Hello again. Need more Superman info, do you? I don’t blame you.
Let’s begin, shall we? We’ll take a look at the Post-Crisis Superman, his death and subsequent return, the never-made SUPERMAN REBORN movie and the slow return of Silver Age ideas.
This is continued from Part 1.
1985. It was the year of THE CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, no doubt the most famous (though not necessarily the most popular) comic story of all time, due in no small part to its lasting effects.
DESTRUCTION OF A MULTIVERSE
We talked before about how DC started a new wave of heroes in the late 50’s. A new Flash, a new Green Lantern, a new Atom. And characters who’d been around beforehand, such as Superman, just had any story before 1958 considered out of continuity. A few years later, writer Julie Scwartz revealed that the Golden Age characters who existed before 1958 (including the old version of Superman) actually did exist, but on a parallel world called Earth-2. So, you had contemporary heroes on Earth-1 and the Golden Agers on Earth-2. Later on, many other Earths were introduced or added.
By the mid-80’s, the feeling was that the DC multiverse was too confusing for new fans who wanted to get into the comics. Also, for the past few years, Superman had been getting the shaft. I spoke recently with Mark Waid and he explained that the management at the time were simply "bigger Batman fans than Superman fans" and just didn’t "get" Superman. This, coupled with lower sales, led to writer Julie Scwartz being told by the editors that Superman stories were now to be made for younger readers and that they were to be 8 page stories. Superman was to be a stepping stone for kids who were just getting into comics, preparing them for more sophisticated comics later. Likewise, the 8 page stories were easier to market worldwide in other countries. DC’s flagship character had become a second-stringer.
1985 was to mark DC’s 50th anniversary. The DC gods decided they wanted a HUGE event, something that commemorated the event by involving just about every character they owned in one major crossover. At the end of the Crisis, the universes would merge and time and space would be re-started from scratch. A new single universe with a streamlined timeline would emerge. There would be not Earth-1, Earth-2, etc. Just one Earth. And for some characters, their histories could be cleaned up so as to get rid of or alter story concepts that DC felt were outdated or simply went wrong somewhere.
Superman was one of the folks to get a major overhaul. Right before he did though, Alan Moore wrote the last two issues featuring the Pre-Crisis Superman and his world. The two issues have been collected into the story "Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?" and if you don’t own it, stop reading right now and place your order on eBay or Amazon or Half.com. Even if you never knew the Pre-Crisis Superman, it is a wonderful story and truly one of the best that has been written under the concept of "the last story" for a character. It featured the final battle between the Pre-Crisis Superman and many of his foes and gave a fitting final chapter to an incarnation of the character that had been around for roughly 28 years.
With the good-byes made, it was now time to say hello to the new incarnation of the Last Son of Krypton.
POST-CRISIS: "The Man Of Steel"
John Byrne had become widely known for his work on X-Men and the Fantastic Four, wherein he’d done certain small revisions to the characters and their origins. He displayed a great knowledge of history and continuity and DC decided he’d be their guy to reboot Superman’s history.
Before we talk about what Byrne did, let’s discuss what he was not allowed to do. Superman’s origin had always been that his parents had sent him as a baby alone in the rocket ship. Some interpretations of the story had shown that Jor-El wanted to send his wife Lara as well, but she said no since the tiny rocket might not have made the entire trip with her added weight and because she wanted to stay with her husband. Byrne wanted wanted to show early on how deadly Kryptonite was and he wanted to change the Kents from being people who found Kal to being his chosen caretakers.
In Byrne’s proposed re-write, it was a pregnant Lara who left Krypton. She would land on Earth and open the rocket’s door, only to immediately succumb to a small chunk of Kryptonite that had embedded itself into the rocket’s hull as it had left. The stress would induce labor and she would be found by the Kents in her last moments. Lara would indicate to the Kents that they had to look after her son Kal-El and would die before their eyes. The Kents would then take young Kal, an alien born on Earth, and raise him as their own just as they’d promised his mother.
DC said "no." It was okay to change details, yes. But every comic, radio show, TV show, movie serials and Christopher Reeve film had all agreed on one thing: Superman had been sent to Earth alone, with both his parents dying on Krypton. They told Byrne he’d have to rethink that part of his re-write at least.
So Byrne wrote and illustrated a mini-series called "MAN OF STEEL" which was to tell the new, revised origin of Superman and to give readers an overview of the first five or so years of his career. Each issue of the five issue mini-series had several months or over a year between each other, so that when the major Superman comics restarted afterwards, readers would already have an experienced hero rather than dealing with Superman as a rookie. Likewise, Byrne would do several other mini-series such as "The World of Krypton", "The World of Smallville" and "The World of Metropolis", all of which went on to fill in gaps of history and provide seemingly years of stories in a short time.
Byrne felt the best way to gain new interest in the books was not to simply update some of the stories but to completely change some characters and concepts, ensuring readers wouldn’t necessarily know what was coming next. As Waid puts it, "Did you have to throw out the baby with the bathwater? Well, in a way, yes. There was no audience, they had to get peoples’ attention."
The new Krypton was a cold sterile world. If you’re a STAR TREK fan, the average Post-Crisis Kryptonian could give Spock a run for his money in the contest of "emotionless jerk." Kryptonians were human-like beings who lived in life-support suits, had almost no direct contact with each other (communicating via video-phones was so much more preferable), and were almost completely removed from emotions, save perhaps for occasional horror at people who WERE emotional. Jor-El was a scientist and a bit of a freak on this planet. He actually experienced the emotion known as "love", both for his genetic mate Lara (chosen to be his by Kryptonian practices of pairing up the most genetically compatible couples) and for his son Kal-El, who at the time was still just a fetus growing inside an artificial womb (Kryptonians did not give birth or enjoy each other’s physical touch).
Byrne’s Jor-El and Lara
This Krypton was intensely xenophobic and centuries beforehand had guarded against alien influence by genetically altering all Kryptonians so that they couldn’t leave the planet’s atmosphere without dying. Jor-El knew that there was no hope in saving himself when he realized the planet would explode, but he could save his unborn son. He genetically altered Kal, who was still developing as a fetus, to ensure that he would be able to leave. Jor-El then found out about Earth, believing this would be a suitable place to send his son because not only did the inhabitants look just like Kryptonians (ensuring Kal wouldn’t be seen as a freak), but also because after several years of exposure to Earth’s yellow sun, Kal would become a super-human being, able to defend himself against any possible danger.
Despite Lara’s protests (she believed Earthmen to be savages), Jor-El sent Kal to Earth as Krypton began to erupt. As the rocket left, Jor-El hoped that his son would be safe and enjoy a life of exploration and emotions that he himself could never know. His last words were to tell Lara what should have been impossible in such a society, that he loved her and always had.
Different, huh? Before, Superman had seemed like an angel sent down from a heavenly planet, a world that Earth could hopefully be like in the future. But, perhaps inspired by the movie’s cold, science-worshipping depiction of the world, Krypton now seemed a sort of emotionless Hell that Kal escaped.
Also, Kal technically left Krypton BEFORE HE WAS EVEN BORN, still housed within his artificial womb (called a "birthing matrix"), which Jor-El had equipped with a star-drive engine.
Kal-El landed outside of Smallville, Kansas and was found by Jonathan and Martha Kent. The Kents were not senior citizens as they’d been depicted before, here they were just in their mid to late 30s. After a few miscarriages, the couple had become saddened that they would likely never have a child. On finding the rocket, the birthing matrix at last opened and gave birth to Kal-El. Thus, technically, Superman was actually born on Earth (Byrne’s way of fully making him an American citizen). Jonathan Kent immediately wondered if this baby was an alien, but Martha told him he had read too many sci-fi magazines and concluded that this baby had been the unwilling victim of some "horrible experiment" in which someone (perhaps the U.S., perhaps Russia) had placed a child in a rocket ship. The Kents didn’t understand alien technology and didn’t realize that Kal had only just been born. They assumed he was a passenger.
Fate stepped in when a blizzard occurred and stranded the Kents in their farm for nearly four months. By the time the blizzard was over and the Kents were able to travel into town again, they simply told their friends that "Clark" was their own son. Unlike Pre-Crisis, there was no legal adoption here.
Clark grew up in Smallville. Lex Luthor did not live there, but Lana Lang and Pete Ross still did. Clark’s powers did not emerge immediately. In this new revised reality, it would take years before his cells began producing any kind of super-power.
So if Earth’s weaker gravity was not a factor in Clark’s parents, where’d his invulnerability come from, you ask? Byrne said that as Clark grew older, his cells were absorbing and processing more and more solar radiation. By the time he was about 8-years-old, his cells had begun redirecting some of this processed energy into a skin-tight force field that surrounded his whole body. This force-field would gain in strength and resistance over the years, just as Clark’s body would begin developing other abilities as his body matured and retained more and more radiation. In high school, Clark used these abilities to become a star athlete, impressing everyone, especially his high school sweetheart Lana Lang. When he was 18, he found out he could even fly. A couple of years later, he’d finally develop heat-vision.
Pre-Crisis, Clark’s X-ray vision included actual X-rays emitted from his eyes and his heat-vision were just focused blasts of X-ray radiation. Byrne changed this. The "X-ray vision" was just a heightened form of sight that was able to peer through most surfaces (except for lead and certain other substances). It was called "X-ray vision" because he could see through walls and such, but didn’t actually involve radiation. His heat-vision likewise no longer involved X-rays. It was solar radiation he focused out of his cells in a more direct fashion.
Kal’s flight was altered a bit. It was not just solar energy propelling him, he was actually altering his own field of gravity. In quantum physics, there is a theoretical particle called the "graviton" which transmits the force of gravity. Superman could create "anti-gravitons” around his body. It also had the side-effect of making things feel like they weighed less when he carried them in the air than if he carried them while just standing on the ground.
Back to the character. Clark grew up thinking he was the natural son of Jonathan and Martha Kent. His abilities were, he believed, some sort of mutation. In Clark’s senior year of high school, Jonathan at last told him the truth. Clark was overwhelmed by this knowledge, suddenly wondering who he was and why he’d been given such power.
As Clark approached the rocket, he felt weak. This was because a 2 lbs. chunk of Kryptonite had imbedded itself into the rocket as Krypton had exploded. This was apparently the only piece of Kryptonite to ever reach Earth. Byrne was making it clear that later writers could not fall into the trap of having practically every enemy of Superman’s armed with Kryptonite.
Clark realized he’d been wrong in how he was using his powers. Needing to talk to someone, he told Lana his secret. Pre-Crisis, Superboy had revealed to Pete Ross who he was. Here, Pete was the one left in the dark. Lana realized her dreams of marrying Clark were not to be, because a man of his power belonged to the world and not one woman.
Clark left Smallville. He roamed the world for a while, looking for a place to call home while also secretly helping people when he could. By encountering different cultures, he was becoming a citizen of the world, perfect for a protector of Earth. Later on, it would be revealed that he attended Metropolis University and graduated in just two years because he only needed an hour or so of sleep.
When he was in his early or mid-twenties, Clark was once again in Metropolis, which he was beginning to consider his home base. An experimental space-plane called The Constitution was scheduled to land at the Metropolis airport. Among the crew was reporter Lois Lane of the Daily Planet.
A small commercial plane somehow wound up crossing paths with the space-plane and damaged its wing. The space-plane was going to crash to the Earth and nothing could be done about it. Clark was in the crowd and saw no choice. He was just dressed in jeans and a leather jacket, no time to find a mask. Deciding he just had to move too quickly for anyone to photograph his face clearly, he launched into the air and the crowd froze as they saw him catch the space-plane and gently carry it to the ground. Lois ran out and grabbed a hold of him, demanding answers. A moment later, they were assaulted on all sides by people demanding an interview or telling Clark they could use him to sell something or demanding that he heal their child. Clark panicked and flew away.
A moment to reflect. This new story of how Clark debuted to the public struck a chord home. Originally, Clark would save a landing space-shuttle, but then the Challenger explosion happened and at the last minute it was changed to "an experimental space-plane." Nonetheless, the story seemed a sad "what if" possibility of how tragedies such as the Challenger explosion could have been averted if we had guardians like Superman in reality.
Clark went back to Smallville, mere minutes after his parents read the news article by Lois Lane that started with the headline "Space-Plane Saved By Mysterious Superman." Clark wanted to continue helping people, but now didn’t see how he could do that without folks demanding his attention 24 hours a day or constantly hounding him for one reason or another. Jonathan Kent, remembering the masked heroes of the Golden Age, believed that the only way for Clark to continue helping people was to follow suit. Martha made a costume (it had to be skin-tight so that it would fit under Clark’s force-field), while Jonathan and Clark designed a logo for him. Although Clark found the name a bit embarrassing, Jonathan saw no reason not to use the title Lois had given him in the headline. "Superman" was to be his cover identity. After several designs, they came up with the famous S-shield.
This skin-tight force-field that made Clark invulnerable became the new explanation as to how Superman’s costume never ripped when he was shot at. The costumes were made of simple Earth fabrics. This meant artists could play with the fact that the cape (not protected by the force-field) could indeed rip and tear and catch on fire at times, which made for some great visuals during battles. Also, if ever Superman was in a fight with an opponent strong enough to stress his force-field, his costume could be torn as the field weakened, indicating just how strong the enemy was.
As long as we’re talking about the powers again, it’s important to note that this new interpretation of Superman was less powerful than his Pre-Crisis self. Gone was the ability to time-travel, gone was super-ventriloquism, gone was the ability to create a tremor by simply tapping his feet several times on the floor, gone was the guy who could travel between solar systems unaided. Yes, he was still strong and fast and could fly and had heightened senses and heat-vision and arctic breath. But he was not as strong or as fast as he had been in the past. He could hold his breath for a couple of hours, sure, but if he wanted to travel long-range through space, he needed to bring a few oxygen tanks with him.
And while he was invulnerable to conventional weapons like tanks and guns, this was not the Superman who could shake off a couple of atomic explosions. In one comic, he was on the outskirts of single atomic blast and was knocked unconscious for hours, and even when he woke up it took him some time to recover his full strength. It was also said that Superman was like any organism and that the longer he was on his feet and the longer he was engaged in strenuous activity, the more fatigue would eventually set in. For a human being, if we’re on our feet for a full day from start to finish, jogging for an hour every couple of hours, we can be absolutely exhausted by the end of the day. We feel light-headed, our balance is a bit off, our movements are sluggish. Likewise, if Superman was involved in a life or death battle against a powerful opponent for a few hours and then had to fight another battle the same day or had to do something that taxed his strength like drilling a tunnel through a mountain or some such thing with no real rest, all of his powers would begin to weaken in their levels, including his force-field.
All of this made Superman more vulnerable and more human, making it easier for writers to give him battles in which there seemed to be a chance he wouldn’t win.
Now, the disguise angle. Since Lois and others had seen his face, there was no point using a mask, but he could disguise Clark Kent. Besides his parents, no one had really seen Clark Kent for about 7 or 8 years now and a man could change a lot in that time. As Clark, he would wear looser clothing, assume a more relaxed posture and body language, alter his voice a bit, slick back his hair, and wear glasses. Clark felt that this would be enough because, since Superman wore no mask, people simply wouldn’t be looking to find out who he "really was." They’d just assume he was a hero 24-7. As an added measure later, Clark would vibrate his face slighty as Superman, not enough that the human eye would pick it up, but enough that anyone who tried to photograph him would get a fuzzy picture. Soon after Byrne left, this idea was dropped.
The disguise stopped there, however. Unlike previous comics, Clark would not be a nervous, mild-mannered man who verbally second-guessed himself all the time. He actually wouldn’t be all that different from Superman, except that he wouldn’t be as physically confrontational or as obviously self-confident. This was Byrne’s attempt to make the readers care as much about Kent as they did about Superman. Some readers dug it, some believed it was a betrayal of the decades long tradition that "Clark Kent" was supposed to be the disguise.
It’s also important to note that for the first time ever, Clark’s parents do not die when he reaches adulthood. Both stay alive and remain a constant presence in Clark’s life for years to come, acting as both mentors and confidantes.
After perfecting his disguise, Clark got a job at the Daily Planet by literally walking in with the first exclusive interview with Superman. Lois Lane would spend a couple of years hating Clark for beating her to what she considered to be one of the stories of the decade.
After operating as Superman for several years, Clark returned to Smallville at the end of the MAN OF STEEL mini-series for a small vacation. While there, he accidentally activated a hologram of Jor-El that, through alien technology, literally downloaded tons of information into Clark’s brain, instantly educating him on Krypton, its history, its language, its culture and why he had been sent to Earth. After years of being a hero to the public, Clark was faced with the revelation that he was an alien, the last survivor of a whole planet. He was stunned, finally knowing where he came from and that his true name was Kal-El. But in the end, he considered the information worthless. As far as he was concerned, he had been raised an Earthman all his life and Earth was his home. It was nice to know his genetic heritage and why he was different, but this was inconsequential. In every way that mattered, he was human.
This was a huge difference from the Pre-Crisis Superman who kept a journal in Kryptonese and whose fortress had several tributes to Krypton on display. Some fans found this interesting, while others felt that it took away the theme of tragedy that he was the sole survivor of a dead world and that he was, first and foremost, an alien living among us.
TOGETHER AGAIN … FOR THE FIRST TIME!
As it was a new universe now, this meant that some of Superman’s relationships with people, both friend and foe, underwent serious revision.
Just like before, Superman’s career inspired a new wave of super-heroes. The first hero he met was The Batman. Pre-Crisis, the two had considered each other friends, although their methods differed. But just before Byrne jumped onto Superman, writer Frank Miller had produced a mini-series called THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. The mini-series depicted a possible dystopian future in which an elder versions of Batman and Superman, although they respected each other, did not get along at all and were later forced to fight. Miller said he did this because in his mind it made no sense that they would be friends, not when Batman was a person who, in his mind, clearly believed that people were prone to criminal behavior and law-breakers needed to be hunted on a nightly basis, whereas Superman was an optimist who only really stepped in when there was a situation police either weren’t around to handle or couldn’t handle themselves.
Miller’s attitude made sense to Byrne and so, in the new reality, Superman and Batman were at odds when they first met. Early in Batman’s career, he was wanted as a vigilante by the Gotham City P.D. and Superman decided to bring him in. Batman forced Superman through manipulation and blackmail into releasing him and then had the Man of Steel accompany him on a mission against a mass murderer named Magpie. At the end of it, Superman realized that although he did not like Batman’s nature or methods, Gotham City was very different from Metropolis and that perhaps it benefited from the Dark Knight’s tougher brand of justice. He warned Batman though that if he ever crossed a line, he would be stopped, believing the Gotham vigilante to be dangerous and possibly unstable. Batman respected Superman’s abilities but believed him to be a naïve boy scout. This was a far cry from how things used to be, when Batman and Superman had been collectively known as "the World’s Finest Team."
A couple of years into his career as Superman, our boy finally met Lex Luthor. This was the first time they had met and Lex was about 15 or so years older (in fact, it was now said that Lex had been a childhood friend of Perry White’s and not Clark’s). Lex was not the mad scientist he’d been before. Taking his cue from the movie, Byrne made Lex what was considered the ultimate face of evil in the 1980s, a corrupt businessman who was the obvious culprit in many crimes but who was intelligent enough to never leave any evidence that traced back to him. He was an overweight man who walked around in suits that cost a few thousand dollars and constantly smoked cigars. He had had several wives and maintained regular mistresses. Some readers dug the new take on Luthor because it meant that he was a very crafty strategist, constantly pitting his criminal operations against Superman but always avoiding jail time, as opposed to the Pre-Crisis Luthor who wound up in jail constantly. Some readers felt it was a bit of a betrayal of the character. He was still an excellent manipulator and tactician, yes, understood a good deal about science and had access to greatly advanced technology, yes, but he was no longer as much of a scientific genius as he always had been in all previous incarnations, preferring to let employees handle that end of things. Some also pointed out that having Luthor as an overweight, untouchable crimelord made him far too much like Marvel’s Kingpin of Crime.
It’s also important to note that during their first battle, Superman was given some official status as an agent of the Metropolis Police. This again emphasized that he was not a vigilante in the same vein as Batman or certain other heroes. He was a volunteer of sorts, who respected the law and operated to keep the public’s trust.
Another change was the dynamic between Lois and Clark. Before, Lois had only had eyes for Superman and Clark was a nice guy who she knew had a crush on her but whom she wasn’t interested in. With Byrne, Lois started off with a serious crush on Superman, yes. What girl wouldn’t? But as the years went on, she realized that fantasy simply wasn’t going to happen. And after working alongside him for some time, her hatred for Clark softened to a friendly rivalry until eventually she came to be charmed by this well-meaning, well-mannered man who spoke his mind openly and honestly, and who never seemed to give up on asking her out on a date. Superman was a nice idea, but Clark was the man she fell for.
How Clark approached the situation was also radically different. In the old comics, he’d gone out of his way to be uninteresting as Clark because he felt a relationship was impossible with the life he led and because Clark was, as said, fully a disguise. Here, Clark was actively pursuing Lois and hoping that she’d fall for the human identity, rather than just be wowed by the image of the powerful alien like others.
Various villains got new treatments from Byrne as well. Some were met with approval, others were not. Fans loved the new Metallo, who looked more threatening now that he was redesigned to resemble the terrifying cyborg of the TERMINATOR movies. Parasite, Toyman and the Prankster were very much the same, as was the magical imp Mr. Mxyzptlk (although minor details were altered here and there). Some villains seemed to have lost their magic. In the past, Brainiac had been an android life-form with a ship that could nuke a small country. In Byrne’s re-write, he was an alien who transplanted his mind into the body of a circus mentalist and attacked Superman with telepathic abilities. Just not the same. For more on Brainiac, see my BRAINIAC PROFILE.
There was also a general consensus that things of the past were missed. Where was the Fortress of Solitude? Where was Supergirl? What about the bottle city of Kandor?
DC had decided that part of Superman’s revamping would include the new edict that he was indeed the LAST Son of Krypton not just in name. Krypto was not seen. Supergirl had been wiped from existence. And, as of yet, there was no Fortress.
A little while later, a blonde girl in a female version of Superman’s costume showed up. Her name was Matrix, but she was calling herself Supergirl and was from a pocket universe Superman had visited not too long ago. In her universe (which had no Clark Kent anymore cuz their version of him died), her Earth’s version of Lex Luthor had accidentally released three Kryptonian terrorists, the worst being their leader General Zod. This Supergirl was an artificial being who’d been created to fight the terrorists, but they were too much for her so she’d traversed universes to recruit Superman for help.
Zod had been a big villain in Pre-Crisis history and had gained fame by being the main villain in the movie SUPERMAN II. This story was Byrne’s way of bringing back at least a version of him without actually breaking DC’s rule that Superman was to be the sole survivor of Krypton. Since Zod was from a parallel universe and thus a different version of Krypton, it didn’t count. You can read more about Zod in my ZOD PROFILE.
Superman tried his best, but each of these three alternate Kryptonians were much more powerful than he. Superman failed and in the end he and Supergirl were the only living beings on that version of Earth. Literally everyone else had been killed.
Superman was horrified by the death everywhere and finally used that universe’s Gold Kryptonite to permanently rob the three terrorists of their powers. But Zod threatened that he would not remain a prisoner on a dead world, that he would find a way to regain his powers and somehow figure out how to travel to Superman’s universe, at which point he would destroy THAT Earth as well.
What came next was a turning point in Superman’s life. He felt that the risk Zod could live up to his threats was too great after he’d seen what had happened to this Earth. Feeling he had no choice, and feeling that he had the authority of being the only one still alive on the planet to fight the three, Superman used Green Kryptonite of that universe to execute them (he himself was in no danger since this universe’s Kryptonite gave off different radiation than his own reality’s version). He held the rock out in front of him as the terrorists begged for their lives and then perished.
This was huge. Superman hadn’t just killed an enemy in battle, he had executed THREE of them after making sure they had no way to defend themselves. Yet did he have a choice?
Superman brought the pocket universe Supergirl back to Earth and then tried to move on with his life. Byrne left and later writers dealt with how Superman would deal with this tragedy. He had dreams in which he relived the execution and would wake up wracked with guilt. The villain Brainiac later attacked him telepathically and this, added with his own guilt, caused Superman to have a break from his identity. Because he subconsciously believed himself to be a brutal avenger now, he started going out dressed as the Metropolis vigilante Gangbuster and hospitalized nearly whatever criminal he came across. It was a while before Superman realized the truth. Deciding a mentally unstable Superman was too dangerous for Earth, Superman exiled himself into space.
Again, some readers found it interesting to see how deeply hurt Superman was by the fact that he’d had to take a life, while other readers felt that the Superman comics had lost all sense of fun and become replaced with overly introspective, dark-themed tragedy tales. Many of them blamed it on Byrne, who they said had made it his last act to force Superman to kill in a story that had a few plotholes.
Superman later returned to Earth and brought with him a Kryptonian artificial intelligence unit known as The Eradicator, which created a new version of the Fortress of Solitude. A major change was location. It was now no longer near the North Pole but rather in Antarctica. Superman just referred to it as "The Fortress" and it would be several years before writers began re-adding the words "of Solitude" to the end of it. Later on, the Fortress would move location quite a few times.
New enemies showed up, as did new versions of old enemies. Brainiac finally began to resemble his Pre-Crisis self when he changed his appearance and made a new version of his old space-ship. Batman and Superman reached an understanding at last after learning each other’s identities. There were some time travel stories, some space travel stories. The biggest thing really was that Clark Kent and Lois had begun seriously dating and Clark had finally proposed to Lois. Soon after this, Clark, deciding there could be no secrets if Lois was going to make such a serious decision, told Lois who he was. Lois said she’d always known on some level and eventually decided that yes, despite the risks and the fact her husband was constantly in danger, she still wanted to marry him.
DC was going to do a wedding soon, but then were told that they couldn’t. The new TV show LOIS AND CLARK was starting and the couple could not be married in the comics when many TV fans would be watching them romance each other on TV. So DC had to figure out something else to shake up the Superman comics for a bit as they delayed the wedding. They began what was the first part in a trilogy of storylines that would, hopefully, show readers just why Clark was cooler than any other hero. The first part was titled simply "The Death of Superman."
THE DEATH AND RETURN OF SUPERMAN
Every network news station, various radio stations and CNN all had the same story. "DC Comics has decided to kill Superman." Everyone talked about it. I remember seeing a montage on one of the news stations in which they showed a clip from SUPERMAN II where it looked like (for a moment) that Superman had been killed. News media showed the cover of the issue where he would die and many folks talked about how people felt about the loss of an icon. At a comic shop, I even saw a couple of folks wearing black armbands with Superman’s S-shield on them.
Ironically, the ones least worried about Superman’s death were people who actually read his comics. Any Superman reader worth his salt knew full well there was no way DC would actually kill THE MAN, especially when there were no plans to cancel any of his regular titles. But the rest of the world didn’t understand the nature of comics and the fact that very few characters truly stay dead.
Before anyone starts crying out that the Death storyline and what followed were cheap marketing gimmicks, I want to point out that the gimmicks worked. Before, I wasn’t a big Superman reader. My curiosity about the death pulled me into his comics, along with several friends of mine, and we haven’t left since. Likewise, I know many others who got into it via the death story arc. Was it the best written story ever? No. But it brought us in and gave us the opportunity to get curious enough that we looked back and found the truly great stories from before and we stuck around to find the great stories yet to come.
DC man Mike Carlin had a good point too. He said, "We had to show how cruddy it would be if he wasn’t alive — that you don’t know what you have until it’s gone."
The Death of Superman featured a new character called Doomsday who appeared almost literally from nowhere and began a rampage across America, killing indiscriminately, causing destruction for its own sake, and shrugging off all attempts to stop him. Some claimed he was a pathetic two-dimensional villain and I can understand where they’re coming from, but in a way I think he was the perfect contradiction to Superman. Superman, at his core, symbolizes life and hope for a better tomorrow. Doomsday was death incarnate, with no thought save for the need to destroy. Who else BUT Superman would he fight?
The battle went through several issues, with both opponents wearing each other down. Their fight raged across several state-lines until they reached Metropolis. Stopping in front of the Daily Planet building, Superman and Doomsday were punching each other so hard that the shockwaves were shattering glass windows nearby. Finally, they both put all their efforts into one last simultaneous attack and seemingly killed each other. Lois ran to Superman, cradling him, saying he’d done it, that they were safe and the monster was dead, only to have the Man of Steel fall limp in her arms. It was the end.
But not quite … After the Death, we had "World Without A Superman", also titled "Funeral For a Friend." The story-arc told of the funeral and how the world was coping with the loss of its greatest hero. Through the eyes of average citizens, Lois, the Kents, Lana, Jimmy Olsen, and many super-heroes, readers saw just how much Superman had meant to everyone and why he’d been so important. But a curious thing was happening. Some characters realized that the wounds on Superman’s body from his battle with Doomsday had healed. But how was that possible? Bodies don’t heal AFTER death.
At the end of the Funeral For A Friend, Jonathan Kent had a heart attack. He recovered, but while he was out he’d had a dream of Clark’s spirit still hovering between life and death, and he said that in this dream he’d convinced Clark to fight for his life. Lois was disturbed by this and dismissed it as nothing. But then something happened … Superman’s body had vanished from its tomb.
The final part of the trilogy began, with a title that paid homage to the first Superman story ever written: "Reign of the Supermen." Readers were introduced to two people claiming to be Superman (one of whom was a cyborg, the other of whom was a dispassionate, lethal vigilante wearing a visor), a man who chose to honor Superman’s life by carrying on his fight (he would later be known as the armored hero "Steel"), and a teenager who was part of an experiment to clone Superman. The teenager was called SuperBOY due to his age and was very much a smart-mouth, headstrong kid, not at all like the Pre-Crisis Superboy who’d just been Clark Kent but younger.
It was revealed during this story that Superman had not been truly killed, but taken as near to death as he’d ever been. He could still be revived, just as human beings can be clinically dead but revived with defibrillator pads if reached in time. His wounds had healed because he was still alive. Earth technology didn’t know how to properly scan a Kryptonian for signs of life and thus was unable to recognize this. Superman’s body was taken to the Fortress where Kryptonian technology bathed him in concentrated solar energy. After two weeks of this, he emerged, alive and healed.
On top of that, he now had three new allies. The other Superman pretender turned out to be the Eradicator, remodeled and with a different outlook on life (though he was still dangerous if you ticked him off). Steel stuck around and got his own comic for a while. He also had a movie made about him starring Shaq, but the less said of that the better. The teenage clone stuck around under the name Superboy and has since become a hero in his own right, becoming great friends with Tim Drake (the third boy to be called "Robin") and recently joining the newest version of the Teen Titans. Although he was still the only Kryptonian, Superman had regained a family of sorts.
Team Superman: Superboy, Supergirl (Matrix) and Steel II
SUPERMAN REBORN: Why It’s Good Some Movies Aren’t Made
Hollywood figured it was time for a new Superman movie and wanted it based on the death and return storyline. It would be the biggest clusterhump Superman would ever suffer. Long ago, television had made a pilot called "Superpup" in which midgets dressed up as dog versions of Clark Kent and the rest. Later, there had been the Superman musical called “It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Superman!” by the guys of “Bye, Bye, Birdie!” And there had been the sad, lackluster version of Superman on the SUPERFRIENDS cartoon series. But this movie, called either "SUPERMAN REBORN" or "SUPERMAN LIVES" depending on who was writing it that week, seemed determined to be worse than anything previously.
Jonathan Lemkin was the first hired to write the script. His previous works included DEMOLITION MAN, UNDER SIEGE 2 and THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE. In Lemkin’s story, Superman would fight Doomsday and die beating him. Lois would be there, just like in the comic, holding him as he died. But here was the twist. Superman’s life-force would leap into Lois, who would suddenly be immaculately pregnant. She would then give birth to a boy who would grow 21 years in just three weeks. Superman would literally be reborn, which really, if you think about it, would also mean Lois and Clark could never date again.
Said Lemkin, "If there are any movies we kept looking to over and over again in relationship to this, it’s STAR WARS and THE LION KING. They’re the most mythological films we looked at." I enjoy both those movies, but there’s just something wrong with that statement.
Afraid this story might be too controversial, Warner Bros. then hired Gregory Poirer to write a new version, focusing on Superman as a very angst-ridden alien (at one point he was to talk to a psychiatrist about feelings of anger and alienation). He would fight not only Doomsday but also Brainiac, and Doomsday would actually bleed Kryptonite. Poirer was let go and in came Kevin Smith, which was a surprise to many since at that time he’d only done comedies in which a curse word was uttered every five seconds (CLERKS and MALLRATS). But Smith was a life-long comic fan and was more than happy to tell Warner Bros. that Poirer’s script "sucked" and he’d be happy to take a stab.
Smith then met up with Jon Peters, who was producing this after his success with BATMAN in 1989. Jon Peter’s enjoyed Smith’s ideas, but had three rules he wanted to lay down.
1. He didn’t want Superman wearing the famous costume (described by Peters as "too gay").
2. Superman would not fly in this movie. He thought flying would look silly.
3. In the third act, Superman had to fight a giant spider. No question. He had to.
Kevin Smith was perplexed, feeling that the first two rules went against the core of Superman. They didn’t really listen and Smith did the best he could to compromise, while also writing a Superman story he felt was true to the spirit of the comics. He even got the costume rule rescinded, allowing Superman to wear at least a version of his costume (Peters said, "As long as it’s 90s style"). Sadly, Peters kept adding new things he wanted. At one point, he insisted that Brianiac have a gay robot sidekick and Superman have a Chewbacca-like sidekick. Another time, he decided that Smith’s idea to make the Doomsday fight epic should be altered to a brawl in the sewers. Another time, he wanted Brainiac to fight a pair of polar bears guarding the Fortress (and later insisted they be ROBOT polar bears so PETA wouldn’t get mad). Peters also kept pushing that Superman use advanced alien weapons rather than internal powers (so they could market said weapon as extra toys).
As Peter explained to Smith, "Kevin, what you don’t understand about this is that this is a corporate movie. It doesn’t matter how good the dialogue is between Lois and Superman; it’s about how many toys we can sell."
Nicholas Cage was signed on to star as Superman/Clark Kent. Warner Bros. was talking to both Tim Allen and Jim Carrey as possibilities to play Brainiac and Chris Rock was in the running for Jimmy Olsen. Kevin Spacey was approached concerning Lex Luthor. When Kevin Smith was asked who he thought could direct, he suggested Tim Burton, based on the success of Batman (and while I agree with many die-hard Batman fans that Burton’s version of Batman was not true to the character, let’s face it, the movie did well). Warner Bros. said he was too dark. Months later, they went to Tim Burton who at the time was thinking of doing Scooby Doo (he needed a sure-fire sale after MARS ATTACKS!), but liked what the studio told him and said he enjoyed the script. Warner Bros. assured Smith he would stay on. But as soon as they signed Burton on, the director turned around and insisted that he only worked with his own writers and he wanted Wesley Strick (ARACHNOPHOBIA, WOLF, THE SAINT) to draft it. Smith asked if he could possibly meet with Burton and discuss it, saying, "At least give me the benefit of the doubt to go in there and hear his kooky ideas, and if I can do them, I’ll do them. If not, he can go off and get his other writer."
Burton said no to even meeting with Smith and the screenwriter left. Strick wrote his own version of the screenplay that was described as being both over-budget and "different." Too different for Warner Bros. Not happy with it, they let him go and turned the script over to writer Dan Gilroy (FREEJACK) and later to a writer named Alex Ford. Then Burton left and Oliver Stone was approached. And then it just went into limbo.
And thank God. I enjoy a lot of Tim Burton’s work, but this is a man who has said more than once "anyone who knows me knows I would never read a comic book." And based on the designs for his movie I’ve posted above and below (the monster is supposed to be Doomsday and those caverns are the Fortress), is this really what we wanted to see in a Superman film? Where’s the magic? Where’s the fun? And why does Superman look like Edward Scissorhands? Let’s face it, some things are best put away before they’re even made.
By the way, John Peters did get his giant spider fight scene eventually when he produced the movie WILD WILD WEST.
Superman went through a lot in the next few years. He was put on trial for the destruction of Krypton (cuz you’ve gotta blame SOMEONE, right?). He lost his powers for a short time. And he met a new enemy, a sorcerer named Tolos who possessed a tiny city in a bottle he called Kandor. This city was filled with a variety of different alien life-forms, not Kryptonians. Superman later took the bottle city to his fortress for safe-keeping, though he had no idea how to even begin trying to free the folks trapped inside. In this new version, the city was Kandor was not just shrunken. Kandor was actually locked in a field that put it out of phase with reality and the bottle was just a machine that stabilized the field.
During all this, the show LOIS AND CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN was doing well on television, starring Dean Cain and Terri Hatcher. The show was more tongue-in-cheek than the comics and focused on the romance between Lois and Clark. At one point, the show was to have them get married. DC had already planned on this happening but delayed their story until the TV show was ready so that the event could happen in the comics simultanesouly. In the comics, Lois and Clark went on a break for a while. Then when the time came and the show was finally ready, DC brought out a one-shot special called SUPERMAN: THE WEDDING in which the couple quickly re-united, realized they were silly to wait, announced they were engaged again, got an apartment as a wedding present from Batman, and finally got hitched. If you look, you can see various Superman writers and artists in the wedding ceremony.
In the comics, Superman and Lois are still married and have impressed many by being one of the few comic book super-hero couples who don’t seem to be in danger of getting divorced or having one of them killed off. It’s also led to great stories such as Lois getting jealous when Wonder Woman visits and issues in which Superman and Lois talk seriously over the pros and cons of trying to have a child in the future. The TV series fell greatly when audience members were no longer teased about romantic tension since the two were now married and was cancelled soon afterwards.
A new animated series started on the WB network and showed a Superman who seemed to be a mesh of the Post-Crisis and some Pre-Crisis concepts (such as Krypton returning more Silver Age roots). The cartoon did very well and began to open up readers and writers to the notion that perhaps not everything Pre-Crisis wouldn’t work today.
Grant Morrison started a new Justice League of America title (called simply JLA) and defied what many had said was impossible: that someone could write a monthly series with a team composed of DC’s biggest guns, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc., and not only make it interesting month after month but continually put them against menaces that were threatening enough none of the team members could’ve handled them on their own. It was a fantastic run that went on for a few year. But soon after Superman joined the team, his editors felt that his own books could use a bit of a push and began a storyline in which Superman’s powers completely mutated.
Due to a scheme by the sorcerer Tolos that went awry, Superman’s body was shifted out of phase with reality and he became an energy-based lifeform. With a suit made by Prof. Emil Hamilton and LexCorp tech, Superman’s condition became stabilized but he was now an all-together different hero. Gone were all his traditional powers. He "flew" now by becoming a lightning bolt and zapping across the sky at speeds that now rivaled the Flash’s. He was mostly intangible, so bullets passed through him, meaning he had to be more careful in battles. With focus, he could absorb the kinetic energy of things passing through his body and send it back, which he called "violent absorption." He could communicate telepathically with computer systems and disrupt electrical devices. By focusing, he could shift back into Clark Kent, but this transformation made him FULLY human because his subconscious saw Clark as the "human identity." As Clark, he now got hungry more often, needed more sleep, couldn’t type his stories at super-speed, and could get a paper-cut like anyone else.
DC said the purpose of this change was to show Superman in a situation where he’d be forced to "learn how to walk again." Whereas before he always knew what to do, he now had to go into battle and constantly remind himself "No, I don’t have heat-vision anymore, what can I do instead?" Some fans reacted angrily, saying this was a pathetic marketing ploy. Others waited patiently, knowing that (despite the Superman editor’s claims to the contrary) this change would be temporary.
Personally, I thought some of the stories with this new "electric Superman" were all right, while many were uninspired. Showing again how great a writer he is, Grant Morrison was able to show that even with the electric abilities, our boy was still Superman. Don’t believe me? Go pick up the JLA tpb "American Dreams" and read the story in which Superman uses his electrical abilities to literally MOVE THE MOON and then goes off to wrestle an angel only minutes later. It’s stunning. Had Grant Morrison been writing the regular Superman titles at the time, I think people would have had a very different opinion of the storyline.
Superman went back to normal the next year, only to jump headfirst into a storyline in which he met a new reality-warping villain named Dominus. This led to a long storyline where Superman had his mind warped for a time and tried to take over the world for the good of the planet. The story brought the temporary return of the Superman robots (although they now all looked clearly robotic). One of the Superman robots, named Ned (after Lois’s stiff, over-protective uncle), stayed online and became a caretaker of the Fortress.
A KRYPTONIAN’S BEST FRIEND
Former Superman writer Alan Moore took over writing SUPREME, a character who was originally a bit of a Superman wannabe. In his storyarc “Story of the Year”, Moore transformed Supreme into a new version of the Pre-Crisis Superman, revitalizing ideas like a fortress full of robots, a talking dog with human intelligence, an innocent cousin, and entire decades worth of history (Supreme didn’t age so he was allowed to be around since the late 30’s). Ultimately, this showed that a large part of the Pre-Crisis history could’ve worked today, with some touch-ups here and there.
At DC, a shift in writers occurred and in came Jeph Loeb, who had a great love of the Pre-Crisis Superman and of the Superman movie and was a produced on SMALLVILLE. In his story, RETURN TO KRYPTON, he showed a version of Krypton that existed in the limbo-like dimension known as the Phantom Zone, a version that appeared nearly identical to the Silver Age version of it. Superman journeyed there and we learned that there had been a city on old Krypton named Kandor that had become an alien ghetto of sorts, being the place were all non-native Kryptonian life-forms were forced to live. Thus, Loeb had made it that the bottle city of Kandor was indeed from Krypton, but at the same time was still obeying the rule that Superman was the sole survivor.
Eventually, it was revealed that this version of Krypton was actually an alien planet genetically engineered to resemble Krypton by Brainiac-13, as a way to lure our hero into a trap, but that really didn’t matter. For a while, we had a return to the Silver Age and, rather than finding it silly, many readers thought it was fun. It also allowed another Pre-Crisis character to come back. On the fake Krypton, Superman met younger versions of his parents who had a dog named Krypto. On his journey back to Earth, Superman was sad that he couldn’t take something of Krypton with him, when suddenly Krypto jumped through the portal and joined him. Clark was ecstatic. This dog may not have been from the REAL Krypton, but due to Brainiac-13’s genetic engineering, Krypto was the closest Clark had to a fellow survivor. And besides, this farm boy always loved dogs.
But this was not going to just be a re-run of an old idea. Let’s face it, a dog with human intelligence and Superman’s ablities does seem silly. Jeph Loeb played with the concept by having it that yes, Krypto would develop powers, but his mind wasn’t much more intelligent than that of a smart Earth dog. Rather than having a sidekick, Clark had to deal with a dog that now had a habit of firing heat-vision at cats and flying after airplanes like a dog chasing cars. Krypto couldn’t remain in Lois and Clark’s apartment, so he became a watchdog at the Fortress of Solitude. The pooch has gotten a nice fan following who enjoy the new take on this classic character.
This is concluded in Part 3.
Alan Kistler is a comic book historian who has been interviewed for documentaries by Warner Bros. Pictures and FUSE TV. To see his archives/blog or contact him directly, check out his personal web-site.