Editor's note: This article is an excerpt from the forthcoming The American Comic Book Chronicles: the 1970s, released August 27, 2014 by TwoMorrows. Copies are available via Amazon or via TwoMorrows' website.
The big story of 1971 at DC involved the revamping of the most famous super-hero of them all: Superman.
The Man of Steel’s big change for 1971 should have surprised no one as it followed major re-workings and modernizations of several of the company’s other big characters: Wonder Woman in 1968 and Batman and Green Lantern in 1970. Perhaps also not surprisingly, all those events involved writer Denny O’Neil. Editor Julius Schwartz labeled the young scribe the “number-one writer in my stable” (Schwartz 136). Schwartz had been put in charge of Superman in the wake of editor Mort Weisinger’s retirement in 1970 and claimed that he’d only take on such a monumental task if he could institute changes in the character. “I warned [the DC brass] that I would want to change things around,” said Schwartz, “the way I had when I took over Green Lantern and Batman”. This prompted what the editor called concern over interfering with a “proven commodity” like the vaunted Man of Steel.
Denny O’Neil was reportedly not too keen on the idea of a revamp himself. Schwartz noted that, like himself, O’Neil was a lukewarm Superman fan at best and not “champing at the bit” for the assignment. Still, after “coaxing, pleading, bargaining, and co-plotting” Schwartz got the writer to accept the assignment and together, the two began to fundamentally alter the world that Weisinger had created over the previous two decades.
The big changes came down to a few major points: the reduction of Superman’s over-inflated, world-moving strength, the departure of Clark Kent from the Daily Planet and perhaps most monumentally, the elimination of Kryptonite. “We took away the big crutch,” said O’Neil. “How are you going to get Superman in trouble; put kryptonite in the story again, and again, and again…how much of that stuff got to Earth, for God’s sake?”.
Schwartz commissioned a special cover for Superman #233 (Jan. 1971). Artist Neal Adams’ bold image of the Man of Steel snapping kryptonite chains by merely expanding his chest and standing legs akimbo over the slogan “Kryptonite Nevermore!” surely stood out on drugstore and newsstand racks the day the issue was unpacked. Schwartz also added a banner over the book’s logo that announces “The Amazing NEW Adventures of Superman,” along with a “Number 1 Best-Selling Comics Magazine!” blurb for good measure. The numeral “1” is five times the height of the rest of that text, perhaps giving potential buyers the idea that they were being offered a first issue. In a way, they were.
Inside, the first page cautions readers that they are about to read a “return to greatness.” The titular hero is referred to as “an old majesty” who stands on the threshold of new “thrills, tragedy…and heroism!”
In “Superman Breaks Loose” an explosive accident involving Professor Bolden’s “kryptonite engine” transforms every piece on kryptonite on Earth into harmless iron. Jimmy Olsen is overjoyed for his super-friend, but Galaxy Broadcasting System president Morgan Edge—on double duty from Jack Kirby’s Fourth World books—cites the old adage that “power corrupts…and absolute power corrupts absolutely!” (Edge would have known, being a servant of Darkseid and all.)
O’Neil’s story goes on to offer more change in the form of Clark Kent’s new assignment as an on-the-spot TV reporter and a super-boost to his confidence when flying into action. “Morgan Edge was wrong!” Kent muses to himself. “Power isn’t corrupting…it’s freeing me – to do unlimited good!” Readers might have wondered how taking away Superman’s main weakness would serve O’Neil and Schwartz’s plan to de-power the hero, but the two had another ace—or a joker—up their sleeves. At issue’s end, in a black-bordered Epilogue, the other super-shoe dropped: from a full-body impression in the sand made by a falling Superman after the kryptonite engine explosion, a “thing…cast in the mold of Superman” pulls itself up from the sand and walks away, “moving slowly, relentlessly to a terrible destiny…”
From Superman #233 to Superman #242 (Sept. 1971), Denny O’Neil and artist Curt Swan wove a long-form epic. The so-called “Sand Superman” bedevils the Man of Steel by lurking around the fringes of the stories and sapping our hero’s strength at inopportune moments. “There’s something loose on Earth!” worries Clark in the coda of Superman #234 (Feb. 1971). “I have no idea what it is…except that it’s dangerous – menacing – and that I may be powerless to stop it!”
The key word was “powerless,” for when Superman fully encounters his grainy doppelganger, he finds his strength and speed reduced by a third. In effect, his handlers had dialed the Man of Steel back down to his 1940s power levels. As Schwartz put it, somewhat cheekily, “So where during [Weisinger’s] editorship Supes was able to hold the world up on the tip of one finger, under my tutelage he would have to use both hands”. Perhaps O’Neil said it best when he declared, “I think that faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound is enough for anybody”.
Then, something happened – or rather didn’t happen. DC’s new Superman didn’t stick. By the end of 1971, O’Neil was off the book and his big changes mostly ignored by subsequent writers. “I was just having a hellish time doing Superman,” the writer noted. “After about a year, I asked off of the assignment. I don’t know how I had the guts to do enough to do that, because I had mouths to feed and no other income source, but I did it. I discovered I couldn’t handle [Superman] very well.” O’Neil seemed resigned that his work on the title would be swept under the rug when he viewed the cover of World’s Finest #208 (Dec. 1971), with Superman pulling the entire Earth through space with chains. “I think that was Julie’s signal to the reader that ‘the experiment’s over,’” O’Neil added.
The “experiment,” truth be told, was not a consistent one. The other Superman family titles—Action Comics, Superboy, Adventure Comics, World’s Finest—had made little use of Superman’s revamped Man of Steel. “I think that was a problem DC had,” observed O’Neil. “There really was no attempt to reconcile this version of the character with the other books’. Julie’s Superman was different from [Action editor Murray Boltinoff’s]. It was a very compartmentalized company”.
Before it was all over, Denny O’Neil introduced one other noteworthy change in the mythos while scripting World’s Finest #202 (May 1971), namely the deactivation of all of Superman’s look-alike robots due to pollution and “man-made radiation” in Earth’s atmosphere. Remarkably, this alteration lasted far beyond any of those in Superman, and continued until decades-old original Man of Steel continuity ended in 1985’s universe-smashing Crisis on Infinite Earths.
In all, 1971’s “Amazing New Adventures” surfaced and submerged in a relatively short time; by the September cover-dated issue of Superman, the “New” was dropped from the banner. It read simply “Amazing Adventures.” Industry and fan buzz for “Kryptonite Nevermore” aside, O’Neil claims Schwartz blamed low sales for the reason for the experiment’s ultimate demise. “I think he looked upon it as an interesting thing that ultimately didn’t work,” the writer said. Sales figures bear this out, as in 1971 Superman continued its drop in sales from the 1960s, losing an average of 23,000 copies sold per issue from the previous year. It would seemingly take much more than depowering the world’s greatest hero to save him from a downward economic spiral.