This is one half of a two-part examination of Superman. Read the flip side in The Mythological Majesty of Superman – “All-Star Superman.”
For many fans, Superman is identified as an unreachable and infallible ideal of perfection in superhero form. But to solely focus on the Christ-like side of Superman is to ignore the beautiful humanity that is an intrinsic part of the character’s core. Writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale’s 1998 four-issue miniseries Superman for All Seasons is a moving examination of the all-too human heart of Clark Kent, aka Superman. In focusing on the hero’s down to Earth upbringing and relatable struggles, The Man of Steel is revealed to be a far more inspiring and beautiful character than what could be said by any bombastic action scene.
Told in four parts, Superman for All Seasons tracks a young Clark across the four seasons of the year, starting in Spring and ending in Winter. While the story does not necessarily take up a single chronological year (there’s clearly a time jump between 18-year-old Clark in the spring issue and young reporter Clark in summer), they form a cohesive narrative of one man discovering his unique potential in the world and grappling with it as he matures. Despite setbacks and self-doubt, this is a tale of understanding your place in the world, not just for Clark, but for the many people who are impacted by him as both a good man and an awe-inspiring superhero. Disconnected from any overarching stories and unencumbered by decades of mythology, Superman for All Seasons is satisfying for any reader, no matter his or her familiarity with the character.
Loeb and Sale’s story starts with young Clark Kent about to graduate high school in the Norman Rockwell-like rural town of Smallville. While Loeb doesn’t bother to spell it all out (countless other stories have made Superman’s origin common knowledge around the world), we see Clark grapple with his new knowledge of being an alien and the burden of his burgeoning powers. Spring is narrated by Jonathan Kent, Clark’s adopted father, who must come to terms with his son growing up and moving past this rural life, culminating in Clark saving a man from a tornado and realizing that he could do so much more. Summer finds Clark in full swing as Superman in the modern city of Metropolis while Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane contends with how the idea of Superman shatters many of her preconceived notions of heroism. In Fall, Lex Luthor plots his revenge against Superman after being sent to jail and publicly humiliated by the hero. Stewing in his hatred of the Man of Steel, Lex brings his revenge to fruition through poisoning the entire city with a virus that only he can sure, thereby making Superman feel helpless. In Winter, Clark retreats to Smallville as he questions his true worth to the world, which coincides with the return of Lana Lang to the town. A childhood friend, Lana loved Clark and thought they would one day be married, but her dreams crumbled when Clark embraced his path as Superman. Now, she comes alongside Clark as he faces a crossroads in his life, just as a storm brings disaster to Smallville.
Although the general idea of each season bringing about a new chapter in Superman’s life may seem trite upon first glance, Loeb’s nuanced writing and stellar character work turn the framing device into a far richer experience. While character narration may border on the overly wrought at times, the graceful and elegant nature of the story keep these moments from ringing false. Superman for All Seasons drives at the hearts of readers page after page, which quickly makes this into an emotionally honest story in both its highs and lows without ever feeling cheap.
While Clark himself is never given an issue guided by his own narration, Loeb makes the wise choice to provide an omniscient view to Sale’s artwork, which is juxtaposed against each narrator’s subjective view of Superman. While people like Jonathan Kent and Lana Lang have a far deeper understanding of Clark, those like Lois Lane and Lex Luthor see him as a riddle and a threat, respectively. Meanwhile, Sale’s art cuts away to moments that are unknown by the narrators in order to provide a more intimate portrayal of the hero. In this way, Superman for All Seasons creates a story that gets deep into the heart of its central protagonist despite never actually getting inside his head. Quiet moments, big heroics, and Sale’s gorgeous, expressive artwork tell us everything we need to know as the four narrators provide deeper understanding of the man behind the “S” shield.
And that hero is true to the essence of the character. Clark Kent is humble, loving, and tender hearted. Although he puts on enough of an act as the bumbling reporter to prevent others from guessing his heroic alter ego, Clark the man is a real person. And so is Superman. Dressed in the red and blue tights, the massive frame of Clark is reshaped into the idyllic man, a man who first and foremost loves the people of the world. Those who see him can’t help but be flabbergasted by the breathtaking hero before them, but even when in costume, Superman is an encapsulation of goodness, love, and compassion. The Superman of Superman for All Seasons is not the distant god that some interpretations have wrongly assumed, but rather is a wholesome beacon of hope whose tender heart guides his awe-inspiring powers to create an iconic hero.
It’s not just genius storytelling that propels Superman for All Seasons onto the exclusive list of the greatest Superman stories, it is Sale’s art as well. Put simply, this is some of the best art ever committed to the comic page. Sale nails down each character’s unique facial characteristics and body language with every panel and provides some audaciously exquisite panel layouts. From small moments between characters to massive double page spreads that take your breath away, Sale has never been better than he is here. His art creates symmetry in scenes that echo one another from issue to issue, which underlines the cyclical nature of the seasons and creates a greater thematic resonance. This in turn heightens the emotions at play within Loeb’s storytelling.
Special attention must be given to colorist Bjarne Hansen, whose watercolors provide a graceful and elegant emotion to every page. It is Hansen’s colors that help distinguish each season without being cloying or aggressively obvious. Somber winters have just as much beauty as springtime in Smallville and season evokes different emotions that reflect the progression of the narrative at hand. When combined with Sale’s classic interpretations of both wardrobe and architecture, the result is a story that feels right at home in both the ‘40s and modern day.
Why are some of the greatest Superman stories the ones that deal with his origin and early days? Most likely because these are the moment in which Clark Kent is the most human. Seeing a man embrace his destiny is far more compelling than seeing an untouchable god protecting the Earth. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to this rule (see Morrison’s All-Star Superman), but having the human origins of Clark Kent explicitly part of the narrative means that the relatable and inspirational nature of the character is far more evident throughout the story. It’s rare to see Superman fail or doubt himself, but that is exactly what happens here. And when Clark questions his purpose in the world and considers no longer being Superman, it’s understandable because he isn’t perfect.
From start to finish, Superman for All Seasons is a far more intimate and tightly focused story than many of the most well-known tales of The Man of Steel. Loeb rarely strays outside of a few central characters and the narrative is far more concerned with Superman’s growth as a person than any monumental confrontation. The largest threats come in the form of disasters and the schemes of Lex Luthor, with not a single superpowered villain in sight. It’s crucial that the climax of the story comes in the form of a storm – an impersonal force of nature that no man can challenge. No man except for Superman. And in that confrontation and the physical challenges that take place in each of the four issues comes a focus on protecting and caring for people, not altering the path of the storm or subverting the tornado. In the end, this is one person bestowed with incredible gifts whose place in the world is fighting for the wellbeing of other people.
The love provided by Lana Lang, Jonathan and Martha Kent, and many other good people throughout Superman for All Seasons is just as strong as the love given by Superman. That love guides them all as they come to better understand their places in the world. For Clark, it’s as Superman, whose astonishing powers allow him to express that love in ways uninhibited by human fragility. For others, it’s as people who better one another each and every day, Superman included. When we stumble and fall, it’s the love of others that picks us up and brings us back to where we belong.
The power of Superman isn’t just found in the small scale stories, it can be seen in those that are writ large, as well. The greatest of these can be found in writer Grant Morrison’s breathtaking saga, which is covered in the other half of this examination – The Mythological Majesty of Superman – “All-Star Superman.”