Into the Bronze Age: February 1971 (Part 4-Special Edition!)

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Welcome to another stop on my journey Into the Bronze Age!  In today’s post, I’ve got something special for you!   The next book in the Roll Call is JLA #87, which has a rather unique origin and merits a slightly different approach.  It’s actually an interesting footnote in comic book history, one half of an unofficial crossover between DC and Marvel’s two top teams, the JLA and the Avengers!  In honor of this unprecedented event, I’ve decided to do a special post.  I’m going to put off covering the next few DC comics for a little while and cover both halves of this ‘crossover,’ as well as provide a little background about the event and the characters it created.  That’s right, for the first time in my Bronze Age feature, I’m going to cover a Marvel comic!

So, how did we end up with a quasi-crossover several decades before the official JLA/Avengers crossover event?  Back in 1969, rascally Roy Thomas of Marvel fame and the dynamic Denny O’Neil were friends, and they were each writing their companies’ respective big super-teams.  They decided to do an unofficial crossover, creating pastiche characters in each of their magazines.  The product of Roy’s efforts were the Squadron Sinister (Avengers #70), which would later spawn the Squadron Supreme and go on to become an enduring part of the Marvel Universe.  O’Neil seems to have chickened out a bit (JLA #75), producing only evil doppelgangers of the League, but a few years later Thomas tried again with Mike Friedrich.  The results were this month’s JLA story and Avengers #85 and #86.  There’s a little feature on this ‘crossover’ here that provided some background for this post.

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.


Justice League of America #87


JLA_v.1_87“Batman – King of the World”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

That’s a great cover by Neal Adams.  It’s in the hackneyed ‘hero acting out of character’ tradition, but it is still quite striking and beautifully rendered.  What lies inside is a red letter issue, featuring the creation of characters of very limited impact in the DC Universe but who are of significance in comic book history at large, the Champions of Angor!  I can already hear you asking, ‘who?’  That’s because these guys are pretty obscure.  In fact, they’re so obscure that I didn’t even include them in DCUG, which has almost every DC character you could imagine.  Nonetheless, the impetus for their creation as quixotic counterparts of Marvel’s premiere super-team, the Avengers, is actually really interesting.

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While both Avengers issues are classics and the characters introduced therein found a life of their own, this book is not quite so fortunate.  It’s a really fun read, but the Champions themselves are pretty forgettable and play only a minor role in the story.  It begins, not with the ersatz Avengers, but with Batman and Hawkman in battle with some unseen foe.  The Dark Knight is already down, but in a nice show of his fortitude and courage, the Winged Wonder, though badly battered, makes a final charge, only to be blasted by a beam of energy.  We then see a towering robotic figure, which has a pretty nice design, much better than the boxy robots from #84, looking a bit like one of Dr. Who’s Cybermen.  The mechanical man ponders Hawkman’s signal device and decides to trigger it in order to draw his fellow Leaguers…to their doom!

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Next we check in with Superman, who is apparently still mopey from his pity-party in the Flash’s book this month, and he thinks about how he’s alone on Earth.  To cheer himself up, he goes to seek out his fellow Leaguers, the only folks with which he can really identify.  I actually like that element of this scene, even if it is a bit overly emotional.  Heading to the satellite, he encounters Zatanna, who is given an oddly intense description by Friedrich and an awkward close-up by Dillin.  She’s called “The girl with the enigmatic smile and the dancing eyes,” and “the bearer of peace.”  It’s a bit…weird.  She apparently calms the Man of Steel with her mere presence and explains that today is the anniversary of the League’s rescue of her lost father, so she came to celebrate.  As it turns out, she arrived just in time to answer Hawkman’s distress call from South America.

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Apparently close-ups are not too flattering for the mistress of magic…

JusticeLeague087-05Superman, Zatanna, Flash, and the Atom arrive to discover Batman and Hawkman apparently just palling around with a giant, laser-spewing robot.  Nothing to see here!  Strangely, the Dark Knight acts like his fellow Leaguers are crazy, denying that they need any help.  In a funny bit, the Atom asks, with palpable snark, “What about the mysterious robot–doesn’t it strike you as a wee bit strange?”  That guy is six inches of sass!  The Masked Manhunter replies that, as Bruce Wayne, he was funding an archeological dig for Carter Hall’s museum when they unearthed the robot, and after it was awakened by the sun, it obeyed his orders.  This contains a fun idea, that Bruce would chip in to help his fellow Leaguers in their secret identities.  There’s some story and characterization potential there.

Well, needless to say, the team is a tad suspicious, and when Green Lantern’s arrival elicits an irrational outburst from Batman, they suddenly find themselves facing the menacing machine, apparently under his orders!  The metal monster targets Zatanna first, doing the classic robot bit of talking out all of its thought-processes and actions, revealing that it considers her the greatest threat.  The bot disables her with a power blast, and the Flash begins to blitz it while the Atom attempts to shrink inside its head.  Both heroes are repulsed by a force field and KOed.

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Superman and Green Lantern attack, but they can make no headway.  Analyzing the Emerald Crusader, the machine turns itself yellow, and apparently Hal lacks the creativity to, I don’t know, use his ring to throw rocks at it or something.  The android antagonist zaps Hal, leaving only a Man of Steel vs. a metal man, but even the mightiest Leaguer of all falls before the villainous machine.  This is actually an interesting moment, because Superman gets taken out, not by magic and not by kryptonite, but by more direct methods.  What makes this notable is that this is the first time we’ve seen such a portrayal in the post-kryptonite world.  It looks like O’Neil’s elimination of the emerald element is already starting to bear fruit, as you have to imagine that, if this story had been told a few months before, this android would surely have been armed with a kryptonite beam or the like.  O’Neil’s innovation is already leading to better storytelling.

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Back to the story, we discover that the robot was controlling Batman’s mind to throw the League off, and in order to keep him under control, it plays along with his growing power delusions, pretending to offer the defeated Leaguers to Batman as its ‘master,’ and thus recreating the cover.  This seems…overly elaborate and unnecessary, as the bot can’t possibly think the normal guy in the bat costume is much of a threat to it.  Nonetheless, we get a shock when the robot declares that the Justice League members are…dead!

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JusticeLeague087-17Of course, that can’t really be the case, and we see, one by one, that they are really alive.  It starts with GL and the Atom, as the Emerald Gladiator uses his ring to trace the robot’s transmissions home, wherever that is.  The Atom shrinks to subatomic size and catches a ride on the ring’s beam, following those transmissions to their origin in order to shut the machine down at its source.  That’s a pretty clever move, and it’s successful, as the android freezes just as it was about to destroy a native village in its search for minerals.

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The rest of the League look down on the battlefield, and we see that the Lantern created duplicates of them to trick the rampaging robot into thinking they were dead.  Weirdly, Friedrich describes these as androids, which doesn’t really seem to fit for the power ring, but it’s a minor point.  Superman heads off to get Batman and Hawkman to a hospital, and the remaining team members travel with the Emerald Knight to meet up with the Atom on the alien world from which their android antagonist originated.

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When they arrive, they discover nothing but ruins and a newly destroyed machine, courtesy of the Mighty Mite.  The planet seems to have been “shattered by nuclear warfare” ages ago, and just as the heroes are contemplating whether their enemies might still be around someplace, a quartet of strange looking super beings arrive.  These, at last, are the Champions of Angor, heroes from an alien world!  They include Jack B. Quick, a speedster who can fly for short periods, Blue Jay, a man with the power to shrink and gain wings, the Silver Sorceress, who has “hex powers” and a costume without even a hint of silver on it, and Wandjina, an Australian storm god armed with a powerful mystic weapon.  My, do these guys seem familiar or what?  Their parallels are pretty clear.  They’re obvious stand-ins for Quicksilver, Ant-Man/Yellow Jacket, the Scarlet Witch, and Thor.  Sadly, unlike their Squadron counterparts at Marvel, they aren’t terribly electrifying.

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Their designs are pretty awful, though a few of them (Blue Jay and Silver Sorceress) have some potential.  What the heck is going on with Wandjina’s weird little hairy epaulets?  Also, his name is pretty terrible.  There are literally hundreds of storm gods to choose from.  Why in the world did Friedrich pick one with such a goofy name?  Personally, I’d have gone with somebody like the Babylonian god Marduk.  He’s got a cool name, a good backstory, and provides some cool design possibilities.  Anyway, I think both their lackluster role in this story and their pretty weak designs help to explain why this foursome never amounted to much in the DCU.  It’s a shame, because I love the idea of the JLA having a surrogate set of Avengers to wail on from time to time.

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JusticeLeague087-20Back to our tale, the audience is let in on what neither group of heroes knows and is provided with the backstory of the planet.  Apparently it was run by competing mega-corporations, like some alien version of the Space Merchants, and they seeded the galaxy with robotic servants, each programed to harvest resources and send them home to their owners.  These interstellar companies eventually wiped each other out in an atomic war, but their mechanical servants remained.  Just as the League battled one on Earth, the Champions battled one on Angor, and they both tracked the robots’ signals back to this planet.  In classic ‘Marvel Misunderstanding‘ fashion, the two groups of heroes misinterpret each other’s motives and begin to fight pretty much immediately.  In a fun little touch, Friedrich includes a literal ‘literary license’ enabling him to translate the alien language.

The fight itself is really brief, effectively just one double-page spread, which is quite disappointing if you’ve heard about this issue and looked forward to reading it for the sake of this moment.  It is a cool spread, with each hero squaring off against their opposite number, though it is weakened by some heavy-handed narration about the madness of war.  We get it Mike, ‘war, what is it good for?’  I’m really rather sad that we, for some reason, get GL here instead of Superman because it would have been great to see the Man of Steel vs. the God of Thunder.  That’s really a missed opportunity.  I suppose it isn’t the only one in this issue.

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During the conflict, Jack B. Quick hurls some rocks at the Scarlet Speedster, who in turn, sends them flying back at his opponent, but one of them actually strikes Blue Jay, nearly killing him!  Zatanna immediately stops fighting and calls the Lantern over to help.  They heal the injured size-changer, and, in the usual fashion, this act of selfless heroism convinces the other side that they must have been mistaken about their opponents.  With the help of a ring translation, the gathered heroes share their stories and make friends, and the story ends with another really weird focus on Zatanna, as all the Leaguers give her a super-awkward looking group hug and the heavy-handed narration continues.

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This issue is just jam-packed full of plot.  There are at least two or three issues’ worth of story here, and I’m not even talking about the modern ‘decompressed’ methods of storytelling.  Once again, Friedrich’s narrative eyes are bigger than his stomach, as he just fills this comic with ideas that are all fighting to have enough space.  The result is a riotous and creative book that feels very rushed.  You’ve got the initial robot menace, the adventure to the alien world, the discovery of the backstory of the space merchants, and the fight with the Champions, any of which could easily have filled an issue.  Trying to pack it all in means only the first idea really got explored, and even that one ended very abruptly.  Of course, the biggest flaw of the book is , in some senses, the disappointing appearance of the Champions of Angor.  They’re barely in the story for six pages, and their big battle is over in two.  The concept of an Avengers analog is a promising one, but sadly, these guys don’t quite live up to their potential.

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Awkward moments courtesy of Mike “Touchy-Feely” Friedrich.

Despite its crowded plot and less than inspiring new characters, this is still a fun book to read.  There’s no question that this is better than last issue, even with its flaws.  While the ideas in this comic may be crammed together and largely unexplored, they are interesting.  We’ve once again got an impersonal, greedy corporate entity as our villains, which seems to be becoming a more common device and certainly feels fitting for the modern day.  You’ve also got a bit of an anti-war message here, but it’s so incongruous and so easily lost amongst the hustle-and-bustle of the more interesting elements of the story that it doesn’t amount to much.  It’s also more than a little strange that, despite her prominent role in this story, Zatanna didn’t join the League here.  That feels like another missed opportunity.  Dillin’s art is pretty strong, and that seemingly characteristic stiffness from his JLA work isn’t really in evidence here.  His design for the robot is quite good, but obviously his designs for the Champions aren’t so fortunate.  I suppose that, over all, I’ll give this fun but flawed issue 3.5 Minutemen, largely on the strength of the first episode and the intriguing ideas in evidence.

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Avengers #85


Avengers_Vol_1_85“The World Is Not for Burning!”
Writer: Roy Thomas
Penciler: John Buscema
Inker: Frank Giacoia
Letterer: Mike Stevens
Editor: Stan Lee

You can see what else Marvel put out this month HERE.

Some years back I read through The Avengers up through the early 80s, and I really loved the experience.  Perhaps if I live to be 150 I’ll have time one day to go back and read through all of Marvel like I’m doing with DC.  Either way, I love the Avengers as a team and a concept, and their comic is one of my all-time favorites.  Those early Avengers years in the Silver and Bronze Ages produced some truly great comics, and they are a blast to read.  As I’ve discussed before, while the characters who make up the JLA have a special place in my heart, I can’t deny that, on the whole, the classic stories of Marvel’s main team beat those of DC all hollow.  Here at the beginning of the Bronze Age, we’re in a great time for the Avengers, featuring some of my favorite stories from this series.

This particular issue begins with our star tossed heroes, Thor, Black Panther, Black Knight, Scarlet Witch, Vision, Quicksilver, and Goliath (the Clint Barton variety, a concept I never cared for), as they prepare to journey via Mjolnir.  They are returning home from the extra-dimensional tyrant Arkon’s world, where they just concluded the previous issue’s adventure.  Thor hurls his enchanted hammer about, ordering it to take them all back where they came from, but only three of their number arrive at their respective homes.  Goliath, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and the Vision don’t appear with the others, but Thor and the Panther don’t have time to investigate, as they are due to join Cap and Spidey at a Toys for Tots charity event, which is a nice little bit of detail.  It does seem like the matter of missing heroes might take precedence, but far be it for me to advocate disappointing disadvantaged kids!

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The missing Avengers find themselves only partially materializing, left in a wraith-like state on a world that is dying!  All about them, human beings burn horribly and the very streets melt under the fire of a raging sun.  Unable to do anything more than watch, they feel helpless.  Quicksilver, spying a paper, realizes that the date indicates that they’ve been gone for weeks rather than hours!  In an attempt to do something, Wanda uses her hex powers, and suddenly they find themselves solid and on a peaceful street corner on the right date.  Yet, there are subtle hints that all is not as it seems, as people don’t seem to recognize the team.

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When they arrive at Avengers’ Mansion, it too seems subtly different, and inside they accidentally trigger a trap before they are confronted by a strangely garbed figure who tells them that this is his team’s home!  This is Nighthawk, who the team had encountered months ago as part of the Squadron Sinister, yet he seems not to know them.  After an ill-fated attack on the diamond-hard Vision, Nighthawk employs the better part of valor and escapes through a secret door.  The Vision slips through and opens it, and the team pursues the mysterious masked man.

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Inside what should be their meeting room, they discover four new figures: Lady Lark, American Eagle, Tom Thumb, and…Hawkeye?  Well, neither pastiche team arrived fully formed, it seems.  This quartet are obvious parallels to Black Canary, Hawkman, the Atom, and Green Arrow, though, oddly, American Eagle seems more like a cross between Captain America and the Winged Wonder, as he’s an uber patriotic, flag-waver type, who immediately assumes the Avengers are commies!

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In classic Marvel fashion, the teams immediately come to blows when Goliath tries to get some answers out of Nighthawk in his usual hot-headed fashion, dangling the guy out a window.  Suddenly, a message comes over the view-screen, where Dr. Spectrum (Green Lantern) tells his team that the solar rocket ‘Brain-Child One’ is ready for launch, and he calls them the “Squadron Supreme.”  The Vision realizes that his team must have witnessed a glimpse of the future of this world and tries to explain, only for Tom Thumb to blind Goliath as the giant laughs at his diminutive stature (real sensitive there, Clint).  Interestingly, instead of having shrinking powers like the Atom, Tom Thumb is just a little person and inventor, making for a very unusual parallel.

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The teams leap into action, with Tom Thumb disabling Quicksilver with an adhesive that coats the speedster, Lady Lark disabling the Witch with a sonic cry, Hawkeye hitting the Vision with an explosive bolt, and American Eagle decking Goliath.  It seems like things are going badly for the Assemblers until Clint’s destroys Tom Thumb’s flying platform and the Vision recovers to take out Eagle and Nighthawk.

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Inside, Quicksilver shakes off his sticky prison and hits pseudo-Hawkeye like a cannonball, while the Witch turns the tables on Lady Lark, zapping her with a hex-sphere.  With the Squadron captured, the Avengers realize that they are going to need these strange heroes’ help if they are to save their world.  They take the reviving Nighthawk, commander a ship, and head to the launch site, explaining the problem in transit.  Fortunately, the nocturnal avenger (Freedom Force joke!) believes them, because without his help, they’d have to defeat the three strongest members of the Squadron!

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This comic is a blast to read.  It feels well-paced, and the plot has plenty of room to breathe, unlike it’s distinguished counterpart.  It is overwritten in the classic Marvel tradition, with dialog just everywhere.  Roy Thomas was always great at writing adventure stories, even if he followed in Stan’s footsteps by being very verbose, and this was no exception.  Notably, in contrast to the DC book, where the pastiche team received only a few pages, this entire issue revolves around the Squadron Supreme, first as mystery and then as antagonist.  They are given a great deal more space, and the fight between the two teams takes up roughly seven pages in this book, more than doubling the space devoted to the encounter in JLA.  Of course, they also feature in the next issue as well, where the other part of the Squadron gets as much room to shine as the Avengers themselves.  It’s no wonder that their appearance here proved much more memorable than the Champions’ over in DC.

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Of course, it’s hard to get much better than John Buscema art in the Bronze Age.  The man was a master, and there’s a reason that his run on this book is legendary.  As for the Squadron members themselves, their designs are, on the whole, stronger than those of their counterparts, but there are still some definite exceptions.  The new Hawkeye’s design is rather incoherent though his hood is neat, and American Eagle’s wings and helmet can end up looking rather goofy.  Lady Lark, Nighthawk, and Tom Thumb, however, benefit from solid, distinctive designs.  All of these characters would evolve in future appearances, but it’s notable how little those three changed.  From their very first appearance as villains ten issues ago, the original four members of the team had a pretty solid look and concept.  I’ll give this half of the adventure 4.5 Minutemen, an enjoyable adventure with some grand stakes and some interesting new characters.

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Avengers #86


Avengers_Vol_1_86“Brain-Child to the Dark Tower Came…!”
Writer: Roy Thomas and Len Wein
Penciler: Sal Buscema
Inker:Jim Mooney
Letterer: Shelly Leferman

You can see what else Marvel put out this month HERE.

The second half of this two-parter opens with the gathered heroes rushing to confront the remaining there Squadron members guarding the rocket as it prepares for lift-off.  For reasons of plot, Nighthawk must stay with the ship to shut it down, so the Avengers hurry to stop the launch, only to get into a brief fight with the Squadron members.  Fortunately, Wanda manages to hit the rocket with a hex sphere, which also has the power of plot, and stops the launch.  Just then, Nighthawk arrives and straightens everything out.  In a funny touch, Goliath notes that it’s nice to meet superheroes that they don’t end up fighting and observes that it is a rare occurrence for the team.  That’s a fun bit of self-awareness, and, just as the DC booked aimed at being a bit Marvel-ish, it seems that this one aims to be a bit DC-ish.

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Poor Pietro, perpetually in over his head…

After the Avengers tell their story, the Squadron members explain the rocket’s origins, and the mystery begins to unravel.  It seems that a decade ago a very unusual child was born, a son of two parents who had been exposed to great amounts of radiation who was born with an incredible intellect.  The child prodigy to put all others to shame, he was a brilliant scientist by the tender age of four!

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In an effort to increase his intelligence even further, young Arnold Sutton experimented on himself, giving him the most advanced mind on the planet, but making him a deformed freak.  His work was respected, but he was still ostracized and abused.  He became a top rocket scientist for the U.S., but eventually moved to a deserted island in order to be free of humanity.  It becomes clear that this brilliant mind is still the mind of a child, and it has decided to lash out at those who hurt it.  Thus, the rocket supposedly meant for exploration is actually a doomsday device.

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Back on the Avengers’ Earth, the remaining team-members try to bring their missing mates home, but without success.  Unaware of this, the lost heroes soldier on, teaming up with the present Squadron members to pay the young ‘Brain-Child’ a visit.  When they arrive on his island, they are met with powerful advanced defenses, confirming their suspicions.  In another DC touch, the heroes split up into teams and each try to break into the uncanny kid’s fortress from four different directions.  The speedsters take the first crack at him, naturally, but they get caught in a storm of flying rocks and must whip up their own super-speed cyclone to counter it.

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Meanwhile, Nighthawk and the Scarlet Witch encounter a massively muscled guardian who makes short work of the psuedo-caped crusader.  It also hypnotizes poor Wanda before she can hurl a hex sphere.  On the third front, Dr. Spectrum and the Vision encounter a weird, Lovecraftian creature that manages to counter both their powers and overwhelm them.

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The final team of Goliath and Hyperion (it seems like not teaming Hawkeye and Hawkeye is a bit of a missed opportunity!) attempt to sneak up on the genocidal grade-schooler, only for him to reveal that he has mental powers as well as great intelligence!  Brain-Child manages to take out the mighty Hyperion, who, in a fun touch, is called a ‘man of brawn.’  But, though stunned, Goliath is still fighting, and he employs his ex-identity’s expertise to turn Hyperion’s tough form into an improvised missile!

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The weakened Brain-Child collapses, and all of his traps, even his entire fortress, disappear as he loses consciousness.  The strain apparently snaps his mind back to its proper child-like state, and Dr. Spectrum uses his power prism to turn him into a normal boy.  The Squadron promises to take care of him and give him a normal life, and just then, the Avengers begin to fade out!  They arrive back home, their fellows finally having succeeded, and the story ends on a surprisingly sombre note, as the Vision ponders whether they can ever know if they are truly…home!

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I strongly suspect that this classic issue provided the inspiration for an excellent episode of the Justice League show featuring an ersatz JSA.  That episode featured a very similar antagonist.  The plot was admittedly quite different, but it did center around a post-apocalyptic world.  If true, that’s a fascinating line of descent, from JLA pastiche in the Avengers to JSA pastiche in a JLA show.  How neat!

As for the comic itself, it is another really entertaining story, and it is great fun to see the Avengers actually team up with their heroic counterparts from the ersatz-League.  It makes for a fitting end of the saga, and Brain-Child is a sympathetic and intriguing antagonist.  Thomas manages to tell his story with admiral brevity, yet still manages to make you feel for the little guy, creepy though he is.  There’s enough tragedy with this character to fit the high tone of the comic and make him compelling.  The ending is great, exactly what comics are all about, providing a hopeful resolution to the issue’s problem.  The little DC-esq touches to plot are also really fun for readers ‘in the know,’ as is the hint of self-awareness from Goliath.

In a fascinating and unusual display of erudition, this story references Robert Browning’s poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” with both its title and the comments of one of its characters.  This is a delightfully fitting reference, as Browning’s poem paints a scene of Gothic desolation as its knightly hero trudges slowly and painfully through a wasteland that the poet describes in detail.  Notably, it seems that at least some of the ugliness of his surroundings are a matter of the knight’s perspective, as he sees through jaundiced eyes and with the vision of despair.  Brain-Child experiences just such a vision of the world, but unlike Childe Roland, who perseveres to his ambiguous fate at the Dark Tower, the brilliant boy gives in to despair and decides to drown the whole world in fire, himself included.  The reference is a really neat addition to the story.

Once again, the art is superb, and Brain-Child is suitably disturbing.  I’ll give this issue 4.5 Minutemen as well.  It loses a little credit for the silly bit with Nighthawk in the beginning.

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Reading these stories in context is just fascinating.  They really highlight the different approaches to story-telling current at the two companies, as well as just being interesting as a piece of comic lore.  In comparison with the counterpart Avengers stories of this unofficial crossover, the weaknesses of the JLA tale are particularly telling.  The Avengers yarns are simply significantly better than the JLA version, and I once again find myself wondering just how the Justice League book survived with Marvel routinely kicking its backside every month in this era.

The Marvel books are just full of characterization and personality.  It’s on display in nearly every panel, overwrought, but present nonetheless.  In fact, even the brand new characters of the Squadron already begin to develop distinct personalities in the few pages allotted to them.  Compare that to the JLA issue, where only Superman really gets any characterization.  The scripting of the Avengers books is also a good deal more balanced, even if Thomas is more than a little purple in his prose.  The Marvel books are, as one might imagine, more character driven, while the DC title is much more idea driven.  In fact, one of the best traits of the JLA as a concept is on display in this issue, and that’s a tendency to engage big ideas.  Of course, those don’t get much attention, but they are present, nonetheless.  Interestingly, the DC book is really the more socially conscious, with its half-hearted anti-war message and its more memorable menacing corporate apocalypse.

The fates of these two groups of characters is quite interesting and illustrative.  It’s really impressive how quickly and completely the Squadron became fixtures of the Marvel Universe, even eventually starring in their own incredible and sophisticated maxi-series.  Meanwhile, it took around two decades for anyone at DC to do anything with the Champions of Angor, and even then their return is pretty obscure (Silver Sorceress and Blue Jay joined the JLI).  I can’t help but think that their respective fates reveal the quality of each group of characters, as well as the chance they had to make an impression on fans in their original appearances.  The DC team definitely seems like a matter of wasted potential, which makes one wonder, what might have been?

Until next time, I, like the Vision, will be pondering whether I’ve somehow ended up in an alternate reality ever-so-close to my own.  It would explain quite a bit.  Whatever universe we’re in, keep the heroic ideal alive, and be sure to join me again soon for another step on our journey, Into the Bronze Age!

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Into the Bronze Age: December 1970 (Part 4)

DC-Style-Guide-1

Welcome readers, to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  It’s a beautiful day here at Grey Manor, a perfect day for discussing some Bronze Age books, wouldn’t you say?  Today we’ve got a trio of books as diverse in quality as they are in content.  Care to check them out?  Then join me, as we travel further up and further in!

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 #395
  • Adventure Comics #400
  • Aquaman #54
  • Batman #227
  • Detective Comics #406
  • The Flash #202
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #81
  • Justice League of America #84 (reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Justice League of America #85
  • The Phantom Stranger #10
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #134
  • Teen Titans #30
  • World’s Finest #199

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


Green Lantern/Green Arrow #81


green_lantern_vol_2_81“Death Be My Destiny!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Dick Giordano
Editor: Julius Schwartz

Well, we’ve got another issue of O’Neil’s desperately socially conscious comic, and this one also takes the action off-world, though the effect is perhaps slightly more potent than that of the last issue, given the more relatable problem the cast faces.  Unlike the previous issue, with its mad judge and distinctly sci-fi setting, which was not instantly recognizable as tackling current social problems, this comic deals with the question of overpopulation, which was in the zeitgeist in 1970.  Interestingly, I thought for sure that this book had been born out of a trip to the movies by O’Neil.  I was sure that he must have been prompted to write this story by seeing Soylent Green.  Imagine my surprise when I realized that science fiction classic wouldn’t be released until 1973!  However, that famous film was actually based on a 1966 novel, entitled Make Room! Make Room!  It seems likely to me that O’Neil had either read that book or encountered its influence on the culture.

At any rate, the story itself is an odd one.  Despite the last issue having ended with the Hard Traveling Heroes having headed back to Earth, we pick up with the second trial of the rogue Guardian, this time by his fellows on Oa.  The Green Team, plus Black Canary, are there to serve as witnesses for the accused, but they argue like folks in a modern political debate, insisting entirely on their own point of view and making no effort to accommodate that of their audience in their argument.  Surprisingly, the Guardians aren’t swayed, but the real surprise is that we don’t get any pontificating from Ollie during the trial.  Despite the efforts of the heroes, judgement is passed: the rogue Guardian is stripped of his powers and immortality, and he is sentenced to live out the rest of his days on Maltus, the original home of his race.

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The obvious reference to Uncle Sam is…odd.

green-lantern-081-005The heroes ask to accompany him to his place of exile, and Hal takes the opportunity to announce that he’s not sure he wants to serve the Guardians anymore.  It is actually a pretty decent moment in the context of the arc he’s been traveling over the course of the series, as he displays a semi-mature sense of morality, evincing the ability to think beyond ‘authority=good.’  Having spoken their piece, the quartet depart in a truly beautiful full-page spread.  It really captures the majesty of the characters and setting, a quality of which this run takes too little advantage.  Whatever you can say about the writing on these books, the art remains flat-out gorgeous and innovative.  I just wish Adams were given more opportunities like this one.

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Unfortunately, when they arrive on Maltus, they find it disastrously overpopulated, absolutely teeming with life, and the Guardian notes that it was fine when they last checked on it, an eon ago.  This series really makes it seem like the Guardians are super bad at their jobs.  When the heroes land, they are immediately attacked by desperate citizens and forced to take to the skies again.

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In order to discover what happened, Green Lantern simply plucks an entire vault of archives out of a building, and the others investigate.  In the records they find a strange story.  Apparently the planet traveled through a bizarre cloud of cosmic dust which made the population sterile.  In order to save the race, a scientist named Mother Juna took samples from the Maltusans in order to create clones, even endowing them with false memories so that they were indistinguishable from natural born citizens.

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However, she didn’t stop when the population was restored.  Even worse, the effects of the dust cloud eventually wore off, and the resulting population explosion strained the planet to the breaking point.  Having solved the mystery, the cosmic quartet set out to see the effects of this situation for themselves, and Adams provides us with a striking two-page spread that captures the desperation of the Maltusan plight.

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Determined to do what they can to help matters, the heroes travel to Mother Juna’s citadel which just happens to be, in classic Green Lantern plot-device-style, entirely yellow.  The Emerald Crusader prepares to dig under the dome, and his vermilion partner sets out to distract the crowd in order to buy him time.  With Black Canary acting as his assistant, he puts on a dazzling display of arrow acrobatics.  In a funny and fitting little touch, O’Neil describes Ollie’s qualifications for the job as “unerring aim” and “a natural sense of theater.”  That works.  Green Arrow is definitely a bit of a ham.

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With the tunnel finished, the heroes rush inside, only to be greeted by a giant golden guardian.  It sure is fortunate for Mother Juna that she happens to like the color yellow!  For some reason, Hal decides to try and duke it out with this behemoth rather than, I don’t know, let the guy with the explosive arrows handle it.  Even more ridiculous is the fact that Ollie follows suit, temporarily forgetting that he’s got a bow.  He offers some silly explanation about trying to ‘play fair with them,’ which is something that hasn’t bothered him during the rest of his superhero career and so seems a bit strange showing up now.  Black Canary cleans up after the boys, however, saving the day with a judo throw.

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The crew are confronted by Mother Juna herself, along with a duo of golden guardians.  The quartet flees into her facility and the Green Team suddenly remember their abilities and take the two gargantuan guys out, while the bird lady sings a swan-song for Mother dearest.  Before they can do anything else, the maddened crowds from outside bust in and begin to wreck the joint.

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Hal helps the heroes get Mother Juna outside, where she confesses that she kept up her clone creation because she remained sterile from the cosmic dust and she “was always taught that a woman was nothing if she wasn’t a mother”.  There’s some women’s lib commentary there, but it’s shoe-horned into the end of this issue, so it doesn’t really work very well.  Black Canary is super moved by this, despite the fact that this nutjob may have doomed her world.

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Finally, the Guardian chooses to spend his remaining days on Maltus, trying to do some good and hoping that his finite time will spur him to greater efforts.  The heroes bid him farewell and head back to Earth, where Dinah has some appropriately vague moral about love to append to the adventure.

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Society was unjust to you?  Man, that stinks…but maybe you shouldn’t try to destroy the entire planet? Maybe?

This issue is an interesting one, but it isn’t completely successful.  The problem with this story is that the overpopulation of Maltus is entirely the fault of one madwoman, not the fault of its people.  The folks of that world did nothing wrong.  The depredations of overpopulation are not a result of their greed, their shortsightedness, or their ambition.  It’s the result of a race-saving measure gone horribly wrong.  Thus, once again, the parallels that can easily be drawn to our own little orb are not as clear as they might be.

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Of course, plot wise, the central focus of the problem in one character allows the heroes the chance to solve it, which they obviously couldn’t have done if it were an organically overpopulated world.  It, like the last issue, is an example of theme sacrificed for plot, which is an understandable trade-off, and one that works to the advantage of the story itself, which is a reasonably enjoyable adventure.  On the positive side, O’Neil seems to be getting into a better rhythm with his characterization.  No-one is insufferable or even really annoying in this issue.  In fact, Ollie is down-right charming, what with his arrow tricks and his wry sense of humor.  I wonder if that’s actually a sign of improvement or just a fluke.  I don’t’ remember this run well enough to say for sure.  Anyway, I’ll give this particular outing 3.5 Minutemen, seeing as it is a bit uneven.

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Justice League of America #86


jla_v-1_86“Earth’s Final Hour!”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella
Cover Artist: Neal Adams
Story Consultant: Dennis O’Neil

I was pretty excited about the beginning of Mike Friedrich’s run on JLA, having heard good things about it, but after having read the first issue…that is no longer the case.  His is a strange story; in many ways, it feels like one of those gonzo 60s JLA tales that didn’t bother with trivial matters like logical consistency or verisimilitude, complete with a rather lame villain.  On the plus side, we get the return of Aquaman to the team he helped found for the first time in ten issues.  That’s cause for celebration, seeing as Denny O’Neil seemed to have forgotten that the Sea King was actually part of the team.

In fact, this disjointed adventure actually begins with Aquaman, as the Marine Marvel receives word in Atlantis that strange machines are stripping the plankton from the oceans.  Obviously, plankton is the foundation of the food-chain in the sea, and Arthur realizes that without it, Atlantis will starve and eventually Earth will die.  Of course, plankton is also a huge part of the oxygen supply of our world, which doesn’t get a mention in this story.  That’s actually the bigger threat, as losing plankton would mean we’d lose at least half of our oxygen production.  At any rate, the Aquatic Ace heads out to put a stop to these shenanigans, and he performs rather poorly, being taken out by some rocks in a less than impressive two-page spread.  He does manage to press his JLA signal device, though.

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justice-league-of-america-v1-086-04We then meet the culprit and get a one-page bio on him.  That’s right, it’s gay Tony Stark.  Tony decided to moonlight at DC, and developed a fabulous fashion sense while he was at it.  This is our villain.  This guy.  He’s…somewhat less than intimidating.  Obviously, not everyone can be Darkseid, but this guy isn’t even Brainstorm.  Apparently he’s a rogue tycoon who stole a memory altering device and used it to steal his way to power and wealth.  Then, the story takes a hard left turn, as he’s visited by very Silver Age-looking aliens who come from a world organized by magical principles as opposed to the scientific principles of Earth.  Also, for some reason, that magic creates pollution, and they’ve killed off all of their plankton.  Wait, what?  It’s…odd.  It really doesn’t quite fit together, both the magic and the pollution angles.  Pick one outlandish concept at a time, Friedrich!  Well, being an immoral little slimeball, our businessman, Theo Zappa, called, “The Zapper,” in a nickname almost as lame as he is, steals the visiting magic alien’s wand, because, of course he does.  ‘The Zapper’ decides to use his newfound power to steal all of Earth’s plankton and take over both Earth and the alien world.

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justice-league-of-america-v1-086-09Opposing his ridiculous plan is the JLA.  They find Aquaman and take stock, realizing that the theft of the plankton (which, by the way, is an event of absolutely ludicrously staggering scale, as the oceans are, surprisingly, quite big, after all) will cause a global catastrophe, and the Sea King actually takes charge, dividing the League’s assets up and giving them assignments.  That’s a fun moment, and about the only bright spot Aquaman gets in this issue.  The team divides up in classic fashion, with pairs of Leaguers pursuing different goals.

In one of the features of this issue that I actually quite enjoyed, each pair of heroes gets a little title at the head of their adventures, featuring both of their names.  Superman and Aquaman head under the sea to try and track down the plankton stealing machines which, somehow, are already done.  Yep, they’ve stripped ALL THE OCEANS ON EARTH of all of their plankton.  They encounter some enraged whales, which Superman knocks out ‘for their own good,’ and then the Sea King is trapped by a maddened wall of fish, in danger of being crushed until the Man of Steel creates a whirlpool to free him.  It’s a cool page, but once again, Aquaman comes off looking bad.  Zappa is working against the pair, and he magically enlarges some jellyfish to attack them.  The Man of Tomorrow can’t take his opponent because it’s magic, despite the fact that, as we’ve discussed previously, that’s not how his “weakness” to magic works.  This is my old bugbear for logical consistency rearing its head.  At least Aquaman gets to do something, as he easily shreds his jellyfish and frees the Metropolis Marvel.  Yet, when they reach the control center for the machines, they find ‘The Zapper’ already gone.

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Hawkman and The Flash, meanwhile, have taken to space on a really flimsy excuse.  Aquaman overheard the term “Cee” when he was first attacked, and Hawkman wondered if it might refer to the “Sea of Space.”  Sure.  Anyway, they happen to encounter Zappa’s spaceship, because of course he has one, and set out in pursuit in Hawkman’s Thanagarian ship.  Zappa does…something, it’s really not clear, which slows them down, and when they board his ship, the villain teleports himself and his plankton cargo to his alien destination.

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Oddly, suddenly folks have forgotten how to create caption boxes…

justice-league-of-america-v1-086-18Our final pair, the Atom and Batman have the most luck, as they encounter the alien traveler that Zappa had bamboozled to begin with, and he fills them in on the plot.  Ray uses his scientific training to figure out the teleportation device in Zappa’s office, and they travel to the alien world, where Batman does his part.  The Caped Crusader tracks Zappa down in his palace, where he is living like a king.

Interestingly, Friedrich is clearly trying to bring in some of the ‘grim avenger of the night’ vibe that has been growing in the Bat-books, as he has Zappa panic at the sight of the Dark Knight and includes several atmospheric captions.  The Atom chips in again by decking the lavender louse and saving his partner, but the people of this planet, Kalyarna, are none too happy about their actions.

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Fearing what will happen without their stolen plankton, the aliens threaten to storm the palace, and we get a really neat idea with mediocre execution.  The rest of the League arrives and confers about what they should do.  Superman, knowing he’s vulnerable to the magic weapons of the aliens, bravely goes out to face the crowd, but not to fight, to talk.  He realizes that they’re desperate, and he goes to reason with them.  He gives them a speech about how nobody else can solve your problems for you, echoing the very similar speech he gave in Action Comics #393.  It’s not as tone-deaf as that one, but it is a bit surprising.  If Superman had stuck to this bootstraps philosophy, Lex Luthor might have been more okay with him.  Anyway, the League promise to stabilize Kalyarna, but the Man of Steel tells its people that they must rethink how and why they pollute their planet.  Of course, this ends with a ‘and so must we’ moment.

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Like I said, this is an odd one, and it’s the second JLA story about pollution within a year, which might be a bit much.  This comic especially suffers in comparison to the fun, relatively reasonable O’Neil issue that it reminds us of.  Notably, O’Neil gets a “story consultant” credit on this issue, which might help to account for the return of this topic.  The completely unimpressive villain, the ridiculous threat, and the vague and largely uninteresting challenges the League faced make this a pretty weak issue.  It doesn’t help that the stiffness in Dillin’s pencils is back, unlike the other books we’ve seen him on this month.  Yet, the unusual focus, not just on pollution, but the necessity of balance in nature, is at least a little interesting.  After all, what could seem less important than plankton?  But it is, in fact, vitally important, and important on a global scale.  That lesson doesn’t quite justify this yarn, though.  Despite a few bright spots, this JLA issue just isn’t that good.  I’ll give it 2.5 Minutemen.

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The Phantom Stranger #10


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Cover Artist: Neal Adams
“Death… Call Not My Name”
Writer: Gerry Conway
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Joe Orlando

“The Bewitched Clock”
Penciler: Ruben Moreira
Inker: Ruben Moreira

“Charlie’s Crocodile”
Writer: Gerry Conway
Penciler and Inker: Jim Aparo

This issue features the first mainstream comics work of Gerry Conway on an ongoing title, so we’re seeing comic book history in the making, here.  What’s particularly impressive about that is the fact that Mr. Conway was only 16 when he started writing for DC, and it was shortly after that when he broke into Marvel and got a full-time gig.  I can’t imagine holding down a full-time creative job when I was 16, much less turning out quality writing, comic or otherwise, that early.  I flatter myself to think I’m not a bad writer when I turn my hand to it these days, but at 16, despite delusions to the contrary, that was certainly not the case.  This issue is a very impressive first effort.

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The main tale is framed by a warning from the Phantom Stranger about evil hiding in the shadows, and it is in a shadowy club that the sinister stalker of this story makes his first appearance.  A trio of young women are out for a night on the t0wn, and one of them complains about never meeting any interesting men.  That’s a complaint that she won’t have time to regret as a dapper but vaguely disquieting gentlemen approaches her and asks for a dance.  He seems to have a hypnotic effect on the girl, Lottie, and when she returns to her friends she is stunned, able only to stutter out that the man’s name was ‘Tannarak’ before she collapses, suddenly stone dead!

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the-phantom-stranger-1969-10-04Her friends are horrified, as you might imagine, but who should come to the rescue?  Dr. Thirteen!  What?  You were expecting someone helpful?  Actually, Thirteen’s portrayal in this issue is a bit more varied and interesting than we’ve seen previously.  Of course, when the Phantom Stranger arrives a few minutes later, the good doctor does immediately accuse him of murder, but I suppose old habits die hard.  Thirteen quickly realizes that, whatever he may think of the Stranger, he knows the man is no murderer.  The first part of this story even has the two men set aside their differences as they work on the case.  It’s actually a fun dynamic.

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Thirteen has been in town investigating a similar spate of murders, murders without a clue and deaths without a sign of violence.  The Stranger realizes there is more here than meets the eye (no, she wasn’t killed by a Decepticon).  There’s a nice moment, as Dr. Thirteen blames himself, thinking he could have stopped this death if he had been smarter or faster, and the Stranger actually comforts him, establishing a slightly more cooperative dynamic for this issue.  I would totally read an odd-couple/buddy cop feature with these two teamed up, as long as you could figure out some way for Thirteen to be useful.

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Anyway, the other two young women flee the murder scene, which seems like a poor choice no matter how you slice it, and emerge into a mysterious, foggy night.  They encounter the same mysterious figure from the club, and their screams alerts our two heroes.  The supernatural sleuths charge out into the night, only to discover one of the girls hysterical and the other missing.  The Stranger, in a nicely ambiguous scene, calms the girl, either through his powers or through pure force of will.  She tells her story, and, of course, Dr. Closed-Minded immediately disregards the Stranger’s offered warning of the supernatural.  In response, the phantom detective (no, not that one) pulls his patented disappearing trick.

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We switch to follow the perspective of our villain, the mysterious Mr. Tannarak, as he brings the hypnotized Michelle to his home.  Along the way, he rants madly, calling her Dianna, his love.  It slowly emerges that this lost love he conflates her with died nearly a hundred years ago!  The aged ancient obligingly recounts his origin for his guest, and we discover that he and the original Dianna were once children, stealing on the streets of Cairo long years ago, and after being caught and confronted with the specter of death in the form of a dead body, the young Tannarak became obsessed with escaping that great enemy of mankind.

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He searched for years, studied for years, and eventually mastered the arts of alchemy, by which he made himself immortal.  Essentially, he pulled a Voldemort, placing his soul in a golden phylactery, a statue of himself (shades of the Picture of Dorian Gray!).  As with all such dark rituals, however, this immortality comes at a high cost.  The alchemist is now without a soul, and he survives by stealing those of others, as he did the unfortunate young lady at the club this very night.  Yet, he has a different fate in store for Michelle.  Because she reminds him of his lost Dianna, he will make her immortal too, whether she wants that soulless unlife or not.

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Fortunately, just as he prepares his alchemical concoction for the dire deed, the Phantom Stranger arrives to save the girl.  What follows is a really nice fight between the two.  It begins as Tannarak tosses ‘the Elixir of Death’ at the mysterious hero, seemingly burning him terribly, but the Stranger tosses off his smouldering cloak and clocks the alchemist with a powerful blow.

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Not out of gimmicks yet, the immortal employs ‘the Blood Stone,’ apparently a bit akin to the Philosopher’s Stone, in an attempt to turn the Stranger into stone, but he proves too fast.  His attacks having failed, Tannarak attempts to bargain with the spectral sleuth, offering him wealth and immortality, trying to distract his foe as he grabbed another alchemical concoction.  Once again, the Stranger is too quick for him, and a last blow sends the immortal crashing into his statue, which collapses on top of him, exploding into rubble and finally putting an end to his evil.

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Having been tracking down the murderer, Dr. Thirteen and the other girl arrive just in time to try and explain away all of the magic and mysticism that has transpired that night.  Thirteen actually offers some reasonable explanations for some of it, but when the Stranger takes off his jacket to show that the sleeve has been turned to gold, ‘ol Terry is at a bit of a loss.

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This is a great story.  The whole thing works; it hangs together and makes sense, maintaining logical consistency throughout.  The fact that a 16 year old kid could tell such a story puts a new perspective on those that can’t.  Its only real flaw is the fact that the captions are overwritten.  Some of them are appropriately dark and tension-building, but many of them are positively purple in their attempt at pulchritudinous prose .  Strangely, it is only really the captions that are overwritten.  For the most part, the dialog is strong and fitting, and the character work is quite good.  In terms of the villain of the piece, his origin could have used a bit more attention, but it works reasonably well.  Tannarak is delightfully mad and viciously evil, a combination perfectly captured by Jim Aparo.  It is hardly worth mentioning at this point, but this is a gorgeous book, and picking the art for this post was really quite tough.

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The big battle was particularly dynamic and exciting, something that has been lacking in some of our Phantom Stranger stories.  The whole story, however, is beautifully rendered, heavy with atmosphere, lit with candles, suffused with fog and smoke, and covered throughout in a lowering sense of foreboding, well conjured by both word and image.  This issue also grants us the rare sight of the Stranger divesting himself of both cloak and jacket, which leads to a strange sight.  He looks a bit less mysterious and enigmatic standing about in a white turtleneck.  It’s a fun sight that contrasts with his obvious supernatural air.  I’ll give this strong story 4.5 Minutemen, a thoroughly enjoyable read.

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This issue also includes a reprint of an old tale, as well as a fun, four page backup, which is really too brief to bother with giving a full write-up, but it is a good example of expeditious writing.  In just four pages we meet a horribly hen-pecked husband who is treated terribly by his wife.  He answers a newspaper ad to ‘get rid of all nuisances,’ meeting a “Mr. Scratch,” which is an old name for the Devil, and making  deal.  Ignoring a warning from the Phantom Stranger, he’s given an inflatable crocodile to put in his pool, which is guaranteed to do the trick.  When his wife goes for a swim, he suddenly finds himself free, but he pays a price when his friends find the same gag and put it in his pool after a party.  He suffers the same fate.  It’s a classic short horror tale, beautifully illustrated by Jim Aparo.


That will do it for today, and an interesting day it was.  The Phantom Stranger continues to be one of the strongest books I’m encountering, but my beloved Justice League has taken a disappointing turn.  Let’s hope that JLA will improve under Friedrich’s tenure.  Green Lantern?  Well…it continues to be fascinating, whatever else one can say about it.  I certainly never have a hard time finding something to say about that book.  We’ve only got one more post to go before we break through into 1971, and I’m excited to see a new year’s worth of books!  Well, until next time ladies and gents, keep the heroic ideal alive!

Into the Bronze Age: October 1970 (Part 4)

DC-Style-Guide-1

Hello fellow Bronze Agers, and welcome to another edition of my investigation of the depths of DC’s Bronze Age books.  We have an interesting pair of comics lined up for today’s article, one sci-fi and the other supernatural.

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

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

  • Action Comics #393
  • Adventure Comics #398
  • Aquaman #52
  • Detective Comics #404
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #80
  • Phantom Stranger #9
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #105
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #133 (Jack Kirby’s debut!)
  • Superman #230
  • Teen Titans #29

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


Green Lantern/Green Arrow #80


green_lantern_vol_2_80Even An Immortal Can Die!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Dick Giordano
Editor: Julius Schwartz

As has became a sad routine, I dreaded this comic, but I was very pleasantly surprised when I it.  Some of the trademark excesses of this series are still on display in this month’s issue, but I think this must be the most successful story of this run, as a story.  Ironically, as the type of thoughtful investigation of important social issues that O’Neil set out to deliver, it is, perhaps, the weakest.  It’s an interesting contrast.  To his credit, O’Neil displays more subtlety and nuance than has been his wont in this book, and even Green Arrow doesn’t come off as too insufferably self-righteous.  Unfortunately, taking the action off the Earth robs the comic of the social consciousness it has been trying ohh-so-hard to cultivate.

Ohh, it starts on Earth alright, with our Hard Traveling Heroes continuing their cross-country trek in their old truck.  Ollie even broaches the very hopeful topic of their getting off the road for a while, but that will have to wait as a near miss by a big rig sends the trio off a bridge and into a river.  To get out of the drink, they climb aboard a ship transporting toxic waste.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that: A) the poor schlubs having to transport the stuff were not mustache twirling villains, just decent, hard-working sailors trying to do a job and do it right, and B) the stuff was on the way to be disposed of properly rather than being dumped into the river for poorly defined reasons.  Are we sure this is really a Denny O’Neill script?

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Unfortunately, the ship’s boiler blows, almost killing Green Lantern and setting the scow ablaze (O.S.H.A. must be the most lax and laid back organization on the planet in the DC Universe).  The Guardian is presented with an interesting moral dilemma.  He has enough innate power to either save the ship or take Hal to a doctor, but not both.  The logical (hello there, Spock) choice is to protect the lives of the crew and the health of the environment by saving the ship, or at least that’s how it’s presented.  Instead, the immortal, changed by his time on Earth, chooses to save his friend.  It’s actually a nice moment, but it is undercut because it strikes me as a bit of a false choice.  Yeah, it’s bad to let the toxic sludge get loose in the water, but the sailors are not in immediate danger, and the life of a human being is of great value.  It seems strange that even a being with as long-term a view as a Guardian would take such an ecological incident as more important than a human life.

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Wait, isn’t the Lantern’s ring supposed to automatically protect them from lethal dangers? Oh well, plot will out…

Well, in another pleasant touch of nuance, the crew has to toss the waste overboard because it is flammable, but O’Neil goes out of his way to show that they do so unwillingly, aware of the cost.  It’s actually a pretty effective scene.  Meanwhile, the Guardian’s swift action saves Hal’s life, but their happy reunion with Ollie is short-lived, as the immortal’s peers are none too happy with his choice.  They inform him that he’s transgressed and needs to be judged.  Green Arrow responds with his trademark tact and diplomacy, telling a race of god-like beings that the Guardian’s choice was “the only human thing to do!”  I’m sure that carries tremendous weight.  Thanks Ollie; you’re a big help.

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The traveling trio are sent to a world called Gallo, which is like the intergalactic Supreme Court.  This is actually one of my only real problems with this issue.  It doesn’t make much sense that the Guardians would farm out their justice system to anybody else.  They aren’t exactly shy about their abilities or bashful about their judgements.  I’m wondering if this place ever showed up again, because it really doesn’t fit in with the Lantern Corps. mythos.  Anyway, when they arrive, a robotic bailiff demands that they surrender their weapons, and when the Emerald Archer resists, the electronic enforcer insists, violently.  Here we see a very nice piece of storytelling, where Adams and O’Neil work together in perfect sync.  Arrow uses the distraction of the fight to snap off one of his arrows’ warheads, and the art conveys this perfectly but unobtrusively.  You hardly notice it if you aren’t looking for it.  This will, of course, become important later on.

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Apparently, things on Gallo are not what they should be, and both the Emerald Crusader and his erstwhile boss notice, but it is too late as they have already been disarmed and captured.  Instead of the customary tribunal, they are greeted with one cruel and vicious judge who proceeds to give them a trial that could have been plucked from the pages of Kafka.  The accused are gagged and summarily sentenced to death on false evidence, a sentence delivered by a jury of robots!

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In the holding cells, the green-garbed heroes discover the real Tribune of Gallo, whose power has been usurped by their former master mechanic, who has some type of hangup about the superiority of robots to flesh and blood.  Unfortunately, that angle really doesn’t get much development.  The guy is crazy and on a power-trip, and his pro-machine agenda doesn’t really provide much more than window-dressing for the story.  Nonetheless, O’Neil delivers a great scene as Green Arrow rapidly strips their cell to create a makeshift bow, arming the arrow with his salvaged warhead.  It serves ably and destroys their robotic jailer, allowing them to escape and recover their weapons.  It’s a great character moment for him, though it continues the process of elevating Ollie at Hal’s expense.

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In the meantime, the Guardian’s death sentence is being carried out as he is slowly sealed in plastic, only to be rescued at the last minute by our emerald heroes.  It’s a lovely, dynamic sequence illustrated beautifully by Adams, but it also includes the other false note of the issue.  Hal has a moment of conflict as he goes up against the judge, thinking to himself “it’s hard–very hard for me to use my ring!  Though the judge is mad, I’m conditioned to respect the authority of the law!”  Good heavens!  It’s not like Hal was in the SS!  He’s not a brainwashed cultist; he’s a former soldier, daredevil test pilot, and space cop.  To a certain extent, we’re all ‘conditioned’ to respect authority.  It’s part of growing up in an ordered society, but most of us don’t get paralyzed with indecision when we encounter something that is obviously and grossly unjust.  It’s not like this judge is even the proper representative of the court on this world.  Hal just freed those guys from a cell, so the law is definitely on his side!  It’s just a stupid moment, and it makes the character seem incredibly dense to boot.  I understand what O’Neil is going for, but as with so many aspects of this series, the execution is just off.

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‘Hard, very hard because I lack basic reasoning skills!’

Fortunately, our heroes manage to get ‘the old timer’ out of his plasticine tomb in time, and he notes that he simply held his breath, having learned from humanity that “where there is life, there is hope.”  That’s one of John Carter of Mars’s favorite phrases, and one I’m quite fond of too.  It’s a good lesson to learn and certainly a truth that humanity bears out.  Despite our flaws, we are awfully hard-headed (which can occasionally be an asset).  The Guardian decides to stay behind and receive a judgement from his fellows, but he sends Hal and Ollie back to Earth and the adventures that await them.

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This is definitely a much better comic than many of its predecessors.  The plot works, the threat is actually pretty legitimate, and the alien setting is a lot more fitting for the power ring wielding Green Lantern than random small towns in the American countryside.  The characterization of the protagonists is, on the whole, better.  Even Green Arrow only gets one short self-righteous speech (thus fulfilling his contract).  The Guardians’ moral dilemma is interesting, even if it feels a tad forced.  It does make sense that a being used to seeing the biggest of big pictures, galactic order, would struggle with the emotional attachment of living life on a small, personal scale with the two heroes.  Yet, the comic definitely loses something by taking its action off-world as well.  While an examination of themes of justice is possible in a story set among the stars, it loses any real social relevance by having no connection to the more terrestrial problems of injustice found under the Sun.

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I know I’ve been hard on this series, but it is important for us to remember, and especially for me to remember as I write, that what it is doing is well and truly unique for its time.  This book was like nothing else of its day, and nothing really like this had ever been done before in comics.  As ham-handed and tone-deaf as it often was, it was also groundbreaking and incredibly innovative.  I’ve probably not been giving O’Neil enough credit for the risks he took and for overcoming the obstacles he must have faced.  Nonetheless, a story is good or bad, regardless of context.  It either works as a story or it is flawed, and noble intentions do not a successful plot make.  I’m trying to deal with these tales both as stories and as cultural artifacts, so I’ll try to balance my coverage appropriately.  Make no mistakes, though.  Many of these stories are not particularly good, as stories.  Something can be important without being actually good.  So, all things considered, I’d give this issue a strong 3.5 Minutemen.  It loses points for Hal’s inane inner conflict, but only just.

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Phantom Stranger #9


phantom_stranger_vol_2_9Obeah Man!”
Writers: Joe Orlando and Mike Sekowsky
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo

This is fun story with a bit of a flawed resolution.  Notably, we’ve got Mike Sekowsky handling the writing chores this month, and he varies up the formula a bit to interesting results.  Instead of what has become the standard, with a frame tale setting up stories narrated by both the Stranger and Dr. Thirteen, this issue just gives us Thirteen’s flashback in addition to the frame tale.  It gives both of them more room to breathe and is definitely a step in the right direction.  I think we’re seeing this book continuing to find its feet.  I’m hopeful that it will soon settle into a really strong run.

This issue takes us down to an unnamed Caribbean country that is a clear analogue for the mysterious island nation of Haiti, and of course, that puts our heroes up against the dark forces of Voodoo!  Now, I know, you’ve probably heard how Voodoo in real life has very little in common with its portrayals in popular media.  In fiction, it is the religious equivalent of the Nazis, the perfect theological antagonist, spooky, enigmatic, and full of dark rituals.  In reality, it’s a religion that’s much like others of its kind, shamanistic and made up of an amalgam of Christian and African beliefs and practices.  We’re dealing with the most sensational type of portrayal here, but I was fascinated to discover that the sinister influence of Voodoo in this story is actually loosely based on real history.  In 1970, the Haitian dictator François Duvalier was in the last years of his reign, a reign that he had supported by co-opting the local forms of Voodoo.  He claimed to be one of the Ioa, or governing spirits of the world, as well identifying himself as Jesus and God himself, just to up the ante on the blasphemy all the way to 11.  He used Voodoo and dragooned its leaders into his service in order to gain spiritual as well as political control over his subjects.  That’s a pretty perfect setting for a spooky Phantom Stranger adventure and a dystopian nightmare!

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And the story doesn’t disappoint.  In Haiti we discover professional wet blanket Dr. Thirteen coming to the aid of the country’s president.  Interestingly, though he looks like Duvalier, he’s actually the good guy here, trying to improve his country and being opposed by shadowy and nefarious Obeah Men (Voodoo sorcerers).  It seems his assistant has died without a mark on him after receiving a Voodoo warning.  The President tells Thirteen that he’s been unable to make any headway against the Obeah Men and asks for his help to discredit them so that the people will stop supporting the charlatans.  He offers to take the good doctor to a ruined fortress where the Voodoo ceremonies are held.

On their way there, Thirteen tells the Haitian head of state about a similar case.  Here’s our interpolated episode, which is actually a pretty standard story.  I’ve seen this plot adapted in a few different places, including on the radio show Escape.  I imagine there is a short story that has served as the originator, but I haven’t bothered to track it down.  Anyway, it’s a pretty standard setup.  A colonial officer in Africa runs afoul of a Voodoo priest and is forced to kill him.  With his dying breath, the man curses the officer, and he lives in fear of that curse ever after.

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Eventually, he sees the man again and is given a token of warning, in this case, a Voodoo doll with pins in the legs.  The victim’s fear and belief create a psychosomatic reaction (he loses the ability to walk), and there is a threat of death.  In this instance, the worst is prevented by Dr. Thirteen discovering that the man’s nephew had faked the second encounter and used a recording to hypnotize his uncle in his sleep.  You know, people are always doing that in fiction, and it seems to require a huge amount of luck.  All it would take is one bad dream, midnight snack, or trip to the bathroom to reveal the scheme.  But I digress.  There’s a reason that plot has been adapted multiple times; it’s a good one, and Aparo’s beautiful art makes this a memorable version.

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Back in our frame tale, guess who makes an appearance?  It’s the Unnecessary Teen Gang.  At least Sekowsky lampshades the absurdity of their showing up in Haiti, as they explain they mysteriously won a trip, and we can assume this was orchestrated by a higher power…for some reason…despite the fact that they contribute absolutely nothing to the plot.  Dr. Thirteen spots the kids in a market and flips his lid.  He leaps out of the car and starts demanding that they tell him where the Stranger is, arguing that he’s never far away from them.  Just as they tell the overly excited ghost breaker that they haven’t seen the man with the awesome medallion, the Stranger himself appears, in the limo no less.  Immediately, the President proves more sensible than the supposed scientist, as he doesn’t discount any possibilities out of hand, willingly hearing his visitor out.

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The gang all head to the ruined fortress, and once there they they find a ceremony in full swing, as well as a pair of strangely garbed figures in the midst of the dark ritual.  One is revealed, of course, to be Tala.  The other is the enigmatic Obeah Man.  And here we have the big weakness of the issue and one of the very few failures of Aparo’s art.  The Stranger leaps at the Voodoo priest and socks him, and then…something happens.  The art just doesn’t quite manage to convey the action, and the whole thing is wrapped up in a single page.  The Stranger grabs some type of jar called the ‘Seal of Solomon‘ (a symbol with historical and occult significance, figuring prominently in medieval lore about Solomon’s extra-textual magic powers) and the Priest sort of dissolves, and then, I guess, turns into a bug.  The Stranger slaps him into the jar, and tosses it into the sea, prompting Tala to bug out in response (sorry!).

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Confusing or not, that fourth panel is still cool looking.

It’s not much of a showdown.  Anticlimax can be quite effective, but the whole thing is so vague and the action so unclear that it just feels unsatisfying.  Once again, Dr. Thirteen accuses the Stranger of having faked the whole thing and being in league with the villains of the piece, but the President demonstrates a broader mind, thanking the mysterious champion for his aid.  Of course, the Stranger disappears, leaving Dr. Thirteen cursing the empty air once more.

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This is a fun story, and the historical background I discovered about it makes it all the more interesting for me.  I quite enjoy that the Haitian president is wise enough to insist that a truly rational man must not discount anything out of hand, all while ‘ol Terry rages at the evidence of his own eyes.  Aparo’s art is beautiful and moody as always, nicely evoking the exotic locale of the story.  The narrower focus of this issue allows for a great development of the main plot, but unfortunately the digressions with the Unnecessary Teen Gang takes up some space that would have been better used on the Obeah man.  That vague final confrontation is rather disappointing, weakening a promising story.  Fortunately, the interpolated episode is pretty good, so that helps balance out the flaws of the frame tale.  I suppose I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen, though that might be a tad generous.  It has its problems, but it is plenty entertaining and I just find the creepy background of a despotic state ruled through fear and a co-opted religion adds a lot of flavor to the issue.

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The letter column actually includes a note from the editor about how a recent visit to Haiti served as the inspiration for this story, which confirms the setting.  The letters themselves are full of effusive praise for the new direction of this book.  Notably, most folks seem to share my opinion of the useless teen gang, but people are split on Dr. Thirteen.  Everyone seems to recognize that they’ve got something special here, though.  I can’t wait to see what’s next!

 


Well, that’s it for this post.  I hope y’all found these commentaries interesting.  I know that I found a lot in these two issues to sink my teeth into, despite their flaws.  We’re definitely seeing a lot of the changing face of comics with these two books.  They are almost a microcosm of the Bronze Age, pushing the standard boundaries of comics in themes, content, and style.  I hope y’all will join me again soon for another step in our journey Into the Bronze Age!

Into the Bronze Age: September 1970 (Part 5)

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Welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  With all of the madness that is loose in our world these days, I imagine we can all use more joy and adventure.  I know I quite enjoy my visits to the Bronze Age.  It helps to take the mind off of the utter insanity of our own times.  We’ve got a book I dreaded and I book I eagerly awaited on the docket for this post.  Let’s jump right in, shall we?

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

  • Action Comics #392
  • Batman #225
  • Brave and the Bold #91
  • Detective Comics #403
  • The Flash #200
  • G.I. Combat #143
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #79
  • Justice League #83
  • Showcase #93
  • World’s Finest #196

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

Green Lantern/Green Arrow #79

green_lantern_vol_2_79“Ulysses Star is Still Alive!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Dan Adkins
Editor: Julius Schwartz

Well, we can’t avoid it any longer, I suppose.  It’s time for another return to the parade of self-righteousness and poor decision-making that is the Green Lantern/Green Arrow book.  Fortunately, this issue isn’t as bad as the some of the previous outings.  It’s central concern is a very legitimate one, and it even manages to feel timely for us today, given the contents of our headlines in recent months.  However, this wouldn’t be a Green Lantern/Green Arrow adventure without some infuriatingly obnoxious bloviating from Ollie and some irrational inflexibility from Hal, as well as a generally pervading, pointlessly aggressive stupidity and hotheadedness from both of these supposedly heroic men.  Still, these qualities are a bit less on display here than they have been.  Let’s take a look, shall we?

We join our hard traveling heroes camped on a quiet and peaceful night out in the wilderness, not far from where they had their last adventures with the pseud0-Manson Family.  I probably haven’t said quite enough in praise of Adams’ art on this book, given my general frustration with O’Neil’s plots and characterization, but he really does do fantastic work.  He packs his panels with personality and visual interest.  In the simple scene around the camp fire, each character is doing something that tells you a bit about them.  Hal is reading, Ollie is whittling, and the Guardian is floating in apparent meditation.  That’s a nice touch.  The quiet of this idyllic scene is shattered when these two veteran heroes detect some slight sign that something is amiss, and they leap into action to investigate.  That’s a good another nice touch.  It makes sense that these two have been at their dangerous work long enough that they’d have combat-honed senses.  It makes them seem competent and professional.  The adventure that follows doesn’t quite match that setup, though.

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The Green Guardians discover an unlikely pair of white men preparing to gun down a helpless Native American man.  They quickly disarm the would-be killers, with very different methods and wildly varying levels of effort.  Check out the page below.  Look at the skill and concentration evident in Green Arrow’s precision shot.  Look at the almost bored expression on Hal’s face as he plugs up the other gunman’s weapon.  It’s almost as if a man armed with the most powerful weapon in the universe outclasses an average hood with a handgun to the point of absolute absurdity.  Once again, we see how incongruous of a pair Hal and Ollie make, and not just because of their diametrically opposed viewpoints.

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Well, the gunmen having been disarmed, the heroes investigate, and they discover that the two antagonists are Theodore Pudd, who runs the lumberman’s union, and Pierre O’Rourke, who claims to own the lumber rights to the area.  This pair quite cheerfully display a truly appalling level of racism and general awfulness, calling the Indians “animals” and “filthy savages.”  O’Neil wants to make sure we don’t miss the subtle touches of his intricate characterization.  Be sure to read closely, or it might elude you.  The issue at the core of this encounter is that the local Indian tribe, who, if you remember, were the target of the crazed hippies of the previous story, have an old claim to the timber of this area, but the records have conveniently disappeared.  As a result, O’Rourke is trying to take it over and cut the tribe off from their only means of support.  Because Pudd and company are such racist slime, they won’t even let the tribesmen join the union and work as lumberjacks.

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These are bad guys.  Get it?  BAAAD GUUUUYS!!!

There was one other copy of this land deal, originally negotiated by the tribe’s famous chief, Ulysses star.  The copy was given to his son, Abe, who went off to the city years ago and hasn’t been heard from since.  The lack of a clear and unambiguous legal solution causes the usual conflict between our two headliners.  Hal immediately gives up, and Ollie immediately starts tongue-lashing him, demanding that they stay and fight, legally or illegally.  They part ways, and, to his credit, the Lantern actually reconsiders his defeatist attitude and decides to try and find a way to help, legally.  That’s good.  After all, one of the fundamental traits of a hero is the ability to find a Third Way.  The Emerald Knight spends some time philosophizing with the guardian, and then he heads off to try his gambit.

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The guardian actually makes a rather interesting point.  He observes that our culture’s national heroes are warriors.  The very mythology of our world is one driven and defined by violence, so it makes sense that violence would be in our nature.  He sees a power of spirit here that is worthy, even if its effects are often tragic.  There’s some truth to that.  The same qualities that allow us to overcome adversity are often those that can be turned to destructive ends.  I’m reminded of the classic Star Trek episode, “The Enemy Within,” where Kirk’s good and evil sides are split into two beings, and the ‘good’ captain discovers that he can’t lead effectively without his ‘evil’ counterpart.  This is a topic that has been on my mind lately, humanity’s dual nature.  We are a creation of both light and shadow.  We are noble and vile, both comic and tragic.  It’s what makes us so very paradoxical.  Here, the Guardian plays, with some success, the archetypal role of the outside observer.  This is one of the oldest uses of science fiction, and one of the most effective and valuable.

Back to our tale, Hal searches for the son of Ulysses Star, knowing his task is likely hopeless.  He reminds us that he was an insurance investigator (I think we’d all rather forget that), and he has the skills for such detective work.  Yet, all he can find is the fellow’s last known address.  Maybe that’s because he was only in that job for a few months because he was having a midlife crisis at the ripe old age of 30.  Either way, when he arrives at the run-down tenement, he discovers a raging fire, with one resident still trapped inside.  The Emerald Crusader makes forges very tortuous path inside, using his ring in an extremely limited fashion and nearly getting knocked out by a falling beam (a narrowly subverted head-blow!).

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He manages to get out by the skin of his teeth and rescue the civilian, despite the fact that his bell was rung so well he couldn’t concentrate to use his ring.  This is another instance of O’Neil handicapping the hero without clear reason.  Even with his power limited, it really seems like the Lantern could have simply wrapped himself in a bubble and flown into the building.  That makes the entire desperate scene seem like the result of Hal’s stupidity rather than any necessary peril.

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As you probably expect, the rescued man is none other than Abe Star, but unfortunately the old man tells the Emerald Gladiator that the deed was burned up in the apartment.  The hero is stymied once again, but he is actually beginning to act a bit like the man of iron will he’s supposed to be.  The Lantern refuses to give up, so he heads to Washington, going straight to the highest authority to get aid for the tribe.

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Meanwhile, Green Arrow meets Black Canary at the Indian reservation, where they take stock of the dispirited condition of its inhabitants.  The lovely lady notes that the tribe’s biggest problem is that they’re just beaten down by history and oppression.  They’ve “been under the white man’s heel for so long they’ve lost faith in themselves.”  Corny dialog aside, as I understand it, there is a real issue here, and one certainly worth focusing on, though it is honestly not given all that much attention here.  This is an adventure story, though.  Because the Emerald Archer has all the subtlety of a bulldozer, his solution is pretty ostentatious.  He dresses up like an Indian chief and covers himself with glow-in-the-dark paint, playing the role of the spirit of Ulysses Star in order to inspire the tribe.

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He makes a few appearances, threatening the lumbermen and putting on a ghostly routine, as well as making an impassioned speech (Ollie has to have at least one per issue, you know) to the Indians.  Despite the fact that they doubt his ghostly bona-fides (which is itself a small but important point, as the tribespeople are less superstitious and gullible than the white men, a reversal of an old, old trope), they agree to fight for their land.  It is, of course, unclear what this will accomplish.  Matters come to a head the next morning, as the men of the tribe block the path to the timberlands, and the situation descends into a melee.  Oddly, Black Canary philosophizes about how she despises violence.  Really?  Since when?  You’re a superhero.  Your job constantly involves violence.  It’s something you literally engage in daily.  I somehow doubt that you become a street-fighting superhero because you abhor violence.  But it’s so much more touchy-feely-appropriate if she does.  That’s just one more lovely little example of O’Neil’s tone-deaf mischaracterizations.

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Do you reckon he gets tired, lugging that soap-box around?

Anyway, Black Canary and Green Arrow help the Indians defend their land, and things devolve into a sprawling brawl until the fight is stopped rather definitively by Green Lantern.  Notably, his mere arrival is enough to completely end hostilities.  He just places a big green wall between the sides and that is that.  This is perhaps the most glaring example of his complete mismatch with this setting found in this issue.  After all, O’Neil had to send him offstage in order to create any actual dramatic tension in this confrontation.  If the Emerald Crusader had been there, the fight would have been over before it started.  Essentially, with his setup for this book, O’Neil has painted himself into the same type of corner which the Silver Age faced with Superman, where his power is so vast you have to find ways to handicap him to prevent his resolving the conflict of the plot in the first two pages.  The difference is, such a situation is unnecessary with the Lantern, only existing because of the story O’Neil insists on telling.

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Of course, this entire escapade is entirely unnecessary.  After all, the Native Americans have freaking superheroes on their side.  Green Arrow and Black Canary, who regularly fight threats a bit more serious than some unpleasant loggers armed with sticks, threats like legitimately super-powered beings, could easily have trounced these jerks themselves, for whatever good that was going to do.  This would probably have been a better option.  After all, we’ve already seen that the loggers are willing to kill the Indians in cold blood, and they have access to guns.  I’m not really clear on what Arrow’s plan was supposed to accomplish, other than putting some spirit back into the tribe, which wouldn’t matter too much if they were all dead.  The matter is made even worse by the fact that this is the second time Ollie has convinced a group of untrained and unqualified civilians to fight a superior force.  At least this time he joined them from the beginning, rather than wait until dozens of them were gunned down so that his entrance could be more dramatic.  That precious moral superiority of his is on awfully shaky ground.

The immediate danger having been neutralized, Hal announces that he’s brought a U.S. congressman there from Washington to personally investigate this matter, which is actually a pretty good solution, considering the situation and the lack of documentation.  So, naturally Ollie congratulates his friend on his quick thinking and they put their efforts into helping the tribe and organizing peaceful protests…err…no, no, that isn’t what happens.  That’s entirely too sensible and mature.  Instead, the two “friends” decide to have a fist fight in the middle of the stream…for reasons. Green Arrow, still dressed as a yellow ghost, rages against his partner’s solution, and their immediate response is to pummel each other.  It’s completely pointless, so much so that even the characters themselves seem to admit that this brouhaha is unnecessary.

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O’Neil gets pretty darn purple in his prose as he narrates the fight, which, of course, is beautifully illustrated by Adams, but the highlight of this pointless punch-fest is how it ends.  That’s right, this issue gives us, not one, but two, count ’em, two, new entries for the Head-Blow Headcount!  Logs being floated down river clock both of our “heroes” in the back of the head, and in classic comic book fashion, they go down like a pair of proverbial sacks of potatoes.

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After they’re fished from the river, they go back to the village, where the tribes-folk themselves are split about the plan.  Some of them have no faith in the government (I wonder why?), and some of them are determined to make a go of it.  In the end, this is really the only option; Green Arrow’s way would have, at best, resulted in all of the tribesmen getting arrested, or perhaps even killed.  Apparently he never heard of peaceful protest or civil disobedience.  Fortunately, the investigation of the fire at the tenement building revealed (despite Lantern’s ignoring its too-convenient occurrence) that the two trouble-making timbermen were involved in that arson attempt, so they get carted off to jail.  The issue ends with our heroes once more gathered around a campfire, admitting that their foolish fight accomplished precisely zilch, and the story closes with a quote from The Armies of the Night, a counter-cultural “nonfiction novel” by Norman Mailer published just two years earlier.

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You can definitely see some of the influences at work on O’Neil in his choice of this book.  To call it merely anti-war would be an oversimplification, but it dealt with the current cultural issues in the States, centered around opposition to the war in Vietnam.  That’s an interesting choice, and I wonder how much of O’Neil’s audience would have read the book, as well as how many would have picked it up after seeing the editor’s note.  The evidence of counter-cultural influence in O’Neil’s choice of end-tag is noteworthy given the goals of this project, as we can see quite clearly a line of influence, and a relatively recent one, having an impact on the comic world.  It will be interesting to see how that impact spreads in the DCU.

This issue has me a bit torn.  On the one hand, the mischaracterization isn’t quite as bad as some of the previous examples we’ve seen, and the story itself is readable enough.  On the other, the problems are all those we’ve seen before, and their continued presence makes them more grating and more frustrating with each new book.  I’m glad that Hal comes off a bit better here, eventually, but Ollie is still an irrational, self-righteous jerk who, despite his endless lecturing, is something of a hypocrite.  The completely pointless fistfight, as well as the uselessness of Arrow’s grand gesture take away from the impact of the story.

What gives me pause, though, is that the central issue, the abuse and neglect of America’s native peoples, is an extremely important one, and, unfortunately, timely today, just as it was in 1970.  Ironically, one of the most glaring problems with this issue is that, despite its achingly desperate attempt to be socially conscious, all of the characters in this book, including the Native Americans and supposedly enlightened heroes, talk like actors in a 50s Western.  There’s ‘redskins’ this and ‘pale-faces’ that everywhere you look.  It’s really rather silly and smacks of the same kind of condescending cliches as Tonto‘s famously broken English.  Nonetheless, the plight of the local tribe manages to be moving, perhaps in spite of O’Neil’s treatment.

It is, of course, granted more pathos by the current events of our day, like the protests at Standing Rock.  It’s a shame that, after all of these years, we still can’t seem to do right by the native peoples in this country.  I won’t get into the entire issue here, as this is hardly the venue for such matters, but I will say that, right or wrong, good, bad, or ugly, when it is the Federal Government versus native peoples, I sort of feel like we should probably give the native peoples the benefit of the doubt at this point.  It only seems fair, given our history.  Anyway, that made this issue a bit more interesting to me than it might have been otherwise, but in the end, it’s still a story with very flawed writing and characterization that features a situation not really suited for its characters.  I’ll give it 2.5 Minutemen.  It has enough strong points to keep it above a truly bad rating.

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Justice League of America #83

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“Where Valor Fails… Will Magic Triumph?”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella

This was yet another great issue of Justice League, which rather wiped the bad taste out of my mouth.  O’Neil’s run on the book continues to be consistently good, with fairly compelling stories, solid characterization, and interesting situations.  Yet, this particular issue shares a fault with most of his other outings, a somewhat weak and underdeveloped villain.  We are picking up with the second part of last issue’s plot, which saw Earth-1 and Earth-1 poised to be destroyed by Supreme Leader Snoke…er…I mean Creator², in his bid to design a new planet with the energy of their annihilation.  It’s a wonderfully off-beat idea, and a threat worthy of uniting the JLA and the JSA.  Interestingly, this story predates the similar setup in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by almost a decade.  I wonder if there’s any influence there.

Unfortunately, Creator² himself, and especially his minions, are just a tad boring.  They’re just blue-skinned aliens in robes.  There’s nothing distinctive or captivating about them.  Still, this run continues to be of high quality overall, and I have a feeling that I will eventually number it among some of my favorite Justice League runs of all time.  These stories are still products of their time, however.  Even as O’Neil is innovating and shaking things up with the World’s Greatest Super-Heroes, the book can still feel a bit hokey at times.  For the most part, though, we’re seeing the League in arguably the best form of the book’s history to this point.  Admittedly, that’s not really saying that much, given the goofy, Silver Age-y fare that tended to make up the League’s Adventures.

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We begin preciously where we ended, with Canary’s erroneous, but logical, conclusion that she is the cause for the growing convergence of the two Earths.  Throughout the book, her hopeless heroism, determined as she is to sacrifice herself for the greater good, is one of the strongest features of the tale.  It really works well.  She is not some robotic, heartless automaton, blithely giving up her life without a tear or a twinge like we might expect from a Silver Age story.  She is fully aware of what this gesture will cost her, and her quiet determination in the face of that knowledge is really rather moving.

Meanwhile, our bathrobe wearing villain is almost ready for the grand finale that will serve to launch his new planet with a bang, but he’s concerned about the JSA, seeing as they’ve already proven tough to handle.  He dispatches a set of his weird net devices to disable the team as a preemptive attack.  The Society itself is gathered to study their fallen members when the nets arrive, and once again the weapons prove formidable, capturing four members in several pages of nicely dynamic action.  As before, each net is capable of neutralizing the powers of its victim, so Staman finds his energy bolts reflected against him, Wonder Woman finds her bracelets bound, and Hourman finds himself accelerated through his hour of power in mere seconds.  It’s a good sequence.  The only problem is that the nets are fairly lackluster antagonists, being just devices, and not terribly visually interesting ones at that.

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Back in Earth-1, we listen in to a desperate conversation, as Canary insists that she must die, and Ollie, his usual cool and rational self, responds about as you’d imagine.  He won’t hear of anything happening to Dinah, but Green Lantern has a great third way, exercising that heroic creativity that is so much a part of the concept of American superheroes.  He posits that they don’t have to kill the Canary; they just have to move her to another dimension far enough away that the effect will cease.  He heads out to search for such a place, to Arrow’s enthusiastic support.

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Unfortunately, just as the Emerald Crusader discovers Red Tornado and the dimensional rift, his jade counterpart on Earth-2 is captured, freezing him in place in the depths of space.  At almost the same moment, we catch a quick glimpse of Hawkman, out on crowd control, when another strange cross-over occurs and the inhabitants of the two worlds briefly see one another face to face.  He saves an old woman, nearly run over in the resulting chaos, but before he can do more, his counterpart is captured as well and he is rendered helpless.

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Aboard the Satellite, the remaining heroes fear that Lantern’s absence must mean his failure, and Canary delivers a surprisingly haunting and touching meditation on her death, suggesting that she’ll board the transporter and simply scatter her atoms across space, becoming one with the stars.  It’s an impressive scene, made even better by Ollie’s frantic (and rather selfish when you think about it) attempts to talk her out of it.  The rational, scientific mind of Ray Palmer takes a more pragmatic view, and he suggests that they wait until the last minute before they make any choices.  The scene is really effective, and it’s as fine a piece of character work as you’re likely to see, even today.  If O’Neil can do this, one wonders why his characterization is so clumsy and heavy-handed in Green Lantern/Green Arrow.

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Dillin really captures Canary’s sorrowful determination.

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Meanwhile, on Earth-2, all of the Society members have fallen except for Dr. Fate and Johnny Thunder and his Thunderbolt.  Their magic seems to be more effective than the powers of their friends, but they are still fighting a losing battle until the mystic master teleports them to a graveyard, in search of more magical might.  Once there, he summons none other than the Spectre!  I’m pretty sure we haven’t seen this ghostly gent in this book since issue #47, and we’re quickly given to understand that his status quo has changed quite a bit.  Rather than discover him with his human host, Jim Corrigan, Fate finds him in a grave, and the spirit speaks of his sins and his imprisonment in the tomb.  It’s an interesting tease, and I’m quite curious what the situation is because I have no memory of any of this.  The editor assures us that this story will be told, so I am looking forward to that.

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Fortunately, the spectral hero has a plan.  His mystic senses have detected the machinations of Creator² and his cronies, and he sends his allies after the villain himself while he uses his very ecotplasmic being to serve as a bulwark between the colliding worlds.  The image of this effort is a pretty striking one, emphasizing both the character’s power and the skope of the problem.  His desperate ploy buys Dr. Fate and the Thunderbolt the time they need for their assault.

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There’s a nice sequence where the aliens detect their approach to their ship and open fire, only for Fate to teleport inside, causing Creator² to assume they’d been vaporized.  the effort exhausts the master of the mystic arts, leaving the Thunderbolt to take out the blue-faced minions, but he can’t handle Creator².  With one last, titanic exertion, Dr. Fate rips the ship itself apart in a pretty cool panel.  The process is halted, and though the release of energy causes some minor tremors, the worlds go back to their rightful places and the day is saved.  Yet, the victory comes at a cost.  The Spectre is literally torn apart by the dimensional shift.  That image, which is half tragic, half comic, isn’t nearly so successful.

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Of course, what is completely glossed over in the story is that Dr. Fate just totally killed dozens of beings.  He even admits that the aliens probably couldn’t live through that blast.  I realize they were preparing to commit dual planetary genocide, and while that’s about the worst crime imaginable, it’s still a bit crazy that Fate casually took several lives without so much as batting an eye.  That is definitely a big departure from the Silver Age, but not in a good way.  It wouldn’t have bothered me if O’Neil had dealt with that act, even a little bit, but no, it’s completely glossed over as we race to the conclusion of the issue.  It’s downplayed so much that I hardly noticed it on my first look, and death shouldn’t’ be treated that lightly in a superhero book, especially when a hero is the cause.  I would be more troubled if it were a traditional superhero who had done it, but a mystical character like Fate is always something of a liminal figure.  It makes sense that his work and his experience would lead to a somewhat different code than the heroes grounded in more mundane realities.

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On a more positive note, on Earth-1 (or more accurately, above it), the Atom detects the dimensional shift, and the heroes celebrate their narrow escape.  It’s a good ending, and Ollie’s joy at Canary’s reprieve is really quite charming.  He’s already entirely head-over-heels for her, and it definitely comes through.  Finally, the Lantern returns and fills them in on the score, leaving them to wonder if they’ll ever see the Spectre again.

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This is a good all-around issue.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, even if it was, once again, much more of a JSA story than a JLA one.  I’m pretty content either way, especially since the Society don’t have a book of their own yet.  (I’m looking forward to that one when it arrives, by the way.)  This issue managed to pack a lot of action in, as well as some really excellent character moments.  Dillin’s art was back up to snuff this month as well, so the book looked quite good.  That odd stiffness of last issue is gone, replaced with some truly attractive pages and an overall improvement in quality.  I enjoyed the handling of the magical heroes and their triumph.  It makes perfect sense that this super-scientific culture would be great at handling all types of threats, except those which defy science, like magic.  It’s also pleasant to see Dr. Fate take center stage, as I haven’t gotten to read that many stories that focus on him.

Once again, O’Neil manages to spread the spotlight out pretty well, with nearly everyone getting at least one interesting moment, either in action or in dramatic scenes.  The balance between the two types of focus is actually very well handled.  The pacing is also quite good, as is the economy of storytelling.  He told a complete tale in two issues that had time to breathe and still provided plenty of excitement with appropriately world-shattering stakes.  O’Neil continues to turn out good, solid adventure stories in this book, and I’m enjoying the ride.  They haven’t been stellar, but they have been consistently good, and that’s rare enough in an ongoing series to deserve praise.  Unfortunately, apparently this is the last issue of his tenure on the title.  I’ll miss his unique and creative concepts, though I hope we’ll get some more fully realized villains in coming issues.  If I recall correctly, there are some really excellent stories awaiting us.

It’s interesting to me that two of the books I look forward to most and the book I most dread are all penned by the same man.  It’s striking how very different these comics are from one another.  It seems that, perhaps, when forced into more traditional adventure fare, O’Neil really shines.  He wouldn’t be the first author who, when let completely off the leash, produced lower quality work because he was too concerned with his own agenda.  I’m reminded of the difference between Garth Ennis’s Dan Dare and…well, pretty much everything else he’s ever done.  Sometimes limitations can bring out the best in us.  This is actually a weakness in the concept of complete artistic freedom, an idea we tend to ascribe almost religious weight to in our culture.  I rather think that what’s necessary is a balance of structure and freedom, and that balance is difficult to achieve.

Ideally, the limitations for an artistic work should be internal, the moral and spiritual compass of the creator, but people being what they are, I’m far from convinced that channeling creativity into positive courses is always a bad thing, if done well.  That’s something that the tropes of the heroic ideal of the American superhero actually provides rather well.  Anyway, back to this particular story, I’ll give it 4.5 Minutemen out of 5.  The weak villain and the completely unacknowledged killing by Dr. Fate cut it down from a perfect score.  I would have enjoyed seeing Bruce Timm and company take a crack at this story.  I think they could have really made something of it.

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The Head-Blow Headcount:

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Another entry for the wall of shame, and this time, it’s a two-fer!  How exciting!  This month, both Green Arrow and Green Lantern join the ranks of the head-blow heroes.  Their moment of infamy is made all the more ludicrous by the fact that it was caused entirely by their own stupidity, resulting during their completely pointless fistfight.  It’s a particularly delightful addition to this august company.

Well, that’s it for this week.  We’ve had the best and the worst in this post, and we’re almost through September.  I’m looking forward to the next batch of commentaries, which will include the final chapter of Manhunter!  Please join me next time as we check out another set of stories and travel further Into the Bronze Age!

Into the Bronze Age: August 1970 (Part 4)

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Well, we’re moving right along through August!  I’m hoping to get at least caught up to the proper month before September ends…and I’m behind again.  We’ll see if I can manage, but so far, so good.  In this post we have two interesting stories, and I’ve been rather looking forward to this one.  Be warned, I’m going to indulge my professional interest a bit with some philosophical and literary reflections about the second issue!

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

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

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

Justice League #82

jla_v-1_82“Peril of the Paired Planets”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

I enjoyed this story much more than I expected to.  At first blush, I rather thought it was going to be on the goofy side, and it does have its moments.  Nonetheless, the final effect is fairly enjoyable.  O’Neil’s run, though not completely stellar, continues to be strong overall.  In this issue, as with the Jestmaster, we once again get a promising concept that doesn’t have quite the right execution.  The villains of the piece are a race of aliens lead by a fellow named Creator² who build planets for a living, destroying existing ones to create the energy for the construction.  Anyone else reminded of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?  That’s right, the bad guy is Slartibartfast.  The stakes, complete planetary annihilation of not one, but TWO Earths, are certainly worthy of the Justice League, and the idea of an alien race that creates new planets by destroying old ones is the kind of thing that could totally work in the DC Universe.  Unfortunately, the aliens are rather goofy looking, and the concept just doesn’t entirely come together.  Another pass might do wonders.

As is, our tale begins with a very strange occurrence as Superman plummets from the sky, seemingly immobile and unconscious.  The League brings him to the Satellite, but they can find no explanation for his sudden illness.  Then, Batman suddenly falls victim to a similar phantom ailment and passes out.  The Leaguers (Flash, Atom, and Hawkman) call their missing members (Green Arrow, Green Lantern, and Black Canary, sadly, no mention of Aquaman…), hoping against hope that one of them will be able to solve this mystery.  I’m going to have to go ahead and call shenanigans on O’Neil for this.  If you’ve got your favorite characters out on walkabout in GA/GL, then you can’t just pull them in for every JLA issue.  It sort of wrecks the whole, ‘on hiatus’ thing.  Why not give some other characters more of a chance to shine if you’re so dedicated to the oddball story you’re telling with them?

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Anyway, we then discover what is going on through a flashback that takes us to Earth 2!  That’s right, we’re seeing a JLA/JSA crossover starting in this issue, and that is pretty exciting.  I love the concept of these events, even if the execution wasn’t always fantastic (a common trait with the JLA, unfortunately).  While I prefer my JSA as the Earth-1, WWII predecessors of the League, there is something undeniably fun about having the two sets of heroes being able to hang out from time to time.  I even told a time travel story in my second JLA campaign in the DCUG, just so I could bring all of these heroes together, with the rosters cleaned up for continuity purposes, of course.  There’s no need to have multiples of the same character running around.  I always hated it when we got two Supermen or two Batmen, after all, as that just felt like a gyp.  I already get to read about those guys!

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I seem to have dragged myself off track.  Ahem.  Anyway…again…in the space between the two universes, Supreme Leader Snoke, err, I mean the Creator², captures poor, lonely, unloved Red Tornado, who is flying around empty, airless, as in no-freaking-wind, space…somehow.  This is one of the minor slips that hurt this issue.  It isn’t a huge deal, but come on.  Tornado’s whole thing is that he moves air around.  How the heck is he flying or doing much of anything where there is no air to move?

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The much bigger misstep is Reddy’s dialog and general characterization in this section.
The android is moping around space feeling sorry for himself, lamenting that he doesn’t fit in, even with the JSA.  When he sees the aliens’ ship approaching, the Tornado says, “Oh boy, this is my chance!  I’ll single-handedly stop the aliens…then everybody’ll have to like me!”  Ouch.  That feels like something that would show up in one of my worst comp. papers.  While it becomes a fixture that Reddy is a melancholy machine, this is just ham-handed and hokey.  Unfortunately, this type of one-dimensional, excessively melodramatic characterization is going to become indicative of the maudlin mechanical man.  He’s as emo as Kylo Ren!  This is part of the reason that poor Reddy has never achieved the popularity and gravitas of his Marvel counterpart, the Vision, despite having all of the same potential.  It’s a real shame, because he really is a great character.  I suppose that, given my love of underdogs, it is to be expected that I rather like this second-rate Leaguer who, at least for most of his history, never quite found his niche.  We’ll be seeing more from him in the future, of course, as he’ll soon be joining the team.

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Justice League of America v1 082-07.jpgReddy, of course, fails miserably in his efforts, because for some reason JLA writers decided to make him the team’s whipping boy.  Did Super Schlub grow up to be Red Tornado, or what?  The afflicted android is captured, and belonging to both Earths, he is able to be used as the focal point for the evil machinations of the planet-wreckers.  Power flows through the captive hero, and the two worlds begin to close in on one another, the barriers between them weakening.  Meanwhile, the aliens launch a preemptive strike on the JSA to prevent their interference.

Creator² arms his assistants with special nets that can counter the heroes’ abilities and dispatches them to capture the champions of Earth 2.  Now, I rather expected this to be goofy and cheesy after the awkwardness of the opening sequence, but the action is actually well-staged and believable in context.  Superman is easily captured because he doesn’t bother to dodge.  Why should he?  That’s a good touch, and it makes sense.  In the same way, it is actually Dr. Mid-Nite that causes the acolytes some trouble, as he’s more wary.  It’s also worth noting that the heroes, not knowing if these aliens are hostile or friendly, don’t just come out swinging.  That’s a good spot of characterization for the team.  Unfortunately, their beneficence leads to their defeat.

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It is these events that explain the strange ailments of the Earth-1 heroes.  As the JSA members were incapacitated, the weakened barriers allowed the effects to bleed over into the their closest counterparts among the Leaguers.  I’ll buy that.  It makes sense, in a comic kind of way.  I do have one bone to pick, though, and that’s the fact that Batman is identified as the closest counterpart to Mid-Nite, but we see the Earth-2 Batman just a few pages later!  Shenanigans I say!  Well, fuzzy logic aside, the Flash arrives on the scene, and he actually manages to do some good against the invaders, evading their nets with some clever maneuvering and decking one of them, but he is distracted by the sudden appearance of his Earth-1 counterpart!  The momentary interruption is all it takes for his foes to capture him as well.  This, of course, also causes Barry to be stricken as well.

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Suddenly, ghostly images of doppelgangers begin appearing around both worlds as the barriers break down even more.  The two teams meet up on their separate Earths and try and make plans, Starman playing the hothead among the JSA.  Fittingly, it is the Atom, a physicist, who figures out what is going on.  By crunching the numbers, he susses out that the two Earth’s are being pulled together and theorizes that the cause is some being with a connection to both planets.  Black Canary tearfully concludes that she must be culprit and insists that she must…die!  It’s not a bad moment, and it makes pretty perfect sense from their point of view.  It’s a good, tense note to end on, with the two worlds preparing to collide and no-one yet knowing what is behind it.

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I suppose it’s…good…that O’Neil is at least being consistent with his insufferable characterization of Green Arrow?  ‘No Ollie, there’s no emergency, I just thought it would be fun to interrupt your road trip’

This is a good issue, a fun enough adventure, though it is really a bit more of a JSA story than a Justice League one.  I’m entirely okay with that, as I love both groups.  As I said, the threat is certainly big enough to serve as a fitting challenge for these two massively powerful teams, though the aliens are really too goofy and boring looking to be entirely successful as antagonists.  The callous disregard their master, this Creator fellow, has for the life on these two worlds is a good trait for a cosmic villain, but I wouldn’t have minded learning a bit more about him.

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The fairly abominable writing of Red Tornado is a bit of a black mark on the issue, but it’s still a relatively minor part of the tale.  Unfortunately, Dick Dillin’s art isn’t quite up to snuff in this story.  He has some nice panels, but there’s also a lot of awkward, stiff figures (like the Superman sequence in the beginning) and art that just seems a bit ‘off.’  So, in the end, this is an enjoyable but flawed book.  It’s great fun to see the JSA and the JLA working on two sides of the same problem, but the weak points in the story and the weaker art keep the comic from being as good as it might.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.

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Interestingly, the letter pages are filled with praises for JLA #78 and 79, the pollution focused issues.  Clearly, the idea of tackling heavier topics was really popular with fans.  In fact, one epistler writes in to say that major newspapers were reporting on these comics.  Notably, the writer also opined that his own city had a major problem with pollution.  Apparently, not-yet-disgraced President Nixon had just given a State of the Union address that named pollution as one of the major problems facing the nation.  Neat!  Those stories were obviously much more timely than I realized.

Phantom Stranger #8

phantom_stranger_vol_2_8“Journey to the Tomb of the Ice Giants!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Colourist: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

Man, I’ve been looking forward to this one.  Just look at that cover!  I’ve seen that sucker waiting for me in my reading list, and I just couldn’t wait to see if the story inside is as awesome as that cover.  Don’t worry, you won’t have to suffer in suspense like I did.  This issue does, in fact, lives up to the awesomeness of the cover.  This is definitely my favorite Phantom Stranger issue so far, and it is here that I believe the series really finds its feet.  Even the editor seems to realize that they have hit on something special with this issue and this team.  He begins the letter column with a note that O’Neil and Aparo “have taken the Phantom Stranger to new heights” and remarks that he is particularly proud of the issue.  This unusual bit of editorial praise is, in my estimation, pretty spot on.  This tale really dives into the mystical and even mythical elements inherent in the character’s conceit, and it makes the DC Universe a more fantastic and interesting place in the process.  In my estimation, that’s one of the best contributions a book can make.  On the art front, Aparo seems to be on the book full time now, and I couldn’t be happier.  He’s at the height of his powers, so the comic is beautiful, dynamic, and full of interesting and individual looking characters.  Aparo creates no generic faces and no disposable characters.  Every figure he draws is unique and striking.  I’m afraid I’ve got rather a lot to say about this one, as it quite captured my imagination, resonating with many ideas that have been on my mind lately.

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This mysterious and mythic adventure begins in the arctic, with an ice breaker named the S.S. Night Wind suddenly finding itself faced with a vision from nightmare and legend, a massive giant of ice and snow!  It’s cold hands close about the ship, and suddenly the vessel is entirely trapped in ice.  We’re treated to a lovely two-page spread that shows us the scale of the little drama, and the Stranger briefly appears to the crew of the trapped ship to warn them of their danger.

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Our scene shifts to Alaska, where the ship’s financier, Mr. Muttson rages over the trouble with the Night Wind.  He steps into a steam room to try and warm up, but he suddenly freezes solid!  The local law is baffled, as you might imagine, and they call in everyone’s favorite wet blanket, Dr. Thirteen, who was conveniently near-by.  I’m willing to hand-wave his deus ex machina appearance because we are dealing with a story in a high dramatic tone and fate (or her Master!) may very well be playing a hand.

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The Stranger once again puts in an appearance to investigate the mystery himself, and we get yet another confrontation between the two characters.  Despite how many times we’ve seen its like, this scene is actually quite good.  There’s a certain intensity to the good Doctor’s reaction, a certain frustration and anger that rings true and rises above just rote repetition.  Thirteen is his usual charming self in this issue, and yet there is something more interesting and sympathetic about him that I can’t quite entirely put my finger on.  In this exchange, we even get a funny little note that made me chuckle.  The mysterious Stranger greets his opposite number as “Terry,” and this immediately gets under the skeptic’s skin, so much so that you have to think he intended it to do so.  Either way, Thirteen responds that “if he calls me Terry again, I’ll bust him–so help me-.”  It’s a good character moment, adding a bit more personality to the occult investigator than just stiff-necked skepticism.  After all, he’s got to be getting sick of having the Stranger show him up.

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The Phantom disappears, of course, and, also, of course, the Doc dismisses any possibility of the supernatural in that, or in this strange frozen death.  The case reminds him of another, as they all seem to, and he begins to relate the story, telling his listeners about the time a wealthy recluse was found frozen to death in the hothouse in which he kept his prize orchids.  While both the policeman investigating the death and the victim’s nephew suggest some type of mystical explanation, Thirteen is adamant that nothing of the sort is possible.  He finds a canister of freon, and, realizing that the orchids themselves are also frozen, he deduces that the recluse was flash-frozen by someone pumping the chemical in through the sprinkler system in the hothouse.  The skeptical sleuth accuses the nephew, and then he proves he is more than just a mind, as he disarms and captures the killer in a nice sequence.

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Dr. Thirteen, surprising badass

the phantom stranger (1969) 08 - 13 - Copy.jpgThat’s actually one of the best interpolated episodes we’ve seen so far, with a good mystery, a solid action beat, and Dr. Thirteen actually portrayed to good effect.  He’s much more likable here than we’ve seen previously.  Back in the main tale, the local chemist (given a ton of personality in his portrayal by Aparo, despite the fact he appears in a grand total of one panel), discovers that the ice entombing Muttson could only have come from the arctic.  Thirteen and his wife, sensing a link, prepare a helicopter to fly out and investigate the icebreaker.  Before they depart, the Stranger appears with a dire warning, and the Doc actually take a swing at him!

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In the vast, empty wastes of the frozen north, the Thirteens find the trapped ship and begin to search for some clues.  Suddenly, they spot a flash of reflected light, and they descend to discover a huge sword, fit for…a giant!  Just then, the occult investigator is smacked by a giant hand, and both he and his wife are seized by a towering figure that embodies the desolate icy wastes in which he moves.  The creature ominously declares that the humans have violated the sleep of his people, a sleep that began at the dawn of time!

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Fortunately for ‘Terry,’ the Stranger appears once more, and he demands the giant release the two humans.  I love his description of himself.  He announces that he “serve[s] a cause — a master — as ancient as” the giants themselves.  I quite like that, evocative yet mysterious, fitting easily any of the myriad identities we might assign the character (my favorite is still the Wandering Jew serving God).  That’s a difficult line to walk, but O’Neil manages it well here.

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The giants’ design isn’t quite right, what with the green trunks…

Well, as if the situation weren’t tense and chaotic enough, Tala chooses this moment to arrive.  She is her usual delightful self, and I really love her portrayal in this issue.  She is becoming a more fully realized character, while still remaining disconcertingly mysterious.  She makes her usual play for the Stranger, trying to persuade him to join her and abandon the mere mortals to their fate, but this time it is less about an archetypal contest between light and dark and more about the character herself.  O’Neil is really firing on all cylinders in this exchange.  Tala kisses her rival, and he pushes her away, proclaiming “death lies in your kiss!”  Her response is excellent, “Indeed, but such a death as can pale life.”  That’s almost poetic, and it fits the higher tone of the piece, what with its ancient civilizations and apocalyptic possibilities.

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Right after that we hit a rather weird note, as the Stranger stands forth to oppose the giant, employing his vast and enigmatic powers…no, wait, he punches the titan in the face.  Okay…it is extremely cool looking, and I have no problem with the supernatural sleuth getting his hands dirty once in awhile.  Still, we’ve seen him employ some pretty impressive powers in the previous issues, so it is rather jarring for him to suddenly act like all he’s got in his bag is a good right hook.  If O’Neil wanted to limit him, all he needed was a line of dialog, something like ‘I can’t use my abilities because it would awaken the magic of the giants,’ or SOMETHING.  Instead, the hero is smacked down, quite literally, and seems helpless against the jotunn-like creatures.

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You have to admit, though, it’s a heck of a page.

They announce their plans to emerge from their self-imposed exile and reclaim the Earth, but the Stranger, in a wonderful two-page spread, warns them that this globe is not what it used to be.  Humans have sort of wrecked the joint, as we are wont to do.  Here we see some more of O’Neil’s use of realistic and weighty themes, dealing with the social unrest and the pollution that we’ve seen influencing the books we’ve covered.  It’s a nice sequence, not too heavy-handed or preachy because of its context and the solid prose that he marshals for the effort.

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The giants are swayed, but their laws still demand a sacrifice before they can return to their centuries-long slumber.  Tala helpfully suggests they take Maria Thirteen, and in a flash of light, she seems to render her helpless.  Unopposed, the frozen fiends return to their glacial home, and here we reach the second odd moment in the book.  The story takes a fairly dark turn all of a sudden, as the Stranger silently watches the titans’ exodus, not lifting a finger to prevent their killing an innocent woman.  Then, he carries ‘Terry’ back to his helicopter and once again employs mundane methods in his fight, eschewing his powers.  He seals the entrance to the giants’ cavern with dynamite, leaving Maria to her fate.

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The Stranger coldly rationalizes his choice, reasoning that her sacrifice was necessary because any contact between giants and men would inevitably destroy both because of the wrack and ruin that a conflict between magic and technology would unleash.  This is another fascinating concept that just gets tossed out in this issue, one of many that create a wonderful atmosphere of history and mythology lying behind the plot itself.  Yet, the hero’s choice cannot help but seem both unnecessary (without further framing) and callous to us.

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Fortunately, after the cave is sealed, who should make her way back to the helicopter but Maria!  Tala returns and explains matters, telling her opponent that she, indulging in her chaotic nature, could not resist playing a trick on the giants, and thus took the girl’s place when she caused that blinding flash.  It’s a good and rather surprising moment, yet it fits the character well.  I like Tala as not just a being of pure evil, but an avatar of chaos, more like Loki than Satan, the Trickster figure brought to life.  I think that’s got potential, and it certainly has mythical echoes.

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The story ends with the Thirteens reunited and ‘Terry’ being ridiculously condescending to his wife.  To her credit, she doesn’t seem to be taking his nonsense entirely meekly.  Here again we have the good Doctor blatantly disregarding a reliable eyewitness to the supernatural because “we both know such things simply do not occur!”  Great job being scientific and impartial, Terry.  This ending really struck me, as I realized that Dr. Thirteen is willfully blind to the higher realities he continually comes in contact with.  He has now encountered several mysteries that he’s been entirely unable to solve, yet he persists in his stiff-necked adherence to his world-view.  This was particularly interesting to me because I just read C.S. Lewis’s Miracles, his philosophical case for the possibility of the miraculous.  One of his arguments touches on the fact that this is how most of us approach any such questions.  We know miracles cannot exist, therefore, every other explanation, no matter how ridiculous, must be more probable.  This cannot help but bias us in our investigation of such matters, as we have a priori decided that one explanation is impossible.  In this dogmatic dedication to disbelief, Dr. Thirteen reminds me very strongly of the dwarves from The Last Battle.  I can imagine Thirteen sitting there in the dark with them, seeing a dirty barn while surrounded by the eternal, refusing to acknowledge the reality that was staring him in the face.  It makes him something of a tragic figure as well as a comic one and probably has something to do with my growing appreciation for the character.

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This was a great story, and the complaints I have are minor.  The most significant of them is that I wish the concepts tossed out left and right in this book were given more development in the wider lore.  Apparently we do see the giants return in a later issue, so that is exciting!  It was of particular interest to me because I’ve just been studying the medieval tradition of giants, which the titanic creatures of this tale evokes.  I actually just wrote a paper on the giant/Jute debate in Beowulf¹.  I love the archetypal weight the figure of the giant carries, the ageless antipathy between man and monster.  In the medieval tradition, the giants were identified with an antediluvian (pre-Flood) culture, advanced and wicked, possessing great knowledge and power, but corrupting men with that power and forbidden learning.  They were identified with pride (which, if we recall, was the first and greatest sin) and greed.

These jotunn-esq beings with their ancient civilization remind me a bit of those stories.  Their implied history and the Stranger’s cryptic statements indicating the existence of a whole hidden lore helps to give this particular story its strongest feature, that most wonderful quality of literature, which Tolkien called “the impression of depth” (Monsters and Critics 27).  This is the effect that gives works like The Lord of the Rings such a vastness and feeling of reality.  It is the quality that leads a reader to believe that the story does not just exist in these limited pages but expands infinitely on every side of the book itself, with a rich past and undiscovered countries just beyond every hill.  This quality is, of course, limited in this instance, and the the comic has its weaknesses, the loose threads in the tapestry O’Neil is weaving.  Nonetheless, the final effect is exactly that sense of wonder and imaginative adventure that brings me to comics in the first place.  This is the type of story that I love to read, and I give this issue a very strong 4.5 Minutemen.

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Well my good readers, that is it for this post.  This is shaping up to be one heck of a month!   We’ve had some great, high-scoring and fascinating issues, and there are more promising stories on the horizon.  It definitely looks like we’re facing a much better crop of books this month.  I hope you’ll join me soon for the next few issues, which will include the next iteration of Manhunter 2070!

¹If you’re interested in literary studies, philology, or textual criticism, you might find this worth reading.  If these things don’t interest you, you can safely skip this section.  Several of the incidents in Beowulf feature the word eoten, which means “giant,” even being related (most likely) to the Old Norse word, “jotunn,” which describes the monstrous figures of scandinavian myth.  Yet, in several spots editors emend it to mean “Jute,” an ancient people that were often in conflict with the Danes.  Essentially, the argument is that a later scribe, having never seen “Eotan,” the word for Jutes, just substituted “eoten,” or “giant.” Coincidentally, this approach to the poem seems to me to be motivated by much the same resistance to the fantastic that drives the close-mindedness of people like Dr. Thirteen.  Scholars have desired a historical document from Beowulf, though that was never what it was intended to be.  They hope to find mythologized records of actual conflicts, real history behind all the fantasy ‘fluff,’ but you can no more do away with the giants than you can with the dragon. They both lie, not at the periphery, but at the core of the poem.  The debate continues (it’s giants), and though there are reasonable arguments for finding Jutes (really, it’s giants), they tend to create as many problems for interpretation (seriously, it’s giants) as they solve.  Meanwhile, rendering these mysterious figures as giants creates greater dramatic unity, (trust me, giants) emphasizing many of the primary themes of the main plot, especially the corrupting effects of power and wealth, both associated in medieval tradition with the figure of the giant (it’s totally giants).

Into the Bronze Age: July 1970 (Part 2)

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Welcome to the second issue of Into the Bronze Age for July, 1970!  I’m looking forward to getting back into some Bronze Age-y goodness, as I’ve been busy with many other things, including a lot of pulp stories as I was working on my Pulp Adventures mod.  So, without further ado, let’s celebrate the beginning of the semester with some classic superheroics!

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

Detective Comics #401

Detective_Comics_401“Target For Tonight!”
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Bob Brown
Inker: Joe Giella
Letterer: Ben Oda
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“Midnight is the Dying Hour!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Vince Colletta
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz

Our headlining feature here is a fairly mediocre Bat-tale, very much a by-the-numbers story.  It’s the standard ‘most dangerous game‘ trope where a disillusioned big-game hunter decides that the only way he can get a challenge is to hunt a man.  Of course, he decides to hunt the most dangerous of the most dangerous game, Batman!  I wonder how many times this story has been told in comics in general and with Batman specifically.  Surprisingly enough, this story is the only Batman example listed on TV Tropes.  I’m almost sure there are others, though, as almost every serial adventure character has a few of these encounters over the course of their career.  Despite its cliched nature, or perhaps evidenced by it, this trope can produce great stories.  This isn’t one of them.  It isn’t bad, per se, just not terribly interesting or exciting, and Batman really doesn’t come off as all that impressive.  There are many, many better examples out there.

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This tale opens with Batman in Commissioner Gordon’s office receiving a strange and threatening note which boldly declares that some nut named ‘The Stalker’ has made the Dark Knight his prey.  Apparently the note was delivered by a hunting falcon, right in Gordon’s window!  Just at that moment, a bullet zips in the window and ‘bullseyes’ the page, a potent warning of the hunter’s intent and skill.

The Masked Manhunter heads home to his apartment (I’ll never get used to that), where he relaxes by watching an interview with a famous big-game hunter named Carelton Yager (“jager” means hunter, in German, in case you didn’t catch that he was…you know…a hunter) who has just arrived in Gotham.  This sportsman, who is totally not our mad Stalker, has a hunting falcon and talks menacingly about how there is no thrill in the hunt anymore, thus he has come to town to hunt “the most dangerous game.”

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Just then, crossbow bolt flies in a smashes the TV.  It bears a note warning Bruce Wayne that this ‘Stalker’ knows his secret and the hunt is on.  How did this random hunter discover the secret identity of the master detective, Batman?  Well, don’t worry your pretty little head about that.  He just totally did.  Because…plot.  Well, not one to take such things lying down, the Caped Crusader sets out to do some stalking of his own, warning Gordon to keep the cops clear because “this is a matter of honor — and pride.”  Really?  I mean, it makes perfect sense that Batman would want everyone else to stay out of such a conflict for fear of any innocents getting hurt, but it does seems a bit out of character for him to be so pig-headed as to play this guy’s game just for pride.  This is another one of those little examples that we’re still not dealing with the fully developed ‘grim avenger’ Batman yet.

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Our hero is on the case less than five minutes and he commits his first blunder, stumbling into a trap in Yager’s rooms as he searched for clues.  He triggers a crossbow trap and a recording that taunts him and invites him to a showdown on an island off the coast.  Batman throws a tantrum and smashes the tape recorder with the most awkward looking, Rockettes-esq, high-kick ever, then heads straight into the obvious trap.

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At least the Dark Knight has the sense to approach the island covertly, underwater and then through a drainage pipe, but once arrived he once again immediately falls prey to one of the Stalker’s snares, this time a net that hauls him helplessly into the air.  For the third time, the hunter lets his quarry live to add spice to the chase.  That’s three separate times our hero should really be dead if the villain wasn’t just letting him win.  Real impressive, Bats.  I think this Stalker fellow might have a more challenging hunt with Robin.

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When the Caped Crusader gets free, he pursues his tormentor across the island, and eventually tackles him when he finally manages to see through one of the sportsman’s traps.  Yager is standing in the middle of the room, dressed as Alfred, but Batman realizes its a fake when he sees that the man’s shoes aren’t muddy, despite the fact that the entire island is a quagmire.  During the fight, the villain handily hoists himself on his own petard by falling into his own dead-drop and conveniently expires, taking his knowledge of our hero’s secret identity with him to his grave.

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It’s a moderately entertaining story, but not a terribly memorable one.  In fact, I read it about a month before I got the chance to write this entry, and it had COMPLETELY fallen out of my head by the time I sat down to write the summary.  It’s a trope that has lots of potential, as can easily be recognized by how often it gets used, but this one doesn’t make much of it.  The villain lacks any real personality and Batman just comes off as rather ineffectual and bad at his job.  He survives solely because of his foe’s arrogance, but not in the standard and enjoyable ironic treatment of such a trope that would indicate that Robins was even aware that this was the case.  I’ll give it 2.5 Minutemen out of 5.

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“Midnight is the Dying Hour!”

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The backup feature is the continuation of our Batgirl story from the previous issue, and it is passable if not exactly good.  I’m afraid it definitely suffers from its brevity.  It does have a nice setup, with the story being handed off to Robin, who is following the same mystery from a different direction.  It’s a nice idea, even though there isn’t much room to develop it.

We begin with a quick one page recap of the previous issue, and then we pick up with Robin investigating the crime scene.  He discovers that the murdered man, Willard, with his hand pointing at a volume of poetry, specifically the first three letters of the title, “poetry.”  This strikes the Teen Wonder as strange, since the deceased thought poetry was “sissy stuff.”  A real winner, this guy.  Anyway, aggressive ignorance and atrocious taste aside, Robin, unable to make heads or tales of the case, decides to review the evidence and has a flash of inspiration.

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He heads to the construction site, looking for his suspect, and he interrupts the killer in the middle of his reenactment of “The Cask of Amontillado.”  The punk throws some of his cement in the young hero’s eyes and makes a run for it.  Dick frees Batgirl, who exclaims that she’s never had to thank anyone for saving her life before, and she doesn’t know how to do it.  This strikes me as rather strange, because I’m pretty sure she’s had her life saved dozens of times at this point.  Ahh well.

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They compare notes and discuss how they each solved the mystery as they pursue the killer.  It turns out to be the barely mentioned drama-major, Jack Markham, who murdered Willard, his ally in the campus debate, in order to discredit the opposing side.  According to Robin, the young weirdo was set to play Edgar Allen Poe in the school play, and he identified with the role so much that it broke his mind and turned him into a killer.  That’s…a bit of a stretch.  Poe may have been a gothic author and a fairly gloomy character.  He may have had his own demons (glug glug!), but I don’t recall him ever murdering anyone.  Not even a little bit.  Robin also solves this mystery because of the corpse’s finger pointing to “Poe” and deciding that it was a clue pointing to the actor playing the poet.  That’s a bit of a stretch as well, methinks.

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Detective401-31.JPGThe two titanic teens chase this kid into the theater and have a brief battle with him in the rafters.  He is, of course, no real threat to the heroes when they see him coming, which is fitting.  The tale ends with a rather ambiguous note, as Robin asks Batgirl if she will tell him how she got involved in all of this, and she replies “Maybe I will!  Maybe I will tell you a lot of things…”  It could be a nice, flirty moment…but it needed a bit of setup earlier in the adventure, so it just seems out of place here.

So, in the end, there is a mystery here that just didn’t have quite enough room to grow.  I like the idea of seeing both Robin and Batgirl chasing a killer from different directions.  Fortunately, though the Markham manages to momentarily elude the trained crimefighter chasing him, he doesn’t make a monkey out of the Teen Wonder, unlike some of the earlier Robin solo stories we’ve encountered.  At least this one doesn’t add another spot on the wall of shame with the Head-Blow Headcount for the high-flying hero.  I would have enjoyed the note of romance between our two young heroes…if it had been a bit more developed and certain.  In the end, I’ll give this ending backup 2.5 Minutemen as well.  It just didn’t quite have enough space to make its mark.

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G.I. Combat #142

GI_Combat_Vol_1_142“Checkpoint…Death!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Artist: Russ Heath

This Haunted Tank yarn is not one of the best.  It’s plot is just a bit…odd.  It’s like Kanigher had several set pieces he wanted to build a story around, but he didn’t really have a story in which to embed them.  As is, it’s a beautifully illustrate tale in the DC house style, and it has some nice action…and that’s about all that you can say about it, because it doesn’t make much sense.  As per usual, this issue doesn’t take much advantage of book’s conceit.  In fact, this one takes far less than the norm, with our titular haunting specter showing up for exactly two panels, where he doesn’t even offer his customary cryptic warnings.

As the story opens, the crew is commenting on Jeb’s strange habit of talking to “himself,” as they can’t see the ghost, but, as they often do, they decide that he’s a good enough tank commander, they don’t care if he’s a little crazy.  Meanwhile, Jeb asks J.E.B. if this mission will punch their tickets, and the ghost replies he can’t reveal their fates…then he promptly disappears completely from the issue.  This may as well have been a straight war comic with those two panels removed.  Just then, they spot explosions in the distance and head into action.  We get treated to a nice double-page spread of a big tank battle going on, with what look like Pershings going toe-to-toe with the Hun armor.  That would make this the late days of the war (1945), so that’s probably an art mistake.  Still, it’s a lovely spread.

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Jeb and crew are ordered to reinforce Checkpoint Able, and they, unwillingly, scoot out of the action.  Unfortunately, when they arrive, they find Able manned by no-one…but dead men!  The entirety of Able Company has been wiped out, and they are all dead at their posts…and here we meet the first moment of the tale that makes no freaking sense.  If they’re all dead, why aren’t the Nazis just strolling merrily through the lines?  Better yet, why haven’t they ALREADY done so?

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We get no answers, but we do get some nice, poignant moments as the Haunted crew deals with this grim sight.  That leads us to another nice passage, and this issue is nothing but a string of these, where, as they head out on recon and pass some wildflowers, Slim gets out and picks some for Able.  It’s a sweet, strange little scene, and it really adds some humanity to the story.

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Just then, a freak blizzard blows up, and the tank is ambushed by a German infantry unit, inexplicably kitted out for snow operations in all white uniforms, despite the fact that it is emphasized that this is a FREAK storm.  Once again, it makes no freaking sense, but the action sequence is really beautifully illustrated, and the silent (dare I say ‘ghostly’?) intensity of the Nazi troops in their assault is rather chilling (sorry!).

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The crew attempt to break out of the ambuscade, but their engine freezes up.  Here we encounter the third ludicrous story beat.  Instead of, you know, shooting the giant sitting steel duck with the panzerfaust that we see they still have, the German infantry just…wait.  They just sit and wait, allowing the tank crew to figure out what to do.  Their solution is actually quite clever and visually spectacular, though.  Jeb pulls some gas from the fuel tanks and, under cover of the storm, he carefully splashes it near the engine, then lights it ablaze.  Now, this would almost certainly suffocate the men inside the tank in real life, but it’s a great, adventure story-esq innovation.  It’s solid comic logic.  The fire warms the engine enough to get it started, and the Haunted Tank breaks away, arriving back at Checkpoint Able in time to meet the reinforcements.

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So, as you can see, this is a really uneven issue.  It has several nice set-piece moments, the usual lovely art for this book, and even some good, if brief, characterization.  Nonetheless, it is also completely ridiculous in three separate ways.  The end result is a bit baffling.  It’s a fun issue to read, but it is apt to leave one feeling rather confused.  I’m really torn on what to rate it, but I suppose I’ll also give this one a 2.5 Minutemen out of 5.  The goofy, senseless elements knock it down from a higher score, and the fun of the action combined with the beauty of the art save it from a worse one.

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Green Lantern/Green Arrow #78

Green_Lantern_Vol_2_78“My Kind of Loving, a Way of Death!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Frank Giacoia
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz

Ahh…back to this book.  It’s probably not great that we’re only three issues in and I’m already dreading each new story.  Well, on the plus side, this issue is not nearly as insufferable as the previous two.  It’s probably a worse story, as far as unity of action and the measure of the plot goes, but there’s less (though of course not no) pontificating.  The heavy hand paints a touch more lightly, but only a touch.  The setup for this issue is an interesting one, and relatively timely, especially in comic terms.  This issue centers on a charismatic cult leader brainwashing a bunch of disaffected kids and using them for his own nefarious purposes.  Sound familiar?  Well, the horrors of the Manson Family murders were less than a year old at this point, and Manson himself had just been arrested a few months earlier.  There was a great deal of fear and uneasiness throughout the culture following those events, and it is interesting to see that being worked through in comics this way.  Of course, O’Neil’s cult leader uses actual mind control to dominate his victims, and the whole horrid mess is flattened out and treated broadly, but the similarities are unmistakable.  I don’t know if this is the first time that this concept was used in a comic, but I am quite certain it was not the last either.  I can’t imagine it is the best.

Whatever it is, this particular treatment begins with the lovely Black Canary, having taken to the road to track down the way-luckier-than-he-deserves Green Arrow.  She is accosted in the Washington wilderness by a generic biker gang, doing generic, scuzzy biker gang things.  They try to steal her motorcycle and threaten her, but of course, the Canary is no shrinking violet (no offense to Shrinking Violet).  She handily wipes the floor with them before being knocked unconscious by a desperate biker who ramms her with his cycle.  They steal the bike and leaver her for dead, but she is rescued by a shadowy figure.

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It’s a beautiful montage. Take note, Gil Kane, this is how it is done.

Meanwhile, our hard-traveling heroes arrive in the nearby town and have a completely pointless encounter with a bitter young Native American man.  Now, there’s tons of bitter folks in this book, but, to be fair, if anyone’s got a right to be bitter about their treatment in this country…it’s probably the Native Americans.  Fair enough.  His role in the comic is still fairly pointless, serving only to provide a face to identify with the subject of the cult leader’s hatred.

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green lantern 078 015.jpgHis shop is attacked by the generic bikers, who do more generic biker things, like trash the place.  Our heroes immediately endanger their secret identities by just stepping outside to put on their costumes, despite the fact that they were the only strangers in town.  As you would expect, they utterly trounce these low-rent thugs, who pose no real threat to two Justice Leaguers.  And here is our return to the perennial problem (other than the heavy-handed, tone deaf characterization) with this series.  The protagonists are just a poor fit for the tale that O’Neil is telling.  Green Lantern and Green Arrow beating up on these punks just seems…unnecessary.  The heroes are in no peril to speak of, and there is no actual tension and nothing at stake with this little encounter.

Nonetheless, the traveling-twosome makes short work of them, and seems to do it with great relish.  There is actually a fairly good moment of characterization here…that is more or less completely glossed over.  Hal really enjoys this conflict, being a very straight-forward case of good and evil, a simple, unequivocal situation that has none of the complicated morality and deep significance of the last few adventures.  These are bad men doing bad things to an innocent, and a bit of a trouncing is richly deserved.  It would be a good moment if it were given a little more development, but it is left entirely to the reader to make the connection, as O’Neil spends no time on it.  He may not even be aware of it.  I do enjoy the sense of whimsy that the Emerald Gladiator brings to his ring-slinging this issue.  It’s a nice change from his dreary existential doubt from the past two issues, and it points to a more interesting and enjoyable character.  I doubt it will last.

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Well, the Emerald Archer notices that one of the bikers has Canary’s motorcycle, and they get the story out of the punk, GA losing his mind and nearly beating the guy to death in the process.  It’s a good moment, with Hal having to restrain Ollie who is beside himself with worry about Canary.  The heroes go to look for her and find the lost lady seemingly hale and healthy, but in the company of a mysterious “prophet” named Joshua.  He is running a commune of some sort, and he claims that Dinah is now one of his ‘children.’  She, though obviously conflicted, refuses to come with them.

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Adams does a fantastic job of making this Joshua fellow eerie and disturbing.  That man has crazy eyes.

In desperation, the Emerald Archer grabs his lady love and plants a passionate kiss on her lips.  It’s a nice moment, especially considering that, since she’s been around, he’s never gotten any real encouragement from her.  He’s clearly been head over heels for her, but she’s rebuffed him.  This is a pretty big and bold step.  It would be a lot stronger if this plot had been given room to breath, but even just jumping out of nowhere, the scene, where she pulls away and tells him to get lost has a little power, largely thanks to Neal Adams, most likely.

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Ollie is crushed and frustrated, and Hal’s fairly blunt declaration that “she just doesn’t dig” him (way to let your friend down easy, flyboy), doesn’t help any.  Arrow belts his partner in green, and then stalks off into the woods where he, at least, realizes he’s acting like a child.  It’s good to see O’Neil finally acknowledge some of Ollie’s silliness, though he’ll get back to using him as a mouthpiece shortly, don’t worry. Hal, for his part, comes off much better in this issue.  Instead of bowing up and getting in his friend’s face, the Emerald Gladiator merely shrugs it off, knowing that Ollie isn’t himself.

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Meanwhile, the creepy Joshua arms his clearly mind-controlled ‘Family’ and tells them that they are going to slaughter the nearby Indians to start off a race war and reclaim the country for the whites.  Urg.  O’Neil really wants to make his evilness unmistakable…though, to be fair, I suppose this is actually pretty close to Manson’s own motivations (though with opposite goals).  The Emerald Archer encounters the Family in the woods during target practice and decides that he better call for help because he can’t take them all without killing them…really?  Green Arrow, superhero and Justice League member, who has managed to fight crime for years without killing ANYONE can’t manage to take out a bunch of brainwashed kids with pistols and no training without killing them?  It’s fine for Ollie to have called for help.  Sure, I can buy that, but his statement is just patently ridiculous in the context of the story.  Heck, in the last issue, he stormed a freaking fortress and took on trained soldiers.  *sigh*

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Anyway, surprisingly, firing a flare in the middle of the darkened woods attracts attention, and the Family opens fire on him, winging the hero.  They charge after Green Lantern but…he’s a freaking Green Lantern.  Oddly, he ALSO worries about being able to stop them without killing them, despite the fact that he’s wearing an honest-to-goodness wishing ring.  What’s with all this concern about killing the bad guys all of a sudden?  Since when have these two ever DONE that?  Fortunately, he performs better than Ollie (he could hardly have done worse), and easily disarms and traps the kids.

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It’s almost as if random brainwashed kids with guns aren’t actually worthy antagonists for a man armed with the most powerful weapon in the universe….

UNfortunately, Joshua and the Canary escape and come across the injured Archer.  Despite the cult leader’s orders to shoot the helpless hero, Dinah can’t bring herself to do it and overcomes his control.  Hal holds back his aid, letting her break the brainwashing on her own so she’ll have no doubts in the future.  It’s a nice gesture…until you think about the fact that he’s gambling (as he admits) with the Archer’s life.

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Well, I know what you’re thinking.  All of this, and we haven’t had any pretentious preaching from Ollie all issue.  Maybe we dodged the bullet!  Don’t’ be silly; O’Neil wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to talk down to his audience and make Green Arrow come off like a self-important, holier-than-though windbag.  As the heroes are reunited, Ollie takes the opportunity to browbeat a still reeling and emotionally drained Black Canary, telling her that it’s her fault she was brainwashed because there is something bad in all of us that allows monsters like this to bring people to their side.  Classy Arrow.  Real classy.

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Nothing says “I love you” like accusations of secret racism.

This comic has some potential, like most of the others, but it simply has the wrong stars.  There is a good story to be told, and it will be told elsewhere, about the unsettling and sinister nature of a charismatic madman’s grip on impressionable minds.  Try this setup with someone like Batman, the Question, or another more investigative type, and you’d really have something.  Unfortunately, that interesting plot isn’t given enough room to grow, with the unnecessary secondary elements with the bikers and the random kid crowd it down to insignificance.  The central conflict with Canary and the emotions she’s been fighting is interesting, and, once again, given more space, it could have made for a moving turning-point for her romance with Ollie.  This too gets short shrift.  Still, it is really fascinating to see the comics dealing with contemporary history, struggling with the questions we all have about what makes monsters like Manson able to work their dark wills.  It is noteworthy for that, if not for the quality of the issue itself.  As always, Adams’ artwork is spectacular and really gives the book more gravitas and interest than it probably deserves.  In the end, I give this issue 2.5 Minutemen, making this week’s scores unanimous.

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Well, let’s see if we can’t finish up our trip into July 1970 soon and get on with our adventures Into the Bronze Age!  Please join me later this week for the final post in this month of comics.  Until then, remember to tell your significant other that they are really awful inside!

Into the Bronze Age: June 1970 (Part 2)

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Welcome, and thank you for joining me as we write another chapter in this history of the Bronze Age!

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

  • Action Comics #389
  • Aquaman #51
  • Batman #222
  • Detective Comics #400
  • The Flash #198
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #77
  • Justice League #81
  • Phantom Stranger #7
  • Showcase #91
  • Teen Titans #27
  • World’s Finest #194

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

Detective Comics #400

Detective_Comics_400.jpgExecutive Editor: Carmine Infantino
Cover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“A Burial for Batgirl!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Vince Colletta
Editor: Julius Schwartz

Ahh, Neal Adams back on Batman.  This is how it should be.  And in addition, we get a great, classic Bronze Age character introduced in this issue!  Prepare to meet the macabre, menacing Man-Bat!  The introduction of this grotesque mix of monster and man is something that really wouldn’t have flown in the Silver Age.  He’s a bit too much of a horror character, but his advent represents the loosening reins and the increasing creativity of the Bronze Age!  I really do like this character, having first met him on that greatest of Bat-worlds, Batman: TAS, in an excellent set of episodes.  His first appearance here isn’t quite so awe-inspiring as that desperate flight across Gotham from the inaugural episode of the show, but it’s still pretty good.

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This milestone issue (I bet Bob Kane and co. had no clue that their creation would go on to headline a book for anything close to 400+ issues!) starts with the quiet eerie looking scientist, Kurt Langstrom, working on an oversized display about bats in the Gotham Museum of Natural History.  Once the curator leaves, Langstrom begins his real work, experimenting with the genes of bats in an attempt to give himself super senses and the ability to “see” in the dark through sonar.  This whole setup is a bit odd.  Why exactly is this guy working at the Natural History Museum?  The TAS setup with him working at a zoo made a bit more sense to me, as did his motives.  In the show, he’s after a traditional mad scientist end, trying to ensure mankind’s survival through acquiring the characteristics of bats.  In comic logic, that’s about as common as a sunny day.

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This is a wonderfully creepy sequence where Adams economically communicates a lot about the unhealthy fixation of the doctor.

Either way, Langstrom is not the only one seeking an advantage in the dark.  Our scene shifts to an underground location elsewhere in the city where the ‘Blackout Gang’ are looking for a score!  They wear thermal goggles and practice silent tactics for their cappers, but Batman still manages to find them when one of them drops a tool and sets up a clatter.  Though Batman is used to fighting in the dark, the punks can see, whereas he has to rely on his training.  They scatter, and he only manages to recover the device, an “ultra-sonic cutting tool,” which can carve through concrete silently.

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The crooks are disheartened, as they figure that Batman will find a way to trace the signal from such gadgets, endangering their plans.  Their leader decides to turn this to their advantage by laying a trap.  Meanwhile, Dr. Langstrom’s experiments have borne unexpected fruit!  He suddenly finds his hearing and sight grown to painful sensitivity!

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If you’re a scientist and you wear a cape, chances are your future isn’t going to include a healthy social life…

He realizes that he’s succeeded, giving himself a natural sonar as well, which, interestingly enough, is exactly what Batman is working on.  The Dark Knight creates an artificial sonar system to guide him in the dark, preparing for his next encounter with the gang.

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Unfortunately, our resident mad scientist has discovered some rather…unpleasant side effects.  He is turning into a….Man-Bat!  Dun, dun DUN!  He panics and begins working on a way to reverse his condition, but he’s interrupted by the collision of our two plots.

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That’s a beautifully creepy reveal.

The Masked Manhunter tracks the gang to their new target, the Natural History Museum!  He confronts them with quite a surprise when he can suddenly “see” in the dark.  Yet, the Blackout Gang is unreasonably clever.  Their leader deduced that Batman might develop some type of sonar device, so he brought along a secret weapon…ping-pong balls.  That’s right, ping-pong balls.  They toss the balls into the air, and their chaotic bouncing and rebounding deafens the Dark Knight.  The gang dogpiles the detective while he’s “blinded.”

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Detective400-18.jpgJust as it seems that they will do what any number of supervillains have failed to do, an eerie screech is heard ripping through the night, and horrifying help arrives.  Man-Bat smashes into the gang, tossing them around like ragdolls and giving Batman a chance to catch his breath.  The two make short work of the hoods, and the Caped Crusader thanks his unlikely savior.  Yet, when he turns his penlight on the monstrous Man-Bat, he sees his terrifying visage, taking it for a mask.  Ashamed, Langstrom, still in possession of his faculties, smashes the light and disappears in the night!

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This is a beautifully drawn tale, of course.  I love a lot of the shots of the Man-Bat, and I really like the all-black design of the thieves.  They make for a nice contrast with the other characters.

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The story itself isn’t quite as strong.  It’s a fine adventure, but the ping-pong ball deus ex machina is a bit silly.  That’s a very specific guess on the part of the gang leader.  Langstrom’s motivations are also fairly weak.  He’s trying to grant himself an ability that Batman doesn’t have?  Really?  Well, seeing as Batman has no abilities, that shouldn’t be that hard!  Either way, it’s a slightly uneven story, notable mostly for the introduction of a really neat character rather than the plot itself.  Adam’s design for Man-Bat is just excellent, evoking the horror comics of yesteryear with a wonderfully creepy realism, insofar as a giant man/bat monster can be realistic.  I’ll give this 4 Minutemen, largely on the strength of the art and the concept.

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“A Burial for Batgirl!”

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We have another Batgirl backup this month, and it is an interesting enough beginning to a tale.  This chapter finds Barbara Gordon pulling up to the library of Hudson University, having just arrived in town to attend a Edgar Allan Poe festival, when she suddenly hears a cry for help!  She quickly darns her ‘working clothes’ and races to investigate.  Inside, what should she discover? Why it’s a dirty hippy in love beads running for the exit!  That’s quite suspicious, if I do say so myself.  He lunges out with a desperate punch, but Batgirl is not so easily stopped, so she flips him against the wall.  Gathering her thoughts, she takes note of a strange smell, something that could be ether.  Unfortunately, while she is trying to identify the tell-tale odor, the hippie regains his feet and blinds her with a nearby fire extinguisher.

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Once recovered, our heroine rushes outside, only to see her escaping hippy having encountered some other pursuers.  A number of college students are chasing him, and they even begin to kick the poor sucker once Batgirl lays him out.  Suddenly, a voice orders them to stop.  Dick Grayson steps out of the night and takes the heroine to task for not helping the hapless hippy, saying that he thought she had a reputation for sticking up for the underdog.

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We pick the story up back at the police station, where the top cop fill her in on the details of the case.  The hippy is Hank Osher, a student radical, one of the bully-boys chasing him was Jack Markham, an acting major, and the man whose cry for help Batgirl answered too late, was Amos Willard, the University’s business manager.  We even get a helpful visual aid to sort out the plot quickly and efficiently.  It isn’t the most dynamic story-telling move, but it’s a nice way to cover a lot of ground quickly, which is necessary in a tale this short.

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Apparently it all started with the proposed sale of a plot of woodlands that the school owned.  Willard was in favor of this, but Markham violently opposed it and threatened him.  Sensing that there is more to this than meets the eye, Batgirl interviews the imprisoned suspect, who claims he is being set up.  The masked girl begins to investigate, and we get a wonderfully sexist moment where she wonders if she is just being led astray by her “girlish heart responding to his big blue eyes.”  Great.

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Well, she decides to pursue the case one way or the other, and remembering the strange smell from the library, she thinks she knows where to look for more clues.  While investigating a building under construction, someone knocks her out with…that’s right, the classic head-blow!  That’s another one for this month!

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Babs awakens to find herself bound and gagged as a mysterious figure reenacts Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado.”  Yep, the mysterious figure is walling her up with bricks in a hidden alcove of the partially constructed building!  Dun, dun, DUN!

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That is certainly a nice, dramatic ending, no doubt about it.  This story, brief as it is, is interesting.  We don’t really get enough to establish the mystery properly, but there are the bones of a decent one, an enigmatic murder, a framed patsy, and a clever villain.  It has potential.  We’ll see what the next issue holds.  What is perhaps the most intriguing element of this story is the glimpse of social tensions in the hippy character, the student rabble-rouser, who is rebelling against the system…for reasons.  While his motivations are about as clear as an actual hippy’s, it’s telling that O’Neil is framing him as the victim here.  The whole thing feels a bit deeper than the desperate pandering towards youth culture that used to show up in Haney’s Teen Titans stories.  All-in-all, I’ll give this one a 3.5.

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Flash #198

Flash_v.1_198.jpgCover Artist: Gil Kane
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Vince Colletta
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“Call It… Magic!”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Don Heck
Inker: Vince Colletta

Just look at that cover.  A hero praying is the central image, a sincere plea to the Almighty forms the design.  Can you imagine something like that showing up today?  The Big Two are way too worried about offending somebody to put so unambiguous a reference to religion in so prominent a spot, methinks.  I found it charming, though we’ll see inside that it isn’t quite as simple as it appears.

This strange tale begins with a group of teenagers, described throughout the issue as “teen-agers,” sneaking into a mist-shrouded cave, looking for our titular Scarlet Speedster.  When they find him, he is acting very strangely, holding a pigeon and speaking simplistically, almost…childishly.  In fact, he insist that his name is not “Flash,” it is Barry!  How bizarre!

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We eventually discover that the Sultan of Speed has lost his memory and reverted back to his eight year old self.  The kids seem to blame themselves, and they convince our hero to keep hiding in the cave when it becomes apparent that he can’t access his speed.  The ‘teen-agers’ decide that they have to protect the speedster until he recovers his senses, and we get a flashback that explains what happened.  It’s actually quite touching how they are willing to risk their own lives for confused champion.

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Barry, utterly exhausted from his last adventure (nice little nod to continuity), as running THROUGH SPACE will definitely take it out of you, slept late into the day.  Iris didn’t want to wake him, so she left a note telling him she’d be out of town for a few days on an assignment and reminded him that he had promised to visit the children in the Central City Orphanage.  I like the domestic check-in for the Flash, as well as the plot logic nod, recognizing that if Barry was missing for any length of time, Iris would have done something, had she been in town.

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Anyway, the Scarlet Speedster thrills the youth with his speed tricks, but a trio of ‘teen-agers’ are not so easily impressed.  Desperate to reach these kids, Barry reveals how painfully unhip he is.  He does offer to do all kinds of amazing things for them, like whisk them away to Paris or other distant lands, yet these jaded kids act like they get such offers every day.  Really kids?  A superhero offers to zip you to the City of Lights, and all you can do is yawn?  Man, kids these days!

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Well, they finally ask the Crimson Comet to take them to their old neighborhood, where he even builds them a brand new clubhouse in record time!  These kids don’t know how good they’ve got it!

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It is at this point that the plot takes its turn and we meet our antagonists.  Apparently a gang of thieves who had pulled off a big robbery had stashed their loot in that abandoned lot, and they jumped the hero when he accidentally uncovered it.  The Flash managed to get the kids to safety, but a ricochet grazed his head and scrambled his brains a bit, thus his current confusion.  It strikes me as a bit off that the Fastest Man Alive could be tagged by any bullet, even a ricochet, if it wasn’t the first round fired.  After he knew he was being shot at, he, fast as he is, should have been able to casually stroll to the other side of the city before they could so much as pull the trigger another time.  Yet, I suppose that’s a common problem with the portrayal of superspeed.  Such characters really tend to move at the speed of plot.

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Cut back to the present, where the vengeful villains have discovered our hero’s hideaway.  They toss in smoke grenades, and the befuddled Flash doesn’t know what to do, but while the kids prepare to protect him with their lives, Barry begins to do the one thing he can…pray!  He pleads with God to make him truly the Flash as the kids claim, and suddenly he whips into quicksilver motion!  He takes the thieves out in a blur of super-speed strikes, but the cave begins to collapse, and the Scarlet Speedster takes another crack on the head.  Just like that, he comes back to himself, remembering who he is in classic comic-book fashion.

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The adventure ends with the Fastest Man Alive bidding a fond farewell to his newfound young friends.  Exhausted all over again, he collapses into bed, where Iris discovers him when she returns home.

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This is a tale that I really didn’t care for when I read it the first time, but as with several of these Flash issues, I’ve got a lot more appreciation for it on this second reading.  It’s simple but charming, and I like the earnest, wholehearted plea to God.  That’s a nice moment, and it is left ambiguous whether his prayer is answered or whether he simply is able to will himself into super-speed.  That’s the right way to go, as anything else would be excessive.  This is definitely a study in contrast to modern comics, though, with a hero, even a brain-damaged one, making any type of openly religious statement.  In the end, there isn’t a whole lot to this issue, though I like several of its story beats.  Fortunately the child-like Flash doesn’t hang around long enough to be annoying, though that could easily have happened.  I like that the kids feel responsible for what happens and react so strongly in their efforts to protect Barry, though one wonders why they didn’t just tell the police, ‘hey, the Flash is hurt over at the cave!’  Ahh well, one way or the other, I’ll give this gentle-hearted tale 3.5 Minutemen.

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“Call It… Magic!”

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Hey, we get something different this month, a Zatanna backup!  I like this character in general, and though her concept is patently ridiculous, she still somehow works.  I think she works best in a setting like this, with a co-star, rather than holding down a story by herself.  Mystic types always need non-mystics to explain things to, after all.  I’ve read her original appearances from the Silver Age, where she guest-starred her way through the nascent DC Universe, and I’m wondering if this might be the start of a new set of such appearances.  Either way, I’m glad to see her, and although she and The Flash make for an odd pairing, this is an engaging little adventure.  It helps that Don Heck really does a wonderful job with the art chores for the backup, drawing a particularly fetching Zatanna.

This tale opens with one of Zatanna’s perennial magic shows, just as she is calling for a volunteer from the audience.  She picks out Barry Allen, who she of course knows is the Flash, just to tease her friend.  She promises to make him disappear with a kiss (look out Iris), yet when she she lays her lips on him, it is she who vanishes!  Where could she have gone?

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We jump across the barriers of time and space, watching as Zatanna is drawn through them as well, to discover that a sorcerer in a parallel dimension has summoned her to aid him in a desperate moment!  This wizard, named Namba, was attacked by by an old foe, a demon named Xarkon.  The nicely designed infernal foe takes control of Namba’s body, just as the Mistress of Magic arrives.

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She tries to use her magic to separate them, but the strain was too great.  It seems she cannot risk using her magic on the supernatural antagonist without hurting the magician she was summoned to help.  Meanwhile, Flash does not take her disappearance lightly.  He races home to his cosmic treadmill and homes in on the vibrations that he felt as the Mystic Maiden was sucked away from him.  I like the cosmic treadmill, as goofy of a concept as it is, as it just fits into the ‘world of wonder’ vibe that characterizes a good Flash story, just like a good Superman story.  Anyway, the Scarlet Speedster unfortunately arrives in hot water!

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The inhabitants of this strange world are now under the sway of Xarkon/Namba, and they attack the hero on sight.  The Fastest Man alive isn’t a pushover, though, and he quickly slips out of their grasp.  Then we get a nice little moment where he tries to communicate his peaceful intentions by creating a peace sign, which only scares his superstitious (probably justly so, seeing as they live in a world chock-full of magic) attackers.  The kicker is that Flash is a bit disappointed by this result, as “playing the Batman isn’t my role.”  That’s a cool little moment of characterization squeezed into the brief adventure.  The kind-natured, fair play minded Barry Allen doesn’t really enjoy scaring folks.  I like that.

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The story races (sorry!) to its conclusion as the Crimson Comet speeds in to challenge Xarkon, only to be waylaid by magic!  Fortunately, his presence provides the distraction, and inspiration, that Zatanna needs.  She breaks the spell on Namba…with a kiss!  It’s, honestly, a bit weird, and the justification weirder still.  Apparently Namba brought her to him because she was kissing Barry at the time, and a kiss is just what he needed…okay…some guys will go to any lengths to get a date!

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It’s a bit odd for a conclusion, and I can’t help but feel like it isn’t quite giving Zatanna the respect she deserves, especially as Namba “thanks” her with a kiss as well.  It seems vaguely sexist, but then again, it’s a comic book from 1970, so no big surprise there.  I like that we end with Barry helping the Mistress of Magic finish her trick with a little help from his own brand of super speed magic.

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In the end, this is a fun, though necessarily brief, backup.  I like seeing Zatanna, and even though Flash really doesn’t have any impact on the plot, I enjoyed his portion of the tale as well.  This was an unexpected surprise, and the art had a really nice quality to it that I can’t quite put my finger on.  I know that Zatanna is due to join the Justice League sometime soon, so it will be neat to see how that gets built up across the DCU.  It’s interesting how long it took her to become an established character.  She was introduced in 1964, and she had that set of stories, though I don’t think she showed up anywhere else for a while after that.  Here she is in 1970, but she won’t really “make it” until she joins the Justice League in 1973.  That’s a good nine years from her introduction to the point when she hit the big time, insofar as she ever has.  Well, I’ve wandered away from the story itself, which I will give an above average 3.5 Minutemen.

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Green Lantern/Green Arrow #77

Green_Lantern_Vol_2_77.jpgCover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Frank Giacoia
Editor: Julius Schwartz

Ohh man, I wasn’t looking forward to this one.  Here we continue Denny O’Neil’s death-march into social relevance.  After the last issue being even worse than I remembered, I was pretty unenthusiastic about this month, but it was better than the previous one in some ways, yet, it was worse in the logic of the actual plot.  We still have  moments of teeth-grindingly bad characterization from Hal and self-righteous speechifying from Ollie, but there is perhaps less of each.  The art is, of course, beautiful, and the central action set-piece is really striking, but as one should expect from this series, subtlety and nuance are endangered species, nowhere to be found.

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The issue opens with our hard-traveling heroes winding through the mountains of some Appalachian town with their sightseeing Guardian in the back of the truck.  For some reason, the juxtaposition of that image cracks me up.  The trio starts taking fire from a group of locals who think they are working for someone unfortunately named “Slapper” Soames.  The heroes leap into action and pretty quickly disable their attackers.  Here we have one of those rather odd moments that this series provides in spades, as the locals don’t recognize either of these world famous superheroes.  I know they’re from a backwater town, but come on!  We also discover that Green Lantern’s ring is somehow malfunctioning.  Uh-oh!

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So, what in the blue blazes is going on here, with folks from this small town shooting at random passers-by?  Well, the short version is that this is a ‘company town,’ a mining town pretty much owned by a man named Slapper, and he runs it like his own little kingdom.  Honestly, I might turn villainous too if my name was ‘Slapper.’  These miners are sick of being oppressed, and they decided to revolt after a local singer/songwriter who spoke out against conditions got arrested for no good reason.  So, armed revolt was the only option instead of, you know, going to the feds or…almost anything else?  Yep, seems so, because in O’Neil’s corner of the DC Universe each and every inhabitant has his melodrama knob turned up to 11.

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The Green Team begins to debate what to do about this situation after they hear the miners’ tale of woe, and here we get this issue’s obligatory terrible moment of characterization for Green Lantern.  The townsfolk tell our heroes that this Slapper fellow is acting like a tyrannical monster, and Hal is so incredibly rigid and immature in his thinking that he immediately takes the bad guy’s side, just because he’s in charge.  I get it, O’Neil, Hal respects authority; sometimes that’s bad.  Yes, I understand, but he also isn’t a child.  He can tell the difference between someone in a complex social situation like the fat-cat from the last issue and someone who is effectively running a concentration camp!  At the least he should be willing to investigate the situation since, you know, he is a superhero and all.  Instead, he’s apparently willing to ignore this entire mess, including the band of armed citizens hiding in the hills.

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In case this scene wasn’t annoying enough just on account of Green Lantern’s naivety, Green Arrow immediately responds by invoking Godwin’s Law, yet again.  That’s two, O’Neil.  Yep, Ollie’s response is, ‘hey, Hitler was in charge too!’  Interestingly enough, in case you missed the subtle moral dilemma here, the Archer’s ridiculous comparison actually proves prophetic.

The pair decides to aid the miners, who plan to assault the local robber-baron’s headquarters to free the singer (is this what happened to Jason Quest?), only to discover that this headquarters is less ‘small town jail’ and more ‘fugitive fortress from D-Day.’  That’s right, this small-town robber-baron is holed up in a blockhouse surrounded by concertina wire, watch towers, and a minefield!  Sure, why not.

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All of a sudden, Green Arrow, who has fought against all kinds of terrible odds as a honest-to-goodness superhero, completely chickens out, right after his impassioned speech about helping these yokels.  He says their attack is going to be suicide, and he refuses to participate…despite the fact that he and the man with the magic-freaking-wishing ring could easily take down the small-town tyrant without anyone losing their lives.  In fact, perhaps they could, you know, do this themselves, since this is pretty much right in their bailiwick as superheroes, rather than help an angry mob take on armed soldiers.  No, instead, our heroic archer sits back and watches as men armed with shotguns and pitchforks charge a machine gun.  It’s only after they start dropping like flies, you know, because they are charging a machine gun, that he decides to get off his green-clad backside and help.  He fires a smoke arrow to cover their advance, which would have been great before several men had been shot.  Sorry Ollie, but you just lost the moral high ground from which you’ve been pontificating.

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Better late than never…except for all those men who are dead…

Before the attack actually begins, we do a quick check in with our antagonist and watch the Emerald Crusader charge his ring.  His inner monologue is really quite painful to read, evincing the moral sophistication of a particularly dim and immature 12 year old.  He even goes so far as to say he would have backed our clearly villainous villain in earlier days, just because the guy is in a position of authority, legitimate or not.

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I sympathize; justice is hard to weigh, but here’s a hint: it’s a pretty safe bet that the guys murdering innocents aren’t on the side of the angels…

Green Lantern gets involved, and his ring makes swift work of the defenses, until it shorts out on him again, and then we get a moment that irritated me quite a bit, almost as much as the infinitely more asinine moments that surrounded it.  The Emerald Gladiator gives a big speech about how he’ll have to rely on his fists, and this is what he’s been missing, finding out what he’s really made of…as a man!

That’s all well and good, except that he’s done this in practically every. single. issue. of his series for the last several dozen issues.  I can’t count how many times the Lantern would make a big to-do about not using the most powerful weapon in the universe so he could punch someone with his fist and prove he’s “a man.”  I’m quite certain of this, because the trope quickly began to gall me as it buried what made the concept fun and interesting in the first place.  So, yeah Hal, you’ve gone a whole three days without punching someone in the face!  You clearly need to prove yourself.  If that’s the case, you’ve got some really deep emotional problems.  When did this turn into a grim, naval-gazing postmodern comic where all the “heroes” are mentally ill?  Although…that would explain Hal’s apparent lack of a moral compass…

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This page is like a movie star, beautiful, but stupid.

Ahh well, I understand what O’Neil was trying to do, tying that moment into the whole ill-executed crisis of conscience that will haunt the character throughout this series, but in context of the book that existed just a few months ago, it rings false.  The idea is developed further as Hal realizes that the reason his ring has been failing is that he’s lost confidence, concentration, and clarity of purpose.  I actually like that move; it’s just a shame that the story doesn’t earn it.  In addition, the Guardian tells him that his fellows have decided to reduce his power while he’s on “walkabout.”  Thanks guys.  At this point, Hal is struck by gas rockets, which leaves him wandering wounded and out of the fight.

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Because, despite his ability to juggle multiple super powered heroes in JLA, this is the best way that O’Neil can manage to provide any dramatic tension at the climax of this tale when he’s got this mismatched pair of characters. Even de-powered, Green Lantern really shouldn’t’ have any trouble with random mooks with guns, and if he was allowed to continue his attack for another moment, the issue would be over.  It feels a bit forced.

On the plus side, we get a nice, if slightly heavy-handed scene with the vacationing Guardian saving a little girl.  He begins to wonder if he has underestimated humanity as the child’s helplessness moves him.  There is something of value here, as the immortal being of pure intellect begins to interact with beings of emotion, to slowly be reminded of a truth that we imagine his race once knew, perhaps when the universe was young.  He begins to realize that there is more to weighing and judging matters of justice than logic can entirely supply.  It’s a promising vein of storytelling, and I’m curious to see how well it is mined.  If memory serves, I was not particularly impressed with the treatment this idea received on my first reading, but we shall see.

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In the meantime, Green Lantern’s absence leads to the surviving rebels getting captured, along with the Emerald Archer.  It’s revealed that, surprise surprise, the bad guy’s thugs are actually Nazi war criminals, somehow smuggled into this small-town to work as muscle for this random robber-baron.  Sure.  That’s important, just in case you hadn’t gotten yet that this bad guy is, in fact, really bad.  Anyway, it is also revealed that the head rabble-rouser was actually the villain’s plant.  Slapper wanted to force the miners into a confrontation so he could break their spirits and keep them enslaved.  That’s not a bad twist, but the guy didn’t really get enough characterization for it to matter.

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Lantern and Arrow eventually recover, and they make quick work of Slapper and his bully-boys.  Rather fittingly, despite his (belated) heroics, Ollie is entirely ineffectual and quite doomed until Hal shows up.  The story concludes with the Emerald Archer throwing a big bucket of cold water on whatever happiness this ending might have supplied, as our heroes continue their journey in search of America.  It looks like next issue will feature some more biker movie rejects.  Oh joy.

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Well, I suppose I let my feelings about this issue come through pretty clearly already, probably too clearly!  It frustrated me at several points, and the ham-handed characterization, as well as the irrational story beats, really got on my nerves.  I think that the bones of this tale could have actually been an excellent plot for someone like The Question, Batman, or the classic Vigilante (I think that would have made for a great story!).  Unfortunately, as with many of the adventures that will populate the coming pages of this book, this one is simply not well-suited for its protagonist pairing.  The lack of attention to recent continuity, when even the fairly Silver Age-ish Flash is doing a better job, is surprising as well.  Hal’s continued stupidity is probably the worst element of the tale, though I think the heroes’ inexplicable inaction before the miners’ assault is a pretty close second.  In addition, there is less here that is valuable, conceptually, than the first issue.  I think the days of the Pinkertons beating up striking miners were pretty far gone, even in 1970, though I suppose I could be wrong.  It doesn’t have quite the weight, despite the much higher stakes, as the previous issue.  All-in-all, I’ll give this annoying story 1.5 Minutemen.
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The Head-Blow Headcount:

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And we have ANOTHER addition to the wall of shame this month.  Neither Batgirl nor Robin are coming off all that well in their backups.

 

Well, that’s it for this week’s issues.  Thanks for joining me, and please visit again when we’ll have JLA and other other goodies to peruse!  Let me note that this coming week is the last week of the semester, so I’m likely to be insanely busy.  The following week I’ll be presenting at a conference out of state, so please don’t fret if it takes me a bit of time to get to the next installment.  I promise I won’t forget it.  Until then, keep the course, Into the Bronze Age!