Comic Fodder

Must There be a Superman (Origin Reboot)?

Some housekeeping:

Firstly, thanks to the all new crew at Blog@Newsarama who, for reasons unknown to me, made a special case out of the Batman RIP post I did over the weekend. It gave us a serious boost on ComicBlogElite, which is, of course, the meter I use to set the value of myself as a person.

Also, special kudos to this RayJ fellow who posted the funniest line I think I've ever read in a single comment on any comic-related piece, anywhere. Right or wrong, thanks, RayJ.

And thanks to Shaun, too, for participating. Sorry, my man. It was funny.

I look forward to seeing what other obnoxious junk I say gets picked up by the new crew at Blog@.

Also, a special farewell to the OLD crew at Blog@. You linked to Travis and myself upon occasion, and you did the comic blogging thing correctly. I checked in every day, and things won't be the same without all of you.

Best of luck to you in your future endeavors. Drop us a line so we can link to you when the time is ripe.

On to the actual post!

So last week DC announced that Geoff Johns would be moving off Action Comics, with Greg Rucka coming on. So, you know: bad news/ good news. Apparently, all of this is being done in order to free up Johns for a new limited series retelling the origin of Superman in a post-Infinite Crisis world.

Johns had an interview with Newsarama regarding Superman: Secret Origin that I highly suggest you toodle off to go read.

If you've followed Superman comics for years, hearing that DC is taking steps to rewrite Kal-El's earliest days is probably coming as something of a relief. If you feel like you have the basic idea (scientist shoves infant into rocket, saves him from doom. Kindly couple raises heroic alien son to become Superman) then you might not understand the hoopla. So... let me help you out.

The First Few Decades

The original Superman comics went for quite a while without ever getting into much detail regarding Superman's origin. He was a super-powered alien who righted wrongs. However, Superman's origin was fleshed out in the daily newspaper strip and later explored in Superman #1.

Between 1938 and 1986, Superman's early years became narrative elastic for DC to explore. As Jerry Siegel had created Superman, so, too, did he create Superboy as a way to tell tales of a young Superman growing up in Smallville. Further, the lives of Jor-El and Lara, life on Krypton, and many other facets of Superman's past became story-fodder for writers, particularly during the Silver-Age, including time travel stories in which Superman partners with his unwitting parents, etc...

To the crux of the problem, however, were two items:
1) Other Kryptonians
2) The Legion of Super-Heroes

Superboy's adventures with the Legion were a crucial building block in the DCU of the Silver and Bronze Age. Originally appearing in Adventure Comics #247 as a Superboy story, The Legion soon starred in its own stories. Whether present or not in the stories of the 30th Century, Superboy's membership was integral to the Legion either structurally or in maintaining fan interest.

Action Comics #242 introduced the bottle city of Kandor and a whole array of Kryptonians (microscopic Kryptonians, but Kryptonians) into the DCU. This was followed closely by the arrival of Superman's cousin, Kara Zor-El in Action Comics #252, and the idea that there were more Kryptonians in the DCU than Superman became a permanent fixture.

Supergirl was popular enough to enjoy her own features in Action Comics and elsewhere, and enjoyed her own series before being folded into Superman family in the 1970's. Meanwhile Kandor provided Superman a whole new world in which to operate while also providing him with the guilt of being unable to return Kandor to its proper size.

In the pages of Legion comics, Superboy slowly grew up, and eventually Supergirl joined the Legion as well.

Post Crisis on Infinite Earths

In 1986 a decision was made that the DCU had grown entirely too complicated and DC editorial decided to basically re-boot much of the DCU. Under the vision of Marv Wolfman and John Byrne, the Superman books were relaunched with a few new rules:

1) Superman would be the only true Kryptonian
2) Superman was never Superboy. He discovered his powers during adolescence, but never put on a suit until he was in at least his early 20's and was known as Superman.

The first idea was to ensure that Superman was unique. For decades, Superman had been one story element away from being joined on Earth by thousands upon thousands of Kryptonians if Kandor were ever enlarged. He had not just a cousin, but a dog who was Kryptonian (and that certainly seemed like kid's stuff in a time when comics were trying to convince older audiences they could like comics, too). Add in the various prisoners of the Phantom Zone who would escape upon occasion to wreak havoc, and other Super-characters, and it seemed like Superman wasn't so Super after all. He just happened to wear the "S".

My guess that the elimination of the Superboy element to the mythos was to also eliminate anything about Superman that might seem juvenile, and a teen-aged Superman playing super-team with pals in the far-flung future was probably determined to be kid's stuff, just as Krypto and the Legion of Super Pets had (none too surprisingly) been written off. Superman wasn't to learn of his origin until he was an adult, and that would simply make any connection with the Legion (once a best-selling title) no longer applicable.

Consequently, Legion limped along for decades with multiple reboots as old fans of the series tried to recapture the magic and left readers who came late to the game (and I'm in my mid-30's) wondering what all the noise was about.

The post-Byrne years weren't spent ignoring the conceits of yesteryear, but rather trying to figure out how old concepts like Supergirl could even work if Kal-El was the only Kryptonian to survive. Which gave us many, many answers... none of which were particularly satisfactory. And Kandor was re-imagined a half-dozen times with, again, no particularly great explanation and with nothing sticking.

Birthright and the Aborted Reboot

2003-2004 saw the release of Mark Waid's "Superman: Birthright", which seemed almost as much a movie pitch as anything else as it retold Superman's origin for the information age. It also reflected Silver-Age elements such as Luthor's childhood in Smallville, etc... However, in context of the Superman titles, it simply didn't fit.

Was Superman suddenly a vegetarian (when every true Superman fan knows Superman's favorite dish is Beef Bourgiunon with ketchup) as the story suggested? What else would fans have to sort through?

In 2005 the Superman titles were clearly aware of continuity issues (many of which could be pinned on editor Eddie Berganza's complete disregard for continuity), and a storyline including a "time storm" occurred which was probably intended to reboot Super-continuity and set straight the many discrepancies and, most likely, set Birthright as the origin of choice for the Superman books.

And then Infinite Crisis happened. Along with a massive editorial shake-up at DC.

Post Infinite Crisis

The bottom line was that Superman fans liked those ideas from before COIE, including the creators. And in the end, they would accept no substitutes.

The change probably began with Loeb's reintroduction of Krypto into the pre-Infinite Crisis DCU. Fan reaction was largely neutral or positive (it did not end the DCU as we knew it) which probably paved the way for a reintroduction of Kara Zor-El as Supergirl and streamlining of the Superman Family. Suddenly, fans just weren't that concerned that the Man of Steel should also wear the title "Last (read: only) Son of Krypton".

Post Infinite Crisis, the new status quo for the Superman titles wasn't exactly spelled out for readers, but it very quickly became clear: Everything old is new again.

According to Action Comics, Superman had once been part of The Legion of Super-Heroes, Kandor was a kidnapped Kryptonian city, there had been some sort of Superboy in Kansas...

While looking back to the pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths stories might be informative, it was hardly definitive. And for geeks like me who spend time daily at The Superman Homepage, the frothing rants in the comments sections and boards suggested that many fans were simply not reconciling the new status quo with the "Byrne Era" (as it's oft-referred to).* Unfortunately, Matt Idleson's tenure had been preceeded by the slipshod anti-continuity of Eddie Berganza's editorialship, and fans were in no position to trust that what they might see on the page.

Would Superman skip a year (For Tomorrow)? Introduce new Kryptonians in Kandor (Superman: Godfall)? Have some new origin foisted upon him apropos of nothing (Birthright)?

Building Up Trust

Like it or not, continuity matters. Fans need some basis for understanding a story, and with characters like Superman, origins matter as both a starting point to gather what makes a character tick and as a fixed place to work with as the receiver of information.

Many dispute the necessity of continuity as long as they enjoy a story. And, in certain cases such as Morrison's exemplary run on "All-Star Superman", a case could be made (if Morrison hadn't gone so far out of his way to ensure that the origin was stripped down to its bare bones, it might be different) that continuity is not the be-all, end-all. However, the monthly titles are, re-boots and all, one continuous story.

The scope of the comics is vast enough, and self-reflexive enough that without a starting point for understanding how the world first greeted a Super Man, how Superman felt about childhood trips to the 31st Century and reconciled that with 20th Century life, how Superman would deal with a city full of people like him on a physiological level but alien to him from any psychological or cultural level... These things need context.

The failure of the Byrne relaunch was that too much history had already been allocated to concepts they believed would be easy to sweep under the rug. It became impossible for the Superman comics to move forward as writers and editors became somewhat obsessed with re-imagining classic concepts.

One can hope that the groundwork Idleson, Johns, Robinson, Busiek, Gates and their cohorts are laying now will provide a usable and sustainable environment in which the Man of Steel can exist. It doesn't need to be frozen in amber, but a baseline for the Superman titles in the DCU is necessary, and rather than struggle with defining that baseline (is Supergirl a transdimensional shape shifting alien? an Earth Angel? Some girl with some residual powers? a throwback from COIE? Superman's daughter brought from the future?), use the narrative of the Superman comics to put those items solidly in place for use (not re-imagining) by other custodians of the Superman franchise.

And then push the Superman titles forward.

Readers have to be able to trust their titles to make sense. Without the trust the editor builds by respecting the relationship readers have with the story on the page, month-in and month-out if the comic begins to feel literally incomprehensible, the reader has no reason to feel invested.

Secret Origin seems like a massive step toward ensuring that trust between reader and creators that is always a bit on shaky ground in the world of comics.

Secret Origin

So how does this work for the reboot of Superman?

Byrne's "Man of Steel" is, for good or ill, simply no longer the bible by which readers should explore Kal-El's origins. While still a great comic story (and one I'd recommend to anyone who wanted a good Superman story), its also the locus of continuity issues with the current, post-Infinite Crisis comics. A reader seeking an entrance into today's Superman comics, or current readers looking for a starting point for their character of choice should be able to understand where there character came from.

I would suggest that we need a re-telling of Superman's origin and early years once every generation to keep it as current as possible. Pointing to Siegel and Shuster's comics isn't instructive to a new audience, as great as those comics might be. We need not just a semi-chronologically accurate retelling, but one which represents the state-of-the-art for the time in which it is told. And, I would propose, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank relating the story of Superman is exactly that.

The language of Superhero comics has changed drastically since the 1930's. Perhaps less-so since 1986, but certainly there have been changes, stylistically, in what readers exepect in dialog, character development, etc... in their capes and tights comics today than in the years around Crisis.

So In Conclusion

Yes, the Superman titles can really use not just the clarification of continuity, but an entry point for new and old readers alike. I am very excited about "Superman: Seecret Origin". These days, it seems a heck fo a time to be a Superman fan. The art, stories, and creators involved have me as excited about any comic that's gotten me out to the shop on a Wednesday in my decades of reading comics.

But what do you think?

*Seriously, some of those guys are not giving up the ghost on their hope that the bad men will just go away and someone will give them back their mullet-era Superman comics.


Questions? Comments? Hate mail?

Come on, I can take it.

=======


Ryan is an Op/Ed columnist for Comic Fodder. He keeps his comics and himself in Austin, Texas where he manages the long running blog League of Melbotis.

He likes Superman.

You can reach Ryan (aka: The League) at theleague.cf@gmail.com

Superman is gonna kick the Hulk's ass.

-- Posted by: ted at December 3, 2008 3:55 PM

i'm really loving this blog since Blog@ passed the link along, but one thing is really bothering me: can you guys put your entire blog post into the RSS feed instead of just one sentence? it's a pain to have to click thru to read the posts.

-- Posted by: Nick Marino at December 3, 2008 4:46 PM

It's shocking to think that Mort Weisinger enriched Superman's story more than John Byrne, but true. I hope all of John Byrne's influences are forgotten.

-- Posted by: Clark Kent at December 3, 2008 6:09 PM

John Byrne tooked the Super out of Superman. He became another guy in a costume. To make Superman more vulnerable, Byrne made him stupid and naive. This made Superman's compassion seem shallow, making the boy scout tag stick. Superman is superman because he's smarter, wiser, and more compassionate than everyone else. He is what we aspire to be.

-- Posted by: Clark Kent at December 3, 2008 6:16 PM

Hey Nick. Unfortunately I don't control such decisions, but perhaps I can push the request up to the Filmfodder honchos and see what we can make happen.

-- Posted by: Ryan at December 3, 2008 6:56 PM

Clark, as someone who initially came to Superman comics very specifically because of the The Man of Steel mini-series, I think we got a lot out of the Byrne/ Wolfman re-vamp. I personally love the descent of Luthor from corporate big-wig down to scrappy, genius super-villain. Just a terrific character arc (even with the somewhat silly notion of President Luthor).

But I do think that a mix of Dark Knight Returns, a de-powered Superman in the Byrne-era, a removal of the trappinsg of the Super-books, and a more Joe-Average personality did little to support the franchise in the long run, even if it gave the series some much needed vitality for a while.

All that said, without 20 years of alternate continuity, how excited would I be to see a return of all these elements if they'd never gone away? So there's your silver lining.

-- Posted by: Ryan at December 3, 2008 7:09 PM

If the writers who followed Byrne insisted on reimagining older ideas, at least they did so in a generally more mature and realistic way than the original silver age nonsense. Claiming that all the original hokey stuff is now back in continuity is not compelling to me. Storytelling and ideas were just plain stupider (in general) in the 50s and 60s. I see no reason to add that stuff back in without doing a full-blown modern take on the concept. Superboy is one example that completely ruins the notion of Superman for me. The Legion is also troublesome since it removes any sense of jeopardy or conflict for young Clark if he knows he'll go onto greatness.

-- Posted by: Nathan at December 4, 2008 8:01 AM

There are a few things going on with the older comics and the differences between the older ideas and the Byrne-era. A lot had to do with what was considered to be how one addressed the intended audience of a truly all-ages read, tilting toward kids. So that informs the approach to some extent, not to mention that we're talking about an artform that was only a few decades into its existence where rules were barely formed, let alone being broken.

The concepts as presented by Byrne were certainly more a product of their time as science-fiction had advanced into a far vaster territory by 1986 than the landscape of 1938 (if we want to discuss his concepts of Krypton). But more realistic? When technology is presented in a manner that may as well be magic to the reader, I'd say realism is largely in the eye of the beholder.

And who knows what people will say in another 20-30 years when they look back at the Byrne-era material? Will it look any less fanciful?

The Legion is always troublesome from a story-telling perspective, so in many ways, I agree with you on that point. I'm not sure I've ever been comfortable with the concept of a young Kal-El basically being able to piece together his own destiny (although I guess he was supposedly made to forget via some future hypnosis or something, depending upon which Legion you read).

-- Posted by: Ryan at December 4, 2008 11:17 AM

As Ryan knows I'm not the world's biggest Superman fan but I am in favour of a re-telling of his origin. I'd be happy to see Johns establish a base line for Superman. In fact it might even get me to pick up the mini.

-- Posted by: Simon MacDonald at December 4, 2008 3:22 PM

Byrne never understood the character. He was in love with the iconic nature of Superman but he never understood the conflict that lay in the heart of the Superman character which is:

1. Have I done enough?
2. Have I done too much?

Byrne's backstory for Superman never created the context for that conflict to come to life. Byrne's Superman enjoyed being Superman too much.

-- Posted by: Clark Kent at December 5, 2008 12:50 PM

Byrne's relaunch wasn't that awful but it was what it was. There was one story element that I thought was exceptional from that time period and that was the murder, um i mean execution of the pocket universe phantom zone criminals. the idea that heroes don't kill has been revisited ad nauseum for decades and always with a wussy cop-out. not in that story. Superman kills...and then lives to regret it, giving a valid justification for his so called 'boy scout' viewpoint. i know up until Infinite Crapfest it was still part of continuity (the ghosts had been seen 3x and Zod had kinda sorta reappeared in the Superman titles) but post-IC i'm not sure. i won't get into the continuity problems with the pocket universe but i do think the essense of the story makes a great contribution to the mythos of the man of steel and should not be cast off simply because of how it occurred.

-- Posted by: David at December 12, 2008 3:25 PM