So my good friend Ian Levenstein, (he of the Comic Timing podcast) mentioned me in a link to a Newsarama post regarding the new direction of Superman. Go ahead and read it before you look at this any further. I’ve got some history and background when you do come back!
Conceived by Grant Morrison, the New DCU Superman diverges from the Byrne/Smallville/Geoff Johns Silver-Age/Modern pastiche that he’s been mired in for the past two decades. I say mired in because to me it seems like DC has been making changes in the past decade to make Kal relevant again. In the New DCU, we have two Superman titles. Action Comics focuses on the earlier days of Kal-El, written by Morrison and drawn by Rags Morales. George Perez handles in-continuity today Supes in Superman. To understand why I’m not freaking out like I might be expected to, we have to look at two things: Superman’s History in my lifetime (which pretty much goes back to Byrne’s reboot), and Grant Morrison’s perspective on Superman.
Without providing an extensively boring history lesson, John Byrne spearheaded the post-Crisis reboot of Superman. There were some major changes from the Silver Age: Kal-El was the only surviving member of Krypton (No Supergirl, No Krypto) and depowered him (no juggling planets or Super-Ventriloquism). He was still powerful, but not to the point of being a deity. Over the course of a few years, his power levels creeped back up, he died and came back. He had a mullet. Then he was Electric Blue. And this is where the paradigm shifted.
I came in a few months into the Electric Blue Era. I’ve been a Superman fan since I was 3 years old, but I collected his comics starting with the Evolved Superman. The Evolution actually makes sense, given Superman’s origins. If your powers are due to the fact that you’re a battery, wouldn’t you then evolve into a being of pure energy? Isn’t that the next step? Aren’t we looking to find a zero-point energy source? It’s loosely scientific, but science fiction can be as loosely or tightly based in actual scientist as the creator chooses. I thoroughly enjoyed Superman’s Energy Being Era, and part of that is owed to Grant Morrison, who produced one of the greatest pages I have EVER WTINESSED. This page changed how I felt about comics and about superheroes and the whole universe. Growing up a devote Roman Catholic, it just blew my mind. I’ve reproduced the panel below:
I’m going to come back to this. First, let’s finish the history lesson.
After Superman re-formed into his original look, the book took a sci-fi approach, trying to re-invent itself (yet again) for the new millenium. There was the future-fication of Metropolis thanks to Brainiac 13, the Elite in Action Comics #775, the “Our Worlds at War” event… throughout 2000 – 2004 though, a couple of curious things happened:
1. Jeph Loeb, who was writing Superman at the time, re-introduced the Silver Age aspects of Superman’s life. Superman got to meet his parents, and also brought Krypto back from “Krypton” with him. It turned out to be an elaborate simulation of Krypton. But here it is, Krypto is back!
2. Mark Waid wrote Superman: Birthright. It was a new origin story for the new millenium. Mark re-introduced Kandor and also the fact that Clark Kent and Lex Luthor knew each other in Smallville… which I believe is also Silver Age? The WB Smallville show had some influence as well.
The paradigm shifts again, when Geoff Johns decides to open another can of worms with Infinite Crisis. A sequel of sorts to Crisis on Infinite Earths, Infinite Crisis brings back the Silver Age Superman, and the Multiverse comes into play again. After Infinite Crisis came 52, and with that, the revelation that the Multiverse is back. No more single Earth. Different possibilities, different realities. But DC never played with it. As for Kal-El himself, he basically reverted back to his Silver Age self, sans ridiculous powers and silly stories.
Two years ago, Geoff Johns wrote yet another origin for Superman, simply called “Secret Origin”. It essentially takes elements from Byrne, Waid and the Silver Age. At this point in Superman’s life, from Post-Crisis to now, he’s died, had a mullet, evolved to be an being of pure energy, been split into two energy beings, recombined, been hyper-powered, met his parents, got a dog, got his cousin back (forgot to add that in), and also reabsorbed elements of his older self.
Basically, a big long rehash of what has come before.
Enter the NEW DCU. Enter Grant Morrison and Action Comics #1. But also, enter Supergods.
Grant has released a new book, Supergods, in which he simultaneously records the history of superheroes, expounds on their qualities as modern myths, and gives us a subjective look at their influence on him, and the world in general. I’ve only read about 60 or 70 pages since buying it on Thursday, and so far I’ve gotten to the end of the Golden Age. Morrison describes Superman in the Golden Age: activist, rough housing seeker of social justice. Superman took down corrupt senators, punched out wife beaters and sent corrupt arms makers deep into the heart of war. Could you imagine the CEO of Halliburton being taken out of his home and tossed in the middle of Afghanistan? That’s what Superman did. He didn’t kill, and he didn’t hurt the innocent, but he did NOT fuck around.
So Morrison’s take, if I read the Newsarama article correctly, seems to be a return to this root, but in a different sense. Superman is a bit more alien, a bit more detached from what we’ve known. He’s being chased by cops in one image, and he’s tied down in another. Superman in the very beginning was a vigilante. He was known to barge into places he wasn’t wanted, in the name of justice. Cops tried to apprehend him even as he stopped crooks they were ALSO TRYING TO STOP. Superman isn’t welcome, Superman isn’t beloved. Growing up as a Superman fan, I felt that way, no one I knew liked Superman. It may also have been due to my own feelings of alienated, but that’s beside the point. Back in 1938, Superman caught the imagination of millions of people suffering from the Great Depression, today, we’re in the worse recession since 1938… in dark times, good ideas light the way to salvation, even if it’s entertainment and not financial or political.
People accuse Superman of being disconnected, being a goody-goody. Well, they’re sort of right. He’s a corporate icon. He’s Mickey Mouse, he’s Ronald McDonald. He’s got to toe that line, because he’s a beloved international icon and product. He sells lunchboxes. Commercial art. That’s what Superman is. That’s what every DC and Marvel superhero is. They can have great creative adventures, but in the end, they sell product. Movies. Toys. There’s a limit to what they can do. Grant Morrison has always managed to work so well within that framework, and it’s perhaps because he gets a bit of leeway (a drug addled Batman overcoming his enemies who have taken over Gotham and taken out all of his allies? Pretty out there.) that he’s so successful. With Action Comics #1, Grant is pulling from that time, that era, and reinterpreting it and revising it for our 21st century world. He’s attempting to make Superman relevant, which is so very hard to do.
So he’s not married to Lois Lane. So he’s more rooted in his Kryptonian heritage… so WHAT??? Flashpoint is supposed to wildly change everything we’ve known and loved about DC. It’s a radical, sweeping change. You can’t change characters by making minor tweaks. Superman hasn’t been a successful selling series in my time as a Superman fan. Only because Geoff Johns was on it, did Superman ever crack the top 25. Flashpoint changes EVERYTHING, so why not get rid of Lois Lane and Clark Kent’s marriage? Is it any worse than having Mephisto magically undoing reality to save Peter Parker’s 90 year old Aunt?
Convoluted. Boring. Stupid. This is what people say to me about Superman. About the most important fictional character in my life. About the one character that almost defines who I am today. I wouldn’t like comics with Superman, I wouldn’t be trying to write superheroes with Superman. Maybe I’m an immature man-child who desperately needs to grow up and face reality, but Superman inspires me to be more. He reminds me of the best of humanity. In this extremely shitty world where politicians lie, violence and greed dictate terms and apathy and cynicism is our default response, Superman reminds us we can be better than what we are, than what we have been. He’s the bright shiny beacon that represents our future, and I for one want to embrace that. Grant Morrison is taking elements of what made Superman an icon from very early on in his career, and he’s shifting the paradigm once again. I’m looking forward to this shift, because it’s much more radical than anything since Electric Blue Superman, which is what got me into this crazy world of comics. I love perverse change in comics. I love characters you hate. I love characters you don’t care about. I take them and I make them my own and embrace them. Superman is about to become relevant, and it makes me very happy to think that more people will rediscover what makes Superman so great. So give Morrison’s Superman a chance. I’ve been waiting for this since I opened the pages of JLA #7, when he opened my mind to the mad possibilities of superheroes and comic books. I’ve been waiting since All-Star Superman, for Morrison to take over a Superman title. So hop on, and take the ride with the Mad Morrison Man.