Superman was once a humble hero who looked after the citizens of Metropolis and protected them from evildoers like Lex Luthor and all his criminal activities. At some point along the way, the Man of Steel went from stopping runaway trains or thwarting bank robberies to battling intergalactic alien invaders or twisted versions of heroes in other dimensions. Readers were no longer satisfied with small adventures, they wanted bigger and scarier enemies for Kal-El to defeat.
In 2011, DC Comics relaunched all of its titles, including a new edition action comics (by Grant Morrison and Rags Morales). DC took this opportunity to revisit what made Superman so successful all those years ago and bring him back to his roots. This New 52 Superman was younger and inexperienced, an ordinary man struggling to pay his rent while pursuing his own American Dream. Like his status in life, his costume was random and cheap: jeans, work boots, and a cloak. This iteration of the Man of Steel is his best version because it embodies what made him a hero to the people at his inception.
Superman returns as a working-class hero
Superman was reintroduced action comics as a champion of the working class. The first villain he fights is a seedy real estate developer who circumvents the law by using illegal, underpaid labor, bypassing safety standards, and bribing city officials. Government agencies hunt him down while Metropolis’ lowly citizens protect him. As a young Clark Kent, he uses journalism to expose high-level corruption while scraping his way through to pay the bills in a run-down city apartment. The influential people Kent writes about go as far as sending law enforcement to his door to urge him to calm down.
Superman must balance his powerful superhero skills with his goals as a young journalist to help his people on the streets. After a battle with a monstrous robot destroying a city block, he tries to put things right and rebuild a local building. Unfortunately, his efforts backfire as his super speed and power accelerate the gentrification process. In the early part of the series he tries to find his feet and his place in the world.
Focusing on a grounded Superman could have strengthened the series
Despite intending to return to its roots, the series soon followed the same formula as most modern Man of Steel myths. The thrift store ensemble was abandoned and brand new Kryptonian armor was adopted, as was the introduction of the usual nightmarish alien invaders. An opportunity was missed to create a more grounded, human-like superhero, a popular trend in recent years. Readers are often drawn to realistic stories of people with superhuman abilities and how they deal with them using a real-world approach. There’s ample room for a Superman series that keeps him localized and focuses on his burgeoning adulthood, whether Kryptonian or human, a phase he would need to overcome.
The action comic version of Superman from New 52 was the archetype of the original character that established the name around the world. It was Superman at his most human, dressing like someone trying to find his place in the world and facing the average American’s struggles and rare victories. There is a real place in comics for a less godlike Man of Steel and the New 52 version is the ideal model.