The secret Hispanic history of Superman: Part 2

The calle to Supergirl

12 mins read

The year was 1989. Micheal Keaton’s Batman was redefining the superhero movie genre for the first time since Christopher Reeve did it in 1978. Meanwhile, another Superman was hitting the airwaves – this time in Spain. A little-known actor from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria named…(cue John Williams music)… Javier Bardem.

You read that right.

Future Academy Award winner Javier Bardem. The first Spaniard to be nominated for an Oscar (“Before Night Falls,” 2000) and the first Spaniard to win an Oscar (“No Country For Old Men,” 2008) Javier Bardem. The actor who gave James Bond a serious run for his money as the villain of “Skyfall.”

That Javier Bardem.

Javier was a mere 20 years old when he donned the famous cape for an episode of the Spanish comedy series “El Dia Por Delante.” Decades later, during an appearance of The Tonight Show in 2010, Jay Leno revealed the lost footage, officially making Javier the first Spanish-speaking on-screen Superman to reach international fame.

He would not be the last.

In 2015, Warner Brothers Animation and DC Entertainment released the animated film “Justice League: Gods and Monsters” featuring an Hispanic Superman.

In this alternate-reality universe, Kal-El was actually the son of his mother, Lara and (plot twist) Krypton’s greatest enemy, General Zod. Sent to Earth moments before the destruction of Krypton, baby Kal’s ship crashed near the US-Mexico border, where he was rescued by a young Mexican couple named Manuel and Rosa Guerra at the worst possible time – trying to cross the border in search of a better life in America. Barely escaping government forces, they named the child Hernan Guerra and he was raised as the adopted son of migrant farmers.

This Superman had a decidedly different life than the one we “knew.” His immigrant experience was not just that of alien to Earth, but as the son of true Mexican immigrants – with all the difficulties and prejudices that entailed.

To play “this” Superman, legendary director Bruce Timm found the perfect voice in Benjamin Bratt, most well-known for his role on “Law & Order” as Detective Reynaldo “Rey” Curtis. What was lesser known was the actor’s Peruvian heritage. Benjamin’s mother, Eldy Banda, is of Quechua descent – an indigenous people of Lima, Peru.

Unlike Javier Bardem’s single appearance as Superman, Benjamin Bratt’s Hernan Guerra was a true part of the DC Comics universe. Beyond the film, there were animated vignette stories told in webisode format, comic books released in single issues later collected as a trade paperback, even a line of toys.

Courtesy of DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Animation, Blue Ribbon Content, Machinima, and DC Comics.

Seventy-five years after Hispanic Superman comics were merely altered versions of the originals with Spanish substituted for English, there existed an intentionally Latino Superman.

George Pérez and the most famous modern Superman comic cover in the world

If there were an equal to the contribution made to the world of Superman by José Luis Garcia-Lopez, it would be by George Pérez.

Among his vast number of achievements is this:

In 2007, his iconic cover for issue no.7 of DC Comic’s 50th anniversary event “Crisis on Infinite Earths” won the DC Comics Award for “All-Time Best Cover.”

The 2022 Buzzfeed article, “The 15 Greatest Covers in All of Comics” (which included not just DC comics but Marvel, Image, and all other publishers) ranked it number three, behind only “Action Comics no.1” (the first appearance of Superman, 1938) and “Amazing Fantasy no.15” (the first appearance of Spider-Man, 1962).

George Pérez’s legendary cover of “Crisis on Infinite Earths no.7” – “Beyond the Silent Night” (1985). Courtesy of DC Comics.

So revered is Mr. Pérez’s art on this cover that it has been homaged across genres and publishers time and time again. In 2016 it was used as direct inspiration by the producers of the CW’s “Supergirl” television show for a pivotal scene in the episode “The Last Children of Krypton.” Executive producer Andrew Kreisberg confirmed the homage was purposefully written into the script.

“It actually says, ‘We’ll have a ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’ pose here,’” Kreisberg stated.

Homage covers and poster courtesy of Bongo Comics Group, Dark Horse Comics, IDW Publishing, Marvel Comics, and the CW.

George’s parents, Jorge Guzman Pérez and Luz Maria Izquierdo, came to the United States from Caguas, Puerto Rico in the early 1950s. They later moved to the South Bronx, New York City where George was born. Jorge found work in the meat packing industry. Luz took care of George and his younger brother David. Both brothers wanted to be artists. George started drawing at the age of five.

That passion for drawing earned him a job at nineteen as a studio assistant at Marvel Comics and kicked off a near 50-year career in comics as a penciller, inker, writer, plotter, and re-inventor of many of pop culture’s most recognizable heroes, not to mention arguably the most famous villain ever created over at DC—”the big man himself”—Lex Luthor.

Tying in with the DC Style Guide and Super Powers merchandising that José Luis Garcia-Lopez was creating, George gave birth to an icon when he designed Luthor’s now-famous purple and green battle suit.

“Action Comics no.544” hit the stands in 1983, and nothing was the same again. This was no mere costume change to sell toys—it fundamentally shifted the balance of power in the Superman universe. Lex Luthor went from a jumpsuited mad scientist able to be felled with a flick of a super-finger to a physical force to be seriously reckoned with. He could now trade punches blow-for-blow with Superman, opening the literary door for hundreds of new story possibilities. George’s work had begun to matter.

That contribution was given one of comic’s highest honors. In only ten years he had gone from being a young assistant to one of the few artists ever to have his name credited on a comic book page itself as the designer of a major character’s look.

And as if the irony of history itself wanted to acknowledge him, his Super Powers Lex Luthor action figure was “translated” into a Spanish version, just like comics were when he was a boy. The cycle continued.

George Pérez’s design credit in a post-story pinup in Action Comics #544, courtesy of DC Comics. Toys and coloring book courtesy of Kenner. Super Amigos Lex Luthor action figure courtesy of Pacipa.

Year after year, DC relied on George for crucial publishing events.

After “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” he illustrated “The History of the DC Universe”—an impressive two-volume set which was the official source of truth for every major DC character in the new continuity.

In 1986, DC wanted to update their heroes—including Superman—for a more modern reading audience. But first they felt the classic Silver Age version deserved a fitting farewell.

This was not something to be taken lightly. There were decades upon decades of history involved in these Superman stories and it would have to be a very special team of creatives that audience would accept as worthy to say goodbye to their Man of Steel. It was quite the challenge.

They did it.

The story “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” is universally accepted as one of the greatest Superman comics ever published. Written by Alan Moore, it was pencilled by Curt Swan, who had been drawing Superman since 1948. And when DC needed someone they could trust to ink Curt’s art for this landmark story, they turned to George Pérez.

At right, original page art of George Pérez inks over Curt Swan pencils. Cover and page courtesy of DC Comics.

In 2011, DC reinvented themselves again with “The New 52” reboot of characters. As before, they turned to Pérez. This time he did more than art – he wrote the “Superman” series itself. In collaboration with Spanish artist Jesús Merino, this series helped usher in perhaps the biggest wave yet of Hispanic contributors to the ongoing legend of Superman.

George’s mastery of emotional storytelling as he depicts the gut-wrenching death of Supergirl from “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” 1983. Courtesy of DC Comics.

As always in the world of comics, no beloved character stays gone forever. We would see Supergirl again. In the meantime, Clark and Lois had a son who would grow to become a fan favorite, get a Superman comic book of his own, and that next wave would begin.

Costumes and character

Jon Kent was officially introduced as Superboy in “Superman vol. 4 no.6” (2016). His costume, spunky attitude (remember, his mom is Lois Lane, not Ma Kent), and secret identity persona were all designed by immensely talented Spanish artist Jorge Jimenez.

Process sketches of young Jon/Superboy and cover art of older Superboy by Jorge Jimenez. Courtesy of DC Comics.

Jorge, born in Cádiar, Granada, Spain, inserted modern Spanish fashion elements into Jon’s look.

“I started trying out some of the more classic designs as a mini homage to the classic Superman,” he says, “but the guys at DC wanted to experiment with something more casual, as those are the designs that have been working better recently. We are also looking at an incomplete “Superboy;” he’s not super yet, so it’s reasonable to say that if he’s only half super, that he should have clothing that’s half super.

“So we started to play around with clothing that I see as popular right now with teenagers. For example, tight ripped jeans, at least in Spain, are very popular right now and I think they give a lot of mobility to the character when I draw him on the page. I’ve also used a popular shoe design. I must mention that I like putting effort into what I wear personally, so this way I was able to add a bit of myself to the character.”

A super team

After the return of a rebooted Supergirl (yay!), Superman rescued a young brother and sister from another planet and brought them home to Earth to be safe. He and Lois agreed to adopt these “super-twins” and they officially became a part of the family, costumes and all, in this heartwarming scene illustrated by Spanish artist Rafa Sandoval.

Kara (Supergirl) gives the super-twins their first costumes in Action Comics #1051 (2023). Courtesy of DC Comics.

Jorge Jimenez wasn’t the only Latin comic artist to serve as fashion designer for the super-world. The twins’ costumes, as well as those of the entire Metropolis-defending family in use today, were all designed by Costa Rican artist Dan Mora.

Super-family style guide by Dan Mora. Courtesy of DC Comics.

Making a modern legacy

And let’s not forget “Dad,” who had quite a media event of his own.

In the boldest, biggest, legacy-changing move of all (spoiler alert), “Superman Vol. 5 no.18” (2019) had Clark take off the glasses—and the most famous secret identity in the world came to an end.

After years of “almost got me” nail-biting scenarios being nearly discovered by Lois and an assortment of villains, Superman dropped the act, decided to embrace the “truth” of “truth and justice,” and announced to the world that he was, and always had been, Clark Kent.

Not just anyone can draw that monumental moment. To truly capture the pin-drop suspense and magnitude it would require, DC brought in a powerhouse Brazilian creative team: penciller Ivan Reis and inker Joe Prado.

Art by Ivan Reis and Joe Prado. Courtesy of DC Comics.

Hispanic artists were making a modern legacy. Spanish colorist (and artist in his own right) Alejandro Sanchez and his fellow countrymen Daniel Sampere, Carlos Pacheco, and Juanjo Lopez set new standards for art and storytelling. Portuguese artist Miguel Mendonça imbued the first appearance of the super-twins (pre-costume) scene with film-level drama and cinematography.

Detail of Alejandro Sanchez’s stunning colors over Daniel Sampere’s emotional art for the cover of “Action Comics no.1035 ‘The Goodbye'” (2021), original cover art for “Superman no.655” by Carlos Pacheco (2006), Juanjo Lopez channels Henry Cavill for the cover of “Superman no.2” (2023), Miguel Mendonça original page art for “Action Comics no.1038” (2022). Courtesy of DC Comics.

The list of Superman contributors was growing exponentially. It seemed impossible to conceive of anything that could be bigger than the achievements made over the last 40 years.

And then, the impossible happened.

The return of Christopher Reeve

Suddenly there was an all-new story – with honest-to-gosh depictions of the original 1978 movie cast – in a 6-issue series perfectly titled “Superman ’78.”

(Left) Promotional poster, (Center) various panels and (Right) a full page from “Superman ’78.” Courtesy of DC Comics.

Written with great love (and to great acclaim) by Robert Venditti, the task of making us believe Christopher Reeve was flying again fell into the hands of artist Wilfredo Torres, who was as perfectly cast to bring back Reeve’s Superman as Reeve himself was to portray him.

(Left and center) Original art from “Superman ’78.” (Right) Early character depictions of Christopher Reeve and Margo Kidder done for Inktober 2018. Courtesy of DC Comics and Wilfredo Torres.

“There’s no fictional character that I love more than Superman,” Torres said, “and of all the many interpretations of the big guy in comics, animation, tv and film, the Christopher Reeve/Richard Donner version is the one I love the most. Working on this project is very literally a childhood dream come true.”

He threw himself into the pages, completing both pencils and inks. In the summer of 2021, the first issue arrived. It was a huge success.

I had the opportunity to interview Wilfredo about his influences—especially Hispanic artists who shaped the way he saw comics. It was no surprise which two names came up.

“In my mind,” he said, “José Luis Garcia-Lopez drew the definitive Superman.” After Wilfredo met José in 2017, he called him ‘an architect of my childhood’ and ‘a living legend.’

The other name, of course, was George Pérez.

“Growing up, George was doing lots of ‘Justice League of America’ covers. His take on Superman has always been one of my favorites. And ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths,’ where he got to draw Superman, Superboy, Earth 2 Superman…he even made Ultraman look amazing.”

Wilfredo vividly remembers seeing George’s Lex Luthor battlesuit / new robot Brainiac issue of “Action Comics.”

“That issue blew my 11 year-old mind!” he posted on Instagram. “The idea that I’d grow up and draw both of these dudes, following in the footsteps of giants is even more mind-blowing! This job has its days.”

Preliminary sketches by Wilfredo Torres of Superman and Brainiac for “Superman ’78.” Courtesy of DC Comics.

Art was not the only connection between George and Wilfredo. Like George, Wilfredo’s parents were both from Puerto Rico and he too was born in New York City after they came to America.

“George inspired me,” Wilfredo said, “not just because he was the most amazing artist I’d ever seen but also because he was ‘like me’ – and if he could do it, maybe I could too. He was my idol. I miss him very much.”

Wilfredo Torres with José Luis Garcia-Lopez (far left) at HeroesCon 2017, and George Pérez (far right) at New York Comic Con 2007. Pérez passed away in 2022.

The calle to Supergirl

The resurgence of Superman fandom was at new heights. The contributions by Hispanic artists and authors was unprecedented. And a project from 2014 inspired a new hero for 2023.

The story “For the Man Who’s Lost Everything: Part 2” was published as a bittersweet dream sequence within the series “Injustice: Gods Among Us.” In it, Superman imagines a wonderful daughter he and Lois never had.

Designed and drawn by co-creator Bruno Redondo from Alcázar de San Juan, Spain – the character only appeared in one issue, but her impact was clear.

“Injustice” writer Tom Taylor tweeted when he saw the advance set photos of the new Supergirl:

“Wow. In 2014, @bruno_redondo_f and I created a new Supergirl, Lara Lane-Kent, in Injustice. And Sasha Calle as Supergirl in the upcoming film, The Flash, is uncanny.”

Lara Lane-Kent’s costume and look designed by co-creator Bruno Redondo (2014). Sasha Calle as Kara Zor-El / Supergirl in “The Flash” (2023). Courtesy of DC Comics and Warner Bros. Pictures.

Sasha herself is equally proud to be a part of the rich history of the character.

“Representation in the entertainment industry really matters,” she said, “and I’m super honored, honestly [to be the first Latina Supergirl]. There was a moment when we were shooting, when Andy was like, “Hey, come over here and watch this scene on the playback monitor.” And I go over and I see her (Supergirl), and she’s in her full glory. And suddenly, I got really emotional. Because I’m looking at that, and I’m like, “Wow, I wish I would have had this when I was little.” It meant a lot to me. I turned into child Sasha watching this person (on the screen). So it’s really important. And I’m really happy and really thankful to DC and Warner Brothers for doing this now.”

Promotional poster art for “The Flash.” Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Sasha will be the first live-action Supergirl to hit the big screen since Helen Slater in 1984. One can’t help but feel there is a perfect irony in having the newest hero to wear the ‘S’ be a Columbian named Calle.

In Spanish, the word “calle” means “road.”

What a road it has been.

From simple comic reprints to artists who redefined the legend, that road led us to a super-Renaissance. How fitting it was spurred by those who lovingly wove their unique experiences of the world into the mythical tapestry of a refugee who loves the entire world.

Perhaps the reason Superman and his family feel so universal is that their stories have been universally contributed to. Perhaps the reason he exists is because we need him to exist. We need someone to look at things a different way – a better way – for all of us. And we all have something to give to make that happen.

Welcome, Sasha Calle.

Welcome to what you can represent to future generations. Welcome to being a part of the events that continue to shape…(cue John Williams music)…

The secret Hispanic history of Superman.

Daniel Sanchez

Daniel has been an award-winning magazine art director for “Boy’s Life” and multiple major metropolitan city magazines, a writer for a Dallas newspaper, contributed to the book “Superman: The Richard Donner Years” by Jim Bowers and Brian McKernan, is an official researcher and designer for The Caped Wonder Network, and could not be more proud to have grown up to be an actual reporter for the Daily Planet.

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