12th Level Intellect: Superman Annual #11: The Cost of Dreams

This article was originally published at DC Infinite on June 30, 2014.

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Time has not been kind to Alan Moore. Discussions about him on message boards like the comicbooks sub-reddit are often filled with vitriol and disdain. Comments like “Alan Moore hates everything” and “he is a grade A (expletive deleted) and nutter” are common fare and not typically disputed. He has been defined by a strong sense of negativity, but as I pointed out in the last 12th Level Intellect column, there’s often a division between image and reality. (1)

Moore’s work on the America’s Best Comics line with projects like Top Ten, Promethea, and Tom Strong go a long way in showing that Moore loves the fun and play inherent in many comic concepts and is even a fan of the superhero genre and optimism it can evoke. Yet his feuds with companies like DC Comics and fellow writers have gone a long way in souring his reputation amongst fans. The result is that one of the greatest creators of the modern age of comics has been left with less financial reward than his work might have earned him and a bad reputation. His story calls to mind one of his and Dave Gibbons’ earliest contributions to DC Comics: Superman Annual #11 titled “For the Man Who Has Everything”.

It is one of Moore’s most famous superhero stories, (2) having inspired a wide variety of spinoff tales and one of the most famous episodes of Bruce Timm’s animated series Justice League Unlimited, also titled “For the Man Who Has Everything”. In it, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Robin arrive at the Fortress of Solitude to celebrate Superman’s birthday. Inside the fortress, they find that Superman has been rendered helpless by a strange plant attached to his chest. This plant, called the Black Mercy, feeds off of its host while providing him or her with their heart’s fondest desire. In Superman’s case, he is living on a Krypton that never exploded, acting as the father of a loving family. Eventually he breaks the Black Mercy’s spell, and Mongul — the villain who brought the plant to earth — is defeated. It can be read as a very enjoyable adventure story, clearly inspired by the Silver Age of DC Comics. But like everything Moore writes, there is a great deal of subtext at play in this issue of Superman.

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The very first page of “For the Man Who Has Everything” is presented as a prologue and reveals Kal-El coming home to a surprise birthday party on Krypton. This story runs parallel to that of Superman’s friends as they discover what has happened. While Batman and Wonder Woman work to free their friend, playing out a standard superhero story, the creativity and commentary of this issue emerges in Kal-El’s imagined life.

Kal lives on a version of Krypton first seen in the imaginary story “What If Krypton Had Not Exploded?”. (3) He is married actress Lyla Lerrol and they have a son together. It is an ideal life where the family is well employed and love with one another very much. Not all is well, though. Jor-El, Kal’s father has become discontented and involved with a violent religious movement. As the story progresses, things continue to worsen until Kal becomes aware that he is not living in the real world. The catalyst for this realization begins with the actions of his father.

Jor-El has normally been characterized as a good man, a brave scientist, and leader. In this imagined world, though, he is scared and filled with hate. Jor-El is now a leader in an extremist political movement called The Sword of Rao that supports a return to the values of Old Krypton. (4) This change to his personality is caused by his wrongful prediction that Krypton would explode. The removal of the tragedy that defined both his life and that of his son has left him without a purpose. It has caused him to lash out at the planet he claims to love. This destructive impulse is beautifully captured by Gibbons when Jor-El lashes out and destroys a glass tree and bird. He turns something wondrous and rare into trash. It embodies the vague concept of political extremism and transforms it into a visual metaphor that readers can easily interpret.

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Kal-El has remained a kind hearted and loving person, though. He cares for his family and does his best to console his distraught father. He still upholds an ideal image. It is only when placed in juxtaposition to the real world that he is made out to be cowardly or less than what he was. Although Superman is a good man within his fantasy, outside of it, his friends are being mercilessly battered by the alien Mongul. He lies motionless when it is within his power to save those he cares about. Out of context, the story of Kal-El on Krypton is inoffensive, but when it is placed side-by-side with images of Wonder Woman fighting for her life, it is clear that Superman is needed much more than Kal-El is.

Superman’s slow realization that he is living in a fantasy is made to mirror the battle with Mongul that occurs around him. As the situation in reality worsens, he is forced to reflect on the value of his dreams and their true cost. It places in comparison the world where Superman might be capable of finding contentment with the world that is. Although he has found a peaceful life, it means there is a world without Superman. And the world needs Superman.

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The realization is shown to be slow and natural in Gibbon’s pacing of the story. There is initially a four page alternation between pages showing Superman’s dream and the plight of his friends. This ceases on page 19, when Mongul begins to fight Wonder Woman, taking only two page before returning to Superman’s dream. It is at this point that he finally realizes the world he is in is not real. On page 24, the two stories merge as Superman loses a son that was never real, Batman pulls the Black Mercy away from him, and it grabs onto Batman’s body.

This cost is reiterated later in the comic when Batman is briefly attacked by the Black Mercy as well. (5) He is shown a world where his father stops Joe Chill, but the result is also a world where there is no Batman to fight crime and save lives in Gotham City.

Every character that is altered by the effect of the Black Mercy is changed into something less than what they were. Superman is no longer Superman, but simply a good, normal contributing member of society. Batman is replaced by a happy child. Jor-El suffers the most tragic fate. Instead of being a man of bravery and vision, he is seen as a lunatic. Losing that which defined him as a tragic hero warps him into a twisted old man. Even Mongul is destroyed by the dreams of the Black Mercy. (6) When he believes himself to have conquered the galaxy, he surrenders to his enemies allowing them to win.

What is the point of all this?

Contentment is the enemy of achievement. When each of these characters find themselves satisfied they lose the core of their character. The world’s greatest detective and the world’s greatest hero are transformed into characters with few distinguishing characteristics. They are happy, but the world is no better off for having them in it. Without a desire to create a society where all people are equal or end crime — no matter how impossible those desires may be — Superman and Batman cannot exist. Their greatness is not an intrinsic quality, but derived from their dissatisfaction with the world in which they live.

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When Superman finally breaks free from the dream, he is left devastated. This is most directly linked to the loss of the peace he felt there, as he lost a son he may never know. Yet it also links to his understanding of his role in the world. The Black Mercy has taught him a lesson, that he may never know lasting contentment or peace because to do so would be to abandon his mission and the world he cares for. He screams out the name Mongul, filling the panel in a bright purple lettering that conveys the intensity of his emotion. The pain caused by his experience under the Black Mercy’s influence is far worse than any physical battle he could endure.

Mongul tells Superman while they fight that he “should have stayed in whatever happy fantasy the Black Mercy granted”. Superman’s response is incredulous. He can only repeat the question “Happy?” as they fight. This points to a difference between contentment and happiness. Superman may have been given his fondest desire, but he is shocked that someone could describe it as happiness. The implied answer is that Superman is happy in the world where he lives. He is happy fighting for truth, justice, and the American way, much more happy than any idealized fantasy could ever make him. Superman must continue to fight in order to better that which he cares for.

The same could be said of Moore. He has never been content with his own work or the industry in which it exists. This sense of dissatisfaction has pushed him to push the quality of his own comics and challenge the companies for which he works. When DC Comics showed they had no desire to follow through with the spirit of their contract with Moore and Gibbons and return the work to them, he left the company. Out of that decision, he continued to create great new comics based on his own ideas like Promethea and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. (7) He continued to improve his own work and attempt to build a place for more creator-owned work, rather than accept the status quo. Alan Moore is not a superhero, but he is an important figure in the comics medium whose value cannot be overstated. Without his own desire to improve, the quality of comics today would be significantly lessened.

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The story ends with the four heroes walking away from the Black Mercy and Mongul. Superman offers to make coffee for his friends while they clean up. The world in which they exist is far from perfect; like the Fortress of Solitude, it is a mess, but they would rather clean it up than escape. Gibbons poses the heroes with their backs turned to the promise of the Black Mercy, a physical representation of their shared decision to turn away from something that could grant them their fondest desires. Superman could have a family. Batman could have his parents returned to him. They reject this knowing it cannot make them happy. They choose to leave behind their fondest desires in order to do something meaningful, no matter how hard it may be.

“For the Man Who Has Everything” is a modern re-creation of the “be careful what you wish for” parable. It reveals the results of satisfaction and their effect on those that achieve them. A world in which Kal-El is satisfied is a world without Superman and the story shows this to clearly be a negative outcome. The world needs heroes, and heroes arise from adversity. Moore and Gibbons point out the same applies to all heroes, whether they are fictional or not. Contentment creates complacency. Trouble creates heroes.

Footnotes:

(1) The perception of Moore by his audience makes for an excellent callback to the ideas discussed in my last column. Moore’s legal battles and problems with comics publishers are typically over-simplified resulting in his position being severely distorted. Moore is by no means a perfect individual, but the vast majority of criticism he faces is unfair and uses strawman tactics to render his complaints invalid. The treatment of Moore by the medium he helped to redefine for the 21st Century can be a sad reflection of comics readership at times.

(2) The most obvious example of Moore’s famous comics in the superhero genre is Watchmen. It is worth noting that “For the Man Who Has Everything” is Moore and Gibbon’s first collaboration, one which would lead them to work together in creating one of the greatest pieces of the comics canon today. It was, in fact, Gibbons who was assigned to illustrate Superman Annual #11. When asked which writer he would like to work with by editor Julius Schwartz, he immediately requested Moore. Their ability to bring out the best in one another began in these pages.

(3) “What If Krypton Had Not Exploded?” was created by Jerry Siegel and Wayne Boring in 1960. The inclusion of this story in Moore and Gibbon’s work reveals two important things. First, they has a tremendous respect for the original creators of the character, purposefully honoring one of Siegel’s later stories. Second, they have an admiration for and extensive knowledge of Silver Age stories. This particular story would not have been easily found by two British children and their familiarity with it speaks volumes.

(4) This movement bears some significant similarities to that of the Conservative party as led by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Moore’s work has always been critical of Thatcher’s politics, especially her support of “family values” by harshening drug laws and attempting to legislate against homosexuality.

(5) It is interesting that Wonder Woman is the only member of the trinity not affected by the Black Mercy. In my opinion, this is a conscious decision that shows a deep understanding of her character on Moore’s behalf. Wonder Woman has already occupied paradise (in the aptly named Paradise Island), but chose to leave it. She was not pushed to heroism by tragedy like Superman or Batman, but decided upon it as the correct thing to do. Her life would be no different under the effects of the Black Mercy.

(6) It is Jason Todd, the most bemoaned of all of Batman’s sidekicks that actually saves the day when he drops the Black Mercy on Mongul. For whatever complaints fans of DC Comics may have for this character, it is worth noting that in this story he was capable of defeating a villain Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman could not overcome. It’s another touch of the Silver Age whimsy that Moore and Gibbons clearly admired, allowing the surrogate of young readers to win the day.

(7) Many readers will suggest that League of Extraordinary Gentlemen represents the use of intellectual property similar to the kind that Moore decried when the “Before Watchmen” line of comics were released. Nothing could be further from the truth. A close reading of League reveals a complex commentary on Victorian England using famous archetypes of the time that have been reformed to say something altogether original. The “Before Watchmen” titles did nothing of the sort and are, at their absolute best, artful imitations of an original work they could not hope to match.

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About chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.
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