A while back I did a list for Topless Robot of the "30 Best Origins for Superman". While there was some argument over the rankings for each entry, the biggest complaint that I got was that I didn't include Red Son, the story which explores how differently things might have been if the Kryptonian rocket had landed in Russia. The thing is that I'd decided to drop any Elseworld stories in alternate universes and focus on primary DC Universe tales and examples from other media.
Elseworlds has been seen by a lot of Marvel fans as the DC equivalent to What If, which is kinda true. The difference being that What If stories generally branch off from one specific event in Marvel history, while Elseworld rebuild the core concept of a hero or villain. There have been a lot of great stories stories that reimagine key elements of the DCU. There's also been a lot of really bad ones. So here's a look at some of the worst and the best.
The 5 Worst
5. Superman: Kal
The Rocket Lands in: Pre-Arthurian England.
In medieval England and Kal-El becomes a warrior, leading a popular uprising against tyranny. The art by Jose Luiz Garcia Lopez is pretty good and that's about it. I love most of Dave Gibbons' stuff, but this one just falls flat.
Luthor as a baron oppressing the land seems like a route too obvious to go, and there's not anything in the story that makes one care about the outcome. The only bit that really stands out is Kal's wedding to Lady Loisse being interrupted by Baron Luthor to claim the right of "first night with the bride" which will only make most readers think "Isn't that the same plot as Braveheart?" which incidentally came out the same year as this comic. The "twist" ending? The tale being told to a young Merlin, which does nothing for the story at all, it just seems like an attempt at being clever.
In the end Kal is such a bland story that it doesn't really do anything bad enough to be worth hating or good enough to be worth remembering.
4. The Last Family of Krypton
The Rocket Lands In: Metropolis, with Jor-El, Lara-El and their son Kal.
What if Jor-El had made a spaceship big enough to fit himself and his wife into as well as their son?
What if all three of them went to Earth and were strange visitors from another planet?
This is actually an interesting idea that doesn't go anywhere interesting. The artwork is lackluster and in some places awful (especially on perspective). Meanwhile, the writing is mostly dishwater-dull and as inspiring as a corpse taking a nap.
Halfway through "part one" of the tale, Lara decides that young Kal-El needs to grow up with some human parents and know what it's like to be human. So after a vast screening process the El's randomly select... you guessed it: John and Martha Kent. That's right, the idea of the El family on earth was so dully executed that the writer felt the need to shoehorn in the Kents to keep it going, and that's not even the worst of it. By the end of the first of three issues, Kal-El's mom gets pregnant and has twins, which is the same kind of stunt that sitcoms pull after five or six seasons to make things interesting again.
One rather interesting aspect of the plot that does work rather well is Jor-El and Lex Luthor forming a friendship as scientific colleagues. The bitter jealousy felt by Kal-El adds a decent bit of tension to the plot. The second issue manages to build decent characterization out of Kal's twin siblings. Lara-Els role as a spiritual guru of "Roaism" makes for some unique story elements such as a cult called Doomsday that wants the Els off Earth A.S.A.P.
The plot gets better in the third and final issue, but the dialog is very weak throughout. A noteworthy subplot has the Guardians of Oa pointing out that Jor-Els super science has saved so many lives and averted so many disasters that certain humans like Bruce Wayne, Hal Jordan, Barry Allen and Ollie Queen never became superheroes Batman, Green Lantern, The Flash and Green Arrow. The story builds to a decently satisfying conclusion. While it's very flawed, Last Family of Krypton has enough redeeming elements to only be #4 on this list.
The Rocket Lands On: Apokolips
One of the lesser "rocket landed here" stories that doesn't live up to what little potential it might have. The whole thing that made Jack Kirby's New Gods stuff so interesting is that it was created as an addition to the DCU that offered new characters to interact with the rest of the crowd. Adding Supes into the backstory makes for an uninteresting remix and that's rather sad, because once again this is a stinker birthed by a good creative team. John Francis Moore is a sorely underrated writer whose work on Doom 2099 was some of the best of the 1990s. Kieron Dwyer is a gifted artist and while here he makes a good attempt at displaying the majesty of Kirby's style, when it's not Jack the King, no one else will do.
Admittedly, things do pick up in the 2nd part when Kal-El gets transported to Earth by High Father. Dwyers art looks a lot better when he's drawing Metropolis than it does for New Genesis or Apokolips and even though it's kinda by the numbers, Moore's exploration of Kal as a fish out of water discovering the human world is nicely told. A few interesting bits include Scott Free getting crippled and becoming a replacement for Metatron and Lex Luthor being turned into an S&M slave for Granny Goodness. Unfortunately, none of these elements make for a remarkable enough story to recall once the pages are put down.
The idea of Kal-El being raised by a tyrant like Darkseid is a choice that could have been taken in an interesting direction. Unfortunately, the predictable route of "Supes discovers his inner good guy" is the one that was taken, and after setting him up as a would be destroyer of worlds, the moral turnaround feels rather hollow.
2. Superman Speeding Bullets
The Rocked Lands In: Gotham City
Kal-El gets adopted by the Waynes and becomes Batman when they're murdered.
Of all the "Kryptonian Rocket lands somewhere else" stories this is the laziest by far. The scene with the Waynes being murdered culminates with the thief shooting Clark because he can't stand to hear a kid crying -- so of course, the bullets bounce off the youngster and he then uses his heat vision for the first time.
This is a horrible mismanagement of character for the mugger, who's never been shown to be the kind of heartless bastard that would murder children. After that, Clark represses his memories and spends years growing up as a shut-in full of self loathing... at least until a few burglars show up during his early twenties and threaten Alfred.
Around the time of his emergence as a Batman with Superman fashion sense, characters start migrating from Metropolis to Gotham. Lex Luthor and Lois Lane show up because... how the hell could you tell a Superman story without them? Also, for some reason, Lex Luthor ends up becoming the Joker with a Penguin umbrella because... I don't even know but it's the silliest looking version of the Joker you'll see this year. The story culminates with Batman defeating Lex "The Joker" Luthor and becoming Superman, which sounds even lamer now that I've typed it out.
The art by Eduarda Barreto is serviceable, but bland except for some bits of facial expression that are laughable. The writing by J.M. DeMatteis is abysmal. The lettering is particularly bad with at least one instance of two characters' dialogue getting mixed together into a compound balloon of what-the-fuckery.
This one doesn't fail to live up to it's potential because there isn't any.
1. The Superman Monster
The Rocket Lands In: Late 19th century Switzerland
First off, it must be said that the writing by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning isn't bad, it's just that the concept of Superman as a Frankenstein Monster is incredibly lame and even good writing can only do so much. Also, the art by Anthony Williams is rather good... except for hands (which seems to be a recurring weak point for him.) Seriously, Williams has some wonky hands popping up throughout the book.
The one rather cool element in this tale is the Kryptonian Rocket lands with a dead Kal-El fetus inside. This element isn't cool enough to salvage the story though. After using Kryptonian technology and stolen corpses to make his monster, Viktor Luthor gives life to a monster that basically looks like Bizarro on a bad day.
The plot takes a typical journey from there, with the monster meeting the Kents and falling in love with Eloise Edge and meeting a pair of poor farmers named "The Kants" (because it's not a proper Superman Elseworld if the Kents aren't shoved in somewhere). The story culminates in ridiculousness when Eloise gets turned into a "Bride of Frankenstein" type of creature.
While it's a bad idea done moderately well, The Superman Monster is worth reading for anyone who wants a guide to how not to write an Elseworlds tale.
The 5 Best Elseworld Origin Stories are on the Next Page...