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Superman on its Head: Extracanonical Stories in Superman Graphic Novels

2013 July 16
by Jessica Pryde
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superman logoIt should be no surprise to anyone who has read one of my posts that I love it when authors give me familiar stories in a new form. I even help write a regular feature about classic novels being updated into contemporary stories. But what excites me even more is when they go beyond a simple pastiche and flip as many things as possible into a story that is still familiar, but unpredictable in its progress.

We see this trend happening pretty often in prose fiction, and I love it, but I am nothing short of ecstatic when I find a new superhero story like this. In the Marvelverse, it was Neil Gaiman’s Marvel: 1602. But here, now, we’re going to talk about that flying guy on all our minds this summer: Superman.

Whether or not we’ve ever picked up a comic, most of us know the story of Superman. First appearing in comics in the late 1930s, Superman was the ultimate immigrant — an alien — who used his extraterrestrial powers in order to fight for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. He’s been developed, recreated, and reiterated so many ways over the past eighty years, but some of my favorites have been the ones that divert from canon in unexpected ways.

26088Superman: Secret Identity

I’ve read somewhere that “haha, that would be funny” is not a good standard for naming your kids. However, that’s exactly what happened to Clark Kent of Kansas. Poor Clark has to pretend to not hate getting Superman gifts for his birthday every year, and the kids at school tease him about having powers. But one day, Clark can fly. He can do more for his world than hide in fields and write on his dad’s old typewriter. Clark’s adventures rival those of his namesake as he comes into his powers and his own understanding of the world, and we get to experience all of them with him, through to the very end.

The greatest thing about this Clark is that while he has an abundance of knowledge about the original CK, he refuses to become someone he is not. He can still be “Superman” without losing himself, without losing his goals or personality. He doesn’t have supervillains like Zod or Lex Luthor to battle, but he still does what is best for his country and his world. I wish this was an ongoing comic so I could experience more of this Clark in smaller doses, but sadly the 48-page story arc is the only one Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen are going to give us.

And that’s okay.

DC’s Elseworlds

Elseworlds is a collection of single issues and story arcs that DC Comics has been running for several decades. Almost all of the big names (and some of the less familiar ones) in DC have at least one Elseworld story under their belt. Batman is a pirate. An older Justice League must fight a younger generation of superpowered individuals who don’t have the same kind of moral compass. The Green Lantern might be tossed into a Medieval English fiefdom. Superman has been thrown into the story of the film Metropolis and has landed and grown up in Great Britain.

In these worlds built outside of canon, anything can happen.

154798My all-time favorite Superman graphic novel falls under this imprint. Superman: Red Son is a three-issue story arc written by Mark Millar, who you might recognize as the author of Kick-Ass and Wanted. I’ll admit to not being a fan of either of those in their original format. But something about this “what if?” drew me in months before I actually sat down to read it. In this universe, Kal-El lands in Soviet Russia. He grows up in this environment, seeing the good and bad of his homeland. The familiar righteous morality of Clark Kent is present in this iteration of him, even if his goals and leaders are originally very different. It is fascinating to watch the minute differences that touch the life of this Superman and how he interacts with other members of the DC roll call. Among others, Wonder Woman and Batman make appearances.

I don’t think we’re going to be seeing the decline of the superhero movie anytime soon, which means that even more of the general populace is going to find themselves interested in the original source material: comics. Because of this, I see more and more comic writers, particularly those focused on that core canon of superheroes, tweaking the lens. These two are only the tip of the iceberg of extra-canonical stories. What do you think will happen next?

– Jessica Pryde, who just finished Carter’s Big Break by Brent Crawford and is about to settle down with Gail Carriger’s Etiquette and Espionage

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