A Retrospective on Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (1986)
Updated: Aug 12, 2019
The original publication of this article can be found here, on ComicsVerse.com.
Before Watchmen and V for Vendetta, writer Alan Moore wrote a story about the Man of Steel entitled, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” The 1986 tale, penciled by Curt Swan, offers a radical take on Superman as it details the end of his career as a superhero and his eventual disappearance.
Now, what the tale might be most noted for is its unabashed look into Superman’s humanity. Despite his superhuman abilities and physical invulnerability, the man we know as Superman isn’t as perfect as we initially believe.
So, without further ado, let’s take a look back at the iconic story and its impact on the way we view the Man of Steel himself.
The Perfect Man
Perhaps the biggest risk Moore takes in his characterization of Superman is the presentation of the iconic character as an ideal or a myth, an aspect that makes particular sense in regard to how the story ends. Moore’s introduction of “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” states, “This is an imaginary story about a perfect man who came from the sky and did only
Of course, Superman is one of the noblest superheroes in existence. However, this story showcases Superman’s doubts, vulnerabilities, and imperfections. Thus, Moore immediately deconstructs that common, ideal perception of the Man of Tomorrow by inferring that the perception of a perfect Superman is unrealistic and ultimately impossible.
Though the man known as Kal-El comes from another world and spends his days saving lives, he has spent most of his life on Earth. Additionally, he’s the son of human parents and the friend of human companions. Therefore, a question regarding Superman’s identity comes into question. Is he more human than Kryptonian? Additionally, is he prone to errors and, ultimately, imperfection?
As hard as it may be to believe, Superman has made mistakes, and those mistakes are featured in this very tale.
Introducing Mrs. Lois Elliot
Now, for those unfamiliar with “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”, let’s get up to
speed. We begin with Mrs. Lois Elliot, formerly known as Lois Lane, being interviewed by journalist Tim Crane of the Daily Planet for his piece titled: “The Last Days of Superman”. It’s been ten years since the Man of Steel’s disappearance. So, Crane is seeking insight regarding Kal-El’s seemingly inexplicable motives for vanishing by speaking with the last person who ever saw him: Lois herself.
Lois claims that in the years prior to Superman’s disappearance, the world was experiencing an unexpected period of peace. Superman’s greatest foes were lying low, so he was primarily conducting research in outer space for the government.
Unfortunately, this peace was merely fleeting as strange occurrences began taking place in
Metropolis. In a move that was completely out of character, Bizarro went on a brutal killing spree, even going as far as destroying Bizarro World. However, perhaps the most shocking act of this rampage was its culmination in Bizarro’s suicide, leaving Superman at a loss for words.
An End Without Reason
Many of the climactic events of “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” are objects of
randomness, particularly Bizarro’s homicidal campaign and subsequent self-termination. As a result of that, Superman finds himself struggling to understand the ultimate reason for his doppelgänger’s actions. He even asks Bizarro, “I want an explanation for this!” Unfortunately for Superman, he never gets one.
Thus, that lack of closure haunted the Man of Steel throughout this story.
In this sequence of events, there was no tangible enemy for Superman to face nor a weapon of mass destruction threatening the universe. Rather, evil had struck at random and without motive, and Superman couldn’t stop it. On top of all this, Superman couldn’t even rescue Bizarro. Though the two had been staunch enemies, Superman had never been one to wish death upon anyone. However, he still failed to save his foe.
Thus, in this moment, the Man of Steel began pondering his own role as a hero and whether or not he was even fulfilling said role the way he once had.
The Death of Clark Kent
Now, one of Superman’s most catastrophic moments in “Whatever Happened to the Man of
Tomorrow?” lies in the event known as the unmasking. That moment describes the point in which the world learns Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same. As a result of this unmasking, Superman ultimately decides that maintaining the Clark Kent alias is pointless. So, he rescinds it entirely. However, one must ask, who is Superman without Clark Kent? T
The man who once went by the name Kal-El lived most of his life as a human. So, the rescinding of his human identity ultimately leaves Superman at a loss. He’s no longer able to balance the two identities that contribute to his overall persona. Now, there’s only one, and it doesn’t necessarily encapsulate all there is to Superman as a person.
In fact, one can argue that Superman has lost the most significant parts of himself, which developed during his experiences on Earth. That natural formation of his identity through his days in Smallville and Metropolis, despite his origins from Krypton.
Thus, Krypton predestined Kal-El to be the man known as Superman. Earth predestined Kal-El to be the man known as Clark Kent. One seemingly cannot exist without the other, or can they?
Last Respects From the Future
Sometime after the climactic reveal of Superman’s alter ego, a team of Metallos launched an attack on the Daily Planet. The battle left the Planet totally decimated, and in an effort to protect those closest to him, Superman brought Lois, Jimmy Olsen, Lana Lang, and others to the Fortress of Solitude. While there, the time-traveling Legion of Super-Heroes paid him a visit. However, to Superman, said visit was far from ordinary.
He deduced that the Legion had come to the past to pay their last respects to Superman himself, a deduction that reduced the Man of Steel to tears. This tragic sequence of events brings Superman finality. The destruction of the Daily Planet served as one of the few remaining remnants of Clark Kent’s identity and human life. Additionally, the visit
from the Legion of Super-Heroes demonstrated Superman’s mortality, at least in his own eyes.
Despite rescinding his human identity, Superman still maintains a fear of death. He dreads his own demise despite his superhuman abilities. Thus, Superman’s powers don’t render him ignorant of his mortality. Actually, he is incredibly aware of his humanity, and that frightens him. Despite the common perception of him as an invincible man, a perfect man, Superman acknowledges that death could come for him at any time. With this, he fears that he hasn’t done enough in his own life to meet a death with closure. So, ultimately, how can a man be perfect when they experience fear and doubt?
The Life of Smallville
The next day Brainiac, alongside the Legion of Super-Villains, attacks the Fortress of Solitude. The fight culminated in one of Superman’s bloodiest battles that resulted in the deaths of Lana Lang, Jimmy Olsen, and even Krypto. Sometime before this climactic event, Superman had a poignant conversation with Perry White, another individual he brought to the Fortress of Solitude for protection. In their talk, Superman expressed his nostalgia for Smallville and its impact on his humanity.
Additionally, he expressed his regrets in failing to fulfill a relationship with either Lana Lang and Lois Lane. Ultimately, Superman shows remorse for his failures, despite the fact that said failures were never truly known to anyone besides himself. However, this exposure of his remorse shows Superman as an individual who’s yet to fulfill his purpose. He’s spent the majority of his days saving the world, so he’s also given himself to the world.
Unfortunately, what Superman may never have realized is that he’s yet to obtain the true source of his joy. It was in that moment where the Man of Steel acknowledged his mortality that he realizes his true destiny had yet to be obtained.
The Last Days of Superman
As the battle faded, Superman became increasingly suspicious. He was certain of his death, yet he hadn’t even come close to dying. At that moment, the notorious Mister Mxyzptlk made an appearance, claiming responsibility for all the tragic events that had taken place in the preceding days.
His motive? Boredom.
So, in an effort to defeat Mxyzptlk, Superman uses the Phantom Zone projector on the trickster, which should’ve taken him to the Phantom Zone. However, Mxyzptlk attempts to transport himself to another dimension at the same time, resulting in him being torn in half and dying. Horrified at his contribution to his foe’s death, Superman entered a room of gold kryptonite, which has the capacity to strip him of his powers. Following this, he allegedly entered the tundra of the Arctic. Only Perry White, his wife, and Lois survived the onslaught, with Superman nowhere to be found in the end.
Thus, the world came to the conclusion that Superman had perished, demonstrated when
Lois Elliot states, “I never saw Superman again.”
The Death of Superman
The Man of Steel primarily spent his final days reflecting on his many regrets. Ironically, the
greatest one of all would come with the demise of Mister Mxyzptlk. His shame in contributing to his enemy’s death is perhaps the best indicator of his humanity. He made a vow to never kill.
Through this act, he no longer feels worthy of being venerated by the rest of the world.
Thus, Superman no longer feels worthy of being known as a perfect man.
At this moment, Superman acknowledges that he was never capable of perfection.
Additionally, he acknowledges that his abilities have given him too much power. Thus, he makes the decision to no longer aspire for perfection, even though he might’ve never been aware he was doing so in the first place. Ultimately, he simply believes he’s no longer deserving of his abilities or his status as a hero.
In the end, he wishes to be human and maintain his mortality as one.
The Legacy of the Man of Tomorrow
As Lois wraps up her side of the story, Crane asks one final question, “What do you think of the rumors that Superman is still alive somewhere?” She states that even though that would be nice to believe, she witnessed his death in the Arctic. Soon after, Lois’ husband, Jordan, enters the scene, carrying their infant son, Jonathan. Once Crane leaves, Jordan and Lois engage in a conversation about their days. Lois addresses Jordan’s perception of a “normal life” to which Jordan expresses his love for it. He also goes on to say that Superman was overrated and vastly wrapped up in himself.
During this exchange, we see Jonathan crush a piece of coal into a diamond before Jordan give a knowing wink to the reader, leading us to believe that the man known as Superman is living happily ever after.
Introducing Mr. Jordan Elliot
So, the ending of “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” is unexpectedly optimistic. Yes, Superman has “died.” The world no longer watches him fly above their heads, on his way to save the day yet again. In fact, Superman sacrificed himself so that he may live a normal life as the human being he was raised to be. Thus, one can argue that he’s fulfilling his destiny as Clark Kent while the image of Superman fades into history. Despite his abilities, perhaps Clark was never supposed to be Superman forever.
Perhaps Superman ultimately had to find and save his true self, which died with the demise of Clark Kent. In his final fight, Superman believed his time as a hero had run out. He believed it was no longer his duty to save the world since he no longer believed himself to be a hero capable of doing so.
Sure, this ending is definitely controversial. We witness the end of an icon and his ultimate decision to stop saving the day in favor of living a normal life. Some may believe that decision to be selfish but, with the demise of most of Superman’s villains, the world should be due for another relatively peaceful period.
Some may believe Superman was too hard on himself, since he was left with no choice but to end Mister Mxyzptlk. Ultimately though, Superman’s decision was his own for his own future. Now, most individuals would obviously miss the persona of Superman and wish for his return. Still…don’t superheroes deserve a happy ending too?