When it comes to Superman analogues, perhaps the most boring and repetitive take you could possibly go with is “well, what if he was a baddie?” Superman is such a paragon for all that is good within our understanding of pop culture that it’s to be expected that people would want to flip that on its head. He has so much power, he could do whatever he wants, what if he didn’t want to save us anymore? We’re going to talk about a lot of evil savior heroes over the course of this article, but I wanted to start with one that I think picks up on the most interesting word in that question; anymore.
So many evil Supermen are evil from the start; it’s baked into who they are and how they present themselves to the world. What’s more interesting than that is “What would it take for Superman to stop being the good guy and turn on us?” which has given us stories like Injustice: Gods Among Us which really isn’t as bad as its reputation may have convinced you. However, today I wanted to talk about the ultimate example of a good Superman gone bad and how in order to tell that story well, you need the man who is just about the biggest Superman fan in the world. Today, I want to talk about Mark Waid, Irredeemable and The Plutonian.
Spoiler warning; this article will contain spoilers for the whole of Irredeemable, right up to the last issue.
Irredeemable was launched in 2009 from Boom Studios at a time when Waid was the publisher’s editor-in-chief and was created by Waid and Peter Krause. The basic premise is that the world’s greatest superhero, The Plutonian, has snapped for some unknown reason and destroyed the city he once protected, killing millions. Now, the world lives in fear of The Plutonian’s wrath while his former allies in The Paradigm hunt for a way to stop their one-time friend while searching for answers regarding his descent into madness.
It’s an interesting title to come from Waid, who is well known in comics for being an enormous Superman fan and the fact that he had never been given a proper crack at The Man of Steel by DC has been seen as somewhat of an injustice within the industry, depending on your outlook. Waid has been responsible for some of the most iconic runs in superhero comics including The Flash in the ‘90s, Fantastic Four in the ‘00s and Daredevil in the ‘10s, so if there was anyone who could turn around a legendary run on Superman or Action Comics, it would be him.
What’s really striking about The Plutonian as a character and as a Superman analogue is that Waid does not hold back when it comes to the atrocities the one-time hero commits. The Plutonian vacillates between large scale destruction on a national scale and small-scale cruelty, like killing a developmentally disabled man’s caretakers and abandoning him in an empty house. While many creators would want to retain a sense of Superman’s heroism or nobility in their analogue, The Plutonian is truly irredeemable and for it to come from Waid of all creators makes it all the more effective.
Over the course of the first few issues, we get to see flashbacks of what seemed to set The Plutonian off and it’s implied that his anger stems from a sense of ingratitude from the general public. Despite being a savior hero and a Superman analogue, The Plutonian is shown as a very entitled individual who believes he deserves adoration, respect and even love. In one of his earliest outbursts prior to going full evil, he reveals to his romantic partner Alana Patel that while she thought was dating The Plutonian, he was also a part of her regular life as a colleague at the radio station where she worked, presenting himself as an unassuming human.
This is a rather traditional aspect of the larger Superman story; Clark Kent works at the Daily Planet with Lois Lane who doesn’t notice him because she’s in love with Superman. However, when Alana learns that The Plutonian is also mild-mannered Dan Hartigan, she quite understandably flips out and tells everyone they work with. This leads to The Plutonian losing his temper and issuing a veiled threat to his colleagues not to reveal the truth lest his enemies come after them and ultimately results in the majority of those involved committing suicide due to the paranoia.
There are plenty of examples of outbursts like this prior to the straw that broke the camel’s back, but the ultimate betrayal in The Plutonian’s eyes is when his kid sidekick Samsara learns that he was responsible for a deadly alien plague which killed dozens of children. Earlier, The Paradigm had vowed not to hand over any alien technology to the government to study but The Plutonian handed a small device over to a scientist known for being critical towards him in exchange for a softening of his stance. This technology released the virus and The Plutonian covered it up; when Samsara learned this, his faith in his hero was shattered and The Plutonian decides that if he can’t be anyone’s hero, he’ll be their worst nightmare.
Irredeemable sits within Waid’s canon of work alongside titles like Kingdom Come and Empire as a trilogy of sorts, regarding the thin line between heroism and villainy. Kingdom Come was about the declining standards of superheroism in the mid-90s and Superman returning from exile to be an example for the new generation but losing his way in the process, while Empire featured a Doctor Doom style villain who had defeated all of his enemies in the superhero community and assumed control of the world.
Irredeemable sits between the two as a Superman story about an evil person who decides there’s no-one who can stop him from doing what he wants to do and the fallout from that. A running theme of all three titles is “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” and it’s something we see in Irredeemable not just with The Plutonian but with Charybdis, who takes on the name The Survivor after the death of his twin brother gives him enough power to go one-on-one with The Plutonian. Over the course of the book, The Survivor feels more and more entitled to everyone’s gratitude for being the first line of defense against The Plutonian and just like it rival, it ends up being his downfall.
In its final year of publication, The Plutonian learns that he started life as a probe sent to explore Earth by an advanced alien race — think something like The Watchers from Marvel Comics — but humans were so full of emotion and potential that it was influenced by everything that makes humans human and was drawn to a young mother who had just lost her child, taking the form of a baby. However, the woman in question was responsible for her baby’s death and her undiagnosed mental illness has a negative effect on how the probe learns to become human. I’ll admit that it’s not the most tasteful depiction of mental illness and would probably be done slightly different now but at the same time, it was only twelve years ago and that’s not long enough to say “oh, it was a different time”
While the series was coming out, Waid commented that The Plutonian would, as the title suggested, never be redeemed but the series ends in such a unique way as to almost do that. After discovering his true nature as an advanced alien probe in the form of something approximating a human, he agrees to work with Qubit to save the world from a toxic radiation cloud which would kill everyone on the planet and in exchange, Qubit promised that he would help the hero-turned-villain atone for his atrocities.
That’s kind of what happens, but not quite; the radiation leaves The Plutonian’s mortal body dying but the idea of The Plutonian, that can be salvaged. Qubit tells The Plutonian that he was a good idea, but he got warped along the way and maybe another reality can give it a better shot. The idea of The Plutonian, an extradimensional hero who protects us all, is then transmitted across the multiverse while his physical body dies and most importantly, I believe, none of his crimes are undone.
Everything that happened in that reality happened and the people of that world will have to live with it forever, but in Irredeemable’s final moments we see another reality where a teenager rushes into his friend’s house and tells him about an idea that just struck him like a bolt out of the blue, for a comic character that’s going to change everything. As his friend begins to sketch the outline of the character, we see their names on the tag of the writer’s bag and the artist’s notebook; Siegel and Shuster.
It’s kind of a ballsy way for Waid to finish the series, to suggest that his character inspired Superman in a roundabout way, but I like it. I’ve always been a fan of the Morrisonian idea that Superman was waiting for us to create him, and I don’t want to take any credit away from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for the creation of Superman, but I’ve always been drawn to the idea that Superman has this mythic quality to him that he was inevitable in someway. Even in the comic itself, Jerry Siegel says “like Hercules and Samson and all the strong men you ever heard of all rolled into one — but better!” and you could posit that The Plutonian didn’t just become the idea for Superman but the idea for the archetype itself, with Superman just being the 20th century example of how that idea manifested.
Irredeemable is a very dated comic in a lot of ways but I really like it and I would recommend checking it out. There’s also a sister series Incorruptible which is about one of The Plutonian’s villains deciding to go straight in response to his enemy breaking bad; it’s not essential and the two crossover issues are collected with Irredeemable, so you don’t miss anything but it’s there for completionists. Ultimately, I like that ultimately Waid was able to use it to say something about Superman and his place in pop culture. Superman is a lot of things to a lot of people; he’s a hero, he’s an inspiration, he’s an icon but I think that Superman is above all else, a great idea.