Superman / Wonder Woman: Whom Gods Destroy
(1997 - four issue, double-sized prestige format, published by DC Comics)
Writers: Chris Claremont. Art: Dusty Abell, Drew Geraci.
Back in the 1990s and early 2000s DC Comics indulged in a variety of Elseworlds projects -- reinventing and re-imagining their signature characters in alternate/what if....? style stories. Usually they were built around fairly concise premises: what if Batman was born in a different time? what if Superman never arrived on earth?
Whom Gods Destroy is odd in that respect in that it's actually a bit hard to figure out what the "key" change is supposed to be (even the back cover descriptions don't give much sense of what's inside) so that it can take a few pages to really figure out all the ways the story diverges from both DC history -- and ours. It's set in modern times, but in this world Superman arrived as he did in the original comics in the early 20th Century. However he hasn't aged, whereas Lois Lane and Lana Lang have (though still look more middle aged that truly old). Yet this is also a world where Nazi Germany survived into the latter half of the 20th Century, still ruling parts of Europe and where there is a kind of Cold War detente between America and Germany. No other super heroes exist in this world and Superman himself has effectively been leashed by the Nazis after they earlier nuked Metropolis as a message for him to stay out of German territory (nuked it -- but apparently with a certain plausible deniability of their responsibility).
So you can find yourself wondering what the core idea is: an ageless Superman? a triumphant Nazism?
And then the Greek Gods get thrown into the mix and it just gets all pretty crazy.
Even calling it Superman / Wonder Woman can seem a bit odd -- but maybe that's because calling it a Lois Lane / Lana Lang Elseworlds story was seen as less marketable. But in many respects it does seem more about them than Superman (though his part waxes and wanes) and Wonder Woman, as we traditionally know her, isn't around -- as the story involves Lois becoming imbued with Wonder Woman's identity (while Lana is recruited to act as a new Oracle of Delphi).
This may well have been one of Chris Clarement's first projects after moving over to DC after years of being a Marvel Comics stalwart. And at first it's reasonably interesting. Clarement -- who for all his strengths and ambitions as a writer can equally be heavy handed and overly verbose, his characters given to self-analytical monologues as much as anything like real human speech -- at first keeps a rein on his verbiage. The scenes clip along, and the focus is on the personalities -- notably Lois as a crusty old broad, just about to retire from her years as a reporter. The very fact that I didn't know what the premise was or the reality around them meant I was kind of curious to follow along as the story unfolded.
But after awhile it can all feel a bit -- nuts. Almost as if Clarement was smoking something illicit while typing out the scripts. It can feel a bit like it's wandering about, folding back on itself, not really explaining things properly as it goes. As I say, despite all the Superman/Nazi stuff, the focus starts to shift to the Greek Gods who are apparently involved in their own war with each other on earth. And here maybe Clarement has too much of a classical education, because it can feel like he's name dropping gods and goddesses as if we're inherently supposed to know who they are and their relationship to each other -- but I'll admit I didn't, beyond broad strokes and recognizing a few names. It's like Clarement has taken the fanboy minutia that plagues comics themselves (and being an Elseworlds story, there are plenty of minor cameos from characters long time comics fans should know) and applies that same attitude to Greek mythology.
And the story just seems to veer about, with characters undergoing transformations (Lois to Wonder Woman, Lana to Oracle, Superman becomes both a centaur and a woman at various points in the story!), shifting focus and perspective (Lana's Oracle powers means she can conveniently see and describes things she otherwise should have no knowledge of). As I say: it can all feel a tad head-trippy. And not necessarily in a good way.
Along the way, Claremont's verbosity starts to return, as does his penchant for long winded sequences that are meant to explore deep human emotion and ethical dilemmas but in a way that feels heavy handed and too abstract. Like he loses the human-ness of the scenes while trying to explore the humanity. Characters are tempted by inner desires, shamed by their moral failings, forced to perform penance for their sins -- all stuff familiar from some of his more laborious hair-shirty X-Men sagas. Yet I find the more he tries to dig into the heart of the characters, the more he sets up a wall between me and simply believing in the characters. A theme seems to be how Superman has, over the years, lost touch with the human side of his persona -- yet I didn't really feel Superman was enough of a character here for it to really work as a character examination.
The art is by Dusty Abell, an artist I'm not that familiar with. But it's quite striking and dynamic a lot of the time, albeit with a slightly stylized, jagged/cartooniness. But there were ways it reminded me of another artist, and quickly I realized it was Frank Miller -- big lips, jagged movements, but before Miller descended into whatever he calls his modern style. Unfortunately -- the more it reminded me of Miller, the more problematic it became. With its saga of muscle-y Amazon women (even some of the poses seemed Miller-esque) and Nazi imagery, it smacked a lot of Miller's more troubling fetishes. Abell draws Lois/Wonder Woman and other such characters in a kind of sinewy, body builder way, yet with buttock displaying costumes and sometimes fetish costumes. Equally (and paradoxically) there's a kind of homoerotic vibe to the male figures, too. Not -- I should clarify -- that there's necessarily anything wrong with either (other than exploitiveness), whatever my personal tastes. It's just when it gets married with Nazi stuff it can feel a bit weird and, as I say, latter-day Miller.
Whether these are intentions of Abell's style, or simply the inevitable result of that Miller-esque vibe, or indeed, he's just visualizing what Claremont's script demands, I'm not sure. Certainly Claremont's script is the one that offers up these scenes to be visualized.
The result is an ambitious, in some ways off-beat, Elseworlds mini-series that I was initially cautiously enjoying. But as it progressed it just felt a bit too undisciplined and rambling (reminding me of things like X-Men: Inferno in some ways) to the point where I wasn't really that engaged by it.
I don't know if there's any point in reading anything into the publication history -- or whether that's unfair. But I do wonder if the fact that it was never collected as a TPB, despite good art, an A-list writer, and top tier characters, suggests it had a mixed reception. Or maybe there were other publishing factors -- certainly I can point to other series I personally loved that were never collected.