Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Living In The Past (Action Comics #463)

Perhaps, as has been theorized, a nation still reeling from the upheavals of the 1960's and the trauma of Watergate was desperately seeking a reason to feel good about itself.  Perhaps it was a natural and predictable expression of some inborn American tendency toward hype, excess and spectacle.  Perhaps the occasion actually warranted all the hooplah.  
Whatever the deeper reasons, in the summer of 1976, as the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence neared, the United States of America was a country in the full grip of "Bicentennial Fever."
Everyone wanted in on the gig, including the nation's oldest publisher of comic books.  That's only fitting, of course.  By the mid-70's, DC Comic's flagship character, Superman, had become as widely recognized a symbol of "truth, justice and the American Way," as the intro to his 1950's TV series put it, as Old Glory and Apple Pie. Somehow seeing a drawing of the Man of Steel standing alongside the Founding Fathers at the signing of the Declaration didn't seem all that odd.
That is the image that graces the splash page of Action Comics #463, DC's contribution to the celebration of America's 200th birthday.  "Die Now, Live Later," written by Cary Bates and drawn by Curt Swan and Tex Blaisdell, is actually the concluding chapter of a four part story.  However, you don't need to have read the previous three installments to get a clear picture of what's going on in this issue.  I never have and I really don't feel the need to.  Bates does such a good job of laying out the story so far that reading the previous issues seems kind of redundant.  
Of course, before he does that, Bates lets us wonder just what the heck is going on for a page or five.   After that splash page I mentioned before, which depicts a scene that doesn't actually occur in the story, we see Clark reporting for work.  However, he's reporting to Ben Franklin at the Pennsylvania Gazette, and the assignment he receives is to cover the signing of Declaration of Independence later that day, July 4, 1776.
As is often the case with super-heroes trapped several centuries in the past, Clark has no memory of his life as Superman in the 20th century or of his extraordinary powers.   Gradually, however, his powers begin to manifest themselves, such as when he instinctively acts to subdue a ruanaway horse, and every time he looks in a mirror he sees not the colonial garb that everyone else sees, but his Superman costume.
This is where Bates breaks in to tell us what's really up.  You see, it turns out that Superman's "deadliest foe," a weird looking, white skinned, red haired alien named Karb-Brak, the amazing palindromic man, has exiled Superman in the far reaches of history so that he can survive.  Karb-Brak ended up on Earth after being forced to leave his home planet, a place where everyone has super-powers, because he happens to be fatally allergic to people with super-powers.  He thought he could live out his life in peace here, but he seems to have been about the only person in the whole Milky Way galaxy who'd never heard of Superman.  Desperate to survive, Karb-Brak uses his multi-purpose Psi-Machine to erase Superman's memory, send him back to the past, and cause everyone there to see not his super-suit but typical attire of the period, unless they happen to be looking in a mirror.  The amazing Psi-Machine also allows Karb-Brak to see into the past and check up on how Superman is doing.
It's too bad that with all the other things it was capable of, the Psi-Machine wasn't able to remove Superman's powers, especially his power to travel through time.  After Clark suddenly finds himself seeing through the walls of Independence Hall, he regains his memory just in time to foil a plot by British spies to steal the Declaration of Independence before it can be signed.
With America's future thus secured, Superman returns to 1976 Metropolis to do battle with Karb-Brak, who "dies" as a result of his contact with the Man of Steel.   Superman takes the clinically dead alien to his Fortress of Solitude where he cures Karb-Brak's fatal allergy, then revives him.  ( Thus the story's title "Die Now, Live Later.")  Then Superman uses Karb-Brak's own Psi-Machine to force him to use his shape changing powers to assume human form and forget that he's an alien.  The story ends with Clark Kent sitting on a city bus next to construction worker Andrew Meda.  (Oh, I forgot to mention that Karb-Brak was from the Andromeda galaxy.  Get it?)
While the story is certainly fun and enjoyable, with great art by Swan (especially his crazy design for Karb-Brak),  when you stop and think about it plot holes that you could fly the Death Star through become glaringly apparent.  If Karb-Brak is allergic to super-powers, yet possesses super-powers himself, how come he isn't allergic to himself?  Why does sending Superman to the past seem to alleviate his fatal allergy?  What about Supergirl and the dozens of other super-powered beings running around the DC Universe by 1976?  And why, once he's cured Karb-Brak, doesn't Superman send him to his own planet rather than force him to stay on Earth disguised as a human?  After all, as Bates tells us in a caption during his recap, Karb-Brak isn't actually evil.  It was only his will to survive that brought him into conflict with Superman in the first place.
This, of course, simply proves what I've said many times.  With super-hero stories, especially a lot of Bronze Age DC comics, its best not to think about them too much and just enjoy for them for what they are.  What Action Comics #463 is happens to be a pretty good Superman story and a fun salute to America's Bicentennial.

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