Showcase Presents Superman Volume 4, written by Jerry Siegel, Edmond Hamilton, Leo Dorfman and others; illustrated by Curt Swan, Al Plastino and others (1962-63; collected 2008): By the early 1960’s, Superman was about as unhip as a hero could be. His ‘normal’ adventures relied on Kryptonite and annoyances to drive the plot — Superman was too powerful to ever have a fight with anyone who could actually hurt him. By the time of the stories in this collection, the new, more character-driven approach of Marvel had finally hit the stands, signalling a sea-change in superhero writing. By the late 1960’s, Marvel would surpass DC in sales, and DC would gradually start to Marvelize Superman, giving him more human doubts and the occasional stab at a personal life.
To get around the self-imposed limitations of the early 1960’s, the writers and editor Mort Weisenger turned to more and more ‘Imaginary Stories’ (the DC designation, not mine). These ‘What if?’ stories depicted the Supermen of alternate universes, facing problems and situations too grim or different for the ‘real’ Superman. A number of ‘Imaginary Stories’ appear in this fourth Silver Age Superman Showcase volume, including one of the two or three best from the period, the ‘Novel-length’ (that is, 24-page) “The Amazing Story of Superman-Red, Superman-Blue.’
In this dandy alternate tale, a frustrated Superman uses a machine meant to boost his IQ so as to make problem-solving easier. Instead, the machine splits him into identical twin, super-IQ versions of himself (the machine also helpfully creates red- and blue-dominant versions of his classic costume for them!). The super-charged Supermen proceed to solve all the world’s problems, allowing them to retire from active super-heroing. It’s a wild ride, deepened by the Clockwork-Orange-type stripping of free will from the Earth by an Anti-Crime ray developed by the Supermen. This odd little slice of utopia would inspire a lot of later comic-book writers in various ways, including Alan Moore in the conclusion to his Marvelman series.
There are other gems here, including a surprisingly poignant tale of Superman trapped at the end of the Earth, depowered by Earth’s now-red sun and desperately trying to get home. Luthor even gets one of his signature stories, as one story introduces the Luthor-loving world of Lexor, where Lex is the hero and Superman is the villain. Luthor was already in the process of changing into a super-scientist occasionally capable of good acts at this point, a characterization that would become predominant in the late 1960’s, 70’s and early 1980’s. That’s probably my favourite Luthor, by the way, green-and-purple battle armor notwithstanding. The volume concludes with the famous President Kennedy/Superman team-up (!) which hit the stands right around the same time as the assassination of JFK. Weird. Recommended.