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President Superman, Man-of-Steel-in-Chief – Action Comics Annual #3

October 30, 2014

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Here’s an American Election Day special, folks. People will travel to the polls from coast to coast next Tuesday, holding their noses as they try to decide which utterly contemptible preening egomaniacs they want to put in charge of their and their children’s lives. As they do, maybe they can reflect on how great it would be if the Man of Steel held the reins as the Leader of the Free World. President Superman — it has a ring to it, you know?

Or maybe it doesn’t. [Sinister music plays…]

The annual before us with the nifty, flag-draped Dave Gibbons cover is one of multiple Superman specials to cross over into the summer of 1991’s Armageddon 2001 event. For those in need of a refresher, the premise here was that in the far future of 2030 the Earth had (has? will?) fallen under the despotic rule of Monarch, an armored villain of mysterious origin. All that was known about this highly powerful Doctor Doomish bad guy was that he had once been one of Earth’s mightiest champions — at least mighty enough to have a comic book about him with an annual to go with it. (Mark Waid’s Empire series and its very similar central character of Golgoth would explore the “Villain Conquers Earth, Now What?” ideas with greater elan much later.) A man of this future named Matthew Ryder, with only this small bit of pre-Monarch intel to go on, used a machine to travel back in time so he could find out which of the heroes suffered this deadly fall from grace, hoping he could somehow stop it. Things went awry as they always do with temporal shenanigans (just ask Sam Beckett), but providentially so: Waverider was born, a character merged with the time stream who could both travel between eras and through physical contact see an individual’s future.

This put a neat narrative thread throughout DC’s summer annuals, as Waverider went from character to character and saw what their fates held. Superman, not surprisingly, had perhaps the best of these one-off plots. In Superman Annual #3 we saw a future in which Mr. El, distraught over the nuclear destruction of Metropolis and the death of Lois and his friends, became a stentorian enforcer of global good behavior. Unhinged and sporting a slightly altered, more martial costume, he became an unyielding “protector” of his adopted planet, seeing all opposition to his aggressive paternalism as an evil that had to be crushed. (I’m just now realizing the parallels — no pun — between this and the Parallax tack in Green Lantern a few years later.) This made him a dictatorish villain — and a proto-Monarch, we wondered? In a delicious bit of payoff, it was future-Batman who did him in (in a scene conversely reminiscent of The Dark Knight Returns), using the Kryptonite ring that Superman had once given him for just this eventuality. The fallen champion died whispering Lois’s name, like a Kryptonian Charles Foster Kane. It was sad. And it was kind of good, in a way these “imaginary” stories can so uniquely be.

But there were more Superman annuals. So Waverider came to the realization that when he’s doing the full Dead Zone (an okay book, a decent movie and a great SNL skit) he’s only getting one potential line of a person’s life. Convenient from a publishing point of view, you know? So off we went to the Action Comics annual (previously a font of quicksand trivia), written by Roger Stern with art from Tom Grummett and a team of inkers. It, like its 2001 predecessor, has a few deft twists and turns.

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Things proceed apace after the laying on of hands. Waverider once more becomes a voyeur, living Superman’s life right along with him, witnessing the triumphs and tragedies. This timeline diverges drastically when Superman, somehow profiting from a psychic link with Waverider, gets a premonition of the very same nuclear explosion that sealed his fate in the previous annual. So now he has Spider-Sense or something — like he doesn’t have enough already! Off he goes and crushes Intergang, the would-be perpetrators of this dastardly act. So no nuclear explosion, no off the deep end Superman and Batman can keep that ring in its lead case. Cheers.

Old friend Pete Ross, a congressman at this point, decides that he wants to run for President, and he asks Clark to be on his staff, to use his reporter prowess and contacts to run the campaign. Clark agrees, but during an assassination attempt he’s revealed to be Superman, and is outed for all the world to see. And when Ross, grievously wounded, asks him to run in his place, Superman assents, a bit more reluctantly than with the previous request.

Readers familiar with their U.S. constitutional law can spot a problem here: that Superman, no matter how much he might be for truth, justice and the American way, isn’t a natural-born American citizen, one of several basic qualifications set out in Article II of that old faded document housed in the National Archives. DC to their credit didn’t forget or omit this quandary:

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It’s said that a good prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. It seems a corollary to that is that a good appellate lawyer can get the Supreme Court to agree that Superman was conceived in “the birthing matrix,” and thus was “born” when said matrix opened up on the Kent farmstead. Jurisprudence! (Man, I hope Scalia wrote that opinion. Talk about a good read…)

Guess what — Superman cruises to victory, crushing his opponent like a bug. (Superman’s party is never revealed. He might not even have one, though it would seem he only had one opponent.) And by God he’s the best damned president the U.S. of A. has ever seen (apologies to fellow comic book presidents Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman), leaving no corner of the globe unvisited, no foreign leader un-summited. And he wears a Superman crest on his suit, too!:

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Readers at this point might be asking: couldn’t he be trending towards Monarch in a more benign direction? Isn’t he just replicating the same things he was doing in the last misbegotten timeline, but by more outwardly acceptable means? “Absolute power” and all that jazz? Maybe. These questions crystallize when he calls a meeting of the Justice League and lays out a plan for all the nations of the world to disarm. The Leaguers assent because they trust the big guy — and what the hell are they going to do about it if they don’t — all except for one. Yes, professional jackass Guy Gardner isn’t buying this crap. Any other character taking this stand you might sympathize with — that they’re legitimately concerned that humanity’s destiny is being hijacked by an adopted son. But since Gardner has always been so very much the red-headed step-child of the DC Universe — speaking of hair, he should be slapped for his coif alone — you want to watch Superman drive him into the ground like a stake, despot or no.

And humiliate him he does, stopping just short of stripping him nude and taking his wallet — these annuals have a thing for climaxes with green rings:

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Eat it, Gardner.

If you weren’t worried about Superman and “corrupts absolutely” proverbs before, you are now. Superman augmented with the power of a Green Lantern would be, how shall we say, perhaps too much of a good thing. Most of us wouldn’t trust a politician to park our car, much less have this bit of Oan jewelry. And when Hal Jordan arrives later in the Oval Office to offer Superman a power battery and a place in the Corps (again, what else are they going to do?) this might be it — Monarch-time.

But instead Superman gives up the ring. And it’s then that Waverider has seen enough, as he knows that Superman, at least this Superman, is more Cincinnatus than Caesar. Because what man prone to tyranny would surrender the ultimate weapon? Warm feels all around!

Armageddon 2001 is mostly remembered for its spectacularly underwhelming conclusion: when word leaked that Captain Atom was going to be revealed as Monarch, DC did a quick switcheroo and Hawk got the nod instead. Yes, Hawk. Of Hawk and Dove. Who no one cared/cares/ will care about. (Not that Captain Atom sells books either.) So it had pretty much all been for naught, with a summer-long binge that fizzled badly at the end with the minorest of minor characters improbably becoming the “big bad.” Seriously, I don’t think Hawk could take down ‘Mazing Man, much less an entire roster of vastly superior heroes. Then again, DC went “hero goes bad” with someone as significant as Hal not too long after, and people weren’t exactly fond of that. So no win, maybe. Whatever — this didn’t end well.

But even if the frame of Armageddon 2001 was lacking, the annuals in the middle were enjoyable reads, long-form what ifs and erstwhile Elseworlds for a number of treasured characters. And the one we’ve reminisced about today was among the best — there’s more to it, including some emotional material with Pa Kent that I didn’t delve into, to save a bit for anyone wanting to track down and read the full comic. As far as I know the Armageddon books have never been collected in a trade — again: THANKS, HAWK — but you can certainly find them in your local dollar bin. It might be your civic duty to do just that. Hail to the Super-Chief.

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