Electric Bluegaloo Interlude: Meanwhile, In The Rest Of The DC Universe
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, we take a moment to look at what Electric Blue Superman was up to in the larger DC Universe... and wonder why the actual Superman books couldn't be this good.
Even though I'm pretty sure it's the only one going on right now, Electric Bluegaloo is not the first critical re-examination of Superman's brief tenure as an energy being. I remember that when I was a kid, I had an issue of Wizard magazine, it must've been late 1998, that essentially took a look at the past year's worth of some of the biggest franchises in comics and broke down what worked about them and what didn't.
Despite Wizard's occasionally well-deserved reputation, I have to admit that article --- or at least what I can remember of it - was pretty spot on. The authors wrote about how Legion of Super-Heroes, for instance, was stagnating thanks to bad jokes and dense continuity that, despite multiple reboots trying to bring them back to basics, was still too self-referential to bring in new readers. I'm someone who loves the Legion, but looking back at those books, they're not wrong.
And when it comes to Superman, the complaint that they had in 1998 are the same ones that I've had about the run when I've looked back on it almost 20 years later.
The biggest problem, according to Wizard and my hazy memories thereof, was that while the reboot promised bold new storytelling and a new kind of action, it quickly just settled into the old routines. The most damning indictment, however, was that the most interesting uses of Superman's powers didn't happen in the Superman titles. Instead, the most interesting, memorable moments of the Electric Blue Era happened elsewhere. And like I said, they're not wrong.
So let's take a look elsewhere.
Interestingly enough, the books where you'd think it'd be pretty easy to find some meta-textual commentary on Superman turning into bug zapper never actually get around to talking about it. By the time Superman went blue, Hitman --- which famously had a scene early in the run where someone was taking signatures for a petition to get Superman to cut his hair --- was dealing with some more serious stuff that saw Tommy Monaghan leave the country to avoid being murdered by the SAS. And Starman, which would've seemed like the perfect place for someone to wax loquaciously about how the superheroes today had changed so much since those bright and colorful days of yore, was in the middle of a year-long arc about Jack Knight going into space.
He did, incidentally, meet Jor-El thanks to some time travel shenanigans, but he didn't tell him that his son would grow up to be made of electricity.
There was one offbeat title where Superman's new powers did show up, albeit briefly: Aztek: The Ultimate Man #9, by Mark Millar, Grant Morrison, N. Steven Harris, and Keith Champagne, in which Superman shows up to talk to a big fan who found himself in a coma after being hit by a car in Metropolis. The story comes right at the start of Superman's big power shift, and --- in what I have to think was probably a gag written by Millar --- the visit does not go well.
Even just looking at the roster for that comic feels like seeing a snapshot of the era - and since the Justice League is traditionally the book that sets the tone for the rest of the universe, that's exactly what it should be. But still --- Connor Hawke! Kyle Rayner! Steel! Hook-handed bearded Aquaman! Wonder Woman, except she's actually Wonder Woman's mom, Wonder Woman! And, of course, Electric Blue Superman.
The thing is, while Superman's certainly prominent in those issues, they're not exactly written to play to his new strengths --- and on top of that, half the year is taken up with stories that take him off the board entirely. There's the two-issue "Imaginary Stories" arc with the Key, where Superman is confined to a dream world for most of it --- and where Connor Hawke has to save the day with a boxing glove arrow in one of the best examples of creators beginning to soften on the late-'90s rejection of the Silver Age.
Along the same lines, a solid half of "Rock of Ages" --- one of the stories of the run --- takes place in a future where Superman is long dead, and all that remains of him is a scrap of his costume:
The others, incidentally, are Dr. Fate's bullet-holed helmet, Steel's broken sledgehammer, Starman's Cosmic Rod, Mr. Miracle's cape, Captain Marvel's bracers, and a scrap of Robin's costume. It's a pretty grim collection, but how hilarious is it that all of these superheroes form an underground resistance movement to battle against the omnipotent Darkseid, and end up rallying around Electric Blue Superman's shield? I don't mind a comic being a product of its time, but how much more evocative would that be if they had you know, the real Superman symbol hanging in their cobbled together place of honor?
By the same token, things that would otherwise be great, timeless moments for Superman end up coming off as being weirdly dated thanks to the blue costume, and for the best example of that, you need look no further than JLA #7, in which Superman, refusing to yield for even a moment, literally wrestles the angel Asmodel:
Don't get me wrong, it's an awesome moment, and it only gets better on the next page where Superman withstands the purifying light of God Himself (which of course is being co-opted by a renegade angel who wants to destroy the world).
The thing is, there isn't anything about these moments that works specifically with Electric Blue Superman. You could go in and re-draw those panels with the standard version and they'd work just as well. Heck, you could throw in pretty much every version of Superman, from his Lion-Headed Silver Age Weird Transformations incarnation on down to the New 52's Casual Fridays version, and it would read just fine.
Well. Maybe not Gangbuster. But you get my point.
But earlier in that story --- in that same issue, in fact --- we actually do get one of the Electric Blue Era's coolest moments, and it's exactly the kind of thing that you could only do with this version of Superman. See, part of the plot involves Neron (one of DC's many stand-ins for the Devil) teaming up with the Demons Three to help Asmodel destroy the Earth. To that end, he has a magical representation of the Moon that, when shoved around his throne room, causes the real thing to move around in space. The only problem is that when the bad guys try to push it out of orbit and crash it into Earth, there's something stopping them.
Something impossible. Something electrical.
Superman, using his new powers, builds up a charge so big that it temporarily gives the Moon a magnetic field that repels it from Earth, and that's awesome. It's one of the best and most innovative uses of his powers in the entire year, and it has the incredible hook of pitting magic against science (such as it is) in a world where both exist and are valid.
It's a great scene --- if memory serves, it was even the specific example that Wizard pulled out to illustrate that the more innovative take on Superman's powers wasn't happening in his own book --- but those moments are unfortunately few and far between. Even elsewhere in JLA, he's mostly just reduced to the same old stuff, using his powers to scan Prometheus's costume (something he could've done with X-Ray vision) and one time reading a CD with his eyes:
Seriously, why was he not just reading CDs and going inside the Internet all this time?!
- Superman's development of electrical powers proved to be too frightening for young Mickey Norris.
- Superman's new containment suit left him vulnerable to an attack by Parademons, who tore it open and killed him in the alternate future where Darkseid took over Earth.
- Superman wrestled an Angel, which is rad as heck regardless of any costumes he may be wearing.