In 2011, DC Comics relaunched it's oldest comic book, Action Comics, to give Superman a younger, more modern feel. The new version no longer wore the red undies on the outside his costume and seemed to have a new lease on comic book life — fighting bullies, pursuing justice and living a single life, without answering to Lois Lane or the now-deceased Kents.
But that new approach to Superman is less prominent in DC comics these days, as other versions of the hero dominate this summer's story landscape.
There are Supermen in the future, and Supermen in other worlds. There's a Superman from TV, a couple Supermen with darker skin, a bunch of evil versions of Superman, and a Mecha Superman who's more like a Transformer than a Kryptonian.
And that's just this summer.
So is there something going on with Superman? Why is DC embracing so many versions of him all of the sudden?
DC's main version Superman, who hails from the comic book world the publisher calls "Prime Earth," is spending the summer turning into not Superman — or more specifically, a form DC is calling "Superdoom," a monstrous version of Superman mixed with Doomsday. So although Clark Kent got the girl a few months back — having dated Wonder Woman in main continuity since last fall — he's not very pretty these days, and there isn't' much left of the Superman that people know and love, at least during this storyline.
And in Justice League, Superman isn't going to be part of the team because there's a new powerhouse in the satellite headquarters, as Lex Luthor joins the team.
That's not to say Superman hasn't gotten any time as himself this summer — there's plenty of everyone's beloved Clark Kent in the Scott Snyder/Jim Lee project Superman Unchained and the new Geoff Johns/John Romita Jr. story in Superman. But even those stories introduce other superpowered beings who make DC's Man of Tomorrow only one of several.
But to be fair, that's just the nature of telling stories in serial comics — the hero's status quo has to be challenged to make things interesting, and these Prime Earth stories are merely challenging Superman.
Alternates, and More Alternates
The more obvious indication that something different may be happening with Superman comes from looking at versions outside the main DCU Earth.
In the words of Dr. Horrible, DC seems to be "destroying the status quo because the status is not… quo" — at least where Superman is concerned.
In The New 52: Futures End, the weekly comic that continues through next March, readers are being shown a Superman in the future — five years from current DC continuity. But nobody's sure about his identity, because he wears a suit with a mask, and he's a little more "direct" than the Clark Kent we know. Some might even say he's a bit of a jerk.
He's not the only jerk in DC's future who's wearing the Superman name, as Justice League 3000 has introduced a new team of characters that are, well, parasites that take over other people's bodies, becoming the DNA of the original Justice League. In this potential DC future world, Superman is an egomaniac who can't get along with Batman.
The new, much-hyped Earth 2 Superman is a dark-skinned Kryptonian named Val-Zod. With his recent introduction, DC has brought yet another Superman onto that earth after the world had been void of Super-characters the last couple years. And reluctant Superman Val isn't the only version of the character on Earth 2 — there's also an evil Clark Kent there, and the two will be battling in next month's Earth 2 #26. (And Earth 2 writer Tom Taylor told Newsarama there's yet another Kryptonian on Earth 2 that we haven't even met.)
In Multiversity, the Grant Morrison mini-series that's launching later this summer, the story gives a leading role to Earth 23 Superman — another version with darker skin, but this time he's also president of the United States.
DC Digital also has a few more iterations of Superman, in both the future and the present. In the Smallville universe is a version who's inspired by the TV show, while the Batman Beyond universe has an older, wiser, lonelier Clark Kent — as well as an violent, alternate earth character named Lord Superman who starred in the comic's just-finished event.
Evil Supermen don't get much more high profile right now than the one featured in DC's Injustice: Gods Among Us comics and video game. In an alternate reality, the Joker has tricked Superman into killing a pregnant Lois Lane and destroying Metropolis. As a result, Superman basically loses it — and in the video game, he rules the world with an iron (er… Kryptonian) fist as its High Councilor. The prequel comic, which tells the story of his evolution (or rather, degradation) into the High Councilor, is one of DC digital's biggest hits — and it goes back to a weekly schedule when it launches Injustice: Year Three in September.
And then there's the versions of Superman that are being promoted for the Infinite Crisis video game, which is based within a fictional universe of DC characters. There's Mecha Superman, a Transformer-type robot that was trained by Clark, and Nightmare Superman, who can summon a phantom. The game, and the digital comic of the same name (based in the same universe), promises to introduce even more Supermen as it takes place over the DC multiverse.
Who is Superman?
Earlier this year, Newsarama wondered why so many Superman are jerks lately. And there are still plenty evil Supermen around.
But with the addition of Supermen from different worlds, with different races and different costumes and different motivations, the iconic version of the character has almost taken a back seat at DC this summer. Does that mean the core character is less relevant? Is DC admitting that he's not as interesting as his alternate world counterparts? And just how many versions can you have of the same character?
It all begs the question, who exactly is Superman these days? The answer appears to be, whoever fans — or writers — want him to be. Perhaps someday, cultures of the past will be analyzed less by what they said or did, and more by what kind of Superman they enjoyed.