Every Wednesday we take turns to delve into our trusty longboxes, pluck out a dusty back issue, and give you our thoughts. We’ll also try and place it in the context of the time it was originally published.
Alright, I’ve put it off for long enough. Let’s do it. Let’s look at Armageddon 2001. DC’s ill-fated 1991 crossover spectacular is infamous nowadays for all kinds of reasons, primarily for the fact that it hinged around – and planted clues for – a mystery whose solution was abruptly changed at the last minute. The identity of future supervillain Monarch was planned all along to be Captain Atom – but when the information leaked out to some fans (astonishing in that pre-Internet age) DC chickened out, and changed it to Hank “Hawk” Hall, despite the myriad continuity flaws that it subsequently sparked.
I was originally going to look at the concluding part of the saga in the second of the bookending special issues; but there’s just too much to talk about adequately in the confines of a limited review. While not unentertaining, it’s a mess of an issue, largely because you can see where the story’s going in setting up a realistic path for Atom to become Monarch – and then faking out halfway through before rattling through an unnecessary and shoehorned-in Hawk and Dove plot (one of the most glaring problems is that Monarch’s eyes had already been shown to be blue, intended as a clue, in issue #1, before being switched to Hall’s brown for #2) and underwhelming conclusion. That’s not to mention the fact that the entire premise of the crossover – Waverider looking at the futures of various heroes to try and discover Monarch’s identity – is rendered pointless by the realisation that he’s only checking out potential futures (we get to see three distinct ones in Superman’s case, by virtue of his having three titles on the stands at the time), and so each of the individual stories we’ve seen before are all pretty meaningless.
That said, as I’ve stated before, in Nineties DC Crossoverville it doesn’t matter if the main event is a bit guff – it’s still possible to get some great standalone stories in the tie-in issues and annuals. Armageddon allowed for the writers to have fun with some potential futures, and some genuinely decent stories came out of it – this Superman issue, actually the first in the crossover’s chronological sequence, a case in point. Rather than being suger-coated and positive about Superman’s influence on the world (something which the corresponding Action Comics issue would later be, by contrast), it’s quite relentlessly negative, and is an examination of what happens when a man in whom the world has placed their trust and safety is driven mad and abuses that power.
The catalyst is a nuclear accident that wipes out Metropolis and all of Superman’s nearest-and-dearest – after this, he becomes a somewhat deranged figure, pledging to strip the world of nuclear weapons by any means necessary, and living a bizarre existence with Lana Lang and his senile mother. Increasingly out-of-control, his neglect leads to the death of a serviceman in a submarine, and in battle with the Justice League, that of J’onn J’onnz (somewhat strangely of a heart attack, of all things). It’s left to Batman to end the madness and bring down his one-time friend once and for all.
It’s a neat, dark little tale, featuring inversions and almost parodies of the likes of Superman IV and The Dark Knight Returns (having been sicced on Superman by the government, Bats wears an outfit similar to Miller’s creation for their final battle at Crime Alley – and as with Miller’s story, the government lackey wins). What’s particularly daring (if hardly unprecedented) is the way in which it posits that Superman’s existence is not necessarily beneficial to humanity, and that should unfathomable tragedy warp his mind in some way, he can be just as dangerous as any villain, even as he persists in the belief that he’s doing the world a service. A neat touch, also, is the increased bombast of Superman’s costume as he takes on more of a self-righteous role.
Still, it’s not perfect. Jurgens concocts a decent story, befitting his status as one of DC’s foremost purveyors of time-travel and speculation-related stories, but there are flawed moments – dialogue in particular – that also betray how early in his career it is. The Justice League sequence in particular is pretty embarrassing (would Booster Gold, Fire and the Martian Manhunter really be a realistic future lineup by themselves? Or is it just that they were the only heroes without Armageddon stories of their own?), especially in the cringeworthy dialogue and characterisation of Fire, and the exposition-filled sequences with the tedious Waverider grate in the extreme (as they would throughout the crossover, in fact). The issue is found wanting on the art front as well – you half wonder why Jurgens didn’t draw it himself, although he was presumably busy doing the main Armageddon issues. Either way, Dusty Abell’s storytelling is functional enough, but his elongated faces have a cartoony, almost comical look to them that feels at odds with the attempted gravitas of the story.
Nevertheless, this was definitely a strong start to the crossover, and demonstrated the potential of the central conceit. By now, “alternate future” or “hero gone wrong” stories are fairly de rigeur (there are definite parallels with Red Son here), but they were rather rarer at the time, and Jurgens demonstrates effectively what he was trying to do with the story as a whole. It’s just a shame that the appalling fudging of the outcome has rendered the entire event such a laughing stock to modern eyes. Dig through the stories themselves, though, and there’s plenty to enjoy.