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.
Read Mario’s complete “The Rise and Fall of The Man of Steel” essay right here at the Superman Homepage.