What is Superman’s greatest weakness? Kryptonite? Magic? Over-mighty humanoid weapons of mass destruction? The cynics amongst us might include his faith in humanity’s better nature. In 1961’s The Death Of Superman, the character’s co-creator Jerry Siegel and artists Curt Swan and Sheldon Moldoff explored how the Man Of Steel’s unshakable decency might render him over-trusting and perilously vulnerable. Convinced that serial recidivist Lex Luthor has finally and sincerely reformed, Superman embraces his arch-nemesis as a trusted friend and colleague. A slow and clearly gruesome death by Kryptonite poisoning soon follows. It remains one of the finest ever Superman stories, and, remarkable as it might sound, it still retains a capacity to surprise, chill and dismay.
In 2018’s Action Comics 1000, writer/artist Dan Jurgens’ From The City That Has Everything attempts to show that Superman’s altruism is as inspirational as ever. In short, there’s none of Zack Synder’s neck-breaking revisionism on display. Instead, we’re given a Superman who believes without qualification in the redeemability of human beings. By contrast with The Death Of Superman, benignant convictions are here at least occasionally rewarded. While listening to a speech by an ex-con, Superman’s young son Jon Kent asks, “Why would they let a criminal talk?” It soon emerges that the speaker, inspired by his father’s example, is a criminal no more. “That’s why they let him speak, Jon”, Superman explains, “To remind us that people can always be better. That we should always have hope”.
But From The City That Has Everything also suggests some disturbingly less liberal values. In it, we encounter a Superman who is reluctant to attend a celebration of his achievements in a Metropolis park. Not only does an alien invasion threaten Earth, but Superman feels uncomfortable with the very idea of being so extravagantly acclaimed. By contrast, his wife Lois Lane has a very different view of what his priorities should be. Convinced that both the city and her husband would benefit greatly from his presence, she conscripts America’s superheroes in a scheme to ensure Superman’s attendance. Her methods might, at best, be described as highly questionable. In order to convince Superman that the Earth isn’t currently in any danger, the Martian Manhunter telepathically rewires the Man Of Steel’s perceptions without his knowledge or consent. And so, when Superman’s super-vision catches sight of a suspicious warship near Venus, the Martian Manhunter blanks the image from his comrade’s perceptions. A team of superheroes then deals with the problem without Superman having to.
All of this is portrayed by Jurgens as a fond and respectful conspiracy to save Superman from his own modesty. Yet in truth, it’s a shockingly cruel and callous invasion of his fundamental rights. It’s not just the imposition of mind-control, as if that wasn’t sin enough in itself. With that comes the lies that Lane tells to her husband in order to cover up her communications with Batman, who is apparently coordinating Earth’s defence in Superman’s absence. Worse yet, Lane is lying to her husband in the knowing presence of their son, who understandably appears uncomfortable with the deception. When he asks his mother whether Superman will “be OK with what you did?”, Lane dodges the question with a few disingenuously sentimental word balloons about how forgiving her husband is and how much his presence in the park means.
But the truth is, both Superman’s trust and his rights have been fundamentally abused. That a host of his fellow superheroes have actively participated in this invasive charade only multiples the degree of treachery. And for what? For a glad-handing afternoon in a local park? Seemingly immune to some of the greatest debates of our age, Jurgens’ characters behave as if privacy and consent, freedom and manipulation, aren’t at the very heart of today’s political debates. As a result, From The City That Has Everything regresses Lois Lane’s character back to the frequently self-obsessed and empathy-challenged punchline of so many Silver Age stories. She deserves far better than, for example, to be shown refusing to allow Superman to be called into action when his fellow superheroes are evidently suffering under fire. (It’s surely inconceivable that Superman would have agreed with her insistence that he’d be better off listening to another round of speeches and applause.) Lane’s determined prioritising of a public spectacle over the planet’s safety transforms her into an uncomfortably Trumpian figure.
As for the Justice League and their many costumed allies, they too appear profoundly lacking in either intelligence or ethical sophistication, if clearly not bravery. Even had the alien invasion not been underway, the DC Universe is host to countless threats which are capable of striking at any moment. To take Earth’s mightiest protector off the board while Khund spaceships are closing on the planet is an absurdly dangerous indulgence. To assume that no other disaster might emerge while the Earth is facing such peril is surely madness. In short, Jurgens gives us a superhero community that is profoundly irresponsible. What if the invasion had gained a foothold, or civilians been slain, or superheroes slaughtered? Jurgens’ story carries all the ludicrous, heedless plot twists of a beguiling Mort Weisinger-era Superman tale, but, with its modern-era storytelling, From The City That Has Everything feels carelessly perverse and sinister. Wonder Woman’s admission that the fight against the aliens had been “touch and go”, and that Batman had repeatedly “wanted to pull” Superman into the fray, only reinforces how great a gamble had been taken for so ludicrously miniscule a reward. Her words might emphasise how great a superhero Superman is, but only at the cost of making everyone else in the cast look like idiots. Even Superman himself is lessened by the lack of respect that he’s shown by those nearest to him. How inspiring can his example truly be, when he’s so brazenly and cruelly manipulated by those he most loves and respects?
To take the facts of the tale rather its frothily fond surface is to catch a glimpse of a Superman living a profoundly melancholic life. In a comic intended to celebrate Superman’s existence, we’re shown him married to an insensitive and domineering wife and allied to trusted colleagues who are little more than moral imbeciles. Superman being Superman, I would imagine that he would find a way to renew his trust in everyone that’s treated him so despicably, so stupidly. But what a lonely and painful process it would surely prove to be. (It calls to mind the soliloquy Jack Kirby gave Superman in 1971’s debut issue of the Forever People: “Despite (my) powers, (I) am a minority of one in a teeming world of billions! A stranger in a strange land…”.) What a terrible business it would be, to discover, once again, that humanity’s better nature is so often overshadowed by the species’ habitual stupidity and callousness.
Them Darned Superheroes shall return next week.