Monday, January 23, 2006

The Ten Comics That Changed My Life--Part 2

2. Superman #193

There were other stories in this issue, but only one has stayed with me since 1967 is the original, classic “The Death of Superman.” (A quick check of The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told shows that this story was originally presented in Superman #149, 1961.) I was six when I came across this book and I was probably at exactly the right age to fall under the spell of the writing style editor Mort Weisinger championed among his writers. I know that every CHOKE!, GASP! and zee . . . zee . . . zee make post-modern comic fans wince with embarrassment. Personally, I think that such shorthand helps convey a story to those who are “age challenged” and helps keep a story in a manageable package, as opposed to, oh, let’s say, a two-part story stretched into a four-part arc, just the right size for a trade paperback reprinting.

Superman #193 (above) reprinted "The Death of Superman," which was originally printed in Superman #149 (left).
(Images from Grand Comcs Book Database

Fittingly, Superman co-creator, Jerry Siegel, wrote the story. To a comic fan that started reading comic within the last eighteen years or so, I’m sure the story is terribly presented and incredibly hokey; the story doesn’t progress because of character motivation as much as a series of events occur. A Superman story from the Weisinger era often feels as though they were written to the tempo of The Saber Dance. I can even almost see Weisinger standing behind his desk, snapping his fingers as he gives each order ala James Cagney in One, Two, Three, telling Siegel to move on.

Beyond that, however, this was the first comic book story to affect me. I mean really get to me. I knew Superman wasn’t dead, if only because there were other Superman stories in the comic book, but I was still able to understand how important it would have been had Superman really died.

The story draws you in slowly. Maybe Luthor really does want to reform. He cured cancer, for goodness sake, and later he stood up to criminals threatening him with death if he didn’t play ball. Maybe only a child, or Superman, could actually believe that someone so evil could really reform. Then comes Luthor’s betrayal and Superman’s slow death at his hand by kryptonite poisoning, Luthor turning the screw by forcing the hero’s dearest friends to watch.

The third chapter is where I completely bought into the story as we are shown the world mourning Superman. The opening mini-splash alone convinced of how important this story was because not only was Batman in line to pay his respects as Superman lie in state, but Aquaman, Flash, Green Arrow and Wonder Woman where there, too. Batman was known to be Superman’s friend, they were in a comic book together, so for other heroes to show up underlined the importance of the event.

(I know that even as a young pre-reader, it was never a problem that aliens would invade Flash’s home city, for instance, yet Superman never showed up to help out. Maybe because I was learning about comic books on my own, I easily was able to keep each character in his or her little comic world. Flash stories were over there and Green Lantern stories over there and Justice League adventures in a third place and there was no intersection--or as we call it now, "continuity"--unless it was necessary. Like in “The Death of Superman.”)

In counterpoint, Luthor was celebrating with the underworld cronies, gangsters and molls from this side of The Adventures of Superman. As Luthor gloated and lovingly retold the tale of his triumph to his admirers, a statue and a painting depicting Superman’s final moments, loom behind him. He had killed Superman and, subconsciously, I was becoming aware of how potent a medium “comic books” could be, if you were willing to let yourself believe in the story.

Then, magnificently, Superman returns! He crashes through a wall, rubble flying, surprising the gathered criminals! Of course, he’s alive; Superman can’t die!

In the second panel, Superman ends Luthor’s celebration as the criminal scientist’s compatriots turn on him verbally. Then, in the next panel, we see that it isn’t Superman, but Supergirl in disguise, revealing her existence to the world by capturing her cousin’s murderer.

Supergirl flies Luthor off to Kandor, the Kryptonian city shrunken and preserved by Brianiac before, now safe in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. Luthor will answer for his crime before a tribunal of Superman’s fellow survivors as the world watches. More knowing, I can now see the parallel between Luthor’s trial and the post-World War II war crime trials.

Throughout this story, the art of Curt Swan, with George Klein inking, has been wonderful, as always. Others may favor Swan teamed with Murphy Anderson, or Joe Shuster, or Wayne Boring, but to me the perfect Superman art team was Swan and Klein. Looking at Luthor as he stands trial, you can see the muscles in Luthor’s face radiating his arrogance, the contempt he feels for the Kandorians palatable.

His contempt grows from his belief that he is still in control of the situation, that no sentient being is truly honorable. In exchange for his release, Luthor offers to enlarge Kandor again, something Superman had promised to do for his fellow Kryptonians. To his surprise, the tribunal rejects the offer and Luthor is sentenced to death, one more humane than what he caused Superman to suffer.

The story ends with Supergirl and Krypto (“Now I belong to . . . Supergirl,” the dog thinks) patrolling the skies, taking up Superman’s never-ending battle. In the final panel, a ghostly, heroic shade of Superman waves his down upon the two from the heavens (or Heaven), wishing them well.

How in the world could a kid not want to keep on reading comic books after a roller coaster ride like that? They don’t write them like that anymore; they probably don’t dare. I don’t know how kindly the comic fan of today would take to an imaginary story breaking up the “flow” of continuity. I think that fans cheat themselves out of some great stories because they want every issue of every continuing series they buy to be a required piece of continuity. Not that imaginary stories aren’t being written anymore, but they are usually presented as expensively packaged mini-series that don’t sell as well as they could.

This story showed me that the basic underlying theme of any, what we would today call “mainstream,” super hero story should be hope. Superman died, but his killer was captured and punished. Maybe more importantly, Superman’s legacy continued. For a young child, the world is black and white and I think it should be for as long as possible. Shades of grey will come soon enough, sometimes it seems sooner than it had for the previous generation. Had I been six years old and the story I’d read been ambiguous story (or just one part of a year-long event), I can’t say that I would have wanted to read other Superman comic books.

This story stays with me, who age and experience have pushed toward pessimism, still if only because it is unashamedly optimistic, allowing for hope in the most dire circumstances. And I’m secure enough to say that I like that outcome still.