Superman: A Nation Divided, 1999, DC Comics
writer: Roger Stern
artist: Eduardo Barreto
letterer: Bill Oakley
colorist: Chris Chuckry
Superman: A Nation Divided represents everything I loved about DC Comics’ Elseworlds brand, before it became fodder for the latest crisis and inadvertently an excellent example of what happens when you have too much of a good thing. A good Elseworlds story really wasn’t an elaborate recreation of a character’s mythos; rather, it simply tweaked one element of the character’s legend and explored the natural repercussions of such a change. In the three of my favorite Superman-oriented Elseworlds tales that come to mind, Krypton still explodes and young Kal-El is still rocketed to Earth, where a yellow sun bequeaths him abilities far beyond those of mortal men that he eventually decides to use for the betterment of his adopted world. In one series, the Waynes discover Kal-El’s spaceship, and when they die, Superman becomes Batman. In another series, a nail, the most minute, thus brilliant of continuity interruptions, prevents the Kents from finding their alien son, and without the moral standard of a Superman, the world isn’t as quick to embrace its inevitable Justice League. In this issue, A Nation Divided, my newest favorite, Kal-El still plummets to the kindly Kents’ farm . . . but in 1845. Say it with me, Scott Bakula: “Oh, boy.”*
What transpires is a natural exploration of how the Superman mythos would’ve evolved had Siegel and Schuster lived some eighty years earlier and decided to create a superhero to boost the spirits of the Union army. Also, considering the length of this story, writer Roger Stern crams a lot of content in a well paced wartime adventure, forsaking Superman standards like Lois Lane and Lex Luthor in favor of Abraham Lincoln and General Robert E. Lee. A red-haired, freckle-faced soldier does ride “Atticus Kent’s” coattails, but his name is Jeremiah and his role is less “pal” and more spokesperson, at least in the beginning of Kal-El’s career as a super soldier. Leaving out an obligatory Perry White (for instance) creates a concentrated analysis of Superman’s integrity in this brutal Civil War era, and without a car to lift over his head, it seems the standard measure of strength is heaving a canon . . . not to mention running faster than a locomotive, a spectacular feat considering how important locomotives were back then. Considering that Superman epitomizes the American dream (and in this issue he bookends his trademark “S” with an “U” and an “A”), the best part of this story is beholding his frantic desire to put the country back together again.
Artist Eduardo Barreto was the perfect choice for this story’s artist. Also the artist for Superman: Speeding Bullets, the Superman-becomes-Batman plot I mentioned, Barreto's style is realistic and expressive, and when his Superman hangs in the sky, the reader truly understands how fantastic the image of a flying man really is. Further, his style is the perfect compliment to this story’s time frame. Since it is a Superman yarn, A Nation Divided is by definition a superhero comic, but its subject also classifies this as a period piece; serious sequences featuring the violence of war or the Kents sequestering a black family from slave traders betray national weaknesses that don’t hold a candle to Kryptonite, and Barreto’s work is respectful to this dire context. In a splash page of Confederate soldiers, Barreto notes “To Joe” in a subtle signature -- obviously paying respects to Joe Kubert and his definitive work on war-driven books. Though not World War II, A Nation Divided is a bit more heady, because Superman isn’t battling the obvious evil of Hitler or the Axis Powers. He’s battling fellow Americans. Even while Superman discovers the depths of his strengths, he pulls his punches, and while Barreto illustrates a juggernaut of a man, the best moments are the ones in which he simmers in his own torn nature. In other words, when Superman stifles himself, the art really shines.
Well, if you didn’t know, today is the day we celebrate President Lincoln’s birthday, so reading A National Divided is a great way to celebrate. Also, with Fredrick Douglas’ appearance, it makes for a tidy resolution to my weeklong Black History Month reviews. Though the Civil War was the end of a tumultuous time in American history, it certainly wasn’t the end of the Civil Rights Movement; in fact, it was just the beginning. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a Superman during either period to guide our collective journey -- indeed, when it comes to solidifying peace in America, this looks like a job for . . . the common man!
*Quantum Leap, anyone? Yeah, I know the 19th century is a bit beyond Sam’s leap scope, but . . . ah, never mind.