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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.
Sometimes, we get an item in the store that has some personal resonance for us. This is one of those, on sale now in the Online Store:
For my money, the best Silver Surfer story of all is the 1978 original graphic novel THE SILVER SURFER by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
By 1978, the acrimonious Kirby/Marvel split was already history, as was his much-publicized stint at DC. Around 1976, Kirby had returned to Marvel, and had created books like THE ETERNALS, MACHINE MAN and DEVIL DINOSAUR for the publisher, as well as returning to his creation CAPTAIN AMERICA for a run as writer/artist. It was rumored that the ’78 Surfer graphic novel was created as part of a movie pitch, with the intention that this would be the version of the character that the film would follow. It makes sense, as the book retells the Surfer’s battle with Galactus without any involvement of the Fantastic Four, and the Surfer’s strong moral values are up front from the beginning, with him needing no convincing to fight to save the Earth.
Lee and Kirby also introduce a new character to the Surfer mythos, Ardina, a prospective mate for the Surfer created by Galactus in the hopes of tempting him back to his service, abandoning Earth in the process.
The Surfer and Ardina fall in love, and Ardina too defies Galactus to stand with the Surfer, and is cruelly taken from him in a demonstration of Galactus’ limitless power.
In looking back, with the knowledge of the second ugly split between Kirby and Marvel to come, it’s difficult to know how closely Lee and Kirby really collaborated on the book, but this much is clear: here we have an example of both men at the absolute top of their game. Kirby’s art is reminiscent of his classic Silver Age Marvel stuff, but also shows the confidence and innovative panel breakdowns of his DC FOURTH WORLD work. Given the luxury of space (the book runs 100 pages), Kirby’s not afraid to open things up with plenty of full-page splashes, like these gorgeous renderings of the Surfer and Galactus.
At the same time, Kirby flexes his storytelling muscle with this sequence illustrating the Surfer’s fall from grace, having been banished to Earth for disobeying his master.
As for Stan, while the Silver Surfer’s dialogue had always given the writer an opportunity to delve into the philosophical (and occasionally border on a little religious martyrdom) here he balances the Surfer’s pathos and Galactus’ imperious monologues with a genuinely light touch, providing some of the best writing of his career. Here’s a bit of the Surfer’s dialogue, having just fought off a band of thugs who attempted to befriend him in order to capture and exhibit him like a carnival freak:
”Power is your god, and you bow to force and might! Thus you worship naught but folly! For power is blind – and serves any who pay it homage!
Only truth is constant. Only faith endures. And only love can save them.
But where can love be found?”
Stan calls back the moment in the book’s final panels:
The 1978 SILVER SURFER graphic novel isn’t easy to find nowadays, and sadly, Marvel shows little interest in re-releasing it. If you should stumble across it somewhere, don’t pass it up.
Zack Snyder’s MAN OF STEEL is only a month or so away, and I am, shall we say, cautiously excited. Having not really enjoyed a SUPERMAN movie since SUPERMAN II in 1980, I’m hoping to leave the theatre satisfied at least in some measure. Unfortunately, I know all too well that many of my favorite things about Superman will never be seen on the big screen. Let’s look at a few of them, shall we?
The Superman Robots
Back in the day, Superman had an army of Superman robots at the Fortress of Solitude he had built that could sub for him if he needed to protect his secret identity, or if he need them to fill in for him on hazardous, Kryptonite-laden duty, or just if he needed some backup and a little extra muscle.
He even kept a couple at his place in Metropolis, just in case:
Aside from the fact that having your own personal robot army is always cool, the Superman robots were a nice reminder that Superman isn’t just super-strong, he’s also super-smart, a detail that seems to have been lost in the last few years of Superman comics.
The Big Key
In the 1950s and ’60s concept for Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, there was a detail about it that always charmed me: the entrance to the Fortress itself was a giant golden door with a keyhole, and the enormous key that would allow access was always just sitting outside the Fortress nearby. And that was the trick to it: only Superman was strong enough to lift the key, so only he could open the door.
It’s a charmingly fairy-tale-like notion. Fifties and early Sixties Superman especially has a whimsical tone that I love. Grant Morrison had a wonderfully clever revision of this idea in ALL-STAR SUPERMAN:
A distinctly groovy ’70s innovation, Superman would make use of the Supermobile whenever he expected to need a little extra protection from the old Green K, using the Supermobile’s robot hands to grab up the offending mineral and usually chuck it into the sun or something along those lines.
Admittedly, this may just be nostalgia based on the Corgi toy Supermobile I had as a kid…
…but I still like it.
The Bizarro World
A long-running story element in 1960s Superman comics, the Bizarro World was where Superman’s imperfect duplicate Bizarro lived with all the other Bizarros, more duplicates of himself and Lois Lane, as well as Bizarro duplicates of all of Superman’s friends.
I think what I liked about it most was that it stood for an element of mercy and kindness that’s integral to Superman’s character, and which kind of gets lost these days. When Superman was left with the dilemma of what to do with Bizarro, an imperfect tormented creature that didn’t ask to be born so different, he didn’t kill him or lock him up in a prison. Superman reshaped a planet, carving the square edges into it so that Bizarro and his people would feel connected to it. He made them a home. That’s what Superman does. He doesn’t fight people. He helps people.
Krypto the Superdog
I know, I know, it’s a dog in a cape flying around. How can we take that seriously, you ask? First of all, it’s comics, so in a world where Martians, mermen and witches not only exist but are teammates with Superman (hell, Superman’s college girlfriend was a mermaid), I don’t see why he can’t have a dog.
Moreover, Krypto is a reminder of Superman’s childhood, an unexpected piece of his homeworld that found its way to Earth and helped make Superboy feel a little less alone.
How can you argue with that?
One of my favorite things to do at comic book shops or at conventions is to spend time going through the sales boxes. You’ve all seen them. Long boxes stuffed with issues of anything and everything marked down to irresistible prices – sometimes as low as $0.25 each! I’ll admit that I occasionally use the issues I find in the cheap seats for crafting (look, decoupaging is an addicting craft and I want to cover all the things with images from comic books). I mostly use the bargain bins as a tool to find new stories and to get to know new characters. For example, I’ve read just enough about Superman to know I want more. Cue the $1 bin.
I’ll rifle through and pick out a stack of titles from different writers and eras. It’s a nice sampling, and if I like what I read I’ll find more. Sometimes I’ll pick out comics based on the cover alone (like picking wine for the label). When I was flipping through a box and spotted a cover featuring Superman holding a cat, I was sold. I expected Superman For the Animals to be a nice, fluffy story along the lines of Superman rescuing a wayward cat from a tree.
I was so wrong, and I might be scarred for life.
Superman For the Animals is essentially a PSA about animal cruelty. It was published in 2000 and made available for free – DC Comics partnered with the Doris Day Animal Foundation for the comic written by Mark Millar and drawn by Tom Grummet and Dick Giordano (some interesting history on how it came to be here).
A young boy named Tommy is new in town and has fallen in with some troublemakers. One kid in particular – the leader Ballser – is a special brand of horrible. He takes pleasure in picking on animals. He bullies the other kids in the group into helping him with his sadistic obsession. Tommy’s torn between making friends and fitting in and doing the right thing. Ballser starts with kicking some pigeons. Then he tortures a goldfish. He takes it to another level and throws a cat over a bridge! A poor, helpless cat.
That’s where Superman swoops in. He arrives and saves the cat from doom. You see, Tommy had written to the superhero and asked for help. When Ballser sees who interfered with his twisted plan, he’s ticked. He calls Superman a “Boy Scout.” Seeing Superman intervene inspired Tommy to speak up – especially once Ballser insulted him in the same way. It made Tommy realize he could be like Superman too. He just had to stand up for what’s right.
The final straw is when Tommy makes a chilling discovery. Ballser actually has a collection of trophy collars. Tons of them. What the heck. I had to stop and get a tissue.
Tommy mans up and talks to a teacher. Ballser gets help, and Tommy and the gang move on and even volunteer at an animal rescue. Tommy realizes he too can be a superhero, and everyone feels warm and fuzzy. Which is desperately needed at that point since you’ve been reading about animal deaths.
Seeing animal cruelty is hard for me to stomach – even in a comic book – but I can’t deny Superman For the Animals sends some worthwhile messages. Superman saves a kitten and by doing so helps make sure a child gets necessary mental help, and shows Tommy how to be a hero as well as showing him how right it is to stand against evil. It illustrates that Superman can save the day in more ways than just taking down villains. There’s also an anti-bully theme that’s good for anyone to read. The story isn’t afraid to take on the hard stuff. If it made a lasting impression on me, I bet it definitely affected children. I hope it prompted some discussions with adults about animals and their feelings and value.
By D. Jason Cooper
The first DC Superman imitator may have been Hourman (1940), who has the same original powers of Superman, at close to the same level.
But when Superman flew, Hourman was kind of left behind. Super strength, speed and durability weren’t enough to keep to the front ranks and they weren’t enough to even be considered an imitator except as an historical curiosity. But four years later DC would do it right.
“The tales of Superman, when he was a boy.” With those words Superman, the Man of Steel who was formerly the Man of Tomorrow became the boy of yesterday. The “first” Superman imitator that DC created is the closest, being the same person, younger. In a very real sense he was also another version of Captain Marvel Jr, who was first published in 1941.
Of course, Shuster and Siegel had different ideas what they wanted to do with the name Superboy, but they sold a billion dollar idea to DC for $300 and DC was going to run the show. So they put an eight year old (the same age Robin was when he started out) in Superman’s costume and in 1944 created the closest, most successful, and second-best imitation ever.
Although they were initially inconsistent with the period in which Superboy existed, basically, he was nostalgia for the thirties, and even kids who had never seen the times could be nostalgic for that time before the war, before their uncle died, before their older brother lost an arm, before their father hid food in the house in case they did it again.
Superboy’s stories took place in Smallville, a small town as opposed to the big city Metropolis. In this he reflected American nostalgia for small-town tranquility and morality which would hold until the publication of Peyton Place in 1956. In this 1930′s, Hitler, Mussolini, and the Rape of Nanking were never mentioned and didn’t seem to exist. There were no politics, no elections, and no one was Democrat or Republican. Even in the depths of the Great Depression no one was unemployed. There were no Hoovervilles and nobody rode the rails in search of a job or simply a meal. The only people who did ride the rails were professional bums and crooks because criminals always came from outside. Superboy survived partly because he recalled a simpler time that was largely made up.
That nostalgia was an important factor is shown by the fact Superboy was eight, while Superman has always been a bit under thirty. In other words, to be chronologically consistent, Superboy stories should have been twenty years before the date his story was published. In 1944 that would mean Superboy was active in 1924. But the flapper age of discontent just wouldn’t work: people had had enough of war and post war anxiety. The war was still on, then.
Superboy’s stories were about learning how to be Superman, about helping other people in town, and stopping the very large number of bank robbers who made their way to Smallville. As time went by issues like the approaching war and the appearance of supervillains like the Kryptonite Kid (who would later be the Kryptonite Man) were brought into the mix.
Superboy’s life imitated Superman’s. Instead of Lois Lane trying to prove Clark Kent was Superman, Lana Lang tried to prove Clark Kent was Superboy. Instead of Jimmy Olsen, Pete Ross was his pal. When Superman was bothered by an obnoxious blond bully at work, Clark was bothered by an obnoxious blond bully at school. Whenever something was tried out for one character, if it was successful, it was transferred to the other. Bizarro, Kryptonite, Lex Luthor, Krypto, and the list just goes on. Anything Superman met, Superboy would meet for the first time later. Anything Superboy met, Superman would meet for the first time later.
Shortly after Superboy was first published, though, the game board changed. As it happened, it reinforced the nostalgia element. The atomic bomb went off. Within four months, every trope of debate used between 1945 and the fall of the Soviet Union had already emerged. The end of the world, the immorality of such a weapon, mutual destruction, the need to disarm, the need to not disarm, alien disapproval at the existence of this weapon; all of them. Not only would they continue, they would be largely unchanged for the whole of that era.
Within a year of those explosions, Superman’s powers were ramped up. Before the atomic bomb, regular bombs and missiles could hurt Superman. After the atomic bomb Superman could fly through nuclear blasts and even into the heart of a star. He was no longer the epitome of advanced human evolution: like Glaucon, he was promoted from a man to a god.
Why the increase? Because Superman was always wrapped around what a person does with preponderant physical power. Where Superman in 1938 faced revolvers, knives, and occasional explosives, by 1946 he was facing atomic bombs.
So there was Superboy in Superboy and Adventure and Superman in Superman and Action. The story of Superboy would be extended in 1958 with the introduction of the first superhero team of the silver age, the Legion of Superheroes. Superman joined the Justice League of America in 1960. So by 1960 there were three streams of stories: Superboy and the Legion, Superman and the JLA, and Superman by himself. In each stream, he could destroy a planet.
In 1959 another family extension came as DC did for Superman what Fawcett had done for Captain Marvel, but with a cousin rather than a twin sister: they created Supergirl. Supergirl wore Superman’s costume but with a skirt instead of trunks and leggings. In this she paralleled Mary Marvel’s imitation of Captain Marvel’s costume.
There are many people who object to the sexism of Supergirl’s introduction, treatment by Superman, and general stories. While they have a point they don’t have the only one. Supergirl emphasized the cozy and domestic. Stories were about getting adopted, worrying about friendships, feeling lonely, why the latest guy she falls for isn’t right for her (hint, he’s dating Linda but she’s Supergirl), trying to set up her cousin with someone (as if she would know), pretending to really like Supergirl because everyone else does, being the only one at school not in a Supergirl costume, and so on. Basically, Supergirl’s stories were constructed much like Superboy’s. But Supergirl didn’t sell as well as Superboy, and she was never as central to the Legion of Superheroes as Superboy was.
But the finger was already out of the dike. Not only was there Supergirl, in 1958 the bottle city of Kandor was introduced. Superman was no longer the last surviving son, let alone child, of Krypton. Literally there were millions of them, six million, to be exact. Kandor even provided the Superman Emergency Squad, Kandorians who are expanded to a few inches tall, all wearing Superman costumes.
In 1962, the Phantom Zone appeared in Superboy. There were now an unlimited number of Kryptonian parallels to challenge the incredibly powerful Superman. One of them was his own relative, Kru-el.
In the Silver Age, Superman imitators were popping up everywhere. Lois Lane dreamed she had Superman’s powers and, in her dreams, put on a costume like Superman’s (only she covered her legs) and fought for truth, justice, and waking up. She would have a similar dream several times. In some stories she actually gets Kryptonian powers for a short time.
His cousin set him up with a grown woman who looked like her. Superwoman lived on a planet under an orange sun. She and Superman hit it off, but when he brought her back to Earth they discovered the yellow sun was poisonous to her. Since the Earth could not do without Superman the way her planet could do without her, she went back to her own planet and the guy who could fly anywhere in the universe virtually instantly never thought to commute.
Interestingly, Superwoman’s costume was a long-sleeved white swimsuit, green cape, gloves, and boots and a belt. On her chest was a circular ‘S’ symbol which, if you removed it…we’ll get back to that.
Three other Superwomen were used for significant story arcs: Kristen Wells, who came from the 29th century, Dana Dearden, who stole artifacts to get some Kryptonian power, and Lucy Lane, who wore a suit for the same effect. All three characters have been retired, at least until DC needs to keep its claim to the trademark “Superwoman” up to date.
In addition to the Phantom Zone villains, Superman imitators came in the form of the Superman Revenge Squad, who wore an imitation Superman costume but with the S shield made out of Kryptonite. On Earth 3 was Ultraman, who gained super powers whenever he came in contact with a chunk of Kryptonite for the first time. In 1985, a Superboy from Earth Prime was transferred to the only remaining universe DC had, and he was called Superboy Prime – later Superman Prime and still later Superboy Prime. Both villains wear costumes very similar to Superman’s.
But Superman’s influence went far wider than that. In 1953 Superman meets a space traveller who has a map showing the route from Krypton to Earth. It’s labelled “to my son.” So Superman thinks he has found his older brother, whose powers are the same as but considerably weaker than Superman’s. When the amnesia goes away, Superman discovers it’s not his older brother, it’s Halk Kar who comes from Thoron, a planet larger than Earth but smaller than Krypton. Halk went to Krypton, met Jor-El, who gave him a map how to get to earth – Jor-El had memorized it. Halk has a costume similar to Superman’s but with no S-shield. It has red shirt and leggings and blue cape, trunks, and boots. The story was so good that they would do it again in 1961, but in the meantime, they would create another Superman imitator.
In 1955 a scientist creates an electronic brain to communicate with the universe. What the brain does is pick a Martian at random. The scientist promptly has a heart attack and dies. Martian Manhunter does not buy a radio and contact his home planet, nor does he go to Superman or Supergirl and ask for a lift. He doesn’t fly home himself. If he can’t fly in space himself (DC is inconsistent about this) he could build an engineless ship and use his flight powers to get it to Mars.
Instead, J’onn J’onzz changes his spelling to John Jones and joins a police department that doesn’t do background checks. He then tramps through the back pages keeping a low profile as he catches crooks and stops aliens.
Manhunter comes from another planet, but it’s a heavy gravity world like Krypton (Mars has 1/3 Earth’s gravity), and he doesn’t change from red to yellow sun (same solar system). He has those powers because he was a member of a more advanced species. In other words, the original Superman explanation raises its head. He even has a Kryptonite, which is fire.
His superpowers include Superman’s strength, speed, durability in the face of anything that isn’t burning, flight, Martian vision (Superman’s x-ray, heat, and infrared vision), and superbreath. He also has extra powers like telepathy, the ability to turn invisible and/or intangible, and shape shifting. With those last powers, J’onn J’onzz doesn’t have to work in the public eye.
But in 1960, they were reviving the Justice Society of America, but “Society” was too snobby so they changed it to ‘League.’ And they were short of heroes. They took the standards, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and Flash. They added Aquaman who was not a good fit but at least had been published continuously since the Golden Age, but not Green Arrow who could make the same claim of continuity.
They also included Martian Manhunter, and they changed the character to get him into the League. Martian Manhunter had been avoiding the public eye. So they arranged that he got hit by a beam that changed him. Now when he turned invisible he would lose his superpowers. Forced to enter the public eye and despite having no public record to point to, he was allowed to join the League. The differences between him and Superman were toned down. He became the League’s “other” superman.
Later writers took hold of the character and added elements, but Oreos do not stop him from being a play on the Superman riff. After all, the biggest change they made was to add Miss Martian in 2006. Miss Martian is a younger still-trying-to-work-things-out niece to parallel Supergirl. She has rather more trouble because bigger problems make for better reading. We learn that Martians were green or white, and Manhunter is the last of the green Martians – so he’s the last son of green Mars to parallel the last son of Krypton. Eventually the white Martians will be the Phantom Zone for the Manhunter.
In 1961 another imitator came, he crash-lands, has a map how to get from Krypton to Earth labelled “to my son,” and has amnesia. He has the Kryptonian powers. He wears a costume of the same type as Superboy but with reverse coloring. No, Halk Kar has not returned, really, DC was just recycling ideas like it often did. Superboy names this teenager Mon-El.
Suspecting that Mon-El isn’t really Kryptonian, Superboy painted some cannonballs green. Mon-El succumbs, but when confronted by the cannonballs chopped in half to show their lead innards (I hope they aren’t antiques or anything), he suddenly gets his memory back and says he is from Daxam and is vulnerable to lead radiation. I don’t know what that is, either. But it’s fatal to Mon-El so Superboy saves him by putting him into the Phantom Zone, promising to release him when Superboy finds a cure. For the rest of his life, Superboy and later Superman will put the cure for Mon-El on the back burner.
A thousand years later, Braniac 5 had found a cure, leaving him free of the Phantom Zone forever. People complain about continuity problems for the Legion, but Mon-El suffers far worse because he could never have meet the person who sent him to the 31st century and thus would never meet the person who cured him, because Braniac 5 only knows about the Phantom Zone and Mon-El because of Superboy.
Mon-El and Daxam generally are so improbable that they eventually decided a group of Kryptonians went to Daxam and founded a society there. So a Superman imitation became an even closer imitation, not only because he was Kryptonian but because of Laurel Gand. When Supergirl was temporarily no longer existing ever, something was needed to fill the tiny gap she left in the Legion of Super Heroes continuity – never mind the lack of Superboy to inspire them.
What they did was get a distant relative of Lar Gand, Laurel Gand, otherwise known as Andromeda. She naturally has the Kryptonian set of powers, and she has Brainiac 5 as a boyfriend – so important a plot issue that it doesn’t exist in current continuity. It’s another gap in logic, like that Supergirl has all the Kryptonian powers in full on arrival on Earth and it took Superman so many years to get those powers that he was never Superboy. Laurel Gand completes her parallel to Supergirl because she’s been written out of continuity. Fortunately, that trick doesn’t always work.
The best-ever Superman imitation seems in retrospect to be a success waiting to happen, but in 1976 she could have easily wound up as a wishy washy imitation of an imitation like Supergirl. As it was, Power Girl was the cousin of Superman of Earth 2, and somebody learned from the sexism that plagued Supergirl. There weren’t the months of keeping her hidden, there wasn’t the years of learning how to use her powers. The instant we saw her she was 100% ready to take a leading role as had Superman.
Her name comes from a story in 1958 where Lois Lane dreams she gets super powers (you know which ones) again and takes on a secret identity. Instead of Superwoman, it’s Power Girl. She puts on a red wig to disguise herself to fight crime.
Our Power Girl’s costume seems to have come from the Superwoman who’ve we already mentioned. Change the gloves and boots from green to blue, the cape from green to red, move the belt from around the waist to the hips and you pretty well have Power Girl’s costume. If Superwoman’s circular S symbol is taken out, the famous cleavage hole is there.
Power Girl isn’t overly nice, she has always spoken her mind. She had a continuing verbal stosh with Wildcat, where early Supergirl had no continuing personal animosities at all. She had everything going for her except her universe. Crisis on Infinite Earths struck again and her universe was gone. They tried to make Power Girl a granddaughter of an Arion of Atlantis, which would actually make her related to Aquaman, not Superman. Nobody in fandom liked that. Eventually DC had to give in and she was returned to her status as a cousin of Superman and the last survivor of Earth-2. In her own comic she even got a superhero in training who’s still-trying-to-work-things-out in Terra, who came from another planet (via an underground civilization, a kind of parallel to the bottle city of Kandor).
Power Girl got her own series and everything was going fine until they ditched the character, invented another one with the same name, gave her a Disnified costume, and gave her way less personality. Which is odd, because there is one other set of Superman imitators and DC might learn from them…
For those of you coming in late, we’re in the middle of our three-part Super-symposium, an examination of the life and times of one Clark Kent. Last week, we discussed Mr. Kent’s origins, history, powers, weaknesses, family and love life. If you’d like, you can read about it by going here, or you can just follow along on this helpful chart:
Superman’s rogues gallery of villains isn’t quite as extensive as, say, Batman or Spider-Man, but the ones he does have are choice. First on this list, of course, is the original super-villain, Lex Luthor. Lex’s first appearances are a little muddy. Predating Luthor was a bald evil-scientist character called the Ultra-Humanite, who had a tendency to have his brain transplanted into other people’s bodies. After his initial appearances, his brain was transplanted into the body of movie actress Dolores Winters, among others, before finally settling into his final body, that of an albino gorilla.
God, I love comics. Anyway, Luthor’s first appearance came not long after Ultra’s, but early on, his assistant was the bald one, while he had a head full of red hair. By 1941, however, Luthor was his traditional bald self.
One of the best early Luthor appearances came in 1940, when the red-headed Luthor offers Superman a challenge, that his scientific genius could outdo Superman’s strength, with the loser to retire.
In a fast-paced and funny sequence, Luthor tries to beat Superman at long-distance racing, altitude, weightlifting, sturdiness, lung capacity, you name it. Luthor admits defeat when Superman offers to test Luthor’s strength by bashing his head against his own airplane. Naturally, the contest was only a ruse to keep Superman occupied.
By the 1950s, Luthor’s appearance had changed, looking more like a portly businessman. Still, the focus was always on his mechanical genius, often utilizing synthetic Kryptonite of his own invention. As seen here in this 1954 team-up with perennial second-string Superman villains the Prankster and the Toyman, he’s got more of a jowly look going on.
A much more lean and mean Luthor was in evidence in the 1960s, as evidenced here in “The Showdown Between Luthor and Superman,” from SUPERMAN #164. This is one of my favorite Luthor periods, when he’s so obsessed with killing Superman that he doesn’t even bother changing out of his prison jumpsuit after he breaks out. Here, he challenges Superman to a fair fight without his superpowers.
Superman agrees, and the two fly to a distant desert planet under a red sun, where he and Luthor would be on equal footing. (That must have been some fun conversation on the flight there, huh? “So, what’ve you been up to?” “Saving lives. You?” “Plotting your death; prison. You know, the usual.”). Naturally, Luthor cheats, and leaves Superman for dead in a terrible sandstorm.
As it turned out, the planet was populated by a race slowly dying out from lack of water, and when Luthor uses his genius to protect their crops, they begin to worship him as a hero, and he soon becomes obsessed with finding them new sources of water. When Superman arrives at the city, he’s reviled as a villain and the two resume their duel. Luthor, however, takes a dive, so that when Superman takes him back to Earth, he can stop at a nearby glacial planet and provide Luthor’s new worshippers with the water they so desperately need.
The planet, which would rename itself Lexor in Luthor’s honor, would remain a part of Luthor’s life for years to come. Luthor would even marry a Lexorian woman, Ardora, and resolved to move to Lexor permanently. However, a duel with Superman over the planet’s surface resulted in a catastrophe that destroyed Luthor’s adopted world, and killed all its inhabitants, including his beloved wife, even further enflaming Luthor’s hatred of Superman.
We’ve discussed in these pages previously how a teenaged Luthor was incorporated into the Superboy mythology, involving a friendship between Luthor and Superboy that goes terribly wrong, with Luthor blaming Superboy for the loss of his scientific breakthrough and his hair.
I won’t belabor the point further here, save to say that the inclusion of a friendship gone astray between Luthor and Superboy added a poignancy and depth to their struggles that I think is sorely missed in the comics nowadays, and accounts for much of the success of the current SMALLVILLE TV series.
By the mid-‘70s, Luthor had taken to wearing a purple and green jumpsuit with a truly fabulous disco collar, which despite being more than a little on the garish side, is still one of the cooler super-villain costumes around, in my opinion.
It’s this outfit that TV viewers of my generation probably most closely associate with Luthor, as it was what he wore on the excellent CHALLENGE OF THE SUPERFRIENDS episodes as leader of the Legion of Doom. And despite the threads, the Luthor stories of the 1970s tended to involve a cooler-headed, more calculating opponent. Lex changed outfits once again in 1983, acquiring an extraterrestrial combat suit (designed by George Perez) that allowed him for the first time to stand physically toe-to-toe with Superman.
The new suit, combined with a newly fired-up hatred of Superman from the aforementioned destruction of Lexor, had set up Luthor as a more vital, intense opponent than we’d seen in years. Unfortunately, the Superman reboot by John Byrne in 1986 would do away with all of it.
As reconceived by Byrne and Marv Wolfman, Luthor was no longer a scientific genius, but instead a ruthless billionaire magnate, whose thirst for power inspired him to try to eliminate Superman. I never really bought this as sufficient motivation, and so all of this new Luthor’s plots and schemes always rang a little hollow for me. The classic Superman-Luthor relationship was always a unique and original one, especially in how it evolved over decades, and I’ve never understood the decision to throw all that out in favor of a watered-down version of Marvel’s Kingpin character. (And a dull-witted one at that. Take a look here at one of Byrne’s first Luthor appearances, in which he refuses to believe that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same.)
In recent years, SUPERMAN writers have tried all sorts of things to spice up the Luthor character; he’s died of Kryptonite poisoning from overexposure to his Kryptonite ring, come back from the dead in a cloned body and posed as his own son, been rejuvenated by the DC’s resident version of Satan, and even served a term as President of the United States. Yes, you read that right. In the world according to DC, Luthor was the president. Ironically, I think his election was less controversial than Dubya’s.
The evil computer being Brainiac first appeared in the pages of ACTION COMICS in 1958, although he wasn’t quite a computer yet. In his debut, “The Super-Duel in Space,” The bald, green-skinned Brainiac is only described as a super-intelligent alien, and, oddly enough, is so emotional as to have a pet with him at all times, a weird little space chimp-looking bugger named “Koko.” In that first appearance, Brainiac is busy at the type of criminal act he’s best-known for: shrinking down cities and keeping them in bottles.
Well, it beats stamp collecting, I guess. Safe behind an impenetrable force-field, Brainiac swipes Paris, Rome, London, New York, and finally Metropolis, little realizing that a now-microscopic Superman is along for the ride. The tiny Superman is shocked to discover a shrunken city from Krypton in Brainiac’s ship, the city of Kandor. Further proving the “Six Degrees of Jor-El” rule in Superman comics, the Chief Scientist on Kandor, Professor Kimda, turns out to have been Jor-El’s college roommate. While Brainiac is in suspended animation for the long trip back to his homeworld, Superman uses Kimda’s observed knowledge of Brainiac’s technology to restore all the Earth cities, and is about to use the last charge of the machinery to restore Kandor, before Kimda triggers the button himself via rocket, using the last charge to restore Superman to full-size, leaving Kandor shrunk. The Bottle City of Kandor would become a fixture in Superman comics for the next three decades, with Superman occasionally shrinking himself and his friends down to microscopic size for a taste of old Krypton hospitality.
Later Brainiac stories revised the character as a living humanoid computer created by the computerized tyrants of the planet Colu, and also added some electrodes to his bald green cranium, as well as a lovely pair of fuchsia-colored short shorts. (When you’re traveling around the universe stealing cities, you want to be comfortable…)
Brainiac stayed much the same until 1983, occasionally attacking Earth and sometimes teaming up with Luthor to put a hurting on Superman, when he received a much-needed makeover in the same issue of ACTION COMICS that revitalized Luthor. Brainiac was recreated as a much less human-looking (and –acting) and far more intimidating robot-type.
One of the cooler features of the new Brainiac (designed by Ed Hannigan) was his new ship, which looked like a much larger version of his newly designed, creepy-looking head. This version of Brainiac, just like the ’83 Luthor, wasn’t given much time to shine before the Byrne revamp replaced it, and not for the better.
The Brainiac revision was even less inspired than the Luthor, converting him to a chubby circus mentalist who makes contact with, and is later possessed by, the “Brainiac” entity from Colu. Over time, Brainiac would be revised and revised again until he more closely resembled the robot-like “human computer” of old.
Another of the original Jerry Siegel Superman villains was that pesky magical sprite from another dimension, Mr. Mxyzptlk. (A word about the spelling: originally, it was Mxyztplk. A typo in a later appearance changed it to Mxyzptlk, and that spelling wound up being used for all the appearances to follow. Later, when DC had created its parallel Earths for its Justice League and Justice Society concepts, it was decided that the Golden Age Superman of Earth-2 contended with Mxyztplk, while the modern Superman of Earth-One had to deal with Mxyzptlk. To my knowledge, there was never a Mxyzptlk/Mxyztplk team-up; truly a typesetter’s nightmare…) Mxyztplk made his first appearance in 1944, in “The Mysterious Mr. Mxyztplk!”, written by Siegel and drawn by John Sikela.
In the story, a mischievous little runt in a bowler hat and bow tie pops up all over Metropolis causing trouble: bringing statues to life, driving ambulances up buildings, building freeways across lakes, and so on. Eventually Mxyztplk comes clean, confessing that he’s a court jester from another dimension, who discovers two magic words, one which would teleport him to Earth, and one which, when spoken aloud, would return Mxyztplk to his home dimension for at least 90 days. Here, Superman, as he would time and time again over the next four decades, tricks Mxy into saying the magic word: “Klptzyxm,” his own name spelled backwards.
Never truly malicious, Mxyzptlk is still seen from time to time in Superman comics to this day, although the game has been changed slightly: each time Mxy appears, he can set new rules that Superman has to follow if he wants to send him home.
The last of the great Superman villains is that misshapen duplicate of Superman, Bizarro. The first Bizarro appearance came in 1958 in the pages of SUPERBOY #68, in which a local Smallville inventor creates a duplicator ray, which doesn’t quite work so well – everything it duplicates is flawed and imperfect. When the ray is accidentally trained on Superboy, it explodes and creates the first Bizarro, a chalk-white, jagged-featured doofus with an extremely low I.Q., and all the powers of Superboy.
Bizarro goes on a well-meaning rampage around Smallville before Superboy reasons out that just as pieces of Krypton are deadly to him, so would pieces of the machine that created him be deadly to Bizarro. “It’s quite logical!” asserts Superboy. Uh, if you say so, man. Superboy has no compunctions about killing Bizarro since he’s “not a living creature.” Looks pretty alive to me, but that was curtains for Bizarro.
At least for a year or so. In 1959, Bizarro returned in “The Battle for Bizarro” in ACTION COMICS #254. And this time, he was here to stay. In the story, Luthor has been doing his homework and discovers the account of the original Bizarro incident in the Smallville newspapers. He steals the plans for the duplicator ray and sets right to work building a new one. A disguised Luthor lures Superman to his lab and fires the duplicator ray, re-creating Bizarro. It doesn’t quite work out as Luthor had planned, as the self-hating Bizarro looks in the mirror and turns on Luthor for re-creating him.
Before Superman can destroy him again, Bizarro, who possess hazy versions of all of Superman’s memories, runs into Lois and is smitten, and devotes himself to her, or as only Bizarro could put it, “Me show my love for her…build her beautiful palace here! La De Da!”
Naturally, of course, Lois spurns him, and soon he’s kidnapped her and is fighting off Superman again, until Lois has an inspired idea, and turns the duplicator ray on herself, creating a Bizarro-Lois, and the two Bizarros immediately fall in love at first sight, and leave Earth to live together on a distant planet.
Later appearances revealed that, Bizarro and Bizarro-Lois had gotten lonely on their new world, and had turned the duplicator on themselves, creating countless duplicates to populate their new planet, which Superman helpfully reshaped into a cube so it would be backwards and imperfect, just the way they liked it.
(The original Bizarro and Bizarro Lois would helpfully wear medallions around their necks with “Bizarro No. 1” on it so that everyone would know they were the original.) Here’s where the fun really starts.
The Bizarros were extremely popular in the 50s and 60s, and appeared quite often in the Superman books, eventually even getting their own feature in ADVENTURE COMICS, written by Superman creator Jerry Siegel and drawn by John Forte, Wayne Boring and Curt Swan. Life on the Bizarro World (occasionally called “Htrae,” but usually just Bizarro World) was never boring, thanks to the Bizarro Code:
Even Bizarro himself wasn’t exempt from the code – when all the duplicate Bizarros realize he broke the code by giving them perfect duplicates of Superman’s uniform, he’s swiftly banished from the Bizarro World. Bizarro creates a Bizarro-Luthor to figure out how to atone for his crime, and naturally, the Bizarro-Luthor (who only wants to do good) figures out that all he needs to do is create new uniforms for everyone with the “S-shield” printed backwards. Bizarro thanks Luthor with the traditional Bizarro salute: a pie in the face.
The Bizarros give out Valentines on New Year’s Day, use alarm clocks to tell them when to go to bed (usually accompanied with a cutting remark from Bizarro-Lois: “Ha, Ha! Stupid Earth people use it to wake up!”), and eat “cold dogs” at the movies, where they watch the negative. You get the idea.
The best thing about the Bizarro stories was watching as all of Superman’s friends and foes get duplicated and join the Bizarro World .For example, when Bizarro’s son Bizarro Jr. is messing around with the duplicator ray at his “Fourtriss uv Bizarro” (the opposite of Superman’s fortress, it was in the desert and contained a lot of worthless junk), he accidentally hits the coincidentally passing-by Mr. Mxyzptlk, creating, you guessed it, Bizarro-Kltpzxym, who, being a Bizarro, only uses his magical powers to be helpful, and starts prettying up and tidying the Bizarro World, much to Bizarro’s horror.
As if that wasn’t weird enough, check this out: when Bizarro-Krypto’s feelings are hurt by all the Halloween pranks played on him by his master Bizarro No.1, he goes looking for a new master, and winds up with Bizarro Luthor. After Bizarro Krypto helpfully stops Bizarro Luthor from breaking the Bizarro Code, a grateful Bizarro Luthor pats the dog on the head, and is swiftly hauled off by the SPKA (Society for the Prevention of Kindness to Animals) for not being cruel enough.
Krypto returns to his original master, and receives the traditional Bizarro welcome. This is heady stuff.
Sadly, Bizarro hasn’t gotten much play since the Byrne revamp. He was created and destroyed in the same issue in Byrne’s MAN OF STEEL miniseries, and another version was created and destroyed about eight years later. More recently, in a Superman storyline entitled EMPEROR JOKER, Bizarro was recreated when a bored Mr. Mxyzptlk granted a portion of his powers to the Joker, just to see what would happen, and we’ll just say things were a little … different for a while and leave it at that. Although the world was restored to normal, Mxyzptlk saved some of Joker’s creations from being undone, and as a result, there was for a time once more a Bizarro roaming the DC Universe. I figure it’s just a matter of time before we get the Bizarro World back.
In looking over the Superman comics from a historical standpoint, it’s clear that, either by design or just through a sort of cultural osmosis, a large part of the character’s continued viability came though his ability to adapt to each decade. In the 1930s, Superman was very much a defender of the common man, busying himself with halting the executions of the wrongly convicted, putting away (and roughing up) abusive husbands, and ending the schemes of munitions manufacturers who manipulate world events for their own profits.
By the 1940s, Superman had gone from vigilante outsider to all-American hero, fighting saboteurs and going on Army training maneuvers inside his comics, while marching alongside our boys in uniform (or giving Hitler and Hirohito a good thrashing) on the covers.
Superman never got involved in the fighting overseas in the actual stories, for the simple reason that a man as powerful as Superman could probably have ended the war in a single day. As for Clark Kent, he reported for the draft and would happily have served, but was declared 4F (unfit for service) when he accidentally read the eye chart in the next room with his X-ray vision during the medical exam.
In the 1950s, as a post-war America settled into a life of domesticity, so too did Superman get more paternal. Aside from having a home of his own now in the Fortress of Solitude, suddenly Superman had a family to provide for with the introduction of his young cousin Supergirl, and his pet Krypto the Super-Dog. Even Superman’s appearance changed: where Joe Shuster’s Superman of the 30s and 40s was a tough, squinty-eyed little fireplug, in the 1950s, artists Curt Swan, Al Plastino and Wayne Boring were portraying a Superman who was taller, more broad-shouldered, and sometimes even seemed to have a bit of a middle-aged spread.
The space race of the 1960s set off a craze for science-fiction in the popular culture, and Superman was no exception. Superman was fighting a lot more monsters from outer space all of a sudden, as well as visiting other planets with some regularity. In addition, time travel became a steady feature in the Superman books, between what seemed like frequent visits to the past of Krypton, and Superboy’s membership in the Legion of Super-Heroes, a team of teenage super-types from the 30th century. Even Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen wasn’t immune, suffering from one bizarre sci-fi transformation after the other – everything from ape-man to elastic man to giant turtle.
In the political hotbed of the ‘70s, efforts were underway to make Superman more relevant and realistic. A new storyline by Denny O’Neil drastically depowered Superman, while eliminating the writer’s crutch of Kryptonite, which had seemed to be available at every corner store in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
(Both of these decisions didn’t last, and before long Superman was juggling comets again, and once more constantly bedeviled by Kryptonite.) The same storyline also shook up the status quo with the purchase of the Daily Planet by Morgan Edge’s Galaxy Communications, and Clark Kent’s new occupation as news anchor for WGBS.
Other efforts to be modern weren’t quite so successful, such as Lois Lane’s attempt to understand the Black experience in “I Am Curious (Black)!”, or Superman’s trip to a Woodstock-like rock festival in “The Pied Piper of Steel!”
The biggest change to Superman in decades came in the 1980s, as the series as a whole was “rebooted” by writer/artist John Byrne in the wake of DC’s universe-changing CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS miniseries.
Feeling that readers were bored by the perfect, unbeatable Superman, his powers were downgraded dramatically. Sure, he was still invulnerable and super-strong, but he wasn’t as fast as the speed of light anymore, he couldn’t fly from planet to planet in the vacuum of space, and his strength definitely had limits. In the pages of his 1986 MAN OF STEEL miniseries, Byrne made a lot of other changes too, some that would go against decades of Superman stories.
It was decided that Jonathan and Martha Kent weren’t dead, and they became steady supporting characters. It was also decided that Superman would now be truly the Last Son of Krypton, so all other Kryptonian characters were wiped from existence. Supergirl? Never happened. Krypto the Super-Dog? Forget it. In addition, it was decided that Clark Kent had never operated as a youngster as Superboy, a decision that even Byrne himself now concedes was a mistake, not only because there’s a certain charm to the notion of young Clark learning to use his powers, but also because of the way it tore the heart out of the long-running and popular LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES series, which depended on the existence and membership of Superboy. The LEGION series has lingered since ’85, but never really recovered, with far too many issues devoted to trying to figure out how there was a LEGION without Superboy. And as discussed in these pages earlier, the two worst decisions to come from the Byrne reboot (and ironically the two decisions that were not, as I understand, solely Byrne creations) were the removal of Superman from Justice League history and the conversion of super-genius criminal Lex Luthor into little more than a Kingpin knockoff. Despite the grumblings of classic Superman fans, the Byrne reboot did its job, and Superman sales saw a distinct improvement. However, it’s always been my contention that just putting top-flight talent like Byrne, Marv Wolfman and Jerry Ordway on the books would have accomplished the same thing without having to rewrite so much of the Superman mythology.
When it comes to Superman, the 1990s are best remembered for one thing: killing him off. 1993’s “The Death of Superman” storyline was a great success both creatively and commercially (SUPERMAN #75, which featured the character’s demise, sold an astonishing six million copies.) The single flaw in the storyline was the death itself of Superman, who dies at the hands of Doomsday, a mysterious unstoppable behemoth who literally pounds the life out of Superman.
The only problem was Superman had always been more than just a muscleman. He should easily have found another way to slow down or stop Doomsday, instead of just punching him, and then punching him some more, and then, hey, how about punching him? Ultimately, though, it didn’t really matter. The real story wasn’t Superman dying; it was how the world reacted to Superman’s death. The eight issues following the death issue, entitled “Funeral for a Friend,” were devoted to Metropolis, the heroes of the DC Universe, and finally all the world mourning the loss of Superman, in an admittedly daring length of issues devoted to characterization and mood. Even though the whole story to a degree felt like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn listening to their own funeral (because everybody knew that Superman would eventually be back), the mourning stories managed to capture some genuine emotion, especially in the portrayals of Clark’s parents and Lois Lane, who had only recently accepted Clark’s proposal of marriage and been made privy to his double identity.
Although the storyline was originally conceived as a way to kill time until the then-current TV series LOIS AND CLARK was ready to marry off the characters (DC intended to marry them at the same time in the comics), it evolved into one of the best long-term story arcs ever conceived for mainstream comics, as well as proving a much-needed point about the nature of the Superman character: In an era when Stallone- and Schwarzenegger-type anti-heroes were the popular cinema idols, DC proved the necessity for what comics fans had been derisively referring as “the big Boy Scout,” by replacing said Boy Scout with four new Supermen: Superboy, Steel, the Eradicator and the Cyborg.
By exploring all things that Superman was not (a hip teenage punk, an armored “regular guy,” a Rambo-style vigilante, or a decidedly Terminatoresque cyborg), DC fostered an appreciation for the true Superman character, and in the process created some popular new characters who would go on to have long-running series of their own.
After Superman’s resurrection, Clark and Lois finally tied the knot, and the Superman comics settled into a comfortable rut in the years following, until DC upset the applecart last year with their rebooting of their universe with the “New 52.”
Next week, in the concluding (I think) chapter of our Superman discussion, we take a look at what I think the three best Superman stories are, suggest some recommended reading, and take a tour through Kal-El’s extensive filmography.
“Threequels” are a notoriously tricky business. There aren’t many film series where the third installment really comes back so strong that it regains that excitement you felt back when you first saw the original. Shane Black’s IRON MAN 3 comes as close as you can expect. Is it as mind-blowing, as revelatory as the first? No, but I don’t know how it could. But IRON MAN 3 is immensely satisfying, an exceedingly worthy follow-up to Jon Favreau’s original (and much better than IRON MAN 2, which I liked better than most people, but have to admit suffered in comparison) and a fitting closing to Marvel Studios’ IRON MAN series, if indeed this is to be the final solo IM film.
Taking place some time after the events of THE AVENGERS, we see Tony Stark struggling with the repercussions of the alien invasion of New York, and channeling his anxiety and near-madness into his work, creating new armored suit after armored suit. Meanwhile, Jim Rhodes’ War Machine has been re-branded into the more image-friendly star-spangled “Iron Patriot,” and has been tasked with tracking down a mysterious terrorist calling himself “The Mandarin,” responsible for a number of terror attacks on American soil. Meanwhile, Pepper Potts, now running Stark Industries, is re-introduced to Aldrich Killian, an old acquaintance who’s now shopping around a “miracle cure” called Extremis. In other words, there’s a lot going on in this movie.
It’s no surprise that the heart of this film is Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark. For the majority of the film, it’s mostly an action film starring Tony Stark, not Iron Man, and Downey’s Stark is so engaging that you don’t really miss the armored suit. Much credit has to go to Black’s screenplay, as Stark is funnier than ever here, even while we see him at his lowest point, often paralyzed by crippling anxiety attacks and longing for the safety of his armored shell.
But everyone else is good here, from returning folks like Gwyneth Paltrow and Jon Favreau to new antagonists Guy Pearce and Ben Kingsley. Kingsley’s Mandarin in particular is excellent, with some surprising choices that make perfect sense in the world of the Marvel Studios Cinematic Universe.
Don Cheadle is much better as Rhodey this time around, especially in the scenes when he’s out of the armor and shown for the competent military man that he is, and the sequence with Stark and Rhodey on the run and packing pistols has the feel of a kickass ’80s buddy picture.
Black was wise to make this feel like a successor to THE AVENGERS too, if not a direct sequel. By referencing the world-changing events of that film so directly, it actually brings a greater depth to both this film and even AVENGERS retroactively. It’s also refreshing that this film, unlike the last two, doesn’t concern itself primarily with guys in armored suits pounding on each other. A new kind of antagonist was definitely needed for Iron Man here, and it’s executed very well.
As the kickoff to the second batch of Marvel Studios films leading up to AVENGERS 2, as a worthy successor to the original and in its own right, IRON MAN 3 succeeds on all counts. Marvel continues to set the bar for how to do these films right: make a decent long-term plan, trust in your source material, hire very good people and get out of the way. Warner Brothers should be taking notes.
Make sure to stick around not only for the closing credits, which have the zip and panache of your favorite 1970s TV action shows, but for the traditional Marvel Studios post-credit button, which, while it isn’t as specifically universe-building as the previous ones, is worth the wait nonetheless.
By D. Jason Cooper
In Crisis on Infinite Earths, they called Kal-L, the Superman of Earth 2, ‘the legend from which all others come.’ It may not be a fact but it covers much of the truth. Superman was not the first costumed or at least distinctively attired crime fighter: the Clock, the Lone Ranger, and others preceded him. He was not even the first with super powers: the Shadow and Mandrake the Magician both came first.
But if Superman didn’t create superheroes he did put an indelible tattoo on them. He made superheroes a self-aware genre. Let’s be honest, superheroes would not have superpowers if Siegel and Shuster had named him Hyperman. But Superman became the template for superheroes to come. He has changed over the years but he is still Superman.
When the stories began, Superman was an angry man. He worked in the slums where they put the Jews and blacks by employment ads that used the word ‘restricted’ to mean ‘not those kinds of people.’ Superman threw slumlords and wife beaters off the tops of buildings. Back then he couldn’t fly so basically he threw people to their deaths. And one of the things that made Superman so different was the world he worked in. It was this world, the world we know, and everybody could see him doing it. Superman was new and he got noticed. He sold well and suddenly other people wanted a piece of the action.
The first imitator came eleven months after Superman appeared. His name was Wonder Man. The man responsible for Wonder Man was Victor Fox. He allegedly said he wanted another Superman. So he got a man in red leotards with yellow trunks who could smash through walls, catch bullets in his hands, leap tall buildings, and outrun a train.
The artwork was notably better than Superman’s. And in one of the great moments of comic book history, the guy who did the art for Wonder Man also did the incredible thing of telling the truth about his boss in court during the great depression. So Victor Fox lost the case and Will Eisner lost $3000 that Fox owed him and refused to pay because of Eisner’s truthful testimony. Fox would later publish the Moth and get sued by DC again because that character was too close to Batman. Fox lost that case, too.
Note that the court ruled Wonder Man was an imitation based on super powers being identical, similar expressions describing those powers, and the tights. However, Superman was an alien who came to Earth as a baby, from a race that was much more evolved than us. As yet red sun versus yellow sun and Krypton’s heavy gravity weren’t invented yet. By contrast, Wonder Man gained his powers when he was given a magic ring by a Tibetan yogi. So at the start the origin was not essential to being Superman. Fox asked for a Superman and the court said that’s what he got.
In February, 1940, MLJ, which would later be called Archie Comics after its most famous and lucrative character, created a Superman imitator called Steel Sterling. He was John Sterling, whose father was killed by criminals. John decided one man alone needed an edge to fight back against crime. So he took his clothes off, covered himself with a chemical he’d invented, and jumped into a boiling cauldron of steel. This hot tub party for one didn’t kill him, it infused the metal in his body without changing his appearance at all and he became the Man of Steel. That was the nickname they used. When Steel Sterling stopped being published, DC took that title and used it for Superman. So the Man of Tomorrow became the Man of Steel.
Steel Sterling wore a red and blue costume, with red shirt and leggings and blue trunks and boots. No cape and he had short sleeves. He had powers that were similar to but not exactly the same as Superman’s: he had strength, durability, and super speed, but, being infused with steel, he also had limited magnetic powers and could magnetise himself to a plane and fly, and he could listen in on telephone conversations because of the metal in his teeth and tongue. This would be a pattern to the present day: Superman’s powers or main powers plus one or two more as if that changed everything.
Steel Sterling would stop criminals, anarchists trying to blow up a hospital, giant robots, and a would-be dictator of a south American nation. He’s still around, or rather, a descendant of him is. He’s one of the New Crusaders in the Archie Comics subsidiary, Red Circle.
Then, in 1941, Superman changed and Steel Sterling got left behind enough that he was no longer an imitation of the current Superman. The Fleisher Studio cartoons came out. It’s usually thought they couldn’t animate Superman jumping all the time so they made him fly. But while Superman flies in the some the stories like Japoteurs or The Mad Scientist, in others, like Bulleteers and Billion Dollar Limited, he clearly cannot fly. Where he does consistently fly is in the credits, which were so dominant they seem to have been what people remembered.
From then on, super strength, speed, and durability would not be enough to label someone a Superman imitator. For example, a guy in a cape with super strength, speed, and durability would seem an obvious imitator, but Hourman hasn’t been seen that way. He first appeared in March 1940 and seems to have been too late to be identified with Superman. In fact, I can find mention of him as an imitator only in Don Markstein’s Toonopedia.
Hourman didn’t fly. With the cartoons it became clear Superman was supposed to fly. As things turned out the biggest interloper flew.
Everyone knows about the lawsuit DC lodged against Captain Marvel. The Captain was published by Fawcett, a company that also produced books and magazines. Since comic books were doing well, they jumped into that market. Captain Marvel came out in February 1940 and in March they published the first story of Master Man. We remember the Captain, we’ve pretty well forgotten Master Man.
Master Man should not be confused with the Marvel or Quality villains of the same name. He was a hero who lasted six issues. He had super strength, durability, and could run faster than a car. In short, he had the same powers as Hourman. He wore a blue shirt with a large collar, red, tight-fitting pants, red shoes or boots, and a belt with a large, solid buckle decorated with an ‘M’. Master Man did not wear a mask, but he was blond.
In many ways, including that ridiculous collar, having blond rather than dark hair, and the specific powers he had, Master Man is almost more an imitator of Wonder Man than Superman. But it was close enough. DC sued and Fawcett caved in. Given the World War to come, blond Master Man was maybe a good case to lose.
Then there was (and still is) Captain Marvel. Everyone knows that Captain Marvel outsold Superman during the forties. It is sometimes said DC sued because Captain Marvel was a threat because his sales were so high. Master Man did not have brilliant sales and DC still went after him. It’s possible that DC just felt they had a case.
But though DC sued over Captain Marvel, they lost on a copyright technicality and won on appeal. A new hearing was ordered but before it started the bottom dropped out of the market so badly that Captain Marvel, who once sold millions of copies of various publications a month, ceased to be popular enough to be worth defending. World War II was over and there ceased to be millions of soldiers who needed some escapist literature.
Captain Marvel is Billy Batson, a reporter just like Clark Kent, but in radio. He is an orphan, like Superman. When he says his magic word, he becomes a superpowered adult. He also gains super powers including strength, speed, durability, and flight. He wears a red costume with a yellow lightning bolt symbol, sash, boots, and wrist braces. He has a yellow and white cape.
In fact, the circulation director at Fawcett told people he wanted a Superman but with an alter ego who was 10 or 12. He was smarter than Fox, because he didn’t hire Will Eisner with those instructions.
Captain Marvel was advertised as the world’s mightiest mortal. Mad magazine would take that and face Superduperman against Captain Marbles. In that satire, Captain Marbles was much more powerful than Superduperman. That has been the standard in comics ever after.
DC picked up rights to the imitator, but Marvel trademarked the name ‘Captain Marvel’ in the interregnum. In the end it doesn’t matter that much. Captain Marvel was always written in a whimsical style, almost a fairy tale. Ever since that ceased to be popular no one has been able to work out what to do with him. The wish fulfilment of turning instantly from child to adult doesn’t loom so large when you’re exposed to an adult world almost from birth.
So Captain Marvel has become a shadow of his former self. But, in his day he did do at least one thing that Superman soon imitated. Billy Batson the orphan had a long lost sister named Mary. He shared his power with her and she became Mary Marvel. She wears a costume like his but with a skirt and bare legs instead of leggings. He also got a teenaged version of himself in Captain Marvel Jr, whose adopted status was signified by the fact he doesn’t say, “Shazam,” he says, “Captain Marvel.”
One side effect was that no more Captain Marvel comics could be reprinted in Britain. So Captain Marvel there was converted in Marvelman. Instead of saying, “Shazam” he says, “Kimota,” which is atomic backwards. Anagrams of Captain Marvel Jr and Mary Marvel were also created, though Mary Marvel’s parallel is a boy.
There is one other imitator who combines elements of Superman and Captain Marvel, in fact more the latter than the former. I suspect DC made no complaint because they never heard of him.
He wears a red leotard with yellow belt, wristbands, and anklets, and black or red shoes. He also has a gold helmet with a capital A on it. He has no cape. He is the original Captain Atom and he was published in Australia, which then was a very long way away from New York.
He has the usual flight, speed, strength, and durability that mark Superman imitators. He also has Superman’s super breath. He generates heat, not from his eyes but from his body. He looses bolts of atomic energy from his hands, and he can listen in on radio transmissions.
An atomic blast fused him and his brother, a scientist named Dr Rador. Oddly enough, Captain Atom’s own name was never revealed. Dr Rador could trade places with his brother by saying “Exenor.” Since his brother now had the super powers, that was convenient. It’s kind of like Captain Marvel, but it’s also kind of like Firestorm who hadn’t been invented, yet.
Captain Atom was first published in 1948. Australia had banned imported comics to protect its own economy which was kind of devastated by the war. With a national population of less than ten million, Captain Atom sold about 200,000 copies an issue. When imports were allowed again, he still outsold Superman. He has recently been revived in Australia and I wish them luck.
There were lots of other imitators who were plainly imitators, admitted it, and were immune from lawsuit due to the Constitution of the United States. They were satires, comedies, and that is protected by freedom of speech. So the funny animals, the parodies, do not count and I will not count them here – as if anybody could gather up all that material.
When the superhero collapse came Superman didn’t have so many interlopers for two reasons. First, the comic book world had evolved and enlarged. American Comics brought out a superhero with just one power, that hero was the Flash. The ‘one power’ idea caught on. With only one power, the charge of imitation would not stick. They also changed the character enough to make them look less like an imitator. For example, different backgrounds were used: if Namor had lived and worked on land, he might be called an imitator. But a far stronger reason was that comics had a downturn and there would not be a successful new character until either 1955 and Martian Manhunter or 1956 and the Flash (the point is debated).
In 1993 came perhaps the best interloper imitation of Superman. That is Icon. He came from another planet, he has the Kryptonian powers plus energy blasts and shapeshifting. When he comes to Earth, Icon imitates the first person he sees. That person is a black in the ninteenth century slave-holding south and Icon receives the butt end of race relations from then until now, which oddly enough echoes early Superman’s angry days in the slums. He is good enough that DC adopted him and then made insufficient use of him. He is certainly better than Earth 23′s Barack Obama version of Superman.
But of all the interlopers, one company produced more imitators of Superman than any other. They started in 1940 and have never stopped and it’s hard to imagine they ever will. In fact their closest imitation was brought out in 1944 and was the last character successfully introduced in the Golden Age. We’ll get to them next.
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