I've had Superman on my mind a lot lately. Maybe it's because of the DVD edition of the movie that just came out. Maybe it's the interview I did with Jeph Loeb and the upcoming "Our Worlds at War" story this summer.
Or maybe it's because of an off-hand comment at my not-so usual comic store.
Under normal circumstances, I shop at a fairly well known shop. Unlike most comics/games stores... it seems to do pretty well. But occasionally, they sell out of some new hot issue that I wanted to take a look at. In this case, it happened with Superman #168... the first half of what has been cutely dubbed "The Lord of the Ring". When this happens, I am forced to turn to... the junk shop.
Now before I get accused of elitism and destroying the small comic shop business, let me emphasize that this place really is a junk shop. It's the kind of comic store that gives comic stores bad names. All the clerks are rude and snotty, ala the Comic Book Guy from "The Simpsons". The stock is about half manga comics with 7/8ths naked women on the cover and half American comics with 3/4ths naked women on the cover. The walls are covered with Vampirella posters. I feel dirty just setting foot inside there.
Anyway, "the junk shop" is located just off a major highway and is hidden away between a Cantonese restaurant and a Vietnamese restaurant. I save it as a last option whenever possible, simply because it is very difficult to get into. They had the comic I needed, and I commented about how lucky I must have been to have grabbed it. The clerk gave me an odd look and said "Are you kidding me? Nobody reads Superman."
It shocked me, but as I thought about it... I realized that he was right. I know quite a few comics fans and I only know one who actively reads everything Superman is in. Which is amazing when you consider that Superman is the most well known superhero in the real world.
I read a study once that tested young children on their knowledge of pop-culture icons. I forget who else came up in the top ten, but it's unimportant; Superman was up at the top. Superman T-shirts are popular even among non-comic readers. And Superman is alone in that more people can probably name all of his supporting cast than not. Lois Lane? Jimmy Olsen? Perry White? All vaguely familiar to most people.
All this... and yet there are a lot of people who don't read his books? I asked some fellow DC-philes and I got a lot of the same answers... all of them basically boiling down to one thing: nothing challenges him.
And they're right. It's like the song says. He is Superman. He can do anything. The problem with Superman is that he's an icon: he is the best that there is. Short of introducing big threat after big threat which IS supposed to be bigger and better than him, but ultimately isn't... there's not much to do with the character.
The heck there isn't!
The problem is that most people see Superman as a brick who punches his way through every conflict. And viewed in those terms, they're right... there's not much that you can do with him other than introduce a bigger punching bag. From the time of "The Death of Superman" until recently, that was the way Superman was handled... keep piling up the threats. Have more alien invaders ransacking Metropolis... bring Doomsday back with Brainiac's intelligence... and so on until you run out of big things to throw at him. So what do you do to challenge a man who can punch his way through anything? Simple...
You put him in places where he can't fight his way out of conflict.
This new attitude toward the Man of Steel has been shown throughout the writings of Jeph Loeb, Joe Casey, Joe Kelly and Mark Schultz in the last few months, with Superman having to face off of threats where it's a strong mind and a stronger heart that win the battles. But for my money, no story has better shown what Superman is really all about than Joe Kelly's Action Comics #775.
Lybia has just been attacked by a huge monster, and Superman is streaking across the Atlantic Ocean to save the day. He arrives to find that not only has the monster been crushed, but so has a large portion of the Lybian Army that was attempting to fight the monster. This turns out to be the work of a new superhero team called "The Elite".
Back in Metropolis, the staff of the Daily Planet are disgusted by the disregard for civilian life posed by "The Elite". Equally disgusted is Clark Kent, who is on the scene in Lybia along with Jack Ryder (occasionally "The Creeper"). The two reporters debate the methods of The Elite, Ryder mocking Superman when Clark says that Superman could have ended the conflict without death.
Much to Clark's dismay, The Elite become more popular in the public eye, uploading their manifesto on to every computer in the world. He and Steel are about to discuss Superman's place in the world when they receive word of a metahuman attack in Japan. Superman flies around the world, only to find The Elite already on the scene.
The Elite is made up of four heroes, all of them not-too-subtle caricatures and parodies of some of the more famed amoral "heroes" of comicdom. The lone female team member, Menagerie, wears a skimpy costume that is a living alien weapon (Witchblade, anyone?) and the team leader Manchester Black is a blatant male version of Jenny Sparks from "The Authority".
The Elite use their powers to hold Superman back while they slaughter the Japanese metahuman criminals. They then take Superman back to their base so that they can talk about their respective viewpoints. The argument is an old one, familiar to everyone who read Kingdom Come; there are some threats that are so big that the only solution is to destroy the threat. Superman argues that this is not so and that most conflicts can be dealt with non-violently. The argument builds until Manchester Black teleports Superman out of their base.
Clark goes to talk the situation over with Pa Kent, wondering why The Elite has built up such a following among the public. Pa says it's because people are scared of all the problems in the world and that they want fast solutions to those problems. Solutions that The Elite provide. Clark wonders out loud how he can fight people who have made violence a way of life. Pa says that Clark should just do as he's always done and live by example.
He does just that in a situation later where he fights rogue DEO agents (in a scene parodying Men In Black) without any loss of life. The Elite show up, apparently having watched the scene and Manchester Black applauds Superman's skill, but explains that he hasn't really accomplished anything. He explains that the agents Superman has been fighting have been doing horrific, but revolutionary experiments on humans and aliens. If arrested and put on trial, they'll be quietly spirited away and given jobs doing the same thing on behalf of the government.
These scenes give us a lot to think about. Kelly seems to be mocking the popularity of amoral comic characters throughout most of the story, but here Manchester Black makes a valid point to justify his team's actions. This same point is often used to justify the increasing use of the death penalty in many states. After all, there's no guarantee that imprisoning someone will stop them from doing evil again. Black's words are eerily plausible considering that Nazis scientists were allowed to come into the USA if they agreed to work on secret US projects. Rapists and child molesters are released early on a truly scary rate around the country. Why not just kill them all?
Black orders the team to kill the agents, and Superman punches him. Calling the incident "just cause", Manchester Black says they will meet Superman to settle the score tomorrow.
That night, Clark lies in bed with Lois and tells her he plans to fight the Elite at dawn tomorrow. She asks why he has to fight them at all. Clark says simply that someone has to show the world that there is someone willing to die for it.
The fight takes place on one of Jupiter's moons, at Superman's request... with the fight being broadcast back on earth. The Elite appears to make fast work of Superman, leaving only a shredded cape behind. Manchester makes a funny comment about how no matter now badly you vaporize a superhero, something of them ALWAYS survives the attack...
As the Elite gets ready to celebrate their victory, they are all picked off by Superman, one at a time through a very ingenious use of his powers. I think creating a whirlwind so fast that it causes the air to blow past "The Hat" and makes him fall unconscious from lack of oxygen tops the list.
Manchester Black is the last of the team left, and he suddenly finds himself powerless. Superman tells him that he used his heat vision to focus a thin laser-sharp beam through Black's eyes and into his brain, cutting loose the nerves in the part of Black's brain that give him telekinesis. This enrages Black, who claims that doing such a thing on top of killing his team mates makes Superman no better than The Elite. Superman agrees... and then reveals the unconscious but otherwise unharmed Elite. He then explains that he lied to Black and that all he did was give him a very specific and very minor concussion that would keep him disabled until they can be taken into custody. Black threatens Superman, saying that he'll get his revenge someday. Superman only grins, and in an issue full of great lines, he gets the best one at the end.
"You know what Black? I wouldn't have it any other way. Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us. And on my soul, I swear until my dream of a world where dignity, honor and justice becomes the reality we all share, I'll never stop fighting. Ever."
As I said, most of this issue seems to be a parody of the more recent, amoral superheroes who have no problems with killing. It is that, but it is also more. Kelly seems to be commenting on society as a whole and a fault that lies in the whole of humanity.
So many of us are obsessed with having things NOW. Society is fast-paced. Get on the fast track to success. And industry and politicians take advantage of this mindset.
Got to drive a fast car! Get a DSL line and buy the fastest computer! We'll give you a tax cut right now! Not two years from now if the economy is stable, but right now! The future waits for no one! Hurry, hurry, hurry before you get left behind by the Joneses!
The Elite represent this mindset and how we continually look for the fastest path and the easy way out.
Superman shows us that things are not always easy and that you have to work for your dreams and be willing to fight for your hopes. No matter what. This story is a tribute to the American Ideal that you can be anything if you're willing to work hard and dream.
It is also a tribute to Superman and it explains why he is the best superhero that there is. It is not because of all the things he can do. It is because of how he does them. Superman shows us that the future does wait.
And that it is only as far away as tomorrow.