Into the Bronze Age: August 1970 (Part 4)

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

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

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

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

Justice League #82

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phantom Stranger #8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dr. Thirteen, surprising badass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the Bronze Age: March 1970 (Part 1)

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Our trek into the Bronze Age continues!

And so does the evolution of this feature.  I’m going to add a little historical information to set the scene and provide some context for the comics I’m covering.  Each month’s first post will feature a couple of notable events and, stealing shamelessly from the ever entertaining and delightfully British Fantasticast, will also include that month’s longest reigning #1 single.

This month in history:

  • Rhodesia becomes independent
  • The Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty goes into effect
  • The “Weathermen” domestic terrorist group bomb 18 West 11th St in NYC
  • US lowers voting age from 21 to 18
  • The film Airport is released
  • Explorer 1 re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere after 12 years in orbit
  • Riots erupt in Belfast, Ireland

As you can see, these are turbulent times we’re touring.

And quite fittingly, this month’s #1 song was “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” As an aside, Garfunkel is a weird looking dude.  Just saying.  Now, to the comics!

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

  • Action Comics #386
  • Batman #220
  • Brave and the Bold #88
  • Challengers of the Unknown #72
  • Detective Comics #397
  • Flash #195
  • G.I. Combat #140
  • Green Lantern #75
  • Justice League of America #79
  • Phantom Stranger #5
  • Showcase #89
  • World’s Finest #192

Bonus!: Star Hawkins

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

Action Comics #386

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

“Zap Goes the Legion!”
Writer: E. Nelson Bridwell
Penciler: Win Mortimer
Inker: Jack Abe

Wow, what a switch from the last issue and the first half of this story!  Don’t let that gimmicky cover fool you.  Even though this issue may have been born out of someone proposing the asinine question, ‘hey, wonder if there would be a retirement home for old superheroes?’ this story rises above such silly beginnings.  It looks like this tale is going to be exactly like its predecessor, rife with Silver Age silliness, but while there is certainly some of that to be found here, the whole actually hangs together remarkably well.  That’s the key difference between this story and its first half.  This one is surprisingly logically consistent.

We join our hero, the time-lost Man of Steel, still banished from his home time and seeking solace in the far future.  He leaps forward in time once more, this journey taking him to the year 121,970, where he finds a devastated world, poisoned by nuclear war.  Right from the beginning we see that this is a more interesting, thoughtful story than the previous offering from Action Comics.  Superman is wrestling with the unexpected loss of the life he knew, and in a fit of rage he destroys a cliffside that’s been fused into glass.  It’s a nice little moment.  He sees his aged reflection and is confronted with the reality of his loss, lashing out in anger.  That’s more emotion from the Man of Might than we saw in the entirety of the previous issue.  The Time Trapper observes this outburst with glee and reflects on the events of that past story.

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Finding nothing to assuage his sorrow, Superman once more lives up to his more esoteric nickname, the Man of Tomorrow, by traveling further into the future.  There he finds an interesting world.  On the one hand, it’s taken right from the Jetsons, complete with skyscraper buildings that house humanity above a sea of poisonous atmosphere that blankets the planet.  On the other hand, the way the world got to this point is really quite intriguing and unusually thought-provoking for a story from this era.

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Superman finds himself surrounded by strange floating robotic sentries that arrest him for using superpowers (!), hauling him before the leaders of the world.  They recognize him, but at least this time it is played as something of an unusual occurrence instead of having this 100 centuries old superhero instantly known by everyone in the future.  It is from the powers-that-be that Superman learns the sad history of this era, and an interesting story it is.  It seems that thousands of years ago a trio of super beings, much like Superman himself, came to Earth.  They were benevolent, protecting and caring for the people of the planet, and in turn the citizens showered them with love.  Yet, love was their undoing.  The three beings were two men and one woman, and the men fought over their female companion.  Theirs was a war that lasted only two days but which was so incredibly destructive, especially from the damage of their “proto-vision,” that it left the entire Earth poisoned in its wake.  The beings, the Naurons, fled, leaving the world a wasteland.  In response, the survivors banned the use of all superpowers, which seems like a fairly sensible precaution after such an experience.

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This is quite the interesting little throw-away detail, or so it seems at the time.  It is a rare moment of perspective from a comic, especially a DC comic, of this era.  The presence of beings as powerful as Superman would be an incredible threat to the worlds they call home, and if they were any less careful and dedicated than he is, a tragedy would be inevitable.  This has been explored quite well in later years, of course, but the tale of the Naurons is certainly noteworthy in context.  It adds a different, though also somewhat sombre note to the story of Superman’s exile.

Well, Superman decides to explore this time a bit more, being careful not to employ any of his powers, and he happens upon the future incarnation of the Daily Planet, complete with nifty floating sign.  Inside he first discovers that it is no longer a newspaper; as the Man of Steel puts it, “the printed page must be ancient history in this era.”  This is another surprisingly thoughtful detail in this story.  While comic writers could easily imagine the future with flying cars and push-button houses, they often had some of the most interesting blind spots for other elements of life in such an era.

Next Superman happens upon the archives of the video-paper and learns what had happened to his friends after he disappeared from his native time.  We discover that Lois apparently never got over her thing for Superman, as she married the actor who portrayed him in the movies.  I think I’d call that unhealthy and more than a little creepy.  ‘Hey, you look like my vanished love, so I guess you’ll do.  Would you mind wearing his clothes too?’  Jimmy Olsen fared better, writing a best-seller about his adventures with the Man of Steel and finally finding enough dignity to call himself James…but not enough to stop wearing bow-ties.  Before he can learn anymore (one wonders what happened to Batman and the League without their heaviest hitter), Superman gets kicked out and goes back to wandering the streets.

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He sees an accident about to occur, and unwilling to let any law prevent him from saving a life, leaps into action, only to be arrested again!  This time they have no mercy and banish him to another world!  Here is where we get to what on the cover seems like a goofy concept, but what, in context, actually makes sense.  It seems that this is a retirement center of sorts for aging heroes, men who could not fit into civilian life or who violated the law in their attempts to help.  In a sense, it’s a cushy prison for metahumans, a logical necessity if you’ve outlawed powers.

This places inmates are embittered, holding on to their past glories, but they immediately take to Superman, having long revered his legacy.  It makes sense that there would be somewhere to put heroes who broke the power laws, and it also serves to underscore Superman’s own sense of emptiness and uselessness, so this hero retirement home actually works in this story, strange as it may seem.

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The Man of Tomorrow finds himself on this world only a short time before a dignitary from Earth arrives, begging for the help of the banished heroes.  They basically tell the guy where he can go, but Superman sways them with an impassioned speech…or rather, he basically says, ‘hey, come on guys…come on!’ and the heroes, apparently senile and easily influenced, immediately get on board.

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They all fly to Earth where they discover that a storage silo for an incredibly powerful fuel that is inexplicably stored smack-dab in the middle of downtown future-Metropolis has become unstable and is going to explode!  One wonders why you might not want to store your super explosive materials somewhere else, but apparently safety concerns just aren’t that big of a deal in the future.  I wonder what future-OCSEA would say…

Anyway, heroes, weakened by age and sorrow, don’t think they can save the city, but Superman once again displays his quick wits, as well as his natural leadership abilities.  He leaps into action, deploying his super-powered squad all around the solar system in pursuit of various materials, which he uses to create blast shield that will focus the force of the explosion downward.  When the tower goes up, Superman uses his own impervious form, spinning at super speed, to further contain the explosion and turn the building into a rocket, sending it harmlessly into space.  It’s a clever solution, and it’s a nice sequence of pages, with the elderly champions chipping in to save the day.

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Finally, the story ends with Superman journeying on further into the future, not even bothering to say goodbye.  As he flies, he ruminates on lost opportunities.  “Why didn’t I marry Lois?” he wonders as he is secretly observed by the sinister Time Trapper!  It’s a nice note to end on, keeping the melancholy undercurrent of the story alive, despite the seemingly happy conclusion of this adventure.

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This is a really fun, surprisingly thoughtful and interesting story.  Now, I’m being generous here, as there are certainly silly elements and moments throughout it, but the whole thing holds together remarkably well considering its origins.  Pretty much every element that is introduced makes sense, and there are really thought-provoking pieces to this story, including the war of the super-beings and Superman’s own sadness at being banished from everything and everyone he knows.  While I’d hardly call this story soulful or truly melancholy, it certainly has elements that a generous imagination can magnify into more than the sum of their parts.  I also wonder if the concern with devastated, dead, or poisoned worlds might reflect the growing environmental consciousness being displayed in JLA this and last month.  I can’t say for sure, but it does seem like a curious bit of synchronicity.  All-in-all, I’ll give this tale 4 Minutemen out of 5.

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“Zap Goes the Legion!”

That brings us to this month’s Legion backup.  For once, the backup doesn’t overshadow the feature, which seemed to be the trend for the last two months.  Still, this is a fine Legion tale, and it too features a neat, unusual element.  The adventure begins on the prison planetoid of Takron-Galtos, a Legion fixture I’ve encountered once or twice before.  I like recurring elements like this.  They make the universe of these stories seem more complete, more filled out and lived-in.  Anyway, we meet two prisoners who are due for release.  In a scene out of a Clockwork Orange (though, interestingly this comic predates that movie by a year!), both inmates are given “prism therapy,” which apparently brainwashes them into doing good.  Shades of Doc Savage!  The two prisoners claim to be transformed and to feel remorse for their actions.  The woman, Uli Algor, an old foe of the Legion’s, has actually faked her reformation and immediately sets out to destroy the heroes of the future!

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The method by which she defeats the “prism therapy” is rather hokey, as she effectively just says, ‘hey, I used light to fight the Legion, so I made myself immune to all forms of light!’  Wow, I wish I knew it was that easy!  I’ve shot guns, so I should have just made myself immune to all metal!  Silly me!  Anyway, several of the Legionnaires are out on the town, viewing *sigh* a “time-scope,” showing a 20th Century prize fight and noting that the ‘barbaric’ sport of boxing has been outlawed for hundreds of years.  Remember that, as it will become strangely important later on.  Our uninterestingly named villainess challenges the heroes, Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, Cosmic Boy, and even substitute hero Night Girl, to a fight.  She quickly dispatches each of the heroes by turning their powers against them with her advanced equipment.  Lightning Lad is short-circuited, Cosmic Boy is thrown into a wall with bone-breaking force, Saturn Girl is given wide-awake nightmares, and Night Girl is blinded!  All things considered, I think Night Girl got off rather easily by comparison.

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I like that panel of Saturn Girl’s nightmares.  It’s pretty neat, and the menace is palpable.  No, here’s where we get something a bit unusual.  The heroes don’t just pick themselves up and dust themselves off.  No, they are well and truly defeated, and the next scene is Brainiac 5 and Karate Kid visiting them in the hospital where they are all entirely incapacitated.  It’s a surprising scene, showing the consequences of a loss for our heroes, and while they will all be okay, it is clear that they were hurt pretty badly.  I particularly like the image of the heroes in the pitch-black room, only their goggles standing out.  The whole scene has the effect of reminding us that our heroes are actually playing for high stakes and implies that their victory is far from certain.

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The remaining heroes, Brainiac 5, Ultra-Boy, Phantom Girl, and Karate Kid, receive a a second challenge from Algor (not to be confused with another future-dwelling Al Gore), and they choose a junkyard asteroid as their battleground.  Despite Brainiac 5 preparing the ground and rigging the junked spaceships littering its surface to trap her, Algor manages to escape, inadvertently bringing Phantom Girl back to her hidden base.  The villainess is ready for the young heroine’s intangibility, however, and takes her out.  This enrages her boyfriend, Ultra-Boy, and he sets out to bring Algor down.  She plans how to counter each of his many superpowers, but is so wrapped up in what she’ll do in this, that, or the other circumstance, that she allows the fighting-mad Legionnaire to walk right up to her and belt her on the jaw.

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She was prepared for any of his powers, but not for old-fashioned boxing, it seems!  Now, the story assures us Ultra-Boy isn’t using super strength, and it lampshades the fact that he is hitting a girl; yet, it is still a bit off-putting that he just straight-up socks this woman in the jaw!  It’s rather surprising in a 1970 comic book, and I have to admit that my old-school Southern gentlemanly upbringing quails a bit at that image.

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The resolution is a bit silly, as even if boxing isn’t allowed as a sport, the Legionnaires clearly have some hand-to-hand training, so a punch to the face wouldn’t be quite as innovative as Ultra-Boy seems to think it is in this story, especially for someone like him, who often engages in fisticuffs.  Algor’s very convenient powers are another weakness of this story, as she seems to have the power of ‘plot.’  I imagine that is why she didn’t really become a major Legion foe.  That, and she doesn’t really have much personality, but there is only so much you can pack into an 11 page story, and master of continuity, E. Nelson Bridwell has already got this one stuffed to the gills.

Despite those few weaknesses, this is definitely a fun story, and the injuries sustained by the first tea of Legionnaires really helped to raise it above the herd a bit, giving the whole tale a more serious feeling.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.

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Batman #220

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Cover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Frank Robbins
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Dick Giordano

This is a fine Batman tale, a good, classic style murder mystery, though the ending is a bit of a cheat.  We are back to the dark, brooding detective Batman once again, and that’s always a good thing in my book, though it emphasizes the unevenness of the character’s portrayal across the line at this time.  Our story opens with Batman rushing to a payphone where he hears the taped confession of a murderer, though the man says the Caped Crusader will never live to use it, as the entire phone booth explodes!  It’s a literal ka-pow moment and a nice beginning for our tale.

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Cut to the previously discussed Victims Inc. office of Bruce Wayne, where he is visited by a strangely silver-haired Marla Manning, a young woman (and it rather bothers me that no-one comments on the fact that this 20-something woman has white/silver hair!) whose columns inspired Bruce to start his organization.  She is there because she was investigating a car bomb that claimed the life of a city clerk and she has received a warning to “lay off!”  Bruce goes to check his files, and discovers that this particular file has been stolen!

He tells her that this is now a case for Batman, which seems a bit cavalier with the whole secret identity thing, but not the worst offense we’ve seen recently. *cough*Superman*cough*  Then, properly attired in cape and cowl, the Dark Knight detective goes to interview the victim’s sister…by knocking on her door.  It’s a rather incongruous image, seeing Batman in 70s grim avenger-style art knocking politely at a door while standing in a well-lit hallway.

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The sister isn’t talking, and Bats deduces that she’s being threatened, so he bursts in and disarms the gunman in a rather nicely drawn scene.  Irv Novick may not be in the same league as Neal Adams, who will shortly become THE artist associated with Batman in this era, but he’s no slouch either, and he draws a dynamic, powerful, and resourceful Caped Crusader.

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Unfortunately, the killer gets away, leaving the Dark Knight without a lead to follow, so he reexamines the case and decides to investigate a construction company that won a bid the murdered clerk had been involved in.  While snooping through the company’s records (and unlike a true Silver Age story, we don’t get any tortuous justification for Batman clearly breaking the law to do so), our stalwart hero discovers that Zachary Nova, the head of the Nova Demolitions company has just the skill-set needed to handle the car-bomb, having been a demolitions expert in Vietnam.  Nova catches him spying, and gets the drop on the detective, but Batman is able to turn the tables on him, leading to a tense stand off involving some really rather casually stored explosives.  If Batman can’t pin a murder on the guy, at least he can totally get him for unsafe working conditions!

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Nova, clearly more than a little crazy, threatens Batman with a bundle of TNT, and the Dark Knight leaves without finding any proof.  Next, the Cape Crusader rather blithely decides to put Marla Manning’s life in danger.  He has her print a story claiming she has some proof about the killer and making herself bait.  The reporter gets a call from Nova, who says he knows she doesn’t have any proof, but he’s willing to sell her some if she’ll meet him.  Batman insists on making the exchange, which brings us back to that deadly phonebooth!

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After the Dark Detective’s seeming demise, Nova emerges and threatens Marla, but he is suddenly assaulted by his disembodied voice!  Nova panics and empties his gun, then Batman tackles him from the shadows.  That brings us to the rather cheap explanation of Batman’s survival.  Apparently he had a life-sized dummy UNDER HIS CAPE!  He threw it in the phonebooth and dove for cover.

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Other than that somewhat silly explanation, this is a solid issue.  It isn’t great, but there is a fair enough mystery and Nova makes for an entertaining enough villain, even if there isn’t all that much to him.  The mystery would be a bit more substantive if there were more than one suspect, but it effectively wraps everything up in one issue.  I’ll give it 3.5 Minutemen.

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The Brave and the Bold #88

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Executive Editor: Murray Boltinoff
Cover Artist: Neal Adams
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: Irv Novick
Inker: Mike Esposito
Editor: Murray Boltinoff

We return again to the Brave and the Bold, the private comic fife of Bob Haney!  For all of his quirks, something Haney could do quite well was a character-focused story.  He was surprisingly good at turning in a tale bursting with genuine character development, where a hero or heroine went through a personal arc between the covers, but there was a catch.  The character being developed often bore little actual resemblance to the mainstream DC hero he or she was supposed to be.  What’s more, all of that character work was usually promptly forgotten by everyone, including Haney himself, about five minutes after the issue ended.  This trend gives rise to the old joke that Zaney Haney stories take place, not on Earth 1 or Earth 2, but on Earth H, for Haney.

Yet, despite the, well, zaniness of such stories, they are still noteworthy for providing real character growth and change (however short-lived) in an era where DC Comics very rarely engaged in any such storytelling.  Where Haney really shined is with characters that were, at the time, largely forgotten.  There was no real established continuity for him to flaunt, and thus no other writers to ignore what he had done.  Over the course of the next few years, Haney will produce several fairly interesting, though fittingly insane, stories about mostly forgotten characters from the Golden Age.  This is one such tale.

Our guest-star this issue, Wildcat, seems to have been one of Haney’s favorites, and he certainly makes a number of return appearances, most of them fairly good.  In this tale, which bears much more in common with that rather striking cover than you’d think likely, as we first find the former costumed hero down on his luck in a flophouse.  Bruce Wayne has come seeking the undefeated former heavyweight champion of the world, and he has found Ted Grant a shell of the man he once was.  Bruce asks the older man what happened, and Grant, in terse, bitter sentences replies that he had opened a gym to help underprivileged kids, but got drawn into the problems of the inner city.  He went into debt trying to help, and suddenly found himself quite alone when the money ran out.

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Wayne offers to pay his debts, saying he has come to get Grant’s help.  It seems there is a youth Olympic-style set of games in the offing, and the U.S. of A. needs someone to coach the boxers.  Who better than the Champ?  Interestingly enough, Bruce himself is coaching the fencing team.  It makes sense that Bruce Wayne, wealthy socialite that he is, would be a fencer, but does it follow that he’d be good enough (publicly) to justify such a position?  Well, it’s a Haney tale, so we shouldn’t peer too closely behind the curtain.

Convinced that he has nothing to offer anyone, grant turns the job down, but when he hears Bruce getting jumped right outside his window, he leaps into action without a second thought, laying out the two thugs who were robbing the millionaire.  This gives him a dose of confidence, and he agrees to join the team.  As they leave, Bruce tosses a roll of bills to the two “thugs,” who he had hired for just that purpose.

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Cut to Vienna, where the games are being held, and we find a very Rocky-esq twist in the plot when Grant is challenged and insulted by an Russian ex-boxer named Koslov, who claims the Champ was too chicken to fight him back in the day.  Interestingly enough, this comic predates the famous boxing film by six years!  Well, Ted brushes off the insults, and his young team begin to wonder if the Ruskie’s claims are true!

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Just when I bet you’re beginning to wonder if any actual superheroes will make an appearance in this book, Batman slips over to meet with military intelligence in downtown Vienna.  They brief him on the mission they’ve asked him to perform, intercepting the plans for an armed satellite from a turncoat agent who is planning to sell them to the Russians.  To my mind, this gives us the real reason that Bruce got involved with these games, as it gave him an excuse to travel around in his civilian guise without being connected to Batman.  In costume, he starts his investigation, and back in the non-Olympic village, the Russian coach is stirring up trouble and continues to badger the Champ.  Afterwards, the veteran boxer confesses to Bruce that he may very well be afraid of Koslov.  After all, the fellow is younger and in better condition than he is, and his nom de guerre is “The Hammer!”  If you share a nickname with Charles Martel, you’ve got to be tough!  It seems that Grant’s confidence was shaken even worse than it seemed by his setbacks in life!

Finally, Koslov jumps into the ring with the retired hero and shoves him, at which point Grant slugs him.  This gives Koslov the excuse to challenge him to a fight, and in a funny exchange, Bruce tells Ted that he HAS to fight or he could single-handedly lose the Cold War!  I’m exaggerating a bit, but from the way the millionaire talks about this challenge, you’d think that the fate of the Free World hung in the balance.  “You’ve got to accept the challenge AND win it!” Bruce declares, “You’ve become part of the Cold War–like it or not!”  Way to lay it on thick, there, Bats.

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Grant stalks off, saying he needs time to think, and Bruce slips away to continue his investigation.  He finds the spy, but the slippery fink catches sight of him and begins to run.  Fortunately, Ted Grant has donned his old costume and taken a motorcycle out for a spin to clear his head, perhaps secretly hoping for some trouble so that he can prove himself once more.  He finds it, helping Batman pursue the fleeing spy.  Yet, this fellow is one tough customer, and he manages to lose both of his pursuers, further dampening Wildcat’s spirits.

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The trail gone cold for the moment, Batman decides to check in on his friend, and he finds him climbing onto a famous ferris wheel.  Knowing that Grant is waffling and in need of confidence, Batman decides to employ some tough love.  He scales the wheel and enters the Champ’s carriage where he declares that Grant MUST fight Koslov, but the fighter is still unwilling, so Batman does the only rational thing left.  He punches the boxer square in the face!  The Dark Knight swears that “only one of us is going to walk out of this car!” and an epic brawl begins as the wheel slowly turns.  When it finally stops, Grant staggers out, victorious!  Batman, looking quite the worse for wear, thinks that he “laid down a bit so Ted could win,” but considers that the aging pugilist is still quite a combatant.

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So, Grant agrees to fight the big Russian (really?  Stallone must have been a DC fan, because this sounds quite a bit like Rocky IV!), and the two start training, but Batman, worried that Koslov might just beat his friend, decides to take out some “insurance.”  I love this.  Batman decides that there is too much at stake to just trust to Grant, so he rigs the lights and prepares to cheat so that the U.S. could come out on top!  It is both perfectly in and perfectly OUT of character for the Dark Knight Detective.  On the one hand, Batman is perfectly willing to cheat to win, providing the ends justify the means, but on the other hand, it’s sort of strange to look back and see this extremely political, patriotic Batman.  Could you imagine the modern Caped Crusader doing something this patriotic, if slightly unethical?

Anyway, after setting up his insurance policy, Batman heads back out on his investigation, but he is gassed and captured by enemy agents!  Meanwhile, the match begins, and the Champ comes out swinging.  For four rounds he “pounds the hulking “Hammer,” but after he has worn himself out, the Russian begins to clobber him!  As they tie up in a grapple, Koslov whispers in his opponent’s ear that his people have Batman, and if Grant doesn’t want to see him die, he’d better throw the match.  Just as things look grim, the lights go out, and Grant lands a knockout punch!

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Now, here is the only really weak point in the story.  It is just so silly, so ridiculous, so very much Zaney Haney, that it threatens to undermine the rest of the tale.  Grant, having knocked Koslov out, quickly carries him out of the crowded stadium, throws him in a motorcycle, and proceeds to drive like mad until the Ruskie tells him where Batman is being held.  It seems that Batman is on a barge headed down the Danube.

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brave and the bold 088 024.jpgThen, not even slowing down, Grant ramps the bike off a convenient bridge, runs over a crowd of enemy agents, and frees the Dark Knight.  One wonders how the devil he unties those ropes while still wearing boxing gloves, but that’s far from the craziest thing in this story.  The two fight their way out, side by side.  And, if that weren’t enough, they, with “The Hammer” in tow, race back to the arena, arriving JUST as the lights come back up!  Grant has, naturally, carried the unconscious Russian back into the ring just before, and they proceed to continue their fight.  All of that happens in THREE pages.

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Batman locates the spy, who is there to make his exchange, and he sets out to capture the turncoat, but spares a moment and a hastily scrawled message on a batarang to give Grant the final push he needs.  When Ted sees “HAS BEEN” written on the batarang that lands in the ring, it lights a fire in him.  He struggles back to this feet, and he launches a last, desperate attack that puts Koslov down, fair and square.  Batman catches the spy, and the last scene is the two successful coaches watching their teams while Grant remarks that “the future looks bright for me!”

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This is a great, though chock-full issue.  The ridiculous mad dash at the climax is goofy in the extreme, but the story moves so quickly that Haney gives you no time to consider it.  The rest of the tale is good enough that I’m willing to forgive that excess, especially considering the novelty of a flawed, broken hero who has a real arc of growth throughout.  Haney would go on to retell this story several times with several different characters, but I think this is the first.  It’s a really unusual story for this era, and it is fairly well told. Grant’s presence as Wildcat is negligible, but that’s because this is first and foremost a character piece, as I promised.  He is believable as a man broken by life, though that isn’t given as much space as it might have benefited from.  It’s a story we’ve heard before, but seeing it in this context is new and interesting.  It’s also just a good story, and it brings Wildcat back to the main DCU, rescuing him from obscurity, which is always great to see for a good character.  I’ll give this fast-paced story of redemption, this Rocky-in-a-cape drama, a 4.5 Minutemen out of 5.

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“Further Up and Further In!”

-As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Last Battle, and that’s where we’ll be heading next week with the next installment of Into the Bronze Age, March 1970 Part 2!  I’m going to be doing 3 or so issues a post, as I think that’s a good reading length.  This should also allow me to keep up a schedule of one or two posts a week.  I hope you’ll join me for the exciting next issue!