The Tyrant Superman!

Superman is forced to step down and bequeath his "Champion of Earth" title to a replacement in Superman #172 (Oct. 1964), scripted by Edmond Hamilton and illustrated by Curt Swan and George Klein.

It all starts when Clark Kent is sent to Metropolis Observatory to interview astronomer Jay Black about an "interesting discovery." A green comet has been spotted which "will engulf countless planets, though not Earth, if it isn't turned back. Some of the planets may be inhabited by human beings!"

Lana Lang, covering the story for television, is uninterested, but Clark recognizes the comet and is filled with dread. With his powers of super-recall, he remembers his father Jor-El mentioning the comet when he (Kal-El) was only a toddler. Discussing his plans to relocate the entire family to Earth before Krypton's demise, Jor-El noted that "we'd be invulnerable to everything...except the radiation of that green comet!" And while it was true that he had calculated a possible means to undo the comet's effect, it could only be done through a method "too terrible to use."

Realizing his peril but determined to stop the comet anyway, Superman decides to appoint a successor to carry on for him in the event of his demise. Realizing he needs a Kryptonian for the job, he journeys to the Fortress of Solitude and contacts officials in the bottle city of Kandor, asking them to send the two young men who are in "the highest mental and physical condition." Soon the candidates make their exit from the bottle.

Using Green Lantern's power ring, Superman enlarges the two men, identified as Ar-Val and Bran-Een, and puts them through a series of tests to determine their fitness for the job. Ar-Val emerges as the clear winner, having "used his super-powers wisely" and in ways that would avoid harming any human bystanders.

With that settled, Superman flies off to deal with the comet and, although successful in reversing its course, loses his powers as feared.

With his strength fading fast, Superman barely makes it back to Earth and struggles mightily to lift the giant key to his Fortress, desperate to summon Ar-Val. With great effort, he completes the task, and presents Ar-Val with the indestructible Superman suit, taking a non-super spare costume for himself. Ar-Val flies him back to Metropolis, where he introduces the new Superman to Jimmy Olsen.

With that, the once-Superman walks sadly away: "Goodbye, Jimmy...You'll never know how much your friendship meant to me...but I've lost my super-powers!" To his credit, Jimmy doesn't see what super-powers have to do with friendship, and promises to keep being a pal.

As news of the original Superman's retirement spreads, his friends and admirers express their sorrow, but not his enemies, who see in the arrival of a new, inexperienced Superman a chance to advance their agendas. Lex Luthor contacts Brainiac, who helps him escape from prison, though not without cost.

Hearing of Luthor's escape, Clark remembers threats Lex made against Lois and Lana, and goes in search of Ar-Val for help. He finds him constructing a massive "New Superman Arch" over the city, each end of which is anchored by a massive statue of himself. Ar-Val brushes off Clark's concerns, saying the news reports indicated Luthor was "mortally wounded," so why worry about him? What he can't know is that Brainiac has taken Luthor to his hideout in an abandoned mine-pit and healed his injuries instantly with his "Z-Ray" device.

Soon after, Ar-Val answers a call from Jimmy's signal watch and the cub reporter also warns him of Luthor's escape ("I know you'll want to go right after him!") but again he's not interested. "As I told Clark Kent," he barks, "I will NOT waste time chasing a dead crook! Don't call me again for such foolishness, or I'll take away your signal watch!" Then he flies off to construct a "new, bigger City Hall for Metropolis"...which just happens to be topped with another giant statue of himself.

Frustrated, Clark dons his spare Superman costume, determined protect Lois and Lana against Luthor and Brainiac. Jimmy insists "you can't go against them unless you have some super-powers" and uses his "time-force device" to contact the Legion of Super-Heroes in the 30th Century, so they can transfer their powers temporarily to the Man of Steel. The only heroes available are Saturn Girl, Cosmic Boy and Invisible Kid, so those are the powers he gets. For good measure, Jimmy lends Superman his Elastic Serum to give him stretching powers.

Since the vainglorious New Superman has gotten Metropolis authorities to make it a crime for anyone other than himself to wear a Superman costume, Jimmy makes up a new outfit for his pal, and brother is it a doozy.

Yeah, thanks Jimmy. Thanks a lot. I guess after all those years of super-pranks and cruel mind games, it's finally payback time, huh?

"Former Superman" was actually the second choice for a name, by the way. Hanna-Barbera had a legal claim to any "HB" logos, or he'd have gone with "Has Been." I wonder how this whole scene went over in 1964, but in a weird way it kind of fits 2010, where former somebodies are forever shuffling out of obscurity to star in shows like Celebrity Apprentice and Dancing With the Stars. I wouldn't put it past any of them to wear this outfit, which just screams, "Look at me! I used to be famous!"

Former Superman (sigh) takes off in the Flying Newsroom and uses his borrowed telepathy powers to locate the villains. Then he uses his invisibility to sneak up on them, but their giant robots capture him, anyway. "They must have sonar ears so they can find me even though they can't see me," he reasons. Uh-huh. Or maybe they heard that helicopter you arrived in. I'm just sayin'.

Former Superman's magnetism powers wreck some of the villains' machines, and his stretching powers almost save the day. Almost.

Rendered unconscious, Former Superman's temporary powers fade over the course of a few hours. He wakes to find himself a helpless prisoner, and worse, bait in a trap set for Lois and Lana.

Meanwhile, back in Metropolis, Ar-Val is still totally wrapped up in himself.

At a press conference, Ar-Val suggests journalists follow him to chronicle "A Day With The New Superman." When they do, a series of mishaps and near-disasters unfold, each of which Ar-Val rectifies with spectacular super-feats. Everyone is impressed (even fickle old Lois) except Jimmy, who's watched closely and noticed every crisis was created by Ar-Val using his super-powers, so he could show off his abilities.

Lois and Lana are handed a photo of the captive Former Superman, along with a note telling them to meet Luthor if they don't want him killed. Jimmy happens to see the message and pleads with Ar-Val to help. He's resistant until Jimmy threatens to expose his fakery, at which point he agrees to take Jimmy to the spot to which Lois and Lana were directed.

When they arrive, Brainiac grabs a kryptonite harpoon to impale the New Superman, but Former Superman leaps in front of him and is impaled on the harpoon instead. Furious, New Superman is ready to kill the villains until Jimmy reminds him of the Superman Oath. Instead, he bends a girder around them and, thinking fast, he and Jimmy use Brainiac's healing "Z-Ray" to restore the dying Former Superman to full health. Stepping outside with Jimmy, New Superman realizes what a heel he's been.

Deciding he's unfit to be Superman, Ar-Val contacts Jor-El's old friend Nor-Kan (still alive in Kandor) and learns Jor-El's terrible secret process for undoing the green comet's effects. Transporting Former Superman to the Fortress of Solitude's laboratory, he ties him to a post and initiates a process that will transfer the Superman powers back to their original owner, even though it means losing his life as the atoms of his body are turned to stone.

Lotsa luck, Ar-Val. Superman also promised to cure Mon-El of his lead poisoning, and it took a thousand years -- and another hero -- to make good on that one. And Mon-El didn't cross him like you did.

Isn't it neat how much you can get away with when you use that handy "Later..." box? How exactly would you remove a skin-tight shirt from a figure that's been turned to stone, with his arms straight down at his sides? And then re-dress that figure in another tight outfit? Sure it would help to have super-strength, but the object would be to make the transfer without breaking those stone arms clean off, right?

The bigger problem with this story comes earlier, however, and that is the use of Green Lantern's ring. Obviously this was the editor's way of dodging all those letter-writers who would say, "How can Ar-Val leave Kandor without someone else taking his place there?" (a rule in effect at the time). But it creates a much bigger problem. Why, if he has the ring, doesn't Superman simply use it to protect him from the effects of the comet? Or turn it away with the ring while he stayed at a safe distance? With a little common sense, this whole fiasco could have been avoided.

This story is yet another variation on a time-worn formula wherein Superman's status as Big Man in Metropolis is threatened by a newcomer, only to have his usurper revealed as somehow unworthy and being exposed (if evil), sacrificed (if noble) or deactivated (if a robot), or some combination thereof.

It all plays into the recurring (though not necessarily intentional) subtext of Superman's deep-seated insecurity and fear of rejection. Note that when he introduces Ar-Val to Jimmy, he tells him this is the guy who'll be answering the signal watch now, as if friendship itself is as transferable as a costume and title. Neither of the other two buy into this; Ar-Val sees no reason to adopt Jimmy as his "pal" just because he played that role for the first Superman, and Jimmy sees no reason to give up on his friend just because he has no powers. For Superman, however, super-powers seem to define his entire identity. Note that he never once considers living out the rest of his non-powered life in Kandor, where no one has powers, where he'd be revered anyway and where he could enjoy the lost culture of his homeworld. Also note that even Jor-El, who never even had super-powers, still considers their loss a terrible fate that only an equally terrible process can fix.

Personally, I'm not convinced that one screw-up on Ar-Val's part is worth dying for, especially since no one was hurt or killed by his mistake. Having learned his lesson, why not dedicate himself to being a better Superman, instead of deciding "I don't deserve to live"? I wonder, too, what happens after this story. Superman says that in his final act Ar-Val "proved to be the finest Superman of all," but does that mean he's going to let all those "New Superman" statues stay erected around Metropolis? Given his preoccupation with stone effigies of himself, it's ironic to see Ar-Val reduced to a statue himself at story's end. It might have been fun to see his frozen form in the background in later visits to the Fortress, propped up in a corner like a cigar store Indian.

Yes, yes, Batman, the giant penny is impressive, but I've got a dead guy in my trophy room. Beat that!