BHOC: SUPERMAN #323

Bought this issue of SUPERMAN in the same weekly 7-11 run as the MARVEL’S GREATEST COMICS issue I wrote about yesterday. That’s a nice cover by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, an incredibly talented artist who worked for DC for decades but who has been somewhat overlooked–primarily because he did relatively few regular stretches on titles, and instead was often spending much of his time doing licensing artwork. If you bought DC merchandise in the 1980s, chances are it was Garcia-Lopez’s artwork that was on it. In that respect, he was sort of the John Romita of DC, establishing the look and the style of the publisher for the outside world.

Inside, the book was dawn as usual by the ever-dependable Curt Swan, who was himself the equivalent of what John Romita was to Spider-Man. He set the look and the style for the Man of Steel for decades–really until the 1986 John Byrne revamp of the character in the wake of CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. Swan was never the flashiest artist, but his command of human drama and his ability to make even the most outlandish situations plausible made him a perfect fit for the Superman stories of these decades.

The story opens with our new villain, the somewhat-ludicrous Atomic Skull, lashing out with his powers at a statue of Superman. The Man of Steel has foiled several recent operations by the Skull’s secret organization, Skull, and these defeats have hastened the Skull’s impending death. because the strange mental seizures that are the source of his ability to project devastating electrical attacks from his mind are also slowly killing him. Elsewhere, Superman himself journeys into space to confirm the source of the “kryptonite pipeline” that Skull has set up in order to acquire more of the mineral that renders the Man of Tomorrow powerless. Previously, all of the Kryptonite on Earth had been rendered inert due to an accident. But Superman had created a planet in krypton’s image far out in space, and he now confirms that this planet has also been destroyed, and is the source of the new Kryptonite that threatens him.

Returning to WGBS in time for his evening news telecast as Clark Kent, Superman is thus instantly aware when Skull operatives attack S.T.A.R. Labs, where WGBS weatherman and science editor Oscar Asherman (who was based in part on DC archivist Allan Asherman) is interviewing Dr. Jenet Klyburn, the director of S.T.A.R. Labs (and who was based in part on new DC publisher Jenette Kahn.) She’s become a very different character after the assorted DC Universe reboots over the years, but at the time, I quite liked Dr. Klyburn, who would become another recurring player in the Superman titles and other DC books. In any case, Clark finds an excuse to break away and become Superman, but he’s unable to prevent Skull from absconding with a portion of the S.T.A.R. Labs building.

Superman is able to trail the Skull ship by tracing its emissions with his super-vision, however–but when he moves to invade the ship, he’s laid low by kryptonite rays from off-screen. Reviving moments later, Superman is confronted by the Atomic Skull, who reveals himself to be Albert Michaels, Dr Klyburn’s predecessor as the head of S.T.A.R. Labs. He’s the force behind Skull, and he’s placed Dr. Klyburn in a death trap in order to force Superman to run a gantlet of hurtles designed to harness his powers for an as-yet-unrevealed purpose. Superman has no choice but to race to the rescue, battling his way through the significant but scant opposition put up against him.

Superman is able to get to Dr Klyburn in time–and to realize and stymie the double-bluff situation that the Atomic Skull has her in, where she won’t be quartered but rather smashed as the walls are released from their tethers. But the Atomic Skull is there too, and he blasts Superman with his mind-energy, incapacitating him. With his foe down, Michaels explains what this has all been about. His condition is terminal, and in destroying his earlier version of Skull, Superman has imprisoned the only scientists who might have been able to save his life. So in revenge, Michaels reorganized Skull and created his underground kryptonite pipeline in order to accumulate enough kryptonite so that he could detonate it in the atmosphere, where it would permeate the globe, making the whole planet deadly to Superman. And the harnessing of Superman’s powers earlier was the Atomic Skull’s poetic manner of getting Superman himself to provide the power to launch his deadly Superman-destroying warhead.

The whole thing is a needlessly complicated plot, of course–the Atomic Skull would have been much better off, and more certain of his victory, if he’d just assembled and launched his warhead without Superman being aware of it–by the time he became aware, it would have been too late. But alas, such are the things that super-villain plans are made of. Anyway, having explained all of this to Superman over the course of several pages, the Atomic Skull zaps him once again, leaving the Man of Steel at the mercy of another threat that Skull has imported in order to deal with him–Titano, the giant gorilla with the kryptonite stare! Which seems a bit like overkill at this point, but you have to give the Atomic Skull credit for thoroughness. In any event, that’s where this issue is To Be Continued!

The Metropolis Mailbag this month includes our old friend the Statement of Ownership for 1978. It reveals that at this point (and in the year prior to the opening of Superman the Movie) SUPERMAN had been selling 226,327 copies on a print run of 618,520, giving the book an efficiency of 36 1/2%. Not the best percentage in the world, but the actual sales number is pretty good. Obviously, somebody at DC felt that you needed the range granted by printing 600,000 copies of every issue to sell those 225,000 copies, so the solve here wasn’t necessarily to bring the print run down. You needed the book to get into places where a prospective reader could find it–at least that was the prevailing theory.

Speaking of Jenette Kahn, this issue also included the latest in her series of regular DC Publishorials, in which she trumpeted the return of Len Wein to DC Comics–a bit of a coup, as Len had been stolen from rival Marvel, where he was writing their biggest titles. This was during a period when Jenette was trying to establish herself as the voice of the publishing company, the DC equivalent to Stan Lee. She never quite hit that same critical mass–Stan’s mastery of showmanship was head-and-shoulders above most other people in the industry at this point–and eventually she’d retreat more to the background and let others such as Dick Giordano carry the banner for DC Editorial. Len is gone now, but I can remember being especially moved by the anecdote he tells in the course of this interview with Jenette about his father and how his foot nearly had to be amputated. I still hadn’t quite made the transition from following creators as much or more than the characters as a comic book reader, but I was in the transition period now, where I was beginning to be able to detect a qualitative difference between the work of some people in terms of what I enjoyed in comics, and thus starting to pay more attention to the credits.

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