Superman Turns 70: Out of Continuity

supes-rs-header.jpgAs our celebration of the Man of Steel’s 70th continues, Jared Vandergriff explores the stories that take place outside of the world of Superman’s monthly comic, featuring alternate futures, "what if?" scenarios, and tales that strip the character back to basics.





Superman is arguably the most beloved character in comics. Since 1938, Clark Kent’s alter-ego has captivated readers and has stood as a powerful and heroic symbol.

Superman battles Captain Marvel in Kingdom Come. Click for a larger image.Needless to say, DC Comics holds the character in extra esteem; comic creators who have Superman stories to tell don’t necessarily get a chance to do so with DC. Some writers choose to use pastiches, characters with all of the Man of Steel’s abilities but with different looks and names (see Greg O’Driscoll’s article "Bastards of Kyrpton" on Superman’s many knock-offs). Some creative teams, on the other hand, are able to use the Superman character, but don’t want to be tied down to DC’s main storyline, with its array of canon-altering Crises.

Enter out-of-continuity stories, like DC’s Elseworlds and All-Star lines, where stories take familiar DC characters and place them in unfamiliar situations. Some take the form of "what-if…" scenarios, while others try to get to the root of characters without having to worry about what came before.

One of the better-known Elseworlds series was originally set up as a canonical, dystopian future for the DC universe, but was later retconned into an alternate storyline: Kingdom Come. Superman features heavily in Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s tale as a representative of an earlier, nobler time. This puts him at direct odds with a new wave of superhuman vigilantes, who are largely uncaring about the effects their fighting has on average folks. When one such fight results in the irradiation of the state of Kansas and much of the surrounding area, killing thousands and crippling the country’s food-production abilities, Superman begins to draw old allies together to oppose the new generation.

In the meantime, Lex Luthor gathers a who’s who of former Justice League villains to kill the remaining superhumans, hoping to give control of the world back to humanity. Their ace in the hole is a brainwashed Captain Marvel, the only person who can stand toe to toe with the Man of Steel. Marvel and a group of ex-villains attack Superman and his forces and — well, I won’t ruin the climax. Kingdom Come does an excellent job of examining the morals of heroism through Superman’s character, and distills the rest of the characters in relation to his stance.

A Soviet Superman? It happened in Superman: Red Son. Click for a larger image.Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son is more of an unadulterated "what if…" story, in which the spaceship carrying an infant Kal-El crash-lands in the Ukraine instead of Kansas, and becomes synonymous with "Stalin, socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact" instead of "Truth, Justice, and the American way."

Although Superman is delightfully twisted in this yarn, the most pleasurable aspect is seeing this alternate universe’s take on familiar DCU characters. Lex Luthor is transformed into a super-smart, super-American science hero (who happens to be married to none other than Lois Lane), constantly developing the next desperate attempt to match Comrade Superman’s sheer power. One of his creations is Bizarro, an imperfect Superman clone with a USA shield emblazoned on his chest. Even Ollie Queen shows up, though he’s never shown as the Green Arrow. Instead, he’s a bumbling reporter at — you guessed it! — The Daily Planet.

Of particular note, however, is Millar’s soviet Batman, whose parents were murdered by a now high-ranking Russian officer, and who has become a terrorist, waging guerilla warfare with a merry band of Batmen. While seeing Batman with a tuft of fur lining his cowl is quite good enough for me, others will delight at the best Superman-Batman fight scene since The Dark Knight Returns. Millar’s fantastically silly (but oh-so-cool) twist ending caps off a great read.

A real world take on Superman in Secret Identity. Click for a larger image.Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen’s Superman: Secret Identity is a unique superhero story in that it takes place in the real world; initially, Superman only exists in the comics, although an unfortunately-named young lad shares the moniker of his alter ego, Clark Kent. Depressed by the insults he endures on a daily basis (and the always Superman-themed birthday presents), he goes camping with some friends and wakes up floating in the air after a nightmare. He quickly discovers that he has all the powers of Superman.

This begins one of the most realistic depictions of what it certainly would be like to suddenly develop such abilities. Clark is forced to hide for the entire story, first from the inhabitants of his small hometown, then from his co-workers and neighbors in New York City, and finally from the U.S. government. During this time, he meets his Lois (her last name is Chaudhari, not Lane), and starts a family. Writer Kurt Busiek does an excellent job of showing the balance of choices available to Clark. All of his decisions must be informed by his responsibility to help others and his desire to keep his (and later, his family’s) secret.

Morrison and Quitely's All Star Superman. Click for a larger image.Which brings us to Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman, a book that, while only on its tenth issue, is certainly worthy of its name. Work outside of continuity allows Morrison to distill the character down to basics; the story begins with Lois Lane blissfully unaware of Superman’s secret identity, and the bumbling nature of Clark Kent in classic Superman stories is resurrected. Superman is lured into a trap by Lex Luthor, in which he is oversaturated with the sun’s energy, the source of his powers. This results is every power he has being elevated to its extreme, but with one serious side effect: Superman is dying. Morrison presents his story as a series of challenges that the Man of Steel is predicted to face before his death, and he comes up with insanely brilliant ways to test a being who is, for all intents and purposes, invincible.

Superman takes the cards dealt to him, and faces his destiny with aplomb. This is the noblest of supermen; someone who takes care to save the lives of anyone he has the power to. One of the most telling moments in the series is when Superman, as Clark Kent, surreptitiously protects Luthor, the architect of Supes’ destruction, during a prison riot. Who else but Superman would have the decency to happily defend his killer?

Morrison’s top-notch writing is paired with Frank Quitely’s line work, which is, in my opinion, the best in the business. Every one of Quitely’s intricately detailed panels is laced with kinetic activity. These two storytellers are creating one of the best (if not the best) Superman stories in recent years, with no small credit going to the freedom that comes from writing outside continuity. | Jared Vandergriff

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