The Secret of the Superman Impostor!

It's quite possible the first Superman comic I ever owned was Superman #225 (April, 1970). Certainly it features one of the most memorable covers of my childhood, with a bearded, bedraggled Superman lookalike pleading with the Man of Steel to either free him from his tiny cage or kill him, and Superman answering, "All right...I'll kill you!" So many questions posed by that one could you not want to buy the book and learn the answers?

Leo Dorfman provides the script for "The Secret of the Superman Impostor," with art supplied by the estimable Curt Swan, ably aided by veteran inker George Roussos.

We begin on planet Voltran, where a cabal of creepy-looking aliens gather in a shadowy lab, their bulbous, veined heads and googly eyes evoking memories of classic Star Trek episodes "The Cage" and "The Empath" (and to some degree, "Mars Attacks"). It's a cinch no aliens that look this icky are nice guys, and sure enough we learn they're about to launch a "sinister experiment" known as "Project Ultimo."

On their viewscreens, Superman is seen returning to Earth from a space mission. As he flies through an "invisible magnetic field" projected by the aliens, his "super-energy" generates "hyper-pulsations" which in turn activate a mysterious liquid substance called "chromoplast," bubbling in a nearby, bathtub-like vat ("Hubble...Bubble...Zuuuush!"). Slowly, the chromoplast coalesces into a "living, breathing, hyper-plastic copy of Superman!"

Addressing the double as Superman, the aliens claim they found him unconscious and used their super-science to revive him. They hand him a super-suit to wear, but when he tries to fly, he crashes painfully to the floor. The "Pulsitron," we learn, was not able to duplicate Superman's powers as easily as his appearance.

Alien leader Mentor Vrol is prepared for this eventuality, however. He convinces the double that the Superman seen flying through space on a nearby viewscreen is the duplicate: "Using a strange form of kryptonite, he's absorbed your super-powers!" Vrol arms the artificial Man of Steel with special weapons to help him get "his" powers back; a secret cache of black-painted Kryptonite cartridges, a super-power transfuser (designed to steal Superman's powers when he's unconscious) and, as the ultimate weapon, a miniature circuit disc capable of transferring any sensation he feels to the other Superman.

Thus equipped, the synthetic Superman is placed in a rocket and sent to Earth to "reclaim" his powers. "Then," cackles Vrol when the double is out of hearing range, "I will have a super-being at my conquer Earth and turn it into a giant testing ground for my experiments! Ha-ha-ha!"

Still convinced he's the real Superman, the duplicate lands his rocket outside the city limits of Metropolis and, without powers, begins the long walk into town. As luck would have it, a band of crooks picks that moment to drive by in a convertible and one of them tosses tear gas at him. Furious with his bomb-throwing cohort for antagonizing "Superman," the driver speeds off, certain the Man of Steel will nab the lot of them, but if he'd lingered a moment, he'd have been surprised to see "Superman" doubled over in tears from the gas. At the same moment in the offices the Daily Planet, the real Clark Kent finds his eyes watering as well, as the double's surgically implanted disc does its work. On the bright side, this display convinces Lois Clark is catching a cold, and thus can't be super.

Later in the day, still schlepping towards town, the ersatz Superman can't catch a break, as a passing truck loses a bag on the road next to him. The bag splits open, spraying pepper in his face.

Having at last made it to Clark Kent's apartment, the synthetic Superman decides to clean up with a hot shower. Unfortunately, he's set the dials a bit too far on the hot side, and scalds himself. Meanwhile the real Superman is in the middle of a high diving exhibition at nearby Seaside Beach, and the sympathetic sensation of burning skin throws him off balance, ending his spectacular dive in a graceless belly flop. ("Maybe diving just isn't his thing," shrugs a young observer).

Soon after, the synthetic Superman learns that his double is scheduled to appear on a float at a Mardi Gras-like parade. Dashing off to a costume shop, he rents a "devil" costume and completes the ensemble with a Kryptonite-tipped pitchfork, infiltrating the crowd of parade-goers to get close to his quarry.

In time, Superman's float rolls by, with the Man of Steel holding up a 10,000 pound model of the Earth (that's one sturdy float, there). As he comes within range of the "devil Superman's" Kryptonite trident, he feels himself weakening, and desperately hurls the globe into a nearby lake to avoid dropping it on the assembled crowd. The "devil Superman" advances on him with the pitchfork, ready to render him unconscious and take his powers with Mentor Vrol's gadget.

By a fantastic stroke of luck (ahem), a group of young revelers swarms over the "devil Superman" and, praising his outfit, drags him away to "scare the devil out of our friends!" The pitchfork is lost and the real Superman clings, unseen, to the underside of the float until it carries him out of the danger zone.

Days later, the synthetic Superman makes his way north with a new plan of attack; he will journey to the Fortress of Solitude to use its awesome weapons against his "evil super-duplicate." On the way, however, a crevasse opens in a glacier beneath him. Though he manages to narrowly escape death, his sled is lost and his dogs run away, which means he'll have to continue his trek on foot. Shivering in the extreme cold, he triggers a sympathetic chill in the real Superman, who intuits that something's brewing up north, and flies off to investigate.

As the synthetic Superman looks on, a Navy helicopter makes an emergency landing in the northern snows. The pilot, realizing the chopper's landing gear is smashed, has opted not to land on his aircraft carrier, for fear of crashing and detonating his load of bombs. The fake Superman commandeers the helicopter and decides it's time to play his ace-in-the-hole, committing suicide to simultaneously bring death to his doppleganger.

Happily, Superman appears in the nick of time, removing his double from the chopper before detonating it in mid-air with his heat vision, still a safe distance from the carrier deck. (As an aside, it's obvious the ersatz Superman isn't a perfect duplicate, or he'd have had a slight issue with the almost certain collateral loss of life involved in exploding bombs on an aircraft carrier.) Already possessing superior power and considerably better luck than his double, Superman rubs it in by exhibiting flawless grammar as well:

As he's strapped into a chair in front of a scary-looking device, the synthetic Superman is certain he's about to be killed by his super double. Instead, he's bombarded with Superman's "neural-ray multiplex," designed to remove his hallucinations and help him remember who he really is. It doesn't turn out as expected:

It's a frustrating puzzle, but with his busy schedule, Superman can't hang around to figure it out. He locks the double in a cage and assigns a Superman robot to see to his every need. However, the only thing he really wants is freedom.

Over time, however, the double slowly realizes the truth. Watching a video screen all day, every day with the robot, he sees Superman perform one service after another to humanity, and reasons, "You can't fool all of the people all of the time! Especially kids! They can sense fakers! He could have killed me, but he's only tried to help me! If he's really Superman, then I must be the impostor! The aliens lied! They tried to use me to kill him!"

When he sees the robot fiddling with a "metal-melting blaster," the captive asks to examine it. The robot complies because, as the prisoner learns, it cannot harm Superman robots (since they're made of "special plastics") or the cage (likewise non-metallic). Superman's captive double takes a moment to write a message on the back of a crossword puzzle, then shoots himself in the head with the blaster, melting the metal circuit disc in his skull, resulting in his death.

Superman feels a brief but intense sympathetic pain in his skull, then returns to the Fortress to learn his double's fate.

This story made a big impression on me as a five- or six-year-old and I have to say it holds up pretty well. There's real drama in the ordeal of the fake Superman, who honestly believes he's the real deal and is brought into this life only to suffer. I also had, as a kid, a real fascination with the super-suit and loved any story where it showed up on multiple characters (like the Emergency Squad or various impostors), so obviously I dug this one, with a robot, a double and the genuine article.

In that vein, there's a certain visual "hook" to having the suit in tatters, and worn by a "hobo"-like Superman, as evidenced by various gimmick covers of the Silver Age, and it works here, too. In fact, this cover bears a strong superficial resemblance to that of issue #198, which featured a similarly ragged-looking (and manacled) Clark Kent duplicate announcing he's just escaped a long imprisonment at the hands of our hero. (Of course, from there, the stories take very different turns.)

There's only a few niggling details to spoil the fun in this one. For instance, how did the fake Superman manage to get into Clark Kent's apartment? One assumes the aliens didn't provide a copy of Clark's keys. Did he just walk up to the doorman and say, "Excuse me, I'm a friend of Clark Kent, could you let me in?" Considering the precautions Clark usually takes when entering and exiting the apartment in costume, what will this episode do to his secret ID? Also, since the double knows about the secret ID, wouldn't it be easier to attack Superman in his Clark Kent persona at the Daily Planet, instead of waiting to catch him in costume at a public appearance?

Also, as cool as it is to see that tattered super-suit, you have to wonder how it is that the mere passage of time can take such a toll on clothing. Though the cover says he's been locked up "for a year" there's no indication in the story itself that his captivity lasted that long, and even if it did, how does he get his clothes so raggedy in 12 short months? Plus, I guess he's either denied or refuses a razor (and maybe even a bath) to complete the "stranded castaway" look he sports by story's end. For all the advances in Kryptonian culture, you'd think Superman could devise a means of incarceration that doesn't make the prison in "Cool Hand Luke" look like the Ritz Carlton.

These are minor quibbles, however. "The Secret of the Superman Impostor" is still a strong and effective story from a period that was, to my lights, far from a high point in the character's history.