Retro Review: Superman #233 (January 1971)

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The most wonderful part of Retro Reviews comes in seeing the trends that people think of as “modern” in play in comics decades old.  In 2011, DC made serious changes to the Man Of Steel’s mythos, power set and back story, but did you know that something VERY similar had already taken place…

…FOUR.  DECADES.  EARLIER.  Your Major Spoilers (retro) review of Superman #233 awaits!

Superman233CoverSUPERMAN #233
Writer: Denny O’Neil
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Colorist:Uncredited
Letterer: Ben Oda
Editor: Julius Schwartz
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: 15 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $140.00

Previously in Superman:  The thing about Superman (indeed, about nearly all the comics that survived the original Golden Age comics explosion circa WWII) was that there really wasn’t a lot of continuity to be had in those early stories, beyond the basic “Here’s Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper” blah blah blah fishcakes.  By the mid-50s, though, many of those war-time avengers had settled into repetition, and as the Silver Age dawned, Superman and his fellow heroes entered a long period where the stories played with continuity, but always ended up settling back into the status quo.  Even the most sweeping changes (Jimmy Olsen as giant turtle-man, teenagers from the future, Lois Lane learning Superman’s identity many, MANY times) were undone by the end of any given issue, and the pieces put back neatly in the box.  This issue opens with a common Silver Age plot-device, as Superman makes his way to observe an experiment involving Green Kryptonite…

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Fortunately for Professor Bolden, Superman keeps his feathers numbered for just such an emergency, and has prepared a massive lead dome to not only contain any potential meltdown, but to protect him from the K-radiation long enough to actually do anything with it!

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IS THIS THE END OF RICO SUPERMAN???

Well, no.  Of course not, this story was written while Stephen and I were both in diapers (as opposed to now, when only one of us is), and so we know that Superman survives.  As the science team races out to the desert, they find the Man of Tomorrow barely conscious, but apparently unharmed by the massive exposure to his primary weakness, a situation that seems strange.  Things are about to get stranger, though…

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By the next morning, it is confirmed: EVERY ounce of Kryptonite on Earth is gone, transformed into harmless iron ore.  The Man Of Steel, it seems, is now truly invulnerable (except, as Jimmy Olsen points out, for magic, but how often do you stumble over THAT?)  Before Clark can explain that there are dozens of magical types in the world, from Doctor Fate to The Spectre to the Yellow Peri, Morgan Edge enters, stage douchebag.  Edge, the owner of Galaxy Broadcasting Corporation, and by extension, the Daily Planet newspaper, has a job that needs doing, and this looks like a job for…  Clark Kent!

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People say that all the advanced technology in comic books doesn’t affect the world much, but I can tell you from experience, television cameras in the year 2000 weren’t that small and easy to operate, much less free of cables or wires to an uplink, so there’s clearly some advanced tech in play with GBS.  The camera doesn’t even require anyone to operate it, which works out in Clark’s favor when his OTHER identity has to get involved when criminal mooks plan to intercept the mail rocket, newly empowered by the confidence of a superhero with NO known weaknesses…

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Superman shrugs off the strangeness involving his powers, and makes quick work of both jets with his strength and speed, but it’s clear that things are not quite back to normal in the world of the Big Red S…

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Flying with two jet planes in your bare hands is probably tiring, sure, but there’s no reason that Superman would feel so enervated just because he got near that patch of Kryptonite-irradiated sand, is there?  (Of course there is, we all know that.)  Returning home to GBS, Clark Kent finds that there are more changes in store for him…

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You might also notice that this issue features Clark Kent changing out of his blue zoot suit for the first time since FDR was President, and cutting a fine figure in more modern (for 1971, anyone) togs.  And, in case you were worried that the changes in Superman’s world were going to just get wiped away at the end of the issue, witness this final, fateful page…

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In 1971, Batman was transitioning away from the camp influence of his TV show back into a mysterious dark night detective, while Green Lantern and Green Arrow were traveling the world in a beat-up pickup truck, observing the ills of society and finding their place in the world.  Speedy was a junkie, Robin was a college student, and Wonder Woman was in the middle of her mod, powerless white jumpsuit phase.  Change was in the air at DC, and Superman’s adventures were more than a decade deep in Silver Age barnacles, which is why Julie Schwartz and his hand-picked creative team put in the effort to power down and modernize the Man of Steel.  The heat vision problems in this issue were the first hints that Superman’s mighty powers had been halved, with the remaining half embodied in the “Sand Superman” seen in that final page.  This issue also features a backup tale, one designed to perform similar updates on Superman’s back story, specifically his father, Jor-El and his adventures as a young scientist on Krypton…

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Of course, they didn’t retcon out that he was incredibly cavalier about experimenting on animals, befitting a man who shot a dog, a monkey and half the rats in Argo City into space to test his theories.  There’s also a much-appreciated 70s women’s liberation vibe in this story, with Jor’s future wife Lara as a respected kickass astronaut, while Jor-El himself is a laughingstock for using gold to create his anti-gravity ship.  When Lara stows away on the ship for the test-flight, she ends up stranded on Krypton’s moon Wegthor, and has to use her skills to survive, while Jor-El stows away on another flight to find her…

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While I’m not 100% happy with the damsel in distress portion of the program, it’s cool to see Lara as something other than cosmic housewife and celestial mother figure, and Murphy Anderson could draw a Chick Tract and make it interesting.  While I don’t want to give away EVERYTHING that happens during Superman’s revitalized 70s revamp (Retro Review is an ongoing feature, after all), much like Wonder Woman’s mod days, things are eventually reverted back to something closer to what was previously normal by ’74, and Superman shot back up the power charts once again.  Even so, the Denny O’Neil issues make for interesting super-fodder, and this one is no exception, setting up plots for the next year of stories and actually trying to do something DIFFERENT with the adventures of the Man Of Steel.  Superman #233 is, in its way, the precursor of the Crisis, of Zero Hour, even of the much-maligned New 52, and sets the stage for revamps, reboots and revisions of today (for good or for ill) earning 3.5 out of 5 stars overall.