I recently wrote about how DC Comics is failing Wonder Woman. That’s with a gerund, an –ing, as in it is still happening. This actually brought up another topic behind the scenes at Comics Bulletin: Superman. See, the thing about Superman isn’t that DC is failing him. They already did, no gerund.
Here are the complaints about Superman: he’s unrelatable, he’s too powerful, and he’s too much of a goody-goody. Regardless of whether or not you agree or disagree with those complaints, they seem like something DC Comics took to heart. And, unfortunately, it’s what they attempted to fix when they rebooted their line of comics into the New 52. From the first promo images revealed online, Superman was different. He was wearing a t-shirt and jeans in Grant Morrison’s Action Comics. How much more relatable can you get? Heck, he wasn’t even flying for several of those Action Comics issues. And are people going to complain about Superman being too good and pure for this world when he’s punching first and not even bothering to ask questions in Justice League #2?
DC saw an opportunity and they took it. It just so happened that they broke the character while they were at it.
Now, let me clear about how I feel about Action Comics. I love it. I really do. I love it to pieces. By taking place in the past to tell an elongated origin epic for Superman, the book had no interaction with the rest of the New 52. This gave Grant Morrison the free reign to write a meta-narrative that literally took Superman from the great leaps in a single bound of the Golden Age and actively transitioned him into the Silver Age of flights and space fights. It preached the gospel of Superman, building a giant mythology around the story of a man that could do anything so long as the people he believed in believed in him. But it wasn’t connected to anything and, like Brian Azzarello’s fantastic Wonder Woman run, it was roundly ignored by other writers while the “present day” Superman adventures became the norm.
Action Comics may be the more historically important title but, from a consumer standpoint, Superman is going to be the title that makes or breaks things. In Superman #1, the character is portrayed as… weepy. Buried under an absurd amount of narration, Superman is shown commiserating about the “death” of the Daily Planet and losing out on hooking up with Lois Lane as she dates a character so insignificant he makes Richard White look memorable. If having Superman flying around and being bummed out (which is more of a Spider-Man thing if you ask me) was DC’s idea of relatable, they immediately had cold feet as they began changing that book’s creative team with the cycles of the moon and began putting creators on the book that were never given an opportunity to get a foothold on the book or the character.
Superman exited limbo when Scott Lobdell took over the writing duties and produced one of the worst issues I read that year, Superman Annual #1. In this annual, Superman is faced with an enemy who is significantly more powerful than him and spends the entirety of the issue trying to fight him without using his brain. However, that didn’t mean that the issue wasn’t overwritten, too. It was a bad outing for Superman as he flew around with a mop of messy hair and thought with his fists rather than his brain.The Superman of Justice League wasn’t much better. In the origin story for the Justice League, he is shown attacking Batman and Green Lantern unprovoked and killing Parademons with little indiscretion. From there, Superman progressed to dating Wonder Woman and getting sucked into a web of crossovers built around him killing someone or an evil version of him running around (Trinity War, Forever Evil…) that Justice League is only just getting out of. Now, of these strange decisions, a lot was made of Superman dating Wonder Woman and that is to my eternal surprise where things started turning around and we saw the return of a more recognizable big, blue boy scout.
Under Charles Soule’s pen, Superman began to act more compassionately as he explored a new relationship that tested his openness and sense of a privacy. Superman’s relationship with Wonder Woman, a character without a real secret identity, was being used in a way that showed his vulnerability, making him very relatable to an audience that might not have considered whether Superman needed to be Clark Kent. Even when Peter J. Tomasi took over the book and completely trampled on Wonder Woman, he got Superman right and even went back to the events of Justice League’s opening arc in order to rewrite history in a way that made him more considerate and human.
Things were starting to go well. Next comes Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder taking over Action Comics from Scott Lobdell (he had begun writing both that title and Superman) and starting things off with a course correction. Now, Greg Pak got the job based off of his work on Batman/Superman, a solid book that lives or dies based on the artist attached to it. Their first issue, a flashback to a less powerful Superman being humbled by nature, reminded readers that Superman is a scary character when using his power excessively. If he punches down, he can’t be a hero. Therefore, the more power Superman has then the less he should have to use. When the book shifts in to present day, Pak immediately starts taking to task critics that say Superman should kill when necessary with a story that sees Superman pushed to the limit when faced with a powerful creature ignorant of its destructive nature. Superman ultimately chooses to save it but only after faking killing it and expressing actual disgust for the people cheering that decision.That last point reads a lot like a reaction to a certain movie that came out June 14th, 2014. When Man of Steel came out, it was polarizing to Superman fans. The portrayal of the character as dour, destructive, and willing to kill his enemies made a lot of fans (including Mark Waid) very uncomfortable. It was the Ghost of Christmas Future come to show us a grave that read, “Here lies Superman: 1938-2013.” There was no way for comic book writers to not react to that decision. Greg Pak made no bones about immediately establishing his Superman as a character that put others first but refused to take the easy way out by killing his opponent. Until Superman: Doomed.
Superman: Doomed is longer and more complicated than it needs to be. It’s a redux of the Death of Superman except not really as Superman kills Doomsday in a climactic fight and becomes infected, doomed (heh) to transform into a Superdoom that feeds on his negative emotions. While I’m not a fan of the length or some of the detours it made, Superman: Doomed had admirable goals. It made sure to highlight Superman’s relationships with his supporting cast and how he inspires their heroism just as they inspire his. It also emphasized that Superman was capable of being the force of destruction that some readers may want him to be but it just doesn’t fit within his standard character.
Another mega-event was that of Superman Unchained, a nine-issue series by Scott Snyder and Jim Lee that only recently wrapped up its run. Just for fun, I’ll tell you that the first issue came out before I started college and the last issue was released just as my second year was reaching the halfway point. The book is more or less disposable and, aside from a gigantic hiccup at the end in which Superman is portrayed as willing to play the role of suicide bomber in killing an entire fleet of aliens, it had a stronger take on the character than most other Superman appearances had at the time. A lot of scenes were spent on Superman thinking his way through disasters, calculating the odds that would allow him to save the most people through creative uses of his abilities. Any Superman that’s mindful of his surrounding as well as civilian casualties is a good Superman.And this brings us to the very end of DC’s current stretch of revamped Superman titles and that Geoff Johns and John Romita, Jr. taking over Superman with issue thirty-two. Geoff Johns may have been the one largely responsible for breaking Superman in Justice League but he was the most capable of rehabilitating him. With John Romita, Jr.’s historic first time drawing for DC as the draw, Johns was able to show a side of Superman left unseen for too long to a larger audience. This Superman was paired up with a Superman analogue, a man sent to another dimension by his human parents when they thought their world was ending, that allowed his better qualities to shine. That storyline has yet to wrap up but signs point to Johns and Romita sticking the landing.
DC may have broken Superman but at least they appear to have recognized it. Putting A-list talent like Charles Soule, Scott Snyder, and Greg Pak on your titles definitely shows a concentrated push to set right what once went wrong. In trying to fix Superman, DC broke him. All the things they thought would make him cool and relatable ended up making him look like a dour jerk at best and a bully at worst. Now, writers are portraying Superman as a concerned member of the human race trying to make the best of his connections with other people, exactly the sort of character he was before they attempted to fix him. Sound pretty relatable to me.