One of the most persistent questions about Superman's powers
-- at least when I was a kid -- was what if any effect they
would have on the aging process. Would he age like any other
man, or would his super-powered body -- its cells supercharged
by the yellow rays of Earth's sun -- stay youthful and vital
for centuries, if not forever?
In Action Comics #385 (Feb. 1970), we seem to get an answer
to that question, as writer Cary Bates has the Man of Steel
age 100,000 years to emerge looking like a guy in his late
50s/early 60s. And since he's drawn by Curt Swan and George
Roussos, he's a particularly handsome AARP candidate to
What will turn out to be a three-issue epic kicks off at
the White House, where to ensure the success of "the
Army's top-secret Vortex Experiment," Superman promises
the President of the United States he will refrain from
disturbing the space-time continuum for a period of 24 hours.
In a nutshell, this means time travel is strictly off-limits.
Unfortunately, a mysterious, gigantic robot hand from the
future picks that very moment to materialize at the North
Pole, extending its forefinger to laser-burn a message on
the door of Superman's Fortress of Solitude: "Your
help urgently needed in Year 101, 970...Coordinates X78-543/20."
So now Superman is faced with a dilemma: break a freshly-made
promise to the President, or ignore a call for help?
Reasoning that it "won't disrupt the space-time continuum,
as I would if I were breaking through under my own power,"
Superman uses a defective Legion time-bubble to travel to
the future. Of course Superman's "dilemma" is
not really much of a dilemma at all, as it hardly matters
whether he leaves for the future on Tuesday or waits until
Thursday, any more than it mattered whether that hand showed
up in 1970 as opposed to 1968 or 1984. But Bates needs an
excuse to get him into that time bubble, for reasons which
will become apparent soon.
When he exits the time stream at exactly the desired time
and place, Superman decides whatever defect the bubble has
must be a relatively minor one. But then he walks in front
of a mirror and realizes with horror the exact nature of
You'd think if the Legion knew the bubble was broken, they'd
know in what way it was broken, but whatever. It's just
lucky for everyone that the person who ended up using it
was the one person who wouldn't be killed in the process.
Despite his advanced age, Superman still retains his great
powers, so he agrees to go on with the mission. He has been
summoned to a "vast monetary reserve chamber,"
a sort of interplanetary Fort Knox containing stockpiles
of currency from across the Universe. For weeks, tons of
currency have been disappearing from the locked chamber,
stolen by an invisible thief despite multiple hi-tech defenses
including a "pulsato-energi fence which dissolves anything
coming within two feet of it!"
Already three super-powered "champions" of the
future have volunteered to be locked in the vault to catch
the mystery thief, but in each case the vault was opened
to reveal the heroes in a comatose state, with more currency
missing and still no sign of the culprit. Despite the risk,
Superman agrees to pick up where the other heroes left off.
After hours of boring guard duty inside the vault, he finally
learns the secret of the vanquished champions; that pulsating
energy fence is home to a bizarre creature which fires off
Inserting himself into the constantly cycling energy fence,
Superman manages to elude the beast, and as he watches,
it consumes tons of alien coins, revealing that the missing
currency was never stolen at all, but eaten.
When the vault door is re-opened, Superman obtains a paint-sprayer
and coats the creature's preferred food source with blue
paint. The next time it goes for a meal, it gets a nasty
In plain English, Superman, you killed it. Note that care
was taken to describe the creature as a "synthetic
being," but if it can detect and do battle with other
beings, if it hides itself out of a sense of self-preservation,
only emerging to eat in secret when the vault's closed...heck
if it EATS...then it's a living thing. Or rather, it was.
Again we see Superman plays fast and loose with the old
"oath against killing" when it becomes inconvenient.
Now it's time to go home, and Superman's hope is that the
return trip will de-age him. However, he finds himself unable
to break the time barrier, either with the bubble or under
his own power, and as he decides to bide his time by peeking
in on 1020th century Earth, we learn his predicament is
the work of an old foe:
Arriving on future-Earth, Superman finds that the skyscrapers
of Metropolis now rise five miles in height, the better
to escape the vast deposits of atomic fallout and radioactive
mist encircling the post-apocalyptic globe.
After a brief misadventure, Superman meets "The Multiple
Men," a trio of future-era super-heroes who idolize
him. As a "gift," they spray him with mysterious
gasses which give him a nasty reaction as they appear to
have "a Kryptonite base." Falling into a deep
sleep, he awakens to find himself in a hospital, where doctors
reveals the Multiple Men's sprays have inoculated him against
his few weaknesses.
Now immune to Kryptonite, magic and even the deadly Virus
X, Superman may very well live forever, which is just about
the worst news he ever heard. Trapped in the far future,
with all his friends long dead and doomed to mourn them
and his old life for eternity, Superman is one miserable
And so ends Part One.
This is a pretty neat story, nicely drawn, with a few intriguing
twists and a mounting sense of dread and panic for Superman
as he realizes he may not be heading for a happy ending
this time. Underneath, however, are bigger issues which
affect the mythos as a whole. Bates establishes here that
yes, Superman does age much, much more slowly than Earthlings,
and barring a violent death he can expect to live for untold
millenia. Thus intentionally or not he creates an unsettling
subtext of pathos and even despair in the mythos. However
this particular storyline ends, we now know that eventually
Superman will outlive Lois and Jimmy and Batman and all
his friends. He's doomed to watch them age and die while
he remains forever young, or at least only very gradually
I'm not sure I like that idea, since it further distances
him from humanity. I suppose in the right hands, it could
make for some powerful character moments as Superman --
already feeling like an outsider due to his powers and heritage
-- deals with the knowledge that he'll outlive everyone
he ever cared about. But ultimately I think he -- and by
extension all of us -- benefit from the "stasis"
of funny book life in general; for all intents and purposes
the entire cast of characters is immortal, so it doesn't
make any difference.
PART 2 ->