Retro Review: Superman Annual #11 (1985) – “For the Man Who Has Everything”

Retro Review takes a look at iconic issues of DC Comics books and measures their artistic integrity against their cultural and symbolic importance to the DC Universe and comic books in general.

Superman-Annual-11-1985

Superman Annual #11 (1985) – “For the Man Who Has Everything”

Written by Alan Moore

Pencils & Inks by Dave Gibbons

Colours by Tom Ziuko

Letters by Dave Gibbons

Published: 1985 (DC Comics)

Grade: A

The creative team of writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons were a tour-de-force at DC Comics in the 1980s. Among their most iconic and celebrated works are the critically acclaimed Watchmen and their seminal run on Swamp Thing, which redefined the character’s mythology. But despite these successes (among others), it was no great secret that Moore wanted to develop stories for some of DC’s more major characters. He got the chance in 1985’s Superman Annual #11 with the now-iconic single-issue story “For the Man Who Has Everything”.

Superman under the Black Mercy's control - Superman Annual #11, DC Comics

Superman under the Black Mercy’s control – Superman Annual #11, DC Comics

The story takes place on Superman’s birthday, where Batman and Robin (the newly-minted Jason Todd) and Wonder Woman meet at the Fortress of Solitude to give the Man of Steel their gifts. Once inside, they find Superman incapacitated by an alien plant known as the Black Mercy, which has trapped Superman in a perfect telepathic simulation of his heart’s desire. In this world, Jor-El’s prediction of Krypton’s destruction never came to pass, and Kal-El marries and has children on his homeworld, working as a geologist.

It is revealed that the mastermind behind the Black Mercy is Mongul, an alien warlord and Green Lantern/Superman enemy out for revenge against Superman. Wonder Woman engages Mongul in physical combat while Batman and Robin attempt to extricate Superman from the Black Mercy’s physical and psychic grip. As they shake the plant’s hold on Superman, his perfect world slowly deteriorates around him; his cousin Kara is attacked in the streets, tensions with his father run high due to his extreme political affiliations, and eventually Kal comes to believe that his life on Krypton is not real, releasing him from the Black Mercy, which turns itself on Batman. Once free, Superman violently attacks Mongul until Jason Todd can catch up and turn the Black Mercy loose on the warlord.

The plot of the story is simple enough to be contained to this single issue, but in its approximately fifty pages Moore and Gibbons show a side of the Big Blue Boy Scout that hadn’t ever really been explored, certainly not with their level of depth and skill.

In this story, Moore shows Superman to be emotionally vulnerable, and breaks through his usual optimism and hope with the realization that despite a life with the loving and supportive Kents, he still sees himself as an orphan – the last remaining vestige of a people and culture that were wiped from existence. There was nothing an infant Kal-El could have done to change things, but the Black Mercy exposes the truth that the “what if” scenario is a persistent, impossible wish of Superman’s. Unlike Batman’s famously deep emotional scars, the loss of Krypton isn’t burdensome emotional baggage for Superman to carry, but rather a lingering regret.

Superman gives up his dream life - Superman Annual #11, DC Comics

Superman gives up his dream life – Superman Annual #11, DC Comics

Quite ingeniously, Moore uses the Black Mercy to turn that lingering regret into a searing emotional scar. Having to relinquish his perfect life – played out in a heart-wrenching scene between Kal and his would-be son Van-El – does to Clark what Joe Chill did to Bruce, and in his moment of freedom we see a Superman whose pain and hatred are in control. As Mongul threatens Superman with the prospect of “oblivion”, Superman’s response is no heroic cliché, but simply “burn”, before unleashing his heat vision. This isn’t the more modern deconstruction of Superman – the now-usual dictator-Superman or turn to evil – but rather a momentary shattering of the Man of Steel’s traditional hopefulness that, beyond being a terrifying reminder of how lucky we are he chooses to be a hero, further humanizes the character.

“Burn” – Superman Annual #11, DC Comics

Gibbons’ artwork elevates these revelatory character moments through his incredible ability to capture all of the emotional nuance in the faces of the characters. When he tells Mongul to “burn”, there is an incredible nuance to Superman’s rage that fully projects the hurt and trauma he has been made to suffer, as well as the vengeance he now so desires, but it still reassures the reader that it is the Superman you know. It is a wonderful mixture of strength and weakness that extends through his portrayal of the other characters. Wonder Woman, though clearly outmatched by Mongul, fights on with a broken body and a waning strength.

In Batman, both Moore and Gibbons offer up a portrayal of the character that, to modern day readers, may seem foreign. Unlike the unstoppable juggernaut of strategy and tactics that the Dark Knight has become, here there is much more of Bruce Wayne in the character than Batman. He allows Wonder Woman to engage Mongul, conceding that he and Robin are way out of their depth. Additionally, Batman fumbling to explain his ruined gift, or his smirk after telling Jason to “think clean thoughts” about Wonder Woman is both fatherly and friendly in a way that Batman is seldom allowed to be anymore. Similarly, I am grateful that Moore does not give much focus to Batman’s ideal fantasy world when the Black Mercy takes him; the Batman origin story is so over-told as it is, and spending too much time on it (or this particular subversion of it) would undercut all of the emotional weight they brought to Superman’s story.

Wonder Woman presents Superman a replica of the bottled city of Kandor - Superman Annual #11, DC Comics

Wonder Woman presents Superman a replica of the bottled city of Kandor – Superman Annual #11, DC Comics

Ultimately, this is indicative of one of the issue’s greatest successes: the story features Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, and Mongul (traditionally an adversary of Green Lantern), but it is still completely a story about Superman. Moore and Gibbons keep the narrative, the emotion, and geography of the issue centred around Superman. The supporting cast all play vital roles, but only insofar as they have an impact on Superman. There are no ramifications of Wonder Woman’s brutal fight with Mongul, nor of Batman’s brush with the Black Mercy. When the day is won, the only character whose inner life we are permitted to see is Superman’s; as he must confront the heartbreak of losing his world yet again when he is reminded of his failure to save Kandor.

Alan Moore’s aggressive and confrontational personality has soured some comic book fans – perhaps rightfully so – but he was undeniably one of the great comic book writers of the 1980s. His dedication and focus on character and emotion brought real stakes to the superhero comics he wrote, and it is a testament to Dave Gibbons that his art was always up to the task of realizing Moore’s scripts.

“For the Man Who Has Everything” teaches us something about the secret pain Superman has always carried with him, breaking through his invulnerable Kryptonian body to expose his thoroughly human soul.

Superman Annual #11 is available for digital download on the DC Comics website.


Bonus thoughts:

  • This issue was adapted by J.M. DeMatteis for the animated Justice League Unlimited television show. Despite a couple of minor changes, the episode is nearly a shot-for-shot adaptation of the original story, and Alan Moore has stated that it is the only interpretation of his work of which he approves.
  • Wonder Woman gives Superman his birthday gift - Superman Annual #11, DC Comics

    Wonder Woman gives Superman his birthday gift – Superman Annual #11, DC Comics

    Alan Moore preemptively expressed his displeasure with Superman’s relationship with Wonder Woman in the New 52 (which, for the record, I haven’t had a problem with, assuming that eventually he will find his way back to Lois).

  • In the issue’s epilogue, Moore quickly depicts Mongul’s ideal reality. Having already seen glimpses in the story proper, this additional sequence is the one redundant piece of writing in the entire script.
  • Mongul is a wonderful enemy in this issue. His ego, his misogyny, and his callousness make him deliciously hate-able and a terrific foil for Superman.