Monday, January 21, 2019


Story & Art: John Byrne | Lettering: John Costanza | Coloring: Petra Scotese
Assistant Editor: Renee Witterstaetter | Editor: Mike Carlin

The Plot: Above the ruined surface of the Pocket Earth, Superman, Supergirl, Lex Luthor, Pete Ross, and Bruce Wayne (the latter two in jet fighters) make their last stand against General Zod, Zaora and Quex-Ui. Bruce is killed by Zod, and Pete dies when Quex-Ui attacks Smallville Base. Zod and Zaora shoot Supergirl out of the sky with heat vision, transforming her into a being of pink goo. Luthor sends Superman to Smallville Base to locate some gold Kryptonite, which the Man of Steel uses to rob Quex-Ui of his powers. Superman does the same to Zod and Zaora, then traps all three Kryptonians inside a prison of his own making.

Superman finds Luthor, shot down and dying. After he passes away, Superman returns to the prison and uses green Kryptonite to execute Zod and his followers. The Man of Steel then finds the remains of Supergirl and takes her back to Earth, leaving her in the care of Lana and his parents as he departs to sort things out.

Sub-Plots & Continuity Notes: Lex reveals that Lana died during the Kryptonians’ earliest attacks on Earth, and that “Supergirl” was a being he created in her image to fight against them. My understanding is that this creature would go on to become the “real” post-CRISIS Supergirl for several years.

Lex also reveals that he knew about the gold Kryptonite all along, but he wanted the Kryptonians to die by his hand for their crimes against humanity. So basically, he could’ve stopped them any time, but allowed them to kill the entire population of Earth out of hubris. So I guess even a good Luthor can be a pretty bad guy, in his own way.

My Thoughts: And thus does Superman kill. I’ve occasionally read negative reactions to this story; “Superman should be better than that”, etc. — but I can’t help feeling that if someone like Alan Moore or whoever had done a similar tale in 1988, it would’ve been praised. Superman should be better than this, but in the moment he feels that he has no choice. And, as the cover helpfully reminds us, Zod and his people killed five billion people and annihilated an entire planet. This is an atrocity on a level that no human being could ever comprehend. So what Superman does here, as an exception to his typical code, makes perfect sense to me.

(Plus, the writers following Byrne’s departure would have our hero grapple with his choice, so it’s not like he just offed three bad guys and then flew off into the sunset with a grin on his face.)

As for Byrne’s run in its entirety: I think in the end, I like it in theory better than in practice. THE MAN OF STEEL shows a ton of promise which the ongoing stories somehow rarely live up to. Partly it’s Byrne trying to go “grim ‘n gritty” with a character that doesn’t fit into that concept. The casual civilian deaths have been discussed at length around here, and in general the entire atmosphere of Byrne’s Superman stories feels mostly darker than what you would expect from the character.

Plus, it seems likely Byrne was a bit overextended during this run, as well. Writing and penciling two series from the start is along the lines of what he had done at Marvel in recent years with FANTASTIC FOUR and ALPHA FLIGHT, but within a year, he would also be co-inking one of those two series, plus co-plotting and scripting a third. Byrne has always been a workhorse, but even for him this must have been a bit much.

While some of his stories were good and even great, most struck me as middling. They were usually fine, decent superhero action-adventures, but compared with the afore-mentioned FANTASTIC FOUR and ALPHA FLIGHT, they felt — for lack of a better term — “phoned in” (and that’s a phrase I really don’t like using, because I like to imagine any creator is putting in their best effort even when the results are less than stellar).

(And remember, I was never even that keen on much of Byrne’s FF, but objectively speaking, it just felt like he put in a lot more thought and effort on that run.)

Separation of all three titles into their own little “pocket universes”, to use a familiar term, didn’t help either, early on. It was like reading about three different Supermen with no connection whatsoever between each other. This also led to sub-plots feeling exceptionally drawn out, when they were visited once per month in a single title, while Superman was having two additional adventures each month. This, at least, straightened out once Marv Wolfman departed and Byrne gained sole authorship of the three books. At that point they essentially became one three-times-monthly series, and flowed way better as a result.

Byrne also didn’t seem to have much idea of what to do with Lois, using her as a foil for Clark, but rarely giving her moments to shine on her own. His handling of Luthor was very good, but the majority of the other villains did little for me. I did, however, like a lot of Byrne’s changes to the mythos. The elimination of different colored Kryptonite, streamlining of Superman’s powers, and presenting him as the honest-to-goodness Last Son of Krypton are all developments I like, and are my preferred status quo for the character (hence my love of SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES).

So like I said above, I think when I look back on Byrne’s Superman, I’ll mostly see a great setup with flawed execution. For over thirty years, THE MAN OF STEEL was my only exposure to the run. Now that I’ve read all of it, aside from some nice artwork, I think I should probably keep it that way, and let the inaugural mini-series be my end-all when it comes to John Byrne’s Superman!

Next Week: Our time with Princess Diana comes to an end as well, in WONDER WOMAN #23 and 24.


  1. I don't know, it sounds like a post-Crisis alternative ending re-do of the harsh and haunting DC COMICS PRESENTS #97, a sort of cruel send-off for the pre-Crisis Superman by Steve Gerber.

    1. Even the cover image reminds of the unnamed executioner who serves as a narrator of sorts when he initially sends the more notable Krypton criminals to the Phantom Zone in DCP #97.

  2. I agree that Byrne's run feels like a lot of untapped potential. There's no great, memorable story the way other known writers and artists have on a big time super hero book. No "Dark Phoenix Saga" or "Days of Future Past" or "Trial of Galactus".

    Just a bunch of random adventures with big chunks of exposition at the end, anti-climatic battles and new villains that never seem to make much of an impact.

    There's no pay-off to the Superman/Lex dynamic, Superman finally bringing him to justice.

    The best thing is the art and what kept me reading these after knowing how badly the whole thing ends. Speaking of, I don't think Superman should've killed these villains but then, I also think their crimes were ridiculous as well. They wipe out a whole world but it all seems so small. Maybe it's good this wasn't a seven issue epic but perhaps seeing them wipe out the earth, seeing alternate versions of Clark's supporting cast paying the price and dying all of that would've been more dramatic than an explanation of how they drilled to the core and wiped out all life, save Smallville.

    Superman killing seems a sad and fitting bookend to the very first cover of Superman; not a good idea to have your Issue #1 with Superman seemingly defeated. And here we have him as executioner. For someone who seems to want to keep characters to some early standard or ideal, some golden age, it's even odder that he'd have Superman violate his own moral code. Wasn't this was the Phantom Zone was for?

    It all just feels like one big warm-up for the good stuff that never happened.


    1. Wasn't this was the Phantom Zone was for?

      This is a justifiable bit: there was a development in how the Phantom Zone came to be perceived towards the 1980s. Initially introduced a hassle-free and easy humane prison for the Krypton villains, it started to become apparent that being sentenced to the Phantom Zone may actually be a cruel and unusual punishment.

      In the DCP #97 Jor-El sends himself there (being mentally pushed by the Phantom Zone villains to it apparently) and is shown to feel very harsh voidness when being there. By 1985, some guys Moore and Gibbons did a story "For the Man Who Has Everything" in SUPERMAN ANNUAL #11 where in Superman's hallucinogenic dreamworld the Phantom Zone and it's supposed cruelty as a punishment is a point of political contention among the Kryptonians.

      The post-Crisis Superman is in a place where it has been justifiably built to the point that using the Phantom Zone as a prison maybe should be ended, putting Superman into this spot.

  3. It appears we've offcially reached the end of John Byrne's "Superman" run of comics.

  4. Faora, though. The (immediately) pre-Crisis Faora Hu-Ul was the meanest and toughest of all Phantom Zoners, but here "Zaora" seems to be relegated to almost a supporting character. Did Byrne of the "Invisible Woman" cred do an ill one to Faora in turn here, or is dialing back the fem lib extremist Faora of the pre-Crisis era to be taken as a woman-friendly development?

    There generally seems to be emphasis of turning (all) the focus on male characters coming to the 90's after the late 70's - early 80's heydays of the more Claremontian approach. It's nowhere quite as apparent as in the X-books after Claremont (was) departed.

  5. I read a friend of mine's copy of this after not reading a lot of the back half of Byrne's run, and I just assumed that this was the final, glorious chapter of a long running, multipart story that had been seeded throughout all of Byrne's work on the titles.

    Imagine my shock when I found out how relatively little set up it got, how much happened off camera, and how ill thought out it was.

    Now, I don't have the usual beef a lot of people have about Superman killing. I actually will defend him killing Zod in Man of Steel-the Snyder film, not the Byrne miniseries-simply because that is a world not suited to dealing with superhumans, and had Zod won, he would have killed everyone on Earth, and that was a Superman new to being, well, Superman. (I'm not saying it is how the story SHOULD have gone, but given the set up it worked.)

    Here, though? Byrne looked at Alan Moore's handling of "Superman doesn't kill" by just chuckling and going "OH YES HE DOES." Killing Zod in the movie was killing a dangerous superhuman.

    Here Superman kills three helpless, powerless people for an off screen genocide. It's ill thought out, silly, and ultimately pointless since Byrne takes off and whatever resolution he had planned never happens. It's the perfect capstone to a massively underachieving run on a book that Byrne was ill fit to write.

    And you know what, there's nothing wrong with that. Some creators just don't have chemistry with characters. Ed Brubaker, at the height of his run on Captain America, one of the best runs of comics in the oughts, simply did not fit in on Uncanny X-Men. It just happens sometimes

    It just happened here on a massively publicized run on the greatest superhero of all time.

  6. I finally tracked this issue down around 2004 and sort of knew what to expect from assorted Wizard Magazine-type "shocking comic book moments" lists and what-not. I don't remember having any strong feelings about it, it was just a little prize to track down for completion's sake at that point. Overall, I remember the whole Superman run fondly, possibly more the idea of it than the final execution. I definitely liked collecting it in real time for the first 10 issues. So thanks for covering this era, it was fun seeing it all reviewed!

    (and I also read through your Roger Stern Spider-Man coverage a few weeks ago, while I was reading through my Hobgoblin issues, and enjoyed those reviews, too! I left a comment under Amazing #252...).

    Thanks for the fun site, as always!
    -david p.

  7. This story, along with Adventures #444, were reprinted in issue #50 of the UK Fleetway Editions (as LEM had now become) Superman title. It proved a natural anniversary point, and doubling up the Superman content got round the problem that the other issue is almost completely an infodump, (though it also meant a four month wait for the final part of a JLI story that had been running for over a year thanks to going bimonthly). It also had a letter from me; the first time I got my comments on comics shared in public.

    There's obvious symbolism in Byrne going out with the destruction of the pre-Crisis Superboy's world, but to a newer audience less familiar with that stuff (and how many times has Byrne said the comics audience is expected to turnover every three years or so?) this became Superman battling the Kryptonian trio from the second movie without any particular personal history or attachment to the world they've destroyed. Much of the apocalypse has already happened, the final holdout of Smallville is destroyed off panel and, as Superman points out, all this could have been solved by Luthor long ago. Supergirl had been built up a while (and thanks to the publishing schedule here, that thread had been running for over a year now) but equally doesn't contribute a great deal once Superman was lured over to the pocket universe. Nor is there any decent exploration of just how Superman and Luthor could have been allies in the long run but for whatever reason the regular Luthor turned out the way he did. All in all this great destruction of legends just doesn't really work for the supposed target audience. And so that makes the execution less effective than it otherwise could have been.

    One other consequence of our publishing travails was that most of the next several months of US issues were skipped - we got the Silver Banshee in Ireland story from Superman #23 but then there was a big leap forward to Superman coming home from his (unseen to us) deep space travels where he found the Eradicator device. Thus any handling of the consequences of his actions was completely lost on us.