Spotlight Sunday 2.10.19
There was a lot to choose from this week, but the publication of a “lost” story means that there are spoilers ahead for…
“I was wrong. Ma and Pa were wrong. I can’t do this.”
Back in the Aughts, DC published a series called Superman Confidential, featuring story arcs by different creative teams that focused on telling untold tales of from different periods early in the career of the Man of Steel.
As explained in the foreword to this volume, then Editor-in-Chief approached Marv Wolfman in 2006 to tell one such tale.
Unfortunately, while the story was completed and ready to run, Superman Confidential was cancelled before the tale ever saw print, and so, as a story that didn’t really “fit” anywhere in the ever-shifting continuity, it languished, unused, for nearly a decade.
Ultimately, in this sort of free-for-all, anything goes era of continuity, the finished story was release from the vaults and repackaged in a single oversized volume rather than the four separate monthly issues it was originally created to be.
Honestly, the continuity problem really doesn’t seem like that much of a factor, as hewing to the established history hasn’t really been a priority for decades, but regardless, while the details might not have aligned with whatever was happening at the time – indeed, it doesn’t really fit with what was happening back in 2006 – the core themes and overall narrative have an applicability that are unconstrained by the need to mesh perfectly with what was considered canon.
With this story, Wolfman decided to focus on the earliest days of Clark Kent’s arrival in Metropolis, leading up to his public debut as Superman.
As an origin story, it doesn’t spend much time on the basic facts we already know – Doomed planet. Desperate scientist. Last hope. Kindly couple. – choosing instead to explore the false starts, missteps, and moments of doubt that Clark Kent experienced on the path to becoming the world’s greatest hero.
That said, the details do differ considerably from what was considered canon at the time – which was a mix of the story told in Byrne’s Man of Steel and Waid and Lu’s Superman: Birthright – as we find a young Clark of indeterminate age arriving in Metropolis directly from Smallville.
(It’s very unclear how old Clark is meant to be. Is he fresh out of high school? Out of college? He’s referred to as a “recent grad” a couple of times, but there’s no mention of any kind of post-secondary education, which seems…odd. I mean, no matter how confident you are in your abilities – and even when it comes to his super-abilities, Clark still lacks some confidence – it doesn’t seem likely that you’ll try to land a job as a reporter at one of the world’s most respected newspapers without at least an undergraduate degree.)
In Byrne’s telling, Clark travelled the world for years, operating in secret, before finally settling down in Metropolis, and it was his intention to keep his good works secret. That plan got derailed when there was a need for him to operate in plain sight, which ultimately led to putting on the cape and tights. Here, the intent was always for him to – eventually – make his existence known, complete with a colorful costume. Or, as Ma and Pa keep referring to it, a uniform, with the idea being that, much like the uniform a police officer or firefighter wears, it would serve as a visual clue to let people know that he’s there to help.
Throughout most of the story, the costume remains packed away, unworn, as Clark isn’t quite ready to take that step, and after a few missteps he becomes certain that he’ll never be ready and ships the costume back to Smallville.
I’m not going to dwell much on the specifics of the story itself, but, in the broad strokes, some terrorist organization is blowing up buildings in Metropolis, and there are calls for bringing in the National Guard and instituting martial law. That happens, but only leads to more explosions, and, ultimately, the city capitulates to the terrorists’ demands.
Shortly thereafter, Lex Luthor returns to Metropolis after a five-year absence, which leads to another, larger than ever attack, which forces Clark to operate openly, and which ultimately leads to the discovery that Lex was behind the whole thing, planning to use the attack as an opportunity to showcase the powerful new defense systems that Lexcorp would very much like to sell to the military.
Clark’s intervention in the attack outshines the contributions made by Lex’s defense systems, which, of course, adds a personal animosity towards the flying interloper on Lex’s part, and for Clark’s part, while he knows that Lex was behind it all, he can’t prove it, and so we end up with what has been the typical status quo for the past 30+ years.
I’m avoiding getting into the details of the story not because the story is bad; it’s not. It is, however, somewhat by-the-numbers, but that’s a deliberate choice, as the plot isn’t really the point of the story being told, and exists largely to serve as the engine that drives the real action, which is the story of how Clark Kent learns to be Superman while also learning how to be Clark Kent.
It’s an interesting notion, one that has always been there, but has never really been explored in depth or stated explicitly: when he became Superman, Clark Kent didn’t take on one new identity, he took on two. The Clark Kent who exists as the counterpart to Superman is, in many ways, a very different Clark than the one who existed before he put the cape on for the first time.
Marv Wolfman was involved in the relaunch of Superman back in 1986, contributing the idea of Lex Luthor as a billionaire tycoon, and, for a time, writing Adventures of Superman, the new series that launched alongside Byrne’s Superman and Action, and which took on the numbering of the original Superman series.
Part of Marv’s Luthor concept, per Byrne, involved Lois being his girlfriend, and – according to Byrne – being something of a capricious power groupie who dumps Lex as soon as someone more powerful comes along. In the stories that saw print, the relationship between Lex and Lois was a bit more complex and one-sided, with Lex doggedly pursuing Lois, and Lois mostly blowing him off.
Here, there is talk of Lois and Lex having dated in the past, but the capricious groupie angle is, mercifully, absent.
I judge the quality of most Superman stories on how well they handle Lois, and in that regard, this story works well, with Marv working to show what it is about this particular LL that captures Superman’s attention.
For a big part of the story, Lois is something of an unseen presence, mentioned in either reverent tones, or derisively by jealous – male, of course – colleagues who speculate that her success as a reporter and her access to sources have more to do with her legs than her legwork.
For his part, sight unseen, Clark develops a respect for Lois based on what he sees of her work and what he overhears said about her, and develops a positive point of view when it comes to Lois Lane. He was not, however, prepared for the actual view of Lois Lane.
While Clark had been thinking about moving on – he had bungled some things and thought for certain that coming to Metropolis was the biggest mistake he ever made – Lois proves to be the key to keeping him there. Not just because she’s beautiful – though that doesn’t hurt – but because he realizes that she’s the person who can win the people of the city over and realize that he’s there to help.
The bungling he did led to a “flying man” getting spotted and becoming associated with the terrorist bombings in a way that led people to think that he might be behind them. Lois, with her strong instincts, wasn’t so sure. As he listens in on some discussions between Luthor and his assistant, he starts putting some of the pieces together and brings what he has to Lois, who says she will look into it, and, if it pans out – and he can write – she’ll help him land a job at the Planet.
While she ends up not being able to definitively prove Lex’s guilt, she does get a story out of it, and she’s impressed by the story Clark brings her – an interview with the flying man – and is true to her word.
This is a major reworking of the Lois and Clark dynamic that Byrne established, with Lois hating – but respecting – Clark after he scoops her with the Superman interview. Here, the dynamic is one of friendly(ish) competition, with Lois relishing the idea of having someone around who’s (almost) as good as she is to serve as the inspiration to drive her to be even better.
With all the pieces in place, all that’s left is for the flying man to get a proper name.
In his foreword, Marv talks about wanting to explore some ideas about Superman that he’s never seen anyone tackle, though he notes that in the years since he wrote it, as is the nature of the business, other writers have done so, albeit in very different ways (which is also the nature of the business).
As mentioned, there is the exploration of the idea of creating two new identities, which builds on the experience we all have of moving into adulthood and figuring out who we are and where we fit in while adding some super-complications to the mix, but there’s another element that I particularly liked: a deeper dive into why Clark wanted to be a reporter.
The standard explanation has always been that working for a major metropolitan newspaper allowed him to be close to the action, to have his finger on the pulse of what’s happening and to determine where he’s needed. That’s still there, but Marv adds another detail that I found interesting.
While they help him with some of his information-gathering, and the speed at which he can complete assignments, his powers don’t really give him any advantages as a writer. Super strength and the ability to fly don’t really contribute much of anything to formulating ideas, to finding the emotional core of a story, or putting the words together. It’s the one profession in which, to some extent, at least, he’s forced to struggle just like any other mere mortal.
It’s a neat idea, and one that I don’t know that I’ve encountered before.
There’s not a lot for me to say about the art that the images I’ve included don’t say for themselves. It’s beautiful work, with clean lines and dynamic action and a good storytelling flow. The comic is rounded out with a few pieces of commissioned work from Castellini.
Marv refers to this as the best Superman story he’s ever written. If I were to argue against that it would only be because Marv has written a lot of great Superman stories over the years.
Whether or not this is the best, I’m glad that after years of being “lost” it’s finally been found.
(Also, the Mister Miracle trade comes out this week. After you buy some stuff by Marv, you can use the handy search field above to find and buy that, too. Just sayin’.)