We'll start with Superman, the infant sent in a rocket from a doomed world, raised by a childless couple in the American heartland of Kansas. He first exhibited his abilities from a young age, leading to his gradual growth into the persona of Clark Kent, mild mannered reporter for The Daily Planet. His creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, had no part in anything but the scantest part of the tremendous capital generated by Superman as a phenomenon, translated to moving pictures and countless streams of merchandise, far outweighing any competitor by sheer force of presence as an icon.
Years pass strangely between comic books and the real world, and after spawning a swamp of imitations and assimilating those that even came close in appearance (Captain Marvel of Shazam! fame will be explored shortly), Superman finally found his nemesis in a Kryptonian-bred superweapon known as Doomsday. After his death and the subsequent universal re-imaginings of DC Comics, he is today another creature altogether, but pausing along the timeline at All Star Superman and the Final Crisis crossover, organized and largely written by Grant Morrison, we find a bleeding-edge meta commentary to the quality of the work, referencing the many worlds and timelines where a flying caped hero with invulnerable skin and a strict moral code to protect the innocent can be found hard at work, saving the universe and the multiverse.
Interestingly, one of the heroes from an alternate reality that Superman meets in his adventure with other "supermen" was Captain Marvel, a hotly contested lawsuit-settlement-won character from the earlier and more litigious days of DC Comics, then known as National Comics. Captain Marvel, created by artist C. C. Beck and writer Bill Parker, started out as Captain Thunder (later used for a 1980's African-American iteration) and then Captain Marvelous. His similarity to Superman beyond a superfical level was always nil, but after years of devastating litigation, Fawcett Comics settled the matter with National once the case was bumped back into lower courts. His character was transferred to the DC stables, represented as having magical powers, standing in place for a little boy with a alliterative name whenever he spoke a magic word. The cutting off of Captain Marvel comic books to England gave rise to Mick Anglo's Marvelman, but more on that in a bit.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the Übermensch, or Overman, holds a position in Zarathustra's presentation as the creator of new values after the twilight of piety and nihilism that man stews in. The Übermensch forms a new moral standard, well apart from the squabbling infestation that ordinary man, in his eternal ignorance, helps perpetuate. It is here that the development of the superhuman standard can be seen at work in comics, moving beyond dot matrix printed slugfests and soap-opera dramatic back doors, into a more philosophically varied position of moral development. In essence, mankind is something to be overcome, and in our attempts to understand ourselves we may form a creature that sees us as a laughingstock. This mirrors the attempts in recent years of comic books to validate their own existence and prove themselves more than they once were, beholden to a higher standard than initially expected.
To the end that Superman was and will always be an icon that draws in a goodly sum of cash, ebbing and flowing given standards of society, it would make sense that the creators at Marvel Comics, mainstream competitor to DC Comics, would at some point capitalize on the concept in their own fashion. The result was Hyperion, Marvel's first answer to Superman. Created by Roy Thomas and John Buscema, this provided a leader for the Sinister Squadron, arguably a villainous Marvel-looking glass take on the Justice League of America, designed to fight The Avengers. An alternate reality version of these villains were also created by Thomas and Buscema, the Squadron Supreme of Earth 712.
For all his personal foibles and fables, Alan Moore works at his best when he is reworking the concepts of other creators, tweaking and paring down the essence of a character he did not himself create. No better example of this than the little-seen Miracleman, first known as Marvelman. As previously mentioned, the gap left to Britain with the passing of Captain Marvel Comics out of circulation was filled by a blonde imitation courtesy of Len Miller and Mick Anglo, just as wholesome as the Fawcett creation yet distinctly more British. The origin story was tweaked (astrophysics replaces magic) and the series went on to great success, even in Italy. Years down the line, a British comic book called Warrior was printing Mick Anglo stories framed by a story Alan Moore developed out of the original content, creating yet another interesting metanarrative, and perhaps the first of its kind within superhero comics. The reality of previous continuity was in fact a virtual reality simulation concocted by an evil scientist who reverse engineered the "Miracleman family" from a fallen spacecraft.
The storyline for Miracleman consists of too many ground-breaking moments in superhero comics to go into in the space we are provided, but suffice it to say, much as Moore's later work in Watchmen, Miracleman proved to be a game changer when it first hit the industry's bigger editorial bullpens. After decades of work inside and out of courts, it was announced not too long ago by Joe Quesada that Marvel now officially owns the rights to the stories, although given Moore's current standing and reputation in the mainstream, his work, along with a nascent showing by Neil Gaiman, may never see the light of day, proper. The crux of the series must be noted, however, as Kid Miracleman, sidekick of Miracleman, speaks his secret superhero word while being sodomized in a school bathroom, then goes on a killing rampage in London, at superspeed.
Here we see a grandiose act of terror resulting in very distinct loss of human life on a grand scale, but moreso, on a superhuman scale, still not topped in terms of graphic wholeness in any comic to this day, at the hands of a deranged superhuman reverting to the basest of human instincts, the direct opposite of the morally refining/annihilating Overman. Miracleman tricks Kid Miracleman into saying his name, then snaps the neck of the inner host child, sobbing in the ruins of London.
What Moore went on to do with Miracleman was take the step towards superhumans tactically rearranging the world's affairs to the next logical level. But with his work in Watchmen, we see only one true superhuman in a world where moral quandries are the norm, and human affairs muddled. Dr. Manhattan is Alan Moore's final commentary on the superhuman. Taking elements of an old episode of the Outer Limits for the overarching plot and this character's personal microcosm, mixing some of the chrono-synclastic infundibulum experienced by Winston Niles Rumfoord in Kurt Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan, and throwing in glowing blue for good measure, Dr. Jonathan "Jon" Osterman is a being that stands outside of time. The morality of his actions escape him early on, and he's used as America's nuclear deterrant and the solution to the Viet Nam conflict. His seemingly infinite power is undercut by a lack of emotional perspective, brought back into play only through finding interesting correlatives within human bonds, via his lover the Silk Spectre. In the end, he leaves the world to "create some life of his own" and reverberates in comics, in all his blue nudity and glory, to this day.
Along the lines of interpersonal relations, when Warren Ellis formed the wide-screen superhero team Authority in the late nineties, he brought on two petri-dish experiments known only as Apollo and The Midnighter, homosexual tangents of Superman and Batman. Outside of his role as solar-powered strongman, Apollo's character depth never developed a comfortable and personable niche, although he did end up in a collection of the multiverse's "Superman Squadron" in the final issue of Final Crisis. Not flamboyant but certainly a controversy to some small minds, at the present moment Apollo represents a social commentary regarding the status of the Superman iconography. His costume's triangle could clearly be seen as a direct reference to his homosexual status. Not often has the issue come up, but with the recent revamp of Apollo into the DC mainstream, it will be interesting to see how DC might handle him potentially being "outed" in the future, or how social norms mind lend him some room to build actual personality in the momentum.
After all exhaustive inquiries into this realm of material, the well has not run dry. Mark Waid's Irredeemable, in his own words from 15 Minutes with Mark Waid: "What if you go from, you know, Captain America to Doctor Doom? What if you go from Superman to Lex Luthor? How do you go from being the greatest hero in the world — someone that everybody knows, and everybody loves, and everyone recognizes — to the greatest villain in the world? What is that path? It's not a light switch, it's not an on-off switch, it's not something that you wake up one day and just become evil." Here we have an idea running counter to the stable "silver age" sensibilities that some would have once accused Waid of (addressed by Grant Morrison in a Foreward in the first Irredeemable trade paperback). The Plutonian is a character whose origin involves cosmic happenstance, infanticide and repeated attempts at infanticide, then an orphanage and numerous failed foster families. He is a frustrated superhuman that finally gives up after taking years of overhearing snide remarks from people he saved and, once he works up the nerve to reveal his secret identity to his girlfriend, watches as she tells the rest of the people at the radio station they work at. He turns utterly evil, murders an entire city, then sinks Singapore, all while hunting down old allies and enemies and systematically exterminating any human that talk about him behind his back (a benefit and curse of super-hearing). The story moves along and he is stopped, thrown into an intergalactic insane asylum, meets his cosmic parents and evolves, but still remains unredeemed. He stands in stark contrast to one of his former villains turned hero, Max Damage, featured in Incorruptible, also by Waid. Here we have the unfolding and destabilization of the Superman mythology and indeed an exploding of the Overman application to comic books altogether. Nihilism compounded with superhuman abilities, tinged with impiety. Super-psychokinetically charged pettiness and rage do not make for a character worth saving, most days of the week. Hence the title.
[A final moment, a brief comment, an afterword, concerning the development of a character in the Marvel Universe using the presupposition that Superman's parents are the core of his higher moral standing. Apocalypse has traditionally been a villain, repeatedly ressurecting to fight in the various books concerning mutants in that universe. His relatively recent death at the hands of Weapon XIII, Fantomex, while still just a child, were offset recently to some degree. A clone is placed in a virtual reality containment unit (mirroring Miracleman's VR existence), where he is raised by a simulated mother and father, "Ma and Pa" on a farm in Kansas (obvious relations to Superman's origin via Baudrillard's Simulacrum and Simulation). He is taken out somewhat early from this simulation and set to fight against Archangel, the heir apparent to the legacy of Apocalypse. Given the codename Genesis, he is currently attending the Jean Grey School of Higher Learning, where he is just beginning to question his origins. We can extrapolate that his turn away from morality might come when he learns that his childhood and family were a fabrication of some faux French anti-hero. What better means might one deal with this potential omega level threat simmering on Marvel's backburner? Could Genesis, if he had followed the simulation to completion, have become redeemed for all the evil done in the name of Apocalypse? There are many things still to be said for the mythology that Superman gives us, and they will be explored so long as man is still committing ink to paper (or pixels to screens) in the name of comics.]