The Real Clark Kent!

In Superman #198 (July 1967), there's one mild-mannered reporter too many when writer Cary Bates and artist Al Plastino introduce Superman to "The Real Clark Kent!"

As we begin our tale, a ragged figure in tattered clothes makes his way through the countryside near Metropolis, intent on reaching the offices of the Daily Planet. A few hours later, he reaches his goal, bursting in on an astonished Lois Lane, Perry White and Clark Kent. The intruder is a dead ringer for Clark, except for the addition of an unruly beard, and in his hand is an odd-looking pistol.

"A gun can't hurt you, can it, Superman?" snarls the Clark lookalike, " But this x-ray gun can expose your identity! Your days of impersonating me are over!" Shining a beam onto Clark's chest, a familiar red "S" symbol is revealed beneath his shirt.

Trying to exercise a bit of damage control, Clark escorts his bearded twin from the office and, changing to Superman, takes him to a remote location to quiz him on just who he is and how he came to know the world's most closely guarded secret. Bearded Clark bitterly insists that Superman already knows the answers, but tells his tale anyway: Superman, says bearded Clark, arrived on Earth from another world three years earlier, intending to do evil. To further his plans, he sought to establish a secret identity by taking the place of an Earth man, and found in Clark Kent an exact double for himself. Superman, he claims, then whisked him off to a secret hideout in the mountains, chaining him up with a supply of food and water but little else, and thereafter impersonating him at the Daily Planet.

And so it remained until a few days ago, when an earthquake freed the captive Clark, by now sporting a full beard and tattered clothes. Free at last of his bonds, Clark grabbed an x-ray projector gun from Superman's "collection of scientific devices" and set off on his mission to expose his former captor.

Having heard enough, Superman tells bearded Clark he's got the wrong guy, and to prove it he takes him to his real hideout, the Fortress of Solitude, where he plays newsreels of himself in action as Superboy in Smallville, putting to the lie those claims that he's only been on Earth for three years. Clark is confused, but Superman has a theory:

Of course this means that somewhere out there, there really is an evil Superman running around, so the Earth-1 version decides to do something about it. Traveling to the mountain where the duplicate Clark claims he was held, they find no sign of his prison, nor traces of a recent quake, but Superman does detect lingering radiation from the inter-dimensional warp Clark passed through. Analyzing the radiation, Superman recreates the "proper vibrational speed to break through the dimensional barrier" and together they travel to the parallel Earth, where they find a near-exact duplicate of Metropolis. Leaving the bearded Clark safely behind, Superman dresses in his own Clark Kent clothing and heads off to meet his evil twin.

Evil Superman spots Earth-1 Clark and, mistaking him for the Clark of his own Earth, grabs and threatens him. To his astonishment, the reporter fights back with super-strength and knocks the evil Superman for a loop. Evil Superman retaliates with a blast of heat vision, burning off Clark's clothing to reveal the Earth-1 Superman.

Now comes a two-and-a-half page fight between the rival Men of Steel. But don't get too excited. Imagine the possibilities when two Superman face off in no-holds barred combat at full power, and whatever you picture, it'll be more interesting than what Bates and Plastino deliver here. After exchanging a few punches, our Superman notices his evil counterpart is beginning to weaken, which strikes him as odd. From then on, he takes relish in pounding on his foe, even trying his hand at Batman-like wisecracks, with weak results.

In due course, the Evil Superman is out of the fight, but Superman is just getting warmed up. Cutting a swath of destruction through Metropolis, he topples skyscrapers and -- it seems -- kills scores of innocent citizens as terrified bystanders look on. Watching from a nearby peak, the duplicate Clark is left to wonder just which Superman won the fight, after all.

With Metropolis in ruins, Superman delivers the coup de grace, digging deep into the Earth and emerging with two sizable chunks of uranium, to which he applies super-pressure and heat vision before smashing them together, creating an atomic blast that disintegrates the city.

As the mushroom cloud dissipates, Superman calls out to persons unseen. "Whoever you are -- I'm onto your schemes! Show yourselves!" A flying saucer materializes, piloted by members of the Superman Revenge Squad. It is revealed that the "Parallel Earth" was a ruse on their part, their ersatz Metropolis populated entirely with lifeless androids. Superman suspected as much, his suspicions having first been aroused when the "captive Clark" showed up with a sunburn despite supposedly having spent the previous three years locked up in a cave. Then, he noticed that the evil Superman had a body temperature of only 60 degrees, as did all the "residents" of "Metropolis." Finally, the "city" itself was "too bright and new" with none of the "erosion and dust" of the genuine article.

As to the reason for this subterfuge, the Revenge Squad team reveals they've encircled the duplicate Earth with a string of satellites which together have enveloped the planet in an impenetrable force field to "isolate this dimension from all others" and trap the Man of Steel forever. The fake Metropolis and bogus Superman were designed to distract him long enough for the force shield to be constructed.

Reasoning that the Squad members must have left an escape route for themselves, Superman follows their ship and finds an opening in the dimensional barrier. He scoots through the hole ahead of their ship and in trying to follow him they are destroyed.

All that's left now is to fix the little matter of an exposed identity, which Superman does by convincing the Planet staff that his doppleganger was merely a "publicity-seeking crackpot" and the "x-ray gun" was actually a hand-held projector that can make it seem anyone is wearing a Superman suit.

And so ends another tale. It's anyone's guess why the Squad's ruse succeeded for so long, considering all it would've taken to expose it was for Clark/Superman to inspect his bearded duplicate with x-ray vision, and spot him as an android. Considering how often Superman x-rays new acquaintances with no provocation whatever ("Great Scott! The new guy is wearing a futuristic costume under his clothes!"), it's an especially odd lapse.

Also, it's odd that the Squad should have given their fake Clark a suntan, when logically their guide in creating him should have been an image of the genuine article, who's never had a tan. I suppose you could argue that as aliens they didn't appreciate the subtle gradations in human skin tones, but if that's the case why didn't their fake Superman also have a tan, since they know he and Clark are the same man?

Finally, it's pretty disturbing to watch Superman's wild rampage against the fake Metropolis, and the way he trashes scores of androids who -- it is made clear in the story -- believe they are human and alive and thus feel genuine terror at Superman's actions. In one sense, it's just one of many instances where Superman refuses to accord mercy to artificial life forms in the belief that man-made life is no life at all, but it also raises unsettling questions about just what's going on in that super-mind of his. He takes such relish in laying waste to the fake Metropolis that you wonder about the pent-up aggressions and darker impulses at work in his psyche the rest of the time.

Ultimately, this is for me another of those issues where the cover is the best part of the deal, and brother what a cover it is, delivered by the stellar team of Curt Swan and George Klein. The story may, contrary to its promise, deliver a fake Clark Kent, but when it comes to Silver Age DC awesomeness, that cover is the real deal.