Clark wakes up weeks later to find himself a Martian prisoner. He finds himself restrained inside a Martian prison camp, where Lex Luthor is conveniently present to deliver some exposition. Stalin, Hitler, Roosevelt and the British royal family have all been killed by the Martians, who have completely conquered the Earth.
Predictably, Luthor has sold out, offering his services to the Martians in exchange for his life. Despite their victory, the Martians are dying. Luthor quotes Wells, but also gives their affliction the cute nickname “Earth Flu”. Of course, the logic here is a little dicey; Luthor’s agreed to serve as the Local Knowledge for the invaders, helping them cure the Earth Flu, because he reckons the human race is finished and working for the invaders is his only chance. But… He also knows that the Martians are dying. So… Wouldn’t it make more sense to just, like, not help them? You’ve got to figure that Luthor would stand more to gain by making a grab for power as humanity tries to rebuild after the Martians are defeated than he would as a Martian Quisling. Even if he’s focused on his short-term survival here, there’s no hint that he’s planning to double-cross the Martians, and he is earnestly working on the cure. The only hint we get is, admittedly, a nice one: it’s a challenging scientific problem, so perhaps it’s imply his vanity pushing him to prove he can hold his own against these otherworldly intellects.
Luthor has Lois brought to them, not for any clear reason, and asks Clark about his extraterrestrial origins. Because of the golden-age setting, Clark knows nothing about it, but easily admits that, yeah, he might well be an alien, having been found as a baby in a crashed rocket. When Lois mentions that the Martians in the lab are the only ones she’s seen that aren’t afflicted by disease, Luthor realizes that Kent’s alien immune system is protecting the Martians. We get the comic’s one and only use of the word “Superman” when Luthor compares Kent to a Nietzschean ubermensch, a comparison which doesn’t actually hold water since Kent’s value system is pretty staunchly opposed to Nietzsche’s, but I don’t consider that a writing flaw since pretty much everyone badly misunderstands Nietzsche and the ubermensch.
Lois is predictably horrified by Luthor’s villainy, and rejects his amorous advances, though Luthor takes it in stride. Within a few hours, he’s isolated Kent’s antibodies and developed a cure for the Martians… Whereupon they suddenly but inevitably betray him, as he is of no further use to them. Lois saves Luthor by stabbing the attacking Martian, and Luthor, declaring himself to have been “temporarily mad” to have sided with the invaders, frees Kent just in time to beat the crap out of more Martians, telepathically summoned to assist.
Escaping the lab, Clark dispatches the Martians to whom Luthor had given the cure, hoping they haven’t yet telepathically communicating it to the others. He also frees the humans imprisoned in the camp, pausing to explain about the S on his shirt to a bystander whose most pressing concern is why he spells “Clark” with an “S”. They also pause for Luthor to reflect on the humans who refuse to flee, preferring to be “tended to” as livestock than to take control of their own fate — way closer to Nietzsche than anything to do with Clark.
When Clark tries to shepherd Lois away, she instinctively recoils from him. I like this response, and even more, I like that she owns it. “I know I shouldn’t feel that way, after all, you just saved our lives, but I can’t help it!” She qualifies her instinctive discomfort in light of the fact that, y’know, fifty percent of the alien races she’s met this month have tried to exterminate humanity, and hopes she might be able to get past it in time. She’s genuinely ashamed of herself, and Clark, though clearly hurt, clearly gets it.
One thing that’s really interesting about this exchange to me is that while Lois is repulsed by Clark on learning he’s an alien — the exact reaction Pa Kent had cautioned young Clark about — Luthor never shows any such revulsion. He never shows any animosity toward Clark that’s greater than the general disdain he shows toward everyone else in the world. If anything, this Luthor seems oddly trusting.
A few Martians are still healthy enough to operate their tripods, and they rain heat rays on the escaping prisoners. Luthor and Lois are shocked when Clark picks up a wrecked car to defend them, Lex remarking, “The man isn’t human! But if he isn’t, then what is he?”
The answer comes in the form of a half-page spread recreating one of the most iconic images of the golden age.
Clark smashes one machine with a car and destroys a second by throwing its own black smoke rocket back at it. But when he tackles the third machine’s legs, the hood of the machine separates from them, hovering in the air. Luthor speculates that the tripod legs were akin to training wheels, assisting the vehicles while they learned to compensate for Earth’s gravity (Later, it’s implied that the tripod legs can’t even hold the machines up on their own, but are purely to assist with balance).
Clark takes two direct heat ray shots leaping at the flying machine, but makes a key discovery, which Luthor conveniently explains to us: when something passes between the flying machine and the ground, it interferes with their anti-gravity. Clark takes a third hit tossing one of the disabled tripods under the flying machine and it crashes to Earth. Though mortally wounded, Clark proceeds to hammer on the crashed machine, but suddenly holds back, realizing that “war fever” is taking hold of him. He collapses, and as he lays dying, he explains that he recognizes the basic similarity between himself and the Martians: that he too comes from a dead world (he’s guessing), and Lois’s reaction earlier demonstrates how easily it might be him and not the Martians that has humanity running in terror.
I like the sentiment, but maybe he’s laying it on a bit thick here? This is like all those scenes in Doctor Who where they set up this moral challenge between the Doctor and the Daleks, like, “But isn’t the Doctor on some level just as bad as they are?” Actually no, because they’re the Daleks. And here too, though the narrative does a good job of setting up the fact that it’s natural and reasonable for humans to fear Clark the same way they fear the Martians, and though the first few pages do set up the basic similarity between Krypton and Mars, only one of the alien species in this story has actually attempted genocide. Moreover, the moral arc of the narrative seems to land firmly on the side of “Humanity is right to fear the Martians, but wrong to fear Clark.” Yet it almost seems like the narrative isn’t quite clear on why. It seems at times implicit that it would be natural and entirely justified for a Kryptonian to look down on humans exactly the same way Martians do, so it’s hard to justify a message of “Fearing aliens because they’re different is wrong,” in the face of it actually being the right thing to do half the time. It’s even worse when you consider that no one acted with immediate fear and revulsion toward the Martians; they only freaked out later once the Martians had demonstrated hostility. So the good message of not rushing to judge Clark is in some sense twisted into a bad message of “Don’t learn from your mistakes.” (That’s not the only message you could take, and there’s a perfectly good “Don’t let bad past experiences lead you to misjudge someone else later,” but the comic doesn’t put in the work to take the moral the rest of the way there).