on what the Atlanteans know about Mu: it was an advanced civilization in the pacific that disappeared mysteriously.  The Sea King also brings news that strange disasters are occurring in the Gulf of Persia, the Mekong Delta, and the Coast of California, all of which point to Mu (though how they do so is quite unexplained).  The Emerald Crusader divides the League’s forces to deal with the different disasters and heads out himself, only to be struck by lightning as well, just managing to save himself at the last moment!

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In California, Batman, Green Arrow, and Black Canary arrive in the Batjet, but there is some tension in the air, as Batman remembers a kiss aboard the Satellite.  When they land, Black Canary pulls the Dark Knight aside, much to Arrow’s chagrin.  After telling Ollie that she’ll talk with whoever she care to, she tells Batman that she wants his advice on how to deal with the hot-headed archer, and she came to him because she thinks of him as a brother!  Ouch!  Bats is stuck in the one trap not even he can escape, the friend zone!  Nonetheless, he takes it like a man, and when the Emerald Archer starts flipping out and demands to take off, the Masked Manhunter even lets them use his plane.  (Real mature, Ollie.  It’s not like lives are at stake or anything.)  It’s a surprising but enjoyable little scene, with a bit of humor and just a touch of pathos, as Batman realizes that the attraction he feels is one-sided.

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Back on the other side of the world, Superman and the Atom approach the Persian Gulf, where refugees are fleeing a violent set of earthquakes.  The readers get a glimpse of the culprit, a golden medallion, an artifact of Mu, worn about the neck of a respected Iranian man, which serves as a transmitter for the destructive energies of the Mu spacecraft.  The heroes labor in ignorance, however, with Superman doing his best to help the evacuation and save lives while the Atom heads to a lab to try and sort out what is going on.  He stops a few looters and then gets to work, eventually determining the center of the disturbances, but not their cause.

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As the heroes head towards the epicenter of the quakes, the medallion’s owner smashes it, unwittingly ending the disaster.  Notably, the man, a devout Muslim, is portrayed as wise and selfless in a very positive and sympathetic treatment of Islam for a comic from 1971.  We even get an editor’s note providing a touch of background for the religion, which is surprising.

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At the same time, in Vietnam, the Flash has his hands full with an out of control monsoon.  Floods are destroying the country, and the Fastest Man Alive is run ragged trying to save lives.  While he labors, a young woman accustomed to tragedy prays to her household gods, another artifact of Mu.

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In another surprising touch, we’re told her husband was killed by the Viet Cong and her son by American napalm, an unexpected glimpse of the ongoing tragedy unfolding in Vietnam, and one that is handled with an unusually light touch.  Just as Green Arrow and Black Canary arrive and mark the center of the disturbance with a flare, the young woman smashes her idol in rage at its failure to protect her family, ending the storms.

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JusticeLeague88-23Finally, in California, Batman is left alone to confront the arriving Muian ship, and his valiant but foolhardy barehanded attack against the technological marvel, ends in defeat.  It’s a shame he didn’t have an advanced jet with all kinds of weapons on hand.  Once again, Green Arrow’s temper gets everyone in trouble.  The League just might be better off without him.

The people of Mu have their robotic caretaker snare a youth off of the street to interrogate, trying to discover how their attacks have been defeated.  The young man tells gives them a fiery response about how they are really jealous of the freedom and life that regular humans have, and then escapes the ship.  When it takes off, something suddenly goes wrong and it crashes into the sea, incidentally killing hundreds or thousands of Muians.

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When his friends ask him what happened, the young man informs them that he threw a wrench into the craft’s engines, thus saving the day….and also committing a touch of genocide!  The story ends with the Leaguers comparing notes and realizing that none of them ended the threats.  Finally, Aquaman recommends that they write this case up as “unexplained.”

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Yay!  They’re all dead!

This is a fun issue, though the final resolution is really rather too sudden and random, and I’m not quite sure what we’re supposed to make of all of this.  The final narration stresses the theme of the Muians’ plight, the dangers of overreliance on machines, but the message is a tad muddled in delivery.  There’s something here about the triumph of human nature over machines, but it doesn’t quite get developed.  This idea is apparently in the zeitgeist, as we’ve just seen an Aquaman issue on the dangers of over-mechanization.

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JusticeLeague88-10 - CopyDespite the slightly awkward ending, there are a lot of neat elements in this tale, interesting and thoughtful little touches, like having Aquaman be called in as an expert in lost civilizations, some decently graceful attempts at exposing readers to other cultures, and even a little romantic intrigue.  The lost continent of Mu itself is a really fascinating concept, and it’s a shame it didn’t get a bit more development here, though that’s often the case for comics of this era.  I’m curious if anyone else ever made anything of the seeds planted in this story.  The threat the heroes face is one well suited to the League, and it’s an interesting change of pace that the team doesn’t actually save the day.  Most everyone gets something to do, though Aquaman gets the short end of the stick, as usual.  Dillin’s art is uneven in this one, alternately very strong and rather awkward, but for the most part he turns out a very pretty book.  There are a few just strange looking panels, though, like Batman’s awkward run.  In any event, this is an enjoyable read without the weirdness of the some of our previous issues.  I’ll give this one a solid 3.5 Mintuemen.

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New Gods #1


New_Gods_v.1_1Orion Fights for Earth!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Jack Kirby

Now here we go!  Kirby’s New Gods book is, unsurprisingly, the core of his New Gods saga, and it is here where we really begin to learn what’s behind everything we’ve seen teased in the other books.  The cover copy declares that this is “an epic for our times,” and that is a fitting description for the adventure that lies inside.  After all, an epic is usually defined as a long narrative poem of high tone and style dealing with the deeds of a powerful hero, often across a backdrop of the fantastic, and, other than the lack of verse, Kirby’s book does match up to that definition fairly well.  It is certainly a story that is larger than life, mythic in scope and proportions, and that is obvious even here at the very beginning.  In his other Fourth World books, the King has been introducing interesting and exciting new concepts, innovating in smaller ways, but with this book, Kirby begins to do that which he had done in Marvel in the 60s, create something completely new.

The world he conjures is unlike anything seen before, at least in DC Comics.  There are similarities to his Asgardian adventures and the cosmic aspects of his Fantastic Four, but there is a scope here, an imaginative intensity, that is unprecedented.  These are truly new myths being created before our eyes, with just that type of archetypal power, and the end result, however flawed in the particulars as it can be on occasion, is still something incredible.  I love these stories, and it is really a breathtaking experience to go back and read them in the context of what was going on at the time.  Reading them cold in the 21st Century only allows you to experience them obliquely.  You don’t realize how incredibly groundbreaking they were, because what they accomplished has in the decades since become commonplace as swarms of imitators have flooded comics with similar work.  Yet, seeing Kirby’s Forth World burst onto the scene in this book in 1971 really puts into perspective just how revolutionary Kirby was, as he always was.

This first issue is no exception, and from the beginning, you can tell you’re in for something special.  I have to say, though, that the cover is not particularly impressive.  The figure of Orion is a striking one, but the weird coloring has never appealed to me.  I’ve always preferred the recolored versions I’ve seen.  Nonetheless, what’s within does not disappoint.  The tale starts with the fall of the old gods.  In an incredible Kirby splash page, he tells with remarkable narrative efficiency of the Twilight of the Gods, of Ragnarok.  These old gods, who look rather suspiciously like Kirby’s Asgardians, battle one another in an apocalyptic scene, and with a single page, the King wipes away what he had once created in order to begin afresh.  It’s beautifully fitting on many levels.

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The conflict ends in the destruction of the world of the gods, which is torn in two, and the two new orbs are left floating in space.  We aren’t told yet, but these will become New Genesis and Apokolips, the eternally opposed homeworlds of the New Gods.  Kirby’s narration throughout this section is, quite honestly, probably some of the best prose he’s ever written.  He really manages to capture the epic tenor he sets out for, and though sections of the book can get a bit clunky, the opening pages set an impressive tone.

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Across the vastness of space comes the dramatic figure of Orion, possessor of the “Astro Force,” whatever that means, a warrior who we meet as he returns home to New Genesis, and we’re treated to some incredibly striking visuals of its beautiful floating city and Cyclopean architecture.  He’s greeted by the lighthearted Lightray, a lightning quick young man who flies circles around the dour Orion and implores him to stay in the paradisaical city and “learn to laugh again.”

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Their conversation reveals our first hints at Orion’s dual nature, and we get a sense that he is a troubled soul and more than meets the eye.  The warrior has been summoned home to meet with his father, and the New Gods’ leader, Highfather.  The very patriarchal looking Highfather leads his son to “the chamber of the Source,” where they see a white stone wall, their “link with the Source.”  The idea of “the Source” provides a suitably vague and cosmic…well, source, for the powers of good, while still allowing for a surprising compatibility with the concept of the one God and thus folding in rather nicely with DC’s lightly drawn cosmology, even jiving peacefully with my own religious sensibilities.

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As the pair stands before the wall, they are joined by Metron, an eternal scholar, a being of intellect, whose outlook has something in common with the cold logic of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock.  It seems there is no love lost between Orion and this newcomer, and their verbal sparring is only interrupted when Highfather communes with this mysterious Source, and a in very biblical image, a fiery finger writes upon the wall and “having writ, Moves on.”  The message it leaves behind is “Orion to Apokolips–then to earth–then to WAR.”  It’s a portentous declaration, but Highfather reminds Orion that, though the Source advises, they still have the freedom to choose, and it is this freedom that separates those of New Genesis from Apokolips.  The young man’s choice leads him across the vast distances between worlds, to war!  As he takes his leave, Metron offers a cryptic statement that reveals he knows that Orion’s true origins lie on Apokolips, and Highfather angrily swears him to secrecy.  I quite like the celestial scholar’s line, “How wonderfully wise is the Source!  Who is more ready to fight the father– than the son!”  It illustrates the archetypal dimensions of the story Kirby is spinning.

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To Apokolips Orion flies, and our first glimpse of the grim, gray world is quite stunning, with its ashen surface and massive fire pits.  It looks every inch the archetypal Hell, and as he travels above it, Orion’s thoughts inform us that it is the opposite of New Genesis, a world dedicated to conquest and domination, to the extermination of freedom.  His reconnaissance is interrupted by a trio of Apokaliptian shock troopers, the parademons, which starts a running battle as Orion faces various waves of enemies, including heavy cavalry mounted on giant, vicious dogs!

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Most of the troops are visually interesting and imaginatively designed, and the action looks good in Kirby’s wonderfully dynamic style.  In the various skirmishes, we begin to get a sense of Orion’s lust for battle and the dangers of his temper.  Finally, the warrior makes his way to the palace, only to discover that Darkseid has already gone to Earth, but his visit does not go unremarked, as the titanic tyrant’s son, Kalibak the Cruel, is there to greet him.  Their battle is interrupted by the sudden arrival of Metron, who has come to hurry Orion on his way.

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ng01-29The scholar warns the warrior of Darkseid’s plans, telling him that the Apokaliptian monarch even now works on a device that will allow him to search all of the minds on Earth for the mysterious and sinister ‘Anti-Life Equation.’  Before vanishing as mysteriously as he appeared, he also reveals that Darkseid began his search there on Apokolips with a quartet of kidnapped humans.  The warrior frees the captives, and holding Kalibak off, opens a boom tube to Earth to help them escape.

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Then to Earth they travel, leaving a raving Kalibak behind them, swearing revenge.  Once there, Orion explains to the four he rescued that there is a conflict brewing of universal significance, something far beyond their understanding, and the book ends with him shouting a challenge to Darkseid, a challenge which Darkseid, from his hidden fastness, answers.

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ng01-20Then to War!  Wow!  Summarizing this book was a real challenge.  Since so much of this is new and since there are so many big ideas flying around, it is tough to be brief when talking about this story.  In fact, I left some interesting moments untouched, like the glimpse of New Genesis’s culture revealed in Highfather’s reverence for the innocence of youth, which itself is an effective shorthand for his world’s love of freedom and for the stakes for which this galactic game shall be played.  In general, this is a great story, though it will eventually be overshadowed by what comes after.  Kirby’s art is a little rough in some spots, and of course Colletta’s inking doesn’t do him many favors.  None the less, the visual imagination at play is wonderful, with both New Genesis and Apokolips fitting perfectly into their archetypal roles.  Kirby’s imagination is clearly unleashed in this book, and the fruits of his labors are wondrous.  There are Promethean structures everywhere, and many panels stress the scale of the world we’ve entered, as Orion is shrunk to insignificance before a starfield or an ominous edifice.

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ng01-16I’ve mentioned how archetypal this story is, and that is an important part of its success, as the King is essentially creating a new myth, working in the broad, bright colors of legend, evoking the eternal struggle of the Norse Gods, the Olympian war against the Titans, or similar cosmic conflicts.  This is a larger scale, a much larger scale, than anything we’ve seen in DC Comics, and clearly already more fully realized than any similar worldbuilding we’ve seen in the last year.  The only parallels can be found in Kirby’s own work in Marvel, but with the Fourth World the King seeks to surpass even those heights .  Think about how astonishing this book must have been when it hit the stands amongst the mundane everyday stories filling DC’s books.  Even this month’s Justice League tale, which has some measure of imaginative reach, feels positively cramped and halfhearted by comparison.  Despite that, he’s doing some pretty solid character work even from this first chapter, especially considering the era.  There are mysteries surrounding Orion, and a lot of personality at play in everyone we meet.  The impression of depth is downright palpable, and you just know that this conflict sprawls far beyond the pages of this book.  What’s more, we can see the lasting impact of this story in the fact that so many of its elements, even just from this first entry, have gone on to become central elements of the DC Universe.  It’s a great beginning, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series!  I’ll give this first chapter 4.5 Minutemen, as it loses just a little for the clunkier moments.

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Superboy #172


Superboy_Vol_1_172“The World of the Super-Ape!”
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Bob Brown
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Murray Boltinoff
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

“Brotherly Hate!”
Writer: E. Nelson Bridwell
Penciler: George Tuska
Inker: George Tuska
Letterer: Joe Letterese

Oh boy, we’ve got gorillas on the cover!  According to legend, DC’s indefatigable editor, Julie Schwartz, believed (and not without some reasonable circumstantial evidence) that a gorilla on the cover of a comic would boost sales.  Supposedly, the effects were so marked in the Silver Age that all of his editors wanted gorillas for their covers, and he had to institute a policy of no more than one gorilla cover a month!  Whatever the case may be, there sure are tons of gorilla covers from this era of comics!  This particular offering is a fairly striking one, and there’s a nice mystery, which gets a fairly good buildup in the story itself.  As for that very cover story, it has a really ludicrous premise, but the whole thing is handled surprisingly well.  While the concept is very Silver Age, the writing feels a tad more mature.

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The tale opens with a recapitulation of Superman’s origin, but this time, there are two rockets headed for Earth.  One crashes in Smallville, and the other, strangely enough, in the heart of Africa, where its inhabitant is adopted by the apes.  Then the scene shifts forward 15 years, where an ivory poacher vanishes after an encounter with a strange shadowy figure.  The preserve officers call in Superboy when they are stumped by the lack of tracks.  A second group of poachers, out to capture gorillas for a zoo, also go missing, once again accosted by a shadowy figure.

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There’s a nice effect to these mysterious attacks, and Robbins continues to delay the final reveal of the antagonist, granting the first half of this comic a cool, old-school monster movie feel.  Tension mounts from scene to scene as the mystery deepens.  The payoff isn’t quite as good as I had hoped, however.  Eventually, Superboy decides that there must be connection between the apes the poachers were hunting and the mysterious disappearances, so he dresses as a gorilla in order to have the primates lead him back to their tribe….which is pretty silly, but okay.  The apes oblige, and in their cave, the Boy of Steel sees strange statues, idols, and even a magnificent throne, all carved in the likeness of a massive gorilla, and carved by intelligent beings.  Brown does a good job rendering these scenes and granting them a mysterious atmosphere.
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Inside the cave, Superboy discovers the captured poachers making a break for it, one of them having secreted a gun when they were taken, and he reveals himself in order to help their escape.  The gorillas pose no threat to him until, all of a sudden, a SUPER ape appears, one speaking Kryptonese!  That’s right, he is confronted by a flying, invulnerable gorilla, complete with cape and tights, no less!  They fight but find themselves too evenly matched, even clashing with heat vision in a nice panel.
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The Boy of Steel decides to try to solve riddle of this obvious fugitive from his homeworld, so he heads back in time and observes a second renegade scientist, the anthropologist an-kal, sending a cybernetically enhanced ape to safety and cursing the Science Council for not approving of his work.  Oookay.  This guy is even crazier than ol’ Jor-El!  What is it with Kryptonian scientists?
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“They can be a great people […] They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son…err…simian.”

Back in the modern day, Superboy rounds up the escaping poachers and brings them right back to the super-ape, Yango, telling his simian simulacrum that they don’t need to fight.  The youth realizes that the gorilla has dedicated himself to protecting the animal world as he has the human world, and so he is delivering the criminals to his justice and trusting, for some reason, that the gorillas won’t just murder them.  They part as friends, Superboy to continue his work in man’s world, Yango, in that of the animals.
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What a goofy concept, and what a goofy visual!  Yango, a gorilla in a full costume, looks pretty silly.  Despite that, this is a fun issue, and the super-fight is pretty entertaining.  It’s also interesting to see Robbins take on the issue of poaching, however obliquely, way back in 1971.  We see in this another attempt on DC’s part for social relevance, and, interestingly, the message doesn’t overwhelm the adventure, unlike some Green Lantern yarns I could name.  In fact, it rather fades into the background amidst the energetic rush of the story.  The first half of the comic is really the best, as the mystery of what is taking the poachers unfolds, but the reveal of Yango himself is, I have to admit, not what I expected.  I’m curious if this oddball character ever appeared again, but I don’t think he did.  If any of you readers know differently, please let me know!  Despite the silliness of the super-simian, I have to say, I enjoyed this read.  The whole tale has something of an Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan feel to it, and that’s a good thing.  I’ll give it 3 Minutemen, as the yarn is entertaining despite its goofiness.
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“Brotherly Hate!”


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We’ve got a real treat in the back of this book this month!  After too long in limbo, the Legion of Superheroes returns to the pages of DC Comics!  This starts what will become a regular backup feature for quite some time.  Eventually, the Legion will actually muscle Superboy out of his own book!  This is good news to me, as I’ve really enjoyed the daring deeds of these futuristic do-gooders.  Our story this month is a solid one, with a touch of family drama flavoring the adventure.  It begins with a Legion rocket arriving at the “Interplanetary Bank,” where they discover that the “guardian beasts” have been disabled.  I’m already 100% onboard, as a setting in which there is something called an “Interplanetary Bank” and which is guarded by giant monsters seems pretty promising to me!  The Legion team, Lightning Lad, Timberwolf, and Light Lass discover that the perpetrator was none other than Lightning Lord, the brother of Lad and Lass!

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We get a brief reprise of how the trio got their powers, and then, to my delight, we get a nice origin for the Legion itself!  Young Lightning Lad, Garth Ranzz, travels to Earth looking for his brother, and on the ship, he meets the future Cosmic Boy and Saturn Girl, as well as the “richest man in the universe,” R.J. Brande.  When a gang of assassins try to kill Brande, the trio intervene, each using their powers to pitch in.  Brande is thankful, but he is also inspired, so he offers to set the three youths up as superheroes, citing Superboy and Supergirl as examples of teenage heroes.  They all agree, and the Legion is formed.  I’d read summaries of this event, but it is really fun to actually see it played out.

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With their flashback over, the team tracks Lightning Lord’s ship, confronting him on a barren and rocky world.  When they confront him, Lightning Lad tries to talk his brother down, but when he refuses, both of the Legionnaire siblings hesitate, causing Timberwolf to spring into action.  The high-voltage villain tries to zap him, but Lightning Lass throws herself in front of the beam to save the boy she loves.  This enrages Timberwolf, but Lightning Lad insists that he face his brother alone.

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They are evenly matched, and they throw electrical bolts back in forth to little effect.  Yet, Lightning Lad backs his brother against a metallic cliffside and ricochets a blast into his back, knocking him out, but turning his hair white in the process.  Their sinister sibling captured, the heroes find themselves hoping that he will reform, but something tells me that’s a tad unlikely.

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This is an all-too-brief adventure, but it is a fun one.  Bridwell manages to add just enough pathos to the confrontation to make it interesting, and the action is entertaining.  I have to say, though, I think my favorite part is a look at the Legion’s founding.  I suppose I share something of Bridwell’s love of continuity.  That sense of history, of more stories than exist on the page, is key for the “impression of depth” that is such an important part of a well-realized setting.  I’ll give this fun little Legion legend 3.5 Minutemen.

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What a set of stories!  We finally get the debut of New Gods, and we get the return of the Legion to boot!  I’ll call that a win.  This finishes off our penultimate batch of books, bringing us to the end of the month, a hearty dose (an overdose?) of Superman!  Please join me again soon for my commentary on those comics as I trudge further Into the Bronze Age!  Until then, keep the heroic ideal alive!

Into the Bronze Age: February 1971 (Part 6)

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Welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  We’re still working on February, but we’re almost done.  We’ve got a solid set of books to talk about today, and we get a new entry on the Head-Blow Headcount!  Adventure awaits!

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 #397
  • Adventure Comics #402
  • Aquaman #55
  • Batman #229
  • Detective Comics #408
  • The Flash #203
  • Justice League of America #87 (AND Avengers #85-6)
  • The Phantom Stranger #11
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #108
  • Superman #234
  • Teen Titans #31
  • World’s Finest #200

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


Superman #234


Superman_v.1_234“How to Tame a Wild Volcano!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson

“Prison in the Sky”
Writer: E. Nelson Bridwell
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Curt Swan

We’ve got a nicely dramatic cover for this issue, and the headline story within is definitely a step in the right direction for O’Neil’s Superman revamp.  The plot is a standard setup for the Man of Steel, a natural disaster threatening innocents, but there are added complications, physical, and, more interestingly, moral.

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The story begins with everyone’s favorite evil CEO (before Lex Luthor went legit), Morgan Edge, who is calling Clark Kent into his office.  He gives the mild mannered man a new assignment, to cover the events on the island of Boki as they unfold.  Apparently, the Boki volcano is about to erupt for the first time in 100 years, and, in another display of impersonal, corporate evil, the island’s owner is refusing to let his workers evacuate.  Edge orders Clark not to intervene, only to report, displaying a telling level of vicious callousness.  Fortunately, while Clark Kent may be forbidden from intervening, Superman is under no such restrictions!

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superman 234 0006He streaks off to the south Pacific, where he sees armed ships firing on natives in canoes.  Helpfully gathering up the fired shells, the Man of Steel lands on the lead ship’s deck, and there’s a funny bit as the sailors continue firing with small arms and Superman contemptuously points out how stupid that is when their deck guns couldn’t hurt him.  He’s confronted by Boysie Harker, the island’s owner, who refuses to believe that the volcano will really blow and is willing to kill his employees (more like slaves) if they leave.  Harker declares that the law is on his side, and he forbids the hero from setting foot on his island.

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Now, this is where the Silver Age Superman would have a big existential crisis because heaven forbid he break the law to save a life.  Fortunately, in what is probably the strongest part of the issue, the Metropolis Marvel flat-out acknowledges that he’ll break the law if he has to, “because there’s a moral law that’s above some man-made laws.”  That’s just the kind of increased moral sophistication I’ve been wanting to see from these stories.  Of course, it’s ironic that this comes from Denny O’Neil, whose Green Lantern was completely unwilling and unable to see the difference between law and morality, but perhaps this is growth for both character and writer.

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Either way, Superman sets out to save the island without technically breaking the law, figuring there’s no reason to court trouble if he doesn’t have to.  After setting up his camera and using a remote transmitter to do his narration while in action, he begins drilling a channel under the sea to relieve the pressure of the volcano and prevent the eruption.  Yet, far away, another familiar figure is stirring!  The sinister sandy shape from the previous issue stalks across the desert and then shakily takes to the skies, heading for Superman.

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When it passes overhead, the Man of Steel suddenly loses his powers and grows ill.  He’s forced to abandon his drilling and wonders what in the world could have caused his weakness now that kryptonite is gone.  As the situation grows more dire and time grows shorter, the Man of Tomorrow is distracted by a crashing plane.  After he manages to save the aircraft, he learns from the officials onboard that the U.N. is preparing to move in and arrest Harker and free the natives.  Yet, they’re still an hour out, while the volcano is due to erupt in twenty minutes!  Superman learns that the plane was damaged by a storm, and this gives him an idea that just might work!

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He flies to the storm-clouds, and by flying at super speeds, he creates a powerful wind that blows them right over the volcano’s cone.  The contact of hot and cold air triggers torrential rains, and the raging fires below are cooled enough to delay the eruption.  Yet, as Superman washes off in the downpour, the sandy figure appears above him once more, and he plunges from the skies, crashing right into the deck gun of Harker’s ship.

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In a hilarious and beautiful sequence, Harker and his men attack the Man of Steel with their bare hands, busting many a knuckle between them, as the hero simply ignores them, lost in thought about what caused his sudden fall.  It’s wonderfully funny and illustrative of his power and his personality.  I’m reminded a bit of the scene from Deadpool where the Merc with a Mouth breaks all of his limbs attacking Colossus (warning, SUPER not family friendly).

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With Harker arrested and the people evacuated, Clark Kent is free to cover the deferred eruption, but he can’t help but wonder, what was it that sapped his strength?  Meanwhile, inside the volcano, a sandy figure waits, its features slowly taking on greater distinction.

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This is a great, straight-forward Superman adventure.  It’s a simple enough plot, but the addition of the legal angle and the moral depth it reveals is enough to make it something special.  The continuing thread of the sand Superman is intriguing, and I’m definitely interested in where that is going.  We’re definitely seeing evidence of a change in values in these comics as we have yet another villain who is a corrupt industrialist.  We’re clearly seeing a lot of distrust for the wealthy and the powerful and the focus on social justice that comes with that.  I’m impressed that O’Neil manages to gives Superman some challenges without robbing him of his powers or resulting to too many plot devices.  One of the hero’s greatest limitations has always been his own code of conduct, and that’s always a source for good story conflict.  The humor and humanity Clark displays is also quite good.  In short, this is a fine Superman story and an encouraging sign of O’Neil’s progress.  I’m looking forward to seeing what else he comes up with.  I’ll give this tale 4.5 Minutemen.

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“Prison in the Sky”


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The ‘Fabulous World of Krypton’ backup strip continues to be a fun glimpse into history, and it’s penned by the perfect fellow in the person of E. Nelson Bridwell, DC’s own champion of continuity.  This particular tale gives us a look at Kryptonian culture and the nature of their elections.  Curiously, we learn that the ruling body of Krypton, the ‘Science Council,’ has its members elected by the population based on the strength of their scientific achievements.  That’s a novel idea, and I’m sure it’s been formally argued, but I can’t for the life of me remember by who.  I’ll let you make your own wry comparisons between scientist-run Krypton and the current situation in the U.S.

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The relative merits of the system aside, we observe the proceedings along with Jor-El and Lara as two different scientist demonstrate their inventions.  Ken-Dal created a warp fuel, while Tron-Et (no, not THAT Tron) shows off a ‘Dissolver-Beam’ that can break up storms.  To vote, the citizens of the world use a ‘vote projector’ to flash a green or blue shape on the sky.  That seems a tad inefficient to me, but nonetheless, Tron-Et wins the election.  As his first act, he proposes that, because of growing overpopulation in Krypton’s prisons (not very utopian, is it?), they should disintegrate condemned criminals.  The rest of the Council strongly objects, calling a death penalty barbarous (perhaps a touch of social commentary?), and demand that they open the floor for alternate solutions.

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Jor-El, always ready with a half-baked idea, comes to the rescue with a plan to put prisoners in suspended animation and then put them into orbit, where they can be brainwashed into good citizens, thus stealing a page from Doc Savage‘s playbook.  Interestingly, even he calls it brainwashing, which indicates that he’s at least partially aware of the huge ethical concerns raised by such an idea.  Shades of A Clockwork Orange!  His idea is approved, and he builds a prototype.  A prisoner volunteers for the first test, and he’s launched into space for 73 days.  During its orbit, Krypton loses track of it for a time, but rediscover the ship before it lands.

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When the rocket touches down, instead of being reformed, the prisoner bursts out of the hatch, seemingly possessing superpowers!  After clobbering Jor-El, the convict takes to robbing banks.  Just as he’s making his escape, Jor-El confronts him again, and this time, the scientist gets the upper hand.  After he recaptures the prisoner, the scientist reveals that the fellow was faking his powers with the aid of an anti-gravity belt (which, if you recall, was created by Jor-El himself just last issue, making him the perfect person to solve its mystery.

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The would-be thief spills the beans after he is captured, revealing that he’s actually the test subject’s twin brother, and he’s working for the head of Krypton’s biggest ‘crime combine.’  Surprisingly, his leader is none-other than Tron-Et himself.  He finagled his way onto the Science Council in order to silence captured criminals who knew too much.  To ensure his plan was adopted, he tried to sabotage Jor-El’s idea, disintegrating the original capsule and creating a duplicate complete with a false prisoner.  Ironically, Tron-Et then becomes the first test subject for Jor’s design.

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This story could probably do with some more space, as it’s really crammed a bit too full of ideas to be entirely successful.  Nonetheless, it’s a fun tale, and all of those ideas are intriguing and lively.  It’s always great to see Jor-El play ‘action scientist,’ which is more entertaining than the ‘Jor-El the barbarian’ we saw in Man of Steel.  Krypton is developing into a more fully realized setting, and while certain elements of Bridwell’s plot, like the sky-light voting, are a bit on the silly side, there isn’t anything here that is flat-out ridiculous, unlike many earlier stories about the planet.  It’s notable that we even manage to get a touch of continuity, with this yarn following naturally from the previous one.  In the end, it’s just enjoyable to see Bridwell explore the world of Krypton, and his imagination is certainly up to the task.  I’ll give this backup 3.5 Minutemen.

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Teen Titans #31


Teen_Titans_v.1_31“To Order is to Destroy”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: George Tuska
Inker: Nick Cardy
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Dick Giordano

“From One to Twenty”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: George Tuska
Inker: Nick Cardy
Letterer: Joe Letterese
Editor: Dick Giordano

This so-so Nick Cardy cover (a rarity) promises another campus-centric comic, though the headline tale within is an odd example of the type.  Of course, I love Steve Skeates, but I don’t think this yarn is really his best work. It does feature his usual imaginative touch and dramatic sense, but the handling is a bit clumsy.

This teen tale opens on the campus of Elford College, where a mustachioed man waits to see the school psychologist.  He looks like he’s in his 30s, but we’re supposed to think he is a student.  Interestingly, he looks a bit like Tony Stark, and, of course, George Tuska was perhaps most famous for his run on Iron Man.  As he sits in the waiting room, casually reading a magazine, he overhears the doctor talking with a student in his office.  The kid complains about being distracted by the chaos in the world and having trouble studying because of it (I feel ya’, kid!).

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In that middle panel observe the lined, world-weary face of an 18-year-old.

The shrink offers the boy some therapy and helps him come to grips with the instability of contemporary politics…ohh, wait, no.  He gives the kid a brain operation and implants a device in his head to “help him concentrate” by controlling his thoughts!  I wonder if that’s covered under student insurance.  Hearing this insane treatment plan, our middle-aged teenager reacts completely realistically, freaking the heck out and getting the heck away from that office.

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Oddly, we get the traditional first page title-splash on page three.  Why?  I have no idea.  I’m wondering if the pages for this issue somehow got out of order.  Anyway, a week later, young Wally West pays a visit to the campus as he’s starting to tour colleges.  That’s a fun bit of character developing verisimilitude.  I wonder how many years it will be before Wally actually goes to college.  At the school, he spots our mustachioed muchacho from the opening being attacked by a gang of students!  Immediately forgetting all about the whole ‘not using powers or costumes’ nonsense, Wally leaps into action as Kid Flash, noting that he doesn’t know what’s going on, but he can’t stand a one-sided fight.  I rather like that, and it’s a nice character beat.

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Rescuing the man-boy from the melee, the Fastest Boy Alive follows his directions to a shack in the hills where the fellow, Johnny Adler, has been hiding out.  Adler tells his tale, which leaves several things unexplained.  Apparently, after he realized what a quack the school shrink was and fled his appointment, he became a marked man.  It seems that all of the students on campus have been turned into school zombies, and they follow the administration’s orders, even attacking on command.  Yet, who Adler is and how he ended up at the shack remains a bit fuzzy.  He claims that he can’t get away because the only way out is through campus…but that’s a bit hard to believe.  You can’t just walk around?  Maybe it’s a failure of the art that I can’t conceptualize this.

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Anyway, the young hero speeds away to gather his teammates and investigate Elford.  When they arrive on campus, we we discover the most interesting element of the comic as we are introduced to the nefarious Dr. Pauling himself, along with the university president, who watch the Titans suspiciously.  It seems that Pauling began his operations because of growing tensions at the college and the rising tide of student unrest throughout the country.  The powers that be wanted a way to pacify the student body, and they naturally turned to the most wildly unethical and supervillain-ish way imaginable.  To top things off, the not-so-good doctor doesn’t even have a medical license!

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The junior JLA, curiously enough, are dressed in their non-costumes from the pointless Mr. Jupiter, but they immediately switch into their costumes to go meet with Johnny.  At the shack, they discover signs of a struggle and a very absent Mr. Adler, so they change back and return to campus in search of him.  Once they arrive, the psycho psychologist sics the school on them, and the Titans find themselves fighting for their lives.  What’s worse, they can’t use their powers without revealing who they are.  It’s almost like giving up your costumed identity is a huge mistake for a superhero.  Who knew?

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Surprisingly, Lilith actually makes herself useful and reveals she’s been taking judo.  As the team is attacked, young-old Johnny Adler, newly zombiefied, begins to struggle against his programing and stumbles towards the president’s office.  During the fight, we also get an awkward exchange between Mal and Roy that doesn’t amount to anything.  I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be light-hearted ribbing or something more serious, but it comes across as a bit mean-spirited.  See what you think.

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Once Johnny makes it to the office, he forces Pauling to call off the attack, and with his last ounce of strength, he rips out the mic cord, saving the Titans just before they would have been overrun.  The team dashes off to find Pauling, clearly completely nuts, ranting and raving about how the campus will be consumed in riots without his stewardship.  The story ends with an attempt at a melancholy and thoughtful reflection that doesn’t quite strike home.  The heroes point out that the human spirit triumphed over programming and compulsion in Johnny, but that just indicates that the other students might have done the same too, yet didn’t.  They wonder if the majority of people are really that weak and easily led.  Have you read your history kids?  Yes.  The answer is yes.

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This slightly weird story has its strong points, but I think Skeates might be wrestling with his page limit on this first one.  There are some really interesting ideas at play here, but they don’t quite come together enough to be effective.  You have a really neat reflection of the anxiety about student involvement that we’ve watched spread through the culture and through the comics.  It’s fascinating that the motives for the villains are effectively just pacification, the maintenance of the status quo.  They want their students to go about their studies and get their degrees in peace, which is a perfectly reasonable goal, though it is obviously taken to a horrific extreme.  By implication, this tale has some rather interesting things to say about that very status quo and the ‘establishment’ that maintains it.  Yet, these fascinating ideas don’t get enough space to breathe.

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That first panel gives us a delightfully deranged face.  Yikes!

The same is true with Johnny Adler’s sudden ability to resist the brainwashing (something of a theme with today’s books).  We just don’t know enough about the kid for his triumph to have much of an impact.  If we had been introduced to him as a free-thinker, an independent spirit, it might have been more effective.  The character was a good chance for Skeates to make some kind of statement about HOW to avoid becoming one of the easily led masses, but he passed up the opportunity.  In the same way, there’s a slight effort to develop the Titans themselves, but it doesn’t really amount to anything.  This would have been a good chance to break with the Mr. Jupiter setup, which is clearly not working, but we aren’t so lucky.  Of course, the central conflict, the random brain operations, also needs a bit more to sell it.  How exactly did this school psychologist convince presumably every student on campus to let him cut into their brains?  You can’t throw something like that out in one page and then call it good.

In terms of the art, we’ve got a change this month.  George Tuska is a fine artist with a reputation for interesting and memorable faces, speed, reliability, and versatility, but he’s no substitute for Nick Cardy in my book.  This issue looks good, but I miss Cardy’s unique style and can’t help wondering what might have been.  I suppose I’ll give this tale 3 Minutemen.  It’s strengths and weaknesses sort of even out to an average score.

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“From One to Twenty”


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Hawk’s caveman-like contempt for poetry is picture perfect for him.

Like last issue, we’ve got two stories in this month’s book, but sadly the backup this time isn’t Aqualad and Aquagirl.  Instead, we’re treated to a fun solo adventure by Hawk and Dove.  It’s nice to see these two new characters getting a bit of a chance to develop some, as there isn’t a whole lot of space in the main Titans book to flesh them out with everyone else competing for panels.  This tale begins with Hank Hall who is on the hunt for some crime to fight, and he’s decided to stalk the streets with a pair of binoculars…for some reason.  That’s not at all unusual and apt to draw attention or anything.  He spies a strange transaction at a newsstand, wherein a customer gives the proprietor $1 and gets $20 in return!  Strange!  Thinking that this must be some type of shakedown, the young man trails the customer, changing into Hawk in the process.

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Ironically, the suspect is himself mugged a few minutes later, and Hawk decides to intervene, better to bash multiple crooks instead of just one!  He plans to take out the muggers and then let the suspect go on his way so he can keep tailing the guy, but he the warlike one lets himself get distracted during the donnybrook and, joy of joys, he gets taken out by a head-blow!  That’s right, Hawk makes his official first appearance amongst the august company on the Wall of Shame.

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When he comes to, his brother Don has found him, having been out on his own type of patrol, focusing on protecting victims rather than punishing criminals.  They bicker a bit, but pretty quickly they decide to stake out the newsstand again and see if anything else happens.  Once there, they observe the same customer return and get another $20 for $1, and Don works out what’s going on as they leap into action.  When the peaceful pacifist tries to talk the pair into surrendering, one of them pulls a gun, and the other slugs him.  Fortunately for Dove, Hawk is there to bust some heads.

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I don’t much care for the way Tuska draws their transformations.

After the fight, Don explains to his brother that this was part of a counterfeit ring, where passers could trade one dollar of real money for twenty funny bills.  As they search for change to call the police, they hope that the men they captured will help lead to bigger fish in the syndicate.

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This is an entertaining little tale.  It’s nice to see the brothers in action on their own, and it’s also nice to see them do more than just argue with one another.  Hank comes off better in this issue, if a tad dim, and while Don doesn’t come off as a coward, gamely dodging gunfire without a complaint, he does seem a bit ineffectual as he can’t even stop an unarmed hood without his brother’s help.  It is funny to see him try and talk the thug into surrendering, only to catch an elbow to the face, but it would have been nice to see him pull his weight a bit more.  In the end, this is a good story that provides these two with a chance to shine.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.

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And that fills out this post.  We had a fun set of books in this batch, and I’m always pleased to add another entry to Headcount.  I hope you enjoyed my commentary, and please join me soon for the final book in this month of 1971, along with my final thoughts.  Until then, keep the heroic ideal alive!


The Head-Blow Headcount:

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Hawk joins many of his fellows and two fellow Titans on the Wall of Shame!  I wonder if his partner will join him sometime soon.Clearly, the ol’ head-blow trope is alive and well in ’71.

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!