Despite the school year beginning, my regular weekly Thursday trips to the 7-11 for new comic books continued. And in fact, I had begun to hold on to the dollar a day that I was given to buy lunch at school in order to be able to have more spending money for comics. (My Dad suspected that I was doing this on a couple occasions, but I denied it, and there wasn’t much that he could do about it–he wasn’t about to stop giving me money for lunch.) I can remember biking back from the store with this particular issue of SUPERMAN in my hands.
It’s situated right in the middle of a very nice run by writer Marty Pasko, but this particular issue was very much the subject of ridicule at the time and in the years immediately following, because there are elements of the story that are undeniably absurd. At the time of publication, it didn’t strike me as particularly bad–it was just another reliable issue of a reliable comic book, and one that I didn’t give a whole lot of thought apart from enjoying it.
The story opens with Superman off in space, in the midst of being chewed on by a constellation of star-like objects in the shape of a dog’s head. A bit of a disconcerting image, that. We then flash back for several pages to recount the events that brought the Man of Steel here. He’d been dealing with a forced reunion with Lana Lang, who had been hired to work alongside Clark Kent at WGBS before heading to Olymus Observatory in response to a message from Professor Milius. The Professor had detected a strange light just beyond Saturn, and asked Superman to investigate. Doing so, the Metropolis Marvel discovered and flew through a tear in the space-time continuum, arriving in a far-distant galaxy.
There, he detects a ship in distress on the planet below, but an energy field prevents him from landing–and that field transforms itself into the dog-head constellation. Back in the present, the now-unconscious Superman plummets to the planet below (which is where he wanted to go in the first place) finding himself surrounded by hundreds of dogs before he blacks out. Upon awakening, he finds himself in the quarters of Peg-Leg Portia, who affects the look and demeanor of a pirate. She thinks Superman is a manifestation of the energy cloud and tries to kill him with an axe, but he’s able to explain himself.
Portia reveals that she had been an intergalactic game hunter who crash-landed on a world inhabited by sentient dogs, who nursed her back to health despite her injuries. But she and the Samaritan dogs were exiled from that world by the rest of the pack, as humans were not permitted to dwell there. Thereafter, she and the dogs roamed the galaxy in her pirate ship, the Cosmic Hound, until they were shipwrecked on this planet, which is why she sent the “warp-flare” distress signal that brought Superman here from Earth. Superman offers to repair her ship when suddenly he’s jumped by a pack of the dogs, evidencing the same powers as the barrier he encountered in space.
Portia tells Superman that the dogs have prevented her from leaving to return to her homeworld of Aquaterra for years, so the Man of Steel knocks the dogs unconscious, gives Portia a handy space suit and then flies her back to her home planet. But the world is dead, a ghost town–and Portia reveals that she’s been a prisoner of the dogs for over 300 years. She’d been teh victim of a fatal disease, but the dogs prevented her from dying as well as living–and now that she’s back home, she’s resumed her proper age. In fact, this has been going on for so long that the original dogs are long dead, and their descendants don’t realize that they ever came from anywhere else–they only know that Portia must be protected and kept alive.
All Portia wants at this point is to be able to die with dignity. But above them, suddenly, her ship appears, piloted by the dogs who have pursued her through space. Superman enters the ship to try to parlay with them, and learns that thanks to a telepathic link with him that they shared during the earlier conflict, they now have an understanding of the situation. They no longer need Portia to pilot the ship, but Superman asks them to restore her youth and vitality to her. But the dogs know what Portia really wants, and they’ve come to help her achieve it. But Superman can’t willingly allow anyone to die, and so he opposes them.
Superman fighting the dogs to prevent the elderly Portia’s life from ending is a weird beat, one that rings a bit emotionally false, but a necessity given the iron-clad adherence to Superman’s code of cherishing and preserving life in all its forms. As they battle, Superman remembers Jonathan Kent lecturing him about the fact that death is a part of life, and must be respected as well–and it’s the loophole that allows his hands to be clean when Portia is about to expire and he chooses to let the inevitable happen. So a Superman taboo is broken, and the sad Man of Steel flies back to Earth, while the telepathic dogs mourn their lost pirate mistress.