Superman is up in the air at last, and now — at the late date of 70 minutes into a 140-minute experience — we might say that Superman: The Movie has finally begun. He’s rocketed skyward, a danger to sneak thieves and drug smugglers, and a friend in need to cats and kings.
As we discussed yesterday, the film’s special effects crew finally figured out how to produce credible shots of the action ace soaring through the sky, which is great, but it involved a great deal of wear and tear on the harnesses, the front projection equipment and the lead actor. It’s too bad that the Superman crew didn’t realize that there was an alternative, which was proposed in Action Comics in spring 1978, on behalf of a British toy company.
This sad story begins, as so many sad stories do, with Batman.
Back in 1966, ABC-TV put together a little program called Batman, a half-hour of silly thrills that was kind of a parody of Batman comic books and movie serials, but was also in some ways a faithful adaptation of what Batman comics were like in the ’60s. You and I are destined to unpick that contradiction at some point in the future, but for now, the important things to note are that a) the Batman show was a hit, and b) it gave a lot of screen time to the Batmobile, the caped crusader’s crime-crushing car.
Capitalizing on the show’s success, Corgi Toys — a British concern that specialized in die-cast toy vehicles — released a set of three Bat-vehicles: a Batmobile, a Batboat and a Batcopter. This went along with the other action-hero cars in their line, which included James Bond’s Aston-Martin, the Thrush-Buster from The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Steed’s Bentley from The Avengers (not the one you’re thinking of).
Corgi re-released the Bat toys in 1976, which is around the time they started hearing that there was going to be a big-budget Superman movie coming out in 1978. The company wanted to make a Superman set as well, but there was a problem: unlike Batman, Superman doesn’t have any branded vehicles, because he doesn’t need them. Superman can fly.
Marvel Comics had the same problem in 1974, when Stan Lee was trying to get toy companies to produce Marvel toys. Spider-Man was their most popular character, but he didn’t have accessories, and he definitely didn’t need a car. Spider-Man swings around on webs and doesn’t need transport, but Stan said give Spider-Man a car, and they gave Spider-Man a car.
It didn’t last. The Spider-Mobile premiered in Amazing Spider-Man #130 (March 1974), where they mess around with it for six pages, and then Spider-Man parks it somewhere and forgets about it. A year later, he takes the car out for another spin, which lasts four pages, and ends with Mysterio tricking him into driving the Spider-Mobile into the Hudson River, where it stays.
Faced with this merchandising dilemma in 1978, DC introduced the amazing Supermobile, a Superman-driven flying car which delivered a powerful punch with its extensible metal fists.
That was all it did, actually; the toy only had one feature. If you pressed the red jet exhaust at the back, the two fists would strike out, and then you either broke them or you pushed them back into their original position, and that was the limit of the Supermobile’s entertainment potential. I suppose it was more of a cerebral toy, for philosophical children who were satisfied with die-cast cars that didn’t have wheels.
If you needed more play value than that, you could buy the other toys in the set, which included a Daily Planet news truck, a Superman van, a police car, and — most exciting of all — the Daily Planet news chopper, which you could use to re-enact the exciting Lois Lane helicopter rescue.
To justify this low-impact merchandising blitz, Action Comics invested in a complex four-issue storyline featuring the Supermobile, which I will now tell you everything about.
The story begins in Action Comics #480 (Feb 1978), with a villain so dangerous that he’s already punched you in the face by the time you get to the bottom of page 1. You hardly have time to take your coat off.
Superman is on-duty at the Justice League Satellite, an orbiting headquarters located 22,000 miles up, which is convenient for Superman and I don’t think anybody else. A satellite is a weird choice for a superteam’s headquarters, especially if the team includes ground-bound heroes like Green Arrow and Aquaman. I suppose they could hitch a ride on SpaceX, assuming that Bruce Wayne is pals with Elon Musk, but any commute that involves a countdown is kind of a headache.
Anyway, Superman’s bored, waiting around for somebody to do something interesting on the entire planet Earth, when suddenly a huge fist pops him in the face and now he’s fighting somebody!
This is Amazo, an enormous, partially nude dude who happens to be the Justice League’s mightiest foe. Amazo is an android who was created in 1960 by the mad inventor Professor Ivo, and he’s utilized the awesome power of “somehow” to scoop up all the powers of the Justice League, somehow.
He’s terribly dangerous, but everyone thought that he’d been permanently deactivated, so they’ve been keeping him in an ultra-reinforced display cocoon, downstairs in the satellite’s pointless JLA Museum. There are so many design problems inherent in this scenario that it’s hard to pick one to focus on, but I guess the main concern is that you shouldn’t put dangerous people on display, deactivated or not. It’s not like the JLA Museum needs a new exhibit, in order to attract more tourists. What is the matter with superteams?
Anyway, Amazo is a mechanized organism designed only for smacking around Superman, so he snaps into it right away. This isn’t one of those situations where a villain sits around for years, developing a master plan. Amazo is unexpectedly awake, therefore he starts whaling on the first superchump he can get his massive mitts on.
They take the fight outside, punching a distressing hole through the satellite wall, and Amazo continues to dominate the encounter, protecting himself with Green Lantern’s ring aura and then heating up a huge meteorite and hurling it at Superman, resulting in this actually rather spectacular panel.
Then we hear from the mad Professor Ivo, currently serving time in a small college campus in northern New England.
“For years I’ve been dreading this day,” he thinks, looking to the stars. “But now it’s finally happened — the miniature alarm I implanted in my brain is ringing wildly! Nowhere on the face of the Earth will I be safe!”
Now, I know that neither of us has the time to delve into the intricacies of every single panel of this dumb comic book, but I would like to take a moment to appreciate “the miniature alarm I implanted in my brain”.
I mean, who does that, and how, and why? I understand that you’d want to be notified in the event of your terrifying homegrown supermonster being reactivated, but why would you put the alarm in your brain, of all places? I can’t see the dude’s entire ensemble from this vantage point, but I assume he has pockets. I suppose this is all part of the deal, when you become a mad scientist; you can’t help but mad science your way out of any problem that arises.
Amazo is able to knock Superman all the way out of orbit and into the sea like a chump, which obviously Superman is a little curious to know how he did it. So he wings his way to the Fortress of Solitude, where, I’m happy to observe, some of the crazy Silver Age Fortress stuff is still around in 1978, including Superman’s exhausting giant diary, which is carved in Kryptonese on unnecessarily large sheets of metal, for the benefit of no one.
Naturally, the second that Superman gets home, he uses his own inexhaustible supply of somehow to instantly understand the bonkers premise of this story. It turns out that billions of years ago in a distant galaxy, a gargantuan red sun went nova, sending out a wave of red radiation, whatever that is, which has spent countless eons traveling through space and has just reached Earth, ta dah.
The red radiation reactivated Amazo somehow, and it’s also weakened Superman somehow, and he realizes, somehow, that within twelve hours, he’ll have no superpowers at all. Three cheers for somehow, the all-weather story stuffer.
So then every goddamn superhero on the entire planet decides to hang out in the damaged Justice League satellite all at the same time, which I don’t care if you’re collectively worried about Superman, it’s a bizarre thing to go and do. How do you all have time to go to space?
As soon as they’re all gathered in the same location like a bunch of numbskulls, Amazo appears on their viewscreen and tells them that he’s used a combination of Superman’s super-will power and Green Lantern’s power beam to wish them all into the cornfield, instantly and silently propelling the satellite into another dimensional plane from which there is no escape, which sucks. I didn’t even know that Superman had super-will power.
Back on earth, Clark goes outside and runs into the mad Professor Ivo, who explains that “I have now totally rehabilitated myself!” which is usually not up to the criminal to evaluate. Ivo knows that he’s in trouble, thanks to the miniature a. that he implanted in his b., which on its own is a reason to be skeptical about the auto-rehabilitation.
But it turns out that Professor Ivo is correct — he really is in trouble — although with a guy like Ivo that’s probably always the case. This example involves Amazo the enormous android tracking down his taxicab and peeling off the roof with an abrasive SCRUNNCHH! as seen above.
Amazo grabs Professor Ivo and carries him away — apparently, he’s mad at his creator for creating him; I’m not sure why — and Clark needs to turn into Superman in order to take care of the problem.
He doesn’t want the bystanders in Metropolis to see him change from Clark into Superman, so what does he do? I’ll tell you what. He uses his heat vision to make the taxicab explode.
Seriously! That’s what Superman does today. In order to protect his precious secret identity, he ignites an explosion in the middle of a bustling Metropolis street, and then he just leaves the car there for somebody else to clean up. I keep telling people that Superman is a dangerous monster from outer space, but nobody listens, and look what happens.
Now, at this point, you’re probably wondering how the hell this is supposed to move units of a British die-cast car with retractable fists and no wheels, and you’re right, they’re taking the long way around. This is the cliffhanger at the end of issue #480, and it’s in #481 that things start heating up, die-cast-wise.
Amazo has a hate-on for both Superman and Professor Ivo that defies all reason, so at the start of #481, he lines them up on the street, and then brings down his fists in a mighty KRASSSHHHHH of a death blow.
But instead of being pulverized into dust, Superman and Ivo suddenly find themselves in the Fortress of Solitude’s teleportation cube, ta dah! Superman managed to teleport them both out of the way, just before Amazo could crush them…
by using the automatic teleport-activator, which he was keeping in his mouth. Superman, you need to hear this: stop storing your equipment in your mouth. It’s unhygienic and nobody is impressed.
By this point, Superman has lost his powers, so he needs to stash Ivo somewhere safe, and then figure out how to defeat Amazo, preferably using equipment that’s not coated with saliva. He’s brought Ivo to his secret hideout, where he opens up an even more secret door.
He says, “All I’ve got going for me are my wits and — THIS!” and somewhere in England, a die-cast toy manufacturer pricks up its ears.
Once Ivo’s stored away, Superman writes another diary entry so that he can recap everything that happened in the last issue, and then — Amazo!
“I vibrated into the Fortress via super-speed — as the Flash would,” says the android, “to avoid setting off your alarms!” Everything this clown does, he has to explain whose powers he’s using.
But hooray, it turns out the Fortress’ interplanetary zoo is still online, and Superman manages to break free, thanks to the timely intervention of his pet Titanian Flying Snake, which must be nice to have around on lonely evenings in the Arctic.
Amazo makes short work of the snake, using Elongated Man’s stretching-powers and Black Canary’s sonic whammy — it’s always something with this guy — and then he looks around to see where Superman might have gone…
And then — CRASHHHHH! — it’s here, the amazing die-cast sensation!
“What an outlandish contraption, Kryptonian!” the android chuckles. “Have you dignified it with a name?”
“How does Supermobile grab you?” Superman says, to the merry ring of the miniature alarm I implanted in my brain, for just such an occasion.
Oh, there’s so much more that I have to tell you about the Supermobile, but it’s getting late and I know you have things to do, so how about we’ll meet back here tomorrow, and I’ll tell you about the rest of this thrilling story/toy commercial. See you then!
1.59: The Alternative, part 2
— Danny Horn