Wonder-Man, The New Hero of Metropolis!

In Superman #163 (Aug. 1963), writer Edmund Hamilton and artists Curt Swan and George Klein present what promises to be a standard Silver Age tale of misdirection, fake-outs and neurotic behavior but ends up a surprisingly moving tale of loyalty and sacrifice.

We open with Clark Kent leaving the Daily Planet offices, ostensibly to take a vacation but in reality to perform a series of time-consuming super-feats on behalf of mankind. His first stop is "deep in the Earth beneath a western city," where he rigs up a defense against an impending earthquake. Then it's off to a new "experimental nuclear power station in Metropolis." Superman has agreed to turn the reactor on himself, so that if it blows up, no one will be harmed. But before he can act, a mysterious new figure enters the picture, dressed in his own heroic costume and cape and introducing himself as "Wonder-Man."

Wonder-Man does Superman's job for him, erecting a lead shield around the reactor, then braving lethal radiation when the reactor does in fact begin to crack open. On a hunch, Superman checks Wonder-Man to see if he's a robot of some kind, but he isn't, so Superman is left as much in the dark as everyone else as Wonder-Man flies off again.

Superman heads to his arctic Fortress of Solitude to see if perhaps Wonder-Man is a resident of Kandor, somehow enlarged to normal size. When that hunch doesn't pan out, he checks the Phantom Zone for missing prisoners, but they're all accounted for. Meanwhile Wonder-Man continues to perform super-feats to the appreciation of Metropolis' citizens. However, as soon as he and Superman have a moment alone together, Wonder-Man produces a hunk of kryptonite from his cape, telling Superman to leave town and retire from the superhero biz.

"So in the days that follow," reads a caption, "Superman becomes half-forgotten and Metropolis honors Wonder-Man as its new hero!" Ingrates. As Wonder-Man waves to his adoring fans at a parade given in his honor, he thinks back on his origins. We learn he was once a Superman robot, the strongest of all, named Ajax. One day Superman sent him into space to investigate a passing meteor swarm. Once there, he discovered a space ship magnetically attached to one of the meteors and attempted a rescue. In the process, he was struck by a meteor and his robot body was destroyed. Waking later, he found his consciousness had been transferred to a new, android body indistinguishable from a human form, and imbued with super powers.

The operation was performed by the occupants of the rescued ship, who also gave him a costume of "super-durable fabric" and for good measure, presented him with a chunk of Green-K as insurance, just in case "Superman gets jealous." Apparently Kal-El's reputation has gotten around.

The flashback sequence ends as the perennially accident-prone Lois and Jimmy manage to snag the rotors of the Flying Newsroom helicopter in a parade banner, and plunge toward the street. Wonder-Man saves them before Superman can, and is so taken with Lois' beauty that he proclaims his love on the spot. That's the last straw; Superman dejectedly slinks out of town and heads for "the one place that's mine alone...my Fortress of Solitude!"

Once there, however, he's confronted by the waiting Wonder-Man. They have a titanic battle, throwing each other into and through mountains, but Wonder-Man produces his kryptonite and Superman is overcome. "You...won't get away with...this..." gasps the Man of Steel. "Supergirl...or one of my robots...will...avenge my...murder..."

Wonder-Man streaks away, and a space ship lands near the dying Superman; the same ship saved earlier by Ajax/Wonder-Man. Its occupants reveal themselves as the originators of the Superman Revenge Squad, and relate how they'd engineered the meteor swarm in space hoping to lure Superman into a Kryptonite trap. When Ajax the Superman robot appeared instead, they crashed a meteor into his body, then transferred his mind into a super-android body figuring "they're bound to battle in time!" (Again, that dead certainty that Superman is the jealous, resentful type). Now their planning has paid off, as Superman lays dying.

Suddenly Wonder-Man swoops in, picks up the Kryptonite and throws it away, revealing that he's known the villains' plans since his first hour as an android, having used his x-ray vision and super-hearing to eavesdrop on their conversations before coming to Earth. Knowing they would show up to watch Superman die in person, he pretended a rivaly with Superman and exposed him to the Green-K. Now, as the villains flee to their ship, Wonder-Man and Superman together throw the spacecraft into the cosmos so hard it will take years to stop.

Superman reveals he already knew Wonder-Man was one of his former robots because "When I told you that Supergirl or my loyal robots would avenge my death, I saw tears drop from your eyes." Um...yeah, of course, what other conclusion could you logically reach? Only why would Wonder-Man cry when he knew good and well Superman was not going to die? More importantly, if he knew what the Revenge Squad had planned for Superman, why stage an elaborate hoax to draw them out, putting Superman through mental anguish and exposing him even briefly to deadly kryptonite? Logically all he'd have needed to do was nab the villains as soon as he heard their plans, while they were still far out in space.

Okay, so in that regard this is a standard Silver Age Superman tale, relying on a convoluted, overly complicated and ultimately unnecessary hoax. But there's a last twist to the tale, as Superman moves beyond feeling threatened by the presence of a super-rival and offers to team up with Wonder-Man "as equal partners together." Sadly, Wonder-Man reveals he won't be around to enjoy the partnership. The villains made his android body so that it would die within the span of a few days. Having known from the start that his time was limited, Wonder-Man was determined to do as much good for mankind as he could before checking out.

It's this ending, I think, that elevates Hamilton's story to something special and memorable. Of course he's greatly aided by the powerful artwork of Swan and Klein; the big battle between rival heroes is tame stuff indeed compared to the frenetic, bone-shaking visuals in Marvel comics of the time, but when it comes to emotion and pathos Swan and Klein had no equal, and this is ultimately an emotional tale. Last week my six- and four-year-old sons asked me to read them a comic and I picked this one at random. I was surprised to find that in the last two panels, I started to choke up.

And so in Superman #163 we have probably the single best take on two recurring Silver Age Superman themes; the "I'm being replaced by that new guy" story and the "robot sacrifices himself for his master" story. The result is one of the stronger and more memorable Superman tales of the entire era.