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Witches’ (Review) Brew: Superman: War of the Worlds (1999)

 

Writer: Roy Thomas

Art: Michael Lark

 

Pop culture loves mashups, and DC Comics sure was full of them through the 90s. The “Elseworlds” concept allowed writers to free their imaginations from the normal bounds of continuity and pretty much write whatever the hell DC was willing to greenlight…although it seemed like 90 percent of them revolved around Batman. The result was a mixed bag: some were phenomenal (the Victorian Gotham by Gaslight and the Lovecraftian Batman: The Doom That Came to Gotham), some were just “meh” (Castle of the Bat, mixing Batman with the Frankenstein mythos…because), and some were just off the wall (Batman/Lobo). So if somebody wanted to go exploring DC’s glut of Elseworlds, they’d really have to dig through a lot of crap to find a few gems. However, there’s one seriously underrated gem that stood out in my mind, and I really recommend tracking it down this Halloween season if you can.

That gem is Superman: War of the Worlds, a phenomenal story which came and went relatively unnoticed in an era where DC was publishing  a lot of really good stuff. This was the era of Morrison’s JLA, where DC was undergoing a renaissance period and it seemed like every title was well above “tolerable.” Maybe that explains why this book is largely forgotten, because we were in a period where a lot of other decent titles were on the market, and frankly, people were probably sick of the glut of Elseworlds.

Superman: War of the Worlds is notion of the mashup done correctly. Look, if you take any two items and put them in a blender, yes–you’ll get a mixed product–but it may not be very good. Pizza and ice cream probably aren’t going to come out well together. Batman as Frankenstein probably sounded good, but the end product was forgettable. However, Superman and H.G. Wells’ Martians went together like peanut butter and chocolate.

Legendary author Roy Thomas made the genius move of putting both properties together at a logical intersection: 1938. This was both the year of Superman’s debut and the infamous Orson Welles radio broadcast which caused a small American panic. It made sense, then, to do a story in which both fictional legends debut at the same time and see which comes out on top. If you think “Superman” is the easy answer, think again. Thomas opted to use the classic “Earth-2” Superman as he was designed in 1938, when he was really an overpowered circus strongman who could only leap an eighth of a mile. Strong as he is, this new, inexperienced Clark Kent is literally putting his tights on for the first time as he confronts the Martians and their death rays.

1938 is a wonderful setting for this story for two reasons. One, Thomas and artist Michael Lark really tap into the national mood of this time period. The late 30s was a tense period, with the Depression still casting a pall over the country, the world on the verge of war, and Hitler rising in Europe. Even before the Martians attack, the story drops hints of how tense the time already is–as if the world is about to burst, and the aliens are simply the inevitable straw that breaks the camel.

The other fun element is that Superman truly is alone in this story. Being the first true superhero, there’s no one to come to ally with Superman here. Had this world continued without invasion, perhaps Batman would have appeared in 1939, Wonder Woman in 1941, and the rest of the Justice Society would have followed. But there’s none of that. It’s 1938 and nobody else has heard the call yet, or if they have, we don’t see them. This is young, inexperienced Superman, utterly on his own against a serious threat.

Superman’s solitude is another powerful theme through this book. There’s a common complaint that Superman as the “lonely outsider” is overdone (it was the topic of a whole Five for Fighting song). In this story, though, it fits. In the classic DCU, Superman may have been welcomed as a force for good, and really, he reflected our own sensibilities of the kind of purely good person who needed to counteract the world’s evils in 1940. In War of the Worlds, Superman is rightly warned by the Kents that the world will mistrust him. This struck most fans as nonsensical in 2013’s Man of Steel, but it works well here. It’s easy to forget that in his original Action Comics #1 debut, Superman really was a brute vigilante who scared the hell out of a lot of people. That fear is very magnified in a story where tentacled aliens and monstrous war machines tear the world apart. As Superman helps humanity rebel against the aliens, he has difficulty getting anyone to trust him. If one set of aliens means to conquer the Earth, why wouldn’t another?

As for the aliens themselves, Thomas and Lark’s presentation reminds us that War of the Worlds is, at its heart, a horror story. Despite the setting being 1939, Thomas lifts much of his text and setting directly from Wells’ original novel, albeit transposing certain British locations to their Metropolis counterparts. Recalling the original novel, this story is a lesson in the superiority of invading forces, just as the British was doing to their conquered colonies in the 19th century. As advanced as we think we are, this story reminds us that there could always be someone bigger. Although Dieselpunk tripods may look silly by today’s standards, they become terrifying in an era where the U.S. was still using World War I-era shell cannons. The death rays, black smoke, and the Martians’ eventual concentration camps present a very terrifying vision of a conquered world.

We know how Wells’ story eventually ended, so the twist in this story concerns whether the presence of a brightly-clad hero would make the Martians’ invasion better…or worse. The results will surprise you, and lead this story to an inspiring and yet tragic ending. This book is definitely worth a read if you missed it fifteen years ago, so hit the back issue bins, turn on your radios, and give yourself a superheroically good scare this Halloween.

 

Rating: Five out of Five tripods.

About Adam Frey (372 Articles)
Adam Frey is still trying to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up. In the meantime, he's an attorney and moonlights as an Emergency Medical Technician in Maryland. A comic reader for over 30 years, he's gradually introducing his daughter to the hobby, much to the chagrin of his wife and their bank account.
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