Oddly, despite his science fictional origins, Superman went for a long stretch of his early career having few science fictional adventures. Mundane criminals and crusades against social injustice and political corruption occupied much of his day.
By the time Superman 87 arrived in February 1954, things had started to change.
In this classic tale by writer Bill Finger and artist Wayne Boring, a shape-shifting blob monster from Earth’s bleak far future invades Metropolis, generally wreaking havoc and finally duplicating even Superman, complete with powers.
Their super-battle remains a thunderous standoff until the Man of Tomorrow maneuvers the Thing to a nuclear test site. In 1938, Superman could be knocked for a loop by a “bursting shell,” but by the 1950s he could shrug off H-bomb blasts. The Thing, however, could not.
Science fiction menaces had begun challenging Superman with more frequency during that era — among them The Three Supermen from Krypton in Superman 65 (July-Aug. 1950), It from Action Comics 162 (Nov. 1951), The Machines of Crime from Action Comics 167 (April 1952), the dragon-like Beast from Krypton in Superman 78 (Sept-Oct. 1952), the Return of Planet Krypton in Action Comics 182 (July 1953), the asteroid Menace from the Stars in World’s Finest 65 (Jan.-Feb. 1954, a story also featured on TV as Panic in the Sky).
I suspect it was Hollywood that put the science fiction back into Superman’s stories. Once relegated to movie serials for kids, the genre had reemerged in popular, critically acclaimed films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The War of the Worlds (1953).
Superman’s Thing, specifically, owed a lot to the 1951 Howard Hawks film The Thing from Another World. The menace there was an extraterrestrial vegetable monster played by James Arness, but in the 1938 story on which the film was based, John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There?, the Thing is a alien shape-shifter from 20 million years ago.
The blog Confessions of a Superman Fan noted that The Thing from 40,000 A.D. is, “…a fast-paced story with solid art by Wayne Boring and a rare physical match for Superman. It’s also very much a product of 1954, what with the flying saucer angle and story elements prefiguring two sci-fi cinema classics: The Blob (1958) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). And of course there’s the chilling cameo by the dreaded H-Bomb, very much on everyone’s mind at the time.
“Someone must have liked the story, because it was reprinted in Superman 196 (May 1967), and while reprints were not such a rare thing back in the day, they usually didn’t get a second go-round as the lead story, earning the cover spotlight twice.”
The story was also republished in the second Superman Annual (Jan. 1961). As thrilled as I was by the first annual in 1960, I was even more excited to see this “All-Menace” issue — finally, foes worthy of Superman’s stature and some real super-powered action! For the bargain of a mere quarter, you got Metallo, the Invulnerable Enemy, Titano the Super-Ape, Bizarro, Brainiac and my favorite, the Thing from 40,000 A.D.