Superman taunts us all with an old comic and a mouth-wateringly low price – Superman #183
I’ve never before thought ill of Superman. Others might find his straight-laced Truth, Justice, and the American Way passé and off-putting in today’s snarky iPhone age, but not me. He stands Zeus-like atop my personal Mount Olympus of heroes. But, that said, no other character has ever trolled me as viciously and needlessly as he does on this cover. I realize the $30.00 price he’s quoting is in 1966 dollars, but it’s still a bargain. I’d probably jump over cars like a Silver Age Captain America, through walls and sheets of flame, maybe punching old ladies in the throat along the way, to get my hands on a pristine pre-1945 Superman comic at that amount, one that mercifully wasn’t obliterated in a wartime paper recycling drive. WHERE IS MY TIME MACHINE?
We’re (or maybe I’m) being trolled from beyond time by the Man of Steel. Go figure.
The cover’s a little bit confusing, because it appears at first glance that the two stories Superman is holding come from distinct comics. Not so. They both come from 1943′s Superman #19 (here’s that issue’s gentler riff on Action #1′s iconic imagery) and they’re both rather entertaining trips through the looking glass, as it were, graciously reprinted here in one of the mammoth old 80-Page Giants. (We’re not even going to get to the origin of the old-timey Mr. Mxyzptlk. Another time perhaps.) What makes them so entertaining? In the first — the one in his right hand — characters within fictional newspaper strips come alive and menace Metropolis. Comics within comics — BRACE YOURSELVES. It’s almost like Last Action Hero, except this story didn’t derail Superman’s run, whereas that film began the downward slope of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career. In the second, which is the most mind-bending of the pair, Clark Kent and Lois Lane go to see one of the contemporary Fleischer cartoons (which are still-stupendous to this day), and Clark has to engage in some Stooges-worthy hijinks to keep Lois from seeing too much of it. It’s a real mind-bender, and for all the wrong reasons.
Let’s take a quick look at these two corkers.
In the first (Jerry Siegel, Ed Dobrotka, John Sikela), we learn that Clark and Lois both have a weakness for the funnies — once a ritual for so many, but one that’s now dying with the rest of the dead tree newspaper business:
Who doesn’t indeed.
Things get crazy when (fictional — but aren’t they all?) comic characters come to life, including a giant, pink, club-wielding giant named Torgo (and not this Torgo):
Check out Superman’s stride, from back in the days when he was a lot more Earth-bound. Even when he was flying he sometimes looked like he was running.
The man behind the mischief, Funnyface, is eventually revealed as man wearing a big round mask who looks a lot like Mr. Smiley from the first issue of the short-lived 1970s DC series Prez (and his brief Neil Gaiman revival in The Sandman). Here he is working unique mayhem on Lois (reminiscent of that one Looney Tunes cartoon), and getting a face-pounding from Superman and, in a karmic twist, various good-guy characters he’s unleashed:
When Superman does the Scooby Doo unmasking of Funnyface, he apparently looks a lot like Jerry Siegel. Another layer on the cake.
In the second story (Siegel, Joe Shuster, Ed Dobrotka, John Sikela), Clark and Lois take a break from their jobs as ink-stained newshound wretches and head for a movie. Not just any movie, but a Superman movie, and Clark is a bit reluctant to take it in:
Now here’s where it gets a little crazy: The Superman on the screen — and in the comics that Lois has never read, for that matter — is the exact same Superman as the one in the comics that we know and love. So the Superman within the fictional Fleischer short is the same as the fictional Superman that’s going to watch him. And EVERYTHING is the same. Including the fact that his real identity is Clark Kent, that he works with a rival named Lois, he’s barrel chested with glasses yadda yadda yadda. THERE ARE OBVIOUS PROBLEMS HERE.
Now, if I were Superman (sounds like a fourth-grader’s essay), the first thing I’d do upon learning that both comic book writers and cartoonists are completely onto me is maybe, you know, try to get to the bottom of that. Maybe change identities. Crack some skulls. Something. It seems like any one of those options would be priority numero uno. After all, there are a lot more people reading/watching these Clark/Superman stories than just Lois. But he seems content with ruining Lois’ movie and thus keeping his secret safe from at least her, using puerile ruses like a knocked over purse to distract her at various key points:
I’m about to stand up and shout “WOULDN’T SHE HEAR THE NAME LOIS AND PERK UP, EVEN AS SHE SEARCHES FOR HER PURSE?” But you know what? As roughly 1.5 billion people have pointed out in the last 70+ years, she’s a renowned investigative journalist who’s fooled by eyeglasses. This is par for the course.
Anyway, there’s a whole ton of that, and Lois emerges from the theater pissed at Clark and none the wiser. And Clark seems happy with that, so I guess we should be too.
And there you go, a couple Golden Age Purple Rose of Cairo moments in the long career of the Man of Tomorrow. They’re kooky but good, they stand as early exemplars of the long lineage of proudly preposterous Superman stories, and maybe, just maybe, they make up for Superman holding a valuable comic before my eyes like a carafe of ice-water in front of a man dying of thirst. If you’re interested in them, they’re reprinted (again) in the fifth Superman Archives volume. Without the taunting, of course.