12138086458?profile=RESIZE_400xQuestion:  when is an Imaginary Story not an Imaginary Story?


While you think on that for a moment, I’ll set the Wayback Machine for a little trip.  The time:  1959.  The place:  the National Periodical Publications building at 2d and Dickey Streets, New York City.


At that particular time, National Periodical Publications (“DC Comics”, for those of you who came in late) was sitting in the comics publishers’ catbird seat.  It was the only company to have had super-heroes in continuous publication for over twenty years.  And thanks to television, movie serials, and newspaper comic strips, these heroes---especially Superman---and their basic premises had been integrated into the public consciousness.


Even better, with the overwhelming success of the Flash’s revival in Showcase, super-heroes were now popular with the youngsters, again.


Throughout the middle years of the 1950’s, as National Periodical watched its competition fall by the wayside, its commercial approach had slowly shifted.  Certainly, it continued to try out new characters in new genres, looking for the next big trend.  But for its surviving super-heroes---Superman, Batman and Robin, and Wonder Woman, along with the little fish, like Aquaman and the Green Arrow---the policy became Don’t Tinker Around with Success.  The premises, supporting casts, and styles were set in stone.  The writers were free to create whatever they wanted---so long as they didn’t step outside those lines.


DC was playing defence.  Better, the corporate suits reasoned, to hold onto whatever sales their super-hero titles were earning than to risk losing money on an innovation that didn’t grab the fans.  This prevailing attitude of conservatism had resulted in DC being the only “super-power” in the comics world.  But there was a penalty to be paid for this inertia, and the creative forces at DC saw it, even if the bean-counters didn’t. 


By locking their super-heroes into place, DC had painted itself into a corner.  There was no room for character development or revivification, and thus, the plots had grown stale and repetitive.  The only growth was in the newly resurrected heroes, the Flash and the Green Lantern.  As new versions of the Golden-Age heroes who bore their names, their slates were clean.  But Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman were stagnating.


DC editor Mort Weisinger, who had assumed complete control of the Superman family of magazines in 1958, was the first to seek a way to break his characters out of the corporate stranglehold.  He needed to find a way to present more diverse storylines and breathe new life into Superman without disrupting the comfortable but stodgy format of his series.


Thus, begat the Imaginary Story.


(Now I know the instant I mentioned “Imaginary Story”, about a gazillion of you responded by mentally quoting Alan Moore’s line “Aren’t they all?”  It was clever when Moore wrote it, and it was cute when the next person to write about Imaginary Stories quoted it.  But it has been so overdone since that it annoys me as much as when I see “Pow! Zap! Biff!” in the title of any article about comic books.   Let’s give it a decent burial.)


By definition, Imaginary Stories were those that stepped outside the established continuity and format of a series.  In short, it was taking the same characters and doing anything that came to the writer’s fancy with them.  An Imaginary Story could diverge from a character’s established history at a specific point (Baby Kal-El’s rocket lands in Communist Russia and he is found by Soviet peasants Josef and Magda Kiryakov) or it could go in any direction, regardless of the normal continuity (Bruce Wayne’s parents were career criminals killed by a police officer).   The main point was that they didn’t “really” happen to the characters.


This was a way of “colouring outside the lines”.  The plot of an Imaginary Story could go anywhere, have any result, and it would not overturn the cast-in-stone premises of the series because an Imaginary Story was outside the normal continuity.  Things which would or could never happen in the actual continuity occurred with regularity in Imaginary Stories.  Marriages.  Children.  Old age.  Deaths. 


The first real Imaginary Story -- and by “real” I mean that the tale was advertised right up front as an Imaginary Story not meant to be part of the regular continuity -- appeared in Lois Lane # 19 (Aug., 1960).  “Mr. and Mrs. Clark (Superman) Kent” related what might have happened if Superman revealed his secret identity to Lois Lane, then married her as Clark Kent.  Right up front, the reader was told that this was “one of the first of many such tales which could very well happen in the future . . . but perhaps never will!”  Writer Jerry Siegel, no doubt prodded by Weisinger, inserted similar caveats throughout, just to make sure that even the most casual fan got it. 


“Mr. and Mrs. Clark (Superman) Kent” was the tale that coined the term “Imaginary Story” and began the practice of simply publishing them as a stories out of continuity with only a blurb on the splash page to tell the reader that.  Dozens would follow.


And that brings us back to the question I started with.  When is an Imaginary Story not an Imaginary Story?


Answer:  when you try to hide it.


The year before, in 1959, Weisinger wasn’t sure the fans would accept a Superman story that clearly was out of continuity, one that “didn’t count”.  He wanted a way to disguise it, to make the out-of-continuity tale somehow fit in continuity.  This is what I term a “Semi-Imaginary Story”, one in which the main events take place outside of normal continuity, but are presented in a manner which keeps them within the series’ canon.


The most obvious method for this is the dream sequence.  For decades, writers in the comics form (as well as in other media) had explained away a particularly outlandish script by having a character awaken and realise that it was only a dream.  It had been the basis of Windsor McCay’s classic newspaper strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland”.


It was a long-standing gimmick, so long-standing, Weisinger knew, that it had whiskers.  He wanted a fresh approach.  (Not that Mort was completely resistant to the idea of a dream sequence; it would explain away “The Old Man of Metropolis”, from Action Comics # 270 [Nov., 1960].)  Fortunately, a script by Otto Binder delivered a new device for presenting Imaginary Stories within canon.  And Weisinger liked it so much that it would become an element of the Superman mythos.


This landmark Semi-Imaginary Story, “Superman’s Other Life”, appeared in Superman # 132 (Oct., 1959)   Binder’s tale, while powerful, would not have the impact that the mechanism used to present it did.  For this was the introduction of the Man of Steel’s Super-Univac.


The Super-Univac is already in place in the Fortress of Solitude at the beginning of “Superman’s Other Life”.  It’s a sophisticated computer that, once programmed with the pertinent details, can project the probable events resulting from a hypothetical question.  These events are displayed on a video screen.  The Man of Steel has brought the Batman and Robin to his Fortress at their request.  As a gift to him for saving their lives, the Dynamic Duo asks Superman to feed the Super-Univac with all of the pertinent information on Krypton, its history, its civilisation, and its people in order to find out the answer to a simple question:  “What would Superman’s other life have been if Krypton had not exploded?”


This serves as the framing device for the real story, which begins with the familiar scene of Kal-El’s rocket being launched from Jor-El’s lab just as Krypton starts to shake apart.  As Superman, Batman, and Robin watch the screen, the Super-Univac shows the deviation from the real history.  Zin-Da, one of Jor-El’s fellow scientists, has invented a special anti-atomic ray which stops the nuclear chain reaction within the planet.  Krypton will not explode!


Jor-El is able to intercept his son’s rocket before it is out of reach and he also recovers the test satellite that held Krypto. Skipping to just the highlights in Superman’s might-have-been life, the Super-Univac shows the milestone events of “his” youth---his first steps, his first haircut, his first day of school.  And a completely unexpected twist, the birth of his baby brother, Zal-El.


This is a long interlude, taking up approximately one-third of the comic, but it serves to illustrate life in Krypton society.  This was something that Mort Weisinger pushed to include in his Superman tales.  It established an awareness of the people of Krypton as living beings, and thus, the reader felt a genuine sense of loss at the planet’s destruction and, in turn, a greater sympathy for Superman.


The “what if?” story really kicks in gear when Kal-El’s teacher, Professor Xan-Du, is introduced.  Due to an accident involving exposure to a “super-static ray” of his own invention, Xan-Du is bestowed with Superman-like powers and he becomes Futuro, the super-hero of Krypton.  Through a confluence of events, Kal-El, who has joined Krypton’s Space Patrol, learns that Xan-Du is Futuro.  After promising to keep his professor’s secret, Kal-El is rewarded by Futuro with the gift of an ultra-sonic signal watch.  Thus, Kal-El becomes the “Jimmy Olsen” to Krypton’s “Superman”.


The Man of Steel learns that all would not have been roses, though, in his probable life on Krypton.  Jor-El, Lara, and little Zal-El all perish following a crash-landing of their spaceship on a magnetic asteroid.  Arriving mere instants too late to save them, Space Patrolman Kal-El sees them die before his eyes.


In the final twist, a mishap brings an American spacecraft to Krypton.  The occupants are two astronauts and a stowaway---Lois Lane!  Kal-El is assigned to show Lois the sights of Krypton (giving the script another opportunity to display life on Krypton).  To the surprise of Superman and the Dynamic Duo, the Super-Univac does not project that Kal-El and Lois fall in love with each other.  Instead, they see the impetuous newshen fall for Futuro, and he, for her.  Futuro proposes; Lois accepts.  And they decide to live on Earth.  Before departing, Futuro uses his super-static ray to give Kal-El super-powers.  For his costume, Kal-El modifies his red-and-blue Space Patrol uniform, and as for what he will call himself . . . well . . .




The gimmick of the Super-Univac was a good one.  It enabled Superman writers to step out of the box and stretch the characters into new situations and relationships without leaving the comfort zone of the regular continuity.  Until Mort learnt if the fans would accept a flat-out Imaginary Story, he could count on using the conceit of making it a computer simulation to keep it grounded.


The notion that the Super-Univac could accurately predict future events from present data also came in handy as a plot springboard in other ways, ways that did not involve Imaginary Stories or Semi-Imaginary Stories.


It was in one of those ways that the wondrous probability computer appeared next.


“The Superman from Outer Space”, from Action Comics # 265 (Jun., 1960), gives every indication of falling into the standard Superman-performs-in-a-bizarre-way-but-secretly-has-a-good-reason category of plot.  However, there is a kick at the end that catches even the most complacent fan off guard.  Comics pro Fred Hembeck considers it the “single saddest story” he ever read in a comic book.   


As the tale describes, the Man of Steel is sought out by Hyper-Man, the super-hero of the planet Oceania.  Hyper-Man is a precise double for Superman, not only in appearance but in super-powers.  As an infant, he was rocketed into space to escape the explosion of his home planet, Zoron.  Landing on Oceania, he was adopted by Ma and Pa King, who raised him to use his super-powers for good.  His one weakness is zoronite, the radioactive fragments of his destroyed world, and like kryptonite, it comes in a variety of colours and effects.


That’s not the end of the unlikely coїncidences.  Oceania is a planet almost identical to Earth, with a society exactly like ours, save for some minor cosmetic differences.  In his home city of Macropolis, Hyper-Man maintains the secret identity of Chester King, a roving television reporter.  Also working for the same news outfit is Lydia Long, a Lois Lane look-alike who is as much of a pain to Hyper-Man as Lois is to our Man of Steel.  The duplications continue to the point where even the story makes note of the extreme improbability of them.12436755289?profile=RESIZE_400x


Hyper-Man loves Lydia, but he is being pestered to death by her efforts to prove that he is Chester King.  He asks Superman to come with him to Oceania and take his place long enough for Chester and “Hyper-Man” to be seen in two different places at once.  This, the other-world hero hopes, will put an end to Lydia’s suspicions once and for all.  Superman agrees, and plies Hyper-Man for all the details of his life and of Oceania.  These, he programs into the Super-Univac to get an idea of how successful their scheme will be.


Once they get to Oceania, however, it seems like everything the Man of Steel does to protect Hyper-Man’s secret identity goes awry, making Lydia even more suspicious.  And as Superman’s thoughts reveal, he’s doing it on purpose.  Finally, in one last spectacular “blunder”, the Metropolis Marvel not only succeeds in revealing Hyper-Man’s identity to his world, it also looks like he has destroyed his double’s super-powers in the bargain.  He is run off of Oceania on a rail.


Rest assured, folks, Superman had a good reason for what he did.  A very good one.  In fact, it's so dramatic that, even for a tale this old, it deserves a . . .


Spoiler Warning!



As it turned out, the Super-Univac’s projection of Hyper-Man’s future revealed that an exposure to “blue zoronite” would, unbeknownst to him, shortly remove his super-powers and kill him in a year’s time.  Superman deliberately revealed Hyper-Man’s identity and took the blame for his loss of super-powers so that, removed from the responsibility of being his world’s super-hero, Chester could marry Lydia, and they could share one year of happiness.



Fred Hembeck was right---it’s a sad ending.  One wishes it were a Semi-Imaginary Story.



O.K., you spoiler-dodgers can open your eyes, now . . .


The Super-Univac’s next appearance, in “The Second Supergirl”, from Action Comics # 272 (Jan., 1961), wasn’t a Semi-Imaginary Story, either.  Written during the time when Supergirl’s existence on Earth was still a secret, she asks her cousin to use the Super-Univac to locate a world identical to Earth.  The Girl of Steel proposes that, if she can operate openly without making any mistakes on that world, then she is ready for her début on ours.  Superman agrees and puts the Super-Univac to work. (It strikes me that it would have been easier just to point her toward Oceania.)


We get back to Semi-Imaginary territory with “The Super-Life of Lois Lane”, from Lois Lane # 47 (Feb., 1964).  By this time, the “pure” Imaginary Story had been accepted by the readership and they were appearing regularly.  But Mort Weisinger was never one to let go of a good idea, and in this case, the conceit of using the Super-Univac to show this outside-continuity tale allowed us to see Lois Lane’s reactions to it.  And that was the real point of the story, anyway.


“The Super-Life of Lois Lane” opens with the girl reporter on a visit to Superman’s Fortress.  Before having to depart to conduct a vital experiment, the Man of Steel shows Lois how to operate the Super-Univac, so she can occupy herself during his absence.  After feeding the computer the necessary data, Lois asks the all-important question:  “What would Lois Lane’s other life have been like if she, instead of Superman, had come to Earth from Krypton?”


Unlike its operation in back in Superman # 132, this time, the Super-Univac skips the small stuff and moves right to the might-have-been Lois’ adult life.  The viewscreen shows her as the super-heroine Krypton Girl, landing on the roof of the Daily Planet Building, where she changes back to Lois Lane, star reporter for the Planet.  Also working for the paper is Clark Kent.  In a reverse of the normal situation, Clark suspects Lois of being Krypton Girl and tries to trick her into exposing herself.  There’s a difference, though.  The Clark Kent of the computer simulation just doesn’t know when to quit!12437388871?profile=RESIZE_400x


Over the course of one day, Clark tries to cut the invulnerable Lois’ hair, traps her inside an airless vault, drives her to quit her job at the Planet, and follows her to her next job just to keep the pressure up.  Finally, Kent exposes Lois to red kryptonite, hoping that it causes her to undergo a physical change, revealing that she is a Kryptonian.  It does, but Clark isn’t happy about it.  The red k transforms Lois into a giantess.  It also turns her wicked.  Now without compunction, Krypton Girl gets Clark out of her hair by projecting him into the Phantom Zone.


Switching off the simulation, the genuine Lois now realises how much her constant pestering of Clark Kent, if he is Superman, hinders his ability to perform his duties.  (She probably also realises how close she’s come a few times to being sent into the Phantom Zone herself!)  With this epiphany, she gives up her secret-identity snooping.  For awhile, anyway.





The Super-Univac made no other significant appearances in the Silver Age, and ordinarily, this is where I would end this column.  As the Superman series entered the 1970’s, and Julius Schwartz replaced Weisinger as editor, the initial inclination was to shelve many of the trappings that Mort had introduced to the mythos.  Gone were Imaginary Stories, along with Krypto and the other super-pets, the Superman robots, Lori the Mermaid, the Bizarros, and even kryptonite.  Schwartz intended to present a more realistic Man of Steel, shed of much of the baggage that had weighed him down during Weisinger’s reign as editor.


Even so, the Super-Univac was one Silver-Age development that had one last important contribution to make.


As the decade rolled on, many of the old Silver-Age ideas crept back into the mythos.  They weren’t, as Schwartz discovered, bad ideas; they simply needed some tweaking to make them more palatable to a more savvy generation of readers.  A milestone issue, Superman # 300 (Jun., 1976), had even featured an honest-to-God Imaginary Story, the first one published in six years.


It was time for the Super-Univac to make a comeback, too, and not just as a springboard for storylines.  The probability computer that Weisinger had introduced twenty years earlier to make Imaginary Stories more acceptable would now resolve a “square peg” of an idea that was jammed into the “round hole” of the DC universe.


Superman Family # 192-3 (Nov.-Dec., 1978 and Jan.-Feb., 1979) included a pair of Semi-Imaginary Stories written by Gerry Conway.  The first, “My Father . . . Superman”, kicks off when the Man of Steel once again consults the Super-Univac to ask the question “What would have happened if Krypton had perished before I was born?”  Conway’s script made clear that this was no idle speculation on Superman’s part.


“It could be a matter of life and death,” Superman considers.  “Should someone ever go through time---and somehow alter the past, impossible as that has always seemed---it might result in my non-existence!  With enemies like the Time Trapper and Time Lord, I need protection!  And knowledge is the only ultimate protection.”


The story proper unfolds the events that the Super-Univac projects would happen under the hypothesis that Krypton was fated to explode before Kal-El’s birth and concludes with both Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van, as toddlers, being rocketed to Earth.


“My Mother, Supergirl”, from the following issue, is the sequel.  Here, the Semi-Imaginary Story is the computer’s projection in response to Superman’s follow-up question:  “Would my father and mother have married on Earth?”


Both tales are pleasant little twists on the traditional Superman legend, chock-full of references to minor characters and events that had popped up in the mythos over the last few decades.  But what makes these stories worth mentioning is the information provided on the first page of “My Father . . . Superman”.


Back in 1973, the DC title World’s Finest Comics had instituted a sub-series based on a departure from the regular storylines.  This series-within-a-series dealt with the sons of Superman and Batman.  Set in the then-present, they detailed the efforts of the Super-Sons to deal with living in the shadow of their famous fathers and, in the parlance of the day, to “find themselves”.


While fondly remembered by many fans, there was always a point of contention.  World’s Finest editor Murray Boltinoff had stated that the Super-Sons stories were not Imaginary, nor did they take place on a parallel Earth.  These were, he insisted, simply events in the lives of Superman and Batman that had not been chronicled, until now.


The problem with that explanation is that too many Superman and Batman stories in their own titles made it highly unlikely that either man could have a wife and a son who “just hadn’t been mentioned, yet.”  Typical of Boltinoff and of the Super-Sons writer, Bob Haney, they ignored that point.  Somebody else would have to clean up that mess.


The first person to grab a mop and bucket was World’s Finest assistant editor Jack C. Harris, who responded to a fan in the letter column of WFC # 241 (Oct., 1976) by stating:


Our own pet theory (based on the fact that we always see the ghostly images of Superman and Batman watching over their super-offspring on page one) is that the two senior super-heroes are in Superman’s Fortress watching these adventures on the Man of Steel’s Super-Univac after asking it the question:  “What would happen if we had sons in the hectic world of 1976?


Harris' conjecture didn’t become an actual element in the Superman mythos until Gerry Conway codified it.  In Superman Family # 192, as the Man of Steel sits down to operate the Super-Univac, he reflects:


“Batman and I once used this computer probability simulator to project what might have happened if Krypton had never exploded.  [A reference to Superman # 132]  And later, if we’d married and had sons a few years ago.”


This is marked by a footnote from E. Nelson Bridwell explaining: 


A few years later, DC confirmed that explanation by publishing “Final Secret of the Super-Sons”, in World’s Finest Comics # 263 (Jul., 1980).  Written by Denny O’Neil, it was the final pre-Crisis appearance of the Super-Sons.  It was the final pre-Crisis appearance of the Super-Univac, as well.


Next time out, I will talk about another Silver-Age editor who used a completely different device to tell Semi-Imaginary Stories---except for the one time he didn't.

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  • Now that Superman and Batman do  have sons in current continuity, the original Super-Sons are now said to inhabit Earth-216, at least according to Dark Crisis: Big Bang.

  • “The Super-Life of Lois Lane” opens with the girl reporter on a visit to Superman’s Fortress.  Before having to depart to conduct a vital experiment, the Man of Steel shows Lois how to operate the Super-Univac, so she can occupy herself during his absence.  

    Did the story address the danger to his secret identity posed by letting her use the Super-Univac?


    Did the ["The Super-Life of Lois Lane"] address the danger to his secret identity posed by letting her use the Super-Univac?

    Good question.  No, the story made no explcit reference to the risk that Lois might ask the Super-Univac to tell her Superman's civilian identity.  And the Man of Steel didn't seem worried that she might do that when he gave her the instructions on how to use the device.

    Clearly, it was a plot hole.  But, one could infer that Superman had programmed safeguards in the Super-Univac to thwart any secret-identity-prying questions.



    • "But, one could infer that Superman had programmed safeguards in the Super-Univac to thwart any secret-identity-prying questions."

      That makes sense. I remember that, in the Fortress, Superman had a "Clark Kent" exhibit in his "Gallerty of My Best Friends" (or however he named it, alongside one for Lois, Jimmy and Perry, so that it wouldn't be a clue by its absence.

      Of course, if it were a sloppy algorithm on the computer, a crafty villian cracker might notice "Hmm ... no matter how I design the question, it never responds with 'Clark Kent' and 'Superman' in the same reply. ... I wonder if ... ."

    • The Super-Univac projection from "The Super-Life of Lois Lane" shows Clark Kent being correct to suspect Lois of being Krypton Girl.  Lois might well take that as suggesting that her suspicion that Clark is Superman is also correct.  It would have been safer if Clark Kent's role in the projection had been taken by someone else - perhaps even a person who didn't exist in the "real" world.  It would require some extremely complex programming to set up any such safeguard, though!

      It would have been amusing if the story had ended with a reveal that Superman had instructed the Super-Univac to demonstrate to Lois what a nuisance her constant snooping was.  After all, as a result of viewing the projection, Lois

      gives up her secret-identity snooping. For awhile, anyway.
  • Interesting. I've seen a couple of super-Univac stories, including the Superman Family one but never realized there were so many of them.

  • Lois Lane #47 was on sale in December 1963 along with a couple of other Superman milestone issues: Superman #167 (Brainiac is a robot!) and Action Comics #309 (the recently assassinated JFK impersonated Clark Kent!). Along with them and Marvel Comics and Julius Schwartz books I bought Lois Lane #47. Fifteen and a half me really liked Lois as Krypton Girl!

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