With DC’s rebirth now in full-effect and the pre-“Flashpoint” Superman taking his place at the forefront of the DC Universe, the New 52 Superman appears to be well and truly dead, never to return.
Despite my criticisms of DC’s treatment of Superman since 2011 this iteration of the character has nonetheless had some truly great Superman moments in his publication history so I thought it only fitting that we honour him with a fond farewell…
If there’s one thing guaranteed to make me cringe it’s taking a classic character and trying too hard to re-appropriate them for “modern audiences”. In cinema and TV there have been numerous attempts to make Superman, the first and arguably the greatest superhero, “darker”, “edgier” and “more modern”.
From Jon Peters’ purported aversion to Superman’s “faggy” costume in pre-production for the aborted Superman Lives to Tom Welling’s black t-shirt and trench coat in Smallville the 21st century seems to have reacted with what can only be described as embarrassment to Superman’s simple charm and unwavering altruism.
So, when the New 52 rolled around in the wake of the “Flashpoint” saga, promising to ‘update’ Superman for contemporary readers I was wary, especially as images emerged of a younger Superman dressed inexplicably in needlessly intricate battle armour. Suddenly, it seemed, DC were telling us that there was no room for the time-honoured Superman that fans fell in love with and it was all about pandering to younger readers who might dismiss Big Blue as uncool or irrelevant.
Nonetheless, I saw this as a great opportunity to get into monthly comics and I started engaging voraciously with Grant Morrison’s run on “Action Comics”.
The beauty of Grant Morrison and Rags Morales’ first half dozen issues of “Action” was that it returned Superman to exactly what he was in 1938, a socialist crusader; a champion for the oppressed, the exploited and the downtrodden. It’s a shame that this early street level approach to the Man of Steel wasn’t to last but I can at the same time sympathise with the contingent of fans who want to see him flying into space punching aliens.
This was Superman stripped down to the bare essentials, his superhero theatrics limited only to a blue t-shirt adorned with the familiar crest, jeans, work boots and a short red cape. Rather than trading blows with Metallo or Brainiac in titanic battles that felled skyscrapers, the first issue showed Superman dangling a corrupt landlord over a roof ledge. While such an image may not sit well with some fans it was a refreshing take and didn’t compromise Superman’s moral compass (it’s not like he had any intention of dropping him). His stern warning to the people of Metropolis to “treat each other right or expect a visit from me!” as well as his ruffling of some wealthy and high powered feathers struck a chord with readers at a time of global recession when the poor kept getting poorer while the rich got richer.
For all the surreal cosmic twists and turns that, for me, represent Morrison at his most excessive, his tenure on “Action” was generally very strong at a time when the “Superman” title itself was consistently off-puttingly bland and Superman as written in the “Justice League” monthly was simply an obnoxious bully.
For reasons known only to DC Editorial staff the New 52 Clark Kent chose to forego the legendary romance with Lois Lane and instead found himself coupled with Wonder Woman. This didn’t sit right with me for numerous reasons and none of them are because I don’t love Wonder Woman because I do, a lot! It’s partially a matter of taste but I also believe that the pairing between Superman and Lois Lane made far more sense (no matter what Frank Miller says). Clark, after all, is an Earth bound God who aspires to be like us. In Lois he sees the best in humanity; strength, compassion, wit, resourcefulness, determination and an unwavering desire to help others. Yes, Diana has those traits too but the ever-so-human Lois is just a better match for the humble Clark. I prefer to think of Diana as the best friend and confidante that she’d been for decades prior to the New 52.
Diamonds in the Rough
While as a whole the New 52 may not be remembered all-too fondly by comics fans there have been some truly excellent story arcs in his publication history. Generally, I’m very fond of when comics are able to tell good stories with classic characters without feeling the need to re-invent the wheel and we got to see a fair bit of that. Andy Diggle and Tony S. Daniel’s run on “Action” was short but sweet, telling a succinct, well-paced Superman story in just 3 issues. The dream team of Geoff Johns and John Romita Jr also spun a very decent yarn which paired the Man of Steel with Ulysses, a hero from another dimension with a similar back story to his own. Ulysses’ parents were scientists, working on a secretive privately funded project creating pathways into other dimensions. When they released an energy that they couldn’t hope to contain they thought the Earth doomed to extinction and jettisoned their infant son to a dimension where he would be safe. The infant returns 25 years later as the super-powered Ulysses and the relationship between he and Superman is one of the most truly special things to come out of the New 52.
“Superman Unchained” should be singled out as probably the best Superman story of the New 52, written by Scott Snyder and drawn by Jim Lee it’s every bit as good as such a Superstar pairing requires it to be. The book looks gorgeous and the intelligence that Snyder brought to his run on “Batman” is there in abundance; for example in the first issue, where Superman is trying to stop a building from collapsing in issue 2, Clark walks us through the logistical and physical problems that such a Superman-ly feat presents. It’s a great counter to those who argue that Superman’s power level makes him difficult to relate to or provide with a meaningful challenge. Speaking of meaningful challenges, the story’s affable villain, Wraith is also one of the best things to come from the New 52 era of Superman. A proto-Superman who fell to Earth during World War 2 Wraith’s powers far eclipse the Man of Steel’s.
Great ideas, poorly executed
For all the highlights, the New 52 Superman’s career has been marred in the past half-decade by numerous great ideas that were lacking in execution. Nowhere is this more evident than in the “Doomed” crossover; a re-imagining of the “Death of Superman” story from 1992. As in the pre-“Flashpoint” continuity, Superman and Doomsday fight but this time Superman kills Doomsday, releasing a cloud of spores which Superman inhales. Resutantly Doomsday grows inside and eventually possesses the Man of Steel. I paid a substantial amount for the hardcover edition of “Doomed” because I loved the idea of a Jekyll and Hyde-esque superhero story. Indeed had the story been pared down to 6 issues that’s probably exactly what we would have got. “Doomed” was, in actuality a bloated, repetitive mess filled with bizarre character choices and incomprehensible fight scenes.
Likewise, the “Truth” story arc had Lois out Clark Kent as Superman to the world. Where this concept led to one of the best “Daredevil” runs of all time courtesy of Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev, it just resulted in another slightly underwhelming Superman story.
He died a hero
Even this version of Superman’s death was underwhelming. “Superman” #52 was the climax of the decidedly tepid “Last Days of Superman” arc. Despite Peter Tomassi’s great characterisation of Superman himself, a bland villain and overly rushed pacing meant that this version of the character’s last bow lacked the necessary emotional punch that it should have had.
Still, with the character laid to rest by his newly returned pre-“Flashpoint” counterpart, chances are that he’s not coming back.
All that remains for me to say is, goodbye New 52 Superman. We had a difficult relationship, you and I but when you were at your best you really were terrific.
As much as I’m looking forward to the post-“Rebirth” adventures of Superman, I will miss you.
Rest safe in the knowledge that you’re a comic boom character, and comic book characters seldom stay dead.