The THING from 40,000 AD

From the pages of Superman #87 (Feb. 1954), writer Bill Finger and artist Wayne Boring bring us this tale incorporating elements of 1950s sci-fi cinema and giving the Atomic-Age Superman a rare run for his money in terms of physical combat.

As our story opens, it is night, and a mysterious light is observed streaking through the sky not far from Metropolis. Whatever it is that's generating the light, it crashes in a wooded area and disintegrates to nothingness.

From the crash site oozes a sentient blob of protoplasm capable of taking the form of any living thing it encounters, beginning with a tree, then a rabbit and, when the Army arrives to investigate, a soldier.

From the creature's thought balloons, we learn it has arrived here not from space, but from Earth of the far future...40,000 AD to be exact.

Superman arrives to help the Army and notices two soldiers with identical features. Before he can investigate, he's distracted by a burning truck full of explosives, giving the disguised creature a chance to escape. Searching for clues, Superman finds the crash crater, a trail of slime leading to a hole where a tree once stood, and rabbit tracks that change to human footprints. "The super-intelligence of the Man of Steel," we are told, "divines the fantastic answer!" Yep, a regular Sherlock Holmes, that one.

Across the city, a series of strange robberies occur. Strange because the robbers are apparently trusted citizens with access to the stolen goods, and also because the victims insist on describing the robbers' actions to them:

Gotta love that classic comic book exposition. "Hello, darling, you're awake and have your suit on already!" "Yes, honey, and you're preparing a breakfast of bacon and eggs! Soon you'll be serving it to me!" "Yes, because you're always hungry at this hour. Here is the paper we receive every morning."

Clark Kent asks to be assigned to cover the robberies, having reasoned that the true perpetrator is the shape-shifting creature. However, Lois Lane gets the job and Clark is instead sent to report on the world's largest synthetic diamond. As luck would have it, the creature is on the scene and makes itself into a duplicate Clark, punching out the diamond's owner and hauling off the giant, ersatz gem in a moving van.

Superman confronts the creature, which we learn is using the stolen items to fashion a time machine so it can return to the future and defeat the humans who banished it. The creature takes Superman's form and a titanic struggle ensues.

The combatants are evenly matched in terms of strength, but Superman gambles that the creature does not share his invulnerability, and maneuvers it towards an H-Bomb test site just in time for the bomb to go off.

"That H-Bomb finished my rival...he couldn't adapt himself..." Uh-huh. In other words, you killed him. Gotcha. As ever, Superman's code against killing proves highly adaptable. Basically the further you are from human, the more likely Superman is to toast you with a clear conscience.

This is a fast-paced story with solid art by Wayne Boring and a rare physical match for Superman. It's also very much a product of 1954, what with the flying saucer angle and story elements prefiguring two sci-fi cinema classics: The Blob (1958) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). And of course there's the chilling cameo by the dreaded H-Bomb, very much on everyone's mind at the time.

Someone must have liked the story, because it was reprinted in Superman #196 (May 1967), and while reprints were not such a rare thing back in the day, they usually didn't get a second go-round as the lead story, earning the cover spotlight twice. Not that I'm complaining, mind you. Curt Swan's cover art on the reprint (using the exact same text as the earlier issue, and similar poses) is among my favorites from the Silver Age.