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Byrne Out

  Superman: The Man of Steel (Volume Two)

 

John Byrne, Marv Wolfman (writers), John Byrne, Jerry Ordway (artists)

DC, 2003

Rating: 2.7

 

 

Posted: November 30, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Superman, for all his timeless appeal, is apparently a very hard character to get right. There are so many inherent problems to deal with: How do you humanize an alien being possessed of incredible power? How do you keep his secret identity as Clark Kent plausible, and steer clear of portraying him as a grating, cardboard fumbler a la Christopher Reeve's inept Kent in the Superman films? How do you reinvigorate tired characters and concepts integral to the mythology? These questions continue to plague comics creators: A recently announced shakeup of the creative teams responsible for DC's Superman titles effectively signals a dismissal of the books' last major shuffle, a late-'90s infusion of new writers and artists commonly referred to as the Superman reboot.

Perhaps the latest batch of writers and editors charged with breathing relevance into DC's flagship character might find it instructive to revisit the early days of the current incarnation of the Man of Steel, when writer and artist John Byrne took on the task of re-imagining the Last Son of Krypton from the ground up. When the 12-issue maxi-series Crisis on Infinite Earths wiped away decades of tangled, corny continuity in the mid-'80s, allowing for a new and streamlined DC Universe, "fixing" Superman became a top priority, and fan-favorite Byrne tackled the task with the same earnestness he had brought to his revitalization of Marvel's Fantastic Four. Byrne promptly produced a six-issue miniseries, The Man of Steel, which covered Kal-El's early years and set the stage upon which the various Superman titles would play out.

The Man of Steel Volume Two picks up where that mini-series left off, collecting the first three issues of each of the three regular Superman comics at the time: Superman itself, which started over at issue #1; The Adventures of Superman, which picked up the numbering of the old Superman title; and the title that started it all, Action Comics, which retained its numbering but shifted its focus to become a kind of Superman Team-Up. Potentially confusing numbering aside, all three books chronicled the new escapades of this still-learning, still-evolving Superman, and the promise of rebuilding the Man of Steel, of rewriting his mythology on this new tabula rasa, was a heady one.

Unfortunately Byrne, who wrote and drew both Superman and Action Comics, seemed to soon forget (or discard) his stated intent to make the Man of Steel less invincible and more believable. In either case, he fails completely in that mission in Superman #1 -- in the very first issue of his new ongoing series. Byrne has our hero charge into a deserted lab facility, filled with intensive data on him collected by some mysterious person or group (including the recent revelation, not yet made public, of Superman's alien origins). Superman's solution to the problem of this sensitive information? He decides to hide the building by lifting the entire complex into outer space, letting it hang in perpetual orbit until he decides what to do about it! Oh, yes, Superman, it certainly won't show up on any sophisticated radar systems there, heightening the still-lingering Cold War paranoia of 1987. Good show!

The rest of Byrne's issues in this volume read sort of like a Superman for Dummies, with unsophisticated plots written for a fifth-grade reading level (not helped much by his broad, clean linework, which comes off as a cartoonish approximation of George Perez's detailed pencils). These stories are strong on hoary comic tropes -- Superman's mind is switched into the body of a bitter, crippled scientist, and the scientist wreaks havoc in Supes' own body! They're also frustratingly simplistic: Lex Luthor orders his staffers to collate all the data on Superman and Clark Kent, and when his laughable version of a supercomputer finally spits out the obvious conclusion -- that they're one and the same -- he rejects it because it doesn't fit into his vision of Superman as an egotistical, godlike being. This from a genius who's leveraged his scientific skills into a multi-million dollar string of corporations.

(That some of his subordinates have seen this same data, and presumably have no reason to reject it, doesn't seem to occur to Byrne. Nor does the idea that Luthor being able to get away with hiring men to torture Lana Lang -- in an attempt to discover her connection to Superman -- not to mention basically ordering a subordinate to sleep with him, ever strike Byrne as ridiculously over-the-top.)

The three issues of The Adventures of Superman fare slightly better. Veteran comics scribe Marv Wolfman chose to focus on smaller, more personal stories, as he notes in the forward to this collection, and that decision is a nice contrast to Byrne's standard superhero formula. Wolfman has more success in establishing Clark Kent as an actual character, rather than a guise Superman is forced to wear (an approach that has served the television series Smallville and even, believe it or not, Lois and Clark well). But he rushes through his scenes at a sloppy clip, especially those introducing sexy gossip columnist Cat Grant. Worse, he's forced to shoehorn Adventures into a multi-title, sci-fi-ish crossover that takes Superman to the festering crater-world of Apokalips, and the shift in tone is jarring, to say the least. (Ironically, Jerry Ordway's scratchy artwork actually seems better suited to this particular installment.)

As a time capsule from 1987, The Man of Steel Volume Two is a moderately entertaining, run-of-the-mill superhero comic. As a primer in re-engineering the Superman mythos in order to streamline concepts and attract new readers, it's less successful. That doesn't mean that the character can't be made relevant again, however: It just means that such a feat will require a little more thought than went into these first few issues of the "new" Man of Steel.

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 Ratings Key:
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 3.0-3.9: Solid
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