Millenium approached and Earth’s greatest hero was falling out of touch. Since returning from the dead, Superman had also returned to a staid status quo, unable to recapture the spark, or the sales numbers, his death and resurrection generated.
At the end of the nineties, the Superman line of books was written by Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway, and Louise Simonson, overseen by group editor Eddie Berganza. If you don’t know Berganza’s name, it’s worth reading this fantastic Buzzfeed article on his history of sexual harassment and abuse. This is an individual who held the keys to the main Superman and Wonder Woman titles for decades, effectively ensuring some of the best female talent in the industry would never work on those books. Let’s take a second to say, Fuck Eddie Berganza.
Berganza commissioned a proposal for the Superman books from Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Mark Waid, and Tom Peyer. Morrison was finishing a blockbuster run on JLA, and Waid had scored a hit with Kingdom Come. Millar and Peyer were the respective “lesser” partners to Morrison and Waid. Waid and Peyer started in DC editorial at the same time and had collaborated on a couple books. Morrison and Millar had a more traditional mentor-mentee relationship, one that would sour soon after. In a 2011 interview, Morrison said of Millar:
I wish him well but there’s not good feeling between myself and Mark for many reasons most of which are he destroyed my faith in human fucking nature.
Waid and Morrison reputedly had a massive falling out as well, with Waid satirizing Morrison in a series called Insufferable, which he described as
what happens when a hero has a kid sidekick who grows up to be a “completely ungrateful, self-aggrandizing,” “douchebag” who “will not shut up about how much of a genius he is and how the world is a better place now that [the hero team] are broken up because now he can do it all the way he wanted to do it.
UPDATE: As per the comments, I had bad info on this. Galahad in Insufferable is not a stand in for Morrison, with whom Waid remains good friends.
Regardless of later animosities, the four of them proposed that they would work collectively on the Superman titles, which would be relaunched on January 1st, 2000.
Two versions of their pitch exist. One is the Superman 2000 pitch, which is widely available on the internet, for instance here. The other is the Superman Now pitch, that is somehow more Morrison-centric and hasn’t been made public. I’ll be referring to the former, obviously. Although the idea there’s a version that is more Grant Morrison without being completely Grant Morrison is hard to fathom.
It’s long and detailed and founded on the idea that every fifteen years, Superman needs a massive shake-up. Morrison is on the record saying there is a fundamental cultural shift centered around eleven year solar cycles, known as the Sekhmet hypothesis, which he explores in The Invisibles and the “Riot at Xavier’s” arc of his New X-Men run, so this tracks somewhat with that. Of course, they also assert that their Superman will be “a forward-looking, intelligent, enthusiastic hero retooled to address the challenges of the next thousand years,” because no one ever accused any of these guys of being humble.
Keep in mind that, at this point in continuity, Byrne’s Man of Steel was still the canonical origin. Superman is Clark Kent, human in every practical sense. And he’s married to Lois Lane. Morrison, Millar, Peyer, and Waid intended to fundamentally change that.
The key to the initial concept lies in a radical but organic reversal of the currently accepted logic of the Superman/Clark dynamic.
In our interpretation, Clark Kent isn’t what Superman really IS, Clark is what Superman WAS — until he reached his teenage years and began to realize what all those years of soaking up the Kansas sun had done to his alien cells. Superman’s story here is seen as the tale of a Midwest farmer’s son who BECAME AN ALIEN shortly after puberty. Suddenly young Clark doesn’t just know his Ma and Pa through sight, touch, sound — he knows the exact timbre of their pulse rates, he can look at their DNA and recognize their distinctive electrical fields and hear the neural crackle and release of chemicals which tell him they’ve changed their minds about something.
And he can do all this, he can scan the entire environment in an INSTANT, with levels of perception we can only imagine.
That’s gonna turn anyone’s head around a little.
This is someone who by any stretch of the imagination is no longer just human — except for the part of him, the ethical, humanitarian base nurtured by the Kents, which forms the unshakable foundation for everything Superman is BUT WHO IS WHAT SUPERMAN CAN NO LONGER BE. Or, in other words not our own, “…who, DISGUISED as Clark Kent, fights a never-ending battle…”
To reinforce a sense of difference and distance between Superman and Clark, the foursome proposed to massively ramp up his power set, in ways that are left largely undefined by the pitch. They wanted a Superman who was an alien God, an obvious Christ figure. Not simply a superhero but an inspiration to humanity. In service to this idea, they planned to downplay his membership in the Justice League, and erase the marriage.
They also wanted to ditch the red undies.
Clark would become the place Superman goes to relax. He is what Superman remembers about being human, and one of the vantage points from which he watches humanity. But it was important that Superman and Clark be immediately distinct and distinguishable. By the end of the 90s, Clark was clearly Superman with glasses, rarely drawn to look any different in his “mild mannered mode.” Perhaps the strongest evidence for their interchangeability was the resolution of the Superman-Lois-Clark love triangle. Clark had finally become a match for his imaginary rival. He was a kind of Super Clark, and in becoming so, ceased to be a point of identification for readers, particularly the geeky male audience this pitch imagined.
To be the half of Superman which readers can actually relate to because we all (Jesus, especially comics readers) want to believe that even though we may be put upon and bullied by the world from time to time, we know what those who pick on us or look down at us don’t — that if they could see behind our glasses, they’d see a Superman (emphasis mine)
Yes, the “comics readers” here are dudes. And yes, presumably “those who…look down on us” are the ladies. Oh 90s comics industry, why’ve you got to 90s comics industry so hard?
(You can completely remove “90s” from the sentence above and it still works. But by the way, a stated goal of this relaunch was to dethrone Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn from the top of the sales charts.)
It’s worth noting that their Clark is also vegetarian, for ethical reasons. Morrison had a rep for animal rights activism going back to his Animal Man run, and Millar was an outspoken vegetarian, but ultimately it’d be Mark Waid who managed to sneak this bit into canon.
In a move that anticipated the events leading up to Spider-Man’s “Brand New Day” relaunch, Clark would be outed as Superman, with the revelation of his identity and the Lois and Clark marriage magicked away via Mr. Mxyzptlk. The notes on this story read like an odd amalgam of that storyline, Moore’s “Whatever Happened to…”, and Morrison’s later run on Action Comics.
Berganza was so excited about the pitch that he fired Jurgens and Ordway off the Superman books, proving that you can be a fucking asshole along multiple valences. Simonson was already off Man of Steel, and if I haven’t mentioned it, I will die on the hill that Simonson and Bogdanove’s run on Man of Steel is the secret gem of the Mullet Era. Unfortunately, DC Publisher Paul Levitz nixed the idea. Apparently it was company policy at the time not to give top talent slots on Superman or Batman ongoing titles, for fear they’d have the clout to make actual changes to the status quo. Morrison says he was told “Do you honestly believe DC will ever give you the keys to the family car?”, and Waid claims he was told he’d never write Superman.
Jurgens and Ordway were offered their jobs back and declined.
Much of the pitch would end up repurposed by Morrison in subsequent takes on the character, with a couple of the ideas for Bizarro lifted by Geoff Johns for his “Escape from Bizarro World” story (which has some amazing art by The Goon’s Eric Powell.)
Millar would write a handful of Adventures of Superman issues, using the Bruce Timm version of the character from the animated series, followed by one of the strongest Elseworld’s takes on Superman with Red Son. Peyer wrote occasional in-continuity stories for Supes under Berganza’s editing.
Mark Waid, who felt royally fucked over by the whole thing, would be hired on three years later to write an expansive, non-canonical re-telling of Superman’s origin, a version accessible to anyone who’d never read a Superman comic. By the end of the series, his story would be made the official origin of Superman. A year later, it was wiped out of continuity, and Waid would never write Superman again.