Saturday, January 12, 2008

Tales From The Discount Bin: Comic Book Edition

[Some of the images in here may be too small to read, but clicking on any of them will enlarge it to full screen size.]

I have a certain soft spot for silver age comic book covers, it's absurdly hilarious the different ways comic book companies tried to entice readers with wackier and wackier images. Every now and then, while working at the comic shop, I run across one that seems especially noteworthy. And, if the price is right, I'll usually pick it up(some of those books from the 70s are a bit prohibitive in cost). Superman #240 is not the silliest or most incomprehensible cover out there, but I still got a kick out of it. From both Superman's jilted, whiny dismissal of humanity to the pure anger and hatred thrown towards the man who's by this time saved Earth countless times. Of course, it's entirely possible that Superman deserves all of the hatred. I mean, what if he failed to save a busload of orphans on their way to Disneyworld from falling off a cliff because saving them would mean dropping his ice cream cone? I could see that pissing some people off.

The book opens on a building almost completely engulfed in flames. The fire crew are helpless to stop the blaze, and would let it burn itself out if not for the woman and her children trapped on the top floor. "if ever there was a job for Superman, this is it" the fire chief tells Supes. Despite the fact that his powers have been weakening lately, Superman does what he always does, and rushes in to save the family. Note the boredom evident in the crowds reaction. A building going up in flames and threatening the lives of a family? Pure excitement. It's a shame they had to call in that killjoy Superman to spoil the bonfire.

So, does Superman's failure involve letting a family burn to death because his powers have failed him? Well... no. Superman saves the woman and her two small children and flies them to safety, but that's not enough for this town. Metropolis has apparently become so used to Superman saving them from everything that they expect it now, treat it as their right to have Superman save them. Look at how the landlord reacts to Superman saving the lives of his tenants:

So there's Superman's big failure. His weakening powers meant that instead of holding the building up while the fire raged around him, the building collapsed and buried him in rubble. Thankfully he was not seriously harmed, but that's not how the citizens of Metropolis see it. 'Superman Fails!' is the headline that day, and he's become a laughingstock.

"Be careful no buildings fall on you!" has got to be the strangest way to mock someones masculinity. The guy flew into a raging inferno, saved three people, and then had a building collapse on his head. And then he walked away practically unscathed. He may not be as strong as he once was, but he's still not a guy I want to be taunting and mocking. Also, what is Superman doing? Does he normally just go for strolls through Metropolis streets in his costume?

But dimwitted construction workers are the least of Superman's worries, for the headlines touting his weakness have caught the attention of the unimaginatively named 'Anti-Superman Gang', who have decided to use this as an opportunity to test their power against Superman. In a daytime bank heist, complete with anti-aircraft guns, they shoot Superman out of the sky and are only stopped at the last moment when Superman hurls a vault door at their getaway vehicle.

Back at work, as Clark Kent, he receives an odd visitor; I-Ching, a blind Asian mystic who is normally seen in the pages of Wonder Woman. He is aware of Superman's secret identity, and of his recent problems, and offers his aid in trying to regain Supes' powers. But the anti-Superman gang is watching, and they follow Kent hoping he will lead them to the weakened Superman.

Now, I can forgive people not recognizing Superman and Clark Kent are the same person. In fact just a few years prior to this comic the official explanation was that Superman vibrated at a rate that made photographs of him in-costume unreadable. And Jeph Loeb made a convincing argument in recent history that no one would assume Superman is Clark Kent because, well, how could they see such a godlike being as just a regular guy? But come on. These guys are idiots.

Caught in the midst of I-Ching's meditative therapy, Superman must fight off the thugs with the lack of any super-strength. Now completely powerless, Superman knocks the anti-Superman gang unconscious while thinking of what his new life without super-powers will be like. And the story ends on a slightly positive note with Superman deciding to live his life to the fullest. If he can't be the best hero on the planet, well, he'll become the best human being he can be.

This is actually part of a yearlong story-arc in 1971 where DC was trying to streamline and revamp the Superman mythology. There was an explosion where Superman got hit in the chest with Kryptonite, but afterwards found all Kryptonite on earth had become harmless lead. However the explosion opened the way for the Sandman, an inter dimensional being that began sapping Superman of his strength, eventually wanting to become Superman he took on his appearance as well. The story(and this issue as well) was pretty cool, and the writing, if you can get past the silver-age obviousness of the dialogue, is pretty solid. It's a shame DC immediately ignored the Sandman character and the events of this storyline, because it's an intriguing arc that could have had a much larger impact.

On a side note, this comic came with a pretty genius bonus story in the back. 'An Untold Tale of the Planet Krypton' that has a very distinct 'Tales From The Crypt'(or Tales From the Krypton, for those of you who love bad puns) feel. In it a scientist's assistant plans to use his bosses time machine to travel back in time 1,000 years with stolen technology where he can rule the planet. He steals and murders for this technology, and almost succeeds in travelling through time. However, the technology he took along on the trip causes a power surge in the time machine that reverses his direction in time, depositing him 50 years in the future. The last panel is of him floating in space, dead, because 50 years in the future there is no Krypton.

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