This month in history:
- The Ed Sullivan Show aired its final episode, ending an era of entertainment
- Soyuz 11 takes 3 cosmonauts to Salyut 1 space station, but crew found dead on return
- Willie Mays hits 22nd and last extra inning home run
- North Vietnam demands U.S. end aid to the South
- US ends ban on China trade
- The New York Times begin publishing excerpts from the Pentagon Papers, classified documents on the long history of the U.S. in Vietnam
- An Orange Order march causes a riot in Londonderry in North Ireland
- Various groups boycott the opening of the North Ireland Parliament
- International Court of Justice asks South Africa to pull out of Namibia
- Supreme Court overturns draft evasion conviction for Muhammad Ali
- Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Keith Richards sentenced on drug charges
- Notable films: Le Mans and McCabe and Mrs. Miller
The ending of the Ed Sullivan Show seems to me to mark the ending of a certain element of innocence in American entertainment. Can you imagine a TV host today that had so little screen presence? Well, aside from Jimmy Fallon, but clearly that talentless personality black hole made a deal with the devil. It’s the only way to explain his career. At any rate, that event shares this month with a new tragedy in the Space Race, as several cosmonauts die during a mission. Of course, tragedies are in no short supply on Earth itself, and Ireland continues to bleed, while tensions continue to rise. It’s a shame that the turmoil on the planet was mirrored, in a fashion, in space. On a lighter note, the ‘sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll’ reputation of the genre is further cemented by the antics of the Stones. I imagine this isn’t the last time such a thing would happen. It’s an interesting month, all told.
The top song this month and into the next is Carole King’s “It’s Too Late,” which I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever heard. That’s unusual. It’s rather melancholy song about the end of a relationship, which seems somehow fitting for this month.
Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.
Action Comics #401
“Invaders Go Home”
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Editor: Murray Boltinoff
“The Boy Who Begged to Die!”
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Editor: Murray Boltinoff
It seems last month’s Lois Lane issue was not a fluke, but rather presaged something in the zeitgeist. We start off this month with another comic story depicting the plight of Native Americans, and penned by Leo Dorfman of all people. I have to say, I wasn’t expecting this. The comic has a provocative cover, showing the Man of Steel defeated and helpless before a band of tribesmen. Interestingly enough, this image is not a cheat, but of course, it doesn’t tell the whole tale.
The story begins with Clark Kent using his ‘mobile news room’ to cover the anniversary of of statehood for an unnamed region in the southwest where a train is carrying tourists to a celebration. Suddenly Indians appear, armed with bows and arrows, braves on motorbikes! Mr. Mild Mannered thinks its part of the show until they start firing arrows at the cars and he sees a fire on a bridge ahead.
Shifting into Superman, he carries the locomotive to safety, only to discover that the flames were just a harmless slogan, part of some type of public stunt on behalf of the local tribespeople. The motorized raiders take off, but the Man of Steel is able to trail them easily enough, smashing into the cliff in which they’re hiding and confronting them. Yet, he finds that their leader is a man named Don Hawks, now going by Red Hawk, who was a leading astrophysicist. The young man has come home to help his people, and he takes the Man of Tomorrow on a tour of their plight today, showing him the pitiful state of their tribe. The fiery leader explains that all of the surrounding region used to be theirs, but the white settlers had stolen it all from them.
In a scene evocative of Kanigher’s great racial story, we then visit an improvised Indian classroom where the children, and Superman, are given an education on proud heritage of the people to counteract the negative stereotypes to which they’ve been exposed. Interestingly, the beautiful teacher, Moon Flower (sounds more hippie than Hopi), teaches her students about the technological achievements of native populations like agriculture and the Mayan calendar, but she also mentions their own mythical superman, Montezuma. Now, I figured this was just Dorfman talking out of his hat, making up ‘Indian superstitions,’ but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there is a legend surrounding Montezuma II. He apparently became the focus for many southerly tribes’ legends about the ‘King in the Mountain’ archetype. Most cultures have such a legend, regarding a famous king who will return at an appointed hour to save or to avenge, like King Arthur for Britain or Frederick I in Germany. Apparently Dorfman actually did a bit of research for this story. Color me impressed.
Anyway, after his education and tour, the Man of Steel is, naturally, much more sympathetic to the native people’s troubles. Finally, Red Hawk takes the hero to “Montezuma’s Castle,” a massive plateau that is sacred to his people but has been taken over as a rocket testing site for a major company (oh-so-cleverly bearing the acronym G.R.A.B.). The Metropolis Marvel wants to help, but despite his efforts to mediate, the president of the company, Frank Haldane, refuses to budge, insisting that their weather studies have shown that this is the perfect location for their projects.
Just then, Red Hawk’s uncle, Old Snake, the medicine man of the tribe, appears and promises to drive the white men away with magic, using mystic sand paintings. The impatient young man will have none of his uncle’s superstitions, however, and when Superman flies away laughing, he is deeply shamed by what seems like contempt for his people’s ignorance. Yet, it seems Old Snake is as clever as subtle as his namesake, and his painting of lightning brings a massive storm. Only the Man of Steel’s timely arrival saves the base. The hero repairs the damage, earning the ire of Red Hawk, who resents this apparent betrayal, though Moon Flower is more sympathetic, seeing that his is only doing his duty.
Next, Old Snake apparently summons a tornado, but once again the Man of Tomorrow intervenes to prevent damage. It is then that we learn that he and the medicine man have been in cahoots, with the Kryptonian actually creating the disasters in order to drive the rocket company away. Of course, he also feels obligated to fix what he breaks, but he’s hoping that they will wear the stubborn Haldane down. Their last gambit, creating an earthquake, might have been successful, but Old Snake is, after all, quite an old snake, and he dies of a heart attack during the excitement. The GRAB folks are relieved, but Red Hawk unexpected declares that he has learned his uncle’s secrets and will carry on his work. He invites Superman to come to their camp that night in order to show him.
When the Action Ace arrives, he is confronted by another sand painting in the form of his shield and a strange red jewel. Red Hawk declares that he has used his magic to sap the hero’s powers and his men jump the astonished Kryptonian who suddenly finds himself unable to resist. They truss him up, and the story ends with the native leader declaring that they will trade Superman for their land!
There is a lot going on in this comic. On the one hand, Dorfman is engaging in the traditional, ‘all Indians are the same’ trope in some ways, as with the train attack, evoking as it does the classic cowboys and Indians stories that were about Plains tribes. Still, since some of those elements were meant to be part of a publicity stunt, it isn’t as bad as it might be. On the other hand, Dorfman is using a pastiche tribe, the Navarros, as opposed to a real people group, and thus he avoids misrepresenting a real tribe. He also includes traits that are indicative of southwestern tribes, like the sandpainting. But he blends those with mythology that has more to do with Mexican and Central American peoples, with the Montezuma legends. It’s a bit of a mess, but it is clear that his heart is in the right place, and the result is certainly less sloppy than Kanigher’s recent effort.
I like Superman’s wry self-assurance here.
Dorfman gives us a positive overview of native peoples, stressing their development and the fact that they weren’t just ‘savages.’ He also sympathetically portrays their modern plight and their extremely legitimate grievances with the folks who stole their land. Notably, Superman is unable to simply resolve the conflict. His powers, which he willingly uses to aid the righteous underdog here, at the expense of the rich and powerful, are still not sufficient to solve the problem. This, as fantastical as his efforts are, results in a more mature, effective story.
Quite a striking image, the native leader standing triumphantly over the symbol of the white status quo.
It’s a solid tale on its own merits, featuring common and enjoyable Superman plot devices, but given the social agenda that it promotes and the attempt, however uneven, at accuracy and respect, it is more than the sum of its parts. Swan’s art is great, as usual, but he really does a great job with some of the unusual parts of the tale, like the poverty and despair evident in the Navarro village, and, to his great credit, he generally depicts the tribesmen wearing at least some modern clothing, which immediately sets this comic apart from the last Indian yarn. All told, I’ll give it 4 Minutemen, as it is a moderately provocative, at least slightly challenging story, especially for 1971. I’m quite surprised it came from ‘dopey Dorfman,’ who usually tells pretty silly stories.
“The Boy Who Begged to Die”
The backup tale for this issue is also quite provocative. It presents our hero with an intriguing ethical quandary, which is the type of story device that I always enjoy. It begins with the crash of a small meteorite in the center of a small town called Masonville. Superman, flying over, happens to see the commotion and comes to investigate. He waves the crowd back and does the natural thing for him, examining the hunk of space junk with his x-ray vision, but this turns out to be a fatal mistake! The radiation from his vision (which contradicts at least one explanation for how those powers work, I’m sure) triggers a reaction in the rock, turning it into a drastically unstable bomb. He can’t move without triggering a massive explosion, so he orders an evacuation of the town.
The people flee, trusting in the Man of Steel, and soon they are outside a mile perimeter, and not a moment too soon, because the hero realizes that the reaction is increasing, and thus the yield of the explosion will increase as well. Just then, a young man with a broken leg limps slowly up the Metropolis Marvel, wondering where everyone is. After a quick explanation, the boy, who was in the basement of the orphanage and was forgotten in the hurried evacuation, realizes that, hobbled as he is, he could never escape from the blast in time. What’s more, every moment Superman delays in detonating the meteorite–turned-bomb, the larger the radius will be and the more danger to the townsfolk.
Displaying incredible courage, the young man insists that Superman do what he must, choose the greater good over his single life, and detonate the bomb. The Action Ace is paralyzed by indecision. He can’t bring himself to willingly kill this boy, yet he knows that if he doesn’t, thousands more could die. This is a great moral puzzle for the Man of Steel, but his motivations are a bit off. Instead of focusing just on the boy’s life, he thinks about his vow to stop hero-ing if he takes a life and the consequences of that, which is a little immature reasoning.
Nonetheless, the situation is one of great tension, and the youth decides to take matters into his own hands, taking responsibility for his death upon himself as he tries to set the rock off by hitting it. Yet, his efforts are too little (which does rather make me think that Superman could perhaps have flown it away, but that’s neither here nor there). Finally, in an effort to force the Kryptonian’s hand, the young man takes his cape to create a noose. Just then, Superman drops the meteorite, creating a powerful explosion that just barely misses destroying the huddled townsfolk.
After the debris clears, we discover that, as he always does, Superman found a third way. Inspired by seeing the boy carrying his invulnerable cape, the Man of Tomorrow used his super breath to blow the cape around the youth, then detonated the bomb, trusting in the Kryptonian fabric to protect the young man. It works, and the boy survives, though he is badly injured. Superman rushes him to the hospital, and we get a happy ending.
This is a pretty great story for only seven pages. It puts Superman in a genuinely challenging situation, one which his powers cannot outright solve, which is always a good source of dramatic tension for the incredibly powerful character. I really enjoyed the fact that the Man of Steel was unwilling to sacrifice even one life, even to save thousands. That’s the core of the character right there. There are only really three flaws.
The kid is a bit too willing, even anxious to die. I can certainly see a virtuous and courageous young man coming to that decision, but it should have brought with it at least a little turmoil. This youth seemed positively chipper about annihilation. In the same vein, Superman’s anguished reaction misses the emotional core of the moment, focusing on his future career rather than the guilt of taking a life. Finally, the protective powers of the cape are really a bit ridiculous if they can survive the explosion we’re shown here. No matter how invulnerable the cape is, the kid inside would be jelly! Of course, Bates only had seven pages to work with, and he fit a lot in. So, we’ve got a tale with impressive aspirations and a great concept, though it is a bit immature in execution. It’s still a good read, so I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.
Adventure Comics #407
Writer: Mike Sekowsky
Penciler: Mike Sekowsky
Inker: Henry Scarpelli
Editor: Mike Sekowsky
While this month’s Superman stories present us with engaging and challenging moral dilemmas, this week’s Supergirl tale attempts to follow suit…with rather less success. This issue of Adventure is quite a convoluted journey. Unfortunately, it’s continuing the rather pointless plotline from the last issue, with ‘Nasty’ Luthor still trying to find concrete proof of Supergirl’s secret identity, as if she is a cop instead of a supervillain. Last I checked, due process just doesn’t mean that much to megalomaniacs bent on world domination. The issue does have a fairly nice cover, the standard dramatic confrontation angle, with a hidden (though obvious) figure challenging our heroine with knowledge of her secret. Though Linda’s figure is a tad awkward, it’s otherwise a nice looking cover, with the unusual angle of looking out from the closet.
The tale inside begins where the last left off, with Linda Danvers in the hospital following her undercover heroics in the burning building. With her super powers returning and her wounds healing, the girl knows she must escape before she is examined, and the arrival of a critically injured police officer provides her with the opportunity she needs. Notably, the officer is black, which is a little detail that you wouldn’t have seen that long ago. There’s also a funny little scene where Linda, clad only in a stolen sheet, hails a cab, and the unflappable cabbie doesn’t even bat an eye.
Back at the office, Linda is greeted as a hero, but Nasty’s suspicions continue. Yet, celebrations are short-lived, as there is a new story in the offing. A man named Renard has come to them with a mystery he wants their help to solve. He’s recently bought a reputedly haunted theater, and it has been plagued by strange occurrences, so he wants the news crew to bring their cameras down and find the culprit…which really seems less like a new crew’s job than a private detective’s job…or you know, the Ghostbusters! “Who you gonna’ call?” Random reporters, apparently.
Sekowsky does give the fellow an interesting face…though he doesn’t have Geoff’s dynamite fashion sense.
Johnny, Nasty, and Linda head to the theater that night and set up different camera posts to cover the place with high-tech film gear in the hopes of snaring the would-be specter. As the night rolls on, the silence of the place is split by a scream, as Nasty observes Johnny being carted off by a grisly-looking phantom. Of course, the villainess is just waiting for such an opportunity to catch Supergirl in the act. Just like her cousin, the Maid of Might is facing a terrible choice, intervene and reveal her secret or do nothing and leave her friend to an unknown fate. So, she does what any hero worth their salt would do and finds a third way…ohh, wait…no she doesn’t. She just sits there and watches her friend get abducted, possibly sacrificing his life to protect her secret.
This is a huge problem. The character rationalizes her choice, thinking about how much she would lose if she were exposed, and slightly more appropriately, how it would endanger her family, but she’s still utterly failing in her responsibilities as a hero. These are realistic concerns, but there’s no emotional weight behind her struggle. If she had good reason to believe that Johnny wouldn’t be harmed, that would be one thing, but she has no such guarantee, and her inaction could easily end in tragedy. In fact, when the police arrive and search the place, they find nothing. And then…she still doesn’t intervene. Instead, she goes to Kandor for a fashion show. Picking up her new, indestructible costumes, the Girl of Steel leaves her friend to his fate while she plays dress-up. It’s not her finest moment.
While there she sees the Professor, who is at work on creating an antidote for his anti-superpowers pill. As she returns, she has the utterly silly thought that her new costume, which looks almost exactly like her OLD costume, will somehow give her an edge when she confronts her foes because it will confuse them. Because apparently they aren’t capable of extrapolating minor changes. She must think that getting a haircut really messes people up.
My friend may be getting turned into clothing by a grisly monster as we speak, but yay! Fashion!
Back on Earth, her boss, Geoff, is fed up with the police’s lack of progress, so he decides to head a team going back to the theater…with more cameras. Because that worked so well last time. They do precisely the same thing, and, astonishingly, it works about as well the second time around. This time, it is Nasty who is snatched, so Supergirl actually gets into action, but she misses the phantom. In a particularly stupid detail, the police, seeing footage of the event, decide that the girl dressed almost exactly like Supergirl, who has a giant ‘S’ on her chest, must be a stranger in league with the monster.
Geoff, feeling somehow responsible for sending two people to an unknown fate, takes a gun and goes down to the theater, which, had he done earlier, probably would have solved the problem. Yet, Linda calls the police on him, defying his orders, and intervenes as Supergirl, another course of action that could have resolved this whole situation much earlier.
Our heroine, ladies and gentlemen…
Using her conveniently working X-Ray vision, she locates a hidden passage and follows it down, just in time for her powers to very conveniently conk out again. In the tunnels under the theater, she finds the two captured reporters as prisoners of a surprisingly well-spoken phantom, who reveals his boss…Starfire!
The femme fatale seems not to have died in her plunge from the castle window after all…on which I’m definitely going to have to call shenanigans. We didn’t see a body in that sequence, which I attributed to the era, but we did see what seemed to be a lifeless hand sticking out of the water in the last panel, which seemed pretty darn clear. According to the villainess, she just swam under water and hid until the authorities left. Pretty shoddy job on the part of the police. ‘No body? Ehh, she’s probably dead. Let’s go get dinner!’
The page in question
Covering the captives with a pistol, the spurious specter has Supergirl between a rock and a hard place, and the villains capture her, dropping her into a tank of acid. Fortunately, the Maid of Might is still wearing her invulnerable uniform, so she flips her cape over her head, feigns agony, and endures the immersion until her bonds burn through. Then she leaps out, breaking Starfire’s hand (!) to stop her drawing a gun, and capturing the villains with a flying tackle. The story ends with Supergirl taking her prisoners to the police station and unmasking the phantom as Mr. Renard. Finally, we see the gang joking about going to a show, while Nasty still plots to pin Supergirl down.
It’s all very Scooby Doo, isn’t it? That last scene especially is just a bit ridiculous and cartoonish. The story is entertaining enough, though the book continues to suffer from Sekowsy’s dramatically uneven artwork. There are some genuinely nice layouts, interesting angles, and nice panels…and then there are the usual bunch of downright ugly pages. The bigger problems are Supergirl’s complete failure as a hero and the fact that the center of the book just feels like so much running around, with three different trips to the theater and the unnecessary side-trip to Kandor. Starfire’s return and convoluted plot seem beneath her as well. This is quite a ridiculous setup.
“And we would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you meddling Kyrptonains!”
She has her henchman pretend to haunt his theater in the hopes of attracting Supergirl’s attention? I can’t help but think there must have been a simpler way to accomplish that. The slippery master-villain also suffered a very ignominious defeat. She plagued the Girl of Steel for multiple issues at a time previously, proving a suitable nemesis for our heroine. And here, she gets taken down with fairly little fan-fare, just dumped in the local police station, and then forgotten about. It’s a waste of a character that had a certain amount of villainous credibility built up. In the end, I’ll give this silly story 2 Minutemen, though I’m inclined to give it less because of Supergirl’s unheroic performance. It is particularly egregious in light of the much better told Superman story dealing with the same kind of dilemma that it shares space with this month.
“Daughter of the Demon”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz
It’s finally here! The debut of R’as Al Ghul, one of the greatest Batman villains created after the Golden Age, and arguably the most significant to the character in recent years, following his revitalization in Batman Begins. I have been eagerly awaiting this issue, remembering it fondly from my previous read-through of the Bat-books, and, perhaps most significantly, from the wonderful adaptation from that best of Bat-worlds, Batman: The Animated Series. The episode “The Demon’s Quest,” is an extremely faithful translation of this story, so much so that I was really struck by that when I first read the comic, having started my Bat-experience with the cartoon. The episode in question is an excellent one, but that is no surprise considering the source. Timm and Co. had an affinity for elevating their material, capturing the potential in every story and character and presenting them in all of their archetypal and dramatic power (though the recent release of Batman and Harley Quinn indicates that this is sadly no longer the case). Yet, their task was an easy one in this case.
I loved R’as Al Ghul already from his appearances in B:TAS, and I was excited when I encountered him in this book and in his subsequent appearances. I have been particularly looking forward to returning to his first appearance here, both to see if it lived up to my memory and to experience it in its original context among the DCU. I’m very pleased to say that I was definitely not disappointed.
I supposed I’d better begin with the iconic cover, which is dramatic and nicely symbolic. There are a few problems with it, but the biggest is the fact that it gives away the twist of the entire issue! The thrust of the book’s mystery is the identity and agenda of the enigmatic Al Ghul…only that mystery is solved, in part, before you ever open it, as the villain is clearly orchestrating whatever is happening to Robin. The other issue is the slightly distracting cover copy and the odd coloring of the ghostly Al Ghul. I like his spectral image, but I think there is a little something missing from the execution.
Nonetheless, the tale within does not disappoint. It begins with the Teen Wonder stealthily returning to his room one night at Hudson University, only to be ambushed within by a pair of gunman who shoot him down! Now, having seen the cartoon episode first, I didn’t really appreciate how big a moment this, or that which comes later, really was. I was just watching the familiar patterns of a well-known plot, but in context, I now realize that this is a really shocking event, with shadowy figures awaiting, not Robin, but Dick Grayson, in his home! From the first page, the stakes are set as being extremely high, and we are given to understand that this is definitely not your normal adventure.
A short time later, Bruce Wayne receives a most distressing envelope bearing a picture of his unconscious ward and a simple note, “Dear Batman, we have Robin! Save him if you can!” Once again, I read right past this the first time, but here is a note, sent to Bruce, but addressed to Batman. The message is clear, and it is only made clearer by what will happen later. First, Bruce swings into action, heading to Wayne Manor in order to use his mothballed crime lab to examine the note. Now, this raises a bit of a question, as why would he not have the same type of facilities in his Penthouse headquarters, but it seems clear that O’Neil is taking a bit of a mini-tour of the Batman mythos in this book.
The truly shocking moment comes when, upon reaching the Batcave, the Dark Knight is surprised to find that he has visitors! An intense looking man in a cloak with a looming servant/bodyguard greet him, calling him by his real name! This is R’as Al Ghul, who explains that he discovered the Dark Detective’s identity by deduction, reasoning he would need to be wealthy and meet certain criteria. Bruce unmasks and accepts all of this with a truly surprising lack of reaction. It seems quite out of character, and the mysterious man’s explanations seem far too simplistic, but these issues, while not given entirely adequate explanation by O’Neil in this issue, can be reconciled by what we learn by its end.
The Caped Crusader does demand to know what the intruders want, though, and Al Ghul reveals that his daughter has been taken as well, and he wants Batman’s help in rescuing her. The hero recognizes Talia, the girl he recently rescued from Dr. Darrk and, realizing that they have a common cause, the great detective gets to work. A microscopic examination of the note reveals residue of an herb used by a far eastern cult of killers who have their headquarters in Calcutta, so the trio take off for the orient! As they leave, Ubu, Al Ghul’s servant, makes a big deal of allowing his master to go first, and the Dark Knight quietly takes the man’s measure.
On the flight, we see a Batman that has been developing in the last few years but has not, I think, been seen in such clarity before this point. He sits in stoic, brooding silence, replying to his companion’s questions about his composure that he must control his emotions because he has a job to do. The character’s portrayal throughout this issue is of the driven, collected, self-possessed Dark Knight Detective that came to define the best version of the concept, and this scene is a striking departure from the grinning, joking Batman that we’ve seen even recently in the rest of the DCU (Bob Haney doesn’t count, of course). During the trip, we peer into the Masked Manhunter’s reverie and see him remembering his origin, that terrible night when a boy’s innocence died along with his parents and something hard and pure was born in its place. We get a capsule version of the familiar origin story, complete with his adoption of Dick, with a focus on the self-sacrifice and dedication that his destiny demanded, further establishing this issue as a new beginning.
In Calcutta, an old beggar is accosted by some street toughs, only to reveal himself as Batman, terrifying the low-lifes and forcing information out of them about the “Brotherhood of the Demon.” Finding his way to their supposed headquarters, the Dark Knight enters first, only to be pounced upon by a leopard! In a great sequence, the hero uses his strength and agility to grapple with the great cat and break its neck. The danger passed, the detective notes that the animal was a trained guard, though the only thing in the room is a desk with a map of the Himalayan Mountains. He claims there is a faint scratch tracing a route, and R’as offers to finance a mountain expedition.
Later, on Mount Nanda Devi, the trio continue their search, following a clear trail, and Neal Adams includes what I have to think is Deadman’s face in the mountainside. I wonder if this is near Nanda Parbat! To continue their search, the travelers must scale the mountain, and Batman leads the way, though R’as takes a moment to admire the beauty of their surroundings, admitting to a love of desolate places that is positively Romantic, a nice character moment. Suddenly, a shot rings out, and the mystery man seems to be hit. Batman launches a desperate swing from the cliff-face to elude the gunman, and when the attacker follows, the hero springs from the snow in which he had secreted himself to take the assassin out.
Interestingly, the Caped Crusader’s knows something we don’t, and he approaches the hidden camp of his enemies brazenly, walking boldly through their armed sentries and telling them that he knows they won’t fire. As he strides into an inner chamber, he sees Robin and, ignoring the guards, secretly slips his partner a knife. Just then, a masked figure enters, but the Dark Knight has had enough and declares that he knows the whole score. From the very beginning, he knew that the entire quest was all a show, recognizing that R’as Al Ghul’s convenient appearance was all-too transparent, and his suspicions were confirmed when Ubu, always solicitous of his master’s honor, let the hero walk ahead of him when danger awaited. Batman also fooled them with the map, lying about the scratch, but they took him to this mountain nonetheless.
Having vamped long enough, the Masked Manhunter asks the Teen Wonder if he’s ready, and they clean house, taking out the gathered assassins in a nice sequence that only suffers from having no backgrounds. Then, the Dark Knight snatches the mask from the robbed figure to reveal Ubu, who decides to try his luck. But Batman isn’t impressed by the man’s size or strength, and he flattens the hulking bodyguard in another great sequence. Finally, R’as and Talia Al Ghul are revealed, and the Dark Detective confronts them, demanding an explanation for the dangerous game that the enigmatic man has been playing. Al Ghul responds simply that his daughter loves the hero and, being inclined to retire, he wanted to see if Batman were worthy of being his successor and….son in law!
What an ending! The look of complete surprise on Batman’s face in the final panel had to be mirrored in that of many a fan as they read this book. Of course, I knew it was coming, but trying to put myself in their shoes, I really felt the impact of this twist. Readers must have been on the edge of their seats waiting for the next issue! Reading this book in context really emphasizes how important and innovative it was. This issue is the culmination, or at least a culmination, of all of the reworking and renovating that O’Neil had been doing in his Batman stories, and this is, in many ways, a new beginning, a line drawn in the four-colored sand, declaring that ‘what comes next is to be something new, yet classic,’ something that returns to the core of the character and positions him in a world worthy of him.
This is the Batman I love. This is the Batman that was translated so wonderfully into the Animated Series. This is the Batman that realizes the character’s potential and takes advantage of the archetypal power of the concept. He is dark, driven, intimidating, hyper-capable but believable, marked by the sadness of his origin, yet capable of enjoying his adventures, especially when joined by his adoptive son. He is serious, but not joyless, and that’s an important distinction, often lost these days. It isn’t perfect, not yet. O’Neil is still a little clumsy with some of his dialog, but it is close, the character is close.
I am also very impressed with R’as Al Ghul in this first appearance. He is mostly just busy being mysterious, but there is a dignity and a certain Romantic air about him that is appealing. Already you can see the Byronic anti-heroic quality that will define the character (though he will usually lack the self-critical element of that archetype). Throughout there are hints that there is more to this enigmatic figure than meets the eye, like the ability of the older man to keep up with the powerful Caped Crusader during his quest and his calm self-assurance in every situation.
This issue is beloved for a reason. It is a great declaration of a new (and old) vision for the Dark Knight, and it presents an exciting, world-trotting adventure that both honors and challenges many of the important elements of the Batman mythos, reuniting the Dynamic Duo in the end and introducing an intriguing new villain with a very unusual agenda. Adams art is beautiful throughout, of course, but he too is coming into his own here. His Batman is powerful yet agile, dynamic yet mysterious, full of untapped depths yet in complete control. The art is alternately moody, intense, exotic, and exciting. O’Neil, for his part, turns in some of his best writing here, focusing on character and story and really creating something special. I’ll happily give this landmark issue 4.5 Minutemen. It isn’t perfect, but it is darn close.
P.S.: The letter’s page of this issue included a short note about the Futurians, the villainous secret society of several issues back, about which I had wondered. It turns out that the name was a reference to a group of science fiction fans from the 30s, many of whom would go on to be major influences in the genre. How neat!
And that’s it for this post, though I don’t know what else y’all could ask for! We’ve got a great selection of stories in this batch, even with the Supergirl clunker. This is definitely an exciting time in comics, and change is in the air! DC is growing, and there are exciting things on the horizon. On that note, I hope you’ll join me again soon for the next installment of Into the Bronze Age! Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!