Personal Issues 6 – Butthurt Pride
One issue in comics that I’ve heard brought up numerous times by the souls of the damned I keep in my head is whether or not superheroes should kill villains. Back in the Dark Ages of the site I even wrote an opinion piece on it (which you cannot find anymore because my opinion drastically changed after writing that article). Personally, I think it all depends on the character. If it makes sense for the character to be doing that, I’m all for it. But there are some characters who shouldn’t be killing people. Ever. One of the main characters who shouldn’t is the Big Blue Bitch of Steel himself. Apparently I’m not the only who thinks so (I know. Weird, right?) because a man wrote a story about Superman being against killing villains a few years back. The man was Joe Kelly and the story was What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?
What’s So Funny was published in March 2001 in issue 775 of Action Comics. It was written by Kelly with art by Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo. The story was actually a response to another comic that was popular at the time, The Authority. The book was about a team of heroes who did whatever it took to complete their mission, even killing people. Kelly did not like this dark and morally questionable take on the superhero genre. He believed that superheroes should stand for something more and so he wrote this story as kind of a “Fuck You” to that school of thinking. So let’s dig in to this sequential bird and see how it holds up after 12 years.
Our story begins in Metropolis at 5 AM flying towards the reader as we hear reports of a terrorist attack in Libya. Over the Atlantic Ocean at 8:02 AM, we start hearing about genetically enhanced things attacking. In Madrid, at 11:03 AM, while the Libyan Army has taken some major damage, the news reports we’re hearing say something is happening. Superman finally arrives in Libya, at 12:04 PM, and stares in shock at what he sees; A giant gorilla about the size of my hometown laid out on the ground, its chest ripped open, its arm hanging on by a thread.
Now, the first time I read this and seeing all the time stamps, I thought it didn’t look very impressive. I mean, taking hours to fly from Metropolis to Libya? But then my thinky box started working and I remembered the world had time zones. So it took four minutes for Superman to reach Libya, and some mysterious force beat him there, solved the problem, and legged it in under a minute. Once I understood that, this opening kinda blew me away. It does a fantastic job of setting up the mystery of our “villains” for the story. We don’t see them do any of this, or even what they look like at this point. All we know is that they are here and they are strong.
And apparently really good at PR. After the media gets a hold of the story, almost everyone is heralding this new team super team, called The Elite, as the new super Messiahs. Jack Ryder, another reporter, even bitch slaps Clark Kent with The Elite, saying that Superman is old and busted while the Elite are the new hotness. But not everyone is so thrilled. We cut to the White House where Amanda Waller is showing holograph science to President Lex Luthor showing that the Elite’s power level is so far over 9000 it might even surpass Superman’s.
Meanwhile, at the Fortress of Solitude, Superman is having old man issues, thinking the world has just moved past him and that he isn’t needed anymore. But an attack on Tokyo snaps him out of his funk as he speeds off to help. As he’s flying to Japan, he starts hearing radio broadcasts with people more concerned about whether the Elite will show up than Supes. But Superman doesn’t have time for super penis envy, as a giant energy wave cascades over the city and knocks him out of the sky. Dazed and barely conscious, he is confronted by a group of super villains about to do some pretty nasty shit to him. Before they can, though, they are all brutally killed in front of Superman, and he can do nothing. He is trying as hard as he can to move and stop this, but he’s helpless as we get our first look at the Elite.
Front and center we have Manchester Black, the leader of the Elite and psychic punk rocker. Below waistline we have Menagerie, a character who looks very 90’s with melting Chestbursters crawling all over her. Behind Black is The Hat, who used his magical hat that can conjure anything imaginable to make one of those hoses you see in bars. Finally there’s Coldcast, a giant black man who can do energy things with almost no clothes on who has giant chains on his wrists and neck… Probably should’ve thought that one through a bit more, Mahnke and Bermejo.
So the Elite take Superman up to their bacteria spaceship called Bunny to fix him up after accidentally hitting him with their energy wave thing. Superman shows his thanks by ordering them to stop what they’re doing immediately or he’ll do mean things to them. Now, I understand where Superman is coming from with this. They’re the antagonists, they’re imposing their own moral code on to a world that might not accept what they’re selling, like he doesn’t. But Supes is doing the exact same thing as these guys but without the killing. What gives him the authority to tell anyone to stop superhero-ing because they aren’t doing it like he’s doing it? It’s always been a pet peeve of mine in superhero stories when heroes who’ve been doing hero stuff for longer tell new guys to not be heroes because they don’t have the experience. The big names started in literally the exact same position as all the new bloods, but because there were no big names to tell them not to do it they became the big names.
Also, while Superman is trying to chew out Black for being a bad guy because he kills, Black brings up a good point. In Supes’ head, everything is black and white. Good guys are one thing, bad guys are another. But that’s not how the world works. Nothing is black and white, it’s all shades of grey. It brings an interesting bit of realism into the story that I really enjoy. It was cool to see Kelly, who doesn’t believe in this way of hero-ing, give that side their own legitimate reasons for doing what they do and not just make them horrible demons. Black does come across as a pretty big dick, though, so I might have just read that scene wrong. Anyway, to show what big dicks they are, the Elite teleport Superman to a car lot where they’re having a big Superman-themed sales event.
Later that night, Clark is sitting out the front porch with Pa Kent, talking about how what the Elite are doing is the quick and easy way to solve the world’s problems and the world is behind them because that’s what people want: The quick and easy solution. Pa does what he can to cheer Clark up and assure him that his way is the better way, but all it does is show that Clark is not sure that, if push comes to shove, he’ll be able to stop the Elite. The next day, Clark flies across Metropolis, listening in on people’s conversations about how much he sucks and how the Elite are so cool and shit. It does wonders for his self esteem.
Some time later, Superman is fighting some aliens. You know, Superman stuff. He defeats them and does it without seriously injuring anyone, something he is smuggly proud of. Then the Elite show up. Superman tells them piss off, but they say “Fuck that” and Black orders Hat to kill the aliens who, according to Black, are part of some illegal alien arms trade. In response, Superman punches Hat out. But unbeknownst to him, the Elite have set up floating cameras that just seem to pop the fuck out of nowhere that capture Superman attacking the Elite in defense of evil aliens on film. The Elite then scamper off, challenging Superman to a duel tomorrow.
Over 20 pages in to a 40 page comic, Lois Lane finally has something of consequence to say. You remember Lois, right? Clark’s wife? The person who loves him and might have some role to play in his decision about fighting a super team that may be stronger than him? The two are lying in bed and Lois asks Clark why he’s doing this alone when he could get the JLA or even the New Gods to help him. Clark says that the Elite wanted him, and Lois rightfully points that he went after them. And Clark admits to it. So this huge climactic battle we’re going to be having is not involving any other superheroes, endangering both Clark’s life and innocent people’s lives, because Superman’s pride was butthurt. Remember, he’s supposed to be the hero who stands for something better. So kids, if someone hurts your pride, keep antagonizing them and accept no help from anyone, no matter how dangerous the situation might be.
After the two of them fall asleep in each others’ arms, Clark slinks off into the night, leaving a note for Lois in case he dies. He goes to the center of Main Street, Metropolis (presumably, anyway) and waits. Waits for the Elite. And what do you know, they show up, Bunny floating over Metropolis and lowering the Elite to street level. Each of the Elite call a body part of Superman’s, with Menagerie claiming “other,” but before the fight can get underway, Superman asks to fight somewhere without people to get hurt. Bunny ports them all Io, one of Jupiter’s moons, which has its own atmosphere thanks to a space womb that the Elite destroyed. Superman pleads with them to surrender, but Black gives him the two finger salute and throws him through mountain with his mind.
The Elite start putting the screws to Superman while Black monologues about humanity and how any superhero who stands against them will get the same treatment. The beating continues and it looks like the Elite have won… For about seven seconds, anyway, as Superman poisons Menagerie and forces her aliens out of her, collapses the Hat’s lungs, and punches Coldcast into space at mach 7. After the beating he took, it seems Superman finally realized that he was wrong all along and that he should follow the Elite’s example. Black is understandably miffed about having his team murdered and tries to crush Superman’s brain but it doesn’t work. Why? Because Superman lobotomized him, sending his heat vision along the optic nerve and into the brain, cutting out a growth he saw that gives Black his powers.
Black turns to his cameras, which I still have no idea where they came from, and screams to Superman that now the people of the world know what he really is. Superman agrees with him, saying how frightened they must have been to see Superman do those things. It would’ve been nicer if we actually saw the people react to seeing Superman like that. See them afraid of what he’s become, what they pushed him to be. But nope, we just get his word for it.
Also, turns out he didn’t actually do any of the things he did. Every one of the Elite are still alive and Black wasn’t lobotomized. Superman just gave him a mild concussion and Black’s powers should come back, but not until after the proper pre-cautions were put in place. When I first read this bit, I guess I missed that part because I thought Superman actual facts lobotomized the guy. Even if he didn’t, though, that is still really fucked up. Superman could’ve just given the guy an actual concussion or something, but it had to be through invasive brain surgery. And that opens up all new kinds of doors of really iffy things Superman could do. Or at least people’s perception of what Superman could do. No matter benevolent he makes himself out to be, there are still going to be people who fear him. And rightfully so.
Black realizes what has happened and jumps right into a revenge rant. Superman takes it all and says, “Come at me, bro,” swearing that until his dream of a utopia comes to pass, he will always keep fighting. And our comic ends with Superman flying off into space, leaving the Elite on Io for the space police.
Reading this story over and over, I realized that one of my biggest complaints with the book was actually wrong. I thought Superman actually did lobotomize Black, and I was prepared to rant about it, but I was wrong so my opinion changed. It was still kinda wrong and creepy, but not nearly as bad as I initially thought it was. But let’s save that for the wrap up and get into the characters, starting with the Elite.
They are almost non-entities. Just a team that exists for Superman to fight. Outside of Black, the rest of the team gets maybe five lines of dialogue each, so they almost aren’t characters. But Black was given dialogue and character and a back story, and for the most part, I like it. According to him, his mother died of lung cancer and his father died in WWII. Because of his shit life, he looked up to heroes. He thought they were the greatest thing ever. But then life kept shitting on him so he eventually just gave up and turned to the dark side. According to my research, though, all of that is bullshit and he was actually abused in multiple ways by his parents and he hated heroes, but I prefer the original story. The idea that someone hates the world for being so shit and doing everything it can to shit on that person, but them still trying to become a hero is one I can really get behind. However, I can’t ignore what we learn about his back story later and it makes him into a plain villain, no grey area there at all. He’s also a bit of a dick.
Superman’s also a dick for that matter. When he first meets the Elite, instead of trying to talk them down and convince them to come over to his way of thinking he just threatens them. He doesn’t even give them the option of turning themselves. He says, “Stop or I break you,” and that’s it. He’s also absolutely terrible to Lois. The Elite are a threat like none he had faced before at this point. They were a smart group of people with power surpassing his own. She knows they could kill him. So what does he do? He antagonizes them and accepts their deal to a duel without even considering calling on one of his many, many super powered friends for help because the Elite were his and no one else’s. Clark was putting Lois through so much emotional pain throughout this entire ordeal that I’m amazed she stayed with him or at the very least didn’t force him to go therapy with her.
He also comes across as incredibly sanctimonious. Kelly believes in Superman’s method of hero-ing and it really shows in this. Every other line out of Superman’s mouth is some vaguely superior thing of how great he is and how his way to do things is the only way. It got especially bad when Clark met up with Pa. At this point the world over was in love with the Elite, and when Pa said that Smallville just didn’t believe in truth, justice, and the American Way anymore, I got the niggling suspicion that he actual meant the world didn’t believe in those things anymore. This is just the feeling I got from their exchange.
Aside from those character things, though, this was a really story. The build up for the Elite was really fantastic, showing them as incredibly powerful and incredibly brutal. And by not actually showing them, it built up a lot in our minds as to what they could really do. Even when we do get to see them they do so much stuff off panel that it’s still a bit of a mystery as to what they are actually capable of. Plus the story raised an interesting issue on what the world actually wants out of a hero and what’s better in the long run. I’m still not entirely sure what I believe, or that I believe what this story is saying.
The art is by far the best thing in this book. While at times it can be bizarrely shaded, it looks really cool. Mahnke and Berjemo manage to pull off some absolutely gorgeous shots all throughout the book, and the serious moments are done really well. The Superman they go for is somewhere in between the more realistic and more caricatured version, with very slight leanings to the caricature. With this, he’s still able to look like the ridiculous Superman we’ve come to know and love with completely undermining the more dramatic and serious moments.
Even though the story can get preachy and looks down its nose at anything this Superman doesn’t deem worthy or right, I still did enjoy it. It had an interesting idea behind it, a pretty cool new villain, and some really great artwork to back it up. If you get the chance to read this book, I would recommend it. If you can’t get the book, why not get the movie? Superman vs. The Elite is a really great movie with some great voice acting and animation. The story follows the story pretty close, taking some scenes verbatim from the book, but adding a few more to make the other members of the Elite into actual characters. Also, Coldcast has clothing, so that’s a plus.
Thanks to anyone who managed to read through all of this and sorry it took so long to release this. I know I said I was going to be doing a comparison of this issue and the movie, but I decided that these things should be about the comics, not the adaptations. As such, next issue I’ll be taking a look at another Superman story. Hopefully it won’t be as a long a wait between this one and that one.
If you guys have any comics you would like me to take a look at, please let me know in the forums, in the comments below, or on Twitter @DeadMan_DDProds. I would love to hear from you guys and could honestly use some ideas. I’m kinda out at this point.