In November or so of 1990, starting with Superman (Vol. 2) #51, something changed with the Superman books. Actually two things changed. The first change was of a monetary nature. While the bulk of DC’s books had gone from seventy-five cents to one dollar since mid-1989 the Superman titles stayed at the three quarter rate. At the time they were the only books I bought on a monthly basis, so this was rather nice especially since I was thirteen, fourteen years old at the time and didn’t have a whole lotta money to spend. In the letters pages of the Superman books cover dated January 1991 someone, either Mike Carlin, Dan Thorsland or Michael Eury, put in something that was originally published years before when DC had made one of their periodic cover price changes, which went kind of wild there in the seventies.
Amusing, isn’t it?
The other and more important change was the little triangle under the Superman logo. A triangle that read, “1991/1”. The triangle’s presence was explained at the beginning of the letters page.
“ATTENTION, ATTENTION! Starting this month, we’ll be helping guide through the cross-continuity of SUPERMAN, ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN and ACTION COMICS by numbering the year’s Superman stories in sequence within the little pentagon that now appears on each of our covers. That’s right–if you’ve been confused over the order in which to read out titles, we’re now spellin’ it out for ya! SUPEMRAN #51 starts off 1991 as #1, with ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN #474 as #2, ACTION #661 as #3, SUPERMAN #52 as #4 and so on. So that’s what the little S-shield on the cover is for!”
The reason the powers-that-be-at-the-time felt the need to do this is that starting in late 1987/early 1988 the Superman titles became more connected. After Marv Wolfman left Adventures of Superman with issue 435 and John Byrne started writing all three and then both books (after Action Comics Weekly began) the stories taking place in the Superman titles began to sync up and after awhile it was like there wasn’t two Superman books a month but a bi-weekly book with a different creative team on each and this resulted in the first mega arc for the Superman books Exile. At the end of that storyline Action Comics was no longer a weekly and eventually there were these three great Superman books all connected by sub-plots and supporting characters and at the time I thought it was the greatest thing ever.
So when they started what has been called both the Triangle Numbering System and the Never-Ending Battle system I was all for it. I even started filing my Superman books in that order as I assume many Superman readers did. For years this kind of storytelling worked. As a reader I liked the soap opera feeling the comics had and there were times that it was hard to wait for the next issue, especially after they way the writers left the characters and especially after those cryptic remarks in the next issue box. Later in 1991 Superman: The Man of Steel was added to the schedule and suddenly Superman was a near weekly comic except for those pesky skip weeks where no Superman books could be found.
The zenith of the Never-Ending Battle era was reached during the Death and Return of Superman. Here the books were firing on all cylinders. The majority of 1992 was kind of spotty for the Superman books but all was forgiven when Superman died and then returned. The books used that momentum to soldier on in 1994 and 1995, even adding Superman: The Man of Tomorrow as a quarterly to deal with the skip-week problem. Eventually, as in all creative endeavors, the wheels starting coming off the track. I never thought that they became a train wreck, but from 1997 to 1999 the Superman titles were kind of…off. Forgetting the whole Electro Suit leading into Superman Blue/Superman Red leading into the God awful Millennium Giants the books began to meander and it seemed like supporting characters were more important than Superman, Clark and Lois. In the fall of 1999 a new editor took over the Superman books and brought in some new talent mixed with some holdovers and made a go of it.
I’m rather conflicted about that era. Some of it was great. Some of it, particularly making Metropolis a true city of tomorrow, irked me for years. Eventually in 2001 the Never-Ending Battle/Triangle Numbering system was retired and the books were more or less kept separate.
I was sad to see it go and not sad to see it go. I didn’t lose my freaking my mind as some apparently did and question how I should file my comics…ok, I went back and forth on that but at the same time I didn’t lose sleep over it. On the other hand it seemed at the time that the idea had run it’s course and maybe they should try a different path for a time.
The fact that this was the era that gave us Joe Casey creating utter crap in Adventures of Superman, Steven T. Seagle pretty much making Superman unreadable (was having a caption telling us what power Superman was using at the moment really necessary in every freaking issue) and the…how to say this politely…poorly written issues of Action Comics that Chuck Austen should have been a sign, but you also eventually had Greg Rucka on Adventures of Superman and Gail Simone eventually on Action so it wasn’t all bad.
Over the past two years the Superman books have been kind of frustrating. I haven’t hated what has been published but I haven’t been jumping up and down in excitement either. Part of that comes from becoming an older, jaded comic fan but it also comes from realizing what I liked about the Superman books I read in my teens and twenties and one of those likes was the books being connected. Yeah it might have been kind of hard for the creative people to write somewhat by committee but the stories that were produced were, on the whole, good. More than that we as the readers were given something to care about and a world to get into.
Well, apparently the creative folk behind the Superman books think that maybe things should get back to that.
Geoff Johns made rumblings of this in the past few months and upcoming Superman writer James Robinson confirmed that not only are the two Superman titles going to get tighter as far as continuity but that Supergirl was going to get drawn into the mix as well. No word on Superman/Batman but frankly that title has been so argh lately I think leaving it out might be for the best.
This has me excited. I am really looking forward to seeing where Johns and Robinson take the characters. I know it won’t be like it was when I was younger and frankly that’s a good thing. I am not one of those people that constantly needs to have everything be the same way it was when I was sixteen. Last year Geoff Johns and Dave Gibbons made The Sinestro Corps War my favorite story of the year. If Geoff and James Robinson can do the same thing for Superman, my all-time favorite character, then I will once again be in that position where I can’t wait for the next issue.
Of course given the Internet and Previews I won’t have just the cryptic next issue box to go on as far as what is going to happen, but it’ll be nostalgic just the same.
More to follow…