Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Warworld and a Serving of Humble Pie

One of most appealing aspects of Superman is his humility. Here's a guy who is stronger, faster and smarter than just about everyone else, yet he clearly doesn't think of himself as better than anyone. As far as Kal-el is concerned, you and I are just as good and worthwhile as he is. Of course, with me that's understandable. But with the rest of you, it's a real sign that the Man of Steel is indeed humble.

So when Len Wein wrote DC Comics Presents #27 (November 1980), he was potentially crossing a line. In this story, an alien named Mongul makes his first appearance. He's kidnapped several of Superman's closest friends and will give them back only if Superman recovers a crystal key from another planet.

The planet is New Mars, where the Martian Manhunter and other Martians have settled. (In Pre-Crisis continuity, J'onn J-onzz was not the only surviving green Martian.) J'onn is tasked with guarding the key and never letting anyone take it.

It's clear from the start that Mongul is powerful and dangerous. But Superman is completely confident that he can take the key, get his friends back and still foil Mongul's future plans. Why? Well, because he's Superman! There's little he can't do.

An arrogant Superman? That can't be right. But Wein manages to make this work. Superman's over-confidence isn't because of a personal arrogance--it's a confidence born from knowing his own powers and always having saved the day in the past. It's just the right balance--Kal-el needs a lesson in humility, but there's never an indication that this is affecting his sense of right and wrong. He's just blindly assuming that he can handle anything that comes up on his own.

But he's wrong. By the end of the issue, the hostages are free, but Mongul has the key and now has control over Warworld--a huge artificial satellite with enough power to incinerate planets in seconds. Think Death Star times 1000 and you pretty much get the idea.

This leads us to the next issue. Superman has called in Supergirl for help and together they take on Warworld.

This issue is a great action set piece. Wein and artist Jim Starlin do an excellent job of giving us a sense of huge scale--we look at the images and we easily believe that the immense nuclear missiles could kill even a Kryptonian and that the laser guns can evaporate planets. The efforts to destroy Warworld eventually involves Supergirl flying to the next galaxy to build up sufficient speed to smash through Mongul's defenses.

She succeeds, but is knocked unconscious while still flying at many times the speed of light. With Warworld gone, Superman gives chase. This brings us to issue #29 and the conclusion of the story arc.

The pursuit of his unconscious cousin reaches such a high velocity that the two Kryptonians begin crossing over into other dimensions. Its a chase that might never have ended had not the Spectre popped up with a message from God Himself to stop already. In addition, the Spectre is there to finish teaching Superman the lesson that he had begun to learn two issues earlier--that power without thought or conscience is a terrible thing. Superman isn't allowed to act without thinking; to do anything without first considering the consequences. He's simply too powerful. He has to always make sure he uses those powers responsibly.

It's a great story arc, perhaps my favorite from DC Comics Presents run. Superman is presented as flawed in a believable way that does nothing to take away from the character's basic morality. The second and third parts of the story remind us of just how powerful Superman is, but still manages to present him with credible threats. It's a fun, exciting tale with some honest emotion built into it.

When DC Comics first re-booted their universe in 1986, one of the major changes was severely cutting back on Superman's power levels. To be fair, its a matter of opinion on whether this was a good or bad idea. After all, Golden Age Superman wasn't all that powerful compared to later versions (and had a much more aggressive personality) and the Golden Age stories are often excellent. But I think Superman is at his most fun when he has Silver and Bronze Age power levels. I understand that this makes him tricky to write for--it can be a challenge to come up with believable threats that can actually challenge a Kryptonian. But stories such as this one and other Superman stories I've covered prove that a good writer can make this happen. If you can have a Superman, then you can also have a Warworld. And THEN you have a good story.

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