The New 52 armor costume is the honorary #6.

§ December 4th, 2020 § Filed under superman § 5 Comments

So in the process of backing up files and transferring things to the “new” computer, I came across a post I wrote for another blog back in 2006. It was The Horror Blog, a site run by a fellow named Steve up there in the wilds of Canada, who had also run a fun comics-oriented blog entitled I Was Ben. Now both sites are unfortunately defunct, replaced with either squatter “buy this domain” pages or some suspicious “SECURITY BREACH, YOUR IP HAS BEEN LOGGED” site. However, at some point I had the good sense to download a copy of my article and the images way back when and stored them away.

As such, since I’ve been busy working on a big post for Saturday, I’m going to present A Classic from the Golden Age of Comics Blogging and Not at All Just a Reprint, straight outta 2006: “Five Favorite Scary Superman Moments,” just in time for the scariest of all holidays, Christmas. Please enjoy!

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Five Favorite Scary Superman Moments

When one thinks of “scary,” usually Superman comics don’t come to mind. Bright, cheery, sometimes even whimsical, sure…but scary? Not usually, but there are rare, very rare occasions when a moment in a Superman story will get under your skin, sticking with you long after the comic is put away. Here are just a handful of those instances, when the world of Superman was not as bright and friendly:
5. Superman is confronted with his own dead bodies (Action Comics #399, April 1971):

Following the explosion of an experimental power generator, Superman finds himself thrown out of our world…and into a giant crystalline “cell,” where he finds himself trapped with General Custer, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington. Eventually Superman breaks free of the cage to discover that he’s in the future, being studied by a time-travelling historical institute…and that the common thread among the “guests” is that they’ve been brought from the past from just before their imminent deaths!

That’s not the only surprise awaiting Superman, as the future historians explain that he is, in fact, the third Superman! Following the death of the original Superman, Earth scientists clones a second Superman to take his place, removing the memories of his death. And when that second Superman died, a third was created…the Superman that has been brought to the future just prior to his own demise.

Superman doesn’t believe this, of course, but by coincidence, the crypt containing the three super-bodies is just below the historical center:

For the most part, this is your standard Superman adventure, with the twist being that Superman was in fact thrown into the future of a parallel universe, and thus the history being related to him is not the history he lived…no cloning, no deaths. But that brief sequence, with Superman being confronted with his own dead bodies, and his own fear at having to see the final clone body, supposedly his own…it remains quite affecting.
4. Superman can’t save everyone (Hitman #34, Feb 1999):

Superman and Tommy Monaghan have a brief heart-to-heart talk about what it means to be not just a hero, but a symbol of what heroism is meant to be, during which Superman relates an instance in which his own symbolism adds to an extra level of despair to an already tragic disaster.

A nuclear space shuttle headed for Mars is in trouble, and Superman has his hands full trying to shield the shuttle’s escape craft from the atomic reactor leak, when he notices another astronaut, previously thought dead, huddling in one corner of the bay.

Superman can do nothing…he has to continue shielding the crew from the radiation or they will be lost. The astronaut in the bay is doomed…he knows it, Superman knows it…and, as Superman says:

3. That werewolf cover (Superman #422, Aug 1986):

Okay, the story inside is no great shakes…yes, Superman fights a werewolf, never actually turning into one himself, and yes, all the characters in the story are scared, but nothing in those pages is actually scary.

That cover, on the other hand…no Superman image can top the sheer wrongness of those hideously overdetailed head and hands attached to the smoothly streamlined body, drawn as only that master of the disturbing image, Brian Bolland, can manage. And on top of that, presenting the image in stark black and white, save for the red eyes…this image is one of the epitomes of superhero creepiness.
2. The final Luthor/Brainiac team (Superman #423/Action #583):

Taking place in the near-future, as Superman’s last battle approaches, arch-nemesis Lex Luthor seeks out and finds the crippled body of Superman’s other arch-nemesis, the robotic Brainiac. Lifting Brainiac’s head, Luthor is startled to discover that his mechanical “comrade” is not as lifeless as he seems:

Using Luthor as a host-body, Brainiac trundles off into the distance, preparing whatever revenge he’s planning to exact on the Man of Steel…

…Until the story’s climatic battle, when, face to face with a super-powered Lana Lang (don’t ask), Luthor is able to break Brainiac’s hold just long enough to plead for death from his fellow former Smallvillite:

And if that’s not enough, Brainiac attempts to continue commanding his dead host body, until it gives up completely:

That whole sequence is creepy in and of itself, but what makes it even more affecting is the unique position this particular version of Luthor holds in Superman’s long history. This is the sympathetic Luthor, the Luthor who’s protective of his young sister Lena; who loves the people of the alien world Lexor, who worship him as a hero; who admires Albert Einstein; and who, when the time came, was able to call out to a former childhood friend and beg her to release him from his living hell.
1. The Phantom Zone #1 – #4 (Jan – April 1982):

Of all the Superman stories ever printed, none can top this for what may be one of the most off-model adventures for the Man of Steel. A very basic explanation of the plot sounds like it’s right out of the Silver Age: the Phantom Zone villains escape their prison, trapping Superman (and former Zone prisoner Quex-Ul) in the Zone in the process, and then proceed to wreak havoc on the Earth while Superman tries to escape.

What makes this different, however, is the brutal storytelling of writer Steve Gerber and artist Gene Colan. Colan’s portrayal of the Man of Steel’s adventure is unlike any other artists…dark, moody, and mysterious, all shadows and swirly smoke, when Superman is usually presented as bright and triumphant. For example, the Phantom Zone itself, the extra-dimensional prison for Krypton’s worst criminals, usually looks like it’s just a room filled with grey clouds and transparent “ghosts” who are just normal looking folks colored all in white. Colan’s Phantom Zone looks more like what one would think of as a nightmarish spiritual world:

Gerber pulls no punches from the story’s get-go, as he details the crimes of the various Phantom Zone villains back on Krypton…mass destruction, mayhem, and, in the case of the PZ villain Faora Hu-Ul, tortured and murdered men:

This brutality continues, as the freed Zone villains begin their reign of terror upon the Earth, threatening civilians and easily overpowering the remaining superheroes. And it’s not the typical clean, antiseptic superhero action you’d expect. In Gerber and Colan’s hands, it’s horrifying: buildings are razed, people are burned and broken, and none can stand against the freed Kryptonian criminals.

Trapped in the Phantom Zone, Superman and his companion, the former Kryptonian criminal Quex-Ul, travel deeper and deeper into the depths of the ethereal prison looking for an escape route…and find themselves confronting the alien presence whose being apparently encompasses and creates the Zone itself. Bizarre beings and scenarios are thrown into their path, such as this temple of masked priestesses, whose masks hide a frighteningly symbolic visage for Superman:

As the series reaches its climax, Superman and Quex-Ul find themselves in direct contact with the central alien intelligence controlling the realm, which tries to absorb their spiritual forces into its own. Quex-Ul makes one final attempt at defeating the creature, flying directly into the monster’s maw, only to have his soul destroyed in the process. Superman, angry and defiant, makes his own attack upon the being, avoiding Quex-Ul’s mistake but finding himself in a place that wears heavy upon his soul nonetheless:

Having passed through this final portal, Superman finds himself back in the corporeal world, and the Zone villains are quickly dealt with. But General Zod, the most famous, most notorious of the Zone villains, gets some special treatment from Superman for the part he played in sending Quel-Ul to his death in the Zone:

And of all the elements of this particular story, this is the one that sticks with me the most. This isn’t the staid, mannered Superman of the Silver Age, tricking villains into defeating themselves, or finding himself in a superheroic domestic comedy, trying to hide his identity from Lois. This is a Superman who is showing real human emotion, real anger — this Superman is, quite frankly, pissed off. And, for the 13-year-old kid I was when I read this comic for the first time, back in ‘82, back before “pissed-off” superheroes were the norm, this was indeed just a little scary.

5 Responses to “The New 52 armor costume is the honorary #6.”

  • Roger Espinosa says:

    Thank you for reminding me about Action Comics #399 — read that one in the late ’70s in our tiny elementary school library and it’s always stuck with me!

  • adrian says:

    If i remember right, Superman 422 was the first one i got; almost a year after i started collecting; i had been skipping over superman for some reason, mainly experimenting with EVERYTHING ELSE ON THE RACK, and that cover struck me so hard, i nabbed it and kept going from there.

  • Thom H. says:

    I’m not sure if the Luthor / Brainiac “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” sequence is creepier when Luthor is alive or when he’s dead. That story is so good for so many reasons. I must have read it two dozen times at this point.

  • Cassandra Miller says:

    I remember reading this back in 2006! Wow, do I suddenly feel old.

  • Snark Shark says:

    “Brian Bolland”