My Misspent Youth: The Man of Steel by John Byrne

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.


We are inescapably trapped in the age of the reboot, a time when different examples of recurring storytelling are endlessly recast, reimagined, carefully traced and presented as new. Tobey McGuire gives way to Andrew Garfield and Brandon Routh proves to be a mere placeholder between Christopher Reeve and Henry Cavill. This isn’t an entirely modern phenomenon, as George Lazenby could surely explain, but it’s reaching new heights of prevalence and pervasiveness. This is especially true in the field of comic books, where the dwindling viability of the Big Two publishers, DC Comics and Marvel Comics, have led them in recent years to desperately try constant restarts–of varying degrees of severity–to keep the interest of the small cadre of aging fans that make up their chief customer base.

There was a time when just such an approach was incredibly rare, largely due to a different sort of fanbase fealty, namely the need to adhere to a rigid continuity where every story counted. In fact, one of the only instances I can recall from my high school days, probably the peak of my fervent comic book devotion, occurred when DC Comics lured away one of their competitor’s prize creators, assigning writer-artist John Byrne the duty of modernizing the company’s flagship character, Superman. This wasn’t simply the the prime mover in a single line of comics. This was the character that started it all, at that time nearly fifty years earlier. Formally and noisily starting that character anew was a big deal.


Byrne began the process with a six-issue mini-series entitled The Man of Steel. It established a new status quo by going all the way back to the beginning, opening with the launch of a spaceship bearing an infant named Kal-El away from the exploding planet Krypton. All the familiar story points are dutifully ticked off, with a little more thought and then patient explication devoted to the personal development that might lead to a super-powered individual becoming a paragon of truth, justice and the American way as opposed to an oppressive ruler of these puny earthlings he could easily best with nothing more than a overheated glance. Byrne astutely figured out that the story of Superman was really the story of Clark Kent. Kansas meant more than Krypton.


I was a fervently follower of Byrne at the time, collecting each and every title he had a hand in, even if it centered on a character that otherwise didn’t usually hold my interest. I also opted for Marvel over DC in that nerdly debate, but I gladly jumped ship to follow my favorite comics creator to what promised to be a landmark series (as a comics fan, I’m also well-trained to find landmark series or issues absolutely irresistible). I was also completely suckered in, as was intended, by the opportunity to see the various relationships of this character get established, making well-worn supporting figures like Lois Lane and Perry White suddenly seem momentous. And hundreds of prior teamings were wiped away when Superman encountered Batman for the very first time. In continuity, anyway (which, as I’ve noted, was all that truly mattered).


I remember liking the series a great deal. In fact, it helped rejuvenate my interest in superhero comics. These were character I hadn’t already been following for several years, making everything seem very fresh to me. Since their was a barely veiled effort across the entire line to help the DC characters shake off their stodginess and become more like their Marvel equivalents–more nuanced and psychologically complicated–it was sort of like getting a newly imagined version of my preferred fictional superhero universe to follow. Again, this is surely what was intended. Looking back at it now, it’s not exactly riveting, innovative material, and the obvious efforts to think through every facet of Superman’s powers and being sometimes leads to fairly pedantic storytelling digressions. I know comic fans are obsessed with particulars, but I’m not convinced anyone picked up the series because they were hoping to answer the age-old question, “How does Superman shave?” but Byrne made sure he included a few panels addressing that issue anyway.


My snarky observation aside, I can’t view The Man of Steel as anything other than a success. I was completely susceptible to it, a model comic book customer as far as DC Comics was concerned. With one hire, DC titles outnumbered those of Marvel in my monthly purchases as I not only picked up Byrne’s two ongoing series featuring Superman but a small array of related (or semi-related) titled that interested me. And I stuck with it as long as Byrne did, buying faithfully until around a year-and-a-half into his run on the ongoing titles when he quit, dissatisfied with his editorial overseers, a motivation for departure that would happen with increasing frequency for the creator in the years ahead. I have to give him credit, though: he provided a fine introduction to a whole other universe for me. And he still draws a pretty good Superman.

Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith
Marvel Two-in-One by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Fantaco’s “Chronicles” series
Fantastic Four #200 by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard
The Incredible Hulk #142 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe
Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
Godzilla by Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe
Giant-Size Avengers #3 by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas and Dave Cockrum
Alpha Flight by John Byrne
Hawkeye by Mark Gruenwald
Avengers by David Michelinie and George Perez
Justice League by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire
The Thing by Dan Slott and Andrea DiVito
Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
Marvel Premiere by David Kraft and George Perez
Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars by Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck
Micronauts by Bill Mantlo and Butch Guice
Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
What If? by Mike W. Barr, Herb Trimpe and Mike Esposito
Thor by Walt Simonson
Eightball by Dan Clowes
Cerebus: Jaka’s Story by Dave Sim and Gerhard
Iron Man #150 by by David Michelinie, John Romita, Jr. and Bob Layton
Bone by Jeff Smith

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