Jan 8, 2018

Techniques and Tricks: Reign of the Supermen and the Art of Misdirection

It's been 25 years since the Death and Return of Superman, and while it's been a consistent seller in bookstores, I feel like critically it's been a mixed bag. The Death itself is commercially successful but not critically acclaimed. Funeral for a Friend is the most lauded portion of the entire thing. And the Reign of the Supermen is criminally overlooked as a story, with most fans preferring to discuss the four new characters introduced in it. That is, in itself, an amazing accomplishment, especially considering that three of them have had a shelf life longer than most new characters introduced in events like these. But I think it deserves more talk than that.

Reign of the Supermen and Misdirection
by Duy

Reign of the Supermen and Return of Superman, for my money, is the best part of the entire saga (it was originally billed as just Reign, but is now reprinted as two separate volumes). There is so much in it, and it's so ambitious. Four new Supermen show up, with speculation that each one of them is Superman.

Top Left: The Cyborg Superman, aka The Man of Tomorrow
Top Right: Steel, aka The Man of Steel
Bottom Left: Superboy, aka the Metropolis Kid
Bottom Right: The Eradicator, aka the Last Son of Krypton

See, I remember when this came out and people were wondering who it was gonna be. But here's the thing: Steel and Superboy never once claimed to actually be Superman. Steel was John Henry Irons, whose life was once saved by Superman and who created the suit of armor to pay tribute to the Man of Steel. Superboy claimed to be a clone of Superman (he was half-right). So really, it was just down to the other two. The Cyborg and the Eradicator looked like Superman, and if my elementary school at the time was any indication, the frontrunner was the Cyborg. They even made it a story point, with President Clinton endorsing the Cyborg as the real Superman.

But it's the Eradicator we're gonna focus on today, specifically with this issue, written by Roger Stern and drawn by Butch Guice:

We first see someone who looks like Superman waking up in the Fortress of Solitude, from where the the visored Superman originates. The Fortress robots quickly defer to him, as we've seen them do with the visored Superman.

Among many things, he asks for an update on the current situation, and the robots fill them in on three of the Supermen.

But when they get to the visored Superman, this happens:

So the same camera angle and the fact that he doesn't need to hear about that one makes it pretty clear at this point that this is the visored Superman, right? To drive that point home, this guy decides he needs to go to Metropolis, and then we cut to this scene:

Later on in this (awesome) storyline, the visored Superman gets taken out by the Cyborg, who is revealed to be a supervillain named Hank Henshaw, who just happened to take some Kryptonian DNA and technology to look like Superman and replicate some of his powers. The visored Superman needs to get back to the Fortress to save himself:

And then, a few scenes later, this armored suit within the Fortress comes humming to life, with the thought balloon of the person inside it saying it'll keep him alive.

But wait, soon after that, we see the visored Superman's energy form getting in to the Fortress!

So who's in that suit?

Well, it's Superman! The real Superman, powerless and ready to fight. And having no powers doesn't stop Kal-El though, as he proves that it's the willingness to fight and the smarts to do so to be a hero, not powers. And also, that he's a natural leader. Which is awesome.

In the middle of Reign of the Supermen, the Superman crew — for my money, the best and most capably organized overall creative team to work on a multi-book franchise of a single character, consisting of Karl Kesel, Tom Grummett, Dan Jurgens, Louise Simonson, Jon Bogdanove, and Stern and Gucie — managed to do an issue where they brought the real Superman back, subtly and in an understated manner. It rewards recursive reading, and is an impressive trick to pull off, as most other "returns" would be predictable and saved for such a big moment. The creative team here managed, somehow, to do both: save the big return for a climax, and yet build up to it because of the very easy misdirect.

You can't really do that misdirect in other media. It'd be close to impossible to do it in prose, because you'd have to describe the guy and avoid naming him. But it's also really difficult to try it in film, because Superman's line delivery would be so different from the Eradicator's, who at that point had been using formal language and would undoubtedly, in film, have a different aura to his voice altogether, to say nothing of the background music that would be playing. No, this is a trick that only really works in comics to this degree.

It's been 25 years and I still love Reign of the Supermen. It's the best part of that entire saga, in my view. Do yourself a favor and check it out, if you haven't.

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