In a way, Steve Rude is the ultimate Superman artist. His work combines the expressiveness and humanity of Curt Swan's Superman, the majesty and power of the Jack Kirby model and the raw energy and nostalgic charm of Joe Shuster's original. Added into the mix are influences from animators Doug Wildey and Alex Toth, as well as the classic Superman cartoons from the Fleischer studios.

All of which is not to suggest that "The Dude's" Superman is a mere hodge-podge, or that Steve Rude is somehow lacking in orginality. Far from it; though he draws upon these key influences from Superman's long history, Rude's unique skill is the ability to combine them, despite their diversity, into a coherent amalgam, a fresh and original vision all his own.

Rude put himself on the comics map in the 1980's with the independently published "Nexus," a character he co-created with writer Mike Baron. Later the two would team up for a well-received "Mr. Miracle" one-shot at DC, but it was Dave Gibbons who would pen Steve's inaugural effort on Superman, the 1990 mini-series "World's Finest."

Set in the post-Crisis DC Universe, the tale makes much of the thematic and visual differences between Superman and his co-star, Batman. Thus, where Gotham City is a foreboding, slum-filled war zone and its hero a dark and brooding shadow-dweller, Metropolis is a gleaming showcase of a city filled with technological marvels, blessed with perpetual blue skies and sunshine, and home to a super-guardian as bright and cheery as the city itself.

Whether flying above the clouds, performing some great feat of strength or just standing around, Superman generally seems to be having a great time in this series. Whenever he takes to the sky, or hangs out on a rooftop, there are doves flying about and American flags waving proudly from every pole. Even at a formal evening function, Clark brightens up the room full of tuxes by wearing a white dinner jacket. Of course this is all a bit over the top, playing Superman as an exaggeratedly bright character to drive home the contrast with the shadowy, grim Batman, but the imagery is very effective.

With the World's Finest miniseries of 1990, Steve Rude unveils his vision of Superman, honoring many past artists but still uniquely his own.

Rude's major influence here is the work of Joe Shuster and the Fleischer cartoons. Superman is shown with the slightly stocky build and often squinty eyes of those early days, and his cape barely comes down to his knees (most post-40's artists lengthened it a bit). The time period Rude portrays is hard to nail down; modern vehicles share the road with vintage models and the latest fashions co-exist comfortably with fedoras and trenchcoats. Rude carries it all off with his characteristic mastery of the inking brush, suggesting musculature, weight and fabric with an economy of lines that thicken or thin in just the right places. His "animation-like" lack of clutter is a nice break from the work of many modern artists who add what seem to be thousands of lines and scratches to their drawings and still end up with figures that lack any hint of realism.

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In 1999, Rude illustrated The Incredible Hulk vs. Superman, penned by veteran Hulk and Superman writer Roger Stern. Once again, the time period is elusive, as futuristic weaponry and desktop computers co-exist with Eisenhower-era jalopies and roadside drive-ins with waitresses in mini-skirted "majorette" uniforms.

This time out, Rude keeps a bit of the Fleischer and Shuster influence, but infuses a healthy dose of the Superman we haven't seen since Jack Kirby's work on Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen circa 1970. As before, there is a feeling of size and weight to Rude's Superman and Clark Kent. Like Kirby, and later Alex Ross, The Dude draws Superman's costume as form-fitting but not the "second skin" so many artists portray. There's plenty of power implied in Superman's build, but again there's no detailed musculature or popping veins visible through the blue tights; just a feeling of bulk under a costume that bunches slightly at the elbows and knees...kind of a "George Reeves look." Of course Rude's Hulk is pure Kirby, as are the fantastic scientific devices, military vehicles and weaponry that populate the tale.

Mayhem and destruction are the order of the day, but Rude masters another Kirby hallmark that scores of modern artists have never quite grasped; a wonderful sense of humor. The reactions of bystanders to property damage, the outrageously exaggerated physical feats of the two combatants and bits like the Hulk's invasion of a neighborhood barbecue are huge fun; the kind of stuff that's been absent from comics since the early days of the Fantastic Four.

Proving an old comics rule: Heroes can get along in their secret ID's, but when the costumes go on it's time to rumble!

Rude returns to the Kirby well once again for Legends of the DC Universe #14, adapted from an unproduced plot by The King and involving a host of elements and characters from those Jimmy Olsen days. Collaborating with writer Mark Evanier, Rude makes it easy to sandwich this tale between a couple issues of that long-gone comic, and again gives us over-the-top action, outlandish machinery and good clean fun. In the grand tradition of classic comics, the action is hard-hitting and exciting, but never gory or cruel.

Every so often, some superstar comic artist or self-styled editorial genius takes it on himself to redesign Superman to "fit the times." So far Superman's many "bold, trend-setting updates" have included such masterstrokes as a black and capeless costume, Fabio-style long hair, separation into a red and blue model (each more hideous than the other) and so on. All of these changes have met with resistence or reader apathy, and each of them resulted in stories that seemed instantly dated. Thankfully a handful of artists understand there's no shame in admitting that giants have gone before them. Artists like Steve Rude are more concerned with doing the character right than they are with "making their mark" with a "radical new approach," so they don't mind returning to the classic look that made Superman an icon in the first place. Thank Rao for an artist who appreciates and respects the great artists of the past, and builds on their work rather than trashing it. As long as there are artists like Steve Rude who "get it," Superman just might hang around for a few more generations to enjoy.

If only those storeroom walls could talk, what secrets they would tell!

Related Link: Steve Rude's official homepage,