SPOILER WARNING: This post contains spoilers for DC Comics’ current “Supergirl” storyline; for “Changing,” the Nov. 14 episode of the “Supergirl” TV series; and potential spoilers for the Nov. 21 episode, “The Darkest Place.”
The Cyborg Superman is a deceptively simple villain. On the surface, he’s an evil Supes crossed with Two-Face by way of the Terminator. However, in both of his incarnations his origins run deeper than you might expect. Since he’s about to make his TV debut, today let’s look at the character’s history to see how much of it might get adapted.
Inasmuch as Superman was the first superhero, it’s only fitting that an evil Superman pay tribute to another company’s flagship characters. That’s a long way of saying that the man who would become the Cyborg Supes, was a pretty clear parody of Reed Richards. However, his roots go all the way back to the beginning of 1986’s Superman reboot.
Among other things, the “Man of Steel” miniseries (October-December 1986), writer/artist John Byrne and inker Dick Giordano established a couple of new details regarding Kryptonite. First, there wasn’t a lot of it on Earth. The most noteworthy chunk had gotten lodged in the hull of baby Kal-El’s rocketship as Krypton was exploding (“MOS” #1). When the Kents recovered the ship (and retrieved Kal from it), they buried it in a field, where it stayed for at least 18 years until Pa Kent showed it to Clark (“MOS” #6).
Sometime after that, as shown in “Superman” vol. 2 #1 (January 1987), Professor Emmett Vale stole the little ship and misinterpreted Jor-El’s embedded message as a threat to invade the Earth. He figured out that the ship’s passenger grew up to be Superman and created a Kryptonite-powered cyborg using the brain of John Corben, a car-crash victim. As “Metallo,” Corben killed Vale and went after Superman himself; but Lex Luthor abducted Metallo before he could kill Superman. The Man of Steel had already visited Vale’s lab and, seeing all the detailed, stalker-y information therein, moved the whole thing into Earth orbit.
Fast-forward to April 1990’s “The Adventures of Superman” #465, by writer/penciller Dan Jurgens and inker Art Thibert. This penultimate part of the “Day of the Krypton Man” crossover involved another Kryptonian artifact (the Eradicator) trying to mind-control Superman into taking over the Earth so it’d be more like Krypton. However, it introduced a not-at-all-doomed quartet of astronauts — Hank Henshaw and his wife Terri, and their friends Jim Garrison and the last-nameless Steven — in orbit aboard a space shuttle. In the arc’s conclusion (the next week’s “Action Comics” #652), Supeman threw the Eradicator into the Sun, causing a solar flare. Subsequently, in May 1990’s “Adventures” #466, Jurgens and Giordano showed what happened when (yes) a massive solar flare caused the shuttle to crash.
That’s right, Steven and Jim each assembled new bodies out of available materials. Steven used radiation, making him a blue-glowing … oh, what’s a good phrase … humanoid Bunsen burner; while Jim became a much cruder heap of rocks, dirt and broken machinery. None of them had happy endings. Steven flew into the Sun and Jim tore himself apart with electromagnets, while Hank’s body simply crumbled away. Fortunately, Superman was able to save Terri from fading completely into another dimension. Terri also absolved him of any Eradicator-related blame.
Hank returned in July 1990’s “Adventures” #468 (by Jurgens and Art Thibert). Turns out his consciousness stuck around after his body was gone, and shortly thereafter assembled an electronic replacement. However, the shock of seeing WALL-E’s cousin speaking in her husband’s voice was too much for Terri, who lapsed into a catatonic state. As it happens, Hank’s consciousness made it all the way into orbit and found baby Kal-El’s rocket. Henshaw’s consciousness inhabited the little craft, made himself a pocket-sized spaceship with some raw materials from it, and — looking very much like Quislet from the Legion of Super-Heroes — left Earth behind to wander the galaxy.
Almost 3 years later, Jurgens and inker Brett Breeding used a cameo in “Adventures of Superman” #500 (Early June 1993) and a spotlight in “Superman” #78 (June 1993) to introduce the Cyborg Superman. As it happens, he was part of another quartet, this time the four “replacement Supermen” who popped up in the wake of Supes’ death. When “Reign of the Supermen’s” endgame started in earnest in “Superman” #80 (August 1993), the Cyborg Supes’ status as big-boss villain came out fully; and issue #81 (September 1993) filled in the gaps of his origin. Essentially, Henshaw’s various traumas had driven him insane, and he blamed Superman for his wife’s suicide. Of course, the revived Superman, plus Supergirl, Steel, Superboy and Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) stopped Henshaw and Mongul from turning Earth completely into a new Warworld; but the bad guys still destroyed all of Coast City and sent GL down a dark, Parallax-infused path.
Jurgens and Breeding brought back Henshaw in 1994’s “Superman/Doomsday: Hunter/Prey” miniseries, wherein he took over Apokolips before being captured by Darkseid. He also got a new look which wasn’t so Superman-based. After another space-based storyline (1995’s “Trial of Superman”), he was imprisoned in a black hole; but that just sent him into the Marvel Universe for the “Green Lantern/Silver Surfer” special. Following a few more late-’90s adventures, including one during Superman’s “electric” period, Henshaw drifted into limbo for several years.
He returned in June 2006’s “Green Lantern” vol. 4 #11, courtesy of writer Geoff Johns and penciller Ivan Reis, as the new leader of the robotic Manhunters. Pitting the Cyborg Superman against the Green Lantern Corps was a good fit, considering that Henshaw — by destroying Hal’s hometown — helped push Hal over the edge and decimate the Corps. The Cyborg Supes stuck around in “Green Lantern” for a while, participating heavily in 2007-08’s Sinestro Corps War and returning for a 2010 “Green Lantern Corps” storyline involving the Alpha Lanterns. After that he went back to the Superman titles for the “Reign of Doomsdays” arc, which saw him take over the Justice League’s Watchtower space station.
As shown in the New 52 series “Team 7,” Hank Henshaw was an ordinary scientist, and colleague of Caitlin Fairchild; but not the Cyborg Superman. Henshaw then appeared in Jurgens and Lee Weeks’ “Lois & Clark” miniseries, which filled in readers on the adventures of the pre-“Flashpoint” Superman and Lois Lane. There, Henshaw helped Superman defeat a new villain, but so far there’s been no follow-up.
Of course, DC currently has a new Cyborg Superman, namely Supergirl’s father Zor-El. Introduced in August 2013’s “Supergirl” #21 (written by Michael Alan Nelson, pencilled by Diogenes Neves and inked by Richard Bonk), this version was ostensibly part of the planet I’Noxia, where a Kryptonite-poisoned Supergirl had landed after having left Earth. I’Noxian technology could transform memories into physical objects, so the Cyborg Supes offered to re-create Krypton for Supergirl; but when he wanted to use her body to make his own whole, she realized he was insane and they started fighting. In issue #23 (pencilled by Neves and Chad Hardin) the Cyborg Superman succeeded in reclaiming his old body and was revealed as Zor-El; and “Action Comics” #23.1 (a Cyborg Supes spotlight) explored his origin in detail.
See, Zor-El had figured out how to save Argo City from Krypton’s destruction, and did so, using reverse-engineered Brainiac technology. Naturally, Brainiac found Argo and remade Zor-El into a mechanical creature. The cyborg looked like Superman because Brainiac “upgraded” him with Jor-El’s superior characteristics; and he wore the S-shield to honor Krypton’s greatest mind.
Brainiac had turned Zor-El into his cybernetic herald, but once Zor got a human body back he realized what he had done. Sacrificing his humanity for his daughter’s sake, he and his associate Delacore reversed the process, so that Supergirl (whose consciousness survived in the I’Noxian “collective”) could have her own body back — and scrubbed clean of Kryptonite poisoning, to boot. As per Zor-El’s wishes, Supergirl didn’t learn what had happened to her father.
The Cyborg Superman appeared next in “Superdoom” and “Last Sun,” the final arcs within 2014’s massive intertitle crossover “Doomed.” Once again working for Brainiac, he fought a Doomsday-ized Superman to buy time for his invasion fleet; and then fought Steel and Supergirl after the fleet reached Earth. Supergirl defeated him, and Lois Lane — augmented with Brainiac-style mental powers — attempted to heal his mind. However, while neither she nor Supergirl realized who he really was, Brainiac had told Superman.
Ultimately, Supergirl learned the truth at the end of the first issue of her Rebirthed series (written by Steve Orlando and drawn by Brian Ching), which is in the middle of “Reign of the Cyborg Supermen.” Apparently the battles at the end of “Doomed” allowed some backup programming to kick in, and Zor-El’s personality resurfaced, sort of. Now the Cyborg Superman wants to re-create Argo City as a new home for himself and Supergirl, albeit populated by android duplicates of all their friends and loved ones.
From Hank Henshaw to Zor-El, the Cyborg Superman’s backstory has gotten a little more streamlined, but not by much. Needless to say, neither version looks likely to be adapted perfectly for the “Supergirl” TV series. There, Hank Henshaw was the xenophobic head of the DEO who apparently killed Jeremiah Danvers, and was himself killed (also apparently) in the struggle. J’Onn J’Onzz took Henshaw’s identity, D’On D’Raper-style, until he was found out late in the show’s first season. Since we know that Jeremiah is still alive within Project Cadmus, it’s not hard to imagine Henshaw survived as well. The preview for November 21’s episode shows a character played by David Harewood fighting with Supergirl; and if that character is the Cyborg Supes, Harewood might well be playing the real Henshaw.
“Supergirl” turning its Hank Henshaw into the Cyborg Superman would certainly be a strong nod to the comics, even if the show’s Hank isn’t quite the same as his namesake. That said, I’m tempted to say those previews are a bit of misdirection. Yes, that might be Real-Hank; and yes, Cadmus might have given him superhuman abilities. Still, David Harewood’s got enough to do as J’Onn J’Onzz without taking on another role. If he’s going to be Real-Hank, it probably won’t be a frequent gig.
That leaves Zor-El (seen briefly during the first season’s Krypton scenes) and Jeremiah Danvers. There’s a strong case to be made for Zor-El, particularly with Cadmus’ established arsenal. It’s hard to imagine Cadmus creating a Cyborg Superman without Kryptonian technology, and perhaps even genetics. There’s also the irony of giving a Cadmus-sponsored villain the symbol of the House of El. Still, you do what you can with what you have. Besides, as a visual corruption of the Man of Tomorrow, the Cyborg Superman is a middle finger to the S-shield’s iconography of hope.
Regardless, turning Zor-El evil wouldn’t have the same emotional impact on the audience or the characters, because the show just hasn’t spent a lot of time on him. For that reason I think the Cyborg Superman will turn out to be Jeremiah Danvers. He’s the subject of a long-running subplot, Cadmus has had a while to experiment on him, and that whole middle-finger thing would be even more potent for someone the characters are invested in rescuing. As much as “long-last dad turned into mechanical villain” reminds us of a certain other franchise, it just makes sense for “Supergirl.” Furthermore, as I pointed out back in the spring, it would put an “S” on Dean Cain’s chest again. While there’s a significant chance that Cadmus could turn Mon-El into a cyborg, somehow it seems more practical just to use the Daxamite for his DNA.
Still, what would a Cyborg Supes — whoever he is — do on Supergirl? The comics’ Henshaw hated Superman for ruining his life; and the comics’ Zor-El wants to rebuild his own Kryptonian life. If “Supergirl” brings us Cyborg-Jeremiah, will he be just another Cadmus lackey, wanting to Kill All Aliens because Reasons?
The thread connecting the comics’ Cyborgs is frustration at one’s old life being taken away, so maybe Cyborg-Jeremiah wants to make Supergirl a deal. In exchange for her giving up her powers and living the rest of her life as a normal human, Cadmus will make sure she and her family get to live that normal life unmolested. No borg implants for Jeremiah, no dangerous DEO career for Alex (and any significant other), and lots of cozy Thanksgivings at that picturesque house overlooking the ocean. Cadmus is already dedicated to ridding the world of aliens, so with Supergirl out of the way, it’ll have a much easier time and there will be no need for Supergirl, Q.E.D.
However “Supergirl” decides to adapt the Cyborg Superman, it’s another indication that the show is exploring Kara’s character by contrasting her with similarly-powered individuals. From J’Onn J’Onzz and Superman to Mon-El and the Cyborg Superman, “Supergirl” has built significantly onto its first season’s solid foundation. If the Cyborg Superman turns out to be a recurring villain, he has the potential to be an especially insightful one.
How do you think the Cyborg Superman will fit into “Supergirl?” Let us know with a comment!
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