Near Mint Memories: Superman's Swan Song

With DC announcing a major creative shuffle on its Superman books in 2004, and wrapping of existing storylines, it would seem appropriate to look back at the last time DC undertook an extensive overhaul of its Superman franchise. It was the mid-1980s and legendary penciller Curt Swan was preparing to head off into the sunset with the character that he has been most associated – Superman. Waiting to greet them both was a new Marvel Comics import at DC, John Byrne.

So Long…

“The elegant comic-book art of Curt Swan (1920-1996) defined the look of Superman for over 30 years. His amazing skills of storytelling, draftsmanship, and design brought a realism and sense of wonder to The Man of Steel adventures, making them the best-selling comic books of their day” – J. David Surloak, from Curt Swan: A Life in Comics.

Curt Swan first put pencil to paper on the world’s most recognizable “super-hero” in 1948’s Superman #51. This was a one-issue fill in shortly after Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster left the title, and before definitive Golden Age Superman artist Wayne Boring took over the book’s pencilling helm.

The following year, in 1949, Swan began a run on Superboy from that series’ fifth issue, and in the early 1950s launched a Superman supporting-cast-centric title, Jimmy Olsen. It wasn’t until after 1955’s Three Dimension Adventures: Superman that Curt Swan became Superman’s prime penciller.

Swan remains the definitive Silver Age Superman artist whose ironman tenure on the Super-books would last until 1986’s Action Comics #583 – the second part of Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? This two-parter began in Superman #423 and was intended to wrap-up the pre-Crisis Superman mythos, paving the way for John Byrne’s much-loved and much-maligned Man of Steel mini-series.

Alan Moore’s two-parter not only closed the proverbial chapter on almost 48 years of Superman history, that began with 1938’s Action Comics #1, but also on Curt Swan’s run as DC’s primary Superman penciller. As Wayne Boring passed the torch to Curt Swan, he passed the torch to John Byrne. The rest, as they say, is infamous….


Not only did “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” mark the end of Curt Swan’s regular Superman pencilling stint, it would also mark the end of long-time DC editor Julius Schwartz‘s tenure on Superman.

“Julie”, as he is fondly referred to, is the man who, with clarity of purpose and vision, was the driving force behind the birth of the Silver Age of comics. He led the charge by reimagining contemporary versions of DC’s Golden Age heroes starting with 1956’s Showcase #4. This issue debuted DC’s new Flash, police scientist Barry Allen. Previously, the Flash mantle had belonged solely to Golden Age DC stalwart Jay Garrick.

Deal with it people – Showcase #4 IS when the Silver Age of comics began!

Anyhow, the opportunity to write a final pre-Crisis Superman story, to coincide Swan’s and Schwartz’s departures, was initially pitched to Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel who initially agreed, but later backed out over a contract issue. Julie then spoke with a young writer named Alan Moore, and followed-up with a September 19, 1985 letter stating that:

“The time has come! Meaning that I’ve just been informed that the September cover dated issues of Superman and Action will be my last…

What I’m getting at is: The time has come for you to type up the story your ‘mouth’ agreed to do – that is, an imaginary Superman that would serve as the last Superman story if the magazines were discontinued – what would happen to Superman, Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Luthor, Brainiac, Mr. Mxyzptlk, and all of the et cetera you can deal with.” – Julius Schwartz, from Man of Two Worlds: My Life in Science Fiction and Comics.

And deal with it Alan Moore did, with Curt Swan riding shotgun, and Julius Schwartz helping steer from the rear.


Curt Swan’s and Julius Schwartz’s contributions and love for the Man of Steel are self-evident. Their works are appreciated, cherished, and fondly remembered.

So long. Farewell. Thank-you.

And now, to perhaps their greatest collaboration…

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

This two-part Alan Moore written tale began in 1986’s Superman #423, concluded in Action Comics #583, and opened with following words:

This is an imaginary story (which may never happen, but then again may) about a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good. It tells of his twilight, when the great battles were over and the great miracles long since performed; of how his enemies conspired against him and of that final war in the snowblind wastes beneath the Northern Lights; of the two women he loved and of the choice he made between them; and how finally all the things he had were taken from him save one. It ends with a wink. It begins in a quiet midwestern town, one summer afternoon in the quiet midwestern future. Away in the big city, people still sometimes glance up hopefully from the sidewalks, glimpsing a distant speck in the sky… but no: it’s only a bird, only a plane. Superman died ten years ago. This is an imaginary story…

Aren’t they all?


The Deadpool

“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” opens in a “futuristic world” – August 16, 1997. Lois Elliot, formerly, Lane, is sitting down for an interview with Tim Crane. However, the tables are turned as she is the subject of Tim’s interview for a commerative Superman Memorial Edition being prepared for The Planet.

Over steaming cups of coffee, Lois tells the story of The Last Days of Superman. At the end of her story, the Superman landscape is almost unrecognizable. Here’s the scorecard:

The Villains:

Parasite – dead
Terra-Man – dead
Bizarro – dead.
Toyman – jailed.
Prankster – jailed
Krytonite Man – dead.
Metallo – incapacitated.
Mxyzptlk – dead.
Brainiac – dead.
Lex Luthor – dead.

The Supporting Cast:

Krypto – dead.
Perry White – alive.
Alice White – alive.
Pete Ross – dead.
Jimmy Olsen – dead.
Lana Lang – dead.

The Trinity:

Lois Lane – alive.
Clark Kent – every knows he’s Superman.
Superman – pick up the tradebook to find out!

Who’s at the door?

What I will also say is that through the course of reading Superman #423 and Action Comics #583 you will encounter:

The Justice League of America
– Batman
– Robin
– Wonder Woman
– Green Arrow
– Hawkman.

The Legion of Super-heroes
– Cosmic Boy
– Saturn Girl
– Lightning Lad.

Legion of Super-villains
– Cosmic King
– Saturn Woman
– Lightning Lord.

Supergirl – A time-travelling Kara Zor-el.
Superwoman who debuted in 1983’s DC Comics Presents Annual #2.
Captain Marvel of Shazam fame.


Readers of “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” will also experience:

– The virtual destruction of the Daily Planet.
– A seige at the Fortress of Solitude.
– The devastating effects of Blue and Gold Kryptonite.
– Superman confronting a Supergirl that he knows will die in her youth.

And there’s a lot more! Need I continue?

Listen, if you aren’t going to go out and buy the tradebook for the holidays (which you should!), and you’re looking for a detailed accounting of how this chapter in the Superman mythos was pulled together, I encourage you to head over to the Superman Homepage. I’m not going to spoil it for you anymore more than I already have.

My intent with the Deadpool was to whet your appetite enough for you to want to pick up this great story!

And, so my friends, with this two-parter, a chapter in Superman history was closed, ending with the following words:

And now we come to an end – and a beginning. This issue’s story didn’t happen – yet it gives… ending to our years with the Metropolis Marvel. New hands will be at work on the first and greatest of the super-heroes. We’ll see a lot of changes. And yet, deep down, he’ll still be the same hero Jerry and Joe gave us in Action #1 – E. Nelson Bridwell (consulting editor).

Getting Byrned

The Superman franchise was relaunched and reimagined in 1986 within comics’ great John Byrne’s controversial Man of Steel mini-series. Superman was now the sole survivor of the doomed Planet Krypton.

With the origin sequence in issue #1, which depicted a cold, antiseptic planet Krypton not wholly removed from the 1978 film version in Superman: The Movie, The Man of Steel “was designed to be as different from the old version as possible,” (Dick) Giordano (DC’s editorial director at the time) contends, “to show everyone that we were indeed making a change, that we weren’t just retelling the old origin.”

Dick’s propensity toward tossing out tradition for the sake of a good story helped guide Byrne into exciting new terrain. While the adult Clark Kent was an orphan in the earlier continuity, the new Superman’s earthly parents were very much alive, Giordano’s favorite aspect of the renovation: “We had to give Superman a reason for being a nice guy,” explains Dick. “Keeping his parents alive gave him someone to talk to, and rooted him in America’s heartland.” Giordano felt that those were more important concepts than maintaining the hero’s youthful Superboy connection from the previous continuity. He was adamant that Superman needed motivation, or else he could have become a villain, or purely self-motivated. – Michael Eury, from Dick Giordano: Changing Comics, One Day at a Time.

A Superman series was relaunched after the mini-series with a crisp new #1, with Action Comics continuing its original numbering with #584, and a new series debuting, the Adventures of Superman, continuing the numbering of the old Superman series with #424.

While I enjoyed Swan’s run on Superman, I also look back fondly on the Byrne years.

What’s next for the Man of Tomorrow?

Its not clear what 2004 will really mean for the Man of Steel.

However, currently, the Superman franchise is in a mess. Of that there should be no dispute.

As I’ve said many a time, “DC’s been playing fast and loose with Superman’s origin lately – one book referencing a Birthright origin (Superman/Batman #1), while another references the MOS origin (The Kansas Sightings). Now we have a pre-Superman, presumably un-powered Clark Kent, in the future (The Legion).”

Perhaps DC’s editorial team is still deciding which origin is which. What we do know is that there are a gaggle of new creative teams on tap for the super-books in 2004. Does this represent a light in the fog that Superman finds himself in today? Only time will tell. Ultimately, we, the readers, will decide with our wallets.

More from Moore

“Superman himself seems to have been a bit lost for a number of years, it’s not the character I remember. What made the character appealing to me has been stripped away in a tide of revisionism. Given that I was somebody who sort of helped bring in the trend of revisionism in comics, I’ve got to take some of the blame for that. But it seems to me that there might have been a case of the baby being thrown out with the bathwater with the original Superman.”

“What it was with Superman was the incredible range of imagination on display with that original character. A lot of those concepts that were attached to Superman were wonderful. The idea of the Bottled City of Kandor, Krypto the Superdog, Bizarro, all of it. These are fantastic ideas, and it was that which kept me going back each month to Superman when I was ten. I wanted to find out more about this incredible world with all of these fascinating details.” – Alan Moore on the 1986 reboot of Superman.

Parting Thoughts

“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” is widely regarded as one the best Superman stories of all-time, and rightfully so.

Solid Superman storytelling should be experienced monthly, not only in the industry’s rear-view mirror.

What I know for certain is that the Superman franchise deserves better than the editorial chaos its mired in today. Superman should be a top 10 seller in the comic book super-hero industry that HE created.


The Reading Rack

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? is available in trade paperback form.

There are multiple Superman stories that have been bound in hard cover or trade paperback form. Go to your nearest comic book shoppe and reacquaint yourself with The Man of Steel. If you do not know where your nearest comic book store is, click here for help.

Eddy Zeno’s Curt Swan: A Life in Comics, Julius Schwartz’s Man of Two Worlds (with Brian M. Thomsen) , and Michael Eury’s Dick Giordano: Changing Comics, One Day at a Time are great behind the scenes looks into the lives of your favorite DC creators and should be available at your nearest bookstore or online.

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