“Acting on your best behavior/ Turn your back on Mother Nature/ Everybody, wants to rule the world…”
—Tears for Fears, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”
With November’s plethora of Zero Year tie-ins, it is fitting that Action #25 situates a young Superman in a liminal state. Clark Kent here is neither quite the embodiment of youthful, wish-fulfillment, as in the early parts of Morrison’s run on Action, nor the wise, restrained, and nostalgic Superman of Action #24. He’s a twenty-something, testing the limits of his strength, and setting the stage for his own greatness—and like most twenty-somethings, he learns a lesson in humility.
Action #25, to put it succinctly, pits a young Superman against a hurricane and his understanding of his own strength. Early in the issue, Superman confronts and easily defeats a group of neo-nazi-stand-in purists bent on purging America of “undocumented immigrants.” The action here is fast, fun, and well rendered, but it serves only to tee Superman up. After defeating them, Superman asks himself does “all this power make me a bully?”
Does it? Superman defeats a vile gang of straw-men (complete with near-swastika iconography), and burns down their wearhouse. Is he standing in the for the legitimate function of the state or doing society a service? While the two aren’t mutually exclusive, young Superman here is really beginning to question the veracity of the application of his strength.
Immediately thereafter, Superman decides to head to Gotham to put a stop to the impending mega-hurricane, which will decimate the blacked out city if left unchecked. While leaping through the air to hitch a ride on an army aircraft—he hasn’t learned to fly yet—Superman says to himself “Yeah, I know its a force of nature” referring to the hurricane, “but so am I.” Cocky, arrogant, and dying to test his might on something that isn’t a human being or speeding train, Superman takes on his biggest challenge yet.
The next several pages depict Superman attempting to whip up a counter force to the hurricane, which hopefully will “break its back.” While it is a little unclear as to why exactly, this plan fails. I think this is the first time I have ever seen Superman fail to stop a natural disaster. Young Superman simply messes up and in the face of the hurricane seems merely human.
In the final scene of the issues, Superman, recently thrown to shore, helps a stranded couple build shelter. He mourns that he’s “not strong enough” to stop the hurricane or move the boat the need for shelter. The elderly man replies “we’ll get it done together,” and the issue closes. This is quite moving and quite inspiring for a reader of Superman. I can’t recall a time where Superman ultimately failed at accomplishing a goal or was genuinely helped by a human. And it got me thinking about the problem of Superman’s strength.
For me, Superman has always been an interesting character on the fringe of my comicbook experience. He’s cool for sure, but not always compelling. Next-level bonkers fights with Darkseid, which level few city blocks are great, but I never feel like he is in any real danger—especially after the spectacular bungle of his death in 1992. Superman is often interesting only with respect to his restraint. For me, Superman—the icon and the logic of the character—remains problematic because of an important question that is rarely answered: Why isn’t Superman a fascist, authoritarian megalomaniac? We’ve seen him turn back time, we’ve seen outsmart extra-dimensional beings, and his arguably weaker cousin (in the New 52 is cousin?) Superboy, once punched reality so hard it broke. Obviously, Superman could easily rule the world, so why doesn’t he?
Most authors of Superman stories, including Miller and Morrison, sidestep the issue by asking a slightly different questions, the most common of which being: Why doesn’t Superman just kill all his enemies?
In “Superman vs the Elite”, which is an adaptation of “What’s so Funny about Truth, Justice and the American Way,” Superman sets up an elaborate ruse in which he apparently kills the Elite one by one in increasingly brutal ways. Superman eventually triumphantly and a touch sanctimoniously reveals that his robots saved each of the Elite just in the nick of time, and more importantly that violence is bad. Cue moral solipsism. To teach the whole world a lesson about his power, he displays and tempers it. We get a little bit of an answer here. Superman doesn’t simply kill his enemies because he is governed by an equally superhuman conscience. Something instilled in him by the unique upbring of his adoptive mid-western parents.
But storylines and resolutions like these, leave me uncomfortable. Superman’s conscience and uniquely American virtues, are just that—uniquely American and therefore located temporally and geographically. Red Son, Mark Millar’s 2003, Eisner winning, thought experiment, breaks open this problem of geography. Briefly, in Red Son, baby Kal-El, lands in a Ukranian cooperative farm, instead of in the mid-West, and ultimately become the benevolent dictator of the Soviet Union post-Stalin. In a beautifully written and artfully crafted book, Millar explores what it would be like if in fact Superman weren’t American. While the book ends in a little hand-wavery and with funky predestination paradox, it artfully confronts ideas of Superman as the icon of American values. Action #25, however, confronts the problem of Superman’s power more or less head on, with no alternate reality time-paradoxes and no legion of robots to help him.
Action #25 reveals a Superman being beaten by a force of nature and receiving help from his fellow man. He can’t punch this enemy into submission by any means. This early failure then, becomes a means of explanation for Superman’s future humility and self-awareness when it the application of force is required. In the final moment of this issue, Superman comes to realize his own potential status as an icon—not an icon of strength, but an icon of unity.