Skip to main content

Review: "Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?"

Nathan Kiehn is a blogger at Keenlinks, a contributor at Geeks Under Grace, and the author of "The Gray Guard" ebook trilogy on Amazon.

review-superman-whatever-happened-to-the-man-of-tomorrow

A few months after Crisis on Infinite Earths ravaged the DC Multiverse, streamlining the number of universes inhabiting its far-flung edges, but shortly before John Byrne rebooted Superman with his Man of Steel limited series, DC decided to tell the final Silver Age Superman story. The Superman story to end all Superman stories.

Crisis had given DC the perfect opportunity to tell such a story, to ask about what happened to the Man of Steel before his fated reboot. The story feels “imaginary” in the same way that most of Marvel’s “What If-?” stories do: what if pre-Crisis Superman was allowed to age? What would his life be like? How would it end?

Taking Superman’s history to a potentially logical conclusion fell on Alan Moore, who was also working on his acclaimed Watchmen series. For a writer whose darker stories are often highly regarded–Watchmen, The Killing Joke, his run on Swamp Thing–Moore makes “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” uncharacteristically celebratory–in the same way “Death of Superman” celebrated the qualities of the then-modern Man of Steel, Moore’s story is a reflection of the character’s storied history, the final chapter on the pre-Crisis world Kal-El once inhabited.

"Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" Credits

Writer

Alan Moore

Pencilers

Curt Swan, George Perez, Kurt Schaffenberger

Issues

Superman #423, Action Comics #583

Publication Date

September 1986

Superman isn't playing games with Toyman or Prankster

Superman isn't playing games with Toyman or Prankster

The Man of To-Moore-ow's Last Stand

Though I noted this two-part arc celebrates Superman, I didn’t say it wasn’t a darker affair. Moore, seemingly true to form, is not hesitant to take pieces of Supes’ history and modify them or break them down to graft whatever stirring emotion he hopes to attach to particular moments. Without concern for future continuity or history, Moore can take his paintbrush to the heavily illustrated canvas of Superman’s mythology and paint however he wants.

What’s nice is Moore’s use of Superman’s history feels fairly generalized. In my “Death of Superman” review, I noted how awkward it could be when writers pulled in elements very much entrenched in Superman’s 90s history. It made “Death of Superman” a difficult story, at times, to head into ignorantly. Moore, conversely, never makes the reader feel lost or implores them to know the minutiae of Superman history. If you’re aware of some of Superman’s colorful cast or iconic locations–Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Bizarro, The Daily Planet, the Fortress of Solitude, Krypto the Super Dog, the Legion of Superheroes–you’re good to go.

Bizarro's going to that small little hut in the ground

Bizarro's going to that small little hut in the ground

Moore selects these integral, foundational elements and toys with them wonderfully. His story sees Superman's enemies take a last-ditch stand against the Man of Steel, a formation of various villains set against him in different ways. Toyman and the Prankster attack the hero at work, delivering the corpse of one of Superman’s friends; a group of Metallos ambush the Daily Planet; Lex Luthor and Brainiac team up to assault the Fortress of Solitude in a final wave. Supes' professional and private are lives are assaulted, his dual identity is revealed, his way of life is torn asunder.

Scroll to Continue

The concept works threefold. First, it provides Moore with a simple yet effective premise for uniting these pieces. On its surface, the plot is fairly straightforward. Villains attack, Superman fights back while trying to protect the people he loves. Yet the complexity under the surface lies in Moore’s ability to effectively utilize his cast. He is, again, aided by his disconnect from future continuity: Brainiac physically tethers himself to Lex Luthor, working the madman’s body even when Luthor’s body perishes; Bizarro dies fighting Superman, the creature’s twisted psyche prompting him to believe that death results in him becoming the perfect opposite of Superman; a few friends of Superman’s die before the story’s end. Moore is able to play with these notions–what would happen if Lex Luthor died? What if Superman’s identity was revealed to the world? What would Bizarro's last moments look like?--without frustrating then-current continuity or creating ramifications for future plots.

The partnership gives new meaning to Luthor's "chrome dome"

The partnership gives new meaning to Luthor's "chrome dome"

The Man Within the Superman

Second, Moore not only plays with continuity but inserts genuinely interesting character ideas other writers may not have considered. He allows Lex Luthor’s arrogance to work against him fatally when he attempts to use Brainiac as a puppet, the latter asserting dominance over Luthor’s whole self. Mr. Mxyzptlk attacks Superman in a reddish, monstrous form after initially popping up as his characteristically impish self, telling the Man of Steel, “Do you honestly believe a fifth-dimensional sorcerer would resemble a funny little man in a derby hat?” The notion that Mxyzptlk could have any other form is one I’ve never considered, nor the idea that a guy like Bizarro would end his life and that of his Bizarro world to end up the perfect opposite of Superman. Moore's imagination runs wild in injecting his characters with new, unexplored layers of development. Brainiac's ruthlessness, Bizarro's "logic," Luthor's madness are all on display, unparalleled in their development.

Who says a fifth-dimensional sorcerer can't change his impishness?

Who says a fifth-dimensional sorcerer can't change his impishness?

Third, the plot creates an engaging portrait of Superman’s character. One of Moore’s most powerful images comes at the end of the narrative’s first issue: Superman sits in his Fortress of Solitude, crying, after interacting with a future version of Supergirl, who was deceased at that time in mainstream continuity. Elsewhere, he expresses genuine concern over Bizarro’s passing, protects friends and allies best he can, mourns the loss of others, and regrets taking the life of one his foes. We’ve seen in stories like “Death of Superman” how staunch Superman can be when protecting those he loves or in “Man of Steel” how humanity lies at the heart of this alien hero. But Moore exemplifies many of those intrinsic characteristics in just two issues–here’s a hero whose strength and near invincibility aren't enough to keep him from feeling inward pain. Where "Death of Superman" stressed the hero beyond his physical limits, Moore is more concerned with stressing Superman's humanity. Maybe you can't beat him to a pulp all that easily, but you can push him to an emotional edge.

Tears shed from eyes of steel

Tears shed from eyes of steel

Finding Moore in the Details

Moore litters the issues with engaging details readers would take great care to notice (similar to what he does in Watchmen). When the Legion of Superheroes visit from the future, they discuss how important that particular day is to Superman and offer him a statuette; little does Superman realize that the figure holds great importance to the plot later. A few pages after, Lana Lang uses newly acquired super-hearing to overhear a conversation where Superman (unaware of her eavesdropping) admits he loves Lois, despite his continually torn affections between Lois and Lana; this then convinces Lana to take a stand against several of Superman’s enemies as a last attempt to prove how much she loves him. The moment Lana overhears Superman is beautifully rendered by Swan, and the fact Moore draws no verbal attention to it only bolsters Lana's decision to fight.

The story’s conclusion is also memorable to note. For the sake of not spoiling the narrative, I’ll be brief and opaque. I will state that Moore crafts a frame tale surrounding the events which occur after this final confrontation between Superman and his greatest adversaries. Like his details, if you’re looking deeply, you’ll catch the ending several pages before it actually happens or maybe even just theorize about it. I was happy when Moore made that hypothesis reality, and despite how obvious specific readers may find the ending, it’s nevertheless satisfying in a way that wraps up the tale and puts a definitive end on the adventures of Silver Age Superman.

Careful what you say around the Woman of Steel

Careful what you say around the Woman of Steel

“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” is often considered a classic…and for good reason. Moore, along with Curt Swan, create an endearing sendoff for the Man of Steel, paving the way for new interpretations while putting the finishing touches on this older version of the character. How the tale ends exactly, I’m loathe to tell. Does Superman die? Succeed? Fail? Retire? Go off to find the remnants of Krypton? Move to Gotham and become the new Batman? However it happens, I believe most readers will find this concluding chapter on the Last Son of Krypton an engaging, character-driven read…and I hope most will be satisfied with how Moore and Swan lay the mythology of this older version of Superman to rest.

© 2022 Nathan Kiehn

Related Articles