What do you get for the man who has everything?
A simple question that speaks to preconceived notions of Superman. That he’s perfect. That he has no human needs. That he’s elevated to a degree both morally and physically as to be completely unrelatable to the common reader.
That’s all, of course, not true. But it’s a question that lies at the center of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 1985 story, “For the Man Who Has Everything,” originally published in Superman Annual #11. And while it’s a standalone story that doesn’t work to set up a bigger narrative or forever alter the character of Superman, it’s impact and legacy are enormous.
The story sees Wonder Woman, Batman, and Robin (a still new Jason Todd, trying to think clean thoughts) visit Superman at his fortress of solitude to celebrate his birthday. But any concerns they have about whether their gifts will be right for a man that seemingly has everything are pushed aside when they find the man of steel comatose with an alien plant burrowed into his chest.
What follows is a two-sided tale of emotional and physical battle that tests Superman and his fellow heroes. A story of desire, loss, and friendship. And for all it’s dark undertones, one that ultimately celebrates The Man of Steel as someone wonderfully, inspirationally human.
In the end, the question isn’t what to get for the man who has everything, but what he can never truly have.
By 1985, Alan Moore had already been making a name for himself in and out of DC Comics with the dark Miracleman and the revisionist Swamp Thing. While it wouldn’t be long until Moore and collaborator Dave Gibbons would shake the industry with Watchmen, they were given their first chance at collaboration on a Superman annual by editor Julius Schwartz. In turn, the pair would create an enormous challenge for The Man of Steel.
The question posed by the story’s title may concern what you could ever give to someone like Superman, but it’s main narrative thrust centers on what you could possibly do to defeat someone with the powers of a god.
Soon after discovering the comatose Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Robin encounter Mongul, an alien despot hellbent on destroying Superman after being thwarted by him multiple times.
A titanic brawl ensues between Mongul and Wonder Woman (gamely stepping up to a far larger opponent and using every nearby weapon to damage the seemingly invincible brute) as the Dynamic Duo try to free Superman from the alien plant known as the Black Mercy. Mongul, ever the gloater, reveals that the Black Mercy lives by feeding on its victim’s life force while telepathically understanding their heart’s greatest desire and letting them live it out in their minds to keep them comatose. Here, Moore cuts between the real world battle and Superman’s fantasy, with Gibbons using a red border to differentiate the illusion on the page.
But if the Black Mercy gives its victims an illusion of their heart’s deepest desire, what does Superman want that he can’t have?
The answer is life on a Krypton that was never destroyed.
That realization itself is heartbreaking, and it speaks to a desire that can never be fulfilled by a hero that seems to have the world on a string. We soon see that in this fantasy, Kal-El is happily married to Lyla Lerrol and has two children, but what at first seems like an idyllic alternate history for Krypton soon turns sour.
The idea that Superman’s ultimate fantasy would be that Krypton was never destroyed, giving him the opportunity to raise a family and connect with the parents he never knew, says a lot about what Moore thinks of Kal-El’s alien nature vs human nurture balance. For all the good he’s done and lives he’s saved, there’s something in Superman that wishes for a normal life. But more important is that even in Superman’s wildest fantasy, a living Krypton is simply wrong.
The Krypton of Superman’s heritage, doomed and short sighted as it may have been, is also permanently cast in an idyllic glow. A great fallen society that our world may never reach. One that never lived to be torn apart politically or to see its people ultimately cast into societal chaos. Simply put, the Krypton of the Black Mercy vision is wrong. And while this may be a fantasy, not even the Black Mercy can prevent Superman from reaching that logical endpoint.
“The idea behind the story was to examine the concept of escapism and fantasy dreamworlds,” said Moore. “Including happy times in the past that we look back on and idealize, and longed-for points in the imagined future when we will finally achieve whatever our goal happens to be. I wanted to have a look at how useful these ideas actually are and how wide the gap is between the fantasy and any sort of credible reality.”
Even more heartbreaking for the hero than seeing his father disgraced for believing the planet was about to die or his homeworld torn apart is being forced to reject the family he’s created in this world. As Kal realizes that everything around him is wrong, he drives out into the barren land where Kandor once stood with his son Van-El and faces the truth. Krypton is dead. His family never existed. And the life he’s living must be rejected for the sake of the greater good.
This is the deepest cut of Mongul’s attack. Van-El may not be real, but he’s fictional within a fictional story. These characters matter to us as readers because we give them life and meaning. By having Superman realize the unreality of his own son and be forced to reject him, he becomes a little more like us — the reader grown deeply emotionally bonded to someone that never existed and now forced to face their permanent separation. To quote Moore’s other Superman story, “this is an imaginary story, aren’t they all?”
The reason that Superman has resonated across generations is because he’s imbued with meaning that grows deeper as each writer and each reader brings him to life in their mind. Kal-El’s Black Mercy family was given life through his imagination and greatest desires. To this fictional character, they were as real as he is.
While Moore only ever wrote a handful of Superman stories, each highly influential in the history of the character, a huge amount of the author’s work exists as commentary on the concept and history of The Man of Steel. The god meets man of Miracleman. The mythic recreation of Supreme. The inhuman detachment of Doctor Manhattan (a revision of Captain Atom, but the iconic line of “the Superman exists and he’s American” places him within this larger conversation). All of these recontextualize and critique the Superman archetype, often spelling disaster for the world at large when forced to live with a person with godlike powers.
But Moore’s work on Superman himself exists within the awkward yet limitless nexus of pre- and post-crisis DC. A redefining collision of the smiling sun god of the Silver Age and the heavy shouldered Man of Steel of the Bronze Age. While his non-DC reinterpretations of the character may be nietzschean, Moore’s Superman is far from the ubermensch.
For all his late period disillusionment with the superhero, Moore’s DC work, notably before his Watchmen-caused enmity toward the publisher, is a full hearted embrace of Clark Kent. And the hope and fury of “For The Man” speaks directly to this view.
As Batman wrenches the Black Mercy off Superman’s chest (only possible because of Clark’s growing rejection of the fantasy) Krypton, for all its good and bad, disintegrates. The Black Mercy’s living Krypton was a false premise, one that was consistent within its own internal logic, but inherently wrong. The entirety of its world must be rejected, but doing so means everything wonderful about it must be thrown out with the bad.
The Black Mercy is designed to give its victim a vision of its heart’s greatest desire to keep them placid as it feeds. And as we see in its effect on Batman and Mongul later, there’s no real catch to these illusions. So why is Superman’s dream inherently flawed? Shouldn’t this vision of the planet be filled with happiness and peace and not social unrest and a growing sense of dread?
In this, Moore embeds a deep sense of survivor’s guilt into Kal-El, an idea he would double down on in his hallucinogenic DC Comics Presents with Swamp Thing that collides Superman with the muck encrusted mockery of a man. Krypton’s destruction is inextricable from Superman’s entire life. Metatextually, there can be no Superman story without the tragedy of his origins. Anything other than this simply feels wrong.
While Moore never spells it out for us, years of life have been suddenly implanted in Superman’s consciousness. And when he’s freed, they don’t go away. Clark knows they weren’t real, but his connection and love for his family are still there in his mind.
The result is a Superman enraged in a way we’ve rarely seen before, barreling into Mongul and intent on making him pay.
To emphasize the unchained anger of Superman, Moore and Gibbons illustrate a power unleashed that shocks and awes the reader. When Superman yells Mongul’s name, it’s so loud it fills the panel until it’s about to burst. His speed is so fast that multiple panels are dedicated to capturing the split second it takes for him to attack. And, far from the jolly Curt Swan interpretation of years past, Superman uses his heat vision to purposefully hurt his enemy as much as he can.
Moore works to balance the boyscout with the god here, showcasing both when the moment calls for it and never calling into question the validity of either. That’s a difficult balance for most writers but it’s the hallmark of a great Superman writer. So when Clark battles Mongul with strength that rattles the fortress one minute and uses his super speed to make sure Diana doesn’t feel bad about giving him a duplicate gift the next, they don’t feel contradictory. They feel like different sides of the same man.
But Clark’s fury is stopped for a brief moment when he sees his parents holding up Krypton in a statue dedicated to their memory. And with everything he’s gone through, it’s enough to make him pause just long enough for Mongul to gain the upper hand.
Only a timely intervention by Jason stops the tyrant by trapping him in the Black Mercy’s clutches. In Mongul’s fantasy, he brutally kills the heroes, ravages earth, and rules the galaxy. A happy ending in the mind of a villain willing to accept the fantasy while our heroes are left to make the most of Superman’s remaining birthday.
According to Moore, “It was a story for the people I’ve encountered who are fixated upon some point in the past where things could have gone differently or who are equally obsessed with some hypothetical point in the future when certain circumstances will have come to pass and they can finally be “happy.” These people are so enslaved by their perception of the past and future that they are incapable of properly experiencing the present until it’s vanished.”
Moore’s story would see new life in multiple ways in the years after its publication. In 2004, JM De Matteis would adapt the story for an episode of Justice League Unlimited. While there would be some small tweaks (no Robin, earthquake tremors that hint at the Black Mercy’s false premise instead of a collapsing society), it’s largely intact. In fact, the more idyllic fantasy Krypton means that Kal-El’s rejection of the world and his son is even more painful, underlining his inherent heroism. Today, it remains one of the few Moore adaptations the author actually approves of, allowing the episode to credit him alongside Gibbons. In more recent years, the story was adapted into the CW Supergirl live action show, providing a woman’s perspective on a story that is primarily male-centered in its focus (Kara unconscious, Lara dead, Lyla only briefly seen). Moore would have better stories for women in comics, but there’s no room given for them here, with Wonder Woman shown as physically capable but not given any Black Mercy insights.
Of course, you can’t really discuss Alan Moore adaptations and his legacy in comics without at least touching on how one of the most influential comic book writers ever was treated poorly by publishers like DC and completely turned his back on the industry.
It seems like everything Moore has ever created will eventually be dragged back into comic books to lend some sort of creative cache to a story, even though anyone familiar with Moore’s relationship to the industry can see that the act itself is exactly what pushed one of the greatest creators of all time to quit.
In the case of this story, Mongul and the Black Mercy would reappear in the pages of Geoff Johns’ lengthy Green Lantern run – a series that heavily borrows from Moore’s work, which Moore would lambast for unoriginality.
But most important is this comic’s lingering effect on Superman’s perception. Because if Clark Kent’s greatest desire isn’t Lois Lane or peace on earth or Luthor in jail, but is instead a completely different life from his own, then it speaks to the humanity within Clark. I speak of course in the more broadly applied idea of humanity, not Earth dweller vs Kryptonian.
So many of the shallow critiques of Superman focus on him being a boring and too perfect person. To me, Superman is often the ideal of a person. The wonderful living being we could all become if we self actualized. This doesn’t mean that Superman has no problems or doubts or lessons to be learned, only that these issues are blown up to a massive scale. Yet we can always trust him to make the right decision. Making that decision isn’t always easy and the path to victory is often hard, even for a man who can move mountains.
But what is more human, more relatably flawed, than wanting what you could never have and still knowing that it could never be the right choice?
Superman’s innate rejection of his greatest wish speaks to his heroism being just as central as his beating human heart. The Man of Steel can be broken, but not shattered. And in the world of DC Comics just like our world, there must always be a Superman. Guiding us, believing in us, and instead of being trapped in a past that never was, leading us to a brighter tomorrow.
“Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics” by Alan Moore and Peter David