Superman: King of Earth!

They say it's not easy being king, but Superman seems to enjoy it well enough in Action Comics #311 and #312 (April and May 1964). In fact, the only down side to being King of Earth is dealing with revolts from ungrateful subjects, like that would-be assassin, Clark Kent.

Writer Leo Dorfman brings us this remarkable two-parter, which is sure to have caught the attention of kids of the day. It starts when Superman detects an alarm on his "Inter-galactic Danger Detector" (no doubt a precursor to the Super-Friends' "Troub-A-Lert").

The Detector says there's danger in quandrant Alpha-6 of space, but whatever it might be, Superman can't spot it with his telescopic vision. That means taking a closer look, but the trouble is the sector is riddled with Red Kryptonite meteors.

Testing a theory, Superman tries to concoct a Red-K antitode using an old chunk of the substance, the one that once split him into two men: a good but non-powered Clark Kent and a powered but evil Superman. According to the "rules" of Red-K exposure, no sample should be able to affect him a second time.

To Superman's surprise, the Red-K does indeed affect again, and in the same way as it did before. Well, almost. Evil Superman says the difference is that "Last time our bodies merged after 72 hours! But this time our separation is permanent!"

As the powerless Clark looks on in mounting panic, Evil Superman cuts off Kandor from the outside world so they can't monitor him and smashes the Superman robots in the Fortress so they can't be used against him. "He's gone berserk...mad with power!" Clark thinks. "He can be the most dangerous being in the universe!" To nip this threat in the bud, Clark grabs the Phantom Zone projector, intending to exile Superman to that twilight dimension, but Superman is too fast for him.

Superman grabs Clark roughly and flies him out of the fortress, not even bothering to bundle him up against the extreme cold of the North Pole. The speed of their flight causes Clark to pass out from lack of oxygen, and he awakens on a Coast Guard vessel off the U.S. coast.

Making his way to land, Clark is in attendance as Superman delivers a special address to the United Nations. "It's time I was rewarded for constantly guarding your planet!" he barks. "I demand you elect me King of Earth!"

The assembled delegates refuse to believe the creep before them could be the real Superman, leading Superman to whip off his boot and pound it on the podium in a recreation of Nikita Kruschev's famous shoe-banging tantrum (an incident which in reality may never have happened,but makes for a good story, and inspired this funny visual).

Around the world, people react with shock and disappointment, but Clark Kent has already progressed from disgust to open defiance. Visiting the Pentagon, he uses his "insider knowledge" to open Superman's personal safe, containing enough Gold and Green Kryptonite to end "his majesty's" reign before it begins (the code against killing seems to be a total non-issue, now). However, a U.S. official rules that use of the Kryptonite would be illegal, as Superman still hasn't committed a crime, yet. So the vault is locked again.

When the U.N. reconvenes, they give Superman their answer: No. He responds by telling them to watch a certain location for a demonstration of what can happen if they defy him. At the announced time, he uses super-breath to freeze first a desert and then a stretch of ocean. When the U.N. remains undecided, he says to watch for another feat at a second pre-arranged location. That location turns out to be Red China, where he initiates an earthquake.

The third demonstration, he promises, will involve the detonation of a nuclear bomb at the White Sands proving grounds. Clark and Lois Lane are on hand to witness it, prompting this amusing scene:

Ah yes, the old anti-radiation suit and goggles defense. Did anyone ever really believe that would work? If so, why didn't they just sell those things in stores so we could stop sweating the whole "Armageddon" thing?

Anyway, Superman blows up a mountain and the U.N. is finally persuaded to give in.

Ha, that panel is all kinds of awesome. Not least for the revelation that apparently the United Nations used to stand for something.

In time-honored despot tradition, Superman builds a marble palace decorated with giant statues of himself, puts on a goofy Pope hat and sits on his throne accepting (or insulting) gifts delivered by foreign emmissaries. All nations are ordered to dispose of their flags in favor of one bearing the Superman emblem.

Clark has had enough and calls a secret meeting of the only people who can stop this madness. No, not the Justice League; a middle-aged smoker, a snoopy girl and a teenager.

Yep, those old leaden press plates will keep away Superman's prying eyes. Assuming of course that he's crawling around on his hands and knees when he uses his x-ray vision. At least Jimmy's smart enough to sit down.

The next day, Superman broadcasts an inspirational message to the people of Earth via television.

I hate to tell you, Supes, but if that's a typical episode of your TV show, you're never going to beat "Gunsmoke" in the ratings.

Perry White volunteers his boat for the first meeting of the Anti-Superman Underground and cruises to a deserted cove, but Superman spots the conspirators and leaves them marooned on a sandbar, just to show them they can't get away with anything.

Undaunted, Clark remembers he's still got some Superman robots in his apartment closet and sends them after Superman. He decides to borrow the costume off one robot, in case he needs it later. Interestingly, the robot is all exposed metal where the costume would have been.

Somehow, I thought it had been established that the robots had a synthetic skin over their entire bodies, but when you're sending robots into battle, I guess the "metal body" look is cooler than the "nearly naked guy in his Y-fronts" look. If you look closely, the stripped robot looks totally humiliated, while the one behind him smirks, thinking, "Ha! Loser!"

Clothed or not, King Superman makes short work of the robots, but Clark is already on to the next plan. He knows Supergirl is away on a time-traveling mission, but he reasons that she, like he, probably keeps some Green Kryptonite on hand to work on an antidote. Traveling to Midvale, he breaks into her foster parents' home and searches for a sample. Unfortunately, a passing patrol car spots his flashlight beam in the supposed-to-be empty house and the officers yell at him to come out with his hands up.

Now Clark decides it's time to pull out that spare Superman suit. Exiting the house as "Superman," he claims to have been after a burglar, but the police officers are skeptical. "Maybe you're just a prowler in a Superman costume!" Putting some thought into it, they come up with a brilliant plan to decide the issue.

Umm...okay, but if you're wrong, you've just killed a guy. Which in essence is what happens; Clark takes a fatal hit to the abdomen but stands his ground, apparently not even flinching. What a man! Convinced, the officers go back on patrol to shoot -- I mean, protect -- the rest of Midvale, and Clark stumbles around in pain until he falls head first into the Midvale River.

He awakens in Atlantis, of all places.

I don't know about you, but I think it's awesome there's not only mermaids in the ocean, but in every good-sized body of water in the U.S. Heck, Minnesota alone has 10,000 lakes -- I bet the mermaids are as plentiful as Walleye!

Lori Lemaris tells Clark he's a goner unless he can remember some arcane medical procedure he's encountered in his adventures that might somehow help the doctors pull off a miracle. Indeed he does; he recounts the story of John Corben, the crook whose crushed body was replaced by a robot facsimile and powered by Kryptonite, making him the super-villain Metallo. "Perform the same operation on me which that doctor did to Metallo and insert the Green K into my mechanical heart!" he directs. And sure enough, with no more detailed instructions than "make a robot body and stick kryptonite in it," the Atlantean doctors are indeed able to save his life.

To all outward appearances still human, Clark gains an audience with King Superman and springs his trap.

Again, note Clark has no qualms about killing in this story. I'm not judging, just noting.

Superman insists he's not really evil, it's just been one big hoax. He claims that the Red-K at the beginning of the story did follow the rule that prevents it from having the same effect twice. Yes, it split him in two, but this time both Clark and Superman are good.

Even as they were splitting, Superman claims, his super-hearing intercepted a message from space, ordering an invisible fleet of alien invaders to blackmail Earth into surrendering to them with demonstrations of their weapons; one that freezes, another that causes earthquakes and a third that blows things up. "If within three days, the threatened world doesn't surrender," said the voice, "use ultimate weapon to annihilate it!"

Learning the locations and times the weapons would be used, Superman (instantly) hatched a plan; he would make the world think he was evil and place himself at the scene of each "demonstration" to create the impression he was doing the freezing, quaking and detonating. "If those terrible exhibitions of power took place," he explains to Clark, "and mankind realized they were demonstrations by a ruthless space enemy ready to wipe out Earth with an ultimate weapon...can you imagine the global panic?"

Later, says Superman, he learned that the planet behind the threat was already destroyed, its native race dead, but with their robot fleet still carrying out its pre-programmed mission. So even though there are technically no aliens left to rule the Earth, their doomsday weapon is still out there somewhere, and it won't become visible until it's activated by a timer to destroy the Earth.

Clark asks why Superman didn't just tell him all this in the first place and Superman answers it was because "I couldn't trust you! As a mortal you might have accidentally blurted out the awful truth..." which is certainly an interesting insight into Superman's thinking. We know he doesn't trust Lois and Jimmy with major secrets -- who would? -- but since when does merely being "mortal" guarantee a guy can't keep a secret? Indeed, isn't Superman "mortal" himself? For that matter, he's Clark! How can you not trust yourself?

So anyway, now the alien weapon is about to destroy Earth and Superman is lying here, nearly dead. Metallo-Clark snaps shut his chest plate, cutting off the deadly Green-K rays, and suddenly he and Superman find their bodies merged once more. Turns out the separation was temporary, after all. Superman intercepts the doomsday weapon and hurls it back at the dead planet that sent it.

Even though Superman didn't trust Clark, it turns out he did trust the U.N. leaders, who knew he was fooling all along. They explain the situation to the world and all is forgiven.

Yes, Superman, thanks for scaring the bejeezus out of us with the threat of violence and a fascistic reign of terror. We know you only did it because we can't be trusted with the truth.

I'll be honest with you, parts of this story are really awesome. There's some genuinely tense moments as Superman pushes the people of Earth around, and it's always great to see Clark playing the hero. Artists Curt Swan and George Klein "sell" the story, as usual, with the great facial expressions on all the characters, and the cast really goes through the wringer, here. Particularly effective is Lori's pained reaction when her former love volunteers to sacrifice his very humanity to become Metallo and save Earth, and Superman's arrogant, petulant expressions in "evil" mode.

In the end, though, the logic falls apart for me. Try as I might, I can't see why it's better to replace one form of panic with another. Sure, people might be terrified by the thought of an alien race dropping a mega-weapon, but wouldn't they be just as terrified to find the most powerful being in the universe setting himself up as absolute ruler of the Earth? Especially when he "earns" the crown with threats of widespread destruction? Wouldn't it have been better to say, "aliens are trying to destroy Earth, but I'll stop them just like I've done all the others" instead of saying, "Abandon hope and free will, and bring me tribute, you fleas"?

On the flip side, it's kind of amusing, in a way, to see Clark Kent on the receiving end of one of "his" own hoaxes for once. Considering what torture he went through, and how close everyone came to tragedy, you'd think he'd learn something from this ordeal. But don't count on it.

Oh yeah, one other detail. Even though the aliens created those freezing, quaking and blowing up demonstrations, they never did broadcast that planned ultimatum to Earth announcing why those things were happening, and what they wanted from us. So tell me again why we were supposed to be panicked?