Superman Turns 70: The Bastards of Krypton

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supes-bok-header.jpgContinuing our tribute to the Man of Steel, Greg O'Driscoll ponders Superman's many illegitimate offspring: the knock-offs, parodies, and imitators inspired by the original superhero.

 

 

 

It doesn't surprise me Superman was given a son in the recent movie Superman Returns. Really, what other man's child would Lois Lane deign to bring into the world? It was ordinary Earth-sperm versus surefire Kryptonian baby bombs. Larry Niven could have told you poor James Marsden never had a chance.[1] Every person sitting in the theater knew that boy was Superman's kid, they knew it in their guts. It wasn't a gasp of shock when the piano went flying across the room. It was a sigh of release. Maybe it's just the formulaic nature of storytelling, but, really, it was about time. Fatherhood is the next logical step in the progression of the character. The father of all comic book heroes is finally a father in truth.

Originally a mysterious tough man, Superman became caught in an isosceles love triangle with the ball-busting girl of his dreams and his own spineless secret identity. From a psychological standpoint, the healthy thing would have been to fuse his two discordant selves and declare his love for Lois. But this is comics, he said, as if that explained everything! What might be psychologically healthy doesn't always make the most interesting or, at the very least, amusing stories. So, rather than mature, Superman regressed into a prolonged adolescence. Enforced by editors and important enough to the character's marketability that DC retconned his career to include Superboy, this extended boyhood was full of tricks, switcheroos, and sly winks, usually at Miss Lane's expense. It was a very "girls have cooties" sort of scenario. Lois is constantly trying to marry Superman and the Big Blue Boy Scout is having none of it, though he never seems to have anyone else on the side. Possibly women scared the Last Son of Krypton. After all, Superman was the Man of Tomorrow, not the Man Without Fear.

The Big Blue Scout and his bouncing bride on the cover of the Superman Wedding Album.Inevitably, the superhero genre and even the fanboys started to grow up, mostly in fits and starts. Comics aren't really for kids anymore. Whether this has been to the benefit or detriment of the art form I leave to others. The long golden age of innocence at an end, our heroes of old, these gaily costumed Galahads, were initiated into carnal knowledge. Comics would never be the same. What was once only hinted at in a henchman's leer or the torn bodice of a captive damsel was now, more or less, out in the open. By 1987, Spider-Man was married [2] and he was younger than Superman by a mile! It took nine more years for the Big Blue Bachelor to finally cave in, but he did, and what was once relegated to imaginary stories was now status quo.

I wonder if Supes went to the marital bed a virgin? God knows, some of his pimply fans (long boxes full of back issues for their wedding dowries) certainly did. But Superman? No, impossible! He can't have been a super-powered 40-Year Old Virgin for his first fifty-eight years—right? Surely some girl somewhere broke in young Mr. Kent! Then again, of Superman's two previous girlfriends, one was a fish from the waist down [3] and the other was super wholesome Lana Lang—and you know she didn't put out. Knowing women such as these were her competition probably reassured Lois of Clark's chastity. (Because it has to be Clark. Superman would never marry Lois. Wonder Woman certainly, but not boring old Lois.) Still, it stretches even my childhood belief in Truth, Justice and the American Way to think a red-blooded Midwestern farm boy (who could literally undress a woman with his eyes) never got down until he was married. Yes, yes, I know all about his strong moral upbringing and so forth, but consider this: people on farms know about sex—all those roosters and bulls and pigs and such. Where do you think the phrase "roll in the hay" comes from? Lois should have probably considered that before saying her vows.

It might have shocked Lois to know there were other dimensions (or, more accurately, other comics) full to bursting with her husband's illegitimate offspring. Almost impossible to ignore, much less number, Superman's countless knock-offs, parodies, homages, imitators, alternate reality duplicates, and "through-a-glass-darkly" interpretations, especially those of other companies, are everywhere. Each comic creator with a yen for super heroes seems compelled to do his own variation. Some recreate the Man of Steel because they have a story to tell, but DC won't let them play with their toys. Others are jesters mocking the uncrowned king of all comics. It amuses me to think of these stand-ins, every last one of them, as Superman's children, the by-blows and bastard grandchildren of mighty Krypton. Sure, it could be argued every costumed superhero is Superman's descendant in some way, but many emerged so soon after him and rose to power so swiftly they must be considered brothers: Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, and so on. The illegitimate issue of Superman's loins I speak of cleave closer to the template of their sire. They share all or nearly all his powers. Most fancy capes and the colors red, blue, and yellow. Often they come from other worlds or are the last of their kind in some way. Their hair is black or blue, but not always—a blonde damsel must have got into the woodpile somewhere along the line. The tiny rocket doesn't fall far from the planet as it were.

I don't have the time or the space to list them all, and even if I did that would spoil all the fun. Think of it as a drinking game for comic-geeks: name an alternate version of Supes or take a drink! [4] There ought to be enough of them to keep you from getting too shitty too quick. All the same, here's a few to get you started...

Superman's Marvel doppelganger, Hyperion. Click for a larger image.Marvel never hesitated to create their own thinly veiled versions of Superman whenever someone wanted to do an unofficial crossover. Hyperion first appeared as a villain in the pages of The Avengers, but later this Hyperion was revealed to be an evil duplicate of the real one. This "real" Hyperion was red where Superman was blue and yellow where superman was red. He sported an atom on his chest instead of a letter from the alphabet. Even his shirt is sleeveless, but the inspiration is still clear. Hyperion and the other members of his Squadron Supreme (Marvel's own twisted take on Superman's pals in the Justice League of America) decided to take over their world and create a utopia a full decade before it became trendy for super heroes to do this kind of thing. Later, he was blinded and started wearing "radar-glasses." Apparently, still not different enough, Hyperion was revamped once again in Marvel's MAX comic Supreme Power, and the original has reappeared alongside his new incarnation in recent issues of Ultimate Power. Funny, isn't it, how the doubles sprout their own doubles?

The House of Ideas certainly has plenty of Super-spawn to spare, including Gladiator from the pages of X-Men. An alien warrior named Kallark (say it fast), Gladiator is a little harder to spot, but not by much -- it's the purple skin and the mohawk that throws you off. Possessing most of Superman's powers (flight, strength, invulnerability, and eyebeams), Gladiator led his own legion of super-aliens loyal to the Shi'ar Empire. John Byrne even swiped one of his own Fantastic Four covers, featuring Gladiator, to use as the model for a cover from his run on Superman. [5]

Heck, even Wundarr the Aquarian, a little remembered space-hippie created by Steve Gerber and adopted by Mark Gruenwald, was something of a reverse Superman worthy of Bizarro himself. Placed in an escape rocket by his father to escape impending planetary disaster, Wundarr streaks to earth. The gag is his old man was wrong. The planet never blows up. He was sent into space for nothing. After a crash landing in Florida, "Maw" and "Paw" see Wundarr's spaceship, but decide to leave it be. It might be a Martian invader. Wundarr later emerges as a super strong, childlike menace and eventually achieves enlightenment.

Finally, more recently created than these others, Sentry seems to be yet another imitator. I don't know much about him, but there is a huge "S" on his costume. He seems to be Marvel's only major knock-off without a team of DC equivalents tagging along, though he does have the power of an exploding sun from what I hear. [It's actually 1000 exploding suns, but who's counting? - Ed.]

Not trying to hide the inspiration at all, Mr. Majestic strikes a pose from the cover of Superman #1. Click for a larger image.Let's move a little further down the dimensional corridor, where the Image corner of the multi-verse offers a veritable horde of offspring. Jim Lee brought his Wildstorm Studios into the fray when he debuted his Man of Steel analogue, Mr. Majestic, in the pages of WildC.A.T.s. Writer Kurt Busiek and artists Alex Ross and Brent Anderson premiered their own Superman, a time-traveler called Samaritan, in the pages of Astro City, a book that was published under a sub-imprint of Wildstorm. When Jim Lee moved his studio from Image to DC, both Superman stand-ins were published by the same company as the Man himself. Things have come full circle. Two of the prodigal sons return.

Others prefer to stay in the niches they have carved out for themselves. Dynamo 5 by Jay Faerber and Mahmud A. Asrar begins with the death of Capt. Dynamo, a hero who had sired five illegitimate children, each inheriting one unique power, forming to fight his old enemies. The eponymous star of Robert Kirkman's Invincible is another hero who inherited his powers from a Superman stand-in who was less than super as a human being. Invincible's dad, Omni-Man, is the analogous Man of Steel—except that he has a mustache. (If the movie Superman II has taught us anything, it is that Kryptonians—and mock-Kryptonians—with facial hair are evil, and Omni-Man turns out to be no exception.) Erik Larsen, meanwhile, has the red- and yellow-garbed Solar Man. Returned from the dead and currently on a killing spree in the pages of Savage Dragon, Solar Man believes a race of superhuman crime fighters is destined to rule the earth by permanently wiping out criminals everywhere, root and branch. And speaking of ultra-violence, who could forget Rob Liefeld's extreme re-imagining of the Superman mythos? Supreme began as just another comic out to exploit the gritty violence boom of the nineties. Later, Alan Moore's writing on the same title wound up yielding the greatest Superman stories never told, with flashbacks illustrated by Rick Veitch particularly recalling the feel of Silver Age Superman.

The Dynamo 5 deal with the legacy of their Superman-esque dad. Click for a larger image.Finally, we come to one of my favorites, True Man. Not only did he illustrate Supreme's faux flashbacks during Moore's run, Veitch used the by-now familiar archetype in his own masterwork, the still ongoing King Hell Heroica. As dark and bleak as anything seen in more mainstream superhero books Veitch's Brat Pack explores America's love affair with super heroes, sexual innuendo, and fascism. True Man, absentee god of this smoky gray and black world, has returned to space, leaving his costumed comrades to their own devices. One in particular is missing him more than the others: years before The Authority's Apollo and Midnighter, True Man's homosexual affair with Batman stand-in Midnight Mink forms a crucial plot point, but it isn't until The Maximortal that True Man takes center stage. Violent and gruesome beyond Liefeld's grimmest aspirations for Supreme, Veitch takes an unflinching, morbidly funny look at just how hard it would be for humans to raise a bouncing baby alien. A flying infant shows up the entire grim'n'gritty movement for the cheap come on it is. The process of "the son becoming the father and the father becoming the son" reaches it's final mutation. True Man, Superman's stand-in for this tale of "an idea whose time has come," is almost entirely self-created. Traveling back in time to conceive himself, True Man sends his own infant form crashing into the lives of two simple country folk and Man closes the loop. My only regret? The full tale of True Man is still untold and Veitch has yet to complete his Heroica. Though it is uncertain if we'll ever see it, according to letter columns in The Maximortal, the next installment was to deal with True Man's sexual awakening—which is somehow appropriate.

In closing, I would like to reiterate that this list is by no means complete and I encourage fellow comic freaks everywhere to keep their eyes peeled. The bastards of Krypton are all around us. Megaton Man is a good one, but don't try C.C. Beck's Captain Marvel on me. He doesn't count, I don't care what DC's lawyers say! Tell you what, stump me and I owe you a shot. | Greg O'Driscoll

 

[1] Read Larry Niven's Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex for an in-depth (and amusing) scientific speculation about Superman's sex life.

[2] Amazing Spider Man (vol. 1) Annual #21.

[3] Superman (vol.1) #129

[4] Superboy and Supergirl don't count. Aside from being his younger self and cousin respectively, they aren't progeny so much as alternate selves, variations on a theme, emanations of the Godhead. Proudly accepted members of the Superman Family, they don't have to hide what they are. The kids born on the wrong side of the bed are the ones that interest me.

[5] Fantastic Four #249 (1982) and Superman v.2 #8 (1987)

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