Editor's Note: The genesis of this article came from a throwaway reference Conor and Ron made to the Superman 2000 proposal on a recent podcast. Many listeners e-mailed in asking what they were talking about.
There are many great powers to the Internet. We have total interaction with the present moment through news sites, we are given insights into what people are thinking through blogs and editorials, we are given access to knowledge and history through sites like Wikipedia. And sometimes, once in awhile, one finds an artifact that represents not only the time it was created in, but also a vision of a future, in many cases, a future that was never to exist.
Such an Elseworlds-like experience was provided when Conor shared this link with me, which contained the original treatment for Superman 2000, the plan to recreate Superman for the 21st century…in 1998.
The 15 page document is fantastic reading—I suggest printing it out and reading it in a comfortable place, so you can really settle in with the topic, which is nothing less than a complete deconstruction of what Superman means for the modern creator written for a modern reader. And if that doesn't pique your interest, than the names of the people behind this recontextualization might: Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Mark Millar and Tom Peyer. Thirteen years ago, they pitched the Supeman 2000 idea to DC, and it almost went through—but, in the end, was not greenlit. What's interesting, however, is how many of the concepts and themes have actually found their way to our eyes in the intervening years, not only in Superman, but in other books as well. To go over the proposal piece by piece would be a disservice–you really will enjoy reading the piece, which fairly leaps off the page, buoyed by the ebullience and passion that permeates each paragraph. You really get the feeling that the writers not only wanted this to happen, they felt that it had to happen if Superman was going to remain relevant in the modern age. So, no, I won't go over the entire treatment, but I will highlight a few points that really struck me. I hope that you get a chance to read it, and then take a few minutes to share what you thought was exciting about Superman 2000.
(By the way, when I quote stuff below, it's coming directly from the pages of the treatment.)
The first part of the document really gets the reader thinking about what it would be like to be Superman, using Superman's experience of puberty: the moment when he ceased to be human, that Clark Kent is not who Superman really is–Clark Kent is who he was before his powers started to emerge. It reminds me of when I came back home from the holidays after my first semester in college. I was sleeping in my bed, in the room I had been sleeping in for years…but now..it was my old bed, in my parents' place. The concept of "home" had changed for me — I had grown up.
As puberty emerges, things change, and for Clark, it wasn't just about strength or speed, it was everything improving. When he's talking to his mom, he is aware of her breath, her pulse, he can see her DNA, he can hear the "neural crackles…which tell him [she's] changed [her] mind about something." I love this. I love this new reckoning of what "super" truly means.
Back in 1998, they were thinking of the best way to explore this new sensitivity to the concept of super (without rebooting everything, which they were loathe to do), so they do it again by having Superman hitting a second aspect of his alien maturation, when he wakes up three times more powerful and three times smarter than before. So elegant. He has to reconnect with reality all over again, which gives the writers the chance to use flashbacks to tie in his original teenage discovery throughout the story. What happens when Superman is not only three times more intelligent but also three times more curious? He becomes both more intensely connected, but also, a bit more distant, as his awareness is similarly expanded. The writers note that he may seem more aloof, a little more remote, which, again, makes for very compelling moments.
I recently bought Absolute All Star Superman (and by the way, it's awesome, totally worth it, lots of cool extra stuff) and I was taken by how Morrison and Quitely felt that Superman didn't always have to be drawn with his chest out, looking heroic. Indeed, the cover of that first issue was addressing that head-on, with Superman basically chilling out, saying "what's up?" Superman doesn't fear anything, so he doesn't need to have such a formidable posture all the time. I was listening to an interview with Michael Caine discussing how he gets into a role. He told a story about meeting Prince Charles, and how whenever he walked in public, he always seemed to be holding his hands behind his back. This made sense to Caine, because, obviously, in these situations, Prince Charles didn't have to open doors, he didn't have to worry about carrying anything, he didn't have to worry about anyone being in front of him–everything was being taken care of for him, which is not too different than the point that Morrison was trying to make in All Star Superman and Superman 2000, where we read that Superman "needs none of the physical defensive posture we take for granted and so would be incredibly relaxed and open — the big smile the instant handshake, the conviction that everyone he meets is to be regarded as a friend until he proves otherwise." (In the back pages of Absolute All Star Superman, Morrison recounts the tale of bumping into a fan dressed up as Superman at a comic con. While Morrison proceeded to interview him, in character, about his life, "Superman" was sitting, slumped, amiable and friendly, just like that iconic cover.)
The concept of Clark Kent is discussed in some detail, but often more in terms of an aspect of living that Superman needs to stay grounded, to keep in touch with normal people (reminding me of Henry V going out to talk to the troops in disguise, to get their feelings on the upcoming battle in the play of the same name, Nixon did the same thing, too). Indeed, the writers really wanted to draw a very clear distinction between Superman and Clark Kent, that even when Superman was wearing the glasses and just hanging out, he was doing something else — "he's always busy." But being "normal" is not a chore; Clark is "eternally delighted by humanity," and loves to be confronted by people, the only things in the universe "that can actually surprise him."
One of the biggest segments of the document deals with dissolving the pairing of Lois and Clark without having them get divorced. Basically, by 1998, the feeling was that having them together just wasn't as dramatically interesting (something we can also relate to with MJ and Peter Parker, if not Pam and Jim from The Office). The writers handle this so incredibly well, with so much empathy, it is no wonder why we still hail them as some of the best in the industry. Intriguingly (and coincidentally, I am sure), we see aspects of how they break them up appear in other stories, from Civil War to One More Day to Inception; basically, after Luthor and Braniac reveal Superman's true identity to the world, everything falls apart and then later Braniac makes Lois' very memory of Clark's true identity, the chemical component representing that set of memories, a poison to her! It's such a good idea that I don't want to spoil it (read the document!), but suffice to say, they figured out a wrenchingly poignant way to reset things in a way that made a lot more sense than what happened when everyone forgot who Peter was.
Lex Luthor is treated as a kind of (anti) superhero in his own right, complete with the secret identity of being the world's most successful businessman ("All the corporate-baron stuff we see him doing routinely? Six minutes of his day, maybe less. He's not The Kingpin.") Lex has other things to do, and the success in business is a great way to throw people off his true intentions (reminds me of Bruce Wayne a bit?). Interestingly, the Lex Luthor discussed in this document is not all that unlike the one we have today—he's wants to be the greatest man that ever lived, and this alien is getting in the way of that destiny. The fact that Lex really is this amazing person, with this incredible intellect, is not lost on Superman, who, while his "greatest priority will always be to stop Luthor's schemes, his greatest frustration will be his continuing inability to rehabilitate Lex for the good of all mankind." This twist adds a different-yet familiar-dimension to the relationship (indeed, I can't help but think I have heard similar complaints from Clark Kent in the Smallville TV series).
There are lots and lots of details discussed in the document, smaller points, but all of them key in redefining Superman for a new audience. One section about the costume focuses not on a redone logo (as is discussed in the backmatter in Absolute All Star Superman) but on the fact that Superman would be smart enough to wear his shorts under his pants! There is a rather effectively argued discourse that Jor-El should not be sure that his son would be sent to a planet where he could survive so spectacularly, that this was a real shot-in-the-dark, that while the on-board computer was designed to spot the best possible environment, it eventually shuts down in favor of maintaining a stable life support system, with the ship crash landing on a "primitive, technologically challenged planet." There needs to be a sense that this desperate attempt to preserve Krypton is a "quite un-Kryptonian act of hope, [and] is validated by Earth and Superman's arrival there." The meeting of Superman and Earth is a miracle birthed by hope, which, of course, is what the character of Superman is in the first place.
Interestingly, while there is some mention of other heroes (notably the JSA, more notably the idea that The Atom would be key in training Superman), and many mentions of various Superman-related villains, Batman is not mentioned at all. I always felt that Batman was as much a part of Superman's story as Lex Luthor, that both of them need each other, both to learn from and be inspired by. I would have been curious to see how this group of creators were going to treat that often frustrating, but always necessary (dramatically) tension between the two characters. Given that the writers make a note that this new Superman's job was "to make this world a better place and to help all men realize their potential as supermen," it would be interesting to see how Superman regards a man that both exemplifies what a regular person can do while at the same time holding so much of mankind with such deep suspicion.
While it would be easy to read this piece and gnash your teeth about how DC missed an opportunity (especially in light of what has been happening in the book as of late, heck since 1998), I prefer to think of it as a shining example of the love and respect creators have for Superman. Even the decision to not go through with this re-imagining ("Daily Planet is a 'news web site'?? Ridiculous!"), was a concerted effort to deal with the character as best as they knew how.
While reading the treatment, I found myself thinking what such a treatise would look like written in 2011. We are, more than ever, "super" men and women than at any other time in our history. We have access to the world's knowledge at any moment through a device we can carry in our pocket, and use that knowledge in a variety of ways. Our social networks, our alliances, our leagues, are broader and more varied than those of previous generations. We can go anywhere we want to, faster than before. We have rovers on Mars (with another ready to go), we have satellites taking pictures of comets flying by and are discovering new forms of life. We have learned to multitask and do more with less time–indeed, like Superman, we always seem to be busy. We are a different kind of people than we were even 13 years ago–you've gotta wonder what kind of Superman today's children are going to grow up with, what kind of Kal-El they'll be inspired by.
Finally, Superman 2000 was interesting to read because it was a glimpse into not only the imaginations of some top creators: how they think about story and characters and characteristics differently than most people, how they can take a story that everyone knows and do something disarmingly different with its themes and concepts, but the piece also serves as a glimpse into process as well. Indeed, the final part of the treatment explains how four creators can work together on a single family of titles: how "Morrison and Millar are headmen, full of new and refreshing ideas; Peyer and Waid write from the heart with an emphasis on dialogue and characterization." The quartet would leverage technology to collaborate in a way that had never been done before to create a story that no one could ever have imagined. Years later, 52 was realized and produced using the same model.
We'll never see Superman 2000. There are probably hundreds of these kinds of treatments scattered over hard drives and nestled in file folders around the world, ideas that are similarly groundbreaking and inspiring, aspects of which we hope will eventually see the light of day. That is the nature of the creative business, of art itself–the final result comes not from creation, but deletion, of editing, of tossing away ideas that don't work now with the hopes they become useful later on, or, at least, serve as stepping stones for future stories and characters. In the end, these pages showed me just how seriously these creators take their responsibility of the stewards of these characters and stories, and it is clear that they all feel a strong love for the medium and their audience, that they are passionate about being a part of the tapestry of modern day myth making. Superman 2000 may never have come to pass, but it's a treat to be able to read these musings, the declarations, these hopes — just getting a glimpse into this dream is a gift, and I, for one, am grateful.