On DC Comics Presents #50, by Mishkin, Cohn, Swan, and Shaffenberger (1982)

Nothing ever ages worse than a typical product of the moment just before a paradigm shift. October 1982’s “When You Wish upon a Planetoid!” shows no sign at all of what was to hit the American super-hero book just one year later when Alan Moore took over the scripting of Saga of the Swamp Thing. The revolution was stirring out in the first of the Indy Third Wave books appearing in the marketplace, but there’s no evidence of that in either Mishkin and Cohn’s story or Swan and Schaffenberg’s artwork here. Worse yet, from the point of view of the gatekeepers of posterity, the tale bears no evidence of any of the major developments that had helped to push the super-hero genre forwards in the previous ten years. There’s nothing of Englehart and Gerber’s capacity to fuse the counter-culture with continuity; or of Claremont’s initially sharp soap-operatics; or of Miller’s mash-up of noir, kung-fu, and High ’60s Marvel. Instead, the style and content of the Clark Kent / Superman team-up, marking the 50th issue of the DC Comics Presents team-up title, looks backwards towards the tradition of Superman stories inaugurated by Denny O’Neil in 1971 with “Kryptonite No More.” In essence, it’s an early-’7os take on comics realism, stripped of the most ludicrous extremes of the ’60s super-book, and yet still patently absurd. No super-monkeys or jeweled kryptonite but still a mass of super-breath and aliens strong enough to heave planets from their orbits. As such, there’s a clear line of succession from O’Neil’s somewhat more grounded take on the Man Of Steel through the stories of Maggin, Bates, and Pasko and onto Mishkin and Cohn in 1982. Smart and yet bare of Stan Lee’s melodrama, action packed and yet marked by no trace of Kirby or Adams’s dynamism, “When You Wish upon a Planetoid!” read like yesterday’s news on the day that it was published, the last stop on a line that was soon to be decommissioned.

Perhaps because of the unfortunate matter of the moment of its appearance, the story has avoided reappraisal. When the various collections of great Superman stories have been assembled over the past three decades, “When You Wish upon a Planetoid!” has been entirely overlooked. (*1) As understandable as that is, it’s also a matter to regret, for the story’s an example of what can be done with a set of conventions that have been apparently worn through with over-use. In that, whatever the story lacks in the spirit of innovation, it makes up for in an excess of craft and heart. If Mishkin and Cohn were bringing nothing new, or even radical, to the Superman mythos at all, they were still using the rich history of the post-O’Neil take on the character to remind their readers why the story of the Kryptonian refugee and his second life on Earth was such a genuinely moving one. Though the tropes they were using had last been substantially reframed to appeal to the generation before, and though the vast library of the character’s adventures meant that just about everything had been attempted in the years prior, both writers turned the threadbare plot elements open to them to their considerable advantage. For contrary to the beliefs of the modern era, continuity enables every bit as much, if not more, than it constrains, and a character that exists at the centre of a complex fictional world can often be used to achieve more than one who’s been deliberately kept as free of continuity as possible.

*1: The Best of DC Blue Ribbon Digest #35 of the following year is the only reprint of the tale I know of.

Who’s the secret identity and who’s the for-the-public front? Whether it’s Clark Kent or Superman that’s to be regarded as the “real” person has long been a matter of fannish debate, and every age has its own preferred solution and minority disagreements. In “When You Wish upon a Planetoid!” a MacGuffin imported from the backstory of the Legion Of Super-Heroes causes Kal-El to split in two separate and entirely distinct men. In a tale that might very well be one of the inspirations for Kurt Busiek’s fine Samaritan story in 1995′s Astro City #1, Superman becomes nothing but a creature of duty, constantly calculating who to save according to the most impersonal and ethical of criteria. Without Clark’s human experience of everyday life, the Man of Steel finds it impossible, for example, to consider placing Lois Lane’s welfare above that of a more serious problem occurring elsewhere. As the tale progresses, Superman quickly reveals himself to be a disconnected alien striving to do his best because of moral, rather than emotional, reasons. As he tells a complaining official from a S.T.A.R. Labs facility in Detroit, “– you Earth People should feel lucky to have me at all.” And as he jumps from one desperate crisis to another, he begins to understandably make the slightest of mistakes which threaten catastrophic consequences.

By contrast, Mishkin and Cohn’s Clark Kent suffers not at all from this separation. He retains the memory of the “love and guidance” of his foster parents, and though he’s somewhat more assertive now, has no need to hide his super-heroic identity, Clark remains the profoundly decent human being he’s always been. The stages by which he’s shown uncovering the truth of his relationship to Superman are some of the most quietly pleasing in all of the character’s history, and that’s particularly so for the moments in which he discovers that his glasses have no prescription lenses, and that without them he’s the spitting image of Earth’s most famous alien. While Superman is pushed through a punch-up with the Atomic Skull, which is well-staged but hardly compelling, Clark’s journey to self-awareness captures the reader’s heart. The writers establish where they stand on the matter of whether it’s Clark or Superman who represents the core personality, and their position is notably different from that of some of their colleagues of the day. To them, the Metropolis Marvel, as the era would have it, is no more and no less than an expression of Clark’s sense of duty.

Nobody could deny that the story proceeds without a great deal of intensity, and there’s certainly an absence of the by-now familiar excesses of angst and shock that are typically loaded into the super-book. Instead, the strengths of the tale lie in the humanity of its characters, and in particular, in the way that that’s emphasised in the book’s final set piece, in which both Clark and Superman gather before the graves of the long-dead Ma and Pa Kent. As Superman becomes aware of the fact that he’d been unable to save his guardians and guiding lights, he and the similarly grieving Clark reunite. It’s a scene of remarkable tenderness and restraint, and in the single panel in which Superman bows his head and whispers “Ma… Pa… I’m sorry,” there lies more pathos and yet less melodramatic excess than just about any comparable work on the character since. (*2)

*2: For my money, only “For the Man Who Has Everything” and “All Star Superman” can match it, though I’m sure there are many stories whose worth I’ve underestimated.

In that, “When You Wish upon a Planetoid!” also reaches back even beyond O’Neil’s revamp to the relatively complex and challenging tales of the Boltinoff era, with their often morbid focus on death and loss and responsibility. As such, it’s a tale that can seem substantially unconcerned with a great many of the elements that typically drive today’s stories of Kal-El. For both better and worse, it stands as one of the last great tales of the Silver Age Man of Steel, and it shows what can be lost when a complex continuity is abandoned. So many of the well-established traditions of the Superman legend are drawn upon here, and the clarity of that continuity and the place of those supporting characters within it allows the reader to quickly grasp the emotional meaning of what’s at hand. To see a Superman who cares no more for Lois than any other human being is to feel a sense that something is exceptionally wrong with the world. To note Clark’s inability to make sense of a message from the Batman only increases the tension in the tale. Where shock and angst might drive a tale today, the inflection of tradition does here. It’s a prime example of why super-hero franchises should never be rebooted without comprehensive plans in place for what follows; for a character is far more than a vague collection of personal qualities, a selection of powers, and a particular ready-to-be-merchandised costume.

There’s an irony in the fact that “When You Wish upon a Planetoid!” discusses what happens to a character when its basic premises are altered. For it’s the fact that the Superman titles have been fundamentally rebooted twice since, and regularly reframed within those two revolutions, which means that Mishkin and Cohn’s gentle and touching story now seems so archaic and almost irrelevant to all but those willing to read it on its own terms. Even the presence of the veterans Curt Swan and Kurt Shaffenberger on art duties creates the sense that the comic is expressing the virtues of a soon-to-be-abandoned approach to storytelling. Their work is warm, gentle, and, in the context of 2012, shockingly clear. They succeed in making the most complicated of super-feats immediately understandable, while investing each character with a distinct and individual personality. Whether anyone involved knew it or not, the wheel was about to turn and leave the story in DC Comics Presents #50 seeming to be neither radical enough or historically important enough to be worthy of attention and respect.

The point of this isn’t to suggest that comics mustn’t change. Of course they must, and much of what makes ”When You Wish upon a Planetoid!” seem so touching also makes it seem quaint and outdated. The showdowns with the Atomic Skull, for example, are clearly lacking in dynamism and jeopardy, though they do carry a great deal of charm. But the various creators who worked upon DC Comics Presents #50 did have a clearly defined and purposeful continuity to tap into in order to tell their stories. Change can often be not only productive but essential, and a well-worked redevelopment of a somewhat creaky super-hero book can produce new creative and commercial possibilities. Yet there can hardly be any more ludicrous a situation in modern-era comics than the fact that DC has recently rebooted Superman without having a clear sense of either what his backstory is or how his tales should progress. As George Perez has recently confirmed (*3), the editorial powers-that-be are constantly reversing their own precepts, while Grant Morrison’s been establishing Kal-El’s past without “telling everybody” what’s going on. Is it any wonder, then, that the most recent version — or should that be versions? — of the Man Of Steel has proved to be such a flat and unengaging character? For the New 52 take on Clark and Kal-El isn’t so much a character as a brand marker, and that’s simply not how serial fiction functions. Without a well-designed and clearly-established mythos that all involved can draw off and adapt, even Superman is reduced to just another Superbloke.

*3: http://www.bleedingcool.com/2012/06/24/george-perez-talking-about-being-rewritten-at-dc-comics/

Continuity’s nothing more than another word for history, and a person who suffers from a belief that their history appears to be being constantly re-written is one with serious psychological problems. Indeed, we’d consider them potentially disordered and fear that something catastrophic had occurred to them. A do-gooding character that lacks both a clear sense of purpose and a rich, informing backstory is one that can never move us as Mishkin, Cohn, Swan, and Shaffenberger’s Superman does. For continuity really isn’t something to be thrown off in order to just grant storytellers greater freedom and audiences less confusion. The question isn’t whether we should have less continuity but rather how much more smartly can it be used.  When Elliot S! Maggin wrote his famous summation of the then eternal triangle between Clark, Lois, and Superman in his 1978 novel Last Son Of Krypton, he showed us how the kind of long-established relationships that supposedly smother creativity often present endless opportunities to challenge and move the reader;

Significant and Enduring Theme No 1: Love“,

“Superman loved Lois Lane.

Lois Lane loved Clark Kent and ached in vain

to believe he was Superman.

Clark Kent loved Superman.

No one understood this.”

In “When You Wish upon a Planetoid!” there’s a similar process at work. What the readership knows is thrown into a different light to generate new meanings and illuminate old and still-vital themes. But strip the continuity that permits that too far and replace how it spoke to the audience with too little, and no-one benefits at all.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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1 Comment

  1. David Balan says:

    One of the best defenses of how continuity ought to be used – not just in service of the story, but to generate it. Bravo!

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