A few months ago, the editorial management at DC Comics announced plans to renumber or relaunch — but not “reboot” — its fictional universe. Characters would be de-aged, costumes redesigned, and relationships shaken up. Most of the initial reactions from fans, competitors, and the mainstream news media were negative, but I want to wait and see if DC’s moves can renew interest in its iconic superheroes or if the changes are costly missteps in entertainment’s ongoing migration online.
The cornerstone of the DC universe has always been Superman. DC has had to react to lawsuits from the heirs of creators Siegel and Shuster, who were among the numerous writers and graphic artists who were poorly treated by the companies that made billions of dollars from their creations.
I understand the desire of Warner Brothers and Disney to hang onto profitable intellectual properties, but it’s a shame that popular characters Batman, Mickey Mouse, and Sherlock Holmes can’t enter the public domain.
Today marks the beginning of DC’s updated continuity. Sure, I wish that some things hadn’t changed. For example, I would have preferred that Clark Kent/Superman & Lois Lane and Oliver Queen/Green Arrow & Dinah Lance/Black Canary — not to mention Peter Parker/Spider-Man & Mary Jane Watson — had stayed married.
I also would rather that DC’s Jason Todd and Marvel’s Bucky Barnes had stayed dead rather than experience dubious resurrections, and that Barbara Gordon, paralyzed in The Killing Joke, continued to lead the Birds of Prey as the savvy Oracle rather than revert to Batgirl and displace Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown.
On the other hand, given the serial nature of comic books (and television and movies), periodically “hitting the reset button” makes sense. Despite the popularity of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Beyond, I generally don’t want to read about the adventures of an old Bruce Wayne or his protégés, so keeping our heroes forever young requires tinkering with continuity. Here’s how I’d handle Superman:
There are a few ways to recalibrate the timeline of the last son of Krypton, and by extension, the entire DC universe. Rather than use parallel universes, convoluted continuity, or an inconsistent mix of time frames, I’d do something like what I recommended for Wonder Woman.
-Kryptonians age differently. What if Kal-El had arrived in during the Great Depression? Clark Kent could have learned traditional values in Smallville, Kansas, observed World War II as a youth, and participated in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. What would Superman have done during the U.S. troop deployments in Southeast Asia or in the Middle East?
If he’s still at the height of his powers, Superman could help found the Justice Society and the Justice League, plus marry Lois Lane, anytime in the past few decades. In DC’s Multiverse, similar Supermen existed in the Earth 2 of Crisis on Infinite Earths and the Elseworlds such as Kingdom Come. However, this doesn’t help determine evergreen timelines for anyone else.
-Always the present: Marvel Comics has been fairly successful with this sliding timeline. For example, Tony Stark is a wealthy industrialist who turned from producing weapons to being an armored vigilante as Iron Man. Did the ambush and injuries that awakened his altruism happen in Vietnam or Afghanistan? When did he help create the Avengers — the 1960s or the 2010s? Whenever suits the current readership. This had the advantage of keeping past storylines in the vague backstories, but the buildup of history can be like barnacles on a boat, dragging down creativity and making stories less accessible to new readers. Hence Marvel’s Ultimates line and DC’s “soft” reboots.
-Fathers and sons: I find this idea somewhat intriguing, because it reflects the multiple generations of readers, fans, and characters. Instead of beginning his career or being born in 1938, what if Superman’s father and stepfather were both born that year? Jonathan and Martha Kent could be of the generation that remembers the Great Depression and World War II, as well as the U.S.’s supposed halcyon days of the 1950s before societal turmoil in the 1960s and ’70s.
Disclaimer: My parents were born in the 1930s, so I can identify with this as a reader and writer, but I also think this possible timeline can help ground Superman’s values. Speaking of values, I’d want the tone of Superman to be lighter than for Batman or the X-Men, and more grounded than the Fantastic Four. Thor or Captain America (or a good Spider-Man) are closer in mood.
If Jor-El was also born in 1938, and he and Lara had Kal-El around the age of 40, the destruction of Krypton could have happened in 1978, the year of Christopher Reeve’s seminal cinematic portrayal. For the kindly Kents to be middle-aged and wanting but unable to have children, putting them in their 40s makes sense.
Clark would have grown up during the 1980s and 1990s, a solid product of the Midwest even as smaller family farms became endangered. Around 2000, he would have finished college, traveled the world, begun mastering his abilities, and moved to Metropolis to work at the Daily Planet in the last gasp of print newspaper popularity. This is similar to Birthright in the comics and Lois and Clark and Smallville on television.
In the past decade, Superman would have become aware of technocratic nemesis Lex Luthor, helped found the Justice League, and inspired many other heroes — and villains — to don colorful costumes (perhaps inspired by the Justice Society of many decades prior). At 33 in 2011, he would be reaching the prime of his powers, like an NFL quarterback.
Pa Kent would have died of a heart attack around the age of 65 — long enough to have guided his son to adulthood, but early enough to be traumatic. I’d make Lois Lane about the same age as Clark but impatient, accomplished, worldly, and ready for a relationship, even if she wouldn’t admit it. Clark’s secret identity should be at least a little believable. In the end, I’d recommend a balance between the revised timeline and the timeless approach. The revised official continuity, or “DCnU,” states that Superman has been active for only five years.
While I don’t think that Superman’s origin story should be endlessly rehashed, a universal starting point is helpful to new writers and fans. As Marvel has often done, I’d start each new issue, TV show, or movie with a concise retelling a la Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman: “Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple.” New stories could start from that timeless point.
As for costume and abilities, I’d try to keep them simple. The new movie and relaunched comics use an overly textured, militaristic look, but I prefer the blue-collar (but not dumb) hero of the 1940s. I’m not a fan of the “ribbed for your pleasure” look that started with Raimi’s Spider-Man and has continued through Superman Returns and the Star Trek reboot to this past summer’s Green Lantern and Captain America. (The black leathers of the Matrix, X-Men, and Batman Begins — and the upcoming Catwoman — have also become just as clichéd as the bright, ill-fitting spandex of previous live-action attempts.)
The red briefs on the outside (now omitted) may resemble those of a circus strongman or a professional wrestler, but that’s kind of the point — Superman is powerful and direct, not an ironically cool or an angsty poseur. Kal-El is an alien who has taken it upon himself to defend humanity, not someone who needs armor, intimidation, or shadows to cloak his role as a beacon of hope.
Superman should be “faster than a speeding bullet, stronger than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” but he doesn’t need to be able to erase minds with a kiss, reverse the Earth’s orbit and time, or be strong enough to lift entire cities or the moon.
Kal-El can have “cousins” such as Kara Kent/Supergirl and Karen Starr/Power Girl and a clone in Connor Kent/Superboy, but he should still be the last direct survivor of Krypton as well as the alien who eventually most identifies with humanity (in contrast, say, to J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, or others).
The man of tomorrow should be smart enough to deal with weird science but not afraid to roll up his sleeves to smack down supercriminals, common thugs, corrupt politicians and businessmen, dictators, mad scientists, metahuman menaces, and alien horrors.
Kryptonite, magic, and his human heart should remain vulnerabilities. Many of Superman‘s villains are humans twisted by greed, ambition, belligerence, and selfishness, the opposites of his virtues and manifestations of our own darker sides.
Superman should still be the benchmark against which we measure all other superheroes, not just for powers, but also for their dedication to the “never-ending struggle for truth, justice, and the American way.” Let’s hope that those working on the DC Comics and Warner Bros. refreshes remember, don’t mess with the S!