With the relaunch of the DC Universe following Crisis on Infinite Earths, the publisher saw an opportunity to clean up not just the messy cosmology of their superhero world, but the convoluted backstories of certain characters. As above, so below. Over in the Batman books, this takes the form of a re-telling, rather than a reboot. Frank Miller and David Mazuchelli took the reins of the main Batman book shortly after Crisis for their Year One story, followed up by a retelling of Jason Todd’s early days as Robin under the title Batman: The New Adventures. Many of the more out-there Bat-stories were jettisoned, but the tables weren’t entirely cleared.
Not so with Superman, which saw a relaunch and reboot under the pen of John Byrne. It turns out I didn’t know the full scope of Byrne on the character, but for the two or three years following Crisis, the bulk of three Superman books coming out monthly were being written by Byrne. The kickoff to his run is the Man of Steel mini-series that ran biweekly in 1986 and reintroduced the character with a slightly stripped-down history and supporting cast. A year after, Byrne would lay out further groundwork for this version of Supes with three miniseries: World of Krypton, World of Smallville, and World of Metropolis.
Before digging in, I want to make it clear what Byrne thought he was doing, which is nothing less than re-defining the character in a way that would be more or less permanent. I’m going to look at other re-tellings of Superman’s origin story, but it’s important to note that none of the writers or artists who rehash the early days of Superman go in with the belief that their work is going to stick the way Byrne does. Reading Waid and Yu’s Birthright (2004), Johns and Frank’s Secret Origin (2009), or Morrison and Morales’s Action Comics Volume 2 (2011), there’s a strong sense that these creators understand they’re adding a telling of the story that isn’t definitive, but sits in parallel with versions.
Not so with Byrne.
From his introduction to the collected edition of Man of Steel:
I hope you’ll stay with us as Superman sets forth into the eighties, the nineties, and with any kind of luck, on into the twenty-first century. And who knows, maybe in thirty years or so, someone will sit down at a word processor and write about how Superman began with a miniseries called THE MAN OF STEEL, which was an introduction to a world of wonder and a fascination that lasted a lifetime.
Byrne also makes clear the nuts and bolts of his mandate:
To try to pare away some of the barnacles that have attached themselves to the company’s flagship title. To try to make the Superman of today as exciting in his right as was that primal Superman of yesterday.
Byrne’s approach in Man of Steel comes off as something of a primer for the character, hitting major story beats we already know, slotting familiar characters into place. There’s little that’s new, and it’s the absences that stand out, beginning in the very first issue, which retells the fate of Krypton. We get a brief glimpse of the planet before it ‘splodes, enough to set up a bit of the gender dynamics Byrne will carry through the series.
Here’s what things look like inside the El marriage:
Byrne’s Krypton is a loveless planet where everyone lives forever until they abruptly don’t. In fact, there’s only room for Kal-El to even be born because one Kryptonian has died, giving Jor-El and Lara the chance to generate a baby. Yup, generate. Kryptonians babies are created through co-mingled genetics and gestated off-site, then raised for some amount of time in a matrix chamber. Which is not a huge deal because it’s not like there are kids around, or parenting manuals for that matter. Suffice it to say, Krypton is not a particularly happy place.
In the World of Krypton miniseries, Byrne goes a step further to reveal that most modern Kryptonians never even hang out in the same room as one another, preferring to telecommunicate. Jor-El and Lara are only together because Jor stole baby Kal’s matrix from the gestation chamber and Lara came down to yell at him about it, establishing a tradition of “shrill women who are wrong about things” that is one of his run’s only through-lines.
Jor-El, who is less a scientist in this telling than he is a historian, has discovered that Krypton’s core has been destabilized and is converting to a radioactive isotope, which it turns out has already killed off twenty million Kryptonians and is about to blow up the whole dang planet. It’s an interesting move by Byrne making Jor-El a historian at a point in the character’s publishing history where there is literally no narrative history to mine, but Jor-El’s historical research looks a lot like a stoned, sullen undergrad watching endless hours of daytime television as part of his “thesis project”.
Byrne also puts the reason for Krypton’s demise deep in the planet’s past. So deep you need a whole new miniseries to exhume it. Despite having Byrne as its writer and Mike Mignola as its penciler, World of Krypton is long out of print. The reason is that it’s not very good. I know you might think, hey, but Mignola art. But this is really early Mignola, before he settled into a distinct or recognizable style. Layout-wise, this looks like watered down John Byrne.
Story-wise, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between World of Krypton and Peter David’ Atlantis Chronicles, which came out three years later and presents the history of Atlantis as a complex mix of mythology and Shakespearian politics. Atlantis Chronicles also benefits from being folded smoothly into Aquaman continuity: when Peter David picks up the character three years later, he begins with Arthur Curry closing a copy of the Atlantis Chronicles, and David’s run on Aquaman weaves the mythological elements from the former series into the latter.
World of Krypton begins with a planet unrecognizable to the reader, opening thousands of years before Kal-El’s birth. Rather than the sci-fi bodysuits we’re used to seeing Kryptonians rock, these proto-Kryptonians are barely-clad in swooshy fantasy garb.
Like Jor-El and Lara, early Kryptonians are basically immortal, but they keep themselves alive by retaining spare parts. Each Kryptonian has three perfect, mindless clones of themselves they can loot for repairs.
Is this relevant to the origin of Superman? No, not at all. Maybe the most disappointing thing about the World of Krypton is that it manages to take an incredibly fucked up plot point and squander the deep weirdness of it. At a party, Kan-Z’s mother announces she’s found the perfect mate for her son, who has apparently had trouble finding someone suitable. But the moment she makes this announcement, Kan-Z crashes the party, shoots mom, and then kills himself, having already killed his fiancee.
After a little investigation, it turns out the fiancee was a clone of mom.
But the plot-relevant point for Byrne isn’t creepy incest. It’s that a clone was given a mind of its own. No one really cares that the clone in question was mom.
Of course you realize, this means war.
You don’t? Yeah, I didn’t either. The reasoning is a little muddy. But there’s war all right, and the first casualty is the city of Kandor, which will not live to be an excellent memento mori/Jim Croce reference in the future. Until someone else changes that. But the off-panel destruction of Kandor is part of the paring down Byrne was tasked with. No more bottle cities in this bold new era. Likewise, Argo City won’t escape the explosion of Krypton, so no Supergirl (at least one that isn’t made of weird pink goo. More on that later. Or not). Byrne erases all other extant Kryptonians. Post-Crisis Superman is the LAST SON OF KRYPTON.
Anyway, the war goes on for a thousand years, during which Kryptonian cloning practices are dropped in favor of..science. And then a group called Black Zero who is all Revenge of the Clones is a Viable Political Platform unleashes their clever plan to very gradually destabilize the planetary core.
Very gradually. As in additional thousands of years.
The third issue of the four-issue series is some poorly structured storytelling in which Jor-El is watching tapes of the end of the Clone Wars, including Black Zero’s fiendish plot. Which apparently no one has watched in a thousand fucking years. Not to be outdone, the fourth issue jumps us to Earth, where a completely unrelated rocket nearly crashes into the Daily Planet, prompting Superman to recount all of this, up to and including the explosion of Krypton, to Lois Lane. In fact, the last four pages of World of Krypton is just the scene that starts Man of Steel, represented word for word, including Jor-El’s awkward confession of love to Lara in the moments between launching little Kal towards Earth and the big blow-up.
Narratively speaking, throwing around thousand year gaps is not the best way to invest a reader in a story. More importantly here, in Byrne’s telling, the residents of Krypton at the time of its demise are in no way responsible for its destruction. Nearly every other version will move away from this into something more interesting, tying the societal choices of Krypton to its fate. But you can see where, in 1987, environmental consequences of societal decisions would have, like, zero relevance for modern readers.
There’s also this bit, which I haven’t been quite able to make sense of.
Apparently after abandoning cloning, Kryptonians genetically engineered themselves to be…humans? But in suits? So Superman is totally human?
It’s also worth noting how and when Superman learns about his own origins. Byrne’s Superman gets shown the rocket he rode in on when he’s a teenage jerk winning football games with superpowers he has just accepted as perfectly normal, and then gives zero fucks about the fact he arrived on Earth via rocket for the rest of the series. As an adult visiting Ma and Pa Kent, he runs into the ghost of his dad and gets the entire history of Krypton, including the conversation his parents had after his rocket blasted off, instantly downloaded into his brain. Hey, you know those superpowers you’ve be ridiculously incurious about? Turns out they are from space and so are you okay bye.
Contrast this with the way the revelation is handled in Donner’s original Superman film, where young Clark creates and enters the Fortress of Solitude, learns his origins, and emerges as Superman, or even Snyder’s Man of Steel film, where Clark has to go and get all beardy and “find himself” before he gets the real lowdown from his Ghost Dad.
Here, the knowledge of his origin has little effect on Superman, who’s already embarked on his heroic career path, indicating that what makes him Superman is tied up in his humanity rather than his otherness. At the end of World of Krypton, recounting all this to Lois Lane (which he’s remembered to do because look, a rocket), he gets all misty, but in Man of Steel, he flies off to the mountains, analyzing this new data with, I am not joking, his “super-fast thought processes” and decides:
His Kryptonian origin amounts to not much more than “curious mementos of a life that could have been.” With a story that seems to lack any connection to the continuity it’s setting up, it’s easy to imagine why Byrne would dismiss the Kryptonian material even within the text of Man of Steel. It’s easily the part of Superman’s mythology Byrne is least interested in.
But the rejection of his otherness and full embrace of his humanity has consequences for the way this Superman comes off. Byrne’s portrayal of the Clark/Superman split plays mostly for sitcom-level laughs, largely at Lois’s expense, without engaging in a sense of duality, and that portrayal grows from this moment here: the rejection of the part of himself that is other. As with Moore’s take on the character, Byrne’s Superman is fundamentally human.
I’ll look at what kind of human next time, with some more Man of Steel, and Byrne’s World of Smallville.