Some free flowing thoughts about Superman's origins, how it changes along time, and why

Our esteemed Jeff recently created a thread in this forum about Superman's books and various noteworthy creators since around the time of Crisis on Infinite Earths.

It is a fine thread, but it has its own goals and flow.  And it spurred in me the willingness to discuss a somewhat tangential subject matter: the way in which Superman's perception, and specifically his in-universe origins,vary along time and to some extent indicate and even spearhead trends in society, in comics, and in DC Comics.

The thing about Superman is that he is a genuine icon.  People who can't even name Marvel and DC will still know of him and have a fairly good idea of who he is and at least the rought outlines of what is his deal and what he stands for.  Not too other many real or fictional entities have lasted for over eighty years while also achieving that mark.

Meanwhile, the world around Superman certainly changes, both in-universe and in this consensual reality that is external to him. 

I sometimes like to look at comicbook cover galleries because they are, in effect, one-panel glimpses of the passage of time and cultural perceptions along the years in steps of a month.  A similar insight may perhaps be obtained by outlining the historical progression of Superman origin stories and how they were presented and received.

In Jeff's thread he points out himself that there were several new origin stories for Superman since 1986's "Man of Steel" by John Byrne, and that DC has an apparent need to frequently redefine the character that will make it unlikely for a lasting mythos such as those of previous eras to ever develop again.

That is probably true and may well have been unavoidable.  So, what can we learn and perhaps discern from a list of those origin tales?

First of all, probably that there are far more of them than one would assume.  There is an article at the DC Comics fandom wiki that, at the time of this writing, shows two different lists adding to eighteen entries in all.  I don't particularly agree with those specific lists (I don't think that DC Presents #29 should be considered a Superman Origin issue, for instance) but the article is certainly informative and a fine starting point.

One thing that springs to mind is how varied the circunstances around those various new origin stories are indeed.

Early Superman had hardly any mythos at all and, as a matter of fact, was reimagined perhaps literally in his first published story.  The original Superman had mental powers as opposed to physical ones, if my information is correct, but that is not the character eventually published in Action Comics #1 back in 1938. As a matter of fact, that character was very much a work in progress for a long time.  His powers and even personality took their time to settle down and develop a recognizable continuity.

Still, settle down they did, and soon enough Superman became quite the remarkable part of the history of comics.  His origin, personality and powers were redefined fairly often, sometimes with little to no fanfare, other times with a lot of publicity.

Take for instance Krypton itself and Superman's parents Jor-El and Lara. The earlier tales barely mention them and most of their actual appearances happen in some form or another of continuity insert.  Even their names are in flux for a surprising long time: as best as I figure it, by the time that they were given full panel appearances (in a Superboy story published in 1945's "More Fun Comics" #101) they were actually the Earth-One versions.  Earth-Two Jor-L (different spelling) and his wife Lara (sometimes Lora) may have only been shown in 1948's Superman #53.

Later revisions include Action Comics #158 (1951), which attempts to reconcile (and retcon) the divergences about Superman's parents.  Most of it was subtly retconned away itself when the concepts of Earth-One and Earth-two eventually took root.  1961's Superman #146 has a cover that draws a lot of attention to his brief history in Krypton and may have been the first consolidated telling of what came to be known as the origin of Earth-One Superman.  Interestingly, technically his first published appearance was as Superboy in the 1945 More Fun Comics #101 story; that Superboy retroactively switched Earths at some point between 1951 and 1961.

For most of the 1960s and 1970s up until Crisis on Infinite Earths and Man of Steel Superman's origins and particularly his connections to Krypton were more expanded than revised as such.  Fond as I am of those elements, they _did_ become unwieldly. 

As of 1985 Superman had two exact look-alikes living in the then-expanded city of Kandor.  One of them was in fact his cousin Don-El.  Superman also had connections to the timeline of Kamandi, to the Legion of Super-Heroes, was a founding member of the Justice League of America, and an even earlier regular partner of Batman. There was a whole Superman Emergency Squad of Kandorians available to his beck and call for much of that time, and another considerably long time range also gave him access to a number of robot duplicates with as much or as little autonomy, personality and reliability as any story might require.  Oh, and he was also capable of travelling through time at will and his invulnerability was taken for granted to such an extent that in 1979's DC Comics Presents #13 the Legion of Super-Heroes is more worried about his anger than about the whole alien armada that at one point fires on him at the same time.  In that scene it is a big deal that Superman is actually pained by the onslaught.  The legionnaires simply wait for the firing to stop and then rescue Superman; there was never any doubt that he would fully recover in just a few minutes.

Later pre-Crisis stories such as Superman Annual #10 (1984) were on the very edge of declaring him a fundamental feature of the universe itself, in this case by linking him to a mysterious Sword of Superman that dated back to the origin of the Universe.    I will always have a soft spot for Silver Age Superman, but by that point it was just way too much.

So, yes, some form of toning down was indeed necessary if DC was supposed to keep creating and publishing new stories with Superman as a main character.

That came in the form of Crisis on Infinite Earths, which affected Superman by establishing that Earth-Two Superman was in a form of exile in a marvelous pocket universe, left Earth-One Superman's ultimate fate open, and then gave way for John Byrne's Man of Steel reboot, soon followed by a whole new Superman continuity - actually the first time that such a reboot came clean and overt.

I just don't think that the elements that Byrne chose to focus on were very compatible with my own personal tastes. Jettisoning nearly all of Krypton and all of the LSH, making what little we saw of it sterile and inhuman, and positioning Superman as something of a humble rube with a subservient attitude to Batman - that all was just not appealling to me.

Still, there was a lot indeed of publicity and fanfare involved. It certainly brought attention back to a character that people may have taken for granted for too long by that point.  And it lasted up until 2003's "Birthright" by Mark Waid, which seems to have been a soft, discreet reboot of Superman and his past, as well as an early stance of DC's overall repositioning of its main characters circa 2005 by way of a melange of miniseries centered around Infinity Crisis.

Man of Steel and Birthright make an interesting pair to compare and contrast.  Their missions, their reasons for being, are very similar in some senses and so much unlike each other in others.  Man of Steel made the mainstream news worldwide.  Birthright may not have been even the main Mark Waid project at DC Comics in 2003.  While both series were a departure from previously existing Superman continuity and the establishing of a new take on his mythos, Man of Steel was very visible while Birthright was gentle and for the most part wanted to go unnoticed.

That was largely a reflection of changes in the market and in editorial policy.  Between the two reimaginings were the 1990s comics insanity, the speculator bubble and its bursting.  By 2003 comics were much more aware of other media and attempted to piggyback on them whenever possible.  In Superman's case, that meant awareness of the Smallville TV series that debuted in 2001, and possibly some early interest in the eventual "Superman Returns" movie of 2006.  Also, continuity was not only a lower priority at that time, but also headed towards an explicit flexibilization put on panel in the Infinity Crisis series.

We have had other new takes on Superman origins since.  Some of them seem to have always been meant as alternate universes, some seem to be intentionally ambiguous.  Those include Frank Miller's "Superman: Year One", which was published under the Black Label imprint as recently as in 2019 and which I have to assume to not be canon, as well as Geoff Johns' "Secret Origin" in 2009 and Max Landis "American Alien" in 2016.

I am honestly not sure whether DC even wants a clear canon to exist at present.  It is a very continuity-flexible publisher these days, what with the various licensed animated and live action movies and series that aren't even attempting to feature consistent takes on their main characters.

I think that it was Kurt Busiek who said (during his Superman runs) that interest in various aspects of Superman's mythos may run in cycles.  I have to agree.  It is probably fair and unavoidable that aspects of the character that are not entirely a part of his core will gain and lose significance as years and decades pass.  Superman may be presented as an very lonely orphan and sole survivor of a whole planet, as the loved son of two families in two different cultures, or anything in between.  Similarly, his alien origins and his utter dedication at protecting and inspiring the best in humanity are elements that may create an inner tension or rise and vanish as the creative convenience wants.  Same with the exact origins, nature and reach of his powers.  One of the reasons why the character has lasted for so long is because its concept is complex yet adaptable.  Not entirely unlike Doctor Who, it can adjust itself to the mindsets of each time period with considerable ease, albeit at the cost of a measure of departure from previous setups and continuity.  Superman may well be best used and best served by having a fluid, often unespecific nature and origin.

Have you read Birthright or any of the other more recent reinventions of Superman? Would you have some thoughts on them that you might want to share here with us?

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I really enjoyed Secret Origin (even if the title is a kind of fannish joke. Not much secret about that origin). Johns, Gary Frank, and John Sibal did a good, if Silver Agesque version of reconciling different incarnations and allowing fans to imagine their favorite stories might be in play, canonically speaking. It had flaws, but it was good enough that DC felt the need to drop it a short time later and tinker with everything again.

I reviewed it in a couple of places at the time, and included an incarnations of Superman chart at the end.

"Our esteemed Jeff..."


" has its own goals and flow."

That's charitable of you to say. The phrase "by the seat of his pants" comes to mind.)

"...the way in which Superman's perception, and specifically his in-universe origins, vary along time and to some extent indicate and even spearhead trends in society, in comics, and in DC Comics."

Very ambitious.

"The thing about Superman is that he is a genuine icon."

When I was in college, I conducted an informal and unscientific poll of non-comics readers to see how many of them knew super-heroes' secret identities. (This was in the '80s.) Few knew Peter Parker, some knew Bruce Wayne, but virtually everyone knew Clark Kent (and quite a few could name Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen as well). 

"A similar insight may perhaps be obtained by outlining the historical progression of Superman origin stories and how they were presented and received."

Nice thesis.

"Take for instance Krypton itself and Superman's parents Jor-El and Lara."

For a long time I didn't buy that such an advanced and super-scientific society as Krypton's could deny Jor-El's pronouncement that "Krypton is doomed." With climate change deniers, I get it now.

"...John Byrne's Man of Steel reboot, soon followed by a whole new Superman continuity"

As it turned out, that is exactly what happened. But I don't think that was necessarily the intention (at least, that is not the way DC spun it at the time IIRC). Here's the way i remember it: DC gave Superman (and Batman) a new origin story, with the intention that most (or at least many) of the pre-Crisis stories would remain intact. In John Byrne's Superman, there was a "gap" of unspecified length (approximately "10 years") between Man of Steel #6 and Superman #1 during which the pre-Crisis stories were to have taken place. Over the course of time, as pre-Crisis character after character was reintroduced post-Crisis, pre-Crisis story after story was removed from continuity, leaving only the Justice League stories (more or less) intact.

SIDEBAR: The JLA stories are problematical because Wonder Woman was given a new contemporary origin, and the LSH stories are problematical because of the elimination of Superboy from post-Crisis continuity. [I personally think the "Pocket Universe" story is one of the most imaginative innovations of the immediate post-Crisis universe.] Batman was affected, too, as circus performer Jason Todd became street urchin Jason Todd.

BIRTHRIGHT: "Soft, discreet reboot" is about as concise a three-word description of Birthright as I could imagine. Mark Waid is one of my favorite comic book writers, but I have read Birthright twice (once on a month-by-month basis, then all together after it was complete) and I didn't care for it either time. I have been wrestling with whether or not to incl;ude a "Superman's Pal, Mark Waid" entry in my Superman discussion, but I generally reread series before I post about them, and I have no desire to read it a third time. Thanks for saving me the trouble. I'll say what I have to say here (with the caveat that I haven't actually read it in 15 years). 

If I had to describe Birthright in one word, that word would be "unnecessary." As far as I was (and am) concerned, Birthright was unnecessary because John Byrne's reboot was still in effect.  I read an interview with Mark Waid (this would have been years after the fact of Birthright) in which he revealed he was specifically instructed not to take Byrne's continuity into account and just come up with his own story. In that respect, Birthright reminds me a bit of The Last Days of the Justice Society of America, in which Roy Thomas was tasked with taking the JSA off the board. I didn't like the idea in either case, but viewed as an assignment, the stories become more palatable. Perhaps I should read Birthright again. 

"Have you read Birthright or any of the other more recent reinventions of Superman? Would you have some thoughts on them that you might want to share here with us?"

Glad you asked, Luis! You mention three other reboots I have been struggling with whether or not to include in my "Superman's Pals" discussion.

SECRET ORIGIN: This is the first reboot beyond Byrne's I have accepted as canon. After 20+ years, it was time but, as much as I enjoyed it, it didn't remain canon for long. It did lead to the best (or certainly my favorite) version of the LSH in the 21st century. It hasn't been all that long since I last reread it, though.

AMERICAN ALIEN: Very different. I don't know if this one was ever "in continuity," or just a different way of looking at things. We had a good discussion of this series while it was current, but I don't think I'm ready to reread this one, either. 

SUPERMAN: YEAR ONE: I look at this one as the definitive origin of the Superman of Frank Miller's "Dark Knight" universe. that's really all I have to say about it. I posted my thoughts on this one as it was released, so thank you for taking this one off my "reread" plate as well. 

"I am honestly not sure whether DC even wants a clear canon to exist at present."

Comics is often described as "modern mythology" and, in that sense, classic myths were often contradictory. Does Superman even "need" an origin story at this point? Did he ever?

"...various aspects of Superman's mythos may run in cycles."

Superman is the "sole survivor of the planet Krypton." Then his cousin shows up. then his dog. Then a passel of villains. Then a whole damn city. this cycle has played out again and again. (Details available upon request.) 

Good job, Luis! Very well thought-out and well-considered!

One important source of Superman's origin was the 1942 novel Adventures of Superman by George Lowther which focused on Krypton in more detail for the first time. He changed "Jor-L & Lora" to "Jor-El & Lara".

He also named the Kents "Eben & Sarah" which was also in the first episode of "The Adventures of Superman" (1952) where Jor-El raided Flash Gordon's closet!

Hmm, that is certainly new information to me.  Thanks, Philip!

Thanks to you too, Jeff and JD, for your input.

I always found it interesting how virtually everything that was done away with in Crisis on Infinite Earths  has been brought back in one form or another.

I suppose because Superman and his supporting cast don't age, the character has had to be revised periodically.  We don't know how long a Kryptonian might live, but if they had aged normally starring in 1938, then Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White and Lex Luthor would all be either dead or extremely elderly by now.  A Superman who'd outlived three or four "supporting casts" would make for an interesting story.  Jimmy Olsen could easily have an adult great-granddaughter by 2021.

I thought Eben and Sarah originated in the radio show …?

I think DC is determined to provide every generations with its own version of Superman corresponding to their own respective golden age. (Consequently, if John Byrne's Man of Steel is my Superman, then my "golden age" is 22.) 

SUPERMAN FOR ALL SEASONS: This series doesn't contradict Man of Steel so much as it complements and enhances it; it could easily be the Superman of someone's golden age. Back in the early 2Ks, we had a good friend who was a huge fan of the Smallville television show. When the movie Superman Returns was announced, I remember she was incensed that it didn't feature Tom Welling and the cast of Smallville. I tried to explain that the upcoming movie didn't have anything to do with the television show to no avail. I pointed out that, had a Superman movie been based on Smallville, it would have meant the end of the TV series as it would have violated the show's "no flights, no tights" concept. To illustrate my point (of different continuities), I loaned her my collection of Superman for All Seasons but it was returned unread. SIGH

ALL-STAR SUPERMAN: If Superman for All Seasons is the best Superman project of the '90s (and it is), the Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman is the best of the 21st century (so far). I think in many ways All-Star Superman is the perfect bookend to Superman for All Seasons, but I am reluctant to reread it today because I just ordered the deluxe edition, and if I reread the series today, I probably won't be in the mood to read the collection in January. But this thread is about Superman's origins, and Morrison/Quitely distilled it to its essence in four "widescreen" panels on the very first page:

"Doomed Planet"

"Desperate Scientists"

"Last Hope"

"Kindly Couple"

DOOMSDAY CLOCK: To return to the original premise of this thread, if DC strives to provide each new generation with its own version of Superman, so too do fans desire an "in-story" explanation for the "reset button" being pushed, be it a "crisis" or a "flashpoint" or "the pounding of Superboy's fists."  the most recent such explanation (I think) has been Doomsday Clock, Geoff Johns' and Gary Franks' mash-up of the DCU with Moore & Gibbons' Watchmen. I read that entire series once, as it was released, but because the 12 issues were spread out over the course of three years, it bears rereading.

Perhaps I'll do that now. 

Not being a regular Superman reader since the Weisinger and Schwartz days, I only experience Superman in special events like "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow", "Superman for All Seasons", "Doomsday Clock", the movies and TV shows and these discussions. 

When I saw Superman Returns I was puzzled that he "went to visit Krypton." The other day there was something about identifying a star that had exploded in real life as a suggested location for Rao. Since when did the star explode? That takes the scientists' screw-up out of the story! These are pretty drastic differences. What is the current version?

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