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Here’s Kal-El rendered powerless by a red sun and trussed to a pole for the 517th time. Awesome. – Superman #184

March 6, 2013

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The largest subset of Superman story templates is the “temporary loss of powers” yarn. If you’ve read through more than three Superman plots in your life, the chances are that you’ve stumbled across one – or more — of these putative gems. If we’re using our old biological classification hierarchy (remember it with the mnemonic of your choice), Superman is a kingdom, De-Powered Superman is a phylum.

Or something.

Anyway, the point is that there are piles and piles and piles of Superman stories where he loses his powers for the briefest of spells, only to regain them by issue’s end and going on his merry Kryptonian way. They’re repetitive. Worse, they’re usually not very good. Yes, for a little while they relieve the storytelling handicap of having an invulnerable, nigh-omnipotent protagonist, but they have the uniform aftertaste of bromides. Repetitive. Hackneyed.

And here, as promised by the cover, we have Superman powerless, tied to a pole that only lacks a fire burning at his feet, menaced by primitives holding sticks with glowing solid musical triangles (the things kids get in elementary band when they’ve gone beyond finger cymbals and wood blocks) dangling from the ends. Marvellous. And Rao help us, we’re going to look inside. Are the innards more insipid than the phylum average?

The impetus for the storytelling action in this Otto Binder/Al Plastino saw is an early manned space launch, one of those fleeting jaunts that were the stage just after launching monkeys into orbit. (Otherwise known as The Stage Iran Just Reached.) Imagine if Alan Shepard or John Glenn had returned to Earth and started blabbering on about weird stuff – these Right Stuff heroes would have become objects of ridicule, right? Well, when poor Major Burke spins yarns about a rogue planet bopping about the stratosphere, all he gets in return is disbelief and mockery:

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(Perhaps Zecharia Sitchin was lurking somewhere off-panel, taking notes.)

Fortunately, do-gooder reporter Clark Kent is there covering the return, and resolves on the spot to clear the astronaut’s good name and save the pert missus from social ostracism. (Think poor Ronnie Neary in Close Encounters, when her husband had a tan on half his face and was making mud mountains in that dreadful living room of theirs. You’re out of work, you don’t care…) He hides behind a corner and uses his Super-Ventriloquism to fake “Clark” telling “Superman” about the astronaut’s plight, thereby giving Clark an alibi and facilitating Superman’s getaway – remember this, because this won’t be the last time in the comic that this most infuriating of powers will be used.

Lo and behold, there is such a thing as a rogue planet out there, and it has a chewy center, which the Man of Steel immediately penetrates, like a Super-Sperm breaching a planetary ova. There he finds advanced tech, a control room and a “telepathy tape,” which is pure, unfiltered exposition:

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It details the senses-shattering origin of the wandering planet – Zhonda – which was once populated by an advanced culture, advanced enough to craft a planet that could wander its way through space. One day, though, the denizens of Zhonda got their brains zapped and lost all their knowledge, devolving into mere primitives. Though this happened a good long while ago, they’re still dressed in raggy remnants of their old clothing, like an extreme version of the cast of Lost – picture Jack still wearing his tattered black suit in Season 5. The taped explanation ends by going a bit too far for Superman’s hard science tastes:

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Yes, it’s too bad all things can’t be firmly grounded in reality. You know, like super-ventriloquism. (The huff and puff planet looks like Don Rickles, btw.)

Superman investigates the surface, rescues a raft-bound young couple from a sea monster, delivers them to a village and safety, is accused of being a demon, and, when he’s attacked, discovers he’s no longer super. UH OH, RED SUN. Keep in mind, there’s been no diminution of light as the planet has traveled from one sun to the next. Superman mocks Zhonda getting blown around by Big Bad Wolf planet breath, yet this escapes his Bill Nye-ish science mind.

Cue up the scenes of Superman getting pummeled, though he’s not averse to this chance to flex his muscles without pureeing someone’s face. Plus he can do drop kicks reminiscent of the wrestler Sting, ca. 1993 WCW:

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Drop kick, flying feet flop. Tomato, tomahto.

It’s good to see the big guy actually fighting back when de-powered, and not fainting away and getting his ass kicked like he did 238 issues later, in the last “real” story in his eponymous title. Remember that one? Where he got stripped nude? Well, he at least keeps his clothes on here. WAIT, NO HE DOESN’T:

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AGAIN WITH THE VENTRILOQUISM. At least it’s simple ventriloquism, and not the vague super brand. And who the hell is Edgar Bergen? (This is Edgar Bergen.) AND HE MADE A KITE OUT OF HIS SUIT. I DON’T KNOW WHETHER TO BE IMPRESSED BY THIS MACGYVER ACT OR DOUBLY INFURIATED. (In fairness, that kite could fool anyone. So long as they don’t look at it.)

It goes on like that , and ends with Superman escaping when the planet once more travels close to a yellow sun — again, with no change to the broad daylight — and he also manages to prove the astronaut’s (Remember him? At this point I didn’t.) sanity.

Even the five Superman films produced in the last 35 years have gone to this de-powered well three out of five times. Granted, in the first Christopher Reeve film and the blasé Brandon Routh continuation, Superman was only briefly weakened by Kryptonite, but they still count. Yet in the KNEEL BEFORE ZOD-laden second Reeve effort, the big guy surrendered his powers and wound up getting roughed up by a surly trucker — a regular trucker, not even the cyborg Marvel kind. Who knows what the Zack Snyder reboot has in store for us? (The Man of Steel trailer does have a snippet of Superman on all fours coughing something up, so maybe he gets de-powered there, too. WE CAN ONLY HOPE.)

Once again, it has to be said: The impulse to go this route is understandable. You have a tights-wearing god as your central character, so what can you do but occasionally rob him of said godhood and make him merely mortal? It’s just that it happens SO. OFTEN. It doesn’t help that so many of these stories occur in the alternately delightful/maddening Silver Age, when telepathy tapes, super-ventriloquism and bone-vine-stick-tights kites were de rigueur elements. Combine these trinkets with a trope, and you more often than not wind up with a big mess.

Or, this complaint could simply be the result of having read far too many comics, and could be a “seek professional help immediately” symptom of a broader malady. And the de-powered Superman tales could be awesome beyond words. Decide for yourself.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 8, 2013 7:13 am

    excellent article; let’s me actually enjoy what were otherwise TRULY crap comics – if only they didn’t cause me so much affection!

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