Like everyone else who writes about comics, I’ve spent a big part of the last week thinking about Superman.
Yes, we saw Man of Steel, and yeah, we had mixed feelings about it. I’m not really interested in re-litigating the whole thing again, though, especially since so many other people have already written exhaustively about the film. (And I mean exhaustively— I got exhausted just reading all the endless arguments about the movie, so I’m really not looking to start a new one here.)
The bottom line for me was, that’s not my Superman. If it was yours, hey, great. Enjoy it.
But what tripped me up when I was trying to explain my reservations to my friends who really dug Man of Steel was… who is my Superman?
Everybody has their own, which is kind of the problem when you have a pop culture icon who’s been around for seventy-five years. That’s half again as long as James Bond and Star Trek have been around, and look how much people disagree about which iterations of those are the ‘real’ ones.
By the way, as far as Trek and Bond are concerned, these are mine. In case you were wondering. I’m really more of a book guy to be honest.
I mean, I know who my Superman’s not. He’s not the mopey emo guy who stalks his ex in Superman Returns, he’s not the tormented twentysomething that was on Smallville, he’s not really in the current comics DC’s putting out. He’s certainly not the guy that was completely unmanned by a civilian slap in Grounded. He’s not the chipper condescending guy George Reeves played in Adventures of Superman. He’s not really the guy Dean Cain played on Lois and Clark, either, though I liked that one. He’s not John Haymes Newton or Gerard Christopher on Superboy. He’s more like the guy Henry Cavill and Christopher Reeve played in their movies… but he has better writers. Kirk Alyn got pretty close too, but again, the story wasn’t quite there.
You see what I mean? For me it’s like everybody gets a piece of it, but nobody really nails the whole. And this problem gets horribly compounded when you add in the supporting cast and villains. For example, Christopher Reeve got pretty close to my idea of Superman but that sure wasn’t my Luthor that he went up against in three of his four movies. I didn’t care for the George Reeves Superman at all but Jack Larson as his Jimmy Olsen felt almost letter-perfect. The science-fiction, first-contact-with-an-alien approach that Man of Steel takes to the character really resonates with me, it very much echoes the old Edmond Hamilton SF take I loved so in the Weisinger-era comics, but I have serious problems with the characterizations of Jonathan Kent and of Superman himself.
And so on. This is why there’s always so much arguing among fans whenever there’s any kind of a relaunch… because each one of us tends to have a very specific idea about not just who Superman is, but also Lois and Perry and Jimmy and the Kents and Krypton and the Fortress and Luthor and Brainiac and… well, you get the idea. Hell, I saw people on the net last week in a spit-spraying rage over how Man of Steel portrayed Pete Ross. It’s impossible for anyone to get all of it right for every fan out there.
Just for the hell of it, I thought I’d look back and see if I could figure out when Superman crystallized for me; the moment when I said to myself, “That’s it. Nailed it.”
A lot of people assume it’s your first one, whichever that was. That’s not me, though. My first Superman was on television, the 1966 animated version from Filmation. The New Adventures of Superman.
I liked it a lot, don’t get me wrong. That show was probably one of the most faithful adaptations of comics-to-film that has ever been done– the transition from that cartoon to the Superman comics of the time was so seamless for me that I hardly noticed any differences.
And I can pretty much recall which Superman comic was my first, too. I think it was this one. Superman #217, from sometime in early 1969. A 25-cent Giant, of course.
So those were my first encounters with Superman, and both of them imprinted pretty hard. The 80-Page Giant comic, especially, was a great introduction to the weird world Superman lived in, and it was much more about the galaxy-spanning science fiction than the prank-on-snoopy-Lois hijinks that today the internet generally refers to as “superdickery.” I probably had looked at other Superman comics before than, but this is the first one I remember really digging and rereading over and over. It was the one that got me interested.
It had the first Lori Lemaris story and the first Brainiac story– as well as what would be the first of many Superman stories I read dealing with villainous Kryptonians. I remember that I liked the Brainiac one, introducing Kandor, a lot, and also the one with Mala, the rogue Kryptonian.
But the one that grabbed me especially was the introduction of Metallo. He was just so evil, and his freaky Kryptonite heart that powered him was such a creepy gimmick. I loved it.
I was eight years old, and that was just exactly the target age for those stories. And compared to the relatively simple Filmation cartoon shorts, this stuff was hard SF. (Although even at age eight, I didn’t quite get how melted Kryptonite wasn’t still lethal, or why Superman used his X-ray vision to melt it and not his heat vision.)
But those were mere nitpicks. From that point on, whenever I saw a Superman Giant, it got my quarter.
I was on board for the science-fiction Superman, especially as rendered by Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson, and scripted by Edmond Hamilton.
The stories about the history of Krypton (especially the bottle city of Kandor) but also the saga of Brainiac and the Coluan computer tyrants, the tragic irony of Luthor and the planet Lexor… all of that stuff. I loved the scale of it. To a kid like me, the grand opera of it all, with Superman as a citizen of the galaxy that ranged across all space and time– that was the good stuff.
So that’s a big part of it for me, the idea that Superman isn’t necessarily earthbound. My Superman and his world– and most especially, his villains– should be science-fiction on a galactic scale. There was a time when Luthor thought nothing of hopping in a rocket ship and venturing to some far-off asteroid in the hope of recovering the perfect super-weapon, or traveling back in time to tamper with the history of Krypton. That’s a Superman-worthy villain.
But it wasn’t my perfect Superman, not THE version. The simplicity of the Weisinger-era version of Superman was pretty easy to grow out of. By the time the 1970s arrived, I was ready for… something more. As much as I had loved the Superman stories in the Giants, they seemed a little staid and schoolbooky compared to the dynamism I was seeing in stuff like the Neal Adams Batman or even the Fantastic Four reprints in Marvel’s Greatest Comics.
But– fortunately for me– that was right around the time Superman himself got a makeover.
In particular, I really got into the dynamic visuals Jack Kirby was bringing to the NEW Jimmy Olsen.
There was no idea too big for that book, and Kirby seemed like he was bursting with not just ideas but also new ways to present them. Nothing was off-limits.
It took me a while to get on board with the rest of Kirby’s Fourth World, but I was all over the revamped Olsen. I loved it all– the Newsboy Legion, Project Cadmus, Transilvane– everything. The weirder it got, the more I was loving it.
Hell, I was even digging the insanity that was Goody Rickels, the caped twin of Don Rickles.
But it wasn’t just Kirby tearing it up on Jimmy Olsen. I was also really into the saga of the parasitic Sandman over in Superman, by Denny O’Neil and Curt Swan. It was the dynamic covers that hooked me but the story kept me.
It took most of a year to unspool and I haunted newsstands trying to keep up with it. And the payoff was big enough to feel like it was worth it.
(You don’t have to spend a year piecing it all together like I did; you lucky kids today can find it all between two covers, in the collection Kryptonite Nevermore. Pretty cheap, too.)
So there’s the next piece. I like my Superman to have really dynamic visuals. Big sprawling vistas. Big action. Just…. big.
But it still wasn’t quite right. There wasn’t much humanity to it all. The 1971 revamp of Superman had him acting like an arrogant jerk a lot of the time.
(Of course, in O’Neil’s Sandman saga, that was on purpose, setting up his ending– but at the time, I didn’t know it.) Naturally Superman was good at everything, he was Superman for God’s sake… but he didn’t have to brag about it all the time.
What’s more, the Clark Kent/secret identity stuff, which I’d always liked –even if I thought Lois was a bit of a bitch about the whole thing– wasn’t given very much play. I liked the contrast between the cosmic-scale Superman and the earthbound, nerdy Clark. When there was no Clark Kent in a Superman story– even just the standard scene of a lame excuse and a dash for the stockroom– I missed him.
But it didn’t matter, as it turned out. Even if I had loved 1971’s NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN! without reservation, they weren’t to last. Suddenly in both Superman and Action, it was back to the gimmick stories and the sedate art– although Nick Cardy kept the dynamic covers coming.
Despite my disappointment at the short-lived nature of the NEW! take on Superman, I’d often take a chance on a Superman book just based on those brilliant Cardy covers.
Even though the interior art never seemed to match up to the apocalyptic promise of the covers, suddenly the stories themselves seemed much more character-driven, and Clark Kent’s supporting cast had gotten a lot more interesting. Lois suddenly wasn’t an obsessive shrew any more. Despite no actual Jack Kirby being present, Jimmy Olsen was still a Kirby-esque adventurer. It was true that Clark’s new status as a TV reporter strained credulity, but nevertheless it worked for me because that added characters like Morgan Edge and Steve Lombard, and they were shaking things up in a good way. Best of all, as far as I was concerned, Clark was being played as a doofus again, but the writing was smarter.
This was largely due to the arrival of writers Elliott Maggin and Cary Bates. Maggin, especially, had a knack for finding ways to humanize the last son of Krypton and make him believable.
So my Superman should have a humanizing supporting cast and the contrast between Superman and Clark Kent should be a big part of things. There should be warmth and humor… but not slapstick, not Superdickery.
So that’s pretty much what I’m looking for in my Superman. Let’s recap:
Science fiction on a galactic scale, with really dynamic visuals, a humanizing supporting cast, that plays up the contrast between Superman and Clark Kent, and tells a story with warmth and humor.
That’s my Superman, the minimum requirement I carry in my head. Looking at it like that, you’d think it wouldn’t be that hard.
And yet no one ever could hit all those marks. There had been stories I liked but somehow no one could put all the pieces together. A story with great Superman/Clark stuff would be saddled with a dumb gimmick or a lame villain. Or a brilliantly cosmic Superman epic would get the Clark and Lois stuff all wrong. There would always be some flaw. More than anything else, the thing that kept me from being a regular Superman reader was the uneven quality– there never seemed to be a consistent run of stories that I liked enough to stick around.
It was somewhere in the mid-70s that I pretty much gave up on Superman. I decided I was more of a Marvel guy. I liked Superman as a character, I liked spending time in his world, but it was an abstract thing… month-to-month, the comics rarely seemed to live up to the ideal version I wished for.
Then it happened. I finally got my perfect Superman story.
Not in comics, or cartoons, or even a movie. No, it was a prose novel– Elliot Maggin’s Last Son of Krypton.
The funny thing is, it was a fluke– it happened because they needed a novel to tie in to the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie, but they didn’t want to pay Mario Puzo additional book royalties, which he would have been owed on any book derived from his screenplay. They already had the Maggin manuscript sitting in a drawer, so they published it instead of an actual novelization of the movie. Though it was still disguised as a movie tie-in.
In fact, I bought it off the stands in 1978 thinking it was going to be the movie story, and for the first hour or so of reading I was overjoyed– this was going to be the greatest Superman movie ever! Then I got to the photo section in the middle and realized this amazing story I was reading couldn’t actually be the movie. But I still loved the book and it immediately became my favorite Superman story ever. The story had a galactic sweep with lots of spectacular super-feats, great character bits with Clark and Lois and Steve Lombard, background on the boyhood of both Superman and Luthor, and even cameos from Albert Einstein and the “old-timer” Guardian from Green Lantern/Green Arrow. It hit every single mark I specified above and then some. (The funny thing was, the big visuals were all in my head– conjured there by Maggin’s prose. But they were there.) It was brilliant. I didn’t think it could be topped…
…until the same thing happened a couple of years later, with Maggin’s Miracle Monday, the not-a-novelization tie-in book that accompanied the theatrical release of Superman II. Again the huge sweep, the terrific character stuff, and even higher stakes… and the best Clark and Lois scenes anyone’s ever written.
That was my Superman. That was the guy I’d hoped to see. Now I had a benchmark. I was totally okay with waiting for a new Superman movie to get the next Maggin novel if they were going to be that good. Boy, was I bitter when I found out they actually did a plain old novelization for Superman III, and Elliott Maggin was nowhere in sight.
Have there been any Superman stories I liked that much since then? Sure. My Superman, despite what some people reading this might conclude, is not confined to the 1970s. Gerber and Colan’s Phantom Zone miniseries is definitely a high-water mark for me. I was lukewarm to what John Byrne did, and his Superman was definitely not mine, but the folks that came afterward seemed determined to get guys like me back. During the years of the triangle-numbered, weekly-serial format Superman comics had in the 1990s, I thought the combo of Louise Simonson, Roger Stern, Dan Jurgens and Jerry Ordway hit a real groove there for a while. And the Bruce Timm animated Superman strikes me as damn near perfect.
More recently, Grant Morrison hit most of my marks in All-Star Superman, as did Mark Waid in Birthright. I think Kurt Busiek’s Superman run is criminally underrated, especially considering how much juggling he had to do to keep his stories consistent with what other folks were doing; I especially like “Camelot Falls” and “The Third Kryptonian.”
Admittedly, that’s the last time I really was enjoying Superman. I’m not crazy about the new 52 stuff so far, and I don’t care for the versions we saw in Superman Returns or Man of Steel, but that doesn’t mean I’m done with Superman forever. The one thing I’ve learned is that these things come in cycles. Maybe it’ll be comics, or a new animated series, or even a sequel movie with Henry Cavill. Maybe one of these straight-to-DVD cartoons they’re doing will hit with me. Whatever. Sooner or later, there’ll be one I can enjoy without reservation.
And in the meantime, there’s all the old stuff on the shelf. I can’t get all worked up and betrayed about a new movie when I already have so much Superman material I enjoy.
And for that matter, you probably do too. Maybe you loved the new Henry Cavill movie, or you’re a big Smallville fan, or maybe you’re a Golden Age Siegel & Shuster purist. Whatever it might be, some version has hit you as hard as the Maggin novels did me, unless you have yet to come across it– but I’m certain your Superman is out there somewhere.
That’s why I can’t see the point of having a big internet brawl about it. When it’s a character that’s been around for seventy-five years in one form or another, there’s something for everyone.
Speaking of which, feel free to tell us about “your” Superman down in the comment section if you like. You know mine, but I know mine isn’t everyone’s, and I’m curious about which version resonates with other people.
See you next week.
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