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.|
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.|
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.|