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
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
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
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.