Everybody knows Superman. He’s an iconic character and the poster boy not only for DC Comics, but for the entire superhero genre of entertainment. Representing “truth, justice, and the American way” he’s not only revered as the ultimate patriot and paragon of virtue, he’s the standard of what makes a true hero.
That said, wouldn’t it be awesome if he was a total psycho instead? DC has shown surprising flexibility with their big blue boy scout by allowing him to be portrayed in alternate universe stories in a darker light. Superman has been everything from a megalomaniacal villain to Reagan’s bitch to a Communist in various “what if” universes, but what was missing was a fuller exploration of the possibilities of a being with god-like power who is less than perfect. Thankfully, there have been several independent comics that have picked up on this and used the Superman archetype to launch their own explorations into the more sinister aspects of the Man of Steel. Here are a few.
Okay, Marvel isn’t exactly what you’d call “independent”, but they still have a twisted version of Supes that was introduced in a miniseries depicting him as a kind of forgotten Marvel hero. Robert Reynolds possesses the over-the top power of “a million exploding suns” and a truckload of mental illness to go along with it.
Turns out that Sentry erased the entire universe’s memories of him which is why he seems to not have existed prior to 2000 even though he was there alongside all of the classic heroes in their classic era struggles. He is discovered by the reformed Avengers locked away in a supervillain prison called The Raft, having voluntarily committed himself there. Reynolds suffers from agoraphobia and split-personality disorder, believing the dark half of his psyche, The Void, is an all-consuming evil always descending on the world.
There are some really great concepts to be explored there, what with an all-powerful being being mentally frail and literally terrified of his own power and all, but Marvel had kind of made a mess of the character and has used him as an ill-advised Deus ex machina device. If you need something to beat the unbeatable, just have Sentry get his shit together for long enough to save the day and there you go. Still, he’s the highest-profile example of what I’m talking about here so I thought I’d include him.
From mainstream Marvel to utter obscurity we go. Arch Enemy is a story of grey morality where the protagonist is a sympathetic criminal and society itself along with its heroic defender of law and order is the antagonist.
Tired of being a cog supporting an unconscionably corrupt system and getting less than a living wage to sell his soul, Marvin Kazinsky takes on a life of crime to earn the money to get his mother the life-saving surgery she desperately needs. But, as the posters in the city point out, The Star is always watching. The hero flies in to interrupt the heist and tears Marvin’s partners limb from limb, a feat which earns chuckles from the newscasters who report it.
The interesting thing here is the idea that the brutal ending of a human life is considered heroic so long as that person is believed to be “bad”. The use of a nigh-omnipotent being to enforce the law as judge, jury, and executioner appears to have led to a fascist state where the well-off can simply brush off the murder of criminals as a joke since it adds to their personal feeling of security.
But what if you aren’t well-off and society will not consider giving you the helping hand you need? Is becoming a criminal to get money and save a life wrong and is a “hero” killing them for it right? This comic only has a few issues out so far, but it’s well worth a read, especially considering the first two issues are free.
One under-discussed aspect of Superman is that fact that he can hear EVERYTHING. Like, everything in the entire world at once. When he is referred to as a god, it’s no hyperbole. Now picture being able to hear every conversation in the world; all of the shit talk, all of the ignorance, all of the whining and pettiness and other things that make human contact borderline intolerable at times for anyone with a triple digit IQ being constantly broadcast into your ear canal 24/7. Well, in Irredeemable, the big guy finally snaps and decides that humanity is not only not worth saving, but has got to go.
The Plutonian was a hero who saved countless lives, and in return he was treated the way people treat any other public figure. Superpowers have two sides, though. As handy as they are for saving people, they are typically even more effective for destructive purposes, and it’s a pretty terrifying concept having a being with almost infinite power bent on killing you.
Irredeemable shows us another side of the Superman mythos that was almost certainly lingering in our subconscious all along, and that’s what makes it so great. It’s too easy to assume that a being of such enormous power would have perfect morals and mental stability to match. It’s much more interesting to envision what would happen if such a person turned against us.
In The Boys, superheroes are created by a corporation called Vought-American, which licenses them for everything from defense contracts to, of course, comic books. The comic is a brutal satire of all things comic industry and features all of the familiar archetypes of the Big Two (including some real life figures) in a rather unsavory light. Naturally, there is a Superman character involved and that character is The Homelander.
For an example of how untethered this story is, in The Boys’ universe The Homelander and his superteam, The Seven, caused September 11th. The Homelander himself is held up to the public as the representative of American values, but in truth he is a classic sociopath who sees others as beneath him and often uses them to feed some pretty perverse desires.
The idea of metahumans being used for profits or even sold as weapons is a solid one that hints at the logical eventualities of genetic engineering while mocking the comic industry’s apple pie portrayal of its classic superheroes.
This one comes from a comic miniseries/graphic novel called Cla$$war which brings together aspects of some of the other examples I’ve used here and puts them together into something that’s been described as a “political thriller with superheroes”.
Joe Kelly once asked a question in the title of the famous Superman story What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way? Cla$$war gives a strong implied answer in that those three things are far from the same thing, and not necessarily even related to one another. When the American government’s policy becomes injustice and misinformation, what’s a patriotic superhero to do?
Well, if you’re The American you start off by protesting with a public mid-air sit-in in front of the White House and/or use your heat vision to burn the word “liar” into the president of the United States’ forehead. Not the subtlest possible way to get your point across, but it seems like it’d do the trick.
Suffice to say that Cla$$war is pretty controversial in its subject matter. The disillusionment of the American people being expressed through the deeds of a single superhuman representative is pretty fertile ground for storytelling, and this one even throws in genetic tampering experiments to create metahumans soldiers as a bonus.
It’s not really likely that DC is going to want to explore the concept of Superman decimating the human race or assaulting the president over his inhumane foreign policies. That’s why it’s good to have independent publishers to take our favorite comic book archetypes and push the concepts into places that the mainstream just doesn’t want to go.
Obviously, I love the idea of taking the concept of America’s most iconic superhero and twisting him into something a little more in step with reality as opposed to the usual boring black and white morality that most comics have historically fall into. But does anyone prefer the traditional takes where the good guys are always perfect and the bad guys were pure evil to the modern publications that make us question the very concepts of good and evil? Sound off.