With the latest Superman movie, Man of Steel, coming out later this week, it seems as good a time as any to revisit John Byrne’s classic Superman book from 1986 as he reintroduced the character to a modern audience.
In 1985, DC decided to simplify their then-50 year-old continuity by launching the Event series, Crisis on Infinite Earths. The mini-series killed off old characters, old storylines and concepts, and rebooted the characters for modern audiences. In 1987, Batman’s origin would be retold in arguably the greatest Batman book ever written, Year One by Frank Miller, while DC’s other flagship character, Superman, was rebooted in 1986 by John Byrne with a fresh, modern origin in this book, Man of Steel, Volume 1.
Rather than keep referring back to the Man of Steel movie, I’ll say right at the top that I’m all but certain the movie and this book have nothing in common – the one thing I noticed from the trailers that is similar is the scene on Krypton where Kal-El (Superman) as a baby is being prepared to be fired into space, and the vessel he’s in looks a bit like the one in this book. Otherwise, the only thing the two have in common is a shared title.
Byrne retells the Superman story from the beginning, as is appropriate for a Volume 1 in a reboot designed to attract new readers (DC take note – this is how you should’ve done the New 52!), so the book opens on Krypton as the planet is dying and Kal-El gets rocketed into space (importantly, the sole survivor of his planet), lands on Earth, and becomes adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent, growing up in Smallville, Kansas.
The 8 page prologue on Krypton is probably my favourite part of the book. Byrne – who writes and draws the book – made his name first as an illustrator and his work in this book is among his best and most iconic. His imagining of Krypton, Jor-El and Lara is a mixture of classic sci-fi, 80s sci-fi (contemporary at the time) and his own style to create a unique and eye-catching visual experience. It’s also worth noting that Byrne makes Krypton appear cold and sterile where the people are seemingly asexual and utterly emotionless. Earth in comparison is the opposite and gives Superman a reason to favour Earth over his long-lost home planet – his life is full of love and emotion and makes him satisfied to call Earth his home. Byrne makes sure Superman is aware of Krypton as his home but doesn’t make him wish he could be there.
Each issue that follows introduces someone important to the story – Ma and Pa Kent and Clark’s life in Smallville and how he got the famous outfit; his first meeting with Lois Lane after moving to Metropolis; the world slowly getting to know Superman as a protector; his first meeting with Batman in Gotham; his first meeting with Lex Luthor; his first encounter with Bizarro; and the revelation and understanding of his origins. Man of Steel Volume 1 really is a great place for people wanting to understand who Superman is to start with.
Which isn’t to say it’s a perfect interpretation – I wasn’t convinced that Byrne should’ve made Clark a jock by using his powers to become a high school football star, or that Luthor’s character design is the best ever committed (paunchy with curly red hair so he looks like a leprechaun!). The book is also written in the exposition-and-thought-balloon-heavy style of 80s comics, and there’s a corny “supervillain” called Magpie (she likes shiny things like jewels) who doesn’t have any powers yet manages to defeat both Superman and Batman in a really bizarre sequence that beggars belief. And a really good example of why exposition should be avoided is the clumsy way this book closes where Superman “suddenly” discovers his past and flies around the world repeating it all for the readers’ benefit. And then there’s the embarrassing portrayal of Lana Lang who’s become a wreck after Clark left Smallville not realising she was in love with him.
But these are minor complaints that don’t detract from the enjoyment of this book. Yes it’s dated (Lois’ shoulder pads!), but Byrne gets a lot of things right with the characters that it’s hard to fault it. Batman is well written and Byrne displays a canny sense of Bruce Wayne’s deviousness by putting out a hook that any Batman reader would be shocked with before reeling it in by the end in a strong bait and switch. Batman claims to have hidden a bomb on someone within Gotham City and that if Superman were to lay a hand on him, the bomb would detonate. Doesn’t sound like Batman, does it? Except he’s hidden it on himself.
Lois is also a well written character being head-strong, idealistic, smart, and independent. Byrne may have overdone the number of scenes she’s pouting in and we’ve yet to see the romance between her and Clark, but it’s definitely the Lois Lane character we all know and love.
Best of all the characters – and crucially so – is Superman. From his introduction as a star high school quarterback to the last triumphant page as he stands atop a mountain, cape swirling – Superman in all his glory – Byrne completely nailed his character down. He’s intelligent but naive, strong without being intimidating, kind without being arrogant, and instinctively knows the right thing to do, at all times. It’s a definite plus that he’s wearing the classic outfit too, bright blues, reds and yellows with Byrne’s “weird fish” chest symbol leaping off of the page. It’s such a bright, colourful depiction that I feel is missing from the modern day Superman, both in the comics and on the screen, that it’s refreshing to see the real Superman here once again (there was never anything wrong with the trunks!).
Superman’s also smiling a lot which is great – he’s enjoying being Superman. He’s happy in who he is and the person he’s become. He loves saving people, he loves the world and its people – this is the Superman we all love, not the overly angst-y character he would become in the 90s and beyond. The look on his face as he flies by a cafe Lois is eating lunch in, captures the joy and magic of his superpowers that’s always been so appealing to readers.
You can definitely see how the character came to be who he is, not just on a material level but morally and actually. We find out things like how his outfit came to be, why Clark even chose to wear an outfit, how his and Batman’s relationship came about, the limits and variations of his powers, and why Lex Luthor becomes his nemesis. It’s also important to note that this is the first time Luthor became known as a successful businessman from his previous incarnation as a mad scientist/criminal mastermind character. Byrne’s reimagining of Luthor continues to endure and define the character today. We even see how Superman shaves (he aims his heat vision at a piece of shrapnel from the Kryptonian vessel he arrived in which bounces them back and singes off his facial hair)!
The episodic structure might irk some readers as it can read in a stop/start way but there’s nothing wrong with the simplicity of the telling – it’s charming in its straightforward approach to the character, establishing the important parts of Superman’s origin clearly. On the whole this is a nearly 30 year old book that’s held together really well and still reads in an engaging and fast-paced way for modern audiences. His storytelling style in Man of Steel is especially good being both the artist and writer of the book – his artistic instincts lend themselves to his writing perfectly as he paces the story nicely with the words complimenting the pictures in a wonderful symmetry. Byrne may not be the best writer in the world but he did a great job of writing a fine book for the best superhero in the world. Man of Steel is definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in Superman, for new readers and old.
Superman: The Man of Steel, Volume 1 by John Byrne is out now
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