Superman: Peace on Earth (January 1999)
"Superman: Peace on Earth"
Paul Dini-Alex Ross
NOTE: Due to the size of this book, there was simply no way to get entire pages scanned on the equipment we own. In some cases, even individual panels had to be compromised. We regret any inconvenience toward your viewing pleasure.
Doug: A few weeks ago we solicited from our readers their favorite holiday stories. We received several great nominations, and will dip into that well in the future. But today, and next week on New Year's Eve, we'd like to examine a book that no one mentioned -- not even your moderators! While surfing the Internet for holiday images, I came across some scans from today's book and was suddenly hit with a big "Well, duh!". Although this tome falls a good decade-and-a-half beyond our general Bronze Age parameters, the fact that it's treasury-sized puts it squarely in our wheelhouse. Because of the length of the story, Karen and I will take turns shepherding you through these wonderful pages. We hope you'll have as much fun reliving this tale as we did reading and writing about it.
Doug: As stated by me many a'time in days of yore, I am a huge fan of Alex Ross's work. I know he has his detractors, but I have a difficult time even getting myself to a point where I can agree to disagree. I know we've had commenters argue that realism in comics is almost oxymoronic; for my money (and it is my money), it's the realists who tend to draw me in. Give me a Buscema brother, a Neal Adams, John Romita, Jim Aparo, the Filipino masters -- any day. Ross is the next generation of those larger-than-life pencilers of the Silver and Bronze Ages. And on top of all that, he's a heckuva nice guy! He's never been anything other than a gentleman in the four or five times I've met him, including the opening of a gallery show in Chicago where I also met his dad, Clark. You may recall that he was the model and inspiration for the Kingdom Come character Norman McKay. But I digress.
Karen: You'll get no arguments from me; I absolutely love Ross' work.
Doug: One of the neat features of the Dini-Ross collaborations was the inclusion of a two-page origin of the star character at the beginning of each of the four editions that did feature solo heroes. The "updated" version of Superman's origin, sans any mention of Superboy, is used here. After a page where each creator thanks certain folks instrumental to the project, we dive in. We'll find that the story is framed by agriculture, of all things, and seemingly by a morality play akin to the parable of the sower (found in the Bible in Matthew 13: 18-23):
18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. 23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
Doug: Clark Kent reflects on time spent as a youth with his father Jonathan, a Kansas farmer. Clark's father spoke to him about seeds, and about nurturing them. He spoke of some not having much chance to mature, and others that would produce bountifully. Clark took all of that in, and knew that his father was telling him a story with a deeper meaning. Clark has always given of himself, and reflects on compassion and kindness as he delivers Metropolis' Christmas tree. The throngs of people cheer him as he plants the tree in its base, and then using his super speed decorates it in a flash. While those present want him to linger and speak, he instead flies off -- knowing there will be other less festive events to tend to. And as he takes to the skies, he hears a cry for help behind him. It's a young girl who's fallen in the midst of the onlookers; Superman swoops from above and whisks her away. As he cradles her in his arms, he feels her bones through her clothes. She's fainted, and it's not from the excitement. The girl is starving.
Karen: I love how the flashback scenes with young Clark and Pa Kent are bathed in a soft golden light -the warm glow of memory but also perhaps the warm glow of the nurturing sun. I'm so pleased that it is Clark's upbringing here on Earth that is so integral to the story - I'm really not a fan of the more Kryptonian Superman that seems to be popular now. Ross' choice of angles as Superman carries in the tree really convey the size of it and the magnitude of his feat -all through the book, I am constantly impressed by Superman's various actions, which Ross manages to make look so much more majestic than ever before.
Doug: Clark takes the young lady to a homeless shelter that he's dealt with in the past -- one that has a health clinic. She's taken in by Dr. Rebecca Mason, who reminded me of Dr. Leslie Thompkins from the 1970's (and beyond) Detective Comics Batman tales. Dr. Mason offers to care for the girl and make sure she's nursed back to health; Clark can't get the situation out of his mind. He asks to run a feature on the homeless during the holidays, to draw attention to their plight. He tells himself it's really just an excuse to check up on the girl, which he does. And while there, the doctor tells him that Superman saved the youngster's life -- but it's too bad Superman can't be there for everyone in need. Clark skips the Daily Planet's holiday party the next night and instead spends his evening in the paper's archives, researching issues related to world hunger. Dini tosses in a nice bit of characterization in telling two things -- "in the blink of an eye I zip through pages of statistics and volumes of reports." and "I don't need to eat. I will never know hunger." While I found the first line entirely possible in the mythos, I've never really understood the latter idea. We all know that Superman gets his powers from the yellow sun; but does he draw his very life force from it?
Karen: I love looking at the faces of all the people Ross populates the shelter with -everyone is different, and real-looking! As for Supes not needing to eat -I too wondered about that. Does he really get all of his energy from the sun? He draws nothing from food? No need for the minerals or other substances found in food? I find that a bit hard to believe. But it's a minor point.
Doug: Clark thinks again of Kansas, and of the teaching of his dad. He determines, through his research, that there is more than enough food in the world for every person on the planet; it's getting it to those people that is the issue. Issues of geography, politics, sectarianism, culture -- those are the walls that have been built by man. But what if one man could leap those walls, in a single bound? And on a single day? Clark broods over this for several days, and here is where the story becomes many things, including the worth of one man, but also the values that one person can show that can start a chain reaction. Clark decides that he will become an example of altruism that the world can follow.
Doug: Superman requests to address the Congress of the United States of America. The story takes somewhat of an Americentric turn here, but I don't think that's out of character -- after all, Jerry Siegel's and Joe Shuster's Superman fought for "truth, justice, and the American way". And even though Superman is going to tackle world hunger, it is with the resources of the fields of the U.S.A. that he will fight. He requests access to the surplus, and while there is some skepticism he eventually carries the day. Over the next two pages we see Superman gathering the grain, carrying train cars and ships as if they were toys, and towing a legion of combines through the fields in a super-harvest. His first delivery is to a reservation in the American southwest, to an old Native American. The man is grateful, and Superman leaves him, feeling good about the mission.
Karen: Again, the visuals here are simply stunning. We've seen some similar things in comics before but never like this.
Doug: Superman next heads to Latin America with his deliveries, and ponders the dichotomy that large cities like Rio de Janeiro pose -- a sparkling jewel from the sky, but a cesspool of human suffering on the ground. He flies in a huge pallet of foodstuffs and places it on the ground. The people clamor to touch him, to thank him. Although he acknowledges that it is only one day's food that he's brought them, he is proud of himself for making the effort, and optimistic that the world will notice and stand up alongside him. As he thinks to himself, "With every minute I feel more sure I have made the right decision."
Karen: He gives us too much credit...
Doug: It would be very easy to say that the art carries the story in this exquisite storybook. But even stopping here halfway through it, I think we see that the creators are weaving a tale that is many-layered. What are Clark's motivations? Is it really altruism? Is he self-absorbed? Is the situation hopeless and he's just fooling himself? Paul Dini maximizes meaning in each of Ross's paintings with his very few words -- it's truly a marvel to see how his minimalist script brings full meaning to the already poignant images.
Karen: I do think Superman's actions stem from good intentions more than ego. But does his faith in mankind come from his apartness from us? Or from his smalltown upbringing? He wants to believe in mankind, even when we fail him at every turn. Man, there really are a lot of religious overtones in this stuff!