The Marvel/DC Co-Fan Club 665 members · 516 stories
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A bit of context for this musing; I’ve recently taken a few looks into Frank Miller’s acclaimed The Dark Knight Returns, both what I can find of the comic itself and its animated adaptation. As a Batman story I suppose it’s alright–and I know I’m gonna get some flak for calling one of the most famous comics of all time just “alright”–but one thing that really turns me off to it is its depiction of Superman; reduced to a living Cold War weapon against the Soviet Union, almost blindly answering yes to, as Bruce puts it “anyone with a badge of a flag”. A “good American citizen” gone blindly haywire. Even with the story’s ending and his obvious distaste for the situation, as a Superman fan I feel more than a bit put off by it.

But if nothing else it at least got me thinking: what would happen if the Man of Tomorrow was actually caught up in a situation where the United States went to full-scale war with another country? What would happen when the American Way goes in places that Clark Kent may not agree with or want to repeat himself? How could he fight the despair and ravages that such a war would bring on the world? How can a man who wants to help everyone the world over, despite being a primarily American icon and citizen, choose a side when people are killing and dying on both?

Now I don’t know if this has actually been explored before, but it’s been growing on my mind for a while now.

Let us consider a hypothetical for a moment, taking just the Soviet Coldbringer part of The Dark Knight Returns and using it as the basis for a purely Superman-centric story. A territorial skirmish between the USA and Russia or whoever else ends up being the “enemy” country boils over, resulting in the launch of a nuclear warhead right at the United States. Superman intervenes, redirecting the warhead up outside the atmosphere where it detonates. Unfortunately, it works exactly as the Coldbringer does in TDKR; an electromagnetic pulse shuts down electricity all over the country, and weather patterns are catastrophically altered. The United States is caught in the grip of the full effects of a nuclear winter, all while a full-scale nuclear war brews between the two superpowers.

It goes about as well as you expect, both for the country and for Superman. Disaster break out all over; crops die, fires rage, blizzards and hurricanes ravage the land. Superman is stretched thin trying to help; he may be able to fly faster than a speeding bullet, but he’s still just one man. To make matters worse, he is being called upon to derail enemy forces building up outside our borders while the United States military recouperates and rebuilds itself. He does his best to minimize casualties, even saving enemy troops from death…but the government begins to not take too kindly to that after a while. This is a war, after all, and Superman should be prepared to do his duty as an American citizen and protect his country, whatever it takes. “War is dirty,” someone, perhaps the President, tells him. “But sometimes the only way to win in life is to steel yourself and put the dirt out of your mind while you do the work.”

Superman is torn and beleagured; from the fatigue of trying to keep so many people safe, from disasters and each other. From the pressures of choosing between his morals and the ones the American Way he once stood for proudly now want him to adopt. And from criticism too; many blame him for the tragedy. After all, he could have just dismantled the warhead instead of taking it up and letting it explode, right? This is on him as much as it is on the enemy.

Clark is despondant and weary, worried about where the world is going and where he’ll stand in it. But then comes Lois–thank God for her–and in this instance proves to be his hero. She talks to him, lifts his spirits, gives him inspiration and advice.

“I know you don’t like it when people lift you up as a savior or a symbol, Clark–you’ve always been modest like that. But people look up to you, and I think they need to now more than ever. Use that. I know you know that people can be better. We can. And I think a lot of us wish to be. Sometimes we just…just need a light to show us the way. And all it takes is for one man or woman to decide to be a light. You know what you believe in. Show them that. Let them see what you stand for and why.”

With renewed resolve, Superman goes out to the people and talks. He tells them he knows the world is in a terrible place; it always is. But he wants it to be better, and he’ll do what he does for as long as it takes until it gets so. And even if it won’t, he’ll still keep trying. The only fight he’ll fight is for a world of dignity and honor and justice…and anyone can do that, red capes notwithstanding. He calls on the people to rise up and be better…and they begin to listen. People rally and unite and reach out, coming to the aide of each other and Superman as they work to maintain and restore the country and push for a peaceful settlement and an aversion to war. A new movement springs up. Thousands march peacefully in the streets or work to help at disaster sites, a great many wearing Superman’s symbol. Things are beginning to look up.

But the war still looms. And with a full scale nuclear exchange on the horizon, how can Superman save his country and his world and bring about peace without the sacrifice of bloodshed?

…okay, confession time, I may or may not have just let my mind go with that scenario there.

Anyway, I think that’d be my baseline for a story like that. Maybe others have different ideas.

But it still remains, to me, a curious thought to ponder: what happens when a good Superman finds himself on war’s doorstep?

7477652
I know that some comics have touched on the idea of Superman and war before. In some way or another. I think that in the Golden Age one of the first Luthor stories (before he even gained the first name "Lex") had him as a war profiteer and Superman got onto his trail because of Clark Kent going to whatever-place-it-was as a war correspondent. I also remember a Bronze Age story arc where Superman intervened in some Middle East conflict (like, trying to overthrow some dictator who was hideously abusing his people), which kicked off an international hullaballoo because various foreign powers saw the American Superman as an interventionist tool of American government - this caused a fair bit of angst for Clark too, as it made some Muslim citizens in Metropolis regard the Man of Steel with suspicion and fear. (Lex Luthor was *also* quick to exploit this crisis too, stirring up Islamophobia in Metropolis - reading that comic, written sometime in the 80s, was just kinda depressing in light of current politics and whatnot.)

You raise an intriguing hypothesis about reimagining the Coldbringer from TDKR in the context of a Superman story. I will admit, while I still have a certain fondness for the comic itself (it *is* one of the first Batman comics of any sort that I ever read, so I do have to credit it with opening the floodgates for me, so to speak) I will also readily note that - in the wider context of DC Comics history - it does get massively overstated and even distorted. People forget that Batman comics before TDKR were already going back to a darker and more serious tone (Dennis O'Neil, Steve Englehart, Gerry Conway, Doug Moench were already doing this and without the particular Miller flavor of this story)... and more to the point, that "The Dark Knight Returns" was not intended to be a "canon" story. But it caught so many eyes and influenced so many subsequent thoughts about Batman that it folded back into canon anyway...

I sometimes wonder about the idea of revisiting some ideas from TDKR in a non-Batman-centric light. Imagine the scenario of the comic's wider DC Universe from a more objective, less pro-Batman attitude: The Justice League has disbanded due to public pressure. Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern have left the world behind, essentially. Superman, in order to still save lives and not be treated as an outlaw by the public (or rather, by the government specifically) agrees to do behind-the-scenes work for the USA. He doesn't agree with everything the state does, but he feels that it's better to be allies rather than outright enemies, and it's still a way for him to play some kind of positive role in the world around him. You could probably get a really interesting story of the idea of Superman struggling with this burden to be professional, if he can reform the system (or if that is even possible)...

7477671

I also remember a Bronze Age story arc where Superman intervened in some Middle East conflict (like, trying to overthrow some dictator who was hideously abusing his people), which kicked off an international hullaballoo because various foreign powers saw the American Superman as an interventionist tool of American government - this caused a fair bit of angst for Clark too, as it made some Muslim citizens in Metropolis regard the Man of Steel with suspicion and fear. (Lex Luthor was *also* quick to exploit this crisis too, stirring up Islamophobia in Metropolis - reading that comic, written sometime in the 80s, was just kinda depressing in light of current politics and whatnot.)

I may remember reading that, or at least the first part. Was that one of John Byrne's? Set in Qurac or some other Middle Eastern stand-in?

I just remember one of Byrne's where Superman takes on the military force of Qurac and then the plot becomes about him being mentally assaulted by some woman with telepathic powers.

7477679
Yes, that sounds about right. It was definitely Byrne-era, though I'm pretty sure that the latter story - the one about Superman in the aftermath of that whole situation, and Lex Luthor exploiting it to his benefit - was written by someone else. Maybe Roger Stern, pretty sure it was his name on the cover.

7477679
If I'm not mistaken, in one of the latest issues of a superman comic, it shows him doing more or less just what normal humans can or could do. Sure, he could go and sweep all tanks and guns away from soldiers, but he doesn't do that. Instead, he joins the ranks of protesters in another country, and just stands there. Never giving them a reason to go violent, never trying to use his invulnerability and strength to demand change in ways normal humans can't. He just stands there, joining the peaceful protest, until he has to go, because he can't do otherwise.

P.S. I found The Dark Knight Returns to be quite sucky, myself. There was nothing in there of interest at all. The best critique I can say for it is that it isn't the sequel, which I just threw away when I saw fem-robin wearing a furry cat suit and skates.

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