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Welcome to another edition of “Back Issues”, the weekly column where each week I examine a character, concept or theme making waves in comics today through issues from the past. Sometimes the column’s informative, sometimes I hope it’s weighty, and other times I just want to point out how downright bonkers comic book storytelling has been over the decades.
This particular column is going to be the latter.
Superman is the gold standard when it comes to super heroes. He was, after all, the first one. The original creation that coined the term and caused a sensation upon his debut in Action Comics #1 in 1938. He’s been in continual publication ever since, often in multiple titles, and always under the restrictions and social morays of the time. As a result, Superman has done some sincerely insane things in various stories over the years. So, sit back, relax and enjoy a look at just a few of the issues where storytellers pushed the limits of plausibility, structure, good taste, and occasionally sanity.
Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #30 (1958): The Silver Age was a crazy time, especially over at DC Comics. Dr. Frederic Wrexham’s book “Seduction of the Innocent,” with its poor research and ludicrous claims that comics caused juvenile delinquency, had instigated a witch hunt within comics that resulted in aggressive self-censorship in the industry. As a result, super heroes began to fight sinister thugs and murderers a lot less, and found themselves encountering aliens, time travel and ludicrous schemes a lot more.
Superman was one of the worst (and best) examples of this. His myriad of powers and abilities meant that he was better suited to outlandish stories than Batman, and a lot of these Silver Age oddities are in fact charming and imaginative. But when writers have to put out 4 or 5 Superman stories a month and they aren’t beholden to, you know, reality? Occasionally you’ll also get something like Jimmy Olsen #30.
It opens with Jimmy sad that he’s an orphan. Then Superman informs him that he has legally adopted Jimmy. Let’s leave aside the fact that it’s very odd to adopt someone old enough to have a full-time profession and move right on to the fact that I’m not sure you can “surprise adopt” someone. Pretty sure someone whose only name on the form is Superman, and whose occupation is listed as “Man of Steel” would have a hard time secretly adopting what appears to be a 30 year-old man. But then things get really weird as Superman begins to treat Jimmy like, well, a red-headed step-child. He lays down odd rules and then blames Jimmy for breaking them. He takes him to the Fortress of Solitude, then when Jimmy asks to use a cool machine, Supes yells at him and the bars him from ever returning to the Fortress.
The saddest moment comes when Jimmy buys Super-Dad a robe for Father’s Day. A robe with the S-Shield on it (I personally think Jimmy sewed that patch on himself), at which point Supes deliberately destroys it in front of Jimmy. Jimmy goes to the Judge and asks the court to cancel the adoption. It’s then that Superman reveals he was deliberately cruel to Jimmy because one of Superman’s computers had predicted that he “would destroy his own son.” Leaving aside the fact that the childless Superman tried to avoid this fate by turning his best friend into a son and then manipulated him into rendering…Superman childless again…because….I give up, there’s no way to make this make sense. Anyway, turns out the computer meant “Sun,” not “son,” so Superman instead destroys a collapsing star that had been named after him. Presumably this eradicated all life on dozens of nearby planets, based on Superman’s behaviour this issue.
Superman #125 (1958): One of this issue’s stories is “Superman’s New Power!” which is genuinely crazy and legitimately disturbing. Superman encounters an alien space ship which explodes as he explores it. He then discovers that, aside from the power of flight and invulnerability, the rest of his powers have been replaced by the ability to shoot rainbow beams of light from his fingers that cause opponents to surrender immediately. That would be odd enough except it’s also revealed that he can shoot, from his fingers, a miniature duplicate of himself that actually possesses all of the powers he had lost in the explosion.
So, that’s weird, right? It’s a crazy, bonkers, bananas power to have. And watching a creepy Superman doll fly out of a grown man’s fingers sounds like a deleted dream sequence from “Eraserhead.” But it’s not that weird for a Silver Age tale. But the effect on Superman is definitely bizarre, because he starts to become jealous of all the attention mini-Supes receives. And that, of course makes him feel pretty guilty once mini-Supes dies saving Superman from a chunk of Kryptonite. That’s right, they created a miniature version of Superman, then murdered him, and had Superman live with the consequences.
World’s Finest #181 (1968): I got this issue from a quarter bin when I was kid, and even then I knew it was gonzo. Superman receives another maddeningly cryptic prediction from his computer that in the next 24 hours he and Batman will be subdued by an implacable enemy, and therefore Superman needs to leave Earth. He leaves a note for Batman (A note? That’s it?) and hightails it to another planet. Batman puts on a disguise and decides to sneak out of town….in the Batmobile. Way to keep it on the down-low, Bruce. He then uses his time machine (yes, Batman apparently has a time machine, don’t think about it, we’ve got so much more crazy-ass stuff to cover) to escape into the past.
Then some weird space-guy with a space-dog on a space-leash teleports into the Batcave (!) and Fortress of Solitude (!) and keeps hopping around until he finds Superman, then takes him with him to 1896 to find the still disguised Batman (Why is he still in disguise? Because this story is insane.) who takes off his face mask to reveal….he’s in his Batman costume! Wait, what?! Somehow he was wearing a human face-mask over his goddamn cowl?
Superman and Batman then are whisked to the weird space-guy’s planet Orr, to their capital city Azib. Then they discover they have been brought there not for sinister purpose, but because Batman and Superman are the founders of the race of people on Orr. How exactly these two guys spawned an entire race is evidently not important, but it probably does involve justifying some slash fic out there.
Turns out that Orr is in fact a future version of Bizarro World, which somehow turned from a cube planet into an oval one while the people evolved from whatever the eff Bizarro is supposed to be into super-advanced telepaths, at which point they exchanged Bizarro World with Orr, allowing Orr to exist in the present-day. All of which proves writer Cary Bates had to be on a lot of drugs in the 1960s. Batman and Superman escape the situation in the time-honoured Silver Age method of acting like complete dicks to everyone so that the people of Orr simply want to get rid of them.
Action Comics #593 (1987): “Yeah,” I hear you all saying, “but that’s the Silver Age, Jeremy. Once we hit the Bronze and Copper Age, a lot of that stuff went away, right? It got grim and gritty!” You bet it did. For instance, do you remember the time Superman was hypnotized into almost shooting a porno movie with Mister Miracle’s wife Big Barda? No? Well, that happened. John Byrne wrote and drew it, and now you all have to know it exists. You’re welcome.
Our story opens with Mister Miracle, aka Scott Free, arriving home to his wife Barda, but he doesn’t find her there. Instead, he’s greeted by mortal enemy Darkseid. But Darkseid isn’t there for battle, rather he’s there to inform Scott that Barda is in danger. He presents Scott with a videotape, and while we don’t see what’s on it, it is strongly implied that it’s a tape of Barda in a Metropolis sewer, doing what made Kim Kardashian and Ray J famous. Darkseid tells Scott that his agents acquired the tape in a Metropolis, well let’s just say sex shop. Which means that Darkseid for some reason has people scouring the universe for porn. This happened, people. It. Happened.
So, Scott goes looking for Barda, who has fallen under the mind control powers of one of Darkseid’s lackeys known as Sleez. But, Sleez has also put Superman under his sway, and with two of the most powerful people on the planet under his control, Sleez decides to make them…film a porno. It’s just as awkward and distasteful as it sounds. Luckily Mister Miracle busts things up before anything really happens (at least I hope so), but pretty much everything about this issue vacillates between repugnant and ludicrous.
Superman #701-714 – “Grounded” Arc (2010-2011): J. Michael Straczynski has a wildly extreme reputation in comics. For every great story he writes there are some that are basically a bunch of nonsense. Superman – Grounded is most definitely a bunch of nonsense.
It opens with Superman returning from a period in space spent saving people, as he does. At a press conference, he’s confronted by a woman who slaps him in the face and harangues him for being off in space while her husband died of a brain tumour that Superman could have easily zapped out of him with his heat vision or some such nonsense (because Superman is a brain surgeon, I guess?). I’ve been reading Superman since I was seven, and I never thought his purpose was to perform medical procedures. Anyone reading comics knows that Superman can’t solve every problem. He should feel bad for this woman’s loss, absolutely, but in no way should it make him question his life and his choices because Superman should have made his peace with this kind of thing a looooooooooong time ago. The dude does what he can, and while he can wish he was able to do more, he’s got to have made his peace about it by now, right?
Well, not in this story. Because Superman then makes the batpoop crazy decision to walk across the country in order to connect with America. And presumably ensure dozens of people die or otherwise suffer because he’s about to spend a ridiculous amount of time walking around when he could have been saving people.
In Philadelphia he burns down a single drug operation and then walks away, leaving it to burn while he tells an observant kid who points out that the dealers will just set up elsewhere, “They won’t be HERE anymore. And that’s a step in the right direction. See, in the end, all we can do is look at where we ARE, at where we’re standing, and say we will not allow this HERE. Over there has to stand for itself, has to SPEAK for itself. Because it’s only when OVER THERE becomes HERE that we can stop this once and for all.”
……uh, What? I can’t make heads or tails of what the hell Superman is talking about, but I’m pretty sure it’s a bunch of damn nonsense. The big problem with “Grounded,” aside from a concept that sees a Superman troubled by his lack of effectiveness and involvement try to solve that issue by doing the least effective and most self-involved thing I can think of, is that he spends tons of time bloviating exactly this kind of insane, inane claptrap dressed up as meaningful messages.
While all the insane the Silver Age stuff doesn’t work because logic and structure is totally ignored in favour of stream of consciousness fancy, bad Modern Age stuff tends to sink because of writers who come up with what they think is deep and meaningful commentary or themes. But having Superman tackle “Real” issues is probably the most difficult needle to thread because Superman is, in fact, pretty much God. If you make the story a question about why he doesn’t tackle real world problems, then you have to come up with an answer that doesn’t seem like pretentious, overbearing condescending bunk. And you can’t. It’s better to keep him fighting a giant robot or Lex Luthor. Allegory works far better than actual “real issues,” when it comes to characters that can do pretty much anything.
Straczynski couldn’t solve this problem either, and he left after issue #704, except this arc went on for TEN. MORE. ISSUES. Ugh.
There are tons more utter banana-pants crazy Superman stories out there. Like the time Lois Lane went into a machine to turn herself black for a day. Or the Saga of the Super-Sons, which detailed the groovy adventures of Clark Kent Jr and Bruce Wayne Jr. Or the time Superman was split into two versions, one a neon blue energy powered Superman, one a neon red energy powered Superman, but both terrible.
All of the creators I’ve talked about here have classic comic book stories to their names. John Byrne, Cary Bates, Otto Binder, these are Superman royalty, so don’t think I’m suggesting they didn’t know what they were doing. But no one bats a thousand, so I hope these pieces gave you a chuckle or two, and I hope you do read one or more of them. None of them are boring!
And if you want to cleanse your palate with a bonkers Silver Age-inspired Superman story that is one of the finest Man of Steel adventures ever made, I’d suggest picking up “All-Star Superman” by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, which is sublime perfection.
Till next time: Up, Up, and Away!