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Superman: John Byrne’s Wrong Turns

Kyle King Kyle King
Expert Contributor
November 6th, 2015

T. Kyle King’s published work ranges from newspaper columns to film reviews and from short stories to law review articles. Most notably, he served as a site manager and staff writer at DawgSports.com, a daily weblog devoted to University of Georgia athletics, from 2006 to 2013, and he is the author of a book about the history of the college football rivalry between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Clemson Tigers published by Clemson University Digital Press in 2013. Kyle is a lifelong comic book fan whose thoughts on comic books previously have appeared at ComicsVerse, Progressive Boink, and the Superman Homepage. Kyle is a Superman guy.

Superman: John Byrne’s Wrong Turns
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Superman was deprived of his secret identity and most of his powers in DC Comics’ recent Truth story arc, and fans of the Man of Steel who already were displeased by the New 52 reboot are even more disheartened by the Metropolis Marvel’s present trajectory. For the second time, ComiConverse’s Superman writer, T. Kyle King, takes a look at one of the many vexing issues that have been hampering the Man of Tomorrow.

Since celebrating the 75th anniversary of his debut two years ago, Superman seems to have lost his way. First came his return to the big screen in 2013’s Man of Steel, which deviated dramatically from the historic character. That same year saw the publication of a hardbound comic compendium that was sad rather than celebratory. Lately, the Last Son of Krypton has struggled internally or behaved reprehensibly to such an extent that the iconic Superman had to be revived on a limited basis to prevent the world’s greatest superhero from losing his core audience.

All this is occurring at a time when Kryptonian superheroes from the House of El are winning large audiences by telling positive stories providing family fun, so where did Superman go wrong?

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Personally, I blame John Byrne.

It pains me greatly to write that. I was a huge fan of Byrne’s work in the 1980s; he was second only to Jack Kirby as the creator who defined Marvel Comics for me during my youth, and I collected Byrne’s runs on The Uncanny X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Alpha Flight with something resembling religious fervor. John Byrne was the first artist whose work I purchased purely because his name was on the cover.

Credit: DC Comics

Credit: DC Comics

Although I think Byrne’s sensibility was better suited to Marvel’s style and failed to translate as effectively to the competition, I loved his inaugural effort for DC Comics, The Untold Legend of the Batman. I even liked certain aspects of his 1986 reboot of Superman following Crisis on Infinite Earths: Byrne got the look of the Man of Steel precisely right – he was the perfect penciller to draw the iconic hero at that time – and his modernized Lois Lane was independent, empathetic, energetic, and outspoken. Such stories of his as 1987’s The Secret Revealed were all-time classics.

Despite his many strengths, though, John Byrne made multiple mistakes when writing Superman, and his errors unfortunately became entrenched enough to force the Man of Tomorrow down the misguided path he treads today. How did Byrne mess up the Metropolis Marvel, and how do those gaffes continue to plague the Man of Steel even now?

Let me count the ways.

The problems start where the story does, on Krypton. For decades, Superman’s doomed homeworld was portrayed as having an advanced civilization populated by intellectual and physical marvels, with a robust, barrel-chested Jor-El serving boldly as a leader of its governing council and as the planet’s most distinguished scientist. In Byrne’s hands, however, this majestic society built by a race that looked and behaved like human beings at their most futuristic and developed was reduced to a sterile, antiseptic social order in decline, its greatness so long past that it was utterly unworthy of the hero it produced.

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Byrne sapped Krypton of its vitality, leaving the planet cold, desiccated, and dead even before its eventual destruction. By depriving the Kryptonian civilization of its passion, the artist purposely robbed the tragedy of its poignance. Gone was the pathos long associated with the loss of the society that spawned Kal-El; as Byrne himself callously confessed: “I’d created a Krypton that deserved to blow up, and that was my intent. I don’t want nostalgia for that place…. Krypton is anathema to him.” Hence, he had his brooding Jor-El lament to Lara, “Perhaps it is fitting” that their “heartless society, stripped of all human feeling,” was mere moments away from annihilation.

Credit: DC Comics

Credit: DC Comics

So determined was Byrne to uncouple the hero wholly from his heritage that he invented the idea of a Kryptonian birthing matrix kept suspended in a gestation chamber, a notion that was retained for the 2013 film Man of Steel. This story conceit prevented the Last Son of Krypton from being “born” until his rocket landed in Kansas, further severing Clark Kent’s connection to the House of El. Hence, Martha Kent lifts the infant from his rocket ship and insists, “He’s as human as you or me!” Her adopted son later concurs, learning of his origins and denouncing them as “ultimately meaningless” since “it was Earth that gave me all I am. All that matters.” This deliberate dissociation deprived the character of a level of emotional depth, and the regrettable decision to have the Man of Steel regard Krypton’s calamity with detachment has persisted, reaching full flower in the appalling aloofness of the post-Truth Superman.

While purporting to create a more humanized hero, Byrne succeeded instead in producing an oversimplified Superman who was without a large portion of his complex personality. However, he compensated for subjecting Kal-El to starvation by shooting Clark full of steroids. In this artist’s hands, the mild-mannered reporter became a hunk and a jock, initially appearing as an athlete bound for the end zone while a public address announcer gushed, “Smallville High has just never seen a football player like this amazing, all-round champion, young Clark Kent!”

Meanwhile, every vestige of Pete Ross was scrubbed from the legend, Jimmy Olsen was marginalized as a Silver Age holdover who now spent most of his time on the sidelines, and, although Lana Lang remained a fast friend from the first, Jonathan Kent noted that “I guess you didn’t think so at the time!” Lana later let Clark know that he “tore open the seams of my life, and left me empty,” when he told her his secret and left Smallville.

The loosening of Clark’s traditional ties to humanity and normality further weakened the Man of Steel’s emotional immersion here on Earth, adding to the shallowness that has generated such unfortunate results in the New 52 continuity. John Byrne’s Clark Kent takes a while to realize that he is using “my special abilities to make myself better than other people – to make other people feel useless.” That is a lesson the subsequent Superman still struggles to learn.

Credit: DC Comics

Credit: DC Comics

This reduction of Superman was accompanied by a corresponding downgrading of the Man of Steel’s foes. Byrne’s Bizarro was a melancholy monster whose brief speechless existence ended with his disintegration into chalk dust. His Mr. Mxyzptlk starred in a story in which extravagant Silver Age creativity was replaced by an overbearing concern for the psychological side effects of the mischievous imp’s Fifth Dimensional magic, substituting foreboding for fun.

Worst of all, a misguided desire for realism and relevance transformed the would-be world conqueror and megalomaniacal mad scientist supervillain Lex Luthor into an ‘80s capitalist caricature who was little more than a hairless Gordon Gekko. Lessening Luthor by making him merely a business mogul created a template that served subsequent Superman stories about as well as making the Joker just a circus clown would have benefited Batman.

The common theme of all of Byrne’s reinventions of the Superman brand was the diminution of the prior grandeur of each aspect of the mythology surrounding the Man of Tomorrow. The essence of his 1986 reboot was an across-the-board reduction that minimized everything associated with the Action Ace. Byrne’s Fortress of Solitude contained no Kryptonian bottle city because, on his watch, each feature of the Superman legend suffered Kandor’s fate by being miniaturized. The deliberate depreciation implemented by Byrne is ongoing even today: Superman’s secret identity has dwindled to nonexistence; his powers have been severely curtailed; his moral core has decreased dramatically.

This entire post-Crisis decline was inherent in the design, and its original author viewed the attenuation of the Action Ace as a feature rather than a bug. Truth traces its genesis back to John Byrne almost 30 years ago, confirming why the artist who was the perfect choice to pencil Superman’s adventures was the worst person to script them. The adverse consequences of DC Comics’ unfortunate decision to let him oversee the reset of the Man of Steel in 1986 continue to bedevil Superman and his fans here on the verge of 2016.

What did you think of John Byrne’s versions of Clark Kent and crew?

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Do you believe the long-term ramifications of the mid-‘80s redesign have been more positive or negative for the Man of Tomorrow?

As always, we welcome your input and invite you to ComiConverse with us in the comments below!

 

T. Kyle King is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow him on Twitter: @TKyleKing.

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71 Comments

  1. Bruce Kanin says:

    First, this was a well-written article that is worthy of a discussion, in person, in some
    restaurant, bar or coffee shop. In any event, let me start off by saying that
    you I don’t blame the current state of Superman’s comic book stories on John
    Byrne’s reboot. In fact, by the time Mark Waid’s “Birthright” came
    around, Byrne’s reboot was all but a distant memory, to me.

    The point is that every few years Superman was effectively rebooted and with each reboot, Byrne’s version of The Man of Steel and his family faded further away.

    As for his reboot being flawed, I didn’t see it that way. Yes, I missed Superboy and
    Krypto, but was grateful that Ma & Pa Kent were still alive. I didn’t dig
    Lois’s short hair and almost “butch-like” appearance/behavior, but I
    didn’t miss the Silver Age Lois that alternately wanted to marry Superman or
    expose his secret identity or both. I will always favor the criminal scientist
    version of Lex Luthor, but his business mogul didn’t bother me too much.
    Certainly his motivation for hating Superman was more believable than blaming
    Superboy for the loss of his hair! 😉

    Look, the Silver Age version of Superman had been around a long, long time by the time Byrne came along with his new “take”. Even though we call the 70s and part of
    the 80s the “Bronze Age”, it was effectively still the Silver Age
    with a bit more relevance to keep up with Marvel.

    By the time Alan Moore’s fantastic Silver Age bookend “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” came along, I was happy to see what remained of the Silver Age
    come to an end. The stories had gone stale – the writers were clearly running
    out of ideas and something had to be done.

    Byrne’s “Man of Steel” mini-series was awesome. I have the originals as well
    as the paperback compilation. His follow-up in the rebooted SUPERMAN, renamed
    ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN and ACTION COMICS were wonderful. The best story arc for me was the one that involved the Legion and the Time Trapper’s pocket universe that gave us Superboy and his world one last time. That story still
    “gets” me, emotionally.

    I wish Byrne had remained on the scene with Superman a lot longer than he did. Once he left, the long, slow decline took place, e.g., revealing his identity to Lois,
    marrying her, his “death”, the electric Superman (oy) and more. I stopped just after “Infinite Crisis” and never looked back, although I sampled some stories, including the awful “New 52” before totally
    bailing out of comics.

    John Byrne, for me, at least, did a masterful job of pumping fresh blood into my all-time favorite character. I still love the Silver Age (late 50s-late 60s) Superman
    the best, but look back fondly on what Byrne did.

  2. BTC1163 says:

    I think you might have not considered that the sterile, anticeptic Krypton, including the colorless garb of Krytonians, as well as Lex Luthor being a corporate type happened prior in the Superman movie made in 1978. Jor-el, as played by Marlon Brando, was also bereft of warmth, emotion, and passion.

  3. Joe E Dangerously says:

    No, I don’t agree. I definitely don’t. There are problems with Byrne’s Superman. It’s not perfect. But for my money it’s the best Superman we’ve gotten in comics save for some isolated examples. I think this is what Superman needed at the time and since then the more fantastical elements of the mythology have returned so I don’t really see where you’re going there. The morality of Superman was not thrown away, it remained. Man Of Steel was a trainwreck and I do not like modern Superman stories almost without exception but that can’t be laid at the feet of John Byrne. I’m far from a Byrne apologist. As a person I find him reprehensible and there are a lot of flaws in his work. But I do have to call it like I see it and I think Superman under Byrne’s pen was a very good one.

    I’ll just point out why I think you’re wrong about Krypton. If the place was a utopia and Kryptonians were so great and awesome why would they have ignored the fact that their planet was going to die very soon? Are you going to tell me Jor-El was the only one who possessed the technology to determine that? He didn’t share that tech with the rest of the planet? They didn’t have access to the same data he did? Because that paints Jor-El as selfish and suicidal. The point is they saw the data and were so proud they could not accept the reality. Sort of like how many of us can’t accept that we’re slowly destroying our planet. Krypton as a utopia doesn’t work. It just doesn’t jibe. We need to be willing to see the flaws in things we love in order to keep them alive. The original Star Trek, for example, for all its greatness had a lot of problems with its portrayal and treatment of women. We need to see that and correct it in future incarnations to keep Star Trek alive. Superman is similar, I think. We cannot just revert back to “It seemed fine back then so it’s fine now.” That cannot happen because then we become like the Kryptonians who ignored the signs and let their population die.

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