When Words Collide

Mon, October 12th, 2009 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

SUPERMAN CONTINUES TO BYRNE

Gateway to the New DCU

I guess you could say that John Byrne's "Superman" #1 was my gateway into the DCU.

I'd read plenty of DC comics before that, and, "Watchmen" was well underway by the end of 1986, so I had the dual experience of having superheroes deconstructed just as I was becoming immersed in a reconstruction of one. I'd even read plenty of Superman comics before 1986, mostly in the form of "DC Comics Presents" issues, where the emphasis was less on Superman and more on whatever character or team popped in to work with the man of steel for the issue.

But Byrne's "Superman" #1 was the beginning of my immersion into DCU continuity on the story level. I dabbled in "Crisis on Infinite Earths," and I read "Who's Who in the DC Universe" religiously, when I could find it, but until Byrne's "Superman" run, I hadn't been buying multiple consecutive issues of any monthly series. I picked up an issue here, and an issue there. Even with "Watchmen," I didn't even read issues #1 or 3 until well after the series had been completed.

"Superman," though, with its promise of a fresh start -- that glossy declaration of a "First Issue" right on the top of the cover -- it opened the doors to the DCU. With me, and I'm sure plenty of others, it did what it was supposed to do: invite us in to enjoy a character and a universe that had seemed so remote for so many years. Superman was an icon, but that was all he was to me, until John Byrne came along.

Superman Struggles Mightily

It's not that I was particularly a John Byrne fan at the time. I liked his figure drawing, and I'd read a few "Alpha Flight" and "Fantastic Four" issues that I thought were pretty cool. I completely missed his "X-Men" run until it was reprinted as part of the "Classic X-Men" series. So it didn't mean a damn thing to me, not really, that it was John Byrne doing Superman. It was just a chance to start at the beginning, and that was an attractive offer.

With "Superman" and John Byrne, we really were starting at the beginning. Well, "Man of Steel" was the beginning, but I didn't read that at the time. It didn't lure me in the way a SUPERMAN NUMBER ONE lured me in. So, for me, the revamp began with "Superman" #1. And what a disappointment it was.

A jogging scene and then a fight with a robot who had a kryptonite heart? That's it? That was the brand new take on Superman?

That's what I remember thinking. I didn't know anything about Metallo, but he seemed a surprisingly lame villain to launch a new series with. Yet, even with the "huh, that's really the first issue?" feeling I had, Byrne's approach to Superman had something to it. There was a humanistic philosophy at its core that was implicit on the page. Maybe not humanistic. Maybe just human. There's a sense of suffering and struggle in that first issue -- in both Superman and in Metallo -- and an uncertainty to the outcome. Clearly Byrne wouldn't kill Superman in the first issue, but the struggle was palpable. This wasn't the Superman who could fly around the Earth and reverse time. This wasn't the Superman who could use his super-speed and heat vision to stop the bad guy, rescue the puppy, and then fly off to the Fortess of Solitude to have a breakfast with Supergirl. This was a Superman -- a man -- who struggled.

Krypton Ain't What It Used To Be

And, at the time, it worked wonderfully. It was needed.

It doesn't seem needed anymore, and maybe Byrne (or someone else) could have come in and told wonderful Superman stories without losing a bit of the Silver Age detritus. But no one did. To make Superman matter once again, to make his stories mean something, Byrne stripped away much that had been grafted on to the Superman continuity over the decades. His approach, as he has described it, was: "It's basically Siegel and Shuster's Superman meets the Fleischer Superman in 1986." Byrne took everything that was added to the Superman universe post-1942 or so and threw it out. He extracted the essence of the character, updated it with some 1980s fashions on the supporting cast, and then began adding stuff back in. It was an attempt to turn the spotlight back onto the character of Superman, rather than clutter it up with a million distractions that only diverted attention away from the guy with the "S" on his chest. The Byrne approach was streamlined simplicity, and it was certainly an inviting one.

Byrne deleted Kandor, the Fortress of Solitude, Supergirl, Krypto, Superboy, and Bizarro World. All of those things have since returned, and the work of Grant Morrison on "All-Star Superman" and Geoff Johns on "Action Comics" has hinged on a celebration of the Silver and Bronze Age components of the Superman legend. Even Lex Luthor -- in Byrne's "Superman" run a sinister captain of industry, a scientist second and a businessman first -- has returned not to his roots, but to his Silver Age incarnation as a supergenius in purple and green, a man with gadgets and schemes and gadgets to go along with those schemes.

Every change Byrne made to the Superman status-quo has been reversed over the past decade. Or has it?

Superman, Murderer

Was Byrne's contribution as superficial as the removal of a few characters and the elimination of a few sci-fi locales? I don't think so. Even though I found "Superman" #1 disappointing at the time, it drew me into Superman's world, and Byrne's 22-issue run on the series (not even counting his work on the "Action Comics" team-up stories, or his scripting on "Adventures of Superman") defined the character for me, and defined the character for an entire generation. I'd argue that the Superman flying around the DCU today (okay, maybe not today, but whenever he gets back from this "World of Krypton" diversion) has a lot more in common with the John Byrne Superman than he does with the Cary Bates, Elliot S! Maggin, Denny O'Neil, Jerry Seigel, or Edmond Hamilton versions.

The Silver and Bronze Age accoutrements may have returned, but the guy at the center of the stories hasn't changed all that much from what John Byrne gave us at the end of 1986. He may be a bit more powerful, but he's still the Superman with hopes and fears. He's the Superman who is more human than alien, the one who struggles. Its a more internal approach to the character -- an approach consistent with the Modern Era in comic book history -- but it's one that has stuck. This isn't a Superman, this hasn't been a Superman, who has escaped unscathed. His encounters, his life experiences, have amounted to something. Even in the Denny O'Neil days, or the Cary Bates days, Superman was the Teflon hero. Nothing would stick with him, and even the most potentially traumatic, life-altering events would only have a momentary impact. There was no cumulative effect. His cape would never get sullied.

Byrne added the cumulative effect. His Superman didn't just struggle with the immediate threat (and his cape didn't just get torn once in a while), his Superman would feel the burdens of his role. His vision of his Kryptonian past (as illustrated by Mike Mignola) was one of war and the potential for evil. In his vision of a possible alternate future, he is not a savior of mankind but a murderer. An impossibly powerful tyrant who is not inherently good just because he's superhuman. It's the influence of his adoptive parents who have imbued him with morality, it's not something that was passed along genetically. And Byrne's Superman knows all this, and he knows that his relationship with Luthor is fraught with subtext, and he knows that when he kills the Phantom Zone villains of the pocket universe in "Superman" #22, well, he knows that he did it out of a sense of vengeance, not salvation.

Un-Byrning Superman

After issue #22, which showed a side to Superman that we'd never seen outside of an "imaginary story," Byrne left the series due to what he felt was a lack of support from DC. For his take on Superman to work, it needed consistent support, because it was all about the cumulative effect of the character's experiences. If other writers continued to write the Teflon Superman, or their own take on that variety of character, then Byrne's version would have lost its impact. Perhaps that's how Byrne felt at the time, or perhaps he just felt undercut by the company that asked him to make Superman matter. But Byrne's version hasn't lost its impact. His Superman, with his cumulative struggles and his introspective nature, has stuck, no matter how much Gary Frank tries to make the character look like Christopher Reeve.

2010 looks to be a big year for Superman, with rumors of a Geoff Johns-helmed event that would bring Superman back from his Kryptonian outskirts and into the DCU in a big way. Maybe that, coupled with Johns's current retelling of Superman's origin, will give us a new version of the character. One who no longer carries Byrne's humanistic approach deep inside. But I doubt it. It has become as central to the character as the Fortress of Solitude, and though you might not see it for a while, its bound to stick around in the long run.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

Want to talk about this week's column with other readers? Post your thoughts over on the CBR message boards.

TAGS:  when words collide, superman, john byrne

When Words Collide Home | When Words Collide Archives

 
When Words Collide

Send This Article to a Friend

Separate multiple email address with commas.

You must state your name.

You must enter your email address.