I've just read the new softcover of the first half of Brian Azzarello and Jim Lee's year-long "For Tomorrow" arc in Superman that began April 2004 (issues 204-215). Though the title was first given to Lee, who then picked a writer, one still can't help but think another artist would have been better suited to draw the subtleties of facial expression that inevitably make or break dialogue-heavy scripts such as this one. Even worse, the look of the cliched-90s villain Equus seems like Lee's self-parody of Image character design — a cyborg Killer Croc wearing Oakley shades — but the visual faults of the first five issues are instantly absolved in the sixth by the perverse but ingenious image of an elemental earth monster whose four heads are the actual Mount Rushmore!
(Sorry to spoil it but it was too good to keep to myself.)
Though I don't think its execution was perfect, there is no question that Azzarello's script is ambitious and provocative, asking a question as ancient as it is contemporary. Though I am skeptical of Jim Roeg's interpretation of Infinite Crisis as a political allegory, there is no doubt that Azzarello uses Superman to represent America's active role in the world and address the implications that accompany it. Not content with limiting its scope to political commentary, however, Azzarello extends the analogy from national superpower to supernatural power. The question "If you are able to prevent evil, should you?" is relevant as both a political and theological question, and the book seems to offer more than one answer by comparing Superman not only to the United States but to God himself.
Politically, the foreign policy of the US since JFK's inaugural address has been that since America has the ability to prevent evil around the world — including "tyranny, poverty, disease, and war" — it therefore has the responsibility to do so. Perhaps it is not coincidental that Spider-Man was invented only a year later with his guiding philosophy that "with great power there must also come great responsibility."
Theologically, the question of why a God would let bad things happen begs the further question, if God ought to interfere to prevent great evils, why shouldn't he intervene to prevent every act of minor evil as well? But if God intended to directly interfere with every human choice on an everyday basis, what is the point of history at all if humanity is not permitted to create its own?
Analogously, then, why should Superman prevent disaster only in Metropolis? Why not also in other cities or other countries, since he can? As a resident of earth he feels obligated, like the US, to do what is within his ability as the world's greatest superpower. But as a foreigner, what right does he have to interfere with sovereign nations? Indeed, as an alien, what right does he have to interfere even with Metropolis? Furthermore, as a practically divine being, what right does he have to interfere with the sovereignty of personhood and individual choice, whether good or ill?
Azzarello references both Christ and America in association with Superman, as he questions his appropriate relationship with the human world, but Azzarello's answer(s?) are yet to be revealed since this volume collects only the first six issues. I hope the next six live up to the profound trajectory established so far. I would not be surprised, however, if the soundbite-favoring format of the comic book prevents a sophisticated enough response to such philosophically complex questions.
On the positive side, since Superman is practically omnipotent, ethical issues are his only credible challenges, so Azzarello is using Superman as he is best used — as an allegorical representation of either divine or American superpower — and he is doing both simultaneously. But on the other hand, extended Socratic dialogue does not fully exploit sequential art, which is better suited to iconic than to dramatic narrative. In that sense, the title's immediately preceding arc, Godfall, was (contrary to the appearance of its covers) a superior exploration of the Superman-as-Christ allegory, cleverly depicting a condescension resembling the incarnation of God in human form. Azzarello's arc is no doubt an appropriate follow-up, highlighting the transcendent rather than immanent Superman, though its ultimate success will be dependent on Volume 2.