Bizarro Back Issues: Superman’s Plot To Kill Superman! (1971)
Superman is notoriously difficult to kill. It's kind of his thing, and even though people have been trying to pull it off for 77 years now, they've never really managed to. Even the most famous example of someone coming close had to involve an unstoppable giant bone monster in bike shorts and a spurious understanding of evolution, and even that didn't really work --- the main result was less shuffling off this mortal coil and more hanging around for a couple of years in dire need of a haircut.
But there is one person who might have a pretty good shot. Someone who knows all of Superman's weaknesses, and who has the resources to provide a squad of hitmen with everything they'd need to put a Kryptonite nail into the Man of Steel's coffin. That man is Clark Kent, and in Len Wein, Dick Dillin and Joe Giella's "A Matter of Light and Death," which opens with Clark hiring a trio of crooks to off his own alter-ego, and just keeps getting weirder from there.
The story was originally published in 1971's World's Finest Comics #207, but if you'd like to read it for yourself, it was recently reprinted in the darn-near-essential Tales of the Batman hardcover that collected 600 pages worth of Wein's work on the Dark Knight. It stands out as one of the strangest, and considering it comes right after that story where Batman fights a haunted house that shows him his own funeral and then mysteriously explodes, that's saying something.
I'll probably get to that one around Halloween, but in the meantime, we have Clark Kent's plot to murder Superman, something that's actually even more difficult than it might sound. See, this particular story takes place during the brief "Kryptonite Nevermore" period of the early '70s, when Superman's major weakness was excised from the DC Universe, something the crooks are pretty quick to point out after Clark Kent opens a suitcase full of cash and tells them who their target is.
There is, however, one major vulnerability left: Magic, which Kent promises to provide in the form of... The SATANSTAFF!
"Satanstaff" definitely sounds like the debut album of a band called "Slye and his Murder Gang." I heard Kerrang! gave it the highest rating of the year.
At this point, you may have figured out that hiring hitmen to kill his own alter-ego is just a little bit out of character for Clark Kent, and you'd be right. But not only does Clark not know why he's doing it, he doesn't even know that he is doing it --- all the arrangements with the Murder Gang have been undertaken while he's been having blackouts!
Now look. I don't want to tell Superman how to do his job or anything, but if you're literally the most powerful person in the universe, and you're having blackouts, and you suspect that a murder may be involved, maybe don't wait three days before you get someone to check that out. I realize that Kryptonian doctors are in short supply what with most of them having their atoms scattered across space and all, but at least tell somebody.
Fortunately for everyone who doesn't want to be secretly murdered with heat vision, Superman decides to do just that. Since he's faced with a mystery, he decides to enlist the help of the World's Greatest Detective, and he does it in a panel where he looks exactly like I do when I think about that guy:
Honestly though, who among us hasn't torn their own shirt off while yelling about Batman and making a face like we're about to drop the hottest soul record of 1971?
Batman agrees to help his pal get to the bottom of this, and decides that the best course of action is to just follow Clark Kent around waiting for something weird to happen. It's a solid plan, and while the Batman of the Bronze Age tended to be a little friendlier than his notoriously grumpy modern-day counterpart, it's worth noting that he still ends the plan by breaking into his best friend's apartment, waiting in a dark room for him to come home, and then immediately insulting him.
Some things never change.
Immediately after the insult, though, Superman's eyes glaze over and he backhands Batman across the room before heading out to recover the Satanstaff. And when Batman follows him, he's just in time to watch Superman hand it over to the crooks and then leave, giving Batman the chance to make his typical dramatic entrance.
Literally everything about that panel is great. Dillin and Giella draw the heck out of Batman crashing through a skylight, and Wein's caption describing "the hurtling form of the awesome Batman" is a truly beautiful turn of phrase. Also, Batman appears to be fighting young Vincent Price, Hunter S. Thompson, and an actual cowboy.
The fight doesn't go the way he wants it to, though. It turns out that the Satanstaff is legit, and after the thugs magic up a net to tie Batman up in a snare that "an army of Houdinis couldn't escape from," promising to come back and finish the job once they auction off his death to the highest bidder, they head out to finish the job by ambushing Superman at a nearby planetarium. It seems that there's an exhibit of paintings of Kryptonian beasts drawn from Superman's descriptions --- something that sounds an awful lot like Superman could just make up a bunch of stuff because who's going to know? --- and since the Satanstaff has the power to bring paintings to life (sure), that's what happens:
With that, Superman is dead and his body is encased in amber for easy transportation. A bold move, considering that there are still seven pages of story left. That said, there are still plenty of questions. Who's responsible for giving Superman murderous blackouts? And who is the creator of the mysterious Satanstaff and its infinite magical power?
If you guessed "Satan," you are wrong. It's actually Dr. Light.
"Wait a second," you may be saying, "Dr. Light doesn't have any magical powers, unless you count that one time in Suicide Squad where he died on Apokolips and was later kicked out of Actual Hell for being a complete loser, and even that's a bit of a stretch." That's true, but as we find out in this story, magic gives off a certain kind of light, and once Dr. Light realized that, he just bought a ticket to see Zatanna's act and then sat there in the audience pointing his weird little Satanic flashlight at her the whole time. With that accomplished, he then went to Metropolis, and since he had access to Superman's unique brain-wave patterns (sure), he just beamed some images about Superman plotting to kill his alter ego directly into his brain.
You would think that he might use this knowledge to, y'know, discover Superman's identity, but I think we can all agree that it's fortunate that he didn't, since any story that involves Dr. Light discovering anyone's identity is never to be spoken of again.
In the end, not really a bad plan. Just not what you'd call an effective one.
Again: nothing in that panel that's not fantastic.
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