Superman is easily the most difficult major comic book character to nail down. He’s been through dozens of different interpretations — in comics and in other media. And he’s been revamped and rebooted more times than just about any other comic book character out there, and still falls short of expectations on a pretty large scale.
For the past 25 years, the Superman who appears in the pages of DC Comics has faced the law of diminishing returns when it comes to reboots. The 1986 reboot that began with Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” and continued into John Byrne’s Man of Steel was a solid success. It revitalized interest in the character, got a lot of mainstream press attention at a time when that was unusual for comics and even sold a lot of comic books for DC. Today, however, the time between reboots has dwindled from decades to years to what seems like months. Just in the past few years, DC has published a Secret Origin miniseries by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, J. Michael Straczynski’s Superman: Earth One original graphic novel. The main Superman books have also struggled to find a direction, with the long “New Krypton” concept giving way to Straczynski’s controversial “Grounded” storyline.
I read Earth One and I’ve read “Grounded,” and found both immensely disappointing, just as I found some of the spark that made Superman great in DC’s reissue of Superman vs. Muhammad Ali and in the earliest Superman stories as presented in The Superman Chronicles, Vol. 1.
Earth One has at its core the same idea Marvel had 10 years ago when it started the Ultimate line: Create a new, continuity-free version of the classic character with a modern, updated origin and style designed to hook the young readers that have made huge hits out of Harry Potter and Twilight. Like the Ultimate imprint, Earth One is ideally meant for a mainstream audience and not for the die-hard fans that frequent the comic shop each Wednesday.
This is an approach that can work, can generate some excitement. The early days of Ultimate Spider-Man in particular helped turn Brian Michael Bendis into a blockbuster comic book writer. Interestingly, the Ultimate line ended up being a hit in the direct market more than with the mainstream audience it was created for.
But where the early Ultimate comics brought energy and some inspired tweaks to established lore, Superman: Earth One lacks passion and reads like something created more to meet a marketing plan than to entertain. This version of the tale recasts young Clark Kent as an indecisive youth who heads into the big city with no idea of whether he’s going to be a scientist curing cancer or maybe a reporter at the Daily Planet. Then the aliens show up and he becomes Superman to fend it off — mostly because no one else can.
The main creative innovation seems to be to make Clark more “emo.” He mopes a lot, wears a hoodie, listens to his iPod and doesn’t comb his hair. Similarly, Lois is drawn to so closely resemble actress Jennifer Carpenter from Dexter that it’s plausible that the artist used a DVD set as photo reference.
Either way, there’s little joy in this tale, a point driven home by the grim, muted color palate. Clark is never happy and rarely cracks a smile. Lois never does anything to suggest why anyone would find her attractive. And the villains of he piece appear completely pieced together from other sources — the alien invasion rehashes the well-worn material of Independence Day and the villain, Tyrell, looks like Lobo’s stunt double. In the end, despite the grand pronouncements, press releases and interviews, there’s little sign that this could develop into a compelling vision of any kind for the Man of Steel.
It’s not even clear to me how this is supposed to make the character more appealing to young readers. To suggest that young readers will “see themselves” in so bland and cynical a revamp is insulting.
And yet, this book sold so well that another round of pronouncements appeared trumpeting the news that a sequel is in the works — though I suspect the sequel was already in the works and DC would have made a media fuss about it no matter how well the book actually sold.
It’s a similar problem with “Grounded,” which has been met with a lot less enthusiasm than Earth One. In many corners, this story has been roundly mocked as Superman gets sad and walks across America. The criticisms are well deserved — this is a bad idea, poorly executed (for the most part). It has some of the same problems as Earth One. This Superman also is unsure of himself, reluctant to act and fumbling around for answers. Unlike the Superman in Earth One, however, this version lacks the excuse of being an inexperienced youth to counter it. Instead, he just comes off as weak and indecisive — hardly heroic qualities. There really shouldn’t be this much crying in a Superman comic.
So what does work when it comes to Superman? There are some answers in Superman vs. Muhammed Ali, which DC recently reprinted for the first time since it first came out in 1978. This is easily one of my favorite comics of all time, because it’s just so damn cool. Aside from being the best art job Neal Adams ever did, this tale is proud to be a comic book and tells the kind of fun, crazy tale that can really only be told in a comic book.
This version of Superman is undoubtedly a hero and spends most of the book doing a lot of really amazing things. There’s spaceships to fight, natural disasters to avert, giant robots to duke it out with — even a bit of super-disguise in a key plot point. Oh yeah, and the fight of the century, complete with an all-star list of celebrities rendered with great detail on that amazing Neal Adams cover. (Side note: I was surprised the new edition didn’t identify Stan Lee on the cover. He’s clearly there, down in front, just to the right of Lex Luthor’s head. I mean, I can see DC not doing so at the time, but 30 years on it just seems like the record should be set straight.) I never tire of look at this book, though I still prefer my high-grade copy of the original to the new coloring and glossy paper of the reprint.
Going back even further, there is tremendous joy and a lot of fun to be found in the pages of The Superman Chronicles, Vol. 1. This series of trades reprints in color the Golden Age tales of the Man of Steel in chronological order. This first volume collects the Superman stories from the first 13 issues of Action Comics, New York World’s Fair Comics #1 and Superman #1. It’s easy to see why Superman was an instant hit in 1938 — these are bouncy, fast-paced and really fun stories.
And it’s extremely informative to see Superman stripped of some of his familiar elements. There’s no Jimmy Olsen, no Smallville or Ma and Pa Kent. Clark Kent works for the Cleveland Daily Star, not the Daily Planet of Metropolis. And long before Superman was fighting for “truth, justice and the American way” (whatever that means), he was “champion of the oppressed.” This Superman used his powers to take on and beat such threats as crooked politicians, war profiteers, mobsters fixing sports events, businessmen who ignored unsafe working conditions, swindlers selling worthless real estate and more. There’s no question in these stories that Superman is right to take on these kinds of real-world issues, and for the kids lucky enough to read these when they first came this must have been like dynamite. Today, of course, there would be no chance Superman would take on these kind of real world villains because the strange nature of American politics would make such stories into manufactured controversies.
Here’s a few other things that reading these stories have made clear about this character:
1. Superman works best when Superman is the real character and Clark Kent is the disguise. For some reason, the comics (such as Earth One) have increasingly moved toward making Superman the alter ego of Clark Kent. Yet I’ve never seen a version of this approach that works. To look outside of comics, the Superman of the classic Fleischer brothers’ cartoons and Christopher Reeve’s portrayal in the 1978 movie and its good sequel are beyond clear that Kent is the disguise. Pretty much every superhero that came after Superman has played the heroic role as the alter ego of the secret identity. So why make Superman just like everyone else?
2. The focus of a good Superman story is on Superman doing super stuff. The character has accumulated a large supporting cast including not just Lois Lane, but also Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Ma and Pa Kent, Lex Luthor, Lana Lang, etc. And too often it feels like writers are trying too hard to fit as many of these characters into every Superman story at the expense of a focus on the Man of Steel himself. How about not using Jimmy et al. too much for a while and see if anyone really does miss them?
3. Superman should return to being “champion of the oppressed.” I think it would be very interesting to set Superman against some of the oppressors of the modern world. Yeah, it would be controversial, something DC has historically avoided with Superman. But comics are often at their best when — like good rock ’n’ roll — they’re subversive, challenging the reader by doing something different. There’s not much of this spirit left in comics, especially in corporate superhero comics.