DC Comics (2)
April 18, 2018 at 07:12 PM EDT

What does Superman mean now, 80 years later? Although pop culture is overflowing with superheroes (so much so that EW had to make 15 different covers just to fit every character from this month’s Avengers: Infinity War in a single issue), the very first superhero has reason to feel a little left out from the genre he started all those years ago. Batman has long since overtaken him as DC Comics’ most popular superhero, to the point that Superman was even left out of advertising for last year’s Justice League until after the movie’s release.

Yet he has certainly endured. As created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman first appeared in 1938, on the cover of Action Comics #1, smashing a car into a mountain in an image that has become permanently etched in the pop-culture canon. This week, DC Comics releases Action Comics #1000, a super-sized landmark issue to commemorate the Man of Steel’s big anniversary. Unlike a typical comic, this one contains multiple stories by different teams of big-name writers and artists. Eighty years after Siegel and Shuster’s Superman invented superheroes as we know them, what do the stories in Action Comics #1000 tell us about his legacy?

First up in the issue is a story written and drawn by Dan Jurgens. Action Comics #1000 represents Jurgens’ last issue on the title before recent Marvel-DC transplant Brian Michael Bendis takes over. It is thus a culmination of more than 30 years Jurgens has spent telling Superman stories. The prime of his run came in the ’90s with the infamous Death of Superman storyline, the first and probably last time the mainstream public cared about something as workaday as a comic book death. Those ’90s comics were defined by violence and death, as well as wacky hairstyles, big muscles, and epic crossovers. By contrast, Jurgens’ story for this issue has a much more down-to-earth setting: a celebration by the citizens of Metropolis to thank Superman for all the ways he’s saved their lives (either literally, by holding up the roof of a collapsing building, or figuratively, by encouraging criminals to break their cycle of poverty and violence). Superman’s relationship to Metropolis is one of the most optimistic elements of the DC universe. After all, in their iconic ’80s miniseries Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons hypothesized that the existence of a single super-powered individual would irrevocably transform human society — almost certainly for the worse. But since the beginning, Action Comics has imagined a world where the most powerful man alive works tirelessly and earnestly to help people in need. Unlike the cynical characters of later deconstructions like Watchmen, Superman is not self-interested nor narcissistic; in fact, as Jurgens shows, he spurns praise until forced by his friends and family to accept everyone’s appreciation.

As shown in another story in Action Comics #1000, written by Tom King and illustrated by Clay Mann, that indefatigable humanity is what separates Superman from all his peers and imitators. Even billions of years after humans have left Earth, Superman still feels a powerful connection to his adopted home and the Kents who found him there.

DC Comics
DC Comics
DC Comics

Although Superman is now often rendered as a near-omnipotent demigod (Zack Snyder’s DC films show him causing citywide destruction every time he fights), he had much humbler beginnings. Way back in Action Comics #1, Superman couldn’t even fly; he could only “leap one-eighth of a mile” or, alternatively, “hurdle a 20-story building.” As befit his more narrow powers, back then Superman didn’t fight alien invaders or robot overlords. In his first appearance, Superman freed a wrongfully convicted woman from death row, stopped a domestic abuser from beating his wife, and cracked down on war profiteering in Congress. He’s come a long way since then, but Action Comics #1000 makes Superman revisit that past in interesting ways. In a story by Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason (who have been writing and illustrating Superman since DC Rebirth kicked off), the villainous Vandal Savage bombards Superman with “chronal tachyons” that send him back in time, all the way to the Action Comics #1 days when he couldn’t fly or see through walls. Superman actually likes the nostalgia of it all, but the time trip doesn’t stop there. He’s soon sent through all kinds of Superman stories all the years, from dystopian futures like Kingdom Come to the animated Super Friends. Superman must fight through all these alternate selves so he can make it home in time for his son Jonathan’s birthday.

Jonathan Kent is one of the biggest examples of how Superman has changed and grown over the years. He has a son now! That’s the kind of character development Siegel and Shuster could never have predicted, but it suits the character well. As Tomasi told EW in 2017, “His son Jon allowed us to view Superman through new eyes. It’s how I looked at Superman growing up. The idea of Superman as your father, people really seemed to connect with that.”

The final story in Action Comics #1000 shows how forward momentum must continue for superheroes, even though every development may not be as emotionally meaningful as raising a child. This story is written by Bendis, which makes it the first published DC work of the longtime Marvel creator, and drawn by comics legend (and DC co-publisher) Jim Lee. Constructed as a prologue to Bendis’ forthcoming Man of Steel miniseries, the story features Superman getting beaten up by a mysterious new villain named Rogol Zarr (whose scarred visage is just as ugly as his name). Rogol’s fight with Superman concludes with a surprising declaration that will lead right into Man of Steel. It’s not particularly compelling, but serves more as a reminder that beyond their past and their future, superheroes must keep carrying on. New stories must be told. Not all of them will be great.

For those readers interested in even more Superman history, DC has put out a hardcover collection of the most important Action Comics stories over the years, from that legendary first issue to the original appearance of Brainiac (who, lest we forget, literally invented the word “brainiac”). The digital comics site Comixology is also running a sale on classic Superman comic stories. Highlights include Superman: Birthright, Mark Waid and Leinil Yu’s retelling of Superman’s beginnings in a 21st century context; Superman: Red Son, a Mark Millar/Dave Johnson alternate-reality tale that imagines the Man of Steel’s Kryptonian rocket landing in the Soviet Union instead of the United States, thereby exploring what really makes him Superman; and All-Star Superman, the Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely miniseries that highlights Superman’s all-important altruistic qualities even more than his out-of-this-world heroism.

Happy reading — and even more importantly, happy birthday, big guy.

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