The Forgotten Superman
By Bruce Bachand
Sixty years is a long time, or so my folks tell me. Anyone (or anything) that can survive that long has done something right over the decades. It is even more noteworthy if that person has not merely survived, but has also thrived on life by making their impact known to others. In other words, they need to stamp history with their life in a way that makes a lasting and inspiring contribution.
DC Comics celebrates publishing Superman comics for 60 years in 1998. Some of their books have been fine and others have been a waste of ink and paper. As a company, they have provided hundreds of thousands of readers with many entertaining hours of thrills and healthy escapism over those six decades. Despite the current slump in the comic book industry, DC has managed to stay at the top and still publish and produce some solid regular and one-shot titles. Sure, it can be hit-and-miss at times (sometimes more miss than hit!). Then again, such a series as Kingdom Come is an exemplary example of what comics can do when they are taken seriously as a medium and communication tool. Friends, it is all about quality storytelling, as Elliot Maggin would say.
In view of DCs celebration I want to draw attention to one guest who is sorely missed at the gathering and festivities: the greatest super hero of all time Captain Carrot! Well, just kidding actually, it is the original Superman! That is, the pre-Crisis On Infinite Earths Superman of Earth-2 fame. Maybe you have not heard of him. He is the Man of Steel from way back in the 1930s, back when DC was a fledgling comic book company on the road to near financial failure. This Superman is the real deal, the one who started it all, the man who, for decades, inspired and entertained millions the same hero who was permanently snuffed from the DC Universe in 1985-1986s Crisis On Infinite Earths ( now referred to as simply Crisis) mini-series.
It is regrettable and truly rueful that this pivotal figure of the DC universe (as well as being a well-known 20th Century folk icon) has been cut and pasted out of this years celebrations largely. One bit of good news is that DC is re-releasing Crisis in a one-volume collective edition later this year. It will sport new inking as well as feature a new cover drawn by the now-famous Alex Ross of Kingdom Come fame. The cover will feature on it none other than the original Superman! This is spectacular news!
You are probably wondering why I am so tripped out on this Clark Kent. It is because of what he stands\stood for. The idea of an aging superhero has always intrigued me. The recent Warner novel version of Kingdom Come by Elliot Maggin (released by Warner Books a few months ago) provides passionate and intelligent writing about this theme of aging icons and heroes in times that are always changing. And not for the better, either.
Think about it: we are all aging from the moment we leap from the womb. Some of us mature along the way, and others simply get old. In the late 20th century we worship youthful beauty and are inundated with images that re-inforce this by the minute. What this has done is make it even more difficult than ever to age with dignity. People seem especially impatient and selfish in the manner in which they treat older people. Some simply view them as a nuisance, others see them as a reminder that death awaits us all, inevitably. But some, fortunately, see older men and women as potentially invaluable sources of wisdom, discernment, experience, encouragement, and love. That is why I have always had a certain fondness for the Superman of Earth-2.
Ponder this. He was, more than likely, among the most revered persons on the planet. His bare hands could change the course of rivers or move entire mountains. He had been there in World War 2, fighting the aggressive forces of European tyrants. He was also there, after the war, to help re-build America and get her back on her feet. During the turbulent and explosive time of the 60s and 70s he was still available to do his part to help and not hinder. Yes, he was more semi-retired, functionally speaking, but he was still quick to respond when really needed. The late 70s and early-to-mid 80s saw him burst into the spotlight again with renewed vigor and vision.
Here was a man who had married the woman who had won over his heart and affection. Over the decades that they spent as man and wife he was resolutely faithful to her and stable in his marital duties despite the pressures that his calling placed on him. No doubt he could have had many different women but he got the one he wanted (or she got him!). Up until his last appearance in Crisis issue #12, this aged Man of Steel, with graying hair on his temples, remained soundly committed to the wife and one true love of his life.
Another characteristic worth noting is that he was a team player for the majority of his adult years. The Justice Society of America (JSA) was his wider family circle. They had grouped together to fight crime and the forces of evil that would manifest in their country. Yet, they became friends, neighbors, confidantes, and family as the years went on. Kal-l, that being Supermans Kryptonian name, was a valued and crucial link in the team. Though a number of the JSA stories from this era were quite trite or formulaic, they still had some powerful moments of human connecting. They were becoming a team and a family, over time and as a result of much hard work. Girls and boys in the 1930s, 1940s, and the 1950s were stimulated to think and ponder as they read these tales of the JSA. And in the middle of it all was the man in blue and red (with a smattering of yellow, too); Superman!
As a young boy growing up on the prairies of Saskatchewan, I distinctly remember that the DC hard-bound books with old comic stories in them were always either on hold or were signed out at the library. They were that popular! Some of the stories were quite cheesy but they were still stories of heroes who gathered together and worked as a unit or squad. In those days of my childhood we needed heroes, role models, and courageous examples of valor to stimulate TV-saturated brain cells. We still need them as part of our regular diet. Kids especially. To me, Superman helped role model this in my fantasy world. He was immensely powerful, yet he always seemed to act in a manner that benefited others rather than just himself.
By the 1960s we had a new Superman, though we didnt know it! During the period of the 70s and 80s, Elliot S. Maggin became the principal writer and architect for the Superman legacy at DC. I read a great many of the tales and enjoyed most of them. The stories has more thematic realism to them. Heroes were more introspective and individualistic. Personal problems began to appear here-and-there. Real inner struggle was written into the fabric of the heroes and heroines. It was in the pages of the Justice League of America (JLA) that the original Superman appeared again (after an absence in print). He lived in the DC multiverse and was on a parallel Earth (called Earth-2) that was very similar to the one with the JLA on it. The heroes of Earth-1 (home of the JLA) were of the Silver Age, the JSA were of the Golden Age.
Superman did now have the gray hair and the crows-feet around his eyes, otherwise he looked identical to the new Superman. He appeared very infrequently (once a year at most) during the late 60s. In the late 70s and 80s he made a comeback, due to rising popularity, and , thanks to Roy Thomas, he re-joined the JSAs missions with increasing frequency. Readers loved to read about the annual JLA-JSA visits! In the mid-70s it was revealed that the original Supermans cousin Kara had landed on Earth-2. She, too, had powers like his and became Power Girl. He mentored and even fathered her to a large degree. Once again, he rose to the task before him with conviction and with compassion. The original Superman was now back for good.
And then came the Crisis On Infinite Earths mini-series.
Little did I know that, as I consumed issue #1, that Kal-ls days were numbered to less than a year. The so-called sages at DC decided that he was no longer usable within DC continuity so they decided to cut him right out of DC history as result! Permanently, too! His role in the 12 issue series was pivotal. When Supergirl died it was Superman, Earth-2s Kal-l, who comforted the Earth-1 Superman, Kal-El. The Crisis series saw many heroes die in almost every new issue. This was unheard of back then. I couldnt believe what I was seeing and reading. By issue #10, the multiverse has been permanently ruined (deconstructed) and the surviving heroes lived on an amalgam Earth that incorporated many of the DC heroes. To my surprise, they had deemed that two Superman was one too many! And we all know who would go without any need for pushing or shoving. Good ol Kal-l didnt fit in. He was now dated and had served his purpose, one must assume. DC never really made it clear why they bumped off the original Man of Steel. It also initially seemed that his wife had died in the recreation of the new sole DC universe. Only in issue #12 do we learn that she had survived.. only to disappear with her husband forever.
Crisis On Infinite Earths issue #12 is one of the finest issues of any comic book that I have read. The manner in which Superman and Lois are killed is tasteful, thoughtful, and emotionally powerful but not at all necessary! Superman of Earth-2 ends up taking on the Anti-Monitor, with the aid of Earth-Primes Superboy, and Alex Luthor. They complete their task but at the cost of their being excluded from the newly-recreated DC universe. The pocket of space that they are in will be destroyed as a result of the Anti-Monitors manner of death. It is revealed that Lois has been spared after all and that she can die with her husband as one would hope for. A small opening is revealed and the four simply disappear to a beautiful world. The Man of Steel from the Golden Age has not be seen in 12 years.
It is noteworthy that Superman plays the role of the suffering servant in his last appearance in the DC universe. As the heroes are departing the negative matter universe the Anti-Monitor rears his ugly big head from the dead. It is Kal of Earth-2 who renders unconscious the Superman of Earth-1 (now, the only surviving Superman) and sends him back to the DC positive universe. With no thought for his own personal safety, the aging hero goes into action once again. It is a genuinely moving and poignant gesture that speaks clearly of the mans untiring and manly courage. And the DC universe lives on as a result (with Darkseid having provided some surprising help to the Man of Steel at the end of the battle!).
This is my gripe put in a nutshell. The Golden Age Superman was a figure of ultimate importance to the DC universe and comic book industry. And only older fans now remember him and his place in DC history. There is no greater shame than to have lived an exemplary life and then to be completely forgotten, yet this is the very fate that cursed the man called Superman, Kal-l of Krypton. It is a shameful act for Marv Wolfman to have, literally, annihilated the heros identity and life from the memories of over 5 billion people in the DC universe as well as from the memories of new comic books readers over the past 12 years. DC did something really crappy with the original Man of Steel. But what has been done is done and the future marches onwards.
I am glad that DC has published Superman titles for 60 years. They have provided hundreds of hours of entertainment over the past 27 years. They still have other titles featuring some equally old heroes\heroines such as Batman and Wonder Woman, but it is Superman who has transfixed the public eye in a truly unique way.
Rumors have persisted that there were at least three suggested story proposals that had been submitted to DC about the aging former Man of Steel and his current post-Crisis whereabouts. All were rejected. I am ready for at least one. It just strikes me as sad that the tragic figure of the original Superman has faded from the collective minds of many readers during the past 12 years. In the ancient Hebrew culture to have had your name blotted out from existence was considered among the severest punishments that could be practiced. Such an undeserved shame lingers over the name of the Golden Age Son of Krypton. I simply wanted to pay homage to him as a missing guest of honor from the party for Supermans 60th anniversary.
Do yourself a favor later this year. Reserve a copy of the new edition of Crisis On Infinite Earths and read of the final crusade of the first, and perhaps greatest, super hero who has ever lived. His name was, and still is, Superman.
All characters are DC Comics
This column is © July, 1998 by Bruce Bachand.
Artwork is © July, 1998 by Bob Riley.