Action #359, "People vs. Superman!"

ACTION COMICS #359; Feb. 1968; DC Comics (National Periodical Publications); Mort Weisinger, editor (E. Nelson Bridwell as assistant editor at this time but not credited in indicia of this issue); cover-featuring ""The Case of the People Vs. Superman!" The cover is by Neal Adams, who was just starting his run as DC's go-to guy for covers. It depicts Superman sitting on the witness stand in court as a tearful little girl points the finger at him, literally; "That's HIM! He's the man who KILLED my Daddy!" (This scene does not, incidentally, appear in the interior story.)
Review by Bill Henley. Some time ago I reviewed the previous issue, Action 358, in which Superman is charged with murder. I didn't have this follow up issue then. Now I do, so I guess I'll review it, just in case anyone is still on tenterhooks over whether Supes beat the rap or went to the electric chair (well, for him it would have had to be the Kryptonite chair.)
The story is written by Leo Dorfman and pencilled by Curt Swan with inks by Pete Costanza. On the splash page, a grieving widow throws a sympathy wreath in Superman's face. "YOU KILLED MY HUSBAND! Get away from me, MURDERER!"
On a "bleak day in Metropolis Cemetery," mourners gather for the funeral of Ron Noble, upstanding Metropolis citizen who agreed to an exhibition "boxing match" for charity-- and wound up dead from Superman's punch! Or did he? "Lurking nearby is Dr. Frost, the notorious underworld scientist," who boasts to a cohort about how the late Mr. Noble was really a gang leader who cooperated in a scheme to frame Superman. But Frost doublecrossed Noble; what was supposed to be a suspended animation pill to feign Noble's death was actually poison! Now, not only is Superman up on charges, but the ignoble Noble is really dead and Frost has taken over his rackets! When Superman (who is apparently out on bail) shows up, "Doc Frost" departs, but not before making a "big slip"-- accidentally dropping a small capsule to the ground. Superman spots it and curiously picks it up, intending to check if it is an illegal drug. However, his real business here is to try to make amends with the widowed Mrs. Noble. Forget it; she dashes his wreath in his face, shouting "Murderer!" Nobody among the assembled mourners believes the death was an accident, as Superman claims. (They should, actually. It may be plausible enough to believe Supes misjudged his strength and delivered a fatal blow, but what motive would he possibly have had to purposely kill the supposedly upstanding citizen Noble?). A cop orders Superman to leave and slips in a verbal knife; "The crowd's getting ugly, and who knows what might happen! Especially since you obviously can't control your super-powers!"
Soon afterwards, Earl Barton, "famed TV writer-lawyer" who retired from active practice after an accident confined him to a wheelchair, receives an appeal to resume his career as defense attorney. His client; Superman! (At the time this story appeared, Raymond Burr was starring on TV as wheelchair-bound detective "Ironside". Earlier, of course, Burr played infallible defense attorney Perry Mason. Sounds like the character of Earl Barton was intended as a meld of these two characters. He's not drawn to look like Burr, but I wonder if maybe the script originally called for Barton to resemble Burr and Weisinger vetoed the idea for fear of legal problems.). Barton accepts the job and assures Superman that acquitting him will be "a cinch," but inwardly he's not so sure; "Who am I kidding? I'll need every courtroom trick I know to get him off the hook!"
Meanwhile, Metropolis district attorney Alonzo Kroll holds a press conference and addresses reporters, including Jimmy Olsen, with stirring words; "There is no special code of justice for Superman! Whether he is a hero or a hoodlum, I will prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law!" But a look at Kroll's inward thoughts tells us that his motives are less than pure; he hopes that the fame of convicting Superman will propel him to higher elected office, even to the Presidency. (Actually, I figure convicting the beloved Superman and ending his mission of protecting Metropolis, would just as likely be a ticket to political oblivion as to the White House. Better, in my opinion, if the D.A. Character had been written as an honest man reluctantly doing his duty.)
The trial begins with jury selection, which is a tough task since so many potential jurors are prejudiced in Superman's favor, such as a carnival owner who is grateful to Supes for saving his Ferris wheel and its passengers from being toppled in a windstorm. Another rejected juror is Bruce Wayne, who is known to be a friend of Batman who is Superman's partner. (What's Bruce Wayne, who lives in Gotham City, doing on a Metropolis jury panel? And considering that he really is Batman, the world's greatest detective, shouldn't he be helping look for clues to prove his buddy's innocence? But I'm reminded of a neat story that appeared in one of the cartoon-based "Batman Adventures" comic books. Bruce Wayne does serve on a Gotham jury and, when asked to state in court whether he has any aliases, he says, "I'm Batman". He has to-- he's under oath to tell the whole truth! Fortunately, everyone thinks it's a bad joke and he only he's chided by the judge for disrespect.)
As the trial of Superman starts, DA Kroll tries to prove that Supes is a "conceited super-egotist" and "reckless bully". He cites honors given to Superman, such as the naming of a new element "Supermanium" and the issue of Superman coins and stamps by foreign nations, as signs of Superman's super-egotism, implying that Supes performs his super-deeds only to receive such plaudits. Kroll even calls Jimmy Olsen to the stand against Superman! Reluctantly, Jimmy presents photos of two of Superman's less illustrious feats; he wrecked the launching of a satellite and wrecked the Army's proving grounds for advanced weapons with a tornado created by super-breath. Jimmy insists that in both cases Supernan ran amuck only under the influence of Red Kryptonite. But DA Kroll sneers at Red K as a "convenient alibi".
Superman reassures Jimmy that he doesn't blame him for testifying, but then his girlfriend Lois Lane is called as a hostile witness. (See, Supes, you should have married her after all. Then she couldn't be forced to testify against you.) Lois tells how Superman once deflected a "mysterious nuclear weapon" from Earth but a detonation of the device in space killed a spaceship full of aliens. Under cross-examination, Lois explains that the aliens turned out to be condemned murderers on their own world and that anyway, it was an accident. But Kroll points out that Superman didn't know the aliens were criminals, and that he still broke his code against killing.
Superman doesn't do himself any good when he himself is called to the stand. Incensed by Kroll's badgering, he pounds the arm of his witness chair-- and shatters it! Just the sort of "accident" that supposedly killed Noble.
With everything going against him, Superman makes an unorthodox proposal to the judge. By enclosing the judge and jury in a giant bubble and carrying them into space to overtake light rays that have left Earth, he can enable the court to witness the death of Ron Noble for themselves! This doesn't help much at first, as what defense attorney Barton describes as a "powder-puff punch", the DA insists is a killer punch that caused Noble to collapse and die instantly. But observing the scene with his super-vision, Superman spots a crucial clue-- at the moment Superman hit Noble, he (Noble) bit down on a small capsule he was holding in his teeth! Supes is able not only to match the capsule with the one he found in Metropolis Cemetery, but to detect the same fingerprint I each one! And so, Supes adopts a "new strategy" in court. The next day, he and Barton call a "surprise witness"-- Dr. Frost! Observing that Frost carries a bottle of capsules around with him, Barton demands that Frost swallow one in order to prove that they are harmless vitamin pills as he claims. When Frost refuses, Barton charges that they are really poison capsules and that one of them was the real cause of Noble's death. He seeks and finds a volunteer from the court audience to prove it-- Clark Kent! Despite Frost's shouted warning, "No! Don't, you fool!", Clark swallows the capsule-- and falls over, apparently dead!
Confronted with the fact that his warning indicated he knew the capsules were deadly, Dr. Frost breaks down in the best Perry Mason tradition and confesses all in open court- how he and the late Noble were both criminals plotting to frame Superman, and how he doublecrossed Noble to his death.
Frost thinks he has achieved some measure of revenge in that "your buddy, Kent" is dead! But Superman pulls out a vial of "revival gas" and brings the mild-mannered reporter back to life, explaining that he was in possession of the poison capsule long enough to concoct an antidote.
Later, after the case against Superman is dismissed, we learn that no antidote was really necessary, for Clark, who swallowed the poison, was Superman, and the "Superman" in court that day was really Batman in disguise. What would the judge say, Batman wonders, if he knew what was really going on? "Guilty of massive contempt of court" is probably what he'd say, but Supernan, mighty defender of law and order, doesn't care; "Does it matter? Justice came out on top!" Supes flies off to "pay his lawyer's fee", which in this case, rather than handing over cash, involves helping doctors perform an operation to help the crippled lawyer walk again. (Not that Barton seemed to do his client much good in court. He probably should have advised his client not to testify in that breakable chair.)
I don't remember if lawyer Bob Ingersoll ever made this story the subject of one of his "Law is a Ass" columns in The late lamented CBG, but if he did, he must have made a real hash of it. Myself-- as I think I said when I reviewed part 1-- I think it would have been a lot more interesting story if it had confronted the real possibility of Superman accidentally killing someone, and left the readers, and Superman himself, in a little more doubt what really happened.
The "Metropolis Mailbag" letters page contains a few familiar names. Martin Pasko, future writer of Superman and much else, inquires about the name of the "great" new cover artist and is told its Neal Adams. Dave Cockrum suggests that Supergirl's hairstyle is "unattractive" and she needs a new 'do. (When he went to work for DC some years later, Cockrum missed the chance to redesign Supergirl, but instead provided a mass makeover for the Legion of Super-Heroes and then, at Marvel, the X-Men.) And Tony Isabella, whose name rings a bell from somewhere, praises "The Annihilator," a recent villain, as a worthy addition to Superman's skimpy roster of bad guys (but I don't think the Annihilator ever reappeared).
"The Super-Initiation of Supergirl" is written by Otto Binder (nearing the end of his long comics writing career-- I see that his last DC story was in Action #377) and is the first Supergirl story to be drawn by Kurt Schaffenberger, following Jim Mooney's defection to Marvel. While checking on a malfunctioning Linda Danvers robot, Supergirl encounters a girl named Joan who is tied to a tree and being attacked by a swarm of angry hornets! It's all part of an initiation hazing by Stanhope College's "secret sorority," Xi-Pi-Hi-Fi. After rescuing the girl, Supergirl resolves to bring down Xi-Pi-Hi-Fi. But instead of simply informing on them to the college administration, she decides to "teach them a lesson" a different way. Supergirl invades Xi's secret clubhouse and demands to be initiated into the group herself! If she's blackballed, then she'll expose Xi to the Dean. The leaders of the sorority agree on condition that they be allowed to devise special "initiation tests" for the Girl of Steel. (Getting spanked with a Kryptonite paddle?) But the leader Sonya has a secret plan to thwart Supergirl by figuring out who-- out of three Stanhope co-eds with the right physical measurenents-- is Supergirl's secret identity.
The first initiation test is for Supergirl to write the entire US Constitution on a blackboard in 10 seconds. With super-recall and super-speed, this is easy enough_ but Supergirl spots the Xi girls checking handwriting samples and deduces their scheme. She thwarts the scheme by writing in shorthand.
The next test is for Supergirl to squeeze a lump of coal into a large diamond. The Xi girls cluster around to admire it, but Supergirl realizes they are really checking it for fingerprints. Again, she thwarts the scheme by surreptitiously changing Linda Danvers' prints on her college record.
Nonetheless, the "female finks" have zeroed their suspicions in on Linda Danvers, and so their final demand is for Supergirl to pick up Linda and fly her around the campus three times! Ordinarily the simple solution would be for Supergirl to activate her Linda robot, but the robot is on the blink- it's legs aren't working though it can use its arms. But when she sees a girl studying near the robot's hollow-tree hiding place, Supergirl has a "brainstorm". Shortly, Supergirl flies around campus looking for Linda Danvers, and the Xi girls gloat as she is seemingly unable to find the girl who is actually herself! But then Supergirl spots Linda, and asks her to take a ride as she tests a "new flying maneuver". And so the Xi girls watch in frustration as Supergirl meets their final test without exposing her identity.
Returning "Linda" to the robot's hiding place, Supergirl has the robot remove the Linda wig and cancel the hypnotic spell which caused an unknowing girl to impersonate Linda. Still under a post-hypnotic spell of forgetfulness, she thinks she has just dozed off while studying in the woods. (But kind of a high-handed use of an unknowing and unconsenting person in Supergirl's scheme. Legally, it might even have been kidnapping. And what if something went wrong, such as a sudden super-villain attack, while Supergirl was flying around with her?)
To complete the comeuppance of Xi-Pi-Hi-Fi, Supergirl, now an official member, insists on joining a club barbecue. But in the guise of "helping," she burns the hot dogs to charcoal with heat vision and blows smoke in the girls' faces. "I get it! You're joining our group so you can SPOIL our kicks with your super powers! Looks like WE'VE been SUPER-HAZED!" They agree to disband Xi-Pi-Hi-Fi, and even present the failed pledge Joan with a necklace with a gold hornet charm. While showing off the necklace to Linda, Joan asks if it was fun for her to fly around campus with Supergirl. "Er... Like Thrillsville, Joan!"