Five years ago, around the release of Superman Returns, I began a look at its four-part prequel mini-series, examining how it changed Richard Donner’s original films and what it revealed about Superman’s five years of absence. After finishing three of the four issues, life and other Sequart duties interfered, and the series was never completed. Now, five years later, I’d like to do so.
story by Bryan Singer, Michael Dougherty, and Dan Harris; script by Marc Andreyko; Wellington Dias pencils; Doug Hazlewood inks
The issue begins with Lois arguing with Perry White, who wants her to write a “Why the World Needs Superman” column. Of course, she’s the logical choice, having printed the first Superman interview and coined his name for the public, as seen in the 1978 film. But now Superman’s been gone for five years, and she doesn’t want to write the piece.
Perry suggests that, as a back-up plan, he could call in “Vicki Vale at the Gotham Gazette. She knows a thing or two about caped wonders.” It’s an odd reference, because it suggests that Batman exists within the Superman cinematic universe. This might even be a reference to Burton’s 1989 film, which starred Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale, subtly hinting that the two franchises (at least up until Christopher Nolan rebooted the Batman films with Batman Begins) might share the same continuity.
This prompts Lois to agree, but she sits at her computer, unable to find the words. Interestingly, the computer has a block for a cursor, suggesting that it’s a more primitive model, like those in the late 1980s or early 1990s, which helps to reflect the idea that this story takes place five years after the original Superman films — or if we believe Bryan Singer, after Superman II. Lois has a photograph of her family, as seen in Superman Returns, on her desk. After apparently looking at it, she narrates, “I won’t let Superman turn my life inside out again.” Along with her initial refusal to write the story, this suggests that her feelings towards Superman aren’t anything like they used to be.
Going up to the roof of the Daily Planet building, Lois has a smoke, a habit seen in Donner’s films. She narrates that she “promised Jason [her son]” that she would quit. She struggles with why she’s finding the piece so hard to write: “I don’t know why I’m letting this get to me so much. I have a great life. I have a great family. I have a great career. / Why does Superman always throw my life into chaos?”
A two-page flashback retells how Superman saved her, after the Daily Planet helicopter slid off this same roof. She narrates that she often needed him in the past but that “I stopped needing him long ago.”
Lois’s personal struggle continues at her home. As her husband lies in bed, she’s standing wide awake. She struggles with her identity as both “investigative journalist” and “suburban mom.” It’s a struggle familiar to many professional women, who must balance their careers with a domestic life that feels incongruous. “He’s not coming back for you,” she narrates, suggesting how fragile her new family life truly is. Even five years later, writing a story on Superman is enough to summon up her old, embarrassing feelings.
This triggers a second flashback, which begins with a page recounting Lois’s first interview with Superman, which leads into Superman taking her for a flight. That flight from the 1978 film has become iconic, and it’s mirrored in a very different context in Superman Returns. Before we’re shown the actual flight, however, a page of newspapers showing Superman’s career intervenes, teasing us that we won’t be shown the flight. The double-page splash that follows, however, fulfills .
A series of brief flashbacks follows, depicting various meetings of the couple. In one, Superman blows out Lois’s cigarette, which is sort of a dick thing to do. In another flashback, Lois has written an exposé on Intergang, an organized crime operation from the comics that never appeared in the movies, while Clark has called Lois “Superman’s girlfriend” in print.
A double-page collage follows of Superman rescuing Lois, including after the California earthquake seen in the 1978 film. Over this, Lois acknowledges that she put herself in danger, knowing that Superman would save her.
This is all pretty routine fare, but not the page that follows. It begins with Perry White demanding that Lois get a quote about the discovery of Krypton, news that we also saw in the second issue of the prequel. Not coincidentally, Clark Kent has gone missing. Lois narrates how she waited: “I figured there was an earthquake in Micronesia… / …or a kitten up a tree in Osaka.” But eventually, “the world had to admit” that Superman was gone. A Daily Planet cover provides the punchline to the sentence, noting that Superman hasn’t been seen “since Krypton discovery.”
In the aftermath of Superman’s disappearance, Lois feels that the whole world has turned to her as the world’s “Superman expert.” “He’s gone,” Lois tells Jimmy Olsen. “How many different ways can I write that?”
It’s a completely logical turn, and it’s hard not to sympathize with Lois, who’s (literally) flown so high, only to be brought to Earth. Because she has feelings for Superman, having to be the world’s “Superman expert” must be especially painful.
Lois is on the Daily Planet roof, sneaking a cigarette again, when she hears a voice behind her say, “Those things’ll kill you, you know.” It sounds like Superman, but it’s Richard White, nephew to the publisher. That the two met in this manner helps to cement the interpretation that Richard’s really only a substitute for the unavailable Superman.
We next see Lois and Richard collaborating through the night at work, and Lois notes that he “was damn good at his job.” Further suggesting that the story’s technology isn’t up to date, Richard says, “Remind me to send a ‘thank-you’ note to the inventor of ‘spell-check.’” Richard kisses her, and she returns the kiss. “Richard was damn good at a lot of things,” Lois narrates suggestively.
Richard and Lois keep their relationship a secret until a Christmas party, when Richard kisses her under the mistletoe.
On the next page, Lois gives birth to a baby. She shouts, “I can’t believe I let you do this to me!!”, implying that she thinks Richard is the father.
On the very next page, Jason is a young boy and the TV news announces that it’s been five years since Superman’s disappearance. Jason asks, “Who’s Superman?” — which points out that, after five years, a generation is being raised that has no memories of Superman. This also reflects that Superman, once a household name, had fallen out of public consciousness in the years before Superman Returns, especially with the young.
In the present, Lois smokes a cigarette outside of her home. She’s still thinking of Superman, presumably because of the news that he’s now been gone for five years. Hearing a whooshing sound, she turns and even begins to speak to Superman. But no one’s in sight. Calling herself an idiot, she goes back into the house.
Apparently that night, her writer’s block breaks. Working on a laptop, she writes about loss: “The thought of never seeing someone we depend upon, someone we admire, someone we love, hurts.” But, she writes, we must move on.
At the Daily Planet, Perry White greets the piece favorably, although he notes that it’s “not even remotely what I asked for.”
She takes the rest of the day off, telling Perry that she’s found herself. We watch her exit the Daily Planet and walk in the busy Metropolis streets.
At a newsstand, a vendor is selling copies of The Daily Planet. Besides its coverage of the five-year anniversary of Superman’s disappearance, a headline reports that, “In California, San Andreas Quake Fresh in Minds” — a nice touch, showing that the major events depicted in the 1978 film haven’t been utterly forgotten, as is so often the case in action and super-hero stories.
The title of Lois’s article is “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.”
Reading it is a man who looks remarkably like Clark Kent, raising the possibility that the whooshing sound Lois heard was indeed Superman, following his return early into Superman Returns, also seen at the end of the second prequel issue, which focused on Ma Kent.
Of the four prequel comics, this issue and the second issue have the most in common. Both were written by Marc Andreyko, and depict Superman’s return or events that take place after it. Both also focus on women left behind when Superman journeys to Krypton.
But the two women have very different reactions: Ma Kent remains faithful to her son, patiently awaiting his return; Lois decides to move on with her life. This difference may be seen to reflect many different things: the fact that Ma Kent knows her son to be Superman and is thus closer to him, Lois’s feminist attitudes, or the generational difference between the two women.
The Prequel Comics in General
As a whole, the prequel comics don’t add terribly much to the story of Superman Returns. Nothing here is revolutionary. Despite each issue running 30 pages, they feel slight, as if Singer, Dougherty, and Harris offered only brief descriptions of each story, or even only pages from the characters’ bibles, which the comics writers fleshed out. Several pages could have been compressed or eliminated altogether.
They prequel comics do, however, help to further tie Superman Returns into the original films by director Richard Donner. The film itself accomplishes this tonally, though quirks in the characters, and references from Luthor’s obsession with land to the wonderful flying sequence that so beautifully, sadly, and poignantly recasts the 1978 flying sequence with Lois. The prequel comics accomplish this visually, through flashbacks. Some changes do occur to the Donner material, although mostly minor, and some additional scenes are added – none of which is revolutionary, although it does demonstrate the remarkable fidelity Bryan Singer brought to his continuation of the Donner films.
The prequel comics also give these characters a bit more space, helping to flesh out Superman’s absence. The most important issue here is the third, focusing on Lex Luthor — his relationship with both Kitty and the widow Gertrude seem rather unexplained in the film, and this issue fleshes those out a little bit. It’s also nice to contrast Ma Kent’s reaction with Lois Lane’s, as well as to see how she met Richard. All of this might is worthwhile, and it might have been fleshed out to make a sustained narrative with a power all its own, while still a prequel to Superman Returns. As they are, the prequel comics feel a bit more like sketches, rather than the prequel narrative they might have been.
But they’re certainly worth reading and considering, as one considers the brave and beautiful Superman Returns.
Also available: “What Bryan Singer Has Done,” on the film itself.