Saturday, May 31, 2008

Baron Death

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I can't write a comprehensive history of Steel, The Indestructible Man's first villain, as I only own his first appearance. Still, good luck funding reference anywhere to Baron Death, absent from the web when not confused with Commander's Steel's other major foe, Baron Blitzkrieg. As I understand it, Steel supplied the acid the concentration camp prisoners of the sadistic Nazi commandant Reiter eventually used to blind and scar the future Blitzkrieg. That Baron in turn brainwashed Steel into an assassination attempt against FDR, and one wonders if perhaps there were after-effects, given Heywood's troubled later life. Regardless, that was another baron.

Baron Tödlich and his henchman Bruno attended the German medical conference in August of 1939 where Doctor Gilbert Giles and his student assistant Henry Heywood mounted a disasterous presentation. Heywood had developed a biological "retardent" that allowed damaged limbs and organs to be replaced surgically without rejection. No, the rejection instead came from the German scientific community. "How may you Americans accomplish what the Reich's finest surgeons cannot?" The men were declared frauds and were demanded to leave the country. Tödlich however was not so blinded by nationalism. "I believe Doctor Gilbert Giles... He may prove useful to us, someday-- when we make our-- visit-- to America!" Heywood noticed Tödlich as well, but didn't care for the sight.

A few months later, off the shore of Long Island, a black U-Boat fired a torpedo-shaped missile at the shoreline. A hulking figure rode atop it, then drug the device with him onto the beach, where he met with three Fifth Columnists. "We were told to expect a weapons drop from off-shore... but nothing was said about a new saboteur... Particularly one dressed as flamboyantly as you!"

"Ignorance excuses your insubordination this time, schwein. No warning was given of my arrival because my mission is an ultra-top secret... known only to Hitler and Göring themselves! As for my costume, it will prove necessary! And as for my name-- IT IS BARON DEATH! You will find the name most appropriate once you have used-- these! Experimental weapons to be tested here in America for their effectiveness against the U.S. military machine! Each machine gun may fire up to two hundred rounds a minute-- four times as fast as the fastest American gun! If these weapons work, Germany will use them to smash America-- and then the world! Heil Hitler!"

That same night, Hank Heywood uncovered saboteurs while in boot camp, and was caught in a near fatal explosion. Months later, he had transformed into the cyborg super-hero Steel, and his first tussel was with some of Baron Death's men. "We have a mission, to steal American weapons for comparison with our exprimental ones..." These men carried only conventional machine guns, whose bullets bounced right off Commander Steel. Essentially defenseless, Steel made short work of the trio, and left them for the MPs. Baron Death would have to be dealt with at a later date.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Justice League of America #255 (10/86)

Adam: "More than Adam. I was powerful before the blood of the Homo Magi coursed through me. I am more powerful now... I am not a god. I am The God... somehow, I've transcended both Homo Sapien and Homo Magi!" Used power to trace Zatanna's emergency distress signal and spy through sorcery on...

Sue Dibney: ...who tended to...

Steel: Bedridden with arm and leg in casts. Seethed with frustration and concern as he watched...

Vibe: Entered teleport tube in (comparatively) plain clothes, along with...

Elongated Man: ...who also never bothered to change into costume, as well as...

Vixen: ...who raced to the tubes partnered with Batman, both only partially costumed. What they were doing together to be in such a state is up for debate, though readers should be reminded they were previously interrupted during a romantic date by Despero.

Zatanna: Still bound in a hospital, a surly nurse guarding her. Was either psychically visited by the spirit of her magician father Zatara, or imagined a conversation with him to focus her abilities. "Years of practice and training. Years of mistakes and strained patience. That's all it takes to create an earthquake so precisely centered... that it only rocks one building. The nurse stabbed herself with a hypodermic needle filled with heavy sedative intended for Zee. Heroine burst bonds and reconstituted her costume before running into treacherous sub-letter Sheri Stanley in the hall. Recaptured by the insane Adam, but not before alerting the League electronically. Crestfallen when...

Batman: Arrived with three other Leaguers to hospital where Zee was being held. Greeted by Adam disguised as Zee, who used powers of seduction on Vibe and mystical manipulation on the rest to send them on their way, assuming a false alarm. The Dark Knight Detective actually waved bye-bye, a testament to Adam's extraordinary new power. Still no explanation as to whether Bruce Wayne got his swerve on, but his departing the team without explanation after this issue indicates that he did.

Gypsy: Spied on by Adam. Used illusion casting against a heavy-handed pimp near an adult theater. Located a girl attempting to turn a trick. Gypsy gave chase when she bolted. "She's not getting away from me. No way. In his civilian I.D. as a private eye, J'Onn J'Onzz was hired to find Pamela Cross... and ended up getting framed for murder. I want to know why." Corned an angry Pamela, recognizing, "I know that look. Tough as nails on the outside... Scared half to death on the inside." Treated Pamela to a diner meal and her secret origin. Despite Cross observing of Gypsy, "By the way-- that's an ugly dress," Pamela was in tears by the end of her tale. "I should feel guilty about putting her through an emotional wringer... but I don't. After all, I am gonna help her... and in return, she's gonna help John... Jones? Shoot! There goes the emergency signal again. What do I do now?" She chose to ignored the signal and stay with Pamela.

Martian Manhunter: "Why do I even bother? The man I appear to be, detective John Jones, is a pale-skinned lie. I am a Martian. I have the power to assume any shape I so please. Why, then, my attachment to this form? Ah, but it's not the form, is it? It's the mystery." Jones had staked out Burt Biloxi's agency, for despite clearing the proprietor through a telepathic probe, still detected wrongdoing. Norma Simons, Biloxi's secretary, had misdirected Jones to the murder scene of her lover's wife, turning Jones into a patsy to provide an alibi for the adulterer. "The signal. I am sorry my friends... but there are times when personal concerns outweigh the League's." So much for that "heart and soul of the League" business. Jones burst in on Simons and the murderous widower, learning that while Norma had provided the murder weapon and scapegoat, it was all at her lover's urging. Jones was shot repeatedly in the chest by a high caliber handgun, and caught unawares, staggered back into the fireplace. Jack Miller would have been proud. "A woman was cold-bloodedly murdered... my own life is almost certainly ending... all... so that two humans... could indulge their biological urges. Humans! I will never... understand them." Adam spied on the now white-haired Jones, his view panning into the signal light still flashing on John's wristwatch...

The Creators: All the usual suspects; Conway, Ellis, McDonnell, Wray, Helfer... waitaminute. Who the heck is scripter Michael Ellis? Per the comments of Assistant Editor Greg Weisman in #259's letter column, "As for Mr. Ellis, well, he'll just have to remain a mystery for a while longer. Many of our readers seem to like his work. We'd like to thank him for helping out on our scheduling bind." Anyone else smell a pseudonym? Both Helfer and Weisman went on to writing credits of their own, while longtime writer Conway just plain went on, without comment. Perhaps Hollywood animation beckoned ("Super Powers," "G.I. Joe," "Transformers," "Centurions,") but I suspect the immediate dismantling of Justice League Detroit was a big clue that the separation was not amicable. I'd also like to note the interplay between Zatanna and Zatara by "Ellis" was really poorly handled-- a series of rapid-fire quotations sharing the same caption boxes that made reading confusing.

J’Onn J’Onzz’s Nicknames of the Issue: "John Jones" -Gypsy
Most Embarrassing Vibe Quote of the Issue: "Say what? You get us all runnin' out here like a buncha headless chickens-- for a false alarm?!"

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Steel, The Indestructible Man Vol.1, No.1 (March 1978)

The story was titled "From Hell Is Forged ...A Hero!" I was wondering "what the hell" myself, so at least that's one question sorta-kinda answered. I mean, not only did this nostalgic World War II patriotic throwback arrive too late to cash in on the Bicentennial celebration, but coming after Watergate, he just seemed naively trite. Heck, even "The Six Million Dollar Man" had been cancelled the same month as this first issue's cover-date. Maybe Conway's prior run on Captain America was too brief for his taste, or perhaps Commander Steel was intended to be the first dedicated super-hero of Earth-1? Regardless, he saw cancellation after a scant five issues, based as much on lack of creative merit as the general casualty of all "DC Explosion" titles that were snuffed by economic reality.

As depicted by Gerry Conway and Don Heck, remarkable Princeton biology student Henry "Hank" Heywood visited Munich, Germany, a city and nation he spends four panels venting against. Comparing Nazism to the Black Plague, and rightly disparaging Prime Minister Chamberlain's appeasement policy, Heywood moaned in his journal "God, I wish I'd never let Doctor Giles talk me into coming with him to this German medical conference... Why did we ever bother? The Germans won't even listen to the Doctor's discoveries..." As one, the German doctors decried Giles as a fraud... or actually, as five, their balloons somehow more hateful than Heywood's journal entries. Heywood and Giles exited the auditorium as German professionals pumped their fists and demanded their departure from Der Fatherland.

On their way to the airport, Heywood spied a pair of Brownshirts beating an elderly "Juden pig!" Hank let his own fists do the talking from there: "Forget the old man, Ludwig-- WHY DON'T YOU TRY STARTING WITH ME?" The Jew thanked Hank for his foolish bravery, then pulled a Yinsen, drawing Goosestepper fire while the hothead escaped.

The pair returned to the States in August of 1939, where Doctor Giles was met by his daughter, Hank's horse-faced girlfriend Gloria. The fiery mare presented Hank with a newspaper announcing Hitler's invasion of Poland. "Then that madman's going to spread his hate across Europe... maybe the world! There'll be more old men like that Jew in Munich... Perhaps... millions!" Dr. Giles didn't feel this needed to be America's war, but Heywood's vision of the future compelled him to enlist. "Why I chose the Marines, I'll never know. Maybe because they were the toughest... maybe because of old Victor McLaughlin* movies... or maybe because the young intellectual had something to prove to himself." Gloria Giles neighed heartily at this turn, "Play soldier if you want-- but don't expect me to be waiting when you're finished with your toys!" In her defense, Heywood was quoting scripture at her to validate his decision.

Heywood drowned his sorrows with his boot camp buddies at a local bar, but was gripped by self doubt on the lonely walk back to base. "Maybe Gloria's right. I have been playing this like Gary Cooper playing Sergeant York... Am I kidding myself? Grand-standing-- for my own ego? NO! This is something I believe in!" Just then, Heywood spied Ratzi saboteurs planting dynamite along the base perimeter, and introduced one's face to his knee. Another was dealt a hay maker right into an explosive plunger, blowing the lot of them to kingdom come. Oopsie-doodle.

Investigating troops scraped up what was left of Heywood, who miraculously survived. "Regaining consciousness was like slipping into a vat of boiling oil. Everything hurt so much, I could barely see straight... until I saw Gloria..." The poor thing was in tears over her hurtful parting words, while her father discussed with Hank the pseudo-science the pair specialized in that would make Heywood whole again. "Every day, there were operations... and more operations! Using the bio-retardent[sic] we'd developed together during my years as his student, Giles rebuilt my ravaged body from the skeleton up... First there was steel alloy tubing to replace pulped bone in my arms and legs and ribcage... Then a metal casing to protect my skull... and micro-motors in all my joints to help me move all that steel... Then more substitutions-- an artificial lung for the ruined one... and back-up devices to aid my damaged heart... and finally, most-- most painfully, the bio-retardant was used to induce skin-regrowth over the burned areas... covering the whole patchwork contraption with a flesh that made it my own..." By November on '39, Heywood had gone from invalid to superman. The new lung could sustain Heywood for a half hour underwater, he was super-strong, and nigh impervious. These breakthroughs remained a secret.

"I returned to duty, but with a hitch. Because of my recorded 'medical disability,'
I'd be a desk jockey..." Gloria continued to fume and threaten Heywood; "She hates war-- and so do I. But I'm still going to do my part somehow--" Heywood fashioned a uniform and dubbed himself Steel, The Indestructible Man! "This outfit may be colorful, but it's also far more-- flexible steel alloy, not strong enough to protect an ordinary man from gunfire-- but just tough enough to give me a crucial edge!" Steel then stole weaponry from the Westchester Federal Armory that he could later modify for his own purposes. First though, he happened upon yet another group of Fifth Columnists on his way out. "It's no movie, Nazi-- and I'm no Clark Gable!" Steel chuckled as he brutalized the baddies, going so far as to use the body of one to strike another. "Ever go bowling, friend?"

"Slipping away was easy-- a ten foot leap, and a 50MPH dash into some convenient foliage... Maybe this is why I survived the bomb-blast, to fight rats like the boss of those saboteurs... Baron Death! ...I'm going to use those powers and abilities in my own private war, until America wakes up to the menace of Hitler and Stalin and Tojo and Mussolini. It may be a lonely war, it may be unpopular just now-- but it's got to be done, and I'm the guy cut out to do it!"

Also of note, an interesting article on the anachronistic costumes of 40's retconned characters, including Steel, Baron Blitzkreig, and more.

* Presumably, he meant Victor McLaglen.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Justice League of America #254 (9/86)

Despero: "'ve underestimated the sheer hatred I feel for you and your companions in the Justice League. Allow me to make myself clear."

Batman: "He is the Batman, the Darknight Detective, legend among legends, leader of the new Justice League of America. Not for the first time in his life, but perhaps for the last, he wonders what it will feel like to die." Standing before Despero as he bathed in the Flame of Py'tar, the Caped Crusader thought, "He's growing. No doubt about it... that flame... feeding his alien metabolism at an astonishing rate. Must be at least nine feet tall-- and he's coming out. This is it. All the places I've been, all the things I've done... it all comes down to this moment. Face-to-face with an alien being... in a battle I can't hope to win. No problem. I've been facing the same lousy odds all my life." The Batman proved a minor distraction, and was easily recaptured. However, he still claimed a victory of sorts. "Destroying me isn't enough for you. You won't be satisfied till I beg. I won't give you that satisfaction. So no matter what you do to me now, Despero... I win. For all your power, you're a loser. A pathetic little lo--AAAHHH!" The Batman was eventually freed and rejoined the battle.

Vixen: Revived her teammates and explained the gameplan. "The Flame's a nuclear plasma. Whatever enters it is either destroyed... or reborn... Now he's got the power to manipulate matter... like Firestorm, I guess, but on a greater scale. He's even created a duplicate of the Py'tar Flame to recharge himself with... like Green Lantern's power battery. He calls himself a god." Well, he was a god laid low when Mari rammed into the back of his knee with the force of a buffalo. "Woman, your death will be long and painful." Freed the Batman and joined him in fighting hoards of stone demons.

Elongated Man: Caught Vixen and Batman before they could be injured in a fall. Encircled by stone monstrosities of Despero's creation, followed his leader's order to "Fight like hell!" Not so much the order to target the flame, as Vixen stated they needed a bigger distraction, and Ralph chided, "If we win this one, Bats, you can slap our wrists. And if we don't win-- it won't much matter, will it?" Carried out the wounded Steel in the aftermath.

Steel: Hit the hardest by Despero's earthquake, Hank had to be helped to his feet by J'Onn J'Onzz and Gypsy, and propped up from then on. However, when Vibe belittled himself and the team in the event of a renewed assault, Steel, through clenched teeth and in obvious pain, set him straight. "Hey Vibe... if that's what you think you are, then that's all you'll ever be. Maybe we're not the best League that ever was... but we're here... and we've got a job to do. So let's do it." Steel got in one good punch to the base of Despero's spine, but nearly fell over after and had to be rescued by Gypsy. Was struck by a jet of magma and had his back scalded. Carried out by J'Onn and Ralph.

Gypsy: Stuck by Steel, even when he asked her to save herself. Used her chameleon powers to conceal them from demons and Despero. Became enraged when Despero burnt Steel. "Hiding isn't the only trick I know, you scaly-skinned-son-of-a-- CHEW ON THIS!" Despero knows he isn't being flung into a solar corona, but he can't fend off the illusory sensation that "sears his skin, worse than the Flame of Py'tar, eating him alive... and he screams!"

Martian Manhunter: The first to rise at Vixen beckoning. Saw the wisdom in Batman's plan. "Now, while Despero is occupied fending off the others, we strike... Martians weaken in the presence of fire, but I do not intend to approach the Flame of Py'tar, Vibe. Despero will have set defences to protect the flame... I will deal with them, while you deal with the flame. Your shockwave power may be the one force we have strong enough to disrupt the flame. If anything can."

Vibe: Wanted his team to bug out of Gotham and let the Navy bomb the city flat. "Look around you, man... look at us! I know what people been saying... I've got ears. We're a joke... What've we got here? A Chicano from Detroit, a big green bald guy, a human rubber band, a no-name teenage girl who can make herself disappear-- some trick-- an ex-fashion model, and a redheaded tin woodsman. Where're the power players, man? We're strictly second string! We can't do it. Despero wiped the rug with us once already. Next time, he'll kill us. Losers, that's all we are." His team refused to quit though, and he damned himself for joining them. Under the Manhunter's direction, Vibe waited for the opportune moment to strike at the flame, but had his own demons to fend off until the Batman gave him the order. Like a candle being blown out, the flame was no more, and without the outside power source Despero's body "consumes himself" into seeming nothingness.

"Finally-- it is over."
"Thanks to Vibe."
"Guess I'm not such a loser after all, huh, Bats?"
"You never were, in my book."

Zatanna: Still no time for subplots...

Sue Dibney: ...nor supporting characters.

The Creators: Luke McDonnell clearly relished drawing the Batman, and everyone kept busy, even if the ending was slightly anticlimactic.

J’Onn J’Onzz’s Nicknames of the Issue: "Big Green" -Vibe
"J'Onn" -Vixen
Most Embarrassing Vibe Quote of the Issue: "Aw-right. Does this mean we're buddies? Like, can we double date?"

Friday, May 16, 2008

Justice League of America #253 (8/86)

Martian Manhunter: "For him the nearby flames are more than a source of heat and smoky light; they are a threat as deadly to the Martian as hard radiation to an Earthman; but J'Onn J'Onzz forgets the fire, concerned instead with the threat to his comrades that looms before him."

Despero: "How gratifying to be remembered, J'Onn J'Onzz... especially by you. I hoped you'd come when you heard of my attack on Gotham City, and my capture of your leader, the Batman. As you see, I stand before you transformed. No longer am I the Despero you humiliated and imprisoned..." Origin told for the first time.

Elongated Man: Turned his body into a slingshot.

Steel: The most proactive member in the face of this horror. When Despero created a Winged Lorka of Kalanor (essentially a fire-breathing dragon) out of a skyscraper, Steel shoved a metal sign into its mouth. Next, he joined J'Onn J'Onzz and Ralph Dibney in launching a boulder through the dragon. The beast exploded into fragments, causing Despero tremendous pain through psychic feedback. In response, Despero ripped the Gotham street our heroes trod upon with a fiery explosion.

Vibe: Fretted and failed to make any lasting impact beyond briefly holding back the winged Loka.

Gypsy: Used her illusion powers to cause the Loka to believe it was underwater, buying her teammates the time to destroy it.

Batman: Taunted Despero to learn his origins and plans. "Despero needs the Flame of Py'tar to continuously re-create himself, Vixen. He told us as much himself. Without the flame, he no longer exists... If we can destroy the flame, here in this re-created temple... there's a... slim possibility... we might also destroy Despero." Freed himself and Mari.

Vixen: Spent most of the issue in bondage, but any negative karma was balanced out by having the Batman as her co-captive. In spite of herself, shivered as Despero rained havok on her team. Sent by Batman to explain the plan to their team while he remained to distract Despero. "New as I am to this, I probably wouldn't last ten seconds, and he knows it. Damn." Shocked to find her Detroit League lying deathly still in a roadside mound.

Zatanna: No time for subplots...

Sue Dibney: ...or supporting characters.

The Creators: Still bringing the game and career highs.

J’Onn J’Onzz’s Nicknames of the Issue: "Big Green" -Steel

Most Embarrassing Vibe Quote of the Issue: "Gyp, you crazy? Haul your bottom outta here!"

Monday, May 5, 2008

Justice League of America #252 (7/86)

Zatanna: Finally given a nightgown and some privacy in a proper hospital bed, but now encumbered with a headband that makes thought painful. Heroically forced herself to remember her name and mission, but no spells. Made her way out of bed and into the hi-tech chamber where her captor Adam was being "infected" with a more potent form of the Homo Magi. Zee sublet and other yuppie cultists found and restrained the sorceress.

Vixen: Went on a date in Gotham in her civilian identity with Bruce Wayne, who surprisingly made no off-hand comments about wearing a latex mask to impersonate Wayne, or somesuch nonsense. A groundswell explosion shooting continuous flame hundreds of feet into the air broke up the intimacy. Investigating, Vixen was nearly killed by a flame directed by Despero, until she called on the Tantu Totem to fly to safety.

Batman: Dated Mari McCabe, to whom he revealed, "I've had lovers, but sooner or later, he always comes between us... The Batman." Despite his protests, Vixen detected the eagerness in him when trouble struck. "A wolf scenting its prey.. He was right. The Batman is real... Bruce Wayne... just a shadow." Evaded Despero's initial salvo with his usual skill, hoping things would go better for himself and Mari next time. Despero responded, "Ignorant fool, there will be no next time... not for you, or your world!

Elongated Man & Sue Dibney: At the mall when they got the signal, per Ralph, before he employed the teleporter J'Onzz installed in their basement.

Gypsy: "J'Onn was with me in New York. We're solving a mystery together..."

Steel: "So the Batman's finally calling us into action. About time. Let's go, Vibe."

Vibe: "Forget it, man. He's just tossin' us another test."

Martian Manhunter: Outside Metropolis, at the Secret Sanctuary, the Martian Marvel gathered alongside the other Leaguers, fearing this was no meer test. "The League teleport link to Gotham City is dead, and our computer reports all communication lines to the city have been cut." The League arrived via helicopter, hovering near the wall of flame now surrounding Gotham. Humans transformed by unknown power into the visage of demons ran the streets. "...indeed, Zatanna is sorely missed. Nonetheless... my Martian Vision reveals an intense vibratory field preventing passage." Had Vibe use his powers against the force, but deduced " was too easy. We are expected."

Despero: "How perceptive. As always, Martian, you are a keen observer of the obvious. I owe you special consideration, for your part in my imprisonment. I shall save your destruction for last." The Manhunter's features sank to reveal his dispair in the face of this horror. From atop a cathedral, Batman and Vixen chained to his left and right, a declaration was made:

The Creators: Luke McDonnell and Bill Wray draw explosions and infernal things really well, and Gene D'Angelo colored the lava but good.

J’Onn J’Onzz’s Nicknames of the Issue: "Big Green" -Vibe.

Most Embarrassing Vibe Quote of the Issue: "That's my meat, Big Green. Let me at it..."

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Detroit League in JLA/Avengers (2003)

Featured on the cover of #3: Vibe (hanging off Machine Man's telescoping leg;) Vixen (skipping along the ground near She-Hulk, with Hellcat bounding off her shoulder;) Zatanna (on a GL-constructed platform alongside Mantis and Scarlet Witch;) Steel (in a GL bubble with Mockingbird, Maxima, Big Sir and General Glory;) Gypsy (held in a spell by two Dr. Fates along with other mystics and Yazz;) Elongated Man, Sue Dibney and Despero (in JLTF gear, among many others in a corner ghetto;) Aquaman (bearded version, with Namor;) and Martian Manhunter (up to three times, if you count both Bloodwynd appearances.) Sue and Ralph were part of a late 60's & Satellite-era grouping during a series of temporal anomalies. Martian Manhunter and Aquaman were both founders, with Aquaman reappearing in the Satellite era and Manhunter in the International period. As the timeline became more mangled, Zee, Gypsy and Vixen made speechless cameos.

  • Shown among the downed heroes during the final battle with Krona in issue #4 were Vibe and Steel.

  • Dale Gunn appeared on page 175 of the trade, or 5 of #4, being carried to safety by Starfire.

  • The original Despero was part of a villain team (with the Construct and Amazo) that overwhelmed Thor. He was himself defeated by the L-Ron/Despero that stood with the Justice League Task Force.