If any one character deserves a really long solo post, it is Superman. That is, not just comic book/superhero characters. Any one character in all American fiction, period.
Most would agree that Superman is very important. However, he hasn’t gotten the movies he deserves (at least since the late 70s). Hasn’t been a top seller in ages. And everyone likes Batman better.
Don’t get me wrong, I love love love Batman. But I always felt resentful that everyone thinks the caped crusader is so much cooler than Superman. I prefer the Man of Steel out of sheer spite.
Seriously, I am a sincere fan. I like escapism, science fiction, exploding planets, time travel, that’s what comics are all about to me. It’s funny Batman is more grounded in the real world, yet he’s in the Justice League with aliens and mermen. I will admit one discrepancy: Superman needs Batman as part of his mythos but the other way around isn’t necessary. Batman can be in both worlds. More on Batman later.
First of all, let’s just admit that the superhero genre is supposed to be a bit corny. We’re talking about muscle men in skintight outfits saving the world from super-villains; it’s not meant to be gritty and realistic! That’s me. I find the literary quality comes from taking 1950s children’s stories and then somehow grounding them in plausible scenarios.
I like corny heroes. Captain America is my favorite Marvel superhero of all, and Cyclops is my favorite X-Men.
On Superman… Shall I start at beginning? In 1938 Jerry Seigel Joe Shuster created ushered in the superhero genre, a true American creation as valid as jazz, punk rock, and pop art. The metaphor is obvious in retrospect, the last son of the planet Krypton disguises himself as mild-mannered Clark Kent: He is the proverbial Jewish immigrant.
The Golden Age was the beginning. The Silver Age was totally weird and psychedelic. We’re all familiar with the films. Pre-Crisis Superman is classic, but he was a bit stiff. Too perfect, with only kryptonite as a weakness, he more than anyone needed a reboot.
Before the Crisis, noted genius Alan Moore and iconic artist Curt Swan produced Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow as this iteration’s last hurrah. Nostalgic yet serious at the same time, and nobody could write it like Moore. Goodbye, Kal-El.
“An imaginary story. Aren’t they all…?”
Then the Crisis happened. The previous “didn’t count”, or something. So came Marvel star John Byrne to do Superman his way. It wasn’t bad, but I preferred Byrne on team books like Fantastic Four. At least Clark Kent was three-dimensional. At least Lex Luthor was more formidable. New villains were introduced, but mostly it was just the start until the 90s Superman was to be fully fleshed out.
Dan Jurgens was in charge by then. Louise Simonson of X-Men fame was a good writer as well. Lex Luthor was cloned and recloned — kryptonite poisoning you see — Kirby-esque Cadmus Labs was made integral, Maggie Sawyer of the Metropolis Special Crimes Unit, and Clark even revealed his secret identity to Lois Lane when he proposed. A lot was added to the backstory.
Things were looking up. Yet, with all that competition from Marvel with those big crossovers, DC had to do something drastic to get noticed. They wanted an event. Hence came Doomsday, and the pivotal Death of Superman event.
Doomsday was a kickass villain. About damn time Superman faced more physical threats. Still, Doomsday had a rather simplistic motivation. He was mysterious and we later learned more, but the real point of the death was to introduce the Resurrection of Superman.
Superboy, the new clone. The Eradicator, a Kryptonian intelligence. Steel, a new DC hero of Justice League merit. And the badass looking Cyborg, whom of course turned out to be the villain. Then Superman came back to life, albeit with a mullet, and it was an epically great story unlike any other. We all have the fondest memories.
Over in the other side of the DC universe in the mid-90s, much was stalling. Meanwhile, the great Grant Morrison proposed that DC simply utilize the best they have and make the Justice League the premier team they were in the Silver Age. After doing away with the endless spinoff aspects, Mr. Morrison put in Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and the Martain Manhunter and made it as awesome as possible. Unfortunately, it all started during the mullet era.
Grant Morrison’s take on Superman, as well as Mark Waid’s, was crucial to how the character evolved in the 90s and 2000s. DC purposely wanted to downplay the more omnipotent aspects to Superman, make him just another decent hero with various states of dramatic conflict fighting average villains. But the critically-acclaimed writers wabted a classic Superman, embracing what makes him “super” instead of toning him down. JLA (Justice League of America) worked, it was DC’s top seller for years, the only title that legitimately competed with Marvel. Was a more cosmic take on Superman valid after all?
Perhaps. And then they changed his powers and him electric, a controversial move. Still lambasted today, though I kinda liked it. Whenever there are great changes to the status quo we all know it’s temporary, so why not have fun for the time being? Least he got a haircut.
Finally, in the 2000s it was decided that Superman should be more pure. Enough of the gimmicks. Grant Morrison and Mark Waid unfortunately didn’t get to lead the way, but writer Jeph Loeb and artist Ed McGuinness did their best.
I didn’t like Jeph Loeb’s writing, but McGuinness was spectacular. I say the cartoony-look worked well. Joe Kelly writing Action Comics was most brilliant of all. I miss that era. It all climaxed in the Our Worlds at War crossover, where Superman and the JLA fought a Galactus-type new space nemesis, Imperiex.
On villains, yes some are too lame. Toyman, the Prankster. Mxyzptlk ok. Lex Luthor, of course, is great but has always suffered from being a normal human up against the power of a Superman — intellect or no.
Metallo is cool. Parasite is decent. But overall, Superman’s old school villains haven’t been the best. Especially when compared to the classic rogue’s galleries of Batman, Spider-Man, and the Flash.
As said, I believe Lex’s rebirth in the 80s as a sleazy businessmen was a great improvement. In the 2000s, it went one step further. President Lex.
(Which “coincidentally” corresponded to the W. Bush years. Life imitates art or art imitates life? Seriously, I’m asking.)