In the second of my very, very occasional retrospectives of classic comics I take my beady eye and cast it upon Superman Annual #11 from 1985 containing Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons For The Man Who Has Everything.
It’s a testament that what was essentially a one-off story done by Moore as a bit of fun and to help pay the bills still remains one of the finest Superman stories ever, not to mention it’s been the spring that a lot of lesser talents than Moore have drawn upon for inspiration but this is a fine example of how to do superheroes that have been around for decades in an updated way without making them ‘dark’ or ‘gritty’.
The story starts with Batman, Robin (the short lived Jason Todd version) and Wonder Woman arriving at Superman’s Fortress of Solitude for his birthday. Upon arriving they find Superman with a strange thing attached to his chest and the alien super-villain Mongul, a being as powerful as Superman himself. Mongul tells Batman and the others that the thing is a Black Mercy; an alien plant that grants it’s host visions of their life based upon their ‘heart’s desire’. In Superman’s case, it’s dreams of a Krypton that never exploded so he has a wife, a son and a normal life apart from his father Jor-El being involved with an extremist group called The Sword of Rao, who want Krypton to purge itself of alien immigrants and return to a ‘purer’ past.
As Superman dreams of this Krypton that never existed Wonder Woman is battling Mongul and just about hold her own, while Batman and Robin work out how to extricate Superman from the Black Mercy. Seizing upon the gauntlets Mongul was wearing before he started fighting Wonder Woman, Batman manages to tear off the Black Mercy freeing Superman from his dream but the Black Mercy attaches itself to Batman while Robin tells a now awake and very, very, very fucked off Superman just who did this to him.
Superman fights Mongul (who has defeated Wonder Woman and is about to kill her) trashing the Fortress of Solitude not to mention nearly breaking his code against killing but at the last minute stops upon seeing statues of his Kryptonian parents. Mongul takes advantage of Superman’s hesitation nearly killing him before Robin (who has pried the Black Mercy off of Batman, and stuffed it into one of Mongul’s gauntlets) appears from a hole in the roof above and throws the Black Mercy at Mongul who has the plant attach itself to him.
A coda to the story has Batman tell the others that his dream had his parents survive, and he too ended up married. Superman tells the others he’s dropped Mongul into a black hole, and as for Mongul he dreams of the galaxy conquered by him and the screams of his enemies……
For The Man Who Has Everything is a perfect mix of Silver Age DC characters intertwined with Moore’s then fresh approach to superheroes. In 1985 Marvelman/Miracleman was still new, and Moore’s version of Swamp Thing for DC had revolutionised how mainstream comics were seen, so less pulpy and more literary. Moore’s influences still pulled from the Mort Weisinger influenced portrayal of Superman in this story, but he drew from literature and film as much as the decades of comic history that preceded him. That meant there’s a stronger depth to Superman here than most people had ever seen before (and with the odd exception, it’s not been seen since) which for me is why this story holds up so well.
We know Superman is essentially a god. He’s struck down on his birthday, a day most us enjoy and appreciate in the company of friends and family so his guard is down allowing Mongul to launch an attack that should leave Superman (and indeed Batman) a total mental wreck. Yet Superman survives thanks to the bravery of Robin rather than his own power. It’s the ordinary that saves the extraordinary and that makes Superman vulnerable to this sort of emotional attack. Moore shows you don’t have to be a physical match for Superman (although Mongul is) to beat him; you just have to take advantage of his humanity so with that Moore brings Superman to our level making it easier to relate to him as a person with the same drives, wishes and dreams as many of us ordinary folk.
I’ve not mentioned Dave Gibbons and his fine work in this story. Outwith of Watchmen it’s for me his best work, if only for these panels….
With the story due for an adaptation in the charmingly upbeat DC TV series Supergirl, it’s worth returning to this story for a refresher, or if you’re discovering it for the first time I hope you appreciate one of the finest one-off superhero stories ever written.