In 1986, DC Comics decided that Superman's dense 48-year history had grown too confusing for new readers. Worse, his backstory contained elements that seemed slightly twee in light of the tonal sea change that was beginning to take place in comics. It was the year of grim, violent books like Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, which showed readers the superhero genre's sinister side.
Superman, on the other hand, had over the years featured such sunny conceits as Krypto the superdog, with his tiny red cape.
So DC cleaned house, rebooting the Superman franchise from scratch. Going forward, nothing would remain of what readers had come to know about the Man of Steel. Henceforth, he would be the lone survivor of Krypton — no dog, no cousin Supergirl, no shrunken Kryptonian city in a bottle, peopled by hundreds of thousands of microscopic (though similarly super) people. Gone, too, the Fortress of Solitude. Even archnemesis Lex Luthor would morph from mad scientist into billionaire businessman, trading his skintight purple getup for a crisp bespoke suit.
Just before DC hit the reset button, however, it asked Alan Moore to give a royal send-off to the Superman who had been hanging around for half a century. The cantankerous Brit had developed a well-deserved reputation as a comics iconoclast: His Watchmen exhaustively mapped the psychosexual terrain of the capes-and-cowls set, and he had just finished transforming the schlocky horror comic Swamp Thing into a cerebral meditation on the state of the American soul.
Moore penned a sweeping, surprisingly tender elegy to Superman's rich, primary-colored history, superdog and all. The character had died previously (and since, famously, in 1992), but the superhero comic is a land of dream sequences, clones and regeneration where death is not so much an ending as a plot point. Moore's story, in contrast, is a culmination; even 23 years later, it stands as a moving farewell to the Superman most of us grew up with.
Penciled by classic Superman artist Curt Swan and inked in turn by comics-industry giants George Perez and Kurt Schaffenberger, Moore's Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? has the bright, clean look of a Superman comic from the 1950s.
The events depicted in its pages, however, are chillingly contemporary: Enemies who were once mere nuisances turn suddenly, inexplicably deadly, exposing Superman's identity and threatening those he loves. The Man of Tomorrow is forced to shut himself and his friends inside the Fortress of Solitude while a mysterious foe lays siege.
Heroes and villains alike fall. Long-forgotten characters return for a final bow: Jimmy Olsen and Lana Lang meet with valiant ends; Luthor, Bizarro and Mr. Mxyzptlk are dispatched; even Krypto the superdog gets the heroic death he deserves, nobly sacrificing himself in a scene that could stir the coldest comic-hating heart.
Although this story has been reprinted in several anthologies over the years, DC comics has now packaged it in a deluxe hardcover edition along with Moore's other Superman stories, including a head-trippy Swamp Thing-Superman team-up and the much-loved "For the Man Who Has Everything," in which Superman finds himself living an artificially induced dream existence on a Krypton that never exploded. (DC also corrected a mistake made in previous reprints, which omitted Moore's introductory text.) The volume serves as companion to Neil Gaiman's newly published Batman send-off, Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?
In recent years, Moore has turned his back on mainstream superhero comics to create his own stories that continue to comment on and deconstruct the form. But Whatever Happened to The Man of Tomorrow? shows just how much the genre and its best-known character miss him.