The dark-haired, bearded man in the cabin paced his dirt floor. “I was a real bear to those poor kids when I fixed their van. Maybe that’s the real sign that I’m losing my humanity,” he said bitterly.
He sighed as he looked at his empty freezer. It doesn’t matter that the proverbial cupboard is bare, since I no longer need to eat — or breathe, for that matter! Freaks like me don’t need food, air, or other people! he thought.
Staring out his window at the twinkling stars above the dark woods, he said with a rueful grin, “All my problems came from up there. They’re probably laughing at me even as I speak.”
He ran a hand through his long hair and stepped out into the night, then calmly rose off the ground and flew up through the forest.
This was a nightly ritual that gave him some comfort. He assumed no one could see him at night in the empty woods. But he was wrong, and that error would prove to be of importance in his life.
He heard shouts as he neared the edge of the woods. Hunters? Or maybe somebody’s lost. I could help. I guess I still do that kind of thing, he thought.
Meanwhile, the Elongated Man raced through the community on stilt-like legs as he searched for his family. The camper’s door was literally shattered in the outline of a giant! It’s like Big Foot took them — maybe even the ghost that brought me to these parts. While I was out looking for him, he came and got Sue and little Debbie! I’ll never forgive myself if anything’s happened to them! he thought.
He followed the trail easily enough. Though he was a skilled detective, no such talents were required to read the path left by the large barefooted intruder. He either wants me to find him, or he’s too stupid to care if I do, mused Ralph.
Seeing men gathered around a clearing, he looked around and saw that Sue and Debbie were sitting in a chair in a circle of men. He rushed forward and broke through the crowd.
“Sue, are you hurt?” shouted Elongated Man.
“Ralph, it’s a trap!” cried Sue Dibny.
The hero whirled as a massive figure tackled him and slammed huge, ham-like fists into his head. He fell beneath the sudden attack, and he only survived the brutal force thanks to his pliable form.
Boss Jones stood over the fallen hero. “Looks like the high an’ mighty E-longated Man ain’t so tough.”
The gang laughed nervously to please their brutal leader, while the giant man glowered in the flickering light of the campfire.
Sue said, “What are you going to do?”
Jones grinned. “I’m gonna kill your man and take you for my own!”
At that moment, the bearded man from the cabin flew into view. Gasps rang out as his flying form broke through the woods. “Good night! I’ve heard enough. You thugs can just back off now. No one touches the Dibnys,” he demanded in a strong and clear voice.
Sue sighed with relief. She didn’t recognize the newcomer, but she had hope that he was some heroic ally of Ralph’s.
Jones whistled. “You some kinda sooper-man, boy?”
“It’s the ghost of Piney Woods!” whispered a thug.
The bearded man said, “Superman? No, I’m just a freak, but I still have enough power to protect these people.” He generated a blast of energy that forced the ring of goons backward in a mad scramble.
“Mrs. Dibny, don’t worry about a thing,” he said in warm and articulate tones. “I’ll help you and your husband.”
Sue nodded eagerly. In spite of his grubby appearance, the man seemed to be educated and benign.
“Boy, you cain’t even help y’self!” said Boss Jones, signaling the big man in rags to silently strike the newcomer in the chin.
The bearded man reeled backward but did not fall. “Now it’s my turn,” he declared as he rubbed his fist in one palm and ran forward.
“He didn’t fall when the big man hit him!” whispered a miner.
“Maybe he kin free all o’ us from Jones!” said one eager watcher.
The bearded man punched out at the giant and connected with several smashing blows that drove the brute back but did not slow him down.
The Elongated Man groaned and tried to get up as Sue rushed over and calmed Debbie. Then Ralph blinked at the scene in the firelight. “That’s — that’s the Blockbuster!” he said in surprise.
The huge brute grabbed the bearded man and crushed him tightly, even as he refused to fall. He merely grabbed his foe’s arms and flew skyward at high speed.
Sue pointed upward. “Ralph, who is that man?”
Ralph’s nose twitched, and he said, “I sure want to find out.” He flexed and his elongated arms rippled with protruding muscles that slammed into the nearest group of miners, driving them back.
Meanwhile, the Blockbuster slammed his hands against the flying man’s head, and they crashed to the ground.
“Ralph, the Blockbuster is only helping Jones as an enforcer because Jones has a little girl he cares about!” said Sue as she climbed on his back, and they cleared the camp with huge strides using long, stilt-like legs.
“I’ll get you gals to safety and then try to find the child,” he said. “She’s got to be somewhere Jones can get to that the Blockbuster can’t enter — a small place, maybe too small for him to try to break through… or too dangerous to the child for him to try to enter, like a mine shaft!”
He deposited his family away from the danger as Sue said, “Be careful, darling!”
Ralph grinned. “That would spoil my rugged he-man image that the fans love so much!”
After a search, he found the mine and snaked through an impossibly small crack until it widened into a cavern where a girl lay chained to the ground. “Honey, are you OK? I’ll get you out of here!” he said as anger rushed to his face. The rat — treating a kid like this! he thought. No wonder he could order the Blockbuster around! If he loves the girl, then he couldn’t risk getting Jones mad. In this little shaft off from the main one, any force could bring it down on her. Luckily, this ductile detective can use finesse!
He formed one finger into the shape of the lock and turned the catch, freeing the child. “Crawl out that hole in the front, honey, and I’ll meet you and take you back to your folks,” he said, smiling.
She nodded and obeyed his orders.
I hope my bearded pal is OK, mused Ralph as he gathered Connie Macon in his arms and raced for the camp. When I took off, he was holding his own. Flight, energy generation, super-strength — he’s pretty capable beneath those whiskers!
Reaching the camp, the Elongated Man then saw a startling sight. The bearded man had changed his features until he resembled none other than Bruce Wayne, and the giant Blockbuster sat confused and uncertain what to do.
“Kill him!” cried Boss Jones.
“He likes him or somethin’!” said a miner.
Ralph swelled his jaws out and, like a megaphone, shouted, “Blockbuster! Mark! I freed Connie. You don’t have to obey Boss Jones!”
Blockbuster frowned, then smiled as he understood that his little friend was safe. He tore past the Bruce Wayne double to race after Jones and his gang, who scattered in all directions to escape his lethal pounding blows.
Ralph Dibny and the bearded man — still appearing to look like Bruce Wayne — calmed the Blockbuster down as they captured and bound the thugs. They even found Boss Jones himself cowering in fear behind a nearby boulder. As the two brought him back as a prisoner, keeping the Blockbuster from killing him, the miners cheered at their new freedom.
“We’ll take Jones into the city where kidnapping charges, among others, will occupy him for a long time,” said Ralph. “You’re all free.”
The Blockbuster cradled Connie Macon with joy as her folks beamed with pleasure.
“He’s a big softy,” mused the Wayne double, who changed his face back to the bearded look. Turning to Ralph, he explained, “When I heard you call him Blockbuster, I recalled reading in Captain Comet’s files that this giant responded to Bruce Wayne with affection because Wayne saved his life once. Luckily, it was a famous guy like Wayne. If it had been some unknown, I’d never have been able to copy his face. That trick calmed down the Blockbuster until you freed Connie.”
“Captain Comet’s files, huh?” asked Ralph, his nose suddenly twitching. “You’re Starman, aren’t you?”
“I was,” said the bearded man, who was indeed Will Payton, alias Starman, formerly of Captain Comet’s Rehab Squad.
Sometime later, the two continued their conversation in the Dibny’s camper.
Will had by now altered his features back to his original Starman look. “This may help you remember me better,” he said. “It’s one of the freakish things I can do since I was hit with a beam of energy sent by a space god named Highfather to empower a few of us so we could be of use to him in fighting evil.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: Captain Comet’s Rehab Squad: A Cosmos Imperiled.]
“Having powers doesn’t lessen your humanity,” said Ralph. “I know Superman doesn’t need to eat or breathe, but he’s a real regular guy.”
“Yes, but let me explain,” said Will. “I was also doing fine, or so I thought. I had friends and a fiancée who has powers all her own. Then, one day I realized I had lost some of my senses — taste and smell. It turns out the energy beam altered me so much that I have to practice being a normal human, or I lose those kind of things.
“I also gained the ability to go without food or oxygen. That was not the case when I first gained my powers, which had expanded somewhat, too. It frightened me that I was changing so much. I figured I didn’t deserve anyone, so I gave her a lame story about being uncertain if I wanted to continue my heroic career. I ran away from her and the team.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Captain Comet’s Rehab Squad: The Beginning of the End.]
“Honey, protecting us and helping Ralph when you didn’t need to proves you’re more than just human,” said Sue Dibny. “You’re a hero. Also, the mere fact that you are worried about your humanity makes you sensitive, aware, and all too human.”
Ralph nodded. “Look, pal, you’ve got it all wrong. I relish what I can do. I’m not a freak as much as I am a media star. Just don’t be so hard on yourself. Go back, get your girl, and hang around other super-types, and you’ll feel better about it. Heck, in time, maybe you could even prove yourself worthy of joining the JLA. You impressed me, anyway.”
Will thanked them both. “I guess the rumors of the flying ghost of Piney Woods started up from the old folk tale in these parts when I claimed this old cabin and started coming out at night. I guess I’m the ghost you’ve been seeking.”
Ralph nodded. “Case closed. I hope I gave you some answers the way you answered my mystery.”
Will shook hands with him as Sue planted a kiss on his cheek. “Will, you’ve got friends in this family — remember that,” she said.
The man once known as Starman grinned. “I’ve also got my costume here. I think you made a good point. The least I can do with these powers, whether they’re a curse or a boon, is to help people with them like you JLAers or my inspiration, the Starman from that other Earth’s JSA and old comic-books.” He smiled and nodded to himself as he made a decision. “But first, I’m going home for a bit. My mom and sister must be worried sick about me.”
“Good idea,” said Sue. “We’ll be heading north for a bit, too.”
Ralph asked, “Crime spree?”
“No — shoe sale,” declared Sue.