Spotlight Sunday 4.15.18

It was my birthday on Friday, and as something of a belated gift to myself, and because it’s very much a foregone conclusion as to what will be in the Spotlight next week, I’ve decided to introduce something of a plot twist by invoking my recently-bestowed ability to choose to write about something that was not featured in the Showcase yesterday – even though I did acquire it this week – and so there are, I suppose, spoilers ahead for a comic that was published during the Kennedy administration as we take a look at…

Superman (Vol. 1) #162
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Artist: Curt Swan
Cover: Kurt Schaffenberger

Superman becomes immune to kryptonite! The bottle city of Kandor is restored to its original size! The perished planet, Krypton, becomes reborn! All crime and evil disappear! These are only a few of the surprises in this imaginary novel!

I’ve mentioned before that when I was a kid my ability to purchase new comics was limited, given the lack of access to a comic shop, or really any place that had a consistent inventory of comics. Picking up back issues was pretty much completely out of the question, apart from buying the mystery packages of damaged comics, or visiting a used bookstore that happened to have old comics. I didn’t have the means to send away to the various retailers and private collectors who advertised in comics either, so my best option came in the form of digest-sized reprints.

One such digest – purchased at an odd little store that had a larger, stranger selection of comics than most grocery stores, that we, alas, didn’t visit so often – contained a collection of “Imaginary Stories,” featuring the Man of Steel.

The digest’s cover image depicted what one might consider the main story of that volume, and the subject of today’s Spotlight, “The Amazing Story of Superman-Red and Superman-Blue!”

(I loved the digest that reprinted this story to death as a kid. For real; the reading and re-reading and re-re-reading of stories contained within led to its demise, and given that I was already on something of a nostalgic kick, buying old issues of Superman – though of a slightly more recent vintage – from my youth, I decided to see if I could find a reasonably-priced copy of this issue in decent condition.)

It’s something of a classic tale that served as an inspiration for a rather contentious storyline in the pages of the Super-titles back in the 1990s, and while it’s not my favorite of the Silver Age “Imaginary Stories” – the one that is my favorite was also included in that digest, and I also own a copy of the comic in which it originally appeared (and may write about it someday) – but it ranks up near the top, both despite and because of its many flaws and general Silver Age silliness.

Our story opens with the staff of The Daily Planet standing around waiting for the publisher to post a notice listing their weekly salary increases. Everyone gets a raise, except for poor Clark Kent.

Perry White offers to take them all out for a celebratory lunch, but Clark feigns illness and excuses himself.

Not knowing that Clark is secretly Superman, Perry assumes that Clark is merely embarrassed for being exposed to the rest of the staff as being a “flop.”

The truth is that Clark received a secret summons from Supergirl requesting his presence at the Fortress of Solitude.

This just isn’t our man’s day; after being shamed in front of his co-workers in his civilian identity, Superman gets a talking to from the citizens of the bottle city of Kandor, calling him to account for his many failures.

The Kandorians have created a list of things that he’s failed to accomplish, such as restoring Kandor to its normal size, finding a means of making Kryptonians immune to the deadly effects of kryptonite, and the small matter of putting an end to all crime and evil.

All of these are daunting tasks even for Superman and are made no less so by the six-month deadline the Kandorians impose on him, at the end of which, should he fail to deliver, he will be forced to retire and switch places with a Kandorian who will take a shot at accomplishing these tasks.

(It’s worth noting that, even though Brainiac reduced them to a tiny size, there’s not really anything preventing the Kandorians from trying to solve these problems on their own.)

Superman agrees to their terms, and to maximize his chances of success, over Supergirl’s objections, he steps into an experimental chamber – powered by a piece of every kind of kryptonite, because why not? – designed to boost his intelligence.

The device works, but with the unintended consequences of splitting him into two separate Supermen, identical in every way except for the colors of their costumes. The dub themselves Superman-Red and Superman-Blue.

Each of the Supermen is one-hundred times smarter than the Superman they used to be, and so they set to work on accomplishing the tasks set before them, quickly working out a way to repair Brainiac’s damaged enlarging ray gun – something plain vanilla Superman could never manage – and haul the bottle city off to the asteroid belt where they move on to the surprise next phase of restoring Kandor.

Using a substance they call “Hyper-Magneton,” the duo creates a small planetoid with “strange magnetic powers.”

Said “strange magnetic powers” reach throughout the cosmos and draw in every single piece of kryptonite in existence. As the deadly bane of the Kryptonians’ existence is drawn in, the magnetic rays change the atomic structure of the pieces of kryptonite, turning them all back into the minerals, chemicals, and gases they had been before Krypton’s destruction, managing to take care of two tasks in one fell swoop, and, as a bonus, rebuilding their once-destroyed home planet in the process.

With the basic framework of Krypton restored, the Supermen restore Kandor and its people back to their original size, in, more or less, their original location.

Using the powers they now have under the yellow sun of our solar system, the Kandorians, with the guidance of Red and Blue, set to work on restoring some of the unique features of Krypton, such as the Jewel Mountains, and plant seeds – which grow super-fast, thanks to our sun – to restore the world’s vegetation, and begin rebuilding some of the other cities to which Krypton had once been home.

The question that remains for the inhabitants of New Krypton, though, is whether they want to stay where they are in this solar system, or return to their own galaxy, orbiting their own star. Despite the fact that it means they will lose their powers, they opt for the latter.

Red and Blue knew they would, however, and had set New Krypton in an orbit that would lead it back to the star old Krypton had orbited prior to its destruction.

Next, the two prepare to tackle the problem of evil, but before they can get started on that, they receive a call from their old college girlfriend, the mermaid Lori Lemaris. The mer-people of Atlantis had observed the way Red and Blue gave the Kandorians a new home and want in on that action, because they’re tired of being freaks on Earth, so they want a water world they can call their own.

Red and Blue know just the place; some time earlier, Superman and Supergirl had built a full-size replica of Krypton as a memorial to their vanished home. Now that the real Krypton has been restored, there’s no point in maintaining a memorial. Calling in Krypto for help – he is initially confused by the sight of his two masters, but goes along with it all anyway – they, along with Supergirl, engage in some anthropogenic climate change by training their heat vision on the memorial planet’s polar ice caps and flooding the whole world.

Next, they create a planet-to-planet waterway – held together by magnetism, of course – that allows the mer-people to swim to their new home.

With that out of the way, it’s back to the problem of evil. They invent a ray that eliminates evil thoughts, and place satellites in orbit around Earth projecting the anti-crime ray and causing everyone – even Lex Luthor! – to stop their wicked ways.

Having given in to goodness, Luthor creates a panacea that will cure all diseases. Things are looking good!

Or are they? Returning to the Fortress, Red and Blue are shocked to see Supergirl releasing the evil Kryptonian villains from the Phantom Zone! Has the anti-crime ray somehow had the opposite effect on their cousin?

No; it turns out that the ray has reformed them as well, and now that they’re good they want to go home to New Krypton. However, there is some sad news; realizing that Earth no longer needs her, Supergirl wants to accompany the former villains and settle down on New Krypton, and so she bids her cousins farewell, after the Legion of Super-Heroes pops by from the future with a spaceship that will allow the Kryptonians to make their voyage home.

With all their major tasks out of the way, Red and Blue both agree that it’s time to settle down themselves and get married.

Now that there are two of them, one can marry Lois and one can marry Lana, but which one will marry which? They make a bizarre attempt at a kind of super-coin toss to give one of them the opportunity to pick first, but it doesn’t work out. Fortunately, they didn’t really need it, as it turns out that they aren’t quite identical; Red prefers Lois, whereas Lana would be Blue’s preference.

How could you possibly be 100 times smarter and still pick Lana, Blue?

A double wedding is planned, and because Lois’s sister Lucy is, well, Lucy, she decides that she needs to horn in on her sister’s special day (one that she already has to share with her frenemy) and decides to stop giving Jimmy Olsen the runaround, and so it becomes a triple wedding.

After the honeymoon is over, however, it becomes clear to Lois that Red longs to move to New Krypton. Being a dutiful wife, Lois surprises him with the gift of two spacesuits, built by Blue, with jet packs that will allow them to travel to New Krypton and land once they get there and Red’s powers disappear.

On Earth, Blue decides to retire and devote his life to science, as there is no longer any crime, and his super-robots can handle any natural disasters.

And so, Red and Blue settle into their happy new lives, with both insisting they have no regrets about the decisions they’ve made, though as Lucy and Jimmy visit Blue and Lana, and observe Red and Lois on New Krypton, Lucy isn’t so sure…

I know it’s in the innocent spirit of the Silver Age, but this is just creepy. Don’t spy on your sister/sister-in-law and her husband, you creeps.

What’s your opinion, readers? Suppose this imaginary story really happened! Which couple do you think would be happiest?

Like I said, there’s a lot of Silver Age silliness in this story, but there’s a kind of depth to it, in that it is something of a happy ending – despite Lucy’s misgivings – but it’s also just an ending, with all problems solved and no way to progress further, an example of the stagnation of perfection. The only method for building anything from it would be to tear it all down and destroy the perfection that it achieved.

Even as a kid reading it, I recognized that the “anti-crime ray” was ethically dubious – at best – and was more than a little troubled by the way any such considerations were glossed over.

Ultimately, the problem with the story is that it just wraps things up too perfectly, and beyond the inciting event – the withering evaluation of his performance as Superman by the Kandorians – it lacks any real conflict. Each act ends with the illusion of a conflict – such as the shot of Supergirl releasing the Phantom Zone villains – but that illusion is shattered immediately at the start of the next.

This story is exactly the kind of story that people who say they dislike Superman and don’t read his stories decry; he’s too perfect, and too powerful, so nothing interesting can happen*, suggesting that this kind of story is the only Superman story that is or can be told.

However, that’s part of what does make this story interesting. It’s a one-off, non-canonical story exactly because it does wrap things up too perfectly. It’s a kind of boundary for the telling of Superman tales, warning that this is storytelling territory into which they must not often stray.

And it starts with what seems like a startling proposition: Superman is a failure! He is not perfect, and there are limits to what even the Man of Tomorrow can accomplish. Why, to be as perfect as everyone thinks, he would have to split himself in two and boost his brainpower a hundredfold!

This story has stuck with me throughout the decades, I think, in part because it was the first time I can recall reading a story in which what was ostensibly a happy ending made me sad. Living “happily ever after,” I thought, doesn’t really square with fighting a never-ending battle.

Obviously, my opinion of this story is, er, colored by nostalgia – a nostalgia that was perhaps brought on by the annual reminder of the only direction in which time’s arrow moves – but despite some of the silliness, I think it holds up as a fun little fairy tale, and as an exemplar of the “imaginary stories” of a bygone era, one that brings Superman’s story to a definitive close in a more lighthearted manner than the story – inspired by the imaginary stories of the past – in which Alan Moore closed the book on the Silver Age once and for all.

The art is provided by the legendary Curt Swan, who had been drawing Superman for years by the time this was published, was still drawing Superman back when I first read this story and continued drawing Superman for years beyond that. While there are other artists whose depiction of Superman I prefer, when I close my eyes and picture Superman, it’s Swan’s Superman that I see. (He also provided the art for that final “imaginary story” written by Moore mentioned above.)

Whatever you may think about this silly little story, I for one still think it’s better than this:

That does it for this week’s special Spotlight Sunday. Come back for Showcase Saturday just to see what else I bought besides the thing that I’ll be writing about next Sunday…

If you didn’t care for this deviation from the usual pattern, well, just create your own “Imaginary Spotlight Sunday.”

Special thanks go out to Comic Logic Books & Artwork, my Local Comic Shop. Remember to support your LCS (find one here, if you don’t already have one). And support OpenDoor Comics on Patreon!

*I would also argue that in the Silver Age something interesting – if not logical or sensible – could always happen.

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