Into the Bronze Age: April 1971 (Part 4)

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

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #399
  • Adventure Comics #405
  • Aquaman #56 / (Sub-Mariner #72)
  • Detective Comics #410
  • The Flash #205 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Mr Miracle #1
  • The Phantom Stranger #12
  • Superboy #173
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #109
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #137
  • Superman #236
  • Teen Titans #32
  • World’s Finest #200

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


The Phantom Stranger #12


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

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

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

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

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Well, this seems perfectly normal and healthy…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“A Time to Die”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Superboy #173


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Trust Me or Kill Me!”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Into the Bronze Age: April 1971 (Part 2-Special Edition!)

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This is a bittersweet post, and that touch of melancholy is part of what has made me slow to put figurative pen to equally figurative paper for this set of books.  On the one hand, we are starting a new month, full of the promise of adventure, but on the other, this month also holds the final issue of Aquaman’s solo series, the last solo Aquaman book that would be seen for six years until its brief revival, after which Aquaman would be absent from solo books until the beginning of the very divisive Pozner/Hamilton mini-series in the mid 80s, which, for whatever positive qualities it may have, is still guilty of starting the ‘let’s fix Aquaman’ approach to the character that endured for decades.  It’s a crying shame, especially given the very high quality of this book and the incredible inventiveness of its creative team, SAG.  Nonetheless, life, and comics, go on.

As I’ve mentioned before, the cancellation of this book was made all the more shocking and lamentable because it had much less to do with sales than with internal politics.  It seems that then editor-in-chief Carmine Infantino didn’t much care for Dick Giordano’s style, so, when Giordano desired to leave editing and start inking full time, the head honcho took that as an opportunity to rid himself of the man.  Now, Giordano was very fond of what he had created with Skeates and Aparo, so he offered to continue editing Aquaman freelance, but rather than agree to that or even replace him, Infantino just cancelled the book, despite the fact that it had maintained solid sales!  The Aquaman Shrine has a great interview with Steve Skeates that reveals a bit of the behind the scenes drama.

However unjust the cancellation, it was presented as a fait accompli, and it was a shock to all involved and a major blow for the character.  In fact, I would argue that it is this incident which crippled the character for years to come.  It attached a stigma that his book couldn’t sell, despite the fact that sales had very little to do with the book’s fate.  What’s worse, it robbed the hero of the chance for development and growth during a very important time in comics history, as I’ve mentioned before.  While Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and many others were being revamped and redefined in extremely influential ways, Aquaman is left by the wayside, with only the SAG team’s incomplete efforts to support him.  This is a situation that the character is only very recently starting to overcome, some forty years later.

Yet, not all is doom and gloom.  As promised, I have a special treat for y’all today.  You see, when the book was unceremoniously cancelled, Steve Skeates was left with a half-finished story.  Yet, he was not one to be daunted by such a small matter as a cancellation, and he would eventually finish that story, but do so on the other side of the aisle.  That’s right, in a 1974 issue of Marvel’s Submariner, Steve Skeates would pick up the dropped thread of this Aquaman adventure and finish the tale for Marvel’s own sea king.  I’ll be covering that comic today, in addition to our usual fare.  So, let’s see what this month has in store for us!

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #399
  • Adventure Comics #405
  • Aquaman #56 / (Sub-Mariner #72)
  • Detective Comics #410
  • The Flash #205 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Mr Miracle #1
  • The Phantom Stranger #12
  • Superboy #173
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #109
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #137
  • Superman #236
  • Teen Titans #32
  • World’s Finest #200

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


Aquaman #56


Aquaman_Vol_1_56

“The Creature That Devoured Detroit!”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Dick Giordano

“The Cave of Death!”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: Jim Aparo

Here we have one of the all-time great Aquaman covers.  It’s exciting, titanic in scope and promise, and other than the rather muddy colors, is pretty much a perfect composition.  It’s got an old-school monster flick feel, right down to the title, like a 50s sci-fi film…but unfortunately it also bears little in common with the story inside.  Just imagine what could have been, a massive struggle between the King of the Sea and a colossal monster from the watery depths!  Instead, we get an offbeat, if unquestionably interesting, tale.  I imagine I might have been a more than a tad disappointed if that cover had persuaded me to pick the book up off the newsstand, only to find no massive monstrosity within.

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Man, Aparo could pack personality into a page!

Instead, the final issue of Aquaman begins in rather simple fashion.  A husband and wife bicker over the minutia that can grow into its own sort of monster in a marriage, but the debate is postponed by the tuning in of a television to the “Warren Savin Show” (interestingly, that’s actually a pen-name that Skeates has used from time to time).  The show promises to feature, of all people, the King of the Seven Seas as their special guest, but it is interrupted by a special report about a massive algae growth on Lake Erie threatening to consume the city of Detroit.

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This bumper bloom seems to be caused by a mysterious satellite which is reflecting light onto the city and its surroundings at night, keeping the area in a perpetual daylight that has sparked this overgrowth.  When the cameras cut back to the show, the Sea Sleuth is missing!  The Aquatic Ace has rushed out of the studio to see what he can do about this threat, answering the call to action.

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Too bad this is symbolic…

Aquaman56_06Arriving in Detroit, Aquaman finds the green gunk everywhere and decides to look up an old friend of his, a former police scientist named Don Powers, to try to get a handle on the situation.  Meanwhile, we cut to a strange figure in a garish costume, and we’re informed that this bargain-basement Batman is ‘The Crusader,’ a superhero who is ignoring the growing plight of the city to chase a car theft ring.  We get a nice action sequence as the Crusader jumps the gang he’s been tracking and barely manages to subdue them.

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After we see the orange and black clad figure finishes his fight, we switch over to follow Aquaman as he goes to consult his old friend, now a successful businessman and scientist, and the Sea King finds him at his corporate lab, where the fellow is completely unconcerned with the growing green tide swallowing the city, instead bragging about the reduction in crime thanks to the perpetual daylight and revealing that the mysterious satellite is, in fact, his.

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During their debate, Powers brings up the Crusader, and Arthur reveals that the League had refused him membership because he was considered unstable and too violent (He’d fit right in today, no doubt!), which is a fun little detail.  When the Marine Marvel tries to take matters into his own hands, Powers and his flunkies jump him, and sadly, you guessed it, Aquaman earns another slot on the Head-Blow Headcount!  Skeates really loved this device a bit too much.

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Not again

With the real hero disabled, we watch as Powers slips into his private office and dons the costume of…the Crusader!  In internal monologue, he reveals that he had an ulterior motive for launching the satellite.  His low-light vision is fading, and he’s willing to let the whole city suffer just so he can continue playing costumed crimefighter.  He justifies his selfishness by arguing that the case he’s working on is too big to abandon, and once he solves it he plans to destroy the satellite.  Powers also thinks that this case will be his ticket into the big time, that it will help him prove himself.  Now, just for some perspective, let’s remember that the case he’s trying to crack is no doomsday plot, no terrorist’s master plan, no city shaking scheme, just a car-theft ring.  Priorities man, priorities!

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While the Crusader continues his…well…crusade, Aquaman awakens on a park bench, having been dumped there by Powers’ goons, and before he can get back to the lab, he sees a young girl threatened by the growing green goo and rushes into the morass to save her.  He does so without a second thought, putting her life ahead of his own, though the peril of the situation doesn’t entirely come through as well as I imagine Skeates intended.

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A bit of a disappointing confrontation, really, and the dramatic title doesn’t help.

On his way back, he discovers a crowd surrounding a still figure on the pavement.  The Crusader lies dead, not felled by an enemy’s bullet or having met his death in the line of duty.  He just tripped over a wire and fell to his fate on the street below, his eyes finally having failed him.  He is the very soul of anti-climax.  When his mask is removed, the Sea King recognizes his friend and things begin to become clear to him.  Rushing back to Powers’ building, the Marine Marvel smashes his way inside, taking no chances, and locks himself inside the control room until he can find the proper switch.  The issue ends with the button pressed, the satellite destroyed, and the menace ended.

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The title here, on the other hand, is pitch-perfect.

So, not exactly what one would expect from that cover, is it?  This is a strange issue, but certainly an inventive and intriguing one.  Skeates is doing what he has done all along, trying new things and experimenting with the medium.  The story at the heart of this comic, the contrasting of two different concepts of heroism in the person of two very different heroes, is actually a great one.  It’s still quite pertinent today.  It’s the examination of the perennial conflict, between selflessness and selfishness.  Aquaman’s selfless conduct throughout, abandoning the TV show to help Detroit, putting his life in danger to save the little girl, and even risking who knows what kinds of consequences to destroy the satellite, stands in relatively effective contrast to the purely selfish motives of the Crusader.  That myopic manhunter, for his part, ignores all other concerns in search for his own fulfillment and fame, endangering the entire city, a city that he supposedly protects, in order to continue his callous crusade.  The concept is a fascinating one, yet Skeates’ treatment thereof isn’t entirely successful.

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Remember these images.

The story is far too rushed.  We meet the Crusader and see his futile death in just a few pages.  He’s not given the time to really develop the comparison appropriately, and compressing the setup and payoff into one book renders Aquaman’s contributions fairly slight.  Part of the trouble is that the threat to the city doesn’t ever quite seem tremendous enough to justify everyone’s concern.  We see the sludge surge up and endanger one little girl playing too close to the water, but that’s about it.  Skeates commits one of the prime storytelling sins.  He tells us about the threat rather than showing it convincingly.  Now, part of the reason for that simply has to be lack of storytelling space.  Nonetheless, this tale is certainly noteworthy for its innovation, and the central concept is worthwhile, despite its flaws.  This was a remarkable plot for its time.  Characters getting killed off was rare enough, but having a “hero” die, especially in the story in which he was introduced, was almost unheard of.

Of course, it almost goes without saying that the book is beautiful, with Aparo creating yet another cast of distinctive, interesting faces, lovely action, and rich settings.  Perhaps the greatest calamity in the cancellation of the book is the fact that Aparo stops working on the character that he captured better than anyone else.  Unfortunately, there is no shortage of four-color woe to be found in this comic’s cancellation, so that loss has plenty of competition.  Nonetheless, this is a fun and entertaining read.  It may be an offbeat ending to the series, but at least it’s an intriguing one.  All things considered, I’ll give this final Aquaman story 3.5 Minutemen.

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This issue also contains a super brief backup with Aquagirl, where she rescues a little boy foolishly playing too close to an ominously named threat called ‘The Cave of Death.’  Something of a theme this month, apparently.  It’s only two pages, so really too brief to rate as a story by itself, but it’s always nice to see Aquagirl in action.    It seems clear that Skeates was setting something else up, and this is just one more way in which the sudden cancellation of the book is a shame.

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The Savage Sub-Mariner #72


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“From the Void It Came…”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Dan Adkins
Inker: Vince Colletta
Colourist: Linda Lessmann
Letterer: Artie Simek
Editor: Roy Thomas

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

For our special feature, we once again pass across the aisle to Marvel comics, but this time it isn’t ersatz counterparts we see but an actual story-line continued.  It’s a shame that the rest of the SAG team wasn’t able to join Skeates for this revival of his Aquaman work, but he’s creating with a new team.  The results are surprisingly fitting for a Marvel comic considering the origins of this yarn over at DC.

While DC’s Sea King is my favorite comic character, I’ve also always had a soft spot for Marvel’s ocean monarch, Namor, the Sub-Mariner.  He’s not one of my favorite Marvel characters, but I’ve always liked him, and when I read through the classic Fantastic Four stories where Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought him back, I really started to appreciate comics first anti-hero.  Incidentally, Kirby’s work on the history of Namor’s Atlantis is one of the coolest things ever.  While Namor’s temper can wear thin after a while, I’ve always appreciated the unfailing regalness of his character.  He’s one of the few times where comics have captured the ideal of royalty.  I’m just now starting to read his Silver Age solo series, and I’m only up to the 40s at the time of this posting, but I’m quite enjoying those adventures.  For this outing, I’m skipping ahead a few years, so I’m reading this tale without much context.

It begins with the Sub-Mariner himself swimming through the terribly polluted waters offshore of a major city and commenting, in usual fashion, on how terrible us surface dwellers are.  Notably, at this point Marvel’s Sea King is wearing his more substantial costume that replaced his green trunks.  It’s certainly a more dignified look, and it’s grown on me, though, being something of a purist, I tend to be biased in favor of original looks.  Sartorial concerns aside, the Sub-Mariner takes to the sky, still meditating on the evils of the surface world.

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Our narrative lens shifts, and we move into space two years previously where a strange green blob, some bizarre alien lifeform, drifts through the cosmos and lands upon a certain satellite, just before a (blue) gloved hand destroys its temporary lodging.  Take a look at that image.  Does it look familiar?  That’s right, Skeates intentionally evokes the last panels from Aquaman #56 in order to tie these two stories together in a subtle crossover.

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The creature rides the wreckage down and splashes into the ocean nearby where Namor will come ashore.  The being observes the sealife that passes by and decides to emulate those ocean dwellers by creating a body out of the slime on the seabed and the wreckage from the satellite.  The process takes the intervening years, and we get a really nice series of panels as the alien heads to the surface to explore.

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Meanwhile, the Sub-Mariner has encountered trouble in the form of a strange pair of humans.  There’s something just a bit odd about these guys, and you might not be able to put your finger on it.  I wasn’t, at first.  Don’t worry, we’ll come back to that.  These two toughs decide, with suicidal bravado, to pick a fight with Namor because he’s different.  It’s a case of prejudice, and bizarrely, the attack is accompanied by a quote from Hitler which talks about the effectiveness of visuals in delivering messages.  Oookay.

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This looks like a cover for a Double Dragon game.

The Prince of the Blood, who, let’s’ remember, has traded punches with the Hulk, belts his  normal human antagonist and somehow doesn’t turn his head into a fine red mist, instead sending him flying into the drink.  The thug’s friend jumps Namor in reprisal, voicing a rather strange response to the attack, “You’ve probably ruined him for life!”  How odd.  As the two tussle, the curious alien being reaches the dock, and they smash into him, leading all three to tumble into the water.  Interestingly, the narration notes that Namor has become somewhat unstable because of his constant battles, so that he meets the strange, monstrous newcomer with open hostility, just assuming that it’s a foe, and thereby leaving his original human antagonist to his watery fate.

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While the fellow’s companion drags him to the surface, the Sub-Mariner and the star-spawned creature trade blows.  Namor pours all of his rage, all of his frustration, into this fight, attacking blindly, but the creature literally blinds the Atlantean in response.  Even that doesn’t stop the Sub-Mariner, who grapples with his slimy foe.

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Finally, having had enough of this whole ‘body’ business, the being launches itself skyward once more, though, having meant no harm, as it passes into space it uses its powers to restore life to the drowned man and even, surprisingly enough, restore Namor’s sight.  Skeates plays with superhero conventions here to some pretty good effect, raising some questions about the violent ways such characters tend to respond to the unknown.

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For his part, before his eyes are healed, the Prince of the Blood realizes that his metaphorical blindness may have trapped him in literal blindness.  His anger and rage kept him from trying to communicate with the creature and may have doomed him to perpetual blackness.  It’s an interesting and relatively effective message about understanding and tolerance of the “Other.”  And with that, Namor heads for sepulchral Atlantis (previously destroyed, it seems) while the two humans head home as well, with one of them saying, seemingly apropos of nothing, that he just got a new professional wrestling magazine.  With these scenes, our story ends.

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So, what was the discordant note that the two wharf rats kept striking?  Well, these two toughs, Skeates later confirmed, were meant to be a gay couple.  Hence the rather flamboyant dress of the first thug, who was, by the way, named Bruce, a moniker with some associations with the gay community at the time, as I understand.  Now, you may wonder what in the world their sexuality has to do with anything in this oddball story, but it really does add a little depth to Skeates’ treatment of the theme of intolerance and metaphoric blindness.  You’ve got these two characters acting as bigots who have themselves suffered from intolerance, abuse, and bigotry, which is ironic.  While it could just be seen as anti-gay, it could also be read as an indication of the depth to which distrust of the “Other” is built into human nature, how deeply the disease goes.  Even those of us with reason to sympathize with societal outcasts can find it easier to lash out than attempt to act with understanding.

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Nonetheless, that was certainly an unusual wrinkle for comics in 1974, when you could not present any openly gay characters.  Once again, Skeates is experimenting with the genre.  The story itself is solid enough.  It’s more effective in its delivery of its message than in telling a particularly compelling and enjoyable adventure yarn, though.  Yet, I do enjoy the focus on Namor’s reaction to the mysterious creature.  It makes rather perfect sense given the Sub-Mariner’s characterization over the course of his series and the endless series of conflicts and reverses he’s faced.  There’s a very human element in his blind rage.  Still, the story feels a bit disjointed, with the conflict with the two morons on the dock coming out of absolutely nowhere.  I know people are plenty stupid, but who says to themselves, ‘I think I want to pick a fight with that guy that can punch through steel!’  In the end, I suppose I’ll give this story a 3.5 as well.  It’s an interesting one, if not stellar.

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P.S.: Oddly, this story, picking up from the final issue of Aquaman, falls on the final issue of the Sub-Mariner, who has outlived his distinguished counterpart by three years at this point but falls prey to a similar fate, and, ironically, with the same hand at the helm!  Steve Skeates had to wonder if he was jinxed when it came to aquatic characters!


The Head-Blow Headcount:

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Poor Aquaman adds yet another appearance on the Wall of Shame.  This really illustrates just how much Skeates relied on the head-blow plot device.  Whenever he needed to remove the Sea King from the story for a few pages, it seems a sock on the noggin was the first club out of the bag.  The results are self-evident, with Aquaman more than tripling the next most common resident on the wall in total head-blows.  At least one benefit from the lamentable cancellation of his book is he won’t be adding many more entries in this feature any time soon!


Final Thoughts:

These two comics make for an intriguing pair, a unique case (at the time) with a story translating across both companies and years (Of course, the Marvel character Mantis will see a similar transition later in the decade).  Even more unusually, the stories are very reflective of their universes, DC and Marvel, with each comic fitting surprisingly well into the style of their respective companies.  The DC story is full of bigger ideas, while the Marvel tale is much more melodramatic and emotionally focused.  The contrast illustrates Skeates’ skill as a writer, as one of the great tests of an author’s mettle is the ability to write well in different styles.

I’m really curious what shape the second story would have taken if it had graced the pages of Aquaman as intended.  One wonders if the muck creature from the cover of #56 might actually have put in an appearance after all, perhaps on a much grander scale than Namor’s unwitting sparring partner.  If we assume that the alien creature and its curious attempt to explore our little globe was always the core of the concept, then perhaps it would make sense for all of that algae coating Detroit to be incorporated into the being’s new body.  We might have gotten a version of that massive monstrosity after all.  Sadly, we’ll never know what might have been.

That is, truly, the greatest misfortune to be found in the sudden and unlooked-for cancellation of the Aquaman book, the loss of what might have been.  The SAG team had been paving the way for a whole era of stories, layering in hooks for coming arcs and continuing plot threads, setting up some really intriguing story possibilities, and creating a fascinating setting for the Sea King.  There are too many lost opportunities and abandoned elements in this run to count, like the rabble-rousing politician and his bid for power, the rocky relationship between Tula and Garth, the myriad underwater civilizations we’ve encountered in the preceding pages of the book, the microscopic world in Mera’s ring, Ocean Master’s recovered memories, and so much more that could have been.  I’ll always wonder what plans the SAG team had, what heights the book might have reached in the years to come.  How might the undersea setting have grown?  How might the Aqua-Family have evolved?  The possibilities really dazzle the imagination, don’t they?  Instead, we get this rather off=beat finale.  The book ends, not with a whimper, but neither does it close with a roar worthy of what has come before.  Instead, it slips away without fanfare or acknowledgement, without the slightest hint that this is the final issue.

It’s one of the great comic calamities, and so it is with a heavy heart, that I bid adieu to one of the best Aquaman runs and one of my favorite creative teams.  And it is also time that I say goodbye to this post.  I hope you’ll join me again soon as I resume our regularly scheduled Bronze Age browsing.  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

Into the Bronze Age: February 1971 (Part 5)

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Hello Internet travelers!  It’s been radio silence here on the Greylands for the last week.  Lady Grey and I traveled to Iceland over spring break, and we were busy taking the advice of Granger from Fahrenheit 451, who said “Stuff your eyes with wonder […] live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”  We spent some time out there in this gloriously beautiful world, reveling in the unsurpassed glory of creation, and we had a great time.

We visited waterfalls, hiked on glaciers, and even snorkeled in a glacial river between two tectonic plates (and that was intense, let me tell you!).  It was a really wonderful and necessary break, and sadly now we have to come back to the real world with all of its endless problems.  At least there are bright and hopeful comics to keep us company!  Today, I’ve got a pair of titles and a trio of stories.  I hope y’all enjoy my commentary as we travel farther Into the Bronze Age!

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

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

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


Phantom Stranger #11


Phantom_Stranger_Vol_2_11“Walk Not in the Desert’s Sun…”
Writer: Gerry Conway
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo

Underneath this suitably creepy cover, we’ve got about two-thirds of a really awesome comic that takes a hard left turn right at the climax.  The resultant story is a bit odd, but it still ends up being an interesting read with surprisingly sophisticated handling of some rather unexpected themes.  Gerry Conway makes his return to scripting DC books, and he is already displaying impressive maturity and skill.  The growing seriousness of the Bronze Age is definitely on display in this issue as well.

It begins with the Phantom Stranger narrating a string of strange phenomena in the night sky over the western hemisphere, as people all over the world look up and see a sinister triangular shape of purple hanging framed against the stars.  Three nights later, the police in New York try to talk a desperate woman down from the Brooklyn Bridge.  She has just killed a man, and she screams that she will be her own master from now on.  As she rants, she slips off over the side and plunges into the fog, only to vanish before hitting the water.  Aparo gives us a wonderfully atmospheric two-page spread of the incident that adds to the mystery.  The police are baffled, and the sudden appearance and cryptic warning by the Phantom Stranger doesn’t do much to comfort them.

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Meanwhile, apparently the Weathermen have taken their bat-guano insanity inter-planetary, as a pair of dropouts have somehow managed to hijack an Apollo spacecraft and are planning to crash it into Washington D.C. in protest of the space program’s ‘waste’ of resources.  Really?  That’s what you’ve got a problem with?  Not the war in Vietnam, the race problems, or police brutality?  I’m glad you boys have your priorities right.  Despite the pleas of mission control, it seems like this inexplicably capable pair of nutjobs is going to make good on their threats, but the capsule suddenly goes off course and splashes harmlessly into the Atlantic, empty!

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the phantom stranger (1969) 11 - 05The Stranger has noticed all of these events, and after spotting a story about a glowing pyramid suddenly showing up in the Sudan, he decides to investigate.  How does he get there?  Why, by flying commercial, just like everyone else.  It’s a weird sight to see the Stranger just walking through the airport.  Does he even have a passport?  Or money?  Either way, on the flight, he meets a young woman named Lynn Berg (Lindbergh reference?) who wants to talk to him because she gets nervous on flights.  The Stranger’s slightly odd response is perfect, as he says “Feel free to speak.”  Not the most warm and welcoming, is the Phantom Stranger.

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You have to wonder if he uses his powers to skip the lines…

They arrive in Israel, and in a move that really surprised me, Lynn begins to talk about the current troubles in the Middle East, philosophizing about the conflict and war in general, wondering if there can ever be a right or wrong in such conflicts.  Just as the Stranger begins to share his own critique of warfare, Lynn’s brother arrives to pick her up, only to run right into a terrorist attack.  The Stranger foresees it moments before it occurs but too late to prevent it.  A pair of (presumably) Palestinians throw grenades, which kill Lynn’s brother, shouting “for my dead father!”

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In response, the young woman, consumed by grief and rage, chases after the pair, attacking them, wrestling a knife away from one of them and actually killing him with it!  The Stranger sort of ineffectually calls after her and watches helplessly (which doesn’t really make a ton of sense), as the dead terrorist drops the grenade he’d been holding, causing an explosion and apparently vaporizing Lynn.  This is an incredibly effective scene.  Just as the traveling companions are talking about war and the cycle of vengeance, that very cycle plays out before our eyes.  In revenge for some unknown act that cost them their father, two men kill an innocent.  In response, the dead man’s sister is herself blinded by vengeance and kills one of them, dooming all three.  It’s a powerful and surprisingly subtle demonstration of the endless nature of revenge.  The effect is rather arresting.

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But, this is a comic, and we’ve got other, stranger fish to fry, so the scene shifts to that mysterious glowing pyramid our enigmatic hero read about.  Inside, a masked figure in Egyptian regalia holds forth to a gathered crowd, explaining his evil plan, and evil it is.  In attendance are all of those people warped by hatred and selfishness who were snatched away from their deaths, including the girl from the bridge and the two pseudo-astronauts.  Evil-tut explains that he is the ‘Messiah of Evil,’ and has drawn all of them together in order to build ‘an army of evil’!  Strangely, Lynn Berg is in a cell there as well, drawn thither because her heart was filled with hate at the moment of her death.  Suddenly, the Stranger is there in her prison, and he comforts the girl.

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Just then, guards burst in, and when the Spectral Sleuth tries to fight them, he encounters a powerful force-field.  What’s more, they knock him out with just a touch, which also seems odd.  The Stranger is brought before the fiendish pharaoh, who reveals himself to be…Tannarak!  That’s right, the promising villain from the last  issue returns, and in grand fashion!  Apparently, at the moment of his death beneath the falling statue, he was snatched away by powerful beings who called themselves the ‘Gods of Hate,’ who chose him as their champion, as the Messiah of Evil and charged him to build an army of the like-minded with which to seize power.

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The Stranger shouts that such an agenda would “upset the very balance of the universe” and invokes the concepts of chaos and order, declaring “this must not be!”  He strikes down the guards, somehow now able to do so, despite the fact that a few pages before he couldn’t’ even touch them, and then charges Tannarak.  Yet, the sorcerer is not to be taken so easily, and he zaps the hero with a beam that turns his own hate and anger against him.  The mysterious one realizes that his rage is self-defeating, so he calms his mind and strikes out, not in anger and not for revenge, but for justice, and delivers a great blow.

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Yet, he and Lynn are still badly outnumbered, so they flee, and here is where things get weird.  Well…weirder, in context.  They race into a chamber filled with advanced machines, alien machines!  They trigger a defense mechanism and are bombarded by terrible rays, but each selflessly tries to shield the other.

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The apparently mechanical sentries of the machines note that they had thought Earth the perfect place to build an empire of evil, as they had found the planet’s inhabitants purely selfish beings, but this act of sacrifice makes them reconsider.  They decide that they must seek what they want elsewhere and decide to destroy their base, the pyramid, because their mission is a failure.  When the rays shut off, the Stranger and the girl flee, leaving Tannarak and his minions to face a cataclysmic explosion!  In a really surprisingly grim touch, Lynn is driven mad by the experience.  As the Stranger says, her “mind has escaped whither they cannot follow.”

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Wow.  Okay.  Where to even begin with a story like this?  It has some really fantastic elements, and the scene with the terrorist attack is unquestionably quite strong and touching.  There’s probably no clearer symbol of the endless cycle of vengeance in the modern imagination than the conflicts in the Holy Land, and that scene was handled with surprising maturity and subtlety.  I love seeing Tannarak return as well.  I think he’s got a ton of potential, and his being chosen as a champion of evil makes perfect sense.  After all, he was a completely selfish being, putting his own continued existence above every other concern, and what is evil but the ascension of selfishness, the triumph of will?  At the same time, that’s why the trappings of his ‘army of evil’ were slightly disappointing to me, as I’d have liked to see just a slightly more sophisticated treatment of their morality.  Evil very rarely owns the fact that it is evil; instead, it is much more common for that type of utter selfishness to hold itself up as the greatest good, as it so often does in our own society.

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Of course, then there’s the alien element which just comes out of left field.  Why not just have Tannarak’s backers be mysterious and sinister beings?  Making them some kind of aliens just doesn’t fit with the rest of the story, and it certainly doesn’t fit with the Egyptian motif without some type of explanation.  Tannarak was raised in Egypt, so we could have just hand-waved the pharaoh act if left to his own devices.  Add to this the different moments that just don’t quite make sense, like the invulnerable guards suddenly becoming conveniently vulnerable and the Stranger’s unexplained commercial flight, and you’ve got a very uneven story.  All of those rough edges could have been smoothed over with a bit of thought (perhaps the Stranger took a dive in the first fight, and perhaps he was on the flight to keep an eye on Lynn), but we don’t get any such attention in the comic.  In the end, it’s a story with a ton of potential, but the final result is just a bit too clumsy.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen on the strength of its treatment of its themes, but it loses plenty because of its oddities.

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Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #108


Superman's_Girlfriend,_Lois_Lane_Vol_1_108“The Spectre Suitor”
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Werner Roth
Inker: Vince Colletta
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: E. Nelson Bridwell

“Mourn for the Thorn!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Ross Andru
Inker: Mike Esposito
Editor: E. Nelson Bridwell

We’ve got a super gimmicky cover, once again focused on a troubled wedding for the Man of Steel and the glamorous girl reporter, which seems something of a tradition for this book.  While the story inside isn’t quite as gimmicky as its wrapping, it is more than a little weird.

lois_lane_108_03The strange tale opens at the home of Sir Noel Tate, a wealthy man who Lois is interviewing.  However, when we join them, they have put the question and answer session on hold in order to investigate sounds coming from the old fellow’s souvenir room.  They interrupt a trio of thieves in the process of robbing the join who knock Tate out and begin to threaten Lois.  The plucky girl reporter holds her own for a while, but just as one of the thieves is about to skewer her, mysterious things start to go wrong for him and his confederates.  They’re attacked by an unseen assailant and driven away.  When Tate comes to, he tells Lois that she’s in danger…from a ghost relative of his!  Interestingly, Lois scoffs at the idea of ghosts, as if that’s even slightly less believable than half of the ridiculous stuff she encounters on a daily basis.

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Back at the Daily Planet, Sir Noel’s efforts to warn the journalist are intercepted by an invisible presence.  It apparently possesses Jimmy to lure Lois out of her office, then poses as her on the phone to Tate.  Next, for some reason, it draws Lois into the slums of the city, where she observes an interesting scene.  A desperate young man holds a slum-lord at gunpoint, and despite the fat-cat’s pleas for mercy, the gunman insists that he’s preyed on his tenants too long and too viciously to be spared.  It’s a scene somewhat reminiscent of the infamous Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76.

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What makes this moment fascinating is the social commentary present in it.  There’s nothing really sympathetic about the slum-lord, despite the fact that he’s got the law on his side in this encounter, and it is implied that men like him are the reason for the deplorable conditions in the slums.  Before the would-be murderer can finish his grim deed, his landlord has a heart attack and dies, courtesy of the mysterious ghostly suitor, who is himself moved by the plight of this area.  Cryptically, he mentions how it reminds him of London’s East End from 83 years ago.

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Meanwhile, Superman arrives for a romantic dinner with Lois, and we get one of the strangest scenes in the book.  After the couple shares a kiss, the ghostly stalker realizes that he’s got some pretty powerful competition.  So, he uses the power of plot to conjure a vision of Kal-El’s mother, Lara, in Lois’s eyes.  The vision is super vague, but it’s presents the Kryptonian woman in horror at the approach of something, and this creeps the Man of Steel out.  When Lois starts laughing uncontrollably, he freaks out and almost hits her!  Horrified at his reaction, Superman flies away in disgust.  The whole scene is just odd.  It doesn’t really make sense, at least in part because the ghost’s powers are so vaguely defined that we’re not sure what is his doing and what is reaction (or overreaction).  The end result is just rather disjointed and seems like a clumsy excuse to get the Metropolis Marvel out of the picture.

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That night, Lois has a nightmare about her wedding with Superman being interrupted by her spectral suitor, only to awake and find a letter from his ghostly hand that declares he’s going to bring her to his spirit world soon.  Despite her best efforts, the ghost prevents the desperate reporter from revealing her plight by stealing her voice and freezing her hands, and the next night, he summons her to Sir Noel’s estate, where she steals the knight’s nefarious ancestor’s dirk.  A frightened Tate calls Clark Kent in search of Superman, but before the hero can arrive, Lois is transported back through time to London’s East End in the 19th Century, through the ill-defined power of the ghost and his dagger.

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She arrives and is confronted by a mysterious figure emerging from the mist, but just as he’s about to stab her, he declares that she’s “not like the others.”  Lois realizes that her spectral suitor is none other than the ghost of Jack the Ripper!  Just then, Superman arrives, having scoured time to find her (and I like the detail that he didn’t know exactly when to look), and takes her home, where Sir Noel fills in the blanks.  Apparently, his ancestor was driven mad by the deplorable conditions of London and set out to punish the women who represented those conditions, the prostitutes who walked the streets, which seems pretty monstrously unfair.  The ghost sent Lois back so that his living self could kill her, but the Ripper realized that she was an innocent and couldn’t bring himself to do it.  Confused yet?  Fortunately, the dirk was destroyed when Lois was sent back in time, so the spirit is now banished for good.

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This is just a weird, wandering tale.  It has some effectively creepy elements, and there is some definite menace as poor Lois is hounded by her invisible, unstoppable stalker.  The fact that a story featuring Superman manages to conjure up that sense of helplessness is actually fairly impressive, but the plot is just too random and too rushed to be entirely effective.  Even Werner Roth’s usually beautiful art isn’t quite up to the standards we’ve gotten used to in the last few issues.  There are several spots where his figures seem awkward and stiff, especially his Superman.  I’ll give this one 2.5 Minutemen.  It isn’t bad per se, just a little off.

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“Mourn for the Thorn”


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Unfortunately, this issue’s Rose and Thorn backup isn’t much better.  The usually impressive series suffers from some really goofy elements and an altogether rushed plot in this outing.  It begins, strangely enough, with the strip’s protagonist dead!  Lois and Superman look on as the valiant Thorn lies dead in her golden coffin, apparently finally having fallen prey to the 100.  We then get a flashback that tells us how the Nymph of Night met her fate.  She cornered #24 on her hit parade and took him out in an alley, only to…die…somehow…because of car exhaust?  It’s an exceedingly silly scene.

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Thorn is standing in an alley when the killer’s partner backs his car towards her.  Does he run her down?  Pin her against the wall?  No, don’t be silly.  He stops next to her and poisons her with carbon monoxide.  Now, I know that emissions standards were worse in the 70s, but I’m still thinking that simply running your car in an alley didn’t create the equivalent or mustard gas or anything.  It’s such a ludicrously impractical way to kill someone and so unnecessarily complicated that it takes you right out of the tale.

After the Thorn is killed, the 100 apparently take her body back to their funeral parlor front, not bothering with the authorities or anything, and nobody notices that there’s a murdered woman just sitting in the front window.  Later, a woman with the “Friends of the Friendless” comes to claim the body.  She’s a member of the 100 who is playing a part, despite the fact that the funeral parlor’s owner is their leader, which doesn’t make much sense.  The whole sequence feels unnecessary, as the killers could have just taken her body and done whatever they wanted with it, skipping this whole dog and pony show.

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The criminals bring the boxed Baleful Beauty to a sinister looking old house called ‘The Mansion of Mourning,’ which is an admittedly cool name.  It’s a front for the 100 as well, providing a hideout for their wanted members.  As they prepare to plant the Thorn in a grave, her perfidious pallbearers drop the casket, and rain splashes on her face.  Suddenly, the Vixen of Vengeance revives!  She rises from the grave in a pretty fantastic panel that, if the story had more space, would have made a great splash page.  Apparently, the vigilante took some medicine to fake her death when she realized she was trapped, and she claims she always wears nose filters which prevented her from asphyxiating.  Ooookay.

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Well, the Thorn makes swift work of the gathered hoods in a nice full-page action sequence and then drops another set of numbers on her newest catch.  Returning home, she awakens as Rose, who finds herself weeping at the news of the vigilante’s death, despite the fact that she doesn’t know her.

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This story has some great elements.  In fact, the big reveal of the Thorn’s return from the grave and the last moment with Rose’s unexplained connection to her alter ego are both quite good.  Yet, the story overall is a bit on the weak side.  It’s clear that Kanigher is really struggling with his page count in this one.  While he’s done a great job at creating condensed, simplified plots that worked remarkably well in only 8 pages, this issue’s effort is just too convoluted.  The silly method of the heroine’s “death” combined with the unnecessary complications involving her burial and the funeral parlor break too much with verisimilitude without explanation or excuse and they take away from an interesting story idea.  The resulting yarn is worth only a substandard 2 Minutemen.

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I hope you enjoyed my coverage of these two comics.  We’re almost done with February, just three more comics to go!  In the next post, we’ll see what Denny O’Neil’s got in store for his Superman revamp, which I’m excited about.  I hope you’ll join me again soon for my coverage of that and more!  Until then, keep the heroic spirit alive!

Into the Bronze Age: February 1971 (Part 2)

DC-Style-Guide-1

Welcome to part 2 of February 1971!  We’ve got a good pair of books in this post, and I found plenty to talk about.  I’m afraid I grow a tad long-winded on this one, folks, so be warned!  Let’s see what awaits us as we travel Into the Bronze Age!

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

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

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


Aquaman #55


Aquaman_Vol_1_55“Return of the Alien!”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Dick Giordano

“Computer Trap!”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Dick Giordano

Man, I am LOVING these Nick Cardy Aquaman covers.  They’re always exciting, dynamic, intriguing, and just beautifully rendered.  This is a particularly striking example.  The story within is definitely worthy of such a great cover, and it returns to a plot thread readers must have thought abandoned back in issue #52.  This tale takes us back to the strange microscopic world that exists within Mera’s ring and to the brave girl who helped Aquaman during his sojourn there.  I was really struck by the moral conundrum with which Skeates faced his character in that earlier story, as the Sea King had to choose between leaving his alien girl Friday in the clutches of slavers or risk her death at the hands of a hostile colony.  While I understood Aquaman’s choice to abandon her, it definitely seemed like an unresolved issue when he came back to the normal world.  In this story, the Marine Marvel finally sets out to right that wrong.  It’s great that Skeates brought this thread back from three issues ago, despite there not having been a single mention of it since.  That level of continuity was still rather rare in this era, and it’s the smallest example of such in this issue.

The story itself begins with Dr. Vulko, playing his role as Atlantis’s resident mad scientist, as he prepares a machine to transport the Sea King back to the microscopic madhouse.  Apparently, in a fun little touch of universe awareness, Aquaman got advice from the Atom about how to build this shrinking device.  Operating the machine, Vulko reminds Mera that she must concentrate, as she’s vital to the procedure.  As we discovered in that earlier story, the Queen can actually exert some form of telepathic control over the realm in her ring.  There’s actually room for a really interesting set of stories exploring that connection and the origins of this place, and I have to think that Skeates saw that possibility.  Unfortunately, he never got the chance to investigate those mysteries.

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Vulko throws the switch, and Aquaman shrinks back to the surreal, Dali-esq sub-reality.  He begins to explore, but he encounters another one of those horrible cyclopean blob creatures that attacked him on his first visit.  Realizing that there’s nothing to be gained by fighting the monster, the Sea Sleuth evades it and continues his quest.  There’s a nice bit of characterization in that encounter, as Arthur evinces sound judgement but also shows some awareness of his public role as king, noting his subjects might not understand his actions.  As it turns out, that’s a thought that proves somewhat prophetic given the other events in this story.

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With the telepathic guidance of his wife, Aquaman succeeds in locating the colony of the big-headed slavers of the previous story, and he just charges right in swinging.  It’s a pretty dynamic sequence, as the Sea King just smashes into their defenses.  Meanwhile, back in Atlantis, Mera can sense that her love is in combat, and Vulko stresses that she must not think about wanting him to return to her or she’ll bring him back prematurely.  At the same time, Aqualad is observing a fiery speech in an Atlantean park, where a local nutjob has managed to acquire quite a following.  The rabble-rouser, named Noxden, is stirring up resentment against the King by claiming that the destiny of Altanteans is to be air-breathers, and this is a destiny of which Aquaman robbed them!

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I would NOT want to be in that guy’s way!

All the way back in issue #35, the Atlanteans were converted into air-breathers, and their king restored them (in issue #43), because it’s pretty stupid to live on the bottom of the sea if you can’t breathe underwater.  Yet, despite the utter absurdity of the fellow’s claims, people are beginning to listen.  There was a time when that would have seemed more far-fetched than it does today, I suppose.

Yet, if there’s one thing that history teaches us, it’s that a looney who shouts loud enough and provides a convenient scapegoat for people’s problems will always be able to attract a following.  Aqualad is disgusted by the raving rhetoric, seething at the idea that Atlanteans would be so ungrateful to the king who had done so much for them, and he heads out to tell Aquaman.  Just at that moment, the Marine Marvel is getting overwhelmed by his alien antagonists and…oh no.  Not again…that’s right, the third head-blow in a row!  Arthur gets conked on the noggin and he’s down for the count!

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Before we learn what happens with the Sea King, though, we have another stop.  Subplots galore!  In this case, we’re touching base with Mupo, the fiery young man who led the rebellion against Aquaman’s regent-turned-tyrant way back in issue #47.  This book is just full of continuity!  Mupo has been swayed by Noxden’s speech, and he begins to spout some racist rhetoric, which Aquagirl calls him on.  The Marine Mistress shows her class by storming out on the moron.

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Meanwhile, Mera uses her connection with the ring-world to revive her husband, which si a nice touch and a way to give her more of a role.  Aquaman awakens as he’s being taken prisoner by the aliens and carefully times his escape, plowing through the guards that thought he was helpless.  As he’s swimming through the city, searching for a place to hide and make plans, who should he encounter but the object of his quest herself!  The girl signals him and hides the hero while they talk.  The Marine Marvel realizes that she’s communicating with him telepathically, despite the fact that this was against her beliefs when they last met.

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Aquaman55_14She explains that her captors have opened her mind and taught her to think for herself, strangely enough.  Yet, even more surprising, when he tells the young lady that he’s there to rescue her, she refuses, saying she’s happy in her role!  While she may be a captive, she is, in many ways, more free than she was in her oppressive home.  It’s an interesting wrinkle and an unexpected twist.  Yet, it is also a bit unsatisfying.  Our hero has gone through all of this to save her, and she doesn’t want to be saved!

Stunned, Aquaman leaves, realizing that he’s got twenty hours on the clock before he’s due to be recalled and hoping he can find somewhere to hide and wait for his rendezvous.  At the same time in Atlantis, our plot threads are converging, as Aquagirl encounters Aqualad, just as she’s thinking over things with Mupo.  When the young Aquatic Ace brushes her off in his hurry to see the King, she thinks that the more he ignores her, “the more attractive Mupo looks!”  Uh-oh Garth, better watch out!  You’ve got competition!

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Nobody draws action like Jim Aparo.

Back in the microscopic world, Aquaman encounters another group of the aliens, and as he’s tearing his way through them, he suddenly begins to grow, way ahead of schedule!  When he arrives back home, Mera apologizes, realizing that her anxiety must have inadvertently led to her recalling him, but her husband stops her, saying that she came through at the perfect time.   Just then Aqualad arrives and tells his tale, but Aquaman silences him as well, reminding his young charge that he respects free speech and isn’t about to start censoring folks he disagrees with, which is a nice character beat.  The story ends with a very striking image of Noxden, gesturing in a manner that is grimly familiar.

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This is a very good tale, and it is absolutely packed full to the gills (if you’ll forgive the expression) with plot.  In fact, it’s so stuffed with story that I had trouble summarizing it!  Skeates is layering in storylines that could stick with the book for a long time to come, doing some worldbuilding, and in general giving Aquaman a more fully realized setting to inhabit.  Of course, that makes the title’s impending cancellation all the more heartbreaking.  None of these plotlines will get resolved in the next and, as it happens final issue, leaving so much undone, so much potential wasted.  I suppose I’ll talk about that in more detail when I cover the final issue, but on this read-through, I’m really struck by how much this loss hurt the character.  At the very beginning of the Bronze Age, where the DC Universe is evolving and growing, and when he had a fantastic opportunity to do the same, the powers that be cut the legs out from under Aquaman.  That’s just a crying shame, and it explains a lot of the problems the character has had since then.

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Anyway, in terms of the story itself, it is a really enjoyable read.  The quick cuts between the different plots keep it moving at break-neck pace.  While the resolution of the plot of Aquaman’s girl Friday is a bit of a letdown, the adventure that reunites the pair is pretty exciting.  It does seem like the Sea King could have offered her a third option, or at least tried to do so.  He could have sent the Atom in to bring her up to Atlantis, where she could have had her mental and physical freedom.  Maybe that idea would have materialized in time, if Skeates had been given the opportunity.  We’ll never know now, I suppose.

I enjoy the mini-plots with Aquaman’s supporting cast.  At this time, the Marine Marvel is the only character that has his entire extended super family gathered around him, giving him unique story possibilities that other characters with similar supporting characters don’t have access to at the moment.  It’s great to see Skeates take advantage of that.  I also love seeing more of Tula in general.  The character she developed into under Skeates’ pen, capable, level-headed, independent, and still with a great sense of adventure, is one that I really love.  The plot of the trouble-making politician that the young Aquatic Aces are mixed up in is certainly not a new one for Aquaman, but this time it comes with a new twist.  Interestingly, part of Noxden’s platform is a call for free and democratic elections, which is actually quite sensible and seems only natural to an American audience.  After all, one of the central values of our culture is reverence for democracy.  There is a lot of potential for some fascinating stories in the interplay between tradition and progress in Atlantis.  Sadly, we won’t really get to see Skeates develop that potential.

In the end, though this isn’t a perfect story, it is a lot of fun and just full of intriguing beginnings.  The SAG team has done a lot of experimentation, but I rather feel like, with this issue, they were settling into what would have been a very promising routine.  I’ll give it 4.5 Minutemen.

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“Computer Trap”


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We’ve got a very pleasant surprise this month in the form of an extra Aquaman yarn as a backup in this issue.  This is a great little 7 1/2 page story that hits on some unexpected themes.  The backup begins with Skeates doing a bit more aquatic world building, as the Sea King, returning from a mission on the surface, swims through a submarine ghost town.  It’s a forlorn abandoned city that rather gives our hero the creeps, and while he’s pondering what happened to its inhabitants and how long it has lain empty, he suddenly detects a telepathic signal.  Strange!

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When he goes to investigate, he discovers an advanced computer, a self-aware machine that attacks his mind!  The AI attempts to enslave his will, but Aquaman is no mental weakling, and his incredible willpower and mental strength hold off the telepathic attack.  In the interim, we get treated to a flashback to this device’s origins, and it’s a pretty interesting story, the archetypal ‘machines turn on their masters‘ setup. An advanced aquatic society built this powerful computer to help run their civilization, but, in a classic twist, the machine found the humans far too unstable and imperfect, so it simply took over.

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In this case, the device actually dominates the minds of the citizens and turns them into efficient little worker-bees, creating more and more machines and more and more advancements, all in the name of ‘progress.’  That was the great ideal, progress for its own sake, and progress defined as technological growth, while all else in this culture decayed.  In a really neat take on the concept, the machine can only control the minds of the adult society members because their brains are fixed and rigid, leaving the youth to grow disaffected and eventually to abandon the colony in search of a place that valued more in life than the endless pursuit of ‘progress.’  In a cool example of truth in fiction, the minds of young people actually are more flexible and less fully developed, so this is surprisingly believable on that score.  Of course, there are also obvious social parallels as well.

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Eventually, the machine’s slaves grew old and died, leaving no-one to serve it.  The computer plans to use Aquaman to attract a new population to pursue ‘progress,’ but the King of the Seven Seas is nobody’s pawn.  He stops fighting the device long enough to summon help, and though the computer invades his mind, the timely arrival of an electric eel breaks its control!  To put an end to the menace of this mad machine, Aquaman summons a horde of his finny friends, and they collapse the cave it inhabits.  Yet, Skeates leaves a note of mystery in the ending of this tale, as the machine may yet survive!

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This is a quite a good story for as brief as it is.  It helps that it fits into the end of the previous yarn, building off of its momentum, allowing this one to feel a bit more expansive than it really is.  Skeates also deals with some really fascinating themes here, including the dangers of the rapid pace of technological advancement, one of the perennial subjects of science fiction.  As long as man has built machines, there has always been a fear that they might somehow cost him his humanity.  As it turns out, it’s a fear well founded.  We’ve begun to see that our hypertechnological society comes at a cost, with kids losing the ability to interact socially because of their addiction to social media and the like, not to mention the impact of information and sensation overload in the Internet Age.  These are just the newest manifestations of an ancient phenomenon.  Very little that we create comes without a cost, and it seems that those costs are growing more dear.

Perhaps the most interesting element of the story for me was Skeates’ implicit criticism of the concept of progress as its own goal.  C.S. Lewis described the origins of this tendency brilliantly in his essay “De Descriptione Temporum,” where he wrote of the modern idea of a progressive, which is to say ‘evolutionary,’ view of history:

“that what has imposed this climate of opinion so firmly on the human mind is a new archetypal image.  It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones.  For in the world of machines new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy.”

And he critiqued this view in his Mere Christianity, arguing that:

“Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”

There can be no progress without a concept of a destination, without an ideal and a goal, and you’re either moving closer to that end or you’re moving further away, so movement by itself is not necessarily progress.  It’s a useful lesson to remember, and, in its own small way, this little backup tale teaches it.  The departure of the colony’s youth makes the point rather well, as they are searching for the things that give a culture its soul, the things that make life worth living, like the sublime pleasures of art and literature.  Of course, Skeates’ story is so brief that it can do little more than gesture at its themes, but they are interesting enough on their own merits that they still add some flavor to the final product.  I’ll give this great little backup 4.5 Minutemen, as it gets extra credit for at least having the potential to be thought-provoking.

Of course, it hardly needs to be said at this point, but Aparo’s art in this issue is as beautiful as usual.  His depictions of the action scenes are particularly impressive, but I just plain love his illustration of the ring-world.  He gives that place such a wonderfully insane feeling that it really adds something to Aquaman’s adventures there.  His Tula is a tad off this issue (she’s probably the only Aqua-character for whom I really prefer Nick Cardy’s rendition), but Aparo, as usual, also injects a lot of personality into the supporting characters.  That last shot of the rabble-rousing politician is a bit chilling and instantly conveys the fellow’s nature and personality.


Batman #229


“Asylum of the Futurians!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Dick Giordano
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“Temperature Boiling… and Rising!”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Frank Giacoia
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz

Not the most amazing cover we’ve had here, though I suppose it does do its job of making the reader curious about what’s going on.  And what is going on is rather weird.  This isn’t the type of terrible, lazy story we’ve encountered from Kanigher in the past, but neither is it the stronger type of tale he’s been telling lately in our reading.

The yarn itself opens with a young woman running along a country road where she encounters the Batman, who has come searching for her and her husband.  Her name is Laura, and how the Dark Knight knows her isn’t explained.  When she asks about his fortuitous arrival in the middle of nowhere and the middle of the night, he just says he’ll tell her later.  Odd.  She proceeds to tell the Caped Crusader that her husband disappeared in the middle of the night, and when she found him, the scene she witnessed was almost enough to drive her mad!

Refusing to describe the source of her trepidation for fear he won’t believe her, Laura leads Batman to an eerie, gloomy old house in the woods.  Therein, they observe a scene out of an asylum, as musicians play on invisible instruments, waiters serve phantom food, and diners dressed in futuristic garb eat off empty plates.  They observe Larua’s husband, Stephen, a “famed photographer of psychic phenomena” looking on in befuddlement before he finally breaks out in anger, demanding to know the meaning of all of this.  In response, the creepy lady in charge yells out that they thought he was “the Seventh Futurian,” but since they were mistake, they must kill him!  His work made them think that he’d be able to “hear” their music, and “taste” their food, things only a Futurian can do.

Batman takes that as his cue, rushing in and overcoming the gathered gang and their futuristic weaponry.  It’s a nicely drawn sequence for the most part, and it ends with only the girl left standing.  She declares that the Futurians are “the wave of the future,” born psychic and destined to rule the world.  They have cells all over the planet, waiting for the arrival of the Seventh who will lead them.  She reasons that only one person could overcome five of her fellows, and thus the Dark Knight himself must be the Seventh for which they’ve been waiting.  They hand the Masked Manhunter a crown, and he decides to play along in order to take care of them peacefully.  But it’s a trap!  The crown tightens on his head, knocking him out, and the Futurians decide to put him to the test.

Taking a book out of Renaissance witch trials, they lock him in a coffin and toss it in the lake, thinking that only the special Seventh could escape from a watery grave.  Inside his sinking prison, the Dark Knight uses the now loosened crown to pick the coffin’s lock and swims for the surface.  For some reason, the Futurians seem sure that this guy they’ve just tried to kill, TWICE, who has dedicated his life to fighting crime, is going to help them take over the world.

Instead, for some strange reason Batman seems more inclined to punch them in their faces.  He takes them out, using the estate’s statuary, and captures their lovely leader.  Then, as he takes the rescued couple home, we discover that when Stephen was captured, he “screamed silently for help,” and somehow, that call reached the Caped Crusader.  The question of psychic powers is left ambiguous, but not in a particularly productive way.  It’s so vague and these characters so forgettable (I had to go back and look up their names), that it doesn’t have much impact.

This is a mediocre story.  It’s okay, and Novick renders the action nicely.  Yet, the Futurians are too big of a concept to be tossed out in 15 pages while also vying for space with two other supporting characters, one of whom is entirely superfluous to the plot.  Kanigher could have just had Batman show up at the house and saved two pages for better use.  The gang/cult themselves are just shy of being interesting.  With some more development, they could have made the jump, but as is, they just seem like generic would-be world-conquerors.

In general, the concept of this story just doesn’t quite manage to come together, and that concept, interestingly enough in light of the Aquaman backup tale above, seems to be tied into Futurism, an early 20th Century cultural movement originating in Italy that, coincidentally enough, advocated complete neglect of the past and an ethic of unbridled progress.  Even when I first read the “Futurist Manifesto” in college, I thought its principles were utterly foolish.  To once more quote Lewis, he argued that “[t]o study the past does indeed liberate us from the present, from the idols of our own market-place.  But I think it liberates us from the past too.  I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians” (12).  Far from enslaving us, a knowledge of the past frees us from the blindness that makes contemporary mores into commandments and fashion into fact, and it also puts bygone days in their proper context, removing the rosy tinge that nostalgia tends to apply to all such visions.

But what has this story to do with Futurism?  It’s only tangentially related, but I can’t help but think that it is this movement which Kanigher had in mind when he penned this tale.  The antagonists of the piece read like a more militaristic version of the Futurists, which is impressive considering just how militaristic the originals were.  There are some definite parallels, and the sad thing is that these guys could actually furnish some really interesting villains if they were given any chance to develop a personality other than ‘strangeness.’  The story just feels a bit unfinished, though it is entertaining enough.  I’ll give it 3 Minutemen.


“Temperature Boiling… and Rising!”


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It’s nice to get a bird’s eye view of Hudson University.

The second half of this Robin tale is pretty good, even better than its predecessor.  It picks up with the student volunteers for Prof. Buck Stuart’s senate campaign as they try to make sense out of the shocking newspaper headline from last issue and the picture showing their golden boy giving a payoff.  In an interesting scene, a hippy-looking kid blows his top and tells Dick Grayson that he’s through playing by the rules before storming out.  What makes the scene fascinating is the boy’s mention of the Kent State Massacre.  Bringing that real event into the story instantly makes it feel more serious and grounded, and it really puts the kid’s anger and impatience into perspective.  This election, and those like it in which young people were getting involved, mattered.  They mattered because they were a chance to show the youth of this country that the system worked…or risk driving them into the streets in anger and despair.  It’s a small moment, but it struck me nonetheless.

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The story continues, with the candidate himself arriving and telling the boys that the claims are phony.  With the help of Phil Real, the campaign photographer, Dick does some good detective work by realizing that the damning picture is doctored and sets out to prove it as Robin.  The Teen Wonder heads to the local paper where the editor tells him in no uncertain terms that their publisher is backing the incumbent and won’t allow a retraction without hard evidence, so Dick goes in search of just that when the fellow reveals that their source’s name was…Phil Real!

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When Robin arrives at his friend’s room, he finds Phil’s roommate, who is one of the kids behind the fire at the campaign office from last issue.  The firebug and his friend jump the young hero, and for the second issue in a row, Robin barely escapes a slot on the Head-Blow Headcount, as he gets his bell rung pretty good.

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Still, he keeps his feet and easily dispatches the two college-toughs. In the room he finds the evidence he needs of the photo tampering, enough to force the paper to print a retraction, which helps to swing the election in Stuart’s favor!  At the end of the tale, Dick Grayson leaves the victory party, saying there’s still much more work to be done, an ending that I rather liked.  There’s something in it that indicates our young hero is growing up.

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This is a good ending to this story, and it manages to pack a really impressive amount into these seven pages.  There’s enough of a misdirect to make the mystery feel somewhat satisfying, with the evidence of both this and last issue seeming to point to the photographer.  Robin gets to display some detective skills and gets in a touch of action as well, in general, being portrayed as the intelligent, capable, and resourceful young man he is, which hasn’t always been the case with these Robin tales.

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It’s nice to see the Teen Wonder come off well.  He is one of my favorite characters, after all.  This iteration doesn’t have as much focus on youth involvement in politics as the previous one, but together they make an interesting whole, commenting on the situation.  It’s fascinating to see the social unrest of the period work its  way so clearly into comics, and this tale is a particularly obvious example of the tendency.  I’ll give it a good score of 4 Minutemen.

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And that will do it for the second part of February 1971.  I hope y’all enjoyed the read and will join me again soon for the next edition of Into the Bronze Age, where we’ll have a little something from the Dark Knight and the Fastest Man Alive.  Until then, keep the heroic ideal alive!


The Head-Blow Headcount:

Aquamanhead.jpgBatmanhead.jpgshowcase-88-fnvf-jasons-quest0robin2 - Copy.jpgPhantom_Stranger_05.jpgrobin2 - Copy.jpgbatman-family-6-cover.jpgAquamanhead.jpg3072564469_1_3_hCmU7jwq.jpg

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Oh no!  Three in a row!  Poor Aquaman.  He just can’t catch a break, and the biggest blow of all is yet to fall.  Once again, Robin narrowly avoids inclusion on the Wall of Shame, and no-one else has really come close.  We’ll have to see if this month holds any more additions to the august company.

Into the Bronze Age: December 1970 (Part 4)

DC-Style-Guide-1

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

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

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

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

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


Green Lantern/Green Arrow #81


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

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

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

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The obvious reference to Uncle Sam is…odd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Justice League of America #86


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Phantom Stranger #10


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Into the Bronze Age: December 1970 (Part 2)

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Hello readers, and welcome to another Into the Bronze Age feature!  Today we’re tackling an Aquaman and a Batman issue, two of my favorite characters and two of my favorite books, but this month doesn’t quite provide two of my favorite stories.  Nevertheless, I’ve got a fun and interesting set of reading for this post.  Check it out below!

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

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

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

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


Aquaman #54


aquaman_vol_1_54“Crime Wave!”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Dick Giordano

Well ladies and gents, this is a weird one.  It’s a self-professed experiment in storytelling, and not an entirely successful one.  Yet, neither is it a failure.  It’s a bold attempt to do something new and innovative with the format of comic book storytelling, and the SAG team definitely deserve some kudos for being willing to try new things, which they’ve been doing all along in their run on this book.  Yet, I feel like this script could probably have used one more pass in order to make it truly a hit.  Nonetheless, what we have is a creepy, disconcerting tale that is apt to stick in the mind, and all under a very striking cover by the inimitable Nick Cardy!

The comic is actually two stories, a framing narrative and an interpolated episode happening at the same time.  We start with two cops, John and Paul, and I feel like that might well be a reference of some sort which I can’t quite place, who have arrested a well-dressed man who had broken into a jewelry store (might it be a reference to the Apostles?).  The man is in a strange daze, unable to say anything other than “I’m dead!  Thanatos killed me!”  Apparently, the zombiefied thief is actually a prominent socialite, one of a string of respected citizens who have suddenly and inexplicably turned to crime.  They all evince the same bizarre behavior, and the police are stumped.  The detective, John, orders the passive prisoner taken to “the science boys,” in hopes they can figure out what is behind this.

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Meanwhile, Aquaman has been visiting with some surface friends and has forgotten about his one-hour limit, which is stupid in multiple ways.  I’ll give Skeates a pass on the use of the limit in general because he’s just working with what he’s got, that being the established canon at this point.  Interestingly, the team includes a very fitting poem in the opening of the tale that hints at what lies within.

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The King of the Sea is hurrying home to the water when he’s jumped by another suicidally overconfident gang of plain-vanilla street-punks, just like those that attacked the Flash last month.  Sheesh!  Is there something in the water in the DCU that gives generic gunsels delusions of grandeur, or what?  I suppose that something like that would explain why folks like the Ten-Eyed Man think they can cut it as supervillains.  Well, this gesture should have been incredibly foolish, but unfortunately the Marine Marvel doesn’t perform too marvelously.  He tears them up until…that’s right, the notorious head-blow strikes!  I’m really not crazy about random punks being able to take down the super strong, super tough Atlantean, as I’ve said before.  It really feeds into that inconsistent portrayal of his powers that plagues the character.  Generally speaking, that isn’t a major fault of the SAG run, but it does crop up from time to time.  I’ll give this instance a partial pass, though, as the hero would have been weakened by his time out of the water.

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Either way, what follows is very strange, and a reader is apt to feel like they’ve missed a page.  Suddenly, we’re presented with a black panel with a few enigmatic word balloons, then Aquaman is suddenly free, walking down a spooky lane and approaching the faded magnificence of a crumbling mansion.  He has a note from Mera asking him to meet her there, yet there is some malignant presence within the house.  When the Sea King approaches a mirror inside, his image distorts, grows, and becomes a grotesque exaggeration of his form before bursting from the glass and attacking him.  What is going on?!  It’s a brave narrative gambit, and it works fairly well to invite the readers into the hero’s own sense of confusion and bewilderment.aquaman54_07

Suddenly, Aquaman awakens in Atlantis, with Mera leaning over him.  She tells him that some kind surface -dwellers brought him back to the sea and he was rushed home, but she denies any knowledge of the mysterious note that drew him to that house in the first place.  Aquaman feels responsible for unleashing the monster that attacked him, whatever it might be, and he says that it is up to him to stop it.  That’s a good character moment.  It captures his sense of duty and morality, as he feels the necessity to take responsibility for this creature on himself, despite the fact that he was duped into releasing it.

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Yet, before he can act on his impulse, we get another mysterious black panel with frantic dialog about how “He’s coming out of it!  Turn that thing up!” and other such exclamations.  Suddenly, Aquaman finds himself battling the being, which calls itself Thanatos, on a strange, surreal landscape.  Here’s where we get one of the issue’s missteps, as our perspective suddenly changes and we follow Thanatos himself for a time.  I think the action panel is supposed to serve as something of a chapter heading, rather than part of the story, but it’s so unclear that it breaks the flow of the story.  What’s more, following Thanatos and seeing his point of view doesn’t make sense in context of the story’s resolution.

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aquaman54_13We watch as the rampaging monster attacks Atlantis, and when Aquaman responds, he can’t seem to make any headway against the beast.  He gets weaker as it gets stronger!  Despite his best efforts, Thanatos knocks him out, causing him to awaken in bed once again.  Mera tells her husband that Thanatos headed out to sea, and despite being weakened, the Marine Marvel heads out after him, fearing what will happen to life in the ocean if the monster has free reign.

We check back in with the cops, who obligingly provide us with some exposition.  Apparently, a local crime lord has been kidnapping prominent citizens and subjecting them to a strange type of brainwashing.  The subject is trapped in their own mind, fighting an amped-up version of their own death instinct, and when the psychic manifestation ‘kills’ them, they become “death-driven,” beginning to act as pliant criminals for the mastermind.  If you’ve had any psychology classes, this may sound a bit familiar.  If so, it’s because this is basically Freudian psycho-analysis, and as such, is more or less debunked these days.  Still, Freud serves as a useful touchstone for popular conceptions of psychology and for exaggerated comic book science.

aquaman54_17Well, we can probably figure out what’s happening to Aquaman now, which is why I think this reveal should probably have been postponed a bit.  We get another mysterious black panel, now a bit more understandable, and suddenly the King of the Sea arrives in…an underwater Wild West town!  It’s quite strange, but given that we know he’s in a dreamworld now, it sort of works.  I really wish that Skeates had toyed with this a bit more, told us, perhaps, why Aquaman would imagine a western town for his showdown.  I feel like there’s some fun character work that could have been done there.  Was a young Arthur Curry a fan of Wagon Train, Have Gun-Will Travel, or the Lone Ranger?  Personally, I see him as identifying with The Rebel (Johnny Yuma).

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Our hero plays the part of the unwelcome stranger, and the townsfolk give him a cold shoulder until Thanatos arrives for a reckoning, submarine six-shooter and all!  We get a bizarre but fun underwater Old West face-off, straight out of a classic western, but once again, the monster saps Aquaman’s strength, and he gets hit!  Of course, this causes him to awaken again in Atlantis, and he begins to put the pieces together.  The Sea Sleuth deduces that none of this is real, but just then, Thanatos breaks into the palace!

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The two aqua-foes square off as the two policemen raid the hideout of the crimeboss they think is behind the zombiefied citizens.  Inside, they discover the same slimeball who had kidnapped Mera back in issue #44, which started the classic ‘Search for Mera’ arc.  What follows is interleaved action, as the cops take down the villain’s gang and Aquaman takes down Thanatos in a really cool Aparo splash page.  While the other prisoners are zombiefied, the Sea King is able to resist, to hold out against his own worst instincts, until the policemen free him.  The story ends with our hero on his way home to Atlantis, ready to spend some time with his beloved, noting that they’ve been apart too much lately.

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aquaman54_20-copyAs I said, this is a weird issue.  The attempt to tell a dream story within another story is an interesting one, but Skeates breaks his own story logic by following Thanatos for a time, despite the fact that, in the scheme he sets up, this monster should be nothing more than a manifestation of Aquaman’s death-drive.  He shouldn’t really have his own motivations and desires, short of killing his alter-ego, especially because this is all happening in Arthur’s mind.  I think it would have been more effective to just have the beast show up every few pages and disappear inexplicably.  Skeates almost achieves that, with the constant reversions to the palace and the clever use of his black panels.  I do like that the villains have a hard time keeping Aquaman under control.  It’s another of those story beats that emphasize the power of his mind and spirit, which I always enjoy.

Aparo’s artwork is excellent as always, and the brutal, maniacal face he gives Thanatos really helps to establish the dangerous and fearsome presence of the character.  The story has a nice, moody color palette for many of the encounters with the monstrous manifestation and the scenes with the cops chasing their leads, giving the comic something of a noirish feel at times.  As usual for an Aparo book, I find myself having to restrain myself, because I tend to want to post every other page or panel because the comic is just chock-full of striking images.

The unexpected and unheralded return of Mera’s kidnapper is something of a letdown.  His roll could easily have been filled by any generic thug, as his backstory doesn’t impact the plot at all.  We don’t even get a ‘curse you Aquaman’ type moment.  It just feels like something of a waste.  The end result of this issue, uneven as it is, is still an enjoyable read.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen, giving credit for the innovation that Skeates attempts despite its mixed success.

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P.S.: This issue also has a very neat feature in the form of a letter from Steve Skeates about his writing process, talking specifically about the recent O.G.R.E. issue as well as this one and relating an intriguing story about how the writer actually worked for a group of industrial spies for a time!  It’s interesting to read about his perspective on these tales, but his account just drives home my feelings about the role of the spy organization in the last issue.  To bring OGRE back, only to tell us that they’ve been definitively shut down seems…something of a waste.  Nonetheless, check out the rare glimpse behind the curtain!

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Batman #227


batman_227“The Demon of Gothos Mansion!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: Ben Oda
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“Help Me … I Think I’m Dead!”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Mike Esposito
Letterer: John Costanza

This issue of Batman, while not perfect, definitely captures the mood and feel that I identify with the Dark Knight.  I feel like we’re getting closer to that definitive Bronze Age Batman.  The plot has a few weak points, but the cover story really manages to strike the right tone for the character.  We get one of those always slightly ill-fitting stories that pits the (relatively) grounded Batman against the supernatural, but this outing does so with a fairly light touch that works pretty well.

batman-227-004The story centers around Alfred’s niece, Daphne Pennyworth, who made an appearance not that long ago in Batman #216, a story I only vaguely remember.  She’s written her uncle a letter explaining that she’s gotten herself into more trouble.  She’s taken a job at a remote manor house which is the scene of mysterious happenings.  It might be nothing, but a rather Hal Jordan-looking Bruce Wayne offers to look into it for his friend, and just like that, we’re off!  Batman investigates the estate, prowling the grounds and discovering armed guards.  That’s suspicious, so he tests their intentions by just strolling into sight and letting them take a shot at him.  I rather like this whole sequence, as the menacing, torchlit shape of the Batman strikes an ominous figure.  He is so capable and so on top of things that when they attack him, he easily takes them out in a nicely done page.

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Having discovered that something untoward is definitely going on, the Dark Knight decides to spy on the other inhabitants of the estate, and he observes something quite unusual from his vantage point.  The owner of the mansion, Heathrow, and two followers pass by, discussing a dark ritual and the summoning of a demon named Ballk!  Something sinister is afoot!  The detective helpfully informs us Ballk is “one of the nastiest creatures of mythology,” but in this case, the name seems to just be made up rather than drawn from actual myth.

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batman-227-013Now with some idea of what the trouble is, the Masked Manhunter goes in search of Daphne, who he finds locked in a tower of the mansion.  She fills him in on her predicament, telling him she was hired to teach Heathrow’s two children, but she discovered that they were “a pair of hideous dwarves!”  Whoa, I’m thinking that’s not politically correct!  Apparently Heathrow forced her to don an elaborate old-fashioned dress, the same dress as worn by the woman in an old portrait in her room, a woman who could have been her twin.  The mystery nicely established, Batman breaks her out, only to fall prey to a trap and be taken prisoner by Heathrow’s two little henchmen.

The master of the manse happily conforms to generic standards and both leaves the hero unattended in a death trap AND provides him with some grade-A exposition as well.  It’s convenient, but as I’ve said before, it’s an established part of the genre, so we can accept it.  Apparently, Heathrow’s family have served the demon Ballk for hundreds of years, and he and his followers have been searching for just the right woman to sacrifice to the beast, a woman who is an exact match for the original victim that once freed the spirit.  Daphne is just such a woman, and they plan to sacrifice her at midnight!

The trap itself is a fairly clever affair.  Batman is placed on a stone pedestal that is attached to counterweights, slowly sinking and tightening a noose about his neck.  His escape is excellent, as he tightens his neck muscles and swings, by his neck, to grab a torch off the wall with his feet, burning the noose off.  It’s a wonderful display of acrobatic acumen and grim determination, and it makes for a heck of a page.  Once free, the Dark Knight meets a shadowy figure who he thinks is Daphne, but her strange speech and hypnotic effect on him reveal that she is actually the ghost of the demon’s first victim.  In the only real weakness of the issue, the Masked Manhunter suddenly falls in love with her in a subplot that doesn’t really have enough space to breathe.

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The phantom female leads our hero to a black chapel, where a horrible ceremony is taking place.  The Masked Manhunter intercedes just in time to rescue Miss Pennyworth and interrupt the ritual.  In another cool sequence, he scoops Heathrow up bodily and hurls him at his followers, scattering them like ten-pens.  The old man dies, either naturally or as a result of dark magic gone wrong, and the Dark Knight frees Daphne.  With matters settled, he rushes out into the night to track down the ghostly girl, but she fades away, leaving nothing but her portrait and a weeping hero behind.

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The romance subplot is a bit odd and doesn’t really work, but the rest of the issue is good fun.  O’Neil nicely establishes a Gothic horror feel for the tale, and the coloring and moody art really helps to bring that effect to life.  The central plot is a conventional one, but it works despite its familiarity because of the good presentation.  I particularly like Batman’s portrayal as capable, dynamic, and grimly resolved.  His escape from the death trap is one of the high points of the issue, as is his effortless defeat of the guards at the beginning.  We’re approaching that spot-on portrayal of the character that I’ve been looking forward to.  Novick does a great job on the art for this issue, really turning out a striking book.  In the end, this story succeeds in its creation of atmosphere, tension, and mystery, even when the plot goes astray, so I’ll give it 4 Minutemen.

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“Help me…I think I’m Dead!”


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This Robin backup is an interesting one.  It features the Boy Wonder getting involved in politics, a prospect I’m of two minds on.  On the one hand, I’d prefer politics stay out of my comics, except in the broadest ways, but on the other, it makes sense that folks who pursue justice and have strong moral compasses would probably get involved in trying to fix their world with more than just their fists.  In either case, we’ve got another campus-centric adventure here, but unlike some of the previous stories, this one works pretty well with its setting.

The story opens with Dick Grayson arriving for a shift at “Friend’s Phone,” a student-led phone counseling service of sorts.  Basically, its for kids who need someone to talk to, and it’s a nice thing to see the Teen Wonder involved with.  However, when he answers his first call, he recognizes a voice on the other end, a voice that is incoherent and panicked.  Rather than call the police, which, in such a situation, would be a pretty fair response, he changes into Robin with the help of a trick briefcase and goes to investigate.

The voice belonged to a boy named Phil Real, who works for the same local political campaign that Dick has joined, but when the hero races to his apartment, he sees the young man tottering on the edge of a cliff.  With an acrobatic rescue, the Teen Wonder prevents a tragedy, and Phil, the campaign’s photographer, tells him that he had accidentally poisoned himself with developing chemicals and went out of his head.  While pulling the pair out of the river, Robin notices how terribly polluted it is, and we discover that this is, in fact, the central issue for his candidate, Prof. ‘Buck’ Stuart.

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I have to think it wouldn’t be quite as bad if you were wearing pants, kid.

The next day we see a debate between the incumbent, Mr. Forte, and Buck, and it seems the town is on the Prof.’s side.  Yet, we see the wheels of corruption turn a little faster than the wheels of democracy, and the local corporation that is behind the pollution of the river passes orders down to stop Buck, one way or the other.  Those orders go into effect that night, as Robin is driving around town in his red micro bus and sees masked men running out of Stuart’s campaign office, which is ablaze!  In a scene that is clearly meant to be cool but just seems rather weak, the Teen Wonder flips a switch on his dash and changes the bus’s license plate.  That’s the only disguise the vehicle has.  I’m sure that no-one could possibly connect the guy who drives around in a red micro-bus to the masked crimefighter who ALSO drives around in the same type of vehicle.  Nope, that license plate is a stronger disguise than Clark Kent’s glasses!

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Robin leaps into action, taking out one of the saboteurs before narrowly avoiding another slot on the Head-Blow Headcount!  He takes a blow to the back of the head and gets stunned, but he doesn’t quite get knocked out.  So close!  Unfortunately, the punks get away, and the political supplies in the office are a total loss.  Nevertheless, the kid volunteers redouble their efforts and take to the street to get the word out.  This is an interesting angle, as Friedrich focuses on the growing political power of teenagers, which was a rising factor in this period.  It’s neat to see that referenced in comics, especially comics aimed at just such an age group.  This story has something of an implicit encouragement to get involved.

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Yet, the newfound vigor and momentum don’t last, as the local paper prints a picture that seems to show Prof. Stuart paying someone off to pollute the river and strengthen his case.  That’s where we are left, with many more questions than answers.

This is a solid story, especially considering the fact that it only has seven pages to do its work!  Friedrich sets up a good mystery, gives us two nice action beats, and even does a tiny bit of world building for Dick Grayson.  The one real problem with this setup is that the gadgets provided for the young hero have all been rather lame.  I think the poor kid is getting the short end of the stick.  While his mentor has Batmobiles, Batplanes, Batboats, and even WhirlyBats, poor Robin has…a micro-bus.

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Obviously there isn’t much to this backup tale, but it is a good start, and I look forward to seeing what develops next issue.  Interestingly, there is a political undertone to this story, since our hero is backing a politician aiming to curb pollution and balance economic and environmental concerns.  It’s quite routine for us today, but I imagine it was a bit more challenging in 1970.  All-in-all, I’ll give this story 3.5 Minutemen.

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P.S.: Fascinatingly, I just just discovered that this Robin story has a lot in common with an actual event from 1970!  Apparently, the river fire that sparked the events of the first JLA story I covered, JLA #78, had its origins in the headlines of 1969, when the polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio went up in flames.  This served as a rallying point for the beginning of the environmentalism movement, and in 1970, students at Cleveland State University got involved in local politics by staging a march to the river to protest pollution.  That hardly sounds like coincidence to me, and I have to think that this story of a polluted river and college students rallying to effect change must be related to those real events.  If so, we’ve got yet another touchstone for the impact of the growing social consciousness in comics.


The Head-Blow Headcount:

Aquamanhead.jpgBatmanhead.jpgshowcase-88-fnvf-jasons-quest0robin2 - Copy.jpgPhantom_Stranger_05.jpgrobin2 - Copy.jpgbatman-family-6-cover.jpgAquamanhead.jpg3072564469_1_3_hCmU7jwq.jpg

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Sadly, my favorite character moves into the lead on the Headcount, adding another appearance to the Wall of Shame.  Robin, despite a close call, will not join him again just yet.


That will do it for today, folks.  Thanks for joining me for a further jaunt into that great comic era, the Bronze Age!  Please join me again soon for a few more classic comics.  Until next time, keep the heroic ideal alive!

Into the Bronze Age: October 1970 (Part 4)

DC-Style-Guide-1

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

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

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

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

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


Green Lantern/Green Arrow #80


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Phantom Stranger #9


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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