How Lee & Kirby's "Fantastic Four" Birthed the Marvel Universe, Part 1
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
Reign 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.”
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