The Crusty Curmudgeon’s Comic Classics ~ Superman: Digging for Gold in the Bronze Age, Part II

Superman: Digging for Gold in the Bronze Age, Part 2
Great Superman Artifacts of the 1970s and Early 1980s

© 2013 Paradox Productions LLC

Alright, so we examined the failings last time. Now let’s get to some of that gold.

kamandi29Outside of Superman’s more regular titles, there were a number of appearances elsewhere that served the character really well. First, there is Jack Kirby’s Kamandi #29 (cover date May 1975)—a story where Superman does not actually appear, nor is he even identified by name, but hoo boy is his presence ever felt!

If you’re unfamiliar with Kamandi, it’s set in a dystopian future where, due to the “Great Disaster,” man is virtually extinct and anthropomorphic animal creatures vie for supremacy. As this issue opens, Kamandi (the “last boy on Earth”) and his android companion Ben Boxer come across a tribe of ape-men that appear to worship the legend of Superman.

On the rocks outside the ape settlement, inscribed tablets reveal that the only reason there is any life left on Earth at all in the wake of the “Great Disaster” is due to the “Mighty One” (Superman), who “flew where lightning roared and killed. He flew in the whirlwinds where nothing could fly! Thus did ‘Mighty One’ descend to the fiery core and scoop up stones upon which mountains could rest… When ‘Mighty One’ was done, the raging fires were capped by miles of stone so huge that it became a new land for all creatures.”

And for anyone who thought all the Christian symbolism in Superman began with the movie franchises, there’s this line at the beginning of the legend:

“Let it be known that we await the return of ‘Mighty One.’”

Upon meeting this tribe of ape-men, their chief almost immediately declares Ben Boxer to be the lost “Mighty One.” An ape named Zuma then attacks Ben because he wants to seize the legacy of “Mighty One” (and its power) for himself. It’s ruled that Ben and Zuma will both face traditional tests (called the “Demonstration Course,” or “DC”—get it?) to prove who is truly “Mighty One.”

The chief proclaims, “He must demonstrate his powers against overwhelming odds!” This includes demonstrating flight by being launched in a catapult while shouting “Up, up and away!” Then the competitors have to move a giant boulder called the “Daily Planet,” and then face a barrage of machine-gun fire to prove they’re “faster than a speeding bullet.”

Boxer passes all the tests, but when the “Vault of the Super-Suit” (an ancient cavern where a spare Superman costume hangs) is opened, Zuma lunges in and tries to steal the prize. Kamandi tries to stop him and in the midst of their struggle, Zuma ends up falling into a fiery pit. After Ben admonishes him for risking his life, Kamandi responds:

“I-I couldn’t help it! I had to save the suit. I know who owns it! I know that somewhere he’s still alive!… Not even the Great Disaster could conquer ‘Him.’”

In the end the suit is left in its place, where it is agreed it will stay until the “Mighty One” appears as his “true self” to reclaim it.

This is a wonderful story with all the proper awe and affection for the first super hero—even though his true name is never uttered once.

Then there’s All-Star Comics #62 (cover date Oct. 1976), written by Gerry Conway and Paul Levitz with art by Keith Giffen and the legendary Wally Wood. This comic featured the adventures of the Justice Society, the very first super hero team, and we join them in the midst of quite a pickle.

Dr. Fate is at death’s door, with Dr. Mid-Nite and the Star-Spangled Kid tending to him in a desperate attempt to keep him alive. Meanwhile, Green Lantern and The Flash are in Egypt trying to find some mystic means of rejuvenating their fallen comrade. In the middle of all this, Hawkgirl is captured by an ancient, evil Lemurian wizard. With the team shorthanded, Hawkman sends out the big emergency alert to all members…but only one responds to join up with Hawkman’s skeleton crew.

But that one member ain’t exactly chopped liver. With him around, every other super hero is basically rendered superfluous, since this one member happens to be the greatest hero of them all: Golden Age Superman.

allstar62-1Golden Age Superman is the “original” Superman—the one who appeared in Action Comics #1 in June 1938. If you figure he was twenty-two years old at that time, this would have made him an even sixty by 1976. So we get an age-appropriate Clark Kent/Superman, with hair graying at the temples, but still quite robust. And to say his reintroduction to the proceedings here is appropriately dramatic would be quite the understatement.

The sequence in which Superman first appears is a perfect marriage of words and pictures. The reader only gets one full glimpse of his profile in one panel; otherwise he’s in shadows or facing away from us. Nor does the narration explicitly state who it is. But then it doesn’t really need to. I’m not sure there’s a soul left on Earth (short of someone raised in a cave that has literally spent his or her entire existence cut off completely from modern civilization) who would miss the oh-so-classic cues.

A man sits at his desk in the “quiet office” of a “major metropolitan newspaper” when the signal comes. “He’s seen the signal many times in his career, and each time his response is the same…for he can do nothing less.” Rising from his chair, he “moves swiftly, surely through the darkness… Finally, a familiar door…a store room opens…a white shirt is unbuttoned in a time-worn gesture…a figure transformed… The gently aging man who was once a mild-mannered reporter is reborn…”

Bounding across the city skyline, we can only just discern the outline of a familiar, caped figure as a citizen below shouts, “Look…up in the sky!”

allstar62-2Cut to JSA headquarters, with Hawkman lamenting the team being “shorthanded,” only to be corrected by the proud figure suddenly straddling the doorway:

“No. I don’t think so.”

Fully revealed to the reader at last, it is indeed he: “SUPERMAN!”

And despite all their troubles and all the dangers they’re facing, seemingly from every side, you know the Justice Society is going to be alright. Absolutely everything is going to be alright because he is here.

Though Superman sold millions of comics back in his Golden Age heyday, most people of the time probably still knew him best from the old movie serials, the classic animated shorts from Fleischer Studios, and his radio and (later) television shows. The sequence above evokes all of them to perfection.

From the dark silhouette changing into costume (classic Fleischer) to the timeless cry of “Look…up in the sky” (immortalized in all of the aforementioned), it feels like Superman has returned to us at long last—despite the fact that he never really went away.

Does this sound like a big deal to you? It should—because it is a big deal. It’s a big deal because the writers and artists involved treated it as such. Their love and reverence for this character shines through every glorious four-color printed dot.

Topping it all off is the unparalleled pen of Wally Wood. He was in the midst of a six-issue run here as the inker/finisher (All-Star Comics #58-63), followed by full art chores on issue #64, and then, finally, full art and plot on #65. Best known for his all-time classic EC work, his T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, and his (all-too-brief) stint on Daredevil, “Woody” was one of the greatest of the greats; and, to the best of my knowledge, this was his only brush with Superman. Personally, I would consider his whole run here must-see stuff for all comics aficionados.

superecordAnother relic from the era I’d like to share is the Superman Book and Record Set released by Power Records sometime in the early ’70s. A lot of people my age practically learned to read from these things, God bless ‘em, and although this Superman entry was not a favorite of mine at the time, I’ve come to appreciate its charms much more as an adult.

The story (titled “Alien Creatures”) is fairly simple and straightforward: It’s a sweltering summer day in Metropolis when the local observatory picks up something strange headed toward Earth from deep space. This something strange turns out to be a mass of silver objects that are similar in size and shape to bullets. As they fall to Earth, panic sets in. Turns out these bullet-things are living creatures and Superman has to figure out a way to stop them and get them to leave Earth.

He eventually succeeds, of course. As the creatures stop falling and hover above the ground, Lois Lane observes: “They don’t look like silver bullets. They’re like beautiful, silver hummingbirds.” What was at first terrifying turns out to be beautiful once fear and mistrust are conquered. It’s a rather lovely message, particularly in this day and age.

Superman then uses his telescopic vision to find another planet for the creatures to inhabit, and then points the way for them with his heat vision. As the creatures depart, Lois tells Superman, “You did it, Superman. You saved us. And you saved them, too.”

And you saved them, too. That’s the part that reaches me today. In the wake of all the bullshit that’s gone on with the recent movie and now the comics, it’s a reminder of the one character trait that absolutely defines Superman (or used to, at least): His absolute reverence for all life—not just human life; all life.

These things did not have creative credits, so I can only guess as to whom was the writer (probably Cary Bates or Elliott Maggin), but the penciller is definitely Curt Swan and it looks like the inks/finishes were provided by Dick Giordano. Swan’s work is a delight here—although I mentioned before how aliens and sci-fi tech were not Swan’s strong suit, the simplistic design of the aliens (as called for by the nature of the plot) rendered this a non-issue.

From a writing standpoint, the aliens are (obviously) not anthropomorphic; they’re, well…alien. This helps the story feel fresher and more intriguing than the more standard comics fare of the time. There’s also an interesting parallel between Superman and the creatures: they’re both aliens. Although it’s never touched upon overtly, you have to figure Superman must feel great sympathy for the creatures. After all, they come to Earth in search of a new home just as he once did.

As a kid, I thought the story was boring because it was too light on action. Like most boys, you could have given me a mindless, 18-page fistfight every month with lots of explosions and I would have been thrilled. As a grownup, I appreciate how Superman solves the dilemma presented here using his intellect. It’s a great story with a lot more beneath the surface than one might expect.

Some other treasures so rare they may require an archaeological expedition to find are the old treasury editions. These were tabloid-sized, just a shade less than 11” x 14”, and there were a bunch dedicated to Superman back in the ’70s. Most were reprints, but there were a few that had original, full-length stories that would be worth a look.

superspide1There were two Superman/Spider-Man books originally released as treasury editions in the Bronze Age that demand mention. The first came out in 1976 and was written by Gerry Conway and illustrated by Ross Andru, Neal Adams, and Dick Giordano. In addition to the historical value of this book as the first Marvel-DC crossover, it’s also a pretty good story.

A sequel followed in 1981, scripted by Jim Shooter with art by John Buscema (and a small army of inkers). Wonder Woman and the Hulk made appearances this go-round, and a fun twist is added when Clark Kent and Peter Parker briefly switch employers (with Peter going to work at the Daily Planet and Clark going to the Daily Bugle). Another good story and a fun read.

Aside from these, there are three other treasuries that stand out for me—all of them, coincidentally, released in 1978. The first two are rather conventional super hero tales: Superman vs. Shazam (i.e. Captain Marvel) and Superman vs. Wonder Woman. The Shazam book was written by Gerry Conway with art by Rich Buckler and Dick Giordano, while the Wonder Woman book was also by Conway with art by José Luis García-López and Dan Adkins.

supeshaz supesww

Both are fun and have great art, though I’d say the Shazam book delivers a bit better on what’s advertised, as Supes and Cap have a pretty major punch-up and one of them does decisively defeat the other. The battle with Wonder Woman is likewise entertaining but it winds up being called before we get a winner.

supesaliFinally, there’s Superman vs. Muhammad Ali by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams. Given the nature of this team-up, some may find it to be a bit weird (if not outright silly), but I still get a kick out of it. And even if you don’t dig the story, that Adams art is an absolute feast for the eyes. This one was actually reissued in hardcover in 2010 and can likely be found without much trouble.

Whew! And I’m only half done! Next time I’ll conclude the quest for gold by revisiting some of the best Superman tales in his more regular titles during this era.

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3 Comments

  1. Great entry, Curmudgeon (Can I call you “Mudge?”). I remember reading the ’81 Spider-Man crossover at your house and laughing at the Clark Kent/J. Jonah Jameson scenes and loving the Peter Parker/Perry White sequences (it made me so happy as a kid to see Peter Parker’s photos appreciated for a change). Thanks for stirring up some fantastic memories.

    Reply
  2. For anyone who might be interested, here are some youtube links related to the above article:

    Superman Movie Serial:

    Fleischer Studios Animated Short (the link cuts directly to the scene where Clark Kent changes to Superman, as mentioned above):

    Superman Radio Show:

    Superman TV Show:

    Reply

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