Clark Kent's Brother!

Silver Age "Imaginary Stories" were always a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, once freed from the need to maintain the status quo, writers could create some powerfully emotional tales like "The Amazing Story of Superman-Red and Superman-Blue" and "The Death Of Superman." On the other hand, it always felt like these stories were a waste of time: Who really cares what happens when we know from the beginning that it "doesn't count"?

Superman #175 (Feb. '65) presents, for my money, one of that handful of stories that justifies the entire sub-genre. Here, Edmond Hamilton presents a reality wherein love and kindness turn bitter enemies into loving brothers, even as jealousy and hatred make an enemy out of an old friend.

We begin in Smallville, in a reality just like ours except for two important changes: first, Ma Kent contracts a cold that prevents her and Pa from taking the Caribbean trip that in our reality resulted in their deaths, and second, Pete Ross does not know Superboy's secret identity.

One day, Superboy finds his closest friends being systematically attacked by mysterious bolts of energy-force. First Chief Parker is attacked in his office, then Pete Ross is targeted as he plays a game of baseball. In both cases, the energy turns out to be harmless and dissipates as soon as Superboy shows up to help. As it turns out, the energy bolts have been created by Lex Luthor, who's using them, in conjunction with a series of electric eye devices hidden throughout Smallville, to plot Superboy's flight path and triangulate the location of his home.

Pete is in love with Lana Lang, who only has eyes for Superboy. When Pete goes to visit Lana, he finds she's the latest target of the energy attacks.

Unfortunately for Pete, Superboy shows up as well, and while the smitten Lana pulls her usual "My hero" routine, Pete's left to fume about "that show-off."

This is as good a place as any to mention the fantastic artwork of Curt Swan and George Klein, whose mastery of facial expressions and postures make this story come alive. Check out the panel above, where Lana reacts as you'd expect a young girl to in her situation, pulling her arms and knees inward and clutching at her skirt to avoid touching the energy bubble around her. It's little stuff like this that makes things real for me, and for my money it's as impressive as any knocked-out-of-the-panel fisticuffs or cosmic-scale pyrotechnics.

Anyway, Superboy has by now recognized the pattern of these strange events and, conducting an investigation, finds the electric eye devices Luthor's positioned around town.

For the sake of the Kents, Clark runs away from home in the middle of the night, leaving a note for his folks that explains his decision. Then, to "quell suspicions of my double identity" he returns the next day as Superboy and tells Lana "I heard Clark Kent ran away from home and I'm going after him! I'll find him, no matter how long it takes me!"

That's right, that's his brilliant plan. Everyone's supposed to believe he's putting his crime-fighting, town-protecting career on indefinite hold so he can locate Clark. Pete Ross is willing to accept the story -- he's just glad to have Superboy gone regardless of the reasons -- but Lex Luthor has a brain, so he sees the obvious:

Luthor approaches Pa Kent and asks if he can work in the store, now that Clark can't. Pa hires him on, leaving us to assume Clark wasn't too specific in that note he left. ("Oh look, it's the bad kid who chased Clark out of town by threatening us. Let's give him a job!")

In short order, Lex improves efficiency at the Kent's store with a series of brilliant inventions, and in gratitude, the Kents invite him over for dinner. It obviously goes pretty well, because as soon as he leaves they decide to adopt him. When they pitch the idea, he accepts, planning to use his newfound access to the Kent home to search for proof that Clark is Superboy. At every turn, however, his subterfuge is met with love, kindness and trust by the Kents and finally something stirs inside the lad.

Meanwhile Superboy is terribly homesick, and gives into the temptation to secretly peek in on his mom and dad. Spotting Ma clutching his photograph and sobbing, he can't stand it any longer; he flies in the living room window and, elated, Ma calls him "Clark" in front of Lex. Not to worry, though, as Lex's reformation is complete.

And so Clark is happy to be home and gain a brother, the Kents are happy to have both their sons back and Lana is happy to have a hero to moon over once again. Only Pete Ross takes it badly; he's tired of being an also-ran living in Superboy's shadow.

Flash forward a few years: Lex is offered a position at the Metropolis Scientific Foundation and Clark gets a job as a cub reporter at the Daily Planet. To stay near their sons, Ma and Pa sell the house and store and relocate to Metropolis, picking a house design that will support Clark's comings and goings as Superman, and with a guest house Lex can make into a lab.

Clark invites his parents to the Planet offices for a look around, and Pa is quite taken with a pretty young reporter named Lois Lane. He invites her to the Kent home, ruffling Ma's feathers.

Once again, I'll take time out to sing the praises of Swan and Klein, who give us an older Ma and Pa than we've gotten before, thanks to their survival into Clark and Lex's adult years. Elderly folks, like children, can be a challenge for a lot of artists to get right, but Curt and George nail it here, making the Kents visibly older yet still recognizable. And I'll confess it doesn't hurt that Pa looks a lot like my grandpa in that grey suit and hat.

Lois takes up Pa's invitation and on the night of the get-together, Lana brings along Pete Ross, by now a successful businessman in Metropolis. It doesn't take long for Lana to steer the conversation to Superman, and Pete's had enough. As Lex takes him on a tour of his lab, Pete hides a homing device on a gadget on loan from Superman, and sets in motion a plan to destroy his super-rival.

Weeks later, machines of Kryptonian origin begin wreaking havoc in Metropolis, and when Superman tries to stop them, an accident almost leads to Lois Lane's death.

Lois is taken to the hospital, and Superman journeys to his Fortress of Solitude to find the door ripped off. Worse still, "all my duplicates of ancient Kryptonian machines that could be used for crime have been stolen!" Why he even keeps working models of Kryptonian crime machines lying around is anyone's guess, but now some crook's got them.

Visiting Lois at the hospital, Superman confesses both his love and his secret identity, and proposes marriage. Poor Lana overhears the whole thing and, though it means giving up on Superman forever, she vows to herself never to reveal his secret to anyone. Here we get another great panel from Swan and Klein, and in a rare move for the time, it's presented without any text:

At the wedding of Clark and Lois, Pete proposes to Lana yet again and, heartbroken, she finally relents. Soon after, however, she learns the truth about her husband; his "successful business" is crime, and it's he who's stolen the Kryptonian crime machines.

Pete locks Lana in a soundproof room with a steel door and drives off to lay a fatal trap for Superman. Luckily the room has a window, and after several failed attempts to get help, Lana hits upon the idea of starting a fire in a trash can, letting the smoke waft out the window to bring the fire department.

By this point, however, Pete has his trap ready and goes to kidnap Lois Kent as bait.

Umm...sure, Pete. If Lois has a signal-watch like Jimmy Olsen's, it can only mean she's married to Superman. You know, just like Jimmy is. And that means Superman is a bigamist, and bi-sexual. Go on, I'm with you so far...

Pete takes Lois to a secret cave hideout and uses the watch to call Superman, who arrives to find the whole place is one gigantic Kryptonite deathtrap. Meanwhile Lana's been rescued by the fire department and runs to Clark and Lois' home only to find she's too late. Heading to Ma and Pa Kent's house in tears, she says "only another Superman could save Superman now," inspiring Lex to use one of his inventions to give himself super-powers, even though the device suffers from a "serious defect."

Borrowing one of Clark's spare Superman suits, he flies to the rescue;

That's right, Lex. Giving an Earthman super-powers does not give him Superman's weakness. Except when it does.

Lex smashes the place up, and when Pete turns a Kryptonian Death Ray on him (guess they weren't as pacifistic as we thought), it reflects off his invulnerable body and kills Pete instead. Lex removes Superman from the cave, but even as the Man of Steel recovers, his brother pays the ultimate price:

At Lex's funeral, Lois reaches out to Lana with an offer to become closer friends, and Clark bids farewell to a man who started a criminal, became a brother and died a hero:

Wow. Just wow. This story packs a real emotional punch, both in plot and art. Note we get a second wordless panel at the end here, as Lana breaks down after Lois's offer of friendship. And again, we see that sometimes the secret of knowing how to write comics is knowing when to shut up and let the pictures talk for you.

This one hits all the right notes for me, personally. I've always been intrigued by the themes of redemption and the basic goodness of humanity that run through the Silver Age Superman mythos. On many occasions, we saw hints of Luthor's good side and the tantalizing promise that someday he might reform and become a friend again to Superman. To me, this made him an infinitely more interesting character than any dozen "evil through and through" characters, including the one he himself would become in later years. In this story, he redeems himself, if only to pay with his life.

It's a twist we've seen before, of course, with Wonder Man and Android-I and, most memorably for me, Joe Meach the Composite Superman, but done right it always works, and here it's done right, tapping into the emotional power of the mythos' longest-running feud and Superman's great longing for family.

Of course there's a flip side to all this noble stuff. In the super-mythos, just as love and kindness can melt the hardest heart, so can jealousy and hatred destroy lives and happiness. As if the Universe demands some measure of evil to balance out Lex's newfound goodness, Pete Ross is transformed from BFF to arch-enemy, and goes out like a punk. If anything, this is where the premise strains credulity the furthest, but the creators manage to make it work.

Hamilton still gives "goodness and virtue" one up, though, by including the last bit between Lois and Lana. Reaching out to the widowed Lana, Lois opens the door to a real friendship in place of the catty rivalry that exists in our reality. It's one last plug for the power of kindness and compassion, and just one more reason this story is pure awesomeness.