A Tribute to the of

By the time this edition of the Silver Age Sage hits the World Wide Web we should have been able to check out "Superman Returns" at the box office.  I've been looking forward to it for quite awhile and have high hopes that it will be of the same caliber as some of the other recent offerings on the silver screen such as "Batman Begins."

So, to mark the occasion, it seems only right to review a story from Superman's original stomping grounds in the venerable Action Comics.  I've selected issue #305 from October of 1963.

I don't think I can improve on the text box on the splash page, penciled by Curt Swan and inked by George Klein, which shows Superman being successfully ambushed by Lex Luthor outside his apartment:  "Why does the mighty Superman pose as the meek weakling, Clark Kent?  His awesome super-powers can defy the most diabolical foes, so what does he fear?  For the first time we reveal you the startling answer in this great imaginary story—"Why Superman Needs a Secret Identity!"

As we flip the page we're witness to a telephone call from the Daily Planet's editor, Perry White to reporter Clark Kent.  Jimmy Olsen is nearby and Perry tells the two to come see him in the isolation ward at Metropolis hospital where he's come down with a case of the measles.

Unfortunately for the two reporters, their timing leaves something to be desired.  When they arrive at the hospital they discover that Benny the Blaster, a hold-up man who uses nitro instead of a gun in his work, is demanding that a safe filled with radium capsules be opened and surrendered to him.  The terrified doctor, however, cannot recall the combination to the safe.  Benny has just announced a 60-second deadline for opening the safe.  Inwardly Clark groans that he could stop him by switching to Superman, but it would require him to reveal his secret identity.  He's prepared to do so if necessary, but before we follow his thoughts much further, more text from our writer Leo Dorfman:  "Hold everything, reader!  Ask yourself…why would revealing his secret identity ruin Superman's career?  What makes it so necessary for him always to act meek and timid, as Clark Kent?  Why must the Man of Steel often work undercover?  What would happen if he had no secret identity?"

In answer to the rhetorical question, we are transported back to Smallville, where Clark Kent first came into being as the alter-ego of Superboy.  Clark and Lana Lang are out and about when a car filled with masked gunmen have just knocked over the local bank.  True to form, Clark heads for cover beneath a nearby truck.  While there he clandestinely uses his heat vision to melt the asphalt beneath the tires of the getaway car allowing the pursuing police to catch up to them.  Meanwhile, Superboy's foster parents, Ma and Pa Kent, have witnessed the scene and Jonathan decides he's had enough of Clark being ridiculed for his "cowardice."  Later that day the Kent's tell Clark that they want him to reveal his secret identity to the world so that they can openly show their pride in their son.  Clark reluctantly agrees and on the steps of Smallville City Hall, Jonathan Kent announces to the city that his son Clark is really Superboy while Clark removes his clothing to reveal the familiar red and blue uniform of the Boy of Steel.

From that point on, Superboy wears his uniform to his classes at Smallville High and is excused whenever he spots an emergency, such as one day when a dirigible is caught in a thunderstorm.  Our editor, Mort Weisinger informs us that there are no dirigibles nowadays (in 1963, of course) but that when Superboy lived in Smallville airships like the Graf Zeppelin routinely cruised around the world.

Meanwhile, back in Smallville, while Superboy is otherwise engaged, a villain arrives at the Kent General Store and fires upon Superboy's foster parents, mortally wounding them.  When Superboy returns he discovers the horrible truth.  The gunman was head of the masked gang who'd robbed the bank earlier and was intent upon revenge.  Looking over the gravestones of the Kent's, the grief-stricken Superboy regrets revealing himself and leaving them vulnerable.  Our writer provides more text:  "Yes, such might have been the grim result should Superboy have discarded his Clark Kent disguise when he was a youth!  But now that he has grown up to be Superman, with his foster parents having passed away naturally (as told in Superman #161 dated May, 1963), what difference could it make if anyone learned his secret identity?  Read on."

We now fast forward to the day that Superman first arrives in Metropolis.  He makes arrangements to lease a 4-bedroom apartment with windows facing the street.  The owner is thrilled to have such a high profile resident and immediately offers the apartment free of charge.  He also swiftly renames the facility the Superman Arms, complete with new signage.

When Superman later returns from patrol he is dismayed to see a choking mass of people and cars outside his apartment building.  He reasons that the furor will die down after awhile, but at present he can't seem to find a moment's peace, from the gawkers who ruin his meals (I didn't think he had to eat, but I suppose it was just to illustrate how life would be for a very public Superman) to the constant knocks on his door requesting photographs to the requests for mundane favors by his neighbors such as retrieving an escaped parakeet.  All these things, though, are mere petty annoyances compared to what happens next when Lex Luthor springs his trap on the Man of Steel.  The villain lies in wait until Superman emerges from the window of his apartment and fires on him from an adjacent building with Kryptonite shells, sending the Metropolis Marvel plunging to the ground and in shock, which allows Luthor to commit a jewelry robbery at his leisure.

The next day Superman is summoned to the office of the Governor where he is upbraided for being reckless in not using a secret identity.  The Man of Steel concurs, realizing that any foe can at any time use simple surveillance to strike at him again.  The only viable solution seems to be to leave Metropolis for his arctic Fortress of Solitude.

Initially this seems to be the ideal solution.  Thanks to his bank of monitors, Superman can keep abreast of any emergencies that may require his attention, worldwide.  Additionally, the criminal element cannot be certain of his whereabouts and he will also be relieved of the distractions of his admirers.  The one thing he did not count on, however, was how significant the solitude in the Fortress of solitude would become.  Even a Superman needs companionship and playing super-chess against his robots just isn't filling the bill, particularly when he always wins.  Loneliness overtakes the Man of Tomorrow and the gloom settles in.

Another turn of the page and another box of text as our story takes another turn:  "Well!  It's a lucky thing that what we just read has never happened!  So, now let's start a new imaginary episode.  It begins on the day that Superman first arrived in Metropolis in his Clark Kent identity…"

Kent is soon shown meeting with Perry White at the Daily Planet in an attempt to gain employment.  He reasons that it will also afford him the opportunity to investigate crimes, helping his secret mission as Superman.  White tells him that if he can produce an unusual photograph of Superman, who has apparently recently moved to Metropolis, he can have a job as a reporter.  Kent quickly gets on the case and as Superman is photographed holding a large chunk of Green Kryptonite.  When he returns with his trophy to the Planet headquarters, Lois Lane suggests it could have been faked.  Clark promptly responds that the photo was taken in the bottle city of Kandor, where Kryptonite has no affect on a mortal Superman.  Perry agrees it's a great shot and hires Kent.

In the months that follow, things unfold as we all know.  The office of the Planet becomes the undercover HQ of the Man of Steel and it isn't long before he and Jimmy Olsen are fast friends.  One fateful evening while working late, however, Jimmy stumbles across a shadowy figure in the stockroom.  The figure implores him not to turn on the light and reveal the secret identity of Superman.  Jimmy complies, but one day at a meeting of the Jimmy Olsen Fan Club, he lets slip that Superman's secret identity is that of someone who works at the Planet.  He is overheard by the new club porter, who is in actuality a spy for one Steve Barnes, master con-man.  He reports to his boss, who responds that the crime syndicate has a million dollar bounty on Superman's secret identity.

Barnes wastes no time in gathering a team to disclose the identity of Krypton's Last Son.  After carefully reviewing the plans for the offices of the Daily Planet, they find that the only room where an identity switch could take place is the stockroom.  Over a weekend they successfully place a two-way mirror for an ordinary mirror in the stockroom and ensure that it is made of lead glass, making it impervious to Superman's X-ray vision.  Planning and patience pay off when their monitoring efforts reveal that Superman is Clark Kent.  Now they follow up with the second and more critical phase of their nefarious plan.  The criminals substitute a replica of a gold key that Superman is to present to a triumphant astronaut.  The replica, however, is made of Gold Kryptonite, which robs Kryptonians of their super powers permanently.  As the syndicate revels in their triumph they reveal to Jimmy Olsen that it was his loose lips that allowed their plan to come to fruition.  This segment of the story illustrates that even if one person had the slightest clue to Superman's secret identity it could easily slip out with disastrous results.

On the next page, yet another scenario is presented:  "But suppose Superman himself was forced to reveal his hidden identity to the world…for instance let us go back and imagine what would happen if he had openly used his super-powers to stop the hold-up which began our story…"

So once again we see the dilemma in facing Benny the Blaster and Clark Kent uses his super speed and invulnerable body to snatch the explosive away and detonate it.  In the course of the action his Superman abilities and uniform are revealed and he says that his career as Superman is now ruined.  Perry White, having heard the explosion and come to investigate disagrees, stating that he could simply adopt a new secret identity.  With that in mind, Superman determines that being a police officer would be a good undercover job and so he applies to the police academy with a mustache and blonde wig and the new moniker of "Mark Trent."  Despite passing the physical with flying colors, an unexpected obstacle rears its head as Mr. Trent cannot fill out the references or provide a birth certificate or other vital documents as none exist.  Indeed the problem extends beyond the police department as nearly every line of work requires the same data.  He finally determines that if he poses as a hobo on skid row he can blend in there, but even that plan is thwarted when he cannot produce identification for the police and is hauled off to jail as a vagrant.  It is now demonstrated that discarding Clark Kent is more difficult than meets the eye.

We now return to the point where our story began, with the clock ticking away for Benny the Blaster.  Superman's mind is working overtime and he comes up with a solution, but it is partially dependent on the bottle being opened.  He challenges Benny, stating that the contents of the bottle could be mere water.  Benny retorts that it has the distinctive aroma of nitroglycerin and removes the stopper.

All eyes in the room are transfixed on the wall clock, allowing Clark to scoop up a nearby syringe and alter it with his heat vision and super speed, elongating the glass until it is a long, nearly transparent straw.  He then maneuvers the straw into the bottle, sucking the contents into his invulnerable body.  When the second hand finishes its revolution, Benny smashes the bottle on the floor, to no effect.  He cannot understand what happened to the nitro, but Kent wastes no time in grabbing the crook and helping justice to prevail.

The headlines of the Daily Planet report the event and Perry comments that since the bottle was empty there was no real danger.  Clark is content in having averted the potential tragedy without revealing himself and the story comes to its conclusion.

A story about Supergirl is also in this magazine, but I'll stop here.

This tale actually offered a few mini-tales within its pages, each offering problems and possibilities relating to the underlying question of how Superman could exist without his alter-ego of Clark Kent.  It also illustrated again and again how vital Clark is to Superman's mission.  I found it to be pretty imaginative and felt that it flowed well while making the points that it is no easy thing to have a Superman without a secret identity.  Later tales in Superman's continuity explore the theme as well.  One that particularly comes to mind is a 4-part serial in Superman's magazine published in late 1975/early 1976. It begins with issue #296 and continues in #297, #298 and concludes with #299. Superman is forced into becoming Clark Kent exclusively for a time and later just the opposite; as a full-time Superman.  I'll likely cover that excellent story here someday.

And at long last, particularly for a relatively short story, it's time to rate this one.  I'd say the effort earns a rating of 8 for packing a lot into 14 pages.  Once again, here's hoping the movie lives up to the legend.  It's no small feat to try to do justice to Superman.

We welcome your thoughts and feedback, so please send them to my handy e-mail address:  professor_the@hotmail.com.  In approximately two weeks we'll be back with another tale from the greatest era in comic books.  As a matter of fact, it will be edition #150, so be sure to stop by.

Long live the Silver Age!

© 2000-2006 by B.D.S.

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