Unshelved: Superman Elseworlds Annuals ’94

With Unshelved, I pull comics from my collection and give them another read, sometimes for the first time in 30 years! These days I’m going through all of the Superman and Superman-related books from the end of Return of Superman through 1999!

I know we’re in the middle of a major story with tons of moving parts (Supes’ out-of-control powers, the Underworlders’ uprising and Lex Luthor’s deteriorating health and sanity) and I just took a pit stop to cover Superman Doomsday: Hunter/Prey, but now’s the time to discuss the Elseworlds Annuals from 1994. All four major titles along with Steel and Superboy had entries in this series that took the building blocks of these heroes and put them in interesting, different configurations. For a time, Elseworlds was DC’s version of What If? over at Marvel, giving creators a place to toy around with conventions and look at these characters from different angles. I got really into these one-off stories and credit them for launching my love of alternate realities. Over the years, I’ve added quite a few to my collection and was stunned to find that not a single one of these is on DC Universe Infinite, though some of the others are. Go figure.

We’ll kick off with Superman: The Man Of Steel Annual #3 by Christopher Priest and M.D. Bright which has one of the best covers of the bunch. By the way, all four of the main Super annuals come from the brilliant mind of Mike Mignola. We get dropped right into a future sci-fi world where Earth has been taken over by aliens and only one man seems able to fight against them: Batman! As the book progresses, we learn that it’s not just any old aliens who invaded, but Kryptonians. Instead of just one baby escaping the dying planet, a whole fleet made the trek to Earth and used their powers to take over with Jor-El at the top of the hierarchy. However, his son, Kal-El begins to wonder if their rule of another planet is right and just, eventually becoming Superman and defending the Earthlings from his own people, taking inspiration from Batman and eventually teaming up with Lois Lane and fighting against Lex Luthor. This is a solid, good-looking comic that winds up suffering a bit like so many annuals did in that the expanded page count feels a bit stuffed or wheel-spinny at times. It also doesn’t help that there’s a very similar story in one of these other annuals that I like much more.

From a dystopian future we shift gears to Superman Annual #6 by Darren Vincenzo and Frank Fosco which mixes in a lot of The Jungle Book with Tarzan and even some King Kong by wondering what would happen if Superman’s rocket landed in the jungles of India in the mid-to-late 1800s and he was raised by a wolf. Before long, his powers kicked in and he stood up to the local jerk tiger as well as a band of British hunters including Lex Luthor who just so happens to have a hunk of Kryptonite. Lex doesn’t appreciate this so-called savage having so much power, especially when the stranger and reporter Lois Lane start developing a romance. Lex uses the space rock to capture Superman and bring him back to London where he sets him up as a show for people to come see. Eventually he breaks out and goes on to form a powered royal family of England. I gotta admit, this one did not grab me. The art’s not great — I found myself asking “who?” when reading a lot of these books — and the story felt like it was lifting too much to be fully enjoyable on its own. At the end, I thought that the whole Super Family of England thing was a cool idea and so did John Byrne because he explored something similar in…

Action Comics Annual #6! Actually, this one feels like a synthesis of the previous two stories in that Krypton was able to send off one survivor, an adult by the name of Gor-El. He lands in the English countryside in 1768 and begins working for the king. To prove his loyalty, he flies over to America and brings the entire building holding the men who would have written the Declaration of Independence to England where they are hanged. We jump ahead 200 years and the whole world is under British-Kryptonian rule and still looks like it did when Gor-El landed, which leads to fun scenes with Perry White and Lois Lane in Georgian garb (I initially wrote Victorian, but that was the following era apparently). Gor-El was able to mate with Earth women and begat a line with each subsequent heir being born with less and less power. We meet the latest in this line, Kal-El, who eventually questions his grandfather about why he decided to dominate the planet instead of letting humanity follow its own path thus leading to the age-old authoritarian argument that people are happy when you control every aspect of their life. I won’t spoil it, but the ending to this story went a more tragic route than I expected, but also left me wanting more. The annual also features a back-up by Louise Simonson and Dennis Janke that sends Superman to the 5th Dimension of Mxyzptlk where he acts as a kind of Doomsday to them. It’s short, sweet and fun and the kind of thing that would have been great in more of these annuals because they would have cut down on unnecessarily long main stories and given readers a little more bang for their bucks (these cost a whopping $2.95 back then!).

Sticking with the theme of heroes set in different time periods, it’s time to talk about Steel Annual #1 by Jon Bogdanove, Judy Kurzer Bogdanove and Humberto Ramos. Set during the period of slavery in the United States, this story starts with a young John Henry being friends with Arthur, the plantation owner’s son. At first, he seems like an ally who not only teaches John to read, but also sneaks him books even though it’s against his father’s rules. However, as he ages into adulthood, Arthur turns out to be more like his ruthless father, even going so far as to demand that his now-grown friend use his blacksmithing skills to build him an armor to fight against the North in the brewing Civil War. After surviving bone-chilling atrocities, John dons the armor himself and uses it to destroy the plantation and free his people. While the team did a great job of presenting a heart-breaking story that properly fills the page count and looks gorgeous (what a treat seeing Ramos do his thing in such a unique setting), this is a tough one to read. It feels true to the horrible, inhumane treatment that slaves had to deal with, including a use of the n-word and the murder of children. It’s trigger central and mileage will definitely vary, but I realized that this was an important thing for me to read at the age of 11 because it unabashedly showed the evils of slavery, well beyond what the fairly sanitized 90s text books would have taught me at the time. I’m realizing that these comics really helped open my eyes to the world in ways that nothing else was at the time.

I learned a far less important lesson from the two-parter presented in Adventures Of Superman Annual #6 and Superboy Annual #1: I love a good sci-fi resistance story. Both parts were written by Karl Kesel with Brock L. Hor drawing the first part and Greg S. Luzniak handling the second, two artists I’ve not heard of but who did solid 90s hero work. In this story, aliens dubbed the Horde invaded Earth and threatened to kill a thousand people every time a hero was spotted. After proving good on that promise, some heroes ran away while others went into hiding and the Horde took over the planet with a few cells of human resistance fighters, like Jimmy Olsen, continuing the good fight. Lana Lang, who had risen to the ranks of councilor for the Horde, also secretly served as an informant to Olsen’s army. Together they tracked down Superman who had been hiding out in a prison camp. They convince him to finally fight back after all these years — he felt like humanity tuned its back on him — and escape. From there, they join forces with Wonder Woman (who had gone back to Paradise Island), Batman (who never stopped fighting), Hal Jordan (who was burying everyone who died in Coast City), a guy calling himself Superboy and Wally West (whose legs had been shattered by the Horde). Rounding out this particular band of seven samurai, er, heroes, was Lex Luthor in Metallo’s body going by the name Metallex. Oh and just about everyone gets a cool jacket!

With the magnificent seven in place, the action shifts over to the Superboy entry. I won’t go too deeply into the twists and turns because I think this is a two-parter that deserves more eyes on it and the two issues shouldn’t run you more than $7 if you’re curious. I remember feeling sad when various characters fell in battle and felt the same way this time. I, however, did not remember the ending in great detail, which held a nice surprise or two that sets this up as a fascinating world that…well, no one ever returned to. I slagged a few of these annuals for being over-stuffed, but I thought Kesel paced these two expertly, setting everyone up in part one and knocking them down in part two, all while building one of the more interesting worlds that I came across in these Elseworlds annuals. Sure, I can see the nods and references to existing tropes, but I liked what Kesel did with them and how he expanded from those ideas.

I’ve read maybe half of the Elseworlds annuals and there are plenty of hits and misses. I think the Superman ones offer some interesting looks at the character and they’re worth the price of admission for those Mignola covers! Like I said, these issues are not on DCUI and haven’t been collected, but DC did start putting out some cool Elseworlds trades a few years back that bring together other Elseworlds one-shots and limited series’. If you’re curious to check them out and wouldn’t mind using the following Amazon Associates links, that would be great:

Whew, that was a lot to cover, but we made it through and hopefully you’ll want to read a few of these issues and dive into the wonderful world of Elseworlds. I’ve got a few of those trades and have been slowly making my way through them. Moving forward with Unshelved we’re finally going to get to the bottom of Superman’s increased powers! Hopefully he can get them under control before the clones raze Metropolis…

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