The Promise of Superman

Last month we talked of the trials of Superman, the plight of a character whose greatest weakness is his impossible strength. We talked of his symbolic resonance and the dangerous potency of his icon status. Just as his powers have been harnessed for good or ill, the character’s innate potential to stand for something, to represent or to embody a particular ideal, can be just as volatile an isotope. Is he the model citizen? The heavy-handed messiah? The quintessential outcast? An atomic bomb? A gentle giant?

Superman is many things to many people, a dynamo pre-packaged with so many expectations that it is often difficult to know where to begin. I’ve already suggested that it must be so very difficult to be the most powerful man in a fragile world, the godlike steward to an inherited glass menagerie. But what if you were asked to write him?  How does one become the caretaker of the world’s oldest, most recognizable, most paradoxical superhero? What do you do with pop culture’s nuclear launch codes? How do you impart to continuing adventures of Superman?  

Personally, I’d love to find out firsthand, but until that cataclysmic day…  

My good friend and fellow writer Dave Accampo recommended a Vertigo book called It’s a Bird… by Steven T. Seagle with art by Teddy Kristiansen.  Seagle, probably best known today for his American Virgin series, also wrote several issues of Superman. It’s a Bird… serves as a semi-autobiographical look at his struggle with the Superman assignment. I knew Dave’d be a nuisance until I relented and I was scrambling to find a more obscure Superman book I might recommend to you anyway. So I placed my order and waited patiently for what promised to be a refreshing deconstruction of Krypton’s last and finest son. UPS delivered and, thankfully, so did this book.  

For all those who clamored against the Man of Steel in last month’s comments section, you will find a kindred spirit in Steven T. Seagle, or really his fictionalized analog “Steve.” For as much as It’s a Bird… celebrates the character of Superman, it is also a violent pummeling. So, if you are among the haters, I’d recommend sitting down with this and Superman: Doomsday for that one-two punch of metaphysical and regular old physical battery to my boy Kal. You see, comic writer Steve is not a fan of the big blue boy scout, so when his editor phones him with the opportunity of a lifetime, he’s more reticent than anything else. The story follows Steve’s first person account of the days following the Superman offer, and each chapter opens with a different criticism the writer has with the character and concept. He touches on everything from his weakness to kryptonite, his questionable status as an outsider, and most prominently, to his reliance on brute strength. 

If my take on Superman is an idealized one, Seagle’s reservations are altogether cynical, stark, and sometimes bitter. This is a dark story and I have to applaud how openly it confronts what Seagle perceives as the hypocrisy or foolishness of the franchise. If you’re of the school that considers The Sentry a thinly veiled lashing of Superman, you might be surprised to see how much of a beating the icon takes within the pages of a DC publication, even if it is a Vertigo property. While Steve does eventually come to terms with Superman and more importantly with the baggage that kept him from embracing the task, Seagle still offers a realist compromise and not an easy and whimsical turnaround.

If you are struggling with the concept of Superman, if you have ever wished for an honest and unfiltered deconstruction of the character, freer of sentiment than most Superman explorations, this should scratch the itch. Or, if you are a loyal supporter of the character, I suggest that you might challenge yourself with this book. It could make your appreciation for Superman all the stronger. It is easy to focus on Superman’s strengths or his limitations. But we often forget his potential. We forget our own potential too. That’s a polarizing thing. I find hope in the possibility. You might find unanswered promises.  

I’m perhaps guilty of evangelizing the hypothetical Superman, the concept over the character, the conjecture and not the evidence. I don’t want to suggest that the abstract spirit of Superman is more important than the concrete reality. A character isn’t just a nebulous thing out there in the ether. A pitch isn’t a movie. A blurb isn’t a bestseller. Superman is also a comic book character, and as such, he ought to feature in great comic books if he’s to earn his keep as one of the medium’s finest.  

It has been argued that Superman might only be successful in alternative realities. Elseworld tales like Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son or Grant Morrison’s stupendous All-Star Superman are often cited as among his best outings. And while I agree that it is probably easier to tell a better out-of-continuity Superman story than a mainstream one, I also hold that this is true for other characters. And that’s significant. Some of our favorite Batman stories are standalone alt takes like The Dark Knight Returns, Arkham Asylum, and even Year One, which is no closer to the everyday Batman than All-Star Superman is to the world of Action Comics. So this shouldn’t be seen as a failing of the character, but instead as a strength of his versatility, and the attraction that has for writers with fresh, innovative takes on it. He’s a Superman for all Seasonings, catering to many, many brands of storytelling tastes.  

I am also pleased to report that Superman’s inability to sustain a mainstream book is quickly becoming a misnomer. Though James Robinson’s Superman is only slowly getting its legs, Geoff Johns’ and Gary Frank’s Action Comics is steadily becoming a book not to be missed. Their Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes collection is easily recommendable and the current Brainiac arc is building upon this new Superman mythology. Something which will no doubt come to head in the recently announced “New Krypton” event (the real news of Comic-Con if you ask me). 


NOTE: This next bit contains some spoilers associated with “New Krypton,” announced in San Diego this past weekend.  


Not only does this event promise the solidification of the Superman family of books (Superman, Action Comics, and Supergirl), it also features Johns’ answer to the Kandor problem (another element tackled with great aplomb by Morrison in All-Star). When Earth becomes home to the newly liberated residents of the bottle city, Superman’s role in the world is bound to change. He is no longer the only super-powered Kryptonian. But, as it has been noted, he is the only one who was raised in Smallville, Kansas. Nature versus nurture fans rejoice. Even if “New Krypton” is only a temporary diversion from the status quo (one presumes), it is an exciting one, rich with potential. And all within the confines of the mainstream Superman books.  

Superman, both in concept and in character, has always been about promise. The last hope of a dying world and sometimes the only hope for our own. Always a beacon, always a light to show the way. And I think we are seeing a trail being blazed, new myths furnishing the canon. Superman, even now, is coming into his own again. No longer so vague as to be confused as a bird or a plane.  

Look, up in the sky.  

It’s Superman.  

 

 


Paul Montgomery will always believe a man can fly.  You can reach him at paul@ifanboy.com.  And please do. 

 

Comments

  1. Looks like the old trick of tying the book to a brick and throwing it through your front window finally worked! Cool. Now I can call off the teams of men in vans with loudspeakers who were going to read the entire book to you, panel by panel.

     

    Hope they give me my deposit back.

     

    PS – excellent as always, Montgomery. 😉 

  2. I guess i always liked the World’s Finest approach to Superman. He was the ideal. The optomist. Superman is hope. Batman seemed more realistic than pessimistic. Bruce has always been more grounded – maybe due to incredible tragedy – than Clark. I’ll have to give It’s A Bird a try. I’ve been meaning to add some of the great standalone stories – like Superman For All Seasons and Red Son a try.

    Thanks!   

  3. Slow clap…..Very nice job and Its a Bird has always been one of my favorites. Thank you, these articles have allowed me to look at one of my favorite heroes through a different lens.

  4. Excellent article! Writing Superman is a dream job for many comic writers…but probably also the most challenging assignment as well.

    Glad to see Supes and the entire clan get more love. I desperately hope that the next Superman flick gets away from the Christopher Reeve mold (not that there is anything wrong with that..i’ve enjoyed them all, in one form or fashion, and for different and sundry reasons)…but the Superman franchise needs another kickstart a la Batman Begins and TDK. IF the Hulk franchise gets another chance so quickly, Supes really deserves that chance as well. When i went to see Superman Returns, i was shocked at how so many of the younger set didn’t even know who Superman was!!!! Long gone are the days of Super Friends & Saturday Morning Cartoons and 7-11 Comics *sigh*

  5. I must admit, as a young lad I was guilty of being a Superman hater.  Give me Wolverine, Punisher or Spawn the gritty, violent ‘cool’ characters at one point was my stance.  That all changed my junior year of high school.  I was just 6 days removed from turning 17,  it was a clear September morning back in 2001.  That day I saw true evil existed and since then my world view has become very cynical.  Since then I have rediscovered Superman and he has shown me that good can exist.  And at the risk of sounding like a douche, he has taught me how to be a man.  Last but not least great article Paul.

    One other thing.  I’m not trying to start a Marvel vs. DC flame war, but I find it strange that some people hate Superman yet they love Captain America.  To me they are relatively the same character.  They both are guided by a strong moral compass and solve problems using physical strength.  Maybe I’m wrong, and feel free to correct me but I see them both as 2 sides to the same coin. 

  6. Great column, Paul!  "It’s a Bird!" is really interesting, and I’ve found it makes a good rec for people who aren’t necessarily interested or well-versed in superhero comics in general, becase it gives a lot of background about the comics, and about how comics are made in general.  And despite what might be seen as negativity about the character in general, I’ve had people say, after reading it, that they wanted to read some Superman comics now that they felt like they knew more about the character.   

  7. @Paul, It’s no easy task to write a companion piece to a a previous artixle that was superb. This lives up to the promise of part 1. Top notch work here. Your possseses  a very enobling cadence.

    I’m a bit skeptical as to this whole New Kyrpton idea, but I will reserve my judgement for  the actual story. I suspect Superman’s foundation ss  both the heir of the House of El and as the Kansas farm boy will be restablished in a powerful way, but I’ve always been partial to "Last Kyrptonian" angle. Maybe this has always been a misnomer. Kandor has been around since 1958 in some form or other. 

    Did anyone read the "Third Kyrptonian" arch in Busiek’s run? I was not terribly impressed by that, but it seems though DC has moved from focusiong on Kal-el as the last Kryptonian, to focusing on him as the BEST kryptonian.

    I can’t wait to read "It’s a Bird" Sounda awesome. Keep up the awesome work.

    Lastly, Wormwood FTW!

  8. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Damn right, Wormwood FTW.  😉

  9. Wow… as someone who has almost no interest in Superman, I have to say that the New Krytpon story actually sounds really cool. I just really don’t understand what the bottle city of Kandor is.  The only real experience I’ve had with it was the time it showed up in 52 (and I think it gets mentioned in Hush.) Could someone explain it to me?  Also, is Johns’ run on Action Comics a good jumping on point?

     

    P.S.  This is an amazing article (as was the last one)  Its reasons like this that I read iFanboy as faithfully as I do.

  10. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @Anson – The recent harcover Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes (linked in the article) is probably as good a jumping on point as any.  The first few issues of the Brainiac arc are also available.  That story re-introduces Kandor for modern audiences and sets up New Krypton. 

    In a nutshell, Kandor was a great city on Krypton.  Brainiac captured the entire city and miniaturized it some time before the destruction of the planet.  It is commonly depicted as a tiny, populated city trapped in a bottle, hence "The Bottle City of Kandor." It has appeared frequently in a number of Superman books over the years.  In All-Star Superman, Kandor is what Superman considers his greatest failure, because he has never been able to liberate the city and bring it back to its normal size (though characters frequently shrink down and journey to Kandor for various adventures).  

  11. @Anson- I’m not an expert so take this with a grain of salt.  Kandor is a Kryptonian city, the capitol in fact, that Brainiac trapped in a bubble and shrunk it and I think Superman found it and has kept it in the Fortress of Solitude ever since with the inhabitants still inside.

    And yes Action Comics is good to jump on, Start with #866 it begins with the Brainiac story and if you have basic knowledge of Superman you’ll be just fine.

  12. you beat me to it Paul.

  13. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I really want to do a story where Superman is painfully honest, perhaps about his identity and history.  And it would be called Pardon My Kandor. 

  14. I think i’m gonna pick up that Hardcover today from work.  (Barnes and Noble Emplyee discount!!!)

  15. sorry for the double post, but Thanks for the info guys!

  16. You know, when I was younger, I always thought that Superman was kind of lame, but lately, he’s really begun to become one of my favorite characters to read, whether its in the pages of Action Comics or an Elseworlds tale.  I’m really looking forward to New Krypton (although the addition of more books to my pull list is a pain in disguise).

    Paul, do you think the people of Kandor wear shirts that say, "Kandor: Always Keepin’ It Real."?

    I sure hope so.

  17. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @Neb – I desperately hope so.  

  18. So the people of Kandor are kryptonians, which means that they have all the same abilities as superman under Yellow sun right?  Are there different levels of Kryptonian powers or are they all pretty much the same?  Is superman actually special among Kryptonians other than being "The Last Son"?  Sorry for all the questions.

  19. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @Anson17 – There would essentially be a whole city’s worth of Supermen and Superwomen.  Completely level playing field in terms of power.  The only difference would be Superman’s upbringing and his experience as a superhero.  

  20. Great article, Paul.  You should consider doing a weekly Superman piece, as you clearly "get" the character. I’ve never read It’s a Bird, but will certainly be seeking it out.

     

    The "Superman works better elsewhere" argument has never held a lot of weight with me.  One of the things I enjoy most about the character are his interactions with and reactions from other heroes.  The evolutions of these relationships are some of my most favorite things in comics.  Using Batman as an example, I’ve witnessed his relationship with Superman change from chums to foes to adversaries to respectful peers back to friends again.  That dynamic could never be pulled off anywhere else but in the DC proper.

    Comics FTW!

  21. @Paul– I have never understood how the powers things with the yellow sun works.  Would the peeps from Kandor just right off the bat have the same level of power as Supes or is he like a battery that has more and more solar energy stored up over time?  Cuz it took him till his late teens to really have all his powers right, so wouldn’t they come out stronger than us but over time get to his level?

  22. @Kimbo – it’s always dangerous to definitively answer questions like this because they can always change, especially when you’re dealing with Geoff Johns.  But as far as I know, a Kryptonian’s cells act like a giant power battery in absorbing the energy from a yellow sun.  So it takes a bit of time for the super powers to develop.

  23. @Conor– good call, thanks.  It would be sweet if they all started out leaping an 1/8th of a mile like the old school Superman and then worked up to the flying and the heat vision.

  24. @PaulMontgomery — Have you actually read Seagle’s year long run on Superman?  It was terrible.  Everytime It’s a Bird… is brought up as a great piece of comic book related literature, I literally cringe.  My face contorts into a grimace and everything (heh).  It’s as if Seagle needed a graphic novel format to justify his poor take on Superman and the supporting cast. 

    Good writers (such as Johns and Morrison) possess the ability to reshape aspects of a character’s backstory that are usually considered weaknesses into strengths.  Seagle used It’s a Bird… as an opportunity to bitch about the parts of Superman ‘lore’ that he couldn’t get his head around. 

    It seems like he failed to realize that he squandered the opportunity of a lifetime.  He was given a chance to write THE original superhero.  The guy had an entire year to put his stamp on Big Blue and failed miserably.  Then, he had the balls to be publicly bitter about the subject.  In my opinion, he had his shot to write a defining story and blew it.  Rather than taking accountability for that, he put the onus on the source material.  Seriously?  I honestly can’t stand the guy and I don’t even know him.  Put up or shut up.

  25. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @EnFuengo – I’ve heard his Superman run isn’t very good, but I haven’t read it myself so I didn’t want to pass judgment on it.  I read this first, and only after finishing it and enjoying it did I learn that he actually wrote for the main title.  I was evaluating It’s a Bird on its own merit.  I do believe it’s a good book, and though he does have a great ‘literary’ take on Superman as a character, it’s entirely fundamental and centered totally around the origin.  I could see him writing a great alt Superman origin, but I don’t see him writing a Brainiac story at all.  I can understand your frustration, but if I’m basing my analysis on this book by itself, I have to give it a positive review.  I’m recommending it to those interested in a Superman deconstruction.  For straight up Superman adventure, it’s all about Morrison and Johns.  

  26. @EnFuego  — I didn’t get the impression at all that Seagle was trying to justify his run on Superman.  It was a pretty honest look at why he, personally, couldn’t get his head around the character.   And maybe that means he should have turned the job down but, having read ‘It’s a Bird’, I can understand why he didn’t.  It may have been the ‘opportunity of a lifetime’ for somebody who had a ‘Superman’ story to tell, but it seemed like he didn’t and got pressured into it anyway. 

  27. Question for all:

    What writers do you feel have had quality runs in terms of Action Comics and the Superman title? Who has had the worst? Also, am I the only one who finds Batman R.I.P. just a little bit reminicent of the Death of Superman? I love Batman but R.I.P. just made me want to walk away for awhile.

  28. I liked Loeb/McGuiness on Superman before they switched to Superman/Batman. 

  29. The best way to write Superman, in my mind, is making him a confused individual.

    What I mean is that even if he is the most powerful man in the universe, he still has no idea what to do. John’s take on the guy is that he can be confident when he needs to be, but like his Kent persona he is just as clueless as anyone else. If things arent going his way, then he cannot function right and he starts losing the battle. Take the ‘Brainiac’ run right now in Action Comics: He’s fighting the clones of Brainiac well, then all of a sudden he is hit with a curveball and gets blown up in the process. Obviously he’s still alive, but since there was an X factor in the battle, he got confused and let Brainiac get the upper hand of the fight.

    Frank Miller and Alex Ross does a good job writing this way too. In ‘The Dark Knight Strikes Back’ he makes Kent wonder about himself and gets turned into a slave of his biggest enemy. It isnt until Batman beats him down psychically and mentally til he turns back into his old self. With ‘Kingdom Come’ Ross makes Sups a man who cant make a decision. Should he fight back on Gog, or let him and his people destroy everything he fought for? Should he disipline the future heroes for their crimes (like put into a prision) Or just let them do whatever they want?

    This is the way to right Sups. Not just let him get hit by kryptionite and make a Deus Ex Machina for the next issue. He needs to be taken out emoitionally, maybe not like Sentry…oh god no…just make him uncertain of himself and try to get confidence back in him. That, to me, is what makes Geoff Johns run a classic run for Action Comics.

  30. @PaulMontgomery – so do you have any intentions of reading Seagle’s run? i’d be interested in your thoughts.

      

  31. @scseelig — I have been reading Superman since I was a kid, starting my experience with him around ’92/’93.  (What Conor is to Batman titles, I am to Superman comics.)  There is a ton of crap to wade through in order to find quality stories.  I have many years worth of back issues and very few of them are entertaining for me nowadays.  I would argue that there really was no consistently good run until Johns took over Action Comics in the last couple years.  Hopefully, Robinson can rejuvenate Superman in the same way Geoff Johns has pulled Action out of the gutter.

    There has been far too much editorial interference on Superman’s titles (in the time I have been reading) to allow a writer to establish their own voice on one of his books.  I noticed that someone mentioned the Loeb/McGuinness combo.  They turned out some good stories, but couldn’t really do anything distinctive because they were on the book when all 4 titles were linked (Adventures/Superman/Action/Man of Steel) either directly or indirectly.  DC really needs to change the way they regard Superman because the attitude that Supes is this untouchable, unchangeable property has been extremely limiting over time. 

    Even Johns’ run, while extremely good, isn’t really treading new ground.  He is essentially interweaving new and old ideas (which he is awesome at) to make excellent stories — rather than making major changes.  
     

    So, while I can’t recommend any extended runs to check out, I can suggest some excellent stand alone stories that are IN CONTINUITY.  My two favorite self-contained, single issue stories came from one man — Joe Kelly.  Kelly had a pretty long and somewhat uneven run on Action Comics a few years back, but both Action Comics #775 and AC #786 absolutely nail the essence of Kal’s character.  I fucking love those stories and reread them fairly often.  I would suggest that any cynics check out those two issues and see how they feel about Big Blue afterwards.

  32. Ok, well I just read Johns’ superman and the Legion of Superheroes story.  I really enjoyed it, but it didn’t really seem like it was a Superman story.  It really focused on the legion until the last issue or so.  I get that the theme was all about what Superman stands for, and that’s really cool.  Why does superman look so young in that story?  Is it in modern continuity or is it retrofitted into the history?  Was it just artist interpretation?  I actually kinda liked the younger look.

  33. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @FACE – If I can track down those issues, definitely.  I’m not much of a back issue bin guy, but if anybody does come across them, let me know.  I’ll keep an eye open for them.

    @Anson – You’re right.  It’s really more of a Legion story.  But there is that awesome Superman moment during the end battle.  But, if you keep moving ahead with Johns, you’re going to get some great Superman/Clark Kent in the Brainiac arc.  There’s also a cool Toy Man issue in between.  As for the younger look of Superman, I think that’s just Frank’s overall style.  He draws his heroes with a little less bulk.  Conor frequently praises Frank’s ability to draw realistic fabric in costumes as well, and I definitely agree.  It took me a while to get used to his faces (very toothy and excited) but I’ve come around to it and he’s currently one of my favorite superhero artists.   

  34. I have always thought Superman is awesome & I don’t really understand the need to defend him. Everyone has different tastes, if you don’t like Superman, I would never argue with you, that’s cool, go read something you like.

    I don’t like X-Men comics & someone telling me how awesome they think they are won’t change my mind, so I wouldn’t try with Superman (or any character).

    But, maybe I’m missing the point (it woudn’t be the first time).

  35. This article is good.

  36. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @WadeWilson – Superman’s a little different in that I think many have taken him for granted.  I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind if they’re dead-set against him, but I think a lot of people who have the potential to enjoy Action Comics and All-Star are missing out simply because they’re unaware of its quality.  The best comments I’ve ever gotten on this column are from people who thought they’d never read Superman, but have decided to give it a try because of last month’s article.  Comics are about discovery, and if we can share our interests with other readers, that’s really the pinnacle.  

  37. @Paul – I’ve always liked the character of Superman, really liked it, but for some reason I never had a desire to read it. Which is odd because I lap up everything else Superman-related, such as Smallville and the movies. Hell, when I was a kid Lois & Clark was one of my favourite shows. And the recent Doomsday animated film was outstanding. So it wasn’t until reading your articles that it struck me how I’m such a fan of the character and yet have never bought a book he’s in.

    You hit the nail on the head when you said some people take him for granted. I certainly know I do now. I like the character, love the movies and TV shows, but the books have always been there (and probably always will) so I’ve had no motivation to go seek them out. But now, after this and your first piece, I realise I’m doing myself a disservice by ignoring all the other great stories that might be out there, and will endeavour to go get myself some Supes book-goodness (thanks for the pointers too).

    As with part 1, just superb writing, Paul. In a nutshell, this type of article is what iFanboy is about. 🙂 

  38. @EnFuengo – Seagle’s story definitely wasn’t a justification of his Superman assignment, and bringing that baggage to it is unfair. Who knows what happened during his Superman run? He may have hit intense editorial interference. As Paul noted, It’s A Bird… is about a writer struggling to understand Superman in the context of his life. It’s NOT about the actual run itself. The story is about him ACCEPTING the assignment (literally and figuratively), not the actual assignment.

    Seagle’s a fantastic writer, but his super-hero work has often been the least of his work. He definitely works better left to his own devices (American Virgin, House of Secrets, Solstice, etc.). If you like the concept of Superman, and you’re interested in a slice-of-life memoir about someone who gets the chance to write Superman, then this is highly recommended.

    Also: I did read Seagle’s Superman run, and I dropped it. It wasn’t that great. But "It’s a Bird…" is a truly great book. 

  39. Paul, you are quickly becoming my favorite writer her on iFanboy. Keep up the great work.

  40. @Kory

    I agree that Superman and Captain America are very similar in a lot of ways, but Captain America, even at his most sanctimonious, still often feels more relatable than Superman. You could *be* Captain America; at the end of the day, he’s human. A physically (and morally) perfect one, but human nonetheless. Superman sometime is and sometimes isn’t, depending on the portrayal. This is partly why the Smallville version of Superman is my favorite; he’s the most human, the most *normal*. 

     

  41. @Diabhol- I see your point.

  42. I’m a little late to the party, but I wanted to say that this (and the post before it) is a really great article.  As a Marvel fan, I haven’t really given DC’s heroes much thought, but I always thought Superman would be a character I’d like a lot (my favorite Marvel characters being Captain America and Cyclops, and my preferences in media in general tending toward the benevolent-good-guy characters).  But when I actually tried to read stories with Superman in them, I found myself disappointed.  I may very well pick up that Seagle book – coming from the opposite point of view, as someone who wants to like him but can’t quite seem to, it might help me figure out what the problems are with the way the character is used.

    But what you said in the last article, about Metropolis being the thing that matters and not the hero’s mortality, is really striking, and might help me to approach Superman better in the future.  Definitely food for thought, if nothing else.