Potential of a Superman: Introduction

For the next few weeks, my work life is likely to be a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. Edits on the new book are moving back and forth, and there are certain limits to how much I can move forward on the sequel before we’ve finalized the first book. I’ve got a couple other things to work on (including possibly some comics pitches?), but to fill a bit of time, and keep my brains from turning into edit-derived goo, I’m going to work on a series of posts about Superman.

Specifically, the posts will be about different iterations of Superman. Supes is, after all, one of those objects of pop culture that’s been around so long as to have a deep backlog of discernible versions in existence, many of which claim to be “true”, and which complement and contradict one another. I’d argue that this is a fairly elite group of characters, at least in the way I mean. For instance, there have now been three on-screen Peter Parkers, but in the comics, Spider-Man has been one continuous stream of character since his creation in 1962. Different writers have pushed the character in different ways, but they’ve always had to account for previous iterations. So fifty-plus years of Spidey comics read as one story, or are supposed to. There are clones, sure, and “alternate universe Spideys.” But none of them are “the real Spider-Man.”

Or take the Doctor. Over the course of Doctor Who’s run on television (and novels, audio, comics, etc), the Doctor has been portrayed by a slew of performers. But all of these versions are connected and have to be reconciled with each other, to some degree. Or maybe they don’t. Go read up on Elizabeth Sandifer’s TARDIS Eruditorum if you want far smarter thoughts than mine on the good Doctor.

On the other hand, we have, let’s say, James Bond. Bond films exist without any real continuity (the possible exception being the Craig entries, which are at least contiguous to each other), so we can talk about Connery Bond or Dalton Bond as if they are completely distinct from one another, in a way Tom Baker’s Doctor is not distinct from David Tenant’s. Batman, I’d argue, has a similar abundance of versions which are distinct while all being “true” version of the character. The fact of it is, I’m probably better read when it comes to iterations of the Caped Crusader.

But I find myself in the mood to read some Supes, so here we are.

The project (to call it something far loftier than what it is, a distraction), is going to split roughly into a handful of categories, with allowances that it may drift into other areas, and that there are a couple things I want to include that I haven’t categorized yet. They are as follows:

Last Sons of Krypton: These will examine tellings of the Superman origin story, which has been revisited more times than maybe any bit of comic book narrative other than this one:

Planned for this category so far: John Byrne’s Man of Steel and World of Krypton, Mark Waid and Leinil Yu’s Birthright, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Secret Origin, Grant Morrison’s run on Action Comics Vol. 2, Max Landis’s American Alien, J.M. Straczynski’s Earth One, the television series Smallville, and the first hour of both the 1978 Richard Donner movie and Zack Snyder’s 2013 Man of Steel.

So yes, I will be looking at some versions of Superman I don’t particularly like.

Men of Steel: This will cover pretty much any mid-career version of Superman, and is maybe the one still most open-ended. On the docket so far: Morrison’s All Star and JLA, Alan Moore’s “For the Man Who Has Everything”, Darwyn Cooke and Tim Sale’s Kryptonite, Jeff Loeb and Tim Sale’s For All Seasons, Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s Luthor, and the various screen versions of grown-up Supes, including Christopher Reeve, Dean Cain, Brandon Routh, Henry Cavill, Tyler Hoechlin, as well as the animated versions by Bruce Timm and Dwayne McDuffie.

Men of Tomorrow: This will be stories that craft a sort of ending for Superman, or at least look at a version of Superman that comes into existence “in the future”. I’ll be writing on Superman as he appears in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight books, as well as Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come, Grant Morrison’s DC One Million, Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” and “Twilight of the Superheroes” pitch, and, in some way I haven’t figured out, the Death and Return of Superman books.

Strange Visitors: These are the Elseworlds versions of Superman. And I know Kingdom Come is an Elseworlds book, because I just checked to see the logo on the cover. But I’m putting it in with the Ragnarok-y stuff, because it’s more interesting there. So far, I’m thinking of Mark Millar and Dave Johnson’s Red Son, Alan Davis’s JLA: The Nail, J.M. DeMatteis’s Speeding Bullets, and Scott Snyder, Lowell Francis and Gene Ha’s Flashpoint: Project Superman. But there are bound to be others, and I’m open to suggestions on which are worthwhile.

Bizarros: This category will cover a couple explicitly non-Superman analogues, generally limited to characters created or written by artists who are otherwise of interest. So, Kurt Busiek’s Samaritan, Mark Waid’s Plutonian, and JM Straczynski’s take on Hyperion are the ones planned at the moment.

There are other pieces I want to look at that I’m not sure where to place yet, but I’m hoping they’ll fit into one of these slots. Or I’ll make a new slot. But Steven Seagle’s …it’s a bird is high up on the list, as is Busiek and Stuart Immonen’s Secret Identity, Tom DeHaven’s novel It’s Superman, and the 1966 Superman musical, which apparently includes the lyric, “It’s a satisfying feeling when you hang up your cape/To know that you’ve averted murder, larceny and rape.”

Anyway, if you’re interested in this sort of thing, please follow along, or drop in and out as you see fit. Unlike the above-mentioned TARDIS Eruditorum or Sean Dillon’s Fearful Symmetry, I’m not going in with a set theoretical framework (more’s the pity). My hope is things will take shape as I go, but up front, my interests center on what cultural “work” a particular Superman is doing when he comes into being, and what work he continues to do, what constitutes a “true” version of Superman, how expansive that definition can be, and where its limits lie. It’s a safe bet I won’t get to half the things on this list. But I’ll be starting out with Alan Moore and Curt Swan’s apotheosis of pre-Crisis Superman in “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” and from there looking at Byrne’s meat-and-masculinity relaunch in Man of Steel and The World of Krypton, straying off into an Elseworld with Cary Bates and Renato Arlem’s Last Family of Krypton, and then trying to fit together Mark Waid’s two takes on the character in Kingdom Come and Birthright.

So I guess for now, I’ll leave it as…

“Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern.” -Frank O'Hara

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