Or – “The First Superman/Flash Race!”

Comics in the 1960’s were a different animal than what we read today, and many people like to claim that as a dig on the old-school books.  But if you really take the time to investigate old comics, you’ll occasionally find a concept so perfectly elegant that you wonder why ‘retro’ would ever be used as an insult.  This, Faithful Spoilerites, is one of those issues…

SUPERMAN #199
Scripter: Jim Shooter
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Klein
Colorist: Uncredited
Letterer: Uncredited
Editor: Mort Weisinger
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: 12 Cents
Current Near-Mint Price: $600.00

Previously, on Superman: Rocketed from the dead planet… Naaah, nevermind. You’ve probably got that part down.  Let’s talk about Superman in the 1960’s.  Under editor Mort Weisinger, the Silver Age Superman tales did something unheard of for comic book stories:  They chained together events over more than one issue, creating a large-canvas continuity for the first time.  Superman, Luthor, Supergirl, Lois and the supporting cast gained mostly-consistent personalities for the first time, and Weisinger’s insistence that each story have a strong hook (usually derived from previously-created cover drawings) made each story memorable.  By 1967, DC Comics old guard was slowly being infiltrated by new blood, and one of the new hotshot writers was a teenager from Philadelphia named Jim Shooter.  Shooter excelled at the Silver Age gimmicks, and in this issue, Shooter has crafted a tale that reflects his fanboy origins:  Who’s faster, Superman, or The Flash?  We begin in the offices of the United Nations’ Secretary General, a man with a proposition for two founding members of the Justice League…

The path chosen for the heroes to run is specially mapped to make things as interesting as possible, circling the globe over and over and crossing all manner of terrain as they go.  The benefit will also generate much needed cash for impoverished nations by allowing the public to buy sweepstakes tickets backing one hero or the other.  Unfortunately for those honest folk, the criminal element is also interested in the results of the race, putting huge sums of ill-gotten money on their man.  The two largest criminal syndicates in the world each choose a different hero to back, and each has their own evil plans to secure their investments.  After a quick recitation of the rules (no flying, no kicking, no spitting, and neither man is allowed to go their top speed, since nobody would be able to see what happened), they’re OFF!

Flash and Superman run through deserts, across the seas, and even take the time to help the occasional bystander (as they do the loggers above.)  It’s interesting to see Curt Swan handling the Flash’s speed effects, as his Superman figure-work always seems beefy, but Barry looks quite good under his pen.  Of course, in Hollywood fashion, there is a collision with a fruit-cart, and changing terrain helps to even the odds as the probably-faster Flash and the certainly-more-invulnerable Superman jockey for position.

You have to appreciate Superman’s good sportsmanship here, using his double identity to save both The Flash and The Flash’s pride.  It’s also funny to see Superman swimming rather than running across the oceans, taking advantage of his full-powerset.  Of course, Flash returns Superman’s favor when they encounter Green Kryptonite (which was as common as water in the Silver Age) and both heroes are taken by surprise as the two crime syndicates make their move in the final lap…

In a fit of Shakespearian irony, both heroes are substituted by stand-ins, each of whom tries to let the other “hero” win.  (They each have special “jet boots” that give them limited super-speed, a lovely Silver Age touch.)  The two fakes get slower, and slower, and finally they realize the truth…

While the crooks have been arguing, Superman and the Flash were able to free one another (a little heat vision for Flash’s ropes, a little super-speed for Supes’ Kryptonite gas) and even take down their doppelgangers without missing a beat.  The two heroes set out again, each showing a silent determination, each realizing who HAS to win this match…

…no one!  The heroes realize that if either of them won this particular battle, then one band of criminals or the other would benefit, leading them to wordlessly agree to tie the race.  It’s a very clever ending, one that doesn’t require the creators to irritate either fanbase while making the battle an even one.  Additional Supey/Flash races were eventually held, and a hero did eventually reign supreme, but I have to say this story is probably my favorite of the race saga.  It’s a tour de force of classic creators in their prime, with Shooter and Swan interiors, a cover by Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson, as well as a classic Weisinger sensibility.  Superman #199 is one of the treasures of the Silver Age, an issue that springs to mind whenever that era of comics is mentioned, and it’s probably a given that it’s getting 5 out of 5 stars overall.  Rubber masks, jet boots, misunderstandings and clever use of two really overpowered characters make this entire story a joy to read…

Rating: ★★★★★

Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day: So, who’d win a fight between a drunken Batman and Elvis?

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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7 Comments

  1. June 12, 2011 at 8:39 pm — Reply

    I actually just bought this issue, along with some other Silver Age comics. I paid $20 for mine. This is a amazing comic. Great review Mr. Peterson.

  2. Michael Avila
    June 12, 2011 at 11:58 pm — Reply

    I remember reading this, and the follow-up race stories in a collected treasury book long long ago. Even back then I thought the stories were incredibly silly, but, I was completely entertained with a satisfying read. Something, I don’t much get reading those comics today.

  3. June 13, 2011 at 6:45 am — Reply

    Thanks for the great review Matthew. The issues where heroes compete but help each other are more heroic than those where they are battling each other. I love those comics from the 60s and 70s.

  4. Jimmy
    June 13, 2011 at 7:37 am — Reply

    I don’t think we’d ever have a drunken Batman, so I will go Elvis on this one
    Drunken Bruce Wayne however would engage in fisticuffs posthaste, and probably come out the unexpected victor.

  5. Noobian74
    June 13, 2011 at 12:28 pm — Reply

    Drunken Batman versus Elvis?

    Depends.

    If it’s an Elvis movie, he’s gonna win and sing a song about it. If it’s a Superfriends episode, the fight won’t happen because nobody fought in those, they just got caught in an expandable Batcage. If it’s in a Dark Knight movie, Batman would sober up after Elvis (played by Jude Law) threatened to make Alfred his new butler.

    See? Too many variables, Mr. Peterson.

  6. June 13, 2011 at 6:14 pm — Reply

    Does drunken Batman have a drunken 15 minutes to prepare?

  7. Oldcomicfan
    June 13, 2011 at 9:39 pm — Reply

    I read this when it was new and I’ve got to say its surprising how well it holds up. Next you ought to review the issue where Superman bowls against Clark Kent.

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