BHOC: SUPERMAN #311

Apropos of nothing except giving a sense of the timeframe, but shortly before I bought this issue of SUPERMAN, I saw the film ROCKY in theaters for the first time. It was the birthday party for my next door neighbor Johnny Rantinella, and among other festivities, a gaggle of kids were taken out to the cinema for an evening screening of this celebrated masterpiece. Not really the best way to watch it–and at ten years old, a lot of it was dull to me, and I can remember being unsettled when Burgess Meredith has to cut Rocky’s eye open. It also felt long, too, as our family mostly went to films in the afternoon, so I wasn’t used to focusing for such a long time quite so late in the evening.

But, anyway, SUPERMAN. Pretty certain I picked up this issue on a visit to my grandmother’s house in Valley Stream. It was the first part of a really lovely four-part adventure, and represented the beginning of writer Martin Pasko’s run on the strip (He’d actually started with the previous issue, but I wouldn’t read that one for a couple of years still.) Pasko’s was a run that I really enjoyed, with some good character work, a sense of forward movement and continuity from story to story, but still the same slightly-daffy flavor that I liked from a Julie Schwartz comic. I have no doubt that the fact that the Flash was touted as a guest-star on the cover was what made me opt for this book among everything else that might have been on the racks.

The issue opens in mid-stride, with the Flash and Superman already in conflict with a monstrous-looking figure. From clues in the combatants’ exchanges, we can work out that this mysterious figure is Nam-Ek, once a scientist on Krypton who somehow survived that world’s destruction, and who may be a plague-carrier who has infected Central City with an extraterrestrial disease. All of that’s pretty secondary, though, as Nam-Ek punches the Flash so hard that it sends him literally into orbit–no idea how the Scarlet Speedster survived the impact from such a blow.

And after a quick check-in with a mysterious Blofeld-esque mastermind who strokes an alien cat in an asteroid base and muses about his plan, the story rewinds several hours, to where Clark Kent and much of his cast is heading by rail to Central City for the World News Conference. There are some shenanigans with macho jerk Steve Lombard, of course, who makes a play for Lois Lane now that Lois isn’t dating Clark. Steve’s nephew Jamie, along for the ride, has adopted himself a stray dog. We also see the disguised form of Nam-Ek touch down atop the hotel, and shortly thereafter, the Hotel’s security director is stricken with a mysterious malady and plummets from a ski lift. Superman zooms to the rescue, meeting up with the Flash, on whose home turf they’re staying and who also came in response to the insignificant crisis. 

Superman and Flash turn the stricken men over to an ambulance, and are questioned by Lois Lane, who reveals that she’s going to be relocating to Central City. This gets a reaction out of Iris West, the Flash’s wife and herself a reporter for Central’s Picture News. Iris gets in Lois’s face, telling her that her reputation as a super hero groupie won’t wash in Central, and that she should stay away from the Flash. Behind his mask, Barry is mortified. As more people begin to fall over with the same symptoms of the plague, Superman has noticed the fellow skulking on the rooftop and goes to confront Nam-Ek. Nam-Ek pleads his innocence, but the fair-minded Superman isn’t having any of it–this plague broke out when Nam-Ek showed up, so he must be responsible for it. Thus begins the fight that opened the issue, and we’re back around to the start.

As the two Kryptonians battle, Superman muses to himself, recounting the events of an Amazing World of Krypton back-up story that I hadn’t read in which Nam-Ek had been introduced. He was a Kryptonian scientist who was onsessed with curing disease, so he went into the Scarlet Jungle and killed a Rondor, a Kryptonian animal that produced a natural healing ray through its horn. Attempting to use the Rondor’s horn to acquire immortality, Nam-Ek was successful–but this transformed him into a hideous creature. Superman theorizes that the same exposure to Earth’s yellow sun that gives the two of them their super-powers must also be changing the rays of Nam-Ek’s horn into the cause of the plague.

Superman wants to test his theory, but first he’s got to subdue Nam-Ek. So he uproots an active volcano, and dumps the whole mess atop Nam-Ek (surprised by how much effort it takes him to do so.) But this is a major miscalculation, as the lava within the volcano is infused with Kryptonite, disintegrating Nam-Ek. Superman just killed a guy! Horrified by his actions, the Metropolis Marvel is at least buoyed by the fact that Green Lantern has rescued his fellow Justice Leaguer the Flash before the latter could perish in the void of space.But now Superman, having broken his solemn oath not to kill, is honor-bound to give up his career as a super hero.

But believe it or not, things actually get worse for the Man of Steel. Still in shock, he returns to the hotel and his role as Clark Kent, and runs into a furious Lois Lane. And as Lois rails at the late Clark, she suddenly keels over, stricken with the same plague. So Nam-Ek wasn’t the cause after all, just as he said! And now, not only has Superman killed a guy, but that guy might have been the only one whose powers could reverse this plague and save Lois’s life! What a pickle! And things were only beginning to get rough for our hero. To Be Continued!

Finally, the letters page ran the yearly Statement of Ownership report, which included sales information. From it, we can calculate that SUPERMAN during the preceding year had been selling 274,000 copies on a circulation of 634,000, for an efficiency of 43%. So SUPERMAN was selling many more copies than, say, yesterday’s JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, but it was also having to print and destroy so many more copies to do so that it may actually have been less profitable than JLA was. This was another scourge of the 1970s Newsstand Distribution model–you needed to print enough copies to get your book into places where it could be seen and bought, but not so many that the returns would eat up any profit you might have made. The whole system was dicey, and it’s no surprise looking at it that the entire comic book industry was on the ropes at this time.

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