We continue our look back at the death and return of Superman with the first half of his return. For all those dismayed at my distaste for the first two parts of this trilogy, don’t worry, because it’s mostly love this time around. For those who hate it when I bring up morality and the use of superpowers, don’t worry, because that only plays a small role this time. Spoilers on, of course.
The Nostalgia November archive can be found here
Reign of the Supermen was a huge story, about as big as the first two parts of this trilogy combined. I do like how that built up: the death of Superman was quick (relatively), the mourning was longer, and the return was appropriately large unto itself. This story began with four four-page previews in Adventures of Superman #500 that gave us our first glimpses of the four replacement Supermen. They were (going from left to right in the image above):
boyMAN: The teenage/young adult clone of Superman (and, later, we learn, Lex Luthor) is brash and hot-headed. He makes a deal with a TV station to give them the exclusive rights to follow him around and they keep him furnished with leather jackets and Clark Kent’s old apartment. No idea how he got that earring, honestly. I actually like his costume design… aside from the jacket and haircut. The bodysuit is a solid upset of the Superman costume. His stories tend to focus on him trying to do good, but not having the experience to do the hero thing as well as he could. He also has a few run-ins with others, including Steel who gives him a good lecture after a pilot dies because Superboy wasn’t thinking. One bit I really like about this character is how he gets pissed off when someone calls him Superboy.
Cyborg: This was my favourite of the four Supermen when I was a kid. Him and the Last Son of Krypton were the two that I gravitated toward, because they were the only two that had a shot of actually being the real Superman brought back to life. Of course, neither of them turned out to be the real Superman, but each acted a nice ’90s version of the character. The Cyborg with the idea of Superman being… well, a cyborg. That’s a cool ’90s idea for the character, right? It sure as hell made me stand up and take notice when I was ten. Very high concept, very ‘modern,’ very… stupid. This character’s stories have one big mistake early on when, in his first issue, he narrates in the first person. How exactly does that work with him turning out to be evil and bent on destruction? That seems like a case of Dan Jurgens not playing fair with the readers… maybe that’s explained in the second half of this story, but that really stood out to me this time. Otherwise, his first full issue is a good one as he goes to Cadmus to get Doomsday’s body, strapping him to a small asteroid and leaving him in space.
The second Cyborg issue is probably the best stand-alone issue of this story, “Prove It,” which is really a long article by Ron Troupe about earning Clark Kent’s job by being on-hand to witness the Cyborg saving the White House from a terrorist attack. It’s told entirely (save one page at the end) through Troupe’s article with illustrations from Jurgens — and not single images, but whatever he thinks needs to be shown to tell the story well. It was one of my favourites as a kid and it’s still a good read. I don’t think it would be published as the lead article in any newspaper since they tend to favour… you know, journalism, not personal essays (it would work as a companion op/ed piece, though). If there’s a single issue that made me want to like Troupe, it’s this one.
The Cyborg turns out, of course, to be evil and the ‘master’ of Mongul and helps destroy Coast City. My reading of the story ends there, which is a pretty good place to stop halfway through — the big reveal/twist. Again, not sure how the first-person narration fits into his true nature, though.
Steel: The only character that stood out as being 100% not Superman — and he never claims to be. The closest we get is some psychic who argues that Superman’s spirit has found a new body. Steel interacts with the other Supermen a bit, but his story really focuses on establishing John Henry Irons as he battles against the White Rabbit who is selling advanced military guns to gangs — guns called Toastmasters that, apparently, Irons designed for the military a while ago. He’s since been on the run, living under the name Henry Johnson, but, a kid getting gunned down and being buried under rubble after the Doomsday attack causes him to build the armour and try his best to honour Superman. Of the four, he’s the easiest to like and root for, because he’s the most heroic, the one most dedicated to simply helping others — if only because the whole ‘I’m the real Superman’ crap doesn’t affect him. As far as he’s concerned, he’s just trying to fill a hole left by Superman’s death and honour a man who saved his life once. Also, Jon Bogdanove’s art in these issues is fantastic. I haven’t really discussed the art done by these guys yet, but Bogdanove is probably my favourite. His work stands out with bold, angular lines. I’ll always have a soft spot for Jurgens since I read Superman more than any of the other books as a kid (and Jurgens did experiment with layouts quite a bit during this period), but Bogdanove is more to my sensibilities.
The Last Son of Krypton: Reading the first half of this story, it’s obvious that this character should have become the real Superman, if only because he was the most interesting of the two candidates. He represents the violent, dark side of superheroes from the late ’80s/early ’90s and that’s an interesting portrayal of Superman. The idea is that death changed him — he’s sensitive to the light, he embraces his cold Kryptonian heritage, and he’s far more violent and extreme. The biggest change to his powers is an energy that he can project from his hands. He begins as an energy being created/rescued by robots in the Fortress of Solitude and, then, he gains physical form by entering the corpse of Superman, which he recognises as his body. Now, the trajectory of his story is pretty easy to map (but no less interesting): he begins violent and cold and, gradually, works his way back to normal. Simple and yet compelling, and also shows what makes Superman Superman without the endless preaching about killing or excessive violence… allow him to regain his humanity to show just how important Clark Kent and the human aspect of the character is.
Honestly, that none of these characters turn out to be the real Superman is a cheat. I thought so as a kid and think so now. I honestly can’t say with certainty that DC promised that one of them would be Superman for real, but they definitely suggested it strongly. If I’m to pick a moment where I first became cynical about comics (and life, actually), it was this story. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good story, just that I think they made the wrong choice. By not having any of these characters take up the mantle, it’s a big of a slap in the face to the readers. Towards the end of this first half, I get the idea that the creators were more interested in surprising the readers and throwing them off track than telling a quality story that makes sense as a whole. I flipped ahead just to check and they do explain how the Last Son of Krypton turns out to be the Eradicator despite us seeing him as an energy being inhabit Superman’s corpse — or how it’s suggested that, after the destruction of Coast City, he enters the Kryptonian suit that turns out to be carrying the real Superman. It’s almost like they switched gears around the halfway point because, with the revelation that the Cyborg was evil, the surprise of who the real Superman would be was no longer there: process of elimination left the Last Son of Krypton.
These first 11 issues of the story work well at balancing the needs of establishing each of the Supermen and having them interact and compete for the role of Superman. The Cyborg is mostly a non-factor until the last issue or two when he gets involved with the alien ship attacking Coast City and really beats up on the Last Son of Krypton. That twist is surprising since the Cyborg seemed like the real deal — what with his first-person narration and DNA matching Superman’s.
The reactions of the supporting cast to these various Supermen are quite good. Lex Luthor (who we’ll remember is the original Lex in a cloned body posing as his Australian son — and shacking up with Supergirl) is secretly in a rage since Superman was finally gone and, now, there are FOUR of him! Lois struggles to deal with the two obvious contenders for being a resurrected Superman not having Clark Kent as part of the deal. One bit I loved is how she finally gets a few moments with Steel and walks away thinking that he is most like the Superman she knew and loved despite him having no connection to the original at all. Bibbo (who some of you like) puts on a costume and tries to honour Superman. He even rescues a puppy that was drowned with some of its siblings since the owner couldn’t afford to take of them. He names it Krypton, but the collar he gets made comes back with the name Krypto on it — nice little joke.
I think the supporting cast works better here than in the previous stories since those were supposed to be so big and monumental that the focus on anyone other than the core, prototypical supporting characters was distracting, whereas, here, this is a story much more of its time in conception — the death of Superman is epic, is timeless… four guys vying to be Superman isn’t as much.
The first half deals mostly with setting these guys up and having them confront one another and prove themselves. Next week, I’ll look at the second half, which is more a singular story as the group of Supermen have to team up to take down the Cyborg and Mongul… and the real Superman returns.