You, Too, Can Be A Super-Artist!

Elsewhere, I've looked at the back-up tale from Superman #211 (Nov 1968), a quirky 7-pager that claimed the cover honors despite its brevity and position in the back of the book. Now all is explained as we consider the issue's lead feature, "You, Too, Can Be A Super-Artist," a longer and even sillier story that fails the "cover-worthiness" test by offering not a single plot development that might conceivably sell a book, and precious few that don't strain credulity past the breaking point.

Writer (and artist, just not here) Frank Robbins starts us off at the Daily Planet, where Jimmy Olsen is completing an assignment for a correspondence course in cartooning (and while we're on the subject, the art for this story is provided by Ross Andru).

Yes, Jimmy, but the point is you're doing it on company time. Snippy little pup, isn't he?

Readers of the period would have been familiar with this sort of thing, thanks to ads offering fame and fortune to young artists who could duplicate intricate, challenging line art like this portrait of Tippy the Turtle.

Coincidentally, an aspiring young cartoonist named Tony Van Dyck is waiting in the Planet's outer office, hoping to meet with the comics editor. As the editor is out sick, Clark Kent agrees to review the kid's portfolio, which includes a strip called "Super-Ape." As it happens, Tony's art is lousy, and when Clark asks where he studied, Tony produces a diploma from the "E.M.M. (Every Man a Michelangelo) School of Art," the same school Jimmy's enrolled in.

On a hunch, Clark submits his own application to the school, using his left hand to deliberately create the worst drawing he can. Sure enough, he receives an acceptance letter praising the "extreme promise shown in your entry sketch" and asking for $50 up front as a down-payment on a 6-month course.

Smelling a rat, Clark changes to Superman and spies on the school with his x-ray vision. His suspicions are quickly confirmed:

Showing up at the school for some in-person lessons, Clark is given a smock and beret and directed to copy a portrait of Superman. Instead, for some odd reason, he uses his x-ray vision to create a self-portrait in his Clark Kent guise:

The writing here is very confusing. It's unclear whether Clark is simply using his x-ray vision to see his reflection and paint a portrait based on that, or if those "light rays" going "through the wall" are somehow burning a photo-realistic image onto the canvas. (Also, why when told to paint Superman would he paint himself? Maybe he should just add the label, "Superman in his Secret ID" at the bottom). Anyway, the instructor is wildly enthusiastic about the results, and asks Clark to repeat his feat by copying a reproduction of the "Mona Lisa". This time he uses his telescopic vision to do the job, and again it's unclear whether he's painting or performing some kind of "magic vision" trick.

The director of the school marvels, "It looks like a perfect copy of the reproduction..." and the instructor corrects him: "A copy...of...the reproduction? It is exactly like the original! The patina...the glazes over the subtle underpainting...everything!"

Now Clark is awarded a private studio and directed to reproduce Gainsborough's "Blue Boy" and Rembrandt's "Night Watch." Whatever trick he used to copy the "Mona Lisa" isn't good enough for this assignment ("There are certain secrets I must know...that only the artists themselves can tell me!"), so Clark changes to Superman and travels back in time.

Our hero emerges from the time stream in 1759, only to be caught in the tale of Haley's Comet, which apparently has a rainbow-like quality (having missed it myself, I'll take Frank Robbins' word for it). "Hurtling through the intense wave-length of the blue spectrum, the Man of Might emerges," conveniently on the same block where Thomas Gainsborough lives. Though he doesn't realize it yet, Superman has been de-aged to Superboy, and his skin has been turned blue. This inspires Gainsborough, who has him pose for a painting...

"Obviously I cannot use your features," explains the artist. "Who would believe an all BLUE boy?" Just to review, then: Gainsborough can paint a perfect representation of period clothing when his model is actually wearing spandex and a cape, and he can add realistic flora in the background purely from memory, but it's totally beyond him to substitute flesh tones for light blue when painting his model's face? Riiiiight...

Now it's back into the time-barrier and on to the year 1682 to visit Rembrandt Van Rijn. By happy coincidence (ahem) this coincides with another visit from Haley's Comet and, passing this time through the entire spectrum of its blazing tail, Superman douses himself in all the other colors while avoiding the blue, thus restoring his skin to its normal appearance. Of course. (Note to scientists: the comet-rainbow is "created by the condensation-reaction to [the comet's] fiery path across the heavens." ). He's also back to adult size ("I'll never know what mysterious forces caused those size changes!" he thinks, and all things considered, I think I like "oh well, who knows?" better than Robbins' "scientific explanations." )

It will come as no great shock to learn Superman just happens to run into Rembrandt, who makes him one of the figures in "Night Watch." Now it's back to 1968 and the E.M.M. art school, where Clark finishes perfect copies of the two assigned paintings. Later, the director of the art school stages a series of deliberately botched, highly publicized "robbery" attempts at the museums housing the real "Mona Lisa," "Night Watch" and "Blue Boy," and tries to convince a shady buyer that Clark's fakes are the originals, which he says were in fact successfully stolen and replaced with forgeries. Just then, however, Clark Kent shows up with the police to ruin the party:

Clark points out the errors he deliberately committed in each painting: the "Mona Lisa" is "signed" by Leonardo DaVinci (who never signed his paintings), a figure in "Night Watch" has been given a bongo instead of a military drum, and "Blue Boy" holds his hat in the wrong hand. "Captain," he says to the ranking policeman on the scene, "We have enough here to convict these gentlemen! Be sure and return the money from their con game to the students, too!"

Happy endings all around as young Tony Van Dyck, the aspiring artist, is told that his "Super Ape" strip will be running on the Planet's comics page after all. As it turns out, his art may be lousy, but his writing is terrific.

This story is so nutty it would make even Bob Haney ask WTF? What exactly does Clark think the art school staff will be charged with? Selling duplicates of famous paintings? That's hardly illegal. Forgery? He just announced to the police that he's the forger. And as he points out, no serious buyer would be fooled by the fakes, anyway. As "sting" operations go, this one's a total misfire.

I guess the "villains" could be arrested for orchestrating those failed "art heists" at the museums (which happen off-panel, so I don't know if they involved breaking and entering, or what), but if Clark hadn't presented himself as a master forger and planted the idea in the first place, these guys might have been content to run their penny-ante "art school" scam forever. Even then, "scam" is a relative term: they get their money, so they're happy; the "artists" get a diploma, so they're happy. Where's the crime? Granted their grads are unlikely to ever get a job as artists, but if you went around arresting every school administrator who handed out diplomas to unqualified graduates, the entire U.S. educational system would collapse.

This one starts out promisingly, but soon goes south for me. As comic masterpieces go, it's less "Mona Lisa" than "Dogs Playing Poker." Personally, I think I'd have preferred Tony's "Super Ape" comic.