Electric Bluegaloo Interlude: Pulp Heroes, Part Two
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 finish the 1997 annuals with more letters about how much readers hate the new costume, a guest appearance in this column from Mike W. Barr, and the shocking return of... Super-Chief?!
When I first started talking about them in last week's column, I spent a lot of time on the different themes that DC rolled out for its Annuals over the years. With 1997, though, there was an additional wrinkle. While the entire line was under the retro-themed Pulp Heroes umbrella, each issue also had its own additional theme inspired by a pulp magazine title. Starman, for instance, was "Young Romance," with stories that highlighted the book's various amorous entanglements, and Batman was "Suspense Detective," which...
Well. I guess Batman is kind of always Suspense Detective, huh? But you get the idea.
I mentioned last week that it's pretty surprising that nobody took the new Electric Blue Superman out for a bit of a Flash Gordon-style sci-fi adventure, but the themes that DC actually landed on for the issues are even more surprising, especially in the issues we have this week, both of which revive two titles with a long history at DC: "Tales of the Unexpected" and "Weird Western Tales."
For Action Comics and its unexpected tales, we once again go back to the box of stock pulp tropes, starting with a villain in an eyepatch, a vaguely death-ray-ish piece of technology, and an army of hooded cultists serving under him:
The cultist in question is known to his followers as Brother Serenity, and in true evil mastermind fashion, he's searching for the pieces of a mystical artifact called the Darkheart in order to power up whatever sinister machine he's had his science cultists working on all this time.
To that end, he's dispatching a "retrieval team" to recover the shards, which are scattered around museums and private collections in Metropolis. Because, you know, that's what you usually find in museums, right? Just straight up pieces of mysterious rocks? Right.
There is one more interesting piece of the plot, though. It turns out that rather than being the kind of charlatan that you might expect, Brother Serenity is an actual sorcerer, with the ability to pass his spells onto his minions by charging up gems called Saga Stones on their bracelets. With the Saga Spells, the cultists can do everything from phasing out of reality to make their getaway to turning their opponents into werewolves:
If the whole thing sounds kind of ridiculous on a truly D&D-ish level, well, it definitely is. Michelinie's script even plays that up, having the Retrieval Squad shout things like "Vapor Chant!" as they turn to smoke, a spell name that could only sound more like it was dug out of the back half of the Player's Handbook if it had the word "Mordenkainen" in there somewhere.
And speaking of Michelinie playing things up, he also provides us with what might be one of my favorite location captions ever:
Ah yes, New Jersey. The Garden State. Land of windswept, desolate moors and blighted castles.
Obviously, Superman's going to eventually get involved in this plot --- and he's going to have a lot of sulky moments about the vulnerability of his new form to magic --- but far more important is another character, a medium named Madame Madeline. Unlike Brother Serenity, she is a bit of a charlatan --- at least, by superhero standards. See, she doesn't have psychic powers, she only has magnetic powers, and uses her ability to levitate metal objects to make her clients think that they're being visited by ghosts.
This is, I think we can all agree, a plan of exceptionally dubious quality, but nobody ever said that powers meant you had to be a superhero, and I guess it's better than robbing banks or whatever. The only problem is that her powers are leading to mutations --- her skin is starting to warp, and even more inexplicably, she has suddenly sprouted a bunch of head-snakes.
Let this be a lesson to you about the dangers of magnets, kids.
Needless to say, Brother Serenity needs Madeline's powers to juice up his machine, which he says is going to allow him to nudge people towards a better way of life, but which is, in fact, a gigantic prison that will suck out everyone's soul and imprison them forever, leaving the population of the world as mindless puppets that he can control. When Madeline discovers the truth, however, she initially refuses, but her desire to be normal --- and Brother Serenity's actually true promise that the machine will drain her of her magnetism forever --- leads her to give in and agree.
Thus, it falls to Superman to stop them. First, he tracks Brother Serenity's retrieval squad to a graveyard, where Madeline uses her powers to "animate the dead" by manipulating the trace metals left in their bones. It's a really cool idea, and it's even better when Superman has to smash up a bunch of skeletons while feeling bad about it because they used to be people:
Eventually, though, he tracks them back to Brother Serenity's headquarters --- and honestly, you'd think that somebody in the Justice League would just be keeping track of New Jersey's spooky castles just in case --- and after Madeline sacrifices her life to stop Serenity from zapping him with a magic wand, Superman comes face to face with the machine that's holding everyone's souls.
One of the big criticisms of the Electric Blue Year is that Superman got all these new powers and never really did anything that interesting with them, and I have to say that most of the time, that is definitely the case. After a few issues that make a token attempt at Superman shoving his hand into computers so that he can read the Internet, the books just tend to fall back on the usual tricks with an occasional reminder that he doesn't have X-Ray vision anymore.
This, though, is one of the best examples of Superman doing something new.
In order to shatter Brother Serenity's machine, Superman syncs up his own personal energy field with the frequency of the human soul, literally becoming one with everyone on Earth and then freeing them so that they can go back to their bodies. It's basically Grant Morrison meets Walter Peck from Ghostbusters, in a really cool way.
The Adventures of Superman Annual, on the other hand, takes a different path from the other three in the line. Rather than being one extra-sized story, it's an anthology of three stories that all operate on the premise of taking Superman out West. And while it offers the promise of Superman slugging out with a giant flying Olmec head, it doesn't quite deliver.
That's the major problem with the first story, John Rozum and Alcatena's "Terror of the Sierra Madre." When Clark Kent is sent to cover a major discovery that may indicate a connection between the disappearances of three major cultures --- the Olmec, the Anasazi and the Mogollon --- he's shown to a newly discovered underground dwelling with two major features.
The first is an "olla," a stone jar that's been completely sealed up on all sides, and that's going to be important in a few minutes. The second, and more important right now, is a perfectly preserved mural that tells a very strange story about stone heads invading from outer space:
As you might expect, the heads are animated by the force that's currently trapped in the olla, and when Clark transforms to Superman to take an intangible peek, it leeches off of his energy and brings itself back to life. Fortunately, Superman's got a few new tricks up his containment-suit sleeve, and after realizing that he can control energy --- even the energy that makes up this ancient monster --- he just blasts him off to space. Problem solved.
Or maybe it's just the Green Lantern Corps' problem now. Either way, it's off of Earth.
The third story is a weird Western revenge tale from Jack Staff creator Paul Grist and Enrique Villagran called "The Journey of the Horseman," wherein a horsey-looking alien comes to Earth to stop his former partner --- who shot him in the back and left him for dead on a dry and dusty planet --- from destroying the Earth with a new "power source."
It's a strange little story, but maybe the best thing about it is the scene where the Horse-Man walks to Metropolis, passing a "Home of Superman" billboard where they're replacing a picture of the familiar red-and-blue Superman with his electric blue variant.
Sandwiched between those, however, is "The Return of Saganowahna," from Mike W. Barr and Dale Eaglesham, in which the main attraction is the revival of Super-Chief, an obscure Gardner Fox/Carmine Infantino creation from the pages of All-Star Western.
Well. That's one of the main attractions. The other is probably seeing Superman in a cowboy hat and a duster over his containment suit, a costume change that is never actually addressed.
Clearly, I needed to find out more, so rather than explaining the story myself, I'll let Mike W. Barr do it. Here's what he had to say when I asked him about the experience of writing for Electric Blue Superman:
I wrote the story “The Return of Saganowahna” over five days in November of 1996. Either editor Joey Cavalieri approached me with the assignment or (more likely) I approached him. Joey and I had known each other for years; he was at that point editing the Superman titles despite their being the butt of a lot of criticism, most of it by wiseacres trolling for a quick, cheap laugh, such as SNL’s Norm MacDonald who referred to the electric blue Supes costume as “not gay enough.”
Me, I liked the idea. While plotting the story, I realized I was struggling a little with the idea of such a familiar character using unfamiliar powers, until I realized that was probably exactly how Supes himself felt. So I went with it.
The “Pulp Heroes” theme / “Weird Western Tales” theme fell right into place: Supes as the mysterious stranger who steps into the lives of innocents, saves them, then rides off into the sunset. I was able to use a number of Western tropes (okay, okay, cliches), too.
For the antagonist I chose a modern-day version of the DC western character Super-Chief, who had appeared only three times previously, in the last issues of All-Star Western #s 117-119 (1961). This was the last gasp of the classic DC title All-Star Comics, renamed to capitalize on the once-burgeoning Western trend, and featuring --- fittingly --- a western hero named “Johnny Thunder.” Created by Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino, Super-Chief was almost certainly named by editor Julius Schwartz, whose way with nomenclature was sometimes a little clumsy. “Saganowahna” was his Indian name, which, like the series, bore the mark of Fox’s careful research and respect for Native American customs. Any day I can rub shoulders with Gardner Fox is a good day.
The female protagonist --- a beleaguered publisher of a small newspaper --- I gave the surname of “Cloud,” figuring she was descended from Johnny Cloud, “The Navajo Ace,” from DC’s All-American Men of War, created by Robert Kanigher, comics’ mad genius. What better character to headline AAMoW than a native American?
I enjoyed writing the story, and the art by Dale Eaglesham and Scott Koblish. And it was fun being a part of this odd little aspect of Superman’s career, which is still talked about today.
He's not kidding about the wiseacres, either.
While we've mostly moved past it in the main timeline into a period of uneasy acceptance, the Annuals came out not too long after the electric blue change, when readers were still pretty sore about it. So to finish things up, he's a sampling from the letter columns:
I think my favorite is the one from the guy who says he goes to the Warner Bros. store twice a week to look for new Superman merchandise.
- Madame Madeline, the magnetic medium, was introduced and then killed off. Clark Kent and Lois Lane were literally the only people at her funeral. Ouch.
- Super-Chief II was introduced as a young man forced to act as an enforcer for a gang. This version of the character would prove to be even more obscure than his predecessor, being replaced before his second appearance by Jon Standing Bear (Super-Chief III), and then Saganowahna of Wisconsin, who appeared in the finale of Chris Roberson and Jamal Igle's section of "Grounded," the last issue before the "New 52" relaunch.