Superman's Secret Afterlife!

Well, here we are at the start of another year, and it's time for another review. In Action Comics #492 (Feb. 1979), Superman -- like the rest of us -- wakes up to find himself in a new year, only in this case it's the far future of...gasp!... 1988.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Writer Cary Bates begins the tale of "Superman's Secret Afterlife" in deep space, where our hero has just finished chasing down a comet to prevent it from destroying three inhabited worlds. Suddenly he comes across an "odd-shaped swirl of crimson energy", though in all honesty as swirls go, a circle is not that odd a shape . (I'm reminded of the line in "Raising Arizona" where a character asks a guy if he can make balloons into funny shapes, and he answers, "That depends. Is round funny?") Anyway artists Curt Swan and Frank Chiaramonte do a fair job of drawing a whirlpool-like phenomenon that has a hint of sentience to it.

Totally stumped as to what he's found and what effect it might have on him, Superman prudently opts to turn and head home without further investigation, but an energy tendril reaches out, tentacle-like, and draws him in. Before he can react, he suddenly finds himself on the floor of his apartment, apparently having dreamed the encounter in space.

After taking a scalding shower to clear his head, Superman hides his Clark Kent clothes in his cape and flies off to another day's work at WGBS, never noticing three nearby window-washers who are taking an unhealthy interest in his comings and goings. We recognise them as Phantom Zone villains General Zod, Faora Hu-Ul and Jax-Ur. Just what they're up to we can't tell yet, but it's obvious from their dialog that they've got some plot in motion.

Arriving at WGBS, Superman finds someone's left a message for him in the storeroom where he always changes. The message informs him that Lois Lane and Lana Lang have been launched into orbit on two separate rockets that are set to collide in mere moments. Dashing off at super-speed, Superman rescues both women, only to have Lois die shortly afterward from stress-enduced heart failure.

In the hallway outside Lois' hospital room, the Phantom Zone criminals show up again, Zod disguised as a doctor, Faora as a nurse and Jax-Ur a patient. It's becoming clearer now that they are somehow affecting Superman's perceptions of reality, and now it is Zod's turn to mess with his head.

So it is that Superman wakes up in a strange apartment to find Lana kissing him and telling him to get ready for work. A glance at a bedside calendar/clock shows it's October 20, 1988, a full decade in the future. Unconvinced, Clark uses his x-ray vision to peer outside, and sure enough sees the space-age architecture, monorails and gleaming towers 1988 would become so famous for.

Before he can get his bearings, Superman finds himself teleported to Kandor, no longer confined to a bottle but now enlarged and relocated to a previously uninhabited world to become "New Krypton." A Kandorian official reveals that it's the one-year anniversary of Kandor's enlargement, Superman having finally made good on his promises to restore the city to normal size.

Again the villainous Trio is present, watching from a nearby balcony. Since their normal attire is Kryptonian in origin, there's no need this time for disguises. Jax-Ur questions why Zod would give their old foe happy illusions like marriage to Lana and the restoration of Kandor, but Faora points out that a program of only negative illusions might arouse Superman's suspicions. As the illusory Kandor fades away, Faora explains the phenomenon of the Ytrymm Effect...

"...And if we are going to convince Superman he is in the midst of the Ytrrym Effect..." chimes in Zod, "and on the brink of his own death -- the simulated events we are telepathing from the Phantom Zone have to be absolutely convincing -- even to us! Which is why we projected ourselves on the scene -- Just on the periphery of his vision!" Here we learn that Superman is in fact still in the grip of that swirling crimson energy thingee and it is slowly draining away his life forces. The villains are using telepathy to send dream images to Superman and keep him snoozing until it's too late.

Now it's Faora's turn, as Superman finds himself another 15 years in the future, celebrating his birthday with his wife Lana and their son and daughter (dead ringers for Smallville-aged Clark and Lana). Clark feigns an emergency so he can fly away and compose himself, overcome with frustration and grief at developing what seems to be advanced dementia. "I couldn't bear to let my children know they're total strangers to me!"

He's snapped from his reverie by the approach of three missiles headed for his home, and whips off his cape to catch them, but before he can, an invisible force field activates and stops the missiles for him. "Of course!" he realizes, "Obviously I would have constructed elaborate defense systems for my family's protection!"

Relieved, he flies in a window and joins his family in a heart-warming group hug, whereupon the wife and kids clutch their throats and drop dead.

Too late, Superman realizes the explosion of the missiles had coated his body with deadly radiation, which he unthinkingly brought into the house, becoming the instrument of his own family's deaths. "How can I go on living," he groans, "with the deaths of the three people dearest to me on my conscience?" (Never mind that a few panels ago, he admitted he didn't know two of those people from Adam).

Some compulsion takes Superman to a cave where he finds an "Ultra-Nikru Cannon -- the most deadly weapon ever constructed on Krypton!" An inscription on the weapon reveals he smuggled it from new Krypton to use "in case I ever decided to take my own life!" Handy, wot? He sets the firing mechanism for a 10-second delay and stands in front of it, ready to end it all.

At last moment, however, he jumps away, wakes up to reality in the crimson energy swirl and, with the sputtering villains looking on from the Phantom Zone, spins the energy swirl into the path of a comet, which obliterates it. The villains contact him telepathically to ask where they went wrong. Superman responds that he simply remembered his most sacred oath; no killing.

I liked this story even at the time, but reading it now with the benefit of hindsight makes for a richer experience. Obviously, there's a chuckle to be had from the visions of far-flung 1988, with Curt Swan's patented future/alien cityscapes and fashions, and Lana telling Clark he's due to interview "the returning Mars astronauts" for a broadcast that will be watched even by "our NASA base on the moon!" It's amusing the creators of this story would think the world would change so much in a mere 10 years, but the fact that Superman imagines the future looking like a model city from the 1964 World's Fair just proves again why he's my kind of guy.

Elements of this story will be echoed in later tales, both the infamous Reboot Era story where Superman breaks his code to kill two of these self-same villains, and Alan Moore's much celebrated "For The Man Who Has Everything," wherein the villain Mongul traps Superman in his own dreams while an alien plant feeds on him. Also, I think this is the only time I've seen these three villains working as a team, so I'm guessing Bates selected them because of their upcoming appearance --sort of -- in Superman: The Movie. The film's Ursa is an obvious stand-in for Faora Hu-Ul, with her hatred of men, though it's more of a stretch to turn the brilliant Jax-Ur into the doofus Non. Zod is the only one to keep his name in the transition from comic to film, but here he's not nearly the domineering figure he is in the movie; Bates has the trio working as full equals.

There's a few problems with the plot, of course. First, neither we nor Superman are given enough time with his family to believe he'd consider suicide over losing them. Second, the cannon in the cave is a bit of a stretch. What mentally stable person stashes away a gun just in case they ever become suicidal? And why would you attach an inscription explaining why the gun is there? We don't get to read it, but what would it say, "Note to Self: When the time comes, use this gun for suicide"?

The biggest problem is with the concept of the Ytrrym Effect. The villains say they have to convince Superman he's experiencing what all dying Kryptonians do, so he'll believe he too is dying. But in fact he never thinks he's dying, or that he's having the Ytrrym Effect. He thinks he's really in his own future. The whole "Ytrrym Effect" dialog would have been better left out, and anyway what a depressing concept! I guess it's to distinguish Kryptonians from Terrans (who are said to see their (past) life flash before them when they die), but it just makes death twice as horrible from my point of view. Bad enough to kick off without having to see all the things you'll never get to do.

On the other hand, it would open up a lot of story potential. Just imagine a whole mini-series or recurring back-up feature showing the future lives Jor-El, Lara and countless other Kryptonians saw themselves living as their planet crumbled beneath them. It'd be a new twist on "Imaginary Stories", but then again it'd also be pretty maudlin.

Thumbs up on this one, warts and all. And Happy New Year!