For those of you coming in late, we’re in the middle of our three-part Super-symposium, an examination of the life and times of one Clark Kent. Last week, we discussed Mr. Kent’s origins, history, powers, weaknesses, family and love life. If you’d like, you can read about it by going here, or you can just follow along on this helpful chart:
Superman’s rogues gallery of villains isn’t quite as extensive as, say, Batman or Spider-Man, but the ones he does have are choice. First on this list, of course, is the original super-villain, Lex Luthor. Lex’s first appearances are a little muddy. Predating Luthor was a bald evil-scientist character called the Ultra-Humanite, who had a tendency to have his brain transplanted into other people’s bodies. After his initial appearances, his brain was transplanted into the body of movie actress Dolores Winters, among others, before finally settling into his final body, that of an albino gorilla.
God, I love comics. Anyway, Luthor’s first appearance came not long after Ultra’s, but early on, his assistant was the bald one, while he had a head full of red hair. By 1941, however, Luthor was his traditional bald self.
One of the best early Luthor appearances came in 1940, when the red-headed Luthor offers Superman a challenge, that his scientific genius could outdo Superman’s strength, with the loser to retire.
In a fast-paced and funny sequence, Luthor tries to beat Superman at long-distance racing, altitude, weightlifting, sturdiness, lung capacity, you name it. Luthor admits defeat when Superman offers to test Luthor’s strength by bashing his head against his own airplane. Naturally, the contest was only a ruse to keep Superman occupied.
By the 1950s, Luthor’s appearance had changed, looking more like a portly businessman. Still, the focus was always on his mechanical genius, often utilizing synthetic Kryptonite of his own invention. As seen here in this 1954 team-up with perennial second-string Superman villains the Prankster and the Toyman, he’s got more of a jowly look going on.
A much more lean and mean Luthor was in evidence in the 1960s, as evidenced here in “The Showdown Between Luthor and Superman,” from SUPERMAN #164. This is one of my favorite Luthor periods, when he’s so obsessed with killing Superman that he doesn’t even bother changing out of his prison jumpsuit after he breaks out. Here, he challenges Superman to a fair fight without his superpowers.
Superman agrees, and the two fly to a distant desert planet under a red sun, where he and Luthor would be on equal footing. (That must have been some fun conversation on the flight there, huh? “So, what’ve you been up to?” “Saving lives. You?” “Plotting your death; prison. You know, the usual.”). Naturally, Luthor cheats, and leaves Superman for dead in a terrible sandstorm.
As it turned out, the planet was populated by a race slowly dying out from lack of water, and when Luthor uses his genius to protect their crops, they begin to worship him as a hero, and he soon becomes obsessed with finding them new sources of water. When Superman arrives at the city, he’s reviled as a villain and the two resume their duel. Luthor, however, takes a dive, so that when Superman takes him back to Earth, he can stop at a nearby glacial planet and provide Luthor’s new worshippers with the water they so desperately need.
The planet, which would rename itself Lexor in Luthor’s honor, would remain a part of Luthor’s life for years to come. Luthor would even marry a Lexorian woman, Ardora, and resolved to move to Lexor permanently. However, a duel with Superman over the planet’s surface resulted in a catastrophe that destroyed Luthor’s adopted world, and killed all its inhabitants, including his beloved wife, even further enflaming Luthor’s hatred of Superman.
We’ve discussed in these pages previously how a teenaged Luthor was incorporated into the Superboy mythology, involving a friendship between Luthor and Superboy that goes terribly wrong, with Luthor blaming Superboy for the loss of his scientific breakthrough and his hair.
I won’t belabor the point further here, save to say that the inclusion of a friendship gone astray between Luthor and Superboy added a poignancy and depth to their struggles that I think is sorely missed in the comics nowadays, and accounts for much of the success of the current SMALLVILLE TV series.
By the mid-‘70s, Luthor had taken to wearing a purple and green jumpsuit with a truly fabulous disco collar, which despite being more than a little on the garish side, is still one of the cooler super-villain costumes around, in my opinion.
It’s this outfit that TV viewers of my generation probably most closely associate with Luthor, as it was what he wore on the excellent CHALLENGE OF THE SUPERFRIENDS episodes as leader of the Legion of Doom. And despite the threads, the Luthor stories of the 1970s tended to involve a cooler-headed, more calculating opponent. Lex changed outfits once again in 1983, acquiring an extraterrestrial combat suit (designed by George Perez) that allowed him for the first time to stand physically toe-to-toe with Superman.
The new suit, combined with a newly fired-up hatred of Superman from the aforementioned destruction of Lexor, had set up Luthor as a more vital, intense opponent than we’d seen in years. Unfortunately, the Superman reboot by John Byrne in 1986 would do away with all of it.
As reconceived by Byrne and Marv Wolfman, Luthor was no longer a scientific genius, but instead a ruthless billionaire magnate, whose thirst for power inspired him to try to eliminate Superman. I never really bought this as sufficient motivation, and so all of this new Luthor’s plots and schemes always rang a little hollow for me. The classic Superman-Luthor relationship was always a unique and original one, especially in how it evolved over decades, and I’ve never understood the decision to throw all that out in favor of a watered-down version of Marvel’s Kingpin character. (And a dull-witted one at that. Take a look here at one of Byrne’s first Luthor appearances, in which he refuses to believe that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same.)
In recent years, SUPERMAN writers have tried all sorts of things to spice up the Luthor character; he’s died of Kryptonite poisoning from overexposure to his Kryptonite ring, come back from the dead in a cloned body and posed as his own son, been rejuvenated by the DC’s resident version of Satan, and even served a term as President of the United States. Yes, you read that right. In the world according to DC, Luthor was the president. Ironically, I think his election was less controversial than Dubya’s.
The evil computer being Brainiac first appeared in the pages of ACTION COMICS in 1958, although he wasn’t quite a computer yet. In his debut, “The Super-Duel in Space,” The bald, green-skinned Brainiac is only described as a super-intelligent alien, and, oddly enough, is so emotional as to have a pet with him at all times, a weird little space chimp-looking bugger named “Koko.” In that first appearance, Brainiac is busy at the type of criminal act he’s best-known for: shrinking down cities and keeping them in bottles.
Well, it beats stamp collecting, I guess. Safe behind an impenetrable force-field, Brainiac swipes Paris, Rome, London, New York, and finally Metropolis, little realizing that a now-microscopic Superman is along for the ride. The tiny Superman is shocked to discover a shrunken city from Krypton in Brainiac’s ship, the city of Kandor. Further proving the “Six Degrees of Jor-El” rule in Superman comics, the Chief Scientist on Kandor, Professor Kimda, turns out to have been Jor-El’s college roommate. While Brainiac is in suspended animation for the long trip back to his homeworld, Superman uses Kimda’s observed knowledge of Brainiac’s technology to restore all the Earth cities, and is about to use the last charge of the machinery to restore Kandor, before Kimda triggers the button himself via rocket, using the last charge to restore Superman to full-size, leaving Kandor shrunk. The Bottle City of Kandor would become a fixture in Superman comics for the next three decades, with Superman occasionally shrinking himself and his friends down to microscopic size for a taste of old Krypton hospitality.
Later Brainiac stories revised the character as a living humanoid computer created by the computerized tyrants of the planet Colu, and also added some electrodes to his bald green cranium, as well as a lovely pair of fuchsia-colored short shorts. (When you’re traveling around the universe stealing cities, you want to be comfortable…)
Brainiac stayed much the same until 1983, occasionally attacking Earth and sometimes teaming up with Luthor to put a hurting on Superman, when he received a much-needed makeover in the same issue of ACTION COMICS that revitalized Luthor. Brainiac was recreated as a much less human-looking (and –acting) and far more intimidating robot-type.
One of the cooler features of the new Brainiac (designed by Ed Hannigan) was his new ship, which looked like a much larger version of his newly designed, creepy-looking head. This version of Brainiac, just like the ’83 Luthor, wasn’t given much time to shine before the Byrne revamp replaced it, and not for the better.
The Brainiac revision was even less inspired than the Luthor, converting him to a chubby circus mentalist who makes contact with, and is later possessed by, the “Brainiac” entity from Colu. Over time, Brainiac would be revised and revised again until he more closely resembled the robot-like “human computer” of old.
Another of the original Jerry Siegel Superman villains was that pesky magical sprite from another dimension, Mr. Mxyzptlk. (A word about the spelling: originally, it was Mxyztplk. A typo in a later appearance changed it to Mxyzptlk, and that spelling wound up being used for all the appearances to follow. Later, when DC had created its parallel Earths for its Justice League and Justice Society concepts, it was decided that the Golden Age Superman of Earth-2 contended with Mxyztplk, while the modern Superman of Earth-One had to deal with Mxyzptlk. To my knowledge, there was never a Mxyzptlk/Mxyztplk team-up; truly a typesetter’s nightmare…) Mxyztplk made his first appearance in 1944, in “The Mysterious Mr. Mxyztplk!”, written by Siegel and drawn by John Sikela.
In the story, a mischievous little runt in a bowler hat and bow tie pops up all over Metropolis causing trouble: bringing statues to life, driving ambulances up buildings, building freeways across lakes, and so on. Eventually Mxyztplk comes clean, confessing that he’s a court jester from another dimension, who discovers two magic words, one which would teleport him to Earth, and one which, when spoken aloud, would return Mxyztplk to his home dimension for at least 90 days. Here, Superman, as he would time and time again over the next four decades, tricks Mxy into saying the magic word: “Klptzyxm,” his own name spelled backwards.
Never truly malicious, Mxyzptlk is still seen from time to time in Superman comics to this day, although the game has been changed slightly: each time Mxy appears, he can set new rules that Superman has to follow if he wants to send him home.
The last of the great Superman villains is that misshapen duplicate of Superman, Bizarro. The first Bizarro appearance came in 1958 in the pages of SUPERBOY #68, in which a local Smallville inventor creates a duplicator ray, which doesn’t quite work so well – everything it duplicates is flawed and imperfect. When the ray is accidentally trained on Superboy, it explodes and creates the first Bizarro, a chalk-white, jagged-featured doofus with an extremely low I.Q., and all the powers of Superboy.
Bizarro goes on a well-meaning rampage around Smallville before Superboy reasons out that just as pieces of Krypton are deadly to him, so would pieces of the machine that created him be deadly to Bizarro. “It’s quite logical!” asserts Superboy. Uh, if you say so, man. Superboy has no compunctions about killing Bizarro since he’s “not a living creature.” Looks pretty alive to me, but that was curtains for Bizarro.
At least for a year or so. In 1959, Bizarro returned in “The Battle for Bizarro” in ACTION COMICS #254. And this time, he was here to stay. In the story, Luthor has been doing his homework and discovers the account of the original Bizarro incident in the Smallville newspapers. He steals the plans for the duplicator ray and sets right to work building a new one. A disguised Luthor lures Superman to his lab and fires the duplicator ray, re-creating Bizarro. It doesn’t quite work out as Luthor had planned, as the self-hating Bizarro looks in the mirror and turns on Luthor for re-creating him.
Before Superman can destroy him again, Bizarro, who possess hazy versions of all of Superman’s memories, runs into Lois and is smitten, and devotes himself to her, or as only Bizarro could put it, “Me show my love for her…build her beautiful palace here! La De Da!”
Naturally, of course, Lois spurns him, and soon he’s kidnapped her and is fighting off Superman again, until Lois has an inspired idea, and turns the duplicator ray on herself, creating a Bizarro-Lois, and the two Bizarros immediately fall in love at first sight, and leave Earth to live together on a distant planet.
Later appearances revealed that, Bizarro and Bizarro-Lois had gotten lonely on their new world, and had turned the duplicator on themselves, creating countless duplicates to populate their new planet, which Superman helpfully reshaped into a cube so it would be backwards and imperfect, just the way they liked it.
(The original Bizarro and Bizarro Lois would helpfully wear medallions around their necks with “Bizarro No. 1” on it so that everyone would know they were the original.) Here’s where the fun really starts.
The Bizarros were extremely popular in the 50s and 60s, and appeared quite often in the Superman books, eventually even getting their own feature in ADVENTURE COMICS, written by Superman creator Jerry Siegel and drawn by John Forte, Wayne Boring and Curt Swan. Life on the Bizarro World (occasionally called “Htrae,” but usually just Bizarro World) was never boring, thanks to the Bizarro Code:
Even Bizarro himself wasn’t exempt from the code – when all the duplicate Bizarros realize he broke the code by giving them perfect duplicates of Superman’s uniform, he’s swiftly banished from the Bizarro World. Bizarro creates a Bizarro-Luthor to figure out how to atone for his crime, and naturally, the Bizarro-Luthor (who only wants to do good) figures out that all he needs to do is create new uniforms for everyone with the “S-shield” printed backwards. Bizarro thanks Luthor with the traditional Bizarro salute: a pie in the face.
The Bizarros give out Valentines on New Year’s Day, use alarm clocks to tell them when to go to bed (usually accompanied with a cutting remark from Bizarro-Lois: “Ha, Ha! Stupid Earth people use it to wake up!”), and eat “cold dogs” at the movies, where they watch the negative. You get the idea.
The best thing about the Bizarro stories was watching as all of Superman’s friends and foes get duplicated and join the Bizarro World .For example, when Bizarro’s son Bizarro Jr. is messing around with the duplicator ray at his “Fourtriss uv Bizarro” (the opposite of Superman’s fortress, it was in the desert and contained a lot of worthless junk), he accidentally hits the coincidentally passing-by Mr. Mxyzptlk, creating, you guessed it, Bizarro-Kltpzxym, who, being a Bizarro, only uses his magical powers to be helpful, and starts prettying up and tidying the Bizarro World, much to Bizarro’s horror.
As if that wasn’t weird enough, check this out: when Bizarro-Krypto’s feelings are hurt by all the Halloween pranks played on him by his master Bizarro No.1, he goes looking for a new master, and winds up with Bizarro Luthor. After Bizarro Krypto helpfully stops Bizarro Luthor from breaking the Bizarro Code, a grateful Bizarro Luthor pats the dog on the head, and is swiftly hauled off by the SPKA (Society for the Prevention of Kindness to Animals) for not being cruel enough.
Krypto returns to his original master, and receives the traditional Bizarro welcome. This is heady stuff.
Sadly, Bizarro hasn’t gotten much play since the Byrne revamp. He was created and destroyed in the same issue in Byrne’s MAN OF STEEL miniseries, and another version was created and destroyed about eight years later. More recently, in a Superman storyline entitled EMPEROR JOKER, Bizarro was recreated when a bored Mr. Mxyzptlk granted a portion of his powers to the Joker, just to see what would happen, and we’ll just say things were a little … different for a while and leave it at that. Although the world was restored to normal, Mxyzptlk saved some of Joker’s creations from being undone, and as a result, there was for a time once more a Bizarro roaming the DC Universe. I figure it’s just a matter of time before we get the Bizarro World back.
In looking over the Superman comics from a historical standpoint, it’s clear that, either by design or just through a sort of cultural osmosis, a large part of the character’s continued viability came though his ability to adapt to each decade. In the 1930s, Superman was very much a defender of the common man, busying himself with halting the executions of the wrongly convicted, putting away (and roughing up) abusive husbands, and ending the schemes of munitions manufacturers who manipulate world events for their own profits.
By the 1940s, Superman had gone from vigilante outsider to all-American hero, fighting saboteurs and going on Army training maneuvers inside his comics, while marching alongside our boys in uniform (or giving Hitler and Hirohito a good thrashing) on the covers.
Superman never got involved in the fighting overseas in the actual stories, for the simple reason that a man as powerful as Superman could probably have ended the war in a single day. As for Clark Kent, he reported for the draft and would happily have served, but was declared 4F (unfit for service) when he accidentally read the eye chart in the next room with his X-ray vision during the medical exam.
In the 1950s, as a post-war America settled into a life of domesticity, so too did Superman get more paternal. Aside from having a home of his own now in the Fortress of Solitude, suddenly Superman had a family to provide for with the introduction of his young cousin Supergirl, and his pet Krypto the Super-Dog. Even Superman’s appearance changed: where Joe Shuster’s Superman of the 30s and 40s was a tough, squinty-eyed little fireplug, in the 1950s, artists Curt Swan, Al Plastino and Wayne Boring were portraying a Superman who was taller, more broad-shouldered, and sometimes even seemed to have a bit of a middle-aged spread.
The space race of the 1960s set off a craze for science-fiction in the popular culture, and Superman was no exception. Superman was fighting a lot more monsters from outer space all of a sudden, as well as visiting other planets with some regularity. In addition, time travel became a steady feature in the Superman books, between what seemed like frequent visits to the past of Krypton, and Superboy’s membership in the Legion of Super-Heroes, a team of teenage super-types from the 30th century. Even Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen wasn’t immune, suffering from one bizarre sci-fi transformation after the other – everything from ape-man to elastic man to giant turtle.
In the political hotbed of the ‘70s, efforts were underway to make Superman more relevant and realistic. A new storyline by Denny O’Neil drastically depowered Superman, while eliminating the writer’s crutch of Kryptonite, which had seemed to be available at every corner store in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
(Both of these decisions didn’t last, and before long Superman was juggling comets again, and once more constantly bedeviled by Kryptonite.) The same storyline also shook up the status quo with the purchase of the Daily Planet by Morgan Edge’s Galaxy Communications, and Clark Kent’s new occupation as news anchor for WGBS.
Other efforts to be modern weren’t quite so successful, such as Lois Lane’s attempt to understand the Black experience in “I Am Curious (Black)!”, or Superman’s trip to a Woodstock-like rock festival in “The Pied Piper of Steel!”
The biggest change to Superman in decades came in the 1980s, as the series as a whole was “rebooted” by writer/artist John Byrne in the wake of DC’s universe-changing CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS miniseries.
Feeling that readers were bored by the perfect, unbeatable Superman, his powers were downgraded dramatically. Sure, he was still invulnerable and super-strong, but he wasn’t as fast as the speed of light anymore, he couldn’t fly from planet to planet in the vacuum of space, and his strength definitely had limits. In the pages of his 1986 MAN OF STEEL miniseries, Byrne made a lot of other changes too, some that would go against decades of Superman stories.
It was decided that Jonathan and Martha Kent weren’t dead, and they became steady supporting characters. It was also decided that Superman would now be truly the Last Son of Krypton, so all other Kryptonian characters were wiped from existence. Supergirl? Never happened. Krypto the Super-Dog? Forget it. In addition, it was decided that Clark Kent had never operated as a youngster as Superboy, a decision that even Byrne himself now concedes was a mistake, not only because there’s a certain charm to the notion of young Clark learning to use his powers, but also because of the way it tore the heart out of the long-running and popular LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES series, which depended on the existence and membership of Superboy. The LEGION series has lingered since ’85, but never really recovered, with far too many issues devoted to trying to figure out how there was a LEGION without Superboy. And as discussed in these pages earlier, the two worst decisions to come from the Byrne reboot (and ironically the two decisions that were not, as I understand, solely Byrne creations) were the removal of Superman from Justice League history and the conversion of super-genius criminal Lex Luthor into little more than a Kingpin knockoff. Despite the grumblings of classic Superman fans, the Byrne reboot did its job, and Superman sales saw a distinct improvement. However, it’s always been my contention that just putting top-flight talent like Byrne, Marv Wolfman and Jerry Ordway on the books would have accomplished the same thing without having to rewrite so much of the Superman mythology.
When it comes to Superman, the 1990s are best remembered for one thing: killing him off. 1993’s “The Death of Superman” storyline was a great success both creatively and commercially (SUPERMAN #75, which featured the character’s demise, sold an astonishing six million copies.) The single flaw in the storyline was the death itself of Superman, who dies at the hands of Doomsday, a mysterious unstoppable behemoth who literally pounds the life out of Superman.
The only problem was Superman had always been more than just a muscleman. He should easily have found another way to slow down or stop Doomsday, instead of just punching him, and then punching him some more, and then, hey, how about punching him? Ultimately, though, it didn’t really matter. The real story wasn’t Superman dying; it was how the world reacted to Superman’s death. The eight issues following the death issue, entitled “Funeral for a Friend,” were devoted to Metropolis, the heroes of the DC Universe, and finally all the world mourning the loss of Superman, in an admittedly daring length of issues devoted to characterization and mood. Even though the whole story to a degree felt like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn listening to their own funeral (because everybody knew that Superman would eventually be back), the mourning stories managed to capture some genuine emotion, especially in the portrayals of Clark’s parents and Lois Lane, who had only recently accepted Clark’s proposal of marriage and been made privy to his double identity.
Although the storyline was originally conceived as a way to kill time until the then-current TV series LOIS AND CLARK was ready to marry off the characters (DC intended to marry them at the same time in the comics), it evolved into one of the best long-term story arcs ever conceived for mainstream comics, as well as proving a much-needed point about the nature of the Superman character: In an era when Stallone- and Schwarzenegger-type anti-heroes were the popular cinema idols, DC proved the necessity for what comics fans had been derisively referring as “the big Boy Scout,” by replacing said Boy Scout with four new Supermen: Superboy, Steel, the Eradicator and the Cyborg.
By exploring all things that Superman was not (a hip teenage punk, an armored “regular guy,” a Rambo-style vigilante, or a decidedly Terminatoresque cyborg), DC fostered an appreciation for the true Superman character, and in the process created some popular new characters who would go on to have long-running series of their own.
After Superman’s resurrection, Clark and Lois finally tied the knot, and the Superman comics settled into a comfortable rut in the years following, until DC upset the applecart last year with their rebooting of their universe with the “New 52.”
Next week, in the concluding (I think) chapter of our Superman discussion, we take a look at what I think the three best Superman stories are, suggest some recommended reading, and take a tour through Kal-El’s extensive filmography.