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Committed: Byrne’s Superman

In 1986, when John Byrne’s revamp of Superman came out, I was so excited. I was a teenager, and I suppose my taste was pretty cheesy at times. That’s my excuse anyway, because I know that once I had The Man of Steel miniseries in my sweaty little hands, he seemed to be so busy coming up with updated rationales for everything, that he skimped on any kind of character development or compelling creativity… It left me feelings deflated, and I didn’t get my bounce back till Byrne did his double magic act, taking on both Action Comics and Superman.

011310_superman9I remember being so glad that he was explaining things, but at what cost? Up until Byrne’s reinvention, Superman had been a patchwork affair, and it certainly had a tendency to veer towards the hoaky and old-fashioned. Unfortunately Byrne did nothing in his miniseries to alter those aspects of our protagonists character. I can only surmise that it took all of the pages he had just to recreate Superman as a popular, all-American, well-adjusted jock, with a perfect young family. What happened to our dear old four-eyed anti-hero made good? According to Byrne, he turned out to be an invention of the grown up Kent, designed to fool the inhabitants of Metropolis (apparently all of the people he’d been to school with never saw Superman, or they’d have known immediately that it was him.) And thus the concept of Clark Kent as the disguise, the invented personae, was born, and simultaneously, (as Carradine so eloquently noted in Kill Bill), Superman’s damning comment on humanity as weak and geeky came to the fore. It’s a shame, because Byrne clearly had some pretty crazy things to say about Superman, which he proceeded to do directly after that rigid little miniseries was out the door, when he started work on Superman and Action Comics.

I probably considered myself a big comic reader, but it was through Superman and Action Comics that Byrne properly introduced me to such luminaries as the Phantom Stranger, Darkseid (and the New Gods), Etrigan, the Green Lantern Corps, the Metal Men, and so many others, that I went on to discover on my own. The thing is, I’m not some kind of wacky crossover queen, I usually don’t go for that kind of silliness. But the way Byrne did it, it felt like a primer for me, getting to know the most magical (and therefore the most mysterious) members of the DC universe. That’s the thing that really struck me about that whole period; Superman’s biggest vulnerability was to magic and it turned out that, in the world of DC, there’s quite a lot of it. At least Byrne made it feel that way, literally and figuratively.

011310_action593Remember Superman making porn with Big Barda (in Action Comics #592 and #593)? That blew my unsophisticated little teenage mind. Byrne had some stupid, inconsequential little object of a character called Sleez (subtle) controlling the minds of two of the most powerful non-humans on earth. According to the story, the most useful thing Sleez could think of was to make porn movies (this is decades before Girls with Low Self-Esteem or whatever, so Byrne really was a futuristic genius in establishing that the values of our society would inevitably slide towards the purely sensational and ridiculous). Thing is, I wasn’t really old enough to understand the emotional implications of what was basically rape, or how much it must suck to have to deal with. What I did understand was that Barda was awe-inspiring, and that Superman appeared to have finally met his match, at least the way Byrne drew her. With Barda in all of her Kirby-esque glory, the other female I read at the time – Wonder Woman – was left looking a lot less Amazonian than she ought to, (that’s not to say anything against George Perez, who’s art I loved, but Wonder Woman definitely lacked Barda’s impressive frame). Barda… now that was a woman with super-human power levels, she looked strong. I liked Barda and Superman together so much, and even more I liked that her man was actually weedy Mister Miracle.

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But here’s the thing, Byrne was writing a Lois Lane I hadn’t seen before either. She was independent and strong, that’s for sure, along with being pretty seriously career-minded. And he could draw her. Back then it was quite something simply to see the work of a man who could draw a woman with a little bit of a bra-line pinching into her back. Yeah, in retrospect, it was probably for fanboy titillation, but I didn’t see it that way. I saw a woman with a human, realistic body. Nothing super heroic about her, she had back fat. Not a lot, just the normal, human amount that shows when you wear a damn bra. Look, I know it sounds psycho to be so happy about a bra-line, but I hadn’t seen it before, and I felt like someone was validating my own imperfect body.

011310_comicshopThere were a slew of things that were getting me all worked up about Byrne’s Superman/Action Comics run, and all of this excitement had to come out somewhere. I was just starting to hang out at my newly-discovered, local comic book shop, not for long mind you, but it was local, so I could loiter enough to rave about Byrne and spew out the odd diatribe about strong women in comics (old habits die hard eh?) At some point this got to be enough of a habit that the owner offered me a Saturday job there, my first job in fact. I seem to remember not lasting long, because I had exams, and I kept leaving the country to visit friends in Holland (typical lazy teenager, eh?) Anyway, knowing that I was an art student, the store owners hired me to design new bags and ads for the store. Now that I think about it, that was my first professional graphic design job… With an opportunity to publicly declare my love for them, I bastardized my two favorite comic books for the job (it was an homage, right?) I took the logo of Elektra Assassin and mutilated it for the purpose, then added my own version of a female Superman fan, and voilá! A design was born. Little did I know that years later I’d have abandoned the vagaries of the world of fine art for the more communicative graphic arts, and that this would be the first of many design jobs. All I knew then, was that I had a chance to shout my teenage appreciation of Superman from the proverbial rooftops, and I was going to grab it.


“my unsophisticated little teenage mind” – I can’t believe you’re ever a teenager! ;-)

One of my favorite Superman issues by Byrne was that guy who shot Superman with a kryptonite bullet.
And the back-up Lex Luthor story where he played mind games with a waitress.

Sounds like Action Comics was your DC gateway drug!

I know after The Man Of Steel mini series that some things didnt stick to the mythos of Superman (especially with Geoff John’s Superman Origin series coming out now), but one thing that has stuck since Byrne wrote it was the depiction of Lois Lane that you described. Yeah, she’s still occasionally the damsel in distress, but since Byrne, she had traits that defined her aside from always falling off buildings or getting kidnapped or what have you. Despite the tone and content of Superman’s stories getting changed around every few years, I’m glad that this strong willed interpritation of Lois has remained core to her character.

To be fair, Golden Age Lois was a strong willed woman. Byrne was just attempting to update what that meant.

One of my favorite recently read panels is an old Action Comics where someone is holding Lois at gunpoint to stall Superman, and she deals with it herself.

I guess the only other aspect of Byrne’s run that’s still around is the notion of Luthor as the greedy businessman vice the mad scientist. Luthor’s run for, and winning of the U.S. Presidency seemed to be the climax of all that. I never saw Byrne’s opinion on President Lex, but it seemed like a logical progression to me.

Wow, you almost describe my exact introduction to comics. I had been a Superman fan as early as I could draw stick figures and when I discovered a comic shop by where I lived, I too was introduced to Byrne’s Superman series. I remember vividly seeing that Joker cover, in fact it was the first one I bought. Soon after I quickly gobbled up the immediate back issues. And you’re right, it was a great way of steering me into the DC Universe proper with all those guest stars making their rounds. The added bonus was most of those stories were done-in-one with subplots dangled to introduce full stories later. It was the best collecting experience I ever had and I’d be hard-pressed to say I’ve found a similar reading experience since.

Omar Karindu, with the power of SUPER-hypocrisy!

January 13, 2010 at 12:39 pm

IK’m a bit puzzled by the idea that Clark Kent was ever a “four-eyed antihero” of the sort described above; most comics aficionadoes take the Kill Bill speech to be about pre-Byrne Superman, who had godlike powers from infancy and whose nerdish weakness as Kent really was entirely a put-on, a contemptuous critique of the human race.

Byrne’s innovation was to give Superman his ablities slowly, so that he had a long youthful experience of being just a human — to the point that Byrne’s origin has him discover he’s an alien only after becoming Superman, where the 1960-and-up version had some sort of batshit “supermemory” of his infancy on the Buck Rogers dayglo utopia of Krypton.

I get that this is mostly a piece on subjective reaction to the material, but many of the pseudo-factual claims are more pseudo- than factual.

So where’s the rest of this column? It seems like it just ends as it’s getting interesting. Is this a “To Be Continued”?

Yeah, I’m with Omar. I thought Clark was portrayed as the phoney disguise long before Byrne. That’s how it appeared to me in the ’70s when I read Superman (as well as in the ’60s reprints that were often published in the ’70s).
I had largely stopped reading Superman before Byrne took over, and then when I heard about the new version, I totally lost interest. The idea of re-writing history really offends me. But I did skim through a collected volume of Man Of Steel a few years later at a garage sale. And I did like the way it portrayed Lois.

It’s funny you chose this as your topic today because I just finished reading Byrne’s Superman run for the first time the other night. I had read bits and pieces of it over the years, but never the whole thing.

I have to say, I found it unsatisfying overall. It had its moments, but suffered from flatness in many of the characters and some loopholes in logic. Some of his “updates” were interesting, or at the very least made sense for what Byrne was trying to do, which was get rid of all the “goofy” elements of Superman, such as Superboy*, the Super Pets, etc. But at the same time, Byrne still gave Superman plenty of unintentionally goofy and bizarre moments, the Big Barda porn story you mentioned being the best example.

It was similar to Perez’s Wonder Woman, which I also read for the first time recently. Perez did a great job of updating Diana and trying to take her seriously, but he still put in moments like one of her grabbing on to the front of a failing airplane and spinning herself around like a propellor to help keep it in the air…

Small moments overall, but they kind of prove that you can only make characters like Superman and Wonder Woman only so serious before they become parodies of themselves. These characters by their very nature are goofy and weird and fun. Byrne’s best stories were the ones like the Mxlpltk (or however you spell it) and Trickster issues, where he could just cut loose and let us forget the lack of serious character building he was doing.

Still, I think Byrne was successful in revamping the franchise and giving others the tools to build off of, such as the updated cast and villains. I just started reading the post-Byrne issues by Stern, Ordway, and Jurgens and have really been enjoying them for the way they’ve been able to go back and add some depth to some of Byrne’s ciphers.

*- Being a longtime Legion fan, I still get annoyed about what getting rid of Superboy did to Legion continuity, but that’s for another post…

Oops, I said Trickster, I meant Prankster…

Yeah, wasn’t there a huge fanboy outcry about how Byrne had “made Superman the disguise?” That take actually makes a lot more sense to me – he spent 20 plus years AS Clark so why wouldn’t he see that as his “real” self?

I got MAN OF STEEL at the age of 6, and thought I’d been well introduced to Silver Age reprints through my local library, I always think of the Byrne Superman as “my” Superman, and like you, I felt those Action Comics team-ups were a great primer on the DCU. (Still don’t know what he was thinking with that Barda story, though… imagine the outcry if he’d pulled that with Wonder Woman!)

I’m with Andrew, though, in feeling that the Stern/Ordway/Jurgens teams did a lot to add depth to Byrne’s concepts, surpassing his run in quality for several years.

When I first read Byrne’s Superman, I thought it was the greatest Superman, bar none. Now, I have read (and watched) other Supermen, and I have a more nuanced oppinion of it. I am still fond of it, but it’s true that Byrne’s forte isn’t subtlety in characterization (the “flatness” Andrew remarked about, but I would call it a “bluntness”).

Clark Kent was a fairly well-ajusted person, and I think that was Byrne’s way to emphasize that Superman got his heroic characteristics from the Kents and Kansas, and very much not from Jor-El and Krypton. Shifting Superman’s heroism from the angelic to the patriotic, maybe. Would that make his Superman more or less conservative an icon, I wonder? I think it made Superman more solar and physical, in any case.

Byrne’s Superman influenced me so much that to this day I have problems with the older-style Clark Kent – the super-exaggerated nerd done as a sort of bizarre comic routine by Superman to fool people. I loved the awesome All-Star Superman and I even liked Superman Returns, but Clark-as-pretend-dweeb-to-the-max is something I have trouble with.

For all its faults, I think it’s the Smallville series that offers a Clark Kent that is a pleasant composite of the two versions. He is enough of an outcast, but not really a dweeb. Or maybe it’s just that Tom Welling is so hot.

But I do like Luthor and Lois a lot more post-Byrne. My problem with the mad scientist Luthor is that he is too pitiable. I can’t hate him or fear him or admire, because he is such a pathetic man, this bald guy who is despised and always in jail, and Silver Age Superman isn’t only a admired god, but is actually more intelligent than him too. Luthor as a businessman may be a steal from the Kingpin, but at least he is someone that makes for a nasty viliain that you feel comfortable hating.

But I am okay with the Silver-Ageish “fun” returning to Superman in recent years. It’s a character that works well with this kind of stuff.

I am not sure I agree about Wonder Woman, though. Not that she shouldn’t be fun, but that I don’t think super-science does her service. I loved that George Perez made her purely mythological and got rid of the Purple Ray and invisible plane. But I also think Wonder Woman works best for me as a fairly serious champion of some fairly serious causes, like George Perez and Greg Rucka wrote her. Not as interested in her as a camp character. The silliness that she had in the Silver Age wasn’t as memorable as with Superman or the Flash.

Interesting look at the Man of Steel series and Byrne’s work in general from the context of the times. I didn’t read it (still haven’t read most of it) until I was probably 10 or 11, and there was no basis on comparison for me, given that I grew up reading 80s comics like Secret Wars, Byrne’s Superman, Batman, etc.

It’s a shame other writers did pick up on the porn issue. It would have been interesting if in future meetings Superman Barda could no longer look each other in the eye, or if Miracle became just a little testy with either Supes or Barda when the other was around.

Although, this might be why Supes and MM never served in the Justice League at the same time…

By the way, love the column Sonia. I was also teen when Superman got “Byrned” but had been reading Supes for a long time before. I was excited about the change and really enjoyed Byrne’s run.

I gotta agree with you about strong women looking strong like Big Barda does. It looks plain silly when an anorexic-looking girl lifts a car over her head. You never see a scawny guy with super strength in comics, why can’t the strong women be drawn like Barda and Power Girl? (for the latter I mean the bi-ceps, not the “pecs”) In the early Eighties Gene Colon did a run on Wonder Woman in which she looked strong and still beautiful. To bad Perez didn’t follow up on that.

I have to throw in a plug for “From Crisis to Crisis” — a podcast that covers Superman issue-by-issue from the Byrne reboot to Infinite Crisis. The podcast comes out weekly and they cover one month of stories in each podcast. They recently finished the Byrne run and, after a two-part interview with Jerry Ordway, have moved on to the Stern/Ordway era.


Interesting take. I was jarred by the same thing that Omar, above, was, though- I think you’ve gotten the post-Byrne/Wolfman Superman/Clark Kent relationship exactly backwards. The Kill Bill monologue you refer to is about the pre-Byrne Superman- the one that, for better or for worse, the non-comic book reading public and angry nostalgists like Geoff Johns still consider the “true” take. Aside from the Pre-Crisis Clark Kent being something of a buffoon, the repeated instances during the Silver Age of Superdickery (as detailed in the website of the same name) show that that characterization of Superman basically looked down on humanity. He may have had affection for us, but it was the same way humans have affection for their pets- which I always thought was an odd and off-putting personality trait in a character who supposedly represents “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” as opposed to “Superiority, Justice, and The Kryptonian Way.”

The Byrne/Wolfman Clark Kent (I keep including Wolfman because the interviews the two creators have given over the years indicate that it’s impossible to know who contributed what to the Post-Crisis Superman) was not at all a construct- the only thing “false” about him was his need for glasses. In all other respects, he was still the same confident, competent, Midwestern guy he had been since birth. Which, to be fair, wasn’t exactly an innovation as much as it was an homage to the Clark Kent George Reeves had played in the Superman tv show (a point Burn himself has made more than once.)

I thought, generally speaking, that Byrne’s changes made a lot of sense, both in terms of character psychology and realism. A dweeby Clark Kent would never have been the successful reporter that he was inexplicably portrayed as- he would never have advanced up the ranks of a genuine newsroom. A Superman who had already spent years as a kid in a goofy costume would never have the kind of respect that an awe-inspiring adult who suddenly appeared on the scene would have (nor did it ever make sense that a super-intelligent infant would have any real need for adoptive parents or a secret identity of any sort.) A Superman whose intelligence so far outstrips the people he’s protecting would normally be an egomaniacal monster (as is hinted at in the Superdickery episodes- and as embodied by Batman, who has demonstrated that sort of ego for the last two decades and has only ever been held back by his moral compass and lack of superpowers.)

As for the Superman/Barda episode, I always have felt that that was overblown. Byrne is very careful to never show either character naked or doing anything resembling sex. Barda is just dancing around, basically- the fact that Byrne wrote other stories that demonstrated that even a mind-controlled Superman would still basically have a moral compass undermines the inference that the two characters were actually in “pornos,” though mind-control is always a kind of rape, a subject which I’m surprised has never been examined more in comic books.

I still remember not liking making Clark Kent a weightlifter/high school football start/etc… because of a very simple reason:

Reader identification.

In the early issue of Superman that Byrne said were his inspiration fro going Back To The Basics, Clark Kent was acting like a milksop so that no one would suspect him of being Superman, but the reason it worked so well is that the reader could project themselves into the character through that. The early issues are FILLED with “They’d think I was great if they only knew what I was like on the inside”, which resonated with younger readers. Also, look at the early antagonists: Wife beaters, robber barons, union busters, etc… Superman could come in and give them what for, just like the reader would have wanted to do back then.

Even into the 70’s, there was that aspect of the character, especially when he would use his power secret to make practical jokes backfire.

Byrne completely threw that out, and didn’t replace it with a way for the reader to think to themselves “I coudl be him”.

I’m completely with Coryll here, but on an even stronger level.

I guess Byrne’s Superman was the Superman I grew up with or whatever, but – just ’cause I associate something with my horrible, horrible childhood doesn’t automatically make it great in my mind.

I KNOW. I KNOW. This makes me a freak and a bad comics fan. I’m SORRY, OK!

The Superman story is ABOUT the “meek inheriting the earth” or about overlooked greatness. That’s why the young readers can identify. It’s SUCH a screw-up and such an obvious screw-up that I’ll always wonder if the creators meant it as some kind of joke. “Look how much we can screw up Superman and still make it work.)

You take away nerdy Clark, and the Superman story just doesn’t work on it’s most basic thematic level.

That said – I like a lot of the changes Byrne made. Lois was a stronger character than she’d been in 40 years, I *LIKE* Superboy but I think the Superman story is stronger without him. I think the businessman Luthor was a dumb idea in theory, (you’re making him LESS poweful?!) but the execution absolutely sold it – Byrne’s take is my favorite Luthor ever.

And getting rid of the indestructabe costume was a stroke of genius.

So, overall, I’m almost completely neutral on the Byrne Superman. I like ’bout half the established takes on Superman better, and about half worse.

@Cory- I understand what you’re saying, and agree with it, to a point. However, there is sometimes a conflict between what I could “Executive Logic” vs. “Internal Logic.” The “identification” issue in comics is an example of “Executive Logic.” It makes perfect sense from a business standpoint to take a look at what sort of people your readers are and then try to give them something to identify with- say, a geeky alter ego (Superman/Clark Kent, Spider-Man/Peter Parker) or a kid sidekick. However, that doesn’t generally lead to “Internal Logic”- the nebbishy secret identity raises more questions than it answers; the kid sidekick is, at its heart, a ludicrous story of child endangerment. It is endlessly debatable whether readers, audiences, etc., really care more about “identifying” with a character than they do with “admiring” him. James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, for example, are good examples of enduring characters who are really not all that relatable in the sense you’re talking about.

It is fair to say that Byrne may have gone too far- he probably could have made Kent a strong, likable character WITHOUT making him into a jock (though it did answer the question of why a “mild-mannered reporter” would have that sort of physique in the first place.) Internally, though, the dweeb persona of Clark Kent is just what “Bill” says it is in the movie- a “F— You!” to humanity.

Ultimately, I think the best kind of revision or addition to a character already in existence is the one that looks at the unprepared-for-questions that have come up over time and attempts to answer them. Superboy was an answer to the question, “What did Clark do before he was Superman?” but raised questions of its own, like, “Why the hell was Superboy living with two old people who were his inferiors in every way? Why did he behave himself better than any other 8-year-old in the world?” etc.” Byrne’s revamp asked a lot of questions and answered them in such a way that they made sense without destroying the character. I think Byrne’s Superman was still perfectly identifiable- he was infatuated by a woman who couldn’t stand him. He was afraid of losing his parents to mortality. He was completely hamstrung by his arch-enemy’s popularity, etc. That’s all stuff kids and adults alike deal with and can relate to.

@MarkAndrew- Everyone seems to think Superman is “about” something different. Your take isn’t wrong or right, but I would say that Superman can be “about” all sorts of things without his concept being undermined by one or two changes. I would say your concept is far more embodied by characters like Spider-Man or even Batman more than it is for someone who started out as a Chosen Person and has remained so. (In fact, a lot of people think Superman is “about” being a Jew, or is “about” the Jesus myth. They’re not necessarily wrong, either.) It’s hardly like Clark Kent “made himself” into Superman, thus “meekly inheriting the Earth.” He was an inheritor who pretended to be meek. But reasonable people can disagree about that.

Byrne is one of my favorite comics creators. But I much prefer the Curt Swan Superman, with all its Weisinger quirkiness and silliness. The Weisinger/Swan Superman was the natural and ultimate development of the strip invented by Siegel & Shuster. The strip had a rare, unique charm from its inception until Weisinger retired. That was the end of the true Superman character as he was created.

Everything that came after was a different character… mostly ill-advised attempts to shoe-horn Superman into being “realistic”. Why does every superhero strip have to be modernized or serious or dark? Why suck out the lifeblood of what makes characters like Superman and Captain Marvel special?

I’ll tell you why: (1) corporate greed on behalf of the comics companies, and (2) lack of talent and new ideas on the part of modern writers who can’t come up with their own fresh characters, so instead they merely crank out endless reiterations of old ones. Fifty years from now they’ll still be selling warped versions of Superman’s origin and other “year one” reruns of major characters like Spiderman and Batman. Bleh.

Nice post. Also nice Arrested Development reference.

Since we mentioned Byrne’s Lois Lane as a feminist advance, we can’t forget to mention Maggie Sawyer. A lesbian character first introduced in DC’s flagship title is a big deal. That she was sympathetic and – more importantly – that SUPERMAN himself was pretty sympathetic to her lifestory of abandoning a marriage that she had entered into due to a repressive upbringing, it was wonderfully progressive for a mainstream superhero comic.

I personally don’t take Carradine’s comments in Kill Bill to mean anything, since they’re being used by a cold-blooded murderer in his Hannibal Lecture to torment one of his former killers/lovers, rendering their value as a commentary on Superman himself rather moot.

Other than that note, great essay. :)

@ Rene – With regard to Maggie, I also recall how subtlely it was done. At the wee age of 8, I totally missed the subtext in Superman 15 and Annual 2 that Maggie was gay. In fact, I remember being surprised by a mention five years later of her “sexual orientation” (i think it’s in Action 690), actually saying “Wait, Maggie’s gay? How’d I miss that?”

Yeah, the words lesbian and gay are not used. I don’t think DC would have allowed that. I think I was 13 or so at the time, and I was a very sheltered kid. I don’t remember if I realized she was lesbian in the issue she tells Superman her lifestory. But I definitely noticed it when Lex Luthur tried to blackmail her, with all the comments about how their taste in women was so similar, with Luthor’s bimbo secretary teasing Maggie.

I also never realized at the time that Captain America’s friend, Arnie Roth, was gay.

Arnie Roth was gay?

@Adam- I suspect that “subtlety” was editorially mandated (even Extrano, that bone of contention for many LGBT comics fans, never was actually called “gay,” at least not in Millennium- The New Guardians was so terrible that I stopped reading it after the third issue, so it might have been mentioned there.) That said, the fact that Byrne was able to work with that constraint and make it both subtle enough that a kid could miss it and obvious enough that an adult (or reasonably astute teenager) could understand it is a real sign of talent. (I’m not sure whether I “got it” immediately, but I think I figured it out not long after the Byrne run). For all of Byrne’s apparent personality flaws, it’s worth noting that he’s always been a pretty strong advocate for the reality of gay characters (I think Northstar was also his idea.)

@Rene- The argument could be made that Cat Grant, despite being superficically a “bimbo,” is also a step in the right direction in the sense of portraying women as varied in their strengths and psychologically complex. I’m not sure how I feel about Lana, however…

They played Maggie the same way on “Superman: The Animated Series.” She was clearly, at least to the older viewrs, gay but the statement was never made, the labels never spoken. The older viewers knew it but didn’t have to explain it to thier kids.

@Christopher – Cat Grant was more nuanced in Marv Wolfman’s Adventures of Superman. I think Wolfman was the one that created her. Byrne mostly used her as a foil for Lois Lane, whom he favored. Lana Lang was not particularly interesting, but maybe it was still a step up from her Silver Age version. I’ve recentely read some of the old Superboy stories, and I couldn’t believe how cruel Superboy was to her in his schemes to frustrate her attempts to discover his secret identity. Though she is also pretty much a bitch in some of her attempts.

@T. – Arnie Roth was extremely gay. When I re-read J.M. deMatteis’s Captain America stories as an adult, I couldn’t believe how naive I was as a kid that I hadn’t figured it out. Arnie tells Steve Rogers of how his manly man act when they were both kids was a lie, and how he is all sensitive now, and lives with his “roommate”, whom he loves very much, and he cries over the roommates’s body when he is kidnapped by the Red Skull. And later the homophobic Red Skull ridicules Arnie as a degenerate and a “fop” (I don’t think Marvel would have allowed the Skull calling Arnie a faggot). I think I was pretty dumb in my early teens, because it was so obvious in retrospect.

I hhave an unusual reaction to Byrne’s Superman. Except for, of course, the stronger Lois Lane, I dislike almost all the changes he made to the mythos. I always think “powering down” is taking the easy way out, and the so-called “goofy” elements of the Superman books are part of the magic and charm, I think. The nebbish Pre-Crisis Clark Kent is Superman’s center, and it’s a constant lesson in humility for the most powerful man on the planet – the successful Post-Crisis Clark, by contrast, seems aggressive and borderline arrogant to me, sometimes. My least favorite thing, though, is Byrne and Superman’s complete rejection of Krypton. Pre-Crisis Superman is the story of an immigrant who embraces his new home but also keeps alive his roots, whereas Byrne’s Superman is the ultimate assimiliationist. Very nationalistic – “Thank god Clark grew up in America and not some *other* horrible country (or planet)!”

Despite all my objections, however … I enjoy the stories as stories. Perhaps the characterization is broad or blunt or what-have-you, but it’s very solid and entertaining superhero fiction, and it’s terrific on that level. You can call it unsophisticated, but sophistication is not always what I need out of Superman. Batman’s bluff in Man of Steel #whatever-it-was is a wonderful touch.

Bryne’s Superman was my gateway into the DC universe, along with COIE. I will always be grateful for that. Great stuff that still holds up even now. And I totally love the 50’s/60’s stories too. You don’t have to chose one or the other, but can appreciate both for what they are IMHO.

Justin— Byrne’s Superman assimilates completely and plays down his immigrant roots? That’s kind of ironic, considering that Byrne himself is an immigrant (twice!) and has often emphasised his Canadian-ness.

Mary: I know, it’s weird, right? That’s why I don’t want to read it necessarily as espousing a political agenda (I don’t know if Byrne’s ever said anything on the matter one way or the other), but Man of Steel #6 makes it pretty clear that *Clark* at least is of the opinion that it’s nice to know where you came from, but he finds Krypton alien and distasteful. Which, to be fair, it sort of is the way Byrne reboots it, but that’s another problem I have. The loss of Pre-Crisis Krypton is tragic, because it’s a great, passionate civilization destroyed by its own hubris. Post-Crisis, it’s hard to get too upset over Krypton’s destruction.

Well, I’ll just get the 800 pound gorilla in the room out of the way: John Byrne getting rid of Superboy seriously screwed up the Legion of Super-Heroes continuity for two solid decades.


I also loved Byrne’s Superman as a child. In hindsight, I prefer the current Superman. (Well, actually All Star Supes is probably my favorite) I had been reading during the previous run as well, but it was awesome seeing Supes taken seriously. I was, in fact, just flipping through the Barda/Supes porn issue the other day!
Other highlights:
– Batman and Supe’s icy partnership
– Cat Grant
– Lex
– Lana
– Clark having played football in high school (as if any normal teenager wouldn’t have)
– the whole lead-up to his date with Wonder Woman
– every storyline involving the Fourth World concepts
– the Pocket Universe/Superboy/Legion crossover
– the Action Comics issue guest-starring ‘??????’
– in fact, the whole Action Comics run and concept
– the execution(!) of issue 22 was the best swan song this run could’ve had
I could go on and on but you get the point…

Anyways, great read. I look forward to the next!
You should drop by my site and check out our Comic section. (and the rest too!)

Peace out!

Man of Steel and the Who’s Who series were my two main entries into the DC world. Before that I was a Marvel zombie. I followed Byrne over to DC and really enjoyed the first year or so of Superman and Action Comics. At first I couldn’t believe that I was actually reading and enjoying a Superman comic, but those were some really fun comics, esp. Action.

I know lots of people hate the Barda storyline in Action Comics, I loved it. I was 15 and Barda was (still is) hot!
I’ve been a big fan of Mister Miracle and Big Barda ever since.

Barda and She-Hulk, my two favorite female superheroes, in large part thanks to Byrne.

BTW: I think the bag looks quite nice, not bad at all for your first gig.

@Chris Stansfield- Another good example of DC’s policy about gay relationships and even the use of the words “gay” and “lesbian” at the time is the Shrinking Violet/Light Lass relationship from Legion Of Super-Heroes. Their profiles in the 1990 edition of Who’s Who is very careful never to call them “lesbian” but to instead refers to their “special friendship” and “close relationship” to each other…

That said, I do have to compliment Byrne for the way he handled Maggie. If I had read those issues when they came out (I would have been about 10 or 11) I probably would have missed it too. It was subtle, but tastefully done, and never seemed judgmental or preachy about any of it. Even in the story where Luthor tries to blackmail her with it, she stands up to him and dares him to try using her sexuality against her. Very well done.

@LouReedRichards regardless of how creepy the Superman/Barda porn story was (and I’m pretty sure they didn’t have sex) I will agree with you about the way Byrne drew Barda. That shot of her dancing for Sleez was HOT!

I was around 8, and a sporadic newsstand reader when Byrne started his Superman makeover, and what I remember most is how much I hated it (along with the various “end of an era” stuff that preceded it). The Brainiac makeover in particular seemed to irk me, as I had really liked the prior Gil Kane drawn robot version.

As a teenager I got into the run as an extension of my enthusiasm for “The Reign of The Supermen” and was curious to see how things got to be where they were at that time. It helped that both Superboy and Supergirl were back in some fashion at that point as I had never cared for their disposal. The notion that it was now possible to collect the entire Superman story appealed to me quite a bit at the time as well.

Nowadays I tend to look at this run as a fairly decent, modern for the time, take on the character that’s since become a bit dated. There are a few issues and concepts I still enjoy (Silver Banshee for one) but I still don’t understand the notion that current creators should be somehow held to this version over any particular other they find more appealing.

I suspect you’re right that Cat was a Wolfman character. I think, in the 21st century, it’s interesting how people are finally beginning to accept the concept of feminism as simply a respect for women’s wholeness as persons rather than embodying any particular ideal or agenda. If we can look at the four main characters of “Sex and the City” as “real” women, I think we have to give credit to Wolfman and Byrne for creating characters like Cat who were not necessarily Wonder Woman, but were also something other than foils for the male characters they supported. Ultimately, that’s why I’m a little less comfortable with Lana Lang, because she was generally just used as a foil during the Byrne run (though she came into her own after he left the title.) As for the Silver Age run, like I said- Superman was pretty much just an ass in general when it came to the silly people who worshiped him (not just Lois and Lana, but also Jimmy Olsen.)

What I love about this sort of forum is how it can make you completely re-evaluate your thinking. From a psychological motivation standpoint, I’ve always liked Byrne’s version of Krypton, because it made sense of the question of why Superman would be so into “the American Way.” I never really looked at it the way you do, but I have to say, i’m really struck by your take on it- even though I always thought it was kind of an extrapolation from the movie Krypton in the first place. It’s interesting to note that people who embrace the Superman as Jewish” narrative tend to think that, at his heart, Superman is the ultimate assimilationist, no matter the concept of Krypton. But I now completely understand your sort of distaste for the take. I think the main problem I always had with the Pre-Crisis Krypton was one of logical consistency- namely, if Krypton was the technological utopia it was presented as, why the hell were they so backwards in terms of outer space exploration and rocketry? Again, what I admire about Byrne is that he attempted to answer these logical paradoxes. The same reason I agree with you that his take on the “World’s Finest” pair makes sense- there is no logical reason why Batman and Superman would ever be best pals. Byrne got it right.

To be fair A. Byrne only got rid of Superboy because DC initially promised him he would be able to start “from scratch” in showing Superman’s development, and then decided that, as of Superman v2 #1, he’d been around for years after all- since then, he’s regretted getting rid of Superboy since he never got the chance he was promised, and B. LOSH continuity wasn’t really screwed up until Mike Carlin decided that the Pocket Universe Superboy also had to go. If they had just kept the Pocket Universe concept and the idea that history gets misinterpreted over the course of a thousand years (which is perfectly reasonable) , LOSH continuity would have been fine (and logically consistent). Frankly, the Pocket Universe story was not only logical, but it gave Superboy a hell of a lot more resonance and depth as a martyr than he had ever had as a character before (there’s not a lot of dramatic tension in stories when the basic point is that the main character will always survive, no matter what.)

@Andrew- I don’t disagree about anything you say except that I think it’s unfair to call it “DC’s policy.” Marvel didn’t do any better- it was the times. Speaking as someone who was personally heartened by DC’s progressive attitude in the 80’s, I have to give them more credit than chagrin- I was more offended by Marvel’s media blitz regarding Northwind several years after DC’s introducing gay characters than I ever was by DC’s sensitive handling of the subject. In fact, in 2010, having read complaints to the FCC (following the Adam Lambert VMA debacle) that use expressions I’m not even comfortable rewriting to describe gay people, I have to say how remarkable it is in hindsight that Superman comic books even approached the subject twenty years ago.

@Mr. JR
Two things: first of all, I think it’s important to note that the Gil Kane revamp of Brainiac only existed for about three years pre-Crisis. I think it sticks in people’s minds mainly because of the Super Powers cartoon and action figures- plus, it was a pretty awesome design. But I remember people thinking that was an abomination when it was introduced. As for people being beholden to the Byrne concept, I am completely, 100%, in agreement. I don’t like the current version, but not because it’s a revamp- on the contrary, I would love a brand new take on the character twenty years later, just like I got one in the 80’s. My issue with the current version has to do more with the fact that all it seems to be is a return to an old status quo rather than anything new, and like I said, I think Byrne did an excellent job of making Superman psychologically consistent and realistic.

Christopher Stansfield…

Just wanted to point out the Marvel character was Northstar, not Northwind (who was part of the original Infinity, Inc.). :-)

And moving on…
I grew up with the Silver-Age Superman and that will always be my favorite version. I can appreciate the Messrs. Didio, Morrison, and Johns are trying to bring back those old glory days…but, it’s just not the same. So much so for me that, after 35 years of collecting, I’ve stopped cold turkey.
Everyone here makes great arguments for their likes and dislikes, but it all comes down to personal preference. Nobody here is right or wrong…it’s just great to see so much acceptance and respect despite widely varying viewpoints.
This is exactly what a forum should be.

Matthew Johnson

January 14, 2010 at 7:36 am

@Mary: interesting point about Byrne being a Canadian. Maybe that’s the difference between the old and new Clark/Superman: the old one, as many commentators have pointed out, was coded Jewish — forced to either stand out (Superman) or give up some of his identity (Clark) to assimilate. The post-Byrne version, has a Clark and Superman who are different not in kind but in degree: Clark is brave, strong and charismatic, just not as much as Superman. This is a Superman who is Canadian: able to pass with little or no effort, but nevertheless armed with a knowledge of his difference and (let’s face it) inherent superiority.

For the most part, I enjoyed Byrne’s changes. I never liked Superman referring to the couple who raised him as “foster parents”. There was an element of the character that looked down on humanity. It might make sense, but it makes it hard to like the guy. I always thought the milksop Clark actually attracted attention, rather than deflected it. It was like he was trying too hard. I’ve always had the same issue with the more extreme portrayals of Bruce Wayne. How does a guy who gets a stomach ache every time there’s trouble become a top reporter at the biggest newspaper in the world?

While I thought Byrne depowered him a bit too much, I think trying to include some real world physics helped. For example, it doesn’t matter how good your hearing or eyesight is, it still takes sound and light a certain amount of time to get to your ears and eyes. I don’t care how good a ventriloquist you are, you still need air to talk. On the other hand, I don’t have a problem with Superman being capable of interstellar flight under his own power. As I prefer time travel stories to be used sparingly (they usually suffer due to internal logic issues), I wasn’t sad to see that ability go. While I also liked the explanation that he essentially uses his flying ability to stabilize large object that he carries, it was probably going too far since it doesn’t explain how super strong people that can’t fly can still lift things without them collapsing.

As a longtime Superman fan, I approached the Byrne reboot with trepidation… fortunately, I ended up liking most of what he did: the explanations for how the powers worked (which not only made sense but were actually referenced to meaningfully in the stories); the changes (The death of the Kents, pre-Crisis, had actually been Superboy’s fault, which always struck me as terribly cruel; having them alive to use in stories along adult Clark was wonderful); the characterization (everyone came across as clever; not just Evil Businessman Luthor, but also Clark and Lois- well, except the fact she didn’t realize his identity, but that’s a given); the reduced power levels (now Supes could believably fight supervillains and avoid that physics-defying planet-pushing nonsense) and of course the art. About the only thing I didn’t like was when Superman killed the three Phantom Zone villains after they murdered an entire parallel Earth’s population- extreme situation to be sure, but Superman should never kill, period- it hurts his image. (Note I’m assuming this was Byrne’s idea, but it may not have been.) Eliminating Superboy was sad but it made sense; I’d say it was more the Legion people who came up with a really lame way to deal with it instead of just using some other hero (such as Mon-El, who in fact they did use later) as their team’s inspiration.

@Chris- You’re right, “policy” wasn’t the best word there. Don’t know what was said in-house about it, but there obviously seemed to be a positive attitude towards introducing gay and lesbian characters while still taking it slow and easy.

The Silver Age Superman seemed like a classical case of a passive-aggressive personality. Passive-agressives usually present themselves as spineless milksops while putting down the people around them in subtle ways, all because they’re unable to express anger and negative emotions openly and many of them even think of themselves as saviors.

SA Superman seemed a bit like that. The dweeb act was a very amusing private joke that he pulled on anyone, winking at the reader all the while.

The first time i readed Byrne’s Superman i loved it, the other Superman comics i ever readed were some early 80’s issues drawn by Joe Stanton and Curt Swan(not at his finest moment), and suddenly they looked so old! Later, when i discovered all the Superman mythos(giant key to the fortress, Krypto the super-dog, super-powered Lois…) i agreed Byrne did a good job wiping it out of continuity.
Years later, as i learnt more of DC past, (and specially after reading Crisis) i realized they made a mistake erasing so many good characters and tales. The new versions, more modern and real, lacked the rich background of the pre-crisis versions…untill the arrival of Geoff Johns, who has managed to do an smart move, and, instead of erasing from continuity the crazy 50’s and 60’s stuff, he has made it coherent again(basically, he’s got the best of two worlds). But i think it wouldn’t had been possible without the modern approach Byrne and company stablished in the mid 80’s, plus the current Silver Age nostalgia.
PS1: The superboy-legion issue was a totally dumb mistake
PS2: I never liked the Byrne’s Luthor. He was too evil to be liked(remember the waitress issue…).

“I never liked the Byrne’s Luthor. He was too evil to be liked(remember the waitress issue…).”

Well, that was the point, wasn’t it? I mean, the Silver Age Luthor was so much of a loser (even more if compared to invincible, perfect, total dick to his friends, Silver Age Superman) that he could be more sympathetic than the guy who was technically the hero. That doesn’t work.

Hunter (Pedro Bouça)

@Pedro- I’m so glad you made the point, because it was something I remembered after the fact and didn’t want to come back and mention it. That was another great “problem” Byrne resolved. The original Luthor didn’t make a lick of sense- period. If the Silver Age Superman had all his powers but a regular brain, they MIGHT have been evenly matched- but when you’re dealing with a character who not only can play billiards with planets but is also twenty times smarter than any human, how can you possibly consider Luthor an arch-enemy unless Superman is some sort of extra-terrestrial cat who likes to bat around mice in his spare time?
The fact that his motivation was his baldness only makes the whole thing more ridiculous. What I love about the Post-Crisis Luthor (and my understanding is that he was more Wolfman’s creation than Byrne’s) is that he not only had his own “powers” to match Superman’s (namely, the law and his popularity) but that his ridiculous motivation was so deliberately subverted- Byrne and Wolfman understood that they couldn’t get away with a Luthor who wasn’t bald, but they made sure that he still had some hair when he first ran afoul of Superman. I’m not even looking at the issue and I still remember that Lois made a Fred Mertz joke about him. Brilliant!

@Pedro & @Christopher:
You both made a point about Luthor being a real loser before Byrne, who started to add endings of the “i can’t prove anyting, but someday i’ll get you, Luthor…” style. Being respected and powerfull(and above the law) made him more dangerous, but it was some kind of insult to strip him of his mad scientist role: in the first metallo apperance, he sounds like a guy who hires the world top’s scientis but doesn’t know how to restart Windows…Again, i have to admire Johns and Morrison to bring back the image of Luthor tinkering in his lab(or prison cell). In All-Star Superman, he’s a real bastard(he even kills S), but lacks the cruelty of the Byrne take(basically, a slim Kingpin). Superman deserves more than a mafia boss/corrupt politician. In fact, i guess than the young Lex Luthor appearing in the new Secret Origin series it’s going to be some kind of evil Tony Stark.

I agree with most of what is posted about Luthor. In context, he really shouldn’t be a threat to SA Superman.

Modern Lex? I’ve always thought of Lex as expressing that racism coming from people who treat immigrants as second class citizens. Like the Daniel Day Lewis character in Gangs of New York saying how HE’s the REAL American. Luthor’s greatest threat comes from people always underestimating just how many strings he’s pulling from behind the scenes. His cruelty couldn’t have been more explained like in the short story when he offered a happily married woman money and a chance to live the glamorus life if ONLY she left her husband and became his woman. This was so ahead of it’s time with all the reality programs now showing us what people would readily sink to in order to become famous or stretch their 15 mins of infamy.

I agree that if Superman (like his SA version) is supersmart Lex comes across as more a petulant child than somebody to watch out for. His appearance in All-Star tho was extremely memorable and iconic, any movie version should always play a combination of both the mad scientist and business man just like JLU. That scene of Lex against Darkside where he had to go and put on his “power suit” (actually just his black business suit ) is a CLASSIC!

Also, as someone else posted, Superman’s limitless powers are only a problem to write when you DON’T apply real physics. That’s Superman’s true limitation – even much better than Kryptonite and something touched by the JLU cartoon where he stated that he had to be so careful around people and could never really let loose.

Byrne’s revision was needed but as other have said, many of the ‘barnicles’ that had been scrapped off Superman (Superboy, Legion connection, Fortress) had nonetheless adquired such a life of their own that many people (you could argue longtime readers and general public mostly) missed them enough to constantly question what happened to them?

The one thing I didn’t like was the Kents being alive. I know it was cruel for them to die (the way they did) but to have him go to Dad and Mom for ‘moral recharging’ seemed to me just to arrest his development as an adult. And for my money, it’s the ‘true’ reason why Batman and Superman couldn’t be friends. In the previous continuity they had that in common – no parents.

Someone may have pointed this out already, but I’m sure Byrne didn’t come up with the idea of Clark Kent as a disguise since it was a feature of the 1978 movie.

I remember reading Superman in the 80s and reading back issues well into the 70s and really losing interest because books like Daredevil, Uncanny X-Men, Thor, Batman and New Teen Titans had stories that were more complex and just darn good reads.

Just as I was about to graduate from high school it was announced that John Byrne would revamped Superman and I really had no issues with his revamp. I though Man of Steel #1-6 was just not enough for me as he seemed to jump forward about 5 years and we missed all of his real development.

I was really distraught when he left with issue # 22 but could understand his frustrations on the limitations that DC placed on him. In an Action Annual by Dan Jurgens we had a farm boy using his knowledge of tractors to figure out the workings of a space ship.

DC quickly wanted a mature Superman for Legends, Invasion, Millenium, etc, we the fans and Byrne wanted the character starting from year one onward.

Re-reading it now, it comes across as hokey, but back then it was top notch writing.

to clarify – he seemed to jump forward 5 or so years between Man of Steel and Superman # 1

Byrne’s Superman is definitely my favorite version of the character. Superman is buff and explaining that by having Clark lifted weights made sense.
Even as a kid I never understood why Clark had to be so geeky. In the GA comics I remember Clark being a little backwards, but competent and not as inept as he was in the 60’s – early 80’s.
Byrne may have went a little overboard with making him a jock, but he was still a nerdy jock, which wasn’t so bad. Byrne’s Superman/Clark made more sense to me as a kid than the pre-Crisis issues or the movies.

I don’t think the movies believe Clark Kent is truly the disguise, even though clearly Superman is pretending to be much clumsier and more awkward than he could possibly be. The scene at the end of Superman II where re-powered Clark goes back to the diner and beats up the bully sends a clear message that the character is the picked-on nerd at heart. Otherwise, why would he stoop to petty revenge, clearly he was doing what every picked-on nerd wishes he could do, get strong and go kick the bully’s ass in front of everybody. A Superman who felt superior to humans wouldn’t have bothered, the act would be beneath him.

Nicholas – In Byrne’s version, Clark Kent is the real person, Superman is the disguise.

I have no problem with Geoff Johns bringing back the Silver Age elements. My only real problem is with Luthor, I think. As I said before, I think mad scientist Luthor is too much of a wimp. And not particularly original. People keep saying businessman Luthor is cliched and a copy of the Kingpin, but c’mon, a mad scientist? This is originality?

Johns seems to realize that Luthor by himself can’t be a threat, and he keeps devising ways to make his presence more formidable and interesting, such as allying him with a corrupt military organization and teaming him up with Superman to fight General Zod, for instance.

Please, let’s get DC to publish the next trade of the Byrne Superman: Man of Steel trade (#7).

I found a few things interesting about Byrne’s revamp, but a lot of the stuff that he made sound original really wasn’t from my perspective. I remember his explanation for Supes using his heat vision bouncing off a mirror to shave was ripped off from the DC Comics Presents annual written by Alan Moore a few years before the revamp. It was Byrne’s last years at Marvel and Superman that Byrne’s work started to seem like it was burning out from overextending himself on too many projects.. And Lex Luthor was too reminiscent of Frank Miller’s version of the Kingpin.mixed with Denny O’Neill’s Obadiah Stane from Iron Man.

For me, the best versions of the modern Superman are Alan’s Moore’s deconstruction of the mythos, Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman and Mark Miller’s issues of the Superman Adventures.

I recently found the newspaper strips reprints from the late 30’s/early 40’s that were at Five Below last summer and highly recommend those if anyone can still find them. Superman definitely had a darker, more sadistic side in those days in some ways similar to Batman and in one strip sequence he even commits what would be considered a terrorist act by today’s standards. Also, Shuster’s S&M fetishes can be seen in those strips.

Francisco Gonzalez

January 17, 2010 at 9:03 pm

In Mexico, the first issue of the miniserie was the first issue of the ongoing title. I knew Byrne there and I thought that I loved the way that he drew… only to discover that what I have really liked were Dick Giordano’s inks.

I was a Curt Swan old school Superman nut, so I took hard many of the changes… I bet many were editorial’s and not only Byrne’s, but the rape of Superman and Barda and the memoryless Superman killing “low lifes” in Apokolips shoked me up as something the old Superman, the one I liked, would have escaped before commiting those acts.

The killing of the Phantom Zone escaped criminals was just awful. The Lex Luthor of that alternate reality lets them kill all the people in that “pocket universe” (a previous LOSH reference) because he wants to defeat them in a combat and not using kryptonite. Yet Byrne’s Superman buries Lex thinking of him as a hero…

I enjoyed the new Krypton version until later, when Roger Stern, a friend of Byrne, and Jerry Ordway took control of the titles. They were joined by George Perez and Dan Jurgens. That was the best, for me at least, epoch of the 80s Superman… with the “Exiled in Space” saga I enjoyed the new Krypton and the execution of the Phantom Zone criminals.

I understand that other people enjoys Byrne’s work. I do not want to bash him. I just have a different background and too different tastes. I don’t think my tastes are better and I don’t care to impose some apoch as a better that others, but I surely find really “weird” (no offense meannning) that someone still enjoys Byrne’s Superman.

To me the “deffinitive” Superman are: Wayne Boring’s (better that the original of Siegel and Shuster); Curt Swan’s (the longest); Jerry Ordway’s (I loved the dichotomy thet he brought to Clark and Kal, making both different and each interesting, yet the same) and Gary Frank’s…

In retrospect I find it extremely odd how often Fourth World-related plots in which Superman more or less gets mind controlled and raped-by-implication came up in the early days of the Byrne revamp. They feel kind of skeevy to me in retrospect.

It’s important to remember that the revamp was not Byrne’s project alone, Marv Wolfman and other creators at DC contributed their fair share of ideas. Some of them were ideas the Superman books had flirted with before the Byrne revamp but not really committed to.

(I know Wolfman proposed the “corporate Lex” revamp in the late 70’s/early 80’s.)

When I was a kid, I didn’t know Mort Weisinger from Johnny Depp’s grandma, but it was clear to me that after 1971 and the end of the Weisinger era, Superman was adrift. When John Byrne came on the scene, I was excited about the new direction, because it was giving me a new chance to get excited about an old favorite. In the execution of the idea, I was pretty much horrified. Weisinger’s Superman may have been so powerful that he could have destroyed the universe just by thinking hard, but he was also a tragic, tragic figure. For him, Krypton was “Paradise Lost.” Kandor was a remnant that he could briefly visit (like a quick drive through the last familiar part of your old home town), but which he could never save or restore. The 30th century was a vision of a future he would help build, but one which he could never fully, permanently enjoy. The only female strong enough to be his match was 1) underage, and 2) his cousin, making him utterly alone in a way we usually don’t think about. His charade as Clark Kent was, on the surface, a reader identification inside joke, but you quickly realized that he needed Clark for his own sanity, his own salvation, as a relief from the isolation of being Superman and all that meant. In his day-to-day identification with humanity, the strongest among us gave himself a series of common physical and social handicaps – poor vision, poor social skills, a goof who was ever unlucky in love for the sake and safety of the beloved. It never bothered me that Superman was so intensely powerful, because if you saw him through Weisinger’s lens, you knew that the best stories had little to do with that. Especially in the Superboy stories, he was crying quite often. Even though he could juggle planets, he always seemed to end up pinning the “serenity prayer” on his wall. “God, grant me the serenity / To accept the things I cannot change / The courage to change the things that I can / And the wisdom to know the difference.” It’s this intense mythological depth that I felt was lost with Byrne, and which creators over the last two decades have spent trying, by fits, to rediscover.

“I remember his explanation for Supes using his heat vision bouncing off a mirror to shave was ripped off from the DC Comics Presents annual written by Alan Moore a few years before the revamp.”

This is much older than that – and both Moore and Byrne knew it! The first time Superman was shown shaving himself that way was on the silver age, where he reflected his heat vision on a reflective piece of his endlessly recycled rocket ship.

Hunter (Pedro Bouça)

Nicely done, Sonia. I bought the mini but only a handful of the regular books. Byrne had lost his lustre for me after Man of Steel (or during). It wasn’t entirely dreadful, simply not the miracle we were given to expect. What he did accomplish, for better or worse (probably for the better), was to scale back Superman’s power levels. He was still, presumably, the strongest being on Earth if not the whole DCU, but wasn’t in the planet juggling or snuffing out a star with his super-breath class any longer. This helped to humanize the character as well as reduce the general silliness of his abilities in terms of scale. It wasn’t a revolutionary idea, I recall him having lost “half his strength” in the early 70’s (though half of “limitless” is still kind of… limitless) but Byrne, Giordano, and company seem to have made it stick. Prime (sorry to even mention him) was a throwback to the super-duper days and served as a reminder how out of control Superman’s abilities had grown, however long ago that may have been (no doubt that unnamed period between the Golden and Silver ages that we call the ’50’s).

No editor?

Had to give up reading this for the terrible spelling and grammar.

Simply atrocious.

I grew up on Curt Swan and Gil Kane’s Superman, but now a days when I picture Superman I see Byrne’s Superman in my mind

John Byrne’s work on “The Man Of Steel”, “Superman”, and “Action Comics” was exciting, and bold. It made me a, a long time non-Superman fan, go out and buy Superman titles.

Throughout much of the Silver, and Bronze age, Superman was this immensely powerful, god-like man. Practically unstoppable. Byrne took Superman down several notches, making things more challenging for him, and making Superman stories more intriguing to read.

I really think that both you and Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill miss the point that Byrne was trying to make with Superman and his alter ego. Superman is Clark Kent’s disguise. Clark may be an alien but he was raised by wholesome Midwestern American folks and that is how he saw himself. I believe that Superman even says or thinks as much on the last page of the Man of Steel mini.

I remember when Bryne revamped Superman. At that time he was Mr Fix It at DC & Marvel. He made Superman exciting again. I was buying all 3 Superman books because they were all great. I would say 90% of the changes he made were perfect for the character. At the time the only thing that annoyed me was dropping his Superboy career & how it “messed” up the Legion. After several years I realized I missed Kara & wished DC (not Bryne’s decision) had kept her around. I also grew tired of the “sterile” Krypton & missed the old 50’s style Krypton. However I liked the Luthor businessman persona & I LOVED that both Ma & Pa Kent were still alive. Keeping the Kent’s around was the best thing Bryne did for Superman.

Say what you want, but Byrne made Superman READABLE. I didn’t like every change, but the books themselves felt MODERN and believable (as far as superheroes go). I like the Swan stuff for nostalgia, but the Silver Age run was unbearable. By the mid-70s, new Superman issues still looked and read like 50s issues for the most part. He was not “cool” at all. I never saw anybody even talk about those issues, not like we’d all rush to discuss the latest Daredevil or New Teen Titans. There was an effort by the early/mid-80s to bring the stories up to modern standards (Wolfman was writing, I believe), but the franchise was just too entrenched, too stuck in a rut. It had to be started over. Byrne’s challenge was to update without making big changes. That’s damn hard to do. I loved that he cut ties with all those secondary derivatives (Supergirl, boy, cat, dog, etc). Too bad later editors and writers brought it all back. Now Superman is once again NOT unique, but one of a whole library of generic “Super-” characters.

Of all the things I thought I’d never see again, that bag comes near the top of the list. Nice column, Sonia. And could I take this opportunity to apologise for being such a colossal arse back then?


“Had to give up reading this for the terrible spelling and grammar.”

That’s not a complete sentence genius.

@Rene, now I’m confused. The article says:

“What happened to our dear old four-eyed anti-hero made good? According to Byrne, he turned out to be an invention of the grown up Kent, designed to fool the inhabitants of Metropolis (apparently all of the people he’d been to school with never saw Superman, or they’d have known immediately that it was him.) And thus the concept of Clark Kent as the disguise, the invented personae, was born…”

Clearly, the author is disagreeing with your statement. Right?

Yes, I think Sonia is in the wrong.

The idea of Clark Kent as a disguise, “an invented persona” is the status quo in the Silver Age. It was not Byrne’s creation.

Actually, it’s quite the opposite. In Byrne’s version, the only things the grown-up Kent invented were the glasses and the slump. Kent’s personality is basically his true personality.

Nice one, Sonia. I enjoyed the Byrne comics back then, though I’m such a fusspot it annoyed me that the Action Comics logo was such an ugly version of the classic, and the teaming heroes never got proper cover logoes. I dunno!

Love the carrier bag!

“”What happened to our dear old four-eyed anti-hero made good? According to Byrne, he turned out to be an invention of the grown up Kent, designed to fool the inhabitants of Metropolis (apparently all of the people he’d been to school with never saw Superman, or they’d have known immediately that it was him.) And thus the concept of Clark Kent as the disguise, the invented personae, was born…””

…Boy, is this totally wrong, or just misworded? Byrne made it perfectly clear in dozens of interviews before and after Man of Steel #1 was released that Superman is the secret identity protecting the privacy of Clark Kent and his loved ones. The total opposite of what Siegel and Schuster originally conceived because it clearly doesn’t make one iota of sense for Clark to simply stop being Clark after growing to adulthood *as* Clark Kent. Granted, Bruce Wayne arguably ceased being Bruce Wayne the second the first bullet exited Joe Chill’s gun, but the circumstances of the tragedy are completely different from those that created Superman.

So, what is it? Failure to edit before posting, or did the author of this piece actually miss what Byrne’s been saying for over 25 years now about his revamp of Superman?

I think this piece wasn’t well-edited, too. Loads’a typos!

Great article Sonia, loved your writing on your previous site and it’s good to see you’ve kept your game up, after the shift.

Great linkage, with the “Girls with Low Self Esteem” video!

Unlike a few others, I didn’t find any typos in the article… Maybe it’s cuz i’m from the UK too, and we spell things differently to Americans, but I found no glaring errors on your part!

Keep up the good work!

I actually read all the Superman titles, from MAN OF STEEL #1 up to just before the Brainiac and Atlas stories that lead into the New Krypton situation of the course of the past several months.

Before I touch on that:

I’m almost certain that the notion that “Superman is really Clark Kent no matter how he’s dressed, and Bruce Wayne is really Batman (even when acting and dressed like a snobby/effete/ladykilling millionaire,” occurred to me well before the Byrne revamp.

Now: things that were lost (that I think shouldn’t have been) as we move through 20+ years of Superman:

1) Byrne’s idea that, when flying, Clark actually is using telekinesis (he notes several times that things seem lighter to him when in flight than when he’s standing on the ground): This has not been officially contradicted that I know of, but there’s no real hint of it today.

2) The occasional guest art by Curt Swan: Curt’s art wasn’t a favorite when I was young. I’ve grown to admire it somewhat more over the years. Curt was excellent at giving the characters he portrayed facial expressions (and different, distinct ones at that). His art seemed almost plain, which helped to “ground” the fantastic in reality [good thing his art could do that – the stories rarely did]. I believe his last contribution before his death was to SUPERMAN: THE WEDDING ALBUM; that seems pretty fitting, to me.

3) The expanded supporting cast: Over the course of the Byrne run, several new supporting characters were added to the cast: Cat Grant; Jose “Gangbuster” Delgado; Alice White, and Perry (Jerry) White, Junior; Professor Emil Hamilton; and BIbbo (who I’ve always thought of as the post-Crisis version of Captain Strong). In the years that followed, more were added: Ron Troupe; Simone (Clark’s former mentor, and possibly lover); Dirk Armstrong (I think), his daughter (forget her name), and Scorn from Kandor; Keith, eventually adopted by Perry and Alice; and Alice/Ally, the Daily Planet employee who secretly lived in the building after losing her home. Oh, and let’s not forget Matrix/Supergirl, and the babies (Pete Ross and Lana Lang’s, and Ron Troupe and Lucy Lane’s).

Cat Grant was just brought back; Gangbuster appeared in TRINITY (but not since, that I’ve noticed); and I have yet to read the Superwoman origin, but I think some occasional references to Lucy’s husband and child have been made, in passing at least. Most of the rest have faded away. Emil Hamilton was first turned insane/evil through exposure to the Brainiac 13 virus, then went even crazier and became Ruin; as he was one of *my* “fav’rites” of this bunch, I was sad to see that.

In my opinion, while every period of the books has seen highs and lows, the Superman books were at their best when Byrne, Ordway, and then Jurgens were in charge. The years where Jeph Loeb, Mark Schultz, and Joes Casey and Kelly were running things produced some interesting stories, but seemed to contract the supporting cast dramatically, and to feel less like the same character was in all the books. J.M. DeMatteis, in particular, with his tendency to put his spiritual beliefs into most things he writes, seemed a bad fit. The year-long stories by Brian Azzarello, Chuck Austen, and Greg Rucka were even more disjointed; they pretty much have to have happened one after another, instead of concurrently. Oh, and the less said about “Godfall”, the better. They pretty much treaded water from that point through INFINITE CRISIS. The stories picked up after that, but the delays in completing them leave us with some awkward moments: for example, LAST SON was fairly obvioiusly intended to have “Chris Kent” living with Clark and Lois for a matter of days at the most; thansk to the delays, several week’s or month’s worth of stories have been shoe-horned into the time after the Kents decided to be his foster parents until they showed him around the Daily Planet.

@R.D. Francis: What I’ve heard regarding Superman’s dropped telekinesis power (and other post-reboot alterations to his powers that were planned but dropped) is that when Byrne was told that DC wasn’t going to merchandise his version of the character, he felt no reason to continue putting effort into making further changes to him. For instance, early on it’s clear Byrne wanted to change the way that heat vision worked, but this is dropped early into the run and the old red laser-beams trotted out instead.

I feel this is a loss, as the changes to Superman’s powerset that Byrne seems likely to have had in the works would have been perfectly logical updates of his traditional abilities. It’s particularly frustrating in light of how DC later green-lighted even more dramatic (and less consistent) changes to Superman’s powers in the Birthright mini-series. Yes, DC did backpedal from Birthright’s changes, too, but only after they proved relatively unpopular. Byrne wasn’t even allowed to get that far.

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