Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

“Say his name and even Superman shakes!”

For years, I’ve suffered the frustration of having Action #351 and #353 — the first and last parts of a continued story — without the middle section. Just last week, I rectified that thanks to eBay. Once #352 arrived, I sat down and read/reread Superman’s epic battle with “Zha-Vam the Invincible!” and thoroughly enjoyed it.

As I’ve mentioned before, I love mythology almost as much as I do comics and for similar reasons (colorful heroes, amazing powers, cool stories). When Zha-Vam debuted in Action Comics #351, the story was perfectly tailored to suit me.A character who possesses the lightning of Zeus, the strength of Hercules, the invulnerability of Achilles, the fire of Vulcan, the archery of Apollo and the speed and flying power of Mercury? What an awesome concept! And while I usually found Superman too powerful to be interesting, here he faced someone who can shove him around. What’s not to love?

In hindsight, Otto Binder’s Zha-Vam has a strong resemblance to another character he wrote who got his powers from six mythological figures (didn’t he actually shout “Zhavam!” or something like that?). In 1967, I didn’t know Captain  Marvel had ever existed other than the infamous android knockoff. Knowing it doesn’t change my fondness for the story though.

The story opens as the leaders of America’s top mobs (including the Purple Gang and Murder Incorporated, long disbanded on our world) meet to elect a supreme leader. Zha-Vam busts in to nominate himself from the floor. After displaying his might, he wins unanimously, then leads his gang off to rob Fort Knox. Superman, of course, objects, but his opposition leaves Zha-Vam underwhelmed.

(Minor side-note, how does Apollo’s magic arrow not affect Superman when lots of Zha-Vam’s other magic does?).

The battle becomes a standoff but Zha-Vam has a trick in reserve. Lots of tricks, actually: the letters on his belt each give him temporary added powers from other mythological figures. By pressing T for Titan he becomes a hundred feet tall, grabs up Superman and throws him into space, buying time enough for Zha-Vam and the crooks to get gone.

By the following issue, Zha-Vam has ditched his underworld flunkies to focus his attention on the Man of Might. Binder shows some of the whimsy of his Captain Marvel work in the set-up here: Zha-Vam triple dog dares Superman to press one of the buttons on the villain’s belt, promising to fight only with whatever power results. Superman keeps guessing which letter will cause the least amount of trouble, and he keeps guessing wrong.

When he presses the P button, Superman unleashes the stygian darkness of Pluto across the Earth, eliminating all forms of light. With no way to undo this, Superman kneels, acknowledges Zha-Vam as his superior and asks for the light back. It’s a very atypical scene for the Silver Age, making me wonder if Binder was suggesting that the Big Red Cheese was the stronger character.

Once the light returns, Superman plays a trick of his own, stripping off Zha-Vam’s shoes to take him down by his Achilles heel. As you can see, Zha-Vam is one step ahead of him. He’s not done humiliating Superman, though, so he lets him live.

In the third chapter, Zha-Vam uses Orion’s impenetrable shield to exile Superman in space. Superman decides to travel back in time to before the shield went up — and since he’s doing that, why not visit ancient Olympus and see if he can learn how Zha-Vam got the powers of the gods?

It turns out the Delphic Oracle showed the Olympians that Superman’s fame would come to eclipse their own. Outraged, they created Zha-Vam to kick Kal-El’s butt and show the world his might is nothing compared to theirs. Before returning to the present for a final clash with Zha-Vam, Superman seeks out various gods who’ve had it up to here with Zeus’s arrogance. They create a duplicate belt of power, making for a spectacular mythological showdown:

Zha-Vam blasts Superman with the eye of the cyclops. Superman counters with the pipes of Pan, making his foe dance so wildly he can’t aim (I was aware even at that age that the Greek cyclops didn’t have ray blasts — was it an X-Man joke? — but I forgave the error)

Zha-Vam rides the chariot of Phaeton (apparently there were two P’s on his belt) and threatens to burn Earth to a crisp! Superman counters with the ice touch of the Frost Giants!

Finally, Zha-Vam cuts the clash of titans short by whipping off his shoe. Paralyzed by kryptonite, Superman uses his belt to summon Atlas, the one myth strong enough to slap Hercules around. Atlas gets rid of the kryptonite sock, Superman pummels Zha-Vam’s heel and with his foe helpless drags him back to Olympus. The disgruntled deities uncreate him. Without Atlas’ help, though, Superman would have lost — another indication where Binder’s true affections lay?

Surprisingly we never saw Zha-Vam again, other than a shapeshifter impersonating him to intimidate Superman (Superman #214). I’d have thought someone, somewhere would bring back such a colorful foe, but no. So perhaps I’m the only one who liked him besides Otto Binder. But like him I definitely do.

#SFWApro. All pages by Wayne Boring.


  1. Le Messor

    Sounds like a fun story!

    “Purple Gang and Murder Incorporated, long disbanded on our world”

    Wait, they’re real? I thought one was the gang of a mind-controller in Marvel and the other was a song by The Boss?

    “Apollo’s magic arrow not affect Superman”
    Ummm… because… because…
    Aha! Superman gets his powers from the sun, and Apollo is of the sun!
    Yep, that’s totally it.

    ” wonder if Binder was suggesting that the Big Red Cheese was the stronger character.”
    … except that guy doesn’t have the magic belt.

  2. The Purple Gang were a particularly vicious mob in Prohibition-era Detroit — the name came from someone comparing them to meat that had been left out until it turned purple and rotted.
    Murder Incorporated was the media nickname for a team of hit men employed by the upper levels of organized crime in the 1940s and 1950s. Mob boss in, say, Milwaukee needs a rival taken out? Pay a fee, Murder Incorporated sends someone to make the hit while your boys are all carefully alibied.

  3. Rantel

    In Greek, Pluto begins with the letter Pi, while Phaeton begins with the letter Phi, so there’s my no-prize explanation for them both being represented on the belt.

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