Into the Bronze Age: May 1970 (Part 4)

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Yikes!  This is a busy time in the semester for me, but I hope that y’all will find this issue worth the wait.  Time for another step in our Bronze Age journey!

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

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

Bonus!: Star Hawkins (for real this time)

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

Superman #226

Superman_v.1_226.jpgCover Artist: Curt Swan
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Roussos

“Uncle Sam’s Prize Prisoner!”
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Roussos

Heaven save me from these gimmicky Superman stories!  Apparently writer Leo Dorfman caught King Kong on the late movie this month and thought, ‘hey, what if Superman were King Kong?’  The answer?  Well, it turns out it really isn’t all that interesting.  This issue is effectively just a series of sight gags as a colossal Superman reenacts King Kong…for reasons.  Many of the individual panels have at least a little visual interest, but in the end, there’s no reason to tell this story.

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We join our hero as he’s headed to a showing of, you guessed it, King Kong.  To this issue’s credit, it makes no bones about what it is up to.  Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen are getting concessions before the film, and Jimmy discovers a strange red marble in his crackerjacks.  As you have likely guessed, this is red kryptonite.  Since that is the macguffin that Silver Age writers used to justify whatever bizarre silliness they wanted to shove into a Superman comic, you can probably guess what type of story we’re in for.

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superman 226 0005.jpgI’ll admit, I like seeing Superman and his supporting cast just palling around.  After the opening credits, the Metropolis Marvel finds himself feeling very strange.  He dives out of sight and suddenly begins to grow at a tremendous rate!  Swan’s art really does a nice job with these gimmicky visuals.

Unfortunately, as he grows, the man of Steel also seems to lose his ability to think and speak.  Insert your choice of political joke here; you really can’t go wrong.  So Super Kong begins to rampage across Metropolis, mostly accidentally, and he picks up Lois so she can play the part of Fay Wray in this little farce.  In response, the police begin to fire on the colossal Kryptonian, which of course does no good.  Interestingly enough, they immediately assume that it isn’t Superman because he wouldn’t doing all of this.  For once the police assume that the hero acting out of character ISN’T the real McCoy, and it turns out that he is the genuine article.  There’s some irony in that.  Of course, they immediately reverse their assumption when their bullets have no effect, saying “Only Superman could flatten bullets like ping pong balls!”  Really?  It’s not like Metropolis has never seen anybody else that could do such things, like Bizarro, Metallo, and your garden variety giant robot that Lex Luthor invents every Tuesday.

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Small arms having proved useless, the police call out their para-corps (!) to drop gas on the giant hero. Again, we get a nice panel to capture this strange moment.  To further the Kong plot, Superman scopes up Lois and starts climbing the tallest building around, only to be assaulted by jet-fighters!  Yep, they recreate the most famous scene from King Kong, complete with a tumble from the heights, which, of course, doesn’t hurt the giant Man of Steel the way it does the oversized ape.

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The massive Man of Steel continues his inadvertent rampage, but eventually the fog in his mind begins to clear, though he still can’t speak.  The super-sized Superman takes the only logical course of action.  What?  No, he doesn’t use his finger or his heat vision to carve a message that people could read, don’t be silly!  Instead, he runs to Washington D.C. and tears up the Washington Monument to carve a message bigger than he is!

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Of course, no-one can read this, and the government recruits Lois to serve as a trojan horse to disable the huge hero.  She shows up in a tank as a distraction while a plane drops a kryptonite bomb, knocking him out.  He awakens chained to a giant kryptonite cross erected on the National Mall.  Fortunately, Jimmy, flying in the Daily Planet private helicopter (!) comes to his friend’s rescue, using big rolls of lead foil to insulate Superman from the kryptonite.  Handy that Jimmy was just carrying those around.  Well, as silly and contrived as it is, and that’s hardly worth mentioning in this goofy story, the monstrous Metropolis Marvel escapes and dives into the sea.

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Next, we get the obligatory secret identity farce that these types of tales seem to think is always necessary.  Clark Kent shows up just in time to see the giant Superman rise out of the sea and head into space.  Both Lois and Jimmy are watching, and they tell Clark that they got suspicious when he disappeared at the same time the Man of Steel showed up.  I wonder how many times they’ve done this plot?  It’s got to be hundreds at this point.

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Anyway, the story wraps up by explaining how our hero was able to manage this.  It seems he flew at super speed, got Titano, the giant ape (because one Kong wasn’t enough, apparently), and dressed him in a Superman costume.  Really.  The final panel tells us that Superman is going to go clean up all the damage he did while he was giant.  At least they thought about that, which means this ridiculous, silly, unnecessary, and super Silver Age-y story was given more thought than the entirety of Zack Snyder’s treatment of Superman.  Good job there, Zack.

Well, this is a silly , pointless story.  There isn’t much to it, other than some fun visual moments.  It really feels like a relic in this climate that is already beginning to change.  I’ll give it 2 Minutemen.  It’s not bad, just very Silver Age-y and irrational.

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“Uncle Sam’s Prize Prisoner”

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As is often the case, the backup tale is a lot more enjoyable than the headliner.  This relatively clever story features our favorite mild-mannered reporter paying a visit to a secret laboratory hidden inside a mountain (Dexter would be proud) to interview a scientist engaged in top secret research for the government.  Yet, in the middle of their discussion, the scientist has a heart attack and dies!  Before he shuffles off this mortal coil, he entrusts the formula for a secret missile defense system component to the visiting newsman.

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Being a patriotic American, Kent heads to DC and tells them what he memorized, but as he is leaving the building, he is nabbed right off the street by two men in suits!  Unable to put up too much of a fight without risking his identity, Clark is carted off into a waiting car.  It turns out his abductors are actually G-Men, his new bodyguards, in fact!  The government is afraid that this good citizen will now become the target for the ever wonderfully vague “foreign powers.”  Well, that’s a pretty pickle for a hero with a secret identity, isn’t it?  This is, unlike that first story, an actually interesting wrinkle.  How can Superman ditch these guys, who stick to him like glue, in order to do his work?

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The first test comes as he’s sitting at his desk in his office, where his x-ray vision detects a window cleaner’s harness break, threatening to send him plummeting to his doom.  In order to make a stealthy exit, the Man of Tomorrow cooks off a canister of tear gas the agents have nearby, and he slips out in the resulting confusion.  Ouch, Supes.  That’s a bit hard on those poor agents, but I suppose there is a life at stake.  His mission of mercy accomplished, our hero almost gets caught returning to his office.  That was close!

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Next, those pesky “foreign powers” DO make an attempt to grab Clark, and he has to subtly and secretly use his heat vision to melt the incoming and outgoing bullets so that no-one dies in the exchange.  I’ll refrain from more Snyder bashing.  Anyway, it’s a nice moment, and very indicative of the character.

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Later, Clark and his ‘handlers’ are leaving the Planet, and he spots those same enemy agents down the street.  Our disguised hero slips into a manhole cover to make his getaway while the G-men are distracted, but he falls right into the hands of the very enemy spies he was trying to avoid!  They question him for hours, with, of course, no results, but then the situation takes a dire turn.  They prepare to start torturing him, and as a soon as the first goon breaks a fist on his face, Superman knows his secret will be revealed.

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A female spy intercedes to try her own methods of persuasion, and he lays a “super kiss” on her that practically knocks her out.  While I think the ludicrous grab bag of powers that the Silver Age Superman eventually acquired is silly, I rather like this moment.  He doesn’t mind-wipe her or any such nonsense, he just takes her breath away with a heck of a kiss.  Right on, Clark.  It’s a genuinely funny beat.

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Knowing he’s running out of time, Mr. Lips of Steel decides to “break,” declaring that he’ll tell them what they want to know.  Of course, he lies his kester off, claiming that the good professor had cracked the secret of cryogenesis.  The spies decide to test it on their prisoner, which works out just as he had hoped.  They throw him in the deep freeze after giving him the random mixture of chemicals that he requested, and, of course, he is able to be revived after the process.  He manages to brazen it out, after that, pretending to still be frozen, and thus unaffected by their bullets.  That’s the weakest point of this story to me.  It seems like they might have suspected something here, but it’s a fairly minor complaint.

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superman 226 0031.jpgThe Man of Tomorrow is able to escape, but when he arrives back home he finds himself under arrest…for treason!  The government discovered that he “shared” his secrets.  Fortunately, they release him when they realize that he didn’t actually give anything away and, what’s more, was under extreme duress.

This is a fun, clever little tale.  It isn’t a big, bombastic adventure, but it is a chance for Superman to show off his intelligence and resourcefulness.  I do enjoy just stories.  I like the central problem here.  It’s a variation on a common theme, Clark having to act as Superman without revealing his identity, but at least it at is an interesting variation, one I haven’t seen before.  We’re definitely seeing that same Cold War tension here we’ve seen elsewhere, no surprise seeing as this is a Haney tale.  He seems to like these generically East/West charged yarns.  Swan’s art remains beautiful and classically effective.  In the end, I’ll give it a 3.5 out of 5.  It’s definitely an above average story, but there isn’t quite enough to it to bump up to a 4.

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World’s Finest #193

World's_Finest_Comics_193.jpgCover Artist: Curt Swan
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: Ross Andru
Inker: Mike Esposito

And this insipid little adventure continues.  *Sigh*  As you might have gathered from the previous issue’s entry, I really was not a fan of the tale that Haney decided to tell here.  It’s just so silly and ridiculous, without the charm that often accompanies his zaney stories. At this point, I am completely over this inane outing.  This issue suffers from all of the problems of the previous, but it doesn’t have as many redeeming features.  Or maybe I’m just sick of it.  The cleverness and resourcefulness of the heroes that made the last tale more palatable is here replaced by incompetence and helplessness.

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Our story, such as it is, begins in media res, picking up from the last issue with Batman and Superman imprisoned behind the iron curtain in the fictional, vaguely commie nation, Lubania.  Our heroes are being tortured in various sadistic ways.  For example, Superman must hold a heavy weight suspended above Batman’s head, and if the former Man of Steel should falter, his Bat-Buddy will be crushed.  Superman struggles on for a day and a night, but when he finally weakens, they discover that the weight has stoppers.  It was all a cruel trick.  This sets the pattern for our continually generic Colonel Koslov’s tortures.  Our heroes are being broken down, starved and tormented.

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He also straps feathered lures to the World’s Finest (totally not in evidence here) Team and has them jump on a trampoline while he unleashes his falcon upon them.  Meanwhile, Batman stages a fake breakout to throw Koslov off their tracks in preparation for a real breakout, which is also thwarted.  Here’s my central problem with this story.  Obviously there’s the stupid touches, like Batman being allowed to keep his mask and utility belt, even if it has been emptied, but you have this totally unimpressive villain who somehow is two steps ahead of one of the greatest minds on the planet.  Really?  That just doesn’t work for me.  You’re telling me Batman, as intelligent and resourceful as he is, can’t break out of this generic prison camp?  Bah.

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Anyway, getting back to the story (do I have to?), Perry White is touring the camp and complaining about conditions, but, of course, he can do nothing.  Yet, while he watches, Superman suddenly gets his powers back, and the pair of heroes charge right through the stalag, knocking over guard towers and ripping through barbed wire.  White meets the two at the border and takes them home, where they are greeted with a ticker-tape parade and debriefed by the Pentagon.

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Of course, it’s all a ruse, and the two “heroes” are double agents planted to feed the U.S. misinformation and ferret out state secrets.  Back in camp, the Dark Knight and the Man of Tomorrow are very much tired of today.  They pretend to break, painting anti-American slogans on the camp, but they steal supplies for a disguise kit so they can switch identities.  This means that the “synthetic kryptonite” waves will be hitting the wrong hero.  When Koslov tries to assassinate them that night, Superman stops him and the duo escapes.  It’s really not terribly dynamic or interesting, given the build-up we’ve had all issue.

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Back in the U.S., the burst in just in time to prevent the two red agents from detonating a bomb in the Pentagon.  Fortunately, their switched identities confused the spies long enough for Superman, as Batman, to destroy the device.  The tale ends with Koslov now in prison and our heroes free.

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Well, this one was a real slog.  I was tired of the concept by the end of the previous issue, so I was dreading this one.  It certainly didn’t get any better.  In fact, it got substantively worse as the heroes played out the roles of a half dozen prison camp movies.  I’m bored with it in the extreme.  I give it 1 Minuteman.

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Bonus: The Space Museum!

w85121_20.jpgWriter: Gardner Fox
Artist: Carmine Infantino

The Space Museum was the third rotating feature in Strange Adventures, along with my two previous bonus topics, the Atomic Knights and Star Hawkins.  Just like those other features, this one routinely rose above the goofy, usual 50’s flavored sci-fi fare that filled the rest of that book’s pages.  Also, just like the other two, this concept was unique and creative.  Instead of following a particular character or cast, the Space Museum tales would tell a different science fiction story from the future.  Each story began with a frame tale, which would follow a young boy as his father brought him to the museum for a visit.  Each of their visits would focus on one particular exhibit, and the father would then tell the story surrounding that relic.

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Because of the nature of their serial, anthology characteristics, these were varied and manifold.  They tended to follow brave explorers or soldiers who traveled space and faced strange new threats.  In a particularly fun and surprisingly advanced tale, our narrator related the story of a courageous general and a cunning admiral, who eventually became man and wife, in fact, the very parents of our young museum goer.  It was interesting to see such a progressive portrayal of a woman in these old tales, which tended towards rather blatant sexism.

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Somehow they managed to be a cut above the other stories in each issue, perhaps because Fox saved his best material for these particular yarns.  Whatever the case, they are really excellent examples of classic comic science fiction, with the innocence and wonder of the Silver Age, but generally avoiding its most ridiculous aspects.

 

Final Thoughts:

Well, dear readers, I believe this was a pretty strong month, over all.  It had some weak points, but it also had some remarkably strong points.  Several titles had great showings, including a few that I’m not usually a big fan of.  We’ve seen some really interesting and powerful treatments of the dominant themes abroad in the zeitgeist with the Haunted Tank story and the like.  That one just impressed the heck out of me, and I just can’t help but compare the effectiveness of its storytelling and the ham-handed preaching of Denny O’Neil’s in the Green Arrow/Green Lantern book.  Clearly it isn’t just that writers in the Bronze Age lacked subtlety or attention to tone.

I’ve also seen several areas with what I consider some wasted potential, like the Thanagarian doomsday cultist and our generic German baron with the dueling scars.  Ohh, right, and I also learned something that continues to fascinate me, about the academic dueling societies.  I may have to challenge one of my fellow medievalists to a duel, just so I can say I’ve had the experience!

Either way, we have written ‘finis’ to May 1970, and a good month it was.  Thank you for reading, and I hope you will join me, this weekend if I can manage and next week if not, for the next chapter in our journey Into the Bronze Age!