The Three Ages of Superboy!

Normally, Superboy avoids Red Kryptonite like the plague, but in Superboy #103 (Mar. 1963) , he goes out of his way to find it...thousands of years out of his way, in fact, on an extended journey through time.

It all begins when Joe Larkin, a recently retired Astronomy teacher from Smallville High, spots a trio of fast-moving meteors with his telescope and reports the finding to the Metropolis Observatory. When astronomers are unable to corroborate his discovery, Larkin is discredited, prompting his former student Clark Kent to change to Superboy and fly into space to find the meteors, and clear his name.

When the meteors turn out to be made of Red Kryptonite, Superboy is forced to move aside and let them pass at a safe distance. Some unknown force, however, causes them to accelerate to incredible speeds, fast enough to break the time barrier.

Superboy decides to go after the Red-K meteors in the past, figuring that if he doesn't, they'll just turn up to plague him in the present. With luck, he'll be able to dispose of them without being affected, but even if he is affected -- so he reasons -- the harm will be potentially lessened in the past, where his secret identity is a non-issue.

Tracking the first rock to ancient Egypt, Superboy arrives just in time to rescue a village from the suddenly flooding Nile. Having witnessed this super-feat, the Pharoah and his "royal magician," who just happens to have the appearance and bad character of the adult Luthor, order Superboy to use his powers to help build the Pharoah's pyramid. He begs off, citing his "urgent search" for the Red K, and they respond that if he doesn't help, it'll go badly for the people of the village he just saved. So he agrees to help, but finds himself the victim of the magician's perfidy.

A "queer tingling" reveals the Red-K is in the foundation of the pyramid. Superboy surfaces and tosses the rock into space, to the astonishment of all assembled. A pair of hunting lions is set loose on him, but of course have no effect. Well, at least not the expected effect; as the beasts gnaw futilely at his legs, the Red-K kicks in and turns Superboy into a half-boy/half-lion creature. Superboy uses this turn of events to frighten the superstitious Pharoah into cleaning up his act, making him promise to treat his subjects better or face retribution from this super lion-god. Since the effects of the Red-K won't wear off for a while, he hangs around to make sure the king keeps his word.

Regaining his normal form, Superboy enters the time stream again to search for the next meteor, but once he's a few months into the future he notices Egyptian workers constructing a huge monument in his honor: the half-human, half-lion Sphinx. "Historians have never been sure whom the Sphinx was modeled after!" he muses, "But now I know! It was modeled after me!"

Advancing to 516 AD, Superboy quickly locates the second chunk of Red-K in Britain and builds a catapult to send it into space, being careful to handle the rock with giant lead tongs. At the last moment, however, the catapult ropes break and the rock is instead hurled into the tower of a nearby castle. Flying there, Superboy finds the rock was deliberately misdirected by the legendary Merlin, who turns out to be another lookalike for a Super-books cast member.

Merlin's "magic," we learn, is really science, as he simply has a more advanced grasp of scientific principles than most men of his era and a collection of scientific devices that are ahead of their time (he burnt those catapult ropes with a "sun-focusing mirror," for instance).

Merlin says the land needs a strong, wise ruler and Superboy blurts out, "Then Arthur is not king yet?" Merlin says everyone, including a mysterious Black Knight, is ambitious to be king, and whomever wins an upcoming tournament will get first crack at pulling that legendary sword from the stone to earn the crown.

Superboy sees Arthur in full armor (his face is hidden...wait for it) but the young knight is summoned to meet his love, Lady Guinevere and as the time for the tournament arrives, he fails to appear. Even worse, Merlin reports the Red-K has been stolen from the lead box where he was keeping it.

When the Black Knight defeats all his opponents and looks sure to claim the crown, Superboy challenges him personally, only to find the knight's mace has been fashioned from the missing Red-K. He snatches it and hurls it away, but not before it has its effect:

Superboy searches for Arthur and finds him locked in a stone building, where he was lured by that false message from Guinevere. Superboy uses his new magnetic power to pull the iron door off the building, and as Arthur hangs onto the door, the Boy of Steel magnetically tows it to the tournament.

When they arrive, the Black Knight is trying to pull the sword from the stone, but Superboy alerts the crowd to his trickery: he's got a vial of acid hidden in his hand to weaken the stone. Arthur takes on the Black Knight in a swordfight and Superboy uses his new power to pull the armor off both men, revealing the Black Knight as...Merlin.

Arthur tries his hand at removing the sword, and with Superboy secretly lending an assist by hovering overhead for an extra "tug" of magnetism,he succeeds. Arthur and Guinevere are quickly wed, and Superboy notices that the great king is yet another dead ringer for a character in the super-mythos. I'll give you three guesses who.

By now, Krypto's had enough time to get worried about Superboy, so he too heads into the time stream to find his missing master, who it turns out has arrived in the state of Missouri in 1876. He's just in time to spot a group of bandits leaping onto a passing train, and thwarts them by speeding the train up, leaving the bandits to land not on the train but on the tracks behind it.

Spotting a horse and wagon on the tracks ahead, Superboy races to save it and finds the driver is a dead-ringer for Lana Lang's father. What's more he has a cute red-head daughter who looks exactly like you-know-who. "Doc Langdon" is a snake-oil salesman and traveling performer who invites Superboy to join them as their resident acrobat, and he agrees, if only to pass the time until the Red-K turns up.

The James gang sees Superboy performing acrobatics and takes a couple shots at him, but he catches the bullets in his mouth. Looking for a way to kill this super kid, Jesse chats up Doc Langdon and learns Superboy's afraid of "some queer red shining stone he thinks fell near here." The gang tracks down the Red-K and makes bullets from it.

Meanwhile, Lana's lookalike Laura Langdon tells Superboy she's writing about him in her diary, and just then, the sheriff asks him what his real name is ("not your stage name"). Superboy figures there's no harm in admitting his name is Clark Kent. Laura writes it down.

Later, Superboy is ambushed by the James gang. When he tries to give them the slip, Jesse shoots him with Red-K bullets, prompting a strange transformation, even by Red-K standards, changing him into a second Jesse James.

Feeling his powers fading fast, Superboy/Jesse ties up the real Jesse, then digs an underground tunnel and tells "his" gang the tunnel will take them into the bank. Instead, they find it leads into the jail; they've been double-crossed. The real Jesse escapes Superboy/Jesse's bonds, which is too bad as a posse has just shown up, ready to hang "Jesse James" from the nearest tree,and they're not too particular about which "Jesse James" they hang.

As luck would have it, Krypto picks this very moment to show up. Even more fortunately, his "instinct" tells him that what looks like Jesse James is really his master Superboy. On a hunch, Superboy exposes Krypto to the Red-K.

Really? They were "caught off guard" by the sight of a dog turning into a horse? Yokels...they need to get out more.

Once they regain their normal forms, Superboy and Krypto return to the Smallville of their own time...or do they? Clark is shocked to see what looks like Laura Langdon walking toward him, but it turns out to be Lana Lang, wearing the dress of her great-grandmother, who was indeed Laura Langdon (which means at least one of the "lookalikes" in this story makes sort-of sense). The bad news is she's also found Laura's diary, and is about to read the entry where she mentions Superboy's real name is Clark Kent. Thinking fast, Clark blows the page out of the book with super-breath and Krypto, pretending to be chasing a cat, snatches the page as he zips by.

Sigh...I'm a sucker for those "boy and his dog" panels, especially as rendered by Curt Swan and George Klein, and this one looks a lot like that nifty statue that came out a few years ago.

In fact, the art throughout this story is a real joy, and I can only imagine what fun it must have been for Curt to break out of the normal routine and draw the fashions, props and architecture of ancient Egypt, Medieval England and the Old West, all in one adventure.

Of course the story's pure hokum, and one of many that, taken together, suggest every interesting legend, event or achievement in all of human history somehow or other involved a time-traveling member of the Superman family. There's also a dependence on coincidence and "irony" that gets old in a hurry. But it's fun enough for what it is, and almost deserves bonus points just for being so unreservedly outlandish. One plus is that it offers an explanation for how, in other tales, Kryptonite is sometimes unearthed deep in the ground by archeologists or construction crews, despite Krypton having blown up in the relatively recent past; if the substance sometimes travels through time, as it does here, that would explain why it ends up under centuries-worth of soil.

I find I tend to enjoy these "book-length" 3-parters more than the shorter Silver Age tales. Writers of the period already did more in 8 pages than most modern writers do in 500, but given the whole book to play with, they really delivered the goods on an epic scale.

This one, it turns out, was written by Edmond Hamilton, who's shaping up to be my favorite of the period. I wouldn't call this his best work, but it's a solid effort, aided in no small way by Swan and Klein. I'm pretty fond of George Papp's Superboy, but nobody will ever beat Curt's, in my eyes.

By the way, it's never mentioned whether Joe Larkin had his reputation saved in astronomy circles, but seeing as how his purported meteors vanished into the past, I'm guessing not. So while he inspired the sphinx, made Arthur king and "outwitted Jesse James," Superboy never did accomplish his original goal of clearing his former teacher's name. But then, I guess you can't win them all.