[Disclaimer: SPOILERS abound herein for DC’s Action Comics Issue #1000. And yes, I’m more than aware it’s Avengers weekend--you’re talking to a guy who took his entire family to the opening IMAX showing dressed as all six Infinity Stones--but there’s only one Superman. And he deserves this moment.]
[Oh, also, this is a Super-sized article. Feature, not a bug.]
With the release of the latest chapter of Action Comics this month, Superman has just become the only superhero ever to hit a thousand issues in an ongoing book. The Big Blue Boy Scout first debuted on the classic cover of Action Comics #1 (now the most valuable comic book on the planet--in 2014 a copy sold for $3.2 million) in 1938. He was something new. The first true “superhero” as we think of the term today. And his unparalleled longevity is no accident. He was, and remains, the greatest superhero in the history of the medium.
Don’t @ me.
Yeah, yeah, Batman’s “cooler”, and Iron Man’s more charismatic. But Action 1000 represents something that none of the rest could ever justify or embody. Superman is the pure distillation of all our collective hopes for good in our world. I’d even submit that critics who dismiss the character as “unrelatable” because he’s “too perfect” reveal more about themselves than about Superman. If Superman stands for “hope”, his readers will necessarily connect with such a myth depending on their possession (or lack) of corresponding faith.
Make no mistake--I’m personally a devout Christian; I place my only substantial faith in Christ Jesus alone. Fiction is valuable, however, in its parallels and illustration of real world values--i.e., as parables. In my worldview, the personification of uprightness and moral virtue resonates deeply. When others wonder how we can be fascinated by someone like that, I’m immediately caught up with the thought of how they approach the most pivotal person in all of history and the four books about him. We “relate” to such an individual not because he reminds us of ourselves, but because he shows us what we aspire to be. What our souls deeply, albeit at times faithlessly, hope to be true and possible. Good, honor, integrity, love, bravery...these things are anything but boring. But for too many, they are simply incredible--that is, too hard to believe.
The issue itself, an 80-page “Giant” (a page for every year?) as the cover proclaims it, following months and months of hype and marketing, absolutely lives up to its expectations. What the DC braintrust has provided us is an anthology of standalone reflections on various facets of the Man of Steel’s enduring legend. Enlisting the all-star talents of much of their considerably deep creators’ bench, this volume boasts a robust collection of nine all-new tales (plus one reworked “lost” entry) that each, in their own way, amounts to a love letter to Superman. I often say the problem with Superman books, for many jaded readers, is not that the character is inherently not compelling; it’s just that few writers know how to write him. The masters who’ve been the exception to this rule in the past (a shortlist would certainly include names like Waid, Morrison, and Maggin) have produced epics that not only age well, but can leave the reader wondering why they ever found Batman interesting in comparison. Like those legends, the storytellers in league (so to speak) here are all A-listers in their own right, and they’ve left it all on the field. Your mileage may vary story by story--a few of the contributors are arguably at the edge of their abilities, which just aren’t quite on par with the standouts--but when it hits, it hits into orbit, naturally.
For my money (which was double by the way--I obviously needed both a digital and a print copy), the highlights are Tom King’s “Of Tomorrow”, Peter Tomasi’s “Never-Ending Battle”, and Geoff Johns’ and Richard Donner’s (yes, that Richard Donner) “The Car”. “The Car” is sublime for its simplicity. No alien invaders or psychotic cyborgs, just a brilliant premise no one ever thought of: what would the epilogue to that very first story in Action #1 be? The iconic cover, the first-ever visual of Superman, famously depicts our hero lifting and smashing the car of a criminal on a rock. This brief follow-up asks what happened to that guy. Well, obviously his mechanic thinks he’s nuts; but the even more inevitable moment is what happens after he exits the shop: the strange visitor from another world, the man in the sky with no name, appears to him...just to talk. Sternly, but with kindness, like the good father this man never had, Superman explains how it doesn’t have to be this way. The man gives up crime and starts his life anew. Because Superman. No one who reads this brief “What if?” will be able to look at that famous $3.2 million cover image the same way again.
At a more “meta” level, Tomasi’s “Never-Ending Battle” uses a tropey sci-fi framing device to give a kaleidoscopic revelation of its central thesis. As a supervillain (Vandal Savage) sends Superman spiraling through various histories and timelines (eras of his comic history for the reader, unrecognizable anachronisms to him), he’s forced to confront every major crisis point in his 80-year canon. His enemy is sure this slog of never-ending challenges will sooner or later overcome him, or at least entrap him in a dead-end narrative. Of course, he triumphs over every obstacle, just as he did before in the legendary panels of decades past. He only emerges stronger, the enemy doomed to defeat. At the surface level, it’s an opportunity for Tomasi and his partner in art, Patrick Gleason, to offer a gorgeous, nostalgic retrospective on Superman’s publishing history. But the lesson we take away? In Kal-El’s own words, his enemy “...tried to use the past against me. But the past informs us… teaches us… and most of all, strengthens us”. Is Superman old-fashioned? Uncommonly traditional? A story that’s been told and retold a thousand times? YES. But that’s not his weakness. It’s his strength. Why he’ll always be relevant. He’s more than character; he’s legend. A hero of a bygone era, to be sure. But he’s also the Man of Tomorrow.
I’d be remiss if, writing for a “conservative” website, I failed to give a side-plug for the current Tomasi/Gleason Superman ongoing series (separate from "Action"), a magnificent book that, from its first issue in 2016, has emphasized family--Clark’s role as a husband and father--and all those old-hat, outmoded values that have so often been the cause for the character’s scorn. You know, all that truth, justice, and American way business. But, like, unapologetically so (seriously, here’s some praise and analysis from none other than Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention). The past couple of decades of comics and film have been unkind to that “American way” part, especially. Yeah, it’s hokey. And in postmodern (let alone Trump-era) America, controversial. One storyline by writer David Goyer had Superman renouncing his citizenship. The 2006 movie Superman Returns dismissed the classic three-fold moral system as “truth, justice…all that stuff”. In stark contrast, grab a copy of Superman, Vol. 5: "Hopes and Fears”, which dropped just one day before Action 1000. In a move that would appear unthinkable in 2018--especially from a creative circle that is anything but right-leaning--the first two chapters of “Hopes and Fears” chronicle a Kent family (Clark, Lois, and son Jon) roadtrip across America, touring key sites of US historical import--not to criticize, but to pay homage and educate their boy. They visit Independence Hall, where Clark teaches his son about the sacrifice and ideals of the Founding Fathers. They leave American flags at war memorials. They clean graffiti from statues of American soldiers. Most poignantly, the Kents personally honor two veterans. One, a soldier who lost his legs in Iraq, is invited to share a meal with the family at a local diner. Unbeknownst to the vet, behind those glasses, SUPERMAN is sitting across the table from him as he shares his story. And Clark just...listens. He hears him, and treats him as a real hero, in front of his son, no less. Later, at a Civil War battleground, they meet a family whose ancestor, a Union soldier, was swept away in a flood and never recovered. Superman, being, of course, Superman, can’t sleep that night. Naturally, he flies over the river valley with x-ray vision and finds the soldier’s remains, which he reverently wraps in an American flag and lays at the family’s door with a note that reads:
(Pause for ugly, but masculine sobbing)
So, pretty hokey, huh? Sometimes it takes an immigrant to appreciate the “American way”.
But back in Action, the real peak is undoubtedly Tom King’s contribution with artist Clay Mann. “Of Tomorrow” is a flash-forward glance at Superman’s last day on Earth. Not his death, mind you, but his final goodbye to the planet he had so loved and served for so long. Kal-El is not dying, Earth is--like Krypton before it. Billions of years in the future, long after humanity has moved on from its birthplace, we find Earth’s favorite adopted son is still visiting our world every year, until the day of its final breath under an all-consuming Sun, now red and monstrous with advanced age. It’s a bittersweet scene. The last moment shared between a great hero and the world unable to utter the “Thank you” it owes many times over. But it’s more than a nostalgic ritual for this person. After all these years, he hasn’t come merely to touch the scorched earth one more time. The draw that keeps him coming again and again is a particular plot of familiar ground, one marked with a plaque memorializing two people unknown to historians, but unforgettable to this Kansas farmboy.
Amidst the blazing, ethereal art depicting the legendary archetype against a background of endless flame (artwork that openly evokes the visage of Christopher Reeve to great effect), as well as a million tiny touches of grace--steam rising from Superman’s eyes as he tries to use his heat vision but begins to weep, the quiet creation of one last diamond in his hand from the dust of the Earth, a passing meditation on being dragged to church by a dad who showed him that science and religion don’t have to contradict--we find that the ultimate center of this story is an experience as relatably human as any narrative could be: he’s visiting his parents’ grave. He always has been. For aeons, after countless galactic battles and trials, he continues making the trip annually, just like we do. They’re his parents. Ma and Pa. Echoing sentiments I’ve heard from so many who’ve lost a parent (thankfully not my own experience so far…), Kal-El, no…Clark, softly confesses,
I miss you… Every day. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been. It’s still every day.
My mom could’ve written that line. I’ve heard her mention my grandpa in those terms a thousand times since July of 1986. See, Superman--he’s us. Not who we are, but how we feel. What we think we are, if we were only stripped of all the mess and the failures. At a mere five pages, the “Of Tomorrow” entry is little more than a tone poem--a very human reflection on both letting go and honoring our true first loves, yes; but by so vividly unveiling the effect of this humble Midwestern couple’s love on a young boy’s soul, this scene accomplishes its bigger purpose--to shine the brightest of lights on that soul that they left us, the character of their legacy. Or, as summed up in the chapter’s final image, an inscription on a gravestone:
Kent, Jonathan & Martha. Beloved Parents & Grandparents. You Gave Us Hope.
Action Comics #1000 is available at your local comic shop or through digital sources such as Comixology, the Kindle Store, and Google Play.