‘Elseworlds’ tales altered a crucial element of a hero’s mythos, sending his/her saga in another direction, and DC became far too enamoured with them around the turn of the century. This one, though, has considerably greater merit than the majority of the banged-out alt-universe tales that cluttered the comics shops of the day.

Inspired by the old nursery rhyme; For Want of A Nail, a Shoe was Lost…, the ‘Nail’ of the title here is a literal nail, which gives Johnathan and Martha Kent’s farm truck a flat tire, so on a certain night they they don’t drive into Smallville, as they had planned; and consequently they don’t find the infant Kal-El’s rocketship, adopt the alien foundling as their own, and eventually raise him to be Superman.

Decades later, the Justice League is facing a crisis of public confidence. Lex Luthor’s Metropolis, in which superhuman guardians are banned, is apparently a paradise. An orchestrated campaign of hatred – in which former Justice League member Green Arrow, horribly maimed on a mission, is a prominent figure – is portraying all metahumans as the first wave of an alien incursion, designed to soften up Earth’s defences by gaining humanity’s confidence.

Some of the JLA are aliens, of course, but most are all too human, yet their denials fall on deaf ears. A newly-chosen press liaison, Lois Lane, investigates, and unearths a sinister conspiracy involving some of her oldest friends, as other metahumans – the Doom Patrol, the Metal Men, the Outsiders – are captured, driven into hiding, or subverted to pawns of the new regime.

Alan Davis writes as well as draws this story, and in a lengthy afterword, he explains that his primary goal was accessibility for the reader, whether they were familiar with the concepts or not. There are no narrative captions, no introspective thought balloons, just dialogue and actions: yet the way in which seemingly disparate events are knitted together is skillful, and at no time is the clarity of the narrative lost despite the multiplicity of characters.

Davis’ art is also at its peak. There are breathtaking full-page ‘money shots’ of each of the JLA members in individual action, and body-strewn battle scenes in abundance, but the nonverbal communication is beautifully handled. Hawkwoman’s quiet, dignified outrage at the disregard of her husband’s sacrifice, or Aquaman’s barely-concealed contempt, for example, are conveyed with an artistry that requires no verbal exposition.

The only flaw in the plot is the assumption that the presence of a Superman, in this scenario, would have prevented Luthor’s rise to power and influence in Metropolis, and ultimately in greater America. Given that this version of Luthor is portrayed as, if anything, more plausible and charismatic than the standard issue, this is by no means certain.

Nevertheless, a fine example of the art of superheroics done right, with Davis’ love of, and knowledge of, the characters manifest on every page. It was successful enough to spawn Another Nail.