When Words Collide: 10 Other Men of Steel

Mon, June 10th, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
23

THE NOT-QUITE-SUPERMAN LEAGUE: THE 10 BEST SUPERMAN ANALOGUES

In this week of getting-excited-because-a-big-Superman-movie-is-coming-out and getting-excited-because-Scott-Snyder-and-Jim-Lee-are-reframing-Superman-in-the-New-52 I thought about looking back at the best Superman comics of the past, or maybe bouncing back through the decades to look how Superman has changed. But it turns out that I'm not at all interested in doing that. Feel free to provide your own perspective across the message boards.

But what I am interested in doing is laying down the truth about the not-quite-Supermen. Ranking the best of the almost-Supermen, the Superman analogues that have appeared in various comics over the years. I'm much more interested in that. These are the Superman variants that play against the knowledge that the readers are familiar with Superman and so here's a different take on a similar premise. These are the Superman types who writers and artists can go wild with, or comment on the archetype with, or just use and abuse without regard to reestablishing Superman's status quo at the end.

These are the Best of the Superman Analogues. And I by my own self-imposed rules I have ignored any Elseworlds variations or within-DC-continuity Superman Family members. And I've ignored the Sentry, because even if he didn't start out as the worst thing ever, it didn't take long for him to become the worst thing ever. So here we are, the best of the best of the not-quite-Supermen, counting down from #10…

10. It's a tie! Omega the Unknown, created by Steve Gerber, Mary Skrenes, and Jim Mooney and Wundarr the Aquarian, created by Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik.

Omega the Unknown's story was famously unfinished before his series was cancelled -- though Jonathan Lethem and friends resurrected the concept for one of the weirder and more interesting Marvel comics of the past decade. But I'm talking about the original Gerber-iffic creation here, and though we never saw Omega's story fully developed, the Superman-in-a-strange-land was a subversive take on the Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster original. Here we had a Superman analogue who was basically an advance agent for an alien invasion -- even if he was an unwitting one. In Gerber's world Superman was no altruistic do-gooder, but rather an outcast with sinister motives even Omega himself didn't understand.

Wundarr, like Omega, was an outcast, but Gerber and his collaborators -- and those that followed by taking Wundarr to the next level of super-space-hippie "The Aquarian" -- portrayed this not-quite-Superman as a manchild from the stars. Wundarr was sent to Earth as an infant, to avoid social unrest, but the Ma and Pa Kent types ignored his falling space-cradle because of fears of Communism (or worse) and Wundarr grew to adulthood, physically, inside his little space ship. When he emerges, he's an oafish interloper, causing his own kind of social unrest because he doesn't know the norms of this new society he finds himself in. Also, his costume is amazing.

9. Alpha One, created by Peter Tomasi, Keith Champagne, and Peter Snejbjerg

"The Mighty" was a 12-issue series perhaps best known for being the comic in which Chris Samnee came in halfway through and did an amazing job taking over the art right before he was CHRIS SAMNEE with all-caps and everyone loved him and wanted to hire him to draw their "Daredevil" comics. Or maybe it was best known as one of the last out-of-continuity comics published by DC under their own banner. Or maybe it was not at all known. I haven't heard many people talking about it since it was released a few years back.

But "The Mighty" was a very good Superman-is-evil comic book series which explored the world in which such a character could exist and the heroic actions his supporting cast would have to take to make things right. Alpha One is the Superman analogue, and he becomes terrifying. Gabriel Cole is the Jimmy-Olsen-as-handler who is the real star of the comic. But it's Alpha One that matters today, and he matters a lot. If you like good comics and scary Supermen.

8. Gladiator, created by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum

I first met Gladiator, leader of the Shi'ar Superguardians, in the pages of "Fantastic Four" #249, and I didn't get all the allusions to him being a Superman analogue. Then, when I read the earlier Chris Claremont/Dave Cockrum X-Men adventures in the pages of "Classic X-Men," I still didn't get that Guardian was supposed to be a Superman knock-off and I definitely didn't get that the Shi'ar Imperial Guard were Legion of Super-Heroes analogues and the joke was that Dave Cockrum used to draw that series over at DC and now he was at Marvel making fun of them slash paying loving tribute.

I didn't get that Gladiator was Superman until John Byrne started writing and drawing Superman, and then it all clicked. And though I can't think of one particular Gladiator story that makes him worthy of the coveted #8 slot on this list, pretty much anytime he's drawn by John Byrne, I like him a lot. But let's be honest, he's here because he has a popped collar and a space-Mohawk. Sometimes that's all you need.

7. The Plutonian, created by Mark Waid and Peter Krause

Like "The Mighty," which launched around the same time, "Irredeemable" was a ruthless Superman-has-turned-evil story and, in this comic, the Plutonian was the Superman analogue who did the things that would make redemption oh so difficult. "Irredeemable" would go a lot farther than "The Mighty" -- it was a bigger story in every way -- and from the bitter twist that set the Plutonian on his destructive rampage to the final arc which would see his essence distilled into something more creatively useful, the Plutonian was the antagonist in his own series. And it's all the sweeter knowing that Mark Waid -- passionate Superman fan -- was manipulating the puppet strings and making the character go in such brutal directions. I don't know if "Irredeemable" was cathartic to write, though it seems designed that way, but it is definitely cathartic to read.

6. Soldier, created by Tom Scioli

I don't even know if the character is called "Soldier" or if he takes the full name of the strip, which is "Satan's Soldier," but here's what I do know about the character and the comic: it's as if Tom Scioli read the first few months of "Irredeemable" alongside a small stack of Frank Santoro and Ben Jones "Cold Heat" comics and said to himself, "the Plutonian's violent, apocalyptic actions don't go far enough. He should have eaten more babies, and the comics should look like they were drawn hastily by a genius madman unafraid of color."

I guess what I'm saying is that you should just go read "Satan's Soldier" and send Tom Scioli a bunch of money so he can print it as some giant volume of insane delight.

5. The Public Spirit, created by Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill

The truth is that almost any character created by Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill is going to be objectively better and more disturbing and therefore wonderful than almost any other character created in any genre in any medium. But as great as the Public Spirit is, he's really just a foil for the title character in the "Marshal Law" series, so he's relegated to the respectable #5 position. But that's nothing to be ashamed of. How many pages does he even appear on, total? A couple of dozen? 40 at most. And then he's killed by the greatest hero killer who ever donned leather gear? Nothing to sneeze at.

And the way Mills and O'Neill savage both the Superman archetype and the Captain America archetype with the Public Spirit is hilarious and terrible. But it's only bad-terrible if you have no sense of humor and think superheroes are transcendent icons who can lift up humanity to unforeseen heights. It's terrible-and-honest otherwise. Pat Mills doesn't like superheroes, and he shows you why on every page. The Public Spirit is more than just collateral damage; he's the quintessential target for all the rage, even though he's mostly innocent. Mostly. (Not really. He's a bastard.)

4. Hyperion, created by Roy Thomas and John Buscema

Not one of the first Superman analogues, but one of the first to stick around for so long -- and, no, I'm not counting Fawcett's Captain Marvel as a Superman analogue, because then we'd be counting almost every super-powered guy who came after "Action Comics" #1 and I want to keep it cleaner than that. Clear Superman tributes or parodies or analogues only. Like Hyperion.

Anyway, Hyperion was first part of an evil Justice League in the Marvel Universe created by proto-fanboy-turned-pro Roy Thomas, and then Hyperion became the big man in the not-at-all-evil Justice League in the Marvel Universe and eventually Mark Gruenwald got his hands on him and the "Squadron Supreme" series changed my life forever.

That's the timeline.

So why does "Hyperion" make the cut into the Top 5 all-time not-quite-Supermen? Mostly because of the "Squadron Supreme" series -- but not at all because of "Supreme Power" or anything else J. Michael Straczysnki worked on, don't even think it -- and because he's the best Superman in the Marvel Universe and he keeps popping up in various incarnations, whether it's to become zombified or Jeff-Parkerized or drafted into Jonathan Hickman's uber-ultimate-cosmic "Avengers." And I like that he used to wear a domino mask. Because his alter ego didn't need wimpy glasses.

3. Ultraman, created by Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky

The first of the evil-Superman analogues -- or at least the first I'm aware of, though Red Kryptonite may have done some goofy stuff along those lines prior to 1964 -- Ultraman is, of course, the Superman-from-the-parallel-world who hangs with the Crime Syndicate of America and does nasty things with his near-omnipotent powers. Ultraman comes in at #3 for two reasons: (1) his appearance in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's "Earth 2" graphic novel, which is mean and cruel and just the right amount of Superman-as-a-jerkface, and (2) because every time he and his Crime Syndicate colleagues show up in the Gardner Fox "Justice League" comics, the series becomes readable. If you've tried to slog through the Silver Age "Justice League" comics in chronological order, and I have done that so you don't have to, you'd know that the repetitive Justice-League-vs.-alien-or-science-threat stuff gets super-repetitive and though the husky Mike Sekowsky drawings have their charm it's only the appearances of Ultraman and his pals that break the monotony. The "Crisis on ________" stories that kick off with the Crime Syndicate are some great superhero tales in a classic mold. The Justice League comics not involving the Crime Syndicate are less so. In other words, Ultraman saved the Silver Age. He's that good. I mean evil.

2. Supreme, created by Rob Liefeld

The initial Rob Liefeld and Brian Murray "Supreme" comics were a blunt and confrontational look at a Superman who wasn't much interested in 1938-style Midwestern ethics. It wasn't quite another variant on evil-Superman, but their analogue was cruel and aloof and powerful and unafraid to destroy anything that stood in his way. The series experimented with a few versions of itself over the years, but it was Alan Moore who crystallized it into something worth paying attention to. It's the Alan Moore (and mostly Rick Veitch) Supreme who comes in as the second-best-ever Superman analogue, and it earns that spot by out-Supermanning Superman himself.

In an era where the "real" Superman was sporting a mullet or turning into electro-shock color-coded versions, Alan Moore and his artistic collaborators seemed revolutionary by turning retro. Supreme became a character through which Alan Moore could play with tropes from an earlier time, when Superman had imaginative villains and preposterous paradoxes to overcome. Alan Moore fleshed out the Supreme mythology by aping Superman's Silver Age, and it wasn't quite an example of deconstruction but, rather, a celebration of the innocence of an earlier time, often contrasted with the "grittier" stories of the day. Moore's version of the character never quite received the resolution of his story that way it deserved, but it was good and sometimes great while it lasted. And Supreme will always be that fill-in Superman who was there in the comic book universe when the Man of Steel was off, I don't know -- being written by Dan Jurgens after dying in a fistfight with an ugly monster or something. He certainly wasn't having the fun Supreme was having. And it showed.

1. True-Man, created by Rick Veitch

This magnificent creation, from Rick Veitch's series "The Maximortal," is a next-level Superman analogue. Not because True-Man is all that great as a character, but because of the unrestrained fury of Veitch's comic-book-making. Here was Veitch, who had already written "The One" for Epic Comics and "Brat Pack" for his own King Hell Press, both savaging the superhero traditions, and with "The Maximortal" he provided an angry, grotesque, but impossible-to-ignore analogue of not just Superman but of the creation of Superman. "The Maximortal" is about more than the character, it's about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster -- or versions of them -- and how they are abused and mistreated. Veitch presents it as satire, so it's exaggerated and the horrors are cartoonish, and there's the ridiculous story of True-Man alongside the tragic story of his creators, but that just makes the package so much more powerful. And some of the Siegel and Shuster bits are realer than you might think.

While the other Superman analogues are playing at being almost-Superman, Veitch takes you out in the back alley and diagrams out what it means to play in the fields of the Superman and the price that's involved in such whimsical frolics.

And it all ends with Rick Veitch's essay on man and Superman and comics and fascism and Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Because how else could it end? Not with a whimper, that's for sure.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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