- 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.
“How to Tame a Wild Volcano!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson
“Prison in the Sky”
Writer: E. Nelson Bridwell
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Curt Swan
We’ve got a nicely dramatic cover for this issue, and the headline story within is definitely a step in the right direction for O’Neil’s Superman revamp. The plot is a standard setup for the Man of Steel, a natural disaster threatening innocents, but there are added complications, physical, and, more interestingly, moral.
The story begins with everyone’s favorite evil CEO (before Lex Luthor went legit), Morgan Edge, who is calling Clark Kent into his office. He gives the mild mannered man a new assignment, to cover the events on the island of Boki as they unfold. Apparently, the Boki volcano is about to erupt for the first time in 100 years, and, in another display of impersonal, corporate evil, the island’s owner is refusing to let his workers evacuate. Edge orders Clark not to intervene, only to report, displaying a telling level of vicious callousness. Fortunately, while Clark Kent may be forbidden from intervening, Superman is under no such restrictions!
He streaks off to the south Pacific, where he sees armed ships firing on natives in canoes. Helpfully gathering up the fired shells, the Man of Steel lands on the lead ship’s deck, and there’s a funny bit as the sailors continue firing with small arms and Superman contemptuously points out how stupid that is when their deck guns couldn’t hurt him. He’s confronted by Boysie Harker, the island’s owner, who refuses to believe that the volcano will really blow and is willing to kill his employees (more like slaves) if they leave. Harker declares that the law is on his side, and he forbids the hero from setting foot on his island.
Now, this is where the Silver Age Superman would have a big existential crisis because heaven forbid he break the law to save a life. Fortunately, in what is probably the strongest part of the issue, the Metropolis Marvel flat-out acknowledges that he’ll break the law if he has to, “because there’s a moral law that’s above some man-made laws.” That’s just the kind of increased moral sophistication I’ve been wanting to see from these stories. Of course, it’s ironic that this comes from Denny O’Neil, whose Green Lantern was completely unwilling and unable to see the difference between law and morality, but perhaps this is growth for both character and writer.
Either way, Superman sets out to save the island without technically breaking the law, figuring there’s no reason to court trouble if he doesn’t have to. After setting up his camera and using a remote transmitter to do his narration while in action, he begins drilling a channel under the sea to relieve the pressure of the volcano and prevent the eruption. Yet, far away, another familiar figure is stirring! The sinister sandy shape from the previous issue stalks across the desert and then shakily takes to the skies, heading for Superman.
When it passes overhead, the Man of Steel suddenly loses his powers and grows ill. He’s forced to abandon his drilling and wonders what in the world could have caused his weakness now that kryptonite is gone. As the situation grows more dire and time grows shorter, the Man of Tomorrow is distracted by a crashing plane. After he manages to save the aircraft, he learns from the officials onboard that the U.N. is preparing to move in and arrest Harker and free the natives. Yet, they’re still an hour out, while the volcano is due to erupt in twenty minutes! Superman learns that the plane was damaged by a storm, and this gives him an idea that just might work!
He flies to the storm-clouds, and by flying at super speeds, he creates a powerful wind that blows them right over the volcano’s cone. The contact of hot and cold air triggers torrential rains, and the raging fires below are cooled enough to delay the eruption. Yet, as Superman washes off in the downpour, the sandy figure appears above him once more, and he plunges from the skies, crashing right into the deck gun of Harker’s ship.
In a hilarious and beautiful sequence, Harker and his men attack the Man of Steel with their bare hands, busting many a knuckle between them, as the hero simply ignores them, lost in thought about what caused his sudden fall. It’s wonderfully funny and illustrative of his power and his personality. I’m reminded a bit of the scene from Deadpool where the Merc with a Mouth breaks all of his limbs attacking Colossus (warning, SUPER not family friendly).
With Harker arrested and the people evacuated, Clark Kent is free to cover the deferred eruption, but he can’t help but wonder, what was it that sapped his strength? Meanwhile, inside the volcano, a sandy figure waits, its features slowly taking on greater distinction.
This is a great, straight-forward Superman adventure. It’s a simple enough plot, but the addition of the legal angle and the moral depth it reveals is enough to make it something special. The continuing thread of the sand Superman is intriguing, and I’m definitely interested in where that is going. We’re definitely seeing evidence of a change in values in these comics as we have yet another villain who is a corrupt industrialist. We’re clearly seeing a lot of distrust for the wealthy and the powerful and the focus on social justice that comes with that. I’m impressed that O’Neil manages to gives Superman some challenges without robbing him of his powers or resulting to too many plot devices. One of the hero’s greatest limitations has always been his own code of conduct, and that’s always a source for good story conflict. The humor and humanity Clark displays is also quite good. In short, this is a fine Superman story and an encouraging sign of O’Neil’s progress. I’m looking forward to seeing what else he comes up with. I’ll give this tale 4.5 Minutemen.
“Prison in the Sky”
The ‘Fabulous World of Krypton’ backup strip continues to be a fun glimpse into history, and it’s penned by the perfect fellow in the person of E. Nelson Bridwell, DC’s own champion of continuity. This particular tale gives us a look at Kryptonian culture and the nature of their elections. Curiously, we learn that the ruling body of Krypton, the ‘Science Council,’ has its members elected by the population based on the strength of their scientific achievements. That’s a novel idea, and I’m sure it’s been formally argued, but I can’t for the life of me remember by who. I’ll let you make your own wry comparisons between scientist-run Krypton and the current situation in the U.S.
The relative merits of the system aside, we observe the proceedings along with Jor-El and Lara as two different scientist demonstrate their inventions. Ken-Dal created a warp fuel, while Tron-Et (no, not THAT Tron) shows off a ‘Dissolver-Beam’ that can break up storms. To vote, the citizens of the world use a ‘vote projector’ to flash a green or blue shape on the sky. That seems a tad inefficient to me, but nonetheless, Tron-Et wins the election. As his first act, he proposes that, because of growing overpopulation in Krypton’s prisons (not very utopian, is it?), they should disintegrate condemned criminals. The rest of the Council strongly objects, calling a death penalty barbarous (perhaps a touch of social commentary?), and demand that they open the floor for alternate solutions.
Jor-El, always ready with a half-baked idea, comes to the rescue with a plan to put prisoners in suspended animation and then put them into orbit, where they can be brainwashed into good citizens, thus stealing a page from Doc Savage‘s playbook. Interestingly, even he calls it brainwashing, which indicates that he’s at least partially aware of the huge ethical concerns raised by such an idea. Shades of A Clockwork Orange! His idea is approved, and he builds a prototype. A prisoner volunteers for the first test, and he’s launched into space for 73 days. During its orbit, Krypton loses track of it for a time, but rediscover the ship before it lands.
When the rocket touches down, instead of being reformed, the prisoner bursts out of the hatch, seemingly possessing superpowers! After clobbering Jor-El, the convict takes to robbing banks. Just as he’s making his escape, Jor-El confronts him again, and this time, the scientist gets the upper hand. After he recaptures the prisoner, the scientist reveals that the fellow was faking his powers with the aid of an anti-gravity belt (which, if you recall, was created by Jor-El himself just last issue, making him the perfect person to solve its mystery.
The would-be thief spills the beans after he is captured, revealing that he’s actually the test subject’s twin brother, and he’s working for the head of Krypton’s biggest ‘crime combine.’ Surprisingly, his leader is none-other than Tron-Et himself. He finagled his way onto the Science Council in order to silence captured criminals who knew too much. To ensure his plan was adopted, he tried to sabotage Jor-El’s idea, disintegrating the original capsule and creating a duplicate complete with a false prisoner. Ironically, Tron-Et then becomes the first test subject for Jor’s design.
This story could probably do with some more space, as it’s really crammed a bit too full of ideas to be entirely successful. Nonetheless, it’s a fun tale, and all of those ideas are intriguing and lively. It’s always great to see Jor-El play ‘action scientist,’ which is more entertaining than the ‘Jor-El the barbarian’ we saw in Man of Steel. Krypton is developing into a more fully realized setting, and while certain elements of Bridwell’s plot, like the sky-light voting, are a bit on the silly side, there isn’t anything here that is flat-out ridiculous, unlike many earlier stories about the planet. It’s notable that we even manage to get a touch of continuity, with this yarn following naturally from the previous one. In the end, it’s just enjoyable to see Bridwell explore the world of Krypton, and his imagination is certainly up to the task. I’ll give this backup 3.5 Minutemen.
Teen Titans #31
“To Order is to Destroy”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: George Tuska
Inker: Nick Cardy
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Dick Giordano
“From One to Twenty”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: George Tuska
Inker: Nick Cardy
Letterer: Joe Letterese
Editor: Dick Giordano
This so-so Nick Cardy cover (a rarity) promises another campus-centric comic, though the headline tale within is an odd example of the type. Of course, I love Steve Skeates, but I don’t think this yarn is really his best work. It does feature his usual imaginative touch and dramatic sense, but the handling is a bit clumsy.
This teen tale opens on the campus of Elford College, where a mustachioed man waits to see the school psychologist. He looks like he’s in his 30s, but we’re supposed to think he is a student. Interestingly, he looks a bit like Tony Stark, and, of course, George Tuska was perhaps most famous for his run on Iron Man. As he sits in the waiting room, casually reading a magazine, he overhears the doctor talking with a student in his office. The kid complains about being distracted by the chaos in the world and having trouble studying because of it (I feel ya’, kid!).
The shrink offers the boy some therapy and helps him come to grips with the instability of contemporary politics…ohh, wait, no. He gives the kid a brain operation and implants a device in his head to “help him concentrate” by controlling his thoughts! I wonder if that’s covered under student insurance. Hearing this insane treatment plan, our middle-aged teenager reacts completely realistically, freaking the heck out and getting the heck away from that office.
Oddly, we get the traditional first page title-splash on page three. Why? I have no idea. I’m wondering if the pages for this issue somehow got out of order. Anyway, a week later, young Wally West pays a visit to the campus as he’s starting to tour colleges. That’s a fun bit of character developing verisimilitude. I wonder how many years it will be before Wally actually goes to college. At the school, he spots our mustachioed muchacho from the opening being attacked by a gang of students! Immediately forgetting all about the whole ‘not using powers or costumes’ nonsense, Wally leaps into action as Kid Flash, noting that he doesn’t know what’s going on, but he can’t stand a one-sided fight. I rather like that, and it’s a nice character beat.
Rescuing the man-boy from the melee, the Fastest Boy Alive follows his directions to a shack in the hills where the fellow, Johnny Adler, has been hiding out. Adler tells his tale, which leaves several things unexplained. Apparently, after he realized what a quack the school shrink was and fled his appointment, he became a marked man. It seems that all of the students on campus have been turned into school zombies, and they follow the administration’s orders, even attacking on command. Yet, who Adler is and how he ended up at the shack remains a bit fuzzy. He claims that he can’t get away because the only way out is through campus…but that’s a bit hard to believe. You can’t just walk around? Maybe it’s a failure of the art that I can’t conceptualize this.
Anyway, the young hero speeds away to gather his teammates and investigate Elford. When they arrive on campus, we we discover the most interesting element of the comic as we are introduced to the nefarious Dr. Pauling himself, along with the university president, who watch the Titans suspiciously. It seems that Pauling began his operations because of growing tensions at the college and the rising tide of student unrest throughout the country. The powers that be wanted a way to pacify the student body, and they naturally turned to the most wildly unethical and supervillain-ish way imaginable. To top things off, the not-so-good doctor doesn’t even have a medical license!
The junior JLA, curiously enough, are dressed in their non-costumes from the pointless Mr. Jupiter, but they immediately switch into their costumes to go meet with Johnny. At the shack, they discover signs of a struggle and a very absent Mr. Adler, so they change back and return to campus in search of him. Once they arrive, the psycho psychologist sics the school on them, and the Titans find themselves fighting for their lives. What’s worse, they can’t use their powers without revealing who they are. It’s almost like giving up your costumed identity is a huge mistake for a superhero. Who knew?
Surprisingly, Lilith actually makes herself useful and reveals she’s been taking judo. As the team is attacked, young-old Johnny Adler, newly zombiefied, begins to struggle against his programing and stumbles towards the president’s office. During the fight, we also get an awkward exchange between Mal and Roy that doesn’t amount to anything. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be light-hearted ribbing or something more serious, but it comes across as a bit mean-spirited. See what you think.
Once Johnny makes it to the office, he forces Pauling to call off the attack, and with his last ounce of strength, he rips out the mic cord, saving the Titans just before they would have been overrun. The team dashes off to find Pauling, clearly completely nuts, ranting and raving about how the campus will be consumed in riots without his stewardship. The story ends with an attempt at a melancholy and thoughtful reflection that doesn’t quite strike home. The heroes point out that the human spirit triumphed over programming and compulsion in Johnny, but that just indicates that the other students might have done the same too, yet didn’t. They wonder if the majority of people are really that weak and easily led. Have you read your history kids? Yes. The answer is yes.
This slightly weird story has its strong points, but I think Skeates might be wrestling with his page limit on this first one. There are some really interesting ideas at play here, but they don’t quite come together enough to be effective. You have a really neat reflection of the anxiety about student involvement that we’ve watched spread through the culture and through the comics. It’s fascinating that the motives for the villains are effectively just pacification, the maintenance of the status quo. They want their students to go about their studies and get their degrees in peace, which is a perfectly reasonable goal, though it is obviously taken to a horrific extreme. By implication, this tale has some rather interesting things to say about that very status quo and the ‘establishment’ that maintains it. Yet, these fascinating ideas don’t get enough space to breathe.
The same is true with Johnny Adler’s sudden ability to resist the brainwashing (something of a theme with today’s books). We just don’t know enough about the kid for his triumph to have much of an impact. If we had been introduced to him as a free-thinker, an independent spirit, it might have been more effective. The character was a good chance for Skeates to make some kind of statement about HOW to avoid becoming one of the easily led masses, but he passed up the opportunity. In the same way, there’s a slight effort to develop the Titans themselves, but it doesn’t really amount to anything. This would have been a good chance to break with the Mr. Jupiter setup, which is clearly not working, but we aren’t so lucky. Of course, the central conflict, the random brain operations, also needs a bit more to sell it. How exactly did this school psychologist convince presumably every student on campus to let him cut into their brains? You can’t throw something like that out in one page and then call it good.
In terms of the art, we’ve got a change this month. George Tuska is a fine artist with a reputation for interesting and memorable faces, speed, reliability, and versatility, but he’s no substitute for Nick Cardy in my book. This issue looks good, but I miss Cardy’s unique style and can’t help wondering what might have been. I suppose I’ll give this tale 3 Minutemen. It’s strengths and weaknesses sort of even out to an average score.
“From One to Twenty”
Like last issue, we’ve got two stories in this month’s book, but sadly the backup this time isn’t Aqualad and Aquagirl. Instead, we’re treated to a fun solo adventure by Hawk and Dove. It’s nice to see these two new characters getting a bit of a chance to develop some, as there isn’t a whole lot of space in the main Titans book to flesh them out with everyone else competing for panels. This tale begins with Hank Hall who is on the hunt for some crime to fight, and he’s decided to stalk the streets with a pair of binoculars…for some reason. That’s not at all unusual and apt to draw attention or anything. He spies a strange transaction at a newsstand, wherein a customer gives the proprietor $1 and gets $20 in return! Strange! Thinking that this must be some type of shakedown, the young man trails the customer, changing into Hawk in the process.
Ironically, the suspect is himself mugged a few minutes later, and Hawk decides to intervene, better to bash multiple crooks instead of just one! He plans to take out the muggers and then let the suspect go on his way so he can keep tailing the guy, but he the warlike one lets himself get distracted during the donnybrook and, joy of joys, he gets taken out by a head-blow! That’s right, Hawk makes his official first appearance amongst the august company on the Wall of Shame.
When he comes to, his brother Don has found him, having been out on his own type of patrol, focusing on protecting victims rather than punishing criminals. They bicker a bit, but pretty quickly they decide to stake out the newsstand again and see if anything else happens. Once there, they observe the same customer return and get another $20 for $1, and Don works out what’s going on as they leap into action. When the peaceful pacifist tries to talk the pair into surrendering, one of them pulls a gun, and the other slugs him. Fortunately for Dove, Hawk is there to bust some heads.
After the fight, Don explains to his brother that this was part of a counterfeit ring, where passers could trade one dollar of real money for twenty funny bills. As they search for change to call the police, they hope that the men they captured will help lead to bigger fish in the syndicate.
This is an entertaining little tale. It’s nice to see the brothers in action on their own, and it’s also nice to see them do more than just argue with one another. Hank comes off better in this issue, if a tad dim, and while Don doesn’t come off as a coward, gamely dodging gunfire without a complaint, he does seem a bit ineffectual as he can’t even stop an unarmed hood without his brother’s help. It is funny to see him try and talk the thug into surrendering, only to catch an elbow to the face, but it would have been nice to see him pull his weight a bit more. In the end, this is a good story that provides these two with a chance to shine. I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.
And that fills out this post. We had a fun set of books in this batch, and I’m always pleased to add another entry to Headcount. I hope you enjoyed my commentary, and please join me soon for the final book in this month of 1971, along with my final thoughts. Until then, keep the heroic ideal alive!
The Head-Blow Headcount:
Hawk joins many of his fellows and two fellow Titans on the Wall of Shame! I wonder if his partner will join him sometime soon.Clearly, the ol’ head-blow trope is alive and well in ’71.