Here at DC Histories, we try to make sense of the continuity that perplexes, befuddles, and intimidates. We discuss what worked and what didn’t. This week, we’re talking about the many times that Superman has gone up against those most cunning of the undead, vampires.
It’s common knowledge among most people, even those who don’t read comics, that Kryptonite can harm Superman. That is commonly seen as his only weakness. However, that turns out to not be the only substance that can harm the seemingly invulnerable Man of Steel. There is also magic and the supernatural. Those two things have been shown to do just as much damage to Superman as they would any regular human. This supernatural weakness includes members of the undead, such as blood-sucking vampires, who have gone up against the Last Son of Krypton more than once.
For years, vampires couldn’t appear in comics. From 1954 to 1971, the Comics Code Authority forbade the appearance of almost anything that even remotely smacked of “horror.” This was an extreme response to the early 1950s fear that horror comics were corrupting youth. The Comics Code effectively put the horror comics industry out of business and keep the comics pages squeaky clean for decades. In 1971, the Code was revised so that “classic” interpretations of werewolves, vampires, and the Frankenstein Monster were allowed in comics once again. If it looked and acted like an old 1940s Universal monster, it could terrorize a new generation of readers.
Soon after that change became official, Marvel and DC jumped at the chance to put these characters into their comics. Marvel soon launched Tomb of Dracula while DC went a different route. Jack Kirby, then at DC working on his Fourth World titles, brought a distinctly Dracula-looking character named Count Dragorin into conflict with both Jimmy Olsen and Superman.
Investigations into Transilvane, the land from which Dragorin was from, turned up some surprising results. First, there seemed to be a surprising number of other monsters hanging out with the Count and, more importantly, Transilvane was a small artificial planet developed by NASA to study otherworldly environments. The project had been taken over by the evil director of the Cadmus Project, Dabney Donovan. He had projected old horror movies onto Transilvane, which caused the bacteria-like beings living on its surface to assume those films’ shapes. When they found a way to enlarge themselves, they escaped their planet, which was being held underground, and sought out Donovan in Metropolis. All told, it was a pretty strange, fun story and that’s the sort of thing Jack Kirby specialized in.
Superman’s next battle against the blood suckers of the undead set came nine years later. This time, instead of being a weird bacteria-esque thing who looked like a vampire, this was actually Dracula battling against the Man of Steel. A seance brought Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula into the regular DCU and only Superman was around to fend them off. After managing to simply punch out the Monster, Superman found that Dracula was a bit harder to fight. Using dodgy science, Superman momentarily produced a miniature sun by pumping pure hydrogen into a child’s toy balloon and then super-heating it with his heat vision. This drove Dracula back. However, this didn’t defeat his foe. Luckily, the boring deus ex machina that is the Phantom Stranger showed up and took care of both the Monster and Dracula in the space of two panels. It was a lackluster ending to say the least.
The next time Superman tangled with vampires was after the Crisis on Infinite Earths. By this time, the Comics Code had been revised again. It now allowed for any depiction of monsters, as long as it wasn’t too gross. In the first Action Comics Annual, Superman and Batman worked together to investigate a group of mysterious murders in a small town. Though at first it seemed that a young blonde woman named Skeeter was a victim, a little more digging revealed she was the cause of all the problems. Thus did a vampire in Daisy Dukes and a “Mr. Peanut” t-shirt prove to this rebooted Superman that vampires were magic and could hurt him.
Written by John Byrne with art by a young Art Adams, this issue is still a fun read. It, along with a few other Batman and Superman team-ups from this era, is getting reprinted in October. Seek it out.
Just five years later, Superman went up against his most deadly vampire foe yet. When it seemed clear to Jimmy Olsen that Lucy Lane, sister of Lois Lane and Jimmy’s off-and-on girlfriend, had been bitten by a vampire, he did the most ’90s thing possible: He put on a kickin’ bandanna, decked himself out with as many pouches as could fit on a person, and got a comically large cross.
Luckily, Jimmy’s hunch paid off and his foolish look made some sort of sense. A doctor by the name of Ruthven was sucking the blood from Lucy’s neck over the course of several nights. This may have been the same character seen in 1819′s short story The Vampyre, one of the first English-language vampire stories ever put down on paper. Ruthven was also a shapeshifter and went from looking like a regular mulleted human to Bela Lugosi to Count Orlok from Nosferatu.
During Jimmy’s battle with Ruthven, the new, very popular Tim Drake Robin showed up to help out and, perhaps, boost sales. During the fight, Jimmy accidentally shoved a stake through Tim’s shoulder. He really wasn’t much of a fighter. Also, it was revealed that Ruthven was using technology to ward off many of the traditional vampiric weaknesses. Jimmy’s many, many pouches were useless.
Even Superman throwing Ruthven into sunlight at the issue’s end didn’t kill the creature. He came back the next week in the pages of Superman. There, Superman was overwhelmed by Ruthven and his forces. Just as Lucy Lane was about to bite Superman and turn him into a vampire, the Man of Steel was saved by an unlikely ally. Blaze, one of the various demons of Hell who called Metropolis her stomping ground, set off a demonic light into the air, distracting the vampire and making him accidentally stake himself with a war memorial. Blaze wanted Superman’s pure soul and didn’t want Ruthven to corrupt it. It was a truly a devil ex machina that saved Superman.
Babe Tanaka, a friend of Jimmy’s, was turned into a vampire by Ruthven during this story and eventually became a very minor supporting character in later Superman stories. Her vampirism nearly overcame her at one point, but she beat the evil back with the help of Jimmy, Superman, and a man named Lock.
After the mess with Ruthven and Babe, vampires kept a wide berth of Superman. That changed when Clark, Lois, and Jimmy found themselves in Eastern Europe in the castle of Lord Rominoff. It quickly came apparent to everyone that Rominoff was not-so-secretly Dracula because he did things like attempt to bite Lois while she was wearing barely any clothes and drank blood from a bottle. Those were some pretty big clues. Soon, he had hypnotized Superman and made his move to bite the Kryptonian. For the first time, vampire fangs pierced Superman’s skin and Dracula learned the hard way that Superman was powered by sunlight, which is deadly to vampires. The solar-powered blood killed the centuries-old undead creature in seconds.
Just two years later, a different vampire tried the same thing. During the course of a Justice League investigation, Superman found a group of runaways living with a being calling itself the Crucifer. Another age-old vampire, Crucifer was the leader of a group of vampires known as the Tenth Circle. Just like Dracula before him, this vampire managed to hypnotize Superman. When he attempted to then drink Superman’s blood, he found the taste repugnant. It was alien and not something that could sustain the creature.
It was not, however, a death sentence for the undead lord to taste Superman’s blood. That’s probably due to the fact that a different creative team was on this book than the one on Superman #180. This six-issue story was a reunion for Chris Claremont and John Byrne, the creative team behind a legendary run on Uncanny X-Men two decades earlier. Sadly, this story didn’t live up to their reputations as it was not only a vampire tale but also an editorially mandated reintroduction of the Doom Patrol, which DC now claimed never existed before this story. Also, Claremont’s tendency to overwrite didn’t do the comic any favors.
Anyway, while Superman’s blood was inedible, sucking it did allow Crucifer to gain control over the Man of Steel. Crucifer now had a Kryptonian bodyguard who did anything that was asked of him.
Superman finally broke free of the vampire’s influence a few issues later and killed his former master by shoving a cross right through Crucifer’s undead chest. It was the first time Superman proactively killed a vampire by himself and he did it without the help of the Phantom Stranger, Blaze, or dumb luck. It was about time.
More recently, a miniseries came out that once again thrust Superman into an antagonistic role against vampires. In a bit of on-the-nose titling, Superman and Batman fought vampires and werewolves in the miniseries Superman and Batman Vs. Vampires and Werewolves. This title, though specific, turned out to not be specific enough as several superhero allies joined the fight. The heroes took on not only vampires and werewolves but also an evil scientist and some Lovecraftian Cthulhu monsters. But I suppose Superman and Batman and Green Arrow and The Demon and Man-Bat Vs. Vampires and Werewolves and Cthulhu Monsters and a Mad Scientist wouldn’t have fit on a cover.
In any case, Superman wasn’t a major player in the series. He didn’t even make his first appearance until the final page of the second issue. A mad scientist was unleashing Cthulhu demons and other baddies on the people of Gotham City and our heroes were working to combat that evil. Among those innocents threatened was a young boy named Chadd who Superman thought he saved. Unfortunately, Chadd was a vampire the second time Superman ran into him.
Though he tried to save the boy, Superman failed. During an attempt to reverse Chadd’s vampirism, the lad was taken to a nearby hospital. Frightened by the entire ordeal, Chadd became disoriented and jumped out of a window in broad daylight. He was killed almost instantly and Superman used Chadd’s death to fuel his anger during the story’s final battle.
The best part of this story was the artwork of Tom Mandrake. The story itself was strangely boring for a tale about monsters punching superheroes. It felt like a two or three issue story stretched over a six issue frame.
Since this miniseries, Superman has yet to again battle this particular brand of the undead. Even in the pages of Andrew Bennett‘s New 52 series, I, Vampire, Superman didn’t make an appearance. I’m sure at some point, these two foes will again tangle. It’s really only a matter of time. I just wonder what will happen to the next vampire who attempts to suck Superman’s blood. Will a true Vampire Superman be the result? Only time will tell.
Jeff Reid loved the Lord Ruthven vampire story when he was a kid. Unfortunately, he can now confirm that it doesn’t hold up today. Jeff occasionally dispels some of his other rose-colored memories on Twitter.