Superman Today vs. Superman Ten Years Ago

An Anniversary Special Report by Neal Bailey

Date: December 21, 2003

I just pulled out my twelve long boxes and realized something. I have too many comics. Way, way too many comics. I have comics I don't even remember reading, I have so many comics. I pick some of them out, and I read them, and it's a new, fresh, interesting read.

That's too many comics.

It makes me introspective, and a little bit worried. But largely, it makes me more introspective rather than worried. Ten years of comics down the tubes, and it's been a really sweet ride. Death, life, new costumes, controversy, and learning slowly but surely that a comic book can be a piece of literature, or, well, Howard the Duck. Yes. I even have Howard the Duck.

MOS #17 But of all the comics I read and have collected, as you may have guessed by the letterhead above, in this browser, I much prefer Superman. The first comic I picked up, aside from brief flirtations as a kid with comics in the eighties, now all torn to their final resting place, was Man of Steel #17, the famous issue where Doomsday first appeared (not technically, but as a character). As a child, I was fascinated by the whole storyline, and by Superman, and while I have breaks in my Batman, Spiderman, X-Men, Green Lantern, Spectre, Green Arrow, and other collections, I have every single Superman comic since the death, and some before.

You might say I'm a Superman geek.

So I'm sitting there, thinking to myself, what would make a good editorial, what with the highly promoted fanfare of anniversaries coming up, including this site, the comics, the movies, and other various convergences of the moon and Smallville... what would be better than a Wizard-style blow by blow of what life was like then for a Superman comic fan as opposed to now, and overall, who wins out.

This is likely to get me flamed, but hey, I'll try to provide a rationale so I don't get too many firebombs in the old window. ;)

Characters:

Characters, for the most part, remain the same. We have some additions to the cast, including The Tribunal, Kenny Braverman, Manchester Black, The Futuresmiths, Imperiex, and the new Brainiac, but largely, the status quo remains, as none of these characters seem to be recurring, and the characters that ARE recurring, at least some of the time, are similar to those in the early nineties.

VERDICT: Tie.

Character usage:

In the early nineties, if a character attacked Superman, Superman was likely to notice and have to deal with that character over a series of issues, and in a fashion that was rather coherent and defined. For instance, Superman had to do battle with Doomsday across five issues, then the funeral used Cadmus over an arc, and for Reign of the Supermen, Steel, Superboy, and Supergirl were all used again and again, and to the whim of the fans. Now, we have experimental characters more oriented around testing Superman's dedication, as opposed to characters designed to compliment the Man of Steel. It used to be that a character was all about how Superman would stop him, now it's all about why the Man of Steel should. More literary and introspective, perhaps, but in terms of the fans, sales, and general likeability of the character usage?

VERDICT: Superman ten years ago, big time.

Proliferation:

In the early 1990s, we had Man of Steel, Superman, Adventures, Action, and occasional specials. I'll even count Man of Tomorrow.

Now we have JLA, Metropolis, Birthright, Superman, Adventures, Action, Superman/Batman and frequent specials. When quality is not regarded, you have to concede that Superman, though his popularity may be waning, is more prolific now, ironically.

VERDICT: Superman now.

Attitude:

Superman was very defined and constant in the early nineties, never questioning himself save in the most dire of circumstances, like killing Zod or punishing Emil.

Superman now doesn't tend to know WHY he's Superman, half the time, and never seems to have the situation in control, because he isn't sure why he fights or who he is fighting, generally (Loeb and Metropolis offer rare exceptions)

VERDICT: Superman ten years ago.

Superman #75 Circulation:

Ten years ago, between two and a half and three million copies of Superman #75 ALONE sold out of newsstands.

According to statistics I looked up on the internet, this year, through about September, Superman sales for all comics, including JLA, have yet to reach the two million issues mark.

VERDICT: Superman ten years ago.

Editing:

Superman comics ten years ago used a mapped structure (according to Denis O'Neill's book How to Write Comics) involving structured graphs and a plotted, continuous storyline running through all four major books, with events and ideas planned a year ahead of time and meticulously prepared. Mike Carlin prepared, along with the writers, a rather strong, defined sense of a story which never really ended. Disadvantages to this included a lack of an artist's ability to create a major storyline on their own, but I, for one, in retrospect, tend to prefer something strongly crafted and plotted than something unique but reeking.

Now, Eddie Berganza allows the writers to follow a very loose and literary narrative structure, which many would argue is rather unique and allows writers to stretch their legs, but in my opinion, writers stretching their legs is for experimental fiction, not brand name establishments... and I say that sympathetic to the wants of the writers, being an unpaid author of experimental fiction. But for Superman, it just doesn't fly right.

VERDICT: Superman ten years ago.

Art:

You might be surprised about what I have to say for this one. I'm a big fan of Bog, a huge fan of Grummet, Jurgens, Guice, Simonson, everyone of that era. I am.

But Ferry, McGuinness, Lee, and the rest of the new guard, while less conventional, tend to be cleaner, more organic, and quite stunning, even the work on Metropolis, which, while dark and less Superman-y, is still somewhat more dynamic.

All respect to the masters in the early nineties, but as I think you might agree, as time, technology, and new innovations offer more to the potential artist, I see the artists today taking advantage of it, and much as Citizen Kane is a classic for what it is, by today's standards, if you put Fight Club next to Kane, Fight Club will win, even if Kane was more innovative in its time. A sad fact of progress and evaluation.

VERDICT: Superman now.

AOS #615 Covers:

The covers today lack a great deal of background, they don't really relate to the stories very well, and the logos are too art nouveau to be effective. This is the worst part of today's Superman comics, to be completely honest, in most respects.

Ten years ago there were symbolic covers often, but they were less focused on being arty and more focused on being dynamic, and, often, relative to the story. They were more conformist, to be sure, but they at very least let you know what was between the covers, largely.

VERDICT: Superman ten years ago.

Technicals:

Meaning, the interior make-up of the comics. There are just as many ads, so that's a tie. The Superman comics today lack letter columns and page numbers, along with regular, degrading paper, much as there was ten years ago. So for the pages, and the ads, a tie, but for the page numbers and letter columns:

VERDICT: Superman ten years ago.

Powers:

Superman ten years ago had very distinct and defined powers. I have to give Eddie Berganza kudos for always having snap answers to fan questions in the "Ask Eddie Fan Forum", for instance, how effective a certain power is, how much Superman can do or lift, etcetera, but the problem is, his answers in our forum illustrate, in concordance with the comic, a lack of continuity of powers. For instance, in one comic, a Casey comic, Superman can melt the world away from being frozen, a truly God-like power, and in another, he can fly into the sun. In the Superman of ten years ago, Superman had a very defined and strict set of powers, largely so that he wouldn't become, as the creators put it, TOO powerful, and thus hard to write. Personally, I tend to think the problem is not that Superman is hard to write, but rather that the writer's haven't yet earned a full grasp of the concept that we tend not to read for Superman, but rather, for Lex Luthor, and how Superman reacts to him. Regardless, ten years ago, the powers were more defined, and certainly made Superman weaker, and thus more human, at least to me.

VERDICT: Superman ten years ago.

Dialogue:

Superman ten years ago was more coherent and managed, but sometimes, the dialogue was just cheesy. When I was thirteen it was okay, but reading through it now, I cringe. Granted, there are cringe moments today, but there were more back then... just general melodrama as opposed to the more examining dialogue today.

VERDICT: Superman now.

The future:

I'll go two levels on this one. Superman today in the SUPERMAN future is looking bleak, filling with multiple Earths, a pessimistic "Days of Future Past" kind of eternal failure, with multiple versions of himself, Brainiac, Imperiex and Luthor running around. Also, there are those annoying and not quite coherent Futuresmiths. In the Superman of ten year's ago's future, there was the Death of Clark Kent, the Wedding Album, The (cringe) Millenium Giants and Doomsday returning in a threatening way.

In the real future, Superman is headed for what would seem like lower sales, but with a pump-up from "names", which can mean nothing but a name when it comes down to it (the proof is in the pages), who knows? My guess? The big names will do what Loeb did, and boost things a bit, then the editing we're used to will drag Superman back to the levels that canned the staff we had until recently in the next two years, eventually leading to either a coherent narrative re-structuring with a new editor, or, more likely, because things are torn all to pieces in terms of cohesion, a mini-Crisis or revamp that's REALLY a revamp and not just some new guy with a new idea. A real re-examination. Not Birthright, which is a good story, but not really a revamp, just a modernization of the normal Superman story we have now.

VERDICT: Superman ten years ago, Giants (ugh) aside.

Lois:

Lois in the early nineties was a strong woman and a participant in the Superman mythos in a strong way. Now she's, well, plug your ears kids, a b#$#$. What a b number sign, dollar sign, number sign, dollar sign means is that she's really rude, impulsive, unloving, cruel, and out of character all the time.

VERDICT: Superman ten years ago.

Costume:

The costume stayed the same, though Superman flirted with long hair back in the early nineties, which, though most people hated, I really liked. I even grew my hair long for it. (God, that's sad. That's really, really sad.) But true.

VERDICT: Superman ten years ago.

Lex:

Lex now is a very strong and domineering personality in the DCU. While he doesn't USE it like he did in the early nineties, meaning, we get great stories like Lex knowing and Lex being President and they just sit on it, but it's still more innovative than clones, a fake redhead Lex, and a Lex that's less active in hating Superman.

VERDICT: Superman now.

Overall:

Honestly, I'd have to say ten years ago, Superman was more exciting, more promising, and more saleable than Superman now.

Take heart, we have new teams, and we have hope, but honestly Superman now is trashed by Superman ten years ago.

VERDICT: 11-5, Superman ten years ago.

Now realize that ten years ago, comics were truly a special, new thing to me, so I might be more than a little biased, but on a quantitative level, I'll have to stand by my findings, looking into the idea in writing.

That said, 20 years ago, where were we? I mean, the Super Friends were nice for nostalgia, but other than that?

Let's just say I have hope that ten years from now, or even soon, we'll be in a better place, comic-wise. Look at Smallville, the potential for a new movie, and Justice League. And the distance from Super Friends to Byrne was the issue "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?", a CRISIS, and a mini-series.

Have hope. I do. And even if I didn't, heck, it's Superman! I'd read it if he lost his head and fought crime with his rear end.

It's SUPERMAN!

And DC knows that. :)

Regardless, go pick up the newly issued The Death of Superman, World Without A Superman, and Superman: The Return of Superman from the Superman Homepage Online Shop, and write me to tell me how right or full of beans I am!

I highly recommend the TPBs. Good reading all around. And even though I'm less fond of Superman today, it's still better reading than most of the comics out there, and underrated, to be sure. Good reading!

Neal