Welcome to the new Ask Mr .Silver Age blog!
I'm Craig Shutt, who writes the Ask Mr. Silver Age column for the Comics Buyer's Guide. I'll be posting regular articles and essays in this space, mostly concerning Silver Age comics but possibly topics of other types of interest to Silver Age fans. Who really knows?
Many of the posts will feature classic,never-before-reprinted AMSA articles from my massive treasure trove of columns that originally appeared in CBG during the past (gulp) 19 years. I'm starting off with a column from CBG #1542 (June 6, 2003) concerning my favorite super-hero.
I hope you'll join in the discussion here and at my new Discussion section in the Forum section, where we'll be talking all things comics history, Silver Agey or not.
Superman’s trials and tribulations
Kal's courtroom career included stints as
the Defendant, Counsel and Witness of Steel
Dear Mr. Silver Age,
Superman has put a lot of crooks in the slammer during his career. Has he ever found himself on the other side of the courtroom?
Mr. Silver Age says: He sure has, Harv. The Man of Steel on a number of occasions had to defend himself in court during the Silver Age. Those make for compelling stories, both because the image of Superman on trial is so striking and because they make for an interesting type of whodunit as we learn why Supes is there and where the flaw in the evidence lies—because we all know Big Blue didn’t do anything to rate doing time.
Sadly, the space available in most comics—especially when we’re talking a tale shorter than a novel-length adventure—requires shortcuts to the verdict that often undercut the plausibility of a trial’s procedural nature. Granted, we don’t know all of the laws of Earth-1, so we can’t say for sure what’s allowed in court. But unless we assume things are a lot different, the stories often require us to turn off our brains and go along for the ride. Not that it’s something we’re unaccustomed to with Silver Age comics. On top of that, trial scenes can be emotionally effective, but they often lose a lot visually.
Superman’s experience with trials began early in his career—in fact, it began with his career as Superboy back in Smallville. Let’s face it, was there really a chance that with all those Superboy stories to produce, nobody got around to putting The Boy of Steel on trial at some point?
That deed occurred in “The Trial of Superboy” in Superboy #63 (Mar 58). This trial was unique, however, as it was a civil case; The Boy of Steel was sued because his rocket ship had passed over a man’s house, catching it on fire. Oops.
The owner was demanding $100,000 in damages. (Superboy was served papers by having the process server jump off a roof and into Superboy’s arms; kids, don't try this at home). During the trial, the lawyer mapped out the rocket’s path into Smallville, based on the statue that now indicated where the rocket had landed, and he showed fragments found at the plaintiff’s home.
Superboy, acting as his own attorney, argued that the calculations were incorrect. To prove it, he suggested that he recreate his trip through space to see where he landed. As if he’d actually do it exactly the same way if it would prove him guilty, even if he could figure it out exactly. But everyone agreed he’d be honest, so he tried—and was proven guilty. I’ll let you read it to find out how he got out of this one (and, of course, you know he did).
After he grew up, The Defendant of Steel wound up before the bench on a number of occasions. Here’s a quick rundown on some of his trials and tribulations:
# “The World of Bizarros!” in Action #263-264 (Apr-May 60): In this classic adventure, better known for other innovations, Superman discovered that his imperfect Bizarro duplicate had wandered to a far-off solar system to create a new world for himself stocked with duplicates of himself and his Bizarro Lois. So he apparently was better at creating scientific devices than the guy who created the original duplicator, who could produce only imperfect copies.
During Supes’ visit, he learned the Bizarro code (“Us Do Opposite Of All Earthly Things!”) and was arrested for fixing up some houses to make them “perfect.” As usual, arresting someone for a crime seems exactly like an Earthly Thing to do, but a Bizarro story always requires a lot of leeway.
We trailed along as The Convict of Steel visited with other inmates, who were confined for thinking and speaking normally (I guess Bizarro’s duplicator machine didn’t work all the time, or it would’ve been perfect). Then a Bizarro Lois on the jury showed up and offered to convince the other jurors to find him innocent—if he’d marry her. Doesn’t sound like no Bizarro Lois to me!
Ultimately, he was found guilty, thanks in part to Bizarro Lois’ impassioned (and revenge-motivated) speech to the jury. Well, and the fact that he’d actually done what he was charged with, I suppose. Finding someone guilty of doing something they’d actually done seems an awfully Earthly Thing to do, too, but I’ll shut up now about how often the Bizarros seem to violate their own code. Supes managed to wriggle free, using logic that could only work on Bizarro’s world—or any random comic book, I fear.
# “The Jury of Super-Enemies!” in Action #286 (Mar 62): In this tale, Superman was captured by a team-up of some of his most hated foes—Luthor, Brainiac, Electro, Saturn Queen, Cosmic King and Lightning Lord. They put him on trial for ruining their plots to conquer the world—again, a charge that he was pretty danged guilty of. He was sentenced to battle Supergirl to the death in their gladiator arena.
Sadly, this tale turned out to be one of those that made DC sometimes foreswear that a cover image was not a hoax, a dream or an Imaginary Story. I won’t tell you which it was, although it’s obvious in the story early on.
“When Superman Defended His Arch-Enemy!” in Action #292 (Sep 62): This time, Superman was on the other side of the visitor’s booth, after tracking down Lex Luthor on an alien world. The robotic citizens intended to kill Luthor for “murdering” one of their own, which Lex didn’t consider much of a crime. When they assured him it was—and showed that they could overcome his inventions to keep him from escaping—he appealed to Superman to save him.
The robots contended aliens were too primitive to deserve a trial, so Supes had to undergo a series of challenges to prove he and Lex were worthy. That doesn’t bode well for the trial’s ultimate outcome, does it?
Once he got through that, the trial itself proved a short affair, because Superman called a surprise witness that helped spring Lex. Luthor was feeling pretty smug about the whole deal until Supes flew off, leaving him stranded on the alien world. Naturally, that didn’t appeal to Lex much, and he terrorized this world (and Superman from a distance) in the next issue.
To allow Superman to show up, Clark threw his voice into the next room to make it seem that Supes had arrived. Then he ran in, slammed the door behind him, changed to Superman, and threw his empty suit of Clark clothes out the window as if in a mad fit of rage—on the pretext that Clark had learned his identity!
Yikes. I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time but geez, there had to be a better plan than that. Except, of course, that a better plan wouldn’t have put Superman on trial as he needed to be so we’d get our spiffy cover shot.
Lois testified that she saw Supes throw Clark out the window, showing a decided limit to her observational ability in differentiating a suit of clothes from a human body. However, when the defense put Superman on the stand, he would only state, “I have nothing to say,” a questionable defense strategy at best.
He avoided becoming The Convict of Steel, of course, and you can probably even figure out how he dodged being found guilty of killing somebody who wasn’t actually dead but couldn’t show up to prove it.
Well, all right, there are about 57 ways Superman has done that in stories, so you’ll have to read it to see which option he used this time.
Lex had snuck aboard a space ship that he piloted to Lexor, where he received a Lexorian ticker-tape parade. But things quickly went awry when The Man of Steel arrived. In trying to recapture Lex to return him to Earth, the non-super Superman slugged Lex, who hit his head on a stone statue and died. Oops.
Outraged Lexorians put Supes on trial for murdering their greatest hero. The two Lexorians selected to defend him weren’t thrilled by their role or by Superman’s flimsy story. Part 2 featured Superman’s trial, which was interrupted when The Criminal of Steel escaped in a desperate attempt to clear his name. Want to guess whether he did? It was always fun to visit Lexor, and this visit, with Superman on trial, was a suspenseful trip without a lot of the usual physical action.
# “Superman’s Day of Truth!” in Superman #176 (Apr 65): In this instance, The Man of Steel was simply testifying in court. But that proved problematic because it was The Day of Truth, a Kryptonian holiday in which everyone had to tell the truth. What are the chances? Well, considering it was the Silver Age, the chances were really darned good.
As often happens in stories like this, “telling the truth” was confused with “telling everything you know in a rude way.” But the key problem came when Superman had to testify in a criminal trial. The defense attorney challenged Superman to tell them who he really was and specified that he couldn’t “fool” them by using his Kryptonian name, which seems as real as any other.
Superman stipulated that he’d reveal his secret identity by writing it on a chalkboard, a highly irregular way of complying with the basic “state your name, please” request, but it did give us a nifty cover. And that’s really what we needed from this story, wasn’t it?
“Superman…Guilty of Homicide!” in Action #358-359 (Jan-Feb 68): Once again, The Man of Steel was set up to be accused of murder, this time in one of the more elaborate plans used.
First, criminals brought back to life a penny-ante crook who could be killed by the slightest tap—and they concocted a scheme to have Superman tap him. But the mope died on his way to meet Supes, foiling the plan.
To ensure the plan went ahead, the remaining crooks picked cards to determine who would take the guy’s place—and the boss “won” (he rigged it). So when Superman tapped him during a charity boxing match, he went down, swallowed a capsule that put him into suspended animation, and Superman went on trial.
You’d think Superman might’ve been able to detect that the man was only in suspended animation. But the truth is that the criminal mastermind working for the crime boss had switched capsules, giving the boss one filled with deadly poison instead. That let him get rid of Superman and take over the gang, a win-win, assuming we mean both wins were for the same guy. That’s the trouble with having to rely on henchmen for your criminal masterminding.
Part two took us through jury selection, with a number of potential jurors (including Bruce Wayne) rejected because of their faith in Superman. Then the criminal mastermind, kidnapping the prosecutor to take his place, brought in all kinds of wacko evidence.
This included displaying the element Supermanium and stamps of The Man of Steel from around the world to show how conceited he was. They were part of his argument that Superman had used his powers recklessly and destructively—which, at best, would be involuntary manslaughter, not the homicide charge they’d hung on him.
Things ultimately fell apart with some Perry Mason-like dramatics in the final reel, including an appearance by Clark Kent. But beyond that, it was about as rousing of a Superman trial as the Silver Age had to offer. And as is obvious from these examples, Superman spent quite a bit of his time in a court of law of one type of another, often on the wrong side of the aisle.
-- Craig Shutt, aka Mr. Silver age