Tuesday, June 12, 2018

TOS: Adventure Comics #344

Adventure Comics #344 (May 1966)
title: "The Super Stalag of Space!"
writer: Edmond Hamilton 
penciller: Curt Swan
inkerGeorge Klein
letterer: Milton Snapinn
editor: Mort Weisinger
cover: Curt Swan & George Klein
reviewer: Russell "Bilingual Boy" Burbage and Mike "Nostalgic Kid" Lane

Mission Monitor Board:  
Brainiac 5, Chameleon Boy, Cosmic Boy, Duo Damsel, Element Lad, Invisible Kid, Light Lass, Matter-Eater Lad, Saturn Girl

Plant Lad, Shadow Kid, Blockade Boy, Weight Wizard, unnamed Durlan posing as Superboy

Nardo and his android security guards

A bottle is found floating in space that turns out to be a distriess call from Brainiac 5 to the Legion. He is being held prisoner on an isolated asteroid and needs to be rescued. The Legionnaires on-duty rush off to the coordinates that he gave. 
Russell: Oh no, a Legionnaire is in trouble! And in typical high-tech 30th Century future world he....puts a message in a bottle?! Say WHAT?! Uh....Morse code? He calls for help? ANYTHING even slightly more modern would have been better than a message in a bottle.
Besides the idea that the Legionnaires can't be "prisoners of war" if there isn't an actual war being fought, the fast-paced reaction by the Legion DOES get my blood pumping. The Legion to the rescue!
Mike: Well, in fairness, it may just look like a normal bottle, but it's really a rocket bottle equipped to move faster than the speed of light, courtesy of Brainiac 5's twelfth level intellect!  With, uh, a message written on paper inside? Ok, I admit that probably does not work as a no-prize.
It is nice to see how quickly and efficiently they mount a rescue. The reaction of the pilots who originally found the message was also a great touch. When they learned that one of the universe's greatest heroes may be in trouble, they took it very seriously! That's how important the Legion has become.
When the Legion cruiser gets close to entering the asteroid's atmosphere, they are shot down. The Legionnaires use their flight rings to fly in and attack, but the warden of the camp (name of Nardo) has nuclear energy in his blood take out three and his guards take out the rest.  
Russell: Okay, full disclosure: I WANT to like this story. The idea that the Legionnaires are being kept as prisoners in some concentration camp (yikes!) is highly dramatic. Derivative, sure, but dramatic.
HOWEVER....there's no way the boys should have been beaten so easily. In one panel?! And what is up with Chameleon Boy, telling the girls to "get away"?!? Light Lass could have made these three guards super-light and they would have floated away, Sherlock. If Saturn Girl had done her telepathic thing before the Legionnaires landed then Element Lad could have destroyed the androids and Matter-Eater Lad could have eaten them. Story over!
Mike: This is certainly a story that would be more effective if told in a later decade. Then they would go to the trouble of justifying the Legionnaires' weakness using some technobabble excuse involving the Stalag.
In any event, I am still enjoying it for the most part. The silliness does take away from the drama to some degree but the overall concept is still intriguing. Much more intense than we would see in most DC comics of the era. And frankly it was pretty funny seeing the boys repeatedly get their butts kicked.

When the boys wake up the girls are nowhere in sight, but they find Brainiac 5, who explains that Nardo was exiled from his world so has sworn vengeance against all heroes. Cosmic Boy tries to lead an attack but Nardo explains that his blood is nuclear, and his guards have electron guns. 
Mike: That is peak Silver Age right there.  Just say a character has nuclear energy in their veins and boom, any power or special ability they may have is completely justified to the reader. Worked on me! Also, Curt Swan deserves some credit for an interesting alien design here with Nardo and his army.

Outside the barracks the boy Legionnaires find Superboy, who they thought was on a mission in time. He admits that he is really a Durlan who tried to bluff his way into the prison to free his friends. He has since dug a tunnel and tries to break free, but is killed. 
Russell: And this is how we get Superboy dying on the cover. Clever story idea. We never learn the name of the heroic Durlan; it would have been nice to learn more about him and which of the other guys were his friends.
Mike: I loved that the cover so closely matched a scene in the actual story. Not unusual for the time, but there was often some obvious inconsistency between the cover image and the interior scene that felt like a cheating. Not here though, except for some minor tweaking of the dialogue.

The boys decide to plan an escape and make Brainiac 5 the master planner. A few days later, Brainiac 5 is brought before Nardo and tortured in order to reveal his escape plans. He doesn't break, partly because he knows that someone in the group is a traitor. He vows to find out who is the turn-coat.  
Russell: You know Brainiac 5 means business when his hair gets mussed! Maybe I've been watching too many Bugs Bunny cartoons lately but I can almost hear him say, "You know that this means war."
Mike: He probably shouldn't have taken that left turn at Albuquerque. (I'm sorry, I'll show myself out.)

The next day, Brainiac 5 notices that Weight Wizard is never blasted by the guards. Suddenly, Plant Lad has had enough; he turns into a Venusian Octopus Vine and attacks. The guards kill him. 
Russell: Is there something in the food or air that is turning the Legionnaires into idiots? Here is a great time to come to the aid of a fellow prisoner and possibly escape. Element Lad changing the androids into oxygen? Or atleast changing the weapons into carbon? If the Legionnaires hadn't been so set on their non-existent plan, maybe Plant Lad wouldn't have died.
Mike: Poor Plant Lad. We hardly knew ye. It is especially tragic because it is impossible to escape the feeling that had the Legion backed him up, they all could have successfully escaped. At this point, my opinion of the story started to mirror yours more in that it became much harder to accept the Legion's inaction.

Chameleon Boy decides to impersonate Nardo in order to get into his head-quarters to try to find out where the girls are. However, the androids recognize him and capture him. Nardo orders him to turn into a Traglor in order to break more rocks from the mountains. 
Russell: This is a great visual by Curt Swan. That is all.
Mike: Having the robots recognize Chameleon Boy was a good moment to have because it at least provides some support for the idea that Nardo and his army were potentially too powerful for the Legion even if they had been actively using their abilities from the start. I mean, it's not much, but it's something!

Matter-Eater Lad and Blockade Boy make a break for it, where they climb over the mountains and discover that there is a separate prison just for girls. Suddenly, Nardo and his men surround the two prisoners and prepare to shoot them both! 
Russell: There's a lot I can say about this page but I'll just start with, there are no guards at the girls' prison!?! Either Curt Swan dropped the ball here, or the girls have. There can be no good reason for why Saturn Girl and Light Lass are staying prisoners when either could easily escape.
Mike: First, let us acknowledge the awesomeness of Matter Eater Lad. Every scene of him using his bizarre ability is automatically great regardless of context.
As to the prison, I was not as bothered by the absence of the guards because we really only see the courtyard area where the prisoners hang out. Having said that, after a pretty impressive performance by Swan through the story, the final page does seem a bit lackluster. It feels like he was going for something grander in scope by giving the image over half the page, but it does fall a bit flat despite the "shocking" reveal of a girls' prison.

Russell: I first read this story in the back of Superboy/Legion #202 and loved it. As an adult, however, I can see how it clearly emulates Hogan's Heroes, the US TV series set in a World War II Prisoner of War internment camp. The idea doesn't really work, though, mostly because I really never believed that the Legionnaires couldn't have broken free at any moment. My biggest complaint is the way the Legionnaires are portrayed. Sure, none of the Legionnaires on this rescue mission are power-houses like Ultra Boy or Mon-El, but they aren't powerLESS, either! Invisible Kid should have gone invisible and tested whether the androids (or Nardo) could see him. Cosmic Boy's magnetism should have been more useful. As mentioned already, Element Lad could have saved this story on page 5 by incapacitating all of the non-living android guards. And the "girls" don't get to do anything but stand around?! Also, do the Legionnaires still have their flight rings? They must not, but I don't see any mention that they were taken away....? So they should be able to contact their friends, or at the very least fly away to escape.
Mike: I recently rewatched The Great Escape, which came out three years earlier than this comic, so at first I was wondering if the writer may have been partly inspired by that film. But then I realized that could not possibly be because the characters in that film actually spent their time trying to escape! While I still enjoyed the overall experience of reading this story, I cannot disagree at all with your criticisms of how the heroes were portrayed. They absolutely were not acting as would be expected.

Russell: Still....if we throw logic out of the window the story does have its drama. Plant Kid and Durlan Superboy being killed are the third and fourth casualties in four stories. Living in the 30th Century is more dangerous than it has ever been before! The drama over who is the traitor is a good one, and really more interesting to me than any attempts at escape.
Mike: So much death during this era! It does add some extra suspense to even the silliest story because a regular reader really could not count on all of the Legionnaires making it out alive (except Superboy of course). Although the possibility of resurrection was already there.

Russell: How many prisoners are there on this Prison World? It looks like there are four buildings in the aerial shot we are given on page 4, but are all the boys staying in the same barracks? There appears to be twelve prisoners, although we are only given the names of Plant Lad, Shadow Kid, Blockade Boy, and Weight Wizard. According to Who's Who in the Legion, this IS Shadow Lass' cousin Grev as Shadow Kid, but he never mentioned this adventure in any actual story.
Mike: This is her cousin Grev?! I had no idea. Despite owning Who's Who in the Legion, I have to confess to not having read every single entry in its entirety. Or having retained much of the detail of those I have. One of my favorite aspects of this story was the inclusion of so many non-Legionnaires in the prison. Seeing other heroes who had been trapped there for who knows how long did make their situation seem more dangerous.

Russell: One quick comment on the torture scene of Brainiac 5. In its context it is pretty powerful (this page much more so than the page where he faces down creatures that wouldn't scare a child) but reading about this later, after Brainiac 5 has had his mental break-down, it's surprisingly chilling.
Mike: I had the exact same reaction to these images of Brainiac 5! A truly disturbing moment.

Russell: And lastly, can we please talk about Matter-Eater Lad? For one thing, him deciding to try to escape is in direct conflict with the others' plans. Isn't this insubordination? Also, where does he think he's going to go? And below, for your enjoyment (?), we have the all-time most classic Matter-Eater Lad panel EVER: his head appearing through a rock as he's eating his way through it. And by the way, I never really thought about it before, but Matter-Eater Lad's digestive system must be atomic! 
Anyway, here's hoping that the conclusion to this story is better than the set-up.....
Mike: Insubordination? Probably. But considering how we have spent the entire story waiting for the Legionnaires to get up off their asses and use their powers properly, I say good for Matter Eater Lad! Even if he may not know precisely where he is going yet, I cannot blame him for being fed up with the prison, especially when his teammates do not seem willing to step up.

Science Police Notes:  
  • The US TV series Hogan's Heroes was broadcast on CBS-TV from 1965-1971. The comedy starred Bob Crane as a US spy leading a band of Prisoners of War in underground activities against Nazi Germany from their prison behind enemy lines. I am not making this up. Actor Werner Klemperer won two Prime Time Emmy Awards for his work as Colonel Klink. 
This issue has been reprinted in The Legion of Super-Heroes Archives Vol 5 and Showcase Presents: The Legion Vol. 2.


  1. IIRC - This story (and "Hogan's Heroes") was based on the movie "Stalag 17," not "The Great Escape." Hence the reference on the cover to "Stalag." As tone-deaf as it was, the one narrow point that "Hogan's Heroes" had was that is was a POW camp, not a concentration/work (i.e. domestic) camp. Though this story mixes them up a lot.

    1. There was a huge lawsuit between the producers of Stalag 17 and Hogan's Heroes, and in the end HH was judged to not be derivative. Of course, the stories are similar. And this story may be "based" on Stalag 17, but we merely mentioned the more recent (or current) Hogans and Great Escape as references that then-readers would be familiar with.

  2. Stalag 17, for sure. Even down to the informant in their midst. Hey, is Nardo from the planet Wham?