You’re probably wondering why Superman seems to be about to battle it out with Sean Connery… Your Major Spoilers (Retro) Review of Superman #281 awaits!
Writer: Cary Bates
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Bob Oksner
Editor: Julius Schwartz
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: 20 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $24.00
Previously in Superman: You guys know Superman, right? Strange visitor, rocketed from dead planet, blah blah blah? Sure, you know Big Blue! What you may not know, though, is that comic books historically used to take cues from other media, whether it be early Legion tales taking bits of movies and TV for their plots, the Silver Surfer and other fad characters or even Luke Cage’s brief 1990s catchphrase of “Yeah, boyeeeee!” That’s how this issue’s antagonist/frenemy Vartox clearly got his inspiration, as the Spring of 1974 saw former James Bond Sean Connery take to the screen in ‘Zardoz‘, a futuristic science-fiction epic that… Y’know, I’m not sure what it did, but I highly recommend watching it with an open mind, it’s pretty amazing, if bizarre. Our story this time opens on TWO worlds…
That second world is the far-away world of Valeron, in the Sombrero Hat Galaxy (which, amazingly, is a real thing, located in the constellation Virgo, roughly 1/3 the size of our Milky Way galaxy), a world whose greatest hero is Vartox! Sadly, the woman who mysteriously died at the same time the countergirl was shot is Vartox’s love, unnamed in Superman #281, but whom I shall refer to as “Charlotte Rampling.” Overcome with grief, Vartox rushes Charlotte’s body to the greatest scientists of his world.
With the shocking news that his wife died because her “Bionic Twin” was violently murdered, Vartox uses Valeronian technology to remotely view the murder, overcome with grief and certain that he must somehow avenge the fallen Charlotte. Vartox’s visions also make him aware of Superman and he realizes that the Man of Steel will certainly clash with him if his goal seems to be vengeance for his fallen bride. What would happen if the two powerful heroes clashed?
Vartox matches Superman in power, in wits and even has a few tricks that the Man of Tomorrow does not, but their clash leads to tragedy. When Vartox attacks ol’ Supey with his hyper-beams, one beam bounces off and strikes an innocent bystander, striking her dead. That bystander is none other than LOIS LANE, which is a shocking moment until it is revealed that Vartox is only viewing a possible future using his technology. Realizing that he can’t avenge his love by killing somebody else’s, he chooses to take a sneakier path. Some weeks later, Charlotte’s murderer is released from prison on a technicality, a miscarriage of justice that offends Clark Kent and Lois Lane greatly. Unbeknownst to the Kryptonian and his beloved, though, Vartox has arrived on Earth! Knowing that a direct assault could lead to the unthinkable, Vartox uses his psionic powers to go undercover in Frank Sykes’ life. Claiming to be a friend sent by Frank’s brother, “Vart” uses his powers to convince the criminal that Frank himself has gained superhuman powers!
“Vart” then explains that he’s actually from another world and that the gem they have stolen will net a huge reward on his world, teleporting himself and the murderous Sykes back to Valeron. Once there, he reveals the truth: He made certain that no laws were broken and that Sykes came to his planet of his own accord, which puts the villain in Vartox’s jurisdiction. Frank Sykes must face Valeron’s punishment!
I am torn on the ending of this issue. On the one hand, it’s kind of clever and Vartox’s insistence on not breaking any of Earth’s laws in his quest makes it feel like a little bit of justice for his wife’s murder. On the other, it’s a pretty horrible thing to have happen, even to a minor character who deserved punishment. Superman’s cool with it, though. Superman #281 works really hard at making it clear that these two heroes are evenly matched and equally noble, it had some charming Clark/Lois downtime sequences and a gorgeous Nick Cardy cover equally lovely Swan/Oksner interiors, earning a well-deserved 4 out of 5 stars overall. I don’t know why the image of a Scotsman in lederhosen inspired this story, but frankly, if the issue is this good, I don’t need to.