The Rise and Fall of The Man of SteelJune 2016
Examining Superman's Role in a Post-9/11 Society and What it Says About Us
By Mario Bennese
My obsession with Superman started when I was twelve years old - around the release of 2006's Superman Returns. From what I remember, the marketing campaign for the film excited many people and rightly so. It had been nineteen years since the Man of Steel last graced movie screens in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. A lot had changed since 1987. The Cold War had ended, the Twin Towers had fallen, and the United States had become embroiled in yet another conflict. The public was ready for the ultimate symbol of hope to return. People were ready to believe in something good again.
Instead, moviegoers were presented with a film focused on an introspective Superman questioning his place in a cynical world that had almost entirely learned to live without him. It was a film that seemed to mimmic reality.
Since the 1960s, Superman's popularity has been on a steady decline. This phenomenon can easily be measured through examining the number of total issues sold to North American comic book stores from the distributor. Before examining the sales figures, it is imperative to remember that the number of issues sold/ordered is not indicative of the quality of the comic, nor does it take into account other variables.
According to Comichron.com, a website dedicated to the chronicling of comic book sales figures of Diamond Comic Distributors, April 2016's Superman #51 sold 38,103 copies while Action Comics #51 sold a mere 32,167. In April 1997, Superman #124 and Action Comics #734 sold 77,046 and 74,298 units respectively. It is important to note, however, that the issues from 1997 were released during the Superman Blue era and the 2016 issues were released as part of the New 52 - both eras which received mixed to poor reactions from fans. It is not entirely clear if these changes might have been entirely responsible for the number of sales. What is clear is that the demand for Superman comic books is not as high as it once was.
Because ComiChron's database only has information regarding monthly sales as early as January 1995, I was unable to compare the numbers from the previously mentioned issues to anything in earlier years. I was, however, able to look at the annual average paid circulation - "the number of periodicals sold over a period of time divided by the number of issues published" - as reported in publishers' statement of ownership.
ComiChron shows annual data as far back as 1960 where the average paid circulation for the Superman title was roughly 810,000. In 1961, that number rose to 820,000. By 1962, Superman was the top selling book of that year, with 740,000 issues ordered. In 1965, Superman's solo title had roughly 823,829 units ordered. The main Superman titles held the top six spots for that year.
In 1966, sales began to shift in favor of Batman, who had just received his very own TV show. Batman was the highest selling book of the year, with 898,470 total issues ordered. Superman came in second with 719,976 issues. By 1967, Superman had dropped to 649,300, by 1968, 636,400 (though Batman orders dropped to 533,450), and by 1969, down to 511,984. Unfortunately, further annual data is not available.
As stated earlier, the number of issues sold/ordered does not take into account other factors that might have been at play. This is particularly true for the data from the 1960s as issue publication was often sporadic, leaving entire months without an issue. On occasion, sales have spiked due to promising new creative teams, new #1 issues, or changes to the status quo that would draw comic speculators only for sales to return to the normal order rate within at least two months.
Outside of estimated figures, there are two key factors which must be examined in order to attempt to understand this decline in the Man of Tomorrow's popularity. These might be clues as to why Superman doesn't resonate with people like he used to.
The first component I wish to explore is the handling of the Superman character within recent years. With nearly eighty years of history, it must be increasingly difficult to tell stories which are fresh and unique. Often times, this requires a change to the status quo. A new power here, the retconning of a marriage there. With a character as powerful and morally upright as Superman, there is undoubtedly a struggle involved with writing the character. That is not to say that it is impossible to tell a strong Superman story or write the character well. As long as the Last Son of Krypton is a selfless defender of truth and justice, the character has been done justice. Unfortunately, there has been a push to make Superman more somber and edgier in the past decade or so.
This tonal shift in the character is undoubtedly linked to the overwhelming success of characters such as Batman, Wolverine, Punisher, and Spawn. Darker, grittier heroes have been selling incredibly well since the 1980s. Stories like Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns proved that comics weren't just for children and that the medium could be a legitimate form of literature. The success of Todd McFarlane's Spawn furthered the mentality that comics needed to be edgier to sell well.
For a couple of decades, the darker tone of comic books didn't touch Superman. He was, for the most part, the same kind-hearted hero that he had been since his introduction. In March 2001's Action Comics #775, author Joe Kelly tackled the popular trend of comic book heroes that subscribed to the ideology of capital punishment. In the issue, Superman is encountered by a group of new heroes calling themselves The Elite. These new heroes take it upon themselves to act as judge, jury, and executioner, leading people to call Superman's methods of fighting crime into question. The issue was hailed as the best single issue of 2001.
In a 2012 interview with Brian Walton for www.nerdist.com around the release of Superman vs. The Elite, the direct-to-video adaptation of Action Comics #775, Joe Kelly spoke about heroes and anti-heroes in relation to the story and comic book companies...
"I think that the big companies certainly know who they're marketing their books to, and a large segment of that audience tends to like their heroes a little edgier. I certainly fall into that land. So if there is a trend towards anti-heroes or darker material, it's almost explicitly market-driven, not to mention shortsighted. We're not going to get new readers (a/k/a kids) if every book is about classic superheroes being dissected and darkened. By no means do I think every superhero book should be vanilla ice cream, but there's a reason that we all fell in love with comics when we were young. They addressed plenty of social issues and had a lot to say about the world at large, but as a whole they weren't bleak. It's that lack of hope that I find troublesome, and the idea that superheroes and the ideals they represent are 'corny.'"
This decision to market comic books almost exclusively to an adult audience has proven to be a major factor in the diminishing success of the Man of Tomorrow. Under the direction of some questionable authors, Superman took an edgier tone, culminating in the polarizing New 52 initiative in 2011. Young, brash, and reckless, Superman was retooled in an attempt to appeal to a new market. For a while, it worked. Sales had risen for a brief period before declining once again. In this myopic revitalization, DC Comics had all but abandoned what makes Superman so beloved.
2013's Man of Steel took a more somber tone. Trying to capitalize on the success of The Dark Knight trilogy, Warner Brothers hired director Christopher Nolan and screenplay writer David S. Goyer to update the Superman story for modern audiences. Spearheaded by Zack Snyder, the film proved to be divisive amongst moviegoers. Many felt that the film lacked the optimism and fun that previous installments had while others enjoyed the more introspective take on the character.
What really upset some moviegoers however, was the decision to have Superman take General Zod's life. It was a gutsy move on Warner Brothers' part that sparked endless debates. I vividly remember experiencing this controversial moment in the theater.
It was two days after the June 13 advanced screening. Overall enjoying the film, I was ready to go for the second viewing with a friend of mine. The film had gotten to the final battle. Zod was restrained by an inexperienced Superman pleading for him to stop. "Never." Heat vision flowed from his eyes, inching closer and closer to a family trapped in a corner. A pained look on Superman's face. Snap. Zod's body dropped to the ground.
In a hauntingly heartbreaking moment, the audience applauds as Kal-El screams in agony over the decision he had just made. They were cheering that Superman had killed. This was absolutely astounding to me. Up on the screen was a character who had made the difficult decision to take a life and people were cheering wildly. It was a startling revelation.
The second reason for Superman's decline in popularity lies with us. Watching people cheer as the Man of Steel took the life of another being made everything clear. We, as a society, have lost some part of our humanity. We don't believe that people can be innately good anymore. A large majority of us have become despondent. Why shouldn't we be? The times have become increasingly complex. We live in an age where identity theft can happen through ordering something on the internet and public bombings occur with increasing frequency. Envelopes containing anthrax have been mailed to unsuspecting people and international diplomacies have crumbled. Uncertainty plagues us, leaving many untrusting of even their neighbors. It is ironic that we live in one of the most peaceful eras in the history of humanity, but the human condition appears to be deteriorating rapidly.
Superman has fallen into a place in popular culture where he is recognized as iconic, but people often have difficulty pinpointing exactly why. I am frequently asked why I adore the character as much as I do and upon explaining my reasons, they still have trouble fully understanding. I believe this is because the Man of Steel has been bent by our own perception of the world and DC Comics has delivered stories that more often than not miss the crucial elements of the character. For instance, it has recently become a trend in comics to have the public generally distrust Superman. In the New 52, the people of earth rarely fully supported Kal-El. Time and time again, the world would find a reason to turn on him despite him constantly proving his intentions to be noble. 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice also saw a Superman faced with mixed global reception. It wasn't until the end of the film that they truly believed that Superman was truly a guy just trying to do the right thing. Every time writers are questioned about the public's inability to trust that Superman is there to help, the answer always comes down to "that's how it'd happen in real life." It has unfortunately become a situation in which art imitates life.
I cannot imagine that people would choose to exist in perpetual fear and distrust. It is an uncomfortable state of mind to live in, doubting everyone's intentions. I do believe however, that we as a society have forgotten what it is to be hopeful. In an age of mass-consumerism, we've forgotten what it means to be selfless. People starve in the streets while we wait for hours outside of a store to get our hands on the latest gadget. We've lost sight of honesty. How can we expect our neighbors to be truthful when our own politicians keep us in the dark?
I am by no means perfect and neither is anyone else I've ever met. All of us have been selfish, dishonest, and cynical at some point or another. We make mistakes. That's what makes us human. It is how we overcome these negative characteristics that truly matters.
One of the many criticisms I've heard about Superman is that he's a boring, uninteresting character. Every time I probe a non-fan, the answer is usually always something along the lines of him being uninteresting because he's just a guy that does good and acts like a boy scout. That, I feel, is why the character has endured for nearly eighty years. Superman does not act because of an obligation or a personal vendetta. He didn't lose a loved one to a senseless act of violence or have a pact with a mystical force. Superman does good because it's the right thing to do - because two kindly farmers from Kansas took him in as an infant and raised him to help whenever he had the ability. Superman sets an example that we should all follow - one of altruism.
To say that nobody in the world acts selflessly would be utterly moronic and unbelievably pessimistic. Millions of men and women actively fight to make a positive difference in the world. Each of us have the potential to be a hero, but our fears, greed, and skepticism have hindered our progress. We can be better. We must be better.
Sometimes, I enjoy people-watching. Witnessing a fraction of peoples' lives as they pass by is oddly fascinating to me. In the past few years of watching people go about their day, I've noticed an interesting phenomenon. I have found that the number of Superman shirts worn by passersby is increasing. Not a day goes by that I don't see at least one other person wearing that iconic red and yellow pentagonal symbol. I see the growing number of "S" shields and I am filled with hope. I sit and hope to myself that people are starting to believe again. Perhaps someday those two or three shirts will grow into an ocean of "S" shields.