Into the Bronze Age: September 1971 (Part 5)

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Welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  Come on in and enjoy some 4-colored adventures in a brighter, better world than ours.  I don’t know about you, but I can certainly use such a pleasant diversion.  We’ve got a very interesting pair of books to cover in this post, including the end of Denny O’Neil’s unusual but intriguing tenure on Superman.  Let’s get started!

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #404
  • Adventure Comics #410
  • Batman #235
  • Brave and the Bold #97
  • Detective Comics #415
  • The Flash #209
  • Forever People #4
  • G.I. Combat #149
  • Justice League of America #92
  • New Gods #4
  • Superboy #177
  • Superman #242
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #113
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #141
  • World’s Finest #205

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


Superman #242


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“The Ultimate Battle!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Editor: Julius Schwartz
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

“The Girl Who Didn’t Believe in Superman!”
Writer: Bill Finger
Penciler: Wayne Boring
Inker: Stan Kaye

“The World’s Mightiest Weakling!”
Writer: Otto Binder
Penciler: Carmine Infantino
Inker: Bernard Sachs

And here we are at last, the conclusion of Denny O’Neil’s attempt to update Superman.  This is the grand finale of the saga of the Sand Superman, and I have been looking forward to the read.  We start with a solid but not quite earth-shattering cover, which is a bit ironic given what it depicts.  It’s a dramatic piece, but the two fighting figures, carefully matched in their combat, look a bit awkward.  It looks more like they’re standing in mid-air than engaged in a frenetic flying fist-fight.  The blazing city below them is a nice touch, but the flat coloring renders it less powerful than it could have been.

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The story within is a similarly mixed bag.  It opens where the last issue left off, with the defeated Man of Steel grasped in the grip of the ghoulish “war demon,” which has been animated by another Quarrmite spirit.  The fight is taking place in a junkyard, and a pair of bums cheer the monster on, even going so far as to vent their frustrations on the formerly invulnerable hero. Seeing the Metropolis Marvel bleed, they realize that he is now a mere mortal and proceed to beat him savagely.  With Superman defeated, the two hobos, “Stewpot” and “Gemmi,” then take charge of the clueless creature, who is new to their world and has a childish innocence.  The vicious vagrants decide to use the demon to satisfy their own desires for chaos and destruction.

Conveniently, Jimmy Olsen happens to be at the junkyard on an assignment (one wonders what he did to tick Perry off), and the young reporter finds his fallen friend.  The injured hero is rushed to the hospital, where they discover his brain injury from last issue and begin a delicate operation while I-Ching, Diana Prince, and Jimmy Olsen waited with baited breath.

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Meanwhile, the demon, sporting his bum brain-trust on his shoulders, smashes through a museum and confronts the police.  Just then, the Sand Superman arrives, and he crashes into the monster with massive force!  After a quick battle, the creature proves too much for him, and the dusty duplicate flees, wondering what prompted him to intercede, despite his protestations that he cares nothing for humanity.  This is an intriguing moment, but it sadly doesn’t get much development.

The demon’s rampage continues, with him smashing through a police barricade, but as he becomes accustomed to his power and begins to enjoy the chaos he’s causing, he also grows tired of the bums who are bossing him around.  Finally, he decides to employ his lessons in destruction on his masters themselves, and he kills them, on panel!  Their deaths (in shadow, but visible nonetheless, which is quite unusual), are accompanied by a quote from Ecclesiastes, interestingly enough.  And with that, the villainous vagabonds leave the story, making their inclusion feel rather pointless.

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With his masters mashed, the monster heads after his original foe, smashing his way into Superman’s hospital and easily brushing aside Diana Prince’s puny efforts to oppose him.  This is not Wonder Woman’s best performance, as Jimmy puts up just about as much of a fight as she does.  When the creature reaches the Fallen Man of Steel, it finds him fully recovered, but the two are evenly matched, at least until the sudden and unexpected arrival of…the Sand Superman!  The Man of Grit smashes through the ceiling, and in a nice touch the Action Ace wonders for a moment whose side his double is on.  His question is answered a moment later, as his alluvial alternate crashes into the demon, and the pair of powerhouses push their foe towards the park, where the portal to Quarrm still rests.

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The spirit is sucked back into its formless realm, and the crisis seems to have passed…until the duplicitous dusty duplicate declares that he is determined to be Superman, and therefore the original must die!  The real Metropolis Marvel protests that they can coexist, but the Alluvial Ace declares that the hero is too proud of his own uniqueness to share his world with another, which is an interesting angle.  The two are squaring off for a final showdown, where their oppositely charged atoms will trigger an explosion that will destroy one of them when I-Ching suddenly shows up and offers to cancel their charges out and let them fight normally.

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After his mystic gesture is finished, the two super-foes begin a titanic combat that takes them through the very core of the Earth.  In a nice sequence, Superman lures his doppelganger into a trap and clocks him into orbit, but after he pursues his enemy into space, the pair look down to see the world consumed by a cataclysm triggered by their Earth-shattering brawl!  They gaze upon a world scoured of life, and Superman breaks down, only to be brought back to reality by I-Ching.

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The vision was just a mystical trick, to dissuade the two titans from beginning their cataclysmic combat.  The Sandy Superman is so moved that returns to Quarrm willingly, observing that there can only be one Man of Steel.  The mystic offers to transfer the double’s powers back to the original Superman, but he refuses, saying that he has power enough, and after seeing what it could do, he wants no more, which is an interesting character moment.

And on that somewhat bittersweet note, Denny O’Neil’s Sand Superman saga comes to a close.  As with the run as a whole, this final story is very uneven.  There is a lot here that is really excellent, but there are a number of incongruous elements as well, along with a general sense of missed opportunities.  Really, that’s the biggest problem with this issue and O’Neil’s tenure on the book at large.  The mythology of this story feels ad-hoc and unfinished, a random grab-bag of elements that don’t have a unifying theme and lack the power of, say, the world-building going on in Kirby’s Fourth World books.

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What’s here isn’t bad, but it just feels like it should be more than it is.  The war demon is the best example from this last arc, with its odd appearance and random nature.  His two hobo masters, who contribute almost nothing to the story during their brief tenure, are also signs of this trend.  They corrupt the simple spirit with their thirst for violence, though we had already seen the creature being plenty violent during the previous issue.  These two bums are given no development, no motivation for their evil attitudes, and thus their deaths have no power other than shock value.  This is even more of a shame because there’s plenty of potential for something worthwhile here, perhaps in the style of Frankenstein, with an innocent ruined by the evil of those around it.  Or, through these two bums, O’Neil could have explored how the morally weak react to the man of virtue, which is implicit in their hatred of the Metropolis Marvel but gets zero development.

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Then there’s the incongruous presence of the enigmatic and ill-defined I-Ching, who always felt out of place to me.  I can’t help feeling like the time spent with Diana Prince and I-Ching in these issues is wasted, and it’s time that could have been more profitably spent with Superman or his doppelganger.  As is, the Sandy Superman’s sudden sea-change is not entirely earned, though that is the element that has kept me hooked throughout this arc, the most intriguing piece of O’Neil’s plot.  That is probably the biggest disappointment.  The somewhat promising premise of Quarrm is also left unexplored and unexplained, fading out of the book with the finale of this story.

superman 242 p_017Still, there are some really excellent elements to this story.  The vision of a super-powered brawl destroying the Earth is really striking, and it reminds me of an Action Comics issue from a while back which evinced a similar realization of what such powers could do if not restrained.  This is an intriguing and thought-provoking premise, and one not seen that often in this era.  The fact that this dream then prompts Superman to willingly limit his power is a really fascinating twist.  I’m very curious if we’ll see that actually play out in the DCU at large or if it will be forgotten once O’Neil leaves.  I hope it will be the former!  The evidence of the Sand Superman’s internal conflict is also really interesting, though we don’t get to see much of it.  I’m not entirely sure what to make of O’Neil’s character work with the Man of Steel himself in this issue.  The idea that the hero so enjoys being The Last Son of Krypton that he’d be unwilling to share the limelight is an interesting one.  I don’t think that’s a good read of the character, but it could have led us to the Action Ace doing a little soul searching, which might have been promising if given a bit more space.  I think the fact that he doesn’t actually get the chance to reject that claim is a big weakness of the comic.

The classic “Swanderson” art is quite good throughout this issue.  Even though the war demon’s design is on the goofy side, they still make it look dynamic and frightening in action part of the time.  The depiction of the central super-fight is also nicely effective, as is their work on its cataclysmic consequences.  There are a number of great, dramatic moments beautifully depicted throughout the issue, especially the timely arrival of the Sand Superman.  The art is so good, in fact, that I wish the art team had been given a bit more powerful of a story to illustrate.  In the end, this is a flawed comic full of interesting ideas, an effective microcosm of the equally flawed but fascinating run that spawned it.  It’s an enjoyable read, but it really should be more than that, seeing as it serves as the end of a 10 issue plot.  I’ll give it 3 Minutemen, as its strengths and weaknesses effectively break even, bringing Denny O’Neil’s landmark run on Superman to a less than earth-shattering conclusion.

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Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #114


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“The Foe of 100 Faces”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Werner Roth
Inker: Vince Colletta
Cover Artist: Dick Giordano

The two feminine features of Lois Lane share a single story in this issue, and it is another surprisingly moving tale about race and equality.  Unfortunately, a solid comic is saddled with a pretty weak cover.  While Giordano’s Lois looks great, his Thorn is a bit misshapen, and the composition itself is not terribly captivating, full of yellow sky and not much else.  Notably, the ‘girl’ comic’s cover focuses on a non-existent love triangle instead of the much more interesting grist of the actual plot.

lois_lane_114_02The tale within starts in the office of Perry White, where he shows the lovely Lois Lane a copy of The Black Beacon, published in the city’s ‘Little Africa’ neighborhood, which was written by an anonymous columnist.  The pair admire the unknown author’s work, especially his stance against the nefarious 100, and Perry sends the girl reporter out to recruit the mystery man for the Planet (which really seems a bit outside of her job description: what kind of paper is Perry running?).  Interestingly, Morgan Edge shows up and backs White’s decision, thinking to himself that the 100 are competition to his own outfit, Intergang.  That’s a nice little bit of continuity, with Kanigher touching on what’s happening in other DC books.

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lois_lane_114_03Meanwhile, the Thorn’s alter-ego, Rose subconsciously eavesdrops on her boss, Vince Adams, as he meets with two 100 torpedoes and assigns them to get rid of the protestors blocking the construction of a new high-rise that the gang wants to use as a front.  While the innocent young Rose is unaware of these schemes, her vigilante identity takes note, perhaps implying a growth in the strength of that personality.

That evening, Lois approaches the small office of The Black Beacon, and inside she finds a familiar face.  That’s right, Dave Stevens, from the book’s excellent and groundbreaking first issue on race, is the anonymous author, and he’s obviously been changed by his encounter with the girl reporter.  While his assistant, Tina, is very cold and dismissive of Lois, Dave responds by saying that Lois is a “blood relation” of his, after a fashion, since her blood saved his life.  He tells the story of the journalist’s journey as a black woman, but Tina remains unconvinced.

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Yet, when Dave starts to bring Lois to the embattled Metropolis State building site to show her how he works, the 100 killers try to run them down, only to be stopped in dramatic fashion by the Thorn, who hits them like a whirlwind in a nice sequence.  Interestingly, Dave is a bit angry that a woman has fought his battle for him, but Lois points out that, just like minorities want to be treated equally, so do women, and he acknowledges her point with a smile.

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Once they reach the site of the protest, the young activist explains that the community is objecting to the building of the skyscraper because the city is pursuing it instead of addressing the needs of its people.  They demand affordable housing, schools, and infrastructure instead of another office building.  This fairly complex issue is massively simplified, but that’s to be expected in a comic like this, and the presentation is still effective.  Once again, a black woman objects to Lois’s presence, and once again, the reporter, herself changed by her previous experience, responds with patience and a plea for unity, which is well met.  It’s a bit cheesy, but it’s still heartwarming to see the characters bridging their gaps and the message is good.

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Yet, while the protestors are learning to look past surface differences, the idle construction workers are roused by 100 flunkies into attacking the marchers.  This is done with a surprisingly light touch.  The workers are a pretty diverse group themselves, including American Indians, and they don’t believe the rabble rouser’s speech at first, instead being willing to respond to the non-violence of the protest in kind.  It’s only after more 100 plants among the marchers start shooting and attacking the workers, backed by plants among the construction men as well, that a riot starts.  Kanigher avoids demonizing either group and, though not through realistic means, still manages to show how otherwise decent people can get swept up in violence and bigotry.

Lois gets knocked out (should I count supporting characters on the Headcount?), and Dave Stevens fights like a lion to protect her.  Tina tries to come to his aid, but they are both struck down as well.  Suddenly, the Thorn strikes, and she throws out explosive smoke bombs among the troublemakers.  The Baleful Beauty wades into them in another nice sequence, but she takes a hit as well, and it is only Superman’s timely arrival that saves the quartet.  The Man of Steel manages to use his super breath to disperses the crowd without hurting them.  The hero tries to talk with the Thorn, offering to sponsor her for League membership (!), but the Nymph of Night slips away, replying that she is a loner.

Lois begs the Metropolis Marvel to help the protesters, and he comes up with a solution.  He redesigns the building to use vertical space as well as horizontal and helps construct a new tower, which will serve both groups.  This makes everyone but the 100 happy.  Lois herself gets wistful, wishing she could have the type of relationship with Superman that Dave and Tina share.  Speaking of the two lovebirds, in the next few days, Lois visits them as they teach neighborhood children about black history, and the readers are treated to a cool double paged spread about the subject, and even I learned a bit (I had no idea that Dumas had African ancestry)!

Unfortunately, the peace does not last, and the 100 stages muggings and other disturbances at the new housing development to discredit the black citizens who moved in.  Lois goes to investigate, only to witness an explosion and see the fire department greeted by gunfire and thrown trash.  Dave helps her search for the culprits, but they vanish.  This scene has some fascinating racial overtones, with Perry White pointing out that the organization that has arisen to oppose the new housing development “America Awake,” is using the incidents as proof that “blacks create their own slums wherever they go,” an idea that I’ve unfortunately heard expressed much more recently than 1971.

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lois_lane_114_22That evening, as the black community celebrates their new home, someone throws a firebomb at a table full of children (would that this were more unrealistic), and Lois risks her life, scooping up the explosive and throwing it into the street, suffering severe burns in the process.  At the same time, she sees the Thorn sneaking around and follows her into the newly finished skyscraper.  There, the gallant girl reporter is captured as the Vixen of Vengeance attacks the 100 crew operating as the mysterious “America Awake.”  Dave Stevens comes charging to the rescue again, and with the aid of a smokescreen created by the Thorn’s thrown boot (seriously), she and the adventurous author clean up the crooks in yet another nice action sequence.  After the fight, while Lois’s burned hands are bandaged at a nearby hospital, Tina embraces the girl she had previously rejected, impressed by her willingness to sacrifice her own life for children of color.  Finally, the issue ends with Dave Stevens taking the job at the Planet so that his voice can reach a national audience.

This is another good, surprisingly sensitive and thoughtful story on race by Robert Kanigher.  He continues to amaze me with the varied quality of his work.  While this one is not as subtle and moving as his first try at the topic, that is, after all, a high mark to hit for a comic from the early 70s.  Nonetheless, there is a good story here about breaking through the walls that our perceptions of race build between us.  There is a focus on the plight of the urban poor that carries some weight and a good adventure story to boot, which is impressive because, as we’ve seen, writers can have a hard time balancing their plots and their messages. *cough*O’Neil*cough*

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Kanigher packs a ton into this issue, perhaps a bit too much, actually.  The story races from the initial protest to the attempts to discredit the black community to the capture of the barely introduced “America Awake” front.  I think we could have had a more compelling and intriguing story, plot-wise, if Kanigher had broken this into two issues and built a bit more tension and suspense with the second half of the plot.  The idea of the 100 playing on people’s biases by staging embarrassing incidents and what that says about our culture has some fascinating potential, and building up an actual mystery around what was happening could have been really rewarding.

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Nevertheless, what Kanigher does give us works pretty well, even if it does move at such a quick pace that the “America Awake” organization feels like an afterthought.  Of course, this comic provides a massively simplified take on the problems of the inner city, with the citizens being entirely innocent and the only negative influence coming from outside.  Obviously, that issue is a great deal more complicated, and attempts to address urban poverty have been fraught with many challenges.  Yet, Kanigher’s story, simplistic though it may be, serves a worthwhile purpose by challenging the popular perception of the urban poor, especially those in black communities, and does the same kind of narrative work as his stories about Native Americans, showing members of these groups as individuals, normal human beings with the same fears, problems, emotions, and desires as anyone else.

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This is, as I’ve mentioned before, a very worthy undertaking and part of the power of literature, which can build in us the capacity for compassion, the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes.  The racial tensions of the 1970s certainly made stories like this necessary, but the events of the last few years have shown how much such stories are still needed.  In this era of polarization and tribalism, we could all use a reminder that the fellow on the other side of the isle is human, even if we disagree with him.  This is even more important when that fellow happens not to look like us, as it is far too easy to demonize the Other.  When even people who want the same things are constantly dividing themselves into different camps, it’s nice to read a comic where a daring dame like Lois breaks through such barriers.  It’s also really great to see the friendship that exists between her and Dave, which I imagine was a little shocking in 1971.  I love that there is nothing romantic between them, that they’re just two friends and equals.  That’s a dynamic you don’t see that much in comics of this era.  Honestly, their interactions are some of my favorite parts of the issue.

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lois_lane_114_15 - Copy (2)On the art front, Werner Roth turns in some more beautiful work, filling his faces with personality and emotion but also managing to create some really dynamic fight scenes.  Yet, there are a few places where we end up with some awkward and ugly panels, where his figure work breaks down a bit, like the apparently drunk flying Superman to the left, here.  Still, on the whole, Roth continues to do a wonderful job on this book, really serving to capture the emotions of his cast.  I think that I’ll give this fun and thought-provoking comic a strong 4.5 Minutemen.  It’s a little rough in spots, with some heavy-handedness and its subject is radically simplified, but it is still an unusually good read and has a sweetness and earnestness that make such excesses a bit more forgivable than others we’ve seen.  I never expected to enjoy Lois Lane nearly this much!

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Well!  What a pair of issues!  This is a really significant set of stories, and they definitely illustrate how comics are evolving in this era.  We should have some fascinating trends to examine in the Final Thoughts for this month!  I hope you will join me again soon when we shall do just that!  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

Into the Bronze Age: September 1971 (Part 3)

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Hail and well-met Internet travelers, welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  We have three very different comics to cover in this batch, each intriguing and unusual in their own way.  I was surprised by each of these books, and I image they might have something unexpected in store for you, my dear readers, as well.  Shall we find out?

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #404
  • Adventure Comics #410
  • Batman #235
  • Brave and the Bold #97
  • Detective Comics #415
  • The Flash #209
  • Forever People #4
  • G.I. Combat #149
  • Justice League of America #92
  • New Gods #4
  • Superboy #177
  • Superman #242
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #113
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #141
  • World’s Finest #205

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


The Flash #209


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“Beyond the Speed Of Life!”
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Dick Giordano
Cover Artist: Dick Giordano

“Coincidence Can Kill!”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Dick Giordano

“Elongated Man’s Undersea Trap”
Writer: John Broome
Penciler: Carmine Infantino
Inker: Joe Giella
Letterer: Gaspar Saladino
Editor: Julius Schwartz

Well folks, here it is at last, the return of the supervillains!  I have been eagerly awaiting this issue of The Flash, and I am sick to death of his unequal contests with the Generic Gang!  I’ve been watching this cover, with its promise of actual, honest-to-goodness supervillains, coming closer in my list, and hope for it has helped me endure the doldrums that preceded it.  It is a pretty nice image too, even outside of my desperate desires for some dynamite foes.  The cover copy is a bit much, but the central composition is nicely dramatic.  I’m pleased to say, I was not disappointed by my read either, despite the fact that the two cover-cons don’t play as much of a role as you might imagine.

The tale begins in media res, with the Scarlet Speedster already defeated!  What’s this?  Captain Boomerang and the Trickster arrive to admire their handiwork after triggering a cunning trap, all set to finish their fast foe for good.  Except, they find him already…dead!?  In a lovely and wonderfully wacky moment, the two villains stand in silence, honoring their expired enemy.

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I love how sad Boomer looks.

Then we flash back to that morning, when Barry Allen was leaving home, late for work as usual (I love that perennial bit of characterization).  Just as he’s kissing Iris goodbye, the Crimson Comet gets a mental image of Captain Boomerang and the Trickster hiding out on the edge of town, and, despite knowing it is likely to be a trap, rushes off to check it out.  Meanwhile, in their hidden hideout, the dangerous duo get their own mental message, which shows them Flash’s rapid approach.  They suddenly discover a glowing rope and, thanks to psychic guidance, are able to time their attack perfectly, tripping the speedster up and sending him skidding across the desert sands.

Yet, his tumbling fall is more than meets the eye, as the Fastest Man Alive finds himself being paced by a speed-blurred shape, which begins communicating with him as it drags him through a dimensional barrier into a bizarre and alien world.  The new dimension, which his speedy escort describes as “beyond the speed of life,” is really nicely rendered by Novick, looking fairly unique and unusual.  His guide, who calls himself ‘The Sentinel,’ explains to the speedster that this is the dimension beyond the speed of all living things, and that normal physical laws don’t apply there.  Racing along together, the Sentinel tells his kidnapped companion that he has brought him to this strange realm for a purpose.

Back on Earth, the two villains begin to bicker as the Trickster wants to unmask the fallen hero, while Boomer says they should have respect for the dead, which is another fun little moment.  Just then, their mysterious benefactor arrives, and we discover the real villain of the piece, Gorilla Grodd!  This is pretty unsurprising considering that there were mental powers in play, but it’s always good to see Grodd.  The super-simian is full of contempt for these ‘lesser beings,’ and explains that he used them as pawns in case the plan failed, which they don’t take too well.  Yet, they prove no match for the mighty gorilla, who subdues them with ease.

flash209-13In the speed dimension, the Sentinel tells Flash that the strange place is being attacked by a being he calls the Devourer, which is trying to tear its way into the hero’s universe.  The being takes a number of random forms, shifting rapidly, including a giant rat, ram, blowtorch, and T-Rex.  All of the Scarlet Speedster’s attacks are ineffective, but he finally reasons that, since the normal physical laws don’t apply in this bizarre place, he should try something completely random that would be ineffective in his home dimension.

 

Thus, he runs through a host of random movements at super speed before discovering that bouncing up and down hurts the monster.  Ooookay?  The Devourer takes the form of Iris as it is destroyed, which makes it hard for Barry to keep up his ‘attack,’ but he finally annihilates it and asks the Sentinel to bring him home.

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Yet, back on Earth, the Fastest Man Alive makes a startling discovery.  He has just become the fastest ghost not alive!  The Sentinel had to pull him out of his body for the trip.  Desperate to live again, the hero begs the other being to put him back, despite his protestations that it may be impossible.  While Grodd prepares to force his two former pawns to kill each other (!), the Sentinel races past Flash’s lifeless form.  Suddenly, the Scarlet Speedster lives again, and by rapidly vibrating his body, which is held by the super-gorilla, he sinks the mad monkey into the earth, before scrambling his mighty mind with some super-speed blows.  The other two villains are so stunned that they surrender, and the day is saved!

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This is a fun story, with some delightful little bits of characterization, like with Boomerang’s insistence on respecting the dead and Grodd’s superior attitude.  It’s great to see some supervillains again, even if we don’t really get to see them in action.  Their mere presence makes the Flash’s world seem more interesting and colorful.  It’s a shame this tale didn’t get more room to breathe, as I’d have loved to see an extended fight between the three villains.  I think that could have been a lot of fun.  As is, the villain plot feels a bit short-changed by the dimension-hoping dangers.

The Devourer, for its part, is also a tad disappointing because the Flash’s method of defeating it is just silly.  If the dimension doesn’t obey the normal laws of physics, I can think of several more interesting ways in which that could have been used.  Ultimately, that’s a good concept, but the payoff speaks of a lack of imagination.  On the art front, Novick and Giordano make a really nice team, and they do a great work with both halves of this yarn.  I particularly like Novick’s portrayal of Captain Boomerang, so scrawny and distinctive looking.  So, all-in-all, this was an entertain read, and I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen, largely on the strength of the Rogues that make an appearance.

Grodd is finally act a bit like the sinisterly superior super-simian that he would one day become, which is nice to see.  He’s one of my favorite Flash villains, being such a wonderfully, whimsically crazy concept.  As with most things, I feel like the Timmverse Justice League show captured him best, with his poised, cultured, and dignified portrayal being far better than the brutish and one-note version of the New 52.

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“Coincidence Can Kill”


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We’ve got another Kid Flash backup this month, penned by one of my favorite writers, Steve Skeates, which is a pleasant surprise.  The tale itself feels super brief, but it is fairly original.  It begins with our young hero, who is dressed in the finest of 70s threads.  Just look at that fashion disaster!  Well, when the groovy youth happens upon a bank robbery when coming home from school (isn’t he supposed to be in college by this point?), he is thrilled for the chance to get into action.  flash209-21In a fun bit of detail, he notes that when he started out he expected to be stumbling over heists all the time, but unlike in “comic mags,” such things have proven rare.  Yet, when he goes to eject his costume from his ring, a strange gas emerges instead, knocking him out!

Shortly thereafter, the young hero awakens, only to see the thieves being picked up by the law.  This leaves Wally without criminals to catch, but he still has a mystery to solve.  What happened to his ring!  He reasons that the accessory must have been switched, and he remembers that he and his lab partner, “Genius” George, had washed their hands at the same time, each taking off their rings.

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Rushing to George’s house, Kid Flash discovers that the boy was picked up shortly before, supposedly heading to a meeting at school.  Realizing that there is no meeting that night, Kid Flash heads out in pursuit of the car.  He manages to trail it to a rough part of the town.  Meanwhile, “Genius” George has gotten himself in way over his head, volunteering to join a criminal gang and use his science skills to make gadgets and weapons for them, all as a blind to get him into their presence so he can capture them.  This was the purpose of the gas-filled gadget, but unfortunately he’s wearing the wrong ring!

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When he presses the catch on the jewelry piece, out pops the Kid Flash costume.  Fortunately, Kid Flash himself is on the scene, and he takes out the thugs in no time flat.  With the gang K.O.ed, the Teen Titan and George compare notes, and lucky for the Fastest Boy Alive, George reasons that his ring must have leaked and, when the hero saw him in trouble, he threw out the costume to distract the criminals.  The story ends with Wally thinking that, hopefully, this experience will teach George to stay away from “dangerous stuff like gas…and criminals!”

This is a breezy but fun little tale.  The idea of a high school science buff taking it upon himself to capture a criminal gang is crazy…but then again, so are high school kids!  I never tried anything quite that wild, but in a world full superheroes and daring do, I suppose it is a little less farfetched that a starry-eyed youth might try to emulate his idols.  The whole story is built on coincidence, but it moves along with such energy, that you can just about forgive it.  I’ll give this brief backup a solid 3 Minutemen.  Oddly, Kid Flash himself is miscolored throughout the strip, being depicted with yellow legs.

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The Forever People #4


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“The Kingdom of the Damned!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Jack Kirby

“The Amazing Dreams of Gentleman Jack”
Writer: Joe Simon
Pencilers: Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Inkers: Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Letterer: Howard Ferguson
Editor: Whitney Ellsworth

Welcome to more 4th World Madness!  Our new issue of Forever People is really a striking one.  It’s got a fair cover, with the heroes overcome, but the strange depiction of Desaad’s minions, with their weird, glowing colors, is an odd choice.  The desperation that the image portrays is fitting, however, as the tale within is one of hopelessness and despair for our young protagonists.  We begin with a panicked sea of humanity, surging against the glass wall of a bizarre prison and crying for help, only for the next image, a lovely two-page spread, to show us that their pitiful pleas have been converted into joyous laughter, which fills the air of a colorful, Disney World-esq amusement park.  Of course, it’s an amusement park as designed by Jack Kirby (shades of Sci-fi Land!), so you might expect it to be even more amazing than the Magic Kingdom, and just a bit creepier too.  Actually, the design is positively pedestrian for the King, but it does still feature flying cars and other sci-fi staples.

One of those airborne autos arrives, bearing a very special passenger.  Darkseid disembarks within the bowels of this park, Happyland, which serves as a wonderfully ironic front for Desaad’s cruel experiments.  The dark god has arrived at his underling’s request to observe the fates of the Forever People, who have been brought here following their capture by that hypnotic huckster, Glorious Godfrey.

We check in with the young quintet as they test their prison walls.  They discover that Mother Box has been stolen from them, though Vykin detects it nearby.  When their guards arrive, poor Serifan tries to resist them with one of his ‘cosmic cartridges,’ only to be felled, followed shortly by the rest of the team.  Meanwhile, Desaad is busy with Mother Box herself (itself?), as he tries to destroy the incredible device.  As the marvelous machine is tortured, it suddenly vanishes in a flash of light, and despite the fact that Desaad takes credit for driving it to commit suicide, Darkseid reminds his malicious minion that they don’t really know what happens to the devices  in such circumstances.

In a rather funny scene, Darkseid walks to his ship out in the open, passing through the park-goers and scaring small children.  His grotesque features are split by a grin as he chases off one pair, when a child realizes he is real but her grandfather insists he’s just a man in a costume.  It’s a weird little episode, and while it is fun, it feels a little incongruous with the gravitas of the character.

forever people 004 16Then Kirby’s inimitable imagination is on strange and unsettling display as he takes us on a tour of the torments Desaad has devised for our young heroes.  First, Mark Moonrider is locked in another glass prison, this one rendering him as an animated skeleton to the people passing below.  Big Bear, for his part, is in a shooting gallery where the park-goers see him as a robotic bear, and their each shot creates a cacophony of sonic chaos within his cell.  Beautiful Dreamer has a more sedate torture in store for her, as the uber-creepy master masochist paralyzes her and inserts her into a glass coffin, where the illusion works in the opposite way of the others, rendering the harmless civilians who regard her as hideous monsters waiting to devour the helpless damsel.

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Finally, Seirfan and Vykin have a dual doom.  Vykin is trapped on the rollercoaster track, with his head thrust between the ties, while Serifan is strapped to a pedal which, when pushed, will lower his friend out of the path of the oncoming coasters.  He must be ever alert, or his helpless friend will meet a grisly fate.  Things certainly seem grim for the five from New Genesis, but the last page reveals that all is not lost, as the missing Mother Box rematerializes somewhere else, where a massive Asian figure picks it up and senses its plea for help.

I remember not being all that impressed by this issue on my first reading, but I really found it intriguing this time.  The torments Kirby devises for his five protagonists are really creative and unique.  They display the King’s limitless imagination, but more importantly, they all turn upon issues of perception and illusion, both of the possibility of escape and in more general (and more interesting) terms.  The victims are all constantly fed false impressions, and with them, false hope, which is a crushing blow for the soul, but these illusions also afflict the innocent inhabitants of the park.  On my first reading, I didn’t appreciate the cleverness or intricacy of what Kirby is doing here, playing with themes of perception, as well as, building on the themes of the last issue, like the willingness of the crowd to accept comforting lies rather than face the reality of the world or their own responsibilities for it.  While the scene with Darkseid and the park-goers may feel a tad out of character, it helps to cement the thematic thrust of the issue and the result is a surprisingly thoughtful tale.  I’m really quite impressed.

This issue doesn’t suffer from the unevenness of the previous offering, and though it still has some awkward dialog, notably from the Forever People themselves, that problem isn’t as noticeable either.  There isn’t a lot that really happens here, but it is interesting that Kirby indulges in an entire issue where the villains are ascendant.  There’s no triumphant escape, no heroic defiance, nothing but defeat and despair.  That’s very unusual, and it is effective at establishing the vicious evil of Desaad and the power of the Apokoliptian forces.  The art is also impressive, possessing Kirby’s usual excellence, but he really outdoes himself on Desaad’s cruel, leering visage in several spots, as well as his boisterous portrayal of Happyland.  I’ll give this surprisingly sophisticated comic 4 Minutemen.  It’s worth reflecting on what illusions might be distorting our own view of the world.

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P.S.: Notably, this issue came during the infamous price increase of the early 70s, when DC books went from .15¢ to .25¢, many of them adding reprints to make it up to the readers.  Kirby’s book, for its part, added pin-ups of the Forever People which are fairly nice, as well as a Golden Age Sandman story penned by none other than Simon and Kirby, which is pretty cool.


G.I. Combat #149


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“Leave the Fighting to Us”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Russ Heath
Inker: Russ Heath
Editor: Joe Kubert

“Last Man – Last Shot”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Joe Kubert
Inker: Joe Kubert
Editor: Robert Kanigher

Our issue of G.I. Combat this month is a very unusual one, featuring a subject not often tackled in Silver or Bronze Age comics, even war comics.  The cover gives no real hint of the type of tale waiting within, though it is a fair ‘imminent peril’ image.  The composition feels a bit unbalanced, though, perhaps because the tank is shoved out of center stage by the promotional box about Sgt. Rock.  And, of course, it features the notorious yellow skies of classic comic covers.

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The yarn with in starts with a bang, as Jeb and his crew discover a pair of G.I.s racing across a bridge in a jeep and falling prey to a Nazi fighter.  The Haunted Tank leaps into action, racing against the death-dealing German warbird, and they finally manage to knock it out of the sky in a pretty nice sequence.  Once they crash through the plane’s flaming wreckage (!), they discover that saved the jeep’s driver, but he is busy performing last rites for his passenger, and doing so in the Jewish fashion.  This type of portrayal of other cultures and faiths was still pretty rare at the time, so this is a notable moment.

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The driver, Sgt. Saul Levy, is a new tank commander for their unit, and he as saying the Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead over his fallen friend.  Once they all reach the camp, Levy doesn’t really fit in, and he’s picked on by some of the other men.  Fortunately, there are those who stick up for him.

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When they go out on a mission the next day, they encounter a striking sight, and one rarely seen before in comics: a concentration camp victim, a living scarecrow and temporary survivor of Hitler’s “Final Solution.”  That’s right, this comic actually portrays, in a Comic Code kind of way, the Holocaust, which is impressive and praiseworthy.  Unfortunately, the escaped prisoner has used all of his strength, and after he tells the tankers about a concentration camp nearby, he breaths his last.

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When they approach the camp, the two tanks are targeted by a pair of turrets, and Sgt. Levy makes a mad dash across the field to spike both guns.  It’s a dramatic sequence, and the heroic deed earns the young commander the respect of his crew.  They push their assault and destroy the guard towers protecting the camp, liberating the prisoners.  The pitiful figures, starved and barely able to walk, shuffle out to meet the tankers, and among them Sgt. Levy finds his own uncle, David.

Just then, another Nazi fighter drops out of thy sky, guns blazing.  Levy saves his uncle and knocks out the plane, but not before he is mortally wounded.  The book ends with the old man tearfully pronouncing the Kaddish over his body, honoring him in the tradition of his faith.  Meanwhile, Jeb prays for his fallen comrade in his own way.

This is a brief and bittersweet little tale, but it is remarkable for exposing, however slightly, the horrors of the Holocaust and focusing specifically on its impact on and importance for the Jewish community.  It’s really interesting and fitting that our perspective character for this story, the one who saves the day and liberates the camp, is himself Jewish.  For him, the camps are not some alien concept, a horror softened by distance and because it is happening to strangers.  In fact, he finds a family member among the victims within the compound, making the tragedy personal as well as profound.  Kanigher is employing a surprisingly light touch with Levy and with the subject matter in general, and the result is a striking and readable story.  It both introduces readers briefly to the nature of the Holocaust and engages with antisemitism, demonstrating the dangers of such ignorance and the heroism of the people it targets.  The only real flaw is that the Haunted Tank is pretty much a background figure in its own story, but that is acceptable every once in a while.  Russ Heath’s art is pitch-perfect, as usual, capturing both the ‘blood and thunder’ action as well as the quiet, emotional moments, like the heart-rending image of the concentration victim’s death.  I’ll give the story overall 4.5 Minutemen.

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And with that unusual tale, we wrap up this batch of books.  These are a surprisingly worthwhile set of comics, each more than meets the eye in different ways.  I hope you enjoyed my commentary and that you will join me again soon, for another stop in our journey Into the Bronze Age!  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

Into the Bronze Age: August 1971 (Part 5)

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Hello Internet travelers, and welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  Strange sights await you in this post, my dear readers, like Lois Lane being jealous of a tree, a Titan becoming a teenage witch, or time-traveling 70s thugs!  It’s an unusual batch of books we have on the docket.  So, let’s check out some classic comics!

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

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

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


Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #112


Lois_Lane_112

“A Tree Grows in Metropolis!”
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Werner Roth
Inker: Vince Colletta
Cover Artist: Dick Giordano

“Rock and Rose”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Dick Giordano
Inker: Dick Giordano

This is a bit of a weird one, folks.  It has a solid enough cover, even if it is pretty gimmicky.  Interestingly and unusually enough, the cover proves to be a pretty honest representation of what’s inside.  We join the story with Superman scouting a dying planet, abandoned by an advanced race when they outgrew the world.  The vegetation seems to dying now that the inhabitants are gone.  Bizarrely, the Man of Steel has a vision of Lois wrapped in foliage, only to discover that it is actually a strange alien tree that has somehow survived.  Deciding to save the plant, he brings it home…and then plants it in Metropolis Park.  Planting an alien lifeform in the middle of a densely populated city?  What could possibly go wrong?

Oddly, the men of the city are fascinated with this extraterrestrial arboreal artifact, but the women are repulsed.  Reporting on the story, Lois finds herself uncomfortable around it, and her unease proves well-founded when, after their date that night, Superman detours to the park, where he stands entranced in front of the plant.  Suddenly, the tree “speaks” telepathically, introducing itself as Rzalin and declaring its love for the Man of Tomorrow.  Inexplicably, the Kryptonian hero becomes enslaved to its will and begins to carry out its commands, creating a moat of lava around the being to protect it (which would cool relatively quickly, but oh well).  When Lois objects, Superman actually knocks her out with a nerve pinch!

The Metropolis Marvel begins to bring the tree materials from around the galaxy, carrying out some type of plan.  The graceful girl reporter tries to intervene, poll vaulting (!) over the moat and confronting the alien.  It is then that Rzalin reveals its plan, whereby it will convert its Kryptonian captive into another tree by an elixir made from the materials he is collecting, and together they will release spores that will convert all of humanity into more of their kind.  Yet, the enterprising Lois came prepared, and she tries first to poison, then to burn, the tree.  Unfortunately, Superman stops her and takes her home again.

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Not to be daunted, the resourceful reporter thinks that she can destroy Rzalin with white kryptonite, which is deadly to all plants (which I didn’t know).  Fortunately, there is a sample at the Superman Museum, but before she can put her plan into action, she’s attacked by her own houseplant!  Apparently the heinous herb can control earthly plants.  Lois launches into a deadly race to the museum, but she is attacked by trees, flowers, and even gigantic pollen!

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Eventually, Rzalin brings her to the Park to watch its triumph, as Superman drinks the elixir and changes into another perfidious plant.  Just as Lois gives into despair, we suddenly see her and Superman looking at the tree, apparently perfectly fine.  The alien being dies, and the pair posit that it must have fed on mental energy, but the minds of earthlings weren’t strong enough to support it.  Lois supposes that, since their minds were feeding it, they must have been in its fantasy…which doesn’t really follow.  The end…I guess?

That’s right, it was all just a dream.  For some reason.  This is an odd choice for a twist, as the story that came before wasn’t really about the tree, which is supposed to be the dreamer (and thus perspective character) in this scenario.  It’s incongruous and rather unsatisfying.  There are some positive elements to this story, though.  I enjoyed watching Lois play hero and take an active role in the plot.  She is determined, capable, and resourceful, and it suits her nicely.

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I’d rather have seen this played straight, with her able to rescue the Man of Steel.  Roth’s art is good as usual, but he seems to struggle with some of the more fantastic elements once again.  He really does a fantastic job on Lois’s expressions, however.  As is, the yarn feels…unnecessary.  So, this is a forgettable and awkward little tale that I’ll give 2 Minutemen.

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“Rock and Rose”


Our Rose and Thorn backup this month, in contrast, is another solid adventure.  We begin right where the last one left off, with Rose and her would-be executioner fleeing from the 100 gunmen sent to finish the job.  The youthful assassin-in-training, Leo, confesses to the Thorn that his masters had kidnapped his mother and were holding her in their casino barge as insurance…which seems to rather sharply contradict his portrayal last issue.  Leo seemed to need no extra motivation to go after the heroine in that story.

The pair face a running fight against the 100 goons, who all conveniently take the time to mouth partial threats before getting decked.  You’d think they’d learn to shoot first and brag later.  Finally the fleeing duo dive into the water and dodge gunfire beneath the waves.  When they emerge, a police boat happens by, responding to the gunfire, and it turns out that Detective Stone is aboard.  Thorn saves a drowning Leo and gives him to the police, but when the Detective touches her hand, there is a moment of almost-recognition for both of them.  This prompts the Vixen of Vengeance to swim away on her own.  Fascinatingly, we discover that, not only is Rose ignorant of the Thorn’s activities, the vigilante doesn’t quite understand her other half either.

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The next day, Rose turns down a date with her boss, Mr. Adams, who is secretly the head of the 100, to go to a concert in the park (watch out for the alien tree!) with Detective Stone.  With this useful piece of information, Adams orders a hit on Stone, but when the gunsels come to call, the Nymph of Night suddenly surges to the surface and takes control, easily disarming the two thugs.  Rose shakily exclaims that she thought she had forgotten all of the karate and judo her father had taught her, and before the killers can recover, they are swarmed by dirty hippies (what a horribly humiliating defeat).

Slipping away in the chaos, Rose turns into the Thorn once more and heads to the barge where the 100 are holding Leo’s mother.  Once aboard, the Wild Wraith is captured and, with Leo and his mother held at gunpoint, forced to surrender her utility bel…err, “Thorn Belt.”  Suddenly, all of the flash bangs and bombs in the belt go off, stunning her foes, and the Baleful Beauty bashes into them, taking out the killers and rescuing their prisoners.  Apparently, much like Batman (who she is totally not ripping off), the Thorn’s belt can’t be removed without setting off all of the ordinance, unless you press a hidden button.  Clever!  As the tale ends, she tells Leo to thank her by going straight.

This is another really, solidly good adventure in Kanigher’s run on this feature.  Once again he packs a ton into just a few pages, giving us a fun dose of action, but also advancing the overall plot and squeezing in a bit of characterization.  I find it very interesting that the Thorn was able to manifest during a moment of stress in the daytime (which is actually a more accurate portrayal of split personality, to my understanding).  The vigilante’s moment of contact with Stone was also intriguing, and I’m curious what (if anything) will come of it.

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The only real flaw is the sudden addition of Leo’s mother to the plot, which Kanigher absolutely didn’t setup properly in the previous tale, which makes that element feel like it comes out of left field.  On the art front, while I miss Gray Morrow’s really neat and unique style from the previous issue, Dick Giordano does a wonderful job here.  He draws an absolutely lovely Thorn, with a lot of nice detail, especially on her flowing hair, which whips around in combat and is always dramatically framing her face.  His action sequences look lovely, and though there are some rough spots, the whole is of a high quality.  I’ll give this brief but exciting backup 3.5 Minutemen.

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Teen Titans #34


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“The Demon of Dog Island”
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: George Tuska
Inker: Nick Cardy
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Murray Boltinoff
Cover Artist: Nick Cardy

So far, we have seen, to put it gently, a pretty uneven run on Teen Titans, with a lot of half-baked ideas and no clear direction.  That doesn’t necessarily end here, but this issue did manage to surprise the heck out of me and rise above the material that came before.  I expected another gimmicky, poorly thought-out and poorly executed adventure from the (admittedly fun) cover, but there is a lot more here than you might expect.  This cover, with the dramatic image of Wonder Girl menacing her friends and with the foreboding house looming in the background, is beautifully rendered by Nick Cardy, and it sets a suitably creepy stage.

Inside, the eerie mood is not wasted, as we join the action with a cloaked figure fleeing from a pack of savage dogs on a barren island.  She is then attacked by a hulking fellow named Jed Jukes.  During the struggle, we see that the figure is none other than Donna Troy, Wonder Girl, who easily throws the threatening thug aside.  Jukes is raving about witches and how the house she enters is cursed.  The house in question is a massive old mansion of sinister aspect, but it is inhabited by a kindly old woman in a wheelchair.  We discover that Donna is staying with this lady, Miss Wickersham, taking care of her.  How she knows her is never explained.

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After reading a ghost story of sorts to her elderly charge, Wonder Girl finds herself feeling odd and heads to bed, but the action of the night is not finished yet, as a little later the rest  of the Titans make their way to the house.  Lilith has had a vision of their teammate in trouble, and teen heroes have come to the rescue.  Suddenly, the psychic sees a cloaked figure, but when the others look, there is nothing there.  Then, Speedy is unexpectedly clotheslined from the car, and the group is beset by the Jukes brothers, who once again are carrying on about witches and warlocks.  The team makes short work of them in a rather nice panel, with even Lilith pulling her weight.  Recovering the Boy Bowman, the Titans make their way to the mansion, where they find Donna, seemingly safe and sound.  Yet, despite her protestations that she went straight to bed, Lilith observes mud on her friend’s boots.

The next morning, the Titans are all charmed by Miss Wickersham and spend the day enjoying the beach, though Dick and Lilith both remain suspicious.  Their suspicions prove well-founded after night falls.  The muddled mystic sees Donna sneak out of her room, and when she goes to follow her friend, someone clocks her from behind!  (Adding a new face to the Head-Blow Headcount!)  The team awakes to a cry and finds Miss Wickersham’s poor cat strangled!  I was really surprised to see this in a comic of this era….and just in general.  Hurting animals is always a very dicey thing in storytelling.

The innocent kitty’s death proves there is something untoward going on, which is further confirmed by the scene playing out on the beach, where the sleepwalking Donna has wandered.  The Jukes have surrounded her, and Jed prepares to set his vicious dogs on the defenseless girl, only for his dog whistle to suddenly sprout branches.  The killer canines turn on their masters then, and only the timely arrival of the Titans saves the ruffians.  Meanwhile, Lilith, looking for Wonder Girl, stumbles upon a strange scene on a cliffside.  She sees a man in 17th Century garb conversing with a cloaked figure.  The man declares that he has returned for his companion, but she declares that she is stronger and always was, causing him to dissipates in a ghostly mist.

Back in the mansion, Lilith finds her friend still sleeping, but she also discovers something more sinister, the small noose used to strangle the cat!  This final piece enables the psychic to put the puzzle together.  She declares that Donna has been…possessed!  The mystic explains that such possessions are passed from one victim to another through secret rites, and the new vessel, as they are being made ready, will commit a ritual murder, which explains poor puss’s fate.

The Titans set out to solve the mystery, checking in on the wounded Jed Jukes, who they brought home after the dog attack, only to find him hanging upside down in the cellar!  Lilith, going off on her own again (you’d think she’d have learned by now), checks in on Miss Wickersham (and, let’s face it, in a story involving witches, the old lady with the cat is a prime suspect), only to be garroted by the awakened ancient after making an important discovery!

 

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Look at the magnificently malefic aspect Tuska gave the old woman.

 

Her teammates are attacked by a possessed Wonder Girl, who uses mystical powers to torment them.  Just as all seems hopeless, the mysterious figure from the cliff returns, grappling with the old woman and saving Lilith.  He declares that, this time, he is the stronger, because her time is running out.  He tells his aged antagonist that he won’t give up, because he loved her once, and he is waiting for her innocence to return, before fading away once more.  Intriguing!  At the same time, Robin manages to shatter a window, and the weak dawn light temporarily breaks the spell and brings Donna back to herself.

The day breaks, and Miss Wickersham lies near death, but Lilith has solved the mystery.  She is able to read the crone’s mind and sees that she is really over 300 years old and was once a girl named Magda Drachwyck, who loved a man named Gregori in a small European country.  Unfortunately, there were dark powers abroad in that era, and just before her wedding day, she was possessed by a cult of “Demonids” (really?), murdering her beloved as the evil took hold of her.  Eventually she was forced to flee to this island, and the spell-wrapped house has kept her alive for centuries.  By day, she was a sweet old lady, by night, a vicious witch.  Gregori, for his part, has haunted his former love ever since, waiting for the day that she will die, when the evil will be purged from her soul and they will be reunited.

With the facts of the case revealed, the heroes hope they can solve it, but it seems that, once a possession begins, it cannot be broken unless a token taken from the victim is recovered.  If the original host dies, it will be too late!  Desperately, the kids split up and search the house, but their efforts are for naught.  Finally, Robin discovers one of the stars from Wonder Girl’s uniform in Miss Wickersham’s locket, and Speedy fires it into the sea, breaking the spell.  As the sunsets (and apparently, witches always die at sunset, as everyone knows), the old lady dies, but her freed spirit is greeted by her love, Gregori, and the two are reunited in eternity.

What an unusual story, but what a good one!  Here we see one of those rare instances where Zaney Haney’s overactive imagination is reigned in enough to focus on a single plot and develop a story fully.  It’s comics like this where we see how good a writer Haney could actually be, with his gift for unique characters and unusual situations married to a competently plotted script.  In fact, this is one of the better mysteries we’ve encountered so far, and certainly one of the better supernatural adventures, with a very effective eerie feel, and an enigma that is properly setup before its reveal.  The tale still moves a little too fast at times, and some of the specifics of Haney’s witch-lore are a bit goofy or fuzzy (Demonids?), as are some elements of the setting (how exactly does Wonder Girl know this random old woman?) but he successfully creates an engaging plot out of the broad strokes, even delivering some surprisingly compelling moments along the way.

The ghostly Gregori’s hopeless, dogged persistence in the face of his former love’s loathsome actions is touching, and their final reunion is quite moving because of that, especially considering how little time we spend with them.  In fact, that final scene has a good deal of power for a comic like this.  Lilith is probably the most useful and likeable here of any story we’ve seen so far, actually justifying her place on the team and not being unnecessarily cryptic.  In terms of the art, Tuska does a solid job throughout, although he really (presumably with Cardy’s help on the inks) blows me away in a few key scenes, delivering wonderful emotional and character work on faces, like Gregori’s on the cliffside and Miss Wickersham’s as she garrotes Lilith.  This is simply a surprisingly good read, and as such, I’ll give it 4 Minutemen.


World’s Finest #204


“Journey to the End of Hope!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

We’ve got yet another odd one to cap off this post’s comics.  This issue is a strange mixture of thoughtful, creative elements with a plot that doesn’t really take advantage of them.  It has a relatively interesting cover, with the beautifully rendered central figures, courtesy of Neal Adams, plainly setting up the problem of the piece.  It’s unusual and it’s also honest enough, and, notably, it was probably a very proactive visual in 1971.  I can’t imagine there were many comics showing guns being pointed at protesting kids around that time.  This is a statement on the times that must have been more shocking in that era than it is today.  The tale within does turn on just this issue, after a fashion, and it begins at just such a protest, with Superman flying over a college campus, observing the tense standoff between students and guards.  At the moment, the sides seem to be behaving themselves, so the Action Ace heads to the office, where Perry White hands him an assignment, a human interest piece wherein the reporter will get a date through a computer dating service.  Strangely, after Clark has his marching orders, the editor wonders why he did this, noting that he hates computers.  Odd!

At the same time, in nearby Greenwich Village (what is it with O’Neil and forcing Superman into New York?), the former Wonder Woman, Diana Prince, gets a similar assignment from her mentor, I-Ching.  In a curious foreshadowing of the modern day, Clark and Diana find that the computers have matched them together.  In a rather nice scene, they chat about how they do make a certain amount of sense together, but their talk is interrupted by a trio of toughs.  These unwitting thus try to mug them, only to get their clocks cleaned by Diana.  It’s fun seeing Clark sit back and let his date do the heavy lifting.

World's Finest 204-06Smarting from their defeat, the punks decide that they must have revenge, and one of them draws a gun.  Unaware they’re being chased, the couple stop by a radio studio, which is supposed to be the first part of their date (which seems like a weird choice), but when they open the elevator doors, they find, not the office they expected, but a bleak, blasted landscape!  Suddenly, the not so wondrous woman is unable to breathe, and the Man of Steel realizes that there is very little oxygen in the atmosphere.  At super speed, he finds a pocket of air underground and carries his date to safety.  Building her a shelter, the Kryptonain, who doesn’t need air, sets out to see what is going on here.

World's Finest 204-11Finding a bizarre, golden tower, the only sign of life on this desolate world, he charges in, smashing past defenses, only to find himself face to circuit with a robot, built into the structure itself.  The machine explains that this is the future of the Earth, 2171, one hundred years in his future.  Apparently, an event in Superman’s time lead to the destruction he has observed in this future.  Notably, the android explains that this is just a possible future, and one which might be prevented if the catalyst event is altered.  Realizing this, the mechanical man developed time travel capacity (how convenient!), allowing it to bring forward agents that could affect such change.  To that end, it was the machine that manipulated events in the past to bring the two heroes together, which just seems unnecessarily complicated.  It then shows Superman a clip of the defining moment, a college protest which turns into a riot, during which someone will be killed, someone who, otherwise, would prevent this future.

Just then, on the robot’s monitors, the Man of Steel observes that pack of punks from earlier, who have stumbled through the same time-slip as the heroes and who are now rushing towards Diana’s shelter.  Inside, they menace the martial-arts mistress, until the Metropolis Marvel arrives and defeats them with ludicrous ease.  One can only assume that criminals in the DC Universe are just amazingly stupid after these idiots attack the invulnerable, super strong demigod with their bare hands.  After the thugs are disabled, Superman and Diana share a moment that threatens to turn romantic.  Just before it does, Clark breaks away.  It’s an interesting little scene, and I rather wonder if it ever gets followed up during this era.

World's Finest 204-22 - CopyAfter rescuing the former Wonder Woman, the Man of Tomorrow heads back to the robot’s citadel, only to find it running out of energy.  Gathering the other three unwilling time travelers, Superman desperately races to get back through the time rift before it closes, just barely making it.  Grabbing Diana, he races off once again to reach the site of the destined riot, and the two split up to try and calm things down.  Their efforts are for naught, though, as one of the hot-headed students throws a Molotov cocktail, blowing up a car, and the guards open fire.  In the aftermath, Diana finds a kid safe and sound who matches the description of the future-bot, only for Superman to discover a dead guard who also could be the one.  Desperately, the heroine asks her partner which one is their target, only for him to respond hopelessly that they’ll never know until it’s too late!

That’s quite an ending!  It’s a bold move from a writer known for bold moves, with the situation left unresolved and a reasonably subtle delivery (for O’Neil) of his message.  There are some fascinating ideas at play here, as well as a really interesting reaction to contemporary events, but the plot really needed another pass to tighten the story up.  It’s unnecessarily convoluted, and we spend way too much time with the random thugs who want to shoot Wonder Woman.  They add nothing to the plot or to the development of the story’s themes.  I think this would have worked much better if the heroes had been summoned to the future more directly (if the machine can manipulate people’s minds to arrange a date, it could have done the same thing to just get those two to show up in the same place) and then spent more time on campus for the final crisis.

As is, the resolution is really rushed, and the dramatic, weighty declarations of doom delivered by the future-bot are undercut by the random arrival of the three thieves.  On the positive side, it’s really fascinating to see the more sophisticated treatment of time travel that this comic employs, with the concept of possible futures and alternate time-lines.  That’s a relatively later development of the genre, and one not often found in lighter fare.  I’m sure O’Neil wasn’t the first to use this device, but I don’t think it was particularly wide-spread by ’71, making his use of it here innovative and impressive.  O’Neil also does a good job writing both Wonder Woman and Superman, which makes sense given his experience with both, and their interaction is really interesting.  Dick Dillin’s art is a bit uneven at times, but once again, his work here proves superior to that on JLA, with some really dynamic and also some really subtle work in action scenes and character moments.  He produces a few panels that are downright magnificent.

Perhaps most notably, this issue seems to be a clear commentary on the then recent shootings at Kent State, which loom large in the American zeitgeist of that era.  It’s interesting to see such a major event echoing into comics this way, and O’Neil’s take on it is really quite impressive in the little space he devotes to it.  He presents the perspective of both sides in the conflict, with the kids frustrated at their lack of reception by the powers that be and the guards on edge because of abuse they’ve taken from the kids.  Yet, he also illustrates the overly aggressive attitude by some of the guards.  The final thrust of the piece, focusing on the lost potential of young lives ended, even if doing so in the most dramatic way possible, is really rather thought-provoking..  I suppose in the final analysis, I’ll give this off-beat issue 3.5 Minutemen.  It’s flawed, but it is really fascinating.

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The Head-Blow Headcount:

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arrowheadglheadAquamanhead.jpgAquamanhead.jpgAquamanhead.jpgbatman-family-6-cover.jpg2f52ff2370b3a87769869427faeac69darrowheadAquamanhead.jpgbatman-family-6-cover.jpgMister_Miracle_Scott_Free_00014aa6e3fed1467a75dcac3f9654a2c723glheadLilith_Clay_(New_Earth)_002

After a quiet period, we got not one but two new additions to the Headcount this month.  In this post, we have a brand new addition to our prestigious club, with Lilith of the Teen Titans making an appearance.  That means that we have most of the Titans team on the wall.  We’re only missing Speedy and Mal!  I wonder if they’ll join the gang before the end of the era.


Final Thoughts:


With these three issues, we wrap up August 1971, which proved to be an important and memorable time in the Bronze Age, featuring a number of stories that would go on to have major implications for the DC Universe.  First we saw the reappearance of Two-Face after decades in obscurity, and even though his story wasn’t quite the triumphant return that will greet the Joker in a few years, it was a still a fun adventure and marked an important re-connection of Batman to his history and rogue’s gallery.  Despite the issue’s weaknesses, it still displayed a sophistication of art and characterization that marks the continuing growth and evolution of the Bat-books, which in many ways seem to be ahead of the rest of the DC Universe.

Even more noteworthy, this month saw the debut of the landmark drug story arc of Green Lantern/Green Arrow.  That comic, which was much better than I expected it to be, was an absolute bolt from the blue when it appeared.  It’s hard to recapture it’s significance over 40 years later, but despite it’s awkwardness and the clumsiness of some of O’Neil’s writing, we can still admire his attempt to grapple with something so very troubling and perilous in his world.  The popularity of the issue, despite its obvious flaws, is indicative of just how much it resonated with audiences at the time.

Of course, one of the major problems with that story are revealed in the fairly innocuous second appearance of Speedy this month, in Teen Titans, wherein he is his usual happy-go-lucky self, with no trace of a drug habit or the trauma that was supposed to have caused it.  Denny O’Neil’s loose attention to continuity leads to some significant dissonance between the portrayals.  Worse than that will be the ongoing portrayal, where Speedy, I imagine, will likely continue unaffected (not least because he’s under the pen of one of the least continuity sensitive writers working at the time, Bob Haney).  This undermines oen of the great strengths of shared-universe storytelling.

In the wider DC Universe, it seems that signs of unrest are everywhere, even showing up in the background of The Flash.  Once again, the pressures on campus and the continuing generational conflict is center stage in some of our stories.  These themes take two very different forms that remain similar in some notable ways.  While the Robin backup focuses on drop-out culture and the rebellion against authority and the World’s Finest issue focused on the unknowable cost that follows the loss of a young life, they both also put narrative effort into presenting a balanced portrayal of both sides of their pictured conflicts.  The DC writers seem to be making efforts to create a reasoned approach to these themes, even while courting younger readers, which makes sense given the more conservative nature of the company.  Still, it is an admirable effort at creating understanding, even if only in small ways.

This month also saw Mike Sekowsky depart Adventure Comics and DC Comics in general.  While I’m not sorry to see him go from Supergirl, it is a shame that we never got to see Sekowsky really develop his own series, with both of his self-authored ideas falling flat.  It’s especially lamentable that his excellent Manhunter 2070 concept didn’t take off.  It’s a little bittersweet to see one of the defining architects of the DC Universe ride into the sunset.

Whatever else it was, this was certainly a memorable month of comics, and it gave us some unexpected gems, like this issue of Teen Titans.  I hope that y’all have enjoyed this leg of the journey as much as I have!  Please join me soon for the beginning of our next month.  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

Into the Bronze Age: August 1971 (Part 3)

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Welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  We’ve got a really famous comic on the docket for this post, or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that it is infamous.  I’m speaking, of course, about the drug issue of Green Lantern/Green Arrow.  I can’t say I’ve been looking forward to reading this one again, but it should certainly prove an interesting subject for study and reflection. First, a little background.

Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85 is, without a doubt, the most famous issue of this famous run, and justifiably so.  Whatever it’s quality, this issue arrived like a thunderclap, and it became massively influential.  Interestingly, the origins of this tale lie, not in the offices of DC, but in the Marvel Bullpen.  You see, in 1970, the drug epidemic was a major concern, and the Nixon administration asked Stan Lee to publish an anti-drug story.  The Marvel editor chose to do so in The Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 in 1971, leading to the first comic since the advent of the Comics Code Authority to depict drug use, which was not allowed, even in a negative light, under the Code.  This caused a minor furor, and the folks at the Code refused to sign off on the issues, so Lee published them anyway, removing the Code seals.  This was an important moment in comics and especially in the growth of maturity in the medium.  When Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams came to tackle their own treatment of the drug problem (because where one of the Big Two goes, the other inevitably follows), the powers that be at the Code reevaluated the matter and approved the issues.  The rest, as they say, is history and led to the gradual loosening of Code restrictions.  Thus, this issue had an impact on the superhero genre at large, as well as its immediate cultural influence.

Of course, we can’t let that comic completely overshadow our other classic books, which include a solid issue of the Flash and another of JLA/JSA crossover, which is always a blast.  So, we’ve got plenty to cover in this post!

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #403
  • Adventure Comics #409
  • Batman #233 (Reprints)
  • Batman #234
  • Detective Comics #414
  • The Flash #208
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85 (the infamous drug issue)
  • Justice League of America #91
  • Mr. Miracle #3
  • The Phantom Stranger #14
  • Superman #241
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #112
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #138
  • Teen Titans #34
  • World’s Finest #204

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


The Flash #208


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“A Kind of Miracle in Central City”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“Malice in Wonderland”
Writer: Len Wein
Penciler: Dick Giordano
Inker: Dick Giordano
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“Flash’s Sensational Risk”
Writer: John Broome
Penciler: Carmine Infantino
Inker: Joe Giella
Editor: Julius Schwartz

We’ve got a rather off-beat Flash tale this month,  though it has some similarities to the themes of an earlier issue in this run.  This comic has an equally unusual cover, with its scene of piety and the seemingly providential arrival of the Flash.  It’s not the most arresting of images, but it is unique enough to catch your attention if you actually take a moment to figure out the story it tells.  It’s not a particularly great piece, but it is certainly fitting for the tale within.  That particular yarn begins with a group of teens bearing an offering of stolen goods to an abandoned church, only to be greeted by an unlikely trio of gunmen.

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They’re dressed like refugees from the 19th Century, with one a Yankee soldier, one a Confederate cavalryman, and the leader an Indian brave.  I’ve always got a soft-spot for gangs in themed costumes, but I’m not really sure how this gimmick fits these small-time hoods.  At least it’s better than another appearance of the Generic Gang, I suppose.  Either way, as they gather their ill-gotten gains, a troop of nuns march into the crumbling edifice and confront them.  One of the sisters pleads with her actual brother, the leader of the teens, to stop the thieves, but he rejects her.  Fittingly when dealing with such unrepentant rogues, the sisters bow and begin to pray to St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes (the concept of which appeals to my Romantic sensibilities).

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While the nuns can’t convince the thieves to change their ways, they at least drive them out of their hideout, but while meeting on the top of a building, the larcenous louses decide that someone must have tipped the sisters off to their location.  Who could be a better suspect than the brother of one of those sisters?  So, the thugs toss young Vic right off of the roof when he asks for his payment!  Meanwhile, the Flash is on his way back from Istanbul and makes a small but significant mistake.  He forgets that it is Saturday and heads to the office, only then realizing his error and heading home, which brings him by that building at the exact moment Vic makes his precipitous exit.  The Sultan of Speed whips up an updraft to break the kid’s fall, but inexplicably (and unnecessarily), “electromagnetic interference” somehow messes up his efforts…which consist of wind…somehow.  Nonetheless, the Scarlet Speedster saves the boy,  but the youth won’t tell him anything.

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This leads to a fun scene where Barry ponders how to help the kid, realizing that saving the world is important, but so is saving one misguided teenager.  As he thinks, he paces, unconsciously zipping from one end of the world to another, and we get a glimpse of how tumultuous the world was in 1971, with protests from Japan to Paris.  Having made his decision, the Flash zooms back home, only to find Vic having come to his senses and gone to his sister for help.

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Clearly these scenes represent some issues which don’t make our history recaps but were in the zeitgeist at the time.

The Fastest Man Alive overhears him confess and add that the kids want to give back the stolen goods, but they can’t find the gang’s new hiding place.  So the Monarch of Motion takes a hand.  He conducts a super speed grid search of the city, locates the loot, and then races past Vic and his girl, pulling them along in his slipstream right to the cave where the spoils lie.

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Unfortunately, they aren’t the only visitors.  Their anachronistic antagonists make an appearance as well, but the invisibly vibrating Flash jumps in again, swatting their bullets out of the air and lending an super-speed hand to Vic’s desperate fight against his foes.  I enjoy the touch of characterization this provides Barry, as he doesn’t need the glory from this deed, preferring to give the kid something to make him proud.  Later, the teens are granted leniency by a judge, and the nuns host a social at their renovated church.  Vic, for his part, is convinced that the strange events that led to this happy ending were a miracle.  Flash notes that it was the miracle of super speed, but we see a caption that quotes Dylan Thomas, saying that, to those who believe, “the moment of a miracle is like unending lightning.”

 

I like the light touch of religious themes in this story, with the whole tale having the appearance of a fairly straightforward superhero adventure, with the Flash as the usual arbiter of justice and redemption.  Yet, there is the admirably subtle twist of our hero’s wrong turn at the beginning of the story that brings him into contact with the lost soul in need of rescue, a wrong turn that is easily explained as just a random occurrence but which takes on greater meaning in the context of a story filled with prayer and faith.

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The yarn is nothing special, but Kanigher does a good job with suggesting the possibility of divine intervention.  The final quote makes that subtle connection stronger, but it is rather deeply and unintentionally ironic.  You see, that line comes from Dylan Thomas’s “On the Marriage of a Virgin,” which describes a sexual experience of a virgin, probably that of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in contrast with her experience with the Holy Spirit.  That makes its use here an…odd choice.  The line, taken out of context, works pretty well, but its context certainly provides a weird perspective on the story!  Nonetheless, it’s an entertaining read, and Dick Giordano does a solid job on the art, really acing the secret super-speed confrontation with the villains at the end.  The thieving kids’ arc is probably the biggest weakness of this issue, as it feels like it is missing something.  With all of the costumed criminals constantly talking about “The big man,” the tale feels rather unfinished when it ends without some type of reveal or resolution involving this big time baddie that supposedly is running things.  I found myself wondering if I had missed a few pages when I got to the end. Nonetheless, I’ll give the whole thing an above average 3.5 Minutemen based on the strength of its themes.

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“Malice in Wonderland”


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Despite how much I enjoyed the religious themes of the cover story, I have to say that my favorite part of this book was this delightful Elongated Man backup.  Like many of Ralph Dibny’s adventures I’ve been able to read, this one is just plain fun.  It begins in rather unusual fashion, with our unhurried hero stopping off at a small town named Dodgson, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in a rather unique way
Apparently the festival is, oddly enough, Alice in Wonderland themed because the town’s founder was a descendant of Lewis Carroll, and a costumed ‘Alice’ gives the visiting detective a free copy of the children’s classic, which he decides to read in the pack.  As he relaxes in that idyllic setting, reliving his childhood and admiring the original illustrations by Sir John Tenniel, which provide the official aesthetic for the town’s celebration, he is startled to see a running rabbit, late for a very important date!
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Of course, no self-respecting detective could pass up such an odd occurrence, so Ralph hurries off after the harried hare.  Before he can catch up, the White Rabbit hops into a cab and speeds away.  Using his stretching powers, the Elongated Man is able to pursue the rogue rodent through the town for a while before losing him, but after an informative conversation with a helpful ‘Mad Hatter,’ the Ductile Detective follows a hint and heads to the library, where a first edition of Alice is on display.
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Flash208-22Sure enough, the hunch pays off, and the hare is there.  When the bold bunny sees the superhero arrive, he calls out to another costumed character, who tosses down a smoke bomb.  Together the two steal the valuable tome while Ralph and the townsfolk take an impromptu nap.  Upon awakening, the Ductile Detective deduces where the thieves will be hiding, from a scrap of paper he snatched from the rabbit.  The notes reads “Mushroom Float,” and the hero realizes that the crooks plan to make their escape in plain sight, by hiding out among the costumed cast of the town’s anniversary parade!
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Meanwhile, those same thieves are slowly winding through town aboard, you guessed it, a float of the hookah-smoking caterpillar atop his mushroom.  As they congratulate themselves on their cleverness, an arm suddenly stretches out of the caterpillar’s hookah and snatches their loot.  The criminals draw weapons, but the wildly stretching sleuth proves too hard to hit.
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There’s some really fun (and funny) action in this scene, as when the villains try to smother our hero by shoving his head into the smoke from the hookah, only to have him stretch his nose free of the cloud, all while stretching a foot around the float to give his opponents the boot!  With the criminals corralled, Ralph explains what originally tipped him off about the rogue rabbit.  The town’s celebration was based on Tenniel’s illustrations, but the ignorant thief had based his costume on the Disney movie, making him look out of place.  This set the detective’s ‘mystery loving nose’ to twitching.  There’s a lesson in there for you, kids: Don’t just see the movie; read the book!
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This is just a charming little adventure.  It’s a lot of fun, and Ralph is entertaining throughout, both in dialog and in his wacky stretching.  Dick Giordano’s art is great in this tale, really doing a wonderful job with the whimsical world that best suits Ralph and his exploits.  All of the colorful costumed characters look great, though they also don’t really look like people wearing costumes.  Still, Giordano does a really good job with the final fight, providing entertaining and creative uses of his hero’s powers, which is always important for a stretching character.  There’s not much to this story, but Len Wein manages to make it feel complete in just eight pages, which is always a challenge.  I’ll give this whimsical little visit to Wonderland a thoroughly entertaining 4 Minutemen.
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Green Lantern / Green Arrow #85


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“Snowbirds Don’t Fly”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Neal Adams
Colourist: Cory Adams
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz

Here we are at last.  I’ve been talking about this comic since we began the GL/GA series.  Of course, I’ve been dreading rereading this issue.  I  rather cordially disliked it upon my first read, finding it massively heavy-handed and generally goofy and melodramatic.  Imagine my surprise when, upon begrudgingly rereading the comic (the things I do for you, my beloved readers!), I found the story much better than I remembered.  It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s far from the worst issue of this run, and it is undeniably important and groundbreaking.  So, without further ado, let’s examine this landmark issue.

First, I’d be remiss not to talk about this justly famous cover.  It’s not exactly subtle (what in this run is?), but it is immediately arresting.  Can you imagine browsing through the newsstand, seeing the collection of fine and conventional covers of this month’s books arrayed in front of you, only to have this piece jump out.  It had to be an incredible shock to audiences back in 1971.  I’d say that this is one of the few cases where cover dialog or copy is absolutely necessary.  I think a little context, at least in 1971, was probably called for.  The central image, of Speedy strung out, shaking, hunched and ashamed, is really a powerful one, though Ollie’s reaction might be a bit exaggerated to the point of being comical.  The overall effect is certainly gripping, nonetheless.

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The legendary story this cover represents had to be even more shocking to fans.  It begins with the conventional scene of a mugging, but unusually, these muggers are uncertain and possessed of a strange desperation.  Unfortunately for them, they pick Oliver Queen as their pigeon, which goes about as well as you might imagine.  Apparently, Dinah has broken things off with Ollie (maybe that fight last issue was more serious than it seemed?), and he’s got a bit of aggression to work out.  Things take a turn for the serious, however, when one of the muggers pulls out a crossbow of all things!  Oddly, the guy who uses a bow and arrow as a superhero mocks the weapon and doesn’t take it seriously, which makes the quarrel that embeds itself in his chest all the more surprising!

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In a modern day reimagining of the beginning of the Good Samaritan parable, the badly wounded hero crawls through the streets in search of aid…and is promptly ignored by a well-dressed couple, a cop (!), a taxi, and even the nurse at the emergency room…at least until he keels over.  It’s an effective little commentary on the dehumanizing affect of urban life.  After all, we’re only six years after the murder of Kitty Genovese.  Once he’s patched up, Ollie checks out the quarrel and notices that it is rather familiar and, on a hunch, he calls up Hal Jordan for some backup.  When the Green Lantern arrives, Ollie suits up and admits to his friend that the quarrel has him worried because he hasn’t seen Speedy in a month, and it could have come from his wayward ward.

 

green lantern 085 011The heroes begin their investigation in the basement of Ollie’s own building, where he’d seen the kids who jumped him before.  Downstairs they find one of the punks begging a charming fellow named Browden for a fix.  It seems that Browden is a pusher!  He turns away the junkie with a savage kick, and the partners decide to ask the jerk some questions.  The guy proves suicidally brave, taking on two Justice Leaguers with a fire axe, but surprisingly this doesn’t prove to be the best idea.  After capturing both the drug dealer and his client, the heroes plan to interrogate their prisoners.

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Next, we get a scene that I found cringe-inducingly bad when I read it the first time.  I found it much more palatable this time, but there’s still plenty here that is on the silly side.  We join our other two would-be muggers in an apartment in China Town, and they are suffering from withdrawal.  To take their minds off their pain, they admire a wall of ancient weapons, the source of the nearly deadly crossbow.  One of the boys is an Asian American, and he mentions that the weapons are his fathers, who collects them as an outlet against the injustice that he has to deal with day in and day out as a minority.  This leads to their discussions about why they are using drugs, and the dialog is a bit goofy, but there is something worthwhile here as well, though I didn’t appreciate it on my first reading.

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What…what is that kid doing in the last panel?  Interpretive dance?

The scene is ham-handed, and in it O’Neil commits a cardinal sin of writing, having his characters simply declare how they feel, rather than delivering that information organically.  Despite the clunky and, at times, ridiculous dialog where these characters just helpfully hold forth about their motivations and feelings, O’Neil links their drug use to the racial issues of the time.  While his connections are wildly overly simplistic, effectively equating to “I use drugs because people are racist,” there’s no denying that there was and is a disproportionate percentage of addiction in minority communities in the U.S..  This is tied into a host of other social ills, but it’s noteworthy that O’Neil makes the connection and gives us a sympathetic portrayal, not only of addicts, but of minorities as well, identifying the social pressures that play a role in their problems.

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green lantern 085 016Their group-therapy session is interrupted by the arrival of the Green Team, who fly in and capture the fleeing kids, only to be surprised to see that one of them is…Speedy?!  Ollie instantly assumes that his ward is there undercover, and when one of the junkies helpfully offers to take the heroes to their suppliers, Arrow tells his young friend to stay behind while they wrap things up.  On the way, the heroes talk with the kids, and in a notable inversion, it is the Emerald Archer who is the inflexible, judgemental one, while Hal takes a more thoughtful, moderate approach.  It seems that Ollie has no patience for the kind of weakness that leads to drug use.

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Another Headcount entry!

When they reach their destination, a private airport, the Emerald Gladiator quickly disarms the smugglers operating there, but then he falls prey to that perennial superhero foe…the headblow!  One of the junkies unsurprisingly turns on the heroes and clocks the Lantern with a wrench!  His green-clad partner does his best, but the wounded Archer is quickly beaten down, and instead of killing the helpless heroes, the smugglers decide to dope them up and leave them for the cops.  The addicts get a fix for their efforts, and as the cops arrive, it seem that the Green Team is doomed for disgrace and jail!  Just then,  Speedy arrives and manages to rouse Hal, who unsteadily tries to use his ring to escape.

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His efforts result in a monstrously distorted construct produced by his drug-addled imagination, but the Emerald Crusader wasn’t chosen to wield the most powerful weapon in the universe for nothing.  Hal summons all of his willpower and manages to focus enough to get them away.  It’s actually a really good sequence, and I love that Hal is portrayed as having enough iron willpower to overcome even the drugs in his system this way, however unrealistic it might be.

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Back at Green Arrow’s apartment, the heroes recover and discuss what would lead someone to put that kind of poison into their body.  Roy quietly offers a suspiciously specific example about a young boy ignored by a father figure and turning to drugs for comfort, but his mentor simply shrugs it off.  After Hal leaves, Ollie walks back into his rooms, only to discover Speedy in the process of shooting up!

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green lantern 085 029The reveal is, of course, not that surprising after the cover, but the twist of an honest-to-goodness superhero, not just a supporting character, becoming a drug-addict, must have been earth-shattering to fans in ’71, especially at DC.  We’re still not very far removed from the era where DC heroes were spotless, flawless paragons of all virtues, and this is a huge departure from the line’s conventions.  You simply didn’t see things like this in comics, especially DC Comics.  This makes the issue itself an important milestone, in many ways representing the high-water mark of social relevance for the era.

The portrayal of DC heroes as fallible was amped up by an order of magnitude with this story, for better or worse, and not just with Speedy’s succumbing to heroin.  No, the moral culpability of Oliver Queen shouldn’t be overlooked.  This is actually one of my biggest problems with this comic.  O’Neil does here what often happens with such “nothing will ever be the same” twists: he tells a massively disruptive story, revealing a huge change in the characters, but with no plans to follow it up or manage the fallout from it.  Thus, these two issues will go on to haunt poor Speedy for the rest of his comics career.  Hardly a story will be written about him that won’t be affected in some fashion by this choice, and while Ollie isn’t as marred by these comics as his poor ward, the character is marked by his cavalier irresponsibility towards the kid that was effectively his son, which helped lead to this moment.  These factors make this tale a pretty grave disservice to these characters.  As bad as the incredibly self-righteous, Godwin’s Law invoking Green Arrow of the earlier run might have been, this twist, which turns him into an incredibly selfish, irresponsible jerk is significantly worse.

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Translation: ‘I should not be allowed to care for a kid.’

Despite this, the story itself is significantly better than I remember, and there is a good tale to be found here, with the examination of drug use and the damage it causes, as well as the desperation of those caught in the claws of addiction.  Unfortunately, the dialog of the junkies is more than a little silly at times, and the characterization problems, with both Ollie’s selfishness and Speedy’s rather weak reasons for his drug use seriously impacting the overall effect.  Apparently Roy was abandoned by his father figure…while he was in college.  At that point, you’d think he’d be able to handle it.  A lot of kids go off to college and don’t see their parents for months at a time.  I certainly did.  So, his motivations seem a bit insufficient, and this portrayal also contrasts rather noticeably with the happy, well-adjusted kid concurrently appearing in Teen Titans.  A little more groundwork would have gone a long way to making this tale more successful.

Despite these weaknesses, seeing this comic in the context, both of its preceding run and of the rest of the DC line at the time, is really revelatory.  In that light, it becomes apparent that is the culmination of much of O’Neil’s work on this book.  In it, the major themes of O’Neil’s social relevance campaign come together in a surprisingly sophisticated (for its time and medium) combination that illustrates a compassionate understanding of the drug problem that is often still lacking today.  It is clumsy in places, clever in places, poorly thought-out, yet innovative and daring.  The issue is helped greatly by Neal Adams’ beautiful, realistic art.  It elevates the material and adds a touch of humanity to the characters whose suffering and struggles might otherwise not have nearly as much weight.  This flawed comic is definitely worth a read if you want to understand both its era and Bronze Age comics at large.  I’ll give it 4 Minutemen, certainly a higher score than I expected to award, but it is definitely hurt by O’Neil’s abuse of his characters.

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Justice League of America #91


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“Earth – The Monster-Maker!”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella
Editor: Julius Schwartz
Cover Artist: Neal Adams

“The Day the World Melted”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Carmine Infantino
Inker: Joe Giella

“The Hour Hourman Died!”
Writer: Gardner Fox
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Sid Greene

To round out our comics for this post, we’ve got a JLA issue that delivers another JLA/JSA crossover, which always provide for fun reading.  It starts with a really great cover.  That’s quite a dramatic tableau, the grim-faced Dark Knight carrying in the ravaged body of his comrade and the shocked looks of the other Leaguers, all beautifully drawn by Neal Adams.  It would certainly be tough to pass this issue up and forgo the chance to find out what happened!  I’d say that we could certainly do without the cover copy, but that’s a small complaint.  Of course, I always love the team line-ups that these classic issues provide.  Overall, it’s an all-around good cover.  Sadly, the comic inside doesn’t quite live up to the tantalizing promise of the piece.

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While the dialog is, of course, a cheat, the image itself is truth in advertising, as the tale begins with Batman’s arrival as depicted.  Superman, Hawkman, Green Lantern, and the Atom are holding a meeting on the Satellite, and they note that Aquaman is absent without leave, causing them to wonder if he’s still angry about the events of the previous issue.  Just then, the Caped Crusader arrives, carrying the Crimson Comet, not so speedy at the moment.  Apparently the Masked Manhunter recovered the mauled hero from near Gotham.

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I quite like this title image; it evokes the feel of those classic 50s sci-fi tales.

Before that mystery can be solved, we see a strange scene, in which some rather adorable aliens, traveling between dimensions in a spaceship, lose one of their passengers and his 80s-TV-show-cute pet.  The poor kid, the brother of the pilot, slips through the dimensional barrier, and he and his space-dog end up in separate worlds.  The other aliens frantically fret that, once separated, the boy and dog can only survive for 37.5 hours!  Apparently, this strange species has developed a symbiotic relationship with their pets, one in which the creatures are so dependent upon one another that each will die without the other.  On Earths 1 and 2, the castaway creatures are mutated by the dimensional energies they experienced, growing gigantic and becoming maddened.

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jla091-05On Earth 2, the Justice Society gathers, including their Superman, Hawkman, Flash, and Atom, as well as their Robin.  They get a distress signal from their Green Lantern, and when they arrive, they find him battered and bruised from a bout with the alien boy.  Apparently the yellow youth sensed that the Emerald Gladiator’s ring had the power to bridge dimensions, so he attacked the hero and stole the ring.  The team sends their fallen friend back to base while they set out in search of the kid.  Oddly, on the way, Hawkman talks down to Robin, telling him he “may as well fill in for Batman,” prompting the ADULT Wonder to remind the Winged One that he is a full-fledged member of the Society.  Robin thinks about the ‘generation gap,’ which seems a bit odd, given that he’s supposed to be, like in his 30s in these stories.

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jla091-07Forced friction aside, back on Earth 1, their Flash recovers long enough to give them a super-speed clue, which Superman decodes.  It’s a reference to “New Carthage,” where Robin attends Hudson U.  Just then, Aquaman sends in an alarm of his own, so the team splits, with Batman and the newly arrived Green Arrow heading to help the Sea King, while the rest of the team go to track down the mysterious threat.  At their destination they find their own Robin, who was already investigating the monster.  As they continue their search, the Earth-1 Hawkman gives the Teen Wonder his own dose of condescension.  Man, Friedrich has poor Hawkman playing the jerk…on two worlds!

Before the heroes find the problem pup, Green Lantern detects a signal emanating from Earth-2, leading to the two teams joining forces.  The Atom suggests the distribution of forces: (Earth-1: Both Supermen, both Atoms, and Flash 2 / Earth-2: Both Hawkmen, Green Lantern 1, both Robins), saying that it will be “more scientifically sound,” which Superman questions…but despite this the choice is never explained.  Weird.  On Earth-2, the baffled alien boy lashes out at his surroundings, but when the heroes arrive, he tries to communicate… but it doesn’t go too well.

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They can’t understand each other, and the young Robin loses patience and attacks!  See kid, this is why Hawkman talks down to you!  He takes a beating until his elder counterpart and the others rescue him.  The Emerald Crusader packs the two Robins off to safety at the Batcave so the Teen Wonder can get help, but he himself gets pummeled by the kid…rather unnecessarily, really.  He basically just lands and lets the alien belt him.  The youth is after the Lantern’s ring, but Hal manages to turn it invisible.  This prompts his frustrated foe to turn the Green Guardian into a human missile, taking out both Hawkmen in the process.  It’s not the best fight scene, really, as the heroes seem more than a little incompetent, and the kid really doesn’t seem like that much of a threat.

 

That problem is magnified even more for his adorable animal companion, which is rampaging through Earth-1.  Seriously, the thing looks like it should have shown up on The Snorks, Teddy Ruxpin, or some other brightly colored and whimsical kids’ cartoon.  Obviously this is intentional to a degree, with the creative team wanting to emphasize the juxtaposition of the innocence of these creatures with the threat they pose, but I think they went a tad overboard here, especially when the cute critter somehow knocks down two Supermen with a single swipe!  The heroes’ efforts seem futile, but finally, while Atom 1 distracts the dimension-lost dog, one of the Supermen digs a pit around it at super speed, trapping the creature.

 

Realizing that there might be a connection between their invader and that of Earth-2, Flash 2 and Superman 1 head there to investigate.  Meanwhile, the alien boy stumbles into Slaughter Swamp, where he encounters…Solomon Grundy!  The two bond in an unlikely friendship that is actually a little sweet, and when the heroes track the lost lad down, Grundy tries to protect him  This leads to a fairly nice brawl, which ends with Grundy triumphant, preparing to smash the alter-Earth version of his nemesis, Green Lantern, using Superman himself as a club!

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This is a fun and rather unusual issue.  I didn’t remember this one at all, but I have to say, the central conflict, the dangerous innocent facing his own imminent doom, is a creative and interesting concept.  It’s also always fun to see the League and Society team up, even if they aren’t exactly at their best in this story.  Notably, Friedrich’s attempts at characterization with his Robin/Hawkman pairings are interesting, even though they aren’t entirely successful.  Still, I have to give him credit for trying to inject some personality and personal drama into the book.  It’s intriguing to see him attempt to bring the generation gap conflicts into the superhero world in such a fashion.  We’ve seen it addressed in Robin’s backups and in Teen Titans, but we haven’t seen this tension explored between actual adult and teen heroes very much.

 

The introduction of Grundy is a nice way to add a bit more of a threat to the story, but he still seems a bit overmatched by the gathered heroes, so much so that Friedrich has to cheat a bit to neutralize Hal, having the Lantern sort of take a dive against the kid.  Dillin’s art is, unfortunately, evincing the usual stiffness and awkward patches that I’ve come to expect from his JLA work, but there are also the usual highlights.  (In this case, the fight with Grundy)  Despite its weaknesses, this is still a fun and admirably creative adventure tale.  I’ll give it a solid 3.5 Minutemen.  It loses a bit because of the plot induced stupidity of its protagonists.

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P.S.: Entertainingly, this issue includes a note from Mike Friedrich himself about writing the story wherein he laments the tortuous challenge of juggling the massive cast of a JLA/JSA crossover.  I sympathize!  That has to be quite the job.  I know I’ve found it tough in my own work with these characters in the DCUG.

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The Head-Blow Headcount:

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We get a second appearance by Green Lantern on the Wall this month, and I have to say, I’m more than a little surprised that we haven’t seen a lot more of him.  Hal has something of a reputation, you see.


Well folks, that will do it for this post, but quite a post it is, featuring a landmark comic.  There’s plenty here to consider, and I hope that you’ve found the reading as entertaining and interesting as I did in the writing.  Please join me again soon for another leg of our journey Into the Bronze Age!  While our next set of books won’t be quite so groundbreaking, they promise to be fascinating in their own right, including the always-exciting Mr. Miracle and the penultimate issue of Denny O’Neil’s unusual but provocative run on Superman.  Until next time, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!  See you then!

Into the Bronze Age: July 1971 (Part 5)

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Greetings dear readers!  Welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  We’ve got a very unusual and memorable pair of books to cover in this batch, for better or worse.  We have the JLA guest starring in Lois Lane (sort of) and the beginning of the infamous Don Rickles appearance in Jimmy Olsen.  The Superman family books are rather bonkers this month, it seems.  Join me and see what you can make of the madness that follows!

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #402
  • Adventure Comics #408
  • Brave and the Bold #96
  • Detective Comics #413
  • Forever People #3
  • G.I. Combat #148
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #84
  • New Gods #3
  • Superboy #176
  • Superman #239 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Superman #240
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #111
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #139

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


Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #111


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“The Dark Side of the Justice League!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Werner Roth
Inkers: Vince Colletta and Murphy Anderson
Letterer: Ray Holloway
Editor: E. Nelson Bridwell
Cover Artists: Dick Giordano and Gaspar Saldino

“Law of the 100!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Gray Morrow
Inker: Gray Morrow
Letterer: Ray Holloway

This comic is just a delightful mess, from the cover onward.  I admit, I’ve been excitedly eyeing this image in my reading list.  It is just such a fun design, with (almost) the entire League in action and the unusual sight of Lois playing Gulliver to superheroic Lilliputians.  It’s the type of concept we’ve seen before, but not that often.  Unsurprisingly, Dick Giordano creates a lovely, energetic piece, and the cover gets bonus points for being an accurate representation of the tale within.  It’s an effective image, and I know I’d have been curious to know what was going on in this book!

What a tale that is!  Fascinatingly, Kanigher uses this issue to tie his work on the supporting Superman titles into the emergent Fourth World mythos that Kirby is currently creating, weaving in elements from the King’s Jimmy Olsen run.  It’s interesting to see creators embracing the New Gods this quickly.  It all starts innocently enough, with Lois arriving at the beach for a relaxing day off, only to be secretly observed by…the JLA!?  Well, not exactly.  As she dozes on the sand, tiny doppelgängers of the League rush out and, using their unique powers, bind her down and put a strange liquid on her lips.  As she begins to stir, they rush into hiding, leaving her none-the-wiser.  The sequence is great fun and really nicely done.

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The next day, Lois is out covering a story when she notices a passing armored truck and somehow realizes that it is stuffed with gangsters.  She calls out a warning to Superman, allowing him to bag the crooks, and the Man of Steel finds himself wondering if his lady love has developed some type of 6th sense that might protect her from danger.  If so, he muses, he would be able to marry her, but he brushes the thought aside and flies off.  In a charming little touch, the women Lois had been interviewing encourage her not to give up hope.

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Later on, the girl reporter is on location at Metropolis park, covering the arrival of a mysterious statue.  Once again, she has a flash of insight and realizes that the art is fake, really a set of dangerous robotic weapons, and she is able to warn the Metropolis Marvel once more.  Smashing the rampaging robots, Superman thinks that Lois must have developed a new ability, so he gives in and kisses her.  As soon as their lips meet, he goes insane, beginning his own destructive rampage!

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Lois rushes to her car and uses a carphone (!) to contact, of all people, the head of the D.N.A. Project!  That’s right, she appeals for help to the secret government DNA research base in the Wild Area, introduced in Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen.  Apparently Superman brought her there to give a genetic sample…for some reason.  The sober scientist quickly forms a plan and tells the rattled reporter to go to the Daily Planet and await instructions.

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Well, that’s not the reaction you want after a kiss!

Unfortunately, later that night, after dozing at her desk, the journalist awakens to a strange sight: the littlest Leaguers, who kindly explain their plot.  Apparently, they were created from stolen DNA by the Project’s evil opposite number, the Monster Factory, and are under orders from their Apokoliptian masters.  They were to plant a special poison on Lois’s lips and, by faking her new ability, convince Superman to kiss her, thus dooming himself.

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When the ravishing reporter tries to flee, they attack and mock her, but a package left by the Project opens in the struggle, revealing an octet of tiny Loises, each inexplicably armed with a device to counter the abilities of the heinous pint-sized heroes.  One has a chip of gold Kryptonite to rob the Miniature Man of Might of his powers (where in the world would they have gotten that?), while another has a yellow glove to get past the little Lantern’s ring.  Some of them are a bit less direct, like a laser pistol that cuts the straps of Hawkman’s wings as opposed to…you know…just shooting him.

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It’s an exceedingly silly scene, but it is capped when the fun-sized Flash kicks up a cloud of dust while trying to escape, causing Lois to sneeze him into defeat.  With the miniature minions beaten, the reporter finds another gift from the Project, an antidote lipstick, which she dons before running out to kiss Superman a second time, restoring his mind.  The tale ends with the two strolling away, the Man of Steel not remembering a thing.

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This is an insane issue, but it is also a lot of fun.  There’s some really neat elements, as Kanigher tries to bring the mythos Kirby is creating out into the wider DCU.  Of course, being Kanigher, he does it in a fairly goofy way.  On the other hand, it does actually mesh surprisingly well with what we saw in Kirby’s own book.  The tiny clones, the stolen DNA, the mysterious machinations of the malevolent Monster Factory: it all works, after a fashion.  Yet, the writing is more than a little sloppy, with a lot of the details coming completely out of left field and the whole thing lacking internal consistency.  Why in the world does the Project have tiny-anti JLA weapons on hand.  How do they know they’re facing an evil army of mini-mes in the first place?  Whose idea was the ridiculously elaborate plan to get Superman to kiss Lois?  If they can clone tiny Leaguers, why not just make full sized ones to take out the originals?  Kanigher doesn’t bother to answer any of those questions.

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Look at the individuality and personality on the faces of these background characters.

Once again, Roth’s art is simply lovely, and while he had previously seemed to struggle a bit with the superheroic elements of these comics, despite his success with the romantic and dramatic moments, he turns in a really nice looking Justice League, even if they are tiny.  Particularly impressive, as usual, is his face-work, like in the image above.  The art definitely helps this tale, even as goofy as the story is.  Taken all together, this is a very entertaining, if bonkers, story, but it goes to show that nobody can really stack up to Kirby except Kirby.  He actually made something mostly coherent out of the madness of the Project.  Kanigher?  Not so much.  Despite his efforts, this feels more like a new gimmick and less like a facet of a new mythology.  I’ll give this entertaining fit of silliness 2.5 Minutemen.  It’s fun, but it’s flawed.

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“Law of the 100”


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The real highlight of this issue is its Rose and Thorn backup, which is just plain excellent for the limited space it has to work with.  It features the art of Gray Morrow, which is a big departure from Ross Andru’s and a real treat.  The story itself really shows off its star.  It starts with a classic cheat image, as we see the tenacious Thorn shot down by a new figure.  Of course, this is revealed to simply be a test of the 100’s newest killer using a mannequin (although, that mannequin seems to be moving a whole lot for an inanimate object.  The fresh-faced fink in question is apparently Leo Lester, the son of one of the organization’s best gunmen.  They tell the boy that his father was betrayed to the cops but that he’s destined to take his place, and then they send him after the Thorn with his father’s gun.

On the street, the kid attempts to ambush the Nymph of Night, but she’s too good.  She manages to toss a smoke thorn (Batman’s going to sue!), and she easily takes him out.  The sequence is just beautiful, with Morrow delivering a wonderfully realistic sense of movement and presence to his figures.  Look at the motion in the Thorn’s body on this page.  Well, artwork aside, the vigilante is stunned to discover that her attacker is a youth, and she tries to reason with him.  This is actually one of the weaknesses of Morrow’s art, as the gunman doesn’t actually look that young.

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Unfortunately, just then another 100 hit squad opens up on the both of them, the kid having failed his job.  Strangely, the gunsles are hidden on a mobile merry-go-round.  It’s essentially a tiny carousel mounted on a truck.  Crazy!  I guess they really had these things, but I’d never seen one.  It’s an interesting and rather whimsical choice for a ruthless gang of murderers.  Criminals in the DCU have class!  Of course, no matter how charming their costuming, they are still trying to shoot the Vixen of Vengeance, and she doesn’t take that too kindly, so she tosses an explosive thorn, blowing the car/carousel away.

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Somehow this doesn’t kill the thugs, but it does attract the cops.  Not wanting to hand her young assassin over because she hopes she can reach him, the Thorn hauls him to a secluded spot on the waterfront.  As part of this scene, we get a really interesting moment where the Baleful Beauty’s two personalities are in conflict, with her Rose persona wanting to help the boy and the Thorn identity being much less sympathetic.  It’s a neat touch.

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After her internal debate, the Nymph of Night tries to persuade the captive kid that the 100 know no loyalty, but he refuses to believe her until he’s ambushed by another team of hitters from the gang.  Once again, the Thorn acts to save the punk’s life, tossing out a set of flash grenade-thorns and taking out the gunmen in a nice panel, this time aided by Leo.  As they run from gangster reinforcements, the boy promises to tell his savior why he really agreed to hunt her.

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This little backup is really quite good.  It’s a breezy but effective story, with a healthy dose of action.  The Thorn comes off really well throughout, seeming competent and dangerous and generally living up to her hype.  It’s great to see her using her gadgets, taking out her foes like Batman.  It makes for some exciting reading.  Meanwhile, the heart of the plot with the kid turned killer is fairly interesting.  I’m curious what else is going on with him.

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Yet, a big part of what makes this particular backup so great is Gray Morrow’s exceptional art.  He’s got got a very unusual style for DC at this time, and the realistic detail that he puts into things like the Thorn’s hair as she fights and runs, or the shift in fabric is really cool.  In general, this tale just looks lovely.  There’s not a whole lot here, but nonetheless, it is a really enjoyable read.  I’ll give it 4 Minutemen, about the highest score a backup can get.  Kanigher is continuing to do really solid work in these backups, however bonkers his feature scripts may be.

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Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #139


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“The Guardian Fights Again!!!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inkers: Vince Colletta and Murphy Anderson
Letterer: John Costanza
Editors: Jack KirbyE. and Nelson Bridwell

When you think of cosmic adventure and mind-bending epics, what’s the first name that comes to mind?  Why, Don Rickles, of course!  What, it isn’t?  Well, join the club.  This issue and the next might just be the wackiest point in the Fourth World saga…and also perhaps the lowest, or at least the most nonsensical.  For some inexplicable reason, the King essentially takes a break from his myth-making, his larger than life story about the clash between superhuman forces of good and evil, to do a two issue arc featuring Don Rickles and his equally inexplicable doppelgänger.  Even the cover is a mess.  If you thought some of the previous covers were crowded with copy, you hadn’t seen anything yet!  Yikes!  There are more words in that image than in the entirety of any two modern comics.  The art itself is okay but it’s barely got any room to work with.

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Inside, it gets even stranger.  It begins with the Guardian being tested by Tommy’s father at the Project, run through a thorough examination before being allowed to go into action.  Though the tests show nothing wrong with the cloned hero, the doctor is still a bit hesitant to give him a clean bill of health because this copy of Jim Harper shares a mysterious abnormality in his brain with the rest of the clones produced at the Project.  Once again, I find something rather sinister in this scene that I doubt Kirby intended, but there is definitely something a little unsettling about the setup.  It seems to beg for development, but I don’t think it was ever really touched on again.  Despite this, the Guardian is given a chance to head back to Metropolis with Superman, and the Legion is super excited about teaming up with their fathers’ idol.

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jimmyolsen139-11Unfortunately, only Superman, Jimmy, and the Guardian make the trip in the Whiz Wagon, while the kids remain behind, quarantined and due to be tested because Gabby picked up a cold.  Isn’t that sort of closing the barn door after the cows have gotten out, especially if you let the others go?  Nonetheless, the scene is pretty funny, as Gabby’s fellows pelt him with newspapers for landing them in stir.  Note Flippa Dippa who, for reasons known only to himself and Kirby’s fevered imagination, is wearing his wetsuit under his hospital gown.  Their salvation comes in a strange but entertaining form, as Scrappy finds one of the tiny mini-Scrapper paratroopers has hitched a ride in his hair and agrees to help them break out.

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The Whiz Wagon wings its way back to Metropolis, and when they get back, Superman zooms off to resume his secret identity so that Clark can be ready to receive these visitors.  He and Jimmy realize that Morgan Edge is behind a lot of their troubles and plan to have it out with their new boss.  Yet, the evil Edge has more gimmicky problems at the moment, as, and stay with me here, he is trying to work out a contract with Don Rickles, but he somehow has to deal with ‘Goody’ Rickles, who is on his research staff and is inexplicably the entertainer’s spitting image.  Despite having the same last name, there’s no indication that these two are related either.

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For some reason, Goody barges in at that moment, unaccountably dressed in a cape and tights.  Apparently, some of the guys in his office told him to wear it in order to shoot a TV pilot.  I…I don’t even know where to begin.  His dialog is just nonsensical.  Sometimes almost funny, but mostly indistinct and unclear.  The malicious mogul instantly hates the wacko, and for once I can’t blame him, and sends him out on a fake assignment that is actually a trap.

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jimmyolsen139-20Shortly thereafter, Clark and Jimmy arrive, demanding to see Edge, but they get sent out on the same assignment, arriving at the park in short order.  There they find a strange craft, and when Clark investigates, Goody moronically starts pressing buttons, suddenly causing the device to vanish!  The remaining protagonists are then attacked by Intergang thugs, and the Guardian goes into action while Goody says things that are ostensibly supposed to be funny.  The cloned champion gives a good showing, tearing through his assailants, and even Jimmy gives a good account of himself.  Kirby has him keep his foes busy through athleticism and cleverness rather than simply outbrawling them, which is fitting.  Goody does a comedy routine as he accidentally thwarts the bad guys.  Unfortunately, all their efforts are for naught, as one of Intergang’s bigwigs, the aptly named “Ugly” Mannheim, grabs Jimmy and holds him hostage until the others surrender.

Meanwhile, Clark is stuck in the strange craft, which has shifted into another dimension, nicely rendered by Kirby, who had a gift for alien vistas.  Back in Morgan Edge’s office, he orders Mannheim to dispose of his captives.  Instead, he feeds them.  Goody makes with more ‘humor,’ but the scene is salvaged by a pretty dramatic turn.  Ugly casually lights the entire table aflame with but a touch of his cigar, and then announces that the food was laced with a powerful accelerant, which is now in his captives’ systems.  He releases them, warning the three that in 24 hours they’ll all go up like Roman candles.

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That’s a wonderful villain image.

jimmyolsen139-28Goody’s indignation, not at the murder attempt, but at being dropped off out of his way is genuinely funny, but it’s one of the few moments in this comic that can actually be described that way.  He’s more grating and bizarre than humorous, with some of his dialog reminding you of a joke in the way that a badly hummed tune can remind you of a song.  There are elements in common, but the effect is rather different.  The story itself has a lot of good qualities.  However silly the setup, the Newsboy Legion making their escape is pretty fun, as is their banter.  Ugly Mannheim is instantly memorable, and the sequence with his unusual methods of dealing with his prisoners is actually quite good.  It’s nice to see the Guardian in action again as well, but all of this is overshadowed for some reason by the utterly incongruous presence of Goody, who makes no real sense and just doesn’t fit in this story.  Kirby’s art is quite good in this issue, unlike the last New Gods, and he turns in a lot of lovely and energetic moments, as well as some great character work with the Legion.  In the end, it’s rather hard to rate this issue, as it is just so very strange and feels more like two separate stories mashed together than a coherent whole.  I suppose I’ll give this mad mess 2.5 Minutemen, as the good elements are strong enough to partially offset the perplexing presence of ‘Goody’ Rickles.  It’s still a fun read, and interesting in context, but boy is it strange.

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P.S.: So, how did this flight of insanity come into being?  Check out the article here for some nice background, but here’s the short version.  Apparently Mark Evanier and Steve Sherman, Kirby’s assistants, were huge fans of then popular insult-comedian Don Rickles, and they thought it would be fun to have him appear in a comic for a few panels and insult Superman.  They wrote up some dialog and showed it to Jack, who loved the idea.  He, in turn, took it to Carmine Infantino, who never met a gimmick he didn’t like.  The editor got permission from Rickles and decided that this needed to be promoted and made into a two-issue feature.  Then, out of the unfathomable, beautiful madness of Kirby’s mind came what followed.  Apparently, Rickles himself was none-too-pleased with the final result, and I can’t say I really blame him.

 


The Head-Blow Headcount:

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Color me surprised, but this is the second month in a row without a single new head-blow to add to the tally.  I’m thinking August has got to break the streak.

 


Final Thoughts:


July was an unusual month, filled with books that were not necessarily good, but were certainly memorable and, at least in some ways, important.  There were some genuinely enjoyable yarns along the way as well, of course, but this month gave us several significant comics that, though they were flawed as stories, were important to the DCU or interesting reflections of concerns in the zeitgeist of their time.  Even some of the sillier stories like this issue of Lois Lane are worth noting because of how they are evidence of the growth of the setting or the genre.  In Lois’s case, her bizarre adventure introduces the King’s Fourth World to the DC Universe at large, for however awkward that meeting might be.

Kirby’s Fourth World itself continues to develop in intriguing ways.  This month we get to see Darkseid emerge a bit more into the foreground, and we see a little of his personality and the nature of his rule in the machinations of his servants in this Forever People.  We also see the notable creation of another black character, still very much a rare occurrence at this point, though it is a moment of dubious honor, considering that he is the Black Racer.  On the plus side, his creation does point to an awareness of DC’s lack of diversity and some of the early, if halting, steps to try and make the DC Universe a bit more reflective of the nation that spawned it.

Most strikingly for me, this month gives us the story of Glorious Godfrey and a fascinating tale about the dangers of surrendering your will and moral judgement to the strong man and the demagogue.  This lesson was well learned in the mid-20th Century with the rise of fascism and World War II, but the allure of having someone do your thinking for you is a strong and pervasive one.  Human beings don’t like to think, as Socrates knew to his sorrow, and they always look for ways to escape that onerous onus.  I see this constantly in my students, but unfortunately, this trend is very much in evidence in the modern world, far beyond the classroom.  The ever increasing tribalism of our politics in the U.S. is the clearest example of this tendency I can imagine.

Notably, the viciously divided culture of 1971 seems to have produced similar anxieties about such mindless adherence to those that promise easy answers, as last month’s JLA issue demonstrated.  The connection between these books point to more than just Jack Kirby’s memories of the War years as being the source for this story.  In the era of George Wallace and numerous other strong men on all sides of the political spectrum, I suppose this should be no surprise.

Fascinatingly, this month’s Green Lantern deals, in a way, with a similar theme, though it is not really the focus of the story.  O’Neil finally turned in an issue that I really enjoyed, however goofy it might be.  It helps that the book takes the tack of satire rather than direct (and, let’s face it, shrill and self-righteous) critique.  Most notably, with this issue the author moves away from racism, pollution, and the other crippling social issues of the time, and focuses instead on the growing disposable, artificial nature of modern life, with its pillorying of the plastic peril of the Black Hand.  This is another topic that certainly resonates in the modern day, though in a less dire fashion.

Also in the zeitgeist of the day, the plight of Native Americans remains in our comics for this month with the conclusion to Dorfman’s Superman tale in Action Comics #402.  This is another prime example of a bit of a disconnect between the significance and quality of some of this month’s books, as the story itself is more than a little messy and goofy, lacking the dignity and seriousness of the first chapter.  Nonetheless, Dorfman’s heart is in the right place, and his work points to a growing concern in the culture at large, a desire to see native peoples given justice and a fair break, something we certainly still haven’t mastered.

This comic illustrates one of the difficulties in tackling social issues in the superhero genre.  As Superman easily wraps up all of the problems in a few pages, captures the villain, and provides a safe, stable, and successful future for the downtrodden tribesmen, we can’t help but feel that the reality of the struggle of such peoples is given rather short shrift.  This was one of my complaints with the previous attempt at such a story by Robert Kanigher.  It is a difficult and tenuous thing to treat a real tragedy in a setting where sun gods can juggle planets, stop bullets, and reverse time.  How do you honor the suffering of such a situation with a character than can resolve any problem with the snap of his fingers?  It can be done, as Kanigher’s racial story proves, but it is a difficult proposition.

DC’s flagship character was not just involved in attempts at social relevance this month.  Denny O’Neil’s continuing efforts to revitalize Superman are also on display, giving us attempts to humanize the archetypally superhuman Man of Steel.  While the resultant story is uneven, it’s an interesting continuation of the author’s efforts over the last several months, as his weakened hero has had to struggle with newfound limitations and doubts.  While the changes seem fairly mild to a modern audience, saturated with ‘bold new directions’ to the point where every radical shift just blends into the background, I have to imagine that O’Neil’s efforts were pretty groundbreaking for the venerable and traditionally very stable Superman.  Judging from the letters pages in these issues, that seems to be borne out.  Contemporary readers were reacting, and quite strongly, to the stories O’Neil is slinging.

Finally, as one of my radical readers pointed out, the appearance this month of a General Patton analogue in G.I. Combat is very likely a result of the relatively recent release of the film, Patton, the previous year.  Glancing over the plot summary of the movie, I’m certain he was right, as there are some really striking similarities between it and the story in question.  So here we have another quite clear example of the culture influencing the comics directly.

All of these stories make for a memorable if uneven month.  There are some great yarns to be found here, though a surprising number of those I enjoyed most were the backups.  There was still plenty here worth reading, one way or another.  I hope that y’all enjoyed this stage of our journey and will join me again soon for the next chapter of our voyage Into the Bronze Age!  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive, and exercise your God-given mind and moral sense!

 

Into the Bronze Age: July 1971 (Part 3)

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Welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  In this post we’ve got old soldiers and new gods, plastic paradises and cosmic chaos.  It’s an interesting set of stories we have on tap today.  Join me as I work my way through them!

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #402
  • Adventure Comics #408
  • Brave and the Bold #96
  • Detective Comics #413
  • Forever People #3
  • G.I. Combat #148
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #84
  • New Gods #3
  • Superboy #176
  • Superman #239 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Superman #240
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #111
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #139
  • World’s Finest #202

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


G.I. Combat #148


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“The Gold-Plated General”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Russ Heath
Inker: Russ Heath
Editor: Joe Kubert

“Blind Bomber”
Writer: Hank Chapman
Penciler: Mort Drucker
Inker: Mort Drucker

“Cry Wolf Mission”
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: Russ Heath
Inker: Russ Heath

“Soften ‘Em Up”
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Irv Novick

“Battle Window”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Joe Kubert
Inker: Joe Kubert

This month’s Haunted Tank adventure is a fun one, featuring an unusual guest star, of sorts.  That figure standing astride the tank’s turret on the cover, six-guns gripped grimly in his hands, is probably a familiar one to history buffs.  The cover image itself is a pretty good one, though a bit crowded by copy.  It’s a nice, dramatic image, and beautifully rendered by Joe Kubert in his stark style.

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The crazily courageous general isn’t introduced right away inside.  Instead, we begin with our favorite Confederate ghost, who actually does something useful!  He spies Jeb and crew sleeping as danger approaches, and the general causes a chill wind to awaken them.  The tankers rush to the Stuart, only to have a German tank light up the night with explosive shells.  They’re almost wiped out, and burning debris falls onto the tank.  Crawling low, they manage to reach their vehicle, and they proceed to play possum in a burning coffin, waiting for the Panzer to get close enough to kill.  It’s a pretty great sequence.

 

They hold their nerves long enough and manage to scrag the enemy, but the next day, covered in soot and grime, they meet their new CEO, General Norton.  The tall, resplendent figure, with a gold helmet and gold-plated six-guns, is not impressed, and after calling the unit together, he tells them that they are facing professionals who fight, act, and look like soldiers.  Yet, he claims that the tankers look like amateurs, and he insists on spit and polish, saying they’ll fight better if they look better.  They’ll have more confidence and pride.  Jeb isn’t too sure, but his ghostly namesake agrees.  Of course, this General Norton is an ersatz version of George S. Patton, perhaps the most hard-charging American general in World War II.  He’s a fictionalized version of the great leader, but he has the twin six-guns and the hard-nosed demeanor.

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The affectionate note of the parody/tribute becomes clear as, just then, a flight of dive-bombers attack, sending all of the tankers scrambling for cover.  That is, they all seek cover except the general, who stands tall, firing his pistols defiantly.  Afterwards, still holding his smoking guns, he declares, “From now on we fight on our feet!  We don’t take it!  We dish it out!”  It’s a great moment.  The next day, shaved and cleaned up, the force moves out on a German position, taking heavy fire.  Suddenly, the barrage lightens up, and Jeb sees that General Norton has moved into the lead, drawing the fire of the defenders and leading from the front.

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His tank smashes through a building to flank the German anti-tank guns, and his men follow him in, routing the Nazi troops, another great sequence.  The position secured, one of the crew pipes up to ask if they can drop the spit and polish act now that the General himself is covered in the grime of battle.  Norton’s response is great: “No Corporal!  You see…I’m the general!”

 

This is a good, solid war yarn, with more of a sense of whimsy and fun than most of these.  The inclusion of a Patton parallel is a fun touch, and the character is fittingly larger than life, as was the man himself.  It’s also nice to see the ghostly general Stuart actually do something useful, though his contribution is very brief and very limited.  I’m still hoping we’ll see some stories that will take better advantage of the device he represents.  We are only a few issues away from a big change in the title, so we’ll see! Russ Heath continues to turn out really fantastic work on this book.  The sequence with the crew waiting it out in the burning tank is really fantastic.  If we can’t have Joe Kubert, then Russ Heath is definitely the next best thing.  I suppose this good all-around war yarn deserves 4 Minutemen.

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P.S.: Notably, with this issue, Joe Kubert started adding the famous “Make War no More” slogan on his war titles.  It’s possible it predates their appearance here, but this is the first time it showed up in this particular book.  This was Kubert’s and Kanigher’s effort to tell war stories without glorifying war, and it’s an interesting gesture.  The slogan is appended to every story within.  Obviously this change reflects the growing anti-war sentiments of the DC creators, which in turn reflects that of the nation itself., and we’re approaching the end of the Vietnam War, which was brought about in large part due to the loss of public support.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this move.  After all, you could see it as a bit disingenuous to keep telling the same stories but just slap a slogan on them and claim that squares things.  Many of the war tales DC published do, in fact, deal with the horrors of war rather than attempt to glorify it.  Yet, there are those that are a bit more ‘ra-ra,’ especially with the number of reprints in these books.  I suppose that the slogan was the team’s way of making the best of a difficult situation.  Their job was to tell war stories, but they themselves had become increasingly anti-war.  Either way, this new event rather nicely illustrates the cultural pressures coming to bear on the medium.

 


Green.Lantern/Green Arrow #84


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“Peril In Plastic”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Bernie Wrightson
Colourist: Cory Adams
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz

We’ve got another issue of O’Neil’s Green Lantern, to which I was certainly not looking forward.  Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised by it!  It’s a very strange issue in a lot of ways, and yet, it manages to be much more enjoyable than most of his run.  The cover is not particularly great, however.  The use of the real image in the background rather clashes with Adams’ colorful art.  The plight of our heroes does look pretty dire, but the effect is not entirely successful.  Interestingly enough, the photograph is actually of DC legend Carmine Infantino.  I’m not quite sure what that says.

The story in question begins where the last issue left off, where Hal carried a still crippled Carol Ferris into the (non) sunset, having revealed his identity to her.  The two spend the following weeks reconnecting and rekindling their love.  Adams gives us a half page that has a really neat design to tell the tale of their romance.  Yet, when Carol decides to go visit another specialist in the hopes an experimental procedure will restore her legs, she tells Hal that she must do this alone….for plot reasons.

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At loose ends and a bachelor again, Hal saunters on over to Ollie’s new apartment, which is a far cry from his former rich digs.  As the two friends chat about love and music in a charming scene, they hear a radio broadcast about explosions at a dam protecting Piper’s Dell that threaten to flood the town.  Suddenly, Hal realizes that this was Carol’s destination, and he zooms off to stem the tide!

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Hard to envision Hal as a fan of Dixieland…

At first, the Emerald Gladiator tries to use his ring simply to smother individual explosions, but he realizes that he’s only playing damage control, so he creates a magnet and sucks the bombs directly out of the structure.  Finally, he patches the crumbling edifice with mud, creating an emergency fix.

 

Exhausted by the effort, the Emerald Knight is none too pleased when the town’s mayor approaches him and insists on honoring the hero.  Showing Hal the town, the Mayor, Wilbur Palm, presents cookie-cutter houses and a pollution-spewing factory.  When I read this, my first thought was, ‘oh no, not another environmental sermon!’  But O’Neil actually has a more subtle and humorous game to play here, to his credit.

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The Mayor tells his guest that the factory makes strange little pins called Kalutas, which, every few minutes, tickle their wearers and puff out a whiff of perfume.  Hal’s face as he’s given one of these things is priceless.  Suddenly, the entire town shakes and an odd sound fills the air, but the Mayor simply says it’s the machinery in the factory.

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In a funny sequence, Palm drags Hal up onto a plastic stage, which breaks as soon as the Lantern puts his foot on it, and presents him with a plastic key to the city, which also breaks immediately, all while the ceremony is taped, lacking a live audience.  Finally sick of this strange place, the Green Gladiator tries to take off, only to find that he can’t focus.  Suddenly an army of suits, the Mayor’s ‘Executive Board,’ descend on the shaken hero, beating him mercilessly.  Just before he passes out, Hal summons the last of his will power and sends his ring to Green Arrow.

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Unfortunately, just as the most powerful weapon in the universe arrives, so does Black Canary, and who is going to notice a world-shattering wishing-ring when she’s in the room?  Sadly for Hal, Dinah has gotten her head back together, and she’s come back to town to visit Ollie.  The two head out for dinner, the ring still lying undiscovered in the apartment.  It’s a fun piece of irony.

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Meanwhile, the Lantern awakens to meet an old foe.  It seems that he’s fallen into the hands of…Black Hand?!?  That’s right, O’Neil gives us an honest-to-goodness supervillain for only the second time in his run, and it’s an interesting choice.  Apparently, Hand was masquerading as the mayor, all part of a plan by his corporate masters, who sprang him from prison to run their program.  Essentially, Piper’s Dell is a test case, an experiment.  It’s the company town taken to it’s logical extreme, with the populace not merely beholden to their corporate overlords but literally controlled by them.

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The townspeople are rendered pliable and suggestible by the constant irritations and distractions of the Kalutas, the poisons in the air, and the mind-numbing sounds of the factory.  The villain demonstrates by showing his captive footage of a townswoman being convinced that the hero had tried to destroy the dam rather than save it.  This was, of course, all part of the plan, and Carol was lured to town in order to trap the Lantern himself.  The lovers are reunited, only to be turned loose into a town that has been programed to hate them.

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While one couple fights for their lives, another fights each other.  Dinah and Ollie are having a spat because the bow-slinger fought with a drunk who was hitting on the Canary.  After the lovely Ms. Lance takes her leave, the Arrow finally discovers the ring and quickly sets out to rescue its owner, stopping on the way to charge it.  Now, I’m not 100% positive, but am I wrong, or couldn’t Ollie just slip the ring on and use it?  Either way, we get another funny scene as the newly poverty stricken hero uses his last $20 to rent a dinghy, unable to afford a speedboat, and begins to row.

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Hal and Carol have their own problems, however, as they are being pelted with plastic bricks (!) and chased by crazed townsfolk.  Pinned against the edge of the dam, the Lantern prepares for his last stand when, suddenly, a familiar voice tells him to freeze.  Green Arrow has arrived in the nick of time, and he makes an incredible shot, threading the needle to send the power ring back to its owners, his arrow passing through Hal’s fingers!

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The newly empowered Emerald Crusader makes short work of the mob and smashes into Black Hand’s headquarters.  Despite the villain’s resistance, the Lantern easily disposes of him by melting the plastic roof and entombing his foe in artificial materials.  The tale ends with the gathered friends walking through town and wondering what could possess people to trade their freedom and independence for the type of life that those in Piper’s Dell embraced, only for Ollie to wryly gesture to the Christmas shoppers eagerly snapping up plastic Christmas trees at a nearby store.

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This is a surprisingly good issue.  It’s off-beat, unusual, and more than a little silly, but it is clever and rather whimsical as well, which makes up for a lot.  The lighter tone rather lowers the stakes for the comic, meaning it doesn’t have to work as hard to earn its keep and achieve its aims.  Importantly, the characters are all a lot more likeable than they have been throughout the run so far, with both Hal and Ollie coming off as heroic, intelligent, and capable, which has certainly not always been the case.  The character moments really make this story shine.  The romantic interlude with Hal and Carol is touching and sweet, while the interactions between Ollie and Dinah are pretty darn funny.

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It was also nice to see an actual supervillain show up, and I have always had a bit of a soft spot for Black Hand, despite the fact that he was (in the classic setting) a bit of a goofball.  Sadly, he doesn’t give that great of a showing here, easily defeated as he is and lacking his signature weapon, much like Sinestro in his previous story.  That’s a shame, and it feels like a waste, especially because, despite appearances, Hand is actually a really good choice for this scheme.  He was a grifter and a shill, a smarmy punk with intelligence and zero empathy.  He’s a great choice to head this corporate brainwashing program.  The scheme itself, despite being a bit silly, is at least of respectable dimensions.  The unnamed corporate overlords plan to effectively conquer the world with this technique.  That’s a threat that is worthy of Green Lantern, at least in theory.

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O’Neil’s message here is an interesting one, and it is delivered with a fair amount of wit and charm.  Essentially, this is a critique of the growing disposable, artificial nature of American lives, filled as they are with so much plastic stuff.  It’s interesting to see this concept show up here because it is a common sentiment for old timers today, and I know I’ve heard my father lament “cheap Chinese junk” more than a few times.  In addition, there’s the related theme of people allowing themselves to be distracted by all of these things to the point that they blithely trade away their freedoms and their identities.  This is similar to one of O’Neil’s earlier stories, interestingly enough, in a Superman backup.  Of course, Adams’ art is fantastic throughout, and he does a particularly good job with the satirical elements of the story, portraying Hal’s befuddlement in the town.  His quiet character moments really shine.  I suppose I’ll give this unusual issue 4 Minutemen, despite its silliness.  The character moments lift it up to a higher level, and the fact that is is more satiric than preachy renders its foibles engaging rather than off-putting.

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Green.Lantern/Green Arrow #84


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“Death is the Black Racer!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Jack Kirby

More glorious Fourth World madness awaits us in this next issue!  It is a pretty interesting one, introducing another of the zillion and one concepts that Kirby packed into his new mythos, but unfortunately it is one that never quite worked, the Black Racer.  This character seems to be an obvious attempt by Kirby to recapture the magic that conjured the Silver Surfer into existence, but in circumstances that he could control, and who could blame him?  The concept of the Silver Surfer is a pretty silly one, but somehow, it works, probably because of the beautiful simplicity of Kirby’s design.  The Black Racer is not quite so fortunate.  His design is fairly awful, with the garish red, blue, and yellow, the incongruous armor, the skies, and the ski-poles.  Personally, I think it’s the poles that put it over the top, but you could really take your pick, as none of those elements work all that well.

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The cover, for its part, is better than many of those we’ve seen from this set of books.  The photo-background isn’t as distracting as most of the others, and the color of the sky makes it less flat and boring.  The central figure of the racer, however goofy his look, is nicely rendered, and there is some drama to the composition.  Unfortunately, the ski-riding figure doesn’t have the dramatic visual impact of, say, Orion or Mr. Miracle.

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The story itself begins in grand fashion, with a high-stakes race through the cosmos, as Lightray flees from a mysterious figure on skis, the Black Racer.  The young New God tries everything he can think of to shake his implacable pursuer, but nothing works.  He filters his light powers through a giant, crystalline meteor to generate a beam of incredible heat, but his antagonist easily dodges it, matching the youth’s every move.

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ng03-10Meanwhile, on Earth Orion and his rescued human friends make plans to combat Darkseid’s terrestrial forces.  The various mortals each get a little characterization, and Kirby does a good job of developing them in a small space, but they remain largely unused.  As the Dog of War steps aside to put on some native clothes, he ponders his handsome visage, and we learn that Mother Box has reshaped his features to help him blend in on New Genesis and that his actual face is far more brutal and ugly than the one he shows to the world.  Orion, like his readers, wonders what this means about his origins.  It’s an intriguing scene.  His disguises, both guise and garments, in place, he rejoins his friends.

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Lightray, for his part, continues his desperate race, igniting a nascent star in his wake, but his pursuer still hangs grimly to his trail.  Finally, exhausted and distracted, the fiery youth smashes into a meteor and is trapped…until the mysterious Metron suddenly arrives, just in the nick of time, teleporting the Black Racer far away…to Earth!

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On that benighted globe, the Racer is quick to pick up new quarry, and he flies to the ghetto of Metropolis where he finds two gangsters involved in a shoot-out.  After one of the low-lives, Sugar-Man, kills his opponent, he notices that there was a witness to his crime.  An ex soldier, Sgt. Willie Walker, wounded in action in Vietnam and now paralyzed and speechless, lies helplessly in his bed while the thug prepares to kill him, just for good measure.  Suddenly, a gauntleted hand reaches out and blocks the gun, which explodes in Sugar-Man’s face.

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What follows is really striking, as the Racer steps casually through the wall, noting that he’s heard the wounded man’s silent pleas.  The strange figure offers Walker freedom and power, if he’ll just take his hand.  Unbelievably, the paralytic suddenly stands and speaks, and he finds his mysterious visitor’s armor empty on the floor.  When he dons it, he becomes the Black Racer and soars into the sky in search of new quarry.

 

Across town, Lincoln and Orion smash their way into an Intergang hideout, where the gangsters are preparing to plant a bomb for their Apokoliptian masters.  Sugar-Man is one of their hired killers, and the wounded criminal is dispatched with the device while his fellows try to hold off the heroes with their alien weaponry.  Yet, while Orion may be temporarily stymied, nothing stops the Black Racer, who follows the fleeing felon, triggering the bomb and sent it towards space (though a page later we’re told this was Orion with his Mother Box, which is a bit confusing; perhaps we’re meant to understand that the Racer just carries out what is already happening?).  Sugar-Man meets a rather noisy end in low orbit as the bomb goes off.

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The tale ends with Orion and his ally calling the police to take care of their captured gangsters while the Black Racer returns to Willie Walker’s room, becoming the paralyzed soldier once more just before his caretakers, his sister and her husband, come back.  They lament that they left the helpless man alone while a killer was on the loose, not knowing that he himself has become an embodiment of death.

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This is really a fascinating issue, despite the fact that it doesn’t entirely work, and some of its faults are pretty glaring.  Nonetheless, there is something special here.  The idea of introducing a cosmic personification of Death is certainly a fitting one for this setting, and in his way, the Racer fits well into the story Kirby is telling.  After all, the old pantheons always had their death gods, Anubis, Hades, Hela, and the rest.  It makes sense for the New Gods to be the same.  Still, in execution, the Black Racer is flawed as well as promising.  On the one hand, Kirby is adding some diversity to his new mythology, which, inspired by the Norse pantheon as it is, can certainly use it.  On the other hand, just like with Vykin, we’ve got yet another black character with ‘black’ in their name, as if we’d miss the subtle distinction otherwise.  We’re really past the point where creators should know better.  It is noteworthy that Kirby begins to introduce ghetto-based black characters at this point, right as the ‘blaxploitation‘ genre is taking off.’  Remember, it was this very month that saw the release of Shaft, which defined the genre.  Clearly, not only were racial issues in the zeitgeist, but so were stories of minority protagonists in their own settings.

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Silly sobriquets aside, Kirby is doing more than just introducing another celestial champion here, and it is the Racer’s other half that really resonates in this story.  The plight of Willie Walker brings a truly engaging human element to this cosmic drama.  His story is heartbreaking, yet like Daredevil before him, his disability is revealed not to be a bar to his freedom, but in this case the price is a strange and perilous one.  The setup is rich for development and story possibilities, though, if I recall correctly, that potential goes unrealized in the short life of this book.  Time will tell on that score.

On the art front, Kirby’s not at his best in this issue.  His work is often rough and uneven, and some of the big moments are a actually rather unattractive.  This is also true of his designs.  While the gangster character have some of that classic Kirby panache, the Racer is just a mess.  It is fun to see Orion playing Phillip Marlowe, complete with fedora and dark suit, though.  This is just a flawed treatment of a flawed concept, but both the issue and character it introduces have a certain amount of charm despite their failings.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen, as despite rough art and a poor design, there is something worthwhile in the Black Racer and his debut issue.

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Interestingly, according to the Kirby Museum’s great article on New Gods #3, apparently DC was eager for characters that could be spun out of the King’s Fourth World should it prove a hit, so part of the insane productivity and fertility of these books is probably in response to pressure from the powers that be, as well as Kirby’s own desire to populate his own comic book universe.  He certainly had enough different concepts introduced in these books to furnish an entire comic line, from the Black Racer to Lonar the Wanderer (who we’ll meet eventually).  That certainly sheds a new light on some of the unusual narrative choices Kirby made in his Fourth World titles.

Well, whatever the case, we have run out of post!  Three more issues down, and entertaining reads all!  I hope that y’all enjoyed my commentary and will join me again soon for the next batch of books.  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive, and try to stay ahead of the Black Racer!

 

Into the Bronze Age: June 1971 (Part 3)

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

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

 


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

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

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


Justice League of America #90


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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St. Hawkman of the wings

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

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

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

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

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

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Mister Miracle #2


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

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

mr miracle 02-01 x-pit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mr miracle 02-23 miracle talk


The Phantom Stranger #13


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“The Devil’s Time-Piece”


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

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

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

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

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