In 2011, DC Comics made the surprising and controversial decision to reboot their entire line of comics, erasing years of continuity and starting fresh. In promotional images for the reboot, all their main characters had new costumes designs that reflected this new era. No longer were DC’s heroes clad in spandex. The red trunks Superman famously wore for decades were gone. His costume (and the costumes of his peers) more resembled battle-ready armor. But unlike the rest of the Justice League, Superman was featured in a second promotional image with a completely different and even more surprising outfit—a t-shirt and jeans.
While the ongoing Superman series featured the character in the present day, Action Comics (written by Grant Morrison with art by Rags Morales) jumped back five years to show Superman’s earliest exploits in this new continuity. Initially Morrison was only going to write the first six issues of the series, telling the story of how Superman went from his Midwestern farmboy look to the Kryptonian armor he’d wear in present day. As Morrison stated in an interview with the London Metro, “With what we’re doing he’s wearing jeans and a T-shirt—a Bruce Springsteen version of Superman, that’s the angle we’re taking. The cape’s still indestructible but the rest is picked up in a shop.” That cape, Morrison revealed in the series, was in fact the blanket Superman was wrapped in as a baby before his parents rocketed to Earth, adding more to the home-spun quality of this incarnation.
In addition to this change in appearance, Morrison focused on contemporizing the character while also going back to his earliest incarnation. The Superman who debuted in 1938 was not the all-powerful god-like character he later became. He could leap tall buildings, but couldn’t yet fly. He was tough, but not entirely invulnerable. He was more a social crusader than a superhero, fighting corrupt politicians, evil landlords, and abusive husbands. Morrison smartly knew this entry point was as relevant now as it was then and used it to launch his take on Superman. We knew he would soon be fighting monsters and aliens, and with every leap, he’d get closer to flying, but the excitement came from watching him get there. He did, of course, and Morrison eventually brought Superman into the present as he extended his run from six to eighteen issues. Morrison’s later issues featured his usual brand of pop psychedelic sensibilities that earned him a multitude of both fans and detractors, but something about that initial “Bruce Springsteen version of Superman” left an impression. It resonated with both comic creators and readers, which is why it wasn’t a surprise to see DC Comics come back to it a couple of times.
Over the years, the question of Superman’s relevancy has come up repeatedly. With each decade, new creative terms have added and subtracted to his mythology, but public perception remained locked on the mature, paternal George Reeves Superman of the 50s and then the charming, pure-hearted Christopher Reeve Superman of the 70s and 80s, whose success could be attributed to the fact his portrayal was in such sharp contrast to the times. In 1978, the world needed that take on Superman. As Superman’s father Jor-El says in the film–speaking of the planet Earth–”They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.”
Regrettably, the blinding optimism that Reeve’s Superman offered was no longer enough. Many creators attempted to make Superman relevant, and some even succeeded for a time, but with the nature of comic books, a new creative team or editorial mandate can unravel everything that came before. In the thirty years since DC Comics’ last reboot, Superman has struggled more and more with his place in modern culture. Some of the most memorable stories of the past decade played up the nostalgia of the character’s greatness (see Geoff John’s run or even Morrison’s earlier–and brilliant–series, All-Star Superman). But few stories offered a Superman relevant for the times.
It’s been nearly four years since the t-shirt and jeans Superman was introduced, and if you pick up the latest issues of any Superman series, you’ll once again find him sporting that look. Current storylines have left Superman with his secret identity revealed to the world, partially depowered, and without access to his Kryptonian armor. His birth blanket/cape was shredded, and Superman now wraps pieces of it around his knuckles as protection during fights. Because he’s Superman, the audience knows he’ll find himself out of this new series of predicaments, but just how he will is entirely unknown. It’s as exciting as those early issues in Morrison’s run, waiting for him to fly for the first time.
One of the writers steering Superman’s latest adventures is Greg Pak, who scripts both Action Comics and Batman/Superman. He has built off Morrison’s groundwork while developing Superman into a richer and more captivating character. He writes a Superman who is wise, but not all-knowing; steered by his values, but not old-fashioned; impulsive, but not reckless. He isn’t afraid to do what’s right even if it conflicts with laws or goes against the general consensus. He’s grounded and relatable, but without being dark and gritty, as comic characters often become. This, it seems, is finally the modern Superman.
The current Superman may be depowered, but he’s lost none of his strength. That much is evident in the most recent issues of Action Comics, which has Superman helping defend a neighborhood against an aggressive police force. The allusions to Ferguson are unmistakable. Of course some right-leaning news outlets have jumped all over this storyline, angered by the sight of Superman punching a police officer. And then some of the left were down by the revelation that the police officer leading the charge was under the influence of an evil entity, feeling it diluted the importance of the message. You can’t please anybody, it seems.
The critics on both sides are allowing their politics to overshadow what is, at it’s core, a meaningful and compelling story. Superman does not have it out for the police, and the police being possessed isn’t a cheat. Great fiction should reflect reality. But instead of looking to reproduce reality, it should push us to examine in ways we ordinarily wouldn’t. Superman allows us to do that here. In this story, he’s standing up for what he believes in, protecting people, and fighting evil. He’s simultaneously true to who he was in 1938 and entirely new for 2015. He gets to serve as an inspiration for both other characters in the comics and the readers.
These days, we don’t need a Superman who can turn back time by flying around the planet. We need a Superman who inspires with his feet on the ground, instead of from high above. It’s remarkable to see DC Comics tap into that and give us this new, powerful take on Superman. Perhaps it’s true that clothes do make the man and, in this case, I hope the t-shirt and jeans stick around for a long time.