The Soldier of Steel

Superman #216 (May 1969) is special for at least a couple of reasons. To my knowledge, it's the only Superman comic to deal with the Vietnam conflict while it was in progress, and it sports the only "Superman" cover illustrated by the great Joe Kubert (though he would later draw Superman with Hawkman for a chapter of JLA #200 and a Superman-Demon team-up for DC Comics Presents).

"The Soldier Of Steel" revolves around cowardly young G.I. "Johnny," who flies into a blind panic at the sound of enemy shelling and runs off into the jungle, deserting his comrades. The rest of his unit advances on foot with U.S. tanks close behind, when out of the jungle emerges a giant dressed in US Army fatigues, but definitely working for the other side.

"He's dressed like one of us..." yells one G.I. as he and his comrades are tossed hither and yon, "but he's fighting for the Cong!" "Yeah..." chimes in another soldier, "King Cong, that's him!" As they get their clocks cleaned, the GIs wish loudly for Superman's help. "What's Supie doin' NOW that's more important than keep us from bein' clobbered?", one yells. With the troops trounced, "King Cong" disappears again into the jungle, where a "sinister siren" awaits him, one Dr Han, a shapely female Viet Cong officer who rewards his rampage with a kiss on the cheek.

"Meanwhile" (says the caption), Clark Kent is reading mail from GIs complaining about Superman's lack of aid. Unless the US Postal Service of 1969 was as fast as e-mail in 2009, we'll assume these letters don't relate to "King Cong" per se. Either way, they must be pretty persuasive, because Clark decides to enlist.

It's anyone's guess why Clark feels he needs to enlist. It's not like he needs the Army to get him into ' Superman, he can fly there on his lunch break. Maybe he needs to be there as Clark so he can file a story, but again why enlist? If the great Ernie Pyle could report from the front as an "embedded journalist" in WWII, surely Clark could do it in 'Nam? Heck, even Dan Rather managed it. For me, enlisting just trivializes the contributions of real servicemen, since we already know Clark will ditch the Army as soon as this issue's done. Just to add insult to injury, Lois joins up as well, "to get the woman's point of view"(!!) Ever the protective, caring father-figure, Perry replies with a jaunty, "Why not, Lois?" (Tellingly, Jimmy Olsen doesn't appear in this story. As he's the only cast member of age for the draft, we'll assume he's hiding in the broom closet til this madness blows over).

After the obligatory "Superman gets a physical" sight gags, Clark is shipped out immediately to Vietnam (basic training is such a time-waster), where his troop carrier plane is shot down by enemy guns (no sign of Jane Fonda...I looked). Clark drops out of a hole in the fuselage and changes to Superman, catching the plane. Then he's drawn into battle with a battalion of enemy tanks, yielding this pretty cool scene:

Superman karate chops the tanks open, allowing our boys to run forward into battle with the VC (who we still haven't seen). There's a curious dependence on tanks throughout this story, with the VC in their "pajamas" and "rice-picker" hats not showing up until the very end. Maybe it's because it would've seemed unfair to pit Superman against mere mortals, but somehow tanks aren't the first thing I picture when I think of the Vietnam conflict. It's almost like they really wanted to write a Sgt Rock crossover but couldn't figure out how to get Superman back to WWII.

Anyway, with the tanks out of commission, Superman switches to Clark and does his thing as a medic. Meanwhile Dr Han explains to us that "secret jungle herbs" are responsible for G.I. Johnny's transformations into "King Cong." They "alter the density of his body...and create an aura that changes the size of his costume, too! He is sometimes a cowardly soldier -- and sometimes a raging giant...doing my bidding!"

The next day, Johnny invites Clark to an orphanage where he finds Lois caring for the local orphans. They are hopeful Superman will somehow come visit them for Easter, and flush with the spirit of the holiday, they break into a rendition of "Here Comes Peter Cottontail" (I am not making this up). Lois meanwhile is suffering from early stages of a jungle fever.

The orphanage comes under enemy mortar fire and Clark changes to Superman (Lois, growing more feverish, witnesses the change from a window). Superman "spears the soaring shells with his bare hands -- and like a super-pitcher rockets them back into the barrels of the enemy mortars." Fleeing, the Viet Cong moan, "W-we will never be able to capture the orphanage with Superman there!" (As if capturing an orphanage full of singing pre-schoolers is key to the war effort. I can only assume this is an attempt to demonize the VC, like that line in a Captain Marvel story where the evil Captain Nazi reports to Hitler, "My invasion of America is going wonderfully, Mein Fuhrer. Already I have killed an old man and crippled a little boy!" "Güt...Güt!!")

Superman is called into a meeting with General Morely (the comics version of Westmoreland, no doubt) and is given a briefing on the enemy giant. Morely studies a photo and realizes King Cong is wearing "my West Point ring...the one I gave to -- to -" and then he realizes the truth (because really, how many West Point rings could there be in the world, right?). His heart breaking, the General puts his troops and country first..."My order still stands! Destroy him, before he can do any more harm!" (here the hippie readers nod, "Just like a soldier to throw his own son under the bus").

Soon after, King Cong shows up at another battle, ripping the treads off a U.S. tank and using it as a whip. Superman confronts him, but mercifully just throws him into the jungle, where he reverts to Johnny. As he does, he regains his memory and realizes his father is among the troops under fire. As Superman digs a pit and the VC tanks fall in, Johnny emerges from the jungle behind the Viet Cong troops and opens fire. His love for his father has turned him from coward to hero, and away from Dr Han's eleven jungle herbs and spices, he will stop changing to King Cong.

With father and son reunited, Superman makes the orphans' wish come true, visiting them for Easter and helping put on a show. With super-breath, he blows them around in Ferris-Wheel-fashion as they happily sing, "Here comes Peter Cottontail..." (again, I'm not making it up).

Lois recovers from her illness and decides the sight of Clark changing to Superman was a fever-induced hallucination. But when she hears Johnny praising Clark for his great courage as a combat medic, she decides she may still be delirious. Clark however has made his point, and having done so will have quit the Army by the next issue, like it's as easy as cancelling your membership in the Book of the Month Club.

So the Vietnam conflict turns out to be a font of great superhero hijinks, girlfriend fake-outs and holiday singalongs. And yet somehow Superman never made it back again. Go figure.