The Once And Future War

In DC Comics Presents #61 (Sept 1983) Len Wein, George Perez and Pablo Marcos (with assist from Rick Hoberg) give us "The Once And Future War."

We begin in the far-flung future, where Jack Kirby's OMAC (One-Man Army Corps) is busy busting up an "unlawful laboratory" run by the nefarious Intercorp organization. As he trashes the facility, a team of Intercorp scientists fire up a "time transmitter" and use it to transport a robotic "pre-programmed assassin" to an unknown destination. At the last second, OMAC leaps into the transmitter and follows the robot to its mysterious destination...

We cut to current-day (well, if you're wearing Izod shirts and listening to A Flock of Seagulls) Metropolis, where a group of crooks is holed up in a liquor store, surrounded by a heavily armed police force and biding their time until the final shoot-out.

Suddenlty the Intercorp robot appears in their midst, identifying itself as "Murdermek...Intercorp Death-Droid Classification 42119." A quick scan of the crooks confirms they're not who Murdermek's looking for, so it blasts out of the building and wades through a hail of police gunfire, smashing cop cars and officers out its way while the delighted crooks use the distraction to effect their escape.

Down swoops Superman, slugging away at Murdermek, which in turn blasts the Man of Steel across the street into an abandoned building (Comic-book Chaos Rule #32: any building destroyed by a superhero in an uncontrolled fall shall be uninhabited). Now the crooks are really impressed, and decide to follow Murdermek wherever he might take them.

Now OMAC arrives, still on the trail of Murdermek and a bit confused about what's going on. The police assume he's in league with the robot and attempt to detain him. He's in a hurry, though, and so throws them off, just in time for Superman to emerge from the rubble and misinterpret the scene. He says hello with a punch to the head. (Comic-book Chaos Rule #12: any two costumed characters meeting each other for the first time shall assume the worst and come out swinging).

With protocol now satisfied, cooler heads prevail and the two heroes have a kibbitz on a nearby rooftop. OMAC recaps his origin as nebbishy Buddy Blank, transformed into a futuristic super-soldier (hey, it worked for that other guy) and now battling to save mankind's future. Meanwhile Murdermek explains to his new gang that he's looking for one Norman Blank, ancestor of Buddy, on the theory that by killing him he will prevent the creation of OMAC.

After a search of the city, Superman spots Murdermek at Metro Central Station, where he's finally found Norman Blank and opens fire. Superman swoops in just in time to rescue an unwary commuter, placing him in a seemingly safe corner of the train station before resuming the fight with the robot. Meanwhile Murdermek's hapless "gang" enters the scene flying futuristic weapon-vehicles constructed by the robot and open fire on the poor commuter. OMAC shows up and engages them in a side battle while Superman takes on Murdermek in the main event. The robot proves surprisingly tough against a Man of Steel with pre-Crisis power levels. In fact for a moment it seems he has Superman on the ropes, before our hero rallies with an everything-I've got punch and a decidedly immodest declaration of how freaking great he is.

Even after this punch, Murdermek keeps moving forward (giving Superman a scare), but then he keels over and explodes. Finally taking a moment out to talk to the suffering commuter at the center of all this chaos, they learn he isn't Norman Blanks at all, but rather one Arnold Berkowitz. Confused but glad it's over, OMAC returns to the future and in the last panel we learn that "Norman Blank" is actually a sanitation worker who's always been near the action but "invisible" to us because of his uniform and Perez' careful placement of him in his panel designs. The final image of Norman resolutely working away with his pushbroom amidst a giant pile of rubble and robot parts makes for a neat, Eisner-esque coda to the tale.

So...a relentless, seemingly invincible robot sent from the future to destroy the one-day savior of mankind by preventing his birth. Sound vaguely familiar? The interesting thing is this issue came out in the summer of 1983 (with a September cover date), which places it a full year ahead of James Cameron's Terminator, although Cameron's script was supposedly already in place in 1983 (with filming delayed nearly a year to accomodate Arnold Schwarzenegger's work on Conan the Destroyer). However both the comic and the film have echoes of Harlan Ellison's Outer Limits episodes, "Soldier" and "Demon With A Glass Hand", so maybe that's the common thread.

Anyway, this issue made a big impression in 1983, largely because of the dynamic, gorgeous Perez art on a title that tended to be a bit lackluster, visually. Also, with the Byrne reboot and Superman's consequent Marvelization still three years away, a cover-to-cover slugfest was still a novel and exciting concept at this point. But for me the most interesting aspect of the story is the way it feels like an "homage" to a film that still hadn't come out yet, right down to the inclusion of an "Arnold" character in the dénouement. Freaky.