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
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
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
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.