This article contains some spoilers for DC Universe: Rebirth and recent Superman comics.
It has been nearly a year since the release of DC Universe: Rebirth, an 80 page special tasked with relaunching the company’s entire line of superhero comics and making them feel like, well, DC Comics again. While Rebirth wasn’t intended strictly as a reset of the poorly-received New 52, the central concept, that something altered reality so that certain relationships were altered and others forgotten entirely, was loose enough to keep the “good lord, DC is rebooting again” howls down to a low roar, and effective enough as a mission statement to get fans (like this writer) who were frustrated by the tonal drift of the previous years back on board.
While nearly every Rebirth book offered an easy jumping-on point for new (or old) readers, there was still one major problem: Superman.
Superman was one of the most drastically changed characters by the New 52. In 2011’s Action Comics #1, Grant Morrison and Rags Morales gave him a new origin, hearkening back to the character’s late ‘30s social justice roots, as a jeans and t-shirt working class champion. While in the rest of DC’s line, all set five years later, he was a fully-fledged superhero, wearing an awkward new costume with a high collar, and fighting a mostly new assortment of sci-fi menaces.
Morrison and Morales’ excellent start on Action Comics was quickly marred by uneven fill-in art and an overambitious, rushed conclusion that, while interesting, did little to connect the dots with the rest of the DCU or answer additional lingering questions about Superman’s new history. The character floundered throughout the New 52 era, and despite a parade of excellent creative teams (in addition to Morrison/Morales, we had Scott Snyder/Jim Lee, Geoff Johns/John Romita Jr., and Greg Pak/Aaron Kuder all trying their best), this slightly angrier, more alien Supes never really felt like DC’s flagship hero.
I’m generally of the opinion that continuity is a tedious, often unnecessary hobgoblin of the comic fan’s mind, but Superman’s problems could be seen as a microcosm of what was wrong with the New 52. Superman clearly had a fresh start, but others didn’t. For example, Batman and his endless parade of sidekicks carried on as they always had. But Supes? Well, that was trickier. His marriage to Lois Lane was erased and it was never satisfactorily explained as to whether or not he had ever fought Doomsday, died, and returned. Other elements of his history were equally murky, since they never bothered filling in that five year gap between his jeans and t-shirt days and when he met the Justice League.
Adding to the confusion was the revelation that the Lois Lane and Clark Kent from the pre-Flashpoint DCU were hiding out in the suburbs of the New 52, still married, and raising their young son, Jon Samuel Kent. Conveniently, just as Rebirth kicked off, the New 52 Superman evaporated in a burst of red energy, leaving our slightly older, wiser, and more recognizable Clark as the only Superman in town.
While most of DC’s Rebirth books have been easy to pick up from the first issue with a minimum of continuity baggage, the Superman titles remained tied to the central mystery of why the hell there were two Supermen and Lois Lanes in the first place. Complicating things even further (if you can believe that) was the fact that every superhero in the DCU was well aware that this Superman, the one so recognizably “real” to readers, wasn’t the same guy they had spent the last few years having adventures with. It made for some tortured exposition in every book he popped up in over the last year.
Well, I have good news. That’s all over now.
Those of you who wanted no part of the New 52, who got a headache just reading my abridged and simplified version of these events, and who just want to read some Superman comics again finally have their official Rebirth jumping on point. You can consider Action Comics #977 (which arrived two weeks ago) and this week’s Action Comics #978 an official starting point. You don’t even need to read the four part Superman Reborn story which preceded it (which involved the reality warping imp Mr. Mxyzptlk unintentionally causing the merging of both Supermen because…ummmm…just don’t worry about it).
Instead, Action Comics #977 picks up with Superman trying to get his own head straight since his reality and existence were altered by Mxyzptlk in Superman Reborn. As a result, he lets the crystal technology of the Fortress of Solitude tell him his origin story, and over the course of two issues, fans finally have all their questions answered. The official origin now contains elements of John Byrne’s 1986 Man of Steel, Mark Waid and Leinil Yu’s 2003 Birthright, and Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s 2009 Secret Origin, with a few additional pieces of inspiration from Superman: The Movie, Superman: The Animated Series, Smallville, and the 2013 Man of Steel film. Like so many of the rest of the Rebirth titles, it’s a kind of “greatest hits” version of the Superman mythology.
Now, all of the important moments of the pre-New 52 Superman continuity took place as we remember them (including Lois and Clark’s marriage, and Superman’s death and return) while certain elements of the New 52 continuity still happened, but to THIS (the “original”) Superman, not the New 52 version of the character. Additionally, when the Supermen merged, it altered reality in such a way that now the entire DCU only ever interacted with and experienced this Superman. The other one never existed.
Is it a cheat? Maybe. But who cares? Considering how exhausted fans are by endless storylines designed to explain away the migraine-inducing minutiae of comic book continuity, this is a refreshing approach, and one that can lure in new readers looking to get a sense of what Superman comics are about these days and old ones who want their old familiar Superman back.
Writer Dan Jurgens, of course, had a hand in some of those key Superman adventures of the 1990s, and he’s aided here by solid artwork from Ian Churchill and Carlo Barberi. If only DC didn’t insist on double shipping Action Comics (and so many of their other books, the only truly regrettable component of the Rebirth era), this story might have been better served with one artist handling both issues. I should be clear, this isn’t a knock on either artist, but since 977 and 978 serve as kind of one super-sized comic, it would have made sense to get one consistent art style throughout.
While you can certainly make a case that nobody ever needs to read or see Superman’s origin story in any form ever again, this was an unavoidable, and completely necessary step. These two issues of Action Comics boil down approximately 15 years of fictional history into two easily digestible comics, and in a relative handful of panels answer all of the questions that everyone has been dodging for nearly six years. But more importantly, for the first time in far too long, it feels like we have the real Superman back.
Mike Cecchini contains approximately as much Superman knowledge as a handful of Kryptonian crystals. He often babbles about Superman stuff on Twitter.