It’s SUPERMAN’s 85th ANNIVERSARY: To be (Superboy) or not to be — that is the question (one of ’em, at least)…
Superman turns 85 on April 18 — the date Action Comics #1 was released in 1938. To celebrate the Man of Steel, we have a lineup of groovy new material and a couple of favorites from the vaults that we are running across several days through the anniversary. Check the links at the bottom of this column by Digging for Kryptonite podcaster Anthony Desiato. Up, up and away! — Dan
I think a bit of an intro to Anthony Desiato’s column is in order here. With Superman’s 85th anniversary upon us, we decided to something a little different to celebrate — ask YOU what you think makes the perfect Superman, at least in terms of his origin and heritage. Anthony had the idea of coming up with 13 QUESTIONS for you to answer to get your take on which Man of Steel works for you.
So check out the column and we encourage you to write your answers in the comments below. We really want to hear from you. (Feel free to add your age too because that’s often an indicator of why you voted the way you did.)
Up, up and away! Here’s Anthony:
By ANTHONY DESIATO
In the Season 8 premiere of Smallville, John Jones describes Clark’s tale as an “impossible odyssey.” It’s one we’ve seen play out continuously across time and media — perhaps not quite as frequently as we’ve had to watch poor Martha Wayne’s pearls spilling onto the cold pavement, but still — from Jor-El’s miracle Hail Mary pass across the stars to Jonathan Kent’s unbelievably perfect catch, and beyond.
Whether the origin lasts one page (Action Comics #1 or Grant Morrison and Frank Quietely’s sublime, elemental opening to All-Star Superman), 12 issues (Superman: Birthright), 2-plus hours (Superman: The Movie), or 10 years (the aforementioned Smallville), the Superman origin story remains eternally compelling and ripe for reinvention and discussion.
In fact, I devoted two of the earliest installments of the Digging for Kryptonite podcast — which celebrates its 100th episode on April 25 — to chronicling the evolution of the origin story throughout comics, radio, animation, television, and film.
Fun fact: The original (it was later redone) radio show origin in 1940 put a rather odd spin on the familiar story, with Kal-El aging to adulthood in the rocket and emerging, fully formed, as Superman. He immediately rescues a young child and his father, who suggests that Superman should disguise himself as a reporter and call himself Clark Kent. And that’s it! Perhaps not surprisingly, that version never cemented. Similarly, Clark’s upbringing in an orphanage, established in 1938’s Action Comics #1, was quickly jettisoned in favor of the Kents by the time 1939’s Superman #1 rolled around.
Nevertheless, in between the firmly entrenched tentpoles of the rocket escaping destruction and that eventual shirt rip, many details have been added, changed, deleted, and reinserted over 85 years as times, tastes, and talent have shifted. But what is the “perfect” version of the Superman origin story? Your answers to the following questions, just like mine, are probably informed (at least in part) by the eras and stories that forged you as Superman fans. The better question, I suppose, is what is your perfect Superman origin? Have at it!
Here are 13 QUESTIONS to answer in BUILDING THE PERFECT SUPERMAN:
1. Born on Krypton or Earth? In addition to reconceiving Krypton as cold and sterile instead of warm and adventurous, John Byrne’s post-Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot also established that Kal-El departed the planet in a “birthing matrix” and wasn’t actually born until he arrived on Earth. While this change (since discarded) was in keeping with Byrne’s overall emphasis on Superman’s humanity during this era, it robbed us of the affecting scene of Jor-El and Lara physically placing their baby in the rocket.
QUESTION: What do you prefer to see on Superman’s figurative birth certificate?
2. Krypton’s Destruction: Natural Event or Villainous Plot? Throughout the many tellings of the origins, Krypton’s death by natural disaster — most often tied to the planet’s core or long-term fallout from Krypton’s past conflicts or policies — imbues the story with a mythic feel and scope (and also serves as a cautionary environmental tale). Superman: The Animated Series walked the line with the notion that Brainiac conspired to prevent Krypton from learning of its impending doom, making him complicit in failing to save the planet but not necessarily for its destruction.
Then, along came Brian Michael Bendis in 2018 with the reveal that Krypton was actually killed, its destruction purposely brought about by Rogol Zaar and sanctioned by an intergalactic council. Clever twist, or a clear-as-day example of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”?
QUESTION: Did Krypton die of natural causes or was there something nefarious?
3. Rocket Ship GPS? In most depictions, Jor-El and Lara aim the rocket for Earth, but some versions give the ship an even more specific target. The opening pages of Byrne’s Man of Steel, for example, show that Jor-El has earmarked a “subsection called Kansas.” Smallville, meanwhile, goes even further, revealing that a young Jor-El went on a walkabout to Earth years earlier and actually hand-selected the Kent family. Too much? Even for this diehard Smallville fan, I’m afraid so.
QUESTION: Landing in Smallville — an accident or pre-ordained?
4. Superbaby? I’m torn here: The bit with Clark lifting the Kents’ truck after emerging from the rocket is iconic. The notion of Superbaby flying around the farm all the time? Not so much. How about we split the difference? Give him enough power for the truck lift, but let his full power set emerge gradually.
QUESTION: Superbaby — in costume or not — yea or nay?
5. Last Son of Krypton — or Last Survivor? Supergirl? Krypto? Beppo?!
QUESTION: Is Superman the only survivor of Krypton’s explosion — or did a whole coterie of other Kryptonians make it out alive as well?
6. Krypton 101? At this point, the Kents revealing the ship to Clark as he comes of age is an indelible part of the story, but how and when should he learn the full extent of his alien origins? Stories like Secret Origin or S:TAS hand him everything right away in a handy, if disorienting, Kryptonian download, while the movies and Birthright send him on far more of a quest to find the answers he seeks. Byrne’s Man of Steel and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman don’t even reveal these answers to him until after he’s Superman. What’s the sweet spot in your version?
QUESTION: When should Clark learn of his Kryptonian heritage?
7. The Adventures of Superman When He Was a Boy? Admittedly, Clark’s Pre-Crisis past as Superboy is the aspect of the character I’ve struggled with most, and Geoff Johns’s reinstatement of that piece – twice, no less, first in Secret Origin and again in Doomsday Clock — remains a sore spot.
While I am all for superheroics in Smallville, I tend to prefer more of a blue shirt/red jacket ensemble than a full-on costume. After all, Superman: The Movie, Smallville, Man of Steel, and more conditioned me to view the donning of the costume as a final, graduation-level event, and the concept of Superboy only seems to undermine it.
Nevertheless, I cannot deny the appeal of Clark as Superboy or what those Pre-Crisis stories added to the mythology. Is there room for Superboy in your perfect origin?
QUESTION: Superboy — yes or no?
8. Lex in Smallville? This one has been a bit of a roller coaster for me. When I started watching Smallville as a highschooler in the early ’00s, Lex’s inclusion in Clark’s adolescence was a (welcome) departure from the stories I grew up reading and watching, where the two men always met as instantly adversarial adults.
Delving more into the history, of course, revealed Lex’s Silver and Bronze Age time in Smallville and the reason for his animosity toward Superboy and Superman: his baldness, which he blamed on his nemesis. Smallville thankfully added greater depth and nuance to the broken friendship between the two future enemies, although subsequent attempts to incorporate this into the comics (Birthright and Secret Origin in particular) kept Lex’s tenure in Smallville brief, and adult Lex either didn’t remember or refused to acknowledge it.
It’s still early days on the new status quo between Clark and Lex vis-à-vis the secret identity, but the current Super-titles seem poised to mine their complicated history in a meaningful way. Do you find their doomed friendship to be “the stuff of legend,” as Michael Rosenbaum’s Lex once foretold?
QUESTION: Lex Luthor meets Superman as a teen in Smallville or as an adult in Metropolis?
9. The Kents: Dead or Alive? This child of the ’90s, who grew up with Clark seeking counsel from his folks on the farm in the Triangle Era comics, on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, and in S:TAS will always vote for keeping Ma and Pa Kent around. Nevertheless, even I can’t deny the power of Clark at Pa’s grave in Superman: The Movie. Do you see value in the Kents living, or do you prefer one or both of their deaths as a critical catalyst for Clark leaving the farm and embracing his destiny?
QUESTION: Jonathan and Martha Kent — dead or alive?
10. Who Makes the Suit? The suit being a Kryptonian product bestowed by Jor-El (a la in the movies) probably makes the most rational sense, but there’s no beating, “Thanks, my mom made it,” is there?
QUESTION: Who made Superman’s suit — Kryptonian Dad or Earth Mom?
11. “It’s not an S.” Or is it? What meaning do you prefer for the symbol Clark wears as Superman: an English letter “S,” family crest, symbol for hope, Kryptonian flag, or some combination?
QUESTION: What does the “S” stand for?
12. Journalism: Passion or Convenience? Traditionally, Clark takes a job as a reporter because it’s a helpful cover, allowing him to be “in the middle of the action.” A few iterations (including Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Birthright, and American Alien) have made Clark’s passion and aptitude for journalism part of his character, even pre-superheroics. How important is it to you that Clark genuinely wants to be a reporter?
QUESTION: Clark Kent as journalist — a calling or a convenience?
13. Lois: Duped or Part of the Origin? The Clark-Lois-Superman triangle has been a quintessential component of the origin story for decades. However, potentially hot take: Recent entries such as Man of Steel and Smallville — where Lois still has a moment of revelation when she discovers what Clark can do, yet is involved from the start in the crafting of the dual identity — offer a refreshing update that respects Lois’s intelligence and obviates the need for Clark to perpetrate his ruse toward her. Do you hope to see this trend continue?
QUESTION: When does Lois learn Superman’s identity — if at all?
— PAUL KUPPERBERG: My 13 Favorite SUPERMAN Influences. Click here.
— ACTION COMICS #309: The Issue That Sums Up SUPERMAN in the Silver Age. Click here.
Anthony Desiato is a documentarian, podcaster, and lifelong Superman fan. He hosts the Superman podcasts Digging for Kryptonite and Another Exciting Episode in the Adventures of Superman. His most recent documentary film, My Comic Shop Country, is out now on Amazon, Apple TV, and Tubi. Visit Flat Squirrel Productions for more film and podcast projects.