When Superman Lost His Memory!

For no special reason, I am designating July as "Identity Crisis Month" here at Superman Fan. And no, that doesn't mean I'll be spending any time on the recent mini-series, which I haven't and don't intend to read. Rather, we'll be looking at stories where Superman/Clark Kent forgets or is confused or misled about his identity, or has it stolen outright.

First up is "When Superman Lost His Memory," from Superman #178 (July 1965). In this story, written by Leo Dorfman with art by Curt Swan and George Klein, Superman spends most of his time wandering around in a state of amnesia, though long-time readers are more likely to experience deja vu.

At the Daily Planet, Clark overhears a radio distress call directed at Superman; a team of scuba divers is trapped underwater, four miles off the coast. Changing to the Man of Steel, he streaks to the scene to find the divers -- along with a hapless whale -- entangled in the trans-Atlantic cable. Superman quickly frees the divers and whale, but on his way up, he's accidentally whacked in the head by the whale's tail.

When an hour goes by with no further sighting of Superman, a diver mentions the incident to Jimmy Olsen (who's arrived by now in the "Flying Newsroom" helicopter) and mentions a new detail; not far from Superman and the whale, there was a glowing gold rock. Jimmy fears the worst; the rock must have been Gold Kryptonite, which strips Superman permanently of his powers. If so, that konk on the noggin could have killed him, or perhaps just knocked him out, leaving him to drown on the ocean floor. Either way, he decides, his friend has been killed. In truth, his guess is half right, as the rock is a mix of Gold- and Red-K, fused together by a collision in space before splashing into the sea.

Coming to on the sea floor, Superman has no idea who he is, or how he got here, but as he strolls along the ocean bottom he at least remembers humans need air to live. "I've got to get out of this water," he reasons, "before I drown..."

Never mind the flying powers, Superman seems to have also forgotten that even non-super people have the amazing power to swim upwards. Breaking the surface, he hails a passing motorboat which -- as it happens -- is filled with men dressed as Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickock and Wyatt Earp. They assume "Superman" is likewise a pretender, on his way to the same place they are; a yacht-based masquerade party celebrating the great lawmen of history. So they take him along, but the party's ruined by a radio report that "the real Superman" has been killed on an underwater mission, and it never occurs to the amnesiac Superman -- whose first memory is of waking up underwater -- that he may in fact be the real deal.

Back on shore, the amnesiac Superman finds a compressed suit and tie in a pocket of his cape, and dons them. Here's the point where, were he not suffering amnesia, Superman might remember he's been through all this before, way back in the pages of World's Finest Comics #68 (Jan-Feb 1954), in a story titled "Menace From the Stars." In that earlier tale, it's not a whale's tail, but a collision with a huge asteroid that robs Superman of his memory. He falls to Earth, finds himself at the scene of a masquerade party -- as he does in this story -- and makes the same assumption; that he's merely a Superman impersonator and not the real deal. Finding his Clark Kent clothes, he dons them with thoughts that read almost word-for-word like those in the 1965 version:

Things go in different directions from there, but the two stories will continue to share developments and dialog to the end. In the Dorfman/Swan tale, Superman takes a temporary job at a construction site, where circumstances reveal he possesses both invulnerability and super-strength, in scenes strongly reminiscent of "The Steeplejack of Steel" from Superman #124 (Sept 1958). However, exposure to a hidden chunk of Green K brings on a spell of weakness, resulting in his firing and convincing him his "powers" were only a residual effect of contact with the Superman costume.

In both stories, Superman visits the Daily Planet in hopes that the newspaper's extensive files will provide a clue to his true identity, and gets his answers sooner than he expected when Perry White and Lois Lane recognize him and tell him he's Clark Kent. The Planet staff in both stories is convinced that Superman is dead, and Clark assumes they're right. Also in both stories, Superman ends up being shot by gangsters, and despite surviving unscratched still credits the suit and not any personal powers.

Then comes an emergency only Superman can handle. In "Menace," it's the return of the asteroid and in "When Superman..." it's the appearance of an explosive, alien space-mine in Earth orbit. In both stories, Superman still thinks he's just an impostor, but in the absence of the "real" Superman he deals with the threats for the sake of Earth.

When a special ceremony is scheduled to honor him for these feats (in both tales), Clark decides to come clean about his "masquerade" and calls Perry White to tell him he'll be coming to the office to explain everything.

Setting off on foot for the Planet offices, Clark's thoughts reveal he intends to tell his friends that Superman is dead, that Clark has somehow inherited his suit, and that the suit has allowed him to mimic Superman's feats. Of course we readers realize what he's really about to do is reveal his secret identity to Perry and the gang.

Notice that in the later tale, Clark's walk from his apartment to the Planet takes him clean out of town to a high cliff, which seems the long way around to say the least. However, it does facilitate what happens next; Clark is accidentally struck by an out-of-control truck and knocked onto high tension wires crackling with thousands of volts of electricity. In the 1954 version, Clark is more believable strolling down city streets, but when he's struck by an abandoned truck with a faulty parking brake, it's hard to explain how he falls onto high tension wires strung lower than the overpass he was walking along.

In the earlier tale, Clark's survival of this ordeal when he's not in the super-suit (it's in a parcel under his arm) makes him realize he himself is invulnerable, and thus the real Superman. In the 1965 story, he has the super-suit on under his Kent clothes, so it's implied the shock itself restores his memory. Either way, the amnesia ends here.

Superman heads off for the Daily Planet, and Perry asks him what Clark meant about Superman having met with disaster. He answers (in both tales), "Clark actually thought I was dead for a while! Poor fellow...his amnesia made him imagine someone else was masquerading as Superman!" Superman hands over a scoop from Clark, and Lois decides the whole "amnesia" episode was a subterfuge on Clark's part.

I have to say that while I generally prefer the Swan/Klein team over Wayne Boring, the earlier story in this case is the better one. For one thing, in 1954 it was still possible to believe that a collision with a huge asteroid might give Superman a serious bump on the head, whereas by 1965 it became necessary to introduce a lot of mumbo-jumbo about a double-kryptonite cocktail. Also, the return of the asteroid is threat enough in 1954, but 11 years later Superman is so powerful we need to introduce an alien doomsday device (from a race we've never heard of) to create a fraction of the suspense. Finally, it was a mistake to change the ending so that the super-suit is on underneath Clark's clothes when he falls on the wires. There's no reason he should treat his escape from that predicament any differently than all the other things that have happened to him, so we're left to conclude the shock jolted his memory back, when really he shouldn't have felt more than a tickle.

Neither the Grand Comics Database nor DC's recent "Superman in the 50s" collection were able to provide a writer credit for "Menace From the Stars," which seems a shame as it was a strong enough story to inspire not only this cover-featured imitator, but also the classic "Panic In the Sky," generally considered to be one of the finest episodes of the "Adventures of Superman" TV show starring George Reeves.

Then again I suppose there's a certain poetic irony that the writer of this twice-imitated tale of amnesia should himself be forgotten by history