Or – “Remember That Time When Jason Todd Was The Most Useful Superhero Of All?”

During one of my recent online conversations, the subject of Superman came up, and how he is perceived as boring is never vengeful.  Now, when it comes to comic book history, I don’t ever want to be the “Ummm… ACTUALLLEEE...” guy, but I name-checked a few moments where the Man Of Steel wasn’t a big blue boy scout, including this ish.  The response was that not everyone has ready cash and easy access to the full scope of comics history, which is perfectly reasonable.  Of course, given that *I* already own the issue, and we have this recurring thingy that we do here at Major Spoilers where awesome issues of years past get another moment in the spotlight, I realized that we were staring down the barrel of the rare win/win situation.

Once upon a time, The Man Of Steel had the worst birthday ever, and your Major Spoilers (retro) review awaits!

SupermanAnnual11CoverSUPERMAN ANNUAL #11
Writer: Alan Moore
Penciler: Dave Gibbons
Inker: Dave Gibbons
Colorist: Tom Ziuko
Letterer: Dave Gibbons
Editor: Julius Schwartz
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: $1.25
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $5.00

Previously, in Superman:  Jor-El of Krypton nearly went to war with the Science Council over his claim that internal pressures would cause the planet to explode.  Preparing for the worst, Jor was even ready to launch HIS OWN SON into deep space to save his life.  Luckily, nothing like that ever happened, and Kal-El grew up, married Lyla Lerrol and raised a family of his own, growing to become a scientist himself…

Wait… What?

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Kal-El married with children?  What is going on here, he said in his best Joe Schmoe Show voice?  How can this be?  Is a bear driving?  We need a detective!  Luckily for those of us in the audience, the world’s greatest detective is also in this issue, traveling to the Arctic Circle to present Superman with a gift for his birthday.  Of course, Wonder Woman made it there first…

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I truly love this series of panels, from Jason huddling in his cape to the sly smile on Batman’s face as he makes a joke (A JOKE!!!) to Wonder Woman’s pleasant demeanor.  Batman has brought Superman a new breed of rose called ‘The Krypton,’ remarking that he’s quite certain that no one else will bring the Man of Tomorrow flowers.  The three heroes quickly discover that they’re wrong about that assumption…

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Alan Moore has always been a remarkable writing presence, and this issue is no exception, as each transition is perfectly constructed to take us from Superman’s real-world imprisonment to his dream-reality of Krypton.  What takes the story to the next level is that even in dreams, life is NOT idyllic, as Kal is quite disappointed that father Jor-El didn’t make it to his Firstday celebration.  Visiting dear old dad the next morning, Kal finds Jor consorting with religious radicals, still angry about his treatment after his long-ago prophecy failed to materialize…

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Moore has really done his homework here, too, as all the Kryptonian references, from Superman’s lost paramour Lyla Lerrol to the nomenclature to the “Kandor crater” where Brainiac stole the city centuries ago.  This was a pre-Crisis tale, originally, taking advantage of the decades of continuity that had accumulated, and using each bit to its best effect.  Case in point:  Moore’s revival of a minor villain from DC Comics Presents, who in his original incarnation was a bare shadow of Thanos who, himself, owed a great debt to Darkseid, making him a third-generation copy.  In the expert hands of this creative team, even the goofy likes of Mongul takes on a terrifying and inhuman presence…

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Mongul explains that it was HE who delivered the bloom (called a Black Mercy) to Superman, remarking that while the subjects COULD shrug it off easily, they simply don’t want to.  That’s a really cool little caveat to the powers of the flowers (sometimes presented in a chalice from the palace.)  Also cool and unique is Gibbons work on the art side (remember, this was roughly two years before the same creative team collaborated on Watchmen), which makes everything recognizable in context while giving it all new meaning.  The use of the red border in the flashbacks (kind of brilliant in hindsight, as Krypton resided under a red sun) adds both a clear differentiation to the changes between reality and fantasy, while giving the hallucinations a tinge of menace.  Of course, there’s also the actual menace, as the rogue political elements attack Kara Zor-El and beat her nearly to death in the streets.  Why?

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Because of her association with Jor-El, who invented the Phantom Zone projector, a method of rehabilitation considered to be cruel and unusual.  The world around him continues to break down, as Kal-El tries to get his family out of town, only to run into a protest by The Sword of Krypton.  While Wonder Woman is locked in mortal combat with Mongul (and losing quite badly) and Batman tries to save Superman from the Black Mercy, Superman is horrified to discover that the chairman of the rabid doomsday sect is none other than Jor-El himself!  Escaping from the city, Kal drives with his confused son to the site of the Kandor crater, to try to gather his thoughts…

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It’s incredibly subtle, but Batman suddenly finds that the Black Mercy seems to be loosening itself, as Superman’s subconscious mind fights against the creature, knowing that something is not right.  The sight of Superman reaching out for his son as the boy fades away is heart-rending, but then Batman manages to wrench the thing away…

…and it gets worse, as the Black Mercy attaches itself to Batman instead, and we see young Bruce overjoyed as his parents take down Joe Chill and comfort the frightened young Bruce rather than bleeding out in the streets of Gotham.  And then, it happens…

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Oh…. dear.  I love, love, LOVE the look of rage on Superman’s face in that final panel.  Jason barely manages to stammer out a description of the malefactor, followed by an enraged Man of Steel smashing through the walls of the Fortress to smash Mongul to the ground.  Meanwhile, Jason Todd does one of the most heroic things of his short (pre-resurrection) career…

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The battle between the two mighty aliens is incredibly brutal (especially by 1984 standards) as Mongul strikes exclusively to kill, after having battered Wonder Woman unconscious with his bare hands.  Of course, Superman may never have actually been this angry before…

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Mongul is stunned to find that Superman can actually hurt him, while Superman rages about the “happy” fantasy lie he has been forced to endure, and the two of them smash through the Fortress of Solitude without restraint or consideration for the damage they’re doing.  Moore’s descriptions of the battle are simply gorgeous, making standard fighty-fighty into a legendary conflict on a galactic scale.  The sight of his father’s statue holding aloft a replica of Krypton causes Superman to hesitate for a moment, giving Mongul the upper hand.  And then…

…and then…

…the words that no fan in the 80s ever expected to hear, and even 30 years later, I can’t quite believe that I’m typing:  JASON.  TODD.  SAVES.  THE.  WORLD.

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He even gets in a sharp comeback to Mongul’s previous dissing of him as inconsequential chattel, leading to one of the greatest Robin-related “Oh, hell YEAH!” moments in comic history.  Mongul’s mind is awash in scenes of gore, conquest and death, and he collapses, content in his delusions.  Superman muses that he’ll need to put the villain someplace secure, and gets in a perfect line as Robin asks where: “Have you ever noticed that black hole as you come in from the Western Spiral arm of the galaxy?”  Heh.  With the bad guy dispatched, the heroes present their friend with his birthday presents…

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We close with a view of Mongul’s blood-soaked dreams, fading to black on his hideous smile as he crushes entire worlds beneath his boots.  When this book came out, I was pretty new to comic books, but even my callow 13-year-old self knew that this issue was something special.  Never before has Wonder Woman been so awesome to me, never before had Superman gotten angry, never before had Jason “At This Point I’m Indistinguishable From Dick Grayson” Todd been in any way cool, but this book balances it all perfectly.  We get a Superman who is superhuman, yet relatable as a character, and a look at the dark under-bellies of the superheroes, something that hadn’t yet been beaten into the ground.  Superman Annual #11 is a wonderfully realized comic experience from top to bottom, a book so good that they’ve strip-mined everything in it for 30 years (I’m looking at YOU, Green Lantern Corps ongoing) and delivering whimsy, epic smashing, beautiful art and intricate character work, for a dead-solid perfect 5 out of 5 stars overall.  If only Jason Todd could be this awesome in every appearance…

Rating: ★★★★★

DID YOU READ THIS ISSUE? RATE IT!


Reader Rating

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The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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7 Comments

  1. Ian
    April 7, 2013 at 9:27 pm — Reply

    I’ve read comics for a long time and while many will disagree, for me Moore + Gibbons are about as good as the art form gets.

  2. Matty B
    April 8, 2013 at 1:35 am — Reply

    The Justice League episode of this story is really well done.

    http://youtu.be/2csan4a9Fvo

  3. April 8, 2013 at 4:17 am — Reply

    Thank you for another great retro-review. Theys are one of the Best things on the net.

  4. April 9, 2013 at 5:53 pm — Reply

    One of my favorite Superman stories ever! How many times have we seen Supes get mad??? Alan Moore is one of the best comics writers ever!

  5. Robert Ortega
    August 16, 2015 at 5:17 pm — Reply

    One thing that is not spelled out in this story — and yet strikes me as a major story point–is the question of why Superman’s vision of Alt-Krypton is such a crumbling, crap-sack dystopia. Despite the recurring “He is content” mantra, Kal-El is only truly content during the earliest stages of his dream — and even that is, in retrospect, slightly marred by the absence of his estranged father from his birthday — excuse me, “firstday” — party The answer is, I think, that almost from the start Superman’s subconscious was fighting the Black Mercy’s illusion by making Krypton flawed and dark enough to spoil the silver-age perfection the honey-trap required to be escape-proof. A nice bit of subtle storytelling.

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