Friday, March 4, 2011

Back Issue Box: Superman #308

Yesterday I reviewed Superman #307, the first part of a 3 part story in which Superman finds himself psychologically distanced from humanity and vowing to protect Earth from pollution even if his acts defy governmental decisions. In a shocking twist, Supergirl reveals to Superman that the two of them are actually  Earth-born mutants, the result of scientists Jonathan Kent and Fred Danvers work with radioactive materials. With his entire past apparently a lie, Superman isn't sure where to go. Should he be happy to know that he is not an orphan, that he has a connection to the world? Or should he be dismayed that he has been living a delusion this whole time.

Superman #308 is the middle chapter of the arc. It is amazing that all the concepts brought up in this storyline are wrapped up in such a short period of time. I am not necessarily saying that it is a good thing. Some elements of this plot are covered so briefly they require a 'roll with it' laissez-faire attitude.

Still, there is a lot to digest here. Writer Gerry Conway does his best to show just how tortured psychologically Superman is in this piece, torn between two worlds feeling he doesn't really belong to either. Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez does his usual stellar internal work. And there is a nice Neal Adams cover to this book, although not as fantastic as last issue's Kandor-smashing piece.

As I said before, part of my interest in looking at this story now is how much this echoes some of the beats of 'Grounded', an emotionally tortured Superman struggling to find his place in the world.

I thought the splash page was a pretty good image. Superman envisioning the destruction of Krypton but voicing his confusion. If Krypton did not exist ... did not explode ... then he is insane or his life has been a lie.

But last issue ended in the Fortress where Superman had just defeated The Protector, a super-villain who derives great power based on the pollutants spoiling the environment.

It was there that Supergirl told Superman that Krypton's existence was a delusion that Clark had created because he couldn't deal with the reality that he was a mutant. To physically drive home the point, Supergirl begins smashing her way through the Fortress, destroying the 'mementos' and displays of Clark's 'alien heritage'. She even tells him to 'shove it' and 'stop being maudlin' about his false history.

Now I am sure that there would be plenty of ways that Superman could try harder to figure out if Krypton existed ... his weakness to Kryptonite, his indestructible outfit, etc. None of those things could be around if he was a mutant. That said, there appears to be some truth to this. At one point we see Superman turn on the Phantom Zone projector only to discover it is an oversized flashlight. Either Superman imagined those things or someone replaced the old projector (and the real Kandor) with fakes.

In the end, Superman actually thinks Supergirl is telling the truth. He simply needs to be alone for a bit and think this whole thing through.

Not that we as readers needed to be told that this was some hoax, but we then see Supergirl talking to someone about the plan to help Superman, about how she did what she was asked to do. But you can tell, she isn't so sure if telling Superman that Krypton did not exist is the right thing to do.

One thing I will say throughout these first issues, Conway has the cousins really acting as equals. In fact, given Superman's mental instability, Supergirl comes across as the more mature, more rational hero.

Another interesting wrinkle to this arc is that it seems that Lois is smitten with Clark and is trying to woo him. I don't recall reading this slant in the 70s, so this felt fresh.

Last issue, Clark felt that he couldn't get close to Lois in any way because he was 'an alien', different. But now, given his new history ... now that he is an Earth mutant, suddenly something like romance is an option.  Rather than push Lois away, he decides to embrace this moment.

I thought this was great. Not only because the Clark/Lois romance is innovative for the time period but it also added some depth to the psychological isolation Superman is feeling. He never thought he could love.

But these quiet moments of introspection are brief.

The Protector had escaped the Fortress earlier in the issue and flies straight to his mentor, the villain Radion.

Tying in to the anti-pollution angle of this arc, Radion is a mutant who possesses unruly nuclear powers, gained by his exposure radiation suffered in a nuclear accident. He not only lived, but changed, and now has great strength and the ability to cause things to explode or decay. This also warped his mind.

Radion found The Protector and trained him. Both villains hope to massively pollute the world and Superman's new found passion to end all pollution interferes with those plans.

And Radion's plan is pretty simple. He wants to cause a meltdown in all the world's nuclear reactors. The way Radion sees it, the resulting armageddon will lead man to the next level of evolution. Many will die. Many will become twisted mutations, but some will become supermen.

I know it doesn't make much sense given what we know now. In fact, it seems to be a pretty silly plan all around. But that's why Radion is the bad guy. Because he is evil and twisted.

Luckily Superman is able to thwart the reactor meltdown.

He then tracks Radion and the Protector to their lair and defeats them, tricking them into eliminating each other.

I know that pro-pollution supervillains probably wouldn't fly today. But for the time period, I thought making 'pollution' bad in comics was a good way to get children to learn about the problem.

I also continue to be amazed at the speed in which these plot elements are wrapped up. These villains were introduced, talked about their evil plans, fought Superman, and were defeated over two issues! And there were a lot of scenes without them in these comics!

Unfortunately, the anti-pollution angle of this arc ends here as the next issue's threat is more galactic in nature.

But even if the villains lose in the end, the psychological part of this arc is still there.

Superman actually feels some sort of empathy with the villains. They are mutants just like he supposedly is now. If his prior life as 'The Last Son of Krypton' was a lie then maybe he needs to embrace a new life. maybe he needs to become someone different. It seems that Superman is still feeling lost.

So is Superman really a mutant? Or did Supergirl's 'plan' include replacing Kandor and the Phantom Zone projector as a way to confuse and delude Superman? And if that was her plan ... why?

There are a lot of questions unanswered. But one thing we do know is that Superman is still on shaky ground mentally. What is he? And how does he fit into this world? Which part defines him ... the alien Kryptonian walking alone amongst the populace of Earth? Or the man raised on Earth but rocketed from another planet? Can he easily straddle both parts of himself? So many of these questions are being raised in 'Grounded' right now as Superman deals with the destruction of New Krypton and the War of the Supermen.

As I said yesterday, I'll give an overall grade for this arc tomorrow when I review the conclusion. But the interaction between the super-cousins early in the issue really shined, showing Supergirl in a positive light. Conway does a good job using thought bubbles to let us see just how distraught Superman is. And Garcia-Lopez puts in his usual solid work.


Martin Gray said...

I'm enjoying your thoughts on this story hugely, and remembering it more as you go along.

I do recall the changed Clark/Lois dynamic, which pretty much began with the classic story in #296-299. It felt like a period of maturity for the Superman book

Anj said...

Thanks for the post!

I'll have to dig through what I own of those Superman issues (296-299) now.