In 1986, after Crisis On Infinite Earths, John Byrne was given the honour of rebooting Superman. The reformation of Superman’s origin story – from the explosion of Krypton to his first adventures in Metropolis – took place in a 6-issue mini-series called “The Man of Steel.”
I think because Superman is more mythological than any other character, there’s so much invested in his mythology. If a storyteller doesn’t get the origin right, the foundation, the story is screwed. It’s hard to screw up the Batman story, hard to screw up the Spider-Man story. Somehow, it’s a lot easier to screw up Superman.
That’s why I think Byrne deserves a lot of credit. For the most part, he got Superman right.
For example, early in the first issue, Byrne introduces us to a teenaged Clark Kent, walking off a football field after scoring 10 touchdowns in a single game. This episode has become an important part of Superman’s mythology. It was incorporated into the television series Smallville and expanded considerably, for example. As far as I know, Byrne is the first to imagine Clark as a high school football player. As Clark walks off the field to the adulation of his peers and coaches, Jonathan Kent decides to talk to his son about his alien origins and using his extraordinary powers in a responsible way.
I’m not sure if the importance of this scene can be overstated. The football talk captures something about Clark that sets him apart from Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne. Unlike those young boys, Clark doesn’t need a family trauma to teach him he needs to be responsible. He’s been raised right, so he’ll do what’s right. There’s no deep-seated psychological compulsion that makes Superman have to atone for a sin that can never be washed clean. He does what he’s supposed to do. That’s all. And that’s everything. It’s the thing that makes Superman less “real” than those other characters, and also, in some ways, more heroic.
This is also why I think it was the right choice to keep Clark’s parents alive. His upbringing is so essential to his character; it’s really the only thing that can explain why he does the things he does. Granted, dead parents can be influential too, but when Jonathan Kent dies or Martha Kent dies, it means that Superman is motivated in part by pain, rather than hope and belief. To me, that’s just not consistent with the character. Clark isn’t trying to atone for anything. He’s trying to live up to something. I think the character works best when he’s got someone there who can remind him of his Kansas roots, and the basic goodness that he’s promised to protect. That affects the whole philosophical direction of Superman stories (and its what makes pairing him with the traumatized Batman so fascinating and fruitful).
One of the few things that does bug me about Byrne’s early Superman work is that he sweats the details. He dedicates too many panels to settling stupid fanboy arguments about Superman.
How does Superman shave?
Why doesn’t Superman’s costume ever rip or tear?
I guess there’s something whimsical about these moments, but they kind of left me cold.
Lois is done right. She’s indomitable, stubborn. You can see what Superman sees in her. She’s brave and brash. She has an openness about her that the secretive Clark must find so appealing. Lois says what she thinks, while Clark always has to hide what he’s thinking.
Lex Luthor is similarly well drawn. There’s a great, creepy scenario early in Byrne’s ongoing Superman series. In issue #2 Luthor tells a beautiful researcher in his employ that she’ll be joining him for dinner. She tries to object, but Luthor insists. She goes. She sleeps with him and regrets it. Luthor here is Lucifer. He makes you do things you don’t want to do and he makes you complicit in the doing of them. He makes everyone else culpable, but he can never be held accountable himself. This is the secret to Luthor and Byrne, I think, cracks it. His Satanic nature is precisely what drives him crazy about Superman. Superman is incredibly powerful and incorruptible. Their ongoing feud is really a version of Christ’s temptation in the desert.
Let me close by talking about the art. In the opinion of this Superman fanatic, John Byrne’s Superman looks like Superman. Byrne’s Superman is the definitive Superman. Nobody before or since has been able to capture that mixture of demigod and farm boy quite as well. Byrne’s Superman looks all-powerful and “Aw shucks” all at the same time.
There are some old-timers who resent Byrne’s run because they hate everything about Crisis and its consequences, but when I’m reading New 52 Superman, it often pales in comparison to Byrne’s Superman run from the 80s. You can get “The Man of Steel” in TPB, and Byrne’s subsequent run on Superman starting with issue #1 is available too. If you’re a Superman fan, particularly if you’re new to the character, I think it’s worth checking out. If you’re read it before, it’s worth taking another look.