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
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
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
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
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