Our book today is a little pamphlet-sized thing newly published by DC Comics and triple-titled Superman Man of Steel Believe, collecting ten quick backup stories taken from various Superman comics titles over the last fifteen years. The cover features a little logo reminding readers that the character of Superman is celebrating the 75th anniversary of its creation by two teenagers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, back in 1933, but the more cynical among those readers might wonder if the pamphlet’s appearance doesn’t also have something to do with the fact that the movie Man of Steel has earned DC’s movie division about a billion dollars since it appeared in theaters last summer.
It’s a bittersweet commonplace, that the market can drive the marketplace so completely: since it eschews vision, it’s craven at its heart, but it’s also a bounty, since it flushes some great stuff back into print that would otherwise have languished in moldering longboxes until the arrival of Galactus.
And it’s made all the more bittersweet for long-time Superman fans because this little collection incorporates the most fundamental change the character has ever undergone – not a change, really, but a ground-up rewrite. When you open SupermanManofSteelBelieve and start reading in sequential order, all seems familiar: we get the one-page origin recap (sole survivor of the doomed planet Krypton, faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, fighting for truth, justice, and the American way), and then a series of quite wonderful stories that will bring a smile to the faces of any of those long-term fans. Superman uses a spare five minutes to untangle the traffic-jam woes of downtown Metropolis; Superman subs for Santa Claus (whose reindeer are sick) in order to deliver toys to the children of the world; Superman confronts the brainless might of Bizarro and the diabolical schemes of Lex Luthor; and, in the book’s best story, Superman takes Lois Lane along on the tour of the world he does every New Year’s. During a quiet moment, Ma Kent, Superman’s sweet-natured adoptive mother, tries to explain the ritual’s origin to Lois:
When you have a child … and God willing, someday you will … you develop habits, very few of which will make sense. Every night, Jonathan [Kent, Superman’s human father] would walk the house, just about midnight. Even if he fell asleep at eight, at the stroke of twelve he’d sneak out of bed, check the windows, pet Shelby on the head, and wind up in Clark’s room. “Walking Midnight,” he called it. When he’d come back to bed and I’d ask if the world was still spinning, he’d chuckle. “Just making sure Clark’s having good dreams.”
Clark’s walking midnight … he’s just got a much bigger house.
As I’ve written about a time or two here at Stevereads, DC Comics recently metamorphosed their entire line of world-famous superheroes in a company-wide revamp called “the New 52.” In addition to being made younger (and given new costumes with lots of seams and zippers and pipings, as if in anticipation of the fact that one day soon all of these characters will be played on the big screen in huge franchise movies by human actors who need to get in and out of costume), most of the old familiar characters were given a new, semi-dangerous ‘edge’ – and surely at DC headquarters, it was deemed that no character was in more need of an edge than Superman, who’d been a pillar of right and decency – often called mockingly by friend and foe alike the Big Blue Boy Scout – for seventy years. How boring! So the “New 52″ version of the character, although still raised by the Kents in Smallville, is an entirely different Superman: he’s a stand-offish, self-absorbed alien being (in one tell-tale symptom among many, instead of loving Lois Lane, he’s having sex with Wonder Woman) who floats a few inches off the floor when he’s talking to people. He doesn’t stand for anything except what he feels at the moment. Nobody could mistake him for a Boy Scout. The final story in this collection features this version of Superman, and even if you didn’t know that, you could tell it by the washed-out colors, the boxy, forbidding artwork, the antagonistic edge of all the characters, and the fact that even though this Superman saves a little boy at climax, he’s got his hand out at the exact same moment to demand his cape back. Instead of a Boy Scout, we have a Super Douchebag.
Ironically (or maybe not – maybe the folks at DC who put this collection together are long-time Superman fans too and decided to slip in a little commentary), the whole Boy Scout issue is directly addressed in an earlier story. Superman is fighting an absurd quasi-governmental agent named Major Force, whose superpowers derive from an alien metal grafted onto his skin. At one point in their fight (which interrupted a Little League baseball game in Ohio), Major Force explicitly taunts Superman with the ‘Boy Scout’ tag. Superman’s reply is priceless:
That’s a common misconception, the Boy Scout thing. And being polite. Of course I’m polite to people. Good people. But people like you? People like you frustrate me. People like you I’m not polite to.
And while he’s saying that, he’s using his heat vision to melt the guy’s skin off. And when Major Force is defeated, Superman then cleans up the mess their fight made – and sticks around long enough to hit a home run. It’s a perfect little story to illustrate the fact that DC’s mightiest character is also its nicest character, but nice doesn’t support franchises. It was the New 52 Superman who made the company that billion dollars on the big screen, so the brightly-colored and smiling Superman featured throughout most of this little pamphlet won’t be making a return appearance any time soon. I’ll probably treasure this volume all the more for that.