I follow the great Patrick Rothfuss on Facebook the author of The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear, and he recently shared a link to The Atlantic Magazine and the article called The Trouble With Superman by Asher Elbein posted on February 7th. The article talks about the history of Superman, why today there is so much apathy and hate toward one of the oldest comic book characters with Elbein putting much of the blame on DC Comics and the handling of the character.
Superman should be invincible. Since his car-smashing debut in 1938, he’s starred in at least one regular monthly comic, three blockbuster films, and four television shows. His crest is recognized across the globe, his supporting cast is legendary, and anybody even vaguely familiar with comics can recount the broad strokes of his origin. (The writer Grant Morrison and the artist Frank Quitely accomplished it in eight words and four panels: “Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.”) He’s the first of the superheroes, a genre that’s grown into a modern mass-media juggernaut.
And yet, for a character who gains his power from the light of the sun, Superman is curiously eclipsed by other heroes. According to numbers provided by Diamond Distributors, the long-running Superman comic sold only 55,000 copies a month in 2015, down from around 70,000 in 2010—a mediocre showing even for the famously anemic comic-book market. That’s significantly less than his colleague Batman, who last year moved issues at a comparatively brisk 150,000 a month. Mass media hasn’t been much kinder: The longest-running Superman television show, 2001’s Smallville, kept him out of his iconic suit for a decade. Superman Returns recouped its budget at the box office, but proved mostly forgettable. 2013’s Man of Steel drew sharp criticism from critics and audiences alike for its bleak tone and rampaging finale. Trailers for the sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, have shifted the focus (and top billing) to the Dark Knight. Worst of all, conventional wisdom puts the blame on Superman himself. He’s boring, people say; he’s unrelatable, nothing like the Marvel characters dominating the sales charts and the box office. More than anything, he seems embarrassing. Look at him. Truth? Justice? He wears his underwear on the outside.
Behold! I give you the problem of Superman. It’s a problem that has less to do with the character himself and more to with DC Comics, which found itself stuck with a flagship character it thought needed fixing. In trying, it broke him nearly beyond repair.
In fact, it’s hard to escape the impression that Superman’s own company finds him a bit embarrassing. As the comics writer Chris Sims points out in his review of the anniversary compilation Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years, DC’s company line on Superman seems to be that he’s “a depressed sad sack who never wins.” The company ditched his iconic red trunks in 2011 and placed him instead in the blue, armor-like suit he currently wears on film. In response to fan complaints that Superman was “too powerful” and thus boring, it constantly adjusted his level of strength. Broader attempts to reconcile the character with its new approach have been filled with false starts and cold feet: Many of the innovative Superman runs of the past decade, including Joe Casey’s short-lived attempt to position the character as a pacifist, were either quickly rolled back or derailed by editorial interference. Promising new approaches, including a radical late ’90s pitch by the modern comics superstars Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, and Mark Waid, likewise went unexplored.
Instead, the majority of Superman stories published in recent years have either been chair-rearranging reboots or have focused on the question of his relevance. The relaunches have been particularly difficult to ignore. Since 2001 alone, DC has commissioned five different reboots of Superman’s origins in the comics: the excellent Superman: Birthright and All-Star Superman, the adequate Superman: Secret Origins, the execrable Superman: Earth One, and the ongoing (and rather good) Superman: American Alien. Mass media has gotten in on the act as well, with the show Smallville and the blockbuster Man of Steel likewise being obsessed with reinventing the character for modern America.
Questioning Superman’s place in culture isn’t an inherently bad idea, and it’s no wonder that creators want to dig into his truth-and-justice symbolism in a world that seems to hold both in short supply. However, that impulse has led into a rabbit hole of navel-gazing narratives that endlessly attempt to justify the character’s existence. In its constant attempts to “fix” Superman over the last 20 years, DC has largely forgotten to tell stories with him.
The irony of all this is that, for all the rust and ineffectual tinkering, the storytelling engine built by Siegel and Shuster still runs. Superman remains as inspirational a character as he did during the Great Depression: Considering the current state of rampant income inequality, brutal law enforcement and corrupt politics, the immigrant superhero from the planet Krypton may be more relevant now than he has been in years. What the comic requires now is not another reboot, but a forceful, committed attempt to refine the engine that currently exists—to stop trying to make Superman something he’s not, and to focus instead on what he is. The current creators of Action Comics, Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder, have leaned into this idea with stories of a more socially aware Superman. It’s a good start. But it remains to be seen whether or not DC will allow it to stick.
Asher Elbein does a wonderful with the article as it is well written without any bias and validity behind every well thought out point in his article. I highly recommend everyone read it whether they are a fan of Superman or not.
As for me, I totally agree with Elbein's points. Growing up in the late 1980's and 1990's I was mainly a Marvel, Wildstorm and Image Comics reader enjoying Wildcat's, X-Men Comics, Spider-man, Stormwatch, Deathblow, Youngblood, and Daredevil to name just a few, but I did venture over to DC basically just reading Batman and Superman after watching and loving 1989's Michael Keaton Batman film. In the early 1990's Dan Jurgens was the main writer of Superman, and had done a good job taking over for John Byrne after the writer parted with DC. Jurgens did a good job with the character and the memorable "Panic in the Sky” story line, but an omen of what to come came in Doomsday and "The Death of Superman" story line. I actually loved the story line it was wonderfully written with an emotional impact and of course the heart breaking death of Superman that should have had a long lasting impact on DC Comics and its characters, but the story line just turned out to be a stunt tricking young kids like I was at the time into buying the comics, and then creating other supermen and bringing back Superman in less than a year.
The negative reaction from many fans was outrage and bitterness, and for me it was the first real taste of what death means in the comics as it does not last, and the event was used for nothing but a stunt to sell comics like the relatively recent death of Captain America. After the Death of Superman and the events that followed I slowly began to lose interest in the character, as DC seemed not to know what to do with the character and change Superman's powers until sometime in 1998 I completely dropped Superman from my list of comics I read, and have not returned since.
I understand many people's apathy and hate for the character as for much of the last two decades I have felt nothing but apathy for the character, but as Elbein so easily pointed out much of the apathy and hate for the character is because of DC's own handling of the characters with the every changing powers, reboots, events, and crossovers.
All of this leads me to Man of Steel and the upcoming Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. There seems to be a lot of negativity toward DC Cinematic Universe and Batman vs Superman as if people want the film to fail and DC Cinematic universe to fail. I don't know why I think's great that Warner Brother's and DC Entertainment is creating its own film universe, and I believe Zack Snyder is the right person to bring the universe to life. Snyder to an outstanding job with Superman that made me care about the character again. I loved that Clark had to kill Zod even though he hated doing it, and I like that it will be the pivotal moment in the character's life that will keep him from killing again. No one should root for DC to fail, and for DC comics if could help rejuvenate the character if their writers bring consistency to their comic universe, their characters and Superman that could return old readers like me, draw in new readers, and increase sales.