Action Comics #1 turned 78 a few weeks ago. A month or so after we watched what would happen if you gave the Dark Knight Returns treatment to Superman, we’re now looking at the anniversary of the character’s debut. Naturally, some readers decided to re-read that first issue and see how far the character’s grown. The changes shocked a few, but others understood how basic the initial approach was devised by Siegel and Shuster. Superman is the hero of a free press. Superman was a utilized agent against vice, greed, and ills that endanger the masses. So…what happened?
The quickest answer is that he became popular. The Last Son of Krypton offered up a new vision of what comics could do for kids, young adults and the entertainable masses. That being said, Superman also opened up new revenue opportunities for the struggling DC Comics. Hollywood came knocking, alongside greater publishing opportunities and radio play efforts. Soldiers were taking comics overseas during WWII and America was in love with their new Herculean myth. But, that’s the thing when something gets popular. The masses smash out its uniqueness.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, we were treated to a Superman that worked as a superhuman crossing guard. He stopped crimes, but he also made sure to impart moral lessons whether it is in a Curt Swan drawing or TV episode. In the 1970s and beyond, everything that came before got duck pressed into an easy media sale to the public via the Christopher Reeve performance in Superman: The Movie. Superman then became an omnipresent media object that belonged to the minds of older audiences and was removed from younger audiences outside of merchandising efforts.
All attempts since then have been nostalgia with Brandon Routh’s Superman or grimdark response in the modern Man of Steel. What do you do with a character that has been stagnant since 1978? Well, nothing. Any attempt to revitalize the character is either met as another nostalgic effort or generally ignoring the base template of the character. But, the Siegel/Shuster version doesn’t work in the modern era without being obnoxious? After all, what is the equivalent of an indie press reporter in 2016? Do we really want to see Clark Kent working at Vice and changing clothes in an ironic phone booth?
So, if we’re resistant to change, but can’t return to some form of the character’s origins…what can be done with Superman? Is it time to move on and find somebody else? People say they want a cheerful hero that goes to bat for the little guy, but it doesn’t hold up. Do we really want to match movies or read comics about a super-powered boy scout that does right and rights wrongs? Audiences don’t seem to mind it when Captain America does it, but Superman feels antiquated for being only three years older.
Superman got co-opted first. When entertainment writers and other types try to wax poetic about this, everybody seems to miss the poisonous point to that concept. No matter how pure the topic or how much you love it, popularity eventually ruins everything. The only answer is to end the character’s story and let the narrative wrap up. 78 years has been a good run, maybe we should let Superman belong to history.