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Comics

A Forgotten Superman Story

Superman 205 cover
Superman #205-1968
Art by Neal Adams

Hidden behind a badly rendered cover by Neal Adams (Superman just ain't himself) is a story that DC conveniently forgot. It wasn't a dream. It wasn't a hoax. It wasn't even an imaginary story, but a poorly executed attempt to add yet another chapter to the already bloated Superman continuity.

The editor responsible for allowing this tale to hit the stands was none other than Mort Weisinger. Weisinger, a former literary agent, and editor at Standard Magazines, joined DC in 1941 and became the editor of the DC Superman titles in 1948-49 after Siegel and Schuster were ousted from the company. By all accounts, Weisinger wielded a large amount of power at DC (for a time he was also editor of Batman) and, as a result, was feared (and loathed) by many creators and rarely questioned. Weisinger also had one major editorial dictum: that something new be continually added to the Superman mythos to keep reader interest.

Superman 166 cover
Superman #166-1964
Art by Curt Swan

The editorial pressure to constantly develop new ideas and concepts led to a tremendously creative period for not only Superman, but the Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane solo titles, as well. There were some great stories created during this time, some of them deep and emotional (remember the story where Superman meets President Kennedy?). The concept of the Imaginary Story (which later became "Elseworlds") began during Weisinger's reign and Superman's personal life began to take some shape through the Jerry Siegel (albeit anonymously) scripted stories that examined the planet Krypton, Superman's lost loves and the personality of the Man of Steel. In fact, this period is so well remembered by fans that it is dubbed "The Weisinger Era" to set these stories off from those that preceeded and followed them.

Superman 175 cover
Superman #175-1965
Art by Curt Swan

The Weisinger Era, however, had a downside caused, in part, by the editorial belief of DC (and other publishers) that comics were for kids: particularly 8 year old boys, who would read comics until their early teens, and then move on to other pursuits. As a result, I don't believe that Weisinger, or his stable of writers (outside of Siegel), had a long-term vision for Superman. Superman was simply a character whose adventures existed solely to sell magazines to an audience who was easily distracted (hence the emphasis on "new" in nearly every issue) and had an interest in comics that would only last for five years or so. Yet, all the stories produced during the Weisinger Era were considered canonical, unless they were Imaginary Stories, and the Superman family of characters became loaded down with an increasing amount of excess baggage. Green Kryptonite, the fragments of Krypton that were deadly to Superman, began to crop up more often during this time and more types were added (I believe they stopped with six). The red variety of Kryptonite was particularly popular, since it caused Superman (or any Kryptonian) to transform and mutate in all sorts of different ways,leading to some extremely silly stories through the overuse of the concept. The single Bizarro, originally a sympathetic figure, became an entire planet of humorous, imperfect duplicates, who even had their own series in Adventure Comics. The number of survivors of Krypton multiplied beyond reason and Superman's family tree grew to bizarre proportions. Superman went to ever greater (and outrageous) lengths to protect his secret identity and also developed new powers and abilities at the drop of a hat. Over time, the lack of editorial planning resulted in numerous blunders, mistakes and just plain bad stories that made Superman less the Superhuman envisioned by Siegel and Shuster and more a Super-Dope of unlimited power, who had no control over the events around him.

One prime example of editorial blundering appeared in 1968: just under 2 years before Weisinger retired and Julius Schwartz took over the editorial reins and attempted to breath new life into the Man of Steel.

The Man Who Destroyed Krypton!
from Superman #205
Script by Otto Binder
Art by Al Plastino
The Splash Page
The Splash Page
Our story opens...

in CIA headquarters, where a meeting is taking place.

"Gentlemen! Earth is Doomed!", proclaims a word balloon and the next panel reveals that the President has called an emergency meeting.

Superman is mankind's only hope against extinction and he is expected to arrive from Metropolis in a matter of seconds.

In the next panel, Superman flies in, but is challenged at the gate by sentries, who ask him to show some credentials

"Credentials? You must be kidding!" answers Superman and he tunnels beneath the guards.

Then...
The Meeting
As the briefing continues...

we discover that Black Zero has purple eyes, a forked tongue and no fingerprints, leading one and all to the conclusion that he is an alien.

Agent 009 is brought into the room, or rather an urn filled with ashes: all that remains of him. A tape made by Agent 009 reveals that Black Zero is going to wipe out everyone on Earth with the "Secret in his brain!" but, before Agent 009 could reveal anymore, something incinerated him.

"We've completely lost the trail," says the head(?) of the FBI.

"Relax! No rat can dodge me for long!" says Superman and, using his super-hearing, detects a double heartbeat, leading to the asumption that Black Zero is in the room.

Suddenly...
The Flaming Hands
The Fortress of Solitude...
A panel showing the Fortress of Solitude that is obviously not in the artic.
Upon entering the fortress...

Superman takes the Inspector to his Super-Computer, where he inputs everything known about Black Zero. The computer does its thing and reveals that Black Zero is standing right beside Superman disguised as Chief Inspector Watkins. Superman is shocked as the Inspector explains his disguise (never does explain the double heartbeat), and then transforms into Black Zero.

Fearing that a battle might wreck the Fortress (yeah, the fate of the Earth is only at stake), Superman grabs a microphone and calls for assistance from the Superman Emergency Squad in the bottle city of Kandor. Black Zero takes the microphone from Superman, shouts into it in Kryptonese and then uses the flaming hands trick to keep the Kandorians from rocketing to Superman's aid.

And...
Black Zero reveals his past
Black Zero also reveals...

that he heard Jor-El tell of the impending explosion of Krypton's core.

Figuring he might have his work cut out for him, he checked Jor-El's findings and found that Jor-El was wrong: the core of Krypton was becoming stable once more.

Black Zero sent a ground-boring rocket with a nuclear fuse into Krypton's core and...

The result...
Krypton explodes and Superman grieves.
Superman...

flies into a rage and threatens to kill Black Zero, but then remembers his code against killing. Black Zero laughs, reminds Superman of the approaching deadline and fades out through a wall.

Superman is left with the ticking of a clock...

Suddenly...

Superman begins to hear voices, which turn out to be emanating from the Phantom Zone. Using a Phantom Zone viewer, Superman has a long conversation with Jax-Ur, who not only can tell Superman where Black Zero has his hideout (the Phantom Zone criminals can see any place on earth), but also wants vengeance for the destruction of Krypton. After a short digression explaining a sacred oath that all criminals on Krypton swore by (yet another new idea), Jax-Ur swears by the oath, is released from the Zone, and the pair head for Black Zero's hideout.

At the hideout...
Superman and Jax-Ur attempt to hypnotize Black Zero, but he is immune and sends a Red Kryptonite bulllet into Jax-Ur.
The Red K bullet..

changes Jax-Ur into a giant, mutating snake, but he is ineffectual against Black Zero.

Next, Black Zero creates a Green Kryptonite bullet that he sends towards Superman, but makes it swerve away at the last minute, so Superman can live to watch Earth explode. Jax-Ur slithers away and Black Zero tautingly gives a clue that the bomb is in the "emptiest place known" and Superman flies off to try to find the bomb.

After searching for the emptiest places on Earth, it occurs to Superman that the "emptiest place known" is actually outer space.

Superman...

locates the bomb, but Black Zero is in a spaceship nearby and burns a message on an asteroid, warning Superman that the slightest contact with the "anti-matter dart bomb" will cause the device to blow up and scatter deadly fallout over all the Earth.

In addition...
Black Zero gives further warnings to Superman
Clark...

closely keeps an eye on the clock, knowing that the bomb will hit in an hour. Jimmy offers Clark a Life-Saver and Clark dashes out of the office, a solution to the problem at hand. As Superman, he constructs a giant protractor to calculate the angle at which the bomb is dropping. Just in time, he bores a tunnel completely through the Earth...

and...
The dart bomb flies through the tunnel
Superman then...

flies into the bomb and detonates it; barely surviving the explosion. Black Zero is devastated and, seeking revenge, forms a giant hammer over Metropolis with the intent of smashing the city to bits...

While in the ship...
Jax-Ur has become a medusa and turns Black Zero to stone

The conclusion...
Jax-Ur smashes Black Zero to bits, so no one can ever resurrect him

As a story, this was not one of Binder's best, but was fairly typical of the type of tale Weisinger allowed to be published during his tenure, making me wonder exactly how much "editing" was actually being done. The obligatory splash page removes any suspense from the story right off the bat and there are holes in the plot that serve to create drama, but fail to advance the story. Superman only hears the double heartbeat once with no explanation of why he doesn't hear it later. The phrase "secret in his brain" is used repeatedly, but it is never explained. There are also continuity errors, such as the pictured location of the Fortress (a constant problem during the Weisinger Era, in that the Fortress, and its key, change location and appearance from story to story.). There are also numerous bits of Red Kryptonite silliness that I've purposely left out of the descriptions or pictures.

The portrayal of Superman is also typical of some of the Weisinger edited stories. Rather than being in control of events, Superman is controlled by them. He can't detect Black Zero without his Super-Computer. When the Superman Emergency Squad is trapped in Kandor, Superman can't contain Black Zero on his own. Although Superman explodes the dart-bomb, this action occurs when the bomb is no longer a threat. It is left to a Phantom Zone villain, Jax-Ur, not Superman, to "defeat" Black Zero and this defeat is completed by destroying the villain once and for all: an ending one would expect to find in a Spectre story, but not in Superman. And, if all this weren't enough, Superman, at the end of the story, suggests to Jax-Ur that maybe someday they will "get a crack" at the rulers of the pirate empire (the real villains), seemingly with no emotion: almost as if he were inviting a friend to meet for a cup of coffee. Krypton's destruction was caused by an outside agency and Superman doesn't intend to hunt down those responsible immediately?

Superman 1
Superman #1-1939
Art by Joe Shuster

As originally portrayed by Siegel and Shuster in Superman #1, Krypton was simply a "doomed planet" where "a scientist placed his infant son in an experimental rocket-ship, launching it toward Earth!" Later stories expanded this origin and, by 1968, readers had been exposed to the myriad people, places and history that made up the world of Superman's birth—making Krypton a "real" fictional world and it's loss, for the readers, took on a degree of significance because of the familiarity they had with Krypton. One major plot point remained inviolate during all of these additions, however, and that was Jor-El's prediction of Krypton's doom. It is the treatment of this concept that makes this story a canonical blunder of major proportions.

If there was any emotional context (pathos, if you will) to the Superman character, it was to be found in the destruction of Krypton. Superman not only lost the planet of his birth, he lost his parents as well and the repeated excursions to Krypton, through various means, only heightened his sense of loss. Most importantly, however, Jor-El was always portrayed as a hero: the person who saw the danger that was coming and tried to save a world, while those around him mocked his ideas. This heroism was not lost on Superman and his numerous attempts to save his parents provided an emotional undercurrent to the series, since for all his god-like powers, Superman couldn't change history and stop Krypton from exploding. Yet, "The Man Who Destroyed Krypton" dismisses Jor-El's sacrifice, turning him into a Chicken Little who rocketed his son into space for all the wrong reasons, and destroys the heroic legacy that was such a large part of the character of Superman.

Conveniently, and I will add mercifully, DC simply acted as if this story never happened and, as far as my research has found, Black Zero and the Pirate Empire were never mentioned again. Crisis on Infinite Earths (1983) negated all the continuity that had gone before and, while DC has constantly fiddled with their continuity in the years since, Black Zero seems to have disappeared into oblivion.

Or has he?

It seems that even bad ideas return and in the World of Krypton mini-series (1987-88), John Byrne resurrected the name Black Zero for a group of anti-clone forces (don't ask) who tried to blow up Krypton by setting off a bomb at the planet's core. Although they failed, the damage they did not only began to sicken the inhabitants of Krypton, it also made the core of the planet unstable so that years later...boom! A group of post-Byrne Black Zeros showed up at DC a couple of years later but they, fortunately, had nothing to do with blowing up Krypton.

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