By Matthew Cowans

Failure remains a defining characteristic in American superhero comics. From Spider-Man’s failure to save Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy through to Batman’s inability to save Jason Todd, heroic failures echo throughout comics and pop culture far beyond their respective adventures. A character like Superman, on the other hand, is often seen as a flawless paragon of truth and justice… and he isn’t typically defined by his failures. But what if this ‘super’ man failed and how would he react to it? Superman for All Seasons #3 by writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale explores a man of steel who is unsure of himself. A man who, despite all of his great powers and potential, fails. How and why did the Man of Tomorrow come up short? 

The issue is told largely from Lex Luthor’s perspective and opens with Lex’s release from jail following his capture by Superman. He’s subsequently shown bribing and manipulating various officials until he’s confronted by the Man of Steel himself. Being the cruel, petty man that he is, Lex views Metropolis as something he controls – which, in his own twisted way, is how he expresses his love for it. Later at the Daily Planet, Lois Lane is prying into Clark’s personal life, questioning the identity of “L.L.” in a letter that she found on his desk. Suddenly, she collapses into Clark’s arms and a quick pan around the office shows the entire floor passed out. Panicked, Clark transforms into Superman to assess the situation outside the building. Metropolis is a picture of chaos with the city helpless in the face of this unyielding pathogen. Desperate, he goes to the only man who could save the day, Lex Luthor.

At Lexcorp, Superman is begrudgingly forced to work with Luthor to save the city after a brief exchange between the two. Lex enlists Jenny Vaughn, a chemist that he’s brainwashed to revere Superman, to seed the clouds to spread the antidote. Unfortunately, Ms. Vaughn is exposed to a lethal dose of the virus and succumbs. The rain storm that the antidote created drenches Superman while he holds the small lifeless body in his arms. The issue concludes with a soaked and disheveled Clark arriving at his parents’ doorstep pleading for a place to stay for a while.

Tim Sale’s art style, with its bulky characters and inhuman proportions, gives the story a timeless and larger than life feeling. However it is through the colors that the issue truly soars. Colorist Bjarne Hansen floods Metropolis with vibrant colors, allowing Metropolis to seemingly pop off the page. As the situation grows dire toward the issue’s climax, Hansen’s blues are replaced with grays that get ever darker. When Superman takes flight, streaks of vivid reds, yellows, and blues jump off the page. Sale’s faces while simplistic, expertly depict nuances of facial expression. His Lex Luthor exudes arrogance from his condescending sneer to his detached coldness as seen in the issue’s climax using a scant amount of lines. Conversely, Superman’s stoic facade is constantly betrayed by a boyish innocence and naivety which Sale emphasizes in how he depicts features like his eyes. Lex’s haunting eyes with their dark circles contrast with Clark’s more hopeful, expressive blue ones emphasizing the difference in the character of the two men.  Sale is not afraid to use one, two, and three panel pages with a minimal amount of dialogue allowing the visual storytelling to shine through.

Clark’s return to Smallville is atypical among Superman origin stories. Traditionally, he is supposed to leave Kansas and not look back. He should be leaping over buildings in a single bound, changing the course of mighty rivers… not returning to his parents’ doorstep with his spirit broken. Loeb writes a rawer and more emotionally vulnerable Clark who is still finding his place in life, and while this ‘boomerang’ back to the parental home may be unusual for Superman, it is increasingly common outside the comic pages. According to a Pew Research Survey 39% of young adults between 18-34 live with their parents or have moved back with them due to economic issues, which rises to 41% of adults aged 25-29. This “boomerang generation” phenomenon exploded in the wake of the Great Recession and during the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic and ever increasing cost of living. 

Young adults who have experienced this ‘boomerang’, myself included, are battered by a whirlwind of emotions. These range from the euphoria of grasping that diploma; an initial burst of confidence; the stress of job hunting and job interviews; the sting of rejection; the slow realization that your initial expectations were wrong… and finally the fear that your hopes and dreams are languishing in a tomorrow that seemingly never arrives. Clark’s dejected face in this issue’s final page betray many of these emotions. What did I take away seeing this amazing stranger from the planet Krypton moving back with his parents?

The importance of taking a step back. In this story, Superman does not pull himself up by his cape but rather retreats to a place he feels most comfortable – which for him, is at the Kent farm in Smallville. Clark didn’t plan on taking a break in his ‘neverending battle’ but circumstances outside of his control drove him away. He underestimated Luthor and the depth of the billionaire’s seething jealousy and it cost him. Sometimes, when faced with certain situations in life, retreat is a valid option rather than struggling through an untenable situation. In my own life I struggled to take that step. Following my college graduation, I worked at a mortgage company, where I was overworked, underpaid, and unappreciated. For years, I worked there, surviving rounds of layoff while being too paralyzed to take steps to materially improve my life.

By my mid-20s, I was still working that thankless job while still living with my parents. Though the economy was weak, I don’t blame it for my struggles. My pride, fear of making mistakes, and flawed outlook, stymied my efforts more than anything external. It wasn’t until I took some risks in my personal and professional life that I was able to escape a half-decade rut. A man can be more powerful than a locomotive – however that doesn’t mean that he is invincible, especially when his head and heart aren’t in the game. Sometimes the best thing to do is to take a step back, reassess, and make a plan for a better tomorrow.

The second lesson I took from this issue is that homesickness and the yearning for something familiar are both normal parts of life. Throughout the issue the creative team weave threads of Clark’s feelings of being out of place: from his letter to his parents to a vulnerable stare we witness at the beginning of the crisis. Clark’s homesickness is most evident in his letter where he wishes the family dog could come live with him in Metropolis. Clark even asks for news about his old girlfriend Lana Lang, unable to shed certain facets of his past and yearning to keep some piece of his old life with him. Clark’s sense of isolation and longing for some semblance of normalcy is a common affair to those who’ve switched states or cities for better opportunities. Moving for better job prospects is increasingly common and these jobs are concentrated in a few expensive cities. With no network or safety net, it is easy to feel lost and burdened with a growing sense of rootlessness.

I grew up in a small town in New Jersey on a close knit street and spent much of my free time outdoors and playing an unhealthy amount of Sega Genesis. My parents and grandparents bought  produce from a farm stand and one of my favorite places was the local farmers and outdoor flea market. Twenty years later, I live in a major city having moved there for a job  and work in the heart of downtown. The trees of my youth have been replaced with asphalt and congestion.  I don’t to my great shame, know my neighbors nor have a large sense of community or connection to the neighborhood around me. I’ve found city life somewhat isolating and do look back on my time in New Jersey somewhat fondly. Similarly, Clark was raised in fields or corn and hay, not towers of concrete and steel. He too has lost his sense of belonging, his roots.

So why did Superman fail? Lex Luthor exacerbates Superman’s insecurities throughout this issue, capping it off with the dagger of a line, “Go back to wherever you came from before you fail us all.” Luthor deftly manipulates the Man of Steel’s emotions from implying that he was the source of the virus by virtue of being an alien to guilting him with Toxin’s death. Lex prides himself on his ability to read people and twist them to do his bidding. While Superman could not be harmed physically, emotionally he is quite vulnerable. Lex sums up his machinations stating, “He cannot lose faith in himself or he is lost.” What more could cause a young and naive hero to lose faith in himself but failing to save an innocent life? So why does he fail? Superman failed because he fell victim to Lex’s mind games and manipulations and his underlying naivete.

Failure fortunately, does not have to be permanent. Ultimately, Clark does return to Metropolis and resume his heroics as Superman. His time in Smallville allows him to reconnect with his roots and recharge. When a natural disaster strikes his hometown, Superman answers the call using the full breadth of his abilities. He is able to save the lives of his loved ones and prove to himself, much to Luthor’s chagrin, that the Man of Tomorrow is here to stay.

In American schools, generations of youth had the same mantra drilled into our heads. “Work hard, go to college, graduate and you will be rewarded with a great job and happy life.” Unfortunately, recessions, pandemics, and other events occur which are out of our control, and can alter or ruin even the best laid plans. However, like Superman, we should continue to strive, to fight our own neverending battles. Those hopes and dreams that seem so far away may actually be closer to us than we imagine. Superman for All Seasons #3 retells but a small portion of a hero’s origin but it also teaches us. It is okay to fail, it is okay to go back home again and sometimes lessons learned from failure can teach us how to fly.

 

Superman For All Seasons #3
Writer: Jeph Loeb
Penciller: Tim Sale
Colourist: Bjarne Hansen
Letterer: Richard Starkings

 

For more from Matt, you can find his writing over on his website here or follow him on Twitter here.

 

This post was made possible thanks to the Shelfdust Patreon! To find out more, head to our Patreon page here!