Neil Gaiman’s upcoming story in Batman and Detective Comics is titled “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” When this was announced, longtime readers and/or Alan Moore fans instantly recalled a story with a very similar title. The story, printed in 1986, also took over two premier titles, in this case Superman #423 and Action Comics #583. Alan Moore wrote, Curt Swan and George Perez drew, and they together created a story that looked back on the life of Superman, the Man of Tomorrow. The story was designed as “the last” Superman story, a clear precursor to many other “possible future” stories, including Marvel Comics “The End” stories.
I’m going to forgo the full recap this time around, in favor of talking about impressions of the book. This is one of those rare comic books that intends to, and actually makes, the reader feel something. It should make you evaluate your thoughts about Superman, of course, but in a way it makes you evaluate the priorities and choices of your own life.
The story is told as a narrative in past tense. Lois no-longer-Lane (She’s married to some mustachioed schlub named “Jordan Elliot”) is telling the story of Superman’s demise to a reporter from the Planet for a retrospective. The story has Superman fight (or acknowledge the disappearance of) most of his major foes. His villains are suddenly more vicious, which worries and perplexes Superman. That sense of horror and foreboding reaches out to the reader. Moore here used Superman’s friends and family for the initial people in danger, but you can see how scared Superman himself is of actually being hurt or killed.
The death of Lana didn’t hit very hard, perhaps because she’d already been relegated to “second place” by Superman. Jimmy’s, likewise, was somewhat hollow. Krypto, however, went out like a champ and that one is emotional. Nearly everyone has had a beloved pet that they’ve lost, and just cause it’s a super-pet, there’s no difference. The sense of loss is so strong, so palpable, that it actually makes Jimmy and Lana’s deaths more powerful by simple association.
Mxyzptlk’s two thousand year plan is disturbing in it’s simplicity. You can’t read that without saying “Huh, sure, that makes perfect sense for him.” The choice Superman makes fundamentally changes him as a character, which he instantly recognizes. That stark line, and the way he reacts when he crosses it, completely defines Superman in a couple panels better than just about any Superman story every has.
The twist at the end of the book (“it ends with a wink”) leaves readers with happiness and hope. Again, that’s just quintessential Superman, that he’s really the embodiment of hope. This story showed me the appeal of Superman in a way that nothing before or after has. As the “last” Superman story, it became something for all other stories to aspire to.
Have you read “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” It’s your turn, what did you think of the last Superman tale?