For the Character Who Has Everything
The Black Mercy, a telepathic plant-like creature that debuted in Superman Annual 11 has been used across DC media to varying degrees of success. It’s recent appearance in Justice League made me want to revisit Black Mercy’s history. I’ve done some research and thanks to the DC Universe app I’ve been able to read some of the stories that I’ve missed over the years.
Alan Moore introduced Black Mercy as a way to deconstruct the character of Superman. Moore was famous for his superhero deconstructions in the 80s including MiracleMan, Swamp Thing, and Watchmen. If you haven’t read the story you should stop everything and do that. Superman has been taken apart and examined dozens of times in the last 80 years, but rarely in such an interesting an engaging way.
The story starts with a one page prologue. We see Kal-El living on Krypton as an adult walking in to a surprise birthday party. The caption reads “He is content.” Wonder Woman, Batman, and Robin (Jason Todd) show up to the fortress of solitude to celebrate Superman’s birthday (February 29th natch). What do you get for the man who has everything? They come across Superman wrapped in a plant and in an apparent daze. Batman, being the world’s greatest detective, surmises that Superman is “in a world of his own.” It becomes clear to the reader that the prologue we saw on the first page is happening in Superman’s mind. Artist David Gibbons and Colorist Tom Ziuko differentiate what Superman is experiencing with heavy red panel borders. Kal has lived an entire life. Krypton didn’t explode, he has a wife and child, and his father is an outcast because of his doom and gloom predictions. In a fun nod that would now be called an Easter Egg; Kal is married to actress Lyla Lerrol, a Kryptonian love interest from the early Silver Age. The Black Mercy has given Superman the normal life he would have had if it weren’t for the tragedy that birthed him. Alan Moore incorporates pieces of Kryptonian lore that could easily be seen as campy or silly and does it in a way that feels real. It’s incredible.
Soon this perfect life starts to crack. The House of El discovered the Phantom Zone which is starting to become viewed as unreasonably severe punishment. There are mass protests with Kal and his family in the middle of it. Through this Kal beings to realize things aren’t what they seem. In a climatic moment as he makes the discovery that his son, someone that he has known for years and loves, isn’t real. At this point Batman pulls off the Black Mercy and the fantasy world disappears. He lived an entire life filled with ups and downs that is taken away from him. The art in the panels where Superman discovers who is responsible for this is chilling. With just a few panels we feel everything that he has lost and the rage he has. Superman rarely gets to completely cut loose and he does here.
We also get a glimpse of what Batman experiences. Bruce is defined by that singular moment in his life, the death of his parents. We get his content moment when his parents survive the mugging on crime alley. Bruce doesn’t get to linger in this long as Robin comes to the rescue. Robin is able to use Mongul’s gauntlets to drop the Black Mercy on Mongul and win the battle.
We see from Mongul’s perspective that his content moment is right there. Defeating Superman and the other heroes, and ruling over a resurrected Warworld. There is no definitive moment in his past that can set him on his path to contentedness. He’s a villain.
The Black Mercy shows up again in a Green Lantern story that ties in with Infinite Crisis. It’s a two part story with Green Lantern and Green Arrow with, once again, Mongul. Mongul makes sense as a villain at this time for Hal. Hal hasn’t been back long after being redeemed and Mongul was heavily involved in his fall with the destruction of Coast City during Reign of the Supermen. This isn’t the original Mongul though, it’s his son and daughter working together that bring Black Mercy to Earth. We see Hal and Ollie living Hal’s ideal version of life because of the strength of Hal’s willpower and their proximity to each other. This helps Ollie break out of it, because it’s not the ideal “content” world that he would envision. The story ends with Mongul Jr. killing his sister and taking the title of Mongul for himself. This plays in to recent Superman books where it is yet again another Mongul that has taken his grandfather’s name as his own.
A few years later as part of the fallout of the Sinestro Corp War the Green Lantern Corp arrives on the home world of the Black Mercy. I wasn’t aware of any exploration of the plant’s history until now. Looks like this is the story I was missing. We see the Mother Mercy which is the progenitor of all the Black Mercy plants we have seen so far. This is a benevolent creature that has been taken advantage of by Mongul and the Corp defeat Mongul with her help. Mother Mercy becomes a Green Lantern at the end. It seems that this story is being ignored in the latest Justice League since there doesn’t seem anything benevolent about where they are.
In 2011 Black Mercy shows up in the then ongoing Superboy book. Conner is having a difficult time with his nature of being a clone of both Superman and Lex Luthor. His time with the plant has him killing the Teen Titans. He is forced to confront his origins and decide how he is going to deal with it.
In the last Batgirl issue before the New 52 reboot Batgirl comes into contact with a Black Mercy. The story ends with her living out a peaceful life and it’s implied that it’s because she is under its influence. Honestly, it feels like a lousy way to end the story of Spoiler/Stephanie Brown as Batgirl. It’s not a victorious send off. When Batgirl relaunches Barbara Gordon is in the title role again and Spoiler is nowhere to be seen.
I’m not aware of any Black Mercy during the New 52 but in the rebirth era it shows up in an Aquaman Annual. This story feels more like the original Superman annual. Arthur grows old, has a son. When he starts to understand characters inside his dream fight him to keep him there including members of the Justice League. I enjoyed this annual as it rang more true to the original appearance.
Finally, during Tom King’s Batman run, we get a different kind of For The Man Who Has Everything. In a three-part story titled The Gift, Booster Gold tries to give Bruce a wedding gift that no one else can: his parents. But the Bruce that grows up with his parents is nothing like the Bruce we know. Without the formative experience in his life making him dedicate himself to the cause he grows up selfish. All of Gotham collapses without Bruce as Batman and when Booster tells him that he has no interest in saving the day. He has his parents and that’s all he needs. Booster thinks that like Superman, Bruce would realize real life despite the tragedy was better than the fantasy. The gift of knowing your life was worthwhile. Things go from bad to worse in this parallel timeline and the tragedy works as an almost back door pilot to King’s Heroes in Crisis. I feel that it’s the best homage or tribute to the original story and it doesn’t even need to use the plant!
The story is so highly regarded that it has been adapted several times. Justice League Unlimited does a pretty faithful adaptation. The Supergirl television show does its own version “For the Girl Who Has Everything” and Black Mercy appears multiple times on the Krypton show. Specifically there is an episode called Mercy that uses the plant.
For such a useful tool to examine a character’s wants and desires I’m glad that it’s not overused. This handful of stories has high points and lows points, but this small handful of times never makes anyone say “oh great Black Mercy again.