Mild Mannered Reviews - Classic Pre-Crisis Superman Comics

Superman #184

Superman #184

Cover date: February 1966

Writer: Otto Binder
Penciller: Al Plastino
Inker: Al Plastino
Cover: Curt Swan

"The Demon Under the Red Sun"

Reviewed by: Rick O'Connell

Astronaut Major Bob Burke, returning from an earth-orbit flight, claims to have seen a strange planetoid zigzagging through space. At the mission debriefing the NASA officials believe him to be delusional from fatigue and order him to be relieved of all future assignments. Major Burke's fiancee, Miss Todd, confronts the officials, telling them she believes he is telling the truth. Clark Kent, covering the debriefing for the Daily Planet, observes Miss Todd's distress and promises to have his friend, Superman, clear the astronaut's name.

Superman discovers a cosmic dust cloud at the location of the space flight. The cloud obscured the passing of a wandering planet zigzagging through space at hyper speed. At the planet's core he finds an enormous engine - the planet has been converted into a giant spaceship.

A telepathic recording by the planet's last Engineer relates how the planet Zhonda was equipped with a gravity drive to avoid the missile attacks of other worlds. Unfortunately during its travels Zhonda passed through a cosmic cloud and was infected with a throwback virus which reduced its civilization to a pre-iron age society, yet to discover the wheel.

While exploring the planet Superman sees two of the planet's inhabitants, Jaymarr and Themis, adrift on the Demon Sea. He rescues them from an attack by a Weed Monster, retrieves a Rainbow Gem for them from the sea bottom and later, when they collapse from heat stroke, he constructs shade for them.

Flying the young couple to their village home, Superman meets their tribe's chief Thongarr. Thongarr believes Superman's powers of flight and super-strength indicate he is a demon. Superman must under go the trial of the Quill Bird which will remove his "black magic powers". Unfortunately at the same time as the trial the planet passes into a red sun solar system. Superman loses his super-powers. While putting up a good fight against a gang of villagers, Superman is captured and held prisoner in the walled Graveyard of the Ancient Beasts. Chief Thongarr tells him he will be executed unless he demonstrates "good magic powers" three times in the next day. Through the ingenious use of the skeletal remains of dead beasts, clever use of Jimmy Olsen's Signal Watch (which Jimmy has given to him to repair) and the assistance of Jaymarr and Themis, Superman deflects a flying arrow with a bone boomerang, repels the Tentacled Terror Beast with hyper sonics (zee-zee-zee) and appears to fly using a kite made from his costume.

Thongarr, realizing if Superman could really fly he would have fled his walled prison, orders the execution to proceed. Superman is tied to a stake. He is surrounded by executioners each holding a Death-Glow Talisman. The Talisman is made from radium. Following Superman's instructions Jaymarr and Themis use primitive wheels and a magnet to help Superman escape from death by radiation poisoning.

Moments after his escape, the nomad planet enters a yellow sun system. Superman's powers return. Having shown Jaymarr and Themis history's greatest invention, the wheel, Superman resets the planet's controls to ensure another planetary fly-by of Earth. He then ensures a manned NASA spacecraft observes Zhonda's passing and confirms Major Burke's original report.

Finally he gives Jimmy Olsen his repaired Signal Watch and a bone boomerang souvenir of Zhonda, the zigzag world.

3Story - 3: If you haven't guessed by reading the story synopsis, "The Demon Under the Red Sun" is firmly entrenched in the story telling conventions of the Silver Age. There is ample use of the rich Superman Family mythos (a Red Sun's effect on Kryptonians, Jimmy Olsen's signal watch), the hero must pass a trial in three parts (the "good magic" feats) and there are more Big Ideas in one issue than can be found in a year's worth of most 21st century books. On the negative side there is lots of exposition. On the positive side a first time reader can understand what is going on without referring to Archive Volumes or Wikipedia (which was a good idea in 1966 'cause neither existed).

It is full of coincidences (the planet's hyper space jumps occur at the most dramatically convenient moments), it is ridiculous (the Weed Monster and Tentacled Terror Beast look like they escaped from a Sea Monkey advertisement) but it's charming. It's fun but it's not the best of its kind. The idea of Superman powerless under a red sun had been explored several times since it was first introduced around 1960. The unique drama here is Superman is not in Kandor or some other futuristic society, where there are jet packs available on every corner. He's on a planet which has no accessible technology. He's trapped and powerless. He's got to be ingenious. And he is.

I like the characterization of Superman during the story. It would have been easy for the writer to have him stumble upon the nomad planet while returning from a space mission but instead Clark's motivation is to exonerate Major Burke. It's Superman as Champion of the Underdog and this gives the story an emotional core which it could have easily lacked. I was also surprised by how many wise-cracks Superman makes during the story. He's less of an authority figure, more of a playful older brother. He's amusing but at the same time the humor does not detract from the sense of jeopardy.

The author appears to draw some intentional parallels between the two young couples (Major Burke and Miss Todd, Jaymarr and Themis). Both couples are engaged to be married and are attempting to rebel against authorities who are unwilling to accept new ideas. The NASA authorities, in rejecting the possibility of the nomad planet, are as prejudiced as the superstitious elders of Zhonda. (Question authority! Question your beliefs! This really was written in the sixties.)

While there are no Creator Credits in the book itself, a quick google search indicates the author was probably Otto Binder (who wrote many of the Marvel Family adventures in the forties and fifties). This makes sense, Binder was a science fiction writer and the story contains a lot of casual references to science fiction concepts - nomad worlds, hyper space, post-apocalyptic societies. It also has a light touch - Superman's quips are not unlike Captain Marvel's banter - particularly the series of sporting references in the scene where he is first captured by the tribe.

The cover proclaims "A complete, full-length novel!" but I must admit the creative team could have done the same story in half the space. In pre-1966 terms, it just doesn't feel epic enough to justify 22 pages. Maybe that's a sign of things to come. Speaking of things to come, there's a house ad at the end of the book - "The Brand New Look! Go-Go Checks from DC." The issue went on sale 16 December 1965. As of the following week all DC comics were published with Go-Go Checks on the cover. This was an attempt to differentiate DC product from other publishers (most significantly the products of the Marvel Bullpen - referred to on the letter page as Brand I). The Go-Go Checks lasted until mid-1967 and it could be argued they herald the beginning of the end of the Silver Age. DC was aware of Marvel's success and could not ignore it. It was to change its house styles in an attempt to remain competitive. By 1970 this issue's creators Otto Binder and Al Plastino would not be working regularly for DC. As the song from the sixties goes, the times they were a-changing.

Also included in this issue is a reprint of the two page "Secrets of the Fortress of Solitude" from Superman Annual #3 (1961). It's a cross section of the Fortress. Before reprinting it they've made a slight change to the diagram - the Linda Lee statue is now referred to as Linda Lee Danvers. Linda was adopted by the Danvers in 1962. I guess Superman is the type of guy who likes to keep the labels on his wax dummies up to date.

There are two pages of letters. They chat about Leigh Brackett (married to Superman writer Ed Hamilton and author of The Empire Strikes Back (though that was fourteen years away)), they announce the last 52 Superman TV episodes will be re-released in color in 1966 ("more colorful than Bonanza!"), and they mention the impending debut of the Superman musical on Broadway (from the producer of Hello Dolly!, from the authors of Bye, Bye Birdie!).

Many of the letters to Superman comics in the early sixties were attempts to point out writer and artist errors. There is a vaguely antagonistic tone at times.

The reader response to "The Demon Under the Red Sun" in issue #188 is no exception. A writer from Flushing N.Y. asks how, in a civilization without metal, the Zhondans could be clean shaven. And "can you explain this without a wise crack?" Sounds like a good question to me, but obviously I am not as clever as the average DC editor who responds that stone-age men on Earth had razors "made out of stone." So you learn something new every day. Who said comics weren't educational? A reader from Kentwood La. asks how, on page 20, the sun could appear in the sky at night. Well, I thought, clearly a planet which solar system hops every day or two isn't going to have sunsets and sunrises you can set your watch by. Wrong again. This time the editor blames the artist and then refers us to "The Walrus and The Carpenter" by Lewis Carroll, which seems a little twee even to me. No wonder these readers seem annoyed.

3Art - 3: Another google search and I discover the art in this issue is the work of Al Plastino. Al was one of the main contributers to the Superman Family of titles from the late forties until the late sixties. His action scenes in this issue, particularly the fist fight with the tribes men, are quite good. He handles human situations better than fantastic ones, and has a nice range of melodramatic facial expressions so this story plays to his strengths. If you look closely, you'll notice the first panel of page 21 is a smaller version of Curt Swan's cover art. Jimmy Olsen's single panel appearance at the end of the story also doesn't look like Plastino's work but it would take sharper eyes than mine to confirm this.

4Cover Art - 4: In the Silver Age, the cover was everything. And this one is terrific. Curt Swan pencils and (apparently) George Klein inks. Angry villagers threatening to burn a demon at the stake - it almost has a Universal Pictures horror movie feel to it. A red sun blazing so bright it partly obscures the S in the Superman logo. And more word balloons than you can shake a radioactive stone at. "In minutes I'll be a goner!" No wonder this was the "World's Best-Selling Comics Magazine!" So, if the cover is such a winner why aren't I giving it a 5 on the Krypto-Scale? Well, even though expository word balloons were a staple of Silver Age covers, this one does appear particularly wordy. "Death to the male-witch!", cries one woman which seems a little pedantic coming from someone braying for blood. Maybe in the original Zhondanese it's a little pithier.

Pre-Crisis Superman Comic Book Reviews



  • Superman #76 (May/June 1952) - “The Mightiest Team in the World”
  • Superman #80 (January/February 1953) - “Superman's Lost Brother”
  • Superman 3D (1953) - “The Man Who Stole the Sun”, “Origin of Superman” and “The Man Who Bossed Superman”
  • Superman #87 (February 1954) - “The Prankster's Greatest Role”
  • Superman #88 (March 1954) - “The Terrible Trio”
  • Superman #89 (May 1954) - “Captain Kent the Terrible”, “Superman of Skid Row”, and “One Hour to Doom!”
  • Superman #91 (August 1954) - “The Superman Stamp” and “Great Caesar's Ghost”
  • World's Finest #88 (May/June 1957) - “Superman and Batman's Greatest Foes”
  • Superman #115 (August 1957) - “The Midget Superman!”
  • Superboy #65 (May/June 1958) - “The Amazing Adventures of Krypto Mouse”
  • Action Comics #242 (July 1958) - “The Super-Duel in Space”
  • Superman #123 (August 1958) - “The Girl of Steel”
  • Superman #127 (February 1959) - “Titano the Super Ape”
  • Action Comics #252 (May 1959) - “The Menace of Metallo” and “The Supergirl From Krypton”
  • Superman #129 (May 1959) - “The Girl in Superman's Past”
  • Superman #130 (July 1959) - “The Curse of Kryptonite!”, “The Super-Servant of Crime!”, and “The Town that Hated Superman!”
  • Jimmy Olsen #40 (October 1959) - “Jimmy Olsen, Supergirl's Pal”




Compilation Volumes


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