Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Blackhawk #100

Commander Benson's been posting on the Blackhawk series under DC, and I happened to catch this particular comment:

In 1956, National Periodical Publications, a.k.a. DC Comics, acquired the rights to Quality Comics’ Blackhawk. The adventures of the “Magnificent 7” were still popular with the fans, even though more than ten years had passed since their heyday as World War II Nazi-fighters. So, while N.P.P. allowed most of the other Quality titles it had purchased to die quietly, keeping the Blackhawks in the air seemed to be a bankable proposition.

However, almost from the outset, National Periodical’s tinkering with a successful format would send the famed Black Knights plunging earthward.

I had not read much of the late Quality Blackhawk issues (which technically fall into the Silver Age by my definition), and so I thought it might be worth looking at this particular installment in this series. As a 100th issue, it's historically significant, since it was actually the second comic dedicated to a single feature to achieve that milestone, after Superman about a year earlier, and before Batman, the following month.

The opening story is the cover tale, The Delphian Menace. It's a pretty typical, "aliens attack Earth," scenario. Indeed, the ending is trite and a bit too obvious a swipe: the alien death machine which could not be defeated by any of our weapons, was beaten by water/rust.

So the story goes in as nothing special. The art?

Yeah, I'd call that pretty special. Note in particular how carefully and tightly drawn everything is by Dillin/Cuidera. One can deplore the depiction of Chop-Chop, while enjoying and admiring his strong character at the same time.

Anyway, the scientists do laugh at the Blackhawks when they present evidence of the new planet, since apparently they've been whooping it up at the scientist convention instead of paying attention to their telescopes:

This is definitely an area where the DC Silver Age would not have agreed with the direction of the Blackhawks at the time. The idea that the scientists could possibly be wrong? Not a common theme in Mort Weisinger's or Julie Schwartz's comics.

Overall an okay story, with spectacular artwork.

The second story has its moments artistically. The Nazis and the Japanese cooperated on an giant ship called the Hirumu, that was such a huge expenditure that each ally wanted an equal presence on board, and an equal vote. You can tell where Stan Lee would have taken that story, with the two supposed allies ending up battling each other, right?

But (Editor) Busy Arnold's uncredited (at GCD) writer gives us instead a story of the Nazis and the Japanese working together even after the war to cooperate in a (ten years later) plot to defeat the Blackhawks and then the world:

But they have created atomic power at the South Pole that is unshielded, and so they die when the Blackhawks jet away.

Comments: Mildly entertaining story, that depends on too many variables. I like the artwork a lot.

The third story is about Blackhawk assisting some rebels who are trying to overthrow a dictator named Scorpio. He looks a little like Dr Fu Manchu, but he's got a Caucasian queen:

He also has a pretty fearsome secret weapon:

The tail shoots out balls of lightning, which have a devastating effect:

Chuck manages to survive, but it appears that the rest of the team has been killed. He feigns death himself and tries to gather his strength to seek revenge:

Eventually he attacks, but the odds appear to great, until the rest of the Blackhawks suddenly revive. They defeat Scorpio and his wife, and the rebellion is successful.

Comments: Excellent story! I particularly like the part where Chuck is thinking to himself about his dead comrades. One interesting note is that both this and the second story feature Chuck much more than Blackhawk himself.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Trivia Quiz #39: Batman's Companions

1. What did Dick Grayson and Kathy Kane have in common? (No, not that!)

2. Who was Bat-Boy?

3. Who was Batman Jones?

4. Who was Mr. Marvel?

5. Who was the Eagle?

6. What did Commissioner Gordon like to have every evening? (Golden Age reference).

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Detective #395

Often cited by those who are big on dividing lines as marking the end of the Silver Age Batman, Detective #395 includes the first O'Neil/Adams team-up on Batman. It's a terrific story, amazingly illustrated, and is featured (deservedly) in many "Best of Batman" collections.

But the idea that this is far from the rest of the (late) Silver Age Batman is a bit silly. Following the demise of the Batman TV show in early 1968, Julius Schwartz found that he needed to reinvent yet again the character he'd inherited as editor just before Batmania hit. And this time he hit on the correct formula: Bring in strong artists like Irv Novick (and occasional guest stars like Adams and Gil Kane), and return Batman to the nighttime man of mystery that he had been in the early Golden Age. This he did starting with Batman #204-205's solid (if not classic) Operation Blindfold. The stories published in Batman and Detective from about mid-1968 on all are pretty high-quality, especially compared to what came before.

And it's not as if Adams hadn't been doing Batman in The Brave and the Bold for the last year or so, even if it's O'Neil's first crack at the Caped Crusader. So Secret of the Waiting Graves is not some bolt from the blue; it's a continuation of a trend that had been gathering for about 2 years at the time it was published.

The story begins with Bruce at a party being hosted by a wealthy Mexican couple, the Muertos. The party takes place in a graveyard at night. The first event is a balloon race (yeah, a balloon race in the dark), in which the balloon occupied by one Pedro Valdes, is attacked by hawks and shredded. The man seems fated to fall on the rocks below when suddenly:

Batman's momentum carries the two of them into the river below instead of death on the rocks. Notice how the camera angles are chosen to present the maximum action against a large backdrop?

As the story continues, we begin to understand that the Muertos are not as youthful as they appear:

It subsequently becomes obvious that Valdes himself is definitely a target for murder, when a pottery explodes next to him, revealing the presence of a sniper. Bruce is already suspicious of the Muertos for holding this party anyway, since they are normally hermits. It turns out that they are being kept alive by the Sybil flower, which causes insanity and, oh, by the way, hallucinations:

Anybody, what are they really talking about there? Anybody? Bueller?

Batman saves Valdes and torches the plants:

And they topple into the waiting graves.

Comments: There are some holes in the story. For starters, would the Muertos be so foolish as to have only one patch of the plants that keep them alive? And why would the graves be dug out for them to collapse into? But overall those are quibbles about a tale that certainly does appear to be leading the way into the Bronze Age, with more adult-oriented plots. Adams' art, as always, is spectacular.

The Robin story is a continuation of a two-part tale. It's rather ridiculous. Dick has arrived at Hudson University, only to find a demonstration going on at the registrar's office. The demonstrators are trying to get the Dean to call in the cops, but he is insistent that he will talk with the leaders. A squad car arrives anyway, and the cops inside rough up the protestors. But Dick quickly realizes that the police are phonies as their car has an inspection sticker on it. It's all a plot to give the demonstration ringleaders more credibility with the students, and it appears to be working.

The cops? They're communist infiltrators. No kidding:

Comments: Silly story, enlivened quite a bit by the Gil Kane art.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Al Williamson, RIP

Obviously a huge talent, mostly associated with the Golden Age EC Comics, although he did do some select comics in the Silver Age, including the Flash Gordon series for King during their brief foray into the field in the mid-1960s.

I remember being at the Statler Hilton in 1971 for the NYC Comic Convention, and doing a couple of terrific trades in the hallways, and then (mostly) some pretty terrible trades in the hotel rooms. This one guy was trying to push off these Flash Gordon issues on me and I gave him like 25 cents for Flash Gordon #5, after he opened it and showed me the Williamson splash:

But then I made the mistake of paying 35 cents for Flash Gordon #3, which has a Williamson cover and a Ric Estrada interior.

The beauty of Flash Gordon #5, though, is well worth it. Note in particular the interesting use of the inks to create tiny patterns in the leaves and lily pads. That very distinctive look would be copied to great effect by artists like Neal Adams and Jim Aparo in the near future, but in 1967?

Here's a climactic page from that same issue:

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Those Backwards Alabamans!

When will they get with modern, enlightened thought when it comes to landlord mastication?

This panel comes to us un-retouched from a Batman #162 (March 1964) filler called "Strange Old Laws".

Monday, June 14, 2010

Batman #162

The penultimate issue of the Jack Schiff era, this comic symbolizes many of the problems that plagued the Batman series for most of the Silver Age. Obviously the cover is a tribute to (or swipe of) the finale of King Kong.

As the story begins, Batman encounters two robbers who seem more like animals than humans:

The pair escape when the ape-looking one grabs a lamppost out of the ground and wraps it around Batman and Robin.

We learn the secret of the animal-like humans here:

When this second pair of monsters attacks, Batman follows them in the Whirly-Bat. He tracks them down to the canyon where the crooks have their hideout, but:

As you can probably guess, it transforms him into the creature shown on the cover. Robin tries to protect him here:

Of course the real likelihood of fighter jet pilots actually hearing him (with their canopies closed, no less) is nil.

Batwoman tames him with tears and fruit, and he helps her and Robin catch the next set of monsters. They let one of the beasts go free, with Ace, the Bat-Hound tailing it back to the canyon. At first things look grim there, with the crooks freeing a rhino and a tiger, which look likely to make short work out of Batwoman and Robin. But Batman arrives as well, and kayos the other two beasts, after which Robin turns Batman back to normal with the ray.

Comments: Although the weird transformation bit is one of my least favorite plot devices, I have to admit I enjoyed this story more than expected. Part of it was seeing the devotion that both Robin and Batwoman have towards Batman, and their horror at seeing him turned into a monster:

That's very nice characterization.

The backup story features Robin's New Secret Identity. We learn in the opening that Robin shaves points, not to make money from gamblers, but to keep from looking too good:

We can see that Dick chafes a bit at being unable to show his true abilities. Later, he realizes that there is a way. He disguises himself as someone different and gets into a pickup game where he performs like Michael Jordan's more athletic brother. But late in the game, he's stunned and loses his memory. As he walks around trying to remember who he is, he comes upon Batman saving a woman from a fire. But her baby's still in the house, so Dick (disguised) chips in with a spectacular rescue:

Later, when Batman returns home and discovers that Dick has still not returned, he realizes the red-headed youth he had encountered earlier is his ward. As he hurries back to Gotham City, he spies some gangsters and the Boy Wonder, so he kills two birds with one stone:

Comments: A nice, little story with terrific characterization for Robin.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

By Request: Challengers of the Unknown #5

A longtime commenter sent me an email requesting a review of this issue, so I thought I'd tackle it. For starters, the pencils are by Jack Kirby, with inks by Wally Wood, so we're talking two legends of the medium here. Although I am not a huge fan of Kirby's artwork personally, I do think he was the absolute master of page construction. His pages demand that you read them, drawing you through the story like nobody before or since.

I do not classify the Challengers as superheroes, but as an adventure team, much like Sea Devils or Rip Hunter, Time Master. But this issue shows that the line between the two can be rather blurry indeed. As the story begins, a South American train is attacked by a super-powered being. When the guards try to intervene:

Throwing balls of fire would be the hallmark of a character that Kirby would assist in resurrecting a couple years later: the Human Torch of the Fantastic Four.

The Challengers hear about this from June Robbins, who is down in South America on an archaeological dig. It turns out that Vreedl, another member of that party, had stolen a "Star-Stone" from the dig:

So the Challenge in this issue is to prevent Vreedl from getting all four stones (he's already collected one, which accounts for his flame power. But when they pursue him in the jungle, they run into problems. Vreedl starts a fire:

He also starts a stampede, but Red saves them by using an old circus trick. Still Vreedl gets the next gem, and then it's off to India to save a rajah from losing his special diamond. Vreedl's new power from the second gem is that of flight:

But his flying ability is only temporary, and when the Challs close in, he's not above using the superstition of the natives to get away:

The crowd quickly subdues the Challengers and imprisons them. It looks as though they will be unable to get word to the rajah that they are there in time to prevent Vreedl from obtaining the last gem. But, in an amazing coincidence:

She diverts the guards' attention and the Challengers are able to escape. They chase Vreedl to the final gem:

But he escapes with the pearl needed and so (after a battle with some sharks) they chase him onto the land, where he demonstrates his new powers (as shown on the cover). But Ace points out a flaw:

So Vreedl destroys the star stone, and unfortunately for him:

Is Ace making an observation about villains in general, or about comic-book villains?

Comments: Solid, entertaining story with lots of exotic locales and perilous situations. I wouldn't put it down as a classic, but it clearly deserves note as an above-average yarn with way, way above-average art. I like that June plays a fairly prominent role in the story, even if it does seem just a little too convenient for plot purposes.

The GCD does not have a guess for the writer. One thing I noted was the use of the word "fellers". It's not the correct spelling (fellows) or the usual vernacular (fellas). I know I've seen that in other comics but a specific citation is escaping me right now.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Super-Swipe #4: Mon-El's Older Brother

One of the significant events in the Superboy series during the Silver Age was the arrival of Mon-El on Earth. He became something of the poster boy for the imperfection of the Boy (and later Man) of Steel, as both Superboy and Superman were unable to solve his lead-poisoning problem and rescue him from the Phantom Zone. Indeed, we learned in the Legion of Super-Heroes series that Mon-El was only able to join the corporeal world 1000 years in the future.

But in fact, Mon-El's story was at least partly swiped from an earlier Golden Age tale. Here's Mon-El's ship crashing, from Superboy #89 (June 1961):

And here's how the story looked, way back in Superman #80 Jan-Feb 1953):

Superboy deduces that the stranger on the rocket ship is his older brother:

For the same reason that Superman claims Hal-Kar as a sibling in Superman #80:

The middle section of each story is quite different; in the Mon-El intro, we learn that Superboy begins to suspect that Mon-El is a fraud, even though he displays very similar abilities to a Kryptonian on Earth. In the original Superman realizes that his older brother has slightly weaker super-powers to his. However, the explanation for how each ended up on Krypton is very similar:

Large elements of Superboy's Older Brother were clearly swiped from Superman's Older Brother

Friday, June 04, 2010

Fantastic Four Fridays: Thinking Is Overrated

An extremely mediocre cover, even worse than last month's. The FF's HQ is nowhere near ground level, and anyway wouldn't that hole in the wall mean that the passersby would be subjected to whatever ray is hitting the FF?

We get a similar opening to FF #1, with Reed signaling the FF to meet at the Baxter Building. We get the familiar run-through of the powers of the FF, and another mention of the Yancy Street Gang and their ongoing feud with the Thing. It's a cute little bit, although remember at this point Ben was still being sold as a WWII fighter pilot, and thus in his late 30s at the youngest. Is it likely he'd have a feud with what appear to be teenagers?

We learn that Reed is indeed a scientific genius:

But this time perhaps he's met his match. The Mad Thinker is a planner par excellence, and with awesome computing power to match:

Of course, if you know anything about computers then and now, you'll recognize that those banks of computers probably don't have 1/100th the capacity of a 1995-era Pentium, making these claims highly unlikely:

But that's modern-day me talking. The 1960s me thought that the concept of the Mad Thinker was very cool, as indeed it was. He had figured out every detail (even to the status of the water mains, apparently), and so he could not be caught by surprise and defeated.

One of the crooks he invited to his pow-wow walks out after hearing the pitch, but as the Mad Thinker had predicted to the others, he is quickly picked up by the cops, revealing that his effective predictions of the future really do work out.

His plot begins to manifest itself as each of the members of the FF is separated from the others. Reed gets a chief researcher offer from a major industrial firm, while Johnny is asked to help a family circus as an attraction. Ben is being wooed by wrestling promoters, who seal the deal with him by mentioning he'll get to battle the hero of the Yancy Streeters. Sue is offered a deal in Hollywood.

But (somewhat predictably) they all find that working for the man is dull and unrewarding compared to their old lives as the FF. But as they converge on the Baxter Building, they discover it has been taken over by the Mad Thinker and his persons of hench, including the android mentioned on the cover.

Which is another thing; super-genius Reed wracks his brains to invent a unicellular organism, and the Thinkmadster, given access to his notes, creates a gigantic and complex super-powered creature?

There follows a battle between the FF just to reach the Thinker, who's 34 floors up from the ground level. While they're making their way up the elevator shaft, there's this bit:

"Reed, does this hallucination make me look fat?"

But when they reach him as he had predicted:

However, in the end his plot fails because the FF had arranged with the mailman to ring a special bell at precisely four o'clock, which would turn off all their weapons. The Thinker had failed to plan for this eventuality, which he called the X-factor.

Comments: Terrific story, interesting and different villain. I loved the sequences where the FF discovered that their dream jobs turned out to be pretty mundane compared to their superhero roles. They were well-done and amusing.

Negatives? Not much aside from that dull cover and the other stuff I mentioned in the review. A very entertaining comic, and one where you could tell that Stan and Jack were starting to hit their stride with the characters. There are several advertisements within the mag for next month's installment, featuring Dr Doom and the Ant-Man.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Some Thoughts About the Awards

A number of bloggers have given me the Kreativ Blogger award. I appreciate the honor. However, this award has gotten to be kind of like a chain letter, due to the "award it to 7 other blogs" requirement. Think about it for a second. If somebody gives the award to 7 blogs and they in turn give it to 7 other blogs each, we're up to 49. And if they continue the chain it's up to 343 blogs, and then 2401 blogs.

Obvious problem: I doubt if there are 2401 comics blogs around, and even if there are, there sure aren't 16,807, the next multiple. So the awards tend to circulate around which is why I've gotten four or five at least. I seem to recall even doing the "mention seven personal things about yourself" post here, although I can't locate it right now.

Here's a thought. Maybe it would be better if there were awards on a monthly basis for best single post. Anybody could nominate one single post for the award, and then a panel of regular comics bloggers/readers would read them, and vote on which post was the most deserving of the award for that month.

Thoughts? Volunteers to be part of the panel?

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Towns Without Pity

The appeal of these types of covers should be obvious. As with so many Weisinger-edited magazines, this cover presents a puzzle to the reader. Why does this town of Cyrusville hate Superman?

The answer is somewhat convoluted, but in essence Cyrusville is named after its wealthiest citizen, Bruce Cyrus. Bruce was a fellow orphan at the Smallville Orphanage and has always despised Superboy/Superman because of an incident where Superbaby caused him to lose a chance at adoption:

But as Bruce and Superman observe the scene (apparently invisible), they discover some information that puts a new light on the incident. Moments after Bruce was pitched through the window, a chandelier fell right where he was standing, so Superbaby actually saved his life. And it turned out that the couple who adopted the young baby instead of Bruce did it not because he got muddy, but because they wanted to have the joy of teaching the baby how to speak and read, etc. And in the end, Cyrusville becomes the town that loves Superman.

A year later, the basic premise was recycled in Batman #136:

In this story, Batman chases a crook into a former ghost town. At first the townsfolk seem friendly, but when Batman expresses his determination to locate the criminal in their midst, they attack him and Robin. It turns out that they are aliens planning an invasion of Earth, but Batman foils their plans and captures his quarry.

But that's not the end of the Towns that Hated:

In this story, Smallville turns against Superboy as it appears that he's the reason monsters are appearing all over town, whenever he uses one of his vision powers. But it turns out that Lex Luthor (still a good person in this story) is accidentally responsible for the problem, and with the situation resolved Smallville welcomes Superboy back.

Update: Commenter Twin pointed out this similar cover:

Somewhat different circumstances in that story. A bunch of crooks have stolen a formula that will make people want to attack the person who drinks it. As it happens, the crooks are testing it in coffee at a restaurant, and Bruce happens to be one of the people who drink the loaded java.

BTW, one of the things I noticed while looking through some Superman covers the other day was that the artists certainly liked to depict people attacking the Man of Steel with bazookas; check these other examples: