Action Comics Annual #2 (1989)
Superman: SPACE GLADIATOR! Also, we learn a dark secret of Krypton’s past! I’m not sure, but this might be the greatest Superman annual ever (that’s not written by Alan Moore). Most annuals from this era are standalone stories with little impact on continuity or, even worse, padded out chapters of crossover events drawn by third-rate artists (or good artists in a huge rush). This one doesn’t just have top talent (holy crap, those Mike Mignola/George Perez pages) but it actually features major developments for Superman’s ongoing story.
Oh, right, the story: for the past few months Superman has been wandering around in outer space as penance for that one time he killed three dudes (but they were bad dudes, don’t worry). In Adventures #454, after having a little problem with his breathing apparatus, Superman is caught by a spaceship and taken to an arena planet called Warworld. Superman (weakened from the lack of sunlight) is re-dressed in a gladiator outfit and made to fight a succession of aggressive aliens, including a big elephant person who is actually made out of a several tiny elephant people.
Superman refuses to kill any of his victims, which pisses off Warworld’s ruler, Mongul. Finally, Superman goes up against Mongul’s champion, Draaga, and kicks his ass despite having a thousand-year old religious person invading his mind (more on that later). Once again Superman refuses to kill (after all, killing got him in this mess in the first place) and Mongul goes “I’ve had it with you — I’m going down there and whooping your ass!”
The most interesting stuff happens outside the arena. When Superman is first taken to Warworld, one of the cellkeepers (whom we shall call Blurpy) is surprised to find out that he’s a Kryptonian and travels to a nearby asteroid to tell an old guy called Cleric about him. Cleric, it turns out, actually visited Krypton thousands of years ago to preach about his religion, and it was him who unwittingly started the anti-cloning movement that would eventually cause Krypton’s destruction (Black Zero, as seen in the World of Krypton miniseries).
Krypton’s scientists were so alarmed by the fact that Cleric, an illegal alien, was preaching universal equality, that they created an artifact called the Eradicator which genetically tied all Kryptonians to the planet, killing them if they dared to leave. That was… kind of extreme, guys. Unfortunately, Cleric didn’t know what the Eradicator did, so when he decided to leave Krypton with his entire congregation of followers, he ended up with a huge ship filled with 100,000 Kryptonian corpses. He’s been sitting in that asteroid feeling sorry for himself since then. Oh, yeah, and he has the Eradicator, and uses it to merge his mind with Superman’s during the Draaga fight.
So, you see, that’s why the Kryptonians couldn’t leave the planet even when they noticed it was starting to explode: they were tied to it through the Eradicator, and the Eradicator wasn’t even on Krypton anymore so they couldn’t just turn it off. It was only through genetic tampering that Jor-El managed to cure Superman of the kill gene and send him to Earth.
First appearances for Cleric, Blurpy the Cellkeeper, Lentra (a four-armed telepath who mends Superman between his fights) and, more importantly, the Eradicator. “But the Eradicator isn’t a character!” you might say. Oh, not yet, but wait and see. You have no idea the can of worms that’s about to be opened (or you do, if you’ve read these comics or are, like, even vaguely aware of them, but pretend you don’t).
Also, first appearance of George Perez as Superman writer! His stay in the Super-books will be a relatively short one, but he’ll add a whole bunch of elements that will bug Superman for years to come.