Reporting Luke McKinney
Superman is to comics as gravity is to the real world: an idea that seems too simple to be so incredibly powerful, and it defines the direction of an entire universe. He quite literally defines being super. He’s more powerful than the atomic bomb, and he came first.
He’s the most famous face in comics, which is why so many people were worried about the reboot. They were desperately hoping that DC wouldn’t screw up the world’s greatest hero. But they shouldn’t have worried, because DC did that ages ago. Behold, the six worst Supermen!
At Earth’s End
How bad can a Superman comic get? Double Hitler. That’s not just a measurement of bad, that’s actually what happens.
At Earth’s End is double impossible, because it features Santa-Superman using the world’s stupidest gun to kill Double Hitler, and it sucks. It should have been the most amazingly over-the-top battle in history: the greatest force for good versus the ultimate icon of evil, squared. Unfortunately they hired the only person in the history of the world who thought “Double Hitler” could be turned into a serious story.
It starts with Santa-Superman living in a cyborg city over an Earth devastated by nuclear warheads, then getting upset about cyborgs cleaning out monster lairs with nuclear warheads. Apparently the first four thousand nukes that annihilated the entire planet were fine, but four thousand and one was just too much.
Superman wins by using the gun. No, not “a” gun. THE gun. It looks like all guns on the planet were welded together into the biggest hunk of stupid since the Hulk.
After straight up shooting the bad guys Superman marches into a funeral pyre to burn alive. So in this comic Superman uses guns, murders people, then commits suicide. He couldn’t be less Super if he started wearing his underwear under his pants and then soiled them. Lex Luthor couldn’t destroy Superman harder if he escaped into the real world and bought DC, because Lex understands Superman, and author Tom Veitch clearly wasn’t burdened with that knowledge.
Kingdom Come was no mere comic, it was a masterpiece exploring the conflict between power and morality. And nuclear warheads (comics aren’t big on subtlety). Unfortunately Superman starts it as the biggest @$$#0!% on the planet. The story begins ten years after new hero Magog finally hauls off and kills the Joker, and Superman is upset when the entire world fist-pumps and shouts “Finally!”
He then sulks for an entire decade. Because when we think of Superman, we think of an adolescent teenager storming off to hide in his room. Wonder Woman finds him working on a beautiful farm, rolling with golden fields of wheat, and when we’re almost glad he retired to find peace we find out that the farm is a holographic simulation.
The most powerful man in the universe has finally dropped his heroic burden, is free to do whatever he wants, and he’s pretending to be an illegal migrant worker. Which is technically what he was anyway (Krypton didn’t issue him a passport while exploding). Even working as an honest farmhand would be heroic, but he’s not even helping real plants. He’s just pretending to work to make things better on his own land. We know that anyone with a holodeck would use it for their ultimate fantasy, and we’re forced to realize that Superman’s is roleplay where even the plants don’t get lucky.
Superman Red and Blue
Superman Red and Blue is how DC announced that they’re allergic to originality. Blue was smarter and red was angrier, because that’s the level of writing you get when you’re so creatively bankrupt that you rewrite your most iconic hero according to primary colors. You should only split a hero into red and blue when you’re trying to make them 3D.
The whole thing was DC sulking and threatening to tear up their favorite Superman if people didn’t start buying it. Listen, DC, if you’ve got Superman on your team and you’re still losing, he’s not the problem. The new Supermen had electrical powers. Which might have been new and interesting when he was first created, sixty years earlier.
By 1998 there were already so many boring electrical superheroes that the JLA didn’t pay electric bills, they just stick most of them in the basement to hold copper wires. Which is still a smarter use of their powers than crime-fighting. It turns out that when you share the same basic abilities as an electric chair, you’re not really a hero.
The new Supermen missed every single point of the character: bullets passed through them instead of bouncing off their chests, they teleported instead of flying through the sky, and the first few issues turned it into a romantic comedy about Lois Lane not being down for a threesome. Because that’s what you want in something called “Action Comics.”
The readers hated the new Supermen so much you’d swear they were all Lex Luthor. The two Supermen were merged back into the original so suddenly and with so little explanation that even Superman didn’t really know how it happened, and he was there, twice.
Dr. Manhattan was created when someone looked at Captain Atom and thought “What would such total control of the fundamental forces of the universe actually do to a man?” Quantum Superman was created when someone else looked at Dr. Manhattan and thought “I wish I’d thought of that.”
Captain Allen Adam’s body was destroyed in an experimental radiation accident, but his newly-empowered mind built himself another one, colored it blue, gained amazing quantum senses which let him see all of time simultaneously, and presumably turned directly to his writer to say “Are you really photocopying one of the most famous heroes in comics?”
The only difference was how Quantum Superman was drugged to lose most of his amazing and original abilities, reducing him to the level of milling around in a cape like all the other unoriginal heroes. Making him a brilliant metaphor for his own writing. DC didn’t even need to steal Dr. Manhattan. They own him! They’ve openly admitted that Quantum Superman is based on Manhattan, but it’s in the same way that homework is often based on Wikipedia articles: it’s not very good, lazy, and involves someone skipping all the actual work they were meant to do.
Instead of transcending the entire structure of comics, Quantum Superman functions as a walking magic box to do whatever the story requires. Which in this case involves fusing Superman and the evil Ultraman to create a giant Superman robot, and I deeply apologize for making that sound awesome. It wasn’t. When a comic establishes the limits of its originality as “copying two of our own characters simultaneously”, you don’t get original robot design.
Superboy was the start of DC’s attempt to clone their own best hero to make more money. Lex Luthor has tried the exact same plan several times, and even his attempts never ended so disastrously. Superboy has had so many fictional origin stories you’d swear they were just shoving a different kid in the suit each time, and hurriedly seeking another every time they find out he’s not invincible.
They merged all the Superboy stories into one result, in the same way your digestive system can merge a twelve course meal into one result. Superboy-Prime comes from Earth-Prime, the real world where comics are just comics and Superman is a fictional character, but he’s super for real, and I’ve lost the use of my legs just by writing something so lame. That setup would be embarrassing in the set-up for Sonic the Hedgehog orgy fan-fiction. And the results would be less painful, and poke less holes in important parts in the story.
DC agreed, erasing his home universe in Crisis on Infinite Earths, but Superboy-Prime himself was scooped out and kept safe in a heaven dimension. Because if you told some writers not to touch the biohazard container dumped behind the leaking nuclear waste barrels, they’d open it to try and find a new superhero. Except that would actually be a good way to do that.
He became the incarnation of continuity meddling when he once became so angry that he punched reality itself, causing shockwaves in spacetime. Not “devastating reality and annihilating entire galaxies” shockwaves. No, these were “fix all our plot holes and continuity errors” shockwaves.
Stuff like resurrecting a Robin and merging the alternate Hawkmen. Listen, you don’t need to hammer the structure reality to explain Hawkman. You don’t need to bother anyone by explaining Hawkman, just tell him to get lost or you’ll pluck him. “Hey, Hawkie, we’ve got something like three gods, we don’t really need a fancy helmet and a blunt instrument. Go see if The Masters of the Universe are hiring.”
The story admitted that even when it came to their own bad plotting, the writers’ only Superman solution was “punch it.” And when even your “simplified explanation” includes an alternate of a spinoff of another character you didn’t understand those words. Which is bad for a writer. It would have been a less stupid explanation if Superman had pulled off his own face to reveal a photo of the writer saying “We just don’t care.”
Honorable Mention: Silver Age Superman
If you were expecting mockery of Silver Age Superman, you should show more respect for a true hero.
He’s probably the bravest Superman of them all. So super-straight-laced he doesn’t even drink, and he had to live through a decade of more acid trips than the ’60s. A normal human couldn’t take one month of the BS he was subjected to without trying to punch every single human being in his life into the sun, and Superman just took it despite being able to actually do that.
Luke McKinney writes about games, drink, science, and everything else that makes life amazing. He’s a columnist on Cracked and writes for several beer magazines. He’s also available for hire. Follow him on Tumblr and Twitter @lukemckinney.
Want more Man of Steel? Then learn the history of the Super-Bat Bromance or see which Supervillains Are Too Lame to Be in a Man of Steel Movie.