Superficially, the concept of a new comic book series set in the universe of Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman film is somewhat different from the likes of DC’s long-gone Batusi pleasure Batman ’66 or its pop-gothic new Batman ’89 series. Rather than a distinct flavor of its lead hero’s history, Donner’s Superman still stands as the Man of Steel’s baseline for millions who don’t read comics.
The chipper icon embodied by Christopher Reeve is the standard version, and all the subsequent ones (to borrow a term from another company’s universe) the variants. Reeves’ Supes is like Curt Swan’s: It’s the template everyone writing, drawing, or playing the character builds on or reacts to. So by default, Superman ’78 can offer something more than a wallow in than an old movie’s production design.
The project shares some crossover appeal with a title like Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s beloved All-Star Superman: It could offer a welcome jumping-on point for readers who crave superheroics but, if they picked up a current (quite good!) issue of Action Comics, would find themselves asking “Wait, Lois and Clark have a son who often hangs out in the 31st Century?”
So, does Superman ’78 offer that? Or is it mostly just gags about ’70s hair?
Who is making Superman ’78?
Writer Rob Venditti (Hawkman) and artist Wilfredo Torres (Batman ’66), are striving to capture the tone and look of Donner’s film — and the feelings it roused in them as kids. Jordie Bellaire handles colors, and Dave Lanphear is the letterer.
What Is Superman ’78 About?
You know the John Williams Superman theme, which evokes Copland and Strauss and, as it builds into a determined march, a sense of militant 20th century American optimism? Venditti and Torres aspire to a comic that lives up to that music rather than one that relies on our memory of it.
To that end, when this Superman kapows someone in this first issue, it feels fully righteous–almost defiantly uncomplicated. He punches an alien robot who has it coming, and it feels good, like an evil robot taking a punch from your favorite grandparent or apple pie. That makes this more than an homage to Donner’s film. It’s the simple Supes many readers crave.
At the same time, the creators are honoring the specifics of the film, right down to the likenesses of some of the stars. (Yes, that includes Brando!) Torres aces the flinty edginess of Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane, a sharp-elbowed Pulitzer winner who demands more of Clark Kent when she’s not dashing straight into danger. Clark, meanwhile, convincingly squints and hunches, a bundle of nerves in Reeve’s 6′ 4″ frame, the odd man out in a screwball love triangle.
And then when Superman takes flight, much earlier than in the film, he’s human sized, as stoically resolved as that theme music, his face Reeves-like enough that you’d know it’s him even without the telltale curl.
As for the screwball comedy? Venditti pens crisp, amusing banter right in the spirit of the movie. Thee creators aren’t afraid to get corny — when the alien robot lands in midtown Metropolis, a terrified hot dog vendor accidentally squirts mustard on a customer — but they don’t emphasize it. Ned Beatty’s Otis does not appear.
Why is Superman ’78 happening now?
Batman ’66 was a hit, and Batman ’89 will likely be, too. Or here’s a less cynical answer: Good lord, the world could use some Reevesian Super decency. In ’78 the movie promised nothing less than “You’ll believe a man can fly.” The miracle that Superman ’78 could offer is “You’ll believe a man with power can and will do the right thing.”
Is there any required reading?
Blessedly no. That’s the point!
Is Superman ’78 good?
Mostly, yes. It’s certainly no cash-in. The creators’ love for the original shines through, and the first issue’s simple story builds to a promising payoff that shows that they understand that the film’s enduring appeal isn’t just its score, casting, and genial jokes. It’s that Donner and company believed in Superman but also tested him, continually raising the stakes and pushing him to his limits.
Still, as it re-establishes the human relationships from the film, Venditti’s script edges toward the familiar, with Lois and Perry White crabbing at Clark for not being a more ambitious reporter, and Lois offering Jimmy Olsen Journalism 101 lessons while running toward the alien robot attacking Metropolis. “This one is tomorrow’s front-pager,” she tells him, as if only a Pulitzer winner has the instincts to know that an alien robot attack is news.
Those scenes look, well, super, though, as Torres proves as adept with sly workplace comedy (and classic six and eight panel pages) as he does at the knockout cosmic and action scenes, which tend toward the page-wide panels common to contemporary comics. One crucial throwback element: This Reeves-scaled Superman isn’t the streaking godling of the Snyderverse or the mainline DC comics. Instead, he stands there and punches until the punching’s done, like George Reeves or Dean Cain.
One panel that popped
What else could it be but this?
Bum bump-a-bum bum … BUM bum bum. Bum bump-a-bum bum … BUMP-A-BUM!