This is an old blog post I did for my hubpages blog (www.hubpages.com/hub/From-Cosmic-Spheres). I'm thinking about ending that blog and just posting stuff here. This post is about my favorite comics hang-up: Why I don't enjoy Post-Crisis Superman. Enjoy:
Superman is an icon. He was the very first comic book superhero and has been fighting for truth and justice since his first appearance in 1938. Yet he hasn’t always been the same man. In fact, the Superman we read in comics today has gone through many different changes to personality and power throughout his 72 years of publication. Taking this into consideration, I’ve come up with a theory as to why Superman has struggled to maintain his popularity in the Modern Age of comics (roughly the mid-80’s to today) and why a majority of his stories in this age seem to fall flat. I believe these failings in Superman’s modern mythology stem from the character’s revamp in 1986 by writer/artist John Byrne.
Let me first get a few things out of the way: I don’t hate John Byrne. He’s one of my favorite creators from the 1980’s who gave my childhood some of the best X-Men stories ever put to page. I also like some of the things he did with his Superman revamp. Lois Lane was a very strong, admirable, career woman under Byrne. I also liked what he did with Lex Luthor by making the villain a corporate leader embraced by the public (this always made sense to me despite the criticism he got for it). I’m also well aware that I’m not the first to blame Byrne for Superman’s recent failings, and, in fact, people have been complaining about it since it was released. I’m also sure I’m not the first one to make this particular argument about Byrne’s Superman, but I feel like it really is the answer to Superman’s problems. If nothing else, I know I can shine some new light on the issue. My theory is this: Byrne weakened Superman as a character by making Clark Kent the man’s true identity.
“HOLD ON!” Some of you shout. “Isn’t Clark Kent supposed to be Superman’s true identity?” The answer is yes and no. You see, since John Byrne and the late 80’s, the approach to Clark Kent has been that he is the real man and personality behind the hero while Superman is just the identity that Clark uses to fight crime. This was not always the case. In fact, prior to 1986, Superman was the man’s true identity while Clark Kent was more like an act Superman put on so he could interact with humans and protect his loved ones. You can clearly see this when you compare Superman stories from the Silver and Bronze Ages of comics (known as Pre-Crisis continuity to DC fans) to comics from the Modern Age (Post-Crisis or Post-Byrne if you like). In fact, let’s do some of that now just so I can show you how transparent the differences are.
Pre-Crisis- Before the Byrne overhaul, Superman had grown up in Smallville as Superboy. He wore his super costume and fought crime as an incredibly powerful and super intelligent young man. As Superboy he could fly so fast he could break the time-space barrier and was smart enough to build Superboy robots to protect his secret identity. However, his childhood was very lonely. Clark couldn’t take part in sports or even make too many close friends because he was afraid succeeding like that as Clark would tip people off to the fact he was really Superboy. He could only seem to identify with kids who had powers like his, but they were few and far between. His parents definitely had their hands full with him and the situation sometimes reads like two mortals trying desperately to contain a child who was a superior being. One of my favorite Superboy stories centers around his adopted father, Jonathan Kent, struggling to punish a child he can’t physically harm or outthink. In the Silver and Bronze Ages, Superman had a childhood that was just as epic and alienating as his adult life and reinforced the belief that Superman was meant for greater things than ordinary human existence.
Post-Byrne- When John Byrne went about rewriting Superman’s childhood, he basically decided to start from scratch. John Byrne threw out Superman’s colorful, heroic childhood as Superboy and replaced it with a more ordinary upbringing. For starters, Clark grew up believing he was human and didn’t even learn of his Kryptonian heritage until after he grew up and had started his career as Superman. This also meant that Clark never had a reason to act timid or weak growing up and didn’t feel alienated by his powers. Taking a nod from the Donner Superman films, Byrne’s Clark Kent was even a high school football star. Though Clark’s powers were budding as he was growing up, he didn’t reach full power until adulthood. The interactions between this Clark and his parents were also more in line with normal parents raising and guiding a normal child. In one post-Byrne tale, Adventures of Superman #474, we even get to see Ma and Pa Kent lecturing a young Clark on the dangers of under age drinking and drunk driving (one of the stranger Smallville flashbacks ever). As you can see, Superman’s childhood resembles a much more normal human upbringing than he once had and one that would reinforce his identity as Clark over his role as Superman.
Pre-Crisis- The Superman of the Silver and Bronze Ages was more like a demi-god than a human man. By adulthood, this Superman was more alienated than ever having lost his parents before he left Smallville to a tropical disease from the past (no kidding). He was also insanely powerful. Superman could move planets, travel in time, mimic voices, and had an amazing super-intellect. In fact, Superman had such a keen intelligence to him that he was a genius level inventor, scientist, and problem solver (as I mentioned before, he built robots and he worked on scientific inquiries constantly). As Clark, he continued to act timid and weak to conceal the fact he was really Superman. He only chose for Clark to work as a reporter at the Daily Planet because he knew that would be the perfect job to keep him updated on situations that needed Superman. This Superman also avoids romantic entanglements at all costs. Whenever Lois or Lana would get too close or too aggressive in pursuing him, he would gently turn them down by reminding them of his responsibilities as Superman or by promising to end up with them someday in the far future. The Pre-Crisis Superman was focused on his career as a hero and was willing to give up all the comforts of human life to follow a noble path of truth and justice.
Post-Byrne- Just as he altered the man’s childhood, John Byrne made Superman into a completely different adult. For starters, Byrne left Ma and Pa Kent alive so they could continue to be Clark’s support system well into his time as Superman so he started off a much less alienated person than he used to be. Byrne also scaled down Superman’s powers significantly so he was no longer time traveling, pushing planets around, or even flying into space without a breathing apparatus. Most notably, Superman was no longer super-intelligent. Not to say that Byrne’s Superman was dumb, but he was no longer building robots, creating new inventions, or even outsmarting enemies nearly as much as he used to. In fact, a new character named Professor Hamilton was introduced to invent cool things for Superman since he was no longer going to be doing it himself. Byrne’s Clark Kent also never really pretended to be that timid or weak. Compared to the Pre-Crisis Clark, Byrne’s Kent is a well respected and well rounded guy. He even at one point had some serious aspirations to further his career as a reporter as evidenced by his eventual resignation from the Daily Planet in favor of an editorial position at a rival newspaper (happened in the post-Byrne Superman Vol.2 #39). Clark’s romantic life was very active in both of his identities during this period. Byrne’s Clark Kent was in a love triangle with vivacious career woman Lois Lane, promiscuous single mom Cat Grant, and townie girl next door Lana Lang and actively pursued these relationships. He viewed his identity as Superman as competition for Lois and by 1996 finally took the plunge and married Lois (something he’d successfully avoided for 58 years) as Clark Kent. Byrne’s Superman was far more human and more focused on his human life than his Pre-Crisis counterpart ever was and, from my view, these things would serve as distractions from his mission for ultimate good.
IDENTITY- MAN OR SUPERMAN?:
Pre-Crisis- Originally, Superman knew he was greater than human and that his Clark Kent persona would be nothing more than a play at being human. When the Silver Age introduced Superman’s origins as Superboy, Superboy is shown to have made a clear and conscious decision to KEEP his identity as Clark Kent as a secret identity rather than be Superboy 24/7. You don’t DECIDE to keep an identity if you actually feel like that person on the inside (you simply just are that person). This Superman was also so intelligent and powerful that living a human life was no challenge to him and there’s evidence that supports the idea that he could pick up and drop human identities like bad habits. He even shows on many occasions that he’s willing to drop his Clark Kent identity if need be. In Superboy #169, he’s almost forced to give up his Clark Kent identity after Clark is believed to have been shot and killed by most of Smallville. Superman did abandon his Clark Kent identity in Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” story which acted as the goodbye tale for the Silver and Bronze Age Superman. This Superman also took on secret identities outside of Clark Kent for various reasons like when he took on the identity of Chris Delbart to throw off a villain from discovering his Kent identity (in Superman #283). They also wrote a series of stories from the Bronze Age where we met Superman’s grandson, Superman-III, and learned that he maintains multiple human identities as a challenge (Superman #423). All of this suggests that this Superman didn’t see Clark as his true persona and in general felt a bit of distance from human identity and existence. In contrast, in Superman #174, Clark is lead to believe by an enemy that he is not and never was Superman and the experience is rather surreal and scary for Clark who realizes that without his Superman identity he’s stuck being cowardly Clark Kent in a mundane life. To me, this Superman embodies the phrase “Man of Tomorrow” by being something beyond a normal human man. This Superman lives an extraordinary life and his personality is larger than life to follow suit as he never really doubts himself or is shaken by fear. Rather than being human, his identity is something we humans aspire to be: Perfectly wise and noble with the power to back it up.
Post-Byrne- Beginning with his earliest work on the character, it’s transparently clear to see that the main thing John Byrne wanted to change about Superman was his relationship with the Clark Kent identity. Byrne obviously felt that Superman would be a more sympathetic character if he was seen as more human, and Byrne made the Kent identity a focus to further this goal. In issue #6 of the miniseries that introduced us to Byrne’s Superman, The Man of Steel, Clark outright tells you what he thinks of his Superman identity: “Superman isn’t real. He’s just a fancy pair of longjohns that lets me operate in public without losing my private life”(page 4). This clearly shows that Byrne’s Superman sympathizes more with his human identity and sees Superman as a construction. Byrne again reinforces this with another quote from Superman Vol.2 #1 when Clark is thinking about romantically pursuing Lois Lane he states: “If I’m going to win her it’s going to be as me, as Clark Kent”(page 7). Byrne was having Clark repeat things like this to reinforce the idea that Clark was the actual man now and Superman from then on would be an extra identity and an extra concern. Byrne even took Superman through a failed romance with Wonder Woman (long thought of as a perfect mate for Superman) where Superman ended it after realizing that Wonder Woman was basically a goddess while he still felt human on the inside. As I mentioned earlier, Byrne’s Superman didn’t discover he was an alien until he was an adult. After he discovered this, Superman was bothered by the idea that he wasn’t really human living on a world of humans and continually went through identity crises over the need to feel and act human despite this. Post-Byrne Superman constantly doubts himself and his actions like when he destroyed the military capabilities of terrorist nation Quarac or when he made a personal mission to try and convince Cat’s ex-husband to let her see their son. He also outwardly shows fear on occasion like when he first runs into magic after learning it can harm him. Where the Silver and Bronze Age Superman appears to be the ultimate step in human evolution, Byrne’s Superman appears to be nothing more than meets the eye: A Midwestern farm boy who happens to have super powers.
And there you have it. Hopefully by now I have shown you how Byrne made his Superman completely different than the Superman that came before simply by focusing more on his Clark Kent identity. By setting up Clark as the true identity behind Superman, Byrne changed Superman from a noble demi-god to a human man with everyday concerns. I’m sure many of you are asking: Isn’t that a good thing? Normally in literature we want our characters to seem more human, so what Byrne did should have been more engaging, right? I’m arguing that in this case that approach was wrong because Superman was a character that was never meant to be human quite that literally. In my next entry, I hope to show you exactly why Byrne’s characterization of Superman fell flat and why the issue of Superman’s humanity isn’t quite as simple as it may seem.