In retrospect, the Mike Mignola cover is the best reason to have bought Action Comics Annaul #6. Best reason to have kept it, too. Honestly, though, until this week, I probably didn't even pay any mind to the Mignola art. What can I say? Not really the big art guy here.
In 1994, I bought it because the main story was written and drawn by John Byrne. And maybe because I was a government major and history minor in college. I like this kind of alternate Earth stuff, even if it's an alternate to an Earth that's fictional in the first place. It's really a very good concept that's the basis of the story, too. What if a Kryptonian came to Earth in 1768, allied with the British throne and prevented anyone from ever leaving the empire, as well as expanding the empire to every single corner of the Earth? Sounds great.
Execution was the problem, though. We wouldn't want to tarnish Kal-el, I suppose, so our Kryptonian is Gar-el. Krypton explodes about 200 years ahead of DCU schedule but is the antiseptic, impersonal, and asexual Krypton that Byrne envisioned in the re-launch of Superman in 1986, following Crisis on Infinite Earths. And that's fine, too. It was the Krypton of the time, and Crisis was really where I got on board with the DCU, aside from the Teen Titans that I had been reading up until that point. This was the Superman origin I was comfortable with at the time.
Gar-el is an adult when he rockets away from Krypton. The exposition says that Kryptonians were deathly afraid of leaving Krypton by this point, and Gar-el would never have left but for the promise of great power upon arrival on Earth. Funny, I would have thought that the fact that Krypton was exploding as he left would have been a pretty good incentive to get the hell out of Dodge, great power expectations or no. If all your people fear death if they leave, but your planet is going to blow up and kill you imminently, I'd think there'd have been a substantial rush of people to get on board with Gar-el for this trip. I guess it's supposed to show just how lifeless the Kryptonians were at this point, but it seems more outright suicidal than effete.
So, anyway, Gar-el rockets merrily on his way and even bathes himself in the equivalent of Earth solar radiation so he'll be all juiced up and ready to go when he gets to Earth. Here's a question Byrne and DC might have pondered before including this utterly throw away piece of writing: if Gar-el can bathe himself in Earth solar radiation without going to Earth, why does he or anyone else from Krypton need to go to Earth? Why not just juice yourself up with this on Krypton, or if Krypton's sun negates it, somewhere else? Oh, I know, they're all afraid to leave. If you told them they'd have almost limitless physical power, flight, heat vision, cold breath, and on and on, I'd venture quite a lot more Kryptonians would be around today (in our fictional world, of course).
Man, I haven't even reached Earth yet and already this story has gone down hill fast. I hope it gets better when we hit the Earth atmosphere. Sadly, no. Gar-el lands in the middle of a highwayman's robbery of a nobleman and attempted rape of said nobleman's wife. Presumably this is England and not one of the colonies. It never says. For no apparent reason, the highwayman wears a supervillian mask and calls himself the Raven. He's a lot less scary than Ray Lewis, though, and winds up dead forthwith. Gar-el, while undergoing his tanning salon treatments, has evidently studied several Earth languages and come up with a swell name for himself. He tells the noble he wants them to call him the Warlock Royal. Guess his language study didn't include proper English grammar. This isn't Spanish. Although it is pretentious.
I don't know why he bothered. But there's quite a lot I don't understand in this story. Why, for instance, stand as the power behind George III rather than just taking over the empire yourself? Why bother to set that up, only to jump forward 211 years after putting down the American Revolution in 1776 (and isn't that an odd choice of years, to jump to 1987), and have no royal family member in charge of the now world ruling British Empire? Why have him boldly announce on his arrival that he's the Warlock Royal, only to have everyone just calling him The Sovereign?
Ok, all that's kind of acceptable comic book babble to some extent. What's really wrong is the characters. Gar-el is almost a non-entity. He takes over the world so easily. There's no one opposing him once the American Revolution is put down, so evidently all he does is spend his time having sex or sitting alone on his throne. Those are the only 2 places we see him. I'd have thought he would have abandoned the place long before 211 years passed. It must have bored the shit out of him. In fact, I can surmise that it bored him so much it entirely clouded his thinking. Because here's our deus ex machina for the meat of the story.
Kal-el is Gar-el's 10th generation descendant. He's also the only descendant alive. You see, when Gar-el mated with a human woman (the widow of the nobleman he saved on his arrival, actually) the birth kills her. It does the same for that son's human wife, and so on for awhile, but eventually there's so much more human in the gene pool than Kryptonian that Kal-el is only a paragon of human development and not at all super. Just how dumb is Gar-el? He's still alive, of course, so why not just keep on mating with a never ending succession of human women? What does he care if the birthing kills them? It's not like he cares about humans as anything more than servants. He'd have lots of decendants with a lot more Kryptonian in them. Why, if he hit enough of that human goodness, he'd have so much genetic variety with all of his first generation descendants that they could intermingle and keep the Kryptonian part of the equation going along much longer.
Then there's the question of what happened to all those between Gar-el and Kal-el in the line of descent. We know that Gar-el killed Jor-el for trying to get Gar-el to let the humans rule themselves, but we've no idea what happened to the rest. The first couple of generations should still be alive, unless Gar-el killed them, too. They would have had enough Kryptonian in them to keep them around at least 200 years, I would think. About the only thing Byrne got right in this background is that Earth's technology hasn't advanced since Gar-el's arrival. That kind of societal retardation makes sense with an all powerful monarch, in whose interest it would be to prevent technological developments that might challenge his power.
I think it's clear the set up for the story sucks. What about the story, you might ask. Yeah, it sucked, too. Kal-el seems something of the Bruce Wayne type playboy. Peregrine White and Lois Lane print a newspaper that's urging human rule. A bunch of militia sort of thugs lead by a nobleman, and accompanied by Kal-el, go to break up the presses. Lois knees the nobleman in the cookies, White's hauled away and whipped to death in retribution. Kal then searches out the mysterious "L", leader of a seditious group. Mysterious, of course, if you've never heard of Superman and don't know the first thing about the character. To prove his earnest desire to have human rule, Kal takes Lois to a locked vault, accessible only by uttering the Kryptonian word for "open", where a stash of Kryptonite is held. Being more human than Kryptonian, it has no effect on Kal. Lois then reveals herself to be L and Kal goes off to confront Gar-el, Kryptonite in his pocket.
Now we enter the world of really stupid. Gar-el knows where Kal is going with his pitch and says he's entering where Jor-el went, obviously heading toward a firing squad for Kal. Before Kal finish his pitch, royal guards shoot through the large windows of the room and plug Kal right in the noggin. Gar-el suddenly sees the rightness of Kal's argument and takes off into space to dump Kal in the sun before heading off to find a new destiny in the stars. 'Course, he vaporizes the unfortunate guards who shot Kal before leaving. Considering he was on the verge of having Kal executed, I can't for the life of me figure out why.
The best thing that can be said for this story is that Jimmy Olsen never showed his face. And I like Elseworlds stories. Not satisfied with this bit of magnificence, the issue includes a back up Elseworlds story by Dennis Janke and Louise Simonson about a world where the rocket carrying baby Kal winds up in the 5th Dimension. No doo wop here, though. This is the land of Mxyzptlk. The less said about this story the better. I never cared for the Mxyzptlk character and an entire universe populated by the damn things is even worse. Suffice it to say the story barely involves Superman and could have easily have been told around any foreign, bumbling, destructive object that entered upon the 5th Dimension.
I'm still keeping this issue, though. Now, it's because of the Mignola cover. Saved by good art.