BHOC: ACTION COMICS #485

While suprise reprints were something of a scourge over at Marvel Comics during the in 1970s, they were an almost unheard of occurence in rival DC’s titles. Which is what makes this issue of ACTION COMICS such a surprise. Behind a dynamic new cover by Neal Adams (a different version of the image that he had done years earlier for the first publication of this story), a brief framing sequence quickly gave way to a reprint of a classic adventure of the Man of Steel. The story in question is a seminal one, but this was disappointing to me because I had already read the story in question in SUPERMAN FROM THE 30s TO THE 70s, the hardcover collection of vintage Superman tales published at the start of the decade. At the very least, the cover copy doesn’t attempt to hide the content, as the Marvel sneak-reprints did (in fairness, that was often because Marvel’s covers were sent to print well before the interiors, and so the switch to a reprint happened after the cover had left house.)

The issue opens with Superman responding to a distress call placed to his alter ego of Clark Kent by Professor Bolton, a scientist who had spent years studying kryptonite radiation (and whose experiment years earlier had transformed all of the kryptonite on Earth into harmless iron.) But as the Man of Steel arrives, he’s shot down by a ray from below. The culprits are a pair of criminals who have stolen Professor Bolton’s breakthrough, a weapon that uses K-Iron, the kryptonite rendered inert, as a fuel source. Its effect is debilitating to Superman, who crashes down to Earth in a semi-conscious state. While the bad guys get ready to line up another shot, Superman’s mind casts back to his initial contact with Professor Bolton several months before–and we segue into a flashback that is actually the reprint.

As I mentioned earlier, the reprint in question was one of the most significant Superman adventures of the era. It represents the first Superman story edited by Julie Schwartz, who had taken over the series from departing long-time overseer Mort Weisinger. Superman’s sales had begun to flag, and he was seem as a bit out of step with the times, so Schwartz and his hand-picked creative team of writer Denny O’Neil and artists Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson, set out to give the Kid from Krypton a makeover. Part of that new look was to permanently reduce the character’s virtually omnipotent powers to a level where situations could present a challenge to him. As the first move towards accomplishing this, the team set out in this first story to also eliminate the Man of Tomorrow’s constant nemesis, kryptonite, the radioactive fragments of his homeworld whose rays were lethal to anyone from Krypton. Kryptonite had become ubiquitous in the final years of Weisinger’s tenure, every two-bit crook seems to be able to tap into an endless supply. So O’Neil and Schwartz decided to get rid of the stuff.

As in the framing sequence, the story opens with Superman coming to the aid of Professor Bolton, whose experiment is running dangerously amok. While the Man of Steel is able to contain the blast and prevent fatalities, the chain reaction of the detonation causes a chemical change in all of the Kryptonite scattered across the Earth, transforming it into ordinary iron. All at once, Superman’s one vulnerability had been removed. But not everybody was happy about it. Morgan Edge, the new owner of the Daily Planet through his conglomerate WGBS, expresses concern that absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s worth keeping in mind that this was Edge’s introduction into the main SUPERMAN series–he had been introduced in Jack Kirby’s revamp of SUPERMAN’S PAL JIMMY OLSEN as a no-goodnik who was working for Darkseid–so him expressing these thoughts takes on a bit of the patina of a villain not wanting to have to face an absolutely unstoppable Superman. (Eventually, people in the Superman editorial office decided that they liked Edge too much to make him an all-out villain, and a complicated story was spun about Edge being replaced in Kirby’s books by a nefarious clone. Whether anybody told Kirby that this was going to be happening is debatable.)

This is also the story that changed Clark Kent’s vocation from being a newspaper reporter to a television broadcaster. Schwartz reasoned that most people in the 1970s got their information from the nightly news. This would be Kent’s occupation throughout the decade, until the arrival of SUPERMAN THE MOVIE would prompt DC to shift him back to newspapers, at least semi-regularly. But here, Edge orders Kent to broadcast remote coverage from the launch of a new transcontinental mail rocket. As he does so, he detects bad guys planning to heist the rocket, and during a commercial break, he changes to Superman–clearly, being on camera is going to be more of a headache when Clark needs to go into action (to say nothing of the fact that it will make Clark’s face well-known to everybody in Metropolis, and thus make it more difficult to maintain his dual identity.) Anyway, Superman gets the drop on one of the villains, who pulls out one of thos eubiquitous bits of kryptonite–leading to this genuinely amusing scene.

As Superman races skyward to intercept the would-be heisters and save the rocket, he’s feeling confident, almost cocky, as he knows that there is nothing that can hurt him any longer. But as the situation progresses, the flight path of the planes takes them into the vicinity of the area where teh accident happened, and Superman becomes stricken with a totally different weakness, one that begins to drain off his powers. This was the birth of the “Sand Superman” a creature from the other-dimensional world of Quarm who had been transported to our universe in the accident and who became more and more real as he progressively siphoned Superman’s powers across stories going on for close to a year. He would eventually be sent home along with that excess power, thus making the Metropolis Marvel permanently less powerful–but that was all in the future (and really not mentioned in this reprint. ) Anyway, as Superman deals with this situation, the reprint segues back to the present, where he’s about to be polished off by the pair with their stolen K-Iron blaster.

But this isn’t much of a problem for Superman now that he’s recovered. He whips up an instant sandstorm with his super-breath, completely overwhelming the two criminals and then safely takes them into custody. And that’s it for this issue. A perfectly fine little outing if you hadn’t read the original story, but a bit underwhelming if you had–especially in that, by necessity, the ending of the reprint was cut off because of the limited page count, so Superman’s momentary weakness isn’t really explained well. The reproduction on the reprint pages is just a little bit muddy, nowhere near the typical crispness of the Swan/Anderson combo. Also, the coloring seems very heavy-handed and dark overall to my eye.

3 thoughts on “BHOC: ACTION COMICS #485

  1. With regard to kryptonite becoming so common, I vaguely recall some suggestions that Superman had a bunch of enemies all over the universe (e.g. Superman Revenge Squad) who couldn’t do a direct fight, but were happy to make sure tons of kryptonite ended up on Earth, and in the hands people who did want to try to use it. And that makes a great deal of sense from a world-building perspective. Even for low-level thugs – who knows, somebody might get lucky and take Supes off-guard. On the other hand, Supes should be X-ray vision scanning anyone who is threatening him, and if they’re carrying lead boxes, they should never get the chance to use whatever’s inside.

    I think a better “get rid of the kryptonite” storyline would have been Superman deciding to finally go after the whole kryptonite-running operation, eventually culminating in taking down all the people involved (it might be rebuilt eventually, but it’d take many years to happen). Plus getting their records on who has the kryptonite, so it could all be destroyed. The editorial hand-wave method wasn’t an entertaining story to me.

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  2. Fifty years a comic reader and I can probably count on one hand the number of Superman comics I’ve bought other than Byrne’s run on the series. The reasons: his powers (there were just TOO many of them) and the ubiquitous presence of Kryptonite in all its myriad colours. This issue of Action Comics (and the original) sum up neatly why I never could invest in the “big blue boy scout”.
    I know this might seem like heresy to many fans and I mean no offence – we comic book readers might disagree on some things now and then, but I like to think we do so in a wholly civilized fashion.

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  3. Strange these days to see how little a superhero series could change in 7 or 8 years back then. I did like seeing Joe Rubinstein’s inks over Curt’s pencils. Joe’s always been a favorite. He adds a texture & weight without breaking the delicate finish Curt leaves. Joe enhances, strengthens, while still being faithful.

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