Consider the following story. An alien child comes to Earth in a rocket ship from a distant planet. Growing to manhood, he soon finds that he possesses powers far beyond those of mortal humans: strength, flight, speed, super senses, and vision that can melt a steel beam. Donning a colorful costume and cape, he becomes a heroic idol of millions, and a symbol of old-fashioned Americana as stalwart as a Chevy pickup or an apple pie.
That’s the story behind the comic book version of The Boys’ Homelander — or, at least, it’s the official version presented by his employers at Vought International. The truth, as set out by creators Garth Ennis and Darick Robinson, is far seedier: the real Homelander is crass, cruel, and prone to fits of petulant violence. He avoids responsibility and sacrifice even as he works with his corporate employers to craft a spotless PR image. In the end, losing what little control he had, he perishes in a final mad act of chaotic violence.
If all of that seems decidedly familiar to an audience versed in superhero fiction, that’s no accident. I would be far from the first to point out that The Boys’ chief heel was created as a warped mirror image of Superman, the first and still most recognizable character in cape comics. Even in the more copyright-wary TV adaptation, the parallels are obvious enough to prompt The New York Times to describe him as “Superman gone sour,” and to call on showrunner Eric Kripke to opine on the eternal who-would-win debate between the two characters.
If that comparison seems almost too obvious to be worthy of mention, that might be because we’ve seen it all before — or at least something a whole lot like it. Homelander belongs to a long and growing cottage industry of what we could call Superbaddies: dark doppelgangers of the Man of Steel, who subvert and undermine everything DC’s golden boy stands for. It seems that as long as there has been a Superman, there has been Superman’s evil twin.
Longer, in fact: Half a decade before they created their genre-defining hero, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster teamed up for a short story titled “The Reign of the Superman.” In a plot that plays something like Dr. Jekyll meets Flowers for Algernon, an impoverished scientist develops a potion that gives him nigh-invincible powers and promptly uses them to conquer the world… only to watch them fade away and leave him back where he started.
Siegel and Shuster were, in fact, drawing from a long history of cautionary “superman” stories in sci-fi and pulp fiction, one that stretched back through Doc Savage and Edgar Rice Burroughs all the way to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. You could argue, in fact, that the Superman we know — with his bright colors, moral virtues, and dedication to using his power only for the sake of good — is the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps it was the very surprise of this heroic Superman that accounted for his success; the idea of a godlike man using his powers on the side of justice was compelling because it seemed so vanishingly unlikely. But the same uniqueness that made Superman successful also makes him fragile, and reminds us just how easy it is to twist him into a much darker and more primitive version of his myth.
Don’t get political
The earliest version of Siegel and Shuster’s Superman was a bit of a punchy scrapper; alongside the usual battles against gangsters and mad scientists, his initial stories found him saving innocent convicts from death row, exacting retribution on domestic abusers, giving war profiteers and corporate fat cats a taste of their own medicine, and (in one celebrated instance) hauling Hitler and Stalin in front of the League of Nations — equal parts superhero and Franklin Roosevelt in a spandex bodysuit. So it’s not surprising to find that some of the earliest Superbaddies posed the hypothetical question: What if Superman’s powers were harnessed to indefensible political ends?
One of the first of this breed came from a surprising quarter: Fawcett Comics, whose Captain Marvel was himself enough of a Superman clone to prompt a copyright infringement ruling a decade later (the good Captain is nowadays the property of DC Comics, where he’s better known as the hero Shazam). In a comic cover dated December 1941 (just before the United States would itself be thrust into World War II), William Woolfolk and Mac Raboy created a Superman-powered foil to embody all of the country’s mounting fears about unstoppable German fascism. Captain Nazi was a blonde, lantern-jawed specimen of the Nazi Aryan ideal; the opening pages of his debut in Master Comics #21 present us with a trio of Nazi officials gazing slackjawed at their creation and declaring, “Ach himmel look at dem muscles!”
So the fact that the goose-stepping Nazi met his defeat — repeatedly — at the hands of Captain Marvel was more than just a generic comic book plot; it was a rebuke to the very concept that German racial purity would pave an easy path to conquest. That’s a point made even more clearly in the character’s TV appearance on the (now much-missed) Legends of Tomorrow, where he grandly proclaims himself an “übermensch” even as he transforms into a hulking, monstrous parody of a superhero — and prepares to receive a drubbing from his multiethnic American foes.
It’s been said that there’s an irony in the fact that the most Nietzschean of concepts was invented and popularized by two first-generation Jewish kids in the heart of the New World. Captain Nazi was a reminder for a wartime readership that superhuman victory and Aryan racial purity have never gone hand in hand.
As the years passed, however, and the gung-ho attitude of of the ’40s gave way to the jittery paranoia of the Cold War, Superman’s radical tendencies gave way to a kind of barrel-chested, respectable Americana: less a fighting radical than your local congressman in a cape. So it makes a certain amount of sense that by the final years of the 20th century, Superman’s evil doubles had stopped being right-wing opposites, and simply became exaggerated satires of the character’s own personality. Thus, the 1980s gave us the Squadron Supreme’s Hyperion with his ill-considered plan to brainwash the world into law-abiding civility, while the early ’90s produced Grant Morrison’s Overman, a sardonic send-up of post-Frank Miller grittiness who came from “a bad world. A world where everything’s gone wrong.”
But for modern readers and TV viewers, it’s The Boys’ Homelander who provides the clearest picture of what a politically themed Superbaddie looks like. Homelander isn’t just a right-wing Superman in the mode of Captain Nazi — indeed, it’s questionable whether he’s ever managed to think hard enough about his own opinions to take a political position at all. But he’s a political figure despite himself, if only because his media fame is fueled by a steady stream of pandering, jingoistic slogans and flag-waving demagoguery. The more Homelander caters to his viewers’ desire never to apologize or back down from their mistakes, the more they love him, even when he’s bullishly defending his decision to date and assist an open Nazi. No points for guessing that there might be a real-world presidential inspiration for the portrait the show is painting.
That level of bleak cynicism — the notion that Superman can stand for anything as long as it’s what the people want to hear — is what makes Homelander such a depressingly pitch-perfect Superbaddie for the current decade. What makes the character especially effective, and especially distinct from the politically-themed Superman clones before him, is the level of raw, vulnerable neediness that drives Homelander’s desire for public adoration. That’s an element that becomes especially clear whenever Homelander attempts to be a parent to his son Ryan, making up for his own gnawing lack of parental affection even as he can’t escape the vicious narcissism he’s developed in its place. The most dangerous sort of Superman, the show argues, is one who hates the world because he secretly hates himself.
But is Homelander the ultimate destination of 21st-century Superbaddies, or is there another (and in some ways more intriguing) model of mirror-image Superman that we can imagine? Over the past decade, DC has produced an alternative sort of ersatz Superman — one who is equal parts malevolent force and heroic savior. And to do it, they’ve gone back where we started: to a Golden Age foe from the pages of Fawcett Comics.
Introduced by Otto Binder and C.C. Beck in 1945, the villain Black Adam wasn’t much to write home about. Five thousand years before the wizard Shazam awarded young Billy Batson his fabulous powers, the old man took a first stab at a protégé, an Egyptian with the dubiously convincing name of Teth-Adam. Alas, mere seconds after receiving his new gifts, Teth-Adam became hopelessly corrupted by them, forcing the wizard to exile him into space until he returned millennia later to seek revenge.
With his widow’s peak, Vulcan ears, and a nose that that could charitably be described as offensively aquiline, Black Adam was a textbook example of what the scholar Edward Said would much later term orientalism: the depiction of Eastern cultures in a way that reinforces Western biases and assumptions, and ultimately justifies Western dominance. Even if the comic never says it in so many words, the victory of the white, all-American Marvel family over swarthy, foreign Teth-Adam speaks volumes about the ability of Eastern societies to handle power for themselves — and this at a time when America and its public were easing into a new role as the world’s foremost domineering superpower.
So when, in the 21st century, DC gave the character a soft reboot, they opted for a different tack. Now depicted as the overlord of the nation of Kahndaq (an Egypt-but-not-Egypt in the grand comic book tradition of fake foreign countries), Teth-Adam is as violent and ruthless as ever. But with a twist: The violence now serves a benevolent purpose, as Black Adam takes his duty to protect his people and homeland very seriously and is willing to use whatever methods he deems necessary. Or, as wiser heads have put it, “a kind of true-neutral Doctor Doom.”
Of course, that’s a depiction that is itself a bit of an iffy cultural cliche, leaning as it does on images of Middle Eastern strongmen as noble savages guarding their culturally baffling people. But all the same, it’s a decided step forward, especially insomuch as it turns Black Adam from a stock character out of melodrama into an antihero worthy of sympathy — whether or not he ends up squandering it in the name of power. It may not be a coincidence that writer Geoff Johns, who spearheaded the character’s reinvention, is himself of Lebanese descent, the first time a creator with a cultural background at least adjacent to Black Adam’s has had the leading hand in telling his stories.
In his self-styled nobility, his foreignness, his po-faced seriousness of purpose, Black Adam embodies every aspect of Superman the lily-white and muscle-headed Homelander lacks. This season’s finale of The Boys climaxes in a shocking and sudden act of public violence committed by Homelander — one that happens, characteristically, as a result of his petulant insecurity (he can’t stand to be criticized in front a camera, after all), but which is cheered on by the public as a mark of his heroic resolve.
Homelander is a walking, talking encapsulation of the worst aspects of Superman’s image — bullying prejudice and lazy chauvinism in the service of the American Way. Black Adam is something more ambiguous: a Superman who makes us question our own biases specifically because he’s so violently sure of his own.
It’s an oddly inspiring notion in the end. The more we can look clearly at Superman’s dark copies, the more we can understand and correct the flaws in the original model, and wrap our heads around what made the character work in the first place.
Maybe all we need to build a better Superman is to build a worse one first.