Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

A football coach and Lex Luthor (no, they don’t walk into a bar)

As I discussed Monday, multi-part stories make it easy for the creators to change course mid-stream. This isn’t always a bad thing: I think Stan Lee’s change to Warlock’s origin worked better than Kirby’s original concept would have (which doesn’t make Kirby having to go back and redraw the story fair, of course). But sometimes it doesn’t.

One time it worked out for the better, probably, was a plotline Lee and Kirby launched in Fantastic Four #50. Right after the FF drive Galactus away for the first time, Johnny heads off to begin his studies at Metro College. Cut to the Metro football coach, Sam Thorne, who’s not living his best life. Thorne is a legend in college foootball but his current team isn’t worth crap except for quarterback Whitey Mullins. Whitey knows his presence is Thorne’s only hope of a winning season and that knowledge makes him arrogant as shit.

Then Thorne meet’s Native American man-mountain Wyatt Wingfoot, Johnny’s roommate and the son of Thorne’s old friend, legendary Olympic decathlon star “Big Will” Wingfoot. Wyatt has no interest in playing football but Thorne’s determined: with Wyatt on the team he could have a glorious season and retire with honor. He’ll do anything — anything — to get Wyatt to play.

Only he doesn’t. Thorne has one more brief Silver Age appearance, then disappears until Gerry Conway’s Fantastic Four run. He mentions in passing that he never did get Wyatt to play, and that, as they say, is all she wrote.

Dropping that plotline was a good choice. Wanting one last winning season is understandable but it’s hard to see Thorne as a tragic figure; if he crossed some line to pressure Wyatt, then learned better, it wouldn’t have the punch of Gregory Gideon learning his lesson. More broadly, Johnny’s adventures at college were never going to be as interesting as Peter Parker’s; if anything, they’d detract from a book that’s always been about the FF as a close-knit team. Maybe Stan and Jack realized that and cut their losses.

Then there’s the three-part story by Leo Dorfman and Al Plastino in Action #332-5 (334 was a Supergirl annual). It has one of my all-time favorite cliffhanger endings but blows it in the final chapter.

By this point in the Silver Age, Luthor had married Ardora, a woman on the planet Lexor, where he’s worshipped as a hero (they changed the world’s name to honor him). In #332, Superman unintentionally shows Ardora the truth about her husband. She tells Lex she still loves him but no longer reveres him as a champion. Returning to Earth, a furious Luthor tells his gang that this time nothing will stop him destroying Superman. To make that happen, he first intervenes to save the Man of Steel a couple of times; nobody will get to Superman before Luthor does. Then he sees how this will enable him to break the Man of Might.As he demonstrates to his gang, if you put a rabbit in a glass maze for long enough, it won’t go to its food afterwards because it’s convinced the glass walls still block its path. Superman is about to become the rabbit.

In Part Two, Luthor goes Jekyll and Hyde. He sends a robot to return some of his stolen loot; Superman, assuming the robot’s a threat, smashes it with most of the loot unreturned. Then Lex warns Superman a train of radioactive wastes has become a threat, and directs him to deposit it on Venus. This time Superman trusts his old foe, but it’s a mistake.Luthor’s tactics leave Superman completely disoriented, to the point he swears if he screws up again, he’ll retire.But when the time comes to prove himself —Even as a kid, it wasn’t easy to make me believe Superman was in serious peril, but this ending did it. Unfortunately, we open the following story with the glacier threat in the past. Superman is still addled and ineffective but there’s no talk of him retiring; despite the glaciers in the cliffhanger clearly being real, Luthor now dismisses them as an illusion. He launches one final attempt to break Superman completely but it’s much clumsier so Superman sees through it and regains his mojo (Supes also wipes out Ardora’s memory so Lex can have a happy marriage again).

I’m guessing Dorfman and editor Mort Weisinger couldn’t come up with a solution to the given cliffhanger so they hand-waved it away. Given how many years it took me to find the next issue, I was disappointed like you wouldn’t believe. Then again, you all read comics, so probably you would.

#$FWApro. Covers by Kirby, Superman art by Plastino.


  1. Le Messor

    Disappointing the fans by changing the cliffhanger like that is Annie Wilke’s origin story!

    I’m sure Warlock’s origin would’ve worked either way – he wouldn’t have made a great hero in Kirby’s version, but who says they were going for a hero? And he doesn’t get a lot of work as a hero as it is. Infinity Gauntlet notwithstanding.

    I’ve read Wyatt Wingfoot’s introduction, and basically forgot about the quarterback angle. So, yeah, not an awesome storyline (nor a terrible one).

    I read a comic about Lexor as a kid; Luthor was returning to Earth after Lexor got destroyed and was saying something like ‘Superman,’ (he blamed Superman, of course), ‘I thought I hated you before – but I have only begun to hate!’. That’s really all I remember about it.

    I do find the ‘rabbit-in-a-maze’ story to be a bit of a stretch, like a lot of Silver Age stuff. They take a simple principle, then go unbelievably far with it. (For one thing, for that to work on Superman, he’d have to stop intervening in any disaster / crime that wasn’t about Lex Luthor for the duration of the story. For another, he’s not a rabbit. Maybe try it on Captain Carrot?)

      1. Le Messor

        I’m okay with them saying that a rabbit falling in a glass maze would learn it can’t reach the carrots – I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I’m okay with it. I do know that there’s a phenomenon where, if a puppy breaks its leg, then it can never walk properly again, even after the leg has fully healed. It’s similar.

        My problem is taking that same principle and applying it to an intelligent, mentally-healthy adult. Specifically, in this case, Superman. He just wouldn’t (or shouldn’t?) fall for it. I kept expecting you to say that the twist was he only pretended to fall for it to fool Luthor.

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