And we're back, after an absolutely nightmare-ish week-and-a-half at work that left me in a state where I could only work, eat and sleep. But all is now well, and I'm back to take a look at Superman's first venture into space.
Writer: David Michelinie
Penciller: Darick Robertson
Inker: Brad Vancata
Letterer: Bill Oakley
Colorist: Pat Garrahy
Assistant Editor: Chris Duffy
Editor: Mike Carlin
Cover: Walt Simonson
Cover Date: Annual 1995
A group of radiation-suited terrorists find that their hijacking of a cargo lorry in Illinois doesn't go to plan when Superman drops in. Heating up the asphalt, Superman waits for the hijackers to sink in before chilling it solid with his freeze breath. He flies off, continuing his journey back to Smallville. Over dinner with his parents, Clark addresses his father's fears that he is pushing too far and placing himself in danger. Clark is not concerned; he is riding on a high of using his powers and as far as he is concerned, he has no limits. Suddenly, the conversation is interrupted when a mental pulse deafens Clark. He quickly discerns that it is coming from the moon. A thought strikes him - if he takes a deep enough breath and pushes hard enough, he could break free of the Earth's gravity and head into space.
Changing to his costume, Superman puts his plan into action. The plan works, and Superman finds himself in orbit. Forcing himself not to be overawed by the sight of Earth from space, Superman makes his way to the moon. Near the site of the Apollo 11 landing, Superman finds an alien craft that is emitting the signal. As he approaches, a hatch opens. inside, Superman meets the pilot, a dying alien, who warns him of the H'tros, a swarm of plundering mechanical aliens who target a world and pick it clean. The alien's planet, a pacifist world, has been targeted, but transmissions from Earth speaking of Superman gave them hope. The alien had been sent to enlist Superman's help. As the alien dies, he gives Superman a choice - press a button to be transported to their homeworld to help, or to return to Earth and let his people perish. Superman chooses to help, and pushes the button.
Transported across the galaxy, Superman finds himself setting foot on an alien planet for the first time. The aliens greet him, but bow their heads in front of him. Superman realises that as a man of action and violence, his presence is resented by the pacifist people. Briefed on the H'tros, Superman heads into space to avert the invasion. It doesn't take long for the H'tros to react to his organic nature, and Superman soon finds himself the target of the fleet. The H'tros detonate a grenade, forming a miniature black hole to trap Superman, but Superman is able to plug the black hole with one of the Htros ships. Superman is then nearly caught with a bluff to draw him away from the approaching mothership, but at the last minute he realises the plan and is able to escaape the trap and focus on the mothership. Bursting in, he battle H'tros guards that seem intent on keeping him away from a certain area. Battling his way through, he discovers the primary power core, and detonates it, destroying the ship and routing the invasion.
Recovering in space, panic overtakes Superman when he realises that he has lost his bearings and he cannot find the alien planet. He picks a direction and is about to head off in it when he realises that if he is wrong, heading off will only make him more lost. With his oxygen running out, Superman applies science to retrace his steps to the centre of the explosion that stranded him. From there he is just about able to identify the planet, and in a desperate race against his approaching unconsciousness, he hurtles towards breathable atmosphere. Back on the planet, the aliens are both grateful and mournful for the loss of the H'tros. They despatch Superman back to Earth.
A few days later, Clark Kent is working in the Daily Planet newsroom when a report comes in from NASA of approaching alien ships. The manner of their approach tips Clark off that it is the H'tros, who have somehow survived. On the roof of the Planet, Clark face down the fear of getting stranded in space again and, armed with a larger oxygen supply, heads off to face down the H'tros again.
Repeating his tactic from before, Superman is surprised at the lack of resistance on the mothership. He soon realises why - the power core has been encased in a force-field that he cannot penetrate. The H'tros attack him, and Superman realises that their tactics work to prevent him from getting to another ship. He fights his way into the new ship, and the sound of metal breaking under his assault makes him realise that there is atmosphere present, an unusual occurence for a ship populated by robots. Venturing onward, he discovers the organic creator of the H'tros, who has been commanding their attacks. Reasoning that the H'tros are programmed to follow their creator, Superman hurls the ship into the sun. The H'tros follow, and are burned up. Superman returns to the alien, who he had evacuated from the ship, only to find that he has comitted suicide.
Back in Smallville, Clark confides in his father that his adventures in space have helped him realise his limits.
There's a lot to like about this annual, and I'll get to these things in a second. But first, I have to deal with the elephant in the room, namely the lameness of the H'tros, their plans, and the aliens who get Superman involved in the whole affair. First of all, the aliens, who rate so lowly in the story that Michelinie never bothers to give them a name, are almost completely forgettable, save for the moments where their pacifist nature causes them to regard Superman with disdain. Their world is a one-gimmick world - they are pacifists - and we have no real sense of what it is that Superman is fighting for, other than the fact that he has been asked to fight. As for the H'tros... they attack anything organic on sight , and their whole reason for doing so is that once upon a time their creator wanted to end a centuries-long war. Hold on... organic creator creates an unstoppable race of robotic beings as the result of a centuries-long war that he commands in secret while they annhialate the galaxy... sound familiar?
Neutrals?) a true sense of depth in the 48 pages of this annual. There's a lot to fit in, and a few sacrifices have to be made, including the final revelation that Superman saved the H'trosi creator before sending his ship into the sun - the reveal reads about as smoothly as I covered it in the recap.
So, that's enough of the not-so-good. What works well here? There is a real sense that Superman is out of his depth at several points in the issue. We get to see Superman adapting his use of powers on the fly in a new environment. Things that might be taken for granted in future episodes, such as divining the presence of an atmosphere because of the noise of metal melting under Superman's heat vision, are laid out logically for the reader. And, of course, the real highlight of the issue is the very tangible sense of panic Superman feels after destroying the H'tros mothership, when he realises that he has got lost and very well may die in space. The artwork really sells the idea that Superman is struggling not only for survival but to keep his head in difficult circumstances.
The bookends with the Kents are a lovely touchstone. Between Man of Steel #1 and #6, we see very little of Clark's parents, and catching up with their thoughts, feelings, and concerns for their son during his formative years as Superman is an important thing for us to do. The final scene ties in nicely with the end of Man of Steel #6, as Pa Kent references the fact that Clark's upbringing is as important to Superman as his superpowers.
Finally, on a personal note, re-reading this annual for the blog confirmed just how important writing these reviews are for me. When I first read this annual, a few years back, I wasn't interested in the space story, and because I had bookmarked this issue in my head as 'Superman in space', I had a pretty negative view of the annual as a whole. Going back through this issue several times over the past week (work allowing) has completely changed my view of the book. Although the space story still isn't a particularly strong one (in my opinion), it's the character moments and progression that really make this annual stand out for me. I'm glad I reread it and gave it a second shot, as it's now turned into one of my favourite stories from this time in Superman's life.