By: Super Mark
I didn’t even realize it at first when I started writing this review, but after doing a little research I’ve come to discover that this year actually marks the 25th anniversary of “Superman: The Man of Steel.” Regardless of what my opinion of this book may be, it may be noteworthy to reflect on how much it established an unprecedented new age for Superman. One that would continue to influence the character even after Superman’s origin story would be rebooted at least three times.
“Superman: The Man of Steel” was written and drawn by John Byrne a few months following the universe-altering crossover event that was “Crisis on Infinite Earths”, it was one of the first “Post-Crisis” reboots to do away with much of the (allegedly) convoluted fifty years of comic book continuity and attract more readers. It stood as the definitive Superman origin story for nearly twenty years until the next official reboot in 2003 with “Superman: Birthright” by Mark Waid and Leinil Yu.
“I’m taking Superman back to the basics … It’s basically Siegel and Shuster’s Superman meets the Fleischer Superman in 1986.”
First off, We’re introduced to a new and unfamiliar Krypton. The classic Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers-like science fiction Krypton of yesteryear were fun, but they felt too generic, nothing that really distinguished it from anything else. Byrne’s Krypton, on the other hand, is visually distinctive, full of exotic architecture and costume designs denoting an advanced civilization. On top of that, it now has a cultural identity. The people of this Krypton are cold and emotionless. Picture Richard Donner’s Krypton combined with the Vulcan’s from Star Trek, minus the pointy ears. Basically, it’s sort of stagnant civilization that has lost its life long before the planet’s destruction.
The characters of Jor-El and Lara are two-dimensional, and their dialogue was wooden. But maybe that was the point. I suppose we didn’t really need much character development out of these two. To cite another example, how much did we really need to know about a dying Abin Sur (a.k.a. “arbitrary plot device”) before he gave his Green Lantern ring to Hal Jordan? Nonetheless, I didn’t feel much of a reason to care about these two in their last hours.
Superman’s status as the sole survivor of Krypton is restored. Supergirl, the Bottled City of Kandor, the Phantom Zone, and even the Super-Pets like Krypto all fall by the wayside to ensure that Kal-El remain the Last Son of Krypton. As a means of keeping the story simple for new fans, this was a logical choice. The problem, and this isn’t necessarily Byrne’s fault, is that subsequent stories since MOS have tried to re-introduce these concepts in alternative explanations without necessarily breaking the “No-Kryptonian” mandate. As a result, we’ve gotten a protoplasmic Supergirl from a pocket universe, a genetically engineered General Zod from Pokolistan, an inter-dimensional Bottled City of Kandor that isn’t from Krypton, and a Krypto that … uummm … eerr …
You know what? Forget it. Krypto rules!!
In this story, Kal-El was not conceived by standard conventions. Rather, he was artificially conceived from the genetic material of Jor-El and Lara, gestated inside a Kryptonian “Birthing Matrix” that was strapped to a rocket and launched into outer space before Krypton’s destruction, after which he was technically born upon reaching Earth. We’ve already established Krypton’s sterile society, so the idea that Kryptonians frown upon physical interaction and resort to artificial procreation isn’t all that outlandish. But this story takes great pains to point out that Kal-El was conceived on Krypton, but he was born on Earth. Why? I really don’t understand the reasoning behind this. What’s the point? Why does Superman have to be born on Earth? It’s needlessly complicated, and it doesn’t add anything new to the story in any meaningful way.
“The Man of Steel” also does away with the concept of Superman operating as Superboy in his teenage years. Instead, Clark Kent acquired his super powers gradually as he matured. To me, this was a much-welcomed addition to the Superman mythology (although it likely caused a major continuity nightmare for fans of the Legion of Super-Heroes,) and it served to bring the character more in touch with his human side.
At least it attempts to do so in theory. In practice, it doesn’t quite succeed. The potential of watching Clark discovering his abilities is quickly and thoughtlessly glossed over in a flashback by Jonathan Kent. His discovery of X-Ray Vision is relegated to a casual “Hey, Ma! Your purse is in the other room.” rather than “HOLY CRAP, I CAN SEE THROUGH WALLS!!!” And his discovery of flight, while eliciting a reaction of wonder and excitement, is reduced to three small panels. Compare that to “Superman: Secret Origin;” when Clark learns to fly, it’s on a full splash page where he rescues Lana Lang from a tornado.
This time around, Clark Kent is the primary identity, and Superman is the disguise. Clark is far more extroverted and confident than the traditional mild-mannered of old. I don’t want to get too much into the Superman-centric versus the Clark Kent-centric identity debate. Suffice it to say, in the context of this story, I can appreciate Byrne’s interpretation. To focus more on the human identity of Superman should make him more relatable. While the debate on which is the dominant identity may rage on, Superman’s relatability should take priority in any Superman origin story.
However, once again theory is different from practice. Personally, I have a hard time relating to Byrne’s Clark Kent. Our first glimpse of the character shows him as a high school football player, a star athlete and the envy of all his peers. This is an odd reversal of characterization, and it doesn’t feel right. It’s as though he’s living a life of fantasy whether he’s wearing the tights or not. As much as there was potential to identify with Clark Kent, he never felt real to me.
So now that we have Superman covered, how does his supporting cast fare in this reboot?
This time around, Superman’s adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent are alive and well, playing a vital role in Clark’s life. This has been one of the most integral changes to the Superman mythology. In the debate between Nature versus Nurture, to me Nurture always wins, and this book only proves my argument. In “Superman: The Man of Steel”, the Kent’s are more pivotal to the origins of Superman than ever before. Furthermore, in an effort to be more human, Clark finally has someone he can truly be himself around. Keeping Ma and Pa around is a formula that has been copied onto virtually every incarnation of Superman since.
Some people might say that Lois Lane underwent a major transformation, that she became stronger and more opinionated than ever before. I could argue that she has always been this way, but I have to admit that this Lois is far more focused on her career, and far less focused on discovering Superman’s secret identity or tricking him into marrying her. There’s still a love triangle between Lois, Clark and Superman, but at least this time around I’m getting the impression that Clark actually has a chance at winning her over, and that is certainly an improvement.
Lex Luthor has been completely redesigned. Gone is the “evil-because-he’s evil” mad scientist who escapes jail and robs banks with robots and ray-guns every other issue. Instead, he is re-envisioned as an evil corporate executive of a multi-billion dollar industrial empire. Although he’s the top dog in Metropolis, he made his way up there by knocking down everyone in his way. When Superman robs him of his spotlight, he uses his vast financial resources to destroy or discredit this new Man of Tomorrow.
Now this is a reinvention that ultimately stood the test of time. The billionaire super-villain has defined Luthor since MOS, and even after a few attempts to bring him back to his mad scientist roots, there’s no denying that transforming him into a corrupt businessman makes perfect sense. His villainy has been made surprisingly tangible and relatable.
“I never believed the original Luthor. Every story would begin with him breaking out of prison, finding some giant robot in an old lab he hid somewhere, and then he’d be defeated. My view was if he could afford all those labs and giant robots he wouldn’t need to rob banks. I also thought later that Luthor should not have super powers. Every other villain had super powers. Luthor’s power was his mind. He needed to be smarter than Superman. Superman’s powers had to be useless against him because they couldn’t physically fight each other and Superman was simply not as smart as Luthor.”
One character who seems to have suffered the most from this reboot is Lana Lang. While long-established as the red-headed girl next door who had an unrequited crush on Clark Kent in high school, the Post-Crisis Lana is a melancholic figure who gave up on true love and thus blames Clark for her misery. I suppose I should be grateful that at least she is not as reprehensible as the Lana Lang from the television series Smallville. Don’t get me wrong, though. Lana is certainly an integral part of the Superman mythos. It just seems as though Byrne hit a brick wall when trying to write her into the story. Oh, well. I suppose I should give him kudos for trying.
Somewhere along the road to rebooting Superman, Byrne forgot Jimmy Olsen at a gas station and drove off without him. As a result, he is now perpetually stuck in the nineteen-fifties. He serves no purpose in this story, and the whole “good golly gee-whillickers” attitude just makes me want to punch him in the face really, really hard. No one that obnoxious makes it in Metropolis without getting mugged and stabbed at least two or three times a day. The only real significant improvement he has over his Pre-Crisis counterpart is that at least he isn’t dressing up as a woman or accidentally getting married to a gorilla.
Byrne is wielding both the pen and the pencil with this one. This isn’t the first time he’s done this, and he should be used to it by now after having reinvigorated numerous Marvel titles in the past. However, some signs of strain are showing in this book. The writing doesn’t feel overly inspired, and the use of thought bubbles is basically narrating the finer details in the story for us rather than letting the story tell itself (Yeah, Supes we know you’re lifting a yacht over your head. We can see you doing it.) There are also several panels in each issue where Byrne has drawn the characters, but doesn’t bother to pencil any background scenery.
Superman’s story is supposed to be a timeless one, and while “Superman: The Man of Steel” definitely succeeded in reintroducing Superman to a modern audience and moving beyond some of the campier aspects of the Silver Age, it’s definitely dated. While this story may have been good for its time, to me it is perpetually stuck in the 80’s.
I still recommend it to any Superman fan, even if only for posterity’s sake.