The set-up for The Nail is amazingly straightforward: On the day Jonathan and Martha Kent would, in the "normal" DC Universe, discover a certain crashed rocketship, instead they postpone their trip into town because a nail's flattened one of their truck's tires. Thus they never find the ship, Kal El doesn't become Clark Kent doesn't become Superman. From that one divergence, writer/penciller Alan Davis builds a story that asks, "What would the DC Universe be like without Superman?"
It's a pretty grim place, actually, in which the Justice League of America consists of Aquaman (in the old yellow and green outfit), Atom, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkwoman, Martian Manhunter and Wonder Woman. Basically THE classic lineup, only no Superman, and Hawkwoman replaces Hawkman.
Barry Allen is still alive and the Flash.
Green Arrow, crippled in battle, has subsequently gone insane.
Batman, his friendship with Superman never teaching him the benefits of cooperation with other heroes, is at best an ambivalent JLA member. Operating in secrecy, dealing brutally with criminals, he's the superhero most feared and hated by the general populace.
Hawkman is dead; Hawkwoman soldiers on. This is to the good. The Silver Age Hawkgirl (here updated to Hawkwoman) was always criminally underused. Hawkman was the only Silver Age DC hero with a female counterpart as strong-willed, intelligent, competent, and even cooler than himself. The fact she was also his wife showed Hawkman was no dummy, either.
Green Lantern is still Hal Jordan, and, absent Superman, his ring makes him the most powerful hero in the DC Universe.
Lex Luthor, mayor of Metropolis, has turned the city into an anti-metahuman police state in which there are no superheroes but no superpowered crime, either. Because Metropolis never had its own costumed defender to deal with supercriminals, the people support him. Jimmy Olsen is deputy mayor.
Gotham City Police Commissioner Jim Gordon is dead, murdered.
In this world, a propaganda campaign to discredit metahumans moves into action. Without Superman as a universally respected symbol of superheroic good, it enjoys a measure of success. All over Earth, metahumans are beaten and kidnapped, most ominously by the Liberators, masked, black garbed, flying figures with Superman's powers. Most metahumans are put into a concentration camp, some killed outright. Finally, only a handful are left. The story proceeds from there. Who is the mastermind behind this plot? Where is Kal El? How does he fit into it all?
The Nail is an excellently written and drawn mainstream superhero tale (if you can call an Elseworlds "imaginary story" mainstream). Alan Davis is a talented writer, but it's his artwork here that will truly blow your mind. He has a real feel, and obvious love, for the Silver Age DC characters. In particular his redesign of Hawkgirl's uniform into Hawkwoman is superb. Every major hero in this story gets their own full-page splash. Each could stand to be framed as it truly captures the essence of a character. Mark Farmer's inking perfectly complements Davis' work.
The rear covers of the original 3-issue mini-series collected in this volume all ran a "colloquial adaptation of a verse by George Herbert (Jacula Prudentum 1651)": "For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, for want of a horse the knight was lost, for want of a knight the battle was lost. So it was a kingdom was lost - all for want of a nail." It's worth noting that, in addition to the obvious nail in the Kent's tire beginning the story, Superman is "the nail" of the DC Universe, the overriding symbol of everything a superhero should be, that holds together "the kingdom" of the DC Universe. His absence causes all the bad things occurring in The Nail, that nearly destroy every facet of the superheroic ideal on this world.
It's sad that, since 1986 and the post-Crisis revamp of the Man of Steel, the DC Universe hasn't really had Superman, only a character somewhat resembling him. Perhaps, in subversive fashion, that's what Alan Davis is saying in a story in which the "worst of all possible worlds," a world without Superman, isn't all that different from the current DC Universe. In the end - not to give away too much of the story - it's the return of Silver Age virtues that saves the day, and this "DC Universe" as well.
Or perhaps I'm projecting too much into a simple funny book story. Read The Nail, and you decide.