Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Back Issue Box: Superman #314

I have been having fun the last couple of weeks reviewing a four-part Superman story from 1977, involving Superman and Supergirl fighting the vengeful space pirate Amalak. The central plot point of the story is Amalak trying to trick Superman into killing. By forcing the Man of Steel to break his ethical code, Amalak knows Superman will be psychologically broken and will retire. Today I cover the finale in Superman #314. 

Writer Marty Pasko has weaved an intricate plot involving a space plague, the return of the Kryptonian criminal Nam-Ek, and a stray dog/alien vector as both the source of the epidemic and a lynch pin to Amalak's plot. Each of these four issues only has 17 pages of plot but Pasko packs it to the brim with twists and turns. All that despite using recap pages to keep readers up to snuff. I have loved the way Pasko has inserted Supergirl into the mix and treated her properly. In this issue, I love his handle of DC lore.

The art is again by Curt Swan and inker Dan Adkins. It is an good mix of fisticuffs between plot points. Swan gets to stretch out a bit, moving from fist fights to Kaiju battles. Adkins gives the work a sort of Schaffenberger slickness, something unusual to how I picture Swan in my head.  But it is pretty slick.

Add to all that some Lois and Clark drama on the last page and you have a winner!

On to the book!

Let's start off with a bang. Last issue ended with Superman ready to kill Jamie Lombard's dog. The puppy is actually Jervik, Amalak's pet and the the vector of the Journalists' Disease. Superman feels he has little choice but to end Jervik's life, both ending the plague spread as well as removing a being who knows his secret identity!

But what about the code against killing? And how about damaging Jamie as the boy will watch his pet become a red smear?

Anyways, nice opening splash, the specter of Amalak looming in the background. Even the solid green background color works. And I love the title. "Before this night is over, Superman will kill!" Nice way to grab the audience.

Before the fatal super-blow can be struck, Jamie collapses, breaking out in the telltale rash of the Journalists' Disease.

Superman is able to put one piece of the puzzle together. Intense feelings of anger or fear are needed to trigger the virus. It lays dormant until that surge of adrenaline. 

Superman thinks back to the other victims and how they all succumbed after some stress. 

While that knowledge helps Superman, it doesn't deter him from his task.

He talks about Jervik's species. 

Luckily, the animal has two specific phases to its existence. One is a living form, a time where he is one of the Klynn ,a race of huge dinosaur sized creatures with typical living functions, on the planet Tiburon. 

But it also has a 'dead' stage of its existence when it does not exhibit the usual signs of life. This smaller version is, at least per Superman, dead.

Now we should pause here. When I read this, I needed to ask myself 'how do you define life'? And more importantly, how does Superman. Jervik is sentient, moving, active. He might not eat, breathe, or procreate. But he is 'living'. 

Without those physiological necessities though, Superman thinks Jervik is dead. That means he can destroy Jervik without worrying about his killing code.

Seems like a loophole. More importantly, why would Amalak use a 'dead' creature to lure Superman into 'killing'?

We thought Amalak was dead, incinerated when his ship exploded.

But it turns out he is alive. 

And we see how devious his plans are. He has in his possession a special whistle. The tune triggers a change in Jervik, switching him from his 'dead' form to a live one.

Mid-swing with a killing right hook, Superman senses that Jervik again has a pulse. He has to stop himself from obliterating the animal.

Was this Amalak's plan all along, to lure Superman into a fight with a 'dead' being only to last minute switch it to living? Or was this a back-up plan to hi faking the Nam-Ek death? Did he start the plague as a back-up plan??? It seems to perfect? Or too crazy? Or just crazy enough for the Bronze Age?

Remember though, in the lifecycle of the Klynn, the living stage is huge.

And so, with Amalak's musical prompt, Jervik reverts to kaiju size and begins trampling through Central City.

The panic of a monster walking the streets is triggering the plague germ in all those effected by the Journalists' disease. 

How can Superman stop the monster, stop the plague, and not kill?? 

Well, let's start by corralling the monster by beating him up the the golden arches of McDonald's ... ahem ... I mean McTavishes. 

I love how Pasko co-opts the old 'you deserve a break today' slogan by McDonald's while he is beating up Jervik.

I have to say, I love ... and I mean LOVE ... this page. It is both ridiculous and sublime.

Once handcuffed and hog tied in the bent arches, Superman figures out how he will curtail the spread of the disease. That answer is in the JLA satellite.

But when he gets up there, he finds Amalak waiting for him. If the Nam-Ek trick didn't work and the Jervik trap didn't work, it is up to Amalak to take matters into his own hands. What better place to figure out how to do that than in the JLA trophy room.

Surrounded by Amos Fortune's Wheel, Amazo, and the Key's gun, Amalak borrows Dr. Light's cannon to attack Superman.

It is another wonderful moment by Pasko. This is a great visual primer for the JLA and their adventures.

Amalak's whistle has another effect. When blown, it interferes with Superman's vision. With his vision swimming, Superman begins to throw down against Amalak. But an errant punch given his swirling eyesight has Superman punch Kanjar Ro's Gamma Gong. 

The resulting sound waves knocks Amalak unconscious. 

The Gamma Gong!!!

Pasko is digging deep into the history of our hero!

With Amalak out of commission, Superman can go about his plan to stop the spread of the city. He makes a tranquilizer rain and basically sedates Central City!

Did Superman just drug a whole metropolitan area? 

Well, to be fair, it is one way to stop people from having peaks of emotion that could kill them. On the other, it is a pretty crazy solution. Hope no one crashed their car or tripped and injured themselves while under the influence.

He then tosses Jervik into space on a collision course with his home planet. Good thing that race can survive deep space!

That means we have to wrap things up quickly. 

Superman heads back to the JLA satellite to find Amalak dying. The villain says it is Superman's fault but our hero sees through it. Amalak killed himself in hopes of convincing Superman that he broke his killing code.

Now that is dedication. The back-up back-up plan was suicide, in hopes of tricking Superman. That is the definition of insanity.

So Superman has won. Thankfully, Supergirl didn't die in the explosion and is there to help bring the remains of Amalak back to the prison planet.

So what did we think of Amalak? The idea of  attacking Superman psychologically, through his killing code specifically, was pretty brilliant. But the manner of bringing out that plot seems a bit overly complicated.

Love the art here. That is one beautiful Supergirl. 

Back on Earth, the victims have all been cured by exposure to Nam-Ek's horn. 

So let's throw in this end page, a brilliant character moment for Lois and Clark. Around this time, Lois was interested in Clark. Clark proposes!!!

She says she will if he admits he is Superman!

He thinks about it ... hard. Two small panels but in my head they last a lifetime.

And then he doesn't deny it! He says he can't tell her that. And somehow she turns that into his saying he isn't Superman. It seems their romance is over. 

Can't these two kids see they belong together???

Anyways, that is the end of this four part extravaganza ... although I think I might have an epilogue post in mind. Overall, I love that the plot really hinged on Superman's strict code against killing. Amalak's plot seems overly complicated and a bit reliant on coincidences. But the fact he used psychological warfare to attack Superman is pretty brilliant. The addition of Supergirl, Nam-Ek, and the JLA trophy room weapons were all gravy. I don't know if I understand the biology of the Klynn so that plot element seems a bit wonky. 

I love the art. Adkins again gives a smooth feel to the proceedings. That last scene is powerful.

Overall grade: B


H said...

Believe it or not, there actually is a real world creature somewhat like the Klynn. It's a tiny bug-like species called a tardigrade that can survive extreme conditions by going into a deep hibernation. They've even been shown to survive in outer space. I wouldn't put it past Marty Pasko to be really into science and use a weird creature in one of his stories.

I seem to remember Superman tranquilizing the city before, in the Thirsty Thursday story. Reads a bit weird now but like you said, a solution is a solution. Otherwise, it's a good ending to a good storyline.

Rob S. said...

The very first comic I ever bought. I knew Superman a bit from cartoons, and some other comics I read at a friend's house. In fact, I most likely bought this issue because it had the Flash on the cover, as he was my favorite hero from the start. But man, going from cartoons and borrowed comics to this story, with barely any context? Can you imagine?

I mean, that last scene alone is a destroyer. It's an all-time great Clark and Lois scene -- a giant pivot point in their relationship at the time. So to read it on essentially Day One of nearly 50 years of fandom... well, it just makes my head explode.

Amalak's plot is nearly as complicated to an adult as it was a 7-year-old kid back then. I tried and tried to understand how Jevik could shunt between alive and dead, or how Amalak killing himself as essentially, a prank, could ever make sense. But whoo-boy, this was high drama, and I was HOOKED.

Martin Gray said...

The first three parts I bought at the time, but due to the vagaries of UK ‘distribution’ it was years before I read this conclusion. It was worth the wait - what a treat for fans of both Superman historic and the wider DCU. I do feel sorry for that poor wee creature… the idea that Superman must obliterate it seems a tad forced… I don’t recall, did Marty Pasko give a reason as to why the Phantom Zone projector couldn’t be used… Mon-El could probably use a pet.

Anj said...

Thanks for all the comments, especially yours Rob! What a crazy introduction to comics!!!

And Mart, no answer about the PZ projector. And, as you will see, he uses it pretty soon after this adventure!

Anonymous said...

A bit of antic climax for Supergirl…as usual she proves far more durable than any of Amalak’s deadly gimmicks. On the other hand…I suspect this whole thing is built around the Clark/Lois bedside scene, which is pretty powerful and has remained memorable since first I read back in the day.
My only other note is that much as I admire Curt Swans mastery of emotional content and action..he is a masterful storyteller but his aliens and BEMs…are a little…basic and sometimes silly.
Small issue though in a very strong serial that showed Kal and Kara to advantage.