RETRO REVIEW: Action Comics #309 (February 1964)

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Or – “It’s Important That You Know That Cover Dates Were About 3 Months Ahead In The 60s…”

Superman has run into a lot of situations in his career, but back in late ’63, he came upon one that even his super-powers couldn’t overcome.  At least, not without a little help from a powerful (and tragic) friend…

ACTION COMICS #309
Writer: Edmond Hamilton/Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Curt Swan/Jim Mooney
Inker: George Klein/Jim Mooney
Colorist: Uncredited
Letterer: Uncredited
Editor: Mort Weisinger
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: 12 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $180

Previously, in Action Comics:  Rocketed from the dead planet Krypton, Kal-El became Superman, faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and like that.  Taking up the second identity of Clark Kent, Superman lived among the Earth-born humans, cultivating friendships, romances and at least thirty-five life-long enemies with grudges and super-powers.  By the 1960s, he had it all down to a science, sometimes even playing with the perceptions of his friends by having Batman or the Legion’s Chameleon Boy pretend to be Clark so as to support the illusion of his double identity.  But, what would happen if none of those options were open to him?

The answer to that question is also the lead-in to one the most unexpectedly touching Superman tales of the Silver Age…

What’s really charming about Silver Age Superman tales is in the small details…  Superman nearly forgetting about his secret and opening his mail in clear view of Jimmy, Lois and Perry is the kind of moment that humanized the character, and the kind of detail that nobody puts in the comics anymore, for some reason. While Superman sets off on a personal mission for the Commander-In-Chief, something odd is happening back at the Daily Planet…

Sooo…  A squid squeezing the capsule might “damage sensitive instruments,” but being dragged skyward in a mighty water spout leaves the spacecraft A-OK?  That’s…  odd.  Having recovered the maguffin, Superman heads for the White House, unaware of a conspiracy behind the scenes.

Man, they’re certainly taking their time getting where they’re going with this issue, aren’t they?  The best part of it all is that all this dialogue and activity takes place in less than 1/6th of the issue, whereas today’s writers would probably spend an issue on each of Superman’s amazing feats in order to fill out the six-issue trade paperback arc.  It’s only after his third trip down the rabbit hole that Superman is finally clued in about what is really happening around him…

The problem quickly becomes apparent, as all of Superman’s friends have been invited to be a part of the program, even Clark Kent…  But, Superman IS Clark Kent, and there’s no way he can just pull off a Super-speed trick to do it.  Thinking quickly, Superman plans to summon one of his Superman robots from the Fortress of Solitude to double for him.  Unfortunately, numbered among his associates are one Lana Lang of Smallville, and one Lois Lane of Metropolis, both of whom are dead set on proving that Superman and Clark Kent are one and the same…

Rotten girls anyway…  Things get more complicated, as the producers summon the “Superman Lookalike Squad” from Kandor (miniaturized Kryptonians, one of whom looks like Clark), closing another window, while Pete Ross is another guest, keeping him from helping out.  (Though Superman didn’t know it, Pete knew and helped to keep his identity secret for years back in his Superboy days.)  But what about the Legion?  Surely, they might help, especially Chameleon Boy, right?

I love the art of Curt Swan, and the third panel of this issue is exactly why, as a troubled Jimmy watches an avuncular Supes comforting the emotionally scarred child who nearly cost Earth its greatest hero.  That panel alone is just amazing story-telling, nevermind the bits that come before and after.  Superman’s super-fast mind hits on the next exit strategy, using his super-ventriloquism to call for his World’s Finest team-mate, the Darknight Detective.  Of course, since he’s having the worst luck ever, the next guest to be announced is…

Heh.  Pretense piles upon pretense, as a worried Man of Steel frets about his secret.  Of course, as the minutes tick down, we find that all is not lost…

Well, President Kennedy did say that Superman could call on him at any time for help, and it’s pretty awesome to see how well Swan nailed the President’s likeness.  Of course, this was from a time when the artists who drew comics learned how to draw from something other than just comics, and also a time where the office of the Presidency was considered to be trustworthy beyond reproach.  If you just read the issue on those terms, it’s a cool story with a rather unexpectedly clever stinger, the kind of thing that Mort Weisinger’s Superman office did over and over again throughout the Silver Age.

But, as many of you already realize, now comes…  The REST…  of the story.  As I mentioned, there was often a wide margin between the cover date of the comics (like this one’s date of Feb. 1964) and the date when they actually hit the stands, allowing the publishers to keep their wares on demand as long as possible at the newsstands and spinner racks of the day.  When this issue came out, that margin was approximately 3 months, putting this issue on the stands during the last week of November, 1963…  a few scant days after President Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas.  DC Comics reportedly tried to recall the issue, but didn’t have enough lead time, making for a rather awkward comics-reading experience.  More disturbing, readers of the time must have wondered whether Superman was somehow involved with Lee Harvey Oswald’s actions, to protect his heroic secrets.  A later issue (entitled “Superman’s Mission For President Kennedy”) WAS pulled from publication in time, but saw print later in 1964 in Superman #170, with the express consent of both the White House and the Kennedy Family.

As for the remainder of the issue, Action 309 is also the issue where we find what actually happened to Jor-El’s brother Zor-El, the father of Supergirl…

I don’t recall if this was ever brought up again, and for some reason I believed that Zor and Alura were still dead when Kara died during the Crisis.  (I’m not sure, though, as I’ve never really been a huge Supergirl reader, save for the stories that came after her death.)  Either way, this issue is an intriguing one, and 30 pages of artwork by Swan and Jim Mooney, who handled the Supergirl chapter, ain’t bad at all, especially thinking about people being able to buy it for a little more than a dime.  Action Comics #309 is one of those books that has a unique (if somewhat morbid) historical perspective, and packs a LOT of story into its pages, earning a lovely Silver Age 4 out of 5 stars overall.

Rating: ★★★★☆