CW & Pop Culture: Superman in the Civil War

Civil War and Pop Culture

Superman-coverOn May 22, 1863, Ulysses S. Grant prepared for his second assault against Vicksburg. “I fear that this shall be a long and bloody campaign,” Grant fretted in his diary. Among the troops moving into position, a regiment of Kansas volunteers, newly arrived to the army to bolster Union forces, took a position in the front line, at the very vanguard of the attack. Among the Jayhawks was a young man from a small Kansas farm, Atticus Kent. When Confederate artillery opens fire, Kent catches a cannonball squarely in the chest.

“‘M…all right…” he says, getting up. “Jus’…knocked the wind…outta me ’s all.”

And so Private Kent begins to discover the extent of his super powers.

Superman BlastEnraged by the blast, Kent throws the cannonball back at the Confederates and blows up the cannon that shot him. But he is into the Confederate works fast on the heels of his powerful toss, smashing and destroying and tearing up the Rebel line. “Damn Rebels!” he bellows. “Damn Rebels!” Bullets bounce off him. Bayonets snap against his skin. It’s not long before he smashes his way into the middle of the city itself, taking Confederate General John Pemberton captive.

And so begins, Superman: A Nation Divided, part of the DC Comics “Elseworlds” imprint that puts familiar heroes into “strange times and places.” In a way, it’s DC Comics’s version of alternative history. It’s also, to the best of my knowledge, the only Civil War-themed Superman story ever published. Written by Roger Stern, illustrated by Eduardo Barreto, A Nation Divided was published in 1999.

“But can even a superman stop a war that threatens to tear apart a mighty nation?” the back cover asks.

The simple answer—because, after all, this IS Superman—is “Of course.” (If you want to avoid any other spoilers, don’t read on—but my guess is that most readers won’t even be able to get their hands on this comic even if they wanted to.)

Living on an isolated Kansas Farm, Atticus never fully appreciated the extent of his superhuman abilities, which his parents downplayed. It’s not until he comes under fire that he begins to learn, little by little, of the many gifts he possesses. In fact, the story’s best moment comes when Kent has to stop a train and discovers—you guessed it!—that he’s more powerful than a locomotive.

When Grant writes to President Lincoln to tell him about the new “secret weapon,” Lincoln muses, “What on earth…has Grant been drinking?” But then Sgt. Kent, newly promoted, arrives at Lincoln’s window with a dispatch explaining that Atlanta has fallen. Skeptical of Grant’s dispatch about Kent’s powers, Lincoln soon becomes a believer when Kent takes the president on an aerial tour of Washington (with Frederick Douglass tucked under Kent’s other arm for good measure).

By the time early July rolls around, the next great battle of the war erupts in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Kent, on the front line, wonders if even he is powerful enough to stop the carnage among so many men. “Surely, this is the cruelest of wars…countrymen fighting each other, brother against brother!” Kent thinks in the midst of battle. “Men continued to die all around me, and even I was not powerful enough to save them all. Only one man had the power to end this madness—”

Superman and LeeAnd with that, Kent flies over to Robert E. Lee. Plucks him from his horse (a light brown one, not Traveller), and dangles him over the battlefield. “Look! Look what your war has caused!” Kent tells him. “Call for your men to surrender! Now!!” And Lee does.

Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg Address on July 6. By the end of the month, Kent captures Jefferson Davis and the rest of Confederate forces surrender. To celebrate, Kent and Lincoln go to the theater, where Kent saves the president from assassination by John Wilkes Booth, who dies in the attempt.

But then Stern ends the book with a surprising twist that should give anyone pause to think. Kent’s father reveals to him the secret of his extraterrestrial origins. As Kent delves deeper, he finds that his real father, Jor-El, sent him to earth with the intent that he live among “the inhabitants of a great central plain on a once-isolated earthly continent.”

“They are a good people, but their existence is threatened by invaders from other parts of their world…invaders possessed of greater technology,” Jor-El’s voice explains. Only by chance did Josephus Kent, rather than the Native Americans, find the infant.

This triggers an existential crisis in Superman. He’s an American, and he helped save the Union—but he was sent to Earth to oppose that government’s exploitation of its native people, just as he had opposed the South’s exploitation of blacks. Kent has several episodes in the comic where he muses about race, so the moment feels “earned” (as much as anything does in this comic).

The comic ends with Kent resigning his army commission and turning his attention to the West, where his original destiny was supposed to lay. He uses his extraterrestrial technology to fashion a sleek, silver robotic horse for himself. In the comic’s last panel, Kent has turned in his “USA” insignia (with its appropriately large middle “S”) for a red bandanna, blue shirt, and white hat, which he waves in the air behind him. Atop the silver horse, the only thing missing is the black mask and “The William Tell Overture.” It was kind of a hokey ending, but I nonetheless found myself tipping my own hat to Stern and Barreto for surprising me.

It’s all pretty light and airy, honestly, although there’s much to enjoy for a teenage fanboy who wants to see the Man of Steel in a starkly different context. For a Civil War buff, there’s not much substance at all except for the novelty factor. That the Kents seemed untouched by the earlier events of “Bleeding Kansas,” for instance, underscores the lack of depth to this conceit. Published a decade after the comic book revolution sparked by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which allowed comic books to take a darker, heavier tone, room existed for a more dramatic, more serious treatment of Superman in the Civil War.

That said, Superman: A Nation Divided makes good entertainment for younger readers who are content to let themselves get swept up, up, and away.

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