Once you read a few Superman stories, it becomes clear how neurotic the character sometimes can be. For decades, he compulsively hid his identity from nearly everybody he knew and loved, sometimes going to absurd lengths (an issue by Otto Binder sticks out in my mind, one in which Jimmy somehow learns his identity and Superman spends a whole day convincing him that he’s insane so that he’ll dismiss it). He really cares what other people think, too, and a recurring scene is Superman flying around or hovering above Metropolis, listening to what people say about him. Superman actively wants to stand for something and to make us better, and that means doing things the hard way. If Batman had his powers, the world would change overnight. Batman doesn’t really care about making people better, just stopping crime and giving people who are already good a better world to live in. He wouldn’t care for national boundaries, or representing America or freedom, or convincing authorities, or collecting evidence. For Superman, inspiring and bettering people is more important than getting the job done easily, or even permanently. That’s Joe Kelly’s “What’s So Funny about Truth, Justice, and the American Way” (Action Comics 775) is about.
The premise of “What’s So Funny” is that four super-powered anti-heroes called the Elite spontaneously show up on the world scene.
They’re a thinly-veiled analog to the Authority: they’ve decided to take matters into their own hands and, without responsibility to any government, or anyone at all for that matter, to save the world. To them, that means doing away with supervillains once-and-for-all by killing them (and like the Authority, they’re led by a gruff, irreverent Brit and taken up residence in an inter-dimensional ship). A few pages before we meet them, we see the kind of carnage they leave in their wake:
Their powers are ill-defined, but quite extraordinary. This all occurred in the four minutes it took for Superman to arrive on the scene, and, in addition to the giant ape, who was attacking Libya, they killed two-thousand Libyan soldiers. In an early confrontation, they freeze Superman’s electrons and kill a team of villains before his eyes. But they don’t want to fight him; they want him to stay out of their way. As they say in their manifesto, “You asked for us, world. Now you got us. Be good, or we’ll blow your house with a fifty-megaton cold-seeking cluster bomb. Love us.”
And, as Superman sees as he flies around Metropolis, many people welcome the Elite. Sure, it’s easy to talk about “The Right Thing,” but what’s the point of putting guys like Szasz or the Joker into prison? What do you do about villains who don’t have any demands, but just want to blow up Tokyo? As another reporter tells Clark, “The world is sick and broken, Kent. People want someone to fix it.”
This is what drives Superman to challenging the Elite to a fight. Not their brutal, illegal methods and the fact that they are killing villains. What does it is that people are buying into their rhetoric and giving up on the idea of “The Right Thing,” giving up on Superman. So, he fights them on a moon of Jupiter. It’s been established that they are vastly more powerful than he is, and things look bleak at first when their leader gives him a super-stroke.
But, using cunning and speed, he separates them and beats the crap out of them. In fact, he convinces their leader, and the reader, that he’s killed them at first, and their leader is reduced to a sobbing heap. This is all televised, and Superman’s idea is to shock and revolt the world – to show how scary it is if we let our heroes cross the line and to keep the world from wanting this in our heroes.
I like this story, and it’s gratifying to see the Authority get their asses kicked by Superman. But it has a problem that stories like this often have. Superman argues that might doesn’t make right and the ends don’t justify the means, that principles and morals mean something. But how does he prove this? By being stronger than they are and beating them in a fight. So 1) Superman’s moral system is supposedly superior, but 2) that doesn’t matter because he can beat them at their own game. That’s really unsatisfying.
Where the Elite’s solution to villains and evil is to kill them, Superman’s solution is to put these guys in jail. Sure, they may get out and wreak some havoc, maybe even kill some innocent people, but then to fight them, beat them, and put them in jail again. His solution is to endure loss and to fight forever. He says as much on the last page of the story.
But this take is easy for a guy like Superman: he’s a Superhero, the greatest of the Superheroes. He has the luxury of fighting forever, and he doesn’t feel envy, greed, weakness, weariness, inferiority, or hunger the way we do. As the Elite’s leader tells him, he’ll never have to “try eatin’ yer own dog to survive, cause yer sister lost ‘er hands in a sweatshop.” If he doesn’t feel fear the way we do, what does his courage mean? What does it mean for him to show restraint and not kill when the stakes are in some ways so much less for him?
These are hard questions, and even if it is unsatisfying, “What’s So Funny“ does touch on them. When it looks like Superman has brutally killed the Elite one by one, certainly I was repulsed, and, like the audience he was trying to convince, I knew more than ever that this wasn’t what I want from my Superman. The point is that we may stumble and fall, make amoral choices that debase us, do things to protect ourselves and our loved ones at the cost of our souls. But Superman never will, and he has the luxury of doing this because he isn’t us and his world is different from our own. But why make him and his world more like us and ours instead of the other way around? Why should we warp in imitation of our base world the best our imagination has to offer? A consequence of this, however, is that this means we are required to admit that there are just some stories we simply can’t tell with Superman and that there are problems he simply can’t deal with.