Dusting Off: Superman #400 (October 1984)

28th October 2009 | by | No Comments

superman400Comics like their anniversary issues. Hardly surprising, since by their very nature as periodicals, they can enjoy plenty of them – whether it’s a literal anniversary of a publication date/year, or simply a landmark issue number, there are enough comics being published nowadays that date back a sufficient period that if publishers were so inclined they could probably find something to celebrate every single shipping week.

And yet in recent years, DC in particular seem to have celebrated these occasions with a bit less fanfare. Marvel, at least, tend to pull out something when a title such as Amazing Spider-Man hits a new century (usually an anthology issue of some kind), but DC’s issue landmarks – while they might get slightly oversized issues – tend to go almost unheralded, while they seem to almost entirely ignore their decade-based anniversaries nowadays. Back in 1984, however, it seemed that such issues were a bit more of a big deal – and so this 1984 comic (also, give or take a few months, 45 years after issue #1 of the title) was the cue for a general celebration of the Superman mythos.

It’s an anthology of sorts, although what’s not immediately apparent is that (with the exception of Steranko’s closing pages) it’s all written by one person – Elliott S! Maggin. Maggin takes us on a journey through a myriad imaginary futures, looking at the legend of Superman passing through the ages; and tailors his stories sufficiently to his artists that each vignette has a distinct style and tone all of its own. Some are more successful than others – but the shared motifs are the twin examinations of the power of myth, and also that of the iconography of Superman and of heroism in general. A downbeat yet slightly uplifting story of rebellion in a fascist future society is the best example of the latter, while another highlight is the somewhat meta Frank Miller-drawn tale of archaeologists finding a video – fallen through interdimensional cracks all the way from Earth Prime – of the George Reeves TV series and using it to discover Superman’s secret identity.

What really makes this such a draw, though – and indeed, one of the absolute prides of my comic collection, quite aside from the fact that it’s one of the earliest comics I remember reading – is the array of artistic talent brought in to draw Maggin’s stories. The loose theme for the issue is the hiring of artists not previously known for having drawn the character – and while the art for the stories themselves is of varying quality, it’s in a succession of pinups that we’re given an unprecedented and stunning roster of talent – most notably Brian Bolland, Berni Wrightson, Bill Sienkiewicz, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko (drawing Superman for, I believe, the only time ever), Moebius (!) and Will Eisner (!!!). It’s also amusing seeing John Byrne draw the character in his style of the time, just a couple of years before taking over the book and (in a very different manner) defining his look for the next couple of decades.

It really is a wonderful gallery of pieces that each perfectly encapsulate and celebrate the character (if I were choosing favourites, I’d go for Sienkiewicz, Wrightson and Bolland’s), and as fun as Maggin’s stories are, it’s these that make this issue such a classic. Perhaps it’s just that the mid-80s were a fortuitous time for comics featuring names that were in the process of becoming legends, while still being able to call upon those that had shaped the medium in its defining decades; but this time-capsule of a piece feels like a genuine one-of-a-kind.