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
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
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
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
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