“YOU DON’T BELONG HERE ANYMORE!”

Swamp Thing screams this at Superman in SUPERMAN ANNUAL #1, written by Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason. Taken at face value, this line is about Superman falling out of alignment with the Earth’s orbit, having increased his force on the sun following the death of the NEW 52 Superman. But in a broader context, it reflects the mass opinion today that DC’s Superman, as an icon, is no longer culturally relevant.

The media has become saturated in darkness and skepticism. Whether we’re talking movies, or television, or even the political arena, we’re in an age where old-school heroic optimism is a thing of the past. Audiences are much more drawn to heroes like Batman, who more accurately represent the modern skeptic consciousness. As a result, the Superman character has failed in comparison. Indeed, the last five years saw a run of SUPERMAN comics in the NEW 52 line that were largely derided. The combination of the poorly received comics, and the DC movies’ turn to a darker, more Batman-like Superman, led to a seeming overall decline of the character. But with the DC REBIRTH relaunch this past year, a new era has dawned for Superman. Tomasi and Gleason in SUPERMAN, and Dan Jurgens in ACTION COMICS, have each, respectively, pumped new life into the character. The SUPERMAN comics have focused on Superman’s internal life, with his family as key supporting characters in his emotional development while the ACTION COMICS line has concentrated more on spectacle, with spine-tingling suspense and plot twists aplenty.

READ: Catch up on the New 52 with our review of ACTION COMICS #52!

There is an important through-line in both books, as well as the neighboring SUPERWOMAN comics by Jose Jimenez. The through-line is the mystery of the multiple Supermen. The fallen NEW 52 Superman, the Pre-FLASHPOINT Superman, the de-powered Clark Kent, Lana Lang as Superwoman, and even a newly powered Lex Luthor as Superman, all co-exist in this universe. Each of these Supermen, interestingly enough, contains a facet of the “old” Superman, but none of them are completely him. The many Supermen have created a fascinating complex within the overarching story. They also make the reader face an important question regarding the underlying nature of Superman – both as a character and an icon: Is Superman truly who he thinks he is? And ultimately, does Superman belong here anymore?

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The Second Reign of the Supermen

This “split” of Superman into multiple characters began with the re-introduction of the pre-FLASHPOINT Superman in DC’s CONVERGENCE event last year. For a while, the pre-FLASHPOINT Superman and NEW 52 Superman co-existed, until the death of the NEW 52 Superman at the end of the NEW 52 comics run. The Pre-FLASHPOINT Superman then took up the mantle of Superman proper at the start of the REBIRTH era, and is now the primary Superman. For fans, this was a great boon, as many did not like the brash and impulsive younger Superman of the NEW 52. Fans were ecstatic that the more mature, confident and heroic Superman they grew up with, was finally going to take center stage again. For Jurgens and Tomasi, it would have been a much simpler route to leave the story of the multiple Supermen behind them, and just concentrate on the REBIRTH Superman, but instead, even more Supermen were introduced.

First, we have Lex Luthor, who had gained the powers of a God and taken up Superman’s mantle. Then, there was the mysterious Clark Kent who showed up during Superman’s battle with Doomsday, and appears to genuinely possess no powers whatsoever. Then there was the enhancement of Lana Lang and the NEW 52’s Lois Lane into Superwomen as part of the fallout from the NEW 52 Superman’s death. All of these characters’ current storylines were triggered at the conclusion of the NEW 52, and there is clearly an overarching mystery connecting them all, surely to be revealed in time. But for now, there’s plenty of intriguing questions to be asked. Starting with, why create so many Supermen in one comic book continuity? And what purpose do each of these various Supermen serve, both on a level of storytelling, and in their meta-service to the reader? That’s what we’ll attempt to break down here.

 

DC's Superman

Pre-Flashpoint Superman

Let’s begin with the Pre-FLASHPOINT/REBIRTH Superman. The Superman we all know and love, who battled Doomsday to the death and was reborn; who married Lois Lane and had a Super Son named Jon; who took over the mantle of Superman once more after the death of his young counterpart. For all intents and purposes, this is the real Superman. This is our Superman… But is he?

In the DC UNIVERSE REBIRTH comic, we learned that this Superman is not who he appears to be. The mysterious Mr. Oz, who’s manipulating events behind the scenes, comes out of the shadows and says these haunting words to “our” Clark. “You and your family are not what you believe you are. And neither was the fallen Superman.”

What are we, the reader, to make of these words? Their first immediate use is to cast doubt on all of the previous and subsequent actions of this Superman. Prior to this revelation, the safe assumption was that this Superman was thrown in from another dimension, but that he is the real Superman. Now we must wonder if he’s some aberration, some fake construct of the combined efforts of Ozymandais and Dr. Manhattan of Watchmen (they’re running the show behind the scenes of the Rebirth universe, in case you didn’t know). Every action of this Superman must, therefore, be called into question.

READ: Our review of the comic that begun DC’s epic relaunch, DC UNIVERSE REBIRTH #1!

It’s easy to forget this little detail when you read the subsequent issues, particularly in Tomasi and Gleason’s work on SUPERMAN. Superman’s battle with the Eradicator over the first six issues was all about Superman’s legacy. The Eradicator attempted to destroy and consume Jon Kent, feeling that the half-breed son of a Kryptonian and a human was a taint on Krypton’s legacy that must be “eradicated.” As Superman fought for the life and legitimacy of his son, it represented a quest for Superman to prove himself once more to the reader. We saw this in the Eradicator storyline. We saw it in the Hometown one-off story, with the Superman family’s charming Silver Age-style visit to the local carnival. We saw it in last week’s SUPERMAN ANNUAL, as Superman fought to let go of his past, and achieve harmony with this Earth in order to move toward the future. This is Superman of Earth, the Superman that fights for truth, justice and the American way.

Except this Superman does not represent truth. Not if Mr. Oz is to be believed.  Mr. Oz’s words hang over everything like an ominous shadow. All of the gains Superman has made in this series sink under the weight of the reality that it all might be a mirage. Superman may not be real. His fight for his family might have been for nothing. He may never have married Lois. He may never have had a son named Jon. Maybe the real Superman died at the end of the NEW 52, and this Superman was born out of a floating blue man’s imagination.

This possible Superman-deception makes for an extremely multilayered read of Tomasi’s work. It takes an already emotionally powerful series, and carefully sows in the seeds of doubt. By casting doubt on Superman’s legitimacy in the comic, the writers seem to acknowledge that the world is a more complicated place than when Superman was first “born.” We live in a world filled with distortion and misinformation, where nothing we see can be trusted at face value. This past year the news media has fractured into voices for radically different platforms, each one claiming to be fair and unbiased. Watching the news and trying to glean actual information has become nearly impossible. Perhaps Superman, who once represented honest values, is now just part of the whirlwind of lies that plague modern society. As Mr. Oz watches Superman from his creepy spy monitors in a mysterious dark room somewhere, one can’t help but be reminded of the modern technology “Big Brother” spy web that we’ve all become caught in. Superman is being watched and manipulated, just like us. Despite his great power, even Superman, the most incorruptible of all heroes, cannot escape the web of deceit.

Superman has always been the role model for all other heroes to follow. If we come to doubt Superman, then we come to doubt the very essence of heroism. Casting Superman’s legitimacy in doubt consequentially forces us to question his relevancy in society. While there are still elements of the REBIRTH Superman that are of great value – his humanity, his unbiased love for all people, his great strength – these qualities perhaps need no longer be packaged together in one item. Grouping such facets together creates a character, just like grouping facts together creates a story. But now, Superman’s story is changing. Just like the American way itself, Superman is being disassembled.  And the fragments are being reassembled into multiple characters. That opens the door for us to consider the new, “replacement” Supermen.

DC's Superman

Clark Kent the Human Man

This is our next Superman. Or rather, Clark Kent, the human man. One of the noteworthy elements of Jurgens’ ACTION COMICS run has been the introduction of a mysterious de-powered Clark Kent, first spotted by Superman during his battle with Doomsday. As Superman had to save Kent in this battle numerous times, it became clear very quickly that he truly had no powers of his own. Even more interesting, in the “Superman meets Clark Kent” arc, Superman interrogated Clark, and we learned about his backstory. Very similar to Superman’s own, except this Clark was born on Earth. His parents died in a gas explosion, and he was adopted by the Kents, learned the values of hard work and decency, and got a job at the Daily Planet.

These little plot details do a lot to distinguish our new Clark Kent, and making him a unique character was a brilliant gamble. Superman and Clark Kent have always been one and the same, two different personas wrapped in the same man. Forming Clark Kent into his own identity is a definitively new approach, a monkey wrench thrown in by Jurgens to disrupt the status quo. It also circles back to the idea of redefining DC’s Superman for our current generation. In this era of Super hero wish fulfillment, what better way to symbolize the emergence of super heroism into mainstream culture, than by turning the most powerful hero of all into an ordinary human being? The human elements of Superman’s character have always been the grounding feature that spoke most to readers. But now we have a Superman who is literally human. He is one of us.

READ: Peer into the fascinating dynamic between Superman and the human Clark Kent in our review of ACTION COMICS #967!

When this Clark Kent meets the REBIRTH Superman with distrust, it’s like he’s speaking through us, the disenchanted reader. In their initial confrontation inside Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, the two have a very telling debate as to which of them is more legitimate. Superman believes he can’t trust Clark, an impostor. And Clark believes he can’t trust Superman, also an imposter. It seems no matter where you look, Superman is always an impostor. And it’s of great consequence that this doubt comes from the mouth of Clark Kent himself. Jurgens may be intending this as the ultimate test of Superman’s legitimacy. If the greatest voice of doubt comes from the very man who once defined Superman’s Earthly existence, then perhaps the Kryptonian truly does not belong on Earth.

This identity crisis currently looms over all things Superman. The role that human Clark will ultimately play remains to be seen, but for now, it’s clear that he’s here to remind us that nothing  is normal in Metropolis anymore. This Clark Kent may well be a creation of Dr. Manhattan, another experiment to test the boundaries of this universe. But for the reader, splitting Clark Kent from his Kryptonian origins also tests the boundaries of what makes Superman work. Clark Kent is speaking for all of us, the jaded audience who has become distrustful of anyone who seems too good, too selfless. Superman is the ultimate moral creature, and as Clark Kent rightfully identifies, the American conscience reveals that purely moral beings don’t exist anymore.

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Lana Lang as Superwoman

And what of SUPERWOMAN? The first issue by Jimenez took readers by surprise. It offered us not one, but two familiar female characters who had been granted super powers. Both Lois Lane and Lana Lang were exposed to the radiation discharged by the dying NEW 52 Superman, and as a result gained his powers. This was a huge boon for female readers of the comic. After all, in this day and age, why wouldn’t there be a female Superman? And this series gave us not one, but two Superwomen. But after one issue of girl power partnership, a very surprising twist saw the NEW 52’s Lois Lane join her Superman in death – from the very same radiation poisoning. Now Lana Lang is suffering from the same sickness, and only time will tell whether she can be saved.

Despite the twists and turns, giving Lana Lang super powers was a brilliant move. She’s always possessed the kind of moral commitment and headstrong veracity to be a superhero. And her Smallville background and past intimate relationship with Clark Kent made her the ideal female counterpart for Superman. With Superman’s legitimacy now being called into question, Lana Lang seems like a more legitimate answer in the NEW 52 Superman’s absence. In fact, in the SUPERWOMAN comics, it’s been made clear on multiple occasions that the authorities first choice of aid for Metropolis citizens was not the new Superman. They still don’t trust him. Instead, Lana was the one who received the call. When Metropolis’ power was knocked out, it was Superwoman who was summoned. When the Atomic Skull threatened to go nuclear, it was Superwoman who the city called to help. The people of Metropolis would rather be saved by a woman they trust, than a man they don’t trust.

READ: Superwoman first flew onto the scene in DC’S SUPERWOMAN #1, and we reviewed it right here!

It’s a great dynamic in a world that is need of continued female empowerment. Comic book heroines like Wonder Woman, Black Widow and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are more important than ever before, and it makes perfect sense that a classic male hero – the most important one of all – is now getting the female makeover. It also begs the question of whether we even need a Super MAN anymore. The Superman we once loved struggles to be vital in our society. Not just for his values and symbolism, but even his gender relevance. That’s the challenge to the status quo that Superwoman most accurately represents. More so than the REBIRTH Superman, who might not even be real, Lana as Superwoman offers perhaps the most valid replacement for the NEW 52 Superman. She’s a woman, and she’s still the genuine article. Unlike the REBIRTH Superman, Lana needs to convince no one of her authenticity. It’s an empowering strike for women, and yet another strike against the status quo of Superman’s iconography.

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Lex Luthor as Superman

Which brings us to our final “Superman” – Lex Luthor. The quintessential villain, Superman’s ultimate adversary, who following the end of the NEW 52, gained the powers of a God. To add insult to injury, Lex now wears the very symbol that defined his foe. The irony of course, is that this iteration of Lex actually is a good guy. He’s still an arrogant heel, but his desire to do good appears to be genuine. Our REBIRTH Superman isn’t buying that story though. He’s always known Luthor to be a conniving megalomaniac. And the conflict once again becomes a battle of impostors; the battle for the right to wear the “S.”

From the moment Luthor presents himself to Metropolis in ACTION COMICS #957 wearing Superman’s shield, he’s a challenge to the status quo, to everything we thought we knew about Superman. As he addresses the awed crowd, Luthor spells it out literally, and makes his case directly to the reader for why the kind of Superman the world needs has changed.

“His cape and symbol inspired us. Now, though, it’s time for Metropolis to turn to one of its own. A man who understands what the city really needs. As a tribute, I’ll wear his cape and symbol in hopes it will continue to inspire us all. Rest assured in the knowledge that you are safe. Each and every one of you. Your Superman is here.”

Lex Luthor’s bold statement is the antithesis to everything we once valued and admired about Superman. We admired him because he could do the things we could not, because he could protect us, because he was greater than us. But if Luthor is to be believed, we no longer want our saviors to be greater than us. We see Superman as alien, condescending and out of touch. Luthor believes he’s the answer. Although a billionaire who’s never lived among the little people he’s sworn to protect, who’s arrogance and condescension far outweigh Superman’s, he somehow manages to persuade the crowd that he’s the people’s champion. And somehow, strangely (yet not so strangely), the argument sticks.

READ: Lex Luthor’s first day as the new Man of Steel happened in JUSTICE LEAGUE #52 – we reviewed it here! 

When the Rebirth Superman arrives to counter Luthor’s claim to the ‘S’ shield, it’s Superman who’s accused of being the imposter. Due to the suspicions we already have about him, suddenly Luthor’s accusation rings true. Jurgens, in his brilliant deception, turns Luthor into the hero, and Superman into the villain. And the argument has become so convincing that we’re no longer sure who to believe. Planting the ‘S’ shield on the chest of Superman’s greatest foe poses the ultimate challenge to the Superman status quo. When a man who was once the exact opposite of everything Superman stood for is suddenly a more convincing Superman than Superman, it makes a statement. It says that everything we thought we knew about Superman is behind us, and it’s time for a grand shake-up. The DC UNIVERSE has become topsy turvy. The notorious Lex Luthor has claimed himself to be Superman’s legitimate successor, and has actually succeeded in convincing the masses.

See, in a strange way we readers can’t help but root for Lex. The arc of the villain seeking redemption always has a fierce appeal. Consider: the prospect of Lex Luthor as a legitimate Superman is more interesting and exciting than Clark Kent as Superman. Clark Kent is old news; he’s part of an outdated class of hero. But Lex Luthor, the genius, the maverick, the billionaire… his unpredictability makes him fascinating. Truthfully, we don’t know if Lex is going to stay the course and be a hero for the people, or if he’s going to do exactly what Superman predicts and betray everyone. But the lack of certainty is more interesting than a Superman who’s actions will always be predictable. The significance of this in America’s current climate couldn’t be any clearer.

DC's Superman

Superman Forever

Lex Luthor. Lana Lang. Clark Kent. Superman. All four of them represent parts of what Superman once was, and who he could be again. DC’s Superman in his original form – a man with pure goodness and unlimited strength –  may be outdated. But even Superman can adapt, and adapt he has. This second reign of the Supermen has been an intriguing and exciting exploration of the essence of Superman. We’ve learned that Superman is not just one man. Superman can be just a nerdy journalist named Clark Kent. He can also be a woman who shares the same powers and values. He can even be a sworn enemy who’s redeemed himself and taken up the mantle. That’s what Superman ultimately is – a mantle, a symbol of hope. The person wearing the shield might change. Indeed, in this increasingly complex and uncertain future, the definition of Superman will likely continue to change. But Superman, despite the core values that have existed since the 1930s, has – with the help of Tomasi, Jurgens, and Jimenez – proven himself more adaptable than ever before. And Superman will continue to adapt and survive. Though Superman has been split into many individual pieces, the core of his character has emerged stronger than ever before. Heroism. Humanity. Power. Justice. Progress. Each of the four Supermen possess one or more of these core traits in their own unique package.

So in answer to Swamp Thing’s challenge – “YOU DON’T BELONG HERE ANYMORE!” … Wrong, Swamp Thing. Superman has changed a great deal, but he still belongs here. And he always will.

 

DC's Superman

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