Installment 4: Adventures of Superman #545
- Cover Date: April 1997
- Released on February 19, 1997
- Triangle Number: 1997/16
- Writer: Karl Kesel
- Pencils: Scot Eaton
- Inker: Jose Marzan, Jr.
- Editor: Joey Cavalieri
Spoiler Free Synopsis
Dinner plans change. Complications with super powers continue. An old enemy returns. Dr. Electron gets atomized.
Spoiler Filled Commentary
The cover to this issue isn’t terrible but it isn’t great either. Without the special effects swarming around Superman’s head it would look like he has a bad headache, not out of control energy powers. Lois just looks odd with an expression that says, “The dog did her business on the carpet again,” and not, “Holy @#$%! What is wrong with my husband?!” Again, the art isn’t bad. I just didn’t care for it.
Karl Kesel doesn’t waste any time getting us into the over arcing storyline. He opens the issue with a phone call to Professor Emil Hamilton, “Superman Gal Friday” when it comes to scientific matters. I liked this quite a bit but then again I am a mark for Professor Hamilton in this era. I also liked that Clark had to get to him right then and there, which will interrupt the dinner party the Kents are having with Perry White and Dirk Armstrong. This was a nice carryover of the conversation Dirk had with Lois and Clark in the previous chapter and I was happy that Lois didn’t get annoyed that Clark had to leave for a bit. The trope of the wife or girlfriend or husband or boyfriend being annoyed at the fact that their partner has to rush off to take care of something bores me to tears.
Things go to hell in a hurry on the second page as Clark’s eyes start giving off strange electrical arcs. This leads to a beautiful splash page where onlookers stagger back in fear while Superman tells them that he has everything under control. He doesn’t but he can’t let them know that, especially when Dirk Armstrong arrives on the scene. Kesel plays Dirk as a bit of a cheapskate by having him recommend that the driver buy his book, That’s Right! instead of giving him a cash tip but it provided a bit of levity during a tense scene.
(Quick aside; As I wrote last time, Dirk Armstrong is the DC Universe version of Rush Limbaugh. In addition to a popular talk radio show and a television show that lasted four years Limbaugh had written two books by the time this issue was published. The Way Things Ought To Be was published in 1992 and See, I Told You So in 1996. Both of those titles could have been the inspiration behind Dirk Armstrong having a book out titled That’s Right!)
Superman’s power problems continue and more seeds of Dirk having his doubts about the Man of Steel are planted. Kesel even has Dirk wonder aloud if the person they are seeing is Superman or some kind of super menace. Superman phases through the ground and accidentally brushes up against an electrical line, which causes a blackout on the south side of New Troy (one of Metropolis’ boroughs) and a good chunk of Queensland Park (another borough). New Troy to Metropolis is what Manhattan is to New York City. If you check out the handy graphic below, you’ll see that Queensland Park is to the south of Metropolis and sitting there in the West River between the two boroughs is Stryker’s Island. If the power has gone out on the south side of New Troy and a good chunk of Queensland Park it stands to reason that the power would also go out at Stryker’s Island. All this geography might seem unnecessary but I think it’s neat that the creators put some thought into the layout of their fictional city.
The power outage on Stryker’s Island allows a villain named The Atomic Skull to escape. The Skull is another Pre-Crisis character that was given a Post-Crisis makeover a few years before this issue hit the stands. The original Atomic Skull was Dr. Albert Michaels, a scientist at STAR Labs that made his first appearance in Superman #303 (September 1976). Michaels was smart but kind of a jerk. Maybe this was due to the rare nervous system disorder he suffered from that caused massive seizures. I get cranky when I have a sinus headache so I imagine having painful seizures would put you in an ill mood. Anyway, Michaels did what anyone in that situation would do; he allowed a terrorist organization called SKULL to experiment on him and in exchange he would become one of their agents. Apparently you can’t trust evil organizations because whatever SKULL did to Michaels made his condition worse. Adding insult to injury Superman captured the only SKULL scientist that could have cured him and thus a hatred was born.
Some people might think that the original Atomic Skull’s outfit is silly. I think it’s kind of cool.
The Post Crisis Skull was a different beast entirely. Joseph Martin was a college student that happened to carry the metagene (the genetic anomaly that allowed normal people to become super powered under certain circumstances) and was at STAR Labs getting checked out when Monarch, the villain from Armageddon 2001, attacked. I could explain that sentence further but, in all honesty, it’s best that I just keep moving and not get lost in those weeds. As the building started to crumble Martin was hit by a stray grounding cable, which activated his metagene and caused his flesh to become invisible. The change also caused him to become mentally unstable and Martin became convinced that he was the Atomic Skull, the hero from an old movie serial. When Superman tried to stop him Martin saw him as the Skull’s adversary, Dr. Electron. He also saw Lois as the Skull’s love interest Zelda. It may sound a bit crazy but the original story was a lot of fun, especially when Curt Swan stepped in to draw the movie serial scenes.
Long story short (too late) the Skull was at Ryker’s Island when Superman damaged the electrical lines and escaped. On the surface using the Skull as the villain of the piece is smart. Superman’s powers are becoming energy based so it is logical to put him up against an energy based villain. It’s clever but in reality the biggest obstacle Superman is facing in this issue is himself and Kesel handles those scenes brilliantly. One of the producers of the Superman radio series in the forties suggested that it isn’t what Superman can do it’s what he can’t do that’s interesting. The bulk of Superman’s motivation in this issue is to get his body under control not only because he needs to defeat the Atomic Skull but also because he doesn’t want to be a danger to the people he is trying to save.
More than anything having out of control powers puts Superman on the back foot, which is something that happens from time to time but not to this degree. Superman is faced with villains trying to destroy him or the city or the world or all of that at the same time and some of those villains have abilities or technology that rival Superman’s powers. This leads to Superman having to use his intelligence to get out of the scrape. By the time this story took place Clark has had his powers for a long time. He’s honed them over the years so there is nothing his body can do that he can’t control. Now his body is betraying him and that makes for an exciting story.
In between the Atomic Skull having issues and Superman pulling himself together we see more of a subplot from a few issues ago. The newly reformed Intergang recruits a new member and by recruits I mean they kill the man they’ve tried to recruit and taken a sample of his DNA to make a new clone for the gang. The scene is really disturbing but Kesel keeps things light with the wackiness of Dabney Donovan. I remember not liking this new Intergang at the time, but I’ve read more of the Jack Kirby run on Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen in the past twenty years and finally get what made that material popular amongst its fans. This sub-plot is Kesel’s baby so it makes sense that we’re seeing it in this title.
One of the stand-out moments of the issue for me was Perry White standing up to the Atomic Skull. A few pages before this event the Atomic Skull turns on Lois (who he sees as Zelda) and tries to kill her because he believes she’s under the thrall of Dr. Electron. Superman is busy trying to pull himself together and Perry wants to save her but he’s weak from his cancer treatments. Of all people Dirk Armstrong emerges as the hero of this scene and manages to get Lois out of the way of the Skull’s blast. I wrote last time that while Armstrong is a Limbaugh stand in he was not a straw man character. Armstrong has the courage of his convictions and even though he looks petrified he saves Lois just the same. To my mind the fact that Perry couldn’t save Lois probably ate at him so he was willing to do the one thing he was strong enough to do; serve as a sacrifice to save both Lois and Dirk.
This scene actually moved me. Outside of Lane Smith’s portrayal on Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, my favorite Perry White is the one that existed in the comics from 1986 to 2006. The creators took their time to flesh Perry out as a character. I’m not suggesting that previous versions of Perry are inferior. I just wasn’t there for them. Like the Silver and Bronze Age version of the character this Perry was the father figure of the Planet. Clark and Lois and Jimmy and Cat and Allie and Ron were all like family to him, so it makes sense that he would want to save Lois and even Dirk.
All of this brings us to the cliffhanger ending. Superman and the Skull fight some more, there’s a huge explosion and suddenly Superman is gone. Just gone. Perry, Dirk and Lois are fine for the moment but the former Man of Steel has disappeared and the Atomic Skull believes he has defeated Dr. Electron. It was such a good way to leave the audience hanging. We knew Superman wasn’t dead, but what happened to him? And who is going to defeat the Atomic Skull? This is super-hero soap opera done right and my hats off to Karl Kesel for crafting such an entertaining chapter to this arc. I enjoyed re-reading it so much more than I thought I would and it gives me confidence that this project is going to be a lot of fun.
I was actually smiling at the end of the issue. I really was.
Next Time: The action moves to Action Comics as the Skull and Superman face off again. Oh, and the problems Superman is having with his powers gets worse.