The President of Steel!

In Action Comics #371, (Jan. 1969), Superman forgets what his secret identity is and -- seeing no evidence to the contrary -- comes to the same logical conclusion any amnesia victim would; he must of course be the President of the United States.

Otto Binder pens this tale of Oval Office oddness, the first of what will prove to be a four-part, meandering filibuster of forgetfulness, with art by penciller Curt Swan and inker Jack Abel.

As we kick off, Clark Kent is working late in his office, tinkering with a super-computer brought from another dimension by Superman and given to the Daily Planet as a gift. While he dictates his analysis of the device into a tape recorder, an intruder sneaks in and slugs him from behind. To preserve his secret identity, Clark pretends to be knocked out, but as he slumps onto the machine it shines a strange ray on his head and erases his memory.

Planning to assume the mild-mannered reporter's identity, Clark's mysterious attacker places him in a remote-controlled helicopter and sends it flying away to crash outside the city. He's unharmed of course, but still suffering amnesia and now further disoriented by strange surroundings.

Donning a turtleneck sweater and slacks he finds in an abandoned cabin, Superman makes his way to Metropolis and starts searching for a clue to his past. When that doesn't pan out, he flies to Washington, DC, on the off chance that maybe the President knows his secret identity.

At the White House, Superman is turned away by a guard who tells him the Commander in Chief is not at home. Indeed, his location is top secret. With his super-hearing, Superman overhears conversations around the Capitol, as rumors fly that the President, unseen for three days, is in fact missing, his absence covered up by high-ranking officials. For Superman the math is simple; he doesn't know who he is, the President is missing, therefore he is the President. (Good thing he didn't visit the Air and Space Museum first, or he might've decided he was Amelia Earhart).

Of course his theory needs positive confirmation, so he flies into an open window of the White House to check "the Presidential wardrobe." "If the clothes fit," he reasons, "I'll know I'm right." It's an air-tight theory, I'm sure you'll admit.

Well, there you have it, the clothes are a "pretty good fit." Case closed. There's a quaint charm to revisiting a time when publishers were worried about "the dignity of the office of the President," not to mention a time when such a thing actually existed. But it's hard to imagine this illustration didn't resemble "any known political figure." I mean, "middle aged white guy" pretty much describes 99% of elected officials, then and now. And I hate to break it to Superman, but by duplicating that photo in the mirror, isn't he parting his hair on the wrong side?

Telling the shocked White House guards that "a special detail of secret service men brought me from the airport through the back entrance," the super-president settles into his daily routine at the White House.

Here Superman charmingly demonstrates his connection to average Americans by displaying the grasp of history we're so famous for. Oh you know, the presidents: Washington... Lincoln... Theodore Roosevelt... um... uhh... and the rest. And maybe it's just me, but somehow I imagined the portrait gallery being a bit more grand. Also, check out those secret service men. What do you want to bet they're saying, "Um...were you in the detail that brought him from the airport?" "No, I thought you were." "Hmm..."

Soon after, "a crisis occurs in the presidential office..." as they so often do. But this one's a biggie: The machine that duplicates the President's signature has broken down, and there are hundreds of letters to be signed! President Superman sends his secretary off on a coffee break and signs all the letters at super-speed, simultaneously fixing the machine with his heat vision.

Then comes an even bigger crisis:

Well, I should hope you DID call Superman! My heavens, a child trapped in a museum exhibit! Are you sure you don't need the whole Justice League? Well, either way, good job barging in on the President of the United States to let him know about it.

Arranging a limo ride to the Washington Monument, President Superman takes a ride to the top, his secret service detail ensuring he's alone in the elevator. Temporarily disabling the elevator car, the President changes to Superman and flies out of the top of the monument ("I'll repair this hole when I return!") and zooms off to the Smithsonian. After rescuing the tyke, Superman decides to take her on a tour of the museum to calm her nerves.

Well, okay, so maybe it was a small horse, but if it's on display in the Air and Space Museum it must have been able to fly, right? Let's see a stuck-up full-size Palomino do that!

That evening, a special ball is held for foreign and American correspondents, and an official announces, "It's the custom, Mr President, for you to choose a partner from among the girl reporters for the first dance!" (Wonder where that tradition started? COUGH!-Clinton!-COUGH!). Naturally, he picks Lois Lane ("That one attracts me! I wonder why?" Don't we all.) "Did you say you work for the Daily Planet?", he asks as they dance. "Where is that?" (suggesting it's not such a famous paper as other tales would have us believe).

The dance is interrupted when "Clark Kent" cuts in (actually it's foreign agent Zero-Zero, the impostor who slugged Clark in the opening scenes) and then an even ruder interruption occurs when an enemy spy lobs a grenade at the Commander In Chief. "Your death will leave America leaderless!" he yells, "Then my country will strike!" (Soon all your children will be locked in vintage space capsules and your copier machines will have faulty wiring! Without a President to solve these crises, America will be on its knees!)

The fake Clark catches the grenade and hurls it out a window, earning himself a commendation.

That night, Superman hears a coded message being transmitted from a ship at sea. It's from the real President, informing Congress that his secret meeting is accomplished -- a treaty having been signed -- and he is ready to return to Washington.

Flying to the aircraft carrier where the President is in temporary residence, Superman explains his impersonation and his dilemma. The President thanks him for helping cover his absence, but has no answer to the mystery of Superman's true alias. Flying the ship back to America, Superman waves goodbye and gets back to the business of recovering his lost memory...

What to say about a story like this? There's a certain kitschy charm in the sheer audacity of the concept, but by 1969 this brand of hi-jinx must have seemed pretty worn out. This is the kind of tale you'd expect to find crammed into the back of a 50s Superman issue and played more or less for laughs, but here it's supposed to be high drama.

Across town at Marvel in January 1969, Iron Man was locked in battle with the Hulk, Thor was facing off against Galactus and the Fantastic Four teamed with the Inhumans to reclaim their refuge from Maximus. Meanwhile here's Superman stuck in the same sort of story he'd been doing for years, a story the conclusion of which is never really in doubt, where no one's in any real peril (except the girl in the capsule, who could've been saved by the fire department) and the whole enterprise is neutered by a sense of whitewashed fantasy (when the FF called the President, Nixon answered...the cipher in this story never even gets a name).

Curt Swan is in a fairly experimental mode with page layouts here, beginning to stretch his wings a bit to adopt a modified style for the 70s. His efforts are undercut somewhat by Jack Abel's inks, which are competent but lackluster.

The cover's pretty cool on this one, but this is far from the most exciting White House tour we've been on. But hey, I never promised you a Rose Garden.