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.