It’s two weeks to Christmas and we still don’t have the tree up, so it is a minor miracle that this post is going up at all, which is why I am stretching a 64-page comic book to 3 articles.
It is 1998. Ted Kaczynski pleads guilty to the Unabomber bombings. The winter Olympics take place in Nagano. Disney opens the Animal Kingdom park. Bear Grylls climbs Everest. Matthew Shepard is mortally beaten in Wyoming, the photogenic youngster’s tragic death helping to bring about a wave of hate crime legislation. Actor Phil Hartmann is murdered by his wife. Windows 98 is released. I go briefly crazy some time in November. And, in a statement I may have to revise depending on how long it takes me to write this article,
for the last time until the present day, a US President is impeached.
Titanic makes a literal billion dollars and wins a fuckton of Oscars. Saving Private Ryan comes out, and will do similar things. The Big Lebowski comes out. So does Wild Things, Lost in Space, Les Miserables (the 1998 one with Liam Neesen and no singing), the killer asteroid movies Armageddon and Deep Impact, Godzilla (the 1998 one with Matthew Broderick), The Parent Trap (the 1998 one with Lindsay Lohan), My Dinner With Andre, Bride of Chucky, The Faculty, Star Trek: Insurrection, You’ve Got Mail, and What Dreams May Come. All these things happened in the same year. Weird, right?
Star Trek: Deep Space 9 enters its final season. Star Trek Voyager… Happens. This is the last season I watched consistently. This year’s Power Rangers is Power Rangers in Space, the finale of the “Zordon Era”, and the last season to be part of an ongoing multi-season storyline until 2011’s Power Rangers Samurai.
The reboot of Doctor Who starring Hugh Laurie finishes its second season and starts its third. Doctor Who is pretty much dead again, seemingly forever this time. Seinfeld airs its legendarily bad series finale. Dawson’s Creek premieres, a handy thing if you’re a college freshman who wants an excuse to hang out with all the girls on your floor in the apartment of the upperclassman with a 27″ TV. Other premiers this year include the wonderfully bizarre time travel adventure series Seven Days, the American version of Whose Line is it Anyway, seminal gay sitcom Will & Grace, supernatural craze-expander Charmed, and beloved girl-power cartoon The Powerpuff Girls.
Brandy dominates the Billboard charts all summer with “The Boy is Mine”. Armageddon and Titanic cough up chart-toppers as well with Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing” and Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”. R Kelly’s “I’m Your Angel” sees the year out, but somewhere mixed among all that, Barenaked Ladies become a household name south of the 49th parallel thanks to “One Week”.
Meanwhile, sixty years earlier, it’s 1938. I hardly need remind you that in October of 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater adapted War of the Worlds. I mean, I hardly need tell you again, since I’ve told you like a million times already. But you know what else happened a few months earlier in 1938? I mean, you’ve surely worked it out since it’s in the title of the article. But yeah, back in May, National Allied Publications released issue 1 of Action Comics, introducing audiences to a strange visitor from another world who was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
So in 1998, when a whole lot of stuff was going on in the Superman world to celebrate the Man of Steel’s sixtieth, Roy Thomas and Michael Lark put together a story for DC’s “Elseworlds” line, depicting alternate versions of their beloved characters. Superman: War of the Worlds asks us to imagine a world where the intrepid reporter that was first on the scene when a strange meteor lands in a small town near Metropolis (The name isn’t given in the text, but sharp-eyed readers will notice the train station identifies it as “Woking”) isn’t Carl Philips, but Lois Lane, and her fledgling photographer, Clark Kent.
The opening comingles the introduction of War of the Worlds with the classic Superman backstory, with direct homages to both. “No one would have believed,” we are as usual told, of the intelligences greater than man yet as mortal as his own which scrutinized the Earth in the early decades of the twentieth century, but here, it’s not only the Martians, but also the far-distant Krypton. Because this is the golden age version of the story, Krypton’s destruction is caused by it simply having reached the end of its life cycle — a more advanced case of the fate facing the Martians.
The parallel between Mars and Krypton adds a slightly sinister note to the arrival of Kal-El on Earth. Though we learn nothing concrete of Jor-El (the narrator seems to be speaking from the viewpoint of a human historian in the near-future, though even knowing the name “Krypton” is inexplicable in that case), the narrator presumes that he must have views humans “as inferior animals…. as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us.”
Baby Kal is found by the Kents, a slight divergence from Superman’s earliest appearance; in the earliest comics, he was said to have been raised in an orphanage. The Kents aren’t given first names, consistent with mainstream Superman history, where the Kents don’t get their canonical first names until the 1950s. As he grows, the Kents discover young Clark’s abilities, which are the reduced Golden Age power set: the ability to leap an eighth of a mile rather than fly, skin that is impervious to anything short of “a bursting shell”, and the ability to outrun a train. His powers are attributed to a million years of evolution beyond that of Earth humans, rather than any particular influence of a yellow sun.
Pa Kent warns Clark to hide his powers, lest humanity be scared of him, while Ma encourages him to help humanity, “when the proper time comes”. Again, this all tracks with the various versions of Clark’s upbringing in this era. It is the death of his parents (Until the ’70s or so, the Kents were generally depicted as already elderly when they adopted Kal-El) which prompts Clark to head out to the big city to try to find a way to use his powers to benefit humanity, and by an amazing coincidence, this occurs simultaneously with “The great disillusionment”, as the Martians launch their invasion fleet.
A montage of Clark taking in the splendor of Metropolis makes for some nice syncretism with the “infinite complacency” of man going “to and fro about this globe about their affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter.