It’s probably difficult to conceive of it from a 21st century perspective, but going into the early 1960s, SUPERBOY was one of the top three best selling titles in the industry. The entire family of Superman titles led the pack in terms of reader interest, buoyed by the popularity of the Last Survivor of Krypton and in particular his regular presence on television–THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN series had wrapped up its run, and given the sad demise of actor George Reeves, there would be no further episodes. But the 104 that did exist entered syndication and would play routinely, Monday through Friday, throughout the next two decades. The Man of Steel had no rivals in popularity, and that draw-power spread to his younger self Superboy as well (not to mention Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, both of whom headlined books that regularly made the number of copies of JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA or AMAZING SPIDER-MAN sold look sick.)
We’ve gone over this before, but just to reiterate some of the basics: Superman editor Mort Weisinger was a tyrant and a bully, but he oversaw a period of great expansion for the titles under his purview. While keeping the story presentation on a level where even the smallest children could understand them, he built up an expansive and complicated universe for the Metropolis Marvel to live in. More often than not, SUPERBOY was his petri dish, a place where he’d wheel out new concepts, and if they appeared to find favor in the eyes of his readership, he would then have them spread throughout the other titles in the line. This particular issue of SUPERBOY, the oldest that I got in my Windfall Comic purchase of 1988, introduced such a character–though it didn’t happen until the middle story in the issue.
Before that, though, there was a whole other adventure to get through. The character-titles Superman books followed a strict format, breaking it only for the rare “3-Part Novel” that would run the length of the book. This first tale was written by Superman’s creator Jerry Siegel and illustrated by Al Plastino, who would draw an awful lot of Superboy adventures. In it, Superboy apparently develops a yellow streak. Despite his super-powers, which still are in evidence, he shies away from danger and jeopardy. In the end, it turns out that this isn’t Superboy at all, but rather one of his robot double which is malfunctioning. Superboy had to activate the robot to cover for him while he was off on the obligatory space mission, and an explosion early in the issue created a fault in the robot’s system which caused him to display cowardice. But with the real Boy of Steel back, all is forgiven, and the robot is even repaired and assured that he will continue to be of service.
Next up came the Smallville Mailbag, the letters page for SUPERBOY. Weisinger’s letters pages, like his stories, were aimed at the younger end of the spectrum, and this is reflected in what concerns them about the recent issue which have come out, and what they want to see in the days ahead. This particular page plugs the live action ADVENTURES OF SUPERBOY television series, which was being prepared as an alternative to further ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN episodes. Unfortunately, it only got as far as a pilot episode (though scripts for an entire season were apparently worked up, many of which were either based on stories from the comics or else would be retrofitted into comic book tales later on.) John Rockwell played Superboy and Clark Kent in this never-to-be series.
Also in this segment of the book was this full-page ad for the second GIANT SUPERMAN ANNUAL–this despite the fact that it hadn’t been a year since the first Annual had seen print, a strange interpretation of the Annual concept that DC went with. Mort had struck gold with the first Annual, owing to the fact that the stories were all reprints, and so the book had no material A & E costs, and its cover price was a big, fat quarter at a time when regular comics were only 12 cents. It led to a string of follow-up Annuals, not just for the Superman titles but throughout the line. The Curt Swan cover on this second one is particularly alluring, as is the listing of the threats and menaces that Superman will have to contend with inside its pages.
It’s this next story that was the most notable one, at least in terms of historic importance. This was the adventure which introduced Pete Ross to the Superboy mythology. Pete would become a long-running supporting player over the years, even becoming an honorary member of the Legion of Super Heroes after a time. Strangely, this initial story doesn’t feature the thing for which is is best known: accidentally learning Superboy’s civilian identity as Clark Kent but keeping that knowledge to himself, so that he can assist the Boy of Steel covertly when Clark needs to get away from people to change into Superboy for some emergency. In this story, Pete is depicted as a huge Superboy fan, and one who winds up suspecting Clark of secretly being his hero. But he’s disabused of this notion by the end of the tale, and in any other case, he wouldn’t have ever made a second appearance. But somebody apparently liked Pete, and so he would later have his pivotal moment of revelation.
Writer Robert Bernstein wrote this debut of Pete Ross, and it was illustrated by George Papp. Most Superboy stories of this period had a bit more hometown flavor than most other Superman tales, and this one was no exception. Pete and his family move to Smallville and he quickly befriends Clark Kent after saving him from some bullies. Clark is happy to have a friend at last–his duties as Superboy prevent him from getting too close to anybody else, and he’s painfully lonely as a result. But he begins to regret his decision to let Pete into his life, as the boy seems to be taking notes, comparing Clark Kent to Superboy in what Clark assumes is an attempt to uncover his true identity. Instead, it turns out that Pete is involved with the Smallville Drama Club, and he’s been studying both Clark and Superboy because he thinks that Clark would be great casting for the role, since the two are so physically similar. So Superboys’ suspicions about his new friend are entirely unfounded.
ADDITION: I’m told that it may have been Leo Dorfman who wrote this story, rather than Robert Bernstein. Mark Waid, do you have a ruling for me here?
After a brief intermission that included both short half-page filler comedy strips and a full page public service story on controlling your anger, the third story in this issue commenced. This was the cover feature (which typically, though not always, tended to occupy the final slot in a given issue) and it was the closest to an action-adventure story the issue presented. It also featured the young Lex Luthor, who would grow up to be Superman’s arch-nemesis, and who here is already on teh road to becoming a world-class menace. In this story, Lex uses a device he’s invented that allows him to mentally control and manipulate rock with his mind to ambush Superboy with an army of stone figures made entirely out of poisonous kryptonite.
The resolution is a bit of a deus ex machina, to be honest, As Superboy is being pummeled by the kryptonite men, both Lana Lang and Krypto attepmt to aid him (Lana inadvertently) but they are unable to escue the Boy of Steel. But one person who can is Lightning Lad of the future Legion of Super Heroes. Apparently, the Legion doesn’t have any sort of code about changing the past because, as soon as its members become aware of Superboy’s peril, Lightning Lad is dispatched in a Time Bubble to 1961 to render aid to his fellow member. (There is a bit of business that indicates that Superboy and Krypto would have been rescued by fate had Lightning Lad not intervened as a sort of sop to this–but that certainly wouldn’t have been as exciting as having Lightning Lad show up in person.) But the real climax is Lex realizing that if a Legion of Super Heroes exists in the future, then they must have somebody who battles them, and he resolves to make contact with this imagined Legion of Super-Villains. This was the first mention of the evil LEgion, and it’s presented as a tease for a future story. This was one of teh ways in which Weisinger kept his readers engaged and reading–by promising future developments such as this one. This story was written by Jerry Siegel and illustrated by George Papp.