Action Comics #1040: The Power of Hope
So many years ago when I was a little baby and first getting into comics, I came across Action Comics Annual #2. There was a nice cover of George Perez from Superman in gladiator gear, sporting a beard and looking ready for war. Inside was a story by Perez and Jerry Ordway. The issue came out in 1987, and the thing is, while I’m sure the story itself was great – I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be with those names attached – the main thing that stays with me all these years later is this cover.
From what I understand, Phillip K. Johnson had a similar experience, but with a different Superman cover, which I think speaks to the power of this type of imagery when paired with this man larger than life, often of an untouchable power. The very concept of Superman in this alien setting, forced to fight like a human would and deal with his mortality. It’s the kind of image that stays with you for decades, even when the story the image reflects has faded.
The other thing about this image, and the idea of Superman facing real danger in general, is this: no matter how dire the situation, no matter how perilous to him, even if it kills him, Superman will never betray his principles. He will never choose himself over others. We’re used to that in his “everyday” superheroes, but it’s when you put him to the test that his real strength – his determination and kindness, really stand out and make him sublime.
This brings us to The Warworld Saga.
Worldwide, it’s been about a month since Superman and the Authority arrived at Warworld. At the time, they intended to rush in, savior-like, and simply defeat the tyrant Mongul… but as is the case in many oppressive situations, things real and imagined are not not so simple as that. It enters a culture built around teaching – forcing, really – people to accept and value their own subjugation. As well-meaning as they were, and even putting aside the fact that they were beaten, you can’t come down from above and just rewire how a society works. The only real way to change a culture is to change the hearts of the people within that culture.
Enter Superman – or rather Clark Kent. Several weeks into his stint as a gladiator, he has yet to kill an enemy. The warriors around him taunt him like a bloodless sword and while this is meant to be pejorative, for Clark himself it is a mark of pride. It’s also what allows him to begin the slow process of affecting the value system that has been forced upon the people of Warworld…and in particular the Kryptonian-born Phelosians. Because if someone appreciates your life when no one else ever has, how can you not respond to them in some way?
Mongul recognizes this to some extent – that’s why he doesn’t kill his enemy and turn him into a martyr. But there are also downsides (for him, anyway) to letting Superman live, because while he’s here, he’s eroding the foundations of Warzoon culture one person at a time.
It is difficult for me to express how beautiful and inspiring I find this whole story. I haven’t read much discussion around the show so far, but I’ve heard that a lot of people interpret the story as having a message about politics or religion – and I can relate to that. But I’m not here to talk about all that.
Because at its core, it’s a story about the resilience of spirit and will that pushes people to go beyond the circumstances in which they were born…and how great that is. is powerful when someone takes the time to see and recognize a person when no one else has. How powerful it is to be or to know a person who sees you as a whole – as Kant would say, not as a means to an end, but as an end to yourself.
But more than anything else, it’s a story about how Superman is simply the best person in the universe and the contagiousness of compassion.
It’s also an extraordinary piece of world-building both in writing and visually. Riccardo Federici is, I think, one of the few artists who not only has the talent and the vision, but precisely the right kind of vision to partner with Johnson here. It brings that sci-fi fantasy feeling to the story that one would want from some sort of semi-sci-fi, semi-fantasy epic like this, and the designs of the characters, monsters, and settings are phenomenal.
I just can’t say enough about this race, which I’m convinced is a classic in the making. At least if the comic book readership has taste, it does.
Moving on, we come to A Face in the Crowd Part Four, the final installment in the Martian Manhunter back-up story by Shawn Aldridge and Adriana Melo. The latest issue ended with the reveal of the villainous, bird-themed organization Vulture, which adopted a kind of Court of Owls-esque masked theme in its latest incarnation.
Now, I’ll be honest, while I appreciate Martian Manhunter, I know him best in the context of his joining the Justice League. That being the case, I sat down and did some research on returning villains from J’onn’s past, mostly Vulture himself, but also that kind of Trapjaw style. I probably should have done this sooner, but ignore that.
To those ignoramuses like me, J’onn was once the Bronze Wraith, a member of the super team Justice Experience, who was eventually slaughtered by Doctor Trap, the Jaw Man, who blamed them for the death of his love, after she becomes a victim of a battle between metahumans. J’onn was the only survivor of the team. That being the case, it’s both fitting and fascinating to see him back here now.
VULTURE is another old enemy of J’onn – a criminal organization last seen in the 1960s, in an arc that saw J’onn impersonate a deceased leader, Marco Xavier, to bring them down. Now it looks like they’ve returned in a modernized form and have proven themselves to be the main masterminds behind this parade of former Martian Manhunter villains and the disappearance of lonely, unattached children.
Honestly, I wonder how much your average Action Comics reader is going to understand and appreciate the references or importance of all those old school villains making a comeback. I’m a pretty hardcore geek but they had flown under my radar. But what I find interesting is how it serves to double down on DC’s “it all happened” stance. Bringing back those old stories, whether as references (as with the No Man’s Land reference in Detective Comics recently) or through the modern reintroduction of the characters involved shows that DC Comics’ long and storied history has truly been restored. It’s hugely gratifying as a longtime fan, and I can’t imagine how exciting it is for longtime Martian Manhunter fans, especially after the character has suffered since New52.
Now it’s all metal. As far as this specific story goes, these old references have the important purpose of bringing J’onn’s background into focus and his past efforts to blend in or stand out based on the story. These are the supporting beams and the reflection of his current desire to reconnect with the world, with himself and with his history, and it raises the question of knowing if one can really move away from his past, and if the ghosts of the past are laid to rest for good…or even if they should.
This review is honestly too long, but I guess what I’m saying is great stuff.