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.
Birth 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 the explanation became that Krypton had greater gravity than Earth, allowing a normal Kryptonian to seem super-powerful on Earth. Various other origins for Superman’s powers cropped up here and there, until Action Comics #262 finally established the importance of Earth’s yellow sun in Superman’s abilities–an idea that caught on and has remained a part of the mythos ever since.
While the Superman most people know is a mild-mannered boy scout even when he takes off Clark Kent’s glasses, 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 flight became something he could do. Similarly, Kryptonite was invented for the radio series when Superman’s voice actor Bud Collyer got ill and needed time off. These influences from other media eventually became part of the comics. By the end of the 1970s, Superman had developed more powers than writers knew what to do with.
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-weaving. He went from being a superhero who could jump 1/8th of a mile to a guy who could sneeze out stars. His insane power levels made it difficult for writers to tell interesting stories with him. Thus, when the classic comic crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths revamped the DC Universe, Superman got a complete reset. John Byrne reinvented the Superman mythos and scaled back a lot of his powers. Now Superman could no longer fly into space without a spacesuit. While still amazingly strong, he couldn’t juggle planets anymore. His power set went 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 starred in a porn film with Big Barda from the New Gods, Byrne’s reboot of Superman was one of his most successful pieces of work, arguably only second to his collaboration with Chris Claremont on the X-Men.
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. Today’s 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.
Since 1938, a key conflict in the Superman’s ongoing story had been his relationship with Lois Lane. He loved Lois, but she 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 had them to winding 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 spent a decade and a half as an example of one of the few happily married couples in mainstream comics.
It’s worth noting how big a change the marriage between Superman and Lois Lane was. The tension between the two had been teased for over 50 years and had been a key component in four feature films. Resolving something like 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
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 stored up enough solar 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, wore a black costume, and wielded a gun for a short time. The black costume and gun disappeared quickly, but the mullet unfortunately remained.
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 ones.
The electric form basically discarded a very popular and iconic look that had stood the test of time, leading fans to largely reject it. Electric Superman did have a few interesting side effects, though. For example, he lost his powers entirely while Clark Kent, giving Superman a chance to experience actual vulnerability now and then. 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 didn’t really pay off.
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 inspired by 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 that comics tend to do. 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 indicators 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 zany 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.
The New 52
2011 brought about the biggest reboot DC had seen since Crisis on Infinite Earths. As a result of the Flashpoint event, the DC Universe went into total upheaval to the point that every title got canceled and the whole comic book line restarted with 52 new #1 issues.
The exact details of the New 52 universe were kept fuzzy at first, to the point where some speculated that DC didn’t really know how the whole thing worked. An early issue of Swamp Thing suggested that the Death of Superman story had happened, but many other stories had not.
In terms of his background, Superman was no longer married to Lois Lane, and she had no idea he was Clark Kent. Superman’s parents had died before he came to Metropolis, and stories emphasized his alien nature to make him more of a fish out of water. His costume, rather than being something his mother designed for him based on his Kryptonian heritage, became ceremonial Kryptonian armor. In terms of attitude, he became a lot sulkier, as was the general trend for most characters under the new imprint.
A series of flashback issues in Action Comics showcased some of Superman’s early days in the new universe. At the beginning of his career, he resembled the Golden Age version of the character, complete with the inability to fly and the tendency to lean more on vigilante justice rather than following the law. During these times, he wore jeans and a t-shirt along with his red cape as a proto-Superman costume that I personally think kinda worked.
DC intended the New 52 to revitalize their superhero comics, which had largely been circling the drain sales-wise for years. The revamp did give a short-term boost in sales, but ultimately fell back into the same tired storytelling and continuity snarls that had plagued the line for ages. By 2015, DC’s Convergence event all but declared the experiment a failure, and the words “New 52” were abruptly dropped from all of the company’s comics.
This shift resulted in a major change for the new Superman. Specifically, it was time for him to die…again.
The Convoluted Collapse of the New 52 Superman
When the New 52 failed to generate the long-term results DC was hoping for, the company opted to shake things up with Superman again…this time in several ways. First, they revealed that the pre-Flashpoint version of Superman had been pulled into the new timeline created when the Flash inadvertently rebooted the universe. This version, whose power levels fluctuated, lived on a farm with Lois and their son Jon and fought crime in secret, wearing a black suit.
Meanwhile, during the storyline Darkseid War, the active Superman went through a transformation that supercharged his powers. But in gaining even more power than usual, Superman critically damaged his cells, meaning that he was doomed to die. The general concept, but not the execution, mirrors the classic elseworlds story All Star Superman, in which the Man of Steel became stronger than ever before at the cost of his cells slowly dying off.
The increase in his powers eventually reversed, and Superman wound up weaker than he ever had been before. During this time he went back to wearing a t-shirt with his logo on it, drove around on a motorcycle, and fought for the common man.
A treatment involving Kryptonite actually reversed the dying process temporarily, temporarily restoring Superman to health. But this cure was only temporary. Ultimately, in dealing with another impostor Superman who happened to be dying in the same way, the New 52 Superman perished in a burst of red solar energy that disintegrated him–leaving behind his replacement, the old Superman who became the new Superman.
I feel that this sort of flip-flopping highlights one of the problems when comics become too wrapped up in continuity fixes. While the original death of Superman was hardly creatively pure, it at least told a fairly impactful story that successfully engaged new fans. The second death was a series of story arcs fused together to bring the “real” Superman back into the forefront–a distinction that most people who don’t ardently follow DC Comics care little about.
Regardless of all the changes, Superman is so a part of the public consciousness that he’s never away from his iconic look for long. The red cape, blue tights, even the underpants on the outside are all things that people have come to love and expect about the Man of Steel’s look. No matter what stories might change him, he ultimately tends to go back to the look that the world knows and loves.
Images: DC Comics