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Reviews and commentary by Tony Isabella
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TONY'S ONLINE TIPS
for Tuesday, July 6, 2004

Superman 156

FANTASTIC FOUR #7 was the first Marvel comic I bought and, as I wrote in yesterday's column, I didn't like it. What comic books did I enjoy at the time? So glad you asked.

SUPERMAN #156 [October, 1962] is my favorite Superman comic of all time. It featured the issue-length "The Last Days of Superman" by Edmond Hamilton (script), Curt Swan (pencils), and George Klein (inks). Swan and Klein also teamed on the cover. Mort Weisinger was the issue's editor.

Warning! Here there be spoilers!

Superman erroneously believes he is dying from the Kryptonian "Virus X." He vows to spend his final days accomplishing a number of tasks to help and protect Earth in the future. He also takes a few moments here and there to say goodbye to his closest friends. When it appears he has become too weak to finish his planned tasks, Supergirl, the Legion of Super-Heroes, and other allies carry on in his name. If Superman has any regrets about his life, and he does have a few, mostly involving his stand-off romances with Lois and Lana, he brushes them aside to focus on what's important: using his powers to help others.

Near the end of the story, with what he believes is his final burst of strength, Superman flies to the moon to carve a message on its surface with his heat vision. He calculates that the message will come into view of Earth's telescopes after he is gone. It's a simple message, but, for me, it perfectly sums up the essence of Superman. It tells his adopted people that, if they do good, every man can be a Superman. He signs it:

Clark (Superman) Kent

If Superman had to die, that would have been one heck of a way to go. Fortunately, he wasn't really dying of "Virus X." He was being affected and progressively weakened by a chunk of kryptonite which was lodged in Jimmy Olsen's camera. Neither of the pals knew it was there. Jimmy was staying in isolation with Superman lest he infect Supergirl or Krypto with the dreaded plague.

Whenever Superman was away from Olsen, he felt stronger, hence the trip to the Moon. Once the truth was revealed, Supergirl and Krypto used their heat vision to wipe out Superman's signature on his farewell message. I guess the message itself remained in place until DC rebooted Superman in the mid-1980s.

It was nearly four decades after I'd first read "The Last Days of Superman" that I learned its basic plot had been recycled from an earlier story by William Woolfolk. That version of the tale ran in SUPERMAN #66 [September/October, 1950] with art by Al Plastino (pencils) and Stan Kaye (art). Somehow, while reading Michael L. Fleisher's THE GREAT SUPERMAN BOOK in 1978, I completely missed his description of the original:
...after Clark Kent has suffered a series of fainting spells and doctors have diagnosed his condition as Walker's disease, an incurable fatal illness, Superman decides to use what he believes are his last remaining days of life to carry out a series of gigantic super-tasks as his final legacy to mankind, including the stockpiling of vast amounts of coal and oil - and the construction of a gigantic solar-power planet - to meet mankind's energy needs in the year 2000 A.D., and the destruction of a barren planet in outer space that threatens to collide with Earth in the year 1987. Ultimately, however, having completed these tasks, Superman learns that he is not dying at all, but rather suffering from the debilitating effects of a tiny fragment of kryptonite that has become accidentally lodged in the camera of a Daily Planet cameraman, thereby weakening Clark Kent with its baleful radiations whenever he reports to work at the Planet. Indeed, once the offending kryptonite fragment has been disposed of, Kent is restored to perfect health.
Recycling old plots was fairly common during Weisinger's time as editor of the Superman titles and not uncommon elsewhere in the comics world. Fleisher reworked an old Batman story or two during the 1980s...with the knowledge of his editors. A contemporary of mine sold the same basic "horror" plot to over a half-dozen editors without their knowledge; he even reworked it into a super-hero tale on one occasion. Indeed, in the interest of full disclosure, I'll confess that I lifted some plot elements from one of my STAR TREK comics for STAR TREK: THE CASE OF THE COLONIST'S CORPSE, the recent Sam Cogley novel by Bob Ingersoll and myself.

Using the wonderful "Time Machine" feature at MIKE'S AMAZING WORLD OF DC COMICS [www.dcindexes.com], I was able to figure out what other DC comics I would have read around the same time I read FANTASTIC FOUR #7 and SUPERMAN #156.

Action Comics 293

ACTION COMICS #293 [October, 1962] was a bit unusual in that "The Secret Origin of Supergirl's Super-Horse" got the cover. The story was written by Leo Dorfman and drawn by Jim Mooney, but the cover was by the Swan/Klein team.

Comet the Super-Horse had a bizarre origin even by Weisinger's standards. He was a centaur who saved the sorceress Circe and was to be rewarded by being transformed into a normal man. He ended up being turned into a horse while retaining his human intelligence. Circe gave him super-powers in settlement of the malpractice suit she was facing. However, when a special comet passes near Earth, Comet becomes a human being. Supergirl was attracted to his human form, unaware that she often rode him when he was a horse. There's something incredibly disturbing about all this.

The lead story was "The Feud Between Superman and Clark Kent" by Hamilton and Plastino. Red kryptonite splits Superman into an arrogant and irresponsible Man of Steel and a mature, responsible Clark. The super-creep wants to make the split permanent, but he's outfoxed by his better half.

Adventure Comics 301

ADVENTURE COMICS #301 [October, 1962] featured "Lex Luthor and Clark Kent: Cell-Mates" on its cover by Swan and Sheldon Moldoff. The Grand Comics Database [www.comics.org] doesn't have an author's credit for the story, but it was definitely pencilled by Swan. I've seen the inking credited to both Klein and John Forte on different websites. All I recall of the story is that Clark was framed and that there was a lot of advanced technology in the tale in the forms of Luthor's crime-machines and various prison security gadgets. I love the cover, though.

The back-up story was "The Secret Origin of Bouncing Boy" by Jerry Siegel and John Forte. How could anyone forget this absurd story in which a) Bouncing Boy gives a pep talk to teenagers trying out for the Legion, and b) we learn we got his powers by mistaking a newly-invented industrial concoction for soda pop?

Challengers of the Unknown 28

The Grand Comics Database tells me CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN #28 [October/November, 1962] was notable for presenting the first "Challengers Mail Chute" letters page. Editor Murray Boltinoff had a unique slant on the feature. He liked short letters with short, informative answers...and he tried to list the names of darn near every reader who wrote to him. My name is all over those Boltinoff letters pages of the very late 1960s and very early 1970s. He was very encouraging re: my interest in working in the comics industry, and I regret we never got to work together...though we came close during my brief time as a DC Comics editor.

I have almost no memory of this book. Bob Brown pencilled and inked the cover and the interior stories. The GCD doesn't know who wrote either of the two stories.

"The Revolt of the Terrible FX-I" had the Challengers battling a giant robot which went berserk after being struck by lightning. Challengers creator Jack Kirby did it better five years earlier in the team's second SHOWCASE appearance.

"Riddle of the Faceless Man" had the Challengers and honorary team member June Robbins getting sucked into ancient Egypt through a time portal. I have a vague memory that this issue's cover was far from the only time DC's heroes were shown looking in amazement at such giant representations of themselves. It must have been one of those cover concepts that always sold well.

I also remember being disappointed in this issue, which I find ironic. If you asked me to name my favorite DC and Marvel teams of my youth, and, for that matter, now, they would be the Challengers and the Fantastic Four. Yet I didn't like either of their October, 1962-dated comics.

******

The nostalgia continues in tomorrow's column, but I'll try to get some more modern stuff in there, too.

Tony Isabella

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THE "TONY" SCALE

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