On a recent trip out to Greensburg, PA, home of more vintage toy stores per capita than anywhere else in the world, your friend (and mine) Larry and I stopped at a store selling vintage...well, whatever. Lots of things. It was called the Used Furniture Outlet, but there were hundreds of items on sale from dozens of vendors that didn't have anything to do with furniture. Anyway, as I'm always on the lookout for comics at places like these, I managed to spot and pick up a copy of Action Comics #241 for, I think, $2.50, which, in nearly any condition, is an absolute steal. It's a classic Superman tale about the Fortress of Solitude. I only wish that Joh Gray had felt confident enough in his possessions that he didn't feel the need to write his damn name on the cover. Oh well.
I've got something of an affinity for the Silver Age Superman, with his bravado and fatherly wisdom. He's certainly a representation of 1950s America, but Superman of the mid 20th century is often shown to be more inclusive and more progressive than we would probably have any reason to expect of a time filled with more than its share of strife.
This story, however, shows off Superman's incredibly narcissistic side. I mean, trophy rooms and robot Supermen have always seemed, to me, a bit egotistical, but this issue kicks that into overdrive. The basis of the story is that some unseen and unknown figure has broken into the Fortress of Solitude, which makes Superman worry that his secret identity has been compromised. Let's take a look inside the issue in question:
We start out with Superman, relaxing in his favorite throne/chair, writing in his diary...with his x-ray vision (which, at the time, had the same qualities of his heat vision). This diary consists of eight gigantic pages, each made of what looks to be steel. Presumably, Superman has a room filled with these things, saved for...posterity.
We later learn that Superman has a room dedicated to each of his friends, complete with full-size replicas of each of them, which is not the least bit creepy. Here we see that Superman is building a car for Jimmy Olsen. In the event of Superman's death, Jimmy will get...a car made by Superman. Hey, Clark, here's an idea: why not give him the car now, while you're alive? Why hang on to it until you die?
Later, Superman decides to paint a scene that he observed while looking at Mars, which apparently includes a Martian being buried alive, or clawing his/her way out of a shallow grave. Rather than just use a regular size brush and take his time, Superman uses a comically huge paintbrush. This is one of his super-hobbies.
Superman, as it turns out, has built a robot whose express purpose is to play chess. The robot "plans a million moves at once!" But even though "it's tough beating him!", Superman goes right ahead and does it anyway, and at super speed to boot. Because that's just how great Superman is.
Later on in the story, as Superman tries to figure out just who could have broken in to his Fortress, he comes across his interplanetary zoo. Now, I've always had mixed feelings about the zoo. On one hand, these animals were, as I thought, from doomed civilizations. Superman was saving the last members of entire races, entirely apt for the last son of Krypton. But it always seemed like Superman was neglecting these creatures and that they might be best kept in some other fashion, despite his best intentions. From this story, though, we learn that Superman "could return these creatures to their native worlds" whenever he felt like it...he just, apparently, would rather keep them in arctic cages. What the heck, Superman! Are you just going to worlds and stealing animals?!
The following panel, with Clark experiencing night terrors and moments of doubt, is easily the most human (and thus out of place) panel in the whole book. It's a look at the vulnerable Superman that would show up decades later.
It's finally revealed at the story's end that Batman himself, with apparently no crime to fight and nothing better to do, had been hiding in the Fortress key to play a prank on Superman. How he got to the middle of the arctic was never explained, but I guess he IS, you know, Batman.
Superman gets the last laugh, though, when he fakes a cave-in and convinces Batman that they are both doomed to die a terrible death. What a joker, that Kent.
With all of the absurdity going on, I probably took the most pleasure, though, from the final page's flashback scene of Batman - in full costume - going birthday shopping for Superman in a department store. His cape is billowing and everything! Batman also seems to have an eye for comically large props, as he himself (really?) bakes a giant cake, complete with candles that look like both Superman and Clark Kent, providing the Man of Steel with an enormous knife to cut it. We end with this apparent throwaway line from Superman: "I can eat solid steel!" As opposed to hollow steel, I guess. Not that I doubt the man, but this line seems to imply that he has done it, and perhaps with some level of regularity. What a crazy time, 50s-era DC Comics.
EDIT: Oh! I figured out what Superman must do with his gigantic, steel diaries after he's done writing in them. He eats them.
The issue was filled with a few other fairly forgetful stories (starring Congo Bill and Tommy Tomorrow), but this public service announcement of sorts at the very end caught my attention. It basically says "LOOK AT HUMANS! WE'RE SO GREAT!". I kind of wonder what the point of this was. Great job people. Keep on existing.