One of the trademarks of the Superman comics in the 1960s was the “Imaginary Story,” in which the creators were free to tell all kinds of stories that broke the status quo, without permanently damaging the series continuity that was in use for newspaper strips, TV shows, cartoons and a whole mess of comic books. By labeling it an “Imaginary Story,” you could do anything, and still have the nice, safe Superman universe back the way it was the following month. And so they did – with stories where Superman never left a still-intact Krypton, or was split into two identical Supermen and married both Lois and Lana, or what have you. The best of these was published in SUPERMAN #149 in 1961’s “Lex Luthor, Hero!”, written by Superman creator Jerry Siegel and drawn by the man many consider the quintessential Superman artist, Curt Swan.
The story opens with a familiar sight: Lex Luthor in prison. While working in the prison yard, he spots a glowing rock, which he calculates is “Element Z,” a rare substance he had theorized could cure cancer. He begs the warden for lab access, and sure enough, within 24 hours, Lex Luthor had cured cancer.
With Luthor up for parole, Superman himself recommends that the parole board take a chance on Luthor, who claims to have reformed. His parole granted, Luthor shows Superman around his former secret lair, before renting a public laboratory and announcing his next goal – eliminating heart disease.
Unfortunately, the criminal underworld is none too pleased with Luthor for going straight and giving up on his plans to murder Superman, and pretty soon all of organized crime is out to snuff Lex Luthor, forcing Superman into service as Luthor’s bodyguard. When it becomes clear that no place on Earth is safe, Superman constructs an orbiting satellite laboratory for his foe-turned-friend, and equips it with an emergency missile beacon to summon Superman in case of emergency. (Why Superman felt the need to make the missile Luthor-shaped remains a mystery.)
Within a matter of weeks, the missile is launched, and Superman rushes to the satellite to help Luthor. Upon arriving, Superman is greeted by the reformed scientist, who welcomes him with an excruciating dose of green Kryptonite.
It had all been a ruse. Luthor was evil as ever, and this was his chance of a lifetime. The man had cured cancer, just to lull Superman into a false sense of security. That, my friends, is evil.
Not only that, Luthor had thought of everything: he’d kidnapped Lois, Jimmy and Perry White so they could watch Superman die, and even checked out Superman with an X-ray to make sure it wasn’t one of those damned Superman robots. No such luck: within moments, Superman was dead. Luthor landed the space lab and dropped off the body and Superman’s friends, then announced his triumph to the world.
Later, Metropolis Chapel was the site of Superman’s funeral, attended by dignitaries from around the world and the galaxy, as well as his closest friends, including Supergirl, Krypto and even Lori Lemaris. It’s pretty grim and emotional stuff, especially for 1961, when the previous month’s story might have been about Bizarro Jimmy Olsen or something.
Meanwhile, Luthor is living it up with his criminal cronies, in a lavish banquet decorated with fine-art renderings of Superman’s demise. Boy, when Luthor throws a party, he goes all out. The party is soon busted up by Supergirl, whose existence at this point was not known to the world at large.
In an interesting twist, Luthor is taken to face Kandorian justice, in the shrunken Bottle City of Kandor. Here’s where Luthor’s flair for the dramatic tends to hurt him, as his hand-picked witnesses all show up in Kandor to testify.
Luthor is soon found guilty and sentenced to banishment to the Phantom Zone, the shadowy netherworld created by Jor-El where all Kryptonian murderers are sent. A smug Luthor tries to cut a deal, offering to use his scientific genius to enlarge the city of Kandor and her inhabitants, but the Kryptonian judge will have none of it. “We Kandorians don’t make deals with murderers!” says he, and with the push of a button Luthor fades into oblivion.
Supergirl and Krypto are left to take Superman’s place, and the tale ends on a decidedly down note. The story is both morbid and darkly humorous at times, but told with such perfect attention to the Superman mythology, and rendered in classic style by Curt Swan; it’s marvelously compelling.
We jump ahead now a few years to 1985, and SUPERMAN ANNUAL #11, “For the Man Who Has Everything.” This little gem, written and drawn by the award-winning team of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (creators of WATCHMEN, probably the most critically acclaimed graphic novel in the history of the medium), starts off with a charming enough premise, with Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin heading up to the Fortress of Solitude with presents for Superman’ birthday. They’re shocked to find Superman paralyzed and catatonic, with an alien plant seemingly attached to him.
As it turns out, the plant, which has hypnotized Superman into a fantasy world of his own devising, that of a family life on Krypton, was sent as a trap by the intergalactic warlord Mongul, who with Superman out of the way is preparing to conquer the planet. Or, as he tells an unnerved Batman, “I’m the new manager around here.”
The issue can almost be seen as a warmup for their book WATCHMEN, as many of the devices that make WATCHMEN so distinctive are in evidence here: the elimination of thought balloons, serious curtailment of the use of sound effects, and most notably the cross-cutting of narratives, as the story cuts back and forth between Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin’s struggle to defeat the impossibly powerful Mongul and find a way to revive Superman from his dream trance, and Superman’s fantasy life, in which Krypton never exploded and he’s happily married to his Kryptonian girlfriend Lyla Lerrol from way back in SUPERMAN #141. As the narratives switch, the dialogue serves as a transition from one story to the other, in a device often used in film, but heretofore not seen in comics. Here’s an example:
When Superman comes out of his trance, Superman and Mongul engage in a battle more ferocious than any seen in Superman comics previously, and the battle’s resolution comes from a surprising source.
Dave Gibbons’ clean, realistic yet slightly cartoony art is a joy as always, and his sense of storytelling, especially when paired with Moore, is unrivaled. As for Alan Moore’s script, his affection for the material shines through, even in this, a more mature take on Krypton, Superman and as inherently goofy a concept as the Fortress of Solitude. As good as this story is, it’s almost as if Moore was merely flexing his muscles for his next (and last) Superman story, which also happens to be my favorite Superman story, bar none: “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”
First, a little backstory: when John Byrne was just about to take over and revamp the Superman titles in 1986, previous longtime SUPERMAN editor Julius Schwartz was given the chance to publish a grand finale for his run on the titles, and say goodbye to the Superman that comic-book readers had known for almost 50 years. For the penciling duties, there was no other choice but Curt Swan, who had become more closely identified with the character than any artist in comics; George Perez and Kurt Schaffenberger were enlisted as inkers. When legal difficulties precluded Jerry Siegel from writing it, Alan Moore reportedly told Schwartz, “If you let anybody but me write this, I’ll kill you.” Considering Moore was currently in the midst of his groundbreaking work on both SWAMP THING and WATCHMEN, it’s hard to imagine that Schwartz needed much convincing. The result, SUPERMAN #423 and ACTION COMICS #583, was something special.
Rather than clumsily try to explain the story, I’m going to let Alan Moore’s elegant little preamble speak for itself:
This is an IMAGINARY STORY (which may never happen, but then again may) about a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good. It tells of his twilight, when the great battles were over and the great miracles long since performed; of how his enemies conspired against him and of that final war in the snowblind wastes beneath the Northern Lights; of the women he loved and of the choice he made between them; of how he broke his most sacred oath, and how finally all the things he had were taken from him save one. It ends with a wink….This is an IMAGINARY STORY … Aren’t they all?
The story is told by a now-married Lois Elliott, being interviewed by a DAILY PLANET reporter on the 10th anniversary of Superman’s death. Lois tells of how all Superman’s enemies came home to roost. First Bizarro returned and went on a murderous rampage, in a quest to be the perfect imperfect duplicate – since Superman helped people, he had to kill people. Finally, he tells Superman, he realizes there’s only one way to be perfectly imperfect…
Next, Superman’s secret identity is revealed by the Toyman and the Prankster, who had decided to kidnap all of Superman’s friends and torture them until one of them came up with his secret identity.
Unfortunately, they got lucky on the first try with Pete Ross, who doesn’t survive.
Meanwhile, Lex Luthor had been searching for what little remained of Brainiac after his last encounter with Superman. When he finds Brainiac’s head, he gets far more than he bargained for.
After the Daily Planet is invaded by an army of Metallo cyborgs (an old enemy of Superman’s powered by a Kryptonite heart), Superman decides to take his friends Lois, Jimmy, Lana Lang, Perry White and Perry’s wife Alice to the Fortress of Solitude, where he could better defend them if things worsened. There they’re joined by Krypto, who had returned from space, as if he knew how bad things had become. Adding to Superman’s worries is a visit from the time-travelling Legion of Superheroes, who present Superman with a gift, a small statue of himself, as if they’re paying their last respects. Even worse, they’ve brought with them young Supergirl (who had been killed years before), who had been visiting the future and insisted on coming along to see her cousin.
The visit from his departed cousin, young and full of promise, along with his childhood friends coming to say goodbye, sinks Superman further into a deep depression.
The next day, the Fortress is attacked by the combined Luthor/Brainiac being, along with their flunky the Kryptonite Man and the Legion of Super-Villains, a time-travelling gang of super-thugs who want to get their last licks in on what history records as Superman’s final days. The battle reaches a stalemate, and that night, in one of the story’s most poignant moments, Lana and Jimmy sneak into the Fortress of Solitude’s Hall of Trophies to get the serums that had years before given them superpowers, determined to help Superman defend the Fortress. As Lana begins to develop superpowers, her super-hearing kicks in, and she overhears Superman talking with Perry about his love for Lois:
If this all sounds pretty somber, it is, and believe me, it gets worse. However, the story ultimately ends on a happy, hopeful note, and serves as a fitting climax to a story began in 1938 by two kids from Cleveland. All great stories need an ending, and it’s often been said that the perpetually continuous nature of mainstream comics characters is what keeps them from truly becoming great. Alan Moore and Curt Swan give us just that in “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” It’s hard to point to any single Superman story and say, “This is what the character is all about.” This comes awful close, though. It’s available in trade paperback for a mere seven bucks. Go get one.
It’s hard to find these days, but the bulk of my Superman knowledge came from SUPERMAN: FROM THE 30S TO THE 70S, a hardcover collection published by Bonanza in 1971 that reproduces a representative selection of great Superman stories from every decade. This should be on every comic fan’s bookshelf.
THE GREATEST SUPERMAN STORIES EVER TOLD collects a good selection of first-rate Superman stories, as chosen by a panel of Superman creators and experts. I think this might be now out of print, but still available in comic shops and on Amazon.
If you’d like to read the original Siegel and Shuster version, the DC ARCHIVES series has plenty of volumes of both ACTION COMICS and SUPERMAN to offer. As discussed in the past, these are pricey but gorgeous reproduction of comics that would cost you far more to read otherwise.
In recent years, DC has been much better about mining some of the classics from their Silver Age library and getting them back into the public eye. Accordingly, you shouldn’t miss SUPERMAN IN THE FIFTIES, SUPERMAN IN THE SIXTIES and SUPERMAN IN THE SEVENTIES. Much of the material discussed in the last few weeks can be found here.
Another Silver Age classic is SUPERMAN: TALES OF THE BIZARRO WORLD, collecting all of the Jerry Siegel-scripted Bizarro adventures from ADVENTURE COMICS.
If you missed out on the whole death of Superman thing in the ‘90s and want to see what all the fuss was about, three trade paperbacks collect the whole story for you: THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN, FUNERAL FOR A FRIEND and THE RETURN OF SUPERMAN. It gets a little convoluted toward the end, but there’s some solid storytelling here.