This is Superboy #134, published in December 1966. Frayed at the edges and devalued by the "10d" stamp that UK newsagents used to thump American imports with, this poor specimen didn't even make into the back-issue bin. Like many other wastrels, it found its way into my care and, soon after, my heart.
And soon after that, my attic, because the heart cares little for shelf space and the limitations thereof. But tonight, I'm breaking it out and noding it up, this 12¢ disposable, this colourful orphan; I'm turning it loose.
Imaginary story! Are there any sweeter words in the comics lexicon? Clearly, if we're talking DC Comics in the 60s, they're all imaginary stories. So when a particular issue feels the need to stress its imaginary status, something special must be about to happen. Something so wacky that standard Superboy continuity cannot contain it! So it is with our main feature, The Scoundrel of Steel.
Cover! Superboy is wigging out in class; wall map and globe lie torn and mangled on the floor, the blackboard is cracked, and Superboy is kicking over his teacher's desk. He says:
Okay, class, today I'll teach you how to do the three R's... Ruining, 'Recking and Ripping!
Oh no! There's a reprise on the splash page; the teacher is forced to sit in the corner wearing the dunce's cap as Supes super-disrupts the learning process. He's proving that the Earth is flat - by smashing a globe! Okay, this is odd. What gives? We must find out.
The story takes a what if? angle on the day of Superboy's first public appearance. In the regular DC Universe, just after Ma and Pa Kent give Clark his first costume, a report of a washed-out railroad bridge comes over the radio, providing Smallville's pre-teen champion with his first mission; get the morning express safely across the ravine.
Gripping stuff. But in our alternate universe, Pa Kent has tuned the radio to a different wavelength. It turns out to be quite a day, because this new station ignores the impending train disaster to report on a strange interplanetary object approaching Earth from - yep - outer space!
Well, the train passengers are left for dead as Superboy takes off to investigate this menacing heavenly body. In fact, he doesn't really investigate it at all; he just grabs it and hurls it back into space. Case closed. But! Beneath its outer coating of "meteoric dust", the rock was red. RED. RED!. You know, as in Red Kryptonite. Yeah, now you get it. Trouble ahead.
But Red Kryptonite often has a delayed reaction, so for now Superboy leaves the public wondering at his fantastic powers (it's his first appearance, you recall) and heads back to the farm. The radio's still on, and guess what? Prison break on Alcatraz! Just imagine the papers the next day. Anyway, Superboy takes flight and arrives to discover that convicts have seized control of the island, which is now besieged by police boats.
An easy win for the forces of good, you'd imagine, but this is where the Red Kryptonite kicks in and gives our hero scrambled scruples. Superboy astounds cops and inmates alike by pushing Alcatraz Island across the Frisco Bay to dry land. Like a raft! I think an anonymous cop says it best:
That Superboy is a flying fink! He helped the worst killers in the country to escape by shoving Alcatraz Island to the mainland!
...to which Homer might reply, "Who are you, the narrator?" But you have to admit, it's quite naughty, and this is just page five. What kind of atrocities will young Clark have committed by the end of the story? Best not to dwell on it; let's just take it one page at a time. So next, he heads home. Ma and Pa have heard about the little freeing-the-killers incident on - what else? - the radio. They try to reason with Clark, but a caption informs us that this is futile, for the Red K has warped his character, and he is now disrespectful of all authority - including his parents! Which they're not, but you get the idea.
Smashing up a dresser, Clark demands his supper - or else! Ma rushes to oblige, but the superhooligan declares that "the vegetables are tasteless!" and boots the stove out of the house. Now, freeing America's most violent murderers is one thing, but this stove abuse is more than Pa Kent can stand:
That does it! You young pup! You may be Superboy, but you'll pay for this tantrum in the woodshed!
Yes, it's spanking season down on the farm, as Pa Kent attempts to beat the devil out of his unruly charge with what appears to be a horse brush. But all his well-meaning child abuse is in vain; he was so angry, he forgot about Superboy's invulnerable body. So he just sends him to bed instead. "Perhaps we'll wake up in the morning and find it's all a bad dream," says Ma optimistically, despite the fact that a good percentage of her house is in ruins.
Anyway, let's see. The morning comes, and Clark decides he's going to attend school - as Superboy. To make the difference quite clear, he arrives by flying in through a closed window. Unimpressed by the teacher's film show on King Arthur, Superboy takes over the class and promises to teach them some poetry. He achieves this by flinging thousands of pencils into "an unused advertising sign nearby" to spell out No more pencils. He then hurls textbooks into the stratosphere, where they burst into flames and spell out No more books. You can see where this is going, but before delivering the closing line ("No more teacher's sassy looks", for the innocent among us), Superboy takes time out to put a crack in the school's bell and demolish the schoolhouse with his super breath.
The kids run free! "Hurray for Superboy!" Pa Kent has a few words to say about this little episode, but Clark is having none of it. He rips the Kents' phone off the wall and digs a huge moat around the farm to stop them from turning him in. Meanwhile, the FBI has declared Superboy public enemy number one, and the army are lining up to test their latest weapons on stone statues of the Boy of Steel. Excitement to come! End of part one.
Conveniently, part two starts just over the page. It's called Superboy Against the World! Are you ready?
Superboy shows up and faces off against the army, who demonstrate little fear of a pre-pubescent foe by assailing him with grenades and flamethrowers. To no avail! Superboy throws their concrete targets into the sky and heads out to sea - across the Atlantic, in fact, where he drops - get this - the Rock of Gibraltar on the British Navy. Not a typo! He does not drop a rock from Gibraltar; he drops the Rock of Gibraltar. Fortunately, no-one is hurt - although the naval commander laments that Superboy has "made us look like fools", and there's probably an element of truth in that.
Possibly a little shagged out after tossing around such a huge (and inhabited) peninsula, Superboy wings homeward. He can hardly be expecting a warm welcome, but halfway there the Red Kryptonite starts to wear off, leaving the poor lad with a bad case of amnesia: "I don't know what happened, but I should be at school!"
Clark duly heads to school - or at least to the temporary classroom beside the pile of rubble he created earlier. But before he can learn a single thing, Pa Kent turns up with the FBI and rats the kid out. Scoffing at the efforts of the army and navy, the feds pull a gun on Clark and slap him in cuffs. Luckily, Clark has returned to his law-abiding ways, and is appalled to learn of his misdemeanors. He figures that the space rock dosed him with some kind of bad Kryptonite, which somehow made him "sensitive to rocks"; the Rock of Gibraltar, Alcatraz (The Rock), King Arthur's rock, and the army's rock targets. "It all adds up!" he summarizes, quite incorrectly, and offers to repair the damage he caused.
The FBI are in no position to argue, and so Superboy rebuilds his school and puts Alcatraz and Gibraltar back where he found them. We can only hope that he assists in rounding up the hundreds of killers he freed, because their fate is never mentioned. Back at the farm, Superboy decides that he can't stick around after such a poor debut, and leaves Earth forever. "Goodbye, Mom!" The End. Well, it's a little more abrupt in the actual comic.
That's the main story taken care of, but check it out: there's a back-up strip. What kind of back-up strip? A Krypto back-up strip! Actually a reprint from Superboy #87, it's a haunting love story where the canine crusader meets Kolli, a bitch from another planet. Smitten, he gets her to drink from a magic pool to gain superpowers of her own. But they discover that whenever they touch, Krypto loses his superpowers. At this worst possible time, a "terrifying creature" attacks:
It's launching electric-bolts from its snout!
The abomination (I use the term advisedly) is defeated, but clearly this is a love that can never be, and the heartbroken lovers are forced to live separate lives on separate planets. Really, this is just because Krypto isn't willing to stay with a partner who's stronger than he is, which is pretty sad for a so-called "Superdog". And what's worse, this isn't even an imaginary story. For shame.
Well I guess about all that's left is the adverts. It being 1966, they're a wonderful bunch, and here are my favourites:
Electric SOS Telegraph Set - yes, it's just a simple Morse code unit, but it is only $1.98 (although that only buys you one unit; have fun with that). The real kicker is the illustration, where a panic-stricken boy desperately beeps out an SOS as a twisted car wreck smoulders outside his window. On the other side of the page, his friend - in the next room, at best - receives the distress signal with a concerned look. What happens to the driver? We are never told.
80-Page Giant Batman - this digest collection features on the cover a story entitled The Ballad of Batman. In the illustration, Batman and Robin drag The Joker into the police HQ as a genial middle-aged man in a pork pie hat with an acoustic guitar sits on the steps, singing. I own a house, and I will gladly swap it for a copy of this comic.
Battle Grounds of the World - a G.I. Joe ad with 60s spokesboys Andy and George, who fetishise unhealthily over military detail. Best examples: "Let's put the German soldiers in their bunkers... Boy, look at their Luger pistols and Schmeisser machine guns!", and the unbeatable "I'll bring up the Australian jungle fighters... they look just like real Australians with their campaign hats and short pants!"
Ah, this could indeed be one of my favourite comic books; it captures everything a comic used to mean to me; it has no pretensions and no inferiority complex. It has a job to do, and it does it well - the stories and dialogue are ludicrous, but it's clear that some care was taken in their creation. It treats you like a kid, but not in a condescending way; in the best way. It winks at you with every page. We're having fun.
Well, it's about time to put this funnybook back in the box for the time being; it's almost forty, it needs to rest. Having just read it through one last time, I can't think of a better way to close off than with this pearl of wisdom from the letters page:
Here are some possible Canine Agents: Springer Spaniel - can leap great heights and distances. Doberman Pincher - grows claws like a crab in place of his front paws. I would also like Streaky to join the Space Cat Patrol Agents.
- David Baldwin, Springfield, Mass.
Dave, where are you now?
Superboy #134, written by Leo Dorfman with art by George Papp. Further info: http://www.comics.org/details.lasso?id=20571 - thanks to Gamaliel for this info.