Superman #404 (1985)

Superman #404 (February, 1985)
“Born to be Superman!”
Writer – Paul Kupperberg
Pencils – Carmine Infantino
Inks – Bob Oksner
Letters – Milton Snapinn
Colors – Gene D’Angelo
Editor – Julius Schwartz
Cover Price: $0.75

You ever just stare at a word… and it baffles you, because you could swear you spelled it wrong?  And it’s a word you’ve used a bunch before, even!  So, like… you keep staring… and maybe you’ll copy and paste it into Google…and even then, you’re still not sure if you’re quite seeing it right?

Well, that explains the last eight minutes in my house as I squinted sideways at the word… Kupperberg.

We open with Superman fighting off a fleet of alien invaders.  He pulverizes the hull of the craft and all sorts of nonsense starts to pour out… I’ve never seen Superman act so… I dunno, littery?  Anyhoo, before he can properly board, the craft sounds its alarm.  Only… that’s not what’s going on at all… what he’s hearing is actually his alarm clock, it’s time to get up!

He’s in bed with his wife, Lana Lang.  He tells her about the dream he’d just had, to which she reminds him that he’s not Superboy anymore.  He tells her that this time, it was a different dream… he wasn’t Superboy, he was Superman.  She kinda shrugs it off.  We learn here that Clark lost his superpowers when he was 16, and spent the next decade in a coma.

As Clark gets ready for work, we learn a few more things.  First, he and Lana have a son (who may or may not be a young Terry Long)!  Also, Ma and Pa Kent never died of that tropical virus.  Pa picks Clark up to take him to the Airport for a business trip.

On the car ride, we learn (we’re doing a lot of learning this morning) that Jonathan Kent is a member of the State Legislature… and that Clark’s trip to the West Coast is to open a Kent Supermarket (a chain that grew out of the Kent General Store in Smallville).  Oh, also… Superboy lost his powers and fell into that coma after a battle with (who else?) Lex Luthor.

One plane ride later, Clark is picked up by Pete Ross… and a limo!  He’s driven to the Kent Supermarket, which kinda looks like a place that the Legion of Super-Heroes might shop at.  It’s definitely an eyesore.

After cutting the ribbon and dedicating the store, Clark and Pete load back into the limo and chat about his weird “super” dream.  Remember, it was established that Pete found out about Clark’s dual identity during the New Adventures of Superman series (perhaps elsewhere before that too!), so he knows all about what CK might be feeling.  As it happens, this limousine is equipped with a television.  A WGBS Superboy “13 Years Later” documentary comes on (narrated by Jimmy Olsen).

Clark asks Pete to shut it off… he’s not keen on reliving the loss of his powers.  Someone who is happy to see this, however, is… Lex Luthor.  We learn that, in the wake of that fateful day, Lex was sent to jail for twenty years (being paroled after thirteen).  He relives their final battle, and laments that Superboy never returned as a Superman, so he’d get the opportunity to kill him again.

Back in Smallville, Clark and the fam are out for a walk.  Lana and the boy decide they want some ice cream… so, off to the ice cream parlor they go.  Along the way, however, Clark notices a Superboy book (written by Lois Lane) in a shop window which causes him pause.

Lana flashes back to the day Superboy lost his powers… and how, after the big explosion, Superboy crashed back down on the football field.  Pete Ross was quick to nab his pal, and was left with very little choice but to spill the beans about the dual-identity to Lana.

Lana and the boy continue along to the ice cream join, while Clark chats up Police Chief-turned-bookstore owner, Mr. Parker.  They both lament the loss of Superboy, after all, Smallville owes him a whole heckuva lot.

We jump ahead three weeks, and Lex Luthor has created a… ridiculous looking pair of robotic walking legs, with which he’s going to… look ridiculous while he robs a bank?  Sure.  His rig is fortified enough to withstand the fire of several police officers, and he is able to bust through walls with ease.  Then, he runs into… Superboy?!

Only… this is no Superboy!  This is Superman.  The Luthor legs are tipped over, and they go boom.  From here, we get some hand-to-hand fisticuffs… and a few choice observations from Lex.  Like, Superman didn’t absorb his punch the same way he used to… and also, he’s not flying!

As they continue to beat on one another, we learn that Superman is really only keeping it together at this point because his suit is invulnerable.  Well, that, and the fact that he… get this… built a homemade “power pack” to mimic some of his old power-set.  And he did this with… wait for it… various colors of Kryptonite?!

They fight some more… and eventually Superman wins.  After the dust settles though, he realizes that he did so… without the aid of his “homemade power pack”… and without superpowers at all!  Yay?

Okay, so… when we get a story like this, it can only ever end up going one of two ways.  First: it’s all a dream/hallucination… Second: Imaginary story.  Neither of them are all that satisfying… though, at least with a dream, we might get some moralistic closing comments.  We… don’t get that here.

What we get… feels like a cop out.  Made even worse by the comparably strong first half.  I really dug the amount of effort that was put into building this alternate world where Clark lost his powers and never became Superman.  How would the world take shape around him?  Where would he wind up?  There’s some really fun (and strong!) storytelling here.

It felt kind of like an episode of Twilight Zone… which should’ve been a big red-flag.  How often do ya see an episode of Twilight Zone with an enthralling first half… that has you at the edge of your seat… and ends with a “dud”.  I’d wager the answer to that is “Most of the time.”

I mean, really… once we hit the midway point, the best case scenario was that this was a hallucination… or, Superman was going to be plugged into some weird machine.  Now, if that’s the best case… it’s safe to say, we’d better brace for disappointment.

Let’s talk about that ending.  First, Superman makes a “power pack” out of… Kryptonite?  I mean, I know he lost his powers… but, he’s still a Kryptonian, right?  He didn’t just all of a sudden “become human”, did he?  This stuff should still be highly dangerous (life-threatening!) to him.  To see him tinkering with the stuff is… weird, right?

The ending could be taken one of two ways.  If you just look at the pictures, it looks as though Superman really didn’t need the power-pack he built into his belt in order to “be super”.  If you read it, though… it’s plainly said that a de-powered Superman actually defeated Lex Luthor.  Dunno about you, but… I kinda like the first option better.

This issue features Carmine Infantino… who, by the mid-1980’s, isn’t one of my favorites.  I feel like his art is part of the reason why I have so much difficulty getting through the Trial of the Flash… and, yeah… I did say “part” of the reason.  I’ll give him this, though… he still draws a mean Clark Kent.  Everyone else though… ehhhh.

Overall… this was an issue I’d actually hunted down because the concept interested me.  A retired-from-heroing Clark Kent settling down in Smallville and starting a family, while the world moves on without him?  Sign me up!  Ultimately though, it was a bit of a let-down.  Super-strong first half… pretty lame conclusion.

Letters Page (wouldn’t be a Superman lettercol without The Mad Maple or Kent Phenis!):

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