Men of Tomorrow: Reign of the Supermen

I want to start out by stating my completely correct opinion that Wally West is the best Flash. I feel that this is an important baseline to have established as we move forward.

Because Reign of the Supermen kicks off what I always think of as the Legacy Era of DC Comics, even directly precipitating the introduction of a major legacy character, and Wally West is in many ways the exception to everything else I might say here about replacement superheroes.

So let’s talk about replacements. There is a current strain in fandom that seems to view them as inherently bad. Although they didn’t arrive at that judgment until the replacements stepping in were not cishet white males. Funny that. But yes, replacement superheroes are an age old tradition. You can make the argument that Hal Jordan and Barry Allen are already replacements for Alan Scott and Jay Garrick. It’s not a terribly interesting argument, but you can put it out there if you’re so inclined.

But there is a sort of split between legacy and replacement. Wally is clearly a legacy hero: he’s done his apprenticeship under Barry Allen, and he takes up the mantle of his idol after Barry’s death. Replacement heroes tend to represent a break in legacy. Kyle Rayner is given the Green Lantern ring randomly after the Corps and the Guardians have been destroyed, rather than having it entrusted to him by his predecessor. Artemis gets the title of Wonder Woman through some pretty shady Amazonian dealings. Connor Hawke takes up the bow and quiver that rightly belong to Roy Harper.

Actually, can I pause us here to talk about the death of Green Arrow and how hard it teased the Dark Knight Returns future? In case you haven’t read it, Green Arrow #100 ended with Superman about to save Ollie from a plane crash by forcibly amputating his arm.

Reading as a kid still obsessed with DKR, it blew my mind. And then the plane exploded and Ollie died. So, you know, never mind.

The replacement hero from this era who most explicitly breaks the legacy chain is Jean Paul Valley taking up the mantle of the Bat as part of the Knightfall storyline. The comics take a lot of time exploring this, so much so that the metatext around the replacement is practically text. But the gist of it was that, as comics in the 90s hit their grim-and-gritty nadir, a Batman who didn’t kill came off as decidedly quaint. The Bat-books decided to give the people what they thought they wanted, replacing an emotionally exhausted Bruce Wayne with a Batman covered in blades and flames and shit. Seriously, let’s take a moment to marvel at the sheer ninetiesness of the AzBats costume in its final form.

If fans saw Batman as quaint, they viewed Superman as a veritable relic. He’s the James Taylor of superheroes. So when it came time to replace him, or at least make a narrative feint at doing so, the writers had to come up with versions of the character that expressed what readers claimed they wanted. Younger, hipper, edgier. And you could take your pick.

As a naive kid, still new to reading comics, I had the sense we the audience were deciding. Voting with our dollars. The first third of the Reign of the Supermen storyline kept each of the four replacements pretty well locked in their own books, which strengthened that sense. And I had recently learned of the Jason Todd stunt, so it seemed like this was the kind of thing comic books just did. It’s sort of hilarious to me now to see that the same misguided conception of my role in the ongoing narrative of major intellectual properties I had in my teens is maintained by grown-ass entitled dudes in current fandom. Only sort of hilarious, but still.

There’s another key difference here, in that these four were not vying to replace Superman, so much as they were attempting to prove they were Superman. In this way, the early parts of Reign of the Supermen has a closer analog in Spider-Man’s Clone Saga, where what’s at stake is a sort of legitimacy claim. It gets a lot of deserved flack, but some of the Clone Saga makes for excellent, high stakes reading. There are times you wish the writers would stop sandbagging Ben Reilly (with, for instance, a terrible dye job) and follow through on the decision to have him be the One True Spider-Man. The Clone Saga ends up being as unsatisfying as it is because it goes on too long and dares too little.

So let’s talk about the four, and let’s talk from the point of view of that naive kid who didn’t know the Real Superman would be back within the year. Superboy and Steel are obviously not the One True Superman. Neither claims to be, and the way their stories interact with the idea of legacy are interesting. Superboy plays out a cracked mirror version of Superman’s debut, meeting up with an attractive female reporter, falling under the sway of Morgan Edge, who is a little bit of an Evil Perry White. Superboy’s assertion of legal copyright on the Superman name plays as a smarmy in-joke, considering the whole concept of Superboy was in and out of legal limbo until somewhat recently, and this version served as a replacement for the copyright-entangled Young Clark version of the character.

Steel’s storyline entwines least with the main narrative, but his stated mission is more about legacy than replacement. He’s out to do good inspired by Superman’s sacrifice, and thankfully the idea of a walk-in spirit is never taken seriously, because holy shit the idea that a black man’s super power is “he is inhabited by the soul of a white guy” would be a remarkably offensive concept moving forward. But in today’s climate of fandom, I have to wonder if quickly removing the possibility of John Henry Irons as the new Superman was done to ward off howling from racist fanboys.

Reign of the Supermen serves as a back-door pilot for the Superboy and Steel series, both of which went on to long runs, fronted for a time by the creative teams that worked on their books here. And, yeah, I think we have to mention it, led to this:

Shit, that’s going to have to be my next post, isn’t it. Shit.

Okay, so how about the other two? Shades and Robotface. Shades is the AzBats of this storyline. Superman’s a softie, you say? You want a Superman that kills? Fine, here you go. Choke on it. A funny thing about Adventures of Superman, in which Sunglasses Superman primarily appears, is how reticent the comics are to show Superman committing acts of violence. The worst incidents are generally described to the audience by bystanders, as if the comics didn’t want to sully the image of Superman. And the decision to have him endorsed by no one’s favorite replacement Green Lantern, Guy Gardner, is clever, but draws attention to the absence of any other heroes in this story. Until near the end, but we’ll get there.

Cyborg Superman is a little tricky, because the books don’t entirely play fair with him. When he’s introduced, we’re given what is ostensibly his interior monolog as he raids S.T.A.R. Labs to retrieve Doomsday’s corpse. And he seems like a good guy! He’s not thinking anything particularly evil, even though we find out much later that he’s already setting up a sort of secondary revenge plan that’ll play out in Superman/Doomsday. So yes, as a kid, I was fooled, at least at the beginning. I was rooting for Cyborg Superman. Not least because, as drawn by Jurgens and Breeding, he is super fucking cool looking. Come on:

Also, yes, he gets overused, but his return in the Geoff Johns Green Lantern run, where is villainous motivation is he just wants to for the love of god die? Love it.

Before we get to Cyborg Superman’s heel turn, we have the reveal of that ol’ comic book staple: a shadowy individual watching a bunch of monitors.

So shady! Much monitors! And of course, the cover caption for this issue is “Who Watches The Supermen?”

Legit Superman’s reentry into the storyline is strangely place and paced. He shows up before the big heel turn, and introduces the problem of three characters running around in what is ostensibly Superman’s actual body. This gets handwaved away by explaining that the Eradicator a Kryptonian weapons system we’ve been calling Sunglasses Superman, was a disembodied energy being who tried to take over Superman’s body, but failed. So he created a matter/energy flux (like you do) and absorbed mass from the tomb to create a body indentical to Superman’s. Then he stole the body (the second time? Possibly third?) and used to to collect solar energy until apparently it woke up. And Cyborg Superman had access to Superman’s genetic code via the birthing matrix chamber that brought Superman to Earth, which ‘Borg used to clone all his Supermannish parts.

Basically everyone in this story is better at cloning Superman than Cadmus Labs, who are actually very bad at cloning Superman.

Legit Supes is very tired and climbs into a Kryptonian battlesuit and then takes five issues to walk from the Fortress of Solitude to Metropolis, echoing the slow approach of Doomsday leading up to the Death of story. How long does it take him? Long enough to grow a fucking mullet.

Before:

After:

Nineties Superman comics are the golden age of beautiful, flowing hair. I would also like to theorize that the point at which Jean Paul Valley became unworthy of the Mantle of the Bat was when he went from this haircut:

to this one:

While Legit Supes is trudging across the ocean floor, Cyborg Superman is engaged in what’s probably the moment of this story with the most lasting impact for the DC Universe. With the help of the inconveniently yellow space villain Mongul, he wipes Coast City off the map.

Coast City is home to Hal Jordan, who will turn out to be very cross indeed about the obliteration of his ‘burg. What this means immediately for readers is that we’re going to have a not-quite crossover with a single issue of Green Lantern that spoils the last issue of Reign of the Supermen, and one last issue of Green Lantern sandwiched between this and a huge creative shift for the book.

Since I’m wildly flying around on tangents anyway, it seems worth mentioning why the era of Green Lantern that effectively ends here isn’t better known or regarded. The crossover issue is #46, with Ron Marz taking over writing duties for #48, the first issue of Emerald Twilight, which sets up the fall of Hal Jordan and introduces replacement Lantern Kyle Rayner. In part, the era previous is simply overshadowed. Kyle Rayner was solidly popular as a replacement, and the heel turn-redemption arc for Hal Jordan is compelling if highly convoluted. But the other thing is, Green Lantern #46 is likely the only issue of this series you’re ever going to see in a trade paperback. Up to this point, the series was written by Gerard Jones, who is currently serving a sentence for possession of child pornography. The 2016 charges, and Jones’ guilty plea, led DC to cancel plans to collect his run on Green Lantern after the first volume, which I’m going to guess, will be allowed to lapse from print. If you are in the small group of folks hoping to see 90s Ultraverse Comics collected, bad news on that front. Jones was a major writer on the startup universe, and even if the myriad legal issues around copyright were resolved, Marvel’s (the major rights holder) no more likely than DC to cut Jones a royalty check.

Oh, and the first issue of Jones’ Prime series for Ultraverse features a Shazam-inspired kid-become-hero brutally beating his gym teacher for ogling female students. Yep, really.

Okay. The Cyborg blows up Coast City, beats the ever-living shit out of Sunglasses Superman, and splorches Superboy in the face. Remember earlier when I mentioned a reticence to show graphic violence. Not so much here.

But both of them are sort of okay, and we get a lot of the necessary but annoying moving characters around the board that people nitpick Game of Thrones over. I am here to inform you that geography is the enemy of narrative fun, and half the reason I’m writing this today is to avoid the part of my novel where I have to move characters around the board in a way that makes temporal sense. It sucks and I hate it.

But they all converge in Metropolis, and then they all high-tail it to Coast City, which is now called Engine City because sure. And then they all fight.

Oh yes, Supergirl is here too. But she is invisible. Post Crisis Supergirl could do that sometimes, I guess.

Superman is still only kind of strong and can jump pretty well, so he has a lot of comedically huge guns. It was the nineties, we all had a lot of comedically huge guns.

One of my favorite plot points here is how Superman has no idea what Cyborg Supes is even mad about.

This doesn’t hit Stryfe in The X-Cutioner’s Song levels of petulance, but it’s one of those moments where you can feel writers inserting overly invested fans into the villain role. This will hit its apotheosis with Superboy Prime, but I will make them pay for that thing they didn’t realize they did to me is sort of a Superman trope (see also Conduit, except maybe don’t because that story is not great).

It’s a big, complicated fight, featuring a couple instances of science-y sciencing, and Cyborg Superman somehow able to talk without a jaw:

Until eventually, Cyborg Superman scales down his plans from “make Earth into another WarWorld by building two big rockets on it” to “okay only one rocket and the Earth will spin out of control” to “how about I spray Superman with a hose full of kryptonite?” Except that the Eradicator is also a prism somehow or something and turns the kryptonite to I guess the opposite of kryptonite and restores all of Legit Supes’ strength although not his shirt.

Even that is cool, because Post-Crisis Supergirl also has shirt-restoration powers. Cyborg Supes gets vibrated into tiny bits, and our hero is properly returned to his true form.

I wonder to what extent the Death and Return of Superman is the point at which death in comics becomes narratively no big deal. From a marketing and sales point of view, it is still a big deal, if to varying degrees. But the impact of his death on Superman’s ongoing story is kind of minimal, and that remains the model for quite a while. Morrison’s JLA does a little exploration of what a resurrected Superman means, or at the very least it feels essential in that run that Superman has been resurrected. But the Superman titles in the wake of this storyline return quickly to status quo, until the Superman Red/Superman Blue thing.

For contrast, I’m thinking of the last two seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where Buffy’s death continues to shape the motivations of the characters, or how the loss of Barry Allen, the conflicted feelings about his legacy, impact long runs on The Flash by both Mark Waid and then Geoff Johns. Maybe it was simply that playing up the resurrection aspect would mean Superman became too blatantly a Christ figure. But the everyday nature of death and return in comics sort of begins right here, and it feels as if an opportunity gets missed. Maybe we should have had a couple years of Superman as a religious figure to the people of the DC Universe (Morrison more or less does this in DC One Million), maybe this was the chance to explore how faith works in a world with godlike beings who come back from the dead.

Instead, we return to fighting the Toyman and the latest iteration of Bizarro, with the sense that we’ve seen the biggest story Superman can contain. Over the next two years, nearly all of DC’s major characters would be replaced and, in most cases, restored, and the line as a whole would settle into a routine of one “huge” line-wide crossover per year, trying to recapture the high stakes of a storyline that kicked off in a room full of frustrated writers in 1992, their plans for a wedding so stymied by corporate interference that they let them selves ask what if.

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

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store