Retro Review: Superman #284 (February 1975)

I was 10 when this issue appeared in late 1974 and while I was buying every DC superhero comic I could find - they were so cheap back then, 9p for a regular issue - the Super-Spectaculars didn't always show up in UK shops. So it's only now, thanks to eBay, that I get to read this mainly reprint giant. The reprints include a few really old tales, Seventies DC having finally cast off the received wisdom that modern kids would turn their nose up at Golden Age stuff; as it happened, we loved 'em. 

But the delightful likes of 'A modern Alice in Wonderland' and 'King of the comic books' aren't what I'm looking at today, let's focus on the book's new 'novel'. The Nick Cardy cover is typically nice, but it drops rather a big hint about the story - there's a mystery to solve, and Superboy? Big clue. Mind, the surprisingly moody splash page is almost an equal offender.
We begin with Clark Kent getting a call from old pal Pete Ross, whom readers know, but Clark doesn't, discovered his secret identity when they were on a very wet camping trip as kids. 
While waiting for Clark to arrive, Pete is startled when Mother Nature makes herself known. Happily, a familiar figure - well, shape - shows up to help. 
And he's prepared!
Ah, old-school super-feats, don't you just love them?

When Clark arrives, he finds that Pete isn't alone. 
Lana loves a mystery, and who better to help her solve it than a fellow investigative journalist and, er, geologist. I reckon she was feeling sentimental. 

When an emergency arises requiring Clark's super-powered side, Pete decides to help. 
Ouch. Is Pete Ross a Vulcan? 

Crooks have blown a hole in the roof of the Smallville Bank, and they proceed to grab the safe via giant magnet attached to a helicopter. Superman goes after the chopper but is waylaid by a strange figure and tossed far, far into space. By the time he returns to his hometown, we've seen the fuzzy figure tie up the case... literally. 
Having a hunch, Pete sneaks into the old Kent homestead - Clark never sold it - and meets the mystery hero. 
But why operate in secret? It turns out that the Superboy robot has a sad tale to tell. 
The poor guys. This is horrific! The robot reached a most reasonable conclusion. 
After telling Pete his tale, the robot receives an alert, there's a new emergency. But he's been set up by Superman. They fight, and Superman doesn't find the tussle as one-sided as he'd expected. The robot - 'Superboy Robot-6, we now know - punches Superman right out of town. 
Another lawman steps up - 75-year-old Chief Douglas Parker...
Oh no! He's dead! Or not. 
So it's goodbye to Superboy Robot-6, the Secret Guardian of Smallville. Chalk up another win to the Man of Steel. Hurrah, he's tricked a sentient being who once trusted him to commit cyber-suicide, meaning crooks can once again rob blithely in the town that raised him. 

Well done Superman. 

I really rate the art by Curt Swan and Bob Oksner, the action is joyful and the depiction of emotions - on people and robot - have a subtlety rarely seen. The sadness on the robot's face, above, when he realises his master is 'evil'. And that moment we first see Lana - she wasn't a regular cast member back then - is beautifully done. 
I like the basic story set-up but WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING, CARY BATES? Almost-Superman couldn't simply switch off his robots? Or send them to towns around the world to help people until they wore out? Confronted by his obvious bad judgment years later, the supposedly more mature Superman couldn't thank Superboy Robot-6 and help him find his own identity as an independent hero? Heck, Bates could at least have put the other side of the argument, used Pete, Lana or one of the many people Superboy Robot-6 saved over the years to question his bulldozer approach. But no, they're just robots, to be used and then sent to their destruction, like trusting puppies on that final trip to the vet. 

I'd love to read the lettercol responding to this issue; I cannot believe readers of the time would side with the Man of Steel. Does anyone have access to, presumably, Superman #288? 

And I know I'm not the only, shall we say, veteran reader around here. Did anyone read this book as a kid? Did you believe Superman was right to shut down The Secret Guardian of Smallville?

UPDATE! And thanks to the kindness of Godzylla, we have that very letters page - thank you!


  1. I read it when it came out, and I had no problem with it. Just a glorified toaster, after all! 😉 But seriously, I still don't see it (or especially the other Superboy robots) as sentient, just a machine fullfilling a program, albeit with a glitch. BUT! I'd like a story where it was truly sentient, that would be an interesting take.

  2. As for the letters in 288, no outrage. James Owsley (not a fan of his later work) didn't grok that the robot was no longer obeying Superman and thus would not have shut itself off when he returned to Smallville. Mark Zutkoff did question destroying it over reprogramming it, but Bridwell's response was that Supes would have preferred that, but how to reprogram a robot you can't defeat? :)

    1. Thank you SO much for giving us the letters page, that was fascinating. I do have that issue back in England, and remember reading about the story.

  3. So, if sending a sentient robot into the Sun is OK, why not doing the same to the Galaxy menace known as Brainiac?

    Besides, I realize what kind of a creepy guy Pete Ross is, I mean: not telling your best friend you discovered his greatest secret might be ok when you are a teen, scared by something bigger than you. But as an adult? He did not even tell Clark when his own's son life was at stake!
    He once managed to have Clark's old house almost levelled ON PURPOSE to preserve his secrets - without asking, of course - before realizing "Oh well, maybe Clark has some cherished memories linked to that place, that old sentimental alien crook, so maybe it's not that good of an idea!"
    AND he can pinch ladies unconscious.
    In the end, editors must have realized how creepy the man was and had him attempting to execute Superman in front of his best friends (but still not telling them he was Clark Kent).
    And Clark and Lana thought Carl Draper was a madman...

    1. Oh heck, you made me laugh lots there, but also kinda ruined Pete Ross for me - I grew up with Pete doing all this wacky stuff so his secret-keeping was the default, it seemed normal! Were you not at least touched by the plight of his son, Jon?

    2. Oh, puns aside, I like Pete too. I was very disappointed, actually, when somebody (Paul Levitz, I think) decided to make him blatantly go nuts in "DC Comics Presents" for losing his son to a planet missing a leader. When re-reading recently Pete's (disturbing) evolution in the seventies I realized that somebody in DC must have really hated him, and readers probably hated Jon in a Wesleycrusherly way, so they got rid of both of them.
      Too bad, because Pete could have worked better than Jimmy as Superman's pal, if properly handled (no, making him POTUS is not what I mean).

  4. Wouldn't the pollution of earth have wrecked Superboy Robot-6 like all the robots Superman decomissioned, including the Supergirl robots? Also, in that one Superman Family issue we have Supergirl fighting "Superboy" who turns out to be another Superboy Robot which the pollution does affect.

    If Robby 6 wasn't sentient, the writing and art suggested otherwise, from Pete's anger toward it/him and the emotions depicted by it/ him. Of course, Clarky had designed them to emulate human life so much, perhaps that's why. In any case, for a child, it would certainly have made me upset to think that Superman had "killed" all his robots - or maybe not - I might have just gone with the idea that Supes knew what he was doing.

    1. The pollution bit is covered in the story, Superman mentions that the robot is SO smart he could modify himself to beat the pollution problem ... another reason destroying this robot was a bad idea, a superman could have learned from it.

  5. I remember this story -- so well, in fact, that it was a concerted effort to find it online that led me here in the first place.

    I felt badly at the time, because I couldn't see why SR-6 had to be destroyed. I still feel badly now... but somewhat less so. The Superboy Robot is obviously sapient, but that doesn't make it sentient – though it had improved itself to the point of gaining Kryptonian level power, it clearly thought algorithmically instead of possessing actual intuition.

    Its initial assumption -- Superboy is destroying us; to destroy beings is evil; therefore Superman is evil -- is essentially a logical fallacy. The robot had no way of knowing why Superboy was giving the robots this order. Perhaps there was something about the robots that was endangering human life, for example. Rather than question the order it used it to invalidate Superman's authority.

    What did it do then? It literally went back to Smallville and spent decades executing the program Superboy had given it in the first place. It upgraded itself against the perceived threat of Superman -- to protect others, as per its program -- but it didn't upgrade its capacity for artificial intelligence, gather additional information about Superman (including evidence that Superman *wasn't* evil), or otherwise learn and evolve as a thinking being. It followed the dictates of its software.

    Superman's trick exploited SR-6's incapacity for actual critical thought. Had the robot been truly sentient, then Superman's attempt to reason with it, Pete Ross's similar attempts to reason with it, and the circumstances of 'Chief Parker's death' would have provoked a different response. Instead, it maintained its core assumptions -- Superman was evil, and could not be followed. SR-6 was responsible for 'killing' Chief Parker, therefore SR-6 was evil -- even though it knew it didn't mean to cause harm. As it was evil, it had to destroy itself.

    This is not the act of a sentient being.

    Now, understand. Despite all of this? I think it was a mistake. A cat isn't sentient in the human sense, but it is sapient and deserves decent treatment. SR-6 was at best an expert system, but it was loyal and saved people over the course of decades. But Superboy's actions (and later, Superman's actions) aren't the blatant murder they appear, either.

    (And leaving it in Smallville to keep on doing what it was doing wasn't an answer, either. Its logic was already flawed and it was showing an inability to adjust that algorithmic thought process with the times. How long before it mistook some other innocent act, and began working against others? How long before it decided that some human 'had to be destroyed?')

    Bummer of an issue. And weirdly brilliant. Thanks for having this out there.


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