The idea of someone else taking up the mantle of a superhero who dies or retires is so engrained into superhero comics that I imagine many reacted to the reveal that Shazam is the masked Superman five years from now like I did: so what? It was an interesting mystery to see how and why Superman had changed from the character we know, but the fact that someone else was Superman wasn’t anything good or bad. It was a neutral move, one almost expected from a superhero comic set in the future. Of course someone else was Superman. If not him than Batman. Or Green Lantern. Of the Flash. It can’t be a superhero future without at least one replacement hero. That people would feel betrayed by someone else donning the mantle of Superman is somewhat foreign to us as readers. It’s one of the things Futures End has gotten exactly right.
The lack of a mask is always what set Superman apart. We knew he had another identity, but, to many people in his world, the fact that he didn’t wear a mask was a sign that he was the one hero that was completely open and honest about who he is. He was Superman and no one else. That singular identity made Superman so powerful in the collective conscious of the denizens of the Nu52DCU. It’s something that’s always been played up when contrasting the character with Batman or Spider-Man. It’s why there’s dark comedy in reading his Silver Age stories now as he went to such ridiculous lengths to trick Lois Lane into thinking he wasn’t Clark Kent. Those stories seem so antithetical to Superman’s central honesty; the entire concept of a secret identity does. That another hero would co-opt Superman’s identity and pose as him is almost sacrilegious in a world where the purest embodiment of goodness, selflessness, and what god could/should be actually exists.
The intentions of Shazam do not matter and, really, show a fundamental misreading of Superman’s goals. It strikes me as funny that, in an industry based so much on taking what others have made and using it for their own purposes and reshaping it endlessly, that the biggest superhero’s message was always one of people taking inspiration from him to do their best in their own way. Superman never wanted anyone else to be Superman, he wanted them to be the best version of themself. He wouldn’t want Shazam to be Superman; he would want Shazam to fill his absence by stepping up as Shazam and leading the way without any false pretenses. It’s about inspiration, not mimicry; about self-improvement, not self-denial. That’s partly what Billy Batson seemed to understand in last week’s Futures End: Superman issue.
In Futures End #22, Dr. Yamazake’s defeated reaction to the idea that Superman has become a sham hits hard, if only because it’s so antithetical to everything we understand about superhero comics, both within the worlds of the comics and outside of it. Superman’s identity changes many times over in a year, usually. Despite all of Grant Morrison’s talk about these characters being more real than us because they will live longer than most people, there’s such a fluidity and flexibility to these characters because new people write them all of the time. Are they really the same characters? Is Dan Jurgens’s Superman the same as Geoff Johns’s? Is Frank Miller’s Batman the same character as Scott Snyder’s? What if the reveal was that this was Kal-El/Clark Kent only five years in the future where he decided that he liked wearing a biker mask and talking in abrupt, quasi-rude sentences? Would that be the same Superman still?
It’s rare for anyone who encounters Superman is only ever see the same Superman through the totality of their existence. You can boil the character down to its core and you would be left with something that no one has ever really encountered, because that’s not a character. It’s a list of a few traits that all of the Supermans have shared. So, how can we do anything but see a man broken at his numerous loses, capped off by the reveal that Superman isn’t Superman, and wonder “So what?” I don’t understand the depth of this betrayal and what affect it could have on a person. I’m not sure I ever will.