The Problem with Superman


    In the boardroom at DC Comics, a life-size statue of Clark Kent sits in a chair reading the Daily Planet. Lately the talk is probably making him a little nervous. Superman is still the company's flagship icon, but Batman outsells him, and the original superhero hasn't starred in a movie for 17 years. But help may be on the way. DC is installing new creative talent on all three main monthly Superman comics, starting with the June issues. "Periodically there's just a moment that happens when a new generation of talent steps in, and you get some fresh points of view," says Paul Levitz, president and publisher of DC, which, like this magazine, is owned by Time Warner. In other words, the Man of Steel is getting a makeover. Now, how do you improve a guy who has super-everything?

    For America's multimillion-dollar Superman industry, it's a serious problem. This is a guy who's from outer space — he was born on the planet Krypton, let's not forget — but he's also from another time. He debuted in the 1930s, when Americans liked their heroes like they liked their steaks: tough, thick and all-American. Nowadays we prefer our heroes dark and flawed and tragic. Look at the Punisher (wife and kids dead), or Hellboy (born a demon), or Spider-Man (secretly a nerd). Look at Batman: his parents were killed in front of him, and he dresses like a Cure fan. Now look at the big blue Boy Scout, with his cleft chin and his spit curl. He's just not cool.

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    Jim Lee, who's taking over the art on Superman, is fresh from a run on best-selling Batman, so he's in touch with his dark side. But he admits it's a challenge. "Batman is a more modern-era type character," Lee says. "He's fueled by vengeance; he's the boogeyman. Superman is the altruistic alien hero that protects us all. It's difficult to make that believable in this day and age." In their first issue, Lee and writer Brian Azzarello have

    Superman in a church pouring out his heart to a priest. While Superman's back was turned, a million people vanished from earth, including Lois Lane, and he's powerless to do anything about it. He's a brooding, angry, heavily shadowed Superman, riddled with self-doubt. "For the first time, I was really afraid," he says. "Lost, without my rhythm." You get through the entire issue before you realize not a single punch has been thrown.

    When writer Chuck Austen got handed Action Comics, another Superman monthly, he knew punches would be thrown, what with the title and all. But Superman is on the receiving end for a change. "As someone who loved the dark side for a long time, I had little or no interest in Superman for years," Austen says. "He was perfect — his powers left him with no vulnerability. So I requested DC allow some cosmetic changes — make him a bit less powerful, a lot more vulnerable physically." Austen's Superman can take a joke as well as a punch. He rags on his sparring partners for their lame trash talk: "What's next? 'Mindless cretin!' Or 'Had enough?' Or my personal favorite--'No one can stand before the might of--(your name here)." The tone is light and fresh and surprisingly funny. "Much of it is the fun of playing against his type," says Austen. "But much more of it is, without question, to upgrade him a bit. He's the greatest superhero ever created! He needs to be cool!"

    Superman has a better shot at cool in comic books than he does on the big screen. The new Superman movie — bogged down for years, partly because the studio can't get an actor to don the tights — is on its fourth director, McG (Charlie's Angels), but the lead role is still uncast. Jude Law, Brendan Fraser and Ashton Kutcher have been mentioned; Josh Hartnett has already turned it down. "We have to find Superman," says Dawn Taubin, president of domestic marketing for Warner Bros. Pictures. "That's a big, important piece of the puzzle."

    Smallville, featuring a teenage Clark Kent, is the No. 1 show on the WB, but the best onscreen version may be the deadpan, dead-on American Express ads on TV and the Internet featuring and in part written by Jerry Seinfeld. Does the comedian think Superman needs refurbishing? "I do," Seinfeld says. "I thought that they kind of botched it up. The last series of films really lost the whole essence of the appeal of the character." Seinfeld's Superman, who gets too much mayonnaise on his sandwich and can't figure out a DVD player, may be the most credibly human version yet.

    You can watch writers turning Superman over and over until they find a way to fit him into a contemporary context. The top-selling comic book in March was Superman/Batman, a series that plays the dialectical duo of the DC universe off each other like Vladimir and Estragon. It's a Bird ... is a graphic novel about a comic-book writer who can't write a Superman story: he's blocked. "There's no access point to the character for me," he complains. "Too much about him makes no sense." A limited-run comic called Secret Identity tells the story of a Superman who lives in the real world, our world, and who plays a lifelong chess game with the government and the media to keep his true nature hidden. What could be more modern than a hero with an obsessive need for privacy?

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