WC: MYSTERY IN SPACE #55

This issue of MYSTERY IN SPACE, another book that I got in my Windfall Comics purchase of 1988, sports another of those great halftone covers that DC production man Jack Adler was experimenting with. The added texture does give the piece a nice painterly quality, as well as far more subtlety than the typical DC cover of the age. The actual drawing on this one was done by Gil Kane, with Adler adding the assorted graytones to the piece to achieve the final effect. These toned covers are collectible all by themselves, they look great for the most part.

MYSTERY IN SPACE was still being presented as an anthology series, one dedicated to editor Julie Schwartz’s first love: science fiction. The SF tales that Schwartz oversaw within its pages were based, perhaps, on fewer genuine scientific principles than the prose stories he’d shepherded years earlier, but there was still an attempt to pack them with genuine scientific fact. A couple of issues earlier, MYSTERY had added a headline character, Adam Strange, fresh from his three-issue tryout in SHOWCASE. The Adam Strange stories were a variation on John Carter of Mars, with Earthman Adam Strange whisked away to the far-off planet Rann by the teleportational Zeta-Beam. Gardner Fox wrote the series, and the artist most associated with it was Carmine Infantino, who drew this issue’s adventure, backed up by inking from Bernard Sachs.

Adam Strange was essentially a super hero, but he was the thinking man’s hero, using his wits and scientific know-how to solve problems and get out of jams. In this short 9-page story, the Zeta-Beam strikes a creature out in space before it can reach Earth, bringing a new menace to Rann. Eight days later, when Adam can catch the next Beam, the creature is still there, causing mayhem (one would have expected the Zeta-Beam to have worn off by that point and sent the thing back into space.) The Zaradak (A Rannian word meaning “Terrible One”) repels any energy thrown against it, but Adam is able to deduce that it is simply hungry and is able to befriend the creature. When aliens threaten to bomb Rann, Adam plans to use the Zaradak against them–but it’s at this point that the Zeta-Beam wears off it, taking it out of the equation. No matter. Adam’s able to detonate the enemy bomb in space with his improved blaster–just before the Zeta-Beam wears off, sending him back to Earth. (It seems to last much longer for the Zaradak, something that would probably have been worth studying.)

In terms of getting a sense of the timing of this issue, it next includes this full-page ad for the second of Green Lantern’s three tryout appearances in SHOWCASE. Green Lantern was really the natural extension of what Schwartz had been doing in MYSTERY IN SPACE, a full-fledged outer space super hero based loosely upon the Lensman series of novels. Lettering ace Ira Schnapp once again shows off his elegant sense of design in this piece. How could any kid not want to find and read that issue?

The balance of the issue was filled up by a pair of self-contained one-off science fiction stories, of the sort that had been the backbone of the series for several years. This next one was also written by Gardner Fox (who could always be depended upon to come up with a simple and unique story twist) and illustrated by Mike Sekowsky and Bernard Sachs. Sekowsky’s idiosyncratic sense of design can be seen in those aliens on this splash page, who are more comical than menacing. With the Comics Code still a fresh thing, DC and its competitors tended to be wildly conservative about what they printed. Nothing was permitted to seem too dangerous or upsetting, for fear of causing the parents of children having nightmares to write letters and stage boycotts. It was likely a far overcorrection, but this would be the way that DC ran its business for quite some time.

The story concerns an Earth colony set up on a planet orbiting Barnard’s Star. The planet contains some XX element in its atmosphere that blocks all forms of transmission, meaning that the colonists only hear the news when they receive hard copy mail delivered by long range missiles. So they’re astounded to learn that Earth has surrendered to an invasion force from Vega. The Vegans have a Mentoray which saps the will of anybody who opposes them. But when they come to the colony, the atmosphere prevents the Ray from functioning, and the colonists are able to drive them away. What’s more, when the retreating spaceship returns to Earth, the portion of the atmosphere that it pulled in will spread, causing the Mentoray to lose its effect there as well. It’s the sort of quaint, almost simple adventure that defined the era. Nobody is hurt, everybody is relaxed about the stakes, and everything works out in the end. Nothing to get excited about.

Schwartz runs a faux letters page next, WONDERS OF SPACE, which purports to give answers to the readership’s scientific questions. But I’m guessing that these letters were just as made up as the answers were, given that they carry no names, and no address where to write in with a question is ever given. So this is pure information in the guise of something more casual and benign.

The final story in the issue was the product of writer John Broome and artist Sid Greene, both of whom were regulars in Schwartz’s stable of talent. Broome was a more playful writer than Fox was, more apt to give a character some distinctive quirk or to try something outlandish. It’s really no wonder why he was the person Schwartz turned to for the bulk of his new Flash and Green Lantern stories. Likewise, Greene’s work always had a strong hint of comedy to it, like it never took any of the events going on entirely seriously. That said, it was appealing work, just not suited for high drama so much as these sorts of short, clever bits of entertainment.

This story concerns promoter Art Larkin, who loses his shirt when the interplanetary Beauty Contest he sponsors descends into a full-on riot. Looking for a way to get back on top, Larkin journeys to the closed-off world of Athena in search of a legendary and reclusive maestro, Var Cuyosa. Larkin is able to get through the Space Curtain that keeps the planet closed off by disguising his craft as a meteor, and he learns that Cuyosa is a virtual prisoner and wants to leave teh planet as well–the parallel to a Cold War nation is entirely intentional. Larkin uses his wits and his courage to spirit Cuyosa past his guards and away from the planet, and he becomes an interplanetary hit, with Larkin reaping the profits. Again, not a world-shaking story, but one that showcases some of Broome’s sense of humor and playfulness–it has a lot more character than either of Fox’s two entries, which are both very straightforward and concerned almost exclusively with plot.

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