Electric Bluegaloo Interlude: Pulp Heroes, Part One
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're taking a minor detour into the Annuals for a pair of pulp-inspired Electric Blue adventures.
- Superman: The Man of Steel Annual #6, by Louise Simonson, Tommy Lee Edwards, Dennis Janke, Robert Campanella, and Shawn Martinborough
- Superman Annual #9, by Dan Jurgens, Sean Chen, and Brett Breeding
With all the fuss of switching over from 1997 to 1998, it looks like I missed out on talking about the annuals. If the goal here is to look at every piece of the Electric Blue Year, and it is, that's an oversight that I need to correct, and now seems like a good time. In the timeline of the main books, after all, we're just about to get to a big red complication for the third act of the saga, so I don't think we want anything else hanging over our heads before things start to get really weird.
So let's talk Annuals. They've always seemed like a weird little vestigial publications to me, remnants of a time when you needed books full of reprints to catch up on stories from the past, or when you couldn't just walk into a comic book store and get a new Superman story every week. By the late '90s and early 2000s, that feeling seemed be pretty prevalent. Since they existed outside of the usual publication schedule, that meant that they were separated from the ongoing narrative that had become the dominant storytelling style, and if you were invested in continuity rather than just getting an extra 40 pages of comics every year, then you didn't have much of a reason to get them.
That's probably why Annuals in mainstream superhero comics vanished for about a decade around the turn of the century, and are only now starting to trickle back onto the shelves, but back in the '90s, DC made a pretty interesting attempt at keeping Annuals relevant. If they existed outside of the main storyline, then why not lean all the way into it? The results were a few years of line-wide Annuals built around specific themes, rather than just serving as an extra-long story for the characters.
Some of the themes weren't all that great --- lookin' at you here, Bloodlines --- but others were at least interesting. 1994, the year that brought us a Pirate Batman named Leatherwing, was focused on Elseworlds stories; '95 was built around origin stories for "Year One"; and '96 had the truly bizarre idea of going Post-Post-Apocalyptic for the far-future "Legends of the Dead Earth." But in 1998, when Superman was blue, we had "Pulp Heroes."
The main idea here was to do stories that were inspired by pulp novels and the thrilling adventures of characters like the Shadow and Doc Savage. For Superman, who had just gone through the big change that left him as an intangible electricity man, that presented an interesting challenge --- since the sci-fi elements were already ramped up, you'd think that they would've gone with something like a Flash Gordon approach, full of Art Deco spaceships and interplanetary conquerors. But that's not what they did, at least in the first two annuals to hit shelves.
Instead, both Man of Steel Annual #6 and Superman Annual #9 play with the pulp aesthetic by putting the spotlight onto someone else in the cast --- to varying degrees of success.
In Man of Steel, it's Maggie Sawyer who takes the stage for a story full of hard-boiled narration as she and Lois track down a mysterious killer who takes trophies from his victims. It's a premise that I really like, but the execution doesn't quite deliver as well as you want it to.
The assassin in question is, get ready for it, an incredibly powerful telekinetic named Pierce who takes only the pointiest of mementos from his victims and jams them straight into his own face as... piercings.
I would like to remind you that this was 1997.
With Superman lured out of the way by the vast government conspiracy that's backing Pierce as a CIA assassin, it falls to Maggie and the SCU to deal with Pierce themselves --- until the end of the story, when Superman shows up to stop him from triggering a nuclear meltdown and wiping Metropolis off the map, anyway. Along the way, Simonson and Edwards play with a lot of familiar hard-boiled tropes that fit right in with what they're trying to do: The conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, the Feds showing up to tell Maggie to stay off the case or else, and even the reveal that Pierce came back from the war... changed.
In the end, though, it doesn't quite go far enough into Noir to really work, and while Edwards has a style that fits the aesthetic, 20 year-old newsprint doesn't do his art a lot of favors.
The issue does have one thing to really recommend it, though. As you may remember from the last time we talked about them, the letter columns from the era were full of complaints from readers who hated Superman's new costume and powers at first sight, and the Annual has some true gems.
My favorite, though, is from this guy, who has sworn to stop reading the books in protest, but not to stop buying them.
We should all be so lucky to have haters like that.
Anyway, if Man of Steel didn't go far enough, Superman Annual #9 doesn't share that problem at all. This thing goes full-on Doc Savage in every single way, right down having that great Glen Orbik cover and an ending with Clark Kent --- not Superman, but Clark Kent, direct pop cultural heir to Clark Savage and his Arctic Fortress of Solitude --- striding out of a fire with his shirt in tatters.
But like the Man of Steel Annual, Jurgens and Chen's Superman Annual puts the focus onto a slightly pulpier supporting cast member than a man made of electricity who can read computers by touching them. And in this case, it's Jimmy Olsen.
See, for unknown reasons, someone in the vaguely Middle Eastern, vaguely Asian country of Bhutran --- presumably not to be confused with the real-life country of Bhutan --- has decided to leave a mystical medallion to Jimmy in her will. The thing is, someone doesn't want Jimmy to have it, and is willing to take some pretty bold steps to keep it out of his hands --- someone with the hilarious name of Lord Wolf, leader of The Black Crucible! And folks, he is a pulp villain straight out of the old school.
After he sends an assassin whose face has been mystically altered to look like everyone's favorite boy reporter --- and after the assassin is foiled by an interrupting Bibbo Bibbowski --- Jimmy decides that he should head to Bhutran to collect this inheritance himself. He's not going alone, though --- in true Doc Savage fashion, he puts together his own Fabulous Five to help him out: Clark, Lois, Bibbo, Emil Hamilton, and, clearly playing the role of Ham, ace attorney E.D. Drysdale. He's a character so obscure that not only do I not recall seeing him before, but the only thing I can find written about him on the Internet is a capsule review of this issue from 1997. Still, he fills out the role to keep things in that Doc Savage mode.
And just on the off-chance that things weren't quite pulpy enough just yet, Drysdale and Bibbo end up flying around in an autogyro.
With the assassin dead in Metropolis after his botched attempt at knifing Jimmy, the genuine article tries to go undercover, replacing the assassin in the Black Crucible so that he can find out why they're trying to kill him. Unfortunately, as is so often the case in Superman stories, everyone who's not Clark Kent ends up captured by the bad guys and dropped into a giant tank full of man-eating sharks.
And adding to the problem is the fact that Superman himself was taken out by a death ray that left him unable to phase back into his energy form. Thus, Clark Kent and his torn-up shirt, charging to the rescue using tips he learned from Batman.
So in case there was any doubt, yes: This issue is pretty great, even if Bhutran does hew a little too close to its pulp inspiration's cartoonish depictions of foreign countries.
In the end, it turns out that the medallion that was left to Jimmy, while possessed of great mystical power, is also "a symbol of absolute evil" that's sure to bring him no end of trouble. It's probably a good thing, then, that Jimmy happens to be pals with the world's greatest superhero --- something that's pointed out by the shadowy silhouette of Doc Savage creator Lester Dent, who shows up in the story to have a chat with Clark Kent at the end.
- Lois Lane was briefly reinstated as a deputized agent of Metropolis's Special Crimes Unit, something she's apparently done before.
- Jimmy Olsen came into possession of a mystical medallion of great, ancient, extremely evil power. So, y'know. It's Tuesday.
- Superman met Doc Savage creator Lester Dent (aka Kenneth Robeson), who knows his secret identity, I guess? Comics are weird, y'all.