In AFTER THEY WERE FAMOUS, I look at the issue of a comic series that came out immediately after a super-famous run. Like that time Rick Veitch continued “Swamp Thing” after Alan Moore left, or when Peter Milligan took over from the departing Grant Morrison on “Animal Man.”
This time, it’s a spotlight on DC Comics’ “Superman,” one month after the end of John Byrne’s run on the series. After rebooting the Man of Steel in a comic called… “Man of Steel,” Byrne would go on to write and draw the adventures of Superman in the comic called… “Superman.” Good branding, that.
After 22 issues, Byrne walked away from the series, reportedly disgruntled because his revamped version of the character was constantly overshadowed by the old-fashioned, Pre-Crisis version DC was still licensing out for Underoos and giant soft drink containers.
Byrne’s reboot notoriously cut away much of the Superman mythology and depowered the character to make the protagonist more relatable as a human. Kal-El was the last remaining Kryptonian — no super-dog, no super-boys, not even a super-girl, and when a girl appeared to be super enough to be related to the Man of Steel, it turned out to be a shape-shifting ruse. Then Byrne ended it all with a controversial moral quandry, as Superman faced down mass-murdering Phantom Zone villains from an alternate reality and decided they no longer deserved to live — he had just the right amount of alterna-Kryptonite to do the job.
I suspect Byrne’s version of Superman is now most remembered for its humanistic portrayal of the character and his supporting cast, for the 1980s apparel (and Clark Kent’s super-sized round glasses) and for the final issue which pushed Superman to commit murder.
But I also know that Byrne’s version is remembered, long after it has fallen out of continuity. John Byrne was one of the most popular comic book writer/artists in America when he relaunched Superman with his unmistakable style, maybe even the most popular, or at least the most prolific of all the popular guys. His “Superman” was an enormous deal in 1986.
It was the Byrne “Superman” that got me reading the character’s adventures regularly. I don’t think I had ever read two consecutive Superman comics before Byrne’s reboot, but I bought every issue of his run. I loved it, along with the concurrent Byrne written-and-drawn team-ups in “Action Comics.”
I don’t think about those comics much anymore, and when I tried to reread them I found myself losing interest halfway through Byrne’s run on each title. The stories were comfortable and smoothly told. They are like the soft-serve ice cream of the comic book world, with a poisoned cherry on top in the form of a killer Superman in issue #22.
So what could follow that? I honestly had no memory of the issue that came after Byrne’s run on “Superman” ended. I was sure I owned the comic; I bought the series well after Byrne left, but I couldn’t picture the cover, or the creative team credits, for “Superman” #23. I assumed it was some Kerry Gammill comic. Kerry Gammill worked on some post-Byrne issues, right?
Well, yes, he did draw a bunch of “Superman” comics in the year after Byrne left, but as soon as I pulled out my copy of “Superman” #23 I realized this “After They Were Famous” installment would be better than I had hoped.
This was Roger Stern. And Mike Mignola. And P. Craig Russell.
The issue immediately after John Byrne’s run had a legitimate shot at being better than Byrne’s run, just because of the creative talent involved. I’ll take Mignola/Russell over almost any superhero penciling/inking team in the business. And Roger Stern — particularly mid-1980s Roger Stern — is usually worth reading. He doesn’t get in his own way, and tells a story full of melodrama and conflict while providing opportunities for spectacle. He may never have experimented with form, or pushed the boundaries of what a superhero comic book story should be, but he constantly worked effectively within the genre to tell compelling stories. I always find myself enjoying Stern stories when I go back and reread them. If John Byrne is like soft serve ice cream, Stern is like a really good burger from the backyard grill.
Mignola and Russell, though? That’s gourmet potential!
“Superman” #23 doesn’t quite take full advantage of its ingredients, unfortunately, but I’d rank it better than most of John Byrne’s run. The issue’s plot hinges on a previous event from the series — the appearance of the Silver Banshee character — but it packs more events into one issue than any single issue of Byrne’s. It’s certainly more timeless than Byrne’s comics of the period, with less overt Eighties-ish-ness and more of Mignola’s otherworldly design sensibility.
The story begins with a pouty-lipped Clark Kent visited by a pouty-lipped Batman — that’s how Mignola drew faces at the time, and Russell inked those lips like they were the defining physical feature of each character — and a mysterious tome revealing portentous events as they happen. It’s the illuminated manuscript version of Instagram.
All of it leads to the Clan McDougal and an island midway between Scotland and Ireland, and a hulking brute sporting a tartan sash with a John Oates moustache on the swarthy Daryl Hall of the highlands. The word “shenanigans” is used with endearing sincerity.
Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane are held hostage. Superman does the rescue thing. The Silver Banshee returns. It sounds like a dumb superhero comic written for kids, and it is, with Superman saying things like “maybe I’m just too stubborn to die” and “I am Kryptonian by ancestry, but I was born and raised upon Earth… this is MY WORLD!”
But it looks great.
OK, the story’s full of mystical mumbo-jumbo, cartoonish Gaelic caricatures and a cranky old ghost of a woman who talks to Superman from the clouds, but almost every page has something worth looking at. Mignola makes unorthodox choices, and Russell alternates between his usual delicate ink-line and rougher slabs of black when appropriate. The way they draw Superman — massively barrel-chested and thick-waisted — adds a clumsy physicality to the character that makes him look like an impossible figure of myth bound in human form. Somehow his size is too immense for his frame and he looks like he has to balance himself or topple over; that oddness humanizes him more than Byrne’s smoothed-over Neal Adams musculature ever did.
Mignola darts the focus of panels from close-ups to long distance almost-abstract silhouettes. The camera — the reader’s eye — isn’t guided from moment to moment, but from bold image to bold image. When the floor cracks open and Silver Banshee flies up, it’s not a fissure in the ground that we see, but a cataclysmic shattering of rock and floating islands of form. And when Superman stands, tattered, holding the mystical tome that holds the secret of the Silver Banshee and led him to this weird bagpipe-intoned conflict, his pained expression and beads of sweat (yes, Superman sweats profusely in the scene) contrast with the inset panels of the illuminated manuscript around him. The pages of the book show simplistic drawings of ungodly rituals and tentacle monsters and the embodiments of death. In front of that, Superman stands, staggered, but never wavering in his determination.
“What was that all about?” asks a baffled Lois, on the final page, after the mysticism dies down and fades away into the mists above the North Channel.
It’s a fair question, and Superman stares off into the distance without providing any answer. The answer is in the reading of the story itself. The answer is in the experience.
For me, the experience is all about seeing what Mike Mignola and P. Craig Russell do on the page. That’s the meaning that matters most.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.