Superhero Makeovers: Superman
A physical marvel, a mental wonder, SUPERMAN is destined to reshape the destiny of a world!
It is very unlikely that even Superman’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster expected those words from Action Comics #1 to come true. While not the first comic book hero with super powers, Superman is the character who defined what a superhero was. He had incredible powers, a flashy costume, a secret identity, and adventures that got weirder and weirder as time went on.
Evolution of a Superman
A lot of what Superman is today was decided in Action Comics #1, published in 1938. The S-design on his shirt has changed over the years and his powers have increased, but he was always the super-strong, super-fast man of steel with a secret identity as a mild-mannered reporter and a crush on fellow reporter Lois Lane.
Although his look was iconic from the get-go, the origin of his powers morphed greatly over the years. At first his powers came from his Kryptonian heritage, and it was established that Kryptonians were a result of a human-like species evolved over millions of years. Then it was established that Krypton had greater gravity than Earth, allowing a normal Kryptonian to seem super-powerful on Earth. Various other explanations cropped up here and there, until the origin of his power was established as being drawn from Earth’s yellow sun – a plot device that has been convenient enough to remain in comics since.
While the Superman most people know is a mild-mannered boy scout even when he takes off Clark Kent’s glasses, due in large part to Christopher Reeves’ portrayal in the first four Superman films, the original Superman was Clark Kent’s polar opposite in terms of personality. He was brash, cocky, and didn’t give a damn about things like due process. Action Comics #1 opens with him carrying a bound and gagged murderess to the governor’s mansion and forcing the governor to stop the execution of a wrongfully accused man. He later ran off and manhandled a wife beater, then kidnapped a political lobbyist for trying to force America to join World War II (an amusing bit in hindsight). Superman was almost like Batman in this regard, taking on the little problems and making sure that people who would otherwise skate through the cracks in a damaged legal system got what they deserved.
As Superman grew in popularity, other media began to inform his abilities in the comics. Originally, Superman couldn’t fly – he merely jumped great distances with his immense leg strength. When it came time to give him an animated series, though, animating those jumps proved awkward, so he was given the ability to fly, which then found its way into the comics. Similarly, Kryptonite was invented for the radio series when Superman’s voice actor Bud Collyer got ill and needed time off. This too eventually got worked into the comics.
Superman’s first big overhaul wasn’t really a change to his look or status as an icon, but rather a re-establishment of who he was meant to be. From his conception through the Silver Age, Superman gained more and more powers, ranging from super-hypnosis to super-smarts and even odd stuff like super-basket weaving. He went from being a superhero who could jump 1/8th of a mile to a guy who literally could sneeze out stars. His insane power levels made it difficult for writers to tell interesting stories with him. Fortunately, the classic comic crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths provided a perfect reboot point for the Man of Steel. John Byrne was tasked with reinventing the Superman mythos, and scaled back a lot of Superman’s powers. He could no longer fly into space without some way of breathing. While still amazingly strong, he couldn’t juggle planets anymore. His power set got scaled back to strength, speed, flight, and the two most iconic additional powers, x-ray and heat vision.
Byrne also rebooted some of Superman’s old supporting cast, most notably turning Lex Luthor from a mad scientist to a corrupt corporate executive. For the most part, the reboot was successful in taking the godly Man of Steel and turning him into someone more human. Despite a few misfires here and there, such as having a story in which a brainwashed Superman stars in a porno with Big Barda from the New Gods, Byrne’s reboot of Superman is probably one of his most successful pieces of work, arguably only second to his work with Chris Claremont on X-Men, which is a discussion for another time. While Superman eventually got a massive boost in power again, the years he spent as a weaker version of himself helped establish him as a much more human character than he had once been. The modern Superman, while closer to his Silver Age powers and pitted against a Lex Luthor who is both a corrupt corporate executive AND an evil mad scientist, has his roots in the Byrne reboot, and the human part of the character is usually on full display.
Again not a change in costume or powers, Superman got a major status quo shakeup in the 90s. Since 1938, a key conflict in the book had been Superman’s relationship with Lois Lane. He loved Lois, but Lois totally ignored Clark Kent and lusted after Superman. As Superman was unwilling to reveal his secret identity for fear it might place her in harm’s way, the romantic tension between the two existed for decades. And while alternate futures and out-of-continuity stories almost always revealed them to wind up together as true loves, the comic seemed unable to take that step for fear of losing one of the central conflicts in the character’s mythos.
Considering Superman’s interaction with outside media, it’s probably fitting that the ultimate shakeup in this seemingly static status quo occurred due to a TV show. When The Adventures of Lois and Clark aired in the early 90s, a decision was made that Superman and Lois would get married, and that the wedding in the show would coincide with the wedding in the comics. As it turned out, the show’s original plans got scrapped, forcing it out of synch with the comic. Meanwhile, though, the comic book handled things in a very excellent way.
Lois didn’t wind up falling in love with Superman in the comics. Instead, she fell in love with Clark Kent. The two began dating, grew close as a couple, and only then did Clark reveal his identity to Lois. Their “one true pairing”-ness got further emphasized through future adventures, such as when Superman was lost in time for years with Wonder Woman as his only companion and never actually showed any romantic interest in what many writers see as his perfect counterpart, always pining for Lois and ultimately returning to her. The two got married in 1996, and have been together ever since as an example of one of the few happily married couples in mainstream comics. To younger comics fans, Lois and Clark hooking up might not seem all that big a deal. When the tension between the two had been teased for over 50 years without ever being resolved, it was a huge deal. Resolving something like that was a ballsy move that could have either destroyed the Superman mythos or brought them into fresh new territory. Fortunately, it did the latter.
That’s not to say Lois and Clark didn’t have troubles in their relationship. For example, before they could get married, there was that period of time when Superman was dead…
The Death of Superman
This is the big one. With sales flagging and the planned marriage between Lois and Clark on the rocks due to tie-ups with the parallel TV series, DC needed a new boost to Superman in 1993. They decided to do the unthinkable and actually kill Superman. And just as Superman’s appearance established the pattern of what a superhero was, his death firmly reinforced what a modern superhero’s death was supposed to be, both for good and ill.
If anyone needed a reminder of how big comic books are in society despite being a niche market publication-wise, Superman’s death was a prime example. National news outlets reported on the story. Sales boomed. People really got duped into believing that the Man of Steel was dead. Thus the comics industry learned how to make a quick buck: kill off an iconic character, have a not-as-good replacement fill his shoes, and then bring him back.
Despite the fact that the pattern would get ripped off and diluted throughout the 90s and into the 2000s the actual death of Superman wasn’t all that badly done. He died as a hero fighting a nearly unstoppable monster known as Doomsday and saving millions of lives. The following “Funeral for a Friend” storyline showed off what Superman meant to everybody, be it other heroes in the Justice League or just the common man. Following his death, not one but four other characters tried to take up the Superman mantle, all failing in their own way, each showing the world how big “a job for Superman” really is. Notably, three of the four characters became long-lasting heroes of their own – two as heroes (Superboy and Steel) and one as a villain for both Superman and the Green Lantern (Hank Henshaw, aka the Cyborg Superman).
Eventually, it was revealed that Superman wasn’t really dead but only near death, and he eventually stored up enough red sun energy to return to the land of the living. In keeping with the trend that superheroes in the 90s had to be stupid and ugly, he came back with a mullet and briefly wore a black costume and wielded a gun before finally going back to his iconic red and blue outfit.
Again, I really have to emphasize that despite being a massive sales ploy and having some plot-related flaws, the death of Superman actually wasn’t all that bad. It’s currently collected in a series of trades which are worth checking out. The story was also paid homage to in the Justice League episode “Hereafter” and the direct-to-DVD movie Superman: Doomsday.
Remember what I said about every comic book character in the 90s looking stupid? Well, for Superman, the mullet wasn’t the worst thing in that department. In the crossover event Final Night, in which an alien parasite nearly extinguished Earth’s sun, Superman lost most of his powers. Through ways that make little sense to me and that I don’t clearly remember, Superman got his powers back after the sun was re-ignited, but got turned into some sort of electric being. He needed a containment suit, got some new powers, and lost some old powers. He did gain the interesting side effect of losing his powers entirely when he was in his Clark Kent form, which had some story potential. Overall, though, this was a pretty lame attempt to reinvent the Man of Steel, especially considering how much he had gone through in recent years, revealing his secret identity, getting killed, returning to life, and then getting married. Furthermore, changing up an icon like Superman by giving him non-iconic powers was pretty weak. Creating an electricity-based character might have worked, but grafting it onto Superman made little sense, even in a world of aliens, mad scientists, and magicians.
Complicating matters even more was a six-month period when Superman wound up getting split into two beings, known as Superman Red and Superman Blue. This was based on an out-of-continuity tale told back in the 1960s, when Superman duplicated himself and the two Supermen teamed up to effectively create a utopia, curing supervillains and resolving the long-standing love triangle between Superman, Lois Lane, and Lana Lang. It was okay as a one-shot. As a six-issue storyline, it was just one of those nonsensical, confusing things. The bright side is that it did represent an end to the Electric Superman era. They didn’t even really bother to explain how he returned to his iconic powers…it was just a matter of, “Poof! I’m better now!” The writers obviously saw some declining sales numbers or other indicator that the move was not well-received and did a 180 on the whole thing.
Overall, the Electric Superman era wasn’t really all that bad. It was more a stupid idea with bland execution. The stories were mediocre, but there was one big benefit out of the whole thing: Superman ditched his mullet after this era.
In 2008, Superman didn’t change, but his identity as the last son of Krypton did. While other Kryptonians that had been done away with back in Crisis on Infinite Earths had slowly leaked back into continuity, such as Supergirl and Superman’s dog Krypto, the theme of Superman being an alien alone on Earth had lasted since his origin. In 2008, he was alone no more. The bottled city of Kandor, the last Kryptonian society that had been shrunk to miniscule size, was restored to normal, creating a city of 100,000 Kryptonians, all with Superman’s level of power. This was actually a pretty neat concept that showcased the versatility comics has – it’s easy to try crazy new ideas without worrying too much about sales impacts because something as iconic as Superman is guaranteed to be around in comic form ad infinitum.
100,000 different Supermen on Earth became an immediate problem, especially since they weren’t all as nice as Superman. Earth’s paranoia eventually got the Kryptonians to leave and form their own planet on the opposite side of the sun, which became New Krypton. As an idea, it was glorious. Having a whole planet of superbeings had some great potential. Superman and Supergirl got a family of sorts. And Superman’s old enemy, General Zod, made a turn into anti-hero territory as the leader of New Krypton’s military.
And then it fell apart.
Obviously, New Krypton was supposed to be temporary plotline. But it seems that the writers didn’t know how to end it well. So instead General Zod turned back into a one-note villain, Lois Lane’s father went genocidal, and Lex Luthor was given a pardon by the government on the condition that he help take out New Krypton. Superman, instead of being torn between his two worlds, immediately sided against New Krypton, and the whole thing really ended on a down note, especially since the 100,000 other supermen turned into movie extras, getting mowed down with ease by Luthor’s machinations. Apparently, Lex’s devious plans work on any Kryptonian other than the big guy in a cape.
The only real bright side to the New Krypton story is that it brought Lex Luthor back from being a convict to being a brilliant and evil scientist with a whole corporation at his disposal again. Paul Cornell has recently been writing Lex in Action Comics, where he is running around the world with an android duplicate of Lois Lane who has chain guns in her arms. It’s crazy, it’s fun, and it’s one of the best comics out there today. Plus, it represents Lex’s biggest win over Superman – he went and stole Supes’ original title away from him. That’s like the Joker suddenly becoming the star of Detective Comics.
As of this writing, Superman is wandering America on foot. Yeah…
See, J. Michael Straczynski of Babylon 5 fame took over the writing duties on Superman starting in Superman #701. Although a good writer overall, Stracynski has his share of bland ideas. In the storyline “Grounded,” Superman is fresh off the massacre of New Krypton, which most people seem keen to forget ever happened. He’s confronted by a woman who slaps him in the face for not saving her husband (a guy he didn’t know) from an inoperable brain tumor (using a skill he doesn’t know) with his heat vision (a method which probably would have killed the man). For some reason, this woman’s insane sense of entitlement gets Superman feeling like he’s lost touch with the normal man, so he starts a walk across America.
And…well, so far, that’s about it.
The idea of Superman getting back in touch with the common man is a decent one- to three-issue story arc. A twelve issue run, though, gets a bit boring. The problems are compounded by the fact that Straczynski seems to have skipped a lot of recent comics, leading to scenes like Lois wondering if Superman really needs her, Superman flying her into the sky while talking about how much he needs her, and so on. It would be a nice scene, had it not already been repeated a couple dozen times over in the last two decades. Superman’s handling of “small issues” is also pretty questionable. In the latest issue, for example, his way of dealing with a father who beats his son is to threaten the father in front of the boy. That’s a cathartic way of handling things, but it is really ignorant of the actual problem behind domestic violence – there’s a reason kids go into counseling for something like that instead of getting ringside seats as a police officer beats the crap out of a bad dad.
Fortunately, Straczynski is soon bailing on this bland storyline to deal with another version of Superman, Superman: Earth One, which is an out-of-continuity retelling of Superman’s origin story. That allows him to go on and on with iconic scenes that everyone has seen before, but with the benefit of it being new for this continuity. I’d go into that as well as gems like Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, but if I were to get into out-of-continuity takes on Superman, this rant would be several hundred pages long.
So that’s Superman. Of the makeovers he’s received over the years, the only one that has really held is his marriage to Lois. I guess in his case you just can’t mess all that much with a great icon.