I almost lost all this material when Microsoft Word crashed, but I was able to recover it. Yay!
FANTASTIC FOUR #188 (Marvel, 1977) – In general the ‘70s was an awful decade for this series, but at least it featured some of George Pérez’s earlier work, and it was usually not completely unreadable. This is a reasonably good issue whose primary highlights are Gentleman George’s artwork and the guest appearance by the Impossible Man, who I suspect is an unacknowledged inspiration for Pinkie Pie, because he violates the laws of physics and his highest priority is having fun. George’s artwork here is not at the same level as his other early work on titles like Avengers, but it’s still recognizable as his work. The villain in this issue is the Molecule Man, who is rarely used because, much like Element Lad, he’s so overwhelmingly powerful that he must be handicapped if his opponents are going to have a fair chance. For example, in this story he’s possessing Reed’s body and therefore has a mental block against severely harming the FF. Grade: B
ACTION COMICS #505 (DC, 1980) – I kind of like the cover of this issue because Ross Andru makes the big shaggy monster Jorlan look cute and goofy; he looks a bit creepier in the actual comic. “The Creature That Charmed Children” is only an average or below-average story; it introduces a lot of mysteries that won’t be cleared up until next issue, and it depicts Clark acting like a jerk to Lana, although this is hardly unusual for the period. The redeeming quality of the issue is Curt Swan’s artwork, especially his iconic, heroic depictions of Superman. Grade: B-
UNCANNY X-MEN #222 (Marvel, 1987) – This issue is from the start of Claremont’s bad period, and is hampered by boring Marc Silvestri artwork. Still, there is a lot of interesting stuff here. On the second page, a character is seen reading George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards. A large part of the issue is devoted to Storm and Nazé’s vision quest, and while Claremont does seem to be relying on stereotypes of Native Americans, you get the feeling that he at least did a certain amount of research into Cheyenne culture rather than just making everything up from scratch. The other major plotline, involving a battle between the X-Men and the Marauders, is kind of pointless since I don’t care much about any of the characters involved. Grade: A-
JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #213 (DC, 1983) – Gerry Conway’s run on JLofA was a major step down in quality from the brief Steve Englehart run that preceded it, but in general I like most of his work on the series; like Englehart, Gerry wrote the characters with a Marvelesque depth of characterization that was missing before. This issue is by no means a classic but is certainly quite readable. The weird thing about this issue is that it begins with Ray Palmer having a nervous breakdown, which seems a little out of character and makes me wonder if Gerry Conway was confusing him with another scientist hero with shrinking powers. Grade: B+
HAWKMAN #16 (DC, 1966) – The cover says “Lord of the Flying Gorillas!” and this comic does, in fact, include six flying gorillas. The story is heavily reliant on earlier issues I haven’t read, but Gardner Fox’s storytelling is clear enough that I had little difficulty figuring out what was going on, and Murphy Anderson’s artwork is effective because of his storytelling ability and his well-balanced compositions. One specific panel in which Hawkman slams two of the gorillas into the ceiling is especially well-done. My major complaint about the story is the ending. Shayera thinks Katar is dead, but on discovering that she’s alive, she collapses into his arms like a little girl. It literally says: “She whirls – hurls herself iinto the strong arms that mean her happiness! She clings, quivering helplessly…” It was remarkably progressive for Fox to include Shayera in this comic as an equal partner to Katar, but scenes like this make you realize that he was hardly free of sexism. Also, in the letter column Irene Vartanoff correctly points out that Katar and Shayera have kind of a boring relationship: “I think the main flaw in Hawkman is the lack of change, of human interest surrounding him and his wife.” A similar complaint can be made about basically all of Gardner Fox’s work, because he was much more interested in SF adventure than “human interest.” Grade: A-
THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD #169 (DC, 1980) – I am continuing to revise my negative opinion of Mike Barr’s writing. This issue is a well-crafted detective story; the plot is highly convoluted but ultimately makes sense in the end. However, the guest star, Zatanna, doesn’t really do much of anything, and the story would have been much the same if she had been replaced by just about any other character. Jim Aparo’s artwork is impeccable as ever. The Nemesis backup story is interesting both for Dan Spiegle’s artwork and for the cleverness of the plot; it depicts a bunch of criminals discussing how Nemesis has infiltrated their operations under various disguises, and then the twist ending is that one of the criminals telling the stories was Nemesis in disguise. Grade: B+
WONDER WOMAN #203 (DC, 1972) – This is the notorious “Women’s Lib Issue.” It has a horrible reputation in fandom, especially due to the infamous panel where Diana says she doesn’t like women, and I went into this story expecting to hate it. Indeed this issue does have some problems. This issue is guest-written by Chip Delany, who was probably one of the top three SF writers in the world at the time – his most recent book then was Nova, which I read this year and absolutely loved. His inexperience with writing comics is clear, however; there are some places where he seems to have had trouble compressing his dialogue enough to fit it in the panels. And yeah, I have no idea what he was thinking when he wrote the line about Diana not liking women.
However, after reading this article along with Ann Matsuuchi’s “Wonder Woman Wears Pants,” I now believe that this story deserves more credit than it gets, and that its negative reputation may be due in part to sexism. As Matsuuchi demonstrates, this story actually presents a pretty nuanced account of feminist issues, especially the intersection between feminism and labor. The main conflict in this issue is that the villain, Grandee, is paying his mostly female workforce less than minimum wage, while trying to hire Diana as a spokeswoman so as to give his company fake feminist credentials. (I could have sworn that Grandee also appeared in other Denny O’Neil stories around this time, but I can’t recall which.) Diana and her explicitly feminist friend Cathy lead an ultimately successful campaign to shut down Grandee’s company. One problem here from a fan perspective is that Diana is initially portrayed as having somewhat anti-feminist attitudes. Besides the aforementioned “I don’t like women” comment, she is initially so impressed by Grandee’s glamorous job offer that she ignores his obvious sexism, and lets him get away with saying things like “Wise little lady! Now run downstairs and wait for me! Got a few things to discuss with Mike – man-to-man stuff that wouldn’t interest you!” Diana doesn’t understand what’s wrong with Grandee until Cathy tells her. Still, I think the main problem here is with Diana’s characterization and not with the gender politics of the story itself. The issue ends on a fascinating cliffhanger when a group of mostly black women interrupt Cathy’s meeting and complain that by running Grandee out of business, she has put them out of a job. This could have opened the door for a potentially fascinating story about the intersection of race, gender and labor issues (#solidarityisforwhitewomen).
So like Matsuuchi, I think it’s genuinely unfortunate that Delany’s story ended after this issue and that the cliffhanger was never resolved in any way. The official reason is because Gloria Steinem visited the DC offices and was offended that Wonder Woman, whom she saw as a feminist symbol, was no longer wearing her iconic costume. Thus, the no-costume era promptly ended after #203 and the series returned to the previous status quo. However, it appears that Steinem didn’t actually read any of the no-costume stories, and was reacting to Diana’s lack of a costume and not to their actual content. I suspect that DC used Steinem’s reaction as a convenient excuse to stop publishing stories that they felt uncomfortable with anyway. I think that in some ways Wonder Woman #203 is actually a high point for discussion of feminist issues in ‘70s superhero comics, and it’s certainly one of the few Wonder Woman comics that could be the focus of an entire academic paper. Grade: A-
UNCLE SCROOGE ADVENTURES #10 (Gladstone, 1988) – I kind of suspect that Dorfman and Mattelart never read “Land of the Pygmy Indians” because it significantly complicates their reading of Donald Duck as a tool of imperialist propaganda. In fact, this story is heavily environmentalist and anti-capitalist. Having gotten sick of the smog and noise in Duckburg, Scrooge decides to leave town and move to the unspoiled virgin forest, where he can live in tranquility. Of course once he gets to his new home, all he can think of is the valuable natural resources waiting there to be extracted. And when he meets the titular pygmy Indians, he thinks that if he could “tame” them, they’d be the best pipe cleaners ever. Now obviously the Indians are blatant examples of the noble-savage stereotype, and they talk in Hiawatha meter, which is cute but hardly represents how actual Native Americans would talk. However, Barks clearly wants the reader to sympathize with them, and he makes the reader root against Scrooge, who is trying to enslave them and strip-mine their land for resources. (Though at the same time we pity Scrooge, because he tries to shake his addiction to wealth and resource extraction, but completely fails.) And in the end, the Indians get rid of Scrooge through their own initiative, without needing any white-savior assistance from Donald or the nephews. The stereotypes in this story are disturbing, but I think Barks wrote this story with good intentions. The story is also notable for Barks’s gorgeous depictions of animals and forest landscapes. Grade: A+