"How many people do you know that have the intials ‘L.L.’?"
—Lois Lane (128)
Writer: Jeph Loeb
Artist: Tim Sale
With Bjarne Hansen
DC first published this graphic novel as four comics in 1998, just before the company threw itself, for better and for worse, into wild-eyed adulation and imitation of its Silver Age. We're looking at a Superman heavily influenced by the 1980s, and changes made by Crisis of Infinite Earths and Man of Steel. Never mind. Loeb and Sale have created a Superman for all seasons, a shining example of why this character continues to fly the skies of childhood and pop culture.
Each chapter takes place during a different season, at a different point, early in Superman's career. Each has a different narrator: Pa Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, and Lana Lang. We get a sense of each of these characters, and Loeb does especially well with the male narrators. Pa Kent loves his son, but he wonders if he has done right by Clark and the world in bringing up this strange visitor from another planet. Luthor's narration strikes an appropriate tone for a man so blinded by ego and ambition that he cannot grasp true altruism, nor can he see how twisted he has become.
The story connects Superman's familiar career with John Byrnes' Man of Steel (which rewrote Superman's origins) in much the same way that Loeb and Sale's earlier Batman: The Long Halloween bridged the landmark Batman: Year One and the Dark Knight's later adventures. The story clearly uses Byrne's revised version of Superman’s history—- this is Byrne's version of Kent's early life and his corporate Lex Luthor. Loeb, however, brings that version closer to the character's essence than Byrne did, at least as I see it. Kent may have played high school football, and be far less mild-mannered than in prior incarnations, but we don't see him cheat his way into The Daily Planet by pretending to have the first interview with his alter-ego. Loeb also explores the psychology that makes Kent want to become a hero, and he examines the doubts he might reasonably experience, without plumbing the angsty depths later explored by Smallville and 2010's Superman: Earth One. In the end, ...Seasons proves superior to The Long Halloween.
Loeb and Sale's foray into Batman's history suffered from a chaotic plot that had too little focus. They cover a broad canvas here, as well, but each portion focuses on the concept of the hero. The young Kent has doubts, which Luthor exploits in a calculating manner. We're in Superman's world, however, where evil plots do not succeed. Kent returns to his small town roots, only to see how much the world needs the heroic ideal. "It's not nearly as hard learning you have limitations," says a sage, cornfed Pa Kent, "as it is learning how to work with them. Over time, I'd like to think I became a pretty darn good farmer. Over time." Of course, disaster intervenes, and Superman must put his doubts about his chosen path aside. Whereas Byrnes had changed the decades-old relationship between Kent and Superman, suggesting that Kent was the real man, and Superman, the disguise, here we—and he—rediscover the truth. The boy who, according to Lana Lang, was "so noble and caring" wears the costume, and Clark has grown into the name the world has given him . "We are," as Aristotle said, "what we repeatedly do."
Sale's artwork features deceptively simple-looking, clean-lined drawings intended to capture a sense of early Superman comics. These generally work very well. We get stylized glimpse into Superman's worlds, with views of small town life and big city hustle—as they might be experienced in a world where a man can fly. We recognize the elements, but they’re slightly askew. Much of Smallville seems to have wandered out of an earlier era, while Metropolis has a retro-futuristic design that owes more to the pulp SF of the 1930s than any real contemporary urban setting. Panels fill with oversized buildings and aerial walkways that have no visible means of support. Sale's artistic flourishes have often served the fantastic nature of comic-book stories, and they serve that function here. Only his Metropolis goes a little too far into the fantastic for me, especially when compared with his Norman Rockwell visions of Smallville. It's also more difficult than usual to accept Clark Kent's disguise, given this hulking version of Kent, who towers over his co-workers.
DC rewrote Superman's biography again in 2010, with Superman: Secret Origin, and gave us an extraordinary version of his four-color life in All Star Superman. Nevertheless, this story retains its appeal. More than a decade after its publication, Superman for All Seasons remains a Superman comic that can be enjoyed by people who do not read about superheroes.
Many of the best Superman comics in recent history take place outside of established continuity, or early in the character's personal history. Let me suggest one reason why this is so.
DC limited references to a larger shared universe during its first few decades. Many DC heroes teamed up as a part of the Justice Society of America, but their coexistence had no impact on their regular adventures. Batman and Superman, for years, only interacted with each other and their respective "families" (They received mention at the JSA's first meeting, but they never appeared in those original 1940s comics). Some heroes, such as Aquaman and Johnny Quick, for years had adventures that made no reference to other DC heroes. While the metahuman-crowded DC and Marvel universes make great settings for fantastic stories, they create a number of problems. It's harder to write stories that relate to our real world when thousands of super-powered beings crowd the streets and skies. Indeed, fans have to ignore the fact that the major comic-book universes lack internal consistency, in that they continue to resemble the real world at all. The fantastic scientific developments, frequent alien invasions, and super-powered characters depicted should profoundly influence world history and events. Stories set in Superman or Batman's early days permit one to treat the hero as a novelty, and ignore the complexities created by years of activity and continuity, accumulated after the hero becomes established.