Men of Tomorrow: Moore & Swan’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”
Just to make things easy, let’s start off with an ending, and a piece that’s been analyzed by people far smarter than myself. Let’s kick off with a story by a writer I have extremely complex feelings about, that’s embedded in a very particular moment in comic book history.
Let’s begin with Alan Moore and Curt Swan’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”
First, a bit of context. Published in 1986, the story spans two issues, Superman #235 and Action Comics #583. The former would be the last issue of volume one of Superman, with the comic getting a new number one issue shortly after (Action Comics wouldn’t get a numerical restart until 2011, but more on that later). It was billed as THE LAST SUPERMAN STORY, and in a sense it was. Moore puts a certain version of Superman out to pasture in this story, to be replaced by someone different.
The reason for this was a line-wide reboot of the DC Universe going on at the time called Crisis on Infinite Earths. I’m not going to summarize the plot of CoIE because it’s…pretty much incomprehensible. Let’s just say that the DC Universe, a fictional entity that by this point contained, um, infinite earths, each with its own set of superheroes, some of them duplicates or mirror images of “classic” DC heroes, all of them able to interact without any abiding set of rules over the course of the DCU’s fifty year existence.
This is a massive oversimplification. Even to say that the DCU existed from the moment Action Comics #1 dropped is a complicated untruth. To put it all another way, for some time, stories that didn’t necessarily fit together, and in some cases openly contradicted each other, were being published by DC and no one was really minding the store.
None of this was necessarily a problem, except that Marvel Comics had a shiny and somewhat coherent fictional universe going. This was due in no small part to the fact that many of the core Marvel characters had been created by the same creative team, while DC’s stable had grown largely by acquisition of other companies’ properties, and that editorial oversight at Marvel had valued continuity in a way that DC’s editors didn’t. By the late 80s, comic book fandom, refracted through market practices, was largely a dedicated group of readers who now wanted, nay demanded, that stories all make sense together.
So DC launched Crisis, which makes no sense all on its own, and in its attempts to clear things up (combined with the natural impulse of subsequent writers and artists to push against the imaginary rules established in the wake of Crisis), created an entirely new set of problems that would precipitate later reboots, which also, ultimately, didn’t help. The upshot of Crisis was that the many universes within the DC multiverse would be compressed into one, effectively erasing all the stories that came before so that the “real” DC Universe could march forward into the bold future of…1987.
Somewhere in the middle of this we find Alan Moore. Moore was writing Swamp Thing at the time, which, while it’s now thought of as part of DC’s Vertigo line of books for “grown ups”, was part of the central publishing line and as a result part of the massive crossover effort that was Crisis. Swamp Thing dealt with the sort of psycho-spiritual fallout of the end of the world, a move that would be replicated in almost every universe-ending crossover the Big Two has produced since.
At around the same time, he turned in this two-parter, the final story of the pre-Crisis Superman. Editor Julius Schwartz, leaving the Superman books after a decades-long stewardship, wanted Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel to write the books, but Siegel was embroiled in a legal dispute with DC, one that would contribute to the need for another, later Crisis event, so Moore got the gig.
For art duties, Moore tapped iconic Superman artist Curt Swan. If you think of a classic image of let’s say 1950s Superman, there’s a solid chance you’re picturing a Curt Swan drawing. Square chin, thick George Reeves physique, clean lines. Swan was everything DC wanted to move Superman away from, an old-timey wholesomeness they feared turned off younger readers, but his aesthetic was exactly what Moore wanted on the book. Essentially, Moore wanted his story to look like a classic Superman comic, and it’s hard to imagine anyone better suited to the task than Curt Swan.
Notably, the inker on the first issue is George Perez, who was also penciling Crisis on Infinite Earths. Perez’s more modern style runs a little rampant over Swan’s pencils and pulls the first issue’s look a little closer to the main Crisis book (and not entirely dissimilar to the style of oncoming penciler John Byrne).
Kurt Schaffenberger took over inking the second issue, which looks closer to classic Swan Supes. I was going to say that the Swan/Schaffenberger team up looks a little like the work of Dave Gibbons, but then I looked at some Gibbons pages and remembered that, for an artist I often think of as stripped and simple, Gibbons’s work is deeply detailed. He just happens to make it look elegant. I think part of the reason I compared the two is that “Jordan Eliot”, who doesn’t show up with his pencil ‘stache until the second issue, looks eerily like Watchmen’s the Comedian/Eddie Blake:
The story itself is a kind of kitchen-sink approach to the premise of THE LAST SUPERMAN STORY. Superman’s classic enemies come at him, alone or in pairs, out for blood in a way readers hadn’t seen them before. With his Clark Kent identity revealed, Superman gathers up his nearest and dearest to the Fortress of Solitude, where he makes his last stand against Lex Luthor, who’s wearing Brainiac as a hat (or later, Brainiac puppeting Luthor’s dead body around only to be defeated by rigor mortis). In the end, surrounded by the bodies of Jimmy Olsen, Lana Lang, and the aforementioned Puppet Luthor, Superman notices the one villain absent from the fray, fifth-dimensional imp Mr. Mxyzptlk, the real mastermind behind the carnage. Superman attempts to zap Mxy into the two-dimensional Phantom Zone at the same moment Mxy flees to the fifth dimension, and the resulting rift tears Mxyzptlk apart. Having sworn never to kill, Superman retreats into a room containing Gold Kryptonite, which will permanently strip him of his powers, and disappears.
Later, we’ll see Grant Morrison pick up on Moore’s idea that, “hey, fifth dimensional imps could be a serious threat,” both in his JLA run and in his relaunch of Action Comics. And there’s the fact that when Morrison “kills” Batman off in 2008’s Final Crisis, Batman and Detective Comics run a two-parter titled “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?”, penned by Neil Gaiman rather than Morrison. All connections that will be better handled by Phil Sandifer’s Last War in Albion.
Superman himself gets very little screen time in the story, largely left to watch events unfold. It’s a story about him being too late to save people, a theme which will run through several of these Men of Tomorrow entries. His biggest scene isn’t with Lois or even Lana, but with Perry White, who’s currently estranged from his wife.
Superman says he can never tell Lois he loves her for fear of hurting Lana Lang. Lana conveniently dies a few pages later. He gets an iconic exit panel as he steps into the Gold Kryptonite room and effectively out of the story.
As with all Alan Moore stories, what’s interesting isn’t the plot, but the telling. Moore launches in with an oft-quoted intro:
“This is an IMAGINARY STORY (which may never happen, but then again may) about a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good…This is an IMAGINARY Story… Aren’t they all?”
The status of “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” as “imaginary” as opposed to “real” is complicated by the looming Crisis. As incoming editor Andrew Helfer put it, Moore’s story “ existed as a real story for a moment, because right afterwards, the first issue of The Man of Steel basically defined all of the previous Superman stories as imaginary stories.”
Moore would later warn of the impact this collective mindwipe might have on the DC Universe. Two years later, outlining his “Twilight of the Superheroes” crossover in a pitch document DC would continue to mine for ideas for decades, Moore argued:
I believe this is dangerous for a couple of reasons. Firstly, by establishing the precedent of altering time, you are establishing an unconscious context for all stories that take place in the future, as well as for those which took place (or rather didn’t take place) in the past. The readers of long standing, somewhere along the line, are going to have some slight feeling that all the stories that they followed avidly during their years of involvement with the book have been in some way invalidated, that all those countless plotlines weren’t leading to anything more than what is in some respects an arbitrary cut-off point. By extension, the readers of today might well be left with the sensation that the stories they are currently reading are of less significance or moment because, after all, at some point ten years in the future some comic book omnipotent, be it an editor or the Spectre, can go back in time and erase the whole slate, ready to start again.
Moore put this sensation in the context of the do-over ending of Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman film.
I myself felt something similar at the end of the first Superman film, when he turns time back to save Lois. It ruined the small but genuine enjoyment that I’d got from that first movie and destroyed all credibility for any of the following sequels as far as I was concerned.
Well-aware that the very imaginary nature of his “last story” would shadow all Superman stories to come, Moore gives Superman the ending one might imagine the character wanted: stripped of his powers, he enjoys a quiet domestic life with Lois and their child. “Jordan Eliot” even runs down the silliness of Superman.
Moore would return to the superhero’s desire for normalcy on darker terms with the suicide of Michael Moran in Miracleman, but here, with an ending later echoed in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films, Superman finishes out his story as Clark Kent, mild-mannered, graying at the temples, happy to have hung up the cape.
Looking ahead, this decision is one that will define interpretations of Superman/Clark Kent throughout stories that posit a telos for the character. Moore’s choice to let the identity coin land on Clark is a telling one for his read on the character, one in stark contrast with endings offered by Waid and Morrison, for instance. Moore’s Superman/Kent is burdened by the responsibility of his powers and wants ultimately to give them up in favor of a “normal life.” His identity as Superman is deeply tied to that responsibility, which, once violated, can be shrugged off. Moore’s world without a Superman gets along just fine, far better, in ways, than the world Moore later portrays in Miracleman, with superheroes ruling over mortals like gods. As it turns out, Clark Kent and the rest of the world are better off without Superman.
“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” ends with a message similar to that of Watchmen, one that could easily stand in for Moore’s view on superhero comics and their readership: their ultimate goal is to make themselves no longer necessary.