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How Superman Has Changed Through the Years

Perhaps you've seen the commercials about how DC Comics has revamped their continuity to make things relevant and accessible and new reader friendly? This one explains it:


Okay, actually it doesn't really explain much of anything.

Anyway, all DC Comics were started over with new issue number ones in September. (52 of them, hence the New 52 slogan which seems kind of pointless to me.) But it's not just the numbers on the cover that have changed.

Because of some weird timey-wimey adventure called Flashpoint, fellow hero (and time-traveller) the Flash broke the existing timeline and didn't quite put it back together right. The history of DC Comics characters has been altered. For as long as I can remember, the "present day" of the "DC Universe" was about 10 to 12 years after Superman first appeared. Now it's five years. So, the heroes are a bit younger. Their clothes have changed -- a lot of them seem to be wearing collars and underwear on the outside is now a fashion faux-pas. Married heroes like Superman and the Flash have now never been married. Wheelchair-bound Oracle, the information broker formerly known as Batgirl, has been magically healed and is fighting crime in the cape and cowl again. (A huge step backwards, in my not so humble opinion.) And Batman and Green Lantern.. actually as their comics were selling, their histories apparently haven't changed that much.

Superman's history, personality and costume were radically changed. Action Comics started with a cover date of June 1938 and recently published its 900th had its numbering reset too. (A numbering which had previously withstood all previous temporal changes to Superman's history.)

I had been thinking for a while about reviewing the new issues of Action Comics and Superman. And then, Clark Kent referred to his famous alter ego as "Robin Hood with the Strength of Ten Men". That made up my mind for me.

It's not the first time that the backstory of Superman has changed. And before I get to reviewing Superman as he is now, I want to review Superman as he was.

In comics, a change in established lore is called a retcon (short for retroactive continuity). It's where the name of Torchwood's memory altering drug comes from. More substantial changes like this one are often called reboots. DC's marketing department seems slightly indecisive on how to define the latest change -- reboot or relaunch, depends on who you ask.

The first continuity change in Superman came fairly early. In Action Comics #1 (the 1938 one) Superman works for the Daily Star. In the next issue, he's working at the Evening News in Cleveland. That issue is a bizarre exception and he's back at the Star (named for the Toronto newspaper that artist Joe Shuster knew) by issue #3, but Clark Kent's place of employment later changes to the Daily Planet with no mention of it ever having been otherwise. Action Comics #1 shows the infant Superman being found by passing motorists and turned over to an orphanage. It's only when the story is retold a year later that the motorists - the Kents - actually come back to adopt the child.

Here's Action Comics #1 from 1938:


And then the expanded origin from 1939's Superman #1.


The early Superman was a dynamic figure -- more violent than we're used to. He also championed social causes. Not surprising as he was the creation of the sons of working class immigrants. But it only took a few years for Superman's social causes to become mere platitudes and the character to morph into the inoffensive corporate icon he's been until... well, until September 2011, it seems.

The really big change happened in 1945 when DC starred publishing stories about a costumed Superboy, "the Adventures of Superman when he was a boy". For a few years the regular Superman stories in Action Comics and Superman comics didn't acknowledge these stories and still showed an adult Clark donning the costume for the first time. But eventually Superboy became an established part of continuity, and then the history started to change. The teenaged Clark learns about Krypton, "retconning" the adult Clark's 1949 discovery of his alien origins, and starts having "first encounters" with foes who previously had their first meetings with the adult Superman.

But none of that was a proper timeline change. It was more a sense of why let continuity ruin a good story? Repeated contradictions that became separate timelines only after the fact when there were enough contradictions.

Hindsight has assigned eras to how Superman was depicted. His original incarnation as a champion of the oppressed (stopping lynch mobs, corrupt mine owners, wife-beaters, etc.) in the 1930s and gangster-fighting days of the 1940s and early 1950s were deemed "the Golden Age". The more science fiction adventures of the late 1950s and 1960s were called, mostly after the fact, "the Silver Age". With some characters, there's a very clear break between the Golden and Silver Ages. Not so with Superman. Historians just arbitrarily picked a story that seemed that to have embryonic elements of stories to come and deemed it the beginning of an age.

This is that story: http://superman.nu/tales2/key/

Sometimes the term "Bronze Age" gets thrown about, mostly for the comics of the 1970s and early 1980s. There weren't many elements of Superman's past that changed but his character progressed. Clark became a bit more introspective, questioning Superman's place in the world. Also, Galaxy Communications run by Morgan Edge bought the Daily Planet (removing the iconic globe) and made Clark Kent a TV reporter and then anchorman. That change lasted over a decade. Originally Superman was going to be a TV reporter in the movies too, but studies showed audiences best remembered him as "a mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan paper". Because of the movie's influence, Galaxy Communications restored the Daily Planet globe to the top of their building and Clark was allowed to work part-time for the newspaper as well as TV. If the first Christopher Reeve movie had kept Clark as a TV reporter, I doubt he'd have ever gone back to a newspaper career in the comics. (The 1970s and early 1980s era will become important when discussing the new Superman comics. So, even though it's not an actual continuity change, I thought I'd mention it.)

The first proper, across-the-board (as opposed to a series of retcons over years) timeline change happened in a 1985-6 mini-series called Crisis on Infinite Earths. Various alternate Earths (including one with the 1940s versions of heroes such as a Kal-L still employed at the Daily Star) got all squished into one single, new timeline. DC Comics brought in writer/artist John Byrne to revamp Superman's history in a mini-series called Man of Steel.

Clark's career as Superboy? Gone. Power levels that allowed him to juggle suns and travel faster than light? Significantly reduced. Clark Kent's TV career? Never happened. Other survivors of Krypton and involvement in Kryptonian culture? Poof. That story where it turned out that Jor-El and Lara actually survived Krypton's destruction in suspended animation only later to die from radiation poisioning? Okay, readers and writers were ignoring that one long before 1986.


More significantly, the Kents never died. Sure, Ma and Pa Kent dispensed wisdom to the youthful Superboy, but until 1986 they always died before Superman reached adulthood. Byrne felt that Superman didn't need the death of his parents to grow up.

Clark Kent changed too.

The classic relationship of Clark Kent and Superman is best described in Quentin Tarantino's film Kill Bill Vol. 2.


Byrne junked all that. You might call Byrne's Clark mild-mannered but he wasn't a wimp. If anything, Clark was now a bit too successful. He was a football star in high school (a deliberate reaction to the football scenes in the first movie and probably picking up elements of Northstar, a character from Byrne's Marvel comic Alpha Flight who used his superspeed to become a skiing superstar). And as an adult, Clark had won Pulitzer prizes and written best-selling novels. The glasses no longer disguised Clark's muscles or good looks and women were interested in him. (Not Lois at first, but that changed soon enough.) Clark had become a yuppie.

And it was stressed that Clark Kent was now the true persona. Clark rejected his Kryptonian heritage. Byrne felt past references to the Kryptonian god Rao or such was a slap in the face to the Kents.

I was a teen at the time of Byrne's Man of Steel revamp, and in many ways I welcomed it. It's been said that the pre-Crisis Kent/Superman relationship was the classic adolescent male fantasy. "They may think I'm a wimp. But they don't know who I really am." But really, a lot of us -- well, me anyway -- really aren't Superman underneath. And empowering the Clark identity made me feel on some subconscious level like maybe I wasn't really a wimp either. There was also that teen smugness. What came before was kids' stuff. This new, manly Clark -- that was real, adult. Umm, not quite.

And I can't help thinking that something was lost. Byrne's Clark wasn't an underdog. And when your character has godlike powers (even if slightly less godlike than before), a touch of the underdog is no bad thing. Also, I don't buy what Byrne said about Superman's Kryptonian roots. I imagine at least some adoptive parents would not try to force their child into rigid conformity of their own culture. Perhaps the Kents might not be offended if Clark acted like both a child of Earth and Krypton. I sometimes find a disturbing message in Byrne's Superman that newcomers must completely assimilate, and that's not something I agree with.

Still Byrne's changes were by and large successful, creatively and critically. The later films, TV shows and movies borrowed a lot from John Byrne. (Another lasting change at this time, brought about in part by fellow writer Marv Wolfman, is that Lex Luthor went from being a mad scientist to a corrupt businessman.)

The "Man of Steel" history affected the next 25 years of Superman, but continuity changed again. Some minor fluctuations thanks to the time-altering Zero Hour. And then later writers just wanted a Superman who encountered Kryptonite and knew his alien origins sooner than Byrne's timeline allowed started to make some changes. (Most of Man of Steel stayed intact, and the present-day adventures of Superman carried on unaffected by the slight tweaks.) Oh, and the writers started to introduce discarded elements of 1960s continuity like Krypto the Superdog and the Bottle City of Kandor.

I've argued that there is power in a Superman that embraces his Kryptonian heritage. A melancholy that comes from being one of the last survivors of a civilization that you weren't quite a part of. The more Kryptonians and Kryptonian elements we saw, the greater the sense of loss. I felt there was untapped potential here. Something which may have touched on the Jewish traditions of Superman's creators. But these elements were restored to Superman continuity, it felt more like wallowing in shallow nostalgia than maturing the themes buried in comics for a younger and simpler audience.

Superman continuity got a big rewrite again in the 2003 - 2004 mini-series Birthright by Mark Waid. It wasn't a bad series at all. And like the other post Byrne changes, it really didn't alter Superman's present. (He got married to Lois in 1996, a natural development of the Byrne-era characterization.) But some pre-Crisis elements of continuity, like Lex Luthor's teenage years in Smallville (and Lex's scientific interests) and a more scientific utopia Krypton got added back in.

That change didn't last too long. Timelines were meddled with age in the 2005-6 mini-series Infinite Crisis. Again, the present-day continuity wasn't too affected. But more elements of 1960s continuity were added back in, including an operating-in-secret costumed career as Superboy. This continuity was explored in 2009-2010 mini-series Secret Origin by writer Geoff Johns.

Meanwhile, there were some other continuities. Writer Grant Morrison did a 2005-8 series called All-Star Superman with an out-of-continuity classic version of the character borrowing from all continuities (including elements like Pa Kent's death that came from the films). And J. Michael Straczynski wrote a 2010 graphic novel called Superman: Earth-One that starred the character over in a new continuity.

And now, there's the new Post-Flashpoint "New 52" version of Superman. The third origin revamp in as many years.

I've said that one reason I got into Robin Hood was it was the first character where I really got a sense that myths and legends changed over time. But that's not quite true.

Even as a kid, I was well aware that Superman and Batman had changed radically over the years. I had two hardback collections Superman From Thirties to the Seventies and Batman from Thirties to the Seventies which featured reprints (mostly black-and-white) from the whole history of the characters. Also, DC often reprinted their old stories in special issues or digest collections. As a kid, I was familiar with a Clark Kent who worked for Morgan Edge (a seedier, less paternal version of Perry White) at station WGBS, but I also knew the Superman who worked at the Daily Star and the 1960s Daily Planet employee whose head turned into a giant ant thanks to Red Kryptonite. And even the Byrne revision happened when it was young enough that Superman feels like my Superman too.

Now that I have the background out of the way, I can get on with the review of the new, new, new Superman.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 4th, 2011 02:31 am (UTC)
great post as usual!

Nov. 4th, 2011 03:19 pm (UTC)
I watched the double-episode finale of Smallville last night, having not watched the series for about 6 years. It actually made me a bit weepy as they piled on the schmaltz and we saw Lex and Jonathan again. I thought Tom Welling seems to have aged very well, and it seemed a good send-off for the series.
Nov. 4th, 2011 03:41 pm (UTC)
I didn't really like the Smallville finale that much, as like a lot of long-running series it seemed like more about tying up boring plotlines than it should have been.

I wish there had been more of Lex, although I know Rosenbaum's participation was last minute and possibly contractually brief. It's a shame because Lex and Rosenbaum's performance was Smallville's greatest strength.

And therefore criminally wasted by having all his memories and experiences wiped out by whatever retcon-drug Tess gave him. If the whole show has been about the adult Clark and Lex were shaped by their teen years, that scene undid all of that. Now nothing that happened to Lex in the whole course of the show really matters.

It also makes hash of the show's nature vs. nuture argument.

The schmaltz was definitely piled on. Part of Jonathan's return make me think "what the hell?" but at the same time, it was nice to bring him back.

I think Smallville's biggest problem is that it went on for far too long. Welling has aged very well, but he's not a kid anymore. And to still be doing the "will I step up and take responsibility for my destiny?" theme after 10 years is nuts. Especially after they started bringing in all the other heroes like Green Arrow and the JSA.

Superman - both in the comics and supposedly in Smallville itself from the way they'd wax poetic about his "destiny" - is supposed to be an inspiration for a generation of heroes. Not because he's the strongest. But because he was the first (or at least the first of his generation) to really step up to the plate and take responsibility. Instead, every single hero seemed to be more capable than Clark and had to keep giving him pep talks.

I'm not saying Clark shouldn't have had doubts or needed pep talks. The show just took it to an insane level. Mostly because Clark was ready to put on the tights and cape about five years ago, and since then they've just been marking time. (The whole Blur career was the writers trying to have their cake and eat it too. He needed to be some kind of hero at that point, but they couldn't let him embrace heroism - not just the costume - as much as the story demanded or the show would be over.)

I thought Smallville never achieved the potential it had. It's lead cast -- well, most of the original leading actors anyway -- was appealing, the premise was good, and I think they had the most interesting Lex Luthor ever. They had enjoyable new characters like Chloe. Oh, and the most human, believable versions of Ma and Pa Kent ever. But they seemed to go from early Buffy-style monster-of-the-week to long-running series convoluted decadence without firmly grasping the greatness which was possible. It came so close at times.
Nov. 4th, 2011 03:54 pm (UTC)
Yes, I don't regret stopping watching Smallville all those years ago. But I loved the early series with Lex and Clark and all that chemistry. :-) Did Rosembaum leave on bad terms?

I was confused that despite the retcon drug, Lex appeared to become president in the final moments and I wasn't sure what that was supposed to mean.

I think you're right that it never achieved its potential and it would have been better if they hadn't tried to string it out for so long.
Nov. 4th, 2011 04:11 pm (UTC)
I don't think bad terms as much as "I need to get beyond this show, and it's not good for my career if I keep going back". I think he wanted to grow and do other things which is understandable. Even if the Clark/Lex (as slash friendly as Charles/Erik is in the latest X-Men film) was the best thing in the show.

It confused me too. I mean apparently Lex rose to power even after being reduced to blank slate. Truly self-made. But I think the implication was that he was still evil, so apparently Lex was a bad seed even if he couldn't remember Lionel. But then so much about the Luthors in the episode didn't make sense.

I guess they were just trying to purge his knowledge of Clark's identity, but they could have done that with a more precision memory alternation that still left the bulk of the Clark/Lex interaction intact. Instead they wiped out his whole life and the show became meaningless.

It's not the first time that Smallville committed that sin. Like when their Jimmy Olsen saw and did too much, so they killed him. And at the funeral they revealed he was really Henry James Olsen, and presumably the previously-unmentioned little brother that Chloe gives his camera to would grow up to be the James Bartholomew Olsen of the comics. (And the last episode cameo confirmed this.) Smallville-Jimmy fans were justifiably outraged that their Jimmy no longer counted and was sacrificed on the alter of continuity.

I don't see why they needed to bother. Too much would need to be altered to make Smallville anything close to a traditional Superman lore. Trying to force the show to fit in just meant they gutted their strongest elements.

I wonder if the comic Chloe was reading to her kid was specially produced. It's cute I suppose, but completely nonsensical.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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