Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Death with Dignity

Superman #318 (December 1977): "The Wreck of the Cosmic Hound," written by Martin Pasko and drawn by Curt Swan, is a bizarre story. It's bizarre in a good way--an enjoyable tale that stretches Comic Book Logic in several directions without breaking it, then suddenly delivers an effective emotional punch at the end.

The trouble with the overall weirdness of the story, though, is that it's difficult to summarize the story without making it sound kind of dumb. But I know a lot of my readers are comic book fans. Most of you will be familiar with stories that sound dumb when summarized but do make sense in context.

Anyway, Superman finds a wrecked space ship on a remote moon in another galaxy. The ship's pilot is named Portia, who dresses as a pirate, complete with peg leg and eye patch.

She's a bit loony after years of isolation, but Superman soon learns that she had lost her leg and eye while on a what she thought was an uninhabited planet. But that world turned out to be the home of intelligent dogs with psionic powers. The pack that saves Portia's life, though, apparently broke local laws by doing so and they have to leave the planet with her. Later, they crashed on the moon.

You would think this would be a simple rescue mission for Kal-El, but there's a few problems. First, he senses Portia is lying (or at least not telling the whole truth about her situation). Second, the dogs try to kill him.

More shenanigans ensue, with Superman learning that generations of the dogs have kept Portia alive for centuries without allowing her to return home. The current generation doesn't even remember why--it's long since become a cultural habit.

Superman puts Portia into a space suit and flies her home. The dogs, though, got a boost in their intelligence and telekinetic powers from psionic feedback during their brief fight with Superman. They can now fly Portia's ship on their own and give pursuit.

But now their motivation is different. They understand Portia's situation better than Superman does. Portia left her home world because she had a contagious and incurable disease. In the meantime, solar flares had wiped out the rest of the people on her world, leaving her the only survivor. Tired, sick and (once away from the dogs) aging rapidly, she now just wants to die with some dignity. When the dogs arrive, they want to help her die.

Superman, though, considers the sanctity of life to be his most important moral principle. There seems to be no way to save her, but shouldn't he try?

Or should he recall some wise advice he once got from Pa Kent and accept that Portia's fate is now in the hands of God?

This is a great example of how to properly write a Superman story. Don't be afraid to introduce bizarre plot elements because Superman lives in a universe in which the bizarre is common place. And don't worry if the "villains" in a specific story aren't powerful enough to be a physical threat. Instead, use the story to introduce strong emotional notes and moral quandaries. Superman should have a rigid moral code, but a story in which he might have to bend that code a bit can be engrossing.

Next week, it's back to the Wild West for a visit with Kid Colt.

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