Attack of the Clones

For someone who’s not a Superman fan, I sure do seem to be reading a lot of Superman stories lately, although in my defense he’s not actually in any of them.

It occurred to me recently that in the last couple of years my life has been full of Superman analogs. Yours probably has too; how many books are you reading right now that were sold to you with the phrase “a Superman type,” or “their world’s Superman”? A Superman type breaks down after the horrors of WWII and begins to devote himself to ending war. A Superman type breaks down and begins massacring everyone while his old team tries desperately to stop him. The American government finds their world’s Superman as a baby and raises him to be a jingoistic living weapon. A Superman type decides with his team to stage a coup and take over America while also being gay. A Superman type is wedged awkwardly into the Marvel universe in an plot to harvest readers’ pulled out hair.

Life and Times of Savior 28. Irredeemable. Supreme Power. The Authority. The Mighty. The End League. The Accursed Sentry. I’m sure there’s a Superman type doing something reprehensible in The Boys right now, although I’m going to have to take your word for it. The clones are everywhere you look, and like most of the clones we’ve managed to churn out in real labs so far, they are misshapen funhouse mirror versions of the original. The one in Powers flash-fried the Pope, as I recall.

What is it that makes writers want to do unspeakable things to a Superman type? Do they have Clark in mind specifically when they’re sharpening their blades, or is it just that they want to do a story about The Superhero? Because whatever else Clark might be, he is The Superhero. I think one of the biggest problems I have with him as a reader is how all-encompassing he is. Superman is one of those things that you couldn’t get away with suggesting today if it didn’t already exist, like high school cheerleading. (“Well, Coach here was just saying we need to dress the 17-year-old girls in skimpy outfits and make them dance around at the football games. Yes, I was about to call the police as well.”) The very idea of a character with every conceivable super power and no believable weakness, who is the best person that ever lived without conflict, who goes around kicking the ever-loving tarnation out of normal mortals… and then the people, they all love him! Oh, how thrilled they are that a nuclear weapon with free will is zooming around unregulated in their skies!…

I’m basically Lex Luthor. (I realize, of course, that Superman’s current brain trust is doing entirely fresh, new things with the character, and I’ll get to those stories as soon as I finish my Green Lantern homework. Right now, I’m less interested in Supes and more concerned with his twisted twins.)

See, when I think about Superman as a concept, the first things I think are, “The day that guy appeared in the sky, the president would assemble a task force in charge of killing him. I don’t care if he wore the flag as a cape. And even if he were the best person that ever lived, wouldn’t having to save the entire world get to him eventually? Wouldn’t he get fed up with us and take it all out of our hands, or push Singapore into the ocean or something? Wouldn’t the pressure make him want to fly to the moon and cry every couple of days?” There are a lot of other people like me, it seems, and a bunch of them are writers. We find Superman really compelling when he’s doing the things you can’t do with Superman.

And there are certainly things you couldn’t do with Clark, even if he was the one you wanted to use instead of just The Superhero. Can you imagine what would happen if some of these stories starring a Superman type actually starred Superman? They’d have to build a new internet out of hate-resistant cotton candy fibers. There would be massive protests that would look a lot bigger than they actually were given the sizes of the protesters involved. Once you reach icon status (as opposed to Icon status) you don’t get to burn Batman’s kid alive anymore, much as you may want to. The worst you can hope for is an occasional alternate reality version of yourself or an Elseworlds story. If you haven’t read Mark Millar’s Red Son, I can’t recommend it highly enough. (Neither can Ron, if I remember correctly.) It takes everything that is iconic– and problematic– about Superman and, by simply placing it in a different context, forces you to think about the character through fundamentally new eyes. You won’t hear “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” the same way again.

I have actually completely come around on the Sentry, by the way, or maybe Marvel has. They’ve certainly gotten away from the “immortal, unbeatable hero with every power who’s every hero’s best friend and taught Rick Jones to play the harmonica” angle and focused a lot more on the “holy god this basketcase will kill us all if we stop smiling at him” angle. (Wasn’t there a Superman type in The Tick who was very obviously not just a mild-mannered reporter, but everyone at the newspaper played along and acted like a pair of bifocals was an impenetrable disguise just because they were terrified of him? If that wasn’t in The Tick, good news: I just wrote my first comic pitch, and it stars a Superman type.) The Sentry has been bridging the gap between Clark Kent and Irredeemable‘s Plutonian very delicately in the pages of Dark Avengers lately, and while I still hate him with the fire of a million exploding suns he now makes me laugh where I used to cringe. The fact that he ended the recent X-Men crossover by flying into space and crying earned that book an extra star and a worried look from my wife when I started cackling like a madman. When I recently reread Secret Invasion (which as a single-sitting read is a compelling, ripping yarn) (yes, it is too) I had much the same experience. The Sentry is now the prime example of “vanilla as a flavor” in the Marvel Universe.

As for the rest of these archetypes, poseurs and clones, keep them coming. If nothing else, seeing them doing all the things Superman can’t do has achieved the ultimate impossible feat: they have made me wistful for the things Superman does do. Spend a couple of weeks with the Plutonian and see if you’re not thinking, “Jesus, what I wouldn’t give for this guy to salute the president and get a kitty out of a tree.” If I like the Superman types this much, why wouldn’t I read Superman?

Jim Mroczkowski‘s secret identity ain’t foolin’ anybody. His Twitter account completely negates the purpose of a Fortress of Solitude.


  1. Live on CSPAN, President Obama is awarding Superman the Medal of Freedom (his 29th).  What’s this, the big guy isn’t looking so good.  We’re noticing a faint green glow coming from the medal.  Superman’s down!  The secret service leaps into action, carrying him out on a stretcher as he weakly clutches at the medal.  In the excitement, few notice the vice president adjusting his hairpiece…

     Great column!  I’ve actually read a ton of Superman in the last year, just because my public library gets all the trades. Now I’m even more curious about Modeus as the alternate Lex Luthor.



  2. That pitch kinda sounds like the Conan-SNL skit about Moleculo: THE MOLECULAR MAN!

  3. Alan Moore’s "Supreme," you forgot to mention.

    I’d heard Savior 28 was a "Captain America" type, though I haven’t read it.  I’ve heard of other "Captain America" types as well.

  4. He just dropped that 2nd to last paragraph on us in a "by the way" fashion that underplayed the monumental statement that followed.

    He just sold me on the Sentry, and that’s pretty cool.

  5. I can’t agree with Jimski more about Red Son.  Surprisingly enough I caught the recommendation off of a sports talk radio show host who was also a comics fan.  The idea about Superman being a Soviet and the repercussions on that may sound like a bad What If? story line, bue Millar pulls it off and is a great read that I could not recommend more. 

  6. There was a guy at Wizard Chicago dressed up as the Batman from Red Son. Great costume. Too bad the AC was broken that day!

  7. You know what’s curious… I don’t read any of these clones, but my favorite Superman character is a clone of Superman (Kon-El). Go figure. Great article, Jim. Not sure I can agree about the Sentry. I finished X-Men Exodus and just groaned audibly that he’s flown off into space yet again, but I see your point. In all honesty I find the Superman-type (and Supes himself) rather boring to read. It took Superman becoming less unique in his own books, and being replaced in his two main titles for me to start reading Superman, so perhaps I’m an oddball in that sense. (Though I love Reeve and Reeves as Superman.)

  8. Great article!  I’ve honestly never really had a problem with Superman as a character, but I don’t run out and buy stories just because he’s in them either.  Whereas, say, the JMS ‘Supreme Power’ and ‘Irredeemable’ had me from the premise. 

    Savior 28 *is* based more directly on Captain America (the basic story outline is something JM Dematteis wanted to do with the character 20-30 years ago) but he’s written as more powerful/harder to kill than Cap, so I can see how it converges with the Superman idea, too.

  9. While I see your overall point, and I like your exploration here, Savior 28 doesn’t belong on this list.  He may have more powers, but he’s a Captain America type, not a Superman type, and that’s evident in his entire story.  Plus, he didn’t break down after World War II — he broke down after 9/11.  About the only thing the character has in common with Superman is a cape.

    (That said, another one for your list would be Crusader, of Love and Capes.  But that’s a fun, lighthearted story, so I’d be curious to see how that affects your thesis.)

  10. Massive points for the the straightfaced application of "Tarnation"

  11. The overlap on the "Captain America/Superman" Venn diagram is a whole other article, but I get what you’re saying.

    Would this be a bad time to mention I missed the first issue of Savior 28? Would that color my perceptions? Somewhat? I’m so happy to see this many other people were reading it, I almost don’t care.

  12. @Jimski I’d say the first issue is essential to understanding the story, yeah.  It’s certainly worth it!

    Personally, I think Cap types are a whole other can of worms, from General Glory to USAgent to DC’s recent revival of The Shield.  It’s a different narrative because it’s a government-sponsored (and often government-created) hero who’s formulated to appeal to the patriotic heart of a country, who usually has fewer powers than a Superman type and a more American origin and is usually involved in some real-world patriotic/political war or conflict.  The character’s existence is by its very definition a commentary on real-world politics and issues, in addition to being a commentary on the superhero genre.

  13. Well done.  I really, really enjoyed the cheerleader analogy.

  14. Nice article Sentry still sucks tho

  15. I remember an SNL skit with Dwayne Johnson as an unconvincing Clark Kent. Good stuff.

  16. The Tick version was The Caped Wonder. Poor guy never could find an empty phone booth.

  17. I love the alternate Supermen. They are a load of fun. Not because I like the idea of an ‘evil’ Superman, but because I find them to be more believeable than the traditional Superman. Does that make me cynical? Maybe. I did recently read Alan Moore’s ‘Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?’ The Superman in taht book is a scarey effing dude. He’s still kind of a boy scout, but he has no fear of going for the pain on anyone. I’m very much enjoying the compassionate, noble Superman in Robinson/Rucka’s books right now.

  18. There was a great Peter David short story called "The Archetype" published in the February 1999 edition of "The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy".  It is very much the story of a Superman "type" (hence the title hero’s name) and really addresses the classic comics debate: do "costumed heroes" cause more harm than good?  I e-mailed PAD once, asking if he had written any short stories I could teach my high school students, and he pointed me towards that one.  My students love it.

    Oh, and The Sentry is awesome, and his potential as the "basketcase who will kill us all" is fantastic… even if Marvel hasn’t yet utilized him as well as they could.  (Again, I would LOVE to see some major moment in Marvel history retconned to include The Sentry… but everyone forgot about it.  Like, The Sentry helped the FF stop Galactus.  The Sentry put together the new team in ‘Giant Sized X-men’.  The Sentry killed Gwen Stacy.)

    Stuff like that. 

  19. Grant Morrison’s Earth 10 Nazi Superman, Can’t wait for Multiversity

  20. Hurm… wistful huh? I’m wistful too Jimski, I’m wistful too.

    @Aalbatr0ss: What state is your library located in?

    I gotta tell ya this is one subject I find myself thinking over and over again quite frequently, particularly after my discovery of multiple "Atoms/The Rays/Ray Palmers" specifically Apollo. In some aspect I find that it takes a combination of powers (some cliche’ and perhaps one unique power) that constructs a superman archetype so it’s rarely easy to stray from it when creating a superhero with those abilities.

    Recently I had argued that editorial issues are coerced and swayed (if not arisen) by shareholders of DC and what/how they want their characters to promote DC as an Icon. I had also argued that it is because of this that no real surprise or interest (at least from my perspective) in a character’s behavior or decision at conflicting circumstances (Superman specifically). Do some people like predictability? You bet they do, but those are just the few and far between in the comic fanpool, ie. those who actually purchase comics, as opposed to outer speculators   who gripe but don’t necessarily support the industry from their pockets. (Aristocratic shareholders excluded for obvious reasons of having the bread and butter to influence the industry to their selfish ends.)

    Anyways aside from that hefty subject: Excellent article Jimski. You’ve, yet again, out done yourself. Touche’ Sir.

  21. My favorite superman-like story is "In Dreams" from Astro City featuring Samaritan. He’s the Astro City’s superman work-a-holic.

    In fact, the section on Astro City Heroes even refers to him as a "Superman analog" (See <a href="; target=new>äs</a&gt;).

  22. Let’s try that link thing again:

  23. Oh, and nice topic, Jim!  You almost (*almost*) have me liking The Sentry now too.

  24. great article!!

  25. Nice article.

    I like my Supermen flawed, makes them more interesting. I would one day like to see Sups screw-up and cause the destruction of a planet like Jon Stewart did in Cosmic Odessey.

  26. It’s nice that the clones are there to provide us with options, but all of the Superman books kick major ass right now.  I think there’s something special about the original.

  27. @Mangaman: I’m in Montgomery county, Maryland, and the libraries have a surprising amount of comics, including every DC event ever.  Thats part of what got me back into comics after 10 years.

  28. Thanks Aalbatr0ss. ^^;

    As some of you already know I dried up each library system in my state. Every county and those are the best sources for non-sealed hard/softcover reading.

    Note to self: visit Maryland.

  29. ahem..  For the record, the other reason I got back into comics: I was trying to be as cool as my sister, ohcaroline

  30. Ha ha ha.  I totally didn’t tell him to say that.  (Well, maybe I implied it).

  31. You know, if you think of Superhero comics by the narrow stereotype of "male power fantasies", then Superman-like characters fill a large part of that niche. (Batman, and Wolverine like characters fill the remaining portion of this way of thinking too.)

  32. Maybe, saying Batman and Wolverine fill the "remaining" portion is too strong, since there is that Captain America-like character also.

  33. @ohcaroline: nice.

    @powerdad: aren’t you also a parallel to superman? =o