Interlopers tried to cut themselves a slice of the profitable Superman pie, but for the most part DC saw them off. DC itself went on to create a universe in which Superman is surrounded by versions of himself. Marvel has had variations on Superman several times: exactly how many times depends on exactly who you count as an imitator.
After all, Superman of the Silver Age had three streams of story. He had his role in the Justice League of America. He was Superboy in the Legion of Super Heroes. And there were the stories of him on his own. These stories are supposedly of the same character, but as we saw, whatever and whomever Superboy met, Superman would meet for the first time later, and vice versa. For that matter, can you think of any time when Superman with the Justice League or Superboy with the Legion ever ran into red kryptonite? That will be important in a minute, but first we’ll look at the “Superman in the JLA” imitator.
Hyperion first appeared in 1969 in The Avengers. He was one of four villains who were created as one-off tributes to the JLA. There was Nightwing (Batman), Dr Spectrum (Green Lantern), the Whizzer (the Flash but with the name of a previous Marvel hero), and Hyperion. Why didn’t DC sue? I think partly it was a change in personnel: in the thirties comics were created by professional artists who made comics, by 1970 they were fans who had become professionals. Two years later tribute Avengers would appear in the Justice League of America.
Hyperion lived on the first atom to be split by humans. He survived by unknown means and drifted in the void until he was awakened by the Grandmaster and enlarged to this level so he could fight Thor. It’s not clear if he gains powers by being enlarged or if he had them all along, since he survived in what effectively is outer space. That is, he may parallel Superman under a yellow sun, or Superman as being more evolved.
Hyperion’s name is ancient Greek. Hyper-ion means “going over.” The name effectively means superman. He wears red and yellow, using two thirds of the colors of Superman’s costume. As usual, the colors of the trunks, boots, and cape match. He has a symbol on his chest, not an S but a stylised atom. Originally he wore a small domino mask which was barely larger than horn-rimmed glasses.
He was meant to last for one story and then be gone. But in an unconscious second tribute to Superman, they couldn’t let Hyperion go. They brought back new versions of him from different dimensions and sometimes he was a hero. There are eight versions of Hyperion available to Marvel at the moment. One of these is a member of the Squadron Supreme, squadron being a parallel to League and supreme from the sales tag of the JLA as “The World’s Greatest Superheros.”
Hyperion’s has a civilian identity, Mark Milton, who has a degree in journalism. His powers are Kryptonian less telescopic and microscopic vision (and super ventriloquism which even Superman doesn’t have any more). His one weakness is argonite radiation. Perhaps the name is a nod to Argo City, which had to put a layer of lead down to stop the Kryptonite their ground had turned into from killing them – the only time Kryptonite works under a red sun.
On any dimension of costume, powers, or civilian identity, Hyperion is an imitation of Superman. All he has to do is have a cousin named Hypergirl, which may happen yet. He can do anything Superman can do except be Superboy.
In 1977 in the X-Men the Shi’ar introduced Gladiator. He was a tribute to Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes, and that was admitted right from the beginning. They were created by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum. Cockrum used designs for Legionaires’ costumes that were never used while he was working on the title.
Gladiator wears a red and blue costume with a yellow belt and symbol on the chest. The symbol seems to be a G set in a triangle and then turned onto its side. Since he works for an alien empire, it’s not a surprise Gladiator’s not from Earth. His name is Kallark from Kal-el and Clark Kent. He basically has the Kryptonian powers, including the rarely-mentioned freezing breath. He is vulnerable to a certain form of radiation, but he also loses power when he lacks confidence.
The Imperial Guard gave its creators a chance to get the Legion out of the system. But it not only set up the parallels between Gladiator and Superman, it allows exploration of parallels between other Marvel and DC characters. Wolverine meets Fang is, obviously, Wolverine meets Timer Wolf. It is noteworthy that Wolverine far outclasses Fang, but many things associated with Wolverine were used in the character of Timber Wolf first.
Hyperion and Gladiator imitated two of the streams of Silver Age Superman. The third stream is occupied by Sentry. This is Superman in the pages of Superman or Action. It is only here that Superman runs into Red Kryptonite. Red Kryptonite has made Superman become a giant, grow an eye in the back of his head, grow an ant’s head above the jaw, get amnesia of personal details, lose his super powers, both get amnesia of personal details and lose his super powers, take his super powers away from one side of him, make his hair grow, and split him into a good Clark and and evil Superman (think of the movie Superman III, go blech). Taken on a purely psychological level, that’s pretty insane. It’s so insane that it’s kept out of Superman dealing with overwhelming evil like Starro the Conqueror, or Mordred. Superman must be reliable in those cases.
But Sentry is Robert Reynolds (Mark Milton, Clark Kent – spot the pattern), who wears yellow and blue, once again, two out of three colors of Superman’s costume. Cape, boots, trunks, belt, and wristbands are blue. The shirt and leggings are yellow. There is thus the usual Superman costume pattern, in this case with an S symbol, but on the belt buckle rather than the chest.
Sentry is a super hero who existed from the forties to the present day, which gives him something like the longevity of Superman. His origin is different from Superman’s, being not evolution, heavy gravity, or the Sun. Sentry swallowed a potion. No, wait, Marvel changed his origin as they changed Hyperion’s. Sentry came from another universe and the serum was just the doorway, which is kind of like coming from another planet ramped up.
His powers are Superman’s but with additions. He can project energy from his hands, he raised his wife from the dead by touching the corpse. In fact, his powers, vast as they were when he started, keep getting ramped up much like Superman’s were between 1938 and 1946. Like Superman meeting Red Kryptonite, Sentry is insane. His main weakness is to mental manipulation.
Like Superman having met Red Kryptonite, Sentry is split into two, one being good and the other evil. But in this case, necessarily, the good half wears the costume. In case after case, Sentry stories have one being pretending to be another (as when the Void pretends to be Galactus) or sudden revelations of something very significant in the Sentry’s past which the Sentry or the world in general has forgotten.
His wife is Lindi Lee, whose name matches Linda Lee, which was Supergirl’s civilian identity while at the orphanage. Since Sentry/Robert Reynolds abandoned her for decades, it seems appropriate that should be her name. But in the insanity theme, at one point she asks Iron Man to depower or kill her husband. Sounds like the crazy relationship Superman had with Lois lane.
Superman always has preponderant power. Let’s face it, if he existed in this universe and he wanted to beat me into little wet pieces, if I couldn’t stop him by peeing my pants, I don’t have a plan B. His solution to this is, apart from specific story arcs, that he sacrifices himself for others. This is what Sentry does in his main story arc, where he blots his own and the world’s memories of himself as the Sentry again in order to stop the Void.
One last thing connects all three main Superman Marvel imitators. They are each a planet destroyer. In 1938 Superman couldn’t destroy a planet, by 1946 he could and he would retain that level of power until John Byrne rewrote him in the eighties. It is this Superman, with the three streams of this era, that are the focus of Marvel’s imitations. And they treat them as if the power level is a measure of the writing skill.
Marvel didn’t stop there. They took a plot-battered heroine, gave her a new costume which was blue, red, and yellow, and gave this woman who imitates Supergirl who imitates Superboy who imitates Superman a slightly new name which imitates Captain Marvel who imitates Superman. With this in hand, Marvel announced their bright, fresh, new idea, Ms Marvel.
Captain Marvel is Carol Danvers, which echoes Linda Danvers, which is Supergirl’s civilian identity once she gets adopted. She goes through several codenames: Ms Marvel, Binary, Warbird, and finally, Captain Marvel. It’s a familiar list: Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Goliath, Yellowjacket, Dr. Pym. It reeks of ‘we don’t know what we’re doing.’ In Ms Marvel’s case, she was an imitation of the Kree Captain Marvel, a Superman imitator too boring to even delve into except to say he became a Superman imitator because his previous self was too boring.
Ms Marvel had all the faults of the first run of the Teen Titans. She was supposed to be a new feminist superhero, the equal of men and on the same terms. And then she was put in a costume that bared her legs and belly. So equal she was eye candy. Like the Teen Titans who were supposed to be young and hip and were written by men who were too old.
Ms Marvel had the flight, strength, and durability of any Superman imitator, and an ill-defined sixth sense. But despite the fanfare, they didn’t have faith in her. They let her get raped and it was not just that it happened, it was that the whole roster of the Avengers thought it was cute. This was the face of Marvel’s feminist icon, the woman equal to men? They could have given us Surtur versus Dormamu and instead they endorsed date rape with machine roofies.
Ms Marvel became Binary. The feminist icon wannabe now wore an almost Kardashian swimsuit which, if you only look quickly, make her look like she’s wearing diapers. Now she was absorbing the energy from a white hole allowing her to control electromagnetic energies. That wasn’t good enough either, so she became Warbird, and then was redone as Captain Marvel.
Once again she is the forefront, she is a woman who is treated just like a male superhero. She gets to cover her legs and belly. She has the powers of flight, speed, strength and durability of, roughly, post-Byrne Superman. She can still access the white hole to power herself up further to Silver Age proportions. She can also fire bursts of energy from her hands (instead of her eyes).
She wears a blue, red, and yellow costume with a symbol of a starburst on her chest. The symbol is still imitated from the Kree Captain Marvel. Red used to dominate her costume, now it’s blue. But they’ve ramped up her powers and used that as a reason to ramp up her profile. Oh, and she’s a woman who’s in the forefront, the equal of any male, the same old story said a little louder and we just wait for them to decide it’s time to stab her in the back again. She’ll probably lie in some hero’s arms, and give some speech before she dies in a mega-event crossover just like Supergirl.
Marvel cannot let go of its Superman heroes: they are generally too interesting. Superman does not have tropes, he is a trope. So we can expect him to occur again. Some day there will be a nerdy guy with glasses who will have super strength and durability, who will react to radiation and turn green, he will have a girlfriend who initially doesn’t know his secret identity but eventually learns it, they will get married, he will join a super team, he will have enemies who are imitations of him, he will have a villain who’s super intelligent, he will will have a cousin with his powers, he will eventually live in a world surrounded by imitations of him, that’s Superman. No, wait, every one of those things also applies to the Hulk. I guess Superman is the superhero you just can’t get away from.