Who ever thought Lex Luthor bullying little Superman could be so joyous an occasion? – Action Comics #466
It’s really not okay to enjoy seeing a grown adult beating up a kid — in fact it’s terrible — but an exception might be made when the “kid” is actually a de-aged version of a superpowered being. Which is the case today in the lovely Neal Adams Action Comics cover above. And there could be an added note of pleasure stemming from the Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner factor. Who hasn’t felt bad for that emaciated desert denizen, pulling out every Acme trick in the book to finally kill that damn bird and have himself a decent meal for once?
So go ahead, Lex Luthor, have your moment! Punch Li’l Superman in the back of the head with your super-villain brass knuckles!
This is your typical Silver Age Superman story here, though it technically comes from the Bronze Age if we’re adhering to rigorous era demarcations. There’s a great hook of a cover, putting the Man of Tomorrow in some improbable scenario and forcing the reader to buy the issue to A) find out how he got into it and B) how he’s going to get out. And the interior pencils are from that great Silver and Bronze Superman artist, Curt Swan. With Swan, you could never really go wrong, and his barrel-chested Kal-El informs our view of the character down to this day. In the eyes of most, you couldn’t have a better one-two combo of artists here — Adams tagging in Swan and the latter dropping an elbow from the top rope. (Or doing a “Swan Dive”?)
Written by Cary Bates and inked by Tex Blaisdell, the comic opens with Superman already morphed back into Superboy — or an even younger version of Superboy, who was actually more of a Superteen. Anyway, we start with Lex treating our poor hero like a weak sister, crushing his hand with the vise-like grip of his power glove:
Not only is young Superman physically weaker, he’s also less intelligent. Not good.
Boy-Superman is left thoroughly embarrassed and rubbing his crushed paw as Lex chortles and flies away. And as the Adams cover promises, the story also features young Batman and young Flash, because Lex has de-aged them as well, apparently just for the hell of it. Superman first meets their young selves in a flashback, while he was still at full size (this is rapidly turning into that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation when Picard, Guinan, et al. became kids — or a particular issue of the Legion of Super-Heroes):
In case we’ve forgotten just why it is Lex would want to humiliate, pummel, threaten, emasculate and kill his arch-foe, especially a younger version, we’re treated to a flashback to the Smallville lab accident that annihilated his follicles — though at least the utter baldness provides a large tableau upon which to superimpose said flashback:
You’d hope Lex would take those lemons and make lemonade, like Kojak. But no. Instead he movies into the final stage of his deadly plan. Li’l Batman and Flash suffer dire fates at his hands, before he finally goes in for the Super-kill. The last maneuver? The super-equivalent of “Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself!” torture:
If you want to know how Superman extricates himself from this and whether or not Lex actually did kill Batman and the Flash, track down the comic. Hint: the resolution has something to do with hypnosis. And what was it that lit the light bulb in the Boy of Steel’s head, that helped him get out of this jam? That Batman didn’t cry when Flash “died”:
Yeah, I think Batman could probably be a bit stoic in the face of death, even the death of a comrade. Not buying it. Robin’s death, on the other hand….
The great selling point of this comic is, well, the selling point: that cover. I’ve never been the biggest Adams aficionado, but I understand his contribution to the comics world in terms of adding visual dynamism to formerly staid imagery. His work can be more than a tad overwrought, but these are sins that can be forgiven in cover art, which is designed to grab a reader by the lapels and drag him to the cash register to make a purchase. And that’s what this one does. It might represent the high point of Lex’s career, at least for the old school man of action (no pun) Lex, before he became the bloated, sinister capitalist.
Superman would avenge this cover humiliation years later, when he finally had e-damn-nough of Lex’s antics and punched a hole in the battle-suited Luthor’s chest — another great image (and come to think of it, the stories inside shared a similar “twist”). But Lex — and Neal Adams — struck first.