Challenge of the Cosmic Invaders!

Fighting off alien invasions is all part of the job for a superhero; punch ’em, outfox ’em, send ’em back where they came from. But what do you do when the aliens have no form? When they can rearrange their atoms and inhabit everyday objects all around you? Such is the dilemma faced by the Boy of Steel in Superboy #153 (Jan. ’69).

Frank Robbins is the author of the “Challenge of the Cosmic Invaders,” with pencil art by longtime DC stalwart Bob Brown and inks by the legendary Wally Wood.

We open in Smallville, that idyllic paragon of small town American life, where the lawns are always well-tended, the wash is always neatly hung and the streets are free of litter. Except today they’re also free of people; the whole town has been mysteriously and eerily abandoned.

Superboy is at the moment unaware of this fact, seeing as how he’s airborne and in hot pursuit of an out-of-control mail plane.

Here’s as good a place as any to note that the art on this story is fantastic. Wally Wood’s inks were always beautiful, a latter day link to classic illustrators like Hal Foster and Alex Raymond, but they did have a tendency to overpower the style of whatever penciler he was teamed with. In this case, that’s just fine, as Bob Brown was one of those artists whose work was always competent and pleasant, but never really what you’d call exciting and certainly not detailed. Here, Brown’s solid sense of storytelling, anatomy and perspective are fleshed out to gorgeous life by Wood’s glossy inks and peerless mastery of light and shadow.

Anyway, Superboy lands the plane and goes to assist the pilot — who he assumes has suffered a heart attack — only to find the aircraft empty. Nearby, another plane sits abandoned at a fuel pump, with gasoline pouring out of the tank, and Superboy begins to realize he’s alone in Smallville.

Spotting a police patrol car outside of town, Superboy jumps onto the running board to converse with the officers, who insist they haven’t seen a single Smallville resident leaving town by the highway. With Superboy still hanging on, they drive into town to investigate, but once within the town limits they too disappear, the now-driverless patrol car crashing into a fire hydrant.

Just as Superboy is deciding he’s some kind of one-person plague, voices start talking to him from nearby objects: a baby carriage, a street sign, a mailbox, a lamp post. The voices claim to be responsible for the disappearances, saying “We are…the Invisible Empire!” Extraterrestrial visitors from “Dwarf Neutron-Star Lethos,” they are “the molecules you breathe…the atoms that compose every object you use…the street you stand on! We can assemble or disassemble at will! We are an elemental force!”

As the advance party for an invasion of Earth, they’re holding all the people of Smallville hostage.

The aliens promise Superboy that if he cooperates with them — and only if he cooperates — they will return the people of Smallville. To prove they can do it, they re-materialize Martha Kent in her kitchen, but only long enough for Superboy to briefly touch her.

Why do they need Superboy? Because “here in your heavy atmosphere, our mobility is limited by the objects we occupy! Therefore we need you to bring us what we cannot go to…the leaders of the Earth’s great nations…so we can infiltrate their brain cells and thereby control their peoples! Then, the world is ours!”

Frustrated, Superboy resorts to violence, with little effect.

What’s to prevent you from destroying them? Well you see you have this code against kil….oh, why do I still bother? Adding insult to injury, notice the aliens call him a “Pouf” when he fails to destroy them. Anyway, check out that awesome flying pose. This story is pretty to look at, if nothing else.

Superboy begins his flight across ocean to fetch the world’s leaders, but by the time he reaches London, he’s hatched a plan, stopping at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum to “borrow” a few famous figures:

Note that the exhibit, containing figures of Churchill, Hitler and Mussolini, is titled “The World’s Living Leaders.” This tidbit, together with things like “U.S. Mail planes” and patrol cars with running boards, sets this story firmly in the 1940s. (One of the world leaders is Vidkun Quisling, Norway’s infamous Nazi collaborator installed in office in 1942, so we know this story happens after that). One of the interesting things about Superboy is that even as Superman remained forever young over the decades, Superboy’s adventures keep sliding forward, staying roughly 20 years prior to “the present.” Most of his stories, taking place as they do in a small town where folks didn’t always have the latest things anyway, were deliberately hard to pin down date-wise, but this one is much easier to tag.

Superboy takes the wax figures to his “auxilliary secret lab, deep in the polar regions.” This is the first time I’ve seen mention of such a place, which looks remarkably like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. Once there, he builds and installs “robot brains and organs” that bring the wax figures to simulated life.

Transporting the now-animated figures to Smallville, Superboy presents them as the real deal, and offers them to the aliens in trade for the residents of Smallville.

I don’t care how good Superboy is at robotics, you just can’t get a wax figure to bend at the joints, make fists and move their lips in sync with your thrown voice. Also you have to wonder why, if Superboy is such a freaking robotics genius, he needed Madame Tussaud’s input at all. But then I guess he’s more engineer than artist. Anyway, you’ve gotta love that fantastic shot of Superboy throwing his voice from the side of his mouth. Sweet.

Fooled, the aliens restore the citizens of Smallville and migrate to the brains of the robotic waxworks. Then “Hitler” notices another figure that has not yet been taken over. “He’s not a leader,” explains Superboy. “He’s an unknown, but he will determine your destinies! Meet Professor Mesmer..the world’s first and greatest hypnotist!”

As the others look on, Mesmer hypnotizes the lot of them.

Yes, that’s right, he hypnotizes a room full of robots. Or rather, aliens inside of robots. That is to say, robots that are actually wax figures. Whatever. Anyway, Superboy thanks Professor Mesmer, who as it turns out is also a wax figure/robot. Yeah…um… a robot with the hypnotic powers of the guy he’s been sculpted to look like. Right. So just to recap, that’s a roomful of robots hypnotized by…another robot. Hoo boy.

Superboy grabs up the now-paralyzed wax figures to take them back to the museum, but suddenly a brass eagle on a flagpole calls out to him (don’t blame me, Frank Robbins wrote it!) and reveals itself as the last of the aliens, who has escaped the trap and, though alone, can still “split like your Earthly amoeba [and] inhabit many bodies!” He directs Superboy to fetch the real world leaders this time, or he’ll destroy Smallville for sure.

Returning the dummies to the museum, Superboy spots a wax figure of “Tom Thumb” displayed in a bottle and this gives him an idea. Returning home to the Kents’, he borrows some red dye from Ma and then fires up his “Super-atomic furnace,” explaining, “I’ll need temperatures higher than any known on Earth!”

This is the first reference I’ve ever seen to “portholes” on Superbaby’s rocket. Also, note that the “super-atomic furnace,” generating “temperatures higher than any known on Earth,” is made of common brick and housed in the basement of Jonathan and Martha’s house.

Putting his plan into action, Superboy flies over Smallville’s town square and calls out a challenge to the invader, wherever he is. When the alien answers (from inside a statue), Superboy slurps down a jug of Ma’s red dye and sprays it all over the square, exposing the creature.

This is probably the first time a Danny Thomas spit-take was used to defeat an alien invasion. And Frank, no fair changing the rules in the last reel; you said before the aliens had no form and merely inhabited other objects, so where’d this space-slug body come from?

The alien turns into a mist to escape, but thanks to Ma’s dye the mist remains red, allowing Superboy to see it and inhale it into his lungs. Since the alien can’t pass through the molecules of his Kryptonian body, Superboy becomes a living prison for the thing. Then, returning home to that super-atomic furnace, he deposits the alien into a glass prison-globe through the fine art of glass blowing.

Since the glass was originally the “porthole” of his Kryptonian rocket ship, it’s as impenetrable as Superboy’s body, so the alien is trapped “like an evil genie…for all time!” The End.

I figure it’s fitting to end on this image, as Robbins doubtless spent a lot of time with a pipe in his mouth when he wrote this story. But unlike Superboy, whatever was in that pipe was not being exhaled. I mean seriously: wax figures with working skeletal and muscular systems, robots hypnotizing other robots, atomic furnaces in the basement, Superboy spitting all over Smallville…this story would have had even Bob Haney asking WTF?

It doesn’t do to think too much when reading this one, or you have to ask why Superboy would stand idly by while the tragedies of World War II unfolded. “I’m not sure the world wouldn’t be better off if the cosmic invaders did take over from the real dictators,” he muses (chuckles?). Yep, millions dead in Stalin’s purges, millions more in Hitler’s death camps and Japan’s invasion of China, but they’re all Earthlings, so that’s their business. Anyway, I’ve got my hands full building that giant ice-cream maker for the Smallville Rutabaga Festival.

But saving the whole enterpise is the art; with Neal Adams on the (misleading) cover and Brown and Wood teamed on the inside, there’s no denying it’s pretty to look at. If Frank Robbins seems a bit out of his element here, we have to remember he did write some great Batman stories later on. And as crazy as this story might be, let’s not forget his true fame came as an artist. Soon enough he’d be back to his main gig drawing comics instead of writing them, and we’d put all this wackiness behind us, right?

Oh. Yeah. THAT Frank Robbins. Nevermind…