With this issue of Superman, the story arc begun eight months earlier in the iconic #233 (“Kryptonite Nevermore!”) came to a close — and the revamp of the Man of Steel inaugurated in that issue by writer Denny O’Neil and editor Julius Schwartz was at last complete. But before we dive into issue #242’s “The Ultimate Battle!”, written by O’Neil and illustrated by his usual artistic collaborators, Curt Swan (penciller) and Murphy Anderson (inker), we’ll need to back up one month to take a look at issue #241’s “The Shape of Fear!”, by the same creative team — which not only leads right into #242’s concluding chapter of the “Sand-Superman saga”, but also follows directly from the previous chapter in issue #240 — which, of course, also happens to be the last issue we posted about on this blog.
As you may recall, that installment had ended with a moment of great personal triumph for Superman, who, though his powers had been thoroughly leeched from him by his mysterious sandy duplicate, had yet managed to save both himself and I-Ching (the mentor of Diana Prince, as seen regularly in Wonder Woman) from a vicious attack by the Anti-Superman Gang. But as we’ll soon see, the note of optimism with which that chapter ended is about to turn decidedly sour…
As he had done in the previous issue, I-Ching places our hero into a mystical trance, which culminates in the latter’s immaterial essence — his psyche, or soul — rising from his body…
Once his body and soul are reunited, Superman awakes, and then…
In space, the Last Son of Krypton first tests his strength by pulverizing a meteoroid, and then his speed by flying at ten times the speed of light. At least in regards to those abilities, it seems that he’s been fully restored, and is as powerful as ever.
Hmm, seems like Supes has gotten a little carried away with his excitement over getting his powers back. Or is something else going on here?
Next, Big Blue flies to a U. S. Army artillery range, and asks the captain in charge to have his men shoot at him:
I wasn’t a Wonder Woman reader in 1971, but as I recall, I was still pleasantly surprised to see Diana Prince turn up as a surprise guest star in this story. Prior to this, the only time I’d seen the “new” WW in action had been a brief sequence in Justice League of America #71, back in 1969.
New York? Didn’t the previous issue establish that I-Ching’s apartment is located in Metropolis? Well, yeah, but over in Wonder Woman, Diana’s home base is New York, so you’d naturally assume Ching is based there as well. Maybe he keeps a place in both cities, for some reason?
On his way to rendezvous with Ching at the Empire State Building, Superman performs another uncharacteristic stunt when he plucks a speeding car up off the street and deposits it, driver and all, on the famous skyscraper’s observation deck. But, eventually, he and Ching do have their talk:
There’s some ambiguity in O’Neil’s script as regards just when Superman’s brain injury begins to affect his thinking and behavior. Is he already under its influence when he tells I-Ching he’s through being Superman, and wants to abandon his responsibilities, all the way back on pages 1 and 2? I happen to think so, but the story as written also allows for an interpretation where Superman is still “himself” when he expresses those sentiments, and his mental problems don’t emerge until a few pages later. In the end, it’s each reader’s choice.
Feeling responsible for Superman’s condition — and fearing that he will only get worse, making him a danger to everyone else on Earth — Ching returns to his apartment. As Diana looks on, he casts a magic spell:
Central Park? Wasn’t the Sand-Superman in Metropolis Park when he had the fateful encounter with Superman’s spirit, back on pages 4 and 5? Why, yes, he was.
Rather than continue to raise these questions all through the rest of this post, let me just stipulate here that there seems to be massive confusion throughout both Superman #241 and #242 as to whether any given scene is taking place in New York or Metropolis. My personal theory is that Denny O’Neil was leaning hard into the notion of “Metropolis is a fictionalized version of NYC”, to the extent that he forgot that in the DC Universe they actually are two different places — though it’s also possible he really did mean to have the action move back and forth between the two cities, and just got confused along the way. Anyway, I’ve determined that the story makes the most sense to me if I just ignore the New York references and assume that the whole thing takes place in Metropolis; your own headcanon may vary, of course.
Based on everything we readers have learned in the last eight months, the revelation of the Sand-Superman’s origins as a discarnate entity from another dimension makes sense — and, indeed, might be one of the few explanations that would.
I-Ching’s plan calls for the trio break into Morgan Edge’s penthouse, so that Diana can call Clark Kent and arrange for Superman to meet them there, at which time the Sand-Superman will try to surprise him and drain his powers. Why do they need to use Edge’s place to stage this ruse, when Ching’s apartment would do as well? Or, really, anyplace else that’s got a phone? Probably just so that O’Neil, Swan, and Anderson can give us this single, enigmatic panel:
The plotline of the “mystery man” in Morgan Edge’s apartment would play out in the “Superman family” of titles (especially in Lois Lane) over the next year, and would ultimately incorporate some of Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” characters and concepts (though whether Kirby himself was involved with its development is unknown). In the context of the current storyline, this plot element really has no good reason for being here; I can only surmise that Schwartz directed O’Neil to work it in somehow, and this scene was the best the writer could come up with in the time available.
Sandy can’t actually grab and hold Supes — as he explains to I-Ching and Diana, because of the psychic bond the two beings share, “it would be doom for either one to touch the other!” But even their brief moment of proximity has transferred some of Superman’s powers to the Quarrmer — and he now flies off in pursuit of the Metropolis Marvel, hoping to continue the process.
Superman, for his part, intends to elude his double by flying into some cloud banks — but before he can execute that plan, he becomes distracted by some commotion in the streets down below…
Before heading on into Superman #242, I feel the need to take a moment to express a certain amount of discomfort with the story’s depiction of an “oriental war-demon”. For all I know, it’s an accurate representation of a traditional figure from Asian folklore — but even if it is, it’s visually similar enough to the racist caricatures of Asian people found in the comics of decades past to make me wish our storytellers had gone with a less humanoid demon or creature for the second Quarrmer to inhabit. A dragon, maybe?
With that said… on to the grand finale:
Whatever sympathy we might be inclined to feel for the economically disadvantaged Stewpot and Gemmi (where in the world did O’Neil come up with those names?) is quickly extinguished by their treatment of the near-helpless Superman, whom they brutally beat back into unconsciousness before turning their attention to the war-demon:
I have the impression that editor Schwartz may have caught the ongoing confusion regarding the story’s locale by the time Superman #242 was in the latter stages of production, resulting in the very awkward plot device of having Metropolis’ Jimmy Olsen accidentally stumble upon Superman in a dump in New York, while he’s in the city for a reason wholly unrelated to the main storyline.
Jimmy immediately calls for an ambulance, and Superman is rushed to the nearest hospital — where, while the staff is treating him for his injuries received in the beating, the earlier damage to his brain is also discovered. But there’s good news here, as Supes’ doctor tells Jimmy that since the Man of Steel has lost his invulnerability, they can operate, and hopefully correct the problem…
Yeah, these guys are the salt of the earth, aren’t they? In obedience to his new “friends”, the war-demon/Quarrmer smashes his way into the museum and commences to destroy everything in sight. But then…
At the hospital, a team of “the best surgeons in the nation” operate on Superman’s brain, while Jimmy, Diana, and Ching keep vigil in the waiting room. Finally, a doctor emerges to tell them that the operation is over, and barring further complications, Superman should recover.
Unfortunately, if Stewpot and Gemmi have their way, the Man of Tomorrow won’t get the chance…
I’d assume the war-demon does more here than simply drop the two men to the ground, as it seems pretty clear that we’re supposed to figure they’re not getting up again. Can’t say I’ll miss ’em, frankly.
Within the hospital, something is happening to Superman — his pulse has gone way up, and when a nurse tries to give him an injection, the needle breaks. Could it be that our hero’s powers are returning? And if they are, will it be in time? Because even without the guidance of his former associates, the war-demon is intent on attacking Superman. We see the creature break in through the wall of the waiting room, with only Ching, Diana, and Jimmy to stand in his way…
In the next panel, the war-demon knocks Diana to the floor — and out of the story. We won’t see her again, meaning that her only real contributions here have been calling Superman on the phone and then momentarily distracting him with a kiss. All in all, it’s been a pretty disappointing excuse for a guest appearance by one of DC’s premier characters; and it’s not helped much by the interior musings of Ching (who doesn’t attempt to fight the demon himself) that “The Quarrm creature will be defeated — by one greater than Diana!” OK, so Wonder Woman is a second-rater now. Got it.
The demon smashes on through a wall to enter Superman’s room, and then…
The immediate crises occasioned by the rampage of the war-demon, as well by as our hero’s brain injury, have both been successfully dealt with now — but we’ve obviously still got plenty of story left to tell. After all, the essential conflict at the heart of the entire story arc has yet to be resolved…
Superman isn’t sure that Sandy is right about his own feelings… but he’s not completely sure he’s wrong, either. Just about then, I-Ching turns up, and tells the two rivals that he has the power to cancel out the destructive opposing energies between them, allowing them to fight a duel to see who’ll be the one, true Superman:
Just so you know — we have exactly one page left to wrap this whole thing up. How’s that going to work?
Back in June, 1971, I was somewhat disappointed that the duel depicted so dramatically on Neal Adams’ cover for Superman #242 only lasted a couple of pages (four, if you include the apocalyptic aftermath), and was a “vision”, to boot. Fifty years later, I’m no longer that concerned about being cheated out of a big battle sequence — but I’m still inclined to think that the climax and denouement of O’Neil’s story are both way too rushed. After nine issues of mystery and suspense — and of sporadic conflict (interspersed with occasional alliance) between the Action Ace and his uncanny doppelgänger — the Sand Superman’s farewell and exit are simply too perfunctory to be satisfying. And surely Superman’s decision to forego I-Ching’s attempt to restore him to full power demands more consideration than he’s seen to give it on the tale’s last page. Isn’t there an ethical question here — the same one, really, that’s posed on the first couple of pages of issue #241 — regarding whether Superman has a responsibility to those he serves to be as powerful as possible? Perhaps our hero is correct in his assessment that with greater power comes greater potential for catastrophe when he, a fallible being, inevitably makes mistakes. But that’s an argument that should have been made on the comics page, rather than assumed as a given.
On the other hand, I’d be lying if I tried to tell you that these aspects of the saga’s conclusion ruined the whole story arc for me when I first read these comics a half-century ago. Notwithstanding my disappointment in how the Big Fight Scene was handled, or reservations about hurried the ending seemed overall, I was actually pretty well satisfied both with the solution to the mystery of the Sand Superman’s existence, and with how the conflict between him and our hero was ultimately resolved (I had never believed Sandy was really a bad guy, deep down). And the new status quo for Superman’s powers, ill-defined as it was, suited me just fine.
All in all, I was looking forward to seeing what happened next.
I’ll be closing with some comments about “what happened next”, and how my younger self responded to it, back in the day — but before I go there, here’s a few brief notes about this issue’s reprints.
Superman #242 was actually the second issue of the series released in DC’s new 25-cent “bigger & better” format. For #241, editor Julius Schwartz had gone with a couple of old Superman stories from 1957 and 1965, just as one might expect; for #242, however, he opted to mix things up just a little.
Leading off the issue’s oldies was another vintage yarn of the Man of Steel, this one from Superman #96 (March, 1955):
This Wayne Boring-drawn 10-pager — scripted by Bill Finger, according to the standard references, though he’s uncredited here — is predicated on a clever premise that the splash page doesn’t divulge; namely, that little Alice Norton is blind, and can’t see Superman perform his super-feats. How, then, can our hero convince her that he’s for real? Unfortunately, the story gives up on this intriguing puzzle a little more than halfway through, as Supes accidentally discovers via his X-ray vision that Alice’s blindness is caused by “a sliver of glass lodged behind the optic nerve” — a condition that can be alleviated through surgery. By the tale’s end, not only has the Metropolis Marvel cured the little girl’s blindness, but he’s also reunited her splintered family and resolved their financial problems. So how do you like him now, Alice? Hah?
Yeah, it’s all a little much. But, hey, at least it’s a Superman story — which isn’t something you can say about the item Schwartz selected to fill this book’s final six pages:
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Schwartz yielded to the temptation to pull from his own editorial archives to round out the issue — but while this Otto Binder-Carmine Infantino-Bernard Sachs yarn from a 1955 issue of the science-fiction anthology Strange Adventures has its quirky charms, in the context of a 1971 Superman comic it pretty much epitomizes the definition of “filler”. In any event, it didn’t strengthen the case for DC’s “bigger & better” format change — not for this reader, anyway.
OK, so back to “what happened next”…
As I’ve written on this blog in the past, the very first comic book I remember buying for myself, way back in 1965, was an issue of Superman. But as much as I liked Big Blue as a kid, I was only an intermittent purchaser of his titular series for the first five years of my comic-book habit; indeed, by November, 1970, it had been well over two years since I’d picked up an issue. In other words, I was a prime target for the revamp that Schwartz, O’Neil, and “Swanderson” launched that month, under the banner of “The Amazing New Adventures of Superman”. And if their intention was to grab me and keep me coming back every month, they succeeded admirably; with the mysterious exception of issue #237 (and, OK, #239, but since that was a giant-sized reprint collection, it doesn’t count), I didn’t miss a single issue all the way up through the primary subject of today’s post, #242 — an issue which, tellingly, featured a freshly revised version of the above-logo banner: “The Amazing Adventures of…”. Whether or not it was intentional, the change served as a signifier that, at least as far as DC’s branding went, the “New” era was already over and done with even before the conclusion of the “Sand-Superman” arc.
I don’t recall whether I even noticed that particular cue that the times were again a-changin’, but I might as well have, as #242 was the last consecutive issue of Superman that I’d buy for a while. My next Superman was #249 (Mar., 1972), featuring the debut of a brand-new villain, Terra-Man. (Trust me, that debut seemed like a big deal at the time; Neal Adams even inked the back-up story telling the guy’s origin!) After that, I sampled an issue here and there, up through #259 (Dec., 1972); and then, I pretty much stopped dead, at least for the next decade. In fact, I didn’t purchase another Superman comic until the release of the giant-sized, commemorative issue #400, in 1984. Not even the Christopher Reeve movies of the late ’70s-early ’80s could get me to take another look at DC’s flagship title.
So what happened?
It’s tempting to attribute my disaffection to the fact that most of the changes instituted by Schwartz and O’Neil over the course of Superman’s “New Adventures” ultimately didn’t take. Yeah, Clark Kent’s TV newsman gig continued for quite a while, and I don’t think that Clark ever went back to a wardrobe of nothing but dark blue suits. But the single most dramatic aspect of the Schwartz-O’Neil revamp — the elimination of green kryptonite — didn’t last, and neither did the single most important change, at least for storytelling purposes — the downsizing of our hero’s overall power level.
This was perhaps inevitable, as it seems that the editors of the other “Superman family” titles (e.g., Murray Boltinoff on Action Comics) never really bought into the power-reduction idea in the first place. Nevertheless, it’s striking how quickly Julius Schwartz — on whose watch the idea was conceived and implemented, after all, — capitulated on this point. Just three months after Superman #242, DC published World’s Finest #208, Neal Adams’ cover for which appears to show Superman hauling the entire Earth through space, pretty much by himself; while the events of the Len Wein-scripted story within are actually a bit more complicated than that, Denny O’Neil probably wasn’t wrong in 2006 when he opined to Michael Eury (in an interview for The Krypton Companion) that that cover “was Julie’s signal to the reader that ‘the experiment’s over.'” And indeed, it wouldn’t be all that long before Supes was moving planets again for real, in the stories as well as on the covers — or at least coming close enough that you’d be forgiven for thinking the Sand-Superman saga had never happened.
Still, those were regressions that took a while to become evident. What was it that changed immediately following Superman #242 that motivated me to break my newly acquired habit of buying the series regularly? Surely it wasn’t just the dropping of the word “New” from the cover banner.
One obvious change that happened right away was the departure of Denny O’Neil; while he’d turn out a few more individual stories for the title over the next year, #242 marked his last as Superman‘s regular writer.* But even though O’Neil was almost certainly my favorite writer at DC at this time, his presence on a title wasn’t quite enough to make me buy it, nor was his absence enough to convince me to give it up. Along a similar line, as much as I appreciated the art of “Swanderson”, I wasn’t going to buy a book just on the basis of their working on it. (If I had been so inclined, I’d have been buying Action for the last year as well as Superman, and such was not the case.) And so the fact that they continued on as the Superman art team wasn’t a major factor in my decision-making, any more than O’Neil’s departure was.
A half century down the road, I’m inclined to think that the main reason I didn’t come back for Superman #243 is that DC didn’t give me a compelling, story-oriented reason to do so. I wasn’t all that interested in learning more about “The Starry-Eyed Siren of Space”, frankly; and with the exception of the Edge apartment’s “mystery man” (who only showed up one more time in Superman, anyway) there were no ongoing subplots that I was invested in keeping up with. As for the “Fabulous World of Krypton” backup feature (which returned in #243 after an absence of several months), with no regular creative team it was an unknown quantity, and thus didn’t sway me one way or the other. Ultimately, then — and especially in the context of the new, higher price of 25 cents (10 cents of which was going to pay for reprinted material, at least the way I saw it) — making the decision to leave this one on the racks wasn’t all that hard.
But what about “looking forward to what happened next”, as I put it earlier in the post? Well, I was curious, but I also figured my curiosity would keep until I had another good reason to buy Superman — which (for me) did eventually come along with the debut of Terra-Man, as previously mentioned. In the meantime, I kept my hand in on Super-doings via Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane — two series which, unlike Superman and Action, were (at that time) placing a significant emphasis on issue-to-issue continuity; or, to put it another way, on developing and maintaining a sense of serial storytelling, as opposed to just tossing out a Superman story that was basically interchangeable with any other such story published within the same several-month timeframe.
All of which is, I suppose, my roundabout way of letting you know that, as this blog goes on its merry way in the months to come, you can expect to continue to see quite a bit of the Bronze Age Superman — but little, if any, of the Bronze Age Superman. (That’s assuming there’s not a sudden, huge outpouring of reader demand for the first appearance of Terra-Man — or of Billy Anders and his pet lynx. If either of those happen, however, all bets are off.)
*Evidently, O’Neil was more than ready to move on by the time he left. “…I was just having a hellish time doing Superman,” the writer said in 2006. “After about a year, I asked off the assignment. I don’t know how I had guts enough to do that, because I had mouths to feed and no other source of income, but I did it.”