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Superman Celebrates 80

The Longbox Theory

Superman turns 80 as Action Comics hits 1000

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 Supermanwith 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.

Other than Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, arguably the greatest Man of Steel story ever told–but this was no Elseworlds, this was in continuity…

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.

Grandpa Seg-El holding Kal-El’s iconic cape. Apologies to Edna Mode

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.

2 Comments

  1. justiceleaguer

    April 6, 2018 at 10:56 am

    THANK YOU SO MUCH, DC, FOR GIVING SUPERMAN HIS REAL COSTUME WITH THE RED TRUNKS AND YELLOW BELT BACK! Something that lasts for over 70 years is not dated, but timeless! He has color balance again, thank you! Can’t beat the red trunks and yellow belt! His creators got it right when they designed and finalized him… can’t fix whay was never broken!

    #Trunks4ever #RealSuperman4Life #RedTrunksAndYellowBeltAreTheTrueCostume

  2. justiceleaguer

    April 6, 2018 at 10:57 am

    Something that lasts for over 70 years — through constant societal fashion changes and trends — has transcended any claims of “dated” and has proven itself timeless and iconic. Such is the state of Superman’s costume with the red trunks and yellow belt.

    Besides, the whole “dated” claim goes out the window when you realize that:

    – the “victorian era (1837-1901)” strongman was already a thing of the past at the time of Superman’s debut in the 1930s

    – While not many people wore trunks over pants in the 1930s, many athletic professions from circus performers to wrestlers to olympic athletes and strongmen still wore trunks, and all of those professions still wear trunks to this day, thus proving that they are not dated.

    – Capes have not been worn by anyone in any regular sense since at least the 1600s, so if trunks are “dated” because “they belong to the victorian era”, then a cape is at least twice as dated since they weren’t even worn in the victorian era. The fact is that the most popular superheroes — the ones created in the Golden and to a lesser extent the Silver Age — very rarely drew upon the fashion statements of the day for their costumes. Bucaneer boots, calvary gloves, capes, domino masks, badges, mixed with athletic tights, etc., these are elements from all kinds of eras, fused together to make a wholly unique and original thing, which is not dated, but stands on its own as a new creation, as the Superman costume has. This was wise on the part of the old creators, and surely a factor for why the iconic looks are as iconic and enduring as they have proven themselves to be.

    – Superman’s suit has been a blue shirt, blue pants, red cape, red trunks, red boots, yellow belt, and red & yellow S shield since his beginning (yes, despite sporadic coloring errors throughout Action Comics #1, the gladiator style boots are indeed supposed to be red, in accordance with the conceptual drawing of Joe Shuster, they were simply mistakenly colored as full boots instead of gladiator style boots on the cover). The various executions, sizes, and shades of these things has varied by artist, but until 2011, that is the way it was, therefore, in order to give Superman a “new look”, you must do so by giving him a complete makeover and starting from scratch, as removing one of his core costume elements does not give him a “new” costume, it simply distorts and vandalizes his old one, and is not really anything new, but a lopsided version of the real deal.

    – The red trunks and yellow belt provide color balance for the costume. The size and colors of the trunks and belt area, as well as their upside down “triangle” shape, mirror the S shield on Superman’s chest which is the same color as the trunks and belt and a similar triangular shape, and both the S symbol and trunks have solid red above and below them in the form of the cape and boots which serve as sort of “bookends” on the blue shirt and pants, with the yellow being on the waist and chest areas of the costume.

    If you remove the red trunks and just give Superman a red/yellow belt, there is too little red, if you give him red pants, there is too much red, only red on the crotch and yellow on the waist area provides the perfect medium amount of red and yellow needed for color balance. Many characters in movies have trunks or colored “trunks” areas on their costumes for the same color balance reason as Superman that you probably never noticed because your brain sees the forrest over the trees, like Boba Fett, the stormtroopers, Robocop, and then others like The Incredibles that you probably did notice. Trunks and colors on that area of the pants are just as popular as ever due to their contributions to the looks of their costumes as a whole.

    Even the movie 300, which self professed “realism” devotee Zack Snyder directed, features characters in red capes and trunks, despite the fact that the 300 spartans did not dress that way in real life. True, they were illustrated that way in the comic book 300, but it is rather hypocritical and arbitrary of Zack Snyder to claim that characters who never wore trunks in real life can work fine in his movie with them, and then claim that another comic book character who is famously known for wrearing trunks throughout his entire existence suddenly “can’t work” with them in his new movie (more likely that WB began its anti-trunks mandate around the time of Snyder’s Man Of Steel movie production, as it went into production the same year that the New 52 debuted).

    – Our modern society boasts itself as more open minded, cosmpolitan, and bohemian in its fashion and attitudes than ever before, so in a sort of anything goes era, in which people travel to grocery stores in pajamas and fedoras and so on, why are we drawing the line at a fictional superhero wearing red trunks and a yellow belt, whether they look like “underwear” or not? Particularly when the red trunks and yellow belt survived just fine in eras in which people were more strict and conservative in their dress standards and attitudes in public… if the trunks were really so offensive or “vulgar”, surely they would have went a long time ago. And if they were really “dated” and passe, they wouldn’t have lasted beyond the 1960s “revolutionizing” everything, if they even made it that far.

    – While there are many reasons to keep the red trunks and yellow belt, from design to recognition to iconography and so on, every argument against them always comes from the position of them being “silly” and or “dated”, neither of which is a valid criticism of them. We have already proven the “dated” claim as false and certainly hypocritical, and “silly” has long been the home of superheroes and comic books… they have made their names and claims to fame in such a thing as “silly”. If one has an issue with silly, then stories about people who dress like animals and punch clowns, and people who can jump over buildings and shoot lasers from their eyes, are probably not the place for you.

    Basically, no truly open minded and intelligent person has any issue with the red trunks and yellow belt because they realize that critcism against them stems from attitudes (“silly and dated”) that are invalid when considering the subject (SUPERHEROES).

    Unless, of course, you believe in tearing down everything that existed before you were born merely because it existed before you were born, in which case, you are not interested in being a creative force, but are merely a destructive one.

    Change is not inherently good or bad, the quality of change is measured by what it is that is changing. If change is done to something bad, then it is good, but if change is done to something good, something which is not broken and thus needs no fix, like the Superman costume, then it is bad, and the whims of small minded people who claim such things should not be catered to when it means the destruction of a brilliant and iconic work of art (yes, I’m calling it that) which has proven its timelessness, such as Superman and his costume. No true Superman fan hates his true costume and character, and no true Superman fan will tolerate the destruction of either.

    Long live the red trunks and yellow belt! Superman’s creators got it right the first time, which is why it stayed the same way they finalized it for nearly a century. Time for DC, who has went through 7+ costume redesigns of their “new” Superman look between 2011-2018, to come to their senses and accept that they are not going to “improve” on the red trunks and yellow belt look for the character, and accept him the way he is…

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