Warren Ellis is an expert at taking sci-fi staples and turning them into something a bit more spectacular and a lot less daft. In this book, for example, he’s taken superheroes. By removing most of the things that are totally ridiculous and unquestionably stupid about them, then processing what’s left through some kind of thought experiment about how such unnatural creatures might come about, he’s ended up with Supergods.
In Ellis’s vision, superheroes wouldn’t appear in isolation, but come about as government sponsored weapons of mass destruction. Ellis envisions a sort of super-powered arms race, where each of the world’s major economic powers has spent the last 20 years experimenting with their own versions of Superman.
The story is narrated by a British scientist, himself involved in the British superman program, as he discusses the situation over the phone with an American counterpart. He’s sitting on the banks of the Thames in London, just outside the Houses of Parliament. This is no bright spring morning though. Around him, London is burning. The Thames is strewn with corpses, and desperate people are running in wild gangs like pack animals.
The stars of the show are the Supergods themselves. Each state-sponsored creature has something of its home nation’s religion or ideology instilled in it. So the Indian supergod, Krishna, is blue and influenced by Hinduism. Krishna is programmed to use Hindu beliefs to improve the world for the Indian nation, so starts tearing everything apart so a new, reincarnated world can flourish. The Americans build a super-soldier, the Russians create a cyborg, and the Chinese make a bizarre mutant that can build itself strange, monstrous bodies by violently reorganising thousands of humans into a living sculpture. The British manage to pull together a multi-headed thing made from three astronauts and a bizarre space mushroom.
It sounds flippant but its presented earnestly. Ellis’s tone is deeply serious and the book is too apocalyptic to be taken lightly. The way the story’s presented, as a man reminiscing while the world crumbles around them, is a little contrived but no less entertaining for it. On the art side, Gastonny does a great job of visualising the supergods and their destructive capabilities.
It’s an enjoyable, self-contained stroll through one of Ellis’s superhero high-concepts, but it can feel a bit like a lecture in future history at times. Less ground-breaking now, perhaps, than it might have been when it was originally published in 2009, Supergods will still hold a lot of appeal for those who like superheroes, but want a more sophisticated take on the genre.