Thursday, March 3, 2011

Back Issue Box: Superman #307

It seems to be a slow week for Supergirl and Superman news. What's worse is that it was a low yield week for comics with no new Super-related books out this week. That usually means a trip to the back issue box for some reviews of older issues. I usually try to link my back issue reviews with current comic topics and given the recent 'Grounded' storyline, it is a perfect time to review Superman #307-309. This three issue story touches on a number of themes running through the current Superman book but specifically it looks at a psychologically damaged Superman trying desperately to get in touch with the people of Earth as well as the planet itself. So much of what we see in this story is echoed in 'Grounded' that it felt like appropriate to look back at this story from 1977.

Written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, the story features a troubled Superman dealing with his feelings of despair as he watches mankind pollute the planet, potentially leading up to a Krypton-like disaster. He loves the planet, but feels detached from it since he is an alien. Can Supergirl help him? Or is she part of the problem? In fact, her part in this story could even be considered a sort of 'Dark Supergirl' riff, another theme I have been covering here.

Superman #307 sports a spectacular and very dramatic Neal Adams cover. Sure we don't see Supergirl's face but the focus is clearly on her smashing of Kandor with a shocked Superman in the background. It really grabbed my attention when I first saw it. I mean how can you not want to see that story?

The issue opens up with an enraged Superman destroying a factory while the workers look on helplessly. It doesn't seem like the usual Superman thing to do, to demolish a functioning plant. especially since it might endanger the people standing on the ground below him.

And who is the 'hero' rushing to stop this crazed Superman from his destructive outburst?

It is a nice opening hook to the book, dropping the reader into the middle of the action, with a sort of apparent role reversal.

We learn that the 'hero' is someone called The Protector and he has enough power to stun Superman, sending him to the ground. With Superman thwarted in his attempt to raze the plant, the Protector leaves. And with his attack abruptly halted, Superman takes a breath and we are treated to a flashback of the events which led up to this confrontation.

The day before, a troubled plant worker went to WGBS to talk to Clark Kent about some concerns he has. The factory makes vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen. The workers are, in essence, putting their lives in danger by working with the stuff. The owners don't seem to recognize the dangers, or don't seem interested in protecting the workers .. no safety standards or benefits. Despite this, the man seems conflicted ... probably because he needs his job. He doesn't necessarily want Clark to do an expose, he just wants someone to look out for the little guy. Clark offers Superman up as a neutral party.

That really sounds like the very problem seen in 'Grounded', in Superman #707, where that factory isn't meeting safety standards but the workers don't want the place closed down. You may recall that the Superman in 707 decided to look the other way.

But it is clear that Superman is troubled. Despite getting some romantic attention from both Lois and a WGBS intern named Terri, he knows that he will forever be alone. He is an alien, forever apart from humanity.

Hmmm, that also sounds like feelings that prompted Superman's walk in 'Grounded', that feeling that he is out of touch with the people of Earth.

As promised, Superman decides to look into the problems of the vinyl chloride plant. Unlike the owners of the factory in Superman #707, this owner seems much oilier. Still he carts out the same excuses for the state of the plant. The plant is a vital part of the local economy and the risks that the workers take are 'acceptable'. Now the toxins here are known to be deadly, unlike the chloride spills in the 'Grounded' factory but it is eerie how money seems the be the root of both evil plants.

But that is where the similarity ends. Where the Superman in 'Grounded' decided to let the factory remain open despite its many problems, this Superman becomes unhinged. He decides to take matters into his own hands and dismantle the plant ... the very moment we saw at the outset of the book. Now this response seems to be the other end of the spectrum of irrationality. I want my Superman to help matters. Destruction can't be helpful. After the Protector's attack, Superman stops his destructive attack and flies off.

Even if Superman decides to leave the plant intact, his concern for the overall well-being of Earth remains. Superman worries that the pollution ravaging the planet will only lead the planet to destruction like Krypton.

Apparently seized by anger, Superman vows to the heavens that he won't let Earth die the way Krypton did.

I'm not used to seeing such an irate Superman. I think pollution was just becoming a hot topic in the mid-70s so it interesting to see Superman join the cause for a greener world.

Stopping pollution might be a noble cause. Unfortunately, Superman's actions again veer awfully close to insane and absurd.

His first act in the war on pollution is to throw the crew of an oil tanker into the sea. Since there is a chance the tanker might crash and dump its oil into the ocean, Superman decides he should toss the tanker into orbit.

Now that seems a bit rash, doesn't it?

Luckily (?), the Protector shows up to stop Superman from heaving the ship into space. But The Protector is no hero. He is a mutant who gains power the more the Earth is polluted. He is pro-pollution! In fact, he has named himself the Protector because he wants to protect all polluting industries.  Still his sentiment that Superman cannot be judge,jury, and executioner of the world rings true. I don't want Superman as a dictator, especially one as mentally unstable as he appears to be now.

After a brief skirmish underwater, the Protector escapes.

But the madness continues for Superman when he is greeted by Supergirl who is playfully waiting for him. Kara tells Superman that he cannot make decisions for humanity, he cannot interfere with the mankind's evolution (something which sounds a lot like 'Must there be a Superman?').

And he cannot use Krypton's history as justification ... because there was never a planet Krypton! Superman has been living a lie! Wow!

I have to say, I am a fan of Garcia-Lopez, he is such a legend in the industry. And I like his Supergirl a lot!

Superman is, of course, completely confused by Supergirl's statements so she brings him to the Fortress of Solitude for some proof.

For example, the bottle city of Kandor is nothing but a 'ship in a bottle' style model with tiny figurines as opposed to people.

Superman needs a healthy dose of 'reality' and maybe smashing the city is just the sort of startling vision to shake him from his delusions.

When I first read this book I couldn't believe that the scene from the cover actually happened. Back then there was a lot of 'bait and switch' covers.

And the truth keeps coming. Superman and Supergirl are Earth mutants. Fred Danvers and Jonathan Kent were scientists working with radioactive materials. That exposure changed their DNA. The result is that their children ... Linda and Clark ... were born with tremendous abilities.

Pa Kent was not a farmer. Superman was not rocketed to Earth from Krypton. Jon and Martha Kent are Clark's birth parents. The whole of Krypton was all a delusion made up by Clark to help him deal with who he really is.

Okay, so pretty big revelations here. Could this be real? Could Superman really be an Earth mutant so repulsed by his origins that he created a whole separate reality to help him cope? And does this mean that Supergirl is stronger mentally and emotionally that she knows the truth but has 'played along' with Clark's phony history?

Before he can really digest all this information, The Protector shows up and a battle ensues. Luckily Superman figures out a weakness in the Protector's attacks and is able to defeat him. But this victory is of little consolation. Superman's whole life has been a lie, a fantasy of his mind.

While that information is frightening and puzzling, it also means that Superman's disconnect with humanity is also a fantasy. He isn't an orphan anymore. He isn't a man without a planet. He is truly home! But what does it all mean?

Now that was a busy issue! As if the Supergirl reveal that Krypton is a hoax isn't a big enough event, we have Superman teetering on madness, a new powerful villain, and a nice anti-pollution message.

So a Superman, unsure of his place in humanity, unclear if he has lost touch with the people around him, is suffering psychologically. Sure sounds like 'Grounded' huh? So what will happen to 'this' Superman? Will he walk across the country? Embrace his 'newfound' Earth origins? Continue his war on pollution? Remain emotionally scattered?

I think it will be better to give the three issue arc a final grade rather than each individual issue. I also will comment on the relevance of this story for a Supergirl collection at the end as well. That said, the cover alone might make this worthy of being in a Supergirl collection. You can't beat Neal Adams.


Martin Gray said...

Great work, Anj - I remember the cover but the story has faded from my mind. I recall reading this, but can't remember where it goes.

Well done on spotting the Grounded links. There's nothing new under the yellow sun, huh?

Part 2, quick!

Anonymous said...

Nice "leg art" cover from Neal Adams as well.


John Feer

Anonymous said...

Look what I found!:


Anonymous said...

I know this is a bit unrelated but you said it was a bit of slow news week, however...

As of today, Supergirl now has an official page on where you can get hold of 16 issues in digital format (with more to follow - hopefully!). These aren't like the "dodgy" scanned comics you might have seen on the net (ahem!), they're official DC releases and they're pristine.

I've already got some of the early Superman-Batman issues where she was reintroduced and they look great.

They're on 99c special at the moment if anyone's interested. And no, I don't work for them or anything, I just thought I'd plug 'em as I do have the odd scanned issue (sorry, but it's true!) and being able to get legit copies that are much better quality is the way to go! :)

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming...