Into the Bronze Age: April 1971 (Part 6)

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Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap long-boxes in a single bound, it’s Into the Bronze Age!  I’ve certainly got an interesting pair of books in this post as we finish out the end of the April, 1971.  All of these stories are unusual in one way or another, so it shouldn’t be a boring batch, if nothing else.

I want to thank all of my readers for your patience as I’ve been moving slowly on this feature lately.  I’m rushing to finish a great deal of my professional work here at the end of the summer, which sadly leaves me little time for this pleasant diversion.  Anyway, thanks for sticking with me, and I promise to keep limping along steadily, if not rapidly.  Well, without further ado, let’s see what awaits us at the end of the month!

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

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

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


Superman #236


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“Planet of the Angels”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson

“The Doomsayer!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Dick Giordano
Inker: Dick Giordano

Say what you will about Denny O’Neil, he was unquestionably an innovator, always trying something different, though it didn’t always succeed.  Today’s cover story is just such an experiment.  It’s interesting and unusual, but not entirely effective.  The cover is certainly striking, picturing the Man of Steel facing off against demons at the very gates of Hell, a very unlikely image for a Superman comic.  O’Neil has been trying to shake up the status quo, to bring new life and energy to the rather staid hero, and he’s been succeeding so far.  This comic isn’t quite as successful as some of his previous efforts, though.

It begins with a fun little scene where the World’s Finest team of Superman and Batman bust some safe-crackers.  O’Neil and Swan manage to make them both seem useful, despite the fact that the invulnerable, super-fast sun god could easily have handled these two ordinary crooks before Batman so much as put on his cowl.  Swan really does a great job with this team.  The effect is enjoyable, despite their incongruity.  Superman offers to buy his partner a cup of coffee, and I’m deeply disappointed that we don’t get to see a HISHE style scene with the two heroes sipping java in a cafe.

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Missed opportunities aside, after the Dark Knight begs off because he’s bushed, the Man of Tomorrow heads to his Fortress of Solitude where he tries out a ‘brainwave project’ that he’s been working on, a device that will compare his brainwaves to those of a normal human.  Envying humans and their need for sleep and dreams, he tries out the gadget and suddenly finds himself on a strange world!  What’s going on?

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He’s on a fiery plane where he is suddenly attacked by a gang of demons straight out of pop-cultural portrayals, right down to the goat-feet and pitchforks.  Their polearms glance off him harmlessly, and the Kryptonian easily repulses their attack.

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Just then, he is greeted by a trio of angelic looking figures who introduce themselves as Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael, Christian archangels who tell the Man of Steel that he’s in the afterlife.  They stand amid beautiful green hills, and below them burns a sulfurous pit.  They display the popular misunderstanding of theology that Hell is for “those who follow not the paths of virtue,” and tell Superman that he has died and must prove himself worthy of Heaven by slaying the demons below.  Something about this seems off to him, but the Action Ace heads into the flames nonetheless.

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In the pit he discovers a massive gate and is haunted by twisted images of his friends appearing in the flames.  Realizing that something is off, Superman decides to use his head, and he tunnels underneath the gate, easily disarming the ‘demonic’ guards on the other side, where he tries to get some straight answers out of one of their number.

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The ‘fiend’ tells the Metropolis Marvel that what he sees is an illusion caused by the ‘angel’s’ hypnotic powers.  With concentration, the Man of Steel sees, not a demon, but a uniformed alien, who tells the hero that he and his fellows are law officers who were chasing criminals, those same ‘angels,’ who lured them to this planet and trapped them.  The criminals telepathically summoned Superman to destroy their enemies for them.

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Confronting the false heavenly host, the Man of Steel sees through their illusions, including phantoms of his friends being threatened, and charges through their weapon blasts to knock two of them out.  The third escapes, however, carrying a powerful bomb (through deep space!), with which to destroy the Earth!  The Man of Tomorrow catches up just in the nick of time and stops the antagonistic archangel, returning him and his fellows to the lawmen (err…law-aliens?), and repairing their ship.  The tale ends with Superman back in the Fortress of Solitude, where he reflects that he had a living dream, even though he didn’t sleep.

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This is a weird issue.  I like how Superman picks up on the incongruous elements of the ‘angel’s’ stories and setting, and I like his willingness to question figures of even the ultimate authority.  It shows a greater maturity for his character than we’ve seen in the past, and these are obviously elements that O’Neil has been trying to develop.  Yet, precisely what is happening in the story is rather unclear.  Does Superman’s device cause him to dream?  Is this a real and random encounter that has nothing to do with the device?  It’s really ambiguous, and unintentionally so, I think.

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Neither possibility lines up perfectly with the story as told, and there doesn’t seem to be any overriding point to either possibility either.  Add to that the fact that Superman just absolutely breezes through all of his challenges in this story, despite the fact that O’Neil has been trying to present him as less all-powerful and the presence of alien weapons that could reasonably have presented a threat to him, and you’ve got an uneven tale that feels a bit sloppy.  I’m also a little disappointed that the ersatz angel’s appearances weren’t illusions, as it seems incongruous for aliens to be flying through space in robes and without any protective gear.  I understand what O’Neil was going for with his little ‘evil can be beautiful’ touch at the end, but it still doesn’t quite work.  In the end, I’ll give this off-beat issue 2 Minutemen, with the dip below average primarily because of its unnecessary ambiguity.  It’s strange but ultimately forgettable.

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“The Doomsayer!”


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While the first story was something new, this backup is something old.  This is another ‘Fabulous World of Krypton’ backup feature, though, honestly it feels like a bit of a gyp.  The frame-tale guest stars Green Arrow and Black Canary, so take a wild guess what the theme is.  If you guessed ‘yet another preachy environmental yarn,’ you win the cigar!  This story just doesn’t fit the tone of Kryptonian tales, and it’s a good example of what happens when you shoe-horn in a message, prioritizing that over story.  It all begins with Superman, Green Arrow, and Black Canary having a picnic, which is a fun idea, but a rather odd set of characters.  Predictably, Ollie starts bellyaching about a nearby factory that’s spewing out pollution.  At this point, why does anyone even hang out with this annoying archer?  Well, this reminds Kal-El of a story from the glory days of Krypton, the story of a city called Surrus.  In this city there grew special flowers, the Surrus blossoms, that sang a beautiful, calming song that had an almost soporific effect on the populace.  Shades of the “Lotus Eaters!”

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This city was also home to a scientist named Mo-De, who discovered the fate of Krypton twenty whole years ahead of Jor-El!  After he made his discovery, he rushed out into the city streets and started playing Jeremiah, telling the citizens that there was still time to act.  The people didn’t want anything to do with him, just wanting to be left alone to listen to their flowers.  In desperation, Mo-De rushed into the fields and cut down the blossoms, but the enraged citizens, finally shaken out of their lethargy, beat him mercilessly and locked him in a greenhouse with more of the singing sprouts.

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Eventually, the sounds break his will, and he emerges another zombie-fied lotus eater, err…flower listener.  He passed the remaining years in peace, but died with the rest of Krypton.  After Supes finishes his story, Canary is horrified, and she rushes off to have a word with the factory’s owner, having been shaken out of her lethargy.  “Message for you, sir!”  It’s a shame it was so subtle.  I almost missed it.

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This isn’t a bad story, really.  It just doesn’t really belong here, and the entire thing feels forced, from the odd picnic with these characters that don’t really seem to have much in common (all in costume, no less), to the rather Twilight Zone-esq plot, which just really doesn’t seem to fit the utopian, highly organized Krypton that we’ve seen before.  O’Neil does a good job of economical storytelling, packing his preachy message into seven short pages pretty efficiently.  The message itself, though feeling a bit repetitive because of its environmental theme, is actually a slightly unusual one and not half bad.  Focusing, not on the pollution itself, but on the populace’s apathy, their greater interest in their entertainments, their distractions, than on their future, is a good angle.  The execution of the plot itself isn’t half bad, with the crowd’s reactions and the scientist’s fate all fairly creepy and menacing.  The fact that O’Neil did use Krypton allowed him a certain amount of shorthand with the fate of the planet, which helps his efficiency in storytelling.  There is also significance in the continued push towards social relevance, even in such an unlikely place as the Krypton backups.  Taken all together, this little yarn is worth 3 Minutemen, with the incongruous elements limiting it to an average score.

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P.S.: There’s also a somewhat clever joke in the name of the town, as “SUSsurrus” is a word meaning a soft murmuring or whispering, something of an indistinct, gentle noise.


Teen Titans #32


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“A Mystical Realm – A World Gone Mad”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Nick Cardy
Inker: Nick Cardy
Letterer: Joe Letterese
Editor: Murray Boltinoff

Steve Skeates’ tenure on the Titans book continues this month, and we get a rather weird story under a fairly awesome cover.  The peril of the two Titans in the image is pretty dramatic, and the dragon is quite impressive looking.  The whole composition has a dream-like (or perhaps, nightmare-like) quality that smacks of the twisted fairy tale we find within. The story it represents begins with a scene that takes in media res too far, with Kid Flash and Mal traveling through time and referencing events that the reader hasn’t seen.  It seriously made me go back and check the last issue to see if I had forgotten something.  It’s a clever scene given the use of time travel, as it begins ‘in the present,’ but it’s probably too clever for its own good.

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They think they are back in 1971, but instead of finding familiar surroundings, they discover medieval-looking peasants and, of all things, a dragon!  Kid Flash’s speed manages to get them to safety, and only then do we get the flashback we’ve been needing.  It seems that Mr. Jupiter, the vague and largely pointless patron of the Titans team, is apparently a scientist as well as a millionaire.

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One day he was experimenting with a time-travel device, just casually running incredibly dangerous and unstable tests in his building with a bunch of teenagers around.  Something went catastrophically wrong (shocking, I know), and Mal was flung back in time.  Cardy’s rendering of the page is really cool, but the scene is rather dumb.  It’s pretty clear that we’re moving at the speed of plot, here.  Also, here is yet another experiment that could conceivably destroy the world as we know it.  I’m thinking that the safest course of action in the DCU would be to ban science in general.

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Mal finds himself back in the Stone Age, facing a tribe of cavemen who begin to worship him because they saw him appear out of thin air.  Apparently the young man listened to the Ghostbuster’s good advice, as he plays along.  Meanwhile, back in the present, Jupiter feels bad for about half a second for how his irresponsibility and complete lack of safety standards hurled an innocent kid through time.  The other Titans encourage him for some reason, and Kid Flash makes plans to take a jaunt through time to try and find his friend.

Back in the past, Mal finds trouble by stealing a caveman’s cavegirl and finds himself in a club duel.  Cardy renders the fight beautifully, and Skeates doesn’t spoil it with dialog.  Mal holds his own, but a misstep leaves him hanging onto a cliff, just as Kid Flash arrives.  As the caveman prepares for a death-blow, the Fastest Boy alive knocks the club out of his hand, but he manages to bean himself in the process and earns a spot on the Head-Blow Headcount, as well as sending the neanderthal plummeting to his death.  With the hero knocked out, there’s no way to save the savage, which doesn’t seem to bother the boys much.  They take manslaughter awfully casually.

In the altered present, Kid Flash realizes that they’ve unintentionally changed history with the death of that caveman.  The young speedster knows they must go back and save the neanderthal, but he needs a cosmic treadmill to do it and doesn’t know where to find one in this medieval world.  The peasants from earlier mentioned sorcerers, so they set out to try to find someone with the power or knowledge to help them.  Discovering a castle, the pair are greeted by illusory monsters in the moat, but they manage to get past them by pole-vaulting onto the battlements, despite a mysterious hooded figure’s interference.

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It’s a nice sequence, but it gives us one of the stranger dialog exchanges I’ve seen in a while.  Mal says to Wally, “Love your white soul, brother Titan!” and his partner responds “Love your black one, Mal–and if I’ve got any soul–you taught me how!”  It’s a pretty goofy exchange by today’s standards.  I understand what Skeates was aiming for, and it makes more sense in the context of the racial tensions of the day.  In addition, there’s some decent character development in this passage and the story as a whole, as Kid Flash was the most antagonistic to Mal in their earlier encounters.  This emphasis on racial unity, however silly the setting and clumsy the effort, is an interesting and thoughtful move on Skeates’ part.  Nonetheless, I can’t help laughing when I read it.

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When the pair reach the castle’s walls, they discover that the wizard is none other than Mr. Jupiter, who here is known as Jupiterius, and he has a quartet of super-powered knights who are ersatz counterparts to the Justice League, including Batman, Superman, the Flash, and Green Arrow, which is a fun little touch for this alternate reality.  The boys ask the sorcerer for help, but he and his champions insist they pass a test to prove their worth first.

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Their first challenge is a test of bowmanship.  Weirdly, they are confronted with Lilith and Speedy, who look like their modern counterparts with no good explanation.  It’s supposed to be some type of trick, but I don’t really see the point of it.  Nonetheless, things seem pretty hopeless.  How can Kid Flash compete with Speedy in his element?  Well, despite the boy bowman making a perfect shot at a keyhole, Kid Flash manages to pull a Robin Hood and split his arrow.  Even more, his shaft manages to slice through the other and unlock the door.  The tale ends with the time-tossed Titans facing whatever mysterious menace awaits on the other side!

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This is certainly an entertaining and unusual story, but it feels very uneven.  What Skeates is trying here is creative and promising, (I always like an imaginative alternate reality) but his execution is just rather off.  It’s fun to see the medieval Justice League, a concept that will be revisited a few times over the years, but they don’t really do anything, and the addition of Mr. Jupiter feels a bit shoe-horned.  Sure, he’s important to the Titans, but his presence with the League implies a more important role in the DCU than really seems warranted.  Of course, I may just be letting my dislike for the pointless character color my reading.  As for the death of the caveman, I think I would be much more bothered by that if it wasn’t pretty clear that the heroes will reverse it.  Nonetheless, I would have liked to see Wally deal with that at least a little bit, rather than immediately shrugging it off.  Honestly, after reading this story, I had to double check to make sure it wasn’t ‘ol Zany Haney.  I was certain that this was one of his half-baked yarns, as the wild world the characters visit just feels more random than thought–out.  Needless to say, the art is gorgeous, and Cardy does a great job with all of the medieval and fantasy elements.  His soft, sketchy work really sells the illusions and mystery of the book.  In the end, it’s a fun if flawed and strange story, so I’ll give it 3 Minutemen.

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The Head-Blow Headcount:

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We’ve got a bunch of new additions to the Wall of Shame this month.  Poor Aquaman makes yet another return, but he is in good company as Batgirl, Mr. Miracle, and Kid Flash all join him.  This puts Batgirl back ahead of Robin, sadly for her.  The Headcount certainly drives home just how much of a trope this is, with so many of our stars showing up on it.  I wonder if we’ll ever see the Last Son of Krypton gracing this feature.


Final Thoughts:


And that finishes up April 1971!  This is a month of endings and beginnings, a month of specters and spooks, and a month of innovation as well as repetition.  The books of this month reflect the paradoxical nature of this era in DC Comics, with the extremely conventional sharing space with the experimental.  At the same time Leo Dorfman is turning out standard Silver Age fare, Denny O’Neil is working to revamp Superman, all while Jack Kirby is busy pushing the boundaries of the medium.  Notably, while O’Neil fails to challenge the Man of Steel, Kirby finds great success with both physical and dramatic obstacles worthy of Last Son of Krypton.

Comics also seem to be edging further into the long forbidden realms of horror and the supernatural, with two different tales this month featuring hauntings and wandering spirits.  This is to be expected in the Phantom Stranger, though his story once again proves mature and impressive, but the theme is surprising in the Rose and Thorn backup.  I am also surprised by my continuing enjoyment of the Lois Lane book as a whole.  It remains an interesting and off-beat change of pace in my monthly readings.

This month saw the end of Aquaman and the birth of Mr. Miracle, the death of something special and the advent of something unique.  One group of creators was denied the chance to finish what they started, while the King is finally given the chance to give form to the gathered inspirations of his unsatisfying final years at Marvel.

Social relevance continues to be a force, with even the last Aquaman title dealing with themes of pollution and human environmental impact in an oblique fashion.  Denny O’Neil, of course, continues to hit environmental themes, but even his prime Superman story this month has a touch of social commentary in its subtle encouragement about questioning appearances.

We’ve also got superheroes accidentally killing people left and right this month, with both Supergirl and Kid Flash unintentionally taking a life.  We’re still in an immature enough era that these deaths are mostly unremarked and their moral dimensions almost completely ignored.  Hopefully we’ll see a more intentional approach to the moral responsibility of these characters grow up in the succeeding months and years.

In terms of form, we’re seeing more and more continued stories, with Supergirl wrapping up a several month long arc that actually did affect the character during its progression.  Rose and Thorn continues its episodic format, and Jimmy Olsen and the Titans books are doing the same.  This is providing the opportunity for more expansive plots and greater development.  I wonder if we’ll see that become the dominant form for most of DC’s titles.

Well, it was certainly an eventful month in comics, and there is still plenty more to come!  I hope y’all enjoyed this month’s books and commentary, and I also hope you’ll return soon as we begin another month of reading.  Until then, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

 

Into the Bronze Age: February 1971 (Part 6)

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Welcome to another edition of Into the Bronze Age!  We’re still working on February, but we’re almost done.  We’ve got a solid set of books to talk about today, and we get a new entry on the Head-Blow Headcount!  Adventure awaits!

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


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

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

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


Superman #234


Superman_v.1_234“How to Tame a Wild Volcano!”
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson

“Prison in the Sky”
Writer: E. Nelson Bridwell
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Curt Swan

We’ve got a nicely dramatic cover for this issue, and the headline story within is definitely a step in the right direction for O’Neil’s Superman revamp.  The plot is a standard setup for the Man of Steel, a natural disaster threatening innocents, but there are added complications, physical, and, more interestingly, moral.

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The story begins with everyone’s favorite evil CEO (before Lex Luthor went legit), Morgan Edge, who is calling Clark Kent into his office.  He gives the mild mannered man a new assignment, to cover the events on the island of Boki as they unfold.  Apparently, the Boki volcano is about to erupt for the first time in 100 years, and, in another display of impersonal, corporate evil, the island’s owner is refusing to let his workers evacuate.  Edge orders Clark not to intervene, only to report, displaying a telling level of vicious callousness.  Fortunately, while Clark Kent may be forbidden from intervening, Superman is under no such restrictions!

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superman 234 0006He streaks off to the south Pacific, where he sees armed ships firing on natives in canoes.  Helpfully gathering up the fired shells, the Man of Steel lands on the lead ship’s deck, and there’s a funny bit as the sailors continue firing with small arms and Superman contemptuously points out how stupid that is when their deck guns couldn’t hurt him.  He’s confronted by Boysie Harker, the island’s owner, who refuses to believe that the volcano will really blow and is willing to kill his employees (more like slaves) if they leave.  Harker declares that the law is on his side, and he forbids the hero from setting foot on his island.

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Now, this is where the Silver Age Superman would have a big existential crisis because heaven forbid he break the law to save a life.  Fortunately, in what is probably the strongest part of the issue, the Metropolis Marvel flat-out acknowledges that he’ll break the law if he has to, “because there’s a moral law that’s above some man-made laws.”  That’s just the kind of increased moral sophistication I’ve been wanting to see from these stories.  Of course, it’s ironic that this comes from Denny O’Neil, whose Green Lantern was completely unwilling and unable to see the difference between law and morality, but perhaps this is growth for both character and writer.

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Either way, Superman sets out to save the island without technically breaking the law, figuring there’s no reason to court trouble if he doesn’t have to.  After setting up his camera and using a remote transmitter to do his narration while in action, he begins drilling a channel under the sea to relieve the pressure of the volcano and prevent the eruption.  Yet, far away, another familiar figure is stirring!  The sinister sandy shape from the previous issue stalks across the desert and then shakily takes to the skies, heading for Superman.

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When it passes overhead, the Man of Steel suddenly loses his powers and grows ill.  He’s forced to abandon his drilling and wonders what in the world could have caused his weakness now that kryptonite is gone.  As the situation grows more dire and time grows shorter, the Man of Tomorrow is distracted by a crashing plane.  After he manages to save the aircraft, he learns from the officials onboard that the U.N. is preparing to move in and arrest Harker and free the natives.  Yet, they’re still an hour out, while the volcano is due to erupt in twenty minutes!  Superman learns that the plane was damaged by a storm, and this gives him an idea that just might work!

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He flies to the storm-clouds, and by flying at super speeds, he creates a powerful wind that blows them right over the volcano’s cone.  The contact of hot and cold air triggers torrential rains, and the raging fires below are cooled enough to delay the eruption.  Yet, as Superman washes off in the downpour, the sandy figure appears above him once more, and he plunges from the skies, crashing right into the deck gun of Harker’s ship.

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In a hilarious and beautiful sequence, Harker and his men attack the Man of Steel with their bare hands, busting many a knuckle between them, as the hero simply ignores them, lost in thought about what caused his sudden fall.  It’s wonderfully funny and illustrative of his power and his personality.  I’m reminded a bit of the scene from Deadpool where the Merc with a Mouth breaks all of his limbs attacking Colossus (warning, SUPER not family friendly).

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With Harker arrested and the people evacuated, Clark Kent is free to cover the deferred eruption, but he can’t help but wonder, what was it that sapped his strength?  Meanwhile, inside the volcano, a sandy figure waits, its features slowly taking on greater distinction.

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This is a great, straight-forward Superman adventure.  It’s a simple enough plot, but the addition of the legal angle and the moral depth it reveals is enough to make it something special.  The continuing thread of the sand Superman is intriguing, and I’m definitely interested in where that is going.  We’re definitely seeing evidence of a change in values in these comics as we have yet another villain who is a corrupt industrialist.  We’re clearly seeing a lot of distrust for the wealthy and the powerful and the focus on social justice that comes with that.  I’m impressed that O’Neil manages to gives Superman some challenges without robbing him of his powers or resulting to too many plot devices.  One of the hero’s greatest limitations has always been his own code of conduct, and that’s always a source for good story conflict.  The humor and humanity Clark displays is also quite good.  In short, this is a fine Superman story and an encouraging sign of O’Neil’s progress.  I’m looking forward to seeing what else he comes up with.  I’ll give this tale 4.5 Minutemen.

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“Prison in the Sky”


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The ‘Fabulous World of Krypton’ backup strip continues to be a fun glimpse into history, and it’s penned by the perfect fellow in the person of E. Nelson Bridwell, DC’s own champion of continuity.  This particular tale gives us a look at Kryptonian culture and the nature of their elections.  Curiously, we learn that the ruling body of Krypton, the ‘Science Council,’ has its members elected by the population based on the strength of their scientific achievements.  That’s a novel idea, and I’m sure it’s been formally argued, but I can’t for the life of me remember by who.  I’ll let you make your own wry comparisons between scientist-run Krypton and the current situation in the U.S.

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The relative merits of the system aside, we observe the proceedings along with Jor-El and Lara as two different scientist demonstrate their inventions.  Ken-Dal created a warp fuel, while Tron-Et (no, not THAT Tron) shows off a ‘Dissolver-Beam’ that can break up storms.  To vote, the citizens of the world use a ‘vote projector’ to flash a green or blue shape on the sky.  That seems a tad inefficient to me, but nonetheless, Tron-Et wins the election.  As his first act, he proposes that, because of growing overpopulation in Krypton’s prisons (not very utopian, is it?), they should disintegrate condemned criminals.  The rest of the Council strongly objects, calling a death penalty barbarous (perhaps a touch of social commentary?), and demand that they open the floor for alternate solutions.

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Jor-El, always ready with a half-baked idea, comes to the rescue with a plan to put prisoners in suspended animation and then put them into orbit, where they can be brainwashed into good citizens, thus stealing a page from Doc Savage‘s playbook.  Interestingly, even he calls it brainwashing, which indicates that he’s at least partially aware of the huge ethical concerns raised by such an idea.  Shades of A Clockwork Orange!  His idea is approved, and he builds a prototype.  A prisoner volunteers for the first test, and he’s launched into space for 73 days.  During its orbit, Krypton loses track of it for a time, but rediscover the ship before it lands.

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When the rocket touches down, instead of being reformed, the prisoner bursts out of the hatch, seemingly possessing superpowers!  After clobbering Jor-El, the convict takes to robbing banks.  Just as he’s making his escape, Jor-El confronts him again, and this time, the scientist gets the upper hand.  After he recaptures the prisoner, the scientist reveals that the fellow was faking his powers with the aid of an anti-gravity belt (which, if you recall, was created by Jor-El himself just last issue, making him the perfect person to solve its mystery.

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The would-be thief spills the beans after he is captured, revealing that he’s actually the test subject’s twin brother, and he’s working for the head of Krypton’s biggest ‘crime combine.’  Surprisingly, his leader is none-other than Tron-Et himself.  He finagled his way onto the Science Council in order to silence captured criminals who knew too much.  To ensure his plan was adopted, he tried to sabotage Jor-El’s idea, disintegrating the original capsule and creating a duplicate complete with a false prisoner.  Ironically, Tron-Et then becomes the first test subject for Jor’s design.

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This story could probably do with some more space, as it’s really crammed a bit too full of ideas to be entirely successful.  Nonetheless, it’s a fun tale, and all of those ideas are intriguing and lively.  It’s always great to see Jor-El play ‘action scientist,’ which is more entertaining than the ‘Jor-El the barbarian’ we saw in Man of Steel.  Krypton is developing into a more fully realized setting, and while certain elements of Bridwell’s plot, like the sky-light voting, are a bit on the silly side, there isn’t anything here that is flat-out ridiculous, unlike many earlier stories about the planet.  It’s notable that we even manage to get a touch of continuity, with this yarn following naturally from the previous one.  In the end, it’s just enjoyable to see Bridwell explore the world of Krypton, and his imagination is certainly up to the task.  I’ll give this backup 3.5 Minutemen.

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Teen Titans #31


Teen_Titans_v.1_31“To Order is to Destroy”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: George Tuska
Inker: Nick Cardy
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Dick Giordano

“From One to Twenty”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: George Tuska
Inker: Nick Cardy
Letterer: Joe Letterese
Editor: Dick Giordano

This so-so Nick Cardy cover (a rarity) promises another campus-centric comic, though the headline tale within is an odd example of the type.  Of course, I love Steve Skeates, but I don’t think this yarn is really his best work. It does feature his usual imaginative touch and dramatic sense, but the handling is a bit clumsy.

This teen tale opens on the campus of Elford College, where a mustachioed man waits to see the school psychologist.  He looks like he’s in his 30s, but we’re supposed to think he is a student.  Interestingly, he looks a bit like Tony Stark, and, of course, George Tuska was perhaps most famous for his run on Iron Man.  As he sits in the waiting room, casually reading a magazine, he overhears the doctor talking with a student in his office.  The kid complains about being distracted by the chaos in the world and having trouble studying because of it (I feel ya’, kid!).

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In that middle panel observe the lined, world-weary face of an 18-year-old.

The shrink offers the boy some therapy and helps him come to grips with the instability of contemporary politics…ohh, wait, no.  He gives the kid a brain operation and implants a device in his head to “help him concentrate” by controlling his thoughts!  I wonder if that’s covered under student insurance.  Hearing this insane treatment plan, our middle-aged teenager reacts completely realistically, freaking the heck out and getting the heck away from that office.

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Oddly, we get the traditional first page title-splash on page three.  Why?  I have no idea.  I’m wondering if the pages for this issue somehow got out of order.  Anyway, a week later, young Wally West pays a visit to the campus as he’s starting to tour colleges.  That’s a fun bit of character developing verisimilitude.  I wonder how many years it will be before Wally actually goes to college.  At the school, he spots our mustachioed muchacho from the opening being attacked by a gang of students!  Immediately forgetting all about the whole ‘not using powers or costumes’ nonsense, Wally leaps into action as Kid Flash, noting that he doesn’t know what’s going on, but he can’t stand a one-sided fight.  I rather like that, and it’s a nice character beat.

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Rescuing the man-boy from the melee, the Fastest Boy Alive follows his directions to a shack in the hills where the fellow, Johnny Adler, has been hiding out.  Adler tells his tale, which leaves several things unexplained.  Apparently, after he realized what a quack the school shrink was and fled his appointment, he became a marked man.  It seems that all of the students on campus have been turned into school zombies, and they follow the administration’s orders, even attacking on command.  Yet, who Adler is and how he ended up at the shack remains a bit fuzzy.  He claims that he can’t get away because the only way out is through campus…but that’s a bit hard to believe.  You can’t just walk around?  Maybe it’s a failure of the art that I can’t conceptualize this.

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Anyway, the young hero speeds away to gather his teammates and investigate Elford.  When they arrive on campus, we we discover the most interesting element of the comic as we are introduced to the nefarious Dr. Pauling himself, along with the university president, who watch the Titans suspiciously.  It seems that Pauling began his operations because of growing tensions at the college and the rising tide of student unrest throughout the country.  The powers that be wanted a way to pacify the student body, and they naturally turned to the most wildly unethical and supervillain-ish way imaginable.  To top things off, the not-so-good doctor doesn’t even have a medical license!

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The junior JLA, curiously enough, are dressed in their non-costumes from the pointless Mr. Jupiter, but they immediately switch into their costumes to go meet with Johnny.  At the shack, they discover signs of a struggle and a very absent Mr. Adler, so they change back and return to campus in search of him.  Once they arrive, the psycho psychologist sics the school on them, and the Titans find themselves fighting for their lives.  What’s worse, they can’t use their powers without revealing who they are.  It’s almost like giving up your costumed identity is a huge mistake for a superhero.  Who knew?

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Surprisingly, Lilith actually makes herself useful and reveals she’s been taking judo.  As the team is attacked, young-old Johnny Adler, newly zombiefied, begins to struggle against his programing and stumbles towards the president’s office.  During the fight, we also get an awkward exchange between Mal and Roy that doesn’t amount to anything.  I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be light-hearted ribbing or something more serious, but it comes across as a bit mean-spirited.  See what you think.

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Once Johnny makes it to the office, he forces Pauling to call off the attack, and with his last ounce of strength, he rips out the mic cord, saving the Titans just before they would have been overrun.  The team dashes off to find Pauling, clearly completely nuts, ranting and raving about how the campus will be consumed in riots without his stewardship.  The story ends with an attempt at a melancholy and thoughtful reflection that doesn’t quite strike home.  The heroes point out that the human spirit triumphed over programming and compulsion in Johnny, but that just indicates that the other students might have done the same too, yet didn’t.  They wonder if the majority of people are really that weak and easily led.  Have you read your history kids?  Yes.  The answer is yes.

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This slightly weird story has its strong points, but I think Skeates might be wrestling with his page limit on this first one.  There are some really interesting ideas at play here, but they don’t quite come together enough to be effective.  You have a really neat reflection of the anxiety about student involvement that we’ve watched spread through the culture and through the comics.  It’s fascinating that the motives for the villains are effectively just pacification, the maintenance of the status quo.  They want their students to go about their studies and get their degrees in peace, which is a perfectly reasonable goal, though it is obviously taken to a horrific extreme.  By implication, this tale has some rather interesting things to say about that very status quo and the ‘establishment’ that maintains it.  Yet, these fascinating ideas don’t get enough space to breathe.

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That first panel gives us a delightfully deranged face.  Yikes!

The same is true with Johnny Adler’s sudden ability to resist the brainwashing (something of a theme with today’s books).  We just don’t know enough about the kid for his triumph to have much of an impact.  If we had been introduced to him as a free-thinker, an independent spirit, it might have been more effective.  The character was a good chance for Skeates to make some kind of statement about HOW to avoid becoming one of the easily led masses, but he passed up the opportunity.  In the same way, there’s a slight effort to develop the Titans themselves, but it doesn’t really amount to anything.  This would have been a good chance to break with the Mr. Jupiter setup, which is clearly not working, but we aren’t so lucky.  Of course, the central conflict, the random brain operations, also needs a bit more to sell it.  How exactly did this school psychologist convince presumably every student on campus to let him cut into their brains?  You can’t throw something like that out in one page and then call it good.

In terms of the art, we’ve got a change this month.  George Tuska is a fine artist with a reputation for interesting and memorable faces, speed, reliability, and versatility, but he’s no substitute for Nick Cardy in my book.  This issue looks good, but I miss Cardy’s unique style and can’t help wondering what might have been.  I suppose I’ll give this tale 3 Minutemen.  It’s strengths and weaknesses sort of even out to an average score.

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“From One to Twenty”


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Hawk’s caveman-like contempt for poetry is picture perfect for him.

Like last issue, we’ve got two stories in this month’s book, but sadly the backup this time isn’t Aqualad and Aquagirl.  Instead, we’re treated to a fun solo adventure by Hawk and Dove.  It’s nice to see these two new characters getting a bit of a chance to develop some, as there isn’t a whole lot of space in the main Titans book to flesh them out with everyone else competing for panels.  This tale begins with Hank Hall who is on the hunt for some crime to fight, and he’s decided to stalk the streets with a pair of binoculars…for some reason.  That’s not at all unusual and apt to draw attention or anything.  He spies a strange transaction at a newsstand, wherein a customer gives the proprietor $1 and gets $20 in return!  Strange!  Thinking that this must be some type of shakedown, the young man trails the customer, changing into Hawk in the process.

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Ironically, the suspect is himself mugged a few minutes later, and Hawk decides to intervene, better to bash multiple crooks instead of just one!  He plans to take out the muggers and then let the suspect go on his way so he can keep tailing the guy, but he the warlike one lets himself get distracted during the donnybrook and, joy of joys, he gets taken out by a head-blow!  That’s right, Hawk makes his official first appearance amongst the august company on the Wall of Shame.

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When he comes to, his brother Don has found him, having been out on his own type of patrol, focusing on protecting victims rather than punishing criminals.  They bicker a bit, but pretty quickly they decide to stake out the newsstand again and see if anything else happens.  Once there, they observe the same customer return and get another $20 for $1, and Don works out what’s going on as they leap into action.  When the peaceful pacifist tries to talk the pair into surrendering, one of them pulls a gun, and the other slugs him.  Fortunately for Dove, Hawk is there to bust some heads.

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I don’t much care for the way Tuska draws their transformations.

After the fight, Don explains to his brother that this was part of a counterfeit ring, where passers could trade one dollar of real money for twenty funny bills.  As they search for change to call the police, they hope that the men they captured will help lead to bigger fish in the syndicate.

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This is an entertaining little tale.  It’s nice to see the brothers in action on their own, and it’s also nice to see them do more than just argue with one another.  Hank comes off better in this issue, if a tad dim, and while Don doesn’t come off as a coward, gamely dodging gunfire without a complaint, he does seem a bit ineffectual as he can’t even stop an unarmed hood without his brother’s help.  It is funny to see him try and talk the thug into surrendering, only to catch an elbow to the face, but it would have been nice to see him pull his weight a bit more.  In the end, this is a good story that provides these two with a chance to shine.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.

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And that fills out this post.  We had a fun set of books in this batch, and I’m always pleased to add another entry to Headcount.  I hope you enjoyed my commentary, and please join me soon for the final book in this month of 1971, along with my final thoughts.  Until then, keep the heroic ideal alive!


The Head-Blow Headcount:

Aquamanhead.jpgBatmanhead.jpgshowcase-88-fnvf-jasons-quest0robin2 - Copy.jpgPhantom_Stranger_05.jpgrobin2 - Copy.jpgbatman-family-6-cover.jpgAquamanhead.jpg3072564469_1_3_hCmU7jwq.jpg

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Hawk joins many of his fellows and two fellow Titans on the Wall of Shame!  I wonder if his partner will join him sometime soon.Clearly, the ol’ head-blow trope is alive and well in ’71.

Into the Bronze Age: December 1970 (Part 5)

DC-Style-Guide-1

Hello Internet travelers, and thank you for joining me for today’s stop on our journey Into the Bronze Age!  This is the very last post covering the banner year of 1970.  We are standing at the threshold for the 70s proper, and soon we’ll be exploring a whole new year of comics.  We’ve got a promising trio of titles to examine in this post.  So, hop in your Whiz Wagon and join me as I investigate these 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 #395
  • Adventure Comics #400
  • Aquaman #54
  • Batman #227
  • Detective Comics #406
  • The Flash #202
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #81
  • Justice League of America #84 (reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Justice League of America #85
  • The Phantom Stranger #10
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #134
  • Teen Titans #30
  • World’s Finest #199

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


Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #134


jimmy_olsen_134“The Mountain of Judgment!”
Writer: Jack Kirby
Penciler: Jack Kirby
Inker: Vince Colletta

We return to Jack Kirby’s Fourth World today in our second issue of Jimmy Olsen.  With this book we get a bit better of an idea about the setting Kirby is developing, but there are still far more questions than there are answers.  Kirby is setting up a great deal here, and my memory doesn’t quite serve to show me which threads will get paid off.  I have a vague notion that several of the ideas he sets up here won’t quite get the development they need.  Nonetheless, this issue is full of wild ideas and colossal concepts, including some classic Kirby artistic experimentation.

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It opens in grand fashion, with a full-page splash of a mass exodus from the tree-house like ‘Habitat’ we saw at the end of the previous issue.  It’s a parade of crazy, Kirby-esq vehicles, led by the wondrous Whiz Wagon.  Jimmy Olsen and the Newsboy Legion are leading the Outsiders out in search of the mysterious and oh-so-awesomely named ‘Mountain of Judgement.’  The Newsboys get into some antics as they try to film the crowd that turns up to see them off, and Flippa-dippa is already stretching for an excuse to make himself useful…which is not a great sign.  Yet, the festivities are interrupted by the newly recovered Man of Steel who tries to talk the crew out of pursuing their mission, intimating that he knows something they don’t.  Jimmy and the Legion insist they have a job to do, but their discussion is cut short by the antagonistic bikers, who mount another attack on the Metropolis Marvel.

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One of them tries to run Superman down with a rocket cycle, because apparently he’s a moron and doesn’t get the whole ‘more powerful than a locomotive’ thing, and that goes about as well as you’d expect.  The Man of Tomorrow catches it and plays rocket wrangler in a really cool panel.  Yet, the next attack is more effective.  One of these dropouts with their ridiculously advanced weaponry, targets the hero with a bazooka shell of kryptonite gas, and another finishes him off with a “green K paralysis gun.”  Of course, this is another example of that ‘everything is kryptonite’ problem with this era of Superman stories.  Fortunately, next month we get “Kryptonite Nevermore,” and I am really looking forward to that.

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Anyway, Superman is defeated and possibly poisoned, you know, what with the deadly element he was exposed to and all, and his best friend, Jimmy Olsen, casually and callously notes that now they can get on with their job.  This is the one point of the book that really bothered me.  Last issue, the attack on Superman was sudden and unexpected, and Jimmy had just taken control of the gang.  This issue, on the other hand, the attack goes on for some time, the young reporter is clearly more in control, and yet he does nothing to stop it.  What’s more, he greets his friend being knocked unconscious with all the concern that you or I might muster for seeing a stranger stub their toe.  That’s a beat that doesn’t ring true.  It seems like, at the least, they could have, you know, listened to what Superman had to say.

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After that kerfuffle, the convoy heads out, careening towards the foreboding Zoomway and beginning a race with death as they encounter obstacle after obstacle in their search for the mysterious Mountain.  First, Jimmy sends the Whiz Wagon straight through a camouflaged entrance to the roadway at top speed, ‘trusting in his instincts,’ which seems an unnecessary gamble, but what do I know?  Next, they must build up speed on a rock-strewn course in order to leap a chasm, a jump that some of the bikers don’t make.

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Then they wade into “the water course,” where Flippa-dippa actually contributes, by planting a charge on a blocked exit, though his incompetence nearly gets himself killed as the charge goes off too early.  Of course, the incredible Kirby-bikes of the Outsiders are equipped for submarine operation as well, because Jack Kirby’s reality is way more interesting than ours.

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Next, the crew encounters a reality-warping tunnel that messes with their senses, and they have to pilot by instruments as they lose all sense of direction.   This is portrayed by two bizarre pages of Kirby’s patented black and white photo-collages.  They’re fairly psychedelic and surreal, but it rather irks me that his model car doesn’t actually look that much like the Whiz Wagon.  I think he’d have been better off to incorporate some pencils, as he did in similar instances with the Fantastic Four.  I know that this was the King experimenting with the medium, pushing its boundaries and pioneering new techniques, but I never really cared for the effect that this type of gambit created.  According to the letters’ pages of the old Marvel books, though, it seems to have received at least some positive reaction from fans.  I wonder what DC readers would have thought of this in 1970.  If they hadn’t been reading Marvel books, it’s possible they wouldn’t have seen anything like this before.

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jo134-19At any rate, Superman has awakened during all this adventure, and he sets out after our young travelers, zooming past the dangers they overcame.  Along the way, he passes the bikers who were left behind in the madcap dash towards their goal, and, in a bit of a cheat, he notes that they are all unharmed.  I can’t help but wonder if that was a Comic’s Code sop, because you’ve got to think that the guys that failed that jump and plowed into the chasm wall probably didn’t do too well.  Nonetheless, the Man of Steel suddenly encounters a bizarre, Brobdingnagian behemoth, a boogeyman from the nightmares of a regular car, a gigantic converted missile carrier with a frightening facade that is screaming down the Zoomway.  This is the Mountain of Judgement.  Who should be caught in its path but the plucky Legion.  Pulling off a last minute save, the Metropolis Marvel carries the Whiz Wagon into the Mountain, which is Kirby-tech from top to bottom.  Instantly, the enigmatic Hairies who we heard about last issue spring forth and start examining the Wagon with delicate instruments.

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Only Kirby could design this gloriously mad vehicle.

Superman begins to explain but is interrupted by the discovery of a tiny but incredibly powerful bomb hidden in the car-mounted camera.  The Hairies lessen its power, and the Man of Steel smothers its blast, leaving the Legion boys entirely gobsmacked.  At this point, Jimmy finally begins to show some appreciation for the guy who is constantly saving his life.  It seems that Morgan Edge had an ulterior motive for sending this expendable little gang of kids on this assignment.  They were a Trojan Horse designed to destroy the Hairies.

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But, just who are these strange people, and what are they doing in this bizarre corner of the world?  Most of our questions remain unanswered, but their new hosts take the hero and his crew on a tour and show them the incredible insides of the Mountain, which serves as a giant rolling home for their enclave.  Essentially, theirs is a “mobile scientific society,” whatever that is, and Superman somehow knew about them.  The issue ends with the Legion wondering what game Morgan Edge is playing, and we get a glimpse of the man himself contacting a mysterious master, a strange character by the name of…Darkseid!

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This is another jam-packed issue, full of Kirby’s signature wild, rollicking action, an imaginative overload.  Unfortunately, our inker is the notorious Vince Colletta, so I imagine that we’re losing some of the nuances of the art.  Nonetheless, the book is full of fantastic visuals and wonderfully over-designed gadgets.  I don’t think he’s quite got the hang of Superman himself yet, as the Man of Steel occasionally looks a bit wonky, but the rest of the art in this issue is as gorgeous and creative as you’d expect.  The King delivers a plot that centers around a frantic race, which makes for a fun read, and the mysteries he’s introducing left and right are intriguing.

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Obviously, DC fans will recognize where a lot of this is going, but it is great fun to see the seeds planted.  The weakness, other than the odd moment with Jimmy’s indifference to Superman’s plight, is Kirby’s dialog.  It’s got a strange quality to it that I just can’t put my finger on.  Just check out some of the examples I posted above.  It has something in common with Beat poetry, an odd rhythm and cadence, combined with some silly 60s slang.  I’m definitely not the first to observe this, and while it isn’t a huge problem with this issue, this is something that marks the Fourth World books and can make them feel a bit dated, even for their contemporary milieu.  Still, on the whole, this is a fun issue, full of the manic energy that always characterizes Kirby’s plotting.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.

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Interestingly, despite several ads for more forthcoming Fourth World books due out this very month, we won’t see them premiere until a few months into the next year.  I wonder what happened there?

P.S.: Several of my friends over at Freedom Reborn have been kind enough to remind me of something that I really should have remembered.  Apparently, despite hiring Jack Kirby to draw Superman and Jimmy Olsen, DC’s top brass were concerned that he would somehow damage the characters by drawing them like Jack Kirby rather than like the house style.  They actually had artists like Al Plastino and Murphy Anderson retouch and sometimes completely redraw both of those characters, leading to the weirdness I noticed in the Superman figures above.  Here’s a great article by Kirby champion and expert, Mark Evanier.  It’s really a crying shame, and the few samples of existing Kirby Superman art really make me long for what might have been.  I had actually learned this years ago when I read through the 4th World omnibuses, but I apparently had forgotten.  Thanks guys!

P.P.S.: This issue also came with an odd, off-beat text piece by the King himself where he praises the possible development of real-life Whiz Wagons and ponders the world that might come.  It’s an interesting read, though Kirby’s strange prose style is a bit hard to get a hang of.  It seems that prediction like these were everywhere decades ago, and yet I still don’t have my flying car, my personal submersible, or my jetpack.  Clearly, we’ve failed to make the future as awesome as it should have been.  After all, we’re living in the 21st Century, and aside from the Star-Trek like device I carry around in my pocket, it doesn’t seem all that different from the 20th.  Buck Rogers would be heartbroken!

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Teen Titans #31


Teen_Titans_Vol_1_30.jpgGreed… Kills!”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Nick Cardy
Inker: Nick Cardy
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Dick Giordano

“Some Call It Noise”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Carmine Infantino
Inker: Nick Cardy
Editor: Dick Giordano

Apparently we’re seeing a change in format with this issue.  Instead of a single story, we’re going to get two short yarns each month for a while.  I’m more than a little disappointed by that, as I’ve been looking forward to this issue because the cover indicated it would be Aqualad-centric, even featuring the fantastic but rarely used Aquagirl.  Imagine my dismay when I realized the promising cover only represented a brief backup tale (8 1/2 pages) rather than a full comic.  Promisingly, both of the stories herein are penned by Steve Skeates, but they didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

The first tale, which is actually not the cover story, sadly returns our titanic teens to the pointless Mr. Jupiter plot.  We find them engaged on a mission for the mysterious millionaire, costume-less and also rather clueless.  Lilith has had another vague vision, and she has brought them to a pawnshop she foresaw being robbed.  The team debates the value of following her “hunches,” and Kid Flash is particularly dubious.  Yet, the would-be thieves do show up, and while the boys tackle them, quickly dispatching two of them, the young speedster lets his pigeon get away.

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For some reason, he doesn’t use his super speed in pursuing the guy, and then he just stands idly by while the fellow stumbles into traffic and gets run down.  Now, it’s supposed to be sudden, but how sudden does it have to be for a kid with super speed not to be able to intervene?  That bothered me, and it smacked more of Kid Flash just choosing not to act than anything else, which is a failure on Skeates’ part.

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A scene follows with the police in the hospital that tells us that the injured man is Kevin Murphy (no, not Tom Servo’s alter ego), a notorious thief, thought to have died ten years ago.  What does all of this have to do with a job for Mr. Jupiter?  Well, wait and see.  The kids follow up on their “mission,” visiting a wealthy businessman, named Mr. Tout, from whom they are tasked with getting a donation for a charity to help first time youth offenders reform.  Mr. Scrooge, er…I mean Tout doesn’t react take too fondly to this idea, and he screams about how criminals can’t be reformed and how he won’t subsidize lazy bums who won’t get jobs.  Cardy really does some great personality work with this fellow, giving him a distinct and evocative look.

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Their plea having failed, Mal notes that Tout looked directly at him during his tirade and speculates that there were probably racial overtones in it.  The quintet try to decide what to do now, and Lilith surprises them all by insisting that they go visit the injured Mr. Murphy.  teentitans30-08It’s handy to have the powers of plot.  Meanwhile, Tout discovers the concussed crook’s whereabouts and, strangely, begins to panic.  He decides that he must take care of this situation, immediately!

When they arrive at the hospital, the former Titans discover gunmen attempting to take out the police guards and kill Murphy.  Fortunately for the lone cop still standing, the girls intervene, promptly incapacitating the two assassins in a nice Cardy action sequence that, like some of our previous issues, demonstrates the different fighting styles of the participants.  Interestingly, Lilith is actually useful in the fight, which I didn’t expect.

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The gunsels grounded, the kids get an explanation from Murphy, who is dying from his injuries (that’s entirely on you, Wally).  Apparently, he and Tout were partners years ago, and after a big score, the ‘self-made man’ went straight and built himself a business empire.  Yet, he was afraid that his former partner would one day be caught and turn on him, so he tried to have him killed.  Murphy faked his own death in order to escape, and when his identity was in the papers after his capture, Tout decided it was time to finish the job.  Strangely, the issue ends, not with the capture of Tout, but with the youths just wandering down the street, talking over the enigmatic events of the case.  Tout’s fate is implied, but not shown.

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This is a fine story, with an interesting twist, but the trouble is that it isn’t really a Teen Titans story, just like some of the earlier issues I’ve covered.  Replace little-miss plot device with a clue that connects Murphy to Tout, and you could lift the Titans entirely out of this plot without anyone noticing.  None of the team use their abilities, none of their secret identities come into play, and the characterization, while solid, isn’t particularly distinctive or necessary to the narrative.  There’s nothing at all that makes this a Teen Titans tale.  The kids aren’t even in costume.  Cardy’s art is as beautiful as usual, but it also suffers from the lack of costumes.  His Kid Flash and Speedy are pretty hard to tell apart without any of their action garb to aid us.  Cardy still turns out a lovely story here, but I miss his seeing his Titans in action.

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Part of the problem here is just the situation that Skeates inherited, but I’m disappointed that he didn’t just go ahead and disentangle the team from this narrative albatross around their necks.  There are some elements of social commentary here, with the bootstraps-businessman’s success not actually a product of his own hard work, the racial tension, and the counterexamples for criminal reform and the like.  It subtly pushes for a more liberal approach to several social issues, but there isn’t much made of those ideas.  I suppose I’ll give this story 3 Minutemen.  It’s about average.

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Oddly, this comic also includes a two-page, mostly text short story about Kid Flash encountering a bank robber with a portable whirlwind, who is definitely not Whirlwind.  I wonder if this was an experiment or just a space filler.


“Some Call it Noise”


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The story I was so eagerly anticipating proved more than a little disappointing in context, mostly from its brevity, which left Skeates just too little space to follow any of the fun and interesting ideas he introduced.  Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable little adventure, and it is great fun to see Aqualad and Aquagirl in a story together, something we haven’t seen for quite some time, and never in a Teen Titans book, methinks.

This little yarn begins in an operating room where a desperate case is met by a daring doctor.  The patient has some type of head trauma that will prove fatal, unless, perhaps an experimental treatment the doctor has been developing is employed.  Meanwhile, everyone’s favorite aquatic adolescents hurry out of the waves on their way to a concert.  This is a fun idea, but unfortunately, Skeates just doesn’t have the time to do much with it.

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It does give us a charming image, though.

Just as the two young heroes reach the concert, the experimental surgery reaches its own crescendo, and the patient seems to be recovering well.  Yet, there is a terrible side effect of the new drug, and the recovering man goes mad!  His body chemistry thrown into turmoil, he develops superhuman strength, and he smashes his way out of the hospital.  Outside, he pulls a Grendel, catching wind of the merry music in the park and, enraged by the noise like that lonely fen-stalker, he sets off to put a stop to the revelry in most violent fashion.

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The maddened patient charges past the Aqua-teens, clocking poor Tula on the head and leaving her stunned.  Aqualad sets out in pursuit, realizing that this guy needs to be stopped before he kills someone.  Just as the crazed music critic prepares to smash the band, the Aquatic Ace attacks, laying into the fellow in a nice action sequence.  However, here we get one of my only real critiques of the issue.

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Aqualad thinks to himself that he’s able to throw a strong punch underwater, so he’s even more capable on the surface without the water resistance to fight.  Now, you might be thinking, ‘but that’s right!’ and you’d be correct.  My issue is that this really rather sells his abilities short, as he isn’t just able to throw “a strong punch;” he’s downright super strong!  I think Skeates, as much as I love him, forgets the super strength of his Atlanteans too often.  Still, it’s a minor complaint, and the kid still handles the enraged patient with aplomb.

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Yet, his encounter with his angry antagonist proved a dangerous distraction.  Aquagirl, injured more seriously than he realized, has wandered off in a daze, trying to head to the sea, but stumbling further inland in confusion.  In growing fear, as their one-hour deadline looms closer and closer, Garth sets out on a desperate search.  Following a few clues, he finds her leaning against a lamppost in town, and then we get one of the stronger beats of the story.  Aqualad notes that their hour was up five minutes ago, yet they don’t just drop dead.  Instead, they grow weaker, yet the young man pushes himself to a heroic effort, carrying the lovely lady all the way back to the beach.  He even passes out on his feet, but keeps stumbling forward blindly, collapsing mere inches from the sea.

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Fortunately, the tide comes in, reviving the exhausted Atlanteans.  It’s a great sequence, and it shows that Aqualad has some of his surrogate father’s force of will.  It also establishes that the one hour limit is not a hard and fast rule, but a general guideline that threatens, not immediate death, but growing weakness.  That’s a significant step in the right direction.  In the final half page, the two teens head out to sea, and I really love the spin Aqualad puts on their adventure.  He argues that, even though they missed part of the concert, it was worthwhile because he “saved a man from doing something he would have hated himself for for the rest of his life.”  That’s true, and an unusual angle on the events of the day.  It implies a thoughtful, empathetic quality for the young hero, which I enjoy.

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This is a fun little adventure, but it is definitely just that, a little adventure.  I really enjoy seeing Aqualad and Aquagirl get to share a story together, but it is so brief that Tula’s role is almost nonexistent.  She takes no part in the real action, and she’s even out of her head for half of the tale.  That’s a shame because she’s a great character who doesn’t get much focus in the first place.  Despite the fact that I wanted more from this backup yarn, it is effective and efficient, delivering a complete story in just a few pages.  I’ll give it a fun but limited 3.5 Minutemen.

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World’s Finest #199


worlds_finest_comics_199Race to Save Time”
Cover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Penciler: Dick Dillin
Inker: Joe Giella
Colourist: Tatjana Wood
Editor: Julius SchwartzE. Nelson Bridwell

This is the second half of our two-parter featuring the race around the galaxy between Superman and the Flash, and it is great fun.  The crazy cosmic adventure of the last issue continues here, though the scale gets reduced a bit for the finale.  Also, Jimmy faces more chronological conundrums.  Interestingly, the first issue promised, in no uncertain terms, that we would get an answer to the age-old question about who would win in a race, the Flash or Superman.  “There must be a winner!” declared the cover copy, and there is…sort of.  O’Neil still cheats a bit.  I wonder if that question was ever entirely settled in the Bronze Age.  Who wins, you ask?  Well, there’s only one way to find out!

Our story picks up right where it left off, with poor, time-displaced Jimmy facing a flight of airborne arrows.  The situation looks pretty hopeless, until the hapless teen fades through time once more, but this is only a temporary temporal reprieve, as he lands right in the middle of a witch trial by the masked menace of the Spanish Inquisition!  I bet you didn’t expect that!  Of course, the young man’s sudden appearance is taken as proof positive that he is in league with dark powers, so he is sentenced to die. Poor Jimmy, out of the frying pan, into the inquisitional fire.

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Meanwhile, our two heroes are continuing their race, and we get a brief recap of events , thanks to some exposition from the masters of the art, the Guardians.  Our nameless Centurion is still hanging out, but sadly we don’t get any more of his inner monologue.  That’s a missed opportunity Mr. O’Neil!  Anyway, the radical racers are ambushed by another batch of the Anachronids, and unfortunately they chose their sector of space well as they are near an orange star, so Superman is weakened.  The charging champions put up a good fight, but eventually they go down, captured by the super-fast robots!

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Back in 15th Century Spain, Jimmy is not one to wait idly by for his fate.  He uses his wristwatch, a marvel in that era, to distract his guard and then takes him out, fleeing the prison.  He escapes into the night, trying to figure out how to get home.  In search of shelter, he stumbles into a barracks, accidentally stirring up a hornet’s nest of trouble!  Fleeing the roused soldiery, the young reporter climbs up a balcony, only to run smack into the grand inquisitor himself, Torquemada, now unmasked.  Poor Jimmy!  His luck is worse than mine!

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As time continues to fluctuate, we also get a brief check-in with some other DC characters, including Batman and Wonder Woman, as their environments shift and anachronisms creep into the modern day.  In deep space, Superman and the Flash awaken to meet their captors and the architects of the universe’s current peril, the Phantom Zone Villains!  They kindly introduce themselves to the Scarlet Speedster as: Kru-El (definitely a case of nominative determinism), Jax-Ur, the notorious General Zod (whose Silver Age look is only so-so), and Professor Va-Kox.  This criminal quartet have had their robotic minions bring the heroes back to the strange, extra-dimensional planet they visited last issue.  Apparently, the villains have managed to escape from the Phantom Zone to this dimension, but they can go no further.  They created the Anachronids to turn the universe on its head, as they’ve determined that upsetting the time-stream will weaken the dimensional barriers enough for them to escape.  That’s workable enough technobabble for the setting.  The Flash cries out that this plan will kill billions of beings, and, in true villainous style, the Phantom Zone refugees respond with callous disregard.  All that matters is their freedom, and once free, they’ll pick up the pieces and rule like kings!

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Well, for something like the fourth or fifth time this month, the villains complete their contractual obligation to leave the heroes alone in order for them to escape, as the Phantom Zone Four propose to leave the pair alive in order to see their triumph.  Man, the DC villains really need to read the Evil Overlord List.  Even so, the strange star of this world is red at the moment, so the Metropolis Marvel isn’t strong enough to burst their bonds, and, his medallion captured, the Flash doesn’t have the energy to vibrate free.  But wait, the medallion was made by the Guardians, so the heroes realize it may function similarly to a power ring.  They concentrate their willpower on the device, and Superman uses it to free himself, but before he can help his comrade, Zod returns, destroying the medallion!  He has them both dead to rights, and he tells them the villains decided they were too dangerous to let live.  That’s the right idea, Zod; if only you had acted on it earlier.

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The Flash, still bound, manages to knock the kryptonian’s gun away, and Superman jumps his father’s old foe.  The Man of Steel, now more like the Man of Soft, Bruisable Flesh, takes a beating, but he eventually manages to knock the former dictator out, twisting his ankle badly in the fight.  It’s a fun scene, as Superman has to work much harder than he’s used to because he doesn’t have his powers, yet he still triumphs through force of will.  I rather prefer the Bruce Timm approach to the character, though, which stipulates that everything Superman does requires great effort, but that’s really a matter of taste.

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Unfortunately, the Flash also catches a ricochet blast from the gun, rendering his legs temporarily paralyzed.  This leaves both heroes unable to walk, but, as the Flash declares in grand heroic fashion, they can still crawl!  They set out, dragging themselves desperately towards the Phantom Zone criminals’ headquarters, where they hope to find the controls for the Anachronids.  Never one to let the weight of the universe resting on his shoulders get him down, the Scarlet Speedster declares to his not-so-super partner that they “began this thing as a race-remember?  Well, we’re still racing–and I’m still determine to beat you!”  That is just a great sequence, and it just wonderfully captures the indomitable heroic spirit of these two characters, Flash in particular, with his cheerful, hopeful personality.

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Next, O’Neil briefly checks back in with Jimmy as he awaits the headman’s axe, just to add a little more tension to the situation.  Back in the future, the two exhausted, injured heroes, arrive at the headquarters and encounter Jax-Ur and the Professor playing six dimensional chess (!).  The Flash throws a rock to distract them, and then, using a last burst of speed, the pair rush the villains and knock them out.  With just thirty seconds left until the the universe is shattered, the heroes drag themselves up the steps of the control center, and the Flash pulls the shut-off lever with only moments to spare.

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Exhausted, he declares somewhat sheepishly, “Hey!  Guess what?  I won!”  That’s right, the Flash won the race…after a fashion.  This sets everything to rights, as the Anachronids decelerate and disintegrate, not being able to survive at sub-light speeds.  Jimmy is yanked back through time just in the nick, as the axe descends.  Just then, Kru-El dashes into the control center with a gun, but the sun has just turned once more, giving the Man of Steel back his powers.  He decks Kru-El and destroys their machinery.  Then he takes Flash home, noting that he’ll get the Guardians to help him seal this dimensional breach.

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Well, this is a great two-parter.  This second half doesn’t have the rapid pace and non-stop action of the first, but it is still a lot of fun.  I love the heroes grit, reduced to crawling, and yet refusing to give in.  They persevere and succeed pretty much entirely on moxie alone.  It’s a lovely character moment for the two of them.  The story does have a few little weaknesses, some break in logical consistency, like Superman taking out Kru-El easily, despite the fact that the villain now has super powers too.  The wrap-up is really a bit too brief, and it seems that O’Neil may have run out of room.  Still, the story is so much fun, and the adventure, both for the heroes and for time-tossed Jimmy, is so satisfying, that I’m not too bothered by such things.  Once again, Dillin’s artwork is really strong, standing in particular contrast to the stiff and lackluster work from this month’s JLA.  By the way, Bronze Age Jimmy is growing on me as a character.  He’s proving resourceful, courageous, and capable.

Speaking of Jimmy, his encounter with the Inquisition gives O’Neil a chance to bring in a little social consciousness, as the youthful reporter notes that the fanaticism and cruelty of Torquemada didn’t die out in the Middle Ages (in fact, it was generally way more common in the Renaissance), but continues to live on in the modern day.  We certainly still see plenty of that kind of viciousness and irrationality in our own time.  It is a fine little note, but it would have been more effective if he could have connected it to the main plot more directly.  I think there’s an angle to be worked there with the Phantom Zone villains, but c’est la vie.  In the end, this is just an all around enjoyable comic yarn.  I’ll give it 4.5 Minutemen, with the the Flash’s unflappable good cheer helping overcome its weaknesses.  I just had a blast reading both of these stories.

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Final Thoughts:


And that, my dear readers, is the end of the first year of our journey Into the Bronze Age!  It’s taken a tad more than a year of real-time, but hopefully the next will move a little more quickly!  Either way, I am very excited to have completed an entire year of this project, having read most of the superhero books published by DC Comics for 1970.  It’s been a fascinating journey, and we have watched the Bronze Age grow before our very eyes.  We’ve seen Silver Age tropes grow a little more rare, but more importantly, we’ve seen a revolution taking place in the pages before us, as the cardboard characters of the Silver Age began to grow, developing unique personalities (some of those more pleasant than others…I’m looking at you, Ollie).  We’ve seen Denny O’Neil absolutely everywhere, jumping from book to book to book, constantly innovating, often failing, at least in part, but arguably succeeding more often than not.  I’m really blown away by how large a role he’s played in these early days of experimentation and evolution.  Clearly, the Bronze Age at DC owes a great deal to that man, and even if his writing is sometimes heavy handed and pedantic, the fellow did some amazing work.  It’s easy to credit later works for being more sophisticated than their predecessors, but it is important to remember that the former wouldn’t exist without the pioneers who came before.

Over the last year of comics, social consciousness themes have grown from occasional influences trumpeted, often solely, in the books being penned by Denny O’Neil, to showing up just about everywhere, even in the most conservative of DC’s offerings, like the Superman titles.  The most immediate and marked change, is of course, in Batman, who has evolved quickly and more consistently than most.  He’s already begun to resemble the ‘grim avenger of the night’ version of the character that is the pure expression of the concept, at least for my money.  Books like Aquaman are serving as sources of innovation, both in art and story, and a spirit of change seems to be in the air.  Interestingly, even the fans notice it, and many of the letters of the latter part of the year have talked about the ‘character revolution’ or something similar, going on at DC, calling for the same process to be applied to characters not yet affected.

I would say by December 1970, the Bronze Age was well and truly on the way.  The change between the first and last month is really quite marked, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds!  First, what about this month itself?

We’ve had a lot of solid stories and a few strong stand outs.  This month’s comics have featured two different takes on the growing political involvement of America’s youth.  We’ve also seen multiple instances of real-life events influencing and inspiring this month’s comics, from the student march in Cleveland being reflected in Robin’s tale to the cultural anxiety around the rise of Satanism being reflected in the Flash’s macabre plot.  In general, I think there has been a slight uptick in stories with supernatural elements, with Flash, Kid Flash, Batman, and, of course, the Phantom Stranger all facing occult menaces this month.

All-in-all, I’d call that a pretty fitting end to a good year of comics, and I hope that you’ll join me soon as we race back through time on our Cosmic Treadmills to peer into 1971!  Until then, keep the heroic ideal alive!


The Head-Blow Headcount:

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Only Aquaman joins our distinguished company on the wall of shame this week, though we had several very close calls, more than we’ve had before, I believe.  There you go, folks, an entire year of head-blows.  It seems Aquaman’s reputation of getting knocked out as regularly as Philip Marlowe is probably deserved.  Hopefully things will improve for my favorite hero in the next year.

Into the Bronze Age: October 1970 (Part 6)

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Hello my dear readers, and welcome to the last edition of Into the Bronze Age for October 1970.  We’ve made it through another month and are well on our way to 1971!  It’s been a particularly interesting month, and at the end of the post I’ll provide some reflections on the overarching themes that we’ve been observing in this set of books.  Well, 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 #393
  • Adventure Comics #398
  • Aquaman #52
  • Detective Comics #404
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #80
  • Phantom Stranger #9
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #105
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #133 (Jack Kirby’s debut!)
  • Superman #230
  • Teen Titans #29

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


Superman #230


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“Killer Kent Versus Super Luthor”
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Dan Adkins

Ohh boy, this is a goofy one, folks.  This issue, with its incredibly gimmicky premise and its simplistic execution could be the poster child for the current state of Superman comics in 1970.  While change is abroad at DC, with social relevance breaking in on superheroes and growing depth and complexity to be found in most books, their flagship character remains completely unaffected, starring in stories that could easily have come from 1960 rather than 1970.  This is definitely one such tale.  Yet, despite its silliness, this issue actually has some pretty fascinating concepts behind its foolish facade.  The basic idea is an old one, what would happen if the hero and villain exchanged lives.  In this case, it is Lex Luthor who comes from Krypton and Clark Kent who is born on earth.  Bates actually adds some really interesting wrinkles to this setup, though they don’t amount to much.

To begin with, young Lex-El’s childhood is rather different than Kal’s.  His mother dies in a completely predictable accident with one of Jor-El’s inventions when an ion storm overloaded the device, which, for some reason, wasn’t designed to deal with common weather events.  What is this, like the third time, just in this year of comics, that one of Jor-El’s inventions has gone horribly wrong?  Seriously, why would this guy be let within a mile of a lab?  Everything he builds tries to kill somebody!  Anyway, this leaves Lex without a mother, but it leaves his father embittered and bat-guano insane to boot.  Instead of blaming himself for forgetting the fact that Krypton occasionally has storms, Jor blames the real villain.  Krypton itself.  That’s right, the planet killed his wife, and the planet must pay!  It’s utterly nuts, even for a crazy man.

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And Jor-El is not just your garden variety madman.  No, he’s a madman with access to incredibly destructive super science!  He creates a weapon called the ‘Lethal Liquid’ that destroys Krypton from the inside out, but not before he and his bald-as-an-egg boy (also the fault of one of his inventions, by the way) hop a rocket for Earth.

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I am become Jor-El, destroyer of worlds…

Meanwhile, on Earth the parents of Clark Kent are also quite different from the kindly farmers we remember.  Ma and Pa Kent have more in common with Bonnie and Clyde than with the rural American ideal.  When we meet them, they’re engaged in a running gunfight with the police, a chase that is only ended by the sudden arrival of the kryptonian rocket.  It drives them off the road, killing them.  However, they had already given their son to an underworld scientist named Dr. Markem so that he could implant, and I kid you not, “evil genes” in the kid.  Apparently, these parents of the year were really concerned that their son should grow up to be a criminal himself…for some reason.  So, they hired this quack to take their “evil genes” and implant them in their sons brains…despite the fact that A) that’s incredibly stupid and B) he’s already their son and should therefore already have their genes.

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Well, unspeakably goofy and unnecessary plot devices aside, the Dr. drops his now orphaned charge off at the Smallville Orphanage while Jor-El discovers that, for some reason, he doesn’t have powers on Earth, though his son does.  The mad scientist gives baldy a super suit and sets up a medical practice, using his advanced science to become very successful.  The years pass, and Clark, adopted by the Langs, grows up to be young Lex’s best friend.  Lex becomes Superboy, and when Clark saves his life from an assassin, they become friends in that identity as well.

Yet, the peace of these idyllic times is soon shattered by madness…and also plot.  The insane Jor-El decides once again to blame an inanimate object for a misfortune and concludes that he must destroy Smallville in revenge for the attack upon his on.  He invents a new doomsday device (ohh, is it Tuesday already?), and he unleashes it on the town.  At the same time, Superboy and Clark had gone flying when the adopted boy went into a trance as his evil implant began to do its work.

Superboy rushes Clark to his father’s office, then notices the device destroying the town.  He manages to stop it, but his friend awakens, now ‘evil,’ and attacks the nutball scientist, killing him in the struggle.  Yet, our story doesn’t end there!  Next, for some reason, we leap ten years into the future, where Lex Luthor is a reporter for the Daily Planet and Clark Kent is in a comma after a failed robbery.  Because this wasn’t complicated enough, Lois Lane is also moonlighting as a nurse and has fallen in love with the comatose crook.

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But we’re STILL not done.  The aged Dr. Markem shows up at the hospital and uses an invention to teleport the patient to his hideout, where he revives the criminal in hopes that he’ll pay him the money his parents owed when they died.  Just then, the evil scientist, not to be confused with the mad scientist, dies of a heart attack, leaving Kent alone in his hideout with a plethora of super-scientific inventions and a sudden desire to kill Superman.

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Phew!  Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.  The setup with an aggrieved Jor-El and a motherless Lex could have been really fascinating, but the execution is just so silly that there isn’t much here.  The evil gene device is so goofy that it undermines another fun concept, which is the idea of a human Clark Kent with reason to hate the superhuman kryptonian.  The issue manages to be readable and entertaining, but too silly to amount to anything.  It’s a shame, because there were neat ideas here.  I’ll give it 2 Minutemen.

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P.S.: The one standout feature of the issue is an item printed in the letter column which makes the same observations about the Superman books that I’ve been noting.  Keane Bonyun asks why, with so much of DC evolving, the Man of Steel is stuck in the past, a flat and uninteresting character in comparison with many of his fellows.  The editor notes that a big change is coming for Superman himself, and in the meantime, he points out new directions in Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, which is rather neat.  Clearly even at the time people both within and without the company were aware that the times were changing and the genre was evolving..


Teen Titans #29


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“Captives!”
Writer: Steve Skeates
Penciler: Nick Cardy
Inker: Nick Cardy
Letterer: John Costanza

This book, on the other hand, is a fun read.  Unfortunately, it reveals that the pointless Mr. Jupiter experiment is not yet over, but at least it gets the Titans back in action and back in costume.  Despite a few weak moments, it’s an interesting issue.  Perhaps the most compelling feature of the story is that it engages with the concept of Hawk and Dove in both frustrating and enjoyable ways.  Skeates manages to make Dove both aggravating and likeable at different points, but the most important thing is that he delivers an action-packed and enjoyable adventure.

We pick up where the previous issue left off, with Aqualad having been defeated by Ocean Master and his cronies and tied to a tree to die of dehydration.  The silly one hour limit is mentioned again, unfortunately.  I wonder when they got rid of that.  Anyway, just as he’s about to run out of time, the young Aquatic Ace sees that the cavalry has arrived, in the form of the Teen Titans!  That’s right, they finally got off their duffs and decided to do something useful.  Aqualad fills his friends in on the story so far and tells them that he managed to put a tracer on one of Ocean Master’s men.

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Meanwhile, Hawk and Dove have slipped away from the team in order to pursue the investigation on their own.  Hawk actually has a pretty good plan, and they head to Sharon’s (the girl who was attacked last issue) apartment and wait, hoping that the villains are still watching the place.  Sure enough, a band of thugs show up, and Hawk plans to disable them and let one escape so that they can trail him back to Orm.  In the donnybrook that follows, Dove is pretty much useless, but even worse, he turns tail and runs, rationalizing that they can’t take these three, seemingly average guys and he needs to get help.  Of course, if Dove had been even moderately useful in the fight, that probably wouldn’t have been the case.  This brings me to a problem I had, not so much with the issue, but with the character.

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Hawk and Dove are a cool concept, and one that is definitely timely for the era of their creation.  However, making proper use of them is rather tough.  It just makes no sense for a sincere pacifist to be a superhero.  It’s an inherently violent job, after all.  Justice League Unlimited handled the portrayal quite well, presenting a Dove who was very capable in a fight, despite the fact that he didn’t resort to direct violence.  The Dove who is a master of aikido, the martial art that turns an attack back upon an attacker, is a much more reasonable and useful character, after all.  Aikido is used to protect the practitioner, but it also emphasizes protecting your opponent from injury, which fits as a pacifistic way to take an active part in a fight.  Lifeline from G.I. JOE employed it for just such a purpose in the 80s comic.  Of course, we’re dealing with the very beginning of the character’s career, and it makes sense that neither he nor his writers would have worked out all the kinks just yet.  The result is still frustrating, making Dove seem like a coward rather than a man of principle.

Well, back to the story, Dove finds the other Titans and brings them on the run as their attackers cart Hawk off.  They make short work of the minions in a nice Cardy action scene, only to have Hawk dragged beneath the waves by Ocean Master!  Dove tries to intervene, only to be captured as well.  The pair awaken in an underwater base, tied to a pole.  The peaceful partner has managed to piece together the plot, and it seems to be related to one of our previous Aquaman stories.  Remember the aliens who were in cahoots with Orm?  They’re back, and now they’ve brought in some intergalactic muscle!  The handsome gents from the last issue of Titans were a super strong warrior race that the original invaders recruited.  The strange transformation that Sharon witnessed was a process that they use to walk among humans.

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After they compare notes, our heroes manage to escape from their foolproof prison by…standing up.  Even the heroes seem to be surprised by how easy it is.  Apparently Ocean Master is really not cut out for this world domination bit, as he tied the two brothers to a pole that had no top.  It’s a little taller than the teens, but they stretch a tad and manage to free themselves.  It’s…a bit silly that the mighty supervillain would make such an oversight, and it makes him seem incompetent.  It’s a fairly minor issue, though, and the escape requires cooperation from the brothers, which helps to add to the story and gives them a solid character moment.  Once free, they fight their way through the base until they run into Ocean Master himself, displaying good teamwork despite their differences.

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With Ocean Master they find one of the disguised aliens, and Hawk can’t take him alone, so Dove abandons his principles in the face of global Armageddon, and comes out swinging.  They’re holding their own when alien reinforcements arrive and things start to seem hopeless.  Just then, the Titans charge in, having used the tracker to find the base, and they clean up their extraterrestrial enemies with aplomb.  It’s another lovely Nick Cardy sequence.

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After the action, the heroes deal with the big question, the future of the Titans.  As I mentioned in the intro, we sadly don’t see the end of the Jupiter episode, but at least Aqualad is smart enough to realize how completely inane the whole thing is.  The rest of the Titans say they still feel like their vow has merit, and I suppose a vow is a vow, no matter how foolish.  Of course, they’ve already broken it by taking part in this adventure.  Nevertheless, they say that they’ll only help out in extreme cases like this and that they’ll leave regular crime fighting to the police.  Hopefully this is Skeate’s first step to moving them into a new direction.  We’ll have to wait and see.

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This is another good issue, as if that were really in doubt with Steve Skeates holding the pen.  Cardy’s art is as lovely as always, though I really don’t care that much for his Ocean Master.  He’s well drawn, but he just seems softer, less imposing than Aparo’s or Adams’.  Anyway, this issue is fun, exciting, and even manages to ask some interesting questions about principles and pacifism, even if it does so a bit awkwardly at times.  Despite the frustrating moments with Dove, I’ll give Skeates credit for trying to do something new and challenging.  The whole adventure is enjoyable, and it’s great to see the Titans back in action.  I especially enjoy that Aqualad gets to play the leader and the level-headed one.  It’s a role he’s good at, and it’s a shame we don’t see it more often.  Unfortunately, it looks like Aqualad will be leaving the book after next issue, and that is a crying shame.  The team won’t be the same without him.  Anyway, I’ll give this issue 4 Minutemen, though I’m tempted to go a bit higher.

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Final Thoughts:


This was a solid if hardly electrifying collection of issues.  While most of the books were fairly average in quality, we had a handful of stronger offerings.  In particular, it’s worth noting that we actually got an entirely tolerable, even enjoyable, issue of Green Lantern/Green Arrow.  Even if the comics weren’t stellar, this month provided us with several unique and interesting moments, from the arrival of Jack Kirby at DC to the first, halting steps towards bringing more mature themes to the Man of Steel in Action Comics.  At the same time, issues like this latest Superman remind us of just how far there is to go, and the contrast between this month’s two Superman books is really telling.  Even more interesting to me is the fact that, in the context of the whole catalog of DC comics, what Jack Kirby is starting to do in his Fourth World books is all the more exciting and innovative.  I’m sure it will be a fascinating experience to read those books in context.  Well, that’s it for October 1970.  I hope you’ll join me soon as we begin our sojourn in November!


The Head-Blow Headcount:

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It’s been an uneventful month, in terms of the wall of shame, though I’m sure we’ll see new additions soon to rack up the headcount!

Into the Bronze Age: August 1970 (Part 3)

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Thank you for joining me for the third set of books from August, 1970, as we travel Into the Bronze Age!  This post we cover the second appearance of Man-Bat, which is an interesting landmark.  I hope you enjoy my musings on these two issues!

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

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

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

Detective Comics #402

detective_comics_402“Man or Bat?”
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Neal Adams
Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Julius Schwartz

“My Place in the Sun!”
Writer: Mike Friedrich
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Vince Colletta
Letterer: John Costanza

This issue features two solid tales, though the Man-Bat story is definitely the prize, as you might imagine.  It’s great fun to see this character coming back and to see what will be the recurring themes of his story taking shape, with the worried fiance, the quest to become human again, and the conflict between his animalistic and rational natures.  I never thought about it before, but in that sense, this character can serve as something of a metaphor for the basic struggles between body and soul in all of us.  I suppose that’s the source of the archetypal draw of these kinds of stories, the Jekyll and Hyde tales.  They reflect a primal part of the human experience, the feeling that we’re at war with a part of ourselves.  That’s no great revelation, I realize, but I was struck with it particularly on this reading.

This is only Man-Bat’s second appearance and, as before, it still very much feels like the kind of fresh concept that the Bronze Age is only starting to produce but which will soon become indicative of the period.  There are horror elements that distinguish this book from many of the others on the shelf at the time, as well as a generally more serious, melodramatic tone.  Of course, it hardly needs to be said that Neal Adams’ artwork is just plain gorgeous.

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Our tale begins with a gang of thieves preparing to rob a biochemical company.  Unbeknownst to them, they are being observed by a very nervous Man-Bat.  The unfortunate Dr. Langstrom needs something inside the safe, but his plans are interrupted when Batman bursts in through the window and starts kicking butt.  When it seems like one of the thieves has the drop on the Dark Knight, Man-Bat intercedes, and the two chiroptera-themed combatants quickly dispatch the rest.  The Caped Crusader is quite pleased to see his one-time ally again, even grinning in most un-grim avenger-ly fashion, but Langstrom is desperate to get what he needs.

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He tells the hero that he is no thief, being prepared to pay for what he needs, but Batman refuses to budge.  Here we see a weakness in the issue, a misstep in characterization.  Once the Dark Knight realizes that Man-Bat is wearing no costume, that he is the monster he appears to be, the hero still refuses to let him buy the chemicals, effectively just because it is after business hours.  Come on, Bruce!  Sure, ideally you’d seal the crime scene and wait for the police, but this is clearly not an ideal situation, what with the horrible mutation and all.  I like Batman being inflexible and relentless.  I think that’s a very fitting character trait, but this is more a matter of him being unreasonably obtuse.

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detective comics 402 007.jpgAccidentally disabling his idol, Man-Bat takes what he needs and flees into the night.  When the Masked Manhunter recovers, he lives up to that particular nom de guerre, and tracks the frightful fellow to the location of their first meeting, the museum.  There he encounters Langstrom’s frantic fiancee, who hasn’t heard from her husband-to-be in days.  They go to investigate this disappearance, Batman with grave suspicions, and they interrupt Man-Bat just as he prepares to take his antidote…and the interruption causes him to drop it!  It’s one of those tragic twists of fate that makes this little drama work.  Things could so easily have been otherwise, and it imbues the story with a certain amount of gravitas.

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Man-Bat flees once more, and the mystery partially solved, a remorseful Dark Knight sets out to synthesize a new batch of the antidote.  He heads to his lab in the Batcave, and we’re forced to wonder if he doesn’t have such a setup in Wayne Tower.  I suspect that the truth about this sudden return home is a matter of plot convenience combined with the fact that the Batcave is just objectively cooler than Wayne Tower.  At the same time in a convenient twist that actually makes a certain amount of sense, Man-Bat, now fully transformed and losing his mind fast, follows a regular bat home…to the Batcave!  I suppose that, if you’re a bat living on the outskirts of Gotham, you probably live in the Batcave.  I’ll buy that.  Our plot threads rush to a convergence as Batman arrives there as well, unaware of his uninvited guest.

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When the Caped Crusader opens the garage door to the Cave, Man-Bat realizes where he is and tries to escape.  During a desperate struggle, in which our hero takes a bad-looking fall, Batman manages to trap his opponent, who knocks himself out against the Batcave door.  He quickly checks to make sure that the man-monster is unhurt and sets out to try and reverse his mutation.  To be continued!

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This is a good issue.  Langstrom is sympathetic, and his slow descent into a more beastial nature is decently compelling.  The story moves quickly, but it fits a good deal in, plenty of action, good character moments, and plenty of tension.  Other than Batman’s intransigence about the antidote in the beginning, the characterization was effective.  The natural anger that Langstrom feels towards Batman after the Dark Knight ruins his chance at a cure is fitting and well handled.  It doesn’t turn instantly into hatred, but it does color the mutated scientist’s actions for the rest of the issue.  I particularly enjoy Batman’s deliberation at the end of the story about whether or not to try to create an antidote, knowing that Langstrom’s mind may be permanently corrupted by the transformation.  It’s a good, thought-provoking moment, and it is another fairly compelling moral question without an entirely clear-cut answer, like the one from this month’s Aquaman.  Is it more merciful to restore him to the semblance of humanity if he is to remain, at heart, a monster?  That’s an interesting question, and the fact that it gets asked is indicative of the higher tone and tenor of the storytelling Robbins is doing here.

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It is, of course, beautiful, and Adams does some great work with light and shadow.  His Man-Bat looks fantastic, human, yet monstrous, and he puts an incredible amount of emotion expressiveness in the creature’s face.  You can really feel the impact of his internal struggle in some of these panels.  It’s just a good, moody Batman tale, with a healthy dose of mystery and drama, certainly worth the read.  I’ll give it 4.5 Minutemen.

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“My Place in the Sun!”

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This Robin backup features a guest appearance (one could hardly call him a guest star) from Speedy, the Boy Bowman.  It’s a solid, though short of course, character piece.  I’m curious to see what, if anything it will lead to.  Interestingly, in my copy, at least, Speedy is mis-colored, with his scheme inverted.

Our little tale begins with a certain arrow slinging teenager (or teen-ager as the comics sometimes refer to them) arriving in the awesome Arrow-Plane.  I enjoy this little scene with the two friends meeting and discussing recent events.  As I hinted last post, this Robin yarn actually follows in the footsteps of the previous issue of Teen Titans, #28.  Apparently Aqualad’s impassioned speech has had an effect, and Robin is back with his team.  I quite like that type of mild continuity, reminding us that these characters are part of a larger universe.  It doesn’t require any specific knowledge to enjoy this story, but a reader in the know is rewarded just a bit.

Well, the Teen Wonder gives his visitor a tour of campus and his dorm, and Roy drools over the local ladies.  It’s a nice, quiet little character moment, and I enjoy watching these two guys just palling around.  Their friendly tour is interrupted in the cafeteria where visiting kids from a nearby juvenile detention farm break out into a fight.  One of the biggest guys belts one of the smaller ones.

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Robin shows surprisingly good sense when he realizes that Speedy suddenly showing up when Dick Grayson just happens to have a guest from out of town might endanger his secret identity.  He then immediately makes up for that moment of good sense by changing into his costume in “a corner of the kitchen.”  Meanwhile, poor Roy is a ‘casualty,’ catching a pie to the face.  He retaliates in kind in a funny beat.

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Robin leaps into action and lays into the bigger kid, but one of the guards tells him that he’s picked the wrong pigeon.  Apparently the little fellow started things.  As the day goes on, Roy and Dick hear people around campus badmouthing the Teen Wonder, spreading the story of his mistake and questioning his character and future.  The Boy Bowman shows surprisingly good sense when he reminds his friend that when they put on their costumes they become symbols, and that means that people judge them much differently and have less patience for mistakes.

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Speedy heads out to keep a date with Wonder Girl, and Robin is left to ponder his future.  In an interesting scene, he wonders just who he is and what his role is going to be as an adult.  After some reflection, Dick rededicates himself to his calling, swearing that he’s going to make a name for himself on his own.

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As you can see, there’s not too much to this tale.  It has some good character beats, and it is fun to see Dick and Roy just hanging out together.  The central conflict isn’t really the action scene, but the existential reflection that follows Robin’s mistake.  One does wonder why a superhero, even a teenage superhero, would really feel the need to intercede in a simple fistfight.  It seems something of a waste of talents, but I guess even Superman sometimes stops a purse snatcher.  If I remember correctly, Friedrich is setting something up, so perhaps it will end up being worthwhile in retrospect.

The idea of a teenage Dock Grayson dealing with some uncertainty about his place in the world is a good one.  Ideally, this would be the first step to the character making some changes in his identity, most especially in his costume!  Notably, at least one of the voices he overhears on campus makes fun of Robin’s costume, so clearly the folks behind the scenes realized how ridiculous that outfit was for a guy his age.  It’s really rather inexcusable that they have him wearing it while he’s in college.

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I’m not one who cares much for the whole Nightwing identity (I vastly prefer the Earth 2 angle, with him as an adult Robin or the Kingdom Come Red Robin identity), but, for Heaven’s sake, just giving the poor kid some pants would have done wonders.  Unfortunately, I’m quite sure we see no such change any time soon, but perhaps there will be some good stories that will come out of this direction nonetheless.  Either way, this particular issue doesn’t have quite enough going on to raise it above an average score, so I’ll give it 3 Minutemen.

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Flash #199

the_flash_vol_1_199“Flash?– Death Calling!”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Vince Colletta

“The Explosive Heart of America”
Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Vince Colletta

Ohh man, this confusing, pointless mess of a story doesn’t have much to recommend it.  Surprisingly enough, the letter writers seem to be full of praises for Gil Kane’s turn on the book, but even if you like the art, and I’m pretty ambivalent about it, the writing in these last few issues has been pretty lackluster.  We’re also in the middle of a supervillain slump, with no Flash issue in the last several months and none for months to come featuring any of his foes.  I’m pretty sure that it has been an entire year, a full twelve months, since the last story featuring a supervillain in this book.  It’ll be OVER a year (judging by covers) until the next one!  That is a crying shame.  After all, the Flash has, objectively, the second best rogue’s gallery (after Batman, obviously) in all of DC Comics.  Why the heck would you waste time month after month with generic gangsters and thugs when Captain Cold is just sitting around waiting for a call?  Not every story needs to feature a supervillain, but come on, at least SOME should.  I really love the Flash, but I’m definitely not enjoying these comics.

This particular tale is one of the worst.  Kanigher seems to have no idea what he’s doing or why.  I have to say, I’m really beginning to dread seeing his name in a writing credit.  I don’t think I’ve given a single one of his stories higher than a 2.5, and this one isn’t going to get any better.  It wanders aimlessly from one plot driven coincidence to another.  We start with the cover image, a man who is apparently the Flash sleeping on a park bench, covered with a newspaper article proclaiming the death of the Scarlet Speedster.  This fellow is awoken by a beat cop who chases him off, and then he encounters a robber fleeing from a store.  His efforts to stop the fleet-footed fellon are for naught, and the guy cleans his clock.  Clearly this is not the fastest man alive.

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The crook is captured by a few little leaguers (seriously), and this faux-Flash continues wandering aimlessly, much like the plot.  He encounters Iris Allen, the hero’s wife, and she flashes back (no pun intended) to the events that led to his apparent demise. We briefly see Barry leaving the house for a JLA meeting and then the League burying the Fastest Man Alive, now not so quick (sorry!).  She snaps out of her reverie, and jerks the cowl off the Pseudo-Speedster’s head, revealing a random guy.  He is apparently a scientist named Dr. Hollister, who, stay with me now, was on a TV show with the Flash the day he “died.”  Hollister was being interviewed about his new cryogenic process, which lead him to being threatened by gangsters.  Still following?

flash 199-07.jpg

Anyone else wonder who the other pall-bearers were?

They try to force the doc to put them on ice, and Flash shows up to stop them…somehow.  He is accidentally exposed to Hollister’s formula, and though he chases off the would-be crook-cicles, he seems to die afterwards.  Next, we see Iris donating one of Barry’s uniforms to the Flash museum, which Hollister, feeling guilt over the hero’s demise, steals…for…reasons.  *sigh*

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He snaps out of…whatever was going on with his dressing in the costume, and steals the Scarlet Speedster’s body in order to run more experiments and try to revive him.  One step forward, two steps back there, Doc.  During the attempt, while nothing is working, the Generic Gang breaks in again, and lightning happens to strike one of their guns, reflecting onto the hero’s body and bringing him back to life.  There is one moderately clever moment, where the gangster seems to be struck by lightning, but it is revealed in an “instant replay” that it was actually the Flash reviving and smacking him at super speed.  We get a nice reunion with Iris that, like everything else that actually has some value in this story, is not given nearly enough space.

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This story is just confused, as you know from trying to keep up with that summary, and unnecessarily convoluted.  It is not terribly interesting.  The mystery of Flash’s apparent demise could have been decent fodder for a story, but this one just limps along awkwardly with no clear idea of what it wants to do or how it wants to do it.  The actually interesting elements, like Iris’s reaction to her husband’s sudden demise and return are glossed over.  Hollister’s guilt over the hero’s fate could also have been compelling fiction.  Instead, we see him dazedly wandering around in a Flash costume.  We get neither entertaining action, nor enjoyable drama.  It definitely doesn’t deserve more than 1.5 Minuteman.

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Someone please tell me why Gil Kane was so popular…

“The Explosive Heart of America”

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This…odd story is at least more coherent than the previous one, though that isn’t saying much.  It introduces a fairly big complication to Barry’s setting without any real justification, as it begins when a secret agent, who looks a bit like Doc Ock in disguise (maybe he’s moonlighting!), walks into Barry’s lab and announces that he knows the hero’s secret identity.  This mysterious operative, who introduces himself as “Colonel K,” hands the Flash a map and tells him that there is an experimental missile being prepped somewhere in a hostile country, and only the Fastest Man Alive can find it in time to disable it.

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How does this random guy know the Flash’s secret identity?  No clue; Kanigher doesn’t bother to tell us.  He just does, because plot, apparently.  Now, in terms of the plot itself, the basic concept is not a bad one, and it certainly fits the character.  At first, I thought, ‘hey, he’s giving the Flash a list of places to search, sure,’ but I was wrong.  In fact, the map is just a map of China with a search grid on it.  That’s right, the Flash has to search the entirety of China for a hidden missile base.  *sigh*  Hello Silver Age excess.

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Fortunately, the plot gods are kind, and the Scarlet Speedster just happens to stop to rest on the mountain that contains the base.  In a surprising and neat little scene, he meets a young Chinese boy who greets him enthusiastically.  The boy tells the hero that he and many of the younger generation like and respect the Western heroes, not believing everything the powers that be tell them.  It’s actually a surprisingly optimistic and realistic take on the citizenry of a hostile foreign power, treating them as thinking individuals who might not believe everything the guys in charge say, so credit where it is due.

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Well, Flash vibrates into the mountain and finds…a missile, I suppose.  It’s more like a pillar of energy, and his arrival triggers it.  So, not knowing what else to do, he climbs on top and rides it all the way to the U.S.  In another odd touch, it happens to be homing in on the exact geographical center of the country, which is marked by a giant metal x, so Flash hops OFF the missile and wrecks the x, assuming that there is a homing device in it.  This…somehow…fixes things.  The missile just evaporates, and all is well…except that some spooky government spy knows our hero’s secret identity.  I’m sure that could never turn out badly.

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This is a mediocre tale with a rushed resolution and nothing particularly great about it.  The conversation with the Chinese boy is really the highlight, and the random agent who magically knows Barry is the Flash is the low point.  We do see more evidence of the Cold War here, so that’s worth noting, especially since this one focuses on China rather than Russia.  The story isn’t terrible, but it displays what I’m coming to expect from Kanigher, sloppy writing and a lack of imagination, or at least the creative fortitude to fully realize ideas.  I’ll give it 2 Minutemen.  Apparently, as far as I can tell from a little research, Kanigher is responsible for a lot of fantastic work.  Perhaps this is just a slump in his career.

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Lost DCUG Campaign

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Howdy guys, I discovered something today while I was cleaning out some files that made me a bit wistful and nostalgic, so I thought I would share it.  Years ago I was working on my sprawling DC Universe mod, the DC Universe According to Grey, and I created the beginnings of two extra campaigns.  At some point in time, I had a computer crash and lost all of that material…except this.  I discovered a few, a very few, screenshots of one of those ill-fated missions.  This one in particular was the first mission in a Green Arrow campaign, and it featured Green Arrow, Speedy, and guest starred Black Canary.

The mission involved taking Ollie and Roy on a patrol of Star City where they would encounter various low-level thugs, meet up with the lovely Dinah Lance, and then confront Count Vertigo for the first time in the finale.  I had a short campaign plotted out, but this was the only thing done.

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I thought I might share these images with anyone interested, so we can all look at what might have been.  Perhaps one day I will get a chance to revisit this material, but I know at least one of the maps I used no longer exists.  Anyway, I’ve asked this before, but on the off chance I might hit the jackpot, I’ll ask again.  If you had an early version of the DCUG, please check your folder and see if you happen to have any of this material.  I think some of it got out into the public, but I was never able to recover it.  Well, that’s all for now.  Thanks for taking this little stroll down memory lane with me!

Into the Bronze Age: February 1970 (Part 2)

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

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

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

Bonus!: Atomic Knights

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

Phantom Stranger #5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Showcase #88

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Strange Adventures #222

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Superman #223

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Superman #224

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Teen Titans #25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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World’s Finest #191

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bonus Feature: Atomic Knights

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Writer: John Broome
Artist: Murphy Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Final Reflections:

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

 

The Head-Blow Headcount:

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