Ancient Strongmen Meet the Man of Steel!
The inaugural storyline of DC’s All-Star Superman (by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely) has proven to be a dazzling fusion of Morrison’s trippy big ideas and the delightfully wonky world of the Silver Age Superman (fittingly one of Morrison’s early influences). One of the highlights of the tale has been the boisterous appearance of Superman’s godly pals Samson and Atlas in issue #3, harkening back to a time when Superman routinely encountered ancient strongmen of Scripture and myth.
Superman’s first brush with these heroes of old was in Superman #28 (1944). Though only a statue on its cover, Superman encounters the “real” Hercules in one of the issue’s stories, albeit a weakling Hercules Superman has to cover for. No sign of an actual Atlas, though.
However, Atlas does appear in the flesh on the cover of Action Comics #121 (1948), hurling his planetary burden into Superman’s gut like a medicine ball. Note Atlas’ leopard-skin leotard, the universal symbol of great strength harkening back to the day of the 19th century circus strongman.
Once Superboy’s adventures began to appear, Superman’s encounters with legendary strongmen were then shown to have extended back to his boyhood. While trying to help a kindly sea captain (don’t ask) Superboy assumes the new secret identity of Hercules Junior in Adventure Comics #223 (1956). Obviously, Superboy didn’t get the leopard skin leotard memo.
Biblical strongman Samson makes his first DC universe appearance on the cover of Adventure Comics #257 (1959), along with a version of Hercules that would eventually become his standard look for Superman title appearances. It’s not likely that the Romans pictured the demigod Hercules as a beardless redhead wearing a yellow leopard skin leotard, but as you’ll soon see, fidelity to an ancient culture’s source material wasn’t high on DC’s priority list.
Tug-O-War is the name of the game on the cover of Superman #112 (1957), as a stadium torch provides color commentary for Superman vs.“The Three Men of Steel”. From left to right, Atlas, Samson and Hercules were actually three nightclub performers made super-strong by a “strange ray”, which later gave Lois Lane temporary super-strength as well.
In Action Comics #267 (1960), Lex Luthor transports Hercules through the time barrier and tricks the addled demigod into busting him out of prison. After wising up to Luthor’s scheme and bringing him to justice, Hercules decides to hang out in the 20th century for a while with Superman’s blessing. In fact, Superman sets him up with a hip bachelor pad, a modern wardrobe, and (incredibly) a job as Daily Planet reporter “Roger Tate”. However, when Lois Lane spurns his affections and ignores his super-feats, Hercules wants Superman out of the picture, setting the stage for the next issue.
As a rare continued story (for that day and age), Action Comics #268 finds Hercules hitting up the gods for magical weapons with which to level the playing field against the multi-powered Superman. Ultimately, the Flute of Apollo puts Superman into a deep, 100-year sleep, but love goddess Aphrodite intervenes to wake him up and to chew out Hercules for abusing his “Olympus powers”.
Superman plays matchmaker for Hercules and Samson in Action Comics #279 (1961), as he fixes up his ancient pals with none other than Lois Lane and Lana Lang. As the cover makes clear, this was an anything-goes “Imaginary Story”, so Lois and Lana readily accept the marriage proposals of the smitten musclemen. Unfortunately, as the cover’s garish pink background color symbolizes, Lois and Lana transform into such dominating, hellacious nags that Hercules and Samson flee back to their native eras.
Just as Superman had a variety of alternate-earth doubles, Hercules had his own counterpart on a parallel world, as Superman discovered in Action Comics #308 (1964). This version of Hercules bore a striking resemblance to the Biblical giant Goliath (though it isn’t clear how Superman would know that). As dramatized on the cover, Goliath-Hercules was weakened by Red Kryptonite, which put a crimp in completing his Six Labors (differing from the traditional Twelve Labors of the “real” Hercules).
On the cover of Action Comics #320 (1965), Superman provides remarkably detached, cool-headed commentary while getting pummeled by Atlas, Samson and Hercules. Actually, they’re a gang of extra-dimensional villains with super (and magical) powers who were “perfect look-alikes” of the real deals.
Prior to DC Comics acquiring Captain Marvel and his fellow Fawcett Comics characters in the early 70’s, Superman battled his one-time publishing rival through various proxies such as Zha-Vam, debuting in Action Comics #351 (1967). With a name that echoed Captain Marvel’s magic word “Shazam”, Zha-Vam was created by ancient gods jealous of Superman’s fame who wanted to take him down a peg or two. Zeus, Hercules, Achilles, Vulcan, Apollo and Mercury accomplished just that, as Zha-Vam channeled their power through a magic belt and handily defeated Superman.
The struggle against Zha-Vam culminates two issues later, as a splinter group of gods lead by Neptune provides Superman with another god-channeling magic belt. As the battle gets underway, Superman is felled by Zha-Vam’s Green Kryptonite sock (which covered his Achilles Heel, naturally). A weakened Superman then uses his own magic belt to summon Atlas, “the strongest man of the past” (take that, Hercules). Atlas proceeds to trounce the living daylights out of Zha-Vam, who then reverts to his original form of Olympian clay.
Sadly, once the Silver Age era passed from view, Superman cavorting with mythic heroes fell out of favor for the “realism” and social relevance the audience of that era (allegedly) craved. It wasn’t until 2005 and Grant Morrison’s audacious All-Star Superman came along that it was once again cool for ancient legends to hobnob with their pal Superman.
Exactly as it should be.