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CSBG Archive

The Reread Reviews — Reign of the Supermen (Part One)

We continue our look back at the death and return of Superman with the first half of his return. For all those dismayed at my distaste for the first two parts of this trilogy, don’t worry, because it’s mostly love this time around. For those who hate it when I bring up morality and the use of superpowers, don’t worry, because that only plays a small role this time. Spoilers on, of course.

The Nostalgia November archive can be found here


Reign of the Supermen was a huge story, about as big as the first two parts of this trilogy combined. I do like how that built up: the death of Superman was quick (relatively), the mourning was longer, and the return was appropriately large unto itself. This story began with four four-page previews in Adventures of Superman #500 that gave us our first glimpses of the four replacement Supermen. They were (going from left to right in the image above):

SuperboyMAN: The teenage/young adult clone of Superman (and, later, we learn, Lex Luthor) is brash and hot-headed. He makes a deal with a TV station to give them the exclusive rights to follow him around and they keep him furnished with leather jackets and Clark Kent’s old apartment. No idea how he got that earring, honestly. I actually like his costume design… aside from the jacket and haircut. The bodysuit is a solid upset of the Superman costume. His stories tend to focus on him trying to do good, but not having the experience to do the hero thing as well as he could. He also has a few run-ins with others, including Steel who gives him a good lecture after a pilot dies because Superboy wasn’t thinking. One bit I really like about this character is how he gets pissed off when someone calls him Superboy.

Cyborg: This was my favourite of the four Supermen when I was a kid. Him and the Last Son of Krypton were the two that I gravitated toward, because they were the only two that had a shot of actually being the real Superman brought back to life. Of course, neither of them turned out to be the real Superman, but each acted a nice ’90s version of the character. The Cyborg with the idea of Superman being… well, a cyborg. That’s a cool ’90s idea for the character, right? It sure as hell made me stand up and take notice when I was ten. Very high concept, very ‘modern,’ very… stupid. This character’s stories have one big mistake early on when, in his first issue, he narrates in the first person. How exactly does that work with him turning out to be evil and bent on destruction? That seems like a case of Dan Jurgens not playing fair with the readers… maybe that’s explained in the second half of this story, but that really stood out to me this time. Otherwise, his first full issue is a good one as he goes to Cadmus to get Doomsday’s body, strapping him to a small asteroid and leaving him in space.

The second Cyborg issue is probably the best stand-alone issue of this story, “Prove It,” which is really a long article by Ron Troupe about earning Clark Kent’s job by being on-hand to witness the Cyborg saving the White House from a terrorist attack. It’s told entirely (save one page at the end) through Troupe’s article with illustrations from Jurgens — and not single images, but whatever he thinks needs to be shown to tell the story well. It was one of my favourites as a kid and it’s still a good read. I don’t think it would be published as the lead article in any newspaper since they tend to favour… you know, journalism, not personal essays (it would work as a companion op/ed piece, though). If there’s a single issue that made me want to like Troupe, it’s this one.

The Cyborg turns out, of course, to be evil and the ‘master’ of Mongul and helps destroy Coast City. My reading of the story ends there, which is a pretty good place to stop halfway through — the big reveal/twist. Again, not sure how the first-person narration fits into his true nature, though.

Story continues below

Steel: The only character that stood out as being 100% not Superman — and he never claims to be. The closest we get is some psychic who argues that Superman’s spirit has found a new body. Steel interacts with the other Supermen a bit, but his story really focuses on establishing John Henry Irons as he battles against the White Rabbit who is selling advanced military guns to gangs — guns called Toastmasters that, apparently, Irons designed for the military a while ago. He’s since been on the run, living under the name Henry Johnson, but, a kid getting gunned down and being buried under rubble after the Doomsday attack causes him to build the armour and try his best to honour Superman. Of the four, he’s the easiest to like and root for, because he’s the most heroic, the one most dedicated to simply helping others — if only because the whole ‘I’m the real Superman’ crap doesn’t affect him. As far as he’s concerned, he’s just trying to fill a hole left by Superman’s death and honour a man who saved his life once. Also, Jon Bogdanove’s art in these issues is fantastic. I haven’t really discussed the art done by these guys yet, but Bogdanove is probably my favourite. His work stands out with bold, angular lines. I’ll always have a soft spot for Jurgens since I read Superman more than any of the other books as a kid (and Jurgens did experiment with layouts quite a bit during this period), but Bogdanove is more to my sensibilities.

The Last Son of Krypton: Reading the first half of this story, it’s obvious that this character should have become the real Superman, if only because he was the most interesting of the two candidates. He represents the violent, dark side of superheroes from the late ’80s/early ’90s and that’s an interesting portrayal of Superman. The idea is that death changed him — he’s sensitive to the light, he embraces his cold Kryptonian heritage, and he’s far more violent and extreme. The biggest change to his powers is an energy that he can project from his hands. He begins as an energy being created/rescued by robots in the Fortress of Solitude and, then, he gains physical form by entering the corpse of Superman, which he recognises as his body. Now, the trajectory of his story is pretty easy to map (but no less interesting): he begins violent and cold and, gradually, works his way back to normal. Simple and yet compelling, and also shows what makes Superman Superman without the endless preaching about killing or excessive violence… allow him to regain his humanity to show just how important Clark Kent and the human aspect of the character is.

Honestly, that none of these characters turn out to be the real Superman is a cheat. I thought so as a kid and think so now. I honestly can’t say with certainty that DC promised that one of them would be Superman for real, but they definitely suggested it strongly. If I’m to pick a moment where I first became cynical about comics (and life, actually), it was this story. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good story, just that I think they made the wrong choice. By not having any of these characters take up the mantle, it’s a big of a slap in the face to the readers. Towards the end of this first half, I get the idea that the creators were more interested in surprising the readers and throwing them off track than telling a quality story that makes sense as a whole. I flipped ahead just to check and they do explain how the Last Son of Krypton turns out to be the Eradicator despite us seeing him as an energy being inhabit Superman’s corpse — or how it’s suggested that, after the destruction of Coast City, he enters the Kryptonian suit that turns out to be carrying the real Superman. It’s almost like they switched gears around the halfway point because, with the revelation that the Cyborg was evil, the surprise of who the real Superman would be was no longer there: process of elimination left the Last Son of Krypton.

Story continues below

These first 11 issues of the story work well at balancing the needs of establishing each of the Supermen and having them interact and compete for the role of Superman. The Cyborg is mostly a non-factor until the last issue or two when he gets involved with the alien ship attacking Coast City and really beats up on the Last Son of Krypton. That twist is surprising since the Cyborg seemed like the real deal — what with his first-person narration and DNA matching Superman’s.

The reactions of the supporting cast to these various Supermen are quite good. Lex Luthor (who we’ll remember is the original Lex in a cloned body posing as his Australian son — and shacking up with Supergirl) is secretly in a rage since Superman was finally gone and, now, there are FOUR of him! Lois struggles to deal with the two obvious contenders for being a resurrected Superman not having Clark Kent as part of the deal. One bit I loved is how she finally gets a few moments with Steel and walks away thinking that he is most like the Superman she knew and loved despite him having no connection to the original at all. Bibbo (who some of you like) puts on a costume and tries to honour Superman. He even rescues a puppy that was drowned with some of its siblings since the owner couldn’t afford to take of them. He names it Krypton, but the collar he gets made comes back with the name Krypto on it — nice little joke.

I think the supporting cast works better here than in the previous stories since those were supposed to be so big and monumental that the focus on anyone other than the core, prototypical supporting characters was distracting, whereas, here, this is a story much more of its time in conception — the death of Superman is epic, is timeless… four guys vying to be Superman isn’t as much.

The first half deals mostly with setting these guys up and having them confront one another and prove themselves. Next week, I’ll look at the second half, which is more a singular story as the group of Supermen have to team up to take down the Cyborg and Mongul… and the real Superman returns.


I’ve got no time for the first two stories in this trilogy, but The Return of Superman (aka Reign of the Supermen) was great.

Just a nice big silly over the top superhero mashup with a preposterous plot. Easily the pinnacle of the Jurgens era of Superman.

Now, please keep in mind that I haven’t reread the story since i was 12, so it’s literally been half a lifetime for me since i last read it but i thought that with this, and Batman: knightfall, DC were reestablishing their two biggest icons and reminding the world of who they were by showing who they were not, with the Eradicator especially highlighting that point. I’d imagine that the ambiguity was left in so that the Eradicator could be Superman if he proved to be popular enough.


I’ve always loved this event. The death and funeral of Superman are just lead-ins to the Reign.

Am I the only one who doesn’t like the retcon of Superboy being a clone of Luthor?

No, Scott, you’re not alone, I don’t like it either. There is nothing in these early stories that would even remotely hint at that. Plus, at one point didn’t they say Superboy was a clone of Superman and Director Westfield?

I think that later on the Superboy ongoing, they had him be a clone of the director of the Cadmus Project as well as a Superman clone.

I don’t know when it was retconned that he was a Luthor clone after all.

Well, Russkafin beat me to it :-)

It may not be hinted at in the stories, but the promotional material strongly suggested that none of them might be the real Supes: I recall ads for the story that showed the four characters and ended with the line “… but is any of them the real Man of Steel?”

I was also all over the Cyborg being the real deal, and yeah, I also felt cheated by his first-person narrative in that issue. I’ll have to go back and reread the dialogue to see if there’s any room for ambiguity in it, but I’m pretty sure Cyborg said that Doomsday killed him. Oy.

A nice “I should have caught that” moment was in the Cyborg’s second appearance, when he taps into the world’s computers. Among the things he studies: Coast City, Green Lantern, and Mongul’s spaceship.

Finally, I don’t think there were really that many clues pointing to the Last Son being the real Superman as we might think. In his first appearance, he’s clearly relying on a giant crystal…thing…to recharge himself. In his second appearance, the crystal hatches, and out comes….Superman! Admittedly, that issue was ambiguous to my 13-year old self. I honestly thought the Last Son had been sleeping in the crystal, and that’s who we saw hatch. Fooled me.

Adam — Yeah, Jurgens did set up the Cyborg’s interest in Coast City in the “Prove It” issue when he taps into the world’s computers. There’s a fun easter egg for people as you barely see the edges of the Fantastic Four’s logo amongst the other images…

I agree it would have been a more effective story if the Eradicator/Last Son had been, essentially, Superman without a conscience, which he has to re-grow…or something.

This sounds stupid, until you get to the actual origins of Eradicator and Cyborg, which is just page after page of convoluted logistical backflips that no one could have a) reasonably expected, or b) understood without thorough knowledge of plots from several years earlier. Even at 12 or so, I remember reading this and thinking, “Wait…so the Cyborg Superman is actually a presumed dead, thinly-veiled Reed Richards analogue? Huh.”

i think superboy’s earring was actually part of a tag that Cadmus gave all their clones

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This was my favorite part of the whole “Death of Superman” deal as well. After all, being completely sure that Superman would be back (in fact, he came back sooner than I’d guessed) takes away something from the drama. But I wasn’t expecting DC to extend the story by bringing in FOUR pretenders! And they proved to be interesting characters.

One thing I should point out, is that this was NOT meant to be one cohesive story- DC was just trying to continue publication of the four Superman titles without him. So it should not read as a single, even story. Though it does cross over nicely at the end.

Personally, I never had any doubt that Superman wasn’t any of them- I recognized the Last Son as the Eradicator right away, and the Cyborg had body parts missing that Superman’s body *never lost* so it didn’t make much sense to be revived that way. Plus, his “amnesia” was waaay too convenient. Oh and as for Steel having Superman’s spirit, that COULD have been possible- since as we saw, his soul was captured by Blaze and saved by Pa Kent (!) with a little help from The Phantom Stranger, so the possibility that it had ended up in somebody else wasn’t that farfetched.

In fact, my original guess was that Supes was going to return by being *recreated* by the Supermen, with Cyborg providing the body, Steel the soul, and Last Son the memories- that would’ve been cool too.

Oh, and I never believed Superboy to be a clone of Superman, because it had *already* been established that Superman couldn’t be cloned right- his Kryptonian DNA was too complicated, and the attempt only led to the creation of the post-Crisis Bizarro, remember? Not to mention that when Cadmus stole the body, they claimed they weren’t able to take a DNA sample (the body was still invulnerable… that was a big hint that HE WAS STILL ALIVE.) But, I guess Geoff Johns doesn’t care about little details like that.

It’s funny that you mention the Bogdanove art ’cause that’s pretty much all I remember from reading this stuff back in the day. I remember thinking, “Hey, this guy’s art really jumps out.” I guess I wasn’t the only one to think so.

Yeah, I liked Bog’s art too.

Most of the other artists working on Superman books at the time had very standard fairly uninteresting superhero art. Bog’s was much looser and more dynamic.


November 16, 2009 at 5:11 pm

You really need to get the Superman: Doomsday DVD, Chad.

I think they made the ‘Behind the scenes’ doco, about the making of the comics, just for you.

I loved these! Kesel and Grummet’s Superman (Don’t call him Superboy!) was fun and goofy and made me pick up Superman for the first time in a long time. (I’d read the Doomsday story in trade)

The Luthor retcon is harmless in and of itself (and makes sense, since Westfield hasn;t been relevant in forever), I just HATE the way it now informs every Superboy story with “wah I’m half evil” angst.

I liked this story. The Kesel/Grummett Superboy is/was probably my favorite, but it was a strong effort from all the teams.

Steel was also great, and the Cyborg stuff is where the plot was progressing the most.

I think the Eradicator stuff was the weakest.


November 16, 2009 at 8:26 pm

I just HATE the way it now informs every Superboy story with “wah I’m half evil” angst.

Because science has proven that evil gets passed on in your genes!

You kid, but they just about came out and said that in the latest issue of Adventure Comics.

It was bizarre. Like, “Superfriends”-style science.

FGJ — I’m sold. When I can, I’ll get the DVD.

And I still hate that Luthor element in Superboy if only because it SHOULDN’T affect anything. It’s an interesting fact at best.

I hate the Luthor retcon for several reasons. One, it’s lazy. Once you’ve established that Superboy is a mix of Kryptonian and human DNA, the single absolute most lazy and obvious choice for the human donor is Luthor. Seriously, it is the least imaginative retcon ever made. (And I’m sure it was done because someone thought, “Well, it can’t be a nobody who’s no longer in the Superman books–we need a Big Name!” This is the same logic that led to the return of the Green Goblin.)

Two, it was handled even more lazily. Somewhere in the first couple of issues of the new “Teen Titans” comic, Superboy just kind of mentions to Robin, “Oh, I got an email that says I’m half-Luthor.” Robin says, “I’ll check on that for you.” A couple of issues later, he says, “Yep! You’re half-Luthor!” And Superboy says, “Bummer.” If you’re going to have a revelation like that, reveal it in an exciting and dramatic way.

Three, it provided excuses for endless whining and angsting as opposed to actually, oh, I don’t know, doing super-heroic things. Modern comics feature way too much of characters moping about their personality problems, and not nearly enough fighting bad guys. This tipped the balance for Superboy.

Tommy Monaghan: the Superman Years

Know what I mean?


November 17, 2009 at 4:33 pm

You kid, but they just about came out and said that in the latest issue of Adventure Comics.

It was bizarre. Like, “Superfriends”-style science.

Johns must really want this inner battle to take place…’Stupid science getting in the way of my themes!’

Have they tried to explain how the evil genes problem never was a problem until Superboy found out about them?
Maybe evil genes are like original sin – it’s only wrong to be nude once you know it’s wrong to be nude.

If you’re going to have a revelation like that, reveal it in an exciting and dramatic way.

It’s a teen book, so it makes perfect sense they found out in an email – teens love the internet!

Sorry, but I hated Jon Bogdanove’s art. It really dragged things down, in my opinion.

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