Today is the 85th anniversary of Superman. Created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, the Man of Steel made his debut in the pages of Action Comics #1, released on April 18, 1938 by “Detective Comics, Inc.” or, as it would soon be better known, DC Comics.
I suppose I’ve always liked Superman, and I followed his comic books regularly for much of the 1990s. But in recent years I’ve really come to appreciate the character and what he represents.
Superman is an immigrant, a survivor of a doomed planet, sent to our world as an infant by parents who hoped that he would find a better life here on Earth. He was raised by Jonathan & Martha Kent, a working class couple who taught him the values of honesty & kindness. He uses his incredible powers not for selfish ends but to help those in need, to save lives. In his secret identity of Clark Kent he is a journalist, an investigative reporter who seeks to expose crime & corruption.
In other words, Superman stands in antithesis against every dark impulse of humanity that has become grotesquely magnified in the real world over the past several years. He could easily rule the world, or destroy it, but instead all he wishes to do is make it a better place for everyone, regardless of who they are or where they are from. He is diametrically opposed to such cruel, selfish, concepts as “greed is good” and “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” and “always look out for number one.”
I’ve heard it argued that Superman is unrealistic, because if someone with his awesome abilities truly existed they would be anything but altruistic. But the point of Superman is that he is a metaphor for how we each have a duty, a responsibility to look after those of us who are less fortunate, who have been beset by calamity & injustice.
I haven’t followed any of the Superman titles regularly for a couple of decades, but recently I’ve been reading Action Comics due to it once again becoming an anthology series, one that is featuring work from creators who I like. I started picking it up with Action Comics #1050, an anniversary special that came out in December 2022. Looking at this issue again today, I feel it offers a good encapsulation of the virtues of Superman, and what he fights against.
“Project Blackout” is written by Phillip Kennedy Johnson, Tom Taylor & Joshua Williamson, drawn by Mike Perkins, Clayton Henry & Nick Dragotta, colored by Frank Martin, and lettered by Dave Sharpe. As with practically every book published by DC Comics nowadays, Action Comics #1050 was released with multiple variant covers; I happened to get the one by Alex Ross that pays homage to the iconic cover of the very first issue.
Admittedly the main purpose of “Project Blackout” is to hit the reset button, to restore Superman’s secret identity. This is accomplished by Lex Luthor, of all people, who utilizes the mind control powers of Manchester Black to wipe everyone’s memories. A narrative contrivance enables pretty much everyone such as Lois Lane and Batman and the Justice League who already knew Clark Kent was Superman before the big reveal to still retain that knowledge.
When I heard a few years ago that Superman was going to reveal his civilian identity to the world, I knew it was only a matter of time before DC would undo it; the only questions were when & how. Luthor as the vehicle to reset the status quo is an interesting, unexpected choice. Ah, well, at least Clark didn’t have to get his marriage to Lois Lane erased by the Devil, or anything crazy like that 😊
Actually, Luthor’s role in this reveals a great deal about his character, and his relationship to Superman. At first, Luthor tries to argue that he’s done this for Superman’s benefit, that by making everyone forget he’s Clark Kent it will help Superman in his mission to protect the Earth. This ties into Luthor’s whole self-image as a benevolent philanthropist who merely wants what is best for the world. And, as Luthor argues:
“The world needs to believe that you are a god. That you are above them… not one of them…”
Eventually, though, as Superman and Luthor come to blows, the latter finally admits to his REAL reasons. He grew up with Clark Kent in Smallville, knew him for years, and in all that time Clark never revealed who he really was to Lex. So when Superman finally revealed his secret to the world, it enraged Luthor, because when it comes right down to it, Lex thinks he’s better than everyone else, and if he didn’t deserve the truth, then no one did.
So really, when Luthor was arguing that Superman is “above” humanity, he was really talking about his own self-image.
Luthor really is the perfect arch enemy for Superman, because he is the Man of Steel’s twisted mirror image. As a brilliant scientist and a billionaire industrialist, Luthor could help make the world a better place; instead he is motivated solely by narsicism, by greed, by the need to have more, by a craving for control and worship, to transform the world into his own image. In other words, he’s everything that Superman is not.
Luthor the egomaniac perceives himself as the true “super man,” whereas Superman, underneath it all, will always think of himself as plain, ordinary Clark Kent.
It’s also interesting what this story reveals about Manchester Black. First appearing in Action Comics #775 (March 2001), Black was conceived by writer Joe Kelly as a deconstruction of the sort of violent, cynical, chain-smoking British anti-hero that Warren Ellis specialized in and had made so popular in the late 1990s. Manchester Black and his group the Elite brutally mocked Superman’s idealism, arguing that the Man of Steel was actually naive & ineffectual.
Two decades ago I felt that Kelly’s story was an anvilicious attempt to satirize the Authority and other “proactive” superheroes. In the years since, well, I’ve somewhat come around to Kelly’s way of thinking. The Authority and their ilk are much more uncomfortable to me in a world where a significant segment of the population mocks empathy and caring and rational intelligence, believing instead that anger and violence is the only answer.
The process that Luthor uses to wipe the world’s knowledge of Superman’s secret identity kills Manchester Black. Before he dies, Black admits to Luthor that at long last he’s finally come to respect Superman.
Luthor: When you fought alongside Superman up there… did he REALLY make a follower out of YOU, of all people?
Black: *SIGH* Yeah. I suppose he did. Sorry to disappoint you, mate. I drank the Kool-Aid. I fought and bled with him, and Ol’ Blue was all right in the end.
I appreciated this moment because it goes to the heart of why Superman doesn’t like to kill. It isn’t just because he values the sanctity of life, and because he doesn’t want to become as horrible as the people he fights. It’s also because he hopes that one day his enemies might become better people. And he knows that for most of them that will never happen, that they’ll remain monsters who the world needs to be protected from, but he still holds onto that hope.
Honestly, that’s the sort of idealism & optimism that I doubt I will ever be able to achieve. I look around and see so many terrible excuses for human beings who appear to be completely beyond redemption. I wish I could possess that hope, instead of despair.
Having spoken at length about the plot and characters in “Project Blackout” I need to at least comment briefly about the art & coloring. Perkins, Henry, Dragotta & Martin all do great work. Sharpe’s lettering is solid, and really stands out in the scene where an outraged Superman finds out about Manchester Black’s death.
I was especially impressed by Perkins’ contributions. He draws the opening and closing sequences of this issue. I recall first seeing Perkins’ art in the anthology series Negative Burn from Caliber Press in the late 1990s. That was followed by work for CrossGen in the early 2000s, and then some fill-in issues of Captain America at Marvel in 2006, among other things. I always thought Perkins was a good artist, but in the years since he’s grown tremendously. His art in Action Comics #1050 is incredible. I’m not sure what else Parkins is working on nowadays, but I’ll have to keep an eye out.
Plus, if he gets to draw the Superman titles again, I’ll definitely be happy.
In closing, happy birthday to one of the greatest fictional characters. Here’s to 85 more years of Superman… and beyond.
And let’s hope one day we can all live up to his example.