It is no small secret that Superman hasn’t fared well on comic book store shelves in recent years, leading many to deem him outmoded and passé, largely a relic of a bygone era when people were more easily satisfied with unbridled, naïve optimism. Even after Detective Comics’ New 52 reboot in 2011, which was intended to revitalize and update the entire universe, the Big Blue Boy Scout was, by and large, in such a financial nosedive that in 2014—just three years after the start of the New 52—the higher-ups in DC called for a soft reboot-within-a-reboot of the Superman line, a move that ostensibly validated the rumors of Superman’s dwindling appeal. In order to initiate a fresh relaunch of the Superman line, DC brought in comic book legend Geoff Johns to pen the first story arc and then pass the torch to Eisner-winning writer Gene Luen Yang. Additionally, longtime Marvel artist John Romita Jr. was set to make his DC debut in Superman #32.
Ultimately, however, at the heart of this very understandable fear of being spied on by our government or cellphone provider or social media sites lies a more ancient dread that predates Snowden and 9/11.This mass gathering of talent served as a bold declaration that DC was fully committed to revitalizing its Superman line—and not merely by throwing a new cadre of comic book geniuses at an old problem in hopes that aesthetic changes or minor alterations of the Superman character would bring about the desired results. Johns, Yang, and the rest of the creative team have displayed a remarkable understanding that hipsterizing Clark Kent (or superficially updating him in some other manner) won’t bring him flying into the twenty-first century. For Superman, at his best, already embodies what people want in a superhero: they want their heroes to be super, that is, to possess some sort of non-human power (sorry, Batman) while being simultaneously and paradoxically human-like. In other words, people want to see something of themselves in Superman even as they want him to be immensely powerful and, thus, strange and alien.
An essential component of humanizing Superman, therefore, is making his enemies and fears bear some semblance to our own. And this is where the Superman relaunch stands out as one of the most relatable depictions of the titular character in recent memory: it posits that the greatest threat to the strongest man on earth—the Man of Steel himself—is not a little green rock or a giant primordial villain, but a new era of cyber surveillance that threatens to reveal his secret identity to the world, endangering himself and his closest friends. The Superman comic book line is, once again, as relevant as ever precisely because it reflects and reveals our fear of being watched in this age of cyber espionage.
Geoff Johns’s work at the start of the Superman relaunch is largely focused on humanizing the allegedly unrelatable comic book icon in order to pave the way for Gene Luen Yang’s takeover. The opening panels of Superman #32 take us twenty-five years into the past. A pair of scientists working in a subterranean bunker under Nebraska are, due to the impending destruction of their facility, forced to send their son Ulysses to another dimension, in which he acquires god-like superpowers. Deliberately echoing Superman’s origins, Johns sets up a meeting between the two “Men of Tomorrow” when he brings the timeline (and Ulysses) into the present. Surprised to find that his home planet Earth had not been destroyed in the laboratory accident, Ulysses, the Last Son of Earth, must rely upon the Last Son of Krypton to introduce him to the human race. Perhaps the most poignant scene in Johns’s run, therefore, occurs when Superman takes Ulysses to meet his parents, who somehow managed to escape the laboratory disaster twenty-five years earlier. It is here—with Superman watching as his doppelgänger is afforded the family reunion for which he so desperately longs—that the series firmly establishes Kal-El’s “humanity” and encourages us to identify with him in his pain. Of course, the two superheroes do not see eye-to-eye for long and soon find themselves pitted against one another. Johns seizes this opportunity by giving Superman a new superpower, one that, once utilized, renders him powerless—completely human—for twenty-four hours. In this way, Geoff Johns lays the groundwork for Gene Luen Yang to explore the notion of what it means for Superman to be human in a fuller, more frightening sense.
Yang slyly toys with and tweaks Johns’s thematic concerns by suggesting that a removal of powers is not the only prerequisite for humanizing The Metropolis Marvel; in order to make Superman imminently relatable, Yang situates him in a post-Snowden America, bringing issues of identity, privacy and cyber espionage to the foreground. “When we were talking about the storyline,” Yang says, “we were talking about Edward Snowden and this whole phenomenon of doxxing that’s happening. It’s a very modern challenge for a superhero to deal with, for Superman to deal with.” Interestingly, then, his Superman debut in Divergence #1 strikes at the heart of the title character’s mythos by revealing that Lois Lane has unearthed Superman’s secret identity as a mild-mannered reporter and made it known to the whole world. Yang and Romita Jr. devote a splash page filled with social media sightings, Youtube comments, tweets (complete with hashtags), selfies, and screenshots of local news coverage of the ousted superhero who, unable to hide from the public eye, is forced to go into hiding at the seedy and aptly named Getaway Motel.
Beginning with Superman #41, Yang turns the clock back to show us why Lois Lane revealed Kal-El’s identity in the first place. Superman, busy doing reporter work at the Daily Planet, finds himself being texted anonymous tips from an unknown source. Things quickly turn sinister, however, when the malevolent messenger blackmails Superman into doing his bidding by threatening to make public his secret identity. This new nemesis is subsequently revealed to be a mastermind who runs a tech-crime network called HORDR that sees all things, hears all things, and knows all things. At one point, Clark is even granted access into the company’s data collection center, a massive NSA-style room where “everything you’ve ever wanted to hide about yourself”—a world of stolen information—is stored and used as leverage. It is here that Superman meets HORDR_ROOT, the man behind the digital curtain. His demands are simple: in exchange for Superman’s continued anonymity as a masquerading Daily Planet reporter, HORDR_ROOT wants to harvest the Kryptonian’s solar energy. At this critical juncture, Lois makes the decision for him; she reveals his identity to the world in order that he may, perhaps, save it. Now, a question looms large: has the quintessential American superhero been rendered completely defenseless by the device we all carry around in our pockets? Only time will tell.
It is not difficult to see that the current Superman run is all about unearthing our latent fears about being human in a post-Snowden society, where information is always up for grabs. And while Yang is certainly not the first comic book writer to probe these issues, it is a highly significant cultural indicator that he is doing so through the Superman character; for, in many ways, Superman has always been a cultural barometer of sorts, an indicator of societal pressures and conditions. In a notable Famous Studios animated short, for example, the Man of Tomorrow is busy sabotaging Japanese warships, and he has long been a vehicle for exploring shifting social attitudes toward issues of immigration and citizenship.
Considered through a cultural lens, then, Yang’s new iteration of Superman ultimately suggests that our collective cultural fears may be shifting away from the post–9/11 mindset that fears a violent, external attack on a grand scale and moving toward a post-post–9/11 era wherein the loss of privacy and the unraveling of our carefully constructed online identities is the ultimate threat. Exploring these post-Snowden issues through the Superman character is especially relevant precisely because the Man of Steel is the most powerful and god-like of superheroes; and as such, he is often perceived untouchable, immune to virtually any earthy or cosmic foe. But if Superman’s vulnerability to the mundane and earthly threat of cyber surveillance is so great that old foes like Lex Luthor are “last century,” however, no mere mortal is safe. Perhaps HORDR_ROOT said it best: “The future belongs to those who control information.”
What Yang’s Superman run has successfully labored to highlight is the paranoia-inducing reality that we are not the ones who control this vast cloud of information—which, if Superman’s new nemesis is to be taken seriously, means that the future does not belong to us. Moreover, what we do both on- and offline has real-world effects and can be exploited at any moment. Even the headlines, the Ashley Madison scandal, the outrage over Facebook’s Messenger app, and the not-so-shocking revelation that America isn’t the only country that spies on its citizens show us that the so-called anonymity the internet affords us is a myth. We are incredibly vulnerable in the age of bits and bytes.
Ultimately, however, at the heart of this very understandable fear of being spied on by our government or cellphone provider or social media sites lies a more ancient dread that predates Snowden and 9/11. It’s Davidic—“You have searched me and known me”; it’s Jobian—“Does not he see my ways and number all my steps?”; and it’s Edenic—“I was afraid . . . and I hid.” More than anything else, we are afraid of omniscience. We fear being seen as we truly are. Even Superman will tell you that.
Image of Superman #42 via Newsarama.