It’s not common to see Superman emasculated three times in three different stories in the same issue, but that’s exactly what happens in Superman #125. First, Lois Lane’s feelings about Clark Kent take center stage. Then, a young Clark goes head-to-head with one of his college professors to protect his secret identity. Finally, a bizarre new ability leaves Superman feeling unappreciated and insecure.
“Lois Lane’s Super Dream” wastes absolutely no time getting started. Within two panels, Lois has fallen off a second-story ledge directly on her head, Superman has delivered her to the hospital, and Lois drifts off to sleep believing Superman has donated some of his blood to her.
This triggers a vivid dream in which Lois develops her own super powers, just like Superman’s. She takes the name Power Girl (no relation to the Earth-2 Supergirl who would appear later in the 60s) and takes over for Superman while he leaves town for a few days. Because this is all happening in Lois’ head, Clark Kent is a separate person from Superman, and Lois saves his life from an explosion. In a sort of “Inception” moment, Lois donates some of her blood to Clark, giving him super powers of his own. Lois gives Clark a disguise (a stick-on mustache) and now he’s Power Man (no relation to Marvel’s Luke Cage, of course).
Power Man, as it turns out, is a complete loser who’s terrified of using his powers at first, and later completely terrible at using them. Lois browbeats Clark at every turn, but somehow the idea of Clark just not using his super powers never occurs to anyone. Call it dream logic, I guess. To top it all off, Clark changes into his Power Man costume in front of a two-way mirror and gives away his secret identity to all of Metropolis. Lois wakes up, and immediately tells of Clark for being such a drip as a superhero in her dream. She says she can’t believe she ever thought Clark was Superman, but she’ll be back to her old ways soon enough.
The most interesting thing about Lois’ dream isn’t that she thinks so poorly of Clark – that’s old news and it’s exactly the way Superman wants it. The interesting thing is that in her dream, she immediately reveals her identity to Clark after giving him super powers. Lois’ first instinct is to be completely honest with Clark, a courtesy Superman evidently didn’t extend to her. That’s contrasted with the abuse she puts the super-powered Clark through afterward. Even though he’s completely invulnerable, seeing Lois smash an enormous rock over Clark’s head in anger and frustration is a little shocking.
We’ve already seen a few stories where some random individual gains Superman’s abilities and made a mess of things. The moral of the story, as I’ve said before, seems to be that it’s not good for anybody other than Superman to be Superman. This rule will be loosened up once Supergirl arrives, Mon-El meets Superboy and Van-Zee from Kandor is called upon to take Superman’s place on Earth. For right now, though, Lois’ dream confirms that Clark Kent is as much a separate person from Superman as Jimmy Olsen is. Clark, as Superman portrays him in his everyday life, is far too timid and indecisive to be effective as a superhero.
Compare this to the situation in the next story, “Clark Kent’s College Days,” in which a college professor becomes convinced that no one other than Clark could possibly be Superboy. After Clark uses his heat vision to seal a fissure in a malfunctioning steam-powered robot, Professor Maxwell immediately deduces that one of his students is Superboy, and sets about trying figure out who it is. Naturally, because this is a Superman comic, the process involves a series of complicated and dangerous tests. In the end, Clark submits to a lie-detector test, but passes because he no longer thinks of himself as “Superboy.” He gives himself a sort of Super-mitzvah, apparently.
This blog was created in part to explore how grown-up insecurities and neuroses were Superman’s real enemies in these Silver Age stories, but this tale is a good example of how the opposite is true, too. Professor Maxwell’s attempts to out Superboy would almost certainly mean a lot of people would have been hurt if he were wrong, and Clark exposes Maxwell and his classmates to dangerous levels of natural gas in order to keep his identity secret. However, there’s never any doubt that things will work out just right.
In this way, “Clark Kent’s College Days” represents a more child-like viewpoint, where adults are infallible and always in control. There are no consequences for Professor Maxwell’s reckless behavior, and naturally Clark gets away with his endangerment. This is the world the way children see it, where adults have everything figured out ahead of time.
The perspective swings back to more mature concerns in “Superman’s New Power,” no matter how it appears. This eight-page story was no less than the inspiration for Grant Morrison’s “All-Star Superman,” a series regarded by many – including me – as one of the best ever told featuring the Man of Steel. “All-Star Superman” is a story that spans centuries, features characters both mythological and theological, and is filled with time-eating monsters, zombie planets and an evil sun. Yet, at its core is a very human concern – Superman is dying, and he has only a few weeks to put his affairs in order. A man who has spent his entire life giving of himself to the world must imagine the world without him.
“Superman’s New Power” deals with the same concept, albeit in a fraction of the space. An encounter with a long-buried alien spacecraft leaves Superman without his regular powers, but he soon discovers his powers have been transferred to a tiny duplicate of himself that emerges from his hand. At first, it seems like nothing has changed, but eventually the public shifts all of its attention to the mini-Superman.
This leaves Superman feeling useless, especially once the tiny duplicate begins acting independently without any guidance from Superman. Finally, an act of sacrifice from the mini duplicate saves Superman’s life and restores his powers for good.
Because this story inspired Morrison’s homage to the Silver Age, one would believe “Superman’s New Power” is the quintessential Silver Age Superman story. But this story actually deviates from the Silver Age formula in a number of significant ways, ways that make this one of the more complicated tales in the Man of Steel’s history.
It would be typical in one of these stories to show things being much worse under the new circumstances. However, the mini-Superman proves to be just as effective as the original at stopping crime and saving lives. From the rest of the world’s point of view, nothing has changed. There’s no reason for Superman to want to regain his powers other than the desire to be useful again. One of the character’s supposed flaws most frequently leveled against him by critics is that Superman is too perfect, a self-sacrificing Christ figure who always does the right thing.
But Superman is far from perfect in this story. He moans about not receiving credit for the imp’s actions, he dreads activating his new power and he breaks his own moral code to have his old life back. Even though he doesn’t know whether or not his duplicate is truly alive, Superman orders it to intercept a swarm of Kryptonite meteors. “If the Kryptonite should destroy him – well, that’s his tough luck,” Superman reasons.
Even so, the mini-Superman sacrifices himself by riding another Kryptonite meteor away from Superman, causing it to disintegrate and return Superman’s powers to him. Unlike other Silver Age stories, the situation is resolved with several questions left unanswered. Namely, was the duplicate acting on its own, or just following Superman’s unconscious commands? Did the duplicate have its own free will? There are no easy answers, and nothing appears to absolve Superman of blame for wanting to kill off his duplicate. In the end, Superman’s new power doesn’t stick around, but neither does