Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

One by Dorfman, Two by Hamilton

I meant to review “Superman’s Sacrifice” in Superman #171 some time back — it came out August, 1964 and my Silver Age reread is now two years past that — but I’m fond of the Leo Dorfman/Al Plastino story, so I’m doing it now.

Alien gamblers Rokk and Sorban show up on Earth and invite Superman to play a game — “invite” in the sense of “do it or Earth dies,” which their psionic powers make a plausible threat. To avert catastrophe, as that opening panel says, Superman has to murder someone. In most stories Superman would outwit them or find a way to nullify their powers but that’s not where this one’s going.

Accepting the threat is real, Superman tries to kill himself with kryptonite. That doesn’t suit the aliens so they transmute it to iron. Lois and Lana then try killing themselves and blaming it on Superman but the Man of Steel saves them. Finally he murders his friend Clark Kent by tying him up at ground zero for a nuclear weapons test.

The world reels in horror that the Kryptonian Crimebuster executed an innocent man. Rokk and Sorban, however, know Superman’s identity (those pesky psi-abilities again) and see through the trick. To his surprise, they’re happy with the outcome: their real game was with each other. One of them bet they could drive Superman to murder, the other bet against it so whatever they outcome, they got their kicks. As a gesture of thanks for the good times, they erase the world’s memory of Clark’s death so Superman can resume his normal life again.Reading as an adult, Rokk and Sorban are singularly creepy, like a truly murderous Mxzyptlk. There’s not the slightest doubt they’d have destroyed Earth if Superman didn’t play; in their second appearance, in World’s Finest #150, Earth’s survival is once again at stake. But outside of a brief cameo in Flash, they vanished until a 1985 DC Comics Presents. Too bad.

Edmond Hamilton’s “The Man From the Phantom Zone” in Action Comics #336 isn’t a classic story but it seems to have stuck with me. The Kandorians inform Superman that Ak-Var, a Kryptonian imprisoned in the Phantom Zone thirty years earlier for stealing a valuable sun-stone, is due for release. Superman releases Ak-Var into Kandor where everyone shuns him as a crook. He looks up his old girlfriend but she’s thirty years older. Nobody but Thara, niece to Superman’s double Van-Zee, thinks Ak-Var might want to go straight.

When the main plot gets going it’s a red kryptonite yarn involving Ak-Var’s old cronies gaining superpowers under Kandor’s artificial red sun; it ain’t much. It’s Ak-Var’s story that holds my attention. It’s the only time I can recall anyone completing their Phantom Zone sentence except Quex-Ul a few years earlier and it turned out he was innocent. Ak-Var’s guilty but thirty years in the Zone feels incredibly harsh for theft, even given it was a valuable relic. It’s unsettling to realize everyone on Krypton who did time went into the Zone, not just the worst of the worst.

The fact that he’s guilty as charged makes him more interesting than Quex-Ul. An innocent man, falsely imprisoned, can generate great drama but the reform of a guilty man is often more complex. Comics used to be full of ex-cons trying to go straight but after the “law and order” boom of the Nixon era the sense all convicts should be locked away for ever seemed to dominate, with exceptions (it’s okay for Venom to have multiple murders on his rap sheet because he makes funny quips and he’s a total badass!).“The Legionnaire Who Killed” in Adventure Comics #342 is a far superior story. We learn that since Dream Girl left the Legion in #317, she and Star Boy have been an item. A jealous stalker of Nura’s attacks Star Boy, using a shield that reflects the Legionnaire’s weight-increasing power back on himself. Star Boy’s helpless, but there’s a gun to hand so he kills his attacker. From the Science Police viewpoint it’s open-and-shut self-defense, no problems.

The Legion, however, has a no-kill rule and it doesn’t have a self-defense exception (though Mort Weisinger previously claimed they did). Star Boy has to go on trial for his right to stay on the team, with Brainiac Five prosecuting him and Superboy, contrary to the issue’s cover, providing defense. The Teen of Steel knows the Legion modeled their code against killing on his, but most of them aren’t invulnerable. He believes that if lethal use of force is the only option to save lives, they should be able to take it.

Brainiac Five, however, shows it was not the only option.What follows is a novel structure: Superboy looks at old videos of Legion missions, hoping to find another self-defense case but time and again, the heroes on-screen defeat their adversaries without killing. Then Superboy stumbles across footage showing Brainiac Five gunning down an attacker. Success! — except that Brainy shows it was only a robot. In the end, the Legion votes Star Boy out, though he gains the compensation prize of joining the Legion of Substitute Heroes, which has already accepted Dream Girl.

It’s a remarkably gripping story, especially given that, as Commander Benson points out, there’s no real action and no threat or danger (well, after the stalker dies) except to Star Boy’s Legion membership. It’s a testament to how well Hamilton did that multiple subsequent letter writers raged over verdict, many of them offering an “A-ha, I can prove this verdict invalid!” argument of one sort or another. If you check out the commander’s post, the same arguments erupt in the comments there.

Jim Shooter’s Legion work tends to overshadow everything that came before him. It shouldn’t.

#SFWApro. Art by Al Plastino, Plastino again, Curt Swan x3 and two by John Foote.


  1. Le Messor

    the reform of a guilty man is often more complex

    I’ve actually wanted to write a story about somebody in Gotham who becomes a crook because Wayne Enterprises keeps employing reformed crooks, and passing over straight men.
    (I can’t actually back up that they do that, but there’ve been a few people who’ve fought Batman, then gone on to jobs with WE.)

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