The Bronze Age
"An age where men and women wore their greatness as easily as they wore their clothing or their names..."
- Elliot S! Maggin, (DC Comics Presents Annual #4)
Jerry Siegel left DC Comics again in the mid-1960s. Hamilton and Binder also retired before the decade was over. The end of an era finally came in 1970, when Mort Weisinger, the man who had presided over more of Superman's adventures than anyone before or since, retired.
Control over the Man of Steel was initially parceled out to a group of editors but it was all consolidated under Julius Schwartz, a man whose credentials were at least as impeccable as Weisinger's. His career extended back into the first decade of comics and before that, into the first generation of science fiction fandom (Superman #411). He had presided over the revitalization of virtually all of DC's most established characters. It seemed logical that he would cap his career with a complete revamping of the greatest of them all, Superman.
In Superman #233 (Jan. 1971) new scripter Denny O'Neil began an eight-part adventure designed to change forever the life of Superman. (See The Sandman Saga.) By the end of it, Superman's powers had been reduced by one third. O'Neil's reasoning behind this was that Superman had simply grown too powerful to be an interesting character anymore.
He left the strip shortly thereafter and Superman's powers immediately increased again. Two thirds of infinite power is, after all, still a pretty hefty weapon to wield.
Other aspects of Schwartz's initial plan to revamp Superman were longer lasting. Whereas Mort had created a coherent Superman continuity, he had for the most part avoided the need for continuity with the other DC editors' titles. Julie put an end to this. First, in World's Finest and then in DC Presents, Superman was confronted with an endless stream of DC characters. Eventually the question would have to be answered. How did the Man of Steel fit into the DC universe? What was his relationship to the Guardians, for example? Who was faster, Superman or the Flash?
The answers came in bits and pieces, pieces which have never been assembled into a whole within a single story, but which clearly indicate that Superman served a bigger purpose in the DC universe than he had in the Superman one.
It started in January 1972, with new writer Elliot Maggin's "Must There Be a Superman?" (Superman #247). For the first time, Superman started to become aware of larger issues - like just what effect his presence on Earth was having on the development of human society.
Previous writers had criticized Superman as being "too powerful," but Maggin and fellow writer Cary Bates, who had been on Superman since 1967, took the approach that Superman, by definition, was supposed to be powerful. They began to explore Superman's legend and focus on his moral righteousness, subtly constructing a new continuity built upon his Silver Age history and succesfully transforming him into a much more inspiring figure than he had ever been before.
As the decade progressed, it was no longer sufficient for him to be merely Earth's mightiest mortal, he became the universe's:
"Once there was a void, when Chaos held sway, until there were spoken the magic words, 'let there be light!' Some called this event 'Genesis.'" Thus begins the earliest piece of this new origin of Superman, as presented in [Superman Annual #10]. One piece of primal matter formed in that creation somehow took the shape of a sword. That sword floated through space for eons and later came to be known by the strange symbol on its hilt, in millions of languages, on millions of planets, as the "Sword of Superman." The sword is the stuff of legend, resisting the efforts of all who try to capture it, as if sentient, as if waiting for the one being in the universe who is destined to hold it.
Meanwhile, on a planet in the exact center of the Milky Way Galaxy, a race that is almost as old as the universe takes it upon itself to guard the growth of intelligent life on as many planets as possible, first through a corps of robots assigned to protect a small group of planets (the robots would later become known as Manhunters), later with a galaxy spanning batallion of magic ring wielding warriors. Realizing that even immortals can't last forever, the self-styled "Guardians of the Universe" hope someday to turn their task over completely to these Green Lanterns, if only a warrior of such noble proportions can be found who would be capable of leading them [Superman #257].
In a seemingly unrelated event, a race of gaseous beings called the "Sun Thrivers" created a giant red sun by drawing matter from nearby parts of the galaxy. They intended to use this star as a home for themselves as they travelled around the universe. The fate of their original star is unknown. Presumably it was destroyed in some manner, possibly a manner similar to the ultimate fate of this new sun.
Indeed, this sun proved to be an unstable vehicle. The Sun Thrivers compensated for this unbalance by creating planets to orbit their sun. One of these planets, made of incredibly dense matter, was unstable itself. However, the Sun Thrivers managed to hold it together for 10,000 years, long enough for another race of cosmic beings to get some use out of it [Superman #255].
Soon after the creation of this incredible artifact, two space explorers crash landed separately on its surface. Even though they didn't know of each other's existence, they managed to find each other on its gigantic continents. Unable to rebuild their crafts, the two astronauts are forced to make the best of life on the barren planet, with its wispy atmosphere of crimson gases. Coincidentally, the two astronauts turned out to be a male and female of the same species, one named Kryp, the other, Tonn [Superman #238].
These two stranded astronauts turned a world so unfit for life that early generations had to sleep more than half the day and felt more comfortable crawling than walking, into a bustling super scientific civilized world. The weakest died before they could produce children, but the human species displayed its surprising adaptability and evolved to meet the challenge.
The race's physiology was subtly altered, although the outward appearance changed very little. Muscle tissue became denser. Motor reflexes became sharper. Optic capacities widened. The race began expanding out from the low gravity regions around the equator to the upper latitudes. At least, that's the way Elliot Maggin described it in his 1978 novel Superman: Last Son of Krypton.
Central to the history of this evolving planet was an incredible family called "El." Kings, philosophers, scientists, explorers, musicians, and architects all followed one another with bewildering rapidity. It was almost as if someone was watching this family, guiding them, in order to produce an evolutionary masterpiece, a Superman [The Krypton Chronicles].
That someone, most likely, was the aforementioned Guardians of the Universe. For 10,000 years they had manipulated the descendants of Kryp and Tonn until, in Jor-El and Lara, they had created the genetically perfect couple, the couple who would produce the one who would be heir to the Guardians, who would rule the Green Lantern Corps after their passing, Kal-El, the greatest Green Lantern of them all!
Unfortunately, the planet they had chosen for this experiment was unstable and due to self destruct. A Green Lantern named Tomar-Re was dispatched to preserve the planet until Jor-El could build a space ark and escape to found a new colony. This plan, too, came to disaster, as the space villain, Brainiac, stole Jor-El's completed space ark when he shrunk the city of Kandor and placed it in a bottle. Though he fought valiantly, Tomar-Re was only mortal. He could not save Krypton, and so all perished, except for Kal-El, who was rocketed desperately away into space by his father, determined that at least something from Krypton would live on (see [Superman #257]).
The rocket bearing Krypton's last son landed in Smallville, Maryland (or was it Kansas?) where, with the intercession of the famous scientist, Albert Einstein, who had been contacted by Jor-El for help, the foundling was adopted by the Kents. (This moving the time of Superboy's adventures from the 1930s to the 1960s.)
Soon, the Kents realized that this child had spectacular abilities. Clark, for instance, learned to read English almost immediately, although he exhibited a contempt for the rules of grammar, saying things like, "Me want finish reading Tale of Two Cities !" ( Last Son of Krypton 11).
The space ship Kal-El had flown in had opened up a space warp, dragging all manner of debris from the vicinity of Krypton, including, in addition to a large swarm of kryptonite, a lost satellite containing his pet dog, Krypto.
The presence of this cosmic being, and perhaps the matter he had dragged along with him, seemed to upset something in the equilibrium of the planet. It was almost as if a mystical magnetic force had been shot through the atmosphere. Extraordinary beings of all shapes and sizes began to appear, where for all of the planet's past history, there had been none whatsoever. Men of cosmic powers were attracted to this globe as if it were a focal point, a cosmic crisis point, waiting for something of universal import to take place (JLA #153)
That event was a dream that came to Jonathan Kent, causing him to awaken in the middle of the night and draw a strange symbol, a weird design, "something like a test pattern" as Perry White called it in Superman #417. Somehow, Jonathan Kent knew that his foster son was destined to wear this symbol and bring it to the far corners of the universe [Superman Annual #10].
First as Superboy, then as Superman, he fought as a champion of justice, the first in a seemingly endless series of super beings that came to inhabit the planet Earth. It was almost as if super powers were contagious, as if he had so much super energy that he radiated it to others.
It came to pass that, in the course of a great battle for Truth and Justice, man and sword finally came together. For the first time the sword allowed itself to be grasped by the hand of a man. Holding it, Superman found himself expanding, spreading across the winds of the universe, the whole history of creation flooding his mind. His consciousness expanded, he was becoming an all-seeing, all knowing Protector. Then he let it go.
"You have done well, my son. You have earned your name. Your future is yours to make. Your greatness among living things is assured." This message was left in his head as the sword receded into the blackness of space once again. The sword remains out there. It waits until he who has earned it is ready to retrieve it and fulfill his ultimate destiny in Eternity (Superman Annual #10).
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