The Life and Death of (Another) Superman

Art by Rags Morales

Continuity. It’s such a loaded word for comic book fans, both a prime reason for the medium’s longevity and a bane to many readers. When telling stories about characters over the course of sixty or seventy years, the stories have to change. There’s no room for innovation otherwise. Marvel Comics has operated on sliding timeline, attempting to keep the most of their characters’ histories intact while fudging the details that just won’t work any more as the decades go on. Their distinguished competition DC Comics has favored reboots, relaunching their characters with new origins. This method is ingrained in DC’s DNA, dating back to when a rebooted version of The Flash heralded the birth of the Silver Age of comics in 1956.

In 2011, DC rebooted their universe once more in a bold initiative called the New 52. To tackle Superman, the cornerstone character of their line, they turned to acclaimed writer Grant Morrison and artist Rags Morales, who offered up an exciting reinterpretation (along with Sholly Fisch, who penned some equally impressive back-up stories). I’ve already written fondly of this 21st Century Superman, who I felt was one the greatest successes of the New 52. And now with the publication of Action Comics #978 this past week, it’s time to say goodbye to him.

DC’s latest publishing initiative, Rebirth, is a course-correction from the New 52’s shortcomings, a tacit acknowledgement that perhaps they tossed out a little bit too much of what worked. To their credit, they’re weaving an ambitious overarching story to rewrite their characters’ histories and restore what probably shouldn’t have been removed. In the case of Superman, much has been returned to the pre-New 52 status quo, including his marriage to Lois Lane and many of his adventures since 1986. His origin now resembles the one presented in Superman: Secret Origin by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank. Beautifully illustrated, it was a fun and serviceable origin story with heavy devotion to Richard Donner’s beloved Superman film. Christopher Reeve’s portrayal in the film will forever remain the platonic ideal of the character. When striving for the best, there’s no greater starting point.

With this restoration the “neoclassical” Superman, the New 52 origin story must go away. I am not one of those fans who will bemoan DC’s decision and accuse them of ruining my preferred new Superman but, well dammit, I’m going to miss the guy. Never before had Superman taken on the status of a homespun folk hero. He was more Johnny Appleseed and John Henry than Jesus, Moses, or Apollo. After decades of messianic stature, it was irresistible to watch him make great leaps but not yet be able to fly. The t-shirt and jeans outfit, complete with a cape made from the blanket in which he was wrapped as a baby when sent to Earth, couldn’t be farther from the Christopher Reeve take on the character, but was familiar enough to know he’d one day get there. Calling back to Superman’s earliest comic book appearances, this Superman was a social crusader who focused on his community rather than the world at large. He was a Superman we could all become, rather than one we could never reach (that’s not to say we shouldn’t still strive).

Of course, we’re talking about a Grant Morrison story here, so it’s no surprise that this newly grounded folk hero was soon thrust into a series of wild, pop-psychedelic, science fiction adventures that spanned from Mars to the fifth dimension. The stories moved at such a chaotic pace that suggested Morrison was as much a passenger than the captain steering the ship. (See the subtle revisions made to the original publications when collected to gain insight into how the story evolved as Morrison wrote it.) For every impossible situation, Superman found the impossible solution. The absurdity worked because of the potency of this new portrayal. And while this take on Superman is no longer “in continuity,” it’s impossible to believe he’s gone for good. For starters, he’ll always be where I can find him on my bookshelf (next to this statue of the t-shirt and jeans look, of course). And, secondly, no great idea stays dormant for longer. With the weird and wandering nature of the DC Comics universe, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see this Superman again one day.

Read for yourself with these three volumes of Action Comics:
Vol 1: Superman and the Men of Steel
Vol 2: Bulletproof
Vol 3: At the End of Days

To close it out, here are some of my favorite pages and panels from the run:

When Superman debuted on the scene, no one–including the police–knew what to make of him… and no one could keep up with him.


 

Leaving Lois speechless was a feat few could accomplish.


 

Before flight was a given, Superman needed a running start.


 

The work didn’t stop after defeating the alien robots.


 

More comfortable and familiar with his powers, Superman’s efforts soon became miracles.


 

The power of a child wearing a cape speaks to the never-ending inspiration Superman can give to all of us.


 

This page might as well be written in a foreign language, but it’s wonderful nonetheless.


 

The pay-off to this mention of angels taking Martha Kent away still brings tears to my eyes.


 

A young man and his dog following a reality-shaking adventure.