The Super-Rivals

The early 60s were such a wonderfully inventive and entertaining period for Superman comics, you sometimes wonder how the Silver Age earned a reputation as "silly." Then comes a story like "The Super Rivals," and all is made abundantly clear. The lead story in 1961's Action Comics #279 stands as one of the looniest tales of all time, hysterically dated and timelessly goofy at the same time. Fittingly, the artwork for this bit of inspired madness is John Forte, whose quirky drawings prefigured the "acid trips" that would prove so popular later in the decade.

The story begins with Lois Lane and Lana Lang running into each other at Metropolis Museum, both bitter that they're without dates and grumbling that Superman will probably never make up his mind and marry one of them. Standing by statues of Hercules and Samson, they wish aloud that the famous heroes were still around as marriage material.

Creepily, Superman is not only stringing both girls along, he's also following them and monitoring their conversations. Hiding behind a pillar at the entrance to the museum, he overhears their lament and decides to bring those heroes of "history" to the 20th Century and marry them off to the girls, getting them out of his hair once and for all.

Streaking back to the time of ancient Greece, Superman finds Hercules entertaining a crowd with a "tug of war" against a hundred gladiators at once. The question is, "entertaining a crowd" of...what? As drawn by Forte, the walls of the arena are about 7 feet high, so the little figures comprising the venue's capacity crowd are presumably housecats.

Superman talks to Hercules using his ability to speak all languages "living or dead." He needn't have bothered...the mere fact that the guy goes by the Roman "Hercules" rather than his native "Herakles" is proof he's multi-lingual, too. Next, Superman plucks Samson from the past and takes both heroes to his Fortress of Solitude, where he teaches them English with a Kryptonian learning machine.

Now it's time to meet the girls. Luckily, each hero is smitten with a different female (Herc loves Lois, Samson loves Lana), so there's no fighting. When Lois complains about the heat, Hercules uproots a shade tree and places it closer to her. When Lana says she's thirsty, Samson punches a hole in a rock and reveals a natural spring of cool water. The formalities of courtship thus completed, the girls take a half-second of careful consideration before agreeing to marry the heroes.

But not so fast. The lady at the license bureau can't issue them a marriage license immediately. ("I heard about your journey here from the past," she says. Eh, happens all the time). Metropolis law requires the couples to wait a whole week for their licenses, which is a bummer for them, but not that huge an obstacle when you think about it, compared to, oh let's say the inability of either groom to produce a birth certificate or proof of residency in any nation on Earth.

Lana uses her show biz connections to line up jobs for the boys in TV commercials. The ad man (who like all ad men sports over-oiled hair, a Ronald Coleman mustache, a plaid jacket and a spotted bow tie) agrees enthusiastically: "They'd have terrific appeal endorsing cigars, chewing gum, breakfast cereal!" Now that's a commercial I'd pay to see.

Using the advance from these new jobs, the couples purchase new houses in the middle of nowhere (actually I guess it's the Metropolis suburbs, but no other houses are in sight). As it's still the early Sixties, the boys agree to sleep in hammocks outside.

Cue the laugh track as Lois, being a typical female, can't decide where on the property her house should go, making Hercules carry it from one location to the next for her amusement. ("I changed my mind, try it over there"). Luckily for Herc, this house is drawn by John Forte, and therefore only slightly larger than the shipping box for a refrigerator.

Lana meanwhile has opted to spend even more money, buying a new car, which as a woman driver she manages to total on the way home from the showroom. Having by now thoroughly offended the National Organization for Women, we move on our next target, PETA. Lana decides she wants an unusual pet, something no one else has, so Lois will be jealous. Samson, naturally, tracks down a mountain lion (so common after all in the suburbs of major cities like Metropolis) and subdues it with a punch in the face. Dragging the big cat home by the tail, Samson finds Lana appreciative. "Chain it up," she says, "and I'll make you dinner."

Alas, the cat wakes and goes after Samson's raw steak. Lana takes cover behind a chair, but again John Forte comes to the rescue, making the crouching Lana 15 feet tall, so the lion is considerably less terrifying than he might have been.

True to Forte form, the very next frame depicts the lion as roughly the size of a Clydesdale. He breaks free from his restraint and runs off with the food, never to be mentioned again (Lana must be really popular with her neighbors).

Not to be outdone, Lois opts for a pet ostrich, which Hercules steals from the Metropolis Zoo. Well, apparently it's not really stealing because he leaves a valuable ruby in its place. Later a radio broadcast reveals that the ostrich is subject to lethal colds and so must be kept warm at night. Interestingly this message is addressed to the bird's "new owner," suggesting the zookeepers are cool with the ruby swap. (Lesson for the kids: It's okay to take something if you leave something else in its place).

Hercules gives up his hammock to the ostrich, which sleeps on its back. With a pillow. And a blanket. And he snores.

Samson takes up a job with a demolition crew, offering to tear down a building since he's had some "experience" at that sort of thing. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Never mind that any kid who went to Sunday School knows the only building Samson ever toppled was the temple of the Philistines, after he'd had his eyes poked out. Oh, and seeing as how he wasn't invulnerable, he died in the process. But who's got time for trivia like that? Anyway the job goes badly as Samson launches a pair of pillars into the air, nearly killing Perry White at the Daily Planet offices (he's saved by Superman. Oh yeah, Superman's in this story, too.)

Hercules has his own problems. He's agreed to help a football team train, but the players keep hurting themselves against his invulnerable (?!) hide. The team mascot, a mule, gives him a kick in the rear, but he doesn't feel it. The mule, however, is rendered unconcious. Exactly how the animal could be knocked out by an injury to its feet is unclear, but we know it's badly hurt because it's lying on its back, legs in the air, like a dead cockroach.

"Instantly" (the caption says), the assistant coach declares, "The mascot knocked himself out! Now our superstitious players won't play because the mule was their good luck symbol!" Really? You took a poll of your players in one instant? That's awesome. The coach takes back Hercules' salary, saying they now intend to use it for "medical expenses for the mule." Oh, the indignity.

Like anyone reading this, the heroes have now had enough, and beg Superman to return them to their own eras so they can escape life with Lois and Lana. He complies, and in short order the girls are back to pulling each other's hair in a squabble over the Man of Steel.

As the scans suggest, I discovered this tale in a copy of Showcase Presents Superman, Volume 3. The credits list the author as "unknown," and based on the evidence at hand, maintaining that anonymity is the single brightest idea the writer ever had.