Superman III 4.11: Meanwhile, in 1983

But what, I’m sure you’re asking, is happening on the racks? As I go through these movies on the blog, I like to check in on what’s happening in the comics that year, because you never know what might happen if you don’t keep an eye on things. For example: in summer 1982, while I was occupied writing about rubber-suit swamp monsters, Action Comics went and split Superman into two half-powered twin Supermans, and they left him like that for eight months.

The gimmick is that in August 1982, Superman is suddenly sucked through the timestream into 14th century England for some reason — “Great Rao!” he observes, “I’m back in the Middle Ages!” — where he gets in between two squabbling wizard spouses who each want to use his invulnerable body to obtain the Power Ultimate, whatever that is. It seems like some kind of domestic dispute.

Lord Satanis stands on one side of Superman, and his wife, the Sorceress Syrene, stands on the other side, and they pull on the Action Ace like he’s a wishbone, and then he snaps in half, sorcerously. Now we’ve got one half-Superman who’s invulnerable and has heat-vision but doesn’t have flight, speed or super-strength, and another half-Superman who’s got flight, speed and super-strength but isn’t invulnerable and doesn’t have heat-vision, and if you ever lose track of which one has which powers, then Superman will spend the next eight months patiently explaining it to you, every five minutes.

I’m not going to lie to you, it gets a bit wearing. In September, one of the half-Supermans is sent back to Metropolis, where he spends the following months as a half-portion hero, flying around and punching people and fretting about not being indestructible. Every once in a while, he tries to travel back in time somehow so that he can save his other half, who’s still in the Middle Ages with the Sorceress Syrene, but it doesn’t work, and as the storyline drags on, it feels like there is a non-zero chance that this might actually be the new status quo.

But things finally get moving as we head into 1983, with only three more months of this storyline to go.

Action Comics #539  (January 1983)
“Past Imperfect!”
Marv Wolfman / Gil Kane

“Do you know the utter joy of total power? Why, I could turn you into protoplasmic slime if I so wished!”

Finally, after being off-canvas for several months, the Sorceress Syrene has figured out just what she wants to do with the half-hero that she’s been keeping quick-frozen in the Middle Ages.

“Now, all the forces are in order,” she explains to her dazed captive half-Superman, who I don’t know if he’s eaten anything. “I possess Merlin’s mystic runestone. Its powers shall be focused onto your invulnerable body… which shall act as a filter, destroying you while allowing the purified mystic energies to reach me!” They had five months to come up with a better explanation than that.

But she initiates the procedure, and the Power Ultimate flows through her Superman to insinuate Syrene’s body — her words, not mine — and at that moment in Metropolis, Clark just kind of flops over in the Daily Planet office and dies. But that’s not the problem.

The problem is that in this issue, Gil Kane does some of the worst Lois Lane art that I can imagine. The pic above is from page 11. He does Lana like that, too. Horrifying.

Action Comics #540  (February 1983)
“World Enough and Time”
Marv Wolfman / Gil Kane

“I have but to think, and you could become a crawling, mindless lizard!”

Man, you’ve got to hand it to the wizards, when it comes to the mid-battle conversation skills. A good part of this issue is just Lord Satanis and the Sorceress Syrene waving their hands around and trash talking, and if you have to fill a comic up with something, it might as well be this.

“With each passing moment,” the Sorceress Syrene says, among other things, “I gain mastery over my abilities. Feel my power, Satanis! Feel it pull you apart! Feel it rip into your very essence! This planet’s surface shifts, Satanis! Hold on now — before you plunge to your final doom! The planet’s maw opens to swallow you! It wants you, Satanis! Feed it, Satanis! Feed this limbo world of your doom!” That’s not even a whole page.

Lord Satanis isn’t as strong with the threats and maledictions, but he’s managed to decant himself into the empty dead husk of Syrene’s half-Superman, so now he’s got Superman’s invulnerability, his heat-vision, his rockin’ beach bod and probably his debit card PIN. The composite Satanis/Superman is more powerful, apparently, and he/they murder Syrene with a magical death ray, which Superman is supposed to be responsible for but I can’t figure out how.

Meanwhile, in present-day Metropolis, Clark Kent — who died fairly convincingly in the last issue — is suddenly alive again, coming to just as the doctor was about to begin the autopsy. There is no explanation for this. It seems to just be one of those things.

Action Comics #541  (March 1983)
“Once Again — Superman”
Marv Wolfman / Gil Kane

“I’ve never come that close to feeling my own mortality! Satanis, I don’t like what I felt!”

Finally, the half-Superman from Metropolis manages to catch a time taxi back to wherever Satanis is, and then that Superman fights the combined Satanis/Superman creature, until Satanis gets frustrated and expels his half-Superman from his body, so now there are two half-Supermans again.

Somehow, when the two half-Supermans clasp hands, it creates an enormous mystical Satanic Superman — seriously, that’s what they call it — who tries to fight Satanis as well.

Finally, this happens: “With its last erg of power, the Satanic Superman descends upon the bodies from whom it has risen… It re-merges with them… and even more!” So everything’s okay. It’s a good thing it had that last erg of power; I don’t know what they would have done otherwise.

Back in a single body at last, Superman comes up with a clever plan and guess what, it’s punching Satanis so hard that he goes back in time, crying like a baby.

Action Comics #542 (April 1983)
“Savage Awakening!”
Marv Wolfman / Curt Swan

“But how can super-strength or X-ray vision mend a shattered heart?” 

The cover says “Beginning an Exciting New Era in the Life of Superman!” but I don’t really know what they’re referring to. If it was modern comics, that would probably mean a new writer and artist and a new #1 issue, but this is made by the same people doing basically the same thing.

The Exciting New Era begins with an extremely Disappointing First Two Pages, where Lois asks Superman why he keeps breaking their dates, and he acts cold and distant and says that he’s concerned about the universe, which is a new low in breakup technique.

Then who should show up but Vandal Savage, a know-it-all time-teleporting dictator who took over the world a couple years ago until Superman persuaded him to give it back. Now he’s building helpful Superman robots and holding press conferences about how great he is.

Action Comics #543  (May 1983)
“Within These Hands — Power!”
Marv Wolfman / Curt Swan

“I tell you — these computers are ruining the world!”

Vandal Savage is trying to get under Superman’s impermeable skin, and it’s working surprisingly well. He keeps setting Superman up to look foolish, by hiring ex-con supervillains to do upsetting-looking but legal demolition work and waiting for Superman to bring them to jail for no reason. Superman responds to this attempt to discredit him by using his heat vision to trash Savage’s office.

Action Comics #544  (June 1983)
“Luthor Unleashed!” and “Rebirth!”
Cary Bates & Curt Swan / Marv Wolfman & Gil Kane

“Never before have I been so totally equipped to carry on our life-long war!”

So Kenner Toys got the license for DC characters, you see, and they wanted to put out an exciting action figure line called the Super Powers Collection with a bunch of exciting superheroes and supervillains and Hawkman. Batman has a picturesque rogues’ gallery, so the Joker and the Penguin were obvious choices for the toy line, but Superman’s villains were less inspiring.

Lex Luthor looked like a white guy in a green and purple suit, and Brainiac looked like a green guy in a purple and white suit, so Kenner asked DC if something could be done to action-figure them up a little. DC’s response was to publish a double-sized issue of Action Comics to do exactly that.

In the Lex Luthor story, Luthor has a sudden burst of self-awareness, as follows: “My life as a criminal on Earth — the never-ending hate-war I’ve always waged against Superman… all of it seems such a pathetic wasted life now!”

So he decides to fly off and retire on the planet Lexor, where he’s got a hot space-wife and a young space-son. But Superman shows up on Lexor, and Luthor instantly loses his mind, puts on a flashy new armored Warsuit and sort-of accidentally triggers a device that destroys the entire planet.

“All that matters now is resuming our war and feeding the hate!” Luthor cries, having fridged the space-wife. “I’m coming for you, Superman… and I have only just begun to hate!

In the Brainiac story, the mechanical man is trapped in a computerized coffin in space, so he triggers a star to go supernova to harness its energy and power, like you do.

But then, with no warning at all except the cover, his body suddenly decomposes into its molecular state and his essence is forced through miles of microscopic filament, which is disgorged into the vacuum of cold space and swept along by solar winds until he finds a living computer built long before the birth of our galaxy by beings or things unknown, and he absorbs information that is scattered across a hundred million galaxies, only to reintegrate, move through a black hole energy field, and edge through time, to return to the moment before the first primal atom exploded and then I don’t really understand what happens after that.

Seriously, it’s five pages of the most baffling nonsense, and somehow at the end of it Brainiac is a silver robot dude with an exposed brain and a totally boss spaceship that’s shaped like his skull plus metal octopus tentacles. I don’t find the robot body particularly compelling, but the spaceship is terrific, and it’s a shame that Kenner didn’t make a toy based on that.

Action Comics #545  (July 1983)
“… With But a Single Step!”
Marv Wolfman / Gil Kane

“But then I only possessed a mere 12th-level mind. I was a child compared to what I now am. Yet, the child grows into the adult, does he not?”

Brainiac spends the entire issue boasting and trash-talking, just like every other character in this book does all of the time.

“Superman, my red-sun missile did its work — you lie humbled, powerless and defeated at my feet. With but the merest thought I can and will destroy you!”

“My mind has absorbed all the knowledge this universe has to offer, and I have been rebuilt into something never seen before.”

“Appreciate the design of this vessel. Its machines are an extension of my own being.”

“Settle back. Do not move. These tests will not be lethal. That occurs later.”

“If your race believes in the primitive need of prayer for the dead, you have five minutes to exercise it.”

Action Comics #546  (August 1983)
“Showdown!”
Marv Wolfman / Gil Kane

“What’s the scoop, Wondy? Fleet-Feet having trouble on his history finals?”

This issue guest-stars the Justice League of America and the New Teen Titans, which is too many guest stars. The Justice League has nine members and the Teen Titans have eight. They can’t even fit them all on the cover.

Superman really just wants the Justice League, and he asks the Flash to call the other members to help him battle Brainiac. But Kid Flash happens to be standing there as well, and he asks if he should call the Titans too. “I’d use Bozo the Clown if he’d help,” Superman sighs.

So there’s all these surplus characters, and they only appear on ten pages of the book, with everyone getting a little panel to show that they’re participating. In the end, Superman figures out how to defeat Brainiac all by himself, so he didn’t really need any of these people. I don’t know why he even brought it up.

Action Comics #547  (September 1983)
“The Reincarnation of Alexander the Great!”
Bob Rozakis & Paul Kupperberg / Curt Swan

“There’s only one thing I can think of, Mr. Prime Minister.”

This issue is all about magnetism, which comic book writers love but do not understand.

The villain, a crackpot called the Planeteer, has developed a device that allows him to tap into the planet’s natural magnetic field, and direct it to his own uses. These uses include: a) kidnapping eight world leaders and imprisoning them in unbreakable energy force-fields, b) flying around, c) making a volcano erupt, d) creating death rays that shoot out of his fingers, e) crashing through a grove of redwood trees without being hurt, f) creating an illusion of sea monsters rising from the ocean, and g) manipulating Superman’s own personal electromagnetic field so that he can’t touch metal, except when he can.

“Truly this Superman is mightier than I first suspected!” says the Planeteer. Really? Cause he’s Superman.

Action Comics #548  (October 1983)
“Escape from the Phantom Zone!”
Cary Bates / Alex Saviuk & Vince Colletta

“Starting now, us Wildcats are gonna be watching over Metropolis from the air!”

“Much has happened in the Man of Steel’s life in recent months,” says the opening caption. “But in telling it all in detail, we have missed some of his other adventures!” What?

There’s a lot going on here. Some villains who are trapped in the Phantom Zone find a way to escape, by concentrating on a space diamond which focuses their mental energies. I think there are actually two different diamonds in space in this issue, but I don’t know why. Meanwhile, there’s a bunch of asshole aliens named Vrangs who apparently still have a hate-war going on with the people of Krypton, and they’ve spent decades searching the universe for the last few Kryptonian stragglers, instead of improving their shitty homeworld or inventing dentistry.

But the big deal is that Metropolis is plagued with petty crime, and to prove it, we see two different knifepoint muggings in the space of nine pages. One of them involves a mugger standing in a sewer and pretending to have a broken leg, and then asking unwary passersby to climb down through the manhole and help him, which I have to imagine is not tremendously profitable.

As a response to the rising crime rate, the citizens of Metropolis are taking action to protect themselves. Lois is writing a story about a new self-defense class for women, and Clark is investigating the White Wildcats, a group of men with red berets patrolling the streets, who look like the Guardian Angels but are named after the Black Panthers, except they’re white and also they have jetpacks.

Action Comics #549  (November 1983)
“Superman Meets the Zod Squad!”
Cary Bates / Alex Saviuk & Vince Colletta

“Holy spit! How come Superman’s crashing our meet?”

Naturally, the White Wildcats and the women’s self-defense course are being run by disguised Phantom Zone villains. There’s also a Zoner dressed up as a traffic cop, and another one pretending to be a bum so he can beat up muggers.

Why are these Kryptonian criminals hiding out in Metropolis and protecting citizens from getting mugged? Well, it’s because they took a vow to be nice to everyone until they’ve completed their mission, which is to destroy the Vrangs, the ancient enemies of all Krypton. So the whole story moves out into space for the second half of the issue with the Kryptonians battling it out with the Vrangs, and everybody forgets about the crime rate in Metropolis.

It’s really quite bizarre. This is clearly a well-meant effort to engage with current social concerns, which goes completely off the rails. In the early 80s, everyone was concerned about crime in New York City, and most people believed that if you tried to walk down the street then you would instantly be set upon by knife-wielding teenagers. This was only partially true.

So Action Comics is being vaguely trendy here, by talking about self-defense programs. Unfortunately, the take-home here is that everybody involved is a Kryptonian criminal, and then it just devolves into the usual sci-fi bullshit.

Action Comics #550  (December 1983)
“The Day the Earth Exploded”
E. Nelson Bridwell / Bob Rozakis & George Tuska

“Surely, Superman, if you are intelligent enough to have found us, you can answer your own questions!”

And then, in another trendy twist, for December they wrote a whole story around the Rubik’s Cube fad.

There’s another batch of asshole aliens in this issue, and they’re setting off explosions to cause continental drift, because they want to fit the continents back into position to form Pangaea. It’s all part of some stupid game they’re playing, and they’re really quite aggravating.

In the middle of the story, while Clark is trying to figure out what the aliens could be trying to accomplish, he’s approached by Connie Hatch, the never-before-seen Daily Planet’s puzzle editor, who wants to do a story on Rubik’s Cube and its many spinoffs. “Next thing you know,” Clark says, “they’ll have one that’s a globe of the Earth and you’ll have to put the continents back where they belong! Hey! Did I say that?” He did. By the way, the Rubik’s Cube craze was three years ago.

Next:
A podcast Christmas special about Lois and Clark!
11b.1: All I Want for Christmas Is You

Chapters

— Danny Horn

13 thoughts on “Superman III 4.11: Meanwhile, in 1983

  1. I liked the rogue’s gallery Superman had in the 1950s show. There was the character actor in an oversized tan suit, the character actor in an oversized green suit, and their leader, a character actor in an oversized pinstripe suit with a very large fedora and a pencil mustache. My favorite was the one in the tan suit, often played by Ben Welden as a grinning oaf. I’d have loved a Ben Welden action figure.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Except for the jetpacks, the description here of the Wildcats makes them sound more analogous to Curtis Sliwa and the Guardian Angels than to the Black Panthers.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Unfortunately the great Gil Kane was just mailing it in at this stage in his career. He’d had some sort of dispute with Marvel in the late ’70s, I don’t remember exactly what it was, but he vowed never to work for them anymore and I don’t think he ever did. He didn’t seem comfortable with Superman but I guess he had to take whatever DC was offering.

    The “evolved” Brainiac looks a bit like the hybrid human/protomolecule warriors from the (much later) Expanse TV series.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That’s supposed to be Lois? Was Gil coming off a run drawing old Ming the Merciless stories or what?

    And you’re right, Danny, that ship is TOTALLY kick ass.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. The way you tell it, Danny, these stories sound totally ridiculous. In the context of comic books, I mean. Having a space alien running around in long johns is ridiculous all by itself.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Kenner asked DC if something could be done to action-figure them up a little. DC’s response was to publish a double-sized issue of Action Comics to do exactly that.

    It never occurred to me that is why they updated lex Luthor and Brainiac!

    Liked by 1 person

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