The Many Tomorrows of Superman
by Robert Greenberger
A new era is about to begin for the Man of Steel as J. Michael Straczynski is given the key to the Fortress of Solitude. With his arrival a door closes on the megafiction aspect, something that has been a part of the titles since the last new era began in 1986 with the arrival of John Byrne.
Superman has always been reflective of the times, beginning as the wish fulfillment fantasy of two Depression-era Cleveland teens. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were creating a character that would do what the federal, state, and local governments seemed incapable of doing. After all, look at those early stories (easily found these days in the various Archives and Chronicles collections) and you’ll see the caped hero fight corruption in the boxing ring, stop a wife beater, and physically force an arms dealer to become a part of the very war he was making possible.
The original Superman, as we know, was conceived as an example of absolute power corrupting absolutely. “Reign of the Superman” was a cautionary tale when written for the fanzines of the early 1930s but as Siegel became more and more enamored with his character, he began to rethink him in heroic terms. By then, he had been exposed to things like Philip Wylie’s 1930 novel Gladiator and was regularly reading Street & Smith’s Doc Savage pulps.
Superman became a force for good and an outlet for the shy teen’s anger towards a world that had been somewhat cruel towards him, robbing him of his father during a robbery gone bad (and covered in Brad Meltzer’s most recent novel The Book of Lies). When he and Shuster were successful in selling the feature to National Comics, they got to have someone take on the crimes they were powerless to resolve.
As Superman became an international icon for America during World War II, his custodians at National steered him away from social justice. Instead, he took on saboteurs and spies and common criminals, rarely challenged. He was an entertainment vehicle for those back at home and for the troops defending our liberty. Siegel suddenly was sharing the writing with others, notably Don Cameron, and the character was less and less what he imagined.
When the war ended, Superman entered a period of stasis that lasted, pretty much, for the next thirteen years. He was increasingly placed in the role of super-cop, protecting his identity from Lois and overseeing an expansion of his franchise with the arrival of Superboy tales and eventual pairing with Batman when the page count dropped, allowing both heroes to be preserved in World’s Finest Comics.
As the Adventures of Superman, with its equally innocuous stories, ended its television run, editor Mort Weisinger ushered in a new era. Suddenly, things introduced in the titles were carried over from issue to issue and characters ho-scotched between the growing line which now included titles dedicated to Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen. In many ways, this was Superman’s Golden Age (nestled in DC Comics’ Silver Age), as the elements we’ve come to know and love arrived with startling regularity (Bizarro, the Fortress, Phantom Zone, Argo City, Kandor, Supergirl, the Legion of Super-Heroes, Metallo, Brainiac, and so on).
Until Weisinger’s retirement in 1970, the Superman line was an unending source of entertaining stories as we learned more and more about his background, life on Krypton, and his extended family. Additionally, Weisinger conceived the Imaginary Story which allowed these elements to be explored in more inventive ways and provided some of the best character-driven stories from the company during those years.
The next fundamental shift was as Julie Schwartz was ordered to take the Action Ace and do something with him. Julie wanted to avoid taking Mort’s baby but did so with his usual professionalism. With writer Denny O’Neil, they tried to update and modernize the character with much media fanfare and little sales. While Superman was different, the Murray Boltinoff edited Action and World’s Finest still felt old school. Soon, regardless of editor, they retreated to the Mort era feel.
By 1985, that wasn’t cutting it commercially. Sales were down; Julie was readying to retire and had been effectively letting his writers do what they want for good or ill. As part of the company’s golden anniversary, it was wisely decided that the top three heroes needed refurbishing. Rather than employ a comprehensive approach to the new DC Universe, different creators were courted and given leeway with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman although clearly, John Byrne’s arrival from Marvel led the way.
He reimagined everything from the culture and geology of Krypton to the personality of Lois Lane. It was fresh and a clear break from the past. People noticed as sales rose and for the first time in years, the Metropolis Marvel was cool once more. But, within two years, Byrne was gone as was Wolfman, who followed his lead in Adventures of Superman. By then, Mike Carlin was editing the books and continued weaving storylines in a twice-weekly manner (Action by then was a weekly experiment in frustration but that’s another story) and the metafiction style was entrenched while slowly but surely, all of John’s innovative ideas were peeled away until a modern day version of the Weisinger era was the status quo.
A soft reboot of sorts occurred a decade back when Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness took over Superman and freshened the characters and plots but they didn’t introduce anything new and really offered updated Mort stories. The only radical change since then is the visuals suddenly resembling the Richard Donner films and personally, I have trouble accepting a bearded Jor-El. And here we are, having just wrapped up a year-plus when Superman was seen everywhere but the pages of his own title. The entire notion of 100,000 Kryptonians operating on or near Earth was at last something that hadn’t been tried and led to some diverting stories but we all knew they’d be dispatched sooner or later and when JMS became available, the answer became soon, in fact as soon as possible so the inevitable war was truncated into four frenetic weekly issues.
Straczynski has made his love for Superman and the ideals he represents well known over the last few years so the idea that he will show us what he can do is an intriguing one. That he is handed Wonder Woman at the same time will be interesting considering that gives him two-thirds of the crown jewels. But it is also telling that the hero will be limited to his own title (as Paul Cornell focuses on Luthor in Action) giving JMS a soap box all his own.
What sort of hero do we need today? Our world remains fractured by racial and religious strife as the global economy teeters beyond anyone’s control. Ecologically, we continue to do more harm than good despite all the warning klaxons being sounded. But we’re also a more tightly knit world, using all manner of technology to talk to one another, sharing ideas and points of view. When disaster strikes, we mobilize quickly and continue to look after one another.
Straczynski has the largest audience ever to address with his vision of Superman. There are nearly seven billion people on Earth, all wistfully looking up in the sky now and then, hoping for a savior. On DC’s Earth, their watchfulness will be rewarded with the sight of a red and blue blur, offering them hope.
Robert Greenberger is a former DC editor and executive with two Superman co-writing credits to his name. Currently a freelance writer, his most recent works include the novel Iron Man: Femme Fatales and the non-fiction Wonder Woman. Amazon. Hero. Icon., the Essential Batman Encyclopedia, and Batman Vault. In August, DelRey Books releases The Essential Superman Encyclopedia, cowritten with long-time Superman scribe Martin Pasko.