Evolution of the Superman Part 5: From Powerless to Power Shift

J. C. Maçek III

For the past month “To Be Continued...” told you the story 'bout Superman. How he evolved, how he “died”. Gave you a kick, huh? You're kickin' for more. So folks, here's the story of Superman Red.

The prototypical Superman was a bald villain whose second Fanzine appearance was more heroic, but not as colorful as the Man of Steel we know. After his National debut in Action Comics #1 the costumed Superman learned to fly, use heat vision and ultimately became so powerful he had no rival (not even kryptonite was a problem). That is until DC Comics revised the history of Clark Kent and reigned in his powers to a more manageable, if still superhuman level... which, of course, led to his death, replacement and resurrection. Unfortunately the Man of Tomorrow woke up with SUCH a hangover the next day that he actually had no powers at all and actually used a pair of handguns for an issue or two.

So what separated this resurrected Superman from the other four that took his place? Powered or not, there was only one real Kal-El and he did gain his powers back through a strange conflict with two of the imposters to the throne, the deadly program “The Eradicator” and the “Cyborg Superman”. When the Cyborg's lethal Kryptonite gas passed through the Eradicator it reenergized the de-powered Superman and put an end to both the Eradicator and the Cyborg (albeit temporarily... if Superman could live again, why not these guys, in some form?).

Thus, Superman was back... and so what about Clark Kent? Isn't it a bit suspicious that they both showed up again at the same time? Well, luckily in 1993's Adventures of Superman #505 the new Supergirl (actually an inter-dimensional alien named “Matrix”) was a shapeshifter who could pose as a refugee Clark Kent who found himself trapped in a basement after Doomsday's rampage. As a bonus, the world got to see Superman and Clark Kent on TV together, so everything was coming up roses, right? Superman was alive, his identity secret, his wedding to Lois was back on, he had a cool new long-haired rock-star look and he even had his powers back.

Yeah... except that his power-up worked a little bit TOO well and soon the trademark Superpowers were completely out of control. Superman's x-ray vision went haywire once causing him to believe that the entirety of Metropolis had vanished, for example. Soon his super-hearing was off the charts to a distracting degree, he had to wear a bent metal shield around his eyes to keep the heat vision from killing everyone from Smallville to Manhattan and his body bulked up to a Hulk-like level. The poor guy absorbed so much solar energy (the source of his powers) that he was something of a monstrosity. If not for the hunger of the peerless Parasite (aka: Rudy Jones) the Wedding would be off. Well, the wedding ended up “off” anyway and Kal-El found himself powerless for the second time in the 1990s due to the sun-killing storyline of The Final Night (yeah, Clarky, blowing out stars isn't so funny when they're the source of your powers, is it?).

Luckily, Lois and Clark did get married and due to his re-de-powered nature he was able to get his hair cut without breaking the scissors and stop any super-wedding night fear jokes before they happened. With the Eradicator and Cyborg not playing fair this time, Supes actually had to dive into the heart of the sun (as a regular human being) in order to get his powers back (see 1997's Superman - The Man of Steel #64). His cape didn't even burn off, folks.

So NOW everything's okay, right? Well, no. Starting in The Adventures of Superman #545 (also 1997), Big Blue's powers started to shift... and I mean COMPLETELY this time. The old question of “what is Superman without his cape” was easily answered when Clark developed electricity based powers and had to squeeze himself into a blue and white containment suit. He could still fly but bullets now passed through him rather than bouncing off of him and he was as likely to ZAP a criminal as to use any sort of vision-based powers on them. The “Electric Blue” Superman wasn't fully explained as more than a strange new Evolution of Kal-El's Kryptonian powers and ultimately some issues (like January 1998's Superman: Secret Files and Origins #1) attempted to imply that this version of Superman was the one we had always had (boy, that Richard Donner was sure confused wasn't he?).

“Big Blue” wasn't alone in this electric hell for long, seeing as how a backfiring trap laid by Hank “Cyborg Superman” Henshaw caused our hero to split into two separate beings with the same powers, “Superman Red” and “Superman Blue”. Both were still madly in love with Lois Lane and neither particularly liked the other one. Ultimately we got the real deal Superman when a battle with the Millennium Giants caused “Big Red” and “Big Blue” to slam together, re-merge and reveal the Superman we all recognize, inexplicably back in his original costume. Was he “rewarded” for saving the planet or did his electromagnetic energy simply dissipate. We don't know... because I'm doubting the writers even knew, especially since we never fully got an explanation for how he got the weird new powers in the first place.

Of course, the easy answer is... money. Such shifts as Superman's powers and marital status puts DC in the headlines and boosts sales (at least temporarily). Did this one pay off? Not as well as DC wanted it to, or else why the “Never mind, he's back, okay?”

All that and I didn't even get into “The Death of Clark Kent” (yes, that, too, happened in the 1990s). To Be Continued... soars back again next week with the last evolutionary bounds (to date) of the Man of Steel. Don't miss it! Adios Gatitas!

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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