Bold statement: Superman’s glory days happened during the Triangle Years in the ’90s (although the current books are getting there).
I can understand if that sounds insane, particularly since I’m making the above statement as someone who loves the hell out of Silver Age Superman. If you’ve never read Superman stories from the Silver Age, you really should. They are bat shit insane. Seriously. They make absolutely no sense, and as a result are wonderfully creative. There’s not even a germ of characterization to be found, either.
But, like I said, the ’90s are where it all came together for the Man of Steel. Yes, it was a decade full of dark, gritty, extreme superheroes, but that’s part of the reason why Superman thrived; he was the antithesis to all of that, even when he was running around in a black suit armed with automatic weapons (that only happened in a few panels). The Triangle Years emphasized the things that made Superman a singular character, although it was a work in progress, one with its fair share of missteps.
The first “triangle” issue
Some context: the Triangle Years refers to the main Superman comics published from January 1991 to January 2002, all of which (as well as a few one shots) featured a triangle emblem on the cover. That emblem held a number which indicated the order in which the Superman family of titles should be read. There were only 3 Superman books when the Triangle Years began (Superman, Adventures of Superman, and Action Comics). Within the first year a fourth title, Man of Steel, would be added, and eventually Man of Tomorrow was introduced as a quarterly book to fill the 4 weeks a year that would have otherwise been Superman-less.
In the narrative sense, the Triangle Years were set up a year earlier, in 1990. The three Superman titles were becoming more and more interconnected. The last six months of Superman comics in 1990 featured 4 crossovers, so the average fan already had to read every title as it was. Superman editor Mike Carlin’s decision to add numbers to the covers to help readers follow along just made sense.
But the Triangle Years would become something more than just a simple numbering system. The narrative changed not long after it started. The focus evolved.
Much of this was a result of what the Superman titles had been doing over the previous few years. After DC’s big Crisis, Superman was relaunched by John Byrne, who set out Marvelizing — um, humanizing the Man of Steel. This is something of a reoccurring problem for Superman, as every few years someone decides they need to make him more relatable. More often than not, the outsider angle is the one that’s used, to varying degrees of success.
I’m not saying you can’t humanize Superman. I think, in small doses by talented creators, humanizing Superman can be great. But I think in many ways it misses the point of the character.
Superman is meant to be aspirational. What happens to Superman, what happens to Clark Kent, is only half the story. Equally as important is what happens to those who are influenced by him. Superman is and always will be just as much a presence as a person. He’s an icon, and bringing him down to our level removes a lot of what’s great about the concept.
Now, whether Carlin and his chosen teams of writers and artists just weren’t able to get a handle on Superman as a regular guy or whether they decided that was a bad direction to go in, I don’t know. But that’s ultimately how it worked out, and the Superman titles were the better for it.
The Superman offices were going to create (then) 88 pages of comics every month, 1,144 pages a year, not including specials and annuals. They were able to keep these stories interesting by exploring Superman’s supporting cast. This included paying special attention to the two most important people in his life: Lois Lane and Lex Luthor. Lois grew into a powerful force in her own right, while Luthor experienced perhaps more ups and downs over the course of the 90s than ever before.
The Triangle Years were just as much about the impact Superman had on those around him as they were about the man himself. In this respect underscored what makes Superman a singular character in all of comics.
NEXT: It begins.