Last Sons of Krypton: The John Byrne Reboot, Part Three

It’s been a long road to Metropolis, but we’ve finally arrived. I mean, technically, story-wise, we’ve already been. But now we’re here in full cape, which is a whole other thing.

I want to get to the main four issues of Man of Steel, and I’m very close. But first I need to quickly address World of Metropolis, the third of three miniseries Byrne wrote in year two of his run that laid the groundwork for Superman’s new status quo. I mean, they don’t really. I would say the total useful backstory imparted by these twelve issues amounts to like a page and a half. And World of Metropolis is arguably the worst of the bunch. At this point, Byrne gives zero fucks for the World Of… series. You can see the boredom with the back half of World of Smallville, where Byrne is recycling dialogue, assembling a clip show of comics that were only a year or two old.

World of Metropolis is marginally better in that it’s new story. But the stories are…not so great. The first issue focuses on Perry White as he returns home from Vietnam. Where he was held prisoner. Sound familiar? Byrne works in a line about eating dog, just so you know his Asian Stereotype game is still strong. Like young Jonathan Kent, Perry’s beloved has been catting around while he’s out there defending democracy. But Alice has been catting around with [drumroll]…

Lex Luthor!

Who laughs like a totally normal human being, incidentally.

Yup. Nothing weird about that.

The story doesn’t really go anywhere. Lex and Perry used to be besties, until Lex slept with Perry’s girl and told him newspapers were a dying medium. Perry wins his girl back, and arranges to have the Daily Planet bought out by maybe an Asian crime boss? And possibly we’re supposed to get the impression that Lex is the biological father of Perry and Alice’s children.

Also, we find out that young Lois Lane had a big ol’ crush on Perry White.

But what ten year old hasn’t had a big ol’ crush on a newspaper reporter, am I right?

[stares longingly at a picture of David Fahrenthold]

The second issue zeroes in on Lois, and follows up on the above-pictured meet cute. At age fifteen, Lois tries to land a job at the Planet by…breaking into LexCorp to steal a stack of random documents. Really, this is her plan. She gets caught. And has her clothes shredded by Lex’s security team? And then gets personally spanked by Lex Luthor:

What the actual fuck.

Lois manages to sneak a scrap of paper the size of half a post-it into her mouth and give it to Perry (ewww), and although it’s not usable, it confirms to Perry that Lex is up to no good, and he gives Lois a job I guess.

The third issue is essentially “the sexual education of Clark Kent”, and the fourth is a Jimmy Olsen story wherein Jimmy Olsen is not a very good friend to someone and she almost commits suicide by overdose, but then he turns up his stereo really loud, summoning Superman, who saves her, and then they go out for burgers. I could take more time with these issues and talk about how Byrne’s women are consistently awful, from the cougar Clark hooks up with and then drops, to Jimmy’s smothering mother, but Byrne gives plenty to work with on this front, so I’m going to move on.

Oh, I should mention that World of Metropolis is drawn by Win Mortimer, creator of the BatBoat. So there. I have mentioned it. Mortimer was one of the workhorses in DC’s stable, and was nearly seventy by the time he drew this. It’s basically his last work. Schaffenberger’s work on World of Smallville makes the book feel somewhat timeless, especially in the first two issues, but Mortimer’s art makes World of Metropolis feel dated to the point of dead on arrival. The flying sequences in issue three are noticeably clunky and static, but the rest of it is, you know, fine. Better art wouldn’t have saved the series, let’s put it that way.

All right! On to the good stuff! Or at least, the significantly better stuff!

Byrne’s art really hits stride in the middle parts of Man of Steel. The pacing on some of the panels is really strong, like this bit of schtick with a mugger:

Byrne goes to these widescreen panel layouts throughout the series, and they work, even when the message they’re conveying is less than palatable.

Yep, the old “never hit a lady” gag was just crying out to be revived in 1987.

I think I may have mentioned it earlier, but Byrne is very consciously trying to create images that are iconic here, reestablishing the visual language of Superman at the same time he rewrites his origins. Supes does plenty of posing throughout, and I’ve got to say it works. As the eighties wind down, Byrne remains what you might consider a fairly traditional artist, and Man of Steel contains very few full-page splashes, save the title and end pages. Even these don’t, for the most part, highlight Superman himself. But with Byrne flowing from this book into the main Superman title, and the not-dissimilar-in-style Jerry Ordway penciling Action Comics alongside him, Byrne’s iconography takes solid root. I grew up reading Superman in the Mullet Era, and Jurgens’ Supes draws heavily on Byrne’s, while adding a mullet.

By the way, the best artist of the Mullet Era is Jon Bogdanove on the second volume of Man of Steel, with Louise Simonson writing. This is objective truth.

Fight me.

Byrne also pulls really hard here to establish Superman as Lawful Good, less in the sense of code-driven than in the sense of law-abiding. He is a nice guy who follows the rules. All of them.

It’s curious Byrne takes this tack, because while his Superman abides by the rules, his Clark Kent is a cheater who cheats. Clark gets his job at the Planet by interviewing himself, and we get the impression he’s regularly out there scooping Lois using his superpowers, which is a dick move, especially given that he’s got an instant crush on her, which we’ll get to in a minute. In issue three, Superman’s love of the law runs him right up against Batman, who considers a criminal vigilante in an obvious case of the pot calling the kettle black.

This goody-goody version of Superman is one subsequent writers have run screaming from, and it brushes up hard against the swagger Byrne wants to imbue Supes with. At times, it makes Superman come off like a high powered hall monitor, or at best insensitive. I mean, that lady with the boombox had just been mugged? Is it really the time to call her out on a noise complaint?

The Superman-Batman dynamic plays out pretty well, although Byrne pushes them both out to their extremes in terms of character. Superman is the “gee golly” do-gooder, Batman is the “by any means necessary” crime fighter. It’s a solid place for them to start, an to an extent, this will define the way the two characters bounce off each other for the next couple decades. The logical endpoint of their antagonism (Superman understanding himself as embodiment of the law, Batman understanding himself as beyond it, representing something larger) is the Bats/Supes fight at the end of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and we’ll get there. God help us, that is a place we will go. Miller picks up on something Byrne seeds here: Superman’s alignment with law. It’s natural and believable that this version of Superman would end up a sanctioned agent of the government, which in Miller’s imagining, makes him a stooge.

The best Superman-Batman stories, for my money, are the ones in which each character inches a little closer to the other. Byrne doesn’t manage that here. There’s very little change over the course of the issue, and when Superman decides to let Batman go, it’s not because he’s changed his mind on vigilantism. He promises he’ll be keeping an eye on Bats, who’s been rooking him the whole time.

The next major relationship Byrne lays out (and yes, I am skipping the big one) is the Superman/Luthor rivalry. There are a lot of ways to come at this one, from a childhood history, to Luthor as a xenophone. Byrne keeps it fairly simple, centering the rivalry to some degree on Lois. Yup, there’s a bit of romantic involvement between Lois and Lex. Lex who spanked her with a fireplace poker when she was fifteen. Byrne’s ambiguous as to the extent of the relationship, but let’s be honest here and say that any extent is gross.

Luthor is played as the rich guy who wants most whatever he can’t buy, so naturally he tries to buy both Lois and Superman. You can take that parallel and run with it if you’d like, because villainy as thwarted homosexual desire never gets old, and Frank Miller turns it up to eleven with his version of the Joker. Superman adds insult to injury by arresting Luthor.

As with the Batman encounter, Superman is aligned with the law, practically deputized by…I guess that guy is the Mayor? There’s some coloring issues that make it hard to track. Just like Batman, Luthor effectively tricks Superman into doing what he wants. But here, Superman decides the lines crossed have been too severe and carts Luthor off to prison.

Since we’re talking legality, this is a good place to stop and ask, “What does LexCorp do?” The answer, of course, is “I have no idea.” From what we’re given here, it’s clear that LexCorp:

  1. Includes media interests.
  2. Does some sciencing sometimes.
  3. Owns a boat.

The next issue jumps ahead to a point where Superman and Lex are already enemies, and this underlines something about the structure of Man of Steel that makes it an easy target. It’s not really set up as a story. There’s almost no throughline connecting any two of the issues, much less all six. Even Superman doesn’t get anything recognizable as a character arc. None of that is in the brief. Byrne is checking boxes here, setting up stuff that will pay off later. And it does. This era of Superman gives us a Lex Luthor driven to obsession, madness, death, and resurrection-as-younger-Lex-with-fucking-awesome-hair arc that is truly standout, and that really does define Luthor, if not both characters.

Which makes me wonder if I’m judging some of this unfairly. For one thing, it’s difficult not to hold it up next to Miller’s Batman: Year One and find it wanting. Year One becomes the template for origin retellings in comics, while Man of Steel feels like a collection of Secret Origin issues, filling in bits and pieces of Superman’s backstory. And they are just unconnected bits: they don’t add up to anything. They don’t aggregate into a story. They’re not loaded with hints of what’s to come. They feel aimed at an already-savvy Superman reader, someone who’s bringing a whole lot of pre-Crisis knowledge with them. Of course, that’s the thing with clear-the-decks comics reboots: all that old continuity keeps creeping back in, until finally it punches a wall and changes time. That will make sense to some of you at some point maybe.

Superman gets his own Year One-style books, and I’ll get around to them. But again, this isn’t that, and while I can call the book out for some of its mistakes, failing to do something it’s not attempting shouldn’t be one of them.

There’s one more thing I want to get into before I move on from Byrne. And it is not the Bizarro who is a clone of Superman that turns into dust which can cure blindness. And it is certainly not the time Superman and Big Barda made a porn video, because that is thankfully outside the scope of these essays.

It’s the relationship between Superman and Lois.

And look, that is a hard nut to crack. The whole “dating with a secret identity” trope is one that doesn’t translate to the 21st century very well. If you want proof, look at the Marvel movies and the CW superhero shows. The former never bothered with secret identities until the recent Spider-Man film, and the latter only managed one season of deception for each of its core heroes before Ollie and Barry each outed themselves to the girls they loved.

Because narratively, it means your female lead is being duped. And perhaps no female character in comics has been duped as badly and for as long as Lois Lane. She’s an investigative reporter obsessed with Superman. We’re supposed to believe she’s fantastically good at her job, but also that she can’t see the thing right in front of her.

Then there’s the flip side: it means your virtuous hero is a fucking liar. He is lying to the person he loves. All the time. It’s not a good look. Especially when it leads to situations like this:

Superman grinning as Lois informs him that Clark’s been “wearing down” her resistance. Leave off that the “wearing down her resistance” style of courtship is some hot bullshit. This is the face of a man enjoying the fuck out of his deception. Byrne builds a practical joke into the relationship, one that can only play out at Lois’s expense. Because Superman holds all the power in the relationship. And knows everyone’s address:

WHY DOES HE KNOW WHERE EVERYONE LIVES? There is some kind of yellow sun/Yellow Pages joke to be made here, but for the life of me, I can’t find it.

Lois feels too often like the butt of the joke. The reader sees her first through Superman’s eyes, and gets this unflattering assessment, which Clark recounts to his father in issue one:

“She’s, like, a Smallville nine, dad. But in Metropolis, a seven? But spunky.”

(Also I guess no one told the colorist her eyes were going to be described as “dark.”)

I mentioned earlier that one way Byrne tries to make Lois stand out as a character is by having her be the only female in the book with any agency. And he’s clearly drawing on Margot Kidder’s performance on film, moreso than his Superman draws from Reeve’s. But he misses something steely in the way Kidder plays Lois, and ends up starting her off as shrill and bumbling.

In her professional relationship with Clark, she’s petty and shallow. In her dealings with Luthor she’s a strange mix of materialistic and naive. I’m in the camp that Lois Lane works best when she is either unattached to Clark or Superman, or when she knows his identity. Lois constantly gulled is near-impossible to pull of well for a modern audience. But it feels like Byrne isn’t even trying, that he was saddled with the character as a matter of tradition. His framing of her encourages the audience to see her the way Superman does: at best adorable, but a little foolish.

And if that’s how Superman sees the woman he loves, how does he see the rest of us?

In the end, what can we say about Byrne’s Superman? I think the most important thing is that he identifies fully as human, never feeling like an outsider, never feeling apart. His dual identities line up pretty closely: he carries himself as Clark with the same confidence he does in the cape. He is deeply aligned with the law, blithe to his own vigilante status. So far, we have only one Superman to compare him to, that being Moore’s. And I wonder, would Byrne’s Superman make the choice Moore’s does at the end of “Whatever Happened”, would this Superman erase his powers for violating his personal code? Could he find real happiness in an everyday life with Lois, or Lana, or anyone else, the way Moore’s does?

I have to think the answer is no. It’s easier to imagine Byrne’s Superman submitting himself to a trial than carrying out his own sentence. And I don’t think he has a concept of what it might mean to be “just human”, because to his mind, he already is. He’s just much better at it than everyone else.

Okay, next time, for something completely different, I’m jumping into Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come, which, although it’s branded as an Elseworlds book and should thus come under the heading of Strange Visitors, I’m going to treat it like the Ragnarok it so badly wants to be and file it under Men of Tomorrow. After that, we’re going to stick with Waid for a bit, reading his Birthright series with Leinil Yu and the Superman 2000 proposal by Waid, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, and Tom Peyer. That one gives us a lot of potential paths to head down. Start on Morrison (and if so, where to start)? Millar’s Red Son? Waid’s brutal dissection of the character he most dearly loves but can never have with Irredeemable?

Lots of good stuff coming up. Thanks for making it this far.

PS: If for some reason you’re curious, the World of Krypton series has actually been reprinted in a “DC Universe of Mike Mignola” book. The only creators I can think of that have gotten these odds and sods collections from DC are Moore, Gaiman, and Brian K. Vaughan. But if you’re looking for Mignola drawing DC characters, you’re better off picking up Cosmic Odyssey. World of Smallville and World of Metropolis remain out of print, which, ultimately, is for the best.

“Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern.” -Frank O'Hara

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