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Grumpy Old Fan | Relaunches, history and Superman #13

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | Relaunches, history and <i>Superman</i> #13

Thanks to creators’ rights issues and the way DC Comics (and its corporate parent) chooses to treat the families of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, a tragic, dissonant pall hangs over discussions of Superman. It makes a minor status-quo change, like the one used to hype this week’s Superman Vol. 3 #13, seem even more trivial. It’s often hard to reconcile the rich and fairly fascinating development of the world’s first superhero with the knowledge that the character’s creators didn’t (and their families don’t) share equitably in Superman’s attendant success.

Because Superman is so long-lived, the events of Superman #13 are a consequence of that success. They arise out of the perceived need to modernize a character who’ll be 75 years old next spring. However, the issue offers more subtle clues that the New 52 Superman may be changing in ways the hype doesn’t directly suggest.  While I cannot ignore creators’ rights, today we’ll look at those clues primarily in the context of Superman’s overall history.

Now, when I say “larger history” I’m not kidding. As you know, Jerry and Joe’s creation debuted in 1938’s Action Comics Vol. 1 #1. Kal-L, son of Krypton’s Jor-L and Lora, was rocketed to Earth from his doomed homeworld, found by John and Mary Kent, and raised as their son Clark. After their deaths, he left his rural home for Metropolis, and as Superman fought there for truth and justice throughout the 1940s.

However, in 1945 the first Superboy stories appeared (pitched to DC by Jerry Siegel), and … well, every time I try to explain this it sounds more important than it is, mostly because I want to use the phrase “alternate timeline.” Here’s the thing: The Superboy stories weren’t entirely compatible with the existing Superman stories, because the latter had Clark becoming Supes as an adult. There is a way around this, used by some fairly recent comics, and it is to say “we just didn’t talk about Superboy for a while.” Indeed, the Superman editors pretty much decided that Clark had always been Superboy, and Superbaby before that, because Superman was well on his way to becoming one of the biggest things ever, and more Super-material was more than welcome.

Accordingly, as the Golden Age faded into memory, the Superman brain trust of the 1950s and ‘60s presided over an explosion of Super-lore: a judicious spectrum of Kryptonite, other Kryptonian survivors like Supergirl, the Kandorians and the Phantom Zone criminals, a menagerie of Super-Pets, comedy with Bizarro and the Bizarro World, trips to the future with the Legion of Super-Heroes, an expansion of the Luthor line (including the planet Lexor), the “double-L” name as a motif, and any number of bizarre Jimmy Olsen escapades. That version of Superman — arguably even further from the original than Superboy might have suggested, and more powerful to boot — lasted some 40 years, until the 1986 relaunch. When the infinite Multiverse was introduced in the early 1960s, he was deemed the Superman of Earth-One, with the original stories assigned to an older counterpart on Earth-Two. (The Earth-Two Supes was first introduced as such in August 1969’s Justice League of America #73.)

It’s worth taking a little time for a brief biography of the Earth-One Superman. Born Kal-El of Krypton, to parents Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van, he was rocketed to Earth as an infant and adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent of Smallville. The Kents made his baby clothes out of the red, blue and yellow blankets in which he had been swaddled, and because those blankets were from Krypton, they became “super” under the influence of Earth’s yellow sun. They also gave Clark a convenient “Superbaby” costume, and they would be reworked later into his Superboy and Superman outfits. (Clark also used metal and glass from his rocket to make a pair of indestructible glasses.) In Smallville, Clark palled around with friends like Pete Ross and Lana Lang, and as Superboy he befriended, then alienated, young Lex Luthor. Young Clark also knew a good bit about his Kryptonian heritage, played with his childhood pet Krypto, and traveled to the 30th Century for adventures with the Legion of Super-Heroes. Nevertheless, the Earth-One Kents died toward the end of Clark’s high-school career, prompting Clark to leave Smallville for college, and for Superboy to become Superman. (For many years this was one of the few unexplored periods of Superman’s career, only revealed in detail in 1985’s Superman: The Secret Years.) The rest is largely history: the Daily Planet, the Fortress of Solitude, partnering with Batman and helping to found the Justice League, training Supergirl, and working briefly in television.

I mention these details not so much because they’re necessary to Superman’s development, but because, for whatever reason, they stuck with him for so long. Even by the early ‘70s, when much of this lore was still fairly recent, new editor Julius Schwartz and new writer Denny O’Neil felt the need to modernize. (Thus, the WGBS move, which lasted longer than O’Neil did.) By the mid-‘70s, the Superman books had apparently gotten more comfortable with the Silver Age trappings, and Curt Swan’s familiar (but versatile) art tied everything together nicely.

In that respect, the 1986 revamp (courtesy of writer/artist John Byrne, writer Marv Wolfman, artist Jerry Ordway and editors Andy Helfer and Mike Carlin) was a pretty radical housecleaning. I’m not passing judgment on whether it was necessary, I’m just saying it got rid of a lot. Essentially it took out most of the Silver Age, didn’t kill the Kents, and let Lana in on Clark’s secret. It also shifted Clark’s perspective, so that he considered “Superman” an alternate identity, as opposed to the Earth-One “Clark” being the fiction. I do think it made Superman more accessible, but I never thought the Earth-One stuff made him particularly inaccessible. (In fact, the “triangle number” system arguably demanded more of a ‘90s Superman reader than Bronze Age trivia ever did.)

SPOILERS FOLLOW for Superman #13:

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Coming after 25 years of post-1986 continuity, the New 52 relaunch was even more radical. Where the Byrne/Wolfman/Ordway stories used a “smaller world” to focus on the familiar elements of Clark/Superman, Lois, Luthor, etc., the New 52 titles sought to be different both from their predecessors and even from each other. The Superman of Action Comics operated at street level, while “five years later” in Superman he had Kryptonian armor and dealt with a cutting-edge Daily Planet. Although the emphasis in 1986 was on showing readers that Superman wasn’t as complicated anymore, at times the New 52 books seemed to dare readers to reconcile them.

Thus, the New 52 Superman still seems to be finding himself, with Superman #13 more evidence of that. Written by Scott Lobdell, drawn by Kenneth Rocafort and colored very attractively by Sunny Gho, Issue 13 finds Superman testing the limits of his powers with a sexxay scientist in a skintight suit, taking a principled stand against infotainment and the decline of journalism at the Daily Planet, and fighting a giant monster who’s powerful enough to knock him to Ireland.

We are perhaps most concerned with Clark leaving the Planet, even though that’s nothing new.* Here, a number of factors lead to Clark’s departure. First, Perry White complains that Clark hasn’t been filing enough Superman stories, and Clark responds that Superman hasn’t been as active. When Lois (who’s now a TV producer) takes Perry’s side, Clark criticizes her show’s lack of hard news. Clark then learns (via a super-look at Lois’ cell phone) that she’s moving in with her boyfriend, so he leaves abruptly. Later, Morgan Edge comes down to Clark’s desk to yell at him personally for working on non-Superman stories — so Clark stands up, takes off his glasses, and rips Edge for his company’s lack of integrity. This, of course, is the last straw for both. The whole sequence takes four pages, plus an additional page of Clark talking to Cat Grant, who also quit shortly thereafter, in solidarity with him.

However, having Clark take off his glasses tells me that Lobdell is going for more than just a nod to the changing nature of news media. The powers-testing sequence reveals that Superman has gotten very chummy with Dr. Veritas. He tells her he grew up on a farm, which isn’t that much of a secret, but he then says she’s “the only person on the planet with whom [he’d] share this kind of personal information.” By that he probably means detailed physiological data — and Lobdell may want Veritas to remind us of All-Star Superman’s Dr. Quintum — but it helps establish the tension between Clark’s Superman career and his personal life.

That’s made plain on the next page, when Superman thinks “[s]omeday I’m going to figure out how to turn ‘saving the world’ into my day job.” Naturally, longtime Superman readers may well respond that Clark’s journalism career allows him to do just that, and Clark’s speeches about the power of the press pay lip service to the idea as well. Still, the issue as a whole wants to show that the New 52 Superman hasn’t figured out the proper work/superhero balance, and Superman’s somewhat casual attitude towards his dual identity hints further that his life might be getting a little unbalanced. Imagine Christopher Reeve’s “Lois, I have something to tell you” scene from the first Superman movie, only during office hours and more shouty.

Honestly, I was glad to see the giant monster. Rocafort and Ghu make Superman #13 a very pretty superhero comic, and condescending as it sounds, there are worse things to do with Superman than to have him fight giant monsters. Lobdell goes old school with his script, too, using thought balloons and an omniscient narrator instead of today’s first-person caption boxes.  He even combines his powers in a way that made me think of Elliott S! Maggin.  My only complaint with this issue specifically is that the dialogue is occasionally a bit forced, and it’s laid out oddly on the page, so that my eyes sometimes didn’t quite track the balloons properly. My larger complaint is with this plot, mostly because I thought the Clark/Superman balance had been resolved, such that this would be a step back. In one respect Superman #13 picks up on subplots established in George Pérez’s first issue; but that also makes it feel occasionally like a rehash of that issue, giant monster included.

That in turn goes to the lack of consistency in Superman Vol. 3. Editorial interference led to Pérez’s departure,*** Keith Giffen barely got his feet wet on the book, and Dan Jurgens didn’t last much longer. If Lobdell and Rocafort can stay long enough to build something substantial out of this issue, that’ll be an achievement in itself.

And that brings me back to what’s become almost a necessary component of ongoing Superman comics: the sense that regardless of how old the current Superman is supposed to be, or how long he’s worn the cape, he represents something greater. Not “greater” in the ethical sense, although that’s definitely a necessary part of his makeup, but in the sense that if there’s a Superman, there’s a world which both needs him and which invites the reader into it. In the Silver and Bronze Ages, and then in the post-1986 quarter-century, the writers, artists, and editors of the Superman titles populated that world with colorful characters, creatures, devices, and situations. (Maybe someday DC and TimeWarner will choose to reward the Siegel and Shuster estates appropriately, for making all that possible.) Even if a familiar status quo eventually reasserts itself, changing the details every now and then can be fun too. In the past year we’ve seen broad strokes towards a new vision of Superman’s world, both in the eponymous title and in Action Comics, but generally it’s been a series of uneven attempts. Even if it feels a little redundant, Superman #13 is a good step forward, and I’m looking forward to more.

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* [It’s about time, actually. Since he joined WGBS in 1971 and became NewsTime’s Editor-In-Chief around 1990, it seems to happen roughly every 20 years.]

** [For those of you who have seen the SpongeBob episode “Squid On Strike,” I liked the Cat scene more when I pictured her as SpongeBob and Clark as Squidward. “Goin’ on stri-iike! Goin’ on stri-iike!”]

*** [Surely there are no parallels here.]