For much of his 73 years, Superman has been the leading character of the superhero genre. The first of the successful prototypical comic book superheroes, Superman has also been – at times – the best-selling, most popular, most powerful, and in a couple of different ways, the defining symbol of righteousness. At others times, however, he has been less than that, and by and large several of these quantities have trended downwards over the last half of the character's history. The purpose here is to ask, as the title of a 1976 story put it, "Who Took The Super out of Superman?"
To the greatest extent reasonable, I have collected data to back up these points. I read one page of Superman from each year and counted the number of panels and statements that, in my view, portrayed certain traits. Ideally, one would examine every panel of every issue and have multiple readers "coding" their impressions, but I believe that the sample I performed is still enough to show some obvious facts on the scale of decades. I also used sales data to the extent that I could find it. I think there are some interesting and underappreciated truths in this data, and enough information to deflate a few myths.
History of Superman
Over seven decades, the tone and structure of Superman stories have varied considerably; to some extent, he is a barometer indicating what sort of stories one may find in each era in American culture as a whole. Summarizing Superman's history in any detailed manner would be a massive undertaking. My goal here is simply to sketch out some defining trends in the kinds of stories that have been told. Some of these trends are specific to Superman. Others reflect trends in the comic book medium or American entertainment as a whole. Some changes have led generally in one direction, whereas others have cycled like fashion.
Superman's physical powers have generally increased over the years. This is probably best seen as a gradual many-step retcon; there was not an overarching account that Superman's powers were increasing over time. Certainly the physically weakest version of Superman came right at the beginning. A process of powering him up lasted about thirty years. Since then, his power levels were twice (1972, 1986) reduced for creative reasons, but there have been power-ups along the way. The cumulative trend from his creation to now is definitely upward, but the increases generally came in the first half of his history, with power levels being cyclical since then.
The tone of Superman stories has teetered between dark, noir themes and tales of childlike simplicity. This ran roughly parallel to similar changes in Hollywood. Current readers who think of the Fifties as "old" may not appreciate that cinema had a darker era before the mid-Thirties, much as Superman and Batman inhabited tougher worlds in their initial run which quickly mellowed as the Forties began. Both Hollywood and the comics had official "codes" to preside over family-friendly standards. Then, in the Sixties, as major cinema began to allow darker themes, the comics also ratcheted up their seriousness. Superman's facial expressions alone are unmistakable gauges of this. His foes of the Fifties seemed merely to confound and irritate him. As often as not, his menaces were nothing more than attempts by Lois Lane to discover his secret identity, or to marry him. In the Sixties as in the Thirties and early Forties, he once again grimly faced killers.
In his earliest stories, Superman had no confidante in the world, and other than his dead adopted parents, apparently never had. And yet, he never expressed any regret or remorse. From the Fifties through the Eighties, he had a large cast of friends at the Daily Planet, but he never trusted anyone with his secret identity unless that person was also a costumed crime fighter. Certain other superheroes, particularly Batman and Supergirl, became true confidantes of his. His romantic relationships became increasingly weird, as his cycles of denying and desiring Lois Lane actually hinged on the "rule" that the publishers could not change the mythos by marrying the pair, but within the comics, Superman always offered the reasoning that it would endanger her if they married – illogical given the public nature of their romance such as it was. With the Byrne reboot, Superman became significantly less odd. His closest superhero friendships were deleted but more than replaced with the return of his adoptive parents, the Kents. A "super family" of super powered friends arose, and Superman finally married Lois Lane, giving him a complete confidante.
Superman, Kal-El, and Clark
There has been a complex juggling of three or more personas within the character of Superman. Where there is one physical body, he has been, or subsumed, all of the following:
a) A human and specifically American who happens to be of alien origin.
b) A tough man with powers who pretends to be a frail weakling.
c) A tough man who is reasonably tough even as Clark Kent.
d) A Kryptonian who remembers his early childhood there and reveres the memories and traditions of his lost planet.
During the late Bronze Age, that last personality became, like his romantic relationship, increasingly strange, with Superman's life full of solitary rituals devoted to the memory of Krypton, rituals he rarely shared with his cousin. An undue number of thought balloons contained Superman thinking about his favorite topic – Superman, not infrequently thinking of himself in the third person as something that may have been himself or may have been his sense of his own public image. As Alan Moore had the man himself say in Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?, Bronze Age Superman was "too wrapped up in himself," which helped motivate the humanizing reboot that followed.
For the first thirty or so years after the Silver Age effectively merged Superman's world with that of other heroes, they called him "Superman." This has since changed, in many stories to "Kal" or "Clark" when no outsiders are around. The use of "Kal" seems to have peaked in the Eighties; Lois calls him Clark, but not infrequently, the ironically belittling "Smallville."
Rivals (in the Superman titles)
Superman's universe has became increasingly more populated with characters whose powers (or gadgets) rivaled his own. Initially, Superman was the only unreal element in his fictional world. That lasted for just one year, after which mad scientists and their creations began to challenge him. By and large, such additions to his fictional world "stick" and are less often subtracted, so his fictional world has continually become a more challenging environment as time has gone by.
In his own titles, Superman had the first of many encounters with characters who physically rival him, when he struggled to defeat the giants created by a mad scientist in Superman #8. At first, the idea of a foil that could match Superman was fresh and used rarely. In Action #47, Luthor used electricity to give himself strength almost equal to Superman's. In Superman #30, Mxyzptlk had powers that matched, but did not clearly exceed, Superman's. In the early Fifties, two stories introduced characters with Kryptonian-level powers. Within little more than a decade, they added Superman's pets, cousin, a clone of sorts, and we learned that two entire Kryptonian cities plus that society's equivalent of prison had survived the planet's destruction. Superman had a virtually intact Kryptonian society he belonged in. Meanwhile, in another line of stories, Superman had another set of peers with the Legion of Superheroes.
Ironically, the stronger Superman became, the more often he ran into rivals and foes that were stronger than him. What was once meant to be a fresh and original twist – a foe stronger than Superman! – soon became a cliché. Initially, every Superman and Action cover showed Superman doing something dominant and amazing. Over the next several years this pattern was interrupted by covers showing Mxyzptlk, the Prankster, or Toyman making a dupe of Superman. Much later, in 1952, a cover promised "The shock of the year" – showing a character punching Superman backwards through a wall. That was perhaps a shock in 1952 (one which ended up not being real; Superman had staged a phony defeat), but by the late Sixties, nearly a quarter of all covers showed someone physically overpowering Superman, and many of the rest showed him in some other way humiliated or bested by the like of Atlas, Samson, Hercules, and Zha-Vam, a Captain Marvel surrogate. The original premise of Superman as an unbeatable winner had given way to the point of monotony as a super powered punching bag that was nearly always faced with some form of domination. Of course, this is how the cover pitched the comic, while the story inside would end with his eventual victory. But in the process, Superman went from a character that was dominant 100% of the time, to one who often spent almost every page of a story losing and only winning in the last page or two. When 1978 rolled around, Superman was punched, zapped, or blasted off his feet in no fewer than 11 of the year's dozen Superman issues.
And while the Byrne reboot cleared the slate of all of those rivals it quickly replaced them, and established that in the new Superman continuity, many characters and even rather conventional machines, were not only a match for Superman but also in many cases far stronger. He soon faced Apokoliptan villains and four Kryptonians of the Pocket Universe whose power far exceeded his. Doomsday was introduced as a brutish foe that could physically beat Superman to death. When Infinite Crisis reintroduced Superboy Prime, he was shown to be clearly stronger than our Superman, as though the "power down" that Superman underwent in the Eighties did not affect him.
While the pages of All Star Comics had several times in the Forties featured Superman in several cameos and just one actual illustrated adventure, the reality of those stories seemed absent from the heroes' solo features. Superman's universe effectively merged with that of Batman in 1952. The single biggest change came in the early Sixties when the Silver Age merged the fictional worlds of all of DC's major superheroes. But the advent of the Justice League, like the Justice Society before it, was not immediately mentioned in the characters' solo titles. Crossovers began in 1962 to establish the unified nature of the heroes' universes even in their own titles. This happened for Superman at a slow pace: A party for Superman in early 1964 had no Justice Leaguers besides Batman present. The other Justice Leaguers were first mentioned in a Superman title in July of that year. And the third and fourth appearances of characters from another "sandbox", besides Batman and Robin, on a cover of Superman came only in 1973, with the offbeat choices of Star Sapphire and Batgirl.
The Seventies, though, solidly asserted the relevance of the Justice League in Superman's world, and in so doing, gave major creative decisions a back door into Superman's titles that they had not previously had. Initially, Superman's physical supremacy over his allies was frequently implied and then vigorously asserted by Justice League #63, which opened the "versus" topic by stating that Superman could physically whip the entire Justice League (including Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman; Martian Manhunter was not present) at once. It went on to state neither Wonder Woman's lasso nor Green Lantern's ring alone could restrain Superman, but that in combination, they could. Soon, however, Green Lantern rings were getting the best of Superman, with guest Tomar-Re zapping Superman in JLA #80. Through the late Sixties and early Seventies, many new and existing DCU/JLA foes are shown outpunching Superman, and this now meant that Superman's rank among the strongest beings in his own universe was continuously lowered. Currently, DC comics have indicated that Superman is roughly on par (perhaps a bit stronger, perhaps a bit weaker) than a vast number of other leading characters. Whereas Superman began as easily the strongest being in his own universe, he is now matched or bested or tied by whole races, and may not be even the millionth-strongest being in his own universe.
One of the hallmarks of Superman is that he has certain stock weaknesses. This superhero trait began with the original Green Lantern's weakness to "non-metals", which he encountered unfortunately frequently. Over the years, Superman has acquired specific weaknesses to the effects of kryptonite (1943 on the radio; 1949 in comics), red sun (Action #262, 1960), and magic (Action #86, 1945). These weaknesses, like powerful rivals, play a precise role in the narrative, giving Superman an obstacle to overcome, which inherently introduces variety into the range of storylines. When this was not enough, red kryptonite was introduced, allowing an implausibly vast range of quirky plots. The importance of varying story templates is the focus of the next section.
The classic story formula – not just for Superman, but also for Western literature as a whole – is Situation, Complication, and Resolution. In Superman stories, this is most often realized as follows: The peace of Metropolis (or the Earth as a whole) is attacked by an enemy. Superman comes forth to end their evil ways. A common alternative is that the enemy is aware of Superman and begins by attacking him directly.
Superman stories tend to run several pages (once as few as twelve; now, over a hundred, in the form of multi-issue story arcs, is not uncommon). Superman essentially always wins, and he is defined, traditionally, as being capable of beating almost any enemy. Accordingly, some counter-complication has to happen to prevent Superman from winning on the first page.
Over the years, this has tended to consist of largely repetitive formulas which paradoxically have evolved over the years. A formula is used for years on end, then is discarded, and a new formula is used.
That template of story was mixed in with, and gradually replaced by, low-level mysteries. Superman would fight his way through some henchmen in one or two encounters before finally cornering his enemy. The key condition that enabled this was that Superman, though virtually invincible, was not omniscient. It was never asserted, as it later would be, that he could use his various sensory powers plus speed (plus little concern about invading the privacy of many innocents in order to catch the guilty) to scan large areas to find anyone he was looking for.
In the Fifties, there was a rise in stories where Superman was troubled by some sort of personal difficulty, often involving his secret identity or Lois's quest to marry him. From the Sixties to the present, the most common complication is that a foe has a way of besting Superman, despite his great powers. Many of the ways that this can happen have already been listed, but there are others: Superman is vulnerable to mind-reading, hypnosis, teleportation, threats to his friends and innocent bystanders, and countless science fiction constructs that infect, overpower, shrink, enlarge, zap, trap, or otherwise transform him. By and large, the default Superman plot has transformed into one that begins by emphasizing the limits of his power, and then the interest in the story shifts to how he overcomes that limit. Sometimes, this takes the format of a "Flash facts" story – Superman exploits one science law to beat his foe, and the issue thus becomes a mini-science text. Sometimes, Superman comes up with a clever tactic, or gets help from an ally. Sometimes, he seems simply to try harder in his third encounter with the villain than he did in the first two, summoning up just barely enough will power to win.
All told, the various degradations in Superman's relative powers and the increasingly challenging situations that he has faced can be seen as a way of renewing the creativity of the serial, allowing stories other than the repetitive stories of his initial year. However, these plot devices have themselves often become repetitive. A year's worth of stories in which Superman always solves a problem on the second-to-last page is no more or less formulaic than a year's worth of stories in which he always wins on every page.
Superman began as a supremely self-confident individual, bold, egotistical, and prone to boast, even gloat. He, like DC's next three heroes, was also a vigilante, working as a fugitive and at times almost as an anarchist. He resembled Frank Miller's Batman more than he resembled most later versions of Superman. When the comic genre as a whole lightened in tone, Superman naturally lightened with it, but his good nature remained even when the world around him became more complex in the Sixties and onward. Superman became the "Big Blue Boy Scout", at home in one-page promotional spots where he lectured kids on good values. His level of confidence and ego has generally wavered between the Sixties and the present. While, in the Fifties, Superman had not much personality at all, he now has essentially no personality at all. While he of course remains a heroic figure, the details of his values vary sharply from writer to writer.
As the tone of Superman stories changed over the years, embedding a long "nice" period between his rougher first year and the darker Sixties, Superman's personality developed accordingly. In the Fifties, all DC superheroes had much the same personality: They were happy and optimistic when things went well, temporarily glum but still optimistic when things weren't going well; they were upset by setbacks, but never angry.
As the publisher aimed for older readers, and mindful of the competition from Marvel Comics, DC had their superheroes begin to grow up in the Sixties and Seventies. In this new era, one could say that the Flash, Superman, Batman, and Green Arrow definitely had different personalities from one another. One can say that the industry grew up, replacing one-dimensional characters with more realistic, more "literary" characters, the basis of richer stories, more deserving of mature readers' attention.
To an extent this is true, but the character development has gone only so far, and is probably no more than one finds in "young adult" literature, aimed at teens. While stories are sometimes quite complex, they tend to be complex in a science fiction way, not like classics of literature. And, fair enough – they are churned out and mass-produced. In most media, serials and classics are distinct. Moreover, the "hero" genre excludes some of the range of personality from the creative palette: if a set of characters have to be heroic, then there is quite a bit that they cannot be.
The most problematic nature of Superman's characterization is how it has ended up so malleable as to have no solid core. Superman is the property of no single writing team, and in any given decade dozens of writers get their shot at him.
While certain values – of course, his goodness, heroism, and resolve – are relatively fixed, Superman has not become a well-developed character because different writers manipulate his finer points to make their stories work, leaving Superman with no real core.
For example, 2002's eight-issue crossover story Ending Battle climaxed with Superman refusing to kill Manchester Black even when he believed that Black had brutally murdered Lois Lane. Less than two years later, that value was affirmed when Superman said of the prospect of willingly killing a foe, "Never for me. Superman doesn't kill. He has too much control. He'd never make that kind of mistake."
But a year later, the Sacrifice crossover contradicted this by showing a Superman who was willing to kill Brainiac and other powerful foes when confronted with the same illusion that Manchester Black had shown him. The second story, a lead-in to Infinite Crisis, changed this value of Superman's for the sake of making the plot go where it needed to go. Even in this regard, the handiwork was careless: In order to make Superman a dangerous menace in the hands of Max Lord, it was only necessary to make him perform ruthless aggression while believing that he was responding appropriately. Sacrifice could have achieved the same thing by having Superman fight (nonlethally) opponents like Darkseid and Doomsday. In fact, he could unwillingly dole out lethal force while thinking that he was dismantling a bridge, or moving a pile of gravel. The writers and editors of 2005's story could have kept Superman consistent with his 2002 characterization simply by telling the story in that way. What were sacrificed was not the life of a fictional character or the reputation of Wonder Woman, but the creative values of consistent characterization.
Who Took The Dollars Out of Superman?
A simple display, and at first glance a shocking one. Here are the monthly sales of the Superman title from 1946 until the present. There are some factors that make this display somewhat misleading, but before we discuss these, take in the gestalt of this graph. It is a bleak state of affairs. Issue-for-issue sales have dropped as much as 98% over the past 65 years. This is a complete collapse.
Now, before looking for decades' worth of scapegoats, we should note the factors that led to the greatest part of that decline. First and foremost, the comic medium has faced increasing competition from other forms of entertainment. In 1946, printed reading material faced no competition from television or video games. As time passed, more entertainment options (besides playing outside) have emerged, and the decline seen overall in Superman sales can be seen in virtually any single entertainment channel when viewed over a run of decades.
In addition, the number of Superman titles per year has fluctuated. The frequency of publication for Action and Superman has varied, the number of other solo titles and titles containing Superman features has varied, and his team-up titles have also varied.
That said, the tale is still profoundly negative when we allow for the uncontrollable factors. If we compare Superman sales to a baseline comprised of four other DC titles (JLA, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and Flash), we see a pronounced drop in stature as the years have gone by. In the Sixties, Superman's two titles, in terms of monthly per-titles sales, had 267% the sales of that baseline group. In the period from 2000-2008, Superman's fell to 102% of that baseline. Things have gotten far worse in the past three years, with Superman often absent from his own titles. From 2009 to 2011 Superman is down to 66% of the baseline.
Lest one believes that this collapse was somehow inevitable, or attributes this relative decline to the resurgence of JLA and Green Lantern, we can use Batman as a comparison. While Batman sales, relative to those four baseline titles, plunged from the Sixties to 1980 (in large part due to the loss of the bump that Batman comics experiences when the television show aired from 1966-1968), they subsequently rose, and have remained well above the baseline.
In a nutshell, one or many adverse factors have impacted Superman's popularity between 1980 and the mid-Nineties; in the same time frame, Batman's popularity surged, and then leveled off.
Given all of the ways in which Superman has trended over the years, largely by creative choice downward, which ones track the relative decline in sales?
Sheer physical power? No. Though I do not have data to track this, by all accounts Superman's sales did well for a decade after the Byrne reboot depowered him. Moreover, Superman's powers have been boosted over most of the last fifteen years, but his sales have dropped while his raw physical power has increased. Likewise, the de-emphasis of "Kal-El" and even the Superman persona relative to that of Clark Kent does not track the sales data. The most emphatic statement that the character really is Clark, not a Kryptonian superhero, came in Man of Steel #6 in 1986. The major sales collapse has come more recently.
Is it the tone of the stories? Superman's relationships? No – the darkest eras of Superman stories have sold just fine, and so have the lightest in tone. Bringing the Kents back to life did not hurt Superman sales. It is possible that his marriage to Lois Lane has been a contributing factor in decreasing interest, but that event happened in one issue, long ago, and Superman's sales have fluctuated both up and down since that time; if it has hurt interest by making Superman less macho, there's no real way to test that, and clearly the biggest fall in Superman sales happened well after the marriage.
Is it the increasing extent to which Superman has lost his initial encounters with enemies who match his power? Possibly. While Superman had glorious sales when this rarity became a cliché in the Sixties, it is interesting to track how consistently there has been an increase in the incidence of Superman being weaker when he first encounters an opponent. Taking as a sample the first page where Superman goes into action for one issue of Superman for each year, I coded his physical and personality traits as displayed in that page, counting the number of panels showing him at a physical advantage, or disadvantage, the number of panels in which he expresses confidence versus doubt or confusion, and so on. Then Superman's physical and personality toughness can be calculated by the number of "tough" traits shown versus the overall number of tough and weak traits. The following graph (click to enlarge) shows how those have tracked over the eras of Superman's history.
Some items of note: Superman was physically most dominant in the Fifties, with his battle outcomes declining sharply as his foes grew stronger in the following decades. Both his physical and personality dominance escalated in the Byrne era, despite his literal power-down: The self-doubt of the late Bronze Age was removed and replaced with a touch of farm boy disorientation but a larger helping of determination and confidence. And while Superman's personality was at a low in the late Nineties, his confidence rebounded in the 2000s.
However, one quantity that has steadily declined is the number of fights that begin with Superman taking a beating, with his victories just as inevitable by story's end, but those victories come later. In part, this is a reflection of stories that span multiple issues. In the 2000s as in the Fifties, Superman must struggle in the "Complication" phase of the story, but now that lasts much longer, potentially more than one issue. Page per page, Superman spends more time losing than he used to.
In my view, the greatest source of Superman's decline, though there are many to point to, has come from his relative decline in the DC Universe as a whole. His absolute power-down in the Eighties still left him more physically powerful than during the early years of the era of his uncontested dominance from 1938-1963. But as the post-Crisis era has gone on, Superman has encountered more and more situations where he is physically outclassed by recurring characters.
Consider Superman's first appearance in each JSA/JLA team series. In his only JSA adventure, he won an easy victory. In his first JLA action in 1960, he arrived at the end to mop up. In his first JLA action in 1997, he was immediately taken prisoner, and remained a captive while Batman began defeating the enemy.
Consider Superman's appearance in a 1977 issue of Flash. The speedster, running from a powerful energy fist, ran to Metropolis and led the fist into the back of Clark Kent's head, where it splattered apart. Superman's appearance in Flash Rebirth showed Barry Allen insulting Superman as he left the Man of Steel in his dust.
Consider Superman's easy dominance over his JLA teammates in 1963, and consider Captain Marvel decking him with a sucker punch in 1997.
Consider Superman's 1977 appearance in Batman, where his powers allowed him to laugh his way through a faked physical defeat while wearing the Batman costume with Superman's appearance in later Batman stories such as Hush and Frank Miller's Dark Knight stories where Batman manages to use his tools to beat up Superman.
Consider Elseworlds where Superman is tortured and killed by Gog, or left by Lois Lane for being pathetic and self-pitying when he loses his powers.
Heat flows from a warm body to a cold body. And DC writers, when they have another character's success to call their own, routinely use Superman as a punching bag to demonstrate that the other character is worthy of esteem. In many cases, as with Martian Manhunter, whatever is lost in Superman's stature is certainly not being made up for with the minor character's sales.
There was a time when Superman's name appeared on the company logo: "DC", "National", and "Superman" shared the billing. There was no question that he was the company's flagship character, distinctly above Batman, and incomparably above any other series. Since then, particularly in the past 15 years, Superman has been used like a bank, with creators making withdrawals from Superman and investing them in other characters. Sometimes, as with Batman, the loans pay back. Sometimes, as with the Martian Manhunter, the loans disappear. These unrepaid loans have spent Superman down out of flagship status, still strong in merchandising, but in comic sales, distinctly trailing Batman and Justice League, of late trailing Green Lantern, perhaps on trend to sink below the Flash. And that is how it stands coming into September 2011, with a new Superman #1 and a new Action #1 going on sale. It is up to the creators to decide whether there will be a #1 inside those issues or only on the covers.