Wednesday, July 15, 2015

THE SPLIT SUPERMAN SAGA


It's my birthday today, so I'm hoping you'll indulge me if I discuss a comic that, strictly speaking, isn't really all that weird. Sure, it involves time travel, magic, a superhero being cut into two distinct living beings, an underworld super-crime auction and a villain with vibrators on his fists but, you know, comparatively speaking it's a comfy ride down a country lane.

It was, however, my younger self's absolute favorite comic of all time. I read my copies of these issues until they were liquid and had to be stored in an old pickle jar.

The book does fit the general criteria of this site, in that it's both gone and forgotten - the story was permanently put to bed as soon as it was wrapped up and passively wiped from canon. In fact, I may be the only person in the world who's ever given it so much as a second thought - or who's even ever read it in the first place. Good lord, maybe this comic only exists in my mind! Let's find out!

It's a salad bowl, I think.
It's the Split Superman Saga, and if that name fails to ring a bell, it's only because I'm pretty sure I'm the sole person on Earth who refers to as such. This is despite the fact that the series ran seven straight months from Action Comics vol.1 No.534 through No.541 (August 1982 through March 1983), longer than any of the Superman-helmed miniseries up to that point (or most miniseries in general)!

Superman finds himself summoned to an ambiguous period in the Middle Ages (14th century Britain according to the dialogue, but it sort-of looks like the cleanup crew at Altamont). The Man of Steel has been abducted across time by his magical opponents Lord Satanis and his satanic majesty's contentious bride Syrene. This pair are basically the Bickersons of the sword-and-sorcery set, and this time they're throwing the dishes at one another over The Runestone, a gem of unimaginable might which can transform its wielder into a god!

The downside of the gem - it's too powerful for any mortal frame to process, magic or no. That's why they need Superman to act as an invulnerable Brita filter through which the power of the Runestone can be moderated. Sure, it'll kill him, but you don't make an omelette without breaking a few iconic superheroes.

One of, like, ten times Superman dies in this book.
Syrene and Satanis engage in a magical tug-of-war with Superman's body - this is at the tail-end of a lengthy battle where they throw everything else at him and each other, including mud golems and dragons and animated trees and all kindsa shit you wouldn't expect to see Superman fighting this far outside of the Silver Age. The end result is ... dividing. Superman is literally split in two - two distinct, separate, seemingly identical Supermen, but each one only possessing half the powers of the original!

The breakdown of the powers goes like this: One Superman keeps the invulnerability, the heat vision, and presumably the x-ray vision and other sensory powers. The other Superman keeps flight, super-speed, super-strength and super-breath. Also, he gets the kids on alternate weekends and keeps the Summer home in Montauk.

Satanis and Syrene only need invulnerable-Superman, so they send the other one back to the modern era. Despite keeping the lion's share of the flashy powers, strong-Superman quickly learns that, bereft of invulnerability, those remaining strange powers and abilities are a mixed blessing at best. Lifting a building may still be a simple matter, as is dashing about faster than a speeding bullet, but it leaves him bruised and sore - not to mention what a speeding bullet can actually do to him now (Hint: kill him).

In fact, bullets are almost the least of his problems. Over the course of the story, Superman is pounded insensate by debris, kidnapped by the supervillainous sneak thief The Mole, abducted to an underworld auction (bidding is for the right to murder the Man of Steel), is savagely beaten by a villain named Jackhammer whose power is literally "fist-pumping," ends up on the operating table TWICE and straight-up actually DIES at one point. He also gets to walk around Lois Lane's apartment semi-shirtless, so ... it's sexy too...

If there are other concrete reasons why this story thrilled my pre-pubescent self so much - in addition to the high stakes established in the dense action - the multitude of cameos is in no small way responsible. Superman ends up rubbing shoulders with The Omega Men, the Teen Titans, old-timers Cave Carson and Rip Hunter (in advance of the much better-remembered Forgotten Heroes arc) and, via flashback, Green Lantern.

He also makes abortive attempts to travel back in time using other DC Heroes' portable time-holes, only to find that Satanis has sabotaged the timeline with time-tacks on the time-road or something. Whatever the case, it's a chance to have Superman call on the Atom to borrow the Time Pool, the Flash to give the Cosmic Treadmill a shot, a spare Legion of Super-Heroes' Time Bubble in his Fortress of Solitude, and to hang out in a darkened apartment listening to Bruce Springsteen's Glory Days on repeat to see if plain ol' rueful nostalgia can do the trick (I made the last one up).

In the end, of course, Superman manages to break through the time barrier through some backdoor loophole and unite with his distaff self. The subsequent battle is beautifully drawn by Gil Kane, involves an enormous blue Superman and tons of Kirby dots, sees Satanis and Syrene defeated and just generally resolves everything neatly so that the status quo of the Superman books is back by suppertime.
You're a brand.

And it's that last point which cements this story in my memory as one of my all-time favorites. The action, the cameos, and the dense drama all still hold up to this day, in my opinion, but the genuinely timeless, personal value of this story resides in the fact that this was the comic which killed my credulity and, in doing so, made me a keener comics reader.

Up to this point, like most children, I believed that the stakes established in any superhero's adventures were dire stakes. I was ignorant of corporate fiat and the tyranny of the bottom line, and believed that even Superman could be killed off in the pages of his own book by any sufficiently powerful villain. Which is what I believed might actually happen in this very story! I was a child and I read these comics as a child reads them; fearing for the safety of imaginary people.

The length of the story, the depth of the roster and the reverence afforded Gil Kane as a legendary artist led me to believe that this might actually be the tale where Superman literally dies, and dies for good. At the very least, I wondered if the invulnerable Superman, trapped in the past with the powers of x-ray vision and heat vision, might be murdered by his foes - leaving our modern-day Superman with half his strength; a storyline which promised both death and the permanent humbling of a great hero. Heady stuff, indeed.

(The best case scenario, to my tiny mind, was that we'd have two Supermen - one in the present-day, one in the past, split between what was then the only two books to feature the solo adventures of the Man of Tomorrow on a regular basis. I still occasionally daydream about this batshit, impractical idea)

But, of course, none of this would happen. My hopes had been raised so high that the failure of any of this became the breaking point at which I realized that it was in no company's best interest to interfere too deeply with the status quo. Superman-as-he-is was a brand, an identity, and a property, and it didn't behoove the bottom line to change it too much.

With that realization, but still possessed of an abiding love for the medium, that's when I stopped reading these books for "what might happen" and instead read them for "what they are." I started paying attention to the execution of the story and art, and by doing that I started paying attention to the creators. Acknowledging the creators meant I took to paying attention to entire arcs as bodies of work, which led me to begin contextualizing them in greater schemes of cultural and philosophical movements, which also led me outside of superhero comics.

I say this with no exaggeration: there is a direct line in my comics experience from The Split-Superman Saga to Love&Rockets. If I'd never had an epiphany with the former, I never would have engaged with the latter (and a thousand other comics outside of the cape-and-cowl genre).

This storyline also gave me a healthy suspicion of the publicity machine. While this story came out to no particular fanfare, it was only a few years later that DC would "erase" its fifty-year history. Thanks I strongly suspected at the time that the old elements would sneak their way back into the books and, of course, they did. Just as they did after Superman died, was replaced, grew a mullet, became electric, split in two, and will return after whatever the hell is going on in the comics these days. Being inured to publicity is a life-skill these days, it spares you a lot of headaches and saves you from the embarrassment of getting your hopes up over something some middle management jerks cooked up in an all-beige meeting room...
For instance, this was the scene at the Batman vs Superman screening at Comicon last weekend.
In the grand scheme of superhero comics - or even in Superman comics specifically - the Split-Superman saga is a blip. Remembered by few, celebrated by none, it holds a singular place in my heart for giving me the gift of cynicism. That's not usually what Superman's around for, but I appreciate it nonetheless.

14 comments:

Linus said...

First Action Comics I ever read. The Kane artwork is certainly very memorable.

Unknown said...

How is it you failed to mention Syrene's glowing nipples?

BillyWitchDoctor said...

Side Note: I've been reading parts of your book before bed over the past few weeks and just came across the shout-out to your regular commenters! Thank you for making me immortal-ish! (Also the book is a fun read! Thank you for that, too!)

My favorite Superman arc is similar but comes a little earlier; "Who Took The Super Out of Superman?" by Cary Bates and Elliot Maggin. In this multi-part epic, circumstances render Superman completely powerless as long as he's not wearing his Superman costume. Yes, that's dumb as hell--but it led to some fantastic (albeit temporary, yet oft-revisited) changes and a controversial first. No longer having to restrain himself in his milquetoast act, Clark Kent tells off his boss, flattens a bullying co-worker (it kills me that Morgan Edge and Steve Lombard are pretty much gone & forgotten now; they were essential parts of my youth's Superman Family)...and he does it with Lois Lane.

Yes, he had teh sex with Lois. That was the controversial first. I recall either Time or Newsweek devoting an article to the rather-discreet panel of Clark and Lois making out on the couch in front of the TV, and angry think-of-the-children letters that followed. This was at least a year before Bates made a very annoying habit of ending stories with Barry and Iris or Katar and Shiera chasing each other into the master bedroom, and it freaked the straights out, maaaaan. (Even Alan Moore got in on that act with the nudge-nudge-wink-wink-say-no-more final panel of "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow," so perhaps it was editorial wanky-panky rather than simple mastur-Bates-ion.) I was too young to understand that anything was going on beyond mashing mouths together (grossss), but boy howdy I liked this new Clark Kent. For as long as he lasted.

http://www.superman-through-the-ages.com/tales2/whotook/2/?page=12

neofishboy said...

Oh my God, I bought this at a 7-11! I was just starting to buy comics and I was testing the waters to see which ones I wanted to follow (I ended up being mostly a Marvel guy). Fortunately for me, our little town was just about to get an honest-to-God comic shop. It was called The Game Warden and prior to focusing on comics I remembered it as a dimly-lit and somewhat intimidating game store filled with RPG books and lead figures, where surly teens would lurk in the back having D&D tournaments and using swear words.

Calamity Jon said...

NFB, I think you're referring to the Algonquin Round Table.

neofishboy said...

Nope. This was a total sausage-fest.

Calamity Jon said...

BWD: Yeah, as a bonafide Superman scholar of the ages and all that (http://thechronologicalsuperman.tumblr.com/) I honestly think the Bates/Maggin/Bridwell/Pasko/et al era is woefully overlooked. Fandom concentrates either on the Fleischer cartoons (as a shorthand for the Golden Age), the Silver Age or the Byrne reboot, but these was a ton of genuine of gold to be mined out of Superman's 1970s/early 1980s incarnation. Even the introduction of the Super-Mobile is one of my favorite and most fondly-remembered stories - not for the gimmick but for the genuine air of menace and the partnership as portrayed between Superman and Lois.

D said...

Happy birthday!

Calamity Jon said...

Ha, thanks D!

NapoleonDolemite said...

I believe DC released a bound edition of the story a few years ago.

Calamity Jon said...

Not according to Comicvine or Amazon, but let me know if you track it down.

Brian Triplett said...

I thought invulnerable Superman got superspeed and flying Superman got heat vision. I vaguely remember flying Superman wishing he could do something beside using heat vision from a distance while invulnerable Superman keeps ramming into the bad guys. He could run faster than his counterpart could fly.

Calamity Jon said...

The invulnerable Superman spent most of his time tied to a stake in the Middle Ages, so he didn't actually get to fight any bad guys except Satanis. My recollection is that modern-day/non-invulnerable Superman (on whom the story primarily focused) kept the super-speed but had no vision powers, but that might be my childhood impression coloring my recent re-reading SOOOOO ... I will check it when I get home for the definitive answer...

Calamity Jon said...

All right, here we go. Modern-day Superman kept the powers of flight, super-strength, super-speed and super-breath, plus his "super-mind" which I guess means his other self is an idiot now. He did not have heat vision.

Modern-day Supes trying to use his super-speed sans invulnerability:
https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/WDLVYV1TdBxjdhHG-HigMmg8Srm0kYbTmdBmuw8qLvmh=w1096-h363-no

Modern-day Supes cataloging what powers he still has:
https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/HzzFFSmlRF9u55_nyIgf5wxn4_B35kmYl1XR4L9CVgfH=w816-h775-no

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