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Strange, Familiar Visitor from Another Planet - Superman and Storytelling

What was your first Superman story?

It should be a simple question. I can tell you my first Batman story - the 1966 Adam West series, of course, which remains one of my favorite comic adaptations. Or my first Spider-Man story, via a tape of the 1967 animated series episodes. But for Superman, it’s not as clear. Every time I think about it, an earlier memory pops up. Superman II (taped off HBO)? The Fleisher cartoons (copied from a rented collection)? A couple comic issues from a yard sale? The Atari 2600 game? General vague awareness aside (all of these were preceded by Sesame Street’s Super Grover, after all), that first piece of actual Superman media remains shrouded in some half-discovered, half-imagined past - not unlike the man’s own experience with the world of Krypton.

While I was born into the tail end of 70s-80s Supermania (and, thankfully, a family with a relaxed attitude toward copyright law), I doubt my experience is unique. Superman has been a towering presence in popular consciousness almost from the very beginning, with an incarnation in every conceivable media format since its inception, often helping define the nature of that medium. Comics’ “Golden Age” naturally starts with Action Comics #1, but radio, film (serialized and standalone), television, animation (theatrical and televised) and video games (that same Atari cartridge) all saw major developments through their own versions of the Man of Steel - and the guaranteed audiences that followed him.

It makes sense that Superman translates well to new formats and new audiences. Not only is the character instantly recognizable, but everything one needs to know can be fit into a few sentences… and often is! (“Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive..”) Those few sentences might change depending on the specific adaptation - the 1951 TV series added “disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper” because that would be a major part of the series, but they never change much, and there are never very many of them. The base-level familiarity is such a part of our background noise, we might not recognize as storytelling. But it is. Or, at least part of it.

What was your first Superman story?

I know exactly what Superman story I could first call my own, though. One I sought out and chose, rather than it being handed off from a parent or stumbled upon on TV. It was the “Reign of the Superman” arc following the “Death of Superman” crossover event. Ironically, my first personal Superman story, the first one I experienced on my own, with no idea of where it would be going... had no Superman at all.

Or, rather... it had four Supermen.

A brief history lesson: DC Comics much-hyped death of Superman is still much discussed as cold, calculated cash grab by a publisher testing the limits of the comic industry bubble. The storyline ran across all the various Superman titles, and a few others as well, so you had to buy a ton of comics every month to stay on top of it. Less discussed, though, is the follow-up move they pulled next: using this captive audience to roll out new characters that would get their own books once Supes was resuscitated. Zillions of issues sold, new titles previewed, tons of money made.

I did not spend tons of money. I got the comics a year or two after from the bargain bin at the store. By that point the bubble had burst, and even a broke middle-schooler could afford to read the series. But it was a Superman story that was new to me, and I was enthralled. Each of the new characters had a distinct tone, and I got a crash course in how wide a single franchise could get.

But there was an interesting thing going on. I won’t bore you with the details, collections are available both in print and digitally. But, in-universe, there  was a reason these Supermen were there, and it was that the same sense of presence, that same expectation that there would always be a guy fighting a never-ending battle for Truth and Justice (the American Way was a Cold War addition, the comic mirror universe’s equivalent of adding “under God to the Pledge of Allegiance.) And so some people took it upon themselves to do the job, and the people of Metropolis (if not the readers) supported anyone taking up the big S mantle.

All right, now let’s bring this back to storytelling.

What was your first Superman story?

Reign of the Supermen may have been an appropriate title for this essay, because in all the stories I’ve talked about, there have been three Supermen. Even the ones where there were four of him.

The first is the Superman we conjure up, the idea of Superman, the one I was aware of even before I had my first exposure to an actual media iteration of him. This is the Superman we bring to the table, and it can go from vague notions of speeding bullets and locomotives to in-depth knowledge of his whole family tree and all the weird, weird stuff from the Silver Age, to remembering the plot of the previous issue or episode. Whatever the source material, it’s assembled in your mind to form a single character, allowing for the varieties of depiction you have been exposed to. This is your personal Superman.

The second is the Superman in whatever media you are experiencing him. This Superman is bound to the page, the projection, the screen, and the contents thereof - what the Humanities call “the text.” The second Superman exists at a remove from you, and he is universal. Everyone in the world would see the same page. He is unchanging - that is, every time you look at the panel or the frame, it will be the same. What you notice may be different, but the relationship between the second and first Superman is where the magic lies. The act of reading, of watching transforms the hard, distant second Superman into the first. He becomes yours, a part of your Superman conception.

The third can be the ugliest Superman, farthest from what any audience considers a “real” Superman, but is, sadly, the only that can be considered “real.” This is Superman as a commodity or, more precisely, a “property.” This is the Superman that is owned, controlled, legally bound. This Superman has become a lot more well-known in recent years, as we see reboot attempt after reboot attempt and behind-the-scenes laundry is aired, but this is another arena Superman entered very early on, with the character’s creators suing DC Comics to take back ownership in 1948 and losing. We, as an audience, have to accept the existence of the third Superman, such as when I acknowledged the reason for his “death” above, but will usually try to keep him hidden, lest he cause the others to vanish into associations of writ and copyright law.

So those are the three, bound together like the villains in the Phantom Zone, yet distinct and separate. Except… in the world of roleplaying games. There, the three meld and shift in fascinating ways, where players and gamemaster create all kinds of Supermen that are simultaneously conceptual (in their imaginations) and textual (through their interactions). The third Superman is a bit more elusive here, but he isn’t altogether absent. Not only does he have permanent residence in the rulebook, allowing its existence as a purchasable item, but he hides in the shadows of the format itself, in the GM’s solid (if temporary) control of the property at the table, and the unspoken agreement that it is the GM’s ideation that everyone is working from. Outside the table, a massive multinational corporation dictates how and where Superman can appear, but at the table the Figure Behind the Screen gets to make those choices… and here, the audience gets their say, too.

So, to finish up, one question remains open, for as long as we are willing to ask it:

What will your next Superman story be?

- Bugsy

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