A Superman of Two Worlds

Superman Miller Fraction - Cover
(Photo: DC Entertainment)

The second installment of two, new, high-profile Superman series, Superman: Year One and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, arrive in stores this week. In addition to showcasing some of the most venerated talents in modern comics, both of these miniseries provide radically different perspectives on the most recognizable character in their titles (sorry, Jimmy).

Superman: Year One, from writer Frank Miller and artist John Romita Jr., is an over-sized three-part series that reexamines the life of Clark Kent before the world knew him as Superman. The first issue follows him from the destruction of Krypton through his high school graduation, while the second portrays a new career in the Navy along with a new take on Superman’s mermaid friend Lori Lemaris.

Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen is a heightened take that fits within the modern continuity of DC Comics, albeit with a story that can easily be read without much outside knowledge of history or characters. Writer Matt Fraction and artist Steve Lieber are focusing on Jimmy Olsen, cub photographer and one of Superman’s closest friends, in order to deliver a series of humorous, interconnected short stories in each issue.

Taken separately these stories reflect two very different visions of Superman, both in terms of narrative and artistic rendering. Viewed side-by-side, as they’ll likely land in many pull file this week, they represent something more significant about how Superman is depicted in comics today. Superman is the character that laid the foundation for the DC Comics empire and is the foundational figure in the superhero genre, a genre that seems to have never been more popular than it is right now with so many global movie successes. Superman is recognizable to almost any person on the planet and can be seen on merchandise and media in almost any imaginable circumstance.

These two series provide very different approaches to such a figure as recognizable as Superman, approaches that can be recognized in almost any other Superman story today, whether it is in comics, cartoons, or movies. Superman: Year One emphasizes the grandiose legend that has risen around Superman, both in comics and reality, while Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen undermines that legend by embracing the silliness and minutiae surrounding the character. Both series offer their own style and strengths, but reading them together helps clarify Superman’s place in pop culture and how modern creators may approach a character whose legacy looms so large.

Superman Miller Fraction - Baby
(Photo: DC Entertainment)

Reinforcing Mythology

It’s apparent in the first few pages of Superman: Year One how important this story considers itself to be. Superman, as an infant, narrates much of his own origin (although the captions alternate narrative perspective regularly). This rewriting of Krypton’s demise and the potential hero being delivered to Earth are filled with sturm und drang, heightening the events to an almost absurd degree. This culminates with the discovery of an infant Kal-El presenting himself in a panel (seen above) where he appears to both be entirely self-aware and the more powerful character in front of his adoptive parents-to-be. Whatever a reader’s response to this presentation may be, it provides a clear tone that the rest of the first two issues of the series have maintained. Each new segment of this story, including fights with high school bullies and training at boot camp, is aware that it is important because it is a part of Superman’s story.

This approach to Superman as a mythological figure is no more silly than new fictional presentations of historical figures in similar fashions. Superman is one of the most recognizable and influential characters in western culture today, comparable only to the likes of Mickey Mouse or Luke Skywalker. Rather than ignore reader’s previous awareness, this story seeks to reinforce existing beliefs about Superman. He is the ur-text of the superhero here: all good, all knowing, and always significant. Given that Superman: Year One is an origin, it attempts to hold the weight of every other Superman story as something that could potentially be connected to this retelling of Action Comics #1 and the 80 years of stories that would follow.

Superman Miller Fraction - Jimmy Olsen
(Photo: DC Entertainment)

Deflating a Legend

The Superman of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen is shown to be powerful and admired, but the story itself does not want to be either simply because it features the character. Instead, the series regularly finds opportunities to poke fun at many tropes and ideas from Superman’s long history. In the first issue there is a moment where Superman breaks from the comic’s internal reality altogether, breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge his role in saving so many others in Metropolis to the confusion of one such resident. This moment serves to both allow readers to laugh with (and at) Superman while still recognizing that even in a story where Jimmy Olsen is the focus, Superman remains an all-important figure.

It is not that Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen doesn’t acknowledge or care for what Superman means, to his fictional universe or our very real one. Rather the series doesn’t appear to find much value in acknowledging or reinforcing this meaning. If Superman is important to people, then that importance is accepted as something that will be read into the specific parts of this text. Small moments of humor allow readers to laugh alongside the character or to chuckle at how much they might care themselves. Allowing the passion that so many feel to go unspoken means offers a story that is more accessible and easily enjoyed, as it does not beg for comparison to prior superhero stories or similar icons.

Superman Miller Fraction - Up Up and Away
(Photo: DC Entertainment)

A Multiverse of Icons

Whether creators choose to remind audiences that think Superman is significant, like Miller and Romita, or to open that idea to japes, like Fraction and Lieber, every creator who constructs a Superman story is forced to reckon with all of the history that has transformed Superman into a universally recognized name. There is a meta-textual conversation occurring about the meaning of such a character, a meaning that is being rewritten today.

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While we can easily observe the work of contextualizing and recontextualizing a legend in Superman: Year One, it’s occurring within less obviously serious series too. The narrative efforts found in that series are transformed into subtext in Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, as found in a brief sequence in its second issue where after a night of fun gags, Superman flies away. That sequence ends with a long distance between the figure of Jimmy in the foreground and Superman in the distance, only seen in the reader’s mind as he appears to be a speck on the page. The idea of Superman remains and looms over Jimmy even when he is not present. It’s a rarely poignant moment for the story, one that reminds readers that this too-good-to-be-real hero is too impactful to be ignored, even when he’s simply spending time performing card tricks with a pal.

Superman is a modern myth, a legend that both informs the entire superhero genre and our own ideas of heroism and valor. No creator can touch the character without some awareness of this legend. However, that awareness can be filtered into the purposeful depiction of why and how that greatness matters like we see in Superman: Year One, the self-effacing fun of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, or a blend of both. Every new Superman story both acknowledges what came before and provides something new that expands an already sprawling mythos. Watching the legend evolve is a key part of appreciating and enjoying Superman comics today, no matter how they depict the Man of Steel.