It's a bird, it's a plane, it's Superman -- sort of

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THEY'RE tampering with perfection at DC Comics. It's back to the drawing board for Superman. The redefinition of character will be major enough so that ``the Man of Steel'' is taking time off -- his first vacation since 1938 when he left the planet Krypton to land on his flying feet in American comic books.

At 48, he can still outrun a speeding bullet and leap over tall buildings, but the big guy is going through a midlife crisis with readers, it seems. Superman comics' circulation is down to an estimated 300,000, less than a third of the total 30 years ago. The times, they are a-changin' -- and we're not just talking about no more phone booths to accommodate Clark Kent as he nips out of his business suit into his big ``S'' gym tights.

How exactly is Superman going to be revised? What sort of '80s chap will he look like when he returns? The top-secret planners at DC Comics have dropped a few guarded hints. The new Superman will be ``slightly more modern.'' This turns out to mean: ``more vulnerable,'' ``more open about his feelings.''

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As he moves from John Wayne toward Alan Alda, will the invincible lug learn to cry? If so, will readers find Lois Lane beating her fists against her rescuer's chest and shouting, ``Put me down, you big wimp!''?

Lois, it is promised, will be ``updated'' too. She will become more ``focused on her career, trying to make her reputation'' -- putting her flying boyfriend second. Meanwhile, Clark is going to be a little less of the ``mild-mannered reporter'' himself. In fact, the rumor is that he's not going to be a reporter at all. After his leave of absence, he may return to his paper as a columnist -- a clear case of demotion.

But the most daring change of all will find Superman physically less awesome. When he lifts a car full of villains off the ground, he's going to have to grunt and sweat a bit, and when he's stopping a jet in midair, he may even have to use both hands.

His DC Comic managers fear that Superman is ``so powerful he's boring.'' And so they're going to shoot their own fantasy down with a little realism -- just when Time magazine finished explaining Superman as ``a hero for a nation that believed anything was possible.''

It's sort of odd. In 1938, when Superman first flapped his cape, the jet had yet to get off the ground. Now that ordinary men can walk on the moon and ordinary bombs can blow up our planet, Superman gets cutback on power.

One more revision, and, in a showdown, you'd have to put your money on Rambo.

Things have reached the stage where the new Clark Kent will keep a Nautilus gym in his apartment. Maybe this is a disguise. But just maybe our new over-the-hill Superman needs to work out, like everybody else, gasping back at Jane Fonda on his video.

Will '80s kids and nostalgia buffs buy the downscale brute? Will the new Superman -- excuse the expression -- fly? Well, as last year's great revisers said in Atlanta about this time, you never know whether the public wants ``new'' or ``classic'' until you put goods in a bottle and hand out the straws.

Up, up, and away -- just possibly.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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