Why John Byrne's Superman Run Is Still The Best
John Byrne's late-80s run on Superman might just be the Man of Steel at his best.
In 1985, when DC Comics decided to reboot their entire catalogue of titles and characters in the epic 12-issue maxi-series, Crisis on Infinite Earths, it was the perfect opportunity to modernise their original superhero character, Superman, for the present readership - following the disastrous treatment of the character throughout the Silver and Bronze ages.
Who better for the job than John Byrne, Marvel's superstar writer/artist who was a fan favourite by 1985 due to his memorable work on the X-Men and Fantastic Four, among other titles. A lifelong fan of the Man of Tomorrow, Byrne was hired by DC to update the character.
Byrne's two-year run on the character is arguably the best in Superman's eighty-two year history.
Byrne initially took over two titles, the original Action Comics, as well as the title Superman, which was renumbered to issue one in honour of the new writer/artist. He also contributed occasionally to the renamed The Adventures of Superman. All of this followed Byrne's six-issue origin miniseries, The Man of Steel.
During his run, Byrne humanised Superman in a way most accurately described as revolutionary. He brought a warmth and humanity to the character in a way most closely matched by Christopher Reeve's portrayal in the 1978 blockbuster, Superman: The Movie, and its three not-so-successful sequels (Byrne even cited Reeve's performance as one source of inspiration for his Superman, as well as George Reeves' 1950s Superman, and the 1940s Superman cartoons). This was partly achieved by tweaking the story so that Supes didn't learn of his alien heritage until long after he put on the cape and boots, and through Byrne's fantastic writing.
Byrne also made use of the "back to basics" approach that had worked so well on his legendary run on Marvel's Fantastic Four, stripping Superman of the lurid, ludicrous, laughable powers and traits acquired during the wacky Silver Age of comics ("Super-Ventriloquism", to name one of the more believable abilities), leaving Superman with only the "basics": strength, flight and few others.
Now moving on to the Man of Steel's arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor. Previously as two-dimensional and predictable as the other characters, Lex was now one of the most complex characters in the DC Universe, and Byrne even have him a back-up story in Superman #9, in which he callously plays with the feelings of a small-town woman, to demonstrate the bald fiend's unfathomable cruelty. Speaking of baldness, the ridiculous, growing-up-in-Smallville-with-Clark-and-losing-his-hair-in-an-acid-accident - as first shown in Adventure Comics #271 - baldness origin story was dropped in favour of Lex losing his hair gradually over time.
Other previously bland villains, including Prankster and Mr Mxyzptlk, were given entertaining makeovers, and Superman #9 even featured Batman's nemesis, the Joker.
The rest of the supporting characters were also saved from their Silver Age blandness, most notably Lois Lane, who had spent the most part of the 1960s devising ways in which to hoodwink her Kryptonian crush into marriage, and whose attitude and inability to spell was amplified in Byrne's run. She held a grudge against Daily Planet co-worker, Clark Kent, (emotions that reached their peak in the sitcom-esque Action Comics #597) but still had a crush on Superman, albeit a slightly less obsessive one than her 1960s counterpart. Lois and Clark's relationship consisted mostly of Lois sidelining the intellectual Clark Kent, which is another aspect of the character's new humanity - which many readers could undoubtedly relate to.
Byrne's magic is plain to see. He took characters which held so much potential, wasted by the fiasco that was the Silver Age, and brought modernness, depth, and humanity to them.
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