Sunday 19 June 2011

Action Comics #402. It's all at stake for Superman.

Superman Action Comics #402, Neal Adams cover
If I had a taste for very old jokes, I might claim that comics are called a medium because they're neither rare nor well done.

But I don't.

So I won't.

Superman however is certainly in danger of being well done, as he's captured by the Navarro tribe who're angry that a dirty capitalist's building a rocket site on their land. As Superman's failed in his bid to change the developer's mind, the Navarro's leader Red Hawk decides the best thing to do is kidnap Superman and hold him hostage until they get what they want.

This is possible thanks to a red gem he possesses whose "magic" robs Superman of his powers, leaving him unable to break free of the stake they've tied him to.

Why a private developer's allowed to build his own personal rocket site's never explained but it turns out it's all a scam, as his rocket's nothing of the sort. It's actually a mechanical mole that he uses to drill into a local sacred plateau and get his hands on the vast Aztec wealth that Montezuma buried there.

Action Comics #402, Superman prepared Montezuma's Plateau for the tourists
Needless to say Superman escapes, and thwarts the developer's evil plan, before handing Montezuma's treasure over to the Navarro who use it to build hospitals and schools while turning Montezuma's plateau into a tourist attraction.

This is one of the first American comics I ever had, in that vague hazy summer of 1972 when the beaches of Blackpool were covered in greenflies and blackflies battling it out in the sort of insect plague we don't seem to get any more. It probably says something about childhood that forty years down the line I can look back at insect plagues with affection and I likewise have fond memories of all the comics I bought in that period.

It has to be said that, nicely drawn as it is by Curt Swan, the story's a lot less exciting than its cover suggests, as the Navarro have no intention of setting fire to Superman, or doing him any harm at all, merely tying him to a stake until their demands are met. Still, it is a chance for Superman to show what a nice guy he is by helping his kidnappers even as they hold him captive.

There are certain plot holes in the story. Red Hawk's plan's clearly doomed, as it relies on his red gem concentrating the light of a distant red sun at Superman, which, presumably means that as the Earth turns and the red sun sets below the horizon, Superman'll get his powers back. Red Hawk's supposed to be one of the nation's leading astro-physicists, so you'd have thought he'd be aware of that but seems totally oblivious to the concept of the Earth's rotation. There's also a section where the sympathetic Navarro Moon Flower claims that Superman explained his escape method to her but you have to wonder just when he was supposed to have done it as there seems to have been no point when they were ever alone.

There were few times in my youth when the life of Superman imitated the old BBC1 rag and bone sitcom Steptoe and Son but this issue's back-up strip does just that as Superman and Supergirl fall out so badly that, just as the Harold and Albert did in that show, they divide their home in half, with one half belonging to Supergirl and the other to her cousin. Things reach such a head they decide to kill each other, and the whole feud only comes to an end when Superman decides that, even if he does hate her, he can't let Supergirl die in the radioactive pit that they, like any pair of cousins, share in their basement.

Action Comics #402, Superman vs Supergirl

Unlike that episode of Steptoe and Son, it turns out it was all down to fumes from a mind-control device the pair destroyed a while back and, once the fumes are cleared from their fortress, they're the best of friends again. I do quite like this tale, as I like the sight of the normally Doris Day-esque Supergirl with a head full of murderous thoughts. She's also wearing her thigh-length boots again. I believe this tale would've been my first ever exposure to Supergirl and it gives me pleasure to know that my first encounter with the Maid of Might was in her lengthy boots phase.

The truth is that, like the insect plague that accompanied it, this comic probably isn't as great as I thought it was back then but, regardless, both its tales are enjoyable - the first for its siding with the rights of the American Indian, which seems to have been a fashionable trope at the time after decades of Hollywood hostility, and the second for the casting of its usually perfect leads in a negative light. So the old joke was wrong. It is comics. It is a medium. It's not rare and it is quite well done.


Kid said...

A happy medium, you might say.

Kid said...

Steve, where are you? You've been absent for 2 weeks - it's far too long.

Steve W. said...

I could claim I've been busy with vital things but the truth is I've just been in the mood for a break from droning on about old comics. Much as I love them, even I feel the need to shut up about them occasionally.

On top of that I've been decorating, which has taken up time I might have otherwise spent blogging. Have no fear, I will be back in the not too distant future.