Monday, January 8, 2018

THE MAN OF STEEL #1 – 6

”FROM OUT OF THE GREEN DAWN” | “THE STORY OF THE CENTURY!”
“ONE NIGHT IN GOTHAM CITY”
“ENEMY MINE…” | “THE MIRROR, CRACK’D” | “THE HAUNTING”
Writer/Penciler: John Byrne | Inker: Dick Giordano
Letterer: John Costanza | Colorist: Tom Ziuko | Editor: Andrew Helfer

The Plot: As the planet Krypton self-destructs, a scientist named Jor-El sends his embryonic son, Kal-El, to Earth in a rocket. Eighteen years later, Kal-El is Clark Kent, all-star quarterback for Smallville High School’s football team endowed with secret superhuman abilities. When his parents, Jonathan and Martha, reveal to Clark that they found him in the rocket, crashed in their corn field, Clark decides to use his powers for the good of mankind. He spends seven years secretly stopping natural disasters and saving people when he can, but when an experimental space plane nearly crashes in the city of Metropolis, Clark is forced into action in public. Soon after, at the suggestion of his parents, he adopts the costumed identity of Superman in order to act in the public eye.

Subsequently, Superman meets Lois Lane while Clark gets a job at the Daily Planet newspaper. Eight months later, he responds to reports of a dangerous vigilante in Gotham City and has his first encounter with the Batman as the pair teams up to take down an eccentric villainess named Magpie. Batman and Superman part not as friends, but with a grudging respect for one another.

Ten months pass and Superman meets Lex Luthor when he thwarts a hijacking of the billionaire’s yacht during a massive party. But when Luthor is implicated in the terror attack, the mayor of Metropolis deputizes Superman and Luthor is arrested. Two years pass and, following numerous unsuccessful attempts on Superman’s life, Luthor creates a bizarre clone of him which proves the Man of Steel’s toughest challenge yet — but in the end, Superman prevails.

Later, while visiting his parents in Smallville, Clark receives a holographic visit from Jor-El, who reveals to Clark that he is not, as he had long believed, a human launched into space as an infant, but an alien being. By way of this revelation, Jor-El instills in Clark's brain the full history and culture of Krypton.

Sub-Plots & Continuity Notes: Well… this is the first Superman story following DC’s 1985-86 CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS event, which resulted in the rebooting (to various extents depending on character and title) of their universe. As a result, John Byrne retells Superman’s origin for a new era, jettisoning much of the character’s Golden, Silver, and Bronze Age baggage in the process. Gone (for now) are Supergirl, Krypto, the City of Kandor, and anything else that could dilute Superman’s status as the true sole survivor of Krypton.

Krypton itself is changed to a sterile planet of dispassionate people. Lex Luthor is altered as well, via a suggestion from Marv Wolfman that he be reinvented as the world’s richest man. Byrne’s darker, grittier version of Batman here is owed to Frank Miller’s contemporaneous reboot in BATMAN: YEAR ONE. Much of this stuff would go on to influence depictions of Superman in other media for years to come.

The series finale reveals that Clark shared his secret identity with his high school girlfriend, Lana Lang, before he left Smallville. Also in that issue, we see that the rocket which brought Clark to Earth is missing from the spot where Jonathan had stored it.

In timeline news, as noted above, seven years pass between eighteen year-old Clark departing Smallville and making his public debut as Superman. Then near the end of the series, Lois notes that Superman has been in action for five years — which should make our hero roughly thirty years of age as MAN OF STEEL concludes -- however there are two references in the final chapter to it having been twenty-eight issues since Clark was born in the cornfield. Personally, I’ll stick with the thirty-year timeline for my own preference. A Superman younger than thirty just feels wrong somehow.


My Thoughts: I’ll state now and for the record that this is my favorite iteration of Superman. I've owned THE MAN OF STEEL since I was a child, when it was released in trade paperback not by DC Comics, but by Warner Books, and my copy is about as dog-eared and battered as a book can be from countless readings (yet somehow I never bothered to check out any of Byrne's subsequent work on the character until now). But beyond that, this Superman is the Superman I grew up with in other media. Billionaire Luthor was in the Ruby-Spears SUPERMAN cartoon from 1988. Clark used to go home to chat with his living parents all the time on LOIS AND CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN. Heck, SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED series, while drawing inspiration from many parts of Superman's history, pretty clearly uses the Byrne era as its main template for characterization, continuity, tone and style.

So, though I've never really read any Superman stuff past THE MAN OF STEEL, I nonetheless consider it the definitive Superman "bible". I like Superman as the honest-to-gosh Last Son of Krypton, I like Lex Luthor way more as a billionaire than as a mad scientist, I love Byrne’s very minor tweaks to Superman’s costume (mainly the much larger “S” on his chest), and I love that both of his adoptive parents are still alive for him to confide in.

Now, moving along to a look at the actual series: Byrne has said before that when he signed up with DC to revamp Superman, he had thought he’d be writing the character’s career from the start, showing him learning the ropes, making his journey slowly from unknown rookie to established, beloved superhero. What he didn’t realize until afterward, however, was that DC intended all of that to happen in a single six-issue mini-series before jumping into the ongoing books with a fully formed Superman. Thus we have THE MAN OF STEEL, in which twelve (!) years pass between the first and final installments (though the initial seven year jump is pre-Superman, entirely in the first issue).

Given the constraints of what he has to do and the limited space in which to do it, Byrne does a pretty good job here. Superman appears and eight months later, we’re told Metropolis is virtually crime-free. We get a tease of Lex Luthor in issue 2, but he leaves for South America for over a year, thus delaying his first meeting with Superman until issue 4, a couple years into our hero’s career. We’re then told that Luthor has been making attempts on Superman’s life for two more years, but that Bizarro is the first threat rivaling his own power that the Man of Steel has ever faced.


As a result, it’s pretty easy to fill in the blanks. For five years, Superman has most likely spent his time battling natural disasters and fighting common criminals — a career akin to the old ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN TV series from the fifties, which Byrne has cited as one of his major influences with regards to the character. (Byrne’s Clark Kent owes a lot to that version, at the least — he plays himself off as “mild mannered”, but he’s also a tough reporter, not afraid to stand up to bad guys when the situation warrants. As with his Superman, Byrne’s Clark is also my favorite. I can’t stand the version everyone laughs at as a wimp and a coward, who disappears at the first sign of trouble. Clark Kent, Hard-Boiled Reporter of Action, is, in my opinion, always the best way to play the character.)

I should also call out Byrne’s scripting here. This is possibly the most naturalistic writing I’ve ever seen from him. Dialogue is sharp and snappy, and overblown narration is kept to a minimum (indeed, there are barely any omniscient captions to be found here). Byrne jumped straight from FANTASTIC FOUR to the Superman books, and my recollection of his FF is that the scripts always read a bit clunky right up to the end. I wonder if the change in editors had anything to do with this? Or possibly just the change in companies? I’ve read plenty of Byrne’s Marvel work, both before and after THE MAN OF STEEL, and I feel like his post-DC stuff was just as verbose as what came before. But regardless of the cause of this change, I really like Byrne’s writing here.

All told, THE MAN OF STEEL does a fine job of presenting the earliest part of Superman’s career, the era he would likely look back upon as “the good old days” before supervillains, when his life was much simpler. With the origin out of the way and a few seeds laid for the ongoing adventures, this series pretty adeptly accomplishes its mission.

Lastly — Byrne has said that it was very important to him that his version of Superman be born on Earth. To that end, he contrives the idea that Kal-El is still an embryo when he leaves Krypton, allowing him to emerge as a baby in Kansas upon landing. I think Byrne’s justification, encapsulated at the end of the sixth issue, is that Superman views Earth as his home planet and Krypton as little more than a curiosity — and while I’m totally on board with that idea, I don’t know that this convoluted revision is totally necessary; regardless of whether he’s literally born here, I think it’s enough that Clark Kent is raised on Earth and views himself as an American and a child of this planet.

An extension of this is that in the prior continuity, Clark knew of his Kryptonian heritage practically from the beginning, during his time as a teenage Superboy. I really like Byrne’s take here, that he grows to adulthood, begins his heroic career, and spends years as Superman before finally learning about Krypton. It helps to distance him from the long-dead world and better establish him, for all intents and purposes, a super-powered human — which I, personally, find far more appealing than the pre-CRISIS Superman who had a very strong attachment to Krypton. (Put it this way: I don't expect to ever see Byrne's Superman exclaim "Great Rao!" and that's just fine by me.)

Next Week: The Man of Steel meets Metallo in SUPERMAN #1.

17 comments:

  1. Not to mention the Superboy adventures (and his connection with the Legion of Super-Heroes, although Byrne will later try to salvage it), the Fortress of Solitude, the invulnerable suit & cape, Morgan Edge, Steve Lombard & the WGBS TV anchor job, etc. All gone (for the time being...).
    For inspiration, there is also facets from the Donner-Christopher Reeve Superman as well: the Lois-Apartment interview, etc.
    I guess the Space-embryo was as far as Byrne could go with his vetoed 'pregnant-Lara-in-rocket-dying-in-Kal-El's-birth' idea.

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    1. Yeah, I probably should've noted Byrne definitely took a few cues from the 1978 SUPERMAN film. He's on record as a massive fan of that movie, so it's not surprising. I believe he based his Superman heavily on Christopher Reeve, while he based his Clark heavily on George Reeves. It's a nice combination!

      I forgot about the idea of Lara dying in the rocket. I read about that a long time ago, but it had long since slipped my mind!

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  2. It might have been an oddity of my comics reading circle, but nearly all of us bought Man of Steel, and then didn't bother reading Byrne's Superman. For myself, it was a bit of "okay, that's John Byrne doing Superman, done with that." It wasn't bad, so much-it was certainly better than Alpha Flight, or the back half of his FF run-it just felt, to me, like I'd seen what he could do with the character, and that was all I needed. So the material coming up here is fairly new to me, since I didn't touch a Superman comic again until the hoopla around the Death of Superman story.

    It's worth noting, though, at this time I was starting to transition away from just reading the Big Two and moving to the indies, especially First Comics, so even what I'll admit is very well done traditional superhero comics like Man of Steel was less appealing to me. Plus that whole period for me, where DC was concerned, was the company very quickly squandering the "reboot" Crisis on Infinite Earths gave them by starting to quickly rebuild a convoluted continuity. The Legion of Superheroes and Hawkman in particular showed how little thought went into coordinating their new continuity.

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    1. Jack, do you mind if I ask how old you were around this time? I'm always curious when people started to explore comics outside of Marvel and DC. I think I was a late bloomer in that regard. My friends all got into Image when it launched -- we would've been around 13 or so at that point -- but I paid the company no attention. I was exclusively Marvel (and very little DC) all the way up to college, when I finally began to look at other things.

      (I did read a ton of Disney comics from Gladstone prior to getting into Marvel, however, but I don't really count that.)

      As far as DC messing up their post-CRISIS reboot, I have a little rant prepared for that, which will be attached to my review of LEGENDS #1 in a few weeks. I don't know much about Hawkman and I know next to nothing about the Legion (aside from their connection to Superboy, which right there makes no sense post-CRISIS), so my issues are focused on the Teen Titans.

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    2. I was pretty exclusively a Marvel/DC guy more or less until I got into college (or at least, late high school, when I had a part time job), with one exception: the Dark Horse Star Wars books, which I started buying pretty soon after getting into comics (more or less once I learned there were still Star Wars comics around).

      I was a Star Wars guy well before I got into comics, and I was already reading the Expanded Universe books when I got into comics, so picking up the the merger of my for-as-long-as-I-can-remember love of Star Wars and my newer-found love of comics was a no-brainer for me.

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  3. I turned 20 in 1986, but I'd been reading indies since I found my first local comic store in 1984 or so, which made me 17-18. Main reason I started moving more wholeheartedly into them at this period was because I went from "high school kid with allowance and a paper route" to "young adult working a job" and had the money to burn. Otherwise it would've been sooner than that.

    To save you the trouble of doing the math, lol, I am now 51.

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    1. Funny, I have people here posting about their comic reading habits and when they branched out, and I left a long two-part post over at Teebore's blog explaining my buying habits from ages 14 - 20ish.

      But to answer the question I posed here, I branched away from Marvel/DC in college. I think first with DANGER GIRL, then some manga -- DRAGON BALL and GUNSMITH CATS in particular. Another year or two later and I was reading Devil's Due's G.I. JOE and Dreamwave's TRANSFORMERS. By the mid-00s, I'd added UDON's STREET FIGHTER, too.

      Though honestly it's only relatively recently that I've really started stretching, looking at some stuff from Dynamite, some stuff from Dark Horse, and of course all the various vintage comic strips I've talked about recently. And things have come full circle, too, as I've been picking up the Carl Barks collections from Fantagraphics, and now I have my eye on their Mickey Mouse stuff, too.

      And somehow, through all of this, I still find myself buying very, very little (if any) Image!

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  4. I learn Smallville wasn't quite so creative as I have given them credit for. I'm completely out of my wits with the DC Post-Crisis stuff, not that I was much in with the Pre-Crisis stuff.

    I hazarded to get an isolated Superman issue of ours that printed DC Comics Presents #97 and Superman #400. It was a... weird issue I completely failed to get the point of.

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  5. Matt, you and I are pretty much in lockstep regarding this, from this being the primary Superman of our youth, to not reading much of Byrne's Superman beyond this despite liking it (though I think I've read maybe the first dozen or so of his SUPERMAN issues once upon a time), to agreeing with the spirit of Byrne's "embryo" change while still finding the mechanics unecessarily-technical.

    While I do like Superman's status as the Last Son of Kyrpton, as I've gotten older, I've come to appreciate some of the extra pre-Crisis elements of the lore, and am glad they eventually got reintroduced. I could do without Kandor and I'm fine with Superman having never been a Superboy (this need not have been as huge an issue for the Legion of Superheroes as DC made it), but I'm glad they found a way to bring back Supergirl (and the real "Superman's cousin" Supergirl, not the weird "protoplasmic shapeshifter from an alternate dimension in Supergirl's form they had for awhile), and even Krypto works for me as a fun relic of zany Silver Age.

    While this origin has mostly stayed intact, it's been tweaked and revised enough that this would probably be pointless, but I kinda wouldn't mind a "Untold Tales" kind of series set in those early five years, showing Superman cleaning up Metropolis and honing his skills.

    Clark receives a holographic visit from Jor-El, who reveals to Clark that he is not, as he had long believed, a human launched into space as an infant

    That's one of those Byrne details I always forget; in my head, he learns he's an alien when he learns about the ship and his powers, probably because that's how its presented in most of the other media.
    <

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    1. The obvious solution to the Legion was to say in the new timeline, they'd been inspired by the legend of Superman, and he'd never met them or been a member. Trying to have their cake and eat it too with Superboy and a pocket universe was just insanely over complicated.

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    2. Hah, Austin and Matt, it looks like my early start in readership and our delayed publications once again put us in situation where my default/primary iteration is the one before that of yours.

      I look forward to the opportunity to whine about how the pre-Crisis Phantom Zoners were much more fun.

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    3. And as usual, Teemu finds himself on the wrong side of comics history. (Kidding!)

      Speaking of the Legion, I know next to nothing about them, but would it have been sacrilegious to just say they were in an alternate future where Superboy did exist? Do they have to be the actual DC future? It seems to me they're far enough removed that they could be in another timeline and it wouldn't make a big difference.

      Lastly -- I have no problem with a lot of the Silver Age stuff coming back, but I like that Byrne did away with it at least to start, and that it took some time for much of it to trickle back into continuity.

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    4. Oh, I almost forgot -- Teebore, there is a Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale mini-series called SUPERMAN FOR ALL SEASONS which is set between issues of THE MAN OF STEEL. It's been years since I read it, but it's kind of what you're talking about, being a "lost tale" from this era.

      (It just occurred to me that, centuries from now, when the people of the post-apocalyptic future arrive here to read my blog, they're going to be really confused as to why I keep calling this Austin Gorton character "Teebore". Because of that, I think I should keep doing it to maintain the mystique.)

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    5. @Matt:

      The problem with using alternate timelines was pretty simple: there weren't any. The multiverse was gone. DC was pushing "One earth, one timeline." The Legion of Superheroes existed, a thousand years later, in the same time line as Byrne's Superman.

      And Byrne had gotten rid of Superman operating as Superboy. And Supergirl, who was also a member of the Legion, was gone as well.

      So, the obvious solution then would be a soft reboot of Legion continuity. Superboy was never a member. Someone else-probably the adult Superman-served to inspire the Legion to form. A simple fix. And...well, they didn't do that. As you go through this, you should find out what they did do-pretty sure it's fairly early in the Byrne run-and the choice they made did so much damage to Legion continuity that it's still screwed up 30 years later, with the Legion currently without a title. It wasn't so much the initial choice that comes out of Byrne's work, it's several that tried to "fix" it over the next 10 years, leading to the Zero Hour reboot of the timeline, that did the damage.

      As for the removal of a lot of the Silver Age stuff-at the time, I had no trouble with it. Superman being depowered from the guy who could blow out suns with his breath was necessary. It was hard to invest in the Last Son of Krypton when there was his dog, Supergirl, the citizens of Kandor, and dozens of Phantom Zone villains. Paring it down to Superman and Superman only-and reducing the amount of kryptonite to one small rock-was a good idea. DC just didn't think through the implications of these choices on their continuity, and a lot of books, especially the Legion, paid.

      It should go without saying that I love the Legion of Superheroes. The Levitz-Giffen run in the 80s is a top ten one for me.

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    6. It sounds to me like what you're saying is that LEGION needed a lazier editor! Denny O'Neil was, by many accounts, extremely hands-off as an editor, and that allowed Frank Miller to muck around with Batman's past all he wanted, outright ignoring and changing things that probably shouldn't have been altered. LEGION needed an O'Neil to stare at the ceiling while the writer pretended Superboy and Supergirl had never existed, and all would've been well!

      I've heard great things about Levitz/Giffen, and at the very least someday I intend to read "The Great Darkness Saga" -- I just don't know when I'll get to it.

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    7. I'm not sure who was editing LHS at the time, but Levitz was still writing it, and he was a big wig at DC, so you'd think he'd have had a wide enough view to figure out the eventual solutions here would have problems. It was kind of remarkable how Marv Wolfman gave basically the entire DC Universe a fresh start and they started squandering it six months later.

      The Great Darkness Saga is the best pure superhero story DC did in the 80s. I love it to bits.

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    8. @Jack: The obvious solution to the Legion was to say in the new timeline, they'd been inspired by the legend of Superman, and he'd never met them or been a member.

      Exactly. DC was WAY too concerned with preserving the whole Superboy element of the Legion, to the point that trying to work that in just made everything worse. They're teens with powers in the future, inspired by the legend of Superman. It's not rocket science.

      @Matt: there is a Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale mini-series called SUPERMAN FOR ALL SEASONS which is set between issues of THE MAN OF STEEL. It's been years since I read it, but it's kind of what you're talking about, being a "lost tale" from this era.

      Huh. I've read that - and quite liked it, being a sort of DC version of the pair's various "color" series for Marvel - but I totally forgot it was ostensibly set around the MAN OF STEEL issues.

      Because of that, I think I should keep doing it to maintain the mystique.

      Totally agree. :)

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