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
"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 'Nam...as
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
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.