Aug 31, 2011

Why I Can't Stand John Byrne's Superman: Man of Steel

After a discussion I had with Paul Cornish, the guy behind Last of the Famous International Fanboys, a while back, he proposed to me a "blog crossover," where we both talk about John Byrne's SUPERMAN: MAN OF STEEL at the exact same time. I will say what I don't like about it, Paul will say what he does like about it, and then we'd link to each other's articles.

MAN OF STEEL was a complete remake of Superman, done by John Byrne in 1986. Basically everything that had been done with Superman before was thrown out the window and Superman was rebooted from the ground up. 

The most common reason people give for liking MAN OF STEEL is that it humanizes Superman, bringing down his power levels and making him more relatable. The most common reason people give for not liking MAN OF STEEL is that it humanizes him too much, taking away the sense of wonder that had defined him for decades.

My dislike for Byrne's take on Superman is related to that, especially when we're talking about his Superman run that followed MAN OF STEEL. You see, I was around four years old when this came out, and I was reading this at the same time I was reading some Silver Age reprints! In those Silver Age reprints, Superman had a Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic, a Legion of Superheroes in the future (along with a Legion of Supervillains!), some superpets, and a bottled city called Kandor. And most importantly, he always won. I get that this "always winning" thing may have gotten old for readers, but Byrne overdid this in his Superman run, when Superman just always lost. I mean, this is the cover of SUPERMAN #1:

I get why they have to knock down the powers, though. There's a fine balance when it comes to Superman, and it does seem that this balance is mediated through the powers. Basically, when he's really powerful, there's an overwhelming amount of charm that no one aside from, say, Captain Marvel can match. But the drama is knocked down because he's too powerful. Knock him down on the power scale though, and you increase the drama but decrease the charm. It depends on the writer. I did an interview recently for a local magazine where I say that basically, there's a spectrum of Superman fans, and it begins with the powered-down Siegel and Shuster "realistic" Superman and ends with the powered-all-the-way-up completely "unrealistic" Mort Weisinger/Otto Binder Superman. I clearly run near the second extreme, and Byrne's take is closer to the first. So it's not like I don't get it; I just think Byrne went overboard with it.

But this is about MAN OF STEEL, and not the rest of Byrne's Superman run, and with the DCnU ACTION COMICS #1 out next week, written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Rags Morales, I'll just go over really quickly what I really didn't like about MAN OF STEEL specifically. And that can be symbolized by one thing perfectly: the birthing matrix.

Now, for those who haven't read MAN OF STEEL, allow me to explain. The birthing matrix is that spherical thing up there that Jor-El is looking at. It contains the seeds of him and his chosen Kryptonian mating partner, Lara Lor-Van. It contains what will eventually become Kal-El, also known as Superman. Basically, the birthing matrix is like an artificial womb. It is this thing that Jor-El puts in a rocket and shoots off into space to head to Earth. When it gets to Earth, it opens up. And as such, Kal-El is born on Earth and not Krypton.

Now, this symbolizes what I hate about MAN OF STEEL in two ways. First, it represents the overthinking of the concept that was prevalent in Byrne's run. Instead of saying something as simple as "Rocketed to Earth from the doomed planet Krypton, Kal-El was adopted by a kindly couple. Taking on the name Clark Kent, he gained powers and fights for truth, justice, and the American way as Superman!", we now have to say, "With his birthing matrix rocketed to Earth from the doomed planet Krypton and opening on earth, thus technically being born on Earth..."

Okay, we don't actually have to say that, but it's just really annoying that now there's an unnecessary layer to that part of the story. Adding unnecessary layers was just prevalent throughout Byrne's run. Who really thought it had to be explained that Superman was a low-level telekinetic?

"Evidently, I fly objects the same way I fly myself--
by sheer force of will, not by strength." Really?

So the birthing matrix really symbolizes what I dislike about Byrne's Superman in that aspect. But for MAN OF STEEL specifically, the thing I really can't stand is that this development made sure he was born on Earth. Thus, when he finally realizes where he's from — Jor-El shows up and implants him with the entire history of Krypton — we get this page.

"Krypton bred me, but it was Earth that gave me all I am.
All that matters. It was Krypton that made me Superman,
but it is the Earth that makes me human!"
Thanks to Superman 101 for this scan.

And even when I was a kid, I felt uncomfortable reading that. Why would where you come from not matter? And this is when it gets personal, because I didn't really put my finger on it until I reread it again in 2004. And what happened in 2004? In 2004, I was in the States.
Before anyone casually dismisses this as an anti-America post, I must say, unabashedly, that I have many American friends (most of my best friends are Americans), I obviously love American comics, and perhaps my favorite city in the world is New York City. I know that some people will just scan this article and believe that I am bashing America. This is not the case.

I had lived in the Philippines my entire life, and in 2002 I went off to college in Pennsylvania on the border of New Jersey. As you can imagine, although I had met my fair share of Americans and other non-Filipinos, there was a bit of culture shock that came with this experience. I met a whole variety of people from all over the world and from various roots. And without getting into all the little details I noticed one thing:

It is the people who do not honor their heritage that are the most intolerant.

By "intolerant," I don't mean that they were calling for the heads of people who weren't like them; I mean that they were the ones who did not value or appreciate the opinions of people who weren't like them. These are the people who would answer my conflicting opinions with sentiments like, "Oh, he's Asian; he doesn't know any better," or "Silly Filipino." Whether or not they said it in a serious manner or a glib one was irrelevant, really — you knew they meant it, on one level or another. I must add that this didn't include my actual friends — they said it just to get under my skin. And of course, actual friends are allowed to say such things to you.

But that was the deal. There were these people who, by virtue of me not being from the same place they are, just automatically counted my opinion as less than theirs. As you can imagine, this is very frustrating.

The thing is, Byrne's Superman sounds just like these people, except he was using "Earth" to stand for "America" and "the rest of the universe" to stand for "the rest of the world." Byrne made it a point to say that his Superman "belonged to the world," but the version of Superman I had fallen in love with belonged to the universe. It should be noted that Byrne's Superman was never a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes, much less their source of inspiration and coming into existence.

The Legion of Super-Heroes is/was a collection of superpowered beings from all over the universe, and it is to me the perfect symbol of the Superman that I loved — the fact that Superman can be a galactic, and not just global, inspiration. Again, this is allegory for our own world scaled up, and I much prefer it to "I'm from Earth, and my heritage is only as important as a relic." A Superman who uses his supersenses to have a unified view of existence rather than one that is very centered on where he currently is, is the Superman that speaks to me. As you can imagine, I'm not very happy when he says that his heritage is meaningless, which he says in the penultimate page of MAN OF STEEL.

In fairness to Byrne, this kind of "where you are now is what matters" (I'm sure there's a word for that) sentiment was very prevalent at the time, as there was a very pro-America (again, real-world America = MAN OF STEEL Earth) zeitgeist. Hulk Hogan was drawing crowds of tens of thousands in just about every major arena in the continent on the strength of his character as a "real American," Rocky Balboa was fighting Apollo Creed, every kid under 10 was watching the adventures of "a real American hero," and so on and so forth.

Nor is this even a sentiment that is purely American. I am certainly not one of those people who thought that Superman giving up his American citizenship was a good move. Remember, it was a scene that I was already uncomfortable with when I'd read it as a young lad, and just not something I could put my finger on until I read it again in college — when I was at the receiving end of the derision. I've come to realize that this is the mentality of people who believe that they come from a more privileged or superior station in life, and can be applied to, for example, city folk looking at country folk, rich folk looking at poor folk, scientists look at the more esoteric alternative medicine men (and the other way around), and so on. I was a city boy, and I saw this kind of behavior as well toward people from the provinces (and I was guilty of it myself, when I was younger and didn't know any better. Hell, I'm probably still guilty of it these days.).

This is what Byrne's Superman evokes to me. To me, he's the guy for whom where he is is more important than where he's from, and that's just something that makes me uncomfortable because of the events and people I've come to associate that sentiment with. In Les Daniels' book, DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes, he states that it is a reversal of pre-1986 Superman, who always longed for his peaceful but dead homeworld. Byrne's Superman rejects that homeworld, which was remade into a sterile, cold, scientific world. Daniels says that Superman "stays true to one set of roots, while instantly rebelling against the other."

But why should he rebel against any set of roots? He's Superman. If any one character in fiction can look at his roots — as well as the roots of everyone else — in a unified fashion and bring it together, it's him. Instead, MAN OF STEEL featured a Superman that didn't show that at all, in addition to him already being a Superman that was stripped of so many elements that made him fantastic, wonderful, and magical.

Having said that, John Byrne drew one of the greatest versions of Superman of all time, and many writers and artists, including Roger Stern, Kerry Gammill, and Jerry Ordway, were able to work with the groundwork Byrne lay down for them and produce some really good stories out of them. I still believe that THE DEATH AND RETURN OF SUPERMAN is the best comic book event of the 90s, and that SUPERMAN FOR ALL SEASONS is Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's best work.

But MAN OF STEEL? I can't say that, art aside, I really liked it then. And I certainly don't like it now.

Now, for the completely opposite point of view, visit Paul Cornish at Last of the Famous International Fanboys!


MOCK! said...

It hit at just the right time for me as a collector. I was almost 15 when it hit the stands. I do not think I have reread it since. Maybe it is time for me to give it another look. As I posted on Paul's site, these days I am more likely to grab a pre-Crisis comic from a discount bin than pick up something new...

Kid said...

I hear what your saying, but I think the 'Krypton thing' just got done to death over the years. There's a reason why Jerry Seigel only mentioned 'a doomed planet' in the one-page origin in Action Comics #1 - it's only importance was to establish why Clark was superpowered. In every other way, he was an 'Earthman' - specifically an American - and later tacked-on explorations of his Kryptonian heritage diluted that aspect to a great extent. In short, Clark's seemingly constant soliloquizing, theorizing and agonizing became - well, simply that - agonizing. (To say nothing of ultimately boring.)

Byrne was simply trying to get back to the basics.

Duy said...

I understand the need for it at the time, definitely, but it just doesn't work for me.

Bob said...

I was 26 when it came out. I thought it was a good story, and still do. But it wasn't Superman.

When I was a kid in the sixties, the planet Krypton was a source of wonder. I studied its geography, its history, the way that Tolkien fans memorize Middle Earth and Star Trek fans learn to speak Klingon. The new Krypton was not a planet of rainbow canyons and glass forests and gold volcanoes and firefalls, but a cold place with no astounding features at all that I could see. Superman was no longer a story for wide-eyed youngsters, but had been tainted by adult cynicism. I've always felt a tinge of sadness at what the generations since then missed out on.

Duy said...

Bob, I'd love to have a whole course on Krypton. It just looks so fun. The Byrne Krypton was just bleh.

davesharon said...

the Byrne Superman issues did not leave much of an impression. Just like his Spidey issues. They are quickly forgotten. I'm sticking with my beloved 60's issues. LOL. Yes I am an old fart.

Darrell D said...

I think I was 17 when this came out, and I was a HUGE Superman fan at the time. I really hated the idea of losing the Fortress, Kandor, etc.
But, I really like what Byrne laid down. Gone was the clumsy Chris Reeve Clark Kent, now he was more of a George Reeves Clark, take charge and confident. That was one of the things I was sorry to see come back to the comic recently.
I would have to say that Byrne REALLY wanted to empathize the Man over the Super. And I liked the approach.

Duy said...

That's more than fair and there are a lot of elements in Byrne's Superman that I thought other writers really ran well with. But for the reasons I outlined in the article, I can't stand Byrne's particular version.

Realitätsprüfung said...

I largely agree with the article's take. Though y'know, Byrne faced a tough job: Marrying the core Superman concepts with the zeitgeist of the late 80s. And in that era's comics, that also meant appealing to Marvel readers - their comics outsold DC by a 4/5 to 1 margin.

The fact that he wasn't a decent writer meant his Superman sold mostly to Marvel fans crossing over. Which is fine, except once Byrne left, Superman was back to selling mediocre numbers.

In reading this article, what strikes me most now is the **horrid** writing. That last page - wow. Byrne basically gives up *showing* us a new Superman, and instead has the character rattle off character points. Such as, "I'll cherish the memories Jor-El and Lara gave me...but only as curious memories of a life that might have been."

Sweet jeebus. My overall grade for MOS would be a D. But the people that took over for Byrne - Stern, Jurgens, Simonson - cleaned up the mess very well, in one of the best soft revamps of the 90s.

TelvaLansing said...

At the time the Byrne took on this project, Superman was boring. Plain and simple, Superman had done all he could do. He was powerful to the point of ridiculousness. This was in a totally different era of readers where the Ultra-powerful foes were few and far between. Green Lantern was not anywhere near what he is now. Wonder Woman's potential was not realized yet.

John Byrne was very concerned how to approach a revamp of Superman. I seriuosly doubt that his concern stretched to the next generation of comic-lovers. You are entitled your opninion of his revamp. All I have to say is that comic action was not anywhere as dramatic as it is now. At the time, Superman needed what John gave him... explainations.
You had posed in your article, "Who really thought it had to be explained that Superman was a low-level telekinetic?"
The answer to that question is EVERYONE! Now-a-days telekinesis is overdone. Back then, it wasn't. How else would the preservation of the mass of the large things he had carried over the years, ranging from houses to mountains, have retained their composure? John's explaination again, at the time, was a welcome addition to his revamp.
Opinions on this topic will vary simply due to a generation gap. By the time you started reading comics, far more interesting and believeable characters had been created. The level of story depth by writers alone had been in regular practice for years. Before, more stories were told in one issue. Mini-series were just starting their release to tell side stories., re-tell origins and remake personalities.

I can see why you think what you do about John's version. It had it's time though. Others have taken it further with welcoming fanfare from readers. Comics will (hopefully) always evolve to get better. I firmly believe that with Superman, John Byrne did a great job with it.

Duy Tano said...

Fair enough, but I'd like to point out that I was reading Man of Steel as it was coming out (not completely, I missed the first and last issues), and I was four. I certainly didn't think he needed to explain Superman as a low-level telekinetic, and neither did Mark Waid, whom I've seen in interviews before denouncing that kind of overexplanation. A quick look at pre-MoS Superman books would also show that as powerful as he was, he'd actually already been depowered (the Sand Superman story Neal Adams did was the start of it).

I read Man of Steel and most of Byrne's succeeding Superman run as it was coming out, so for me it wasn't a matter of it being "of its time." I simply didn't like it, and have liked it less as time passed. (I did, however, really like what people after Byrne did with it, notable Roger Stern and Louise Simonson.)

Testosterom aka Dr. Evil said...

I agree with you. As a fellow Pinoy who was puzzled then annoyed with Byrne's version,I hated his revisions. I know there will be a lot of Byrne die-hards out there who may want to tar and feather me,but he has this bad habit of making a character worse after he's handled it,with the exceptions of the X-Men & Fantastic Four. His handling of Spidey and Wonder Woman was boring.

R.J. said...

I think Superman ought to be removed from the DCU for just this reason (or, rather, why DC should stop milking the copyright like the lame hacks they are). The whole desire to 'Go Marvel' and make every psychologically, socially and financially retarded is exactly what Superman DOESN'T need; and now it's become standard-fare in Super-comics. There are plenty of characters who have these traits, who are physically or mentally outmatched by their opponents, and Byrne, etc. have written stories for most of them.

Superman is a God, and you don't challenge a God by putting Bigger God for him to fight. The point of a God character isn't to overcome foes physically, which is trivial, but to exemplify moral perfectionism and transcendental values. People who don't get Silver Age Superman are just tone-deaf to this, they're trying to make Zeus into Odysseus. It's pure archetypal/literary ignorance, which is why guys like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison (who understand religious and mythic literature) can write fantastic Superman/Pastiche stories which don't have any problem making him more powerful than Jesus on Steroids. Byrne, and many writers/fans like him, are trying to force Superman into a moulde built by the same modernist novel cliches that once saw Pulp and Supers as nothing but juvenile cliches. The man is a great artist and a decent writer, but he was out of his depth with a mythic man-god. He should have read more about Dying-and-Rising Sun Gods and less New Yorker Magazine.

Anonymous said...

Byrne's Man Of Steel is what DC needed then : A breath of fresh air. The tired, worn out and all too powerful Superman was turning into a parody of himself before Byrne.

Duy Tano said...

While I agree that a revitalization was needed, Byrne's version was hardly the only option.

Darkness U.S.A said...

your sentiment as a non American did play into your understanding of the byrne concept because i dont think you read marvel comics or at least it wasnt mentioned here in the article. You have to understand the timing of the reboot and byrnes career, byrne had just left marvel after being there since the 70's so the reboot was essentially Marvelizing Superman. All those tiny explanations are things from his stay at Marvel where everything had to be explained in some fashion and not just left as whimsy of the characters powers. Things like unstable molecules are used at Marvel to explain how mr fantastic can stretch his uniform and the human torch can burn his and they not be destroyed.
Being a Marvel Zombie myself i knew exactly what Byrne was doing, he made superman fit into the marvel universe, now maybe he depowered him a bit too much but the humanizing of him made different stories possible and gave superman a vulnerability he never had except to magic. Byrnes approach is always back to basics when he takes over a character so he went to the old superman for a foundation

Byrne cut his teeth on the Marvel way and that is what he brought to DC even in Action Comics making it like Marvel Team Up or Marvel Two In One

Duy Tano said...

Hi, thanks for your comment.

I think a quick glance at the site will show I read a lot of Marvel. I don't like Byrne's writing there either. 80s Byrne remains and will forever be one of my favorite comic book artists, but as a writer I don't think I've ever liked/loved anything he's done. The overexplanations are a part of it, and on Superman, it was just too much.

With respect, as well, my sentiments as a a non-American have nothing to do with my reading or not reading Marvel, and had to do with the overall theme of a Kryptonian saying that his Kryptonian roots don't matter.

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