Superman: The Unauthorized Biography
Glen Weldon (Author)
A celebration of Superman's life and history - in time for his 75th birthday. How has the Big Blue Boy Scout stayed so popular for so long? How has he changed with the times, and what essential aspects of him have remained constant? This fascinating biography examines Superman as a cultural phenomenon through 75 years of action-packed adventures, from his early years as a social activist in circus tights to his growth into the internationally renowned demigod he is today.
Hardcover: 352 pages
Last updated: June 17, 2002
KC had a wonderful collection of articles, reviews, interviews, letters and the annual Kaycee awards, during it's almost 6 year run with editor Jeff Sykes & friends and I encourage you to peruse those issues. Thanks are especially due to Steve Younis who was able to rescue the issues after Jeff became unable to continue operating KC.
The entire run of KC is located in the "Other" section of the Superman Homepage.
The article on Dan Jurgens was written in 1999 when he left as a writer of the regular Superman titles. It seemed like a good time to review his contribution to the tales of the Man of Steel.
Jurgens is best known and admired for his dynamic art. As a writer he has been criticised, particularly for his writing of dialogue. Perhaps part of the reason for the sharpness of this criticism is that his work has to compete alongside other writers who excel in dialogue, including Roger Stern, Karl Kesel, and Jerry Ordway.
However, when I look back on my Superman collection, the stories that I enjoy the most and remember the best are often ones written by Jurgens.
Jurgens has written some of the 'important' stories during his tenure, including the death of Superman (Superman #75) and the introduction of the 'Electric Blue Superman' in Superman #123, but those aren't the ones that impress me. After all, most of the stories that Jurgens or any of the other Super-scribes write are part of the ongoing, cross-title saga and have a limited ability to stand on their own.
Within that format though, Jurgens has been able to write some wonderful stand-alone issues -- and those are the ones that I will review here.
Jurgens first worked with DC in 1982, doing artwork on Mike Grell's series, Warlord, starting with issue #63. On the Superman titles, Jurgens first did a two-issue fill-in during the "Exiled in Space" arc (Superman #29 and Adventures of Superman #452 -- cover dated March 1989). Jurgens landed a regular job on Adventures of Superman starting with #458 (Fortress of Solitude / Eradicator stories) until #478 ("Time and Time Again" arc), and then became the writer of Superman as of #57 (Revenge of the Krypton Man / Eradicator).
While Jurgens has written several other series (Booster Gold, Justice League America, Teen Titans) in which Superman has appeared, the stories I am going to review are from his run on the main Superman titles.
Jurgens wrote and pencilled a real treat of a story in Adventures of Superman #463. It's a race between Superman and the Flash to determine who is the fastest man alive. The story, an homage to the classic Silver Age races, has Superman being forced to race Wally West by Mr. Mxyzptlk. Not a lot else going on in this issue other than a fun race with several twists and surprises from our favorite 5th dimensional imp. And unlike the original races, we have a clear winner -- Flash.
In Adventures of Superman #466, Jurgens has Fantastic Four analogues meet the Man of Steel. A space shuttle travels through some "weird radiation" and crashes back on Earth. The four facsimiles (a couple, a kid brother, and a gruff pal) develop strange powers. Unlike the FF's tale, the ending isn't quite so happy. The characters are well written, especially the four frightened survivors who struggle to find a cure for their mutations. Jurgens explores Superman's reactions well through speech and thought balloons. He uses the tragedy of the fatal flight to have Clark reflect on his personal life -- as Clark lets Lois know in a lip-lockin' way that he wants their relationship to deepen.
That issue introduced Hank Henshaw, who later (after the death of Superman) would return as the mad villain Cyborg. Jurgens continues Henshaw's story in Adventure of Superman #468. Henshaw, whose body has disintegrated, has learned to transfer his essence through electrical devices and to control mechanical objects (he hasn't learned how to use flesh at this point). His desire is to see and help his wife, who is suffering a breakdown following the accident. He does not wish to kill others, and he speaks peacefully with Superman. When he learns that his presence could jeopardize his wife's recovery, he creates a spaceship using part of the rocket that brought the infant Kal-El to Earth and departs for the stars.
Henshaw is a tragic character here, not an evil one -- although we see signs of potential madness in his refusal to remain and his determination to be a lonely wanderer throughout the universe. He harbours no hate. He leaves voluntarily, for his wife's sake and for him to start a new life. This makes his later psychopathic and evil nature even more unexpected when he eventually returns to Earth.
Jurgens deals with a serious moral issue in Adventures of Superman #474. Clark returns to Smallville on New Year's Eve -- not to celebrate, but to reflect. Clark's childhood friend, Scott Brubaker, has been in a coma for the past 10 years, following a car accident. Clark shares some responsibility for the accident, as he was a passenger in the car and knew that Scott was drinking and driving. Tonight, Scott is to be taken off life support. Clark confronts his past in conversations with Scott's parents. It's a catharsis for all of them as Clark relives the accident and its consequences. Jurgens conveys the depth of emotions well, and yet leaves the reader with a strong, life-affirming message.
In Superman #59, Jurgens deals with how Clark's relationship with his fiancee is affected by his obligations as Superman. The first half of the issue illustrates these difficulties as Clark continually has to interrupt conversations with Lois to deal with criminals. Later, Clark as Superman flies Lois to Mt. Fuji for a private, uninterrupted discussion. When Lois asks why Clark has to be Superman, he replies, "Because no one else can." The issue ends with excerpts from the Daily Planet, including a column by Lois about giving thanks to Superman. We don't get many stories focussing primarily on the Lois and Clark relationship, and this one is a nice change of pace.
Jurgens also wrote Superman #64, which is the first "Metropolis Mailbag" issue (reviewed along with similar stories in Special Reports: Christmas Stories). Superman is always more interesting when the focus is on the man rather than the feats. Jurgens does a nice job here, showing the human side of the hero.
Louise Simonson and Jurgens each take part in writing about the issue of wife-beating in Superman: The Man of Steel #16 and Superman #72. The tale, titled "Crisis At Hand", hearkens back to Action Comics #1, where Siegel and Shuster had Superman deal harshly with a wife-beater.
In "Crisis At Hand", Superman is unable to help a neighbour who is beaten by her husband. The issue of spousal abuse is dealt with in a very frank (yet not preachy) way, as we see how dysfunctional and tragic the situation is to everyone involved.
In part 1, Clark is awoken by the sounds of a beating. Realizing it is his own neighbours, he bursts in through their window and threatens the husband -- only to have the wife attack him and call the police on Superman. She defends her abusive husband and refuses to press charges. The issue ends with Clark in his apartment, helplessly trying to shut out the sounds of continued beatings.
Jurgens picks up the tale, having Clark discussing his frustrations with Pa Kent and then Lois, reflecting on an incident early in his Superman career where he dealt with a wife beater. In Superman: The Man of Steel #16, Jon Bogdanove had wonderfully reinterpreted the scenes from Action Comics #1 where Superman appears to end a wife beating by terrorizing the beater.
In this issue, Jurgens has Clark relate how he later found the wife's body in the morgue, killed by her abusive husband. A maddened, unshaved Superman finally caught up with the murderer at the funeral. Superman, appearing ready to commit murder himself, is only stopped by a plea from the murderer's mother.
As Clark is telling Lois about the earlier tragedy, he overhears yet another beating by his neighbour. Together, Lois and Clark break in to the apartment and stop the beating. Fortunately, this time the wife is prepared to take steps to end the cycle of violence. Jurgens realistically reflects the real tragedy of spousal abuse by having the horribly battered wife taking these steps only reluctantly, while still expressing her love for her abusive husband.
While Lois convinces the wife to call a women's shelter, Superman follows up on the husband, who has also reached the point where he admits he needs help. Jurgens avoids any easy or pat answers. While in good comic book fashion, he presents a hopeful ending that the cycle may end for this couple, he does not minimize the seriousness of the problem and shows the despair of trying to help people who refuse to be helped.
Jurgens, with Jerry Ordway scripting, has more fun in Superman #110, guest-starring Plastic Man. The two heroes get caught up in a treasure hunt between a brother and sister act that are competing to collect Superman's cape. Most of the fun is, of course, with Plastic Man -- especially when the art shows his cartoon view of the world, and when he and Jimmy Olsen compare stretching careers. The ending (which I won't spoil) is also a fun little twist to the story.
Jurgens 'stretches' his theme a bit too much in Superman #120 when he has members of the Superman cast consider what they would do if they had his powers. The ending is a bit too pat and saccharine as a young boy gives the right answers and Superman flies away thinking, "I guess this really was a super day!"
What makes the issue is the opening scene, with Luthor having a nightmare that his yet-to-be-born child will turn into a huge Superman fan, telling his father, "Superman's the number one guy on the whole planet!" and, "Bet you wish you wuz him!" After that comic introduction, we get to see Superman enjoying his powers and finding out what Luthor, Prof. Hamilton, Jimmy, Cat, and Perry would do if they had super-powers. The issue is a fun, light read and won best story/story arc in last year's Kaycee Awards.
Two other stories by Jurgens were on the best story/story arc list for the 1997 Kaycees. Superman #121, "They Call It Suicide Slum", had my vote for best story, as Superman dealt with gangs and violence. What made the story for me is when Jurgens has Clark, shirt open to reveal the Superman symbol on his chest, holding the injured young girl and then flying her to the hospital without changing into his costume. To me, those pages conveyed what Superman is and should be about -- service to others above personal concerns. Of course, Jurgens' art, finished by Joe Rubinstein, greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the story.
The other 1997 Kaycee-nominated story was Superman #129, where Ashbury's new art teacher, Mr. Sormon, is developed as a supportive, sympathetic character -- only to be revealed as the Cyborg. The story presents Hank Henshaw as a tragic character, flawed by madness and hatred of Superman - adding much needed depth to a character that has become very one-dimensional since his reintroduction as the Cyborg.
More recently, Jurgens presented a masterful examination of Lex Luthor in Superman #131 ("Checkmate"). Building on Luthor's background of his abusive parents and foster-parents, the story climaxes with the simultaneous murder of Mayor Berkowitz and birth of Lena Luthor. Jurgens presents a chilling story of manipulation and revenge.
Jurgens has also written some Superman stories outside of the regular titles. In Superman Secret Files #1, a mysterious stranger investigates Clark Kent/Superman's background. The story has a review of the post-Crisis Superman as the stranger talks with Ma and Pa Kent. But the highlight of the story is the final two pages, when Superman meets Batman in the Batcave. The issue ends with Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne sitting down, mugs in hand, to talk.
Jurgens has written three Prestige Format mini-series, including the acclaimed Superman/Doomsday Hunter/Prey and the rematch, Superman: The Doomsday Wars. But my favorite of his mini-series is Superman vs Aliens. This tale of a weakened Superman fighting monsters alongside Kara in Argo City was dramatic and exciting. Kara's story remains untold and hopefully will be followed up on some day.
In the meantime, here's to more writer's entertaining us with a mix of ongoing and single issue Superman stories!