Committed: Byrne’s Superman

by  in Comic News Comment
Committed: Byrne’s Superman

In 1986, when John Byrne’s revamp of Superman came out, I was so excited. I was a teenager, and I suppose my taste was pretty cheesy at times. That’s my excuse anyway, because I know that once I had The Man of Steel miniseries in my sweaty little hands, he seemed to be so busy coming up with updated rationales for everything, that he skimped on any kind of character development or compelling creativity… It left me feelings deflated, and I didn’t get my bounce back till Byrne did his double magic act, taking on both Action Comics and Superman.

I remember being so glad that he was explaining things, but at what cost? Up until Byrne’s reinvention, Superman had been a patchwork affair, and it certainly had a tendency to veer towards the hoaky and old-fashioned. Unfortunately Byrne did nothing in his miniseries to alter those aspects of our protagonists character. I can only surmise that it took all of the pages he had just to recreate Superman as a popular, all-American, well-adjusted jock, with a perfect young family. What happened to our dear old four-eyed anti-hero made good? According to Byrne, he turned out to be an invention of the grown up Kent, designed to fool the inhabitants of Metropolis (apparently all of the people he’d been to school with never saw Superman, or they’d have known immediately that it was him.) And thus the concept of Clark Kent as the disguise, the invented personae, was born, and simultaneously, (as Carradine so eloquently noted in Kill Bill), Superman’s damning comment on humanity as weak and geeky came to the fore. It’s a shame, because Byrne clearly had some pretty crazy things to say about Superman, which he proceeded to do directly after that rigid little miniseries was out the door, when he started work on Superman and Action Comics.

I probably considered myself a big comic reader, but it was through Superman and Action Comics that Byrne properly introduced me to such luminaries as the Phantom Stranger, Darkseid (and the New Gods), Etrigan, the Green Lantern Corps, the Metal Men, and so many others, that I went on to discover on my own. The thing is, I’m not some kind of wacky crossover queen, I usually don’t go for that kind of silliness. But the way Byrne did it, it felt like a primer for me, getting to know the most magical (and therefore the most mysterious) members of the DC universe. That’s the thing that really struck me about that whole period; Superman’s biggest vulnerability was to magic and it turned out that, in the world of DC, there’s quite a lot of it. At least Byrne made it feel that way, literally and figuratively.

Remember Superman making porn with Big Barda (in Action Comics #592 and #593)? That blew my unsophisticated little teenage mind. Byrne had some stupid, inconsequential little object of a character called Sleez (subtle) controlling the minds of two of the most powerful non-humans on earth. According to the story, the most useful thing Sleez could think of was to make porn movies (this is decades before Girls with Low Self-Esteem or whatever, so Byrne really was a futuristic genius in establishing that the values of our society would inevitably slide towards the purely sensational and ridiculous). Thing is, I wasn’t really old enough to understand the emotional implications of what was basically rape, or how much it must suck to have to deal with. What I did understand was that Barda was awe-inspiring, and that Superman appeared to have finally met his match, at least the way Byrne drew her. With Barda in all of her Kirby-esque glory, the other female I read at the time – Wonder Woman – was left looking a lot less Amazonian than she ought to, (that’s not to say anything against George Perez, who’s art I loved, but Wonder Woman definitely lacked Barda’s impressive frame). Barda… now that was a woman with super-human power levels, she looked strong. I liked Barda and Superman together so much, and even more I liked that her man was actually weedy Mister Miracle.

But here’s the thing, Byrne was writing a Lois Lane I hadn’t seen before either. She was independent and strong, that’s for sure, along with being pretty seriously career-minded. And he could draw her. Back then it was quite something simply to see the work of a man who could draw a woman with a little bit of a bra-line pinching into her back. Yeah, in retrospect, it was probably for fanboy titillation, but I didn’t see it that way. I saw a woman with a human, realistic body. Nothing super heroic about her, she had back fat. Not a lot, just the normal, human amount that shows when you wear a damn bra. Look, I know it sounds psycho to be so happy about a bra-line, but I hadn’t seen it before, and I felt like someone was validating my own imperfect body.

There were a slew of things that were getting me all worked up about Byrne’s Superman/Action Comics run, and all of this excitement had to come out somewhere. I was just starting to hang out at my newly-discovered, local comic book shop, not for long mind you, but it was local, so I could loiter enough to rave about Byrne and spew out the odd diatribe about strong women in comics (old habits die hard eh?) At some point this got to be enough of a habit that the owner offered me a Saturday job there, my first job in fact. I seem to remember not lasting long, because I had exams, and I kept leaving the country to visit friends in Holland (typical lazy teenager, eh?) Anyway, knowing that I was an art student, the store owners hired me to design new bags and ads for the store. Now that I think about it, that was my first professional graphic design job… With an opportunity to publicly declare my love for them, I bastardized my two favorite comic books for the job (it was an homage, right?) I took the logo of Elektra Assassin and mutilated it for the purpose, then added my own version of a female Superman fan, and voilá! A design was born. Little did I know that years later I’d have abandoned the vagaries of the world of fine art for the more communicative graphic arts, and that this would be the first of many design jobs. All I knew then, was that I had a chance to shout my teenage appreciation of Superman from the proverbial rooftops, and I was going to grab it.