Looking Up In the Sky

Superman

In his classic essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” T.S. Eliot, without realizing it, claimed that previous critics had taken the mad Dane and personalized him, Keats seeing in Hamlet another Keats and Goethe seeing in Hamlet another Werther. He then proceeded to speculate on Hamlet’s sexual issues and relationship with his mother in a manner that suggested that Eliot may well have seen in Hamlet another Eliot. This may be a necessary consequence of critical thinking about a work of art: how much more tempting might it be of a character with over 60 years of continuous appearances to support varying interpretations? In writing this essay, one of the recent critical views I’m reacting to is that of Quentin Tarantino in his Kill Bill movies, where he has a character speculate that Superman uses Clark Kent as a critique of humanity and its weaknesses and foibles, that Clark Kent is “mild-mannered” because Superman sees us as weak and ineffectual compared to himself. I disagree with this assessment, and I see in it Tarantino projecting his own view of humanity a little. Just as obviously, my own contrary viewpoint — that Superman envies humanity its ability to simply go about the business of living without the burden of being Superman, survivor of doomed planet Krypton, cosmic orphan, with the power to move mountains and the attendant responsibility of said power — well, while I shall support my view with citations and argument, it’s still just my viewpoint, and in the end I may also, be making of Superman something less than he is. If that’s the case, I can but apologize.

Right now, for whatever reasons, I’m thinking about Superman — specifically, what makes him timeless and enduring. It’s not just his generally accepted position as the first of the costumed comic book superheroes, really, because in fact he’s developed away from that single-minded crusader for justice and into a much more nuanced character (when he isn’t getting the tar flogged out of him by bad writing and worse ideas on how to fix what wasn’t broken); clearly some of the explanation for his longevity is in how he developed. I’m going to use a few select Superman stories to illustrate my point here. I’m not going to even try and be exhaustive; that’s a sucker’s game. There are so many Superman stories out there it would be like trying to explain why one liked the ocean by elaborating on each excellent water molecule. I’m just going to hit the highlights, so to speak. I fully expect to hit different highlights than others would; to some, for example, Superman is to be used to sell credit card services alongside an unfunny comedian.

One of my favorite comics of the ’40s was the 1943 Siegel and Shuster story, “Superman Ends the War.” It captures the optimism of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s early creation fairly well, as Superman sweeps in and grabs Hitler and Stalin and drops them off at the (by then dead in all but name) League of Nations to answer for their dictatorial machinations. (Consider that Stalin was our ally in ’43.) This comic was actually addressed by an SS newspaper at the time, which of course took great pains to establish that Superman wasn’t real and couldn’t really capture Hitler. I don’t know if they realized that their reaction was a better validation than the story could have hoped for or not. It’s a short tale, only a couple of pages, but it does its job nicely. It has a quality that marks the best Superman stories, that sense of the absolutely fantastic.

Later stories, like Bill Finger and Al Plastino’s 1949 tale of Superman’s discovery of his Kryptonian origins (and it’s remarkable that even by then, a mere decade after he was barely able to leap one-eighth of a mile, Finger has Superman breaking the speed of light to travel back in time), would take this combination of optimism and fantasy and run with them. Finger’s story also introduced Kryptonite for the first time in the comic books, although a script exists for a comic that was never published that would have introduced a similar substance called “K-Metal” (also from Krypton, also harmful to Superman) as well as letting Lois in on Superman’s secret identity in 1940. It would have changed a lot if it had been published.

It’s safe to say that Superman as he existed in the comics of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s was a fantastic character with science-fictional trappings that grew under the hand of editor Mort Weisinger into a complex and sometimes mutually inconsistent mass of exotic and outrageous elements. Weisinger’s Superman is really the Superman, ultimately, in the popular imagination. While Siegel and Shuster created him, it was Weisinger who worked feverishly to explain their creation, expand his universe, and establish new elements of his mythology on a regular basis to keep readers interested. Under the editorial hand of the man who’d once given work to Alfred Bester, Superman acquired nemesis after nemesis such as Brainiac (and so was introduced Kandor, the city of microscopic Kryptonians, to our mythos), and would even return to Krypton again (this time in a classic story written by Siegel himself, exploring Superman’s desire to live a normal life while somehow thwarting Krypton’s doom, a doom that turns out to be impossible for him to prevent): interestingly, unlike in Finger’s story, Superman is fully able to interact with Krypton in the past. Later writers would cobble together the explanation that in time travel, you can only be physically solid in a time period you don’t already exist in and will become an invisible phantom if you attempt to travel to a period in time in which you already exist. This, to me, is another example of what was so damn charming about the Weisinger run on the book: he was so busy throwing new stuff at the readership that he often contradicted himself and had to have someone concoct a reason explaining these contradictions, and this process often led to whole new stories filled with yet more fantastic elements to reconcile. The Superman mythology exploded into a vast and sweeping saga onto which you could hang almost any story you wanted to concoct, like the glittering branches of the crystalline trees of Krypton itself.

(As an aside, Siegel’s return-to-Krypton story even has a now-powerless Superman on Krypton use a Kryptonian gun to shoot a statue in Smallville in order that Jonathan Kent may punch out a banker and win Martha’s love. Seriously. This takes two pages. It’s an afterthought. Tell me the Superman comics weren’t home to full-bore insane imagination, I dare you.)


Edmond Hamilton wrote some excellent stories during that period as well, as Superman moved into the ’60s. He even wrote “Superman under the Red Sun,” a classic story of the Superman Revenge Squad and a stranded Superman in the distant future when Earth’s sun has turned red from age. Much as in Finger’s “Superman under the Green Sun,” the Man of Steel uses his ingenuity and determination to overcome impossible odds without his powers. While Weisinger admits he came up with this recurring motif out of an interest in keeping the character fresh, it had the side-effect of proving that with or without his powers, Superman would do whatever he could to defeat evil and save those who could not save themselves. Hamilton went on to write many of the best Superman stories of the 1960s, including the stories where Lex Luthor traveled to a planet under a red sun and became their superheroic protector, the grateful people going so far as to name the planet “Lexor” in his honor. Decades before Kurt Busiek would base his comic Thunderbolts around the idea of villains pretending to be heroic and eventually, by so doing, being seduced to good deeds and heroic actions, Hamilton had Luthor constantly flirting with the idea of simply retiring to Lexor and serving as their champion. In these stories, Hamilton helped to cement Lex Luthor’s place as Superman’s ultimate villain, completing the process begun by Siegel and Shuster in the early days of the comic.

Luthor’s development as a Superman antagonist began with him just another supervillanous scientist hurling hurricanes at Metropolis or engaging in arms deals. It was through the Weisinger explosion of the mythos that Luthor began to take on the air of failed grandeur that culminated in his most successful portrayals under Hamilton (and later Elliot Maggin in the 1970s). Siegel’s creation of Superboy allowed for the establishment of a rivalry between the Man of Steel and the wicked Lex going back to high school, when a then-friendly Luthor had an accidental fire break out while he was researching an antidote for Kryptonite in a laboratory built for him by Superboy. The accident, and Superboy’s resultant attempt to blow the flames out, created fumes that rendered Luthor cue-ball bald and sworn to wreak revenge against Superboy if it took him the rest of his life. On the surface, a pretty goddamn stupid origin. But it was never about the hair.

Luthor hates Superman because Luthor isn’t Superman. Furthermore, Luthor knows full well that he could be a superman: his titanic intellect and inventiveness (the guy makes rocket ships, can perform elective surgery on alien robots from Colu, has invented multiple time machines, invented a power glove that allowed him to punch a Kryptonian in the face and make him feel it and, in one of Jerry Siegel’s best stories, actually cured cancer worldwide as part of an elaborate plan to trap and kill Superman; he could get rid of the damn baldness if he wanted to) could make him the most powerful man on Earth — if not for Superman. Furthermore, even when Luthor succeeds in finding a place where he is, for all intents and purposes, Superman, thus fulfilling his lifelong ambition (Superman always fails to fulfill his own lifelong ambition and cherished dream, which we’ll come back to later), it’s not enough.

Any man less brilliant and less obsessed than Luthor would have stayed on Lexor, where Superman is powerless and Lex himself can gain temporary super-powers, but to him it’s not enough that he win and get everything he ever wanted — the adulation of the masses, the success and respect of a whole world. Not only must Luthor win, but Superman must lose. Lex has to crush his nemesis in order to prove his own superiority, rejecting the hand of friendship Superman offered him as a boy and repeatedly offers him even as an adult. This comes most to a head during the Maggin stories, wherein he develops Luthor’s idiosyncratic quirks (an adulation of Einstein, a fondness for hundreds of aliases, hiding elaborate gadgets in plain sight) and also explores the very real flaw in Luthor’s constant attacks on Superman: namely, that he constantly attacks Superman’s powers instead of the man himself, that he constantly underestimates Superman’s intellect and determination. Luthor fails because he doesn’t want to admit that Superman is his equal, that the fundamental mistake of their childhood years was both men’s faults, and that they’d make better friends than enemies. (It’s possible to view the friendship between Superman and Batman established by the writers of the ’50s and ’60s as an extension of this relationship; in Batman, Superman has found an ally who is a twisted reflection of his childhood friend Luthor, also brilliant, also warped as a child by a traumatic incident — albeit one hundreds of times more serious than Luthor’s loss of hair — and equally obsessed with his chosen nemesis. Luthor chose to devote himself to defeating the most powerful being on the planet Earth: Batman chose to devote himself to defeating crime itself. It’s hard to say which of them has a more difficult task.)

Luthor’s obsession, thus laid out for us, is wholly insane — but his actions make perfect sense to us within that context: like a boxer who won’t give up the ring, the man is simply addicted to the contest. No one else is worthy of his time and effort: if he can’t kill Superman, he won’t kill anyone at all. His actions during Marv Wolfman’s Crisis on Infinite Earths speak to this: he views the complete takeover of three parallel Earths and the eventual subjugation of two more as a mere stepping stone to the death of Superman. Mind you, this is during the Anti-Monitor’s campaign to annihilate all life in all possible universes; Luthor is willing to countenance the possible destruction of all that exists to take a shot at Superman (until the Spectre reminds him that if the Anti-Monitor gets his way, there won’t be anyone left to see Lex’s triumph).

Luthor’s erstwhile partner Brainiac, too, is also obsessed with the death of Superman. Brainiac, however, has changed the most since his introduction in 1958. In that story, Brainiac was a madman with an obsession for shrinking down and collecting cities from various planets for no really well-established reason. (He says something to his monkey— yes, his monkey — about doing it to repopulate his home world, which was decimated by plague, but it’s never really explained why he wouldn’t do something easier like, say, conquer another planet outright by threatening to shrink them all.) And it didn’t really matter why, since Brainiac was really only there to have a force field and shrink cities so that Superman could find a shrunken city from Krypton and free it from his clutches, yet fail to grow it back to full size, to establish another element of Weisinger’s mythology.

In 1964, however, Hamilton and Curt Swan created the first Luthor/Brainiac team-up, and Hamilton realized that the name Brainiac sounded enough like UNIVAC to give him a profound insight into the character: he wasn’t a simple madman out to repopulate his planet, but an advanced computer in human form on an extended spy mission for the electronic tyrants of Colu. His shrinking and capturing of alien cities was the Coluan equivalent of a reconnaissance mission.

So informed through one of his own inventions, Luthor quickly frees Brainiac and they go on a cosmic scavenger hunt for the elements they need to kill Superman, traveling to planets entirely covered in oceans where the inhabitants have evolved into living hydroplane ships, fierce tri-beasts that guard strange alien plants, and even Lexor, the planet Luthor saved and which regards him as a hero. Eventually Brainiac tricks Luthor into forgetting he’s a computer (the secret would eventually become an open one) but despite the near-success of their plan to destroy Superman, a Kandorian hit squad bent on revenge against Brainiac captures the two, only to see Luthor and Brainiac trade the life of a helpless Superman for their own freedom. The end of the story, where Brainiac ferries Luthor to Lexor, sets the stage for both villains to bedevil Superman in the future, and also establishes the strange bond of alliance that holds up through Crisis and which Alan Moore uses to such brilliant effect in his “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”

Brainiac’s obsession with defeating Superman isn’t as emotional as Luthor’s. With the destruction of the computer tyrants of Colu, Brainiac is free to wreak havoc across the stars, but he knows that any dreams of establishing his own galactic empire will have to take Superman into account. Also, Superman himself is always after Brainiac in order to capture the villain’s secret of size control, allowing him to enlarge Kandor. By making the hero more motivated to oppose the villain, the Brainiac stories become an exercise in villainous self-interest; free of emotional entanglements (unlike Luthor, who is fraught with them), Brainiac plans Superman’s death purely so that he doesn’t have to face the Man of Steel any longer. In essence, Brainiac wants to kill Superman entirely because Superman’s personality won’t let him leave Brainiac alone. Superman’s determination to do the best he can for the shrunken multitudes of Kandor and to protect other worlds from suffering at Brainiac’s hands fuels the conflict.

While I’m generally not a fan of the Byrne reboot (this is a considered opinion, because when it happened I was thrilled to hear that John Byrne was going to be on the Superman books; he was my favorite artist at the time, and it’s only after a few years of considering what was lost vs. what was gained that I came to my present opinion of the reboot, and of the Superman stories Byrne wrote after it), I do believe in giving credit where credit is due, and one of my favorite aspects of the reboot was Byrne’s decision to keep the Kents alive. In fact, considering that Byrne got rid of Superboy entirely, arguing that Kal-El/Clark Kent first wore the Superman costume in adulthood, it becomes necessary to keep the Kents alive. Before, you could have them appear in the pages of Superboy, but without Superboy it becomes necessary for the reader to see Jonathan and Martha Kent from time to time in order to understand why Superman is the way he is.

Just as Superman himself is mythical and iconic, so too are Martha Clark Kent and Jonathan Kent. They represent all of the typical Midwestern American virtues: hard work, a willingness to help others, restraint, a general belief in the virtues of the Jeffersonian ideal — all men are created equal, and all men have the same inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And they represent these virtues without the all-too-real failures we Americans often experience in living up to our ideals.

The Kents are authentically good people who want to do the right thing, and so they teach their star-born son the same virtues: they make of Clark a moral and ethical being who can live up to the power his Kryptonian heritage bestows upon him. Having them present to demonstrate this (while at the same time, showing the limitations of their lives and mindsets) can only help us to understand Superman better. It’s all too easy to give in to misanthropy when faced with the horrors humanity is capable of unleashing upon itself, especially for a Superman who can experience much of those horrors with enhanced senses. But Clark Kent experienced the love and support of the Kents growing up: no matter what else he might see or do, he knows there’s a countervailing good in the human heart to balance out its myriad sins.

I do regret the loss of the final lesson the Kents taught a young Superboy: the lesson of mortality and regret, as his actions inadvertently exposed them to a fever that killed them. But it is balanced by their presence in stories such as “The Death and Rebirth of Superman,” where Jonathan Kent manages to find his son’s spirit after suffering a heart attack and begs him to come back, or in the “Exile” storyline, when it is Jonathan Kent’s simple recitation of his war experiences that allows Superman to begin to heal after a very traumatic event (about which more later). The Kents provide an oasis where Clark Kent and Superman can be the same person: they know him, down to his childhood scuffles and the broken arm he got as a boy; from the moment they opened that spacecraft and took out a squalling infant, they’ve been in on his momentous secret with him. Pre- or post-Crisis, their relationship with their superhuman son is an idealized one, yes; but it’s a damn good ideal to strive for, an ideal of accepting your children for what they are while trying to guide them to being the best they possibly can be.

Over the years, of course, Superman’s had several romantic entanglements. While the Crisis pared away Lyla Lerrol (which is a damn shame, as Moore’s “For the Man Who Has Everything” showed how useful the old Siegel “Superman Returns to Krypton” story could be) we still have Lois Lane, Lana Lang and Lori Lemaris in the picture, and they’re worth thinking about. Obviously, if your initials are LL you may well end up in some sort of relationship with Superman, be it trying to kill him, marry him or expose his secret identity — perhaps all three, if you’re lucky. I’m not one of the fans who regrets or opposes Superman’s marriage to Lois Lane: as shown in the unpublished script for the “K-Metal” story that Siegel wrote in 1940, the creator of the character was thinking along the same lines as the more recent stories anyway. A Lois Lane who is constantly the victim of charade after charade to hide Superman’s identity begins to seem weak and silly and uninteresting as a character. (As you can see, this is the aspect of the Weisinger stories I least enjoyed: I couldn’t imagine why Superman would be attracted to Lois considering all she did was try and prove he was really Clark Kent all the time, yet gave Clark the cold shoulder over Superman romantically. If Lois thought Clark was really Superman, why was she constantly berating him?) I generally prefer the Siegel interpretation of Lois from the early strips as a tough-as-nails reporter who gets in over her head to the later versions that made her obsessed with Superman’s secret, or even a somewhat shrewish, inept character who spends too much time worrying about her romantic troubles. In this regard, the post-Byrne reboot Lois is preferable, although that’s less due to Byrne than writers like Roger Stern who followed him. However, whatever version of Lois you prefer, when written properly she’s a very useful character for the mythos.

Elliot S. Maggin once had Lois exclaim that only a Superman could interest her: she’d dated billionaires and Nobel laureates, and she could never seem to connect with any of them. In a strange way, her relationship with Superman serves to ground her: without him, she may never have found anyone who could engage her imagination. Furthermore, by being the one Clark Kent has to woo under the shadow of Superman, she forces Clark to become someone worthy of her: it’s impossible for Clark Kent to be a cipher when he’s married to a woman like Lois Lane. It’s a departure from the earlier Walter Mitty-style Clark Kent — the one who could easily have been seen missing a football in a panel of Charles Shultz’s “Peanuts” — but it helps balance the two halves of his persona. Furthermore, by being involved in his secret life, she can now use her time more fruitfully in concocting reasons to cover up his secret identity when it becomes necessary, rather than attempting to ferret it out. (That this is a violation of her journalistic ethics has been touched upon briefly in the past, but could bear more effective exploration.)

Perhaps Byrne’s Clark Kent went too far away from the mild-mannered archetype, while the ’60s and ’70s books went too far towards it: somewhere in between the two is where Clark Kent should exist, and I think the marriage to Lois could easily be used to establish that space. Furthermore, the fact is, from her first appearance Lois was jumping head-first into danger, and it’s a damn useful quality for the loved one of a superhero to have: her overconfidence gives Superman something to do when a writer is low on ideas. Have her sneak on-board Kobra’s submarine to try and get a scoop? Sure, Lois would do that. What about infiltrating the Ultra-Humanite’s volcanic lair? Yeah, Lois would try that, too. Using Lois properly, you could even explore the difference between quiet, thoughtful Clark Kent and dynamic, active Superman, as the dual life of the man comes into sharp focus through his relationship with his wife. (And what does it say about Lois that she’s happiest in a relationship with a man who constantly switches from one extreme to the other, anyway? Girl’s got issues, and issues are great storytelling fodder.) For an example of how the Lois/Clark relationship could work, look up the classic ’70s Superman story “Who Took the Super Out of Superman?” where Lois finds a temporarily powerless Clark Kent’s sudden burst of confidence appealing.

Of course, once you marry Superman off he can’t be involved in other relationships anymore. There will be no more fanboy speculation about Wonder Woman. (Personally, I’ve never understood why you’d think Wonder Woman would be all that interested: she grew up on an island full of women who maintained an ancient Greek culture and where males were forbidden. Ever heard of Sappho? Hell, she even used to namecheck the world’s most famous lesbian poet in her favorite oath: “Suffering Sappho!” Admit it, folks: Wonder Woman’s probably seen more vaginas than a gynecologist.)

I don’t see this as a major problem, though: comic books are a somewhat static medium anyway, and certain verities are as preserved there as in post-Renaissance playwriting. You leave the dance with the one who brung you, and as it was Lois who appeared in the first Superman stories, we all knew it would be Lois he ended up with. Which leaves Lana and Lori and Lyla out in the cold. Lana in particular has always been a bit of a hard-luck case: created to serve as the Lois proxy in the Superboy comics, always trying to prove that the Boy of Steel was in fact Clark Kent, she really only came into her own in Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?” with her anguished decision to give herself super-powers and throw herself into battle against the assembled super-villains who had come to destroy Superman. “Let’s show them we loved him best” is a heart-wrenching battle-cry, the final acceptance of a love that would never be without passing into bitterness, and Superman’s enraged “You killed Lana?” when facing the members of the Legion of Super-Villains showed what was never fully explained before save in “imaginary stories” like the Superman-Red/Superman-Blue arc: as much as Lois might be capable of loving both aspects of Superman/Clark Kent as separate people, so could Superman/Clark Kent love the two women for what they’d always meant to him and what they’d given him.

In a strange way, the Lana/Clark relationship developed into an interestingly complicated one during the Julie Schwartz era, with Lana dating alien superhumans and working alongside Clark at WGBS, acting a sounding board somewhere between a sister and a former lover. Byrne’s revamp makes her better suited to that role, with later writers giving her a marriage to Pete Ross and reversing Ross’ knowledge of Clark’s Kryptonian heritage: in the post-Crisis world, Pete doesn’t know and never did, while Clark himself told Lana on the night he learned of it himself. Having Pete aware of his secret (unbeknownst to Clark himself) was an interesting way of establishing Superman’s fallibility even with his awesome power, so I’m on the fence about the change. Still, it does give Lana something else to do other than constantly try to prove something she already knows.

Lori Lemaris was a mermaid. Seriously. She was, indeed, a telepathic mermaid from Atlantis, who happened to be studying at the same college as Clark Kent. Blame her parents; if they’d named her Clarissa Lemaris she and Superman probably wouldn’t have even met. I’ve always been on the fence about Lori. On the one hand, she’s a wonderful example of the Weisinger era’s tendency to do just about anything in the book. On the other hand, the idea that Superman lost his mermaid girlfriend first because their worlds were too different (and, later, because she fell in love with a merman doctor who Superman had gotten to save her life) never really sat well with me. It’s interesting to consider that even Superman can get dumped when a doctor comes along, I guess. A lot of this stuff was just there to sell comics, of course, but as the mythology was created, Lori served as an important example of how even a super man’s heart’s desire could be thwarted.

This moves me, in fact, to a consideration of what Superman’s heart’s desire really is, and once again we find Alan Moore taking the elaborate mythology of the Superman comics and crafting something astonishing out of it. Here, too, we’ll find Lyla Lerrol waiting for us again.

The two greatest Superman stories of the Julie Schwartz era both came about near its end, and both were the brainchildren of Alan Moore. The fact that no one ever tapped Moore to write Superman for an extended run is one of the most baffling things in comic book history: the book hasn’t seen such a good pairing of author and subject since the Hamilton days. While most would probably tell you that “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” is Moore’s supreme contribution to the Superman mythos (and they may well be right: it’s simply one of the best stories involving the character ever), I have my own personal favorite story by Moore — one of the best Superman stories of them all — the amazing “For the Man Who Has Everything.”

The story shows us tantalizing visions of a Krypton that never exploded, where Kal-El is married to actress Lyla Lerrol (remember, in the original Siegel story, Superman met Lyla on the set of a movie after accidentally travelling back in time to Krypton and losing his powers). But the appearance of Lyla as Kal-El’s wife is our first clue that something is amiss; she should the same age as Kal’s parents, after all. The narrative then shifts to outside the Fortress of Solitude, where Wonder Woman, Batman and his new Robin, Jason Todd (who recieved much gentler treatment from Moore than he did in his home comic, it’s worth noting) are arriving to give Superman his birthday presents. In a nice touch, Batman has used his vast fortune to sponsor the horticultural creation of a new strain of rose called “the Krypton” because, as he admits to Wonder Woman, he had a hard time thinking of anything that Superman could possibly want for a birthday present, and “I’m pretty sure no one else will be giving him flowers.” Upon entering the Fortress, the three heroes are shocked to find Superman motionless in the tendrils of an alien plant called the Black Mercy, and the Jim Starlin-created villain Mongul makes his appearance. (Considering that Mongul is a take-off of Starlin’s own creation Thanos, who at best is an inspired homage to Jack Kirby’s Darkseid, Moore does an excellent job in using this copy-of-a-copy, possibly due to Dave Gibbons’ art; his Mongul exudes brutish menace and oleaginous disdain for everything around him.) Mongul explains that the plant wrapped around Superman is a trap, that it imprisons the victim in images of his heart’s desire so that even if he or she figures out what’s going on, there’s no way to bring to bear enough resistance to break free from something you want with all your soul.

And so we see Superman’s heart’s desire unfold, on a Krypton that didn’t explode. And what is his heart’s desire? It’s a normal life, with a wife and children who love him — a very ordinary life. But from the beginning there are cracks in the façade: his father Jor-El is an angry crank who can’t grasp the fact that he was wrong about Krypton exploding and has joined a very nasty religious sect with deliberate fascist overtones called the Sword of Rao. His cousin Kara is badly injured by protestors who find out she’s a member of the El family, because they think that Jor-El’s Phantom Zone is an instrument of torture.

Superman has concocted, with the aid of the alien plant, a world where he could be what he’s always wanted to be, but it’s the wrong world, and he’s the wrong person in it. His fantasia culminates in a powerful scene where a slowly awakening Kal-El flees the confrontation between his father’s Old Krypton movement and the anti-Phantom Zone protestors, and takes his son to the crater where Brainiac shrank Kandor. The man who would not be Superman tells him, weeping, “You’re my son. I was there at your birth and I’ll always love you, but … I don’t think you’re real.”

If the Black Mercy grants your heart’s desire, does that mean Superman truly desires to live in a world slowly going mad, where his own father wants to turn Krypton into a museum artifact out of hate for change rather than accept that he was wrong? No. But it does mean that Superman’s heart’s desire is something he doesn’t believe he can ever have. He had to set his fantasy on Krypton just to imagine it being possible, a normal life with a wife and children as a complete man in one skin, not constantly divided between two identities (neither of which is really him) — and even then it didn’t work.

When the Black Mercy latches onto Batman, he later recalls the hallucination of having saved his parents in childhood and grown up to marry Kathy Kane as a pleasant, tranquil, contented one; but Superman isn’t contented even in the heart of the fantasy. He can’t imagine it happening. To me, that’s the heart of his character: he longs for something he can’t even approach, and no matter how powerful he is, he’ll never truly have it. Being Superman excludes the possibility. (This is why I don’t begrudge him his marriage to Lois, nor would I like to see future writers split them up or retcon the marriage away; it’s a small taste of the normal, the thing Superman has forever longed for. Why not let him have it?)

Being Superman means you have to forever put your own needs and wants aside, that you have to think of the rest of us before yourself while also taking pains front to go too far and render our lives meaningless. Superman can’t protect us from everything nor should he try, but he must do his best to use the great gifts he has for the greater good, and if that means swallowing his understandable frustration with us for our many foibles, or denying himself an evening alone with the woman he loves, he’ll do it. As long as he lives on Earth, he’ll forever be looking at what he most wants and will never have.

I’ve mentioned above that I’m not a fan, overall, of the Byrne reboot. That said, it’s important to point out that it did have its pros as well as its cons. With the retirement of Julie Schwartz, it was as inevitable as death that Superman was going to change dramatically. Someone was going to reboot Superman. (Marv Wolfman was making noises about it, and his maladroit vision of Lex Luthor ended up being the one used.) In some ways, Byrne wisely refused to make changes: the costume remained the same, Metropolis retained its iconic, big city feel, and some of the changes he did make, such as the noticeable power downgrade, had been attempted as early as the 1970s by the likes of Denny O’Neil. At least Byrne’s version seems to have stuck: while enormously powerful, Superman has yet to repeat any of the absurd stunts of the pre-Crisis continuity such as moving entire stars.

The return of Lois Lane to her hard-charging reporter status was a wise move as well, resulting in one of the best moments in the Man of Steel limited series, where a frustrated Lois Lane decides to crash her own car into the harbor rather than continue fruitlessly chasing Superman for a story. I also think Byrne was right in lightening up the Clark Kent persona from its most extreme forms of mild-mannered nebbishhood in the Weisinger and Schwartz eras, although he might have gone too far with it. Still, the idea that Clark Kent could be quiet and contemplative without being a total milquetoast was a good one to introduce into the continuity, hearkening back to the George Reeves portrayal of Clark in the ’50s “Superman” TV show as a man with a certain sly delight in who he is. Finally, while I am on record as thinking that Curt Swan is the best artist to ever draw Superman (against competition like Neal Adams, Kerry Gammill, Wayne Boring and George Perez), Byrne did succeed in introducing an element of visual dynamism to the character that had been missing. He made Superman more massive (a return to the Boring look) while maintaining the modern aesthetic he was famous for. He made the “S” shield larger and more prominent on his chest, and he tended to draw Superman in action a good deal more than he would today (Byrne has become fond of the talking head style of comic book construction over the years), which was to the good of the character. As for the stories … well, Byrne was a hell of an artist.

Still, all of the demythologizing that Byrne and Wolfman engaged in could be endured, if not graciously. Lex Luthor becomes a Wilson Fisk look-alike (and act-alike)? Well, the idea that Superman can’t just plunk Luthor in jail after each encounter is somewhat interesting, although it’s not like jail ever inconvenienced a man who made a faster-than-light starcraft that looked like a piece of modern art and who developed a means to teleport out of his cell using transcendental meditation. Brainiac as a carnival sideshow mentalist possessed by the mind of an evil genius from another planet? Well, the idea of a psionic nemesis for Superman has a bit of appeal, even if it does cost us the villain who shrank down Kandor (and, more grumble-inducingly, no Kandor for him to shrink anyway). Superman not a founding member of the Justice League? Okay, that one doesn’t make any sense. Superman and Batman barely civil to each other? All of these choices are strange and baffling to the long time reader, but ultimately they don’t really destroy the essence of Superman, the character who is convinced by his upbringing to use his vast powers for the good of humanity despite his own personal inclinations. The Byrne reboot even accentuates that essence by showing that Clark Kent was on track to have a dream life as a football star married to his hometown sweetheart, if not for a shock lesson in essential difference from his father. He still wants Lois to love him as Clark rather than Superman, he still struggles with his personal life, and he’s still a recognizable icon.

What is ultimately lost, however, is wonder. The storyline that ultimately showed just how much wonder had been lost was the Legion of Super-Heroes crossover that attempted to answer the question of Superboy — retconned out of existence by Byrne yet so vital to the history of the Legion. The answer? The Time Trapper, a long-time Legion foe, had taken a moment of time and used it to create an entire pocket universe where Superboy, the Phantom Zone, and other huge swaths of DC continuity actually existed as they had appeared in comics before Byrne’s changes. Not only did this establish the Time Trapper as far more powerful than he’d been depicted in the past, but it also held the classic Superboy stories up to the mirror of the current Superman continuity, and if they appeared a little shabby and threadbare in the process (such as when Superboy thoroughly trounces Superman in a brief confrontation), well, what else can you expect from an elaborately established mythos that had been thrown aside for the new stripped-down version?

Not to fear, though, because Byrne and Levitz had no intention of allowing the pocket-universe Superboy to coexist with the new Superman. After Levitz killed Superboy off in a hard-to-follow issue of LSH, Byrne crafted a story reintroducing Supergirl as a refugee from the pocket universe sent by that reality’s Luthor, who had created her and patterned her after Lana Lang in order to get Superman’s attention. In the debacle that followed, Superman went up against three of the Phantom Zone luminaries — General Zod, Zaora and Quex-Ul — in a battle that ended with the entire pocket Earth depopulated and Superman forced to execute the three Kryptonians rather than allow them to regain their powers and destroy his Earth as well. This story had numerous flaws, and one of the most significant is that the pocket-universe Lex Luthor has a chunk of gold kryptonite but doesn’t use it against the Kryptonians because, and I quote, “Call it ego, Superman. It was my fault Zod and the others escaped from the Phantom Zone. I wanted it to be by my hand that they were defeated.”

So why wouldn’t the egomaniacal idiot personally use the gold kryptonite? Not only is this a plot contrivance on a massive scale, but in essence, Byrne forces Luthor to become a moron so that he can have the story go the way he wants it (Superman, standing alone on a dead Earth, with three Kryptonian mass murderers). It’s doubly insulting because Luthor — in the context of this story — is Luthor as he would have been if he’d grown up without Superboy (and, later, Superman) as a rival. His character would be so entirely contrary to this, so much more intelligent and so differently motivated, that the lazy storytelling simply boggles the imagination. What’s worse, it only happened because Byrne wanted to make a final change to the Superman mythos and have him kill the three Phantom Zone villains, thus doing away with Superman’s famous code against killing.

Had the story not been so obviously and hamfistedly crafted to destroy any lingering traces of the Weisinger and Schwartz eras, concocted shamelessly out of hideous misreadings of the characters, it could have been a good one. Why not explore what Superman should do in a situation where such an atrocity had been committed? It’s not as if there was no justification for the view that Superman should have killed the Phantom Zone villains, but the story was simply a railroad towards the desired outcome contemptuous of good writing or characterization. In the end, Byrne wanted to have Superman kill someone as his final coda to the reboot, a sign of just how far he’d gone in changing Superman from his previous incarnations, a final nail in the coffin to the more colorful era that had preceded him. That’s why the story doesn’t work. It violates the essence of who Superman had been for decades before without delivering a powerful story to compensate for it. The real hubris here belongs to John Byrne, not Lex Luthor.

What was left to the writers who followed Byrne was the aftermath: how does Superman deal with becoming someone who has executed three people? Where does he go from here? While many of the stories that followed were off-putting (like a guilt-ridden Superman, suffering from a telepathic assault by Carny-Brainiac, sleepwalking through the streets of Metropolis as the Batman-esque crimefighting avenger known as the Gangbuster), the final storyline we’ll discuss was a triumph, finding ways for the new Superman to behave like the old Superman, using the modern version to effectively tell Golden-Age tales of cosmic wonder and strangeness where anything could happen.

Collected in trade paperback format as Superman: Exile, the stories ran from Superman #28 (published in February 1989) to Action Comics #643 (July 1989) — 13 issues of the various Superman comic (Superman, Adventures of Superman and Action Comics, including the Action Comics annual of that year).

The “Exile” storyline was Superman’s first foray into space since the Byrne era, and it featured writing by Roger Stern, Jerry Ordway, George Perez and Dan Jurgens and art by Kerry Gammill, Jurgens, Mike Mignola, Ordway, Perez and the master himself, Curt Swan. Dealing with the aftermath of the pocket-Earth storyline, the writers have Superman, shaken by his own recent nightly excursions as the Gangbuster and viewing himself as dangerous and out of control, decide to exile himself from Earth in order to protect the world from a Superman gone mad. The story moves from dramatic moment to dramatic moment: Superman nearly teleports himself into a star due to his unfamiliarity with the alien teleportation harness he’s using. The cover story he provided for his Clark Kent identity in his absence spirals out of control, endangering those closest to him. Meanwhile, Superman expends more and more of his power trying to come to terms with his actions, ending in his enslavement by Mongul, who forces him into a serious of gladiatorial combats where he refuses to kill.

Ultimately, Superman’s actions create dissent against the reign of Mongul and his sinister Warworld. After making mental contact with a mysterious alien who holds a relic of ancient Krypton, Superman defeats Mongul in one-on-one combat despite being very low on power, and finds the resolve to resume his never-ending battle for truth and justice on Earth. He comes to realize that while he did what he felt he had to do in the pocket universe, the price was so high that he’d work to his utmost to never have to do anything like it again.

The “Exile” storyline is praiseworthy, especially in contrast to Byrne’s last story arc, for a number of reasons. First off, the art is top-drawer. Jurgens is the weakest link here artistically, and even he’s a lot better than you’d expect. Ordway’s at the top of his game (his Superman is massive and feels like an update of the Wayne Boring version; his constant depiction of Clark Kent with a fedora always makes me smile), and Gammill is an underappreciated genius. (Dennis Janke is a hell of an inker, too, as is Brett Breeding.) Perez is Perez — there’s not much you can say against him — and both Mike Mignola (in the memories-of-ancient-Krypton scenes) and Curt Swan (along with Ordway, depicting Superman fighting in Mongul’s arena) proved some of the most spectacular art of the series, equal parts gladiator epic and classic silver age Superman. I still flip through the book just to look at the art from time to time; the Curt Swan Superman, bearded and dressed for the arena, looking out of the panel with a wry smile on his face, clearly establishes that this is Superman, the same Superman we’ve seen before and will doubtlessly see again, no matter the details.

Second, and more importantly, the writing is solid: there’s no flinching from the repercussions of Byrne’s last story. Superman, who does not kill, has killed. Rather than gloss it over, they choose to show his torment at having been unable to find another solution, to show him voyaging the cosmos in a misguided attempt to lose himself in infinity before leading him to the ultimate realization, helped along by memories of Jonathan Kent in a powerful scene set in the South Pacific during World War II. “Seems like forever,” he remembers; “I’ve seen so many men die … and, God help me, I know I killed some of ’em. I saw my own brother Harry fall under a thresher and die. I thought nothing could shock me after that. But that was before I saw war.” Superman is on his knees after the image fades, saying “Pa never talked much about the war … he said too many people tried to glorify it.”

Similarly, Superman’s answer to the Cleric’s statement (“You must love your father a great deal”) is illuminating and redeeming: “He’s the finest man I know,” says the Man of Steel, serving to show how much he owes to his mother and father, and how much Superman really is Clark Kent in his heart). We realize his actions can only be addressed through future actions, that he can only atone for having done what was necessary by being the hero he was raised to be, that while the burden might be heavy he cannot choose to put it down. If he does, he’s not the man he was raised to be or the man he worked to become, and the cost of that decision is far more than he’s ultimately willing to pay.

There’s a three-page exchange near the end of the saga, after Superman has defeated Draaga but fallen to Mongul in the arena, and has awakened to see Mongul begin the process of slowly killing his failed champion, that sums up the journey Superman has been through: Superman’s outrage leads him to melt the weapon Mongul is using to torment Draaga with his heat vision, leading Mongul to state “Eh? The heat from your eyes is so intense! Then you could have crippled me! Why didn’t you?” Superman’s answer, delivered while tearing apart the restraints that hold him in place, is a simple “Because … I’m … not … like … you!” The fight that follows (culminating in Mongul grasping Superman’s throat in rage and Superman putting all of his strength in one final punch) is brilliantly composed across four panels by Kerry Gammill and beautifully encapsulates the success of the entire storyline.

Byrne’s stated goal in his final story was to explore Superman’s code against killing, but what he claimed he would do he did not. “Exiles” does. This is a Superman who has blood on his hands and knows the cost of his choices, who chooses repeatedly not to kill even when fighting Mongul (a cosmic conqueror and murderer on a scale even the Phantom Zone Villains couldn’t match, having crushed dozens of planets into submission), because he finally knows exactly who he is and who he is not. The story makes his choices real, shows exactly how much Superman can suffer at the hands of his own expectations for himself, how the moral lessons of the Kents have sunk in. The exchange between Superman and the Cleric as “the Eradicator” (a Kryptonian device that has kept the Cleric alive for hundreds of thousands of years as a means to preserve Kryptonian culture until such time as a Kryptonian could reclaim it) links their minds spells it out:

My son, I have looked into your soul. Yours is the heart of a true hero. If you have sinned, it was in the cause of justice.

“Cleric, I believe that life is a precious gift …”

Then do not seek to escape from it, as I did. Embrace it! Prove yourself worthy of being Superman by living and working for the preservation of life.

This, then, is the ultimate message of the Exile storyline: that a Superman cannot hide his gifts from the world (and perhaps that none of us can). It succeeds through the fusion of the Weisinger spirit of possibility with the energetic feel of the contemporary creative teams of the moment.

That Curt Swan returned to Superman for this storyline helps it serve as a bridge between what had gone before it and what would follow. By helping to oppose Mongul and spread the idea of defiance to tyranny across an alien star system, Superman not only acts as Superman should, but also reaffirms the idea that refusing to kill can be inspirational, that the use of power to defend and safeguard may be far more difficult than using it to crush and dominate but is also infinitely more rewarding. Finally, Kal-El realizes who he is and where he belongs — that the wide-ranging universe and long-dead Krypton gave him life but Earth made him Superman by making him Clark Kent. The final issue in the storyline even shows the costumed Superman calling himself Clark in his thoughts, and the final image of the series is a silhouette of Superman followed by a silhouette of him as Clark Kent, cementing his return to himself. It would be simplistic to argue that the Clark Kent we see in the comic books is any more the “real” self than the costume; both are real.

Clark Kent as he is around other people is who he might be without the powers, his attempt to become just another man among men. And Superman is who he is when he manages to use his great power to aid the world without losing himself in the process. Both are integral components to a son of the stars raised as a Kansas farmboy, the ultimate immigrant, a man who is almost a god but who would rather be a man.