Although writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams had begun their tenure on Green Lantern in 1970 with a run of grounded stories featuring more-or-less realistic antagonists, as they moved into their second year they appeared more willing to incorporate the sort of colorfully code-named and costumed supervillains that had been the series’ bread-and-butter prior to their own advent. Already in GL #82 they’d brought back Sinestro, the renegade ex-Green Lantern; and now, two issues later, they were drafting yet another veteran foe back into active service — although you couldn’t tell that from the cover, which (like #82’s before it) gave no hint of who the story’s main bad guy actually was. While O’Neil and Adams (and their editor, Julius Schwartz) may have decided that it was a good idea to include more old-school superhero genre elements in their storytelling, they evidently didn’t think putting a returning villain’s puss on the cover would have much if any impact on the book’s sales.
Actually, issue #84’s villain does appear on the cove; he just happens to be disguised, and disguised as a real person, at that. As Adams explained to Back Issue magazine in 2010:
We were looking for a photo for the head of a corporation….Marc Iglesias was the vice president of DC Comics, for Kinney Corporation, at that time. I asked Carmine t[Infantino, DC’s Editorial Director] to ask Marc if he would mind being a villain in a comic book. He was very happy to do so, and gave us the photos.*
Mr. Iglesias appears in the story as well (though represented there by Adams’ photorealistic illustrations, rather than in actual photographs). Coincidentally, he’d make a return appearance of sorts two issues later, when DC published a letter from New York’s Mayor John Lindsay addressed directly to the executive, who was greeted fondly by hizzoner as “Iggy”… but that’s a topic for a later post.
Moving on into the story itself, the opening splash page may not give us any more inkling of the identity of the tale’s bad guy than did the cover — but it does provide us with a quick taste of the action to come, via a tableau which flash-forwards to a scene we’ll experience more fully another four pages in:
Something else we learn from this first page, courtesy of the credits box, is that the series’ regular inker, Dick Giordano, will be spelled this time around by Bernie Wrightson — a young artist whose published output in this month of April, 1971 also included a little 8-page number called “Swamp Thing”, published in House of Secrets #92. Written by Len Wein, this one-off terror tale would prove to have legs — shambling, muck-encrusted ones — though it would be another sixteen months before Swampy shuffled into his own series (and yes, I do know that that was actually a new, different Swamp Thing that debuted in that book, but thanks all the same). And no, that classic story doesn’t really have anything to do with “Peril in Plastic” beyond the common factor of Wrightson’s involvement with both — but since I wasn’t smart enough to pick HoS #92 up off the stands when it came out a half century ago, I’m unable to give it its own blog post (rules is rules, dammit), and I figure this is my best/only shot at giving this immortal classic any kind of spotlight in the vicinity of its Golden Anniversary. Hey, it’s my blog, OK?
Ahem. Getting back to GL #84… it’s not as though Dick Giordano didn’t want to ink this issue. According to the introduction he wrote for a 1993 GL/GA collection, he was simply to ill at the time. He recalled being at home, lying in bed, when he heard the doorbell ring:
I could hear Sol Harrison (then DC’s Production Manager, my close friend, and a next town neighbor) talking to my wife Marie. He left shortly and Marie came up to tell me the news. They couldn’t wait for me to get better. The book was very late. They took the pages and [Bernie] Wrightson did a great job on inking them. But I really wanted to ink that job. Sigh.**
To my eye, Wrightson (who already had one inked page of Green Lantern under his belt) did a very faithful job here of embellishing Adams’ pencils, adding few if any stylistic flourishes of his own, and allowing the issue to easily fit into the ongoing run, visually speaking.
The story has its proper beginning on page 2, which begins precisely where GL #83 left off:
The return to Green Lantern‘s supporting cast of the titular hero’s first and most lasting love interest, Carol Ferris, was, like the return of old foes, a nod to the series’ past — and perhaps an even more significant one. However, the continuing subplot involving Carol’s paralysis (first introduced in GL #84) made it clear that O’Neil wasn’t interested in simply repeating old patterns where Hal Jordan’s romantic life was concerned.
Why does Carol feel that she has to check out this new doctor and his experimental treatment “alone“? Beats me, but if she doesn’t, O’Neil’s plot’s not going to work, so we’re just going to roll with it.
And yeah, Hal’s “pretty mind” remark is pretty cringeworthy by today’s standards (though if we start calling out every single such wince-engendering bit of dialogue addressed by a male hero to his beloved in the comics of this era, I’m afraid things’ll grow pretty tiresome pretty quickly).
It may simply be the nighttime setting with its abundance of shadows, but page 3 is one where Wrightson’s stylistic touch seems to me to be more strongly in evidence than in most of the rest of the story.
Speaking of callbacks to the past, I believe Green Arrow’s reference here to his ward/junior partner Speedy, aka Roy Harper, was the first time the latter had been mentioned in the series since GA had joined GL as his co-star, back in #76 — and it’s a timely mention, considering the critical role that Roy will play in the historic two-part storyline that begins in the very next issue.
Unfortunately for our two formerly-hard-travelin’ heroes, Hal has hardly had a chance to sit down when a news report comes on the radio, telling of an impending disaster: the sea wall around the small town of Piper’s Dell is being systematically destroyed by a mysterious series of explosions. Piper’s Dell is, of course, the very place that Carol has traveled to to see Dr. Palm…
GL is in luck — the bombs’ casings are indeed made of iron, so his giant magnet is able to remove and dispose of the explosives with relative ease. Unfortunately, his efforts have further weakened the dam’s structure, resulting in a large crack our Emerald Gladiator must quickly seal before the Pacific Ocean pours through and engulfs the town:
The classic company town — where a single employer also owns all the housing, and most retail businesses — dates back to the 1800s, but was in decline by the mid-20th century. It’s possible that O’Neil’s vision of Piper’s Dell was inspired at least as much by the postwar phenomenon of the planned community, typified by the Levittowns, which became symbols of conformity and homogeneity in the 1960s.
KALOOTA! Kaluta? However you spell it, the word didn’t mean a lot to my thirteen-year-old self when I first read this story back in April, 1971, as I hadn’t bought either of the “mystery” comics (i.e., Witching Hour #7 and House of Secrets #87) in which Michael William Kaluta‘s only published art jobs for DC to date had appeared. Here’s Bernie Wrightson’s account as to how his friend and peer ended up in Green Lantern #84:
Mike had just gotten started and he was this kid hanging around. It took him longer to get steady work because his inking style wasn’t this slick, firm line like Dick Giordano or Murphy Anderson. So it took him longer to get work but his drawing was always f*cking solid. Neal got it into his head one day that Kaluta was not a name but a funny sound, and he was just going around the office going, “Ka-loo-ta! Ka-loo-ta!” It was just one of these silly things that Denny picked up on and they put it in the book.***
(Kaluta himself has a story about how his “appearance” in “Peril in Plastic” may have helped him pick up an assignment from editor Julius Schwartz soon after this — but since we’ll be taking a look at that very story on the blog next month, we’ll save that anecdote for then.)
Readers who were a bit older, or at least more sophisticated, than I was in 1971 were likely to be at least familiar with, and quite possibly to share, the disdainful attitude towards plastics implied in the iconic exchange between Benjamin Braddock and Mr. McGuire in Mike Nichols’ 1967 film The Graduate — an attitude which transcended opinions about plastics as physical materials and made them symbolic of a whole set of social values. As the New Yorker‘s John Seabrook put it: “In the film, ‘plastics’ is understood to mean a cheap, sterile, ugly, and meaningless way of life, boring almost by definition.”
A similar sentiment seems to underlie O’Neil’s satirical approach throughout “Peril in Plastic”..
Um, GL? If I may make one small suggestion — you might want to take that kaluta thingy off your chest… no? Okay then…
Some clever page design from Adams, here, as he warps the standard rectangular 9-panel grid to better reflect GL’s wooziness.
This is quite the Hail Mary pass from Hal, who’s surrendering his one weapon/advantage in hopes of calling in the cavalry — especially since the “cavalry” in question is, shall we say, rather easily distracted…
In this three-panel sequence, as the “mouse” slips from Oliver Queen’s mind, Hal’s power ring simultaneously slips out of our sight. Whether the bit was specified in O’Neil’s script or was independently conceived of by Adams, it’s fine visual storytelling.
At last,, “Dr. Palm” removes his Marc Iglesias mask to revel his true identity — Black Hand!
Black Hand (aka William Hand), a creation of writer John Broome and artist Gil Kane, first appeared in Green Lantern #29 (June, 1964). Not possessed of any actual super-powers, but with an evident talent for inventing gadgets, his primary motivation for a life of crime seems to have been a desire to piss off his well-to-do family, (of whom he was proud to be the “black sheep”, hence his choice of codename). His main shtick was that he habitually wrote down everything he learned in the course of his criminal activities in a notebook, the memorized contents of which he was confident could get him out of any jam.
Interestingly, this particular attribute was directly inspired by Bill Finger, the co-creator of Batman, who had the habit of carrying around a little notebook to jot down ideas he thought he might eventually use in one of his comics stories; obviously, the villain’s name of William Hand was inspired by Finger, as well. (Bill Finger, William Hand, Wilbur Palm… you get the idea.)
Black Hand had made one additional appearance following his debut, in Green Lantern #39 (Sept., 1965); but as my own first issue of GL had been the one immediately following that one, I’d never had the opportunity to make the guy’s acquaintance before now. Still, I don’t believe that my thirteen-year-old self sweated that fact too much; Black Hand was obviously an old Lantern baddie, and that was all I really needed to know.
The ability of the techniques implemented by Black Hand and his confederates to create confusion — even such severe confusion as to prevent GL from effectively using his ring — is perhaps more plausible than the notion that they can render ordinary people so receptive to suggestion that they’ll attempt to do terrible things to their fellow human beings (something we’re about to see). But the latter application still works in the context of the story, largely because the various absurdities associated with the kaluta push the narrative into the realm of satire.
Meanwhile, Oliver Queen’s impromptu dinner date with Dinah Lance has come to an abrupt end after his dumping of a bowl of chili on the head of a “lush”, allegedly in defense of Dinah’s honor (we don’t get to see the actual incident, so who knows what really happened). After sending Dinah home in a cab (no Black Canary action this time out, folks, sorry), Ollie returns to his apartment — and, thank Hal’s lucky stars, finally spots a certain small, green item lying on the floor:
If I recall correctly, in April, 1971 I was startled by Green Arrow’s ability to re-charge the power ring, oath or no oath. I believe I’d assumed that one had to be “selected” in some way, and that the ring and battery wouldn’t work for just anyone. (And maybe that had been the case in previous stories; I’m honestly not sure.) But in any event, the occasion made for a memorable visual.
Once the ritual has been completed, GA opts not to try to use it himself (probably a smart choice), and instead rents a dighy to get him to Piper’s Dell. He’d better be a fast rower…
The situation we have here, with two of our focal characters being threatened with death at the hands of something that by rights shouldn’t be menacing, echoes a couple of similar scenes in the previous issue. There, the unlikely threats included a flock of birds and a group of schoolchildren; here, it’s the good citizens of Piper’s Dell. All three scenarios likely owe a debt to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds (an influence that GL #83 acknowledged explicitly).
So Green Lantern has his ring back. We know it’s fully charged, but has Hal recovered enough from the effects of Black Hand’s drug to be able to use it effectively?
Fortunately, yes. GL quickly (and harmlessly) imprisons the zombiefied Piper’s Dellians in blocks of emerald energy, and then…
“People are like cattle,” declared Black Hand on page 15. Add to that “and they’ll be happy to accept a plastic version over the ‘real’ thing if it’s cheap and easy enough to get,” and you’ve got the basic moral of “Peril in Plastic” in a nutshell.
The idea of plastic as symbolizing what is “cheap, sterile, ugly, and meaningless” (to crib again from John Seabrook), both in manufacturing as well as in other areas of life, may have been common in 1971; but it has unquestionably taken some hits in the years and decades since, to the extent that the captains of the plastics industry might even claim that they’ve had the last laugh on Green Lantern #84 and its pop culture kin, e.g. The Graduate. In 2018, for example, the Plastics Today web site referred to the “almost totemic status” of that film within their namesake industry, while a web article from Microdyne Plastics, Inc., commemorates the prescience of The Graduate by noting: “Over time… plastic products earned the reputation they deserved: Flexible, strong, elegant, practical, and high quality.” Or, to put it another way: Mr. McGuire was right! There was a great future in plastics, and there still is.
But although plastics are indeed ubiquitous in our lives today, and most of us probably don’t stress too much about the quality of the plastic parts in our automobiles, computers, smartphones, and other everyday items — to say nothing of such newer, nigh-miraculous developments as the ability to fabricate medical prostheses made of plastic in one’s own home, using 3D printers — it’s hardly all coming up (resinous) roses for those involved in the plastics field these days. Just ask the manufacturers of plastic straws, if you don’t believe me.
No, it seems likely that as long as there are substantial environmental concerns regarding the production, use, and disposal of plastic products, — and it seems likely that such concerns will be with us for the long haul, unfortunately — the basic concept of “peril in plastic” will continue to resonate, even if its particular expression in Green Lantern #84 might be somewhat out-of-date in regards to today’s sensibilities.
As opposed to the “people are like cattle” piece of O’Neil and Adams’ message, which I’m afraid hasn’t dated at all. (Sorry, but I’m feeling a little curmudgeonly today.)
Aren’t comic books fun? Good thing we’ll be dealing with a less depressing subject in the next issue of Green Lantern, namely… (check notes)… heroin addiction! I hope to see you back here “on or about June 24th” (as the next issue blurb above says) for our look at the classic “Snowbirds Don’t Fly”.
*John Wells, “And Through Them Change an Industry”, Back Issue #45 (Dec., 2010), p. 46.
***Jon B. Cooke, “Like a Bat Out of Hell”, Comic Book Artist #5 (Summer, 1999), p. 84.</p?