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Even A Superman Dies!

With Action Comics #387 (Apr 1970), writer Cary Bates brings to a close his epic saga of the time-tossed, ancient Superman in "Even A Superman Dies!"

We open in deep space in the 8020th century, where a "train" of "ice-spheres" is drifting along connected by a tether, each globe containing the body of an astronaut frozen in suspended animation.

Coming across this eerie scene, the now-aged Superman reasons the "ice-spheres" must be "part of an emergency safety device to protect the astronauts from death in space!"

And so he sets about reviving them. Bored at the prospect of using his heat vision, he opts for a more interesting rescue, dragging the spheres through the melting rays of a "rainbow sun."

Gloomy and listless, Superman thinks, "I'm just too tired of doing my thing," which is interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, because he's still spouting 70s slang after all those milennia, but also because he's acting like a guy who's actually lived into the future, as opposed to simply traveling to it. We know from the previous installments that he journeyed from 1970 to the year 101,970 in a matter of seconds (though it aged him physically in the process) but it's not clear here whether he's time-traveled the rest of the way to the 8020th century or simply allowed himself to age to that point (a caption says "This is the year 801,970! And Superman has aged every year!"). If he really has slowly aged all those years, I can buy his "tired of it all" attitude, but if he got here through the time barrier, it's not justified; he should still have the mind of a 30-something Superman even if he's trapped in an older body.

At any rate, once the astronauts revive they barrage Superman with questions ("Where have you been all this time? Why did you disappear from Earth? How did you live so long?") but now that he's in "cranky old curmudgeon" mode, he just testily flies away without answering. He's still not cranky enough to just leave them marooned, but he is cranky enough to "rescue" them by disabling a passing space ship with his heat vision so it will be forced to land for repairs, and in the process discover and rescue the astronauts.

"I've had it here!" he thinks, and speeds even further into the future, this time arriving "one million years ahead of 1970" (about where fashion is today) to find the Earth a lifeless husk, in one of those wonderfully subtle moments of "social relevance" for which 70s comics were so famous.

(Note from the editor: this issue's installment of "Sledghammer-to-the-Head Social Commentary" is sponsored by the Sierra Club)

Coincidentally, a pair of ginormous robots is even now arriving at what they call "Dead Planet 446" in order to haul it away as junk. Labels on the robots show they're from the "Galactic Sanitation Department," but Superman won't stand for it: "Contaminated or not, Earth is still my planet...and I'm not going to see it demolished for some 'Keep Space Beautiful" campaign!"

Flying inside the robots' brains, he rewires them both to emit positive charges, and since like charges repel, they're shot away from each other -- and the Earth -- into deep space. Then Superman sets about restoring the Earth to its former glory, which involves (for some reason) sawing it in half.

And then he's off to make the circuit of "a dozen planets", borrowing from each one a giant cloud of gasses to serve as the atmosphere of the restored Earth. "Borrows" how, you ask? By sucking them into his lungs of course, in one of those physics-defying stunts Superman is so famous for.

Of course the problem is that without "the internal fires of the Earth's center," there will be no magnetic field around the Earth to prevent that new atmosphere from being blown away by the solar winds, but we can't be bothered with details like that, now can we? Not when there's a world to populate.

Nice that the animals can "exist and multiply" on Earth, but did he check to see whether they could get along with each other and not just wipe each other out within 24 hours? Also, I'm no expert on animal husbandry, but ideally wouldn't you want at least two examples of every species, a male and a female?

If Superman hasn't read the story of Noah's Ark, though, at least he's read the story of Adam and Eve, so now it's off to another planet to abduct a pair of humans...

Is it just me, or is it a little callous of Superman to move these people from their home world without so much as a "by your leave"? Also, it's a pretty big roll of the dice to bet the propagation of the species on a single couple. What happens if one of those transplanted creatures eats them for dinner? One of them looks ready to pounce even in this picture.

Anyway, having amused himself by playing God (and beating the old "Genesis" record by five days!), Superman heads off for space with nothing to look forward to but "an eternity of boredom." Until, that is, a small, harpoon-shaped spacecraft deals him a lethal stab in the back.

Now a flashback takes us back 10,000 centuries to the year 2000 (!), where learn that a withered old Lex Luthor never accepted the conventional wisdom that Superman was dead. "There was no body," he reasons, "no solid evidence of death!" Unwilling to let himself die without being absolutely sure of his enemy's fate, Luthor transferred his "psyche-energy" into a "killer drone" (the harpoon ship we saw above) at the moment of his death. Powered by Luthor's life energy, the drone flew through space for centuries, stopping occasionally to "refuel" itself with the evil life force of executed villains from countless worlds.

"We can convert our store of pure evil energy," the Luthor-drone is shown thinking, "into the most destructive weapon ever known in the Universe" with the single purpose of killing the Man of Steel, a goal it appears to have finally achieved after a million years of searching.

As fate would have it, though, Superman's near-lifeless form is discovered by a robotic healer that restores him to life, much to his disgust.

Furious at having been spared a quick death, Superman flies away, into the path of the massive Magnor Comet. "It will disintegrate everything in its path," warns the healer, "even you!" But Superman just thinks, "that'll suit me fine!"

The killer drone spots him and closes in for a second attack, but then the comet hits and the drone is disintegrated. Not so Superman, who's merely "whisked along at an unimaginable velocity" by the comet. Swept through the time barrier to the end of time, Superman blacks out and a baby. Or so it seems. Then his consciousness fades in and out through the highlights of his life. Maybe it'll make more sense to you the way Cary Bates wrote it:

Or maybe not. Anyway, Superman is returned to 1970, just moments after he left Earth, and everything's just swell again.

Even for a story as outlandish as this one, that's a pretty nutty ending. It doesn't add up: Time can't have "gone full circle," since we saw the history tapes of Lois, Jimmy and Perry's lives in a world with no Superman, a history which will never happen now that he's back. So at most what we've got here is a second timeline, an alternate reality.

Bates' "resolution" also doesn't solve much of anything, as he leaves the hero worse off than he started, with the story's most disturbing issues unresolved. Remember how Superman said he was "tired of doing his thing?" How he was so bored of his very existence that he cussed out the healer for not letting him die? How he was ready to break his own code and commit suicide (an act which Bates himself -- in a later story -- says is a violation of his no-kill oath)? Well here at story's end he still remembers everything that happened, every year he lived, every experience he had as an old man. Which means even though he's lost the wrinkles and gray hair, he's even older now than he was in the year One Million. So what makes him so darned happy about enduring a second eternity, aside from the knowledge that a tiny slice of it will be spent in the company of his friends? If anything, this guy should be more depressed than ever. I know I am.

In all, I'd rate this one a miss, but a well-intentioned one. Bates gets bonus points for trying to do something memorable and interesting at a time when the character was running out of steam (the Julie Schwartz revamp was by now just months away) and Curt Swan and George Roussos serve up solid art, but the "hocus pocus" ending is a major letdown, and the general sense of mounting despair and depression is in no way relieved by that trite denouement.

I did kind of like the "Superman as Creator" bit, however lousy the science behind it, but ultimately, the covers are the best part of the whole epic, which was not all that uncommon a thing back in the day. Trust me, I remember. I'm old.