How Superman and The Authority Convert to the Idea of Superman
Superman has been the ultimate representation of the superhero archetype for more than 80 years. Because he is the ultimate embodiment of what we strive to be intellectually, physically and morally, he is known as “The Man of Tomorrow”. That’s what I have believed all my life, or at least as a Superman fan. But after reading the interview with Grant Morrison, a legendary comics writer, I’m now doubtful.
Morrison, discussing their latest Superman story, Superman & the Authority, co-created along with Mikel Janin, colourist Jordie Belaire, and others, suggests the impossible: That the Man of Tomorrow has long since become the Man of Yesterday.
This is not the take you would expect from Morrison, who famously stated in 2011’s Supergods: “Before it Was a Bomb the Bomb was an Idea.” Morrison said that Superman was “a Faster and Stronger Idea”.
It seems so, and what’s more? A closer look at Superman and Authority reveals that this was not only necessary but it was also inevitable.
Who is Superman in Superman & the Authority?
The Superman of Superman and the Authority are markedly different from the one we’re accustomed to.
This limited series features a Man of Tomorrow, who is getting older than the young, invincible Adonis that we are used to seeing. Superman’s jet black hair is starting to turn white at the temples, and his godlike powers are beginning to fade. His enhanced senses are less sharp, and he’s less agile than before. He can barely even levitate or fly. He has also given up his iconic cape. He now wears a more practical and practical outfit better suited for down-and-dirty brawling or experiments in his futuristic laboratory.
We are left with the impression of a tall, broad-shouldered, somewhat over-the-hill man who recalls Doc Savage’s appearance in 1938. This directly influenced Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster when creating the character. This is all intentional on Morrison’s part. Janin, Bellaire and Morrison intended it. Their Superman, to quote Morrison, is “the singular hero of 20th century, sovereign human”. He should feel slightly out of place as if he were an embodiment of an older era.
However, this doesn’t mean that Superman and Authority have abandoned the Superman Idea as a single, two-fisted champion for justice. It’s an idea rooted in the ideals and values of the past century, but Superman still represents the best and most timeless expressions of those ideals. Superman symbolises progress, hope and the future, as President John F. Kennedy (yes JFK) observed during the 1960s-set prologue. He does this by being superhuman honest, and intrepid.
These are positive qualities and values that result in a superhero who radiates confidence but never arrogance and hostility, is comfortable using gender-neutral language and has a healthy dose of pragmatism. Superman may be an older man, but he is the type of person you want to spend quality time with.
But, Superman and Authority boil down to one question: If Superman (and, by extension, The Superman Idea) is so great, then why isn’t the world a better destination?
Why hasn’t Superman made the world a better place?
Although it may seem absurd to ask this question, it is also undoubtedly true: after nearly 84 years of fighting for a better world, Superman has not made much progress. The DC Universe remains a battlefield for broadly defined forces of good or evil. If you’re wondering if the Superman Idea inspired fans to reach higher in the real world, a glance at the most recent news headlines will show that it hasn’t.
Even if we forget about the nostalgia, the verdict is clear: Superman is a complete failure. Manchester Black, Superman’s reluctant ally, says that Superman and his Justice League crime-fighting buddies could have made a significant difference at the height of their powers. The Man of Tomorrow agrees. Superman attributes their failure to the Superman Idea, which is at the core of Superman and all his colourful contemporaries. He says, “We were so sure we were winning.” “We believed we didn’t need to try.”
While this story has some truth, it doesn’t tell the whole truth. It overlooks an equally valuable fact: Superman was doomed from the beginning.
Superman, like JFK, is a symbol of a great idea, but it doesn’t work as it stands. JFK’s Camelot in real life ended in tragedy, just like Arthur’s mythical Camelot, which was a collective effort at collective action led by a charismatic but flawed individual. Superman’s 80+-year attempt at Camelot should not be different.
It was once that the 20th-century ideals and qualities of Superman – the single, individual force for positive change – could make an impact. Or at least it seemed like they could. Superman and his Authority make it clear that those days are gone. Superman is now facing 21st-century threats that he isn’t equipped to handle, making it clear that Superman needs a new type of superhero and a new kind of idea.
The Superman Idea 2.0:
This is the driving force behind Superman and Authority. He is not only racing against time to make the world better before his powers disappear forever, but he is actively looking for replacements. Superman must now give way to a younger generation representing a better idea, just as Doc Savage and other pulp heroes gave way to Superman.
Superman meets with the Authority to form a team of young superheroes – Steel is described by Morrison as Superman’s Doc Savage and Tom Strong – and asks them to brainstorm the Superman Idea 2.0. He praises their commitment to social issues and, despite his code against killing, doesn’t punish those who use lethal force. Instead, he challenges them to develop creative ways to play executioner. He encourages them to effect change together as a group and in society. Then, in the most shocking moment, he walks away from the role of the costumed adventurer.
It’s not quite. The Man of Tomorrow, despite being gone from Superman and Authority, is still present on the scene as a mentor to his team as they prepare for their first, appropriately cosmic practice run. He opts out of the big, dramatic showdown between Superman (and the main villains in the story – Ultrahumanite and Brainiac) that is about to take place. Superman is tired of the “repetitive shadowboxing”, of superpowered slugfests and of following the same, decades-old template for conflict – once new, now tired – and he calls it a day. He’s willing to accept that the idea that he represents won’t make any lasting difference.
His opponents are temporarily defeated but not entirely, and he trusts that his young team, as well as Jon Kent, his direct successor, will find a better, more creative way to defeat them than he could. Superman suggests that his young recruits could work with Brainiac’s ruthless artificial Intelligence, a conservationist turned overzealous, to show how far the Superman Idea 2.0 is from its predecessor’s individualist, “punch-it out” mentality. Superman’s decision to not deal with Ultrahumanite or Brainiac reflects his belief that this new breed superhero, which includes members of the LGBT+ community, can find solutions that would be impossible for him as a straight white man.
That’s what ultimately makes Superman’s passing of the torch in Superman to the Authority necessary and inevitable. We needed the Superman Idea as long as it accurately represented who we are and what we want to become. The Superman Idea had to adapt to these changes, as they always would. It’s still in gestation, so we don’t get to see it in Superman or the Authority. The promise of Superman Idea 2.0 – a better version of self-sacrificing, heroic ideals which have inspired millions – is still within reach.
In this sense, Superman & the Authority aren’t a rebuke of the Superman Idea. It is a celebration of it, not just today but tomorrow.