Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Problem with Superman

As a child I followed Superman's adventures on a regular basis through British reprints of his U.S. comics. There were of course good stories and bad stories but the creative teams stayed much the same and, like with many ongoing superhero comics, it was a similar experience to following a soap opera or a TV series. There were ongoing plot threads and character arcs that ran from issue to issue. It wasn't just a bunch of stories, it was an established world that I visited once a month. But within the last decade all that changed. Since at least 2003 Superman has faced a foe more deadly than Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Doomsday and Darkseid put together! Inconsistency!

In 1986 Superman was relaunched with Man of Steel, a mini series that established an updated origin and status quo. For the next 17 years DC Comics' writers worked from the foundation set by Man of Steel to unfold the ongoing saga of the life of Superman. In 2003 that foundation was swept out from under the character with Birthright, a twelve issue maxi-series that updated his origin. Three years later a further update to the origin began to be referenced in the Superman books. In 2009 a six issue mini-series named Secret Origin revealed the new origin in full. To be fair both Birthright and Secret Origin are very good stories in and of themselves, and reinventions and updates are an established part of mainstream superhero comics, where characters don't age and stories never really end. But having these changes occur within three years of each other was a bit of a distracting experience for a regular Superman reader to say the least. And the distractions didn't end there.

In 2006 Geoff Johns began co-writing Action Comics with Superman Movie director Richard Donner. They kicked off their run with a story arc named Last Son. It was a fantastic story, with some great art by Adam Kubert. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, it suffered from long delays and mediocre fill-in stories that completely ruined the momentum of the story. Donner left after the second arc, Escape From Bizarro World, and Action Comics began to stick to something resembling a regular schedule. But after two further arcs penned by Johns the whole Superman line was launched into a huge crossover, New Krypton, which established a drastically different status quo for the Man of Steel and his friends. The planet Krypton had been remade and populated by a city full of Kryptonian survivors. Superman went to live on this new world and his role in Metropolis was filled by his pal Mon-El. This went on for a year until New Krypton blew up, Mon-El buggered off to the Phantom Zone and Superman came back to Earth. Finally, here was an opportunity to allow readers to read stories about Superman without any delays, without any changes in the creative team, without any big crossovers and without any major origin or status-quo shake-ups. Here was a chance for some consistency!

And then Grounded happened.

Grounded was a story conceived and written by superstar writer J. Michael Straczynski. The idea was that Superman would reconnect with the average person by embarking on a long walk across America. It was a nice idea, but Straczynski's story ended up being something of a mixed bag, mostly due to the writer's insistence of giving Superman pompous lectures on heroism with which to instruct any average Americans he encountered. Worse still, for whatever reason, JMS left halfway through his much hyped story and the unenviable task of finishing this unpopular storyline using JMS' notes fell to Chris Roberson, who quite frankly did an excellent job of it. Grounded was soon over but a new change was rearing it's head! A major reinvention of almost every DC character, (including Superman) and the relaunch of 52 DC Comics' titles. The New 52!

Morrison's Superman, art by Rags Morales

Since the New 52 was launched last September Grant Morrison has been reinventing Superman in the pages of Action Comics. While I feel that the quality of the art has been somewhat inconsistent, on the whole Morrison's run has been superb so far.  Each issue has been overflowing with the sort of mind blowing concepts and punch-the-air character moments that Morrison is famous for. Also, by focusing on an interpretation of Superman that has literally not been seen since the 1930s, Morrison has managed to make the character seem fresh and new while retaining everything that makes the character great. Morrison has also taken the time to give Superman, his supporting characters, and his world a consistent identity. Plot threads and character development that began in his first issue are unfolding satisfyingly from issue to issue. And the best thing about it all is that it doesn't look like Morrison's going to leave the book any time soon! With the unfortunate exception of the artwork, Action Comics has finally managed to achieve a level of consistency that it has not seen for at least ten years!

It's just a shame that can't be said for any other version of Superman we've seen so far around the New 52.

Judging from his stories Morrison has a clear vision of who his new Superman is; a hotheaded young idealist with an angry passion for justice and no tolerance for bullies. A man who is filled with joy because his super-powers enable him to fight bullies and help the helpless in a far more direct and effective way than he otherwise would have been able to achieve. Sadly other writers seem to have interpreted this as 'perpetually grumpy'. In Geoff Johns' Justice League so far we've had plenty of insight into the minds and motivations of Flash, Green Lantern, Cyborg and Batman but Superman seems to be nothing more than the team's silent muscle. Over in the Superman title we've had a Superman who doesn't seem to have cracked a smile once in 9 issues.

As well as Superman's characterisation, the Superman title is also different to Action Comics in style and tone. The first six issues were written by George Perez, who filled every available inch of panel with exposition laden dialogue. Since issue #7 Keith Giffen and Dan Jurgens have been on writing duties. Jurgens was a Superman writer for a long time in the '80s and '90s and although his issues have been okay, very little about his style and characterisation of Superman seems to have changed since the last time he was writing the character. So, the tone of Superman has been distinctly 'old school' since the relaunch. A stark contrast with the radically different and fresh approach of Morrison over on Action. Also, we've already had one change in the writing team since the relaunch, and if the rumours are to be believed there's another on the way when Scott Lobdell takes over as Superman writer later this year.

In 2002 Joe Quesada said of DC Comics, "They have Batman and Superman, and they don't know what to do with them. That's like being a porn star with the biggest dick and you can't get it up." It does seem that DC Comics have gone out of their way to prove him right, at least as far as Superman is concerned. Don't get me wrong, we've had some truly brilliant Superman stories in the past ten years, some of them I count among my favourites. But there doesn't seem to have been any consistent direction or plan for the character in the past decade. To paraphrase an old Eddie Izzard routine, DC Comics seem to have taken the Etch-A-Sketch approach to Superman's world. They carefully build up a detailed status quo and then almost immediately and without warning go "Oh fuck it" and shake everything away with a change of origin, a change of creative team, a multi-part crossover or a high concept story arc. There's something to be said for shaking things up occasionally to stop things getting stale. But in order for that shake up to be effective you have to begin with an established status quo that people have grown used to, otherwise there's nothing to shake up.

Like many characters Superman needs to have a foundation from which to launch his adventures. Beyond the bare bones of his origin and the names of his supporting characters Superman has not had this foundation for a long time. As a reader I have been missing the feeling of following an ongoing storyline set in a consistent, familiar world. I'm not saying everything should be set forever in stone and Superman should be stopping bank robbers every week. But if we're going to be following Superman on his many journeys then we need to know where he's coming from. Grant Morrison has the right idea with Action Comics. DC Comics needs to get all their other writers reading from the same rule book when it comes to Superman and most importantly they need to get a creative team on the Superman title who will stick with the book for more than six issues. If Superman is going to survive as DC's flagship character he needs to vanquish his most persistent foe. Inconsistency!


  1. To be honest even Action Comics hasn't been that consistent Morrison has seemingly abandoned his idea of reviving the 50's idea of Superman for his crazy modern update of 60's si-fi crazyness.

  2. Morrison's had interludes set five years in the future and on Earth 23 but they've still served to further certain plot threads, for example the evil little man. And Superman's characterisation as a 30s style champion of the oppressed as remained consistent throughout the whole ten issues. So for me at least, the consistency I'm looking for has been present in Morrison's writing.

  3. I agree with this, but it's not just DC and it's not just Superman. I find the Quesada quote quite telling since just the other day one of the co-owners of the local comic shop in my small city (50,000) indicated that in the past 5 or 6 years, they've gone from consistently selling 35-40 copies of Spider-man books to maybe 3-4. So DC aren't the only deluded ones...

  4. The problem as I see it IMHO is the constant need for reinvention of an iconic comic character. While I understand the need to keep him current and ameliorate himself to potential new audiences , I also feel at the same time that you perversely alienate older readers. And here's the crux , do you cut off your loyal following to ingratiate your hopefully new hip audience or do you steadfastly stick to your roots and keep the oldies ( who have funded your wages thus far ) onboard. A dilemma which is not easily resolved.

    The Cap.

  5. Hi Cap,

    I'm actually all for the occasional reinvention of characters like Superman. It was Byrne's revamp that got me into Superman and through that I discovered all the other great interpretations of the character. (I go into a bit more detail on the subject here: if the revamp stays true to the character and the stories are good (something I personally feel that Morrison has managed with the recent revamp) then older readers won't necessarily feel alienated.

    So personally I'm not against the notion of revamping Superman, I just wish DC would give their revamps time to stick before introducing the next shake up in Superman's life. I wish they'd give the readers the time and the opportunity to immerse themselves in the world that the revamp has built. I'm loving what Morrison's doing but I wish all the other writers handling Superman at the moment would get on board with it a bit more. And I wish they'd get someone to stay on the Superman title for more than six issues.

    Hi Jim,

    I've always been of the opinion that lots of different factors are responsible for falling comics sales, not just particular creative decisions. But having said that, yeah, if DC were more focused with their general approach to Superman then we'd get plot threads and recurring characters that readers could feel invested in and that may possibly go some way to getting more people reading Superman comics.



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