Saturday, July 13, 2013

Superman 233: "Kryptonite Nevermore!"

Welcome to the Bronze Age, Superman.

As the 1970's began DC was looking to both introduce a number of new characters, as well as revamp several of its most established stars in order to "freshen up" the line and retake the prime sales position from Marvel. Mort Weisinger, a brilliant but mercurial editor, had been the architect of the Superman titles for 13 years and was largely responsible for their unprecedented success through the 60's. After Weisinger retired from the position, the Superman books were brought under the control of Julius Schwartz, who had orchestrated the creation of the Silver Age Flash, Green Lantern, Atom, Hawkman and Justice League of America.

Schwartz had a vision for a line of Superman books that were character driven, and more grounded in DC's shared universe (Silver Age Superman comics, other than the occasional mention of Batman, basically existed in a world where Superman was the only superhero) he wanted to update the Clark Kent persona, and scale back the incredible powers of Superman. The core character of Superman would remain unchanged, and, unlike reboots now, this would all take place within the established continuity of the titles. It was the first whole scale reinvention of the Superman legend to come from editorial mandate,  He is also the man rather than organic development.

The natural choice to oversee this process was Denny O'Neil, who was one of DC's youngest star writers and in the process of developing a number of retoolings for Schwartz. Since 1968 O'Neil had been responsible for the brilliant, revolutionary Green Lantern/Green Arrow series which turned the sci fi adventure into the first major commercial comic book to examine American political issues like drug use, racism, slum lords etc. He was also the gentleman responsible for returning Batman to his roots, and finally sweeping away the camp elements the book had picked up through the 1960's. O'Neil's association of the character was long and fruitful, continuing and off until the No Man's Land event in 1999. He is one of a handful of people who can make a reasonable claim to being the best Batman writer of all time. He was also responsible for the horrific "All New Wonder Woman" which recast Diana as a swinging mod who used kung fu rather than superpowers to battle evil spies and sentient Asian Egg monsters. The less said the better.

O'Neil was hesitant to take on writing Superman, who he felt was too powerful to be interesting, and too iconic to be drastically altered. All of this made him ideal for Schwartz, who was looking to radically reshape the entire Superman line*, including the limitless power of the title character. He gave O'Neil a year to gradually introduce his new Superman, and O'Neil came out swinging with Superman 233, an issue that from its Neal Adams cover to the revelation of a brand new villain on the final page declares that Superman will never be the same again.

When an experimental Kryptonite powered reactor goes critical, Superman is standing by with a lead shield to minimize the damage. The shield holds, but the concussive burst damages Superman, who lays unconscious upon the desert sands for hours until finally returning to consciousness. Upon waking, he discovers that all the world's Kryptonite has been reverted to simple iron by the radioactive burst. To further complicate matters, Clark Kent has gone from the semi-anonymous life of beat reporter to the celebrity of TV anchorman, and his boss secretly works for Darkseid. "Will Superman now have to wait for commercial breaks?" Clark wonders to himself. Finally, Superman's first rescue "between the bulletins" takes him over the spot where he passed out on the sands after the K reactor went critical, and Superman's powers temporarily disappear-- leading to the creation of a strange man shaped creature made out of sand.

These three threads are the story, but since I'll be covering O'Neil's entire run I'll leave the latter plots for the issues in which they're paid off and concentrate on the main thrust-- the end of Kryptonite. Kryptonite had been in the books since 1949, and it had been in the radio shows even longer. It was Superman's greatest weakness, came in a variety of colors (all with different effects), and was seemingly as easy to obtain as bread or milk for criminals. Even as a fan of the Silver Age, I have to admit that the remarkable alacrity with which Kryptonite appeared in DC Comics would make the reader believe that the entire planet of Krypton had been shipped directly to Metropolis sometime in the 50's. It was definitely time to give it a rest, and focus on new angles.

One interesting additional point is the built in "out" for future Superman writers to bring back Kryptonite at their convenience (hopefully, when it had regained its menace) which is that any Kryptonite in space would obviously be unaffected. Just nice to see a writer looking out for his fellows, rather than assuming he has the absolute final word on the subject. Replacing Kryptonite is a new job which will require Superman to be more ingenious about his day to day routine than ever before. The news anchor position was the longest lasting change on the Superman books made in this issue (as Julius Schwartz felt like the "newspaper reporter" angle was outmoded) lasting fifteen years until the hard reboot of '86. I prefer Clark as a reporter, because it ties him less to one place and allows him greater freedom to roam, but it's hard to argue that the restrictive nature of the position isn't the point in this issue, which deals entirely with weakness.

Final note: This issue has the best Curt Swan art I have ever seen. Just every panel is totally perfect. 10/10.

All in all, Denny O'Neil makes a strong Superman debut in which the theme of weakness is explored throughout the book, as well as the run. This is simply the first chapter in a longer 12 part arc I will review for the blog, so stay tuned.


1 comment:

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