The Multiple Monarchies of the Man of Steel!
Ever since the famous 1938 cover of Action Comics #1, people have thrilled to the adventures of Superman. From that dazzling debut onward, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation has used his immense otherworldly powers in service to mankind.
Well….most of the time, that is.
You see, inherent in the concept of Superman’s power is the possibility of it being used not in service to mankind, but against it. In a flawed and fallen humanity, that sort of selfish choice would be the natural, logical way to go if we possessed that kind of power. In fact, Siegel and Shuster themselves thought as much during their first attempt to create a Superman character in 1933.
Published in their Science Fiction fanzine, “Reign of the Superman” told the story of a homeless man who was given mighty psionic powers (and telescopic vision) by a strange professor (a bald professor, by the way). Immediately corrupted by his new powers, he named himself “The Superman” and set out to become Emperor of the World.
The following year, Jerry and Joe retooled the concept into the heroic Superman we know today…but the spectre of such a powerful figure deciding to subject mankind instead of saving it has never entirely disappeared from the character’s comics.
As a modest prelude to his worldwide ambitions as an adult, the cover of Superboy #32 (1954) featured “His Majesty, King Superboy" (as well as a strangely bald, Julius Schwartz-like Pa Kent). When old documents revealed that Smallville was actually its own royal kingdom and not part of the United States, Superboy assumed the legally required role of king until the paperwork could be straightened out.
Working his way up from King of Smallville, the adult Superman became the king of a hidden jungle tribe in World's Finest #111 (1960) following an amnesia-inducing volcanic explosion. Naturally, his friends Batman and Robin restored his memory, returned him to civilization, and then mercilessly teased him about the goofy fan-shaped hat.
Superman’s ambitions to rule the world became more apparent on the cover of Action Comics #244 (1958), as Superman left the surface world to rule his “new ocean empire”. No big deal, right? He’d rule over fish, Aquaman, and a few mer-people, right? Ah, not so fast. Considering oceans cover over 70% of the Earth’s surface, one could consider this a bold prelude to what would come next.
In Action Comics #311 (1964), exposure to Red Kryptonite split the Man of Steel into a non-powered Clark Kent and an evil Superman, who promptly stormed the United Nations demanding to be crowned King of Earth (with a giant Pope-like crown, no less). Meanwhile, an angry Clark Kent organized a secret underground organization to take down his power-mad alter ego!
Continuing the tale in Action Comics #312 (1964)…quite a rarity for Silver Age DC Comics…a gravely wounded Clark Kent is kept alive by becoming a Kryptonite-powered Metallo cyborg. After exposing the tyrant to his Kryptonite heart, a dying King Superman confessed that his rule over Earth was actually part of an elaborate plan to stop an alien attack (oopsie!). Merging back together into a single being, Superman foiled the alien attack and then explained his plan to the totally gobsmacked (and most likely thoroughly peeved) people of Earth.
Action Comics #381 (1968) finds Superman once again storming the United Nations, this time to declare himself “Dictator of Earth” (while planting the same S-flag from the cover of Action #311).
In World's Finest #240 (1976), Superman tried to save the Bottle City of Kandor from civil war by becoming its king, but mysteriously began threatening the outside world. Naturally, the people of Kandor did what any caring society would do for a wayward leader: they hit up Batman to kill King Superman!
Instead of assassinating King Superman, Batman donned his own golden crown and joined Superman as co-ruler of the world’s crime community on the cover of World's Finest #165 (1967).
Nearly forty years later in Superman/Batman #14 (2005), we see the boys once again co-ruling the world, this time as alternate timeline versions of themselves that were raised by villains and sent back in time to conquer Earth. Note how they’ve replaced the U.S. Presidents on Mount Rushmore with their own faces, an apparent rite-of-passage for all would-be world dictators
Superman and Batman return to the side of the angels in World's Finest #247 (1977) as they battled the tyranny of the New Superman, who claimed to be Superman’s long-lost Kryptonian brother Kor-El. Following his defeat, Kor-El was revealed to be a disguised Parasite, the power-absorbing Superman foe.
As yet another villain posing as Superman, a reality-altering entity named Dominus conquered Earth in Superman: King of the World (1999) while Superman himself was secretly imprisoned in the form of Dominus. Needless to say, Superman faced a boatload of bad P.R. and a wary world population following the defeat of Dominus.
Our final three examples of the Conquering Kal-El are set outside of regular continuity as alternate-reality (or, in Silver Age parlance, “imaginary”) stories. In Superman (vol. 2) Annual #3 (1991), an atomic explosion near Metropolis wiped out most of Superman’s supporting cast, chief among them his wife Lois Lane. A grief-stricken Superman then took it upon himself to rid the world of nuclear weapons and enacting “The Laws of Superman”...leaving it to Batman and the Justice League to bring him down.
Superman #417 (1986) asked the question, “What if Kal-El’s rocket overshot Earth and landed on Mars?”. Raised as the mighty “Skagerrak” by a race of warriors (unconnected to DC’s J’onn J’onzz character), he eventually leads a full-scale Martian invasion of planet Earth. However, while going undercover as (I kid you not) a bell-ringing Santa Claus, Skagerrak learns Valuable Lessons about humanity and decides to defend Earth against the Martian forces.
Though not as dramatically off-course as his journey to Mars, Kal-El’s rocket ended up on the other side of the world in the Red Son mini-series (2003). Landing in the Soviet Union, Kal-El is raised to be the “Champion of the common worker who fights a never-ending battle for Stalin, socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pack”. By issue #3, the U.S.S.R. and its leader Superman rule most of the world, with the exceptions of Chile (?) and portions of the United States (lead by President Lex Luthor).
It’s somehow fitting that U.S. resistance to the Soviet Superman is the jumping off point for our Monarch of Steel survey. Why? Well, at the risk of getting too deep here, I think implicit within all of these stories is America’s traditional (and healthy) skepticism, even antipathy toward monarchies and other forms of centralized power. The spectacle of Superman’s immense power being used selfishly and recklessly was a not-so-subtle reminder that too much power in too few hands can be a very scary thing.
That, and crowns are for sissies.