Superman #240 (July, 1971)

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 by around then to check it out.

*Les Daniels, Wonder Woman: The Complete History (Chronicle Books, 2004), p. 127-28.

Green Lantern #84 (Jun.-Jul., 1971)

Although writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams had begun their tenure on Green Lantern in 1970 with a run of grounded stories featuring more-or-less realistic antagonists, as they moved into their second year they appeared more willing to incorporate the sort of colorfully code-named and costumed supervillains that had been the series’ bread-and-butter prior to their own advent.  Already in GL #82 they’d brought back Sinestro,  the renegade ex-Green Lantern; and now, two issues later, they were drafting yet another veteran foe back into active service — although you couldn’t tell that from the cover, which (like #82’s before it) gave no hint of who the story’s main bad guy actually was.  While O’Neil and Adams (and their editor, Julius Schwartz) may have decided that it was a good idea to include more old-school superhero genre elements in their storytelling, they evidently didn’t think putting a returning villain’s puss on the cover would have much if any impact on the book’s sales.  Read More

Batman #232 (June, 1971)

Panel from Detective #411. Text by Denny O’Neil (and, presumably, Julius Schwartz), art by Bob Brown and Dick Giordano.

Last month we took a look at Detective Comics #411, featuring the first appearance of Talia al Ghul, and the first mention of her father, Ra’s.  As we noted at the time, despite that story giving the appearance of being one chapter in an extended story arc dating back to the first appearance of the League of Assassins in Detective #405, with the next installment already lined up for the very next issue of Batman, #432 (per a blurb in the story’s final panel), that wasn’t writer Denny O’Neil’s original intention at all.  Rather, as he’d later tell fellow Bat-writer Mike W. Barr in an interview for Amazing Heroes #50 (July 1, 1984), Talia was created specifically “to serve the needs of that plot and that story [i.e., Detective #411’s “Into the Den of the Death-Dealers”], with no thought that she would ever appear again, or that she would have a father, or any of that stuff.”  But somewhere in between the writer’s original conception and the story’s final published form, someone — perhaps Detective and Batman editor Julius Schwartz — had another idea; and the League of Assassins story arc, rather than concluding tidily with its third installment (fourth, if you count Detective #408’s “The House That Haunted Batman!”), instead became just the prelude to what was ultimately a much more influential saga, that of Ra’s al Ghul, “the Demon’s Head”.

But whence came Ra’s al Ghul?  Read More

Superman #238 (June, 1971)

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? Read More

Jimmy Olsen #138 (June, 1971)

Behind an attention-arresting cover, which — like most others Jack Kirby produced for DC Comics around this time — was built around an imaginative photo collage (and which also, like the cover of the issue of Jimmy Olsen that had immediately preceded it, featured Neal Adams’ inks over Kirby’s pencils), the comics readers of April, 1971 — including your humble blogger — were treated to the thrilling conclusion of the first multi-part storyline (indeed, the first storyline, period) of the massive Fourth World project written, drawn, and edited by Kirby.  Read More

Detective Comics #411 (May, 1971)

As of March, 1971, my thirteen-year-old self was picking up Detective Comics on a fairly consistent basis — but it was a habit I’d acquired only recently (or perhaps I should say reacquired, as I’d been a regular reader of the title before, back in 1965-67).  For that reason, I’d missed writer Denny O’Neil’s first two “League of Assassins” stories, which had run in issues #405 and #406, respectively.  On the other hand, I had bought and read Detective #408, whose lead Batman story, though not scripted by O’Neil, had featured an attempt by the villainous Dr. Tzin-Tzin to eliminate the Darknight Detective at the League’s behest.  So it wasn’t like I was completely unfamiliar with the sinister organization prior to my purchasing issue #411.  Rather, I was intrigued by the little I knew — and though I realized I was coming in late, I was eager to catch up. Luckily, this third installment of O’Neil’s League saga didn’t depend very much on knowledge of the previous two at all — and what little I did need to know, I’d manage to pick up easily through the script’s unobtrusive exposition.    Read More

Avengers #88 (May, 1971)

In our last post, we took a look at Justice League of America #89 — a very special issue of DC Comic’s premiere super-team book, in which writer Mike Friedrich paid homage to one of his literary heroes by basing his story’s central character of “Harlequin Ellis” on the noted science fiction author and screenwriter, Harlan Ellison.

By a remarkable (but apparently entirely random) coincidence, the same month that saw the publication pf JLA #89 (March, 1971) also saw the release of a very special issue of the Marvel Comics series featuring that publisher’s nearest analogue to the Justice League, Avengers, which writer Roy Thomas had scripted from a plot outline by the real Harlan Ellison.  You really can’t make this stuff up, y’know?  Read More

Justice League of America #89 (May, 1971)

As noted in my recent post regarding Gold Key’s Star Trek, I didn’t get to see the TV series on which that comic was based until it hit my local market in syndicated re-runs, around 1970-71.  And since I started consuming licensed Trek tie-in media (what there was of it) almost immediately upon discovering the show, concurrent with my viewing the television episodes for the very first time, my initial encounters with some classic Trek stories ended up being by way of the printed page, rather than the cathode-ray tube.  That’s because the earliest licensed prose fiction based on the property, a series of paperback books written by James Blish and published by Bantam Books, were collections of short stories adapted from the TV episodes themselves.  Read More

Green Lantern #83 (Apr.-May, 1971)

A half-century after writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams’ history-making run on “Green Lantern/Green Arrow”, it’s easy to see those thirteen comics as being more of one piece than they actually were.  The run is well remembered, and rightfully so, for its consistent emphasis on social issues; but while it’s true that “relevance” was the watchword throughout the O’Neil-Adams tenure on Green Lantern, it’s worth noting that the expression of that guiding principle varied quite a bit over the two years of the project’s duration — as did the kinds of stories within which the writer-artist team couched their social commentary.  Read More

Jimmy Olsen #137 (April, 1971)

Taken together, the first six issues of Jack Kirby’s run on Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen — beginning with #133, and continuing on through #138 — comprise one long story, which, for purposes of discussion, can conveniently be broken down into three discrete parts, each two issues long.

In the first part (#133-134), Kirby hits the ground literally racing, introducing such new characters and concepts as the new Newsboy Legion, Inter-Gang, the Wild Area, the Outsiders, Habitat, the Zoomway, the Mountain of Judgment, and the Hairies — oh, and some fellow named Darkseid — without giving Jimmy, his pal the Man of Steel, or us readers, a chance to catch a breath.

Moving into the middle section (#135136), the writer-artist-editor slows things down a bit, as the headlong narrative comes to rest (at least temporarily) at the Project, a secret U.S. government initiative successfully experimenting with human cloning.  In these issues, the majority of scenes function in an expository mode — though that mode is significantly interrupted at one point by violent action, in the form of an attack from the Project’s rival operation, the Evil Factory.

Finally, in the third and final part, the pace ratchets up again, as the Evil Factory unleashes a second, more deadly assault on the Project — one which threatens virtually all of the characters and locales we’ve met in the series to date, including the entire city of Metropolis.  Read More