On the occasion of the company’s 50th anniversary in 1985, DC Comics decided that it was time to start all over again.
The continuity of the shared universe – or rather, universes – of the comic books the company had published in the past half-decade had become increasingly convoluted and confusing, so in an effort to streamline and simplify, while simultaneously cataloging everything that had come before, the company launched a maxi-series entitled Crisis on Infinite Earths, as well as a companion piece that served as something of an encyclopedia entitled Who’s Who in the DC Universe.
We’re not going to delve into either of those titles here, but we do need to devote a little bit of time to Crisis before proceeding.
As originally envisioned by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, Crisis would have been titled The History of the DC Universe – indeed, it was referred to as such in some of the house ads that preceded the first issue – and in the course of twelve issues it would have provided the complete in-universe histories of the various characters and concepts that DC had created or acquired over the past half-century. The twelfth issue would have ended with the whole thing blowing up.
One month later, every comic would be relaunched as a first issue, and an entirely new history would begin.
That didn’t quite happen – not until 2011, at least, when DC launched “The New 52” – but Crisis did lead to the formation of an entirely new DC Universe, one with a new history (that still retained some elements of the old).
For a period of a bit less than a year, the old comics continued on, wrapping up storylines, and allowing the creative teams time to chart their new course.
One could argue that it was much more of a confusing mess than the mess it was supposed to clean up.
In any case, at around that same time, fan-favorite writer and artist John Byrne had come to the end of his contract with Marvel Comics. While he had worked for Marvel for years, there was one thing that Byrne wanted that Marvel couldn’t offer: Superman.
And so it was announced that in the summer of 1986 DC would publish its final issues of the two monthly comics featuring Superman, Action Comics and Superman, at which point they would publish a mini-series entitled The Man of Steel, which would serve as the launching point for the post-Crisis John Byrne interpretation of the Action Ace.
Which leads us to the subject of this Nostalgia review, a story that ran in the final issues of Superman and Action respectively.
The story would serve as a fond farewell to the Superman of old, tying up years of continuity and, some would argue, bringing an official end to what most comic book fans and professionals refer to as the Silver Age of Comics.
With that out of the way, let’s take a look as the first part of the story in Superman #423, which has a cover date of September, 1986.
|Classic Silver Age-style cover.|
Superman, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”
Written by Alan Moore
Art by Curt Swan and George Perez
Cover by “Swanderson” (Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson)
Edited by Julius Schwartz
This is an imaginary story (Which may never happen, but then again may) about a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good. It tells of his twilight, when the great battles were over and the great miracles long since performed; of how his enemies conspired against him and of that final war in the snowblind wastes beneath the Northern Lights; of the women he loved and of the choice he made between them; of how he broke his most sacred oath, and how finally all the things he had were taken from him save for one. It ends with a wink. It begins in a quiet Midwestern town, one summer afternoon in the quiet Midwestern future. Away in the big city, people still sometimes glance up hopefully from the sidewalks, glimpsing a distant speck in the sky... but no: it's only a bird, only a plane. Superman died ten years ago. This is an Imaginary Story... Aren't they all?
Those are the words that we’re greeted with upon opening the cover and looking at the first page of our story, along with an image of busy Metropolitans going about their day in a park, most of them not even looking at the large statue of Superman, which is marked with the words “In Memoriam.”
We move on to find a man named Tim Crane, a reporter for The Daily Planet, who is visiting Lois Elliot (nee Lane) at her suburban home. We learn a lot on this one page – the year is 1997, Lois has retired from her life as a reporter and has settled into life as a wife and mother, and the Planet is publishing a tenth anniversary special memorial on “The Last Days of Superman,” for which young Mr. Crane is interviewing the Lois. We also find that he’s rather intimidated to be interviewing someone who is herself something of a legendary figure.
Lois informs him that at what was later known to be the beginning of the end, things were mostly quiet. Luthor was laying low, Brainiac had been destroyed – though his head had never been recovered – and most of Superman’s other enemies had been largely out of the picture. As a result, Superman spent most of his time doing research in space for the government.
The first sign of the dark days to come is waiting for Superman when he returns from one such mission to find Metropolis has been turned into a scene of devastation. It seems that Bizarro, the imperfect duplicate of Superman, had come to town and gone on an uncharacteristically brutal rampage. After getting the lowdown from Lois and Jimmy, Superman enters the department store in which Bizarro has been holed up.
In his idiosyncratic way, Bizarro informs Superman that he has decided that he is not quite the perfect imperfect duplicate of Superman that he could be, and so he has decided to embark on a self-improvement plan. The plan included the following:
Superman came to Earth as a baby, after his home planet was accidentally destroyed, therefore, Bizarro decided to destroy his own planet – Bizarro World – on purpose and come to Earth as an adult.
Superman doesn’t kill, therefore Bizarro decided to kill lots of people.
Finally, because Superman was alive, Bizarro decided that he needed to be dead, and so, with a piece of Blue Kryptonite – which is deadly to Bizarros – he ended his own life. “Hello, Superman,” he said, as he died, in the customary backwards way of Bizarro. “Hello.”
The next major event happened at the news headquarters of Galaxy Broadcasting, where national news anchors Clark Kent and Lana Lang were preparing for their six o’clock broadcast.
Just before the broadcast can start, Clark gets two parcels delivered, one large and one small. Curious, Clark opens the smaller package to find that it contains several Superman action figures.
As Lana examines one, deadly lasers shoot forth from its eyes, and all of the figures begin moving as if alive, each one equipped with similar lasers. The figures all converge on Clark, presumably cutting him to ribbons, but when the smoke clears, Clark stands revealed to all assembled as Superman.
Once he’s unmasked, voices come forth from two of the action figures, voices belonging to the Toyman and the Prankster, and they advise him to open the larger, lead-lined box. Cautiously, he opens it, only to find that it’s an obscene Jack-in-the-Box containing the corpse of his childhood friend from Smallville, Pete Ross. It seems that Toyman and Prankster had decided to discover Superman’s secret identity by kidnapping and brainwashing his friends. They lucked out the first time, as Pete – unbeknownst to Superman – was the only one of his friends who actually knew his secret.
In response, Superman asks them a question:
|Love that bit.|
Once apprehended, neither villain can explain why they had decided to undertake such a deadly plan.
At Pete’s funeral, Superman admits to his friends that he can’t help but think that this is only the beginning, and that his worst nightmare – his enemies striking at him through his friends – has come to pass. When asked what there is to be concerned about, given that most of his enemies are out of the game, he says, “Well, if the nuisances from my past are coming back as killers…what happens when the killers come back?”
In answer to that question, we turn to a frozen landscape where Lex Luthor has found the inert head of Brainiac. Planning to study the alien technology to use it for his own purposes, Luthor assumes the “alas, poor Yorick” pose, only to find that the head is not quite so inert as he thought. Disassembling itself and then reassembling itself atop Luthor’s head, Brainiac seizes control of Luthor’s body. Stating that he will no longer tolerate Superman’s existence after this most recent indignity, he welcomes Lex to “The New Brainiac-Luthor Team.”
Back in Metropolis, the Daily Planet building is assaulted by an army of Metallos. While Superman is able to deal with the quickly – through the time-honored Silver Age practice of rubbing things, as friction=science! – Superman decides that Metropolis is no longer a safe place for his loved ones, and so he brings them all to the Fortress of Solitude to keep them safe.
While Superman’s friends are gathered in one place, yet another old friend makes an appearance, as Krypto returns from his romping in space. “Why,” Lois asks in her narration, “unless he’d sensed what the rest of us had? Despite our welcoming hugs, his arrival struck an ominous note…”
Back in Metropolis, the Kryptonite Man rampages through the city in a fruitless search for Superman. In Brainiac’s newly-constructed ship – which, while suitable, is inferior to his old, now-destroyed ship – Brainiac-Luthor concludes that Superman must have retreated to the Fortress, and they decide that the Kryptonite Man would be a useful asset for their assault on the fortress.
Things are just as chilly inside the Fortress as they are outside, as least for Perry White and his wife Alice, who are estranged, and are led to separate rooms by Superman.
Lois, meanwhile, is unable to sleep, and so she goes off to visit her frenemy, Lana. United, in the end, by their mutual love for Superman, they spend the night talking, crying, and holding each other, and no doubt doing a whole host of other things in pieces of fan fiction the world over.
As for Superman, he spends some quality time with his dog, sharing his sense of foreboding, just before receiving some surprise guests.
I’m not going to lie; this next bit gets me right in the feels. Every. Damn. Time.
His surprise company turns out to be members of the Legion of Super-Heroes, the team of teenaged heroes from the future which Superman was a member of in his days as Superboy.
Among the members of the team visiting him is…is…*sniff*
|"You...you grew up beautiful, Kara!" *Sniff* Moore, you utter bastard.|
Brainiac 5 states that Supergirl – who, while being from the past relative to this point in Superman’s life, was visiting the Legion in the future – had insisted on coming along, and that for his part, Superman has traveled far enough into the future to know what happens to members of the Legion, and he is just as callous, for want of a better term, about their fates being a matter of record as they are about his. (Indeed; one of the Legionnaires present – Invisible Kid – died many years earlier from Superman’s perspective.)
Brainiac 5 then presents Superman with the gift of a stature of the Man of Steel holding a Phantom Zone projector. When Superman asks why they chose this moment to give him this gift, Brainy gives some lame excuse about this date being of particular historic significance.
”Therefore,” Brainy says, “we came here to meet with you again, and salute you…and….”
”And pay your last respects? Is that it?”
Before Brainy can answer, Supergirl approaches, as a thought just occurred to her. According to the rules of time travel – in the Silver Age, at least – time travelers cannot materialize in a point in time in which they already exist, existing only as an immaterial phantom, unable to interact with the world. Given that she’s physically there, this Supergirl concludes that the present-day Supergirl must be off in some other era.
”Uh, yes. Yes, you’re right…” Superman says. “Right now, Supergirl…Supergirl is in the past.”
With tears in their eyes, the Legionnaires step into their time bubble and return to the 30th Century.
In her narration, Lois states that she doesn’t know what happened that night, but that clearly something had upset him, as in the morning he looked “funny.”
”He looked as if he’d been crying.”
Next time: The conclusion of this two-part imaginary story.
Every. Damn. Time.
I’m not kidding.
That is one of the most heart wrenching sequences ever committed to the comic page, overshadowed only by Kara’s actual death in the pages of Crisis on Infinite Earths #7.
Aside from that, the sequence is emblematic of some of the issues that popped up in that weird in-between time after Crisis but before the formal relaunch.
After all, all of history had changed as a result of the events of the Crisis, and eventually we learned that one of the alterations was that Supergirl had never existed in first place.
(Also, Superman had never been Superboy, and as a result had never been a member of the Legion.)
So there was this weird, squishy period in which it was unclear what still existed as canon and what didn’t, and overall the relaunch was not handled well. It took DC years to get things even somewhat sorted out, though they never really managed it completely. Even the 2011 full-on relaunch has left some lingering questions about what still counts and what doesn’t.
In any case, while some of his greatest successes in the field were still ahead of him, this still ranks as some of Alan Moore’s finest work. Ask any comic book fan, and this story – along with his also excellent "For the Man Who Has Everything” – is bound to turn up as a contender for the title of greatest Superman story ever told. Certainly it’s in pretty much everyone’s top ten.
It just hits every note so perfectly. Even the, "Hello, Superman. Hello." from Bizarro as he dies is strangely poignant and moving.
While some would argue that Moore’s real strength is in subverting, deconstructing, and reinventing the form, I think this serves as a perfect example of his mastery of more mainstream comic book storytelling. While containing all of the depth and intricacy of a Moore story, it still adheres to the conventions of the time and can be read superficially as just a really good comic by readers of all ages and levels of sophistication.
Of course, given that it’s tying up nearly fifty years’ worth of stories, it would be daunting to someone unfamiliar with the Superman mythos, but, again, I think that it’s written in such a way that this wouldn’t be much of a barrier to entry. Sure, you’d have some questions, and you’d miss some of the more significant subtleties – such as the nice touch of having a doomed Legionnaire* come to visit Superman as a means of driving home the point raised by Brainiac 5 – but you’d certainly be able to follow the narrative and the action.
Speaking of action, the “Because I do!” moment is so goddamn awesome. I love that bit pretty hard.
While this was an “imaginary” story – meaning that it wasn’t part of continuity, though again, continuity at this point was pretty fluid – it also served to tie up some of the loose threads of storylines that were current at the time, such as the estrangement of the Whites, and the status of Superman’s relationship with Lois and Lana.
More than pretty much any artist, including co-creator Joe Schuster, there isn’t really anyone who could be considered as quintessential a Superman artist as Curt Swan. Most Super-fans have their favorites, but in terms of defining the look of the Man of Steel, no one can really compare to Swan, given that he drew Superman for decades.
If I’m picturing Superman in my mind, I’m picturing Swan’s version.
That being said, while I have tremendous respect for his work…I’m not really a fan, and I never have been.
Even at the time, his style – while certainly distinctive, clean, and competent – seemed dated. When we see the futuristic world of 1997 – setting aside the fact that, reading this now, 1997 is a quarter of a century in the past – it looked like a futuristic vision of the 1980s that someone might have had in the 1950s.
Further, the strength of the Perez inks only exacerbate the weakness of Swan’s pencils.
Even so, I can’t imagine anyone else providing the art for this story, so as much as I don’t particularly enjoy his style, I’m glad that he was the one who drew this.