From the annals of big birddom: Superman the moa

August 29

“It trampled over tropical wilds for millions of years—until man made it extinct! Now, centuries later—has it come back for revenge?”

SO THIS HAPPENED. IN JULY OF 1973, THE FIRST STORY IN DC’S ACTION COMICS NO. 425 WAS ‘THE LAST MOA ON EARTH!’. IT’S COMPLICATED, BUT BASICALLY IT’S ABOUT A HUNTER WHO STUMBLES ACROSS A SUPER-MOA DEEP IN THE “UNTAMED JUNGLE OF NEW ZEALAND” AND, LONG STORY SHORT, THE THING ENDS UP IN METROPOLIS FIGHTING SUPERMAN, INCLUDING ASSAULTING HIM WITH A LETHAL “FEATHER BARRAGE.”

(Photo: HOLY SHIT, THIS IS BIG. SIR RICHARD OWEN AND THE FIRST SKELETON OF A MOA PUT TOGETHER. HE IS SHOWN HOLDING THE FRAGMENT IN HIS RIGHT HAND. (OTAGO WITNESS, 06 NOVEMBER 1907).

History has its moments. We are in one. As we wake up to the clanging of a planet-wide five alarm fire, there’s a growing feeling that this, our now, is one day going to be like the 1930s, or the 1890s, and have its own inglorious chapter in books about the twenty-first century – if we’re still around to write books about the twenty-first century.

Narrative-wise, a good opener for said chapter would be the recent discovery of the fossil remains of two ginormous, and previously-unknown, New Zealand birds. In Central Otago, it was Heracles inexpectatus, a metre-tall, seven-kilogram parrot. At half the size of an adult human, Heracles sounded impressive, or she did for about five minutes until an amateur palaeontologist in North Canterbury stumbled upon what was left of a monster penguin that weighed 80 kilograms and stood a terrifying 1.6 metres tall.

Neither, of course, challenges the lofty moa; the largest species of this megaherbivore grew to almost four metres (although there’s something about a mega-penguin that is a lot creepier than what was basically a really big ostrich). And the moa, in turn, had to defer to the Haast’s Eagle, 15 kilograms of feathered death-from-above that used its three-metre wingspan to hunt moa; it was sort like when a harrier hawk takes on a magpie, except 20 times bigger and, presumably, with bathtub- scale volumes of blood.

These lost creatures have always told an uncomfortable tale for us. Aotearoa is haunted. Big bones speak to the humans who live here about extinction and about our impact on the environment; it’s just that we haven’t really listened. But the writer of a superhero comic published 46 years ago did.

The Last Moa on Earth!

Somewhere deep in Taranaki, hunter Jon Halaway is attacked by a colossal bird and panic-shoots it in self-defence. He takes the animal to a research facility in Hāwera where a local scientist confirms his suspicion: he has killed a moa, maybe the last one on earth. “With a single bullet I wiped out the last of an entire species! The moas might have even flourished again… if it weren’t for me.” (Settle down Jon. I’m not clear on moa reproduction, but I’m pretty sure it takes two big birds to make more little big birds.) Halaway, traumatised, goes bush, desperately searching the “New Zealand jungle” for some way to undo his moa-ending act and sure enough, he stumbles upon a moa egg!

Then things get weird. For reasons unclear, Halaway takes the egg on a long haul back to Metropolis, where Clark Kent (yes!) from WGBS- TV is waiting to interview him. But Halaway faints because the embryonic bird, who it turns out has developed super-powers due to exposure to exotic fumes back in NZ, is draining his life energy. The super-moa hatches, busts out the back door of Halaway’s leased station wagon, and, with Superman in hot pursuit, wreaks havoc across Metropolis; not only can it now fly faster than a jet by “thrashing its feet at super-speed”, it has the ability to shed and instantly regrow limbs, and to deploy above-mentioned feather barrages with enough force to perforate a bull elephant.

At this point you’d expect the Last Son of Krypton to give his rival a heat-vision lobotomy, but this is a story with a message; before the moa are extincted for a second time in one comic book, the angry fledging manages, telepathically, to tell Superman all he wants is to get back to where he came from. Supes obliges, returns the homesick fowl to Aotearoa, and sets up a “moa preserve” fence (as if that’s going to any match for the thrashing feet manoeuvre). “The world owes the moas another chance for survival. Hopefully, now, they’ll have it.” Ka pai, Man of Steel.

What the moa knew

‘The Last Moa on Earth!’ is utterly compelling for a number of reasons, not the least of which is why on earth was the writer, Cary Bates, writing about moa? He’s from Pennsylvania.

For one, the comic is a reflection of a moment in history. Superman #425 came out in 1973, right when a nascent environmental movement was tickling American public consciousness for the first time. The inaugural Earth Day was observed in April of 1970, and in December of that year President Richard Nixon, of all people, created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

This was also early in the ‘Bronze Age of Comic Books’, a period in American superhero comics that ran from about 1970 to 1984. Political and social issues started to appear in comics during this time, including poverty, drugs, race and the environment. Bates wrote stories that addressed issues like pollution and the threat of nuclear war; the moa storyline spoke straight to a burgeoning environmental consciousness in the West with a simple example of an entire species going extinct, forever, at the hands of humankind. (Bates was progressive in other ways too. In 1972, with artist Art Saaf, he launched Supergirl’s first series.)

The hunter in ‘The Last Moa on Earth!’ shoots without thinking and treads recklessly through an environment he knows nothing about. It takes Superman to undo his act, but Superman is not real.

In mid-battle (“caught by a slash-attack! Its talons are also deadly weapons!”) Supes realises the moa’s psychic picture puzzles are images not of rage, but of longing for the landscape it knows as home; almost half a century on, the comic is testimony, in all its surreal, camp, over-exclamation-marked DC glory, to the fact that we’ve known better for ages, and that despite knowing better, we are careless. It’s the warning of the moa, written and printed in four-colour CMYK so many miles away and so many years ahead of its time: change, or join me.

LAURA WILLIAMSON

(POSTSCRIPT: The next story in Action Comics no. 425 is ’13 Old Men Who Run the World.’ It’s like the DC team travelled ahead in time to mine our present for story ideas.) IMAGES: THE LAST MOA ON EARTH!, ACTION COMICS NO. 425 (JULY 1973), WRITTEN BY CARY BATES, ILLUSTRATED BY CURT SWAN AND FRANK GIACOIA. HOLY SHIT, THIS IS BIG. SIR RICHARD OWEN AND THE FIRST SKELETON OF A MOA PUT TOGETHER. HE IS SHOWN HOLDING THE FRAGMENT IN HIS RIGHT HAND. (OTAGO WITNESS, 06 NOVEMBER 1907).


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