Clark Kent - Target for Murder!

Taking a break from the "mild-mannered" routine, Clark Kent switches to "crusading" reporter in Action Comics #307 (Dec. 1963), in the process making himself a target for gangland assassins.

We open our story in the offices of the Daily Planet (wonderfully drawn by the great team of Curt Swan and George Klein), where Clark has just handed in the latest in a series of exposés on organized crime in Metropolis. He gets a hearty pat on the back from editor Perry White, who's tickled with the paper's recent boost in circulation. Across town, however, crime boss "King" Kobra is considerably less amused with how his friends and underlings are being taken out of circulation. That Clark Kent guy is becoming a real liability.

When Superman dives into Metropolis Bay to retrieve a pistol used in an unsolved murder, Lois Lane congratulates Clark on yet another scoop...

Clark hasn't yet figured out the identity of the city's crime kingpin, but Kobra knows it's just a matter of time until he does, and he's not about to let that happen. He offers a $100,000 reward to the man who kills Kent, and a thug named "Rocks" takes up the offer.

As Clark takes Lois on a lunch hour shopping expedition, "Rocks" watches them from a nearby car. When they stop to gaze into a jewelry store window, "Rocks" opens up with his tommy gun before his car speeds off. Luckily, Clark spots the thug's reflection in the store window just in time and pushes Lois out of the way, shielding her from the bullets. He clutches at his chest and falls under a parked truck, where he's partially hidden. When Lois runs for help, he zips away and back again at super-speed.

Lois returns with a policeman and Clark rises to his feet. Lois is relieved but instantly suspicious: "You were hit by at least 20 bullets!" she blurts in disbelief. By way of explanation, Clark opens his shirt to reveal a heavy metal vest, which the policeman notes must have saved his life. In reality, of course, Clark used Lois' momentary absence to don the vest after the shooting, having fashioned it at super-speed from a borrowed manhole cover.

By the way, kids; don't try this at home. I've seen manhole covers stolen before (doubtless as a prank and not for monetary gain) and it creates a very dangerous situation for motorists. This is an atypically reckless act for a guy like Superman.

Convinced Clark is dead, "Rocks" reports his "success" to "King" Kobra and collects his 100 grand. However, soon afterwards Kobra spots Clark and Lois walking on the sidewalk outside his window, and realizes "Rocks" was mistaken, or lying. Leaving nothing to chance, he contacts a professional killer known as "The Executioner," who disguises himself as an electrician and makes a "service call" at the Daily Planet. Pretending to be fixing a wiring problem, he instead connects a wire from a high voltage line to the frame of Kent's metal typewriter, so the reporter will receive a fatal shock with his first keystroke.

Things take a potentially nasty turn when Perry asks Lois to retype one of Clark's stories and she decides to use his typewriter to do it. Luckily, Clark spies the suspicious wire and uses his heat vision to short-circuit it just in time.

Once she gets over the trauma of her near-murder, Lois goes with Clark to police headquarters, where she studies mug shots until she spots the "electrician" who booby-trapped Clark's typewriter. Clark recognizes him as "The Executioner" and changes to Superman. Recalling a "weird eccentricity" of the killer, Superman checks all the city's flower shops until he finds him buying a wreath to send to Clark's funeral. Despite the efforts of police interrogators, the Executioner refuses to divulge the identity of the crime boss.

Adopting a new strategy, Superman disguises himself as "Deadshot Daniels," a killer from out of town. Showing up in an underworld dive, he earns some street cred by punching out "Hard Rock Johnny," supposedly the toughest thug in town. When he tells the room full of awed thugs that he's even better with a gun than his fists, he draws the attention of "Chalky," an underling of King Kobra who recommends "Deadshot" for the Kent job. Kobra is intrigued, but reluctant to reveal himself, so he has Chalky arrange with Daniels for Clark's murder.

In planning his own murder, Superman places a high-powered rifle high in a tree overlooking a bridge, and ties a strap of wet rawhide around the trigger. Knowing that the big boss will be somewhere nearby watching to make sure of the kill, he then changes to Clark Kent and drives across the bridge. When his car reaches just the right spot, he uses his heat vision to dry out the rawhide strap on the rifle, causing it to contract and pull the trigger...

As witnesses look on (including Kobra, watching from a hill with binoculars), Clark's car careens off the bridge and plunges into the Bay. Satisfied that Deadshot Daniels has made good on his promises, Kobra leaves the scene. The police arrive with grappling hooks and try to retrieve Clark's sunken car, but he moves it away and kills a little time with a casual underwater stroll.

Deadshot Daniels reports his success to Chalky and is introduced to King Kobra, who offers him a position in his organization. Instead, "Deadshot" disrobes to reveal he's Superman. Ripping open Kobra's safe to retrieve ledgers, journals and other evidence that will incriminate the kingpin and his network of operatives, Superman flies Kobra to police headquarters.

Back at the Planet, Lois is again both relieved and suspicious when Clark turns up alive. He explains that he was never really in danger, as the driver of his car was actually Superman wearing Clark's clothing (Hey, true enough!). And...cue the credits.

Except the credits are incomplete on this one. As you've no doubt guessed from these scans, my copy of the story is in "Showcase Presents: Superman vol. 4," and the contents pages list the writer as "unknown." The Grand Comics Database likewise comes up empty, which is a real shame as I enjoyed the heck out of this tale. Whoever wrote it obviously didn't get the memo saying Clark Kent must always be a spineless milksop, and so in this tale he comes off as resourceful, intelligent, intrepid and calm in the face of danger. He doesn't make a show of "passing out" when the deadly wire is found connected to his typewriter, he gives his "bullet-proof vest" a cheerful tap after the attempted shooting, and perhaps most refreshing of all, Lois doesn't spend the entire time saying, "I don't get it...why aren't you blubbering in fear like the worm I know you are?" This is a story that could have worked well on the Superman radio show, or in the first season of the George Reeves TV show. It's fast-paced, action-packed and just plain cool.

A big part of the fun, naturally, is the stellar artwork by Swan and Klein. All of it's beautiful, but my favorite sequence comes when Clark is on the bottom of the bay, casually carting his car around so it won't be hooked by the police grapples from above, while catfish dart around him. Then he strolls along with his hands in his pockets like it's the most natural thing in the world to spend the afternoon underwater in a suit and tie. This is one of those sequences that reinforces the power and greatness of Superman every bit as well as any chain-breaking, meteor-smashing theatrics. I just wish I had it in color.

And of course we get another of Superman's masterful disguises, this time a "pencil thin mustache" pasted on to make him "Deadshot" Daniels. Luckily we have those thought balloons to read, or no doubt we'd have been fooled as well.