Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Superman's Birthday

Longtime DC editor Julius Schwartz used to claim that Superman hardly seemed to age across the decades because his birthday is February 29th, and therefore comes only once every four years. (One might ask how you could assign a terrestrial birthday to a man born in another star system, but assume that Schwartz somehow calculated that Superman was born on Krypton during a Terran leap day.) No matter what his age or how its calculated, Superman has become a timeless character, one I hope will continue to resonate through many future decades.

For today, though, I'm sharing my earliest memories of Superman. The comic at left, Superman #279, cover-dated September 1974, is the oldest Superman comic in my collection that I purchased new in a store (probably the drug store in the Leaf Rapids town centre) as opposed to earlier issues that I purchased as a teen at garage sales and used bookstores. It's now safe in a plastic bag, worn from years of enjoyment.

The cover astounded my five-year-old self. This "Superman" person flew through the air! How? And why didn't the pretty girl want him to stop her from falling? I was terrified that she was going to go "splat," and purchased the comic with a great deal of trepidation.
Luckily, the cover was a little misleading. As it turns out, Batgirl was never in danger at all, merely plunging between the twin towers (how strange to see them represented in Metropolis just a couple of years after they were built in real-world New York!) to detect the source of sonic waves wrecking the city. This was one of a handful of stories that hinted at a budding romance between Clark Kent and Barbara (Batgirl) Gordon, but the plotline was dropped rather quickly. Too bad - it might have been interesting, given Barbara's role as a superheroine and US congressperson and Clark's friendship with Bruce Wayne and his job as a reporter. Lots of opportunities for dramatic tension!
About a year later I bought Superman #288, which also remains in my collection. Once again the dramatic cover art was enough to hand over a quarter to the drugstore clerk; I had to know who this "new Superman" could possibly be.
As it turns out...the new Superman was a super-computer! I'm not even sure I understood exactly what a computer was back then, only that I found Compuxo kind of scary, even if it seemed clear its intentions were benevolent.
You have to admire the economy of storytelling the classic team of Bates, Swan and Schaffenberger bring to the table. In a single page, Compuxo is given an origin, purpose and character, and effective foreshadowing prepares the reader for the coming link between super-computer and superhuman.
As coincidence would have it, Clark Kent's personality is copied into Compuxo, with predictable results:
As Superman's new silent partner, Compuxo helps Superman deal with a criminal out to destroy Galaxy Broadcasting. The bad guy assaults the building directly, taking out Superman with artificial Kryptonite and delivering a suicide bomb straight to the Galaxy basement. The ending is rather tragic:
Compuxo is destroyed in the attack on the Galaxy building, but in its last instant of artificial life it gave the stunned Superman the correct means of saving the building and all its occupants. Even though Compuxo scared me, by the end of the story I was sad that the computer hadn't survived. Compuxo was never referred to again, and I've always found that a little melancholy, probably because I've always been fascinated by the idea of artificial life.

Those are just two of the hundreds of Superman stories that have entertained and educated me over the years. So happy birthday, Superman, and here's to many more.