Published by DC Comics in 2001, written by Joe Kelly and Brandon Badeaux, with art by Mark Morales and Moose Baumann, Action Comics #783 gives a great single issue story. Advertised on the cover as “The Choice,” the story within is actually called “The Gift” and is a fine example of how a character like Superman can do more than punch monsters and engage in some property damage in the name of good.
The story begins with excerpts from a Daily Planet op-ed piece by Clark Kent entitled “Dark Days” (no newspaper would have such a generic headline, even for an op-ed piece, but I digress). The first line he writes is: “The world is dark as I write this.”
He wasn’t wrong. This issue came out just a month after the attack of September 11, 2001. I lived in NYC at the time and the city was still in mourning, as was much of the country. Coincidentally, DC released a big crossover “Our Worlds at War” that kicked off with Kansas being suddenly attacked by alien forces, leading to a conflict that cost the lives of many, including superheroes and Lois Lane’s father. The parallel of the sudden, unprovoked attack and the feelings that followed to attack and aftermath of September 11 was eerie, making this issue all the more poignant and topical.
As Clark’s op-ed piece mentions the world seeming chaotic and experiencing a feeling of helplessness, we see four instances where his alter ego Superman deals with super-villains. The four enemies we see are: Major Disaster, Scorch, the Ocean Master and the Stone Emperor.
To each of these villains, Superman points out that their efforts for power and domination amount to nothing. They are always defeated and will be again, so what is the point?
“Is this how you want to die? Because you will die… You’ll be doing what you do, and someone like me but not like me will stop you… Someone willing to take a life in exchange for what you’ve done and you will die… like this. Surrounded by ruins. Would that satisfy you?”
The Man of Tomorrow offers a choice to each villain: stop your selfish ways and dedicate yourself to helping others, and he will fight to help them start this new life. He promises to speak to whatever authorities he needs to for this to happen, for their crimes to be considered accounted for, while warning his trust will not return if it is broken.
“Do you realize how powerful those two words are, second chance? I don’t think there’s a great gift you can give to someone. A second chance in life. My heart is beating through my chest right now because this is where I’m supposed to haul you in and lock you up… But something has to change, doesn’t it? It just has to… The past is hard and cold and unforgiving. I can only change the future… And so can you… Take my hand. Let me help you. Let’s make a better world.”
This is not a scene you would see with many superhero characters and we’ve yet to see anything like it in a superhero movie. But it is something that goes back to the original core of Superman. Even in his second ever story, in Action Comics #2, we see him confront a criminal and look for a way to change what they do in life, to give them a chance to use their resources for good, believing that will help the world more than punishment. It’s a lovely message and one that this creative team delivers excellently.
So go to your back issue bin or Comixology and check out Action Comics #783. And see for yourself if any of the villains took Superman up on his offer.