Superman Turns 70: It’s Not Easy Being Super, Man

supes_header.jpg…or What Do You Do With the Man of Tomorrow When Tomorrow Comes Today? In the first of our features on Superman’s 70th anniversary, Carlos Ruiz explores what makes the Man of Steel the toughest character to write in comics.

 

 

 

 

It’s Not Easy Being Super, Man

or What Do You Do With the Man of Tomorrow When Tomorrow Comes Today?

Illustration by Nick Main

Happy 70th Birthday, Superman!

Superman is 70? Seriously? He looks pretty good for a guy his age. No longer the freshman reporter from Smallville, Kansas, Clark Kent is now a seasoned Metropolitan; there is nothing that, either as Superman or Clark Kent, he hasn’t seen before or done twice already, only backwards and with heels on.

This is a problem.

The cover to It's a Bird by Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen. Click for a larger image.Writing Superman has to be the hardest gig in comics because everything that you can do with the character has already been done before. Hell, writer Steven T. Seagle even wrote a whole damn graphic novel about how difficult it was to tackle Superman (It’s a Bird)…and then he went on to write Superman. Ironically enough, his run is best remembered more for the graphic novel than by anything that actually happened in the book during his time there. But still, it simply goes to show how tough writing the Man of Steel really is. I mean, what do you get somebody who already has everything? What can you possibly do with someone who has done it all? What do you do with the "Man of Tomorrow" when tomorrow comes today?

Apparently writers in the mid 80s were already having this existential crisis before, complaining that Superman had become way too powerful, which lead to a "Crisis" (in the form of the 1985 mega-crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths) that resulted in a much less super Superman. Problem solved, right? Wrong.

Now to be fair, I’m a guy in my late 20s and I’m not that experienced with all the Golden and Silver Age Superman comics. I hear some are good and some are crap, but honestly who has that kind of time to go through it all? I came of age in the late 80s and early 90s, so the Superman I’m most familiar with is Post-Crisis Supes. Anyways, wasn’t Crisis on Infinite Earths suppose to wipe out all those Golden and Silver Age Superman stories and then reboot the title for a brand new audience, telling the same stories only different (sort of like a pre-Ultimate version of Superman, only fully in the continuity)? What? Now my head is starting to hurt.

So why is it so tough to write Superman?

First off, the guy is 70 years old! In comics, that puts Mr. Kent up there with Methuselah in terms of simply being around. Superman has been pimped around and turned out so many times by so many different people that you really have to wonder if the old boy has any go left.

Like with any other iconic character, you can’t kill him. No sir, there are too many lunchboxes to sell and too many movies and cartoons to make, so killing him off is out of the question. This is the inherent flaw in ALL ongoing comic books: for a story to be a complete story there has to be a beginning, a middle and an end. If you take one part away what is left is incomplete, so essentially the writers are just perpetually stuck in the middle of some never-ending story. No matter what they do—good, bad or indifferent—it doesn’t matter because nothing permanent will ever come from their work. Somebody is eventually going to undo it anyways, so what’s the point?

Not that it really matters anyways, because even if you wanted to kill Superman, you’d have a hard time figuring out how to do it since the guy is damn near indestructible. You can have him grow a mullet, turn all electrical, have him "killed" by some new villain only to come back as four different incarnations—a boy, a cyborg, a literal man of steel, and whatever the fourth one was [that’d be Eradicator, the "grim n’ gritty" one – Ed.] —but in the end Superman will have to revert back to status quo because that’s what people think of when they think of Superman.

So if you can’t kill Superman, then the next best thing you could do would be to hurt him and the only thing that really hurts him at all is Kryptonite. How many times have we seen a variation of that theme? "You won’t stop me this time, Superman, because I have this necklace made of Kryptonite!" Of course, absent of hurting him directly, you could hurt him indirectly and that is by striking at those he loves. If a villain found out that Clark Kent was Superman then they could hurt his parents or go after his wife. You could kidnap Lois Lane, but by now they both know that little dance all too well—backwards and with high heels on.

Superman is the baddest mother—shut your mouth!—on the planet, so he needs villains that are equally as powerful and bad ass as he is. Unfortunately for him, his rogue’s gallery might be the weakest among all the top comic book icons; certainly it pales in comparison to Batman’s gallery, which is the best in comics. But among that mostly forgettable gallery of wannabes and hucksters lie some heavy hitters and some shocking opponents.

Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor in Superman Returns.Hands down, the best villain that Superman has is Lex Luthor. Imagine someone as rich and as business savvy as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, combined with the intelligence of Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein, and mixed with the media mogul capabilities of Rupert Murdoch. Now imagine that person is pure evil and selfishness and what you have is Lex Luthor. How scary is that? Instead of being a philanthropist who uses his money, intelligence or God given ability for the betterment of mankind, Luthor uses everything at his disposal to get richer, to accumulate more power and to destroy Superman. Despite being fantastic actors, both Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey terribly missed the mark in their portrayal of Luthor. The reason Superman Returns sucked so bad, besides the whole island real estate scam and a tween Louis Lane, was because they made Lex Luthor a fool and Lex Luthor is too smart and too ruthless to ever be a fool.

Should Bryan Singer stick around for another Superman movie, a much better choice would be Brainiac, an android supercomputer, level 12 intellect, hell-bent on bottling major cities for research and destroying Superman. The motivations behind why Brainiac wants to destroy Superman depends on what version of Brainiac you subscribe to (pre- and post-Crisis) and what number Brainiac (there have been 13 different numbered iterations of the character) you are referring to. But an alien supercomputer that has telepathic and telekinetic abilities is a pretty daunting opponent.

Next up in his gallery is Darkseid. His name and the fact that he rules over a planet called Apokolips tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the character. Oh, and he also wants to eliminate all free will and shape the universe into his own image…and he’s as powerful as Superman. Put them all together and that’s one bad dude.

Who better to stop Superman than a fellow Kryptonian? Banished to the Phantom Zone by Superman’s father, General Zod wants nothing more than to destroy Superman and restore Krypton’s former glory on Earth, which he will rule over of course. Perhaps best known for his appearance in the movie Superman II, General Zod was recently returned to continuity in a storyline in Action Comics written by Geoff Johns and Richard Donner, who not so coincidentally directed the first cut of that movie as well as the original 1978 film.

After the heavy hitters, who does that leave? Unfortunately, the quality of Superman’s foes drops off considerably once you hit the second stringers. There is Mr. Mxyzptlk the imp from the 5th dimension who always causes Superman trouble when he vacations in our dimension. But come on, how serious can you take an imp from the 5th dimension? Of course there is Bizarro, a flawed copy of Superman, but Bizzaro is more of a tragic figure than a monstrous threat. Don’t forget about Doomsday, who was scary for about two minutes before everyone realized that Superman didn’t really die and then Doomsday all of a sudden wasn’t all that scary anymore.

Finally there is Batman. What’s that, you say? Batman isn’t Superman’s enemy? Well, if Superman represents the fascist alien come to impose his will on humanity and keep them in line, then Batman is human achievement at it’s most focused and disciplined (and slightly psychotic) and the two have to be at odds. How many times have we seen Batman and Superman fight it out? Batman defeated Superman in The Dark Knight Returns. In Kingdom Come, he turns his back on Clark but that’s because Clark turned his back on him many years ago. In Red Son, Batman stands as the leader of a group of dissenters revolting against Superman’s extreme enforcement of the Communism party line. As good of friends as they are, Bruce keeps Kryptonite locked away in the Batcave just in case Supes ever goes to the dark side. You can’t really trust an alien, can you? Also, what does it say about Superman that one of the only foes who can defeat him is a fellow hero?

 

My five favorite Superman stories are, in no particular order:

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? by Alan Moore and Curt Swan

Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross

Superman for All Seasons by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar, Dave Johnson and Killian Plunkett

All Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly

It really is no surprise that the best Superman stories are just about all "Elseworlds," stories that lie outside the monthly, ongoing continuity, mainly because they are allowed to have an ending. Or, in the case of Superman for All Seasons, the story is a retelling of the beginning. Also not surprising are the villains: two of the stories feature a combination of Lex Luthor and Brainiac (Red Son and Whatever Happened to…), two feature mainly Lex Luthor (All Star and All Seasons), two feature a strong presence by Batman (Red Son and Kingdom Come). In only one of the five is a completely new villain can match up with Superman blow for blow featured, Kingdom Come‘s Magog, who, but even then Luthor and Batman still play a large role in them. Surprisingly, Mr. Mxyzptlk reveals himself to be quite the villain in one of the stories, but to tell in which story would ruin half the fun.

Out of those, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? is probably the best, after all it is written by Alan Moore and functioned as the final Superman story before the reboot of Crisis on Infinite Earths. In the story, Moore throws everything but the kitchen sink at Supes and the results are tragic and shocking and absolutely, utterly brilliant. Really, it’s pretty much what you would expect from comics’ best writer taking on comics’ best creation.

The cover to All Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Click for a larger image.If Whatever is number one, then I think All Star Superman is 1A. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely have put their own spin on the Superman saga and the greatest villain of the story is also the root of Superman’s power: the sun. Superman is dying after being overexposed to the sun’s rays on a trip to the sun’s surface. The sun powers his cells, and since they have been supercharged with sunlight, Superman is experiencing an enormous increase in his powers. But at the same time, since his body is rapidly processing all this new energy, he is essentially burning himself out. So what makes Superman stronger is essentially killing him. How original! No kryptonite, no Luthor-Brainiac tag team up on Clark, just old fashioned great writing and epic illustration. All Star indeed!

Maybe I’m wrong about Superman. Sure writing Superman is a hard gig, but so is writing any iconic character that’s been around for a while. There have been plenty of people who have done it and have left their mark on the guy. The key to the whole thing is coming up with a completely original way to work within the status quo, always a difficult task. Besides, who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to write Superman? I mean, he’s Superman! Sure, Superman can’t be killed or set off into the sunset, but he can have a few memorable adventures and new experiences if the writer is creative enough and loves Superman enough to try something fun. Currently, Geoff Johns is doing a fantastic job tackling the Man of Steel in the pages of Action Comics; I would even venture to say that between Morrison and Johns, Superman has never been better. For the first time in a long time, I can’t wait until next month’s Superman book comes out, something I haven’t said since I was a little kid.

So Happy Birthday, Superman! You’ve never looked better! | Carlos Ruiz

 

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