If you turn back the clock twenty years and look at the Superman comics that would have been new in stores at that time, younger fans might be surprised to see a version of the character who, physically at least, doesn't resemble what you think of when you say "Superman" at all.
That's becuase twenty years ago last month, Superman #123 hit the stands and reinvented the Man of Steel as an energy-based superhero with a one-piece outfit, blue skin, and electric powers.
It was a few months later that Superman was split into two distinct characters in a reinvention of an old story called "Superman Red/Superman Blue," elements of which have recently been reused in Superman and Action Comics.
The story was at the time -- and continues to be -- controversial, often mocked, and beloved by many of the dedicated audience who were reading the Superman titles at the time, many of whom had been on board since 1992's The Death of Superman, some even since John Byrne's The Man of Steel reboot in 1986.
To get a sense for how the story developed, how it has aged, and some of te creative machinations that went into it, ComicBook.com performed a series of interviews, and has combined most of them into a roundtable interview.
Below, you can find remarks and recollections from longtime DC editor Mike Carlin; then-Superman writer Dan Jurgens; Superman: The Man of Steel artist Jon Bogdanove; The Adventures of Superman writer/artist Stuart Immonen; Action Comics writer Karl Kesel; and Glenn Whitmore, who colored all of the Superman titles at the time.
Some further insight, including a lengthy interview with Superman artist Ron Frenz, who designed the new costume, will be coming along soon.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
What, in your recollection, led to the Power Surge/Superman Transformed storyline?
Karl Kesel: The idea had come into my mind to give Superman completely different powers. Not only would this be a fun monkey wrench to throw at Our Hero, but on a story level I saw lots of possibilities to show Superman struggling — something not easy to do or often seen with Superman. For the first time he wouldn’t know what he was capable of, he wouldn’t know what could or couldn’t hurt him. I liked the idea of showing Superman learning, pushing himself, sometimes failing because, well, that didn’t work. It also gave us the opportunity to give fights with old enemies a new twist.
In the end, though, the real point of the arc would be: it isn’t the powers that make Superman who is is, it’s Superman himself. I had no idea what those new powers might be — and I actually wanted other people to contribute that part so that more people were invested in the story. I believe Jon Bogdanove suggested energy powers.
The whole Red/Blue thing came later. In all honesty it would have ever happened if we hadn’t gone with the Ron Frenz’s blue suit design. We could have just as easily had a black suit with some sort of glowing design on it — in which case Red/Blue would have never happened. I’m not sure who came up with the Red/Blue idea — I’d guess Dan or Roger.
Dan Jurgens: We were always looking for big stories to do with Superman and those usually involved the idea of changing up the status quo in some way. We had discussed the general idea of a costume change even back when we brought him back from the dead, of course. That was part of the inspiration for the all black costume.
So we kind of revived some of that here and also went with a change in powers, which we’d also talked about previously.
Jon Bogdanove: It was introduced at the Super Summit, and we were like "Yeah, okay." [Laughs] That was a period when the company was looking fo the next Death of Superman and we were deep into event-driven mode. Of course we knew that you couldn't just manufacture the next Death of Superman, but the assignment was to come up with whatever the next overarching arc is. I think it was Mike [Carlin] who suggested Superman Red/Superman Blue. We were talking about some of that stuff form the "silly sixties," from the Julius Schwartz era that we read when we were growing up, from the Weisinger era. We were slapping around for what the next big event was, and for some reason we settled on Superman Red and Blue, and it sort of grew from there.
How would you respond to the assessment that this and similar events came out of a desire by editorial to find "the next Death of Superman?”
Carlin: Never once did management tell us to “Do it again.” Lucky for us VPs like Paul Levitz and Dick Giordano were from the creative pool and knew that we had caught lightning in a bottle. That being the case, as creators ourselves, WE wanted to see if we could do more and more stories that the readers would get excited about.
Mike, Jon says you were the one who sold it to the team. Is that your recollection as well?
Mike Carlin: Nope. When we used to do the Superman Summits we included all four writers, all four pencilers, all four inkers AND the colorist even. And as corny as it seems doing SOMETHING with "Superman Red/Superman Blue” was suggested by colorist Glenn Whitmore.
We worked very hard not to simply discount any ideas no matter what corner of the room they came from — and we were all fans of the original “Imaginary Story,” but we wanted to do something new that was something the particular team we had assembled at that time wanted to get behind. Now if the writers and artists couldn’t come up with something the room wanted to do we wouldn’t have done it. People joined in with ideas and suggestions… and the Power Surge idea was fleshed out. And while it was controversial when it came out — clearly we’re still talking about it.
Glenn Whitmore: The idea to revisit "Superman Red/Superman Blue" did come from me. Every year at the Super-summit, it would become the running gag that I (as colorist) would pitch the idea, though I was serious about it. Being someone who loved the Silver Age, I simply envisioned in my mind that Superman would be drawn by the artists as Curt Swan drew him. The story would simply be one about a split personality; Red would have the more aggressive personality while Blue was the more cerebral and thoughtful one.
I have the distinct memory of being in the conference room and pitching that idea. Everyone began to laugh at me. This idea had everyone in stitches as if it was the most inane idea ever pitched. In those days, I was the youngest of the group with the reputation of a goofball. Anyhow, I was dead serious when I pitched it. Not being a writer, I probably had trouble articulating what was in my head.
Every year after, I would seriously mention it, yet still knowing it would get laughs out of the rest of the Super crew.
Somewhere along the way, budgets were cut and the colorist could no longer attend the Super-Summits. KC Carlson had become editor at this point, and when I made a visit to the office (after missing that particular Super-summit), I laughed when I saw the notes for Superman Red/Blue on the plot grids. I had absolutely nothing to do with the costume and powers redesign aspect, but some of the personality split aspects made it into the storyline.
But obviously it was always going to be a Superman Red/Superman Blue riff?
Jurgens: Over the years, we talked several times about doing “Superman Red/Superman Blue” somehow. Our colorist, Glenn Whitmore, had always been nudging us to do so!
In this case, we finally had a story where it would actually fit. Even as we started the story, we knew we’d get to “Red/Blue” before it was over.
Many of you were part of the Death and Return of Superman storyline, so you were no stranger to the mega-events in the Superman books. Did you anticipate the kind of response the costume and power change would get?
Jurgens: I thought it would get us a bump of sorts, but it ended up getting more attention than I expected. I think some of it was the glow-in-the-dark cover and some of it was simply the idea of us changing and updating Superman.
Carlin: We never tried to anticipate responses. Obviously we always hoped for the best with every storyline… but we also knew that ya can’t please everyone all the time. We certainly had no idea that the Death of Superman would get the attention it received— you can’t pay for the kind of hype the media decided to bestow on that storyline. All we could try to do was react. We made the Return of Superman bigger than originally intended BECAUSE the world was obviously watching. I always figured our job was to not drop the ball when it was thrown to us. And in the case of “Superman Red/Superman Blue” we got another big reaction— but a very different kind of reaction. Still our assignment was always to get people buzzing about what was going on in Superman— and on that level alone it succeeded.
Was always happy when a comic book story makes it onto Saturday Night Live the week it comes out. Again… you can’t buy that kind of awareness.
Kesel: You always hope the stories you want to tell are ones readers will respond to (in a good way!) but in my experience you can never predict that. I was very happy with the reactions.
FACING THE FUTURE
Dan has said in the past that, almost 25 years later, he still never goes to a convention where somebody doesn't approach him to sign the Death of Superman or ask him to talk about it. I wonder if there's still similar interest in the "Superman Transformed" story in your experience?
Carlin: I would say no. There are people who enjoyed the story…more people admitting it each day…but nothing will ever match “The Death and Return of Superman” in our lifetimes. Even while it was happening we knew that we would be talking about that for years to come.
That said, I am very happy that you wanted do a commemorative piece on "Superman Red/Superman Blue” for it’s 20th anniversary — during “The Death of Superman”’s 25th Anniversary, because the Super-Team did a lot of good story arcs during our time on the titles…and it’s nice to have more than the one story brought to the forefront.
Stuart Immonen: No, not so much.
Kesel: Oh, “The Death of Superman” is a much bigger moment in the character’s history. I sign far more “Reign of the Supermen” books— and even “Death” books, which I really had nothing to do with!— than I do “Superman Transformed” collections.
Jurgens: It’s weird—I have always and will always get plenty of “Death of…” issues to sign.
But, over the last few years, I’ve seen revived interest in Superman Transformed, just as I have with the Ben Reilly Spider-Man stuff. I get a lot more questions, comments and issues of both to sign these days.
Bogdanove: Well, when it happened of course, everyone was upset that we were messing with the “S.”
I don’t know…I sign an awful lot of them. I think they must have sold pretty well because I would say next to the Death of Superman and Reign of the Supermen eras, I get a lot of those Electric Blue eras.
Especially “The Death of Mr. Mxyzptlk,” which came in that run and where I got to do a lot of gag writing and stuff like that. There’s a lot of my personality in that 22-page-long fart joke.
I dont’ know if people talk to me about it a lot, but it comes across my table a lot.
AN HONEST APPRAISAL
It's a story that the Superman faithful still discuss pretty often. Would you say you're happy with the execution of the Electric Superman mega-arc?
Kesel: There are a few things I’d do differently, but over-all: very happy.
Carlin: Pretty much… it was something new and different for the Superman character (he had even died before we got to “The Death”, so this really was new) and that’s always fun. As for the folks that thought it was a mistake— it was a story— we always knew that we were getting back to “normal” when the story was done, same with “The Death”… Same with EVERY story arc. And the beauty of having all the Superman titles tie together during any given month, if you didn’t like a story… sit tight, there’ll be a new one coming fast enough.
Jurgens: I was happy with parts of it. Other parts, not so much.
I’d say it got a bit unwieldy there for a time. Big stories like that really need to have a certain amount of control exerted over them and we didn’t quite have that here. It was probably too big and the focus drifted a bit too much.
Is there anything you would do differently if you had it to do over again?
Kesel: The ending.
I don’t think the New Powers arc was resolved as well as it could have been. Since I had come up with the idea, I did propose an ending where we learn that some new villain had found a way to switch his powers with Superman — so now this villain had all of Superman’s powers, while Superman had his. And just as Superman was learning how to use these new powers, so was the bad-guy. Then the bad-guy starts wrecking havoc in ways Superman, of course, would never do, and Superman has to stop him. Basically, Superman has to find a way to defeat “himself.” He does, of course, and then the powers are transferred back to the proper bodies. This then gave us a villain with powers that everyone knows can beat Superman’s powers. I thought that’d be a cool note to end on. Mike Carlin over-ruled that idea, saying it was too much like Venom/Spider-man. Didn’t seem that way to me, but maybe it was.
I’ll admit at that point I was kinda “OK — that was my shot. Who’s got another idea?” And I, at least, didn’t hear any. It could well be that people were tossing ideas at editorial, and nothing was sticking. So when it came time to move on, I said “Well — what if we reveal this is just a stage in Kryptonian physiology, as altered by the effects of a red sun, and Superman more-or-less grows out of it and the new powers go away?” It wasn’t ideal, but we had to move forward quickly. I wrote this explanation into the plot of the jam issue that (abruptly) got rid of the powers, but I’m not sure it really, fully made it into the book itself. A huge stumble on our part. Biggest regret of my whole Superman run, without a doubt.
Jurgens: I’d address focus and the overall size of it, as mentioned above. Smaller, better delineated chapters would have helped he entire approach. I think I’d also try to clean up the ending a bit.
The entire “Death of…” through “Return of…” was focused and linear. That’s really hard to do but if we had more of that here, we’d probably have been better off. That’s not to say I’d change anything as much as I’d tighten it up.
Carlin: There are always things you can tweak and second guess… but comics are a never-ending battle and we’re always moving on to our next fight, and can’t afford the luxury of looking back and re-doing in most cases.
Whitmore: If I were to take on the job now, I would either assemble a team and form a studio to color it, or assimilate myself into a pre existing team. Take one glance at today's Superman comics, and you'll notice the whole approach is different. A LOT more work goes into each panel than I ever put into it back in the '90s.
Today, I could never color a book like that by myself. Also, the conventional wisdom is that my "traditional, comic book-y" approach wouldn't work for today's readership. However, others have given me positive feedback on the more colorful approach, praising me for "not being afraid to use color." Whatever the art style is, the colorist has to tailor his palette to complement it.
I do know that if DC ever contacted me about coloring a Superman comic based on the Max Fleischer version, I'd be all over it. In fact, a few years ago, I colored a Superman/OMAC story written by Jerry Ordway and drawn by Steve Rude. It was probably my last hurrah with the character and a nice one at that.
Karl, you in particular had to do a lot of heavy lifting to set up this story since you were the brains behind The Final Night. Did The Final Night begin its life as part of this story, or was it just a story you wanted to tell, which turned out to dovetail nicely into this?
Kesel: The Final Night came out of brainstorming possible Superman stories for an upcoming Summit with Stuart `. Stuart said “Superman’s powers come from the sun— what if the sun went out?” And I said “If the sun went out, Superman wouldn’t be the only one with problems!” And a mini-series event was born! I don’t remember it had any specific connections to the New Powers storyline.
Stuart, you worked on The Final Night as well. Between drawing a big event and then taking over as writer/artist on your own book, did it feel a bit like you were being put forth as the future of the franchise or the next Dan Jurgens/John Byrne/Jerry Ordway? As a reader, I remember feeling like your style and Bogdanove's both really killed it on the Electric Superman.
Immonen: This is very kind of you, but I’m not sure I felt entirely stylistically comfortable until very close to the end of my tenure on the Superman books. I enjoyed the freedom of being able to experiment a little with formal aspects of storytelling, employing different styles, telling stories within stories and playing with format, but I suspect readers would have preferred meat-and-potatoes Superman to what I was doing.
At the start of this story, you had Stuart Immonen, while later it was Tom Grummett drawing the book. Both of those guys are unquestionably A-list talent, but they have a very different look and feel and approach to Superman. Was that an adjustment for you, particularly in the middle of a story where there were already so many big changes going on?
Kesel: I don’t remember any problems or adjustments. Of course, I’d worked with Tom a lot by that point, so having him back on the book was more like spending more time with an old friend. Made for an easy transition.
Mike, from the editorial end, it seems like the shifting roles of Stuart Immonen and Tom Grummett during this time might have been difficult to juggle. Did you know when this big status quo-shattering event started that you would be losing David Michelinie, or was that a surprise?
Carlin: We never really had a lot of surprises in the Super-Group… everyone was always up front and honest when they wanted to move on… and we always knew that it wasn’t in our interest to force someone to stay. We’d lost a few folks before, John Byrne, Jerry Ordway, Roger Stern, Jackson Guice, Bob McLeod, George Perez… almost everyone was super-professional and gave us editors plenty of time to find suitable replacements. Sometimes if there was to be overlap we’d have two writers for one title attend the Summit… which is what we did when Ordway was leaving writing ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, we had Karl Kesel come to the meeting so he could introduce his Superboy in the issue after Jerry O’s swan song (ADVENTURES #500).
Stuart, did it feel a little like a trial-by-fire to be writing and drawing your own book in the middle of a big event?
Immonen: With the entire creative roster starting from scratch, and given the structure of the books at the time with an overarching story being carried from title to title every week, and the support of the rest of the teams, it was an ideal way to start a monthly gig. I’d written other things for DC before that, and I expect Joey felt it was better to keep the books “in the family” when Roger and Tom stepped over to the quarterly.
RED AND BLUE
I remember thinking that there was some variation in the way different writers tackled Superman Blue and Superman Red and their wildly different personalities. Was that a topic of a lot of conversation at the time?
Carlin: Mostly at the initial Summit…though we did encourage writers to collaborate on the phone whenever they wanted/needed to. And we had a fairly elaborate system of sending everyone on the team copies of whatever the other creators did that week. So every Saturday everyone would get a massive dump of plots and scripts and pencils and inks…and the onus was on the gang to keep up, so that all the stories reflected each other as best they could. Sure do wish we had PDFs and Scans back then…would’ve saved money on Saturday Delivery.
Immonen: I don’t recall. As was usual, everyone would receive a weekly package with whatever art and script had been turned in to the office, so we were all kept apprised of how each team was handling the material; I think having different takes on the character(s) is par for the course when you have five creative teams exploring new territory in a parallel formation.
Jurgens: That’s one of the things I would have tightened up.
I really can’t emphasize this enough: The idea of producing a tight, weekly comic is extraordinarily difficult. Miss one or two things and it can get sloppy in a hurry. Sort of like a NASA moon launch. Throw a few too many pounds on the ship and it gets thrown off course and will end up on Jupiter instead of its intended target.
(Yes, I know that’s an exaggeration. But it serves the point!)
Bogdanove: I was a little whiny about it at first. Ron Frenz drew what is actually a pretty good costume, but I just wanted to draw Superman. I started calling it the “skater’s costume,” because it looked like a speed skater’s costume. But what saved the whole thing for me was, when I realized that Superman Red and Superman Blue weren’t just duplicates of the same guy, but you could really treat it like two sides of Superman’s personality.
That was really fun, because Superman Blue, for me at least, became the “serious” Superman. Very much the Dan Jurgens sort of grim hero. Superman Red was the late ‘40s bantering Superman, who would punch something and make some lame pun about it. A Superman who seemed to be having fun doing super-stuff. I liked the possibility of splitting Superman into two personalities, that both were sides of him, sort of “Mirror Mirror”-like from Star Trek, having him deal with different sides of his personality, except one’s not crazy and bad, they’re just different sides of his personality. That became kind of fun.
I think they idea to spin the two characters as different interpretations of Superman developed as we started working on the character. It didn’t happen at the summit, I don’t think. I think it just sort of happened organically. Blue Superman was maybe Superman first, Clark as a disguise, and Superman Red was Clark first, Superman as the job. I don’t remember talking about the differences of their personality, I think it just happened.
I feel like a lot of people remember the Red/Blue element of it because it was so larger than life and because it tied into the Silver Age story, but that was comparably little of the actual story. Would you have liked more time to explore that, or do you think the proportions were about right?
Jurgens: Given where we were on the entire story, I think we handled it about right. Had we played it longer I think people would have gotten tired of it.
Carlin: Well, as I mentioned above, we weren’t trying to “tie-in” with the Silver Age story… but we did always love that folks had a fondness for playing with the characters— which “Imaginary Stories” always celebrated. (And WE all loved that story!) And I really think people remember our version of the story because it was so outlandish and wild — for a Superman story — compared with the previous 60 years of adventures. Next year it’s 80 years since Superman was created — and while he’s worn all kinds of variations in his costume, especially in “Imaginary Stories” and “Elseworlds”— but this was one of the few costumes that was a part of his “real” continuity and gave people a scare.
And it never ceases to make me smile when I see an Electric Blue Superman action figure… or an Electric Blue skin in a DC Video Game. He even made an appearance in Bruce Timm and Zack Snyder’s 75th anniversary short! Heck, there are even costumes in Superwoman's Rebirth issues that are playing with the Red & Blue costumes in a way that’s reminiscent of Ron Frenz’s design for Electric Blue Superman! I think the shock has worn off by now!
And in regards to needing more room to explore any story… the hardest thing for us to gauge is how long is the right length for any given story. It’s bad to drag things out too long… and it’s a bummer to lose out on continued interest by stopping a story waaaay too soon. I think we mostly guessed right on “The Death and Return,” a long story that still left people wanting more (which continued in other titles like Green Lantern, Steel and Superboy for years to come). Sometimes I think we would guess wrong and stick with something too long. Ultimately every single individual reader gets to vote on whether we ever guess right. So it’s up to you if we guessed right on “Superman Red/Superman Blue.”
Bogdanove: I would tinker with it. I would tinker with it in a couple of ways: one, I would have the discussion of the different personalities of the characters up front. I would hammer that out a little bit more carefully, and I’d get to that quicker because that’s really fun. And I don’t remember how exactly it resolved, but I would have liked a high-stakes reason why Superman had to reintegrate. I would play with the great advantages of him being able to be in two places at once. One of the great frustrations of Superman’s life is that he can’t be everywhere, he an only do so much, and that’s a constant frustration for him. So having a spare “him” around, he can do twice as much, so for a while, he’d love Superman Red and Blue, but since each one represents a different aspect of the character, they really are different people and they’re incomplete without each other. Ultimately the logical extension of that is that there needs to be a serious, high-stakes, character-driven reason why they have to re-merge together.
Kesel: I liked that we acknowledged the original, classic story, then went our own way. I’m as guilty as anyone — and more guilty than many! — of trying to recapture moments from comics that I loved as a kid, but the bottom line is: those comics will always be there. If you don’t bring something new to it, show it in a new light, take it in a different direction, there’s no point in doing it. And that’s certainly what we tried to do with Red/Blue.
Thanks to Michael Bailey at the Fortress of Baileytude for providing copies of the 1997 Wizard Magazine and Previews articles that helped serve as research for this and other stories in our series on Electric Superman.