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)

DC-Style-Guide-1

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

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

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

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

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


Green Lantern/Green Arrow #81


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

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

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

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The obvious reference to Uncle Sam is…odd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Justice League of America #86


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Phantom Stranger #10


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Into the Bronze Age: November 1970 (Part 4)

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Greetings internet travelers, and welcome to a particularly fascinating edition of Into the Bronze Age!  I’ve got something special for y’all today, something that surprised the dickens out of me!  I’ve got a story that was much less enjoyable than I expected and a story that was vastly more enjoyable as well.  I’m sure y’all will be as surprised as I was.  So, let’s get right into this post’s features!

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 #394
  • Adventure Comics #399
  • Batman #226 (the debut of the awe-inspiring Ten-Eyed Man!)
  • Brave and Bold #92
  • Detective Comics #405
  • The Flash #201
  • G.I. Combat #144
  • Justice League of America #84
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #106
  • Superman #231
  • World’s Finest #197 (reprints, won’t be covered)
  • World’s Finest #198

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


G.I. Combat #144


g-i-_combat_vol_1_144“Every Man a Fort”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Russ Heath
Inker: Russ Heath
Cover Artist: Joe Kubert

This is an unusual and fun issue of the Haunted Tank.  Unfortunately, the ghost of the titular haunting still doesn’t really contribute anything, but the book sticks out because the story it tells actually touches on the origin of the heroic tank crew who star in these tales.  This issue gives us the first meeting of the tank crew in tank training, and a memorable meeting it is.  We also get the first meeting of Jeb and J.E.B., which is much less interesting and something of a let-down.  For the third book in a row, Robert Kanigher turns in a perfectly serviceable story without any glaring flaws.  Maybe we were just in a lull for him.  I suppose time will tell which set of stories was the fluke, the terrible or the tolerable.

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This particular tale begins in media res, with the Haunted Tank taking on a German panther, smashing the other steel beast, but being rocked by their fire in return.  Jeb is blown out of the hatch and has his bell rung but good.  He begins murmuring about the crew’s first meeting, which leads us to a flashback and reveals something I didn’t know.  Jeb is a Yankee!  This also comes as a surprise to the other three members of the crew, Slim, Rick, and Arch, who are all Southerners.  They don’t display good Southern manners, however, instead telling Jeb that, since he’s a Northerner, he’s not fit to bear the name of the famous Confederate general.  What follows is an episode out of the Three Musketeers, as Jeb, with quiet courage, puts up a list, saying that anyone who wants to try to make him change his name is welcome to sign it.  Shortly, he’s got three different appointments for fights, which Russ Heath illustrates wonderfully.  Shades of d’Artagnan!

First Slim cleans his clock, but as soon as he has recovered, Jeb seeks out the next name on the list, introducing himself as Jeb Stuart.  So, next up, Rick rearranges his face.  Still undeterred, Jeb approaches Arch, and after a brutal fight, the three tankers accept him, telling their former foe that he’s earned the right to that name, in spades!  It’s a great sequence, and it establishes Jeb’s character in an endearing, hard-won fashion.  I do wish we had gotten a bit more development of the other three crew members, as they remain little more than names.

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gi-combat-144-09Later that night, Jeb is visited by his namesake, who tells him that he has the heart of a “Johnny Reb,” and that the ghost will be proud to be his guardian.  It’s a bit lackluster, to be honest.  I like that he recognizes the tank commander’s fighting spirit, but I would have preferred that their first meeting be a tad more dramatic.

Nonetheless, the flashback rolls on, and we join the Haunted Tank on its first mission, to reinforce a fort overlooking vital supply routes in North Africa.  We get a really nice scene where the crew stops to pray, only to be ambushed by a half-track.  I quite enjoy little moments of faith like that.  They manage to dispatch that threat, only to arrive at the fort too late.  It has already been bombed to smithereens by the Luftwaffe.  That brings us back to the present, and the crew carries on with Jeb still delirious.

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They spot a train carrying supplies for Rommel, and they realize it is up to their tank to stop it.  Yet, try as they might in a vicious running firefight, once again, nicely drawn by Heath, they can’t smash through its armor.  Now, that seems a bit silly, but they actually did have armored trains, so it’s not quite as goofy as it seems, especially given the small gun on a Stuart.  Anyway, Jeb comes to just in time, ordering Slim to ram the engine, a desperate gamble that pays off, sending the train and all of its ammo and fuel over a cliff and saving the day.  As usual, the General appears once the action is over to offer unhelpful commentary rather than supernatural aid.

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This is a solid story, and I really enjoy the camp episode about Jeb’s name.  His quiet, obstinate perseverance is great.  The whole thing looks good, as do most of these Haunted Tank tales, and the adventure with the train is a neat change of pace.  Interestingly, this origin actually contradicts an earlier one from issue #114.  Leave it to Kanigher to botch some continuity.  That earlier story tells the tale of how General Stuart himself came to be attached the the tank, and it is an interesting one.  I rather wish that supernatural side of the concept had been explored a bit more, but I imagine they had to walk lightly about such things in the Silver Age.  Perhaps we’ll see more done with it in future issues.  At any rate, I’ll give this fun and interesting issue 4 Minutemen, though it loses a bit for the continuity kerfuffle.

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Justice League of America #84


jla_v-1_84“The Devil In Paradise!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“Great Ant Circus!” (reprint)
Writer: Gardner Fox
Penciler: Murphy Anderson
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Letterer: Gaspar Saladino
Editors: Whitney Ellsworth and Julius Schwartz

This is an odd one.  Denny O’Neil’s groundbreaking run on the book is over, and we get one issue with a fill-in writer before the beginning of Mike Friedrich’s run.  It seems like Kanigher (yes, he strikes again) was going for a ‘Very Special Episode’ type of story with this comic, but the result is so uneven and random, with the melodrama turned up to 11, that the resulting read doesn’t ever really come together.  Unlike the last few mostly tolerable Kanigher offerings, this one is full of poorly thought-out events, abandoned plot points, and overall sloppy writing.  It isn’t the worst story of his we’ve covered, and it actually still manages to be somewhat enjoyable.  Nonetheless, it is weird.

Almost immediately after it begins, we get a flashback.  The JLA are receiving a special Nobel Prize, which is actually a cool idea and something that makes perfect sense for a group of people who regularly save the entire world.  This particular instance is actually rather small-potatoes, as the team receives the reward for saving a kidnapped scientist before he could be “sold behind the Iron Curtain.”  In a fun touch of continuity, the organization they’re tangling with is The 100, the same group that has begun to make its presence known in some of the Superman books also penned by Kanigher.

The 100 have a veritable army guarding the scientist, and we get a fun sequence where all the gathered members of the League get to chip in during the rescue, though the creators apply cartoon logic to Superman’s powers, as he melts an entire tank, somehow without deep-frying the guys inside.  They’re literally sitting in molten steel and only seem mildly perturbed in a ‘How dare you melt my tank’ kind of way.  You can’t see him, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Yosemite Sam was actually piloting that tank.

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Yep, it sure is a good thing that the melting temperature of flesh is so much higher than steel!

While the others keep the gang busy, Hawkman affects the professor’s rescue with an assist from the Flash, and that brings us back to the ceremony.  After the League’s time in the limelight, another recipient takes the stage, Dr. Viktor Willard, whose ‘Pax Serum’ has turned “the hawks of savage, primitive tribes of the Matto Grosso country into doves!”  Now, if that sentence didn’t disturb you, A) you haven’t read enough science fiction or B) you didn’t think about it enough.  This guy invented some kind of drug that made human beings docile.  That’s a dystopian dictatorship’s dream!  What’s more, he presumably gave it to an unwilling population, forcibly restraining their hostile tendencies.  That’s wildly ethically problematic!  Yet, the League and the Nobel crowd seem to think it’s the greatest thing in the world.  Yay!  Let’s just drug people to make them act the way we want!  Shades of Equilibrium!

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Anyway, that’s not even the weirdest thing to come out of this scene.  All of a sudden, with no explanation, Black Canary becomes telepathic, reading the thoughts of Willard’s fiance, Phyllis Temple.  Oddly, she calls her new ability “SP.”  ESP stands for extra-sensory perception, but I’m guessing ‘ol Kanigher just got confused.  To add to the inexplicable oddities, Superman’s x-ray vision suddenly goes haywire, and he sees half of Willard’s face as a skull.  That is never mentioned again, by the way.  It’s just a random little bit of madness.  On the way home from the event, Superman and Flash have a race, but it proves too destructive, so they call it off.

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Next, we get an incredibly, achingly melodramatic scene between Batman and Black Canary.  They cross paths in the Watchtower, changing shifts for monitor duty, and they share a kiss, instantly regretted by both, as the heroine is still mourning the loss of her husband.  It’s not that bad of a scene, but the captions are just too much!  I wonder what Ollie would think of this.  My wife would hate this scene, as she will hear of no other love interest for Batman but Catwoman.  I’m not quite as militant about it, but that pairing does have a place in this old softie’s heart.

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Anyway, the plot, such as it is, picks up two days later as the League responds to a distress call from the remote hinterlands of Australia where a native village has been destroyed by another tribe, which has seemingly gone mad.  Suddenly the team is attacked by Aborigines with weird weapons and mirrored shields.  The heroes have a brief fight, but then their opponents just vanish and we get some gobbledygook about the natives’ belief in the supernatural and the heroes’ belief in science.  What does this have to do with our main plot?  Your guess is as good as mine, since it is never explained.  Were these folks experimented upon by Dr. Willard?  Are they just random natives practicing black magic?  Who knows?  The League don’t bother to find out, just leaving with the whole matter uninvestigated.  Way to go, team!

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Cool panel, though.

On the way home, the Flash discovers the recent Laureate’s fiance floating on an overturned boat, delirious.  He rushes her to the hospital in Central City (which I suppose is really no further away for him than a coastal hospital).  While comforting her, his wife, Iris, arrives, steaming mad and ranting about how he missed her receiving a reward.  She declares “The JLA’s no place for a married man!  Let your superhero bachelors carry on!”  This is another completely random, completely out of character moment.  Shades of Bob Haney!  Iris has always been very supportive of Barry’s superhero career, so this comes out of nowhere and, I’m fairly certain, goes nowhere as well.

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The League brings in the suddenly-telepathic Black Canary, and the bird-lady sings about what she sees in Miss Temple’s mind.  Apparently, her fiance went from Nobel Peace Prize recipient to flat-out Bond villain, complete with secret volcano lair, all in the blink of an eye!  The mad scientist flew her to his private island base and explained his randomly evil plan to her.  He declares that, for no particularly good reason, instead of curing aggression in the world, he’s going to ramp it up to cause a holocaust, leaving the pair of them safe in their underground bunker.  He also introduces her to his incredibly vaguely defined servant, “Nether Man,” described as “Neither man, robot, nor android.”  Sure.  Why not.  Nether Man is smitten with the lovely Miss Temple, but when she escapes, he is sent to hunt her down nonetheless, sinking her speedboat in the process.

Having gotten the scoop, the League leaps into action, encountering a series of booby-traps and obstacles on the island, which give several different members a chance to shine.  It’s a nice sequence, as Superman detonates mines, the Atom picks a lock, and Hawkman dodges lasers.  Then, while they are fighting really uninspiringly designed robots, Flash has a line that irks the literary scholar in me, as he refers to ‘machines turning against men’ as “Orwell’s nightmare world of 1984.”  What?  1984 has nothing to do with machines turning against men!  Sheesh, Kanigher, read a book!

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While the League are occupied, Phyllis runs to confront her fiend of a fiance as he is preparing to launch his doomsday device.  He orders Nether Man to kill the meddlesome woman, only to have his creation turn on him, destroying itself in the process.  The final page of the issue attempts to deliver some kind of moralizing message, but it makes no sense with the story that’s just concluded, as Phyllis philosophizes that both Nether Man and Dr. Willard are “victims of the same hate that ravages the world!  Unwitting murderers!  But…who can cast the first stone at them?”  Wait, what?  What story were you reading, lady?  Those two were victims of the hate that your psycho boy-friend whipped up trying to annihilate humanity!  I’d call him a pretty ‘witting’ murderer, and, while I’m no saint, I feel fairly comfortable in my moral fitness to throw the first stone at attempted genocide.

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Clearly, we’re meant to find this ending super profound and meaningful, but the story just doesn’t earn anything of the sort.  The Frankenstein-esq turn with Nether Man is good, and surprisingly well handled in a very short span of time, but his master gets pretty much zero motivation for his genocidal tendencies.  The issue is chock full of material and has plenty of action, but it really feels like three or four separate, disjointed stories rather than one unified plot.  The Aristotelian Unities don’t really apply to comic stories, but some type of unity of action is important in any conventional yarn.  This issue certainly fails at that, and while there are some fun team moments and even some interesting ideas introduced, like the attraction between Batman and Black Canary, the strange, discordant notes of unexplained events, incongruous dialog and action, and general lack of development and, you guessed it, logical consistency, leave it something of a mess.  It’s not a bad read, but if you think about it for more than two seconds, you’ll find your head hurting.  I’ll give this off-beat issue 2 Minutemen.  It certainly seems like those last few solid Kanigher issues might have been the fluke after all, but just wait until you see what’s next!

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Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #106


lois_lane_106“I Am Curious (Black)!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Werner Roth
Inker: Vince Colletta
Letterer: Milton Snappin
Editor: E. Nelson Bridwell

“Rose and Thorn: ‘Where Do You Plant a Thorn?'”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Ross Andru
Inker: Mike Esposito
Editor: E. Nelson Bridwell

Wow.  Just….just wow.  This is an amazing comic.  I know that is hard to believe.  Just look at that title and that cover, not to mention the name in the credits!  Nonetheless, this is a heck of a comic book.  I expected this issue to be a terrible, ham-handed, melodramatic mess.  How could it be anything but, right?  Well, I was blown away by what was under that goofy cover.  Robert Kanigher, of all people, managed to tell a simple, subtle, touching, and authentic story about race, bigotry, and inequality that gently delivers a a message of human unity without beating the reader over the head with it.  This comic actually achieves the profundity that Denny O’Neil is trying so desperately to grasp in each new issue of Green Lantern/Green Arrow.

This unusual story starts off with Lois Lane, clearly entirely pleased with herself, as Lois often is, having just received an assignment to get “the inside story of Metropolis’ Little Africa,” an all Black neighborhood in the poorest part of the city.  In a somewhat creepy little panel, Clark thinks, for no particular reason, that he’s going to ‘keep an eye on her’ as Superman.  I’m sure that won’t be significant later.  The glamorous girl reporter gets a ride from her favorite taxi driver and heads to the slums.  Yet, when she arrives, she gets the cold shoulder from all of the area’s inhabitants.  They just refuse to talk to her, politely ignoring all of her efforts to break through.

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There’s a particularly striking scene where she passes a street meeting and a fiery young man points her out, noting that, though she is young and pretty, they must not forget that:

“she’s whitey!  She’ll let us shine her shoes and sweep her floors!  And baby-sit for her kids!  But she doesn’t want to let our kids into her lily-white schools!  It’s okay with her if we leave these rat-infested slums!  If we don’t move next to her!  That’s why she’s our enemy!”

It’s a really surprisingly honest moment, dealing fairly straight-forwardly with issues of school desegregation and white flight.  The young man’s earnest anger is shocking, as is the subject matter appearing in a superhero comic, much more in Lois Lane.  Kanigher shows admirable restraint in moments like this throughout the book, letting the scenes speak for themselves, and they speak eloquently.  Lois herself is struck by this speech.  She ponders how, though the young man’s words aren’t true for her, they are true for many of her race.

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Having determined that she won’t get any story out of this neighborhood while she’s looked at as an outsider, Lois conceives of a bold plan.  She convinces Superman to use a kryptonian device to temporarily turn her into a Black woman so she can see what the world looks like through such people’s eyes.  What follows is a short but telling collections of scenes where Lois, suddenly not the “right” color any longer, discovers how different life is for the other half.  Her favorite taxi driver blows right past her on a rainy street, refusing to pick her up.  On the bus, she’s the subject of suspicious looks, or at least feels that way.  That’s one of the most remarkable things about this story.  Kanigher captures, not only the obvious signs of racial inequality, but the general sense of ‘otherness’ that minorities have to deal with.  That’s impressive.

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Arriving in the slums, Lois heads in to one of the tenement buildings to talk to some of the inhabitants, only to find a fire starting in a trash pile.  The place is incredibly run-down, and one of the renters informs the disguised reporter that the slumlord who owns the place refuses to do any maintenance.  That renter invites Lois into her home and what follows is something akin to the Widow’sMite.  This woman, who has almost nothing, who has to chase rats out of her baby’s room, offers Lois coffee, shares her hospitality, and then asks this complete stranger if she needs any help.  It’s a touching little scene, and it helps to ground the humanity of the folks trapped in this area.

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Lois is moved, and she heads out to see what else there is to see.  In an alley, she spots an ‘improvised pre-kindergarten,’ where a man is teaching a group of children that ‘Black is beautiful.”  This may strike you as odd, especially if you aren’t familiar with American racial history, but it is actually a really interesting and subtle addition to the story.  You see, the famous Doll Test in the 40s indicated that segregation and racial inequality had a psychological effect on minority children.  They literally preferred white skin to theirs, tending to have subconsciously absorbed the narrative or racial inferiority.  It’s a pretty heartbreaking idea that kids might be uncomfortable and unhappy in the skin they’re born in, but that was (and may still be) the world that we had created.  Once again, Kanigher displays surprising sensitivity and insight.

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lois-lane-106-p_015Well, the crisis of the story arrives when Lois meets the fiery street speaker she had encountered earlier, but the young man, named Dave Stevens, of course, doesn’t recognize her.  He does recognize a gang of kids creeping into an alley to meet a pusher, however, and charges after them in order to protect his neighborhood.  The thugs meeting the kids don’t take kindly to the interruption and shoot the brave fellow.  Superman arrives just then and captures the criminals, then rushing the wounded man to the hospital.  It’s at this point that we get one of my favorite panels in the book.  Stevens needs o-negative blood for a transfusion, but the hospital is out.  Lois, with a wonderfully rendered expression of realization, simply states “I–I’m o-negative!  Just like him!”  There’s no heavy-handed captions, no undue focus.  The moment stands on its own, and it is a great moment.  Lois realizes that she, a White woman, shares the same blood that is coursing through the veins of this Black man.  That she is the same, inside, as he is.  It’s really lovely.

The transfusion is conducted, and it is a success!  While the young man recovers, Lois has an interesting conversation with the Man of Steel, asking him, point blank, if he would marry her if she was couldn’t change back.  His response is really fascinating, as he doesn’t ever really answer her.  He points out that he is the ultimate outsider, being an alien, but she retorts that his skin is “the right color.”  It’s intriguing to see other writers toying with the idea of Superman as a representative of the established order, a symbol of conservatism and resistance to change.  The man himself seems better than that, but there is a touch of that old fear, that superheroes are inherently fascistic or oppressive, defending the existing social order as they do.  I’ve always found that argument foolish, as heroes can and do inspire folks to be compassionate and courageous, but the possibility is certainly there.  Just last month we saw Jack Kirby putting Superman in a similar role by placing him at odds with Jimmy, as a representation of youth culture.  We’re certainly getting into pretty interesting stuff on this front, no doubt about it.

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The issue ends with Lois, having transformed back into her usual coloring, greeting the revived young man.  Once again, Kanigher makes an excellent choice of restraint.  The final pages is wordless, with nothing but the dawning realization and acceptance on Dave Stevens’ face to tell the story.  He recognizes the same truth that the reporter herself did, that inside, they are the same, whatever outward differences may appear.  It’s a good, hopeful ending.  It’s touching without being saccharine, and I really don’t think it could have stood any dialog or captions and still kept that balance.

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I think what may be most astonishing to me about this book is the fact that I’ve never heard of it.  I’ve read a decent amount about comics and their seminal moments.  I’ve read about Denny O’Neil’s Green Lantern run, the drug abuse issue, and more.  I’ve heard about a lot of the important stories, and yet…this issue has never had a mention so far as I can tell.  It has never garnered any notice, but it is a bold and sensitive (for a 14 page comic story) treatment of some very timely issues.  I can only imagine that no-one was paying any attention to Lois Lane.  I know I certainly didn’t expect to find an honestly poignant story in these pages!  Yet here it is, a forgotten gem.  This type of book is one of the reasons I started this project.  I am thrilled to have discovered it, not least because its message of seeing through the other fellow’s eyes is especially fitting these days, at least in my country.  That’s one of the great strengths of literature.  It builds our capacity for empathy and helps us to look at the world from different perspectives.  That’s one of the ways that literature makes us better as human beings, and this little story in an insignificant comic magazine has just such power.

The whole issue is beautifully illustrated by Werner Roth, who I’ve never heard of before.  I’ll be looking for his name from now on, though!  He really captures the emotions of the various characters and gives each extra an interesting and unique face.  Lois herself is given a lot of personality by both Kanigher and Roth, and I think her portrayal is one of my favorite parts of the issue.  She is represented as intelligent, capable, and level-headed, which is great given how often the Silver Age Lois was just a complete mess, a mad, manipulative, emotionally disturbed harpy.  This story gives us a more worthwhile Lois, and I quite enjoyed it.  Overall, I can’t think of any way this comic could be improved, so, this 14 page Lois Lane story written by Bob Kanigher of all people is the first Bronze Age book to earn 5 Minutemen out of 5!  Clearly, I’m going to have to reassess Kanigher as a writer.

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“Rose and Thorn: ‘Where Do You Plant a Thorn?'”

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Apparently Thorn is actually a man in drag…yeesh!

This is another interesting and engaging Rose and Thorn story, probably stronger than the first offering because it doesn’t have as big of a job to do since the origin has already been told.  It can focus on smaller tale and give it more development.  The concept continues to intrigue me, and I’m pleasantly surprised once again by Kanigher’s writing in this backup.

This particular yarn opens with the eponymous Thorn gazing at the window of a funeral home at a solid gold coffin on display there.  Apparently the 100 like grand gestures, as they’ve commissioned this flashy final resting place just for her.  As she considers the coffin, a pair of the 100’s gunmen come after her, but she makes short and vicious work of them.  In fact, it may only be the arrival of her father’s former partner, Danny Stone, that saves the life of one of the thugs.  That’s a little touch that I enjoy, as Thorn isn’t exactly a rational and restrained heroine.  It makes sense that a vengeance driven split personality might have some problems with excessive violence.  I’m curious to see if that will be developed.

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Anyway, the story continues the following day, when Rose is once again in control, and she is palling around town with her new boss, Vince Adams, owner of the funeral home and secretly a leader of the 100.  We get some good intrigue as Rose is left to browse the flowers in a florist shop owned by another 100 member as he and Adams meet to discuss the murder of her alter ego.  The florist is charged with killing Detective Stone, and when the officer just happens to waltz into his store seeking roses for Rose, he sees his chance.  One poisoned bouquet later, and the trap is set.  Fortunately for Rose and Danny, the girl’s dog chews on one of the flowers, dying in their stead!  I was really surprised by this.  Usually you never kill a pet in a comic like this, even if you kill human beings.  It is pretty dark, as an animal is completely innocent, and it’s the kind of thing that forever marks a villain.  Folks can forgive a likeable rogue for a little murder, but never animal cruelty.  Such are the vagaries of audience ethics!

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Well, Stone realizes that something is up, and instead of descending on that florist shop with a SWAT team, he just strolls in casually to ask the guy how his flowers ended up poisoned.  What’s more, he also blindly accepts the ridiculous story the guy tells him about having bought the flowers from some strange trucker and walks right into the trap the store owner sets up.  Detective Stone is apparently exceptionally bad at his job.  It’s a good thing he’s working in Metropolis.  Without Superman around, he’d probably already be dead.

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What is going on in that last panel?  Is the gun animate?

He gets lucky once more, however, as once he is sapped, Thorn comes to his rescue, making a dynamic entrance and leaving the two gunsels stuck to a giant cactus!  They look like they’ve been crucified, so it is a rather striking image.  Stone recovers and captures the two thugs, probably getting credit for a collar he doesn’t deserve.

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This is a solid little tale, told in just 8 pages.  It’s a good example of economical storytelling, and Kanigher fits in action and character development admirably.  The small cast helps that task, of course.  Ross Andru’s art is actually one of the biggest weaknesses of this story.  While it is usually serviceable, even rather good with some of the face-work, it is also occasionally stiff, awkward, and just downright ugly in some spots, especially the opening page with Thorn.  There’s a few places where the art fails the story as well.  Still, all-told, this is a good story in a remarkable issue.  Color me intrigued by Ross/Thorn’s saga.  I’ll give this one 4 Minutemen, though I’m inclined to take off some points for Stone’s ridiculous gullibility.

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Well, what a fascinating selection of issues we’ve covered in this post!  I just can’t figure Robert Kanigher out.  He can turn out the goofiest, laziest, scholckiest work you’ve ever seen in one book and yet turn out one of the best short comics I’ve ever read in another, all in the same month!  Whatever Kanigher’s story may be, we’re certainly getting into intriguing trends here at the end of 1970, and we have only one more post to go before we round out November.  So, until next time, keep the heroic ideal alive!

Into the Bronze Age: September 1970 (Part 5)

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

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

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

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

Green Lantern/Green Arrow #79

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Justice League of America #83

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dillin really captures Canary’s sorrowful determination.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Head-Blow Headcount:

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

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

Into the Bronze Age: August 1970 (Part 4)

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

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

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

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

Justice League #82

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phantom Stranger #8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dr. Thirteen, surprising badass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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