Electric Bluegaloo, Act One: Superman… Reborn!
Of all the strange transformations Superman has undergone in his 78-year history, none has been quite so derided as the year where his familiar costume and powers were replaced with a blue and white "containment suit" and a tenuous relationship with electricity. But that raises the question, was it really all that bad? Two decades later, we want to find out, so ComicsAlliance is taking a look back at the Electric Blue Era of Superman to find out not just what worked, but if anything worked. This is... Electric Bluegaloo.
This week, Superman's new costume makes its debut, and Metropolis almost gets nuked. Again.
May - June, 1997
- Superman #123, by Dan Jurgens, Ron Frenz and Joe Rubenstein
- The Adventures of Superman #546, by Karl Kesel, Stuart Immonen and Jose Marzan
- Action Comics #733, by David Michelinie, Tom Grummett, and Denis Rodier
- Superman: The Man of Steel #68, by Louise Simonson, Jon Bogdanove, and Dennis Janke
If you get your comic book news exclusively from TV news channels that were having a slow day, you'd probably think that there were only three issues of Superman comics published in the entirety of the '90s: Superman #75, Superman: The Wedding Album, and Superman #123. In all honesty, that's pretty much how I encountered Superman as a kid growing up in that decade, and it's really tempting to just look at those three comics and try to figure out how they shaped public opinion about comics in general and Superman in particular.
When you get right down to it, though, the Superman titles of the '90s were actually pretty good about telling one consistent, long-running story. Say what you will about whether the stories were good, or whether the endless stream of events that connected those three high points resulted in a version of the character that was actually interesting and fun to read about, but you can't really take that consistency away from them. Everything tends to build pretty logically from what was built before --- for certain superheroic definitions of "logic," anyway.
That's something that's really on display in the first proper month of the Electric Blue Era. With the previous month's titles setting the stage for Superman's transformation --- which were themselves building off earlier stories about the post-Crisis Bottle City of Kandor and the Final Night crossover that deprived Superman of sunlight --- it's time to get to the year's most memorable change: That new costume.
Superman #123 was the issue where it got its start, and if you were picking it up out of curiosity and/or speculating that it might be worth something someday (I'm guilty of the latter), it was probably the only issue of the entire story that you were ever going to read. And that, I think is something Dan Jurgens at least had to know --- he'd been through this at least twice before, after all.
As a result, that issue's front-loaded with a ton of exposition. Lois spends the first two pages neatly recapping the previous month's stories to herself while driving to the scene of Superman's electrically charged battle. Unfortunately, she never quite gets around to explaining this guy:
Of course, we all know that he's Ceritak, a refugee from Kandor --- which, I remind you, is not a lost city from Krypton in this continuity, but is instead a sort of cosmic terrarium created by a villain consistently referred to as a space wizard --- and he's actually shaping up to be a pretty interesting character. At first glance, he looks like he's going to be the villain of the first arc, but as the story progresses, he ends up following Superman's example and fighting to protect the citizens of Metropolis.
He even gets a codename, although it happens in what is probably the second-most awkwardly written scene of this entire enterprise. During his fight with Superman, Bibbo Bibbowski and Jimmy Olsen are watching from the sidelines, and when Bibbo mentions his horns, Jimmy Olsen asks him, "Did you say his name was Scorn?"
No. No he did not.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. For now, what matters is that Superman's transformation into a being of pure energy is complete, although there's a pretty big problem with that. As you may have noticed, pure energy tends to have a pretty hard time existing in a solid, cohesive, Superman-shaped form, so unless they want to see Superman dispersed across the universe, Lois Lane and Emil Hamilton are going to have to figure out what to do.
Fortunately --- and this might be the single most delightfully comic-booky piece of this already pretty amazingly comic-booky story --- Lex Luthor has been developing a new kind of high-tech cloth for just such an occasion!
If you're wondering who that is delivering the bolt of super-cloth to STAR Labs, that's Contessa Erica Alexandra Del Portenza, who was secretly married to Luthor at the time.
As for why Lex has 40 square yards of containment suit fabric just laying around, the story never really gets into that, but I really think it works here. That's the sort of thing that you want Luthor to have, that sort of weird high-tech bric-a-brac that, if it wasn't being used to build the containment suit, would've probably been lining some kind of anti-Superman murder robot the following week. His motivations for sharing it with Superman, however, are left a little more vague.
The implication, based on a previous story where Luthor attempted to blackmail Lois by "helping" her mother with life-saving medicine, is that Luthor thinks he can get Superman in his pocket by saving his life, but even Luthor can't believe that at this point. Personally, I'm going with the theory that Luthor only wants Superman to die if he's the one who's doing the killing.
Eventually, with some Kryptonian circuitry salvaged from one of the Fortress robots, Hamilton and Dr. Kitty Faulkner are able to build Superman a new suit that allows him to control his new form:
There's only one thing missing. As anyone will tell you, a superhero needs a #personalbrand, and for that, Superman swings down to Smallville to get a thumbs up from Ma and Pa:
I've always thought that was a nice touch, even if "I'm ready for the next century!" and "you might be even stronger than before!" are laying it on a little thick.
So finally, we've got our new Superman, and while Stuart Immonen unsurprisingly makes that suit look amazing in the pages of Adventures #546...
... the bigger development is the arrival of this month's actual villain.
Like I said before, the story faked out readers with the idea that it might be building to a big, Doomsday-style throwdown between Superman and Scorn, but with the reveal that Scorn's actually not a bad guy, we swerved into something else. It actually works out really well, too --- this is, after all, a Superman who has new and at least theoretically interesting powers, so you want to have a foe who can play off of stuff like energy, electricity and magnetism.
And the villain they chose for the role was Metallo.
I'll admit to being completely unfamiliar with this version of Metallo, but he makes for a great opponent for an electrically charged Superman. Rather than the Kryptonite-powered cyborg that you might be used to, this version of Metallo had the ability to merge with and take over any form of machinery. So basically, he spent the story building himself new bodies out of increasingly bizarre machines, starting with a machine-gun ferris wheel...
... and ending up with a giant Pacific Rim Jaeger body built from an aircraft carrier.
Along the way, he ends up taking control of Superman himself in one of the most clever ideas that I've seen in the story so far, using the Man of Steel's new energy form as a power source and billing himself as the Man with the Superman Heart. It's in that section that Superman realizes he can cut Metallo off by shifting back to his fully-human Clark Kent form, injuring himself pretty severely in the process.
And that's how we get to the most awkwardly written scene of the entire story: A scene where Superman goes to talk to the Ray about his new powers, and the Ray just straight up says, "I don't know, man, maybe they work like this."
It's like he's trying to remember a Wikipedia article that he read three years ago.
To be fair, though, there is one pretty interesting bit in that scene: The idea that "Clark's" vulnerability is entirely psychological, because Superman sees human beings as being vulnerable and in need of protection. It comes a little too close to Superman-as-Superior-Alien for me to fully get behind it, but Michelinie's scripting actually makes it come off as being more rooted in Superman wanting to use his powers to help people than anything else.
Eventually, Superman's able to defeat Metallo --- and prevent him from nuking Metropolis --- through a combination of a tenuous relationship with magnetism and gravity, and his new ability to grow to giant size and punch things really hard:
And with that, the first proper month of the Electric Blue Era comes to a close.
All in all, it's an interesting story with some truly great visuals. I've never seen this version of Metallo before, and he makes for some fantastic set pieces that feel way ahead of their time --- even the one where he talks about merging with a computer so that he can jack into the Internet and find out what the chat rooms are saying about Superman's new powers. There's a lot of inconsistency as to what Superman's new powers actually are and can do, but I feel like at least part of that is pretty unavoidable at this point, especially when you're dealing with something as nebulous as "I dunno, energy stuff?"
If memory serves, that lack of focus is going to come back to be a problem later, but for now, it's actually giving us some really interesting and engaging stuff.
- The costume, obviously. Incidentally, after Superman draws the new logo on it, it loses its visible circuitry off-panel between issues.
- More tweaks to Superman's powers. Growing giant-sized, for instance, is a new one, although it has a nice bit of balance to it in that Superman is less dense when he's spread out like that, and can't stop things like missiles from hitting the city.
- Scorn now has a codename and has shifted his alignment from villain to hero, rescuing the daughter of the Daily Planet's conservative columnist from kidnappers.
- Kandor is on the verge of becoming a full-blown riot after its citizens discovered that the Space Wizard they worship as a god is no longer around.