Hidden Gems: The Sandman Saga (DC Comics, 1971)
TITLE: Superman: Kryptonite Nevermore!
AUTHOR: Denny O’Neil
ARTIST: Curt Swan, Murphy Anderson
COLLECTS: Superman #233-238, 240-242
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
ORIGINAL PRICE: $0.15 per issue; Trade price $39.99
RELEASE DATE: Original issues released in January-September 1971; Collected in
Superman: Kryptonite Nevermore, released January 28, 2009
By Levi Sweeney
Contributor, Grand X
I’m pretty sure we all agree that the Silver Age of comic books was a bit silly; inane powers, ridiculous plots to justify the bizarre covers, and a complete lack of periods in punctuation. That said, the Bronze Age wasn’t much better. But it isn’t just in hindsight that this sentiment was felt.
In 1971, new Superman editor Julius Schwartz decided it was time to “update” Superman to a more modern, intelligent standard, in much the same way that Batman, the Flash and Green Lantern were “updated” at the time. So he brought in a writer named Denny O’Neil to do the job, and the result was The Sandman Saga.
Working on the now celebrated Green Lantern/Green Arrow issues at the same time, O’Neil found it difficult to write about a character who he said “could destroy a galaxy by listening hard.” You think Superman is overpowered now? Just flip through a couple of old Silver Age stories. But, in this story, originally known as “The Sandman Saga,” O’Neil’s first priority in “updating” Superman was to contrive a way to reduce his power. In light of that, it might seem surprising that the first thing he did was to take Kryptonite out of the equation, hence the collected edition’s title, Kryptonite Nevermore! According to O’Neil, Kryptonite had so many shades to it and had become so flanderized that is was just too ridiculous to keep. And in that day, that’s saying something.
This story, the first Superman story of the Bronze Age of comics, begins with the Man of Steel overseeing an experiment with a Kryptonite-powered machine being conducted by some scientist. As they always do in comic books, things go wrong, and the contraption begins to explode. But is Supes completely blown up by the Green-K explosion? No! It turns out that the machine actually did do something; it somehow, through a strange side effect, set off a chain reaction which transformed all Kryptonite on Earth into ordinary iron.
Now, Superman truly is invincible… or so it seems. Despite the concerns of the Daily Planet’s new owner, WGBS proprietor Morgan Edge (who is now appearing as a black dude in the new Superman book, yay political correctness), Superman is convinced that he can now do unlimited good. But back in the desert where the experiment was conducted, a mysterious being made out of sand rises from the spot where Superman had briefly laid stunned, taking the very shape of the Man of Steel.
This “Sand-Superman” begins to tail the genuine article, who goes about his superheroing business, crossing paths with the Man of Steel several times. Eventually, our hero can ignore the power-sapping Sand-Superman no longer, the story cumulating in a clash between the two, in what is probably the best comic book fake-out that I’ve ever read. This part also guest stars Diana Prince, a.k.a Wonder Woman, and her mentor I-Ching!
Here’s a quick run-down of some of Supes’ adventures in this trade: Superman sets out to rescue some islanders from an erupting volcano, followed by a showdown with a disgruntled museum curator who has obtained powers, and now seeks fame, or infamy, rather. There’s another story where Superman apparently contracts a contagious disease… or so he thinks. Later he thwarts an over-the-top Bond-esque villain’s evil plan. Finally, we see the lead up to the Last Son of Krypton’s showdown with the Sand-Superman. There’s also this little weird, isolated story which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the overall Sandman arc. This particular story has Superman getting tricked into thinking he’s died and gone to the afterlife, but it’s actually an illusion created by a trio of alien criminals (who, remarkably enough, look like traditionally proportioned angels).
As far as I can remember, Kryptonite Nevermore! is the story that first got me into reading comic books, even if my initial reaction to it was, “Fun, but lame. Hey look, Batman: Hush…”
I see now that in hindsight, this was actually a silly but fun book. But all comics are at least a little bit silly. What makes this story really shine is its smart plot. Depowering Superman, for one thing, is a great idea. Now, Superman is no dummy, but he tends to rely on his powers a lot to solve his problems. But downgrade his powers, and Superman now has to think his way through a situation. That makes for far more entertaining story than a simple punch-fest, plus it allows for Supie to do some good old fashioned brooding. Good good old fashioned brooding, the kind that helps to humanize old Kal-El.
But my favorite story by far was the one with the music museum curator. This man, a fellow named Ferlin Nyxly, attains his powers through a magic harp (it makes more sense in context) which allows him to steal abilities from other people. He later adopts the identity of Pan and comes into conflict with Superman after big blue inadvertently gets in the way of his plans to use the harp to become famous. Nyxly is a great villain, and is probably the most complex character in this book, along with Sand-Superman. Nyxly wants to be great, because he sees himself as a “loser”, and a simple dream to be a great piano player is eventually warped into an all out desire to destroy Superman. This is really deep stuff. In fact, I half hope that a modernized version of this story gets brought into current continuity, because I just love it. Interestingly enough, Clark Kent’s landlady in Action Comics is named Mrs. Nyxly. I think that the Sand-Superman actually briefly showed up during Reign of Superman, so there’s that too.
One odd thing about this story is that the majority of Superman’s supporting cast (Jimmy Olson, Lois Lane, Perry White, Supergirl, and -thank goodness- the Super-Pets) is relegated to the periphery, and villains like Lex Luthor and Zod don’t show up at all. Supes spends most of his time talking to himself via thought-bubble, the precursor to the inner monologue, and fighting monsters of the week, but that’s okay. In fact, the latter point is one of the things that make Nevermore good. If Lex Luthor were actually behind all this craziness somehow, then I don’t think I would really like it as much. I also like how Superman is constantly explaining by thought bubble tiny little details that would normally only occur to the reader after they’ve opened up the refrigerator at two in the morning to get a cold drink. Such details include “How does Superman change into his costume in that alley without anybody noticing?” It never occurred to me that comic book stories from this era were so self-conscious about their own silliness. Maybe this was just because Denny O’Neil is writing it, but I haven’t read too many other pre-Crisis comic books.
In the end, The Sandman Saga is a story with a complex and clever plot, good action, and good art. But above all, it’s a fun story. Re-reading it left me with a renewed appreciation for the pre-Crisis days, and a belief that this is a story that every dedicated Superman fan should read. Also, one last thing: Somewhere in this story, Morgan Edge randomly throws out in a thought bubble that he works for Darkseid, but this Edge was actually an evil clone working for Darkseid, as revealed in Jimmy Olsen!
…Yep, there’s no school like the old school, folks. And that is something that I sincerely mean.
Front page image from blog.christopherjonesart.com. Interior images from from comiccoverage.typepad.com, with-great-power.blogspot.com, supermanhomepage.com, and comicvine.com.