Into the Bronze Age: October 1971 (Part 2)

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Welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  The world seems quite intent on falling to pieces around us, but let’s take a little time to look back at a simpler era and a better class of comic.  The big news in this edition is the finale of the (in)famous GL/GA drug story, but we’ve got a couple of other interesting books to keep that one company.

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 #405
  • Adventure Comics #411
  • Detective Comics #416
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #86
  • Mr. Miracle #4
  • Phantom Strange #15
  • Superboy #178
  • Superman #243
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #115
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #142
  • Teen Titans #35

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


Green Lantern/Green Arrow #86


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“They Say It’ll Kill Me… But They Won’t Say When”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz

That’s right, at long last (longer because of my travels and distractions!) we come to the end of the GA/GL drug two-parter.  It’s a famous issue, and we examined why with the first one.  As we saw, these issues certainly deserve their iconic status, whatever flaws they may have, and I was surprised by how much better the first issue was than I remembered.  I was in for a similar shock with this story, which is a much more even-keeled offering than its predecessor.  We don’t have as many heavy-handed and goofy moments here as we did in the last one.  Even the cover has a touch more dignity…which is not to say it isn’t a bit over the top as well.  In fact, it is wonderfully, ridiculously melodramatic, especially with its bold tag-line.  I love Green Lantern’s ‘curse the heavens’ pose as well.  Still, it is effective, striking, and memorable, especially with the faces of the various drug victims making up the background.

Unfortunately, the touching image of Green Arrow carrying the fallen form of his ward isn’t quite what greets us inside, where things start off with a bang…or more accurately, a backhand.  Ollie follows up Roy’s dramatic confession from last issue with a smack to the face and a heavy dose of vitriol.  It’s a really stunning moment, and O’Neil hits us with it right out of the gate.  To see a hero, in his right mind, treat a faltering friend like this in 1971 was practically unprecedented.  It serve’s O’Neil’s purpose, immediately casting the Emerald Archer’s merciless dismissal of his surrogate son’s suffering in the worst light.  Unfortunately, he overplays his hand once more, and the result is a further stain on Ollie’s already fairly blackened character, though it is consistent with the strong views he evinced in the last issue.  It’s just an ugly moment, not helped by the fact that Roy isn’t at his most sympathetic after his weak story last issue.

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Speedy mocks his mentor for his violent response, hitting him with a major guilt trip, and Arrow throws the kid out.  Then we get a moment which ALMOST addresses some of the flaws of the previous story, as the Battling Bowman ponders the situation and points out that, even though he hadn’t paid his ward much attention lately, the kid shouldn’t have needed much at his age, being in college and all.  Then O’Neil once again turns Ollie’s jerk dial to 11, as, from that, he concludes that he is completely “innocent of blame,” which is a self-righteousness and self-deception that is breathtaking, even for O’Neil’s Green Arrow.  Still, in all of this melodrama, there is some realism.

After concluding that he’s father of the year after all, the Emerald Archer sets out to take revenge on the pushers who he blames instead, heading to the airfield where he previously traced their supply to pick the investigation back up.  Meanwhile the two junkies who betrayed our heroes last issue come to Ollie’s place looking for Speedy and, not finding him, decide to shoot up their reward.  The drugs are pure, and one of them overdoses in what is, admittedly, a pretty good scene, though Adams perhaps overdoes the revelation a bit.

Later, we find Hal Jordan still running through previous events, unable to shake the feeling that there is something wrong with Speedy, and when he heads to GA’s to check on the kid, he finds the junkie and begins his own investigation.  Ollie, for his part, turns the table on a guard at the airport who gets the drop on him and is sent into a trap for his troubles.  It’s a nice scene, emphasizing both his anger and his skill, that he’s still dangerous, even with a busted wing.

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In the meantime, the Emerald Gladiator finds Speedy passed out in an alley and discovers the truth.  They have an almost decent conversation, though O’Neil overdoes the youth’s rhetoric a bit.  The generation gap stuff he spouts is a little problematic given the fact that most of the members of the previous generation Roy knows are freaking paragons of virtue.  Nonetheless, Hal’s measured response and kindness is a very pleasant departure from his stupidity and naivete from early in the run.  The ring-slinger takes the kid to Dinah’s house for sanctuary.

On the docks, where the Battling Bowman has followed the guard’s tip into trouble, he finds the thugs he tangled with at the airport last issue.  We get a nice fight scene, with Arrow still holding his own, but it ends with him getting knocked out.  When he comes to, we meet the man behind the drug operation, a wealthy socialite named Saloman, whose massive yacht, stuffed full of important people, is just leaving.  He tells his men to dump the antagonistic archer into the drink as soon as he’s away.

green lantern 086 018Adams gives us a fantastic image of Ollie’s plight, as he’s tossed overboard tied to an anchor, but the hero manages to grab an acetylene arrow and cut through the chains, making a desperate and dramatic escape.  Just then, the Lantern arrives and disposes of the thugs with some green gorillas.  As they pursue the head honcho, Speedy is busy going through withdrawals, aided by Black Canary’s quiet compassion in another good sequence, improved by a lack of dialog.

In the Caribbean, Saloman Hooper visits his pharmaceutical lab, where he picks up a suitcase worth of dope (which doesn’t seem like enough to justify the scope of his operation), only to be caught in the act by the Green Team.  While Ollie takes out the mogul’s minion with a one-armed arrow shot (shades of Dark Knight Returns!), Hal tosses his friend his ring in order to deal with Hooper with his own two hands.  This is actually a pretty believable, satisfying moment, unlike the book’s tendency to have the Lantern just decide that he needs to use his fists to feel like a man.  He’s angry, and he takes it out on this privileged punk, but he has enough self control to do it ‘unofficially,’ so to speak, like a cop putting aside his badge to do something that needs doing but which falls outside of the law.  Notably, Arrow calls him on this afterward.

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The issue ends with the funeral of the junkie who overdosed, where Hal and Ollie are joined by Dinah and a recovered Roy.  Unfortunately, the newly clean Titan is in no mood to mend fences, and he lashes out at his former guardian, giving a speech about how people like him, who lack compassion, are contributing to the crisis that so many young people face.  As Speedy walks away from the closest thing to family that he has, Green Arrow finds himself proud that the boy has become a man.

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That final scene isn’t as heavy-handed as I remember, though the melodrama still sets my teeth on edge a bit.  What’s worse, it leaves the situation between our hero and his surrogate son unresolved and embittered.  That’s a shame, and this story’s consequences will be deep and long-felt.  On the whole though, this is actually quite a good issue, sensitive and perceptive, but also an engaging and exciting adventure, with some real, if sometimes discordant, character development to go with it.  Once again, the message of compassion and understanding towards drug addicts is powerful, and the theme of empathy, learning to see things from someone else’s perspective, is effective and an interesting continuation of O’Neil’s better efforts in this run.  I think the story itself would have been a bit more effective if we had met our villain a bit earlier, as he’s mostly just a convenient and morally acceptable punching bag, an outlet for outrage and despair.  Still, O’Neil manages to make the guy loathsome in very little space.  Roy’s sudden and complete recovery is more than a little silly, in regards to the reality of addiction, but I suppose allowances can be made for the medium.

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Adams’ art continues to be beautiful and compelling, really capturing the emotion and the power of the moments he portrays.  And yet, even with that focus on drama, he manages to give us some fun and funny moments, like with Ollie’s expression during his impromptu dive.  Once again, we see Adams’ power with a more intimate, personal story.  I just love his portrayal of Ollie.  Characters of that scale are really what he excels at, which is part of why his Batman run is so legendary.  All in all, this is a very good story, only slightly damaged by O’Neil’s excesses and his lack of forethought.  It is an important comic, culturally, and its themes and subject were incredibly groundbreaking in its time.  Heck, we’re still fighting some of these battles, and a story that reminds us of the humanity of those who are suffering is still relevant, perhaps moreso these days than in recent years.  I’ll give this milestone issue 4.5 Minutemen out of 5.  It isn’t perfect, but it really is a good one.

P.S.: To mark just how important his comic book was, it carries a copy of a letter from the Mayor of New York, commending the creative team for their work and pointing out the seriousness of the drug crisis.

 


Mister Miracle #4


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“The Closing Jaws of Death!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta
Editor: Jack Kirby

“The Romance of Rip Carter”
Writers: Jack Kirby and Joe Simon
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Joe Simon

“Jean Lafitte: ‘Pirate or Patriot?'”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Jack Kirby

We’ve got another marvel-packed issue of Mister Miracle here, and, as always, I was excited to read it, especially after the pulse-pounding excitement of last issue’s Paranoid-packed pandemonium.  Sadly, this one doesn’t quite live up to the thrill of the first half, though it does introduce us to a wonderful character and an important part of Scott Free’s supporting cast.  It’s got another great cover, like most of this series, though one wonders how our escape-artist hero gets from being locked in a trunk to tortured in a medieval dungeon.  The answer is, of course, Kirby madness.  Nonetheless, we get another death-defying scene in this cover, memorable and exciting, beautifully rendered by the King.

Inside, we don’t start with the miraculous one plummeting to his death, still locked in that suitcase, but back at his home, where a fretting Oberon finds himself with an uninvited guest.  A fierce and outlandishly armored warrior woman appears behind him, jarring the loyal fellow from his reverie rather violently.  She declares herself a friend of Scott Free and demands to know where he is, mentioning they both come from Apokolips.  When Oberon mentions Doctor Bedlam, the newly introduced Barda suddenly teleports after her friend, fearing for his life.

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Now we pick up where we left off, and Scott’s situation looks hopeless, but Barda appears in a flash of light and catches his suitcase in a feat of strength, casually ripping it apart, ropes and all, only to reveal that it is…empty!  Wonderfully, we don’t see how the eminent escape artist pulled off this trick just yet; instead, we see him perched on a balcony several floors up, where he is quickly swarmed by more crazed civilians.  They think he is a vampire and attempt to stake him, but Mr. Miracle is too slick for them, and eludes his pursuers in several fun pages, even sliding down the banister of the staircase like Errol Flynn.

mrmiracle-12Suddenly, he’s attacked by refugees from a Robin Hood picture, as a bunch of guys in medieval costumes capture the hero.  They drag him into a dungeon, which turns out to be a set in the Galaxy Broadcasting TV studio, conveniently located on this level.  Inside is a director, even nuttier than most, who directs his men to kill the interloper so that his death-throes can make for good television!  Despite his struggles, Scott is forced into an iron maiden, and all seems lost as the lid slams shut.  The whole scene is fun but utterly crazy.  It reads like a Fantastic Four issue from the era where Stan and Jack weren’t talking to each other and Stan was thrown into narrative gymnastics in an attempt to explain the bizarre and unrelated images Jack created as his imagination ran away with him.  However, this time, there’s nobody to blame for the sudden shift and strange explanation other than Kirby himself.  I guess he just wanted to draw an iron maiden, so he shoe-horned the setting in, logic be darned!

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Back in our original office-building setting, Barda is getting attacked herself.  She casually rips a stone column out of the lobby and tosses it onto a half dozen men, almost certainly crushing them all to death.  Despite Mr. Miracle’s insistence that she stay out of this so that his deal with Bedlam could be honored, she is worried, so she pursues her friend, smashing her way through the overly-excited extras in the process in a really nice panel.  Yet, when she pries open the torture device, it is empty, and Scott casually strolls up and greets her.  Once again, we don’t find out how he accomplished this yet, establishing a running joke in the issue.

The two press on, confronting the disembodied energy-form of their antagonist in another nice sequence.  Bedlam promises to unleash the entire fury of the building’s trapped inhabitants upon the pair, but the next thing we see is them teleport back home, greeting a worried Oberon and catching up.  The dialog in this section is pretty rough and stilted, especially when Scott awkwardly declares: “Maximum is the word for you, Barda!  I could never think of you without deep and genuine fondness.”  I know that line just makes the ladies swoon!  From the start, Barda and Oberon are sparring verbally which, despite the dull dialog, is still fun.  We learn that Barda helped her friend escape, but she didn’t go with him, and now she’s an officer in Darkseid’s Female Furies, as everyone helpfully spouts exposition.

In a fun little scene, Scott takes the domestic roll, preparing dinner for Barda, which is really striking in a comic from 1971.  That’s honestly somewhat groundbreaking.  I doubt you’d ever see Superman making dinner for Lois Lane!  It also establishes the unusual dynamic between these two characters.  As he works, the heroic homemaker reluctantly explains to his assistant how he escaped from the various traps he faced.  We’re introduced to the ‘multi-cube’, Scott’s multi-purpose escape tool, which will become a common feature of his stories, if I remember correctly.  Mr. Miracle used it to cut his way out of the trunk as it twisted in mid-air, which works pretty well as an explanation.

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Unfortunately, the other stories aren’t nearly as good.  He used a fast-acting acid on the back of the iron maiden and literally just stepped through it, which apparently no-body noticed.  Even more problematic, he literally presses the ‘off’ button on all of the panicked people in the tower, putting them to sleep with his multi-cube and just waltzing out the front door.  Okay……why not just do that in the first place?  That’s a pretty massively unsatisfying conclusion, which is a shame, because this is otherwise a really fun issue.  The yarn ends with Barda showing up for dinner, having changed out of her armor into something a tad more revealing, leaving Oberon picking his jaw up off the floor.

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This is a solid adventure, despite its glaring deus ex machina, though it is primarily worthwhile for introducing Big Barda, who will eventually become Scott’s partner and wife, creating one of the great comic relationships and partnerships.  Mr. Miracle without Barda is like Nick without Nora, and she is, even from this first appearance, a unique and interesting character, further credit to Kirby’s boundless creativity.  In addition, I absolutely love Scott’s laughing, devil-may-care attitude throughout the story, the extra element of flair and style to his antics, which really capture his personality and are part of why I love the character.  I also quite like the running gag of not explaining his escapes right away, however flawed the execution is here.  Hopefully Kirby will make better use of it in the future.

Art-wise, we’re seeing some rough panels again with this issue, and I think Colletta’s impact is still being felt.  On the plus side, it seems we get a new inker next issue!  Despite some weaknesses, especially with inking and coloring, there are some wonderful panels and some fun, dynamic sequences throughout.  Ultimately, I’m quite torn on the score.  This issue’s flaws are significant, especially the dialog and weak conclusion, but it is also a lot of fun.  I suppose I’ll be generous and go with 3.5 Minutemen, as the comic is carried along by the interest of Barda and the fun of Scott.

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The Phantom Stranger #15


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“The Iron Messiah”
Writer: Len Wein
Penciler/Inker: Jim Aparo
Colourist/Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Joe Orlando
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

“I Battled for the Doom Stone”
Writer: Ed Herron
Penciler: Alex Toth
Inker: Alex Toth

“Satan’s Sextet”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Tony DeZuniga
Inker: Tony DeZuniga

“I Scout Earth’s Strangest Secrets”
Writer: Jack Miller
Penciler: Mort Meskin
Inker: Mort Meskin

What a wildly, wonderfully ridiculous cover image.  It’s gloriously strange and unusual and so very, very much something that could only happen in comics.  We’ve got an African witch doctor raising a zombie…but not just any zombie, a ROBO-zombie, complete with stainless-steel robo-zombie Afro, all while the shadow of the Phantom Stranger looms in the background.  It’s a thing of mad beauty, and I love it.  It’s beautifully illustrated by Adams, and it absolutely grabs your attention.  Could you honestly say you could see that image on the newsstand and NOT want to figure out what in the blue blazes is happening inside?  If so, I can only assume you’re an imagination-less wreck of a human being.

The story within doesn’t quite live up to the glory of the robo-zombie cover, but then, how could it?  It is an interesting and unusual one, though, and it begins, not with necromantic robotics (more’s the pity), but with a young African scientist named John Kweli, who is returning to his native country after having been educated in the West.  Suddenly, the train on which he’s traveling derails in a fiery crash, and the brilliant man would have died, if not for a Stranger pulling him from the wreckage.  Kewli awakens in the home of an old friend, Ororo (no, not that one).  She has treated his injuries, but she also bears bad news, his father, the tribal chief, has died.

John is prepared to come home and take over his responsibilities as chief, but he’s met with resentment for having gone away to be educated and built a life overseas.  His people feel like he abandoned them, including the lovely Ororo.  He also finds things greatly changed, with signs of unrest and oppression everywhere, barbed-wire and troops abound.  Ngumi, the village shaman also rejects John, promising that Chuma, the Warrior God, will free his people without the young man’s help.

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Ororo tells her friend about what has happened in his absence, that though their country has been liberated, they are now enslaved to the interests of big foreign business.  Driving away, John and Ororo encounter a lion and wreck their jeep.  The young scientist bravely prepares to sacrifice his life to lure the beast away, only to have the Phantom Stranger leap out of nowhere to tackle the feline fiend in magical fashion.

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The next day, Kewli goes to visit Amos Trent, the oil company’s man on the ground, but Trent isn’t interested in his pleas or his threats, so the young scientist decides to take matters into his own hands, so of course he builds a robot.  Some time later, a group of soldiers who are abusing the villagers are scattered, not by John, but by “Chuma”, the Iron Messiah, the android John has used his scientific skill to build in order to rally his people.  Over the next weeks, Chuma trains the villagers in the ways of war, and Ngumi, the shaman is revealed as an agent of the oil company.

Unfortunately, even iron will can be bent by such a burden, and Chuma begins to develop human feelings…and human frailties.  He declares his love for Ororo, and when she rejects him, saying she loves his creator instead, the Iron Messiah rejects his role as savior and leaves the people to the fate.  It is here that the Phantom Stranger intervenes once again, convincing the automaton that the only way to prove he is a being with a soul is to choose to help his people, to be better than jealousy and spite.  Back at the village, the government troops have attacked, and John has rallied the people, but they are losing without the power of Chuma to inspire and aid them.

Chuma charges into the battle, turning the tide, but his help comes at a terrible cost, as he shoots his creator in the back in a fit of jealousy, only to be witnessed and called out by Ororo.  The people reject their Iron Messiah and destroy him, thanks again to the Phantom Stranger, who leaves, pondering the enigma that is life and giving a speech about not “tampering in God’s domain.

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It’s…a little abrupt, really, and rather grim.  These 14 pages pack a whole lot in, and Len Wein has a very interesting story to tell…I’m just not entirely sure he’s finished telling it.  We get a robot who develops human feelings, including hatred who turns on his creator, a full on Frankenstein, but it is also sharing space with a story about the exploitation of Africa.  There’s just too much in too little space.  Chuma literally goes from his creation to his renunciation of his purpose in three pages, and John, who has until then been our protagonist, almost drops out of the story at that point.  The Stranger’s attempt at a moral just feels extremely tacked on, though it certainly has potential.  In the end, what exactly was the point of the Stranger’s intervention?  Was it to free the natives from both the outsiders and from their superstitions?  Whatever it is, it needs more development.  The whole thing is cramped, but it is also intriguing in a number of ways.

It is really noteworthy that we have a story set in ‘darkest Africa’ where the natives are not portrayed as ignorant savages, despite their belief and hope in Chuma.  Even more, the natives are not rescued by a white outsider.  Instead, the hero is a black man, and a black scientist at that, who succeeds, not through brute force, but through intelligence and cleverness.  That’s still very much a rarity in any media in 1971, much more so in comics.  We also have another example of the depredations of faceless corporations, as the oil company is pretty unambiguously evil here.  That is a sign of things to come, I’d wager.

The whole tale is beautifully illustrated by Aparo, who is handling all of the art chores.  He gives us some really striking panels and pages, and the art has a nice sense of drama, especially with Chuma.  I’ll give this rushed, slightly muddled story 3 Minutemen, as its strengths and weaknesses somewhat even out.

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“Satan’s Sextet”


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If you thought robo-messiahs were strange, you ain’t seen nothing yet.  Our Dr. Thirteen backup this month is in the style that I think works best, with the good Doctor doing his ghost-breaking on his own, without tangling with the Stranger.  Nonetheless, this particular outing isn’t exactly a home run.  It begins promisingly and strangely enough, with a group of seemingly sinister musicians leading a line of dancers into the sea, where they presumably drown, only for the band to emerge later, still playing.  Later that night, Dr. Thirteen happens to be driving along the beach when he sees a ragged, raving figure stumble out of the surf.

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The man claims to be the wealthy Willard Wentworth, who has a home on the beach.  He hired “Satan’s Sextet” for a house party because he was lonely, but they hypnotized all of the guests and led them to a watery grave.  Wentworth isn’t sure how he escaped, but he stumbled out of the water sometime later, shaken and terrified.  Thirteen agrees to investigate, but when they return to the beach house, they find it packed with people, a party in full swing.  The owner claims not to know any of them and accuses the band of murder.  Dr. Thirteen insists they stay and continue their investigation (Maybe he just wants to party!), and the pair are given love-beads.

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Suddenly, the band’s music becomes hypnotic, and they once more lead the party goers into the waves.  Thirteen is forced to follow, but his mind is working all the while, and he deduces that the beads are responsible, and he removes his and Wentworth’s necklaces.  Returning to the house, he overhears the convenient exposition by the bandleader, whose motives are…well, as prosaic as his methods are insane.

Apparently, he’s the millionaire’s disowned son, who got plastic surgery and planned this whole thing to kill his father so he could get his inheritance.  The beads had hallucinogens in them which were activated by the vibrations of the band’s music.  Ooookaaaay.  That’s pretty out there, even for comics.  Entertainingly, Thirteen overcomes the band with a massive mounted fish, and the police arrive to tidy things up.  Dr. Thirteen rides off into the sunrise, but not before laying some major guilt on Wentworth, pointing out that he must have really screwed up to raise a murderer!  Ouch!

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This is a fun concept that sadly doesn’t really deliver a good story.  The image of the Pied-Piper-esq murder is really neat and creepy, but the explanation and the motivations don’t live up to the cleverness of the gimmick.  I think this might have worked better as a Phantom Stranger story, with an actual supernatural explanation.  Nonetheless, it’s a decent enough read.  The sequence where Dr. Thirteen reasons his way to the solution to the mystery is quite solid, and it has a nice sense of suspense and stakes as he slowly drowns.  Tony DeZuninga’s art isn’t particularly impressive, but it does the job, though the inking is a bit overdone in some sections.  He tries to create a somewhat psychedelic feel to the band’s sections, and that is partially successful.  I’ll give the whole thing 2.5 Minutemen.

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And with those maudlin mysteries, this episode of Into the Bronze Age comes to a close!  It was a really interesting trio of books, flaws and all.  Thank you for joining me on this journey, and please come back soon for another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

Into the Bronze Age: September 1971 (Part 6)

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Welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  With this post we’ll finish of September of 1971.  Our last two books are really quite a pair!  We have an unusual issue of World’s Finest, but the real highlight (lowlight?) here is the raw star power of the greatest new superstar in the DC constellation….I’m speaking, of course, of Don Rickles.  That’s right, this month we get more of the inexplicable madness of Kirby’s use of the insult comic as a guest star in Jimmy Olsen.  Yay?  Well, see what sense you can make of what lies within!

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 #404
  • Adventure Comics #410
  • Batman #235
  • Brave and the Bold #97
  • Detective Comics #415
  • The Flash #209
  • Forever People #4
  • G.I. Combat #149
  • Justice League of America #92
  • New Gods #4
  • Superboy #177
  • Superman #242
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #113
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #141
  • World’s Finest #205

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


Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #141


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“Will the Real Don Rickles Panic?”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta

“The Guardian”
Writer: Joe Simon
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Joe Simon

Ohh man, for a moment there as I was looking from Lois Lane to my next book, a moment of blissful forgetfulness, I was excited for more of Jack Kirby’s wild and wonderful Jimmy Olsen adventures…and then I remembered that this one was the second half of the Don Rickles fiasco.  If you thought the last issue was strange, just wait; you ain’t seen nothing yet!  We start with an almost decent cover, in that classic, ‘heroes introducing a new character’ fashion that JLA and other books did from time to time.  Unfortunately, this one has Don Rickles on it, which is bad enough, but even worse, it is a black and white picture of the guy.  I’m never a fan of mixing real photos, especially black and white ones, with comic art in such a way.  It is just incredibly incongruent.  It looks like someone cut the center out of the cover and pasted Rickles’ mug into the hole.

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jimmyolsen141-04Despite the ugly cover, the first images that greet a reader inside are really quite impressive.  Kirby is experimenting with his photo-collages again, trying to create an otherworldly effect for Clark Kent’s journey into the strange alternate dimension in the booby-trapped capsule from the last issue.  The result is pretty striking and successfully cosmic.  After floating helplessly for a time, the mild mannered one is visited by Lightray, who eventually rescues him.  Yet, Clark doesn’t escape before he gets a brief glimpse of New Genesis and Apokolips in their great cosmic dance.  This brief interaction is really cool and, sadly, way more interesting than what takes the bulk of the comic’s focus.

jimmyolsen141-08While the reporter roves around in the Fourth World, his three friends, Jimmy Olsen, the Guardian, and…urg…”Goody” Rickles, find themselves deposited on the side of the road by Intergang, poisoned and facing a fiery fate.  The cloned hero sends the other two to seek help at the nearest hospital….ohh, wait, no.  That might make sense.  He sends them to the Daily Planet instead.  The Guardian himself sets off after the villain’s rolling headquarters to capture an antidote, and Kirby treats us to a few panels of his revived Golden Age hero leaping rooftop to rooftop in classic fashion.

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Meanwhile, the actual focus of the plot nears, as Morgan Edge prepares for the arrival of the real Don Rickles in his office.  When the comedian shows up, he’s mobbed by the staff in an admittedly funny scene, where they all beg to be insulted.  Unfortunately, I’d say that’s the last unambiguously funny bit in the book.  After the corporate shark chases off his underlings, he leads the star into his office, where his dialog becomes part comedic and part chaotic nonsense.

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While those two talk business (I guess?), Jimmy and Rickles’ inexplicable doppelganger are taking the subway, where Goody’s agitation causes the chemical in his system to react and start him smoking.  There’s some funny bits to this, but I can’t help but wish we were visiting one of the more interesting plotlines instead.  Fortunately, we quickly return to the Guardian, who smashes his way into “Ugly” Mannheim’s mobile base.  He lays into the gangster’s gunmen, but we cut away from his fight for….*sigh*….more Rickles.  Double the Rickles, in fact, as Goody arrives at the Planet, where he and the original engage in some “funny” hijinks about how they are identical.

As Goody and Jimmy approach critical mass, glowing and emitting flames, Morgan Edge calls for the bomb squad while silently cursing Mannheim.  Disaster is averted (although, other than Jimmy’s death, would it really have been that much of a loss?) by the timely arrival of the Guardian, who crashes through a window with the antidote in wonderfully dramatic fashion.  How did the cloned champion overcome all Mannheim and his criminal cohorts?  Well, we don’t get to see that.  Nope.  It’s way more important that we watch Don Rickles chew scenery.  As the comedian hams it up, Clark Kent returns via a boom tube and the bomb squad arrives and carries the frantic comedy star away.

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Sheesh.  There is a lot of really interesting material in this comic; the trouble is that Kirby ignores all of that to give us Don Rickles and Goody making faces at each other.  Clark’s cosmic journey is quite visually interesting, and there is a lot of potential to his visit to the dimension of the New Gods, especially given his fascination with a world full of super-beings in the Forever People title, but no sooner does one of them arrive than we cut away.  The same is true of the Guardian’s big return to action, where he swings through the city and single-handedly defeats the villain….almost all off panel.  This issue is just a lesson in missed opportunities, as the King has absolutely packed this book with fun concepts and characters, from the Newsboy Legion to the returned Golden Age hero, and yet he wastes his narrative space on Don Rickles of all people.  That being said, this issue isn’t as bad as I may have made it sound.  It’s still a relatively entertaining read, though one that will have you groaning in a few places or simply scratching your head.

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Kirby’s art, so beautifully powerful and dynamic in the last issue, is much more inconsistent in this one as well.  Don Rickles himself is all over the place, and the bombastic scope of the action is more restrained, which is really a shame.  There are a couple of wow moments, like Clark’s trip and the Guardian’s timely arrival, but those are sadly exceptions.  So, what do we make of this mad little issue?  I think I’ll give it 2 Minutemen.  It has some interesting moments, but they are quickly bypassed for lesser material.  The humor is better in this one, but while the plot is more coherent and less nonsensical than the previous issue, the overall effect is weaker.  This outing just lacks the whimsical fun of its predecessor.  Or perhaps I’m just already sick of Don Rickles

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P.S.: Notably, the letters column for this issue includes a missive from a thoughtful reader who points out many of the same criticism I had about the completely unaddressed moral issues inherent in the concept of the D.N.A. Project.  Even fans in 1971 could see the disturbing implications of such technologies and wanted more substance from their treatment.

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P.P.S.: This issue also features another text piece, this one on the return of the Newsboy Legion.  It’s hilarious to see Mark Evanier and Steve Sherman struggle to make Flippa Dippa sound cool.  As a bonus, the comic includes the first adventure of the Newsboy Legion and the Guardian from 1942, and it is a surprisingly fun and solid story that holds up well today.  Jack Kirby and Joe Simon made a good team.  I wish the new Guardian would get a bit of his progenitor’s personality, but then again, given that he was grown in a test-tube, I suppose it makes sense for him to be a bit bland.

 


World’s Finest #205


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“The Computer That Captured a Town!”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

“Secret of the Last Earth-Man!”
Writer: Gardner Fox
Penciler: Mike Sekowsky
Inker: Murphy Anderson

“The Duel of the Flying Knights!”
Writer: Joseph Samachson
Penciler: Frank Frazetta
Inker: Frank Frazetta

We’ve got a very unusual team-up tale in this month’s World’s Finest.  It’s really just a Superman story, with the Teen Titans serving as victims in need of rescue, but it features an interesting premise.  That premises is presaged by the book’s exciting cover, one I imagine I would have been plenty tempted to pick up.  I’m always a sucker for a giant monster, but Adams’ dragon, however fearsome in aspect, is a bit strangely proportioned and weird looking.  I think the perspective is just a bit wonky on it.  I do like how the Titans on the sidebar are all reacting to the scene in the center, though.  That’s a clever use of the character preview.

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Inside, we travel to the small town of Fairfield where we join three of those young heroes, Kid Flash, Speedy (apparently taking time out from his drug-addled drama in Green Lantern), and Mal Duncan.  The trio are on patrol when they see a man robbing, not a bank, not a jewelry store, nor any of the normal criminal fare, but a grocery store.  Despite the fact that the poor fellow is clearly desperate, stealing to feed his starving family, they beat him savagely and show now compassion.  Even more strangely, after the fight, Kid Flash and Speedy talk down to Mal, and say he better get back to his “side of town” and be with his “own kind,” and Mal meekly accepts such statements, speaking in exaggerated, minstrel show-style.

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World's Finest 205-06This is not the only sign that something is not right.  A scene change find Wonder Girl and Lilith acting like stereotypical 50s TV girls, sitting around, pining over boys and exercising no agency in their lives.  Yet, when Clark Kent shows up on TV to read the news, Lilith’s subconscious reaches out to him, and Mr. Mild Mannered has a vision of an old man discovering a strange machine in a cave and transmits the message “THE TEEN TITANS ARE TRAPPED IN FAIRFIELD!”  Startled, Clark actually says that on the air, which leads to confusion from the girls and anger from everyone’s favorite corporate shark, Morgan Edge.

After placating his boss, Clark changes into Superman and heads out to investigate, locating his young allies just as Kid Flash is once again talking down to Mal and using super racist rhetoric.  Yet, when the Man of Steel asks about their being trapped, the Fastest Boy Alive laughs the question off.  The Kryptonian gets the same response from Lilith, but as he wanders around town, he begins to notice the name “Richard Handley” plastered over everything and, combined with the images from his vision, he develops a theory and heads into the hills to test it out.

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Locating a cave, and having a flashback to what we just saw seven pages ago (for some reason), the Metropolis Marvel suddenly finds his way barred by a massive monster, a huge fire-breathing dragon!  While Dillin’s dragon looks pretty great in most of his panels, his first appearance has his proportions a little screwy, like the cover image.  Nonetheless, this starts a battle between the beast and our modern day St. George, only Superman can’t hurt the creature.  He reasons that it was created by whatever machine is affecting the town, and thus, it isn’t actually real and possesses no nervous system that he can injure or vital points he can attack.

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As their battle rages, the machine’s own violent energy seeps out into the town, causing the bullies to turn on the meek.  Back at the cave, the Action Ace attempts to slip past the monster, but he’s caught and hurled out of the cave.  Yet, his second attempt, moving at super speed, is successful, and after a nice looking fight sequence, he manages to reach and smash the mysterious machine at the heart of the town’s problems.  Just then, the dragon vanishes and the world returns to normal, with the girls giving the chauvinistic Kid Flash what-for (although, methinks if the super strong Wonder Girl slapped him, he might just be in a coma) and Mal shoving Speedy’s racism down his throat.  Fortunately, the boys come out of it, and they all make peace with one another.

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Then Superman kindly provides some answers, explaining that a man named Richard Handley had discovered the strange device in the cave, which he surmises was of alien origin, some time ago, and when he touched it, the machine absorbed his thoughts and then projected them across the town, controlling the minds of its inhabitants.  Notably, the Man of Steel opines that Handley was a “complicated man,” but when he describes the fellow, he doesn’t really seem all that complicated, instead, just a simple racist, chauvinistic, and provincial jerk.  The only non-negative quality Supes ascribes to the guy is that he loved his town, which is really only a neutral characteristic.

This was almost a really interesting coda to the story.  It seems like Skeates is aiming to soften the portrait of Handley in this scene, but the sketch he draws doesn’t accomplish that end.  If Handley had some redeeming qualities, it could have been a really nice illustration of the fact that people are not merely the sum of their beliefs and that someone can possess flawed principles and still be redeemable, which would be a moral that would still have a lot of resonance today, perhaps even moreso than in 1971.  As is, the guy just seems to be the worst.  Now, the theme is still somewhat served because we see the Titans, who are ostensibly good people, acting in biased and immoral fashion in this story, but the impact would have been stronger if the final impression of Handley had been more nuanced.

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Either way, this is an interesting and unusual little morality play of a story, and it has an engaging mystery in the conduct of the Titans and a fun core of action with Superman’s visually engaging fight with the dragon.  As usual, I’m thrilled to see Aquaman scribe extraordinaire, Steve Skeates, pen another yarn.  In classic Skeates fashion, the plot for this one has some unique qualities that separate it from the usual ‘heroes acting out of character’ and ‘mind controlled town’ tropes.  The alien device here isn’t co-opting the heroes or the town for any nefarious purpose, and they aren’t being overtly evil or trying to conquer the world.  They’re just being influence by biased and prejudicial values, a serious problem, but a much more subtle one than those usually found in such tales, which is interesting.  Skeates manages to deliver a simple but thoughtful story, showing his readers the ugliness of racism and sexism, and doing it in a creative way, by having admired characters enact it, while at the same time not getting stuck in his message.  As is often the case in this title, Dick Dillin’s art is great for the most part, except for just a few awkward panels.  Superman’s fight with the dragon is particularly nice.  It really seems like outside of the massive chore that JLA had to be, Dillin does routinely excellent work.  I’ll give this interesting and different tale 4 Minutemen.

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The Head-Blow Headcount:

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No new faces join the Wall this month, though Lois gets honorable mention for her own head-blow hiccup.  I wonder who our next guest will be!


Final Thoughts:


Quite a month!  We encountered books of every type, the serious, the silly, and the truly out there.  The stories varied wildly in quality, but even some of the rough ones were noteworthy, and we had several really good comics in this batch too.  One of my favorite events this month was the return of supervillains to the Flash for a strange but entertaining tale.  He’s got such a great rogue’s gallery, and it is exciting to see them back in action again.  One of my ever-astute readers pointed out that there may be something of a theme of de-supering the superheroes at DC in this era, and I wonder if the reticence in the use of supervillains that I’ve noted might be part of such a trend.  If so, it is an intensely foolish one.

On that topic, this month also saw the slightly anti-climactic end of O’Neil’s rather uneven run on Superman wherein he partially de-powered the Man of Steel and did away with some of his familiar trappings.  His stories tended to be rather more odd than impactful, but they clearly caused a stir in their day.  For whatever flaws they had, O’Neil did manage to inject some humanity and some drama into the character that were a welcome additions.  I’ll be interested to see how long his changes endure.

Another of O’Neil’s efforts is worth mentioning here, as we got a new glimpse of R’as Al Ghul and Talia, though the story wasn’t nearly as effective as previous outings.  I wonder how long it will take before these characters achieve the iconic status that marks them as important additions to the Batman mythos.

In terms of the comics reflecting their times, we have some really fascinating examples this month.  We saw Ralph Nader and his Nader’s Raiders given the DC Universe treatment, with fictionalized counterparts fighting the good fight for consumer protection in the superhero world.  One wonders how consumer standards would be different in a world where an alien monster might come rampaging through the city or mystical energy could sweep through your building on any given Tuesday, bringing appliances to life.  Well, whatever new safeguards might be necessary, it’s interesting to see the events at the end of the last decade with Ralph Nader’s consumer protection crusading being reflected in a Batman comic of all things.  I’d say this reflects, in a small and subtle way, a changing attitude towards businesses and authority.

History also enters into our comics in a very unexpected way, as the Holocaust is referenced in G.I. Combat.  It’s a great story, particularly notable for its Jewish protagonist and its subtle but honest reminder of the terrors of hatred and the horrible capacity of humanity for evil.  This was another Kanigher story, and he continues to turn out the occasional grand slam, producing some of the goofiest comics I’ve read, but also some of the unequivocally most successfully serious and thought-provoking issues.  This month, he turned out two.  Kanigher’s work on Lois Lane and the story about urban poverty and its racial dimensions is quite good as well, despite its heavy-handed sentimentality and simplicity.  It’s notable that both of these, and our World’s Finest issue all deal with racial bias and attempt to encourage readers to see people of different races as individual human beings.

It’s really interesting to see superhero comics tackling such a topic, which was still a very a live issue in 1971.  It was only this very year that the final efforts to desegregate schools in the South were begun and the Supreme Court put the nail in the coffin of the Jim Crow era (though far from the end of the Civil Rights struggle).  That makes the racial overtones of the Lois Lane story’s conflict really fascinating and timely.  The DC Universe is still a very monochrome place at this point, but here we have a positive character of color in the person of Dave Stevens, acting heroically and making a difference in his community.  We’ve come a long way from just a few years before where the inclusion of a single black face in a crowd in Green Lantern resulted in special attention and letters of appreciation for such an unusual inclusion.  In the other direction, we’re only a few months away from DC getting its first black hero as well!

On another note, we also got Robin’s hippy commune sojourn this month, another reflection of the wider world, as the Counter-Culture movement still hadn’t quite run out of gas.  Interestingly, Friedrich attempt to paint the hippies and their commune positively, presumably for the same kinds of reasons as Kanigher and his work on the inner city, perhaps hoping to show his readers the normalcy and humanity of people that many would regard as outsiders and Others.  It’s a mediocre story and more than a little odd, but its appearance is worth noticing.

Of course, this month also saw the finale to this year’s JLA/JSA crossover, which was a fine if uninspiring pair of issues.  While Friedrich’s work on the book hasn’t been bad, for the most part, I am looking forward to getting to the end of his run.  Sadly, I’ve got a while to wait.  His efforts at adding drama and conflict to the League have been rather odd and poorly handled so far, but he is trying to add more of an emotional core to their stories.

Finally, Kirby’s Fourth World sees a very uneven set of books this month, with a creepy and compelling Forever People issue which was much better than I remembered on one hand….and the madness of ‘Goody’ Rickles on the other, with the solid but unremarkable New Gods somewhere in between.  In the Forever People book, Kirby’s surprisingly sophisticated reflection on the power of self-delusion and the illusions that we treasure is really striking in light of the previous issue’s focus on the lies we tell ourselves to justify our actions.  I’m not entirely convinced it was a conscious development of themes, but Kirby was an instinctive storyteller, and I think it is entirely possible that he wove those threads together subconsciously, even as he leapt from idea to idea.

The Don Rickles disaster, on the other hand, was, despite some genuinely fun moments, mostly just a waste of the powerful imagination and creativity that had been, for better or worse, pouring out of the Jimmy Olsen title.  All of the interesting material is shoved into the background to make room for the “funny” bits.  It’s a shame given that this confused mess shows up right on the heels of the bizarre but promising story arc with the Wild Area and the D.N.A. project.  The end result is that at this point I can see some of the signs that led to the death of the line.  What would you have thought as a kid buying the Fourth World books, only to hit two issues like those?  Yikes!

Taken all together, this was an eventful and interesting month of comics, with a pretty high proportion of socially relevant stories, especially compared to where this little journey began.  I hope that y’all enjoyed this stop on our voyage and will join me soon for the beginning of the next month of classic comics as I travel further Into the Bronze Age!  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

Into the Bronze Age: September 1971 (Part 4)

 

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Solomon Grundy was born on a Monday, and Into the Bronze Age was born, fittingly enough, on a Saturday.  Not quite as catchy though, is it?  Nonetheless, here we are on a Thursday with a brand new set of Bronze Age comics to cover.  Welcome readers, to a new edition of Into the Bronze Age!  We’ve got the finale of our JLA/JSA crossover, another episode from Kirby’s Fourth World, and some Superboy shenanigans to peruse in this set, so let’s get to them!

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 #404
  • Adventure Comics #410
  • Batman #235
  • Brave and the Bold #97
  • Detective Comics #415
  • The Flash #209
  • Forever People #4
  • G.I. Combat #149
  • Justice League of America #92
  • New Gods #4
  • Superboy #177
  • Superman #242
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #113
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #141
  • World’s Finest #205

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


Justice League of America #92


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“Solomon Grundy – The One and Only”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

“The One-Man Justice League!”
Writer: Gardner Fox
Penciler: Carmine Infantino
Inker: Joe Giella

“Space-Enemy Number One!”
Writer: John Broome
Penciler: Carmine Infantino
Inker: Carmine Infantino
Editor: Julius Schwartz

This month brings us the second half of this year’s JLA/JSA crossover, which promises another entertaining tale.  Adams’ cover, though dramatic, is a bit lackluster, with Grundy being a bit oddly proportioned (which actually fits the art within, sadly), and the image being a bit plain, other than the forms of the fallen heroes.  Nonetheless, it proves accurate, as the comic opens with the League and Society forces on Earth-2 defeated and at Grundy’s none-too-abundant mercy!

Grundy is at his most monstrous and, unfortunately, so is Dillin’s art.  While the swamp creature’s size was inconsistent last issue, it gets rather ridiculous this month, with the monster changing size from panel to panel like his name is Hank Pym.  Grundy’s size switching aside, things look dire for our heroes until Superman comes to and slaps his foe’s ears back, freeing himself and distracting the zombie while the others escape.  Through brief check-ins with the aliens, we learn that the young extraterrestrial boy, A-Rym is beginning to fade, but his plight remains unknown to the Leaguers and Society members.  To make matters worse, none of those heroes efforts prove effective against Grundy.

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Meanwhile, in the Batcave, the two Robins are recovering, and the Earth-2 elder gives his young counterpart an alternate costume of his, and we’re introduced to the Neal Adams design for new Earth-1 Robin threads.  As a fun Easter Egg, Adams himself gets referenced by the Adult Wonder in the story.  The costume itself isn’t perfect, but it’s a vast improvement over the by now wildly inappropriate getup of the Pantsless Wonder.  It’s got a lot of potential, and upon later revisions, it will turn into a really wonderful costume.  For my money, the version that showed up in Batman: The Brave and the Bold is just about perfect and one of the all-time best Robin looks.  Interestingly, this costume is presented to the audience as a possible change for Dick in the main DCU, and the editor invites fans to write in if they want to see it.  Sadly, the response must have been underwhelming, and we got another decade of Robin’s bare legs.  That’s a crying shame.

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Anyway, after a brief check-in with Barry Allen on the Satellite, where his wife comes to care for him, which is sweet, we’re back to the gathered champions as they regroup.  Hal whips up a temporary power ring for his counterpart, and the pair of them peel off to tackle Grundy while the Hawks head out to capture the kid.  The Robins arrive and give the Winged Wonders a hand, recovering Alan Scott’s ring in the process, but it is the youngest member of the team that finally ends the struggle.  Teenage-Grayson connects to the scared young alien.  Realizing that the yellow-skinned being is no monster, he comforts the poor kid.  This scene also features a rather cool moment where the Teen Wonder uses his new costume’s ‘wings’ to glide in for a punch.  How did this not become his costume?

Meanwhile the two Emerald Crusaders clash with the zombie menace as he tears through the countryside, but individually their diluted rings are too weak.  Finally, combining their willpower, they knock Grundy out.  When the original Lantern recovers his ring, the green team seals the behemoth in his swamp.  The tale ends with teams on the two Earths managing to put the pieces together and reunite the pair of alien menaces, converting them to just a boy and his dog and saving both of their lives.  With their energy signals finally strong enough to detect, the boy’s brother is able to recover him, and the League and the Society have a friendly farewell.

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JusticeLeagueofAmerica_092_10This is a fun adventure, though it shrinks the scope of the story a bit from the previous issue.  It’s always enjoyable to watch these two sets of heroes go into action together, and everyone in the Earth-2 group gets something to do.  The action scenes are nicely balanced that way.  Yet, Friedrich doesn’t bring too much color or depth to their interactions, with the exception of the incongruous generational conflict from the previous issue.  He does bring that weird forced drama between the Hawks and the Robins to a conclusion, with everyone shaking hands and parting friends.  That element continues to feel rather pointless, and even the characters themselves seem to have little time for it.  Unfortunately, this yarn once again displays the rather sappy tendencies of “Touchy-Feely” Friedrich, but his excesses aren’t too noticeable in this outing.

This issue does have some real weaknesses, though, with the resolutions feeling far too simple and convenient.  You have the combined might of the Society and League beating on Grundy for most of two issues, and then the two Lanterns just zap him unconscious in two panels, which seems more than a little anti-climactic.  The wrap-up to the kid’s plot is also a bit quick, but if you’re living in the DC universe, I suppose you’d get used to drawing connections between strange events.  After all, they almost always end up being linked!  Sadly, one of this story’s biggest weaknesses is the art.  Dillin’s not at the top of his game, so the action is often stiff and unattractive, but he is juggling a pile of characters.  All-in-all, this is a fun if flawed conclusion to the first adventure.  I’ll give it 3 Minutemen.  The interesting premise of the first chapter doesn’t quite live up to its potential here.

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P.S.: One of the cooler facets of this issue is the teaser that it carries for the next, which shows Batman, Green Arrow, and my favorite, Aquaman, lined up in the crosshairs of an assassin!  Exciting!
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New Gods #4


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“O’Ryan Gang and the Deep Six”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Jack Kirby

“The Secret of the Buzzard’s Revenge!”
Writers: Joe Simon
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Jack Kirby
Editor: Whitney Elsworth

We’ve got another issue of the most epic of Fourth World titles this month, and it’s got another rather lackluster cover.  All of the action is crowded into the bottom half of the page by the cover copy, and the unbalanced image full of squashed, disproportionate figures, is not the King’s best work.  Sadly, that’s true of what lies within as well.

We start with something very promising, something perfect for the cosmic drama of Kirby’s Fourth World, as Metron takes a young New Genesis student on a space-and-time spanning trip in his Mobius Chair, visiting a primeval world, ruled by massive, monstrous beasts and equally monstrous men.  Kirby gives us a stunning double-paged splash as the enigmatic scholar of the New Gods philosophizes about the stages of human development, making an interesting observation that humankind is much more willing and capable of higher spiritual development once “their bellies are full.”  Once the pair return home, they are greeted by Highfather, who solemnly informs them that one of their number has fallen…on Earth!

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On that beleaguered world, Orion has discovered that fallen comrade, the aquatic Seagrin, whose body is being pulled out of the waters that were ever his home.  The warrior is moved by the death of his friend, and he calls on the latter’s Mother Box to return him to the Source, which she does in a fiery explosion full of Kirby crackle.  This is a striking scene, demonstrating both the King’s dedication to the elevated tone of his tale, with this death establishing the stakes and the seriousness of the conflict, while also showing his prodigious creativity, as he invents an interesting looking character just to kill him off without even a single panel of life.

As the holocaust abates, the Black Racer is seen tearing through the flames, having claimed the life of a god!  We get a very brief check-in with his supporting cast as the Racer returns to the paralyzed form of Willie Walker, and then we see that the drama of the moment has been observed by Darkseid, but none of this amounts to much.

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For however much he may be a poor fit for this story, I have to say, I rather like Victor Lanza’s unabashed meekness.

Meanwhile, Orion returns to his collection of human allies, who helpfully recap their names and motivations, which is necessary because there’s very little memorable about them.  The New Genesis warrior explains that Darkseid has imported a device to hide the Apokaliptian presence on Earth, which is shielding his minions.  Orion explains that the warlord has probably entrusted it to his human servants in Intergang, so he plans to use his own ‘gang’ of humans to find and destroy the machine.  Using Mother Box, the Dog of War tracks down an Intergang member, and he and Dave Lincoln shake the fellow down to discover the device’s location.

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Even when creating very conventional story beats, Kirby still introduces creative twists, like Lincoln and his pipe.

ng04-21At a remote spot on the edge of the city, lovely Claudia Shane decoys the guards by faking a stalled car, only to gas them with the help of New Genesis technology (Note the wonderfully distinctive yet visual consistency with which Kirby depicts even something as simple as a switch).  With the way clear, the rest of the gang moves in, and the timid businessman Victor Lanza confronts the local Intergang headman, “Country Boy,” pretending to be the consigliere of the “O’Ryan Mob.”  He bluffs the apparently not-too-bright boss into showing off the incredible hi-tech device that Darkseid entrusted to him, allowing Orion to destroy it.  Man, Darkseid is so going to kill that guy.

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ng04-25With the jammer destroyed, Mother Box is able to pinpoint one of Seagrin’s killers, the leader of the devious Deep Six, Darkseid’s aquatic shock troopers.  Setting out to challenge this fiend, known as Slig, the Dog of War heads into the sea, but his foe is ready for him.  Apparently the Six have the power to mutate sealife into vicious and useful forms, and Slig uses this ability to capture Orion in grasping tendrils of seaweed.  The warrior is able to escape by triggering the Astro-Force, but it is a desperate and dangerous maneuver that leaves him stunned.  And it is there that our tale ends!

This is a slightly disappointing issue, really.  It has a wonderfully imaginative cosmic opening, and the scene where Orion finds his fallen friend is somewhat touching and dramatic.  Yet, those promising beginnings feel a bit squandered in the story that follows.  The action as Orion’s crew chases down the Intergang stooges is entertaining enough, but it feels uneven and a bit anticlimactic after the more bombastic events of the previous issues.  His helpers remain rather underdeveloped and continue to feel mostly unnecessary.  The teenage kid literally contributes nothing to this issue.   It doesn’t help that the main antagonist, “Country Boy,” sadly lacks the interest and personality of the other Intergang representatives we’ve seen, like “Ugly” Manneim and Steel Hand.

Yet, unfortunately, the biggest weakness of this issue may be the art, or perhaps it is the inking.  Colletta over-inks several of these pages, drowning out detail and hurting the artwork.  Kirby’s pencils themselves are not at their best either, most notably with Orion.  There are some wonderfully cosmic, imaginative panels and pages, but their execution is often either a bit off or they are drowned in ink.  Nonetheless, there are still wonderful Kirby-esq moments, like the destruction of the Apokoliptian device and the opening sequence.  Despite those weaknesses, though, this is still a fun issue.  While it feels a bit more like it is marking time than really advancing the plot, the ride is enjoyable, and there are some interesting stops along the way.  I’ll give this uneven issue 3.5 Minutemen.  It’s still a bit above average.  It’s entertaining, but I imagine it’s one of the weaker issues of this title.  Speaking of future stories, I’m looking forward to Orion’s showdown with the Deep Six, which I remember being a really cool issue, one that took more advantage of the setting and scope of Kirby’s Fourth World.

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P.S.: Once again, this issue includes a backup of a classic Kirby tale from the Golden Age, this tiemas well as a few pinups of Fourth World characters.


Superboy #177


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“Our Traitor Super-Son!”
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Bob Brown
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Cover Artist: Dick Giordano

“Plague from the Past!”
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Bob Brown
Inker: Murphy Anderson

Ohh joy, another entry in the grand tradition of Super-Dickery.  This one certainly ticks the usual boxes, too, with an unnecessarily convoluted plot by our hero that has him acting like a complete jerk to those that love him most.  I’ve got to say, this is one trope of the Silver Age that I really don’t miss, as the payoffs were rarely clever enough to justify the logical acrobatics the writers required from their characters or their plots.  superboy v1 177 - 01The cover for this issue sets the stage well enough, even if its not a particularly compelling image (and the lines of its ‘ceiling’ don’t quite make sense).  For once, the promise of the cover is delivered within, though the tale begins in more traditional fashion.  Young Clark’s ‘Earthday’ celebration with his parents is interrupted by reports that the “Mothball Fleet” has suddenly up and set sail, seemingly on its own.  Has Skynet finally achieved sentience?

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superboy v1 177 - 02Not quite.  After a nice two-page spread in which Superboy is attacked by strange weapons mounted on the old ships, only to disable them with his freeze-breath, the Boy of Steel is confronted by a video message from the author of these strange events.  The prosaically named “Cerebron” (I wonder what his gimmick could be) declares that he was controlling the fleet and begins to make some threats before we cut away to the young hero towing the frozen fleet away.  Yet, the storytelling breaks down a bit here, and the fact that the conversation continued between panels isn’t really obvious, which actually caused me some confusion when I read this yarn.

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superboy v1 177 - 04Back in Smallville, Pa Kent is busy loading up produce for his general store (I always forget that he had this store in this era of the comics), when Superboy suddenly swoops in with the police hot on his heels.  The Boy of Might declares that Kent is selling tainted food, and the police haul him away.  Tests prove that the youth’s accusation is accurate, and the Kents are locked up.  I’ll give Dorfman partial credit.  While Ma Kent does the usual “how could he treat us like this!” bit, Pa is more level-headed and points out that there must be a good reason.  After all, they know their son wouldn’t hurt them intentionally.  Now, if only the payoff will justify his faith…

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Meanwhile, the Smallville Superstar quickly removes all traces of his heroic identity from the Kent household.  He’s not a moment too soon, as shortly after he leaves, Cerebron and a henchman arrive and investigate the premises.  Apparently, the cerebral supervillain can track the young hero through a special pair of glasses that detect a radiation trail he is leaving behind.  Finding Superboy’s trail but no trace of his connection to the house, Cerebron slinks away.

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While this is happening, Clark is staying with Lana’s family since his parents are in jail, and Lana is none too impressed with Superboy’s having put them there.  Slipping away, Clark gets into costume and moves his various hi-tech gadgets into a temporary base in a nearby asteroid, only to have it immediately discovered by Cerebron.  Instead of fighting his foe, Superboy detonates the base while he slips away with his stuff, apparently afraid it might be damaged in a fight.  That’s a pretty weak excuse to pad the story out for a few more pages, but Dorfman hurries past it.

superboy v1 177 - 09Over the next few days, the hero and villain play cat and mouse, with Cerebron finding his foe each time Superboy establishes a new base.  Apparently, every time the Boy of Steel tries to attack Cerebron, his ship vanishes…and somehow the kid with a zillion types of vision can’t find it.  Of course, all this time, Ma and Pa Kent are rotting in jail.  Finally, our young hero decides to set a trap for his persistent enemy, and he establishes a base in an wrecking yard, which he seals when Cerebron’s invisible ship enters.  Once again, why X-Ray vision can’t detect the ship is anyone’s guess.  Despite not being able to see the sinister Cerebron, Clark comes up with a clever solution.  He just uses his heat vision to turn the inside of the base into an oven and forces the villain to surrender or be cooked.

superboy v1 177 - 11 - CopyFinally, Superboy captures the clever criminal, unmasking him as Lex Luthor in the process.  We are also treated to an explanation of the story, with Lex reminding us that he hates Superboy because he made him bald.  What an utterly ludicrous motivation for a great villain!  The whole bald angle is a great extra element to the character, illustrating as it does Lex’s pride and vanity, but it should really be ancillary.  It’s just so hilariously absurd that it’s treated as the entire motivation in some of these stories.  Nonetheless, baldy’s plan wasn’t bad this time.  The fleet was a diversion, and its guns really just coated Superboy in radiation that his nemesis could track.  During the unclear intermission where Cerebron threatened the hero, we see that he claims to have figured out the Boy of Steel’s secret identity and promises to kill the Kents if he interferes again.  Thus, Clark faked their arrest in order to protect them…which is fine, but why in the world would he not tell them?  Apparently, the police knew all about it, so it seems that he can trust the police to keep the secret, but not his own parents.  That’s just sloppy writing, which is to be expected from Dorfman.

This is a decent enough story despite the goofiness of that device, if more than a little silly and convenient in some places.  I would say that Superboy’s cruel mind games against his parents justify as abuse, though.  The different scenes as the Boy of Steel travels from base to base are fun, if poorly justified, and his eventual method of capturing the crooks is pretty clever.  I’ll give this slightly below average tale 2.5 Minutemen, largely on the weakness of the poorly used Super Dickery.

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“Plague from the Past”


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The backup, on the other hand, is a solid and enjoyable little yarn, brief and rushed, but effective nonetheless.  It begins with Superboy smashing into an Egyptian tomb in which his friends Professor Lang and Lana have become trapped during a dig.  Once they’re freed, the Boy of Steel helps them examine the various artifacts of the site, including an hourglass dedicated to Anubis, God of the Dead, which can supposedly reverse time.  The youthful hero impetuously tries the device, but nothing happens. Interestingly (abd honestly rather surprisingly for 1971), the characters note that all of these cultural treasures must be turned over to the Egyptians.  Still, the thankful government is so pleased with Lang’s discovery that they reward him with a small sampling of his finds, including the hourglass.

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Arriving home in Smallville to a grand parade, that very artifact falls off the float, only to be caught by Superboy.  Later on, the Boy of Steel volunteers to open the sarcophagus in case there are any more booby traps, but when he does, a strange sparkling gas seeps out and immediately strikes his friends down while leaving him unaffected.  Blowing the gas out the window, he rushes them to the hospital, but the deadly plague spreads rapidly thanks to his unthinking reaction!  Shortly the whole town is stricken with the strange disease, even the hero’s own parents.  There’s a nice little moment where Superboy has a realization about what his invulnerability means in light of a world full of very vulnerable humans.

In desperation, the Smallville Superstar employs the hourglass of Anubis once more, noting that, despite the fact that he doesn’t worship the Egyptian deity, he has certainly come to believe in his power.  The artifact works, and the young Kryptonian is hurled backwards in time to the parade earlier that day.  The hourglass falls once more, and stunned by his temporal journey, he fails to catch it.  Nonetheless, Superboy is elated, and he carefully releases the death cloud from the sarcophagus into space this time, protecting his town.

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This simple adventure is fun and has a nice, if abbreviated, emotional beat for our young hero.  It is more a gesture towards deeper storytelling than anything significant in and of itself, but it is still a nice touch.  One of Superman’s greatest challenges is how to care for the fragile beings that surround him, even in settings like the Justice League.  I also like the twist with the magic hourglass, that it required belief, and the plague certainly provided impetus for that.  I’ll give this entertaining tale a solid 3 Minutemen.

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And that will do it for this batch of books!  We had three very different titles.  The next post will feature a pair of Super-books, including the finale of Denny O’Neil’s year-long Superman saga.  Come back soon and see how he wraps his storylines up.  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

Into the Bronze Age: September 1971 (Part 3)

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Hail and well-met Internet travelers, welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  We have three very different comics to cover in this batch, each intriguing and unusual in their own way.  I was surprised by each of these books, and I image they might have something unexpected in store for you, my dear readers, as well.  Shall we find out?

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 #404
  • Adventure Comics #410
  • Batman #235
  • Brave and the Bold #97
  • Detective Comics #415
  • The Flash #209
  • Forever People #4
  • G.I. Combat #149
  • Justice League of America #92
  • New Gods #4
  • Superboy #177
  • Superman #242
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #113
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #141
  • World’s Finest #205

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


The Flash #209


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“Beyond the Speed Of Life!”
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Dick Giordano
Cover Artist: Dick Giordano

“Coincidence Can Kill!”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Dick Giordano

“Elongated Man’s Undersea Trap”
Writer: John Broome
Penciler: Carmine Infantino
Inker: Joe Giella
Letterer: Gaspar Saladino
Editor: Julius Schwartz

Well folks, here it is at last, the return of the supervillains!  I have been eagerly awaiting this issue of The Flash, and I am sick to death of his unequal contests with the Generic Gang!  I’ve been watching this cover, with its promise of actual, honest-to-goodness supervillains, coming closer in my list, and hope for it has helped me endure the doldrums that preceded it.  It is a pretty nice image too, even outside of my desperate desires for some dynamite foes.  The cover copy is a bit much, but the central composition is nicely dramatic.  I’m pleased to say, I was not disappointed by my read either, despite the fact that the two cover-cons don’t play as much of a role as you might imagine.

The tale begins in media res, with the Scarlet Speedster already defeated!  What’s this?  Captain Boomerang and the Trickster arrive to admire their handiwork after triggering a cunning trap, all set to finish their fast foe for good.  Except, they find him already…dead!?  In a lovely and wonderfully wacky moment, the two villains stand in silence, honoring their expired enemy.

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I love how sad Boomer looks.

Then we flash back to that morning, when Barry Allen was leaving home, late for work as usual (I love that perennial bit of characterization).  Just as he’s kissing Iris goodbye, the Crimson Comet gets a mental image of Captain Boomerang and the Trickster hiding out on the edge of town, and, despite knowing it is likely to be a trap, rushes off to check it out.  Meanwhile, in their hidden hideout, the dangerous duo get their own mental message, which shows them Flash’s rapid approach.  They suddenly discover a glowing rope and, thanks to psychic guidance, are able to time their attack perfectly, tripping the speedster up and sending him skidding across the desert sands.

Yet, his tumbling fall is more than meets the eye, as the Fastest Man Alive finds himself being paced by a speed-blurred shape, which begins communicating with him as it drags him through a dimensional barrier into a bizarre and alien world.  The new dimension, which his speedy escort describes as “beyond the speed of life,” is really nicely rendered by Novick, looking fairly unique and unusual.  His guide, who calls himself ‘The Sentinel,’ explains to the speedster that this is the dimension beyond the speed of all living things, and that normal physical laws don’t apply there.  Racing along together, the Sentinel tells his kidnapped companion that he has brought him to this strange realm for a purpose.

Back on Earth, the two villains begin to bicker as the Trickster wants to unmask the fallen hero, while Boomer says they should have respect for the dead, which is another fun little moment.  Just then, their mysterious benefactor arrives, and we discover the real villain of the piece, Gorilla Grodd!  This is pretty unsurprising considering that there were mental powers in play, but it’s always good to see Grodd.  The super-simian is full of contempt for these ‘lesser beings,’ and explains that he used them as pawns in case the plan failed, which they don’t take too well.  Yet, they prove no match for the mighty gorilla, who subdues them with ease.

flash209-13In the speed dimension, the Sentinel tells Flash that the strange place is being attacked by a being he calls the Devourer, which is trying to tear its way into the hero’s universe.  The being takes a number of random forms, shifting rapidly, including a giant rat, ram, blowtorch, and T-Rex.  All of the Scarlet Speedster’s attacks are ineffective, but he finally reasons that, since the normal physical laws don’t apply in this bizarre place, he should try something completely random that would be ineffective in his home dimension.

 

Thus, he runs through a host of random movements at super speed before discovering that bouncing up and down hurts the monster.  Ooookay?  The Devourer takes the form of Iris as it is destroyed, which makes it hard for Barry to keep up his ‘attack,’ but he finally annihilates it and asks the Sentinel to bring him home.

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Yet, back on Earth, the Fastest Man Alive makes a startling discovery.  He has just become the fastest ghost not alive!  The Sentinel had to pull him out of his body for the trip.  Desperate to live again, the hero begs the other being to put him back, despite his protestations that it may be impossible.  While Grodd prepares to force his two former pawns to kill each other (!), the Sentinel races past Flash’s lifeless form.  Suddenly, the Scarlet Speedster lives again, and by rapidly vibrating his body, which is held by the super-gorilla, he sinks the mad monkey into the earth, before scrambling his mighty mind with some super-speed blows.  The other two villains are so stunned that they surrender, and the day is saved!

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This is a fun story, with some delightful little bits of characterization, like with Boomerang’s insistence on respecting the dead and Grodd’s superior attitude.  It’s great to see some supervillains again, even if we don’t really get to see them in action.  Their mere presence makes the Flash’s world seem more interesting and colorful.  It’s a shame this tale didn’t get more room to breathe, as I’d have loved to see an extended fight between the three villains.  I think that could have been a lot of fun.  As is, the villain plot feels a bit short-changed by the dimension-hoping dangers.

The Devourer, for its part, is also a tad disappointing because the Flash’s method of defeating it is just silly.  If the dimension doesn’t obey the normal laws of physics, I can think of several more interesting ways in which that could have been used.  Ultimately, that’s a good concept, but the payoff speaks of a lack of imagination.  On the art front, Novick and Giordano make a really nice team, and they do a great work with both halves of this yarn.  I particularly like Novick’s portrayal of Captain Boomerang, so scrawny and distinctive looking.  So, all-in-all, this was an entertain read, and I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen, largely on the strength of the Rogues that make an appearance.

Grodd is finally act a bit like the sinisterly superior super-simian that he would one day become, which is nice to see.  He’s one of my favorite Flash villains, being such a wonderfully, whimsically crazy concept.  As with most things, I feel like the Timmverse Justice League show captured him best, with his poised, cultured, and dignified portrayal being far better than the brutish and one-note version of the New 52.

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“Coincidence Can Kill”


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We’ve got another Kid Flash backup this month, penned by one of my favorite writers, Steve Skeates, which is a pleasant surprise.  The tale itself feels super brief, but it is fairly original.  It begins with our young hero, who is dressed in the finest of 70s threads.  Just look at that fashion disaster!  Well, when the groovy youth happens upon a bank robbery when coming home from school (isn’t he supposed to be in college by this point?), he is thrilled for the chance to get into action.  flash209-21In a fun bit of detail, he notes that when he started out he expected to be stumbling over heists all the time, but unlike in “comic mags,” such things have proven rare.  Yet, when he goes to eject his costume from his ring, a strange gas emerges instead, knocking him out!

Shortly thereafter, the young hero awakens, only to see the thieves being picked up by the law.  This leaves Wally without criminals to catch, but he still has a mystery to solve.  What happened to his ring!  He reasons that the accessory must have been switched, and he remembers that he and his lab partner, “Genius” George, had washed their hands at the same time, each taking off their rings.

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Rushing to George’s house, Kid Flash discovers that the boy was picked up shortly before, supposedly heading to a meeting at school.  Realizing that there is no meeting that night, Kid Flash heads out in pursuit of the car.  He manages to trail it to a rough part of the town.  Meanwhile, “Genius” George has gotten himself in way over his head, volunteering to join a criminal gang and use his science skills to make gadgets and weapons for them, all as a blind to get him into their presence so he can capture them.  This was the purpose of the gas-filled gadget, but unfortunately he’s wearing the wrong ring!

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When he presses the catch on the jewelry piece, out pops the Kid Flash costume.  Fortunately, Kid Flash himself is on the scene, and he takes out the thugs in no time flat.  With the gang K.O.ed, the Teen Titan and George compare notes, and lucky for the Fastest Boy Alive, George reasons that his ring must have leaked and, when the hero saw him in trouble, he threw out the costume to distract the criminals.  The story ends with Wally thinking that, hopefully, this experience will teach George to stay away from “dangerous stuff like gas…and criminals!”

This is a breezy but fun little tale.  The idea of a high school science buff taking it upon himself to capture a criminal gang is crazy…but then again, so are high school kids!  I never tried anything quite that wild, but in a world full superheroes and daring do, I suppose it is a little less farfetched that a starry-eyed youth might try to emulate his idols.  The whole story is built on coincidence, but it moves along with such energy, that you can just about forgive it.  I’ll give this brief backup a solid 3 Minutemen.  Oddly, Kid Flash himself is miscolored throughout the strip, being depicted with yellow legs.

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The Forever People #4


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“The Kingdom of the Damned!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Jack Kirby

“The Amazing Dreams of Gentleman Jack”
Writer: Joe Simon
Pencilers: Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Inkers: Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Letterer: Howard Ferguson
Editor: Whitney Ellsworth

Welcome to more 4th World Madness!  Our new issue of Forever People is really a striking one.  It’s got a fair cover, with the heroes overcome, but the strange depiction of Desaad’s minions, with their weird, glowing colors, is an odd choice.  The desperation that the image portrays is fitting, however, as the tale within is one of hopelessness and despair for our young protagonists.  We begin with a panicked sea of humanity, surging against the glass wall of a bizarre prison and crying for help, only for the next image, a lovely two-page spread, to show us that their pitiful pleas have been converted into joyous laughter, which fills the air of a colorful, Disney World-esq amusement park.  Of course, it’s an amusement park as designed by Jack Kirby (shades of Sci-fi Land!), so you might expect it to be even more amazing than the Magic Kingdom, and just a bit creepier too.  Actually, the design is positively pedestrian for the King, but it does still feature flying cars and other sci-fi staples.

One of those airborne autos arrives, bearing a very special passenger.  Darkseid disembarks within the bowels of this park, Happyland, which serves as a wonderfully ironic front for Desaad’s cruel experiments.  The dark god has arrived at his underling’s request to observe the fates of the Forever People, who have been brought here following their capture by that hypnotic huckster, Glorious Godfrey.

We check in with the young quintet as they test their prison walls.  They discover that Mother Box has been stolen from them, though Vykin detects it nearby.  When their guards arrive, poor Serifan tries to resist them with one of his ‘cosmic cartridges,’ only to be felled, followed shortly by the rest of the team.  Meanwhile, Desaad is busy with Mother Box herself (itself?), as he tries to destroy the incredible device.  As the marvelous machine is tortured, it suddenly vanishes in a flash of light, and despite the fact that Desaad takes credit for driving it to commit suicide, Darkseid reminds his malicious minion that they don’t really know what happens to the devices  in such circumstances.

In a rather funny scene, Darkseid walks to his ship out in the open, passing through the park-goers and scaring small children.  His grotesque features are split by a grin as he chases off one pair, when a child realizes he is real but her grandfather insists he’s just a man in a costume.  It’s a weird little episode, and while it is fun, it feels a little incongruous with the gravitas of the character.

forever people 004 16Then Kirby’s inimitable imagination is on strange and unsettling display as he takes us on a tour of the torments Desaad has devised for our young heroes.  First, Mark Moonrider is locked in another glass prison, this one rendering him as an animated skeleton to the people passing below.  Big Bear, for his part, is in a shooting gallery where the park-goers see him as a robotic bear, and their each shot creates a cacophony of sonic chaos within his cell.  Beautiful Dreamer has a more sedate torture in store for her, as the uber-creepy master masochist paralyzes her and inserts her into a glass coffin, where the illusion works in the opposite way of the others, rendering the harmless civilians who regard her as hideous monsters waiting to devour the helpless damsel.

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Finally, Seirfan and Vykin have a dual doom.  Vykin is trapped on the rollercoaster track, with his head thrust between the ties, while Serifan is strapped to a pedal which, when pushed, will lower his friend out of the path of the oncoming coasters.  He must be ever alert, or his helpless friend will meet a grisly fate.  Things certainly seem grim for the five from New Genesis, but the last page reveals that all is not lost, as the missing Mother Box rematerializes somewhere else, where a massive Asian figure picks it up and senses its plea for help.

I remember not being all that impressed by this issue on my first reading, but I really found it intriguing this time.  The torments Kirby devises for his five protagonists are really creative and unique.  They display the King’s limitless imagination, but more importantly, they all turn upon issues of perception and illusion, both of the possibility of escape and in more general (and more interesting) terms.  The victims are all constantly fed false impressions, and with them, false hope, which is a crushing blow for the soul, but these illusions also afflict the innocent inhabitants of the park.  On my first reading, I didn’t appreciate the cleverness or intricacy of what Kirby is doing here, playing with themes of perception, as well as, building on the themes of the last issue, like the willingness of the crowd to accept comforting lies rather than face the reality of the world or their own responsibilities for it.  While the scene with Darkseid and the park-goers may feel a tad out of character, it helps to cement the thematic thrust of the issue and the result is a surprisingly thoughtful tale.  I’m really quite impressed.

This issue doesn’t suffer from the unevenness of the previous offering, and though it still has some awkward dialog, notably from the Forever People themselves, that problem isn’t as noticeable either.  There isn’t a lot that really happens here, but it is interesting that Kirby indulges in an entire issue where the villains are ascendant.  There’s no triumphant escape, no heroic defiance, nothing but defeat and despair.  That’s very unusual, and it is effective at establishing the vicious evil of Desaad and the power of the Apokoliptian forces.  The art is also impressive, possessing Kirby’s usual excellence, but he really outdoes himself on Desaad’s cruel, leering visage in several spots, as well as his boisterous portrayal of Happyland.  I’ll give this surprisingly sophisticated comic 4 Minutemen.  It’s worth reflecting on what illusions might be distorting our own view of the world.

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P.S.: Notably, this issue came during the infamous price increase of the early 70s, when DC books went from .15¢ to .25¢, many of them adding reprints to make it up to the readers.  Kirby’s book, for its part, added pin-ups of the Forever People which are fairly nice, as well as a Golden Age Sandman story penned by none other than Simon and Kirby, which is pretty cool.


G.I. Combat #149


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“Leave the Fighting to Us”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Russ Heath
Inker: Russ Heath
Editor: Joe Kubert

“Last Man – Last Shot”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Joe Kubert
Inker: Joe Kubert
Editor: Robert Kanigher

Our issue of G.I. Combat this month is a very unusual one, featuring a subject not often tackled in Silver or Bronze Age comics, even war comics.  The cover gives no real hint of the type of tale waiting within, though it is a fair ‘imminent peril’ image.  The composition feels a bit unbalanced, though, perhaps because the tank is shoved out of center stage by the promotional box about Sgt. Rock.  And, of course, it features the notorious yellow skies of classic comic covers.

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The yarn with in starts with a bang, as Jeb and his crew discover a pair of G.I.s racing across a bridge in a jeep and falling prey to a Nazi fighter.  The Haunted Tank leaps into action, racing against the death-dealing German warbird, and they finally manage to knock it out of the sky in a pretty nice sequence.  Once they crash through the plane’s flaming wreckage (!), they discover that saved the jeep’s driver, but he is busy performing last rites for his passenger, and doing so in the Jewish fashion.  This type of portrayal of other cultures and faiths was still pretty rare at the time, so this is a notable moment.

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The driver, Sgt. Saul Levy, is a new tank commander for their unit, and he as saying the Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead over his fallen friend.  Once they all reach the camp, Levy doesn’t really fit in, and he’s picked on by some of the other men.  Fortunately, there are those who stick up for him.

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When they go out on a mission the next day, they encounter a striking sight, and one rarely seen before in comics: a concentration camp victim, a living scarecrow and temporary survivor of Hitler’s “Final Solution.”  That’s right, this comic actually portrays, in a Comic Code kind of way, the Holocaust, which is impressive and praiseworthy.  Unfortunately, the escaped prisoner has used all of his strength, and after he tells the tankers about a concentration camp nearby, he breaths his last.

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When they approach the camp, the two tanks are targeted by a pair of turrets, and Sgt. Levy makes a mad dash across the field to spike both guns.  It’s a dramatic sequence, and the heroic deed earns the young commander the respect of his crew.  They push their assault and destroy the guard towers protecting the camp, liberating the prisoners.  The pitiful figures, starved and barely able to walk, shuffle out to meet the tankers, and among them Sgt. Levy finds his own uncle, David.

Just then, another Nazi fighter drops out of thy sky, guns blazing.  Levy saves his uncle and knocks out the plane, but not before he is mortally wounded.  The book ends with the old man tearfully pronouncing the Kaddish over his body, honoring him in the tradition of his faith.  Meanwhile, Jeb prays for his fallen comrade in his own way.

This is a brief and bittersweet little tale, but it is remarkable for exposing, however slightly, the horrors of the Holocaust and focusing specifically on its impact on and importance for the Jewish community.  It’s really interesting and fitting that our perspective character for this story, the one who saves the day and liberates the camp, is himself Jewish.  For him, the camps are not some alien concept, a horror softened by distance and because it is happening to strangers.  In fact, he finds a family member among the victims within the compound, making the tragedy personal as well as profound.  Kanigher is employing a surprisingly light touch with Levy and with the subject matter in general, and the result is a striking and readable story.  It both introduces readers briefly to the nature of the Holocaust and engages with antisemitism, demonstrating the dangers of such ignorance and the heroism of the people it targets.  The only real flaw is that the Haunted Tank is pretty much a background figure in its own story, but that is acceptable every once in a while.  Russ Heath’s art is pitch-perfect, as usual, capturing both the ‘blood and thunder’ action as well as the quiet, emotional moments, like the heart-rending image of the concentration victim’s death.  I’ll give the story overall 4.5 Minutemen.

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And with that unusual tale, we wrap up this batch of books.  These are a surprisingly worthwhile set of comics, each more than meets the eye in different ways.  I hope you enjoyed my commentary and that you will join me again soon, for another stop in our journey Into the Bronze Age!  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

Into the Bronze Age: August 1971 (Part 4)

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“Ping! Ping! Ping!”  Mother Box says, “Welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!”  Clearly New Genesis technology is so advanced as to have developed excellent taste.  As proof, I’ve got a smattering of classic comics for you, including the next chapter in Jack Kirby’s epic Fourth World Saga!  It’s an honestly intriguing trio of books on the docket in this bunch, so let’s jump right 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 #403
  • Adventure Comics #409
  • Batman #233 (Reprints)
  • Batman #234
  • Detective Comics #414
  • The Flash #208
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85 (the infamous drug issue)
  • Justice League of America #91
  • Mr. Miracle #3
  • The Phantom Stranger #14
  • Superman #241
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #112
  • Teen Titans #34
  • World’s Finest #204

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


Mr. Miracle #3


Mister_Miracle_Vol_1_3

“The Paranoid Pill!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta

We start off on a great foot, with this Kirby classic where the King is starting to hit his stride with his unusual superhero.  Ironically, this is probably one of his Mr. Miracle run’s weakest covers, while also being one of his more memorable stories.  The crowd in the image looks suitably maddened, but the perspective is a bit wonky, and the coloring job lets it down, with the mixture of single color and full color characters being a bit distracting.  And why in the world is our hero completely white?  The composition feels unbalanced and crowded by the title, though it effectively captures the feel of the issue.

And the issue is definitely a good one, though it suffers from some of the Kirby-as-writer excesses we’ve been noting.  Having learned at the Stan Lee School of Exposition, where the only thing better than text is yet more text, the King overwrites throughout, starting with the first scene.  A number of silver androids, called “animates,” swarm through a Boom Tube into an empty room, where they set up an office, and the caption declares that “Sometimes, there are things that take place in empty rooms that defy belief, and so go unnoticed!”  Think about that for a moment, as written.  I don’t think that something taking place in an empty room is escaping notice because it “defies belief.”  It might just be because the room is…you know…empty.

mr miracle 03-01 the paranoid pill

Nonetheless, we discover that these silver creatures are artificial constructs, all animated by a single mind, a creature that was once a man but has now become a being of pure energy.  This being is Dr. Bedlam, who slowly takes possession of one of his animates, molding it into the shape he wore in life.  Despite the overwritten dialog, this is a pretty cool scene, and there is a nice air of menace to the whole tableau.  What’s more, while this type of sci-fi concept is pretty common in the genre today, popping up in modern shows like Babylon 5 and the like, it strikes me that it must have been much more groundbreaking in 1971.  I can only think of one example in comics that predates it (though there may be more), and that is NoMan from the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, and I can’t think of any well-known sci-fi novels before this point that explored the idea of beings of pure energy inhabiting temporary bodies.  The use of actual brain transplants and such parallels are much more common and date back to the beginning of the century, as early as the John Carter novels (1927).  Yet, this seems pretty original.  Once again, Kirby is just casually tossing out fascinating and innovative ideas that could easily support much larger works.

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The unique Dr. Bedlam, after taking possession of his body, dismisses the rest of his animates and, with super overly dramatic dialog, picks up the phone and calls Scott Free!  I quite like Bedlam’s design, in keeping with many of the other Apokoliptians we’ve seen so far, but bearing his own sinister identity.  His call finds Mr. Miracle in his usual position, strapped into an elaborate trap and preparing an escape.  It’s a great splash page of wonderful Kirby art.  Scott and Oberon have a fun back and forth as the escape artist asks his assistant to get the phone, completely unconcerned about the nearness of a rather messy death.  Poor Oberon.  This job can’t be good for his blood pressure.  Casually escaping the trap with a full second to spare, the hero answers the phone and receives a challenge, which he accepts.

 

After the call, Scott tries to explain what Bedlam is, offering that he is pure mental energy, making him very dangerous, but adding that Mother Box is fortunately able to guard against such psionic assaults.  What follows is a fairly cool sequence that doesn’t get enough explanation.  Mr. Miracle conducts a seance of sorts with Oberon in which he contacts Dr. Bedlam and experiences a mental attack, and using Mother Box, weathers the storm.  It’s a creepy and suitably imaginative scene, but the purpose and motivations behind it are really unclear.  Does Scott do this to head off an attack he expects, or is this just a way to show Oberon Bedlam’s power?  Kirby’s slightly muddy writing doesn’t clarify.  Yet, the scene does have the effect of establishing the power and threat of the bad Doctor, which is something.

 

After scaring poor Oberon half to death, Mr. Miracle takes to the sky and heads to a high-rise where he is to meet the Apokoliptian.  There, Bedlam offers the escape artist a choice, either surrender to his citizen’s arrest, or escape from a trap of his devising.  It’s never made clear why Scott would show up in the first place, but he is the kind of guy that likes to face danger head-on, so I can at least partially hand-wave that.

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Anyway, the Dr. tells the slippery superhero that all he has to do is descend through the 50 stories of the building and walk out through the front door, but to make things interesting, he shows his foe the substance of his trap, a concoction he calls the Paranoid Pill, which he drops into the building’s ventilation system.  Soon the drug does its work, turning the everyday inhabitants of the office building into madmen, and the tower is full of “an army of unreasoning, unpredictable, unstoppable enemies!”  Mr. Miracle lashes out, but Dr. Bedlam simply abandons his animate, which is a nice touch, a villain that cannot really be fought.

 

mr miracle 03-13 the paranoid pill

A great page, absolutely full of menace.

 

Kirby provides a wonderful illustration of the Paranoia Pill taking hold, with people panicking and running wild throughout the building, and it isn’t long before a gang of maddened men burst into the office that traps our hero.  Sensibly, Scott tries the window, only to find it charged with “cosmi-current,” leaving him only one way out.  He flies along the ceiling in a great sequence, dodging the ad-hoc attacks of the panicked populace flooding the halls.  He narrowly escapes into the elevator, only to be attacked by a gun-totting citizen and forced to flee a host of ricocheting rounds on the 45th floor.

 

Unfortunately he leaps right into the arms of another crazed crowd, who, in their delusional state, mistake him for a demon.  The carry him along and lock him into a trunk, which they bind closed with rope and chains before deciding to dispose of this “demon” by chucking him down the central shaft of the building.  The comic ends on wonderful cliffhanger, with the trapped Mr. Miracle plummeting 45 floors to his doom!

 

This is a great issue, featuring a really unique and fitting challenge for the character.  The tower-turned-death-trap is a big enough threat to fill the comic (and then some), and the trope of innocents turned into threats is always a good twist to throw at a hero.  Kirby does a great job with the art throughout this issue, but his work on the crowds is just fantastic.  They’re individual and varied, as are their reactions to the gas itself.  Mr. Miracle’s desperate race through the high-rise makes for good action, and it’s nice to see him use his wits to escape rather than just plot devices and “Applied Phlebotinum.”   Bedlam makes for a good villain, and his gimmick is suitably creepy and outlandish.  Once again, I find myself in awe of Kirby’s creativity and the casual way in which he pours out innovative concepts.  Other than the overwritten sections and the lack of clear explanations, this is a good, solid adventure tale.  I’ll give it 4 Minutemen.

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Superman #241


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“The Shape of Fear!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Editors: Julius Schwartz and E. Nelson Bridwell
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

“Superman’s Neighbors”
Writer: Bill Finger
Penciler: Wayne Boring
Inker: Stan Kaye

“Superman’s Day of Truth!”
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Klein

Here we are at the penultimate issue of Denny O’Neil’s innovative but rather weird run on Superman.  This comic is no exception to that description either, featuring a strange mix of elements.  Beginning with the cover itself, which is, of course, beautifully illustrated by Neal Adams, the issue is full of rather odd choices.  I like the image of the monster dragging our defeated hero and his doppelganger away, but the design for the monster itself is a bit curious, with its tail coming out of the center of its back rather than out of its tailbone as you might expect.  Also note the sign referencing New York.  Randomly, this story seems to be set in New York rather than Metropolis, down to including several New York landmarks.  Strange settings aside, it’s a solid enough cover, if not exceptional.  You can’t help but wonder what could defeat two Supermen.

The story itself begins where last issue left off, with the former Man of Steel, now just the Man of Flesh, having defeated the Intergang assassins.  I-Ching offers to complete the ceremony to restore the hero’s powers, but Superman refuses!  In a surprising and rather moving twist, Clark has a crisis of doubt.  He’s tasted what it’s like to be a mortal man (ignoring for the nonce that he’s experienced that TONS of times over the course of his career), and he sees now a chance to be free of the loneliness and crushing responsibility of being Superman.  It’s a great moment, but O’Neil doesn’t give it enough space to breathe.  No sooner does it begin than it is already ending.  I-Ching emphasizes that “one does not choose responsibility!  It is often thrust upon one!” and “To refuse it is to commit the worst act of cowardice.”  Despairing, the Kryptonian relents, and tells the old mystic to work his magic.

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I-Ching draws Superman’s spirit out of his body and sends it soaring off to find his dusty duplicate.  When the hero’s soul-form encounters his double, it drains the creature of its stolen powers, leaving it weakened and helpless.  When his spirit returns to his body, the Man of Steel finds himself full powered once more and rushes off to test himself.  He smashes a meteoroid, races around the Earth, and then spots a purse snatcher upon whom he can test his powers.  Faster than a speeding bullet, or a running thief, for that matter, the Action Ace builds a complete jail cell around the startled man in the middle of the street.  The people of Metropolis aren’t too pleased, and thus begins a display of classic Super-dickery.

 

superman 241 p_015The hero has suddenly become overbearing, brash, and more than a little selfish, and he begins to handle even the most minor of crimes with outlandish responses, like when he picks up a speeding car and deposits it on top of the Empire State Building (like I said, we’re suddenly in New York).  He also meets I-Ching up there at the blind man’s request.  The mystic points out this strange behavior and tells Superman that he thinks the Man of Tomorrow suffered brain damage when he was mortal, which enrages the hero.  Unable to convince the Metropolis Marvel that something is wrong, I-Ching turns again to magic, all the while talking about how it is a really bad idea because he doesn’t really know what he’s doing.  I knew they should have contacted Dr. Fate!

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The martial arts master conjures a spell to track the Sand Superman, and when he and Diana Prince find the weakened creature, they learn its origins.  Apparently it’s a being from the “Realm of Quarrm,” which I-Ching helpfully describes as “a state of alternate possibilities!  A place where neither men nor things exist…only unformed, shapeless begins!”  Sure, why not?

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The explosion that destroyed the world’s kryptonite ripped a hole between dimensions between Earth and Quarrm, and the energy that leaked out mingled with that of Superman as he lay stunned in the sand, eventually giving form to the formless.  Each time the two got close to each other, the Sandman gathered more and more power from his opposite number.  In a desperate bid, I-Ching plans to use this creature to drain Superman once more, but unbeknownst to them, a new tear has opened, and more energy begins to leak into this world.

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Sneaking into Morgan Edge’s apartment (for some reason), Diana calls Superman to lure him into their trap.  When he arrives, his dusty duplicate drains some of his powers, but the headstrong hero manages to escape.  Meanwhile, a shadowy figure watches from a soundproofed room.  Mysterious!  Down on the street, fate takes a hand as nearby in Chinatown a parade is underway and the energy from Quarrm seeps into a statue of an “Oriental War Demon,” which suddenly comes to life and runs amuck.  The Man of Steel stops his flight in order to investigate, showing that he is still somewhat himself, only to be drained once more and fall from the sky, to collapse helplessly at the mercy of the Quarrm-demon.

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There’s a lot going on in this issue, and you have to give O’Neil credit for creativity.  He’s certainly telling new stories.  Whether or not they’re also good stories…well, that’s a different question.  In this case, there are definitely strengths that recommend this yarn, like the moment of mature emotion that grips Superman when he is faced with the prospect of a normal life.  It’s just a shame that this dilemma isn’t given more (or any) development because it has a lot of potential.  Also, despite how time-worn the Super-dickery trope is, at least it is given a fairly reasonable explanation here, as the Man of Steel took a blow to the head while he was vulnerable.  How do you force a demigod to get help if he doesn’t want it?  There are some weaknesses here too, though, including a general sense of disconnectedness between the different elements of the plot.  I-Ching’s vaguely defined abilities and general inscrutableness don’t help matters, really.  The sudden return of Superman’s powers once again illustrate how over-powered he is in the Silver Age.  I find myself hoping that, once this arc is finished, O’Neil will leave him at least a little weaker.

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Curt Swan’s art is largely great, as usual, but I’m noticing that in the current iteration of Superman, he tends to draw the character’s legs as too short and stumpy at times.  His work on the demon is alternately nicely rendered or a bit cartoonish.  The creature’s design in general and the sudden injection of Chinese elements into the tale seems a bit incongruous, despite the involvement of I-Ching, because these events seem to have nothing to do with him.  Thus, the fact that the Quarrm energy just happens to inhabit a Chinese demon statue ends up feeling rather random.  So, in the end, this is a solid continuation of the story, even if it doesn’t quite come together successfully.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.

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The Phantom Stranger #14


Phantom_Stranger_Vol_2_14

“The Man with No Heart!”
Writer: Len Wein
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Colourist: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Joe Orlando
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

“Spectre of the Stalking Swamp!”
Writer: Len Wein
Penciler: Tony DeZuniga
Inker: Tony DeZuniga

What a cover!  That is a wonderful composition, with the incredibly menacing swamp monster rising from the water, his shape only partially defined and gloriously creepy in its uncertainty and inhumanity.  Apparently muck monsters are just in the zeitgeist over at DC at this time!  It’s a great scene, very fitting for a monster story with the blissfully unaware couple in the foreground, though I’m not entirely certain what I think of the Phantom Stranger’s outline hanging out there in the background.  This is especially true because, unusually, this cover does not relate to our headline tale.  Instead, this is an image from the Dr. Thirteen backup.

Nonetheless, I think any kid with an interest in horror or the supernatural would be hard pressed to resist the lure of that image.  Inside, despite the disappointment of not finding the Phantom Stranger locked in combat with shambling swamp monster, we still find a gripping and arresting story.  It begins on a stormy night in New York (Again with New York!  What happened to Metropolis or Gotham?), where the Phantom Stranger pays a visit to a somewhat Lex Luthor-looking fellow named Broderick Rune.  Interestingly, Rune doesn’t react the way most do when they see the Stranger, instead seeming positively pleased to see him, and as the mysterious wanderer steps into the man’s penthouse apartment, we see why.  Suddenly, the Spectral Sleuth is caught in a glowing pentagram, and “sorcerous fumes” knock him out!

the phantom stranger (1969) 14 - 02 & 03

A Hindu servant named Rashid arrives and we discover that this is all part of a plan, just as the wealthy rune topples over from what is described as “the final attack.”  Both the Stranger and his captor are rushed to a private hospital, where a hesitant doctor performs a bizarre transplant, stealing the Ghostly Gumshoe’s immortal heart and giving it to the ruthless Mr. Rune.  The procedure is a success, but while under, Rune dreams that he is confronted by the Stranger, who demands the return of what is his.  There’s a nice little back and forth about the importance of a soul above all else that is reminescent of Christ’s question, For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” 

 

When Rune awakens, he is panicked, but things continue to get more bizarre!  Two thugs trying to dispose of the Spectral Sleuth’s body, only to discover their bag is empty when they try to dump it.  Just then, the Stranger appears behind them, and shock of the confrontation shatters their minds!  Meanwhile, Rune recovers, but he is plagued by visions of his mysterious adversary.  Finally, he decides to try and escape his guilt by heading to a castle in Europe.

 

the phantom stranger (1969) 14 - 15This gambit seems to have worked for a time, but on another stormy night, Rune once again sees the Stranger stalking out of the darkness.  In desperation, his servant, Rashid, who had originally trapped the mysterious hero, tries to conjure another spell to banish his spirit.  Unfortunately, his power is not up to the task, and in the midst of his incantations, the Stranger appears!  Despite the loyal Hindu’s desperate efforts, when Rune flees out into the storm, the Spectral Sleuth follows, and the stolen heart stops beating!  Finally, Rune’s allies find him, dead, and lacking a heart!

the phantom stranger (1969) 14 - 18 - Copy

This is a really good Phantom Stranger story, taking full advantage of the mysterious nature of the character and supernatural trappings of the setting.  You can ask questions about how the Stranger’s heart was able to be taken in the first place, but given the way things worked out, I’m rather inclined to think that this undertaking was always intended to end like this.  The story tackles rather similar themes of guilt and conscience as the Edgar Allen Poe classic, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” with its protagonist who is slowly driven to desperation by the knowledge of his crime.

the phantom stranger (1969) 14 - 18

Like Poe’s own brand of Gothic horror, this tale is wonderfully atmospheric, with menacing oozing from every panel, and the oppressive threat of outer night seeming to press against every scene.  Aparo’s art is fantastic, bringing Rune’s selfish self-confidence to life, as well as his growing terror.  The looming menace of the Stranger is wonderfully rendered as well, and our mysterious hero has rarely scarier.  It’s short, but tightly plotted and effective.  I’ll give it 4.5 Minutemen, an excellent supernatural thriller.

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“The Spectre of the Stalking Swamp”


the phantom stranger (1969) 14 - 20

Our Dr. Thirteen backup sadly doesn’t live up to our wonderful cover either.  It presents a rather unusual tale for the Good Doctor, though it is also a pretty entertaining one.  It starts in the swamp, right enough, with a young couple out for a walk.  The youthful Romeo’s efforts are interrupted by a strange sight, a green monster arising out of the swamp! The creature scoops up the frightened girl and carries her off into the murk.  The next day, the local sheriff, Rufus Taylor, explains the mystery to Dr. Thirteen.

the phantom stranger (1969) 14 - 21

The boy who witnessed the abduction is now comatose from shock, but he and the girl are not the only victims of this monster.  Apparently people have been disappearing for weeks.  According to local legend, a hundred years ago a settler got separated from his family and wandered off into the swamp, where the essence of the bog infused his body, turning him into the specter that haunts the silent spaces.  Thirteen, of course, is having none of this, and he insists on going out into the wild to investigate.

the phantom stranger (1969) 14 - 22

That night, the monster attacks his boat, and the Ghost Breaker disappears, apparently broken himself!  Despite his strict orders, his wife follows him, persuading the sheriff to help her, and they find the doctor’s boat.  Maria manages to convince Rufus to continue the search, even though he insists it’s hopeless, and they stumble upon a strange sight deep in the swamp, a gleaming domed city. Finding their way inside, the pair discover the populace moving like zombies, blank-eyed and listless.

the phantom stranger (1969) 14 - 24.jpg

Upon a throne in the city’s center, the encounter the swamp monster, actually a man called Professor Zachary Nail, who is wearing a suit designed for “protection against the filth outside–the polution that infects your dying world!”  Nail has created his own Eden in the swamp and kidnapped the locals to populate it.  When the sheriff bravely tries to capture the madman, the Professor shots him with a bizarre ray, which converts the lawman into a plant!  Shades of Batman: TAS!

the phantom stranger (1969) 14 - 25

Nail takes the terrified Mrs. Thirteen for a tour of his city, explaining that the place is powered by a nuclear reactor (!), and that he has hypnotically controlled the populace so that they are utterly subject to his will.  He then leads her to her husband, who is also under his power.  The Professor orders Dr. Thirteen to take his wife to the “Submission Room” (which doesn’t sound too pleasant), but the strong-willed Ghost Breaker resists his control.  In an overly written sequence, Thirteen throws off the brainwashing and attacks Nail.

the phantom stranger (1969) 14 - 28 - Copy

Just then, the foliage of the swamp starts growing exponentially and begins to smash the dome.  The Professor runs off in an attempt to save his Eden, but the Thirteens have better sense and begin to evacuate the place.  They get the placid populace out just in time, as the vegetation of the wilds reclaim the city, destroying it utterly.  Know-it-all Dr. Thirteen theorizes that the waste from nuclear reactor must have caused the plants to grow super fast, but Maria thinks maybe Mother Nature was exacting her revenge “for the crimes he committed in her name!”

the phantom stranger (1969) 14 - 28

This is a solid and entertaining story, if quite rushed.  It is not, however, really a Dr. Thirteen-style story.  This character is best suited by relatively conventional mysteries with exceptional or sensational trappings, and this type of science fiction yarn is a little out of his wheelhouse.  He doesn’t even really solve the mystery here.  The villain just captures him and conveniently explains his plans.  The actual plot is an interesting one, and the eco-terrorist villain archetype is one that will emerge more often in the future, most notably when R’as Al Ghul is given his chance to shine in future issues.  Clearly the concept of radical action on environmental issues was in the zeitgeist, which is interesting.  I rather thought the spread of such characters was a more recent development.

the phantom stranger (1969) 14 - 29

Poor Sheriff Rufus, despite looking the part, surprisingly didn’t conform to the usual trope of the small-town Southern sheriff.  These characters in fiction tend to fat, incompetent, and corrupt.  Rufus, on the other hand, was brave and apparently honest and dedicated, even losing his life trying to perform his duties.  I’m so used to the tropes that I was surprised by this.  We can give credit to DeZuniga and Wein for subverting expectations there.  Wein, for his part, is a bit overly purple in his prose, especially in his narration, throughout, but the writing isn’t bad.  On the art front, Tony DeZuniga does a solid job, and some of his character work is really quite good.  We don’t really get a good sense of the city, though, which might have more to do with the lack of space than anything else.  His design for the swamp monster is effective considering what we eventually learn of it, but it certainly isn’t as cool as Adams’ cover version, sadly.  On the whole, I feel like his style is a good fit for these types of horror/suspense comics.  So, all-in-all, I suppose I’ll give this rather cramped and odd tale 3 Minutemen.  It’s enjoyable but forgettable.

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P.S.: Notably, I think that this concept of a futuristic city hidden in the swamp will be recycled in the first Swamp Thing run, though I can’t remember which issue.  That run, of course, was begun by Len Wein, for a bit of synchronicity.

 


Eco-terrorists, Chinese demons, and energy beings, oh my!  A fun set of books, these, and I had a good time going through them.  There is certainly plenty creativity in this batch, whatever their quality.  I hope that y’all enjoyed reading my commentaries and that y’all will join me again soon for another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  Next post, we close out August 1971!  Be there, or Mother Box will be disappointed!  Until next time, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

 

Into the Bronze Age: July 1971 (Part 5)

DC-Style-Guide-2.jpg
Greetings dear readers!  Welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  We’ve got a very unusual and memorable pair of books to cover in this batch, for better or worse.  We have the JLA guest starring in Lois Lane (sort of) and the beginning of the infamous Don Rickles appearance in Jimmy Olsen.  The Superman family books are rather bonkers this month, it seems.  Join me and see what you can make of the madness that follows!

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 #402
  • Adventure Comics #408
  • Brave and the Bold #96
  • Detective Comics #413
  • Forever People #3
  • G.I. Combat #148
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #84
  • New Gods #3
  • Superboy #176
  • Superman #239 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Superman #240
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #111
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #139

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


Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #111


Lois_Lane_111

“The Dark Side of the Justice League!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Werner Roth
Inkers: Vince Colletta and Murphy Anderson
Letterer: Ray Holloway
Editor: E. Nelson Bridwell
Cover Artists: Dick Giordano and Gaspar Saldino

“Law of the 100!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Gray Morrow
Inker: Gray Morrow
Letterer: Ray Holloway

This comic is just a delightful mess, from the cover onward.  I admit, I’ve been excitedly eyeing this image in my reading list.  It is just such a fun design, with (almost) the entire League in action and the unusual sight of Lois playing Gulliver to superheroic Lilliputians.  It’s the type of concept we’ve seen before, but not that often.  Unsurprisingly, Dick Giordano creates a lovely, energetic piece, and the cover gets bonus points for being an accurate representation of the tale within.  It’s an effective image, and I know I’d have been curious to know what was going on in this book!

What a tale that is!  Fascinatingly, Kanigher uses this issue to tie his work on the supporting Superman titles into the emergent Fourth World mythos that Kirby is currently creating, weaving in elements from the King’s Jimmy Olsen run.  It’s interesting to see creators embracing the New Gods this quickly.  It all starts innocently enough, with Lois arriving at the beach for a relaxing day off, only to be secretly observed by…the JLA!?  Well, not exactly.  As she dozes on the sand, tiny doppelgängers of the League rush out and, using their unique powers, bind her down and put a strange liquid on her lips.  As she begins to stir, they rush into hiding, leaving her none-the-wiser.  The sequence is great fun and really nicely done.

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The next day, Lois is out covering a story when she notices a passing armored truck and somehow realizes that it is stuffed with gangsters.  She calls out a warning to Superman, allowing him to bag the crooks, and the Man of Steel finds himself wondering if his lady love has developed some type of 6th sense that might protect her from danger.  If so, he muses, he would be able to marry her, but he brushes the thought aside and flies off.  In a charming little touch, the women Lois had been interviewing encourage her not to give up hope.

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Later on, the girl reporter is on location at Metropolis park, covering the arrival of a mysterious statue.  Once again, she has a flash of insight and realizes that the art is fake, really a set of dangerous robotic weapons, and she is able to warn the Metropolis Marvel once more.  Smashing the rampaging robots, Superman thinks that Lois must have developed a new ability, so he gives in and kisses her.  As soon as their lips meet, he goes insane, beginning his own destructive rampage!

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Lois rushes to her car and uses a carphone (!) to contact, of all people, the head of the D.N.A. Project!  That’s right, she appeals for help to the secret government DNA research base in the Wild Area, introduced in Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen.  Apparently Superman brought her there to give a genetic sample…for some reason.  The sober scientist quickly forms a plan and tells the rattled reporter to go to the Daily Planet and await instructions.

lois_lane_111_12

Well, that’s not the reaction you want after a kiss!

Unfortunately, later that night, after dozing at her desk, the journalist awakens to a strange sight: the littlest Leaguers, who kindly explain their plot.  Apparently, they were created from stolen DNA by the Project’s evil opposite number, the Monster Factory, and are under orders from their Apokoliptian masters.  They were to plant a special poison on Lois’s lips and, by faking her new ability, convince Superman to kiss her, thus dooming himself.

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When the ravishing reporter tries to flee, they attack and mock her, but a package left by the Project opens in the struggle, revealing an octet of tiny Loises, each inexplicably armed with a device to counter the abilities of the heinous pint-sized heroes.  One has a chip of gold Kryptonite to rob the Miniature Man of Might of his powers (where in the world would they have gotten that?), while another has a yellow glove to get past the little Lantern’s ring.  Some of them are a bit less direct, like a laser pistol that cuts the straps of Hawkman’s wings as opposed to…you know…just shooting him.

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It’s an exceedingly silly scene, but it is capped when the fun-sized Flash kicks up a cloud of dust while trying to escape, causing Lois to sneeze him into defeat.  With the miniature minions beaten, the reporter finds another gift from the Project, an antidote lipstick, which she dons before running out to kiss Superman a second time, restoring his mind.  The tale ends with the two strolling away, the Man of Steel not remembering a thing.

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This is an insane issue, but it is also a lot of fun.  There’s some really neat elements, as Kanigher tries to bring the mythos Kirby is creating out into the wider DCU.  Of course, being Kanigher, he does it in a fairly goofy way.  On the other hand, it does actually mesh surprisingly well with what we saw in Kirby’s own book.  The tiny clones, the stolen DNA, the mysterious machinations of the malevolent Monster Factory: it all works, after a fashion.  Yet, the writing is more than a little sloppy, with a lot of the details coming completely out of left field and the whole thing lacking internal consistency.  Why in the world does the Project have tiny-anti JLA weapons on hand.  How do they know they’re facing an evil army of mini-mes in the first place?  Whose idea was the ridiculously elaborate plan to get Superman to kiss Lois?  If they can clone tiny Leaguers, why not just make full sized ones to take out the originals?  Kanigher doesn’t bother to answer any of those questions.

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Look at the individuality and personality on the faces of these background characters.

Once again, Roth’s art is simply lovely, and while he had previously seemed to struggle a bit with the superheroic elements of these comics, despite his success with the romantic and dramatic moments, he turns in a really nice looking Justice League, even if they are tiny.  Particularly impressive, as usual, is his face-work, like in the image above.  The art definitely helps this tale, even as goofy as the story is.  Taken all together, this is a very entertaining, if bonkers, story, but it goes to show that nobody can really stack up to Kirby except Kirby.  He actually made something mostly coherent out of the madness of the Project.  Kanigher?  Not so much.  Despite his efforts, this feels more like a new gimmick and less like a facet of a new mythology.  I’ll give this entertaining fit of silliness 2.5 Minutemen.  It’s fun, but it’s flawed.

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“Law of the 100”


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The real highlight of this issue is its Rose and Thorn backup, which is just plain excellent for the limited space it has to work with.  It features the art of Gray Morrow, which is a big departure from Ross Andru’s and a real treat.  The story itself really shows off its star.  It starts with a classic cheat image, as we see the tenacious Thorn shot down by a new figure.  Of course, this is revealed to simply be a test of the 100’s newest killer using a mannequin (although, that mannequin seems to be moving a whole lot for an inanimate object.  The fresh-faced fink in question is apparently Leo Lester, the son of one of the organization’s best gunmen.  They tell the boy that his father was betrayed to the cops but that he’s destined to take his place, and then they send him after the Thorn with his father’s gun.

On the street, the kid attempts to ambush the Nymph of Night, but she’s too good.  She manages to toss a smoke thorn (Batman’s going to sue!), and she easily takes him out.  The sequence is just beautiful, with Morrow delivering a wonderfully realistic sense of movement and presence to his figures.  Look at the motion in the Thorn’s body on this page.  Well, artwork aside, the vigilante is stunned to discover that her attacker is a youth, and she tries to reason with him.  This is actually one of the weaknesses of Morrow’s art, as the gunman doesn’t actually look that young.

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Unfortunately, just then another 100 hit squad opens up on the both of them, the kid having failed his job.  Strangely, the gunsles are hidden on a mobile merry-go-round.  It’s essentially a tiny carousel mounted on a truck.  Crazy!  I guess they really had these things, but I’d never seen one.  It’s an interesting and rather whimsical choice for a ruthless gang of murderers.  Criminals in the DCU have class!  Of course, no matter how charming their costuming, they are still trying to shoot the Vixen of Vengeance, and she doesn’t take that too kindly, so she tosses an explosive thorn, blowing the car/carousel away.

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Somehow this doesn’t kill the thugs, but it does attract the cops.  Not wanting to hand her young assassin over because she hopes she can reach him, the Thorn hauls him to a secluded spot on the waterfront.  As part of this scene, we get a really interesting moment where the Baleful Beauty’s two personalities are in conflict, with her Rose persona wanting to help the boy and the Thorn identity being much less sympathetic.  It’s a neat touch.

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After her internal debate, the Nymph of Night tries to persuade the captive kid that the 100 know no loyalty, but he refuses to believe her until he’s ambushed by another team of hitters from the gang.  Once again, the Thorn acts to save the punk’s life, tossing out a set of flash grenade-thorns and taking out the gunmen in a nice panel, this time aided by Leo.  As they run from gangster reinforcements, the boy promises to tell his savior why he really agreed to hunt her.

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This little backup is really quite good.  It’s a breezy but effective story, with a healthy dose of action.  The Thorn comes off really well throughout, seeming competent and dangerous and generally living up to her hype.  It’s great to see her using her gadgets, taking out her foes like Batman.  It makes for some exciting reading.  Meanwhile, the heart of the plot with the kid turned killer is fairly interesting.  I’m curious what else is going on with him.

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Yet, a big part of what makes this particular backup so great is Gray Morrow’s exceptional art.  He’s got got a very unusual style for DC at this time, and the realistic detail that he puts into things like the Thorn’s hair as she fights and runs, or the shift in fabric is really cool.  In general, this tale just looks lovely.  There’s not a whole lot here, but nonetheless, it is a really enjoyable read.  I’ll give it 4 Minutemen, about the highest score a backup can get.  Kanigher is continuing to do really solid work in these backups, however bonkers his feature scripts may be.

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Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #139


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“The Guardian Fights Again!!!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inkers: Vince Colletta and Murphy Anderson
Letterer: John Costanza
Editors: Jack KirbyE. and Nelson Bridwell

When you think of cosmic adventure and mind-bending epics, what’s the first name that comes to mind?  Why, Don Rickles, of course!  What, it isn’t?  Well, join the club.  This issue and the next might just be the wackiest point in the Fourth World saga…and also perhaps the lowest, or at least the most nonsensical.  For some inexplicable reason, the King essentially takes a break from his myth-making, his larger than life story about the clash between superhuman forces of good and evil, to do a two issue arc featuring Don Rickles and his equally inexplicable doppelgänger.  Even the cover is a mess.  If you thought some of the previous covers were crowded with copy, you hadn’t seen anything yet!  Yikes!  There are more words in that image than in the entirety of any two modern comics.  The art itself is okay but it’s barely got any room to work with.

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Inside, it gets even stranger.  It begins with the Guardian being tested by Tommy’s father at the Project, run through a thorough examination before being allowed to go into action.  Though the tests show nothing wrong with the cloned hero, the doctor is still a bit hesitant to give him a clean bill of health because this copy of Jim Harper shares a mysterious abnormality in his brain with the rest of the clones produced at the Project.  Once again, I find something rather sinister in this scene that I doubt Kirby intended, but there is definitely something a little unsettling about the setup.  It seems to beg for development, but I don’t think it was ever really touched on again.  Despite this, the Guardian is given a chance to head back to Metropolis with Superman, and the Legion is super excited about teaming up with their fathers’ idol.

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jimmyolsen139-11Unfortunately, only Superman, Jimmy, and the Guardian make the trip in the Whiz Wagon, while the kids remain behind, quarantined and due to be tested because Gabby picked up a cold.  Isn’t that sort of closing the barn door after the cows have gotten out, especially if you let the others go?  Nonetheless, the scene is pretty funny, as Gabby’s fellows pelt him with newspapers for landing them in stir.  Note Flippa Dippa who, for reasons known only to himself and Kirby’s fevered imagination, is wearing his wetsuit under his hospital gown.  Their salvation comes in a strange but entertaining form, as Scrappy finds one of the tiny mini-Scrapper paratroopers has hitched a ride in his hair and agrees to help them break out.

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The Whiz Wagon wings its way back to Metropolis, and when they get back, Superman zooms off to resume his secret identity so that Clark can be ready to receive these visitors.  He and Jimmy realize that Morgan Edge is behind a lot of their troubles and plan to have it out with their new boss.  Yet, the evil Edge has more gimmicky problems at the moment, as, and stay with me here, he is trying to work out a contract with Don Rickles, but he somehow has to deal with ‘Goody’ Rickles, who is on his research staff and is inexplicably the entertainer’s spitting image.  Despite having the same last name, there’s no indication that these two are related either.

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For some reason, Goody barges in at that moment, unaccountably dressed in a cape and tights.  Apparently, some of the guys in his office told him to wear it in order to shoot a TV pilot.  I…I don’t even know where to begin.  His dialog is just nonsensical.  Sometimes almost funny, but mostly indistinct and unclear.  The malicious mogul instantly hates the wacko, and for once I can’t blame him, and sends him out on a fake assignment that is actually a trap.

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jimmyolsen139-20Shortly thereafter, Clark and Jimmy arrive, demanding to see Edge, but they get sent out on the same assignment, arriving at the park in short order.  There they find a strange craft, and when Clark investigates, Goody moronically starts pressing buttons, suddenly causing the device to vanish!  The remaining protagonists are then attacked by Intergang thugs, and the Guardian goes into action while Goody says things that are ostensibly supposed to be funny.  The cloned champion gives a good showing, tearing through his assailants, and even Jimmy gives a good account of himself.  Kirby has him keep his foes busy through athleticism and cleverness rather than simply outbrawling them, which is fitting.  Goody does a comedy routine as he accidentally thwarts the bad guys.  Unfortunately, all their efforts are for naught, as one of Intergang’s bigwigs, the aptly named “Ugly” Mannheim, grabs Jimmy and holds him hostage until the others surrender.

Meanwhile, Clark is stuck in the strange craft, which has shifted into another dimension, nicely rendered by Kirby, who had a gift for alien vistas.  Back in Morgan Edge’s office, he orders Mannheim to dispose of his captives.  Instead, he feeds them.  Goody makes with more ‘humor,’ but the scene is salvaged by a pretty dramatic turn.  Ugly casually lights the entire table aflame with but a touch of his cigar, and then announces that the food was laced with a powerful accelerant, which is now in his captives’ systems.  He releases them, warning the three that in 24 hours they’ll all go up like Roman candles.

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That’s a wonderful villain image.

jimmyolsen139-28Goody’s indignation, not at the murder attempt, but at being dropped off out of his way is genuinely funny, but it’s one of the few moments in this comic that can actually be described that way.  He’s more grating and bizarre than humorous, with some of his dialog reminding you of a joke in the way that a badly hummed tune can remind you of a song.  There are elements in common, but the effect is rather different.  The story itself has a lot of good qualities.  However silly the setup, the Newsboy Legion making their escape is pretty fun, as is their banter.  Ugly Mannheim is instantly memorable, and the sequence with his unusual methods of dealing with his prisoners is actually quite good.  It’s nice to see the Guardian in action again as well, but all of this is overshadowed for some reason by the utterly incongruous presence of Goody, who makes no real sense and just doesn’t fit in this story.  Kirby’s art is quite good in this issue, unlike the last New Gods, and he turns in a lot of lovely and energetic moments, as well as some great character work with the Legion.  In the end, it’s rather hard to rate this issue, as it is just so very strange and feels more like two separate stories mashed together than a coherent whole.  I suppose I’ll give this mad mess 2.5 Minutemen, as the good elements are strong enough to partially offset the perplexing presence of ‘Goody’ Rickles.  It’s still a fun read, and interesting in context, but boy is it strange.

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P.S.: So, how did this flight of insanity come into being?  Check out the article here for some nice background, but here’s the short version.  Apparently Mark Evanier and Steve Sherman, Kirby’s assistants, were huge fans of then popular insult-comedian Don Rickles, and they thought it would be fun to have him appear in a comic for a few panels and insult Superman.  They wrote up some dialog and showed it to Jack, who loved the idea.  He, in turn, took it to Carmine Infantino, who never met a gimmick he didn’t like.  The editor got permission from Rickles and decided that this needed to be promoted and made into a two-issue feature.  Then, out of the unfathomable, beautiful madness of Kirby’s mind came what followed.  Apparently, Rickles himself was none-too-pleased with the final result, and I can’t say I really blame him.

 


The Head-Blow Headcount:

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Color me surprised, but this is the second month in a row without a single new head-blow to add to the tally.  I’m thinking August has got to break the streak.

 


Final Thoughts:


July was an unusual month, filled with books that were not necessarily good, but were certainly memorable and, at least in some ways, important.  There were some genuinely enjoyable yarns along the way as well, of course, but this month gave us several significant comics that, though they were flawed as stories, were important to the DCU or interesting reflections of concerns in the zeitgeist of their time.  Even some of the sillier stories like this issue of Lois Lane are worth noting because of how they are evidence of the growth of the setting or the genre.  In Lois’s case, her bizarre adventure introduces the King’s Fourth World to the DC Universe at large, for however awkward that meeting might be.

Kirby’s Fourth World itself continues to develop in intriguing ways.  This month we get to see Darkseid emerge a bit more into the foreground, and we see a little of his personality and the nature of his rule in the machinations of his servants in this Forever People.  We also see the notable creation of another black character, still very much a rare occurrence at this point, though it is a moment of dubious honor, considering that he is the Black Racer.  On the plus side, his creation does point to an awareness of DC’s lack of diversity and some of the early, if halting, steps to try and make the DC Universe a bit more reflective of the nation that spawned it.

Most strikingly for me, this month gives us the story of Glorious Godfrey and a fascinating tale about the dangers of surrendering your will and moral judgement to the strong man and the demagogue.  This lesson was well learned in the mid-20th Century with the rise of fascism and World War II, but the allure of having someone do your thinking for you is a strong and pervasive one.  Human beings don’t like to think, as Socrates knew to his sorrow, and they always look for ways to escape that onerous onus.  I see this constantly in my students, but unfortunately, this trend is very much in evidence in the modern world, far beyond the classroom.  The ever increasing tribalism of our politics in the U.S. is the clearest example of this tendency I can imagine.

Notably, the viciously divided culture of 1971 seems to have produced similar anxieties about such mindless adherence to those that promise easy answers, as last month’s JLA issue demonstrated.  The connection between these books point to more than just Jack Kirby’s memories of the War years as being the source for this story.  In the era of George Wallace and numerous other strong men on all sides of the political spectrum, I suppose this should be no surprise.

Fascinatingly, this month’s Green Lantern deals, in a way, with a similar theme, though it is not really the focus of the story.  O’Neil finally turned in an issue that I really enjoyed, however goofy it might be.  It helps that the book takes the tack of satire rather than direct (and, let’s face it, shrill and self-righteous) critique.  Most notably, with this issue the author moves away from racism, pollution, and the other crippling social issues of the time, and focuses instead on the growing disposable, artificial nature of modern life, with its pillorying of the plastic peril of the Black Hand.  This is another topic that certainly resonates in the modern day, though in a less dire fashion.

Also in the zeitgeist of the day, the plight of Native Americans remains in our comics for this month with the conclusion to Dorfman’s Superman tale in Action Comics #402.  This is another prime example of a bit of a disconnect between the significance and quality of some of this month’s books, as the story itself is more than a little messy and goofy, lacking the dignity and seriousness of the first chapter.  Nonetheless, Dorfman’s heart is in the right place, and his work points to a growing concern in the culture at large, a desire to see native peoples given justice and a fair break, something we certainly still haven’t mastered.

This comic illustrates one of the difficulties in tackling social issues in the superhero genre.  As Superman easily wraps up all of the problems in a few pages, captures the villain, and provides a safe, stable, and successful future for the downtrodden tribesmen, we can’t help but feel that the reality of the struggle of such peoples is given rather short shrift.  This was one of my complaints with the previous attempt at such a story by Robert Kanigher.  It is a difficult and tenuous thing to treat a real tragedy in a setting where sun gods can juggle planets, stop bullets, and reverse time.  How do you honor the suffering of such a situation with a character than can resolve any problem with the snap of his fingers?  It can be done, as Kanigher’s racial story proves, but it is a difficult proposition.

DC’s flagship character was not just involved in attempts at social relevance this month.  Denny O’Neil’s continuing efforts to revitalize Superman are also on display, giving us attempts to humanize the archetypally superhuman Man of Steel.  While the resultant story is uneven, it’s an interesting continuation of the author’s efforts over the last several months, as his weakened hero has had to struggle with newfound limitations and doubts.  While the changes seem fairly mild to a modern audience, saturated with ‘bold new directions’ to the point where every radical shift just blends into the background, I have to imagine that O’Neil’s efforts were pretty groundbreaking for the venerable and traditionally very stable Superman.  Judging from the letters pages in these issues, that seems to be borne out.  Contemporary readers were reacting, and quite strongly, to the stories O’Neil is slinging.

Finally, as one of my radical readers pointed out, the appearance this month of a General Patton analogue in G.I. Combat is very likely a result of the relatively recent release of the film, Patton, the previous year.  Glancing over the plot summary of the movie, I’m certain he was right, as there are some really striking similarities between it and the story in question.  So here we have another quite clear example of the culture influencing the comics directly.

All of these stories make for a memorable if uneven month.  There are some great yarns to be found here, though a surprising number of those I enjoyed most were the backups.  There was still plenty here worth reading, one way or another.  I hope that y’all enjoyed this stage of our journey and will join me again soon for the next chapter of our voyage Into the Bronze Age!  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive, and exercise your God-given mind and moral sense!

 

Into the Bronze Age: July 1971 (Part 3)

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Welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  In this post we’ve got old soldiers and new gods, plastic paradises and cosmic chaos.  It’s an interesting set of stories we have on tap today.  Join me as I work my way through them!

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 #402
  • Adventure Comics #408
  • Brave and the Bold #96
  • Detective Comics #413
  • Forever People #3
  • G.I. Combat #148
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #84
  • New Gods #3
  • Superboy #176
  • Superman #239 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Superman #240
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #111
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #139
  • World’s Finest #202

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


G.I. Combat #148


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“The Gold-Plated General”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Russ Heath
Inker: Russ Heath
Editor: Joe Kubert

“Blind Bomber”
Writer: Hank Chapman
Penciler: Mort Drucker
Inker: Mort Drucker

“Cry Wolf Mission”
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: Russ Heath
Inker: Russ Heath

“Soften ‘Em Up”
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Irv Novick

“Battle Window”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Joe Kubert
Inker: Joe Kubert

This month’s Haunted Tank adventure is a fun one, featuring an unusual guest star, of sorts.  That figure standing astride the tank’s turret on the cover, six-guns gripped grimly in his hands, is probably a familiar one to history buffs.  The cover image itself is a pretty good one, though a bit crowded by copy.  It’s a nice, dramatic image, and beautifully rendered by Joe Kubert in his stark style.

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The crazily courageous general isn’t introduced right away inside.  Instead, we begin with our favorite Confederate ghost, who actually does something useful!  He spies Jeb and crew sleeping as danger approaches, and the general causes a chill wind to awaken them.  The tankers rush to the Stuart, only to have a German tank light up the night with explosive shells.  They’re almost wiped out, and burning debris falls onto the tank.  Crawling low, they manage to reach their vehicle, and they proceed to play possum in a burning coffin, waiting for the Panzer to get close enough to kill.  It’s a pretty great sequence.

 

They hold their nerves long enough and manage to scrag the enemy, but the next day, covered in soot and grime, they meet their new CEO, General Norton.  The tall, resplendent figure, with a gold helmet and gold-plated six-guns, is not impressed, and after calling the unit together, he tells them that they are facing professionals who fight, act, and look like soldiers.  Yet, he claims that the tankers look like amateurs, and he insists on spit and polish, saying they’ll fight better if they look better.  They’ll have more confidence and pride.  Jeb isn’t too sure, but his ghostly namesake agrees.  Of course, this General Norton is an ersatz version of George S. Patton, perhaps the most hard-charging American general in World War II.  He’s a fictionalized version of the great leader, but he has the twin six-guns and the hard-nosed demeanor.

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The affectionate note of the parody/tribute becomes clear as, just then, a flight of dive-bombers attack, sending all of the tankers scrambling for cover.  That is, they all seek cover except the general, who stands tall, firing his pistols defiantly.  Afterwards, still holding his smoking guns, he declares, “From now on we fight on our feet!  We don’t take it!  We dish it out!”  It’s a great moment.  The next day, shaved and cleaned up, the force moves out on a German position, taking heavy fire.  Suddenly, the barrage lightens up, and Jeb sees that General Norton has moved into the lead, drawing the fire of the defenders and leading from the front.

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His tank smashes through a building to flank the German anti-tank guns, and his men follow him in, routing the Nazi troops, another great sequence.  The position secured, one of the crew pipes up to ask if they can drop the spit and polish act now that the General himself is covered in the grime of battle.  Norton’s response is great: “No Corporal!  You see…I’m the general!”

 

This is a good, solid war yarn, with more of a sense of whimsy and fun than most of these.  The inclusion of a Patton parallel is a fun touch, and the character is fittingly larger than life, as was the man himself.  It’s also nice to see the ghostly general Stuart actually do something useful, though his contribution is very brief and very limited.  I’m still hoping we’ll see some stories that will take better advantage of the device he represents.  We are only a few issues away from a big change in the title, so we’ll see! Russ Heath continues to turn out really fantastic work on this book.  The sequence with the crew waiting it out in the burning tank is really fantastic.  If we can’t have Joe Kubert, then Russ Heath is definitely the next best thing.  I suppose this good all-around war yarn deserves 4 Minutemen.

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P.S.: Notably, with this issue, Joe Kubert started adding the famous “Make War no More” slogan on his war titles.  It’s possible it predates their appearance here, but this is the first time it showed up in this particular book.  This was Kubert’s and Kanigher’s effort to tell war stories without glorifying war, and it’s an interesting gesture.  The slogan is appended to every story within.  Obviously this change reflects the growing anti-war sentiments of the DC creators, which in turn reflects that of the nation itself., and we’re approaching the end of the Vietnam War, which was brought about in large part due to the loss of public support.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this move.  After all, you could see it as a bit disingenuous to keep telling the same stories but just slap a slogan on them and claim that squares things.  Many of the war tales DC published do, in fact, deal with the horrors of war rather than attempt to glorify it.  Yet, there are those that are a bit more ‘ra-ra,’ especially with the number of reprints in these books.  I suppose that the slogan was the team’s way of making the best of a difficult situation.  Their job was to tell war stories, but they themselves had become increasingly anti-war.  Either way, this new event rather nicely illustrates the cultural pressures coming to bear on the medium.

 


Green.Lantern/Green Arrow #84


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“Peril In Plastic”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Bernie Wrightson
Colourist: Cory Adams
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz

We’ve got another issue of O’Neil’s Green Lantern, to which I was certainly not looking forward.  Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised by it!  It’s a very strange issue in a lot of ways, and yet, it manages to be much more enjoyable than most of his run.  The cover is not particularly great, however.  The use of the real image in the background rather clashes with Adams’ colorful art.  The plight of our heroes does look pretty dire, but the effect is not entirely successful.  Interestingly enough, the photograph is actually of DC legend Carmine Infantino.  I’m not quite sure what that says.

The story in question begins where the last issue left off, where Hal carried a still crippled Carol Ferris into the (non) sunset, having revealed his identity to her.  The two spend the following weeks reconnecting and rekindling their love.  Adams gives us a half page that has a really neat design to tell the tale of their romance.  Yet, when Carol decides to go visit another specialist in the hopes an experimental procedure will restore her legs, she tells Hal that she must do this alone….for plot reasons.

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At loose ends and a bachelor again, Hal saunters on over to Ollie’s new apartment, which is a far cry from his former rich digs.  As the two friends chat about love and music in a charming scene, they hear a radio broadcast about explosions at a dam protecting Piper’s Dell that threaten to flood the town.  Suddenly, Hal realizes that this was Carol’s destination, and he zooms off to stem the tide!

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Hard to envision Hal as a fan of Dixieland…

At first, the Emerald Gladiator tries to use his ring simply to smother individual explosions, but he realizes that he’s only playing damage control, so he creates a magnet and sucks the bombs directly out of the structure.  Finally, he patches the crumbling edifice with mud, creating an emergency fix.

 

Exhausted by the effort, the Emerald Knight is none too pleased when the town’s mayor approaches him and insists on honoring the hero.  Showing Hal the town, the Mayor, Wilbur Palm, presents cookie-cutter houses and a pollution-spewing factory.  When I read this, my first thought was, ‘oh no, not another environmental sermon!’  But O’Neil actually has a more subtle and humorous game to play here, to his credit.

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The Mayor tells his guest that the factory makes strange little pins called Kalutas, which, every few minutes, tickle their wearers and puff out a whiff of perfume.  Hal’s face as he’s given one of these things is priceless.  Suddenly, the entire town shakes and an odd sound fills the air, but the Mayor simply says it’s the machinery in the factory.

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In a funny sequence, Palm drags Hal up onto a plastic stage, which breaks as soon as the Lantern puts his foot on it, and presents him with a plastic key to the city, which also breaks immediately, all while the ceremony is taped, lacking a live audience.  Finally sick of this strange place, the Green Gladiator tries to take off, only to find that he can’t focus.  Suddenly an army of suits, the Mayor’s ‘Executive Board,’ descend on the shaken hero, beating him mercilessly.  Just before he passes out, Hal summons the last of his will power and sends his ring to Green Arrow.

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Unfortunately, just as the most powerful weapon in the universe arrives, so does Black Canary, and who is going to notice a world-shattering wishing-ring when she’s in the room?  Sadly for Hal, Dinah has gotten her head back together, and she’s come back to town to visit Ollie.  The two head out for dinner, the ring still lying undiscovered in the apartment.  It’s a fun piece of irony.

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Meanwhile, the Lantern awakens to meet an old foe.  It seems that he’s fallen into the hands of…Black Hand?!?  That’s right, O’Neil gives us an honest-to-goodness supervillain for only the second time in his run, and it’s an interesting choice.  Apparently, Hand was masquerading as the mayor, all part of a plan by his corporate masters, who sprang him from prison to run their program.  Essentially, Piper’s Dell is a test case, an experiment.  It’s the company town taken to it’s logical extreme, with the populace not merely beholden to their corporate overlords but literally controlled by them.

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The townspeople are rendered pliable and suggestible by the constant irritations and distractions of the Kalutas, the poisons in the air, and the mind-numbing sounds of the factory.  The villain demonstrates by showing his captive footage of a townswoman being convinced that the hero had tried to destroy the dam rather than save it.  This was, of course, all part of the plan, and Carol was lured to town in order to trap the Lantern himself.  The lovers are reunited, only to be turned loose into a town that has been programed to hate them.

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While one couple fights for their lives, another fights each other.  Dinah and Ollie are having a spat because the bow-slinger fought with a drunk who was hitting on the Canary.  After the lovely Ms. Lance takes her leave, the Arrow finally discovers the ring and quickly sets out to rescue its owner, stopping on the way to charge it.  Now, I’m not 100% positive, but am I wrong, or couldn’t Ollie just slip the ring on and use it?  Either way, we get another funny scene as the newly poverty stricken hero uses his last $20 to rent a dinghy, unable to afford a speedboat, and begins to row.

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Hal and Carol have their own problems, however, as they are being pelted with plastic bricks (!) and chased by crazed townsfolk.  Pinned against the edge of the dam, the Lantern prepares for his last stand when, suddenly, a familiar voice tells him to freeze.  Green Arrow has arrived in the nick of time, and he makes an incredible shot, threading the needle to send the power ring back to its owners, his arrow passing through Hal’s fingers!

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The newly empowered Emerald Crusader makes short work of the mob and smashes into Black Hand’s headquarters.  Despite the villain’s resistance, the Lantern easily disposes of him by melting the plastic roof and entombing his foe in artificial materials.  The tale ends with the gathered friends walking through town and wondering what could possess people to trade their freedom and independence for the type of life that those in Piper’s Dell embraced, only for Ollie to wryly gesture to the Christmas shoppers eagerly snapping up plastic Christmas trees at a nearby store.

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This is a surprisingly good issue.  It’s off-beat, unusual, and more than a little silly, but it is clever and rather whimsical as well, which makes up for a lot.  The lighter tone rather lowers the stakes for the comic, meaning it doesn’t have to work as hard to earn its keep and achieve its aims.  Importantly, the characters are all a lot more likeable than they have been throughout the run so far, with both Hal and Ollie coming off as heroic, intelligent, and capable, which has certainly not always been the case.  The character moments really make this story shine.  The romantic interlude with Hal and Carol is touching and sweet, while the interactions between Ollie and Dinah are pretty darn funny.

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It was also nice to see an actual supervillain show up, and I have always had a bit of a soft spot for Black Hand, despite the fact that he was (in the classic setting) a bit of a goofball.  Sadly, he doesn’t give that great of a showing here, easily defeated as he is and lacking his signature weapon, much like Sinestro in his previous story.  That’s a shame, and it feels like a waste, especially because, despite appearances, Hand is actually a really good choice for this scheme.  He was a grifter and a shill, a smarmy punk with intelligence and zero empathy.  He’s a great choice to head this corporate brainwashing program.  The scheme itself, despite being a bit silly, is at least of respectable dimensions.  The unnamed corporate overlords plan to effectively conquer the world with this technique.  That’s a threat that is worthy of Green Lantern, at least in theory.

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O’Neil’s message here is an interesting one, and it is delivered with a fair amount of wit and charm.  Essentially, this is a critique of the growing disposable, artificial nature of American lives, filled as they are with so much plastic stuff.  It’s interesting to see this concept show up here because it is a common sentiment for old timers today, and I know I’ve heard my father lament “cheap Chinese junk” more than a few times.  In addition, there’s the related theme of people allowing themselves to be distracted by all of these things to the point that they blithely trade away their freedoms and their identities.  This is similar to one of O’Neil’s earlier stories, interestingly enough, in a Superman backup.  Of course, Adams’ art is fantastic throughout, and he does a particularly good job with the satirical elements of the story, portraying Hal’s befuddlement in the town.  His quiet character moments really shine.  I suppose I’ll give this unusual issue 4 Minutemen, despite its silliness.  The character moments lift it up to a higher level, and the fact that is is more satiric than preachy renders its foibles engaging rather than off-putting.

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Green.Lantern/Green Arrow #84


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“Death is the Black Racer!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Jack Kirby

More glorious Fourth World madness awaits us in this next issue!  It is a pretty interesting one, introducing another of the zillion and one concepts that Kirby packed into his new mythos, but unfortunately it is one that never quite worked, the Black Racer.  This character seems to be an obvious attempt by Kirby to recapture the magic that conjured the Silver Surfer into existence, but in circumstances that he could control, and who could blame him?  The concept of the Silver Surfer is a pretty silly one, but somehow, it works, probably because of the beautiful simplicity of Kirby’s design.  The Black Racer is not quite so fortunate.  His design is fairly awful, with the garish red, blue, and yellow, the incongruous armor, the skies, and the ski-poles.  Personally, I think it’s the poles that put it over the top, but you could really take your pick, as none of those elements work all that well.

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The cover, for its part, is better than many of those we’ve seen from this set of books.  The photo-background isn’t as distracting as most of the others, and the color of the sky makes it less flat and boring.  The central figure of the racer, however goofy his look, is nicely rendered, and there is some drama to the composition.  Unfortunately, the ski-riding figure doesn’t have the dramatic visual impact of, say, Orion or Mr. Miracle.

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The story itself begins in grand fashion, with a high-stakes race through the cosmos, as Lightray flees from a mysterious figure on skis, the Black Racer.  The young New God tries everything he can think of to shake his implacable pursuer, but nothing works.  He filters his light powers through a giant, crystalline meteor to generate a beam of incredible heat, but his antagonist easily dodges it, matching the youth’s every move.

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ng03-10Meanwhile, on Earth Orion and his rescued human friends make plans to combat Darkseid’s terrestrial forces.  The various mortals each get a little characterization, and Kirby does a good job of developing them in a small space, but they remain largely unused.  As the Dog of War steps aside to put on some native clothes, he ponders his handsome visage, and we learn that Mother Box has reshaped his features to help him blend in on New Genesis and that his actual face is far more brutal and ugly than the one he shows to the world.  Orion, like his readers, wonders what this means about his origins.  It’s an intriguing scene.  His disguises, both guise and garments, in place, he rejoins his friends.

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Lightray, for his part, continues his desperate race, igniting a nascent star in his wake, but his pursuer still hangs grimly to his trail.  Finally, exhausted and distracted, the fiery youth smashes into a meteor and is trapped…until the mysterious Metron suddenly arrives, just in the nick of time, teleporting the Black Racer far away…to Earth!

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On that benighted globe, the Racer is quick to pick up new quarry, and he flies to the ghetto of Metropolis where he finds two gangsters involved in a shoot-out.  After one of the low-lives, Sugar-Man, kills his opponent, he notices that there was a witness to his crime.  An ex soldier, Sgt. Willie Walker, wounded in action in Vietnam and now paralyzed and speechless, lies helplessly in his bed while the thug prepares to kill him, just for good measure.  Suddenly, a gauntleted hand reaches out and blocks the gun, which explodes in Sugar-Man’s face.

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What follows is really striking, as the Racer steps casually through the wall, noting that he’s heard the wounded man’s silent pleas.  The strange figure offers Walker freedom and power, if he’ll just take his hand.  Unbelievably, the paralytic suddenly stands and speaks, and he finds his mysterious visitor’s armor empty on the floor.  When he dons it, he becomes the Black Racer and soars into the sky in search of new quarry.

 

Across town, Lincoln and Orion smash their way into an Intergang hideout, where the gangsters are preparing to plant a bomb for their Apokoliptian masters.  Sugar-Man is one of their hired killers, and the wounded criminal is dispatched with the device while his fellows try to hold off the heroes with their alien weaponry.  Yet, while Orion may be temporarily stymied, nothing stops the Black Racer, who follows the fleeing felon, triggering the bomb and sent it towards space (though a page later we’re told this was Orion with his Mother Box, which is a bit confusing; perhaps we’re meant to understand that the Racer just carries out what is already happening?).  Sugar-Man meets a rather noisy end in low orbit as the bomb goes off.

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The tale ends with Orion and his ally calling the police to take care of their captured gangsters while the Black Racer returns to Willie Walker’s room, becoming the paralyzed soldier once more just before his caretakers, his sister and her husband, come back.  They lament that they left the helpless man alone while a killer was on the loose, not knowing that he himself has become an embodiment of death.

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This is really a fascinating issue, despite the fact that it doesn’t entirely work, and some of its faults are pretty glaring.  Nonetheless, there is something special here.  The idea of introducing a cosmic personification of Death is certainly a fitting one for this setting, and in his way, the Racer fits well into the story Kirby is telling.  After all, the old pantheons always had their death gods, Anubis, Hades, Hela, and the rest.  It makes sense for the New Gods to be the same.  Still, in execution, the Black Racer is flawed as well as promising.  On the one hand, Kirby is adding some diversity to his new mythology, which, inspired by the Norse pantheon as it is, can certainly use it.  On the other hand, just like with Vykin, we’ve got yet another black character with ‘black’ in their name, as if we’d miss the subtle distinction otherwise.  We’re really past the point where creators should know better.  It is noteworthy that Kirby begins to introduce ghetto-based black characters at this point, right as the ‘blaxploitation‘ genre is taking off.’  Remember, it was this very month that saw the release of Shaft, which defined the genre.  Clearly, not only were racial issues in the zeitgeist, but so were stories of minority protagonists in their own settings.

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Silly sobriquets aside, Kirby is doing more than just introducing another celestial champion here, and it is the Racer’s other half that really resonates in this story.  The plight of Willie Walker brings a truly engaging human element to this cosmic drama.  His story is heartbreaking, yet like Daredevil before him, his disability is revealed not to be a bar to his freedom, but in this case the price is a strange and perilous one.  The setup is rich for development and story possibilities, though, if I recall correctly, that potential goes unrealized in the short life of this book.  Time will tell on that score.

On the art front, Kirby’s not at his best in this issue.  His work is often rough and uneven, and some of the big moments are a actually rather unattractive.  This is also true of his designs.  While the gangster character have some of that classic Kirby panache, the Racer is just a mess.  It is fun to see Orion playing Phillip Marlowe, complete with fedora and dark suit, though.  This is just a flawed treatment of a flawed concept, but both the issue and character it introduces have a certain amount of charm despite their failings.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen, as despite rough art and a poor design, there is something worthwhile in the Black Racer and his debut issue.

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Interestingly, according to the Kirby Museum’s great article on New Gods #3, apparently DC was eager for characters that could be spun out of the King’s Fourth World should it prove a hit, so part of the insane productivity and fertility of these books is probably in response to pressure from the powers that be, as well as Kirby’s own desire to populate his own comic book universe.  He certainly had enough different concepts introduced in these books to furnish an entire comic line, from the Black Racer to Lonar the Wanderer (who we’ll meet eventually).  That certainly sheds a new light on some of the unusual narrative choices Kirby made in his Fourth World titles.

Well, whatever the case, we have run out of post!  Three more issues down, and entertaining reads all!  I hope that y’all enjoyed my commentary and will join me again soon for the next batch of books.  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive, and try to stay ahead of the Black Racer!