Saturday, 4 August 2012

Getting Superman Right

(This article was copied from another blog and before that from a website so some of its concluding remarks are out of date.)

Why do Kryptonians exactly resemble white North Americans? One answer would be that superheroes, like gods, are myths, therefore resemble their creators. They are made in our image. This answer is basically sound. Anyone writing a new Superman story must accept the absurd premise of humanoid extraterrestrials as part of the established myth. However, thoughtful versions of the story rationalise its absurd elements. Superman is sf-based, not fantasy-based. His origin is extraterrestrial, not supernatural. The very first episode explained his superhuman feats scientifically, not magically. I offer below two alternative answers to the above question: Kryptonians are either descendants of terrestrials or a fiction within the fiction.

The Last Son of Krypton

The Kryptonian god, Rao, a powerful superior being associated with an old red giant star, presided over a large planet with a dense atmosphere. Rock-hard plants grew on the surface and a few almost un-killable animals lived on a plateau where the atmosphere was breathable by terrestrials although other conditions, like gravity, climate and visibility, were hostile. Rao rescued shipwrecked terrestrials, placed them on the plateau and oversaw their evolution so that they increased their strength, endurance and visual range while retaining their human form.

In order to survive, the Kryptonians, as they now were, developed the physical sciences but not evolutionary theory because they were clearly not related to Kryptonian animals which had different facial features, number of limbs, body chemistry etc. Therefore, the Kryptonians believed that they had been created on Krypton by Rao whom they simply identified with their red giant sun. This explains why the Science Council and the Raoist priesthood were the dual authorities in the later cities of Kryptonopolis, Kandor and Argo.

Rao’s aim was to generate a hero who would escape to Earth when Krypton exploded. Indoctrinated by recordings in his spaceship, Kal-El is conscious of his heroic mission but adopts a human guise while on Earth. This Superman joins other cosmically powerful beings in the Justice League. He flies through space in the Solar System, survives unprotected trips through hyperspace and the time stream and will live through an indefinite future, roaming the galaxy after completing his terrestrial superhero career. 

In Superman: Last Son of Krypton, a novel by Elliot S. Maggin, human beings have spread to various planets, we are not told from where. On Krypton, “…two stranded space wanderers found each other…” and began to populate the planet. (1) 
 
Because of the “monstrous” gravity, drastically changeable weather and poor visibility:

“The race’s physiology was subtly altered while outward appearances changed very little…” (2)

With denser muscles, sharper reflexes, broader perceptions and wider optical capacity but unchanged appearance, Maggin rationalises Superman’s human appearance and superhuman powers. (3) However, I think that outward appearances would change under such conditions unless Rao controlled the adaptations.

My “Last Son of Krypton” scenario is an adaptation of Maggin’s.

The Smallville Angel

In the Smallville TV series, green meteors, accompanying Kal-El’s spaceship to Earth, harm him but give terrestrials strange powers. In my second alternative version, there was no spaceship. The meteors gave more powers to Clark Kent because his pregnant mother, Martha, was at Ground Zero but not directly hit by any of the meteors. Clark, either acting from a distance or moving too quickly to be seen, averts disasters and rescues accident victims, thus giving rise to the story of the “Smallville Angel”. Since he is occasionally glimpsed running impossibly fast, there is also a legend of “the Superboy” but no one produces any photographs and the sightings are never verified.

Working at the Metropolis Daily Planet, the adult Clark, now able to fly, still uses his powers secretly but prepares for the day when he will be seen in action. By changing his voice, stooping slightly, pushing his hair back, dressing conservatively and wearing large distracting glasses, Clark conceals any resemblance to the figure he presents when, in casual dress, he flies or uses super strength.

He notices in the Planet a comic strip about Superman. This fictitious costumed character is strong and fast but does not fly and has neither visual powers nor a secret identity. He came as a child from the fictitious planet Krypton and was brought up by an unnamed couple who taught him to use his powers for good, as Jonathan and Martha Kent had done for Clark. Clark seeks out the reclusive author/artist of the strip who turns out to be his friend from Smallville, Peter Ross. Pete not only saw the Superboy but recognized him as Clark and based Superman on him. 

The Planet has a promotion in which an actor wears a Superman costume. Seeing with X-ray and telescopic vision that, on the second or third day of the promotion, the actor has been delayed and will arrive late, Clark removes his glasses, pulls his hair forward, dons the costume and poses in the Planet foyer. Some colleagues walk past and may even look directly at him but do not initially recognize Clark’s face without glasses above the colourful costume.

He experiments with a deeper voice and colleagues in earshot do not turn towards him.
Before anyone does recognize him, his visual powers and super-hearing tell him that an airliner is about to crash on Metropolis and he flies to the rescue. He moves at super-speed, does not wait for thanks or applause and also vibrates his face at super-speed in order to blur any films or photographs. Thus, he is not recognized and continues to operate in a superhero identity. The Planet staff finds that its fictitious character has come to life but is as puzzled as everyone else. Superman is only ever glimpsed moving very fast at a distance with a blurred face. No one suspects that he has a secret identity as the Gotham City vigilante must.

When Ross leaves the strip, other writers and artists base it on the real Superman so there are different versions of the character. One version is even more powerful than the real superhero and his Kryptonian background, involving the god Rao, is developed. Later, Superman rescues Lois Lane. She interviews him but does not immediately suspect any connection with her colleague, Kent. 

This Superman can fly to the Moon and back if he fills his lungs with oxygen but cannot remain conscious indefinitely in a vacuum. To travel to other stars or times he needs a spaceship or a time machine like anyone else. He spends a lot of time in his Kent identity and as an investigative reporter in places like Iraq. He believes very strongly that he must use his powers to help but not to change society. (Maybe the powers fail if he tries?) 

He opposes injustice but also accepts legal constraints on his actions and therefore is conservative on questions like the justice of the current war. He does not join the war on either side but awaits the decision of an international court and then expects the authorities to act appropriately. He investigates Luthor but this takes a long time. He dies in action and is commemorated by a large statue with out-flung cloak and an eagle on the shoulder in Centennial Park. We see life continue without him.

(Several aspects of this scenario are based on John Byrne’s revision of the character.)

Crossovers between the Two Versions?

Never. Maybe one Superman reads about the other as a fictitious character. There was an old Superman story about a villain who could animate newspaper comic strip characters long enough for them to help him commit robberies but that seems a bit far-fetched.

The Minimal Superman

Perhaps the minimum identifying characteristics for Superman are the costume and the power of flight. If these alone remained, then he would be recognized as a new version of Superman, not as a new character. Without the costume, he would be a new superhero. Without flight, he would be just a guy in a Superman costume. In this sense, even Clark Kent is not essential although he has been there from the beginning with a dramatic contrast between the retiring Clark and the powerful superhero. If the familiar origin and background were dropped, then other arbitrary inventions would have to replace them.

On the first page of the Superman comic strip on our Earth, an unnamed scientist on an unnamed planet sent his unnamed son to Earth. He did aim him towards Earth. I used to think that Kal-El, like Moses, had been launched into the unknown with no idea of a destination but the chances of such a procedure getting him to a habitable planet were minimal and even the original story did not contain that absurdity.

The son’s powers were defined as:

able to leap an eighth of a mile and hurdle a twenty storey building;
raise tremendous weights;
out-run an express train;
skin impenetrable to anything less than a bursting shell.

On radio, this was re-expressed as: 

“…faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!” 

(Like a lot of people, I have got this phrase in my head although I never heard it on the radio.)

These powers amount to:

leaping:
strength;
speed;
partial invulnerability.

Over time, the powers went way up the scale to an infinite level, then back down to finite levels though never all the way back down to where they had started. Flight, although it was not part of the original description, replaced leaping. Flight and strength are now perhaps the two most recognizable powers.

When visual powers were added, it was claimed, as far as I can remember, that X-ray vision generated heat. Then, the emission of intense heat from the eyes was described as a separate power, “heat vision”, although it is not a form of vision, i. e., it involves neither seeing heat nor seeing objects by their heat.

Originally, Kryptonians had the leaping ability and X-ray vision on Krypton. Later, they had to enter an environment with lower gravity and a yellow sun to gain super powers.

The Growth of the Legend

The legend has grown through discernible stages. In comics: 

first, a Clark Kent who started his costumed career as an adult;
secondly, a Clark Kent who was Superboy in Smallville and became Superman as an adult in Metropolis;
thirdly, a Clark Kent who grew up in Smallville but who started his costumed career as an adult in Metropolis.

Later versions combine the best features of earlier versions. The Superboy period contradicted the original and never made much sense but Smallville was a good place for him to have grown up. If Superman was always set in the present, then Superboy should have remained ten years behind him but got left several decades behind for a while, then, later, was abolished. A temporary feature, Superboy, introduced a more permanent feature, Smallville.

On screen:

first, screen versions based on the first and third comics versions;
secondly, a Clark Kent who grew up in Smallville and became Superboy at Shuster University;
thirdly, a Clark Kent who is now growing up in Smallville.

Setting young Clark in the present removes the need to locate all the background details ten or more years in the past. The Smallville TV series could appropriately end with Clark donning the familiar costume for the very first time.

Another staged growth was: 
 
a Superman who could leap tall buildings;
a Superman who could fly at many times the speed of light;
a Superman who can fly impossibly fast but nowhere near the speed of light.

Lana Lang, introduced as the Smallville equivalent of Lois Lane, became an independent character and moved to Metropolis in adulthood. In different continuities, she has married Clark Kent, Lex Luthor and Peter Ross.

Peter Ross, introduced to be the friend who knew Clark’s secret, retains that role in the Smallville TV series but, in an intermediate comics version, did not know the secret, married Lana who did know the secret, became Vice-President Ross to President Luthor and, I am told, became President when Luthor left the White House. (No longer reading Superman comics, I receive occasional updates from other comics fans.)

Lex knew Kent in Smallville or White in Metropolis or met both later. He was Clark’s contemporary in the Superboy period but his older friend in the Smallville TV series (which is by far the better version). He lost his hair because of Superboy or because of Kryptonite or just because of baldness. He got rich by murdering his parents for insurance or inherited wealth but murdered his father anyway. The Lex of Earth 3 (see “Infinite Earths” below) was a hero fighting evil versions of Superman, Batman etc.

Chloe Sullivan, introduced in Smallville, has, I am told, appeared in the comics. Kryptonite was introduced on radio to explain Clark’s absence while his actor was on holiday, then, in the comics, became Superman’s way of learning his origin and remains in the comics although it is no longer how he learned his origin. Thus, broadcast media fed back into the original medium.

I read the first comics Kryptonite story in a British black and white reprint in the 1950’s but did not then realize its significance. I knew of Superboy and Superboy knew of his Kryptonian origin but, in this story, I was reading about an earlier Superman who had never been Superboy and who learned about Krypton only in adulthood. Even then, having followed the Kryptonite meteor back through space and time, he could only observe a scientist place a baby in a spaceship and infer: “That is me. That must be my father.” Any knowledge of names or of Kryptonese must have come later. That was the period when, in the comics, a time traveller from the future was merely a disembodied observer in the present. Later, he was able to visit Krypton physically.

I cannot afford to buy the first Kryptonite story as a back issue but that does not matter. The story remains where it belongs, embedded in a memory from fifty years ago.

General Observations

Superman is a modern myth, a powerful story embedded in the collective consciousness. Recognition of Superman is part of what we are, whether we love or loath this American icon, this immigrant Samson-Hercules who initiated the superheroes genre. “Samson-Hercules” just means “strong” but Superman’s most powerful imitator combined the attributes of Solomon, Hercules and Zeus and more (wisdom, strength etc). Siegel’s account of basing Superman on Samson, Hercules and other strong men reads like a first draft of the phrase that became the acronym, SHAZAM!

Too young to have known the original Captain Marvel, I did, in the 1950’s, know his British imitation, Marvelman, and was, in the 1980’s, intrigued by Alan Moore’s revival, later re-named Miracleman, in whose stories superheroes change not only the world but even the language: “London” is an event, the equivalent, in the Era of Miracles, of the World War II event, “Hiroshima”; “Kidding” is a swear word because the super powered Kid Miracle Man single-handedly destroyed London and slaughtered Londoners… (Superman’s imperfect duplicate, Bizarro, went on a murderous rampage in Metropolis in Moore’s Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?, but there we were not shown graphic details of the slaughter and Bizarro was probably not as ingenious as Bates.) If Superman had done nothing but lead to Miracleman, that would have been enough. But he led to a lot more. 

Roy Thomas, imagining a World War II era without the original Superman, replaced him with the son of the hero of the 1930 novel, Gladiator by Philip Wylie, which was a possible source for Superman. Alan Moore, imagining what comics would have been like without Siegel or Shuster, based a comic book hero instead on pulp fiction characters, had this hero raised in artificially generated high gravity on Earth and called him Tom Strong. Moore’s Watchmen brings costumed crime fighters and an omnipotent blue being into the real world so that the US wins in Vietnam and pirates, then horror, replace Superman and other superheroes in the comics. The US bases its defence policy on Dr. Manhattan’s mere presence and is in trouble when his trans-human psychology makes him leave Earth. 

Moore also wrote a Superman pastiche, Supreme, and a Twilight of the Superheroes Proposal in which Great Houses led by Superman, Captain Marvel and others rule the United States after the collapse of civilian government. The Proposal, although never used, possibly influenced later superhero “possible futures” like Mark Waid’s equally apocalyptically entitled Kingdom Come, also featuring conflict between Superman and Captain Marvel.

Kurt Busiek’s Astro City follows ordinary people living in a superhero world. They share a picnic on their skyscraper roof to watch heroes fighting an elemental being overhead. Surprisingly, they still do have Superman and Batman comics. Their main real hero, the Samaritan, travelled not through space from an exploding planet but through time from a prevented future. He is not extraterrestrial but extra-temporal so there is no problem about him being humanoid.

Superheroes led to superhero teams and thus eventually to Roy Thomas’ Young All Stars, incorporating events from Gladiator, to Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, uniting literary characters (the Nautilus fights Martian tripods in the Thames), and to Moore’s Top Ten which is about policing a city of super powered citizens.
  
But, returning from superheroes to Superman himself, he has been published continuously since 1938, so is now older than most of his audience. We remember our earliest childhood perception of him, when he was already an established character. I remember comic books and being told that Superman was on television although ITV did not reach to where I lived at the time. A decade ago, a child who had seen the second TV series, Lois and Clark: the New Adventures of Superman, informed me that, “Superman can fly and has magic eyes!”

Sometimes adults speak of Superman in the past tense: “What newspaper did Clark Kent work for?” or: “Lois Lane was Superman’s girl friend”. Their knowledge is of a memory. Sometimes they are surprised to be told that original comics as opposed to mere reprints, although we also have those, are still being published but they do notice that there are new screen versions. 

We can appreciate the Smallville TV series and the Superman Returns film as well as graphic works like Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Falls, in which Kent has a role, even if we do not read the monthly comics. I got back into the monthly titles with the John Byrne revival in 1987 but stopped buying them again about 2000. If quality is to overcome quantity, then occasional graphic novels need to replace monthly comic books as the main medium for sequential art story telling.

John Byrne rightly argued that Clark has Superman’s body so should be athletic, confident and handsome. Superman is a guise adopted by Clark, not vice versa. The klutzy nerdish Clark should never have returned. (Alternatively, in the “Last Son of Krypton” version, Kal-El is the basic character who poses as both Clark and Superman but we still deserve a credible Clark.)

The best Superman stories are those in which:

Smallvilleans or Metropolitans, including Kent, interact;
Superman battles earthquakes, tornados, tsunamis, meteor showers etc;
he undergoes an inner process like:

a dilemma about how to use his powers;
guilt for having misused them or for not being able to help everyone;
a conflict between his two identities or between his two heritages;
his relationships with Lana and Lois;
coping with temporary loss of his powers (which occurs periodically);
questioning whether his interventions retard social progress by making Earth people too dependent on him;
asking himself whether he should summarily execute super powered mass murderers or blaming himself when he has done this (it has happened);
exiling himself from Earth or relinquishing his powers because (he thinks) he has become a threat.

Superman: Peace on Earth by Paul Dini and Alex Ross is about Superman’s inability to feed all the hungry in one day but also goes as far as a Superman comic can to address the issue of military dictatorship. Superman disarms soldiers threatening a crowd but does not depose the dictator. He refuses to kill and has no authority to imprison. If Superman did depose a military ruler and somehow prevented him from regaining power but made no other change to society, then a second general would instantly replace the first, unless Superman intervened again. His physical power is vast but not his political influence, unless he became the dictator but he also refuses to do that. The only possible conclusion is that we must overthrow dictators. In one film, he confiscated US and USSR nuclear missiles but ended by telling the public, us, that it is our responsibility to change the world.

Whatever behavioural constraints Superman accepts, the mere presence of such a powerful being should change the world, as Moore showed in Miracleman and Watchmen. However, editors and writers of monthly comics pretend that events on a fictitious Earth can exactly parallel events on the real Earth except for the presence of beings who could change the world without even trying, not to mention regular alien invasions and cosmic crises. Earths DC and Marvel usually even elect the same US Presidents as Earth Real. DC recently had President Luthor instead but even this and an interplanetary war did not prevent international politics from exactly mirroring events on Earth Real. It is imperative to bequeath an unchanged world to the next regular script writer. 

When Moore wrote the monthly title, Swamp Thing, the title character realized that, by stimulating plant growth, he could save the ecology and transform deserts into gardens but he did not do this because he thought that it would impede evolution. Thus, Moore accepted but also rationalized the constraints of a monthly title. It was Moore who had transformed the Swamp Thing from a mere horror fiction monster into a plant elemental and guardian of “the Green”, thus into a more appropriate defender of Earth then Superman, wielding not mere physical force but the power of the environment. A Kryptonian can flatten a city whereas a plant elemental can accelerate plant growth in gardens, parks, flower pots and human intestines and can thus engulf a city with a forest or a jungle.
  
Moore also reasoned, first, that, since Luthor is an expert on the attempted destruction of an indestructible being, a secret government agency wanting to eliminate the Swamp Thing will pay Luthor a large fee for a short consultation with major if not ultimately lethal consequences for the Swamp Thing, and, secondly, that, since the Swamp Thing communicates with plants, he will be able to help Superman through a fever induced by a Kryptonian fungus. Thus, with Moore as author, Luthor appeared in the Swamp Thing title and the Swamp Thing and Superman met in a team-up title. 

A direct conflict between Superman and the Swamp Thing occurred not under Moore but under his successor, Rick Veitch, who had drawn Moore’s Swamp Thing, then took over the writing. Learning that Luthor had masterminded the attempt to kill him, Swampy attacks Luthor but is deterred first by the technological security system of the Lexcorp building, then by the fact that Luthor, like all Metropolitans, is protected by Superman. A war between the Kryptonian and the plant elemental would be horrific but neither is prepared to go that far.

Moore’s three contributions to the Superman titles were stand alone stories that did not allow for any fuller development of the implications of the character’s powers but that did cover: 

domesticity and  mortality;
temporary loss of powers;
interactions with other powerful beings, like the Swamp Thing;
what to buy Superman for a birthday present;
his attitude to the dead planet Krypton;
his relationships to Lana and Lois;
a surprise answer to, “Who was his greatest foe?”;
a glimpse at what a powerful five dimensional being really looks like;
whether to kill a powerful opponent;
time travel;
how he will be remembered a decade and a millennium later;
what he will do in retirement (with an echo of Watchmen).
 
When, in Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, Superman tells the super-dog: 
 
“I’m glad you came back, Krypto. You’re a piece of my life, you know that?”, 

he speaks for the author and for many of the readers. (4) When Kryptonian criminals mouth obscenities in the Phantom Zone, we realize that this is what they were always like. (5) They are adult thieves and murderers, not juvenile fiction “baddies.” The disempowered retired Superman lives under the name Jordan Elliot, thus remembering both a previous writer and Kal-El’s Kryptonian father, Jor-El. (A civilian name used in another Moore story is Cal Ellis.)

Superman and Time Travel

The pre-Byrne Superman time travelled by flying faster than light. By flying straight ahead, he traversed interstellar space. By spinning clockwise, he traveled into the future, anti-clockwise into the past! Twenty-ninth and thirtieth century people construct time machines and visit the twentieth century. Superman returns their visits without needing a time machine. Byrne rightly reduced Superman’s speed. Running once around the Earth took several hours and exhausted him. He also lost the race with the Flash. Any interstellar travel or time travel is no longer under his own steam.

Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? was the last pre-Byrne story. Previously Supergirl had time travelled from the 1960’s to the 2960’s, spent time with the Legion of Super Heroes in that period, returned to the 1960’s and died in 1985. In 1987, Superman is briefly visited at an important time in his life by Legionnaires from the 2960’s. Supergirl accompanies them. We belatedly learn that she had made this round trip to 1987 from the 2960’s while she was spending time with the Legion in that period. Thus, Superman meets her knowing that she is dead. 

Having to fit her dialogue about her route through time into a single speech balloon, Supergirl summarises it more succinctly:

“Hello, Kal. I was visiting the Legion in the 30th century when they announced they were coming back to see you, here in my future.” (6)

He tells her, correctly, that the Supergirl of the 1980’s is in the past. She responds:

“Give me my regards when I return from the past.” (7)

Understandably, he is overcome by emotion when the Legionnaires have left. (8) He was also concerned about his own fate at the time but that would not have upset him as much as this.

Incautious readers might think that, since Supergirl had “already” returned from the 2960’s to the 1960’s and died in 1985, she cannot then arrive in 1987 from the 2960’s. To think like this is to miss the subtlety of time travel, which Moore gets right here if not always elsewhere. Even in non-time travel narratives, we can be told later what the characters had done earlier without our knowledge at the time. Prequels are big business. Events can occur “between the panels”, in comic strip terminology. Since we had not previously been told everything that Supergirl did in the 2960’s, we can now be told that between arriving from and returning to the 1960’s, she had departed to and returned from 1987. 

Moore inherited from previous Superman writers a rule of time travel to the effect that:

“…you couldn’t materialize in an era where you already existed.” (7)

Why not? If you travel to before your birth, then you do not co-exist with your younger self but the atoms in your body do co-exist with their earlier selves. Why should this be different?

In an earlier pre-Byrne story by Elliot S. Maggin, Superman, arriving weakened in 5902, is welcomed to a Miracle Monday dinner where the family put portions of their food into an empty dish:

“…Superman’s dish, which we reserve for his return to us!” (9)

As an unexpected but welcome guest, the recuperating stranger in a historical costume is fed from the extra dish and listens with the family to the Miracle Monday story which ends:

“…and one day in the twenty-first century the Man of Steel just disappeared! No one knows to where…so each year, hoping he will return, we set an extra place at dinner…for Superman!” (10)

To the boy Riley who alone recognizes him, Superman quietly says, “I’ll always be back!” (11)
And:

“…every year through Riley’s old age, the food on Superman’s dish mysteriously disappeared during dinner!” (11)

Futuristic fiction presents the curious prospect of “past futures”, e. g., a fiction written in the 1980’s anticipating the 1990’s but read or re-read by us in the 2000’s. Specifically, Maggin’s Age of Heroes encompasses not only Superman but also:

“…Kuhan Pei-Jing who slogged through the rice fields of Asia negotiating to head off a Third World War in the 1990’s.” (12)

Having lived through the nineties, we can nominate our heroes for that period but might also remember the fictitious character, Kuhan Pei-Jing.

Other comics and one further novel by Maggin present the following time travel stories.

(i) In 1986, Superman converses with a huge holographic image of himself. A century later, having left Earth, he transmits that image backwards through time using total recall to complete the conversation which ends with:

“…I’ll see you in a mirror in a hundred years or so.” (13)

(ii) History students visit their past which is our present. One, Kristin Wells, comes from the twenty-ninth century to learn the origin of the Miracle Monday holiday and plays a role in that origin.

(iii) Kristin travels from 2862 to 1983 to learn the identity of the masked Superwoman who first appeared in that year. She finds that her twentieth century acquaintances have hired for a party a fictitious superhero costume resembling the one known to have been worn by Superwoman but that there is no one with super powers to wear the costume when Earth is threatened unless she herself dons it and simulates Superwoman’s recorded powers with twenty-ninth century technology. She recites Superwoman’s famous opening line from memory.

After her second trip to the twentieth century, Kristin spends a few years back home, and even leads an Independence Day festival as “Superwoman,” knowing that the main part of Superwoman’s career, to last for many years, still lies ahead of her. Her third trip to the twentieth century lasts into the twenty-first. She works with Superman but disappears, returning to her home era, a few years before he disappears, travelling into space.
 
Back home again, she:

“…tells of the amazing adventures of Superwoman, the like of which you have never heard…adventures that, in our time, have yet to happen! What are they…? Only time will tell…!” (14)

Time did not tell. Although we see glimpses of those adventures in a strange, red-tinted montage, Maggin never wrote them because continuity changed with The Crisis on Infinite Earths and the Byrne revival of Superman. Superwoman, who cameos in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, was one of many features Byrned out of continuity. The continuity that would have led to Kristin Wells’ twenty-ninth century was wound up early to make way for Byrne’s reboot of Superman and his timeline. The thirtieth century Legion survived but other features, even including the Superboy period of Clark’s career, which, after all, had not occurred in the original Superman continuity, did not. 
 
Because Whatever Happened…? is an “imaginary story,” it can contradict continuity by showing Superwoman not disappearing before Superman in the twenty-first century but present at the scene of his “death” in 1987.
   
Maggin implies two parallel narratives. First, Superman survives indefinitely off Earth, although his movements are little known, while his terrestrial career becomes legendary. Secondly, he time travels between the twentieth century and specific future dates. Occasional re-appearances of a legendary figure enhance the legend. If he sometimes appears old and sometimes young, this enriches the legend which would in any case exist in different forms as Maggin shows in Superman 400.

When Superman has transmitted the holographic image backwards in time, we are told:

“…he passed from legend to myth before the nations of Earth saw their Man of Tomorrow again…” (15)

Just before he arrives on Miracle Monday, 5902, we are told:

“...the career of Kal-El…passed from the realm of legend into myth…” (16)

So is his attendance at a Miracle Monday meal the occasion when “the nations of Earth” see him again? I have not read all of Maggin’s Superman stories though there cannot have been many after “The Ghost of Superman Future!” in Superman 416. Whatever Happened…?, concluding that version of Superman, was originally cover-dated just seven months later.
However, Maggin’s hints at future appearances and adventures are appropriately allusive and should remain so.

Infinite Earths

The fact that DC Comics simultaneously published a Superman who had never been a Superboy and a Superboy who would become a Superman helped to create the multiple Earths scenario. It made sense that the current Superman who had been Superboy lived on Earth 1 and that the older World War II era Superman who had not been Superboy lived on Earth 2 with these Earths existing in separate universes occupying the same space but vibrating at different rates, therefore not usually impinging on each other.

It also made sense that characters acquired from other companies, including even the original competitor Captain Marvel, lived on other Earths. Surprisingly, one Earth, Earth Prime, was a place where no one had acquired any super powers. A character from Earth 3 suggested that this sounded a bit unlikely but it was true. On Earth Prime, the only place to read about superheroes was in comics, not in newspapers.

In a Maggin-scripted story, Superman flying between Earths passed through the sky of Earth Prime. A pedestrian looking up said, “Look! Up in the sky…It’s…It’s gone!” (17)

Maggin’s wish fulfilment stories included one in which an Earth Prime Clark Kent, named after the comic character, donned a Superboy costume for a beach party, looked up at the stars and found that he was flying towards them. He did have super powers and met the Superman of Earth 1 whom he had read about in comics.

(Moore incorporated earlier comics more subtly into Miracleman where the pre-Moore Marvelman adventures turn out to have been a virtual reality program used to test the reactions of Mickey Moran’s enhanced clone kept in a coma in a secret government laboratory for several years. A secret intelligence service wants to use the super being as a weapon because of his mega-death potential but must keep him unconscious because he will destroy them if he wakes up and learns the truth. Appropriately, the Luthor-equivalent evil scientist who was the villain in the original series is a real person and in charge of the experiment. Moore makes this villain, Moran, Moran’s wife and the newly introduced Miraclewoman new and substantial characters.)

Echoing the Superwoman stories that will never be told is Maggin’s introduction to DC Comics Presents 87 in which Superman, Earth 1, meets Superboy, Earth Prime:

“If a history of this time were ever to be written…such a history as can never be told…” (18)

Continuity was about to change and dissolve the multiverse. Memories and historical records would change accordingly.

Improving the Quality

Reading or re-reading earlier Superman stories shows, first, the material that Maggin, Moore and Byrne had to work with and, secondly, how well they worked with it. The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told is not “great” stories but representative items from the main periods of Superman’s publishing history. As such, it includes “The Super Key to Fort Superman” (1958), author uncredited, “Superman’s Other Life” (1959) by Otto Binder and “For the Man Who Has Everything” (1985) by Alan Moore.

These three stories have in common Batman visiting Superman’s Fortress of Solitude and the problem of a suitable present for Superman. The second and third of these stories also have in common the idea of a present that shows Superman what his life on Krypton would have been like if the planet had not exploded. But there the similarities end.

“Superman’s Other Life” contains stilted dialogue, implausible coincidences and scientific impossibilities. (I mean in addition to the basic impossibility of the Superman premise.)

Superman tells Batman something that he already knows just so that the reader will know it as well. There are subtler ways of informing readers, who may not even realize how much necessary background information they are receiving as they read. A computer screen shows a simulated alternative reality where an “anti-atomic ray” saved Krypton and where, in 1965, a spaceship from Earth, missing the Moon, reached Krypton, bringing Lois Lane as a stowaway. Need I go on? (There is more like this in the story.)

In the Moore story, Superman is given his “heart’s desire” and it is a nightmare. Krypton survived but its society degenerated and the embittered Jor-El leads an extremist political movement. Addressing a Sword of Rao rally, Jor-El remembers a Krypton:

“…where proud towers rose up against an untainted sky…” (19)

Thus, he remembers Krypton as it was shown in old Superman comics. Unfortunately for Jor-El, he is now living in an Alan Moore-scripted story where life is more realistic and substantial even in the trance-vision which Superman is enduring. While Batman tries to wake Superman from his trance, the Jor-El in the trance-vision tries to wake Krypton up to danger, rot and carnage. A counter-demonstrator taunts him with:

“What sort of catastrophe is it going to be this time, Jor-El? Is the planet blowing up again? Or is it going to be floods and plagues?” (19)

Like us, the counter-demonstrator, who injects an appropriately Biblical note with “…floods and plagues…”, lives in a world where Krypton did not explode and there never was a Superman. As Kal-El explains to his son, grandfather Jor-El shouts about the world ending because his world ended twenty years ago. The real Jor-El died when Krypton exploded. The trance-vision Jor-El was discredited when Krypton did not explode. Alternative visions and levels of reality clash throughout the story.

Thus, Moore has taken the familiar material of Superman and Krypton and done something novel with it. His point is that harking back to a dead past, in this case Krypton’s, is a distraction from coping with the present. He makes this point by showing us Superman vividly imagining Krypton surviving. The only point of the Binder story was that, if Krypton had survived, then a series of bizarre coincidences would have linked Kal-El’s alternative life on Krypton to the life we know he did have on Earth.

In Binder’s story, Kal-El even wears a Kryptonian Space Patrol uniform that exactly resembles the Superman costume even down to the “S,” here standing for “Spaceman.” Rao preserve us! Since these parallel events are described as sheer chances, I fail to see how the computer could calculate them, let alone how it could display them on a screen. Moore’s Superman experiences his alternative reality. Moore’s story is more enjoyable and credible and makes a significant point even in the fabulous setting of Krypton. As Brian Aldiss wrote, “‘More, Moore!’ we cry.” (20) What matters here is not the character, the ultimate strong man, but who writes him.

Of course, the “present” that gave Superman this vision of his presumed “heart’s desire” was a Trojan Horse intended to immobilize him while a conventional villain conquered Earth. The story ends with “the biter bit.” The villain, happy in his vision of cosmic conquest, lacks Superman’s ability to question and resist the illusion. Moore’s final gift to the readers is that, if we look carefully, we recognize other comic characters surrendering to Mongul. We must not only read the speech balloons and captions but also scrutinize the panels because some of the information presented is merely visual and is in details other than the overt action, but this observation applies to a lot of good graphic fiction and to Moore’s in particular. 
    
Further Remarks

There need only be one recurring villain. Others should appear once, if at all. There should be no Monster of the Month. Superman and Luthor are good and evil but also brawn and brain. (The other comics antithesis is the Batman, grimly serious because of his parents’ murder, versus the Joker, who finds murder hilarious.) I like Maggin’s idea of a future reformed Luthor befriending his former enemy.

Byrne and Wolfman improved Kent and Luthor just enough to show how good they could have been but never developed the characters or situation further, then let everything slide backwards. Superman physically attacked a terrorist nation (good) but was interrupted while doing so by a mental attack from conventional aliens (bad). The mermaid and the fifth dimensional imp returned not just once but repeatedly because this is monthly comics. Let’s see Superman interact with the real world, not with other fictitious characters even more absurd than himself.

Byrne rightly returned to Superman as sole survivor of Krypton. Thus, Supergirl was not merely dead. It’s worse than that, she never existed, Jim! But then Byrne introduced another Supergirl from a parallel universe and post-Byrne continuity has re-instated the Kryptonian Supergirl! Why change everything only to change it back? It is as if the writers are caught on a treadmill of rehashing old ideas instead of writing creatively when there is so much potential for creativity. The only good idea that has remained is Luthor as a corrupt businessman and occasional politician instead of as a wanted criminal and frequent convict.

The Crisis on Infinite Earths, which should have initiated a second half century of continuity for individual characters, instead initiated an annual company-wide crossover, replacing the annual JLA-JSA crossover, and was rehashed as Infinite Crisis a mere twenty years later. The original characters, who should have been gone forever, came back but to what end?

Superman is lost in this quantum foam of superheroes Dis-Continuity. His enormous potential still awaits realization although some good things did happen in the immediate post-Byrne era.

The Death of Superman

There was very clever misdirection when Superman died, not for the first time, in 1993. Four replacements appeared, each with his own monthly title for most of that year, plus one Annual each, but we later learned that none of them was really him. However, beyond a certain point in the story, when we thought we were seeing one of the replacements, we were in fact seeing the real resurrected Kal-El who had slipped back unannounced. The self-healing, solar power storing Kryptonian body had disappeared from the tomb not because it was, as yet, resurrected but because one replacement, an intelligent Kryptonian artifact, used it as a power source and this process eventually revived the body in an understated behind-the-scenes Resurrection. 

Meanwhile, in the hereafter, Jonathan Kent, having a near death experience after a heart attack, persuaded Clark’s soul to return. Even when restored to life, it was a while before Clark regained full power and re-donned the costume. Then, when he had fully returned, the series lost all direction. I felt that it was if he had never really come back from being dead.

Just before this, the Dallas TV series had restored a character to life by decreeing that his wife had dreamed of his death. She woke up and he came out of the shower. I suggested to my comics retailer and some other fans that DC Comics could pull the same stunt with Lois and Clark. They did. She, waking up, said that she could not believe that he had been dead and he, emerging from the shower, said she must have dreamed it. But this was just a joke and a parody of Dallas. He had died. That fact plus the fact of his marrying Lois in mid-career instead of at the end as in previous versions has even survived a further continuity change. Ten years after the Death, Jimmy Olsen interviewed people about where they had been when Superman died. 

Roger Stern’s novelisation, The Death and Life of Superman, got it wrong by summarizing too many fantastic events in prose without telling us enough about what the characters were thinking and feeling. Stern said in an interview that, if he wrote an original novel, he (rightly) would not incorporate so many fantastic events. But he need not have done. A novel based on the Death story line could have left the fantastic content in the comics and concentrated instead on Metropolitans’ responses to the news of Superman’s death. New characters could have been introduced for this purpose, e. g., school pupils, police officers, a news vendor like the one in Watchmen etc.

We have now referred to three kinds of novel:

an original novel about an original character, Hugo Danner;
original novels about a comic book character, Superman;
a novelisation of a Superman comic (or it could have been a film).

Novelisation is, first, not original writing and, secondly, hard to do well so that it stands up in its own right but an oblique approach might work.

Miller on Superman and Batman

An important Superman appearance happened in a Batman comic, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight miniseries (individual titles: The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Triumphant, Hunt The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Falls; collected as The Dark Knight Returns; not the basis for the film called The Dark Knight). 

Superman and Batman are the most important characters in their fictitious universe and iconic figures in ours, the superhero and the masked avenger. A Lancaster Pagan placed Superman and Batman figures on an altar to represent Day and Night. They first teamed up because they had appeared separately in an anthology comic which was to take a page reduction. Instead of either character being dropped, they were put into a single story. This team up became a regular feature with the premise that they were friends. 

Byrne introduced a potential conflict between them because of the Batman’s violent vigilantism but this did not last. Superman quickly accepts that Batman’s methods suit Gotham City and they become friends later. Without looking this up now, one dialogue ran something like:

Batman: I have deduced that you are Clark Kent but I won’t tell anyone.
Superman: I’m sure you won’t, Mr. Wayne.
Batman (thinks): after all the trouble I took to put lead in my mask.

(In Byrne’s version, X-ray vision was not fine-tuned enough to distinguish facial features under a mask but Superman could have learned Batman’s identity by remotely viewing him finishing his night patrol and returning to the Cave under Wayne Manor.) 

The Dark Knight series, a post-Crisis story, was published just before Byrne’s introduction of the post-Crisis Superman in the Man of Steel miniseries. Thus, the Clark Kent of Dark Knight was the earliest published appearance of the post-Crisis Superman. However, Dark Knight is set in a possible future when the conflict suggested by Byrne reaches its climax.
  
In Miller’s version, Wayne and Kent are old friends but divided by conflicting loyalties. As in Moore’s Watchmen, costumed crime-fighters are banned and the most powerful super-being, in this case Superman, works for the US government. Addressed only as “Kent” by the authorities and as “Clark” by his friends, he somehow works covertly for the government despite the publicity surrounding his earlier career as “Superman.” Despite his powers, this Kent willingly does whatever the US President tells him to, even if this means bringing down the Bat vigilante. But, until he is told to do this, he takes no action even though he, unlike his controllers, knows who the Batman is. He tries to remain friendly with and to warn Wayne but finds this difficult. Wayne is embittered.

Kent: Sooner or later, somebody’s going to order me to bring you in. Somebody in authority. When that happens…
Wayne: When that happens, Clark…may the best man win. (21)

John Byrne thought that this “Dark Superman”’s subservience was difficult to believe but it is a logical consequence of his acceptance of authority and makes a dramatic story as Miller tells it. Most effective are the colour-coded thought captions for Kent and Wayne as they fight to the death. These can only be extracts:

Wayne: You always say yes…to anyone with a badge…or a flag…
Kent: Bruce…this is idiotic…you’re just bone and meat…like all the rest.
Wayne: You sold us out, Clark. You gave them…the power…that should have been ours.
Kent: Bruce…I just broke three of your ribs…
Wayne: We could have changed the world…now…look at us…I’ve become…a political liability…and you…you’re a joke… (22)

Because the post-Crisis Superman is less powerful than before and because, on this occasion, Wayne is technologically armoured and has even synthesized Kryptonite (just in case he needed it), they can fight for a while but Wayne cannot win.

At the end of Whatever Happened…?, Clark winked at the reader when we realized that he had faked his death although the roles of Clark Kent and Superman had both come to an end. Near the end of The Dark Knight Falls, Clark winks at Robin when he realizes that Bruce has faked his death although the roles of Bruce Wayne and the Batman have both come to an end. Whatever Happened…? was a pre-Crisis imaginary story. Dark Knight was a post-Crisis possible future. Thus, they are set in different continuities and neither necessarily happens! However, each is a perfect last story for its central character. In Whatever Happened…?, the Batman describes the battlefield at the Fortress of Solitude as “…like walking amongst the fragments of a legend.” (23)

In Dark Knight, Kent had had to oppose Wayne’s vigilantism but will not interfere if he trains a survivalist army:

“…here, in the endless cave, far past the burnt remains of a crime-fighter whose time has passed…” (24) 

This ending implies that civilization will collapse and that Wayne will lead a recovery. This is a far cry from the fabulous future of the Legion of Super-Heroes, although their era is so far in the future that a Dark Age could intervene between now and then. But Miller, in a limited series, is not concerned about the further future. Also, because his focus is on the Dark Knight, he does not suggest what role Kent might play in the expected collapse and recovery, except to make clear that this character is unable to think outside the parameters of current government policy. By contrast, Wayne works independently of the government and against it if necessary and the archer vigilante, Oliver Queen, actively opposes the US government. Unfortunately for an archer, he lost an arm fighting Superman and was imprisoned but escaped.

Byrne explained Superman’s powers by saying that his Kryptonian body stored and processed solar energy. It follows that prolonged darkness will reduce his powers. In Dark Knight, a nuclear explosion causes a sand storm which blocks out the sun. Superman falls from the sky but touches a flower which stores solar energy. He says he was born a galaxy away whereas Byrne puts it at fifty light years.

I do not own a copy of Miller’s sequel The Dark Knight Strikes Again but have read some of it. From what I have seen, it looks like a text book example of how not to write a sequel. All the subtleties of the original are thrown away. Super powers return with a vengeance. Superman grovels, which I do think is out of character. 

Alternative Possible Futures

The 1991 Annuals presented a successive series of possible futures. When the most probable future was prevented from occurring, the next possible became the most probable and so on.  Superman Annual 3, by Jurgens, reversed Dark Knight. Superman, unbalanced by failing to prevent Metropolis from being nuked and by losing Lois, opposed the government, confiscated or neutralized its nuclear weapons, stole grain to give to the Third World etc. When Superman inadvertently killed US Servicemen, the President asked the Batman to bring him down and Wayne killed Kent with Kryptonite at Crime Alley where Wayne’s parents had been killed and where he and Kent had fought at the end of Dark Knight. 

In Superman in Action Comics Annual 3, by Stern, Superman became President. This was a “perfect” story in that it perceptively unfolded all the consequences of its premise. At the end of the Annual, when the contemporary Superman saves his foster father’s life, we, the readers, know that he, the character, has, unknowingly, prevented the sequence of events that would have led to President Superman.

In The Adventures of Superman Annual 3, instead of changing the world by either opposing or joining the government, Superman lives quietly with Lois until she dies in pregnancy, unable to carry a Kryptonian foetus, then he abandons Earth to wander in space as Dr. Manhattan had done in Watchmen. 

Every possibility has been covered. This is unsurprising as the character has now been published for seventy years. The possibilities are spread over different continuities, imaginary stories, possible futures, multiple Earths, alternative timelines, “Elseworlds,” “tangent universes” and “Hypertime.” This last was supposed to incorporate every single imaginary story but DC Comics did not stick to it. They not only keep changing their continuity but also keep changing their rationale for doing so.

Another Annual had government agents investigating the UFO that was sighted over Smallville two or three decades previously. The Kryptonians may have sent Kal-El to Earth because they thought he would conquer it. And so on. DC Comics even published a graphic work about a guy taking over the writing of Superman. His predecessor was “Joe Allen.” A taxi driver recognizes the new guy and asks nothing but, “If superhero A fought superhero B, who would win?” (I can remember neither title nor author in this case.)

Neil Gaiman

Gaiman’s most successful and famous character, Morpheus, the central character of the Sandman fantasy series, was indirectly influenced by Byrne’s Superman:

“…Superman had just been revamped to give him fewer abilities, the reasoning at the time being that one couldn’t weave interesting stories around a character who was ‘too powerful.’ That struck me as wrong-headed so I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll do a series that starts out with characters who are virtually all-powerful, and I’ll see where I can go from there.’” (25)

Morpheus is one of seven anthropomorphic personifications of aspects of consciousness. Since Morpheus’ aspect is Dream, he has existed as long as there have been conscious beings capable of dreaming. He controls the Dream realm and can move instantly between it and the waking world. Gods originate in and return to Morpheus’ realm and it is established that demons would have no power if the damned were unable to dream of Heaven. Thus, Morpheus, like Superman and the Swamp Thing, is apparently omnipotent but in a completely different way. 

Dream’s sister Despair persuades Rao, the personified star, that life on an unstable planet would be beautiful and that it would be:

“…a perfect piece of art if one single life form escaped. To remember, to mourn, to despair.” (26)

Characters in Sandman read not Superman but Hyperman comics.

Gaiman wrote Miracleman after Moore. After London, other super powered characters had built a utopia. Gaiman set stories in this utopia, then introduced a utopia-threatening conflict. The revived Young Miracleman cannot understand and violently rejects a sexual approach by his mentor, Miracleman. Stepping straight from the pages of the juvenile comics of the 1950’s and early ‘60’s, YM can only think that the man whom he secretly loved is depraved. Like the trance-vision Jor-El, YM is a comics character who has not adjusted to a later period of comics.

(Recent conversation with comics artist, Paul Harrison-Davies, has made me question those last two sentences. Did YM secretly love MM or did Miraclewoman say that he had done so for manipulative reasons of her own? Only future issues would have told us.)

Gaiman has also written the original Superman twice. In his Legend of the Green Flame, Kent thinks:

“I recognize Hal from his heart beat and respiration as he gets out of the elevator. From his tread, he’s lost a couple of pounds…Lost 13.2 ounces. I can smell apprehension in his sweat, and his pulse rate has jumped.” (27)

Everyone knows that Kent has super-hearing but how many can describe his perceptions like that? Again, what counts is not the familiar character but the perceptive writer. Here, Kent sounds like the blind Marvel Comics superhero, Daredevil, whose other senses are enhanced so that, for example, he knows that a circus performer is standing on his head because his voice is coming from somewhere below his heartbeat.

Legend of the Green Flame was originally written to be the concluding volume of the Action Comics Weekly anthology comic so its single story had to contain Clark Kent, Hal Jordan, Etrigan the Demon and other disparate characters who had had separate series in the anthology. Because of the Demon’s involvement, Gaiman, at Moore’s suggestion, wrote a scene where Superman sees the suffering of the damned but is unable to help and weeps. When Gaiman was told that Etrigan should not be included after all, he changed the demon’s appearance, re-named him Gintear (why not Granite?) and retained the Hell scene.

I think that Hell fits, if it fits anywhere, in fantasy titles like Swamp Thing and Sandman, but not in superhero comics so Superman hovering above Hell, especially with Hal hanging from him, leaves me cold. 
  
A single panel of Gaiman’s Sandman: the Wake, contains this perceptive and entertaining dialogue:

Clark Kent: The one I hate is where I’m just an actor on a strange television version of my life. Have you ever had that dream?
The Batman: Doesn’t everyone?
The Martian Manhunter: I don’t. (28)

Thus, our world is a dream in Kent’s which is a fiction in ours. Our world contains itself. Do I wake or sleep?

Conclusion

I find it impossible to conclude an article on Superman because there are always more memories even though I have not read the character continuously for anything like the fifty plus years that I have known about him. For example, in the film, Superman Returns, Superman catches a falling man, places him on the street and flies on without pausing but turns to wave. That one scene is authentic Superman.

Decades of badly written and absurd stories aimed at children were not meant to be taken seriously but they established the character in the popular consciousness. This led to some very good treatments but quality cannot be maintained on a monthly, multi-titles basis. Certain works tower above the others. I hope that I have highlighted them here.

Appendix A: Real People

Philip Wylie. Creator of Hugo Danner, a possible source for Superman;
coiner of the term “New Titans.”
 
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Creators of Superman, the first superhero.
 
Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Creators of Bruce Wayne, the Batman, a non-super powered masked avenger, vigilante and antithesis of Superman (although presented by later writers and artists and a TV series as a cheerful and even comical character);
creator of the Joker as the Batman’s main recurring villain.
 
Mort Weisinger and George Papp. Creators of Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow, a non-super powered costumed adventurer and vigilante, originally just “Batman with arrows”.
 
Various. Creators of: superheroes imitating Superman; villain Luthor; cousin Supergirl; super-powered pets; Super(man as a) boy; a superhero team he inspired and joined; revised “Silver Age” versions of the original “Golden Age” superheroes.
 
William Moulton Marston. Creator of Wonder Woman, a super-heroine based on the myth of the Amazons.
Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris. Creators of Aquaman, a marine superhero based on the myth of Atlantis.
 
Gardner Fox. Creator of Golden Age superheroes Flash and Hawkman and of the Sandman as a gas gun-wielding, gas mask-wearing vigilante;
creator of the first superhero team, the Justice Society of America (JSA), and of its Silver Age successor, the Justice League of America (JLA);
writer of the Flash story which established that the Golden and Silver Age heroes inhabit Earths occupying the same space but vibrating at different rates.
 
? (I know that Wolfman and Perez revived this team but cannot find the original creators’ names on the Internet.)
 
Creator(s) of the JLA sidekicks’ team, the Teen Titans.
Marv Wolfman and George Perez. Re-creators of the Teen Titans as the New Teen Titans/New Titans/Titans.
 
Bill Parker and CC Beck. Creators of Captain Marvel whose American publishers were prosecuted for plagiarising Superman.
 
Otto Binder. An early Captain Marvel, Superman and Green Arrow writer;
creator of the Timely Comics World War II super-heroine, Miss America.
Mick Anglo. Re-creator of Captain Marvel as Marvelman for British publication;
re-creator of Marvelman as Captain Miracle;
creator of several similar characters.
 
Jack Miller and Joe Certa. Creators of the Martian Manhunter, the first original Silver Age superhero.
 
Jack Kirby. Creator of iconic superheroes, mainly for Marvel;
re-creator of the Sandman as a dream dimension dweller.
 
Elliot S. Maggin. A good pre-Byrne Superman comic and novel writer;
creator of Superwoman as a time-travelling super-heroine caught in a circular causality paradox.
 
Dave Wood and Carmine Infantino. Creators of the animal-powered minor superhero, Animal Man.
 
Bob Haney. Re-creator of Green Arrow, changing his appearance, costume, economic status and social attitude.
 
Denny O’Neill. Restorer of the Batman as a masked avenger;
classic writer of the changed (now bearded and angry) Green Arrow.
 
Len Wein and Berni Wrightson. Creators of the Swamp Thing as a horror fiction monster, not a superhero.
 
Sheldon Mayer and Tony DeZuniga. Creators of Black Orchid, a plant-themed superheroine.
 
Roy Thomas. Creator of a comprehensive Golden Age superhero team, the All-Star Squadron;
creator of the Marvel World War II superhero team, the Invaders;
creator of a second generation superhero team, Infinity Inc, the children and godchildren of JSA members;
re-creator of Edgar Allen Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym as also Jules Verne’s “Captain Nemo,” kidnapper of the Marie Celeste crew, sinker of the Titanic, master of vril power and ruler of Madame Blavatsky’s Dzyan whose white animal forms might explain Moby Dick and who live near the Frankenstein monster;
creator of “Iron” Munro (Danner’s son), Flying Fox (descendant of the DC character, Arak, who was the son of a Native American thunder god), Fury (a super-heroine based on the myth of the Furies) and Neptune Perkins (Pym’s grandson) as “Young All-Stars” replacing the Golden Age Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman after the Crisis (see Marv Wolfman, below);
writer of revived, revised and rival versions of Captain Marvel;
creator of Captain Thunder, bearing Captain Marvel’s original name;
comics adapter of Wylie’s Gladiator and of Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung.
 
Alan Moore. Writer of genuinely “great” Superman stories, including “the last Superman story”;
writer of a Superman pastiche, Supreme;
creator of Tom Strong as a character who might have existed if there had not been a Superman;
re-creator of Marvelman as a serious character, later renamed Miracleman;
creator of the magician, John Constantine, who shows the Swamp Thing that he is a powerful elemental, not a shambling monstrosity;
thus also, re-creator of the Swamp Thing as a powerful guardian of the environment;
in Watchmen, re-creator of the Charlton Comics characters as real world superheroes and vigilantes;
writer of the Twilight Proposal in which Superman and Captain Marvel rule parts of the US;
writer of the definitive Batman-Joker story, The Killing Joke;
re-creator of the Invisible Man, Mr. Hyde, Captain Nemo etc as a superhero team;
creator of: V, an anarchist masked avenger; Promethea, a super-heroine based on the myth of Prometheus; Halo Jones, a non-super powered comics heroine; Top Ten, a super powered police force;
re-creator of the Marvel character, Captain Britain;
re-creator, with Melinda Gebbie, of Alice, Dorothy and Wendy as heroines of erotica;
imaginative chronicler of the Whitechapel murders and of historic Northampton;
a practicing magician who has seen John Constantine.
 
John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra. Creators of the legalized vigilante, Judge Dredd.
 
Rick Veitch. Moore’s successor on Swamp Thing.
 
Jamie Delano. First writer of John Constantine: Hellblazer, spinning off from Swamp Thing.
 
Mark Millar. Culminating Swamp Thing writer, further boosting the character with the powers of all the elements.
 
Brian Vaughan. Writer of a series about the Swamp Thing’s daughter.
 
John Byrne. Re-creator of Superman and Krypton.
 
Marv Wolfman. Re-creator of Luthor, simultaneously with Byrne’s re-creation of Superman;
writer of the DC Comics 50th Anniversary Crisis On Infinite Earths, replacing multiple Earths with the revised composite history of a single Earth whose Golden and Silver Ages are separated by decades but not also by vibrational rates;
writer of the Eclipse Comics 10th Anniversary Total Eclipse, also featuring multiple Earths and incorporating Gaiman’s first Miracle Man story (see below).
 
Dan Jurgens, Karl Kesel, Jerry Ordway, Louise Simonson and Roger Stern.
 
Writers of the Death of Superman.
Frank Miller. Re-creator of Batman in Batman: Year One;
writer of Dark Knight, the sequel to all Batman comics, incorporating both Oliver Queen as a one-armed saboteur and the definitive Superman-Batman conflict;
creator of straight crime fiction in Sin City;
writer of a good run on the Marvel character, Daredevil.
 
Timothy Truman. Writer of the Hawkworld miniseries set on the Silver Age Hawkman’s home planet, Thanagar.
 
Mike Grell. Writer of a Green Arrow series with no overt superheroics so that the occasional references to Superman could be to a fictitious character.
 
Mark Waid. Writer of Kingdom Come, possibly influenced by Twilight.
 
Paul Dini and Alex Ross. Authors of a realistic Superman.
 
Neil Gaiman. Moore’s successor on Miracle Man;
re-creator of Black Orchid as an ecologically concerned human-plant hybrid linked to the Swamp Thing;
re-creator of Kirby’s Sandman as Dream personified in a sequel to Moore’s Swamp Thing;
creator of Dream’s family, the Endless (dig Death);
creator of several supporting characters continued by other writers;
creator of Tim Hunter, a British schoolboy and powerful magician with glasses and an owl (before another fictitious character answered that description).
 
Grant Morrison. Writer of the highly regarded non-continuity All-Star Superman;
writer of works on Batman, JLA etc and of an Animal Man series whose characters learn that their universe seen from outside resembles a comic strip and whose title character meets the author.
 
Kurt Busiek. Creator of the Samaritan as a time-travelling Superman equivalent caught in a causality violation paradox, of Winged Victory as a Wonder Woman equivalent etc.
 
Mike Carey… …tells us what Lucifer Morningstar did after he had retired from Hell in Gaiman’s Sandman.
 
Geoff Johns. Writer of several DC Comics, including one Superman title and Infinite Crisis which replaced one Earth with fifty two, including the Earth of what had been the possible future of Kingdom Come.
 
Andy Diggle. Opening writer of a new Swamp Thing series;
writer of Batman: Rules of Engagement, pitting Wayne against Luthor and explaining Wayne charities;
writer of Green Arrow: Year One, a re-told origin story alluding to the archer vigilante’s possible future in Dark Knight;
writer of The Losers, hopefully soon to be filmed;
co-writer with John Wagner of Judge Dredd v. Aliens;
currently completing a run on John Constantine: Hellblazer and commencing a run on the Marvel title, Thunderbolts, about former super-villains conscripted to apprehend unregistered superheroes, soon to feature a super powered attack on President-elect Obama;
currently living in Lancaster which is how I know what he is doing.
 
That brings us up to date. In this summary, because it is a summary, writers are listed but artists are named only if they are credited as co-creating continuing characters. To read any of these works is immediately to see the artist’s contribution: Dave Gibbons for Watchmen; David Lloyd for V for Vendetta etc.

Appendix B: Strands

In Appendix A, I tried to follow lines of development from Superman and therefore remained mainly within DC Comics. The success of the JLA inspired Marvel Comics to launch the Fantastic Four and the success of X Men inspired DC to launch Teen Titans. Another JLA-derived but Marvel-published superhero team included Hyperion and Amphibian instead of Superman and Aquaman. I remember neither title nor author at present.

Several strands emerge from the summary. Superhero origins can be either sf, e. g., involving mutation, technology or space travel, or fantasy, i. e., involving magic, deities or the hereafter.

Appendix A lists two origins based on technological time travel (sf). A third example of this is the technologically powered superhero Booster Gold who traveled to the heroic age to join it.
Individually good stories can be appreciated as such but they also exist in a decades-old, multi-character context divided into Golden Age, Silver Age, multiverse, DCU and 52. The multiverse merely allowed the Golden and Silver Age Supermen to co-exist whereas the DC Universe replaced both. The current fifty two universes scenario did not clearly end the third Superman and start a fourth but features an unsatisfactory mixture of old and new elements.
  
Hawkman, an early Golden Age superhero, was, like all superheroes, an imitation of Superman, especially since his powers included flight. However, his origin was initially supernatural, not science fictional. Despite this, his Silver Age successor was given an extraterrestrial origin, thus making him more like Superman. Kal-El (Superman) came to Earth as a baby. Katar Hol (Silver Age Hawkman) and J’onn J’onnz (the Martian Manhunter) came as adults. Hal Jordan (Silver Age Green Lantern) and Michael Moran (Marvel/Miracle Man) received super powers from alien technology in crashed spaceships but Jordan got just superior tech whereas Moran got an enhanced cloned body and a post-hypnotic trigger for switching consciousness between bodies, thus explaining why the mere utterance of “Kimota”, Mick Anglo’s replacement for “Shazam”, transformed a human boy into a superhuman adult.

One of Alan Moore’s most enduring creations is the adult Michael Moran, working insecurely as a free-lance journalist, married to a successful commercial artist, childless, amnesiac, suffering migraines, dreaming of flying, wishing he could remember that word… A far cry from Superman but a logical development of the superhero idea as, antithetically, is Moran’s alter ego, Miracle Man, later presiding in Utopia.

Later still, Byrne wrote The World of Krypton and Truman wrote Hawkworld: two substantial stories set on Krypton and Thanagar, respectively. Later again, a novel was set on the post-Byrne version of Krypton. I have not followed the several subsequent changes to Hawkman. 

Superheroes and costumed vigilantes can be virtually identical or sharply antithetical. Some superheroes are powerless without their weapons. Some armoured vigilantes are effectively superheroes. The Golden Age Atom was so named merely because he was an under-sized vigilante but his Silver Age successor, owing more to the six inch superhero Doll Man, was a size-changing superhero, though powerless without his white dwarf star-derived size- and mass-changing technology.

The Golden Age Green Lantern was a single superhero but his Silver Age successor was a member of an interstellar corps. Each of the Lanterns is powerless without his battery and ring but the Golden Age versions of these items are magical and of human design whereas the Silver Age versions are technological and of alien design.

Despite the contrast between magical and scientific rationales, both the Golden Age battery and the Silver Age size-changing equipment were made from meteorite material.

Extraterrestrial origins of some kind are quite common. For example, the six super-powered founding members of the JLA included a Martian, a Kryptonian and a terrestrial with an Oan power source. That second Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, was my favourite superhero of the Silver Age and the character who got me back into reading comics after the Crisis but I am not following the current proliferation of differently coloured Lanterns.

Blue Beetle started off super-powered but was replaced by a high tech vigilante. DC acquired the Charlton Comics heroes and incorporated them into the DC Universe while also allowing Moore to adapt them as Watchmen. In that self-contained continuity, the superhero Dr. Manhattan and the vigilante Rorschach are clearly derived from the superhero Captain Atom and the vigilante The Question. Nite Owl II resembles Blue Beetle II but Nite Owl I, a uniformed policeman by day but a masked vigilante by night, is more like the Guardian or the Manhunter. Hollis Mason was inspired to adopt the role of Nite Owl first by the comic book character Superman, then by the vigilante Hooded Justice whose violence was reported not in comics but in the newspapers.

HJ’s identity was never discovered but he and a circus strong man with a similar build disappeared at the same time. Dollar Bill, employed by a bank and wearing a dollar sign instead of an S on his chest, was shot and killed when his cape caught in a revolving door. When the retired Nite Owls reminisce, Hollis mentions meeting former villain The Screaming Skull in the supermarket and trading addresses. The launch of Hollis’ costumed career was delayed because he needed to design a costume and before that to think of a name. This is what it would be like if there really were costumed adventurers.

Silk Spectres I and II are mother and daughter vigilantes like Black Canaries I and II. The morally ambiguous Ozymandias seems to be original to Watchmen. Instead of knowingly and successfully racing against time to prevent the world from being destroyed by a super-villain, the other characters unknowingly and unsuccessfully race against time to prevent the world from being saved by their fellow vigilante, Ozymandias. Or maybe they are ultimately successful because the ending is also ambiguous.

Dr. Manhattan, becoming effecively omnipotent after what should have been his death in a nuclear experiment, resembles a scientific Spectre. The bald green bare-limbed Martian Manhunter began his superhero career when he was teleported from Mars to Earth whereas the bald blue naked Dr. Manhattan ended his superhero career by teleporting himself from Earth to Mars. All this proves is that superhero universes are interesting to compare. I doubt that Dr. Manhattan was consciously copied from or based on the Martian.

Returning to the DC Universe, the Spectre, created, like Superman, by Siegel and Shuster, is supernatural, not scientific. Spectre, Atom and Green Lantern have ghostly, atomic and cosmic power sources, as if every possible source of super powers has been imagined. 

Although the stretchable shape-changer Plastic Man was originally presented as a humorous cartoon character and therefore does not fit well into a more serious superhero universe, he did join the All-Star Squadron because that team included every World War II superhero owned by DC and he was later in the JLA. A later miniseries informed us that the chemicals that made Plas plastic also made him see Superman etc like cartoon caricatures. When, in the 1950’s Daily Mail, three panels of the realistically drawn Rip Kirby preceded three panels of the cartoon Flook and I could not yet read the dialogue, I thought that the six panels were continuous and wondered why the two kinds of characters never met. With Plas, they could have.

(Since then, live actors have met animated cartoons. In Alan Moore’s Pictopia, where only superheroes can afford to live in colour, realistic characters pay to punch and kick rapidly healing Funnies – until it is announced that there never were any Funnies, only some stray dogs that have been painlessly destroyed, and anyone who remembers a different continuity should keep quiet. Continuity change meets the Thought Police.)

There have been four “Sandmen”: 

before comics, the children’s story character;
in the Golden Age, a sleep-inducing vigilante;
in the Silver Age, a dream inhabitant;
after the Crisis, the anthropomorphic personification of Dream.

The fourth version incorporates and explains his predecessors. All dreamers know the Lord of the Dreaming whose tools include a pouch of sand. The Golden and Silver Age versions were partial replacements during Dream’s captivity which lasted from 1916, when he was magically imprisoned, until 1988, when Gaiman’s Sandman began publication. Gaiman had to ask, “If there is such a powerful being in the DC Universe, then why have we not heard of him before?” Dream’s captivity explained both his absence and twentieth century madness.

With the Dreaming uncontrolled, one man slept well only when he put the unjust to sleep and two escaped dream denizens groomed a stand-in “Sandman”. Meanwhile, the waking world was infected by a mysterious sleeping sickness, then by political nightmares and by the idea of serial killing. As Gaiman said in an interview, his characters initially looked like superheroes but turned out not to be. Sandman remained a title but was no longer a name.

Morpheus/Dream/the Shaper is neither a hero nor even a god because gods begin in his realm, live while they are worshipped, then pass back through the Dreaming on their way to the realm of his sister, Death. The Endless (Dream, Death etc), standing behind the gods, personify aspects of consciousness. The personifications are also persons and, if any of them dies, then he is replaced by another aspect of himself.

Morpheus, like Superman, did die in the 90’s but DC supported Gaiman’s artistic vision by allowing Sandman to end with the Wake and with the inauguration of the new aspect of Dream whereas Superman continued meaninglessly. Even Superman visits Dream’s realm as we see in The Wake. Although Gaiman completed his work on Sandman, he inspired creativity in his successors. The sequels to Morpheus’ series include the further adventures of Lucifer regaining his wings, creating a universe and meeting the retired God in the void.

Other characters went through similar changes. Captain Marvel became Marvelman who became Miracleman. Moore deified MM and Gaiman began to reverse the process. Swamp Thing grew from a mud monster into a god of vegetation, then also of the four classical elements. Moore’s Swamp Thing inspired Gaiman to write comics and to seek Moore’s advice on how to write a comic script.

The Sandman, Swamp Thing and superheroes strands intersect because Gaiman’s Sandman is a sequel to Moore’s Swamp Thing and to Thomas’ Infinity Inc and Young All-Stars. Constantine’s ex tripped out on the contents of Morpheus’ stolen pouch. (“All I have to do…is…dreeeeeam…”) Matt Cable who investigated the Swamp Thing died and became Matthew the Raven in the Dreaming although many readers might not spot the connection. Dream’s successor is the grandson of the Golden Age Fury (Wonder Woman’s replacement) and the son of the Silver Age Fury and of the Golden Age Hawkman’s son, who was also a second stand-in Sandman. The Furies who empowered the first Fury manifested through her daughter to pursue Morpheus when he had killed his son, Orpheus.

By quoting songs about dreams and even about the Sandman, Gaiman acknowledges that this character is not just his and is seen in different forms. (“The candy-colored clown they call the Sandman…”) When Morpheus meets the Martian Manhunter, we see the former’s Martian form. 

Sandman’s comics lineage is:

Superman
superheroes and costumed vigilantes
superhero teams
Roy Thomas’ superhero teams
the vigilante, Sandman
Jack Kirby’s Sandman
the horror character, Swamp Thing
Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing

Comic characters’ long and involved history, one of their most interesting features, also connects with real history, legend and myth. Gods empowered Wonder Woman. Nazi superheroes include a Valkyrie. Hitler, the ultimate super-villain, resists the decadent democratic heroes and even conjures Ragnarok by reciting runes while wielding the Spear of Destiny which has magic powers because it pierced Christ’s side on the Cross.

Gaiman’s Furies recount the story of Orestes and the Eumenides. Gaiman’s Lucifer quotes Milton quoting Satan. Gaiman re-tells the Orpheus story, presents an authentic Asgard, locates Cain in the Land of Nod, the Dreaming, and shows us how some gods survive and even prosper after their worship has ended. (They diversify.) Moore’s characters include an angel who remained neutral during the War in Heaven. Swamp Thing’s opponents conjure the Original Darkness that was before the Creation. 

The feminine viewpoint, started by Wonder Woman and Supergirl, is continued by Alan Moore’s characters including strong women members of Top Ten and the second V. Gaiman presents a feminine viewpoint in Black Orchid and in Dream’s older sister, Death of the Endless, and a children’s viewpoint in most of his works. This summary, because it is merely a chronological list, has emphasized Gaiman’s links to other writers, not his original contributions. However, Gaiman is uniquely creative. I advise anyone to read Sandman if nothing else.

Comics and cinema interact. Superman, Batman and Dredd have all been filmed and have all fought Aliens in comics. Literary influences, starting with Wylie, continue with Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lost Girls and with Gaiman’s many literary allusions, including two Sandman stories based on Shakespeare plays.

Batman and V are two very different masked avengers although Batman would oppose the state if he lived in a dictatorship as shown in some “Elseworlds” (stories featuring familiar characters in unfamiliar settings). Superhero teams are a major strand perhaps culminating in the Endless.

I have tried to convey both the immensity and the wealth of graphic fiction. The works mentioned are like continents of quality in an ocean of quantity. Anyone who reads only such material need neither pause nor turn back but would be well advised to steer towards land instead of drifting on the ocean, and also to visit the neighbouring planet of prose fiction.

As I write:

in my, though not in everyone else’s, opinion, the advertised Watchmen film looks good so far (unlike three previous film travesties of Moore’s works);
Spider-Man, X-Men, The Fantastic Four and The Silver Surfer have all been filmed;
Marvel is building towards an Avengers film, with each hero being recruited at the end of his own film, so far Iron Man and the Hulk;
Thor and Captain America are also to be filmed and to join the Avengers;
films of Sin City, Superman Returns and The Dark Knight are recent memories;
The Smallville TV series has run for seven seasons so that several of the characters have by now moved to Metropolis;
I have just seen a magazine cover publicizing a Spirit film;
the Marvel Ultimates line has revitalized Marvel characters with events like the US saying it won’t send super-humans into Iraq, then sending Steve Rogers (Captain America) to rescue hostages.

Comic book characters, including the original superhero, are going somewhere.

(Added on 5 May 2009: the above article is a snapshot of early 2009. Everyone now has a different opinion of the Watchmen film but that is another discussion.)

  1. Maggin, Elliot S., Superman: Last Son of Krypton, London, 1978, p. 7.
  2. ibid, pp. 7-8.
  3. ibid, p. 8.
  4. Moore, Alan, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, New York, 1997, p. 20.
  5. ibid, p. 44.
  6. ibid, p. 21.
  7. ibid, p. 23.
  8. ibid, p. 24.
  9. Maggin, E. S., Superman 400, New York, Oct. 1984, penultimate sequence (untitled), p. 6.
  10. ibid, p. 9.
  11. ibid, p. 11.
  12. ibid, p. 2.
  13. Maggin, E. S., “The Ghost of Superman Future!” in Superman 416, New York, Feb 1986, pp. 5, 8.
  14. Maggin, E. S., DC Comics Presents Annual 4, New York, 1985, p. 40.
  15. Maggin, “The Ghost of Superman Future!”, p. 8.
  16. Maggin, Superman 400, p. 1.
  17. Maggin, DC Comics Presents 87, New York, Nov. 1985, p. 5.
  18. ibid, p. 1.
  19. Moore, Alan, “For the Man Who Has Everything,” reprinted in The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told, London, 1995, pp. 272-311 at p. 291.
  20. Aldiss, Brian, Foreward to Moore, Alan, Superman: The Man of Tomorrow, London, 1988.
  21. Miller, Frank, Hunt The Dark Knight in The Dark Knight Returns, London, London, 1986, p. 15.
  22. Miller, Frank, The Dark Knight Falls in The Dark Knight Returns, pp. 38-42.
  23. Moore, Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?, p. 46.
  24. Miller, The Dark Knight Falls, p. 47.
  25. Gaiman, Neil, as interviewed in Bender, Hy, The Sandman Companion, London, 2000, pp. 233-234.
  26. Gaiman, Neil, The Sandman: Endless Nights, New York, 2003, p. 76.
  27. Gaiman, Neil, Green Lantern, Superman: Legend of the Green Flame, New York, 2000, p. 4.
  28. Gaiman, Neil, The Sandman: the Wake, New York, 1997, p. 62.


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