Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best of the Decade #1

I believe that most successful comics recreate Action #1. They can't do this by retelling the exact same story -- readers are already familiar with the legacy of that story. Instead, it's necessary to create for today's reader the same sense of amazement and exhiliration that 1938's comics created, despite the fact that today's reader already expects those qualities as an absolute minimum. The need to out-do what's already been done leads to stories that exceed older ones in trivial ways; for example, the Flash running seven times the speed of light in one early story, then ten times the speed of light in a successive one. Sheer arithmetic alone is not the wellspring of great fiction.

Action #775 was one of the greatest comics ever written, and it did so by establishing a team of villains who had the means and the inclination to bully anyone on the planet around -- a threat that begged for someone to rise up and challenge them. How does a writer make a threat like that work in 2001? In the Thirties, the writer might give the villain whatever pseudoscientific menace came to mind -- a ray beam, say, or mind control powers. It's very hard to be original with villains. Joe Kelly made What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way? work on an entirely different level -- he dug into the comic literature of the time and found a real challenge for superheroes -- antiheros. And so, his invention, The Elite, is based on the existing characters The Authority. But instead of competing with the Justice League and their kind at the cash register, and in fans' hearts, The Elite was placed into the DC Universe and became the antagonist facing the representative of all superheroes for all time -- Superman.

In a series of encounters, Superman and The Elite faced brazenly evil opponents in contrasting styles, the contrast keying on whether or not to kill an enemy. This difference of philosophy rapidly escalated into confrontation, with the brilliantly insolent dialogue of The Elite's leader Manchester Black insulting Superman with a passion for antagonism. The action opened when The Elite handled a case in Libya in their own murderous style before Superman got to the scene. Then they were just getting started in Tokyo where their awesome powers dropped Superman from the sky as collateral damage while they massacred another threat. In their third encounter, Superman arrived on the scene first, sparing the lives of alien invaders; when The Elite were about to kill Superman's captives, Superman threw a punch, prompting the challenge of an all-out dual between this Macchiavellian foursome and the Man of Steel.

In their earlier encounters, The Elite had twice gotten the best of Superman with their various superpowers. Lois attempted to talk Superman back from the confrontation on the grounds that he might not win, but found her husband's principles to be unyielding. And as the fight began, things went against Superman from the beginning, leaving him apparently incapacitated. Until, as The Elite tramped on his cape, with the hero's body altogether absent, The Man of Tomorrow launched his counterattack, unseen, with feats of superspeed and power that quickly took them down one by one. When the telepath Manchester Black was the only one left, a bloodied Superman showed up to win the argument after the fight, and it was a win for the entire genre of superheroes. In a face-to-face confrontation, the antihero had no powers left to use, and no argument left to offer. And the mountainous Superman, told that he was living in a dream world, closed with a manifesto: "I wouldn't have it any other way. Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us. And on my soul, I swear... until my dream of a world where dignity, honor, and justice becomes the reality we all share -- I'll never stop fighting. Ever."

There are no flying men who can lift mountains. But there is a Superman, and he is a dream, and lifting us up is exactly what he does.


  1. What the hell man. I've not read this comic, yet here I am sitting watching the sunset for the last time this year, engaged in the predominant vice of our times (the internet), and you're making me tear up. I'm in my early 20s, this is ridiculous, and I've only started getting into comics within the last few years. This shouldn't effect me as much as it does. Brilliant blog you've got here.

  2. Thanks, Sprechercrow! Joe Kelly deserves all the credit for this story (and its line, which I quoted). He had scenes in other stories that just missed my top-ten list, but would have appeared if I'd extended it to top twenty.

  3. I've didn't read this comic. Now I'm going to have to track it down. Was it a one issue story or did it span a few issues?

  4. It was a single issue; no reference to previous stories whatsoever. However, Kelly brought Manchester Black and other members of the Elite back in later stories.

  5. Hello Rikdad,

    Happy New Year :)

  6. I remember reading that issue back then. Seems like a lifetime ago now. ;-)

    Re-read it and for me it made clear once more what is amiss for me with DC in the past few years:
    Given the "short-lived-shock-value" and staging the oh so very obvious again and again (Only Bruce can be Batman....gee really DC, no one ever thought of that...ever. But we need two years at least and the lamest unoriginal plots copied from the 50ies to make that clear. Yeah sure.)
    Action #775 would be entirely different if it saw print today.
    Black and his gang would defeat Superman and get an ongoing while Superman would never say anything that would lift us up, but adding to that death and destruction path comics have taken. Then he would flee the planet and not returning for another 2 years because all hope is lost, and everything it sooooo bad.

    Gods forbid that there is something positive coming from comics today all has to be as bad and dark as possible.

    Gah. No one wants to see the 60ies silliness return, but all that anti-hero stuff is hardly worth 3 bucks a book to me.

    Thanks for reminding me of a great issue from a time where comic books were at least a little brighter and positiver then today.