“Please –-” begs a kneeling Man of Steel on the cover of Superman #238, “You’re the only one on Earth who can help –”
“No!” replies the figure standing before him with arms impassively folded. “I am not human! I care nothing for you and your world!” The figure is Superman’s doppelgänger in every respect — save that it appears to be made completely out of yellow sand.
If all that you knew about early-’70s Superman comics was what you’d previously read on this blog, you’d still be able to tell that quite a bit had happened since the last issue I wrote about, back in November. In that heralded first installment of “The Amazing New Adventures of Superman”, a scientific experiment gone haywire resulted in an explosion that temporarily knocked our hero down and out, but then was revealed to have had the welcome, and apparently permanent, effect of turning all kryptonite on Earth into iron. The first indication that something rather less welcome had also resulted from the blast came thirteen pages into the story, when Superman experienced a moment of weakness as he flew over the spot in Death Valley where he’d fallen during the explosion. Two pages later, a figure slowly rose from the desert sands of that very spot, and while this “thing” had a marked resemblance to the Man of Tomorrow, it didn’t yet have a face — so you could hardly expect it to speak, as we now see it doing on Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson’s dramatic cover for issue #238 (which, incidentally, is the first Superman cover since #230 to be neither pencilled nor inked by Neal Adams. Now you know.)
So, yeah, a lot happened in the last four issues. Let’s see if we can get you caught up, shall we?
In Superman #234’s “How to Tame a Wild Volcano!” — produced by the title’s new regular creative team of writer Denny O’Neil, penciller Curt Swan, inker Murphy Anderson,. and editor Julius Schwartz (as indeed will be all the other Superman stories covered in this post), the Metropolis Marvel finds himself stymied by a crisis that can’t readily be resolved by the use of his formidable powers. The Boki volcano, located on a remote Pacific island, is about to destructively erupt; Superman wants to evacuate the island’s inhabitants, but is forbidden from doing so by Boysie Harker, a businessman who claims to own the island. Not only does Harker accuse our hero of trespassing, but he also refuses to let the islanders flee on their own, saying they’re bound by contract to remain and work on his plantation, come hell or high lava. Meanwhile, elsewhere…
Inexplicably stymied in his first attempt to resolve the crisis, Superman ultimately hits on the alternate solution of diverting a heavy storm to deluge Boki with rain — this won’t quell the volcano completely, but will delay the final eruption for at least a while. He’s successful, but while he’s still within the storm cloud, high above the volcano’s crater…
Blacking out, the Man of Steel falls to earth — though he recovers in time for Clark Kent to broadcast a live report for WGBS-TV on the crisis’ ultimate happy ending: Superman’s actions have allowed time for representatives from the United Nations to arrive and take charge of the situation, evacuating the islanders and arresting Harker. But even as he delivers this good news on camera, Clark inwardly worries: “There’s something loose on Earth! That thing I saw in the sky… I have no idea what it is… except that it’s dangerous — menacing — and that I may be powerless to stop it!”
Next up, Superman #235 sets the Action Ace against the closest thing we’ll see to a traditional supervillain in this run of issues. In “Sinister Scream of the Devil’s Harp”, a man named Ferlin Nyxly uses the power of the instrument of the story’s title to transfer the special abilities of others to himself. Beginning by stealing the talent of a great concert pianist, Nyxly will eventually go on to siphon off Superman’s powers one by one, using them to carry out crimes in the guise of the Greek god Pan.
Before all that happens, however, Superman has another encounter with the mysterious sand-thing when he responds to a report of an unidentified flying object out over the sea:
At precisely this moment, Ferlin Nyxly wishes for the power of flight while plucking the strings of the Devil’s Harp — and Superman and the sand-thing both immediately lose that ability.
Nyxly-Pan eventually takes Superman’s strength, invulnerability, sped, and strength. Only by working together with his similarly-affected “sinister double” is our hero finally able to defeat his foe:
With the harp destroyed, Nyxly collapses, and the powers of both Superman and the sand-thing are restored. “I guess we’ll never know what this thing was!” says Superman, referring to the ruined harp…
The final caption of Superman #235 promises that the next issue’s “Planet of the Angels” will be “a different kind of Superman adventure.” One thing that does indeed make it different from its recent predecessors (as well as those stories that immediately follow), is that it doesn’t carry the “Sand Superman” plotline forward at all. For that reason, I’m not going to recap it here, interesting as the story is in other ways. (If you’d like to read a review of Superman #236 from a modern perspective, however, I heartily recommend Commander Benson’s effort, which you can find here. Or Top Notch Tosh’s, over here. Heck, why not read ’em both?)
“Sandy” returns in issue #237’s “Enemy of Earth”. — though your humble blogger was unaware of this development back in March, 1971, as I somehow managed to miss the book on the stands all the while it was on sale. Still, that’s no good reason to deprive you of a decent recap, faithful reader, and so…
After rescuing the pilot of an “experimental rocket plane” that almost crashes after returning from outer space, Superman discovers that the pilot has contracted some strange malady that makes him green and lumpy (just like the folks on Neal Adams’ cover). Once the unconscious victim has been safely deposited in a hospital, Superman returns to WGBS to report on the incident as Clark Kent. While on air, Clark suddenly feels a little dizzy; scanning the vicinity with his X-ray vision, he finds an old “friend” waiting for him on the building’s roof. Swiftly terminating his newscast, Clark changes back into his super-duds, and then…
Unfortunately, when Superman tries to apologize to the newsroom workers he’s just crashed in on, he finds they’ve all become as green, lumpy, and unconscious as the presently-hospitalized rocket-plane pilot. To his horror, Supes realizes that the mysterious disease from space is highly contagious, and he’s a carrier. Then, to make matters even worse, a distress call comes into the newsroom from none other than Lois Lane, who’s on assignment in South America; her place is going down over a valley being menaced by a horde of army ants. “That girl just can’t lead a normal life!” grouses Superman before flying off to the scene — although he’s not sure how he can possibly rescue her in his present plague-carrying state.
And, of course, there’s still that other problem…
By the time that Superman arrives at the valley in Central America (yes, I know I said South America before, but Denny O’Neil apparently changed his mind between pages 8 and 9), Lois’ situation has become even more dire, as both she and her plane’s pilot, though thankfully unharmed by the crash, have been taken hostage by bandits.
Not wanting to risk infecting any of the human players in this little drama (not even the bandits), our hero decides to deal with the army ants — only to discover that when he touches them, they grow to enormous size. So it’s giant army ants now. (Just two of them, actually, but still.) Weirdly, however, although punching one giant ant with his left fist makes it grow even bigger, his right fist doesn’t have the same effect on the other one. Hmmm…
Still, there seems to be no option left to Superman at this point other than to exile himself to the dark reaches of space, for the sake of all life on Earth — even though doing so means he can’t save Lois. Ironically, even as our hero acts on this wrenching choice, the doctor who’s been treating the pilot and other victims of the space virus has discovered that those infected can be readily cured by an injection of liquid Freon. “Come back Superman,” the doc implores via a worldwide broadcast, “there’s nothing to worry about!”
But the Last Son of Krypton is already out in deep space, and can’t see or hear the doctor’s message — though he’s maddeningly still able, through his telescopic vision, to see the imperiled Lois, as she’s about to be overwhelmed and devoured by army ants…
The unconscious Superman falls back to Earth very near to Lois — though. fortunately, not quite so near that he inadvertently causes her death himself via the fiery impact of his arrival. But he regains his senses almost immediately, and thus is able to whisk Lois and the airplane pilot out of the path of the army ants. He then rounds up and subdues the bandits. All seems well, except…
And that brings us at last to Superman #238, and “Menace at 1000 Degrees!”:
Superman quickly takes out the first pirate vessel by putting a hole in its hull; but before he can deal with the second…
The final panel on page 3 is highly effective in helping to communicate Superman’s struggle to cope with his reduced powers — after all, none of us have any more experience jumping a distance of several dozen miles than we do actually flying; but many of us can relate to swimming in deep water, and having to make an effort to keep our head above the surface.
A short time later, Superman is talking with the captain of the Coast Guard ship when the latter receives an urgent radiogram:
Magma as a fuel source? Yes, that’s a thing, although the idea expressed here that we could just drill down and tap the stuff was probably overly optimistic in 1971; in 2021, it’s still a highly experimental technology.
Superman doesn’t feel as confident as the captain, but he’s heartened when he arrives at the Project Magma site, and discovers the occupiers are apparently armed only with conventional firearms. As it turns out, however, he’s wrong about that:
“There’s just one creature in the universe I can call on!” Really? Did you lose your JLA signal device somewhere, Clark? Is Cousin Kara currently off-planet? (I know, I know… you’d think I’d be used to these sorts of genre-convention shenanigans after 56 years of reading comic books…)
In Superman #235, the sand-creature helped Superman against a common foe, when it was in his self-interest to do so. In #237, he again assisted Superman, though involuntarily. Based on those precedents — and also, perhaps, on the creature’s “I am you!” proclamation from the end of the last issue — the Man of Steel now hopes that he can appeal to his double’s sense of altruism, only to be bluntly disabused of the notion that the latter being shares his values, as well as his form and his powers: “I am my own creature!”
Of course, since I hadn’t yet read Superman #237 back in April, 1971, the echoes within this scene of the last confrontation between the two Super-beings was lost on me at the time. As was the apparent coloring error that caused the sand-creature to visually regress to an earlier state between issues, at least so far as his pigmentation goes.
When Jimmy Olsen wonders aloud what Quig’s blasting the drill hole would in fact mean, Morgan Edge is blunt: “At best, titanic earthquakes! At worst, an explosion so far down it could split the Earth in half!”
Lois’ response to all this is to ask, “When do I leave, boss?” Because, of course, she intends to accompany the hostages. “This will be the news story of the year — maybe of the century… and I’m the gal who’ll get it — first-hand!”
Early the next morning, Lois and the forty-nine other brave souls who’ve volunteered to be hostages arrive at the Project Magma site — as do 10 million dollars’ worth of solid gold bars, and a hydrogen bomb…
It’s hard not to feel at least a little exasperated with Ms. Lane in this scene. If she wasn’t prepared to follow through on her bluff, why grab the gun in the first place? And even if she’s unwilling to put a slug in Quig (for whatever reason), what’s her incentive to immediately give the gun back? As we’re about to see, her impulsive action has merely made matters worse:
Of course, if Lois hadn’t pulled that boneheaded move, our mysterious “stranger” wouldn’t be spurred into action quite so early — and Denny O’Neil and co. might not be able to wrap up this story within the next four pages, as indeed they must.
“She’s endangered the lives of the hostages!” is Superman’s next exasperated thought. One gets the impression that O’Neil shares some of the, shall we say, ambivalent feelings the Man of Steel demonstrates here towards his lady love, whose obvious bravery and compassion are frequently undercut in these stories by her rashness and headstrong attitude, Of course, O’Neil is the one who’s writing her to be that way, so…
The thugs’ bullets are no match for Superman even in his weakened state, and he’s able to put the magma-gun out of commission before it can be used on the hostages. Things are starting to look up…
This sequence is, I think, a great example of what O’Neil was trying to accomplish with his contributions to Superman’s much-heralded early 70s revamp. We see the hero responding valiantly to a desperate, but comprehensible (if not necessarily realistic) world-threatening crisis; but, more importantly, we also see him strain to respond in a manner sufficient to save the day — a circumstance that would obviously be much harder to devise for a hero who, as O’Neil was fond of saying, was powerful enough to blow out a sun. In such a context, any threat immense enough to make Superman work hard must almost by definition be less relatable to readers than an H-bomb exploding in a pocket of magma deep below the earth.*
Although we readers of 1971 had no idea at this point what the endgame was — that, in fact, the intention was for Superman’s powers to be permanently reduced at the conclusion of the Sand Superman saga, allowing for such scenes as this one to become our hero’s new normal — the sequence gives us a glimpse of what was meant to be, and indeed might have been.
It’s interesting to contemplate that, despite appearing on the issue’s cover — the first time he’d done so since #234 — the Sand Superman plays a considerably less active role in this story than he did in the last two installments of the arc. Indeed, he only appears on a single page, and doesn’t really do anything at all besides hang out at the Fortress of Solitude and chat.
Nevertheless, it’s quite clear that we’ve reached a crisis point in the relationship between Superman and his uncanny twin, and that something is going to have to give soon. That something will in fact begin to happen in the very next installment, which leads off the Sand Superman saga’s three-issue finale — and which we’ll be taking a look at right here on the blog, about one month from now.
Like every issue of Superman since #233 in which the lead story hadn’t filled the entire issue (thus excluding #235 and #237), #238 included a “Fabulous World of Krypton” backup tale. The first two episodes of this new feature had come off as a sort of “pre-origin” for the title’s main attraction, focusing on Supes’ birth parents Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van (though mostly on Jor-El), and including lots of references to Kryptonian lore that had been introduced in earlier comics, going back to the 1950s. Both of those stories had been written by E. Nelson Bridwell, whose nigh-encyclopedic knowledge of such lore made him an ideal choice to arrange all of the many characters and concepts which had been introduced during the era Mort Weisinger was editing the whole Superman family of books into a single, coherent history.
But with the third installment, which ran in issue #236, Bridwell was off the feature, at least for the time being. “The Doomsayer”, written by Denny O’Neil and drawn by Dick Giordano, had no real continuity with the previous episodes, both of which were supposedly drawn from Jor-El’s “mental-tape journals”. This time out, the tale was told in the present day by Superman to his fellow Justice Leaguers, Black Canary and Green Arrow, and had more the character of fable than of chronicle.
Issue #238’s “A Name Is Born”, scripted by Cary Bates and illustrated by Gray Morrow, takes a similar approach — though this time, the fable is being shared in the past between two Kryptonians, rather than on Earth in the present:
The alien explorer dressed in blue and white was, we’re told, a warrior, while the other alien was a scientist — more specifically, a “cosmo-biologist”. Since the two didn’t share a common language, the scientist tried to show they were friendly by offering a botanical specimen picked up elsewhere on their travels as a gift:
The warrior countered by firing their weapon at the biologist’s wrecked spaceship, igniting its fuel tank and blowing it to smithereens. The conflict then moved into a hand-to-hand combat phase:
Yep, it’s the old “Adam and Eve” shaggy god story — though maybe since it’s set on an alien planet instead of Earth, it’s not quite as much of a cliché? Perhaps, but I have my doubts. In any event, as a member of the earliest generation of organized science fiction fans, editor Julius Schwartz knew at least as well as young Cary Bates what a hoary and disreputable trope this already was back in 1971. But maybe he figured that most Superman readers were kids too young to have seen this bit before. Or something.
Still — that Gray Morrow art sure is pretty, isn’t it?
We’ll wrap up this post with a quick dip into the “Metropolis Mailbag”, which this time out included a lengthy missive from a student at Brandeis University who, within six short months, would see his first professional comic book story published in Green Lantern #87; his first tale of the Man of Tomorrow would follow it into print one month later, in Superman #247. Elliot S! Maggin would go on to become one of the most prolific Superman scribes of the Bronze Age of Comics; and while he’d never rank as one of your humble blogger’s favorite comics writers, I recognize that his body of work helped define Superman’s legend for well over a decade, and therefore deserves respect. (Besides which, he might very well say he was never writing for fans like me, anyway, at least not after I reached my fifteenth birthday. “It should take more than twenty well-illustrated pages to stretch the perceptions of someone that age or older”, he told interviewer Guy H. Lillian III for the second issue of The Amazing World of DC Comics, back in 1974. Huh. Well, maybe he’s modified his opinions in the last forty-seven years… or maybe not. Whatever.)
Anyway, here’s Mr. Elliot S. (no exclamation mark yet) Maggin’s letter in full, followed by E. Nelson Bridwell’s appreciative response:
*Regular readers of this blog may experience a feeling of déjà vu after perusing this sequence, as it’s quite similar to the climax of Jimmy Olsen #138, which we discussed in this space just a few days ago (and which was originally published on April 13, 1971, just two days ahead of Superman #238) — although in that instance, the action that Superman took to stave off impending cataclysm was virtually the opposite of what he does here.
Indeed, there was even a editorial note referencing the similarity between the two situations in said issue of JO, as shown at right — although if you don’t recollect that reference from your reading of the blog post, there’s nothing wrong with your memory. I was working from a digital reissue of the story when I put that piece together, and didn’t realize that the note had been excised from the edition I was using. (My thanks to Osgood Peabody at the DC Archives Message Board for calling the original panel to my attention.)
This is conjectural, but it seems likely that the note was added in DC’s New York offices after it had left the hands of writer-artist-editor Jack Kirby in California — probably by E. Nelson Bridwell, who was acting as a coordinator between the different “Superman family” titles at the time, and who seems to have been the person most invested in developing a sense of continuity across the line.
Whoever came up with the note, it’s an interesting and, for its time, unusual bit of cross-referencing/promotion in DC’s Super-books — even though, as already noted, it highlights a basic inconsistency between the two stories, raising the obvious question: when you’re in a tunnel drilled from the earth’s surface down to a level of molten magma, and you need to get rid of an nuclear explosive, is it better to toss it up or down?