The year was 1978. With a blockbuster Superman movie on the horizon, DC Comics editor Julie Schwarz said that he didn’t plan on changing anything in the Superman comics to tie in with the movie, because a) the books were already selling well, and b) the movie would bring in new readers.
Neither of those statements turned out to be true.
In reality, the sales of both Action Comics and Superman had been falling precipitously for over a decade. Between 1965 and 1975, Action Comics lost 56% of its sales — 525,000 copies a month to 231,000 — and Superman lost 64%, going from a healthy 824,000 copies a month to an anemic 296,000 in ten years.
In 1979, when Superman: The Movie was by far the #1 box office draw in the country, Action Comics sales actually dropped, from 184,000 in 1978 to 161,000 in 1979, and they kept on going down. Superman sales went up a little bit, from 223,000 to 246,000, but then they dropped all the way to 179,000 in 1980.
It’s now an accepted fact that successful superhero movies encourage people to watch more superhero movies, but they don’t do much for comics sales. Today, we’re going to take a look at a 1978 issue of Action Comics, and see if we can figure out why.
To understand what was happening in the Superman comics of 1978, you need to know about the Bronze Age, which started around 1970 and lasted until the universal reboot in 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths.
So far, we’ve talked about the Silver Age of Comics of the late 1950s and early 60s, when the Superman titles had a firm grip on the imaginary fantasy landscape of the American middle-school child. That’s when the Super-comics came up with crazy ideas like the Fortress of Solitude, the Phantom Zone and Beppo the Super-Monkey, and kids just ate it up.
But then Marvel Comics came along in 1961, and started targeting the adolescent crowd with more relatable heroes like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four — moody characters, with complex relationships and hurt feelings. By the end of the 60s, Marvel was the hip trendsetter, and DC’s line of golden oldies started to look childish and square.
That led to the Bronze Age of the 70s, when DC tried to be more relevant to the youth of the day, with mixed results. For Superman, that meant ditching the boring old newspaper business, and transferring Clark and Lois to glamorous new jobs in television news. In 1970, the Daily Planet was acquired by the Galaxy Broadcasting System, and soon after, Clark became the anchorman for the WGBS evening news.
Tired old characters that people actually enjoyed, like Perry White, Jimmy Olsen and Lex Luthor, were put on the backburner, replaced by grouchy media mogul Morgan Edge, and bull-headed sports reporter Steve Lombard. The new expanded cast also included stressed-out director Josh Coyle, gossip reporter Lola Barnett and newsanchor Melba Manton, and if you’ve never heard of any of these characters, that’s because the entire concept was a crippling failure, and after fifteen years of steadily declining audience share, the only thing DC could do was destroy their entire fictional universe and start over again from scratch.
Still, they were trying to keep up with the times, and one important innovation was a technique that they’d picked up from Marvel — keeping a continuous story going from one issue to the next. In the Silver Age, when DC was targeting the middle-school market, they often had three different stories in a single issue. Story elements from earlier issues could return, so the readers were expected to remember that things like the Phantom Zone and the bottle city of Kandor existed, but every story had a definite ending, and you could read them in pretty much any order.
But Marvel characters always remembered what happened in the previous issue. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s big breakthrough in 1961’s Fantastic Four was to treat the characters like more-or-less real people, and a Fantastic Four story would often begin with the heroes still squabbling over whatever they were complaining about at the end of the last issue. This soap opera approach allowed for more complex storytelling, and readers were encouraged to pick up every issue.
By 1978, the Superman books had fully adopted this approach as well, and in the issue that I want to talk about today — “The Giant from the Golden Atom!” from January 1978’s Action Comics #479 — the story opens with Superman cleaning up the mess from the previous month’s planetwide alien invasion.
Unfortunately, the move from the Daily Planet to the WGBS evening news breaks an important part of the core premise of Superman stories. The reason why Clark Kent became a newspaper reporter in the first place is that he needs to stay nimble — going out and investigating news stories, and then popping into the alleyway to transform into the high-flying hero Superman. But becoming the anchor of a television show means that Clark needs to spend a lot of time in the studio, and during the broadcast, it’s essential for him to sit still in a chair for half an hour, unable to escape, because there are cameras pointed at him the entire time.
In other words, being a newspaper reporter was story-productive, with acres of potential for plot development, but becoming a television news anchor creates nothing but story-killing constraints. An anchorman isn’t even supposed to go out and interview people. He’s just a guy who sits behind a desk and says things.
Naturally, this makes Superman even more exhausting than usual; he has to do everything faster than the speed of television. In this case, he has to get to a WGBS meeting in twenty minutes, so he has to pour — it — on! which isn’t a great choice of words considering he’s cleaning up after a flood.
Nineteen minutes later, he’s back from mopping up literally every place in the world. “Clearing those trees in Africa threw me off schedule,” he thinks, “but I more than made up the time in Mongolia!” Fine, Superman; I’m sure you did.
When he gets back to Metropolis, Superman finds that the WGBS building is surrounded by an eerie red glow. His first thought is, “Is it Edge’s idea of a bizarre publicity stunt?” which is hard to figure.
Inside, all of the electrical equipment is glowing, and we see a panel of the lamps and televisions exploding, which you’d think would be fairly devastating for a television station’s business model; not having any cameras, monitors or lighting equipment can alter your whole work schedule. Luckily, by the next page, everybody’s forgotten that it happened and everything is fine; I guess they were insured.
Approaching the building, Superman drops to the sidewalk and starts shadow-boxing an invisible opponent, which lasts for a page and a half.
At the end of the fight, he gets punched so hard that he crashes into a brick wall, which destroys an entire building on a busy street, reducing it to rubble. This is standard practice for a Superman comic.
But look what they’ve added to the panel — a little sign that says “Condemned by City of Metropolis,” which is adorable. Superman’s been engaged in a one-man war against architecture since Action Comics #1, and even now, forty years later, they think that we need to be reassured about the safety of the citizens of Metropolis. We do not.
Anyway, Superman doesn’t have time for all of this. He’s already spent twenty minutes cleaning up after the last disaster, and now he’s got a work meeting, so somebody else is going to have to deal with the aftermath this time.
And check it out, it’s a whole staff meeting. They left Perry behind, sitting alone in the empty offices of the Daily Planet, so now Clark runs the daily news allotment session with a large selection of the current cast. There’s Clark and Lois, of course, and a grown-up Jimmy who doesn’t wear bowties anymore. Steve the sports guy is sitting on the desk at the left, and that’s Lana Lang in the green stripes, also grown up and I think she has a British accent for reasons that I have not yet discovered. The woman with the afro at bottom left is Melba Manton.
I don’t know who the guy with the mustache in the middle is. He only appears in this one panel, and nobody talks to him, or looks in his direction. The meeting goes on for two pages, but after this panel mustache guy disappears, into the ether. DC Database doesn’t know who he is, either. Man of mystery.
The one who gets the most attention is Steve Lombard, the comic relief bully. He’s got a big gold trophy for being named Sportscaster of the Year, and he wants to show it off in the evening’s broadcast. Steve is blustery and obnoxious, and once the meeting’s over, Clark’s going to deliberately trap him in the storage room, just to get away from him.
I talked yesterday about the formula for getting the audience to like a character — make a friend, make a joke, and make something happen. Steve delivers on the joke, but fails on the other counts. As far as I can tell, there isn’t a character in the whole place who actually likes Steve; everyone seems to be annoyed by him all the time.
And in this case, he’s positioned as a storyline speed bump, who insists on coming along with Clark on his assignment. This prevents Clark from putting on the Superman cape and making actual story progress, so Steve is clearly acting in direct opposition to the interests of the audience. That means we don’t like him, so if Clark wants to use his heat vision to weaken the screws in a shelving unit and crush Steve under a rack of heavy videotape canisters, then that is entirely fine with us.
Anyway, the actual plot is about a giant, super-strong gold creature that is apparently invisible to everyone except for Superman, for reasons that I don’t believe are ever satisfactorily explained. That’s who Superman was fighting outside the WGBS studio, and once the news allotment meeting is over, he’s got to find the guy again before he destroys an electric power station, which is what he’s already done.
So Superman rushes out to the exploded power station and has a standard fight sequence with the guy, picking up a large piece of what used to be someone else’s wall and smashing him over the head with the unlikely sound effect of SHAWHOOM!
This is a typical story structure for the period — some asshole alien shows up unexpectedly and starts breaking things, until Superman convinces him to stop. There’s a steady stream of asshole aliens arriving in Metropolis on a regular schedule in 1978 Superman comics.
The gold guy doesn’t feel like talking, but then Superman hits him with a power line.
“Joined by a sputtering high-intensity electrical arc,” the caption says, “the Man of Steel and the alien giant become — for an instant — one mind.” This kind of thing happens more often than you think.
So it turns out that the guy is a college student from a university in sub-microscopic space, who was disliked by his fellow students because they couldn’t handle how strong and smart and awesome he was. To prove his brilliance, he started experimenting with spectrum neutrino-bombardment, which exploded in his face and somehow made him grow all the way out of the atom that he lived in, into our world. This is distressingly common among lonely college students; we should probably form a committee or something.
The poor invisible chump thinks that he can get back to his tiny world if he accumulates a large enough charge of spectrum-electricity, and he either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that he’s blowing stuff up in Metropolis. So he socks Superman in the face and flies away, leaving behind the only person who has any interest in helping him. Asshole aliens do not stop and ask for directions.
Superman figures out that the guy’s home world must be in Steve’s gold trophy, but obviously he can’t explain that to Steve the human speed bump, so that slows him down for another page.
Naturally, the solution is to use his super-speed to make a fake trophy out of modeling clay and gold paint, and switch it for the real trophy, which we now know is crawling with tiny little jerks with grudges. I would watch how I handle that thing, because I wouldn’t want to get super-strong microscopic college students all over my shirt, but Superman does not sweat the small stuff.
What happens next is extremely sciencey. We catch up with the gold guy when he’s about to destroy a nuclear power complex, and after a spirited battle, Superman picks him up into the air, and you’ll never guess how he solves this whole problem.
What he does is that he gives the guy a super-speed backrub, in order to generate enough static electricity to reduce him back to atomic size, and send him back where he came from.
That is the actual thing that Superman does.
Then he throws the trophy into space, which accomplishes who knows what. He’s concerned about the guy enlarging himself again and continuing to be a nuisance, although if I were him, I’d be more worried about all of the other atoms in the world, each of which might carry its own crackpot university. Who knows how many millions of tiny faculty meetings are going on at this very moment, inside your body? It hardly bears thinking about.
This is the American legend that Richard Donner is working 26 hours a day to bring to the silver screen, this untidy alien sitcom, which ends with a comedy beat about Steve’s fake trophy melting under the studio lights.
So what do we make of the Superman comics of 1978, so far? I have to admit that I admire the creators’ willingness to shake up the status quo, and introduce new characters and situations. They could have just kept on doing stories for decades about Lois getting into trouble, or trying to figure out Superman’s identity, but instead they decided to move on, and find new things to think about.
The problem, of course, is that the new characters aren’t as interesting or as likeable as the original set. In this issue, they’re essentially doing a superpowered action-adventure episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, with Steve in the Ted Knight role, but he’s not actually funny, and there doesn’t seem to be any connection between the WGBS staff members and the lunatic outer space crises that pop up in their lives on a monthly basis.
There’s some electricity here, to be sure, but it’s mostly static, and we can’t power a blockbuster movie franchise on this low-energy lightbulb. The movie is going to have to make its way on its own.
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— Danny Horn