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

Reading Byrne’s Man of Steel in tandem with the World of… miniseries that followed it calls added attention to the structure of MoS, which begins on Krypton, moves to Smallville, then Metropolis, and repeats this in reverse as it moves to its ending. For my purposes, that means leaving Metropolis until last, which is unfortunate. The Metropolis sections, or chapters wherein Superman is being Superman, are the real strengths of Byrne’s series. We’ll get to them shortly.

Before we do, I should say something about my feelings on John Byrne, because it’d be disingenuous to pretend I don’t have any. By the time I started reading comics, Byrne was an established Legend, based, to my mind, mostly on his X-Men work with Chris Claremont. I knew his artistic style from other things, but when I thought of Byrne, it was that early X-Men stuff I was seeing. His later style, which he’s well settled into by the time he jumps to DC, is more detailed and defined without getting fussy. He favors a thicker line that to me always makes his art look “classic” rather than “modern” in the sense of post-Image Comics modernity. The closest analogs are Jerry Ordway and George Perez, but Byrne’s work is sharper and prettier than Ordway, and never strays into the pack the panel feeling of Perez.

But look, when a creative partnership breaks up, and there’s some bitterness, a fan is going to take sides. And in the Claremont/Byrne split, I was staunchly pro-Claremont, which has colored my take on Byrne since. The man has not done himself any favors in terms of his interactions with fans; since the inception of the internet, he’s had a rep for being prickly in forums and chat rooms. A lot of it boils down to no one has a higher opinion of John Byrne than John Byrne.

This seems especially important given the project he’s working on here, which is to revamp the most iconic of superheroes. And I’m sure there are fans for whom their Superman is the one drawn by John Byrne. But for me, this series never hits that iconic level in the way certain other artists do. A lot of this comes down to reading Man of Steel late. To paraphrase someone’s comment about music, the best Superman is whichever one you were reading when you were twelve. And, for me, this isn’t that.

But anyway. Back to what’s on the page.

Man of Steel doesn’t spend much time in Smallville, partly because one of the “barnacles” DC wanted removed from Superman’s history was his time as Superboy. Byrne’s version skips over Clark Kent’s childhood altogether, deleting the time pre-teen, pre-Crisis superpowered Clark spent swooping around in junior-sized Superman togs. This isn’t due to the legal issues around the character, which are legion. At this point, DC owned the trademark and had bought the copyright to Superboy, and within a year would launch a syndicated show (which I am working on digging up). But as far as the comics went, Superboy was out. This created continuity problems elsewhere in the DC Universe, since Superboy was a founding member of the futuristic Legion of Superheroes, but those problems would be someone else’s to deal with.

In Byrne’s telling, we meet Clark Kent on the football field, where he singlehandedly wins the game for Smallville High. His performance earns him praise from cheerleaders, and scowls from teammates as well as his dad.

From the start, it’s important to Byrne that Clark Kent is no loser. Pushing back against the schlubbish portrayal of Clark delivered by Christopher Reeve, Byrne’s Clark enters the scene carried on the shoulders of cheerleaders and swooned over by Lana Lang, who gets a one-panel appearance in Man of Steel’s first issue. Pa Kent pulls Clark away from Lana to express his disappointment, and to give Clark a first hint as to his origin by showing him the rocket he landed in.

This apparently raises no questions for Clark, whose powers have been present for over a year. Upon discovering that the Kents are not his biological parents and that he was found in a spacecraft, Clark resolves to leave Smallville and help others, but not before he makes one more visit, which the book keeps secret for now. Spoiler: it’s to see Lana Lang. But since the character’s gotten one panel of build up, it’s just as well Byrne doesn’t try to milk their parting for emotional pay-off. Yet.

Clark returns home after seven years of anonymous do-goodery after making headlines staving off a plane crash over Metropolis. Because we’re modernizing, it’s a space plane. Clark’s distraught over being outed.

To be fair, we’ve seen this moment go worse. The “maybe you shouldn’ta saved that busload of kids from drowning” speech delivered by Kevin Costner in Snyder’s Man of Steel films stands out for me as one of the most wrong-headed reads on the Kent family. But Pa Kent doesn’t have much in the way of advice here either. Instead, he contributes his two greatest skills: espionage and graphic design.

It’s tough to get around the identity issue with Clark Kent and Superman, and for the most part it works best when it’s addressed least, which is the path Byrne takes here. Hair combed back and a pair of glasses and bam, Clark Kent bears no resemblance to Superman. Having Ma and Pa Kent design and create the Superman costume further marks Byrne’s Superman, not just Clark, as human, as opposed to later versions that tie the costume (and the identity it contains) to his Kryptonian heritage. But at this point, Clark isn’t aware of that heritage; Superman is the child of Ma and Pa Kent.

World of Smallville spends a little more time with the Kents, focusing on them for two of its four issues. Drawn by Kurt Schaffenberger, who inked Curt Swan’s pencils on the second part of “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”, the series evokes classic romance comics, including the covers, which by the way I love.

I love that in sequence they give the impression of an infinite regression image. I also love that the emotional sequence is Shock Shock Manhunter Shock.

Anyway.

I don’t want to spend this whole time hammering Byrne on his gender politics, but man, it is tough to read all of this together and not see patterns form.

Clark learns that his mother was married to someone else before she was married to his father. His level of shock is that of a teenager discovering that their parents have had sex in the past and may continue to do so. In fact, Clark is so shocked he flies to the moon to think things over. Keep in mind: when he found out he was an alien, a quick jaunt to a nearby mountain was enough to clear his head. But finding out mom may have fucked someone other than dad? To the moon!!!

Both World of Smallville and World of Metropolis are told primarily in framed flashbacks, and this one is delivered by Jonathan Kent. Returning from World War II, where he’s been a prisoner of “the Japs” (Byrne does the “not at all racist” thing where Character X uses a slur, another character says, “But Character X, you can’t say ____” and Character X responds, “I know, but I seriously hate ____.” While Jonathan was away, his high school sweetheart Martha up and married another man, a local businessman who luckily is dying of cancer. Cancer Guy invites Jonathan over for cigars and to ask if maybe he could take Martha off his hands once he dies, which he almost immediately does.

What does Martha think about this swap? Ha ha, just kidding, no one asks her.

The book jumps directly from the reading of Cancer Guy’s will to the Kent’s later struggles with fertility, and the juxtaposition seems to imply that Martha’s barren because of all that sexing around she did when she pity-married Cancer Guy. Which is some vintage “ruined woman” misogyny for you.

The vintage feel of World of Smallville (and World of Metropolis) make them hard to figure out. The first two issues of Smallville in particular are fun to read until you realize they were written and published in 1988 rather than, say, 1958. Moreover, it’s tough to understand why in an effort to “modernize” Superman, you’d lean so heavily on archaic narrative forms. There’s some evidence DC wasn’t thrilled with what Byrne was doing: the retro cover dress sported by World of Smallville got dropped before World of Metropolis, which returned to the cover dress of the more successful Man of Steel series.

Setting the Kents aside, Man of Steel returns to Smallville in its last issue, where a trip home leads Clark to discover his Kryptonian heritage via ghost dad, as discussed last post. The revelation is interrupted by a conversation/flashback with Lana Lang that takes us back to a moment alluded to in issue one. We see the night Clark left town and the one last person he had to talk to. On one hand, it’s a good move on Byrne’s part to punt this scene to the end of the series. But it isn’t as if we have more context for Lana Lang in issue six than we did at the end of issue one. Lana explains to Clark that his revelation of his powers that night effectively ruined her life for the last decade, particularly because she’d been expecting a marriage proposal. I alluded to this earlier, but it’s important to come back to how key this is to Byrne’s conception of the character. Clark is the unwitting object of desire here, rather than the boy who has to hide his “true self” and loses the girl as a result, or the bumbling Kansas bohunk who forever exists in the sexual shadow of his perfect alter ego. This understanding of Clark as desirable on his own informs the way Byrne writes the Lois-Clark dynamic, and not always for the better.

Even with Lana carrying little emotional weight, and despite the fact it’s sandwiched between two parts of the Krypton reveal, the scene has a poignancy to it that makes it one of the stronger emotional moments of the series, second only to Clark’s first return to Smallville and his “They all wanted a piece of me” monologue. Lana has come to peace with herself as normal and average, even as Clark is coming to a full understanding that he’ll never be. It might be a stronger moment if Clark seemed to return Lana’s affections, rather than redirecting to Lois, but it feels less like emotional shorthand than other story beats here.

And so of course, they have to go and fuck it all up.

First of all, they retell the scene with clunkier language and lifeless art. Here’s how it looks in Man of Steel #6:

Note the smart touches in the art. The collar of Clark’s robe recalls Superman’s cape, and the shots of Clark and Lana in the first and third panel connect to each other in composition. Lana’s hand on Clark’s guileless face has a believable easy intimacy, while the perspective has Lana shrinking away as she gives up any claim on Clark’s life. Also note he’s got the spit curl going, another way these panels softly blur the division between Clark and Superman.

Then there’s these, from World of Smallville:

Allowing for the fact that, yeah, these are scans and the coloring sucks, look at the composition. The shift of the camera eye turns Clark’s face away from Lana on the page as he delivers his milquetoast declaration of sort-of-kind-of love. Then a bog-standard kiss that he whooshes away in the middle of to change into his costume, even though Lana already knows he’s Superman. In the final panel, Superman’s wearing a goofy grin, while Lana looks…surprised? Maybe at the sheer audacity of a mid-makeout costume change?

It’s a significantly weaker scene. And it’s not the worst of the damage done.

I haven’t read the Millenium crossover that ran through all the DC books a year or so after Crisis, and I’d have been happier not to see its impact here. But the back half of World of Smallville recaps the conversation between Clark and Lana in Man of Steel #6 (so yes, a flashback of a flashback), and then goes on to recap the events that happened in the main Superman books during the Millenium crossover. So it turns out Lana Lang has been mildly mind-controlled by the Manhunters since birth. Or since shortly after birth when they killed her parents and put some space-tech in her babyhead. Which they did to all the children in Smallville (not the parent killing. Just the space-tech babyhead thing). Which they did so all the children of Smallville could observe and report on young Clark Kent, who the Manhunters were deeply interested in because something something space something.

It’s dumb, from a “galaxy-spanning alien plot” point of view. But it also robs Lana of any agency for basically her whole life. The implication is that her “love” of Clark was really more of an obsession programmed into her by the Manhunters. This causes her to ruin her life stalking Clark for the ten years between the two conversations we see in Man of Steel, which sucks a little of the poignancy out.

It’s the robbing of agency that really drives me nuts, especially because it’s so consistent in Byrne’s portrayal of women throughout these books. The only woman who can act for herself is Lois. And you can see why Byrne would do it this way. Lois needs to be exceptional. One problem in writing the Lois-Clark relationship is you have to make a case for why a man who is the epitome of all the good things in humanity ends up with Lois Lane. Sadly, the only way Byrne can do this is to reduce every other woman in the books to vapid shells so that Lois stands out by virtue of her plucky independence.

I know there’s a lot of folks who love this series, and I feel bad hating on it. But fear not: next time, we’re off to Metropolis for the bulk of Man of Steel, and the issues that really work for me as a take, albeit not my preferred one, on Supes.

“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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