Saturday, June 29, 2013

Nostalgia Review: The Man Of Steel 5

“I hate the Bizarros.” – Captain Murphy, “SeaLab 2021”

Yeah, this issue does feel like a punch in the face.

The Man of Steel, “The Mirror Crack’d…”
Written by John Byrne
Art and Cover by John Byrne and Dick Giordano
Edited by Andy Helfer

I’m going to level with you:  this issue sucks.
And not just a little.  It’s a massive pile of suck.
It’s unquestionably the worst issue of the mini-series, and honestly one of the worst Superman stories I’ve ever read.
That may be, in part, by design, sort of, in that it’s intended to be something of a callback to the Superman stories of the past, many of which were not good.  I’m not talking about the batshit crazy and goofy stories – which, for all of their convoluted “logic” were at least fun – but the ones built around stupid, improbable coincidences that strain the limits of the willing suspension of disbelief.  And seriously; I’m talking about the limits of the willing suspension of disbelief of an audience who is eager to read stories about a perfectly-human-looking alien from a planet that shares a name with an element on the Periodic Table who flies around saving people while dressed in tights and wearing underwear as outerwear*, who hides in plain sight in the midst of award-winning journalists by putting on a pair of glasses.
In any case, briefly, here is a recap of the shitty, shitty story.
With the help of a scientist named Teng, Lex Luthor, who has been carrying out his promise to attempt to kill Superman over the course of enough time that his baldness has progressed considerably, creates a clone of Superman.  However, because they didn’t account for the fact that Superman isn’t actually human – no one, not even Superman himself, knows that he’s an alien yet – the clone turns out to be imperfect and is rapidly falling apart.  Before it can be destroyed – though it’s not clear on how Lex expected that to be done – it escapes.  Having a distorted copy of Superman’s memories, it heads to Metropolis, and, in its fumbling attempts to mimic the good deeds of the Real Steel Deal, and to put on its own version of the Clark Kent disguise, it draws the attention of Superman, and the two clash.  Eventually, in one final collision, the clone is reduced to little more than a pile of inert dust.  The end.
Well, those are the main points of the narrative, but there are a few other things to mention, including the stupid, stupid, improbably coincidence at the core of the story.
Lucy Lane, the younger sister of Lois, is staying with her big sister.  It seems that Lucy, who is presented by Byrne, as she always had been in the past, as being a flight attendant, got a face full of chemicals of an unknown type as part of an attempted terrorist hijacking of one of the lights she was on.  As a result, Lucy has been rendered blind.  However, if the doctors could determine what chemicals she was bukkaked with, they might be able to reverse her blindness.  Because that’s totally how that works, right?
Lucy holds out no hope for that happening, and so, as soon as Lois departs for work, Lucy decides to end it all.  It’s worth noting that if Byrne had kept the classic characterization of Lucy as a vicious hellbeast as she had always been presented in the past, I would have kind of been rooting for her to get what she wanted.
However, the *ahem* “bizarre” clone of Superman happens to be flying by as Lucy takes her flying leap from the balcony of her sister’s apartment, and saves the day.  He flies off without a word, leaving a puzzled Lucy right back where she was, though apparently one brush with death was enough, so she doesn’t make a second attempt.  Actually, there’s more to it, but first…
In the course of the big throwdown between Superman and…fuck it, we’ll just call him Byrnezarro, as this is Byrne’s take on the classic character, Lois, of course, marches headlong into danger, catching the eye of Byrnezarro, who swoops her up into the air.  At that point, the dream that Lois has had ever since that fateful day when Superman flew into her life turned into a nightmare, as Byrnezarro, who’s covered with more flakes then all of the actors in dandruff shampoo commercials combined, leans in to kiss her.
Byrnezarro then takes Lois back to her place, where she is surprised to learn that 1. Her younger sister attempted suicide and 2. Ever since “Superman” saved her, her vision has improved to the point that she can at least see shadows.
Then Superman shows up for the final confrontation.  After examining the dusty flakes that Byrnezarro leaves everywhere, Superman determines that the creature is not actually organic life, and so he feels no need to hold back, leading to the total dusting of Byrnezarro.
Of course, it just so fucking happens that Byrnezarro was made out of the exact chemicals required to undo the ill effects of those other chemicals, and thus, after being exposed to the fullness of his dustiness, Lucy’s vision is fully-restored.
Lucy assumes that Superman knew this, and that it’s the reason he risked his life in that head-on collision.  He admits that he didn’t actually know that himself, but…

Oh, STFU, Superman.  Jesus, Byrne - why not throw in the classic Silver Age wink while you were at it?
Up Next:  Somebody saaaaaaaaaaaavvvvvvveeeeee meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee…

Some Thoughts:
This sucked.
That said, there are a few things of note about this story.
As a result of the readings that Teng got after scanning Superman, Teng and Lex realized that Superman was an alien.  I thought it was kind of interesting to have Lex know this before Superman himself did.  After all, while the possibility of him being an alien had been considered – obviously – Superman and the Kents assumed that he was actually the result of some sort of Earthly experiment, one most likely conducted by “the Reds,” given that, apart from his abilities, he appeared to be entirely human.
This story was set much closer to the present day – or at least what was the present day at that time – and took place five years after Superman’s first appearance.
If not the first time, this was at least one of the first times that Superman squared off against an opponent who was his physical equal.  Certainly it’s the first time that we see it happen with this Superman.
To be fair to this shitty, shitty story, it’s clear that Byrne’s intent was to further illustrate which elements of the Superman mythos he would and would not be keeping as part of the new status quo.  Towards that end, I think – I’m trying to be charitable here – that the cheap coincidence was a bit of a nod to the Superman stories of old, but it still just falls flat because it’s so stupid.
In any case, the larger point of this story was that Byrne would not be bringing Bizarro into the new continuity.  This was a one-off appearance – after the failure to create a perfect duplicate, Lex demanded that the device also be destroyed**, which, frankly, was kind of short-sighted, but was in keeping with the way this version of Lex rolled – and I think it was intended to let the fans of Bizarro know that the time had come to say “Hello” to the imperfect object of their affection, and to break it to them somewhat gently.  (By Byrne standards, at any rate.)
For my part, I was glad to know that we wouldn’t be seeing more of Bizarro, as I was never a fan.  There are, of course, narrative possibilities provided by the character, but even when handled well, the character has never resonated with me.
That’s true of a lot of elements of the larger Superman mythology.  I know that a lot of people like Superman because of that larger mythology, having a fondness for things like the bottle city of Kandor, Bizarro, and – *sigh* – the super-pets, but even in my youth I viewed most of those things as extraneous nonsense, and I think that’s why I generally preferred Byrne’s pared-down version.  Honestly, I often found that I liked Superman despite those elements.
For example, regardless of my avowed fondness for Supergirl, I really didn’t miss Kara Zor-El in this take on Superman, as I liked the idea of Superman actually being the sole survivor of Krypton’s destruction that he had so often been erroneously touted to be.
Of course, this is a subject – like most things related to Superman – that I could devote a lot of words to, so I will just leave it at that.  (For now.)
On a final note, I mentioned last time that it took me a while to warm up to the new version of Lex.  When I saw this first page…

Such a tease.
…I remember thinking, “Oh, good.  Byrne came to his senses and gave us a proper Luthor.”
Of course, it was just a tease – on the next page we learn that Lex is actually standing off-panel, and that the guy in the armor is just some hapless goon who worked for Lexcorp, and the whole thing was just a ruse to lure Superman in so that the scanning/duplicating could be done.
(This sequence also set up the dynamic of Superman knowing that Luthor was behind attacks on him but not being able to prove it.  Lex was able to claim that the goon was a disgruntled ex-employee who stole an experimental suit of armor and attacked Superman of his own volition.  Given that the cybernetic interface of the experimental suit had a tendency to fry the brain of whoever wore it, the hapless goon would never be able to claim otherwise.)

The Art:
Lipstick on a pig, I’m afraid.  Good art for a terrible story.
It’s worth noting that Lucy, who had historically been a blonde, is presented here with light brown hair.
It didn’t stick – in later, post-Byrne appearances, she was once again a blonde.

This bit from the “SeaLab 2021” episode I referred to at the start really isn’t that different from the denouement of this story.  At least, not if you view it from a Bizarro perspective:

*So I’m not above making an underwear on the outside joke.  I’m a terrible person.  As an article I read recently pointed out (though I already knew this, of course), they’re meant to be trunks, not underwear.  The basic template set by Superman drew heavily from Victorian-era circus strongmen.  After all, in designing Superman, the first (more or less) costumed super-hero, where else was Schuster going to look for inspiration?  I can’t actually find the article again, unfortunately.  Found it via a link in a comment thread…somewhere.

**Except that it wasn’t destroyed, and years later it – and Bizarro, and more to the point, a Bizarro much more like his Silver Age incarnation – popped up again, because people who read and write comics just can’t let go of the past.

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