The TV Show That Menaced Metropolis!

In Action Comics #422 (Mar. 1973), writer Cary Bates and artists Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson explore the dangers of professional jealousy, excessive TV-watching and auto-immune systems that work a little too well.

Our story begins "16 years ago" when a "very wealthy couple" is blessed with a baby boy, only to have a team of doctors tell them the child must never, ever leave his room. Afflicted with an extraordinary ailment never seen before, the only safe course of action is lifelong quarantine. "Contact with the outside air," they warn, " -- even for a moment -- might cause disaster!'

Now we return to the present to find young Woodrow Nescott a teenager, having spent his life in his room with a television as his only "companion." As he waits for his favorite show, The Runaway, Woodrow watches WGBS correspondent Clark Kent reporting live from a Metropolis subway terminal.

As soon as Clark ends his report, a passenger is suddenly pushed from the platform into the path of an oncoming train. After creating a distraction for his camera crew, Clark changes to Superman and saves the imperiled passenger.

The other passengers recognize the intended victim as television actor Dan Marz, who plays "Police Agent Y-6" on Woodrow's favorite show. The Runaway, we learn, is the tale of "Rolf Kimb," an innocent man from the year 2272, wrongly convicted of a crime he didn't commit and fleeing Agent Y-6 by traveling back in time to the 20th Century.

Even now, young Woodrow is watching the latest episode of The Runaway, in which Agent Y-6 has just laid a trap for Rolf Kimb, one that will send Kimb back to the year 2272 to face execution. Beside himself with worry for his TV hero, Woodrow has an urgent question for his parents...

Woodrow's mom reassures him that the people he sees on TV are not real, but it just so happens that he recently saw Superman in action with his own eyes, saving a helicopter within view of his bedroom window, and prior to that sighting Superman -- a rather amazing character, you must admit -- had only been known to him through television. So if Superman isn't make-believe, Woodrow reasons, then his parents must be lying to him and everyone on TV is in fact real. And in that case, he has to warn Rolk Kimb of Agent Y-6's trap. So it is that Woodrow sets a fire in his room, activating an emergency door that allows him to escape his house for the first time in his life.

The next day, Clark Kent interviews actor Mac Nelson, better known as "Rolf Kimb," and learns that he's been let go from The Runaway, his own popularity having waned compared to audience favorite Dan Marz. The next episode, he tells Clark, will find his character returned to the future, allowing Agent Y-6 to take over the show. From his thought balloons, we learn it was he who pushed Marz into the path of the train, figuring the network would have to keep him on with Marz dead. Meanwhile outside his hotel window is an amazing sight:

Clark rushes off, ostensibly to cover the breaking story and, as Superman, tangles with the mysterious blob, which seems to be headed straight for a nearby hospital. Unable to land a decent punch on the gelatinous form, he finally settles for throwing it into Earth orbit. Looking on from the imperiled hospital are a group of doctors who know exactly what the "blob" really is. They reveal to Superman that it is in fact a single leucocyte -- or white blood cell -- from the body of Woodrow Nescott. This is the nature of the boy's disease; contact with the outside air makes his white blood cells quickly grow millions of times larger, endangering everything around them.

Meanwhile Mac Nelson is surprised to find young Woody Nescott climbing in through his hotel window, convinced he's really "Rolf Kimb". "You've got to listen to me!" warns Woody. "Agent Y-6 is out to get you...with an ultimate weapon!"

Convinced the boy is off his nut, Nelson exploits his delusions by asking him to deal with Agent Y-6. He hands Woody a "time reverser" prop from his TV show -- which unknown to the boy has been modified to fire real bullets -- and points him toward Metro Clinic, where Dan Marz is recovering from his fall in the subway. Shoot this at Y-6, he says, and he'll be sent to the future. Unfortunately for Nelson, however, Woody sustains a small cut from a thorny bush as he walks away, unleashing another monster.

In Dan Marz' hospital room, Woody is about to pull the trigger on the "time reverser" when the blob smashes through the window. Luckily Superman is close behind, grabbing the blob and sending it into orbit with its predecessor.

In an epilog, we learn Superman searched the galaxy for a cure to young Woody's ailment, finally locating an alien herb that did the trick, allowing Woody to live a normal life in the outside world. The Runaway program was re-titled The Cases of Agent Y-6 and went on to even greater popularity, and the murderous Mac Nelson was never heard from again, his body having been devoured by the giant white blood cell which will circle the Earth forever.

This is a solid entry from all concerned, really. Bates manages a real sense of tension, impressive given the silliness of the concept, and Nelson's demise is genuinely creepy. The plot is obviously inspired by the much-publicized plight of young Ted DeVita and David Vetter, boys whose lack of effective immune systems led to their living out their lives in artificially maintained isolation rooms, and whose stories would soon inspire the film, The Boy In the Plastic Bubble (starring an up-and-coming young superstar named John Travolta). In their case, exposure to the outside world would have brought quick death to themselves, but in the case of the fictional Woody -- whose immune system works too well -- it imperils everyone else.

The Runaway is an obvious nod to The Fugitive, right down to the "Rolk Kimb" name, an obvious take-off on David Janssen's "Richard Kimble" character. It wouldn't be the last time the show mixed with comics; in a couple of years CBS would combine the formula with super-heroics to produce the hit series, The Incredible Hulk.

It almost goes without saying that the art by Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson is top-drawer, and it's always fun to see our hero with the slightly longer hair and groovy long sideburns of the period.

Icing on the cake for this issue is the back-up feature, giving us the origin of the Human Target with great art by Dick Giordano. Throw in a typically gorgeous cover by the legendary Nick Cardy, and this is definitely one to seek out in the back-issue bins.