This is the single greatest issue of SUPERMAN ever put together in the character’s 80 year history. Closer to home, it’s the special Anniversary issue that I’m always jockeying against in my own mind when it comes to put together a book of this sort for the Marvel characters. Of course, I fail to clear its bar every time–because it’s just about unassailable. Just look at that list of credits on the front cover, and realize that it’s not all-inclusive. This thing is a monster mother lode of talent.
By 1984 when this issue of SUPERMAN was released, editor Julie Schwartz had been working for DC for literally 40 years. He was starting to wind down his career a little bit, doing less work overall, and there was a feeling, I think, that while he’d been a huge mover and shaker at the company for decades, his best days were behind him. So for whatever reason, Julie set out to put the lie to that idea by making SUPERMAN #400 a behemoth of creative and commercial talent. He came up with a simple premise to tie the whole issue together: how will the legend of the Man of Steel be remembered by future generations? With this structure, successive creators could bring their own personal viewpoints to the material, and each chapter could in essence be a separate short story with only the concept and the forward movement of time and history connecting them all.
As the backbone of the whole project, Julie tapped Elliot S! Maggin, one of his favorite regular writers. Maggin had a special rapport with Superman, and this assignment fit him like a glove. But the real magic trick here was that Julie contacted a bevy of artists who had never drawn Superman with any regularity before and had them do each chapter–and those chapters were designed to play to their individual strengths. After an opening prologue illustrated by Joe Orlando that sets up the conceit, for example, we just a few hundred years into the future, where Al Williamson depicts a tall tale of the last sighting of Superman on the frontiers of space. Williamson was renowned as a science fiction artist, so this suited him perfectly.
In between each chapter, Schwartz ran pin-ups from a murderer’s row of artists, all of whom similarly hadn’t drawn Superman regularly. Above are the first four, from Brian Bolland, Jack Kirby (who had worked on JIMMY OLSEN for years, but not SUPERMAN proper, a loophole that allowed him to contribute), John Byrne (back when he was effectively an artist exclusive to Marvel) and Jack Davis.
The next chapter is illustrated by a pre-DARK KNIGHT RETURNS Frank Miller. It’s a loving homage to the 1950s George Reeves ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN television show, a series that was incredibly influential in keeping Superman at the forefront of young minds for three decades. Here, the discovery of an episode excavated from a parallel Earth is sighted as evidence that Superman’s secret identity really Was Clark Kent, and not Morgan Edge as was generally believed. It’s great fun, and Miller seems to be having himself a blast playing around with the faux black and white screen captures.
The next chapter is elegantly illustrated by Marshall Rogers, and speaks to Superman’s power as a symbol. In a cold and clinical totalitarian society, a homeless man finds Superman’s indestructible costume stored away in a forbidden library and, when it proves to be impervious to harm, he is inspired to rally his fellow citizens to rise up against their oppressors. The story ends poorly for the man, whose head isn’t protected–but the movement he begins in that moment goes on to change the course of human history. It’s a great tale, very powerful (and very relevant at this particular moment in time.)
The next chapter is probably the weakest in the book. Once society rises once again, the historians of that era cannot agree on whether Superman was actually an all-powerful Superwoman or a caveman throwback or any of a number of other things. The intention here is to show that Superman can speak to all people, but it doesn’t come off all that well. The best bit here, really, is seeing artist Wendy Pini do a rare story for a mainstream publisher.
More chapter break pin-ups. Shown here are Annie creator Leonard Starr, Walt Simonson, Bernie Wrightson and Will Eisner. Only Julie Schwartz had the sort of wide-ranging rolodex and commanded the sort of respect that would cause so many disparate creators of stature to produce for this special issue. It’s an amazing, unbeatable line-up.
The next section is wonderfully illustrated by Michael Kaluta and concerns two boys playing Superman in a virtual reality video game–a relatively progressive concept for a 1984 story. This Superman owes a bit more to Batman, using technological gimmickry to wage his never-ending battle, because that’s how one of the boys envisions Superman. But the other sees things differently, and in this manner, Superman becomes a personalized legend for each reader. The main kid also sports a haircut clearly inspired by Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy, which is a nice touch.
The final section of the story is illustrated by Klaus Janson, and concerns a young man who comes home from the stars to celebrate Miracle Monday with his family on Earth. Miracle Monday was the Superman-derived holiday that Maggin had established in his second Superman prose novel, and here he cements it into the books. On this particular Miracle Monday, however, Superman himself turns up, having been thrown through the timestream during some adventure. This is akin to Elijah coming to supper, and the young man conceals his guest’s identity from his family, even though he himself is keenly aware of who the strange visitor is. “Will you be back?” the man asks as the Kryptonian takes to the skies to return to his own era. “I’ll always be back.” is the reply he receives.
More amazing pin-up chapter breaks, these from Steve Ditko, Mike Grell, Moebius and Bill Sienkiewicz.
Finally, the issue wraps up with a ten-page story written and illustrated by Jim Steranko dealing with similar concepts, and charting Superman’s family tree far off into the future. Apparently, Schwartz approached Steranko about contributing, and Steranko wasn’t interested in just illustrating some tale of Maggin’s. But he was willing to do his own thing, and it’s a graphic delight. Supposedly–and I don’t know how true this is–Steranko only sold DC first publication rights, something that Schwartz was somehow able to broker in this one instance, and this is why this incredible issue has never been reprinted in all the years since.
There may have been better Superman stories. But there has never been a better SUPERMAN issue. It is a masterpiece from cover to cover, with something to offer to virtually any fan.