Superman: The John Byrne Years (Part One)

6th July 2010 | by | 1 Comment

I’ve recently found myself in a position to, for the first time, read a pretty much complete set of Superman (and Action Comics and Adventures of Superman and associated tie-ins), kicking off with the first post-Crisis on Infinite Earths stories and running up to the Death of Superman era. Having only really read odds and sods before – namely, a combination of what DC have decided to collect in trades under the Man of Steel banner, a few issues I’ve picked up here and there, and the stuff that I read in UK reprints back in the late ’80s when they were among the first comics I ever read – it’s an eye-opening experience actually getting to experience the whole thing, in full context, as it played out. And it’s undeniably, especially in its early part, a very exciting and intriguing era – having kickstarted the relaunch with the Man of Steel miniseries, John Byrne was left with almost total control (as writer of both Superman and Action, while Marv Wolfman and later Jerry Ordway handled Adventures) of the franchise for two years, before a somewhat abrupt departure, and set about doing some very interesting things with it. And although plenty of it is now somewhat outdated (not to mention downright odd at times), those two years are nevertheless among the most consistently compelling runs that the “main universe” character has had in the last couple of decades – and it’s one from which present-day Superman writers could draw a fair amount of good inspiration.

byrnesupermanThis is the thing about John Byrne – he may be extremely difficult to like at times (although that’s based more on his irascible online persona, questionable statements about women in particular, and ludicrously short-sighted opinions on writers such as Morrison and Moore; rather than having met him in person, where I hear he can be friendly and charming), but there’s no denying that at his peak (which was basically the entire 1980s) he was a very strong writer of quintessential mainstream shared-universe superhero stories. And crucially, he got Superman. This shone through quite obviously in his art – for my money, at its best in this era, even more so than when he was on X-Men or Fantastic Four – with a really quite superb version of the lead character that has rightly remained the template for just about all the in-universe stories that have followed (and which, stylised versions such as Quitely and Lee aside, has really yet to be improved upon).

For starters, the most conscious decision was to strip back the character and his world, drawing particular inspiration from the first Richard Donner movie – not in that “let’s give Jor-El Brando-style white hair and draw Superman to look just like Christopher Reeve”, Geoff Johns kind of way, but at a deeper and more inherent level. Crucially, one thing Byrne realised was that Superman stories work best when he’s… well, Super. Having other superheroes around – with the odd exception, such as Batman – weakens the character’s impact, as he’s most effective when he’s something that the people of Metropolis – and, indeed, the world – haven’t seen before. Even if you then allow other heroes to follow in his wake (as actually happened with comics in general), he very firmly needs to be the original – something that was lost with the post-Crisis continuity. Previously, the idea was that on “Earth 1” – the “Silver Age” Earth – Superman had shown up first, meaning that all the pre-1950s characters could be shunted off to “Earth 2”; but on the single Earth, Superman needed to have shown up long after the likes of the Justice Society. This was coped with to an extent by setting the Man of Steel stories a little time before the rest of the “new DC” continuity that was being set up at the time (it’s not made explicit in the comics, but the idea seems to be that when Superman hops over to his own series, some time has passed since the mini), but it’s still a bit of a fudge.

What further made those early stories work under their own steam, though, was largely limiting Superman to Metropolis in his own titles (he’d be allowed freer space to roam when appearing in other books) – so that despite his awesome power, he was that city’s hero; and until the likes of Booster Gold started to show up (and with the brief exception of vigilante Gangbuster), the only one. This helped restore the feeling, grabbed from the movies, that for your average DCU inhabitant on the street, to see Superman fly past was something truly exceptional.

Another hurdle that the new continuity presented was the Problem of Superboy (and the Legion of Super-Heroes), and it’s one that was, in my view, sidestepped really well. Because, while Superboy is undeniably an integral part of the Superman mythos (and an even more integral part of the DCU, considering the way the Legion was essentially founded based on his legend), he’s also one that… well, look, his existence doesn’t make sense. It hugely diminishes the impact of Superman’s first appearances if everyone’s known him to be Superboy previously. It’s laughable to think that nobody would spot that Clark Kent and Superboy/man lived in Smallville and Metropolis at exactly the same time. And it’s unbelievable that anyone would choose to give themselves a name like “Superboy” when a character called “Superman” didn’t previously exist.

action591But in a cracking set of stories that also crossed over with the Legion books, Byrne and Legion writer Paul Levitz solved this – by coming up with the retcon of a “pocket universe”, created by Legion villain the Time Trapper in order to make the Legionnaires think they were travelling back in time to Smallville when they were in fact popping into this miniature alternate timeline (which itself survived the Crisis thanks to Superboy’s efforts). Byrne’s contribution to the idea was that although the legends stated that Superboy had been the inspiration for the Legion, legends have a habit of getting distorted over centuries – so these “legends” were in fact about a distorted version of Superman. It was then Levitz who introduced the “pocket universe” stuff (which Byrne was reportedly unhappy at having to work in), and it’s a little head-screwing, but makes for a strong core story, especially the issues in which Superman and the AU Superboy meet up and face off.

Interestingly, of course, at this early stage DC were already having to turn to parallel universes to try and solve continuity or storytelling issues – demonstrating, perhaps, that for all the good that the Crisis did, blithely dismissing the idea of multiple worlds (one of the fine traditions upon which DC had relied for decades) perhaps wasn’t the best idea.

Another of the more major changes that Byrne – along with Adventures of Superman writer Marv Wolfman – made to the mythos was that of Lex Luthor. It’s easy to underestimate just what a big shift this was at the time – since, for those of us who’ve grown up with the modern version of the character, it’s actually odd to see a reversion to “evil scientist” Luthor in recent Geoff Johns-penned stories. As far as I’m concerned, the setup of Luthor is that he’s perpetually pulling the wool over the eyes of just about everybody – with a few exceptions – leading them to believe that he’s a philanthropist rather than a tyrant, so it’s weird to once again have a scenario where he’s a known and wanted criminal again. As such, it’s easy to forget that this wasn’t the case in the decades prior to the mid-eighties. Indeed, I was recently re-reading an internet article about the lamentable Superman III, which described Robert Vaughn’s villain Ross Webster as “a very poor, second-generation copy of Lex Luthor”. Only, he wasn’t, because that wasn’t Luthor in 1983 – if anything, he was a prescient clone of what Luthor would later become.

byrneluthorIt was a bold and controversial move to recast Luthor as a very 1980s-style “white collar criminal”, but it was an inspired one; it made him a far more interesting antagonist than simply “career criminal with a grudge”. It enabled him to become a far more effective background presence throughout the stories, rather than simply the guy who every so often would escape from prison, come up with a new nefarious scheme, and then be sent back there. Indeed, it’s the reason why I wonder whether the current status quo – where Lex is back in full-on evil-scientist mode, having been disgraced and “outed” as a criminal – can be sustained for all that long.

Of course, Luthor wasn’t the only member of Superman’s supporting cast to be changed significantly in the Byrne era. The characters that surrounded Clark in his daily life were a mixture of “classic” figures and entirely new creations. The likes of Perry White and Jimmy Olsen were pretty much as expected (poor Jimmy didn’t even get to lose the bow-tie to begin with), and although attempts were made to make Lois a bit more of a dynamic, active character in her own right, these owe more to Margot Kidder’s movie portrayal than anything, and the books still struggled to do much in the way of interesting stories with her.

New characters were introduced in these early years, though, that would become an integral part of the mythos – it’s odd to think, for example, that Cat Grant never existed prior to 1987, while the “Superman’s mad scientist friend” character seems such an archetype that again, it’s scarcely believable that Professor Hamilton came along so late. Wolfman and Ordway even had time to introduce Jose Delgado, aka “Gangbuster”, surely one of the most ludicrously-uniformed vigilantes of all time (and the subject of a particularly terrible story immediately after Byrne’s departure, of which more later).


Certainly, though, there was a specific intent to create a “world” around both Metropolis and Smallville, rather than relying on the same two or three characters that had followed Superman around through the decades – and the endurance of some of these names (although, hey, we haven’t seen Bibbo for a while, have we?) is a testament to the way they generally enriched the Super-books, even if they did so sometimes simply by being convenient archetypes.

In part two: How did the “new” Superman interact with the DCU? What were the best stories, and the most downright bizarre moments? And what happened when Byrne decided to leave after two years?

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