Saturday, November 1, 2014

Unearthed: All-Star Comics#63

Three years ago I initiated the "Unearthed" feature on this blog with a look back at All-Star Comics#62, a comic from my childhood. I noted then that I had never read the subsequent issues to find out how the story ended; happily, in the intervening years I've obtained a copy of All-Star Comics#63 and it pleases me now to crack it open.

The story left off last issue with Superman & Supergirl encased in lava by the creature Zanadu, who had kidnapped Hawkgirl. Meanwhile, someone had brainwashed Wildcat to attack Hawkman. The other members of the Justice Society were likewise engaged in subplots, centered around Doctor Fate's recent near-death.

The cover (by Rich Buckler & Wally Wood) feels a little off with its ridiculously immense Solomon Grundy; at least the presence of the Fiddler here lets us know he was the one playing the music which brainwashed Wildcat.

The story is titled "The Death of Doctor Fate" and the creators are Paul Levitz, Keith Giffen & Wally Wood. Notably, this confirms that series author Gerry Conway was indeed on his way out in the previous issue. Therefore, this issue ought to be fashioning something a little more stable, direction-wise.

Under the Fiddler's instructions, Wildcat easily beats Hawkman unconscious; Solomon Grundy simply stands and watches. They helpfully note they're representing the Injustice Society, the JSA's foes, but why are they attacking now? They have nothing to do with the Zanadu threat. That said, heck, it makes a lot of sense - why should villains respect the queue? If someone ever told Doctor Doom to attack the Fantastic Four while they battling Galactus we'd probably see no more Fantastic Four stories.

Of course, the Fiddler ain't exactly Doctor Doom; he stops playing his fiddle which releases Wildcat from his control, giving Wildcat an opportunity to beat him up. Let's face it, Wildcat may be little more than a cranky old boxing freak, but without his instrument the Fiddler's just an old freak. Grundy steps in at this point and Wildcat has no hope of beating him, but Power Girl & Superman arrive to save him. This moment feels like quite a misfire - the threat of Zanadu has (somehow) been pushed to the rear for the fight with Grundy & the Fiddler. Although Superman describes how they escaped the trap, it isn't depicted. The duo quickly finish the fight with Grundy by throwing him into a volcano (overkill much?).

Although Power Girl & Superman escaped their own prisons off-panel, they explain they didn't do the same for Hawkgirl - thus, truly nothing has changed since last issue; the (unclear) menace of Zanadu was simply deferred. We do, however, get a simply terrific close-up of Superman's face - very Woody, a rendition quite evocative of Joe Shuster. The likeness is a visual reminder that the Superman appearing in this comic is supposed to be the Golden Age Superman; that term really had some play in the early 70s nostalgia craze - the Golden Age of Film, the Golden Age of Radio, the Golden Age of Comic Strips and the Golden Age of Comic Books all experienced a boost in reputation. This image is so good, even Wildcat's presence doesn't ruin the panel.

The scene shifts to Egypt as the Flash & Green Lantern are searching for some means to help save Doctor Fate's life on the flimsy reasoning that because Fate's origin happened there, there must be a cure. Egypt seems a little too big for them to stumble across a cure, but they do stumble across a man upon a winged horse, thus furthering the man and his unusual horse from the previous issue. However, that's as far as this subplot moves for now. The man on horseback remains unidentified (yet obviously the Shining Knight to those with long memories).

Returning to the Justice Society of America's headquarters, Doctor Fate is still hooked up to a machine which the Star Spangled Kid is using to channel cosmic energy to save his life (for some reason they put Fate back into his costume between issues). Doctor Mid-Nite (also back in his costume) and Hourman both watch helplessly and, man, Wood makes these two look great! Their darker colours really seem to suit Wood's lines. As they're my two favourite JSAers, I couldn't be more pleased. However, the heroes themselves have little to be happy with - Fate's brain activity ceases and the machines are shut off. Doctor Mid-Nite is so distraught by Fate's death that he rips off his mask and decides to give up being a hero, even as Hourman and the Star Spangled Kid are heading out to face Zanadu, who has mysteriously reappeared in New York.

At this point, Zanadu is pretty much a lost cause so far as a villain goes; he's been kept off-panel for most of the story while both his power level and goals are unclear. In this fight, Hourman gets to fly and shoot energy blasts thanks to the Star Spangled Kid, who surrounds him with an energy field to do so (but why? why not simply attack Zanadu himself?). The fight leads them back inside the JSA's base and Zanadu's presence causes Dr. Fate to wake up, as Zanadu is an agent of chaos while Fate represents order. Fate strikes Zanadu down while Hawkman saves Hawkgirl (off-panel). This causes Zanadu to lose focus on his power, having needed Hawkgirl to channel his energies to conquer the world. Fate then encases Zanadu within a block of amber, leaving him precisely where he had been at the start of the previous issue. Frankly, the best part of this fight is how Kirby-esque it becomes at times, likely because of Giffen's presence on pencils. Not only does his Zanadu look like a Fourth World character, but he gives Fate some impressive "Kirby crackle."

With the crisis past, we move into a one-page epilogue, wherein Superman announces his retirement from the Justice Society (a group he barely ever interacted with anyway) and insists his cousin Power Girl be promoted in his stead; Wildcat thinks this is an upset, but it settles the friction which Superman & Power Girl dealt with in the previous issue. The scene shifts again to the Injustice Society as the Icicle informs his (unseen) teammates they'll strike at the Justice Society through their weak link: Hourman! Wait, Hourman? The fellow who only rejoined the team last issue? Ah, whatever.

Thoughts: Considering that in the previous issue Conway was on his way out and Levitz in, it held together much better than this issue. This is a decent but unremarkable super hero story redeemed mainly by the artwork. The problems of the previous issue are dealt with too easily; how will Wildcat escape the Fiddler's control. Uh, the Fiddler stupidly lets him go. How will they save Dr. Fate's life? Zanadu steps near him and he instantly gets better. What about the Flash & Green Lantern's quest? Nothing to do with Fate's revival, as it turns out. And what of Power Girl & Superman being imprisoned by Zanadu? They get out of it off-panel. And what of Zanadu himself? He can't hold his own against the Star Spangled Kid, much less Dr. Fate. Fights are treated as curbstomps (Wildcat vs. Fiddler, Superman/Power Girl vs. Solomon Grundy, Dr. Fate vs. Zanadu), rather than aiming for high tension or serious peril for the heroes.

Perhaps Levitz was still clearing the deck of Conway's plots so he could get his own started, in which case the series might improve in the following issue. Even then, there's not much of a hook; more of the Injustice Society, when one of their most powerful members couldn't give the Society a decent fight? The very idea of Hourman as the weak link doesn't hold water; surely the Wildcat, the team's resident sourpuss and irritant is the weak link; heck, you could argue Power Girl is a weak link because of her short temper; Hourman's demonstrated nothing since his return except for a general sense of competance which only Hawkman & Superman have matched.

Still, man... that Giffen/Wood art... beautiful! Also, Wildcat was tolerable, which I consider a minor victory.

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