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.