Electric Bluegaloo, Act Two: Civil War In Kandor
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, we look at the fan reaction in the letter columns, Booster Gold gets a new costume with a lot less fanfare, and Superman heads to the Bottle City of Kandor alongside the Atom!
June - July, 1997:
- Superman #124, by Dan Jurgens, Ron Frenz and Joe Rubenstein
- The Adventures of Superman #547, by Karl Kesel, Stuart Immonen and Jose Marzan Jr.
- Action Comics #734, by David Michelinie, Tom Grummett, and Denis Rodier
- Superman: The Man of Steel #69, by Louise Simonson, Scott Eaton, and Dennis Janke
To my knowledge, the Electric Blue Era of Superman comics has never been collected in any kind of paperback. That in itself is not surprising, but it does mean that if you're going to read these stories, you have to go back to the actual issues, and that means that you get to see the letter columns. And they are amazing.
I'd go as far as saying that it's probably my favorite thing about these first few stories. I mentioned back when we started that the whole thing was essentially a publicity stunt, and on that front, it was an unqualified success. It made it to national news and was even ragged on by Jay Leno on The Tonight Show --- a crucial piece of DC's plan to get sleepy senior citizens into comic shops, I'm sure --- and as a result, it got exactly the kind of reaction that you'd expect from a major change to a character as iconic as Superman. And since this was back during the early days of the Internet, when the screeching of dial-up modems could be heard across the land, people would actually put pen to paper, address their letters "To Whom It May Concern," and send them into DC's offices.
But while the way they delivered their comments may be different, Fandom... Fandom never changes.
While there were a couple of letters that were a little more positive, the overwhelming amount of letters that got printed were from people who absolutely hated the new design, and were swearing to never read another Superman comic again --- or in at least one case, comparing it to killing a chimpanzee to strip it of its fur. But that raises the question of whether that was a representative sample of what people were actually sending in, or whether they were using the lettercols to emphasize how controversial the new direction really was.
As someone who's been dealing with comment sections for a third of his life, I'm pretty sure that it's somewhere in between, but probably a little closer to the former. I mean, there were probably more than two letters that were supportive of the new look, but the kind of extreme, chimp-skinning reactions from readers and the general public aren't hard to believe. I mean, a lot of 'em basically just sound like me in 2011, so if anything, the problem was probably in narrowing it down.
But I mean, you've been on YouTube. You know how it works.
It makes sense, then, that all of these reactions are coming in just in time for another story that's all about updating a classic piece of the Superman Mythos: The Bottle City of Kandor.
The Kandor of the '90s was not a lost city from Krypton shrunk down by Brainiac. Instead, it was a sort of miniaturized zoo for aliens created by a space wizard named Tolos. It would, of course, eventually be replaced by an updated version of the classic Kryptonian Kandor (see also: Supergirl, Krypto, the Fortress of Solitude and literally everything else that got an update in the '90s), but for now, it provided a connection to Superman's sci-fi elements that allowed for a bunch of different kinds of aliens rather than a population of a couple million tiny Kryptonians.
When Superman took Tolos down, though, he didn't just "free" the citizens of Kandor from a space wizard's tyrannical reign, he also inadvertently created a power vacuum. Since Tolos kept everyone in the Bottle City in line with swift and terrible vengeance and was seen as a deity --- and since Superman appeared in the skies over Kandor as the "Face of Death" that destroyed their god --- Kandor has descended into an apocalyptic civil war, with a faction of rebels bent on city-wide suicide.
Before we get to that, though, Booster Gold needs a new costume.
Superman #124 marks the last appearance of Booster's truly ridiculous '90s armor, which was built after his former suit was shredded in the battle against Doomsday back during the "Death of Superman." It's not a great look --- I'd venture to say that it's way worse than Superman's new costume, and where are all the letters about that? --- but it does provide us with a truly amazing scene where Booster's walking around Metropolis wearing a trenchcoat over it for a disguise.
Anyway, the new suit is destroyed when Booster tries to help Superman recover from being dispersed by Metallo, and in order to make it up to him, Emil Hamilton builds Booster a new suit from the leftover super-cloth that they used to build Superman's new uniform:
Why exactly Booster Gold needs a containment suit is never really addressed, but that new design would last for a while.
That little bit of the story isn't especially notable, but it does give Clark Kent a reason for being late to work yet again, a soap-opera plotline that has been running in the background of the past few months of Superman comics. See, Perry White had cancer, and while he was undergoing treatment, Clark was named Managing Editor of the Daily Planet in his stead. Unfortunately, running a newspaper is a pretty time-intensive job that doesn't really go well with having to duck into a broom closet, so he's on the verge of being fired. And on top of that, without his super-powers, Clark has immediately turned into the world's whiniest mortal:
It's pretty hilarious. And to be fair, I once stubbed my toe and immediately laid down on the floor and loudly declared I was waiting for death to come. Imagine being 30 years old and experiencing sleepiness and hunger for the very first time. It'd be bad enough to make you want to write a letter.
Anyway, Perry returns to the planet claiming that his cancer is in remission, and Clark's demoted back down to reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.
While all that's happening, trouble is brewing on two fronts. First, Ceritak --- the giant, horned Kandorian who escaped and was dubbed "Scorn" by Jimmy Olsen --- has been following his strange compulsion to connect with Superman. He's even gone as far as going to Superman's apartment, drawn there by the Man of Steel's old costume, which he steals straight from the closet, declaring himself to be the new Superman:
The best part of this is that no one is really sure whether he actually is Superman or not. There's an exchange in this story where someone literally just goes "man, he turned electric like two days ago, maybe he's got horns now, who even knows anymore." It's like a delightful little piece of Astro City got wedged into this comic to prop things up.
Scorn is going to be spending the rest of the story hanging out with Ashbury Armstrong, the blind daughter of the Planet's conservative columnist who he previously rescued from kidnappers, building a very Alicia Masters/Ben Grimm sort of relationship, but with a little more cosplay:
Second, and perhaps more pressing, is that Kandor itself is sliding even further into anarchy, a situation that's not exactly helped when Superman tests out Emil Hamilton's new device for viewing Kandor without realizing that it actually provides a two-way communication, and ends up appearing in the skies above the city as a booming Face of Death speaking an incomprehensible alien language:
The next time they check in, the city's in such bad shape that Superman figures he's going to have to go in there and fix it himself. With his new powers, he can phase into the portable dimension that holds the Bottle City, but he'll need help with resizing, which is why he decides to call in the Atom.
So this might require some explanation.
Of all the changes that superheroes went through in the '90s, the Atom had one of the weirdest ones --- one made only weirder by the fact that the exact same thing happened to Tony Stark around the same time. During Zero Hour, he was regressed to being a teenager, so naturally, he started leading an all-new team of Teen Titans that were created by Dan Jurgens --- at least one of whom would go on to be one of the many characters to lose an arm in a Geoff Johns story once the clock ticked over to the 21st Century.
Even though he's a Titan now, though, the Atom still keeps his Justice League communicator handy when Superman calls in need of someone to help him parachute into Kandor. Once they're in there, they find themselves dealing with multiple factions: The Peacekeepers, who are attempting to put down the rebellion by the most violent means available to them, the rebels who are trying to shut down the atmospheric generators and kill off the entire city, and the other rebels, who are just fighting to overthrow the government without killing off the entire city.
The latter faction is led by Faern, and we can tell she's a main character because this is the '90s and she has a black leather jacket and psychic control of a weapon that looks exactly like Blade's glaive:
Unfortunately, the good guys are too late. Despite Faern, the Atom, and Superman's best efforts, someone bombs the atmospheric generators --- and before they can be repaired, it's revealed that Tolos has been hiding in Superman's brain this entire time, just waiting to take over his brand new body.
And with that, Superman's second month comes to an end. And honestly, if you thought the reaction to the new costume was extreme, just wait till people start writing in about how much of a betrayal of the character it is for Superman to be possessed by a Space Wizard.
- Booster Gold got a new costume, with his computer pal Skeets bonded to the advanced circuitry that makes up the fabric of the Containment Suit. By my reckoning, the new design lasts until about 2004, when he went back to his original suit in the pages of Formerly Known as the Justice League.
- Clark Kent was demoted from interim Managing Editor with Perry White's return.
- Scorn acquired Superman's old costume, which mysteriously stretches to fit an eight foot-tall alien despite just being a spandex suit made by an old lady in Kansas. Also, his relationship with Ashbury continues to evolve, although the public at large continues to see him as a villain.
- The Bottle City of Kandor descends into anarchy.
- Superman met Faern, the leader of the (relatively) peaceful Kandorian rebels.