With the new Superman movie Man Of Steel barely a month from release, early interviews with the movie’s cast and crew are beginning to filter out. But in amongst the usual wearying discussions about the lead character’s perceived lack of relevance and how ‘dark’ the movie will be, one question has continually bubbled up: what specific comic books and creators have informed this latest incarnation of Superman?
Join us as we find out…
As with any character that has existed over many decades, Superman’s look, while laid out by his creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938, has evolved over the years. While Shuster’s take inarguably set the template for the Man of Steel, for many, the definitive visual portrayal of Superman is the one drawn by legendary artist, Curt Swan.
After a brief sojourn in the advertising world, Swan returned to comics in the early 50s and began to work regularly on the Superman stable of titles.
Drawing the Man of Steel until the mid-80s, Swan brought consistency, grace, but above all strength to the look of the character. As Man Of Steel director Zack Snyder himself said about Swan’s work, “The way he draws [Superman’s] jawline, it’s like Mount Rushmore”.
Both director Snyder and writer David S Goyer have previous when it comes to repurposing writer and artist Frank Miller’s material for the movie theater. In Snyder’s case, he successfully adapted Miller’s magnum opus 300 into a bracing action spectacle, while Goyer used many different elements of Miller’s work on Batman for The Dark Knight trilogy.
While his work on Superman is less lauded, Miller’s use of the Man of Steel is no less interesting. Certainly his depiction in both The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Again, if only from a visual point of view, sits firmly within the aesthetic that Snyder has established in the trailers and TV spots for Man Of Steel.
A kinetic man of action with no compunction in facing off against rival armies, nuclear weapons or rampaging outer space robots, Miller’s strong and decisive version of the character is a definite slap in the face to those who say that Superman’s default setting is one of whimsy and camp.
While the weight and solidity of Henry Cavill’s Superman undoubtedly owes a debt to both Curt Swan and Frank Miller, the design and look of this very 21st century Man of Steel is clearly far more in tune with the work of current DC Comics co-publisher, Jim Lee.
Arguably the most influential superhero artist of the last 25 years, with era-defining work on titles such as X-Men, WildC.A.T.S and Batman, it wasn’t until 2004’s Brian Azzarello penned For Tomorrow… arc that Lee properly engaged with Superman for the first time.
Clearly finding an affinity with the character, Lee has subsequently returned to draw the Man of Steel on several occasions, and in 2011 he not only redesigned Superman’s costume for the New 52 relaunch, but also drew the revamped character himself in the pages of DC’s Justice League.
Leaving that title after its first year, Lee is currently hard at work with writer Scott Snyder on a new ongoing Superman title, Superman Unchained, which will launch later this summer.
An artist of flair, muscularity and eye-catching design, Lee’s influence stretches beyond simply his work on Superman himself. His redesign of General Zod in For Tomorrow… has clearly been an influence on the armoured look of the various Kryptonians that populate this new movie, while Lee’s penchant for visually explosive action has undoubtedly informed the type of spectacle Snyder hopes to put on screen.
The Silver Age
The visuals apart, on a story level, writer David S Goyer has clearly drawn from the deep history of Superman’s back catalogue when writing the script for this new movie.
Possibly more so than in Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman: The Movie and its 1980 sequel, Superman II, one of the key strands in Man Of Steel appears to be Superman’s relationship to the planet Krypton. However, in contrast to the austere and crystalline version seen in that story, Goyer’s Krypton seems to be in thrall to a somewhat older set of influences.
Despite being a fixture in the character’s mythos since the late 1930s, it wasn’t until the later 1950s that a coherent vision for Superman’s home world began to emerge. Driven by editor Mort Messenger, this era of the strip saw Krypton ceasing to be a single-word description in the Man of Steel’s bio and instead – thanks to the miracle of both time travel and ‘imaginary stories’ – become a place that Superman could frequently visit and interact with.
In these stories, Superman would learn about the history, culture and environment of Krypton, while at the same time discovering more about his father Jor-El’s leading role on the planet’s ruling Science Council. While quaint and childish to modern eyes, these fable-like stories significantly altered the Man of Steel as a character, giving him both context and a hint of real tragedy that would change the way he would be written in the years ahead.
The Man Of Steel
Apart from being the source of the new movie’s title, writer and artist John Byrne’s hugely successful 1986 relaunch of Superman has deep conceptual connections with Goyer and Snyder’s approach.
Created at the same time as Frank Miller was redefining Batman in the pages of both The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, Byrne’s The Man Of Steel arguably approached Superman with a similarly radical zeal. Stripping Superman of much of the whimsy and godlike grandeur he’d acquired over the years, Byrne shifted the emphasis away from science fantasy and towards science fiction, while also developing the character of Clark Kent beyond his simple ‘mild-mannered reporter’ guise and into a far more successful and dynamic modern journalist.
But it was with Krypton that Byrne arguably did his strongest work. Taking some of his cues from Richard Donner’s 1978 movie, but also from science fiction writers such as Larry Niven and Ray Bradbury, Byrne went further than Donner and envisioned a cold and remote futuristic civilization not only facing imminent destruction, but one teetering on the brink of internal and moral collapse.
Byrne’s Krypton was a world where risk and emotion had been removed from the equation and children were born of genetic engineering and imbued with cold and remote logic. In The Man Of Steel it’s Krypton that gives Superman his genetic legacy and capacity for great power, but it is clearly Earth – and particularly the Kents – who give him his true superpower: his humanity. Unsurprisingly, both Goyer and Snyder have intimated that many of these aspects play a key part in their movie’s story.
Without doubt the most critically acclaimed Superman comic of all time is Grant Morrison and Frank Quitley’s multi-award winning All-Star Superman. Published between 2005 and 2008, Morrison and Quitely’s story is a meditative, funny, sad, exciting, imaginative and ultimately deeply moving exploration of who Superman is and what he has come to represent down through the generations.
While its content is decidedly ‘Silver Age’ in accent, albeit one filtered through modern quantum physics, meta-textual critique and psychedelic drugs, All-Star… nevertheless captures the spirit of what makes Superman such an enduring popular myth.
Aware that they’re dealing with a character who’s become so ubiquitous that it can be a hindrance, Snyder and Goyer have clearly been smart enough to recognize that tapping into the same sense of (mail) modern wonder that Morrison and Quitely managed to reconnect with would be a wise move.
In fact, Snyder and Goyer nailed their colours to the mast early with this influence, as the very first teaser trailer for Man Of Steel was underscored by a speech from Jor-El (Russell Crowe) that was directly lifted from All-Star Superman issue 12.
Superman: Secret Origin
In his 2010 introduction to Superman: Secret Origin, the collected edition of writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank’s retelling of Superman’s origin, David S Goyer, observed that:
There is a heart breaking moment halfway through the first chapter [of Secret Origin] in which young Clark is told the truth about his heritage. He races out into the night, sobbing. Eventually, Jonathan Kent] finds him. ’I don’t want to be someone else… I don’t want to be different. I want to be Clark Kent. I want to be your son.’ Right there in that moment, Geoff contextualized Superman in a way that I’m not sure has ever really been done before.
However, Goyer’s admiration for his friend’s work clearly goes deeper than simply writing an introduction for a book as, in the third theatrical trailer for Man Of Steel, we get a glimpse of the moment that Goyer described played extremely sensitively by Kevin Costner (Jonathan Kent) and Dylan Sprayberry (Young Clark).
As with Frank Miller, both Goyer and Snyder have also drawn heavily on the work of Northampton scribe Alan Moore in their previous work. In Snyder’s case, he faithfully adapted Moore and Dave Gibbons’ legendary Watchmen (2009) for the big-screen, while Goyer borrowed heavily from Moore and Brian Bolland’s graphic novel The Killing Joke for the treatment of the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight.
Though less well known than some of his other work, Moore’s three Superman stories – For The Man Who Has Everything, The Jungle Line and Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow – are some of the best in the character’s history, and undoubtedly paved the way for Morrison and Quitely’s All-Star run some 20 years later.
Imbued with a maturity of tone and a plethora of ideas that both restate and deconstruct the myth of Superman, Goyer himself has openly said that Moore’s approach to Superman was a profound influence on him when writing the script for Man Of Steel.
It’s hard to know how much of any of these influences will survive in the finished movie, but if history teaches us one thing, it’s that the closer these films hew to the spirit and tone of their source material, then the greater the chance of success.
Judging by the footage we’ve seen so far and the positive word of mouth that’s been building since the turn of the year, I have a feeling that Superman may well be about to re-enter our lives in a big way…