The Comic Spinner!

This edition of “The Comic Spinner” is guest-written by the Podwits’ own J. Marcus.  Please feel free to forward all your complaints to him!

With all the on-and-on I have been doing this past year on Podwits.com, Brian has been kind enough to ask me to answer a simple question regarding my favorite comic book character of all time. Namely, “when was Superman good for you?”

I grew up with Superman, first visually, and story-wise later. My father had read Superman comics when he was young and continued into adulthood. As a result, at the tender age of 3, I had access to a decent Superman library. I still have the very first Superman I was ever exposed to. It was a hard-bound book called “Superman: From the 30’s to the 70’s”. Most of the stories printed in the book were printed in black and white.

© DC Comics – Superman by Wayne Boring

As a child, it was amazing because I got to see Superman’s physical development over the years. At such a young age, I was able to form pretty solid opinions about the art of Superman. The original Siegel/Shuster Superman was OK, but not really MY Superman—after all, the “S” was all wrong. Wayne Boring’s Superman was a bit closer, but honestly… his ears stuck out too far, the “S” was kinda wacky, and I just found his head to be a bit misshapen. I found his, Al Plastino and Dick Sprang’s Supermen to all be a bit similar (leading me to believe there was an editorial edict to his look at the time).

© DC Comics “Superman (Vol. 1) #233
Superman by Curt Swan

Curt Swan became my favorite Superman artist as a child. His Superman, featured in the book as part of the “Kryptonite: Nevermore” storyline, was the most realistic art for a comic book that I saw at the time and somehow just seemed right to me. The costume was perfect, the art was impeccable and it all just gelled with me. Now to be fair, I wouldn’t learn ANY of these artists’ names for many more years, but at the time I knew what I liked.

My father added “The Great Superman Comic Book Collection” to my Superman stable and I was introduced to more stories like “Who Took The Super out of Superman” from Superman (Vol. 1) #296 and the story of how Superman and Lex Luthor became enemies (spoiler alert: Lex blames SuperBOY for causing his hair to fall out. No kidding) from Adventure Comics #271. By the age of 6, I was slowly working my way through the stories, though not reading ANY of the captions, only the dialogue. The stories were all simple enough for me to get through and enjoy. Occasionally my dad would pepper in actual comics from his youth where I would be exposed to stories like “Superman: King of Earth” in Action Comics #311 from April 1964.

© DC Comics

It wasn’t until I was 8 that I started to get new comics of my own. This was right before “Crisis on Infinite Earths” hit, and I will say that, for the most part, these stories were forgettable. I do remember Action Comics 581 which promised that you would become “Superman for a Day” with a backup story about… wait for it… Superman’s lawyer.

By the time John Byrne rebooted Superman in 1986, I was a full-fledged Superman reader of my own.

© DC Comics “The Man of Steel #1” 1986
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His art immediately captured my imagination because in certain panels, it looked like he was trying to draw an idealized version of Christopher Reeve as Superman. By this time I had seen the Superman movies, the George Reeves TV show of the 1950s, the Kirk Alyn serials of the 1940s, the 1940’s Max Fleischer cartoons and the Super Friends cartoons of the 1970s on. Most of what I knew about the character came from these forms of media and not from the comics themselves. Comics as a source of Superman lore for me started in 1986 when I not only started re-reading and absorbing the books of my youth, but also reading the Byrne reboot and subsequent stories.

© DC Comics

The pre-Crisis Superman literally came to represent my early childhood. Not only because the two were so linked, but because the stories had an innocence about them that a child could really enjoy. I was never Mensa-smart, but I was a gifted child who matured faster than my peers. As such, I tended to discard these stories at an earlier age than I suppose I should have.

© DC Comics

But having grown up with those anthology books taught me at a very early age that there was a Superman for every age. These Supermen came before my time and I could appreciate them as such.

I was able to learn about all the various forms of Kryptonite. The red kryptonite stories (red K had a different effect on Superman each time, and it was generally rather bizarre) were always fun reads. Even as a child I grew weary of Lois Lane’s desperate attempts to prove that Clark Kent is Superman. While this certainly mitigated the idea that Lois is galactically stupid for falling for a cheap pair of glasses as a disguise, at some point the chase becomes quite wearying. I also read of Superman’s accidental return to Krypton to act as cupid for his parents in Superman (Vol. 1) #141.

© DC Comics

By the time of “Kryptonite Nevermore” in Superman (Vol. 1) #233, written by Denny O’Neill, the Superman mythos was updated to include Lois and Clark becoming reporters for WGBS TV, which had bought the Daily Planet, all Kryptonite being rendered harmless in an explosion (editorially because Kryptonite had become such a story crutch in the past) and Superman being depowered slightly. But as with all things in the DC Universe over time, these changes were mostly undone and Superman was back the way he was in no time.

© DC Comics
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Eventually, however, the Superman stories of the 1970s-80s had taken galactic angles and started to focus on Superman’s alien heritage more. I found this off-putting. The idea of Superman exploring his Kryptonian heritage by celebrating holidays in solitude meant nothing to me. The idea of Superman bucking like a bronco for an evil space cowboy left me cold.

It was because of this that I retreated to the other Superman world at my fingertips… The post-Crisis Superman!

The post-Crisis Superman era boasted an amazing array of creative minds both visual and storytelling through the years. In addition to John Byrne you had Jerry Ordway, Dan Jurgens, Kerry Gammill, Bob McCloed, George Perez, Roger Stern, Karl Kessel and Brett Breeding.

These creative minds shepherded Superman through some amazing stories in my adolescent years and wrote a Superman that made sense to me. Superman became human in the same way that most Americans are American. Not only was he born here (through a clever plot device), but he was raised here and therefore had the same thoughts and beliefs that we do. He didn’t have to pretend to be one of us. He was one of us, only he could do more than any of us. It made his character relatable.

Keeping his foster parents alive not only gave him a sounding board as Superman, but also removed his origin slightly from Batman’s (though his birth parents were still dead, Superman still had a family and a home).

© DC Comics

The post-Crisis Lex Luthor wasn’t a mad scientist who hated Superman for causing his baldness, but was a multi-billionaire who not only hated Superman because he was an alien but because he had replaced Luthor as Metropolis’ hero and “favorite son.” Luthor’s veneer of respectability made him an even more dangerous criminal mastermind because not only was he cunning and resourceful enough to work under the radar of the law, but Superman couldn’t always publicly oppose him because he wouldn’t have proof to back him up. It made their dynamic much more interesting.

© DC Comics

Superman grappled with issues of morality when he was forced to execute 3 Kryptonian villains from an alternate universe. It was their punishment for destroying all life on that Earth. It was this that cemented in his mind his code that a Superman “must not kill”. He had to deal with psychological problems that stemmed from that as his mind forced him to become a masked vigilante while he slept to deal with his emotional turmoil. The reveal that Gangbuster was, in fact, Superman himself shocked readers as much as it did the Man of Steel himself and forced him to exile himself into space where he couldn’t hurt anyone again.

Superman’s exile brought him face-to-face with his Kryptonian heritage and gave him the strength to heal his mind and return to Earth. It was many years in post-Crisis continuity before Superman joined the Justice League of America. It was because of this that Superman EARNED his place among the JLA. In pre-crisis continuity he was one of the founding members, but their membership didn’t seem to have any sort of rhyme or reason beyond the editorial decision to let these folks team up.

© DC Comics

In post-Crisis continuity, Superman was given the time to prove that he would be a good (if reluctant) leader and allowed him to earn the respect of the rest of the DCU not because he was the most powerful, but because he was the best. If you need any proof of this, I suggest you read the “Panic in the Sky” storyline from 1992 where Superman has to lead the heroes of the DCU in defending the Earth from an attack from Warworld controlled by Brainiac.

© DC Comics

When Superman died fighting the monster called Doomsday in Superman (Vol. 2) #75, most saw it as a gimmick to increase sales. It may well have been that, but it was an opportunity to explore how the world would handle the death of its greatest hero. The “World Without A Superman”/”Funeral for a Friend” storyline from 1993 showed the heroes banding together to make sure that Metropolis would be free from crime on the day he was laid to rest. It showed how his friends and even his enemies would be impacted by the loss. And how the city he swore to protect would have to go on without him.

“Reign of the Supermen” immediately followed with 4 different characters vying for the title of the new Man of Steel. While some claimed to be the original brought back to life, others merely wanted the title. This long story arc went beyond what could have been mere issue-after-issue of fisticuffs, and instead showed the continuing impact the original Superman had on society. His possible resurrection lead to cults forming in support of one Superman or another.

© DC Comics

When finally the original returned (albeit with 1990s long hair which strained the Clark Kent glasses as the ONLY means of disguise even further), he had to earn the trust of the people once more. The story, on the whole, had lasting impact on the current Superman mythos and was treated as genuinely and with as much verisimilitude as possible.

© DC Comics
Though I wouldn’t cop to it myself

It was after his return, however, that things started to get a bit rough in Supermanland. While Clark Kent and Lois Lane finally tying the knot ranks among the higher points of the post-death time, we are left with far greater low points. In 1996, “The Final Night” storyline sees the loss of Earth’s sun, leaving Superman powerless. Once the sun is back, Superman goes to great lengths to get his own powers to return. This results in Superman’s powers inexplicably becoming electricity-based in the “Metamorphosis” storyline starting in Superman (Vol. 2) #122.

© DC Comics
…This either…

Of course because “electric-blue Superman” wasn’t bad enough, executive editor Mike Carlin and editor Joey Cavalieri decided that Superman should come in two flavors… blue and red. While having two distinct electric Supermen could pose some intriguing story ideas, it was hobbled both by the fact that NO ONE liked electric Superman and the fact that this was a cheap callback to a pre-crisis story where red Kryptonite had split Superman into two heroes… Superman Red and Superman Blue [see Superman (Vol. 1) # 162 from July 1963).

Eventually the two Supermen “sacrificed” themselves to save the world thus reverting back to the Superman we all know and love (thank God!)

Next up, Superman enters a training montage worthy of a Rocky film so that he can boost his powers and lead the Earth’s heroes in defending from another attack in “Our Worlds at War” in 2001.

© DC Comics

And since boosting him closer to pre-Crisis powers wasn’t enough, that same year in Superman 167, the Man of Steel is told that everything he knew about his origin was wrong. And that, in fact, his birth father lied to him all those years ago so that he would not grieve for a planet he never knew. In fact, Superman is retold his origin almost panel-for-panel the way it was pre-Crisis. And that, my friends, was the sound of thousands of face-palms around the world.

© DC Comics

At the end of it all, Superman is left unsure about whether or not this is the true version of his origins or if it’s what he’s always known. And it is at THIS EXACT MOMENT, that Superman, as a character, falls apart completely. For many years to come, Superman does not have a clearly defined origin. Elements of Byrne continuity still flow, but are now mixed with so much other flotsam that it becomes very hard to tell which way is up. Further complicating matters is Mark Waid’s “Superman: Birthright” miniseries in 2003 which was supposed to retell Superman’s origins.

© DC Comics

While this tripe-filled tome became the blueprint for Superman’s backstory for a few years, it was supplanted in 2009 by “Superman: Secret Origin” written by Geoff Johns which, you guessed it, retold the story of Superman’s origin again (though, in my opinion, to much greater effect and with MUCH better art by Gary Frank).

You can see how a Superman fan could become rather disenchanted by this point having been jerked around as much as we have. Especially when you realize that not 2 years after “Superman: Secret Origin”, Superman was rebooted YET AGAIN for the “New 52” storyline currently being published by DC Comics.

The pre-Crisis and post-Crisis Supermen have a lot in common; from their costumes, to their powers, to their love of Lois Lane, to their being from Krypton. The MOST IMPORTANT thing they have in common, however, is their stringent adherence to their origins. For decades, Superman’s origin went unchanged. A few tweaks were made here and there to add nuance, but the story itself remained (including, I might add, the designs of Kryptonian clothing and technology).

When John Byrne rebooted Superman in 1986, he changed all that. And for the next 15 years, no matter who came in, this was treated as gospel just like what had come before. When Superman started to fall apart was when creators decided that the origin wasn’t gospel anymore and could be as fluid as the stories they spawned. It’s hard to know who Superman is when even HE doesn’t know where he came from. The details shouldn’t be that important. But stories like 2001 and 2002’s “Return to Krypton” and “Return to Krypton II” respectively and even 2006’s “Up, Up and Away” make it so.

© DC Comics
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“Up, Up and Away”, which started in Superman (Vol. 3) #650, has me torn. On the one hand I respect the storyline immensely for finally trying to make the comics version and movie version of Superman meet. The story revolves around Lex Luthor finding a Kryptonian sunstone crystal, left over from the events of the “Infinite Crisis” crossover that had just finished. He uses the crystal to awaken a Kryptonian battleship and tries to destroy Metropolis with it. In the end, Superman stops him and retrieves the crystal. Realizing that it was sent to Earth with him, he flies up to the Arctic and tosses it far away. When it lands, it builds the Fortress of Solitude as seen in the Christopher Reeve/Brandon Routh Superman films.

I have to admit, it gave me a fangasm to see on paper. On the other hand, Superman had already had a myriad of Fortresses of Solitude post-Crisis, and none of them involved crystals. In fact, crystals had barely played ANY kind of part in Kryptonian technology until, again, “Return to Krypton” in 2001, though again that had nothing to do with the sunstone crystal as it appeared here. If you’re not confused by now, you’re way ahead of the game because, quite frankly, this is the kind of waffling back and forth that caused my head to nearly explode when trying to follow the Superman stories of the 2000s. I used to be gifted, remember.

Writers say they are constantly at odds with the character. They say it’s hard to write for a guy who can do everything. I insist they are being lazy. And as proof, I go back to the post-Crisis Superman. Byrne, Jurgens and the gang succeeded in writing very human Superman stories with more alien-y/sci-fi stories happening in the periphery. At the core of each story, however, was Superman’s very human core.

© DC Comics
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Die-hard Superman fans like to cite Elliot S! Maggin as being one of the greatest Superman writers of all time. I recently read a thread on the “Superman Through The Ages” online forum in which he was touted as the guy who “got it.” He did write some seminal pieces of Superman lore including “Must There Be a Superman” in Superman (Vol. 1) #247 in which the Guardians of the Universe plant a seed of doubt in Superman’s mind… that perhaps his constant help is interfering with the natural growth of the human race.

While this was an excellent point to make and an incredibly insightful addition to the lore, Maggin also  tried to take away from Superman what makes the character great.

© DC Comics – From “Superman: Birthright” #2
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Maggin came up with the idea (later co-opted by Mark Waid for “Birthright”) that Superman would have to be a vegetarian. He posits that Superman’s senses would allow him to see the “heat auras” of all living things. These auras would allow him to gauge their emotional states quite intricately, including pain and suffering. As something dies, the pain would be so great that Superman would not be able to tolerate seeing it and therefore would be empathetic to the creature, not wanting it to die. Therefore, he wouldn’t eat meat and this could be the fundamental building blocks of his code against killing.

Is this nobility? Or is this more akin to Alex in “A Clockwork Orange”? Superman is not being moral for morality’s sake. He’s doing it because it would hurt him to be otherwise.

The point here is that even the most revered of creators can have a hard time understanding Superman and can get him wrong. Much like the most noted works of fiction, Superman’s journey is yours to interpret. Some see his story as being that of the ultimate immigrant and therefore the greatest support for the American way of life known to man. Others see it as being Christ-like in its origins (small wonder for a story created by two Jewish kids). Still others see a simple adventure story.

My Superman… the one for my time… for my sensibilities… was summed up in a single panel from John Byrne’s “The Man of Steel” miniseries in 1986. Superman had just gotten his final communiqué from his birth father, Jor-El. Jor-El’s message downloaded into Superman’s mind all the knowledge of Krypton’s past. It’s literature, it’s history… it’s language. Superman flies to a secluded perch to think it all through. Ultimately… he says… all of it is meaningless. He explains:

© DC Comics
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In that moment, my friends, we see when Superman was best for me.

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