Meanwhile, on the newsstand, Superman is busy battling a monthly parade of aliens and snake gods and audiologists and science-fiction writers. Here’s what was happening in the Superman comics of 1981…
Three lunatics have come from beyond the stars to exert their will on the indigenous population, and I think it’s fair to say that they’re still getting the hang of it.
They come from Krypton, this trio of voracious demons, a planet where everybody stands around under a giant ice bubble wearing spectacular gowns and arguing about the pronouncements of the Science Council. I imagine that the first thing the conquerors are looking for is the nearest depository of glowing crystals, to snap them all in half and then stand around looking smug.
Earth has come as something of a surprise to the vanquishers; the first thing that General Zod noticed on planetfall was the curious existence of bodies of water, just lying around on the ground being wet. So that’s going to be a problem, vanquishing-wise. If you plan to rule the Earth and you’re unfamiliar with the concept of water, there is a fairly steep onboarding process ahead of you.
“Hmm, a primitive sort of lifeform,” Ursa muses, as she assesses the rattlesnake. Ursa’s just arrived on the planet, and she doesn’t know that you’re not supposed to pick up unfamiliar lifeforms. That snake probably had other things on its schedule for today.
Annoyed by the interruption, the snake strikes, burying its fangs in Ursa’s supposedly impenetrable skin. Wincing, she throws the reptile to the ground, and then sets it aflame with her magical heat vision.
“Did you see that?” she calls to her friends. “Did you see what I did? I have powers beyond reason here!”
Yeah, it’s called white privilege. A lot of us have it, unfortunately.
One of the central themes in 1980s American cinema is the question of how much we care about murder. 1981 is right in the middle of the Golden Age of slasher films, when franchises like Halloween and Friday the 13th are just starting to establish themselves. Raiders of the Lost Ark offers us heroes who don’t mind gunning people down or pushing them into airplane propellers if they won’t get out of the way, and we’re just a year away from America embracing the depressingly quintessential ’80s hero — a Vietnam vet named Rambo, who works out his emotional issues through the medium of machine gun fire.
But so far, the Superman series has been remarkably restrained in its attitude towards death and destruction, if you don’t count an entire planet exploding, which is more of a tragedy than a crime. In the first movie’s car chase sequence, people shoot off a lot of guns — bangity bang bang bang, they go — but the bullets don’t hit anybody important, as far as we can tell. The only on-screen murder we’ve seen so far is Lex Luthor pushing a police detective in front of an oncoming train, and that hardly counts; Superman hadn’t even put on his costume yet.
The important thing is that under Superman’s administration, everybody gets rescued, including reporters, train passengers, presidents, cats, goats, schoolkids, the 7th arondissement and the population of Tinytown.
But now we’re about to see the first three victims that Superman fails to save: a trio of international astronauts, engaged in research projects on the moon. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem like anybody’s going to miss them.
And meanwhile, on the newsstands, Superman fights for truth and justice against the forces of evil, including Adolf Hitler, asshole aliens, millionaire date-rapists, his own clone, and the tendency of young women to fall out of windows.
Here’s a rundown of what was happening in Action Comics in 1981, while Superman was battling Kryptonian criminals on the big screen…
So, yesterday I was telling you about how Superman comics caught on to the magical story-generation powers of Kryptonite, the only substance in the world that can weaken Superman, apart from all the other ones. The idea of Kryptonite originated in the Adventures of Superman radio show in 1943, and in 1945 they used it for a huge, complicated story arc that lasted for more than three months. The comic books didn’t inroduce Kryptonite until 1949, but as soon as they caught on to it, they started using it several times a year, to do all sorts of things.
The substance was supposed to be rare, but pretty soon, it was everywhere. In fact, there are two different stories published in 1952 alone that featured bald, bespectacled scientists creating synthetic Kryptonite in their labs. Apparently, any bald guy with poor vision could whip up a batch of anti-Superman juice any time they wanted it, which was often.
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.