By now we’ve seen a few attempts to tell Superman stories. In “What’s So Funny about Truth, Justice and the American Way,” for example, in the face of a corrupt and broken world, he’s been incorruptible and unshakable in his conviction that humanity can be inspired to be just as good as he is. The same is pretty much true in “Superman for the Animals,” “Camelot Falls,” and most other straight takes on Superman – Superman will try to save the world by uplifting humanity, even if that means he has to fight forever, even if that means he will eventually fail. Alpha One, the Superman analog in The Mighty, has a different approach. He wants to save the world, too. But his means are forceful, clandestine, and sinister. They turn out to involve rape, torture, and murder.
The Mighty, by Peter Tomasi and Keith Champagne, is told mostly from the perspective of Gabriel Cole, Alpha One’s chum. Alpha One saved Gabriel’s life as a child; as an adult, Gabriel is in charge of Section Omega, a police force that works with Alpha One. Gabriel is like Jimmy Olsen: the events of his life are defined by his proximity to his idol, the mightiest hero in the world (and, in the case of Alpha One, the only superhero in the world). But even so, Gabriel, like Jimmy, is his own man with a brain and a conscience, and Gabriel can’t help but note Alpha One’s suspicious behavior. This is what The Mighty is about: Gabriel Cole versus Alpha One and his sinister plot to save the world. Jimmy Olsen versus a dark Superman.
Gabriel’s inquiry into Alpha One’s sinister plot moves the story along, and the twists and turns are pretty damn good. In the opening pages of the first issue, for instance, we are shown Alpha One’s official origin story: he was a soldier caught in a nuclear weapons test, and that’s where his miraculous powers come from. Later Gabriel learns (as, perhaps, we suspected all along) that Alpha One is really, like Superman, a refugee from another planet. Another big twist is that he has been causing many of the disasters he has gone on to prevent, in part to win humanity’s trust; and, the biggest twist of all, is that, for all of this, he really does want to save the world. The most important thing the plot does, though, is whittle away at the other characters, the other conflicts, and the floating mysteries, leaving in the end the two characters and the one relationship that really matter – Alpha One and Gabriel Cole.
They and their relationship is the crux of the story. Like Jimmy Olsen, Alpha One gives Gabriel a signal device. Not a nondescript and removable like a watch, but something more lasting and intimate: a transmitter embedded in his hand. Indeed, the transmitter is in the shape of an alpha that takes up most of Gabriel’s palm. Gabriel can never forget Alpha One, nor that, as it were, his hand is always being held.
This intimacy and intensity characterize their relationship, or at least Alpha One’s part in it. Issue one ends with a classic Superman moment: Alpha One is hovering above the city, looking in from the outside, listening in on Gabriel’s conversation with his wife about whether he should become head of Section Omega.
Alpha One and his motives even this early in the story seem suspect and inscrutable. Gabriel and his wife have just kissed and said, “I love you.” What is Alpha One thinking? Surely he is glad that Gabriel will accept the job. But does he gain some kind of vicarious or voyeuristic pleasure from witnessing this moment of intimacy? Does he feel jealousy? Is he already calculating how he can remove Gabriel’s wife from the equation?
Most of the time, Alpha One isn’t quite so opaque, even if the emotions on display are designed to manipulate Gabriel. In an early interaction between the two in issue two, he manifests a kind of creepy intensity:
In issue three, he jokes around with Gabriel, self-consciously trying to put him at ease:
In issue four, he tries to apologize to Gabriel and his wife for his bizarre and clingy behavior by cooking them dinner – and coming off like a lummox:
This panel showcases, by the way, one side of Peter Snejbjerg’s art for this book. In a story that is often so violent and dark, Snejbjerg manages to work in a surprising number of panels like this, particularly in the early issues, that have a perfect mix of strangeness and goofiness that alleviate the tension and make the reader wonder whether he has properly evaluated the book’s tone and Alpha One’s motives.
As it turns out, the reader has correctly evaluated them; Alpha One indeed wants his chum all to himself, though this is really incidental to his sinister plan to save the world. He just likes the guy is all. He wants it to be the two of them against the world – or rather, saving the world.
The relationship becomes pretty creepy pretty fast, especially for Gabriel as he starts to unravel the details of Alpha One’s plot. Indeed, he becomes the only thing standing in the way of Alpha One’s plot, especially once he discovers Alpha One’s secret vulnerability, and, even so, Alpha One loves his chum all the same. Alpha One goes out of his way not to hurt Gabriel. He expects Gabriel to figure out his plot. The password to his mainframe and its secrets, in fact, is “chum,” and, at the end of their showdown when Gabriel executes his devastating gambit, all Alpha One says, “Good work, chum.”
This is the best part about The Mighty. Alpha One is enough like Superman to be really interesting. He is, in his own way, compassionate, and he does have a vision about how he can save the world. But unlike Superman, he doesn’t have any faith in humanity, and his vision comes at great cost to the world and involves putting himself in charge of it (just as his plan to uplift his chum Gabriel involves monopolize and ultimately ruining Gabriel’s life). The book also captures something important about Jimmy Olsen: Superman isn’t friends with him because of coincidence. Jimmy, like Gabriel, is genuinely someone extraordinary and special – and, like Gabriel, if Superman really turned bad, Jimmy would turn on him too. And Jimmy and Superman, especially in the Silver Age, had some of the intensity, intimacy, obsessiveness, and weirdness to their chuminess that Gabriel and Alpha One have.
(Scans shamelessly borrowed from Superdickery)
In my mind, The Mighty is a kind of companion piece to Irredeemable and The Life and Times of Savior 28. The three debuted around the same time and tried to deal with different takes on a more realistic version of the Superman story. Alpha One is a dark, calculating Superman who is willing to do horrible things to save the world. But the world and Gabriel in particular are in many ways better than he is, and in the process of saving it, Alpha One’s plots and violence darken the world and make it a worse place. The Plutonian, the Superman analog in Irredeemable, is corrupted and deranged by the world and its pettiness, and he decides to lay waste to it rather than save it. The Mighty and Irredeemable are both stories about a Superman with nearly the same powers, but without he superhuman morality and confidence in humanity. In that regard, Savior 28 is most like Superman: he’s a good man who wants to inspire humanity and save the world, and he won’t stop fighting, no matter how futile or interminable the struggle may seem. But that’s not something the people in power can abide, and, unlike Superman, Savior 28 is breakable. But we’ll be taking that up another time.