Into the Bronze Age: April 1971 (Part 4)

DC-Style-Guide-1

Welcome Internet travelers, to my examination of the highs, the lows, the greats, the not so greats, and everything in between of DC Comics in the Bronze Age!  Today we’ve got a widely diverse pair of books with a quartet of quirky stories to quicken your pulses!  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
  • World’s Finest #200

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


The Phantom Stranger #12


Phantom_Stranger_Vol_2_12

“Marry Me – Marry Death!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo
Editor: Joe Orlando
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

“A Time to Die”
Writer: Jack Oleck
Penciler: Tony DeZuniga
Inker: Tony DeZuniga
Editor: Joe Orlando

We’ve got another beautiful, dramatic, and striking cover courtesy of Neal Adams this month.  It’s a nice, spooky image, and it’s well suited to the headline tale within.  Indeed, this month our Phantom Stranger story is rather different than what we’ve encountered of late.  Instead of focusing on the mystical heroics of the Stranger himself, this comic flips the script, and we see the story from quite a different perspective.

In many ways, this is a classic horror story, and it begins shortly after the wedding of Jason Phillips to his new bride, Wanda.  He brings the blushing beauty to his mansion, where he suddenly spots a mysterious figure, the Phantom Stranger, but the next moment there is no-one there.  Strange indeed!  Recovering, he introduces his new wife and their guests to his old wife, or rather, her coffin!

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Well, this seems perfectly normal and healthy…

He explains to the shocked well-wishers that he met and romanced the older and very wealthy Irina when he was a ski instructor.  He discovered that she took nitro pills for a weak heart, and despite the fact that she felt she was too old and weak for him, he insisted on marrying her.  A few years later, she passed away, but not before making him swear to keep her with him, always.

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There’s a very strange bit where she collected ancient Egyptian artifacts and learned about their embalming practices, insisting that they be used on her, but that doesn’t really feature in the story (something of an unfired Chekhov’s Gun…or at least an un-awakened Kanigher’s Mummy.)  Irina also left a clause in her will that all of her money would go to charity unless Jason kept her body with him always, which is pretty darn weird.  Throughout the tale, Jason paints himself as the perfect grieving husband, but there is something strange about the whole story.  This ominous note is strengthened when Jason once again sees the Stranger and begins to scream at him, only to have the figure vanish once more.

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That night, the re-married millionaire awakens in the night to hear a creaking sound and investigates to see the cloaked shape of the Stranger standing by the the coffin as it is slowly opening.  A voice tells him that he knows why they are here, but yet again, things are not as they seem, and when Wanda comes to investigate her husband’s shouts, the coffin is still locked.

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Suddenly, Jason sees Irina outside in a flash of lightning, along with the Supernatural Sleuth, who repeats his message.  The maddened millionaire strikes him, sending the cloaked form flying off of the balcony, but once again, Wanda sees nothing.  The next day as they are boating on a lake, the Stranger emerges from the waters.  Still, Wanda sees nothing.  She pleads with her husband to get rid of the coffin, but he refuses, citing his vow, yet even during their intimate moment of conversation, he sees Irina.

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Finally, pushed to the breaking point, he confronts the Phantom Stranger over his first wife’s coffin and attacks him with an axe, but the mysterious one forces him to think back over what really happened to his wife.  We learn that Phillips tried to kill her, putting her in situations where her heart would give out, and when it finally did, he destroyed her pills and callously sat by and watched her die.

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Jason thinks that the Stranger is just a blackmailer and attacks, but as his wild swings carry him outside, he runs towards a pair of advancing lights, only to be struck by a car and killed.  Fittingly, the car had come to get his wife’s coffin, though strangely, the name on the work order is Irina, not Wanda.

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This is a great little horror yarn, and though that isn’t really my favorite genre, Kanigher turned out a very entertaining tale here, continuing his inconsistency.  It’s either feast of famine with this guy!  He handled the building tension and mounting clues quite well.  There are just a few incongruous elements, like the Egyptian bit and the detail at the end with the conflated names.  I’m not really sure what the purpose of that was.  Still, the total effect is quite strong.  Needless to say, Aparo does a masterful job with this book.  His work is wonderfully moody and atmospheric.  Every panel is draped in shadow or lit with the bright light of romance, and all of the characters are beautifully rendered.  As much as I love his Aquaman work, let’s face it, he was even more perfect for the Phantom Stranger than for the Sea King.  All together, I’ll give this chilling chronicle 4.5 Minutemen.

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“A Time to Die”


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We have a solo Dr. Thirteen backup this month, and it’s a rather nice change of pace.  I like the interplay between the good Doctor and the Phantom Stranger, but a little goes a long way.  It is good to give each of them room to grow.  This particular outing is a respectable Dr. Thirteen mystery set in England, on the misty moors.  The Doc and his wife arrive just in time to see a man drop dead at the stroke of midnight.  ‘Ol Terry is his usual charming self, talking down to his wife and immediately making friends with the natives.  When the townspeople start talking about “the ghost of the Black Friar,” the Dr. responds by saying “You men are acting like frightened fools.”  Astonishingly, this does not endear him to them, and they tell this rude American to butt out in no uncertain terms as they carry the body to the town doctor.

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Incidentally, that is who summoned Dr. Thirteen in the first place.  When they visit this fellow, Dr. Hall, he tells them that he’s a man of science, yet he has spent much time investigating the ruins of the old abbey and believes that there is something evil there.  He tells them the tale of one of the abbey’s former inhabitants who turned to the black arts until he was convicted of witchcraft and burned in the 16th century.  Before he died, he swore a curse on the town.  Dr. Hall reveals that, since he is an old man, he’ll shortly be replaced by a new young doctor, but before he retired, he wanted to see that the town was protected.

That night, Dr. Thirteen investigates, only to see the figure of the Black Friar but be unable to catch him when he vanished.  Summoning the townspeople, they scoff, telling him that another man just died on the other side of town and the Friar couldn’t be in two places at once…if he weren’t a ghost!  With Dr. Hall’s help, the Ghost Breaker manages to convince the townspeople to help his investigation, but the next night, when they approach the abbey, a disembodied voice declares that, unless they run the strangers out of town, the ghost will take a terrible vengeance no them.  The townsfolk tell Thirteen to hit the road, Jack, and don’t come back no more!

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Yet, Dr. Thirteen is nothing if not persistent, so he sneaks back into town after sending his wife to safety, and searches a house and the abbey ruins.  Soon, he confronts the townspeople just at midnight and entreats them to follow him.  Heading to the graveyard where he first encountered the Friar, they once more hear the voice, but the Ghost Breaker leaps forward and searches a tombstone for a hidden switch, revealing a secret passage and a robbed figure!  The figure is unmasked to reveal….Doctor Hall!?

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That’s right, apparently Hall was just a tad bitter about being forced into retirement, so he used his scientific knowledge to construct a sonic weapon (fancy!), which he hooked up to the bell tower.  Every night at midnight it would send out a sonic pulse, and if anyone was close enough and susceptible enough, it would kill them.  Thirteen was suspicious of the old fellow, and when he searched his house, he found enough evidence to let him trap the doctor the the help of a micro transmitter that he used to track the fake fiend to his hiding place.  That wraps things up rather neatly, if making it a tad Scooby Doo.

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This is a decent little backup strip for Dr. Thirteen, if not one of his best.  Hall’s scheme is a bit too outlandish and the resolution is rushed, packed into one page, but that’s to be expected when you’ve only got seven to work with in the first place.  Both of the creators are new to me, but they turned in a perfectly serviceable story.  We’ll see if they show up in future DC Comics.  Either way, this yarn earns 3 Minutemen, a solid if unremarkable story.

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This issue also had a really excellent missive in the letter column, a thoughtful and insightful take on what makes Dr. Thirteen tick which is worth a read.

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Superboy #173


Superboy_Vol_1_173

“The Super-Clark of Smallville!”
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Bob Brown
Inker: Dick Giordano

“Trust Me or Kill Me!”
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: George Tuska
Inker: George Tuska

Well, would you look at that!  It’s the totally original ‘hero acting out of character’ cover type!  The cover is probably enough to make you want to know what’s going on, and it’s decently illustrated, but it’s not all that interesting, really.  One does wonder what exactly Clark is doing in that dorky outfit, though.  Unsurprisingly with Leo Dorfman calling the tune, our headline tale is rather Silver Age-ish and goofy, as you’d expect from this cover.

The gimmicky tale begins in Professor Lang’s lab, where the good doctor has what he claims is a jar of ambrosia, the food of the gods, from ancient Greece.  He also happens to claim that ambrosia was what gave the gods their powers, which makes me wonder if this guy got his degree out of a Cracker Jack’s box, as any school kid with an interest in mythology would know better.  They got their powers by being, you know, gods.  In some versions of the myths, ambrosia did have a role in their immortality, but that’s really not the same thing at all.  Yes, it’s a comic book, but it’s a comic book in a setting where the Greek gods actually do exist, so details like this matter a bit.

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Well, one way or the other, Dr. Cracker Jack decides to test some of the powered residue within the jar, but when he tries to, it explodes!  I hope they haven’t given this guy tenure!  The explosion wrecks the lab, but, of course, Clark is uninjured.  He rushes to help Professor Lang, but Lana spots him hefting a bookshelf off the quack.  At first she thinks this confirms her suspicions about him being Superboy, but seeing that he is holding the test tube and has traces of ambrosia on his face, she assumes that he ate the ambrosia, and thus gained the powers of the gods!  With no real choice, supposedly, the Boy of Steel fakes the discovery of new powers, like Hermes’ flight, as if he were a novice.

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In a purely rational and not at all wacky and bizarre response to this discovery, Lana’s first instinct is that Clark must show off to all of the bullies at school by going out for the track team.  She even makes a costume for him, for some reason.  This bit really makes no sense at all, in context.  I guess because he’s ‘super’ he needs a costume?  But he isn’t becoming a hero, just going out for sports.  Oookay, Lana.  Whatever you say.

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You’ll be the coolest kid in school…and you’ll wear a dorky costume while you do it!  It’s foolproof!

Well, “Super-Clark” (sigh) goes to the track field and shows off his strength and agility.  There is actually a great opportunity for some characterization here, for Clark to revel in the ability to use his powers in public and to enjoy Lana’s attentions.  Yet, Dorfman almost completely ignores that angle to focus on gimmicky situations for Clark’s ‘new’ powers.  My favorite is definitely when Clark rescues a bathysphere that got in trouble….in Smallville…Kansas.  Sure!  Doesn’t your small farming town have bathyspheres on every street corner?

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superboy 173 0008Needless to say, Pa Kent is rather shocked when an excited crowd shows up yelling about how his son has superpowers, but the new Smallville Spectacle explains things, pointing out that he’s happy he can help his father with his store.  Apparently at this point, Pa Kent isn’t a farmer, instead owning a general store, which seems far less fitting, iconic, or archetypal for the character.  After another series of super feats, Clark starts to get tired of the constant requests for aid and begins to realize the benefits of a secret identity.

Later on, a young, super-bald Lex Luthor comes back to town to get his revenge on the people who spurned him.  He is thrilled when he sees the townspeople tearing down their Superboy statue, but he becomes less excited when he sees them replace it with a statue of (sigh) Super Clark.  Man, Smallville residents are more fickle than Atlanteans!  Lex is more constant, at least in his hatred, and using a new invention, a “power nullifer” which does just what the name implies, he shoots Superboy out of the sky once the young hero is back in costume.

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The Boy of Steel crashes in a swamp and finds his powers gone.  He rushes to the nearby ruined lab of Professor Lang, hoping to find some ambrosia on the off chance it will really give him powers.  He finds the a note that was in the jar with the ambrosia and, conveniently, can read ancient Greek, which, you know, anybody can just pick up.  He eats the note, hoping it absorbed some of the food of the gods and finds himself actually possessing the powers of the gods.

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Using the Zeus’s shape-shifting power and thunderbolts, the ‘Phantom Vision” of Hades, and flight of Hermes, he manages to defeat Luthor’s various gadgets and drive off his former-friend-turned-foe.  The story ends with the godly powers fading and Superboy’s own powers returning.  When he tells Lana that his career as ‘Super Clark’ is over, she doesn’t exactly take the news gracefully.

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superboy 173 0022Well, this story wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t exactly fantastic either.  Dorfman wastes the chance to do some actual character work with Clark, botches his mythology, and throws in plenty of goofiness as well.  The yarn is entertaining enough, and the section where Superboy gains the godly powers is an interesting change of pace.  Yet, that is really over in two pages, so we don’t really get a lot of opportunity to see the difference between those and his usual abilities.  This story has some potential to be neat, but it ends up being fairly forgettable.  I’ll give it 2.5 Minutemen, with the inexplicable ‘Super Clark’ costume costing it some points.

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“Trust Me or Kill Me!”


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Our Legion backup this month is once again the highlight of the book.  It’s a fairly conventional identity mystery, the likes of which the Legion writers seem to love, but there are some neat details to it.  The tale begins with the stalwart Cosmic Boy left alone in the Legion headquarters, as the rest of the team has gone off to get vaccinated against a new virus sweeping the planet, a vaccine he himself had received years ago.  That’s a reasonably decent excuse to get the rest of the team out of the way for this story, and in light of the recent vaccination madness here in the U.S., I can’t help but smile.

Well, Cosmic Boy’s sojourn is interrupted when, all of a sudden, his double in a mirror smashes through the glass and attacks him!  Each claims to be the original, and they find themselves evenly matched in combat, knowing each other’s moves.  We also learn that Cosmic Boy knows a martial art named Ku-Jui, which he learned on his homeworld, a fun little detail and bit of world-building.  They decide to call in help in order to figure out which of them is real, and they settle on Superboy, who they summon from the past.  The Boy of Steel speeds through the Time Barrier (such a wonderfully comic book-ish concept), and joins the duplicated duo in the future.

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Tuska really knocks the face-work on this story out of the park.

Once he arrives, he is confronted by a massive image of the Legion’s most deadly foe, Mordru!  The evil wizard informs the young Action Ace that this is all part of one of his schemes.  Mordru has created a duplicate of Cosmic Boy, and if the hero cannot discover him, the double will secretly destroy the Legionnaires one by one.  I know very little about this character, but I have to say, I like this little glimpse of him. George  Tuska does a great job of making Mordru’s image seem intimidating and ominous, while also giving him some good old fashioned villainous glee.  His plan is really quite devious.  It has the longshot possibility of destroying the Legion, but even if it fails, it promises to subject the team to terrible emotional strain as they face the possibility of destroying one of their friends in order to save themselves

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Superboy tries to solve the mystery by quizzing the two Cosmic Boys, but each of them is able to answer his questions about their history.  Realizing that the Legionnaires are on their way back , the Boy of Steel tries one last, desperate gambit.  He flies off and returns with two massive iron boulders, hurtling them at both claimants to the Cosmic Boy title, saying that the real master of magnetism will be able to stop his rock.

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Yet, when one of them fails to halt the hurtling stone, Superboy rushes to his rescue.  The stunned youth wonders why, since he failed, but Clark explains that the rocks were actually plastic, and he counted on the fake Legionnaire using magic to simulate Cosmic Boys powers, rather than duplicating the powers themselves.  Thus, they mystery is solved, and the story ends with Mordru swearing that the traditional vow of ‘this isn’t over’ and Superboy headed back to his own time.

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This little tale has a clever resolution in Superboy’s plan.  It’s a good way to solve the mystery, and it does make a certain amount of sense.  There isn’t a whole lot to it beyond that, but we get some nice background on Cosmic Boy, and he gets a standard ‘you have to kill us both, Spock’ moment, though it is immediately countered by Superboy.  Mordru’s very brief appearance is fun, and I look forward to seeing a full story with him as the villain.  George Tuska’s art is bright and cheerful, and he really succeeds in making the protagonists look youthful, something not all comic artists can really pull off.  His clean, expressive art is a nice fit for these characters.  I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing him stay on this feature.  I’ll give this little backup 3.5 Minutemen, as it makes for a fun read and has no real flaws other than its brevity.

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And once again, we find ourselves at the end of a post.  These stories present a widely varied whole, and they certainly illustrate how diverse an era we’re working with.  In just this pair of books, we go from the creepy horror story of a haunted killer to the goofy antics of a gimmick driven Superboy farce.  As silly as the latter story was, it’s an interesting and positive thing that both types of comic are being published by DC, a variety of tone and theme not seen after this era until very recently.

The Phantom Stranger tale is particularly notable for the overt use of horror elements and for the cold-blooded murder that actually happens on panel.  It represents a darker type of story, one that had mostly passed out of mainstream comics with the dawning of the Silver Age and the rise of the Comics Code.  The return of such storytelling marks the continuing shift across the genre to more mature and varied comics.  Well, I hope that y’all enjoyed this read, and that y’all will join me again soon for the next stop on our journey, Into the Bronze Age!  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

 

 

 

Into the Bronze Age: February 1971 (Part 5)

DC-Style-Guide-1

Hello Internet travelers!  It’s been radio silence here on the Greylands for the last week.  Lady Grey and I traveled to Iceland over spring break, and we were busy taking the advice of Granger from Fahrenheit 451, who said “Stuff your eyes with wonder […] live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”  We spent some time out there in this gloriously beautiful world, reveling in the unsurpassed glory of creation, and we had a great time.

We visited waterfalls, hiked on glaciers, and even snorkeled in a glacial river between two tectonic plates (and that was intense, let me tell you!).  It was a really wonderful and necessary break, and sadly now we have to come back to the real world with all of its endless problems.  At least there are bright and hopeful comics to keep us company!  Today, I’ve got a pair of titles and a trio of stories.  I hope y’all enjoy my commentary as we travel farther Into the Bronze Age!

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #397
  • Adventure Comics #402
  • Aquaman #55
  • Batman #229
  • Detective Comics #408
  • The Flash #203
  • Justice League of America #87 (AND Avengers #85-6)
  • The Phantom Stranger #11
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #108
  • Superman #234
  • Teen Titans #31
  • World’s Finest #200

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


Phantom Stranger #11


Phantom_Stranger_Vol_2_11“Walk Not in the Desert’s Sun…”
Writer: Gerry Conway
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo

Underneath this suitably creepy cover, we’ve got about two-thirds of a really awesome comic that takes a hard left turn right at the climax.  The resultant story is a bit odd, but it still ends up being an interesting read with surprisingly sophisticated handling of some rather unexpected themes.  Gerry Conway makes his return to scripting DC books, and he is already displaying impressive maturity and skill.  The growing seriousness of the Bronze Age is definitely on display in this issue as well.

It begins with the Phantom Stranger narrating a string of strange phenomena in the night sky over the western hemisphere, as people all over the world look up and see a sinister triangular shape of purple hanging framed against the stars.  Three nights later, the police in New York try to talk a desperate woman down from the Brooklyn Bridge.  She has just killed a man, and she screams that she will be her own master from now on.  As she rants, she slips off over the side and plunges into the fog, only to vanish before hitting the water.  Aparo gives us a wonderfully atmospheric two-page spread of the incident that adds to the mystery.  The police are baffled, and the sudden appearance and cryptic warning by the Phantom Stranger doesn’t do much to comfort them.

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Meanwhile, apparently the Weathermen have taken their bat-guano insanity inter-planetary, as a pair of dropouts have somehow managed to hijack an Apollo spacecraft and are planning to crash it into Washington D.C. in protest of the space program’s ‘waste’ of resources.  Really?  That’s what you’ve got a problem with?  Not the war in Vietnam, the race problems, or police brutality?  I’m glad you boys have your priorities right.  Despite the pleas of mission control, it seems like this inexplicably capable pair of nutjobs is going to make good on their threats, but the capsule suddenly goes off course and splashes harmlessly into the Atlantic, empty!

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the phantom stranger (1969) 11 - 05The Stranger has noticed all of these events, and after spotting a story about a glowing pyramid suddenly showing up in the Sudan, he decides to investigate.  How does he get there?  Why, by flying commercial, just like everyone else.  It’s a weird sight to see the Stranger just walking through the airport.  Does he even have a passport?  Or money?  Either way, on the flight, he meets a young woman named Lynn Berg (Lindbergh reference?) who wants to talk to him because she gets nervous on flights.  The Stranger’s slightly odd response is perfect, as he says “Feel free to speak.”  Not the most warm and welcoming, is the Phantom Stranger.

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You have to wonder if he uses his powers to skip the lines…

They arrive in Israel, and in a move that really surprised me, Lynn begins to talk about the current troubles in the Middle East, philosophizing about the conflict and war in general, wondering if there can ever be a right or wrong in such conflicts.  Just as the Stranger begins to share his own critique of warfare, Lynn’s brother arrives to pick her up, only to run right into a terrorist attack.  The Stranger foresees it moments before it occurs but too late to prevent it.  A pair of (presumably) Palestinians throw grenades, which kill Lynn’s brother, shouting “for my dead father!”

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In response, the young woman, consumed by grief and rage, chases after the pair, attacking them, wrestling a knife away from one of them and actually killing him with it!  The Stranger sort of ineffectually calls after her and watches helplessly (which doesn’t really make a ton of sense), as the dead terrorist drops the grenade he’d been holding, causing an explosion and apparently vaporizing Lynn.  This is an incredibly effective scene.  Just as the traveling companions are talking about war and the cycle of vengeance, that very cycle plays out before our eyes.  In revenge for some unknown act that cost them their father, two men kill an innocent.  In response, the dead man’s sister is herself blinded by vengeance and kills one of them, dooming all three.  It’s a powerful and surprisingly subtle demonstration of the endless nature of revenge.  The effect is rather arresting.

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But, this is a comic, and we’ve got other, stranger fish to fry, so the scene shifts to that mysterious glowing pyramid our enigmatic hero read about.  Inside, a masked figure in Egyptian regalia holds forth to a gathered crowd, explaining his evil plan, and evil it is.  In attendance are all of those people warped by hatred and selfishness who were snatched away from their deaths, including the girl from the bridge and the two pseudo-astronauts.  Evil-tut explains that he is the ‘Messiah of Evil,’ and has drawn all of them together in order to build ‘an army of evil’!  Strangely, Lynn Berg is in a cell there as well, drawn thither because her heart was filled with hate at the moment of her death.  Suddenly, the Stranger is there in her prison, and he comforts the girl.

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Just then, guards burst in, and when the Spectral Sleuth tries to fight them, he encounters a powerful force-field.  What’s more, they knock him out with just a touch, which also seems odd.  The Stranger is brought before the fiendish pharaoh, who reveals himself to be…Tannarak!  That’s right, the promising villain from the last  issue returns, and in grand fashion!  Apparently, at the moment of his death beneath the falling statue, he was snatched away by powerful beings who called themselves the ‘Gods of Hate,’ who chose him as their champion, as the Messiah of Evil and charged him to build an army of the like-minded with which to seize power.

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The Stranger shouts that such an agenda would “upset the very balance of the universe” and invokes the concepts of chaos and order, declaring “this must not be!”  He strikes down the guards, somehow now able to do so, despite the fact that a few pages before he couldn’t’ even touch them, and then charges Tannarak.  Yet, the sorcerer is not to be taken so easily, and he zaps the hero with a beam that turns his own hate and anger against him.  The mysterious one realizes that his rage is self-defeating, so he calms his mind and strikes out, not in anger and not for revenge, but for justice, and delivers a great blow.

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Yet, he and Lynn are still badly outnumbered, so they flee, and here is where things get weird.  Well…weirder, in context.  They race into a chamber filled with advanced machines, alien machines!  They trigger a defense mechanism and are bombarded by terrible rays, but each selflessly tries to shield the other.

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The apparently mechanical sentries of the machines note that they had thought Earth the perfect place to build an empire of evil, as they had found the planet’s inhabitants purely selfish beings, but this act of sacrifice makes them reconsider.  They decide that they must seek what they want elsewhere and decide to destroy their base, the pyramid, because their mission is a failure.  When the rays shut off, the Stranger and the girl flee, leaving Tannarak and his minions to face a cataclysmic explosion!  In a really surprisingly grim touch, Lynn is driven mad by the experience.  As the Stranger says, her “mind has escaped whither they cannot follow.”

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Wow.  Okay.  Where to even begin with a story like this?  It has some really fantastic elements, and the scene with the terrorist attack is unquestionably quite strong and touching.  There’s probably no clearer symbol of the endless cycle of vengeance in the modern imagination than the conflicts in the Holy Land, and that scene was handled with surprising maturity and subtlety.  I love seeing Tannarak return as well.  I think he’s got a ton of potential, and his being chosen as a champion of evil makes perfect sense.  After all, he was a completely selfish being, putting his own continued existence above every other concern, and what is evil but the ascension of selfishness, the triumph of will?  At the same time, that’s why the trappings of his ‘army of evil’ were slightly disappointing to me, as I’d have liked to see just a slightly more sophisticated treatment of their morality.  Evil very rarely owns the fact that it is evil; instead, it is much more common for that type of utter selfishness to hold itself up as the greatest good, as it so often does in our own society.

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Of course, then there’s the alien element which just comes out of left field.  Why not just have Tannarak’s backers be mysterious and sinister beings?  Making them some kind of aliens just doesn’t fit with the rest of the story, and it certainly doesn’t fit with the Egyptian motif without some type of explanation.  Tannarak was raised in Egypt, so we could have just hand-waved the pharaoh act if left to his own devices.  Add to this the different moments that just don’t quite make sense, like the invulnerable guards suddenly becoming conveniently vulnerable and the Stranger’s unexplained commercial flight, and you’ve got a very uneven story.  All of those rough edges could have been smoothed over with a bit of thought (perhaps the Stranger took a dive in the first fight, and perhaps he was on the flight to keep an eye on Lynn), but we don’t get any such attention in the comic.  In the end, it’s a story with a ton of potential, but the final result is just a bit too clumsy.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen on the strength of its treatment of its themes, but it loses plenty because of its oddities.

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Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #108


Superman's_Girlfriend,_Lois_Lane_Vol_1_108“The Spectre Suitor”
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Werner Roth
Inker: Vince Colletta
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: E. Nelson Bridwell

“Mourn for the Thorn!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Ross Andru
Inker: Mike Esposito
Editor: E. Nelson Bridwell

We’ve got a super gimmicky cover, once again focused on a troubled wedding for the Man of Steel and the glamorous girl reporter, which seems something of a tradition for this book.  While the story inside isn’t quite as gimmicky as its wrapping, it is more than a little weird.

lois_lane_108_03The strange tale opens at the home of Sir Noel Tate, a wealthy man who Lois is interviewing.  However, when we join them, they have put the question and answer session on hold in order to investigate sounds coming from the old fellow’s souvenir room.  They interrupt a trio of thieves in the process of robbing the join who knock Tate out and begin to threaten Lois.  The plucky girl reporter holds her own for a while, but just as one of the thieves is about to skewer her, mysterious things start to go wrong for him and his confederates.  They’re attacked by an unseen assailant and driven away.  When Tate comes to, he tells Lois that she’s in danger…from a ghost relative of his!  Interestingly, Lois scoffs at the idea of ghosts, as if that’s even slightly less believable than half of the ridiculous stuff she encounters on a daily basis.

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Back at the Daily Planet, Sir Noel’s efforts to warn the journalist are intercepted by an invisible presence.  It apparently possesses Jimmy to lure Lois out of her office, then poses as her on the phone to Tate.  Next, for some reason, it draws Lois into the slums of the city, where she observes an interesting scene.  A desperate young man holds a slum-lord at gunpoint, and despite the fat-cat’s pleas for mercy, the gunman insists that he’s preyed on his tenants too long and too viciously to be spared.  It’s a scene somewhat reminiscent of the infamous Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76.

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What makes this moment fascinating is the social commentary present in it.  There’s nothing really sympathetic about the slum-lord, despite the fact that he’s got the law on his side in this encounter, and it is implied that men like him are the reason for the deplorable conditions in the slums.  Before the would-be murderer can finish his grim deed, his landlord has a heart attack and dies, courtesy of the mysterious ghostly suitor, who is himself moved by the plight of this area.  Cryptically, he mentions how it reminds him of London’s East End from 83 years ago.

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Meanwhile, Superman arrives for a romantic dinner with Lois, and we get one of the strangest scenes in the book.  After the couple shares a kiss, the ghostly stalker realizes that he’s got some pretty powerful competition.  So, he uses the power of plot to conjure a vision of Kal-El’s mother, Lara, in Lois’s eyes.  The vision is super vague, but it’s presents the Kryptonian woman in horror at the approach of something, and this creeps the Man of Steel out.  When Lois starts laughing uncontrollably, he freaks out and almost hits her!  Horrified at his reaction, Superman flies away in disgust.  The whole scene is just odd.  It doesn’t really make sense, at least in part because the ghost’s powers are so vaguely defined that we’re not sure what is his doing and what is reaction (or overreaction).  The end result is just rather disjointed and seems like a clumsy excuse to get the Metropolis Marvel out of the picture.

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That night, Lois has a nightmare about her wedding with Superman being interrupted by her spectral suitor, only to awake and find a letter from his ghostly hand that declares he’s going to bring her to his spirit world soon.  Despite her best efforts, the ghost prevents the desperate reporter from revealing her plight by stealing her voice and freezing her hands, and the next night, he summons her to Sir Noel’s estate, where she steals the knight’s nefarious ancestor’s dirk.  A frightened Tate calls Clark Kent in search of Superman, but before the hero can arrive, Lois is transported back through time to London’s East End in the 19th Century, through the ill-defined power of the ghost and his dagger.

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She arrives and is confronted by a mysterious figure emerging from the mist, but just as he’s about to stab her, he declares that she’s “not like the others.”  Lois realizes that her spectral suitor is none other than the ghost of Jack the Ripper!  Just then, Superman arrives, having scoured time to find her (and I like the detail that he didn’t know exactly when to look), and takes her home, where Sir Noel fills in the blanks.  Apparently, his ancestor was driven mad by the deplorable conditions of London and set out to punish the women who represented those conditions, the prostitutes who walked the streets, which seems pretty monstrously unfair.  The ghost sent Lois back so that his living self could kill her, but the Ripper realized that she was an innocent and couldn’t bring himself to do it.  Confused yet?  Fortunately, the dirk was destroyed when Lois was sent back in time, so the spirit is now banished for good.

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This is just a weird, wandering tale.  It has some effectively creepy elements, and there is some definite menace as poor Lois is hounded by her invisible, unstoppable stalker.  The fact that a story featuring Superman manages to conjure up that sense of helplessness is actually fairly impressive, but the plot is just too random and too rushed to be entirely effective.  Even Werner Roth’s usually beautiful art isn’t quite up to the standards we’ve gotten used to in the last few issues.  There are several spots where his figures seem awkward and stiff, especially his Superman.  I’ll give this one 2.5 Minutemen.  It isn’t bad per se, just a little off.

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“Mourn for the Thorn”


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Unfortunately, this issue’s Rose and Thorn backup isn’t much better.  The usually impressive series suffers from some really goofy elements and an altogether rushed plot in this outing.  It begins, strangely enough, with the strip’s protagonist dead!  Lois and Superman look on as the valiant Thorn lies dead in her golden coffin, apparently finally having fallen prey to the 100.  We then get a flashback that tells us how the Nymph of Night met her fate.  She cornered #24 on her hit parade and took him out in an alley, only to…die…somehow…because of car exhaust?  It’s an exceedingly silly scene.

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Thorn is standing in an alley when the killer’s partner backs his car towards her.  Does he run her down?  Pin her against the wall?  No, don’t be silly.  He stops next to her and poisons her with carbon monoxide.  Now, I know that emissions standards were worse in the 70s, but I’m still thinking that simply running your car in an alley didn’t create the equivalent or mustard gas or anything.  It’s such a ludicrously impractical way to kill someone and so unnecessarily complicated that it takes you right out of the tale.

After the Thorn is killed, the 100 apparently take her body back to their funeral parlor front, not bothering with the authorities or anything, and nobody notices that there’s a murdered woman just sitting in the front window.  Later, a woman with the “Friends of the Friendless” comes to claim the body.  She’s a member of the 100 who is playing a part, despite the fact that the funeral parlor’s owner is their leader, which doesn’t make much sense.  The whole sequence feels unnecessary, as the killers could have just taken her body and done whatever they wanted with it, skipping this whole dog and pony show.

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The criminals bring the boxed Baleful Beauty to a sinister looking old house called ‘The Mansion of Mourning,’ which is an admittedly cool name.  It’s a front for the 100 as well, providing a hideout for their wanted members.  As they prepare to plant the Thorn in a grave, her perfidious pallbearers drop the casket, and rain splashes on her face.  Suddenly, the Vixen of Vengeance revives!  She rises from the grave in a pretty fantastic panel that, if the story had more space, would have made a great splash page.  Apparently, the vigilante took some medicine to fake her death when she realized she was trapped, and she claims she always wears nose filters which prevented her from asphyxiating.  Ooookay.

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Well, the Thorn makes swift work of the gathered hoods in a nice full-page action sequence and then drops another set of numbers on her newest catch.  Returning home, she awakens as Rose, who finds herself weeping at the news of the vigilante’s death, despite the fact that she doesn’t know her.

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This story has some great elements.  In fact, the big reveal of the Thorn’s return from the grave and the last moment with Rose’s unexplained connection to her alter ego are both quite good.  Yet, the story overall is a bit on the weak side.  It’s clear that Kanigher is really struggling with his page count in this one.  While he’s done a great job at creating condensed, simplified plots that worked remarkably well in only 8 pages, this issue’s effort is just too convoluted.  The silly method of the heroine’s “death” combined with the unnecessary complications involving her burial and the funeral parlor break too much with verisimilitude without explanation or excuse and they take away from an interesting story idea.  The resulting yarn is worth only a substandard 2 Minutemen.

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I hope you enjoyed my coverage of these two comics.  We’re almost done with February, just three more comics to go!  In the next post, we’ll see what Denny O’Neil’s got in store for his Superman revamp, which I’m excited about.  I hope you’ll join me again soon for my coverage of that and more!  Until then, keep the heroic spirit alive!

Into the Bronze Age: December 1970 (Part 4)

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

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

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

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

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


Green Lantern/Green Arrow #81


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

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

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

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The obvious reference to Uncle Sam is…odd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Justice League of America #86


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Phantom Stranger #10


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Into the Bronze Age: October 1970 (Part 4)

DC-Style-Guide-1

Hello fellow Bronze Agers, and welcome to another edition of my investigation of the depths of DC’s Bronze Age books.  We have an interesting pair of comics lined up for today’s article, one sci-fi and the other supernatural.

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

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

  • Action Comics #393
  • Adventure Comics #398
  • Aquaman #52
  • Detective Comics #404
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #80
  • Phantom Stranger #9
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #105
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #133 (Jack Kirby’s debut!)
  • Superman #230
  • Teen Titans #29

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


Green Lantern/Green Arrow #80


green_lantern_vol_2_80Even An Immortal Can Die!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Dick Giordano
Editor: Julius Schwartz

As has became a sad routine, I dreaded this comic, but I was very pleasantly surprised when I it.  Some of the trademark excesses of this series are still on display in this month’s issue, but I think this must be the most successful story of this run, as a story.  Ironically, as the type of thoughtful investigation of important social issues that O’Neil set out to deliver, it is, perhaps, the weakest.  It’s an interesting contrast.  To his credit, O’Neil displays more subtlety and nuance than has been his wont in this book, and even Green Arrow doesn’t come off as too insufferably self-righteous.  Unfortunately, taking the action off the Earth robs the comic of the social consciousness it has been trying ohh-so-hard to cultivate.

Ohh, it starts on Earth alright, with our Hard Traveling Heroes continuing their cross-country trek in their old truck.  Ollie even broaches the very hopeful topic of their getting off the road for a while, but that will have to wait as a near miss by a big rig sends the trio off a bridge and into a river.  To get out of the drink, they climb aboard a ship transporting toxic waste.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that: A) the poor schlubs having to transport the stuff were not mustache twirling villains, just decent, hard-working sailors trying to do a job and do it right, and B) the stuff was on the way to be disposed of properly rather than being dumped into the river for poorly defined reasons.  Are we sure this is really a Denny O’Neill script?

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Unfortunately, the ship’s boiler blows, almost killing Green Lantern and setting the scow ablaze (O.S.H.A. must be the most lax and laid back organization on the planet in the DC Universe).  The Guardian is presented with an interesting moral dilemma.  He has enough innate power to either save the ship or take Hal to a doctor, but not both.  The logical (hello there, Spock) choice is to protect the lives of the crew and the health of the environment by saving the ship, or at least that’s how it’s presented.  Instead, the immortal, changed by his time on Earth, chooses to save his friend.  It’s actually a nice moment, but it is undercut because it strikes me as a bit of a false choice.  Yeah, it’s bad to let the toxic sludge get loose in the water, but the sailors are not in immediate danger, and the life of a human being is of great value.  It seems strange that even a being with as long-term a view as a Guardian would take such an ecological incident as more important than a human life.

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Wait, isn’t the Lantern’s ring supposed to automatically protect them from lethal dangers? Oh well, plot will out…

Well, in another pleasant touch of nuance, the crew has to toss the waste overboard because it is flammable, but O’Neil goes out of his way to show that they do so unwillingly, aware of the cost.  It’s actually a pretty effective scene.  Meanwhile, the Guardian’s swift action saves Hal’s life, but their happy reunion with Ollie is short-lived, as the immortal’s peers are none too happy with his choice.  They inform him that he’s transgressed and needs to be judged.  Green Arrow responds with his trademark tact and diplomacy, telling a race of god-like beings that the Guardian’s choice was “the only human thing to do!”  I’m sure that carries tremendous weight.  Thanks Ollie; you’re a big help.

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The traveling trio are sent to a world called Gallo, which is like the intergalactic Supreme Court.  This is actually one of my only real problems with this issue.  It doesn’t make much sense that the Guardians would farm out their justice system to anybody else.  They aren’t exactly shy about their abilities or bashful about their judgements.  I’m wondering if this place ever showed up again, because it really doesn’t fit in with the Lantern Corps. mythos.  Anyway, when they arrive, a robotic bailiff demands that they surrender their weapons, and when the Emerald Archer resists, the electronic enforcer insists, violently.  Here we see a very nice piece of storytelling, where Adams and O’Neil work together in perfect sync.  Arrow uses the distraction of the fight to snap off one of his arrows’ warheads, and the art conveys this perfectly but unobtrusively.  You hardly notice it if you aren’t looking for it.  This will, of course, become important later on.

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Apparently, things on Gallo are not what they should be, and both the Emerald Crusader and his erstwhile boss notice, but it is too late as they have already been disarmed and captured.  Instead of the customary tribunal, they are greeted with one cruel and vicious judge who proceeds to give them a trial that could have been plucked from the pages of Kafka.  The accused are gagged and summarily sentenced to death on false evidence, a sentence delivered by a jury of robots!

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In the holding cells, the green-garbed heroes discover the real Tribune of Gallo, whose power has been usurped by their former master mechanic, who has some type of hangup about the superiority of robots to flesh and blood.  Unfortunately, that angle really doesn’t get much development.  The guy is crazy and on a power-trip, and his pro-machine agenda doesn’t really provide much more than window-dressing for the story.  Nonetheless, O’Neil delivers a great scene as Green Arrow rapidly strips their cell to create a makeshift bow, arming the arrow with his salvaged warhead.  It serves ably and destroys their robotic jailer, allowing them to escape and recover their weapons.  It’s a great character moment for him, though it continues the process of elevating Ollie at Hal’s expense.

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In the meantime, the Guardian’s death sentence is being carried out as he is slowly sealed in plastic, only to be rescued at the last minute by our emerald heroes.  It’s a lovely, dynamic sequence illustrated beautifully by Adams, but it also includes the other false note of the issue.  Hal has a moment of conflict as he goes up against the judge, thinking to himself “it’s hard–very hard for me to use my ring!  Though the judge is mad, I’m conditioned to respect the authority of the law!”  Good heavens!  It’s not like Hal was in the SS!  He’s not a brainwashed cultist; he’s a former soldier, daredevil test pilot, and space cop.  To a certain extent, we’re all ‘conditioned’ to respect authority.  It’s part of growing up in an ordered society, but most of us don’t get paralyzed with indecision when we encounter something that is obviously and grossly unjust.  It’s not like this judge is even the proper representative of the court on this world.  Hal just freed those guys from a cell, so the law is definitely on his side!  It’s just a stupid moment, and it makes the character seem incredibly dense to boot.  I understand what O’Neil is going for, but as with so many aspects of this series, the execution is just off.

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‘Hard, very hard because I lack basic reasoning skills!’

Fortunately, our heroes manage to get ‘the old timer’ out of his plasticine tomb in time, and he notes that he simply held his breath, having learned from humanity that “where there is life, there is hope.”  That’s one of John Carter of Mars’s favorite phrases, and one I’m quite fond of too.  It’s a good lesson to learn and certainly a truth that humanity bears out.  Despite our flaws, we are awfully hard-headed (which can occasionally be an asset).  The Guardian decides to stay behind and receive a judgement from his fellows, but he sends Hal and Ollie back to Earth and the adventures that await them.

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This is definitely a much better comic than many of its predecessors.  The plot works, the threat is actually pretty legitimate, and the alien setting is a lot more fitting for the power ring wielding Green Lantern than random small towns in the American countryside.  The characterization of the protagonists is, on the whole, better.  Even Green Arrow only gets one short self-righteous speech (thus fulfilling his contract).  The Guardians’ moral dilemma is interesting, even if it feels a tad forced.  It does make sense that a being used to seeing the biggest of big pictures, galactic order, would struggle with the emotional attachment of living life on a small, personal scale with the two heroes.  Yet, the comic definitely loses something by taking its action off-world as well.  While an examination of themes of justice is possible in a story set among the stars, it loses any real social relevance by having no connection to the more terrestrial problems of injustice found under the Sun.

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I know I’ve been hard on this series, but it is important for us to remember, and especially for me to remember as I write, that what it is doing is well and truly unique for its time.  This book was like nothing else of its day, and nothing really like this had ever been done before in comics.  As ham-handed and tone-deaf as it often was, it was also groundbreaking and incredibly innovative.  I’ve probably not been giving O’Neil enough credit for the risks he took and for overcoming the obstacles he must have faced.  Nonetheless, a story is good or bad, regardless of context.  It either works as a story or it is flawed, and noble intentions do not a successful plot make.  I’m trying to deal with these tales both as stories and as cultural artifacts, so I’ll try to balance my coverage appropriately.  Make no mistakes, though.  Many of these stories are not particularly good, as stories.  Something can be important without being actually good.  So, all things considered, I’d give this issue a strong 3.5 Minutemen.  It loses points for Hal’s inane inner conflict, but only just.

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Phantom Stranger #9


phantom_stranger_vol_2_9Obeah Man!”
Writers: Joe Orlando and Mike Sekowsky
Penciler: Jim Aparo
Inker: Jim Aparo
Letterer: Jim Aparo

This is fun story with a bit of a flawed resolution.  Notably, we’ve got Mike Sekowsky handling the writing chores this month, and he varies up the formula a bit to interesting results.  Instead of what has become the standard, with a frame tale setting up stories narrated by both the Stranger and Dr. Thirteen, this issue just gives us Thirteen’s flashback in addition to the frame tale.  It gives both of them more room to breathe and is definitely a step in the right direction.  I think we’re seeing this book continuing to find its feet.  I’m hopeful that it will soon settle into a really strong run.

This issue takes us down to an unnamed Caribbean country that is a clear analogue for the mysterious island nation of Haiti, and of course, that puts our heroes up against the dark forces of Voodoo!  Now, I know, you’ve probably heard how Voodoo in real life has very little in common with its portrayals in popular media.  In fiction, it is the religious equivalent of the Nazis, the perfect theological antagonist, spooky, enigmatic, and full of dark rituals.  In reality, it’s a religion that’s much like others of its kind, shamanistic and made up of an amalgam of Christian and African beliefs and practices.  We’re dealing with the most sensational type of portrayal here, but I was fascinated to discover that the sinister influence of Voodoo in this story is actually loosely based on real history.  In 1970, the Haitian dictator François Duvalier was in the last years of his reign, a reign that he had supported by co-opting the local forms of Voodoo.  He claimed to be one of the Ioa, or governing spirits of the world, as well identifying himself as Jesus and God himself, just to up the ante on the blasphemy all the way to 11.  He used Voodoo and dragooned its leaders into his service in order to gain spiritual as well as political control over his subjects.  That’s a pretty perfect setting for a spooky Phantom Stranger adventure and a dystopian nightmare!

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And the story doesn’t disappoint.  In Haiti we discover professional wet blanket Dr. Thirteen coming to the aid of the country’s president.  Interestingly, though he looks like Duvalier, he’s actually the good guy here, trying to improve his country and being opposed by shadowy and nefarious Obeah Men (Voodoo sorcerers).  It seems his assistant has died without a mark on him after receiving a Voodoo warning.  The President tells Thirteen that he’s been unable to make any headway against the Obeah Men and asks for his help to discredit them so that the people will stop supporting the charlatans.  He offers to take the good doctor to a ruined fortress where the Voodoo ceremonies are held.

On their way there, Thirteen tells the Haitian head of state about a similar case.  Here’s our interpolated episode, which is actually a pretty standard story.  I’ve seen this plot adapted in a few different places, including on the radio show Escape.  I imagine there is a short story that has served as the originator, but I haven’t bothered to track it down.  Anyway, it’s a pretty standard setup.  A colonial officer in Africa runs afoul of a Voodoo priest and is forced to kill him.  With his dying breath, the man curses the officer, and he lives in fear of that curse ever after.

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Eventually, he sees the man again and is given a token of warning, in this case, a Voodoo doll with pins in the legs.  The victim’s fear and belief create a psychosomatic reaction (he loses the ability to walk), and there is a threat of death.  In this instance, the worst is prevented by Dr. Thirteen discovering that the man’s nephew had faked the second encounter and used a recording to hypnotize his uncle in his sleep.  You know, people are always doing that in fiction, and it seems to require a huge amount of luck.  All it would take is one bad dream, midnight snack, or trip to the bathroom to reveal the scheme.  But I digress.  There’s a reason that plot has been adapted multiple times; it’s a good one, and Aparo’s beautiful art makes this a memorable version.

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Back in our frame tale, guess who makes an appearance?  It’s the Unnecessary Teen Gang.  At least Sekowsky lampshades the absurdity of their showing up in Haiti, as they explain they mysteriously won a trip, and we can assume this was orchestrated by a higher power…for some reason…despite the fact that they contribute absolutely nothing to the plot.  Dr. Thirteen spots the kids in a market and flips his lid.  He leaps out of the car and starts demanding that they tell him where the Stranger is, arguing that he’s never far away from them.  Just as they tell the overly excited ghost breaker that they haven’t seen the man with the awesome medallion, the Stranger himself appears, in the limo no less.  Immediately, the President proves more sensible than the supposed scientist, as he doesn’t discount any possibilities out of hand, willingly hearing his visitor out.

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The gang all head to the ruined fortress, and once there they they find a ceremony in full swing, as well as a pair of strangely garbed figures in the midst of the dark ritual.  One is revealed, of course, to be Tala.  The other is the enigmatic Obeah Man.  And here we have the big weakness of the issue and one of the very few failures of Aparo’s art.  The Stranger leaps at the Voodoo priest and socks him, and then…something happens.  The art just doesn’t quite manage to convey the action, and the whole thing is wrapped up in a single page.  The Stranger grabs some type of jar called the ‘Seal of Solomon‘ (a symbol with historical and occult significance, figuring prominently in medieval lore about Solomon’s extra-textual magic powers) and the Priest sort of dissolves, and then, I guess, turns into a bug.  The Stranger slaps him into the jar, and tosses it into the sea, prompting Tala to bug out in response (sorry!).

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Confusing or not, that fourth panel is still cool looking.

It’s not much of a showdown.  Anticlimax can be quite effective, but the whole thing is so vague and the action so unclear that it just feels unsatisfying.  Once again, Dr. Thirteen accuses the Stranger of having faked the whole thing and being in league with the villains of the piece, but the President demonstrates a broader mind, thanking the mysterious champion for his aid.  Of course, the Stranger disappears, leaving Dr. Thirteen cursing the empty air once more.

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This is a fun story, and the historical background I discovered about it makes it all the more interesting for me.  I quite enjoy that the Haitian president is wise enough to insist that a truly rational man must not discount anything out of hand, all while ‘ol Terry rages at the evidence of his own eyes.  Aparo’s art is beautiful and moody as always, nicely evoking the exotic locale of the story.  The narrower focus of this issue allows for a great development of the main plot, but unfortunately the digressions with the Unnecessary Teen Gang takes up some space that would have been better used on the Obeah man.  That vague final confrontation is rather disappointing, weakening a promising story.  Fortunately, the interpolated episode is pretty good, so that helps balance out the flaws of the frame tale.  I suppose I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen, though that might be a tad generous.  It has its problems, but it is plenty entertaining and I just find the creepy background of a despotic state ruled through fear and a co-opted religion adds a lot of flavor to the issue.

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The letter column actually includes a note from the editor about how a recent visit to Haiti served as the inspiration for this story, which confirms the setting.  The letters themselves are full of effusive praise for the new direction of this book.  Notably, most folks seem to share my opinion of the useless teen gang, but people are split on Dr. Thirteen.  Everyone seems to recognize that they’ve got something special here, though.  I can’t wait to see what’s next!

 


Well, that’s it for this post.  I hope y’all found these commentaries interesting.  I know that I found a lot in these two issues to sink my teeth into, despite their flaws.  We’re definitely seeing a lot of the changing face of comics with these two books.  They are almost a microcosm of the Bronze Age, pushing the standard boundaries of comics in themes, content, and style.  I hope y’all will join me again soon for another step in our journey Into the Bronze Age!

Into the Bronze Age: August 1970 (Part 4)

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

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

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

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

Justice League #82

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phantom Stranger #8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dr. Thirteen, surprising badass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the Bronze Age: June 1970 (Part 3)

DC-Style-Guide-1

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

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

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

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

Justice League of America #81

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Just look at how bored he looks!

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

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

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

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

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Phantom Stranger #7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A trio of unlikely “accidents”

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

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

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

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

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

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Showcase #91

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Alas poor Yorick! I knew him, Arky…’

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

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

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Ahoy there, Space Ahab!

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

Into the Bronze Age: May 1970 (Part 1)

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Time to head back to the Bronze Age!

This month in history:

  • The National Guard, responding to rioting, kills 4 at Kent State in Ohio, prompting the creation of the song, “Ohio”
  • Construction workers break up an anti-war rally in NYC’s Wall Street
  • 100,000 demonstrate against Vietnam War
  • 100,000 march in NY supporting US policies in Vietnam
  • Race riots in Augusta Georgia, multiple deaths
  • Peter Green quits Fleetwood Mac to join a cult
  • Multiple nuclear tests by East and West

Man, things are heating up this month, and it is clear that both Cold War and racial tensions are rising.  The occurrence of the infamous Kent State killings is particularly noteworthy for American history, though I am struck by the fact that there were marches both for and against American involvement in Vietnam.  I think our national consciousness tends to downplay the fact that there was actually a lot of support for the war throughout the conflict, despite the fact that we think of it ending almost purely because of the force of popular opinion.  Eventually the weight of public opinion did shift, but I don’t think it was ever as monolithic a force as we tend to imagine.

In what strikes me as a strangely fitting bit of synchronicity, the top song for this month is The Guess Who’s “American Woman.”  Make of that what you will.

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

  • Action Comics #388
  • Batman #221
  • Brave and the Bold #89
  • Challengers of the Unknown #73
  • Detective Comics #399
  • Flash #196 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Flash #197
  • G.I. Combat #141
  • Justice League of America #80
  • Showcase #90
  • Superman #226
  • World’s Finest #193

Bonus!: Star Hawkins (for real this time)

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

Action Comics #388

Action_Comics_388.jpgCover Artist: Curt Swan
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Roussos

Well, as you might guess from that cover, this is a wacky one, but as it pretends to be nothing but just that, it’s actually more than a little fun.  The whole issue is like one of those activity books for kids full of different types of puzzles.  It’s basically one long ‘spot what’s wrong in this picture’ game, and there is plenty to spot.  It’s a rather charming, goofy, and purely Silver Age-ish bit of fluff, but it is fun nonetheless.  In fact, this book is so completely and utterly bananas, that I’m going to have a devil of a time summarizing it.  Have fun spotting all the errors in the pages I include; it will take some doing to note them all!

The story opens with a weird, wacky splash page that sets the tone for what’s to follow, featuring a mixed up mish-mash of the Justice League greeting a bewildered Superman.  Each Leaguer has something out of place, many bearing the wrong symbols or even the wrong faces under their masks!  Notably, Aquaman has the face of Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman.  This is fitting enough, as this entire issue reads just like a tale from that venerable humor magazine.  As much oddness as there is on this page, Swan was apparently afraid to mess with the Amazing Amazon; the only thing wrong with her is that she is wearing her old costume.

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The plot, what there is of it, centers around the Earth suddenly being replaced by an odd-ball world that bears more than a passing resemblance to Bizarro World.  We find a version of Mr. Mxyzptlk that seems like a neanderthal version of a leprechaun.  This odd edition of the 5th dimensional felon meets up with a surprisingly eloquent and erudite Bizarro, and they begin to make plans.

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Meanwhile…gosh, this is even harder than I thought.  Just…just try to keep up with the madness, okay?  Meanwhile, Superman is all set to marry a particularly scatterbrained and easy going Lois Lane, prompting check-ins with lots of characters acting out of, well, character, including Lois’s old flame, Sgt. Rock, who receives a Dear-John letter from the girl reporter.  Wow, the postal service on this alternate Earth is great, delivering to the past, specifically World War II!  He…apparently has Wonder Woman’s robot plane, so he heads to Metropolis to take out his rival.  Back in town, our usual Superman somehow arrives in this topsy-turvy world, and he doesn’t know what to make of all this craziness.

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Next, it looks like trouble is stirring as Lex Luthor, with a glorious head of hair, and Brainiac in Mxyzptlk’s threads stop by.  But what’s this?  They’re only there to deliver their wedding present, a bizarre monster to serve as a pet.  While trying to sort out what is happening, Superman finds himself attacked…with syrup?  How about brussel sprouts?  How strange!

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Bizarro and Mxyzptlk show up to add their presents to the wackiness, but things take an even stranger turn when Sgt. Rock launches his final assault with, very specifically, five-day-old garbage, his syrup and vegetables having failed.

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Finding none of these “weapons” successful, Rock gives up and leaves Lois to the better man.  It turns out that this world’s Superman is actually vulnerable to all of these random substances.

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Finally, a scientist shows up and explains, as if any explanation could possibly really work here, that his experiment has accidentally switched Earth with an alternate dimension’s version of the planet while Superman was off-world.  They do some comic book science to switch it back, but the important thing is that on the alternate Earth, the wacky wedding takes place without a hitch…I guess.

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Well, this is certainly an entertaining little descent into madness, though there isn’t really anything to it other than Bates deciding to have some fun turning Superman’s world on its ear.  It manages to work by being entirely honest about what it’s after, and it has some genuinely funny moments. I have to say, I love the image of Sgt. Rock, hardened veteran soldier, pelting Superman with garbage.  Excuse me, five-day-old garbage.  It’s really a bit hard to rate a humorous issue like this, but I suppose I’ll give it a fun but silly 3.5 Minutemen out of 5.

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It seems that the Legion tale this month is, “Sun Boy’s Lost Power,” is a reprint, so I won’t be covering it.  Interestingly enough, the editor claims that this type of tale has been heavily requested by fans.  I wonder if there is any truth to that or if they are merely covering the lack of a new story.  It really could be either.  After all, this is the age before comic book stores, so it’s not like it was easy to find back issues.

Batman #221

Batman_221.jpgCover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Dick Giordano

“Hot Time in Gotham Town Tonight!”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Dick Giordano

This is a solid Batman story of the common type that seems to be emerging from this middle era between the wackiness of the Silver Age and the pathos of the Bronze Age.  It has an excellent cover, which, now that I think about it, actually looks a lot like a scene out of the Arkham series.  Though this cover is only very loosely related to the story within, it is certainly a nice image, one that might have convinced me to pick it up in those long lost days.

The basic story is a fairly simple one, though with that touch of the fantastic that seems to characterize this intermediate era.  It seems that normally docile animals all over the German countryside are suddenly turning vicious.  One fisherman was devoured by…trout!  A farmer was also attacked by a pair of formerly passive oxen that suddenly turned murderous!  The source of these disturbances seems to be some sort of pollutant that has seeped downstream from a chemical firm on the Rhine.  In a rather convenient turn of events, it seems Bruce Wayne is in the country visiting a possible business partner, (a lot of that going around these days) Baron Willi Von Ritter, and it just so happens, that the local authorities suspect that his factory is the culprit.

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Bruce agrees to check him out during his visit, and arriving at Biochem-Fabrik, LTD, he discovers it to be located in a massive, imposing medieval fortress that was expanded and updated by the Nazis in World War II.  It seems the good Baron was actually dragooned into working for the Third Reich, but he was cleared of any wrongdoing during the Nuremberg trials.  This, of course, leads us, as well as our hero, to wonder if perhaps the powers that be were a little too quick to give Ritter a clean bill of moral health.  While there, Bruce meets the Baron, his pretty young wife, and Otto, his assistant.

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We learn a bit about the Baron at this point, and I have to say, I rather like this fellow.  We really only get part of a page to develop his character, but Robbins and Novick do a lot with that little space, and you get a nice sense of who he is with that economy of image and word that only comics can manage.  Von Ritter leads his guest through his castle, past hunting trophies and, most interestingly, a padded jacket, goggles, and sabers which Wayne recognizes as a “Heidelberg dueling outfit.”  This is apparently a real thing, and I am more than a little happy that this comic led me to learn about this practice.  Apparently, students in Europe have a practice of joining dueling societies, and ever since the 18th Century, they’ve been engaging in duels of honor where the objective is to mark your opponent’s face while bearing any and all wounds you yourself receive with discipline and courage.  This was seen as a measure of character and training for manly virtue….and I have to admit, I’m more than a little sorry that my own academic exploits haven’t been accompanied by a few duels.  I mean, I’ve enjoyed being a fencer, but this is something of an altogether different sort!

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Well, the effect of this little moment and the Baron’s pride at his own dueling scar, which he refers to as his “badge of manhood,” is to tell us that he is a disciplined, serious man with deep sympathies towards old traditions.  Of course, we’re meant to see this as indicative of Nazi leanings, but it is just possible that they point to an older, more honorable heritage.  The whole effect reminds me of Babylon 5‘s Londo Mollari, who was part of a similar dueling society that shows up in a great episode.  It’s a minor detail, purely atmospheric, but I found the real practice behind it, as well as what it tells us about the good Baron, to be quite fascinating.  Extra points for Robbins for the historical tidbit, which he explains only with context, leaving readers to search out the reference on their own.

Anyway, you’re probably wondering what all of that has to do with this story, and the answer is ‘pretty much nothing.’  Sorry, it just caught my interest, and it lead me on a merry chase for the history behind the concept.  Who says comics aren’t educational?  The tale really takes off when our favorite billionaire-playboy-with-a-secret retires for the night and the Batman begins to prowl through this ancient edifice!  Good job keeping your identity safe there, Bruce.  I’m sure no-one will connect the American hero with the lone American staying at the castle.  Well, silly risks aside, he finds a hidden lab packed with animals, and within, a shocking sight: a lamb savagely attacking a cowering lion!  The two animals fight in a pit as a hooded figure with a whip watches with too-intense interest from above.

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Batman realizes he has discovered the root of the strange occurrences, but this mysterious character will not go down without a fight.  He employs his whip in a manner worthy of Indiana Jones, or perhaps Zorro, managing to entangle the Masked Manhunter long enough to fit him for a very ironic fate.  The fiend unleashes a horde of common bats that have all been injected with his “killer” serum, which brings out the, well, you guessed it, killer instinct in any creature it is administered to.  This is all part of a plan to create a new master race for another shot at that whole ‘thousand year Reich’ thing, which didn’t work out so well last time.

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The bats attack the Bat, and though he shields himself with his cape, he knows that it is only a matter of time until they tear him apart in a death of a thousand cuts.  Yet, the Dark Knight is cool headed, even in the worst of extremities, and, while reflecting on the bats’ ability to hunt by using their natural sonar, he spots the means of his salvation, a seemingly useless bit of tinfoil!  This is a fun, ironic scene and all that, but I have to think, no matter how aggressive, bats just wouldn’t be all that dangerous to a man.  But then again, we’re dealing with a world of super science and all sorts of craziness, so I suppose I can let it slide.

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Meanwhile, our masked villain has escaped, and we follow him to a rendezvous with the young Baroness, Ilga, where he is revealed to be none other than Otto, the Baron’s assistant.  The two make plans for a new Nazi resurgence, preparing to make the aged butler their first human test subject, when a battered but still very much alive Batman interrupts their efforts.

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Not one to give up lightly, Ilga injects Otto with the serum, turning him into a killing machine, but also removing all his inhibitions.  Unsurprisingly, he turns on her, and strikes a killing blow…with…a backhand?  That is one heck of a slap!  It’s a bit silly that she dies from what looks like a vicious but still pretty light blow.  Sure, if the guy had enough super strength to juggle cars, that would make sense, but that isn’t really what this drug does.  It’s a minor quibble, but I did notice the disconnect, as I was surprised when Ilga died from that attack.  It pulled me out of the story for a moment.

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As usual, Novick’s art is solid and serviceable, but I think the greatest strength may be his face work.  I love the expression of surprise on Otto’s face when his partner sticks the knife…err…needle in his back.  The Dark Knight tries to stop Otto, but most of his blows seem to have little effect.  He tries some judo instead, and in the type of ironic ending that comics just love, he flips the rampaging chemist directly into the pit with the still ravening lamb.  Yep, Otto is apparently killed by a lamb…despite the fact that he is ALSO pumped full of this serum, so he should probably be able to take even a particularly aggressive sheep.  That’s two, Robbins.  It is funny, but it does rather take away from the dramatic tension of these last pages.  Death by lamb!  Shades of How I Met Your Mother.

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The issue ends with Batman explaining his clever escape to the dying Ilga, because he’s got to have someone to show off to.  He remembered the Allies using tinfoil to confuse German radar, and he threw the bats off with the same trick.  “I know now–we never could have–beaten you!” the dying girl declares, to which Batman answers, “For the same reasons the ‘beasts’ have never beaten us–our strength is in our humanity for our fellow men!”  That’s a nice sentiment to end on for this issue, but there’s just one problem: it doesn’t actually fit the story at all.  Batman’s victory had nothing to do with compassion, just cleverness.  I suppose Robbins felt one moral was as good as another.

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In the end, this is, as I said, a solid tale, and I find myself inordinately fond of this fairly generic German baron.  I really wish we had gotten a check in with him at the end of the story.  I’d have liked to see his reaction to the betrayal of his wife and assistant.  I think not doing that is a bit of a missed opportunity, but perhaps I’m still just tickled by the idea of college students dueling with sabers.  Either way, this story, flaws and all, gets a fun 3.5 Minutemen.  I like the mystery and the misdirection, and I think Batman’s solution to dealing with the bats was particularly clever.

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“Hot Time in Gotham Town Tonight”

The backup this month sadly features neither Batgirl nor Robin, but it’s a fairly decent story, more about Gotham than about Batman himself.  It centers around a pair of firefighters who are running around town because of false alarms being turned in by a pair of punk kids.  The kids learn a lesson when a child is almost killed in a building fire, the fire engine having been delayed by their “joke.”

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Luckily, Batman is there in a nice splash.  I think there is a subtle message of racial unity in this tale, as the events take place in a black neighborhood, and the fire-fighting pair are black and white.  The duo has a little tension about how to handle the kids, but they manage to work it out.  More importantly, their combined efforts help to put out the blaze.  We’re also given a nice moment as a family welcomes their rescued child, after Batman gave the boy mouth-to-mouth to bring him around.

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This is where things take a turn for the weird, adding a wrinkle that this short story simply couldn’t support, as the fire inspector leads the firemen to the source of the blaze, one of their apartments!  Inside, the fireman’s kid brother, Joey, just returned from a tour in Vietnam, tells them that the whole thing was caused by the strange green statue he brought back with him, a statue that was reputed to have mystic powers!

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They scoff, of course, but just then the relic begins to shoot out strange rays.  Okay, sure, evil, fire starting Buddha, why not?  But that’s not the crazy part.  Out of nowhere, Batman shows up, struggling mightily against the rays and finally managing to shuck the statue out the window, where it smashes on the pavement below.  How did Batman know about this?  Where did this evil artifact come from?  Don’t ask such nosy questions, we’ve only got 8 pages!

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It’s not a bad story, but it certainly does leave some questions unanswered.  Now, we can no-prize this, say that the statue was part of some case Bats was working, and we’re just tuning in at the end, having joined the story in media res.  Such an explanation would work, but it would have been nice for the tale to provide one line of dialog to make the connection.  The final tag line also seems a bit off, declaring, “For the natural violence of life there is always the fireman!  For the supernatural violence of life there is always…the Batman!”  Well…that’s all well and good, but the supernatural really isn’t Batman’s bailiwick.  That’s much more in the vein of someone like the Phantom Stranger.  Speaking of that particular mysterious devil, he’ll show up in our next book!  Meanwhile, I’ll give this slightly puzzling yarn 2.5 Minutemen.

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Brave and Bold #89

Brave_and_the_bold_89.jpgExecutive Editor: Murray Boltinoff
Cover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: Ross Andru
Inker: Mike Esposito
Editor: Murray Boltinoff

Well, this is definitely a Bob Haney issue.  My goodness is it a Bob Haney issue!  He’s in full Haney-verse mode here, inventing new elements of the Batman mythos out of whole cloth, creating nonsensical plots, and making Batman talk like one of his slang-slinging Teen Titans.  The Phantom Stranger is our guest-star of the month, and it is interesting that the Stranger is still in the middle of his evolution in his own title.  The character still hasn’t been entirely nailed down, which is fortunate, because Haney would likely have blithely ignored anything that had been established.  As it is, the Stranger is a bit off in this issue.

The tale begins with an unusual and not terribly attractive splash page.  We’re still a ways away from the wonderful run of Jim Aparo on the Brave and Bold art chores.  Apparently, a weirdo Amish-ish cult…err…sect is strolling into Gotham, complete with covered wagons and livestock.  They are led by a neck-bearded mystic with a shepherd’s crook who goes by the name of Josiah Heller.  Apparently, these are the “Hellerites,” who have come back to reclaim what was theirs in the early days of the city.  The police aren’t happy with this bizarre parade, but apparently the Hellerites aren’t breaking any laws.  It’s funny that Batman has to remind the freaking police commissioner about what the law says.

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We get a flashback to what happened to the Hellerites in the 19th Century, a history that has totally always been part of Gotham’s past.  Apparently, because the Hellerites looked and acted differently, people didn’t like them.  They were treated as outsiders, and when a child was found mysteriously dead, the Hellerites were blamed.  A riot ensued, and their settlement, at the center of modern day Gotham downtown, burned to the ground, their leader, the original Josiah Heller, with it.

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The modern day Hellerites have come back to demand reparations for their land that was stolen by the Gothamites’ ancestors.  The cult camps out in Gotham park, where apparently there is no law to prevent it because “no one ever tried it before.”  I find that hard to believe, that no bum had ever tried to camp out in the park rent free.  Anyway, the new Heller begins to preach fire and brimstone, threatening Gotham with various mystical judgements if they its citizens don’t grant his demands.

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I think it’s funny that the hippie looking folks are sympathetic.

Gotham is split, and because we’re still in 60s mode (I imagine that Haney will be perpetually in 60s mode always and forever), this causes riots and protests.  The City Council is also split, as the land the Hellerites have demanded is the most expensive real estate in Gotham City.  Surprisingly, Bruce Wayne argues in favor of these demands, citing it as their responsibility to make up for their ancestors’ sins.  This struck me as really weird, but then again, the whole setup is so bizarre that it’s hardly worth picking on this particular nit.

The story takes off when The Phantom Stranger shows up and has a enigmatic tete-a-tete with the demanding Mr. Heller.  The Stranger tells the neck-bearded one that he’s tampering with dangerous forces, and then vanishes when Heller tries to “smite” him, knocking himself unconscious.  Batman has overheard all of this and searches the unconscious cult leader, discovering some clues that indicate this fellow is not what he appears to, including cigarettes, even though the Hellerites don’t smoke.

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After this encounter, strange things start happening around Gotham, as spectral Hellerites begin to wander the streets, demanding land that they once owned.  No one can tell the difference between the ghosts and the flesh and blood types because they apparently still dress the same a century later, 1700s chic!  Things get wackier from here, as the Stranger shows up again to warn Batman about the danger to the city.  Batman, despite the fact that he was just dealing with the supernatural in his own magazine, is completely unwilling to accept that such things are possible.  How very Haney.  It’s at this point that professional wet blanket (as Rob Kelly calls him), Dr. Thirteen shows up.

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He does his usual bit, calling the Stranger a charlatan, but then Haney gives us something that is, admittedly, as awesome as it is crazy.  We get to see the good doctor karate chopping the Phantom Stranger, dropping him like a ton of bricks!  Ha, I can’t imagine the Stranger being taken out like that in his own book, but I have to say, it’s fairly entertaining, and a nice panel to boot.  Thirteen even uses a drug to ensure that the mysterious man with the disco medallion stays unconscious for a good long while.

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This isn’t quite a head-blow, but I’m going to count it!

Yet, a close encounter with a ghostly Josiah Heller makes a believer out of the Dark Knight, and a check in with the police department computer (what, the Batcomputer is on the fritz?) helps our hero to begin piecing together the plan, such as it is, of the specters.  It seems that the Hellergeist is after the town’s first born sons, including, apparently, Dick Grayson, who is magically transformed into a warlock by the curse of the Hellerites because, of course he is.  He zaps his partner, pins Alred to a wall, and then levitates the modern day Heller, spouting something about how only this new Heller can end this waking of the spirits.

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Realizing that he’s out of his depth, the Masked Manhunter goes to pull the Stranger out of police lockup.  Despite Thirteen’s drugs (a bit creepy that he just has those on him, isn’t it?), our enigmatic hero awakens in time to aid the Dark Knight in a showdown against the ghostly Heller.  The Stranger’s ill-defined powers seem to be overtaxed with fairly minor deeds, leaving Batman to pick up the slack, taking out his ward-turned-warlock.  He also determines that the modern Heller is actually an imposter, which is what caused all these problems in the first place.  He is actually a fugitive named Karl Loftus who lost his memory and, thanks to a resemblance to the original Heller, was taken for a long lost descendant.  Apparently the Hellerites are rather easily led.  The convenient arrival of a sheriff helps to snap the fellow out of his delusion, in turn banishing the restless spirits…somehow.

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The story ends with Thirteen still skeptical, despite the fact that he’s seen things in this issue that are pretty darn hard to account for.  Ohh, and the Stranger vanishes once again.  I wonder if Batman appreciated how annoying that is when someone does it to you.  Their leader gone, the Hellerites trek out of Gotham, their departure as pointless as their arrival.

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This is a fairly average Haney story, I suppose, wacky and weird, though not so stupid as to be particularly troublesome.  As you can tell, I didn’t put too much effort into understanding this plot, though I’m not sure if it would have helped if I had.  The characterization is typically off, but the scene of Thirteen karate chopping the Stranger is worth something.  As usual, the story is jam-packed, but the final effect is not one of Haney’s strongest.  I’ll give it 2.5 Minutemen.

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Well, that’s it for this week’s selections.  I hope you’ll join me next week for another league further in our journey Into the Bronze Age!