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Revisiting what never was with the "Superman 2000" proposal

Comic Books

Revisiting what never was with the “Superman 2000” proposal

Or, Grant Morrison and Mark Waid’s ploy to rebuild the Man of Steel.

Our intention is to restore Superman to his pre-eminent place as the greatest super-hero of all and to topple Spawn and every Marvel comic that’s currently in his way.” – Superman 2000

Two decades down the road from the proposal and its mission statement, one obstacle is long in the rear view, the other towering taller than ever. And while it never manifested, essentially every serious effort towards its goal since is on some level indebted to it. The brainchild of what would become a virtual who’s-who of major 21st century Superman writers in Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Mark Millar, and Tom Peyer (though Peyer denied having contributed to the project by the time it was turned down), the four intended to retool the man of tomorrow for a new millennium, until office politics saw the plan undone and most of them leaving DC for years in the aftermath. An apparently early version of the document was only eventually released to the public in 2008 by comic critics Chad Nevett and Timothy Callahan.

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Well-known now among Superman fans and devotees of the creators, many of the most substantial takes on the character since were either direct extensions of it or were influenced by those comics in turn, if not in the manner originally intended.

The overhaul was meant to debut in 2000 – let’s turn back the clock and see what the future looks like 20 years later.

The Grand Plan

Superman 2000

Grant Morrison and Mark Waid with “Superman and cosplayers circa 1998.

In 1998 the Superman titles spanned five ongoings (four monthlies, plus Superman: Man of Tomorrow to fill the gap on five-Wednesday months), with the likes of Dan Jurgens, Karl Kesel, Louise Simonson, Jerry Ordway, Roger Stern, and Jon Bogdanove steering the ship. The plot skipped directly from one title to another on a weekly basis, demanding a numbering system via triangles in the upper corner to keep the book order straight. Carrying forward the version of Superman introduced in John Byrne’s 1986 reboot The Man of Steel, they focused on a down-to-Earth, “humane” take on Superman. With scaled-back superpowers, he considered Clark Kent his true identity and Superman simply a disguise allowing him to do good without compromising his private life, driven in large part by soap opera drama amidst a sprawling supporting cast that took advantage of the weekly format. A period that had given birth to both benchmarks of the character and industry such as The Death and Return of Superman, and kitsch favorites such as the year Superman spent as a blue energy being with electrical powers, it had attracted diehard fans but was largely understood to be past its peak.

Meanwhile, alternative takes on DC’s firstborn were attracting sales and acclaim, with Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come’s depiction of a majestic elder hero whose power and stature had only grown with time became an instant classic. Elsewhere, DC’s #1 seller in JLA under Grant Morrison and Howard Porter presented a classically heroic Superman who opened the run battering mad alien invaders through the continental shelf, and ended it by saving the galaxy from a living weapon of such destructive power that Heaven itself had given up on the universe. Change was in the air, and Morrison and Waid were both determined to seize the moment.

While the intent was there, the breakthrough wasn’t until San Diego Comic Con 1998, where after-hours Morrison and Waid (accompanied by JLA editor Dan Raspler by some accounts) were discussing the prospect of taking over the Superman titles and came across a remarkably true-to-life cosplayer, pictured above. Taking it as providence, Morrison hosted an impromptu Q&A with the man, who answered his questions in-character as Superman. What struck Morrison even more than the responses was “Superman’s” casual posture, realizing:

“This was how Superman would sit. He wouldn’t puff out his chest or posture heroically, he would be totally chilled.  If nothing can hurt you, you can afford to be cool.  A man like Superman would never have to tense against the cold; never have to flinch in the face of a blow.  He would be completely laid back, un-tense.  With this image of Superman relaxing on a cloud looking out for us all in my head, I rushed back to my hotel room and filled dozens of pages of my notebook with notes and drawings.” – Grant Morrison

Recruiting Mark Millar – at the time having written several issues for the cartoon tie-in Superman Adventures and then mainly known as Morrison’s protege – and mutual friend Tom Peyer, they hammered together a 21-page document touching on every major facet of Superman and his world, citing as justification for their changes a common roughly 15-year stylistic turnover of the character, from the Weisinger era to Schwartz and O’Neil’s 70s revamp to Byrne. It was offered up in 1999 to incoming editor Eddie Berganza, who having been looking for a new approach accepted it and planned to move forward with a January 2000 rollout. By all appearances, everything was set.

The Pitch

Revisiting what never was with the "Superman 2000" proposal

Grant Morrison sketch.

While the quartet intended to pivot Superman in an entirely different direction and bring back elements of the character that had been abandoned decades earlier, their approach didn’t involve a continuity reboot (with one scrapped exception). Rather they intended a reframing of Superman’s mindset via a new development: adhering to the original notion of Clark Kent as a disguise for Superman, their justification for implementing this change in perspective was that he crosses a threshold in the absorption of yellow sunlight that fuels him, tripling his powers and intellect overnight. While Clark again became a means of remaining among humanity rather than distancing himself as an alien, the team intended to recenter Superman himself and his adventures over soap drama, as an inspirational figure of power and nobility rather than everyman stand-in.

Some of the more notable ideas, as follows:

Superman’s costume was to be redesigned with a new version of the s-shield and no trunks, as seen above. In a similar effort at modernization, the Daily Planet was to transition to a news site rather than a newspaper.

Most of the biggest villains were reconceptualized: among the more heavily changed examples, Metallo was to receive a Red Kryptonite heart and act as a “John-Carpenter’s-Halloween-type Super-stalker”, Toyman would die but as a ghost possess an unwitting child’s GI-Joe esque action figure by night to lead his crime ring, and Bizarro becomes ambassador to Earth of the living, infectious Bizarro World. Above all, Lex Luthor would be revealed as concealing a terrifyingly overpowering intellect in line with previous versions, his Byrne-era role as corrupt CEO a “secret identity” of his own concealing his true ambitions from Superman and the world.

Further efforts at organically restoring lost elements of Superman’s world and status quo included a Fortress of Solitude rebuilt by a reenergized Superman, with updated old-school accouterments such as the laboratories, zoo, trophy room, and diary, and a new take on Kandor in the form of the Krypton Museum. In addition were wholly new ideas such as the Infant Universe of Qwewq (which while never explicitly acknowledged as such would be our own real world, where Superman would occasionally go on secret adventures as ‘Hyperman’) and Superman’s Impossible Room (where he would work with his various future super-descendants introduced in Morrison’s DC One Million).

Additionally, there’d be other changes as well. For instance, Jonathan Kent would pass in line with the ‘78 film. Or, previous eras of the Daily Planet would be evoked with the return of Cat Grant and Steve Lombard and the renewal of Jimmy Olsen’s role as Superman’s Pal. And even some flashbacks would reveal Doctor Fate prophesying the coming of Superman as the greatest hero of all to the Justice Society of America so as to retain his central place in the DC universe (even if no longer the first superhero in its then-operating history).

In the most well-known and controversial element of the document, the initial plan was to undo the marriage of Lois and Clark. When Lex Luthor and Brainiac reveal Superman’s identity to the world and engineering an apocalyptic showdown, Lois and Clark are ultimately forced to barter away all knowledge of his secret – and thereby their own relationship – to Mr. Mxyzptlk. Interestingly, this was not a consistent element of the plan: Mark Waid and Mark Millar were hardcore devotees of the Lois/Clark/Superman love triangle and believed the character’s dynamic was fundamentally incomplete without it. On the other side, Morrison was certain the marriage could work.

It’s because of this it’s known there was a later revision of the document that rather than Superman 2000 was known as Superman Now, which was more Morrison-centric than the apparently largely Waid-penned 2000 document, kept the married couple together, and included a finale with Lex Luthor realizing the nature of Superman’s empathy while possessing his powers that would later be incorporated into All-Star Superman. The early plan seems to have lived on however as, of all things, an inspiration for Spider-Man: One More Day.

The team’s vision of the spirit of the stories, in contrast to what had come immediately before:

“(Superman) takes part in grand, world-shattering, star-spanning adventures which tap into the same sense of awe and wonder we strove to invoke with JLA and KINGDOM COME. Superman is the Man of Tomorrow. He mustn’t stay mired in the fast-passing trends of yesterday’s post-WATCHMEN comics. Superman’s world isn’t the life-sized, realistic world outside our window. It’s a world of limitless wonder, a thrilling circus of amazement in which absolutely anything can happen.” – Superman 2000

The Downfall

Revisiting what never was with the "Superman 2000" proposal

Grant Morrison sketch.

When vacationing still-reigning Superman editor Mike Carlin returned, he found a line of books entirely overhauled without his knowledge or input, and his anger was three-fold:

  1. Sweeping changes had been enacted without his go-ahead; to clear the way for the new creators, the then-current teams on the books had all been fired, and wouldn’t return in the aftermath.
  2. Berganza didn’t fess up that he had been seeking the proposal, meaning the team was seen as crusading for the job unprompted at the expense of the current teams.
  3. It was reportedly DC policy at the time to not place major talent on the Superman or Batman books, whether because they were guaranteed sellers that didn’t need the boost in the same way as “lesser” titles, or for concern such creators would have the influence to enact sizable changes.

The plan was scuttled (Berganza later assembled the Joe Kelly/Jeph Loeb/Joe Casey-spearheaded lineup of the early 2000s in their place), and the fallout was severe: Morrison claims to have been told “Do you honestly believe DC will ever give you the keys to the family car?”, and according to Waid the four were explicitly banned from ever taking over the mainline Superman books, an embargo that held until 2011 with Grant Morrison and Rags Morales’ Action Comics. All four ended their time with DC within the next several years; Morrison and Millar, in particular, left with even more bad blood, the former due to the rejection of his Hypercrisis event comic pitch around the same time, Millar because of editorial interference on his breakout run on The Authority with Frank Quitely (Millar, in fact, never returned to DC; while his Superman: Red Son mini was published in 2004, it had been written some time prior).

The Influence

Superman 2000

A Frank Quitely/Jamie Grant illustration.

Of the four, Morrison’s eventual contributions to the character are most well-known, going on to be considered more-or-less universally as Superman’s defining 21st century voice for All-Star Superman: it’s also his work that most visibly bears the most influence of Superman 2000/Now. Superman’s powers tripling, the redesigned Fortress – including a Phantom Zone map room, “living library” of DNA, Bizarro habitat, Qwewq, and a salvaged Titanic where Lois and Clark dine – the return of Solaris the Tyrant Sun, the appearance of the Superman Squad, the new take on Bizarro World, the death of Pa Kent, the return of Steve Lombard and Cat Grant to the Daily Planet, the cover for #1, and Luthor’s cosmic realization in #12 were all born of ideas and elements from the original plan.

Early interviews for the series even indicated Morrison intended to include a trunksless Superman suit, plus an appearance by “Clark’s new superhero identity” that may well have been Hyperman, and as shown in the image above the plan until shortly before print was that Superman would bear the Now document’s redesigned S-shield (which can still be seen on a future Superwoman in #6 in homage). Even Morrison’s very different take in Action Comics with Rags Morales bears traces, with a final showdown between Superman and an army of his enemies beneath a red sun being originally planned for the climax of Superman vs. Luthor and Brainiac.

His influence on the character, and thereby the ideas that began with that document, almost go without saying: lines from All-Star Superman were used for the character’s 2013 reboot film Man of Steel, the Cat Grant of the CW’s Supergirl is seemingly primarily modeled after Morrison and Quitely’s version, and elsewhere in the Arrowverse of CW DC shows its interpretations of Superman, Lois Lane, and Lex Luthor – set to receive a series of their own in Superman & Lois, currently in pre-production – have frequently homaged and incorporated elements from it.

Mark Waid would become another creator whose contributions would influence the character in mass-media, with Superman Returns’ Brandon Routh returning to the role as the Superman of Kingdom Come in CW’s Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover, and much of the tone and aesthetic behind Zack Snyder’s DC films seemingly being owed to it. He worked on Superman a handful of times after the debacle, including in Justice League with Howard Porter and Bryan Hitch, and his late-00s revival of The Brave And The Bold with George Perez and Jerry Conway. First and foremost however was his standalone origin retelling Superman: Birthright with Lenil Francis Yu, from which several scenes and lines were pulled for Man of Steel (though that was infamously far from enough to win his approval)

. As well as the “Clark Kent” section of his proposal for the book included in the trade paperback reusing much of the description for the disguise from 2000 word for word, it also incorporates the suggestion of Superman as a vegetarian (that this was due to Superman perceiving the “souls” of living beings, while a frequently criticized point of the book, was, in fact, a carryover from Elliot S! Maggin’s Miracle Monday, an acknowledged influence on Superman 2000).

After leaving DC, Waid went on to write one of the most prominent takes on the popular Superman Gone Wrong borderline-subgenre in Irredeemable, which among other things took a similarly elevated view of a superbeings’ heightened senses and perceptions, if to obviously very different results. And after writing a conceptual cousin to Irredeemable in Axiom (ironically, although that was written for Legendary Pictures’ publishing division, it would be Irredeemable that ended up optioned) and soon tackling Marvel Comics’ resident “Superman” Hyperion in Squadron Supreme miniseries, recent indicators of Waid returning to DC may suggest his work and influence on the big man proper may not be finished.

Meanwhile, along with a few filler issues and continuing to pen Superman Adventures – which earned him no small acclaim as well as a pair of Eisner nominations in, somewhat fittingly, 2000 – Millar’s main contribution to Superman ended up being Red Son. Introducing Lex Luthor via a segment lifted directly from 2000, the book was a loose influence on season four of Supergirl before being directly adapted as an animated direct-to-video feature, and its ending with the hero allowing the world to believe him dead after a great final battle was reused by Millar later for his book Superior (which in an odd twist was, in turn, a direct inspiration on of all things 2019′s Shazam!, with near-identical scenes of a kid and his best friend gleefully cataloging and filming his new body’s powers).

After cutting ties with DC his work with the character has been solely via analogue: his Millarworld Universe is centered in large part around The Utopian of Jupiter’s Legacy (the adaptation of which is currently in production with Netflix), a long-lived hero whose survival or fall at the hands of a supervillain army in 1986 splits Millar’s assorted books into two separate timelines. Elsewhere, Millar’s Superman-adjacent work oddly veered specifically into disability inspiration porn, with Huck with Rafael Albuquerque (a book he claims to have created as an “antidote” to Man of Steel) portraying the good deeds of a developmentally disabled super-strongman, while the aforementioned Superior with Lenil Francis Yu shows a boy with multiple sclerosis being reborn via magic wish in the all-powerful grown body of his eponymous movie hero.

While a final Superman project was repeatedly floated by him, first as a potential movie reboot with Matthew Vaughan starring Charlie Cox, and later as a comic miniseries, his deal with Netflix canned that possibility for the time being.

Revisiting what never was with the "Superman 2000" proposal

Grant Morrison sketch.

The Future Left To Us

And that, for now, is that: discarded at the time, the vision of Superman presented here extended through decades of subsequent work, shaping aspects his mass-media presence and even influencing projects as seemingly disparate as Billy Batson’s big-screen debut and Spider-Man’s brimstone-scented divorce proceedings. And yet in spite of the heights that have been reached, it can’t be said that the grand goal of restoring Superman to his pedestal was ever achieved: his monthly comics are frequently either overlooked and controversial next to their peers, his appearances on the silver screen have been qualified successes at best mired in behind-the-scenes drama, and his in-costume live-action return to TV in 2021 will be after a nearly quarter-century absence.

It seems absurd to imagine a single comic making a dent in that, much less one that wouldn’t have had the sort of precise polish and intense effort as All-Star Superman. But at the same time, that kind of concentration of talent, that many killer ideas that would go on to be proven successes elsewhere, across all the mainline Superman titles at the turn of the millennium, spearheaded by Morrison and Waid at their commercial peak? Might it have made a difference?

That question, that frustration, might just be most evident in the final Superman-adjacent project in the works by one of the 2000 architects: the upcoming Penultiman by Tom Peyer and Alan Robinson. The tale of “The Next-To-Last-Stage In Human Evolution, the greatest, best-looking, and most admired super-hero in the world!”, the hero is secretly wracked with self-loathing feelings of inadequacy as he was banished from the future as an evolutionary throwback. While presumably the book will cover his emotional recovery (with the help of his robotic understudy Antepenultiman), the sense that the love of the world won by great achievements can’t make up for a better future long-ago lost is one that’s haunted Superman 2000 since the day it became known to the world. And just as with the past of this ersatz ‘man of tomorrow’, that’s simply something that has to be lived with.

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