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The Year Ten

Robert M. Price


It has been ten years since the death and resurrection of Superman. After initial skepticism, thinking the man of Steel's rumored demise must amount to no more than the cheapest of stunts, then after being pretty much unimpressed with the Death of Superman story line (what did he die of, anyway? He looked pretty undamaged to me), I must admit I was so taken with the Reign of the Supermen sequence that even to this day I find myself noticing dates of books or TV shows or other events and thinking: "Hmmm... so-and-so many years after the death of Superman." And of course for the same reason everything afterward has seemed anticlimactic to me, even the much-vaunted costume change.


DC as DeConstruction

As Richard Reynolds observes in his book Super Heroes: a Modern Mythology (University Press of Mississippi, 1992), the Reign of the Supermen series was so fascinating, in part, because of the way it deconstructed Superman, breaking him down into warring components of a single entity. As Lois Lane noted during the Reign, it was the Man of Steel (DC's shameless cloning of Iron Man and Thor put together, not that I'm complaining) who seemed to have Superman's compassion. He was the Superman symbolized so well by Kurt Busiek in Astro City as the Samaritan. And it is no accident that the Man of Steel was the only one of the four Supermen who lacked super powers. His piece of Superman was the latter's role as a Bodhisattva of Compassion, his greatest super power.

á ááááááááá The Last Son of Krypton was Superman the avenger of righteousness, implacable foe of evil-doers. If we had always felt a bit frustrated at Superman pulling his punches, we needed feel frustrated no longer! This was Superman as the Punisher (who in fact used to look like, to be drawn like, Superman in a black and white costume anticipating the costume the fifth Superman, the "real" one, finally appeared wearing). This Superman, with his wonderful pseudo-biblical soliloquies reminiscent of Stan Lee, was the most obvious embodiment of the Christ-figure premise underlying Superman from the beginning. This dimension of the whole Superman Mythos had been perhaps made most explicit in the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie, with its transparent hypertexting of the Gospel of John. But we knew something was wrong: what was a Superman without compassion? In terms of the deconstruction, the Last Son of Krypton was also Superman the space alien, though this would only become fully clear once we realized his secret identity as the Eradicator.

ááááááááááá And speaking of deconstruction, I must say I loved this costume. It was, I thought as soon as I saw it, a classic deconstruction of the Superman suit, by which I mean: the new costume was what the traditional one would look like if the borders, the break-flows, were burst. The traditional costume wants to be what this new one is: simply blue about the body, red in the cape. More than this, the costume was a visual map of the major powers of Superman. The yellow visor was the sign of his supervision, especially X-ray and heat vision. The Blue vertical stripe symbolized Superman's body in flight, as against the black sky of space whence he came. The Superman insignia, made large and separated from the shirt as a shield, stood for Superman's invulnerability. The cape, flowing out from the corners of the shield and up over the shoulders, like Thor's, pictures the mighty shoulders of Superman, with super-strength able to bear any burden. Nothing particularly represented his super-speed, but that fits with the superfluity of that power: who needs it? It makes him too powerful and is redundant of the Flash anyway.

ááááááááááá Superboy represents Superman the "boy scout," as he is sometimes called by friend and foe alike. Plus, he restores the lost character of Superboy we miss from before John Byrne. And he is us, the kids (even grown up) who persist in reading comic books.

ááááááááááá The Man of Tomorrow combines Superman with his legion of robots as well as his other technological gimmicks, Superman the scientist. Admittedly, we finally learn he is the villain, no Superman at all, but until that point the character is written, even to his internal monologue, as one of the Supermen, a good guy. So we must make sense of him as a part of Superman.


Please Stand Up

I must admit that they had me fooled. I would have sworn that in the Last Son of Krypton we had the true, risen Superman. Remember how his droids in the Fortress said they had succeeded in collecting 97 per cent of his dispersed energy (which we were supposed to understand meant his life-force or soul)? What about the missing 3 per cent? I was sure we would hear that this stray bit represented the missing piece of Superman's psyche: his compassion, and that this had taken up temporary residence, a la Spock's katra, in John Henry Irons, whence it would finally be restored. I assumed Superboy was indeed a clone of Superman and was disgusted later to learn that he was not. I still don't see the point in that revisionism. And as for the Man of Tomorrow, I guessed that he would turn out to be that suped-up clone of the Guardian who bade everyone farewell, saying, "If Metropolis ever needs another Superman..." Even now I suspect this was an intentional Red Herring.

ááááááááááá I loved what they ended up doing, though. I had to go back and buy a few back issues to figure out who the Eradicator and Hank Henshaw were, but it was worth it. The Eradicator's Superman delusion was brilliant but should have and easily could have been better explained as follows: the Eradicator "cloned" a duplicate Superman body out of transmuted matter, and this must have included Superman's dormant brain, which held all of his personality and memories. Once the Eradicator's energy passed into this vessel, his own consciousness must have clashed and merged with Superman's consciousness, again, in a manner highly reminiscent of the McCoy-Spock fusion in The Search for Spock. I assume this is what the writers really meant. If not, they should have. But it was beautifully carried off in the way the Eradicator Superman would refer to himself as Superman, then refer to Superman in the third person.

ááááááááááá The most effective bit of writing in the whole series, I thought, was this apparent identification of the Last Son with the Risen Superman. Whether it was fortuitous or brilliant, I don't know, but the ambiguity maintained for so many issues is a prime case of the aporia quality that Tzvetan Todorov makes the hallmark of "the Fantastic" in literature. Whereas out and outá tales of the "Marvelous" make the reality of the supernatural explicit up front, as in The Lord of the Rings, and the "Uncanny" tale tricks you into thinking there are supernatural events afoot until it is all revealed as a hoax (Doc Savage and Weird Menace pulp novels, some detective fiction), the "Fantastic" maintains the chill throughout by keeping the reader guessing. It might or might not be supernatural. In its purest form, such a fiction never resolves the mystery, perhaps throwing reason a sop, a possibility for a rational explanation, but not a compelling one. In the same way, Reign of the Supermen kept us guessing re the Last Son of Krypton. I mean, didn't we actually see him awaken in the tomb and leave it? Surely this was the real Superman, not the others, right? But then, that would be premature. But on the other hand, how could any of the others be the real thing? It had to be him! But... Hmmm...

ááááááááááá In case you hadn't noticed, the very same technique is used with great effectiveness in the gospel resurrection narratives, where the Risen Jesus appears to the pair of disciples on the road to Emmaus "in another form" (Mark 16:12); "their eyes were kept from recognizing him" (Luke 24:16). They think he is a Passover pilgrim. Likewise, Mary Magdalene "saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus" (John 20:14). She thinks he is the caretaker. The point of the device is to introduce that spine-tingling element of ambiguity and uncertainty, mounting suspicion, to prevent the presentation of the resurrection from seeming pat and anticlimactic. The reader is drawn into the wonder and fear of the characters: "You don't suppose...? This couldn't be...? Could it?"

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I must admit, I loved the Last Son of Krypton character so much that I wished they had kept him as Superman. I guess it wouldn't have worked. But it would have been pretty interesting to prolong the uncertainty for a year or so, making us think there really were now four Supermen where there had been one originally. In fact, something like this did happen in the ongoing and highly confused denouement of the Image/Extreme/Awesome series Supreme. Again, I absolutely loved this character as he first appeared: Superman with a Super-sized ego. Not Superman the Bodhisattva, not Superman the Samaritan. Willing to hand an enemy his entrails. Fighting his old foe Thor (in the Superman versus Thor bout we have never seen for real) just for the hell of it. And so on. Supreme was so explicitly based on Superman that it was an error for fans to consider it a rip-off. It was a brilliantly different take-off on Superman. Frankly, I have never been able to understand the universal (except for me) preference for the Alan Moore retooling of the character as a gentle parody of Superman. I would go so far as to say that Moore ruined the character had not the creative staff ruined the character already.

ááááááááááá As you know, Supreme aped Superman even to the latter's death, only his fatal foe was the gray-skinned titan Crypt instead of the gray-skinned titan Doomsday. In the next issue we saw an apparent resurrection of Supreme in a rejuvenated and "kinder, gentler" form. Only eventually it turned out this was Supreme's daughter from the future who had temporarily usurped the form of Supreme's future son. Meanwhile on an alternate earth, a parallel-world Supreme landed in a rocket on still a third earth. On the earth he had now reached there was a bearded, power-drained Supreme, whom we later realize is the Supreme apparently killed by Crypt. This one manages to switch bodies with the new arrival. But then he flies into the hands of Alan Moore and is changed up again, even with a new origin. Whew! Here ambiguity has degenerated into total confusion. In fact, when I moved from New Jersey to North Carolina, I thinned out my comics collection and gave away all the issues of Supreme after # 25 where the one I knew and loved was killed. You see, I couldn't really tell if he ever came back!


Last Son of Oa

Back in the DC universe, the major aftermath of the Death and the Reign was a kind of instant replay of the whole scenario starring Green Lantern. Having been asleep at the switch for the destruction of Coast City, he redeemed himself, or tried to, by joining Superman and the rest for the final battle with Mongul and the Cyborg Superman (as we must call him at this point). But this was not enough. He went mad with grief and self-reproach, seizing the god-like power to undo his tragic error and becoming a kind of Nietzschean hero-villain in the process. Once he appeared as Parallax, losing his role as Green Lantern to Kyle Raynor, and later still becoming the Spectre, Hal Jordan in effect recapitulated the deconstruction of Superman. During the Engine City battle itself he had already taken on the likeness of Steel (John Henry Irons) by encasing himself in armor. Parallax was pretty much like the original Eradicator, trying to wipe out one world to replace it with another (in Zero Hour), whereas the Spectre persona was like the Last Son's "avenging son" persona. Kyle, of course, is the GL version of Superboy. With the return of John Stewart, we even have another Steel GL, a black Superman.

ááááááááááá Neither may we ignore the reflections of the Super-resurrection elsewhere in the Reign storyline itself. Obviously the clone Superboy was a reflection of the Guardian clone from the same vat, both rehashes of once-retired characters. But he was also like the alien, shape-shifting Supergirl, another different-origin substitute for a Superman Family character missing since the Crisis on Infinite Earths. The Man of Tomorrow was analogous to the Lex Luther redivivus, his brain having survived death and been placed into a borrowed body. Likewise, it seemed what was left of Superman had been salvaged by grafting it onto a robot frame. And then, after giving his life for Superman, as Superman had sacrificed his own, the Eradicator is himself raised from the dead, and that by yet another fusion of one consciousness with another, near to death. Ripples across a pond.


Dead Again and Again

If it is hard to follow an act like the Death and the Reign, one cannot say DC didn't try. In fact they tried to follow it by repeating it! How about the "Dead Again" story line? Superman's corpse reappears, forcing him to wonder if he is not some sort of a substitute clone, and not the genuine Superman at all. An interesting premise, though I could not really buy the notion of Superman becoming so paranoid as he did.

ááááááááááá The introduction of the temporary (what a surprise!) new costume and powers was yet another replay, for who can deny that what we saw was another death and rebirth of Superman, and it even included another subplot dealing with the family life of Lex Luthor. Nor did it lack the proliferation-of-Supermen element, as that ram-horned refugee from multi-cultural Kandor fished Superman's old costume out of the garbage and donned it, and when the Electro-Superman split into Superman AC and Superman DC, I mean Superman Red and Superman Blue, a story arc with a "resolution" as bad as the "Maximum Clonage" fiasco over at Marvelá (which, come to think of it, was yet another version of the same damn thing).

ááááááááááá Over in Superboy's title, the Black Zero stories formed an interesting piece of apocrypha to the gospel of the slain and resurrected Superman. One might almost see Black Zero as a worthy addition to the four horsemen of the Reign.

ááááááááááá The utter exhaustion of the Superman saga of late may be evidenced by the endless repetitions of the "What if Kal-el's rocket landed someplace else?" premise. Among the Amish, the Soviets, the Nazis, on Apokalips, in England, in Luthor's clutches, on Rann, on Oa, on Thanagar. Reminds me of the Jataka Tales of the Buddha, according to which there is not a foot of ground on the whole earth where the Buddha did not give his life for others in some previous incarnation. Yeah, all right. Maybe I ought to get rid of all my issues after the Reign, like I did with Supreme. Like I say, a tough act to follow.  


Copyrightę2004 by Robert M Price
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