Comic writers and artists have been creating evil versions of Superman since the dawn of comics. From the Injustice video games to critically acclaimed stories like Superman: Red Son, and even in the brief glimpses of an evil Superman offered by the DCEU, DC has rarely been afraid to show what would happen if their most powerful superhero ever abused his powers. Though each one of these alternate Supermen has wildly different backstories and reasons for becoming evil, each of them shares one thing in common. The first step to Superman becoming a dictator is always abandoning his civilian identity. Without Clark Kent… Superman turns evil.
The idea of an evil Superman predates even Superman himself. Five years before Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the first superhero in Action Comics #1, they first imagined Superman in 1933’s The Reign of the Superman. The Superman in this short story was a homeless man named Bill Dunn who gained telepathic powers and used them entirely for personal and financial gain. As the story progresses, the narration refers to the title character less and less as Dunn and more as “The Superman,” until the last pages where he is exclusively referred to by his title. Though the Superman of this short story bears little resemblance to the character Siegel and Shuster would create five years later, it is striking how this would go on to inform future evil versions of Superman.
Much like Bill Dunn, evil versions of Superman are often characters who have either lost touch with their humanity or never had it to begin with. One of the first was Superman’s alternate universe counterpart, Ultraman. In the New 52, Ultraman murders his adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, before founding the Crime Syndicate. Cutting off ties with Superman’s human supporting cast is another common trope among evil Supermen. The Superman depicted in the Injustice universe has completely abandoned his life as Clark Kent after the Joker killed a pregnant Lois Lane. He does make an attempt to save his parents, but by trapping them within the Fortress of Solitude and forbidding them to leave. In a similar vein is Lord Superman from the DCAU. That Superman has also become Superman full-time but keeps his Lois Lane under constant surveillance so that she is basically his prisoner. Lord Superman, much like his alternate universe counterparts, also rules over the world and lobotomizes supervillains.
Another Superman who became a dictator was the Superman featured in Superman: Red Son. That version of Superman was born in the soviet union instead of America. After he is discovered, he is taken in by the Soviet government and trained to be a soldier. Instead of abandoning his human identity, this Superman never had much of one. He has no alter-ego and lives exclusively as Superman. While this Superman is not exactly evil, his reign over the Soviet Union is totalitarian and morally questionable at best. Though Superman becoming a dictator is the most popular topic for bad versions of Superman, it is not the only avenue writers have explored. Superboy-Prime is a Superman who came from an alternate universe that was destroyed after Crisis on Infinite Earths. Having everyone he knew and loved wiped out of existence drove this Superman insane and led him to become one of the multiverse’s biggest villains. A similar example that doesn’t come from DC is the movie Brightburn, which shows how a young Superman could have been a horror monster if he lacked any sense of empathy.
As Brightburn shows, even when other companies create an evil Superman they follow similar trends. Marvel’s Hyperion starts off the Squadron Supreme limited series by abandoning his alter-ego and breaking up with his human girlfriend before taking control of the world. Far darker than that though is Allan Moore’s work on Miracleman. Reading like a combination of the original Captain Marvel and Bill Dunn from The Reign of the Superman, Moore’s Miracleman is a down on his luck reporter who discovers that he was once experimented on and given extraordinary powers when he said the word “Kimota”. The character initially splits his time between both his civilian identity and Miracleman but starts spending less and less time as human until eventually, he decides to never go back. The loss of his humanity leads Miracleman to take over the world. Though the world he creates could be seen as a utopia, the reader is undoubtedly supposed to question the ethics of it.
Writers of Superman often focus on the character’s fantastic abilities and alien origin. Focussing on Superman’s alien nature is a mistake though. As all of these alternate looks at the Man of Steel hint, humanity is more fundamental to Superman’s identity than his powers. It is Superman‘s life as Clark Kent which makes him the hero that he is.
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