Monday, January 22, 2018

How DC Comics found its soul in Superman's red trunks

In 2011, DC Comics made a drastic move and (almost) completely rebooted their entire universe. Some things like Batman and Green Lantern remained relatively the same, but others changed dramatically, especially Superman. This movement, of course, was called "The New 52." It was meant to update the characters and universe. The DC Universe took on an overall darker, more cynical tone - which was kind of antithetical to DC's history.

There was a lot of speculation as to exactly why DC did it. One of the speculated reasons was the long dispute over the ownership of Superman between Warner Brothers and the families of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. It's a really muddy and messy lawsuit - and though I am all for creators rights and acknowledging creators of these characters as much as possible, I don't believe the Shusters and Siegels have any ownership claim. Regardless, it was around 2011 that the litigation really heated up and Warner Brothers started production on "Man of Steel," which according to some analysts, also affected the lawsuit.

CBR recently took on this claim:

However, the biggest picture in terms of Superman as he related to the New 52 and "Man of Steel" was that DC and Warner Brothers embarked on a bit of a soul-searching endeavor for the most enduring fictional character of the 20th century.

The Superman soul-searching didn't really begin in 2011. You have to go back a little further. Onc could make the argument that "Superman Returns" - even though mostly an sequel to Richard Donner's "Superman" and "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" - started to explore a more burdened Man of Tomorrow.

"Infinite Crisis" also toyed with the idea of a more burdened Superman, albeit some different forms such as Superboy-Prime and Earth-2 Superman. But it was in 2010 that DC sort of went into overdrive with J. Michael Straczynski's "Superman: Grounded" - the notorious storyline where Superman walked across the country and barely used his powers and denounced the United States - and "Superman: Earth One" which depicted a new origin story and a really angry version of Superman.

The New 52 took this a little further. Superman became younger, a little unhinged and teetering towards "angry god." He was an orphan (again) and back to beating up mob bosses. There was no romance with Lois Lane - there was an eventual one with Wonder Woman - and for all intents and purposes, Superman became nearly unrecognizable.

This new version of Superman also brought about a new costume. One that abandoned many of the conventions of the classic iteration. There were no more red trunks or yellow belt, the cape featured a black "S" (which was once taboo for Superman to wear black on the classic suit), and the costume was made of armor. Not just any armor though, it was Kryptonian armor that phased in from the shield. Why would Superman need armor? The basic design itself wasn't terrible, but it didn't stand out. This armor was coupled with a T-shirt and jeans early version that appeared in Grant Morrison's run on "Action Comics," which was a play off of the Golden Age version of the character.

I have long said that the quality and success of DC hinges on the treatment of Superman - whether they realize it or not. There is perhaps no greater evidence of this than the journey the character has been on from 2011-2018.

New 52 Superman never truly resonated with readers. "Man of Steel" became a major point of controversy amongst fans, as did "Batman v. Superman." The push seemed to be "make Superman an angry god." It never really worked, except for the "Injustice" franchise which takes place in an alternate reality and saw the "real" Superman from the prime Earth defeat the "evil" Superman of the "Injustice" Earth. But the real reason these concepts never picked up a ton of traction has a lot to do with the fact that at the end of the day, Superman is more human than he is Kryptonian or godlike.

Speaking of "Man of Steel," the evolution of Henry Cavill's Superman is also an interesting example of the soul-searching DC and WB were doing for the character. Of note, this exploration also saw changed to the costume that were somewhat noticeable as they tried to figure out who this Superman was. The original suit was designed to look alien, and it certainly did for Superman. The red and yellow of the "S" was muted and the blues were very dark. The trunks were gone and there wasn't even a belt.

These elements were brightened for "Batman v. Superman," and he was given something that looked a little more like a belt, but it still didn't feel right. However, this was overshadows by the character's actions and personality were completely unrecognizable that even his "death" had very little impact. By the time "Justice League" rolled around, Superman was more recognizable, the costume was brighter and he felt like the genuine article for the first time.

When Greg Pak took over Superman in "Action Comics" from 2013-2015, the New 52 Superman started to become much more recognizable in his attitude. The New 52 look was tweaked to make it a bit more streamlined, but the basic red and blue color scheme remained. Though he lost his powers for much of the storyline - donning jeans and a very Fleischer-esque "S" shield T-shirt, Superman was much more recognizable.

During DC's "Convergence" storyline, different eras and events from DC's past were revisited. One of the Superman series during convergence saw the return of the pre-New 52 Superman. In this storyline, he didn't have powers and Lois Lane was pregnant. At the end of the series, his powers returned, Lois gave birth and the short series was met with high-acclaim. Shortly thereafter, this version of Superman was revealed to have somehow survived Flashpoint (which created the New 52) and had been in hiding, living with Lois and raising their son Jon.

All of this led into "Rebirth," which saw the death of the New 52 Superman and returned the pre-New 52 to the New 52 timeline. Confusing? Basically all you need to know is that classic Superman returned to the comics. He had a very "Man of Steel"-esque costume with blue boots, but he was definitely The Man of Tomorrow and he was finally a father, adding a new and long experimented element to the character.

At the same time, the CW's show "Supergirl" gave us a new live-action version of Superman, portrayed by Tyler Hoechlin. I've praised this portrayal of the character as one of the best ever and I stand by that because Hoechlin gave us a Superman that was universally recognized, fit in elements of the Christopher Reeve portrayal and was the smiling, hopeful character fans expect. This version of the character was also universally praised, leading to fan demand for a spin-off series. Hoechln's Superman costume was actually a decent design, the best I'd seen with no red trunks. The cape had gold clips to attach it, and the red belt had gold accents. It's worked and it looked good on screen.

This eventually brought us to 2017's "Reborn." This was the clearest indication yet that DC and Warner Brothers had found what they were searching for - the classic Superman. Quite frankly, I love the Reborn design. If you're going to go without red trunks, the Reborn look has been how to do it. But the Reborn storyline also once again revamped Superman's history. It essentially erased New 52 Superman from existence and instead took the most classic elements of the character's origin and history and presented that as his true origin. This was the result of a merging between Rebirth and New 52 Superman - Mr. Mxyzpltk revealing that the one constant at the heart of the DC Multiverse has to be Lois and Clark. It was a beautiful story and it has returned Superman to his truest form - and kept the fact that he is married and a father, a dynamic that has worked exceptionally well ever since.

All of this has brought us back to the present. The milestone Action Comics #1000 is on the horizon and DC revealed that after seven years, the red trunks are back. In fact, the classic costume is outright back, with the added wrist cuffs. They have now - for all intents and purposes - completely restored the Superman they abandoned in favor of the New 52. The entire journey has been pretty astounding, the soul-searching of DC Comics basically takes on a physical form in that of Superman's red trunks.

I'm going to be completely honest. I've really loved the Reborn look, but there was NEVER anything wrong with Superman's costume. It's a perfect design, it's iconic and it has stood the test of time. Who cares about the red trunks on the outside? Sure, you could argue it's outdated, but you could also argue it's wholly unique to Superman. In fact, I think Supes should be the ONLY character with this feature going forward. (The Batman Rebirth costume is PERFECTION, let's not mess with it).

Who cares about the details, whether it's Kryptonian or his mother made it, what matters is that the classic look of Superman has been the enduring symbol of hope and American mythos for 80 years and it will continue to be.

The success of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy certainly brought with it a desire for DC Comics to explore a darker side of their own soul. They've redefine characters and reset timelines multiple times and have now come full circle by restoring Superman in Jim Lee's cover to Action Comics #1000.

Superman's return to his most recognizable and classic look also brings DC Comics fully back to its roots, and reminds us why we look up in the sky.

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