"This is an imaginary story...aren't they all?"
So ended Alan Moore's opening paragraph of "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" (Superman #423, 1986), his bittersweet farewell to the so-called "Silver Age Superman". Spanning the late 1950's through the mid-1980's, this era marked a dramatic expansion of the Superman mythos in both imaginative new concepts and an ever-growing cast of characters. Among those innovations was what became known as "The Imaginary Story", or a story where divergent and dramatic events could occur without affecting the established continuity.
Of course, as Mr. Moore's wry observation reminds us, all superhero comics are imaginary...but it was an old comic book ad that made the distinction that even fictional tales had rules the imagination could ignore as freely as it ignored reality itself. As a young lad reading my grandparents' copy of Sugar and Spike #54, I came across a house ad for Superman 80 Pg. Giant #1 (1964), which introduced the fascinating concept of pretend imaginary stories (click on the ad for a larger view). Sure, I'd imagined alternate endings to favorite fairy tales and bedtime stories like any kid before and since, but this was the first time I can recall seeing someone actually following through on those idle thoughts and stretching the imaginative boundaries of a fictional character. And not just any fictional character...it was the "life" of Superman himself they were messing with!
It was exactly this mindblowing audacity that earned the cover instant entry into the ranks of Simply the Best...even before I actually owned the issue many years later! Yeah, I'm a sucker for any cover with a black background...and that simple four-panel grid design has a certain appeal, but it's those alternate reality scenes that first grabbed hold of my imagination and never let go...
Top Left panel: Could there be anything more jarring (yet strangely intriguing) to a young boy than the concept of an evil Superman (complete with the standard burglar mask and huge bag of cash)?
Top Right panel: Whaat? A helpless Superman who could do nothing to save the world? Say it ain't so!
Bottom Left panel: A masterful play on the common kid fear of someone else assuming your role in your family...worse yet by a girl!
Bottom Right panel: Finally, the spectre of age and death applied to the seemingly immortal Superman, making seemingly immortal kids contemplate...mortality? Even if it wasn't quite that deep, it was still amusing seeing Superman as an oldster!
As it turns out, I've remained a fan of alternate reality stories, including DC's Elseworlds and Marvel's "What If?" takes on the concept. However, as entertaining as they can be, none of them have ever quite surpassed the impact of that wondrous, vaguely subversive cover so long ago.