“What If Superman was Hopelessly Insane?”: Mark Waid’s Irredeemable
The man who made me love Superman, now makes me terrified of someone with such god-like powers.
I never really appreciated Superman when I was a kid.
While I perked up a little in elementary school when he died, for the most part he had always struck me as too boring and too…good. As I got older, with characters like Spiderman and Batman to satisfy my need for superhero comics, I never really had the desire to reevaluate that early prejudice against the Man of Steel. Then one day a friend mine forced a copy of Kingdom Come into my hands saying, “Just read it,” and suddenly everything changed. That book taught me, more then any other work in the character’s vast canon, to respect Superman–and as an added bonus it taught that any comic with the name Mark Waid on it was worth checking out.
Now Mr. Waid has returned to the template that his writing, even more than Alex Ross’s elegant paintbrush, made real for me, with his dark reimagining of Earth’s adopted son in the aptly titled, Irredeemable. Published by BOOM! studios, a company that Mark Waid is now editor-in-chief of, with art by Peter Krause, the Eisner-nominated ongoing series takes us to an Earth devastated by the it’s Superman equivalent, Plutonian, a one time beloved hero, now unstoppable mass murderer. The book, which I discovered at Long Beach Con, was put in my hands by a Boom Studios employee who asked me, “What if Superman was hopelessly insane?”
This is not the first time that this question has been asked or that Superman has been reimagined in a darker and more dangerous context. Alan Moore had a Superman-esque character in Top Ten who ran a pedophile ring of underage sidekicks; Brian Michael Bendis explored the ramifications of a being with the Kryptonian’s god-like abilities suddenly snapping in Powers: The Sell Outs, and of course there are titles like Squadron Supreme, Watchmen, and countless others that played around with the Superman archetype. There are also examples within Superman comics themselves where writers have explored what an unrestrained Man of Steel would be like (I still remember the ass-whupping Superman gave Batman when he was under Maxwell Lord’s control in the lead-up to Infinite Crisis).
The point being: the idea of a Superman out of control, turned villain, or just plain crazy, is hardly new. The character is so central to the superhero mythos and so crucial a figure in the history of the genre that he is a prime target for this type of revision. Yet the thing that makes Irredeemable so terrifyingly original, so compelling, is not that it asks, “What if an all-powerful superhero suddenly goes unhinged and starts killing everybody?”, but that it makes the case that such an event is not just highly probable when dealing with someone with such unimaginable power, but almost inevitable.
For the characters in the comicbook, Plutonian’s wave of destruction, which takes the lives of millions and decimates the superhero population, seems to come out of the blue. Yet, as is revealed to the reader, there was not one singular event that turned a previously squeaky clean do-gooder into a rampaging monster. Instead Plutonian’s insanity is the byproduct of an entire life lived on Earth with the powers of a god.
Waid offers a deep psychological construction in his vision of the Plutonian’s pathology and is able to reveal it to the reader in clever vignettes throughout the series. As a child Plutonian lived with foster parents who were terrified of his abilities. As an adult the very powers that made him such an important hero also kept him ostracized and isolated from the rest of the world. In some ways the Superman origin story is ever-present in Waid’s discussion of Plutonian’s life.
It was the life he was supposed to have; a family that loved him and taught him responsibility, an upbringing that would turn him into a beloved hero that would inspire the world. Yet without the Smallville upbringing, and a Ma and Pa Kent to show him the way, Plutonian’s childhood dysfunction only leads to more issues as he gets older. In some ways he is very much like Superboy Prime in the Infinite Crisis storyline: he has this vision of how his life is supposed to be but his attempts to realize it are thwarted by his underlying mental instability.
Constraint and a desire for love are two important factors in Waid’s development of the character. As an all-powerful being, Plutonian has had to restrain himself his whole life. As a child he must constantly be wary of losing control. He can’t play games with other children because he might accidentally hurt someone. This lack of participation only compounds his isolation as kids he could destroy with little effort pick on him.
As he gets older he is unable to have sex without a magic candle (it’s much cooler in the story then I’m making it sound) less he kill the woman he is with. As a hero, he must constantly restrain his powers to avoid hurting the people he is trying to save. With such constant pressure to always hold back, Waid shows just how easy it would be for anyone to crack with the demands of such constant vigilance forced upon them.
Love is another aspect that Waid uses to bring Plutonian’s mindset so believably into the real world. The very powers that force him to constantly restrain himself also prevent the establishing of normal relationships with people. He wants to love and to be loved, but many of his attempts to realize this are corrupted. One chilling example comes when Plutonian visits a former foster family. The family has not spoken out loud for years for fear that Plutonian will be able to find them with his super hearing. The couple’s son is mentally and physically disabled because as a child Plutonian wanted to hug the baby and ended up accidentally squeezing too hard.
All of these issues present the equation for Plutonian’s deteriorating mental condition. It all comes to a head when a city is destroyed because of his negligence. After that he snaps. What happens when a God decides he no longer desires the love of the ungrateful insects he has spent his life trying to protect? What happens when the man who has been forced to control his behavior with sisyphean intensity suddenly decides to let go of his self-control? The answer to the question is manifested in some pretty terrifying scenes in the series. In addition to the millions he has murdered and the cities he has laid to waste, Waid shows the reader some less abstract and more bone-chilling examples of Plutonian’s insanity, such as the one shown below:
Peter Krause’s artwork functions excellently with Waid’s writing. At times it doesn’t quite fit the content; the style is so classic superhero and the coloring so vibrant that it seems that it doesn’t seem to exactly match the dark plot of Irredeemable. This guy should be drawing Astrocity, not a tale about a genocidal Superman. Yet ultimately that only serves to fuel the goals of the narrative. The classic nature of the artwork only further exemplifies the violent break with traditional hero story. In a way, Krause’s art represents the style of the story that should have been told had Plutonian’s life not taken such a tragic turn.
Irredeemable is no doubt going to earn a spot in the canon of revisionary superhero works that looked at the legacy of it’s precursors and said, “Now what?” It is scary, entertaining, and plays with the expectations and preconceptions of its readers. Furthermore, while it is thematically and structurally reliant on some of the archetypes that it reimagines, it qualitatively stands on its own feet. Waid and Krause have constructed an excellent story that forces the reader to confront to harsh potential for malice surreptitiously hidden amongst the capes and masks.