Into the Bronze Age: August 1970 (Part 4)

DC-Style-Guide-1

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?

Justice League of America v1 082-01.jpg

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.

the phantom stranger (1969) 08 - 01.jpg

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.

the phantom stranger (1969) 08 - 06.jpg

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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the phantom stranger (1969) 08 - 13.jpg

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!

the phantom stranger (1969) 08 - 14.jpg

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!

the phantom stranger (1969) 08 - 16.jpg

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.

the phantom stranger (1969) 08 - 17.jpg

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.

the phantom stranger (1969) 08 - 21.jpg

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!

Into the Bronze Age: March 1970 (Part 3)

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And back to the Bronze Age, March 1970!

  • Action Comics #386
  • Batman #220
  • Brave and the Bold #88
  • Challengers of the Unknown #72
  • Detective Comics #397
  • Flash #195
  • G.I. Combat #140 (no Haunted Tank story, won’t be covered)
  • Green Lantern #75
  • Justice League of America #79
  • Phantom Stranger #5
  • Showcase #89
  • World’s Finest #192

Bonus!: Star Hawkins

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

Green Lantern #75

Green_Lantern_Vol_2_75.jpgCover Artist: Gil Kane
Writer: John Broome
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Joe Giella

Well, here we are.  This is the last issue of Green Lantern before Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil would begin their landmark run, combining the title with Green Arrow.  It’s a shame the classic Lantern tales don’t end on a better note, as this story isn’t particularly impressive.  Interestingly enough, there’s not even the slightest hint of the change coming the next issue.  This is mostly a Silver Age GL story, too odd to be called by-the-numbers, yet with no trace of the pathos (overblown and silly though it may seem now) to be found in the book’s new direction.  One can only imagine the shock that longtime readers must have felt, buying this book one month, and that first O’Neil issue two months later.

As for this issue, despite the fairly awesome cover, rather nicely designed by Gil Kane, it does not prove all that interesting in the final analysis.  I really like that image, GL struggling to keep the two worlds apart.  It’s a good visual metaphor, though not one that fits this story all that well.  The tale has a lot of really promising elements, but the central plot is weird and Silver Age-y, including a number of strange story choices and nonsensical plot elements.  It begins with Hal, the traveling toy salesman (that secret identity still galls me to no end), as he discovers that his rival, the lovely Olivia Reynolds, has suddenly taken ill.  After being denied entrance to her room, because of course he was, not being family or having any particular connection to her, Hal decides to barge in as Green Lantern!

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The attending physician fills the Emerald Gladiator in on Olivia’s condition, which is critical.  She isn’t responding to any treatments, and Hal tries to use his ring to heal her.  This actually raises a rather interesting and troubling ethical question for this character concept.  If GL’s ring can heal sicknesses and treat untreatable illnesses, shouldn’t he be spending all of his time power-ring zapping cancer out of sick kids or the like?  I mean, utilitarianism has its problems, but there does seem to be a ‘greater good’ question in play here.  I suppose that’s the trouble with wish fulfillment powers, right?  With infinite power comes infinite moral responsibility.  That’s a subject that Astro City dealt with in a wonderful manner with the Samaritan.

Philosophizing aside, GL’s ring discovers that the young woman is being affected by a strange form of energy.  The Emerald Crusader is about to head out to follow this energy beam when the first particularly strange story choice shows up.  The Doctor, Eli Bently, insists on accompanying the hero.  He claims that his medical knowledge will obviously be necessary to save Miss Reynolds.  After all, clearly they have an entire semester that covers strange energy emanations in medical school…though, in the DC Universe, maybe that would be a good idea after all.  You’d think after shoe-horning in this random doctor, Broome might make him integral to the plot in some way.  Well, if that is the case, you’re clearly expecting far too much logical consistency out of this story.  This is not Chekhov’s Doctor.

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The unlikely pair follow the energy and discover that it is coming from the portal to the anti-matter Universe of Qward!  Here’s our first promising note.  Qward is a really neat concept, and one that is definitive of the GL mythos and the wider DCU at large.  While it is given great development in the modern day, it still had legs even back in its early incarnations.

So, does GL leave the doctor back on Earth?  Don’t be silly, clearly Doc Bently is VITAL to the success of their mission!  Hal hauls him into the incredibly perilous Qwardian Universe where there is an entire world set on killing them.  They’re attacked by Weaponers right away, who have developed a teleportation technology allowing them to zap ahead and hit the Lantern in force very rapidly.  The Emerald Gladiator overcomes a few bands of them, but then is hit with a powerful new weapon that almost kills him.

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Suddenly, he is saved by a strange Qwardian!  The man teleports the stunned Lantern to safety, then dashes away without much explanation.  Shortly, he is cut down by the Weaponers, and Hal reacts to the death of his savior with about the same amount of effort and intensity that your or I might bring to bear when we misplace our keys.  Our fearless hero casually theorizes that his mysterious benefactor “must have secretly been a member of a resistance group here” and “in rescuing me he was only doing his job…and paid with his life.”  This really bothered me.  Green Lantern, armed with the most powerful weapon in the universe, just sits idly by and watches the man who saved his life be killed right in front of him.  Good job Hal.

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Well, the Emerald Crusader realizes that the Qwardians are tracking his ring, so they need to find a way to move about without using the ring or attracting attention.  At this point Hal apparently displays a little known power, the ability to get “mental impressions” of music.  Really GL?  You got a “mental impression”?  Some people just call that, you know, hearing, but sure.

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The pair discover a few troubadours and decide to steal their clothes.  Hal notes that their presence makes sense because Qward is “a kind of futuristic feudal society,” which sounds fine…except that it totally doesn’t.  I actually rather like the look of these fellows (who, though they’ve done nothing wrong, still apparently deserve to get beaten and robbed according to Hal!), but they really don’t fit Qward.  This is the anti-matter universe, right?  So, evil is good and good evil, everything is backwards and topsey-turvey.  That’s the basic concept.  That doesn’t really seem like a society that would welcome strolling minstrels singing about love and what-have-you.  In fact, I rather would imagine that the music of a place like that would resemble that of House Harkonnen from Dune, all hideous sounds and screeching metal.  Or, you know, modern pop music.

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Nonetheless, our muggers, I mean heroes, hike towards the source of the energy (remember that?), and encounter an old couple who give them lodging and food in exchange for a song.  This once again seems like a violation of the premise.  One wouldn’t think the whole Law of Hospitality thing would hold true in Qward, but add it to the list.  GL sings a weird little ditty that “just came to him.”  I have no clue what this is, but I suspect it must be some kind of reference.  If you recognize it, let me know because I’m curious!

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Well, the duo finally reaches the capital city of Qward, the creatively named Qwardeen.  Funny how alien world always have capitals that are basically extensions of their names.  It’s not like there’s an Earthopolis here.  Anyway, at this point we get another one of those neat concepts that are lost in the hustle and confusion of this story.  Hal and the doc discover the Weaponers gathered around a strange golden monolith, which, according to ancient legend, holds some kind of great power.  There’s a short history of the Weaponer’s attempts to open it, all of which have come to naught, but apparently they are harnessing a new powersource to crack it.  The concept of this gift from their ancestors, this cultural mystery, is a neat one, and I like the glimpse of Weaponer culture it provides.

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Yet, the powersource that they are harnessing?  Here’s where we get our second weird feature of this story.  It is the “overmind” of Olivia Reynolds.  Now, the comic implies that this is something the reader might have encountered before in this book, but I really don’t remember anything about it.  I suppose the story that featured it could just have been that forgettable, but I don’t know.  Either way, apparently the young lady’s mind is a unique specimen, super powerful, even, apparently, sustaining an entire alien world(?) it seems.  Don’t ask me.

So, the Weaponers crack the monolith, and the Green Gladiator leaps into action.  Oh, and the doctor plays his vital role to the plot by…standing next to Olivia.  Great work doc!  Couldn’t have done it without you!  The interesting thing here is that the monolith is empty, except for a recording.  It tells the Weaponers that the technology and drive they achieved trying to open it is, in fact, the gift the ancestors bequeathed them.  The disembodied voice declares to the disappointed Qwardians that “your greatest scientific discoveries down through the ages have all stemmed from your efforts to open the obelisk!”  That’s a moderately neat idea, one that could have supported a story on its own, I think, if it were given some more room to breath.

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Well, the Emerald Crusader leads the way back to Earth, but they are intercepted by more teleporting Qwardians!  Hal decides to hold them off so the other two can get to the portal, and we get another of those ugly collage images that Kane loves so much.

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Sorry Mr. Kane, but a lot of implied action is still not as good as some actual action.

GL defeats the Weaponers and escapes, leaving a recovering Olivia in the care of the good and obsessively dedicated doctor.

So, like I said, this is a story with some neat ideas within it, but the whole is weakened by the weird, inexplicable, or illogical plot elements.  The “overmind” thing was a particularly strange addition.  That’s a heck of a concept to throw out in an editor’s note.  In the end, I like pieces of this, but the final result is just rather weak.  Even though I don’t care for the coming O’Neil run as much as some folks, I think it will be a nice change of pace from this series of substandard stories.  I give it 2.5 Minutemen.

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Justice League #79

JLA_v.1_79.jpgCover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella

Despite starting with a rather hokey cover, this is a pretty strong issue.  The cover, though beautifully drawn, is rather on the nose.  Pollution is bad, get it?!  The very silly looking villain with the nozzle hands (not a terribly functional design, methinks), isn’t helping anything either.  Fortunately, what lies within is much better than that cover.  We pick up right where we left off, our earthbound heroes in peril and Green Arrow being led away from the city manager’s office by security after his shouting match with that purblind civil servant.  This gives us a nice little moment where the guards let him go, noting that they respect him and would prefer to be hauling the city manager, Crass, out instead of the hero.

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The Emerald Archer heads to the sinister factory that started all of this mess and discovers evidence of the Leaguer’s battle there.  This gives us another nice detail, where Ollie needs to get through the electric fence around the facility, but doesn’t happen to have an arrow that’s perfect for the job, so he improvises with a flare arrow.  It’s a nice little nod to realism, and a pleasant contrast to the Silver Age quiver full of plot devices that was Green Arrow.  Now, it should come as no surprise to anyone that has read these stories or knows of the Green Lantern/Green Arrow title shortly to begin, but O’Neil is obviously a big fan of Oliver Queen.  He tends to give Ollie a great deal of ‘screen time,’ and the character tends to loom large in O’Neil’s JLA stories.  The downside of this is that it takes focus away from other characters that, quite honestly, I like better, though I am fond of Arrow as well.  The upside is that it allows O’Neil the freedom to develop the character in interesting ways.

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We see some evidence of the author’s affection for the Battling Bowman as Ollie swoops in to save the captured Leaguers in what is, quite admittedly, a really clever rescue and a nice series of panels.  This in turn leads into another very clever move on GA’s part (this books is full of them!), wherein he revives his unconscious teammates by jury-rigging the fuel source of one of his incendiary arrows, which includes pure oxygen, to give the heroes a dose of fresh air.  They awaken and leap into action, each member of the team getting a chance to take out a baddie.  I really like the resourcefulness that Arrow displays in this story, and it certainly provides both good character moments and a gripping narrative.

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jla079-07.jpgWell, our heroes pursue their former captors, but they escape into what seems to be just another part of the factory but is revealed to be a disguised spaceship!  Meanwhile, the outerspace duo of Lantern and Superman are still investigating the dead planet “Monsan.”  Get it?  I have to say, it passed right by me in the last issue.  The name is Monsan, as in “Monsanto,” AKA, the folks with the reputation of being the most evil corporation on the face of the Earth.  Now, I know the GMO debate is overblown and that GMO foods are safe to eat and all that, but Monsanto has a nice long history of being involved in such scandals, some of them quite serious and still in recent memory.  Interestingly enough, their PR problems obviously stretch way back to the 70s at least (though I believe they actually go much further back than that!).  It’s a clever little reference, and one that I completely missed the first time reading these.

On “Monsan,” our heroes discover a survivor on the ruined world, and he fills them in with a dose of exposition.  Apparently theirs was a heavily developed race, and they “gloried in [their] industrial might!”  Their factories poisoned their world, but they didn’t care, even when their scientists began to warn them of their impending destruction.  When people began to die in droves, their leader, Chokh (get it?), transformed his people with radiation baths in order to allow them to live on a poisoned planet.  Unfortunately the process also warped their minds, and now they seek to colonize other planets by converting them into wastelands, uninhabitable by any other race.  His warning delivered, the survivor passes away.

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As they leave, Green Lantern plans to destroy the dead world (good heavens, Silver Age characters were powerful!), only to be stopped by Superman.  The Man of Steel insists that they leave it there in space, as a warning!  Dun, dun, DUN!

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We cut back to Earth where the team has contacted Hawkman on their satellite headquarters in an attempt to intercept the fleeing building-ship.  The Winged Wonder springs into action and pursues the Monsanians in his own Thanagarian space cruiser, but the building explodes, revealing a sleek, powerful vessel!  The shrapnel from the explosion damages Hawkman’s ship, and he he as to abandon it moments before the enemy reduces his craft to free floating atoms!  This leaves Hawkman stranded, unconscious in space!  There’s a lot of exclamation points in this paragraph!  I’ve always liked the Space Cop Hawkman being hardened against vacuum, but only for a short time.  It’s a trait that lends itself to some good dramatic tension.

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Well, the Monsanians figure that their long-game is blown, so they decide to poison the Earth directly, and they start “seeding” it with capsules that will release deadly toxins.  Their leader, Chokh, grants the earthlings one hour to make their peace before he hits the button and dooms the planet.   Fortunately, the heroes are regrouping.  We’ve reached the final act, and it’s time for our protagonists to stop reacting and start acting.  Superman and the Lantern find Hawkman floating out there in the black, and they bring him into the Satellite, meeting the rest of our courageous cast.  They realize they can’t locate and disable all the bombs, so they decide to tackle the problem at its source.

Our heroes split up again, and this time it is the Superman/Lantern team’s turn to shine.  They attack the Monsanian ship, tearing right through the hull and destroying the control mechanisms.  It’s a sequence that is almost really good, but there are some weird elements to art that make it look a bit odd.  Check out Lantern’s creepily intense expression as he blasts some aliens.

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That’s the face of a madman.

O’Neil again demonstrates his ability to juggle a large cast effectively, as the alien leader flees his ship and blasts his way into the Satellite to menace the other Leaguers.  Or rather, the idea is a good one, but the execution is a bit weak.  We’ve got one alien with a ray gun and no real powers versus a quintet of heroes.  To make a fight of it, O’Neil has to take some of the team out of the fight, and he uses some rather silly contrivances to do so.  Vigilante gets hit by a ricochet (interesting for a laser beam to ricochet…).  The graceful, hyper coordinated, and superbly trained Black Canary…trips.  Threatening the blond bombshell, Chokh orders the others to throw themselves out of the airlock.

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Atom uses the confusion of the moment to shrink down and surprise the alien with an excellent looking tiny-sized uppercut, and the villain is defeated in short order.  We end the story with a two panel conversation between Ollie and Dinah.  Ollie, still not one to play it cool, declares his love for the lady, but she is still reeling with the loss of her husband.  Nice timing, jerk.  The final thought is a somewhat ironic and bittersweet one, as Dinah says she’s glad they’ve saved the Earth, while GA, looking at a factory belching smoke into the atmosphere, wonders whether they really have.

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A quick note, I hate the ridiculously complicated origin of Black Canary.  We haven’t gotten there yet, but I think they’d have done a lot better to simply introduce an Earth 1 Canary and avoid the whole issue.

So, thus ends this JLA two-parter, and it was, all around, a good, solid story.  It has its weak moments, and the aliens really don’t pose all that much of a threat.  Still, you get some really nice character moments, you get Vigilante reintroduced to the DCU (Yay!), and you get an entertaining story.  This is a fitting end for the adventure we began last issue, and I have to say, though I braced myself for some really preachy environmental messages (a-la the Archie TMNT book!), O’Neil actually kept the message somewhat subtle.  It’s a bit on the nose a few times, but nothing so bad as the cover.  That final image is a nice, effective way to keep the readers thinking about the issue without beating them over the head.

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This is definitely a sign of the more socially conscious bent of Bronze Age stories, featuring characters dealing (in a small way) with loss, and of course with the environmental issues.  There’s a lot of personality packed into a small number of pages.  I’ll give it 4 Minutemen out of 5.

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Phantom Stranger #5

Phantom_Stranger_Vol_2_6.jpgCover Artist:Neal Adams
Writer: Mike Sekowsky
Penciler: Mike Sekowsky
Inker: Vince Colletta

This issue of The Phantom Stranger has a lovely Neal Adams cover, but unfortunately, the art inside is just downright ugly.  Mike Sekowsky, long time artist for the Justice League book, is certainly capable of producing perfectly acceptable art, even some strong work on occasion, but for whatever reason, this isn’t one of those occasions.  I’m sure being inked by the notorious Vince Colletta, who was famous for being quick and not much else, didn’t help matters.  Of course, Colletta’s reputation for taking shortcuts and generally riding roughshod over pencilers is a result of his often being called upon to meet impending deadlines.  It’s an unfortunate reputation to have garnered.

This story is, like the Jason Quest feature in Showcase, another effort where Sekowsky is handling both art and writing chores, and it is another case where I can’t say I’m thrilled with the results.  It opens with those four annoying teens from the previous issues speaking in abominable 60s slang.  Wait, is Bob Haney writing this?  The quartet are walking through a small town in the evening when they hear a crash and screams coming from a house on the corner.  Two old women come running out of the building as all sorts of small objects go flying about the place.

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The youths investigate, only to discover the tumult stopped.  Or rather, it is stopped until the old women reenter the home, and then it begins all over again.  The kids call Dr. Thirteen, despite the fact that he has never actually accomplished anything for them, and he rushes right over.  In the interim, the Phantom Stranger shows up and takes charge, telling the kids that the house is haunted, not by a poltergeist as they assumed, but by something worse!  Dun, dun, DUN!

Dr. Thirteen shows up, and it’s the usual song and dance about the Stranger being a charlatan and so forth, and Thirteen insists on telling a story to prove that there is always an explanation for such things.  We are seeing the format of the threefold tale continuing, though it’s a trope that is wearing a bit thing by this point, I think.

The good Doctor tells the story of a family tormented by what seemed to be a similar spirit, things flying about the house, strange events, unexplained noises, etc.

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They call Thirteen in to investigate, and he catches a small fellow slipping around the house, causing the ruckus.  The young man is, rather meanly, known as Creepy Conway.  They keep referring to him as “dim witted” as well.  Real nice.  So, this kid had a crush on the family’s daughter, but when she rejected him, the family’s incredibly creepy son recruited him to be his agent in terrorizing his folks.  We’ve got a nascent super villain here, maybe something worse!  He reminds me a bit of that kid with the exposed brain from The Tick, Charles, AKA, Brainchild

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What a rotten brat!

So, that ends Thirteen’s tale, which brings us to the Stranger’s point in the rotation.  He responds with his own yarn about an occurrence with a real ghost, and I’d say this is the strongest part of the issue.  We get a solid ghost story, where a young couple is driving back from a party and take an ill-fated shortcut through the woods.  The young man awakens and is terrified, screaming about “the family curse!”  Before he can persuade the young lady to turn around, they are both greeted by a an old black powder pistol, and its owner is…a headless horseman!  The spectre threatens the young man, David Drew-Gorham, asking if he has found the spirit’s lost head.  David pleads for mercy, claiming that he has searched in vain and cursing his cruel ancestor who wronged the ghost many years ago.

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Then we get a flashback, telling the tale of how this horseman became headless.  He was a young man in love with a woman above his station, the daugher of the local baron, and when the nobleman discovered their love, he had the young man arrested.  Because of planted evidence, our future spook is tried for robbery and condemned to death by the executioner’s axe.  Yet, that was not punishment enough for the bloody baron, and he hid the young man’s head, burying it separately from his body.  This has caused his spirit to wander restlessly, unable to move on and greet his love in the afterlife missing something so important as his head.

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His story finished, the ghost prepares to kill the latest descendent of the baron, but the Phantom Stranger appears out of nowhere and turns the weapon aside.  He orders the specter to follow him, and the enigmatic hero leads him to his own grave.  The horseman objects that there is nothing of use to be found there, but the Stranger orders him to fire his weapon at the strange bust in the likeness of his head that the baron had placed on the tombstone.  The ghostly musket cracks, and the bust breaks open, revealing the horseman’s mummified head!  This was the baron’s final dastardly joke.  His lost crown restored, the ghost goes to his final rest.  It’s not a bad little ghost story, and it is actually much prettier than the rest of the book.  I don’t know why exactly, but there is definitely more detail and attention given to these pages.

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The end of that tale brings us to the end of our original, where the Stranger makes the proclamation that this too is the work of an evil spirit, and he even calls her by name!  Enter Tala once more.  She is accompanied by a really cool looking monster, which just gets called “Thing.”  She reveals that she is merely there at the behest of one of the elderly sisters.  Apparently, she doesn’t enjoy how her sibling eats all of the pistachio icecream, so she did what any normal, sane person would in such a circumstance.  She summoned a foul hell-beast to torment her.

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I’m not kidding.  That’s the crux of the plot.  The old lady is angry at her sister, so she summons a spirit, and Tala just happens to tag along.  It’s pretty silly.  Well, the Stranger gets the book the spinster used to do her summoning, and, despite being attacked by the amorphous Thing, he manages to throw the tome into the fire, ending the threat.  It isn’t much of a resolution, certainly a lot less interesting than last issue’s dramatic stand-off between our mysterious hero and the bewitching witch.  It’s also a little strange to see the Stranger get throttled.  I guess he’s solid enough at times, hmm?

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Well, our hero vanishes, leaving Thirteen raving about exposing him for the fraud he is.  Our final scene is of the old troublemaker, who is thinking about all of the different copies of that spellbook she has cached around the house.

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This was a fairly weak offering from Sekowsky, with only the headless horseman story being a particularly interesting one.  Even the well designed and visually appealing “Thing” gets almost no “screen time,” being dispatched almost as soon as he appears.  That’s a shame.  The framing narrative is really rather weird, and not in the way you’d hope for in a Phantom Stranger tale.  Those four kids are really starting to get on my nerves, and I’m hoping they won’t be long for this book.

One fun thing about this issue was the letter column, which reveals that at least someone else out there felt the same way I do about these kids’ tortuous slang.  “Ugh!…the kids names and their dialog were strictly pre-Giordano ‘Teen Titans.'”  That would be the work of ‘ol Zaney Haney and his “teenspeak” our perceptive writer is referring to, and that is just what this dialog reminds me of.

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So, all-in-all, I give this rather ugly episode 2.5 Minutemen.

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Well, that’s it for this week.  Join me next week for the end of this month’s books, a special bonus, and my final thoughts for the month!

 

Into the Bronze Age: February 1970 (Part 2)

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We’ve covered the first half of February, now for the second.

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

  • Action Comics #385
  • Aquaman #49
  • Batman #218 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Batman #219
  • Detective Comics #396
  • Flash #194
  • Justice League of America #78
  • Phantom Stranger #5
  • Showcase #88
  • Strange Adventures #222
  • Superman #223
  • Superman #224
  • Teen Titans #25
  • World’s Finest #191

Bonus!: Atomic Knights

Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others you’ll find in the previous post.

Phantom Stranger #5

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Executive Editor: Joe Orlando
Cover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Mike Sekowsky
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Editor: Joe Orlando

“The Devil’s Footprints”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Nick Cardy
Editor: Joe Orlando

The Phantom Stranger is a wonderfully mysterious character, and one that I really love the concept of, though I haven’t had the chance to read many of his books.  His is actually one of the series I set out to read in the little reading project that spun out of control into “Into the Bronze Age. ”  He’s a favorite of AquamanShrine.net head-honcho, Rob Kelly, and I actually first started learning about him through Rob’s blog, linked above.  I am looking forward to learning more about this enigmatic hero, and I am glad to be starting here at the beginning of what are supposed to be some of his best stories.

One of the things I most like about the concept of the Phantom Stranger is that he remains almost entirely mysterious, and yet is able to be an interesting and compelling character.  That is an extremely difficult balancing act to pull off, much less maintain.  Theories about who and what he is have abounded, and I will steadfastly ignore any attempts that DC has made to answer such questions too definitively.  For my money, I’ve always liked the idea that he is the Wandering Jew, condemned to eternal life for mocking Christ.  That’s got mileage, and it could totally work for the character.

This is the second solo title for the Stranger, and this one is very much a product of the 70s.  It represents the increased variety of stories and genres that comics began to employ in this decade, especially the resurgence of the horror and mystery books of earlier years.  While this comics, like many of the DC books at this point, is as much 60s as 70s, my guess is that we’ll see this book pull ahead of some of its cohorts in terms of sophistication and maturity.  I’ll have to wait and see, but that’s what I’m expecting.

This issue sees the Stranger having recently taken on his iconic, most long lasting “mod” look.  It’s a wonderful character design, simple, yet evocative and mysterious.  That effect of having his eyes always in shadow is one of my favorite parts of the look.  The plot of the book is indicative of what I’ve come to expect from the Phantom Stranger from the first few issues of his book, a sinister or strange occult mystery threatens innocents, and our enigmatic hero intervenes.

In this case, we join a set of four teenagers, return players from the previous issue who seem positioned to become a supporting cast for the Stranger, as they stroll along the beach at night.  I’m not crazy about these kids, as they’ve got way too much of that “desperate appeal to youth culture” vibe about them.  Nonetheless, they see an eerie figure emerges from the waves, screaming “Wait!”  He collapses in their arms, and the kids realize he’s dead!  The body disappears when a watchman appears, leaving the kids to ponder what they saw.  We get a few quick scenes with the other players in our little drama, Dr. Thirteen (endearing sourpuss that he is, swearing to expose the Stranger as a huckster), the Phantom Stranger, and the “monumental mistress of the macabre, Tala!”

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Tala is an interesting character.  I first encountered her in the Justice League ‘toon, like most folks, I imagine.  There she got a fairly major makeover, and is really an entirely different character.  That one is a great character, a good addition to the series, and a nice mystical adversary for the League.  This one is also a good character, and she serves as a very effective counterpart to the Phantom, taking these stories to a whole new level.  Previous tales have focused on the Stranger and Dr. Thirteen exposing various hoaxes and fakes, but now we have a creature of incredible power, dark and dangerous, a fitting foe for the Stranger.  Plus, she’s got the femme fatale thing going for her in spades, seeing as she seems to be a living avatar of chaos and evil.  That is always a good feature for a female villain.

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We get a very weird and wild scene in a dance club, and though it is a bit bizarre, I will say that the last panel of Tala in that image is pretty effective.  She seems untamed, uncontrollable, and dangerous, almost mad.  It reminds me of seeing a witch-doctor dance, which makes sense given her voodoo-origins last issue.

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Following that scene, we start to get an impression of what is actually going on.  Apparently rich playboy Earl Winthrop has been quite the cad all of his life, using and abusing women, never actually loving anyone other than himself.  He died when his private plane went down in the ocean, and it was his returning spirit that the kids saw on the beach.  Now that his ghost has returned, it seems that his fate will be determined by whether or not this selfish soul can find one person to shed a tear for him before the night is over.

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phst5_28.jpgAll of that is revealed piecemeal through a twisting and turning story wherein Tala and the Stranger pit their powers against one another for lives and souls.  We see the Stranger putting  out a fire Tala causes in a club, rescuing a drowning girl, and finally stopping a tidal wave from sweeping a house full of innocent party-goers.  It’s a busy night for both beings.  Winthrop is saved by the stupidly named girl of the teenage foursome, Wild Rose, weeping for him, and Tala is repulsed, though she swears ominously that “Darkness always returns to Earth!  And so do I!”

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This issue contains a weird little backup that is a two-page folkloric account of an encounter with a demon in 19th Century England.  It’s a neat little dose of real-world mystery to add to the main adventure.

So, what do I make of this Phantom Stranger Story?  It isn’t as good as the previous issue, which sadly falls outside of the purview of this project, but it is an enjoyable enough tale.  I think that the team haven’t quite hit their stride yet.  They seem to still be figuring out just what this book is going to be, but it has some nice moments, with lots of brooding atmosphere throughout.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen out of 5.

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Showcase #88

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Cover Artist: Mike Sekowsky
Writer: Mike Sekowsky
Penciler: Mike Sekowsky
Inker: Dick Giordano
Editor: Mike Sekowsky

I’ve been really enjoying the wide variety of genres, characters, and themes that have been parading through Showcase as I’ve been reading, and I have recently traced this one since the beginning.  As I imagine most folks familiar with DC comics know, Showcase was, well, just what it says, a tryout book for DC.  They would give various characters or concept a try here and, depending on sales and letters, they might spin them off into their own book, or at least give them a shot as a backup.  Over the last 87 issues, I’ve been able to follow along as a lot of the Silver Age heroes got their start here.  I’ve also seen a number of concepts that made it…and a number that didn’t.  Sadly, we aren’t starting with the neatest offering that I’ve encountered so far.  The previous three issues (JUST missed it!) featured the tryout of Nightmaster, a sword and sorcery book that didn’t quite make it.  Still, it was a neat change of pace, and an intriguing, though bizarre and derivative read.  Perhaps I’ll cover it in one of my spotlights later on.

If Nightmaster was a change of pace, so was Jason’s Quest, and that represents one of the really cool things about this era of Showcase issues.  It offered a pretty wide range of content.  You got straight fantasy one month, espionage the next, then western adventure, and science fiction the month after.  The variety is nice in this flood of superhero books I’m reading.

Jason’s Quest, however, is not one of the standouts from these years, though it is certainly unique.  It’s a story about a young man trying to find a sister he didn’t know he had and bring down the man who killed his father.  In a convoluted first issue we meet young Jason Quest (Johnny should sue!) in a hospital room, anxiously awaiting news of his father…or rather, the man he THINKS is his father!  Dun dun DUN!  On his deathbed, Jason’s “Dad” confesses that he was a commando in “the war,” (at this point, I think we can assume…WWII?  Korea?  I’m not quite sure.) where Jason’s father, ‘Mr. Grant,’ saved his life.

When the war ended, he became a servant for Grant, who was a wealthy inventor.  Grant was threatened by a…mob boss?  Spy?  Really aggressive meter-maid? named Tuborg, who wants one of his inventions.  Tuborg killed Grant, who had the foresight to prepare the servant, Davis, to take Jason and his sister (his TWIN sister, shades of Star Wars!) and flee.

Long story short, they’ve been on the run from this Tuborg guy all these years, during which Davis has taught Jason everything from his own commando training.  After this confession, Davis dies, with his last breath adding that the heretofore unknown sister somehow has evidence that could bring down Tuborg.  One wonders why the father, Grant, didn’t use that evidence to begin with,  but I suppose that’s neither here nor there at this point.  Sheesh, we’re only on page 7!  Sekowsky is really packing it in here.

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Cut to the portly Tuborg, who is getting a really creepy back rub from one of his men.  The way everyone else in the room is looking at him just makes it all the weirder.

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Anyway, Tuborg has a cop on his payroll who taped the confession, so he sics his goons on Jason and his missing sister.  Jason, meanwhile, heads to London to track down that very sister, but his search meets a seemingly dead-end in a burned out building.  A helpful font of walking exposition happens by and lets him know that his sister survived and is on her way to the Continent that very day!  He even very conveniently provides the young man with a picture.

dc showcase 088-15.jpgJason sets out on a motorcycle, but is bushwhacked by some thugs who sap him and steal that photo.  Once again, conveniently, the thugs think the blow to the head killed him.  Hey, wait, there’s another one to add to our Head-Blow Headcount!  Jason isn’t a super hero, but I suppose I’d better count him nonetheless.

Cut to the ferry, where the two grooviest thugs in the history of crime are planning on killing Jason’s sister.  By-the-by, apparently the price for a hit in 1970s England is an extremely reasonable 100 quid (bucks, for those of us across the Pond), and even that is split between two hired guns!  Wow, how very affordable murder used to be!

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So, these two brain surgeons try to jump the girl, but she fights back, attracting the attention of her missing brother.  He takes them out in a rather poorly drawn sequence, and is saved from being shot in the face by a gun jamming.  Man, Jason should give up this whole quest thing and go to Vegas.  This guy’s luck just won’t stop!

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Well, the two assailants die in the attack in the classic ‘hoisted by their own petard’ style, where the hero isn’t directly responsible, but Jason still feels bad about it…for a few seconds.  Then we get another of these strange little beats, where his sister (who he doesn’t recognize thanks to a wig), effectively says, “ohh, yeah, we totally shouldn’t report their deaths or anything because the authorities might not find them and then they’d think we were making things up.”  Wait, what?  One of these guys just fell overboard, and it isn’t exactly like the Atlantic is full of piranha or anything.  He might still be alive.  Nope, nope, he’s totally dead, don’t bother with him.  It reminds me of the “Bring Out Your Dead” bit from Monty Python.

“I’m not dead yet!”
“You’ll be stone dead in a moment!”

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The issue ends with Jason and his sister unwittingly going their separate ways.  There’s a rather nice full-page add for the next issue that is reminiscent of a Bond movie or the like.  It also includes a short three page backup about a ghost rider (not to be confused with Ghost Rider) who drives the biker gang that killed him to their deaths.  There’s not too much to it, but it’s alright for what it is.

So, what to make of Jason’s Quest?  It’s interesting, and this is really not that bad of a beginning.  It’s got that classic 60s spy movie feel to it in a lot of ways, but there is also an effort to blend in a little youth culture on the part of Mr. Sekowsky.  The end result is a bit uneven, in both the art and writing.  There are some cool bits, but the entire plot relies on lots and lots of coincidence, and Jason doesn’t really have much personality.  For all that he looks like Luke Skywalker from those old Marvel Star Wars comics, he’s not nearly as interesting.  Sekowsky is so busy packing plot into this issue that he doesn’t really leave us any room for anything else, and as you can tell by the credits, this is definitely Sekowsky’s baby.  It’s a noble effort, trying to mix up the field of comics a bit, but the quality just isn’t really enough to make it last.  I’ll give it 3 Minutemen out of 5, as it was an enjoyable enough read, if entirely forgettable.

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Strange Adventures #222

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Cover Artist: Murphy Anderson
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Murphy Anderson

Now this is a good one, but before I get to the issue itself, let me offer some thoughts on the character and the book.  I like Adam Strange, I have since I first discovered him.  He’s got this wonderful pulp-hero feel to him, and he could have been at home zipping around with Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers.  After all, I suppose he is something of a Buck Rogers rip-off, the rough and tumble Earth man who gets brought far from home to show some milquetoast folks how to fight and proceeds to protect them from many crazy dangers.  He even meets a brave-hearted woman in this distant world, just like his pulp predecessors.  Still, as Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun, and I don’t mind a concept that renews old archetypes, provided it does so in style.  That is what comics are all about, really.  The concept of Adam Strange works well.

Rann is an interesting, wild place, much like Flash Gordon’s Mongo, and Adam himself is a great, heroic adventurer with a sound supporting cast in Alanna and Sardath.  I also really love the depth he adds to the DC Universe.  You really get a better sense of scope with him out there having his own interstellar adventures, occasionally overlapping with the League or the Corps.  It’s a nice way to make the DCU feel more fleshed-out.  Yet, despite the fact that the character is perfectly positioned to be one I liked, I have often had a hard time getting into his stories.

His Silver Age tales were often EXTREMELY…well…Silver Age-ish, with really ridiculous and silly threats, rather than cool sci-fi challenges.  That changed over the years, but unfortunately, Adam’s series Mystery in Space, gets cancelled, and he never really found his feet again.  I haven’t gotten to read all of those old tales yet, but I plan on it eventually.  At this point, Adam has taken over Strange Adventures, which has been oh-so-cleverly renamed (Adam) Strange Adventures.  It’s a good fit, especially since just about all of the cool stuff in this book has already been dropped by this point.  Sadly, his tenure here doesn’t last long, and the new tales are quickly replaced by reprints.  This is a real shame, because the few new stories that saw the light of day in this book are really of a good quality.  I have to think that if he had been given more of a chance, Adam Strange could really have seen a resurgence in the sci-fi happy years of the late 70s.

But, let’s not mourn our hero before he’s gone.  After all, we have a pretty cool story before us.  Our tale begins with our interstellar adventurer riding in a parade of all things.  It seems that the Zeta Beam is going to strike right in the middle of Carnival in Rio De Janeiro!  Fortunately, Adam blends in rather well in his space duds.  Apparently he’s concerned about his secret identity (which I didn’t even realize he actually had), and has rigged a magnesium flare into his costume to blind folks before he disappears.  Don’t worry little Jimmy, I know your retinas are scarred, but at least Adam Strange’s non-existent secret identity is still safe!

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Our stalwart stellar traveler finds himself back on Rann a moment later, right in the midst of a bizarre battle!  It seems cool, mecanized barbarians are fighting with Rannian soldiers.  Alanna, there to greet Adam, is scooped up and carried off by one of the barbarians.  Adam tries to stop them, but their robotic steeds (!) are too fast, as are the men themselves.  He finally manages to land a punch, and then he really lays into the marauders.  Unfortunately, the Champion of Rann is knocked unconscious, and the barbarians escape!

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He awakens in the care of the brilliant Sardath, who fills him in.  Apparently, these barbariansk, the Reekans, are from a remote and war-like city-state to the north.  They raided Ranagar to seize hostages, and now they are holding them for ransom, threatening to kill one every hour until Alanna’s people hand over their stock of weapons and vehicles.  Adam is not one to take such things lying down, and he volunteers to lead the charge to rescue their people.  Yet, the Reekans’ city is an impregnable fortress.  Something about the situation brings a certain epic poem to Adam’s mind, however, and he thinks he may have found an answer in the “story about a place called Troy and a wooden horse”!

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Then we get a nice twist, as the Ranagarians offer the barbarians a spaceship, presumably packed full of troops.  There are lights moving inside the craft, and the Reekans grow suspicious, destroying the craft.  This is just what our cosmic crusader had counted on, however, and the burning craft emits a pungent, disabling smoke, knocking the Reekans out and giving Adam and the Ranagarians cover to scale the fortress in jetpacks.  The action is covered in a nice series of pages, brief but effective.

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Unfortunately, the Reekan Lord is not so easily taken, and he recovers quickly enough to rush to the dungeon, murder on his mind!  As quick as he is, however, he’s no match for a fighting-mad Adam Strange protecting the woman he loves!  Alanna is rescued, and the two have just enough time for an embrace before the earthman is once again whisked between the stars.

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This is a brisk ten-page tale, with the rest of the book being taken up with reprints from the earlier years of this title, complete with awesome 50s sci-fi art!  It features two sci-fi tales, including the far too short-lived Atomic Knights, who I’ll be discussing at the end of this post.

The Adam strange story may be short, but O’Neil turns in a really great, quick-moving adventure in the space he has.  Not a moment is wasted, and yet a complete story is told.  I’d happily read this if it were expanded into a book-length tale, but I think it is just about perfect for what it is.  The only real problem with this issue’s outing for our far-flung friend, Adam Strange, is that his lady love is given too little to do.  She’s purely a damsel in distress, and Alanna really deserves better than that.  She’s Adam’s partner in peril, and she has always been one of the bravest souls on her world, so seeing her only fulfilling that tired old role is a bit demeaning for the character.  Yet, O’Neil only had ten pages to work with, and I’ll be darned if I know how he could have accomplished any more with that space, so this is a criticism that I’m mostly willing to forgive.

This super-efficient little yarn really highlights how bloated modern-media storytelling is.  In ten pages we get a complete story, an interesting concept introduced (the robotic horse riding barbarians, who fit perfectly into the wild world of Rann), we get a clear threat, and we get a clever solution, backed up by good action.  While I’m sad we won’t get to see (as far as I know) these Reekans return, as I love the concept, you can’t fault the results.  A modern book would probably drag the story out for five issues at the least, yet O’Neil manages not to leave a single plot-thread dangling!  This is an example modern movies could well benefit from!  So, in honor of this master class in storytelling efficiency, I’m giving this classic adventure 4.5 Minutemen out of 5.  I’m subtracting .5 for the short-shrift given Alanna.

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Superman #223

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Cover Artist: Curt Swan
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Roussos

My guess is that Superman is going to be the title that holds on to the Silver Age tropes and the general feel of that era the longest.  At the moment, it certainly shows absolutely none of the forward momentum of many of the other books, especially in comparison to some of the more progressive books on our list.  We’re already starting to see Batman morph from the grinning Caped Crusader of Adam West TV fame into the grim Dark Knight Detective, yet Superman is still getting stories like this.  I’ll keep track as we move along, and try to note when different books begin to evolve, but I’d be willing to bet that the Superman book is going to be tail-end Charlie on that particular parade.  It makes sense, as DC’s flagship character, Superman would be naturally conservative and resistant to change.  If you’d had steady success for around three decades, why rock the boat?

This particular offering certainly doesn’t.  It is a perfect example of contrived, convoluted Silver Age Superman.  It begins with Clark Kent going about his day, but at three different instances, in a cafe, in a crowd, and in a theater, he is addressed as Superman by three different women!  What is Clark’s brilliant response to these mysterious ladies’ portentous greetings?  He…ignores them.  Yep, he may as well stick his fingers in his ears and hum.  The last one he tries to chase down, but she vanishes.  Next thing he knows, he’s whisked up into an orbiting spaceship and greeted by three super-powered ladies in costumes that look like something out of I Dream of Jeanie.  Apparently that show was still on the air in 1970, so my guess is that the resemblance is no accident.

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Anyway, these three space babes claim to be superheroes from another world, and they had scanned Superman’s mind, learning his secret identity.  They popped down to Earth just to screw with him before “inviting” him up to their ship.  They have come to offer him an invitation to join their team, the “Galactons.”  Yet, first, he has to pass a test.  Superman is suspicious, but decides to play along to see what they have in store.

They head to another world, where he is supposed to defeat an alien creature.  The beast proves too much for the Man of Steel, knocking him out with poisoned breath.  He awakens, hooked up to a strange device, and the “Galactons” tell him that he’s been handicapped and can never leave his solar system again or he’ll die…for reasons.

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Superman is pretty upset by this, as his being so limited could lead to terrible tragedies that he might otherwise have prevented.  There’s a nice moment of characterization here, and I really wish more had been done with it.  Instead, the plot immediately moves along because this is only page nine and we have a whole bunch more crazy nonsense to get out of the way here.  This is a Superman story, after all!

The seemingly completely recovered Man of Tomorrow returns to his secret identity, but is soon interrupted by a Super Robot, that pretends to be a shoe-shine man in order to pass a message to Clark, who is accompanied by Perry White.  There’s a funny little bit where the robot, an inexperienced model (because apparently Superman built learning machines!), botches its undercover efforts and sets Perry’s shoe on fire with friction from super speed shinning.  Great Caesar’s Ghost!

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But the message is delivered, and Superman discovers a gigantic hypodermic needle full of alien minerals.  Before he can stop it, the needle “injects” the Earth, and a cancer-like growth of crystals begins to grow in its core. In time, it will grow so large it will crack the Earth apart from the inside!

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Superman decides to shrink it with X-Rays, just like doctors do with real cancer cells, and he calls on the Galactons to help.  They succeed, and…good heavens, we’re only on page 15!  Anyway, they are revealed to actually be Supergirl and two Kandorians who have put this ridiculously circuitous and contrived plot in place so that Superman would solve a similar problem that is threatening the Bottle City of Kandor.  There’s some nonsense about how they didn’t want to just tell him about the problem because they knew he’d refuse to leave, but it makes about as much sense as anything else in this issue.

I like the concept of Kandor, though I’ve read very few stories about it, but this one doesn’t do it any favors.  It’s a nice way to keep a little piece of Krypton alive after its destruction.  I’ll say this, though, I didn’t know Superman had the ability to enlarge Kandorians.  Doesn’t that make this whole dilemma of the city completely unnecessary?  Couldn’t he just enlarge them a few at a time and, you know, FREE them all?  He’s kind of a colossal jerk for keeping them in his own Kryptonian ant farm when he apparently totally has the ability to free them.

Anyway, back to the story, such as it is.  Superman gets help from a criminal scientist in the Phantom Zone, who is due to be released, despite the fact that he begs to stay so that he isn’t killed when Kandor explodes.  That’s sort of another jerk move, there, Supes, bit of a letter of the law / spirit of the law thing, ehh?  The scientist, Gor-Nu agrees to help, but only if Superman will agree to switch bodies with him, using a device he just happened to have already invented and secreted away when he was arrested.  Natch.  They win, and Supes pulls a clever though predictable double cross where he goes along with the switch, but reveals that he poisoned himself after it is done.  Of course, Gor-Nu switches back, and all is well, with the traitorous scientist returned to the Phantom Zone.  If the poor jerk had just saved the city, he could have been free AND hailed as a hero.

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Urg.  That one was a bit painful to summarize.  It is probably even more ridiculous and incoherent than it seemed in my synopsis, and despite one or two relatively nice or clever moments, it is a pretty annoying example of the excesses of Silver Age stories.  Still, there is more fun and adventure in this story than the next.  I’ll give it 2 Minuteman.

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Superman #224

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Cover Artist: Curt Swan
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Roussos

So, we’ve got a weird scheduling thing going on this month that leaves us with two issues of Superman to examine.

Ohh man, if the cover is anything to judge by, this one is going to be rough.  We’re looking at a family-farce for the Man of Steel, it seems.  Why did Silver Age creators think this kind of stuff was storytelling gold?  That’s a question that is beyond me, but I’m sure you’re just dying to know if the story inside is as bat-guano insane as that cover.  I won’t keep you in suspense, this is definitely the worst issue of the month, hands down.  It is actually less incoherent than the previous issue, but the plot is just so bizarre and ridiculous that it makes that nonsense about fake superhero teams and exploding planets look positively sober and well-considered.

I’m going to keep this synopsis brief in a futile attempt to preserve my sanity.  This is one of those “imaginary tales” that show a possible future for Superman and his supporting cast.  In this case, he and Lois have gotten married, and a car accident reveals that the intrepid girl reporter has become invulnerable thanks to a serum Superman brought back from planet plot-device, err, I mean “Star Gamma-X.”  They go to a whole lot of effort to explain how that was the only way Supes would agree to marry her.  It seems like the whole secret identity thing would have been a simpler solution, but maybe that’s just me.

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After all, keeping his identity secret would have robbed us of the opportunity to see Superman just…hanging out, living in the suburbs like any normal schlub.  After all, what could possibly go wrong with letting the whole world know exactly where you live?  Anyway, there are some generic mad scientist types, so generic I don’t even recall their names moments after having read the book.  They focus a ray of some sort on the home of the Supermans….the Supers…the…uhh…Kents?

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Superman and Lois (NOT Clark and Lois) have a kid, and it is a creepy, deformed little bundle of nightmares.  Their little abomination is a super genius, able to speak and think in complex ways and move on his own at only a week old.  The minuscule monster demonstrates ridiculous levels of brilliance, and immediately takes to mad-style science, denigrating his Super-dad for being a moron, something that Batman won’t start doing for sometime around fifteen more years.

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The fresh-faced freak of nature is entirely insufferable and pretty much immediately decides to take over the world, and Superman beats him with super plot-device powers.  The demon in diapers is turned back into a normal baby, and we’re expected to accept that as a happy ending.  Yay?  Whether smart or not, I bet that kid is just plain bad.

Wow, I didn’t know how good I had it with that previous issue of the book.  This one is definitely the worst book I’ve read in a while.  It’s just so stupid, so colossally uninteresting, that it was a real chore to read.  Part of that is just my proclivities, I suppose.  As I’ve said before, the Silver Age obsession with putting Superman, the Man of freaking Tomorrow in all these strained domestic situations just leaves me absolutely cold.  Add to that this plot, the super child that goes bad, that’s been recycled so many times, and I just checked out from the beginning.  I give this one an abysmal 1 Minuteman out of 5, though I’ve debated whether 0 might be more appropriate.

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Teen Titans #25

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Executive Editor: Carmine Infantino
Cover Artist: Nick Cardy
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Nick Cardy
Inker: Nick Cardy
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Dick Giordano

The Teen Titans are a great feature of the DC Universe, and one that is pretty unique to it.  It was a stroke of brilliance on the part of Bob Haney (yes, old Zaney Haney) to do for the sidekicks what Gardner Fox had done for the headliners, and this junior Justice League has really endured and thrived over the years.  Their membership has changed and their members have evolved, much like the League itself, but the central concept, the Titans being made up of the next generation of heroes, has endured and worked in a number of incarnations.  We are joining this, the first volume of the Titans, right at the moment of a big shift in direction.  Here again we see the accuracy of placing the beginning of the Bronze Age in 1970.  This book is certainly not fully Bronze Age in tone and style right from the beginning, but major changes are underway that will make it much more like that era than the previous one.

Bob Haney created the Titans in Brave and the Bold, and then spun them into their own book where they were definitively his creations.  That means they had that bizarre marriage of swinging 60s youth culture pandering and over the top (even by Silver Age standards) stories.  This made the Titans an unintentionally hilarious, but also rather tiring, read from my latter day perspective.  I’m pretty certain that there has never been a more ludicrous or goofy sounding era of slang than the 60s, and Haney LOVED to employ “authentic” teenage talk.

Fortunately, we’re coming on board after Haney has mostly handed over the reins, and the Titans are being taken in a new, more serious, though also quite bizarre, direction.  This issue is one based in an intriguing premise, one that is definitely a sign of the growing maturity of this era.  It is an idea that has been explored many times over the years, but this is one of the earlier treatments I’ve read, at least from DC.  The story centers around our young heroes making a mistake, a terribly costly mistake.  They fail to stop a gunman, and a great man dies as a result.  The issue, and those that follow, are really about the Titans trying to deal with that reality.  It sounds pretty promising, right?  Well, it certainly has miles of potential.  Unfortunately, what Kanigher makes of it is just plain weird in places and more than a little nonsensical.

There is a good story in this book, but it’s a bit buried under disjointed, incongruous, and just plain odd elements.  We begin with the Titans gathered around a hospital bed, anxiously watching the last moments of an older man who tells them not to blame themselves.  Here we see one of the undeniable strengths of this issue, Nick Cardy’s BEAUTIFUL art.  It’s got that softer, 60s feel to it, but it is really quite excellent throughout.  I would say that his work is really responsible for most of the emotional impact and gravitas that the story actually manages to achieve, as when we see the desperation and loss in Wonder Girl’s tear-filled eyes as the man, Dr. Arthur Swenson, slips away.

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It’s a fairly powerful scene for a book like this.  It is followed by the Titans wandering around, mostly numb and shell-shocked, for a few pages, blaming themselves for his death.  Then we get a flashback that finds our young adventurers in their civilian identities at the “Canary Cottage Discotheque,” complete with a ravishing red-headed cage dancer.  The Titans are having a good time, and the male members are drooling over the fire-tressed female when she surprises them all by coming over to their table and calling them by their superhero names, saying she wants to be a Teen Titan!  Here we get one of the first strange, somewhat discordant notes of the issue.  This is Lilith, who is apparently…psychic…or…something?  Her answers are cryptic in the extreme, and things don’t get much clearer over the course of the story.

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I was only very vaguely aware of this character, and I know almost nothing about her.  I have to say, after having read a few issues with her, I’m not exactly a fan.  Even if you don’t know much about your powers, you could be a little more forthcoming.  Come on!  Well, much like Cassandra, Lilith seems cursed to have her predictions ignored, and her warning to the Titans that they will “Open the door for death” tonight is promptly forgotten as they decide to go to a “peace rally” and hear our dear, doomed Dr. Swenson from the opening pages.

Apparently this place is packed with both hawks and doves, inducing both Hawk and Dove.  The hot-heads in the audience start causing problems, call Swenson a traitor, and a riot threatens to break out.  The Titans, accompanied by the two other young heroes, race into action.  The combined might of the Titans and Hawk and Dove make short work of most of the troublemakers, but then one of them draws a gun, and in a really excellent set of panels, it goes off and strikes Dr. Swenson in the head.  There’s some heavy-handed talk about peace and violence throughout, which is undercut by the fact that the violence the Titans employ is the only thing that prevents this whole situation from turning out much, much worse.  Shades of Altamont!

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The Titans race the good doctor to the hospital, but they are too late, and he dies in recovery.  Afterwards, the young heroes are confronted by their mentors, the Justice League!  The League give them a rather serious tongue-lashing, and tell their pupils that they must become their own judges and decide on a fitting punishment for their failure.  I bet Aquaman is thinking to himself how thankful he is that Aqualad wasn’t hanging out with these losers tonight.

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Our young heroes wander down to the docks as it starts to rain, and there they are greeted by Lilith once again.  She cryptically says more cryptic things and then leaves, cryptically, after introducing them to a man named Mr. Jupiter, the richest man in the world.  He claims he has an urgent government mission for them that will change them forever.  Jupiter wants to create a secret program to train the youth of today to face the challenges of tomorrow, “the unknown in man himself […] the mystery of riots, prejudice, greed.”  Apparently, this involves a secret headquarters and missions, which sounds less like training kids to “cope with the world they will inherit” and more like a black ops team.  You might think I’m leaving something out that might make this make a bit more sense, but I promise you, I’m not.

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Well, the Titans hop on board this vague train, all except Robin, who says he’s committed to getting his education and can’t do…whatever it is they’re going to do.  The Titans accept, but insist on doing…the thing…without their powers, claiming that this will help them figure out who they are.  They are joined by Lilith, cryptically, and guided by a robot servant into a strangely lit tunnel, sealed by a massive door.

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And there ends the first chapter of the new Titans direction.  I have to say, it is quite uneven.  It is half of a really interesting book, but the second half, full of vague and confusing new elements falls flat.  It is never really established why the Titans are going to be any better off working for Jupiter than on their own, and Lilith is annoying with her mysterious act.  Still, it’s nice to look at and has a thought-provoking premise, so I’ll give it 3 Minutemen.

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World’s Finest #191

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Cover Artist: Curt Swan
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Ross Andru
Inker: Mike Esposito

I love the friendship between Batman and Superman, especially when it gets more developed and we get the whole odd-couple vibe to their relationship.  It’s a great idea, these two incongruous figures somehow making an unbeatable team.  It seems like Batman should be superfluous, but good stories really show how they can benefit each other.  I also love this archetypal element of heroic friendship.  It’s like Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the civilized and savage halves of the soul of man, the light and the dark.  It seems like they shouldn’t be friends, which makes it all the more perfect that they are.  That is a significant part of the reason I have zero interest for the upcoming Batman V Superman movie.  I just don’t really want to see these characters try to out ‘grim’ each other for two hours.  I’d rather read stories with more joy and heroism, after all, THIS is one of my favorite comic covers from recent years.  And despite how unlikely it may seem, there really is something truly good in the World’s Finest partnership, the idea that even the greatest among us are better when we work together and even the most independent of us need someone.

We, all of us, need friendship and support, and superhero books can explore that theme as well as, if not better than, many other genres.  Unfortunately, at this point, the gravitas and interest of the Superman/Batman friendship hasn’t really developed, and we’re going to be getting some very Silver Age-ish tales for a while.  So, all that stuff I just said?  Forget it about it for the nonce.

This issue begins with both Batman and Superman being summoned urgently to speak with a U.S. general, but on their way, they see a fleeting image of Jor-El and Lara, Superman’s Kryptonian parents!  Jor-El says something about training criminals, then they fade into mist before the eyes of our startled heroes.  Ohh, and as an aside, apparently Batman speaks “Kryptonese” because Superman taught him.  I can’t imagine that’s the most useful language to have picked up, though with all the threats that end up coming from that supposedly destroyed planet in the Silver Age, maybe I’m wrong…

Continuing to their rendezvous, they discover the general was in an accident and has slipped into a comma from which he won’t awaken for days.  Superman decides he has to solve the mystery of his parent’s appearance, and decides to do the only logical thing, just jaunt back in time and check out the situation on Krypton.  Batman volunteers to come with him, since ‘the Man of Might’ will just be ‘the Man’ under Krypton’s red sun.

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The World’s Finest duo arrives in a very 60s style version of Krypton, complete with angry college students marching in protest.  Batman and Superman immediately side with The Man and set about trying to break up the crowd.  The Caped Crusader does some acrobatic tricks to distract them (apparently they aren’t all that focused on their whole protest thing), while Superman scales a weather control station and turns on the rain, washing out the march.  “Have you ever seen the rain,” punks?

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This attracts the attention of Jor-El, and our heroes claim to be hunters visiting from another world.  The famous Kryptonian scientist invites them to stay with him and then takes them on a nice little tour of the wonders of Krypton.  We see an alien zoo, cinema, and ‘feast trees’ that can always feed the hungry.  Pre-Crisis Krypton is charming, but I have to say, while there are a lot of changes after the Crisis that I’m not crazy about, I think the updates to Superman are almost 100% improvements, and that includes the austere, crystalline version of his home planet.  It just makes for a wonderful contrast with Earth.

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Superman and Batman spy upon their hosts and discover them entering a secret cavern behind a “fire fall,” which is exactly what it sounds like.  Here we see more of the glories of this doomed world.  Ross Andru really did a good job designing Krypton and its inhabitants.  I think the art is probably the best part of this issue.  At any rate, our heroes manage to find a way into the cavern, and find Jor-El and Lara running a crime school!  The Dark Knight and the Man of Tomorrow are captured and put through a series of tests, outwitting a false death trap and earning the trust of their hosts-turned captors.

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Jor-El explains what’s going on, telling the powerful pair that an ancient progenitor of Kryptonian civilization has just been discovered in the distant city of Bokos.  They want to retrieve him because they are convinced he is only in suspended animation, not fossilized, but the Bokosians are having none of it.  They were training operatives to think like criminals because, and here’s the most Silver Age bit of the story, in Bokos, crime is the law!  Of course, Batman and Superman get dragooned into retrieving the Kryptonian Prometheus (no, not THAT Prometheus!), and they make their way to Bokos, committing crimes to blend in.

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WorldsFinest191-21.jpgThey concot a rather clever scheme to smuggle this fellow, Calox, out of the city.  Apparently, offenders guilty of being honest, are banished from Bokos by jetpack, so with Batman once again playing the part of the distraction, Superman gets himself banished and snags the disguised Calox along the way.  They return him to Jor-El and Lara just in time to be pulled back through time to 1970.  Apparently this time vortex was what the general wanted to see them about.  I wonder if this is the same experiment from Action Comics that totally wasn’t going to destroy the universe…totally.  If so, it’s actually an interesting little piece of continuity across the line.  If not, it speaks volumes about the bonkers state of Silver Age superhero comics that there were two stories about government run time-travel machines in one month!

Either way, apparently this device is what pulled Jor-El and Lara into the present day, but it has a flaw that returns all subjects to their original times twenty minutes later.  One of the assembled generals panics and destroys the device, rather than risk losing Batman and Superman by having them stranded in the past on Krypton…despite the fact that Superman can clearly time travel all by himself…and that was how he got there in the first place.

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“There goes 22 million dollars up in smoke!” proclaims one of the officials.  They’re really rather blase about this guy destroying years of work.  Also, 22 million dollars?  Your super-secret government projects, just like your murders-for-hire, were apparently much cheaper in the 70s.  “It was the only way” claims the panicky general, despite clear logical evidence that it wasn’t.  I hope you enjoy being stationed in Alaska for the rest of your life, general nincompoop.

Our tale ends with Jor-El and Lara wondering what happened to our heroes, never knowing that they have gotten to meet their own future son!  Despite the goofy bits, this is a really fun story, and the Kryptonian sections are quite creative and interesting. I wonder if any of these elements ever returned in future trips to Krypton.  If so, I suppose I’ll find out!

I’ll give this time traveling adventure (see, I don’t hate ALL time travel), 3.5 Minutemen out of 5!

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Bonus Feature: Atomic Knights

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Writer: John Broome
Artist: Murphy Anderson

Every once in a while, at most once a comic-month, I’m going to include a little bonus featurette on a book, character, team, or run from outside of the purview of my project.  You see, I’ve been reading through a wide range of Silver, Bronze, and even Iron Age DC comics over the last few years, and I’ve encountered a lot of really neat hidden treasures, largely forgotten, that deserve to be shared.  These guys, the Atomic Knights, are one such team.  The Atomic Knights were one of a set of rotating features in the early Silver Age Strange Adventures comic, starting in #117 and returning in every third issue.  There were a number of other features they shared the book with, and many of them were actually quite good.  I’ll be covering some of the others eventually, but today we’re going to start with my favorite!

The Atomic Knights lived in a world that had just been utterly devastated by an all-out nuclear war.  Interestingly enough, this war destroyed absolutely all plant life and almsot all animal life.  Humans who had been in deep shelters or were just plain lucky survived.  A rag-tag group of survivors found suits of armor in a ruined museum that were, thanks to a quirk of the radiation to which they had been exposed, amazingly altered.  They were now radiation and laser proof, and thus incredibly useful defenses in a wild and savage new world.

These survivors formed the Atomic Knights, lead by a former soldier named Gardner Grayle and patterning themselves after the Knights of the Round Table, they set out to right wrongs and restore and protect the fragile remnants of civilization left in the atomic wasteland.  Their adventures saw them facing mutant creatures, changed by the apocalypse, as well as other survivors, tyrants trying to carve out their own little kingdoms or just desperate folks trying to stay alive.  It was a remarkably interesting premise, and much more original then, in 1960, than it seems today.  This has got to be one of the first post-apocalyptic comic stories, and especially one of the first with such thought and detail put into the world of the aftermath.

While most stories in Strange Adventures during this era (and the bulk of its run) were standard, run-of-the-mill sci-fi yarns, for a while, each issue would carry a recurring feature.  I found most of the general purpose stories to be really weak, silly, goofy, or just plain uninteresting, though the art was often quite lovely.  I suppose it isn’t surprising that the features that were allowed room to develop quickly became the most interesting stories to be found in this book.  Judging from the letter columns, this was recognized by the fans of the time as well, which really makes you wonder why none of these recurring features, Atomic Knights, Star Hawkins, or the Space Museum ever got spun off into their own book, or at least given more real-estate in this one.  Nevertheless, they didn’t, and they were all relatively short lived.

This is a particular shame in the case of the Atomic Knights, which was a rather ambitious undertaking for that period.  The series began to employed direct continuity, an unusual device for an age where every adventure was one-and-done.  The stories weren’t directly linked, but they built on one-another, and they caused real growth and change in the Knights and their world.

When the Knights rescued a group of survivors or founded a new colony, they would feature in future stories.  When they restored a piece of technology or established some new bastion of civilization, it would demonstrably change the setting.  This is no superhero tale with the perpetual status-quo, instead, every issue brought the Knights closer or sent them further from their goal of restoring civilization.

The writing was still a product of its time, and the ridiculous levels of sexism that met the female Knight, Marene Herald, despite proving herself many times, is really rather galling.  So, read these stories for what they are: a really interesting concept that was just starting to grow into something truly great when it was unceremoniously cancelled without so much as a by-your-leave.  I heartily recommend these cool, old-school science fiction books.  Apparently the Knights were resurrected a few times, but only once in their original incarnation, in the post-apocalyptic Hercules series from the mid 70s, which I’m looking forward to covering.

 

Final Reflections:

Well, we’ve reached the end of February 1970, and it was a mixed bag.  It featured a number of issues I really enjoyed, but it also had those two Superman books which were downright tortuous to cover.  Still, I think we’re starting to see some of the more interesting elements of Bronze Age storytelling starting to emerge.  We get a very weighty concept dealt with in TT, even if the execution leaves plenty to be desired, and we see the beginnings of social consciousness starting to take shape in Justice League.  Even though Ollie’s protests are not particularly radical, it was still rare to see such real-world matters addressed in comics.  The influence of the Silver Age is still very strong, but I think that the tide is already beginning to turn, which is encouraging.  So, we’re off to a good start.  Let’s see where the future (or rather, the past) takes us next!  I hope you’ll join me again when I cover the first part of March, 1970!

 

The Head-Blow Headcount:

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