By Charles EP Murphy
Superhero comics are infamous for the unchanging status quos and parts of the canon that are absolute. That means there’s obvious story potential in breaking them and so in 1960, the first official Imaginary Story was born when Lois Lane #19 had Superman and Lois married. An Imaginary Story was explicitly non-canonical, a way to see what could happen without #20 being disrupted. The idea was popular throughout the Silver Age and made a return from 1991 as DC’s Elseworlds imprint (“Elseworlds” sounds more mature than “imaginary story”!).
Not all of the Elseworlds are alternate history stories, and some, which are AH, are very loose one where all the characters just happen to be alive in the past. Then there were tales where the superheroes exist in an alternate history, starting with the first official Elseworld Batman: Holy Terror, where Cromwell lived longer and established an American theocracy. And then there were stories where a superhero’s background or decisions are altered, to explore how that would change them as people and thus change the DC status quo. Several ran off baby Superman landing somewhere other than Smallville and so instead being raised by Darkseid, the Waynes, or a British couple.
In 1998, Alan Davis created JLA: The Nail and asked: what if Superman wasn’t there at all?
The Nail is named, of course, for the famous proverb about the whims of chance, “For want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost,” and so on until “a kingdom was lost”. In The Nail, this is literal: a nail has punctured Pa Kent’s car tyre and it’ll take too long to fix, so he and Ma Kent don’t go out the day Superman arrives on Earth.
Twenty-four years later, Metropolis – who never had a metahuman defender to stop super-crime – is voting Lex Luthor into his second term as mayor, celebrating his policy of making the city a metahuman-free zone with harsh legislation and heavily armoured policemen with Lexcorp rifles. Fear of metahumans is widespread, with Luthor and WGBS News’s Perry White pushing the story that the Justice League and their peers are secretly aliens come to enslave us under guise of ‘saving us’. The League are divided on how to handle this, their genuinely alien members unsettled by how easy it was for mankind to turn on them. Lois Lane is hired to get their side of the story into the media.
Meanwhile, supervillains worldwide are being wiped out in a shadow war; superheroes are being taken down and captured; Earth is surrounded by a forcefield, cutting it off from anyone like the Green Lantern Corp who could intervene. There really is an alien infiltrator trying to take over, someone powerful and manipulative, but where is he and what is the endgame? Only the Justice League can save the world but one by one, they’re being split up and picked off…
(Now, when we say this is a world without Superman, what we mean is the world of the late Silver Age to early Bronze Age comics. Davis was using the Elseworlds format to write and draw the DC Universe of his childhood rather than the one that existed in 1998, with a few sops to post-Crisis continuity like Luthor running a business and Kryptonian fashion harkening to John Byrne’s designs. )
The Nail has one of the more classic AH scenarios: something extremely minor causes a butterfly to flap its wings everywhere. Cause and effect is also more traditionally AH than other Elseworlds. Instead of a raft of ‘it looks cool’ alternate events and characters, everything boils down to Superman being missing and the exact circumstances in which it happened. Without him in the League, they lack the power to easily stop the monstrous Amazo, and so Hawkman is killed and Green Arrow permanently crippled. Without him to protect Metropolis, Luthor is given a free reign to bring peace through tyranny as long as he promises to keep the streets safe at night. Without the Kents hiding his baby pod, Kryptonian technology is able to be exploited by the shadowy villain.
However, the real problem is that without Superman, there’s no unthreatening moral icon to be the superhero to the masses. The Justice League is easy to write off as being full of aliens, agents of aliens, or bogeymen like Batman, who is naïve about how much his scare tactics are making metahumans easy to discredit. (“What is his true nature? Alien or demon? We can only speculate” intones Perry White) Wonder Woman is the closest figure to Superman in this world, but can’t quite make it due to her ambassador status – she’s unable to be the “untainted symbols of good” she feels the League need to be. Martian Manhunter, in one scene, is compared by Davis to Superman, an alien stranded from his planet and hiding among us, but because he cannot look like “the all-American hero” he is a distrusted other.
Part of this can also be seen that without Superman, the League can never quite gel as a unit. It’s easy to get them to squabble; they’re a disparate bunch only united to fight villains better.
The quality of the art is indisputable. When it comes to old-school superhero action and clean, easy-to-grasp panel layouts, Alan Davis is one of the masters. You always know what’s going on and who’s doing it, and the displays of power are always thrilling to see. Davis handles both the splash pages of extreme power and the conversational scenes reliant on expression and body language. A low-key favourite of mine is the look on Perry White’s face when he tells Luthor’s aide Jimmy Olsen that they have an informational montage video of his Silver Age superhero career(s), where you can tell Perry’s joy about getting to bust on the young man who used to work for him! The inking (Mark Farmer), colouring (Patricia Mulvihill), and lettering (Patricia Prentice) are equally clean and clear.
But what about the writing? This is where your mileage may vary.
The plot is massive, spanning much of the DC Universe and having a timeline that’s been divergent for twenty-four years, and covers events that shatter the world’s status quo. The body count is massive, starting with Adam Strange’s corpse being found inside Earth’s forcefield and escalating to include dozens of known characters, hundreds of innocent bystanders, and the White House. This isn’t unusual for superhero AH’s though. Often, creators exploit the no-status-quo freedom to shove them full of characters for fanboy thrills (though The Nail has larger than most) and often the stories run with blood.
What is different is the way the story is written and drawn, which is very much in the style of a Justice League annual from the 1970s if you cut all the captions out. Characters will describe what they’re doing as they show off their powers or get into a fight – two exceptions thus have greater impact, the silence implying an extra intensity to the battle – and the dialogue is short and unflashy. To get its point across, it’s also quite unsubtle and on the nose. “I never realised my physical appearance could be used to categorize me as evil,” says Martian Manhunter early on.
This does keep the comic feeling like a superhero romp even as it goes into extremely brutal territory. In the nastiest moment, the Joker tears people into meaty chunks using alien technology, but we don’t see anything and it only goes on for a handful of panels – it’s the way children’s comics and cartoons trade in nastiness, running off implication. It’s very much a comic you could give to a ten-year-old and they’d be able to follow it with ease.
The morality of the comic is very bluntly black-and-white as well. These superheroes talk about justice and being symbols of right, and they mean it – their flaws are in their attitude, or ego, or squabbling, rather than any moral greys or failings. Villains are dastards, heroes are self-sacrificing, the idea of people turning on the metahumans is all about bigotry and manipulation by bad people rather than (as in Watchmen) due to any legitimate concerns. While “how dare you ungrateful plebs not like superheroes” is an evergreen plot, it had been a long time since it had been done with such shiny, uncomplicated, square-jawed paragons of virtue.
A modern adult reader may find the dialogue and morals overly simplistic and crude. However, this is all intentional by Davis. In the afterword in the earliest trade collections, he wrote that he was deliberately trying to replicate “the fun in comics I read as a kid and, more importantly, the accessibility.” There were deliberately no narrative captions or world balloons, the text was simplified, and the panels layout was basic to keep it a story “that can be read by anyone, of any age, including those who haven’t developed the skill… to simultaneously read art and two or three textual threads.”
The Nail succeeds at this and any criticism of the dialogue, at least, has to take into account that the comic is working the way it was meant to.
Both the writing and the morality make The Nail different to all other comics from its decade. Superhero comics of the 1990s predominantly had lots of captions and word balloons, often attempting some wry humour or wordplay, and the heroes often speaking in different slang to each other. When comics were being serious, they would use narrative and artistic tricks that you need to be an experienced reader to pick up.
Check the contemporary issue of Spectacular Spider-Man to the side, written by J.M. DeMatteis and drawn by Luke Ross and John Stanisci: note the heavy use of dialogue, how there are three scene changes (if we count Jack O’Lantern spying as part of the panel 1’s scene), how the last panel skips forward in time but has a partial continuation of the dialogue, and the shape of the panels on the bottom part of the page to fit everything in. It’s all perfectly legible to a regular comic reader but as Davis says, there’s a skill assumed here that a new or lapsed reader may not yet have.
And of course in 1998, the morality in superhero comics had been more ‘flexible’ for some years. A number of comics had moral greys and feet of clay, while others would just say “Bloodgun has to shoot people with his blood guns because of how loathsome Mr Evil is” and pretend that’s the same thing. (When superheroes kill in The Nail it’s a big transgression or a battle with soulless constructs, and in the climax Batman will still fire a warning shot at the master villain.) This also stands out from some of Davis’ own previous and future work – this was a man who came up working with Alan Moore on Captain Britain, Marvelman, and D.R. and Quinch, strips with experimental storytelling and lashings of dark violence.
From my point of view rereading it in 2021, parts of the story can get quite awkward. The brick-to-the-face subtlety does undermine some of the discussion about bigotry and fear, when these are just character discussions. It’s most effective when combined with Davis art (nobody can say that’s simplistic!) and the action – Wonder Woman saying America doesn’t owe her anything as “I have failed” in her mission; J’Onn being panicked when Hal Jordan sees him in his true Martian form, for fear his friend will be repelled. There’s also the awkward reality that the DC heroes of Davis’ childhood are predominantly white men, and the idea of Superman being the necessary symbol we all need means saying the world will trust the smiling white man above all else. A comic made now might have more to say on what being “an all-American hero” means.
But despite all this, it still works effectively as a fun superhero story, even if it may not still have the same weight as it once did. The pace is fast, nothing is wasted or dragged out longer than it needs to be, everyone in this massive cast is easy to identify and understand why they’re doing something, and the action gets creative and thrilling. All the main characters, and some of the secondaries, get a key scene to strut their stuff (not every superhero team book can say the same). When the plot is fully revealed, you can see how everything builds up to it, even things you didn’t realise were doing so. The craft cannot be faulted.
And the Martian Manhunter punches a Lex-cop so hard he knocks over three others!
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.