A record number of votes that seems like something that could only happen in an alternate universe means that there are spoilers ahead for…
Elseworlds: Superman Vol. 1
Writer: Steve Vance, Roger Stern, Howard Chaykin, Dave Gibbons, J.M. DeMatteis, Roy Thomas
Artist: Various, Michael Lark, Gil Kane, José Luis García-López, Eduardo Barreto
Cover: Eduardo Barreto
In Elseworlds, heroes are taken from their usual settings and put into strange times and places – some that have existed, or might have existed, and others that can’t, couldn’t, or shouldn’t exist. The result: stories that make characters who are as familiar as yesterday seem as fresh as tomorrow.
It’s an Elseworlds kind of week for me, I guess. A few days ago, I watched the animated Batman: Gotham by Gaslight, a very loose adaptation of the very first Elseworlds graphic novel of the same name, in which a 19th Century version of the Batman takes on Jack the Ripper.
(The movie was just okay. Mostly, while I found it interesting, my affection for certain characters – the non-Elseworlds versions, anyway – led me to feel as though the movie did them a disservice. But that’s not what this is about.)
While that first Batman vs. the Ripper story launched the Elseworlds line, the concept can trace its lineage back to the “Imaginary Stories” of old, which appeared in the various Superman books over the years, and which gave us this bit of oft-used promotional hype:
Not a hoax! Not a dream! Not an imaginary story!
Of course, they’re all imaginary stories, but in this context, the term meant that it was a story that doesn’t fit into the existing continuity and has no impact on the status quo. Many of the imaginary stories in the Man of Steel’s history focused on what might happen if Lois finally managed to rope him into marrying him, and, apart from that jumping-off point, didn’t differ much in terms of content or location in the way that Elseworlds stories often do.
Over on the Marvel side of the aisle, a similar concept existed in the form of What If…?, a series that provided answers to questions like, “What if Spider-Man had joined the Fantastic Four?”
Where What If…? differed, though, was that the jumping-off point was a moment in an existing, in-continuity story and exploring what might have happened – or rather, what did happen in an alternate universe being observed by Uatu, the Watcher, who served as something of a host for the book – if events had played out a bit differently.
So you might see what happens in a reality in which the Punisher’s family isn’t killed (they just end up getting killed at a later date and he ends up more-or-less becoming the Punisher), or if the Avengers had lost their battle with the cosmically-powered Korvac (that one is a personal favorite).
It also differed in that it was a regular series, whereas Elseworld stories were generally presented in one-off specials, though there was one year in which the Annuals for each series DC published at the time featured an Elseworlds story.
Presumably, those Superman Elseworlds stories will be collected in a later volume, but this one only contains stories from the one-off specials.
Most of them came out during the period in which I wasn’t buying comics, so I’m only familiar with the story Kal, in which we are presented with a story in which young Kal-El’s ship arrives not in modern Kansas, but rather in feudal England. Raised by peasant farmers, the young Kryptonian is ultimately drafted into service as a blacksmith’s apprentice in the village of Lexford, where he becomes smitten with the Lady Loisse, daughter of the area’s rightful ruler, who is being held hostage by the Baron Luthor, who killed her father and took control of the region. After winning a contest of strength at a tournament held in honor of her birthday, the handsome lad catches Loisse’s eye, too, and earn the hatred of her captor.
In time, Luthor and his men find and claim Kal’s ship, buried on his parents’ farm, and Kal is tasked with creating a suit of armor for the Baron from the unnaturally strong metal. As payment for his service, Kal asks for – and receives – Loisse’s hand in marriage.
Many Elseworlds stories have less-than happy endings, which is, I suppose a natural consequence of writing a story that, unlike those in the main continuity, are able to have a definitive end, and there is the opportunity to turn an entire mythos upside down.
Of course, these are Superman stories, so it’s not really easy – or natural, at least – to tell a story that is entirely devoid of hope.
Much of Kal proves to be bleak and brutal – on the night of the wedding of Kal and Loisse, Luthor hauls Loisse away to his bedchamber, as is his right according to feudal law, and when Loisse will not give in to him, he beats her to death. As Luthor wears about his neck a mysterious green gem that fell from the sky, Kal is unable to use his great strength to overthrow him, though, at the cost of his own life, he is eventually able to kill him using a sword he secretly forged for himself from the metal of his ship, thereby avenging the death of his beloved and setting free the people of Lexford.
Before finally succumbing to his mortal wounds – we learn from the now much older Jamie Ollson, who had been Kal’s friend in his youth and is telling this tale to his young apprentice, a boy named Merlin – Kal put the sword somewhere for safekeeping so that one day another hero might pull it forth in a time of great need.
Distant Fires tells a similarly bleak-yet-hopeful story in which Superman finds himself haunted by the ghosts of his loved ones as the last survivor of yet another planet after a full-scale nuclear war destroys the world. Rendered powerless by the radiation, in time, he finds that other heroes – and villains – also survived and are similarly bereft of their powers. Together, they set about the task of rebuilding civilization, and eventually find their powers returning. The resentment Billy (Captain Marvel) Batson feels towards Superman, who was always his better in their previous lives, and whose arrival throws his new life into disarray, ultimately leads to a war between the survivors, and to the utter destruction of the Earth. The note of hope arrives in the form of the cycle beginning anew, as Superman uses a Green Lantern ring to build a ship to send his son, Bruce, the result of his marriage to Wonder Woman, to the safety of another world.
Speeding Bullets is a much more explicitly hopeful story, one that finds Kal-El’s ship landing just outside Gotham City, where it’s found by Thomas and Martha Wayne. As in the normal continuity, this Bruce Wayne loses his parents to a gunman, and in time pus on the cape and cowl of Batman, but, in time, with the love of Lois Lane to help guide him, he moves beyond the pain that had defined him and driven him to acts of vicious brutality, and rather than working to inspire fear as the Batman, chooses to inspire hope as Superman.
A Nation Divided finds young Atticus (a nice touch) Kent taking up the cause of the Union during the Civil War, and in short order brings the conflict to a close, but after learning his true origins he discovers an even greater destiny.
Superman, Inc., tells of a foundling adopted by the Suderman family, but by the time he turns five, young Dale loses both of his parents. The trauma of the loss of his mother – she panics and falls down the stairs when he shows her that he can fly – leaves him socially and emotionally isolated, until he realizes that his powers can be used for, well, not good, but gain. He becomes the world’s greatest athlete – nicknamed “Superman” by the press – and lives a life of shallow excess, until finally learning that there is more to life, and to himself and his powers, than the pursuit of wealth and fame.
And finally, drawing on the coincidental timing of the debut of Action Comics #1 and the infamous Orson Welles radio broadcast in 1938, War of the Worlds tells the story of a Martian invasion occurring within the original continuity of Superman, back in his leaping tall buildings in a single bound days.
The challenge of crafting an Elseworlds story lies in the finding a way to recontextualize characters but doing so in such a way that they are still recognizable, despite the unfamiliarity of their surroundings and their circumstances. After all, what’s the point of writing a story about Superman if he’s not, well, Superman, at least in the broad strokes? And so, even when Superman is Batman he’s still Superman.
It’s not simply a matter of having the powers, it’s the very core of the character. Even the shallow, fame-seeking Dale Suderman eventually finds his center – and does so, in the very on-the-nose manner, of eventually taking on the identity of Clark Kent – and Bruce Wayne and Atticus Kent realize that they have more to offer the world than what they accomplish through their initially narrow focus.
Many people argue that Superman is boring, because he’s too powerful, and too good, and while it’s true that the very nature of the character imposes limitations on the narrative, I’m off the opinion that, at the best of times, anyway, these limitations challenge and inspire the writers – and the readers – to strive harder and to think more broadly, and to be better.
Which is exactly what Superman does.
Here, the writers have varying degrees of success in that regard – A Nation Divided is the weakest of the lot, in my estimation, as it presents an interesting alternate history, but does very little to raise the narrative stakes – but they’re all worthy efforts. Even Chaykin, who can be problematic as a writer, provides some interesting insights in Distant Fires, as we see the former Man of Steel forced to violate his beliefs about the sanctity of life to survive as a non-super man in a hostile environment, but provides an explanation for why that former idealism was so vital when he did have his godlike powers.
(For a clear illustration of that point, I recommend watching the Elsewords-ish animated movie Justice League: Gods and Monsters in which we see just how pants-shittingly terrifying it would be to have a Superman who, while still mostly on the side of the angels, has no qualms about killing.)
The story’s metatextual examination of the relationship between Superman and Captain Marvel, while in many ways reflective of the real-world conflict between the owners of the characters and the impact that the appearance of the Big Red Cheese on the newsstands had on Superman’s sales, and the legal conflict that ensued, feels somewhat tacked-on, as Chaykin’s approach to Billy Batson misses the mark when shooting for that retention of the character’s core that I believe is so vital in these kinds of stories.
The good news is that, across the board, the art is fantastic. It’s difficult to fail to deliver in that regard when two of the stories are illustrated by the late, great Eduard Barreto – one of my all-time favorite artists – and another two are illustrated by José Luis García-López, who is, as I am wont to say, a goddamn national treasure.
The Chaykin-penned story features art by the legendary Gil Kane paired with Kevin Nowlan, and the result is utterly gorgeous.
Michael Lark is no slouch either, managing to perfectly marry a more modern sensibility with the original simplicity of the work of Joe Schuster in the era in which War of the Worlds is set.
While they don’t technically fall under the Elseworlds imprint, I hope that some of the imaginary stories of old manage to find their way into future volumes, or at least into their own collections.
As a kid, I first encountered “imaginary stories” in a digest collecting some of the best, and I literally loved it to death – I read and re-read it so many times that it fell apart. (At a comic show a couple of years back I even picked up the original comic in which one of the stories appeared. This one.)
There is a wealth of material, such as the stories included in that long-lost digest – one of them even featured Clark Kent becoming Batman…before eventually becoming Superman – the main features that ran in old Superman comics, and some of the back-up stories that ran in the comics of my youth. One such back-up, like Speeding Bullets, told of a world in which young Kal-El was found by the Waynes. There was another story, set in the unimaginably distant future of 2020 that focused on Superman III. No, not the terrible movie with Richard Pryor, but Superman the Third, the grandson of Superman, who for some reason decided to make his life even more complicated by maintaining two separate secret identities.
Given the disdain that so many writers and readers feel for the constraints of continuity, one would think that there’d be quite a market for imaginary stories of the Elseworlds variety, but, apart from a handful of specials, the line has been relatively dormant for quite some time. Perhaps – as indicated by this volume and the adaptation of Gotham by Gaslight (such as it is) – we’re due for something of a resurgence. I believe that strange times and places in which imaginary versions of what are already imaginary stories can, will, and should exist.
KINGDOM COME 20th ANNIVERSARY DELUXE EDITION – One of the ultimate Elseworlds epics that gets to the heart of what makes heroes, and comics, great. In the near-future world of KINGDOM COME, superheroes are ubiquitous, but heroism is rare. After decades as Earth’s champions, the members of the Justice League have all retreated out of the public eye, replaced with a new generation of crime-fighters whose brand of harsh justice leaves humanity terrified, rather than inspired. But with the planet’s future in jeopardy, Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman must come out of retirement to make one last stand for truth and justice. Collects KINGDOM COME #1-4 and more than one hundred pages of sketches, annotations and other extras!
SUPERMAN & BATMAN: GENERATIONS, AN IMAGINARY TALE – John Byrne crafts a tale that starts in 1939 and follows events as they unfold in real time, without reboots, or infinite universes, showing the lives and careers of the original Superman and Batman as they progress through the ages, each book focusing on a particular era, and presented in a style that mirrors the dominant style of comic book storytelling of the time.
SUPERBOY’S LEGION – Young Kal-El, as he usually does, arrives on Earth after being rocketed from the doomed planet Krypton – in the 30th Century, where he is found and raised by R.J. Brande, the richest man in the universe.
ALL STAR SUPERMAN – Not, strictly speaking, an Elseworlds story, but…come on, everyone should read this.
Witness the Man of Steel in exciting new adventures featuring Lex Luthor, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, Bizarro, and more! The Man of Steel goes toe-to-toe with Bizarro, his oddball twin, and the new character Zibarro, also from the Bizarro planet. And Superman faces the final revenge of Lex Luthor – in the form of his own death! Writer Grant Morrison teams with artist Frank Quitely on this spectacular reimagining of the Superman mythos, from The Man of Steel’s origin to his greatest foes and beyond.
That does it for this week’s Spotlight Sunday. It was nice living in this alternate reality in which the Weigh In got so many votes. If it had been like this every week I…would still have to get a job, because the ad revenue boost was minimal, but it would have at least made the effort feel a little bit more worthwhile, so thanks to everyone who had a hand in crafting this Elseworlds version of the Weigh In.
You still have at least one more chance to be part of it, so check back on Wednesday.
And support OpenDoor Comics on Patreon! (If you do, we may be able to revive/maintain the Weigh In.)