SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Superman: Year One #2 by Frank Miller, John Romita Jr., Danny Miki, Alex Sinclair and John Workman, on sale now.
The non-canonical Superman: Year One #1 revealed a new superpower that manifested early in baby Kal-El. The power of subliminal mind control was a useful survival tool, and one that Kal again puts to use this issue. If one additional new power weren’t enough, Frank Miller and John Romita Jr.’s Superman: Year One #2 continues to expand the Man of Steel’s power set. And despite the story being out of continuity, it’s a power that the character’s mainstream incarnation would find useful, as well.
As it turns out, Superman can breathe underwater – and this discovery postulates he might not even need to breathe at all.
A Breath of Fresh – Whatever
So how did Superman discover this fact? He didn’t just now figure out he had this power – he already knew, but readers only now learn of it here. This revelation got started last issue, when Clark Kent turned his sights from the farmlands of Smallville to an enlistment with the U.S. Navy. As Clark endures – more like coasts through – the rigors of boot camp, his super vision allows him to catch a glimpse of something far more wondrous. Those wonders are the mermaids of Atlantis – off the coast of the Pacific Ocean, oddly enough – whose aquatic maneuvers fascinate him.
One night, Clark secretly goes AWOL to investigate what lies below the ocean’s surface. As he plunges into the sea, he doesn’t demonstrate the expected prowess regarding his super-breath – that is, holding it for hours at a time. Instead, he takes a deep breath – of seawater – and, just like that, he’s breathing in the same manner as the mermaids who have captivated him.
Yes, Clark can breathe underwater – and he already knew he could. “Adapt,” Clark tells himself, “You don’t need the air.” And with that, Clark explores the beauty of the oceans with a deftness and ease rivaling that of his future colleague Aquaman.
While this newly revealed power differentiates Superman from his mainstream incarnation, he does have one thing in common with his Silver Age counterpart, at least: his attraction to Lori Lemaris. Yes, Lori was one of Clark’s first true loves back in the day, just as she now is in this continuity. As solely an air-breather, though, Clark’s relationship with Lori was destined to fail. Now, however, Clark could forever join her in her own surroundings, should he so choose – and by issue’s end, it seems as though that’s exactly what he’s going to do.
If He’s So Super, He Shouldn’t Have to Breathe
The key to this power isn’t that Superman can breathe water – it’s that he doesn't need to breathe air. Sure, he might still need oxygen to survive, and his Kryptonian physiology allows him to process it from the water, like a fish. But is it literally the air his body doesn’t need, or can he survive without oxygen altogether?
Such a power would make a whole lot of sense for a being who routinely travels the airless cosmos. For all his other powers, Superman has only been able to traverse space with the added necessity of an oxygen supply. Whether provided by Wayne Enterprises tech, an airtight bubble generated by Hal Jordan, a spaceship, or some other story convenience, the Man of Steel still needed air. Superman has only been super while oxygen courses through his lungs – without it, he’d eventually be just as dead as the rest of us.
But if he could survive indefinitely in space – or in a lava pit, or buried alive, or on an airless planet – without the need for oxygen, that would truly make him super, indeed.
Superman: Year One #3, the miniseries’ conclusion, goes on sale Oct. 16. Readers will have to hold their collective breaths until then.