Thousand Faced: Superman-Peace On Earth

Superman: Peace On Earth
Written by Paul Dini
Illustrated by Alex Ross
Published by DC Comics

The time has come to talk of Superman. He was the first super hero as we know the concept. Born in Action comics in 1938 his powers seem modest. “Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” That ability is quaint like the running board on a Dusenberg now. At the time though he changed everything and as my friend, Stuart says, “Everything that came after is just a reflection of him.” True. I have favorites and quite often he isn’t one of them anymore because of all the damn near omnipotence he suffered from while I was growing up. So when a Superman story comes along that plays up his failing, it catches my interest.

In 1999, DC released a limited series of five over-sized comic books. These issues explore the flagship characters of this particular mythology we have all grown up with. Measuring fifteen inches by twelve inches they are everything that makes actually having a comic magazine in your hands worth while. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and The Silver Age cast of The Justice League. The writer, Paul Dini, has been spinning excellent yarns with these characters for the past two decades. He has won awards in comics and written episodes for Batman: The Animated Series, Superman, The Justice League and recently Batman: The Brave and the Bold on Cartoon Network. His writing has been entertaining and impressing my family and friends for quite some time. I can’t think of enough superlatives to describe how good Alex Ross is. I use him to shake up the “I don’t read comics anymore” crowd. “Have you seen this?” Usually they’ll take a look at Kingdom Come or Justice or Uncle Sam and their jaws drop. He paints his stories and uses models to pose as characters. It’s a hyper real style which convinces the person looking at it that this is pretty much the iconic vision of this character and it is correct in it’s description. It gives me as a fan a charge like looking at Neal Adams’ artwork did when I was a kid in the late 60’s.

Let’s begin with the cover. It is not a Superman in action shot. No dashing a car against rocks or pulling a planet out of a sun or even letting a lightning bolt tickle his massive chest. It is just his face, gazing downward with eyes full of compassion for the species that occupies his adopted foster world. The introduction to the book acknowledges Frank Kasy, a fellow artist and friend of Ross as the model for Superman but I also see the face of George Reeves. To a child of the late 50’s, he was our first Superman because he came into our lives by way of television. I see it. Everybody who has that as a reference point sees it. The first moment I saw the cover my heart squeezed for the love and acknowledgment that was just in that one picture.

The story itself starts with a sepia-tinged memory of young Clark Kent in the golden fields of a Kansas farm. Jonathan Kent, his Dad, is planting seeds and telling Clark how to plant so as to allow the seedlings to grow. “Each one of them must have their chance.”

Jump to an empty sky that gradually fills with the image of Superman flying in a huge Christmas tree. It is an unspoken, “Look, up in the sky.” sequence. He decorated the tree in a super speed blur of red and blue and is off to save somebody who needs it and when you are Superman that job is never done. He rescues a young woman in the throes of hunger and takes her to a safe place. The doctor at the clinic tells him it’s too bad he can’t save all the hungry people. Superman looks thoughtful.

Superman will fight world hunger. It is a worthy enterprise for The Last Son of Krypton. He throws himself into the task and even announces his intent to the UN as what I assume in Superman’s mind is a benevolent and relevant authoritative force in the world. Superman does not listen to talk radio apparently. If he did he would never feel motivated to do anything about world hunger other than letting those who profit by it continue to do so. This is the beauty of Dini’s writing. He brings hard reality into the realm of fantasy. What follows is a heartbreaking journey of Superman getting the good intentions hammered into no effect at all due to the power of human stupidity and greed. In other words, he fights the same fight the rest of us do and he is beaten. Superman fails. A boy in central Europe asks him if he will return the next day to help them and he has no answer and is forced to look away in silence. A Southeast Asian dictator threatens to slaughter his own people if Superman guards the food and distributes it himself to prevent it’s theft or use as a political weapon. In some country, no doubt controlled by forces similar to talk radio, he is driven off by irate people who believe compassion doesn’t exist since it doesn’t exist in them; and they throw stones at him which shatter to dust and hurt nonetheless. I believe it was Becklandia or something like that. A ship full of grain is hit by missiles with biological weapons in them that reduce the grain within to blackened poison ash. The scene with him slumped in the ash, his head hung in despair is powerful. I never wanted to see him this beaten. I especially didn’t want the source to be his love for those who he just can’t help despite all his power. Yeah. Our most Christ-like character in comics cannot get around the power of human ignorance and short-sighted self interest.

This is Superman. He does not give up. He will not stop unless he is dead. He rethinks the problem and realizes the scope of this problem will never be overcome by a super being bringing it to humanity. People must have that in themselves and so as Clark Kent, he teaches children about what he learned from his father in a Kansas field.

It is important to give every seedling its chance to grow and that’s all even a Superman can do, My soul sighed on the last page. Oh well now, I guess I still love Superman after all. After this, who wouldn’t.

by Bill Hilburn

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