Electric Bluegaloo: Comics Alliance’s Critical Re-Examination Of Superman’s ‘Electric Blue’ Year
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 start with a look at the stories that led to Superman's new look, and try to figure out just why anyone thought this was a good idea to begin with.
So here's the thing about Superman in the '90s: More than any other character, he was defined by the idea of the Major Event. It makes sense that he would be, too --- he is, after all Superman, the most important superhero in the history of the genre, the focal point of the entire universe, and, if we're going to go ahead and talk in trading card terms, the most powerful hero on the planet. If that's the case, his stories should be, well, super. They should go beyond the concerns and abilities of mortal men, and the only stories that should be bigger should be in Justice League, where even Superman alone can't handle things by himself.
But there's a metatextual reason, too. The Superman of the '90s was born from Crisis On Infinite Earths in a way that no other character was. I've written before about how that's the biggest possible story that DC could've told, and about how, for all the hype (and for the fact that it doesn't quite hold together as, y'know, a story), and while it changed the underlying structure of the universe, the major character that it changed was Superman. Batman got a new origin story, of course, but there was never a reboot for his titles --- Year One happened in Batman #404, after all --- and while Wonder Woman had major changes, it took a year for her book to come back.
Superman, on the other hand, was a focal point. I mean, Silver Age Superman got an ending from Alan Moore and Curt Swan, and in Crisis itself, one of the major plot points involves Golden Age Superman and Superboy flying off to Heaven. While "our" Superman nominally survives the crossover, the one that we get the next month in the all-new Superman #1 is definitely not quite the same guy.
All of which is to say that the Superman of the '90s is rooted in that story in a way that no other character is, and when that's your starting point --- a story where everything in an entire multiverse was in danger and where nothing really survived to see the other side --- it sets a high bar for everything that comes after.
So for the next decade, you can see the creators behind the Superman books trying to go bigger and bigger in every story arc. You've got the Supergirl Saga, the exile in space, the Fall of Metropolis, and of course, the Death of Superman, which is arguably the biggest you could go. But it doesn't stop there --- you get the Death of Clark Kent not too long after (shout out to Conduit, y'all!) and then you get the wedding, a payoff to a romance that had been simmering for almost sixty years.
This, incidentally, would not be something that would stop in the '90s. We had a few months of self-contained stories after the "soft reboot" of 1999, when all four monthly Superman titles were given new creative teams and directions, but that itself was treated as an Event, and then it was only a few months after that we got stuff like Superman: Y2K, Return to Krypton, Emperor Joker, Our Worlds At War and the ongoing President Lex arc.
Looking at it in the context of all that, the Electric Blue Era doesn't seem like such an anomaly. Really, it's the one that just sticks out the most because --- aside from that Exile in Space period where Superman grew a beard and wore his cape as a toga, something that was infinitely confusing to me when I was eight --- it's the one where he's not wearing his classic costume.
There's one other element to this story, though, and it's one that a lot of people overlook when it comes to looking back on the Superman titles of the '90s: There's a creative consistency there that's really interesting. Most of the same creators that we're going to see in the Electric Blue Era are the same ones that were there for The Death of Superman --- Dan Jurgens, Louise Simonson, Karl Kesel, Jon Bogdanove, Tom Grummett, all of the writers and artists who had been on the book for years. Because of that, there's a kind of logic that weaves through all of these stories, building on things that had been established already.
Which brings us, at long last, to the actual prelude to the Electruc Blue Era: "Power Shift," which runs through Superman #122, Adventures of Superman #545, Action Comics #732 and Superman: The Man of Steel #18, cover-dated for April and May of 1997.
The story actually has its origins a few months earlier with the debut of the post-Crisis version of Kandor, which involves Superman getting zapped with energy by a literal space wizard that changes him so much that the robots at the Fortress of Solitude don't even recognize him as a Kryptonian anymore. By the time we pick up here, though, the changes are becoming more pronounced and permanent --- for certain definitions of "permanent."
In addition to ruining the newly married Lois and Clark's toaster through some vague definition of electricity and/or magnetism, the changes mostly affect Superman's powers. Rather than being invulnerable, he's now intangible --- bullets pass through him instead of bouncing off --- and when he tries to use his X-Ray vision, he ends up seeing an incomprehensible mess from across the electromagnetic spectrum.
The best, though, is how his new powers allow him to interface with computers, which is presented in the greatest and most hilariously 1997 way possible:
"The files are INSIDE the computer?!"
Truly, he is a hero for the new millennium.
That story, which nominally involves a battle against the Atomic Skull and a fistfight with Ceritak, an alien who escapes from Kandor --- which at the time was something of a miniaturized alien zoo created by the aforementioned wizard --- is essentially built to showcase Superman's new powers as they replace the old ones, and it does a pretty interesting job. There's a bystander who gets hit when a bullet goes through Superman's intangible body, prompting a conservative newspaper columnist to wonder if he's a Superman or a Supermenace, and there are a few instances where his body completely loses cohesion before he pulls it together.
By the end of it, though, Superman has gone full Dragon Ball:
The fight with the Atomic Skull shows that he can absorb radiation, and the fight with Ceritak shows that he can... Well, that he can make his hand really big and punch him in the face with an effect that looks an awful lot like Shade the Changing Man:
By the end of it, though, the new powers become so overwhelming that Superman basically exploded into lightning, blacking out the entirety of Metropolis for the second time that month, and setting the stage for the debut of a new costume and powers in the following issue, where the Electric Blue Era will truly begin.
- Superman's entire power set, most notably his invulnerability, which is now replaced with intangibility, and even then only part of the time. As Clark Kent, he can be subjected to all the toe-stubbings of a normal person.
- Clark's method of shaving. Previously he'd reflect his heat vision off of a curved section of the spaceship that brought him to Earth, because there's nothing more pleasant for Lois than waking up to the smell of burning hair every morning, but now that just results in every piece of cutlery in the apartment being magnetized.
- Clark's ability to use computers, which is now amazing.
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