Bizarro Back Issues: The Strange Amnesia Of President Superman! (1969)
One of those old saws that always gets tossed around every election year is that nobody who actually wants to be President should ever be given the job. If that’s true, then I think we can all agree that it would be better if someone just woke up one morning and found out he was in charge of the country. And also — and this is the crucial bit — that not only was he the President of the United States, but also that he had amnesia and was also Superman.
It’s basically the perfect political system.For evidence, one need look no further than “The President of Steel,” from 1969’s Action Comics #371. Written by the legendary Otto Binder with art by the equally legendary Curt Swan, this story actually kicks off a four-part saga of Superman wandering around trying out various identities, and it is a weird one. So weird, in fact, that the backup story in the same issue — wherein Supergirl sues her local librarian for writing an unauthorized tell-all full of facts that she ripped from a book she got when the library was temporarily displaced into the future — seems pretty tame by comparison.
It doesn’t waste any time getting to the kookiness, either. After a splash page of Superman imagining himself as both hobo and president, we move right to the offices of the Daily Planet, where Superman is dictating a story into a computer that, in true ’60s fashion, takes up most of a room. From his dialogue, we learn that the computer is actually a device from another dimension, which can “solve the most intricate problems” and “produce various useful ray-forces.”
This, children, is what is known as “foreshadowing,” although it’s equally important to note that Clark Kent is currently in possession of one of the most advanced pieces of technology on the face of the planet, and is using it so that he doesn’t have to type. And he types at super-speed. It’s kind of a dick move is what I’m getting at here.
But it’s not so dickish that he deserves to be conked on the head and sent off to die in a helicopter crash, so we’re still on his side a few panels later when an assassin somehow manages to sneak up on a guy who can see through walls and hear your fingernails growing and slaps him upside the dome with a blackjack. In an effort to protect his Clark Kent identity, Superman decides to sell the blow like he was on Vince McMahon’s payroll and plows headfirst into the supercomputer:
Once nice thing about this these panels is that they reinforce the idea that Superman is so good at fooling everyone into thinking he’s a mild-mannered nobody that even without his glasses, no one suspects a thing. One other nice thing is that this dude was sitting in a room with a giant computer that can apparently give him super-amnesia, because you’d think that would be something the aliens who gave it to him would’ve mentioned other than just going with the pretty vague “ray-forces.”
Of course, the best thing is that he knows he usually does something when someone attempts to murder him with a helicopter, but he just can’t figure out what.
It ceases to be an issue once the helicopter crashes and tears off Clark’s outer clothing, revealing his indestructible Superman costume beneath and conveniently reminding him that he’s actually the Man of Steel. Unfortunately, without his glasses, there’s nothing to remind him of Clark Kent, so he’s left wandering around trying to remember his secret identity.
From the looks of things, Superman is secretly the Living Tribunal.
Now, one would think that if he can remember everything about being Superman, he’d probably realize that there might be some clues to his identity — or, you know, a bunch of robots who could tell him exactly what his deal is — up North at the Fortress of Solitude. That doesn’t really occur to him, though, so he decides to go for another reliable source of information: The President of the United States.
And of course, when he can’t get into the White House, he naturally assumes that he himself is the President. That might seem a little extreme, but to be fair, this is Superman. He’s not exactly used to people not at least inviting him in for a soda.
With that in mind, he pops around the back of the White House and zooms into the Oval Office, operating on the assumption that if the President’s suit fits, it’ll confirm his theory. Never has so much depended on pants size.
The jacket fits and the makeup kit gives him an excuse to leap to a tall conclusion in a single bound, so while the real President is off on a secret mission, Superman is now leading the free world.
His first act as President is to go look at a bunch of paintings, and even though I usually consider myself to be a little bit of a history buff, I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t know a lot of the past Commanders-in-Chief that Swan is drawing here:
I mean, I recognize Lestat, Bobby Moynihan, Mr. Burns, Sonny Chiba and, of course, Don Rickles, but those other guys are right over my head.
At this point, you’d think that the inherent drama of the Presidency and having to deal with national crises and the challenges therein would take over. You would be wrong. Instead, President Superman just ends up dealing with a busted signature-duplicator and having some guy run in and tell him about an accident in the Smithsonian:
Now, I have yet to be voted into the office of President, but I have sincere doubts as to whether this is how it actually works. Do White House staffers really bust into the Oval Office to tell the President about a kid who jumped the velvet rope at the museum, especially when they’ve already taken the ultimate step in resolving the problem? Is the President directly, personally responsible for what happens in the Smithsonian?
Apparently so. President Superman suddenly stands up and announces that he wants to go to the top of the Washington Monument, so the Secret Service drives him over and bum-rushes all the tourists out of the way so that he can have it to himself. This is, of course, a cover for his escape, as he knots the elevator cords and then smashes through one of our national landmarks:
I actually have been to the Washington Monument, and let me tell you: It is not so tall that you would not definitely notice Superman smashing out of the end and then immediately start trying to figure out the phallic imagery you just witnessed. Here, though, it passes without comment from anyone, and Superman saves the little girl stuck in Friendship-7 and gives her a guided tour of the Smithsonian.
Once he’s back at the White House, it’s time for a dance, and once again…
…I really have my doubts that this actually is “the custom.”
During the ball — in which Superman can’t remember who Lois Lane is for some reason — he’s attacked by an enemy spy disguised as a foreign correspondent, and saved by an uncharacteristic act of bravery from Clark Kent! It turns out that Clark’s death in the helicopter crash at the beginning of the story was merely the first step in a truly bizarre plan by a spy to take over Clark’s life, and saving the President is the final step in sealing his cover. In a normal Superman story, this would be the spy’s undoing, but Superman not realizing that there’s anything strange about seeing Clark Kent is a pretty nice twist on the usual formula.
But even with the assassination foiled, Superman’s tenure as president comes to a close: The real President finally radios from his off-shore treaty-signing mission:
And that’s pretty much how this part of the story ends. As much as I love Otto Binder — and the record will show that I do — I have to say that this one was a bit of a letdown. As weird and crazy as it is, it never quite gets around to the kookiness that you’d expect from having Superman as the President, determining policy or approving attack ads against Governor Mxyzptlk (I-5D). It’s just one of those rare Binder stories that doesn’t live up to its potential.
The second part, however…
…that’s EVERY BIT as good as you want it to be.