I first read Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? by Alan Moore and Curt Swan & George Pérez when I was 5 years old; my parents got it for me for my birthday, no doubt hornswaggled into thinking it child-friendly by Swan’s wholesome, traditionalist illustration style, but if my sobbing fits after reading the contents therein were any indication they likely learned a valuable lesson about examining even something as seemingly benign as a Superman comic before giving it to a little kid.
Yet as much as it surprised and devastated me, I remained enthralled with it; I read it over and over again, wrinkling the pages and cracking the spine until it looked like something someone had fished out of the gutter. It felt “important” in a way that nothing I’d ever read before seemed, and as bleak as its contents were Swan’s vibrant illustration made Superman’s world a place I wanted to visit again and again, even as it crumbled. Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, I realized later, was not a “dark” story in the way we tend to understand the term, it was simply dramatic in a fashion that rarely visits the superhero genre. It reveals the entire weight and consequence of heroism while explaining that goodness is the most important thing there is, even as its power seemingly slips away. It is, quite possibly, the bedrock text of What It Means To Be a Superhero.
Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? is the final chapter in the life of “classic” Superman, the avuncular goofball who rescues kittens from trees and counts “super-weaving” as just one of his many skills. After a period of relative peace and calm in his life, Superman’s foes begin reemerging one by one with a new, vicious agenda, slaughtering his friends and sewing mayhem in the streets of Metropolis. Superman himself states the story’s central conflict quite succinctly: “If the nuisances from my past are coming back as killers, what happens when the killers come back?”
Yet the battle here is as much against the momentum of destiny itself as it is Superman’s rogue’s gallery. Ominous portents of loss are everywhere: The Legion of Super-Heroes visit from the 30th century to pay their last respects, and long lost friends and foes alike assemble around him for no discernible reason but in a way that seems impossible to chalk up to coincidence. I won’t spoil the mystery in case some of you haven’t given this story a read, but suffice it to say the force behind this unraveling prophecy is a powerful one, and the things Superman must do to bring it to resolution will come at a heavy cost.
The subject matter of the story is dark, to be sure, but it’s saved from being overbearing by a couple of things. The first, as alluded to earlier, is the art of the legendary Curt Swan; inked by master illustrators of their respective eras, George Perez and Kurt Schaffenberger, his figurework is muscular without veering into grotesquery, his backgrounds detailed and tangible. This helps bring to life the second illuminating factor, which is the wonder inherent in the world of a good Superman comic. From Krypto to the Phantom Zone, Jimmy Olson’s emergency signal watch to multicolored Kryptonite rocks, Superman’s mythos are represented as being as vivacious and, yes, silly as they always were, even in the face of uncertainty and doom.
This is important as well for making the message stick: Unlike many stories that attempt to mature or modernize him, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? is not embarrassed to be a Superman comic. Rather, it uses every piece of the character and his world to orchestrate a struggle that is driven by his inherent goodness and standing. An angry Superman in this story is represented in a style not dissimilar to Christ chasing out the money lenders in the temple: the moment is not notable for the act itself but because of who is doing it, what drove them to it, and what it means to them that they’ve chosen this method of correction. When Superman loses sight of who he is, it means as much for us as it does for him.
Superman, as per the story’s preamble, is “a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good.” This is the story of what happens when that goodness and that perfection can no longer coexist, and what’s left of him when you strip away his environment and his circumstances. It’s the story of what happens when your tools and assumptions are used against you at a dire cost. It is, simply, about what it means to be good even when goodness looks like it’s failing.
If you like Superman, you should read Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? If you couldn’t care less about him, you should read it anyway. As dire as the stakes may be, as impossible as evil may feel to stop, the ultimate lesson Moore and Swan give us is that the protection of love is worth any price. Any superhero fan should be able to empathize with that.