Comics Portal: Whatever Happened to Superman?
Welcome to the weekly column in which I preview upcoming comics, talk about industry trends, and just get things off my chest!
The last few days I’ve been thinking about the news that Grant Morrison is leaving Action Comics. There’s been a lot of speculation about just who will replace him, and of the possibilities I’ve seen, I’d want Mark Waid, Paul Cornell, or Jeff Lemire. Each has created some “super” stories!
While many people are enjoying Superman, it’s been one of the better-selling and yet least-consistent (when it comes to creative teams) titles in DC’s New 52 ever since the “relaunch” a year ago. With Action now making changes, I’m concerned about the Man of Steel’s future!
To paraphrase Alan Moore, whatever happened to Superman?
When he first appeared decades ago, Superman leaped “tall buildings in a single bound.” There’s a good reason for that — he couldn’t fly! Much like the Incredible Hulk in the ‘60s, Superman got around by jumping from place to place. Like Batman, he fought organized crime and mob bosses a lot of the time and righted wrongs smaller in scope.
As time passed, though, Superman’s powers ramped up, and he faced foes more in line with his upgraded abilities, including space baddies and huge robots! Perhaps the folks at National Comics wanted to make the difference between Batman and Superman more pronounced! (However, even Batman would fight more sci-fi foes in the ‘50s and ‘60s.)
We started seeing a Man of Steel with powers that were god-like in nature, including the ability to push planets around with his bare hands! At this point, even Brainiac and Luthor weren’t a problem for Superman.
When the “relevant” ’70s arrived, DC Comics found that Superman wasn’t selling as many copies each month, so like Green Lantern, the Man of Steel was turned into someone the average reader was more likely to understand.
I know this sounds silly now, but a sand creature arrived on Earth and sucked away about half of Superman’s powers. We’ve never seen that being again, to my knowledge, but Superman became less “super” and more “man.”
Perhaps the biggest example of this was the Superman movie starring Christopher Reeve. Yes, Superman could move Earth back in time (although it required a lot of effort, obvious from the strain on the actor’s face), but he was someone that audiences could “relate to” since he wasn’t “perfect.”
This continued in Superman: The Animated Series from Bruce Timm. If you surprised the Man of Steel, you could overwhelm him. For instance, Batman did this at the end of the first episode in the World’s Finest trilogy when he flung Superman across the room.
With Superman not so powerful, what made him different from, say, Batman? Well, he became more “moral,” the conscience for superheroes in DC regardless of whether this was in the comics or in Justice League on Cartoon Network. It was often said that it wasn’t his power that made him Superman — it was his morality.
Superman didn’t struggle between choices very often because he had a very clear sense of right and wrong. He never makes the wrong call!
That quality can be really tough for writers to challenge, and that’s impacted Superman stories in the last several years. Eventually, I’m afraid it will impact the sales of Superman and Action as well. Who wants to read about someone who never makes a bad decision? Who can relate to someone like that?
This brings Superman to an interesting crossroads. I’ve also enjoyed the tales featuring the Man of Steel in the New 52, but Superman needs a direction that will make him as interesting a character as the villains he faces. (Check out Mr. Cornell’s recent Action Comics when it focused on Luthor, for example.)
For what it’s worth, I say give Superman over to Mr. Waid. He’s always been great at distilling characters down to their essence, then seeing things from angles no other writer has ever figured out before! (I loved his Fantastic Four, particularly when Doctor Doom finally decided to use magic against Reed Richards. Poor Reed had no idea how to fight that, being a man of science!)
One last note: I don’t mind Superman’s new armor. While cloth costumes were cool back in the day, today’s villains have bigger and better weapons to throw at the Man of Steel! And nothing stays the same forever! Even Superman should be allowed a change of clothes once every 60 or 70 years!