Decades before the New 52 and Rebirth, John Byrne was tasked with redefining the Superman mythos…
Written by: John Byrne / pencils by: John Byrne / inks by: Dick Gordiano / colours by: Tom Ziuko
What’s it about?
A young Clark Kent discovers his true heritage and decides to use his powerful abilities for the greater good to become the world’s mightiest hero, Superman…
Following the multiverse shattering event, Crisis on Infinite Earths DC Comics proceeded to refresh their line and produce new, modern retellings of the origins of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman that redefined the comic book titans in the age of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. With Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli set to explore Batman’s beginnings with the four-issue “Year One” storyline and George Perez assigned to tackle Wonder Woman, DC enlisted writer/artist John Byrne to relaunch Superman beginning with a six-issue mini-series called The Man of Steel.
Having already crafted iconic runs on Marvel’s X-Men and The Fantastic Four, Byrne was the perfect choice to bring Superman soaring back into the eighties and give the character firm creative footing heading into the 1990s. Each issue, or ‘book’, of The Man of Steel is a self-contained story that looks at the origin of Superman and a series of ‘firsts’ during the early days of his superhero career. Book One opens with a prologue focusing on the destruction of Krypton before providing a glimpse of Clark Kent’s early years and the space-plane rescue that leads to the birth of Superman and his first encounter with his future love – Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane.
Byrne’s reimagining of Krypton has become highly influential, seen here as a scientifically and technologically advanced society that is relatively emotionless and where offspring are grown artificially inside egg-like genesis chambers are all ideas that would later be incorporated into Mark Waid and Leinil Yu’s Superman: Birthright, in big screen feature Man of Steel and more recently SyFy’s Krypton television series.
Byrne also manages to re-establish other classic elements from the Silver Age and reinterpret them in a way that is less ridiculous than in their earlier iterations, specifically an updated take on the oddball alternative Superman known as ‘Bizarro’ who appears in Book Three as an imperfect clone of the original Superman created by Lex Luthor. Speaking of Luthor, it certainly wouldn’t be Superman without him and the titular villain makes appearances throughout the series as he draws his plans against the Man of Steel, with a slightly more sophisticated and sinister take on the character in comparison to his portrayal on the big screen (as enjoyable as Gene Hackman was in that role).
The highlight of the series though is undoubtedly Book Four, which depicts the first meeting of Superman and Batman. Byrne perfectly nails the relationship between the two, demonstrating the differences in viewpoints and the values each attributes to their pursuit of justice. There’s some nicely executed tension as Superman arrives in Gotham City, initially butting heads with the Dark Knight Detective but both heroes ultimately develop a comradery as they set aside their differing ideologies and work together towards a common goal in pursuit of the criminal known as ‘Magpie’.
With The Man of Steel, Byrne goes beyond the comic book action to dig into the man behind the cape. This focus on characterisation is one of the most appealing aspects of the series as readers get a sense of who Clark Kent really is and how his upbringing by his adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, together with his experiences growing up in Smallville shape the person he is to become. It brings a human quality to Superman that adds layers to the character, making the hero more relatable and interesting.
It goes without saying that great writing in comics needs strong art to visualise it and John Byrne’s compositions are iconic. Whilst modern art is often more flashy and energetic, Byrne’s style is classic and recognisable – his bold, assured character designs and intricate, realistic landscapes and environments give the series a pleasing look that combined with decent scripts makes The Man of Steel a defining point in the history of Superman comics.
The origin of Superman would once again be revisited in 2009’s Superman: Secret Origin by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, following another DC multiverse cataclysm in Infinite Crisis.
All six issues of The Man of Steel are collected in Superman: The Man of Steel – Volume 1, published by DC and is currently available in digital format.