Monday, April 30, 2018

80 Years of Superman

[Note, I started this post last Wednesday 4/25]

Earlier in April saw two major milestones, both of which are firsts within the realm of superhero comics. First, the character of Superman celebrated its 80th anniversary of his creation by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel on Thursday, April 19th. Second, issue #1000 of Action Comics was published a day earlier on Wednesday, April 18th (almost 80 year to the day of the first appearance of Superman).

[To be fair, DC unfortunately decided to re-number all of their comics back in 2011 when they re-booted their line as "The New 52" so the original numbering of the first volume of Action Comics stopped at #904 and the comic started over as Action Comics, Volume 2, #1. After about five years of that, with the debut of DC Rebirth in the summer of 2016, the original numbering resumed with Action Comics #957, and the publication began shipping twice monthly].

These are very significant events, as Superman was the first true comic book "superhero." Without Superman, there arguably would not be a Batman, a Wonder Woman, a Captain America... the list goes on. Sure, there had been pulp heroes and newspaper comic strip characters, but they weren't "superheroes." The creation of Superman also created a genre which has become an integral part of America's pop culture, and created an American mythology that is no less culturally important to Americans today than the myths of ancient Greece or Egypt were to the cultures of their time.

From a publication standpoint, Action Comics is one of the very few superhero comics books still in publication that can trace its on-going publication history all the way back to the creation of the superhero genre. Shortly after World War II, superheroes fell out of favor and most superhero comics, even popular characters thought of as popular such as the Flash and Green Lantern, ceased publication. The only ones from DC Comics that continued publishing were Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman. In the mid-1950's, DC revisited a lot of their old heroes like Flash and Green Lantern, revised them for the "modern" age, and created the "Silver Age" of superheroes. But, all along, the "trinity" of Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman had continued as usual. It's fun to celebrate something that's been continuously published month in and month out (or sometimes, weekly, and as noted, twice-monthly currently) for 80 years.

Given all of the hype and excitement about Superman, for my regularly scheduled New Comic Book Wednesday post, I thought it would be fun to talk about some of my favorite Superman stories over the years, and hear what some of yours are.

Superman is a tricky character to write well, and most people these days seem to prefer darker, grittier, more "realistic" heroes like Batman. I don't always agree with those people. I definitely enjoy Batman stories a lot, but I don't like him because I somehow think he's more realistic than, say, Superman or the Flash. None of the superheroes in comics are realistic. Yes, Batman doesn't have super-powers, but anybody who actually attempted what Bruce Wayne does would be killed in probably less than a week. And that's not even counting the physical toll on his body and the mental and emotional damage he's doing to himself.

Superheroes are not meant to be "realistic." As I mentioned above, I subscribe to the premise that superheroes are a new type of American mythology, something that is unique to our cultural make-up. The heroes of Greek myth were not admired because people thought they were real. They were gods and demi-gods with extraordinary powers, and their exploits provided moral life lessons that we could learn from and try emulate in our daily lives. The 12 Labors of Hercules teach us that, as humans, we need to learn how to control our anger, lest we be consumed by it and do something horrible that we regret while we are in a rage. People didn't hear those stories and think, "I want to be strong enough to kill a lion!" What they got out of that story was that we shouldn't let our emotions control our actions. Superman has the strength to eliminate Lex Luthor and take over the world and run it as a dictatorship (what he would most likely think is a benevolent dictatorship, but that's aside from the point). However, he doesn't do so. Despite his great power, Superman tries to figure out ways to outwit Lex and also to provide proof of Luthor's wrong-doings within the context of the law so that Lex can be punished by a jury of his peers. The lesson we are intended to take from this is that might does not make right.

Unlike the "Man of Steel" movie (which I did originally like, but now with hindsight, I have soured on quite a bit), the best Superman stories should inspire us, and allow us to see a refugee from another planet who came to earth and made it his adopted home, who does good works and always looks for the best in people, and who uses his great gifts to provide hope for those who are less fortunate. That said, here are a few of my favorites.

Superman for All Seasons. This is a beautifully illustrated book, originally published as four monthly issues, with each issue representing a different season. It was a follow-up book to the creative team's very popular Batman: The Long Halloween, a limited series based on the months of the year. Superman for All Seasons is a wonderful coming-of-age tale, which also deals with themes such as the end of childhood and finding one's place in the world. The art features many large format double-page spreads to show the grandeur of Superman. 

Superman: Secret Identity. This is such a clever concept by writer Kurt Busiek, of Astro City fame, and artist Stuart Immonen. It is a non-continuity story that tells the tale of a young boy in a world without superheroes or super-powers,but one that does have comic books. The boy's favorite comic book hero is Superman. Then one day, the boy discovers that he has powers like the Superman from the comics, and he sets out on a path to do good deeds, while keeping his identify a secret. It's a masterfully told tale and one that will resonate with younger kids as well.

Superman: Red Son. Another very clever concept, in an "Elseworlds" format (stories that exist outside of main DC continuity). In this story, written by Kick-Ass creator Mark Millar, the premise is that Superman's escape rocket from Krypton crash-landed in Soviet Russia instead of in Kansas. Rather than fighting for "truth, justice, and the American Way," the Soviet Superman is described as championing the common worker, Stalin, and socialism. The story spans the timeframe from 1953 - 2001, along with a futuristic ending, and also features alternate versions of most of the main DC characters such as Wonder Woman, Batman, Green Lantern, and Lex Luthor, as well as real-world people such as President Kennedy and Joseph Stalin.

Superman origin sequence from the first
page of All-Star Superman, Issue #1
The All-Star Superman. This is by far my favorite Superman story, told by fan favorite writer Grant Morrison and illustrated by Frank Quitely. This is another out-of-continuity story that tells a very moving, emotional story of Superman, who [minor spoiler alert, but this happens within the very first part of the story] realizes that he is dying, but doesn't want the world to know, and goes about spending as much time as he can with Lois (who doesn't know, in this story, that he is Clark Kent), and accomplishes a series of tasks that help humanity and remaining Kryptonians (such as those in the Bottle City of Kandor), and interacts with all of the important characters from Superman's long history, both in his guise as Clark Kent and as Superman. It's a wonderful story that succinctly tells just what it means to be Superman, and also includes perhaps the most elegant, concise, and beautifully illustrated one-page, four-panel re-telling of Superman's origin.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on Superman, what you like and don't like about the character, and also what you would list as your favorite Superman stories. Put a comment below or on Google +.


Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: tap water
Listening: "Somethin' Else" by Cannonball Adderly

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