A pretty sharp cover by Jose-Luis Garcia Lopez kicks off this latest issue of ACTION COMICS. Garcia Lopez is very much an artist’s artist, and was another exciting new figure on the DC scene in the 1970s, who somehow never quite became a break-out star, largely because he never did a long sustained run on any major character. Instead, he was quickly tapped to do licensing artwork, and he defined the look of DC’s stable of characters on merchandise for decades. It’s also a quintessentially Julie Schwartz kind of cover, with a mystery spelled out that only the story inside can explain (hopefully.) You don’t really see too many covers along these lines anymore.
This story, the first half of a two-parter, used two characters that I liked from the then-contemporary Superman mythos. I had been too young to have been aware of the Sean Connery film Zardoz, but I quite like the DC character “inspired” by the film–Vartox. He was the pre-eminent super hero of another world, the Superman of his planet. But he was older than Superman, and so often functioned as a mentor of sorts to Kal-El when the two would come into contact. Also involved was Karb-Brak, whose first four-part story I was aware of but had never read, and who was an alien being who was literally allergic to Superman.
The story opens on a crime in progress–but this crime isn’t happening on Earth, but rather on Vartox’s home planet. The alien hero arrives to engage and subdue the malefactors, but in the aftermath, we see the toll that such action is taking on him. He’s getting older, his once-mighty powers are growing weaker, and he fears that it won’t be long before his days of being an effective champion of law and justice are behind him. Seeking a solution to his problem, or just some solace, Vartox decides to tune his Scanscope upon his younger fellow-hero Superman in Metropolis, to see how he’s getting on.
In Metropolis, the Man of Steel is in the process of averting an accident at a construction site, where a wrecking ball has gone out of control. Putting an end to the danger, Superman is surprised to discover that the person he’s saved from harm is the human identity of his old foe Karb-Brak, Andrew Meda (because he comes from the Andromeda Galaxy, of course!) In the past, Superman was able to cure Karb-Brak’s affliction by submerging his personality into the fictional guise of this construction worker. But as he flies off, Vartox thinks that Karb-Brak may hold the key to his own problems.
That evening, a bulletin about a phone booth giving off atomic heat sends Clark Kent racing out during the sports report to investigate as Superman. Inside the booth is Karb-Brak, his allergy triggered once more–and he blames the Man of Steel for his condition. Karb-Brak is in no state to listen to Superman’s protests that he was nowhere in the vicinity, and couldn’t have been responsible for the flare-up of Karb-Brak’s allergies, so the two trade punches until Karb-Brak disappears–giving Superman just enough time to make it back to the Studio for the rest of Clark Kent’s news broadcast.
But as Clark takes over the news desk once again, Karb-Brak comes careening into the studio through the wall and bodily attacks him–and Clark is as worried about his secret identity being revealed to the whole of Metropolis over the air as he is about being killed by Karb-Brak’s attack. Nearby, a regretful Vartox flies off, hoping that Superman will one day be able to forgive him for setting off Karb-Brak’s condition again for his own purposes, and hoping that his friend will survive Karb-Brak’s latest attack. Nice guy, that Vartox. And we are To Be Continued!
For whatever reason, ACTION COMICS continued to often run sort back-up stories featuring other players in the Superman pantheon. It wasn’t infrequent to get a Private Life of Clark Kent installment, or a Sporting Life of Steve Lombard epic–all stories that stretched the very definition of action in terms of their content. This issue is no different, presenting a Lori Lemaris story in which the mermaid former girlfriend of the Metropolis Marvel spends virtually the entire story strung up in a net by quasi-Russian fishermen. It takes Lori a surprising seven pages to use her telepathic powers to turn them against one another, secure her freedom, and bring them to the authorities.