A Tribute to the of

It's rather ironic.  I recently re-read Mark Waid and Alex Ross' graphic novel masterpiece, Kingdom Come.  Right by Alex's signature is the dedication:  "Dedicated to CHRISTOPHER REEVE who makes us believe that a man can fly."  Coincidentally, the October issue of Reader's Digest featured an interview with Christopher Reeve.  Now, of course, he's gone.  Free at last of the body that held him prisoner nearly a decade.  His grace was truly inspiring and I'll miss him. 

By way of tribute, I searched through my collection for a worthy Superman title to review for this edition of the Silver Age Sage.  I think I found a pretty good one.  I hope you'll agree as together we explore Superman #156, the October 1962 edition which features "The Last Days of Superman!"  The three-part novel was written by Edmond Hamilton with cover and interior pencils by Curt Swan and inks courtesy of George Klein.

Part I:  "Superman's Death Sentence!"

The tale begins in the upper reaches of the atmosphere as a space capsule is released by an American rocket and it is soon discovered to be on a collision course with an unidentified object.  We readers have the luxury of seeing it and it appears for the entire world to be a green, glowing coffin.  Once word reaches the assembly at "space headquarters," where plenty of reporters are on hand to include Clark Kent and Jimmy Olsen, they only know it's endangering the mission.  Jimmy comments to Clark that only Superman can help and he immediately activates his signal watch while Kent slips away to shed the familiar blue suit for an even more familiar red and blue uniform.

Once the man of steel reaches the capsule he recognizes that the glowing object is composed of green kryptonite, which of course is fatal to him.  He uses the spent rocket booster to knock the object out of the path of the capsule and sends it plummeting to Earth, into an uninhabited area near Metropolis.  After making certain the astronauts are safe, Superman heads for the place where the object has landed, only to find Jimmy there, covering the story thanks to the radar data from space HQ.  He warns the man of steel away due to its composition and Superman replies he knows and is going to drive it deep underground with a boulder.  Jimmy approaches the object and says there is some writing in an unknown language on the lid.  His curiosity gets the best of him and he opens the lid.  Meanwhile, Superman reads the lettering from a safe distance with his telescopic vision:  "It's in Kryptonese writing!  It reads, "This box contains samples of Virus X, a contagion fatal in 30 days to any native of Krypton!"  Oh-oh…this wind is blowing the deadly germs in it straight toward me!  Jimmy…close the lid!"  Jimmy, you're an idiot.  Superman, moving with blinding speed, scoops up a massive boulder and hurls it onto the object, driving it far underground.  He probably should have used it on Jimmy, too, but anyway, after he lands, Olsen comments that it's lucky the virus was buried before it could affect him.  The last son of Krypton isn't so sure.  He feels dizzy and weak and soon recalls a scene from his toddler days on Krypton when a scientist visited his father, Jor-El.  Tharb-El informs Jor-El that the cure for Virus X has eluded him and it seems to manage to survive in extremes of heat or cold or even a vacuum.  Jimmy says it could easily have been the close proximity of the kryptonite causing Superman's distress, but he replies that they're well away from it now and he's feeling even weaker, convincing him that he's caught the dreaded virus.  Jimmy invites him into the helicopter so they can go see Metropolis' best doctor.

At the doctor's office, Jimmy has assembled Superman's best friends, Lana Lang, Lois Lane and Perry White to hear the diagnosis.  The news isn't good.  The physician says that Superman's vital signs are weak and that they have no knowledge of the virus and no way to cure it, so he gives the man of steel a month to live.  Superman hears the conversation via his super hearing and flies with some difficulty out the window to be off to himself and to ponder matters.

He resolves to make his last month productive and soon goes to his arctic Fortress of Solitude.  As he roams his refuge, he thinks of the things he's accomplished, the things he won't be able to accomplish, such as restoring the bottle city of Kandor, where he dare not even visit for fear of infecting his fellow Kryptonians and the things he intends to accomplish in the short time left, to include digging a canal system for irrigating desert lands and countering the threat of a faraway planet which menaces the Earth.  He particularly wants to spare his cousin, Supergirl, the burden of dealing with these things in his stead. 

He soon returns to the Daily Planet where Lois implores him to stay in the hospital, but he refuses, citing the need to accomplish some things.  He also asks that they not report his condition and that he'll tell Supergirl himself.  One last detail is to mention that he's asked Clark to do something for him that will keep him off the job for awhile.  Then it's off to begin his self-imposed tasks.

Superman builds a gigantic steam shovel arm and is preparing to dig the canal system when Jimmy arrives in the helicopter and pleads with his friend to rest.  Superman then loses his grip on the device and falls to Earth.  He finds this a bit odd as he'd been feeling better a few hours ago.  He decides to summon his Superman robots to help construct a lead-glass isolation booth for him.  He'll then be able to talk with his cousin without risking contamination.  The two faux Supermen quickly mine lead ore and make the glass panels with their heat vision and construct the booth, complete with a microphone system for communication.  Superman orders them to begin digging the canals, but they decline as sunspot activity is creating electromagnetic disturbances which would interfere with their motors, so they fly back to the Fortress. 

Soon Supergirl, on her routine patrol, spots her cousin and descends.  She asks what has happened and Superman quickly explains, noting that Jimmy, inside with him, had also been exposed to the virus and while immune he didn't want to risk passing it onto her.  Superman then shares a list of dangers that will face Earth in the future and Kara says that she and all the other super comrades will pinch hit for him.  She flies away, heartbroken and locates Krypto the super dog, instructing him to find Lori Lemaris the mermaid in Atlantis, who will read the dog's mind and realize the situation.  She then goes to the Fortress of Solitude to summon the Superman Emergency Squad of Kandor.  Then it's through the time barrier to the 30th Century to recruit the aid of the Legion of Super-Heroes. 

Part II, "The Super-Comrades of All Time," opens with an awesome sight.  The speeding flight formation of Supergirl, Krypto, the Superman Emergency Squad and the Legion in a time bubble.  Onlookers wonder where Superman might be.

Backtracking a bit in the story line we see Krypto fulfilling his mission to make contact with Lori Lemaris, who telepathically agrees to marshal the requested aid from Atlantis.  Meanwhile, back in the bottle city of Kandor, the Emergency Squad takes their rocket ship to the top of the bottle, uses the enlarging gas to grow to a few inches and lifts the cork to allow them to leave the bottle, gain super powers and fly to Superman's aid.  Finally, in the future, the Legionnaires are gathering into the time bubble.  In fact, there's a little blooper in this panel.  Lightning Lad is hurrying his fellow members along and mentions that Bouncing Boy, Saturn Girl and Cosmic King are entering.  Uh…that would be Cosmic BOY, there Lightning Lad.  Cosmic King is a member of the Legion of Super Villains, which includes your older brother, Lightning Lord.  Tsk, tsk, Editor Mort Weisinger.  Anyway, Brainiac 5 lingers behind, thinking that this fatal illness of Superman's give him a chance he's long waited for, so while the other members of the Legion take off in their futuristic transport, Brainiac 5 stays with the time bubble and begins work in his lab.

Soon the mighty assembly stands outside the isolation booth, ready to do the stricken Superman's bidding.  First, the Superman robots are back now that the sunspot activity has abated and begin digging the canal system.  Soon the surface of the Earth in the desert areas resembles the canals on the surface of Mars.  Supergirl speeds into space to deal with the planet that will one day menace the Earth.  During her flight she wonders why Brainiac 5 isn't helping, but soon arrives at her objective and pushes an uninhabited world into the path of the other planet, causing a spectacular collision that destroys them both.  Superman observes with approval, but can't help but wonder about another future threat in the form of a vast cloud of fungus that will one day reach the earth and blight all plant life.  He needn't have worried.  The very next task undertaken includes all those assembled, with the notable exception of Brainiac 5.  With the efforts of the entire team a huge pyramid of iron blocks that had been smelted is assembled and Cosmic Boy, using his powers of super magnetism, draws them into the atmosphere, creating an orbiting mass like the rings of Saturn.  Next up, Lightning Lad uses his super electricity to charge the mass of iron.  Once that task is complete, Cosmic Boy launches the charged blocks into the fungus cloud, dissipating the fungus cloud before it can arrive and menace the Earth. 

While these wondrous feats have occurred in only a few panels, the clock has been ticking and we're now down to just a few days left of Superman's life. 

Soon plans are laid for another monumental effort.  Sun Boy will attempt to use his solar heat powers to make Antarctica a potential habitat for future migration. 

Before that happens, however, we see that the strain of days have taken their toll on Lois Lane who has fainted from exhaustion.  Superman insists that Jimmy take her back to Metropolis.  After the helicopter departs, Superman feels a bit better and decides he must do one more thing.  When Jimmy returns the next day, he cannot find the man of tomorrow.

We then join Supergirl who is seeking out Brainiac 5 and hopefully an explanation for his absenteeism.  It turns out that he's been feverishly working in the laboratory to try and find a cure for Virus X.  He feels it will be a chance to atone for the evil done by his ancestor, the original Brainiac, one of Superman's greatest foes.  Unfortunately, Brainiac 5 has failed, closing the curtain on Part II.

Part III is entitled "Superman's Last Day of Life!"

Jimmy is searching for Superman in the helicopter, to no avail and Supergirl is in Antarctica, scouting things out as they plan to change it for future human occupation.  Soon the super team is shaping a mountain into a large sphere-like sculpture on a pedestal.  Sun Boy then uses his solar powers to heat the massive globe until it glows with stored heat resembling a miniature sun that will gradually melt the ice without causing catastrophic flooding.  They then begin the journey back to Metropolis, but before they can arrive they are intercepted by a merman who tells them they need help in Atlantis with their task.  Jimmy and Lois, meanwhile, cannot locate Superman and fear he's already died.  In reality, he's on a journey.

We see him, overlooking a small village.  It's Smallville, his boyhood home where he thinks back on his beloved foster parents, the Kent's and Lana Lang.  That inevitably leads to thoughts of Lois Lane and also Lyla Lerrol of Krypton, who he fell in love with when he journeyed back through time to his native world, as told in Superman #141, the November 1960 issue.  He then flies to Gotham City to meet up with a familiar duo.  Without revealing anything, Superman merely says, "You and Robin have been wonderful friends, Batman!  We had some great exploits together, didn't we?  Well, I have to get along…"  Robin comments that he was moving shakily and looked exhausted.  Batman replies that it sounded like goodbye.

We next find our hero up in space where he's writing a farewell message to the world with his heat vision on the surface of the Moon, which is currently obscured to the Earth below by clouds.  "Do good to others and every man can be a Superman."  Signed Superman (Clark Kent.)  He then returns to the location where the booth is along with Lois and Jimmy and collapses.

Switching scenes again, we find Supergirl and the other super comrades swimming toward a huge, mutated sea creature that Superman had become aware of, a product of radioactivity.  Supergirl injects it with a shrinking formula and neutralizes it.  Now they return to Superman's side where he lies in the booth with Jimmy, thinking of Krypton.  His comments inspire his cousin who turns to Brainiac 5 and says that he mentioned nothing on Earth could cure Virus X, but could something on another world do so?  Perhaps something on Krypton.  Brainiac 5 concedes that perhaps the Kryptonian scientist Tharb-El did devise something, but how could they ever know since Krypton no longer existed?  Nonplussed, the girl of steel decides to travel back to her native world through the time barrier.  She successfully locates the laboratory of Tharb-El only to find that he has discovered that element 202 will destroy the virus, but it is fatal to any human being.  Downcast, she returns to 1962 to report to Superman.  He, however, picks up on a vital fact:  "But you heard Tharb-El say he would destroy his Virus X sample in that chest by using Element 202!  If he killed that virus, how could I catch it?"  At that moment, Saturn girl senses someone trying to make contact telepathically.  It is Mon-El, calling the telepathic Saturn Girl from the Phantom Zone.  He'd observed all from the beginning, but because everyone was so involved with their super tasks he can only now make contact.  Mon-El goes on to explain that Superman isn't suffering from Virus X, but from a nugget of green kryptonite!  The nugget came from the kryptonite chest that Superman had buried in the ground with the boulder.  It flew into Jimmy Olsen's camera and became embedded and since Jimmy had hardly left Superman's side, including inside the lead-glass booth, Superman had been exposed almost constantly.  Jimmy finds the nugget and disposes of it, allowing Superman to regain his strength at last.

There is a last loose end to tie up, however.  Superman manages to slip away with Supergirl and Krypto and together they combine heat vision to erase his alter ego from the face of the Moon. 

The assembled super-comrades then depart with the heartfelt thanks of the man of tomorrow while Lois and Lana mention the odd coincidence that Clark Kent's mission seemed to be a bit suspicious, but they'll let it drop for now.  The story then closes. (While conducting my customary research for this feature, I discovered that this tale is in fact a reworking of a 13 page story of the same title, originally published in Superman #66 dated September/October, 1950. Credit for the original story goes to writer Bill Woolfolk and artists Al Plastino & Stan Kaye.) 

The story was an interesting one and it certainly had guest stars to spare.  Like some of the other classic Superman tales I've reviewed here this one nearly covered the entire gamut, with help from Supergirl, the Superman Emergency Squad, The Legion of Super-Heroes, the Fortress of Solitude, the Phantom Zone, Krypton itself and even Krypto.   We got to see Jor-El and short views of Superman's history.  It was a very well-crafted story, but I can't let one significant error slip by.  When Kara returned to Krypton, she would have lost all her powers under her native red sun.  Just how the devil could she effort lessly fly back through the time barrier?  I suspect there was some sort of glib explanation made later in a letters column, but from where I sit it's purely a screw-up. Despite that, it was a good, well-woven read and I'll rate this one a 9 on the 10-point scale.

Shortly after I finished this review and turned it in to my good friend, the webmaster, he reminded me that I probably had access to that particular edition of the Metropolis Mailbag and indeed I do, in Superman #158, which I reviewed quite some time ago (and with a few similar comments, I see.)  I even noted the letter from E. Nelson Bridwell, who later got onto the payroll at DC Comics, perhaps on the strength of letters like the one below.  He was long revered for his encyclopedic knowledge of DC continuity.  See below:  

Dear Editor:   

I know that many readers will write you complaining that you goofed when you showed Supergirl having her usual super-powers on the planet Krypton.  I think I have found a way to get you off the hook.  In Superboy No. 81 June, 1960, the Boy of Steel encountered a type of Red Kryptonite which restored his super-powers when he had lost them on a Krypton-like planet with a red sun.  It is quite plausible to assume that he brought it to Earth, and, when he grew up to be Superman, deposited it in his Fortress of Solitude.  Then, when Supergirl found it necessary to make her time-trip back to Krypton, she prepared for her journey by taking a chunk of this Red K with her, in the friction-proof pouch of her cape.  Thus, when it was time for her to return, exposure to this variety of Red K gave her the needed super-powers to take off.  Correct?

E. Nelson Bridwell, Oklahoma City, Okla. 

Now, as one of my favorite comedians, Bill Engvalde would say, even Evel Kneivel couldn't make that jump, but the editor latched onto it with both hands: 

Correct!  However, this type of Red K can never again work on her—though it can be used on Krypto, the Kandorians, and the Phantom Zone outlaws.

As I predicted, pretty glib, but you can't help but admire Bridwell's logic and knowledge.

Godspeed, Christopher Reeve.  You certainly showed us all how to be a Superman.

The next edition of this feature will be available in approximately two weeks.  Meanwhile, I look forward to hearing from you, so send me a note.  My e-mail address is professor_the@hotmail.com.

See you next time and…

Long live the Silver Age!

© 2000-2004 by B.D.S.

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