Into the Bronze Age: September 1970 (Part 6)

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Just in time for Christmas, welcome to the last edition of Into the Bronze Age for September 1970!  I rather wish that I had some type of Christmas special planned, but I hope a regular old IBA post will be a welcome gift nonetheless.  We have an interesting pair of stories, and we are looking at a definite change coming next month.  So, let’s see what is in store for the end of September (in December).

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.

Showcase #93

showcase_vol_1_93“Never Trust a Red-Haired Greenie”
Writer: Mike Sekowsky
Penciler: Mike Sekowsky
Inker: Frank Giacoia
Editors: Mort Weisinger and E. Nelson Bridwell

I’ve been looking forward to this last issue of the Manhunter feature, but I’ve also been dreading its arrival.  Why, you may ask?  Well, it’s been so much fun that I just hate to see it end!  It’s a crying shame that Starker did not get picked up for an ongoing series, but this issue hit me with more than just disappointment over the loss of a promising character and concept.  It struck me with the cruelest surprise I’ve encountered in any of these comics, perhaps the cruelest I’ve ever met in comics at large.  This issue, the last major mention of Manhunter 2070 ever in mainstream DC continuity, ends on a cliffhanger!  What a kick in the teeth!  And what a cliffhanger it is!  I’ll share the painful moment with you, and you can see what I mean.

Other than the ending, this is another exciting and engaging sci-fi yarn, continuing to flesh out a really interesting universe full of fascinating peoples and places.  The loss of the setting is as significant as the loss of the character himself.  Speaking of Starker, the Manhunter, we find him on his way home to his base orbiting Jupiter, where Arky, his robotic man Friday, has a new job for him.  Apparently we’ve got some white-collar space crime, which makes for a nice change of pace.  A mining company executive took off with two million ‘credits,’ and has vanished.  Starker takes off after him, heading to the planet Zodan, which Arky warns him is home to a very strange culture.  Remember the crime-city on Krypton-that-was?  Those folks would feel right at home on Zodan, where theft is the planetary pastime.  It’s a goofy concept, just like that World’s Finest story, but unlike its predecessor, it’s actually pulled off rather well.

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From the moment he arrives, our stoic bounty hunter friend is besieged by one thief after another in a series of funny little bits.  However, Starker is not a man to be trifled with, so all of the Zodanian “Greenies” quickly come to regret having tried to get one over on him.  In this issue, the unevenness of Sekowsky’s art is still evident, though not too badly.  Yet, in the splash page below, it looks like Starker is performing a dance number rather than fighting.  One-two-three, and kick!

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The futuristic Manhunter gets by more or less just by being a terrifying individual, making it very clear to those he encounters that stealing from him would be the last mistake they’d be likely to make, and his grim, confident carriage is quite well handled.  He’s definitely an entertaining character to see in action.

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There’s several nice, moody panels like the above to illustrate his search

We follow as his chase leads across the spaceport, and he eventually discovers that his quarry has headed to another world in the system, but when he heads for that planet, he is unaware that he has two space-suited stowaways clinging to his ship.  They follow him stealthily for the rest of the issue, a constant, menacing presence behind him.

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On the planet Zoldar, Starker finds his prey drinking away his sorrows in an extraterrestrial version of an Old West saloon.  Apparently the embezzler met with craftier thieves than himself and was duped out of all his ill-gotten gains in a rigged card game.  This is not what I expected, and it’s a nice twist.  From the first time we meet this thief, Wallen, he’s actually rather pitiful and sympathetic.  As the bounty hunter gets the story out of the poor loser, three other toughs try to horn in on the bounty, but our hero makes quick work of them.

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He leads Wallen in pursuit of the card sharks that fleeced him, and the two head off in a cross-desert chase on a pair of alien mounts.  These creatures, called glyphs, are just one of the many examples of the world-building that Sekowsy is doing in this issue.  We have unique names for technologies, places, and creatures.  His setting is really beginning to feel fleshed-out, to acquire that “impression of depth” we’ve discussed before.  Unfortunately, they are ambushed by their quarry, and Starker and Wallen are pinned down by unseen shooters in the alien wasteland.  In a really nice sequence, the Manhunter orders Wallen to draw their fire, telling him, “they might miss–I won’t–dead or alive–you’ll still be worth 25,000 to me.”  It’s a great moment, really fitting the tough-as-nails hunter and showing how unique he is among the characters that populate the DC line at this point.

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showcase-093-18Wallen survives his sprint, and Starker is able to pick off one of their attackers, though he is bushwhacked by the other.  Interestingly, his prisoner actually warns him, saving his life.  He survives the hit and kills his attacker in turn.  Then, Starker gathers Wallen up, noting that he owes him and wishes he could let him go in recompense for his warning, but saying he can’t.  That’s another nice character touch, and I rather like the inflexibility of his approach to his work.

The pair encounter another strange scene as they continue their journey.  They discover a red-headed ‘Greenie’ woman lying in the desert, apparently hurt.  When Starker dismounts and picks her up to bear her to safety, another lady appears to hold him at gunpoint.  This was all a trap, and these two femme fatales were the stowaways from Zodan.  They devised this ambush to ensure that the hunter’s hands would be busy when they struck, intending to steal his prisoner and the loot.  Yet, Starker is not one to take things lying down, so he drops his lovely burden and goes for his gun, only to get blasted again and again by the deadly dames.

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They leave him for dead, and he is too weak even to fire off a parting shot.  After they depart, he is also discovered by a pack of neanderthal-like creatures, and the last image of the book is one of the man-beasts raising a club to threaten the helpless hunter.  Infuriatingly, the editor’s box tells us that we can only find out what happens if Manhunter is picked up.  What a gambit that was.  Sekowsky was really stacking the deck, for all the good it did him.  It’s a crying shame, because he really created a gripping cliffhanger.  Starker is in deep, deep trouble, and I, for one, would really have loved to see what happened.  He’d been shot several times, marooned in the desert, and was now facing a savage tribe’s wrath.  That is quite a note to go out on.

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This was another great issue, and it is definitely a loss for the DC Universe that this series was never picked up.  I think this may be the best work Sekowsky ever did, and he clearly really enjoyed this creation.  I love the feel of this story, in particular.  The universe Starker inhabits is actually rather Star Wars-ish, nearly seven years early.  There’s a lived-in feel to the place that is a departure from the dominant sci-fi settings of the day.  There is a great deal of originality and personality in Starker and his setting, and I can only imagine what it might have grown into if given the chance.  I suppose the day of the cosmic 70s stories had not yet arrived and this concept was just ahead of its time.  Again, Sekowsky gives us a solid mixture of action, intrigue, and mystery, with a healthy dose of character moments for his taciturn protagonist.  I’ll give this issue a 4.5 Minutemen, though I’m tempted to deduct some points because of the dirty cliffhanger trick, and I will bid a very fond farewell to Starker and his world.  It was here only briefly, but I shall miss it nonetheless.

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World’s Finest #196

worlds_finest_comics_196“Kryptonite Express”
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Russos

This is a surprisingly decent issue.  We’re definitely back in the zaney reaches of the Haneyverse, but as goofy and gimmicky as the concept is, Haney actually manages to turn in a fun tale that works without too many bizarre or irrational moments.  I suppose this is one of the last kryptonite-as-gimmick stories we’re likely to see, given the rapid approach of “Kryptonite No More.”  And this one uses the heck out of that gimmick.

The comic opens with a sudden meteor shower blanketing the U.S., falling all across the country.  It just so happens that these are not your ordinary, every day meteorites.  They are, in fact, a huge supply of kryptonite.  Now, let’s get the silliness of this setup out of the way right from the start.  It is, of course hilariously silly how much of the exploded planet of Krypton ended up on Earth.  All of it must have flown directly at our system.  The basic idea is that Krypton exploded and chunks of its radioactive matter showered Earth around the same time baby Kal-El got here, right?  Then how in the blue blazes would this big cloud of space debris happen to get here some thirty odd years later?  That’s not the way space and gravity work!

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The silly plot device aside, the country suddenly finds itself in a fix.  There’s now tons of kryptonite (literally) scattered all across the continent, just waiting to be picked up by some black-hearted rogue, just itching for a chance to kill Superman.  It’s like Lex Luthor’s dream come true.  It’s literally raining kryptonite.  The President makes a special televised plea to all Americans, urging them to gather up the mineral and deliver it to a special train that would travel through the nation to collect it.  Batman and Robin will play conductor and Superman will serve as a guard and scout.  They’ll also have a passel of security forces from every agency in the alphabet soup.  Ohh, and Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen (described as a “reporter” instead of photographer, interestingly enough), and Clark Kent will be along in a special press car.  And here we’ve reached maximum gimmick.

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Of course, here we reach our second problem with the concept.  If there was a meteor shower of such proportions, the black market would already have to be absolutely flooded with enough kryptonite to kill a Super-elephant.  It’s just lying on the ground for the taking.  Are you telling me every criminal and psychopath from Lex Luthor to the lowest street hustler wouldn’t have hit the countryside for a kryptonite scavenger hunt?  But, because this is a Bob Haney story, the blazingly obvious is just plain unreasonable.

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worlds-finest-comics-196-007Despite the abundant availability of organic, free range kryptonite, a criminal mastermind and train enthusiast (no, really, that’s how he’s described) plots to steal the special train and its green glowing cargo.  Seriously, this guy is Sheldon Cooper after the inevitable mental break.  Anyway, Dr. Cooper, er, I mean K.C. Jones, sends his thugs to grab the train.  We get an actual set of costumed (after a fashion) crooks, which is always a plus in my book, especially considering how often we’ve seen the members of the Generic Gang lately.

Our well-dressed henchmen storm the train after a smoke bomb goes off in the fire (because, apparently, this is a coal-powered train, for some reason).  Batman and Robin battle their way back from the the engine towards the kryptonite but get caught at gunpoint.  Batman pulls a fairly clever stunt, tossing a batarang back towards the throttle while shielded by Robin’s cape.  The train slams to a stop, sending the assailants flying.

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Meanwhile, the attackers have uncoupled the press car, leaving Clark Kent in a very embarrassing position.  He fakes a panic attack, locking himself in the bathroom, only to emerge as Superman and rejoin the cars.  The begins a series of secret identity farces that are par for the course.  One wonders how Clark ever manages to show his face in public after these types of things.  The first attack repelled, they soon face a second.  They pass through a tunnel inhabited by bats, only to find that the Batman’s namesakes are part of a second trap!  The winged mammals carry tiny gas canisters, and soon the entire train is snoozing, other than Superman himself.  The Man of Steel stays out of range of the kryptonite and pushes the train back with a telephone pole until his partners can reawaken and regain control, a clever way around the problem.

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The heroes seem to be doing pretty well, with two up and two down, but K.C. is not to be defeated so easily.  He must have his special train…and the kryptonite.  Hey, I’m okay with his quirk.  A quirky villain is an interesting villain, though, in this case, the quirk is pretty much all this guy has going for him.  Anyway, he lays a trap for the Express, faking a special celebration of the lining of the Transcontinental Railroad and offering the Man of Tomorrow a golden spike that is actually disguised kryptonite.  The villain captures the train, and Superman just manages to escape after he is left to die (of course).

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When the Man of Steel recovers, he finds the train racing back down the tracks, out of control.  Batman is chained to the front car, which is also full of kryptonite.  Still weakened, the Man from Krypton is too weak to stop the train from the back, and the whole kit and kaboodle crashes into a river!  In a nice display of resourcefulness, the Dark Knight grasps a sharp piece of kryptonite between his feet and uses it to cut his bonds before he drowns.

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Meanwhile, Robin seems to bungle an escape attempt, breaking Jimmy’s signal watch in the process, but everything is not as it appears.  K.C. seals the press members in a cavern with a landslide, and the World’s Finest pair only manage to spot their would-be tomb because Batman makes a sharp-eyed observation.  Robin and the others freed, the heroes head out to stop the train.  Aboard the Express, Batman battles his way to the engine, only to be ambushed by…Robin!  Fortunately, the Dark Knight expected this double cross, having surmised that this Teen Wonder is an impostor, and he takes him out, though he is still captured by the rest of the henchmen.  Superman, for his part, can’t get close because of the kryptonite, but he comes up with a crazier (day I say “zanier”?) solution.

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He flies ahead to where a bridge crosses over the Rio Grande into Mexico, and relocates it a mile further inland in the U.S.  When our villainous train enthusiast crosses this bridge, he stops to taunt the hero, thinking he is safe in Mexico, which seems utterly stupid on too many levels to count.  I know Superman likes to obey the law and everything, but come on!  Fortunately, the Man of Tomorrow has outsmarted him, though he notes that the plan wouldn’t have worked anyway, as he has authority to make arrests in all U.N. member nations, which is a nice little detail and makes sense.  To finish things up, Superman throws the kryptonite car into space, which should really make K.C. question his life choices, and the tale comes to an end with some more secret identity farce, as Lois wonders what ever happened to Clark.

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I was entirely prepared to find this another silly, annoyingly Silver Age-ish tale, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it was so much fun.  The kooky elements don’t get in the way of the fun.  It’s actually a solid adventure story with several clever moments.  Each of the stars (other than poor Robin) is given something interesting to do, and they both display their better qualities, showing what they bring to the team.  There is a lot of quick thinking on display, and most of the solutions, other than the bridge stunt, are actually fairly reasonable.  The villain is entertaining enough, if a tad silly, and at least he had some costumed henchmen, who were worth at least half a Minuteman by themselves!  This was a fun story, and it was enjoyable enough to make up for the goofy and gimmicky premise.  I’ll give it 3 Minutemen, an average comic.

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Final Thoughts:

We’ve had an interesting month in this set of books.  We’ve seen the highs and the lows, and once again they were penned by the same hand, which is an odd situation.  On the whole, it’s been a fairly solid month, with several of our usually lackluster titles turning out enjoyable issues.  Once again, the portrayal of Batman across the DCU illustrates the liminal nature of these stories.  We’re trekking through a world in transition here, and the Dark Knight is the clearest symbol.  While the teams on the Batman books are delivering a grim avenger of the night, a detective who uses his wits more than sci-fi gadgets, Bob Haney continues to bring us the ‘Policeman’s Friend’ version of the character.  Of course, one imagines that Haney would portray him, and anyone else he fancied, in whatever way he liked, regardless of what the rest of the world was doing.  Yet, Haney isn’t alone.

We’re seeing more and more books following the pattern of Batman and Green Lantern and taking on a more mature tone and set of themes, with mixed success, and Superman continues to be the poster child for the conservative (both politically and generally) tendencies of the genre, as he continues to engage in very Silver Age-ish adventures that are beginning to feel more and more dated.  Interestingly, Denny O’Neil seems to be at the center of a great deal of the change that DC is experiencing.  Whatever missteps he may be guilty of in Green Lantern and other books, he certainly deserves a great deal of respect for the innovation he did, and there are probably more hits than misses to his credit.

Here we are, almost to the end of our first year of the Bronze Age, and the growth during these months is actually rather notable.  There is still much to come, however, and we’ll be seeing some changes in the next month, both to DC comics and to this blog feature.  Of course, something we’ve been eagerly awaiting is finally going to arrive, as next month will see the first forays of the King into DC comics of the Bronze Age, as Jack Kirby begins his tenure on Jimmy Olsen.  That’s pretty exciting, and though those stories are very uneven, I can’t wait to cover them!  I’m also adding a few other titles to my already massive reading list.  I’m going to begin covering the Supergirl stories in Adventure comics in the hopes that the Silver Age-y hijinks are on the way out, and I’ll also be adding, of all things, Superman’s Girlfriend: Lois Lane.  That book, which I never thought I’d be reading, apparently adds a new feature next month, a backup of Rose and Thorn, which intrigues me.  Unfortunately, it’s written by Robert Kanigher.  So…we’ll see how that goes, but since she’s definitely a superhero, I feel like that means I should cover her in this feature.

So, please join me soon for the next issue of Into the Bronze Age, where we will start on October’s comic offerings.  Until then…

 

Merry Christmas to all!

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May God bless your celebrations and may the new year bring us all a better, more joyful world.

 

The Head-Blow Headcount:

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The Headcount remains the same at the end of the month, just having added a few new faces.  Our list has certainly grown, though not quite as much as I suspected.  Enjoy the wall of shame, my friends!

 

Into the Bronze Age: August 1970 (Part 5)

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Here we are at our penultimate post for the month of August.  Thank you for joining me again in this mad little venture.  This post features another Superman tale…so, that’s a thing.  It also features the next iteration of Manhunter 2070, which I’ve quite been looking forward to.  So, without further ado, let’s dive right in.

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.

Showcase #92

showcase_vol_1_92“D.O.A.”
Writer: Mike Sekowsky
Penciler: Mike Sekowsky
Inker: Frank Giacoia

We return again to the most promising feature to come to Showcase in quite some time, Manhunter 2070, and the question that we must ask is, does it live up to the four-colored glory that was the first issue?  Well, in terms of the story, it absolutely does.  This book presents us with the origin of the titular Manhunter, Starker, and it is an origin story that would be very well suited to a movie.  It’s a classic tale of loss and revenge, and it definitely brings our laconic hero of the first issue into better focus, deepening his character and providing good, solid motivation for his adventures.  The only weakness is the art.  Sekowsky’s unevenness is back with a vengeance.  While some of the same creative energy and striking design is in evidence, it is a bit more limited as the setting doesn’t admit to as much wonder, taking place mostly on a ship instead of on a wild alien world.  There are also some panels that are simply a bit awkward, even ugly.  Nevertheless, the story is strong enough to cover over a multitude of sins, and even when Sekowsky’s art isn’t particularly pretty, it’s usually interesting.

This is not your daddy’s silver age science fiction story.  As in the last issue, the stakes are high and the peril is real.  The villains are vicious, and the hero is willing to kill.  There is a maturity of tone here that is a bit surprising and quite enjoyable.

This bloody tale of vengeance starts with Starker taking his two lovely young guests from the previous issue back to their home.  They’re strolling through a nice sci-fi setting when a reward sheet for Starker himself from “The Brotherhood of Space” prompts the telling of his tale.  After renting a spaceship from Hertz (which is a strange and fun little detail), the bounty hunter begins his story.

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It all started when he was a boy, accompanying his asteroid miner father on an expedition.  His father had just struck it rich when a band of pirates arrived to steal the claim.  When his father resists, the five raiders blast him down, right in front of his son.  The captain orders the boy killed as well, as he never leaves witnesses, but the cook, Slops, asks for the boy to be taken on to help him in the kitchen.  This is no kindly act, however, as both we and Starker learn as soon as they are back aboard ship.  Slops belts the boy, just to show him his place, and he proceeds to work the youth like a slave.

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Starker watches in terror as time passes and the pirates loot ships and murder innocent spacers, but he also watches, waits, and remembers.  Rage burns within him, and he begins to plot his revenge as fear turns into a cold, sharp hatred.  He learns from his captors, and in quiet moments he steals away to the deserted portions of the ship and hones his skills, driven to be better, faster, and stronger than any of them.

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He makes his first step by beating Slops and claiming his job.  The pirates look on with approval, and he is granted greater freedom to develop his plans.  Finally, one day he makes his move, first disabling all the escape craft, and then ambushing a lone buccaneer and stealing his weapons.  I like the continuity of setting that Sekowsky provides by giving us the same kinds of weapons and devices.  He’s doing a good job of making his particular space-future more realized.

Now armed, Starker begins to hunt the men who murdered his father, and there are five names on his list.  What follows seems like the makings of a good Clint Eastwood movie.  He kicks open a door and interrupts a card game between three of the marauders, but only one of them is his man.  He tells the others that they can live if they don’t interfere, but they all draw on him.  In a nice page, he outdraws them and manages to drop all three.  It’s not a bad scene, and the tension and action is well handled.

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dc showcase 092-17.jpgWith this fiery exchange, the cat is out of the bag.  The pirate captain spots the young man on his surveillance cameras, and our neophyte warrior uses the opportunity to tell his prey he’s coming for him.  It’s a good moment.  The raiders start hunting for their nemesis, and Starker once again displays his resourcefulness and nerve.  He knocks out a light in a cargo hold and, when a party of buccaneers prowls through, he ambushes the last man, strangling him to death!  This second victim is another of one of the murderers Starker is hunting.  Afterwards, he gets the drop on the rest of the patrol, and, after tying them up, he moves to the next stage of his plan.

The crusading youth puts on a helmet and floods the ship’s life support system with paralytic gas.  This disables all of the crew except for the last three, conveniently, the last three of the murderers.  They spread out to hunt him down, and one by one, Starker takes them down in a dramatic series of showdowns.  Fittingly, he beats each of them with their signature weapon.

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His job done, and clearly more than drained by the experience, Starker flies the rest of the crew to a Space Patrol station and turns them in, becoming instantly wealthy from their bounties.  His face in the last panel is an excellent touch by Sekowsky.  You can see the strain and the disappointment.  It’s not touched on in the text at all, but there’s a certain melancholy in the end here that is fitting for a good revenge tale.  After all, no amount of vengeance can ever bring his father back.  Finally, his story told, Starker leaves the young ladies with their family and heads back out into space, destined for another adventure.

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This is an excellent story, just high-quality adventure fare.  It is a classic revenge story, well-told, and Starker is likable, sympathetic, and eventually impressive in his fortitude, courage, and capability.  There’s really not too much to say about it, other than I thoroughly enjoyed the read.  While the art is a little rough, it is still worth a good 4.5 Minutemen.

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Superman #229

superman_v-1_229“The Ex-Superman!”
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Roussos

“Clark Kent, Assassin!”
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Wayne Boring
Inker: Wayne Boring

Urg.  This is a bizarre and, frankly, just plain goofy pairing of tales.  They have ridiculously poor plots and characterization that makes no real sense.  Once again, I have a feeling that the entire cobbled together first story is just an excuse for what someone considered a neat image for a cover.  In short, Superman books remain a real slog.

This first tale is the continuation of last issue’s feature, and while not as boring as that one, it makes up for it by being bonkers.  Plus, Superman causes multiple deaths!  Yay!  ‘How’ you may ask?  After all, Superman doesn’t kill, right?  Well, pretty recently he’s talked about his code against killing, but apparently he’s totally fine with letting people die or even causing their deaths, just not doing it with his own hands.  This is, of course, wildly inconsistent with the character and his ethos and, because Dorfman clearly wasn’t really paying attention, it is given absolutely no focus or exploration, making the deviation pretty unforgivable.

We pick up where we left off, for whatever that is worth.  The Metropolis Marvel, now not so marvelous or in Metropolis, is hurtling through space towards the ‘Execution Planet.’  Sure.  We’re told his space enemies conspired to make this happen, but that is immediately dropped.  On the planet, we see an inventive execution that is not inventive enough, resulting in the execution of the executioner by just shooting him…I’m detecting something of a double standard here.

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Superman’s ship lands, and he is escorted past a slave camp.  Remember that exists.  At the execution palace, the Man of Steel is shown three different fates that he may choose from, each a terrible transformation, all used on living creatures, by the way, so fairly nasty for a book like this.  The Man of Tomorrow chooses a gas that will turn him into a plant, trapping him in a living death, but when these expert executioners start with the executing, they just…leave him in the middle of the room.  He’s not restrained, he’s not drugged, he’s not even hobbled.  Nothing at all, not so much as a stern glance.  Unsurprisingly, he dodges out of the way and turns the tables on his captors.  How have these guys managed to build an entire culture around execution if they’re so bad at it?

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Here’s the troubling bit.  Superman uses one of the other devices to reflect the gas back on his captors, totally killing an entire gang of them.  So, they were hoisted on their own petard, which is usually a way for writers to get around killing off villains without having the hero get his hands dirty, but it was caused, not by the overreach of the bad guys, but by Superman’s direct actions.  That is really not okay.  I can’t see any way in which he’s not culpable for those deaths.  But Dorfman isn’t about to slow down enough to consider the question.

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The de-powered Kryptonian flees to the river and escapes to the slave camp.  Remember them?  There, and stay with me now, because this is where the story starts zigging and zagging wildly, he runs into a champion who is dressed in a costume like his own.  Strange.  The man challenges the hero to a fight to assert his dominance, but Superman manages to defeat him.  The slave explains that the costume is worn by their mightiest man to honor a hero who saved his people long ago on a distant world.  Ooookay.  He awards it to Supes, since the former Man of Steel defeated him.  Part of the costume is a cape-like glider, and he uses this to take a ceremonial flight.

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Just then, a girl is taken from the encampment by the guards and hauled away to be sacrificed to their god of death.  Superman uses the glider cape that, for some reason, the captors let the slaves keep (once again, these executioner guys are REALLY bad at their jobs) to scale the wall.  He arrives at the admittedly cool-looking skull altar, but it seems he is too late.  The girl’s clothes are on the ground before the ‘god,’ and she has presumably been sacrificed.  What does Superman do?  Well…he…laughs…a lot.  It makes about as much sense as Batman’s attack of the giggles at the end of the Killing Joke, I suppose.  His mirthful madness is ended when the girl shows up out of nowhere, still in her clothes, somehow, and slaps him.

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She then reveals that she is Supergirl in disguise.  She came looking for her cousin and took the girl’s place to protect her.  She overpowered the Executioners, and then she watched passively and patiently as they committed suicide in their defeat by filing into the flaming altar.  Wow.  That’s…awful.  Maybe she didn’t kill them like her cousin, but she certainly didn’t lift a finger to save them…or even so much as voice dissent.  There is a lot of blood on Super-Hands in this issue.

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Well, by now you have likely completely forgotten how all of this started, and we aren’t even done yet!  Maid of Steel tells Man of Steel how she came to be there and offers a goofy, one panel explanation for how he lost his powers.  It’s hardly even worth summarizing, but I suppose I’ve set out to do a job here.  *sigh*  So, apparently Supes flew through ‘red space dust,’ which acts like red kryptonite but infected his suit, causing an allergic reaction that drained his powers.  I’m so glad that mystery was worth solving.

As the pair prepares to leave, Superman wonders about the odd coincidence of the slaves and their costume, and Supergirl helpfully fills him in with further exposition that is not at all tacked on and pointless.  Again, it’s hardly worth summarizing.  Basically, the man of Tomorrow reversed his sobriquet and went back into the distant past and saved an Atlantis-like civilization from a disaster…which really seems like it would screw with history like there was no tomorrow.  Then those people took their advanced city and went into space because the Earth was too dangerous.  They became the descendents of the current slaves.

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Confused?  Don’t see how all of this fits together?  That’s because it’s a weird, nonsensical morass of ideas.  This is not the charming, exuberant excess of creativity of a Stan and Jack book, or even the fun zaniness of better Bob Haney.  There are some neat ideas here, like the Executioners and their death-centric culture.  In fact, most of the individual elements of the story could have supported a tale of their own, and would have been vastly improved by having the room to breath that such an opportunity would afford them.  Instead, they’re discarded practically as quickly as they are introduced, and the cacophonous noise of their combination is just grating.  Combine that with the Super-Pair’s callous disregard for life and terrible characterization, and you’ve got a fairly lousy comic.  It has greater strengths than the previous issue, being much more creative, but it also has much greater weaknesses.  I’m giving it 1 Minuteman.  It’s a homemade super suit of badness.

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“Clark Kent, Assassin”

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How would you react if someone tried to kill you?  I’m guessing that you might be upset, angry, and you’d likely call the police.  Chances are you’d probably be pretty insistent that the would-be killer was punished, what with all of the attempted murder, right?  Wait a second, so you’re suggesting that a rational response to attempted murder might be slightly more intense than the mild  and passing annoyance you feel when someone bumps into you on the sidewalk?  Well apparently Leo Dorfman has a different idea.  The central complication of this issue is a repeated series of attempts on the Perry White’s life, as someone seems intent on uniting him with that ghost he keeps talking about.  The editor is very mildly peeved at this but seems entirely content to let it just keep happening, as if having the assassin arrested is entirely too much bother.  The portrayal is so unbelievably stupid and plot driven that it defies description, so let’s jump right in.

The tale opens at a dinner in honor of Perry White, hosted by none other than the Batman!  Wow.  This is probably the clearest example of the weird, halfway position of the Dark Knight at the moment.  In Detective Comics he’s haunting the shadows and grimly facing murderers and monsters.  Here, he’s standing in the middle of a crowded room and playing MC.  At the party, all of Perry’s friends sign a plaque with a diamond-edged stylus, and Clark does some stupid secret identity farce nonsense to change into Superman.  Sheesh, you’d think that Super-Brain of his would plan some of these things out in advance.  Anyway, the Man of Steel signs the plaque, and later, dressed as Clark again, examines a strange Kryptonian artifact he is investigating for the citizens of Kandor.  He taps the machine with his glasses, and then he immediately steals a knife and tries to make Perry-kabobs.  Striking the plaque instead, he flees and changes into Superman.

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In costume, he has no memory of what happened as Clark.  He flies back to the office, and Perry tells him that Clark is no longer so mild-mannered.  The hero, instead of being concerned that, you know, he’s blacked out and apparently tried to kill one of his best friends, pulls off one of the most ridiculous and unconvincing cover-ups ever.  He claims to spot Kent in a closet and goes inside to stage a conversation with…himself.  Okay, so far as that goes, it’s fine.  But when he emerges as Superman, he tells the Planet staff that he just let the attempted murderer go, and he’s sure he won’t do it again.  What?!

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He also helpfully makes Perry a bullet-proof vest out of printing plates instead of actually doing something sensible.  The editor is happy to wear it instead of, you know, insisting that the guy who just tried to kill him be arrested, or committed, or heck, even asked to explain himself.  What the heck must life at the Planet be like if they’re all so blase about this?  So what does Superman do next?  Does he go to the Fortress of Solitude and run some tests?  Does he go to Batman to get help solving the mystery?  Does he go to the League and surrender himself?  Of course not; he immediately changes back to Clark and tries again, this time with a gun.

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This time Perry actually asks for police protection, but he’s still not that worried about actually catching the man who has now TWICE tried to kill him.  The Man of Steel gives him a full suit of plate armor, and the no-nonsense editor accepts this as a perfectly reasonable alternative to Clark’s arrest.  Surely, this time the Man of Tomorrow will do something to figure out what is going on and…oh wait, no, he immediately changes back to Clark and tries to kill his boss with a grenade!

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Well, Superman finally begins to wonder what is going on, and he investigates the device he was researching.  He translates its inscription, and he realizes that it’s a hypnotic machine that can cause sleepwalking if not used properly.  He deduces that when his glasses touched it, they got charged with its energy, and every time he put them on he went into something like a trance.  He also figures out what he’s been trying to do while sleep-murdering.  He signed the plaque as both Superman and Clark, and he’s afraid someone will notice the similar signatures.  Once again, real smart there, Supes.  His subconscious mind was trying to destroy the plaque, and ‘rush in and smash it’ was about as good an idea as it could come up with.  I suppose that’s not bad for a subconscious.  So, he tries one more time, destroying the object completely with a ray gun and then pretending to come out of a trance.

Perry very helpfully suggests that he must have been under the control of a villain and seems to think absolutely no other vetting or followup is necessary.  Real good journalistic instincts there, White.  The best reporters always just blindly accept the first explanation that springs to mind.

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Like I said, “urg.”  The central conceit of this one is just so ridiculously stupid that I was astonished.  Characterization in comics is often broad and simple, and that’s fine.  It’s a product of the genre, especially earlier stories, but sometimes it is just bad, simply, objectively bad, as in these two stories, though for different reasons.  When characters don’t act consistently within the expectations you create in your setting, you’re failing, no matter what kind of story you’re telling.  This is definitely such a failure because of the conduct of both Perry White and Superman, who both come off like complete and total numb-skulls.  I’ll give this one a single Minuteman as well.

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That wraps it for this week, and a very mixed bag from these two issues.  We see the best and the worst of stories that.  These two books rather wonderfully illustrate the range of quality and approaches found in books of this era.  We’re seeing the advance of the medium and its dragging, dead-weight as well.  Join me soon for the final entry from this month!

 

Into the Bronze Age: June 1970 (Part 3)

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Welcome to the third installment of my coverage of June 1970.  I hope you enjoy the visit to the Bronze Age!

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

  • Action Comics #389
  • Aquaman #51
  • Batman #222
  • Detective Comics #400
  • The Flash #198
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #77
  • Justice League #81
  • Phantom Stranger #7
  • Showcase #91
  • Teen Titans #27
  • World’s Finest #194

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

Justice League of America #81

JLA_v.1_81.jpgCover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella

Hmm, “Plague of the Galactic Jest Master”…I have to say, that title doesn’t sound particularly promising.  The story within, however, is something else entirely.  That cover is certainly striking, and for once, it’s actually fairly fitting, even if only metaphorically so.  What is particularly notable to me is the fact that, once again, I have absolutely no memory of this tale, despite the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed it on this reading!  Even more so, and just as surprising, this issue picks up on a bunch of elements that I thought completely abandoned by the previous story.  It turns out that some of my criticism of that story was actually unfair because O’Neil picks up some of the threads left dangling there.  Well, let’s look within, shall we?  Beware!  This way lies madness!

And what a madness it is.  In the beginning we meet an interesting looking fellow, our titular Jest-Master, fawned over and surrounded by a horde of henchmen.  These strange aliens are winging their way through space in an oddly misshapen craft, more like a potato than a spaceship, on their way to destroy Thanagar with a curse of madness!  The design of the Jest Master isn’t bad, but it isn’t particularly great either.  Really, he looks like an orange version of the Green Goblin, even with a similar hood and grin.  His name may not be all that impressive, but the story he spawns is a solid one.

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It is here that I find that I was wrong about the previous issue.  I expected that story, featuring the mad Thanagarian doomsday cultist and Jean’s madness to simply be immediately forgotten.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that the vague warnings that the Thanagarian renegade gave about a galactic threat approaching are actually fulfilled in the coming of the Jest-Master.  While he isn’t quite a big enough threat to really justify the setup, I’m just pleased that we do get to see the story followed through.  Not only that, Jean Loring’s madness also finishes its arc here.  I went back and read the crazy but fun final issue of the Atom/Hawkman book to remind myself how she got into this situation before reading this issue, and that was quite a tale.  It’s nice to see those floating threads brought to a pleasant completion here.

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What the heck is going on with the geometry of that first panel?  Is it a comic or a cubist painting?

Speaking of Jean, we see that the Atom and Hawkman have resumed their interrupted journey to Thanagar to have her cured by the science of the Winged Wonder’s people.  She continues to rave, and Ray feels guilty about her predicament, but he’s unfair to himself.  She was driven mad by something that had nothing to do with him.  Well, pulling himself together, the Mighty Mite checks on Norch Lor, our Thanagarian doomsday cultist, previously unnamed.  He repeat his warning of a coming apocalypse.

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Yet, their journey is destined once again to be interrupted.  As they approach Katar’s homeworld, they pass an outpost and suddenly they are taking fire!  Hawkman docks his ship and finds the guards of the space station have gone mad!  Shortly, both he and the Atom begin to feel the effects of this strange irrational force as well, and they are driven to fight one another.

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In the ship, our neglected prisoner, Norch Lor frees himself and, feeling the effects of creeping madness, he has sense enough to summon help!  We also see how he learned of the Jest-Master’s arrival, as he was studying a civilization that was destroyed by this bizarre wave of insanity.  He hoped to save Thanagar by “hiding” the souls of its people inside his Ghenna Box, which he tested on Earth.  It’s a slight step-down from the setup we saw last issue, but it isn’t a huge difference.  I’m just glad to see a bit more about ‘ol Norch.  I think he’s got the potential to be an interesting character.  Unfortunately, this is just about the last we’ll see of him.

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Meanwhile, his message is picked up by the Guardians and relayed to the League through their vacationing Green Lantern, who is busy “on a crazy-quilt quest across America, seeking the soul of a nation.”  Really O’Neil?  I enjoy some pretty purple prose, but that’s pushing it.

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We begin to see some of the first real signs of the romance between Canary and Arrow, as she notes that, as annoying as he is (and you haven’t seen anything yet, Dinah!), she finds herself missing him.  Anyway, the League suits up in nifty custom space suits, and Superman just carries them all to Thanagar.  Ha, how bizarre.  I would be more than a little nervous with nothing between me and a few zillion miles of empty, frozen black space but a thin layer of fabric.  Yikes!

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Our heroes arrive just in time to rescue the Tiny Titan from his best friend’s madness.  We get a really nice series of pages with Hawkman preparing to splat his small-sized partner, as well as a pretty funny moment where the Winged Wonder bashes himself uselessly against Superman.  Hawkman is awesome, but he’s drastically out of his league against the Man of Steel.

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However, once aboard the space station, the other Leaguers also begin to fall victim to the curse.  Strangely enough, Jean finds her senses suddenly restored!  She warns them of what’s coming, and the team sets out to put an end to the Jest-Master’s quest.

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The Flash volunteers to be the one to pierce the strange spaceship, arguing, rather reasonably, that they’re all in trouble if Superman goes nuts!  We get a rather nice page by Dillin, as the rather sinister-looking alien antagonist twists Flash’s mind inside out as he attempts to get inside his vessel.  Superman pulls the Crimson Comet back out, and the heroes find themselves stymied.

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JusticeLeague081-20.jpgSuddenly, they realize there is only one among them who can make this journey and be capable of rational thought on the other side…that’s right, Jean Loring is their only hope!  This is a nice little switch, and I loved this twist.  Since she had her faculties restored under the psychedelic effects of the Jest-Master’s insanity weapon, she should be able to pass unscathed through the madness field.  Ray won’t hear of it at first, but he quickly realizes that this is really the only choice.  So, the Leaguers set out, with a mad woman to lead them through the madness that awaits.

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We get an interesting double page spread, interestingly not on facing pages (I’m wondering if that was a mistake somehow), comparing what Jean sees, the simple reality, versus the crazy, reality straining visions that the heroes endure as they approach the ship.

Once inside, the Atom is the only one able to act…for some reason.  O’Neil doesn’t really address it, and, as we’ve already seen, he’s fallen victim to the insanity of the enemy before.  That’s a bit of a plot hole, an unfortunate inconsistency in an otherwise great story.  Well, the Mighty Mite turns the tables on the Jest-Master.  It seems our insanity inducing evil-doer is convinced that he is the only one with the strength of mind to judge reality.  He is the measure of sanity, and he will test the universe to see if anyone else is worthy of being considered truly sane as well.  Yet, the Atom causes him to doubt his sanity by shrinking and growing rapidly.

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This tactic successfully distracts the villain until Jean can free the other Leaguers, who make extremely short work of his henchmen who are inexplicably armed with…crossbows?  Yep, not even fancy space crossbows or anything, just regular, medieval style crossbows.  In a spaceship.  Sure.  Well, the action sequence is nicely drawn, but rather disappointing, though I do love Superman just gently tapping one of the minions, sending the poor fellow careening through the ship.

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Just look at how bored he looks!

Thus, not with a bang, but with a whimper, the Jest-Master is summarily defeated.  Yet, despite this uninspiring fight, there is a particularly bright silver lining, as Jean Loring suddenly comes completely to her senses, her madness driven away by the forces at play in the ship.  Oddly, we’re denied a reunion between Ray and Jean…though, I suppose he’d have to reveal his secret identity to her to really justify that.

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I love the grumpy expression on the villain’s face!

So, in the end, the Jest-Master, despite providing a very engaging concept and a very interesting challenge for our heroes, offers something of an anti-climax when everything comes together.  I definitely enjoyed the continuation of the previous story, the continuity attention, and the desire to tie up loose ends.  I think there is potential here for a good deal more, but the ideas don’t quite come together perfectly.  I like the idea of the Jest-Master, though a more dynamic design and a better name would give him more staying power.  Of course, despite the supposedly apocalyptic threat he poses, he’s also completely useless in an actual fight.  That’s a bit disappointing.  Making him more formidable would also help make the character worth bringing back, and the League really needs more good villains.  Somebody get Geoff Johns on the phone!

Still, this is a fun issue, and it has several nice moments.  The central problem is once again a nice threat for the League to face, and we get a few cool moments of characterization.  I particularly enjoyed that it was Jean who saved the day, despite the plot hole with her bite-sized beau.  In the end, I’ll give this promising but flawed story 4 Minutemen, like the previous issue.

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Phantom Stranger #7

Phantom_Stranger_Vol_2_7.jpgCover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo

This is another by the numbers Phantom Stranger adventure.  It’s got its moments, but the highlight is the arrival of Jim Aparo on the the title!  He becomes THE artist for the character, and even from this first issue, his work is great.  It is wonderfully dramatic and atmospheric.  Unfortunately, the plot isn’t quite as impressive as Aparo’s pencils.  It is another one of the three-part tales, a frame tale and a story narrated by both the Phantom Stranger and Dr. Thirteen.  It’s not a great story, having a few weaknesses, but it has some striking moments too.  The unnecessary teen gang makes another appearance, their most superfluous yet.  You could easily lift them right out of this story and not change the plot one iota.

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These four kids are headed to some place named “Vulcan’s Castle,” which apparently has all of the locals spooked.  These teens seem to just wander around the country with no jobs or fixed addresses, running into random people how invite them into their homes just in time for something creepy to happen.  I’d say they’re bad luck!  Anyway, this particular caper revolves around that mysterious chateau.  Once again, the kids have been invited to hang out by a random stranger, so they rush right out to do so.just that.  They finally get directions and find a boat to make the crossing, only things aren’t what they appear!

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The sail is actually Tala in disguise, and she flies away, leaving the youths stranded in the middle of a maelstrom!  Fortunately, the Phantom Stranger comes to their rescue, swimming through the water to right their boat…who does he think he is, Aquaman?  The sequence is beautifully drawn by Aparo, and I’m reminded why he makes such a great artist for the Sea King.  He’s got a way with water.  Anyway, the kids are picked up by Dr. Thirteen, or as Rob Kelley is fond of describing him, the professional wet blanket, and he immediately shifts into jerk mode.  All four kids tell the same story, and Thirteen just blows them off.  Clearly, you’re just imagining the life-threatening danger you faced, silly children!

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Once they arrive at the castle, it is revealed that Thirteen has been summoned to help save the wealthy owner’s daughter, Vanessa, from a curse.  Just after they set foot on shore, the poor, overwhelmed girl is coaxed into jumping from the ramparts by that guileful gal Tala.  Fortunately, the Stranger is on hand once again, and he snatches the girl out of the air.  Of course, the good Doctor is dubious.  Once everyone gets together, we get some backstory.  The tale of woe began with the previous owners of the castle, the Drugas, selling it, having fallen on hard times.  Yet, they did not sell it willingly.  The last Count Druga cursed the new family for profiting from his troubles

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As per usual, this claim about the supernatural prompts a story-telling competition between Thirteen and the Stranger.  Thirteen is first at bat with what is, admittedly, a neat story, though a bit on the far-fetched side.  The good Doctor relates how he was on his way to investigate the haunting of a mine in Kentucky.  On the way, he suddenly finds himself being throttled…by trees?!  Here’s one of the weird, inconsistent moments of this story, one of several.  The art clearly shows the trees strangling the Ghost Breaker and lifting him bodily out of his car, yet, when he hits the ground, he rationalizes that this was impossible, and he must have imagined it after falling asleep at the wheel.  We’re clearly supposed to be seeing things from his perspective, as this is his tale, but this whole little episode just doesn’t quite make sense.

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Either way, he catches sight of the strange apparition that is haunting the mine, a glowing skeleton, and gets the story of its origins.  Reportedly, it all started with the death of a miner in a tunnel collapse.  As he lay dying, he cursed the mine, saying that the owners’ greed had caused his death, keeping the shaft open when it was too dangerous.  Interestingly, that accusation of corruption is a thread that never pays off.

In the mine itself, Thirteen encounters the “ghost,” and is shocked unconscious by its touch.  He drags himself back to the surface, and I’ll say this for ‘ol Terry, he is a tough son of a gun.  He goes right back down, and this time he clocks the “spirit” right on its jawbone!  It turns out that the culprit was the brother of the dead miner, who created an electrical costume to ‘haunt’ the mine and force its closing.  The “ghost” also prepared the trap that caused the trees to “attack” Thirteen on the road…somehow…The Ghost breaker had sussed some of this out after his initial shock, so he came prepared with rubber gloves to lay the “ghost” out.  It’s a bit Scooby Doo, but the Doc comes off as a bit of a badass, so I’m willing to give it a pass.

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the phantom stranger (1969) 07 - 151.jpgNot to be outdone, the Stranger immediately retaliates with his own yarn about curses and spooky doings.  He tells the tale of Bill, a young fishing boat skipper whose ship was cursed.  He was the younger brother of the original captain, and a violent argument between them ended with the older brother falling overboard and being eaten by sharks!  Just before he was devoured, Bill’s brother cursed him and anyone foolhardy enough to crew his ship.  No one will sail with the young man after mysterious accidents decimated his crews, but the Phantom Stranger volunteers.  When the skipper is lured into the rocks by the ghostly voice of his brother, the Stranger saves him…with a karate chop!  That cracks me up.

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Of course, none of this actually solves the problem of the young lady’s curse.  She tells her own tale of woe, which begins with the unfortunate death of the gardener’s son, Nicholas, who grew up with Vanessa and fell in love with her.  She didn’t return his affection, though, and he apparently died of a broken heart, cursing her with his last breath (there’s a lot of that going on in this story).  He swears that any man who dares love her will meet the same fate he has.

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In the coming months, three different young men try for Vanessa’s affections, and one after another, they die in accidents connected with their hobbies, shooting, boating, and riding.  You know, you can understand the first two, but you’ve got to think that the third guy really should have seen it coming…

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A trio of unlikely “accidents”

Anyway, the Stranger thinks he knows what’s going on, so he gets everyone to get shovels and dig up Nicholas’s grave.  Inside, they find the supposedly deceased young man…sweating?  That’s right, it seems that Nicholas did not actually die, but was placed into a deep trance by his father, jealous of Vanessa’s own father, and using his son as a weapon against the family he hated.  The father would revive his son, and then the zombified young man would murder Vanessa’s sweethearts.  Here we have another of those weird moments, as you have to remember, that this fellow was in a grave, buried six feet under.  How exactly did he get out and get back to go on his killing sprees?  We’re later told that Tala was somehow involved, but it just doesn’t quite jive.

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I love the moody shot of the Stranger and the others digging up the grave!

The story wraps up as the The father revives his lovelorn and loony son, who produces a gun and tries to murder everyone present.  Once again, Dr. Thirteen proves he’s no wuss, as he charges the gunman, getting a bullet in the shoulder for his troubles.

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Fortunately, the Stranger isn’t so easy to stop, and he chases Nicholas to a cliff, where the madman plunges to his death.  We end with a sighting of Tala in the wind and the usual disappearance by the Stranger and griping about same from our curmudgeonly Ghost Breaker.

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This is a mediocre story with great art and a few neat moments.  The kids contribute absolutely nothing to the plot.  Even their role as our introduction to the story could easily have been accomplished just with Dr. Thirteen.  The individual tales have some holes in them, and the final resolution isn’t all that interesting.  It is, as I said, a by the numbers issue.  At least we’ve got Jim Aparo’s art to make it interesting.  His great sense of visual storytelling helps pull this issue up to a solid 3 Minutemen.

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Showcase #91

Showcase_Vol_1_91.jpgCover Artist: Mike Sekowsky
Writer: Mike Sekowsky
Penciler: Mike Sekowsky
Inker: Vince Colletta

Now here we go!  This is what Showcase is all about, and it is this kind of hidden gem that I look forward to on this project.  Manhunter 2070 is a great concept, and this first issue is wonderfully executed.  I would totally have bought this book like crazy-go-nuts back in the day.  Mike Sekowsky may have missed the boat with Jason Quest, but he’s got a real winner in this character.  Unfortunately, this three issue tryout is the last we’ll see of the character in the mainstream DCU.  Apparently he shows up in Twilight, and from what I’ve heard about that series, I can’t imagine I’d care to see what Howard Chaykin does to the poor guy.  That’s a real shame, as the setting this tale introduces definitely had legs.  In many ways, it’s a stock concept, but I imagine it was much less cliche back in 1970.  The idea is space as the Wild West, the Final Frontier as the original frontier: the Space Western.

This was, of course, done to perfection by Firefly, and it has been the subject of many a science fiction tale over the years, but I can’t say I’ve seen it in comics before this point.  In fact, although there were often western themes included in speculative fiction over the years, even in the original pitch for Star Trek (“Wagon Train to the Stars”), more straight-up adaptations were pretty rare.  The flavor of pulp and comic science fiction was much more Buck Rogers and much less Lone Ranger.  That makes this particular book all the more interesting.  Of course, we’re only seven years away from the film that would memorably combine science fiction and western elements and make the mix much more famous, Star Wars!  I suppose these themes were in the air in the 70s.

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This particular book follows the adventures of the space bounty hunter we encountered at the end of the previous issue, the enigmatic Starker.  We start with a page that sets the scene, standard Space Western trappings, vast distances, law and order threatened and stretched thin by the expansion of the frontier, and noble wanderers like our hero picking up the slack and bringing justice to the wild space lanes.  He is a bounty hunter, but he doesn’t take on his dangerous work for the money.  We don’t get a lot of his motivations in this tale.  We’re left to infer from what we observe, but he seems to be motivated to do the job for that old and excellent reason: it needs doing.  What we do get is delivered in wonderfully dramatic fashion.

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This job involves three escaped convicts who killed two guards during their getaway.  They’re nasty customers, as the Manhunter’s robot assistant, Arky, tells him, “killers many times over,” who callously murder anyone who gets in their way.  Arky provides the hunter with a lead on the likely hiding place of the fugitives, but warns him that this place, the planet Pheidos, is a “killer planet,” with a very hostile ecosystem.  Starker suits up in ‘space armor,’ which is pretty cool looking, and packs a lot of powerful hardware.  This is no ‘stun ray’ or that kind of lighter fare, and a good indication of the type of action we’ll find further in.  As he heads out, we get a nice moment as one of his friends asks him, “don’t you know knight’s in shining armor haven’t been in for centuries?”  His reply is pretty fitting for the laconic western hero archetype that he fits: “I guess I’m still an old fashioned boy.”

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Once he arrives on Pheidos, he finds that Arky wasn’t exaggerating, as the very first moment he steps off his ship and begins to ‘saddle up’ his hover bike, he is attacked by a host of fanged fauna and flora.  He desperately fights his way out, using every weapon he can lay his hands on, but his struggles draw the attention of his quarry, who have managed to arm and resupply themselves from secret caches hidden on the planet!

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Here we see one of the problems with this issue.  Sekowsky art is mostly excellent on this book.  He’s creative, dynamic, and evocative.  Yet, every once in awhile we’ll bet a panel like the one below.  Just what the heck is happening to Starker’s right leg?  Despite what the art shows, it isn’t actually ripped off of his body in the next scene.  That’s not the only time this happens.  There’s some funky anatomy in a few different panels, but still, those are by far the exceptions.  Sekowsky is, for the most part, firing on all cylinders here.

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Back to the story, our hero manages to escape the ravenous creatures because they themselves encounter even bigger predators.  His respite proves short-lived, though, as he finds himself battling with an oversized alligator with wings!  In a desperate fight he manages to dispatch it, and seeing that their nemesis won’t be so easily done-in by the planet itself, the fugitives open fire on him, pursuing him on their own ‘atmo-sleds.’

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Starker finds himself in a shootout with his adversaries…and with more of the frightful fauna.  He engages in a running gun-battle with both his enemies and the elements themselves, eventually luring one of the trio of treacherous space pirates into an ambush.  He knocks the fellow out of the sky, but the bounty hunter is stunned by a glancing hit, saved only by the fury of the world’s wildlife turning on his opponent in the form of cannibal ants and a ripped spacesuit.  Yikes!  Sounds like a nasty way to go.  Sekowsky’s art nicely sells the horror of the moment.

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‘Alas poor Yorick! I knew him, Arky…’

While engaged in a standoff with the other two criminals, Starker watches as a giant version of that winged creature he faced earlier attacks them!  The beast knocks them out of the sky, leaving our knight in shining space armor to slay this far-future dragon, with a sword no less!  It’s a nice moment, and it really might have deserved a splash page.  Well, from there, it’s really just mopping up,collecting his surviving and deceased prisoners, and getting the heck off this crazy rock, but that’s no small matter on Pheidos!  The Manhunter has to fight another giant monster to claim the last convict before he can burn rockets off-world.

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The tale ends with Starker’s friends asking the question, “why do you do it?”  We’re promised the answer in the next issue, and I’m looking forward to it!  This story was great, just wall-to-wall action, exciting, interesting, and visually creative.  The world, the equipment, and the aliens are all nicely designed.  They’re distinct enough to not just be generic comic sci-fi fare.

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Ahoy there, Space Ahab!

Starker himself is grim and capable, and I was suitably gobsmacked when he picked up a sword and charged the giant lizard to secure his prisoner.  That’s a great moment.  Despite all that action, we get a bit of characterization, but this is definitely about the adventure, more than anything else.  I’m pretty okay with that because the adventure itself is tons of fun.  The resourceful hero fighting both a hostile world and hostile men makes for a great story.  I’ll give it 4.5 Minutemen, a great sci-fi romp!

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This issue also had a very short (two pages!) backup in which our hero is captured and forced into a gladiatorial match, only to escape on a rocket powered steed and sic the law on his former captors.  Despite being so brief, this little tale features a fun and apt send-up of the media and consumer culture, as these matches are all about ratings.  Shades of Mojo!  It’s fun, but too brief to rate.

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We also get an exciting collage page advertising what is to come next issue, like we saw with the Jason Quest issues.  Space pirates and Starker’s origin?  I’m in!

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“Good night, Westley.  Good work.  Sleep well.  I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”

 

Well, that’s it for this post on June 1970!  Join me next week for the last few issues in this month.  This was a good batch.  Let’s see what those last two comics hold as we continue, Into the Bronze Age!