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

In this post, I conclude my four-week look at the death and return of Superman trilogy with a discussion of the second half of Reign of the Supermen, the story that had four different men claim the mantle of Superman and featured the return of the true Superman. I rather liked the first half, but would I like the second half? Click the link to continue and, remember, spoilers are a must. Then again, you probably know how it ends: Superman comes back. Big surprise.

The Nostalgia November archive can be found here

reignofthesupermentradeReign of the Supermen left off with Coast City’s destruction, the Last Son of Krypton’s defeat, and the revelation that the Cyborg was not Superman but was responsible for the destruction of Coast City with the help of Mongul. Needless to say, my 10-year old self was shocked at that this twist since I had a certain fondness for the Cyborg — because what’s cooler than Cyborg Superman? Nothing, that’s what. But, the follow-up is really what matters and I can’t say that I have the same fondness for the second half of Reign of the Supermen that I had for the first, if only because the first half was a brilliant set-up with all the promise in the world and not many stories are going to live up to that potential. It’s too difficult to pull off, especially when doing one large story over four weekly books with four different creative teams. That the initial set-up worked so well is almost an aberration. To get it out of the way early, I admit my less-than-great reaction to this second half does have something to do with none of the four Supermen being the real Superman. Some will say that’s not fair or that I should have known better, but, this reading, I did know better and it still reads like a betrayal or slap in the face to the reader.

Why introduce four replacements and have none of them be the real deal? It’s a tease, one that the first few issues of the second half of the story go to great lengths to explain away (except for the Cyborg’s first-persona narration in Superman #78). Neither explanation for the Cyborg or the Last Son of Krypton are satisfying. The Cyborg’s explanation and plan is ill-conceived and relies too much on that old ‘villain blames the hero for something the hero didn’t do and plans to take revenge in a generic stupid fashion while gathering followers that he knows are plotting against him but continues to use because he’s just that damn arrogant’ fashion. The explanation that the Last Son of Krypton is, in fact, the Eradicator is even more far-fetched as they detail that the robots in the Fortress of Solitude lied, the artist used trick angles to conceal things, and, really, it was all a delusion by the Eradicator as he sucked power out of the revived corpse of Superman. Gee, that’s not absolutely stupid at all.

Nor is the idea that Superman is back and, while powered down, he’s just fine… except he’s got a mullet. It’s anti-climatic and meaningless. It seemed an excuse to get him in a black costume for a few issues or have him use a gun to fight through the Cyborg’s people… cheap moments that hint at him being darker and ‘updated for the 90s’ in a way that the Last Son of Krypton was in a better, more convincing way. I should stop pushing that aspect, but it’s hard not to when the alternative wasn’t nearly as strong.

The story seems paced wrong as well. We don’t spend a lot of time seeing the replacements in action before the second half is all the Cyborg plot and it drags along tediously. You bitch about decompressed stories now? Read this. It caters to the idea that some readers only buy one of the four monthlies, so the story can’t advance too far in any of them for fear of alienating readers… a legitimate concern, but it makes for poor reading for anyone who happens to read them all. It’s a slow story that doesn’t really provide a lot of excitement. If it had run over the final month of this arc’s books, it would have been quite effective, but, at this length, it’s almost a chore to read.

Not to be all negative, some things I liked:

* The bond that begins to form between Steel and Superman. These two immediately hit it off and begin working together as a team, setting up the friendship/mutual respect that would grow over the years. Superman recognises that Steel wasn’t a replacement like the others but a man who saw a hero fall and wanted to honor the hero and protect people. It makes sense that this is the ‘replacement’ that Superman would like immediately.

* The no-nonsense nature of Superman. He comes back and wants to take down the bad guy, not spend a lot of time dwelling on what happened. Saving lives comes first.

* Mongul using the Cyborg for his own reasons — it doesn’t quite work the other way around, though.

* Lex Luthor being happy Superman is alive… so he can kill him.

* Supergirl posing as Clark Kent when he’s rescued to explain how he comes back, too.

* In concept, that the Cyborg’s plot is treated as such a big threat that it gets so much space to play out. Great idea, but the execution is lacking, particularly because he’s not an entertaining villain to take down — and, after the destruction of Coast City, he doesn’t really do much else of consequence. They used up all of the great aspect of his plan/twist when it happened and never followed through to deliver beyond that. But, as an idea, I admire that they tried to make it as big as possible by giving it so many issues.

* Superboy slowly figuring out that his powers aren’t the same as Superman’s.

* There being a Superman versus Doomsday video game so soon after Superman’s death… and Superboy has no problem playing it.

All in all, the death and return of Superman storyarc was entertaining, but fell flat a lot of times in its execution where the demands of four weekly issues with four different creative teams meant slow or disjointed storytelling. The ideas were almost always great, though. I don’t think I’ll ever get over that sense of betrayal at none of the four replacements being Superman… my 10-year old self was pissed off at that. But, the entire overarching story was ambitious and that alone sells it for me. I love ambition in stories, particularly in stories featuring characters like Superman where it’s tempting to play things safe. In late 1992/early 1993, these guys didn’t play it safe and, while it didn’t always work, it was worth the attempt and worth reading.

Next week, the first Marvel 2099 crossover, “The Fall of the Hammer.”

12 Comments

What I liked about the Cyborg Superman was the easter egg they stuck in for long-time readers. There was a Superman comic some years before where Superman believed he was turning into a robot, and parts of his body were clearly robotic. It turned out to be a malfunctioning Superman robot that only THOUGHT he was Superman, but the clever bit is that the Cyborg Superman was robotic in the same places (one side of the head, hand, jaw, etc) so I was quite sure that was the secret origin of the Cyborg.

Having him be Reed Richards was much dumber.

The Death/Return of Superman is the only time I’ve really like Superman comics. Superboy and the Last Son of Krypton were by far the best, Steel was okay too. I never liked the cyborg, even before he was the bad guy.

I personally like, at least in retrospect, how Hal Jordan is basically loitering in this story while getting ready to initiate one or two of the next big DC storylines. The end of the GL Corps and intro of Kyle, and Zero Hour.

I know many fans didn’t like what they did to Hal, and it was part of the big push to “update” a number of characters, but not being a huge fan of GL I appreciated that DC was willing to let a major character snap over a terrible tragedy and turn into a villain. The “possessed by Parallax” thing was a little silly, I thought, though probably inevitable.

“It turned out to be a malfunctioning Superman robot that only THOUGHT he was Superman”

You’re right, Eric. That would have been WAY better than the Cyborg origin we actually got. What a missed opportunity.

I remember hearing at the time about how the Superman writers were really coming up with a lot of this as they were going along. The replacement supermen was just a way to draw out the story, and even then they weren’t sure how they would bring him back.
In hindsight, they seems absurd. No project could be quite so disorganized, could it?

Stephane, you obviously haven’t heard of the Clone Saga, have you? :)

Ethan — Yeah, I never minded that element of this story and what came after, but, then again, my experience with the character was limited mostly to… well, this.

AH YES, Sandy… I wonder whatever happened to him REALLY…

To me, the fact that the story is so long only makes it feel more epic. In my mind, “Assault on Motor City” is a great saga in itself.

Also, for some reason I didn’t feel cheated that none of the four Supermen was a real deal (even though as a 7 year old I was absolutely convinced that each of them was telling the truth… I even bought the “Superman’s soul jumped into Steel” theory). Maybe this is because I only got to read the end of the story years later, when I was 12, so I probably already knew what was gonna happen (even though I didn’t follow comics at all in that period).

What’s cooler than a cyborg Superman? The comics gave you the answer: Superman with a mullet.

The best Superman ever would be a cyborg Superman with a mullet AND a leather jacket!

Although Reign Of The Supermen was my favorite Superman story, I do agree that the Cyborg’s animousity towards Superman was not plausible at all. Although I can see Henshaw being upset about what happened to him and his friends, his reason for hating Superman was not believable.
It is similar to Eddie Brock’s hatred for Spiderman when he became Venom. Although the symbiote’s hatred for Spiderman was believable, Brock’s motivation wasn’t. I think it would have been better in Henshaw’s case that he always had an animousity towards Superman before the accident and that Superman indirectly caused him to be mutated and would fuel his animosity and would make it way more believable.

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