Killing a Superman: DC’s Grave Misunderstanding of the Man of Steel

Last month, I stumbled across an article by Mike Romo of iFanboy entitled, “Reflections on Superman’s Sad Decline.” In the article, which I highly recommend reading, Romo illustrates the current attitude of many towards the Man of Steel, with some calling him “overpowered”, “unrelatable”, and too “naïve” and “dated” a concept to be relevant to today’s audiences. Romo counters, however, with an excellent point: Superman is too relatable, in that we can all relate to his alienation from humanity, or his desire to do what’s right. And in a more tech-based society, many of Superman’s powers may not seem as amazing as they did back in the 30s. Romo also says this:

Now, it seems to me, that the character who defined the very concept of heroism for so many of us has the potential to be the most relevant, the most complex and most intriguing modern character in all of comic books. Yet it also seems to me that DC does not seem him like this as at all, and, if anything, has forgotten just why Superman is an icon.

As I read that paragraph, I found myself nodding in somber agreement. Superman is the hero, and my favorite superhero since very early childhood. To call Superman irrelevant and outdated is to call every hero as such. But it seems like these days, even the best writers and artists at DC Comics can’t think up ways to make the Last Son of Krypton fresh, or even relevant again. Worse yet, the company and its parent studio Warner Brothers are going about modernizing Superman with a revisionist attitude, rewriting the character into something practically unrecognizable from his namesake. Tragic, to say the least, especially considering how important this character is to DC Comics and indeed the whole of Americana. Thus, I’m compelled to chime in with my own thoughts on the current status of one of the world’s most recognized and beloved icons, and encourage anyone reading this to help promote a better direction for the Man of Tomorrow.

As Romo mentions, one look at certain Superman comics from the past few years shows the extent to which DC has mishandled the Superman property. First we have Geoff Johns’ “Secret Origin”, which merely rehashed everything old and outdated about the character, literally lifting sequences from Superman media of yesteryear. Artist Gary Frank’s Clark Kent is a dead ringer for Superman actor Chistopher Reeve; an unsettling design, especially when Frank draws Clark as a child. Johns’ writing is so stale and uninspired, it sees Superman reminding a child to “drink his orange juice”. It’s a nauseating look at how hackneyed and worn-out many of the character’s past exploits have become.

Then we have Grant Morrison’s T-shirt wearing ““champion of the opressed” Superman in the current New 52 Action Comics. The first issue of the new volume sees a younger, more obnoxious Superman, who dangles villains off buildings and bends crowbars around their necks. Morrison claims to have been inspired by the original Golden Age Superman of 1938, a similarly less-restrained hero, but even that Superman had a sense of maturity and morality about him, with old-timey charm to boot. Needless to say, Morrison’s Superman is not the bright, heroic icon of Truth, Justice, and the American Way I grew up with. He’s written as a punk kid with no concept of responsibility, flaunting his recklessness and generally acting like a douche.

Like “Secret Origin”, Morrison’s Action Comics also features Superman constantly being hunted by the military under General Sam Lane, father of  Lois Lane. This is perhaps my greatest contention with DC’s “modern” take on the mythology – Superman is not a perceived menace to society, nor is he some misunderstood monster, always on the run and feared by the people he protects. That is, in fact, the mythology of Marvel’s Hulk. Why DC would even consider this as a suitable update to the character is beyond me.

Finally, there’s Geoff Johns and Jim Lee’s Justice League. I haven’t read any of the issues, but judging by the previews and reviews I’ve glanced over, it looks like they’ve turned Superman into more of an alien outsider than ever. Amidst poor writing, I gathered in one such preview that Superman was living in some kind of abandoned computer terminal. No Fortress of Solitude, no Kryptonian artifacts, just Supes in a dismal living space acting as this lonely hermit figure. And I may be a bit off the mark here having not read any full issues of the book, but it seems to me this is yet again entirely unlike the character I know and love. 

Add to that the practically dead-on-arrival film reboot Man of Steel under the largely mediocre direction of Zack Snyder (300) and from a script by the hit-and-miss-but-mostly-miss David Goyer (Batman Begins, the Blade trilogy). Some members of the cast divulged that the film will be considerably “darker” and “edgier”, qualities as fitting for Superman as they are for Mickey Mouse. It’s yet another tonal shift from the clueless Warner Brothers studio that suggests Superman will be taken even further from his roots than the comics have already.

What happened here? What changed so that fans like myself understand how to properly approach this character more than the company that created him? To quote writer Keith Giffen, once involved in a potential Superman vs. Lobo film (see the book “Superman vs. Hollywood” by Jake Rossen for details), “Why would you want to take the single most recognizable pop culture figure and remove everything that’s familiar?”

Let’s look at Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. Why are these films so popular amongst fans? Apart from being damn good movies in their own right, they get to the heart of what Batman is all about, asking the big questions of its protagonist – who is the man behind the suit? What drives Bruce Wayne to be Batman? Albeit taking a far lighter approach, a future Superman film should ask similar questions. Who is Clark Kent? How have his values shaped to make him who he is? Why does he choose to take on this awesome responsibility? Why does he choose to embrace the lighter side of humanity and inspire hope and goodwill throughout the world?

And no, the answer to that isn’t “make him darker and angst-ier,” or rehashing the things about him that worked in the past, or drastically altering the character himself. When Clark Kent makes the choice to become Superman, he becomes almost an absolute, an incorruptible, unstoppable force for justice. Superman represents the ultimate good in all of us, what we all aspire to be. Unless his mind is being controlled by one of his enemies or something, that part of Superman doesn’t change. Rather, the answer lies in writing a believable, convincing world around Superman. The character’s ideals are timeless and adaptable to practically whatever changes in scenery modern society may see. Taking possession and other mind-altering villain activity out of the equation, that part of Superman can’t be changed. Rather, the answer lies in crafting a believable, convincing world around him.

A new coat of paint is fine every once in a while. I’m not saying Superman doesn’t require a more modern direction. But to get to the heart of the character, one has to understand that Superman can’t just take on a new personality every time sales start to dip, altering who he is at his core. It’s all about writing a classic, unwavering Superman that inspires hope in those around him. Only then can you make a case for why he’s the greatest superhero out there.

There are still, thankfully, writers out there who understand all that. Romo doesn’t mention it, but George Pérez’s brief, recently concluded six-issue run on Superman, soon to be available in hardcover here, is easily the character’s best arc in years. It’s not only the work of someone who understands who Superman is and what makes that mythology work, but it’s also an effective update. Pérez largely keeps the character the same, changing the world around him to be a bit more cynical and more media-based. Pérez isn’t the best writer out there, but his criminally short tenure works so well because the essence of the character is still there amidst the changes brought on by the New 52.

It’s also nice to see DC adapting the excellent Action Comics #775, better known as “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” into a new direct-to-DVD animated movie titled “Superman vs. the Elite.” I wouldn’t dare spoil the details of the comic, but if you want a truly compelling case for why Superman is still the greatest of all heroes, read that comic or wait for the movie next month.

Still, the artists that truly “get it” are quickly declining in number. Superman used to be the central figure of DC’s entire line, now largely regulated to following in the shadow of Batman. Meanwhile, Morrison’s Action Comics and Johns’ Justice League continue to sell well, having all but removed the true magic of the character. The Man of Steel celebrates his 75th anniversary next year, and I fear the festivities will be tainted by these aforementioned mischaracterizations. Nothing super about that.

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