Saturday, June 01, 2013

Nostalgia Review: The Man Of Steel 1

(NOTE:  This review is for the similarly-titled 1986 comic book mini-series.  It's NOT for the 2013 movie, which, as of this writing, has not yet opened in theaters.)

As mentioned in prior Reviews, in 1986, as part of the ongoing refresh of the overall DC Universe, DC decided it was time to reboot the histories of its characters to align with the new continuity that had been the result of 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Fittingly, the very first character to get that treatment was its most famous:  Superman.
After all, he was the first official super hero, so it only made sense* to start with him.
And that’s where superstar comic book writer/artist John Byrne came in.  After completing a multi-year run on Marvel’s Fantastic Four, and having had the opportunity to play with pretty much the entire cast of characters available in the Marvel Universe, Byrne had jumped ship and headed to DC to take on the one character that Marvel couldn’t offer him.
In interviews prior to the relaunch – including one that I recall seeing in The National Enquirer, of all places – Byrne provided some hints as to how his take on Superman would differ from what had come before.
One of the biggest changes was the depowering.  Not that he was going to get rid of any of his powers, exactly, but that he was going to bring them down to slightly less godlike levels and provide more in the way of limitations.
The other major change was going to take place on the Clark Kent side of the equation, making him a more vibrant, assertive character and no longer the over-the-top timid coward he had been in the past.
And, because it was the 1980s, after all, he was going to make Clark a Yuppie.
As a young fan, I was interested, but wary.  I was all for eliminating the ridiculous extremes of the “mild-mannered” pose, but I wasn’t that thrilled about him becoming a Yuppie, and I was concerned that he might depower him too much.
Still, it was with a mixture of anticipation and fear that I picked up the very first issue.

The cover I have; there was a variant.

The Man of Steel
Written by John Byrne
Art and Cover by John Byrne and Dick Giordano
Edited by Andy Helfer

Our story opens on Krypton, and this is where we get our first indication of just how different things are going to be from what had gone before.  Rather than being the vibrant world that was an odd mix of super-science and a kind of Wild West mentality set against the backdrop of strange landscapes and exotic animals, this new vision of Krypton was a barren, sterile, orderly place.
Its inhabitants, such as young Jor-El in whose home we find ourselves, lived isolated from each other in huge towers.  Gone were the capes, headbands, and family crests of the past, replaced by skintight-bio-suits that covered them from head to toe, and symbol ceremonial robes.
The people of Krypton, it seems, are just as cold and barren as the world on which they live, with Jor-El being the lone exception.
Adhering to the basics of Superman’s origin, Krypton is, of course, doomed – many Kryptonians are falling pretty to a mysterious illness, that seems to be associated with the strange green light that’s bathing the world – but Jor-El has been unable to convince anyone else of this imminent destruction.
He has, however, taken steps to ensure that his son will live on.
This is another point where things differ, as Kal-El, the child who will one day be Superman, has not yet been born.  Further, on this Krypton, children are no longer born the old-fashioned way, but are instead grown in a “gestation matrix” in which the genetic material of two compatible Kryptonians are comingled.
In this case, Jor-El’s genes were mixed with those of Lara Lor-Van, whom we meet when shows up at Jor-El’s tower upon learning that he had their child’s matrix removed from the Gestation Chambers and brought to his home.
This, is, apparently, within Jor-El’s rights, but is a seldom-invoked right that warrants investigation, and a bit of cold disapproval from his “mate.”

You might want to ease up on the tweezing, guys.

With Lara present, Jor-El explains that Krypton is doomed, and informs her of his plans to attach a hyperdrive to their son’s gestation matrix and send it to another world, so that at least one Kryptonian may survive.  Said world is Earth, and though Lara is horrified at the sight of the savage natives, she expresses her hope that, based on Jor-El’s hypothesis that the world’s yellow sun will give the child vast, godlike abilities, he will teach the savages the ways of civilization.
As Jor-El sends their child off into the void, he confesses to Lara that he is glad she is with him at the end, as, from the moment he first learned their genetic material was to be joined, he felt an emotion that had been largely unknown on Krypton for centuries:  love.
With that, Krypton explodes, and Kal-El is on his way to Earth, though a small, green chunk of his homeworld can be seen hitching a ride.
Next we see some additional changes, as a young Clark Kent – sans glasses – is winning yet another football game for Smallville High, almost single-handedly.
Rather than being proud, as he listens to the coach gushing about his son, Jonathan Kent takes note of the resentful faces of Clark’s teammates, and he decides to interrupt Clark’s post-victory celebration in order to show him something and to let him know that he’s not mad, just disappointed.
The “something” he wants to show him is the gestation matrix in which Clark arrived on Earth some eighteen years earlier.
He tells Clark about the night on which they found him, about how a sudden and severe blizzard hit the area and the brutal winter left the Kents cut off from the rest of Smallville for months, after which they presented Clark to the world as their own child, born at home during the difficult winter.
Of course, he wasn’t their own child, as the intervening years clearly demonstrated in the form of Clark’s gradual development of superhuman abilities, such as his recently-discovered ability to fly.
And while Jonathan and Martha had indulged him for years, the time had finally come to take him to task for abusing his abilities to become a star athlete, and for him to accept that he might have a greater purpose in life.
As if overcome by the weight of this information, Clark suddenly takes ill, and Jonathan brings him home, neither of them noticing the shadowy figure observing their departure.

"You're looking kinda green, Clark."  (Ba-dum-tsh!)  Also:  Dun dun DUN!

(Of course, it wasn’t just the shock that got to Clark – it was the chunk of Kryptonite embedded in the ship, but that doesn’t actually come into play in the min-series.  Nor does the shadowy figure.)
Back at the Kent farm, we meet Martha, who asks Clark not to hate them for keeping this secret all these years.  For his part, Clark says that he could never hate them, and that they’re right about everything.  He can’t keep squandering his abilities for personal gain.  He needs to use them to help make the world a better place, though he also needs to do so in secret.  After all, if the world saw what he could do, it would be even more disheartening than what his teammates experienced as they sat on the bench watching him win games by himself.
And so, he decides that he will leave that very night to go out to find his place in the world, though first there’s someone he needs to talk to….
Years later, we find Martha tending to a scrapbook in which she keeps clippings about mysterious happenings throughout the world.  Falling people saved by a sudden gust of wind, a collapsing bridge holding out just long enough for people to get to safety, etc.
Though no one else knows it, these stories are all obviously the exploits of their globetrotting son.  However, as Jonathan scans the morning paper, he finds some material for Martha’s scrapbook that they hoped to never see, as the headline story is “Mysterious Superman Saves Space Plane,” with an accompanying blurry photo of a flying man.
Before the news can sink in, they hear a noise from Clark’s old room, where they find a distressed Clark babbling about everyone wanting a piece of him.
He tells the story of saving the experimental space plane (it was originally going to be the space shuttle, apparently, but after the Challenger disaster some changes were made), which was flying over the city of Metropolis as part of a city celebration, when it hit by a smaller craft and was about to crash.  Having no other option, he opted to save the plane in, er, plain sight of everyone present.
After safely landing the craft, he attempted to fly off, but found himself stopped by a certain beautiful young reporter, who had been aboard the plane:

Whatever your faults, Byrne, you had a good handle on Lois, unlike the Lois-hating jackholes who run the place now.

While he felt some sort of spark pass between them, before either could speak, he was mobbed by the crowd, and, in a panic, he flew away.
With the cat now out of the bag, the Kents get to work on creating the new Clark Kent, through the use of a slicked back hair, a slouch, and a pair of Jonathan’s old glasses, and the other, more colorful identity of Superman, taking the name from the headline story.
And so, we come to the end of the story as Clark heads off into the world once more to face his destiny.
Up next:  The Story of the Century.

Some Thoughts:
In the course of his then nearly fifty-year history, the character of Superman had undergone a lot of changes, many of them introduced retroactively, and a lot of them were the result of incorporating ideas from other adaptations into the comics.  Kryptonite, for example, was introduced on the Superman radio show, as was, if I recall correctly, Superman’s Pal, Cub Reporter Jimmy Olsen.
So, all things considered, that everything would be changed was kind of the status quo for the character.
Even so, for people who, like me, had become accustomed to a certain “take” on Superman, Byrne’s reimagining came as something of a shock, all of which, as mentioned, started with that strange new vision of Krypton.
In his first adventure, we really didn’t learn much of anything about his native planet Krypton, other than that it had existed, its inhabitants were very scientifically advanced and more highly-evolved than humans, it had an intense gravity that was many times that of Earth, and it had been blown up.
Over the years, it would be developed further, as its history, culture, and environment were explored in various stories, and the Krypton that comic fans came to know was a very different place from that presented by Byrne.
One of the things that I liked most about Byrne’s version of Superman overall was that there was very little in the way of Donner worship.  That is, he paid little attention to the version of Superman that graced the silver screen in 1978.
The one area in which he did seem to draw a bit from the film was in the basic look of Krypton.  Thankfully, he didn’t make everything out of crystals, but the overall barren landscape of Byrne’s Krypton had more in common with the Donner version than the lusher version presented in the comics prior to Byrne.
(Sadly, the younger generation of creators who liked the Donner film much more than I did would go on to impose a lot of the movie’s sensibilities onto the character and the overall mythology.)
However, ultimately, one could argue, Krypton is kind of irrelevant anyway.  Sure, it’s a part of his origin, but the specifics of what the world was like have little bearing on the story of Superman.
Still, I wasn’t thrilled at the time that Byrne had essentially turned Krypton into Vulcan, but in time I came to appreciate his vision of it as a world that was essentially dead already even before it exploded, and I kind of liked the inversion of Jor-El.
After all, in the previous continuity, what set Jor-El apart from his fellow Kryptonians was his staggering intellect; he was an unparalleled genius in a world that was full of geniuses.  Here, it’s not his intellect that sets him apart, but rather his emotion.
Additionally, while in the past it was shown to be a kind of hubris that ultimately led to the death of Krypton’s population – they refused to heed Jor-El’s warnings because they didn’t believe that anything beyond their control could happen to them – here we see that while there is still an element of hubris, as they believe their perfectly orderly lives are completely under their control, it’s really stagnation and inability to change that leads to their doom.
Given that the whole point of this new origin is to make the first significant change to the character in decades that seems appropriate.
As for the changes to Clark, we see several.  Having never established a career as Superboy – which was itself a retroactive change made to the character decades earlier – he never had any reason to completely hide who he was and what he was capable of doing.  Sure, he didn’t demonstrate his powers in any overt way, but he also felt no need to hide in plain sight and develop a persona that was the polar opposite of who he really was and could be.
Part of the approach that Byrne takes to the Clark Kent secret identity is that the fact that Superman doesn’t wear a mask would lead people to believe that he has nothing to hide, and the idea that he would have a secret identity would never occur to anyone.  After all, he initially appeared before the world in civilian clothes.  Further, who’s honestly going to think that some random guy they know is actually secretly Superman?
This was, in part, why Byrne felt free to make Clark a more dynamic individual rather than some sort of nebbish milksop caricature.
Ehh.  There’s no getting around the notion that just putting on a pair of glasses, slicking back your hair, and maybe slouching a little is an actual disguise is utterly ridiculous, and more difficult to believe than the notion that a man can fly.
Still, it is an essential part of the character that really couldn’t be discarded – particularly given that the approach Byrne, and his sort-of collaborator Marv Wolfman took was to assert that Clark was the real person, and Superman was the disguise.
So…yeah.  Glasses, slicked-back hair, slouching.  Brilliant fucking disguise, I know, but…deal with it.
Other significant changes include the fact that he was, effectively, born on Earth rather than arriving as a toddler, his powers developed gradually over time, the Kents laid claim to him as their biological child, he entered into adulthood not knowing where he came from – Jonathan speculates that he was the result of some sort of Soviet experiment rather than concluding that he came from another world – and his costume was not made from the blankets his Kryptonian parents swaddled him in before sending him off into the cold reaches of space.
On that later point, this was due in part to the fact that Byrne liked drawing tattered capes.  It’s explained in the comic that while much of Superman’s invulnerability comes from simply having very tough skin, his body generates a thin force field that protects not only him, but anything within its confines.  Thus, his skintight costume, while made of standard Earth fabrics, is protected, whereas his cape is not.
I’m honestly not certain how the costume actually gets within the confines of the force field rather than sitting on top of it, but we’ll set that one aside.
(For what it’s worth, throughout his run on the character, Byrne drew Superman’s cape in tatters A LOT.)
The gradual development of his powers made a lot of sense, though it did infuriate a lot of longtime fans, who apparently really, really liked the Misadventures of Superbaby.  However, having a toddler with all of the abilities of Superman was just nonsensical, and there’s pretty much no way that the Kents, and all of Smallville – at the very least – wouldn’t end up dead under those circumstances.
While they didn’t do it nearly as well as Whedon and company did with using magic and demons as metaphors for the pressures of adolescence and life in high school on “Buffy,” at times the producers of “Smallville” actually used the development of Clark’s abilities to good effect as a metaphor for the struggles that all teens face.)
As for the Kents, the fact that they survived into Clark’s adulthood was another change from the past, and Byrne would use them to great effect during his run, as Clark would periodically return home to visit, if only to pick up a fresh cape from Martha after destroying yet another one.
I have to say that the one thing that I always liked most – and still do – about this story is the introduction of Lois.  Here, Byrne presents her exactly as she should be presented:  the only woman on Earth who can stop Superman in his tracks.
(Well, the only woman other than Martha, I suppose.)
We’ll discuss Lois further next time, as she is the primary focus of the next phase of Superman’s life.
At this point, I should mention the approach to reintroducing Superman in the new, post-Crisis universe that Byrne took.  When the regular monthly Superman titles resumed publication, they would do so more or less in the midst of things.  That is, they weren’t starting at day one, but rather at a point in which a new status quo had been established.  This mini-series was written to establish that status quo, starting at a point in the past, and then gradually shifting forward – in some cases by several years – until finally reaching the current day, which was, if I recall correctly, about five years after Superman’s public debut.
There were many deliberate gaps left in the story to be filled in later and there were several story seeds planted – such as Clark’s mysterious illness when being shown his spaceship and the shadowy figure observing it all – that would be developed in the regular monthly books.
With all of that said, even though I was as resistant to change as any comic book fan, I liked this story when it came out, even if I had some misgivings.  Still, even then I saw some of Byrne’s weaknesses as a writer, such as his tendency to have page after page of talking heads spouting unnatural, stilted expository monologues.
Even so, at the end, I was eager for more, and in time, Byrne’s version of Superman would go on to become my preferred version of the character, and I’ve subsequently been considerably more resistant to the changes that others have made than I was to this.
It’s also worth noting the impact on the larger new DC Universe that was in the stages of being born, as when they’re developing the Superman costume and identity, there’s a reference to the “Mystery Men” of the 1940s, establishing that some of the Golden Age characters, who had, in prior continuity, lived on Earth 2, had been active during the War on this new, composite Earth.
One last thing I’ll mention, though, is that I was always a bit thrown off by the fact that Clark was, apparently, a high school dropout.  I don’t think that was Byrne’s intention, and it was later revealed that at some point he did settle down in one place long enough to go to college, but the chronology that’s presented here doesn’t allow for any other option.
Again, I think it’s just Byrne not understanding how things work, or not paying attention to the details, but let’s consider the facts.
We meet up with Clark just as he wins the last football game of the season, a game that is, apparently, not some sort of state championship, despite Smallville High’s undefeated season.
So, if we assume these aren’t the playoffs or any sort of championship, that makes this sometime in, what, October?  November?
In any case, it’s well before the end of the school year, and therefore well before graduation, and yet Clark leaves Smallville to go out and do good in the world that very next day.
Did he go out and get a GED at some point?  We never learn that.
Overall, it’s probably not that important, and I think it was a matter of Byrne not concerning himself with details, but it was a question that always bothered me.

The Art:
Byrne is, deservedly, recognized as one of the best artists in the history of comics.
That being said, while the art here is gorgeous, the fact remains that at this point Byrne’s best work was behind him.
That’s almost blasphemous to say, I know, but while he remains a phenomenal artist to this day, at some point he developed a sort of…looseness that just doesn’t compare favorably to his earlier work, particularly his work on X-Men, where, for my money, he created the very finest comic book art ever.
And it’s worth noting that the art is lacking only in comparison to previous work by the same artist.
There is, after all, a reason that Byrne has long been a fan-favorite artist, and remains one of my all-time favorites.
Part of the challenge with Byrne is that he’s the type of penciller who needs a skilled inker to maximize the quality.  One would think that a world-class inker like the late Dick Giordano – who was himself a top-notch penciller – would be up to the task, and for the most part, he is, but I think the low-quality paper stock and the printing process of the day sabotage the end result slightly.
Still, even if the art isn’t necessarily phenomenal, in terms of the work that Byrne had produced in the past, at least, it is tremendously good, and the scenes on Krypton in particular are spectacular.

*One could make a case for the relaunch of The Flash being just as appropriate, given that it was the debut of the Barry Allen version that started off the Silver Age and led to the development of the multiverse that this new, combined universe was replacing.

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