In June of last year, after reading that artist Tim Sale had died, I grabbed my favorite book of his off my shelf and flipped through it, to take a moment to appreciate his distinctive work. Given all the time I’ve spent thinking about The Long Halloween, you might think I’m talking about that book. But no, for my money, the best Tim Sale comic (that I’ve read, at least) is actually Superman For All Seasons – Sale and writer Jeph Loeb’s take on a young-and-unsure Clark Kent’s evolution into the Man of Steel.
It had been a while since I read For All Seasons in its entirety, and so I jotted down an idea: to reread the book slowly over the course of 2023, posting a review of each chapter in the appropriate season. So this week, we’re discussing Superman For All Seasons: Spring, a comic that treads a lot of the same ground as Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel but actually understands what Superman is about – and so reaches very different conclusions about his foundations.
I got to reread this comic outside. If you know about Wisconsin winter, you understand why that is a big deal. It took a while for us to start getting real snow this year, but when we did, it arrived like clockwork every Thursday. We’ve been living under clouds and gray skies since roughly December (with a few nice breaks here and there). It hasn’t been “read a comic outside” weather in quite some time.
But today, the sun rose and the sky was pink and yellow and a little bit of blue. It looked just a bit like this:
My wife is germinating plants in the house; she’s had them sitting on top of one of our heat vents for a couple weeks now. (In that time, I have accidentally run into and kicked the giant tray of plants three times.) Today, she took one of the little guys outside, to experience the sunlight and fresh air unshielded.
Midwest spring is a time of uncoiling, and of getting ready to do all the stuff that inevitably comes next. Putting plants in the ground, fixing up the house, getting back in fit shape, building things, going out to the biergarten with friends. The tone for the rest of the year is being set now.
Loeb and Sale get all of that, and in the first chapter of For All Seasons, they deftly transpose that theme and that feeling onto a young Clark Kent. Clark is just about to graduate high school. He’s still figuring out his powers – not just how to use them, but how he should use them. He is thinking about his life to come, in the same way any American high school senior would, except that he knows his life could have an outsize impact on the world if he wants it to.
None of this considering is couched in terms of being a “savior to humanity” or a “guiding light for Earth’s people.” (Though there is some classic Midwestern ambivalent Christianity tossed in.) It’s couched in terms of a man with extraordinary gifts figuring out how to use those gifts to their best potential, to help people when possible. It’s a small-town, Midwest farm kid realizing that he can and likely should do something great and kind with all his power, even if the idea of that scares him. Because, his parents raised him right.
It’s that last sentence, I think (as well as Bjarne Hansen’s Americana spring color palette), that sets the opening chapter of For All Seasons so at odds with Man of Steel. The comparisons and resulting contrasts are so evident as to be undeniable. I don’t enjoy thinking about Man of Steel, but I had to when reading For All Seasons, because where Man of Steel zigs into being absolutely wrong about Superman’s foundations, For All Seasons zags into being absolutely right.
Take, for example, the two stories’ shared final boss for young Clark Kent: a Kansas tornado. In Man of Steel, when Clark has the chance to save his father, Jonathan Kent, from a tornado, Jonathan tells him not to. Superman, says Jonathan, should not act. Instead, he should hide his gifts and stay hidden. Stay safe. In the world of Man of Steel, Jonathan Kent would rather his son stand by and let people die than risk exposing his powers to a world that would likely hate and fear him. If Man of Steel‘s Jonathan Kent had his way, there would never be a Superman.
For All Seasons‘ Jonathan Kent narrates the Spring chapter. In Spring, when a tornado touches down in Smallville, Clark acts. He learns how to control his power of flight, and he saves gas station attendant Morris Klugh from the tornado and an explosion at the gas station. He does this without hesitation. And this version of Jonathan Kent clearly approves of Clark’s actions. His narration in that moment reads, “But, I believe, in the wild trouble of that moment … our son … became a man.”
Superman is not an invention of Krypton or Jor-El. Superman is an invention of Smallville, and Jonathan and Martha Kent, and their hulking, Midwest, cornfed son Clark. For All Seasons not only gets that idea, but sets it as the foundation of the story to come. Can the Kents’ brand of determination, kindness, and responsibility prevail in the big city of Metropolis, where mogul Lex Luthor reigns supreme? That’s the question the rest of For All Seasons seeks to answer. In Spring, the setup for that story is germinating beautifully.
There is, finally, a Superman at the end of For All Seasons: Spring. Jonathan Kent knows what that means for his son. That most likely, Clark’s actions will put him in danger. (Yes, both versions of Jonathan Kent worry about this.) But he also knows that it would be wrong for Clark to hide who he is or do less than he is able. That Clark would not be able to stand that, because he’s been raised right. And so, when Clark tells his parents that he has to leave Smallville for Metropolis, Jonathan does the only thing he can do.
He says goodbye, and he waits to see if all the hard work he and his wife put into raising Clark have set the correct tone for the next stage of Clark’s life.