Comics Reviews: Superman 344, Action 504, DC Comics Presents 18

Superman 344 coverSuperman #344 – “The Monsters Among Us” – Len Wein, Paul Levitz/Curt Swan/Frank Chiaramonte

It was a dark and stormy night … No, this isn’t a novel by Bulwer-Lytton (or Snoopy), but it is rather “gothic” in theme. It starts with Superman blocking a lightning bolt from striking in downtown Metropolis and using his heat vision to evaporate the storm clouds. He rushes to a mansion (Castle Kanlyn) outside the city and changes to Clark Kent. Clark is ushered into the mansion by his host, Ms. MacArdle, to find Lois is waiting for him. They’re there to report on a séance where the participants try to contact the spirit of a dead magician named Roland Randall. In his will, Randall promised to make contact fifty years after his demise, so Ms. MacArdle has gathered a handful of people to aid in making contact, and as witnesses. Besides Lois and Clark there’s a couple of guys (Lawre and Greenway) and the medium,Superman saves Cassandra Cassandra Craft. (If that name sounds familiar … just wait.) Cassandra is blind, but can sense the power beneath Clark’s meek facade. Everyone joins hands around the table and Cassandra seems to make contact with Randall’s spirit, but the spirit says to leave him be as he’s the only one holding “them” back. Cassandra then freaks out and keels over. Cassandra recovers quickly and says Randall’s spirit was afraid of something terrible. Clark’s x-ray vision spots a couple of people in a nearby mass of clouds, so he pretends to be freaked out by all the spooky stuff and leaves. As Superman, he checks out the low thunderclouds and finds a bunch of smashed up trees. He hears a scream and heads back to the mansion to find Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster attacking the frightened people. Dracula says they’re after Cassandra, but Superman interrupts them before they can grab her. Dracula is surprised at Superman’s powers, and Supes is equally shocked that the two horror movie rejects can stand up to deconstructing Frankensteinhis punches. He realizes they must be powered by magic, to which he’s vulnerable. Superman stops the Monster from taking Cassandra and Dracula decides to come back later, when they’ve learned more about their foe. Cassandra assures Superman that the monsters are genuine and he tells her he’ll do his best to protect her but he’s vulnerable to magic. Dracula is eavesdropping (in bat form) and figures if he drinks Superman’s blood he’ll become invulnerable to sunlight, wooden stakes, and all his other traditional weaknesses. Cassandra’s erstwhile allies desert her, so she’s left with Superman and Lois. She’s sure Dracula won’t attack her during the day, so Superman leaves the two women in the mansion and heads to WGBS to attend a meeting as Clark Kent. He hears a commotion outside and uses a little super-breath to break up the meeting so he can check it out as Superman. He finds the Frankenstein Monster devouring pastries from the back of a truck and dumps him in a construction site, hoping to contain him there. But the monster busts loose and by the time Superman has cleaned up the mess, the Monster is gone. Supes gets an idea and gets a balloon from amini sun vendor in the park. That night, Superman waits on the castle parapets with Cassandra and Lois. The monsters attack, but are more interested in Superman than Cassandra now. The Man of Steel fights back, using heat vision to startle the monster long enough to deck him. Dracula tries to hypnotize Supes, who uses his heat vision and strength to create a miniature sun from the balloon he brought, freaking Dracula out. Drac says there’s no way Superman can contain them forever, but then we get our deus ex machina … literally, depending on which origin you believe. Yup, Phantom Stranger shows up out of nowhere and banishes the monsters back to the spirit realm … or the Universal backlot, whichever is closer. Stranger then disappears, before Cassandra can thank him … which doesn’t surprise her at all.

Noticeable Things:

  • I think Len and Paul mean for Dracula and the Monster to be the “real” characters out of literature, who were banished to the spirit world and crossed back over when Cassandra was in contact with Randall’s spirit. Apparently that’s why they wanted to kill Cassandra … because they were afraid she’d send them back.
  • Some of you probably recognized Cassandra Craft’s name right away and were expecting Phantom Stranger to show up. Before this story, Cassandra appeared in the 1970s Phantom Stranger series, written by Len Wein.
  • Superman says he made the miniature sun with his heat vision and hydrogen from the balloon he got in the park; would a balloon vendor really use hydrogen in balloons he was selling to the public? Wouldn’t that be kind of dangerous, having half the kids in Metropolis toting around a mini-Hindenberg?
  • The way Phantom Stranger talks at the end, I wonder if these particular monsters appeared in his old series? I never read it so I don’t know, but that’s the vibe I was getting.

Action 504 coverAction #504 – “The Power and the Choice” – Cary Bates/Curt Swan/Frank Chiaramonte

This one starts when a patrolling Superman notices the guards at a jewelry exposition center look like they’re hypnotized. That turns out to be the case, and there’s a big hole melted in the wall of the building. Superman heads inside and finds the place cleaned out. He uses his super-senses to check for intruders and detects a rapid heartbeat above him. He’s jumped by someone in a powered metal suit (lead-lined so he can’t see who it is) and he’s so surprised, the ambusher manages to knock him through the wall. The metal-suited miscreant zaps the building’s roof, sending it spinning up into the sky above the city. Superman grabs the thief, dragging him along as he goes to stop the runaway roof, but his armoured adversary jolts him enough to break free and fly away. Superman can’t pursue until he stops the roof from crashing down on innocent people, and by the time he does there’s no sign of the metal-clad thief … not surprising, since all he’d have to do is take off the armour and blend in with a crowd.Tobias saves Clark The next day, Clark Kent is strolling around downtown when he’s almost crushed by a concrete cornice falling from a building. Before Clark can use his super-breath to steer the concrete away from other bystanders, a good Samaritan pushes him out of the way and uses some kind of telekinesis to stop the concrete and disintegrate it. Clark’s rescuer seems almost as surprised as Clark is by his telekinetic powers and starts freaking out. Clark hustles him into a taxi before people can ask too many questions. The guy says he’d rather not become a celebrity and doesn’t even tell Clark his name. Clark says he’ll have to report on the incident (since so many people witnessed it), but won’t pry into the guy’s identity. The cab drops the guy off and he meets up with a good-looking redhead. Clark wonders if the guy might have something to hide, so he uses x-ray vision to heck the guy’s wallet and get his name (Tobias Williams) and address. After the nightly Tobias originnewscast, Clark gets a call from Tobias saying he wants to get in touch with Superman. Clark does the old “fake conversation with himself” trick, pretending Superman had just popped in. Superman says he’ll come over to see Tobias right away, but we see a woman’s hand hanging up the phone on Tobias’s end. Supes heads over there, where Tobias relates his origin. It’s the usual: parents die in plane crash over Tibet, father later appears in astral form saying he’s still alive and studying mysticism with monks, father passes on mystic powers to son before dying … like I said, the usual. So Tobias now has the power to harness his prana (which is basically the Sanskrit version of chi) and use it to affect things around him. Superman thinks that’s great, but Tobias wasn’t thrilled by his “gift”; he was studying to be a doctor and wanted to have a real job and a family. He asks Superman if he has time for a family or personal life, what with all the world-Sheila revealed as a bad girlsaving he does, and Supes doesn’t answer. So Tobias was wishing he could get rid of his prana powers and ended up doing the next best thing after meeting his current girlfriend, Sheila. He shows Superman a photo and Sheila is the hot babe he saw Tobias meeting up with earlier. Sheila also happens to be a talented hypnotist, so she hypnotized Tobias into forgetting about his powers, which he figured was almost as good as not having them at all. But the hypnotism wears off every few months and seeing Clark in danger jolted Tobias into remembering (and using) his powers again. He wanted to let Superman know all this in case he was wondering after hearing about Clark’s rescue. Superman thanks him and takes off to deal with a fire. We see Sheila emerge from the next room and find out she’s one of those evil hot women you see in movies. She’s been hypnotizing Tobias into committing crimes for months and when his memory came back, he would’ve confessed everything to Superman if she hadn’t stopped by in time to re-hypnotize him. She dons the armour and gets Tobias to transfer a bunch of his prana-power to her, which I guess is how she mesmerized the guards and opened the prana duel with Sheilahole in the wall when she robbed the jewelry expo. But Superman is back from the fire and says he detected Sheila’s heartbeat in the other room while he was there. He finally remembered it was the same heartbeat he’d heard in the jewelry expo, so he came back to capture her. Sheila blasts him with her prana-power, which (being magical is nature) knocks Superman on his ass. Sheila takes off and Superman comes up with an idea on how to fight her … he claps his hands. As Sheila is fleeing, she hears the thunderclap and turns to face Superman, blasting him again with prana-power. But Superman’s super-clap (which sounds like a really bad venereal disease) snapped Tobias out of his trance and he transferred a load of prana to Superman. So Supes and Sheila have a little prana duel and he knocks her out. Later, Superman uses his own super-hypnotism to make Tobias forget his prana powers—and Sheila. Supes leaves Tobias to have the normal life he’s always wanted … something Superman will never have.

DC Presents 18 coverDC Comics Presents #18 – “The Night It Rained Magic” – Gerry Conway/Dick Dillin/Frank Chiaramonte

This one starts with Superman saving an out-of-control van that goes off a bridge. Supes continues to his Fortress of Solitude, where he’s been researching his vulnerability to magic and thinks he may have found the answer. Unknown to him, he had a little assist from a couple of friends who just happened to be on the bridge in their own car: Zatanna and Zatara. Zatanna used her magic to slow time just enough so Superman could get to the van. She and her father are heading to some upstate mansion. Nearby, a guy named Calistro recognizes the two sorcerers, and his thoughts about them are quite bitter. He’s pissed off that superheroes have taken over the public consciousness so much that a magician like him isn’t revered anymore. Calistro tries to cadge a drink in a bar in exchange for some prestidigitation, but he’s shut down prettyZatanna explains magic quick. In the Fortress, Superman examines a copy of the Necronomicon and finds it exudes some kind of energy that falls on the extreme end of the EM spectrum. He figures if he can define that energy, he can protect himself against it. Upstate, Zatanna and her father have been studying in the library of a woman named Van Jung and Zatanna has formulated a theory of magic. She figures there’s a dimension from which all magical power flows. Her mother’s race, Homo Magi, have the natural ability to call on magic and have passed that on into certain human bloodlines. But since the power is diluted in humans, those who can use magic don’t do so instinctively, they have to use spells and rituals and such. Zatara thinks she’s right and says her theory explains Superman’s vulnerability to magic: not being from Earth, he has no Homo Magi genes whatsoever, so he’s vulnerable to any magic that finds its way from the other dimension. Zatanna decides to commune with this magic-spawning dimension, magical glitchbut something goes wrong with her spell and the library starts on fire. When she tries to put it out, she finds she’s lost her magical abilities. Meanwhile, Superman has isolated the wavelength of magical energy and decides to charge himself with that energy to make himself invulnerable to it. Wouldn’t that just kill him if he’s already vulnerable to it? Anyway, something goes wrong with his experiment too and a rift opens to the magic dimension, spewing energy through and into Superman. But he’s not the only one; similar rifts open all over the world, charging random humans with magical energy. In the magic dimension (which I guess is supposed to be like Faerie or something) a magician was trying to contact Earth at the exact moment Zatanna tried to contact them, so now there’s a rift (or a shitload of rifts) between dimensions, with magic pouring through into Earth. The magician says it’ll stop when the energy equalizes between the two planes, but that may end up destroying both dimensions. On Earth, Calistro is thrilled that he finally has real magical powers and usesSuperman uses magic on Calistro them to punish everyone in the bar who treated him like shit. He then summons Superman and Zatanna to punish them too and conjures giant birds to attack them. When Superman tries to fly to Zatanna’s rescue, a magic carpet appears beneath his feet. Zatanna quickly realizes that Superman’s susceptibility to magic makes him able to absorb it now, and that he has to use it to defeat Calistro since her own powers are gone. Superman has no idea how to wield magic, but Zatanna coaches him by telling him what words to say. With Zatanna’s guidance, Superman defeats Calistro and discovers the rift between Earth and the magic dimension. Zatanna directs him on how to reverse the flow of magic and close the rifts, which he does. Once things are back to normal, Superman gets his regular powers back and Zatanna’s magical abilities return. Of course, things getting back to normal means Calistro’s back to being a nobody, but he’s a total asshole, so fuck him.

Noticeable Things:

  • This story has a very “Marvel” feel to it. The attempts to precisely define magic are more Marvel than DC, and some of the characters are almost clones of Marvel characters. Calistro looks like the Wizard and their origins (mad because superheroes have usurped their place in the public eye) are similar. And Madame Van Jung looks a lot like Agatha Harkness with her purple dress and the cat draped around her neck.
  • In case you’re wondering, Zatara and Madame Van Jung put out the fire in her library by smothering it with the heavy drapes.
  • This story is written like it’s meant to be the definitive “origin” of magic in the DC Universe, but I don’t know if it’s ever referenced again. Maybe Gerry will use elements of it, but I would imagine all the other writers just ignored it.

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