The Trouble With Superman

For decades the Man of Steel has failed to find his groove, thanks to a continual misunderstanding of his strengths.

Warner Bros.

Superman should be invincible. Since his car-smashing debut in 1938, he’s starred in at least one regular monthly comic, three blockbuster films, and four television shows. His crest is recognized across the globe, his supporting cast is legendary, and anybody even vaguely familiar with comics can recount the broad strokes of his origin. (The writer Grant Morrison and the artist Frank Quitely accomplished it in eight words and four panels: “Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.”) He’s the first of the superheroes, a genre that’s grown into a modern mass-media juggernaut.

And yet, for a character who gains his power from the light of the sun, Superman is curiously eclipsed by other heroes. According to numbers provided by Diamond Distributors, the long-running Superman comic sold only 55,000 copies a month in 2015, down from around 70,000 in 2010—a mediocre showing even for the famously anemic comic-book market. That’s significantly less than his colleague Batman, who last year moved issues at a comparatively brisk 150,000 a month. Mass media hasn’t been much kinder: The longest-running Superman television show, 2001’s Smallville, kept him out of his iconic suit for a decade. Superman Returns recouped its budget at the box office, but proved mostly forgettable. 2013’s Man of Steel drew sharp criticism from critics and audiences alike for its bleak tone and rampaging finale. Trailers for the sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, have shifted the focus (and top billing) to the Dark Knight. Worst of all, conventional wisdom puts the blame on Superman himself. He’s boring, people say; he’s unrelatable, nothing like the Marvel characters dominating the sales charts and the box office. More than anything, he seems embarrassing. Look at him. Truth? Justice? He wears his underwear on the outside.

Behold! I give you the problem of Superman. It’s a problem that has less to do with the character himself and more to with DC Comics, which found itself stuck with a flagship character it thought needed fixing. In trying, it broke him nearly beyond repair.

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The storytelling engine Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel devised for Superman when they created him should be, like their hero, bulletproof. Clark Kent is a mild-mannered reporter hiding his secret identity from the world, including his sharp, competent coworker, who happens to be the woman of his dreams. He’s stuck in a love triangle with himself, between the man he is, and the man he wishes he could be. He’s an immigrant driven not by tragedy but by an unshakable sense of right and wrong and a desire to fix the world for the less fortunate—a battle that can never end. As the famed comics creator Alan Moore wrote:

Almost certainly by instinct rather than by psycho-social analysis, two Cleveland teenagers had crafted a near-perfect and iconic fantasy which spoke to something deeply rooted in the psyche of working America [in the early 1930s] … At his inception, Superman seems very much a representative of the downtrodden working classes his creators hailed from, and a wonderful embodiment of all the dreams and aspirations of the powerless.

This is who the character is at his best: not a walking set of superpowers, but a man fighting for truth and justice to the best of his considerable ability.

Superman was so popular in the 1940s that his comic was adapted into a smash-hit radio show, which itself proved popular enough that it helped bring down parts of the Ku Klux Klan. Before long, he was the biggest comic-book character in the world. But Siegel and Shuster, exploited and cast aside by the company whose fortunes they had made, saw barely a dime of the profits. Away from his creators and under DC’s management, Superman changed from a rabble-rousing populist into a bland icon of the establishment, cycling through the same sets of adventures every few years: a hero with nothing better to do than devise elaborate pranks to play on Lois Lane. Despite the gloriously silly super-science of Silver Age Superman, with its time-travel, transformation rays, and bottled cities, the engine rusted under the hood.

In 1962, the competition arrived. In August of that year, the newly christened Marvel Comics, already humming with hits like The Fantastic Four, debuted Amazing Fantasy #15, the first appearance of Spider-Man. Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, his creators, had reinvented the Superman engine, taking the archetype of the superheroic outsider and making him an underdog through a series of clever tweaks. Where Clark Kent’s romantic life was a game, Peter Parker’s was a soap opera; where Clark’s boss was gruff, Peter’s was a jerk; where Kent was ignored in civilian guise, Parker was actively picked on. Marvel had, in effect, figured out how to supplant Superman. In doing so, they began selling not just to children but also to college students, and eventually to adults. It was a challenge that DC, formerly the dominant comics publisher, had to answer.

DC responded to Marvel in halting steps during the 1970s by refashioning many of its characters to be a little more quarrelsome and a little less aspirational. Some, like Batman, easily made the switch. Others, like Flash or Wonder Woman, were reinvented to varying degrees of success. But with Superman the company routinely stumbled, worried about messing up its star hero.

In 1971 DC hired Jack Kirby, the architect of Marvel Comics, but instead of assigning him the main Superman book, it put him on a spin-off, Jimmy Olsen. Even as Kirby was cranking out concepts that would become pivotal to the DC Universe, the company had other artists redrawing his Superman in the house style. It assigned the Batman writer Denny O’Neil to tell more modern Superman stories, but rolled back his changes as well. As the comics landscape shifted, Superman remained either purely superheroic or continued to lean on the endless, increasingly tired triangle of Lois, Clark, and Superman. DC had typecast its flagship character as a company man, and no amount of multicolored kryptonite or super-pets could change that.

The character was still popular enough in the wider cultural sphere: The 1978 film Superman, starring Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, was a hit. But eventually DC faced facts: The comic needed fixing. In 1985, DC hired John Byrne, a writer from Marvel, as part of a massive retooling effort. The resulting series, Superman: Man of Steel, summoned a bit of the competition’s swagger, quickly reinventing and streamlining portions of Superman’s universe while keeping its fundamental cheeriness. The evil scientist Lex Luthor became a corporate raider. Bits of continuity ephemera, like Clark Kent’s early career as Superboy, were dropped.

For a while, things ran smoothly, but Superman couldn’t quite seem to shake his stodgy reputation. Despite Byrne’s reboot, the comics’ sales again flagged, rising only in the 1990s with a series of increasingly desperate stunts. DC married Clark Kent and Lois Lane. It killed Superman and brought him back. It split him into two different bodies, one red, one blue. Each event brought diminishing returns. Finally, DC decided it was time to try and give Superman a fresh start for the new millennium.

To date, it has not stopped trying.

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The problem DC faced was this: You can’t fix something if you’re not sure where it’s broken. One of the issues halting a successful reinvention of Superman is a shift in the nature of the comics market. Since the 1980s, the dominant trend in the industry has been specialty comics shops replacing newsstands as primary distributors. Given this change, companies like Marvel and DC have focused their marketing toward an ever-dwindling market of adult fans, darkening their characters in an attempt to keep the interest of a readership desperate for mainstream respectability. In effect, adults were colonizing young-adult narratives and warping them in the process—an early example of what later occurred with Michael Bay’s legendarily crass Transformers films.

In one of the uglier paradoxes of the superhero-comics industry, characters who were devised to entertain children soon became completely unsuitable for them. Leaning into this trend in an effort to entice new adult readers, DC largely abandoned its strengths as a publisher of optimistic, bizarre superheroics and fumbled for an edgier identity. Aspirational characters were hit hard by this change—Wonder Woman in particular has suffered nearly as many reboots as Superman, the latest of which has cast her as the bloodthirstiest of her Justice League coworkers, her trademark lasso of truth traded for a sword.

But the trend proved particularly damaging to the Man of Steel. The 1986 Dark Knight Returns, one of the landmark wave of “mature” superhero comics, cast him as a Reaganite stooge and ended with Batman knocking him out. The choice directly shadowed Superman’s history up until the present. The dour trailers for Batman v Superman draw directly from the imagery of The Dark Knight Returns, with several shots paralleling panels from the earlier comic. The effect is to shout for everybody watching: This is a serious film. Pointedly, in these trailers Superman never once smiles.

In fact, it’s hard to escape the impression that Superman’s own company finds him a bit embarrassing. As the comics writer Chris Sims points out in his review of the anniversary compilation Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years, DC’s company line on Superman seems to be that he’s “a depressed sad sack who never wins.” The company ditched his iconic red trunks in 2011 and placed him instead in the blue, armor-like suit he currently wears on film. In response to fan complaints that Superman was “too powerful” and thus boring, it constantly adjusted his level of strength. Broader attempts to reconcile the character with its new approach have been filled with false starts and cold feet: Many of the innovative Superman runs of the past decade, including Joe Casey’s short-lived attempt to position the character as a pacifist, were either quickly rolled back or derailed by editorial interference. Promising new approaches, including a radical late ’90s pitch by the modern comics superstars Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, and Mark Waid, likewise went unexplored.

Instead, the majority of Superman stories published in recent years have either been chair-rearranging reboots or have focused on the question of his relevance. The relaunches have been particularly difficult to ignore. Since 2001 alone, DC has commissioned five different reboots of Superman’s origins in the comics: the excellent Superman: Birthright and All-Star Superman, the adequate Superman: Secret Origins, the execrable Superman: Earth One, and the ongoing (and rather good) Superman: American Alien. Mass media has gotten in on the act as well, with the show Smallville and the blockbuster Man of Steel likewise being obsessed with reinventing the character for modern America.

Questioning Superman’s place in culture isn’t an inherently bad idea, and it’s no wonder that creators want to dig into his truth-and-justice symbolism in a world that seems to hold both in short supply. However, that impulse has led into a rabbit hole of navel-gazing narratives that endlessly attempt to justify the character’s existence. In its constant attempts to “fix” Superman over the last 20 years, DC has largely forgotten to tell stories with him.

The irony of all this is that, for all the rust and ineffectual tinkering, the storytelling engine built by Siegel and Shuster still runs. Superman remains as inspirational a character as he did during the Great Depression: Considering the current state of rampant income inequality, brutal law enforcement and corrupt politics, the immigrant superhero from the planet Krypton may be more relevant now than he has been in years. What the comic requires now is not another reboot, but a forceful, committed attempt to refine the engine that currently exists—to stop trying to make Superman something he’s not, and to focus instead on what he is. The current creators of Action Comics, Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder, have leaned into this idea with stories of a more socially aware Superman. It’s a good start. But it remains to be seen whether or not DC will allow it to stick.

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Who, then, is the modern Superman? Per Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s critically acclaimed All-Star Superman (2005), a love-letter to the Silver Age of Superman comics, Clark Kent is a man whose god-like power is his incredible empathy, juxtaposed against strange and dastardly villains—tyrant suns, Bizarro clones, the megalomaniacal Lex Luthor. He’s a journalist who fights corruption and oppression wherever he finds it, both in and out of costume, as in the writer Mark Waid and the artist Leinil Francis Yu’s Superman: Birthright (2004), which retells the character’s origin with an emphasis on his relationships with the Daily Planet and the astute Lois Lane.

Perhaps most importantly, he’s a character who deeply feels his responsibilities, but still manages to be cheerful, funny, and down to earth—the defining characteristics of the artist Stuart Immonen and the writer Kurt Busiek’s alternate-universe tale Superman: Secret Identity (2005). Secret Identity in particular is worth noting for another reason: It’s the only Superman story to graft the refinements of Stan Lee’s underdog Spider-Man back onto Superman. As a result, it’s the best Superman story of the decade and perhaps one of the best of all time.

Taken together, these stories point to a way forward for Superman that could easily recapture people’s imagination while mirroring Siegel and Shuster’s original vision: stories of a man with the powers of a god, who chooses to live as a normal person and fight for normal people; stories that are part newsroom drama and part mind-bending superheroics, mixing in corrupt corporations and alien invaders from other dimensions; stories that can veer into snappy romantic comedy or genuine emotion with the removal of a pair of glasses; stories that stop trying to reboot Superman and instead refine and build on what’s already there.

In other words, if you believe in him, the man can fly.