Still working through my first visit to a comic book shop, that being the Heroes World in Levittown. I also made it a point to pick up a number of more recent books–they were more affordable, so I could walk out with more. Among what I purchased were these two issues of SUPERMAN, the first two parts of the four-issue Clark-Kent-Or-Superman sequence, of which I already owned the concluding two chapters. Not sure what would have motivated me in this, apart from maybe having recently reread the other two parts and wanting to see how it all began. Boy, the templates used for the balloons on the #297 cover are awful–look at all of that dead space in the second balloon. The hand-drawn ones on the #296 cover are way nicer-looking.
The other thing that might have motivated me in buying these two issues is that the story was a four-parter, which was an epic by the DC standards of the period. As such, it seemed like it was somehow an important story to me–and that impression was magnified by the fact that it took two Superman writers to tell it–Cary Bates and Elliot S! Maggin collaborated on this series. I was familiar with the both of them, some of the very few comic book creators that I knew and paid attention to, largely from their appearances as characters in FLASH and JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA.
I didn’t realize at the time that this storyline had in part been conceived to pay off on a long-running mystery concerning Mr. Xavier, a reclusive and secretive tenant in Clark Kent’s apartment building, who had been referenced a few times in the past. Here, we see him arrive on Earth the same day as Kal-El’s rocketship, having been dispatched by his far-off homeworld to shadow and ultimately neutralize the Kryptonian now living on Earth. In the present, after a brief-if-colorful exploit, Superman goes to meet Lois Lane and Steve Lombard for some sparring. He removes his costume before changing to Clark Kent as he knows he’s going to have to change into workout gear shortly. When Lombard is about to be struck by a cab, Clark intervenes–but he himself is flattened by the automobile.
Clark awakens in the hospital, with an orderly drawing blood. He finds himself powerless for no reason that he can discern. Needing to get out of the hospital, he changes into his Superman costume (which he has kept super-compressed below his tongue–which both strains credibility and sounds disgusting. You’re really going to take that suit out of your mouth and wear it, Clark?) Upon reaching the street in his uniform, Superman discovers that his super-powers have now returned to him. From what he can work out, when he’s in costume, he’s Superman, but wearing even a portion of civilian clothing makes him a human Clark Kent.
To provide for some more action, Superman is almost killed by an assassination robot sent to rub out Clark Kent–he is barely able to get his last shoe off in time. He thinks his problems are somehow psychosomatic, the result of leading a double life all these years (he comes to this conclusion without any examinations or tests, which seems nuts, but in the 70s we just rolled with concepts such as this one.) So Clark has determined that he needs to adopt one of his two lives permanently. Meanwhile Mr. Xavier, who is mysteriously responsible for this turn of events, gets his final instructions from his homeworld: they’ve been contracted to destroy the Earth (by who and why is never brought up) and Xavier is to use Superman to do so. And that’s where #296 ends.
#297 opens up with Clark preparing to carry out an experiment to determine which of his two identities he’ll embrace moving forward. For the next seven days, he’s going to live as the powerless Clark Kent exclusively. Then, for the following week, he’ll be Superman 24/7. This will enable him to contrast the two experiences and judge which life he will thereafter take up. The issue opens with some Superman action, just to make sure the audience doesn’t get bored.
Clark quickly comes to find that there are upsides and downsides to being solely Clark Kent. For one thing, he’s vulnerable to pain, even casual injuries such as when he pricks a finger on a thorn trouble him. On the other hand, no longer needing to protect a double identity, he doesn’t have to put up with Steve Lombard’s macho crap, and so he dumps a whole table on the blowhard sportscaster. But when there’s a potential disaster in the Metropolis streets, Clark close to has a heart attack–he wants to help so much and he’s fearful of the consequences without him. But the Metropolis fire department turns out to be able to handle things without him.
On the plus side, Lois is enamored with this new, more dynamic Clark Kent–and after a moonlight dinner it’s implied that they spend the night together (an inference that went over my ten-year-old head at the time.) Clark’s also not done with Steve Lombard, whom he punches out when the sportscaster accosts him. He also shouts down his boss Morgan Edge, dunking Edge’s obnoxious cigarette holder in his drink. And he’s on hand to see actor Gregory Reed, who portrays Superman on film (and who was a recurring character in the series) bravely take to the streets in full Superman apparel to attempt to quell a riot.
By the end of the issue, on the trail of the Inter-Gang goons who tried to kill him last issue, Clark winds up tangling with them in zero gravity, where his years of experience flying as Superman give him the edge. Turns out that Inter-Gang had also booby-trapped Superman, irradiating him in such a manner that if he’d used his powers over the course of the last week, he would have gone up like a Roman candle. Lucky that Clark was running his experiment this week! But next week would be a different story–then it would be Superman’s turn to shine. But I’d already experienced those moments in SUPERMAN #298 and #299, which I already owned.