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
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
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
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!