The Feud Between Superman and Clark Kent

In Action Comics #293, writer Ed Hamilton and Al Plastino explore the question of just what it is that makes a Superman.

Retrieving an errant satellite for the space program, Superman is exposed to Red Kryptonite and splits into two beings: a non-powered Clark Kent who retains the memory and personality of the hero we know, and a fully powered Superman with no memory and, well, a decidedly less appealing personality. "Without any memory of the past," Clark notes, Superman "has no principles or ideals." He is also paranoid and selfish, convinced Clark is jealous of his powers and determined to live out his life without this weaker, other half.

Clark remembers Red-K having a similar on Supergirl in the past, and calculates when the effects of the substance will wear off. Superman is having none of it.

Clark's fears about Superman are borne out as the latter engages in reckless displays of his powers. Eager to impress Lois Lane, he carves her likeness into a mountain, causing an avalanche that endangers people below. His efforts to stop the rockslide are clumsy and only partially successful. Perry White, the man with printer's ink running through his veins, grumbles that the best tribute to Lois would be to give her a scoop. After all, "it's news, not love that makes the world go around!" (Wherever you are, Mrs Perry White, you have our sympathies). With Perry's remark for inspiration, Superman decides to speed up the rotation of the Earth, basically just to show he can do it (by "shoving it at the equator" else?). This does nothing to improve Perry's mood: "What's got into you?" he barks. "By making the day less than 24 hours, you've made it necessary for every clock in the world to be rebuilt!" D'oh!

When Superman threatens Clark, Clark tells him he has super-powered friends who can move against him. Spying on Clark, Superman learns these "friends" are Supergirl and Krypto. When they answer Clark's call to Metropolis, Superman intercepts them and tricks them into showing him the way to the Fortress of Solitude (the location of which he has forgotten). Once there, he uses the Phantom Zone projector (which he's read about in news clippings) to send Kara and Krypto away. For good measure, he turns the projector on the Bottle City of Kandor, with its Superman Emergency Squad.

Growing desperate, Clark makes a cryptic remark that he knows one thing that will stop Superman. Clueless, Superman asks Lois what that might be, and she tells him about Kryptonite. With the aid of the US Navy, Superman retrieves all the Kryptonite he's dumped on the ocean floor over the years and shoots it into space with a giant slingshot.

Realizing Kara is still his best hope, Clark borrows the Daily Planet helicopter and flies it to the Fortress of Solitude (quite a gas tank on that chopper, making it from Metropolis to the North Pole. And what an expense account the Planet has, loaning out the Flying Newsroom to Clark and Jimmy whenever the mood hits them). Climbing to the Fortress' giant door, Clark gains entry by crawling through the keyhole! (So much for that foolproof "key too heavy for anyone to lift" defense) but once inside he's captured by Superman and tied to a model of the planet Krypton held aloft by statues of Jor-El and Lara. (Without even a memory of his origins, Superman calls it a "weird world-globe.")

Superman flies off, confident Clark is helpless for the duration, but Clark effects a daring escape, rocking the globe back and forth until it falls to the floor and shatters, loosening his bonds. He frees Supergirl from the Zone and has her fly him to Metropolis.

As Clark approaches, Superman crows that it's too late already, as the deadline has passed, but then the two begin to merge, and finally are restored to a single body. Superman has forgotten that while his Earth-spinning stunt altered timekeeping on Earth, the original 72-hour deadline elapsed in "regular time." (Despite Perry's conviction that it would be a major headache, 72 hours seems to have been enough time to re-tool every clock on Earth after all).

There's actually a lot of suspense in this fast-moving story (it's only 14 pages long), as Clark Kent has to do what no one in the history of the book has managed before; defeat Superman. Also, it's a fairly radical plot twist to have "Superman" be the villain in his own book. But as is hammered home again and again in the Silver Age, we see that what makes a man a hero is not his possession of "powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men," but rather what he chooses to do with them, and what is in his heart. The "Clark" half of the duo remembers his birth to noble parents on Krypton and his compassionate upbringing by the Kents, so ultimately he is the better man. "Superman," in contrast, represents raw power in the service of self-aggrandizement and paranoia, so he's doomed.

The Silver Age Superverse, then, comes down firmly on the side of "nurture" as opposed to "nature." Characters may do rotten things out of selfishness, jealousy, paranoia or revenge, but in the end they are like ignorant children. Anyone with a clear head and rational mind can manage a perspective beyond their own petty interests, and thus is good. "Good" then becomes a goal in the Superverse, a higher level of being that anyone might attain with effort. Even arch villain Lex Luthor has moments where he does good for its own sake, as when he helps the people of Planet Lexor, enough moments to keep alive Superman's hope that someday his former friend will be not just rehabilitated, but redeemed. In this issue, with nothing to go on but an instinct for survival, the nominal "Superman" of the story is no hero, but add in a learned system of values and it's a different story.

Just one more reason to be grateful that rocket landed where it did, all those years ago.