What DC’s ‘Superman: A Celebration Of 75 Years’ Says About How They See Their Flagship Character
Whenever a publisher puts out a "Best Of" collection for a long-running character, it's always really interesting to see what kind of stories make the cut. They make a fascinating look at the character -- not just the past, in the stories being reprinted, but in how revealing they are about the attitudes about those stories when they're all collected. If you go back through books like The Best Batman Stories Ever Told or The Very Best of Spider-Man, they're just as much of a snapshot of how the companies saw those characters when the books came out as they are of the times when those stories were originally printed.
Last week, DC put out an especially interesting highlight reel for their flagship character, Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years, and the stories they lined up as the best Superman has to offer say an awful lot about how DC looks at the Man of Steel. They might call it a "celebration" on the cover, but when you actually go in and read it, it feels more like a funeral dirge.
Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that this isn't about whether these stories are good or bad. Out of 19 stories printed in this hardcover, there are only a couple that I'd call bad comics, and only one that I think is so bad that it's impossible to justify lumping it in here for any reason other than a connection to Hollywood, and even that's something that comics have always been ready and willing to exploit. There are stories in here that are unquestionable classics, stories that hold up as solid pieces of comics decades after they were originally printed. Taken individually, they're easy to make the case for when it comes time to figure out what really ought to be listed in a best of.
The problem is that they're not taken individually. They're all here together, and one right after the other, they've made a single view of the character that, frankly, is less about what's actually there and more about how they wish people would see him.
That's the thing about Superman: there are literally thousands of Superman stories to choose from, and when you have that much material to choose from, it's easy to create a narrative. Even if you limit yourself to single-issue stories -- which they have, something I'll come back to in a moment -- there's more than enough to show any kind of Superman you want. More importantly, there's enough to show a version of Superman as he actually is, a character that's been through different eras over the years, working in different kinds of stories and reflecting different ideas of what the world's greatest superhero should be. That's actually how the book's set up, too. It's divided into different eras, starting with Action Comics #1 and a couple of Golden Age stories, then moving into the Silver Age, the '70s, the '80s and '90s, and finally ending with a few more recent stories. But thematically? There's not a lot of variety. They focus overwhelmingly on one idea of how they want you to see Superman, and the Superman they present is a depressed sad sack who never wins.
That's the Superman they want you to read about, and that is baffling.
Things start off pretty well with a reprint of Superman's first appearance in Action Comics #1, and while that's pretty much mandatory for a retrospective like Celebration, it's worth remembering how good that story actually is. It's not just that it's a historically important comic that launched an entire genre -- and, in a lot of ways, an entire medium -- but that Siegel and Shuster were using storytelling techniques in a way that was well ahead of their time. On one page there's a countdown clock in the corner of the panels to mark the approaching execution of an innocent woman that Superman's trying to prevent, and when they show Superman's invulnerability to bullets for the first time, they actually use a page-turn reveal. Even if it was just a matter of Shuster running out of panels and moving onto the next one, it reads as surprisingly modern, especially compared to the wave of knockoffs that would follow after Superman's success.
The next few stories are the kind of Golden Age Firsts that you'd expect, too: Siegel and Shuster's "Man or Superman" (1942) focuses on Lois Lane questioning Superman's secret identity, and Bill Finger and Wayne Boring's "Origin of Superman" (1948), which gives us our first real look at Krypton as it would appear for the next five decades. They throw in the classic story of Superman giving Hitler and Stalin the business and one where he ends a Civil War in South America, but before we're even out of the Golden Age, though, that narrative has started to take shape, and before long it's going to become apparent where they're going with this.
We're not going to be seeing much of this Superman...
We're going to see this guy instead:
It's when they hit the Silver Age section -- titled "Strange Visitor," because of course it is -- that the narrative is fully formed. Aside from the origin of the Batman-Superman partnership in Ed Hamilton and Curt Swan's "The World's Mightiest Team" (1952), they load this thing up with stories about Sad Superman. And honestly, when you're mining The Silver Agefor pathos so that no one will think Superman was, God forbid, ever portrayed as a character who was anything less than a serious adult character for serious adults in the serious adult medium of comic books, I think you're deluding yourself, and when you put it in a book you’re trying to drag others along with you.
Again, these aren't bad stories, and just as I said before, it's easy to understand why they'd end up here, but they're all about Superman being sad, and none of them are about Superman triumphing over evil -- or heck, even winning at all. They are overwhelmingly built around loss.
Otto Binder and Al Plastino's "The Super-Duel In Space" (1958) is historically important as the first appearance of Silver Age Brainiac and the Bottle City of Kandor, and as one of the best-known stories by Binder, the definitive Superman writer of the era. At the same time, it's also a story where Superman is sad about Kandor and his inability to save them from being miniaturized, which would be one of the character's biggest "failures" for decades. Finger and Boring's "The Girl From Superman's Past" (1959) is arguably "important" as the first appearance of Lori Lemaris, but again, it's a story about Superman being sad because he can never marry his fishy girlfriend. "Superman's Return To Krypton" (1960), by Siegel and Boring, is an entire daring three-part novel about Superman being sad and powerless, standing around and moping about being stranded back in time on a doomed planet until he's accidentally rescued by a deus ex machina at the end.
The section is capped off by the book's only example of the classic "imaginary story," Siegel and Swan's 1961 take on "The Death of Superman."
This story is, without question, one of the all-time greats. Even if I prefer the thematically similar (and more optimistic) "The Last Days of Superman," "Death of Superman" is easily top ten material, and probably top three Lex Luthor stories -- which is good, because it's the only Lex Luthor story in the hardcover. It's almost unthinkable that it wouldn't make the cut in any retrospective of the best Superman stories, but here, in the context of this book, it loses a lot. Obviously, it's still got that edge of goofiness (at one point, Superman gives Luthor a rocket shaped like Luthor's head so that he can send for help if he needs it), but here, that's pushed to the back seat by the context. It feels like just another story where Superman loses, where the trust and optimism that was such a part of these books is shown to be flawed and doomed, and where people stand around being sad about how the good guys just can't get things done. This will be the theme for the rest of the book.
When the book moves into the '70s, the pattern continues, starting with Elliot S! Maggin and Curt Swan's "Must There Be a Superman" (1972), and again, we're talking about Greatest of All Time territory. But again, even more than that, in the context of this book, it's yet another Sad Superman story, this time introducing the idea of Superman being ineffective in dealing with "real issues."
It's an important story, and the idea of Superman questioning his place and his limitless power having unintended negative consequences on the development of the human race was revolutionary and thought-provoking, especially for the time. But it was also important to see Superman face and conquer those doubts, and since Celebration limits itself to single issues, that doesn't happen. Of course, it doesn't help matters that the latter pages of the book are filled with the weaker, more inept riffs on this idea, either.
The "single issue" problem becomes even more apparent in the next story, Marv Wolfman and Gil Kane's "Rebirth" (1983), which reintroduces Brainiac, ramping him up to be a more credible threat. It's a good issue (and Kane's art is still stunning 30 years later), but it's part one of a continuing story, and here's how it ends:
Stripped of its original context and dropped unceremoniously into this book, this is one of the "best" Superman stories, a "celebration" of the past 75 years, that ends with Superman beaten into submission, complete with dialogue like "No use... c-can't fight.. it hurts too much." I don't think I'm spoiling anything when I say that Superman makes a heroic comeback in Action Comics #545, but they don't print that part. Heck, they even remove the "Next Issue" blurb that's on that last page in the original. As far as Celebration is concerned, that's how the story ends.
Next up, a four-pager by Maggin and Frank Miller from the anniversary issue that's reprinted more because the guy who did The Dark Knight Returns drew it than anything else. No complaints here.
The Pre-Crisis section of the book is closed out by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's "For The Man Who Has Everything" (1985), and we're right back where we were with "Must There Be A Superman." It's impossible to argue that this shouldn't be here, but it's also impossible to get around the fact that it's yet another Sad Superman story.
I still love this story, but by the time I got to this point in reading Celebration, I was already sick of Superman crying. By the time it's over, there are still a hundred pages left to go, and we're not done with the tears yet.
The Post-Crisis section begins with John Byrne's "The Name Game" from 1987, which might be the weirdest pick of the whole book. Given Byrne's role in recreating Superman for (what was then) the Modern Age and the amount of stories he did in his years on the titles, it feels so strange that they'd go with his reintroduction of Mr. Mxyzptlk, of all things. Not to play armchair editor any more than I already am, but the obvious choice seems like it would be "The Secret Revealed" from Superman #2, where Luthor learns Superman's secret identity and discards it because he can't fathom that anyone that powerful would pretend to be someone so meek. Instead, they went with the Mxyzptlk story, which is fun, but more weird than anything else. It sticks out.
But then, when you read it, it becomes obvious why it made the cut.
Of course. Because it's about how something that used to be silly and fun is actually dark and psychologically traumatizing. Because we wouldn't want anyone to come away from this celebration of Superman thinking that anything about Superman or his foes was silly in any respect. Everything is, AND ALWAYS WAS, Very Very Serious, so you don't have to be embarrassed about liking Superman. Because you were, right? You were totally embarrassed, which is why you bought this expensive anniversary hardcover about Superman. So you could laugh at his trunks, right? Those things are so stupid! Don't worry, they got rid of them.
Next comes Dan Jurgens' 1993 Superman #75, "Doomsday," the climax of the Modern Age Death of Superman. It's historically important, one of the best-selling DC comics of all time, a major event in Superman's history and the history of the entire company, but like "Rebirth," it's stripped of all context. Removed from its time and isolated as a single issue, it's just 26 splash pages of Superman getting beat to hell and then dying, and then more crying. This book is a Celebration, right? That's what it says on the cover. In this "celebration" of Superman, Superman has been killed twice. Just something to think about the next time DC invites you to a birthday party.
The next story is where I break from popular opinion even more than I usually do, but it's also the most interesting choice in the whole book: Joe Kelly and Doug Mahnke's "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice And The American Way?" (2001). It's easy to see why it's in here, because for a lot of people, this is the most highly regarded story for five or six years in either direction, for exactly the reason that it's a "serious" story where Superman has to address criticism about those same "real issues" that Maggin was writing about two decades before.
Personally, I think it's about as dumb as a bucket of doorknobs.
It's not that I disagree with the premise, which finds Superman facing down a parody of the Authority called the Elite who brutally kill their enemies and think of Superman as an old fashioned relic, thus proving that Superman as a concept and the brand of heroism that he represents is still valid in these crazy modern times. Believe me, I 100% believe that Superman and the idealism that he's meant to represent are more than worthwhile (which itself is the major reason I'm so frustrated with this hatchet job masquerading as a "Celebration"), I just don't think a story like this is the way to go about it. If you want to prove Superman is still relevant, all you have to do is tell good Superman stories. Jumping up and down and screaming "HEY, I'M STILL RELEVANT!" is the quickest way to lose the argument that nobody was asking you to have, and it's even worse when you're doing it by having a character beat up a parody of characters that were themselves already a parody. It's 22 pages of DC's inferiority complex about Superman, literalized into a story that features Joe Kelly trying to do a written impression of Warren Ellis.
That said, it's easy to see why it resonated with so many readers. There's a definite appeal to the idea of making it bludgeoningly clear that Superman could do the things that the "grittier" anti-heroes do, but chooses not to because he believes in his morality, and I can't argue with the message, that Superman will (or at least should) never use his power to bully the less powerful, and that he'll never kill. Even when he's supposed to be outnumbered and overpowered -- there's a bit before the fight where they make it explicitly clear that the Fauxthority have higher power levels, which is both laughably D&D-esque and reasonably effective at reinforcing the story -- he'll never take a life. What makes it so interesting is that this is a story that's dour as all hell, but still fundamentally built around the optimism at the heart of the character. The same optimism that almost every other story in this comic has been built around completely avoiding.
Also, the irony of publishing this story, which is built entirely on the foundation of Superman never, ever killing, of always finding a way to stop his enemies without taking their lives, explicitly stating that for Superman, killing is always wrong and never justified even when his foes are as powerful as he is, in a book that hit shelves to coincide with the DVD release of a movie where Superman kills the bad guy? Hilarious.
Equally hilarious: the next story, an eight-pager by Chip Kidd and Alex Ross called "Question of Confidence" (2003), where Superman goes crazy and Batman has to rescue him from mind control by shooting him with a Kryptonite bullet. Seriously, how f**king hilarious and sad is it that Superman dies twice and then gets shot by Batman in his own Best-Of collection? At this point, I literally feel bad for a fictional character for how hard they are s**tting on his birthday cake. Listen, DC: I'm allowed to like Batman more than Superman. You should at least try to pretend you love them both.
Next, and thankfully we're almost at the end, is the one story that has absolutely no business whatsoever being in this book, the one that's indefensible, and clearly only made the cut because it was written by the same guy whose name is on the aforementioned neck-snapping: David Goyer and Miguel Sepulveda's "The Incident" (2011). On the off chance that you're not tired of it yet, here's nine more pages of hack "but what about the real problems" bulls**t that only serves to make Superman look like a mopey, helpless chump. There's a token hamfisted attempt at profundity by wedging in a laughable attempt at inspiration at the end, but it's prefaced by pages of Superman talking about how terrible and ineffective he is at solving problems:
Killed twice and shot by Batman in his own book, and now the final indignity. "I'm not actually a very good hero," says Superman in the $40 hardcover celebrating 75 years of Superman, "Most of the things I do are not important." Well then why the f**k are we supposed to read these comics?
The final story is actually the one completely unambiguous bright spot, the one story they chose to represent Superman in their current "New 52" line: Action Comics #0's "The Boy Who Stole Superman's Cape" (2012), by Grant Morrison and Ben Oliver. Maybe it's because it's set apart from everything else in the book, but it's exactly the kind of story that this book should be full of: An unreservedly heroic Superman -- one of my favorite Superman moments of Morrison's entire career is in this, when he's hanging out with Jimmy Olsen and reveals that he won't even kill in a video game -- a "real world" problem (child abuse) that he actually helps with, ideas of inspiration, feats of strength that help the less powerful, and he never cries once. He smiles, because he's doing something purely, unequivocally good. He leaves the world better than he found it.
That's what was missing from the rest of this book. An actual celebration of who Superman is and what he means to people, both in the stories and here, where we're reading these books.
Sadly, it's one of the few. It's hard to condemn Superman: A Celebration Of 75 Years because by and large, these are good stories, stories that can claim some importance in the history of the character. But at the end of the day, that's not what it says on the cover, is it? DC didn't put this thing out as Superman: Some Good Stories or Superman: He Sure Does Get Sad A Lot But Hey That Curt Swan Can Draw, Huh?. They put it out as a celebration, and that's exactly what it's not. There are no great triumphs. The uplifting moments, while they are here, are outnumbered by tears and deconstruction. They tear him down and leave him there without giving you the one thing that matters most about superhero stories, the part where he gets back up. It's Sad Superman for 382 pages, arranging good stories in the service of a narrative that would have you believe that all this character can do is cry and shrug his shoulders about how he can't really help anyone.
It's the worst birthday party I've ever even heard of.