Clark wakes up weeks later to find himself a Martian prisoner. He finds himself restrained inside a Martian prison camp, where Lex Luthor is conveniently present to deliver some exposition. Stalin, Hitler, Roosevelt and the British royal family have all been killed by the Martians, who have completely conquered the Earth.
Predictably, Luthor has sold out, offering his services to the Martians in exchange for his life. Despite their victory, the Martians are dying. Luthor quotes Wells, but also gives their affliction the cute nickname “Earth Flu”. Of course, the logic here is a little dicey; Luthor’s agreed to serve as the Local Knowledge for the invaders, helping them cure the Earth Flu, because he reckons the human race is finished and working for the invaders is his only chance. But… He also knows that the Martians are dying. So… Wouldn’t it make more sense to just, like, not help them? You’ve got to figure that Luthor would stand more to gain by making a grab for power as humanity tries to rebuild after the Martians are defeated than he would as a Martian Quisling. Even if he’s focused on his short-term survival here, there’s no hint that he’s planning to double-cross the Martians, and he is earnestly working on the cure. The only hint we get is, admittedly, a nice one: it’s a challenging scientific problem, so perhaps it’s imply his vanity pushing him to prove he can hold his own against these otherworldly intellects.
Luthor has Lois brought to them, not for any clear reason, and asks Clark about his extraterrestrial origins. Because of the golden-age setting, Clark knows nothing about it, but easily admits that, yeah, he might well be an alien, having been found as a baby in a crashed rocket. When Lois mentions that the Martians in the lab are the only ones she’s seen that aren’t afflicted by disease, Luthor realizes that Kent’s alien immune system is protecting the Martians. We get the comic’s one and only use of the word “Superman” when Luthor compares Kent to a Nietzschean ubermensch, a comparison which doesn’t actually hold water since Kent’s value system is pretty staunchly opposed to Nietzsche’s, but I don’t consider that a writing flaw since pretty much everyone badly misunderstands Nietzsche and the ubermensch.
Lois is predictably horrified by Luthor’s villainy, and rejects his amorous advances, though Luthor takes it in stride. Within a few hours, he’s isolated Kent’s antibodies and developed a cure for the Martians… Whereupon they suddenly but inevitably betray him, as he is of no further use to them. Lois saves Luthor by stabbing the attacking Martian, and Luthor, declaring himself to have been “temporarily mad” to have sided with the invaders, frees Kent just in time to beat the crap out of more Martians, telepathically summoned to assist.
Escaping the lab, Clark dispatches the Martians to whom Luthor had given the cure, hoping they haven’t yet telepathically communicating it to the others. He also frees the humans imprisoned in the camp, pausing to explain about the S on his shirt to a bystander whose most pressing concern is why he spells “Clark” with an “S”. They also pause for Luthor to reflect on the humans who refuse to flee, preferring to be “tended to” as livestock than to take control of their own fate — way closer to Nietzsche than anything to do with Clark.
When Clark tries to shepherd Lois away, she instinctively recoils from him. I like this response, and even more, I like that she owns it. “I know I shouldn’t feel that way, after all, you just saved our lives, but I can’t help it!” She qualifies her instinctive discomfort in light of the fact that, y’know, fifty percent of the alien races she’s met this month have tried to exterminate humanity, and hopes she might be able to get past it in time. She’s genuinely ashamed of herself, and Clark, though clearly hurt, clearly gets it.
One thing that’s really interesting about this exchange to me is that while Lois is repulsed by Clark on learning he’s an alien — the exact reaction Pa Kent had cautioned young Clark about — Luthor never shows any such revulsion. He never shows any animosity toward Clark that’s greater than the general disdain he shows toward everyone else in the world. If anything, this Luthor seems oddly trusting.
A few Martians are still healthy enough to operate their tripods, and they rain heat rays on the escaping prisoners. Luthor and Lois are shocked when Clark picks up a wrecked car to defend them, Lex remarking, “The man isn’t human! But if he isn’t, then what is he?”
The answer comes in the form of a half-page spread recreating one of the most iconic images of the golden age.
Clark smashes one machine with a car and destroys a second by throwing its own black smoke rocket back at it. But when he tackles the third machine’s legs, the hood of the machine separates from them, hovering in the air. Luthor speculates that the tripod legs were akin to training wheels, assisting the vehicles while they learned to compensate for Earth’s gravity (Later, it’s implied that the tripod legs can’t even hold the machines up on their own, but are purely to assist with balance).
Clark takes two direct heat ray shots leaping at the flying machine, but makes a key discovery, which Luthor conveniently explains to us: when something passes between the flying machine and the ground, it interferes with their anti-gravity. Clark takes a third hit tossing one of the disabled tripods under the flying machine and it crashes to Earth. Though mortally wounded, Clark proceeds to hammer on the crashed machine, but suddenly holds back, realizing that “war fever” is taking hold of him. He collapses, and as he lays dying, he explains that he recognizes the basic similarity between himself and the Martians: that he too comes from a dead world (he’s guessing), and Lois’s reaction earlier demonstrates how easily it might be him and not the Martians that has humanity running in terror.
I like the sentiment, but maybe he’s laying it on a bit thick here? This is like all those scenes in Doctor Who where they set up this moral challenge between the Doctor and the Daleks, like, “But isn’t the Doctor on some level just as bad as they are?” Actually no, because they’re the Daleks. And here too, though the narrative does a good job of setting up the fact that it’s natural and reasonable for humans to fear Clark the same way they fear the Martians, and though the first few pages do set up the basic similarity between Krypton and Mars, only one of the alien species in this story has actually attempted genocide. Moreover, the moral arc of the narrative seems to land firmly on the side of “Humanity is right to fear the Martians, but wrong to fear Clark.” Yet it almost seems like the narrative isn’t quite clear on why. It seems at times implicit that it would be natural and entirely justified for a Kryptonian to look down on humans exactly the same way Martians do, so it’s hard to justify a message of “Fearing aliens because they’re different is wrong,” in the face of it actually being the right thing to do half the time. It’s even worse when you consider that no one acted with immediate fear and revulsion toward the Martians; they only freaked out later once the Martians had demonstrated hostility. So the good message of not rushing to judge Clark is in some sense twisted into a bad message of “Don’t learn from your mistakes.” (That’s not the only message you could take, and there’s a perfectly good “Don’t let bad past experiences lead you to misjudge someone else later,” but the comic doesn’t put in the work to take the moral the rest of the way there).
It’s interesting that Lex Luthor is dismissive of Clark’s fears. We sort of know that in the golden era, Lex was just this sort of over-the-top mad science type who hated Superman mostly because he blamed him for his baldness. But the modern Luthor’s motivations are more complex — yes, Superman is a threat to Lex’s various machinations. But the modern Lex also opposes Superman on a purely philosophical level: he views the existence of a super-powered alien savior as an existential threat to the dignity of not just himself personally, but humanity in general. It bugs him on a fundamental level that humanity should need Superman when it’s already got him. If you follow Superman these days, you might know that he spent a couple of years as Superman, strapping on some power armor and taking up the name one of the recent times Kal El was dead. This Luthor isn’t just okay with Clark, he outright doesn’t get why people might be scared of the super-powered alien.
Lois, of course, is ashamed of her behavior. “I’ve been — such a fool. We all have!” Um, Lois, you’re literally the only person who reacted like that to him. Don’t go blaming the rest of humanity for you being a bigot. She apologizes and promises to make it up to Clark, but he dies halfway through her speech.
The narrator reenters here for what’s historically been my favorite bit in these adaptations: the alternate history following on from the invasion. We switch to black-and-white for a page, simulating a newsreel. Luthor builds a weapon that replicates the disruptive effect of having a large metal object tossed under a tripod, allowing humanity to clean up the remaining Martians. Forty million are estimated dead in the war, with a comment about it being inconceivable, “Even with the memory of the Great War of 1914” that humans could ever bring death on that scale on themselves. I wonder how many readers caught the irony there: in the real-world, forty million is ten million fewer than the lowest estimates of how many people died in World War II.
With so many world leaders gone, the course of history adopts one trope we saw repeatedly in Global Dispatches, and a second that I don’t recall us encountering ourselves, but which is common enough in alternative histories. They’re not unrelated, though: it’s the classic “good” and “bad” reversal. With Hirohito, Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini gone and their militaries destroyed, Japan, Germany, the Soviet Union and Italy reorganize along “vaguely democratic lines”. Contrariwise, we get a bit of the alt-history trope of “without World War II, the ‘good’ countries wouldn’t have learned that fascism is bad,” as real-world ultimately-disgraced British fascist Sir Oswald Mosely rises to power in Great Britain and Roosevelt’s vice-president, John “Cactus Jack” Garner is said to rule with “an iron hand”. This might be drawing on the historical Garner’s support for having the National Guard break up labor strikes. I don’t know much about Garner, except the adorable anecdote that he met his wife when she ran against him for a County Judgeship in Texas. Lex Luthor somehow ends up as Garner’s vice-president, leaving him in line to succeed even without Superboy Prime punching the side of reality. Luthor also, kinda inexplicably, marries Lois, despite her earlier and very loud rejection of him. Maybe this is meant to reassure us that Luthor has truly and fully reformed? It’s hard to believe it would stick, but, as I alluded to before, it’s hardly a unique conceit that the death of Kal El would turn Luthor away from a life of crime.
We end on a full-page panel showing the new League of Nations complex in the rebuilt Metropolis, which… Appears to be headquartered inside the old EA logo. Before it stands a giant statue of Clark Kent, in memory of his sacrifice and as a reminder that, “We can never anticipate the unseen evil – or unseen good – that may come upon us suddenly from the stars.”
So wow. The aforementioned sloppiness in the moral point aside, what a nice take on the War of the Worlds story. Handed the interesting historical coincidence that Superman debuted within a few months of the Mercury Radio Theater’s War of the Worlds, these two tales of advanced aliens who come to Earth from doomed homeworlds make a really interesting juxtaposition. Now, a downside to mixing the War in with Superman’s origin story is that we don’t actually see Superman take on the Martians: Clark isn’t Superman yet, doesn’t actually seem to have given any thought to developing a superheroic identity (Though this does make me wonder why he went out for a job interview randomly wearing his super-pajamas under his suit). This version of Clark hasn’t yet developed the character and traits that might make the most interesting contrasts.
But if this is a loss to the narrative, we are compensated with a very Elseworlds replacement: we get to see the events of the War derail the process of becoming Superman. That’s bread-and-butter for Elseworlds tales, of course. What would Kal-El become had he been raised in Soviet Russia, or Gotham City, or the Civil War era? So we get to see Clark’s inherent desire to help people, and the depth of his empathy that can extend even to the Martians, but see them divorced from so much of the Superman mythos. It’s a shame Clark dies at the end, since we don’t see what Superman becomes without the option of a secret identity, or whether the world would be able to accept this alien as a hero were he not safely dead. The question of how superheroism would be viewed in this world might make interesting sequel fodder — how would Diana of Themiscyra interact with a Man’s World changed by the war and by Clark’s sacrifice? Would Jay Garrick bother with a secret identity once
hard heavy water vapors imbued him with super-speed, in a world whose famous costumed hero was known as “Clark Kent”? Heck, you can sort of imagine a very obvious sequel where it turns out Clark wasn’t quite dead, just in a very deep coma, and he awakens years later, a celebrity who perhaps has some inconvenient opinions about the way the world has moved in his absence.
I don’t have much familiarity with golden-age comics, but I have seen a fair few of the old Max Fleisher Superman cartoons, and this comic does a lovely job of capturing the visual texture of that era. Even the comparatively boring tripod design fits in well with it. There’s a simplicity to everything which makes the whole thing incredibly distinctive as a modern comic, maybe even moreso now than back when it came out. And that golden-age style ameliorates some of the elements that would otherwise be grating. I know earlier, I harped a little bit on the klunky exposition that’s oriented toward reminding the readers that they’re seeing the less-omnipotent golden age Superman. It’s still annoying, but it works a lot better in the context of storytelling that takes its inspiration from an era where dialogue in comics was a lot clunkier. One other element I like is that the golden age flaws are a bit understated, without being swept under the rug. Luthor’s got some lecherous intent toward Lois, and the bosses at the Daily Star show a lot of implicit sexism toward her, and the comic doesn’t shy away from that, but also doesn’t revel in it. Reading this not long after the most recent Doctor Who Christmas special, I was keenly aware of how fine the line is between acknowledging and owning the flawed social values of your past, and just using old-timeyness as an excuse to play around with casual sexism that wouldn’t fly today (For the record, I don’t think Twice Upon a Time was actually trying to just revel in old-timey sexism, but I think they overshot the mark considerably trying to prove that, yes, they were not going to simply ignore the fact that the Hartnell era had a bunch of really problematic shit in it).
I also really like the takes on Lex Luthor and Lois Lane. When this was written, the dominant version of Lex Luthor in canon was the corrupt businessman — though I’m not really up on my timeline and I think possibly this might be when he’s had his brain swapped into a redheaded Austrailian clone. Comics are weird. Anyway, it’s good to see him back to his origins as a mad scientist here. He’s more amoral than evil, outright saying that part of the reason he’s helping the Martians is that it’s an interesting scientific problem for him. They play a bit with the ridiculous backstory of his grudge against Superman stemming from his baldness (Though that angle wasn’t added ’til the 60s): its the Martians who cauterize his scalp in this version, and while the timing does coincide with his turn to villainy, they don’t go quite so far as to explicitly link the two. The idea that Luthor could’ve become a hero had his life unfolded differently is one that’s come up repeatedly in the canon history, and they very succinctly cover it here, having him join the Martians out of amoral pragmatism, but ultimately seem to get why his actions were wrong, and work to make amends.
Lois is great too. She doesn’t really get to showcase her strengths too much, but she manages to be a strong female character without leaning on the “shrewish” qualities that too often are applied to strong women in period pieces by authors who don’t understand the difference between feminism and just being a bitch. There’s a wonderful reversal in the third act where we have Superman restrained for several pages while it’s Lois who gives Luthor the key insight he needs to cure the Earth Flu, then personally saves Luthor from death at the hands of the Martians. And in this story where Clark Kent and Superman don’t develop as distinct personas, Lois’s feelings toward him feel like a mirror of that: golden age Lois was drawn to Superman, but disdainful of Clark Kent on a personal and professional level — it’s not really something that continued in the comics past the golden age, but the popular zeitgeist of the Lois-Clark dynamic for decades included the idea that Lois viewed Clark as a coward and emotionally weak, while resenting him as a rival journalist who gained more respect than she did with less effort. That attitude is remixed here, because there is no Clark/Superman separation, and instead we get a Lois who is repulsed by Clark’s alienness even though on an intellectual level, she knows she should accept him as a hero.
This was a fun little diversion, a love-letter to the dawn of superhero comics, and I dig it. Check it out.
- Meanwhile, Jon Maki at OpenDoor Comics recently spoke on an Elseworlds compilation which includes this one. He doesn’t say much about War of the Worlds specifically, but if you’re interested in how this one compares to its bretheren, check it out.