If I were writing Superman, the first thing I would try to remember is that, although he looks like us, he isn’t one of us. Superman is not human. He is an alien from a species that, for one reason or another, just happens to look enough like humanity for him to be able to pass. For decades, people have been looking for the key to writing new, original and interesting Superman stories, and I think this may be it.
We all know the story of Superman, so much so that when Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely launched All-Star Superman in 2006, the summary of the origin story took one page with four panels, each labeled with two words each: “Doomed planet,” “Desperate scientists,” “Last hope” and “Kindly couple.” That pretty much summed up how Superman came to be among us, and was perfectly clear to pretty much every reader because of the number of times that particular story has been retold.
We also know how he is raised by the Kents (actually a change from the original story, in which the Kents gave the foundling to an orphanage), how he went to the great city of Metropolis and became a reporter so he could keep an eye out on the troubles that would need his special capabilities.
There has been a debate over the years about who the real person is — Clark Kent, Kal-El or Superman. Clark Kent is described as “mild mannered,” and usually portrayed as a bit of a doofus. Superman is denigrated as the big blue boy scout because his life is all about service to humanity; he is dedicated to using his great powers to make the world a better place. Kal-El is something of a mystery, as the character embraces his Kryptonian heritage more or less depending upon the version of the story told, but generally speaking the current view of Kryptonian society was that they were an arrogant, cold and even tyrannical people.
Clark Kent is, it has been argued, how Superman sees humans, as weak and fumbling. He feels the need to serve because we are, in his view, a tad bit retarded, or at least dangerously backward. Clark is a mask Kal-El puts on in order to live among us, but Superman is just as much a mask. While his actions may seem to be selfless and benevolent, to a great degree he does what he does because he believes that we cannot take care of ourselves, and require some sort of caretaker.
For the costume, I would go to the famous Wizard Magazine Superman redesign as a starting point. The colors and overall style of that design are exactly what I’m looking for. I would make some tweaks, though.
Rather than the cape as in the design, I would have something resembling Superman’s look in “Godfall.” The cape would be attached to the Superman symbol, which would drape over his shoulders rather like a chain of office.
Another couple elements I would have would be golden wristband/gauntlets and perhaps a belt or waist attachments in place of the red “gills.” These items would contain various bits of Kryptonian technology.
History and origin
The planet Krypton is the homeworld of a vast interstellar empire, one which is renowned for its repression of client worlds. Over centuries, the empire has gone into decline, but Krypton still has its boot firmly on the necks of its subjects.
A solar flare from Krypton’s sun, however, damages the planet’s climate. Esteemed scientist Jor-El believes that the damage to the planet is too great, and that it will eventually collapse. His concerns, however, are rejected by the Kryptonian leadership. Part of the reason for this is that, should Krypton become uninhabitable, the empire will fall apart. The enemies of Krypton within and without the empire will mass to destroy the Kryptonian people.
Knowing that he is right, and that there is nowhere in Kryptonian space they will be safe, Jor-El builds a spaceship that will travel through a wormhole in the Phantom Zone to the other side of the galaxy, where Jor-El has discovered a world with a species that is remarkably similar in appearance to Kryptonians — Earth. Jor-El plans for himself, his wife Lara and infant son Kal-El to make the journey together. During the journey, they will all be embedded with nanotechnology that will allow them to survive on Earth and pass for human.
Before Jor-El can complete his plan, however, a collection of enemies of Krypton take advantage of the damage to the planet from the solar flare — working from Jor-El’s work, in fact — and sabotage the planet. As the planet collapses around them, Jor-El and Lara are forced to put Kal-El in the spaceship alone while they pilot it manually through the Phantom Zone worm hole.
As the ship enters the wormhole, the attack on Krypton has more of an effect than even its attackers anticipated, and the world shatters under their attack. The ship flies through the wormhole barely in control of the autopilot, accompanied by a field of fragments from Krypton’s destroyed planetary core.
In his suspension chamber on the ship, Kal-El receives the nanotechnology treatment that is supposed to allow him to pass for human on Earth. However, because of damage to the ship, he receives the treatment designed for his father, which is far more material than should be applied to an infant.
The ship eventually exits the wormhole and followed by a meteor shower of Kryptonian fragments, lands in the middle of Kansas. It is found by the Kents, who are amazed by the super baby they find and decide to take him in.
The Kents, not being stupid, suspect that the boy is, in fact, an alien. Knowing what would happen if anyone found out, they keep this fact a secret from everyone, especially young Clark. As he grows up, the Kents recognize certain alien qualities in the boy, and are both amazed and horrified as his powers, caused by the overdose of solar-powered nanotechnology, develop.
Thinking about Clark growing up, I am reminded of the television show Dexter. In this show, Dexter and his brother as young children are present in a cargo container as drug dealers cut up their mother with a chainsaw and then leave the boys to stew in her gore and blood for three days before they are rescued. Dexter, who is little more than a toddler at the time, is taken in by the police detective who used his mother as an informant, while the older brother goes into foster care. As Dexter gets older, his father recognizes signs in Dexter that suggests he may develop into a serial killer. In order to protect the boy, the father instills in him a severe code of conduct — if you have to kill someone, only kill someone who deserves it, and always be very careful not to get caught. Dexter, who believes that he is incapable of feeling normal human emotions, learns to fake them through observation and practice.
This is rather the same sort of thing I see happening as Clark grows up with the Kents. Seeing that Clark really doesn’t understand some aspects of humanity, and that with his powers he could be an incredible threat, the Kents instill in him a strong code of conduct, all centered around the ideal of service to others — truth, justice and the American way.
As he reaches maturity, Clark feels a strong call to Earth’s arctic region. This comes, in part, from what happened to Krypton, which had entered something of an ice age after the solar flare damaged its biosphere. As in the Superman movies, Kryptonian technology makes use of crystal lattices, although Kryptonian culture was a lot more colorful — the colors of the Family El were blue, red and gold. Clark finds the remnants of the Kryptonian ship that brought him to Earth and learns his true origin. Taking off with objects from the ship — and more than a bit pissed that his adoptive parents kept the truth from him — he goes into the Arctic and creates his Fortress of Solitude from the Kryptonian crystal seed technology he has. There, he learns about his Kryptonian heritage, and adopts his costume, which is based upon the militaristic uniforms worn by the Kryptonian ruling class.
Knowledge of his Kryptonian heritage combined with the ethical code instilled in him by the Kents leads Clark to the conclusion, more or less, that humans can simply not be trusted to take care of themselves. They need a caretaker who can prevent them from destroying themselves. With this motivation, Clark makes his way to the great city of Metropolis, Delaware (look at map of DC’s America — that’s were Metropolis is) and becomes a journalist, the better to keep an eye on developments that need his attention.
Clark also knows that the Kents were right, and that he needs to keep his identity a secret. He also needs to protect the secret that he is, in fact, an alien, as he imagines that humans, if they knew the truth, would turn on him in much the way that the other species within the Kryptonian empire turned on his homeworld. He adopts the persona of mild-mannered Clark Kent, basically behaving with the weakness and timidity that mimics how he views the human race.
The hero’s journey
A big problem with Superman as a character is that he’s simply too noble and too selfless and too good. He’s perfect. There’s simply nowhere to go with that, character development wise. This scenario changes that by making Superman rather something of a dick. Superman doesn’t protect the world because he thinks humans are great or because he thinks he even particularly likes them — he does so out of a sense of noblesse oblige. The journey of the story is how, as he does whatever he does, he develops respect and affection for his adopted people, and over time learns to understand and accept his place among them. Superman doesn’t start out, in this scenario, as a hero, but rather learns to become one.