Or – “What Happens In The Alternate Universe, STAYS In The Alternate Universe…”

As comics readers, I think we tend to think of the retcon as a modern invention, something that Roy Thomas or Steve Englehart created to offset the changing tastes of comics readers who weren’t gonna stand for all them talkin’ tigers and cartoon sidekicks with which the Golden Age was rife.  But dating back to the very first comics books ever, writers were in the business of creating stories to fill in the gaps between what we knew and what we didn’t.  For instance, did you know that Kal-El was well over a century old upon his landing in Smallville a couple decades ago?  If you didn’t, it’s time to relax with the beverage of your choice while Unca’ Matthew tells you a little story he heard in his long-ago youth.  Are you sitting comfortably?  Away we go!

Action Comics #370

Script: Cary Bates
Pencils: Curt Swan
Inks: Jack Abel
Cover: Neal Adams

Previously, on Action Comics:  Jor-El of Krypton was a visionary scientist, and one of the few men from Krypton who have ever been shown to not be insane, homicidal, power-hungry or just plain nuts.  Realizing that the planet was about to die, he tried to convince the Science Council of Krypton to take his prototype rocket shuttle and create a fleet to evacuate the entire planet.  Laughed out of polite society, Jor-El went underground, and tried to save the planet himself.  The planet was doomed, and Jor was only able to save his infant son Kal-El, rocketing him away to another planet to save the young one’s life.  The story has been told and retold, with bits and pieces of it changing here and there, but the basic structure (Young boy is the last survivor of his planet and becomes a hero to the people upon whose planet he ends up landing) remains the same.  The life and times of Superman have filled many an idle afternoon, but I can tell you, you’ve probably never heard this part of it.  It blew my mind when I read it years ago, and what it means for the history of the DC Universe is unusually shocking.

We being our tale with Clark Kent, suffering from strange night terrors, visions of another life, another world.  Sure, Superman has been around the block a time or two (hell, he’s been around the GALAXY) but the vividness of these dreams troubles the Last Son of Krypton, and the search for their meaning takes over his every waking hour…

Heh.  I love that bit.  Superman: “Will I ever solve this mystery???”  Omniscient Narrator: “Nope.”  Ya gotta love old-school comics.  Now, you may be asking yourself, HOW can a rocket launched from Krypton less than 30 years ago (since, at this time, Superman was eternally just under 30 years old) test as being a century-plus in age?  Many comic writers have posited the existance of a space-warp near Kryptonian space that caused every scrap of the planet to end up in Earth orbit (which, honestly, is one of the few explanations for the tons of Kryptonite that have landed over the years), but there were OTHER warps extant as well…

Landing on a distant unnamed planet, young Kal-El is discovered by a couple who might be charitably described as ‘cavemen.’  (We don’t want to racially profile them, as we can be named alongside Geico in their class-action suit.)  In this alternate universe, baby Kal isn’t super-powered, but he is still lucky to be discovered by a loving couple who agree to raise him.  Naming the baby “Sonn,” his parents find that their intellect is suddenly expanding.  But the time the boy reaches 10 years of age, his world has progressed from living in caves to a society that resembles ancient Rome.  One afternoon, Soon and his father are out walking, discussing the works of Soc-Ru-T and Pla-To when a strange creature attacks.  “A devil-dragon is loose in the streets!” cries a helpful passerby in exposition.  “It’s dreaded eye-blasts can turn a person evil for life!”

Dun dun DUNNNN!  Sonn’s own sibling is turned forever evil by the creature’s beams, and spends many years tormenting her friends and family secretly, in the hopes of eventually causing her brother’s death.  By the time that Sonn reaches the age of majority, his world has become a mechanical wonderland of Model-T’s and flying shoes, and evil Ruda tries to murder her baby bro by sticking a pair of uncontrollable rocket shoes on him.  The old El genes kick in, though, and he turns the situation to his advantage…

It is explained that the “S” on his chest stands for ‘Sonn,’ nobody explains why he wears pin-striped pants with a superhero costume top and jackboots.  When the planet learns that Sonn’s strange radiation is responsible for their technological wizardry, he is heralded a hero, and eventually elected leader of the entire planet.  With his lovely wife Lasil, and his beloved son, Vol, Sonn takes residence at the “White Estate,” where the “proctoror” lives, and a new Camelot is born.  Unfortunately, though, simply being advanced in the sciences does not mean that his people will live in peace.  Ruda manages to isolate the element of devil-dragon rays that made her evil, and releases it across the world, leaving Super-Sonn the last rational mind to be found…

Forty years pas in the space of one panel, folks.  This is as far from decompressive storytelling as it gets, and damn proud of it.  After decades on the run from his own evil people, an elderly and fragile Sonn falls, unable to run any more.  A ship swoops down to take him into custody, and it seems that all is lost, that the ravening mobs finally have the man they hold responsible for their worldwide atomic horror…

As selfless as his super-pops, Vol takes the now-infant form of his 100-year-old daddy and shoves the kid into the red-and-blue rocket that brought him from the stars.  Launching the baby back into space, Vol feels his mind leaving him, and tries to remember to put flowers in the backyard for Algernon.  “Father… gone!  He ride to sky in great metal arrow!”  The ship re-enters normal space, and crashes into a Kansas wheatfield to be found by Martha and Bo Duke in their Model T.  The backup story (no co-features in these days, folks) features Supergirl, broken hearted after her beau seemingly two-times her, using a machine to view their married life in the future.  The story proper is entirely emcompassed by this image…

What’s really fascinating about this issue is the compact nature of the storytelling.  Both features deal with great wodges of time, years in which the action is sketched out for us quickly, and the plot moves at maximum velocity to get where it’s going.  The most interesting part about reading this tale today is that it is NOT marked as an “Imaginary Story” as many stories edited by Mort Weisinger would.  The clear implication is that this one really happened (at least as far as pre-Crisis continuity and/or Grant Morrison is concerned.)

Reading it when I was young, this story seemed to be a giant revelation, an exciting lost chapter in the life of the Man of Steel.  I mean, think about what this means for Krypton!  And Superman IS an alien, he could have lived MULTIPLE lives in the void, travelling from planet to planet growing old and then young again, and getting fired on to the next planet where a legend was necessary.  As an adult, it’s clear that the concept really doesn’t have the legs that I thought it did, but it’s still a charming story, and there’s a lot of fun to be had in it.  Superman’s entire life from landing to adulthood is encapsulated in two pages or so, but still feels like we know him in this reality.  The art is pretty amazing for the time (granted, it’s Curt Swan, aided by the underrated Jack Abel) and the moment where a worried Superman wonders if he will ever know the truth is incredibly subtle and clearly illustrates his confusion.  I can’t even say it hasn’t aged well, as I liked it quite a bit reading it today, and Action Comics #370 earns a nicely-done 3.5 out of 5 stars (adjusted for inflation, naturally.)

Rating: ★★★½☆

 

The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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2 Comments

  1. Gary Cangemi
    February 18, 2012 at 11:15 pm — Reply

    I remember this comic well. It was one of my all-time favorite Superman stories back in the day when I used my paper route money to keep myself well supplied with DC titles. I loved the concept of an alternate life of Kal-El unbeknownst to Clark Kent. It’s a great science-fiction tale as well. Sadly this title met the same fate as my entire collection when I went off to college…the ash heap of history courtesy on an overzealous mother.

  2. rf
    January 23, 2013 at 3:14 pm — Reply

    Nice review. Good point about the use of compressed time in both stories. I have to say, though, that Jack Abel butchered Curt Swan’s pencils. Compare this issue with the sublime work of George Klein in the years before and the classic inks of Murphy Anderson that followed.

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