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mild-mannered newscaster, Superman #233, 1971

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Superman Breaks Loose!

A look back at one of DC's many revamps of the man of steel.
by Dave Blanchard, originally presented in Amazing Heroes #96, 1986

Back in 1968, National/DC began to divorce itself from the superhero "camp" era that more or less began and ended with the broadcast run of the Batman TV show.  At that time, house ads appeared promising that "There's a new kind of Superman comin'!"  And indeed there was... though it would be another three years before he'd arrive.  True, the debut of the Andru & Esposito team on the series gave the art a "new" look, but the stories themselves were still pretty much of the Imaginary and Red K type, and would remain so through the end of the decade.

A new era, generally summed up in the catch-all term "relevance," swept throughout the comics industry during the late '60s and early '70s, and by 1971 - the climactic year of the phase - virtually DC's entire line had been revamped and streamlined.

Weisinger Retires... But Life Goes On

Mort Weisinger retired from a 30-year career at DC at the end of 1970.  He had been an especially prolific editor, so rather than assigning one particular person to replace him, DC spread Weisinger's titles among several editors.  Mike Sekowsky picked up Adventure Comics with Supergirl; Murray Boltinoff got Superboy, Action Comics and Jimmy Olsen (though Kirby soon picked up Jimmy Olsen, it being part of his Fourth World series); E. Nelson Bridwell took over on Lois Lane (which also became part of the Fourth World series, though Kirby personally never worked on the book); and, in addition to picking up World's Finest, Julius Schwartz was tossed the juiciest bone of them all:  Superman, DC's top seller.

CLICK to ZOOM - Superman in 1971! While Sekowsky led Supergirl down an avante garde avenue all her own, the rest of the Superman "family" editors came up with a scheme revolutionary for the industry at the time:  Using Superman, as the cornerstone title, they all participated in streamlining the DC universe, openly doing away with such things as kryptonite and imaginary stories, and just plain forgetting about the humorous characters such as Mr. Mxyzptlk, the Bizarros and Krypto.  No more Elastic Lad stories for Jimmy Olsen, no more Reptile Girls stories for Lois Lane, no more King Kong stories for Superman.

Boltinoff and Kirby got the "new" DC universe going in Jimmy Olsen #133, October 1970, which in a very real sense introduced a DC Earth as new and streamlined as the one that resulted from the Crisis series 15 years later.  Two major DC characters debuted in Kirby's "new" Jimmy Olsen:  Morgan Edge, "president of the Galaxy Broadcasting System, new owners of The Daily Planet," in JO #133, and in the following issue, the ultimate DC villain, Darkseid. (See Superman in the Fourth World.)

What emerged from the pages of Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, Action Comics, World's Finest (which had become a precursor to the DC Comics Presents style of Superman team-ups), and most tellingly, Superman, was a new, faster-paced Earth (Earth 1A, maybe?), where the central characters simply had too much to do to worry about the secret identity contrivances and the varieties of kryptonite that had dominated their lives in the Weisinger era.  Jimmy had the Newsboy Legion, the Hairies, the Outsiders, and D.N.Aliens to occupy his time with; Lois was caught in the middle of a gang war waged between the 100, Intergang and Darkseid's minions; and Superman... well, in addition to all of the above, he had a new job as a TV reporter in his secret identity of Clark Kent and a sandcreature siphoning off all his powers to deal with.  With all that and more going on, there simply wasn't room to squeeze in Lori Lemaris and the bottle city of Kandor, too.

A New Year Brings A New Beginning

After a series of house ads that reached full pitch with two-page center-spreads heralding that "A new year brings a new beginning for Superman 1971," DC published Superman #233, January 1971, an issue that at the time rivaled Showcase #4 in importance as a landmark.  Neal Adams' nearly blinding cover at first led one to believe that he was looking at The Amazing New Adventures of Superman #1.  Though the prominently displayed "1" actually was just part of the slogan, "Number 1 Best-Selling Comics Magazine," it was interesting to note that DC had finally caught on that first issues, even pseudo-first issues, sell better.

Despite all the hoopla and house ads, Superman #233 had to be something of a shock to regular readers; after all, the previous story-line had been the two-part Imaginary battle between Killer Kent and Super-Luthor.  Only the pencil artist remained from Weisinger's last issue, and even he didn't seem quite the same.

Inspired by a new writer (Dennis O'Neil), a new inker (Murphy Anderson), as well as a new editor (Julius Schwartz), long-time Superman penciller Curt Swan was finally given a chance to strut his stuff.  Page layouts became more imaginative, cinematic flourishes began to abound, and thanks to Anderson, the art never looked slicker.  The pace moved away from Weisinger's synoptic plotting style to O'Neil's somewhat frenetic, character-dominated tempo, and Swan kept up with it all without skipping a beat.

Superman #233 opens with an archetypal situation:  A scientist is trying to create an engine powered by Kryptonite, and has asked Superman to be on hand should the experiment go awry - which it of course does.  The engine explodes, and Superman takes a pointblank blast of Green K, knocking him unconscious into the desert sand.  When he comes to, he learns that all the Green K on the planet has been turned to harmless lead thanks to a "freak chain reaction" caused by the botched experiment.  (However, the Green K still in outer space is unaffected, leaving writers an out when, several years later, more fragments drift down to Earth.)

O'Neil follows up this astounding development with another:  Morgan Edge, Kent's new boss, reassigns him to his TV station, WGBS, as a roving reporter.  Here, too, Swan and Anderson shine.  Gone are Kent's solid blue suits and horn-rimmed glasses; throughout the saga Kent dresses mostly in brown, double-breasted suits with striped blue shirts and white ties, three-piece suits with striped yellow shirts and spotted yellow ties, and variations on these.  Kent also switches to wider framed glasses that are more flattering and contemporary, and despite Earth's yellow sun, his hair has gotten a little thicker.

Schwartz's editorial vision was clear:  no more gimmick-ridden plot contrivances for Superman, and no more wimpy Clark Kent portrayals.  Personality-wise, Kent may be a bit bland, but no less a personage than Morgan Edge - the equivalent of, say, Ted Turner - recognizes the quality work Kent's done for many years, and singles him out to become an on-air TV reporter.  You don't get to be one of the preeminent reporters in the country by being meek and timid, and, recognizing that incongruity, O'Neil dumps the wimpy persona.

Later in the issue, while chasing down some airborne terrorists, Superman flies directly over the spot where the Green K explosion had occurred.  While in pursuit, Superman has a few problems - his heat vision goes on the fritz and he has a dizzy spell.  Assuming there might be "lingering traces of K-radiation in the area" he shrugs it off.

However, it's nothing so simple.  A sandman, formed in the shape of Superman, rises from the spot where Superman had lain unconscious earlier.  The blast, it turns out, had ripped open a hole between dimensions, allowing an entity to assume the shape of Superman from the sand.

Besides having Superman's appearance, the creature also has the ability to siphon virtually all of Superman's powers, and eventually even gain his personality to some extent.  This "dark side" of Superman will gradually assume more and more importance in the saga as he assumes more and more of Superman's powers.  If DC hadn't immediately forgotten about the sandman after issue #242, he conceivably could have had the most impact on Superman's style of superheroics since Pa Kent died.

A Superhero Because That's Who He Is

The climax to #234 involves Superman's learning that his new weakness is attributable to the sandman's siphoning abilities.  On the way to that revelation, O'Neil gets inside the head of the Man Of Steel, illustrating with fine effect both Superman's resourcefulness in rescuing an inhabited island from an erupting volcano (throughout the saga, the more powers Superman loses, the cleverer he becomes to compensate), and more importantly, his whole rationale for being a superhero in the first place.

Superman butts heads with Boysie Harker, the owner of the island, who apparently is within his legal right when he shoots at the inhabitants to keep them from fleeing.  While not eager to defy the local laws to save the islanders, Superman doesn't have to wrestle much with his conscience:  "If worst comes to worst, I'll have to defy Harker - and take the consequences!   Because there's a moral law that's above some man-made laws!"

Superman's notion of fair play is his very raison d`etre; he's a super-hero because that's what Jor-El intended him to be; because that's what Ma and Pa Kent raised him to be; because that's what he wants to be.  Along with his other super-powers, he has a superhuman amount of compassion, enough to encompass not only his friends in Smallville and Metropolis, but virtually all of Earth and beyond as well.

The next issue, #235, is concerned mainly with museum curator Ferlin Nyxly, who has discovered the Devil's Harp, a magical instrument that allows him to siphon talent away from somebody else, inevitably even Superman.  Nyxly is portrayed as a "scared, weak, talentless failure" whose greatest ambition is to be a musician.  Merely by wishing it so and strumming the harp, he becomes a piano virtuoso (at the expense, though, of Timos Achens, the world's greatest pianist until his talent mysteriously vanishes).  However, Nyxly's debut at the Metropolis Bowl is upstaged by a spectacular assassination attempt of a visiting dignitary in the audience, an attempt foiled by Superman.

Nyxly falls prey to the "Lex Luthor syndrome" - despising Superman's insistence on being the center of attraction in all situations.  However, whereas Luthor's hatred comes from his drive to prove he's better than Superman, Nyxly's feelings of inadequacy lead him to want to ultimately be Superman.

O'Neil's theme emerges as Nyxly siphons Superman's powers, and we realize he's siphoning from the sandman as well, who of course has been siphoning Superman's powers the past couple issues himself.  Nyxly challenges Superman to a duel in front of a packed house at the Metropolis Bowl, there to win a symbolic victory as he wins back the glory Superman had "stolen" from him, glory which would've been attained only because Nyxly himself had stolen talent from Achens.

In an ironic twist that ties together the whole theme of leeching off another person's abilities, the sandman ends up defeating Nyxly.  As the series progresses, we begin to see that the sandman is not only draining away Superman's powers, but in the process, his very identity as well, as the creature evolves into Superman's "dark twin."

Issue #236, though written by O'Neil and not in conflict with the "sandman saga" continuity, is not an actual chapter in the series, being mainly a dream sequence.  The story is valuable, though, for its brief look at Kal-El the man, when he's being neither a journalist nor a superhero.  For instance, we're reminded, as Weisinger had established years earlier, that Kal-El's real aptitude is in science, especially chemistry and engineering.  His living dream, a takeoff on Paradise Lost, is induced by one of his inventions, a Kryptonian brain.

O'Neil also points out that Kal-El is an intellectual - "I've learned forty new otherworld languages since last summer" - and reminds us that it is Superman's mind and heart, rather that his strength and invulnerability, that make his the greatest super-hero on Earth, and indeed, the best defined character in comic book history.

Superman's "Better Half"

The saga resumes with issue #237 as O'Neil begins to peel away the myth that surrounds Superman.  Superman picks up an unknown space virus strong enough that he becomes a carrier of a weird disease that turns every living creature he comes near into puffy green blobs.  He exiles himself into outer space orbit around Earth, helpless to do nought but watch as Lois is threatened by army ants (!).  However, almost predictably after the Nyxly confrontation, Superman turns to the sandman for assistance.

The first time Superman tried to make physical contact with the sandman had resulted in an incredible blast that left his left hand temporarily numb.  However, that numbness had also left the hand cleansed of the disease.  It gets him to thinking that perhaps if his entire body were blasted, he'd be completely sterilized.  On the other hand, he realizes, he could also be completely dead.

By now, O'Neil's use of parallel situations has become masterful. Superman has been split in two, both literally and figuratively.  In the literal sense, his powers have been drained, a bit at a time, by his "dark twin," who so far has not uttered a word, and whose intentions are unknown, save for his desire to become even more powerful.

Superman has also been separated from Earth, his second home, and the only home he's ever known.  Several times throughout the saga, we're told that Superman is bound and determined that Earth shall not perish as Krypton had.  Voyages to other galaxies and eras and especially to Kandor are scrupulously avoided in the series because O'Neil's whole point is that Superman exists to be Earth's superhero.

Furthermore, Superman has been separated from his "better half," i.e., Lois.  While Superman is deciding to risk his life by confronting to sandman's antimatter energy, Lois is taking no less a noble risk.  She's been trying to drag an unconscious man to safety from the ants, a man too heavy for her to carry very far, thus putting herself right in the path of the ants.  Lois and Superman are cut from the same heroic cloth, both of them putting the welfare of others constantly before themselves.

The outer space confrontation with the sandman creates a horrendous cataclysm that would've ripped the Earth to shreds if they'd tried that on the planet's surface.  However, Superman has indeed been sterilized, and he promptly comes to Lois's rescue.  O'Neil makes the love and oneness between Superman and Lois so obvious that he can underplay it, saving enough room at story's end for the sandman to finally speak.

The sandman confirms Superman's worst fears - he will gradually assume all of Superman's powers, explaining further, "I am a being woven from your mind - your heart - your soul!   Can you not see?   I am you!   And I fear that we may not both survive!"

A Leap of Faith

Superman #238 represents the last time Superman gets through an adventure with his reputation still intact.  Thanks to the sandman's power drain, Swan and Anderson open the story with a splash panel showing Kent changing into Superman and leaping, not flying, out the stock-room window.

A band of terrorists have hijacked a government research project, giving them access to a magma gun that taps into the Earth's molten core.  No longer strong enough to withstand the force of so powerful a weapon, Superman again seeks out the assistance of the sandman.  The sandman, however, refuses to help, pointing out that though molded from Superman's very essence, "I am my own creature!   I am not human!  The affairs of mankind mean nothing to me!"  Superman is left to fend for himself this time.

In stark contrast to his usual M.O., Superman goes undercover as a hostage to foil the pirates.  So, once again he saves the day, but he takes so long to do it that doubts are stirred in people's minds about him.  Lois asks why he waited so long to act.  Without answering her he thinks, "How can I tell her that I wasn't sure of myself?   That I was afraid even my remaining powers would fail!"

The Incredible I Ching

Superman's worries are borne out in the next issue, #240 (issue #239 was an all-reprint, 64-page giant).  With this issue (inked by Dick Giordano rather than Anderson, who gives it a grittier texture but adds a mood the other chapters lack), O'Neil dramatically alters the entire tone of Superman as a comic book, making it totally unlike any of the previous 239 issues.

His strength at low ebbs, Superman is unable to prevent a burning building from collapsing, leading to a front-page headline that screams, "SUPERMAN FAILS!"  While the Anti-Superman gang is skeptical, they decide to verify for themselves if Superman really has hit the skids.

Meanwhile, Superman has to weather ridicule from the public ("Be careful no buildings fall on you, Supie!"), leaving him disillusioned:  "I've a right to a bitterness man has a better right!   I've denied myself the comforts of home ... family ... to continue helping these... ingrates!   I thought they admired me... for myself!   I've lived in a fools paradise!"

However, the sound of nearby cannonfire immediately restores his compassion:  "No... no!  I can't change my whole personality... my very identity!  Ever since I can remember, I've been fighting crime - and I've got to be what I am!"  Superman engages the Gang, who fire at him with their cannon.  He staggers a bit, but is able to corral all of the crooks except for the three ringleaders.

Superman switches to Kent, and determinedly decides, "I'd better concentrate on being a good reporter!   Because as Superman, I'm a washout!"   This might've made a fascinating study, seeing Kent become the dominant side of the man, with Superman metamorphosizing into a Flash-like hero, relying more on his speed and wits than sheer raw power.

However, O'Neil quickly reminds us that he's already done that shtick - not in Superman, but in the pages of Wonder Woman #179, where Wonder Woman cast aside her Amazon heritage and paraphernalia, letting Diana Prince become the central character.  By bringing Diana's mentor, I Ching, into the sandman saga, O'Neil was able to again simplify the character, and contrast Superman with Wonder Woman at the same time.

I Ching, sort of DC's version of the Ancient One from Dr. Strange (a series O'Neil had written earlier for Marvel in the '60s), is an elderly, blind, Oriental sage who comes to Kent's office.  Explaining that he is aware Kent is Superman, I Ching tells Superman he knows a way to restore his powers.  Ching possesses lore of "civilizations long vanished from the Earth," specifically of the Lovecraftian Realm of Quarrm, the other-dimensional home of the sandman.

Ching believes that magic alone can restore Superman's powers, and to that end he puts him into a trance and attempts to draw out his astral projection.  However, the Gang had been keeping tabs on Ching, and when they find Superman unconscious, they clobber the old man and pistol-whip Superman in the forehead.  The blow to the head, though, brings Superman out of the trance, and despite being completely powerless now, he punches out the three gangsters.  The story ends with a very unsuper Superman declaring, "In every important way, this is my greatest victory!  I don't know whether I'll ever regain my powers ... and somehow ... I'm not sure I care!"

The following issue, #241, picks up the narrative without skipping a beat.  Superman tells Ching that he'd just as soon remain a normal man, "without the responsibilities... the loneliness... of Superman!"  Ching knows what strings to pull, though, as he points out, "One does not choose responsibility!   It is often thrust upon one!   To refuse it is to commit the worst act of cowardice!"

Superman gives in, and Ching finally succeeds in drawing out an astral projection of Superman's soul.  The spirit self confronts the sandman, drains all the stolen power out of the creature, and returns to Superman, restoring all his powers.  The sandman, meanwhile, is left nearly lifeless, too weak to even crawl back home to Quarrm, though he does manage to rip open a tiny hole between the dimensions.

Superman Goes Nuts

Superman's head injury from #240 has inflicted brain damage on him, and with his powers restored, the injury has been made permanent.  In other words, Superman is a little bananas; he doesn't go bad, but he does go a bit off the deep end.  He's so excited about being back at full strength that he wildly over does it in his exuberance.  For instance, to stop a purse snatcher, he builds a jail around him; problem is, he's built the jail right in the middle of a city street during rush hour.

After a week or so of Superman's reckless shenanigans, Ching realizes what has happened, and devises a simple plan.  He gets Diana Prince to lure Superman to an innocent seeming location, and then has the sandman sneak up on him and steal back his powers, leaving Superman weak enough that he can undergo brain surgery.

The plans almost works, but Superman flees before the sandman has much success.  Meanwhile, another Quarrm entity has emerged from the dimensional warp, and has taken on the appearance of a war demon from a Chinatown parade paper statue.  The brought-to-life war demon immediately goes on a rampage through the streets of New York.

Despite being mentally unglued and in danger of losing his powers if the sandman catches up to him, Superman notices the commotion in Chinatown and takes time out to save a boy from being trampled by the frightened mob.  However, this puts him right in the war demon's path.  The demon, about three times his size, sucks away all his powers in one fell swoop.  Swan and Anderson close with an eerie final page depicting the demon soundlessly dragging an unconscious Superman through the deserted streets of Chinatown.

This Town's Only Big Enough For One of Us

The storyline comes to a full boil with "The Ultimate Battle" in issue #242, the concluding chapter.  Superman's battered body has been found by Jimmy Olsen, who takes him to a hospital where his head injury is operated on.  The war demon continues to terrorize the people of New York (it's unclear why O'Neil has moved the action to New York, and indeed, he seems to confuse New York and Metropolis, placing the Galaxy building in NYC), and without Superman to protect the citizens, the sandman engages his fellow Quarrmer in battle.

The sandman, having only part of Superman's former powers while the demon has most of them, is unable to beat the demon singlehandedly.  What bothers him more, though, is why he even wants to fight the demon:  "Why did I choose to fight?" he wonders.  "This world means nothing to me!  Could it be that I have taken on Superman's mind - his soul - as well as his body?"  O'Neil already answered that question back in #238, though; the creature has gained a part of Superman's spirit through osmosis, but none of the emotional makeup that makes the Caped Kryptonian unique.

Superman, recuperating from the quickest and neatest cerebral surgery this side of the "Spock's Brain" episode of "Star Trek," is like a magnet to the war demon, which homes in on him, apparently to finish off the Man of Steel for good.  However, the power drain works both ways, and Superman siphons off enough strength to fight the demon to a standstill.  Joined in mid-fight by the sandman, the two supermen drive the demon back to the dimensional warp, sending the entity back to Quarrm and reducing the demon down to its paper and glue components.

This sets up the climax to the entire saga.  The sandman no longer merely wants all of Superman's powers; now it wants to be Superman.  As sandman sees it, the only way that'd be possible is by killing the real Superman.  Superman, of course, would just as soon remain living, and since he's been backed into a corner, his choice seems to be totally defeating the sandman and driving the Quarrm entity back to its own dimension.  Their problem is that they can't even touch each other without setting off a massive cataclysm.

Ching has a solution, though, as he offers to cancel the effects of their opposing atoms with a magical spell.  Actually, all he does is hypnotize them into imagining the results of such a battle royale - nothing less than the destruction of all life on Earth.  Realizing that "there cannot be two Supermen in your world," the sandman returns to Quarrm on his own, apparently having finally gained enough of Superman's conscience to see that what's best for Earth isn't what's necessarily best for him.

The key to the whole saga comes in the final panels when Superman refuses to let Ching return the powers still retained by the sandman to him.  In other words, the saga ends with Superman's powers trimmed by about one third.  No more planet juggling and instant hops to the other side of the universe.  Superman is now a leaner, somewhat wiser, and definitely more human character, brought back to his essential roots of the Golden Age.  Schwartz and O'Neil, then, succeeded admirably in their attempt to revamp Superman and create a "new" incarnation.

What Happened to the New Superman?

Right when DC had reached the peak of their streamlining efforts in the summer of '71, they pulled the plug on the "new" Superman.  Cary Bates, who'd worked on the titles during the Weisinger era and had been O'Neil's immediate predecessor, returned to script Superman #243.

Bates always treated Superman with a great deal of respect, but neither he nor Schwartz appeared to have any interest in continuing the Earthbound type of stories O'Neil had just done.  So #243 opens with the words, "Trillions of miles out in deep galactic space..." and by page three, Superman has been blasted by a supernova that does little more than leave him dazed "for a micro-second," and has conversed with two disembodied brains.

DC found itself competing with its past, and followed the advice of those fans who were more interested in seeing cosmic conflicts.  O'Neil returned to take another crack at Superman, but his last major contribution to the mythos was a storyline where Superman's powers would only work if he thought of a young crippled boy's pet lynx.

Traces of the "new" Superman still occasionally popped up, usually in the pages of DC Comics Presents, but O'Neil's vision of Superman, which DC had thought important enough to advertise with two-page spreads in all their January 1971 titles, disappeared after the September 1971 issue, never to return.


Next: The Bronze Age Superman!

Superman in his Comics!

About the Superman Saga
The words of Elliot
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