This issue of ACTION COMICS was another book that was part of my haul of around 150 Silver Age comic books that I bought from a guy that I met by coincidence at my local Post Office while mailing something out. The entire box cost me fifty bucks, so each individual issue amounted to an expenditure of 33 cents–a hell of a bargain in 1988. In the box, there were a disproportionate number of Mort Weisinger Superman titles, likely because those books weren’t yet all that desired by collectors, and they had sold in huge numbers, which meant that the supply was typically plentiful, even on the back issue market. Point being, expect to see a greater number of these books show up the longer this feature goes on.
ACTION COMICS had adjusted to the changing times and shrinking page counts by reducing the number of features that it carried. Only a few years earlier, that number had been three, but by 1963, when this issue saw print, it was down to two: a Superman lead story and a back-up starring his cousin Supergirl. This made for a strong thematic package–moreso than the days when you’d get something like Congorilla in the book’s back pages. Mort’s Superman titles were a highly polished operation at this point and aimed squarely at the young end of the readership spectrum. But you need to credit him for that, as these books sold way in excess of any other costumed hero books in the industry for years and years–buoyed in part, no doubt, by the ubiquity of the Man of Steel in reruns of the live action ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN television program.
The story in this issue is a bit of a typical entry for this period. It was written by Leo Dorfman and illustrated by the smooth lines of Curt Swan embellished by George Klein, one of his best inkers. It’s also apparently an updating of an earlier Superman adventure that had appeared years before in ACTION COMICS #220–the common wisdom was that the readership turned over every couple of years, so Mort and his fellow editors weren’t above recycling good performing ideas and stories from the past. It’s all about Superman facing and dealing with failure. You see, one day, Superman is scooped up by a group of aliens from the planet Vorn who want him to compete in their yearly Interplanetary Olympics. Lana Lang, who was going to be interviewing Superman at the time, is swept up to Vorn along with him, and she’s all for seeing Superman clobber the competition in these sporting events. But not only are the competitors just as powerful as Superman is, but the Man of Steel’s fabled super-powers appear to be in decline as well, weakened in some manner. Consequently, he loses event after event, and is forced to suffer the cheers of the crowd. Lana insists that there must be some reason for this failure, she never loses faith in the Man of Steel. But the Big Guy can’t get it together to win any events and bring glory home to Earth.
But this was all deliberate on Superman’s part, of course. He worked out pages ago that the aliens on Vorn were lying to him about everything. The Interplanetary Olympics was simply a ruse so that they could drain off energy from his use of his super-powers for their own nefarious ends. So consequently, Superman stymied them by not expending any of his super-energy, despite the fact that he thus looked like a weakling. Back at his Fortress on Earth, Superman shows Lana remotely that the people of Vorn were all intergalactic criminals who intended to use the super-energy harnessed from him to escape into the future. But as the pair looks on, the Intergalactic Police show up to capture them, their bid for freedom stymied by an empty gas tank.
At the halftime point, we get another of Mort’s “Coming Super-Attractions” house ads for his other titles, this one leaning a bit more heavily on a visual component than these typically did. But it’s another pretty good crop of comics in terms of separating young readers from their dimes and pennies: Superman fights Luthor on a world where he’s powerless and gets the crap beaten out of him! Lois tries to ensnare Superman with a Love Detector! (Okay, that one’s not all that wonderful a hook.) A member of the Legion of Super-Heroes must die in order to resurrect the fallen Lightning Lad! Plus, if you’re in New Jersey, come and hang out at the Palisades Amusement Park on Superman’s dime!
Then we get a slightly truncated Metropolis Mailbag letters page, in which Mort anonymously answered questions from his young readers. For a brief time during this period, DC/National had resurrected the long-dormant Supermen of America fan club from the 1940s, including its use of the Superman Code to provide secret messages to the audience. As I recall, this new version of the operation didn’t last very long, but this ad for it did eat up about 1/3 of this letters page’s space. For those who never bothered to send in their dime for membership, I will break the sacred trust and reveal to you that this month’s secret message reads THE NEXT ISSUE OF ACTION WILL REVEAL WHY SUPERMAN NEEDS A SECRET IDENTITY.
The back-up story, as revealed earlier, stars Supergirl, who had become almost as popular as the Man of Tomorrow himself. It possibly helped matters that the Supergirl strip had just a hair more serialization to it than most of the other Superman stories, giving it more the feeling of a free-flowing saga than a series of unconnected one-off adventures. Either way, it was expanded to equal length with the opening Superman story as a result of its popularity. This month’s outing was written by Leo Dorfman and illustrated by the Girl of Steel’s regular artist Jim Mooney.
This story showcases Supergirl contending with one of her more memorable foes, Black Flame. As powerful as Supergirl herself, but dedicated to the cause of evil, Black Flame reveals to Supergirl that she’s both the Pirate Queen of the future 40th Century and also Supergirl’s own descendant. Supergirl is heartbroken that, no matter what good deeds she does in the present, in the years to come, she’ll be hated by people for having been the ancestor of the notorious Black Flame.
But this whole story is just a lie to torture Supergirl. Black Flame is actually Zora, a citizen of the Bottle City of Kandor who had been a friend and associate of Lesla-Lar, the villainous scientist who gave Supergirl a bunch of trouble. She escaped the Bottle City and used Red Kryptonite to adopt the guise of the Black Flame in order to get revenge on the Maid of Steel for Lesla-Lar. Once she sorts out the truth about her foe, Supergirl fakes destroying her own powers permanently with some Gold Kryptonite so that her future descendants won’t have them either. Once this ruse causes Zora to reveal herself, Supergirl uses some actual Gold Kryptonite to take away Black Flame’s super-powers permanently, and imprisons her back in Kandor once again. It’s a typical puzzle story of the era, one in which at no point do Supergirl and Black Flame actually directly battle with their super-powers. The entire thing hinges on Kara working out Black Flame’s true identity and then using that knowledge to win out.
One thought on “WC: ACTION COMICS #304”
Like Lesla-Lar (I’m a fan of hers), Black Flame had the potential for an archfoe, but she vanished after this except for one appearance in Adventure 400. A shame.
The Superman/Luthor story with the debut of Lexor and the Legion’s resurrection of Lightning Lad were great stories.