Search for a Superman
When I started getting into comics, friends began recommending trade paperbacks for me to read. I was told I should read The Dark Night Returns, The Long Halloween, Batman: Year One etc. All these Batman titles were fun, often darker and smarter than I was expecting, but I couldn’t help feeling that I was neglecting someone. You see, long before I started reading comic books, when Batman was just a campy character from a sixties TV show, the real heroics were being performed by another guy in tights.
That guy was Superman. More specifically, Dean Cain in the TV series The New Adventures of Superman. I was a bit young for the Christopher Reeve movies, but with the TV show, I did believe a man could fly, leave handprints in speeding vehicles and thwart Lex Luthor at every turn. It was great! Of course, as you get older, your tastes change. As a kid, I was enthralled by an invincible hero, stronger, faster and just plain nicer than anyone else around. Now, I want a character that’s a bit less perfect. Batman does all the cool secret-identity, stopping the bad guys and saving the day stuff. At the same time, he’s got vulnerability. He’s only human. He has no real super powers and he can be hurt which means that he has to be smart and tough to win.
As if that wasn’t enough, Batman is driven by revenge, out to get the bad guys, because bad guys killed his parents. How cool is that? Far more interesting than Superman’s relentless drive to do the right thing. All the same, I couldn’t help feeling that there must be a Superman out there that I can connect with. Nostalgia is a funny thing; I don’t want to give up cider and go back to drinking strawberry milk but I am drawn back to Superman. I can’t explain it, but there are plenty of reasons to enjoy Superman, be it lingering affection for a childhood hero, a fresher infatuation from seeing Superman’s latest big screen outing or simply a desire to become acquainted with the DC Universe’s and, lets face it, comics’ biggest star.
The trouble is, when a character has been running since the 30s, how do you know where to begin? Current Superman continuity runs through two or three different titles, and the character is currently embroiled in the fallout from DC’s Infinite Crisis crossover. If you think you’ll enjoy diving right in at the deep end, great; I’m not here to discourage you, but if you’re finding the whole thing a little confusing then maybe you’d be better to start with one of the many Superman trade paperbacks.
My own first approach was to go with a trusted creator. In my first column, I explained how Alan Moore’s Watchmen got me into comics, so I decided to try out Alan Moore’s Superman. Moore hadn’t written just any Superman story, in 1986 “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” was officially the last Superman story. In a way. 1986 was the year of DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. I’ll be talking about that in more depth next month, but for now this is what you need to know: the Crisis was designed to simplify the ridiculously complex DC Universe. Afterwards, all of the company’s heroes could be re-imagined, redefined or streamlined from the origins up.
So, Alan Moore was asked to pen the last ever Superman in the old continuity, a celebration of all the old characters that would shortly disappear or change forever. It’s a neat little two-parter that sees an older Lois Lane being interviewed by a young reporter. She is retelling the story of how Superman apparently took his own life, consumed with guilt after killing Mxyzptlk. However, at the end of the story, it is revealed to the reader that Lois’ husband is in fact Superman in disguise, retired from crime fighting and settled down with the love of his life.
It’s a good idea, but by its very nature this story is likely to confuse new readers who don’t know the minor characters or other elements being celebrated. So perhaps it’s not a good story to start with but one where the affection shines through. The most interesting part was Moore’s typically intelligent introduction which tells us, “This is an imaginary story,” before asking, “…aren’t they all?”
After this last story and Crisis on Infinite Earths, the job of creating a new, modern Superman was given to John Byrne and Dick Giordano. So, after reading Moore’s book, I picked up the Superman: The Man of Steel trade paperback. It collects the first six issues of their run, in which the creative team tweaks Superman’s beginnings while keeping all the essential elements. There is nothing much to complain about. There’s nothing horrible or badly written, no glaring omissions, nothing to make a reader cringe. The only trouble is, twenty years on, there isn’t much to excite the reader either.
Even if you’ve never picked up a comic before, you’d have to be very young to be surprised by the contents of these six issues. The world and his mother knows how Superman came to Earth from Krypton, that his alter ego moved to Metropolis where he fell in love with Lois Lane, that he becomes a nemesis to the evil Lex Luthor. We don’t need to read them again. At least I don’t. I didn’t bother picking up the second volume.
By now, I must be looking quite picky. I got confused by old Superman and bored by new Superman. So let me introduce a Superman that I really like: Russian Superman. Mark Millar’s miniseries Red Son asked, “What if Superman had landed not in Smallville, USA, but in Lenin’s Russia?” The expansive scope of Millar’s story thoughtfully recasts every key aspect of the Superman mythos to fit this differing origin and also takes in Batman, Wonder Woman and the Cold War. It’s an intelligent work that avoids an obvious, USA rules, communists are horrible, attitude.
Over the course of a several decades, Lex Luthor becomes American President and an unexpected guardian of democracy and freedom. Meanwhile, Superman takes reluctant control of Russia, gradually taking the world under his wing and bringing near universal prosperity and happiness, despite an underground resistance spear-headed by the Batman. As the two leaders move inevitably towards a final confrontation, the reader is forced to question who really is in the right. Is it the democratic USA, with hate figure Lex Luthor as its figurehead? Or could it be that the Reds are in the right, with famously moralistic Superman as its guardian?
The book doesn’t sacrifice character in favour of plot. The relationships between each of them is pitch perfect and the book is a perfectly balanced whole, a classic. It comes to a fantastic, satisfying conclusion which keeps you thinking long after you finish reading. I won’t spoil the ending here. I can only urge anyone with an interest in Superman, or in good comics generally, to go out and buy a copy.
Another great Superman book is A Superman for all Seasons. After successful work together on Batman, A Superman for all Seasons sees Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale trying their hand at a Superman story. The book covers a similar period to the Man of Steel book mentioned earlier, but instead of covering the dramatic elements that push the plot forward, Jeph and Tim focus on Clark’s personal relationships with his parents, Lois Lane and Lana Lang. The creators look at the emotional impact of becoming a Superman, as well as depicting some early encounters with Lex Luthor. It’s a moody, charming work with great drawing and especially fantastic colours. The most attractively drawn and coloured comics that I have read.
Although the book’s main draw is the beautiful pictures, they are never allowed to overwhelm the story, which is engaging and touching, the young Clark Kent wholly believable. Burly and lantern jawed rather than smart and chiseled, distracted rather than sharp. In fact, the only problem with the book is its brevity. I read the whole thing in about an hour and if you’re on a tight budget you might want to do what I did and see if you can find it in a library. Although, you may then be tempted to go out and buy your own copy.
Another great portrayal of Clark Kent, as a clumsy, brawny, “Country lummox,” is in the new All-Star Superman series. Frank Quitely draws Clark as a guy not quite at home in a suit and in issue #1 there is some great physical humour. Sadly, at the end of the first issue, Superman reveals his identity to Lois and we don’t see much of Clark after that. Shame, because the interplay between Lois and Clark is great, but the rest of the series is just as much fun. Grant Morrison brings an enjoyably inventive silliness to Superman. With a cocky, funny Jimmy Olsen, dimension jumping rivals for Lois’ affection and a Fortress of Solitude full of exciting goodies, it’s a nice antidote to the darkness and seriousness of many modern comics.
That’s it for this month. Next time In the Beginning will be looking at a couple of crossovers. In the meantime, Ted Hurliman will be back with more Comic Sense.