75 Years of Superman - Part V
"Krypton bred me, but it was Earth that gave me all I am." The Man of Steel, John Byrne (1986)
Delving in to the influences and the DNA of such characters helps to understand what has shaped and refined them. In much the same way as an individual is shaped by their own surroundings and those who imprint on them – we are all as much a result of our circumstances and the environment we are brought up in as the collective knowledge that is passed down to us. It is no different for fictitious characters – this is how they have managed to survive and continue to capture the imagination – a result of both their own inheritance and archetypal nature that has allowed them to relate to their audience. Superman has moved with the times, perhaps not as crucially as his contemporaries, yet, when the time has felt right, his origin has been retold.
In fact, when revisiting the great Superman stories those that often stand out the most are the origin tales. After the publication of Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? that ended an era for Superman before his modern reboot in the 1980s during Crisis on Infinite Earths, John Byrne, as both writer and artist, set out to retell a modern origin. In Man of Steel (1986), Superman had acquired such a firm stance in the public’s own consciousness that the iconography was enough to allow for the marketing of another pseudonym and is arguably the most successful incarnation to date, arriving at a defining time in the history of comics alongside Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Where Miller and Byrne redefined the two major linchpins of the superhero genre, Moore redefined the idea of the superhero and in doing so gave birth to the modern age of comics. It took British cynicism to see what made superheroes tick – a real world sensibility that not only delved in to the minds of archetypes but also performed the entire lobotomy. Miller’s Batman was a dark, brooding and brutal force of nature who, in The Dark Knight Returns, had not been seen for a decade – an ‘out of touch’ version of Batman… yet, a Batman who was perhaps more in tune with his roots than ever before. And amongst the darkness and intense storytelling, Superman’s light still burned bright in an effort to make himself heard. This was the antithesis of Miller’s incarnation, where Superman is shown as no more than a government stooge carrying out orders from the White House to bring down his old friend.
Mark Waid’s collaboration with the artist Alex Ross resulted in their Elseworlds imprint title, Kingdom Come (1996) – a lavishly illustrated four part prestige format that harkened back to the work of Norman Rockwell. Told from the point of view of a Minister, the Spectre reveals the repercussions of warring superheroes as they contribute to the encroaching apocalypse. Asked to pass judgment on the superheroes, the Minister is witness to the return of a Superman who had abandoned his cause – one of many reflections of a world without a Superman during these times. On his return, Kal-El reforms the Justice League in his efforts to counterstrike and imprison those superheroes who have grown out of control.
After their success with Batman on The Long Halloween, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale went on to tell a story that was a parallel to Byrne’s Man of Steel. For All Seasons (1998) concentrated primarily on the character of Superman – no galactic punch-ups and no full-scale invasion – this was simply a tale told from the perspectives of those who were closest to Clark Kent. Not only did this ground the character but reinforce the humble nature of Superman – a contradiction to how he may be perceived by the world. When we finally reach Lex Luthor’s perspective, a twisted love story of insecurity; where a man of intelligence is often a man who thinks too much…it ultimately leads to a breakdown of the soul and thirst for power. Where The Long Halloween was built around the use of holidays as a structure, Loeb and Sale’s tale dealt with seasons that gave further stability to a more personal rendition of the character.
Although Kingdom Come was a critical success, Mark Waid’s own origin tale was to follow almost a decade later, post 9/11 and in light of a world who no longer needed fantasy heroes. Now there was a need for realism and as an extension on Man of Steel and For all Seasons, Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu’s, Birthright (2003-2004) explored the journey of Clark Kent as an activist and journalist, much like Bruce Wayne’s own pilgrimage to hone his skills as a crime fighter. Clark Kent would connect with humanity face to face and understand the issues at stake on a global level, while more importantly setting an example to billions. If the world could not be Superman, then he could only aspire to help the people of the world to do their best. Symbolism was key in setting up the character where the reasons he chooses to wear the costume are built layer by layer. The questions we have always asked, such as how no one recognises Superman under Kent’s glasses is beautifully handled and justified before delivering some of the best action sequences illustrated in comics. All the while the ‘S’ symbol is embedded fully within the world building arc helping to present both a clarity to how it is perceived through his own ‘birthright’ and society’s interpretation and their assumption of what it stands for – nothing more than their own label.
As a counterpoint to Waid’s origin, Mark Millar set out to deliver the ultimate Elseworld’s tale – a unique, origin with an imposing twist that sees the infant, Kal-El land in the Ukraine, rather than America. In Superman: Red Son (2003), the mythology of Superman is reimagined under the iron will of the Soviet Union where a Russian Man of Steel rises to power within a communist state where few are able to oppose him. Despite his social circumstances, the spirit of Superman’s is left, surprisingly intact and in spite of the system he's working in, he attempts at all times to do the right thing. Whilst the outcome of much of what Superman does is questionable, his intentions are sincere. Despite his use as a weapon, he is still the hero of the nation he was brought up in and thoroughly believes in socialism in his attempt to make it work against the last surviving state of capitalism, America. This is not an evil interpretation of Superman…for that would have been too easy a path to take and therefore allows for the character to retain some sympathy.
Where Birthright set to build an origin for the 21st Century, Red Son smashed all preconceptions of how such an iconic character could be personified. Where one begged to question, ‘What if?’ the other would only remain canon for a limited time before Geoff Johns’ and Garry Frank’s Secret Origin was released in 2010. Post Infinite Crisis, and to tie in with continuity, the mini series was delivered alongside their run on Action Comics which delivered a number of tales, highly regarded as ‘definitive Superman’. It is no coincidence that Frank’s rendition is more than a homage to the late Christopher Reeve, influenced further through Johns’ own background and knowledge where his initial stories evolved from his collaboration with the original Director of Superman: The Movie, Richard Donner in their attempts to redefine the character. In fact, Johns worked for Donner as his intern gaining experience in the film industry while still maintaining his obsession for comic books, which has more than helped in his position as Chief Creative Officer at DC where he has gone on to redefine Green Lantern, Aquaman and the Justice League.
It could be said, much like in Steven T. Seagle’s (no relation) and Teddy Kristiansen’s, It’s a Bird (2004), that Superman is the most difficult character to write. Through Seagle’s semi-autobiographical accounts, he not only explores what the icon means to the world and his effects on society but, from his own perspective, delves in to the more than overwhelming and all consuming task of writing a seemingly indestructible character. With a God-like figure there is little conflict that can be found and once an enemy is presented they must challenge and form the required conflict, otherwise there is often nothing left but to duke it out on a galactic scale before it becomes predictable and derivative. In the magnitude of these set pieces, this is where the soul of Superman can be lost. This is where It’s a Bird manages to successfully explore our own mortality through the writer’s eyes; while at the same time dissects the Man of Steel’s mythic importance and in doing so presents both an honest account of the writer's efforts to do the character justice while at the same time questioning how much a 'Superman' means during the modern era.
With the launch of the New 52 in 2011, Grant Morrison and Rags Morales were handed the reins to, yet again, reinvent Superman to fit with a rebooted continuity in the New 52 Action Comics #1. As superheroes are seen with some hostility, Superman’s ‘Year Zero’ begins with a younger incarnation wearing nothing more than jeans, cape and t-shirt in an effort to gain the public’s trust, while at the same time reflecting a more rebellious attitude. Making a name for himself as a champion of the oppressed in Metropolis, he captures the attention of both the military and scientist, Lex Luthor, who are both interested in testing his capabilities as well as discovering what kind of threat he represents. With nods to the original, Reign of the Superman, it is no surprise that Morrison’s depth of storytelling eludes to the importance of his original inception and the iconography that has helped build such an important comic book character. Morrison is a man who submerses himself in the medium on many levels through personal experience and a full understanding of who the ‘man’ is – that portion of the character that is hidden amongst the actions of his ‘super’ powers.
SUPERMAN: ‘I can only tell you what I believe, Diana - humankind has to be allowed to climb to its own destiny. We can't carry them there.’
FLASH: ‘But that's what she's saying. What's the point? Why should they need us at all?’
SUPERMAN: ‘To catch them if they fall.’ Grant Morrison, JLA #4
In Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero, he writes and performs observations about the character that could be seen as extreme yet breaks boundaries in how Superman’s own symbol of hope could be perceived. During the first chapter, ‘The Sun God and the Dark Knight’, Morrison states that:
‘When a god elects to come to Earth, he has to make a few sacrifices. In order to be born, Superman was called upon to surrender a few of his principles. As the price of incarnation, the son of Jor-El of Krypton was compelled to make a terrible bargain with the complex, twisty forces of this material world. That S is a serpent, too, and carries its own curse.’ (Morrison, 2011, p. 16)
The ‘Sun God’, as Morrison refers to Superman, commits the ultimate sacrifice in, perhaps, the most definitive of his stories, All-Star Superman (2005-2008) – a tale told with enough depth and poetic virtue that only elevated the actions of a dying hero beyond a the stature of a God...while still remaining the most human at heart, ‘As she spoke, I watched 35,000 dead skin cells scatter like confetti...like promises...like the dust of dead stars.’ Although the Death of Superman during the 90s was a huge success, it was a product of its time – seen by many as more of a crass marketing move to increase sales that reflected the decline in the market that would follow. Morrison’s interpretation was story first and foremost – a version of Superman’s final sacrifice that could be taken as cannon as much as those reading Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Surreal, cerebral and playing against the conventions of comic book narrative, All-Star set out to reconnect with Kal-El through his final days. In contracting radiation poisoning while saving a mission to the sun, Superman, through a series of episodes, comes in to contact with a number of characters who are both his strengths and weaknesses. However, during his contact with them he leaves his mark before making his final sacrifice by reigniting the sun. In his final moments, Kal-El, Man of Steel, Man of Tomorrow…Superman, leaves Clark Kent behind and begins his transition to become the saviour he is destined to be and in doing so becomes the power at the centre of our universe.
This post was first published on May 8th 2013.