Retro Review: Action Comics #775 (March 2001)
An issue that loudly answers questions of Superman's relevance...
...but does so with mixed messages and visualizations of the bloody carnage that it's ostensibly arguing against.
What’s so funny about truth, justice and the American way? We’re about to find out…
Your Major Spoilers (retro) review of Action Comics #775 awaits!
ACTION COMICS #775
Writer: Joe Kelly
Penciler: Doug Mahnke/Lee Bermejo
Inker: Tom Nguyen/Dexter Vines/Jim Royal/Jose Marzan/Wade Von Grawbadger/Wayne Faucher
Letterer: The Gang At Comicraft
Editor: Eddie Berganza
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: $3.75
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $20.00
Previously in Action Comics: We all know the drill: Rocketed from a dead planet, powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, faster than a speeding blah blah blah fishcakes… There are those who claim that Superman is old-school, that he’s boring, that having immense powers AND being a kind and heroic person is unrealistic or bland. There are those who would prefer that their heroes be vengeful, that they be angry, that they respond to crime with extreme prejudice and leave no survivors. Case in point: The Elite, a new group of media darlings who have been leaving massive carnage behind them everywhere they go, in the name of making the world a better place…
Of course, the “seek-and-destroy” method of superheroics doesn’t sit well with Clark Kent, for good reasons. He arrived seconds too late to help in Tripoli, instead dealing with the massive clean-up effort, and wondering if these upstarts are the wave of his day-job’s future. Sadly, it seems that the general public (and his fellow journalists) have already made up their minds.
Jack, by the way, is Jack Ryder, also known as The Creeper, though I don’t know if he was actively a super-duper at the time of this writing. (Things were wonky in the wake of Zero Hour and such, and the DCU was pretty fluxy about such matters.) Either way, Ryder’s words hit Superman pretty hard, leaving the patron saint of superheroes shaken to the core. When The Elite transmit their manifesto to every computer in the world, Superman and Steel (John Henry Irons, not Hank Heywood) pool their resources to track down the new “heroes”, but even Steel can see something is bothering Superman.
One has to admire Superman’s dedication to duty, immediately throwing himself into the crisis at hand rather than brooding over his personal feelings (*coughBatmancough*), racing to Japan to confront a new threat, only to find himself taken down by some sort of mental attack, leaving him nearly paralyzed, forced to watch The Elite brutally murder the villains he came to stop. Worse still, Superman discovers that his incapacitation was due to The Elite themselves, rather than any plan of the villains. Confronting the team’s leader, one Manchester Black, Superman insists that he will not stand for more killing in the name of heroism. Black snarks back at him that he’s officially obsolete, teleporting Superman away without a second thought.
Clark’s spirits continue to lower as the public rallies behind the Elite, and even a pep talk from Pa Kent can’t bring him back to himself, and his super-hearing allows him to hear all the discussions about how he is officially past his prime and useless in the new world order. (Sounds a bit familiar to regular comics readers, though…) Still, he is the Man of Steel, the Metropolis Marvel, the original caped guy, which allows him to stop an alien invasion with his wits, and zero loss of life. Manchester Black, however, is still not impressed.
In front of The Elite’s massive battalion of mobile cameras, Superman punches Elite member The Hat to keep him from murdering the already-defeated villains, setting in motion the conflict that we knew had to happen…
For those paying attention, the year 2001 was the year of The Authority over at Image Comics, a group with whom The Elite share many similarities, while Manchester Black feels very Vertigo-John-Constantine in his execution, none of which is coincidental. The cyclical argument of whether or not Superman’s methods and morality are antiquated was once again at a high boil circa the turn of the century, though not as much as it would be just a few months further into the year 2001. Also important to remember, Superman was happily married then, allowing him to finally explain to someone just how badly his confidence has been shaken, and how nervous his confrontation with the Elite is making him.
That, my friends, is one of the reasons that I am saddened by the negating of the majority of superhero marriages by caveat of the editors’ boys club. It’s a two-page sequence that allows our hero to be vulnerable and human for a little bit, a moment that underlines the man inside the Super. The next morning, Superman takes the Gary-Cooper-in-High-Noon walk to his possible death, standing tall against The Elite, as Manchester Black sneers, “Time to wake up, little man. The dream is over.”
Manchester and his thugs transport themselves (and Superman) to one of Jupiter’s moons, where the Man of Steel takes a moment to try to reason with them, to talk The Elite into giving up their violent ways. They refuse, and attack en masse. “Rule number one,” Manchester explains, “He who has the power makes the rules.”
“Reality is pain, bile and darkness,” rants the leader of the Elite, as they pile all their powers one, attacking Superman at full power, with murderous intentions, leaving behind only a shredded remnant of his iconic cape. Manchester celebrates another deceased antagonist, but the quiet voice of Superman suddenly interrupts his gloating. “I see now… I made the mistake of treating you like people.”
And one of his lieutenants literally explodes.
The terrifying realization of what Superman is truly capable of washes over Manchester Black, as an enraged Man Of Tomorrow confronts him…
As Manchester Black tries to murder the first superhero with his mind, something entirely different happens…
“But… you can’t do this!” blubbers Manchester, in tears at the realization of his personal philosophy of power over all else, raging that everyone on Earth watched Superman dismantle The Elite. (Funny how murder is suddenly a crime when his friends are on the receiving end of the violence, isn’t it?) Superman then calmly explains…
Moreover, reveals Superman, all the Elite members are perfectly (if out cold from a little Super-manhandling), and that Manchester’s own living ship allowed the Man of Steel full access to get free of Manchester. As for the “lobotomy”, that’s nothing more than a focused concussion delivered at super-speed, shutting down his psionic powers long enough to get him in psychic dampeners and locked away. Manchester once again regains his courage, shouting that he’ll be gunning for Superman even harder once he recovers…
As someone who has read comics for perhaps far too many years, it’s not easy to dissect this story meaningfully. Certainly I appreciate its argument that Superman’s morality isn’t ancient and outmoded, and I do appreciate seeing a Superman who is aware of the flaws of his ‘Big Blue Boy Scout’ persona. Unfortunately, Doug Mahnke’s art has the effect of transforming everyone into a cadaverous hulking monster, leaving us with a story that preaches one thing but shows us another. The fact that The Elite spun off into their own series shortly thereafter further complicates the issue, as their general modus operandi didn’t change. Still, in the wake of the movie Man of Steel’s controversial steps in dealing with Zod, it’s clear that the argument raised by the story isn’t resolved even a decade-plus later. Action Comics #775 is an interesting story, one that makes a strong argument in an unclear manner, but sort of balances out into a chest-thumping moment of self-definition for Superman, earning 3.5 out of 5 stars overall. Even with our new armored, darker Superman, it’s a story that reminds us that the truest strength is that of character…