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Comic Book / What's So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?

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"What's So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?" is a Superman story written by Joe Kelly with pencils by Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo. It was first published in Action Comics #775, March, 2001.

To understand what drives this story, we must learn its context. Back in 1999, a comic called The Authority was getting quite good sales and critical appreciation. The series was however noted for the unabashed hyper-violence and psychopathic behavior of its protagonists. Around this point, the comic's publisher, Wild Storm, was being bought by DC Comics. Thus, The Authority was running in direct competition with DC's Big Blue Boy Scout. As The Dark Age of Comic Books chugged on, one question was on everyone's minds: in an era when the Authority and its incredible violence was popular, was there room for a Nice Guy like Superman and his Thou Shalt Not Kill rules or should Superman adapt to the times?

The story starts with Superman rushing to Tripoli as the news reports a terrorist attack is occurring. However, when he gets there, the scene is absolute carnage: the entire city in flames and the attacker, a gigantic cybernetic gorilla, is torn apart and lying dead in the wreckage. The cause of this was the Elite, a group of four metahumans who believe the best way to deal with anyone and anything threatening them is by all-out murder. As the story goes on and the Elite keep dealing with criminals in a consistently bloodthirsty way, people like reporter Jack Ryder celebrate them and the casual citizen finds their quick and simple methodology the best thing around while regarding Superman as "lame" note , the Man of Steel must decide if his ways are no longer worth fighting for or if there is another way...

The story is considered one of the quintessential Superman stories, showcasing the reason why a character like Superman is still needed when it's quite easy to lose yourself in simplistic violence when nothing is there to check your power. The Elite and its members would appear in other titles for a few years: a new Elite forming known as the Justice League Elite that lasted for about a year, Manchester Black would become a somewhat important Superman foe through the early 2000s and make a return in DC Rebirth. The storyline would inspire an Animated Adaptation, Superman vs. the Elite, which was also written by Joe Kelly, while a storyline in Supergirl (2015) would involve the Elite.

This story has examples of:

  • '90s Anti-Hero: The Elite are a Deconstructed Character Archetype. They don't shy away about lethal force or the collateral damage they cause.
  • The Alcoholic: The Hat, who's constantly pulling booze out of his namesake.
  • Beware the Superman: This story explores this trope in earnest. The Elite's actions are quick, easy and bloody, collateral damage be damned. This is seen as "cool" from normal citizens since it gets the job done. When Superman decides to do it, his attack on the Elite is equally quick, but instead of gory explosions, they suffer and it scares the wits out of both the citizens and the Elite.
  • Break the Haughty: By the time Superman is done with the Elite, Manchester Black is left a sobbing wreck, furious at Supes' actions.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle:
    • Once Superman stops holding back, The Elite don't stand anything that even remotely resembles a chance against him, which makes Supes come off as legitimately scary. Though really, it's Superman invoking this; he wants to show the Elite and the world what would happen if someone like Superman really stopped holding back and/or stopped being The Paragon, to prove a point. Superman's actually holding back the whole time, and only acting like he's snapped.
    • The Elite hand this trope to a rival team of supervillains in Tokyo.
  • Deconstruction: Of the '90s Anti-Hero. The Elite's violent methods would be treated as acceptable in most books like Mark Millar's run on The Authority due to Protagonist-Centered Morality, or the fact that they are the only beings with powers around to fight supervillains. But in contrast to Superman, The Elite come off more like full blown villains.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The Elite happily do this, claiming that this will stop people from attacking them. Superman attacks Hat when Black tells him to make the streets eat up a couple of Men in Black expies and rain acid on their families.
  • Evil Is Easy: By his own admission, Superman believes that succumbing to anger and vengeance is easy. He thought pretending to cross the line with The Elite would be tough, but it turned out to be so simple, it actually terrified him. Of course, he holds himself in check and was only showing why it's so important to do so.
  • Expy:
    • The Elite is a pastiche of The Authority, with Manchester Black being a male Jenny Sparks (since he's British, the team's leader, possesses great power and has the Union Jack flag on his chest), The Hat an expy of The Doctor (in that he has magic powers, except he's an alcoholic rather than a drug addict), Menagerie an expy of The Engineer and Swift (having a symbiotic suit of alien lifeforms similar to the former's liquid metal coating and wings like the latter) and Coldcast a minor expy of Apollo and Midnighter (combining the former's incredible strength with the latter's willingness to be unnecessarily brutal).
    • The "Health Inspectors" and the Klee-Tees are a take on the Men in Black characters.
  • Freudian Excuse: Black mentions that he lost his mother to lung cancer and his father in World War II, while Menagerie's powers were the result of experiments done by the Klee-Tees.
  • The Gloves Come Off: Superman shows exactly what he's capable of if he were to cut loose, and it is terrifying.
  • Gone Horribly Right: The Elite try to convince Superman and the rest of the world that their way of dealing with problems is better. Well... They do. And the results terrify everyone. Ultimately subverted, as Superman was only pretending to have started using lethal force and that he was just doing it to show The Elite, as well as the rest of the world, how utterly terrifying he would be if he ever crossed that line.
  • Good Is Not Soft: Superman can be very terrifying when he wants to be, even when it's a performance. He even admits he scared himself with the whole thing.
  • I Am Not Left-Handed: At first, the Elite appears to be a match for Superman. They toss him around like a ragdoll and Coldcast seemingly kills him with a massive energy blast... And then Superman stops holding back.
  • Ironic Echo: Black repeatedly, and dismissively, refers to Superman's ideals as "dreams," which he and The Elite have woken up from because This Is Reality. By the end, after Supes has thoroughly defeated them all, he says he wouldn't have it any other way, because dreams are what we aspire to.
  • Living Ship: The Elite's base is a spaceship called Bunny, which is a sentient being captured by the team to work for them as transport and accommodation. One that's more than happy to be free of them when they're defeated.
  • Logical Weakness: Exploited twice.
    • The Hat's magic (which Superman notably has no resistance to) protects his body from physical damage, but Superman gets around this by creating a windstorm that sucks away the air, collapsing his lungs.
    • As a psychic, Black has an abnormal brain structure, which Superman targets using a combination of telescopic, X-ray and heat vision to disable his powers, effectively lobotomizing him. Or rather, just hitting him with a focused concussion on the area for the same effect.
  • Might Makes Right: Essentially The Elite's entire philosophy. Superman rejects the notion, and thoroughly demonstrates why nobody should want him to embrace it.
  • Moral Myopia: Manchester Black, leader of the Elite, is perfectly fine with using murder to dispense justice... unless he's on the receiving end.
  • N-Word Privileges: Black claims this when he tells Coldcast to think about "your grandfather's back raw with hickory welts", saying he's one-fifteenth black. Turns into an Ironic Echo when Superman mocks Black's leadership skills saying that he can say that because he's a leader.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: As noted above, Manchester Black made a number of racist remarks. Additionally, his response to learn Superman tricked him and how he really defeated the Elite was to call Superman "a poncy twit."
  • Psychopathic Manchild: The Elite show shades of this, particularly Manchester Black, who outright throws a tantrum after Superman takes away his powers. It's pretty obvious that, for all of Black's attempts at philosophizing of fulfilling a higher purpose, the Elite are just overgrown cynical teenagers lashing out at the world over how unfairly it had treated them.
  • Scare 'Em Straight: This is The Elite's overall strategy. Their cruelty is an attempt to horrify any would-be criminal into compliance.
  • Shout-Out: The story's title is based on the song "What’s So Funny Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?", written by Nick Lowe and popularized by Elvis Costello.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Superman delivers this trope to Manchester Black in the end:
    Manchester Black: So long as a heart beats in my chest, I'll come after you, you poncy twit! If you think this is over, you're living in a bloody dream world!
    Superman: You know what, Black? I wouldn't have it any other way. Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us into something better. And on my soul, I swear... that until my dream of a world where dignity, honor and justice are the reality we all share, I'll never stop fighting. Ever.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: This is Black's big motivation, claiming the time for things like Cardboard Prisons and Joker Immunity is at an end and that killing villains is the only solution. Deconstructed however, as Superman manages to prove Black wrong in every way imaginable.
  • Smug Super: The Elite all count, but especially Black, constantly condescending to Superman and everything he stands for.
  • Superman Stays Out of Gotham: Surprisingly occurs with Superman as the lead. The Elite's battles are killing innocent people across the globe but despite the time passing the comic, nobody but Superman is seen responding to it. For the fight between them its justified. Superman notes that the Elite wanted to fight him and the hint is that if any of his many allies offered to help him, he declined it since his plan to defeat The Elite was to show how terrifying he would be if he stooped to their level, something that worked better if he was on his own.
  • Take That!: The story essentially serves as a middle finger toward The Authority and unscrupulous anti-heroes who have their questionable actions excused by their opponents being worse than they are in general. The Elite are killers just like The Authority who resort to lethal force without hesitation. Manchester Black at one point even gives a This Is Reality speech to Superman that is very similar to a Take That! from The Authority given towards mainstream superheroes. In the end, Superman proves that his way works when he scares the crap out of the Elite by pretending to kill most of them and de-power Manchester Black to demonstrate why ideal heroes shouldn't be fear-mongering control freaks who won't hesitate to kill their enemies.
  • Take That, Critics!: This story was written at a time when the character of Superman was often dismissed by fans and critics as old-fashioned and outdated, and it goes out of its way to show Superman's values as actually superior to those of the anti-heroes who were in vogue at the time.
  • Walking Shirtless Scene: Manchester Black just wears a black coat, with a Union Jack tattooed across his chest.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: For Supes, a great measure, naturally. He remembers to liberate the Elite's ship Bunny from their control.
  • What You Are in the Dark: Superman is facing off a team of powerful metahumans with little respect for life, none of whom have any qualms about killing him for sport, and he has lost almost all of the support of every person on Earth. He has every chance and every reason to take The Elite down violently and permanently, with no one blaming him for it. And so he goes out and proves to the world what he truly is: He's Superman.
  • White-and-Grey Morality: Superman is solidly on the side of white morality. However, The Elite are at worst Anti Heroes; they actually show heroic intentions, and hurting a team-mate is Manchester Black's Berserk Button.
  • Violence is the Only Option: The Elite's solution for dealing with crime- every crime- is death, since they see the world as an ugly, hateful place whose problems need to be solved permanently. Of course, this also extends to "defying them," like in Superman's case. Supes proves them wrong by finding ways to disable their powers without killing them.