The first time Superman tried to make physical contact with the sandman had resulted in an incredible blast that left his left hand temporarily numb. However, that numbness had also left the hand cleansed of the disease. It gets him to thinking that perhaps if his entire body were blasted, he'd be completely sterilized. On the other hand, he realizes, he could also be completely dead.
By now, O'Neil's use of parallel situations has become masterful. Superman has been split in two, both literally and figuratively. In the literal sense, his powers have been drained, a bit at a time, by his "dark twin," who so far has not uttered a word, and whose intentions are unknown, save for his desire to become even more powerful.
Superman has also been separated from Earth, his second home, and the only home he's ever known. Several times throughout the saga, we're told that Superman is bound and determined that Earth shall not perish as Krypton had. Voyages to other galaxies and eras and especially to Kandor are scrupulously avoided in the series because O'Neil's whole point is that Superman exists to be Earth's superhero.
Furthermore, Superman has been separated from his "better half," i.e., Lois. While Superman is deciding to risk his life by confronting to sandman's antimatter energy, Lois is taking no less a noble risk. She's been trying to drag an unconscious man to safety from the ants, a man too heavy for her to carry very far, thus putting herself right in the path of the ants. Lois and Superman are cut from the same heroic cloth, both of them putting the welfare of others constantly before themselves.
The outer space confrontation with the sandman creates a horrendous cataclysm that would've ripped the Earth to shreds if they'd tried that on the planet's surface. However, Superman has indeed been sterilized, and he promptly comes to Lois's rescue. O'Neil makes the love and oneness between Superman and Lois so obvious that he can underplay it, saving enough room at story's end for the sandman to finally speak.
The sandman confirms Superman's worst fears - he will gradually assume all of Superman's powers, explaining further, "I am a being woven from your mind - your heart - your soul! Can you not see? I am you! And I fear that we may not both survive!"
Superman #238 represents the last time Superman gets through an adventure with his reputation still intact. Thanks to the sandman's power drain, Swan and Anderson open the story with a splash panel showing Kent changing into Superman and leaping, not flying, out the stock-room window.
A band of terrorists have hijacked a government research project, giving them access to a magma gun that taps into the Earth's molten core. No longer strong enough to withstand the force of so powerful a weapon, Superman again seeks out the assistance of the sandman. The sandman, however, refuses to help, pointing out that though molded from Superman's very essence, "I am my own creature! I am not human! The affairs of mankind mean nothing to me!" Superman is left to fend for himself this time.
In stark contrast to his usual M.O., Superman goes undercover as a hostage to foil the pirates. So, once again he saves the day, but he takes so long to do it that doubts are stirred in people's minds about him. Lois asks why he waited so long to act. Without answering her he thinks, "How can I tell her that I wasn't sure of myself? That I was afraid even my remaining powers would fail!"
Superman's worries are borne out in the next issue, #240 (issue #239 was an all-reprint, 64-page giant). With this issue (inked by Dick Giordano rather than Anderson, who gives it a grittier texture but adds a mood the other chapters lack), O'Neil dramatically alters the entire tone of Superman as a comic book, making it totally unlike any of the previous 239 issues.
His strength at low ebbs, Superman is unable to prevent a burning building from collapsing, leading to a front-page headline that screams, "SUPERMAN FAILS!" While the Anti-Superman gang is skeptical, they decide to verify for themselves if Superman really has hit the skids.
Meanwhile, Superman has to weather ridicule from the public ("Be careful no buildings fall on you, Supie!"), leaving him disillusioned: "I've a right to a bitterness ...no man has a better right! I've denied myself the comforts of home ... family ... to continue helping these... ingrates! I thought they admired me... for myself! I've lived in a fools paradise!"
However, the sound of nearby cannonfire immediately restores his compassion: "No... no! I can't change my whole personality... my very identity! Ever since I can remember, I've been fighting crime - and I've got to be what I am!" Superman engages the Gang, who fire at him with their cannon. He staggers a bit, but is able to corral all of the crooks except for the three ringleaders.
Superman switches to Kent, and determinedly decides, "I'd better concentrate on being a good reporter! Because as Superman, I'm a washout!" This might've made a fascinating study, seeing Kent become the dominant side of the man, with Superman metamorphosizing into a Flash-like hero, relying more on his speed and wits than sheer raw power.
However, O'Neil quickly reminds us that he's already done that shtick - not in Superman, but in the pages of Wonder Woman #179, where Wonder Woman cast aside her Amazon heritage and paraphernalia, letting Diana Prince become the central character. By bringing Diana's mentor, I Ching, into the sandman saga, O'Neil was able to again simplify the character, and contrast Superman with Wonder Woman at the same time.
I Ching, sort of DC's version of the Ancient One from Dr. Strange (a series O'Neil had written earlier for Marvel in the '60s), is an elderly, blind, Oriental sage who comes to Kent's office. Explaining that he is aware Kent is Superman, I Ching tells Superman he knows a way to restore his powers. Ching possesses lore of "civilizations long vanished from the Earth," specifically of the Lovecraftian Realm of Quarrm, the other-dimensional home of the sandman.
Ching believes that magic alone can restore Superman's powers, and to that end he puts him into a trance and attempts to draw out his astral projection. However, the Gang had been keeping tabs on Ching, and when they find Superman unconscious, they clobber the old man and pistol-whip Superman in the forehead. The blow to the head, though, brings Superman out of the trance, and despite being completely powerless now, he punches out the three gangsters. The story ends with a very unsuper Superman declaring, "In every important way, this is my greatest victory! I don't know whether I'll ever regain my powers ... and somehow ... I'm not sure I care!"
The following issue, #241, picks up the narrative without skipping a beat. Superman tells Ching that he'd just as soon remain a normal man, "without the responsibilities... the loneliness... of Superman!" Ching knows what strings to pull, though, as he points out, "One does not choose responsibility! It is often thrust upon one! To refuse it is to commit the worst act of cowardice!"
Superman gives in, and Ching finally succeeds in drawing out an astral projection of Superman's soul. The spirit self confronts the sandman, drains all the stolen power out of the creature, and returns to Superman, restoring all his powers. The sandman, meanwhile, is left nearly lifeless, too weak to even crawl back home to Quarrm, though he does manage to rip open a tiny hole between the dimensions.
Superman's head injury from #240 has inflicted brain damage on him, and with his powers restored, the injury has been made permanent. In other words, Superman is a little bananas; he doesn't go bad, but he does go a bit off the deep end. He's so excited about being back at full strength that he wildly over does it in his exuberance. For instance, to stop a purse snatcher, he builds a jail around him; problem is, he's built the jail right in the middle of a city street during rush hour.
After a week or so of Superman's reckless shenanigans, Ching realizes what has happened, and devises a simple plan. He gets Diana Prince to lure Superman to an innocent seeming location, and then has the sandman sneak up on him and steal back his powers, leaving Superman weak enough that he can undergo brain surgery.
The plans almost works, but Superman flees before the sandman has much success. Meanwhile, another Quarrm entity has emerged from the dimensional warp, and has taken on the appearance of a war demon from a Chinatown parade paper statue. The brought-to-life war demon immediately goes on a rampage through the streets of New York.
Despite being mentally unglued and in danger of losing his powers if the sandman catches up to him, Superman notices the commotion in Chinatown and takes time out to save a boy from being trampled by the frightened mob. However, this puts him right in the war demon's path. The demon, about three times his size, sucks away all his powers in one fell swoop. Swan and Anderson close with an eerie final page depicting the demon soundlessly dragging an unconscious Superman through the deserted streets of Chinatown.
The storyline comes to a full boil with "The Ultimate Battle" in issue #242, the concluding chapter. Superman's battered body has been found by Jimmy Olsen, who takes him to a hospital where his head injury is operated on. The war demon continues to terrorize the people of New York (it's unclear why O'Neil has moved the action to New York, and indeed, he seems to confuse New York and Metropolis, placing the Galaxy building in NYC), and without Superman to protect the citizens, the sandman engages his fellow Quarrmer in battle.
The sandman, having only part of Superman's former powers while the demon has most of them, is unable to beat the demon singlehandedly. What bothers him more, though, is why he even wants to fight the demon: "Why did I choose to fight?" he wonders. "This world means nothing to me! Could it be that I have taken on Superman's mind - his soul - as well as his body?" O'Neil already answered that question back in #238, though; the creature has gained a part of Superman's spirit through osmosis, but none of the emotional makeup that makes the Caped Kryptonian unique.
Superman, recuperating from the quickest and neatest cerebral surgery this side of the "Spock's Brain" episode of "Star Trek," is like a magnet to the war demon, which homes in on him, apparently to finish off the Man of Steel for good. However, the power drain works both ways, and Superman siphons off enough strength to fight the demon to a standstill. Joined in mid-fight by the sandman, the two supermen drive the demon back to the dimensional warp, sending the entity back to Quarrm and reducing the demon down to its paper and glue components.
This sets up the climax to the entire saga. The sandman no longer merely wants all of Superman's powers; now it wants to be Superman. As sandman sees it, the only way that'd be possible is by killing the real Superman. Superman, of course, would just as soon remain living, and since he's been backed into a corner, his choice seems to be totally defeating the sandman and driving the Quarrm entity back to its own dimension. Their problem is that they can't even touch each other without setting off a massive cataclysm.
Ching has a solution, though, as he offers to cancel the effects of their opposing atoms with a magical spell. Actually, all he does is hypnotize them into imagining the results of such a battle royale - nothing less than the destruction of all life on Earth. Realizing that "there cannot be two Supermen in your world," the sandman returns to Quarrm on his own, apparently having finally gained enough of Superman's conscience to see that what's best for Earth isn't what's necessarily best for him.
The key to the whole saga comes in the final panels when Superman refuses to let Ching return the powers still retained by the sandman to him. In other words, the saga ends with Superman's powers trimmed by about one third. No more planet juggling and instant hops to the other side of the universe. Superman is now a leaner, somewhat wiser, and definitely more human character, brought back to his essential roots of the Golden Age. Schwartz and O'Neil, then, succeeded admirably in their attempt to revamp Superman and create a "new" incarnation.
Right when DC had reached the peak of their streamlining efforts in the summer of '71, they pulled the plug on the "new" Superman. Cary Bates, who'd worked on the titles during the Weisinger era and had been O'Neil's immediate predecessor, returned to script Superman #243.
Bates always treated Superman with a great deal of respect, but neither he nor Schwartz appeared to have any interest in continuing the Earthbound type of stories O'Neil had just done. So #243 opens with the words, "Trillions of miles out in deep galactic space..." and by page three, Superman has been blasted by a supernova that does little more than leave him dazed "for a micro-second," and has conversed with two disembodied brains.
DC found itself competing with its past, and followed the advice of those fans who were more interested in seeing cosmic conflicts. O'Neil returned to take another crack at Superman, but his last major contribution to the mythos was a storyline where Superman's powers would only work if he thought of a young crippled boy's pet lynx.
Traces of the "new" Superman still occasionally popped up, usually in the pages of DC Comics Presents, but O'Neil's vision of Superman, which DC had thought important enough to advertise with two-page spreads in all their January 1971 titles, disappeared after the September 1971 issue, never to return.