Superman #281 (1974)

Superman #281 (November, 1974)
“Mystery Mission to Metropolis!”
Writer – Cary Bates
Penciller – Curt Swan
Inker – Bob Oksner
Editor – Julius Schwartz
Cover Price: $0.20

Here’s a fella I’ve wanted to talk about for awhile… Vartox!

Now, if you’re browsing blogs relating to relatively-ancient DC Comics, you probably already know a thing or two about this… the manliest man who ever done manned.

Like, he was based on Sean Connery… in a couple of ways!  First, in his looks… I mean, it’s kinda “on the nose”, right?

Also, the name “Vartox” is an allusion to the Connery film, Zardoz… from which this look originated.

I think it’s going to be a good time getting to know this fella… he might even require a few revisits…

We open with a prologue, set on two worlds.  On one, a woman working the cash register at a Metropolis shop is shot dead.  On the other, a similar looking woman… just dies!  The latter, it turns out, is the new wife of superhero, Vartox!  Vartox arrives home, however, it’s too late to save her.

He takes her body to the… I dunno, “science place” so they can perform an “Autopsican”, and get to the bottom of just why she dropped.  Turns out, she died because the murdered cashier in Metropolis is her… get this, Bionic Twin!  They were biologically linked.  Well, Vartox wants revenge on the fella who did this… and so, he “tunes in” on Metropolis.  He learns they have a superhero as well, and knows that what he feels he must do might become complicated should he have a run-in with Superman.

Before we know it, Vartox arrives in the skies above Metropolis.  Superman is there waiting for him, because… ya see, Vart sent an “inter-galactic-gram” before heading over.  He, Vartox that is, explains what he must to… but Superman ain’t feelin’ it.  No matter for our foreign fashion plate… he’s gonna do, what he’s gotta do!

We shift scenes to the Metropolis State Penitentiary, where Lois Lane is interviewing the alleged murderer, Frank Sykes.  As they chat, he reveals that his lawyer is this close to getting him off… which, if true, it’s no wonder there are so many vigilantes in the DC Universe.  Anyhoo, Vartox swipes him straight outta the Pen!

Well, not so fast there kemosabe, Superman’s caught up with ya!  For the next couple of pages, they brawl through the air… until, Vartox hammers Superman with an energy blast to the chest… which ricochets off of him, and winds up hitting (and killing!) Lois Lane.  Despite how it looks on the cover, Vartox is very apologetic.

None of this matters though, because… it’s just a “mental projection”.  Wonk wonk wonkkkkk….

Back in the “real world”, Lois and Clark are headed… somewhere.  They discuss how Frank Sykes actually did get off for the murder… and what’s more, since their law prohibits “double jeopardy”, ol’ Sykes cannot be tried for the same crime again… so, he’s just a free man!  Oh yeah, also… Vartox shows up, but this time doesn’t send an inter-galactic-gram-or-whatever.

Elsewhere, Frank is being reamed out over the phone by his brother Teddy.  Teddy was responsible for hooking him up with that fabulous lawyer… but, that was the last favor he’ll ever do for the deadbeat.  Then… just minutes later, Teddy calls back to inform Frank that he’s sending a “very special friend” to keep an eye on his little brother.  Upon hanging up, Teddy has no idea why he made that call… but we know!  Ya see, Vartox mentally possessed Teddy and made him make that call, so that he might get a closer look at ol’ Frank.

Frank’s not all that keen on working alongside “Vart”, until the alien visitor convinces him that he (Frank) has some latent superpowers, controlled by the snap of his fingers.  They teleport into “Spiffany’s” (… clever) and steal a glowing jewel so big you could choke a horse with it!

Elsewhere, Lois and Clark are taking a Judo class.  Lois, naturally, tosses Clark all ova da place.  Clark uses his time on the mat to take a telescopic glance into Frank Sykes’ apartment… and what he sees is, well… Frank and Vartox, and that big ol’ jewel.

Clark excuses himself from the lesson, claiming… I dunno, sour stomach or something… then, Supes up and confronts the two nogoodniks.  Vartox makes it look as though Sykes is using superpowers in order to keep the Man of Steel at bay. before “snapping” them both away.  Superman shakes out the cobwebs, and decides to… not pursue the baddies, but check in at Spiffany’s.

Superman learns that the stolen jewel was never the property of Spiffany’s.  At the same time, Vart reveals to Sykes that he is an alien from the far away… and tells him that the glowing jewel is actually a rare artifact worth millions… on his world.  Sykes agrees to take the trek.

Superman arrives just as they’re leaving… via a strange beam.  He follows them into space, and even saves them from the certain doom of smashing into a fragment of a white dwarf star!  Vartox is shocked that Superman hasn’t tried to stop him.

Finally they arrive on Valeron… and the other shoe drops!  Vartox lets him know the straight dope on their trip, Sykes is under arrest for the murder of his (unnamed) wife!  The sentence… sixty years!

What’s more, Vartox broke zero laws bringing him here!  Ya see, the “stolen” rock, was his… also, there was technically no abduction, since Sykes came of his own free will!  Then, Superman arrives… and everything gets straightened out.  Vartox even lets him take Sykes home with him, since… on Valeron, they serve sentences a bit differently.  It’s revealed that the murderer has been aged sixty years!  Superman doesn’t really bat an eye… which makes sense, because this aging-dealie is still far less uncool than, say… banishing someone into the Phantom Zone!

Ya know, this was pretty good!

Anytime I look at Vartox, I kinda just assume that he’s a “funny, ha ha” character.  Like he’d be the “Mort of the Month” several months running in Wizard Magazine or something.  I’m almost positive he’d made at least one appearance there!

I’m surprised to see how un-jokey he is here.  He’s methodical, and smart (for the Bronze Age, anyway)… plus, his origin story… is a horribly sad one!  Not all that much to laugh about (besides his outfit, anyway).

I was really expecting a far different story here… I assumed Vartox would be instantly antagonistic toward Superman… and what we get is him just trying to go about his own business, and actually avoid Superman in the process!  Certainly a misleading cover… but, that’s nothing new, and definitely not unique to this issue.

Other than that, not all that much to say.  There’s some crazy comics-“science” at play here… autopsiscans or whatever… just wacky stuff, but I suppose it all works.  Thought the bait and switch set up by the “what if” segment was a bit deflating… and ultimately, a waste of a handful of pages… but whattayagonnado, right?

Overall… I’m looking forward to learning more about this weirdo character… and hope to take you all on a crazy Bronze Age ride.  It doesn’t look like this one’s been collected (outside of a digest release) nor has it been made available digitally.  C’mon, DC… whattaya got against Vartox, anyway?  Certainly worth a look, if you come across it!

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