Action Comics #775 (March, 2001)
“What’s so funny about Truth, Justice, & The American Way?”
Writer – Joe Kelly
Pencillers – Doug Mahnke & Lee Bermejo
Inkers – Tom Nguyen, Dexter Vines, Jim Royal, Jose Marzan, Wade Von Grawbadger & Wayne Faucher
Colors – Rob Schwager
Letters – The Gang at Comicraft
Assistant Editor – Tom Palmer
Editor – Eddie Berganza
Cover Price: $3.75
The Internet loves lists… heck, there are entire websites devoted to them. They’re easy… they’re lazy… and, for whatever reason, they get a lot of views. There are lists of all kinds… but the ones that seem to aggravate me the most are of the “10 Most Underrated _____” variety.
I mean, is there anybody out there who still thinks that Ico for the PlayStation 2 and The Nightmare Before Christmas are underrated?! Well, Google “Top Ten Most Underrated…” and you’ll find out!
Now why in the hell am I mentioning this? Good question. If one were to Google “Top Ten Superman…” well, anything, the book we’re going to discuss today would probably be on it. “Top Ten Greatest”, “Top Ten Underrated”, “Top Ten Overrated”, “Top Ten stories of the 2000’s”… what I’m sayin’ is, this book gets a lot of play.
So much play that I’ve actively put off discussing it!
When I cover a book like this I feel a weird internal conflict… is it “cheap heat”? Will it look like I’m doing this simply for the retweets/karma? Worse yet… what if I realize I like it far less than the Internet… will I look like I’m just being a contrarian?
Well, we’re going to push all those thoughts to the back-burner today… and celebrate our 775th Daily Discussion by finally covering the 775th issue of Action Comics.
We open with Superman leaving Metropolis en route to Libya, where they are in the midst of a terrorist crisis. Worth noting, each leg of his trip is time-stamped… it takes him over seven hours to arrive, which tells me Superman can’t fly as fast as I’d thought… or this was a pretty leisurely flight. Anyhoo, by the time he arrives… he finds the crisis has already been… well, notsomuch “averted”, but dealt with. A giant ape lays across the city… and there are plenty of casualties. But who would–?
Well this is, of course, the introduction of The Elite. That team of metas who’s crime-fighting philosophy has a means-to-an-end approach. Back at the Daily Planet, the gang is checking out a glowing review of the Elite in the Daily Star… when the writer of said review, jerk-ass Jack Ryder pops in to declare the Age of Superman over… and rings in the Age of The Elite.
We shift scenes to the White House, where our main man President Lex is being given an intel-report from Amanda Waller. He (and we) learns that the Elite are on a whole ‘nother level power-wise, dwarfing even Superman. Lex decides that the Elite haven’t yet become a problem for the United States… and he plans to sit it out until they do. At that point, well… he’ll decide what to do about them.
Up at the Fortress of Solitude, Superman chats up Steel about the Elite’s methods. Steel appears to be impressed by their ability to spread their word… downloading their “manifesto” onto every computer on Earth. Superman goes to ask if he feels that the world has moved on from the idea of “Superman”… but is called away to a crisis in Japan before he can finish his thought.
Upon arriving in Japan, Superman is hit with a strange pulse… causing him to crash into the ground. He finds himself before Samurai Roshu and his team of… very odd baddies.
Before a fight can begin, Roshu and his gang are all killed… slaughtered, really… by, The Elite. Here’s our first look at The Hat, Coldcast, Menagerie, and their leader Manchester Black.
Superman approaches them, and is whisked away to their ship (referred to as “The Bunny”). Superman tries to plead with these hyper-violent “heroes” about changing their methods… but gets shot down with the quickness. Ya see, Black explains, this is the real world… Superman’s “play nice” methods only work on television and in the comics. In a cute bit, Black suggests that the true reason Superman’s so peeved is due to… jealousy.
Superman gets in Black’s face and strongly suggests he and his gang cut it out. Black responds by teleporting Superman back to Earth. We hop to Smallville where Pa Kent is talking about something one of his neighbors said… that The Elite made Superman look like a fool. Welp, ya know it’s bad when the people of Smallville already know the score. Pa asks Clark if he believes, if push comes to shove, if he could defeat The Elite.
We then jump to, perhaps the most poignant scene of the issue… it’s really something. Superman watches while a group of children play “superhero”. There are a few kids dressed as members of The Elite, and one dressed as Superman. The Super-kid mentions that it’s not fair because Superman can’t kill… and The Elite can. The others tell him to quit his whining and let them kill him… afterward, he can just pick another hero.
We jump ahead to Superman fighting off Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones… well, I’m sure that’s who they’re supposed to be anyway. Anyhoo, he’s able to subdue the rogue D.E.O. Agents without any casualties.
Then… The Elite arrives. Black mockingly applauds and asks Superman “what’s next”. Superman replies with the standard “due process” type stuff… to which Black kinda scoffs. He knows who these D.E.O. fellas are… and knows that they’ll just be shipped off to some Shadow Cabinet and continue their work. It’s also implied here that Elite member Menagerie is a result of their experimentation.
Superman doesn’t care… he’ll just stop them again… and again, until they get the message. Black orders The Hat to rain acid over the city… thinking that’s a quicker way for everyone to “get the message”. Superman responds by slugging The Hat… a gesture that is caught by many a camera. Black smirks, and challenges Superman to a fight the next day.
That night, we join Lois and Clark in bed. Lois is rather worried that her husband’s mouth (and fist) wrote a check that his backside can’t cash. She implores him to get the Justice League involved… but he refuses, claiming that this is his fight… and his alone. They fall asleep in each other’s arms. Before sunrise, Clark sneaks out… and leaves Lois a note before heading off to face The Elite.
The Elite shows themselves and prepares for the fight. Superman asks for a single favor… take the fight into space, so that no one on Earth will be hurt as collateral damage. Black gives the thumbs-up, and next thing we know, we’re on one of the Moons of Jupiter. Luckily for the Earthlings, the battle will be televised.
With barely a thought, Manchester Black throws Superman across the planet. As he pulls himself out of a crater of his own making, Superman is attacked by Menagerie and The Hat. Coldcast then comes in to finish the job… placing his giant mitts over Superman’s head like a vice grip until…
When the dust settles, all that’s left is Superman’s cape. The Elite looks at it as something they could add to their trophy collection… however, before they can begin to truly celebrate… they hear a voice. Superman’s voice. He claims to now “get it”. He now understands the methods used by The Elite.
Suddenly… Menagerie is blown to pieces!
Then The Hat is suffocated in a windstorm… and Coldcast is swept away in a red, yellow and blue blur.
Superman finally shows himself… and he’s looking like he’s never really looked before.
He and Manchester Black go nose-to-nose… and Superman’s eyes begin glowing red. Black thinks this is hi-larious, because he ain’t afraid of no heat-vision. Superman smirks… he’s not interested in cooking ol’ Chester… he’s got another idea.
Superman swats a powerless Manchester Black to the ground. Black responds by “thinking” Superman dead… but it doesn’t work. Superman explains that he used his heat vision to… well, carve out a particularly nasty chunk of Chester’s brain… “instant lobotomy”.
Black begins to freak out… he even cries! He points to the “television cameras” and tells Superman that the entire world saw him sink to their level. Superman turns to the cameras… and suggests what the Earthlings just saw might’ve frightened them… after all, it even frightened him.
He then turns back to Black, and explains what really just went down. The members of The Elite are fine… just kayoed at the moment. Superman used his super-speed to make it look as though he was killing them. Also, ol’ Chester didn’t really get an “instant lobotomy”… just a concussion. His powers will return, however, by then he’ll be in custody… and bogged down with more power-dampeners than anyone might possibly need.
We wrap up with Superman informing Black that he fights for a “dream”, and will never, ever stop.
Now… let’s get it out of the way. Does “What’s So Funny…?” belong on an all-time Top Ten list of Superman stories? Personally… without a doubt.
I haven’t sat down with this since it first came out… and try as I might, I can’t remember how well I “received” it back in 2001. I never wound up falling into that Authority (and Authority-alikes) phase, preferring my heroes to be of the colorful-caped variety… so, maybe some of the meta-text was lost on me.
In reading it today… I can reflect on those hectic turn-of-the-century years, where everything was skewing toward the “real”. Real, as a relative term here of course. Seemed we couldn’t go a month without some hyper-violent, “wide-screen”, group of “good guys” named after various agencies (one actually called The Agency, if I recall right) being introduced.
Wasn’t my bag… but, I could see the merit in it. Perhaps it’s short-sighted, but I look at my trajectory as a fan as being pretty standard for people in my age bracket. Although my first comics love was ElfQuest… my first “direct market” exposure came around the time of the Image Comics revolution. I was in the “target demographic” for all that silly speculatory stuff.
As we (or I) “grew up” (so to speak), so did our/my comics. Superheroes, foil covers, and polybags were the rage during my early-teens, Vertigo was poppin’ during my late-teens, and these Authority-eqsue books all hit when I entered my twenties. Again… I might be oversimplifying things here… but, it makes sense to me.
Anyhoo… the issue we have here is a deep dive into the relevance of Superman. Growing up during the 80’s and 90’s, Superman was always that character we looked at as “old fashioned” even, at times “irrelevant”. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that. That sorta view makes him the perfect character to pit against the take-no-prisoners Elite… who were, at the time, the “cutting edge” post-2000 superhero archetype.
The entire issue’s build to a win-or-lose face-off was incredible. I mean, the entire time Superman is questioning himself… can he beat them? Are his methods outdated? Is he outdated? Added to that, the world around him seems similarly conflicted. Do they feel safer with Superman constantly throwing bad guys into revolving door prisons… or would they prefer The Elite just straight up slaughtering? Both options are plenty risky… which makes the question all the more important.
I feel like I’m at the point of babbling (or maybe I reached that point eight paragraphs ago)… but, this is the sort of issue that will do that to you. It dredges up so many conflicting emotions. I mean, it’s never in question who we’re “rooting for” here, but they make a good run at it. I don’t think we can say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that The Elite are “wrong”. Wrong-headed, perhaps… however, the questions they ask Superman… and the world, are completely valid. This is really spectacularly handled.
Before we end it for the day… I want to briefly (ha!) discuss that scene with the children playing hero. This scene might’ve affected me more than any other in the book… and any other in quite some time. I mean, it was just so “real”. Kids don’t really understand what it means to “kill”… I mean, we all grew up knowing we could make a gun out of our thumb and index finger, right? We just don’t think we ever took the time to think about what we were pretending to do when we folded our thumbs down and said “bang!”.
Kids looking at The Elite as “cool” and Superman as “beat” really says so much about how quickly (and easily) things can change when you’re young. I still remember the first time people stopped wanting to “be Hulk Hogan” in favor of the Ultimate Warrior when we played “wrestler”. Looking back, it’s kinda heartbreaking… not that Warrior killed anybody or anything… it’s just that his character felt so much “harder” than Hogan’s. Ehh, I think I might’ve taken babbling to a whole other level here.
All’s I’m trying to say… in this ridiculous stream of consciousness I call a blog post, is that the scene with the kids was very moving… and highly effective at putting this entire issue into perspective for me.
I should probably put a bow on this at this point, lest I continue blithering. I give this issue one of my highest recommendations… in a world where it seems every third book released is touted as a “10 out of 10” and an “instant classic”, here’s one that actually is! The only thing I’d change about it is… the cover. Not a fan of that image. If you’re interested in checking this out, it is available digitally.