Thursday, September 17, 2020

Back Issue Review: Superman #247

Last week I reviewed Superman #25, the first chapter in the Synmar plot which marks the end of the Brian Michael Bendis run on the character. In that pilot, we see a race of aliens called the Synmar who seem to live in judgment over the universe. In fact, there is a brief discussion about stopping Kal-El's rocket before the baby Kryptonian can become some sort of monster.

The idea of some alien race sitting in judgment over Kal-El certainly stirred up memories of 'The Trial of Superman' storyline from the diamond era. But it also made me pull out Superman #247 in which the Guardians of the Universe wonder if they should curtail Superman's actions. They sort of sit in judgment over him as they try to impart a hard lesson.

"Must there be a Superman?" is one of the more famous Superman stories and certainly is a 'must reprint' in any Bronze Age or Seventies Superman collection. And it is an interesting thought exercise. What should Superman do? And what shouldn't he do? 
Perhaps most interesting is that the Guardians of the Universe espouse a very Luthorian view of Superman in this book. Luthor always screams that Superman is holding humanity back. Here the Guardians say much the same thing.
And the narrative boxes are also somewhat novel told in the second person, as if you the reader is Superman. 
On to the book.

We start with an impressive splash page of Superman standing before a council of Guardians delaring him guilty of crimes against humanity. It is a sort of feint. We never really get this scene in the story. But it certainly is a draw. There is a sort of Zod standing before the Science Council feel here. Odd to see Superman in this villain stance.

Written by Superman legend Elliot S. Maggin with art by the also legendary Swanderson team of Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson, the story certainly starts with a bang.

We actually start the story in deep space.
Superman is called into action to stop a massive ball of spores in deep space from hitting any inhabited planets. The spores would multiply and eradicate all life present.
This won't be easy. Superman is in a galaxy dotted with red suns making him less super than usual. But using some ingenuity and pre-Crisis power levels, he literally creates a new planet -atmosphere and all - for the spores to have to themselves. 

No wonder people sometimes think Superman is hard to write. In the span of three panels back then he creates a new world. Heck, it took God seven days!

It is also interesting to read this story knowing that it takes place about a year after Denny O'Neil's 'Kryptonite Nevermore' arc which decreased Superman's power significantly. He's not exactly depowered here.

To be fair, the effort wipes out Superman so much he needs to be rescued.

I like the fact that it is Katma Tui who rescues Superman. She brings him to the Central Power Battery where he can rest and recover.

When awake and alert, Superman hears the Guardians mention how the Man of Steel's presence on Earth has led to 'cultural lag'. He is surprised.

Now in what has to be considered a lousy turn, the Guardians decide that they shouldn't talk openly to Superman about their concerns. Instead the right way to handle this is to be passive aggressive. 

Classic Oan nonsense. This is Superman. Talk to him!

Instead they show him a flashback from an early JLA story where the League has to save a planet which has overpolluted their environment. (Anti-pollution stories were a nice hot topic back then. And I wonder if Kalyarnians is a sort of smudged version of Californians?)

In that story, Superman says the people of that planet need to stand up for themselves and fix things. They shouldn't count on others.

With this memory now in the front of his mind, Superman heads back to Earth. The Guardians hope that they have given Superman food for thought about how his handling of Earth is the opposite of what he told the Kalyarnians.

His flight takes him over a fruit farm where a young Hispanic boy is being beaten by the owner of the orchard!

Superman steps in.

He then gets the lowdown.

The pickers were going to strike against the owner so they could  get better working conditions. However the workers caved when the owner said he'd fire them. All that is except Miguel, the young worker being struck, who stuck to his guns.

Superman is rather irked by the whole thing. He is upset that the other workers were just standing there watching Miguel get hurt. He is also upset at the owner for manhandling the boy.

Just what is Superman supposed to do here? Does he have to intercede in everything he witnesses? Is this the level of problem he should deal with? Or should he save himself for bigger things?

Heading to Miguel's house, Superman sees that Miguel lives in a dilapidated shanty town.

Immediately, the townspeople ask Superman to rebuild their entire town. 'Where are you going to start?' is a terrible thing to start the conversation with. It prompts Superman to again wonder if he should be stepping into every similar situation. What line does he draw?

And Superman seems absolutely miffed in that second panel; great art by Swanderson. And that last panel where he says 'nothing at all' is pretty dramatic.

So what do people think?

But this is a comic book. So some incredible events happen ...

An earthquake occurs right then and there. It levels the town. And Superman has to step in.

Heck, if he could create a planet earlier, he certainly can stop an earthquake. Burrowing under, he stablilizes the tectonic plates.

And then, almost going against what he just said, he completely rebuilds the town with spiffier looking homes.

But he has a final word.

He needs these people to stand up on their own. They need to be like Miguel and seize their own destiny. Yes, he will help them against things like earthquakes, things they can't handle. But in terms of their work life and their domiciles, they need to stand on their own.

I believe in an honest day's wage for an honest day's work. And I think Superman is better suited fighting Mongul than stopping farm labor issues. But I do think that Superman can be a model of selflessness and helping.

And yet, it is hard for Superman to not help.

He said those words. But he immediately runs off to help a sinking cruise ship. 

The Guardians are still watching though wondering if anything will change.

So should this be as famous an issue as it is? Should Superman curtail what he is doing for us? Is he forcing 'cultural lag'? And how is this different from what Luthor says?

I don't know if anything truly changed after this story. But it is a wonderful thought exercise about Superman and so I can understand why it is so famous. 

And the art is smooth as silk sheets.

Overall grade: B+


Martin Gray said...

Great review!

I’ve never been a fan of this famous tale, like most relevancy stories it’s horribly heavy handed. The idea that the bloomin’ Guardians of the Universe could tell anyone not to interfere with planetary destiny is ridiculous. ‘Indirect influence’ - yeah, right.

And I really hate second person narration, it doesn’t pull me into a story, it highlights the artifice.

It’s fair enough Superman rebuilt the homes, the people had nothing at all after the earthquake, and it would be a bit mean to recreate the shanty shacks.

I still think Maggin is one of the Superman greats, though, and the Swanderson art team is a ridiculously good combo. Love those greyscale flashbacks.

That cover image has Superman looking like he’s straining to ‘go’.

You wonder if this story and any repercussions - well, we could read the short that follows, by Denny O’Neil, as a coincidental response, as Clark tries to help in his secret ID rather than Superman. Ok, it may be a stretch, but I liked this.

Yeah, I much prefer the debut Private Life of Clark Kent story, dig Jimmy’s jazzy bow tie ensemble. I’m less keen on Clark in a smoking jacket, though, oh dear! I had to look up ‘white bucks’.

It proves the perfect garb for what comes next, though. When Clark says he has an experiment he wants to try, I expected something involving Kandor or kryptonite, but no, he’s trying tobacco - hilarious!

And what’s up with Clark sending a beat-up Jimmy home in torn clothes? He doesn’t even call him a cab!

The art is again splendid, with Swanderson giving us another great greyscale effect to show the gritty street at night... I wonder if Jack Adler was colouring, washes were his thing.

The oddly named Bick has a very distinct face - I wonder if he’s related to the blond Curt Swan.

Anonymous said...

I can accept this story because for once, the Guardians of Oa are treating Kal El, like Superman used to treat Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, as naive fools who need to be manipulated and "taught a lesson". The bright red boot pinches when its on the other super foot I'd say.
Oh but that Swan-Anderson artwork, it was never ever better...this is literally their artistic high noon.


H said...

This is a tough one. Superman's original tagline is Champion of the Oppressed but if he fights all their battles for them, what are they going to do when he's fighting someone else's oppression? I like the solution here- he's here now and will do what he can but also promotes self-help.

Sort of interesting fact about this story you may or may not know- it was inspired by a conversation Maggin had with a young Jeph Loeb. Loeb's father was the dean of the college Maggin went to, and had him over for dinner one night.

Professor Feetlebaum said...

I remember reading this story when it came out. I don't recall it having any long term effects on future stories. The Guardians seem awfully concerned about Superman's presence causing a "cultural lag" on Earth, but couldn't the same thing be said about their Green Lantern Corps-not just on Earth, but across the universe?

As for Superman's decreased powers, that idea seemed to go away when Denny O'Neil left.

There was a line on the old Adventures of Superman TV show that possibly fits in here. I don't remember what episode it was, but George Reeves, as Clark or Superman says something like "People shouldn't rely on Superman to keep their own houses in order". Maybe Elliot Maggin saw that episode.

Finally, one correction. According to Genesis (the Bible, not the rock band with Phil Collins), God created the world in six days, not seven. But Superman still did it faster.

Nobile said...

Always happy to read about this small masterpiece, Anj! The Luthor's "holding back humanity" remark, actually, came much later, mostly post-crisis, but this just proves how strong Maggin's (and Loeb's!) point was, in this story, as it contributed to shape the Man of Steel for the years to come. Maggin showed with his tenure on Superman what was the correct vision in "depowering" Kal-El, not just toning down his abilities, but making him face his human side. With Superman, the power and responsibility dilemma is brought to another level and Maggin got it.
Even that loathed neck-snap scene in "Man of Steel" focused on this concept and it would have played SO good, if only Snyder hadn't screwed all up mishandling Clark's past and human family in the first act.