In 1938, a little comic book called Action Comics #1 came out. The comic would feature a man who could leap an eighth of a mile, and nothing less than a bursting shell could pierce his skin. He was faster than a speeding bullet, and more powerful than a locomotive. He was a Superman. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1933, their original concept underwent numerous evolutions, from a villainous man gaining great psychic powers to the high-flying hero he is today.
Over the next 80 years, Superman would thrill generations of fans, whether in comics, film, or television. Superman became the archetype for the superhero...well, in the United States. He popularized many of the tropes associated with superheroes, including wearing colorful spandex-like costumes and superpowers. When people think of superheroes, they think of Superman. Over the decades, the character has become an important part of pop culture, and the character has been updated, parodied, deconstructed, and reconstructed.
In the 2000s, groups of anti-heroic characters like The Authority were becoming rather popular. In response to this, Joe Kelly conceived this story. The title is a bit of a double pun. It's not only a play on one of the phrases associated with the Man of Steel ("Truth, Justice, and the American Way"), it also was a nod to English singer/songwriter Nick Lowe's 1974 tune "(What's so Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?" People may be more aware of the 1978 Elvis Costello cover from the US release of his 1979 album Armed Forces.
It was regarded as one of the very best Superman stories ever told. Wizard Magazine named it the top comic of the 2000s, and the greatest Superman story of all time. It even got adapted into a animated film: Superman vs. The Elite.
So, is Joe Kelly's little response to the anti-hero wave really as good as they say? Let's find out, by taking a look at Action Comics #775!
The cover is pretty neat. It focuses on Superman himself, kneeling with fists clenched and eyes red, ready to unleash his heat vision. I wish I could figure out his facial expression, though.
"What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?"
Writer: Joe Kelly
Pencilers: Doug Mahnke, Lee Burmejo
Inkers: Jose Marzan Jr., Wade Von Grawbadger, Wayne Faucher
Colorist: Rob Schwager
Editors: Eddie Berganza, Tom Palmer, Jr.
The story begins with Superman flying around the world, his super-hearing picking up news of a terrorist attack in the nation of Libya.
He heads over there, and the Man of Tomorrow's eyes bug out in shock at what he sees. It's what looked like a dead cybernetically-enhanced King Kong wielding a gun. And it clearly died because its heart got blown out. The news report explains that something powerful did this, a third party that not only obliterated the creature's heart, but also the troops trying to protect Tripoli from the creature. I wish I could provide a scan, but it's a double-page scan, and my tablet scanner hates those, and threatened to beat me into next week if I did it again.
Back at the Daily Planet, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White are grumbling about the event...well, the coverage of it in another newspaper called the Star. The party responsible for the destruction was called the Elite. In four minutes, they killed Cyber-Kong, and wrecked Tripoli in the process. Perry notes that there's no pictures of them, but they stuck around just long enough to let people know their group's name. The editor thinks it was a bit of calculated PR. Perry asks Lois Lane why Clark Kent is so quiet today. Lois tells him he was just...processing it all.
Clark later encounters fellow reporter Jack Ryder, aka the Creeper. Ryder wrote an article for the Star praising the Elite, and the Big Blue Boy Scout is taking it hard. Kent calls out Ryder for portraying the Elite as heroes, as they seemingly did not care that people got killed in the process. Ryder counters that Cyber-Kong and the Libyan Army were destroying Tripoli in their battle, and the Elite stopped it cold. As far as Ryder's concerned, that makes the Elite heroes. Clark angrily counters that Superman could have stopped the creature without getting people killed. Ryder mocks Kent.
I have to admit, that panel is a bit funny because of how Ryder is drawn. Creeper zombie! Ryder points out that the world is, in his own words "sick and broken". People what heroes who will fix things. As far as Ryder is concerned, Superman is old and tired. The Elite are the heroes the world needs now. This seems to hit the Man of Steel rather hard.
Back in the White House, President Lex Luthor (at the time, Lex became President of the Unites States), is being briefed on the Elite situation. He learns that there's a trend of approval among the populace for the Elite's actions in Libya. However, groups like NATO and OPEC are calling it a "fascistic act of brutality", and are demanding a response. They want to hear Luthor's response to it. Amanda Waller, who was Luthor's Secretary of Metahuman Affairs, shows him a holographic display. Another man explains that the hologram is showing Lex a power discharge of immense, even "biblical" proportions. One of the Elite, Coldcast, used his electromagnetism-manipulating powers to short out fifteen hundred satellites from 300 miles out. And he did it by blinking.
Luthor tells the gathered experts that if the Elite turn their attention to American citizens, they will be cat food. However, they have time to come up with a plan for them. You see, as Lex explains, metahumans tend to solve problems amongst themselves first and foremost. Lex commenting on the superhero life in his own way. He orders a statement condemning violence, and in the meantime, they can wait and see who is left standing when the smoke clears from the inevitable metahuman battle. The scene then shifts to the Fortress of Solitude.
Yeah, at the time, this Fortress was not based on the 1978 Superman film's take on the concept (that would come later). This Fortress was mobile, but was based mainly in the Andes Mountains. It was designed by the superhero Steel, a portal to a pocket dimension based on a giant puzzle-globe. There, the two heroes look over what appears to be the Elite's "manifesto":
"We do not believe in nations. We do not believe in treaties or boundaries or classes or politics. There are the good guys, namely us, and there are the bad guys, namely anyone who treats anyone else like trash to further their own petty aims. You asked for us, world, now you got us. Be good, or we'll blow your house with a fifty-megaton clod-seeking cluster bomb. Love, us."
The "manifesto" had been downloaded instantaneously to every computer in the world, even the ones in isolation from the Internet at the Pentagon. Nowadays, it'd just be in everyone's phones, ha ha. Luckily, Superman's computers are Kryptonian, so they didn't get the download. Superman is frustrated as he plays with his computer at super speed, as the Elite has seemingly left absolutely no evidence of who they are or where they're from. Steel remarks they pulled off their mass e-mail feat with something called a "post-dimensional probability runnel". I'm guessing they weren't able to use multimodal reflection sorting.
Steel remarks that the Elite seem to be rather powerful, which I am assuming he is assuming this based on the earlier battle with Cyber-Kong. He thinks that maybe instead of being considered "good", they should be considered a "force of nature". Superman retorts that that statement could also be made about the bubonic plague. John Henry Irons notes that Superman's hands are smoking from all the super-speed computing he is doing.
Good thing Kryptonian computers are tougher than Earth ones...I hope. Steel realizes that Superman's got them on his mind. Superman insists they aren't bothering him, but the computers would not agree with that. The Man of Steel heads up and decides to splash his face to clear his head. But since he's Superman, he does not use cold water. Instead, he splashes his face with boiling hot lava. Don't try that at home, kids. He quietly asks John if he thinks the world has moved on. Before the armored tech genius could answer, an alarm goes off. There's a crisis in Japan, and that's the priority at the moment.
As Superman heads to the Land of the Rising Sun, he hears people talking about the Elite and debating them. An explosion hits in Tokyo, and the Man of Tomorrow is sent careening by it, he then is left crashing into the city. While there, he encounters the group that we can presume is responsible for this.
So, we got Ice Samurai, Red Oni Thing, Blue Sumo Woman, Godzilla Cosplayer, Lightning Guy, and Japanese Daenerys. I have no idea what else to call them, they didn't get "official" codenames. Superman appears to have been knocked loopy by the explosion, and is unable to stop the Japanese Injustice League from getting slaughtered. Superman notes that he can't get his body to work. He can't move, nor can he use his long-range powers like heat vision or super-breath. The battle ends with the Ice Samurai getting seemingly shattered. And then...the Elite stands revealed.
Meet the Elite, the supposed heroes this world needs. The man in the Union Jack shirt and black jacket is Manchester Black, British telekinetic. Based on his design, he appears to have been inspired by Jenny Sparks. The big black dude is Coldcast, the master of electromagnetism. The Asian dude dressed like Doctor Who with the hat is called...The Hat. He has a magic hat that he can pull anything out of. I actually think that's really cool. And finally, the woman with the green monsters on her is called Menagerie. Coldcast's design makes me wince. Big black guy...in chains.
Black mocks Superman, saying that the Metropolis Marvel shouldn't have been napping if he wanted a piece of the Japanese Injustice League himself.
Later on, in a moment that I found honestly a bit jarring, Supes and the Elite are suddenly in the Elite's headquarters. Coldcast is scanning the Kryptonian for some reason, and reports that's he's clean. The explosion that knocked Superman loopy was a "high-frequency neutrino wash". It was meant to drop the Japanese Injustice League like bad habits, but they were shielded by Japanese Daenerys. Coldcast then tells the others Supes is alright.
Black explains that they were called the Samurai Roshu, a group of metahumans that were working for an isolationist government faction. Because of course they were. Basically, the Elite had to take them out or they'd turn Tokyo into another Hiroshima, only with metahumans instead of the atomic bomb. Superman is angry about it because he feels that they could have stopped the Samurai Roshu without killing them.
Black shows Superman the Elite's headquarters/home: A living biomechanical fortress from another dimension. In an aside, Black remarks that this fortress could feel loss, as its kind were being slaughtered. So, they jettisoned its heart. It's a nice way to show how ruthless the Elite are. Superman wants them to stop what they are doing. The Elite are killing people, and Superman believes it's not what heroes should do. Black explains that as a kid, he loved superheroes. Until he woke up. He once had a family, until his mother died of lung cancer, and his father died in World War II. Wait, this is 2001, so assuming he was in the single digits in age when WWII happened, he'd be...somewhere in his sixties at this point.
These losses convinced Black that the idea of "heroes" was "Kids' stuff". There was no black and white. There were only shades of gray. Superman is well aware of this. He's not an idiot (unless he is written as one). The Man of Steel is well-aware that there is injustice in this world. There is inequality out there. The world can be cold, and it can be hard. But that doesn't mean one should never stop trying to do what is right. Black angrily retorts that Superman can say that because he's an alien with god-like power who is almost impossible to harm. But for him, not so much. Black rants about how he grew up poor, and how his sister lost her hands working in a sweatshop.
This part helps really contrast Superman and Manchester Black. Superman was an orphan child taken in by a loving family, having a happy childhood growing up in Smallville, a town often seen as the ideal of the American small town. Manchester Black grew up in rough conditions in presumably Great Britain (Black wears a Union Jack shirt and uses English slang in his speech), having to presumably fight for everything he had. This comparison really helps show how both these men have developed their opposing worldviews, and reinforces their willingness to fight for those views. Superman's childhood showed him humanity at its best, and Black's showed him humanity at its worst.
Before the argument between them can escalate any further, the Elite literally drop Superman in the middle of a used car lot.
Okay, I have to admit, that was pretty funny. Unsure of what to do, Superman goes to the one of the few people he can turn to for advice: His parents. His father assures him there was nothing for Superman to be ashamed of back there with the Elite. He stood his ground, and they sucker-punched him. Clark notes that even people in Smallville seem to be rooting for the Elite. Jonathan states he can understand why. Some are just loud and angry, but some people are scared.
People see the world as a terrible place, and they want someone to fix it. They want it fixed easy and quick. Clark asks if that means Black is right. Pa Kent tells him that Black isn't right, and Clark has to teach him the way, lead by example. And he adds if that don't work, he can kick them to high heaven...can't he? Superman flies back over Metropolis, and overhears people talking about the Elite.
It must sting Superman a bit to hear kids talking about how "cool" the Elite are. Later, he is dealing with...some rogue Men in Black agents.
Superman drops the boat piece he was using as a shield, causing a massive water splash. The aliens freak out at the water coming to them, but the Metropolis Marvel freezes the wave with his freeze breath. He explains that the aliens come from a desert planet where water is considered toxic, which is something the humans with them didn't realize. However, a little research, a little water, and the problem is solved, with no deaths. I love this scene because it shows Superman using something that I feel isn't really associated with him: His brain. Superman gets to be clever. That's cool.
The Elite arrive late for once. Ha ha, Superman beat you to the scene. In another bit of a funny moment, Hat complains that he could be watching a talk show right now. Manchester Black asks what happens next. Superman explains that he gets the Justice League to detain the aliens, and then they question the rogue DEO agents that were working with them. Black blows some smoke in Superman's face, and calls him an idiot.
Black explains to the Man of Steel that the agents ran an alien immigration service that takes beings from around the galaxy and turns them into weapons. He hints that's how Menagerie got bonded to her alien crèche by them. He then says they'll get a "trial", get sent to a "maximum security prison", but it actually would be a sweatshop that trains people to make more bioweapons. Superman says that if that is the case, then he'll stop that, too. And he'll keep doing it again and again until they get the hint. And he'll do it without killing.
Black grumbles that American superheroes love to talk. He orders Hat to use his magic hat to make the streets swallow the criminals and send their families a nice acid rain bath. Superman is horrified by this. It's understandable. The Elite aren't acting like superheroes here. They're acting like members of a superpowered Mafia. Superman angrily punches out Hat, and it's caught by a bunch of cameras. Black smirks at this, and thanks Superman for the "just cause". Yup, the Man of Tomorrow is on their hit list now. They'll see him tomorrow.
That night, Clark Kent is lying in bed with his beloved wife Lois Lane. She asks him a question. Why not get the JLA on this? I'm with her on that. Superman could use the backup, and I'm sure some of them would have something to say to the Elite. Or even the New Gods. I'm sure Big Barda would love to introduce the Elite to her fists and Mega Rod. Speaking of Big Barda, I've been reading some of Jack Kirby's Mister Miracle stuff, and it's pretty awesome.
Superman explains that it's him the Elite is after. She counters that he came to them. How? He punched Hat because Hat was going to kill a bunch of innocent people. Lois tries to convince him to find another way to stop them. The Elite are incredibly powerful...and she fears Superman can't win. But Superman has to stand up to the Elite. He has to show people there is another way besides the Elite's. They need to hear someone who believes in humanity.
The next morning, Superman wakes up and flies off, but not before leaving a note for Lois. While the sun is still not up yet, he stands on a street, demanding the Elite show themselves. And boy, do they ever.
Okay, I have to give the Elite credit here. They know how to make an entrance. The Elite call dibs on Superman's various body parts. Superman asks them to take this out of the city. Amused, Manchester Black agrees to it, using the living HQ's advanced biotech to film the upcoming fight and patch it live to everyone who has a monitor. Back in their apartment, Lois reads the note and grumbles. Oh, Lois. Ye of little faith...
Superman and the Elite head to Io, one of Jupiter's moons. And true to life, it has a surface. Black points out a giant rock...thing with a giant skeletal fetus inside it. During one of the Elite's first jobs. A bunch of obelisks had popped up all over the solar system, and they were essentially alien "eggs" about to hatch. The mother was described as an "Act of God with an attitude". The Elite destroyed them as a way of getting her to go away. You get the idea the Elite do not really care about the consequences of their actions. Superman pleads with them to end this, and stand down. This can be ended without any bloodshed. Manchester Black's answer? "Uh-uh."
After Black sends Superman flying, the Elite go on the attack. Black explains that since he has the power, he makes the rules. And nobody punches any of his people and gets away with it. As the Elite attack Superman, Black rants that they are the heroes of today's world. A dark, cruel world. That they are the heroes that will save the world, and Superman is nothing more than a stopgap. That he solves nothing.
As the Elite continue beating on the Man of Steel, like Menagerie slashing at his face and Hat dropping a big slab on him, Black continues his rant. He goes on about how the real world is nothing but darkness and pain, he sounds like one of the Goth kids on South Park. Superman breaks away from Hat's little flattening attempt, but then Black himself steps in. Using his telekinetic abilities, Black causes the Man of Steel to suffer what is essentially a stroke. And Coldcast finishes the Man of Steel off with his electromagnetic powers going at full blast. Black's dialogue in this part makes me facepalm so hard.
Black has Superman's tattered cape. Hat makes me chuckle with his pulling a drink from his magic chapeau. But then...a voice comes out of nowhere, taunting the Elite. It's Superman. He's made a mistake. He tried to treat the Elite like people. But they don't deserve that, not after all they have done. So the Man of Tomorrow...is going to give them a taste of their own medicine. He touches Menagerie, and her alien crèche goes insane.
Black orders Coldcast to use his powers to flush him out. But he can't. After that huge discharge he used against Superman earlier, he needs to recharge. He can barely even fly right now. A panicked Hat screams that Menagerie is dead. A huge gust of wind kicks up, but Coldcast is able to protect himself and Manchester. Hat's powers do the same for him...but his lungs collapse from the vacuum. The two remaining Elite members prepare to attack, but Superman snatches Coldcast away at superspeed. The Man of Steel explains to Black that he just sent Coldcast into space at mach seven. If one had superhuman hearing, they'd hear a pop. Black vows to kill Superman for this, but Superman only throws his own rhetoric back at him.
I love this panel. Mahnke really helps sell the idea that Superman is being an intimidating monster here. The being covered in blood and tattered costume helps. Superman then uses his heat vision on Black and knocks him aside. Black notices his powers don't work. Superman explains that he used his vision powers to find an odd growth in his brain, presumably the source of his powers. And he used his heat vision to cut it out, stripping the Englishman of them. A teary-eyed Black exclaims that Superman can't do that. Superman doesn't do that. He just showed that he's no better than everyone else.
Superman explains to the cameras that he was frightened to go down to Black's level, but it turned out to be easy. It's easy to be angry. It's easy to be hateful. It's easy to be vengeful. It's easy to be ugly and mean. But Superman doesn't believe in that. Black is confused, and Superman has another surprise.
The Elite are not dead. They're unconscious, and will be nursing some epic headaches, but it's nothing they presumably won't recover from just fine. I can imagine Superman would want to be sure they'll be alright. All that's left to do now is to call the JLA to come get them. The Elite's ship is helping with this, as it's pretty happy to be free of them. But wait! There's more! Superman's "heat vision lobotomy" of Black? Not a lobotomy. Superman just essentially gave him a very focused concussion, temporarily knocking his powers out of commission. By the time they return, he'll be locked up and pumped to the gills with psi-dampeners. An enraged Black vows revenge, saying Superman is living in a dream world. The story ends with the Metropolis Marvel saying he would not have it any other way.
As the man himself says, people need dreams, as they give something to aspire to, to uplift people. And Superman will never stop fighting for his dream. And his dream is born of optimism, not cynicism. Superman's dream is for a world where decency, honor, and truth is the order of the day, and he will always fight for it, and he'll do it without sinking to the Elite's idea of "heroism".
This comic is awesome, despite it having some wrinkles. I'm not sure exactly how Superman was able to fake the Elite's deaths. It's not explained in the book. Maybe the Elite's ship helped? But there is a positive to it. We actually get to see Superman be more than just a flying tough brick. We get to see him be clever. We get to see him use his brain. Which is actually pretty cool. I don't think Superman's brains get enough credit.
This is a story that put Superman up against the fears of a seemingly dark, cynical world. A world where people want quick answers, easy solutions. The Elite represent that. They're brutal, vengeful, and seemingly don't care that their actions have consequences. In a world that seems dark and hopeless, it's easy to embrace them as the heroes the world needs. They act with impunity and without mercy. But that's the ultimate problem. It's not that simple.
Superman understands that being a hero is about inspiring people to be better. That even if the world is a dark, cruel place, a hero should inspire people to be merciful and kind instead. It's easy to be cruel. It's easy to be vengeful, it's easy to be mean, it's easy to be cynical. Being kind and optimistic can be hard, but ultimately, it's better to be kind and optimistic. Superman could have easily killed the Elite, but he chose not to because...it's not his way. He's not about being angry and cynical. That's not what being a hero should be about.
I have noted that the book has four inkers, but it doesn't really look it to me. I have no real complaints about Mahnke's art. If you want to read this story for yourself, it's collected in the Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told trade paperback.
So, whatever happened to the Elite? Well, during the Our Worlds at War event, Black would be tasked by President Lex Luthor to lead a Suicide Squad to unleash the monsterous Doomsday against the mastermind behind the event, Imperiex. He was one of the mission's only survivors. The Ending Battle storyline saw him mind-controlling dozens of supervillains in an attempt to break Superman and make him into a killer. But it didn't work, and Black realized he had become a villain, taking his own life.
Menagerie would end up in a permanent vegetative state after she revealed to Superman that the Elite were being mind-controlled to assassinate Lex Luthor. Manchester Black had used his powers to induce a stroke in her. Menagerie's sister Sonja would inherit the alien crèche and become the second Menagerie. But it, combined with her hatred of Manchester Black, would make Sonja go insane. She was locked up in a metahuman prison facility.
Coldcast, inspired by Superman to reform, would end up joining a "black-ops" Justice League team known as Justice League Elite which was led by Manchester Black's cyborg sister Vera, who formed the team to atone for her brother's actions.
Hat would quit after Vera Black took over the Elite, and likely wandered off somewhere. Nobody cared.
And that's the Elite for you. Although considering the New 52 and DC Rebirth's rewrites of DC canon, I think we can assume their "adventures" were canon and not canon at the same time. But that's a complaint for another time. Happy 80th Birthday, Superman! And here's to 80 more years of high-flying adventure and heroism! Next time, in honor of Avengers: Infinity War, we're going to take a look at the beginnings of the Infinity Gauntlet saga...