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Ants for The Memories

For years, I’ve marveled at the cover to Action Comics #296. It depicts four giant red ants attacking the Daily Planet, led by an altered Superman sporting an insect head complete with antennae and giant bug eyes. Approaching a startled Lois Lane and Perry White, Superman utters: Follow Me, Soldier Ants ... BZZ-BZZ ... We Must Capture Lois Lane ... BZZ-BZZ ... She Will Be Our Queen! Released in November of 1962, the cover seems coincidentally appropriate for the times, given the rising popularity of LSD as a recreational drug.

I’d first seen the cover to “Invasion of the Super-Ants!” reprinted in a coffee table book showcasing covers from the Silver Age of Superman. Later, DC released a Superman action figure with the giant red insect head. I purchased the toy without hesitation. Since then, I’ve been seeking a decent copy of that issue so I could read the adventures of Red Ant Superman.

Why so much enthusiasm on my part? During the Silver Age, Superman’s creators were constrained by both the Comics Code Authority and editorial demands to maintain Superman’s status quo. Given their limited creative options, they resorted to gimmicks to attract readers. Superman comics became a monthly factory for producing stories with fantastic elements like the Bottled City of Kandor, the Phantom Zone, and Titano, the giant ape with Kryptonite vision. As a concept junkie, I find these ideas intoxicating, even when poorly executed. Upon seeing the cover, I thought Action #296 was emblematic of Silver Age creativity and something I needed to read.

Every now and again, I would think about the cover and imagine scenes of Superman building a giant ant hill in downtown Metropolis. In my mind’s eye, I could see Superman using his powers to collect railroad cars full of processed sugar to feed the colony of Super-Ants. My imaginary story included scientists constructing a can of Kryptonite Raid, with Supergirl and Krypto holding a giant picnic basket in space to lure our insectoid hero into a trap. Given the era, anything was possible.

Last week, I finally found a good reading copy of Action #296 at a reasonable price. Like so many things in life, reality did not meet my expectations. The cover is a bait and switch; at no point in the story does Red Ant Superman attack the Daily Planet. Here’s what really happened in this characteristically ridiculous story:

The Super-Ants start attacking various sites around Metropolis, stealing seemingly unimportant items and occasionally helping those in need. Superman can’t approach the ants because they are hoarding Green Kryptonite. Eventually the ants kidnap Lois Lane. Superman uses a cloud of Red Kryptonite to grant himself immunity to Green Kryptonite and transform himself into Red Ant Superman. Armed with super antennae, Superman can now communicate with the ants.

The Super-Ants explain their mission is to warn other planets about the dangers of nuclear warfare. They crash-landed on Earth and found themselves unable to communicate with Earthlings. This forced the ants into stealing resources needed to rebuild their damaged rocket. They kidnapped Lois Lane in hopes that the crime would compel Superman to discover a means of communication. Also, the ants hoarded Green K because it is the fuel used to power their rocket.

With everything straightened out, the ants repair their ship and depart, leaving Superman with the chore of delivering their message on the dangers of atomic war to the United Nations.

Superman is only Red Ant Superman for the last few pages of the story. Adding insult to injury, Superman doesn’t do anything interesting in ant form other than listen to whole lot of exposition. This story was nothing like the one I imagined. Action Comics #296 became emblematic of the Silver Age in an unexpected way, reminding me that stories from that era rarely delivered on the promise of their exceptional concepts. Still, the image of Red Ant Superman remains terribly amusing and something I’m glad to have in my collection.

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