With this issue of DC Comics’ flagship title, the “Sand Superman” saga that writer Denny O’Neil and penciller Curt Swan had initiated with the iconic Superman #233 (“Kryptonite Nevermore!”) moved into its climactic final phase. In the previous chapter (published in #238, incidentally, as #239 was a giant-sized reprint issue), the Man of Steel had been brought to his lowest ebb yet. While he’d ultimately managed to save the day in that episode, the victory had been a close one; with his powers still seriously depleted from multiple encounters with his mysterious sandy doppelgänger, our hero mused to himself in the story’s final panel: “I’m a pretty poor excuse for a Superman these days… and that must change! I’ll regain my former might — and soon! — or die trying!”
Despite these determined words, however, when we turn past Neal Adams’ simple but dramatic cover for #240 to the story’s opening pages, we find that the Man of Tomorrow’s status remains pretty much the same as it was, well, yesterday:
One thing that had changed since the previous issue, however, was the story’s art credits. In every installment of the storyline to date, Curt Swan’s pencils had been inked by Murphy Anderson; for this single episode, however, the honors were done by Dick Giordano. While Anderson would return for the remaining two chapters (and hang around for the next couple of years’ worth of Superman stories beyond that), it;s a little disappointing in retrospect to see the “Swanderson” team’s streak broken for even one month. On the other hand, if editor Julius Schwartz had to bring in a pinch-hitter, it’s hard to imagine a better choice than Giordano.
Page 2 finds Superman flying to the rescue (something he can just barely manage), doubting himself all the while: “The truth is… I’m not sure I can handle the situation!” Of course, he can’t share this uncertainty with the folks he’s trying to save, any more than he could with the firemen down below:
Supes completes the rescue, and all is well — or at least it is until the owner of the burning building shows up on the scene, and rudely demands that our hero show his property the same solicitude he just showed three trapped human beings: “Ya going to save it? Or are ya going to rest on your laurels?”
“I can’t refuse,” thinks Superman — although he’d clearly like to, realizing as he does that the structure has already been badly damaged by the fire, Nevertheless, he sets aside his misgivings and heads for the top floors, hoping he can hold them in place until the blaze on the lower levels has been completely extinguished.
The Anti-Superman Gang (not to be confused with the Superman Revenge Squad) were pretty much as their name advertised — a group of more-or-less ordinary crooks who, unlike other such Metropolis-based criminal organizations as Intergang and the 100, made it their singular focus to rub out the Man of Steel. First appearing in Jimmy Olsen #39 (Sept., 1959) they’d proven to be surprisingly durable in the decade-plus since their introduction — though it seems reasonable to assume that the group had a fair amount of membership turnover during that period.
Our hero’s embittered ruminations here bring us about as close as we’ve come in O’Neil’s Superman stories to the pronounced sense of alienation the Last Son of Krypton was exhibiting in other comics back in December, 1970, courtesy of writers Jack Kirby (in Forever People #1), Robert Kanigher (in Flash #203), and Mike Friedrich (in Justice League of America #87) — the main difference being that in those earlier stories, Supes’ alienation was based on his being an actual, y’know, alien; whereas here his disaffection is occasioned by his (perhaps overdue) realization that human beings can, on occasion, be absolute shits.
In the next moment, Superman hears the rumble of what sounds like cannon fire, coming from the next block over, “where some of the city’s biggest banks are located!” At first, he figures it’s no skin off his Kryptonian rump: “The smug citizens can solve their own problems!” But no sooner has that thought passed through his mind, then…
As Superman falls to earth, he has a brief, two-panel flashback to how he got into this whole powers-losing mess in the first place (the only time this issue we see the Sand Superman, incidentally). Once on the ground, however, his mind clears — just in time to hear the Anti-Superman Gang members laughing at him. “I’m down“, he thinks grimly…
The cops presently arrive to help round up the crooks and recover the stolen money. Thanking Superman for his help (hey, at least somebody still appreciates the poor guy), they also inform him that the three ringleaders of the gang managed to escape. Hmm, I wonder if we’ll see them again?
Returning to his day job as Clark Kent at Galaxy Broadcasting, our hero silently frets about how yanking loose the bank’s vault door “was a major effort — for me… who once flipped planets around like marbles!”
I-Ching (whose name DC often spelled without the hyphen) is indeed a “friend” of Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman; the blind martial arts master and mystic is also her mentor, having undertook to train the Amazon princess following the loss of her super powers back in Wonder Woman #179. A co-creation of Denny O’Neil and Mike Sekowsky, I-Ching (the derivation of whose name from the ancient Chinese text, The Book of Changes, O’Neil would later express regret for*) was a constant presence in the Wonder Woman title throughout the heroine’s de-powered “mod” phase (which lasted roughly from 1968 to 1972).
While I wasn’t reading Wonder Woman even semi-regularly during this period (I’d only ever pick up a single issue, #202, which wouldn’t come out until very near the end of the run), I still recognized I-Ching — not only from his appearances on several of the series’ covers (like that of WW #180, shown here), which i inevitably encountered on the spinner racks as well as in DC’s house ads, but also from a brief cameo that he and Diana had made at the beginning of Justice League of America #71 (May, 1969); there, the UK Avengers-like duo’s hand-to-hand fighting skills had proved no match for a maddened Martian Manhunter (no surprise there, really).
Jeez, not only is Galaxy Broadcasting run by an associate of Intergang (and servant of Darkseid), Morgan Edge, but they’ve got an informant for the Anti-Superman Gang on the payroll as well. Who’s running the Personnel Department for this place?
Several hours later, Clark Kent shows up at I-Ching’s domicile, which is located “in an urban area past its prime”. After instructing Clark to change into his Superman togs, Ching has him stretch out on a mat. As the aged mystic probes him with “psychic fingers”, Supes begins to slip into a trance.
But unknown to the pair, the three at-large leaders of the Anti-Superman Gang, acting on their GBS informant’s tip, have staked out Ching’s residence. Peering through a window, they see the recimbent Man of Steel, and decide that they’ll never have a better opportunity to take him out…
The gunman in the purple suit turns his attention away from Ching to meet Superman’s charge. He discharges his weapon, but though the bullet can’t penetrate our hero’s indestructible costume, its impact hurts like hell.
Before Purple Guy can get off a second shot, Superman manages to deck him with a desperate punch. Then…
Earlier, I wrote that Superman had seemed to be at his lowest ebb yet at the end of the previous chapter in this storyline. As this latest installment concludes, nothing has gotten better for the Man of Steel, at least so far as his diminished powers are concerned; indeed, that situation appears to have gotten worse, if anything.
But in terms of his morale — of his spirit — things seems to have dramatically improved for our hero. Having struggled against the odds to achieve a deeply meaningful, if decidedly human-scale victory, Superman appears ready to rise to meet his greatest challenge.
Still, appearances can be deceiving; and despite the optimistic note on which “To Save a Superman” concludes, matters are about to get much worse, very quickly. The penultimate chapter of the Sand Superman saga will begin in the very next moment of comic-book time, with Superman and I Ching still dealing with the aftermath of the Anti-Superman Gang’s attack — though, of course, in its original appearance, Superman #241’s “The Shape of Fear!” hit the stands a whole month after #240, in June, 1971.
And, alas, due to the overwhelming bounty of other four-color goodness that was released in that month almost half a century ago, as well as to the fact that your humble blogger is not in any way a Superman (not even a somewhat under-powered one), we’ll have to postpone our discussion of that story an additional month, until our look at Superman #242 in July. But don’t worry — we’ll do our best to take the full measure of issue #241 as well as of its follow-up at that time, as we come at last to the conclusion of this historic story arc.
Last month, in posting about Green Lantern #84, I shared Bernie Wrightson’s anecdote about how the surname of his friend and fellow artist, Michael W. Kaluta, ended up being incorporated into Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ story for that issue. At the time, I also promised a follow-up — namely, Kaluta’s own account of how his “appearance” in “Peril in Plastic!” led (sort of) to his landing the art assignment for the “Fabulous World of Krypton” story we’re about to take a look at. And hey, here we are.
But before we get to the actual anecdote, a bit of background: Kaluta had initially broken in at DC at about the same time as his pal Wrightson, scoring a couple of early assignments from Dick Giordano (then an editor on staff at DC) for the latter’s “mystery” anthologies. According to his own account, however, he didn’t cultivate relationships with any other DC editors at that time, and so, when Giordano abruptly quit his staff position to return to freelance work, young Mike Kaluta found himself left high and dry. .
Here’s what happened next, as told by Kaluta to Comic Book Artist‘s Jon B. Cooke in 1998:
Somehow I ended up back there [working for DC], probably by just hanging out in the coffee room. Every once in awhile we’d hang out in Neal Adams’ special room watching him draw…
I always had my portfolio along and at one point, Julie Schwartz came to the door and announced that he needed a good science fiction artist to do a five-page story. He asked, “Who do you know? Who’s good?” And I poked my head around the door and said, “I’m pretty good and I have some stuff.” He bellowed to me, “Who’re you?” And I said, “Mike Kaluta.” “Kaluta? I’ve heard that name before.” The reason he heard that name is due to Neal using it as a sound effect in the “Peril in Plastic” story from Green Arrow/Green Lantern — everybody in the office had been chanting, “Ka-looo-ta! Ka-looo-ta!” for weeks.
Julie looked through my stuff, said it was okay, and he gave me the Amazing World of Krypton story…
Kaluta’s early style, heavily influenced by such illustrators as Roy Krenkel and Frank Frazetta, gave this story a strong (and highly appropriate) pulp science fiction vibe. Evidently, however, the artist’s vision of Krypton originally included more detail than editor Schwartz was comfortable with. As Kaluta told Comic Book Artist in 1998, “he made me erase so much stuff. I kept putting in more than he thought the story needed. His old time Superman approach was very much aimed at younger readers — nothing and everything was left to the imagination.”
The script for the story was by Cary Bates, who’d also written the previous “World of Krypton” installment, Superman #238’s “A Name Is Born”. Like that tale, “The Man Who Cheated Time” was a one-off, not sharing any characters or narrative continuity with other stories in the series.
Worth noting here is Bates’ nod to “relevance”, in the form of the anti-military student protestors.
As Zol-Mar’s silent countdown reaches its end, he uses remote control to set off an implosive device in Thrax-Ol’s lab. As the older scientist hastens to check on the damage, our protagonist takes the opportunity to boost one of Thrax-Ol’s inventions — the Illusicon, with which “it’s possible to alter the appearance of any solid object by pure thought!”
Zol-Mar’s next stop is the home of proto-biologist Ron-Ru, who happens to be chatting with a friend on his Visi-Phone when “Mal-Va” comes to call…
I wonder if Mal-Va asked his apprentice what he had in his little blue bag (I would have, wouldn’t you?), and what Zol said if he did. “Oh, just my water bottle and a few snacks, boss. No stolen inventions that might disrupt the delicate settings of your experimental time machine, nossir, no way!”
Jeez Louise. That’s an awfully dark and twisty ending for a story in a Superman comic, if you ask me. But an unquestionably memorable one — and just the sort of thing Michael Kaluta would soon find himself drawing again for DC’s “mystery” books, this time working with editor Joe Orlando. Not long after that, Orlando would provide the young artist with what then amounted to a dream assignment, illustrating DC’s adaptation of a vintage science fantasy series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. — but, of course, that’s a topic for another post, on another day… about ten months from now. As always, I hope you’ll come back around then to check it out.
*Les Daniels, Wonder Woman: The Complete History (Chronicle Books, 2004), p. 127-28.
This is a pretty good story. I was following the Sand Superman storyline back in the day and am pretty sure my thirteen-year-old self considered this book a good investment. Oh sure, the Anti-Superman Gang was dumb, but they were always dumb, so what can you do? My biggest complaint about this one is the scene where Supes is walking down the street and people start to tease him about letting the building fall. I’m not complaining about the people jeering at Superman and seeming to turn on him; Americans demonstrate on a daily, if not hourly basis, their fickleness in support of anyone considered a hero, or even simply a celebrity, so that rings as true then as it does today. My question is why the hell is Supes walking down the street in costume?? I know his powers are glitching, but why wouldn’t he change to Clark Kent for this mundane activity? It’s a shame that O’Neill didn’t take advantage of Supes’ debilitation to beef up the Clark Kent persona a little more and make him seem more heroic while Superman himself seemed less, but DC never really cared about ol’ Clark that much, so why start now (or then)?
My other complaint is one that applies to every comic by every company EVER. And that’s the idea that, within the pages of his own book, every hero lives in his own little bubble and has to solve every problem on his own without help from the other heroes who live in the same city. Why couldn’t Superman tell the JLA about his power problem and ask a few of them to help him cover? Why wasn’t Ray Palmer helping Superman try to figure out what was wrong with his powers? Sure, comics do this some, and I understand branding and the idea that a Superman book should be about Superman, but there’s almost never the kind of nod to the network of heroes that would exist in the real world and that was always the first thing that occured to me during this type of adventure, “Why doesn’t Superman call Green Lantern to help?” “Or Martian Manhunter?” Granted MM would have been useless at that apartment building fire, but you get my point.
Anyway, enough complaining. For it’s few faults, this is an excellent issue of Superman in the middle of an excellent storyline that was almost completely ignored by the rest of the company-wide continuity, but that was a big part of DC’s problem back in the day and don’t get me started on that…
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Good point about the “Supes walks down the street” business. You gotta wish Denny O’Neil (or Julius Schwartz) had taken just a minute or two to work out even a flimsy pretext for his being on terra firma in costume. I’m tempted to check and see if anyone called ’em on it in the letters pages, back in ’71.
Now feels like an opportune time to quote rhythm and blues musician Jesse Stone:
“Fame is a fickle thing that only lasts as long as you can be out there offering yourself to the public. And as soon as you relax for five minutes, they’re gone, you know, and they’re following somebody else.”
It’s interesting to see Curt Swan inked by Dick Giordano. I don’t know if I have come across that particular collaboration before. It looked good here.
This is one of those stories that occasionally touches upon what actually makes Superman a hero: it’s not that he has all these amazing powers, but that he is a genuinely good person who wants to help others. I sometimes think that is easy to forget, so it’s nice to see these stories where Superman is depowered and he still does everything he can to give help to people who need it. Superman and the Legion of Superheroes from Action Comics #858-863 by Geoff Johns & Gary Frank is a more recent example of this.
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I’ve quoted this on the blog before, but I really like how Glen Weldon summarized Superman’s two essential character attributes in his 2013 book Superman: The Unauthorized Biography:
1. He puts the needs of others over those of himself.
2. He never gives up.
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Hi Ben – see comment further down re: Curt Swan inked by Dick Giordano.
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When Supes was walking down the street and gets heckled, it reminded me more of a Marvel comic than DC one. You would see the populace on NYC in turn on and heckle the FF and Spider-Man on a regular basis. Even in the Kree/Skrull War the people turn on the Avengers.
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I liked the Kaluta backup story. His first DC work was doing some uncredited pencil and ink assists for Berni Wrightson on Nightmaster in Showcase #83 and 84, published in early 1969, but probably drawn in 1968. Jeff Jones also worked on those. Kaluta also did uncredited backgrounds for Al Williamson’s “The Beautiful Beast” in House of Mystery #185. These, I believe, were his first pro work in comics.
I like the fact that there is a “Star Wars landspeeder” one page one of his World of Krypton story. He had devised one in a 1970 Flash Gordon story, and it did not escape George Lucas’ notice. Do you know that story?
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Chris, no, I’m not familiar with that story! Are you saying that Kaluta worked on Flash Gordon in 1970? I didn’t know that.
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I had heard that Lucas paid Kaluta $100 or a similar fee for the landspeeder, but that may be an urban legend. This website talks about it a bit:
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Wow! Regardless of the Star Wars connection, that’s a gorgeous story.
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Like Alan said, I’d never seen Giordano’s inks over Swan’s pencils. It adds a weight and substance that it wouldn’t otherwise have for me. I appreciate the longevity and consistency Swan brought to his massive volume of work. I was just never a fan of his particular style. His Superman always seemed older, softer, sluggish, and less kinetic to me, especially compared to the more dynamic covers for those issues, by Garcia-Lopez, Ross Andru, Rich Buckler, Neal Adams, almost all of them inked by Dick Giordano. Their versions of Superman oozed power. I’ve always imagined Superman looking less like George Reeves & Christopher Reeve, and more like Steve Reeves. And I get that from something like Steve Rude’s version of Superman.
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Alan, Tim and Ben have commented upon Curt Swan inked by Dick Giordano. I’d not seen this combination either. I like that headshot portrait of Supes in the first panel on the original comic’s page 7.
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I agree it’s a good combo. I still sorta wish that “Swanderson” had managed to complete the whole story arc without interruption, but, like I said in the post, if you had to bring someone in in a pinch, Giordano was a fine choice.
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Alan, this issue reinforces the point I made in response to your earlier post about the Lois Lane issue for this month. Denny O’Neil wrote the story and the dialogue (internal as well as external) and characterization for Superman (if not the other characters) with detail and thought that isn’t given in the Lois Lane book sans O’Neil. While I agree that the whole idea of the Anti Superman Gang is dumb and definitely a relic from the 1950s and 1960s era Superman, the gang actually makes a perfect foil in this story of a greatly depowered Superman (the notion of them challenging a fully powered Superman is ludicrous).
I enjoyed the addition of I-Ching. I know that you did not buy Wonder Woman comic books, but I enjoyed the I-Ching era Wonder Woman where she learned to operate without her powers (although at the time I failed to appreciate the sexist irony of changing the series from a woman that was part of a female-centric society of powerful Amazons to a woman relying on a man as a mentor). I agree with one of the commenters that having Superman walking the street to hear the public jeer at him is odd. A much better choice would be to have Clark Kent walking the streets seeing people reading the Daily Planet mocking Superman. The internal monologue would still be the same although it is more dramatic to see Superman mocked to his face.
Alan, I liked your joke about the Daily Planet personnel department not catching shady characters that they hired. To me it fits into the personnel department allowing their employees to be cloned secretly (as told in the Jimmy Olsen books).
Also, thanks for closing the circle on the Kaluta story. I didn’t really pay much attention to the backup feature then (or now) although reading it this time around, I realize that it pretty much could work in any sci-fi or “mystery” anthology series with using the name “Krypton” being the only reason to put it here.
Just to show you I can stick a dig at Gerry Conway in anywhere, I just finished reading Conway’s “Iron Man” issue for June 1971 (release date) and he has a segment in which a power depleted Iron Man tries to stop a building from collapsing and is only able to save the people, but eventually he can’t stop the building from falling down. Of course, even though the Superman issue came out the month before, Conway couldn’t have stolen the idea, but I like to think that he did. 🙂
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