Into the Bronze Age: July 1971 (Part 5)

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

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

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

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


Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #111


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Law of the 100”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #139


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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That’s a wonderful villain image.

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

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

 


The Head-Blow Headcount:

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

 


Final Thoughts:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Into the Bronze Age: June 1971 (Part 3)

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Hello readers, and welcome to another step forward in our journey Into the Bronze Age!  We have a trio of comics here that are pretty widely varied in quality but all of them are quite interesting in one way or another.   In particular, we’ve got a really thought-provoking (at least for me) issue of Justice League in store for us!  I’m afraid I’ve got plenty to say about this one, and things get rather heavy, so consider yourselves warned!  To round things out, we’ve got some more Fourth World goodness and some Phantom Strange…well, strangeness!

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 #401
  • Adventure Comics #407
  • Batman #232
  • Detective Comics #412
  • The Flash #207
  • Justice League of America #90
  • Mr. Miracle #2
  • The Phantom Stranger #13
  • Superboy #174 (reprints)
  • Superboy #175
  • Superman #238
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #138
  • Teen Titans #33
  • World’s Finest #203

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


Justice League of America #90


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“Plague of the Pale People”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella
Cover Artist: Carmine Infantino

This comic is one of the clearer signs I’ve encountered of the intermediary stage we’re in at this moment of our journey, here in 1971.  It’s a very mixed bag.  It features attempts at world-building, more mature characterization, social relevance, and emotional impact, which are all commendable goals and will come to define the better works of the Bronze Age.  However, each of those attempts is, at best, flawed, and Mike Friedrich makes a number of poor choices in order to accomplish his aims.  The result is a very uneven book with a lot of potential that manages to fall frustratingly short on most every front.  That really begins with the cover.  It’s a reasonably solid image, though the composition feels rather unbalanced.  It conveys its message, but there’s not a whole lot more I can say about it.

The story within begins, oddly, with a line from one of T.S. Eliot’s most famous poems, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”  (More about this at the end of my commentary.)  Here we meet a conveniently named girl with the moniker ‘Shally,’ who, we’re told, “sells seashells by the seashore,” or did, because now she lies dying.  In a cool bit of world building, we see that she was attached to the “Atlantean Cultural Exchange,” whose existence makes perfect sense, though it gets exactly zero development.  The girl herself is discovered by a young couple on the beach, soon joined by Batman himself, who notes that she seems to have been poisoned.  He tries to contact Aquaman, but getting no response, he summons the rest of the JLA.

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We flashback one month in the interim, as Clark Kent covers the disposal of a deadly chemical weapon by the military, who plan to scuttle the ship bearing the gas at sea, where it can’t harm anyone.  Of course, this is the DC Universe, where every square inch of land, sea, and space is crawling with strange, undiscovered cultures, and the deadly substance happens to rain destruction upon the undersea city of Sareme, home of the Pale People, a somewhat simple submarine race that Atlantis had recently raised to a high technological level (originally appearing WAY back in Flash #109, another bit of world building).  They worship an ancient “wonder plant,” the “Proof Rock” (get it?) which can detect dishonesty and perfidy, but the miraculous growth is smashed by the falling canisters, and in one fell swoop, the foundation for their culture is destroyed as well.

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A charismatic leader, Prince Nebeur, arises among the Pale People and declares that he will be their new god and will lead them to conquest and glory.  Then, without any preamble and completely off-panel…they defeat Atlantis.  Just like that.  The Saremites harness the chemical weapons that were dumped on their heads and turn them against their former benefactors.  Apparently after a single skirmish, Aquaman, King of Atlantis, surrenders, saying that his people have no defense against the gas…though we will see in a few pages why this claim is ridiculous on the face of it.

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Well…that was easy.  And these sheep conquered Atlantis?

There are a few major problems with this scene and what it represents for our story.  First, in it Friedrich breaks one of the cardinal rules of writing, telling rather than showing, as the defining moment comes and goes without us seeing even a glimpse of it.  Second, and much more significantly, Aquaman simply…gives up.  Without a fight, without a desperate counterstrike, without so much as throwing a single punch.  He just gives up.  He doesn’t take the field like the warrior king he is.  He surrenders, and in so doing, he submits all of Atlantis to the reign of a tyrant and an alien people.

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Bad writing aside, check out Aquaman in that middle panel.  Time to lay off the crab cakes, Arthur!

This scene and much of what flows from it are wildly problematic because of the philosophy that drives it.  It is forged from a foolish, unworkable personal pacifism that was common in the Vietnam era, the type that can only exist in a free country that gives its citizens the leisure and convenience of such scruples (this is not all pacifism, of course, just impractical, irrationally demanding strains).  It becomes unworkable the moment there is a true struggle for survival in the offing, and it absolutely cannot function at the national level.  Even neutral nations like Switzerland will defend themselves at need, and in our fallen and fractious world, all nations sometimes face outside forces that want what they have.

The doctrine of Just War is an old and respected one (I ascribe to a fairly Augustinian version myself), but the spirit that leads us to seek out such philosophies is borne from the knowledge that some things are worth fighting, and indeed, dying for.  There is a long history of such thought, but I think John Stuart Mill may have said it best back in the era of the great struggles for liberty:

“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is worse. […] The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertion of better men than himself.  As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other.”

And make no mistake, that is precisely what is at stake for the Atlanteans: freedom.  Yet, Aquaman, of all men, considers this too small of a stake for which to fight.  Now, the text tells us that the Atlanteans don’t stand a chance, so unconditional surrender is the only option, but that is simply not supported in the book.  Here is where Friedrich’s literary sin of ‘telling’ really hurts his tale, as the reader can’t help but say, “Really?  All of Atlantis and Aquaman can’t do ANYTHING against these random guys who we’ve never heard of before?”  It’s a drastically unsatisfying explanation, and it makes the Sea King look more than useless.

Back to our story, the power hungry Nebeur, unsurprisingly, isn’t satisfied with Atlantis, so he plans to conquer the surface world as well, with the help of the gas that the surfacemen themselves created.  That’s really all they’ve got going for them.  Nonetheless, the usurper king shames Aquaman and pushes him around as he takes control of Atlantis, but fortunately the apparently pathetic hero has allies that are more useful than he is in this story.  Batman tells his fellow heroes of his suspicions about the missing gas and the absent Marine Marvel, and they split into teams to investigate.  The Dark Knight goes in search of the missing Flash, while Hawkman and Superman go hunting for the chemical weapons and Green Lantern and the Atom try to contact Aquaman.

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I like Hawkman’s pressure suit; the white looks good with his costume.

In a nice bit of detail, the Winged Wonder dons a pressure suit so he can travel into the deep, but the searching duo are attacked by the Pale People near their city.  Superman saves a stunned Hawkman and returns to smash the Saremites’ weapons, with a little help from his airborne ally.  Having solved part of the mystery, the pair head to Atlantis to meet up with their teammates.

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Things are tense in the undersea city, with the Atlanteans feeling justifiably a trifle antsy about the whole ‘unconditional surrender’ thing.  Green Lantern and Atom are attacked as they approach by the occupiers, but Hal’s power ring proves up to the challenge and silences the Atlantean artillery.  When the heroes are attacked by gas shells (underwater, let’s remember), the Emerald Gladiator manages to bottle up the toxin while the Atom disables the launcher and captures the guard.

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Just then the other pair arrive, and the Saremites, in desperation, turn the water pumps of Atlantis into a weapon, which is actually a really clever idea and a great extrapolation of the extant material.  They expel all of the water from the domed city in a massive, crushing torrent, and the heroes are blown and battered by the flood, even Superman.  Now, that’s a tad problematic, as anything that could take out the Man of Steel would probably kill the others, but I’ll give Friedrich a pass because balancing these power levels has got to be tough.

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This is a cool sequence, and it includes a pretty clever idea, but it also reveals a huge problem for the whole ‘Atlantis is helpless against the gas’ angle.  The whole city is under a water-tight dome!  All the Atlanteans had to do was sit tight, and the Saremite’s weapons would have been completely useless.  In a story where Friedrich is clearly thinking through a lot of his choices, this is a pretty glaring oversight.  Nonetheless, the action doesn’t end there, as the Emerald Crusader uses his ring to shield the Man of Tomorrow, and the Kryptonian smashes his way into the Atlantean control center and knocks out the invaders manning it.  With the pressure released, the heroes storm the city and take out the Saremite troops in a decent, if not spectacular, splash page.

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The tyrant, Nebeur, tries to flee when he sees his troops defeated, but Aquaman finally does something useful and decks the would-be conqueror.  Finally, the crisis is over, and the heroes begin to celebrate, but the Sea King berates them, noting that a death toll of 43 makes this anything but a bloodless victory, and blames the surfacemen for instigating the tragedy in the first place by being irresponsible with their weapons.

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What the heck is going on with Aquaman’s face in panel #2?  The Sea King just can’t catch a break in this book!

This is an interesting scene, as it tries to deal with the realistic costs of conflict, which are always too high.  War is always a tragedy, even when it is a just necessity.  While Aquaman is rather unfair to his teammates, the real trouble is that the moment is somewhat undercut by the weaknesses of the story.  The tone is rather heavy handed as well, which is no surprise considering who our author is, but that is nothing compared to the overblown narration that follows.

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The League return the Saremites, including their dead, to their city, and the desperate, directionless people gasp in wonder as the ‘Proof Rock’ comes back to life when the heroes approach it.  They beg the Leaguers to rule them as their gods, but Hawkman steps forward and responds with an honestly intriguing speech.  He declares that they have placed their faith in external sources, which have failed them, so they must turn within in their search for meaning, a very existentialist sermon (“existence precedes essence”).  The comic ends with a distorted recreation of the Christian rite of the Eucharist, as the Thanagarian hero takes pieces of the ‘Proof Rock’ and administers them to the Pale People, saying “Take and eat of it, for this is the food of life.”  Afterwards, back aboard the Satellite, the assembled League are discussing the case when suddenly Batman appears bearing a gravely wounded Flash!  That’s quite a note to go out on!

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St. Hawkman of the wings

The Hawkman sermon is…well, a slightly sacrilegious ending, but that doesn’t bother me too much since the symbolism is clear and clever (internalizing a once external source of meaning).  It’s a really striking, provocative conclusion, and I am impressed that Friedrich is able to deliver it after the uneven story that precedes it.  Essentially, Hawkman attempts to give the Saremites a new belief structure to replace that which they lost, which is a pretty huge move on his part.  I suppose that the JLA doesn’t subscribe to the Prime Directive!  Honestly, the gesture is quite fitting coming from the Winged Wonder, given the type of advanced, science-based culture that the Thanagarians evince, but I find myself a little troubled by it, purely on philosophical/theological grounds.

While I have a deep affection for existentialism, and I think it is a useful response to the weak, unexamined Epicureanism of the modern world, it is an ultimately flawed philosophy unless joined with Christianity, as in Kierkegaard ‘s work.  When you remove external sources of objective morality, you’re eventually left with nothing more than enlightened self-interest as an ethics that can be rationally defended.  That is a pretty poor ethical standard, and the moral relativism of the modern world reflects the reality of such a stance (even when it masquerades under the guise of adhering to an objective morality).

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In terms of Friedrich’s references to Eliot’s “Prufrock,” I can’t decide if they are asinine or brilliant.  You see, the poem, like much of Eliot’s work, is about the disillusionment, frustration, and indecision of modern life.  The piece is one of the great standards of Modernism, capturing the ennui of the early 20th Century.  Given the condition of American culture in 1971, with many people frustrated about the state of things but unable to decide how to get involved or how to create change, it is possible that this is a very insightful framing device…except for the fact that the story doesn’t really capitalize on it, and the supplied line seems to be chosen because of its aquatic theme rather than any interpretative power.  The use of the “Proof Rock” in the alien city also confuses the issue.

It’s clearly a reference to ‘ol Prufrock, but its significance in the story seems to have little to do with poem, except insofar as the Pale People are lost and directionless with its destruction, as is ‘Prufrock’ himself.  One way or another, this is certainly not the clear and effective literary allusion we saw in the Avengers story from a while back.  It feels more like Friedrich showing off, but perhaps I’m being unfair.  The unmoored, directionless narrator of Eliot’s poem certainly shares his uncertainty with the Saremites.  Nonetheless, a much more effective allusion accompanies Hawkman’s sermon, as Friedrich includes a passage from William Carlos William’s “Spring and All.”  The line and the poem at large deal with the perennial regrowth of nature, the power of spring to transform even the ugliest and harshest landscapes, symbolizing the power of life to recover from even the worst shocks.  It’s a very fitting reference that adds to the scene.  I’m not much for William’s poetry, but this works.

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Justice_League_of_America_#090-22So, what do we make of this very unusual story?  It is an ambitious comic, and Friedrich is really striving to create something significant and provocative.  He falls short of most of his aims, but we have to give him credit for his aspirations.  Yet, in order to get the message he wants across, he wrenches characters and concepts out of shape, turning Aquaman into an appeaser and a z-list alien race into a major threat without proper development.  In the Vietnam era, where American forces were literally burning down and defoliating entire jungles in an attempt to pin down the Viet Cong, responsible use of weapons and accountability for them was a pretty pressing issue.  (It just so happens that it remains so in a world of robotic drones bringing comfortably distant death from the skies.)  Clearly, there is an attempt here to encourage the audience to grapple with this issue, and that is valuable.  Despite its glaring problems of structure, characterization, and logic, Friedrich delivers a very memorable and (relatively) thoughtful comic here.  Dick Dillin’s art is serviceable as usual.  He renders the Pale People pretty well, but there are some awkward panels scattered about.  There are a few places where the art doesn’t quite serve the story, but on the whole, he does a good job.  In the end, I suppose this issue deserves 3.5 Minutemen, as its flawed efforts raise it slightly above the average, though I’m inclined to be merciless because of what Friedrich does to my favorite hero, Aquaman.

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Mister Miracle #2


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“X-Pit!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta
Editor: Jack Kirby

After the heaviness of the previous comic, with its ambiguous literary allusions and downer elements, this next issue of Mr. Miracle’s rip-roaring adventures are a breath of fresh air.  I’ve been looking forward to reading more of the super escape artist’s escapades, and the King did not disappoint with this one.  I’ll save y’all the suspense: it’s a great comic, as are the bulk of this run.  Yet, this has what is probably one of the weaker Mr. Miracle covers.  Kirby has created a composition that hearkens back to his days at Marvel.  Just look at all that cover copy!  The central image, our hero facing the flying blades is great, and the peril is palpable, but there’s a lot of wasted space and cluttered text.  Still, it is properly exciting, and the story inside lives up to its promise.

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It begins the way this series often does, with Scott Free and his assistant Oberon working on a new escape for their show.  At the moment, the pair are constructing an android, which the escape artist refers to as a “Follower,” that can mimic his movements.  Interestingly, this entire scene is framed with the most Kirby panel dividers that have ever existed.  Some unseen foe watches the proceedings and reports to a superior with sinister intent.  The trick in the offing involves explosives, and Scott is using his duplicate to help him test it, but then their uninvited guest, a strange looking robot named Overlord, strikes, with devastating results.

Fortunately, the android takes the brunt of the blast, and Oberon comes to his friend’s rescue, fighting the resultant blaze.  I’ve given Vinnie Colletta a lot of flak for his rushed and lazy inks on Kirby’s books, but I’ll give him due credit for this sequences, as he does a masterful job capturing the light and shadow of the flame and smoke.  Amidst that obscuring smoke, Oberon discovers Scott, unharmed, thanks to the intervention of his Mother Box.  The mysterious Mr. Miracle tells his friend that the box was hurt while protecting him, and he must help it heal by pouring “my love–my belief” into it.  Okay?  The machine remains an enigma.

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What a fantastic page!  It’s great that Kirby gives Oberon a chance to shine, endearing this odd little guy to his readers.

mr miracle 02-08 x-pitMeanwhile, our scene changes to focus on a strange old woman surrounded by amazing machines and armored troops. When the soldiers question her about the mysterious machine, Overlord, she throws back her cloak to reveal battle armor and beats them viciously, declaring that the robot is precious to her.  She adds that she wants to kill Scott Free and orders her troops to bring him to her.  This is our first introduction to Granny Goodness, and it is fantastic.  It’s really striking and funny to see this old woman just wail on all these vicious looking warriors, and Kirby draws her as a grotesque, frightening in her ugly rage.

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mr miracle 02-11 x-pitScott, for his part, is testing another act, recreating the cover image as he is strapped to a board facing a trio of razor-sharp spears, narrowly avoiding their strike.  After his escape, Oberon begins to question him about his origins again, and I quite like his line: “Level with me, boy!  You’re not from anyplace I ever heard of–are you–?”  Their conversation gives us a nice touch of characterization for both of them, though it reveals little more about Scott, other than that he his on the run and arrived via ‘Boom Tube.’  Of course, folks reading the rest of Kirby’s books would recognize that term.  After their talk, Granny’s soldiers arrive and, mistaking the android for Mr. Miracle, capture it and Oberon.  Scott sees this and, recognizing the attackers, he takes off after them with flying devices called ‘Aero Disks.’  I’ve always loved this element of the character.  When I’m walking a long way, I’ll occasionally daydream about having a pair of these myself!

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mr miracle 02-13 x-pitBack at Granny’s base, her troops return with their catch, and you can imagine how well she takes it when she realizes they have been suckered.  Just then, Mr. Miracle arrives in grand fashion and snags his assistant.  Yet, their escape is short-lived, as Granny triggers a device, and the pair drop into something called….the X-Pit!  The Pit involves a clear, glass-like cage bearing a number of buttons, which Mr. Miracle calls “a torment-circuit.”  Sounds lovely!  Kirby gives us a bit of awkward, fuzzy dialog here, but the heart of the trap is a series of tortures corresponding to each button, including flames, electricity, and choking mud.  It’s a great sequence, and Kirby draws the heck out of it.  The trap itself is pretty clever, as, each press of a button brings relief from one peril, only to replace it with another.  That’s an insidious type of torture, giving you control over your own fate.

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As Scott and Oberon face their desperate struggle for survival, Granny celebrates by having ‘Overlord’ brought out of her vault.  We discover that the strange device is actually some type of “fabber,” or nano-fabricator, that can create nearly anything out of thin air.  Think of the replicators from Star Trek.  Of course, Kirby doesn’t describe it in those terms, as the idea was much less common and established in science fiction back in 1971.  It does highlight the incredibly advanced technology of the New Gods.  I mention all of this, because the King often likes to make such imaginative concepts central elements of his stories, even when they don’t have a major impact on the plot, and such is the case here.

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Another fantastic page, capturing what is great about Mr. Miracle.

Granny’s enjoyment of Overlord is rudely interrupted as Mr. Miracle makes another dramatic entrance, destroying the device.  He explains that he kept trying different settings for the torment-circuit until he found a radiation attack, which he was able to channel into Mother Box to restore her power, and then he use her to send an energy spike into Overlord, who was hooked into everything in the X-Pit, frying him.  Essentially thumbing his nose at the vicious old woman, the super-escape-artist takes off, admitting to Oberon that it was difficult for him to stand up to her…but we don’t yet entirely understand why!

This issue is just a blast.  It establishes the pattern that most of the Mr. Miracle comics will follow, where we begin with our hero practicing an outlandish escape, have him be challenged by some of Darkseid’s minions and put into some type of fiendish trap, only to live up to his name and thwart their plans by escaping.  It could get repetitive, but Kirby is endlessly creative and manages to throw so many strange and wondrous ideas at his readers that the formula doesn’t get boring, if memory serves.  This particular story is just a lot of fun, with all kinds of outrageous threats facing our hero, some nice character work, and a really bizarre and memorable villain.

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Granny Goodness really is a great addition to Kirby’s growing Fourth World.  She’s a reversal of the archetypal motherly/grandmotherly figure, with her deceptive saccharine sweetness and her vicious cruelty.  She fits perfectly into Darkseid’s world, and the fact that she is the model of how Apokolips interacts with the innocence and helplessness of childhood speaks volumes.  The King’s art is, of course, great throughout, full of energy and bursting with imagination.  Other than some clunky dialog and the fact that what exactly is going on with Overlord is left quite fuzzy, the issue has no real flaws, so I’m going to give it a boisterous and exciting 4.5 Minutemen.

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P.S.: We have another text piece in this comic, this one about Mr. Miracle himself and Kirby’s prophetic imagination.  It’s an interesting read!

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The Phantom Stranger #13


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“A Child of Death!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Joe Orlando
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

“The Devil’s Timepiece”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Tony DeZuniga
Inker: Tony DeZuniga
Editor: Joe Orlando

Brace yourselves, guys.  This promising mystery tale takes a really bizarre left turn, with Kanigher pulling a crazy third act reveal.  It actually starts out a really strong, promising Twilight Zone-esq tale, but that doesn’t last.  Nonetheless, we’ve got a great cover for this one, creepy, mysterious, and intriguing.  You’ve just got to pick this issue up and see what’s going on with this weird little kid!

The story inside starts well enough, with a scene straight off of the cover, wherein a scientist working in a remote facility is burning the midnight oil when he is startled by his grandson’s sudden arrival.  The child points his toy pistol at the old man, says “Bang! Bang!” and suddenly the gramps crumples to the floor, dead!  The narration is a bit heavy-handed, but the scene is pretty chilling, especially given the demonic cast Aparo brings to the boy’s cherubic features.

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the phantom stranger (1969) 13 - 03The next morning, the boy’s mother finds her stricken father dead, seemingly from heart failure, and we observe the fallout from his loss.  He was the head of Project Thunderhead, some sort of nuclear weapons undertaking, and the team must choose a new director.  There’s a bit of politicking, as an aged German scientist named Heinrich makes a play for the position buts get shot down, starting a plot thread that goes absolutely nowhere.  At the slain scientist’s funeral, the Phantom Stranger appears, ruminating that there is a terrible secret in the grave.  How mysterious!

A week later, the incident repeats itself, as the new head of the project, Dr. Kurasawa, meets the same fate when he visits the young boy, Freddy.  Once more, Freddy points his toy gun and shouts “Bang! Bang!”, and once more, a man dies!  The kid then continues to just carry on with his playing, violently, and his unconcern is really quite unnerving.

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Meanwhile, Dr. Heinrich, who seems to be losing his mind, ranting about how he should be the director and clutching a pistol, has a dramatic confrontation with the Phantom Stranger that results in a fight.  The struggle brings the rest of the crew running, and they think Heinrich is hallucinating because, of course, the Stranger is nowhere to be seen when they arrive.  The aged German is sedated, and we get a strange scene where a female scientist named Dr. Clair has an encounter with Freddy but seems immune to his “shots.”

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Three nights later, the boy creeps out of his bed once more, this time targeting his own father, the latest head of the project, but the Phantom Stranger intervenes, throwing his cloak over the child and pretending to be a newly arrived scientist.  For some reason, the father doesn’t freak out because this strange man has his son wrapped up in his cloak…and also, wears a cloak.  We learn that Freddy is adopted and unusually intelligent, and the Spectral Sleuth gives the scientist a clue about the strange deaths, noting that a set of computer banks shorted out when the other scientists were killed and that Freddy was in the room for each death.

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Suddenly, the boy runs off into the night, and his father chases after him.  Out in the stormy desert, Freddy turns on his adoptive father, and invisible energy flashes from his eyes.  Only the Phantom Stranger’s intervening again saves the man’s life.  And, this is where things just get weird.  “Freddy” begins to explain his origins, claiming that his people were an Adamic race, living in an Edeninc world, free from strife or suffering, living in peace with all.

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When the Ice Age came, they were driven underground, and after millennia in a subterranean world, their physiology changed, causing them to cease maturing around 4 years old.  The creepy child is actually an adult, a mutant of this society, who developed the ability to kill with a glance.  When subterranean nuclear tests began, this underground race was imperiled, and they dispatched their mutated members to infiltrate the various nuclear nations and sabotage their efforts in order to protect themselves.  The story is absurd, but Aparo’s art is so lovely I almost want to see him draw a full comic about this craziness.  Why didn’t anyone ever put him to work adapting some Edgar Rice Burroughs stories?

the phantom stranger (1969) 13 - 22But let’s think about this plot for a moment.  So…this guy somehow made his way to the surface, somehow ended up in an orphanage where the scientist and his wife just happened to come looking for a child, and somehow just happened to be adopted.  It’s…a bit of stretch, even without getting into the gonzo antediluvian child-culture that Kanigher pulled out of left field.  Regardless of how silly or strange the setup is, the story doesn’t end there.  After his explanation, “Freddy” flees from the recovered Stranger, who meets Dr. Clair in his pursuit, only to have her revealed as Tala!  She gives her usual ‘join me and we shall rule the galaxy together’ spiel, but he brushes her off.  The Stranger chases his quarry back to the caverns from which he emerged, but the kid…err…guy, runs straight into a nuclear test!  Despite the scientist’s protestations that “we don’t mean to kill,” our mysterious hero responds with a weird, heavy-handed ‘ye who are without sin, cast the first stone,’ bit about pollution and such that doesn’t entirely makes sense in context.

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This is a weird one, and not in the usual and positive style of macabre mystery that suits the Phantom Stranger.  There’s just too much going on here.  The bizarre, fun-sized subterranean race is just an odd concept that doesn’t really work, at least without more space to breath, aside from how incongruous the whole thing is with the story actually being told.  The slowly unfolding mystery of the kid’s powers is really fairly exciting.  It’s just a shame it doesn’t have a better payoff.  The whole story just feels messy, with the random, dropped plot thread of the jealous German and Tala’s equally random appearance.  I’m also becoming fairly certain that the DC writers had never actually met a human child.  The little boy in this story speaks in the same type of bizarre third person pidgin as ‘Superbaby’ from his ridiculous adventure in Action Comics #399, except that this is even worse, because this kid is supposed to be four years old!  I don’t think any child has ever actually spoken this way, but by four, I would hope that a kid would be a bit more clear-spoken than this!

Of course, the adventure isn’t all bad, and it is notable for the fact that it contains a fairly decent, if oddly delivered, critique of nuclear proliferation.  I was really surprised to see this type of social issue show up here, especially in 1971.  I thought it would probably take a bit longer for the nuclear issue to really reach the zeitgeist the way it had when I was a boy.  The whole M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction) concept was everywhere in the 80s, so it’s interesting to see it showing up this early, at least in some fashion.  The message here is as messy as the yarn that carries it, but it does manage to make its central premise clear.  ‘If we have enough bombs to destroy the world, why do we need more?’  Of course, it makes that point in a random aside with a minor character, so take that for what it’s worth.  This is certainly an unusual subject for a comic, so that’s worth noting.  Unfortunately, on its own merits, there isn’t much to recommend this confused jumble of a story, even with Aparo’s always-lovely art.  I’ll give it 2 Minutemen.

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“The Devil’s Time-Piece”


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Dr. Thirteen continues to hold down the backup slot here, and he gets another solo adventure.  I prefer these, on the whole, as using him too often in the Phantom Stranger’s stories just tends to make him annoying and repetitive.  On his own, he gets a chance to actually win a few rounds instead of constantly losing to and being embarrassed by his otherworldly opposite number.  Kanigher’s short adventures often prove better than his longer efforts in headline-tale, but this one isn’t as clear cut a winner as some.  It begins with Dr. Thirteen attending a secret occult auction, apparently just to mock all of the superstitious fools gathered to bid.  One of his friends, Bentley, buys an antique clock with a Satanic theme, and the auctioneer offers some cryptic warnings about the object.  Oddly, he also says that the clock needs to be wound every hour.  What kind of a clock needs winding every hour?  That would be maddening!

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Nonetheless, upon winding the clock for the first time at home, Thirteen’s friend sees a devilish figure leap out of the artifact and proceeds to plunge its trident into his chest!  Later, the good Doctor arrives to find his friend dead.  He investigates the scene, and in a nice piece of detective work, he reconstructs the setup, reasoning that Bentley wound the clock before he died.  Doing so himself, Terry gets quite a surprise, as the same Satanic figure leaps out of the object and attacks him!

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Disoriented, Dr. Thirteen realizes that the clock released some sort of gas, but he still manages to defend himself.  Finally, his attacker falls upon his own weapon, dying, and the Doctor puts the pieces together.  He realizes that this man was the auctioneer and that his father was sentenced to death on the strength of Bentley’s testimony, so he was out for revenge.  The murderer hid in the clock (which seems rather small for that) and rigged it to release a gas when wound.  Wearing nose filters, he sprang out and killed his victim…and then, apparently got back in the clock, rather than making his escape…for some reason.

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It’s a bit of a stretch, this whole setup.  Watching Dr. Thirteen solve the mystery is entertaining, and his fight with the demon-dressed villain is pretty good, but the murderer’s plot is a bit out there.  Apparently he posses as an auctioneer when his victim just happens to go to this random occult auction, or he actually is an auctioneer and takes advantage of the very unlikely coincidence of this fellow coming to his secret auction.  Either way, it’s a rather elaborate plan.  Of course, to a certain extent, you can excuse that because this is a comic story, but Kanigher doesn’t quite manage the great backup pacing he often pulls off.  This one is just too rushed, with the fight and the explanation literally happening simultaneously.  It must be easy to solve crimes when the criminals scream their confessions at you as soon as they see you.  “I DID IT WITH THE CANDLESTICK IN THE LIBRARY!  ARREST MEEEEE!”  I suppose this is a moderately entertaining read, despite its problems, and the gas-induced devil hallucinations are rather cool, so I’ll give it 3 Minutemen.

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With Dr. Thirteen’s capture of the crimson cloaked killer, we reach the end of this post.  I found this trio of comics a particularly fascinating read, and I hope that y’all enjoy my commentary!  We’ve got rather a lot of awkward social consciousness on display here, though it isn’t as well done as that we saw earlier this month.  I’m curious if the rest of the month will hold any more.  Thank you for joining me, and please come back soon for another stop along our journey Into the Bronze Age!  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

 

Into the Bronze Age: May 1971 (Part 5)

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Welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  With the world apparently either burning or drowning, this seems like a perfect time to read stories about super beings and heroes.  In desperate times, some light-hearted adventure is often just what the doctor ordered!  We certainly have some interesting titles in this batch.  We’ve got one of the weirder Justice League issues I’ve ever read, but we also have some more epic Kirby goodness to cleanse the palate, as well as more of O’Neil’s interesting Superman run.

Hi-ho Bronze Age!  Away!

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 #400
  • Adventure Comics #406
  • Batman #231
  • Brave and Bold #95
  • Detective Comics #411
  • The Flash #206
  • Forever People #2
  • G.I. Combat #147
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #83
  • Justice League of America #89
  • New Gods #2
  • Superman #237
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #110
  • World’s Finest #202

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


Justice League of America #89


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“The Most Dangerous Dreams of All!”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

Okay guys.  Brace yourselves.  This is a weird one.  In fact, that doesn’t do it justice.  It’s just plain bizarre and…well…I’m afraid it is also just plain bad.  I love the JLA, and I can appreciate an experimental story, but what we have here is a failed experiment.  We start with an unusual cover, nicely drawn by Neal Adams, but rather uninspiring.  It claims the reader will have a chance to inhabit the role of Batman or Superman…what about Aquaman?  Anyway, inside, we begin with a JLA meeting, with Aquaman acting as chairman, which is mildly fun.  Sadly, this is the last semi-useful thing he will do in this issue.  The gathered Leaguers break up and head back out among the populace, dressed in some really swinging 70s fashions.

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Bruce Wayne thinks he’s cool with his ascot, but check out Aquaman’s duds!  That takes confidence!

Oddly, we suddenly cut to Mike Friedrich, a character in his own comic, who tells us that sometimes stories exert their own pressure and insist on being told.  O-okay?  We cut to LA, where Black Canary is apparently just walking around the street in costume for no particular reason, when she runs into the cleverly named ‘Harlequin Ellis.’  Those of you with a taste for science fiction and some background in its luminaries may well recognize both name and figure.

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That’s right, this guy is an homage to Harlan Ellison, famed fiery sci-fi writer for TV, movies, and print.  The comic character also happens to be a TV writer with a fiery personality, and he sets his sights on the Blonde Bombshell.  Another strange note here is that the narration is second person, inviting the reader to identify with Dinah, though that doesn’t last.

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They meet and there is an instant connection, as in, love at first sight, which is hokey enough on its own, but an established trope.  Add to that ‘ol ‘Touchy-Feely’ Friedrich’s narration, and the scene is rather cringe-inducing in saccharine tone.  The pair grab a cup of coffee and stare longingly into each other’s eyes until Green Arrow shows up and reacts about as well as you’d expect when he finds Ellis making time with his girl.  The writer laughs the situation off, but he offers a chance for Dinah to meet him if she wants to “dump this crude bozo.”  Here the narration switches to the standard omniscient third person.

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He’s really lucky the Ace Archer doesn’t turn him into a pin cushion…

Afterwards, we follow ‘Harlequin,’ back to his…home?  Office?  It’s unclear, but his secretary and some other guy are there, presumably people actually connected to the real Ellison, but they add pretty much nothing to the story.  The writer is deaf to their pleas, sitting at his typewriter, dreaming up stories concerning the JLA.

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Suddenly, Green Arrow and Black Canary find themselves transported to Mexico, where they find a curio store with a strange artifact.  When they touch it, they fade to black, and we cut to Superman, or, maybe Ellis imagining Superman?  Either way, at this point the narrative perspective shifts again, and suddenly we’re supposed to identify with Ellis, who is apparently creating real events with his imagination, fueled by his broken heart…somehow.  It is…confusing to say the least, and this artifact is never explained.

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Superman, guided by Ellis, spies Canary, who is no longer in Mexico, I guess, and swoops down to carry her away, speaking romantically, which confuses the heroine.  Then the Man of Steel spots the JLA, trapped in a cave by a cyclops, and he says he’s somehow responsible, presumably because Ellis has imagined all of this.  What’s worse, Aquaman is dying!  Super-Ellis charges the Cyclops, and, in a sequence with really heavy narration that drowns out the art, he overcomes the monster, only to arrive too late.  Aquaman is dead!

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Except, not really, of course.  The Metropolis Marvel suddenly turns into Harlequin, and the League vanishes, leaving the Emerald Archer and the Dynamic Dame back at the restaurant where they started.  Black Canary once again displays her ‘woman’s intuition’ powers and gets a sense of what’s happening, with a weird visualization of the ‘pit’ of despair that threatens to swallow Ellis, who is heartbroken over the rejection by the girl who he just met.

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Heading to club where he offered to meet Black Canary, his mind drifts again, and suddenly he is Batman, observing Green Arrow facing a ‘Minotaur,’ which is clearly a centaur, while the lovely Mrs. Lance looks on.  The unfortunate archer’s arrows are ineffective, and when Black Canary moves to intervene, Bat-Ellis jumps in to save her, using his cape to blind and defeat the beast.  Once again, he is revealed to be the writer, and the scene fades, but the Emerald Archer is still hurt.

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Summoning help, Dinah leaves Ollie to go meet Ellis, and we get another weird visualization of despair as she explains that her heart belongs to someone else…and apparently doesn’t bother to follow up on how this guy has incredibly potent reality warping powers.  She just lets him walk away, and the comic ends with another appearance by Friedrich, who builds on his earlier statement, talking about how he identifies with all of his characters.  It is a weird and not terribly clear or satisfying ending.

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Yikes!  This dialog!

So, this is one weird issue.  It’s got a strange, dream-like structure that is confusing and disjointed.  It’s trying so desperately for pathos and emotional weight, and it is just failing spectacularly in that regard.  This is clearly a personal project for Friedrich, a fan letter to Harlan Ellison, which is fine, but it just doesn’t work for the rest of us.  It is badly conceived, badly executed, and badly written.

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Friedrich tries several interesting tactics here, but none of them really work.  His structure, meant to evoke a certain stream-of-consciousness storytelling, leaves the readers unable to follow the plot (I’m still trying to figure out the magic artifact thing).  The narration is another failed idea.  Second person narration is traditionally used to place the reader in the story after a fashion, but he breaks whatever success that move could have had by switching characters multiple times.  While I’m sure it would have been neat to see the wink at Harlan Ellison during this era, whose name was showing up all over the place in the 60s and 70s, including on some story credits at Marvel around this time, the story is just a mess.  I’ll give it a sad 1.5 Minutemen.

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New Gods #2


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“O’Deadly Darkseid”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Jack Kirby

Fortunately, we have another issue of Jack Kirby’s epic New Gods saga to make it up to us!  It has another photo-collage cover, though you can hardly tell, as the image is dominated by Orion’s tortured form.  That part of the composition is pretty great, but I think the three floating heads would have been better as just one figure, whether of Darkseid or his minions.  Either way, it’s something of a mixed bag.  When you open the book, however, the splash page more than makes up for it.  It’s a great image of the opposed worlds of Apokolips and New Genesis with a nicely written bit of narration that catches new readers up on the mythic origins of our tale.  I particularly like the description of Apokolips, with “its stark and functional temples–in which creatures of fury worship a creed of destruction!”  Not half bad!

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The story really begins with Highfather, who is communing once more with the Source, which tells him that it is time for more inhabitants of New Genesis to follow Orion to war.  The young Lightray begs to make the journey, but he is refused, while on Earth, the man in question makes a disturbing discovery, as he finds Darkseid waiting for him at the home of one of his new human allies.  The great villain sits impassively in a chair, and when Orion hesitates in his instinctive attack, the master of Apokolips taunts him with secret knowledge.  Then, from behind the door springs one of his minions, who attacks the Dog of War with a “shock-prod.”  Orion pushes through the pain and grapples his foe, eventually knocking him through the wall and sending him plummeting into the air, only for both Darkseid and his dance partner to disappear.

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The scene seems slightly…beneath Darkseid.  It isn’t quite grand enough, fitting more with a gangster film than a cosmic epic, with the single heavy hiding behind the door.  I think Kirby is still finding the right tone for the character, as I suspected might be the case.  After the fight, Orion’s five rescued companions introduce themselves, giving him an instant supporting cast.

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Now, as I remember, these five contribute almost nothing to this book, but we’ll see if my memory has been unkind to them.  They certainly don’t’ evince an excess of personality in this issue.  I assume the King wanted to provide a human perspective on the grand cosmic tale he’s telling, but I think a single human sidekick could have filled that function more easily than five of them.

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At any rate, the next scene follows the escaping Darkseid, who goes back to his hidden base and quickly displays his displeasure with his flunky’s failure.  There he finds Desaad, who is working on a device to trigger abject panic in its targets in the hopes of triggering the brainwaves for which they are searching.  After a successful test on the hapless workers nearby, Darkseid orders the device into action.

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That’s some glorious Kirby-tech!

Meanwhile, Orion uses his Mother Box to fill his newfound friends in on the conflict into which they’ve stumbled, and we get previews of some of the Apokoliptian threats that face the Earth, including Mantis and the Deep Six.  The fact that Kirby never had Aquaman encounter those aquatic aliens is a massively missed opportunity.  This section serves as a bit of a catchup, bringing readers up to speed on the current state of affairs across the 4th World books, including a glance at the Wild Area from Jimmy Olsen.

Show and Tell time is interrupted by the unleashing of the fear ray, which sends the city into a panic.  Orion dons his Astro Harness and rides to the rescue, and once again, I can’t help but feel like we’re probably missing some detail in some of these panels, thanks to Coletta.  Either way, our ferocious hero arrives at the source of the ray, a giant billboard, but it has defenses of its own.  He is blown out of the sky, but not before he blows it away in turn.  Orion manages to stop his careening fall with a blast of his ‘Astro-Force,’ saving himself and returning to his friends.  Darkseid, for his part, is disappointed at the lack of results, and in his dialog with Desaad we get yet more hints about Orion’s origins.

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This is a pretty good issue, though it is largely setup and catchup.  Still, it manages to provide us with a solid adventure tale and several moments of plot and character development.  In terms of the art, it is absolutely beautiful for the most part, and if Kirby’s work got a bit too cramped and rushed in this month’s Forever People, that is absolutely not the case in this book, where he gives us not one, not two, not three, but FIVE lovely full-page splashes, not counting a gorgeous double-page image of New Genesis.

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All of this eye candy robs us of some plot and action, leaving this issue feeling a bit thin, but it admirably serves its purpose of setting the stage for the adventures to follow.  There are still a few spots where Kirby’s pencils are a bit off, notably with Orion looking a bit funky in a few panels, but his dialog is, thankfully, missing that occasional clunkiness we’ve noticed in these books.  Taken on its own, this story is flawed but fun.  I’ll give this issue 3.5 Minutemen, with the art making up for the paucity of plot.

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Superman #237


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“Enemy of Earth”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

Our final book for this post is another issue of Denny O’Neil’s Superman run.  So far, these comics have proven to be pretty solid, if a bit strange at times.  Let’s see how this one stacks up!  First off, we’ve got a really striking and unusual cover.  Adams has certainly rendered the bizarre mutations of the crowd well…but I’m not sure that the effect isn’t more comical than dramatic.  Either way, the cover certainly piques a reader’s interest.  The tale inside is a pretty solid adventure story, and there’s a certain amount of personality and wit that raise it above the average.  It begins in standard Superman fashion, with the Man of Steel racing to save a crashing plane.  Yet, the aircraft in question is an experimental device that has been up into space, and when the Kryptonian sets it down and rescues the pilot, he finds him hideously mutated!

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superman 237 0005After taking the unfortunate flyer to a hospital, where the doctors are completely stumped, the Man of Tomorrow reasons that the illness could be the result of an alien disease.  To ensure that he isn’t contaminated, Superman just takes a quick jaunt to the radiation belt to take a bath in deadly rays, as only Superman can.  This is a fun little scene, though there is a rare failure in Swan’s art as he can’t quite pull off an interesting illustration of the phenomena.  I would rather have liked to see what Kirby would have done with that!

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Returned to Earth, our hero changes into Clark, after which he is ambushed by Morgan Edge, who tries to give him a tongue lashing for not getting the story on the experimental ship, only to have Mr. Mild Mannered very politely but firmly let him know that the reporter was on the way to deliver that very scoop on the air.  It’s a brief but nice scene, giving Clark a chance to show some personality, which is too rare in these older stories.

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Yet, during the broadcast, the Kryptonian begins to feel weak, only to discover that the Sand creature that has been following him is nearby.  Turning back into the Metropolis Marvel, Superman confronts his dusty double, but his efforts to communicate are met with silence while an attempted touch is met with a burst of energy so powerful it knocks him through the roof!  Even worse, when the Action Ace regains his feet, he finds the Daily Planet staff have been affected by the same strange alien disease as the pilot!  It seems clear that the radiation bath was insufficient and Superman has infected them.  This leads us to a nice dilemma.

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Superman realizes that he’s responsible for this and that he’s a danger to everyone he’s around, but just then he hears a mayday from Lois, who is on assignment in South America.  Her plane is going down in an area being overrun by a horde of army ants that are consuming everything in their path.  O’Neil displays a bit of personality and cleverness in Superman’s exasperated reaction as he observes “that girl just can’t lead a normal life!”  It’s another small but enjoyable moment.

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After alerting the hospital, the Man of Tomorrow takes off for South America, still trailed by the Sand-man (no, not that one!).  Meanwhile, Lois’s plane has crashed, apparently because her moronic pilot forgot to put fuel in it!  This is a weird little detail.  What’s the point of it?  There’s no real payoff, and it just seems too stupid to be believable.  Nonetheless, that’s the explanation we’re given, and things get worse when bandits arrive!

Superman arrives to help, but when he lands amidst the marching army ants, two of them that touch him immediately grow to massive size and attack him.  After disposing of them, the hero discovers that one of them grew even further after he hit it, and he wonders why.  Disposing of the ants by throwing them into space, the Man of Steel faces a terrible choice.

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He’s seen first hand how dangerous his mere presence can be, infected as he is with the strange disease.  He wonders if he should head out into space, never to return, thus leaving Lois to her fate, or intervening and risking who knows what effects on Lois and perhaps even the microbes in the air itself.  Now, this is, even in context, a bit extreme given the existence of sources of help like the Green Lantern Corps., but we’ll give it a pass for the dramatic weight it achieves.

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Meanwhile, an ill-conceived bit of heroism leads to the pilot being knocked out and the bandits abandoning them both.  Lois tries to lug this albatross around her neck to safety, but he’s too heavy and the ants are too swift.  This leads to another really good moment, as the reporter contemplates just leaving the idiot, especially because this is his fault in the first place, but she decides she has to do the right thing, no matter the cost.  That’s a great character moment for her, and it reveals the type of woman Lois should be.

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Elsewhere, the doctors have cracked the case and cured the disease.  They send out broadcasts to let Superman know, but in some good dramatic irony, he is sitting in space, unable to hear.  Just then, the sand creature arrives, now somewhat colored after their contact.  Realizing that the energy explosion after their encounter was the reason one of his hands didn’t infect one of the ants, the Man of Steel takes a desperate chance, embracing the creature and triggering a tremendous blast that sends him hurtling earthward like a meteorite.

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superman 237 0029 - CopyHe lands with a tremendous impact near Lois, and though he is weakened, he is stills strong enough to carry her and her burden to safety, handily capturing the bandits in the process.  Just when it seems like everything is going to be alright, the sandy stranger arrives, finally able to talk after their latest contact, and the dusty doppelganger tells Superman that he is the Kryptonian’s exact equal, and he fears that they cannot both survive!  Dun dun DUN!!  That’s a pretty solid cliffhanger.

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This is a pretty good story, even if it isn’t outright fantastic.  We get a pretty great problem for our hero to solve, and it’s one for which all of his great strength is useless, and there are several small but entertaining moments that demonstrate a surprising amount of personality and even provide some character development.  One of the strengths of O’Neil’s run is his tendency to provide Superman with interesting moral dilemmas, where his abilities are secondary to the problem at hand.  It’s a good way to provide drama to a character as powerful as he is.  I’ll give this one 4 Minutemen.

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And that wraps us up for this post.  It’s certainly an interesting trio of books, and the JLA issue especially is something of a time-capsule, both for fashion and for culture.  Thank you for joining me in my journey through these classic comics!  I hope y’all will join me again soon for the last issues of the month.  In the meantime, stay dry and safe out there in the real world!  Here in the Grey household, our prayers are with those affected by the hurricanes, fires, and floods.  Until next time, keep the heroic spirit alive, and as part of that, try to find some way to help those that need it!

 

Into the Bronze Age: March 1971 (Part 5)

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

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

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

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


Justice League of America #88


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yay!  They’re all dead!

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

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

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New Gods #1


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Superboy #172


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the Bronze Age: March 1971 (Part 3)

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Welcome to another dose of Bronze Age goodness!  We’re moving through March of 1971, and I’ve got a pair of issues and a foursome of stories for you today, my good readers.  I hope that y’all will enjoy my coverage of these comics!

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

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

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


Detective Comics #409


Detective_Comics_409“Man in the Eternal Mask!”
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Bob Brown
Inker: Frank Giacoia
Letterer: Ben Oda
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“Night of the Sharp Horns!”
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Don Heck
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: Ben Oda
Editor: Julius Schwartz

We’ve got a decent if not particularly spectacular Batman tale in our headline slot.  It features a mystery that is more about the ‘why’ than the ‘who,’ which culminates in an appropriately dramatic confrontation.  The story begins with an unseen assailant attacking a portrait hanging in a museum and scrawling “Die Jinx, Die!” onto the canvas (shades of Ace Ventura!).  In the morning, the vandalism is discovered, and neither the curator nor the security guard can figure out why or how the artwork was attacked.  After all, it’s a portrait of a beloved philanthropist who no-one had cause to hate.

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Meanwhile, Batman pays a visit to the artist of the piece, Rene Leclerq, where he is due for his own portrait.  That’s a bit odd.  I can’t really see the Dark Knight just standing around in an artist’s studio when he could be prowling the streets.  ‘Well, there’ve been 10 muggings and 3 murders while I sat around here, but that is a darn good likeness!’  Robbins needs the Masked Manhunter to get involved in the plot, but I have to think there was a better way to accomplish that.  Either way, when Leclerq prepares to resume work on the hero’s portrait, he finds it has also been defaced with a similar message.

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Batman reasons that, though there are many people who might find him a jinx, the only connection between this incident and the first is the artist himself.  Though Leclerq can think of no-one who would hold a grudge against him, the Caped Crusader arranges a trap, hoping that a public unveiling of the repaired painting will flush the deranged art critic into the open.  Yet, when the painting is revealed, there isn’t a sign of a telling reaction from anyone in the crowd, though the pair do notice Tracy Calhoun, the “Adonis Athlete,” a football star that the artist had painted five years before.  The Law of Conservation of Detail should make you sit up and take notice of this.

That night, Batman lies in wait for the anti-art attacker, and when a dark figure lashes out at the portrait, he finds more than he bargained for, as it leaps to life and grapples his knife away from him.  The Dark Knight has posed as his own portrait, which is a tad Looney Toons-ish, but I’ll give it a pass.  After a struggle, the vandal lands a lucky blow and knocks the hero out for a while.  Sadly, this doesn’t quite count for our Head-Blow Headcount, as Bats takes it on the chin and not the back of the noggin.

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Nonetheless, when he staggers to his feet, he realizes that the fight actually pointed him to a suspect, as his opponent had a “chin like a rock,” and was obviously very athletic.  This makes him think of Tracy Calhoun, who was described in just such a fashion during his heyday.

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The mystery of why Calhoun would want to destroy Leclerq’s art remains, and when the Masked Manhunter goes to find the artist, he discovers that he’s been called to an unknown client’s house in the middle of the night.  Deducing what is afoot, the Caped Crusader speeds to Calhoun’s house while the young man confronts the artist and explains why he hates him.

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Apparently, on the last day of their sittings, Leclerq begged for a few minutes more after their time had run out, and Calhoun reluctantly agreed.  Then, late for a date, he sped away recklessly and suffered a terrible car wreck that left him horribly scarred.  When the artist protests that he’s as handsome as he ever was, the embittered athlete removes one of those ubiquitous life-like masks, which are apparently available in every corner store in comic universes, to reveal a terrible, shattered visage.

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Clearly insane after the loss of his good looks, which he let define him, Calhoun blames Leclerq for the accident caused by his own recklessness, and he’s decided that the man must suffer.  The former footballer first destroys his own portrait with a saber, then prepares to pinion the painter as well.  Just then, Batman arrives, and while Calhoun holds him at bay for a time, eventually he is once again hoisted by his own petard, as he strikes his portrait while preparing a blow, and the entire heavy painting collapses off the wall, crushing him.  He had accidentally cut the supports when he attacked the artwork, and the object of his hatred destroyed him.  Unfortunately, the final image is rather more comical than tragic, with the madman’s arms and legs poking out of the canvas like he’s a cartoon character.

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This is a solid enough story, and the ‘attractive person turned hideous and embittered’ is an old archetype that still works pretty well.  It was nicely subverted in the Freedom Force villain Shadow, but we’ve seen it played straight many times in comics.  Dr. Doom, anyone?  We certainly all know folks who are too concerned with their appearances, so it isn’t hard to imagine someone so obsessed that a loss of their beauty would send them over the edge.

I enjoy the irony of the final confrontation, as a man who has destroyed his own life by his choices insists on blaming someone else, only to have his continued self-destructive choices finally finish the job.  It’s not the most memorable story, but it does its work well enough, even if it is a bit too rushed to give us much of a real mystery.  I’ll give it an average 3 Minutemen.

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“Night of the Sharp Horns”


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The backup tale, however, once again proves better than the headline.  We pick back up with Batgril’s adventures in Spain as she searches for the mysterious figure who had killed the arrogant but aging El Granados’s bull the night before.  She had just discovered that another sword was missing from the estate, so she takes to the grounds in order to keep a watch.  Her lonely vigil is rewarded with the sight of a cloaked figure slipping into the pastures where he begins to perform multiple passes with the chosen bull, El Aguila.  Babs thinks that his athleticism and agility mark him as Paco, the young firebrand who had rescued the older bullfighter in the ring during his last performance. 

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Detective409-25Just as the stranger prepares to slay his bovine opponent, Batgirl intervenes, snaring his sword in her cape.  When the bull charges, she rescues the trespasser and realizes that her suspicions were correct.

Yet, the young man denies that he had killed the previous bull, and when he escapes (ungrateful punk), she finds her hands full dealing with the now unencumbered El Aguila.  Making like a Minoan, the daring dame leaps over the bull’s horns and runs to the estate’s arena for safety.

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Yet, that safety proves short-lived, as a dark figure appears riding a massive bull!  Charging her like some particularly awesome cavalryman, the bull-rider tries to skewer the young heroine with a sword.  Fortunately, Babs has some skill with a rope, and she lassos the bull, sending her assailant flying into the air.  After hog-tying the beast in a fashion that would make the Vigilante proud, she confronts her attacker, who is revealed to be Manolos, the aged servant of El Granados!

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What was he doing killing his master’s bovine opponents?  He tells the girl detective that he was still faithful, but his master was getting too old to continue his career, so he had set out to kill the bulls before they killed the bullfighter, knowing that former champion was too stubborn to retire.  El Granados himself arrives and confronts his old friend.  While angry at first, he realizes the truth of Manolos’ words, and he agrees not to fight again.  As they reconcile, Batgirl vanishes.

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It’s a nice ending, but it sort of leaves an important point unaddressed.  While everyone can probably forgive the killing of the bulls (except PETA), Manolos did also straight-up try to murder Batgirl.  He attacked her with a sword while mounted on a charging bull.  I don’t think he just wanted to scare her!  That bit of craziness aside, this is a good story, and the two-part tale gives us a surprising amount of character development and drama, while also delivering some nice action.  Batgirl herself comes off much better in this half, as she doesn’t get knocked out by a hat or anything equally embarrassing.  I’m impressed by how successful Robbins is at creating a character-driven mystery with such little space to work with.  The reconciliation between the bullfighter and his mentor is suitably touching, and Paco’s arrogant attempts at stealing his rival’s glory provides a solid, if somewhat unlikely, red herring.  I was impressed with Don Heck’s work on this feature, and I’m not always a big fan of his superhero art.  He turned out several really pretty pages and nice, dynamic action sequences here.  In general, this is a good backup story, doing a lot with a little.  I’ll give it 4 Minutemen.

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The Flash #204


The_Flash_Vol_1_204“The Great Secret Identity Expose!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Murphy Anderson

“The Mind-Trap”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Murphy Anderson

Our Flash headliner for today is something of an oddball.  There’s really not that much too it, and if it weren’t for the fact that last month’s bonkers issue was penned by Robert Kanigher, who is also the schizophrenic scribe responsible for this screwball story, I’d think that it was an attempt to immediately bury the bizarre retcon of that tale.  As is, the yarn seems somewhat pointless.

This outing begins the morning after last issue’s decade-spanning daring-do, with Barry and his wife celebrating their safe return from the future and reminiscing about Iris’s uncovered origin.  I always enjoy these little domestic moments between the couple, and this one has the potential to be charming, though not much is made of it.  They are admiring the locket that had been sent into the past with her when their reverie is interrupted by a call that sets them on a new adventure.  The call summons Iris to cover a banquet honoring a business tycoon, and at the function, the reporter suddenly leaps up and declares that the guest of honor is, in fact, a fraud!

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Barry, thinking fast (‘natch), pulls her out of the ballroom, only to discover she has no idea she said anything.  Just then, the police arrive to confirm her declaration.  Apparently, the fellow is a fraud, having kidnapped the real business magnate and masqueraded as him.  Determined newshoud that she is, Iris charges off to get the story, leaving her husband stunned.

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He changes in to the Flash, just in case, and on their way back from the banquet, the couple sees a pair of disabled musicians playing for donations on the street-corner.  Suddenly, Iris declares that these two are really disguised fugitives.  Naturally, the hidden hoods don’t take too kindly to this, and the Flash has to take them out as they fill the air with bullets, for all the good it does them.  Once more, Iris has no idea what she’s done and refuses to believe either her husband or the shouted threats of the captured gangsters who promise that their organization, the Generic Gang, will get revenge for her actions.

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The next day we get the most interesting part of the issue, where the JLA have a cameo as they arrive en mass to testify in court about one of their cases.  What makes this interesting is that here we’ve got a story that implies the existence of something equivalent to the cape laws in the Watchmen, where superheroes can give testimony in costume, which is neat in a nerdy kind of way.  And after all, nerdy kinds of neat are really our bread and butter here at The Greylands.

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Iris is a very stubborn woman.  I sympathize, Barry!

Anyway, as Batman prepares to take the stand, Iris suddenly leaps up and reveals that he is really Bruce Wayne!  Fortunately, once more Barry is quick on the uptake and he chatters his teeth at super-speed in order to scramble the soundwaves of her dramatic courtroom confession.  I guess that makes sense in a comic-booky kind of way, but it’s a bit of a stretch.

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Batman, who of course can read lips, realizes what has just happened as the Flash scoops the renegade reporter up and zips her out of the courtroom.  In a telephone booth  Barry again confronts his wife with her actions, and she swears that she doesn’t even known the League’s identities.  Suddenly, Superman summons the Scarlet Speedster and declares that he’s needed for an emergency meeting of the League.  The Fastest Man Alive has to do some fast talking as he tries to explain what even he doesn’t understand.  The JLA is understandably concerned, and Flash tells his teammates that there is clearly something going on and vows that if he doesn’t get it sorted out in 24 hours, they’ll never see him or his wife again.

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Superman is being super-pushy.

When he goes to find Iris, the Flash discovers that she’s been kidnapped by members of the Generic Gang, which is gunning for her.  They hustle her into an armored truck, and somehow the man who can move at the speed of light can’t get to their victim before the doors close.  The Fastest Man Alive takes after the fleeing gangsters, taking their pursuit car out in a blink and conveniently overhearing that the door of the armored truck is rigged to blow if opened.

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Ahead, the drivers of the truck bail out, sending their vehicle careening into the drink.  The hoods hose down the dock with machine gun fire, but the Flash takes them out easily in an admittedly fun sequence.  He dives off of the dock and tears the armored doors open by projecting his vibrations forward like a cutting beam, which seems a bit out of his usual line, and then zips Iris away before the explosives can blow.

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I do enjoy how the entire sequence takes place while the truck is in the air, a nice display of Flash’s speed, if a bit awkwardly handled.

Determined that Iris can’t just be left around to blurt out secret identities willy-nilly, the Scarlet Speedster determines to go to the future with her where both she and his secrets will be safe.  His wife objects that he can’t give up his life (regardless of the fact that he’s also giving up her life), and he replies that she’s his wife, for better or worse, so where she goes, he goes, which is fairly sweet.  However, on the way, their progress is halted, and her locket begins to glow and emit energy waves.  Somehow Barry deduces from basically no evidence that the locket had absorbed some weird temporal energies, and it was the source of her sudden ESP, so they return to their own time and Iris agrees never to wear the necklace again.  Problem solved.

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This is a weird little tale.  It’s entertaining enough, but the resolution is pretty random, about as random as the gimmicky conflict that drives the plot itself.  The Generic Gang are little more than mobile obstacles to Barry, offering no real threat to the Fastest Man Alive.  This supervillain drought is really starting to get old.  One wonders just why writers were for so long unwilling to use Flash’s villains, who comprise one of the best rogue’s gallery in comics.  It makes absolutely no sense, though I suppose it’s indicative of a  larger trend.  Super villains are very scarce in general these days.

While the League’s cameo is neat, Kanigher doesn’t really do much with their interview with the speedster.  Almost any line spoken by one of the heroes could have been assigned to another one without making any difference.  Barry’s willingness to give up his life to stay with his wife is sweet, but it really feels like he gives up on solving the problem way too easily.  With all the resources that the League has to bring to bear on something like this, it seems worth at least one visit to the Satellite or something.  In the end, this is a forgettable and somewhat pointless little story, with a goofy, logic-leaping conclusion.  On the plus side, Irv Novick’s art is great on the Flash, if a little light on details in the action sequences.  I’ll give it 2.5 Minutemen.  Man, Kanigher’s score are just all over the place!

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In a  fun bit of synchronicity, “The Ballad of Barry Allan” came on my radio station while I was writing this feature.  Very apropos!


“The Mind Trap”


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We get another Steve Skeates penned Kid Flash backup here, and I’m always happy to see part of the SAG team in action.  The story Skeates spins is very promising, but unfortunately it’s rather starved for space.  Its premise is an old but enduring one, featuring a mind-hopping villain, something of a telepathic virus, traveling from host to host.  It has shades of many a horror tale, though this version doesn’t manage to harness a harrowing horror tone. 

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It begins with Wally West and the rest of his class on a tour of an exhibit on ancient Egypt at the local museum, hearing a legend about a terrible tyrant, Pharaoh Rama-Skeet (Skeates having some fun at his own expense?), who swore that death wouldn’t stop his drive for power.  Just then, a car wreck outside attracts their attention, and the kids watch in wonder as a man pronounced dead suddenly stands up and hurries off in an imperious manner.  Wally switches into his ‘work’ clothes and takes after the apparently stunned man.  When he finds the fellow, the man touches him, and Kid Flash suddenly finds himself fighting a terrible mental battle, realizing that this is the spirit of Rama-Skeet trying to wrest control of his mind.

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Wally sinks into darkness and knows no more until he finally comes to himself several minutes later, having just touched someone else.  The young hero watches helplessly as the man undergoes the same mental trauma that he himself had faced, but he wonders why the spirit would leave a super speedster for a regular Joe.  He begins to suspect that the 15 minutes the ghost inhabited his mind might be all the still weakened Pharaoh can manage at once.  This is a bit of a jump, and if the story had more room to breathe, we might have seen this pattern repeated once or twice more to really establish it.  As is, Skeates is working at a feverish pace.

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In order to throw the power-mad phantom off his guard as he begins to rant and rave, Kid Flash kneels before him, but this is just a ploy, and the Fastest Boy Alive slams into super-speed, dragging the possessed man behind him.  He plans to keep the host helpless until the 15 minute limit is up in the hopes that the spirit will be destroyed by the host’s mind in that time.  Though the task is incredibly taxing on a body already exhausted by his mental struggle, the teen hero manages to keep up the pace until the Egyptian ghost runs out of time.  With a terrible cry, the specter departs, leaving his host confused but unharmed.  Exhausted but victorious, Kid Flash collapses to rest.

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This is a fine little story, but it could have been much, much better with some space to grow.  This kind of challenge, as Wally himself admits, is really out of his line, but his solution to the problem is really fairly brilliant.  Despite that, the very brief tale just didn’t have the time to develop the creepy atmosphere and mystery that these types of plots really thrive on, and the result is that the villain is both entirely forgettable (having almost no real dialog) and not terribly threatening.  That’s a shame, as this could have been much more.  I suppose we must judge a story on what it is and not what it could have been, so I will give this too-brief tale 3 Minutemen, as it is enjoyable if not impressive.

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P.S.: Interestingly, I am apparently not the only fan wondering where all the supervillains have gone.  This issue includes a letter demanding their return and marveling at their long absence.  Notably, this letter is written by future DC luminary, Bob Rozakis!  Rozakis, DC’s future Answer Man, got his start in these very letter columns, which would also be where he would do much of his work on the other side of the pen.  I love things like this, little traces of DC history buried in their letters.  How neat!


And on that note, I’ll wrap up today’s post.  I hope that y’all enjoyed my commentary and found something interesting and worth your time herein.  Though these weren’t the most amazing issues, they have their moments.  The real highlights of this month await in the books to come.  Our next post will introduce Forever People #1, the next Kirby Fourth World book, so don’t miss that!  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

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

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

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

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

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

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


Justice League of America #87


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Avengers #85


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Avengers #86


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

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

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

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Poor Pietro, perpetually in over his head…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Into the Bronze Age: December 1970 (Part 4)

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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!