“It is the Earth that makes me human” – Unpacking the audacious brilliance of John Byrne’s Man of Steel

Last month we celebrated Batman’s (official) birthday – now, it’s Superman’s turn. Arguably the first true superhero and inarguably the most influential, the Big Blue Boy Scout made his debut in Action Comics #1, cover dated June 1938. Sure, the issue probably hit spinner racks sometime in May that year, but I’m not really interested in exploring the quirks of Golden Age comic book publishing today. Instead, I want to use the Man of Steel’s real-world debut as a springboard to discuss his fictional origin – or one of them, at least.

See, like his pointy-eared partner in crime(fighting), Superman’s established history underwent a massive shake-up in the late 1980s, after publisher DC Comics hit the reset button on its entire shared universe of titles with the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover event. Unlike Batman: Year One, though, writer/artist John Byrne’s 1986 six issue mini-series Man of Steel didn’t just update and tweak the existing canon, it radically revamped the entire mythos from the ground up.

Yes, Byrne’s approach was nothing short of audacious. He reimagined Superman, his supporting cast, and his rogue’s gallery – heck, his entire world! – in ways that often directly contradicted how they’d been portrayed over the preceding 50 years. What’s even more astounding, though, is that he got away with it. How did Byrne manage to pull off one of the most successful reboots in comics history? Let’s find out!

The paradox of change in comics

Before we go any further, let’s take a moment to talk about change in comics…or rather, the lack of change in comics.

Before Man of Steel, comic book characters were both constantly changing and perpetually static – a paradox born of the serialised nature of their adventures. In practice, this meant that while a protagonist like Superman was immune from ageing or great (lasting) shifts in the status quo, their backstories would nevertheless be tweaked every decade or so, to ensure that each new generation of readers had “their” own version of the character.

Occasionally, a less popular character might be given a dramatic overhaul to try to boost sales, as in the case of Alan Moore’s masterful revitalisation of the Swamp Thing property. However, that only applied to second stringers; if you were hoping to relaunch a top-tier title, you could forget about it.

Of course, there were also instances where a new character would assume the mantle and overall superpowered gimmick of an older character – for instance, Barry Allen adopting the Flash moniker first used by Jay Garrick – but otherwise have nothing to do with their predecessor. Yet even then, once these characters were introduced and found an audience, they themselves quickly become part of the same steady cycle of revision and reversion as the rest of the cape and spandex crowd.

Man of Steel didn’t so much back this trend as run roughshod over it. Capitalising on DC’s commitment to cleaning house, Byrne stripped down the company’s flagship character – a pop culture icon recognised across the entire globe – to his core elements, tossed in the bits he liked from other media adaptations…and then threw whatever was left over in the trash.

Seriously: everything from the Superman/Clark Kent dynamic to the Man of Tomorrow’s famously god-like powerset was recalibrated under Byrne, who seemed hellbent on creating a version of the character that contemporary audiences could connect with and cheer for.

It’s true he didn’t get to implement some of his more drastic proposed changes. Most notably, Superman’s gal pal Lois Lane didn’t end up depicted as his arch villain Lex Luthor’s live-in mistress, nor did his biological mother chaperone her infant son to Earth, only to die from Kryptonite poisoning. For all his freedom, there were still some limits to just how much DC editorial would let Byrne colour outside the lines.

Still, it’s impressive what Byrne did manage to get signed-off – and fortunately, DC’s faith in his instincts paid off in both the short and the long term. Not only was Man of Steel a sales success back in 1986, it sold well in collected trade paperback format in the years since its release. What’s more, it remained the character’s official origin tale for 17 years, informing nearly two decades’ worth of stories during that time.

Then there’s Man of Steel’s influence outside of comics to consider. It’s DNA is present on the big screen in Zack Snyder’s 2013 blockbuster Man of Steel, on TV in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Superman: The Animated Series,and in at least a handful of video games, as well.

So why does Man of Steel work so dang well, when so many other comic book reboots don’t?

Why is Man of Steel such a successful reboot?

The most obvious thing people will point to is Superman’s reduced power levels in Man of Steel. And certainly, it helps to maintain a sense of dramatic tension when your hero can’t travel through time or snuff out an entire star like a birthday candle. Yet the likes of Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Mark Millar have since proven that the character doesn’t need to be depowered to tell an emotionally engaging, high stakes story (provided you have the requisite imagination and storytelling skill).

It also didn’t hurt that Byrne tapped into the appetite for less whimsical, more grounded superhero fare prevalent in the 1980s. However, jettisoning bottle cities and superpowered pets and delivering more credible explanations for Superman’s superhuman abilities and his notoriously implausible disguise wasn’t the secret of Man of Steel’s success, either.

No, where Byrne really nailed it was in his approach to the Superman and Clark Kent personas, an area where Byrne broke most with tradition. His depiction of Clark – now an assertive reporter and former high school football star, not a mild-mannered wallflower – as our hero’s “real” identity was a total gamechanger, and Byrne’s boldest move by far.

Here, readers had a hero they could relate to; somebody who wasn’t spending half his time acting out an over-the-top caricature of a spineless introvert, and crucially, somebody who had an accessible character arc. Over the course of Man of Steel, Clark goes from trying to figure out who he is and where he belongs to finally finding his place and purpose in the world – a journey we can all understand, on some level.

The rest of the alterations to continuity that Byrne wrought in Man of Steel are really just window dressing in comparison to his transformation of its lead character. Even retooling Lex Luthor as a zillionaire corporate tycoon, recasting Superman’s utopian homeworld Krypton as a sterile dystopia (of which he is, at long last, truly the sole survivor!), or repositioning his adoptive parents in a central supporting role, all pale in comparison to this single change.

Unsurprisingly, it was a controversial choice, then and now. Certainly, a strong case can be made that, although Byrne’s take on the Last Son of Krypton undoubtedly broadened his appeal, it also kinda missed the point of the character. As initially envisioned by Siegel and Shuster – and refined by countless writers and artists since – Superman is the ultimate adolescent power fantasy, embodying the idea that beneath our own awkward, feeble exteriors lurks tremendous, unappreciated world-changing power and charisma just waiting to be unleashed.

Byrne’s decision to make Clark a confident go-getter totally undermines this notion, which is probably explains why this portrayal of Superman’s secret identity has been rolled back somewhat in subsequent reboots.

In a similar vein, the way Byrne tackled Superman’s alien heritage has its pros and cons.

Byrne was adamant that Superman (in many ways the ultimate immigrant) identified more closely with the planet where he was raised rather than the homeworld he never knew. This makes for a suitably rousing conclusion in Man of Steel Issue #6, “The Haunting”, where Superman proudly declares that he is more human than Kryptonian. Yet at the same time, by stringently dismissing the upsides that come with embracing both sides of one’s dual birthright, Byrne’s approach comes off as  vaguely problematic at worst, overly simplistic at best.

Which isn’t to say that Byrne doesn’t overcomplicate things where Superman’s heritage is concerned. Easily the best example of this is how Byrne presents a still-gestating foetus (and not a fully developed baby) crash landing on Earth. The upshot of this twist is that Superman is ultimately born on Earth the moment he arrives – a neat idea that nevertheless feels like an unnecessary addition to one of pop culture’s purest, most streamlined origins.

But you know what? None of this diminishes in the slightest what Byrne accomplished with Man of Steel, or his two-year run on Superman and Action Comics that followed (which, frankly, deserves an article of its own).

An undeniably super accomplishment

And Man of Steel really is a monumental achievement.

You can quibble over the changes Byrne made all day long, but there’s no escaping the fact that he took on a near-impossible creative challenge – reinventing one of the most beloved fictional characters of all-time – and somehow stuck the landing.

In short, what he did was…well, “super”.

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