Electric Bluegaloo, Act 4: The Gang’s All Here
Of all the strange transformations Superman has undergone in his 78-year history, none has been quite so derided as the year where his familiar costume and powers were replaced with a blue and white "containment suit" and a tenuous relationship with electricity. But that raises the question, was it really all that bad? Two decades later, we want to find out, so ComicsAlliance is taking a look back at the Electric Blue Era of Superman to find out not just what worked, but if anything worked. This is... Electric Bluegaloo.
This week, August comes in a little quiet --- if you consider a coal mine cave-in and some light arson to be "quiet."
August - September, 1997:
- Superman #126, by Dan Jurgens, Ron Frenz and Joe Rubenstein
- The Adventures of Superman #549, by Karl Kesel, Stuart Immonen and Jose Marzan Jr.
- Action Comics #736, by David Michelinie, Tom Grummett, and Denis Rodier
- Superman: The Man of Steel #71, by Louise Simonson, Scot Eaton, and Dennis Janke
Say what you will about the Electric Blue Era, but for the first three months, you couldn't accuse those books of having a shortage of action. Between Metallo, Scorn, the trip to Kandor, the rematch with Tolos and the unexpected return of Saviour, it's been big fights and set pieces for the entire time we've been talking about this stuff, but with the issues we have this week, things are a little different.
It actually brings up a pretty interesting question about pacing. I wrote about this pretty extensively --- perhaps... too extensively --- but as the Triangle Numbers indicate, the Superman books were essentially set up as one weekly episodic series. If you were reading these comics in 1997 (and you weren't just there to speculate on the first appearance of the new costume), then you weren't necessarily going into the comic book shop to pick up Action Comics, you were getting that week's installment of the ongoing Superman saga. With that being the case, they had the room to do things a little differently, including spending a lot of time focusing on people who don't have their names on the cover
That's one thing that's been really surprising about looking back on these books: The supporting cast is huge. Like, Lois and Jimmy are a given, Lex Luthor is a constant, and you have to expect Emil Hamilton to be hanging around to explain all the pseudo-science, but these books go way beyond that. There's Bibbo Bibbowski getting ready for his title fight, Perry White recovering from cancer, Dirk Armstrong's strained relationship with his daughter Ashbury, the entire staff of the Daily Planet dealing with Simone D'Neige and her attempts to boost circulation, Cat Grant at WGBS, and more. It's a lot to keep track of.
So here's the question: What's the right amount of action for a Superman story, and how much can you get away with having a Superman comic that doesn't focus on Superman? That's what we're looking at today, with issues that slow things down a little bit and allow those background stories some breathing room while they build up to the next thing. I mean, yes, it's still a Superman comic, someone still tries to burn down Clark Kent's apartment building and the next day Clark finds himself trapped in a cave-in down at the local coal mine, but honestly? The most important thing that happened this month was a brawl between the Newsboy Legion and the Dingbats of Danger Street.
But I'll get to that in a second.
First, it's time for the new Superman to take a trip to the Batcave.
It honestly feels like this should be a bigger deal than it actually is, but I suppose Batman had already encountered Superman's new look in the pages of JLA. With that out of the way --- and with the understanding that you could see these dudes hanging out together along with their other pals every month in that book --- Batman's appearance here just reads like a guy popping over to his friend's house for a favor. And that's pretty awesome?
The reason for the visit, though, isn't the sort of thing you usually get from a couple of coworkers. See, one of the many ongoing plots playing out in the background of the book is that Lex Luthor has an upcoming trial for all of his various crimes, and part of his defense is that he wants to pin the blame on the Kryptonite Ring that he used to wear before it gave him cancer, causing him to amputate his hand and replace it with a robotic prosthesis, transfer his brain into a new body that he could use to masquerade as his own Australian son with a full head of hair, and then sell his soul to the devil in order to get an even newer body, but without the hair this time.
Listen. Comics are complicated.
Anyway, I'm not exactly sure how "radioactive space jewelry made me do it" is going to go over in court, but to be honest, that probably is a pretty workable defense in the DC Universe. So with that in mind, Luthor gets his lawyers to put some media pressure on Superman to do the right thing and turn it over to the police. It takes a while, but Superman finally agrees, although he makes sure to note that it's not actually his to hand over:
"It belongs to a friend of mine" is pretty great.
Luthor's not really mad about it, though --- it turns out that the whole thing was a setup so that one of Luthor's hired thieves could steal the ring back. Not that it really matters, though --- Superman's DNA has been fundamentally altered by the same energy that gave him his new powers. The Kryptonite no longer has any effect.
Superman himself, however, hasn't quite accepted that change. Much like the readers of the time, he's been assuming that this is just a temporary situation, like that time he had a lion head, or that time he was dead. And, you know, he's absolutely correct, but a) we weren't supposed to know that at the time, and b) that doesn't stop Emil Hamilton from laying down some cold hard truth about how this time, it's permanent.
There are few panels I think I love more than Stuart Immonen drawing Electric Blue Superman giving himself one of the Rock's catchphrases.
But while he's trying to come to terms with changes that have brought him up to date for the new millennium, Superman also has to deal with a bunch of throwbacks in the form of that Newsboys vs. Dingbats rumble that I mentioned above.
The Newsboy Legion were, of course, a pretty standard fixture in the Superman titles of the era, especially back in the Death and Return days when the Cadmus project was a driving force of the story. The short version is that they were originally the sidekicks for a Golden Age hero called the Guardian (think Captain America, but a cop instead of a soldier, right down to the big badge-shaped shield). When they grew up, they all became scientists, and decided to not only clone the Guardian, but clone themselves to make a new generation of Newsboys, which Jack Kirby reintroduced when he took over Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen back in 1971.
The Dingbats, on the other hand, are a much more obscure variation on the same theme. Kirby had a tendency to revisit ideas over the course of his long career, and given his own rough upbringing, it shouldn't be surprising that street gangs were almost as big a favorite as super-soldiers. The Dingbats were essentially the Bronze Age answer to the Newsboys, appearing in First Issue Special in a story that's so Kirby that it reads like parody:
It's not his best work by a long shot (and there are a lot of very bad choices going on for how the characters are colored, something that's improved quite a bit in the more recent Jack Kirby Omnibus hardcovers), but that title always makes it stick out.
This story marks their second appearance, and the basic idea is that the Dingbats are hanging out in the same now-abandoned movie theater that used to be the Newsboys' turf back in the '40s. And the solution, in what might be Karl Kesel's finest moment, is that Superman convinces the Green Team (a group of teenage millionaires that were another First Issue Special creation from Joe Simon and Jerry Grandenetti) to buy the whole place and rebuild it so that everyone has a place to hang out:
By the next issue, Superman has reached a bit of acceptance about his new powers, but something a little more important is happening: The formation of a brand-new version of the Superman Revenge Squad, gathered together by a mysterious benefactor who is soon revealed to be Morgan Edge.
The basic idea here seems to be that Edge wants to pin the attack on Luthor, ensuring that he goes to jail and leaving a power vacuum that will allow Edge to sweep in and regain control of Intergang. One would think, however, that a better way to do this would be to not identify himself to the people he's recruiting to commit crimes in broad daylight. One would also think that he might not want to only hire D-listers, but, well, here we are.
The crooks in question are the Parasite (a purple guy who absorbs energy and has another dude living in his head, basically Bad Firestorm), Barrage (a guy with a high-tech gun arm), Rock (a guy made of rock), and a new character named Baud, who has the single best panel of the entire arc when she goes full Looney Tunes into a conveniently placed steel plate:
The entire fight takes place while Bibbo Bibowski is defending his World Heavyweight Boxing Championship. It's a successful defense, but since Bibbo made headlines by decking Jimmy Olsen on live television to prevent Olsen from giving Superman's enemies more details on how they could exploit his new powers, he feels like he's setting a bad example, and ends up vacating the title until he can prove that he can carry himself as a champion.
As for Jimmy, the fire at Lois and Clark's apartment building (and his desire to get back onto TV in his role as the reporter nicknamed "Mr. Action") has allowed him to stumble upon what might just be the story of the century: Superman's secret identity.
- It's been revealed that Kryptonite no longer has any effect on Superman while he's in his energy form. Presumably the radiation would affect the now-vulnerable Clark Kent body as usual.
- Emil Hamilton has informed us that the change in Superman's powers is permanent, and will definitely not be gone within a year. He does not, however, mention anything about the drastic change that might involve, oh, I don't know, Superman splitting into two people.
- Scorn has returned Superman's original costume to Clark Kent's apartment, and seems to have no further mental connection to Superman.
- Bibbo Bibowski vacated the World Heavyweight Championship after defeating his rival, Hunya "Killer" Adams.
- Jimmy Olsen (thinks he) has discovered Superman's secret identity.
- The Green Team has purchased the Goldberg movie theater