As Superman approaches his 80th anniversary, Action Comics will reach a milestone on April 18, when DC will publish issue #1000 of the venerable title. The landmark comic will feature the work of a who’s who of comic creators from various ages of the character’s run, including a story by the legendary Curt Swan. Long-time Marvel writer and architect of their now defunct Ultimates universe, Brian Michael Bendis, who recently jumped over to DC, will take over the ongoing writing duties with issue #1001.
As even the most casual fan knows, historians consider Superman the first comic book superhero. Although there’d been costumed heroes in newspaper strips as well as pulp stories, Superman was the first created specifically for the burgeoning medium of comics.
Part of the character’s enduring legacy is that he hasn’t changed much over the course of his 80 years. There have been tweaks to his costume from time to time (the red trunks and gold belt are set to return, by the way), and even his powers on occasion, but who he is and what he stands for holds steady. Even when Superman appears in an Elseworlds setting or title, he retains his fundamental traits and personality.
Many artists and writers have taken creative liberties with DC’s other core heroes, particularly Batman and Wonder Woman, and many were significantly altered between the Golden and Silver Ages (Flash, Green Lantern etc.), rebooting and retconning them throughout eras to reflect changes in society and tastes. Superman has always been Superman—with apologies to Quentin Tarantino, as many critics don’t agree with his thought-provoking, albeit unorthodox, analysis which dismisses the Clark Kent identity of the character.
Superman’s powers are various, but they aren’t what distinguish him. When the character chose to kill his enemy in 2013’s Man of Steel film, fans were outraged. They argued that Superman simply wouldn’t do that. Though he has the power to kill nearly all of his antagonists, he chooses not to. Superman is our idealized version of our best selves; what we strive to be. Even when DC has relaunched the character, they’ve always returned to the established central principles that define him, “Truth, justice and the American way,” despite how awkwardly hard to define that last one has been at several times throughout the last 80 years of our history.
Some might find the character boring, or bland, but it’s his steadfast quality that defines him and makes his stories unique.
When DC brought on John Byrne in 1986 to relaunch the character and freshen him up, they first tasked Alan Moore with giving the existing version, basically a holdover from the Silver Age, his grand send-off. Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow is an unsurpassed ode to the icon that still resonates today. By then, the character had become so over-powered that there seemed to be no credible threat he could face. Moore ran him through a gauntlet of his rogues gallery; a group which, save for arch-nemesis Lex Luthor and Brainiac, most agree pales in comparison to Batman’s (or the Flash’s, for that matter) for entertainment or dramatic value.
The premise of the story was that Superman’s greatest enemy was finally going to kill him. Moore ratcheted up the intensity and violence, escalating the mayhem until he revealed that the most dangerous villain among Superman’s foes was the one most fans had mistaken for comic relief for decades. It was a great twist, and Moore managed a feat most had failed to accomplish since the character’s earliest days—he put Superman in legitimate danger.
Moore also managed to make the hero more relatable than he’d ever been, by capturing what Superman meant to humanity, particularly those who loved him. Seeing the character through their eyes connected the reader to him on a Meta level previous writers hadn’t explored. He was no longer all-powerful, and therefore remote.
While the basic character of Superman has remained constant as the DC universe changed around him, his supporting cast and the mythology of Krypton evolved over time. Multiple film and television iterations, both live-action and animated, have proliferated, each tweaking the secondary characters and dramatic elements as necessary, to present a unique version of otherwise all too familiar stories.
Rather than revisit existing continuity, SYFY has taken the liberating step of developing their recently debuted series Krypton, around the new character of Seg-El, Superman’s grandfather. The producers are free to explore the roots of the iconic hero, and what makes him special, without having to worry about any audience preconceptions. It’s a show that may explain how great Superman is, without ever actually featuring him. Grandson-to-be, Kal-El hovers over proceedings like a ghost from the future. He’s not the focus of the narrative—he isn’t even in it, though his famous cape is—yet it’s still about him in some ways.
But it’s a risky move.
A roguish anti-hero and, at least initially, nothing like the Kal-El we know, grandpa Seg’s victory is preordained: Clearly, he must live and triumph for Superman to eventually be born. Guaranteeing the success of the protagonist robs the plot of some dramatic tension.
However, we’ve always known Superman was going to win in the end. It’s been up to great creators to find a way to keep the stories interesting nonetheless. So here’s a toast to the first 1000 issues of Action Comics, and the next 1000 to come—may they always find a way to surprise us without ever sacrificing what makes the Man of Steel special.