Okay, so I did give John Byrne a lot of shit for his story where Superman executed three Kryptonian criminals, and his story where an alien tries to hypnotize Superman into making a porno film. But other than those two HUGE mis-fires, I did, and still do, enjoy his run on the Superman titles. In 1987 he began to write and drew two ongoings, SUPERMAN and ACTION COMICS, and then the next year he also took over the writing (while Jerry Ordway did the art) on the 3rd title, ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, in addition to writing several mini–series’ and one-shots featuring Superman and his world. Having one person primarily in charge of the character helped keep all the titles easily connected and on track. And it all began with this miniseries.
Originally published as a 6-issue miniseries in 1986, Superman: The Man of Steel was the book that really made me a fan of Superman. Oh, sure, I liked the character before that, as most kids did, I’d enjoyed the movies and cartoons about him, and had read many comics, but this particular series was a whole new look at the character. John Byrne, who was at his creative and commercial peak, was given the opportunity to completely revamp Superman in this series, which he wrote and drew. As was typical of most comics at the time, even mini-series’, each issue was a stand-alone story even as it was part of an overall narrative.
In issue #1, we begin on Krypton, where Jor-El has decided to send his son Kal-El to Earth, because Krypton is about to self-destruct. We’re immediately aware of how different Byrne is making Krypton look in this new continuity. Silver Age depictions basically had it looking like a typical Buck Rogers 1950’s future Earth. The people look just like us, except they wore funny clothes and had jetpacks and such. But Byrne’s Krypton is a truly ALIEN WORLD. Cold and empty. Kryptonians look human, but they also remove all their body hair (it is pretty useless, anyway, if you think about it). When Jor-El shows Lara an image of Earth, the planet he plans on sending their son to, she’s horrified with how primitive it and the people look. The only thing I don’t like is that Jor-El and Lara aren’t married, their son was conceived inside of a special test-tube like chamber (which means that Superman is technically “born” on Earth, in America, so he’s a natural born American citizen), so the decision to send their son away to escape Krypton’s destruction loses some of it’s emotional impact.
The rest of the issue moves rather fast (this was long before “decompression” took a hold of the comic-book industry), we see teenage Clark Kent as a star football player in his High School. But Jonathan Kent is not happy about it, and has a talk with him about how he should use his powers for something better than just showing off. He takes him to see the spaceship that he and Martha found him in years ago (Clark had been unaware up to that point that they were not his natural parents). Then we cut to the then-modern day. We learn that in the years since Clark left Smallville, he’s been traveling the world, using his powers in secret to help people. Then one day in Metropolis, he’s forced to use his powers in public to save a special “space plane” from crashing. Lois Lane just happens to have been on that plane, and writes a story with the headline “Super Man Saves Space Plane”. Clark flies back to Smallville to talk to his parents, as he’s worried that now that his secret is out, he’ll never have a moment of peace. So Jonathan comes up with the idea of the secret identity. Martha designs and sews the costume, and Jonathan gives him a pair of glasses to wear when he’s Clark Kent, and then he prepares to go out in the world as SUPERMAN.
In issue #2, we’re in Metropolis, where Superman is flying around helping people and catching criminals, and Lois Lane is desperately trying to catch up to him so she can interview him. Finally she stages a fake accident, driving her car off a bridge so that Superman can save her, and then he takes her back to her apartment, where she asks him a few questions before he flies away. She hurriedly writes the story and then goes to the Daily Planet to get it published, but Perry White reveals that they’ve already printed an exclusive interview with Superman, from the newest Daily Planet reporter, Clark Kent. The look on Lois’ face in the last scenes speaks volumes. Since Byrne’s version of Clark Kent is not very “mild mannered”, he has to come up with a reason for Lois to not be interested in him, and in this case it’s professional rivalry. That works (for awhile). There’s also a brief mention of Lex Luthor in this issue, but we don’t really see him until later.
In issue #3, Superman flies to Gotham City to capture Batman who, at this point in his career, is known as just a lawless vigilante. Batman, through his typical pre-planning, is ready for the confrontation, and forces Batman to listen to him before trying to take him in to the police. Together they end up taking down a costumed criminal named Magpie, and Superman sees that fighting crime in a corrupt city like Gotham is much different than in Metropolis, and decides to leave Batman alone, and they depart, but not really as “friends”. I have to say that, IMO, this is the one weak link in this series. For a “first” team-up of such iconic characters as Superman and Batman, facing a petty criminal like Magpie was pretty weak. And Batman’s way of keeping Superman at bay, which I won’t spoil even after this time, doesn’t feel as clever as it’s supposed to be.
In issue #4, we finally meet the new Lex Luthor. In what is probably the most radical change of this reboot, instead of a mad scientist, this Lex Luthor is a successful businessman. Described by Lois as “the 2nd or 3rd richest man in the world”, he runs LexCorp, a company which owns most of the businesses in Metropolis. This was a perfect supervillain for the the 80’s, the era of J.R. Ewing, Gordon Gekko, and Donald Trump (and, it should be noted, that Byrne credits Marv Wolfman, who was to write the first year of the new Adventures of Superman, with the basis of this idea). Lois and Clark attend a fancy party on Lex’ yacht, where we see that Lex is interested in Lois (Clark, earlier, assumed they were dating), but Lois rejects him. Then a group of terrorists try to hijack the yacht, and Superman stops them. Then Lex reveals that he planned for the terrorists attack so that he could see Superman in action for himself, and he tries to hire Superman to work for him, which Superman declines. And the Mayor of Metropolis has Lex arrested for endangering the lives of everyone at the party. Lex’s lawyers get him out of jail in a few hours, but Lex is humiliated, and warns Superman that he’ll make him pay for this, somehow. I definitely loved the new version of Lex and his motivation for hating Superman (it sure beats being mad because he thinks Superman intentionally made him lose all his hair).
In issue #5, after a clever fake-out on the splash page, involving the pre-Crisis Lex Luthor battle armor, we’re introduced to the new “bizarro” Superman (although that word is never actually used). Lex attempts to create a clone of Superman, but the process goes wrong, and creates a chalk-skinned doppelganger that can’t speak and is mentally unstable. He goes on a rampage in Metropolis and Superman has to stop him. A subplot involves Lois Lane’s little sister Lucy, who was blinded in an attack a year earlier. Lucy attempts suicide, only to be saved by the Superman clone, who ends up sacrificing himself in a way which helps restore Lucy’s sight. A very heartwarming issue.
And then in issue #6, Superman travels back to Smallville to visit his parents. We learn that his high school girlfriend Lana Lang is back in town. The day Clark left Metropolis he had told Lana about his powers, picked her up and flew her all around the world, and then left. She was devastated after that (it was kind of a dick move, if you ask me), and spent the next several years traveling the world, following Superman around as best she could, before deciding to move back to Smallville. Superman starts seeing images of Jor El. He goes to the area where the spaceship that the Kents found him in was, only to discover that it’s missing. Nevertheless, he is confronted with the hologram again, where “Jor-El” tells him all about Krypton, and what happened to it. While Superman is in a trance, as the info is transmitted to his brain, Jonathan Kent comes along and thinks the hologram is attacking Superman, so he grabs his shovel to hit the hologram (thinking it’s a real person).
I like this scene because when Jonathan shouts “Get away from my boy!”, it’s such a great fatherly moment. Obviously Jonathan knows how powerful Superman is, but he still reacts like any father who sees his child in danger, he has to do something. The hologram stops, and Superman flies off to think about what he’s learned. Up to this point, he didn’t know that he was an alien (they all just thought the spaceship was perhaps a Russian space-shuttle), and now he knows. But it ends with him re-affirming his feeling about Earth.
While I still think Byrne was laying the “I’m an American, not a Kryptonian” sentiment a little thick, it’s still a good ending, to a good miniseries. It sets up the new ongoing series which Byrne launched a month later, where we see the answer to what happened to the spaceship, and properly introduced Superman to a new generation. And so many of the tropes that Byrne introduced here remained a part of the Superman mythos, and how he was portrayed in other media, for decades. Including the Kents both remaining alive into Superman’s adulthood, and Lex Luthor being a businessman, and especially the portrayal of Clark Kent as the “real person”, who doesn’t pretend to be a weak coward, and Superman as the “disguise.” And despite being written 27 years ago, I can read it today and the series still holds up just as well, which is quite an accomplishment in itself. And, most of all, Byrne’s artwork (with inks by Dick Giordano) is PERFECT. When he draws Superman, he looks like a SUPER man. And his Lois is gorgeous, you can see why Clark wants her so bad. Overall, I grade this series:
You can get all six issues individually or collectively on Comixology.