Centennial issues in comics books have for many decades been accorded a special status, an acknowledgment of longevity, a celebration of success. By 1976, it wasn’t enough any longer to simply publish a centennial issue, that issue had to in some way be special, and reflect the fact that this was a significant moment. SUPERMAN #300 was the first such centennial issue that I ever bought, and I thought it was great.
The story revolved around a very simple conceit: rather than being an adult in the present day, what if Superman was rocketed to Earth in the present, and thus grew to adulthood in the near future, in the year 2001 (that was no doubt on the creators’ minds thanks to the rerelease of the Kubrick film of the same name.). Writers Cary Bates and Elliot S! Maggin pack a lot of concept into the short 20 pages that this story fills, but it’s pretty memorable stuff. It’s illustrated by my SUPERMAN art team of choice in this era, Curt Swan inked by Bob Oksner. The cover is pretty nice as well, despite the slightly muscle-bound look to Superman and the crudity of that background starfield.
We open on the familiar image of Jor-El and Lara firing the infant Kal-El into the void of space in an experimental rocket just as the planet Krypton explodes. But this time, as Kal-El’s ship nears the Earth, its approach is detected by both American and Soviet satellites, and so there’s a race between the super-powers to lay claim to the alien craft. Lieutenant Thomas Clark manages to get their first, acquiring the spaceship and its young occupant for the United States.
The existence of the child code-named Skyboy is a closely-guarded secret for over a decade, until 1990, when female President Weiner confirms Kal-El’s existence. It’s pretty fun to look at the manner in which this 1976 comic book predicted the future here–a future that, even at the end of the story in 2001, is now more than a decade and a half behind us. Meanwhile, Skyboy grows up as a ward of the state, under the military supervision of General Kent Garrett. But now that the President has revealed him to the world, he can declare himself a citizen of the United nations if he so desires.
But by 1990, there is an unnamed third Wolrd Power Nation, one that intends to use the Cold War tension that Skyboy has created between the U.S. and the Soviets to their own advantage. They sabotage some missile systems, causing the two super-powers to think the other is attacking, and creating a full-scale nuclear conflict at which Skyboy is at the center. Aghast at being the cause of these attacks, however indirectly, Skyboy flies into action, neutralizing the assorted missiles, laser weapons and deadly gas attacks at superhuman speed–favoring no one side, but protecting everybody.
At the end of the conflict, as cooler heads prevail, Skyboy has vanished, believed dead. The one fallen soldier of note is General Kent Garrett, who suffered a heart attack during the crisis. And so, in his honor and that of the man who found his capsule, Skyboy adopts the secret identity of Clark Kent, and disappears into the world, aware that the Earth isn’t ready for the kind of power that he possesses.
More than a decade passes, and by 2001 Clark Kent is a broadcaster with the Tri-Vision Plantwide 24 Hour News Service, announcing the rechristening of the huge urban sprawl that now fills the East Cost from Boston down to Washington D.C. as not Mega-City One, but Metropolis. But as the gala New Year’s Day celebration gets underway, the public is shocked by the appearance of Moka, a four-armed colossus who claims to have been the force that saved the world from nuclear holocaust a decade earlier.
This is another attempt by that third World Power to seize control of the globe–Moka is a sophisticated android of their creation. But one man knows that Moka’s claims are pap, and he pulls on his old childhood playsuit and flies out to confront the four-armed terror, making short work of the mechanical would-be savior in two short pages and telling the assembled crowds that true salvation lay within all of them. As he disappears once more, the public proclaims this new figure Superman, and builds a statue in his honor. Finally, Clark Kent reassures a young fan that, should the world ever need him again, Superman is sure to return. He doesn’t wink at the camera while doing it, but the way the shot is framed, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that was the original intention, and somebody thought that it was just too hokey a note to end on.