In praise of John Byrne’s Superman

If you talk to most comics fans they’ll reel off the big turning points of comics in the 80’s. Watchmen, Dark Knight, Maus will be first out the block. Maybe Frank Miller’s Daredevil run, possibly Love and Rockets, maybe even Crisis on Infinite Earths which did kick DC Comics back to life. Few will mention John Byrne’s run on Superman from 1986 to 1988 which is a pity as this showed not only to handle Superman, but how to revamp a character by bringing in newer, updated elements while staying faithful to the roots. Not an Alan Moore style total reimagining,  but something fresh and old at the same time.

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And it is forgotten how huge Byrne’s Superman was. The mainstream media picked up on it which helped turn Superman from a comic which barely registered on most people’s radar to the essential purchase if you were a superhero comic reader, or indeed, just a reader of comics.

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See, for most people in 1986, Superman was one of four, maybe five superheroes (the others being Batman, Spider-Man, Hulk and Wonder Woman) the general public knew on sight. Everyone knew who Superman was, and the idea John Byrne was revamping him so that anyone could jump on board from Man of Steel #1 and get what was going on. Which they did. And it sold bucketloads. True, shops did over-order and you can spot how long a dealer has been in business by how many copies of Superman #1 they’re selling cheap, but the fact Superman titles were selling was extraordinary.

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Byrne played it right. He seriously depowered Superman so he could be beaten in a fight but a villian who wasn’t as powerful as a God, plus he made Clark Kent likeable and interesting. Byrne also slowly bled in the scale of the DC Universe, so eventually crossovers happened and Superman became a Big Thing in DC’s titles again.

For a few years Byrne crafted some great little superhero tales,  and for me it’s his run on Action Comics that show off how to do the team-up book (I’ll skim over the dreadful Big Barda issue) while keeping it always accessible but editoralstarted making clear demands of him which came to a head over a stoyline where Superman had to kill General Zod; a decision which split the readership apart.

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Reading this 30 years later all of it seems odd as superheroes now kill all the time, but this was a Big Deal. To be honest, Byrne had written himself into a quandry so killing Zod was the only option, but it was his last big contribution to Superman that still lingers on today.

After this Byrne’s time was past anyhow, Sure, things like Next Men sold, and his Spider-Man run for Marvel later in the 90s was fun,  but he wasn’t as box-office as he was. The industry had moved on and he was no longer the sales draw he was as tends to happen to many a creator. However his Superman run changed things. It showed how Superman could, and possibly should be done, while making readable comics which brought in tens of thousands of new readers who had a few years of fun before Superman slowly became over-powered and what he was again. But it was still Byrne’s character. That mix of Christopher Reeve and Byrne’s idea of what a superhero should be never really changed even to today, where the version of Superman (although long since bastardised) is still drawing upon what Byrne did for a few years in the 80’s.

So give it a try and the credit it deserves.

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