Bizarro Back Issues: The Strange Saga Of Captain Strong (1973)
I love crossovers. Even when they don't really work that well or make a whole lot of sense, it's almost always interesting seeing how characters that don't usually hang out bounce off of each other -- and it's especially fun when you've got a character like Superman. That guy's such a well-known, well-defined cultural institution that there has to be a huge temptation to see how he interacts with pretty much anyone else, even if you don't actually have the rights to do the real thing.
But really, that's the magic of comics. Even if you can't get the genuine article, you can always file off the serial numbers and do your own version and get the same effect. Sort of. And that's how Superman ended up spending a good chunk of the '70s hanging out with Captain Strong, a thinly veiled stand-in for Popeye the Sailor Man who was addicted to alien seaweed.
Strong makes his first appearance in the pages of Action Comics #421, illustrated by the legendary team of Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson, and written by the man who's usually credited with the idea for the character -- uh, aside from E.C. Segar, I mean -- Cary Bates. Bates is one of the true unsung heroes of the Bronze Age, one of those guys that got his start in his teens and then spent a long career knocking out some of the most bizarre stories of the era, and considering he was up against Bob Haney in the prime of Brave and the Bold for that title, that's saying something.
What's notable about this particular issue, other than that whole thing where it's essentially Superman vs. Popeye, is that it's actually a darker take on the character, at least for the time. Seriously, as this story unfolds, it essentially turns into the "Marvin And Wendy Get Mauled By Wonder Dog" of its day, only way, way weirder.
We start off with Clark Kent chilling with a kid named Billy and listening to him talk about his new sailor friend, which, according to the footnotes, is something that he did an awful lot back in the '70s:
Remember that whirlpool. As is the case with literally every seemingly inoccuous event in the first few pages of every Superman story from the '70s, it's going to be important later.
Anyway, according to Billy, Metropolis has a new resident in the form of a seaman named Captain Horatio Strong, who saved him from collapsing building and who Billy claims is every bit as powerful as Superman. This turns out to be completely true, and while Superman is off dealing with the whirlpool, we find out exactly how he got that way: Through the magic of Sauncha, a new "organic food" that he wants to share with the world.
I actually really like this part of the story and the idea that Captain Strong isn't hoarding Sauncha for himself, he actually wants everyone to have as much access to it as they can so that they can eat their vegetables and get super-strong. He's a nice guy, that Captain Strong.
So nice, in fact, that he idolizes Superman for all the good that he's done for the people of the world, which is why he asked Billy to go tell Clark Kent about him in the first place. With Glute Foods refusing to distribute Sauncha on Strong's terms, he's hoping that Superman will help him find a business partner, and as noble as that might be, I really have to question that course of action. I mean, on one level, yes, that's the exact kind of thing that Superman would do in the early '70s, but also, don't you think that guy probably has something better to do than to help you work out a merchandising deal?
As it turns out, he does not.
Or does he?!
That bit about the sharks tips Strong off that there's something hinky going on here -- as the experienced seaman is well aware, there are no sharks within 500 miles of Metropolis. Strong leaves the boat and saunters over to the dock, and sure enough, there's "Superman," having removed his mask, making a call to Glute Foods to report that he got a pouch of Sauncha so they can run their tests on it. Or they would, if Strong didn't tear the phone booth out of the dock and throw it down in one of the most convoluted routes Bates and Swan ever took to get to showing the image on the cover.
Either way, it's enough to set Strong off on a vegetable-fueled rampage of revenge, downing a handful of Sauncha and heading off to beat the living spinach out of Glute.
It's at this point that the real Superman rejoins the story, getting a message from Billy and arriving just in time to stop Captain Strong from caving in Glute's head with his famous Twister Punch. Superman pulls him into the sky, but surprisingly, Captain Strong has gotten more than buff enough to fight to the finich:
Fortunately for Superman, who's in danger of getting his ass beat in midair by a one-eyed seaman with an incredibly flexible spine, Strong breaks off the attack because he's fiending for more Sauncha. When he lands, though, he finds that he's already eaten it, and takes off once again, swimming through the air to the secret source of his magical wonder-leaf.
At this point, things get a little grim, as Superman notices that not only is Strong half-crazed and desperate for a fix, but he's also going through classic withdrawl symptoms, experiencing all the shakes and pains that go along with it. "The more he eats," Superman says, "the more he wants! It's like being hooked on a drug!"
I hope you're paying attention, children of 1973.
As you might expect, Strong starts swimming through the air, straight towards the site of that whirlpool that cropped up in the first act of the story. As it turns out, it was Strong who created it in the first place, although he didn't intend for any ships to get caught up in it. He just wanted ships to stay away from the Sauncha until he was able to get his distribution deal in order, meaning that this is quite possibly the only Superman story where the action is entirely based around a difficulty filing the proper paperwork. Strong, crazed by the Sauncha Rage, dives down and grabs as much as he can, but when he pops back up, Superman just straight up takes it away from him.
It's a little anticlimactic, but it's balanced out a little by the part where Superman claims that Captain Strong has either kicked the addiction in the span of a single panel or has died right in front of him. That's pretty weird.
Either way, he's back on the wagon, leaving us with the question of just what the heck is going on here. Well, if you think about it logically, I'm sure you'll reach the same conclusion that Bates and Swan did: It's an addictive alien space weed that gives humans super-powers but since there are so many planets out there, we'll never know where it came from, the end.
No, seriously. That's how it ends.
Strong wasn't quite done yet. Over the next ten year, he'd make a total of five appearances in Superman and Action Comics (and crop up once in an issue of Green Arrow in 2003, of all places), adding more and more Popeye-esque elements to his increasingly bizarre life. The next time he shows up, for instance, we meet his girlfriend Olivia Tallow (oof) and see him fight an unfrozen caveman who is actually a spaceman. Oh, and he moves in with Clark Kent.
Congratulations on finding your new OTP.