Here’s an author and body of work that isn’t usually high on the list for comics folks, but that I recommended several times to writers taking on Superman. Zenna Henderson wrote a stack of stories of The People from 1952 into the 1970s, chronicling aliens from a destroyed world who have come to live on Earth among us. Her aliens were very human, but with a number of alien abilities we’d certainly class as super-powers. One of the stories made it to a Hugo nomination, but sadly the material mostly went out of print until rescued by NESFA for a complete volume entitled “Ingathering” in 1995.
One of the intrinsic challenges in writing any long running character like Superman is finding something new to say. In the comics of my youth in the 1960s, it was fine to go back and retell tales every few years presuming the audience of young children had turned over, and the original comics had been shredded or were at very least, unavailable. By the following decade, when I entered the field, reprint collections became frequent, and now, of course, if a story is even vaguely reasonable it’s likely to be perpetually available online or in a book format. So it becomes more and more important to find a new take, rather than simply rehashing the endless ballet of hero and villain.
This doesn’t always work.
Leaving aside my admiration or lack of it for some of the ‘innovations’ and ‘improvements’ offered in recent years, I’ll cheerfully point to one of my own failures. In the 1970s, Jenette Kahn asked me to take on the assignment of WONDER WOMAN because she’d enjoyed how I handled female characters in my Huntress and Power Girl stories. At the time, Wonder Woman hadn’t included a modern run of stories to model on—this is about a decade before George Perez’s fabulous cycle. The classic versions of the character were either aimed too young or had aged badly, and recent runs hadn’t caught fire with audiences.
Thinking about her history, I focused on the idea that this was the only one of the great comics characters who had literally given up immortality for a human existence. That should be fascinating to explore. It should, right?
Except you can’t find a homeopathic drop of that idea in the handful of issues I wrote before running in shame. And don’t blame my collaborators, artist Jose Delbo or editor Ross Andru, either. I blew it.
Anyway, there a humanity in Henderson’s stories that we often didn’t explore in Superman’s adventures. Her aliens are scattered on arrival, so they have different challenges, from hiding among us, to intermarriage. And I thought it might fuel a Superman writer to consider different ways to think of the Kryptonian’s experience on Earth. My own only runs on Superman were the newspaper strip for a couple of years, and a bunch of DC COMICS PRESENTS tales for Julie, neither particularly easy forms for doing stories that might benefit from this inspiration. But I harbor a hope that some future Superman writer will pick up Ingathering and it will lead them, somewhere….