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Goodreads Shelf: Superman
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.)
Braniac is also a great villain, worthy of the Kryptonian. Superman should fight more aliens. Mongol as well. I always had a thing for the animated series incarnation Brainiac
Oh on to the reboots, reboots, and more reboots.
John Byrne didn’t turn out to have the last word after all. Mark Waid replaced Man of Steel origin with his own, Birthright. Well done, and this time Lex was a exo-biologist as well as business tycoon. Clark was written with much humanity.
Grant Morrison wasn’t done with Superman either. Although still not writing the monthly series, All-Star Superman was a most perfect story continuing in the Silver Age tradition. Really, illustrated by Frank Quitley, it’s the most perfect story ever made.
When Grant Morrison finally could write a monthly Superman series, it took the destruction of the DC Universe and recreation in the New 52. This go-around, the premise was that superheroes had only been around for 5 years, and it was the ‘world outside your window’ kind of thing. Superman needed a new origin yet again…
It was good ol’ Grant Morrison, with higher dimensional imps and a “fuck the system” punk ethos. Superman was signifigantly powered down though, ala his first appearance back in 1938 when he leaped tall buildings in a single bound instead of flying. The T-shirt look was interesting.
Currently Superman’s costume is a Jim Lee design, all modern without the whole superhero underwear look.
Mostly, I’m not a fan of the new 52. I continued reading Action Comics, Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern and some others, but I eventually gave up and I’m not terribly interested in the whole thing. Superman of 1986 – 2011 with all the baggage and all the continuity, he was forever the character I was invested in.
I will read the upcoming Convergence series with Superman going back to the pre-New 52 (by Dan Jurgens! Pregnant Lois!) but overall I’m not so obsessed with DC anymore.
Guess I have to grow up eventually, and read more grownup comic books.
But before I do, spinoffs:
Supergirl by Peter David was solid. While she’s supposed to be the big guy’s cousin, in the post-Crisis continuity there weren’t supposed to be other Kryptonians. Instead, there was a convoluted origin involving a shapeshifter, and then a possesing angel, until finally they went back to the simple explanation that’s she’s Superman’s cousin. The two versions even overlapped for a while.
To me, he most important spinoff of all would be the Legion of Super-Heroes. Now this is escapist scifi. Living in the 30th Century, this team of teenage heroes invited Superboy way back in the Silver Age. Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, Lightning Lad, Lightning Lass, Triplicate Girl, Braniac 5, Chameleon Boy, Element Lad, Ultra Boy, Phantom Girl, Invisible Kid, Star Boy, Bouncing Boy, and Matter-Eater Lad.
They had their share of reboots, due to many confusing time travel storylines. I’m partial to the post-Zero Hour take in the 1990s by Mark Waid. The Legion have a broad mythology of their own, and I’ll write a whole post later.
That’s it for Supes.
Next up, what everyone’s really been waiting for… Batman!
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Some people like to complain that Superman is too powerful. Sure, everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but I say screw them. Superman is meant to be an inspiration; a living embodiment of what a superhero is supposed to be. He always tries to do the right thing no matter how tough it can be. He always tries to come up with a better way than to simply kill his enemies. His character is something that we can all aspire to be.
Personally I prefer Supergirl over Superman, but not because I don’t like Superman. Clark Kent is often more of an archetype than an actual character, which can work, but it leaves little room for improvement. Kara on the other hand has a lot of room to grow as a character and her development is more likely to skip (that is when they don’t revert her with a reboot). She’s a superhero, but has a lot of maturing to do before she’s an inspiration the way Superman is. It could be a part of my habit to prefer legacy characters over the originals though, with Batman being the main exception to the rule.
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I totally agree!
Know what you mean about Clark. Sometimes I did like the portrayal on Smallville — which I left out because I don’t wanna get too teen drama-y — but by and large Superman is the real person and Clark Kent is the disguise.
Bring back the super mullet.
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Superman’s definitely my favorite comic book character of all time so it’s always nice to read a story with him. He’s definitely been through a whole lot of changes over the years, but I’ve liked most of his portrayals. I don’t even mind the New 52 version although I didn’t like him in TDKR…too much of a government lackey for me. Solid article!
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Dark Knight Returns is the ultimate ‘Batman is cooler than Superman’ story. Its still brilliant as a Batman tale primarily. Back before Frank Miller loat his mind. But more on Batman next week…
I agree with you, Superman doesn’t get the respect he deserves. I’m surprised by how many prefer the Dark Knight, but I suppose you already said it, in so many ways, folks these days like their superheroes to be “realistic”. Which I don’t get….
Now I understand making them more “relatable” and such, but what Iove about my superheroes are the stories, the fantastic, the otherworldlyness, the ability to create someone new and special. Realism maybe the product of our times, but I think we shouldn’t loose our ability to have child-like wonder and dream, a little.
I must disagree with you; The New 52 series overall is my favourite for solo comics as well as big events (Forever Evil.) Geoff Johns and Morrison are my favorites when it comes to story telling and having plans.
Speaking of Superman and the Justice League; are you going to watch the newest animated movie?
The Aquaman one? It was okay film, but I don’t love that version of the League. Adequately entertaining, better than the first.
Perhaps I’ll get more into New 52 several years from now when there’s more history…
I didn’t like how it differed from mera going to kill him and casually falling in love, to her just going to find him. Mera was downplayed hardcore.
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I just realized I left out my Goodreads shelf.
Take a look, that’s 88 graphic novels at last count! I am counting Justice League and crossovers so maybe cheating, but a bit impressive no?
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