Thursday, April 22, 2021

Post-Crisis DC: MAN OF STEEL by Byrne -- some rambly thoughts

Since January, every week three friends and I have been discussing Crisis on Infinite Earths and its crossovers, over Zoom. Having concluded that monumental task, we plan to move onto a discussion of the follow-up series, Legends, and its crossovers. But first, a palate cleanser with the DC trinity:  Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, and the various series that reintroduced these legendary characters to a new (and old) readership. First up, Superman: The Man of Steel by John Byrne, with Dick Giordano, Tom Ziuko, John Costanza, and edited by Andy Helfer. 


At the culmination of Crisis, there was now a single Superman on a single Earth in a single universe. DC Comics had achieved the goal of once again making him unique. Now they needed to ground Superman, make him more relatable, not so much the overpowering hero with little to challenge him. I mean, when you can use super-ventriloquism to speak with other heroes in space, what can't you do? So, DC poached John Byrne, one of the most popular creators working at the time, from Marvel, with the mandate to overhaul the Man of Steel. And that's just what Byrne did. 


The 6-issue series opens on Krypton, its people dying from a Green Death, radiation emanating from the interior of the planet and the destructive forces there that are threatening to destroy the planet, if Jor-El's calculations are to be believed. There is no doubt in Jor-El's mind; he's taken his and Lara's son, in order to send him to Earth, so that their boy might live. This is a sterile Krypton, a technologically advanced world eating itself, which, with the radiation known as the Green Death, also gives us a new, and logical, explanation of why Kryptonite (only green, now; no more red, gold, black, or whatever) would have such a detrimental effect on Superman. And very quickly, within the first few pages, we get the classic image of Kal-el's ship launching from the exploding Krypton, hurled toward Earth and his new life. From here, Byrne adds more familiar pieces to the Superman puzzle. 


We meet Lois Lane, a strong, intelligent, driven reporter. A cautious Batman who utilizes the city of Gotham, and his knowledge of it, to his advantage while having a contingency plan for all eventualities, including the arrival of Superman. Lex Luthor, a ruthless businessman who believes everyone and everything can be bought. A Bizarro formed in an experiment utilizing Superman's stolen DNA. And a Lana Lang who needed to discover who she was in order to deal with the burden--that of his secret identity--Clark laid on her, while still in high school. These are all characters we've most likely seen before, but they are all different in subtle and not so subtle ways. It's impressive the thought that Byrne put into these characters, of how to update them and make them relevant for a 1986 world. And it's the little things that stand out, like when Lois, at Clark's apartment, comments on how little weight he has on his dumbbells (not much more than she uses to workout), which makes sense, considering Superman would have no idea what amount of weight on a dumbbell would be too heavy or too light for a regular human. Or, there's the scene in Gotham City, when Superman first approaches Batman and snags his line, only to find that Batman has disappeared. Superman mutters to himself that he didn't think Batman had the power of invisibility, to which Batman--standing atop a nearby skyscraper--proclaims that invisibility is a relative concept, achieved sometimes through a knowledge of the terrain. It's these details that really shine in this series and help it to hold up today. 


One of the best things about Byrne's approach to Man of Steel, and Superman in general, was to model the character of Clark Kent/Superman after the characterization most people would have been familiar with at the time, Christopher Reeve's portrayal from the 1977 Richard Donner film, Superman. There are references laced throughout these six issues. Our introduction to Clark on Earth is in a football game where he's running for yet another touchdown, almost single-handedly defeating Smallville's opponent. This mirrors the frustration of young Clark Kent in the 1977 film where he is the waterboy/manager of the high school football team even though he knows that with his abilities he could run circles around any of the others on that field. We also get an almost direct homage with a flashback of Clark, as a toddler, lifting the family truck to get his ball from beneath it, mirroring the scene from the movie of young Clark catching and lifting the truck when the carjack shifts and tumbles away while Pa is changing the tire, just after they discovered him. 


But two of my very favorite scenes of Byrne channelling Christopher Reeve come when Superman saves a young woman from a would-be mugger and then turns to her and asks that she turn down her boombox, because "in a city [the] size [of Metropolis], consideration for others is the only thing that keeps life bearable," and when, in the opening of issue four, Lois arrives at Clark's apartment to pick him up for Luthor's gala and she sees the picture of Clark in his high school football uniform and is surprised by his physicality, and Clark tells her he still tries to keep in shape--the look on Clark's face is priceless and feels like it comes directly from Reeve and his characterization. For me, Christopher Reeve epitomized the character of Clark Kent/Superman and always will, so Byrne utilizing him as a template for this revitalized Man of Steel is more than welcome. 

"I still try to keep in shape..."

Ultimately, perhaps the most important aspect of Byrne's approach to Superman may be the fact that he focuses on Clark Kent as the main character, with Superman as the disguise. It's a subtle, but monumental, shift in what I feel was, and often times still is, the approach to the character of Superman. He's an alien, he has superpowers, the title of the comic is Superman, ergo Superman is the primary identity. But, for his formative years, until he turned eighteen, Clark Kent was raised by human parents, lived in a human world, was, for all intents and purposes, human, and his understanding of the world and his approach to life all stem from this, from the values instilled into Clark by Ma and Pa Kent. It is his humanity, his kindness, his desire to do good without expectation of reward that makes Superman the hero he is. There are plenty of other heroes with super strength, invulnerability, the power to fly, like Captain Marvel and J'onn J'onnz, the Martian Manhunter, but none of them are Superman. It's this goodness (and greatness) absent the ego that makes Superman stand out. So, focusing on Clark Kent as the prime identity, with Superman as the disguise, only makes sense, and it gets to the core of this character in a way that makes him far more interesting, in my opinion. 


After reading and discussing Byrne's Man of Steel mini-series, my friends and I agreed that this is a foundational text, as far as the character of Superman is concerned. It introduces this legendary character, known the world over, in a way that allows readers old and new to have a solid understanding of who Superman is and who Clark Kent is, while also revealing the world within which he lives, along with the major cast of characters surrounding him. Lois Lane is here. Perry White. The Daily Planet. Lex Luthor. Metropolis. All the trappings that inform Superman's life. There's also Smallville. Ma & Pa Kent. Lana Lang. His roots in the American midwest that form so much of the ethos of Superman. And there's Krypton. Jor-El. Lara. And Kryptonite. The origins that created a superhuman icon and also spurred a need for him to belong and to be part of a community, while also containing the seeds for his destruction (whether one sees that as the Kryptonite or the stark, soulless reality of his people). And, of course, there's Batman, Superman's counterpart in so many ways, the yin to his yang and the one hero who might be able to contain Superman, if he went rogue. It's all here and all laid out by Byrne in a clear and entertaining way that grounds Superman and lays the foundation for all the adventures to come. It's pretty great.


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