Forgotten DC Comics Villains: The Sand Superman
Some Characters Slip Through the Cracks
There are good ideas. There are bad ideas. Then there are ideas that are just forgotten.
DC Comics is unique in the sense that it periodically does a continuity reboot. While many of the fans have found this exercise somewhat frustrating from a continuity standpoint (as well as a biographical one), it gives the writers the opportunity to make good characters from bad ones. Long-time readers of DC Comics have found the publishing company actually does a good job reinventing some of the lamer villains and have made them into dangerous contenders.
Take for instance, the Silver Age Superman villain, The Master Jailer (secretly Carl Draper). This character was a standard, run of the mill crackpot bad guy who had some kind of mad on for Superman and used mechanical devices to kill him. He wore a black and white barred costume that resembled prison bars. After the 1985 reboot, the writers used a good backstory for the character. They turned him into the amalgamation equivalent of two Marvel villains: Arcade and the Trapster. This time Draper went by the name Deathtrap, and used his genius to make himself a meta-human hunter for hire. Charging fees up to a million dollars a project and creating devices that were specifically made to each victim, Draper is feared throughout the underworld. He was driven by ego to design something that could incapacitate Superman.
Other characters, like The Ten Eyed Man and The Bug Eyed Bandit, were so lame in their first incarnation writers threatened to leave DC if they weren’t killed off completely – never to return.
Then we have the forgotten villains. These characters had an interesting backstory, yet writers never got around to bringing them to the new stories. Some, while not brought back at all, had some of their elements transferred to new characters. For example, The Alpha Centurion is a character taken from the ancient Roman Empire, recruited by aliens, trained to use alien weapons, and then returned to the present day to more or less fight for justice. This origin rings similar to that of Terra Man from the ’70s. He was the son of an old west highwayman who, as a child, witnesses an alien kill his father. This same alien takes the child and trains him to be a space-age warrior to help him commit interstellar crime. Unfortunately for the alien, once the child grew to adulthood, he took the alien tech, killed his benefactor out of revenge, and began a life of crime.
The only real differences between the two characters were where they were taken from and what they did with their powers once they’d acquired them. Otherwise, it’s the same story.
One character who’s been ignored has been “The Sand Superman.”
It was a Matter of Power
Back in the ’70s, Superman’s power was nearly infinite.
As a character, it seemed that all the writers had to do was think of some insanely impossible physical task for the man of steel, and the artist would draw Superman doing it. Nothing was beyond the powers of Superman. This made explaining any hole in the plot easy because Superman could always do one of the following:
- Move at super-speed so quickly that no human eye could see him remove or insert the critical object needed to resolve any plot device.
- Use his infinite speed to break through the time barrier to undo some terrible wrong all to bring the world back to “normalcy.”
- Use his “super intelligence” to create an instant antidote that could be seeded into clouds by his “super spitting” ability to cure Metropolis of an unknown alien malady.
- Use his super-speed to check every inch of his Fortress of Solitude for an enemy’s doomsday device to stretch a minute into an hour.
- Use his “super ventriloquism” to throw his voice into an adjacent room to explain how he and Clark Kent were somehow in the same place at the same time in order to save his secret identity.
- Cause an earthquake with his foot in order to make a necessary distraction so that he can stop a tsunami in Japan (possibly caused by last foot created earthquake made in Metropolis).
- Use his heat vision (which is sometimes invisible to others and sometimes not) to fry a rope holding a convenient dangling reservoir of water that can put out a fire—or some kind of nonsense like that.
Personally, I believed it was a game the writers had. “Think of something insane and implausible and then come up with a way that Superman’s powers could make it happen.” This was not unlike what small children do when they pretend they’re Superman and don’t want to lose whatever pretend game they’re playing. The child will say something like, “Nuh-uh, I’m not beaten. I used my super-speed to put army ants in your underwear so that every time you aimed your gun, your butt would itch and you couldn’t aim. Then I went back in time and took all of your extra bullets and replaced them with blanks.”
You see how ridiculous it was getting? It was writing like this that brought The Crisis on Infinite Earths to undo all of this crap.
The good news was that back then Denny O’Neil could inject some decent stories to correct course a bit. This was an effort to bring a bit of reality to the storylines. It wasn’t a lot, but anything was better than some of the farfetched plots cooked up by comic book writers over the past thirty some odd years.
O’Neil decided that a power reduction was necessary. What good is a villain if you know Superman, with his near god-like strength, can take him out without even breathing hard? Only a villain or character with equal strength and powers would even stand a chance. While there was kryptonite around, Superman had found almost infinite ways around a common thug who had some in his pocket. Only Lex Luthor had some limited success in slowing the last son of Krypton down.
O’Neil’s attempt at fixing this was unofficially known as the Saga of the Sand Superman.
The End of Kryptonite
O’Neil began with a storyline called Kryptonite Nevermore. Which when you thought about what he was trying to accomplish was the exact wrong direction to begin with.
The story began with some enterprising scientists who saw kryptonite for what it really was—a radioactive power source. When you have something that’s a fissionable material, it makes sense to put it into a reactor and try to do some good with it. We need to remember that these were the days just before the “Three Mile Island” nuclear incident and a decade before the Chernobyl disaster. We also need to remember that this is comic book fiction.
So a nuclear disaster was inevitable.
This disaster was unique as there would be real danger to Superman. It would be the equivalent to dropping a Krypton Bomb with the force of an atomic explosion to a mortal man. Superman, who wasn’t stupid, grabbed a lead dome and attempted to contain the blast. The blast goes off, and Superman is blown backward so hard that he left a “Superman-shaped” hole in the ground and is rendered unconscious.
Superman wakes up with scientists surrounding him on the sand. Through their tests, they’ve discovered that not only the samples of kryptonite have turned to iron, but apparently all of the kryptonite on EARTH has turned to iron as well.
No more kryptonite on Earth. For now, the only thing that Superman has to worry about is magic. Magic will affect the man of tomorrow as much as it affects everyone else. Great news for Superman!
Superman can now go about his business with one less thing to worry about and demonstrates his invulnerability to the first ill-informed terrorist that pulls a green rock on him by eating it in front of him. Life is good for Superman until we get to the last page where he flies over the explosion site and experiences some dizziness. He attributes this to some lingering kryptonite radiation in the area and flies on.
The Superman sized hole—which no one bothered to bury—begins to glow. Then, from the hole, a Superman figure made of sand emerged and began to walk away to an unknown destination.
The Quarmer and The Devil’s Harp
As it turns out, the atomic kryptonite explosion that hit Superman was so powerful that it left an inter-dimensional doorway at the impact site where Superman hit the sand. The doorway was from the Quarrm dimension, and an entity traveled through it using the life energy that Superman had.
As Quarmers don’t have a general shape it used the impression that Superman left with his body after the explosion to mold around itself.
Eventually, the Quarmer encounters the man of steel. Each time he does, like a parasite, he drains Superman of all his powers and flies away. And after each encounter, Superman slowly recovers his powers again through the rays of the sun. With each meeting, the Quarmer starts to become more and more “Superman-like”—black sand starts to color his hair as well as flesh, blue, red, and yellow in the appropriate places.
Superman begins to figure out the relationship between the two of them after an encounter with a man named Ferlin Nyxly.
Nyxly owned a music shop, and recently he received a shipment of unusual musical instruments from an archeological dig. A petty and envious man, Nyxly picks up a lyre-like instrument with a demon’s face in it while pondering his lack of musical talent. He strums on the harp while musing that he wished he could play the piano. When he sits down next to one of his pianos, he’s amazed that he can play it effortlessly.
Now that he can play the piano like a master musician, he begins to make money on a concert tour. In the middle of the concert, Superman flies by on patrol and the onlookers begin to talk about him while Nyxly is playing. An old man stands up and shouts that the crowd should be silent as they are in the presence of a man who plays as well as HE USED TO. It turns out that at the very moment Nxyly received his talent, the old man lost his.
Meanwhile, Superman is trying to deal with the Quarmer and is flying after him in a chase. He’s over the ocean when he starts to experience some minor dizziness.
In Metropolis, Ferlin Nyxly is brooding how unfair life is and is pondering Superman’s grandstanding. While he’s holding the harp (now referred to by Nyxly as “The Devil’s Harp”) and strums saying, “How I wish I could fly.” As he does, he begins to float in the air.
Over the ocean, both Superman and the Quarmer fall from the sky into the water (somehow the Sand Superman does not dissolve). Using the Flash’s method of running on top of the water’s surface, Superman and the Quarmer continue their chase.
Nyxly is still not happy with his life and decides that he is going to go on a crime spree. In doing so, he dresses as the Greek demi-god, Pan. The rationale that as he is an ugly man, he should dress as Pan, the ugliest of the gods. He robs a bank and gets shot in the getaway flight.
While in pain and falling, he plays the harp and asks for invulnerability.
Superman, now Clark Kent, is at WGBS. When Steve Lombard trips and spills scalding hot coffee on him, Clark notes the pain and realizes that he’s just lost his invulnerability.
Nyxly now knew how to use the Devil’s Harp and went on TV to challenge Superman to a death match at an arena. Superman having nothing but his speed and strength accepted. Nyxly faced Superman in the arena and shortly stole the rest of his powers. Nyxly was grandstanding with his newfound power and put the harp down. Just as he was about to kill Superman, the Quarmer appeared and destroyed the harp, both restoring power to Superman and the Quarmer as well as ending Ferlin Nyxly.
The Struggle for Survival
After the Devil’s Harp incident, Superman and the Quarmer realized that there was a sort of symbiotic relationship between them. Superman absorbed power, and the Quarmer took it like a parasite. At one point, the Quarmer had drained all of Superman’s power. Superman, with the mystical aid of Wonder Woman’s blind Asian ally, I-Ching was able to get all of his power back.
This left the Quarmer near death. The only way it could survive is to go back to its home dimension—unfortunately, it did not have enough strength to do that. It had enough strength to open a new portal, but it could not enter it.
In the meantime, a new entity from Quarrm came through the new portal and possessed a Chinese statue. The new entity took all of Superman’s power quickly and began to wreak havoc on Metropolis. This new entity, free from any mental benevolence that the other Quarmer indirectly got from Superman, had no qualms with killing Superman to survive.
Superman’s powers were restored by the time the second Quarmer came to kill him, and between the Sand Superman and Superman, they were able to defeat the other Quarmer. The Sand Superman realized that the only way it could survive in this dimension would be to kill Superman himself.
In an effort to avoid wholesale destruction (unbeknownst to either Superman or the Quarmer), I-Ching hypnotized them both so they could see the results of such a battle. The battle would end with the destruction of the Earth. Superman would be emotionally shattered, and the Quarmer realized that he needed to return to his own dimension. He, powered with half of Superman’s powers, did so.
The Sand Superman made one final appearance prior to The Crisis on Infinite Earths.
In a DC Giant Sized Collectable, there was a story of Superman versus Captain Marvel. The plot was engineered by the very last of the White Martians whose plan relied on occupying both champions from Earth-1 and Earth-S. In order to make his plan work, he needed two villains that could impersonate both heroes and challenge each of the champions separately. The Quarmer impersonated Superman and Black Adam was able to impersonate Captain Marvel.
Other than to give adolescents a taste on who might be stronger, Superman or Captain Marvel, the story was subpar and relied on the sanity of Supergirl and Mary Marvel to talk sense into both heroes before both Earths were destroyed.
Sigh. You kids don’t know what we had to endure. I was just happy to live to see the emergence of new authors like Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Frank Miller.
The important part about the Sand Superman was that it was the first real attempt to make Superman stories less ridiculous and more realistic as O’Neil tried to put a ceiling on Superman’s “infinite” strength. The problem was that while O’Neil was serious about this endeavor, later writers were not and more kryptonite rained down on the Earth eventually undoing everything that O’Neil put in place.
It really wasn’t until John Byrne wrote his Man of Steel mini-series back in 1986 that we began to see Superman struggle with realistically heavy objects. While Superman could lift an ocean liner full of people, he might struggle a bit with lifting a town foundation. Eventually, writers began to explore the real physics of how Kryptonian powers work under a yellow sun and conceived of a method of overpowering Superman to a point where near impossible feats could conceivably happen.
Moreover, at the conclusion of both All Star Superman by Grant Morrison (illustrated by Frank Quitely), Superman went through a power increase just before his body began to break down by pure yellow sun radiation engorgement. This made Superman in almost a living embodiment of Einstein’s theory of mass and energy where his body became pure energy and he could only survive in the middle of the Earth’s sun—ironically as the force that would keep it lit.
Do you prefer the modern stories of Superman or the older Silver Age stories?
© 2012 Christopher Peruzzi