Re-imagining Superman for the modern reader

#1 Posted by ltbrd (572 posts) - - Show Bio

One of the things I continue to be disappointed with in regards to classical characters are writers and the parent companies unwillingness to tweak the character enough away from their original template to better hold with the modern audience they are trying to reach. Even with the “new 52” and its subtle (and not so subtle) tweaks to a character like Superman, I still don’t think it went far enough to re-imagine the Man of Steel for the modern comic book reader or to draw in a new generation of readers.

The best example of what I’m talking about can be seen with my other favorite character, Spider-Man. In an attempt to modernize characters without destroying canon, Marvel created the Ultimate Universe, and Michael Bendis kicked off this new direction with Ultimate Spider-Man. While many of Spidey’s old ideas were present (starting the series back in high school and using web-shooters when the 616 version was still using organic webbing) it also updated the character to ideas of modern society by doing away with the idea of Peter being a photography for the Daily Bugle and instead emphasized the characters intelligence and scientific inclination by making him the Bugle’s webpage designer and resident tech geek. A small change, yes, but it did away with a very integral part of what people knew about Spider-Man and yet made absolutely perfect sense to a teenager in the 21 century.

Going along with that, when Dan Slott took over writing Spider-Man (616 version) he also took him out of the Daily Bugle job and placed him in the scientific world by becoming an employee of Horizon Labs. Call it a bit of Batman-cloning if you will by giving Spider-Man a bigger budget and access to better equipment for specific situations, but it was a popular idea and has resulted in great stories under Slott’s run.

So with these subtle yet effective changes to Spider-Man in mind, and going along with a few threads I’ve been reading through and/or commenting on recently (such as "Why does Superman even need a secret ID anymore?"), I had the idea of talking through some of my ideas of how to modernize Superman for a new generation of readers while keeping the core character intact.

My biggest thoughts/suggestions would be:

1. His primary occupation is being an author, not working at the Daily Planet. The fact that Clark Kent is a celebrated author (I think it was crime thrillers) was something added to the character after the 1986 reboot and one of those ideas that is brought back every once and awhile at seemingly random issues (think the last real reference was during or just after the Up, Up, and Away arc). Yet, this is an area that writers can use to logically showcase how Clark Kent/Superman can make enough money to afford living in Metropolis as well as maintaining the Kent Farm in Smallville. To avoid the trap of Clark Kent becoming too well-known or popular, a pen name could be used and part of his book’s allure is that nobody has ever actually seen the author but the publisher (for a name I’d go with Carl Grummett, which was an alias used by Superboy/Kon-El at one point). Having his primary job be an author would give the character greater freedom to act as Superman and stop the outdated idea of having to come up with excuses for missing work (I mean, really, what company would still have a guy like Clark Kent on their staff for long).

As for the whole, "I'll work at a major newspaper so I can know where I'm needed".....its the 21st century. I can get information on a disaster or other issue on my iPhone at the same time someone in a news organization does and by the time they run the story its old news with just more facts. The fact that information is near instant now makes the idea out of date (not to mention all the satellites and systems the Justice League uses that can alert him to problems).

2. He maintains an internet blog/news site. Keeping a bit of the classical reporter in the character, allowing Clark to maintain an online blog or internet news source would be the perfect way of showcasing his investigative skills but more importantly allowing the character to focus on the people of Metropolis rather than just chasing stories. DC is already doing this a bit by showcasing Clark as a reporter interested in people related stories vice bigger crime or political stories like the ones Lois goes after. Doing this online keeps his identity hidden (his online name could be BoyScout as homage to Superman being the “big blue boyscout”) and allow him to reach more people, especially younger audiences (since statistics show more people get their news online or from tv rather than conventional newspapers these days). He can also be a starter for donation charities and functions that his site sponsors or advocates (rather than going “in person” he could simply post that Superman would be attending an event every once and awhile). This plays on the idea (also being used in Action Comics right now) that what Clark Kent writes and showcases to the people of Metropolis is just as important as the rescues that Superman performs. Its just that by using the internet as his medium Clark Kent doesn’t have to be in the spotlight.

3. He is still best friends with Lois and Jimmy and by extension most of the Daily Planet staff. At this point you can’t have Superman without the supporting characters of the Daily Planet. Just because he doesn’t work there doesn’t mean he can’t be friends with them and have them be part of his life. Given his desire to write stories about the people of Metropolis or comment on news and information put out by the Daily Planet, it would be easy to write how he became friends with Lois and Jimmy during a story (more on that in point #4). By hanging out with them he was introduced to the rest of the Planet staff we all know.

4. Lois and Jimmy know Clark Kent is Superman. This is going to be the biggest shift in the character. I agree with not having the Kent’s alive in the new 52. However, without them Clark/Superman has no non-superhero to talk to about his life, problems, or decisions. That wouldn’t be such a problem if Clark and Lois were still married. But as they aren’t DC really should give Superman a human sounding board. The perfect candidates? Lois and Jimmy. How did this come about? A very simple answer would be that Clark, arriving in Metropolis during his world travels (during which he had already published two travel books), assisted Lois and Jimmy in a story during which his powers were revealed. Though the two told Perry about Clark’s involvement in helping get the story (at which point Perry offered him a job but he politely turned it down) they didn’t mention his abilities and this solidified their friendship (as a side note, in this interpretation Clark, Lois, and Jimmy should all be the same age and it was this event that made Clark decide to stop traveling). Each friend offers a unique way of looking at Clark’s life. Jimmy representing a more carefree, fun approach to life and allowing Clark to be at ease and rest when not Superman. Lois representing a more focused, introspective, fact finding approach that works well when talking to her about an issue or decision. Together they both ground him to his human upbringing and may also be highlighted in stories helping keep his secret (something that was at the forefront of the Smallville mythology in terms of the Kent's and Chloe Sullivan).

5. Let Superman be happy and his titles be fun. I’m not a big fan of trying to re-invoke the feel of a previous age in comics, and Grant Morrison’s seemingly obsessive approach to using and placing on a pedestal aspects of the Golden and Silver Ages is one of my only complaints about the guy’s writing. There is something to be said for writing to the audience when it comes to understanding the reader at the time. However, I do wish Superman comics could return to the fun they were at the height of the Silver Age. Modern Superman stories, like the Bronze Age that saw a great decline in the character, have focused far too much on introspection and Superman struggling to live in the human world. That needs to get thrown out. He's lived in the human world his entire life.....he was raised in Kansas. How much more down to Earth can the guy get! Yeah, there is going to be a story arc that comes along where things will be grim and understandably mature, but it doesn’t have to happen all the time. The difference between Superman and Batman is that each should feel separate from the other. They both shouldn’t be brooding and moody. Superman should be a happy, fun, and exciting character doing all these amazing feats. Batman should be darker, invoke deeper emotions, and be thrilling seeing a human character triumph over adversity. Right now these separate concepts are mingling too much and while it actually helps Batman a bit it also hurts Superman and what readers think of him. Writers need to give us a happy Superman, a cheerful Man of Steel that is open with the public, deputized by the city, works (maybe even trains) with the police, etc, etc. Superman titles need new life not by being dramatic but by being fun to read.

6. Clark Kent can be outgoing. Following through from point 5 and using points 1 and 2, just because Superman is a more outgoing character doesn’t mean Clark Kent has to be a recluse. Though he ghost writes his novels and webpage, when he’s out with Lois, Jimmy, Perry, Cat, or any of the other staff from the Daily Planet he can be shown as a normal guy, open, easy to get along with but not the leader of his social circle (that would probably go to either Lois or Jimmy). The fact that he’s tardy or cancels a luncheon (to handle something as Superman) is one of the quirks his friends put up with (with Jimmy and Lois knowing why he’s actually gone) but doesn't make him an outsider.

7. Give Superman a satellite fortress near Metropolis. What I’m referring to is an actual public address for Superman in the vicinity of Metropolis. Similar to the idea of having multiple Fortress of Solitude’s around the globe (like the one he had for a bit in the Amazon), let Superman have been given permission by the city to create a “home” somewhere off the coast. The idea being to keep up the appearance that Superman has no other life but being Superman. Kind of playing off the Superman Returns movie idea, he could have used kryptonian tech to create a small island home a few miles off the coast of Metropolis. It doesn’t have to be big or fancy, can only have a small amount of technology and satellite connection back to the Fortress of Solitude, but it’s a way for the rest of the world to think “yeah, we know where Superman lives” and a location he could inform other heroes of without letting on to his Fortress (which only a very select few are aware of). Its location means a good deal of villains wouldn’t be able to get to it easily and even if they could both its construction and technology could take a beating before it goes down……and if it did, so what, it could be rebuilt with ease as there really isn't anything of use in it.

8. Use Kryptonian technology as part of his disguise. By this point technology from cameras and facial recognition software could easily determine Clark and Superman are the same person. So the character really needs to be written as ahead of that technology and finding ways around it. Back in the last Supergirl series, Kara sold Bruce a kryptonian medical device that re-writes genetic code to ward off infections (the device was a weird blue-white orb with tentacles and was never seen or heard of again) and I thought something like that could be used as part of the disguise between Clark and Superman (and the fact the new suit is bio-tech supports this even more). The catch is that a similar device is used to change Clark’s appearance when he becomes Superman. What are some of Superman’s classic physical features? Blue-black hair, distinct blue eyes, and a deeper toned voice (not raspy/menacing like Batman just a deeper tone), and some artist draw him with a tanned or more olive tone than standard Caucasian. What if all those traits were from a kryptonian bio-tech device? As Kal-El/Clark Kent, the character’s natural appearance consists of jet black hair (which as Clark he keeps combed), brown or green eyes (can go either way I don’t care; brown is in homage to Dean Cain and green to Tom Welling), a normal toned (maybe just slightly soft) voice, and standard Caucasian skin tone. When he puts on the suit, however, the bio-tech alters his appearance slightly to what we traditionally think of for Superman; the blue-black hair (ruffled and wind-swepted), blue eyes, deeper vocal tone, and more tanned/olived skin tone. Add to that a slight change to his retinal pattern and fingerprints (not drastic just enough that they aren’t a match for Clark’s) and while Clark and Superman may have the same body and facial structure the number of changes between them would be enough to throw off an opponent trying to link them. When the suit is retracted the tech that makes those changes goes with it and Clark’s body returns to its natural state.

9. Use the Phantom Zone to move between his various residences. Though Professor Hamilton as the villain Ruin ended up being a bit lame in my opinion, the idea of using the phantom zone as a way to teleport I thought was a cool idea that could be refined to a specific use in allowing Superman to instantly travel between Metropolis, Smallville, and the Fortress without anyone noticing or tracking his flight patterns (which again, with today’s technology, would be a lot easier). The idea doesn’t have to be Superman’s, so that we don’t dip into a Silver Age concept of Superman building amazing devices at the Fortress, but instead was something conceived by Jor-El as an extension of the phantom zone technology used to move prisoners in and out of the zone to try and save people from Krypton’s destruction. The problem Jor-El faced was that to use the zone in such a manner a beacon at the desired location would need to be established, and there wasn’t time to send a beacon to Earth and establish a connection. The design for the tech was installed on Kal-El’s ship and is stored in the Fortress databanks. Beacons are placed at his four main locations (apartment in Metropolis, Kent house in Smallville, satellite fortress outside Metropolis, and the Fortress of Solitude in the Artic) and allows him to freely move between the four without having to fly there (probably wouldn’t expand this to allowing him to take others along as that could get a little out of hand) and helps maintain the illusion that he lives in the small satellite fortress outside Metropolis because if its attacked you wouldn’t want to see Superman flying from the city to take on the bad guy. He would need to access the satellite fortress through the phantom zone and then come out to fight the bad guy.

Sorry about the long post and I know I haven’t touched on the new suit/armor or anything to do with Superman’s powers…….but those are superficial to the characterization of Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman.

Hopefully you can see where I’m trying to go with the character. Strip away much of the moodiness and introspection that has crept in over the last 15 or so years and bring Superman back to a fun, adventure driven title with a completely different tone and feel to any other character or book DC has out right now. Hopefully, by doing that, Superman can be elevated to a greater position in the collective consciousness of comic book readers and really highlight the aspects of this character that have allowed him to survive as long as he has with moderately steady popularity.

What do you all think? Too many big changes? Wrong direction for the character? Is it okay to stray from classical elements to ensure modern popularity?

P.S: These ideas don’t care a lick about the legal drama of the character. Just pretend DC can do whatever they want to him.

#2 Posted by r3d_rob1n (541 posts) - - Show Bio

I agree completely with you that Superman should be more light hearted and up-beat than he has been portrayed recently. The success that Batman has been building over the past few years does not mean that all characters need to become dark to be successful. I think Batman has just had better/ more imaginative writers that think of better story-lines and character development.

One thing I am not keen on is Lois knowing the identity of Superman. I like it better when she is in the dark, yet still a part of both Clark and Superman's life. I do feel that Jimmy should learn the truth about Clark. It would make them better friends and give a truer meaning to Jimmy being Superman's pal. I also feel that this would add more drama to the Jimmy/Lois relationship and make things more interesting between the two of them. By having Jimmy know about Clark it would also help Clark become more outgoing in the group, as Jimmy could cover for him.

Clearly some things have to be changed about the character, as he is losing popularity. I don't think that the answer is changing his personality, which the DC execs seem to believe will magically transform him into a character beloved by all. Clark/Superman is not the problem, the problem is being able to find good writers that can do the character justice. They are out there, DC just needs to find them and give them an opportunity. I think DC just has trouble believing that becoming modern does not mean becoming cynical and dark.

#3 Posted by ltbrd (572 posts) - - Show Bio

@r3d_rob1n: Good points. As to the move away from a reporter and Lois knowing his identity......I liked the way the concept was portrayed in Superman: Secret Identity. Though an Elseworld series I thought it was a great take on the character and how a new direction could be told correctly if it had the correct writer behind it. If you haven't read it highly suggest you do. One of the best Elseworld stories in my opinion.

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