“What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, & The American Way?” by Joe Kelly, Doug Mahnke, and Lee Bermejo
It’s impossible to discuss this particular issue of Action Comics now without also discussing Man of Steel, so if you’re one of the many (myself included) that found themselves often exhausted and profoundly aggravated this summer from people arguing about it, best turn back now…
Here’s the thing—Action Comics #775 is one of the greatest Superman stories of all time, and yet very much a product of the time it was created. An overt and unapologetic response to both comics fans and comics creators who theorized that in the wake of books like The Authority, whose specialty was a more realistic, modern vision of superheroes, a character like Superman had been effectively rendered obsolete and jettisoned far away from the pulse of present day society. From this point on, people would demand that their heroes be willing to do whatever it takes to protect innocent people, and always be ready to say super cool shit while they were doing it.
Now, I LOVE The Authority and whote at length about why many moons ago, but I also loved Joe Kelly and company’s contribution to the larger discussion about how superhero comics were supposed to look and feel in the twenty-first century. Some considered this story to be a passionate indictment and repudiation of the harsher elements that were grabbing superhero fans by the throat, but I never approached them or appreciated either of them in such binary terms. There was room in my brain (and heart, I guess) to accept both the perspective of The Authority, and the committed response of Action Comics #775, without either of them rendering the other invalid or essentially wrong.
And even though it’s dealing with the same characters and similar set-ups, I feel the exact same way about this issue of Action, and Man of Steel. You could argue that the characters are almost two entirely different personas altogether, and for some, that’s the essential problem. Joe Kelly’s comics-based Superman is particularly earnest, confident, and moral, refusing to stoop to his opponents’ base level instincts, even though he pulls a mean fake-out to show he’s just as capable of taking people apart. His refusal is what makes him different from everyone else, and the example that other superheroes look up to. He says stuff like—
“Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us. And on my soul, I swear…until my dream of a world where dignity, honor and justice becomes the reality we all share
—I’ll never stop fighting.
Which is the greatest string of dialogue in the entire book, and there are plenty to choose from. Superman is a character that’s existed forever and endured a number of contradictory developments and moments that don’t quite match up with what we get in this particular story, but so what? Such is the inherent nature of superhero comics and their relative inability to permanently alter aspects of their central characters. They won’t change. They can’t change. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t still say interesting things, or defend themselves when necessary. That’s what Action Comics #775 boils down to with all its greatness—a forceful defense of a character that has endured decades, and will endure even more. A survivor in every relevant sense of the word.
So that’s why I can’t subscribe to the notion that this one movie with the controversial ending has single-handedly “ruined” Superman for past, present, and future generations. I think that there’s a great story in a Superman that takes a life when he thinks he has no other choice, but later learns that he might’ve had several. And I believe that’s always where it was going, though now when it does, the angry detractors can say it’s only in response to the “backlash.” The character has taken lives before, and as long as the aftermath of this perhaps rash decision is a huge point of emphasis going forward (and again, why even do it if it wasn’t gonna be) than I’m fine with it and can understand the rationale.
Someone who grew up with perfect parents in the Midwest, who arrives into adulthood with almost everything figured out and accounted for is not a protagonist that a modern movie audience is going to be interested in. At least not as the anchor of two potential billion dollar producing franchises. But you take a young man, who is technically an adult, but still very lost in the world, whose parents preached fear and suspicion over everything else, leaving our hero to learn the hard way that maybe they didn’t have all the answers, or they mistakenly put him on the wrong path? That’s a character people can plug into, and will enjoy watching develop further over the years, as he becomes the Superman that everyone knows and loves.
And ultimately, I can accept that without turning into that fan that’s screaming his head off that the movies are different from the comics/books? It’s ALWAYS different somehow, and it was a little naïve to think Superman would be the exception. Or that he would never be forced to change in a world that’s changing all the time around him. Really think they’re just taking the long way around, and that maybe in a couple years, we’ll have a cinematic version of him which shares a lot more in common with the confident, self-righteous one we get in Action Comics #775. But then again, maybe not, and I’ve given everyone too much credit, and we can hash this all out again in a couple years.
But right this moment, I can say without reservations that I enjoyed them both for different reasons, and believe wholeheartedly that both perspectives can co-exist. And that one does not fundamentally invalidate the other. The character of Superman (just like Batman) can endure differing viewpoints and perspectives, and you know what, I also believe wholeheartedly a lot of these fans can too…but I’ve been wrong before…
Previous Anatomy Lessons-
Brandon Thomas writes comics and writes about comics. He’s written stories for Dynamite, Marvel, DC, and Arcade Comics, and co-created The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury, with artist Lee Ferguson, which is available right now from Archaia in OGN format. His personal blog is The Fiction House, and his Twitter handle is @mirandamercury.