Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been plowing my way through Showcase Presents Superman, a “phone book” collection (so nicknamed because it’s 500+ pages thick on cheap black-and-white paper) of Superman’s exploits from a significant era in his career: 1958-1959. During this fertile period, readers were introduced to Supergirl, the city-shrinking villain Brainiac; Superman’s twisted opposite, Bizarro; Titano, a giant ape with Kryptonite vision (!); and Lori Lemaris, Superman’s mermaid girlfriend (no shit).
As much affection as I have for Superman, and for old-school DC Comics, I have to admit that so far, most of the stories aren’t very good. They’re entertaining, with their absurd logic and nonsensical narratives, but it’s all too obvious that the writers were stretching to match whatever provocative, puzzling image had been dreamed up by the cover artist.
Many of them hinge on elaborate ruses played by Superman either to trick criminals into revealing their nefarious plans, or to hide his secret identity from friends such as Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane.
In “The Spell of the Shandu Clock,” Superman inexplicably interrupts a magic act to declare the “master illusionist” Shandu a fraud. Really, Superman? A stage magician is a fake? (Supes’ next stop is to break up a World Championship Wrestling match.) Shandu vows revenge, and after his sudden death, unleashes a magical clock which mysteriously takes control of Superman’s actions at the top of each hour. However, it turns out that Shandu was really a friend who faked his demise as part of Superman’s cunning plan to convince everyone of his own unreliability, and therefore to coax a crooked scientist into prematurely uncorking his Sonic Vibrator super-crime weapon. You see, otherwise the guy would’ve waited until Superman was safely out of town. In other words, when the guy with telescopic and X-ray vision–the guy who can travel faster than light–was out of the immediate vicinity. Wouldn’t it have been easier for Superman to say loudly to Jimmy Olsen, “See you in a couple of days,” then hide behind a convenient mountain?
Even more bizarre is “The Super-Sword,” in which an armored knight is found frozen in an iceberg. This Black Knight’s enchanted blade can pierce Superman’s invulnerable skin, allowing the villain to pillage at will. Again, it’s all a trick to lure another criminal into tripping himself up. The knight is revealed to be Clark Kent’s boss, Perry White, in disguise. Let me clarify this: Superman froze Perry White into a glacier, then allowed him to spend several days robbing banks and armored cars, just to catch a common thug.
Sometimes, the crooks themselves are the tricksters. In “Krypton on Earth,” scam artists build a working, full-size replica of a Kryptonian city, including an atomic power plant, simply to fool Superman into creating diamonds for them.
Another popular Superman plot device, the “transformation,” rears its furry head in “The Lady and the Lion.” Superman runs afoul of the descendent of the sorceress Circe, who was really an alien scientist and the inventor of an evolution serum that gives Supes the head and hands of a lion. The Man of Steel is mortified, especially when he has to accompany Lois to the premiere of a new play. “Oh, goodness!” says Lois as they sit in the theatre box, “I forgot to tell Superman which play this was! And he didn’t notice the billings as we entered! I…I made a terrible mistake!” Of course, it’s “Beauty and the Beast.” D’oh! Superman eventually concludes that because Circe’s serum incorporated Kryptonite, she must have come from Krypton. (Of course, because no one else ever uses Kryptonite, except everyone.) Fortunately, a Kryptonian book back at the fortress just happens to have the antidote.
During this period, Superman seems to spend most of his time performing for orphans and worrying about someone discovering his Clark Kent identity. In one instance, Clark is to be interviewed on TV, and his very first thought is “Bates is an honest interviewer, but he asks tricky questions–and he might ask one that would accidentally touch on my secret Superman identity.” Superman is apparently a nervous wreck, living in constant fear that he will somehow tip off his friends. I can see Lois Lane now: “Hmm…Superman just ate a hoagie. But we all know that Clark Kent loves hoagies!”
Later in that same story, Clark has been hooked up to a lie detector by the TV host in order to prove that he is Superman. When he says “No–I do not have super-powers!” the caption below him screams, “What’s this? Has Clark Kent forsaken his code of honor and deliberately told a lie?” Dude, he lies all the time. Usually, it’s to the people he allegedly cares about the most. (Granted, these self-same “friends” are constantly trying to out him as Clark, and/or forcibly marry him.) In this case, it’s okay because he used some concealed Kryptonite to temporarily rob himself of his powers just in time to answer the question. Really.
Ah, to be Superman, and spend one’s life showing off at charity events and fooling ace journalist Lois Lane by hiding behind a pair of glasses. Of course, the X-ray vision would make it all worthwhile.