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the agony booth
Comic Book Review
Action Comics #176 “Muscles for Money!”
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Action Comics #176 ''Muscles for Money!''

Man, these Silver Age comics are a comedy goldmine. The slipshod writing, the insanely convoluted plots, the way they inadvertently make the heroes seem like total assholes, the Silver Age really had it all. It’s my understanding that among comics bloggers, Silver Age stuff is regarded as low hanging fruit, as in, easy targets for lazy bloggers. Thankfully, I have no qualms about taking on easy targets. Also, I have no qualms about being lazy.

Originally, I assumed the “Superman is a dick” internet meme was inspired mostly by the two famous Superman spin-off titles of the period, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen and Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane. As it turns out, Superman was often just as much of a dick in his own titles, including that obscure series where he got his start, Action Comics.

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Action Comics #176, cover dated January 1953, features Superman being an unbelievable dick, even by Superman standards. He alienates all of his friends, completely trashes his own image, and deliberately turns public opinion against him for rather unimpressive reasons. I almost think the writer came up with this story one day just for a laugh, never thinking it would actually ever see the light of day.

On the cover, a man stylishly dressed in bright blue boots tells Superman that his oil well is on fire, “and you’re the only who can save it!” And indeed, there’s an oil well on fire in the background. You really have to love how Silver Age characters were required to narrate even the most obvious events going on directly behind them.

But hey, a burning oil well should be no sweat for the Man of Steel, right? Instead, Superman has his hand outstretched as he replies, “Sure! For $5,000 cash—in advance!” Holy shit! Superman wants to be paid up front! No, wait. That’s not the shocker. The shocker is Superman wants to be paid! He wants cold, hard cash before he even lifts a finger to save that oil well. Damn, times are tougher than I thought.

Interestingly, the artist actually added a sack full of cash down at the bottom of the cover. Almost as if they had to illustrate the concept of “$5,000 cash” to their less sophisticated readers. Does this mean the oil man already anticipated Superman’s demands, and came prepared? Or can you just find sacks of money lying around unattended on oil fields?

Actually, maybe the money already belongs to Superman. Maybe it’s payment for the last disaster he averted. I guess that’s the most likely explanation, but not quite the funniest.

Whoever wrote the cover blurb, you’ll be happy to know, is utterly offended by Superman’s outrageous behavior. “What’s this!?! Has the heroic Man of Steel put a price on his super-powers? Read ‘Muscles for Money!’” Or, in other words: What’s this!?! Superman is just out to make a quick buck? To find out why, buy this issue!

The splash page is yet another scene of Superman being derelict in his duties. This time, he’s sitting on top of huge piles of dollar bills and gold doubloons, and counting his money. Lois is being kidnapped by rough underworld-looking types, but Superman sits idly by, counting his cash. This is what rich guys do, by the way. They just count their money all day as they sit upon it.

The blurb at the bottom is again gobsmacked by this behavior, wondering how Superman could now be charging people money to save them. The caption assures us we will be amazed to learn how Superman “apparently becomes a stingy, self-seeking miser, using his... Muscles for Money!”

But to get really technical, Superman is not actually asking Lois to pay him money to save her. He’s ignoring her so he can count the money he already has. That’s not stingy, that’s just plain not giving a fuck.

By the way, this scene never actually happens in the story, and neither does the oil well thing, but stuff just as crazy does happen, so I don’t know why they had to pull the old bait and switch like this.

On with the actual story. On a “rocky hillside” somewhere near Metropolis, a couple of “desperate gangsters” are holding the police at bay.

Unfortunately, we know they’re not real, authentic gangsters, because a true gangster would be saying, “They’ll never get us, see?” and “Yeah, we can hold out here forever, see?” Also, might I suggest that a bright green suit is not the ideal outfit for evading police?

The officers at the scene call in reinforcements, and the call is picked up by Clark Kent over in the Daily Planet offices. It seems he uses his super-hearing to constantly monitor police radio transmissions. Which sort of makes me wonder why Superman bothers to disguise himself as a newspaper reporter. If the idea is to find out about emergencies as soon as they happen, it seems to me he could just as easily be a fry cook and monitor police radio frequencies.

Also, Clark somehow intuits that the two gangsters are members of “Million-Dollar Marvin’s gang!” Million-Dollar Marvin? Why doesn’t that name ring a bell? I suspect “Million-Dollar Marvin” and “rogue’s gallery” are two phrases not often uttered in the same sentence. The Supermanica Wiki doesn’t even have a page for Million-Dollar Marvin, and they have a page for Superman villain Whirlicane. Sure, Whirlicane could be the biggest badass in the DC Universe for all I know, but he calls himself “Whirlicane”.

Clark changes to Superman and flies to the scene. He finds out the gangsters are holed up in the rocks, so he uses his heat vision to cut a boulder loose. Or rather, he uses “the heat of my x-ray vision”. So, I guess at this point in Superman’s history, “heat vision” and “x-ray vision” were treated as the same thing? Let’s just go with it. But what’s up with Superman showing the bad guys his O Face?

The boulder causes a “small avalanche”, and the crooks leave their guns behind as they run away in terror. This allows Superman to easily scoop them both up and take them directly to jail.

Later, at police headquarters, the Metropolis police commissioner is thanking Superman for a job well done. And to his left is your typical drunken, oafish police chief with his hat on crooked, most likely named Barney O’Blarney or Patrick O’Hallorahanfitzmichael or something like that.

Caption contributed by Albert
No stereotypes here!

The commissioner tells Superman that the police “owe you a debt of gratitude!” Superman sasses back, “That isn’t all you owe me, Commissioner!”

Judging by the motion lines, the commissioner is literally quivering in shock, but Superman is dead serious. He dares the commissioner to backtalk him with, “Is there any reason why I shouldn’t be given the reward?” The commissioner knows better than to argue with a guy who could crush his head like a tomato, and immediately ponies up the cash. And then Chief O’Blarney makes a face like he’s planning on hitting the sauce early tonight.

Okay, I guess this is all probably a formality, but... you don’t think Superman actually signed the receipt “Superman”, do you? How would that even be legally binding? He might as well have just put down “Mickey Mouse” for all the difference it makes.

Hell to the yes. That’s what I’m talking about. Personally, I’m all for people donating to the Me Fund. Screw those Haitians. Did they ever capture any gangsters? I think not. (And I hope you liked that joke, because I just donated as penance for making it.)

You see, it’s all quite reasonable. Superman is a firm believer in the principles of the free market. He points out that Lois earns money for being a reporter, so why shouldn’t Superman earn a living for being a superhero? Lois says he’s Superman, and he can make all the money he wants. As in, make make. Like, creating money. To demonstrate what Lois means... um, to Lois, he immediately squeezes some pencils into a small diamond.

To further prove his point, Superman flies around the world at super-speed, and comes back “moments later” with a big chunk of gold from “an undiscovered mine in South Africa!” Why South Africa, of all places? Maybe they were really known for their gold mines back in the 1950s, but there was plenty of gold mining going on in the U.S., too. I think maybe Superman just wanted to have a chuckle at all the racist oppression going on over there. Or maybe he reallly wanted to get his hands on a blood diamond, and the chunk of gold was the next best thing.

You have to admit, some serious thought went into this story. I bet when you picked up Action Comics #176, you had no idea you’d be getting a lesson in global economics. Also, it appears in this panel that Superman is melting the gold, um... with his hands. No idea what that’s all about.

Superman flies away, saying that if he wants money, he has no choice but to actually earn it. Lois watches him go, saying he’s a “mere money grubber” and calling the whole thing “shameful”.

But this does bring up a pretty good point. How do people think Superman makes a living, anyway? They don’t know he works as a mild-mannered reporter. Other Superman stories of the time established that the public knows he has a secret identity, but he could be a fry cook the rest of the time for all they know.

All anybody knows is that he flies around fighting crime and saving people from disasters and never asks for anything in return. I mean, nobody expects the police or firefighters to do their jobs for free, do they?

But even the narration box judgmentally scorns Superman’s “new craving for wealth”, while Superman himself touches down outside the site of a mining disaster. The mine owner explains they have a man trapped underground. Superman will be happy to save him, “But... er... first, there’s the matter of a contract!”

Holy crap, Superman has already put together a standard form for this sort of thing. I would dearly love to see what that contract looks like.

But the mine owner is more than willing to sign the contract, even saying that his insurance company will take care of the fees, and I’d also love to see a copy of that claim. And so, Superman burrows his way down into the mine and rescues the trapped miner.

Yes. You had better have that contract filled out. Otherwise, Superman is going to drop that miner right back down into the collapsed mine shaft, and let his ass rot. And just when you thought Superman couldn’t be much more of a dick, along comes the next panel.

Jesus Christ. That’s the way these superheroes always operate, isn’t it? They quote you one price up front, and then they totally screw you on the backend by tacking on all kinds of extra fees. I mean, really, what other options do you have at that point? Are you going to hire some other guy who can move around boulders with his bare hands?

Next up, Superman is reduced to actually placing classified ads in the Daily Planet.

Does Superman really need to advertise? “Hmm, I’m in desperate need of rescuing. Say, who was that invulnerable fellow with super-strength who can fly? If only I could recall his name. Super... something-or-other. Someone get me the damn classifieds!”

Over at the Daily Planet, Lois is so outraged about Superman turning “greedy” that she suggests writing an editorial “denouncing” him.

Of course he will. Why? No clue. I think Clark Kent is secretly a self-loathing bastard. And even though he’ll later have enormous trouble writing “boastful” lyrics about Superman, he doesn’t seem to have any issues with tearing Superman a new one.

Also, I find it odd that Perry White wants to denounce Superman’s new “greediness”, and yet he didn’t have a problem with taking money from Superman to place the big classified ad in the first place. Just face the facts, guys, you’re all whores.

Well, well, this is sure working out great for our friend Kal-El, isn’t it? He’s got the cash flowing in as Superman, and as Clark he gets to make time with Lois on the side. And all he had to do was completely destroy his public image.

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