I believe that I left you yesterday teetering on a knife’s edge, wondering how Action Comics ever got away with spending four months in 1978 justifying the production of a frankly disappointing die-cast toy. As you’ll recall, Corgi, one of the finest names in the British die-cast novelties market, wanted to make a Superman-themed companion piece to its successful line of Batman toys. The caped crusader had an easily merchandisable Batmobile, Batboat and Batcopter, so Superman was going to get a Supermobile, whether he needed it or not, which he didn’t.
Showing a ready willingness to bend to the needs of die-cast commerce, Action Comics produced a four-issue toy commercial, starting with issue #480 in February 1978. That first installment set up the premise of the storyline: A wave of red-sun radiation that has washed over the Earth, causing several problems.
First, it’s reactivated the deactivated Amazo, an enormous terrifying android who has all the powers of the Justice League and never lets you forget it. Now Amazo is hunting down his mad scientist creator, Professor Ivo, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Second problem: The red-sun radiation has dimmed Superman’s powers, leaving him vulnerable and helpless. Problem number three is that Amazo has tricked all of the other superheroes into gathering on the Justice League satellite, which he’s propelled into another dimensional plane.
As of the middle of the second issue, Amazo has tracked the weakening Superman to his Fortress of Solitude, where the action ace has concealed Professor Ivo, and the only way that Superman can fight the android is to jump into his souped-up Supermobile hot rod, and show the boys and girls at home all of its exciting action features.
As we rejoin the story, Superman has just introduced Amazo and the rest of us to the amazing die-cast Supermobile by driving it directly into Amazo’s face, which is the only way he knows how to behave.
Amazo is trying to rope Superman’s new ride by using a duplicate of Wonder Woman’s magic lasso — did I mention that Amazo has all of the powers of the Justice League? — and he dares to laugh at this outlandish contraption.
Superman says, “Now for a demonstration…”
“… to show you what the SMB can do! For starters, there’s instantaneous vertical acceleration!” And there we are, rocketing through the roof instantaneously, with Amazo clinging on to his little string.
So the first item on the agenda, obviously, is coming to terms with the cute pet name, the SMB. This apparently stands for Super Mo Bile, so already there’s one strike against the concept.
“This defies all logic!” Amazo blurts out, as the instantaneous v.a. knocks him off his feet. “No engine on Earth can possibly counteract my strength!”
“You’re right about that, Amazo!” Superman says, from inside the cockpit. “But who said anything about an engine?” This does not appear to mean anything in particular.
“You dare toy with me, Superman?” the android growls, battling a toy. “You possess even more impudence than I gave you credit for!” Supervillains are always pissed off when they encounter impudence; they just don’t seem to care for it, for some reason.
Reaching into his bag of tricks, Amazo uses Green Lantern’s power-beam to hurl dangerous imaginary objects in Superman’s direction. “I knew I could count on you for a power-beam attack sooner or later,” Superman explains — this whole battle is just the two of them aggressively explaining things to each other — “That’s why the SMB is equipped with special sensors that instantly activate a yellow aura!” There’s an asterisk at the end of that line, with a helpful caption that reminds the reader that Green Lantern’s power-beam has no effect on anything colored yellow.
That’s how you know how exciting this comic-book battle is; you need at least two explanations for everything that happens. The interesting thing about this particular excerpt from the instruction manual is that it implies that Superman just built the Supermobile a couple of minutes before Amazo arrived, which is somewhere on the spectrum between unlikely and impossible, for nitpicky reasons that I’ll address later on.
I also don’t really know what a yellow aura is, or how you’d activate one, although technically I guess that’s my problem rather than Superman’s.
Okay, what else? Well, the SMB is also equipped with every single one of Superman’s ocular powers, including heat vision, x-ray vision, telescopic vision, microscopic vision and night vision, so if you ever wanted to examine something microscopic while you’re driving a car then the Supermobile is basically your only option.
Meanwhile, the Justice League dummies are left standing on the sidelines, watching the whole thing on TV through the make-believe barrier that traps them in another dimension that Amazo told them they were in.
Observing closely, Batman deduces that the Supermobile must be made of Supermanium: “The strongest metal ever created — so strong, in fact, that only Superman’s heat vision can soften the substance — and only his super-strength is mighty enough to mold it! He had to build the car in a radiation-shielded room of the Fortress!”
This is probably just mouth noise intended as a verbal handjob to cheer up the boys at Corgi, but if that’s true then it’s a continuity error worthy of a No-Prize for yours truly. You see, just a couple pages ago, Superman indicated that he’d built the yellow-aura-inducer as a preparation for Amazo’s power-beam attack, which means that he just constructed the Supermobile right before Amazo arrived. But he’d need to use his heat vision and super-strength to do that, and he lost his powers at the same time that Amazo was reactivated, so he couldn’t. And now, my transformation into the Simpsons Comic Book Guy is complete.
Clearly, the Supermobile is the biggest and coolest and most exciting thing ever, so at a certain point you can’t blame Amazo from just going ahead and humping it like a dog. I mean, he’s only human, or at least human-shaped. Down, boy.
But Superman knows how to handle bossy androids who get fresh with the machinery; he activates the robotic hands, which curve upwards and KLO-PPP Amazo with all the might and fury of the Man of Steel’s super-strength.
These fists are the only actual play feature on the toy, and they don’t work like this. What actually happens is that you press a button at the back of the toy, and the fists pop out straight ahead with a little click. Then you either push them carefully back into place, or — inevitably — they break off and get lost or swallowed, at which point you need another toy.
So this is false advertising, and it sets a bad precedent for the superhero toy tie-ins of the future, if anybody still feels like making any.
And then just a couple panels later, Amazo says, “So! Your Supermobile is equipped for land-travel as well as sea and air!” which is also not true; the toy doesn’t have any wheels, which takes land-travel out of the equation. My class action suit is shaping up nicely so far.
This isn’t the first time that Superman has been involved in deceptive toy marketing, of course. Back when we were in Kansas, I wrote about Daisy Toys’ Krypto-Raygun, a 1941 toy introduced in Action Comics #32, in a story that implied that the toy could take pictures as well as project them, which it didn’t.
Anyway, that round of the fight ends in a draw, so Amazo vows to kill one of Superman’s supporting cast, and that’s the cliffhanger that leads into the third issue of the story. This is April now, issue #482, and obviously they have to begin by reintroducing the goddamn toy all over again.
Live from the WGBS news set, Lana Lang enthuses: “Able to zoom over tall buildings with a single thrust!” (Yikes.) “More powerful than a Metrack train! Far faster than the SST!”
This is followed by a panel of local yokels, exclaiming:
“Look! Up in the sky!”
“I never saw a plane like that!”
“Where’ve you been, lady? That’s no plane — it’s the one and only SUPERMOBILE!”
So this is about as transparent of a hard sell as Corgi could have hoped for. I can’t imagine that DC got that much money from the toy license, that it justified cheapening themselves to this extent.
“Earlier today,” Lana continues, breathlessly, “Superman began patrolling Metropolis in the incredible Supermobile — or, as the headline writers have dubbed it — the SMB!” I’m sure they did.
But the American child isn’t interested in testimonials; we need to see the thing in action, fighting crime. So we get a sequence in which Superman notices some suspicious activity at the U.S. Armory, and his response is to pilot the Supermobile — KRASSSHHHH — straight through the wall of a heavily-fortified government installation. This is yet another example of Superman’s incessant war on architecture that somebody really needs to sit down and discuss with him.
“You hear that?” says one of the chatty terrorists making themselves at home in the armory. “We are not alone anymore! Someone approaches!” You know, right at this moment, Richard Donner is in England, explaining to the crew about verisimilitude for the hundredth time, and just look at what they’re doing in the comics.
The terrorists narrate the entire encounter, which involves science that I’m not going to trouble you with. Basically, they’re stealing a gun that shoots goop at people, and while Supermobile is hovering in front of them, they try shooting goop at it.
And then we get the following:
“Utterly incredible! Superman huffs and puffs into that tube — and super air-jets emerge to blow out the flames!”
“That car does everything but sprout a pair of arms!”
“–Gasp!– Now it does grow arms!”
“Is there no limit to Superman’s ingenuity?”
Seriously, this toy is like an inch and a half long, and it doesn’t do anything. It’s astounding how much energy they’re putting into this.
And then it just goes on like this for several pages, talking about Supermanium and red radiation, and Superman’s limitless ingenuity.
Finally, our hero manages to track down Amazo, who’s threatening Lois in a random alleyway, and Superman’s idea of how to make the approach is to smash through yet another brick wall. I swear, it’s amazing that any structure in Metropolis is still standing.
Amazo responds to the Supermobile’s approach by throwing Lois into the air, so Superman swings by and picks her up like it’s a Mickey Mouse cartoon.
And here’s where the story starts to stretch credulity a bit. Amazo catches the Supermobile in midair, and delivers a drop-kick so powerful that the machine flies all the way out of Earth’s gravitational field and through “some sort of hyper-space barrier” which transports them to somewhere else in the solar system.
Then it’s time for a visit from Dr. Science, as the force of Amazo’s kick takes its toll on Lois.
“I forgot,” Superman gasps, “because I’m invulnerable, I’m immune to the devastating effects of sudden acceleration — but poor Lois is being literally crushed to death by all these G’s!”
There’s another asterisk, and a helpful caption says, “The faster an object moves, the more G’s (gravities) it encounters! Five G’s equal five times the weight in our normal gravity.”
So that’s nice, the comic book writers are trying to deliver a little gentle science education, which is immediately contradicted by the next baffling panel.
Powerfully, desperately, Superman puts his feet up on the dashboard and strains his awesome might to the absolute limit. “Got to exert my flying power in the opposite direction,” he explains. “Use my body as a human brake to slow us down! It’s the only chance Lois has to pull out of this alive!”
So that’s your challenge for the day, figuring out what Superman thinks he’s trying to do. You’re inside the car, dude. All you’re doing is pushing on the dashboard. How is this helping?
And then, unexpectedly, there’s a page that’s actually quite effective. Superman makes landfall on an undiscovered asteroid between Mars and Jupiter, where there’s a breathable atmosphere and plants somehow, but then they slow down and give him a moment to care for Lois.
This is like a little preview of what DC Comics are going to be like in the mid-80s, once British people start writing them. It’s not brilliant or anything, but it’s strikingly different from the nonstop jabbering on every other page. I don’t think there’s anything else like it in 1978 Superman comics, and it happens in the middle of a slap-happy hard-sell toy commercial.
It doesn’t last, of course; nothing truly beautiful ever does. Before you know it, Amazo’s on the scene, in a panel that showcases the android’s astounding ass.
So here’s the big dramatic climax, with Superman and Lois cowering as Amazo demands to know where Professor Ivo is… and then there’s a little squeaky voice from inside Superman’s cape, crying: “Stop! This madness has gone on long enough!”
And look who it is, it’s little Professor Ivo, the miniature mastermind who’s been hiding out in a pocket in Superman’s cape this whole time. “I must, Superman!” he squeaks, adorably. “I have no right to endanger your life or Miss Lane’s any longer!”
Amazo brings the professor back to full size using Black Canary’s sonic whammy or whatever, but just when everything seems lost, Superman makes a sudden spring, and WHAMMM, he gives Amazo a blow that clobbers him all the way into the asteroid.
Everyone’s shocked, but it turns out that Superman’s got his powers back, ta dah, because it wasn’t a hyperspace pocket that they traveled through — it was the time-barrier! which is a thing that happens in Superman comics. They’ve actually traveled five days into the future, when the wave of red-sun radition has passed by, and I can’t believe I’m explaining this as if it’s a sensible plot development.
Anyway, now that Superman’s powers are restored, he can just load the humans into the Supermobile and ferry them back to Earth, problem solved.
Amazo isn’t defeated, unfortunately, and there’s a whole fourth issue devoted to more Superman/Amazo battle scenes, but this is essentially the end of the Supermobile material. At the beginning of the next issue, Superman parks the SMB on the roof of the Galaxy Building, and then he forgets all about it.
The Supermobile actually sticks around for a couple of months — Superman uses it again in June’s Superman #324 to clean up some Kryptonite, and he’s still piloting the thing in the following issue. Then it disappears for a year and a half, and the next and last time that we see it, it’s in Super Friends #27 (Dec 1979). After that, it passes into nostalgia.
So that went great, as far as Corgi was concerned. They sold so many toys that in 1979, they released a City of Metropolis playset for the five Superman cars. They also added Wonder Woman and Shazam cars to the line, and I don’t think those characters needed cars either.
In 1984, Kenner Toys came out with its own Supermobile toy, which wasn’t exactly the same as the original, but was clearly informed by the previous design. This toy didn’t have fists that popped out of the front, but it did have a “Krypton Action Ram”, a feature which I have utterly failed to learn anything about.
So this skirmish in the ancient war between Art and Commerce is pretty much a clear win for Commerce, as usual. Still, it could have been worse; Corgi’s other 1978 Superman toy was a plastic Superman Hopper, so we could have ended up with a story about Superman bouncing around on his SMH. Maybe I should just get back to the movie.
1.60: Stop the Steal.
— Danny Horn