Superman Annual #11 is a comic that stands as a classic for all the right reasons. Its main characters are the archetypal centre of the DC Universe, a “holy trinity” of superheroes – Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Its creative team stand as one of the most revered in history: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons run a close second only to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in terms of the seismic shift they engendered in mainstream superhero comics. Watchmen is a classic, but their work on this Superman annual remains a comparatively ignored work.
First up, an admission: I’ve loved this story ever since I first read it. If you’re expecting a hatchet job in this piece you’re going to be disappointed! Superman Annual #11 is a perfect example of a number of things: a Superman story, a superhero team up story, an exercise in comics formalism, and a well-realised exegesis on the themes of parenthood and family.
Batman, Robin, and Wonder Woman are visiting Superman to wish him a happy birthday. However, they find him in a trance-state due to an alien plant-like organism that has attached itself to his chest. This has induced a coma state and Superman remains inert. As readers, we are given access to his inner thoughts and experiences and discover that he believes that he is Kal-El of Krypton and living his life on Krypton with his family. In reality, all the characters have to fight Mongul, who is responsible for this state of affairs, and the story ends with him becoming a victim of his own scheme.
One of the main reasons that this story is such a seminal, quintessential Superman story is due to the fact that it uses so much of the iconography that we associate with the Silver-Age Man of Steel (this story predates Crisis on Infinite Earths and the pared down revision undertaken by John Byrne in the mid 1980s). The story is set in the Fortress of Solitude, an expansive, ice white citadel that functions as Superman’s base of operations and sanctuary. In some respects, it’s the polar opposite of the dark and gloom of Batman’s cave, but both operate as a base and sanctuary. In addition, both contain mementos from past cases and their personal history, whether it’s replicas of the bottled Kandor or oversized props like giant coins. In this respect the story looks forward to Moore’s use of iconic elements in “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” and his Superman pastiche work on Supreme.
It’s also a superhero team-up story, and an archetypal one at that: Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are, despite the plethora of characters who came after them, the original manifestations of the superhero as an archetypal figure or platonic ideal. They are the standard by which all others have to be judged as they were the first and act as versions of a platonic ideal. Putting all three together in a team up consequently allows Moore to show how effective these characters are as individuals, and also when working together. Each character shows their individual strengths, and tasks are divided up according to the strengths of each character, and part of the reason why the story works so well is because we see how well each hero works together.
The annual also works well as an exercise in comics formalism. The scene changes that are established by the juxtaposition of mirrored poses and repeated words and phrases that are used here show off the technical experimentation the Moore and Gibbons are so fond of at this point in their career, and also provide a testing ground for similar formal experiments they would undertake in Watchmen a short time after this annual. In particular, it helps to ground the visual transition from the fortress to Superman’s illusory world, and the repetition on the phrase “He is content” links each character’s experiences and emphasises the power that the plant has over its victims.
It’s interesting to note that both Batman’s present and Mongul’s means of attack are plants. Batman’s gift foreshadows the revelation of the Mongul’s plant, as well as suggesting the power that plants have over us. Plants can be used to create drugs and induce hallucinogenic states in us, as well as mark special occasions or take the form of gifts. Moore’s interest in plants is also detectable in his other main work of the period on Swamp Thing, and in the Superman – Swamp Thing team-up in DC Presents #85, where Superman is dying due to a reaction to a Kryptonian fungus he encounters, only to be saved by Swamp Thing.
As Julian Darius has noted, the story is engaged with ideas pertaining to sex. However, it is also rooted in the importance of family and parenthood. Kal’s imagined family on Kandor is an extended one, which is contrasted with the “family” of heroes who come to celebrate Superman’s birthday: like family, they refer to each other as Kal, Bruce and Diana. Parenthood is explored through Kal’s loss of his imaginary son, which is contrasted with Bruce regaining his father in his hallucination, when his parents survive the robbery that killed them and left Bruce an orphan. Such a dark view on parenthood is only alleviated by the relationship between Batman and the new Robin, and the promise that it holds as a surrogate father and son relationship for both.
Despite the emotional traumas visited upon all of the characters, the story ends on a note of hope, as the heroes retire to celebrate Superman’s birthday. Even Mongul is given a happy ending, albeit it due to being a victim of the powers of the alien organism. Considering the dark age of superheroics that works like Dark Knight and Watchmen seemed to herald (much to Moore’s chagrin) it’s good to see that Moore and Gibbons also retained some genuine silver age optimism in this early work together.