Into the Bronze Age: October 1971 (Part 2)

DC-Style-Guide-1

Welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  The world seems quite intent on falling to pieces around us, but let’s take a little time to look back at a simpler era and a better class of comic.  The big news in this edition is the finale of the (in)famous GL/GA drug story, but we’ve got a couple of other interesting books to keep that one company.

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #405
  • Adventure Comics #411
  • Detective Comics #416
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #86
  • Mr. Miracle #4
  • Phantom Strange #15
  • Superboy #178
  • Superman #243
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #115
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #142
  • Teen Titans #35

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


Green Lantern/Green Arrow #86


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“They Say It’ll Kill Me… But They Won’t Say When”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz

That’s right, at long last (longer because of my travels and distractions!) we come to the end of the GA/GL drug two-parter.  It’s a famous issue, and we examined why with the first one.  As we saw, these issues certainly deserve their iconic status, whatever flaws they may have, and I was surprised by how much better the first issue was than I remembered.  I was in for a similar shock with this story, which is a much more even-keeled offering than its predecessor.  We don’t have as many heavy-handed and goofy moments here as we did in the last one.  Even the cover has a touch more dignity…which is not to say it isn’t a bit over the top as well.  In fact, it is wonderfully, ridiculously melodramatic, especially with its bold tag-line.  I love Green Lantern’s ‘curse the heavens’ pose as well.  Still, it is effective, striking, and memorable, especially with the faces of the various drug victims making up the background.

Unfortunately, the touching image of Green Arrow carrying the fallen form of his ward isn’t quite what greets us inside, where things start off with a bang…or more accurately, a backhand.  Ollie follows up Roy’s dramatic confession from last issue with a smack to the face and a heavy dose of vitriol.  It’s a really stunning moment, and O’Neil hits us with it right out of the gate.  To see a hero, in his right mind, treat a faltering friend like this in 1971 was practically unprecedented.  It serve’s O’Neil’s purpose, immediately casting the Emerald Archer’s merciless dismissal of his surrogate son’s suffering in the worst light.  Unfortunately, he overplays his hand once more, and the result is a further stain on Ollie’s already fairly blackened character, though it is consistent with the strong views he evinced in the last issue.  It’s just an ugly moment, not helped by the fact that Roy isn’t at his most sympathetic after his weak story last issue.

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Speedy mocks his mentor for his violent response, hitting him with a major guilt trip, and Arrow throws the kid out.  Then we get a moment which ALMOST addresses some of the flaws of the previous story, as the Battling Bowman ponders the situation and points out that, even though he hadn’t paid his ward much attention lately, the kid shouldn’t have needed much at his age, being in college and all.  Then O’Neil once again turns Ollie’s jerk dial to 11, as, from that, he concludes that he is completely “innocent of blame,” which is a self-righteousness and self-deception that is breathtaking, even for O’Neil’s Green Arrow.  Still, in all of this melodrama, there is some realism.

After concluding that he’s father of the year after all, the Emerald Archer sets out to take revenge on the pushers who he blames instead, heading to the airfield where he previously traced their supply to pick the investigation back up.  Meanwhile the two junkies who betrayed our heroes last issue come to Ollie’s place looking for Speedy and, not finding him, decide to shoot up their reward.  The drugs are pure, and one of them overdoses in what is, admittedly, a pretty good scene, though Adams perhaps overdoes the revelation a bit.

Later, we find Hal Jordan still running through previous events, unable to shake the feeling that there is something wrong with Speedy, and when he heads to GA’s to check on the kid, he finds the junkie and begins his own investigation.  Ollie, for his part, turns the table on a guard at the airport who gets the drop on him and is sent into a trap for his troubles.  It’s a nice scene, emphasizing both his anger and his skill, that he’s still dangerous, even with a busted wing.

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In the meantime, the Emerald Gladiator finds Speedy passed out in an alley and discovers the truth.  They have an almost decent conversation, though O’Neil overdoes the youth’s rhetoric a bit.  The generation gap stuff he spouts is a little problematic given the fact that most of the members of the previous generation Roy knows are freaking paragons of virtue.  Nonetheless, Hal’s measured response and kindness is a very pleasant departure from his stupidity and naivete from early in the run.  The ring-slinger takes the kid to Dinah’s house for sanctuary.

On the docks, where the Battling Bowman has followed the guard’s tip into trouble, he finds the thugs he tangled with at the airport last issue.  We get a nice fight scene, with Arrow still holding his own, but it ends with him getting knocked out.  When he comes to, we meet the man behind the drug operation, a wealthy socialite named Saloman, whose massive yacht, stuffed full of important people, is just leaving.  He tells his men to dump the antagonistic archer into the drink as soon as he’s away.

green lantern 086 018Adams gives us a fantastic image of Ollie’s plight, as he’s tossed overboard tied to an anchor, but the hero manages to grab an acetylene arrow and cut through the chains, making a desperate and dramatic escape.  Just then, the Lantern arrives and disposes of the thugs with some green gorillas.  As they pursue the head honcho, Speedy is busy going through withdrawals, aided by Black Canary’s quiet compassion in another good sequence, improved by a lack of dialog.

In the Caribbean, Saloman Hooper visits his pharmaceutical lab, where he picks up a suitcase worth of dope (which doesn’t seem like enough to justify the scope of his operation), only to be caught in the act by the Green Team.  While Ollie takes out the mogul’s minion with a one-armed arrow shot (shades of Dark Knight Returns!), Hal tosses his friend his ring in order to deal with Hooper with his own two hands.  This is actually a pretty believable, satisfying moment, unlike the book’s tendency to have the Lantern just decide that he needs to use his fists to feel like a man.  He’s angry, and he takes it out on this privileged punk, but he has enough self control to do it ‘unofficially,’ so to speak, like a cop putting aside his badge to do something that needs doing but which falls outside of the law.  Notably, Arrow calls him on this afterward.

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The issue ends with the funeral of the junkie who overdosed, where Hal and Ollie are joined by Dinah and a recovered Roy.  Unfortunately, the newly clean Titan is in no mood to mend fences, and he lashes out at his former guardian, giving a speech about how people like him, who lack compassion, are contributing to the crisis that so many young people face.  As Speedy walks away from the closest thing to family that he has, Green Arrow finds himself proud that the boy has become a man.

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That final scene isn’t as heavy-handed as I remember, though the melodrama still sets my teeth on edge a bit.  What’s worse, it leaves the situation between our hero and his surrogate son unresolved and embittered.  That’s a shame, and this story’s consequences will be deep and long-felt.  On the whole though, this is actually quite a good issue, sensitive and perceptive, but also an engaging and exciting adventure, with some real, if sometimes discordant, character development to go with it.  Once again, the message of compassion and understanding towards drug addicts is powerful, and the theme of empathy, learning to see things from someone else’s perspective, is effective and an interesting continuation of O’Neil’s better efforts in this run.  I think the story itself would have been a bit more effective if we had met our villain a bit earlier, as he’s mostly just a convenient and morally acceptable punching bag, an outlet for outrage and despair.  Still, O’Neil manages to make the guy loathsome in very little space.  Roy’s sudden and complete recovery is more than a little silly, in regards to the reality of addiction, but I suppose allowances can be made for the medium.

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Adams’ art continues to be beautiful and compelling, really capturing the emotion and the power of the moments he portrays.  And yet, even with that focus on drama, he manages to give us some fun and funny moments, like with Ollie’s expression during his impromptu dive.  Once again, we see Adams’ power with a more intimate, personal story.  I just love his portrayal of Ollie.  Characters of that scale are really what he excels at, which is part of why his Batman run is so legendary.  All in all, this is a very good story, only slightly damaged by O’Neil’s excesses and his lack of forethought.  It is an important comic, culturally, and its themes and subject were incredibly groundbreaking in its time.  Heck, we’re still fighting some of these battles, and a story that reminds us of the humanity of those who are suffering is still relevant, perhaps moreso these days than in recent years.  I’ll give this milestone issue 4.5 Minutemen out of 5.  It isn’t perfect, but it really is a good one.

P.S.: To mark just how important his comic book was, it carries a copy of a letter from the Mayor of New York, commending the creative team for their work and pointing out the seriousness of the drug crisis.

 


Mister Miracle #4


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“The Closing Jaws of Death!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta
Editor: Jack Kirby

“The Romance of Rip Carter”
Writers: Jack Kirby and Joe Simon
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Joe Simon

“Jean Lafitte: ‘Pirate or Patriot?'”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Jack Kirby

We’ve got another marvel-packed issue of Mister Miracle here, and, as always, I was excited to read it, especially after the pulse-pounding excitement of last issue’s Paranoid-packed pandemonium.  Sadly, this one doesn’t quite live up to the thrill of the first half, though it does introduce us to a wonderful character and an important part of Scott Free’s supporting cast.  It’s got another great cover, like most of this series, though one wonders how our escape-artist hero gets from being locked in a trunk to tortured in a medieval dungeon.  The answer is, of course, Kirby madness.  Nonetheless, we get another death-defying scene in this cover, memorable and exciting, beautifully rendered by the King.

Inside, we don’t start with the miraculous one plummeting to his death, still locked in that suitcase, but back at his home, where a fretting Oberon finds himself with an uninvited guest.  A fierce and outlandishly armored warrior woman appears behind him, jarring the loyal fellow from his reverie rather violently.  She declares herself a friend of Scott Free and demands to know where he is, mentioning they both come from Apokolips.  When Oberon mentions Doctor Bedlam, the newly introduced Barda suddenly teleports after her friend, fearing for his life.

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Now we pick up where we left off, and Scott’s situation looks hopeless, but Barda appears in a flash of light and catches his suitcase in a feat of strength, casually ripping it apart, ropes and all, only to reveal that it is…empty!  Wonderfully, we don’t see how the eminent escape artist pulled off this trick just yet; instead, we see him perched on a balcony several floors up, where he is quickly swarmed by more crazed civilians.  They think he is a vampire and attempt to stake him, but Mr. Miracle is too slick for them, and eludes his pursuers in several fun pages, even sliding down the banister of the staircase like Errol Flynn.

mrmiracle-12Suddenly, he’s attacked by refugees from a Robin Hood picture, as a bunch of guys in medieval costumes capture the hero.  They drag him into a dungeon, which turns out to be a set in the Galaxy Broadcasting TV studio, conveniently located on this level.  Inside is a director, even nuttier than most, who directs his men to kill the interloper so that his death-throes can make for good television!  Despite his struggles, Scott is forced into an iron maiden, and all seems lost as the lid slams shut.  The whole scene is fun but utterly crazy.  It reads like a Fantastic Four issue from the era where Stan and Jack weren’t talking to each other and Stan was thrown into narrative gymnastics in an attempt to explain the bizarre and unrelated images Jack created as his imagination ran away with him.  However, this time, there’s nobody to blame for the sudden shift and strange explanation other than Kirby himself.  I guess he just wanted to draw an iron maiden, so he shoe-horned the setting in, logic be darned!

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Back in our original office-building setting, Barda is getting attacked herself.  She casually rips a stone column out of the lobby and tosses it onto a half dozen men, almost certainly crushing them all to death.  Despite Mr. Miracle’s insistence that she stay out of this so that his deal with Bedlam could be honored, she is worried, so she pursues her friend, smashing her way through the overly-excited extras in the process in a really nice panel.  Yet, when she pries open the torture device, it is empty, and Scott casually strolls up and greets her.  Once again, we don’t find out how he accomplished this yet, establishing a running joke in the issue.

The two press on, confronting the disembodied energy-form of their antagonist in another nice sequence.  Bedlam promises to unleash the entire fury of the building’s trapped inhabitants upon the pair, but the next thing we see is them teleport back home, greeting a worried Oberon and catching up.  The dialog in this section is pretty rough and stilted, especially when Scott awkwardly declares: “Maximum is the word for you, Barda!  I could never think of you without deep and genuine fondness.”  I know that line just makes the ladies swoon!  From the start, Barda and Oberon are sparring verbally which, despite the dull dialog, is still fun.  We learn that Barda helped her friend escape, but she didn’t go with him, and now she’s an officer in Darkseid’s Female Furies, as everyone helpfully spouts exposition.

In a fun little scene, Scott takes the domestic roll, preparing dinner for Barda, which is really striking in a comic from 1971.  That’s honestly somewhat groundbreaking.  I doubt you’d ever see Superman making dinner for Lois Lane!  It also establishes the unusual dynamic between these two characters.  As he works, the heroic homemaker reluctantly explains to his assistant how he escaped from the various traps he faced.  We’re introduced to the ‘multi-cube’, Scott’s multi-purpose escape tool, which will become a common feature of his stories, if I remember correctly.  Mr. Miracle used it to cut his way out of the trunk as it twisted in mid-air, which works pretty well as an explanation.

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Unfortunately, the other stories aren’t nearly as good.  He used a fast-acting acid on the back of the iron maiden and literally just stepped through it, which apparently no-body noticed.  Even more problematic, he literally presses the ‘off’ button on all of the panicked people in the tower, putting them to sleep with his multi-cube and just waltzing out the front door.  Okay……why not just do that in the first place?  That’s a pretty massively unsatisfying conclusion, which is a shame, because this is otherwise a really fun issue.  The yarn ends with Barda showing up for dinner, having changed out of her armor into something a tad more revealing, leaving Oberon picking his jaw up off the floor.

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This is a solid adventure, despite its glaring deus ex machina, though it is primarily worthwhile for introducing Big Barda, who will eventually become Scott’s partner and wife, creating one of the great comic relationships and partnerships.  Mr. Miracle without Barda is like Nick without Nora, and she is, even from this first appearance, a unique and interesting character, further credit to Kirby’s boundless creativity.  In addition, I absolutely love Scott’s laughing, devil-may-care attitude throughout the story, the extra element of flair and style to his antics, which really capture his personality and are part of why I love the character.  I also quite like the running gag of not explaining his escapes right away, however flawed the execution is here.  Hopefully Kirby will make better use of it in the future.

Art-wise, we’re seeing some rough panels again with this issue, and I think Colletta’s impact is still being felt.  On the plus side, it seems we get a new inker next issue!  Despite some weaknesses, especially with inking and coloring, there are some wonderful panels and some fun, dynamic sequences throughout.  Ultimately, I’m quite torn on the score.  This issue’s flaws are significant, especially the dialog and weak conclusion, but it is also a lot of fun.  I suppose I’ll be generous and go with 3.5 Minutemen, as the comic is carried along by the interest of Barda and the fun of Scott.

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The Phantom Stranger #15


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“The Iron Messiah”
Writer: Len Wein
Penciler/Inker: Jim Aparo
Colourist/Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Joe Orlando
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

“I Battled for the Doom Stone”
Writer: Ed Herron
Penciler: Alex Toth
Inker: Alex Toth

“Satan’s Sextet”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Tony DeZuniga
Inker: Tony DeZuniga

“I Scout Earth’s Strangest Secrets”
Writer: Jack Miller
Penciler: Mort Meskin
Inker: Mort Meskin

What a wildly, wonderfully ridiculous cover image.  It’s gloriously strange and unusual and so very, very much something that could only happen in comics.  We’ve got an African witch doctor raising a zombie…but not just any zombie, a ROBO-zombie, complete with stainless-steel robo-zombie Afro, all while the shadow of the Phantom Stranger looms in the background.  It’s a thing of mad beauty, and I love it.  It’s beautifully illustrated by Adams, and it absolutely grabs your attention.  Could you honestly say you could see that image on the newsstand and NOT want to figure out what in the blue blazes is happening inside?  If so, I can only assume you’re an imagination-less wreck of a human being.

The story within doesn’t quite live up to the glory of the robo-zombie cover, but then, how could it?  It is an interesting and unusual one, though, and it begins, not with necromantic robotics (more’s the pity), but with a young African scientist named John Kweli, who is returning to his native country after having been educated in the West.  Suddenly, the train on which he’s traveling derails in a fiery crash, and the brilliant man would have died, if not for a Stranger pulling him from the wreckage.  Kewli awakens in the home of an old friend, Ororo (no, not that one).  She has treated his injuries, but she also bears bad news, his father, the tribal chief, has died.

John is prepared to come home and take over his responsibilities as chief, but he’s met with resentment for having gone away to be educated and built a life overseas.  His people feel like he abandoned them, including the lovely Ororo.  He also finds things greatly changed, with signs of unrest and oppression everywhere, barbed-wire and troops abound.  Ngumi, the village shaman also rejects John, promising that Chuma, the Warrior God, will free his people without the young man’s help.

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Ororo tells her friend about what has happened in his absence, that though their country has been liberated, they are now enslaved to the interests of big foreign business.  Driving away, John and Ororo encounter a lion and wreck their jeep.  The young scientist bravely prepares to sacrifice his life to lure the beast away, only to have the Phantom Stranger leap out of nowhere to tackle the feline fiend in magical fashion.

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The next day, Kewli goes to visit Amos Trent, the oil company’s man on the ground, but Trent isn’t interested in his pleas or his threats, so the young scientist decides to take matters into his own hands, so of course he builds a robot.  Some time later, a group of soldiers who are abusing the villagers are scattered, not by John, but by “Chuma”, the Iron Messiah, the android John has used his scientific skill to build in order to rally his people.  Over the next weeks, Chuma trains the villagers in the ways of war, and Ngumi, the shaman is revealed as an agent of the oil company.

Unfortunately, even iron will can be bent by such a burden, and Chuma begins to develop human feelings…and human frailties.  He declares his love for Ororo, and when she rejects him, saying she loves his creator instead, the Iron Messiah rejects his role as savior and leaves the people to the fate.  It is here that the Phantom Stranger intervenes once again, convincing the automaton that the only way to prove he is a being with a soul is to choose to help his people, to be better than jealousy and spite.  Back at the village, the government troops have attacked, and John has rallied the people, but they are losing without the power of Chuma to inspire and aid them.

Chuma charges into the battle, turning the tide, but his help comes at a terrible cost, as he shoots his creator in the back in a fit of jealousy, only to be witnessed and called out by Ororo.  The people reject their Iron Messiah and destroy him, thanks again to the Phantom Stranger, who leaves, pondering the enigma that is life and giving a speech about not “tampering in God’s domain.

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It’s…a little abrupt, really, and rather grim.  These 14 pages pack a whole lot in, and Len Wein has a very interesting story to tell…I’m just not entirely sure he’s finished telling it.  We get a robot who develops human feelings, including hatred who turns on his creator, a full on Frankenstein, but it is also sharing space with a story about the exploitation of Africa.  There’s just too much in too little space.  Chuma literally goes from his creation to his renunciation of his purpose in three pages, and John, who has until then been our protagonist, almost drops out of the story at that point.  The Stranger’s attempt at a moral just feels extremely tacked on, though it certainly has potential.  In the end, what exactly was the point of the Stranger’s intervention?  Was it to free the natives from both the outsiders and from their superstitions?  Whatever it is, it needs more development.  The whole thing is cramped, but it is also intriguing in a number of ways.

It is really noteworthy that we have a story set in ‘darkest Africa’ where the natives are not portrayed as ignorant savages, despite their belief and hope in Chuma.  Even more, the natives are not rescued by a white outsider.  Instead, the hero is a black man, and a black scientist at that, who succeeds, not through brute force, but through intelligence and cleverness.  That’s still very much a rarity in any media in 1971, much more so in comics.  We also have another example of the depredations of faceless corporations, as the oil company is pretty unambiguously evil here.  That is a sign of things to come, I’d wager.

The whole tale is beautifully illustrated by Aparo, who is handling all of the art chores.  He gives us some really striking panels and pages, and the art has a nice sense of drama, especially with Chuma.  I’ll give this rushed, slightly muddled story 3 Minutemen, as its strengths and weaknesses somewhat even out.

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“Satan’s Sextet”


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If you thought robo-messiahs were strange, you ain’t seen nothing yet.  Our Dr. Thirteen backup this month is in the style that I think works best, with the good Doctor doing his ghost-breaking on his own, without tangling with the Stranger.  Nonetheless, this particular outing isn’t exactly a home run.  It begins promisingly and strangely enough, with a group of seemingly sinister musicians leading a line of dancers into the sea, where they presumably drown, only for the band to emerge later, still playing.  Later that night, Dr. Thirteen happens to be driving along the beach when he sees a ragged, raving figure stumble out of the surf.

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The man claims to be the wealthy Willard Wentworth, who has a home on the beach.  He hired “Satan’s Sextet” for a house party because he was lonely, but they hypnotized all of the guests and led them to a watery grave.  Wentworth isn’t sure how he escaped, but he stumbled out of the water sometime later, shaken and terrified.  Thirteen agrees to investigate, but when they return to the beach house, they find it packed with people, a party in full swing.  The owner claims not to know any of them and accuses the band of murder.  Dr. Thirteen insists they stay and continue their investigation (Maybe he just wants to party!), and the pair are given love-beads.

the phantom stranger (1969) 15 - 30

Suddenly, the band’s music becomes hypnotic, and they once more lead the party goers into the waves.  Thirteen is forced to follow, but his mind is working all the while, and he deduces that the beads are responsible, and he removes his and Wentworth’s necklaces.  Returning to the house, he overhears the convenient exposition by the bandleader, whose motives are…well, as prosaic as his methods are insane.

Apparently, he’s the millionaire’s disowned son, who got plastic surgery and planned this whole thing to kill his father so he could get his inheritance.  The beads had hallucinogens in them which were activated by the vibrations of the band’s music.  Ooookaaaay.  That’s pretty out there, even for comics.  Entertainingly, Thirteen overcomes the band with a massive mounted fish, and the police arrive to tidy things up.  Dr. Thirteen rides off into the sunrise, but not before laying some major guilt on Wentworth, pointing out that he must have really screwed up to raise a murderer!  Ouch!

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This is a fun concept that sadly doesn’t really deliver a good story.  The image of the Pied-Piper-esq murder is really neat and creepy, but the explanation and the motivations don’t live up to the cleverness of the gimmick.  I think this might have worked better as a Phantom Stranger story, with an actual supernatural explanation.  Nonetheless, it’s a decent enough read.  The sequence where Dr. Thirteen reasons his way to the solution to the mystery is quite solid, and it has a nice sense of suspense and stakes as he slowly drowns.  Tony DeZuninga’s art isn’t particularly impressive, but it does the job, though the inking is a bit overdone in some sections.  He tries to create a somewhat psychedelic feel to the band’s sections, and that is partially successful.  I’ll give the whole thing 2.5 Minutemen.

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And with those maudlin mysteries, this episode of Into the Bronze Age comes to a close!  It was a really interesting trio of books, flaws and all.  Thank you for joining me on this journey, and please come back soon for another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

Into the Bronze Age: August 1971 (Part 4)

DC-Style-Guide-1

“Ping! Ping! Ping!”  Mother Box says, “Welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!”  Clearly New Genesis technology is so advanced as to have developed excellent taste.  As proof, I’ve got a smattering of classic comics for you, including the next chapter in Jack Kirby’s epic Fourth World Saga!  It’s an honestly intriguing trio of books on the docket in this bunch, so let’s jump right in!

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #403
  • Adventure Comics #409
  • Batman #233 (Reprints)
  • Batman #234
  • Detective Comics #414
  • The Flash #208
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85 (the infamous drug issue)
  • Justice League of America #91
  • Mr. Miracle #3
  • The Phantom Stranger #14
  • Superman #241
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #112
  • Teen Titans #34
  • World’s Finest #204

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


Mr. Miracle #3


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“The Paranoid Pill!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta

We start off on a great foot, with this Kirby classic where the King is starting to hit his stride with his unusual superhero.  Ironically, this is probably one of his Mr. Miracle run’s weakest covers, while also being one of his more memorable stories.  The crowd in the image looks suitably maddened, but the perspective is a bit wonky, and the coloring job lets it down, with the mixture of single color and full color characters being a bit distracting.  And why in the world is our hero completely white?  The composition feels unbalanced and crowded by the title, though it effectively captures the feel of the issue.

And the issue is definitely a good one, though it suffers from some of the Kirby-as-writer excesses we’ve been noting.  Having learned at the Stan Lee School of Exposition, where the only thing better than text is yet more text, the King overwrites throughout, starting with the first scene.  A number of silver androids, called “animates,” swarm through a Boom Tube into an empty room, where they set up an office, and the caption declares that “Sometimes, there are things that take place in empty rooms that defy belief, and so go unnoticed!”  Think about that for a moment, as written.  I don’t think that something taking place in an empty room is escaping notice because it “defies belief.”  It might just be because the room is…you know…empty.

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Nonetheless, we discover that these silver creatures are artificial constructs, all animated by a single mind, a creature that was once a man but has now become a being of pure energy.  This being is Dr. Bedlam, who slowly takes possession of one of his animates, molding it into the shape he wore in life.  Despite the overwritten dialog, this is a pretty cool scene, and there is a nice air of menace to the whole tableau.  What’s more, while this type of sci-fi concept is pretty common in the genre today, popping up in modern shows like Babylon 5 and the like, it strikes me that it must have been much more groundbreaking in 1971.  I can only think of one example in comics that predates it (though there may be more), and that is NoMan from the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, and I can’t think of any well-known sci-fi novels before this point that explored the idea of beings of pure energy inhabiting temporary bodies.  The use of actual brain transplants and such parallels are much more common and date back to the beginning of the century, as early as the John Carter novels (1927).  Yet, this seems pretty original.  Once again, Kirby is just casually tossing out fascinating and innovative ideas that could easily support much larger works.

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The unique Dr. Bedlam, after taking possession of his body, dismisses the rest of his animates and, with super overly dramatic dialog, picks up the phone and calls Scott Free!  I quite like Bedlam’s design, in keeping with many of the other Apokoliptians we’ve seen so far, but bearing his own sinister identity.  His call finds Mr. Miracle in his usual position, strapped into an elaborate trap and preparing an escape.  It’s a great splash page of wonderful Kirby art.  Scott and Oberon have a fun back and forth as the escape artist asks his assistant to get the phone, completely unconcerned about the nearness of a rather messy death.  Poor Oberon.  This job can’t be good for his blood pressure.  Casually escaping the trap with a full second to spare, the hero answers the phone and receives a challenge, which he accepts.

 

After the call, Scott tries to explain what Bedlam is, offering that he is pure mental energy, making him very dangerous, but adding that Mother Box is fortunately able to guard against such psionic assaults.  What follows is a fairly cool sequence that doesn’t get enough explanation.  Mr. Miracle conducts a seance of sorts with Oberon in which he contacts Dr. Bedlam and experiences a mental attack, and using Mother Box, weathers the storm.  It’s a creepy and suitably imaginative scene, but the purpose and motivations behind it are really unclear.  Does Scott do this to head off an attack he expects, or is this just a way to show Oberon Bedlam’s power?  Kirby’s slightly muddy writing doesn’t clarify.  Yet, the scene does have the effect of establishing the power and threat of the bad Doctor, which is something.

 

After scaring poor Oberon half to death, Mr. Miracle takes to the sky and heads to a high-rise where he is to meet the Apokoliptian.  There, Bedlam offers the escape artist a choice, either surrender to his citizen’s arrest, or escape from a trap of his devising.  It’s never made clear why Scott would show up in the first place, but he is the kind of guy that likes to face danger head-on, so I can at least partially hand-wave that.

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Anyway, the Dr. tells the slippery superhero that all he has to do is descend through the 50 stories of the building and walk out through the front door, but to make things interesting, he shows his foe the substance of his trap, a concoction he calls the Paranoid Pill, which he drops into the building’s ventilation system.  Soon the drug does its work, turning the everyday inhabitants of the office building into madmen, and the tower is full of “an army of unreasoning, unpredictable, unstoppable enemies!”  Mr. Miracle lashes out, but Dr. Bedlam simply abandons his animate, which is a nice touch, a villain that cannot really be fought.

 

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A great page, absolutely full of menace.

 

Kirby provides a wonderful illustration of the Paranoia Pill taking hold, with people panicking and running wild throughout the building, and it isn’t long before a gang of maddened men burst into the office that traps our hero.  Sensibly, Scott tries the window, only to find it charged with “cosmi-current,” leaving him only one way out.  He flies along the ceiling in a great sequence, dodging the ad-hoc attacks of the panicked populace flooding the halls.  He narrowly escapes into the elevator, only to be attacked by a gun-totting citizen and forced to flee a host of ricocheting rounds on the 45th floor.

 

Unfortunately he leaps right into the arms of another crazed crowd, who, in their delusional state, mistake him for a demon.  The carry him along and lock him into a trunk, which they bind closed with rope and chains before deciding to dispose of this “demon” by chucking him down the central shaft of the building.  The comic ends on wonderful cliffhanger, with the trapped Mr. Miracle plummeting 45 floors to his doom!

 

This is a great issue, featuring a really unique and fitting challenge for the character.  The tower-turned-death-trap is a big enough threat to fill the comic (and then some), and the trope of innocents turned into threats is always a good twist to throw at a hero.  Kirby does a great job with the art throughout this issue, but his work on the crowds is just fantastic.  They’re individual and varied, as are their reactions to the gas itself.  Mr. Miracle’s desperate race through the high-rise makes for good action, and it’s nice to see him use his wits to escape rather than just plot devices and “Applied Phlebotinum.”   Bedlam makes for a good villain, and his gimmick is suitably creepy and outlandish.  Once again, I find myself in awe of Kirby’s creativity and the casual way in which he pours out innovative concepts.  Other than the overwritten sections and the lack of clear explanations, this is a good, solid adventure tale.  I’ll give it 4 Minutemen.

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Superman #241


Superman_v.1_241

“The Shape of Fear!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Editors: Julius Schwartz and E. Nelson Bridwell
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

“Superman’s Neighbors”
Writer: Bill Finger
Penciler: Wayne Boring
Inker: Stan Kaye

“Superman’s Day of Truth!”
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Klein

Here we are at the penultimate issue of Denny O’Neil’s innovative but rather weird run on Superman.  This comic is no exception to that description either, featuring a strange mix of elements.  Beginning with the cover itself, which is, of course, beautifully illustrated by Neal Adams, the issue is full of rather odd choices.  I like the image of the monster dragging our defeated hero and his doppelganger away, but the design for the monster itself is a bit curious, with its tail coming out of the center of its back rather than out of its tailbone as you might expect.  Also note the sign referencing New York.  Randomly, this story seems to be set in New York rather than Metropolis, down to including several New York landmarks.  Strange settings aside, it’s a solid enough cover, if not exceptional.  You can’t help but wonder what could defeat two Supermen.

The story itself begins where last issue left off, with the former Man of Steel, now just the Man of Flesh, having defeated the Intergang assassins.  I-Ching offers to complete the ceremony to restore the hero’s powers, but Superman refuses!  In a surprising and rather moving twist, Clark has a crisis of doubt.  He’s tasted what it’s like to be a mortal man (ignoring for the nonce that he’s experienced that TONS of times over the course of his career), and he sees now a chance to be free of the loneliness and crushing responsibility of being Superman.  It’s a great moment, but O’Neil doesn’t give it enough space to breathe.  No sooner does it begin than it is already ending.  I-Ching emphasizes that “one does not choose responsibility!  It is often thrust upon one!” and “To refuse it is to commit the worst act of cowardice.”  Despairing, the Kryptonian relents, and tells the old mystic to work his magic.

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I-Ching draws Superman’s spirit out of his body and sends it soaring off to find his dusty duplicate.  When the hero’s soul-form encounters his double, it drains the creature of its stolen powers, leaving it weakened and helpless.  When his spirit returns to his body, the Man of Steel finds himself full powered once more and rushes off to test himself.  He smashes a meteoroid, races around the Earth, and then spots a purse snatcher upon whom he can test his powers.  Faster than a speeding bullet, or a running thief, for that matter, the Action Ace builds a complete jail cell around the startled man in the middle of the street.  The people of Metropolis aren’t too pleased, and thus begins a display of classic Super-dickery.

 

superman 241 p_015The hero has suddenly become overbearing, brash, and more than a little selfish, and he begins to handle even the most minor of crimes with outlandish responses, like when he picks up a speeding car and deposits it on top of the Empire State Building (like I said, we’re suddenly in New York).  He also meets I-Ching up there at the blind man’s request.  The mystic points out this strange behavior and tells Superman that he thinks the Man of Tomorrow suffered brain damage when he was mortal, which enrages the hero.  Unable to convince the Metropolis Marvel that something is wrong, I-Ching turns again to magic, all the while talking about how it is a really bad idea because he doesn’t really know what he’s doing.  I knew they should have contacted Dr. Fate!

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The martial arts master conjures a spell to track the Sand Superman, and when he and Diana Prince find the weakened creature, they learn its origins.  Apparently it’s a being from the “Realm of Quarrm,” which I-Ching helpfully describes as “a state of alternate possibilities!  A place where neither men nor things exist…only unformed, shapeless begins!”  Sure, why not?

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The explosion that destroyed the world’s kryptonite ripped a hole between dimensions between Earth and Quarrm, and the energy that leaked out mingled with that of Superman as he lay stunned in the sand, eventually giving form to the formless.  Each time the two got close to each other, the Sandman gathered more and more power from his opposite number.  In a desperate bid, I-Ching plans to use this creature to drain Superman once more, but unbeknownst to them, a new tear has opened, and more energy begins to leak into this world.

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Sneaking into Morgan Edge’s apartment (for some reason), Diana calls Superman to lure him into their trap.  When he arrives, his dusty duplicate drains some of his powers, but the headstrong hero manages to escape.  Meanwhile, a shadowy figure watches from a soundproofed room.  Mysterious!  Down on the street, fate takes a hand as nearby in Chinatown a parade is underway and the energy from Quarrm seeps into a statue of an “Oriental War Demon,” which suddenly comes to life and runs amuck.  The Man of Steel stops his flight in order to investigate, showing that he is still somewhat himself, only to be drained once more and fall from the sky, to collapse helplessly at the mercy of the Quarrm-demon.

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There’s a lot going on in this issue, and you have to give O’Neil credit for creativity.  He’s certainly telling new stories.  Whether or not they’re also good stories…well, that’s a different question.  In this case, there are definitely strengths that recommend this yarn, like the moment of mature emotion that grips Superman when he is faced with the prospect of a normal life.  It’s just a shame that this dilemma isn’t given more (or any) development because it has a lot of potential.  Also, despite how time-worn the Super-dickery trope is, at least it is given a fairly reasonable explanation here, as the Man of Steel took a blow to the head while he was vulnerable.  How do you force a demigod to get help if he doesn’t want it?  There are some weaknesses here too, though, including a general sense of disconnectedness between the different elements of the plot.  I-Ching’s vaguely defined abilities and general inscrutableness don’t help matters, really.  The sudden return of Superman’s powers once again illustrate how over-powered he is in the Silver Age.  I find myself hoping that, once this arc is finished, O’Neil will leave him at least a little weaker.

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Curt Swan’s art is largely great, as usual, but I’m noticing that in the current iteration of Superman, he tends to draw the character’s legs as too short and stumpy at times.  His work on the demon is alternately nicely rendered or a bit cartoonish.  The creature’s design in general and the sudden injection of Chinese elements into the tale seems a bit incongruous, despite the involvement of I-Ching, because these events seem to have nothing to do with him.  Thus, the fact that the Quarrm energy just happens to inhabit a Chinese demon statue ends up feeling rather random.  So, in the end, this is a solid continuation of the story, even if it doesn’t quite come together successfully.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.

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The Phantom Stranger #14


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“The Man with No Heart!”
Writer: Len Wein
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Colourist: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Joe Orlando
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

“Spectre of the Stalking Swamp!”
Writer: Len Wein
Penciler: Tony DeZuniga
Inker: Tony DeZuniga

What a cover!  That is a wonderful composition, with the incredibly menacing swamp monster rising from the water, his shape only partially defined and gloriously creepy in its uncertainty and inhumanity.  Apparently muck monsters are just in the zeitgeist over at DC at this time!  It’s a great scene, very fitting for a monster story with the blissfully unaware couple in the foreground, though I’m not entirely certain what I think of the Phantom Stranger’s outline hanging out there in the background.  This is especially true because, unusually, this cover does not relate to our headline tale.  Instead, this is an image from the Dr. Thirteen backup.

Nonetheless, I think any kid with an interest in horror or the supernatural would be hard pressed to resist the lure of that image.  Inside, despite the disappointment of not finding the Phantom Stranger locked in combat with shambling swamp monster, we still find a gripping and arresting story.  It begins on a stormy night in New York (Again with New York!  What happened to Metropolis or Gotham?), where the Phantom Stranger pays a visit to a somewhat Lex Luthor-looking fellow named Broderick Rune.  Interestingly, Rune doesn’t react the way most do when they see the Stranger, instead seeming positively pleased to see him, and as the mysterious wanderer steps into the man’s penthouse apartment, we see why.  Suddenly, the Spectral Sleuth is caught in a glowing pentagram, and “sorcerous fumes” knock him out!

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A Hindu servant named Rashid arrives and we discover that this is all part of a plan, just as the wealthy rune topples over from what is described as “the final attack.”  Both the Stranger and his captor are rushed to a private hospital, where a hesitant doctor performs a bizarre transplant, stealing the Ghostly Gumshoe’s immortal heart and giving it to the ruthless Mr. Rune.  The procedure is a success, but while under, Rune dreams that he is confronted by the Stranger, who demands the return of what is his.  There’s a nice little back and forth about the importance of a soul above all else that is reminescent of Christ’s question, For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” 

 

When Rune awakens, he is panicked, but things continue to get more bizarre!  Two thugs trying to dispose of the Spectral Sleuth’s body, only to discover their bag is empty when they try to dump it.  Just then, the Stranger appears behind them, and shock of the confrontation shatters their minds!  Meanwhile, Rune recovers, but he is plagued by visions of his mysterious adversary.  Finally, he decides to try and escape his guilt by heading to a castle in Europe.

 

the phantom stranger (1969) 14 - 15This gambit seems to have worked for a time, but on another stormy night, Rune once again sees the Stranger stalking out of the darkness.  In desperation, his servant, Rashid, who had originally trapped the mysterious hero, tries to conjure another spell to banish his spirit.  Unfortunately, his power is not up to the task, and in the midst of his incantations, the Stranger appears!  Despite the loyal Hindu’s desperate efforts, when Rune flees out into the storm, the Spectral Sleuth follows, and the stolen heart stops beating!  Finally, Rune’s allies find him, dead, and lacking a heart!

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This is a really good Phantom Stranger story, taking full advantage of the mysterious nature of the character and supernatural trappings of the setting.  You can ask questions about how the Stranger’s heart was able to be taken in the first place, but given the way things worked out, I’m rather inclined to think that this undertaking was always intended to end like this.  The story tackles rather similar themes of guilt and conscience as the Edgar Allen Poe classic, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” with its protagonist who is slowly driven to desperation by the knowledge of his crime.

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Like Poe’s own brand of Gothic horror, this tale is wonderfully atmospheric, with menacing oozing from every panel, and the oppressive threat of outer night seeming to press against every scene.  Aparo’s art is fantastic, bringing Rune’s selfish self-confidence to life, as well as his growing terror.  The looming menace of the Stranger is wonderfully rendered as well, and our mysterious hero has rarely scarier.  It’s short, but tightly plotted and effective.  I’ll give it 4.5 Minutemen, an excellent supernatural thriller.

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“The Spectre of the Stalking Swamp”


the phantom stranger (1969) 14 - 20

Our Dr. Thirteen backup sadly doesn’t live up to our wonderful cover either.  It presents a rather unusual tale for the Good Doctor, though it is also a pretty entertaining one.  It starts in the swamp, right enough, with a young couple out for a walk.  The youthful Romeo’s efforts are interrupted by a strange sight, a green monster arising out of the swamp! The creature scoops up the frightened girl and carries her off into the murk.  The next day, the local sheriff, Rufus Taylor, explains the mystery to Dr. Thirteen.

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The boy who witnessed the abduction is now comatose from shock, but he and the girl are not the only victims of this monster.  Apparently people have been disappearing for weeks.  According to local legend, a hundred years ago a settler got separated from his family and wandered off into the swamp, where the essence of the bog infused his body, turning him into the specter that haunts the silent spaces.  Thirteen, of course, is having none of this, and he insists on going out into the wild to investigate.

the phantom stranger (1969) 14 - 22

That night, the monster attacks his boat, and the Ghost Breaker disappears, apparently broken himself!  Despite his strict orders, his wife follows him, persuading the sheriff to help her, and they find the doctor’s boat.  Maria manages to convince Rufus to continue the search, even though he insists it’s hopeless, and they stumble upon a strange sight deep in the swamp, a gleaming domed city. Finding their way inside, the pair discover the populace moving like zombies, blank-eyed and listless.

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Upon a throne in the city’s center, the encounter the swamp monster, actually a man called Professor Zachary Nail, who is wearing a suit designed for “protection against the filth outside–the polution that infects your dying world!”  Nail has created his own Eden in the swamp and kidnapped the locals to populate it.  When the sheriff bravely tries to capture the madman, the Professor shots him with a bizarre ray, which converts the lawman into a plant!  Shades of Batman: TAS!

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Nail takes the terrified Mrs. Thirteen for a tour of his city, explaining that the place is powered by a nuclear reactor (!), and that he has hypnotically controlled the populace so that they are utterly subject to his will.  He then leads her to her husband, who is also under his power.  The Professor orders Dr. Thirteen to take his wife to the “Submission Room” (which doesn’t sound too pleasant), but the strong-willed Ghost Breaker resists his control.  In an overly written sequence, Thirteen throws off the brainwashing and attacks Nail.

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Just then, the foliage of the swamp starts growing exponentially and begins to smash the dome.  The Professor runs off in an attempt to save his Eden, but the Thirteens have better sense and begin to evacuate the place.  They get the placid populace out just in time, as the vegetation of the wilds reclaim the city, destroying it utterly.  Know-it-all Dr. Thirteen theorizes that the waste from nuclear reactor must have caused the plants to grow super fast, but Maria thinks maybe Mother Nature was exacting her revenge “for the crimes he committed in her name!”

the phantom stranger (1969) 14 - 28

This is a solid and entertaining story, if quite rushed.  It is not, however, really a Dr. Thirteen-style story.  This character is best suited by relatively conventional mysteries with exceptional or sensational trappings, and this type of science fiction yarn is a little out of his wheelhouse.  He doesn’t even really solve the mystery here.  The villain just captures him and conveniently explains his plans.  The actual plot is an interesting one, and the eco-terrorist villain archetype is one that will emerge more often in the future, most notably when R’as Al Ghul is given his chance to shine in future issues.  Clearly the concept of radical action on environmental issues was in the zeitgeist, which is interesting.  I rather thought the spread of such characters was a more recent development.

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Poor Sheriff Rufus, despite looking the part, surprisingly didn’t conform to the usual trope of the small-town Southern sheriff.  These characters in fiction tend to fat, incompetent, and corrupt.  Rufus, on the other hand, was brave and apparently honest and dedicated, even losing his life trying to perform his duties.  I’m so used to the tropes that I was surprised by this.  We can give credit to DeZuniga and Wein for subverting expectations there.  Wein, for his part, is a bit overly purple in his prose, especially in his narration, throughout, but the writing isn’t bad.  On the art front, Tony DeZuniga does a solid job, and some of his character work is really quite good.  We don’t really get a good sense of the city, though, which might have more to do with the lack of space than anything else.  His design for the swamp monster is effective considering what we eventually learn of it, but it certainly isn’t as cool as Adams’ cover version, sadly.  On the whole, I feel like his style is a good fit for these types of horror/suspense comics.  So, all-in-all, I suppose I’ll give this rather cramped and odd tale 3 Minutemen.  It’s enjoyable but forgettable.

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P.S.: Notably, I think that this concept of a futuristic city hidden in the swamp will be recycled in the first Swamp Thing run, though I can’t remember which issue.  That run, of course, was begun by Len Wein, for a bit of synchronicity.

 


Eco-terrorists, Chinese demons, and energy beings, oh my!  A fun set of books, these, and I had a good time going through them.  There is certainly plenty creativity in this batch, whatever their quality.  I hope that y’all enjoyed reading my commentaries and that y’all will join me again soon for another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  Next post, we close out August 1971!  Be there, or Mother Box will be disappointed!  Until next time, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

 

Into the Bronze Age: June 1971 (Part 3)

DC-Style-Guide-1

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

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

 


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

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

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


Justice League of America #90


JLA_v.1_90

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

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

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

Justice_League_of_America_#090-01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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St. Hawkman of the wings

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

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

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

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

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

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Mister Miracle #2


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Phantom Stranger #13


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“The Devil’s Time-Piece”


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

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

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

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

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

 

Into the Bronze Age: April 1971 (Part 3)

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Welcome back to Into the Bronze Age!  After the rather sad event commemorated by my last post chronicling the lamentable cancellation of Aquaman, we’ve got a much more cheerful feature today!  We’ve got a memorable Batman tale, an unusual Batgirl backup, and the premiere of the superhero escape artist, Mr. Miracle!  The result is an enjoyable pair of books.  Check them out below!

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #399
  • Adventure Comics #405
  • Aquaman #56 / (Sub-Mariner #72)
  • Detective Comics #410
  • The Flash #205 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Mr Miracle #1
  • The Phantom Stranger #12
  • Superboy #173
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #109
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #137
  • Superman #236
  • Teen Titans #32

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


Detective Comics #410


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“A Vow From the Grave!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“Battle of the Three M’s”
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Don Heck
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz

Here’s a bit of trivia for you readers: this issue would later go on to form the basis for the Batman: TAS episode, “Sideshow.”  Strangely, while that episode has always left a bad taste in my mouth, I find this book rather inoffensive.  Both stories revolve around an escaped criminal meeting up with a band of former carnival sideshow performers, but the cartoon replaces the comic’s generic thug with the appropriately freakish Killer Croc.  In the show, I always found Croc’s betrayal of this lonely group of misfits quite heartrending, and I also found myself too repulsed by those same misfits.  I’m afraid I have a fairly low tolerance for the grotesque, and things like this creep me right out (Lady Grey, on the other hand, loves this kind of material).  Both of those elements are much less central in this issue, though, notably, that marks the difference between moderate and exceptional stories.  Despite my personal distaste for the Timmverse version, it is, objectively, a very good story.

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The original version at hand lies inside of a suitably dramatic if not terribly lovely cover.  The image effectively portrays the peril of the situation, but within the tale opens with an even more arresting splash page.  It’s a beautiful, moody image of the Dark Knight’s dogged pursuit of his quarry across a rope bridge and through a stormy night.  His prey, escaped killer Kano Wiggins, reaches solid ground first and cuts down the bridge, leaving the Dark Knight to make a desperate leap to safety.  Despite his opponent holding the high ground, the Grim Avenger still manages to get the upper hand until a massive fist slams into him out of nowhere!

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A titanic figure looms out of the rain, and despite the Caped Crusader’s attempts to reason with him, the giant seems intent on attacking.  In a really nice sequence, Batman uses his agility to reach his opponent’s shoulders and put him in a sleeper hold.  When the fellow finally collapses, a strange, mismatched trio arrives and explanations are made.  It seems that this quartet are former sideshow stars whose show folded, leaving them stranded there in the middle of nowhere.  They include a strongman, if not a bright one, man named Goliath, a very thin fellow named Charley Bones, a fat woman named Maud, and a deformed little boy with seal-like appendages, named ‘Flippy.’

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Detective410-10The Dark Knight goes to track Wiggins, but his search eventually brings him back to the sideshow gang in the abandoned town where they have set up camp.  When he arrives, he discovers that poor Charlie Bones has been murdered, hung from the bell-cord in the empty town hall.  Interviewing the other carnies, Batman finds that no-one seems to have seen anything, but Flippy, who is mute, draws a design in the dust, two circles linked by a line.  Note the almost parallel images of Batman below.  That’s some excellent visual storytelling.  You’ll see why soon.

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Before the Masked Manhunter can investigate further, he hears a car starting up and rushes off to capture Wiggins, which he does by punching the convict through the window of the van he tried to steal.  Clearly, we’re moving away from campy Batman at full speed!

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Returning to the sideshow stars, the Darknight Detective has solved the murder, but he announces to Maud that Kano didn’t do it.  Just then, Goliath tries to kill the hero by hurling a chunk of wood from the rafters of the building, and the Caped Crusader sets off to rescue the last member of the trio, poor Flippy, who tried to warn him that the culprit was the strongman with his drawing of a barbell.  As he confronts the giant, Batman explains that he knew Wiggins wasn’t the killer because the rope was cut too high up, and only Goliath could have reached it.  Now we can appreciate the cleverness of Adams’ illustrations on that page above.

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The strongman declares that he loved Maud and killed Charlie so that she would turn to him, and when the hero approaches, the killer threatens to throw Flippy from the bell tower unless the Dark Knight throws himself off!  The Dark Avenger subtly loops his rope over a beam on the outside of the tower and then seems to comply, swearing that he will get Goliath, even from the grave.

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Despite not really wanting to kill the boy, the strongman still drops him so he can’t reveal the murderer’s guilt, but Batman snatches the kid from midair in a great looking page.  Finally, he confronts the hulking giant, who almost kills him before Maud intervenes.  The story ends with the Caped Crusader noting that “courage–and love–come in strange shapes,” which is not a bad moral for this little yarn.

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This is a solid, if brief, little murder mystery with a memorable cast of characters.  O’Neil provides some interesting twists and turns that make it stand out from the standard fare.  Obviously he created a story that sticks with you, as its return years later in the classic Batman cartoon demonstrates.  Neal Adams, for his part is in fine form this issue.  His action is dramatic and full of explosive excitement, but even more impressively, he captures the perfect Gothic tone for the setting and characters he’s dealing with.  Everything is dark and dreary, and a nearly palpable feeling of dread hangs over the little drama of this story as tragedy strikes these lonely souls.  That atmosphere is only broken with the rising dawn at the comic’s end, with all the figures in silhouette, which adds a touch of hope to the tale as well.  The Batman of this book is well on his way to becoming the grim avenger of the night, the driven crimefighter who still has a deep love for humanity.  It’s a good little Batman comic, and I’ll give it 4 Minutemen.  O’Neil and Adams are well on their way to their legendary run on this character.

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“Battle of the Three M’s”


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The Batgirl backup this month is a fun, if a tad sexist, adventure involving the nefarious doings surrounding the fashion industry!  You can almost hear the conversation that spawned this tale: ‘Batgirl is a girl, so her readers are probably girls.  What do girls like?  Fashion!’  I’ve written before about the linking of female superheroes with fashion themes, as with the focus on costumes and the like in Supergirl’s stories, and, in general, I imagine it was an creative way to inject something uniquely feminine into these comics, something quite absent in the male dominated books.  However, there is, of course, a rather silly assumption that all girls are interested in fashion inherent in this treatment, but as long as the comics are still fun, I suppose no harm is done.

This particular instance of this phenomenon centers around the age-old dilemma, mini, midi, or maxi?  I am, of course, talking about skirt-lengths, as if my fashion forward readers didn’t know!  Seriously, I suppose this whole thing started in the 60s with the advent of the mini-skirt, and I rather wonder if it is still a going concern these days.  This subject is a bit out of my areas of expertise!  You only seem to see stories concerning the phenomenon from this era and earlier.  In this version, a major fashion icon breaks her leg skiing and so is out of circulation for a time.  Meanwhile, industry big-wigs go mad trying to figure out which length of skirt she’ll wear when she is healed, and a particularly unsavory group of designers in Gotham decide to do more than wait.

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Detective410-25As Barbara Gordon heads to work in the library, a newsman asks her what her opinion on the mystery is, and she reveals that she’s playing it safe by wearing a pants-suit, which is a mildly clever bit.  Things start happening once she’s inside, however, as one of the designers tries to bribe her to get access to another patron’s research books.  She refuses, but out of curiosity, she looks herself, to see that the patron in question is Jules Thayer, the fashion icon’s personal couturier, or designer.  Deciding that the crooked costumers might not give up so easily, Babs dons her on fashionable threads and heads to Thayer’s home to check on matters.  Now, this is a pretty thin excuse to get her involved, all things considered.  There’s no real reason to think that these clothiers would go as far as they do, at least not from that one interaction, but Robbins only has a few pages to work with, so it’s understandable.

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Arriving at the apartment, the girl detective discovers the same fashion flunky snapping pictures, but when she confronts him, he smacks her with the camera, sending her reeling off the roof.  She manages to catcher herself at the last minute, providing a bit of a common element with our headline tale.  When she recovers, Babs trails the skulking spy, and when he meets up with his partner and examines the photos, they realize that Thayer has decided on maxi-skirts, leaving them dead in the water.

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It’s nice of DC to give Howard Stark a chance at a second career after Marvel killed him off.

However, their investor, a gangster named Serpy (interesting name) arrives and is not willing to lose his investment.  He decides to kill the problematic fashionista, but at that point, Batgirl intervenes.  She makes a good showing until, oh no!  She joins Aquaman in this month’s additions to the Head-Blow Headcount, getting conked on the bean by the gangster.  The issue ends with Batgirl about to have a blouse carved out of her lovely hide!

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That’s a very stylish cliffhanger!

This is a fun if somewhat off-beat little backup.  It’s a bit hard to take the bespectacled  fashion designer seriously as a villain, so it’s nice that we get the addition of the gangster to the rogue’s gallery.  Still, it makes one wonder what kind of a hardened criminal lends money to lady’s clothing designers.  I suppose anybody can get desperate and go to the mob for a loan.  Either way, it’s an unusual and entertaining setup, though poor Batgirl doesn’t turn in her best performance, getting taken out twice in just a few pages!  Don Heck, however, puts together a nice looking feature, with each of the characters having a lot of personality.  I’ll give it 3 Minutemen.

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Mr. Miracle #1


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“Murder Missile Trap!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta
Colourist: Jack Kirby
Editor: Jack Kirby

The last of the new Fourth World books premiered this month, introducing one of my favorite DC characters, the inimitably marvelous Mr. Miracle!  He’s a hero I only encountered when I got back into comics in college, never really having known him as a kid, but his concept and especially his design really grabbed me.  When I read through his first two volumes, I really fell in love with the character and the hopeful view of the power of the human spirit that he represents.

Interestingly, the inspiration for the spectacular Scott Free actually came from one of Kirby’s former colleagues at Marvel, the master illustrator of the classic Nick Fury strip, Jim Steranko.  Earlier in his life, Steranko had been a magician and escape artist, and Kirby based Mr. Miracle on this fascinating Renaissance man.

Whatever its origins, this first issue of Mr. Miracle’s adventures certainly comes on like Gangbusters, with a great cover only partially marred by distracting dialog.  The original Mr. Miracle run is blessed by a profusion of excellent covers, each one featuring a pulse-pounding peril from which the  peerless super-escape-artist must liberate himself.  This first cover is downright iconic, and it sets the tenor for the series that follows.  The issue within opens with a Mr. Miracle, though, not our Mr. Miracle, preparing for a death-defying deed with the help of his little person assistant, Oberon, whose name always makes me smile.  Oberon is the name of the king of the faeries in medieval literature, you see.

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Anyway, a young man watches as these two prepare an act, Oberon chaining his boss up and locking him in a shed.  When the little assistant sets the shack on fire (!), the observer rushes forward and tries to intervene, despite the dwarf’s objections.  Suddenly, the costumed figure bursts out of the flames, and the amazed onlooker is introduced to Thaddeus Brown, known as Mr. Miracle, the escape artist!  The young man’s name is Scott Free, which, to my delight, is pointed out as a funny coincidence within the book itself, with Brown laughing merrily. We learn that Scott is a foundling who was given that name in the orphanage, but he remains mysterious.

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Just then, a carful of hoods arrives, apparently working for Intergang!  They threaten Brown, and when Scott objects, they turn their attentions to him.  Not the type to take such things lightly, the young stranger jumps the armed antagonists, making short work of the whole gang and demonstrating an admirable spirit of fair play.  Mr. Terrific would have liked this kid!

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With the gangsters defeated, we get a partial explanation, as we learn that there is some type of trouble between the aged Mr. Miracle and an Intergang division chief aptly named Steel Hand, probably because he has a powerful steel hand.  Sometimes criminals aren’t too creative.  In a good example of comic book science, this metal appendage has somehow been strengthened by “radiation treatments,” which the garrulous gangster demonstrates by shattering a “great bar of solid titanium.”  Sure.  I’m willing to give this a pass because it works in the kind of world that DC has established.  It’s a more fantastic place, after all, and radiation is magic.  Anyway, the alloy-armed criminal is not happy that his gunsels failed, so he decides to take care of the escape artist himself!

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Meet the Mole Man…err…I mean Steel Hand!

Meanwhile, Scott Free has been invited to stay with that very marked man, who tells his guest a bit about his history.  It seems that he’s alone now, with his wife and son dead, but he is planning to come out of retirement by performing a big escape.  Scott is very interested in Brown’s methods, and Oberon convinces the showman to give the young man a test.  After being locked up in an impressive set of chains, the stranger shatters them, seemingly without a twitch.  He claims that he just used a gadget to do it, and he’s rather cagey about where it, and he, came from.

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mr miracle 01-13 murder missle trapThe next day, Thaddeus dons his costume again to try another escape, but after Oberon sets a great boulder in motion, Steel Hand has a sniper shoot the old man, which happens on panel, something of a rarity.  Scott leaps into action and somehow manages to deflect the massive missile with an energy bolt from his hand, revealing Kirby-tech winding up his arm.  He removes what sharp-eyed readers of The Forever People will recognize as a ‘Mother Box,’ and uses it to comfort the mortally wounded Mr. Miracle, who passes away peacefully moments later.  Honestly, it’s a fairly moving scene.  Kirby has successfully made us care about this old man, at least a bit, and his death has an impact despite his brief screen time.

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With his friend dead, Oberon fills Scott in on the rest of the setup.  It seemed that Brown and Steel Hand had met in the hospital years before, and they passed the time in talking, eventually making a bet that the gangster could design a trap that not even Mr. Miracle could escape.  Desperate to fund his return, Brown had approached the now successful crime boss, who, for his part, was unwilling to risk losing the bet.  We then check in with that extremely poor sport, who is testing his metal mitt against an expensive android designed by one of his flunkies for just that purpose, which is one of the most Jack Kirby sentences ever written.

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mr miracle 01-18 murder missle trapAfter Steel Hand smashes the bot, Mr. Miracle suddenly leaps through the window and challenges the villain to complete his bargain.  Unfortunately, the gangster’s goons arrive, and Mr. Miracle falls prey to an old enemy of the superhero set, the classic headblow!  That’s right, in his first appearance, poor Mr. Miracle joins the Headblow Head-Count.  When he awakens, Steel Hand’s minions have chained him to a rocket at a secret Intergang missile site (!), where the gangster has prepared his escape-proof trap.

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We see the hero begin to work his escape, but then the rocket blasts off and explodes!  Yet, when Steel Hand returns to his office, he finds Mr. Miracle, alive and well, sitting at his desk.  Infuriated, the alloy-armed goon attacks, smashing through desk, chair, and more.  Mr. Miracle evades his attacks and calmly explains his incredible escape, using the very gimmicks he used on the rocket to disable his opponent, including sonic projectors, jets, and more!  Just as he wraps up the rat, Oberon arrives with the police, who happily haul him away.

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This is a great first issue, a delightful debut for a dramatic and intriguing new character, and Mr. Miracle really is just that.  He’s a unique concept, something never before really seen in comics, the superhero escape artist.  Once again, we can see just how groundbreaking and original Jack Kirby is, introducing an entirely new wrinkle into the superhero setting, something that was already, in 1971, pretty rare.  The issue itself could actually serve as a good example of proper comic writing.  It’s a self-contained issue, with a complete plot found within its covers, a real rarity these days.  Yet, it also contains all the setup and threads necessary to provide the grounding for ongoing adventures.  Notably, with this more realistic (as far as Kirby goes) gangster type of story, the odd note to the King’s dialog is absent, and his writing is fairly strong throughout.

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Kirby manages to introduce several characters and even get us invested in poor Thaddeus Brown before his tragic death, no mean feat in a single issue, as the late, unlamented Crusader demonstrated.   Taken just as a story, this comic is quite good, with some mystery, plenty of action and peril, and a lot of personality.  The only real weakness is the lack of explanation for HOW Scott is able to step into the gloriously colorful shoes of his mentor so easily.  That’s part of the mystery Kirby is setting up, but it still could have used just a bit more establishment to make the changeover smoother.  Still, this is a great beginning for Mr. Miracle’s adventures.  While it lacks the visual wonder of some of the King’s other Fourth World comics, it still looks pretty good.  In fact, the whole comic feels a bit more grounded than the other Fourth World books so far, and it contains some of Kirby’s better writing.  I’ll give it 4 Minutemen, a strong start.

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And that does it for this post.  I hope you enjoyed my commentary as much as I enjoyed providing it!  Thank you for reading, and please come back soon for more comic goodness as we trek further Into the Bronze Age!  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal Alive!


The Head-Blow Headcount:

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Two more heroes join Aquaman this month, and the Headcount continues to grow!  This is shaping up to be a busy month!  Now Batgirl is ahead of the rest of the Bat Family.  I bet Dick would never let her live that down.  We also have the first Jack Kirby creation to grace the Wall of Shame, making this a red-letter day!