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The most radical alteration of Superman is also the newest, the work of Writer-Artist Byrne, 37, who redesigned him for DC Comics in 1986. Circulation had slumped below 100,000 copies a month (compared, for example, with nearly 500,000 for Uncanny X-Men), and DC Comics President Jenette Kahn decided that "there was a coat of rust on the man of steel." She also knew that the audience for comics was changing. The corner candy store where kids used to buy comics has largely disappeared, and the kids have grown older. Today's buyers average about 20 and are apt to be science students or even engineers, "techies" with money to spend on modems, VCRs, quadraphonic sound and the book-length comics now known as graphic novels.
"We knew we were going to offend some people," says Byrne, "but the modern audience now wants a superhero who grunts, sweats and goes to the bathroom. He used to be a superman; now he's a superman." Byrne's Clark Kent brushes his hair straight back and wears round glasses. He and Superman are also drawn quite differently, more cinematically and in more garish colors. Superman's superpowers have been modified, and to keep in shape he works out with weights. He reflects the contemporary vogue of male "sensitivity"; DC officials hint he may become involved with AIDS victims and the homeless.
There is in this a deplorable element that might be called adultification, in which a figure created for children is subjected to adult concerns, much as though Tom Sawyer or Alice in Wonderland were updated by being made to confront sexual problems. Yet despite the myriad changes in the legend, something strong and fundamental remains. DC Comics is delighted that its newest Superman has doubled sales, to 200,000, but that is a relatively paltry number compared with the millions who cherish an older image from their childhood.
This older image, this Classic Coke, the real Superman, is a figure who somehow manages to embody the best qualities in that nebulous thing known as the American character. He is honest, he tells the truth, he is idealistic and optimistic, he helps people in need. He not only fights criminals but is indifferent to those vices that so often lead the rest of us astray. Despite his heroic abilities, he is not vain. He is not greedy. He is not an operator, a manipulator, not an inside trader. He does not lust after power. And not only is he good, he is also innocent, in a kind and guileless way that Americans have sometimes been but more often have only imagined themselves to be.
This is what Reeve saw -- and was touched by -- in his encounters with his fans. This is why we can give three cheers and sing Happy Birthday to the man of steel on his more-or-less 50th. Let us just hope that he someday reaches 100.