The recent “DC 52” reboot of the publisher’s entire line of comics has brought my memories back to this ASM homage to the 50th anniversary of Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1.
It’s a rare instance of a DC/Marvel crossover and the recognition of a moment in comic book history that’s clearly larger than any competitive rivalry between publishers. Superman was and is the world’s longest-running and most recognizable comic book character. There’s even talk that Superman – as a brand – is not so much a DC trademark but an American trademark.
But all of that doesn’t mean I have to sit here and gush over this cover and how great it was of Marvel and artist Todd McFarlane to honor Action Comics #1. That’s because in the battle of Marvel and DC, I’ve almost always been firmly on the side of Marvel and its younger, edgier, more relatable superheroes and villains. And Superman, in particular, has long been a hero I’ve had mixed feelings about, despite the fact that I know deep down that without Superman paving the way, characters like Spider-Man wouldn’t exist.
When Amazing Spider-Man #306 first came out in 1988, I was way too young to understand the cover’s reference. I probably passed by it in one of those carousel racks and wondered why Spider-Man was lifting that burning cop car. It’s not like there’s anything in the issue that explicitly explains the connection to Superman though there is a great “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” moment when Peter Parker is signing copies of his new book of photography “Webs” and Mary Jane buys him some old copies of Action Comics (“Gosh, I had this one when I was a kid”). But again, this was still too nuanced for a 7-year-old to digest.
The copy of ASM #306 I currently own in my collection was picked-up years later, one of many ASM issues inside a stuffed short box of goodies from the 1980s and 1990s that I’ve credited in the past for jump-starting my long-dormant collection and reigniting my desire to own every issue of Amazing Spider-Man. And of course, as I sifted through that box of comics, reminiscing about issues I remembered reading or just seeing on the comic book rack as a kid, I was immediately struck by the Action Comics #1 tribute – wait, when did Marvel do that?
Hate is obviously a strong word for anything, especially a fictional character in a comic book, but I’ve just never gotten the romance about Superman, and because he’s DC’s flagship character, I’ve transferred that general distaste to the publisher by proxy. Yes, there are some DC properties that are among my favorite comic book stories of all time – namely Watchmen and numerous Batman comic books – but when I was at my most impressionable as a young kid, buying comic books every week with my $1 allowance, I picked up a few issues of Superman because I recognized him. But I never enjoyed reading them. I was much more interested in Spider-Man, Captain America, X-Men, Wolverine and Iron Man – the Marvel characters. Superman and those DC guys just bored me.
In the years since, I’ve had many opportunities to embrace Superman, and all of them have failed. About 7 or 8 years ago I sat down to watch the original Superman film with Christopher Reeve, and as blasphemous as this may sound, I couldn’t get through it. The film just felt dated, the story boring. Reeve’s charm is undeniable but it wasn’t enough to make me want to sit through that entire movie.
It got even worse when I saw the reboot, Superman Returns in theaters a few years later. As a huge Kevin Spacey fan, I was ecstatic to see him play Superman’s arch-nemesis Lex Luthor, but I felt embarrassed by the overall hokey-ness of this flick. Granted, I understand that there are some biblical analogies that can be drawn from Superman’s origin story – from another planet and sent to Earth to save its people, even if they don’t fully understand or appreciate him. But the director was just slapping the audience in the face with the Jesus references in Superman Returns. If I wanted to hear about Jesus’ sacrifices, I’d go to church on Sundays. I expect a little less obviousness from my sources of entertainment. And while I can appreciate any comic book that makes a literary reference, there’s just something presumptuous about connecting your character to Jesus Christ.
To their credit, the movies only reinforced other reasons why I don’t like Superman. He’s too perfect, from his abilities down to his personality. He’s noble as Superman, and nerdy but mild-mannered and affable as his alter-ego Clark Kent. I like my heroes to be flawed. Namely, I want my heroes to be human. Peter Parker has made mistakes. It’s because of these mistakes that he has such a rich backstory and well-defined moral center. I never really understand why Superman does good, except for the fact that it’s he’s obligated to do good. And what’s the fun in that?
Also, Superman’s nemesis, Luthor, while highly intelligent and ambitious, feels quite ordinary when compared to Marvel’s villains. While there’s something to be said for a criminal mastermind, Marvel’s villains always seemed to push the boundaries of the imagination more. Doctor Octopus was just as intelligent as Luthor, but he had four mechanical arms to back him up.
When the Action Comics #1 reboot was released last week, I had a moment of temporary weakness when I almost picked it up – primarily because (and I know this will elicit some “gasps” from my readers), I haven’t read much of anything from Action’s writer, Grant Morrison, and I’m curious to see what the hype is about. I’m sure from everything I’ve read about Morrison, he has a completely new vision for Superman, but I’m not going to go down that path now – not after really making my mind up about the Superman character more than 20 years ago, around the time ASM #306 was on the newsstand. I’ve been making mine almost exclusively Marvel ever since, and it’s a decision I’m very happy with.
Two comments from me in one day! No, I’m not really stalking you, I just haven’t been keeping up with your posts the last couple of weeks and am trying to get caught up.
I hear you on Superman and DC in general. My traditional bias against DC and Superman come from two main sources – the Superfriends cartoon from the 70’s and early 80’s, and early 80’s Superman comics that my uncle used to get me for free (through means that were probably illegal) from a local distributor he worked for. Both of them portrayed a character, in my opinion, that hit all of the points you menationed – too good, too perfect, too powerful, to downright moral w/o any really good explanation for why he was that way other than an honest mid-western upbringing from the Kents, etc., etc., etc. All in all, the epitome of blandness at best (mayonaise, american cheese and vanilla ice cream anyone), and t he depths of schlocky corniness at its worst.
While both the cartoon and that era of Superman comics probably represented the nadir of Superman characterization, I still haven’t been able to get too into the character since, despite some really good tries but some very talented creators. Superman is just Superman, and there’s no getting around the core principles that make him who he is. If you like those things, you’ll love Superman. If you don’t, well, you’re probably not ever going to be swayed.
That being said, Grant Morrison is a great writer and has done interesting things with a lot of DC’s stable of characters. That being said, if you want to try something he wrote on the Superman character if just to give it a shot, go back and get All Star Superman written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Frank Quietly. While it didn’t sway me so much that I became a Superman fan, it was the one Superman story that I actually enjoyed. And while I’m not a Superman fan as a result of reading it, I do at least have an appreciation for why folks do like him. Morrison took all of the best elements of the Superman mythology from his all of his different “eras”, and did something really fun and entertaining with them. While I didn’t cry at the end as many comic fans I know have purported to do, I did walk away with a new appreciation of the “big blue and yellow goon” as I used to refer to him and what he could be at his best. There’s some really good comedy in the series too – times when you laugh at a comic book story in a good way.
Anyway, I would recommend that over the currently revamped Action Comics at this point. The new Action Comics is only one issue in at this point, and while I think it has potential, I don’t think it would be a good place for you to start given where you’re currently at with Superman (it’s also radically different than what Morrison did with the character in All Star Superman – which isn’t a bad things, but just needs to be more fully developed yet).
Again, I’m defenitely a Marvel guy, but I’ll give credit where it’s due. You can probably find back issues of All Star Superman pretty cheap in most LCS’s right now (my shop was selling them for a buck a piece), and you can probably even pick up the fully collected trade w/o putting out too many pennies (stay away from the prestige edition though – that’s for die hard fans looking to spend some $$).
Anyway, good luck chasing amazing and, if you want to give the blue and yellow goon another chance, I say start with All Star.