"The Last Days of Lois and Lana!/The Dying Day of Lois & Lana!"

Writer: Cary Bates. Pencils: Curt Swan. Inks: Frank Chiaramonte.

Superman #362, 363 (1981)

There are two reasons I like this story.

One is I just think it's a good tale, one that has stuck in my mind even though I first read it almost thirty years ago (good lord!). And the second issue was even reprinted in one of DC's Year's Best digest collections (in the days when comics companies could actually assemble a whole collection of "best" stories culled from a 12 month period).

The second reason is because it's a good counter argument to a lot of people in the comics biz. See a lot of super hero comics are basically about fighting and violence. Every now and then some comics scribe will come along, announce he is fed up with violence in comics, and will rebel by...writing an even more hyper violent comic as a "satire". When said comics (and I'm not naming characters like Lobo by name, of course) do really well with violence lovin' readers, said creator will express Claude Rains style false outrage ("I'm shocked! Shocked!")...and then continue writing violent comics, pretending he's somehow making a statement because he means it to be ironic. And really, one would say, if you're fed up with violent super hero comics...why not rebel by writing an entertaining super hero story that doesn't rely on mayhem to make it's point? To which they would respond: can't be done. It wouldn't sell.

And I'd respond: um, it can be done, and has been. And it was successful and we called it...Superman. Seriously. Go back and randomly pick a few Superman issues from the 1960s to, say, the early 1980s. I mean, of course Superman had plenty of action and fighting, but precisely because he was so super powerful, writers had to come up with more imaginative plots to challenge him, to the point where the fights were often incidental to the true resolution, or where "beating up" a bad guy might entail no more than spinning him about with super breath. But that doesn't mean such stories were solemn (or, conversely, parodies) or stuffily pretentious.

Which brings us to "The Last Days of Lois and Lana!/The Dying Day of Lois & Lana!"

While covering a museum exhibition, Lois and Lana (both ladies being reporters in Bronze Age continuity) are unwittingly exposed to a lethal microbe -- the same germ that killed Superman's foster parents, the Kents, years before. To add to Superman's angst, he was partially responsible for contaminating the Kents in the first place. So while Superman searches everywhere -- literally through time and space -- for a cure he knows from bitter experience may not exist, he also sets out to spend quality time with the two gals (since the disease initially has no symptoms, neither are aware they are dying).

That's it -- no villain. No ten page fight scene. There's a spot where Supes interrupts a hi-jacking...but it's barely a distraction for him. But that's about it.

Yet you don't miss it. Because unlike a lot of modern decompressed stories, the two issues still seem to rocket by, with lots of stuff happening, lots of fun, fantastical elements...yet also with some effective human drama (as the premise clearly offers) and pathos. You don't think about how little "action" there is...because there's plenty of action.

And, of course, it's drawn by the irreplaceable Curt Swan -- for many the quintessential Superman artist.

One of the most memorable scenes for me is when Superman, desperate, goes to his arch foe Lex Luthor for help (Luthor being a scientific genius in those days). Luthor concedes he might be able to find a cure in time...but refuses to do so, because he wants to hurt Superman. Then he says there is a way Superman could force him to find a cure -- and flings the vial of microbes at the wall. With a horrified yell, Superman catches it before it smashes open. And Lex laughs maliciously, noting the irony that Supes' code against killing is so strong, he would let Lois and Lana die rather than risk Luthor dying as well in case he couldn't find a cure in time.

That one scene said so much about Supes character (and Luthor's understanding of his character). Nowadays, of course, they'd probably have had Superman smash the vial deliberately -- or, more likely, have Batman be with him, and have Batman smash the vial.

Of course, everything ends happily (Lois and Lana don't die) and the story is full of goofy ideas and implausible events. That's my point. It's still a fun, four colour comic book adventure...it's just that it's not defining "adventure" by the number of haymakers Superman can land in a single scene. It's about Superman doing what Superman does best -- trying to save the day, to make the world better, moving heaven and earth to do so, travelling to exotic places and times, while being tempered by his compassion, and balanced with some nice character bits and human interaction.

And it makes a point about ultra violent comics...simply by not being an ultra violent comic.