Welcome to the fifteenth edition of “Adventure(s) Time,” where a classic animated series is paired with a related issue of its tie-in comic. This week, we're going to be looking back on the animated debut of a certain DC character that was inescapable in the '90s, before falling out of fashion and suffering the ultimate indignity -- a failed revamp and a “Twilight” inspired makeover. The poor bastich.
While the alien bounty hunter Lobo would've been an awkward fit for the urban setting of “Batman: The Animated Series,” its follow-up show was a logical place for him to appear -- and the looser censorship rules of the new WB Network didn't hurt, either. Lobo debuted on “Superman: The Animated Series” on November 9, 1996 during a two-parter titled “The Main Man.” The story's by Paul Dini and both chapters are directed by Dan Riba. Two-part episodes rarely feature the same animation studio, and in this case Part One is the work of Koko Enterprise Co., and Dong Yang Animation handles Part Two. The animation in the first installment is competent, but doesn't stand out as anything special when compared to other episodes of the series.
Koko has animated some fantastic DCAU projects (including the stunning “Sub-Zero” film), and this episode doesn't truly represent what they're capable of. Dong Yang, conversely, does an excellent job on the second chapter, bringing fluid action and character movements to Superman and Lobo's outer space adventure. The opening credits of the show feature numerous clips from Part One, but it's the second chapter that should've been represented. Presumably, the first chapter of “The Main Man” was the latest episode completed when the clip-show opening credits were assembled, since it's the final episode we see represented in the opening.
Part One of “The Main Man” opens with Superman testing out the upgrades Professor Emil Hamilton has made to the rocket that brought Superman to Earth. While Superman is impressed with Hamilton's work, he isn't ready to reveal any more information than he thinks is necessary to Hamilton about his origin. Hamilton seems respectful of Superman's boundaries and stops fishing for information, although in hindsight, this could be seen as accidental foreshadowing of Hamilton's less saintly portrayal in “Justice League Unlimited.” Someone could present the argument that Hamilton is merely sucking up to Superman in this scene.
Hamilton makes a passing comment about what other advanced life might be out there in the cosmos, setting up a joke that has Lobo as the punchline. We see Lobo on an alien planet, instigating a bar brawl, and picking up the latest bounty for Emperor Spooj. (Just like the original incarnation of 1977's “Star Wars,” the mysterious source of a bounty is unseen in this chapter. The opening of the next episode, however, makes the connection between Spooj and Jabba the Hutt more obvious. And just as Lobo is voiced by sitcom star Brad Garrett, Spooj is voiced by Richard Moll of “Night Court” fame.) Before Lobo can deliver his bounty, he's kidnapped by the Preserver, an egg-shaped alien that's devoted to preserving the last of all species.
The Preserver holds Lobo's bounty, the rodent-like alien Squeek, hostage until Lobo completes a mission -- he must locate the last surviving Kryptonian, who now resides on Earth. Lobo arrives in Metropolis and decides that the only way to draw this Kryptonian out of hiding is to shoot up the local police station, which does predictably attract Superman's attention. (Although there's no moral outrage on Superman's part, regarding Lobo's targeting of police officers. Had this episode aired a few years later, following 9-11, this wouldn't go unnoticed...assuming the censors would've allowed the scene in the first place.)
From there, Superman and Lobo go on an extended battle throughout Metropolis. Even if Lobo's exaggerated tough guy persona has been toned down a bit from the comics, he still maintains much of his personality, even hitting on Lois during their brief meeting. When Lobo seemingly abandons his mission, Superman takes the rocket seen in the opening of the episode into space, hoping to track Lobo down and assure he never returns. This apparently is a part of Lobo's plan, however, and soon Superman finds himself a prisoner in the Preserver's intergalactic zoo. Lobo is in for a shock, however, when he discovers that the Preserver also has a cage for the last Czarnian, who just so happens to be Lobo.
“The Main Man” Part Two resolves the cliffhanger, with Superman and Lobo as fellow prisoners of the Preserver. It's a more interesting dynamic than seen in the opening chapter, with Superman now in the position of having to trust this violent lunatic as his partner. More chaos is added to the plot when Emperor Spooj's team of bounty hunters arrive to handle both Lobo and Sqweek, and the revelation of the Preserver's true form -- a hideous, Jack Kirby-style monster.
Superman is left to the monster's mercy, until Lobo performs his “good deed for the century” and opens a door that sucks Preserver into the vacuum of space. As a sign of just how lenient WB's censors were, Lobo faces no repercussions for his actions throughout the story, and is rewarded with tropical drinks and kind words from his employer, Spooj. Superman, meanwhile, collects the Preserver's animal menagerie and gives them a home inside his Fortress of Solitude, a nice nod to the Silver Age adventures of the hero.
Even though Lobo made a few appearances on the “Justice League” series, this two-parter marks his only substantial appearance on Superman’s solo series. Lobo wasn’t forgotten by the creators of the “Superman Adventures” tie-in comic, however. DC stubbornly refused to let go of Lobo throughout the ‘90s, even as sales of his comic were dwindling and fan interest hit a low-point. 1998 saw the release of the “Superman Adventures” special edition “Superman vs. Lobo - Misery in Space!” from writer David Michelinie, penciler John Delaney, and inker Mike Manley. Delaney was the regular artist of “Adventures in the DC Universe,” an “animated” style comic produced by DC, featuring numerous heroes and villains not yet seen in the “Batman” and “Superman” cartoons. “Adventures in the DC Universe” was produced without any input from the shows’ producers, however, essentially working as DC’s extrapolation on how these other characters might appear in the animated series’ style. The later “Justice League” and “Justice League Unlimited” cartoons thoroughly contradicted what DC attempted to do in this forgotten comic, and given the low regard fans had for the series, this was likely for the best.
“Misery in Space!” (a typical Michelinie pun title, based on the old "Mystery in Space" comic) opens on Earth, actually, as a group of armed terrorists attack S.T.A.R. Laboratories, the institution operated by Superman’s friend Emil Hamilton. The terrorists seek to destroy an experimental pathogen, a super-virus that Hamilton swears only exists to kill other viruses. Again, no one was playing Professor Hamilton as morally ambiguous in these stories, so the reader has every reason to believe that he’s on the level and that the terrorists are overreacting. Superman arrives and saves his friend, inhaling the virus before the terrorists can unleash the culture vapor indoors.
Unfortunately, inhaling the super-virus leaves Superman as a carrier for a pathogen that could kill all humanity. His Kryptonian physiology protects him from the virus, but since no one else’s health is assured, Hamilton is forced to lock Superman inside S.T.A.R.’s containment vault.
His only hope, as Hamilton discovers, is a “unique radiation pulse” in a nearby star system. Meanwhile, on the planet Smir, Lobo is collecting a bounty. One of his targets informs him of something called the Nirvana Crystal, a prize the alien claims is far greater than the price on his head. Lobo double-crosses his bounty, collects his reward, and then pursues the Nirvana Crystal anyway.
Why, I wonder if the “unique radiation pulse” that could save Superman and the Nirvana Crystal are connected in some way?
Back on Earth, Professor Hamilton equips Superman (through the airlock in the chamber) with his spacesuit and sends him off in his Kryptonian rocket. Superman heads for the Maracot System, where Lobo is searching for the Nirvana Crystal. And, yes, it turns out Superman and Lobo are looking for the same cosmic plot device. Also, yes, the mismatched duo team up yet again in the pursuit of a common interest. Michelinie does add some interesting twists to the formula, though.
Outside of the Maracot System, we learn that an alien scientist, spurned by his planet’s scientific council, is convinced that his world is doomed. His response isn’t to send his only child to another planet in a rocket, however. Well, he does have a rocket, he just wants to use it to shoot the Nirvana Crystal into the sun, in order to wipe out all existence, purifying the world and eliminating the insidious element of chance, which he blames for the accidental death of his wife. In fairness, Superman’s dad probably sounded crazy, too.
Lobo and Superman, soon enough, are in pursuit of the Crystal, but are unable to stop the mad alien’s rocket launch. Lobo, only after Superman guarantees him the Crystal, gives the hero the final boost he needs to catch up with the rocket. When Superman realizes that they’re too late, he uses his heat vision to destroy the Nirvana Crystal before it reaches the sun. The resulting explosion denies Lobo his prize, but it does have the unexpected benefit of bathing Superman in the radiation needed to cure his virus.
The alien race thanks the hero and anti-hero, and promises to give the mad scientist the help that he needs. Superman rushes off before he can receive his reward, however -- a “generous gift” from the planet’s treasury. Lobo promises to catch up with Superman and deliver the reward, repeating a joke that’s appeared throughout the issue… “Would I lie?”
Deceit is a recurring theme during the story, with Lobo lying continually for his own self-interests, Superman effectively lying to Lobo in order to reach the Crystal in time, and the mad scientist lying to himself, believing that if he erases all existence, his wife can somehow return. Nothing’s wrapped up in a neat bow, however -- there doesn’t appear to be a real moral to the tale -- and the tone of the story is more about madcap energy than self-reflection.
The art team of penciler John Delaney and inker Mike Manley deserves a mention, if only because many fans were distressed when Delaney was announced as the artist of the special. Delaney’s more exaggerated interpretations of DC’s heroes is one reason why “Adventures in the DC Universe” was so poorly received in certain corners, so his name on a “Superman Adventures” special caused an outcry from the more diehard DCAU fans. The finished comic looks fine, however…actually, it’s quite impressive on several pages. Superman looks perfectly on-model from the animated series, Lobo is actually polished up a bit from his animated debut for most of the issue, and the various alien races are nicely rendered. Mike Manley penciled and inked various “Adventures” issues and is one of the best artists to work in that style, so perhaps his inking played a part in this. Maybe he should’ve been assigned “Adventures in the DC Universe” as a regular gig?
The homeworld of Spooj is a pretty impressive design.
Also, the model for Sqweek's alien race is interesting, with that freaky mouth-eye, and the pupil that doubles as a tooth.
Although Clark teases Lois about how he's scooping her on stories (revealing, as an apparent joke, that he's Superman) in “The Main Man,” we have a sense later that both Superman and Lois have a crush on one another. The idea of Clark and Lois having a platonic, brother/sister relationship was the producers’ plan during the first year, even though the couple was moving towards marriage in the comics.
Over the Kiddies' Heads
The Maracot System is perhaps a reference to "The Maracot Deep," a 1929 novel by Arthur Conan Doyle.
Approved By Broadcast Standards
According to the DCAU wiki page, Toon Disney was so frightened by Lobo's almost-swears in these episodes that they edited them out of the repeats. One term that the WB Network did have an issue with is Lobo's classic insult of “bastich”, which WB okayed in the script but refused to accept once they heard the way the non-word sounded. (“Bastich” doesn’t appear in “Misery in Space,” either.) WB did, surprisingly, allow Lobo to declare to Superman that he's going to “kick that big red 'S' of yours.” Also, how did the name of the bar scene in the first act of “The Main Man” -- The Steaming Load -- get through?
Battle of the Reluctant Team-Ups
Both of these stories find Superman in outer space with Lobo, either teaming up to free themselves from a cosmic zoo, or locating an intergalactic macguffin. “Misery in Space” has a more elaborate setup, greater stakes for Superman, and more opportunities for him to butt heads with Lobo. However, there’s also a moment where Lobo gratuitously kills an alien, and Superman responds with what appears to be little more than mild annoyance. David Michelinie did a similar bit with the Punisher and Spider-Man years earlier, and while the scenes work to establish the characters’ differences, they show the differences too well.
Is Superman really going to team up with a killer for any reason? Or, if he absolutely has to join forces, wouldn’t he try to place Lobo in some form of prison after the team-up is over? In “The Main Man,” Superman at least receives a promise from Lobo to stay away from Earth (and he never directly sees Lobo kill anyone), but the “Adventures” story merely glosses over the issue. While “The Main Man” is a thinner story, the lead hero isn’t truly twisted out of character in order to accept the team-up, which gives it the advantage.
That’s all for this week. If you’d like to suggest a comic to be paired with its animated cousin, just leave a comment or contact me on Twitter.