It’s September 1986, sort of. That’s what the issues are dated, anyway, though they actually came out months prior: Superman #423 and Action Comics #583.
Some backstory is perhaps needed. Over the course of the 1970s and 80s, the nature of the comics market shifted. Once sold in generalized newsstands alongside other magazines, comics increasingly began to be sold in specialty comic shops. Since the general public shopped at newsstands while only comics fans shopped at comic shops, the target audience of comics likewise shifted from the general public to a smaller, more dedicated pool of comic fans.
This, in turn, meant a growing focus on continuity. Fans could generally be relied upon to remember past events, meaning that writers could more freely incorporate references to those events without worrying about the reader losing the thread, but unfortunately fans could generally be relied upon to remember past events, meaning writers were increasingly shackled to decades of dead, shambolic stories. The workaround of choice for this at DC Comics was to proliferate alternate universes where events occurred differently, so that an inconvenient past story could be declared to have occurred in an alternate universe. (There was precedent for this–Earth-One and Earth-Two had already been well-established as the Silver Age and Golden Age versions of continuity respectively, along with a handful of other universes.)
However, this was deemed unwieldy, and so Crisis On Infinite Earths was created, a massive crossover event (at a time when such things were virtually unheard of) that would wipe out all alternate universes and reboot continuity, which could then proceed in a single universe without any contradictions or confusion. (This, of course, did not work. Nor did it work when they rebooted the continuity again in Zero Hour, and again in Infinite Crisis, and again in Flashpoint, and again in Rebirth, and that’s not even taking into account the absurd number of attempts to make the Legion of Superheroes fit into all of this.)
This in turn meant that the two ongoing Superman titles, his eponymous book and Action Comics, would restart from the beginning. But this left the challenge of what to do with the final issues of the two books prior to the reboot, and editor Julius Schwartz decided to treat them as if they were the real final issues, tapping Alan Moore to write the final, two-part Superman story.
The result is, in typical Alan Moore style, an entertaining superhero yarn on the surface that, just underneath, viciously attacks the assumptions and goals of Crisis itself. The story famously opens with a declaration that it is an “Imaginary Story,” a conceit from decades prior in which stories that would make no sense as part of an ongoing, serialized narrative could be told without disrupting future continuity. This declaration is, of course, entirely unnecessary from a continuity perspective, as there was no future continuity: the brief, remember, was to write the final Superman story.
And final it seems to be, at first glance. One by one, every element of the Superman mythos is stripped away. With the death of Bizarro, so too dies the ridiculous, campy fun that is the heart of comics; thus, when the Prankster and Toyman attack next, they are deadly serious, torturing Pete Ross to death in order to learn Superman’s secret identity, and then violently attacking Clark Kent on live television, “killing” him by revealing to the world that he is Superman.
After first joy, and then Clark Kent, the Daily Planet is next to go, attacked by an army of Metallo duplicates. Superman evacuates his (non-superhero) friends and loved ones to the Arctic in response and settles in for siege–not just the Daily Planet, but Superman’s adopted home planet is lost as well, as he is forced to bunker down away from the world.
In the ensuing battle, Lex Luthor, Brainiac, the Kryptonite Man, Krypto, Lana Lang, and Jimmy Olson all die before Superman realizes his parade of villains is missing one figure, Mr. Mxyzptlk, the comedic, transdimensional trickster imp. But with fun and joy stripped away, what can such a character be except a horrifying monster, as he explains that he has grown bored of mischief and decided to be evil, using his powers to create all the pain and suffering of the two-parter.
So Superman kills him, then deliberately exposes himself to gold kryptonite (which permanently removes his powers) before going out into the snow to die. Or so Lois Lane tells the world–mischievously, the comic reveals in its last pages that Superman gave up his powers and faked his death, becoming an ordinary man working in an auto shop, married to Lois, with a young child who (possibly unnoticed by his parents) possesses superpowers. The comic closes with the former Superman, now known as Jordan Elliott, winking to the audience as he teasingly agrees with Lois that “happily ever after” sounds good to him.
It is difficult to deny the finality of “happily ever after,” but that wink points to something else. The baby–which is quite happy throughout the story–demonstrates superpowers; Superman and Lois’ story may be ending, but a story continues. Further, the comic has equated ending with pain, suffering, and evil, happiness being what went before: Bizarro’s people “screamed with happiness” before he killed them all, and when he dies, “everything, him go d-dark”; the Prankster and Toyman abandoned their silliness and became deadly serious; and the whole story, we learn at the end, was kicked off by Mr. Mxyzpltk abandoning mischief in favor of evil, ceasing to be a “funny little man.” That wink’s mischief thus represents a restoration of what was, denying this story’s finality.
The story’s very title denies finality. Superman has many epithets: “Whatever Happened to the Man of Steel?” is neutral in regards to finality, while the “last” in “Whatever Happened to the Last Son of Krypton?” puts it firmly on the side of ending. But “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” declares that there is a tomorrow, and Superman is the man of it; how, then, can he have a last story?
So this isn’t the end; this is pushing back against the end. The end is darkness and cruelty, and it comes with abandoning whimsy. The end is wrapping up loose ends neatly. The end is taking superheroes and their stories seriously, because if we do so, we have to accept the silly villains turning into killers, and eventually a Superman who kills as well. At that point we have a choice: pretend that a story about an all-powerful killer answerable to no one is a story about a hero, or just not have superheroes anymore–at least not, until a new generation can be playful with them again. Superman chooses the latter, and walks into the gold kryptonite chamber.
Which brings us back to declaring this an “imaginary story,” despite that it relies on characters established over decades of continuity to work. Superman even uses the same kind of paranoid reading that a fan trying to guess the direction of a particular storyline would employ: Mr. Mxyzpltk is the only major Superman villain who hasn’t appeared as the story draws to a close, therefore he must be the hidden mastermind behind all of it. But that is exactly the kind of reasoning that leads to something like Crisis on Infinite Earths, which for all that the crossover itself is a sublime bit of convoluted comic-book nonsense, nonetheless represents a closing down of narrative possibilities and insistence on a single vision going forward. (That this proved impossible is, here, irrelevant; the attempt itself is bad enough.)
For all that they were, generally speaking, just ridiculous attempts to justify attention-grabbing, bizarre comics, the “Imaginary Stories” of old had the right idea. Fiction allows an infinitude of possibilities; ideaspace has no borders, but too often we allow that very fact to paralyze and terrify us, remaining huddled in familiar zones near where we started, afraid to venture out into the wilds of What If. We build fences around ourselves called Continuity and Suspension of Disbelief, while far beyond Imaginary Stories frolic, calling to us, if only we were willing to tear down our fences and seek them out.
If only we could recognize that In Here is just as ridiculous as Out There. Sure, those are just Imaginary Stories. But, as Moore’s famous opening spiel for this comic concludes (to the nearly as famous ire of incoming Superman writer-artist John Byrne), “Aren’t they all?”
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