When Superman Was A Mutant

If I had a nickel for every time a comic was pitched with the line, "Everything you thought you knew is a LIE!" I'd be wealthy enough to start buying monthlies again (not that I would). As plot springboards go, it's got even less bounce left in it than most, but recently I realized it goes back even further than I thought.

Consider the case of Superman 307-309, published way back in 1976 (with cover dates of Jan-Mar '77), in which writer Gerry Conway tried to convince us -- and the Man of Steel himself -- that there never was a planet Krypton, and that Superman and Supergirl are actually Earth-born mutants. Aiding and abetting him in this effort are artists Jose-Luis Garcia-Lopez and Frank Springer.

It all started promisingly enough, with a fantabulous cover in the "what's going on here" style of a Silver Age classic, but delineated by the amazing Neal Adams at the height of his Bronze Age grooviness:

Inside, we hit the ground running, with Superman punching apart the Metro Chemical plant while a mysterious, white-clad superhuman called The Protector tries to stop him. In a flashback, we learn that Clark Kent was alerted to dangerous goings-on at the plant by a whistle-blowing employee, and decided to investigate as Superman. Confronted with accusations that vinyl chloride exposure is causing cancer in the plant's workers, the owner shows a distinct lack of concern, which sets Superman off on his tantrum.

Yes, I know Superman is wearing pink booties in that panel. Anyway, the Protector fights Superman to a standstill and our hero goes off to sulk on a lonely hilltop, where he unspools a bizarre chain of logic: plant workers dying of cancer reminds him of everyone dying on Krypton. Krypton was destroyed, therefore Earth is also on the brink of destruction. Or something. Anyway, he goes off his nut and starts yelling solemn oaths at the sky like he's in a Marvel comic, then it's off on a mission to make the world greener.

First on the agenda is a supertanker full of oil (yes, I know the chemical plant is the place where people are dying, but it's 1976 and everyone hates the oil companies. Not like today). Removing the crew, he lifts the ship into the air. "In the past two years, there've been three major accidents with these so called super-tankers," he thinks"...No more! I'm going to throw this baby into orbit, and then come back for all the others!"

There's some sound reasoning for you. Never mind upsetting the economies of the developed world, there's a one in 200,000 chance something might go wrong with this ship. Got to act fast! Alas, the Protector shows up again (he kind of likes what big business is doing to the economy), forcing Superman to drop the ship (if it was ever going to have a breached hull, this would have been the moment!) and again fighting him to a draw before escaping.


Supergirl shows up and tells her cousin to lay off the ship already. Superman asks, "Do you want Earth to end up like Krypton -- in ruins?" This gives Kara her opening to deliver the big bombshell: "There is no planet Krypton! Moreover, Clark -- there never was!"

Taking Superman to the Fortress of Solitude, Kara smashes the statues of Jor-El and Lara and tells Supes his "memories" of the planet are a delusion. When he asks, quite reasonably, "What about the Bottle City of Kandor?" which after all is sitting right over there in the corner, she tells him to take a closer look, and to his dismay the bottle is revealed to contain only little toy buildings and plastic figurines.

With that shock still settling in, Supergirl uses audio-visuals to reveal their "true origins," claiming Jonathan Kent and Fred Danvers were their true biological fathers -- not just their adoptive dads -- who as victims of radiation exposure sired mutant children.


Adding to the hysteria, Superman's new nemesis The Protector shows up again, this time smack dab in the middle of the Fortress and ready for Round Three. Superman's figured out the guy's tactics by now, however, and manages to knock him out, but as the issue ends, our hero says gloomily, "The nightmare isn't over! It's just beginning..."

Since I was never the type who could take a hint, I bought the next issue, anyway. As if I could resist the second phenomenal Neal Adams cover in a row:

Still in the Fortress, Superman and Supergirl resume the "Krypton versus No Krypton" debate while the Protector wakes up and escapes. Oops.

Flying back to Metropolis, Superman keeps a date with Lois Lane and begins warming up to the idea that he may be human after all, deciding it may be time to get serious with the lady reporter.

The next morning, Clark continues to struggle with Supergirl's revelations, sorting thoughtfully through the Kryptonian mementos in his secret closet, including a certain projector we know and love.

Hmm...let's see if this thing unleashes a dozen of the most dangerous super-powered psychopaths in the Universe. No, I guess not. Good thing, too, 'cause I'm still in my pajamas. Hey, I wonder if that Kryptonian A-bomb I found in a meteor once is non-functional? I'll drop it on the Empire State Building just to be sure...

Some other stuff happens, then Superman battles Radion, yet another new super-villain who's in league with the Protector. Radion's even more into environmental destruction than his pal; his plan is to overload a nuclear reactor and cause devastating fall-out, triggering a nationwide radioactive apocalypse from which a new race of mutants will emerge.

Superman maneuvers the Protector and Radion into knocking each other out, but he shows some sympathy for them, noting that they're all united by their common origin as genetic aberrations. If only they'd used their mutant powers for niceness instead of evil.

So it is that the wheels grind on to Part 3, and by now I'm kind of committed to seeing this thing through. Sensing this, DC feels it's safe to put Neal Adams back on the bench and give me a Garcia-Lopez cover.

Within, we learn Superman is getting used to the idea of being an Earthman and has dedicated himself to crime fighting on the local level, to the delight of the authorities. Not nearly as pleased with this development is Supergirl, who needs his help staving off an alien invasion on a distant planet; Superman turns her down flat. ""There are enough things here on Earth to keep me busy," he says, "I don't have to traipse around the cosmos."

Supergirl does not take the rejection well.

Clark goes on another date with Lois, but his mind is still on his argument with Kara (or should I say "Linda"). He uses super-vision to watch Supergirl and Krypto fighting that far-off space battle without him, and what he sees isn't pretty; both of them fall in battle. Unable to sit idly by any longer, he rudely rushes Lois out of his apartment and speeds off to the far-off galaxy to join the fray.

Check out that odd-looking spaceship at the upper right corner of the panel. If it looks familiar, then you were a kid of the 70s. Or maybe you just saw the toy ad that ran nine pages earlier in this same issue:

In 1976-77, Gerry Anderson's TV show Space: 1999 is enjoying popularity in syndication, which means the comics have finally stopped ripping off Federation and Klingon ship designs in favor of Moonbase Alpha's "Eagle" craft. It will be a short-lived "victory" for the show, however; in a few months, the summer of '77 will be here and Star Wars will spark the next wave of "creativity" in comic book spaceship design.

Okay, so Superman is doing very well in the battle until he suddenly goes blind. This little setback leads to him being knocked out by an alien warrior and locked in a cell with Supergirl and Krypto, who have also gone blind due to their proximity to an orange sun. With them is an alien who fills them in on the enemy. In the course of the conversation, Superman reveals that he's figured out he's not an Earthman, after all.

D'Oh! Yep, Krypto is pretty big hole in the theory, isn't he? Let that be a lesson to you, Kara. You can't scam a scammer. Superman was playing cruel hoaxes on people when you were still playing with your Raggedy Ann dolls in Argo City. Still, it did take him a long time to put it all together, didn't it?

Never fear, it was all in a good cause, as Supergirl "explains:"

Supergirl reminds Superman that "Kandorian psychologists -- unlike Earth psychologists -- feel that an emotional problem should be removed, rather than solved!" Therefore, if what's bugging Superman is his grief over the loss of Krypton, the obvious cure is to convince him it never existed. Because...um...then he only has to worry that he's been living in a psychotic delusion for the last 30 years. See? Problem solved.

Enraged that three months of his book and two great Neal Adams covers have been wasted on this foolishness, Superman smashes out of his cell and wipes out the enemy army in spite of his blindness. Returning to Earth, he explains that he loves his new world as much as Krypton.

Wow, this one's a real mess, isn't it? Let's start with the hoax: Kara and the Kandorians covered their bases with a fake Kandor and Phantom Zone projector, but what about the other evidence of Krypton's existence, like the recorded messages and writings of Jor-El, the remains of Superbaby's rocket, the super-costumes made of Kryptonian fabric and -- here's a biggie -- the various forms of Kryptonite? If he's not from Krypton, why does Kryptonite hurt him?

For Supergirl's story to be true, Superman would have to accept that every time-traveling journey to Krypton of the past, every visit to Kandor, every battle with the Phantom Zone villains was the product of his imagination. And if he does accept that, then logically his reaction wouldn't be, "oh well, guess I'll get serious with Lois," it would be, "My God, I'm a raving lunatic! I need to get off the planet before someone gets killed!" Not that there would be any reason to believe it, mind you; a quick trip to the Daily Planet files would confirm his past battles with the Phantom Zone villains, or even better he could just say, "Hey, Jimmy; am I crazy or didn' t you visit Kandor a few times with me?'

The Kandorians' plan makes no sense, anyway. If what's worrying them is that Superman is getting too obsessed with saving Earth from ecological disaster, then why make him think he was born on Earth? Wouldn't that make him more obsessed with saving it, not less? Unless of course they figure, "Hey, real Terrans don't care about the environment. Maybe if Kal-El thinks he's from Earth, he'll stop caring, too."

This is the biggest unresolved thread from the whole debacle: Supergirl and the Kandorians honestly believe Superman has gone off his nut with his attacks on the chemical plant and supertanker. Nothing ever happens to convince them or us otherwise. At the story's end, Superman says, "Well if I am obsessed, it's because I care," which suggests he still thinks he was in the right and fully intends to pick up where he left off. And yet the issue never comes up again. Superman never again attacks a coal mine or oil well or polluting factory; his career as Super-Al Gore begins and ends here. So apparently the episodes at the beginning were an "amok time" for him, or should I say a "berserker rage" in keeping with the mutant theme.

The story also illustrates the problems inherent in an "activist" Superman. In his early years, he could inflict all sorts of property damage on "unfair" companies, "exploitative" bosses or "cruel" governments and we cheered him on; he was a cartoon avatar through which we lived out vicariously our wish for violent justice. But by the 70s, we're supposed to believe comics are more "mature" and "sophisticated," dealing with real-world issues and featuring realistic relationships. In that light, Superman's actions here are blatantly criminal; he's guilty of destruction of private propery and -- in removing the supertanker's crew and seizing its cargo -- even piracy. There should be some fall-out from this; he should be hunted by the authorities as surely as Spider-Man (but in this case, deservedly). But of course he isn't. What's more, his acts show the Kandorians were right: Superman did lose his marbles, if only temporarily. Logically, what can come of smashing chunks out of a chemical plant with his fists and heat vision except a greater risk of environmental contamination? (And unemployment for the workers) Don't you imagine that supertanker is considerably more likely to hit something and spill its oil now that it's sailing around with no crew?

In 1976, when this story was written, the X-Men were a few months into a successful revival engineered by Len Wein, Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum, and in a couple years they would be the the biggest thing in comics. Whether that influenced Conway's story, I have no idea, but by the early 80s everyone would be jumping on the "mutant" bandwagon, so maybe we should praise Superman as an early adopter.

And hey, even if Superman isn't as cool and popular as Wolverine, he's still the best there is at what he does, Bub! By which of course I mean playing elaborate hoaxes and mind games on other people.