Did I ever mention that I love Elseworlds and What If…? comic book stories?? I feel like I must have at least once on the podcast, if not 10 or 15 times since we started. Seriously though, the ability for writers to take established characters that we all know and love and put them in this continuity free zone where they can manipulate all those different variables that make up the character’s universe and supporting cast all for the sake of telling often time extremely interesting stories without ruffling any “canon” wonks out there has always been very intriguing for me.
Maybe its because I’m a writer at heart myself and I like the notion of giving talented people the creative freedom to push boundaries and break down those sacred cows that some fans have created in their own minds as to what you can do with certain fictional people.
Plus, I’ve always been interested in the notion of following the rules of a What if Story, in that it starts with this initial premise and then based on that premise, the rewritten rules of the “new” continuity that this What If story starts populating organically. Y’know like “Batman is now a lawman in the Old West”…okay…so that means his origin is this…that means the Joker has to come from this place…I find all of that intensely interesting. That universe building or at least the type of universe building that should happen in these types of stories that are told well.
So with this week’s edition of the Read Pile, I thought I would take a stab at reading another one of these kind of tales from my stack. Of course thanks to the CW’s Crisis on Infinite Earths TV event wrapping up tomorrow, alternate universes of DC in particular have been on my mind, so we are going to go with another Elseworlds story featuring arguably the poster child for the entire DC Comics enterprise, The Man of Steel himself.
So without further ado, here comes the 1998 Superman: War of the Worlds series written by comic book legend Roy Thomas with art by Michael Lark.
10 Cent Synopsis:
The Year is 1938. A mild mannered hayseed reporter named Clark Kent comes to Metropolis to see if he can get a job working for the premier newspaper in the city, The Daily Star. Little does anyone know that Clark has a secret. Although he doesn’t understand why, he’s always been able to outrun steam trains, lift extremely heavy stuff, jump great distances, and his skin is nearly impenetrable. Of course, his elderly adopted parents told him to keep his secret to himself given people might fear his power, and Clark really hasn’t displayed his abilities publicly before.
However, on a routine assignment with his new partner, Lois Lane, to investigate reports of a meteor crashing in nearby farm country, it seems like all that is going to change. It turns out that the meteor wasn’t a natural celestial object at all, but a Martian warship, the first of many, complete with fiery death rays and noxious black gas cloud bombs.
Given no choice but to fight for the survival of the Earth, Clark jumps into action as a red & blue dynamo single handedly trying to wreck as many of the countless warships as he can get his fists on. However, he is eventually overwhelmed by the odds against him, and is taken captive by the Martians.
When he comes to, he discovers that several weeks have passed and the Martians have indeed enslaved the Earth. They have huddled people into work camps where they are either forced to work for the Martian war machine or eaten by their extraterrestrial captors. A young scientist named Lex Luthor is working for the Martians on board the ship as well trying to determine why those Martians that have been in contact with Clark haven’t died as a result of Earth’s natural bacterial agents.
Will Superman’s secret about being an alien himself be revealed? Will he escape to save the Earth from these invaders from the Red Planet? Stay Tuned…
Alright, I’m going to come out and say it from the start. I really did love this book. This is the type of Superman story that I’ve been waiting for years to read, and there are a lot of reasons for why I think it’s so great. However, I really want to start with the art because without that I don’t know if anything else here works as well as it should.
I’ll be honest in that I wasn’t super familiar with Michael Lark’s work before I read this story, but I’ll say it here now, if DC was to give him a regular monthly book with a golden age Superman I’d read every single issue. Everything had such a retro charm and sophistication to it that it was hard not to get pulled into the Depression era yarn about technological terrors from outer space battling the world’s first superhero.
In fact, I instantly thought the art reminded me a lot of the Max Fleischer Superman Cartoons, what with the chromed out modernist style of the Martian Tripods and nearly identical portrayal of the iconic Golden Age Superman “look”. As such, those out there that are fans of Bruce Timm, Darwyn Cook, or Doc Shaner, would feel right at home with Michael Lark’s work on this book. Sure, it’s a little bit “dirtier” than some of those other artists, but I think that’s because this is a “war” story, so the subject matter dictates that it be a little more dark and gritty.
As for the actual story, what else can you say about a true master of the craft of writing comics other than Roy Thomas knows what he’s doing. This is especially true when he’s given something that is completely and utterly in his wheel house. If there’s two things I know Roy Thomas does well it’s adapting literature to the comic book medium (ala his Conan the Barbarian work) and his nearly religious devotion to continuity and being true to the rich history of certain characters.
Obviously in this story he does a fantastic job weaving in the classic elements of HG Wells science fiction masterpiece what with the tripodic death walkers of the Martians, the mirrors that shoot fire, and of course their weakness to the common germs of the planet which is ultimately their undoing. However, he also manages to incorporate aspects of the Mercury Theater radio play made famous by Orson Welles several decades later such as the spaceship landing in a farmer’s field (aka Grover Mills) and the general notion of setting the story in the 30s on the brink of WWII vs. in the Edwardian era as the book had done.
However, what really stands out in this story is how well he sticks to providing us with a Golden Age interpretation of Supes himself as well as sticking to a premise that Clark really doesn’t know what makes him different than his fellow man. In terms of the Golden Age Supes, this is a more vulnerable Superman than we have nowadays mainly because we are dealing with Superman as he was originally presented. No flight. Just big jumps. Super Strong but not planet shattering. Able to take quite a lickin’ but definitely not nigh invulnerable. It’s a Supes that can’t move at the speed of light, that isn’t an inexhaustible solar battery, or bench press the moon. He doesn’t need Kryptonite to give him weakness, he’s got plenty of limits.
And Oh my gosh, does that make all the difference! Never have I ever enjoyed a Superman more than the one I got here. This is a “lunch box” Supes, a regular joe that just happens to have some powers far beyond mortal man, but not so much that any sense of drama or suspense is sucked out by ultimately knowing the Man of Steel will punch the threat to death.
This is a Superman that has real weakness and limits but yet still keeps putting up the good fight, refusing to back down from the struggle. That makes him so much more heroic, and it makes me yearn for this type of Superman all the time, not just because Roy Thomas was a stickler for presenting an accurately depowered one given the context and overall conceit of the story.
Plus this is a Superman with real emotion and when things try really hard to kill him, he’s not shy to respond in kind. Many modern audiences believe wrongly that Supes has a code against killing just like Batman, but this farm boy from Kansas isn’t afraid to dish out a little frontier justice if the situation calls for it.
I’m not saying I love a Superman that acts like the Punisher, but what I am saying this small amount of bloodlust does make him less of that perfect Boy Scout, and as a result that makes him a lot more relatable.
Finally, I love the way Roy Thomas keeps the conceit up that this is a Clark Kent that never was a Superman until this very event. That he’s viewed with distrust and fear, that he’s unsure of his limits, and yet he still continues to save as many people as he can. Again, this story highlights not only the physical limits but the psychological and emotional limits of the character. This is a Superman that feels like an outsider, struggling to gain the respect of those that don’t understand him. He actually has more in common with the Martian invaders than he does with the people of Earth, but thanks to the love and kindness the Kents showed him growing up he fights with his last breath to free those that turn from him in terror.
This is powerful stuff, people. This is the Superman we need.
By the way, you might notice the newspaper is the Daily Star instead of the Daily Planet. That’s because it was actually originally called that in the Superman comic. Yeah, it’s not a typo…it’s the magic that is Roy Thomas.
As mentioned above, this series really did remind me of how much I adore those old Max Fleischer “Superman” cartoons from the 1940s. Sincerely, there is a major reason why they were used as the basis for what Bruce Timm would later do with the 90s Superman cartoon, and that major reason is they are completely awesome!
All that pioneering rotoscope work in filming real actors and using their movements to give animators a real life guide on how to fluidly draw the characters. The Art Deco style which fit perfectly the golden age adventures of giant rivet studded robots stealing precious jewels or evil death rays toppling sky scrapers. Plus the fact that without this series, you wouldn’t have had Superman be granted the actual power of flight of which he has become synonymous.
Don’t believe me?!? Listen to the below podcast on our Top 10 Animated Cartoons based on Comic Books for more. I still can’t believe the guys wouldn’t let me rank this one in the top 5. Then again our list didn’t include Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles either, so I guess nobody is perfect.
Anyways, given these cartoons were in the public domain even as far back as I was a wee lad, they were among the first cartoon versions of superheroes that I ever watched thanks to them being included on dollar bin VHS tapes of other public domain cartoons. In fact, other than the original 60s Spider-man, one of my earliest memories of watching any superhero cartoon was this episode of the Superman cartoon in which the Man of Steel helps an expedition discover a warlike race of Hawkmen living deep within the Earth’s surface.
This particular cartoon has stuck with me so much over the years, that I still consider it one of the finest examples of what I think of when I hear the words “Superman” and the tense claustrophobic atmosphere married with deadly ancient mystery still gives me chills. Watch it for yourself and you’ll see what I mean.
I’ve often wondered what would have happened if Superman existed in the Marvel Universe. A universe filled with foibles and disadvantages. Where not every hero was perfect, and the drama came not from the external fights, but the internal ones. After reading this, I guess I have my answer.
Because more than this just being a simple Superman vs. the Martians story, this is what happens when you take one of the most “Marvel”ish of all the Marvel writers in Roy Thomas and let him loose on a DC Comics character. I mean I think of good ol’ Roy as second only to Stan Lee in terms of writing “Marvel” style heroes, and what’s the first thing he does with Superman (whether its to fit with the general conceit of the narrative or not)? He depowers him greatly, and with that the capacity for empathy grows.
I feel like that’s the right call. It’s like what another Marvel alum in John Byrne tried to do in the 80s with the reboot, but even then I don’t think he went far enough due to probably internal opposition at DC.
Roy though is given a blank check to go even further because he’s stripping away the decades of add ons and enchantments Supes has been given over the years and returning him to his original powerset because it fits the story. But in doing so, he also fundamentally helps make the character vastly more interesting, because he can’t do everything.
Let’s face it Superman is boring for the same reason a omnipotent god is boring. Too perfect, too pure, too capable, and most of all unrealistic. Plus when you are that great there’s also a massive level of humility lost whether you wanted it gone or not. Everything becomes so important, so gratuitous, so holier than thou.
I mean take for example the cringe worthy self importance of the Zach Snyder “Man of Steel” reveal that the “S” stands for HOPE, versus what we get in this book, when Clark is asked the same question…
It was just on the blanket I was wrapped in. Wow…now that’s refreshing.
No grandstanding or showboating, just let me get to the work of rescuing people. The work. That’s the important part. Not the praise or living to be an icon of millions. Just the work of saving lives. It’s like so many other Marvel heroes like Captain America, or The Thing, or Luke Cage, or Spider-man that you can’t but help but draw comparisons.
This is what we get with a Marvel style Superman. And again whether that was the intention of the book or not, that’s what I’m taking from it. As a result, it’s the greatest Elseworlds ever in that regard. Because more than just a story about what if Superman existed in the mythology of War of the Worlds, this is a book about what if Superman was a Marvel character.
And I loved every minute of it.