PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3

The Immortal Superman!

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 boot.

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 the malfunction:

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 coma-inducing shocks.

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 surprise:

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 guy.

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 ages.

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 ->