When DC Got Dragged Kicking & Screaming into the 1970s

By | Monday, October 10, 2022 1 comment
A few weeks ago, Brian Cronin asked on Twitter about being a kid and not having access to the conclusion of a multi-part comic book story. The earliest one I can recall reading was the Sand Superman storyline from 1971, a story that I not only couldn't read the conclusion of, but that I had never read the conclusion of until just this past weekend. A little backstory first...

My mom's best friend had a daughter a year younger than me, and another daughter a year younger than my brother. Naturally, they'd visited each other regularly bringing their respective families in tow. As near as I can piece together/guestimate, sometime after their second daughter was born, my family went to visit. My brother would still have been an infant himself, but I would have been four or five. Old enough that I didn't need constant supervision but young enough that I still needed some direction to keep me from getting into trouble. However, my mom's friend wouldn't have had any toys appropriate for a five-year-old boy (it was the '70s -- there was still pretty heavy gender stereotyping, not to mention that there's a world of developmental difference between single-digit-age kids a year apart) so her husband presented me with a stack of comics to keep me occupied. I was later told he sometimes read them on his lunch break since he often worked an overnight shift by himself. I think there were maybe 40-50 books in total, mostly ones featuring Superman and/or Batman and all a few years old. Basically, a fairly random mix of early 1970s' Action, Detective, Superman, Batman, and World's Finest with a few Justice Leagues thrown in for good measure.

Of the lot, there were very few sequential issues. Which mostly didn't matter since the stories were generally all self-contained. But it did include Superman #237-238, smack dab in the middle of the Sand Superman storyline. As was common at the time, there was enough backstory provided through the script that I had no problem figuring out what had happened to get to that point, but it ended with Superman slowly getting de-powered and this Sand Superman seemingly out to take his place. But would he..? I mean, clearly there was A Superman around, but did this sand being totally replace him or did Superman reverse the process or did he get help from the Justice League or...?

Keep in mind that I was reading this 4-5 years after the fact. The issues at the local grocery store were well beyond that story, and comic shops were few and far between at the time. Reprints -- particularly of newer issues like that -- were unheard of. I had about zero chance of finding the conclusion until another five or six years later when some semi-local comic shops starting opening up and, by then, I was very deep into the Marvel Universe, largely having left DC behind. Decades later, I did eventually look up what happened online, but for no particular reason, I never went back to picking up those stories I had missed years earlier.

After being reminded of all this via Cronin's question, I did some quick searching and discovered the story had been collected in 2009 and again last year. Meaning it's still considered in stock for most bookstores!

I haven't looked at that comics at all in at least 30 years, possibly 40. I recall the general outline of the two issues I read as a kid and a few specific images but the bulk of it was entirely new to me. But looking at this now-half-century-old story was fascinating. Not from any nostalgic perspective or anything -- I got no special satisfaction about finally reading the conclusion or anything -- but from the more formal elements of it.

The individual story elements in each issue are absurd in exactly the way that you would expect for a 1960s Superman comic. Editor Julie Schwartz's influence is all over it, and I actually had to double-check that it was indeed the same Dennis O'Neil writing this that was more-or-less contemporaneousy writing Green Lantern/Green Arrow. But more interesting is how the structure of the story changes over each issue. The first issue feels like any Superman story you might've gotten a year or five before, but with each passing issue, it becomes increasingly more of a single extended storyline from the one-and-done beats of the earliest issues. The real shake-up that O'Neil introduces to Superman isn't eliminating Kryptonite or reducing Superman's power levels or moving Clark Kent from the newspaper to TV, but bringing in a more modern storytelling methodology. I felt like I was watching the book mature in real time.

(I say "updated" but it's updated to 1971 standards. There's still some really uncomfortable casual racism included.)

I recall reading the original Doom Patrol stories a couple years ago and thinking how Arnold Drake was using that to try to update DC's storytelling to something closer to what Marvel was doing in Fantastic Four. I get much the same sense with this run of Superman -- O'Neil was already doing that in other DC titles, but Superman was always a more conservative title and I think bringing that here as well acts as bellwether for DC as a whole. In many ways, it's not a great story frankly. On top of what I already alluded to, it's got an "it was all a dream" trope in there and the actual ending feels like it was shoe-horned in on the last page. But it is a fascinating microcosm for how DC was transitioning their storytelling away from decidedly dated villain-of-the-month plots.
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Billy Hogan said...

I had Superman #240, which was my introduction to the Sand Superman plotline, that I got off the rack. It wasn't until the 1990's when I was able to get the next two issues to finish reading the story.