February 19, 2004
By Franklin Harris
Is Superman boring? He is the first true superhero and the prototype for all that followed. But last year, comics starring Superman sold fewer copies than those featuring the X-Men, Batman, Spider-Man and even the Transformers. The only exception was the new series "Superman/Batman," and it was probably Batman who was carrying the book.
Clearly, DC Comics thinks the Man of Steel could use a makeover. In April, all three Superman titles, "Superman," "Action Comics" and "Adventures of Superman," will be getting new creative teams in the latest attempt to dust off the character and make him relevant to a new generation of readers. Most notably, the creative duties on "Superman" will shift to Brian Azzarello, known for his gritty crime series "100 Bullets," and artist Jim Lee, fresh off a best-selling run on "Batman."
But why is this necessary? Why is the world's most recognizable superhero an also ran in the medium he helped define? The usual answers go something like, "he is too powerful" or "no one ever really challenges him." But those answers miss the point. Even when Superman was at his most powerful, able to fly at the speed of light and move entire planets with his bare hands, he faced credible threats, from his arch nemesis Lex Luthor to the extraterrestrial supercomputer Brainiac. Besides, how often is there a question of any hero not prevailing in the end? It's almost always just a matter of how.
The real problem is that Superman is an icon, held up in both his fictional world and in our world as a symbol as wholesome as mom and apple pie. He isn't emotionally disturbed like Batman or the Hulk. He isn't a perpetual loser like Spider-Man. He is, instead, too good to be true.
Superman is also an asset, worth billions of dollars and owned by a corporation that knows he is worth more in terms of merchandising than in comic sales. Writers don't know what to do with the character, but even if they did, any permanent changes, otherwise known as "character growth," would probably get shot down in a boardroom somewhere. The biggest change in Superman's life came when his alter ego, Clark Kent, finally married Lois Lane, but even that tied into the wedding on the "Lois and Clark" TV series. It was corporate synergy.
Not knowing where to take Superman's future, DC Comics has developed an annoying habit of continually revisiting his past.
In 1987, writer/artist John Byrne stripped Superman of 30 years of continuity in a misguided effort to get "back to basics." He changed Krypton from a fun Buck Rogers world to a cold, sterile one. Instead of arriving on Earth as a baby, Byrne's Superman arrived in a gestation chamber and was "born" here, eliminating the immigrant status that set Superman apart from other heroes. He further cut Superman's ties to his homeworld by ditching Supergirl and other surviving Kryptonians. Byrne also decided that Clark began his heroic career as an adult, meaning that Clark never fought for truth, justice and the American way as Superboy. And that revision caused havoc for the Legion of Superheroes, whose existence was dependent on Superboy's heroic example. In 17 years of trying, DC has yet to satisfactorily plug the Legion's continuity hole.
Recently, DC revised Superman's past again in Mark Waid's miniseries "Superman: Birthright," which undid some of Byrne's changes and tossed in bits of the "Smallville" TV series for good measure. And an upcoming story arc in "Superman/Batman" seems to be resurrecting Supergirl in some form. But it's all the same old territory, mined yet again.
It would be nice if the Man of Tomorrow actually had a future and not just an ever-changing past.