Saving Superman

Can DC save a legend who’s apparently outgrown his audience?

DC Comics has decided their experiment in the New 52 Universe has ended. For good or ill, much of their most recent reboot of the DC Universe has had mixed results. Some parts good were good, other parts were awful. Characters were lost, rebooted, changed, relationships redefined, but whatever the ultimate goal of the New 52, this attempt to modernize the DC Universe has been considered a failure.

What was the problem? In my opinion, DC’s leaders may have failed to pay attention to what people wanted.

  • I think DC had lost sight of what’s important. They were writing comics for themselves, not for the readership. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with doing that. One of the reason many of them ended up writing comics is they grew up loving them. Such a love is a great reason to do the work but in such work lies a great responsibility. How do you have those character evolve over time?
  • Fans want comic heroes to stand perfectly still and stay static forever, but down that way lies obsolescence and ultimately failure, which DC’s writers knew was a possibility but were not certain how to avoid it. Their fan-service did appeal to the die-hard comic guys who bought everything and as such would want the characters to change as little as possible, when possible.
  • Ultimately, they were telling stories no one wanted to read and fixing characters who weren’t broken. DC had perceived Superman as a broken character and was one of the reasons the New52 needed to happen. However, Superman was not broken. He didn’t need fixing, he needed writers who understood what the character was about. Is he hard to write for? Absolutely. Should they work on tweaking his abilities? Maybe, but maybe they should expand the DC Universe a bit to give him a little more challenge.
  • In my personal opinion, they were trying to return DC to its era of Whiteness (meaning the characters were mostly White, anything on the fringes such as Cassandra Cain, for example, was subtly erased) from the seventies assuming this would bolster their flagging sales. Most of the Justice League has been White, stayed White and I think DC has lost sight of the real world and what people hope to see.
60 years separates the top image of the JSA and the JLA of early DC with the Justice League of 2000, but racial representation hasn’t changed much.
  • I’m not saying Marvel has been a paragon of diversity, but they at least recognize treating their female lineup better could lead to an improvement in both sales and reader morale. Some of Marvel’ hottest books included the updated Captain Marvel, Ms Marvel, as well as Jane Foster’s new Thor.
  • Marvel has also improved other titles as well in the Spider Clan adding Silk, Spider-Gwen and Miles Morales. Marvel’s attempts however small in comparison to their overall universe has acknowledged the changing landscape of readers. If only their movies were as progressive.

A Lack of Vision

DC’s New 52 reboot did nothing to endear them to fans. An example of the epic failure to be sensitive to their audience lies in the erasure of Barbara Gordon as Oracle. Crippled by the Joker and a bullet to her spine, the former Batgirl was relegated to a wheelchair and taken off the roster in the Batfamily. Rather than just sitting there watching other heroes, Barbara rises to the challenge and becomes the enigmatic information broker, Oracle.

  • The loss of Oracle, one of the only wheelchair-bound characters in comicdom, beloved and respected by almost everyone, and lamented like few characters were during the reboot. For ten years, she was one of the few people who ever gave orders to Batman. And he listened. She became an asset to anyone who needed information but lacked the time to get it themselves. Her role of Oracle, wheelchair-bound but mentally free, providing resources to superteams everywhere made her more powerful, more interesting and more important than her role as Batgirl ever was.
  • With a classic act of insensitivity DC reboots the character right out of existence with some lame excuse why Barbara Gordon had to return. Yes, in a universe laden with super-science, it was hard to explain why she had to stay in a chair in the first place but I liken it to the idea if comic technology were commonplace, there would be no one in chairs anywhere.
  • Why put Oracle back in a Bat suit, when there were already at least two competent and capable Batgirls ready for the role, Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown were oh so suitable for the role?
  • Both women had supervillains for fathers which should have been rich territory for storytelling. Both had their own issues with sufficient pathos to tell amazing stories for years to come if someone creative were at the helm.
  • These two pages alone made me think of how many things writers who were sensitive to the needs of teenage girls, who are looking for a place in a wider world, could do with such great material. Instead, both characters were sidelined in the New 52.

It is this classic lack of sensitivity which leads me to the biggest problem in the DC Universe at the moment: What do we do with Superman?

Welcome to Rebirth

DC’s solution is to cast aside the current New 52 Man of Steel I dubbed Superbro. He lost his powers, he was outed by Lois Lane, put on the run from the authorities, rode a motorcycle and reverted to having only enough power to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Somewhere in there, and with the recent Man of Steel controversies in the movies, Superman was lost. There was a panel in a comic some years ago which sums up this dilemma nicely:

With this image of a more modern Superman clashing with the Golden Age hero of Earth-2, we are forced to ask the question which has divided comic readers for the last half century.

Who is Superman? Can we revive this story of a farm-raised, immigrant from another world who grows up to become an icon for superheroes all over the world, in the present, in the future and make it more modern without alienating everyone who knew the character for the last fifty years?

The answer to that question appears to be: NO.

Because no one is seeing Superman. They are seeing varying versions of the Man of Steel in a mental amalgam which does not truly reflect any ONE version of him. How many versions are there you wonder?

This many, at least. These aren’t every version of Superman, just some of the more famous ones.

Can DC make a new Superman which reflects modern ideals without throwing away everything that makes the character the iconic presence that he is? DC is experimenting with the idea during their Rebirth Saga by killing off the New 52 Superman. Lifting a page from history, his death shall spur the creation of new heroes, at least one of which shall take up the legacy of Superman in a foreign county.

One of these new titles will be: The New Super-Man which follows the adventures of Kenan Kong and is written by Gene Luen Yang. Yang has an entire blog entry on how he feels about his role in the creation of this new version of Superman.

New Super-Man’s official secret identity will be:
孔克南 Kenan Kong
南 Nan means “south.” Appropriate for a kid from Shanghai, since folks from Beijing like to call folks from Shanghai “Southerners.”
克 Ke means “to overcome.” What could be more Super-Man than “to overcome”?

Yang has an eighty year history to contend with as he attempts to save an aging Man of Steel from being bound by his own cultural mores.

I am hopeful this attempt to redefine Superman, bring some new ideas to the DC Universe, spurring some innovation and new blood to the titles may do for DC what a bit of diversity has done for Marvel, make people care about comics again. It would be a shame to watch comics die off, with only their movies becoming the lasting footnote to the history of comics having ever existed.

Other superhero-related writing:

Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller for mysterious beings who exist in non-Euclidean realms beyond our understanding. Since they insist on constant entertainment and can’t subscribe to cable, Thaddeus writes a variety of forms of speculative fiction to appease their hunger for new entertainment.

Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies: Awesome Allshorts: Last Days and Lost Ways (Australia, 2014), The Future is Short(2014), Visions of Leaving Earth (2014), Mothership: Tales of Afrofuturism and Beyond (2014), Genesis Science Fiction (2013), Scraps (UK, 2012), and Possibilities (2012).

He has written two books: a collection called Hayward’s Reach (2011) and an e-book novella called Broken Glass (2013) featuring Clifford Engram, Paranormal Investigator.