Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.
Mr. Miracle #3
“The Paranoid Pill!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta
We start off on a great foot, with this Kirby classic where the King is starting to hit his stride with his unusual superhero. Ironically, this is probably one of his Mr. Miracle run’s weakest covers, while also being one of his more memorable stories. The crowd in the image looks suitably maddened, but the perspective is a bit wonky, and the coloring job lets it down, with the mixture of single color and full color characters being a bit distracting. And why in the world is our hero completely white? The composition feels unbalanced and crowded by the title, though it effectively captures the feel of the issue.
And the issue is definitely a good one, though it suffers from some of the Kirby-as-writer excesses we’ve been noting. Having learned at the Stan Lee School of Exposition, where the only thing better than text is yet more text, the King overwrites throughout, starting with the first scene. A number of silver androids, called “animates,” swarm through a Boom Tube into an empty room, where they set up an office, and the caption declares that “Sometimes, there are things that take place in empty rooms that defy belief, and so go unnoticed!” Think about that for a moment, as written. I don’t think that something taking place in an empty room is escaping notice because it “defies belief.” It might just be because the room is…you know…empty.
Nonetheless, we discover that these silver creatures are artificial constructs, all animated by a single mind, a creature that was once a man but has now become a being of pure energy. This being is Dr. Bedlam, who slowly takes possession of one of his animates, molding it into the shape he wore in life. Despite the overwritten dialog, this is a pretty cool scene, and there is a nice air of menace to the whole tableau. What’s more, while this type of sci-fi concept is pretty common in the genre today, popping up in modern shows like Babylon 5 and the like, it strikes me that it must have been much more groundbreaking in 1971. I can only think of one example in comics that predates it (though there may be more), and that is NoMan from the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, and I can’t think of any well-known sci-fi novels before this point that explored the idea of beings of pure energy inhabiting temporary bodies. The use of actual brain transplants and such parallels are much more common and date back to the beginning of the century, as early as the John Carter novels (1927). Yet, this seems pretty original. Once again, Kirby is just casually tossing out fascinating and innovative ideas that could easily support much larger works.
The unique Dr. Bedlam, after taking possession of his body, dismisses the rest of his animates and, with super overly dramatic dialog, picks up the phone and calls Scott Free! I quite like Bedlam’s design, in keeping with many of the other Apokoliptians we’ve seen so far, but bearing his own sinister identity. His call finds Mr. Miracle in his usual position, strapped into an elaborate trap and preparing an escape. It’s a great splash page of wonderful Kirby art. Scott and Oberon have a fun back and forth as the escape artist asks his assistant to get the phone, completely unconcerned about the nearness of a rather messy death. Poor Oberon. This job can’t be good for his blood pressure. Casually escaping the trap with a full second to spare, the hero answers the phone and receives a challenge, which he accepts.
After the call, Scott tries to explain what Bedlam is, offering that he is pure mental energy, making him very dangerous, but adding that Mother Box is fortunately able to guard against such psionic assaults. What follows is a fairly cool sequence that doesn’t get enough explanation. Mr. Miracle conducts a seance of sorts with Oberon in which he contacts Dr. Bedlam and experiences a mental attack, and using Mother Box, weathers the storm. It’s a creepy and suitably imaginative scene, but the purpose and motivations behind it are really unclear. Does Scott do this to head off an attack he expects, or is this just a way to show Oberon Bedlam’s power? Kirby’s slightly muddy writing doesn’t clarify. Yet, the scene does have the effect of establishing the power and threat of the bad Doctor, which is something.
After scaring poor Oberon half to death, Mr. Miracle takes to the sky and heads to a high-rise where he is to meet the Apokoliptian. There, Bedlam offers the escape artist a choice, either surrender to his citizen’s arrest, or escape from a trap of his devising. It’s never made clear why Scott would show up in the first place, but he is the kind of guy that likes to face danger head-on, so I can at least partially hand-wave that.
Anyway, the Dr. tells the slippery superhero that all he has to do is descend through the 50 stories of the building and walk out through the front door, but to make things interesting, he shows his foe the substance of his trap, a concoction he calls the Paranoid Pill, which he drops into the building’s ventilation system. Soon the drug does its work, turning the everyday inhabitants of the office building into madmen, and the tower is full of “an army of unreasoning, unpredictable, unstoppable enemies!” Mr. Miracle lashes out, but Dr. Bedlam simply abandons his animate, which is a nice touch, a villain that cannot really be fought.
Kirby provides a wonderful illustration of the Paranoia Pill taking hold, with people panicking and running wild throughout the building, and it isn’t long before a gang of maddened men burst into the office that traps our hero. Sensibly, Scott tries the window, only to find it charged with “cosmi-current,” leaving him only one way out. He flies along the ceiling in a great sequence, dodging the ad-hoc attacks of the panicked populace flooding the halls. He narrowly escapes into the elevator, only to be attacked by a gun-totting citizen and forced to flee a host of ricocheting rounds on the 45th floor.
Unfortunately he leaps right into the arms of another crazed crowd, who, in their delusional state, mistake him for a demon. The carry him along and lock him into a trunk, which they bind closed with rope and chains before deciding to dispose of this “demon” by chucking him down the central shaft of the building. The comic ends on wonderful cliffhanger, with the trapped Mr. Miracle plummeting 45 floors to his doom!
This is a great issue, featuring a really unique and fitting challenge for the character. The tower-turned-death-trap is a big enough threat to fill the comic (and then some), and the trope of innocents turned into threats is always a good twist to throw at a hero. Kirby does a great job with the art throughout this issue, but his work on the crowds is just fantastic. They’re individual and varied, as are their reactions to the gas itself. Mr. Miracle’s desperate race through the high-rise makes for good action, and it’s nice to see him use his wits to escape rather than just plot devices and “Applied Phlebotinum.” Bedlam makes for a good villain, and his gimmick is suitably creepy and outlandish. Once again, I find myself in awe of Kirby’s creativity and the casual way in which he pours out innovative concepts. Other than the overwritten sections and the lack of clear explanations, this is a good, solid adventure tale. I’ll give it 4 Minutemen.
“The Shape of Fear!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Editors: Julius Schwartz and E. Nelson Bridwell
Cover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Bill Finger
Penciler: Wayne Boring
Inker: Stan Kaye
“Superman’s Day of Truth!”
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Klein
Here we are at the penultimate issue of Denny O’Neil’s innovative but rather weird run on Superman. This comic is no exception to that description either, featuring a strange mix of elements. Beginning with the cover itself, which is, of course, beautifully illustrated by Neal Adams, the issue is full of rather odd choices. I like the image of the monster dragging our defeated hero and his doppelganger away, but the design for the monster itself is a bit curious, with its tail coming out of the center of its back rather than out of its tailbone as you might expect. Also note the sign referencing New York. Randomly, this story seems to be set in New York rather than Metropolis, down to including several New York landmarks. Strange settings aside, it’s a solid enough cover, if not exceptional. You can’t help but wonder what could defeat two Supermen.
The story itself begins where last issue left off, with the former Man of Steel, now just the Man of Flesh, having defeated the Intergang assassins. I-Ching offers to complete the ceremony to restore the hero’s powers, but Superman refuses! In a surprising and rather moving twist, Clark has a crisis of doubt. He’s tasted what it’s like to be a mortal man (ignoring for the nonce that he’s experienced that TONS of times over the course of his career), and he sees now a chance to be free of the loneliness and crushing responsibility of being Superman. It’s a great moment, but O’Neil doesn’t give it enough space to breathe. No sooner does it begin than it is already ending. I-Ching emphasizes that “one does not choose responsibility! It is often thrust upon one!” and “To refuse it is to commit the worst act of cowardice.” Despairing, the Kryptonian relents, and tells the old mystic to work his magic.
I-Ching draws Superman’s spirit out of his body and sends it soaring off to find his dusty duplicate. When the hero’s soul-form encounters his double, it drains the creature of its stolen powers, leaving it weakened and helpless. When his spirit returns to his body, the Man of Steel finds himself full powered once more and rushes off to test himself. He smashes a meteoroid, races around the Earth, and then spots a purse snatcher upon whom he can test his powers. Faster than a speeding bullet, or a running thief, for that matter, the Action Ace builds a complete jail cell around the startled man in the middle of the street. The people of Metropolis aren’t too pleased, and thus begins a display of classic Super-dickery.
The hero has suddenly become overbearing, brash, and more than a little selfish, and he begins to handle even the most minor of crimes with outlandish responses, like when he picks up a speeding car and deposits it on top of the Empire State Building (like I said, we’re suddenly in New York). He also meets I-Ching up there at the blind man’s request. The mystic points out this strange behavior and tells Superman that he thinks the Man of Tomorrow suffered brain damage when he was mortal, which enrages the hero. Unable to convince the Metropolis Marvel that something is wrong, I-Ching turns again to magic, all the while talking about how it is a really bad idea because he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. I knew they should have contacted Dr. Fate!
The martial arts master conjures a spell to track the Sand Superman, and when he and Diana Prince find the weakened creature, they learn its origins. Apparently it’s a being from the “Realm of Quarrm,” which I-Ching helpfully describes as “a state of alternate possibilities! A place where neither men nor things exist…only unformed, shapeless begins!” Sure, why not?
The explosion that destroyed the world’s kryptonite ripped a hole between dimensions between Earth and Quarrm, and the energy that leaked out mingled with that of Superman as he lay stunned in the sand, eventually giving form to the formless. Each time the two got close to each other, the Sandman gathered more and more power from his opposite number. In a desperate bid, I-Ching plans to use this creature to drain Superman once more, but unbeknownst to them, a new tear has opened, and more energy begins to leak into this world.
Sneaking into Morgan Edge’s apartment (for some reason), Diana calls Superman to lure him into their trap. When he arrives, his dusty duplicate drains some of his powers, but the headstrong hero manages to escape. Meanwhile, a shadowy figure watches from a soundproofed room. Mysterious! Down on the street, fate takes a hand as nearby in Chinatown a parade is underway and the energy from Quarrm seeps into a statue of an “Oriental War Demon,” which suddenly comes to life and runs amuck. The Man of Steel stops his flight in order to investigate, showing that he is still somewhat himself, only to be drained once more and fall from the sky, to collapse helplessly at the mercy of the Quarrm-demon.
There’s a lot going on in this issue, and you have to give O’Neil credit for creativity. He’s certainly telling new stories. Whether or not they’re also good stories…well, that’s a different question. In this case, there are definitely strengths that recommend this yarn, like the moment of mature emotion that grips Superman when he is faced with the prospect of a normal life. It’s just a shame that this dilemma isn’t given more (or any) development because it has a lot of potential. Also, despite how time-worn the Super-dickery trope is, at least it is given a fairly reasonable explanation here, as the Man of Steel took a blow to the head while he was vulnerable. How do you force a demigod to get help if he doesn’t want it? There are some weaknesses here too, though, including a general sense of disconnectedness between the different elements of the plot. I-Ching’s vaguely defined abilities and general inscrutableness don’t help matters, really. The sudden return of Superman’s powers once again illustrate how over-powered he is in the Silver Age. I find myself hoping that, once this arc is finished, O’Neil will leave him at least a little weaker.
Curt Swan’s art is largely great, as usual, but I’m noticing that in the current iteration of Superman, he tends to draw the character’s legs as too short and stumpy at times. His work on the demon is alternately nicely rendered or a bit cartoonish. The creature’s design in general and the sudden injection of Chinese elements into the tale seems a bit incongruous, despite the involvement of I-Ching, because these events seem to have nothing to do with him. Thus, the fact that the Quarrm energy just happens to inhabit a Chinese demon statue ends up feeling rather random. So, in the end, this is a solid continuation of the story, even if it doesn’t quite come together successfully. I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.
The Phantom Stranger #14
“The Man with No Heart!”
Writer: Len Wein
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Colourist: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Joe Orlando
Cover Artist: Neal Adams
“Spectre of the Stalking Swamp!”
Writer: Len Wein
Penciler: Tony DeZuniga
Inker: Tony DeZuniga
What a cover! That is a wonderful composition, with the incredibly menacing swamp monster rising from the water, his shape only partially defined and gloriously creepy in its uncertainty and inhumanity. Apparently muck monsters are just in the zeitgeist over at DC at this time! It’s a great scene, very fitting for a monster story with the blissfully unaware couple in the foreground, though I’m not entirely certain what I think of the Phantom Stranger’s outline hanging out there in the background. This is especially true because, unusually, this cover does not relate to our headline tale. Instead, this is an image from the Dr. Thirteen backup.
Nonetheless, I think any kid with an interest in horror or the supernatural would be hard pressed to resist the lure of that image. Inside, despite the disappointment of not finding the Phantom Stranger locked in combat with shambling swamp monster, we still find a gripping and arresting story. It begins on a stormy night in New York (Again with New York! What happened to Metropolis or Gotham?), where the Phantom Stranger pays a visit to a somewhat Lex Luthor-looking fellow named Broderick Rune. Interestingly, Rune doesn’t react the way most do when they see the Stranger, instead seeming positively pleased to see him, and as the mysterious wanderer steps into the man’s penthouse apartment, we see why. Suddenly, the Spectral Sleuth is caught in a glowing pentagram, and “sorcerous fumes” knock him out!
A Hindu servant named Rashid arrives and we discover that this is all part of a plan, just as the wealthy rune topples over from what is described as “the final attack.” Both the Stranger and his captor are rushed to a private hospital, where a hesitant doctor performs a bizarre transplant, stealing the Ghostly Gumshoe’s immortal heart and giving it to the ruthless Mr. Rune. The procedure is a success, but while under, Rune dreams that he is confronted by the Stranger, who demands the return of what is his. There’s a nice little back and forth about the importance of a soul above all else that is reminescent of Christ’s question, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
When Rune awakens, he is panicked, but things continue to get more bizarre! Two thugs trying to dispose of the Spectral Sleuth’s body, only to discover their bag is empty when they try to dump it. Just then, the Stranger appears behind them, and shock of the confrontation shatters their minds! Meanwhile, Rune recovers, but he is plagued by visions of his mysterious adversary. Finally, he decides to try and escape his guilt by heading to a castle in Europe.
This gambit seems to have worked for a time, but on another stormy night, Rune once again sees the Stranger stalking out of the darkness. In desperation, his servant, Rashid, who had originally trapped the mysterious hero, tries to conjure another spell to banish his spirit. Unfortunately, his power is not up to the task, and in the midst of his incantations, the Stranger appears! Despite the loyal Hindu’s desperate efforts, when Rune flees out into the storm, the Spectral Sleuth follows, and the stolen heart stops beating! Finally, Rune’s allies find him, dead, and lacking a heart!
This is a really good Phantom Stranger story, taking full advantage of the mysterious nature of the character and supernatural trappings of the setting. You can ask questions about how the Stranger’s heart was able to be taken in the first place, but given the way things worked out, I’m rather inclined to think that this undertaking was always intended to end like this. The story tackles rather similar themes of guilt and conscience as the Edgar Allen Poe classic, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” with its protagonist who is slowly driven to desperation by the knowledge of his crime.
Like Poe’s own brand of Gothic horror, this tale is wonderfully atmospheric, with menacing oozing from every panel, and the oppressive threat of outer night seeming to press against every scene. Aparo’s art is fantastic, bringing Rune’s selfish self-confidence to life, as well as his growing terror. The looming menace of the Stranger is wonderfully rendered as well, and our mysterious hero has rarely scarier. It’s short, but tightly plotted and effective. I’ll give it 4.5 Minutemen, an excellent supernatural thriller.
“The Spectre of the Stalking Swamp”
Our Dr. Thirteen backup sadly doesn’t live up to our wonderful cover either. It presents a rather unusual tale for the Good Doctor, though it is also a pretty entertaining one. It starts in the swamp, right enough, with a young couple out for a walk. The youthful Romeo’s efforts are interrupted by a strange sight, a green monster arising out of the swamp! The creature scoops up the frightened girl and carries her off into the murk. The next day, the local sheriff, Rufus Taylor, explains the mystery to Dr. Thirteen.
The boy who witnessed the abduction is now comatose from shock, but he and the girl are not the only victims of this monster. Apparently people have been disappearing for weeks. According to local legend, a hundred years ago a settler got separated from his family and wandered off into the swamp, where the essence of the bog infused his body, turning him into the specter that haunts the silent spaces. Thirteen, of course, is having none of this, and he insists on going out into the wild to investigate.
That night, the monster attacks his boat, and the Ghost Breaker disappears, apparently broken himself! Despite his strict orders, his wife follows him, persuading the sheriff to help her, and they find the doctor’s boat. Maria manages to convince Rufus to continue the search, even though he insists it’s hopeless, and they stumble upon a strange sight deep in the swamp, a gleaming domed city. Finding their way inside, the pair discover the populace moving like zombies, blank-eyed and listless.
Upon a throne in the city’s center, the encounter the swamp monster, actually a man called Professor Zachary Nail, who is wearing a suit designed for “protection against the filth outside–the polution that infects your dying world!” Nail has created his own Eden in the swamp and kidnapped the locals to populate it. When the sheriff bravely tries to capture the madman, the Professor shots him with a bizarre ray, which converts the lawman into a plant! Shades of Batman: TAS!
Nail takes the terrified Mrs. Thirteen for a tour of his city, explaining that the place is powered by a nuclear reactor (!), and that he has hypnotically controlled the populace so that they are utterly subject to his will. He then leads her to her husband, who is also under his power. The Professor orders Dr. Thirteen to take his wife to the “Submission Room” (which doesn’t sound too pleasant), but the strong-willed Ghost Breaker resists his control. In an overly written sequence, Thirteen throws off the brainwashing and attacks Nail.
Just then, the foliage of the swamp starts growing exponentially and begins to smash the dome. The Professor runs off in an attempt to save his Eden, but the Thirteens have better sense and begin to evacuate the place. They get the placid populace out just in time, as the vegetation of the wilds reclaim the city, destroying it utterly. Know-it-all Dr. Thirteen theorizes that the waste from nuclear reactor must have caused the plants to grow super fast, but Maria thinks maybe Mother Nature was exacting her revenge “for the crimes he committed in her name!”
This is a solid and entertaining story, if quite rushed. It is not, however, really a Dr. Thirteen-style story. This character is best suited by relatively conventional mysteries with exceptional or sensational trappings, and this type of science fiction yarn is a little out of his wheelhouse. He doesn’t even really solve the mystery here. The villain just captures him and conveniently explains his plans. The actual plot is an interesting one, and the eco-terrorist villain archetype is one that will emerge more often in the future, most notably when R’as Al Ghul is given his chance to shine in future issues. Clearly the concept of radical action on environmental issues was in the zeitgeist, which is interesting. I rather thought the spread of such characters was a more recent development.
Poor Sheriff Rufus, despite looking the part, surprisingly didn’t conform to the usual trope of the small-town Southern sheriff. These characters in fiction tend to fat, incompetent, and corrupt. Rufus, on the other hand, was brave and apparently honest and dedicated, even losing his life trying to perform his duties. I’m so used to the tropes that I was surprised by this. We can give credit to DeZuniga and Wein for subverting expectations there. Wein, for his part, is a bit overly purple in his prose, especially in his narration, throughout, but the writing isn’t bad. On the art front, Tony DeZuniga does a solid job, and some of his character work is really quite good. We don’t really get a good sense of the city, though, which might have more to do with the lack of space than anything else. His design for the swamp monster is effective considering what we eventually learn of it, but it certainly isn’t as cool as Adams’ cover version, sadly. On the whole, I feel like his style is a good fit for these types of horror/suspense comics. So, all-in-all, I suppose I’ll give this rather cramped and odd tale 3 Minutemen. It’s enjoyable but forgettable.
P.S.: Notably, I think that this concept of a futuristic city hidden in the swamp will be recycled in the first Swamp Thing run, though I can’t remember which issue. That run, of course, was begun by Len Wein, for a bit of synchronicity.
Eco-terrorists, Chinese demons, and energy beings, oh my! A fun set of books, these, and I had a good time going through them. There is certainly plenty creativity in this batch, whatever their quality. I hope that y’all enjoyed reading my commentaries and that y’all will join me again soon for another edition of Into the Bronze Age! Next post, we close out August 1971! Be there, or Mother Box will be disappointed! Until next time, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!