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.
3: Superman: The Dark Side
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…
5. Superman: A Nation Divided
The Rocket Lands In: Kansas, but in the mid-1800s
The concept of Superman fighting in the U.S. Civil War initially sounded like it might end up on the worst list. Then the first page forced a reevaluation of it. Starting off with a letter home by Atticus Kent to his parents that mentions racism in the ranks of Union soldiers instantly sets this apart as a more serious look at the subject matter than might be typically expected.
The level of historical research apparent in the narrative shows that the author Roger Stern had something important to say instead of thinking “wouldn’t it be cool to have Superman in this era?” Using the prominent military and social figures of the time, and telling a good deal of the story through journals and letters, a very personal and poignant view of the bloodiest war in U.S. history takes shape. Without revealing too much, the ending sets the entire story into a new light and breaks completely away from a simple black-and-white view of the Civil War.
4. Superman/Tarzan Sons of the Jungle
The Rocket Lands In: Africa
When Lord Greystoke and his wife see what looks like a meteor crash into the jungle, the mutinous crew of the ship on which they’ve been sailing offers to take them to a different port of call rather than strand ’em. That meteor is of course Kal-El’s rocket and he ends up being raised by apes who name him Argo-Zan. After finding the rocket and learning his true origin, Argo-Zan/Kal-El meets a group of tribesmen who he mistakes for Kryptonians, which doesn’t go well for him.
Meanwhile however, Lord Greystokes’ son is shown in England struggling to adapt to society. His father is disgruntled and concerned about his wayward boy, but has no idea what to do. After wandering the world, young Greystoke ends up as part of a scientific expedition to Africa that includes American reporter Lois Lane and her assistant Jane Porter. The two plots work their way into one another for a satisfying, big finish.
This story by Chuck Dixon ends up being an action-packed yet introspective look at what it means to be an outcast as a child — and then find your place in the world as a young adult. Now re-read that sentence for emphasis. The vibrant, animated style of Carlos Meglia and rich colors of Dave Stewart come together to make for an adventurous look that perfectly pairs with the tone of the story.
3. Superman: Metropolis
The Rocket Lands In: A sci-fi city named Metropolis, located somewhere on Earth.
Metropolis is the golden-era classic by German film genius Fritz Lang about a utopian city made livable by an oppressed underclass of underground workers. It set the tone for a lot of great sci-fi movies that have come about since. So the notion of turning it into a Superman Elseworlds seemingly out of a shared name for a city might sound like a lame idea at first. The actual product though is better than would be expected even if imagining the best case scenario. R.J.M., Locificier and Roy Thomas tell a dark and moody tale that captures the bleakness of Lang’s work and it’s made even better by the paintings of Ted McKeever that are some of the most impressionistic abstract beautiful images in the entire landscape of comics.
Retelling the movies tale of a utopian city with an invisible class of workers who never get to enjoy the fruits of their labor on the surface world, while adding Clark Kent as a potential messiah of prophecy makes for a dynamic mix of myth. Jon-Kent is the master of Metropolis, who in turn serves his own master Lutor, who hypnotized him (with machinery engineered from the alien rocket bearing their adopted child) years earlier after murdering his wife Marta.
Extra points go to McKeever for creating one of the most distinctive redesigns of the of the Superman suit.
2. Red Son
The Rocket Lands In: Ukraine
(There will surely be some flak for this not being Number 1, but that will make sense in a shortly.)
This exploration of Superman as a Soviet jingoistic figure that uses the Cold War as a backdrop is genius. Mark Millar spins a fascinating yarn with iconic art by Dave Johnson and Killian Plunkett that focuses on Superman as hero behind the Iron Curtain. Raised on a humble farm collective in Ukraine and journeying to Moscow as an adult, his presence is revealed to the world during the Eisenhower administration and scares the crap out of the West. Scientific Genius Lex Luthor is put in charge of the project to take him down while his neglected wife Lois sits on the sidelines reporting for the Daily Planet.
Over the ensuing decades, Supes goes from being a hero to a ruler as the communist party pushes him to take over after the death of Joseph Stalin. Slowly spreading communism across the globe by taking in countries that give up on capitalism, Superman ends up as President of everything but the U.S.
Other DC heroes are touched upon in unique ways. Diana of Themyscira is first introduced to the world as an ambassador for a few years, before eventually becoming Wonder Woman. Batman is orphaned by Soviet police rather than criminals and becomes and freedom fighter against communism and Superman. The Green Lantern Corps. under Colonel Hal Jordan appear late in the story as part of a final effort to remove Superman from power.
The story builds to what is seriously the best ending of a Superman remix I’ve ever encountered.
1. True Brit
The Rocket Lands In: Weston Super Mare, England
What could have been just another boring “the rocket landed in a different place” story is transformed into a hilarious romp by John Cleese… yes that John Cleese. Well, Cleese is actually credited with giving “some help” to writer Kim “Howard” Johnson, still it’s got John Cleese involved in the story. While Red Son might be technically better, having a member of Monty Python co-writing a story of Superman as a British character is the coolest, wildest and most nerdgasmic Elseworlds that currently exists and possibly the best of all time. The art by John Byrne and Mark Farmer has a goofy cartoonish feel that fits perfectly with the witty dialog and occasional bit of gory, slapstick violence.
In this tale, Superman’s secret identity is named Colin Clark whose family motto is “WWTNT: What Would The Neighbors Think!”
Colin’s parents do their best to discourage him from using his powers so as not to bring embarrassment upon the family. After going through college and becoming a tabloid “journalist” along with photographer Bartholomew Owens under editor Peregrin Whyte-Badger, Colin creates the Superman suit so he can help people without his parents being ashamed. Naturally, things don’t go according to plan and deteriorate in quite amusing ways.
Sure, Red Son is a well constructed epic and all, but it’s just outdone by the hilarity of True Brit.