“Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost. That is Alchemy’s First Law of Equivalent Exchange.”
Edward Elric, Fullmetal Alchemist
Spencer: Equivalent Exchange isn’t just applicable to alchemy (or anime) — it’s a principle we all follow every day. We exchange our time for money. We exchange money for goods. We can even (metaphorically) give our hearts in hope of gaining affection in return. The point is, nothing comes for nothing, and the more we hope to gain, the more effort we have to put out to obtain it. This is even true of Ulysses’ Great World — it turns out that the price to maintain its “perfection” is five million human lives. Geoff Johns and John Romita Jr.’s Superman 37 finds Superman and Ulysses debating the morality of the Great World, and in doing so, they draw some compelling parallels to our own lives.
So I already spoiled the big revelation of this issue: Ulysses has come to Earth to gather six million humans and sacrifice them to reenergize the Great World’s core. Although he’s somewhat apologetic, especially about having to restrain Superman, Ulysses sees no problem with sacrificing a relatively small number of lives from an already overburdened planet in order to keep his “perfect world” running — at least, not until he discovers that his human parents are among the people about to be sacrificed. Ulysses frees Superman and together they return the humans to Earth — Superman hopes to transport the inhabitants of the Great World there as well until he can find them a new home, but Ulysses loses control, sparking a chain reaction that ends up destroying the Great World!
I hate to start off with a criticism, but if I have one nit to pick with Superman 37, it’s that we don’t see enough of the Great World and its “perfect” society. Most of Ulysses’ argument stems from how much more deserving his people are than humanity, but aside from a typically stunning spread of the Great World’s landscape from Romita Jr., the only glimpse we get of life on the Great World is far from ideal.
If Johns has been using Ulysses as a parallel to Superman, then this scene is the equivalent of Pa Kent attacking Superman for wanting to help a friend, demonstrating how cruel and petty this action is, especially for a world that claims to have eliminated all hatred and war. While I still wish we had a more complete picture of life on the Great World, this one moment is a sure enough sign that this perfect world is anything but.
Of course, perfection can be relative; one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia. Life for the citizens of the Capital in The Hunger Games is perfect, but only because the Capital is powered by the grueling toil of millions of citizens living in terrifying police states. Life in the community of The Giver is without conflict, but only because love, emotions, art, and even color have been abolished entirely. Life on the Great World is blissful and serene, but that serenity comes from the sacrifice of countless lives. In all three cases, any dissension that could disrupt these “perfect” lives is met with swift and severe punishment. Sure, things may be “perfect,” but only for a select few.
Ulysses, sadly, has emotionally detached himself from the entire sordid situation.
For all of Ulysses’ “logical” points, he’s ultimately only justifying murder to himself. Superman, though, understands the value of each of those six million lives and argues for them as only Superman can, offering the only truly moral solution: relocating the citizens of the Great World to a planet that doesn’t, y’know, require millions of deaths to keep running. It’s a bit disappointing that we never get to see those citizens react to the idea, to see if they’re willing to finally give back in exchange for everything they’ve taken, but chances are they wouldn’t be — they’re far too comfortable in their perfect lives to have any sympathy for those who suffer for it.
Strangely enough, this story reminds me a lot of my home country, the United States. It’s a country full of patriotism, a country that never fails to present itself as an ideal land of freedom and opportunity, but the luxuries of this country (and I’m certainly not denying them) rest upon a foundation established by the widespread massacre of the land’s native population and nearly a century of institutionalized slavery — and anybody living in a developed land benefits from the work of maltreated workers in less developed countries.
Unlike the situation in Superman 37, there are no clear solutions to these kind of real life problems. I think the key, though, is to be a Superman, not an Ulysses. Ulysses’ justifications are scarily close to the same kind of rhetoric preached by bigots to justify how they treated African slaves or Native Americans, dehumanizing their targets to paint their treatment of them as more palpable. Superman, though, doesn’t justify it and doesn’t ignore it; he finds the right thing to do and he does it. We may not always know the right thing to do, and we may not be able to actually do it even if we do, but I think the first step to following Superman’s example here is simply acknowledging the way we benefit from horrific acts, both past and present; keeping an open mind will make it easier to make a change when the opportunity arises.
I admit that, at first, I thought this storyline was a bit derivative — it reminds me a lot of the stuff Johns did with Gog in Justice Society of America — but the real world applications seen in this issue make this story a perfect fit for Superman as a character, allowing him to be an aspirational figure both in-universe and out, and I’m all for that. Mark, what’s your take on Superman’s particular brand of heroism this month? How do you feel about Romita’s art? Could there be a more pompous name for a planet than “The Great World”?
Mark: It’s interesting that you have such a positive view of Superman’s actions here, Spencer, because my take away from this issue is a lot less rosy. I’m genuinely unsure if Johns wants us to even view Superman’s plan as realistic. Relocating an entire planet’s worth of beings to Earth, even temporarily, seems insane. Finding a new planet for these beings to inhabit and call their own? Also insane. (I mean, not to put too fine a point on it, but the world did something similar with the creation of Israel and that hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing.)
This is a classic Star Trek-esque problem, and one that I’m kind of sad to see wrapped up so fast since dealing with the ramifications would make for an interesting arc unto itself. Instead, the problem is “resolved” rather quickly as Superman and Ulysses’ actions cause the entire Great World to explode. Oops.
Well, at least they got the six million would-be sacrifices back to Earth first?
Spencer, you mention how little we see of life on the Great World, and I have to think that’s intentional. If we saw more of life on the planet, we might actually feel sympathy for its inhabitants when they’re blown to smithereens. Likewise, the interactions we see between Ulysses and his adopted father feel like narrative shorthand to make sure our loyalties lie with Earth.
With the destruction of Ulysses’ Great World, the parallels between our supermen deepen as they’re now both men without home planets. But it’s hard to fault Ulysses for being pissed off at Superman. Kal-El didn’t have the opportunity to save Krypton, but Ulysses could have saved the Great Earth.
Setting aside my narrative concerns, I’ve really enjoyed Romita’s work on Superman. It’s hard to come up with an alien race that’s other-worldly, and I think he’s done a great job with the inhabitants of the Great World. Also, I’d be remiss to not mention Sal Cipriano’s lettering of the alien speech. Anyone know if this is a variation on Kryptonian or something invented wholesale?
I don’t really have much more to say on this issue, but the way the events here are handled in a way that really pumped the breaks on my enthusiasm for this arc. I’m curious to see where Johns takes things next month, and I’m hopeful it’ll be more than just a slugfest between Superman and Ulysses.
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