Robot 6

Grumpy Old Fan | Another look at “I’m for everyone”

"I'm for everyone."

"I'm for everyone."

(Today’s post might ramble a bit — shocker! — but I want to lay a little groundwork for future posts on this  topic. )

Frequently I’ll mention DC’s seven “foundational” franchises and the nine books which showcase them. These are the features to which DC has shown unflagging commitment over the past five decades: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, the Justice League, and the Legion of Super-Heroes. When the fire of DC Comics finally burns out, these seven titles (plus Action Comics and Detective Comics) will be its last flickering embers.

Of course, within that select group is the Trinity of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, which itself has been retroactively made the emotional/ethical/spiritual core not just of the Justice League, but of DC’s entire superhero Multiverse. It’s a relatively recent idea, borne out by such comics as the 2008-09 Trinity miniseries and Brad Meltzer’s Justice League of America #0 from 2006 (drawn, fittingly, by an all-star lineup). Despite its novelty, I don’t see this tenet being challenged anytime soon. This is because the Trinitarians’ basic details are never going to change. Superman will always be Clark Kent, strange visitor turned mild-mannered reporter, etc., Batman will always be Bruce Wayne, and Wonder Woman will always be the Amazons’ emissary.

It follows that the Trinitarians sit atop the unofficial hierarchy within DC’s superhero realm. When the chips are down and the universe is on the line, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are the strongest, smartest, bravest, whatever, in any given circumstance. This is not to say that the Flash isn’t faster or Captain Marvel isn’t mightier — just that no one is going to show up these three consistently in matters with which they are most closely identified. That’s a long-winded way of saying Batman will always be the World’s Greatest Detective, even if J’Onn J’Onzz spots a clue before he does. To be sure, they are not the best at everything. The Flash can outrace Superman because that’s what the Flash is all about; and Green Lantern (pick one, even G’Nort) will always have more ring-ready willpower than Batman. No one is knocking the Trinitarians off their perch, because DC’s “rules of the road” favor them.

This can be a problem, especially if you want to introduce new characters into DC’s shared universe. Captain Atom, Captain Marvel, Mon-El, and the residents of New Krypton can each be “as strong as” Superman, but they won’t be able to beat Superman … because once you’ve established your dominance, that’s it. Once you’ve shown you can consistently beat Superman, he starts to look a lot less effective.

One solution, which DC used for decades (and certain writers have reintroduced) is — don’t everyone say it at once — the Multiverse, in which there can be an infinite number of Supermen. Each of these can be the equal of his counterparts, because we can infer that each occupies the top slot on his universe’s org-chart.

Now, that is hardly an inappropriate place to stick Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s game-changing creation, the character from whom an entire genre sprung, and upon whom the fortunes of DC Comics, Inc., have most significantly depended. If the whole idea of a “Trinity” comes from these characters’ continuous survival, certainly Superman deserves to be the superhero line’s figurehead in both real-world and in-universe terms.

Problem is, though, Superman has some fairly conservative trappings. Superman’s heartland upbringing has been interpreted as consistently representing the establishment. Add the notion that being a figurehead means always being on your best behavior, and it makes Superman fairly boring. I said above that Superman can’t afford to be beaten consistently. In fact, Superman was beaten, famously and convincingly, by the aged Batman in The Dark Knight Falls. Not only did it boost Batman into DC’s driver’s seat, it showed that he — and other DC characters — could prosper by comparison. In the post-Crisis revamps which followed Dark Knight (chronologically if not entirely in the same spirit), George Pérez’s Wonder Woman could be more violent, the Wally West Flash could sleep around, and Green Lantern Guy Gardner could be a sexist jerk.

Eventually, in 1988′s Superman vol. 2 #22, Superman betrayed his own ethical code and executed three Phantom Zone criminals. They had killed billions of people on an alternate Earth, and each of them was more powerful than the Man of Steel, so he told himself he had no choice … and the resulting cognitive dissonance led first to a subconscious-driven vigilante identity, and then to his exile into deep space. There, weakened and trapped in the gladiator arenas of Warworld, and facing another life-or-death choice, he reaffirmed his core principles defiantly to Mongul: “My name is Superman … and I don’t kill!”

And that gets us back to Superman’s ethics, instilled in him (in the modern conception, at least) by the Kents in Smallville. This part of the origin has been tweaked in various Elseworlds stories like Red Son, The Nail, and Speeding Bullets. Icon was raised in the American South as the son of a slave woman. In Marvel’s parody Supreme Power, black helicopters straight out of a conspiracy-theorist’s fever dream descend on the “Kent farm” and transplant the infant Hyperion into a highly-controlled government-run small-town simulacrum. More chilling than that, though, is Alan Brennert and Norm Breyfogle’s Batman tale Holy Terror — in which the God-fearing Midwesterners treat the star-child as a hellspawn and turn him over eagerly to a theocratic government ready to test him literally to death.

While not all of these permutations turn out so tragically, the further the “Superman legend” gets from the Kents and Smallville, the less “ideal” it becomes. Moreover, because Superman is (for all practical purposes) infallible, the implication is that his formative years with the Kents must also have been ideal. Let’s amend that slightly: Superman and/or the Kents might be wrong from time to time, but only in the interpretation of their (shared) core values. Those values represent mutually-acceptable principles of fairness, justice, equality, etc. — and again, the implication is that Superman might not have learned these principles under different circumstances. Note, however, that the Kents’ geographical location is not particularly significant. The legend doesn’t require Superman to have landed in Kansas (which I think was first suggested in the 1978 movie), or even in the United States — but every main-line iteration of the Superman legend has the Kents imparting values which we think of as quintessentially “American.”  Problem is, though, this idyllic setting risks becoming less and less relevant to a changing society.  In fact, it risks being lumped in with xenophobic talk about “real America.”  I suppose this is mitigated by the move to Metropolis (and such things as Clark’s travels around the globe in Superman:  Birthright and elsewhere), but by and large, the legend emphasizes Smallville.

What effect, then, does this all have on Superman’s influence?  I said above that Superman has some fairly conservative trappings. It’s fairly easy to undercut his ethical code by making him a gullible Big Blue Boy Scout, whether this means he’s an easily-led dupe (as in Dark Knight) or merely a relative innocent. Again, though, this tends to be in relation to other characters with darker sides, most notably his fellow Trinitarians (about which more later). Although he’s regularly cited as an inspirational figure, we don’t often get to see his leadership skills on display. Most recently he was a military commander in the “New Krypton” mega-arc, where he seemed at first to make a significant difference.  Given how that all played out, though, I’m not sure how effective he was. Perhaps the best recent example of Super-leadership might be 2006′s “Back In Action” arc,* which had Supes rally a rag-tag group of super-people against the extraterrestrial Auctioneer. (I didn’t read 2008′s politically-oriented DC Universe: Decisions miniseries, but from what I’ve heard about Supes’ concluding speech it seems like I didn’t miss much.)

Still, if Superman is not an effective leader in practice, what does that say about his (and the Kents’) values? Among the Trinitarians, Wonder Woman contrasts particularly well with Superman. Where he downplays his Kryptonian heritage,** she is the Amazons’ ambassador and most visible advocate. Krypton is dead, and (occasional wipes-off-the-face-of-the-earth notwithstanding) Themyscira still lives. Superman wants to keep his ethics intact, while Wonder Woman is motivated by more practical concerns. Superman would have found a way to preserve Max Lord’s life … and it’s precisely because Superman was incapacitated that Wonder Woman had to kill Max. Does that mean the Amazons’ philosophy is superior to the Kents’?

Well …

… it’s hard to say. In real-world terms, it means that DC feels like it can “do more” with Wonder Woman than it can with Superman. Supes’ “executioner” role earned him several months’ worth of super-vigilante and space-exile stories. Wonder Woman’s rehabilitation involved Amazons Attack, a Manhunter arc, and “disappearing” during the Year of 52. (Greg Rucka told a WonderCon 2010 panel that he would have done a lot more with Wonder Woman had he stayed on the book,*** but that’s academic now.) Arguably, that makes Wonder Woman’s actions more acceptable than Superman’s, because her rehab was less involved. More people might agree with Superman in theory, but the Amazonian ideal may therefore be more “successful” in terms of its implementation.

Indeed, because Superman’s ethics aren’t as immediately practical, they can be defined more broadly. I am a fairly liberal person, so to me the Kents come across as something like old hippies, teaching Clark peace, love, tolerance, and the importance of helping others. Friends of mine might see other aspects:  that, because the Kents ran a farm in the middle of Kansas, they were rugged individualists who distrusted big government and emphasized personal responsibility. Truth, justice, and the American Way mean different things to different people — none of whom DC especially wants to alienate.

So Superman becomes this bland, blank slate upon which a wide range of philosophies can be projected. It’s pretty much a necessity, because he has to be all things to all people — “I’m for everyone,” as Geoff Johns had him say — but at the same time it feels like an abdication. Superman doesn’t have to be demonstrably liberal or conservative. (Naturally, I’d prefer liberal, or at least open-minded, but I don’t make the rules.) He doesn’t even need Green Arrow to point out the world’s social injustices.

What he needs, and what would be true to Siegel and Shuster’s social-crusader conception, is to be seen putting those ethics into practice, so that we readers can see why Batman and Wonder Woman and the rest of DC’s super-folk look up to him. There’s just as much room for Superman to stand up for the little guy as there is for him to take apart an alien armada. If that’s where J. Michael Straczynski is headed with his Superman work, more power to him. The characters at the top of DC’s hierarchy may never look like a cross-section of DC’s readership, but the one at the very top must at least represent the best in us all.

++++++++++++++

* [Action Comics #s 841-43, September-November 2006, written by Trinity’s Kurt Busiek and Fabian Nicieza and drawn by New Krypton’s Pete Woods]

** [At least, he downplayed it before he moved to New Krypton. I really want to see how he deals with it now that his new/old-home is gone.]

*** [“12 to 18 months’ worth,” as related in CBR's account.]

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26 Comments

Mark D. White

June 10, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Another great essay, Tom. In my opinion, Superman – like Captain America – should be neither liberal nor conservative, but instead should represent the core values that are common to all of us. Let other heroes fall on either side, but Superman has to represent the center, and show the values that we all have in common, no matter how much we disagree on particular issues, or on to deal with them.

Great piece, Tom.

But does anyone REALLY believe Wonder Woman is in the same elevated tier as Superman and Batman? Certainly DC has tried its best to shoe-horn Wonder Woman into being one of “the big three” but it doesn’t succeed any better than Marvel trying to force us to accept Ms. Marvel as one of the top heroes in the Marvel universe.

It’s politically correct to have one of your top guns be a woman. But that’s all. Yes, I know that Wonder Woman, with Batman and Superman, were the only superheroes in continuous publication between the Golden Age and the Silver Age. But I contend that’s because she was the only female superhero left after Mary Marvel was put out of business — and DC was invested in attempting to provide something/anything to attract the young female audience.

The Superman mythology has spawned many comics, including Superman, Action, Adventure, Superboy, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, Legion of Super-Heroes, and more. The Batman mythology has spawned comics such as Batman, Detective, Robin, Batgirl, Batman and the Outsiders, the Brave and the Bold, Gotham Nights, and more. Together those two also account for World’s Finest.

What has the Wonder Woman mythology given us, besides her own title and her short run long ago in Sensation? Wonder Woman’s fan popularity and sales have always ranked her on the same tier with Flash and Green Lantern. No higher. But quite often lower. At times, the Green Lantern mythos has carried three titles simultaneously.

“What he needs, and what would be true to Siegel and Shuster’s social-crusader conception, is to be seen putting those ethics into practice, so that we readers can see why Batman and Wonder Woman and the rest of DC’s super-folk look up to him”

That way lies the ending of MIRACLEMAN book 3. Not going to happen in an ongoing superhero universe.

Tom, you inadvertantly pointed out why I love Superman in theory, but so rarely love him in practice. He IS easily thwarted far too often, and it does make him look less effective. Captain Marvel alone has kicked his big blue butt (OK, the undies are actually red) numerous times in recent years. How can Supes be “The Guy” in the DCU if Cap is, apparently, more powerful?

He always seems to get beaten down more by the bad guys than most of the other DC heroes… Plenty of comic book examples, but also on Superman: TAS and the Justice League/JLU shows. He often came off as the weakest member of the League! That final episode of JLU when he throws that awesome mega-punch at Darkseid? Darkseid just gets back up, starts beating the snot out of Supes, and Luthor ends up saving the day. W.T.F?

Let’s not even get into how often Supes gets stripped of his powers for some reason (a more tiresome plot device than bringing people back from the dead) and always gets a beat down from Luthor, Muhammed Ali, little old ladies wielding umbrellas, pretty much anyone. That’s happened a couple of times in the movies too. If the “man” isn’t “Super” what’s the point?

A great read as always. Good topics and well thought out observations.

A truly excellent piece. Superman is often touted as hard to write because he doesn’t have much internal conflict, or he’s “boring,” but I always thought, as you do, that it’s about what he does with his powers that’s interesting. And there’s nothing wrong with idealism, and representing the best in us all.

The Watcher makes a great point. Thats why we will have Flash and Green Lantern movies and probably sequels before a wonder woman movie

Batman, Flash, Supes and even GL have excellent or at least famous villains, while you would be surprised how many people cant name ONE Wonder Woman villain. @Shaun I recommend All Star Superman for a kick ass version of Superman.

The Watcher: “But does anyone REALLY believe Wonder Woman is in the same elevated tier as Superman and Batman?”

I do, sort of. In terms of sales numbers, not at all, but for story purposes I do believe she’s on that level with Supes and Bats. I’ve never been a particularly big fan of hers but always recognized her as part of the ‘Trinity’, for better or worse, of the DCU. I suppose a lot of that is simple perception, but the DCU is also much bigger than just comics. Merchendising, branding, etc; Wonder Woman is absolutely above Green Lantern, Flash, and all but the big two when it comes to this (GL’s movie could rocket him past her, but we’ll have to wait and see).

A part of that probably does have to do with her being a female, but I think it’s less a stamp of political correctness then it is her being the most recognizable female heroine of all time. Everyone knows Wonder Woman somehow, either through cartoons like the Justice League or her old television show, she’s become a part of pop culture, not just comic book culture, above what most characters are able to achieve.

Marvel’s weird, I don’t even know if I’d consider them having a big three in the same way DC does. X-Men, Spider-Man, and Avengers are their ‘big three’.

I believe in Wonder Women.

@Tom – I love the Legion, but are they really considered to be in the same category as the others? Great article, by the way.

@The Watcher – Wonder Woman is not at the same level as Bats and Supes, but she is the next in line as most recognizable due to consistently appearing on The Superfriends and having her own widely watched network television show (with groovy theme song to boot). She is a Gen-X icon.

And yes, GL and Flash have more recognizable rogues galleries, but to the average person, the whole death-replacement-rebirth-blahblahblah thing is confusing. Is it Barry or Wally? Is it Hal, Guy, John, or Kyle? People don’t want to invest that much time to find out (other than we who comment on CBR articles, of course). Seriously, most people still think Robin is Dick Grayson.

Don’t believe me? Try this: Take a random poll and ask the following questions:
Who is Dick Grayson?
Who is Jason Todd?
Who is Tim Drake?
Who is Damian Wayne?

Then show pictures of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, and Green Lantern and ask folks to name them.

If I’m wrong, I will willingly banish myself to Qward.

Cheers.

Inside the Marvel Universe, the big three are Thor, Iron Man and Cap (Steve Rogers). They occupy the same level of prestige that DC’s hero community afford to Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. In terms of marketing though Marvel’s most recognizeable faces are probably Spider-Man, the Hulk and Wolverine (the last one somewhat argueable but unless you are naming whole teams like the FF, he is hard to top).

This was an awesome piece.

The question of what role Superman ought to play in the DC Universe came up in a big way for me with the New Krypton arc. I genuinely believed Superman was headed in a direction where it wasn’t his powers that made him “super” (how can it be when there were 100,000 others just like him?), but his character. This is a common theme writers often try to bring up with Superman but the moments feel shoehorned in, as in like, “hey, you should read Superman because, yeah, he’s super powerful and you might think that doesn’t make him interesting, but come on – look at his character!” Whereas with New Krypton, that is exactly what is brought front and centre. The way I saw the story going was Superman would eventually become a super-diplomat. Not only would we see the leadership qualities so often touted to be natural to him, but his stories and place in the DCU would be a lot more interesting. A little (maybe even a lot) political, no doubt, but interesting.

And then they had to f*** it all. It shouldn’t surprise me, really, given two things: a) the complexity of the story (it would seriously occupy many years of storytelling to do it right – even if you took out Nightwing, Flamebird, Mon-El and Supergirl), and b) I guess the fans didn’t really take to it. Or something, I don’t know. But I can’t shake the feeling that the way it was handled made it all a pointless waste of an opportunity.

I’m hopeful for J. Michael Straczynski’s take, but for me personally, it had better be worth it. And if he is writing a Superman who fights for the little guy, it sounds like his take is going along the same lines as Christopher Nolan’s, if you’ll permit me to read into his comments a little.

“In fact, Superman was beaten, famously and convincingly, by the aged Batman in The Dark Knight Falls. Not only did it boost Batman into DC’s driver’s seat, it showed that he — and other DC characters — could prosper by comparison.”

I agree in spirit with the author’s comment. The Superman represented by Miller was a version (more a government stooge) that ‘had’ to be beaten by the ‘rogue’ Batman. The side effect of Superman’s loss (intended or not) added gravitas to the ‘mainstream’ Batman by answering any pestering doubts why a human being was held to such high esteem by the equivalents of ‘gods’ (Supes and WW).

Great write up.

The thing about superman is that over time he was just continually made more and more powerful depending on what the story needed.

I think though that a character like Superman should be someone who is nuetral in his beliefs. Mainly because a character as powerful as he is could tip the balance of any scale depending on where he datnds on certain things.

Captain America is the same way. He is a staple of what America believes in, but since that changes like the wind, it makes it harder to lay in a good foundation for him anymore. That is why you see the Jingoistic version of him in Ultimate Avengers, or the anti big government version of him in Civil War.
Cap is a harder one to use to make commentary on the world as it ireally is because he is to reflective of us.

@The WATCHER: Wonder Woman is the Original female superhero. Every character that followed sprang from her. That alone is why she is part of the Trinity. she also represents mans association with Myth and magic.
Both MARVEL and DC trinities are set up to reflect specific things.

DC
Superman – represents both God and the immegrant philosophy of there being something somewhere for everyone.
Batman – represents the drive and determination of man

Wonder woman – Is both the strength and Independance of Women as well as the connection to Gods and Magic

MARVEL

Thor – Gods and Myth
Iron Man – Mans Pinnicle through technology
Captain America – Mans pinnicle through self. even though science gave him his abilities, it was his core values and strength of character that made him who he is.

Regarding Wonder Woman, I never liked the Idea that she was this ultra benevolent famale character.
She is an Amazon. they fought. They killed. even if she is living in Mans world, Wonder Womans core values would more realistically reflect her life and cultural history as an Amazonian warrior.

I feel it was completely in character for her to kill Max Lord and she should have said that The greater good outweighs any trivial thought of giving the guy a slap on the wrist.

I wish DC would give her a little more of that view in her character, because she SHOULD have contrasting beliefs to both Batman and Superman.

Superman doesn’t kill because for him that would be to easy.
Batman doesn’t kill because he suffered great Ttrauma, and guilt because of his parents death.

Wonder Woman should not be lumped in like this, because she was raised a warrior. Any Warrior would know not only the value of preserving life, but the neccessity of taking life when there is no other choice.

Superman and Batman both are incapable of this and that is why they ultimately fail.

Look at the Dark Knight. In the interrogation scene, Joker laughs at him and plainly states, “You have nothing to threaten me with.”
This is true because when it comes down to it, no mater how badly Batman beats him, joker will still wake up the next day.

Watcher,

“The Superman mythology has spawned many comics, including Superman, Action, Adventure, Superboy, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, Legion of Super-Heroes, and more. The Batman mythology has spawned comics such as Batman, Detective, Robin, Batgirl, Batman and the Outsiders, the Brave and the Bold, Gotham Nights, and more. Together those two also account for World’s Finest.”

Think your comments regarding Wonder Woman are absolutely correct.

Like the Superman and Batman families respectively, I think DC would have to completely retool the characters for Donna Troy and Cassie Sandsmark for them to ever be in a position to manage their own books. Yet I think DC should make it a goal to see this through. Maybe if the stand-in for Steve Trevor, Thomas Andrew Tresser was given more of an independent “Human Target” style revamp he could join the Wonder Woman spin offs as well. The reason I don’t believe DC does this now is they do not believe in it despite the fact that everyone loves these characters. I hope it isn’t sexist to say DC doesn’t believe it can support these characters and support Diana like they do Clark and Bruce.

“Everyone knows Wonder Woman somehow, either through cartoons like the Justice League or her old television show, she’s become a part of pop culture, not just comic book culture, above what most characters are able to achieve.”

Bryan H. I agree Wonder Woman is the only hero who has the gravitas to compare with Supes and Bats, but Watcher’s point about spin offs is real. Though I believe one could make the argument that Jay Garrick and Alan Scott could have been transformed into silver age heroes. I agree a hero who can’t sustain multiple books isn’t very super, wonder, or anything else. Spiderman, Captain America, the Hulk, and Iron man will eventually sustain multiple books respectively. Diana really needs to do the same if we are expected to believe she deserves a place in the Trinity at DC. But maybe we can encourage DC to overcome its historic lack of creativity and business fear pertaining to the Amazon Princess. Currently Wonder Woman appears in multiple books if you add her book and JLA to her feature in Wednesday comics.

Imagine Donna with a real super heroine moniker, a four-color costume, and a little less convoluted origin. I think she could sell her own book! If ultra- Wonder Woman derivative Ms. Marvel can sell her own book, than Donna is a shoe in. Can anyone remember Ms. Marvel’s origin? Unfortunately Donna has never been given the sea legs to carry herself independently like Wally or Dick. This would give DC the ability to, like Batman, craft more Wonder Woman books focusing on other parts of her mythology.

Unfortunately DC thinks an independent Donna would be a threat to Wonder Woman but I don’t believe so, because they were wrong about this before. She isn’t any more a threat to Wonder Woman that than Dick or Conner are threats to Bruce and Clark. Remember once upon a time when DC believed her adult existence was a threat to Wonder Woman. Remember when she was killed off and before that depowered just to remove Diana’s supposed competition? Though I think Cassie is a fine character, I doubt she will ever be taken seriously as long as Donna stays in adult/teen superhero limbo.

If DC hired me, I would make the Titans book a retooling center for the original Titans and recently New Teen Titans. In a year, without threatening their mentors, they would all have their own books. Recently Garth was killed, Dick was hidden under Batman’s cowl, Wally was retired, and Roy was assaulted with the same sort of abuse visited upon Donna for most of her existence. I even believe Vic, Raven, Kori, and Gar deserve a lot more respect and independence. This Titans execution and abuse needs to stop!!!

DC has only recently realized their hero’s legacies are everything. Ultimately because everyone loves these frequently unseen characters (in a Marvel movie sense), this is the only way to corporately beat Marvel. Most of Marvel’s characters sell because they are anti-heroes who would be nothing without the influence of solid DC characters. Marvel spends so much time selling their team books you forget that most of their individual characters don’t have the heft to sale their own titles.

At the end of the day, Morrisson’s all-star superman best encapsulates SUperman’s ethics in my opinion. its just a “He’s here to help” type of philosophy. Keep people out of immediate danger, and trying to help them see the good in helping one another. but when it comes down to it, like he says when talking to the kryptonian explorers “what right do I have to impose my will on anyone?”. SO he might be liberal or conservative, but at the end of the day, he truly is trying to help all.

Dan Baghdoian

June 13, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Well said, Akwasi. Superman is not–nor should he ever be–political. He’s here to help and inspire us to do good.

The demands of ongoing serial publication makes it difficult for the publishers to find the courage to end the stories of their popular characters. The invention in the 1960s of the “Imaginary Story” that “may or may not happen one day” allowed Superman, in particular, to experience various experimental possible endings that to various degrees nicely capped and closed off his narrative in a satisfying way, the way Robin Hood’s, say, benefits from. Some of the most beloved stories of the 1960s “didn’t happen”, like the Death of Superman or Robin Dies at Dawn (an hallucination).

Pre-Crisis, especially in the Silver and Bronze Ages, it was a core plank of the Superman platform that if he ever killed anyone he would quit being Superman. I find it fascinating that Byrne’s final story before he left the books left the Post-Crisis Superman in exactly this position, almost as if Byrne were daring DC to follow through and end the story of Superman. They didn’t of course, but at least in a way he did partially stop being Superman temporarily (i.e. when he unknowingly became Gangbuster).

Tastes and audience demographics change over the decades. Gradually the childish wish-fulfillment at the core of the Golden Age stories was overlaid during the Silver Age with story meta-concepts like a (more or less) consistent history that could influence the present, a large and (more or less) stable cast of supporting characters (including villains) who were (more or less) consistently portrayed, and even a (more or less) stable set of powers.

On average the trend has been towards making the ongoing story more “realistic”. So, the rocket carrying the baby Kal-El, which originally just flew to Earth, was revealed to have jumped through a space warp, etc Of course the greater “realism” is only relative and mostly an illusion. (The seeming impossiblity of interstellar travel is wrapped up and explained away by using the label “space warp”, and the convention is to pretend that since a name has been invented for the impossible, it is now more possible) The Bronze Age, with its new suits, new job and (on and off) new assertive personality for Clark Kent went further than the Silver Age in making him more “realistic” in a socio-psychological sense. No more would he spend whole stories tricking his friends to teach them moral lessons.

It’s a little bit of a retcon to say that the most super thing about Superman is not what his powers allow him to do, but how he chooses to use them. Nevertheless since the 1970s this has been largely true. Byrne’s excellent Superman #2 shows how Luthor, for one, not only would use these powers all the time and selfishly, but cannot believe that anyone else would not. It is the moral strength, not the super-strength, that makes Superman interesting. His circumstances and decision-making do not always lead to the best results, but he strives to learn from his mistakes.

The Post-Crisis era has many examples of fine stories dealing with difficult subjects that were traditionally not the stuff of superhero comics for decades, such as the Smallville car crash, the wife-beater next door, and the always touching Metropolis Mailbag issues. It also features high adventure through space and time (the Exiled arc, Time and Time Again, Panic in the Sky – which last see for Superman’s leadership). I haven’t read many Superman stories post-2000, but if they have stuffed him up and told dud stories, as seems likely, it doesn’t mean the character cannot support good ones – and for proof of existence I point to the period from the mid 80s to the early 90s.

Very good essay. However, I do disagree that Superman is boring.
Granted I have had my issues with many iterations of the character, especially the current one, but I still remain a fan. While you are correct that people can see many of their own values in Superman I think that is his strongest quality. Superman appeals to people and is considered “the” superhero because he seems to share everyone’s values.
I think the number one problem with Superman, and why he often seems boring is the issue of power creep. Originally he was powerful by human standards, even demi-godlike, but not a god. As the years progressed he continued to develop ridiculous powers and became unreasonably strong. Reading about a character that can over come any adversity with relative ease is boring and a little too godlike. Something that people can not relate to.
The Byrne reboot brought Superman back into the demi-god realm, making him more human and much more easy to relate to for most people. He may have been super powered, and the mightiest of the superheroes, but he still had to consistently struggle to over come many enemies. Since the Byrne reboot, each creative team has consistently increased his powers to a point that he is getting close to the ridiculously over powered, boring character he once was.
Also a problem with Superman is the fact they keep watering down the very thing that made him more “human”. Superman was the last son of Krypton, the lone survivor of a dead world. Sure he had friends and adopted family, but under the surface he was all alone. That sense of isolation is something that nearly everyone can relate to and sympathize with. By adding Krypto, 100,000 Kryptonians, Supergirl, making Doomsday a Kryptonian creation, and other similar story elements, they take away another part of his humanity and the very thing that makes him most special. To keep him from being a character that comes off as boring, they need to return him to a less watered down, more human version.
Now that the multiverse is back they need to make Superman the only Kryptonian in the main DCU and have all the other kryptonians be from other universes, like Powergirl & Superboy prime or clones like Superboy.
As for Wonder Woman I agree with the other posts about her sticking with her warrior mentality. The problem she has with popularity is that her characterization is so inconsistent, no one really knows what she stands for. DC needs to have a definitive personality for her like they do for Batman. To me the definitive version of Wonder Woman was in Kingdom Come. She knew enough to defer to Superman as leader, but she was the only character capable of being second in command. She understood that war and death was sometimes necessary, even though she preferred non-violent solutions when possible. She was a woman who knew love and all the other attributes (whether factual or ideal) that people generally associate with women, but she was also a fierce warrior.
My idea of the DC Trinity is Superman as the “president”, Wonder Woman as the battlefield general and Batman as the tactical adviser. Of course I have to admit that I am not a big Batman fan, so I do have some bias. I think that he is outgunned and underpowered in any setting except against street level villains. He has no business dealing with cosmic threats

Superman is often boring because he has not broken out of his Silver Age trappings as much as Batman. Frank Miller gave Batman an environment in modern Gotham that made him relevant to the modern age. In the case of Superman, everytime someone creates a modern version of him (like Waid’s Birthright) he’s eventually walked back to his Silver Age status quo. The biggest example is the transformation of Lex Luthor into an evil businessman, only to drift back towards scientist/supervillain.

In the real world, Superman would eventually become Miracleman/Marvelman or Dr. Manhattan, but he doesn’t live in the real world. He has to be given a backdrop where his mission connects with modern readers. He was created as a champion of the little guy but his popularity in the late forties/fifties led to our current “Blue Boy Scout”. The way to correct that is to show him operating in a Metropolis that is gleaming, futuristic, and corrupt. If the city is a great place to live, it doesn’t need Superman. The average person in Metropolis must be shown to be powerless before his arrival, then lifted up and supported by Superman’s shifting of the status quo. This could be done in a non-political way through the former king of the city, Luthor.

As mentioned in this article, too often you see Superman say things like “I’m for everyone” but you don’t see what that actually means. Sure he protects everyone from aliens blowing them up but how does he effect people on the street? Until DC makes the story about that, we’ll be stuck with the same enforcer of the status quo we had in 1957. That was fine for them, but not for us. It’s not an easy taks to pull off, but it’s necessary to make the character relevant again.

Him spending 2.5 hours pouting about Lois being with someone else or living on New Krypton does not get this job done. We are in a similar place to when he was first created. It’s time to reconnect with that spark not just for his origin story, but also for the continuing saga and movies going forward.

Superman is one of the few fictional characters whose main gimmick is that he’s noble. Among major heroes only Captain America comes close. I think that’s OK; considering how powerful he’s supposed to be, a Superman who disrespects laws or rights out of convenience would be *frightening*, as has been explored with some stand-ins such as Irredeemable’s Plutonian. And I do not think that necessarily makes him boring; it’s just that many writers take him at face value- just because he’s a nice guy doesn’t make him an innocent or a saint. He can get angry, he can have personal opinions, he can get disappointed, etc. and still do the right thing when it counts. People who cannot enjoy a series unless the main character is undergoing a crisis of faith are simply looking in the wrong place if they expect that from Superman. I’ll agree however that he hasn’t been doing a good job as a leading figure, but that’s because, again, DC is trying to sell their characters by how much badass (or victims) they are, even Batman and Wonder Woman, but that just won’t work with Superman. So he gets shunted to the side while the “cooler” characters get to lead.

I agree that politics for the most part should stay out of comics, but for different reasons than listed. Primarily I don’t think there are enough great writers who won’t @#$# up what would be a mine field.

But for some reason I always thought that Superman would have been more conservative, grounded in the midwest and growing up on a farm in a small town. In contrast, Batman would have been more liberal, growing up by himself in the big city. I thought there was some allusion to this in DKR, with Superman working for the President Reagan analogue and Batman ridiculing the structured way he views the world. It seemed like working together they learned a lot from each other and the limitations to their world views. But I can also see how Batman has appeared more conservative and Superman more liberal as it has played out in the opposite way in many stories. In the hands of a good writer, an interesting dynamic. In that hands of a less talented writer, even a good one like Brubaker, it could become a huge offensive disaster.

I think I liked the Superman who could be beaten. Without any vulnerability I think he is a less interesting character, not more interesting to me. I thought the “What’s so funny ’bout truth, justice, and the American way” issue was the perfect modern characterization of Superman. Someone who uses brains and not just strength to stay true to his core values. But you can’t do that every issue. So you have to focus on his humanity and his personal problems. I liked the Golden Age Superman populist hero, and the Silver Age zany science fiction like Superman. John’s Secret Origin is going ok. Maybe Superman being for all people means he becomes the hero we need in this era.

I agree on the problem with Wonder Woman being her history. I was not a fan of the George Perez reboot where she was clay or something. She needs an origin that can be summed up in one sentence like Superman and Batman. Hot princess wins contest to represent the Amazon values to mankind and comes to the US to save and inspire the world, or something like that. I love Kingdom Come and can see how she can be a Xena like warrior character, but I think there was a charm to her golden age incarnation being more human and less powerful. Perhaps I’m suggesting a Marvel-ization of these characters.

I know I’m just rambling now. Time to get back to work.

Michael Murphy

June 14, 2010 at 10:03 pm

I would say that the whole Trinity idea predates the 2008-09 Trinity miniseries and Brad Meltzer’s Justice League of America #0 from 2006. The Matt Wagner Trinity mini from 1993 or so is an example of that.

To everyone who thinks Superman is boring or unintesresting because he is “too powerful” or “too noble”, I’d enthusiastically recommend Morrison & Quitely’s All-Star Superman

Throughout the years, DC has acquired the rights to characters previously owned by other publishing houses. As a result, many former “alpha characters” from other publishers were intentionally downgraded in the DC Universe in order not to rival the Trinity’s dominance. Captain Marvel (originally published by Fawcett) is probably the best known example and most Shazam fans strongly resent DC for what it did to the character just to ensure he wouldn’t outshine Superman. Charlton Comics characters like Captain Atom and the original Blue Beetle (who is somewhat akin to Batman) also suffered a similar fate.

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