Now, decades after John Byrne’s six-issue Man of Steel was published, it reads like one of many alternative Superman origin stories that we’ve seen over the years. The details of Superman’s life have been malleable in the hands of DC’s creators, with various Supermen in alternate timelines and alternate dimensions encompassing multiple variations on a theme.
But in 1986, the decision to allow John Byrne to reboot DC’s flagship character was a radical move, a revolution on the printed page. Striking changes were made in the nature and tone of the series, but even more significant was the fact that the entire accumulated history of the iconic character was being erased, giving Byrne the opportunity to start a new history from scratch. This was welcomed by many fans, while reviled by others who denounced it as “Marvelizing” Superman, and saw it as eliminating and replacing their favorite character rather than as evolving the existing character into something similar but not identical.
Man of Steel is thus a revolutionary work, but unlike some of the other landmark comic book works in the mid-Eighties, it was a revolution in particulars rather than in form. But the particulars that changed were many, and include:
• Krypton as sterile rather than a high-tech utopia.
• Superman born upon his arrival on Earth rather than arriving as a toddler.
• Powers developing gradually over years instead of at the moment of arrival.
• Debut as a young adult and not as Superboy.
• No memory of or attachment to Krypton; identifies only as an Earthman.
• Adoptive parents remain alive into the present.
• Clark Kent persona tough rather than meek and mild.
• Ventures into outer space rarely instead of being a frequent space traveler.
• Smart, but not an inventor with knowledge far beyond Earth technology.
• Strength, speed, and vulnerability powers at much lower levels than pre-Crisis.
• Tense working relationship with Batman, and they are not friends.
• Not a founding member of the Justice League.
• Only survivor of Krypton.
• Lex Luthor is a Machiavellian businessman rather than a mad scientist.
These many changes are not haphazard or arbitrary in design: They all support one overarching aim, which is to humanize Superman, making his life and interactions more like an ordinary man’s life, and less a thing of pure science fiction.
Detractors of Byrne’s run saw humanizing Superman as counterproductive, as the concept of Superman was always intended to make him something far better than a real man, and being far better, he was also by definition removed and apart. Nonetheless, Byrne’s choice was to make him less removed. Nowhere is this more evident than in doing away with the Fortress of Solitude. The Bronze Age Superman owned a house in the Arctic (isolated), bigger and more wonderful than any real man’s house, housing a museum and a zoo of interplanetary specimens, for the sole viewing pleasure of Superman himself. Yes, it was wonderful, but it was in equal measure a fortress of solitude. The pre-Byrne Superman was a strangely lonely man, self-absorbed, twice orphaned, confiding his secret identity to not one person on Earth who wasn’t also a superhero. He said that he could never marry Lois or Lana, because that would expose his wife to danger, but in what was a major plot hole, he still identified his friends and girlfriends publicly. Byrne changed all that, making Lois a romantic interest without the puerile games around whether or not Superman could marry her. Byrne moved the center of gravity in Superman’s life away from superheroes and towards ordinary people. In this regard, he did more for the characterization of Superman than had been done in all the decades before.
But Man of Steel and Byrne’s run as a whole are not a literary masterpiece. It hits some nice notes at times, but the language is stilted and relies far too often on exposition. Superman often says and thinks things that nobody would say or think, in order to deliver an essay from Byrne to readers about how the character had been reinvented. These are often awkward comments about how the Byrne Superman’s world is different than what came before, and rejecting the truth that in storytelling, it’s better to show than to tell.
Perhaps the high point of Byrne’s run is in Superman #2, when Luthor’s efforts to probe Superman’s life result in beatings to the people he loves, and an explosion that callously kills two of Luthor’s henchmen right in front of Superman. Then, when the enraged hero confronts Luthor, he is exposed to kryptonite and mocked. The Silver Age Lex Luthor had to kill Superman to win. Byrne’s Luthor manages to stalemate Superman simply by remaining in business and hating him. It’s a dramatic shift in their dynamic and makes for far more powerful storytelling than the Silver Age Superman-Luthor war, which always came down to gadgets and pseudoscience.
Byrne began the run with a well-thought-out plan. He plants small clues that grow into major plots, such as the chunk of kryptonite that sticks to Kal-El’s rocket, and the stranger in the brimmed hat watching the site where the rocket came down. Small investments of this kind paid off later, with the serial taking on more complexity than the issue-after-issue formula of previous years. This was a Superman for a more grown-up audience than the Superman that came before, and that was precisely what the era called for.
Byrne’s era relaunched Superman, took him through a couple of major crossover events, and resolved the paradoxes of the post-Crisis Legion of Super-Heroes by introducing a Pocket Universe. John Byrne left the series after Superman #22, with Superman having executed three Phantom Zone criminals in the Pocket Universe. This event, and Byrne’s work as a whole, led into other creators producing some good and impactful work, with the fondly-recalled Triangle Era, Superman’s death at the hands of Doomsday, and later his marriage to Lois Lane. With time, the stamp of Byrne’s work faded as more writers put their own touches on the feature, and it became something considerably different than it was when Byrne left in 1988. In some respects, the Byrne continuity is still with us in 2015, as at least some elements of the post-Byrne Superman are still in continuity after Flashpoint. The Byrne run was a bold effort, and it worked.