In 1971, DC attempted to revamp and streamline the Superman universe. Many of the concepts in current (post-1986) Superman continuity (a powered down Superman, Intergang, the Cadmus Project, the Guardian, Darkseid, etc.) were introduced during this attempt.
Back in 1968, National/DC began to divorce itself from the superhero "camp" era that more or less began and ended with the broadcast run of the Batman TV show. At that time, house ads appeared promising that "There's a new kind of Superman comin'!" And indeed there was... though it would be another three years before he'd arrive. True, the debut of the Andru & Esposito team on the series gave the art a "new" look, but the stories themselves were still pretty much of the Imaginary and Red K type, and would remain so through the end of the decade.
A new era, generally summed up in the catch-all term "relevance," swept throughout the comics industry during the late '60s and early '70s, and by 1971 - the climactic year of the phase - virtually DC's entire line had been revamped and streamlined.
Looking back at 1971 from our 15-year vantage point, we remember it best for the award-winning O'Neil/Adams/Giordano Green Lantern and for Jack Kirby's Fourth World titles. However, at the time, 1971 was indisputably the year of the "new" Superman. Had not DC almost immediately backed away from the events depicted in "the sandman saga," which covered Superman #s 233-242, they might be in a position today where they wouldn't have to try yet another revamping. (Reference to DC's 1986 Superman reboot.)
Mort Weisinger retired from a 30-year career at DC at the end of 1970. He had been an especially prolific editor, so rather than assigning one particular person to replace him, DC spread Weisinger's titles among several editors. Mike Sekowsky picked up Adventure Comics with Supergirl; Murray Boltinoff got Superboy, Action Comics and Jimmy Olsen (though Kirby soon picked up Jimmy Olsen, it being part of his Fourth World series); E. Nelson Bridwell took over on Lois Lane (which also became part of the Fourth World series, though Kirby personally never worked on the book); and, in addition to picking up World's Finest, Julius Schwartz was tossed the juiciest bone of them all: Superman, DC's top seller.
While Sekowsky led Supergirl down an avante garde avenue all her own, the rest of the Superman "family" editors came up with a scheme revolutionary for the industry at the time: Using Superman, as the cornerstone title, they all participated in streamlining the DC universe, openly doing away with such things as kryptonite and imaginary stories, and just plain forgetting about the humorous characters such as Mr. Mxyzptlk, the Bizarros and Krypto. No more Elastic Lad stories for Jimmy Olsen, no more Reptile Girls stories for Lois Lane, no more King Kong stories for Superman.
Boltinoff and Kirby got the "new" DC universe going in Jimmy Olsen #133, October 1970, which in a very real sense introduced a DC Earth as new and streamlined as the one that resulted from the Crisis series 15 years later. Two major DC characters debuted in Kirby's "new" Jimmy Olsen: Morgan Edge, "president of the Galaxy Broadcasting System, new owners of The Daily Planet," in JO #133, and in the following issue, the ultimate DC villain, Darkseid.
What emerged from the pages of Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, Action Comics, World's Finest (which had become a precursor to the DC Comics Presents style of Superman team-ups), and most tellingly, Superman, was a new, faster-paced Earth (Earth 1A, maybe?), where the central characters simply had too much to do to worry about the secret identity contrivances and the varieties of kryptonite that had dominated their lives in the Weisinger era. Jimmy had the Newsboy Legion, the Hairies, the Outsiders, and D.N.Aliens to occupy his time with; Lois was caught in the middle of a gang war waged between the 100, Intergang and Darkseid's minions; and Superman... well, in addition to all of the above, he had a new job as a TV reporter in his secret identity of Clark Kent and a sandcreature siphoning off all his powers to deal with. With all that and more going on, there simply wasn't room to squeeze in Lori Lemaris and the bottle city of Kandor, too.
After a series of house ads that reached full pitch with two-page center-spreads heralding that "A new year brings a new beginning for Superman 1971," DC published Superman #233, January 1971, an issue that at the time rivaled Showcase #4 in importance as a landmark. Neal Adams' nearly blinding cover at first led one to believe that he was looking at The Amazing New Adventures of Superman #1. Though the prominently displayed "1" actually was just part of the slogan, "Number 1 Best-Selling Comics Magazine," it was interesting to note that DC had finally caught on that first issues, even pseudo-first issues, sell better.
Despite all the hoopla and house ads, Superman #233 had to be something of a shock to regular readers; after all, the previous story-line had been the two-part Imaginary battle between Killer Kent and Super-Luthor. Only the pencil artist remained from Weisinger's last issue, and even he didn't seem quite the same.
Inspired by a new writer (Dennis O'Neil), a new inker (Murphy Anderson), as well as a new editor (Julius Schwartz), long-time Superman penciller Curt Swan was finally given a chance to strut his stuff. Page layouts became more imaginative, cinematic flourishes began to abound, and thanks to Anderson, the art never looked slicker. The pace moved away from Weisinger's synoptic plotting style to O'Neil's somewhat frenetic, character-dominated tempo, and Swan kept up with it all without skipping a beat.
Superman #233 opens with an archetypal situation: A scientist is trying to create an engine powered by Kryptonite, and has asked Superman to be on hand should the experiment go awry - which it of course does. The engine explodes, and Superman takes a pointblank blast of Green K, knocking him unconscious into the desert sand. When he comes to, he learns that all the Green K on the planet has been turned to harmless lead thanks to a "freak chain reaction" caused by the botched experiment. (However, the Green K still in outer space is unaffected, leaving writers an out when, several years later, more fragments drift down to Earth.)
O'Neil follows up this astounding development with another: Morgan Edge, Kent's new boss, reassigns him to his TV station, WGBS, as a roving reporter. Here, too, Swan and Anderson shine. Gone are Kent's solid blue suits and horn-rimmed glasses; throughout the saga Kent dresses mostly in brown, double-breasted suits with striped blue shirts and white ties, three-piece suits with striped yellow shirts and spotted yellow ties, and variations on these. Kent also switches to wider framed glasses that are more flattering and contemporary, and despite Earth's yellow sun, his hair has gotten a little thicker.
Schwartz's editorial vision was clear: no more gimmick-ridden plot contrivances for Superman, and no more wimpy Clark Kent portrayals. Personality-wise, Kent may be a bit bland, but no less a personage than Morgan Edge - the equivalent of, say, Ted Turner - recognizes the quality work Kent's done for many years, and singles him out to become an on-air TV reporter. You don't get to be one of the preeminent reporters in the country by being meek and timid, and, recognizing that incongruity, O'Neil dumps the wimpy persona.
Later in the issue, while chasing down some airborne terrorists, Superman flies directly over the spot where the Green K explosion had occurred. While in pursuit, Superman has a few problems - his heat vision goes on the fritz and he has a dizzy spell. Assuming there might be "lingering traces of K-radiation in the area" he shrugs it off.
However, it's nothing so simple. A sandman, formed in the shape of Superman, rises from the spot where Superman had lain unconscious earlier. The blast, it turns out, had ripped open a hole between dimensions, allowing an entity to assume the shape of Superman from the sand.
Besides having Superman's appearance, the creature also has the ability to siphon virtually all of Superman's powers, and eventually even gain his personality to some extent. This "dark side" of Superman will gradually assume more and more importance in the saga as he assumes more and more of Superman's powers. If DC hadn't immediately forgotten about the sandman after issue #242, he conceivably could have had the most impact on Superman's style of superheroics since Pa Kent died.
The climax to #234 involves Superman's learning that his new weakness is attributable to the sandman's siphoning abilities. On the way to that revelation, O'Neil gets inside the head of the Man Of Steel, illustrating with fine effect both Superman's resourcefulness in rescuing an inhabited island from an erupting volcano (throughout the saga, the more powers Superman loses, the cleverer he becomes to compensate), and more importantly, his whole rationale for being a superhero in the first place.
Superman butts heads with Boysie Harker, the owner of the island, who apparently is within his legal right when he shoots at the inhabitants to keep them from fleeing. While not eager to defy the local laws to save the islanders, Superman doesn't have to wrestle much with his conscience: "If worst comes to worst, I'll have to defy Harker - and take the consequences! Because there's a moral law that's above some man-made laws!"
Superman's notion of fair play is his very raison d`etre; he's a super-hero because that's what Jor-El intended him to be; because that's what Ma and Pa Kent raised him to be; because that's what he wants to be. Along with his other super-powers, he has a superhuman amount of compassion, enough to encompass not only his friends in Smallville and Metropolis, but virtually all of Earth and beyond as well.
The next issue, #235, is concerned mainly with museum curator Ferlin Nyxly, who has discovered the Devil's Harp, a magical instrument that allows him to siphon talent away from somebody else, inevitably even Superman. Nyxly is portrayed as a "scared, weak, talentless failure" whose greatest ambition is to be a musician. Merely by wishing it so and strumming the harp, he becomes a piano virtuoso (at the expense, though, of Timos Achens, the world's greatest pianist until his talent mysteriously vanishes). However, Nyxly's debut at the Metropolis Bowl is upstaged by a spectacular assassination attempt of a visiting dignitary in the audience, an attempt foiled by Superman.
Nyxly falls prey to the "Lex Luthor syndrome" - despising Superman's insistence on being the center of attraction in all situations. However, whereas Luthor's hatred comes from his drive to prove he's better than Superman, Nyxly's feelings of inadequacy lead him to want to ultimately be Superman.
O'Neil's theme emerges as Nyxly siphons Superman's powers, and we realize he's siphoning from the sandman as well, who of course has been siphoning Superman's powers the past couple issues himself. Nyxly challenges Superman to a duel in front of a packed house at the Metropolis Bowl, there to win a symbolic victory as he wins back the glory Superman had "stolen" from him, glory which would've been attained only because Nyxly himself had stolen talent from Achens.
In an ironic twist that ties together the whole theme of leeching off another person's abilities, the sandman ends up defeating Nyxly. As the series progresses, we begin to see that the sandman is not only draining away Superman's powers, but in the process, his very identity as well, as the creature evolves into Superman's "dark twin."
Issue #236, though written by O'Neil and not in conflict with the "sandman saga" continuity, is not an actual chapter in the series, being mainly a dream sequence. The story is valuable, though, for its brief look at Kal-El the man, when he's being neither a journalist nor a superhero. For instance, we're reminded, as Weisinger had established years earlier, that Kal-El's real aptitude is in science, especially chemistry and engineering. His living dream, a takeoff on Paradise Lost, is induced by one of his inventions, a Kryptonian brain.
O'Neil also points out that Kal-El is an intellectual - "I've learned forty new otherworld languages since last summer" - and reminds us that it is Superman's mind and heart, rather that his strength and invulnerability, that make his the greatest super-hero on Earth, and indeed, the best defined character in comic book history.
The saga resumes with issue #237 as O'Neil begins to peel away the myth that surrounds Superman. Superman picks up an unknown space virus strong enough that he becomes a carrier of a weird disease that turns every living creature he comes near into puffy green blobs. He exiles himself into outer space orbit around Earth, helpless to do nought but watch as Lois is threatened by army ants (!). However, almost predictably after the Nyxly confrontation, Superman turns to the sandman for assistance.