The Man of Steel was created in 1938, and many people would look at that date and think the character is old fashioned and outdated. However, Action Comics #775 shows that there is more to the character than that.
Between 1999 and 2001, the superhero world was filled with edgy and gritty versions of heroes. The Authority, the Ultimates and more all showed an authoritarian hero that many thought was the future of superheroes and comic books. In March of 2001, Action Comics, arguably the first superhero comic book, reached this milestone issue, and with it writer Joe Kelly responded to the violent hero trend.
Kelly, along with Doug Mahnke, Lee Bermejo, Tom Nguyen, Dexter Vines, Jim Royal, Jose Marzan, Wade von Grawbadger, Wayne Faucher, Ron Schwager, and Comicraft, spun the tale in this oversized issue of a new hero team – the Elite. These violent “heroes” beat Superman to the sites of several crises, and tore the threats to pieces with no reservations of the harm and destruction they caused. After several weeks, Superman has enough and he challenges them to a duel.
What follows is a great example of why Superman will never be pushed aside for these younger, violent sociopaths. While he taunts the team’s leader- Manchester Black- he tears the team apart, completely safe but unconscious. When the story reaches its final page, Superman makes a pronouncement to Manchester- he’ll never stop fighting for truth and justice.
This story is a few different things and they do them all well, even twenty years later. From the perspective of simply being a good action story, it works really well. The Elite are great antagonists. Their identity as heroism taken too far, warped and twisted, stood out as Superman’s total opposite. Superman tearing the team apart at the end by simply incapacitating them in the minimum amount of force he needed was the perfect touch at the end of it all.
As a piece of satire, it worked even better. Manchester Black was specifically a reaction to Warren Ellis, and his snarky British self inserts. Kelly essentially says “there’s a place for this, and superhero comics isn’t it.” He also shows that it’s okay that Superman isn’t edgy, he works because of his human, compassionate side, not in spite of it.
It’s weird to say that this issue is now timeless but it is. It’s very specific of its time but the industry still hasn’t grown past the trends the issue satirizes. Maybe, if we took some lesions from it, we will someday…