The Trial of Superman

Among the many things that separated Silver Age comics from their modern day counterparts was their mission to educate as well as entertain. The sleuths, scientists and space travelers who populated DC's roster were forever slipping us useful tidbits of information about chemistry, astronomy, geology, meteorology, zoology, mythology, history, you name it. The stories expanded our vocabularies, while sidebars and text pieces threw in science lessons and "hobby hints" features taught us how to build kites or bird houses. To paraphrase Bill Cosby, if you weren't careful, you just might have learned something.

So it is with"The Trial of Superman," Edmund Hamilton and Al Plastino's contribution to Action Comics 301 (June 1963). On the surface, it's a typical Silver Age Superman "mystery," but along the way it has all kinds of things to teach us.

In a nutshell, Superman convinces Lois he's killed Clark Kent, because Clark has been caught eavesdropping on crooks who plan to sell military secrets to an enemy spy. The idea is that if they think Clark is dead, they'll go ahead with their plans and Superman will have a chance to nab the spy. But meanwhile poor Lois believes Superman has committed murder and so the Man of Steel is put on trial and eventually found guilty. Everything works out in the end of course, but along the way I picked up at least a dozen helpful facts in as many pages...

Fact #1: Acid, when applied to glass, leaves markings that are invisible until exposed to x-rays.

Superman's employment of this little-known fact in turn reveals additional facts:

Fact #2: Acid cannot harm paint brushes.

Fact #3: With a bit of skill, your acid-on-glass painting can duplicate every color in Superman's costume, hair, flesh and eyes.

Fact #4: Superman has a LOT of skill. His super-speed painting is so lifelike, it fools a roomful of thugs into thinking it's alive and speaking, despite the fact that its lips don't move.

Fact #5: Superman admits to making "a super-fast trip for a certain acid," which makes him the first superhero to take an acid trip. Ahem.

As the trial gets under way, the members of the jury share their personal stories and bring us even more enlightenment. For instance we learn:

Fact #6: Just because you let your baby play on the sill of an open window in your skyscraper apartment doesn't mean he's not the most important thing in the world to you.

For the alert reader, this one fascinating panel yields even more information:

Fact #7: Babies will not always respond to your verbal commands

Fact #8: Whether you want to assign an actual name to your baby is entirely up to you.

The trial is speedy and rather one-sided, as Superman refuses to say anything in his defense, but along the way we gain a useful education in the workings of the legal system. For instance:

Fact #9: In a court trial the prosecutor gets to tell the defense attorney what to do and when to do it:

Everyone breathes a sigh of relief when Clark Kent shows up in Superman's cell, alive and well, the enemy agent having been captured and Superman's elaborate hoax now at an end. And so we learn...

Fact #10: It's okay to fake a murder, mislead a judge and jury and basically make a mockery of the legal system as long as your motives are pure.

Yep, no harm done, except maybe to poor Lois, who's spent the last few days (or more, it's not quite clear) mourning Clark Kent and dealing with the anguish of testifying against the man she loves on charges that could send him to prison for the rest of his life. Oh well, she'll get over it, but not before we learn...

Fact #11: Jimmy Olsen is kind of a jerk.

But what the heck, the old gal is already pretty cracked as it is. Indeed, the last panel shows us...

Fact #12: Even Lois Lane doesn't understand the workings of Lois Lane's mind.

I don't know about you, but I feel smarter just for having read this story.