Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Superman’s formidable powers increased steadily to some point just short of omnipotence.
By 1960, Superman, Superboy, Supergirl and even Krypto could freeze lakes with their breath, push planets around and see through time. Writer Denny O’Neil recalled the era with a joke, asking, “How do you write stories about a guy who can destroy a galaxy by listening hard?”
Actually, there were ways, one of them illustrated in Superboy 85 (Dec. 1960).
Although Superboy could travel through time, comic book metaphysics required that he be unable to alter events in the past (a rule abandoned in the 1978 Superman film, obviously). The real reason was dramatic necessity — Superboy’s Earth would become radically different than our own if history’s tragedies were to be retroactively averted, and reader identification would suffer.
That stricture would seem to preclude suspenseful storytelling, but in the right hands, it need not.
In The Impossible Mission, Superboy attempts to thwart the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Meanwhile, Superman’s archenemy, the adult Lex Luthor, has fled to the same era to escape the Man of Tomorrow (a nickname that’s literal in this instance). Mistakenly believing Superboy is pursuing him, Luthor paralyzes him with red kryptonite, only to learn the truth, to his horror — that his fear of Superman has caused the murder of the Great Emancipator.
The story (written by Superman’s co-creator Jerry Siegel and drawn by George Papp) suggests previously unexplored depths in Luthor’s character — that while he may be evil, he doesn’t consider himself to be a monster and is appalled by the role which history has forced him to play. Here, he reminds me of the embittered character of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, railing against his inescapable, shameful fate.
This was one of several efforts made at the time to suggest there was more to Luthor than his 20-year obsession with murdering Superman might suggest. We learned that he had a psychically gifted sister, Lena Thorul, from whom he kept his identity a secret. Lena was another Siegel contribution to the mythos. And we would shortly find that Luthor could play the hero himself and even enjoy the role, on a distant planet, as long as Superman remained far, far away.