Missing Persons: A Second Chance at Superman

The re-imagined universe of the New 52 is all about second chances. Broadly speaking, it is DC’s opportunity to capture a new audience. But in particular, it’s the ability to recast heroes and retell their origins.

In no case, it seems, has this been more vital than in the character of Superman. Over the last decade, he has suffered from criticism due to near god-like powers and unwavering moral convictions that have often made of his stories less convincing. Understanding this, DC decided to re-introduce the character in not one, but two titles: Action Comics and Superman.

In Action Comics, writer Grant Morrison presents a de-powered, 22-year-old Superman, an impetuous champion of the working class. Five years later in Superman, however, George Pérez reveals a full-fledged superhero icon who, with even more powers, seems hesitant and lost.

Although these characterizations contrast, each illuminates the other. The younger Superman will obviously grow up to be the older one. And in the process, Pérez’s older, disillusioned Superman may yet find something in the younger one to regain.

Action Comics begins when Superman interrupts a celebration for Glen Glenmorgan, a corrupt businessman and the owner of the Daily Planet. Eyes aglow with heat vision, he threatens them, “Rats. Rats with money. And rats with guns. I’m your worst nightmare.” And immediately, Superman is not the boy scout that readers believed they once knew.

In fact, Grant Morrison’s Superman is quite the vigilante. He secures a confession from Glenmorgan by dropping him from the balcony of a high-rise. He runs from the police, smugly yelling (like Robin Hood to the Sheriff of Nottingham), “Catch me if you can!” And in the second issue, a bruised and bleeding Superman even chokes Lex Luthor and threatens to “break” his “scrawny neck.”

In addition to this newfound edge, Morrison’s hero displays an almost arrogant self-righteousness. Whereas the previous incarnation of Superman was a humble do-gooder, this one – although young and only six months a resident of Metropolis – already believes he’s the city’s savior. He lectures with a finger pointed at Glenmorgan, “You know the deal, Metropolis. Treat people right or expect a visit from me.” And he scolds the police, “How about you and your boys deal with the real criminal scum in this city, and then you won’t need me to do it for you?”

For all Superman’s faults, however, Morrison casts him as the champion of the common man. Beyond intimidating crooked businessmen, he saves a girl from a speeding truck, a wife from her abusive husband, and a whole tenement from demolition. And as Clark Kent, he writes stories about gang violence, union rights violations, and corporate corruption.

Superman’s costume reinforces these working-class ties. He dons a blue t-shirt with his insignia, cuffed jeans with patches on the knees, brown laced boots and his red baby blanket as a make-shift cape. Even his superhero abilities are de-powered. Although Superman is still invulnerable, he can be hurt. Mortar shells bruise him. Speeding trains and electric chairs knock him out. And notably, he does not have the ability to fly.

Thus, Morrison’s younger Superman, as vigilante and defender of the common man, is not only markedly different to his previous incarnation, but also to the older one in George Pérez’s Superman.

Superman opens with the destruction of the old Daily Planet building, a symbol of journalistic integrity and a voice for the common man. In full costume, cape billowing wide like angel wings, Superman should be the hero more than ever. But instead, he hovers above the scene, with the full moon behind him and smoke from the wreckage rising all around. He does not stop it or even save the iconic globe emblem.

Pérez’s Superman is five years older than Morrison’s vocal young hero, and time has changed things immensely. Superman is now often quiet and ruminating. Much of Pérez’s story is told either in flashbacks, in which Clark Kent speaks, or through thought bubbles. And when Superman does speak, his language is less self-righteous and more superhero shtick. When two terrorists hijack a tanker truck with explosive chemical waste, he quips, “Okay, boys, time to pull over! Metropolis has strict rules about nighttime drag racing, you know!”

In addition, Pérez’s Superman has traded his blue-collar clothes for a more regimented costume: an armored suit and flowing cape. Beyond the gift of flight, his superpowers include a higher degree of invulnerability and a variety of optical capabilities. But with these powers has come greater responsibility.

Pérez’s Superman is no longer the vigilante, but the typical superhero. The police rely upon him to battle the many super-powered villains that arrive in Metropolis. And Superman himself is even assisted by General Sam Lane who, in Action Comics, worked with Lex Luthor.

Throughout both titles, in fact, General Lane acts on his belief that super-powered beings and aliens have no place on Earth. Still, in Superman he reluctantly works with the hero to provide intelligence on a new super-powered creature with mysterious, potentially Kryptonian origins. General Lane, however, believes that the new villain is “probably just another homegrown menace created by some nutcase to terrorize Metropolis and to outdraw the town’s master gunfighter.” This thought, that perhaps he is responsible for bringing more violence to Metropolis, lingers with Superman.

At one point in Action Comics, Inspector Blake tells Clark, “You’re still young, kid. You don’t understand there are some things you can’t fight, no matter how hard you try or how full of it you are.” Being a full-fledged superhero, it seems, means letting go of the common man.

As Superman has increasingly focused on super-powered villains, he has left the small crimes – fights and robberies – to the police. Flying high above the city, he is physically and mentally distant from normal humans. As a planetary defender, he seems less willing to involve himself in matters like the destruction of the old Daily Planet building. But still, as Clark Kent, he has continued to write “stories about the homeless, the displaced, the forgotten.”

Even if these stories have inspired Lois Lane and his other coworkers, the Clark Kent of Superman is still very much an outsider. With his super-hearing, Clark eavesdrops on Lois saying, he’s such a “loner” and that he “never really lets anyone get close to him.” It seems Superman’s hero identity has hindered not only his capacity to serve the common man, but also his life as Clark Kent.

In Action Comics, Clark intentionally makes himself the outsider. He wears oversized clothes to make himself look smaller, Converses, and Coke bottle glasses that make his eyes look bigger. He musses up his hair and stoops his shoulders. And when speaking to Inspector Blake, he is self-righteous like his alter ego, and says, “You need to be the cop you wanted to be when you were a kid.” His measures may seem extreme, but he still has a friend with shared beliefs.

Throughout Action Comics, Jimmy Olsen is Clark’s best friend. He consoles Clark when Superman becomes a pariah to the public, telling him there’s a job at the Daily Planet. And he echoes Clark’s youthful optimism, saying, “The whole world’s changing fast and getting weirder. That means opportunity, Clark.”

But it seems in Superman that the world has gone by too quickly. Jimmy is still Lois’s sidekick, although now he is a cameraman and hacker instead of a photographer. And more importantly, his interactions with Clark seem limited. Clark may now dress like a typical reporter and no longer walk with a stoop, but his superhero alter ego has definitely kept him from enjoying any semblance of a normal life.

In Action Comics, Lois is the brazen reporter, chasing after a mobster and sneaking into a government facility. She is competitive with Clark, twice thinking that he’s trying to sabotage her stories. Later, she accuses him of following her and Jimmy during their investigation of a worker strike. At a diner, she teases him, “Kent, you look like something a pig couldn’t hold down,” to which Clark replies, “Duly charmed.” They are competitors, but they are both still intrepid reporters.

In Superman, Lois Lane has become a member of the corporate elite. When potentially corrupt businessman Morgan Edge purchases the Daily Planet, he promotes her to executive producer of the nightly news division and executive vice-president of new media.

Clark is infuriated with Lois’ decision to support the new organization, which also owned the “scandal-mongering rag” The Globe, which used “illegal tactics – wiretaps, extortion, and out-and-out lies.” But Lois proves to be practical. “Print is dying,” she says. And working for the new corporation is Lois’ way of “safeguarding… journalistic integrity.”

Lois still considers her and Clark to be “competitors,” and any romantic connection between the two is nonexistent. When Clark comes to Lois’ apartment to say sorry about their fight, he is obviously disappointed to find her with another man. Lois offers an olive branch in saying, “Whatever is bothering you, just know that you don’t always have to face it alone.”

It seems those words, however, have fallen on deaf ears, even as Lois has proven to be Superman’s supporter in both Action Comics (she tries to rescue him when the army has captured him) and Superman (she saves him when she realizes that humans can see a super-powered creature that is invisible to Superman). As Superman sits in his Fortress of Solitude, he is more isolated than ever.

Pérez’s Superman seems filled with regrets: for the way the Daily Planet was demolished, for bringing more supervillains into the fray, and for never attempting a romantic relationship with Lois. He is the opposite of the optimistic, fiercely confident young man of Action Comics.

Floating above a map of the stars in Superman #2, Superman remembers a book title his father would cite: “You can’t go home again.” In the scene, he refers to his home planet of Krypton. But the quotation seems to also speak to how Pérez’s Superman doesn’t think he can ever be that twenty-two-year-old, bolder self again.

Still, as DC Comics has proven, second chances do exist. And this is only Superman’s first try.