Superhero Kills the President

Graphic novelist extraordinaire Warren Ellis’s newest series, Black Summer, has a great chance of being one of the most talked about comics in awhile. After all, the premise is that a superhero decides that the President of the United States is a criminal. And so the superhero kills him.

“He’s been asking himself the question that informs the book: where do you draw the line? If you’re totally committed to the idea of covering your face and taking on a fake name and standing outside the law in order to fight for justice — where do you stop? Crime pervades society. We’re all aware of corporations that behave in a criminal manner. Is that as far as you go?

“If, in fact, your perspective is such that you believe your President to have prosecuted an illegal war and thereby caused the deaths of thousands of people — isn’t that a crime? Do you let that pass?”


“Because, to make it clear: John Horus, a man with the personal destructive capability of a fleet of Apache helicopters, walked into the Oval Office and killed the President.”

Ellis has certainly handled similar themes in his work before, especially in The Authority and his magnum opus political work Transmetropolitan (both of which I recommend), but this is probably taking some of the concepts even more over the top than Ellis usually does–and that’s saying something.

Still, if it’s done right (and not just exploiting the premise for shock value–which Ellis is certainly capable of), this promises to be an interesting examination of some of the premises that underly superhero vigilantism in particular, and broader sociopolitical questions in general. After all, in a broader ethical sense, is there a difference between a superhero, acting outside the due process of law, killing a President he believes to be a criminal any different than a country, arguably acting outside the law, invading another country that it believes to be a threat? Maybe. But it’s certainly an interesting avenue for speculation.

As Jim Henley wrote in his classic essay about the superhero story as a literature of ethics:

Fantasy provides external analogs of internal conflicts, and the subtype of fantasy about superheroes is a way of externalizing questions of duty, community, and self. How should the powerful behave? (Most Americans are, in global-historical terms, “the powerful” in one aspect or another.) These questions are salient whether you wear tights or not. They apply to you. Because most of us, certainly most of us in the developed world, have more power, wealth, or wherewithal than somebody. Certainly almost everybody reading this essay could, in principle, quit his or her present job and work pro bono for an African AIDS clinic while subsisting on donated food, or maintain a couple of homeless people instead of taking vacation, or — join the volunteer fire department. Depending on your politics, you may believe that people like yourself or people like Bill Gates really do owe some non-trivial portion of time, wealth, influence, or attention to something or someone. The poor, the ill, the frightened, alienated, the “doomed, damned, and despised” as Jesse Jackson once put it.

And having had the thought, you’ve got more problems. Which will it be, first of all — the poor, the ill, or the frightened? Just how should you help them? Do you decide, or do they? And when, if ever, do you get off-duty? There is a global political dimension to this. Because the question of what responsibilities impinge on the powerful has everything to do with the position of “hyperpower America” in the present world situation.

I’m interested to see what questions Ellis asks about power and duty in his new work.

(another interview with Ellis regarding Black Summer is available here)

FILED UNDER: Entertainment, Law and the Courts, Popular Culture, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. So why didn’t Superman kill Hitler or Stalin?

  2. Alex Knapp says:

    Superman couldn’t kill Hitler because the Nazis possessed the Spear of Destiny, which prevented any superhumans from entering Nazi-occupied territory.

    No, seriously, that was the explanation DC Comics gave at the time.

    As for Stalin, I don’t know. Kryptonite moustache?

  3. M1EK says:

    One reason, even given modern plotting, Superman wouldn’t have killed Stalin because by the time they had seriously addressed the war, Stalin was on our side.

    The Spear of Destiny was actually pretty inventive plot device considering the constraints – readers wanted to see war stories; the government wanted the propaganda; but DC couldn’t exactly go ahead of current events – speculative/alternate history wasn’t going to sell at that point.

  4. I didn’t know about the “Spear of destiny”. As to Stalin, I was thinking post-WWII during the cold war.

  5. Alex Knapp says:


    In all seriousness with respect to Superman, he has a vow against killing, and also refuses to get involved in politics. A good examination of this position can be found in my all-time favorite Superman story – “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” by Joe Kelly. (Action Comics #775, also collected in the trade paperback The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told).

  6. Sean says:

    Superman couldn’t kill Hitler because it would have created a monstrous continuity problem — that in fact, Hitler was still alive in real life. Plus it would have been bad for our economy. And reporting for a major metro daily keeps you quite busy — kill Axis leaders on your own time, I need my stories!

  7. Dave says:

    Technically, in the alternate-future comic “Superman: At Earth’s End,” Superman does kill Hitler. 2 clones of him. With a chaingun. While screaming something to the effect of “THIS IS FOR ALL THE BOYS THAT DIED AT NORMANDY!”

    It’s mind-boggling.

  8. Alex Knapp says:

    Oh my lord…. I totally forgot about Superman at Earth’s End. Don’t forget about the mutated, resurrected clone of Batman that he killed, too….

  9. DensityDuck says:

    I dunno. For the parallel to really be there, the United Nations would have had to have passed three separate resolutions calling the President a war criminal, the President would have had to have manipulated elections to keep himself in office for nearly thirty years and been personally responsible for launching nerve-gas attacks on his own population, and the superhero would have spent the last fifteen years flying around blowing up random parts of the United States while keeping food and medical supplies from entering the country.

    So, no, not really a parallel case at all.

  10. sean says:

    Duck – That’s not a parallel, that’s identical.