For The Man Who Has Everything: The Superman Stories of Alan Moore
We discuss Alan Moore Superman stories and answer the question: when is Superman's birthday, anyway?
Alan Moore’s body of work for DC Comics isn’t exactly small, but its impact far exceeds the actual page count. Whether it was the psychedelic horror of Swamp Thing, the violent madness of Batman: The Killing Joke, or the industry changing Watchmen, the importance Moore’s DC Comics output can’t be overstated.
He’s probably not a writer you immediately associate with Superman, though. Alan Moore only wrote three proper Superman stories (although he would revisit many of the character’s tropes with Supreme for Image Comics in the late ‘90s), but they’re all essential reading. Moore’s Superman stories all came within roughly one year of each other, at a time when Superman’s popularity was waning among fans already looking for more mature takes on superheroes, like the work of Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Dave Cockrum, and others were doing at Marvel on Uncanny X-Men, or that Marv Wolfman and George Perez were bringing to The New Teen Titans at DC.
Superman himself was the most powerful he would ever be, (the power levels of this era are often referred to informally as “juggling planets,” although that’s not something I ever remember actually seeing in a Superman comic) with eyes that “watched quarks at play” and a level of invulnerability of such a level that he “bathed in the heart of the sun, careless at the mile-high geysers of flame.” Perhaps as a result, the comics themselves, the occasional standout tale by Cary Bates, Marv Wolfman, or Elliot S! Maggin aside, were becoming increasingly formulaic and dull, despite continued artistic contributions from legends like Curt Swan, Murphy Anderson, Kurt Schaffenberger, Gil Kane, or Keith Giffen.
Between 1985 (when the first of Moore’s Superman stories was published) and 1986 (the last), DC was in the midst of a massive continuity housecleaning known as Crisis on Infinite Earths. One of the end results of Crisis would be a Superman with more manageable power levels, less of a reliance on bizarre sci-fi concepts, and a creative team consisting of some of the hottest names in the business telling more grounded tales theoretically more suitable for modern audiences.
But it was the virtually all-powerful pre-Crisis Superman that Alan Moore and friends got to play with and subvert. And to hear Moore tell it (or to read his work on Superman love-letter Supreme), he wouldn’t have had it any other way. “What it was with Superman was the incredible range of imagination on display with that original character,” he said in a 1996 interview. “A lot of those concepts that were attached to Superman, which may seem corny and dated now, were wonderful at the time. The idea of the Bottled City of Kandor, Krypto the Superdog, Bizarro, all of it. These are fantastic ideas, and it was that which kept me going back each month to Superman when I was ten. I wanted to find out more about this incredible world with all of these fascinating details.”
Of course it was those very aspects of the Superman legend that would be swept out of Superman continuity a month after Moore’s final Superman story. He still added a few “fascinating details” of his own in his time, though. Here’s a quick look at them.
“The Jungle Line”
DC Comics Presents #85 (1985)
In the 1980s, Superman was unquestionably the face of DC Comics, starring in four monthly titles: Superman, Action Comics, World’s Finest (a team-up book with Batman, the title of which will be nicely utilized for the upcoming Flash/Supergirl TV crossover), and DC Comics Presents. DC Comics Presents would pair Superman with another hero (or heroes), usually a more obscure character, and DC Comics Presents #85 marked Swamp Thing’s turn.
In 1985, only two DC Comics characters had ever made it to the big screen for a feature film. Superman had three under his belt (although the quality of those movies was already in decline, with 1983’s Superman III leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouths), while Swamp Thing had his first big screen outing in 1982, with a flick directed by Wes Craven. They don’t seem like prime team-up candidates in any case, though.
“The Jungle Line” is far less famous than Moore’s other two Superman stories and his essential, defining run as writer of Swamp Thing’s monthly book. But check out the talent that brought this one to life with him. Rick Veitch (Moore’s ultimate heir on Swamp Thing) provides pencils with the legendary Al Williamson (Star Wars, Flash Gordon, you name it) and Tatjana Wood (who also provided colors for Moore’s Swamp Thing and the Grant Morrison Animal Man era) on colors.
In short, Superman has been poisoned by a piece of Kryptonian fungus that made its way to Earth on a tiny hunk of meteorite. Now he’s losing both his powers and his mind as his body dies. Mad with fever, “the Man of Tomorrow is heading south to die.” After wrecking his car, a hallucinating Supes wanders into the bayou (as one does), where he attracts the attention of Swamp Thing.
Superman doesn’t do any actual heroics in this one. The story kicks off with him already seriously ill and hallucinating before it gives us a brief flashback establishing how this happened. Superman accepts he’s going to die, but then he encounters Swamp Thing, who cleanses and heals his fevered brain. Moore’s Superman stories routinely put Kal-El in situations he can’t punch his way out of and “The Jungle Line” is probably the most passive Supes is in any of these outings.
There may or may not be something to be said about a fungus causing Superman to trip his indestructible balls off while it takes a mellowing, peaceful green sensation to bring him back down:
Keep in mind that about a decade later, when Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon were steering John Constantine’s adventures, ol’ Swampy counted this little number among his party tricks…
So, yeah, draw your own conclusions.
Interestingly, this is the only time I can remember seeing the Bronze Age Superman with a five o’clock shadow. After he has been healed by Swamp Thing, he uses his heat vision reflected off a mirror to shave. This little trick is generally credited to John Byrne’s Superman reboot of 1986 with the Man of Steel limited series, but here it is in all its glory, just over a year before that story hit the stands.
Other than that, this is unquestionably a pre-Crisis Superman story (Crisis on Infinite Earths reached the halfway mark the same month “The Jungle Line” was published). Moore proves himself thoroughly literate in Silver/Bronze Age Superman lore by referencing obscure bits of Kryptoniana (in this case the Scarlet Jungles of Krypton, which had been kicking around the margins since the ’50s). Moore’s love of obscure Super-history is something we’ll see again in “For The Man Who Has Everything” and “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow.”
“The Jungle Line” is collected in DC Universe by Alan Moore (available through Amazon here) and would fit in chronologically roughly between Swamp Thing #39 and #40 if you’re going by publication order, although it isn’t reprinted in any of the actual Swamp Thing volumes. It doesn’t matter, though. You don’t need any prior knowledge of Moore’s ongoing Swamp Thing series in order to appreciate this. It’s admittedly the weakest of the Moore Superman tales and doesn’t approach the weirdness Moore and Veitch were delivering in Swampy’s solo title.
Side Note: Can anyone tell me who the astronomer who does the necessary scientific exposition on page 3 of this story is supposed to be? He’s identified as “Dr. Everett,” but Veitch/Williamson draw him like he’s supposed to be someone a reader would recognize. If you have some insight, drop me a line in the comments or on Twitter, and I’ll update this story.
“For The Man Who Has Everything”
Superman Annual #11 (1985)
If the creative team of “The Jungle Line” didn’t kick your ass, then the team behind Watchmen should do the trick. Dave Gibbons steps in for art duties on this one, a solid year before the ultimate Moore/Gibbons story, Watchmen, would arrive in June of 1986.
This one is really the main event for this article. “For The Man Who Has Everything” is one of the finest Superman stories ever told, one of the most perfectly crafted superhero stories in DC Comics history, and one of the best stories Moore ever put his name on.
You have to consider when “For The Man Who Has Everything” was published in order to fully appreciate its impact. With the occasional exception, the Superman comics of the early 1980s were extraordinarily pedestrian affairs, so “For The Man Who Has Everything” surely stood out from its peers. But even for today’s more demanding readers, and in an industry that has spent the past thirty years chasing its tail looking for the next Watchmen, if “For The Man Who Has Everything” were published today, it would still hit with the force of a Kryptonian haymaker.
The story plays loosely with the “imaginary story” device that was popular in the Superman titles from the 1950s through the early 1980s. Simply put, they were “what if” tales with no place in continuity, often dealing with hypotheticals like “The Story of Superman Red and Superman Blue” or the original “Death of Superman” (the one that had nothing at all to do with Doomsday).
But Moore and Gibbons chose not to simply tell a “what if Krypton never exploded” tale, which would have still allowed them plenty of opportunity to play around with the darker take on a hypothetical Kryptonian present. Instead, their story of a Krypton that survived and a Kal-El who lived his life on it is happening only in Superman’s imagination, while a very real battle involving Wonder Woman, Batman, and Robin rages around him, with his very life at stake.
As he did in “The Jungle Line,” Superman once again finds himself a victim of alien plant life. The issue’s villain, Mongul (who had famously tangled with Superman a handful of times in the pages of DC Comics Presents), describes the Black Mercy as “something between a plant and an intelligent fungus” which “attaches itself to its victims in a form of symbiosis, feeding from their bio-aura.” The telepathic plant “reads them like a book, and…feeds them a logical simulation of the happy ending they desire.” It shouldn’t be fatal, but why would you fight a parasite that gives you a convincing illusion of your heart’s desire?
further reading: Why Kevin Smith’s Superman Lives Was Ahead of Its Time
Superman’s fondest wish is, of course, a Krypton that was never destroyed, and where he has lived twenty-something years of his life and raised a family of his own. Perhaps in a sign that he subconsciously suspects something is wrong, this “dream” life isn’t free of complications. His mother, Lara, died of “the eating sickness,” while his father, Jor-El, was disgraced after his predictions about Krypton’s end failed to come to pass. As a result, Jor-El is courting religious and cultural extremists who have taken root on Krypton, while Kryptonian citizens decide to take out their frustrations with the House of El by beating Kara Zor-El (who only actually appears in one panel of the story) nearly to death.
“For the Man Who Has Everything” once again takes Superman off the board as an action hero for the majority of the issue, as he’s trapped in a fantasy world created by the Black Mercy. But Superman doesn’t need to hit stuff in order to solve his problems, and he begins to shake off the effects of the Black Mercy once he realizes that this world can’t be real. It’s heartbreaking when it happens, though…
Superman woke up from his bad fungus trip in “The Jungle Line” feeling like he had conquered an inner demon (unaware that he was assisted by Swamp Thing), perhaps spiritually refreshed in the way that experimentation with certain psychoactive substances has been known to affect people.
Here, he wakes up righteously pissed off, and with good reason. He just lived about 25 years in his head and raised two children there. Waking up to find they aren’t real, ummmm…he doesn’t take it very well.
Quick note: Dave Gibbons also did the lettering for this issue, which gives us such unforgettable onomatopoeia as “THRUTCH” and the above “SSSHIZZZZZIIT”
While the idea of Superman basically losing his shit on Mongul like this may seem like old hat to people who just expect their Kryptonians to behave like video game protagonists most of the time, it’s really much more effective when it only happens rarely. When written properly, Superman, even in action, is a calm, level-headed guy who uses violence as a last resort. He’s got a long fuse, but when it goes off, well…”burn.”
Moore and Gibbons effortlessly weave references to Kryptonian history throughout the story, including a quick mention of Fort Rozz, which was also made famous on the Supergirl TV series. And right on the first page, there’s a sideways reference to Moore’s previous Superman story, which was published exactly two weeks earlier than Superman Annual #11. As an exhausted Kal-El returns home, he contemplates reading his children “another Scarlet Jungle story before bed.” Maybe that story is a variation on “The Jungle Line” and this is a manifestation of Supes’ unconscious from his previous adventure.
While its basic elements and structure are timeless, “For The Man Who Has Everything” is a story that really does work best within this particular era of Superman. Superman isn’t just a hero to Earth, he’s an intergalacticaly recognized figure. The Black Mercy gets to him because he just assumes it’s a birthday gift from some alien civilization he has helped out on one of his countless adventures. Saving worlds, even alien worlds, is just a day at the office for this Superman. The kind of inner turmoil that nearly 30 years lived inside his mind that the Black Mercy gives him is something else entirely. The story gives us a wonderful contrast between Superman as a physical, interstellar man of action, and the mortal, human soul that lies within.
further reading: Every Superman and DC Comics Reference in Man of Steel
While Superman is obviously the central character here, the rest of DC’s Trinity shouldn’t be ignored, either. Dave Gibbons draws perfect renditions of Wonder Woman, Batman, and Robin. Batman is a suitably aloof, analytical “Mr. Spock” for the tale, but far from the brooding paranoiac we’ve come to expect in recent years. Wonder Woman is given not one, but two fist-pumpingly badass moments, since she’s the only one in the Fortress with the raw power to stand up to Mongul. She’s as comfortable with her demigod status and has a worldly, almost laid back personality that I don’t believe was really a factor in 1985. It’s somewhat fitting, too, that the Watchmen creators chose Robin, the least powerful of the bunch, to ultimately defeat Mongul.
Take a brief moment and imagine an alternate universe where Moore and Gibbons didn’t take on Watchmen in 1986, but rather spent a year or so as the creative team on Superman or Action Comics. Holy moley, that would have been something.
“For The Man Who Has Everything” was also adapted as an episode of Justice League Unlimited., and somewhat more loosely as an episode of Supergirl. It’s a shame that we’ll never see anyone with the guts to try and do this as a movie.
You can find “For The Man Who Has Everything” in DC Universe Stories by Alan Moore.
A note about Superman’s birthday.
“For The Man Who Has Everything” contains what I believe is the first mention of Superman’s birthday falling on February 29th (if I’m wrong, yell at me in the comments), traditionally known as Leap Day. It’s unknown whether this was a sly reference to Superman being “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” an editorial mandate, or Moore/Gibbons playing with the idea that if Superman only has a birthday every four years, it explains why the guy still fits into the same tights he did back in 1938. The February 29th date was utilized for Superman’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 1988, too.
But Supes has had several birthdays established. For one thing, Clark Kent’s birthday would always be the date the Kents found baby Kal-El in a rocket. Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Superman: Secret Origin put Clark Kent’s birthday on December 1st. What Kal-El’s actual Kryptonian birthday would be in relation to Earth’s own trip around the sun is only relevant if you want it to be, but some accounts place it in October while others put it on June 18th (coincidentally, that’s the birthday of the first actor to portray Superman, the great Bud Collyer). Action Comics #1 has a June, 1938 cover date, but probably actually hit newsstands in late February of 1938. There was no February 29th in 1938, though.
Alright, I spent way too much time on that. We’ve got one more story to get to…
“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”
Superman #423 and Action Comics #583 (1986)
I’m going to tread lightly here, but it has to be said: “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” is a great Superman story, but it’s no “For The Man Who Has Everything.” Just a word of warning…it’s impossible to talk about this one without spoilers, too, but I’m trying my damndest to keep this light on those. No matter what, as with “For The Man Who Has Everything,” you should absolutely read this comic.
This story marks the official “end” of the Silver/Bronze Age Superman, as well as Julius Schwartz’s 15-year tenure as editor on the Superman titles. The decision to treat the final issues of Superman and Action Comics before John Byrne’s Man of Steel reboot (the word used at the time was “revamp” because there was no such word as “reboot”) as if they were actually the final Superman stories was a brilliant one, and it’s difficult to imagine anything this ballsy ever being allowed by DC’s corporate masters ever again.
Schwartz wanted to get Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel to write the final story (Siegel was also the author of one of the finest Superman “imaginary stories” of all time, 1961’s “The Death of Superman”), but he was unavailable. Over breakfast with Alan Moore, Schwartz casually mentioned his plan and was told “if you let anybody but me write that story, I’ll kill you.” Have you ever seen Alan Moore? I’d take that seriously, too. Schwartz felt the same way. “Since I didn’t want to be an accessory to my own murder,” he recalled, “I agreed.” Perhaps in a final attempt to hedge their bets, the tale is billed as one of those famous “Imaginary Stories” but it’s ultimately up to the reader to decide whether it suits their needs.
Moore is paired not with a Watchmen or Swamp Thing artistic collaborator this time around, but Curt Swan. Swan is unquestionably the Superman artist of the Bronze Age, and he is indelibly associated with this era of the character. There is something almost jarring to seeing Alan Moore helping to steer “traditional” Curt Swan Superman illustrations down a darker path, but really, nobody else should have been allowed to draw this story. It all helps with the illusion that this is indeed the abrupt end of Superman’s nearly 50-year publication history.
But there’s something aggressively downbeat about the proceedings, and it’s far from the triumphant sendoff that one might expect (for a more optimistic look at what Superman’s final days might look like, you can and absolutely should seek out Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman). Nearly every important piece of Superman’s supporting cast makes an appearance in these 48 pages, and it doesn’t turn out well for the vast majority of them. Superman breaks down and weeps at one point after a masterful piece of emotional manipulation by the creative team that is equally as effective on the reader.
further reading: The JJ Abrams Superman Movie You Never Saw
Even a formerly comedic character like Bizarro gets a chilling makeover, while the new, aggressively cybernetic Brainiac/Luthor team is an effective, if subtle, piece of genuine (if Comics Code approved) body horror. It’s not something you would normally see come from Curt Swan’s pencil, which makes these moments even more effective than they might have been from a Rick Veitch or a Dave Gibbons. Superman does take a life in this story, and this story has found itself cited in wrongheaded “See? Superman does kill sometimes, bro” defenses. It’s no accident what he does, to be certain, but his self-imposed penalty is a suitable consequence.
There are a handful of parallels to Watchmen worth noting, too. There’s the weight of decades of superhero adventures that the reader may or may not be privy to, and a creeping sense of middle age dread and inevitability informing our hero’s actions. The ending reveals Lois Lane and her disguised/retired husband living a life of domestic bliss a decade removed from the events of the story. This faintly recalls Night Owl and Silk Spectre’s future from the conclusion of Watchmen, while Clark’s decision to become a mechanic in his post-superhero career is reminiscent of how the Golden Age Night Owl spent his retirement in Watchmen, as well. These might be coincidental, especially since the final issue of Watchmen wouldn’t see the light of day until well over a year after this story.
But as any Superman story should, it ends on a hopeful note…and with a wink. “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” is available in a deluxe edition, or you can just (say it with me) get it in DC Universe Stories by Alan Moore.
It has been said that Mike Cecchini spends too much time thinking about Superman stories. Worship Rao with him on Twitter.