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Meta-Messages – Joe Kelly Wonders What IS So Funny ‘Bout Truth, Justice and the American Way?

All October long I will be exploring the context behind (using reader danjack’s term) “meta-messages.” A meta-message is where a comic book writer comments on/references the work of another comic book in their comic. Each time around, I’ll give you the context behind one such “meta-message.” Here is an archive of the past installments!

Today we look at Joe Kelly’s famous “defense” of Superman in Action Comics #775.

Action Comics #775 was an extra-sized issue written by regular writer Joe Kelly and guest-artists Lee Bermejo and Doug Mahnke (this issue most likely was in the minds of DC when they decided to give Kelly and Mahnke JLA).

The basic set-up is that Kelly is “defending” Superman against the popularity of The Authority, who were extremely popular at the time, selling more copies than any of the Superman titles. Kelly creates a group called the Elite, who are a stand-in for the Authority.

He then has them be pretty violent “heroes,” and has Superman spend the issue sickened not just by the Elite’s behavior, but by the fact that the world seems to like the Elite better than him.

He, of course, sees the Elite as no more than just villains calling themselves heroes (in their battles, they kill the “bad guys” and end up causing a lot of civilian deaths in the process).

So they end up having a “duel,” of sorts – Superman vs. The Elite on the Moon, with all of Earth watching.

At first, it seems as though the Elite has destroyed Superman totally. Then, in a nice bit, a disembodied voice tells them that they’ve just now pushed him too far. Superman then seemingly uses his powers in creative ways to kill off all of the Elite until he is left face-to-face with the Elite’s leader, Manchester Black…

Impressively, the issue does not live or die depending on whether you agree with Kelly’s position. His meta-criticism aside, it is still a powerfully told scene (and the artwork is dynamite).

52 Comments

Man, Superman looks like such a thug here. I’ve rarely seen him so unsympathetic, both in the art and the writing. And that’s even taking into account all the “Superman is a dick” stuff.

It never occurred to me before– but in that first panel on p. 35, Superman reminds me an awful lot of the Miracleman stand-in in Planetary # 7 (who is also a stand-in for all the deconstructed heroes of the G&G era, and I especially think of in connection to Dan the Dyna-Mite in The Golden age).

See especially the first panel of this page: http://readrant.files.wordpress.com/2008/06/revisionist-hero.jpg

an, Superman looks like such a thug here. I’ve rarely seen him so unsympathetic, both in the art and the writing. And that’s even taking into account all the “Superman is a dick” stuff.

This was one of my biggest problems with this turd. First off, it sets up a bunch of strawmen by making the Authority analogues so over-the-top and egregious in comparison to the actual authority, then it basically reduces Superman to their level in order to have him win, thereby actually doing more to validate their stance than refute it. Horrible, horrible book.

If someone wanted to show that Superman was still relevant in cool in comparison to the new school of superheroics, I’d rather have the analogues to the Authority actually act more like the Authority, and I’d rather have Superman prove the superiority of his usual methods by actually using his usual methods, not by acting like them for a short spell.

Actually, I thought the Elite were quite good (for a single-issue) stand-in for the Authority — and I say that as someone who enjoyed classic days of that series quite a bit. I didn’t think they were all that over-the-top in comparison.

Were they strawmen? Sure quite reasonable ones to make the point, that while Supes *could* have defeated the Elite using their same brutal methods, in fact he did not, because that’s not how he rolls.

I do agree the artwork is pretty awful, though.

Were they strawmen? Sure quite reasonable ones to make the point, that while Supes *could* have defeated the Elite using their same brutal methods, in fact he did not, because that’s not how he rolls.

But to me, what does that prove? Of course Superman could defeat the Elite using their same brutal methods. I don’t think anyone doubts that. And of course Superman *chooses* not to use their methods, because that’s not how he rolls. No brainer. But to me the problem is, the book never established whether or not the way Superman actually DOES roll is superior and more effective than the Elite’s methods.

I’d rather have had Superman beat the Elite using the way he rolls rather than temporarily adopting their methods. THAT to me would have proved that the way of the Superman is indeed the superior way. It would be like a bunch of pacifist monks showing a bunch of violent militia that peace is the superior way by taking a bunch of assault rifles and shooting a bunch of them, but not killing them, then saying, “Yeah we can shoot too, but we normally choose not to! Therfore, we’ve obviously proven that peace works better than violence…by shooting you!! Oh, and of course not killing you. That magically makes the violence not count.”

I guess what I’m saying is, no matter what spoken rationalizations Superman gives in the book, and even though he doesn’t actually kill them, the fact that the only way he could eventually deal with them was by acting like them even for a short time actually validates their point, it doesn’t disprove it at all.

The issue very much lives or dies depending on whether you agree with Kelly’s position. Superman comes off as a “might makes right” dictator in every sense, and wins not because of his ideals but because of his unlimited power set. Disagree with superman? Oh, he won’t kill you. He’ll just cripple you and talk about hopes and dreams. “I don’t like my heroes ugly and mean.” No ugly heroes. Way to go, bottomless well of super-compassion.

This is the comic that soured me on Superman as a character and a concept. And it made me like the Authority that much more.

Well, weirdly, I think it kind of lives or dies on how much you disagree with Kelly’s position, at least as Superman states it, because Superman himself is so ugly and mean in the comic that you have to like that sort of thing in the first place to enjoy it.

But to me, what does that prove? Of course Superman could defeat the Elite using their same brutal methods. I don’t think anyone doubts that. And of course Superman *chooses* not to use their methods, because that’s not how he rolls. No brainer. But to me the problem is, the book never established whether or not the way Superman actually DOES roll is superior and more effective than the Elite’s methods.

It works on a couple of levels.

First, Supes scares the bejeebers out of the folks back home (OMG! Superman has become as brutal as these guys we were admiring, which causes us to reconsider our support of them!) only to then make it clear that, no, not only is he not, but he didn’t need to be — that he DIDN’T use their methods of simply obliterating their opponents, even though it looked like he did.

The Elite way was simply to kill, in a grotesquely over-powering fashion. Supes didn’t do that. Moral victory to Supes.

Plus, he gets to show up the smug Chester as a sniveling baby.

Superman comes off as a “might makes right” dictator in every sense, and wins not because of his ideals but because of his unlimited power set. Disagree with superman? Oh, he won’t kill you. He’ll just cripple you and talk about hopes and dreams.

I’m not sure that causing a temporary concussion to the psychoactive part of someone’s brain is any less brutal or “crippling” than knocking them out (or wrapping an I-beam around them, or slapping a power-neutralizer on their head, etc.).

I actually found this one of the best of Kelly’s generally unpleasant run on the title.

The Elite way was simply to kill, in a grotesquely over-powering fashion. Supes didn’t do that. Moral victory to Supes.

So the Elite simply kills in a grotesquely over-powering fashion, while Superman pummels mercilessly and terrorizes his enemies by making them think they’re about to die in a grotesquely over-powering fashion. It’s a moral victory, but of the slimmest margin. Nothing to really brag about.

I agree with T here, what this story demonstrates actually contradicts Superman’s final speech. Superman didn’t beat the Elite by being morally superior or less violent, he beat them because he’s more powerful – and the real morale of the story, despite what a smug Superman tells Manchester Black, is “might makes right”.

I remember my reaction when I first read this. It was a fun romp until the end, when Superman’s holier-than-though speech made me laugh. It’s a very well-written speech, like a solid politician’s speech – it sounds inspirational with all those strong phrases like “dreams save us” and “Anger is easy, hate is easy” but that has nothing to do with how he beat the Elite, or the methods he used. Superman simply overpowered them, the rest is a flowery self-congratulatory speech. I know this story is highly regarded by many fans, but for me it’s a big gorgeous blockbuster actionfest that ends with a corny (and vaguely hypocritical) little speech.

****. I meant “holier-than-thou” in the 2nd paragraph, of course.

But what he did with that power makes all the difference. Yes, Superman overpowered the Elite just like the Elite overpowered their own enemies. But rather than massacre them because he had the power to do so, he held back.

We totally get the argument. We just don’t find it convincing, plus its kind of hypocritical.

And, of course, agree or don’t agree, the point became moot anyway when the Elite proved to be popular enough to become a part of the Justice League.

I guess, by then, Superman changed his mind about them. Or it was Kelly?

Superman calls himself a hero, basking in the adulation of others. The Elite don’t consider themselves heroes, and are willing to risk their reputations as well as their lives to save innocents.

Superman is an all-American middle-class farmboy who can easily pass for human. The Elite are composed of a multinational, multiracial team of various people who’ve actually known oppression firsthand.

Superman has the entire DCU hero community looking up to him, with even his critics like Batman ultimately being his best friends. The Elite operate in opposition with the entire world, much less the hero community.

Superman’s arch-enemy is a bald human with a grudge. The Elite’s arch-enemies are all the governments on Earth, provided they’re oppressing their citizens.

Superman can just heat-vision his enemies into powerlessness. Most of the Elite don’t seem to have powers with that level of control, making nonlethal force a luxury that not all combat situations can afford.

Conclusion: In this monstrously overrated comic, Superman is a petulant brat with a silver spoon up his ass, and should STFU until he actually tries to handle problems more complex than the Toyman.

I missed most of Kelly’s Superman run but this makes me want to read it.

I remember not liking any characters in the story, on either side of the argument. Very blah.

Superman used creativity and some trickery to defeat the Elite. He never truly adopted their methods. (And he showed up what a hypocrite Manchester Black was.) I thought it was a clever subversion, I liked it. I can see how it wouldn’t work for everyone. But it works for me.

Surely this was an Elseworlds because everyone knows the real Superman isn’t such a smug, narcissistic douche-bag.

@Neil Kapit Much of what you say would be true if this were the Authority appearing in the title, but it’s not — Kelly has very carefully stacked the deck by making the Elite different from the characters they parody in specific ways.

Superman calls himself a hero, basking in the adulation of others. The Elite don’t consider themselves heroes, and are willing to risk their reputations as well as their lives to save innocents.

Agreed entirely. This is fundamentally what’s wrong with Kelly’s story — Superman has a hissy fit over a PR problem, and then bullies his opponents into submission. Perversely, I suppose this is indeed an example of what passes for “the American way” to some commentators. Interestingly, though, the public is shown to support the Elite and to have turned on Superman in record time in the story. Kelly actually seems to be arguing that the sort of actions undertaken by the Elite would be generally popular, and hardly harmful to anyone’s reputation in the short term.

The story attempts to preempt this criticism by removing both any sense of danger to the Elite. At no point in
the story before their final duel with Superman do they actually suffer any apparent risk to themselves, since they’re shown to utterly and completely outpower their opponents at every turn. They slay a giant cyborg ape and 2,000 troops in mere minutes, and later KO Superman and kill an entire band of supervillains in Japan before the villains are aware of their presence. Of course, this is blatant deck-stacking, since we readers know there are villains out there who could threaten virtually any super-character.

That said, page 24 does begin to produce an interesting argument, as Superman is horrified at a child’s admiration of the Elite because said child now imagines it would be “fun to kill bad guys. Fun to kill.” A stronger story could have made the sharper point — one that is indeed made, subtly, in Ellis’s original Authority stories — that by adopting extreme sanction as a tactics of first resort, the post-heroic superhumans have simply set themselves up to be the next set of unwitting oppressors. Black even says, near the end, that “He who has the power makes the rules. NO ONE hits one of my people and walks.” It’s clumsy narrative cheating, yes, but a subtler take might well have made for an interesting conflict.

Kelly’s story can’t make anything of it, of course, but the critique is worth considering elsewhere. As evidence of Kelly’s lack of control of his own material, witness the way in which he makes process his argument: at multiple points in the story, Superman defends the judicial process and human rights at several points in the story, only to be laughed at by the Elite, who argue that the system is so hopelessly gamed that only extreme violence outside the law can correct injustice. Ironically, of course, this means the Elite are more in tune with the foundational ideas of the superhero genre than is Superman.

To rectify matters, Kelly throws in more deck-stacking. Unlike the Authority, for instance, the Elite have enslaved their “living ship,” even “jettison[ing] its heart” when it started to feel lonely. Later, the Elite are shown to have destroyed alien ova in order to dissuade the hostile “mother” from returning, which is a fairly direct way to rrewrite the plot of Ellis’s final Authority arc into something much more morally ambiguous. And at another point, they plan to kill the families of the government agents whose illegal dealings they stop; this, of all their actions, is probably the one that cannot be supported as anything other than unjustifiable murder. That the story has to resort to such tactics to make them seem like genuine villains does it no credit, of course, and is a damning enough point in itself.

Superman is an all-American middle-class farmboy who can easily pass for human. The Elite are composed of a multinational, multiracial team of various people who’ve actually known oppression firsthand.

Largely unsupported by the comic beyond the Elite being multiracial. If we assume that all non-white people have a first-hand knowledge of oppression, this works…but that, too, is a dangerous assumption to make for many of the same reasons. Ironically, the one member of the team who claims oppression and minority status is Manchester Black, and he is repeatedly hinted to be insincere or at least embellishing greatly.

For one thing, Black’s claims to racial minority are deliberately absurd, since he’s “1/16″ every ethnicity imaginable and mostly uses this to justify making broadly racialist remarks. (Kelly would later give Black a sister who really had suffered, of course.) Coldcast’s costume and one speech by Black suggest that he is very aware and personally connected to the injustices done to African-Americans, but none of the other Elite get enough characterization or even dialogue to say more about this theme. Even there, it’s Black, the visibly white guy, who speaks *for* Coldcast’s ethnicity. Again, that’s probably more damning than what you’re arguing, since Kelly can’t even be bothered to write the non-white characters with enough attention or interest to qualify *or* disqualify their connection to oppression, world politics, etc.

Superman has the entire DCU hero community looking up to him, with even his critics like Batman ultimately being his best friends. The Elite operate in opposition with the entire world, much less the hero community.

Partially contradicted by the story. Lex Luthor’s Presidential administration is extremely happy to see the Elite, largely because they don’t like Superman.

Superman’s arch-enemy is a bald human with a grudge. The Elite’s arch-enemies are all the governments on Earth, provided they’re oppressing their citizens.

Directly contradicted in the story. This is a bizarre assertion given the previous statement, since Luthor is a criminally-inclined billionaire plutocrat who is, in this story, President of the United States of America. He’s exactly the sort of villain the Authority would oppose with all their might, and the one thing Kelly does that’s mildly interesting in this story is to present Luthor and the Elite as fundamentally in agreement regarding the sanctimony of Superman and the use of extreme force. The idea that the Elite are mor alugned with the corrupt forms of authority they oppose could have been a good hook for this story, and used Clark Kent, journalist to great effect. Instead, we get posturing all around.

The thing that distinguishes the Elite from the Authority is largely that the Elite is almost always on the side of America/the West. While they intervene in an showdown between “Men in Black” spoofs and hostile aliens, they otherwise attack no one who is not an enemy of America — they kill Libyan troops, neutralize Chinese nuclear missiles, and finally battle Superman himself (who, again, is clearly regarded as an enemy by this particular American government and by hostile world governments). Naturally, of course, we’re never shown the Luthor administration reacting to the one time the Elite do oppose an American action, which is how Kelly glides his way past that one.

Superman can just heat-vision his enemies into powerlessness. Most of the Elite don’t seem to have powers with that level of control, making nonlethal force a luxury that not all combat situations can afford.

This assertion actually seems to be contradicted repeatedly by the story. Indeed, Coldcast and Manchester Black repeatedly seem to demonstrate fine control of their abilities, as when they harmlessly KO Superman, transform a nuclear missile and several Chinese troops into grain without causing any loss of civilian life, and more generally in the way that the Elite’s lethal actions are clearly never shown to cause civilian deaths. Moreover, when the Elite thwart the MiBs menacing Metropolis, Black orders the Hat to “rain acid on their families,” strongly suggesting that the Hat has an extraordinary level of fine control of his virtually do-anything abilities. Much later, Black demonstrates that he can affect specific capillaries in Superman’s brain, again suggesting very fine, near-microscopic finesse with his powers.

If anything, the reverse criticism is arguably easier to make: Superman is inferior in the control and use of his own powers most of the time when compared to the Elite in this story, to the point that his battles and power fluctuations in past stories have endangered ordinary people. He does well enough in the final battle, yes, but that may be only because the Elite are tough enough to take it. Everywhere else, Superman is shown using his powers sparingly and indirectly. In other words, there’s lots of evidence that Superman has troubl controlling his powers, wile the Elite seem to be capable of using theirs nonlethally and on both micro and macro levels with a high degree of fine control.

Conclusion: In this monstrously overrated comic, Superman is a petulant brat with a silver spoon up his ass, and should STFU until he actually tries to handle problems more complex than the Toyman.

Agreed entirely, even if many of your specific points don’t quite work based on the text itself. The Elite really aren’t written as defensible characters in the end; only their “meta’ counterparts, the Authority, really earn a defense, since they’re being slandered through cheap narrative gimmickry and illogic throughout.

lol what are you guys on about. Those complaining about Superman using their own methods against them need to re-read the comic. Or read it in the first place and not just snark about some pages you saw online.

“No ugly heroes. Way to go, bottomless well of super-compassion.”

You know ugly can be a state of mind and not just physical, right?

As a fan of the Authority (Ellis’s original run anyway), and not usually a fan of Superman, I actually really enjoyed this issue when it came out. I know it’s a bit preachy, and the message can come off sort of clumsy to some people, but I can’t help but look at it as a personal, emotional reaction by an author who believes in his character. I don’t know if it was so much “The Authority is morally reprehensible and you shouldn’t read it”, as it was Kelly reacting to a paradigm-shift in comics at the time by saying that Superman was still relevant.

And maybe this part is just my own thing, but I really liked the whole Superman-uses-heat-vision-to-perform-brain-surgery-through-the-retina device. One, because I just think it’s clever and an interesting way for Superman to use the same old powers he’s always had. Two, because it seems like EXACTLY the kind of thing you would see written into a Warren Ellis comic, or those of his contemporaries (Ennis, Morrison, Millar, etc., who were all becoming extremely popular and influential at the time).

Excellent analysis, Omar!

I haven’t read this comic, but looking at it now, the point that Kelly was trying to make became quickly superfluous when The Authority started to become a parody of itself, not that much different from The Elite.

You’re right, Omar. The fact that the Elite in actuality are just strawman counterparts for the Authority make it even worse, and I had honestly forgotten that this was published during the Luthor presidency.

Of course, in the end the Authority were cancelled by reactionary War on Terror cowardice, never to regain the momentum they had lost, while Superman’s still around and doing fine. If the Elite truly were as ephemeral as Superman said they were, perhaps he should’ve just waited them out instead of throwing this hissy fit.

I guess I love this comic because I have a fundamentally different understanding of it than I lot of other people posting here. When everyone is complaining about how Superman comes off as thuggish and cruel, that’s exactly the point. Maybe I’m making this too meta, but when Machester points out at the audience and says that now they see that Superman is no better than them, he is talking to the reader. Superman is purposefully mimicking the Elite’s methods (or at least making it look like he has) and when he tells the people of Earth that it probably scared them to see him cut loose, he is referring to our hypocrisy. Kelly is saying that people who love The Authority and love that type of morally ambiguous superhero are hypocrites, because as soon as Superman appears to be acting this way they say “Superman would never do that. This is ridiculous.” Suddenly Superman’s final speech makes more sense, as he stops mocking the Elite and just reveals the message of the story, which is that if you get angry that Superman is “acting out of character” and that he is supposed to be a hero, why would you idolize the Elite/Authority?

Izzy, the naysayers of the book totally get what the point is supposed to be. It’s not that hard to grasp or complex. It’s a very simple, even overly simplistic point. We just think it’s very poorly thought out, smug, narcissistic and/or somewhat hypocritical point.

We don’t dislike it because we fail to get it. We get the point and simply think it is not a good one when you examine it more critically rather than just accepting the lofty, self-aggrandizing speech as face value.

I just want to make this clear because there seems to be this idea that us naysayers aren’t comprehending some high-level, complex aspect of the plot, and that if it gets repeated to us over and over again something will click and we’ll suddenly recognize this as a work of great commentary and subtle genius. But we already understand the story and its point.

T, I was not trying to be condescending or imply that you don’t get it. I apologize if my point came across this way. In addition, I can definitely understand why you would consider it preachy. But I don’t think that my reading of the comic is the same as yours. I’m arguing that Superman stooping to the Elite’s level in order to beat them does not validate their point. While, yes, from a purely plot based perspective it works I think that from a broader perspective it doesn’t. This may be giving Joe Kelly way WAY too much credit (I haven’t really read much else by him), but the fact that it comes off as stupid I think is the point. Superman acts like a total dick and its entirely unsatisfying. It makes you (though I don’t mean you particularly, T. I’m not putting thoughts into your mind. I’m making a generalizations) angry to see Superman win in such a stupid way. It at least makes me appreciate Superman’s usual characterization a lot more.

It’s undeniably a well-done and fun story. But it’s also pretty overrated. And it didn’t make me angry at all, in fact I enjoyed the story until Superman’s final self-congratulatory speech – which didn’t make me angry either, it made me laugh at Superman.

I don’t mind Superman overpowering bad guys, and I actually had fun with the way Superman thrashed the Elite because they were an obnoxious gang of thugs… but that grandiose speech made Big Blue look ridiculous, claiming to have achieved a moral victory that didn’t happen.

Remember kids, don’t use violence, just make sure you hurt your enemies somehow!

I remember when I finally read this one being puzzled as to whose side I was supposed to take. Was I supposed to like this Superman?

Did the Tom Peyer 4 parter on the Authority come out after this? Omar’s analysis of the Elite here got me thinking of that story, where the replacement Authority is “pro-West” and pro-rich, and I wonder if Peyer was showing the fake Authority to be more over the top than the regular Authority AND comparable to the Elite.

I like it. It works on two levels: he illustrates to the Elite (and to the world) that the Elite’s tactics are wrong by seemingly (this is important) using them against the Elite, then reinforces his own stance by admitting it is hard not to follow the Elite’s path but though tempted he did not, allowing them the freedom to do just what Black threatens. Kelly may be a bit unsubtle, but this works for me.

(somebody else posted as “sean” already, but that wasn’t me)

“Superman used creativity and some trickery to defeat the Elite. He never truly adopted their methods.”

It seems as if Kelly spends most of the issue making Superman pretend to adopt their methods, tacitly acknowledging that this is the sort of thing that readers want to read, and then wants to turn it back on them in the end… and can’t make it stick at all. I’ve seen films like ‘Funny Games’ that try this. It seems as if they only appeal to people in a very specific mindset, kind of detached from the actual story itself and looking at it looking at itself (and, in the end, pointing the finger back up at them). It always seems like a cop-out to me, like you can’t make a story that both works on its own and is entertaining, so you do a bunch of entertaining stuff and then make the theme “Something is wrong with you for liking this.”

You know what the saddest part is to me?

Even if the message of the story works, ultimately we have Superman living in the modern DC comics universe, where things have become so dark they even acknowledge it in the comics themselves (see Infinite Crisis, Cry For Justice among others.) The only reason DC doesn’t make Superman himself darker is because he’s such a cultural icon they know the majority of the people would never accept it. But nearly every other one of their characters is fair game.

It makes his vow to make the world better sound hopeless, rather than inspiring. :(

That’s one of the few Superman comics I own and it is beautiful in every way. Superman is pitch perfect and Kelly writes with an even hand. It’s the dreams of the individual inspiring others over the hate filled rhetoric demanding loyalty.

It was inspiring.

It’s also what is tragically missing from the new Superman #1.

I don’t get why people are hating on this comic. Superman has the level of control with his powers because he gives a shit about not setting people on fire by looking at them. At every turn, the Elite uses their abilities imprecisely and incorrectly. When Hat is about to rain acid on the families of the bad guys (before Superman knocks him out), he could’ve used his abilities in a much less assholeish and a much more specific way, but he CHOOSES to act irresponsibly.

@T.: The effectiveness is not what is at issue in this dialectic. The ethic is what is at issue. Yes, the Elite/Authority method may be more effective. But is it right? Superman argues that it is not. Also, he didn’t win because he was more powerful. He won because he was smarter.

I don’t think you’re keeping in mind that Superman PRETENDED to adopt the Elite’s methods. He never actually did! He didn’t kill anyone or lobotomize anyone or torture anyone. He just beat them THE SAME WAY HE WOULD ANY OTHER OPPONENT. As for “acting like them,” it’s what, back home in Kansas, we call “giving someone a taste of his own medicine.” Superman forces them to examine their behavior through the lens of their opponents. And of course they find it wrong. And, finally, he gets Manchester to essentially admit that the world needs Superman.

And yes, there is something you’re “not getting.” You’re not getting that Kelly is making the last several pages into an overt metatextual commentary. Blasting those pages for didacticism is like blasting the back matter of Aztek #1 for didacticism, or the last issue of Morrison’s Animal Man because it contradicts the internal logic of the DCU and has Buddy act out of character.

@buttler: What do you want from him? They’re super-villains bent on remaking the world in their image. He’s supposed to do what, exactly? He ACTS ugly and mean in order to make a point, but never actually steps outside of his usual methodology.

@***Dave: “generally unpleasant”? Fisticuffs will result from this, sir.

@Felipe: Superman didn’t change his mind. The Elite changed theirs. I gather you didn’t actually read the comics in question. Typical bitter fanboy behavior.

@Omar: Some fair points regarding Kelly’s writing, but most all of them are probably down to the one-shot nature of the story, and I would put money on a bet that Kelly wanted a longer arc for this story. And if he didn’t want one, then he should have wanted one. My one complaint is that the story is hamstrung in certain ways, plot-wise, by not being longer. But in terms of its ethic, I don’t think it suffers at all. We all knew it wasn’t really The Authority that was under discussion (at least, I thought we all knew that) but the general tone of modern superhero comics, as focused through the lens of an Authority analog. We all knew what was being said, and we got it.

I absolutely love this issue. I believe that this is one of the best comics I ever read when I first found it. As a superman hater, i just felt that this is the story that superman needed. It made me realize how and why superman was important to the DCU. I honestly believe that this story is polarizing because the same people that hate this story are usually those that hate superman in general, using the strawman argument of “DCU heroes are not realistic” or “not enough street level heroes”. There was a massive thread on this on 4chan’s /co/ and it was painfully obvious that that if you liked superman, odds are you liked this story.

This was a great comic!

I thought this was Kelly’s best issue.

The Elite were pretty spot on stand-ins for the Authority

You people complaining that Superman uses the Elites methods are flat out morons.
To not understand the difference between ruthless murder, and merciful violence for the sake of causing fear shows nothing but a gross disconnect from the actual world we live in.
These are the comments of people who do little but read comics and rarely if ever encounter actual violence.
In the real world smacking someone around rather than murdering them isn’t merely a slight difference in method its the difference between a life time in jail and the difference between a psychopathology and a healthy mind.
Of course the message of #775 is lost on these people, humanity is all but out of their conceptual grasp.

This issue has always bothered me. It’s far more memorable than the average Superman book at the time and a rare example of Superman being as competent and effective in a modern comic as he should always be. I’ve just never liked it as much as I feel I should. You just can’t make interesting points with characters that the text itself all but admits are strawmen.

The real reason why Authority outsold the Superman books when this issue was written was because Authority was, on the whole, more likely to be interesting. You may argue that having characters do objectionable things to be interesting is cheating, but it still beats the dozens and dozens of Superman books published around this period that just weren’t about anything at all.

The fact that this issue is really the only well-remembered regular Superman issue of this era* speaks volumes about its creative sterility.

* As far as I know, anyway. I’m happy to be corrected if I’m overlooking something.

To not understand the difference between ruthless murder, and merciful violence for the sake of causing fear…

This is one of the most unintentionally hilarious defenses I think I’ve ever read.

Mychael Darklighter

July 28, 2012 at 7:37 pm

“It seems as if Kelly spends most of the issue making Superman pretend to adopt their methods, tacitly acknowledging that this is the sort of thing that readers want to read, and then wants to turn it back on them in the end… and can’t make it stick at all”

i don’t qualify the last few pages of an oversized comic as “most of an issue”.

“It’s far more memorable than the average Superman book at the time”

than greg rucka’s run on adventures!?

While the quality of this story is open to debate, there’s no doubt that a lot of the comments on this page translate to “I hate that fucking white male Superman and America is always wrong and evil and there’s lots of racism in the world and my dad beat me so I’m out for revenge take THAT Joe Kelly” Calm down there, crusader.

Personally thought this was a bit juvenile and stupid and kind of defeats the purpose of the story by having Superman lower himself to their level even for just a second.

Personally I would rather have Superman winning by showing he is the superior super-hero in his own way.

[...] one point, The Authority was selling more comics than any of the family of Superman titles, suggesting that perhaps the [...]

Personally, I really enjoyed this book but I thought the follow-up to it by Geoff Johns was even better and addresses a lot of the criticisms here. In the “Never-ending Battle” storyline, Manchester Black comes back and basically does every horrible thing you can imagine to Superman, from wiping Kansas off the map to killing Lois, all to break Superman and turn him into a killer, proving he’s no better than Black…but, no matter what, he won’t break. It turns out all the awful things were just a mind game but Black is so completely overwhelmed by the depth of Superman’s nobility that he concedes Supes is the better man and commits suicide.

It’s a bit surprising to see how many people here don’t get the points made by Kelly. Until I remind myself these are fanboys. Just three of several examples available:

“First off, it sets up a bunch of strawmen by making the Authority analogues so over-the-top and egregious in comparison to the actual authority, then it basically reduces Superman to their level in order to have him win, ”

He didn’t kill them. He scared them making them think he was acting like them and killing them. Essentially, he roughed them up a bit and knocked them out. How does that reduce Superman to their level?

“If someone wanted to show that Superman was still relevant in cool in comparison to the new school of superheroics, I’d rather have the analogues to the Authority actually act more like the Authority, and I’d rather have Superman prove the superiority of his usual methods by actually using his usual methods, not by acting like them for a short spell.”

Like I said, you missed the point (more like you misunderstood the story): Superman did not act like them, it only looked like that. Essentially, he did what he usually does: he used his powers in creative ways.

“I’d rather have had Superman beat the Elite using the way he rolls rather than temporarily adopting their methods.”

And that’s exactly what he did.

“So the Elite simply kills in a grotesquely over-powering fashion, while Superman pummels mercilessly and terrorizes his enemies by making them think they’re about to die in a grotesquely over-powering fashion. It’s a moral victory, but of the slimmest margin. Nothing to really brag about.”

If killing and not-killing are so morally close for you then… wow. I could say a few more things about your “opinion” but that’s enough, thank you for being so easy.

As Cronin said:

“Impressively, the issue does not live or die depending on whether you agree with Kelly’s position.”

I couldn’t agree more. I prefer heroes (antiheroes or whatever you want to call them) that kill (torture is welcome) and I love this issue. Kelly wasn’t simply criticizing the Authority as he was the entire wave of comic book violence that started with early Image. Dumb violence. Mainly because many creators lack the necessary resources to tell good, compelling stories and so they resort this cheap legerdemain to distract the readers (which works pretty well, all things considered and that should tell us something about comic book readers).

Those who are defending this issue, like the above poster, fundamentally misunderstand the criticisms leveled against it.

Arguing that Superman did not stoop to the level of the Elite because he didn’t kill them is immaterial and irrelevant. Kelly, Superman, and his defenders hyper-focus upon the “killing” part, a fallacy that plagues comic book fandom. Superman claims superior moral character because he doesn’t “kill,” and that simply not killing somehow makes him a superior ideal to strive for.

This is undone because, at the end of the day, he proves this through sheer force of power, rather than by example. It does not matter that he did not kill the Elite; by simply demonstrating himself to be more powerful, Superman accepted the thesis of the Elite’s argument: they have the power, and that power gives them the authority to do what they consider is right. Superman’s response is effectively, “No, *I* have the power.” This argument completely goes against Superman’s character as a noble icon.

The followup to this story, “Never Ending Battle,” is a superior take on this, because Geoff Johns and Kelly demonstrate why Superman is better through his character: despite the lengths Black goes to try and get Superman to violate his noble identity and become a vengeful force of nature, Superman refuses to do so. Honoring Lois’ is more important to him than petty revenge, and thus by extension his connection to his humanity, which is the thing that truly makes him superior to The Elite.

“What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” would thus be an infinitely superior story if, instead of defeating the Elite through sheer overwhelming force (thinking he is subverting their argument, while actually acknowledging them as *right*), Superman withstands everything the Elite have, without fighting back. Superman becomes the underdog, and by demonstrating his unwavering commitment, wins back the audience. He may have lost the battle, but he ultimately wins the war.

The film adaptation of this comic does an even WORSE job, because Superman pulls out the incredible deus ex machina of all his robots magically preventing the damage from the final battle. The fact that these robots exist completely and utterly nullifies and negates his every action, as if he was capable of bringing in and utilizing these amazing robots of his to prevent collateral damage while maintaining the illusion of destruction, then there is NO sane reason why he should and could not have been using the robots from the very beginning to prevent the events of the movie. And it wouldn’t even affect his moral compass in the slightest! Just imagine how much different the events of the film would have been if instead of having the Elite their, Superman fought Atomic Skull with an entire army of his robots at his beck and call. The very beginning of the film, where Skull kills people because Superman is not quick enough to confront him, would never need to happen if Superman simply utilized his robots in much the same way he does at the climax.

All of this really goes to show that Kelly cannot craft a proper defense of Superman, and so instead relies on tired, irrelevant arguments, strawman villains, and a weak moral, and in the process winds up giving the best possible argument in favor of the very thing he is arguing against.

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