Today’s Super Comic — Watchmen #9 (1987)

Watchmen is undeniably an artistic achievement. With complex plotting and depth of characterization, it’s a novel in comic book form, likely the first comic book series to fit that description.

Though an admirable work, it’s not all that enjoyable. Produced toward the end of the Cold War, and set in an alternate version of it, the book can be pretty bleak at times. (Spoilers ahead…you’ve been warned…) The climax involves the world’s smartest man tricking the world into behaving itself, so that doesn’t exactly put forth an optimistic view of humanity.

However, issue #9 uses that darkness to show how miraculous each human life inherently is. The chapter reaches an oddly uplifting ending, despite the dark revelation that precedes it.

In television terms, the issue is almost like a “bottle episode,” if the bottle can be all of Mars and if flashbacks are allowed. Written by Alan Moore, the entire issue is a conversation between the god-like Dr. Manhattan and all-too-human Silk Spectre (Laurie Juspeczyk), in which the latter must convince the former that humanity is worth saving. Dr. Manhattan is doubtful, finding the complex Martian environment infinitely more fascinating and majestic than people.

But as Laurie reaches an uncomfortable epiphany about who her father is, and as she wonders if her life is some cruel joke, Dr. Manhattan has his own epiphany:

“Thermo-dynamic miracles…events with odds so astronomical they’re effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold. I long to observe such a thing.

“And yet, in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter…

“…until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged.

“To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold.

“That is the crowning unlikelihood.

“The thermodynamic miracle.”

Watchmen is detailed and layered enough that you’ll notice something different every time you read it. But that passage jumped out at me the first time I read the book, at 16 or so, and it continues to hold up as the high point of the series. Amid pervasive hopelessness, it’s a thing of beauty.

Writer: Alan Moore

Artist: Dave Gibbons

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in Watchmen (TPB)

Appropriate For: ADULTS ONLY

Today’s Super Comic — Superman Annual #11 (1985)

superman_annual_vol_1_11Since we’ve entered the holiday shopping season, how about a classic comic that’s basically about giving a gift? And Superman Annual #11, “For the Man Who Has Everything,” is a gift, one given to us by the team behind Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

It’s Superman’s birthday, so Wonder Woman, Batman, and the then-new Robin (Jason Todd) visit him at the Fortress of Solitude, all bearing thoughtful presents. But what do you get the man who has everything? The villainous alien Mongul has the perfect gift for him—a life of contentment, which happens to be all imaginary.

A symbiotic plant called the Black Mercy traps Superman in his own head, where he’s living a perfectly normal life on a Krypton that never exploded. He has a wife and two children, and the weight of the world isn’t constantly on his shoulders. It all feels so real and satisfying.

But outside that fantasy, Mongul begins his quest for world domination by taking on Wonder Woman and the Caped Crusaders. To save his friends, and the world, Superman must abandon the peaceful life he always wanted, rejecting a loving family in favor of his Fortress of Solitude.

When you have a character as powerful as Superman, especially this old-school version, you’ve got to be creative to hurt him and even more creative to make him work for his victory. And trapping him in happiness, and requiring his own strength of will to erode the façade, is perfect.

The comic is so good that Justice League Unlimited adapted it into an animated episode. The comic does some things better, and the cartoon does other things better, but really, just check out both.

Writer: Alan Moore

Artist: Dave Gibbons

Publisher: DC Comics

How to Read It: back issues; Comixology; included in DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 10 and up

Today’s Super Comic — Super-Soldier #1 (1996)

super-soldier-1You’d think having Marvel and DC characters duke it out over the course of a four-issue miniseries would be enough of a gimmick, but the publishers didn’t. In the middle of DC vs. Marvel, the companies’ respective characters fused together as the universes combined into Amalgam Comics.

So, if you were ever wondering, “Hey, what if Superman and Captain America merged into one character?” … well, writer Mark Waid and artist Dave Gibbons answered that twenty years ago in Super-Soldier #1.

A rocket crashes to Earth in the 1930s, but the alien infant within doesn’t survive. Scientists use its cellular samples to create a “Super-Soldier” formula, which they give to an ordinary recruit, granting him powers far beyond those of mortal men. Like Captain America, Super Soldier got trapped in ice before the end of World War II and spent decades frozen. When he awakens in the present, kryptonite radiation in the atmosphere continually weakens him, like it would Superman. He works for the Daily Planet with star reporter Sharon Carter, and his arch-nemesis is Lex Luthor, the Green Skull.

Basically, it’s professionally produced fanfiction. But it’s fun to visit this alternate reality for an issue, and everyone involved clearly enjoyed making the book and building its fake history. There’s even a letters page with imaginary longtime fans expressing their excitement about the new Super-Soldier series after its long hiatus.

Super-Soldier was one of 12 Amalgam one-shots, and Marvel and DC produced a second wave the following year. There’s no need to ever revisit the gimmick, but it worked because great effort and skill accompanied the high concept.

Writer: Mark Waid

Artist: Dave Gibbons

Publisher: DC Comics (on behalf of Amalgam Comics)

How to Read It: back issues; included in The Amalgam Age of Comics (The DC Comics Collection) (TPB)

Appropriate For: ages 9 and up