WARNING! THERE BE SPOILERS BELOW!
What do you do with an iconic comic book series that is over seventy years old? How do you continue to tell invigorating and relevant stories of a beloved superhero protagonist after he has foiled every crime imaginable, bested every super villain that has vied for global domination and surmounted all obstacles that were ever in his way? How do you keep this character fresh and interesting to an increasingly demanding and ever more literate audience?
The writers of Superman have posed these questions for a long, long time. Only fleetingly have they been successful in capturing the imagination of a twenty-first century audience, evidenced in the slipping sales of both Action Comics and Superman, the two monthly series that feature the titular hero.
Over the past few decades, the once high-flying “Man of Tomorrow” has slipped in the minds (and pocketbooks) of comic readers. The titles that carry his name no longer commanded the top ten in monthly sales. Indeed, if the Man of Steel’s weakness can be found anywhere here on our earth, it’s at the local movie theatre marquee that doesn’t highlight his name.
It can be easily argued that Superman is the first superhero in every comic fan’s heart. Moreover, it can be argued that he’s the first superhero on everyone’s lips when they are asked to name one. To this day, the character captures the imagination of the public. Still, writers seem to have a very difficult time telling fresh stories about the lone son of a doomed planet, who, here on earth, is akin to a God. Indestructible in nearly every way, the character is super fast, super strong and he has an unerring sense of right and wrong. Where, then, is the sense of jeopardy that draws audiences? Where is the narrative that leads a reader to believe that our Superman, the all-powerful, all-knowing, unbeatable being, can actually be bested by his foes? At the end of the day, you see, we want our heroes in peril. We want them to rise above that danger and conquer it. That’s what makes Superman, well, super. But all of those stories were told decades ago to our parents and grandparents, right?
Geoff Johns, DC Comics’ incumbent storyteller extraordinaire, found a way to tell new stories with this aged hero. Johns mined Superman’s history and took the character out of his comfort zone. In a stroke of genius that some may equate to sacrilege, the writer literally turned the character’s world upside down, upsetting nearly a century of mythology for the sake of gaining a new perspective on the super-man who could no longer know peril.
So, how did Johns achieve this? The answer is found in the recently released Superman: Brainiac hardcover, which compiles Action Comics issues 866-870 as well as the Superman: New Krypton Special.
Never one to forsake history, Johns pits the Man of Steel against the ancient Kryptonian foe, Brainiac. Sure, we’ve seen this baddie in many guises before, but Johns explains that we’ve never seen the real Brainiac before – only simulacra of him. If we’ve never seen the villain before, what exactly does he look like? Stories of Brainiac were used to frighten Krypton’s children. “He’s what kept us from going out after dark,” Supergirl nervously tells her older cousin. Immediately, Johns has our undivided attention and Gary Frank, the acclaimed artist on the series, blows us away with the newly revealed depiction of the villain – a cocooned entity, more sinister, more alien to readers than any previous portrayal. Here, Brianiac is an ant-like, hive-mind entity, relentlessly pursuing life so that it can be destroyed – but not before cataloguing pieces of a culture in its vast library. Brainiac is a locust that moves from planet-to-planet, star system to star system, annihilating life wherever it goes. And, like the Superman villains of old, he cannot be stopped.
And this time, we as readers, believe that statement.
The being destroyed portions of Superman’s home world years ago and now, honing in on Krypton’s “last son,” aims to finish the job. Earth, and indeed humanity, is a side-prize for the space tyrant.
Johns surrounds Superman with an incredibly human supporting cast as well – people with whom we can all relate. Lois is here, as is Jimmy, Mr. White and the rest of the Daily Planet staff, but it’s Kal-El’s earthbound family, his Mom and Dad that take centre stage. These people who reared the young Superman through childhood and adolescence, who imbued him with his sense of decency and good will, are the ones that you and I relate to. We’ll never have heat vision or the ability to fly but just like the people that surround our protagonist, we can still relate to him and look up to his ideals with a sense of awe and majesty.
In a master stroke, Geoff Johns not only reinvents Superman’s ancient foe, but also calls into question the very way we have always recounted the character.
Superman was always the ultimate metaphor, an immigrant to America, the very last of his kind, here now on his adopted home world of earth. Johns takes this idea and banishes it. Brainiac, the ancient foe of Superman’s home world of Krypton, once destroyed one of its moons, capturing and cataloguing the city of Kandor along with all of its citizens. The entity, in a scientific conceit, “shrinks” the metropolis and its inhabitants, bottling them behind glass like insects to study. The “bottled city of Kandor” has been a long-running thread in comic book history but at the end of this compilation, Superman restores it back to its original size and grandeur.
And it is here that Johns raises his interesting proposition:
What becomes of a unique Superman, the last son of Krypton, the only one of his kind, when 100,000 more sons and daughters of his homeworld all show up, all with the same powers as our Superman? Do some hold bad blood against our hero? What are earth and its inhabitants to make of this culture, now occupying the planet?
Of course, the largest and most provocative question remains: what makes a Superman – his powers or his upbringing?
Reading audiences, now with a newly peaked interest in the iconic character, happily debate and anxiously await the answers that Geoff Johns and other writers are only now creating.
With reinvigorated interest, Superman, it seems, has been born again.