When Superman Defended His Arch-Enemy

Maybe it's just me, but I think Action Comics #292 (Sept 1962) doesn't paint our hero in the most favorable light.

Here's the story: Taking advantage of Superman's temporary absence from Earth, Lex Luthor escapes prison and races to his secret lair. Observing this drama via video monitors in Kandor, the Superman Emergency Squad sends a Superman robot to stop Luthor, but he disables the robot with his new "Vibro-Ray" pistol. Surrounded by the police, Luthor uses the colossal, figural statue on the roof of his lair -- which turns out to be a rocket -- to launch himself into outer space (rather like Dr Evil in his "Big Boy" rocket).

Landing on the planet Rox-Ar, Luthor is accosted by "Astro," a robotic lawman, and directed to turn over any dangerous weapons he might have. Offended at being given a command by a mere robot, Luthor blasts Astro with his Vibro-Ray gun and the shattered robot falls into a "boiling sea."

A group of human-looking characters subdues Luthor and takes him to the authorities for the killing of Astro. It turns out that Luthor's subduers are androids constructed by the dominant race of Rox-Ar, robotic beings known as "Automs." As he has killed an Autom, Luthor is charged with murder.

Conveniently, Superman shows up and offers to act as Luthor's defense attorney. At first the Automs resist the notion of a human rating a trial at all, but finally agree on one condition. "If you can pass our three standard intelligence tests," they tell Superman, "you will prove that aliens are entitled to the same justice we deal out to any Autom."

Superman's first test is to find his way to the end of a giant tunnel maze within a specified time limit. If "intelligence" means finding the easiest way to cheat, Superman passes; he simply uses his x-ray vision to spot the exit. The second test is to assemble a jumble of odd-sized puzzle pieces into...something. It turns out to be a model of Rox-Ar's capital city, and again Superman spares his brain cells by simply trying every possible combination with super-speed until he finds the right one. The third test finds Superman shut up in a cage with "only one way out." Still averse to using his brain, Superman is tempted to use his super-strength or heat vision to bust out, but the Automs are on to him by now and insist he uses only his intellect. Having been told there's only "one way out," Superman deduces that the door must have been left unlocked, so he simply pushes it open and walks out. This one act of incontrovertible genius is enough to win over the awed robots, who declare Superman is as bright as "the most advanced model Automs."

And so the trial begins. The Autom prosecutor shows a film of Luthor committing the murder (there's always a camera around where you need it in Silver Age stories) and even Lex realizes the case is pretty iron-clad. So does Superman, who asks for recess and uses it to retrieve the body of Luthor's victim from the boiling sea. Finding it beyond repair, Superman flies to Luthor's rocket and discovers the shattered body of the Superman robot Luthor destroyed before leaving Earth. He swaps parts from his own robot into the lifeless Autom and directs his metal servant to masquerade as the victim.

Back in the courtroom, the "murder victim" makes a dramatic appearance and, seeing as how no one has been killed, the murder charges against Luthor are thus dropped. Luthor refuses to let Superman return him to Earth ("You have no jurisdiction here") but finds himself stranded on Rox-Ar since Superman has removed the radium power source from his rocket to power the reanimated Autom. Superman takes particular glee in leaving Luthor stranded on Rox-Ar, the only human on a world of robots (proving Lex isn't the only spiteful one in the relationship).

This story is disturbing on several levels. First, there's any number of Silver Age tales that establish Superman's abiding respect for the law, even the laws of other nations, even when the laws make no sense to him and even when it creates major headaches (one such story is reviewed here). But in this tale, he shows a total disregard for another culture's justice system.

Superman is clearly guilty of obstruction of justice when he passes off his own robot as the murdered Autom. By the laws of Rox-Ar, a murder has been committed here as whatever gave Autom No. 4306 "life" has been taken away. Superman rebuilds his body but is unable to restore his "spirit," if you will, substituting the conciousness of his own robot. He directs the Superman robot to become an accomplice by pretending for the rest of his robot life to be Autom No. 4306. He then explains his deception to Luthor, who now knows that Superman is just as willing to break the law as he is, if it suits him. And as an added bonus for the kids in the audience, it turns out Superman is also a cheater.

So why does Superman interfere with the legal process? If Luthor has committed a murder, why not let him pay for it? The answer, apparently, is that no one on Earth would ever consider a robot to be alive, so why prosecute Luthor for "murder" over the destruction of a mere machine? Fair enough if he did it on Earth, but on Rox-Ar robots are considered a form of life. They have their own government, their own laws and a respect for the sanctity of life. On Earth, "ignorance of the law is no excuse," so why is it a defense on Rox-Ar? Thanks to Superman, agent of justice and champion of the oppressed, Luthor gets off scot free and the murder of poor old Autom No. 4306 will forever go unavenged.

But wait, it gets worse. Two months later, in Action #294 ("The Kryptonite Killer"), Luthor ingratiates himself to the Automs by creating a device that protects them from giant killer insects. They reward him with a custom-built laboratory, which he uses to transform androids into super-powered henchman (Diamond Man, Lead Man and Kryptonite Man) and launches a campaign of interplanetary piracy. One of the first things he steals is the entire radium supply of Rox-Ar, necessary to the continued survival of the Automs (thus dooming the entire race). When the Automs try to stop him, he disables their protective devices, facilitating their slaughter by a marauding swarm of killer insects.

Superman intervenes but Luthor tells him "I'm still out of your jurisdiction on this planet unless I commit an interplanetary crime!" Luckily Superman finds the evidence he needs and returns Luthor to Earth, where presumably he is incarcerated for crimes committed on other planets. Come again? Back in his cell, Luthor is last seen playing "pirate," having lost his mind. And who can blame him?

Anyway, the point is that by cheating Rox-Ar's legal system, Superman not only helps Luthor evade justice but also enables his interplanetary crime spree and nearly dooms the entire populace of Rox-Ar. Certainly he makes possible the deaths of dozens of Automs. And all because of what amounts to, more or less, naked bigotry. Superman, that veteran of a thousand space travels and friend of many alien races, never for a moment considers the possibility that the Automs are a true life form deserving of rights. Maybe we shouldn't be surprised, given the callous disregard he shows to his own robots -- including the one in this story -- despite their years of service and sacrifice.

Maybe this story is just too hard to appreciate from a 21st Century perspective, having seen science fiction address issues of civil rights for beings with artificial intelligence (like Data on Star Trek) for decades. It probably played better in the early 60s, but in the 21st century it just leaves a bad taste in the mouth.